Indulging Predators or Divorcing Research from Researchers?

(What follows is speculative, and I reserve the right to retract it if I’m, well, wrong.)

One of the many ways in which institutions have been shown to have abused the trust placed in them concerns the manner in which universities have conspired to enable and to protect male professors who sexually prey upon women in their orbits.

The fact that (almost always) male professors have long been able to act with near-total impunity toward their (almost always) female victims is unambiguously bad. The fact that institutions are being forced to reconsider their positions and policies toward these tendencies is unambiguously good. The further fact that taking sexual harassment seriously will help to sustain careers and (more important) the wellbeing of women is even better. And the fact that we cannot undo the harms that have been done is a call for serious reflection and unambiguous regret.

These cases have also demonstrated, again, that sexual predation and violence is endemic, and flourishes wherever trust exists to be abused. Consider the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s analysis of sexual assault cases involving doctors and patients, for instance. Parallel discussions involving campus sexual assault (usually stylized as student-against-student) have reshaped, however incompletely and imperfectly, the way that universities as institutions deal with such issues among the studentry.

But there remains a question about how we will deal with scholars as scholars once we have determined that they have committed sexual abuse. This will, over time, play out in myriad ways, from debating whether to rename scholarships, named chairs, and prizes given in the name of scholars found to be responsible of committing such abuses, to deciding whether professors and graduate students can socialize in the presence of alcohol. One core problem, however, will be this: scholars produce work that exists independent of themselves, and we will want to decide on whether their theorems, proofs, articles, and theories should continue to be employed, taught, cited, and honored after the scholar who produced them is found to be a predator.

For a long time, the answer was “no”. If you were a male professor and a “star”, your university, discipline, and colleagues would sanction what seems (to me, a relatively young male professor) to be a wholly unimaingable (but creepily, aggressively, violently real) level of sexual predation. For “stars”, you could earn sobriquets like being a “bad boy” or live by excuses like “he’s from an older generation,” but lurking in the background was always the reasoning that, at some level, being a really, really good physicist meant that you could also be a sexual predator. Your scholarship could outweigh–could serve as penance or an indulgence for–your sins.

As a sort of exercise in moral philosophy (taking the title of my doctoral degree to an absurd, literalist, extreme), I have tried to reason through whether there was any sense in which this is true. Perhaps, I asked myself, in wartime, as in the Manhattan Project, it might be morally permissible to forgive the sins of a top-flight, truly irreplaceable researcher whose work was crucial to a war-winning objective. Like an ever more eager undergraduate devising an ever more baroque reinterpretation of the trolley problem, I kept trying to invent a way in which some wholly orthogonal felony or sin might not lead to the conclusion that some scholar should be kept on despite that felonious, sinful action.

In the end, my conclusion was much more straightforward, perhaps even radical, than I had thought when I begun: there were no circumstances, even under a consequentialist framework, in which some potential utility could outweigh the moral harm of failing to penalize an academic as an academic for his actions even not committed as an academic. The clinching, albeit somewhat limiting, argument was that we would never know, counterfactually, the benefit of the contributions that could have been made by women (or whatever class of victims) in the absence of allowing the predatory behavior to take place. Thus, no institution–university, Manhattan Project, NASA, Starfleet, whatever–could ever say, “yes, but we need him” as a way to justify allowing a predator to remain in their employ without consequences (and, given the nature of these thought experiments, those consequences could be awfully severe).

Yet I could also not come up with any reason to avoid using knowledge created by such a predator, so long as that predatory (sinful, criminal, etc.) behavior was not part of the production of that knowledge (e.g., the “Nazi scientist” problem; see for instance The Nuremberg Code). I don’t at all mean to say that this is an agreement that creating some piece of knowledge–up to, for instance, the discovery of DNA–excuses any sexist behavior only tangentially related to the creation of that knowledge [1]. Rather, it is to say that when knowledge exists genuinely independently of the problematic behaviors of the scholar, that independence means the knowledge is untainted by the scholar’s failings (predations, criminality, etc.) Taking this to the limit: if some mass murderer named Johnson invented a cure for cancer in between carrying out murders, then we would not have to give up that cure for cancer because it was created by a mass murderer.

The tricky part is that we like to valorize heroes, and scientists and other researchers frequently serve in that role. It’s not just the theory of relativity–it is Einstein‘s theory of relativity. It’s not just a temperature scale, it’s Kelvin (or Fahrenheit, or Celsius, etc). So would we then have to laud Johnson for her contributions–establish a Johnson Prize, rename oncology centers Johnson Memorial Plazas, give her a Nobel Prize, and so on? After all, to fail to do that would be to draw a double standard, would it not?

No, actually. We could easily love the knowledge and hate the sinner. Pedagogues and historians of science would have to come up with precise formulas to distinguish what would be (almost definitionally) a paradox of a beautiful mind and an ugly character, and the tension between the two aspects of Johnson’s life would be a lifetime employment act for playwrights and poets, but society as a whole would have no particular reason to reward Johnson for her contributions. Indeed, we would want to do rather the opposite–to underscore our sorrow at how many more contributions Johnson would have made had she not been a mass murderer, and to lament the fact that her behavior meant that she would never benefit, in any way, from an innovation that had helped so many people.

This would not be hypocrisy or a double standard, but rather a result of the fact that society does not want to enshrine any moral calculus in which serious offenses can be outweighed by even miraculous actions. Theologians of various religions would be able to talk about how Johnson’s soul would be redeemed, but even in this case I’m not sure that there is a utilitarian god who would be willing to say that her saving billions of lives excused the few that she had taken for fun.

Unlike other researchers, then, no theorem or textbook would bear Johnson’s name; we might well decide to quietly forget her life, or to ritually celebrate the divorcing of research and researcher, or come up with some other social practice to accommodate that behavior. But as an ethical principle I think that we should be willing to state, in advance, that no person is above moral judgment, and that no amount of putative good outweighs real, concrete harm.

In practice, by the way, I suspect that such rationalizing of balancing only ever serves as an input to a “standard story” invoked prospectively and retrospectively to justify administrators’ and colleagues’ (in)action in the face of inconvenient or easily dismissed complaints. It’s rare that people actually proceed from axioms when slogans to justify convenience already exist. But that still argues for work to dispel the hazy “but on the other hand” rationalizations that might suffice to veil yet another predator. [2]

[1] That is to say, Watson and Crick didn’t have to be sexist to pin down DNA, but their treatment of Rosalind Franklin was sexist, as was the post-hoc ‘forgetting’ of Franklin’s role. Consequently, the sexism was incidental, not essential, to the discovery of DNA itself.

[2] Immediately after publishing this, I continued reading the (lengthy, hard to swallow) AJC article referenced above, where I found this passage:

Larry Dixon, the executive director of the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, has heard the argument that doctors who engage in sexual misconduct should be barred from practice. He doesn’t buy it.

“If you graduate a class of more than 100 people out of the University of Alabama medical school, the resources that have been poured into that education almost demand that you try to salvage that physician — if it’s possible,” said Dixon, who has led the Alabama board for 35 years.

Stop and think, he said, about how badly many communities need their doctors.

“You do not think so? Then leave Atlanta and go down to a little Georgia town and get sick,” Dixon said. “See how far they have to go to find a doctor.”

So, apparently, these arguments are used in the world, and people do use them in places with real weight. Suffice it to say that this hardly reduces the urgency in rejecting such naive utilitarianism, especially when (as in this and any other non-trolley-problem scenario) myriad other strategies exist that could help to ameliorate the claimed utility “loss”.