One of the benefits of thought experiments and hypothetical examples is that, since the people with which they’re populated aren’t real, you can relentlessly discuss your way through the logical space without having to worry about how they’ll take what you’re saying about them. Your conversation might justifiably sound a bit different, I’d think, if your interlocutor was the one who was, say, tied to the trolley track—even if your conclusions were ultimately unchanged.
G. A. Cohen, in his Tanner Lectures, suggests that certain impersonal, sociological explanations for harmful behavior sound outrageous when a person tries to use them to explain her own harmful actions to the person she’s harming. He brings this up in a different context, and for different purposes, but we can borrow it. For example. it’s often true that people act selfishly, choosing to benefit themselves in relatively frivolous ways, instead of, for the same cost, benefitting others in important ways. As part of the explanation for why there are people dying of starvation, it’s reasonable to say that people are selfish. But, as an explanation for why you are buying a fancy bottle of wine rather than saving a starving person from death—an explanation you would offer to the starving person, face to face—that explanation does seem outrageous. Imagine being in conversation with the starving person.
Him: “I will die if you do not help me.”
You: “I am buying this bottle of wine, instead.”
You: “People are selfish.”
Him: “But you could choose not to be selfish, right now. That bottle of wine isn’t so important. You can put it down.”
You: “Yeah, well, too bad. People are selfish.”
Him: “Even if people are generally selfish, whether you act selfishly now is within your control.”
There has been a lot of heated disagreement in the comment threads lately, with a wide range of views on display. At the heart of several recent discussions is an alleged rape of one member of our community by another. This is not a hypothetical example. This is a real allegation, involving real people who might be affected, for better or worse, by things that are said here.
I have taken certain steps, as moderator, to try to balance the competing aims of having an open, informative, discussion about these matters and showing due concern towards members of our community. This has involved me rejecting a small number of comments, or suggesting specific changes to others, because I believed that the value such comments had was outweighed by the lack of consideration the comments showed towards the relevant members of our community.
“But such considerations shouldn’t get in the way of the no-holds-barred pursuit of the truth. After all, we’re philosophers! This is what philosophers do.”
Well, it is what we do sometimes, in some contexts. But other things are important, too, other things that may be at odds with the no-holds-barred approach (an example). After all, philosophers are people, too. In specific situations like the one now, we can weigh the value of these other things against the value of what’s gained by proceeding in a carelessly unrestrained way. So imagine yourself in conversation with one of the relevant parties to these events we’ve been discussing.
Her: “What you are going to say here is harmful.”
You: “I’m going to say it anyway.”
You: “That is what philosophers do.”
Her: “But you could choose not to do that, right now. Saying that particular thing here isn’t so important. You can refrain.”
You: “Yeah, well, too bad. That is what philosophers do.”
Her: “Even if philosophers typically say those kinds of things, whether you say that thing here, now, is within your control.”
You: “How are you harmed, exactly?”
Her: “You’re doing it again.”
This is not to say that difficult questions ought not to be asked, and difficult conversations had, but rather, when real people’s important interests are at stake, we should act in ways that take this seriously, proceed carefully, and not treat it as if it were a fun theoretical exercise.
How to do that is a judgment call, and I am comfortable admitting that limits on my time and wisdom make for an imperfect result.
Some of those whose comments I’ve rejected or suggested revisions to write back appreciatively. But other commenters object, and some object very loudly. Comments are moderated here, folks. That is not something I’ve ever been shy about. But I don’t think one can read the comments here and believe that I am failing to provide a forum in which a great variety of views, opinions, rhetorical styles, and personalities are expressed. The resulting array of comments may not be exactly what you want, I understand. But, before you make accusations about overbearing censorship and ideologically-driven moderation, take a moment to appreciate that it is not exactly what I want, either. I guess I must be a lousy censor.