Jonathan Glover: TB Davie Memorial Lecture on Academic Freedom, 2013

NYXThis year, the Academic Freedom Committee of the University of Cape Town (that I’m privileged to be chairperson of) welcomed Prof. Jonathan Glover to present the annual T.B. Davie Lecture Memorial Lecture. It’s been a pleasure spending time with him, and hearing him speak – not only earlier today, but also yesterday at a seminar on the boundaries of psychiatry. I’ll post links to video once UCT makes them available, but in the meanwhile, here are the opening remarks I delivered earlier today.


In his book HUMANITY: A MORAL HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Jonathan Glover discusses the brutality of that century with reference to the declining authority of morality, and diminished faith in the possibility of moral progress.

We don’t need to agree on a framework for moral judgments, or any particular content produced by such frameworks, to be sympathetic to one of Glover’s premises – that “questions about people and what they are like” should be central to our ethical debates.

He argues that the 20th Century has brought some erosion of our moral identities, making it easier for us to treat each other as mere objects, rather than as equally valuable members of overlapping societies. Among the potential causes of this he discusses are the imposition of belief systems or ideologies by powerful actors, especially governments; the postmodern abandonment of the search for objective truth; confusing ends and means; and the physical distancing between agents, often enabled by technology.

A suggestion he offers for resisting this erosion is for us to focus on developing a vision beyond the given, the surface impression, or the merely pragmatic. We should cherish our imaginative awareness, and foster the democratic habits of tolerance, persuasion and compromise. Crucially, Glover argues, we should develop our abilities to resist dogmatism and to accept complexity or ambiguity.

These forms of engagement are perhaps becoming increasingly rare, but the place where they are traditionally exercised is the University. Despite the need to respond to aspects of what markets might desire, we cannot forget that we’re not only in the business of producing marketable students, or generating research outputs that are aimed at attracting funding rather than developing knowledge.

Learning is sometimes found in our mistakes – in being wrong – rather than in our successes. When we no longer provide the space and opportunity to make productive mistakes, instead focusing on being an efficient production line of graduates and research outputs, we run the risk of sacrificing some of the virtues that make universities, and UCT, such fruitful places in which to work and learn.

Given these considerations, I’m very pleased to welcome Prof. Jonathan Glover to UCT today. His 1977 book CAUSING DEATH AND SAVING LIVES was certainly one of the texts that helped me realise that I wanted to devote my academic attention to philosophy, and in particular, that highlighted the role practical ethics could play in bettering our lives.

Glover’s work has frequently focused on improving lives – HUMANITY, discussed earlier, is one example, and numerous others can be found in his writings on neuroscience, psychology, disability and genetic design, and in his teaching of ethics, for many years at Corpus Christi and New College, Oxford, and now at Kings College, London.

Towards the end of HUMANITY’s first chapter, Glover writes: “another aim of the book is to defend the Enlightenment hope of a world that is more peaceful and more humane, the hope that by understanding more about ourselves we can do something to create a world with less misery”.

Understanding more about ourselves is facilitated by spaces such as the one we are in today, hosted by universities such as ours. Threats to academic freedom could be said to run counter to that hope of understanding ourselves, and by extension, counter to reducing the amount of misery in the world.

It is these interests and insights of his, among others, that make it my great pleasure to welcome Professor Jonathan Glover to UCT to deliver the 2013 TB Davie Memorial Lecture, on the topic of “Universities, the market and academic freedom – how treating education and research as merely marketable commodities can threaten academic freedom”.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.