Philosophical Conflicts of Interest


As the discussion of funding in philosophy and its disclosure continues, it might be worth considering some related questions, prompted by this tweet from John Christmann, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder:

This is a good example of what could be called a “philosophical conflict of interest.”

Here’s an attempt to get clearer on the concept:

A philosopher may have a philosophical conflict of interest when the philosopher is (A) engaged in philosophical activity (B) in regard to some specific philosophical thesis or set of ideas; and, because of something having to do with this specific thesis or set of ideas, (C) that activity is reasonably construed as being in the interests of the philosopher (excluding the interest one has in coming to hold true beliefs).

(For some clarification of this conception of philosophical conflicts of interest and some reasons in favor of it, see Note 1 at the bottom of this post.)

If this is our conception of philosophical conflicts of interest, what, if anything, should we do about them? Declare them?

There seems to be a consensus in some parts of academia (and perhaps emerging in philosophy) that potential conflicts of interest that involve some prospects for financial or professional benefit should be declared. So, if an academic’s work is funded by a grant, it seems the balance of considerations speak in favor of the academic disclosing in that work the name of the granting institution.

But what about the more personal conflicts of interest—the ones that arise from the personal beliefs of the researcher about the question, or from one’s political commitments and activities? Are they to be declared? And how close a connection does there need to be between the idea under discussion and the putative benefits to the philosopher?

Christmann’s example—should those arguing against anti-natalism declare that they are parents, if they are?—is a good one to work with. On the flip side, we could ask, should those arguing for anti-natalism declare that they are infertile, if they are?

Here are some others:

Should those arguing for free-will libertarianism declare that they are Christians, if they are?
(And should hard determinists disclose that they have criminal pasts, if they do?)
Should those arguing for certain forms of material egalitarianism declare that they volunteered for the Sanders campaign, if they did?
(And should those arguing against egalitarianism declare that they had a younger sibling they were always forced to share their stuff with including their favorite X-Wing Fighter toy which their sibling broke and never replaced, if they did?)

The more examples of this sort we come up with—and you’re welcome to contribute your own in the comments—the more ridiculous the idea of declaring these more personal conflicts of interest sounds, right? Why?

It’s not that these psychological and otherwise more personal interests are less common or less motivating than financial interests. Rather, at least part of the explanation is that the source of such potential conflicts may concern very intimate details about one’s personal life, and considerations of privacy (and practicality) speak against norms demanding disclosure of them. We tend to believe that we shouldn’t have to divulge certain details about our personal lives to engage in our professional activities.

Some might object to calls for disclosure on different grounds: philosophical work should be judged strictly on the basis of the soundness of its arguments, assessment of which does not involve knowing who produced the arguments, let alone which biases or inducements they might have had. (Note that this speaks as much against the need for financial disclosures as it does against personal ones.)

Another possible ground for objecting to calls for disclosure is that they are insulting or disrespectful; they psychologize philosophers, treating their work as the effect of psychological causes distinct from the reasons they themselves adduce for their views.

I feel the pull of these three objections—the first, in particular. However, I do think we need to be careful about the latter two.

Yes, let’s focus primarily on the arguments themselves. But let’s also acknowledge that, as consumers and critics of philosophy, we are not omniscient. We are not ideal assessors of the soundness of arguments. Rather, we routinely rely on various cues “external” to arguments to help us assess whether we should accept them (or even pay attention to them in the first place).

Yes, let’s resist psychologizing each other, but let’s not ignore psychological realities. We should not pretend that philosophers are special people immune to various irrelevant psychological forces (we may not even be better than the average person in this regard).

So what should we do? I don’t think a call for personal disclosures is practicable, nor, on balance, desirable. But that doesn’t leave us with nothing. As authors, as usual, we should be on guard about our own biases. Here’s one possibly helpful heuristic: if it would be good for you if some thesis were true, your default position should be that it’s false.

As readers, it’s trickier. Noticing philosophical conflicts of interest, even when not disclosed, may help point us to towards gaps, blind spots, or other problems in the philosophical work we’re reading. But intellectual responsibility and interpersonal respect should prevent us from overly cynical readings of each others’ work, or rejecting a thesis solely on grounds that the person arguing for it may have a conflict of interest.

Discussion welcome, as usual.


NOTE 1:

In the post I suggest the following way of understanding a philosophical conflict of interest:

A philosopher may have a philosophical conflict of interest when the philosopher is (A) engaged in philosophical activity (B) in regard to some specific philosophical thesis or set of ideas; and, because of something having to do with this specific thesis or set of ideas, (C) that activity is reasonably construed as being in the interests of the philosopher (excluding the interest one has in coming to hold true beliefs).

Below is some explanation of what I mean by this and some considerations in its favor.

For (A), I have in mind things like arguing for (or against) some thesis, or raising (or rebutting) an objection to an argument, or framing a philosophical problem or question a certain way, or treating evidence a certain way, etc.

I include (B) so that the concept doesn’t yield the judgment that philosophers have a conflict of interest whenever they’re doing any philosophy because, since it’s good to do philosophy, it’s always (at least in one way) in philosophers’ interests to do philosophy. Same goes for substituting for “it’s good to do philosophy” something more practical, like, “it’s good for you to do your job.” (B) also is meant to exclude the judgment that philosophers have a conflict of interest in, say, arguing for an idea they believe because it is good for people to have good arguments for their ideas. I take it that the worry behind the idea of a philosophical conflict of interest is about possible motivated reasoning (conscious or not) for or against a specific philosophical thesis. A philosopher’s desire that some thesis be true, or the benefits that would accrue to the philosopher if some thesis were true, are typically irrelevant to whether the thesis is true, so we should be on the lookout for the undue influence of desire and benefit on the activities philosophers engage in to determine its truth.

Now let’s turn to (C). By “interests of the philosopher” I have in mind various ways in which a person doing philosophy may benefit from doing work in regards to some specific thesis.

One category of benefit is psychological. It may turn out that my life makes more sense to me, or that I am happier, or feel more justified in my choices, or less disturbed (say, by cognitive dissonance), if some thesis is true. I take the example Christmann gives in his tweet about the parent arguing against anti-natalism to be an example of this. Arguing for political theses to which one is antecedently committed may provide the same or related benefits. There is also the more familiar material benefit. Perhaps by defending some position I increase my chance of winning a prize with a large monetary award the likes of which I would otherwise be ineligible for.

But not all benefits are suspect. Suppose it is good for me to have true beliefs. Suppose, further, that some specific thesis, T, is true. And finally, suppose that by arguing for T, I would come to believe T. Arguing for T, then, would be in my interests. But we wouldn’t want to say that this itself represents a philosophical conflict of interests.

So I think we would have to understand the relevant “interests” in (C) to be those that are distinct from the interest one has in coming to hold true beliefs. And this specification doesn’t seem arbitrary, as the interest one has in coming to hold true beliefs is sufficiently close to what we take the proper aim of philosophical activity to be.

Further, I refer to the activity being “reasonably construed” as being in the interests of the philosopher. This is because the philosophers themselves need not be consciously aware of benefits for them to contribute to a conflict of interest.

Taken together, does this capture the idea? 

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