The “Social Harm” of Philosophy

The “Social Harm” of Philosophy


While once I used to think that professional philosophy was a place where it would be easy to do no social harm, I have come to recognize that not only do professional philosophers harm each other distressingly often, but also in our social role as, say, expert-ethicists (not just in medical and professional contexts), we can, in fact, generate and facilitate non-trivial harms to humans and animals.

That’s Eric Schliesser, writing at Digressions & Impressions, in response to the recent revelations about the role of psychologists in the CIA’s torture programs and the cooperation of the American Psychological Association with the CIA, particularly in regard to the association’s ethics policy. Schliesser’s examples are philosophical defenses of torture and animal research, as well as a kind of inequality between the philosophers who advocate various visions for helping the least well-off and those who implement those visions.

The idea that philosophy is socially harmful is not exactly a new one (hello, Socrates), but most philosophers today do not take it seriously. While there are some conservative exceptions, the dominant (and self-serving) view appears to be that what we’re “harming” is complacency, meta-ignorance, thoughtlessness, etc., and that this is all, on balance, socially beneficial. I’m drawn to this line of thinking myself, but I’m susceptible to self-serving biases as much as anyone. Perhaps others are more resistant, and would be able to lay out some good examples of the ways in which philosophy is socially harmful.

(image: detail of “The Death  of Socrates” by Jacques Louis David)

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dmf
dmf
6 years ago

not too many philosophers are in a position of widespread power and not sure the limited reach (and doing of harm) of most is greater than say literature profs or engineering profs, as for “expert” ethicists that can’t really mean more than gets paid for the work or such recognition can it, what would be the proven body of science/skills that gets applied?Report

bigbird
bigbird
6 years ago

I’m not sure how one would get a large group of philosophers to ever agree on a code of conduct.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

Thank you for posting this, Justin. Let’s hope it will be followed by a discussion among those who do see a difference between humans and algorithms.Report

knuckles
knuckles
6 years ago

@dmf: being a professor is a position of power, and certainly we all influence the minds of our students.

I worry that in ethics courses in particular, presenting a variety of ethical options and meta-ethical justifications encourages an ‘anything goes’ approach to ethics (“Professional, published ethicists don’t even agree about what the right thing to do is! Why should I worry about it?”) and an ability to justify any kind of behavior to oneself using the buffet of ethical theories on hand.Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago

no real evidence of power over minds or any real lasting effects/influence in terms of teaching skills/mindsets that carry over into non-class settings (hell the nascent research into academic philo/ethicists seems to point to their not even following their taught logics themselves) and isn’t the question here not so much what (very limited) powers profs have as profs in general have but in their being philosophers?Report

Sacco
Sacco
6 years ago

How could a moral philosopher adopt a code of ethics that, say, prohibits defending the permissibility of torture on the grounds that torture is wrong without begging the question of whether torture is wrong?Report

Isti
Isti
6 years ago

Before I started grad school, I remember telling my dad that if I became a philosopher, I wouldn’t be able to wreak too much havoc on the world- which seemed like a pretty strong point in favor of the whole idea. He promptly responded with something like, “Yeah right! Marx and Nietzsche were philosophers, and their ideas killed tens of millions of people!”

That might be one of the reasons why I’ve avoided political philosophy for so long.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
6 years ago

You’ll need to determine what counts as social harm before arguing that philosophers cause social harm. As it is the job of philosophers to rationally determine what should count as social harm (presumably in order to mitigate such harm), we can probably agree that philosophers try not to cause social harm. Whether you think any particular philosopher does cause social harm will depend on what you consider harmful. Considering the wide arc of history in the West, I think many (but not all) major philosophers, since the Enlightenment at least, have contributed significantly to the reduction of socially harmful practices. Some people would disagree, of course.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Isti: oh please. Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas never killed anyone, anymore than Jesus or Allah’s did.

Ideas don’t kill people, actions do. And ideas don’t cause actions, actions cause ideas, or borrow them as post-hoc rationalization.

There’s a good chance your own daddy–and most of us–have killed more people through a combination of ordinary first-world labor and moral passivity than Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas combined.Report

John Turri
6 years ago

I’d be interested to hear more about how this claim should be interpreted and what the evidence is for it: “it is the job of philosophers to rationally determine what should count as social harm”.Report

Isti
Isti
6 years ago

Whoa…. Is that how it works Anon 3:40? What a relief!Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I don’t see how philosophy could be influential without ever causing any social harm. If philosophers only ever had good ideas, there would be no need for philosophical debate. Politicians, social activists and scientists are all groups who cause some social harm, but we still need them. Of course, it would be dangerous if philosophers assume that they must be doing good, and so don’t need to question their own views.Report

anonymous87
anonymous87
6 years ago

This blog argues that anglo-american academic philosophy causes social harm by unthinkingly upholding liberal ideology which serves to oppress and marginalize the majority of the world’s people.

https://bourgeoisphilosophy.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/hello-world/

Here’s a representative quote:
“The problem is that while bourgeois liberalism is the dominant ideology in western academic philosophy, bourgeois liberalism is a game only the world’s most privileged people can play and what first-world philosophers have to say both philosophically and about important issues ―their ideas and their recommendations, generally excludes most of the world’s people in terms of consideration, relevance, and aspiration.”Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

The entire debate seems confused. If the claim is that philosophy causes *some* social harms, then it is trivially true. The mere fact that philosophy departments use up resources automatically means that they produce social harms/costs. But so does everything else. If the claim is that philosophy causes more overall social harm than good then the mere fact that it causes some social harm does not even come close to establishing that claim.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
6 years ago

dmf, and others, I think we might need to look at omissions, not just actions.Report

JCM
JCM
6 years ago

I suspect that this question is misguided. I would rather ask something like, ‘Does philosophy have the potential to do good and to do harm?’, and ‘Am I doing as much as I ought, qua philosopher, to be good?’ The answers here are obviously ‘yes’ and ‘no’; but the second is illuminating, I find, because it serves as a guard against the self-serving attitude of which Justin is rightly and nobly cautious. Yes of course philosophy hampers our ability to be thoughtless, meta-ignorant, etc.; but so too can it give us the ability to prove that black is white and that torture is acceptable; and although it can hamper our ability to be thoughtless, it can do much more in addition. The self-serving attitude to be wary of here is not the complacency of ‘Oh I’m following a socially beneficial vocation;’ it’s ‘Oh I’m doing enough.’ One can never do enough. It is our constant obligation (qua people now, not just qua philosophers) to keep watch on ourselves, and find and combat ever-deeper layers of intellectual and moral complacency. Not just the thoughtlessness of making a bad but convenient argument for what one would like to be true; but also the thoughtlessnesses of thinking that “if P then Q, and -P, therefore -Q” in logic classes; of being too quick to trust the media’s reporting of a news event; of common sense; of thinking that one’s philosophical opponents are fools not worth listening to; of thinking that it’s good enough to do just a bit of good in the world; or of thinking that one’s way of looking at the world – one’s white, or male, or rich, or 20th-century, or cissexual, or Western, or atheist, or Analytic-philosophical – is the only way, and so that what one thinks one thinks because it is true, and certainly not because thinking it is a function of one’s privileged and epistemically weak position.

Philosophy can and should combat all of these thoughtlessnesses. And if we do not, it is not so much that we are doing social harm, as that we are neglecting our obligation to do even less.Report

Harry Coverston
Harry Coverston
6 years ago

My observation at the university from which I have just retired is that much energy and time are expended in trying to legitimate privilege. This, in itself, is a form of social harm, a barrage of sophistry employed to avoid any kind if critique of the status quo in which many philosophy students enjoy positions of privilege. There is the failure of non-feasance, the unwillingness to look at the very real problems confronting the world today, as well as the failure of misfeasance, the squandering of intellectual talent that is so desperately needed to resolve those problems.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

Marx??? And why especially is he being paired with that other guy? Marx is a freaking hero.Report

Isti
Isti
6 years ago

I think it had something to do with a joke from the old country: a communist yells, “Communisti! Communisti!” A fascist yell, “Fascisti! Fascisti!” And the echo for both comes back, “Isti! Isti!” And ‘Isti’ of course, translates into “the same”.

So even if Marx heroically warned us against capitalism’s outrageous wealth and power imbalances, Soviet communism ended up with all those gulags- which looked a lot like those other places -you know, the places where the übermensch made everyone else go….. But this is an old story that everybody knows by now.

With that said, I had to go through 125 and Lexington a few times this summer, and it’s still so full of drugs and so near Hunt’s Point, and all I could think about was those women out there. And I remember thinking that if they took a philosophy class, and had a chance to find out that they maybe had some thoughts in common with Plato or Aristotle, or Descartes…, they might not be so likely to believe the abusive rhetoric their pimps use to keep them out there, and under their thumbs.

So, while my dad had me at a loss for words (one time) with that whole Marx and Nietzsche thing, I still believe very much in the value of teaching and writing philosophy.Report

Carnap
Carnap
6 years ago

Hartry Field in Steve Pyke’s book of photographs: “A nice thing about philosophy of the sort I do is that it can never be used to justify wars or oppress the disadvantaged or anything like that. This follows from a more general principle.”Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

“I think it had something to do with a joke from the old country: a communist yells, “Communisti! Communisti!” A fascist yell, “Fascisti! Fascisti!” And the echo for both comes back, “Isti! Isti!” And ‘Isti’ of course, translates into “the same”.”

Interesting to read all the different perspectives on the relationship between philosophers and social harm. Some find a strong relationship with respect to, e.g., legitimating social privilege, while others seem not quite to comprehend the meaning of “social harm” or “torture”at all.

Where might those of us with an intuitive understanding of, and a desire to minimize, social harm go from here? I pasted the quote above to indicate one possible direction, to bring more attention to bear upon our human tendency toward groupishness and group “defense” against “other” groups of human beings–the official ideology seems to matter far less than the otherness, though the taken-for-granted obedience of most members to hierarchical power structure within each group insures that in “defending” the group the privilege of the commanding few is preserved. The thing is, we humans as a species need to overcome this sort of primitive subgrouping, for at least two glaring “external” reasons: the enormous nuclear (as well as nonnuclear) arsenals that now hold all of us hostage, and the increasingly rapid onset of anthropogenic climate change that threatens all life on the planet and that we will need to work together as a species to solve. The torture that was committed in the name of all of us who are members in the group we term “the United States of America” was all about group-on-group aggression; the notion that it was an attempt to ascertain “truth” from people who had essentially nothing to do with the real crimes committed on 9/11 (although they may well have been involved in violent responses to them) is simply a pretense.

I believe philosophers can get at this groupishness problem in many ways; ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics/ontology can all be brought to bear upon it, if concepts such as truth, justice, and reality are rehabilitated so as to be invigorated with their original meanings again.Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago

@Cathy Legg, sure thanks, but does that really change the scope of power/effects and does it have anything to do with philosophy in particular and not just the politics of the academy (an issue I wish folks would invest more time/effort in changing and not just opining about)? I don’t see that it does.Report