Power, not fairness rules at UCC’s Philosophical Society

“Justice is the advantage of the stronger” said Thrasymachus to Socrates, who disagreed. In our own culture, tolerance is increasingly merely an intermediary strategy used by the strong who still lacks power in certain areas. Once such power is gained, tolerance, fairness and pluralism quickly cease to be virtues.

In the face of such trends, it’s crucial that universities take a more Socratic approach. One of the great side benefits of having universities is supposed to be that they create a genuinely ‘safe space’ for people to discuss ideas without fear or favour, even if that means offending people who don’t value such discussion.

Recently I was invited by University College Cork’s Philosophical Society, as a Director at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, to debate the Eighth Amendment, with several speakers or institutions mentioned on both sides. Weeks later, I was told it would no longer be a debate but a panel. Later again, having booked a flight as instructed, I finally elicited the information that the panel would consist of seven pro-choice campaigners, several very experienced (including Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International) against no more than three pro-lifers. The organisers subsequently offered to make the numbers six against four, but further than that they would not go.

What was the justification? In rejecting “the unnuanced 50/50 method”, UCC Philosophical Society said they “decided to opt for proportional representation of the college, based on a recent poll taken by the staff and students of UCC.”

I wrote back and asked for details of the poll (who commissioned it, how many participated, what the question was). No answer came.

However, as explained by the organisers in their very next sentence, in other contexts those who are opposed to the ‘status quo’ are to be given an advantage in discussions according to what “research into the relevant political science supports”. It is harder to argue against the status quo than for it, goes the argument.

So doesn’t that mean that, in the UCC environment, the pro-life side should be over-represented on the panel? The legal status quo might be the 8th amendment, but opposition to the 8th amendment is the status quo at UCC, according to the Philosophical Society itself.

On the contrary, it seems that the tiny elite group of staff and students at UCC get to determine the (local) status quo which needs to be protected against ‘too much’ criticism. That also happens to be a pretty effective way of maintaining a status quo, if you think about it for five seconds.

The real message of the UCC Philosophical Society to pro-lifers seems to be, we don’t want to allow you a level-playing pitch. You are not to participate in discussions unless the odds are heavily stacked against you.

And so, the pro-lifers refused to participate. You can’t really argue with Thrasymachus in this case: justice really is the advantage of the stronger.

I recently contributed to a book called Debating the Eighth: Repeal or Retain?, which has a 50-50 split of contributors. I learnt from the editor that some objected to the format: not, to their credit, the TDs contributing to the pro-choice side, but certain academics at NUI Galway, not to mention staff canvassed at a Dublin bookshop who were approached regarding a launch and who complained that the prolife side was getting a significant hearing. It made them “uneasy” and a launch might not be “appropriate.”

Well, I suppose their workplace and that of the academics might provide a safe space for them, away from those who, with Socrates, believe there is more to justice and rational enquiry than the silencing of reason by the will.