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The Journal of Controversial Ideas is already, well, controversial. Here’s a founder’s defense.

Francesca Minerva explains how death threats for an article about abortion led to the journal’s creation.

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Protesters rally near the site of a speaking appearance by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at California State University Fullerton on October 31, 2017.
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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

News broke last week that philosophers Jeff McMahan, Peter Singer, and Francesca Minerva are planning to start a publication called the Journal of Controversial Ideas, an interdisciplinary academic outlet where scholars will be allowed to present arguments and findings pseudonymously, without fear of damaging their reputation.

Almost immediately, the journal was cast as another volley in the wars over free speech and political correctness on college campuses. Critics mocked it as an attempt by white, privileged academics (while Minerva is a postdoc, Singer and McMahan are both among the most prominent applied ethicists in philosophy) to smuggle reactionary and bigoted views that academics would not feel comfortable airing under their own names. Not helping matters was McMahan’s declaration to a reporter that he would be open to publishing an article defending eugenics, if its arguments were of sufficient quality.

“Essentially, it is a safe space, one where authors do not have to deal with feedback or criticism from those at the sharp end of their ‘controversial’ ideas,” Nesrine Malik warned of the journal in a Guardian column. “It is publishing without the responsibility that comes along with that.”

But Singer, McMahan, and Minerva’s controversial views are quite distinct from the anti-trans, anti-feminist jeremiads that made, say, the psychology professor Jordan Peterson a right-wing celebrity. All three are notorious for defending the morality of infanticide in some circumstances, and Singer and McMahan in particular are known for suggesting that it might be less wrong to kill human beings with certain cognitive disabilities than it is to kill non-disabled human beings. These stances have earned them the understandable ire of disability rights activists, as well as objections from anti-abortion religious conservatives, some of whom protested Singer’s hiring at Princeton.

In a sign that the free speech battlegrounds of the academy have changed, Robert P. George, one of Singer’s fiercest critics and a vocal Catholic conservative, has joined the Journal of Controversial Ideas’ board. And Minerva, in a conversation with me, cited two articles that generated ire mostly on the left — Bruce Gilley’s “The case for colonialism” and Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism” — as reasons for needing a new outlet.

McMahan, Singer, and Minerva claim no ideological motivation for the journal, and no desire to troll. “The journal will have credibility only if its articles satisfy the highest standards of academic rigour,” the authors wrote in a rebuttal to Malik in the Guardian. “The ideas in the articles must therefore pass an unusually meticulous review process.”

To learn more, I Skyped with Minerva, a bioethicist at the University of Ghent, about the journal, how it came about, what problems it is trying to solve, and if it can actually address them effectively. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Dylan Matthews

Tell me a bit about the origins of this project: Whose idea was it originally? Was there a sparking incident that convinced you this was necessary?

Francesca Minerva

I co-authored an article in 2012 published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and it was a paper discussing the similarity between the moral status of newborns and fetuses. It attracted a lot of attention, and I got a lot of death threats and insults and problems coming out of that.

I started thinking about the implications of this new phenomenon: people getting death threats because of what they write in academic journals. So I wrote another article that got published in Bioethics in 2014 about whether people should start publishing anonymous papers in order to avoid these consequences, to avoid having to deal with attacks not directed at their argument, at their paper, but mostly at themselves.

There was an academic symposium on the article; among people responding was Michael Tooley, who suggested maybe there should be a website where editors can send papers they want to publish but that they think are too controversial.

I thought, maybe there should be a journal combining these things, where people can directly send these papers. We’re not suggesting that people should publish anonymously. We’re suggesting that people, if they want to, should have the option. Philosophers have published anonymous work for centuries.

I started thinking about this and started talking about this with Peter and Jeff, and we also kept track of what was happening. There have been a few more similar cases of people who got into trouble because of what they published. You probably heard of the Tuvel case, and the paper on colonialism, and so forth. We thought we should establish this journal where people can send papers they’re afraid couldn’t be published in other journals.

Dylan Matthews

You said the journal will be interdisciplinary, but all three of you are moral philosophers. What kind of disciplines do you want to be included? Will it just be normative arguments, like the paper of yours that attracted controversy, or empirical work as well?

Francesca Minerva

I hope this will be a truly interdisciplinary journal. I hope it won’t even be majority philosophers. If people want to send a paper and work in astronomy, they should be allowed to. There are controversial issues in many different fields, but many philosophers are not involved in them.

Papers submitted should have some relevance to society. Theoretical mathematics and physics with no implication for society would not be the kind of article we’re looking for. We’re really interested in interdisciplinary research, and hope we have contributions from a very large number of countries. We’re not interested just in what happens in Europe or North America or Australia, but all over the world.

We think this journal should really give a voice to people in countries where academic freedom is in a worse situation than it is in Western countries. We hope this is something that is going to give a voice to people in countries where academic freedom is a right that’s infringed very often.

[Ed. note: In a follow-up email, Minerva clarified, “We talked a bit more with the other editors about how interdisciplinary it should be, and I think the journal in the end is going to be less interdisciplinary than I thought, at least at the beginning, since indeed we don’t have competences to evaluate articles in astrophysics at the moment.” She said she hoped it would not be “only” philosophers, even if they are a majority.]

Dylan Matthews

You’re also involved with Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy, which tries to fight what it sees as a closed-minded, mostly left-leaning bias in academia. How similar or different do you think the goals of the two efforts are?

Francesca Minerva

I’m only a member, so I’m not contributing actively, but I support their project. I think that they are motivated, in a sense, by the same kind of preoccupation about academic freedom, about having different points of view.

What they’re trying to do is make sure that students, especially in universities, are exposed to a lot of different views and learn to deal with disagreement. I think they have a point, that it’s important to teach students to disagree gracefully. If they’re not exposed to opposite views, it’s very difficult for them to learn that. The goal is more educational, and more aimed at university students.

Instead, our journal has more to do with research. We’re trying to promote academic freedom at the research level. But I can see a lot of overlapping and shared interests.

Dylan Matthews

I ask because one message I hear a lot from Haidt is a concern that right-leaning or conservative ideas are not adequately represented in academia, which strikes me as a somewhat different kind of concern regarding academic freedom than trying to prevent the attacks you, McMahan, and Singer have received for your writings on infanticide and disability, which came not from the academic left but a mixture of Catholic social conservatives and disability rights groups.

How similar do you think those problems are?

Francesca Minerva

I’m not really concerned about the percentage of conservative or progressive ideas expressed on campus. Haidt works in the US and I’ve never worked in the US. I’ve always been based in Australia or Europe, and I think the environment is quite different.

Honestly, I don’t think you need to have conservative teachers to teach conservative arguments. A good teacher is a teacher that can present both arguments, or a variety of arguments or different views on each topic. When I teach abortion, I don’t just ask students to learn about pro-choice arguments, my own view. I also teach them about pro-life arguments, which is the view I don’t share, but that doesn’t matter. Students should be exposed to all approaches to a certain problem. Otherwise, they cannot understand it in its complexity.

Dylan Matthews

You alluded to Rebecca Tuvel’s paper, which made the case that the arguments for tolerating transgender people should also apply to “transracial” people like Rachel Dolezal, and to Bruce Gilley’s paper defending colonialism. How similar do you consider those blow-ups to what happened with your work? From the outside, the forces pushing back in each of those cases seemed quite distinct to me, in their political valence and their motivations.

Francesca Minerva

It’s true. The paper I co-authored, most people reacting negatively to that were conservative people, religious people, right-leaning people, and non-academic people. That’s not to say that people on the left agreed with us. We managed to upset everyone, probably.

We didn’t have the kind of very negative reaction from within academia that Tuvel and other people had, and that seems to be more from progressive left-leaning academics. I don’t think Tuvel had a lot of hate emails and death threats from people in the public.

But that’s the point, I think. People tend to focus on “it’s the right, it’s the left, who is it, who are the bad ones?” That’s not the right question. The important question is: What is the motivation of these people, regardless of their political beliefs? The desire to silence people who disagree with you is always bad. It doesn’t matter if it comes from the left or the right.

Many people ask me about this journal: What are you fighting against? I just think people should try to engage with arguments and avoid silencing people they disagree with.

The value of academic freedom is purely instrumental. It is fundamental to get closer to the truth. If you can see things from a different vantage point, you understand better your own arguments and how the world works. That can never happen if people are silenced.

I think that some people have a bit of an opportunistic approach to academic freedom, thinking “Oh, academic freedom is good, but we need to silence people who go against my views.” I don’t think that’s the right attitude.

Dylan Matthews

Do you think the journal has a risk of being a place where more privileged academics take aim at vulnerable groups? Rebecca Tuvel’s paper was criticized as giving aid to transphobes; Bruce Gilley’s paper was criticized as an apologia for colonial violence; your co-founders McMahan and Singer have both been criticized for their attitudes toward disabled people.

And reading through some of the reactions to the journal, I see a lot of concerns that the journal will lead to more of that: white (often male) cis able-bodied people using anonymity to hurt the causes of vulnerable populations. I’m curious how you respond to that line of criticism.

Francesca Minerva

I think that one problem with the examples you mentioned is that there has been a misunderstanding of what they were actually saying. I have read Peter’s and Jeff’s work accurately, and there is nothing in their books and articles aimed at making vulnerable groups worse off.

One thing is to discuss whether different levels of well-being can be influenced by having a severe disability and whether it would be best not to bring into existence a potential future disabled person, as Peter and Jeff and many others argued, and one completely different thing is to say that already existing disabled people should be targeted and made worse off, which no person in their right mind would say, because indeed there is no good argument that could ever support such view.

Of course, people disagree and argue that disability doesn’t affect levels of well-being, or people can disagree about which kinds of disability negatively affect wellbeing and which ones don’t, or about which measures society should implement in order to reduce or eliminate the impact of certain disability on wellbeing, or people can disagree about the claim that well-being is relevant at all in deciding which people we should bring into existence. These are all legitimate views that have been discussed, and they have contributed to enriching this area of research and possibly to improve the understanding of disability.

I don’t think that censoring people holding any of these views would have helped improve the understanding of disability. It’s through disagreeing with other people that we make progress, that we learn to look at aspects we had perhaps overlooked initially.

Dylan Matthews

You told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I don’t think you should write a paper thinking about the political implications of what you’re writing.” That’s a really interesting thought, and it’s particularly interesting in moral philosophy, where what you’re doing is thinking about the moral implications of certain actions, maybe including publishing academic articles.

Should moral concerns like that affect academic inquiry, or should you bracket concerns like “is it moral to publish this” as long as you’re seeking the truth?

Francesca Minerva

What I meant is that I shouldn’t think, “Will this argument please people on the right, or people on the left?” That’s not the right way to approach any question. You should try to seek the truth.

I can speak for my own paper about the moral status of newborns. I didn’t write my paper thinking, “Who is going to be upset, people who are pro-life or people who are pro-choice?” That was not what I thinking. I was trying to put on a good argument for why I thought there were similarities, and why I thought this was morally relevant.

Dylan Matthews

Actually that paper might be a good example for the question I’m weighing. Obviously, you didn’t write it intending that people would go out there and actually kill babies. But if you learned, purely hypothetically, that someone did kill a baby after reading it, or a few people did that, or that Kermit Gosnell, the infant-killing doctor in Philadelphia, was inspired by the piece — would that change your view on the moral rightness of publishing the article?

Francesca Minerva

This was an article about different moral statuses. Why is it that with birth we think the moral status of the baby changes completely? What are the properties that make it possible to have moral status, and therefore a right to life? Philosophers have discussed this forever. There are lots of papers on this.

I don’t think that anyone could read the paper — it’s not a policy paper. There’s a huge difference between discussing the moral status of newborns and implementing that. There are countries where you can have neonatal euthanasia; this discussion is going to be relevant in those cases.

But I see a difference between what philosophers do and what scientists do. It’s not like you’re informing, exactly, pragmatic practice. It’s important to put the arguments there and discuss them. The practical implications are a different issue.

People need to develop legislation and discuss legislation, they need to discuss with doctors — there’s a whole practical world out there. There are so many other things there that need to be taken into account, that it would be really absurd to say that someone was inspired by this paper. Only a person who didn’t read the paper could draw that conclusion. Someone who read the paper would know it’s a theoretical discussion about moral status.

Dylan Matthews

I’m also curious about the motivations for anonymity in this journal. There are some cases where it’s 100 percent legitimate — wanting to avoid abuse and threats, especially within your profession, totally makes sense.

But it seems like people might write papers for the Journal of Controversial Ideas just because they don’t like getting criticism directed at them. That doesn’t seem conducive to academic inquiry.

I’m curious if you feel a need to distinguish between articles written pseudonymously because you think you’re in danger if you put your name on them, versus articles written pseudonymously because you don’t want to be fairly critiqued.

Francesca Minerva

That’s very unlikely, because of the disincentives to publish pseudonymously. The academic job market is extremely competitive. Your chances of succeeding are very low. And your status among your peers is, in largest part, determined by your publications. So writing a paper with a pseudonym is not going to help your career. You have no incentive to do that unless you think this is an idea that needs to be discussed, and you are generously using your free time, free from the project you’re paid to work on, to discuss this idea that you think is relevant and should be discussed.

I think it’s very unlikely that someone would use their free time to write a paper they don’t think is important to write using a pseudonym, just because they don’t want to be criticized. That would be a bit of a weird choice. I’m not saying this is impossible or would never happen. In practice, very few people would have the resources to do that.

As editors, we will only choose the papers we think are worth being published, and only publish one issue per year. This is going to be a hyper-selective journal. It will go through, probably, the toughest peer-review practice available in academic journals at the moment, because we think quality is very important given the journal we have in mind. Somebody wasting their time writing a not-good paper just to stir some controversy seems to me very unlikely. And it seems very unlikely it would pass this peer review process.

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