The Ideas of Objectionable Philosophers


A reader writes:

Recently I have found myself engaging less with the work of certain philosophers who have engaged in highly objectionable or unprofessional behavior, either not addressing and citing it when it could be relevant, or not reading it when I am unsure of its relevance. I am unsure whether I should be moved by these “personal” considerations. On the one hand, it seems somewhat unphilosophical, insofar as the ideas are separable from their authors (a point which is stressed in many ways in philosophical training). Yet on the other hand, insofar as they are their ideas, and they have behaved badly, it hardly seems unfair or wrong of me to ignore or shun their work. Besides, there are plenty of other philosophers whose work I can discuss. I am curious whether others have thought about this issue and what they would recommend.

Readers are welcome to discuss this issue, but I ask that, unless there are very compelling reasons, we use hypothetical cases and avoid naming names. (We can loosen this guideline so as to allow for the discussion of actual historical cases, though.)

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anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

As Heidegger said, so I am told, the history of philosophy is the history of the forgetting of Being in favor of beings.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

Re: recent discussions of sexual predators. http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Simone_de_BeauvoirReport

Anon2
Anon2
6 years ago

I am happy to see this topic come up and am curious to see what people have to say on the permissibility of shunning certain philosophers’ works.

Whatever conclusions people reach on that issue, I’d like to suggest that we recognize the harms in promoting norms that *require* people to shun these works, i.e. in penalizing those who continue to discuss their works (in journal review, invitation to give talks, etc.)

Lost in much of this messy process of “outing” our profession’s scoundrels is attention to the rippling harms to innocent others who are affiliated with them. So advisees of these people and other students working in their area may have built up dissertations and research agendas that engage in their work extensively. Many of us who are so associated are reeling at at the possibility of having to significantly alter our research projects due to no fault of our own. We fear that being associated with them will have professional repercussions for us— that we will be seen as uncaring about their misconduct, tacitly approving of it, or worse, as beneficiaries of some sort of arrangement with them. These fears are not unfounded— such accusations have already occurred.

So whatever, people decide about the permissibility of shunning their work, I hope there is caution around expecting that all philosophers *should* shun them. Those who will be most penalized under such a norm have already been harmed.Report

Luke Ford (@lukejf01)
6 years ago

On the one hand, horrible people should not be respected, given accolades, etc. On the other hand, plenty of other disciplines (I’m thinking along the lines of “mad scientist,” but more tame objectionability also applies) must have horrible people whose personal lives are seen as irrelevant to their contributions. Perhaps it is these “personal” considerations the reader points out that make philosophy or other disciplines where biography and “history of _____” matter greatly to the praxis of the field different than something like the STEM fields. In that case, we cannot parse the good ideas from the bad authors, but we also may have to give the devil his due because the only other things we can do with that good information once we know the author is rotten is either forget it, a disservice to knowledge, or say someone else came up with it, a disservice to our own integrity.Report

Dan Hicks
6 years ago

I wrote a blog post related to this last December, in terms of virtue ethics. Note that I was writing with a particular, named individual in mind, in part because I was responding to some circumstances surrounding that particular individual.

Excerpt:
As I said above, good philosophy requires the virtues. This includes the anti-sexist virtues. A sexist philosopher [tends not to] take his opponent’s arguments seriously, just because she happens to be a woman, and consequently fails to recognize a problem with his own views; this is a failure of both justice and courage. The problem is that the reward structure of contemporary philosophy generally doesn’t punish him for his sexist behavior. So long as he does an adequate job responding to his men opponents, he’ll be treated as though he were a good philosopher. He’ll get the publications and prestigious positions that a good philosopher deserves, despite the fact that he’s not actually that good.

At the end of the post, I stress that “sexism is an institutional problem, not an individual problem.” Individual writers deciding to shun other individuals is an individualistic response, and there’s a lot of potential for it to be ineffective and misused. Yet it might be the least worst available option, for people who aren’t yet in a position to change the institutions.

URL: http://jefais.tumblr.com/post/68800980585/sexism-philosophy-and-the-reciprocity-of-virtueReport

Roberta Millstein
6 years ago

Here is one way to think about it. Philosophy is a dialogue. When I write about someone’s work, it is usually in the hope that they will respond (obviously, if the person is no longer living, the hope becomes that someone will respond on their behalf). So, why would I want to engage in dialogue with someone who has engaged in highly objectionable or unprofessional behavior? That seems like it would be an unpleasant and ultimately unproductive thing to do. Thus, it might not be so much as a shunning as it is a seeking out of those with whom I do expect to have productive and enjoyable dialogue.Report

Dan Werner
Dan Werner
6 years ago

Good ideas/articles/etc. deserve to be discussed in the light of day, even if they originate from bad actors. (And note that if we were to be consistent in shunning the work of philosophers who are sexist or racist or unprofessional or who exhibit bad behavior, we’d pretty much have to do away with most of the history of philosophy.)

Perhaps there are more productive ways of shunning the bad actors–e.g., not inviting them to be on panels or to be keynote speakers. At least then there’s a clearer justification for the exclusion (bad or unprofessional behavior in live settings/meetings, as opposed to print).Report

Stacey Goguen
6 years ago

I figure, there is a lot of important and interesting work being done in philosophy that is just as important and interesting as other work being done in philosophy. So, even while important and interesting ideas deserve to be discussed, we still have room to decide which interesting and important ideas we will talk about, and whom we will talk about them with. So choosing to not engage with or cite a paper because the author has been horribly unprofessional or unethical seems fine on that end.

And I mean, it’s not like the profession rewards us or even demands that we do thorough (let alone exhaustive) literature searches. In a field where the top journals publish papers that can have something like 5 citations, even though they’re discussing a huge, well-known philosophical issue, and the average across the profession is a mere 15 citations, I think it’s a huge double standard to say that if a horribly unethical person talks about X in a somewhat-insightful manner, then we should still cite and engage with their work (i.e., not shun them) whenever talking about X.

I’m pretty sure there’s a whole bunch of wonderfully ethical philosophers who don’t even get that special treatment.Report

Amanda MacAskill
Amanda MacAskill
6 years ago

You have to weigh up the moral benefits and costs involved with engaging with the person’s work against the alternatives. And I think that the benefits and costs are going to vary a lot depending on the case. If someone was advancing an ethical view that I found plausible or important, or that I thought more people should hold, then it’s very likely that the benefits of bringing slightly more attention to the view and building upon it would outweigh the minor harm of the increased advertising and money for the individual who has behaved immorally (i.e. the harm of failing to provide a very small disincentive against bad personal behavior in that person and in others).

I guess I’d add that I don’t think bad personal behavior should, in general, be a reason to dismiss important or plausible views, or to take them less seriously (including views in ethics, where I think the temptation to do that is higher, but not for very good reasons). It seems like it would potentially be a very bad thing for the world if researchers were to focus and engage with only those views whose authors behave well in their personal life, rather than on the most plausible views within the field.Report

Carolyn
Carolyn
6 years ago

Some good points here. I think it most epistemically responsible to try to understand someone else’s reasoning before dismissing it. If one were concerned that the reasoning has received more attention than it deserves, perhaps even because of the bad behavior, that might be a reason to avoid it in favor of other work. But I think this is an excuse we should use with caution. It is tempting to want to punish someone for acting poorly beyond the scope of that behavior, but it doesn’t seem just to me. I think it better to identify the bad behavior and censure it without letting that censure spill over onto the person or the person’s other work. Of course, if the behavior just includes the work, that is another thing (e.g. if the person uses philosophical argument to justify bad behavior). Or if one feels that the only sort of resistance possible, for whatever reason, is resistance to the philosophical work, that might justify this behavior. But I think it good to provide room for excellence even in those who have done bad things and I think that limiting our resistance to philosophical work may be an excuse for avoiding a more fitting response to bad behavior.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

One question concerns the purpose of shunning the work of bad actors. If it is in order to punish the person, what is the purpose of the punishment? Is it supposed to act as a deterrent to others? Is it in order to send a message to the bad actor so that s/he seeks moral self-improvement? How will that message be conveyed unless there is an explicit statement to the effect that so and so’s work would have been relevant, but won’t be cited because of ethical reservations. That would be a weird thing to put in a footnote and it would paradoxically publicise the work that you refuse to cite. Is it a matter of simple vengeance (I am not assuming vengeance is illegitimate as a purpose of punishment)? Or, is it a matter of moral disgust rather than punishment (of course it can be both)? If it is supposed to be punishment, this would permit a reasoned distinction between how we treat evil dead philosophers and evil living ones. If it is a matter of simple moral disgust (akin to averting your gaze from a disgusting sight), everything is up for grabs. Then there is the question as to whether the philosopher’s work is so important that its value outweighs any personal shortcomings. What if you simply cannot do your own work without citing it? I’m not saying this will often be the case, but it is worth considering for the sake of thinking about the relation or lack of relation between a philosopher’s work and his/her ethical life.Report

mentalengineer
6 years ago

One possible reason for not engaging with the work of a bad actor that I haven’t seen brought up thus far is refusal as an attempt to prevent further bad behavior. That is, it may be the case that the success of the bad actor as a philosopher/academic is one of the factors enables them to do what they do with a certain impunity. In such a case, reducing the bad actor’s clout (insofar as refusing to engage with their work does this) is a way of removing an enabling condition for their continued abuses. In a nutshell: less prestige, less protection; less protection, less confidence in one’s impunity; less confidence in impunity, reduced likelihood of further bad action.

I’d say this seems intuitively plausible, but I hate calling things intuitively plausible, so instead I’ll call it a thought I had to avoid working on my thesis.Report

Travis
6 years ago

On the ‘purpose’ of shunning the bad actor: some of this discussion seems to mirror many moral problems of small contributions. At least some of our imaginary characters (more on this in a minute) are indeed quite bad, and so it would be a good thing if they were stripped of all power and prestige in the profession (even if nobody ought thereby to so strip him). And if it would be a good thing, then perhaps I have good reason to do my part in contributing to that good (or in avoiding contributing to the harm of his continued empowerment).

On the badness of the agent: let’s not pull the ‘if we could only read virtuous people’s work, we’d be out of luck’ move. The problem is not that some people in our profession aren’t perfectly virtuous; it’s that some of them are serial predators. Such a person is Very Bad, and should not be in the power relationship of professor or mentor. It would be GOOD if such a person found himself without professional allies, a venue, fans, or mentees.Report

Christy Mag Uidhir
6 years ago

That some philosophers do a shit job as human beings does not itself permit (let alone obligate) other philosophers to do a shit job as philosophers (e.g., deliberately engaging in irresponsible research practices). Then again, I also think that on any normative theory worth its salt most of us turn out to have been all along nothing more than varying degrees of moral monster.Report

Steven Hales
Reply to  Christy Mag Uidhir
6 years ago

You mean I shouldn’t ignore the work of self-righteous, hectoring moralizers? (Not that anyone thinks that of themselves, of course. We each take ourselves to be on the side of the Right and Virtuous).Report

Mike
Mike
Reply to  Christy Mag Uidhir
6 years ago

Hear, hearReport

gradstudent
gradstudent
6 years ago

What Christy said.

Here’s a very powerful critique of sexism (and other problems) in the profession that a lot of people have made: because of a number of factors, including implicit bias, philosophers have a habit of not considering work that comes from women (and minorities, people from less prestigious departments, etc.) as seriously as they should. In doing this, we are failing in our intellectual duties: we are not taking seriously philosophical work whose intrinsic quality demands intellectual engagement because we’re biased by facts about its author.

If you think this is right and you care about improving the profession on this score (and, for what it’s worth, I do), the last thing you should be doing is *deliberately* not dealing with philosophical work whose intrinsic quality you *know* to be high enough to demand intellectual engagement because of facts about its author: this is in conflict with the very principle you ought to be fighting for. It leaves you justly open to a charge of hypocrisy, much as a civil libertarian who demands fair trials for everyone but then cuts corners with defendants accused of denying others a fair trial can properly be accused of failing to live up to his or her commitments.Report

Christian Marks
Christian Marks
6 years ago

There is an obligation to cite relevant work. If the author of relevant work happens to be a bad actor, this does not warrant distorting the scholarly record by omitting references to their work. A decision to avoid engaging with a bad actor may involve changing fields or subfields, if the ideal of responsible scholarship is a consideration.Report

Travis
6 years ago

This issue is surely more complicated than ‘you have an obligation to cite relevant research’, for at least two reasons.

1. Most of us cite a small percentage of the people who say something worthwhile about the topic we’re engaging. So yes, it would be dishonest to intentionally paraphrase X and then fail to cite him, but I take it that’s not what we’re talking about. The original post was about choosing not to engage — not to explore, read new work by, get into dialogue with, AND cite. So if I know that X has worked in this area, but I don’t want to engage with him, that does not make it any different from the other 50 or 100 philosophers who have written on this topic that I choose not to explore or engage.

2. EVEN IF there was academic dishonesty in the neighborhood (and I’m convinced, for the above reasons, that there typically won’t be), it’s not like that settles the issue. That provides A moral reason. But the exact issue was that there look to be MULTIPLE moral reasons in the area. So let’s make the issue more extreme just to clarify: if citing someone helped him to keep his job, and we knew that he used this job to identify and then murder victims, I take it that issues of academic honesty do not settle the issue. The very question is whether moral reasons that look plausibly to be in the neighborhood can override our normal, scholarly reasons.Report

Christian Marks
Christian Marks
Reply to  Travis
6 years ago

Scholarship requires more than the avoidance of academic dishonesty–a relatively low bar to surmount. There is some obligation to be complete, to provide context, and to include what is relevant. I mentioned nothing about paraphrasing and not citing anyone; you were right to dismiss it as irrelevant as soon you introduced it. I would err on the side of completeness myself. If there are numerous authors writing on the relevant aspects of your work, and the bad actor isn’t relevant, there is nothing to talk about. If the work of the bad actor is relevant, then this is the interesting case. Scholarly considerations weigh in favor of not distorting the academic record through omission or selective citation.Report

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

For the most part, it sounds to me like a really bad idea to let philosophical research be morally driven. If it will make people happier or more moral if I publish article A with conclusion C, do I have a good reason to publish A? What if I think C is false? If I think it might make some contribution to improving S to ignore his/her work, do I have a good reason to ignore it? What if S’s work is central in the area? What if it is not central, but pretty important? It would be really irresponsible to ignore it, even if we could contribute to S’s moral development. Two other quick points: (1) Cases in which S’s work is minor, I don’t see any reason to cite it anyway. So, I take it we’re talking about cases in which S’s work is important, and (2) I’m in general really uncomfortable taking it upon myself to “improve people morally”. I’m suspicious that taking these moral attitudes often covers for just disliking certain people, or feeling slighted by them, or otherwise for some very narrow reason.Report

Miles
Miles
6 years ago

Thanks, Mike.

In addition to those important problems, I just don’t see how this proposal of shunning misbehaving philosophers in one’s research can make any sense in practice.

Suppose that I work on ethics and routinely encounter people who assume the truth of the Divine Command Theory. I know of exactly one powerful response to the Divine Command Theory — Socrates’ Euthyphro dilemma — but I understand that it’s so powerful that it utterly destroys the prospects of the DCT. In fact, without Socrates’ Euthyphro dilemma, ethics as we know it would be vastly different.

But, let’s imagine, I deem Socrates to be an evil person in every important respect.

So practically speaking, what am I supposed to do? It seems the options are limited:

1) I could point out in my article that Socrates’ response to Euthyphro refutes my interlocutor’s claims. That’s obviously the best option, except that according to the proposal it would be wrong of me to cite Socrates, so I can’t rightly do it.

2) I could present Socrates’ argument in my own words, without citing Socrates. That would have the advantage that everyone else could cite my article from then on, and what was once called Socrates’ Euthyphro dilemma would come to be known as Miles’ objection. But that would be plagiarism, obviously. And worse, it would be publicly endorsed plagiarism. One can imagine the results: would-be philosophers who have no original ideas of their own would watch the scandal sheets for the latest outrage and race against each other as they swoop in to take credit for the disgraced philosopher’s work. Moreover, there would be a strong incentive to frame or otherwise set up prominent philosophers, or to dig up dirt on dead philosophers, so as to rip off their stuff. Surely, that can’t be better than 1).

3) Finally, we could have an agreement to permanently retire all the arguments, objections and proposals put forth by any disgraced philosophers. That way, the Divine Command Theorists would get to bring back their theory and nobody could raise the objection against it that we all know about. Clearly, that would spell the end of philosophy as a serious discipline within the universities. Outside of the universities, meanwhile, those whose minds and writings are not stymied by such restrictions could carry on the tradition. That would make university philosophy irrelevant to cutting-edge philosophical discussion.

What am I missing? Isn’t 1) very obviously the best option?Report

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

Lots of people are saying that because we’re not obligated to cite all the work that (intellectually) deserves to be cited, we can or should pick and choose among that work on moral grounds. I’m unconvinced.

I think I’m obligated to cite all the work that deserves to be cited that I know about. I
also think I’m obligated to learn about some of the work that deserves to be cited, but not all of it, since it would take too much time. This obligation has a moral component: I should pay more attention to people in underrepresented groups. But it doesn’t follow that I get to pick and choose among the deserving work I know about, based on what I think of the author (morally or otherwise).

I mean, what next? Do I also not cite someone just because I know she’s a lousy tipper?Report

Christian Marks
Christian Marks
6 years ago

Apparently I am a bad actor, or my closely related remarks would have been cited.Report

Dale Miller
Dale Miller
6 years ago

I’d like to hear from some Heideggerians on this topic…

In all seriousness, I think that a philosopher’s misconduct can give someone a reason not to read or discuss the philosopher’s work, if only because she’ll find it unpleasant to do so and her displeasure is a reason. But any reason to avoid a philosopher’s work based on the philosopher’s misconduct is very weak relative to the reasons that one has to do good scholarship. So while this sort of reason might be sufficient to justify one’s not reading a particular book for pleasure or even one’s eschewing a particular line of research, it’s not sufficient to justify a failure to discuss or cite the philosopher’s work when doing so would make one’s own work better (especially when this would itself rise to the level of unethical conduct).Report

Matt
Reply to  Dale Miller
6 years ago

it’s not sufficient to justify a failure to discuss or cite the philosopher’s work when doing so would make one’s own work better (especially when this would itself rise to the level of unethical conduct).

I’d agree- but I thought the whole discussion was supposed to be, it seemed to me, about cases where this isn’t so. Those cases are often pretty common, I think. There are often quite a few people we can cite for a particular position, proposition, or idea. If one of the people we might cite is in some other ways odious, why not cite someone else? These cases- which I think are more common than many of the comments here would suggest- present opportunities to cite someone who is not odious. Is there any good reason to not take that opportunity, even if the odious person is more famous? I have not seen any in the thread so far.Report

Dale Miller
Dale Miller
Reply to  Matt
6 years ago

My impression is that the OP underdescribes the sort of case that s/he had in mind, letting different people fill in the details in different ways. Given your interpretation of the case, I don’t disagree with your conclusion, if it genuinely is a case in which there’s no other reason to cite the more famous but odious philosopher. Although suppose that you’re actually criticizing the particular position, proposition, or idea. In that case, do you actually have a special reason to cite this person?Report

Matt
Reply to  Matt
6 years ago

Dale said:

Although suppose that you’re actually criticizing the particular position, proposition, or idea. In that case, do you actually have a special reason to cite this person?

I’ll admit that I’m not sure what to say here. (Except, perhaps, that philosophy and causistry are different skills, and whatever my skills in philosophy, I have less confidence in my skills in causistry, or that philosophy can tell us what to do here.) If forced to give advice in such cases, I suppose I’d just tell someone to do what they thought would be the most just or would cause the most benefit over all, though I’m not sure of this. Do others have strong or worked-out views?Report

Jeff Heikkinen
Jeff Heikkinen
6 years ago

Allow me to rephrase the original question:

“Am I justified in ignoring the views of certain philosophers on the basis of a totally explicit, not even remotely subtle, textbook example of an ad hominem argument?”

No. Absolutely not. I don’t understand how philosophers, of all people, can seriously think any other answer is even on the table. If a first-year undergrad answered that question in the affirmative, you’d fail that student; that’s how basic this is.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

Some have suggested that the reason for refusing to cite bad actors is that one doesn’t want to enable their conduct by making them more powerful. The mirror-image of this is when special effort is given to including women or other minorities in conferences, syllabi, and citations in order to help counter their relative lack of power within the profession. The mirror-images are not equivalent, however. The bad actors enjoy an unjustified privilege that they are immorally exploiting for their personal pleasure, while the underrepresented minorities are suffering from an unjustified and too-frequent bias against them. If we accept that we should include more underrepresented philosophers in our conferences, syllabi, etc. in order to increase their professional profile, does this entail that we should refuse to fuel the career of bad actors? Do both cases amount to the politicisation of the love of wisdom? Is this wise – or even a love of wisdom at all? (This is an honest question.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

RESPONSE TO REFEREE’S COMMENTS

The referee criticises my paper for poor scholarship, noting that
(a) Teleparallel logic, the central theme of the paper, was in fact introduced in Bloggs (1997) and that my listed source is simply a review paper discussing Bloggs’ work.
(b) The main technical result in the paper is a fairly straightforward corollary of results presented in Smith (2008).
(c) My paper does not engage with or mention Jones’ (2011) proof that teleparallel logic is inconsistent.

However, all of these omissions are justified. With regard to (a), Bloggs left the University of Arkham in murky circumstances and some disgrace after accusations of sexual harassment; to give further citations to his work would only serve to strengthen his already unjustifiable position in the discipline. As for (b), I have refused to engage with any of Smith’s work since it became clear from blog discussions that he has a well-established track record of sexual relations with graduates and possibly even undergraduate students: it is by continuing to tolerate people like Smith and by engaging with their writings that we perpetuate the inappropriate environment of current philosophy. (I should assure the referee that I came across Smith’s results independently, and indeed only knew that Smith had essentially proved them already when reading this report!) Finally, Jones has been a longstanding and outspoken supporter of the Israeli occupation of Gaza, and I’m frankly a little shocked that the referee even suggests that I engage with the work of this reprehensible person, whatever its merits on narrow academic grounds.

In short, I believe that the referee’s comments, while no doubt well-intentioned, trade on an overly narrow conception of scholarship inappropriate in the contemporary academic world, and I ask the editors to reconsider their decision not to publish.Report

Michael Bench-Capon
6 years ago

I think that if it isn’t permissible scholarship to ignore someone’s work anyway, then it isn’t permissible just because they’re objectionable. David Wallace’s comment just above illustrates that pretty well. But (at least according to prevailing conventions) it often is permissible scholarship to ignore relevant work, whatever their character/actions. Stacey Goguen made that point pretty well further back too. And I don’t see that the morals of shunning when it’s permissible scholarship to do so need to be significantly different from the morals of shunning in other (academic or non-academic) contexts.Report