Bear with me; this story will become relevant within a few paragraphs.
About 40 years ago, in my mid-teens, I got very interested in animal rights. While I was doing some research on the topic in my high school library, I came across a book titled Animal Liberation, written by a young philosopher named Peter Singer. He came from the utilitarian school—a philosophical position that argues, more or less, that the morality of an action is determined by whether it creates more utility (benefit, pleasure, well-being) in the world than a different action would. So starting from the assumption that animals have the same moral standing as humans (to disagree, in his view, is to be guilty of speciesism), and applying utilitarian thinking to human-animal interactions, Singer concluded that, for example, eating meat is morally indefensible in humans because although it creates utility for the human in the form of culinary pleasure, it causes pain to the animal and deprives the animal of life, thus creating a massive imbalance in utility. The same kind of imbalance is created when we use animals to test the safety of cosmetics, when we wear animal skins as a marker of wealth and status, etc., and therefore all such exploitation of animals is morally indefensible.
At age 14, I found Singer’s arguments pretty compelling, and I saw no reason to question his basic assumption that humans and animals have the same moral standing. My thinking has evolved since then, but Singer’s arguments and the utilitarian position generally have stuck in my mind. And since then, as I’ve explored utilitarianism a bit more, I’ve been especially struck by another of its implications: that although the common-sense morality most of us apply in our daily lives leads us to feel that we each owe a special moral duty to our family and friends, utilitarianism tends to disagree. A strict utilitarian might argue that it’s immoral to give material support to a family member if the same support would create greater utility for a stranger. (So, by this logic, giving my son $5 to buy ice cream would be immoral if I have the option of using the $5 to feed a starving stranger instead. From utilitarianism you could even argue that feeding my child his third meal of the day is immoral when I could give that food to a child from another family who hasn’t eaten at all that day.)
It’s basic questions like these — how can we do the most good, and where do our most fundamental moral obligations lie? — that keep coming back to my mind as I wrestle with various issues related to scholarly communication.
Here’s what has raised these questions for me again recently: our library regularly gets invited to contribute financially to programs that will make content freely available to the world. Sometimes (for example, with programs such as Knowledge Unlatched or SCOAP3) we’ve been asked to contribute to a program that will directly underwrite making current or future publications available on an open access (OA) basis; other times (for example, with consortial transformative agreements) we’ve been invited to pay more for a journal package in order to allow our institutional authors to publish in those journals on an OA basis. In the former case, we’re being asked to make a financial sacrifice for the good of the wider world; the latter case is similar, though arguably in that case our increased outlay would create a direct benefit to our institutional authors as well (to the degree that they do, in fact, want to make their work OA; in reality, of course, some care about that more than others do).
The argument in favor of these arrangements is usually based on a clearly (if implicitly) utilitarian position: creating utility for the whole world is morally superior to creating utility primarily for members of the immediate campus community.
What I think is interesting, though, is that you can also imagine utilitarian arguments against arrangements like these.
For example, from a utilitarian perspective you could argue that using a relatively large amount of campus money to make a relatively small amount of university-produced content OA will not necessarily create more global utility than using that money for another purpose. After all, the money could also be used to support scholarships for students from underrepresented groups, or to bolster the programs of our crisis center. Can we be confident that these uses would do less good in the world than would be done by making some of the articles of some of our authors freely available?
The argument in favor of these arrangements is usually based on a clearly utilitarian position: creating utility for the whole world is morally superior to creating utility primarily for my community.
From the same perspective you could even argue that our university might create more utility in the world by giving its researchers more access to content than it would by providing them less content, while making some of their research outputs freely available to all. At an institution like mine, which supports a major cancer research center, any reduction in the amount of money spent to ensure access to oncology journals could have a greater negative impact than leaving researchers’ published articles behind paywalls would. (Please note that I’m not asserting this would actually be the effect; I’m only saying it could, and that this is an argument one could make from a utilitarian position.)
Of course, if you don’t embrace utilitarianism you could come up with different arguments against making local financial sacrifices in support of OA initiatives. One might reasonably believe that the campus has a moral obligation to use its resources for the primary purpose of meeting campus needs, and that creating utility in the rest of the world should be a secondary (or even lower) priority. The utilitarian assumption that our global moral obligations have the same weight as our local ones is just that — an assumption — and isn’t logically compelled.
The organizational context of an academic library creates even more moral complexity, because unlike a parent deciding whether and how much to feed his child, the library isn’t spending its own money; it’s spending money that was vouchsafed to it by a host institution, for the purpose of meeting institutional needs and priorities that may or may not include furthering an OA agenda. This means that the feeding-my-kid scenario is a bad metaphor for my situation in the library. A better metaphor would be taking $5 from the till at my workplace and giving it to a hungry and homeless person. Sure, the homeless person may well need the $5 more than my employer does — but it’s not my money to give. (Though I guess a strict utilitarian might argue that stealing money from my employer can be morally justified if I use the money to create more utility than would have been created by leaving the money in my employer’s hands.)
But then there are the strictly strategic questions. Suppose you and I fully agree that my library has a moral obligation to use more of its money to promote change in the scholarly communication ecosystem and less of it to support the immediate local needs of my institution’s students and faculty. Let’s say we’re not only confident it’s the best course of action, but also absolutely certain that our position is morally required. But what if my campus administration — which is the entity that will decide whether and to what extent my library continues to receive funding — disagrees? And let’s say that despite that disagreement, I go ahead and use those institutional funds in the way that I believe is right, confident in my moral position. Suppose I do this for a year or two or three, until my campus administrators start asking me questions about how the university’s money is being spent. Once those questions are answered, how confident can I be that my library will continue receiving the funding it has received in the past? And how much utility will my library be able to create — whether locally or globally — if its funding gets redirected to campus organizations whose spending is more tightly aligned with university priorities? Again, to be clear: this isn’t a moral argument, but a strategic one. You and I may be morally correct in our position — and acting on that correctness may radically undermine our ability to create utility for anyone, local or global.
In the library world, we don’t usually talk in strictly philosophical terms about the organizational and budgetary decisions we make. (I’m not saying no one ever does; I’m saying it’s not what we routinely do.) But this is one of the many professional and organizational contexts in which philosophy really does matter. It matters how we think about what’s right and wrong, and about what makes sense and what doesn’t; it matters what our foundational moral assumptions are, because regardless of whether we consciously think about them in those terms, those considerations and assumptions are going to shape the decisions we make when allocating scarce resources and setting organizational policy. And the decisions we make in academic libraries about policy and resource allocation are going to have both direct and indirect impacts on the daily lives of real people.