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Academic Freedom in Germany

In response to:

On Being Silenced in Germany from the August 15, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

The German universities owe Peter Singer a debt of gratitude for his report on scenes from recent academic life in Germany [NYR, August 15]. Academic freedom is indeed endangered by the protests using violence against lectures and courses which bear the title of applied ethics, and it is cold comfort to read in the issue of The New York Review July 18, 1991, that there are similar dangers at American universities. Nevertheless, I should like to point out a possible misunderstanding which might be nourished by Peter Singer’s article. The ethical theories which are put forward by him and the theorists he quotes with approval, are not the only ones to be called applied ethics. There are many applied ethicists who argue for views, and in ways, that differ from his. This fact is of course well known to Singer and most of your American and English readers, but it is less well known to Germans and in particular to those who protest against applied ethics in the disgraceful ways described by Singer.

Moreover, one should not forget this fact when judging what has happened in the procedure for appointing a professor in applied ethics at the University of Hamburg. There is much to be criticized in this procedure; in particular I regret that Dr. Leist has not been invited to give a lecture a second time. But it was predictable from the beginning, long before any protest against applied ethics and any candidate arose, that there would be no majority for Dr. Leist in the board of appointment in which students’ votes have a high share. His being dropped from the list of candidates was a consequence of this fact.

In the end, to complete Singer’s account, the University did place a philosopher as top candidate who has contributed to applied ethics and will go on doing so. It is true, he is neither a utilitarian nor an advocate of views close to Singer’s. It is also true that he is known for his work in aesthetics. But just as being a novelist does not preclude being a moralist, so work in aesthetics may well lead to the formulation of standards for moral judgment applicable to the same problems Singer is trying to solve. Such standards have been formulated in the aesthetic, and ethical, work of the final candidate whose name may not yet be made public because the procedure has not been concluded. Therefore, the proposal of a philosopher best known for work in aesthetics for the position in applied ethics does not represent a submission to the protests against applied ethics. Whoever may have regrets that the candidate is not a theorist of his own bent should nevertheless salute the result as confirming what the protesters have not yet understood: that applied ethics is not limited to a particular solution to social problems but a field of argument that contains different approaches towards the solution of social problems.

Professor Dr. Ulrich Steinvorth
Department of Philosophy
University of Hamburg
Hamburg, Germany

Peter Singer replies:

I much appreciate Dr. Steinvorth’s defense of academic freedom, and of applied ethics. I note his regret that Dr. Leist has not been invited a second time to give a lecture. I find the reason offered not entirely adequate, for if it was predictable from the beginning that there would be no majority for Dr. Leist, this would seem to be a reason not to have invited him in the first place. To give weight to this reason only after protesters have prevented him from giving the lecture is—at least—to give the appearance of yielding to these quite unjustified protests.

As for Dr. Steinvorth’s assertion that the appointment of a philosopher best known for his work in aesthetics does not represent a submission to protests against applied ethics, all I can say is that I very much hope that the future work of the appointee will show this to be correct. Naturally I accept that there are many different possible approaches to applied ethics, and that the best qualified appointee might approach the subject in a manner quite distinct from my own.

Readers of the original article may be interested to learn that the Presidium of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society has issued a statement acknowledging that “the principle of freedom of philosophical discussion must be upheld.” The statement also indicates that Dr. Hübner, who sought the withdrawal of the invitations to myself and Professor Meggle, has declared his intention to stand down as president of the Society, and a new president will be elected at the society’s next Annual General Meeting, in October.

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