Dear President Wagner,
We, the undersigned Emory University professors of philosophy, write with constructive intent concerning your recent Emory Magazine essay, “As American as … Compromise,” and your subsequent “Response to Readers.” In the original essay, you recalled the infamous Three-Fifths Clause of the U.S. Constitution as an example of “the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.” In the response to readers, you helpfully clarified that you view slavery as “heinous, repulsive, repugnant and inhuman,” while also stating both that “if something is compromised it is inherently weak, unstable” and that the “existence of human beings is a compromised existence” that demands “humility and mutual charity.”
In this spirit of humility and charity, we write to you and other members of our community 1) to express our strong disagreement with claims in your essay (and also the follow-up response), 2) to express our dismay and outrage that these claims have been made in the name of our University and, above all, 3) to ask that you take leadership action, beyond your request for forgiveness and your clarification of the original essay, to enable Emory to do better and be better.
1) Our principle disagreement with your essay and response to readers rests on three convictions. First, a supposed “compromise” between persons about the lives and value of other persons who are systematically excluded from that deliberation is not formally a compromise at all. It is, instead, subjugation. Second, any agreement that continues, justifies or institutionalizes chattel slavery is immoral and at odds with fundamental human rights, dignity and respect. It is at odds with any and all “noble goals.” Third, the suggestion that compromise is an unalloyed good flies in the face of crushing injustices that often demand resistance, opposition, non-cooperation and conscientious objection. As William Lloyd Garrison put it, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.”
2) Like you, we feel outrage, and we think that we should feel outrage, toward subjugation, slavery and direct complicity and compromise with injustice. Moreover, we feel personal dismay (as well as institutional damage) when this is done in Emory Magazine in the name of Emory University, our own University and, so, when this is done in our name – not done to us, but in our collective name. It is dismaying to view this sort of inattention to history and to Emory’s place in the United States and Atlanta. It is dismaying to witness this sort of failure of moral imagination, a principal value of a liberal arts education that enables us to take up the perspective of others and to see ourselves from their perspectives, and it is dismaying to view the equivocation that takes place when the fact that all human beings live “compromised” existences functions as a supposed basis for compromise in concrete cases. You are right that “different visions of what we [at Emory] should be doing inevitably will compete.” But it does not follow, as we hope you agree, that all of these views, no matter how sincere and well-meaning, are equally reasonable or fair. As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, indirectly making a case for liberal arts education, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
3) Dismay and outrage, though genuine, are not enough. We, like others in the Emory community, are not writing to you simply to feel better or to take up a pose or to score debater points. We are concerned for our University.
We believe that we have to do better. We hope that you believe, with us, that we can do better. This is, we think, an important part of leadership. If, as you write, our country’s Constitution is something “we are still working at,” then surely the same thing must be true of our University. As one step toward this goal, we call on you, in a good faith effort by your Administration, to establish a Presidential Commission charged with developing specific recommendations and concrete guidelines so that the administration of our University is marked by greater moral imagination and greater moral responsiveness.
We stress that our point concerns vision and the administrative processes and specific means to reach our goals. We hope that our University will model itself on the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment, rather than the unjust, dehumanizing Three-Fifths Compromise. The work of such a Presidential Commission is not something you can do alone, and so on behalf of a better future for Emory, we pledge our good work, humility and the resources of our discipline (that includes ethics and political philosophy, logic and critical thinking and a history of many of humanity’s greatest ideas and also critical analyses of their shortcomings).