Rachel Barney, Anti-Authoritarian Professional Ethics for Academics: A User’s Guide [2017 C4eJ 23] (Forum)


Rachel Barney

Canada Research Chair in Ancient Philosophy, Departments of Classics & Philosophy, University of Toronto

I’m truly grateful to the Centre for Ethics, Markus Dubber, my very insightful fellow panelists, and the audience for the opportunity to think through all this together. For me it was a really fascinating and helpful event.Rather than try to reproduce what I said at the time, here are a handful of the points I took away from it — especially the ones which have implications for how I hope the ‘Code’ will be read.

(1) The Code isn’t intended for any one country or year, but it is intended for a pretty specific kind of historical moment and set of threats. That is, it’s ‘Anti-Authoritarian’ in the sense of being oppositional to authoritarian forces (and in particular to a government with authoritarian impulses) within a largely free and democratic society — a moment at which various kinds of resistance and pushback can make a big difference. It’s not so easily applicable to life under full-blown authoritarianism, where the costs of the kind of stand-taking evoked here become prohibitive. I’m afraid I have nothing useful to say about life in that world.

(2) Even in relation to the kind of transitional or up-for-grabs moment in question, the Code isn’t meant as a summons to individual heroism. I don’t feel ethically qualified for anything like that! (Especially not living in Canada, which feels more sheltered from the storm than ever these days — not that situations don’t arise in which some points of the Code are relevant, but standing up for them tends to be low-cost compared to almost anywhere else.) I was surprised and a bit dismayed — not just at the Centre event, but in discussions online — to find that for many readers the text has a rigoristic, heroic flavour. That wasn’t intended: it’s mainly a side effect of the formal framing in terms of first-person commitments, which was meant to be evocative of professional oaths. It’s an exercise in professional ethics for academics, not a hero’s credo. And for that matter…

(3) …’Code of Conduct’ is maybe not quite the right title. That too was meant to indicate that it’s an exercise in thinking about professional ethics. (So, and this is important, it’s not a partisan political manifesto: it was meant to be something a decent conservative academic could happily sign on to, and I’m glad to say that this seems to be the case.) On the other hand, Codes of this kind tend to be public and institutionally enforced, and I envisaged this one as the opposite — as entirely an individual, freelance gesture. My hope was simply that some fellow academics would read it online, recognise their own thinking in it, and pin it to their office doors. And that has indeed been happening. But I now think that for that purpose a better title might be something like: ‘Professional Ethics Checklist’ (see handout at 1). I’m a big fan of the checklist movement, if that’s not too strong a word for it (see Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (Henry Holt 2009)), and I don’t see why checklists shouldn’t be a useful tool in meeting ethical as well as (other) practical challenges. In other words: this should work just as well, or maybe even better, on the inside of your door, to warn of the pressures and dilemmas that may be waiting out there, and to remind you that your reflective self has precommitted to taking a certain line on them. One thing that’s clear to me from reading about ‘situationist’ factors in ethics is that most of us are shockingly easily discombobulated, and bounced or nudged from the behaviour we would reflectively endorse. (For instance, you’re much less likely to do the right thing when you’re in even a little bit of a hurry — see the infamous Darley and Batson studies.) So it’s worthwhile having a little checklist to hand, of dangers to watch out for and priorities to hold on to. The hope is that it may trigger a moment of recognition when you might otherwise be rushed or quietly nudged into doing the wrong thing. (‘Wait… that would sort of count as informing/allowing bullying/giving someone a pass on lying, wouldn’t it?’)

(4) Professional ethics are fascinating, and difficult, and we (well, I) need to think harder about them. Academic philosophers do of course sometimes think about such questions, if they work on business ethics or the like; but not most of us, not most of the time, and only very rarely in relation to our own profession. (Philosophically, I think the place to start here is probably with the more general idea of a profession as a social role or ‘practical identity’, a function which fulfils some part of the human good; Aristotle, the Stoics, and recently Christine Korsgaard have all had very interesting things to say about this.) I found it surprisingly easy to set out what I in practice take to be the basics, as relevant here. Roughly: to be an academic is to be professionally committed to intellectual inquiry in a way that involves avowing (6), (7), and (10), and indeed taking these as central to your professional identity. And these values and the projects guided by them unite academics in communities — the academic community as such, and our specific disciplines (which add their own emphases and extensions: see the MIT petition with its focus on ‘science’ (see handout at 2)), and finally the more concrete institutions which the lucky employed among us belong to. And we have duties towards the other members of all those communities, hard to define but perhaps not so hard to recognise in practice. The main thought behind items (1)-(5), then, is that in a proto-authoritarian situation, in which the state cannot be trusted to do the right (or even the legal or constitutional) thing, your default stance should be to protect the other members of your community against it (and its local enablers and cheerleaders) as need be. A bit like E.M. Forster’s famous line about betraying your country rather than your friends, if it comes to that, which was written and needs to be heard in much the same context.

(5) Yes, even you postmodernists and critical theorists avow (7), or some fancier version of it if you like. Part of the point of formulating this as an individual, informal exercise is that the text is open source — if you approve the spirit but not the letter, rewrite as you see fit. (In fact, the website which initially published it, Daily Nous, did a fair amount of rewriting with a rhetorically rather different result (see handout at 1). That was okay by me.) That’s also why there’s no attempt here, especially in my original draft version, to outwit or preclude uncharitable interpretation. For instance, in (5) the term ‘inform’ obviously doesn’t refer to filling out your tax forms or turning in drunk drivers. It’s up to you to decide what does count as informing — if you adopt this, you’re undertaking to trust your judgement in recognising situations where the government is asking you for information which they don’t have a right to or can’t be trusted with. And I trust you to be able to do that: you don’t need any specifications or bureaucratese abstractions from me. Trust in strangers is one of the first things to go as authoritarianism kicks in, but we aren’t strangers, are we? We’re members of the same community.


Gwande, A. (2010). The checklist manifesto. New York: Picadur.