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On the Philosophical Dimensions of a Tuition Hike

Since I began following the campus/provincial discourse on the tuition hikes, one idea has  pervasively floated around which justifies  the opposition to these increases — that of the right to education.

As a prudential leftist, this concept presented a prima facie conundrum. After all, I did have favourable sentiments towards the idea of universal education. But as a wannabe-philosopher, I have also always been uncomfortable working within the framework of human rights. Although few people may realize it, what appears as simple, straightforward philosophical compartmentalizations are actually rather unwieldy beasts, bloated with implications yet effortlessly ambiguous from one speaker to the next. And despite all my effort, I couldn’t seem to intuitively fit the right of education favourably into the context of the proposed tuition hike.

That is, of course, because it doesn’t fit. Upon examination, the right to education does not in fact justify universal education for all possessors of the right. We can even leave aside the questions of whether such rights exist, and if they do, whether we possess them. By just supposing that all students at McGill possess a right to education, it does not follow that we ought to pay no tuition, or even that we ought to not pay more than what we currently pay.

What led me to this insight was reflection on the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous thought experiment on the issue of abortion. Imagine that you have woken up one morning and find yourself attached to a famous violinist with a fatal kidney disease. The Society of Music Lovers has kidnapped you and connected the violinist’s circulatory system with yours so that your kidneys may keep him alive. In nine months, he will receive transplants and may be detached from you. Until then, you will have to surrender your autonomy to him. To detach him now would result in his death.

Thomson’s point was that, even supposing the violinist has a right to life, we would  intuitively dismiss the claim that we have a moral obligation to remain attached to him. This is because of a distinction Thomson draws between the right to life and the right to be given everything necessary to sustain life. The fact that the violinist has the former right does not automatically translate into a right for your, or anyone else’s, kidneys.

Now, let’s forget about the abortion argument. It is easy to see how Thomson’s insight might be applicable to all sorts of rights besides the right to life, and why the distinction drawn is helpful for the purposes of clarification. When you apply Thomson’s method to the right to education, one comes to the same conclusion: the right to education is not the same thing as the right to be given an education.

It’s a subtle distinction. For person X to have the right to education means that person Y ought not to actively/intentionally interfere with X’s ability to acquire an education. It does not mean that Y must provide education freely to X, that X should be able to do nothing and still be given an education by Y. Furthermore, it does not mean that X must be specifically provided with a McGill education , for just as the violinist’s right to life does not equate to the hyper-particular right-to-demand-the-use-of-another’s-kidneys, my right to education does not mean I have a right to demand a free diploma from McGill University.

Does this mean that opposing tuition hikes cannot be justified? No. My intent was simply to call attention to the philosophical problematics associated with one particular reason for opposing tuition hikes that some have advanced. I am also well aware that I have failed to present arguments counter to that presented; this was done purely in the interest of brevity, for your time is surely precious, and my prose meagre.

Perhaps tuition hikes still ought not go forward, but when considering the reasons as to why this is the case, the right to education argument appears deeply suspect.

–  Christopher Lui

– photo by Clara Bonnor


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