Without freedom, there’d be no need for an ethics. If every act of disobedience were punished by death, any deliberation about the “the right thing to do” would be foolish, except as a reflection upon the meaning of the orders one had been given. But notice that even exile would be “punishment” enough to ensure that a culture had no ethical dimension. If everyone who disobeyed were exiled, their ethical deliberations would still have a place, but it would be outside the culture that banished them.

This leads to a final variation on this dystopian scenario. Suppose obedience were made a requirement for entrance into a culture. Here you would have a powerful selection pressure that would favor those who have a tendency to conflate the question “What should I do?” with “What have I been told to do?” If getting into the culture demands that one be good at answering the second question, not the first, we can expect ethical deliberation to be a somewhat rare occurrence among those who do get in.

Building a strong ethical culture, therefore, means giving ample room for the free exercise of judgment. An educational system in which all instances of plagiarism are caught and punished with expulsion is no place to learn about the ethics of crediting your sources. If it is not really possible to do wrong, then it is also not possible to do right. That’s what freedom is really all about. (Of course, under all these hypothetical cases there is the insight that they are utterly unrealistic. It is impossible to punish all and only acts of disobedience. Even deciding whether someone has broken a rule is an act of interpretation.)

The section of the Code that deals most explicitly with this is the third part of our Professional Principles. Here we read that “The AOM must have continuous infusions of members and new points of view to remain viable and relevant as a professional association” and that “It is the duty of AOM members to interact with others in our community in a manner that recognizes individual dignity and merit.” That is, we must have a culture that does not, first, require the loyalty or obedience of its members, but actively seeks their “point of view” and recognizes their “individual dignity.” In short, as a professional association, we see ourselves as a community of free people.

One of the most important freedoms in intellectual contexts, to my mind at least, is the right to be wrong. In a free society we are free to make mistakes. That freedom, of course, comes with the obligation to acknowledge and correct our mistakes when they are pointed out to us. It follows that an intellectual community should select members not on the basis of the loyalty or obedience, i.e., their willingness to give up their freedom, but on the amount of errors they have made and corrected, i.e., their insistence on exercising their intellectual freedom.

2 thoughts on “Freedom”

  1. Excellent post, I think you touch on some very important issues, here. For one, it seems clear that our efforts to develop a code of ethics should be an ongoing process, revisited regularly, in order to keep track of changes in our community, and our environment. Perhaps we should reconvene every decade and look carefully at our situation. It would be interesting to see if other associations do just that.

  2. Yes, in many ways, a code of ethics is precisely a codification of the principles of membership. So we can evaluate ethics education and evaluation in part by the points of view we attract and the dignity with which we treat them. That is, we can look at the way of membership grows and changes, the way the community evolves, as an “expression” of the code. It tells us how the code is interpreted in practice.

    And I’m proposing a pretty a simple dimension to look at, namely, the frequency with which errors are publicly corrected. Interestingly, the fact that they are made is actually a sign of health, since it indicates freedom. It would be fun to try to develop a metric for this. It’s certainly a more interesting thing to look at that the growth in amount of publications!

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