Elizabeth Harman kicks off the 2020-2021 Old Dominion series

Feb. 19, 2021

Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values and Old Dominion Research Professor Elizabeth Harman gave the first of the Humanities Council’s 2020-2021 Old Dominion Lectures on February 11, with the timely talk “Racist research: What does respect for researchers require?  What should academic freedom allow?”

Harman recounted how the events of last summer compelled her to write about this topic.  In particular, she cited a letter signed by hundreds of Princeton faculty members which – in addition to other steps to be taken towards anti-racism that she welcomed – also called for the creation of a committee to investigate and punish racist research.

Drawing upon her July 2020 op-ed in The Daily Princetonian, “Racist research must be named, but often allowed,” Harman warned that we should not conflate research misconduct with immorality in research more generally and suggested that there are many ways for research to be morally wrong though not all of them would constitute misconduct.  

“We can all agree that some research is bad in a way such that it should be investigated and punished: lying about your data, plagiarizing, or directly causing harm to your research subjects,” she said. “But there are other ways that research can be immoral that, while it’s immoral, should be protected by academic freedom because these are conversations that need to happen, so the space for them to happen should be protected.”

In the search for true answers to difficult moral questions, Harman contends, there is a need to examine a variety of answers – including answers that will turn out to be wrong, many of which “will likely turn out to be racist to make.”  Harman argues that we also have to examine views that “have a grip on many people although they are morally heinous. We need people to articulate and argue for widely-held views so that we are able to examine and critique these views.”  Harman adds that while we need to permit arguments for these views, it would be a mistake to think that respect for researchers requires us to shy away from honest critique.  She defends the value of explicitly using the term “racist” for arguments that are in fact racist.

Harman is one of four Old Dominion Research Professors appointed by the Humanities Council for the 2020-2021 academic year.  Old Dominion Research Professors are appointed annually by the Humanities Council to provide faculty additional research time and resources to engage and share their work with humanities communities across the university.  She is currently working on a book entitled “When To Be a Hero,” about actions that are above and beyond what morality requires.