How To Treat Your Fellow Philosophers In Public

Jason Brennan (Georgetown) thinks that facts about public ignorance haven’t been sufficiently appreciated by political philosophers and political theorists. Such facts should temper our enthusiasm for democracy and make us more sympathetic to epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable). The self-described “bleeding heart libertarian” recently published a book, Against Democracy, making his case. In the run-up to the book’s publication, its thesis was promoted or considered in various news outlets (including a piece by George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy blog at The Washington Post*).

Yesterday, Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam) and his colleague Tom Van Der Meer authored an article on another WP blog, The Monkey Cage, in which they criticize Brennan’s views (as well as sortition, advanced by Rutger’s Alexander Guerrero here.)

Now the dispute over these ideas has turned into a dispute about the dispute. (Because we philosophers just sometimes cannot help ourselves.)

I didn’t put the piece by Schliesser and Van Der Meer in the Heap of Links yesterday in part because I already link to a lot of Schliesser’s writing (typically from his blog, Digressions & Impressions) and so the bar is higher for him—just like I usually refrain from linking to the nth interview of Peter Singer (sorry, Eric and Peter). But also, I didn’t much care for this line:

it would be a mistake to assume that limiting the franchise by lot or by brains would be an easy solution, if any, to the challenges of representative democracy today.

For all I know this line was thrown in by a WP editor, but still it was there and it was off-putting. This is because, for all of his bravado, Brennan does not think that he has come upon an easy solution to the problems of democracy. The line was a bit intellectually insulting and self-serving.

Brennan himself thinks that he is being criticized by Schliesser and Van Der Meer unfairly, because they are responding to versions of his ideas that have been put before the general public instead of his academic work, such as Against Democracy, which provides a more thorough treatment of his ideas and objections to them. In a post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians yesterday, he says:

I take this as a “We haven’t gotten our copy of Against Democracy yet” sort of criticism rather than an actual criticism. In all fairness,  Against Democracy might not be available in Europe just yet. But as I say in the preface, there are like 10,000 books defending democracy out there, and it’s not as though I try to refute every possible argument for democracy. I just take down some popular ones and some important ones… I’d sure be interested in hearing their response to what I say in the book once they get a chance to read it.

Today, Schliesser responded at D&I, defending his and Van Der Meer’s approach to Brennan’s ideas.

we know that writing for the even highly educated and savvy readers of the Washington Post requires different style and argumentative content than writing for referees, the seminar room hand-out, or even our own academic blogs.

Because the piece responded to two distinct reform proposals, we did not do full justice to either, as several proponents of these proposals quickly argued (on Facebook and blogs). That is, in fact, to be expected in writing for the public. In fact, we focused primarily on the common flaws of both proposals and less on their unique selling points (more on this below)—our critics ignored this fact. Rather, they claim that we did not address the philosophically most sophisticated advocate(s) of sortition nor did we get into all the fine-grained arguments offered by Jason Brennan in his many publications….

In fact, as is clear from the hyperlinking in our editorial, Tom and I responded explicitly to public philosophy in the service of changing public opinion. While we drew on scholarly research and linked to it, we were not acting as referees or as book reviewers. Rather, we noticed that some highly specific views associated with sortition and with epistemocracy were receiving favorable publicity in the (mass) media without these views receiving critical push back in the media and so we took it upon ourselves to criticize views already in the public domain (e.g., The Guardian and the Washington Post).

The charge is, rather, that we did not discuss the best versions of the views we were criticizing because these views can be found in journal articles and books (sometimes by the very same authors and sometimes by others). If we were trying to publish a journal article, this would be a cause for some concern. In addition, if we were introducing a topic for public debate in an editorial but did so by preemptively ridiculing opposing views, this would certainly be a reason to cry foul. We would be falling short of our duty to educate the public in alternatives or down-sides to our own view–in my view adhering to some such norm is the bare minimum for being a public philosopher rather than being a philosophical partisan or public hack (recall and here)… But rather than introducing the topic we were responding to particular pieces and calling attention to limitations in them…

If Jason wants public criticism (as opposed to in papers and book reviews) of the best versions of his arguments, he needs to present them to the public.

So, readers, the questions before us concern how we treat each other (and each other’s ideas) in public. It’s more than just, “were Eric and Tom too quick?” and “Is Jason being too sensitive?” Certainly the standards of discourse are different for blogs and newspaper editorials than they are for journal articles and academic books, but how? How do the limitations of the public square affect our understanding of how accurate, thorough, or fair we should be? How do the pressures towards effective rhetoric and the delivery of a digestible message alter our sense of appropriate discourse?


(not Jason or Eric)

(not Jason or Eric)

* That Somin likes what Brennan has to say should not be surprising, given that Somin launched the contemporary strand of thought linking public opinion research to support for libertarian ideals of small government in his 1998 “Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal” in the journal Critical Review (which itself began as an apostate libertarian outpost in which some of ideas now popularized as “bleeding heart libertarianism” first emerged).

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