Political Bias in Philosophy
Philosophers may be lovers of truth, but that doesn’t mean they are exempt from the cognitive biases that bedevil humans generally. Given that philosophers often have strongly-held political opinions, it’s worth asking: To what extent are their opinions conveyed in their academic writings? If political bias is present, then how does it influence the discipline? To the best of my knowledge, there has been no organized attempt by philosophers to address these questions, let alone attempt to study them scientifically. I’m here to make the case that the discipline would benefit from this kind of investigation and to suggest, in general terms, how it might be undertaken.
That’s Spencer Case, a philosophy PhD student at the University of Colorado, in an article at the National Association of Scholars website. In it, he cites instances of what he takes to be gratuitous political content and selective examples that demonstrate left-leaning bias in philosophy. As he puts it:
By “political bias,” I don’t mean whether the positions being defended in professional publications seem more left-leaning or more right-leaning. Having equal numbers of philosophers on each side of every issue is neither achievable nor desirable. The concern, rather, is with superfluous asides, selective choices of example, and political references that cue the reader to the author’s (almost invariably left-of-center) opinions.
He provides a number of examples in contemporary work by Elizabeth Anderson, Michael Lynch, Alastair Norcross, James and Stuart Rachels, and Allen Wood.
It’s not clear that the phenomenon picked out here is always or even usually evidence of bias, rather than considered judgment. Still, Case says, there are reasons to worry about the kinds of writing and speech his examples draw attention to:
- Liberal students who notice bias toward their viewpoints may spend less time trying to shore up their own opinions, or conclude that they need not take conservative ideas seriously.
- Conservative students may conclude that the profession doesn’t take them seriously and be less disposed to consider a career in philosophy.
- Discussion of political topics has a tendency to inject heat into any discussion when dispassionate reason is called for… and hinder the learning environment for students generally.
- Philosophers whose political beliefs are constantly affirmed are in danger of being lulled into complacency, and made less receptive to opposing viewpoints.
Case himself was not dissuaded from graduate study in philosophy, but he explains in an email one way he has been affected by what he considers excessive politicization: through self-censorship. In a paper, he made use of the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt as an example of oppression (along with more familiar examples). Another philosopher with whom he shared his work suggested the example was “potentially problematic”:
Some referee might think I was trying to make a political point. It didn’t occur to me that I was making any sort of a political point. I just happen know that it is a fact that there has been a history of systematic oppression of Christians at the hands of Muslims in Egypt and other countries in the region. I nonetheless nixed the example before sending it out for review and stuck with what seemed to be the “safe” cases of evil.
He calls for empirical research on “the extent and effects of political bias”in philosophy, perhaps with the American Philosophical Association playing a role in surveying its membership. The whole piece is here.
(Previous discussion of political bias and political diversity at Daily Nous.)
(image: detail of “Angel of Liberty – The Vision of George Washington” by Jon McNaughton)
Case doesn’t mention it, but there’s been an increasing amount of public debate on these issues in social psychology of late, which philosophers might find a doable model – https://edge.org/conversation/the-bright-future-of-post-partisan-social-psychology .
At the same time, I’m open to the idea that there’s something particularly un-philosophical about certain types of political conservatism; the most persuasive basic argument I’ve seen for this comes from someone who was constantly called a conservative: http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/articles/hayek-why-i-am-not-conservative.pdf .Report
The commentaries, and the reply to them, for the upcoming Behavioral and Brian Sciences target article on (lack of) political diversity in social psychology are available at this web page of Lee Jussim, one of the target article’s co-authors:
Also, the other three articles under “HOW THE POLITICS OF SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY DISTORTS SCIENCE” may be of interest to those concerned with “stereotype threat” and stereotyping more generally. (Jussim has an upcoming target article on the latter.)Report
I would take charges of bias more seriously if there were some examples of contemporary conservative philosophers whose work is good but undeservedly neglected or dismissed — either work arguing for conservatism as a political theory or for conservative positions on specific questions in normative political philosophy. Could folks provide some examples? I really think that would be helpful. (I understand that one response to this is: “if there has been bias that discourages conservatives from joining the philosophy profession, it would be no surprise that such examples are hard to come by.” If that is the only response, though, that would be good to know.)
In my experience, there are not many contemporary overall philosophical defenses of conservatism. In part this is owed to the nature of conservatism, which has an anti-“rationalist” streak that makes it resistant to grand theorizing. But even accounting for that, the pickings are slim, and, in my view, not very good.
On specific topics, conservative views do not seem neglected at all. So, to the extent to which conservatism is “pro-free-market,” Nozick and Schmidtz, for example, do not seem neglected. To the extent to which conservatism is “anti-free-market,” Sandel, for example, is not neglected (yes I know Sandel would not call himself a conservative but his anti-market views line up with conservative anti-market views quite well). On questions regarding democracy and public reason, there is a lively debate on the role that religion and comprehensive moral views can play. And in teaching various moral and policy issues (abortion, drugs, speech, etc.) most professors teach various views. (These are all subjects in political philosophy and ethics, but I take it that Case is not talking about bias in, say, philosophy of language or epistemology.)
If the main worry instead is just that conservative undergrads get the sense that their profs disagree with them, I don’t know how much of a problem that is. I’m just one data point, but my favorite undergraduate professor disagreed vociferously, sometimes scornfully, with my political views, and it was the challenge and fun of dealing with that disagreement that contributed to me wanting to continue to study philosophy. I don’t think that’s all that unusual among people who go on to to become philosophers.
I’m also a bit unclear on the ultimate aim. Is it that professors should protect their conservative students from hints of the truth that they disagree with conservative views? I would find that to be a surprising thesis for conservatives to be defending. I keep hearing that it’s the left that’s calling for coddling.Report
@Justin: Here are the first three examples I could think of of a “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative” philosophy book about race, with their Google Scholar citations:
Anderson (2010), The Imperative of Integration: cited by 160
Boonin (2011), Should Race Matter: cited by 4
Levin (1997), Why Race Matters: cited by 67
I certainly don’t agree with everything in Levin, but I think he makes points that are worth taking seriously. And Boonin’s book is excellent, and I hope gets discussed more in the next few years.
Obviously this is a completely unscientific survey, but I expect it’s somewhat representative. I also Googled Neven Sesardic and am pleased to see that his essay “Race: a social destruction of a biological concept” (2010) has gotten 53 citations. Sesardic’s more recent work is the most widely-cited philosophy scholarship I know of taking seriously biological racial differences, which is precisely the kind of topic that a progressive bias in a field would lead us to avoid.Report
Schmidtz and Nozick are libertarians, though, and libertarianism is a form of liberalism. Sandel is a communitarian who uses what Haidt would call conservative moral foundations (that is, he appeals to tradition and the sense of the holy/profane), but he’s also a Leftist conservative, not a right-wing conservative.
Genuine conservatives are rare in academic philosophy.Report
Jason, I’m not quite sure why you are telling me that Nozick and Schmidtz are libertarians, and that Sandel is a communitarian of sorts. All of that political philosophy 101 is compatible with what I said about their views. And I also said “there are not many contemporary overall philosophical defenses of conservatism,” which pretty much agrees with your last sentence. So maybe you were just agreeing with me?Report
Let me clarify. Conservativism is almost entirely neglected in philosophy. The kinds of arguments Schmidtz and Nozick make are not conservative arguments, even if some conservatives agree with some of their conclusions. The kinds of arguments Sandel makes are conservative, though he generally comes to conclusions conservatives dislike.Report
In contemporary political philosophy courses, I sometimes open with conservatism, as it is a view that embodies a kind of skepticism about the power of philosophy to ascertain political wisdom (think Oakeshott here), and makes a good foil for the rest of the course. I think that aspect of the view contributes significantly to an explanation of the “neglect” (maybe just “absence”) of writ-large conservatism in contemporary philosophy; most conservative thinkers just aren’t playing that game. A few are (e.g., Kekes), but then another possible explanation for their neglect comes in: a well-considered judgment that the arguments don’t come close to working. I think those two explanations of the relative lack of attention paid to conservatism in philosophy are stronger than the “bias” explanation.
If the problem were political bias, we’d expect that conservative-looking political positions would be neglected in philosophy. This is just not the case: philosophers regularly discuss conservative political positions. It’s just that the arguments for those positions that philosophers look at are not exactly the arguments that conservatives would typically want to offer, because of what else they imply.
If the complaint now is that while conservative positions are discussed, they aren’t endorsed, then I don’t know what to make of that. Since when does philosophy owe anyone agreement? Furthermore, while there may not be many conservatives, there are plenty of people who endorse certain ideas that conservatives tend to like. I take the following to have some overlap with some conservative views: libertarian political philosophy, communitarianism, inclusive public reason, moral realism, anti-reductionism in mind, testimony and other areas, theism, cultural protectionism, Wittgensteinian philosophy of language, Anscombean philosophy of action, deontology, metaphysical libertarianism, precautionary-type positions in environmentalism and bioethics, to name a few. There are live philosophical discussions on all of these subjects, which means that the “conservative-compatible” views are endorsed by some and taken to be worth discussing. Why isn’t that sufficient? Why should we expect there to be many philosophers whose political positions match up with the agglomeration of views on disparate subjects that we now, in this culture at this time, call “conservative”?Report
This seems very good. I say something similar to my students. Conservatism isn’t so much a philosophy as a meta-philosophy.Report
Justin, what about Robert P. George’s (and others like me) views on the enforcement of morality. My experience (in England and admittedly in law and not in philosophy) is that any discussion of legal moralism takes the form of a re-hash of the Hart v Devlin debate, which (obviously) concludes with “Hart won, legal moralism is obviously bad”. The problem with that is that Devlin’s view on the matter would be a strawman if he had not actually said it (Scott Alexander uses the term “weakman” to describe such arguments). The case he makes for legal moralism is pitifully weak and can be easily taken down. However, this is what students are taught legal moralism is. They never even get exposed to more sophisticated defences of legal moralism (e.g. George’s). Whilst historically the Hart v Devlin debate is indeed important, Devlin’s position should not be taught as part of a contemporary debate.
You mentioned Nozick. From my experience every lecture I’ve attended and every textbook I’ve read completely fails to properly state Nozick’s argument against Rawls. The typical such lecture goes “Nozick’s great argument is Wilt Chamberlain, he uses it to show the impermissibility of patterned/end-state principles such as Rawls’ Difference Principle; however, Nozick does not realise that Rawls does not intend the Difference Principle to apply to individual situations but only to the basic structure and so his critique misses the point” (that line is also essentially Rawls’s reply in the Restatement at around page 52).
However, that is patently not true. Wilt Chamberlain is only 4 pages long and comes before 50 pages dedicated specifically at Rawls. As for the claim that Nozick does not realise that the DP does not apply to individual distributions this is patently false. At page 204 of ASU Nozick writes “But Rawls does not claim the difference principle is to apply to every situation; only the basic structure of society” and at page 208 he writes: “Even though the difference principle, in Rawl’s theory, is to apply to an ongoing and continuing institutional process (one that includes derived entitlements based upon institutional expectations under the principle, and derived elements of pure procedural justice, and so on), it is an end-result principle (but not a current time-slice principle). The difference principle fixes how the ongoing process is to turn out and provides an external patterned criterion it must meet; any process is rejected which fails to meet the test of the criterion.”
It is clear from the above passages that Nozick does not misunderstand how the difference principle operates. Also, his critique of Rawls’s argument from arbitrariness is often portrayed as just being an invocation of self ownership. Firstly, as a matter of exegesis it is very unclear that Nozick ever believed in self ownership (reading Nozick’s theory as being based on that only came in via G. A. Cohen). Secondly, Nozick does consider (and dismisses) a whole range of arguments for the claim that arbitrariness of natural talents justifies something like the difference principle (pages 216 to 228 – sections called “Positive arguments” and “negative arguments”). These are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Instead students are just told that this clashes with Nozick’s (unargued) principle of self ownership
Now of course a lecture or introductory textbook is not meant to cover every argument for a particular view. However, it should aim to present the best arguments for those views. In the two examples I have given there was a failure to do that. This is most probably not due to conscious bias. I highly doubt there is an intention to present only the weakest arguments for certain right wing views. However, people who reject those right wing views might be in a less good position at assessing what the better right wing arguments are. As such they might just go with the way of presenting them that most other philosophers. But if most other philosophers are also in that same position then the same problem arises (and is compounded).
My point is that a more politically diverse philosophical academy might lead to a position that what is identified (for the purposes of a political philosophy 101 course or an introductory textbook) as the best right wing arguments are indeed the best right wing arguments rather than a weakman or a misconstruction of a good right wing argument.Report
Thanks for this. Could you recommend a particular article or chapter by George that would be good for a upper-level undergrad or grad class?
As for Nozick, and libertarianism in political philosophy more generally, I find complaints that it is insufficiently attended to hard to swallow (this might be owing in part to my being in the United States, rather than the UK). There are plenty of libertarians in political philosophy, and one of the graduate programs most highly esteemed for political philosophy in the U.S., the University of Arizona, is known as rather libertarian friendly. Libertarianism is discussed in nearly all political philosophy textbooks, and at extraordinary length in what was long considered one of the best and most widely-used upper-level introductions to political philosophy (though now it is a bit old)–Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (yes, it is a critical discussion, but it is taken very seriously). There is a lot of money and many programs available for graduate students interested in studying libertarianism. When I was a student, working on libertarian-friendly ideas, I benefited from some of these programs, and some of my work is still libertarian-friendly (for example). Despite some libertarian leanings, though, I have not been shunned by the profession.
Like you, I have seen Nozick (and libertarianism) misinterpreted and treated uncharitably. But I have seen just as much, if not more of that, for Rawls. Or Marx. Or utilitarianism. I think we tend to notice errors in the treatment of the philosophers and ideas we know and care about the most, but it would be an error to conclude from those observations that there are more errors in the treatment of those philosophers and ideas than others (i.e., availability heuristic).Report
On George’s work, his leading defence of legal moralism is Making Men Moral (OUP 1995). I think the book is quite appropriate for upper level undergrads. Similarly, the Waldron v Galston debate on whether there is a “right to do wrong” is worth looking at (Ethics 1983).
On Nozick/Libertarianism, I agree that he is not neglected. Like you, I have not (as far as I know) been shunned for my libertarian sympathies. Having said that libertarian ideas have occasionally been taken as beyond pale and not worth engaging in: e.g. Brian Barry’s review of Anarchy, State and Utopia.
You might very well be right about the uncharitable treatment of other philosophers. It is probably just the fact that I noticed it because my knowledge of Nozick is far better than my knowledge of Rawls. However, diversity of views might make it more likely that some of those uncharitable treatments are called out.
I know there has already been a lot of discussion on this blog on the topic of same sex marriage but the reception by a substantial numbers of philosophers of arguments against same sex marriage has tended to be “this is beyond the pale and not worth engaging with” (e.g. “please don’t interpret this as in any way legitimating the paper or indicating that the arguments merit engagement. I think that in a morally sensible society this would not be considered an open question, any more than (say) whether women should be allowed to vote.” – http://www.philosophyetc.net/2011/05/whats-wrong-with-what-is-marriage.html; compare with John Corvino’s engagement with those issues). The point is not that almost all philosophers find those arguments implausible. Rather the point is that a substantial proportion of philosophers treat the work of other philosophers who defend positions that were the orthodoxy in the western world 30 years ago as being the beyond the pale and not worth engaging with (of course not all do – Corvino deserves a medal for the way he has engaged with critiques of homosexuality, especially when he was driven out of Notre Dame in the early 90s because of homophobia there).Report
Not to blow my own horn, but re Legal Moralism, see my “Limited Legal Moralism,” Criminal Justice Ethics, v. vii (Summer/Fall, 1988), pp. 23-36, and “Legal Moralism and the U.S. Supreme Court,” Legal Theory 14 (2008), pp. 91-111. I reject Devin’s version and defend a different version, although it is likely a version that you would find unacceptable. And on the issue of mangling Nozick’s view, my experience is that Rawls’ view is even more frequently, and more seriously, misrepresented than Nozick’s. I deal with that issue, among other things, in “Rounding up the Usual Suspects: Varieties of Kantian Constructivism in Ethics,” The Philosophical Quarterly v. 61 #242 (Jan. 2011), pp. 16-36.
And while we’re on the subject of mangling views, at least some who lean libertarian often read the likes of Locke and Mill either carelessly or selectively in order to render their views closer to those of contemporary libertarians than is actually the case.Report
Part of the problem is that there is literally no such thing as “conservatism”: no essential commitments like the presumption in favor of liberty that characterizes all versions of liberalism. This is not a knock against conservatism, but it’s no surprise we don’t find many when the label itself is used in such disparate ways that people who think in terms of basic moral principles are bound to reject it. The one thing that seems to characterize most conservatives is the sense that we shouldn’t change social structures too quickly, given that the current arrangements are likely to embody a certain amount of cultural or political wisdom. Hayek seems to perfectly exemplify this view in his Constitution of Liberty, and yet even he follows it up with an essay entitled “Why I am not a Conservative.”
If Conservatives in its academic (and not day-to-day political use) is just a synonym for everything that we oppose, or for a kind of extreme reactionary viewpoint, then of course most academics don’t identify as conservative, even if many of them have conservative sensibilities.Report
You make good points. I would say that “conservatism”, if it really exists as a rational framework, is now called “classical liberalism” as its philosophical basis. The conservative masses have done their intellectual argument framers a serious wrong in being so vocal about the dumbest things to say you are worried about.
Its anecdotal, but I have seen conservative voices shut down in my various ethics courses (not that ethics don’t stick, I just think they are the best part of philosophy so I took many courses on ethics) by the students with little support from the professor. Of course the students shouldn’t have brought up the topic most of the time, but these shutdowns created dividends later on in the course when either the conservative students wouldn’t participate or their political status became a shorthand for why one ignores their contributions. To be sure it was ethics and some systems aren’t so kind to certain leftist orthodoxy. Kant can be a communist, but the imperative does make it a little more difficult to redistribute property, and Locke can be a communist but his ownership analysis is hard to get around as well. The solution, IME, has been to downplay or ignore these thinkers for others who the left-leaning college crowd prefer.Report
I haven’t been able to read past the the Liz Anderson example since, knowing Anderson’s work well, I racked my brain trying to think of any possible example of bias and was very curious to know what it might be.
I’m rather surprised to see that the objection is that apparently her examples of cultural imperialism are too “trivial” because *obviously* dhimmitude is THE example of cultural imperialism and apparently heterosexism and anti-Muslim sentiment IN THE U.S. (the actual context of Anderson’s book!!) are only “trivial.” Well I’m sure many lgbtq (myself one of them) and Muslim people don’t feel they are trivial at all and the very suggestion that they are smacks of conservative bias on Case’s part to me. It is, after all, a classic move on the right to insist that the gays are just whining about being mistreated and anyway what’s wrong with assuming that everyone in existence is straight and treating them as such (given the sometimes stated and sometimes not stated background conservative point of view that it is obviously *better* to be straight than lgbtq)?
Perhaps more importantly though, I have to say that I did not know about dhimmitude as a practice. Even after reading the paragraph describing it from Case I still don’t really understand it well. (For instance is this about oppression of Christians specifically or any non-Muslim group? And where does this occur exactly in the present day? And when and where did it occur historically?) On the other hand, I’m very well aware–as I assume almost any somewhat educated reader from the U.S. would be about the portrayal of Islam as a terrorist religion or the heterosexism of textbook portrayals, as well as the Spanish Inquisition. (The Turkish repression of Kurds, on the other hand, I suspect is a bit less likely to be something the average reader already knows about.) I would think it matters here greatly, though, that while the examples Anderson actually used will be instantly recognizable by most readers who have personal experience and knowledge of them, dhimmitude is NOT likely to be recognized in this way.
Is Case really suggesting that dhimmitude is a *better* example than those which are going to be highly familiar to readers and so can be referred to in a sentence or less which require no explanation, when he in fact goes on to take an entire paragraph to describe dhimmitude (apparently because he assumes readers will not automatically be familiar with it)? I ask myself: if I needed to explain cultural imperialism to my students and wanted to provide an example or two, what would I choose? To go off on a tangent explaining a practice of which students are completely unaware, such that I first must educate them about dhimmitude and only then can use dhimmitude as an example of the concept I actually want to teach them about? I mean, I’m all for getting in education about a variety of topics anywhere I can, so I am not completely averse to tangents. But I would never choose to explain cultural imperialism in this way. Surely it speaks in favor of the “trivial” cases that they are in fact instantly recognizable by readers while dhimmitude is not.
Further, perhaps it is also part of Anderson’s approach to explaining the concept to include both obvious (the Spanish Inquisition) and not-so-obvious cases. I am puzzled why Case thinks it would obviously be better to switch the not-so-obvious cases for another obvious one. I would have thought part of helping readers to understand what a term means is to give examples that cover both, thus to allow readers to see that cultural imperialism can refer both to the Spanish Inquisition and to regular everyday practices that occur in our own society. Wouldn’t it in fact be misleading to use only examples that imply that cultural imperialism is something that happens only in other societies, or only historically, or only in situations of overall oppression/violence, etc.? That is, the “trivial” examples Anderson used have pedagogically positive aspects to them that dhimmitude cannot have given the average college educated reader won’t know anything about the latter.
Thus Case seems to be suggesting that Anderson should have used an overall *worse* example in the ways I’ve suggested just to avoid mentioning any suggestion that heterosexism or anti-Muslim sentiment exist (and be morally problematic) in our society. Who’s the one with the political bias here again?Report
I think it’s important to include cases that aren’t initially accessible to students to help them understand the universality of cultural imperialism. Readers are most familiar with their own culture and history, so if a writer prioritizes reader familiarity when presenting cases of cultural imperialism, the writer will end up mainly presenting cases in which cultural imperialism is committed by the dominant group within their own culture. There is a real risk that readers will conclude that cultural imperialism is something this group does rather than something that dominant groups do throughout the world. For example, if a professor were to teach a group of contemporary American students about cultural imperialism using only examples they were likely to be immediately familiar with, they might very well conclude that cultural imperialism is a practice specific to straight white Christian men. We know this is not true. It may take some more time to explain things like dhimmitude, but overall it helps readers develop a thorough understanding of the ubiquity of cultural imperialism.Report
In my anecdotal experience philosophy is at least as disproportionately liberal/leftist as it is disproportionately white and male. So insofar as there is an offputting effect on non-white or non-male students because they get the impression that everyone in philosophy is different from them (something on which I’m agnostic), prima facie we’d expect something similar for non-liberal/leftist students. Insofar as this is a problem (I’m agnostic on that too), I’d guess it’s more of an issue outside ethics and political philosophy. There at least, the views are front and centre. But if your metaphysics or logic tutors casually drop anti-conservative side comments in a way that conveys that this is common ground for everyone present, I imagine that’s potentially offputting to people with sincerely held conservative views. (And there, too, there’s no real argument that it’s appropriate for people to be put off philosophy on grounds of their politics. Maybe (one might imagine) conservative political thought is just objectively bad political thought, so conservatives ought to be discouraged from doing political theory. But that’s unlikely to apply to logic.Report
I am a little worried about this proposal, given that it is made in a context where, only in recent memory, have professional philosophers started looking seriously at racial, gender-related, and similar biases within the profession. Given how often those representing conservative viewpoints are also those who oppose measures to increase representation and status of racial minorities and women, I am worried about what a concerted effort to locate and respond to some sort of anti-conservative bias within professional philosophy would mean for the (very serious, very obviously documented) biases against racial minorities, women, and other members of underrepresented groups.
Of course an anti-conservative bias could easily exist within the same professional context as biases against people of color, women, etc… But that does not mean encouraging the vocal inclusion of “right-of-center” voices, using US politics as a reference point, is consistent with encouraging the vocal inclusion of those from underrepresented groups.Report
How about the real, documented academic bias against conservatives? Inbar and Lammers find that most academic psychologists admit that they would discriminate against conservatives in hiring. Thanks to social desirability bias, though, this probably just gives us a lower bound, as others likely do/would discriminate but don’t admit doing so.
I’m not a conservative, so I have no personal stake in this. But if you think including conservatives in the conversation is going to exclude women and minorities, I’m worried you have an uncharitable view of what conservatives think and why they think it, or that you’re treating the dumb conservatives and smart conservatives as equivalent.Report
With respect, these claims “But if you think including conservatives in the conversation is going to exclude women and minorities, I’m worried you have an uncharitable view of what conservatives think and why they think it, or that you’re treating the dumb conservatives and smart conservatives as equivalent” are nonsense.
Stephen Kershnar, in “Intrinsic Moral Value and Racial Differences” argues that the races differ in intrinsic per capita moral worth. He explicitly claims that Whites and Asians have greater per capita intrinsic moral value than Blacks. In “Responses to Race Differences in Crime”, Michael Levin defends the claim that Blacks are genetically more prone than Whites to criminal violence — along with a number of equally exciting claims about race and racism.
Both Kershnar and Levin are conservatives. Neither is dumb. The question before us isn’t whether their claims are true or false, but whether they’re likely to exclude minorities. I’m Black, I once spent quite a lot of time reading Kershnar, Levin and other White American conservatives of their stripe on race, and I have no interest whatsoever in a conversation about race with people of that ilk. Perhaps that’s an uncharitable reaction to the fine arguments of intelligent conservatives for the moral inferiority of Blacks. Who can tell?Report
I teach a course in which, when doing a survey of arguments for different ideologies, we read the most racist and pro-imperalists parts of Mein Kampf. Students regularly report that this was the best reading they did all semester, because they learned a great deal from confronting arguments for views so contrary to their own. As one Jewish student put it, she discovered, to her surprise, that she agreed with Hitler’s normative premises and disputed his empirical premises.
At any rate, you don’t have to read conservative defenses of racism. You could read conservative defenses of other stuff.Report
Forgive me if I’m being dense, but it seems to me the problem of political bias is exceptionally well-established and philosophically well-researched: how is it any different to the problem of how ideology can blind one, as discussed by Hegel, Marx, Adorno, as well as contemporaries such as MacIntyre, Schliesser, Dotson, Coleman, et al., et al., et al.? The difference perhaps is just this: the sort of ideological blindness to which we are all susceptible is not entirely revealed or uncovered by empirical research, because empirical research – even at its purest – is itself susceptible to this blindness, and may well be so in similar ways to how the group in which it is studying is, insofar as Weltanschauungen are shared across academic boundaries. As these thinkers all appreciate, the only way to guard against such bias is philosophy itself, because philosophy alone can take nothing as given. (Art may also fill this role.) Case, in focusing on political bias – by which he appears to mean an arbitrarily delimited subset of ideological blindness – is able to think that empirical research might be the answer. But that’s to stop asking questions too soon, and in particular to stop doing philosophy too soon.
I worry that I am being dense because if Case is lighting on the problem I think he is, then the traditions toward which I have gestured should jump out a mile at any philosopher, and the inadequacy of empirical research as a remedy should be equally obvious. But yet such is not obvious to Case, and nor was it so to Justin, who thought the problem worth posting here. What can explain this? If not my denseness, and if not others’ denseness (a possibility I will not entertain), then it has to be, yet again, the philosophical poverty of that certain sort of contemporary Analytic ‘scientistic’ philosophy that is so often criticised for evincing just this sort of ideological blindness.Report
I think some of Spencer’s ideas about the general dangers of bias are solid and sensible.
But like many of the accounts of anti-conservative bias in psychology, Spencer’s work in public philosophy doesn’t evince a thorough, or nuanced, or balanced understanding of how bias, in either general or specific terms, currently operates and historically has operated in society at large and philosophy specifically. And that limits the usefulness and accuracy of his analysis, as I think is shown in his quotes from an article he wrote last year. At the very least, I think he has a hyperbole issue:
“the goal of “gender equity” is being pursued with a blind zeal unbecoming of philosophy.”
“Misguided as these recommendations are, they are not the worst measures being used to advance “gender equity” in philosophy. That title goes to the recommendations of the (rightly mocked) site-visit report on the University of Colorado Boulder philosophy department by the APA’s Committee on the Status of Women.”
““philosophy of race” and “feminist philosophy” — sub-disciplines that exist to promote left-wing ideology”
“Above all, in making philosophical careers appeal to women, philosophers compromise the freedom of thought and objectivity that have made philosophy an alluring field in the first place.”
“But like many of the accounts of anti-conservative bias in psychology…”
Do you include the BBS article among these accounts? If so, on the basis of what other source(s) of empirically-informed perspectives do you have in mind? (Is social psychology itself not the best source?)Report
And sorry I meant to use his last name, not his first. My b. Long day.Report
I haven’t agreed with basically anything Case has written about professional philosophy, but I find this argument (and the evidence provided) much more persuasive that his previous rhetoric. I’m pretty “left-wing” on most issues I suppose, but surely something is wrong when, in the context of arguments that are not about what political position to adopt, fairly powerful members of the profession subtly implicate (via the politically motivated choice of examples) their own positions. We can easily avoid this while continuing to give what we take to be devastating arguments against conservatism.
He is wrong to include Wood as an example: in a book about Kant’s ethics, one is permitted to directly say that Kant’s ethics passes harsh judgment on Bush II or whoever. The topic of the book is ethics, so ethical opinions have to be OK. But when philosophers are discussing other issues, then it is true that picking certain examples can send subtle (pragmatic) meanings to readers, and one of those messages might be “left-wing politics are the default in professional philosophy, oppose us at your peril.” Moreover, I don’t think that the point can be dismissed as easily as DestroyingMarriage says it can: surely, when asked to think of examples of cultural imperialism, few of us would name dhimmitude, and this *could* in some cases be an ideological blind-spot. There may be pedagogical advantages to focusing on more familiar examples, but surely Case will say: THAT they are more familiar examples is the problem, not a solution to the problem!Report
Yes I agree it might be problematic that dhimmitude is likely to be unfamiliar to many readers. And suppose this is a result of ideological/political bias (though I admit, I am unclear why Case thinks it so clearly is) that most readers of Anderson’s book (along with the American public at large, and I would imagine most conservatives). Does it follow that *Anderson* is being biased here in choosing not to go into a long explanation about a topic that her readers are unlikely to know about? Or that philosophy as a discipline has a liberal bias? I don’t see how. Surely whatever ideological bias would be at work in that case would have to go far beyond philosophy or academia generally, and apply to American society at large, no?
So I still think the Anderson example is an extremely weak one. I am puzzled why Case led with it because in glancing at some of the others–e.g. the uses of Bush as an example–it seems of a different nature entirely.* To me, it smacks of the real objection simply being that going out of one’s way to imply that being lgbtq is just as normal and acceptable as being straight and should be presented as such culturally is “liberally biased”–which of course, given the politics of the right/most of the republican party, this is indeed a quite left-leaning idea! [Also, to be a total cynic, what are we to make of the politics of Anderson’s mention of the Spanish Inquisition on Case’s account? Is portraying Jews–not Christians notice!–as victims a liberal trend or a conservative trend these days?)
But moreover, I have trouble seeing why we would expect the typical reader of Anderson’s book to know more about dhimmitude than the portrayal of everyone as heterosexual or the portrayal of Muslims as belonging to a terrorist religion. With the average reader being in the U.S.–given if it is a book about racial inequality in the U.S.–wouldn’t it of course be expected that one would be more familiar with how his/her own culture (i.e. pop culture, the news, their own family and friends, etc.) depicts lgbtq people and Muslims than a practice that is not occurring in the U.S., that is partly (largely?) historical and not contemporary, etc.? There is nothing ideological about that at all. I would think it would almost always be the case that examples one can relate to one’s own experience will come to mind more easily and be more effective.
* The most disturbing of Case’s examples, in my view, is his being advised not to include the example of oppression of Coptic Christians is extremely problematic. I’d like to hope this was misinformed advice on the part of one person, but I don’t know. I would never have guessed that anyone would see discussion of that particular case as having any political undertones at all. But perhaps that is because I have a typical liberal academic acquaintance who is a specialist in Coptic art, and so discussion of the oppression of Coptic Christians has indeed been something I’ve encountered academically in liberal circles and I’ve never noticed any politics to it. If there is a politics to it such that Case’s self-censorship was wise, that is indeed very worrisome.Report
It used to be that people hid their political affiliations. Like judges, academics were obligated to have an air of political neutrality (see Weber). Indeed, I know of one prominent political theorist who resigned from a political party upon his appointment to a Chair. That might be extreme, but on the other extreme I did feel very uncomfortable with the way in which Oxford political theory did come close to becoming a mouthpiece for the labour party in the last UK election:
Wait, a 2014 statement that Iraq didn’t have WMDs is an instance of political *bias*? Surely it’s a *political* statement and Case may be right that such a statement is irrelevant to philosophical questions regarding truth. But do any educated folk still buy the 2003 justification for the Iraq invasion? I was under the impression that that was a lost battle.Report
It’s incredibly frustrating to read someone claim in the course of arguing that we ought to engage in closer examination of bias in philosophy that politics might lead us to abandon appropriately dispassionate reason, particularly when one is especially concerned with left-leaning bias and when one has argued previously about gender issues as Case has. Yes, there are certain topics about which I am passionate about (e.g., my right to autonomy and my right to equality to start with), and sometimes those topics intersect with my work as a philosopher. That’s not a liability; that’s an asset.Report
A clarification: ‘destoryingmarriagesince2010’ makes what I think is a compelling case that the examples Anderson uses to illustrate cultural imperialism are more suited than the one Case offers, but those reasons aside, what Case describes makes a rather poor example of cultural imperialism. Jizya (which, again for clarification, did not always involve any particular ceremony and varied historically and geographically), where collected, was collected from non-Muslims — this provided a very real incentive to, in fact, at times /discourage/ conversion and, by extension, cultural assimilation. Like Case notes, Anderson writes that cultural imperialism is “the imposition of a dominant group’s culture and interpretation of the world on subordinate groups.” What case describes is rather ordinary imperialism which involves a hierarchy of culture, but that is distinct from ‘cultural imperialism.’
And for those who are interested, Mark Cohen (emeritus professor of Near Eastern Studies from Princeton who has worked extensively on the history of Islamic-Jewish relations) has written about the complexity, and potentially misleading terminology, of “dhimmitude.” For example, his contribution to “Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel: The Ambivalences of Rejection, Antagonism, Tolerance and Cooperation” is available on academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/6120045/_Modern_Myths_of_Muslim_Anti-Semitism_
I’m happy to think more about bias in general, though.Report
One follow up thought: While I am happy to think more about bias in general, I would also not like to forget the contributions of those philosophers who have already thoughtfully discussed this and other relevant issues — in addition to the philosophers JCM mentions above, I would add Quine, Poincare, and Neurath. And Jaggar’s piece available here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00201748908602185?journalCode=sinq20#.Vd59r_lVikoReport
As a philosopher who would self-ascribe as a political conservative (in the American sense), I have felt much hostility toward conservatism from many of my peers and professors. I am not yet tenured, and I do not work in political philosophy, but there is NO WAY I would openly and frankly admit my conservative views at any point prior to gaining tenure. Graduate students who are openly conservative jeopardize themselves with respect to the job market, and young professors who are openly conservative jeopardize their bid for tenure.
There are several graduate students and young professors out there who feel the same way. My adviser, whom I’ll call Fred, occasionally liked to use the tea-party “crazies” as an example in class. Why didn’t Fred ever use the “occupy Wall Street” people as an example of “crazies”? You can be sure that I never admitted to Fred that I have some sympathy for the tea-party (just as many of my academic friends had some sympathy for the “Occupy Wall Street” movement). Why voluntarily associate myself with “crazies”, especially to my primary letter writer?!
So, I’m quite sympathetic to Case’s call for an investigation into how the left-leaning biases of the profession affect itself. To not see that there is such a bias is either blindness or willful ignorance. If you cannot see even a hint of bias, try this thought experiment: Suppose you wanted to try to make friends in your new department. When a person tries to make friends, what do they do? They work to find common ground with the people they want to be friends with. Now, if I want to make a small political statement to warm people up to me, which sticker would I put on my office door, a Ted Cruz sticker, or a Bernie Sanders sticker? That answer is as obvious as 2+2=4.Report
Inbar and Lammers, “Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology” report the results of a study which shows that, when asked directly the question, a significant proportion of social psychologists stated that they are willing to discriminate in various ways against researchers they think are conservative. They also found that, the more liberal respondants claimed to be, the more likely they were to state a willingness to discriminate against researchers they perceive as conservative. As Jason Brennan noted above, this almost certainly underestimates the willingness of social psychologists to discriminate against researchers they think are conservative, since there is little doubt that many who denied it nevertheless are willing to engage in that kind of discrimination.
Another interesting result of this study is that, when asked how willing to discriminate against conservatives they thought other social psychologists were, respondants on average ascribed to their colleagues a willingness to engage in that sort of discrimination significantly greater than what they reported about themselves. Unsurprisingly, the more conservative respondants claimed to be and the more this was true, but it was true across the board. This is something that people should keep in mind when they express skepticism at the idea that many philosophers, including people who don’t identify as conservatives, routinely engage in self-censorship because they are afraid of the reaction of their colleagues.
As far as I know, no study of that kind has been done about philosophers, but I would be extremely surprised if, were such a survey given to a sample representative of the profession, the results were very different. In any case, although this is not exactly the kind of study that Spencer Case suggested, I think it would be useful to do the same thing about philosophers. It would be surprising, to say the least, if the same people who try to use implicit bias in order to explain the underrepresentation of various minorities in philosophy, were to deny that *explicit* bias might explain – at least in part – the underrepresentation of conservatives in the profession.
In general, when considering that kind of results, I think people should ask themselves what conclusion they would draw if, instead of being about conservatives, they were about blacks, women, homosexuals, etc. In fact, anti-conservative bias might even play a role in the underrepresentation of some minorities, such as that of blacks. For, although blacks in the US overwhelmingly vote Democrat, they are quite socially conservative. Indeed, on some issues, they are as conservative if not more so than whites who vote Republican. So, even if they don’t care about anti-conservative bias per se, people who care about the underrepresentation of blacks in philosophy might want to look into the possibility that it plays a role.
In the field of social psychology, results such as those reported by Inbar and Lammers have also generated a healthy discussion on how the underrepresentation of conservatives might result in lower quality science. See for instance Duarte et al., “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science”, which uses several examples from the literature to argue for that view, in a way I find rather compelling. Interestingly, perhaps even ironically, the argument is similar to the way in which some feminist philosophers have argued that making science more inclusive to women could sometimes improve the quality of scientific output. More generally, it illustrates nicely the philosophical literature on the way in which bias operates in science, as well as on the role of values in science.
Unless they are illustrated by very specific examples, I’m generally unimpressed by arguments that purport to establish the desirability of some kind of diversity. But that’s just because I think arguments of that sort can only establish conclusions that are limited in scope, whereas people often use them to make unduly general claims about the benefits of diversity. I have no doubt that, in some cases, the lack of conservatives in philosophy could be shown to result in scholarship of lower quality. (It isn’t even particularly hard to come up with examples, but it’s getting late so perhaps I’ll talk about that some other time in another comment.) If I’m right then it’s another reason to engage in the kind of research that Spencer Case is suggesting to us.Report
I have no desire to be a professional philosopher in a university and so don’t feel constrained in providing views that are not in keeping with what I see as left wing bias the profession. I think my views are simply tolerated with the view that I’ll be gone soon.
Leo Strauss’s “Thoughts on Machiavelli” is not the sort of thing that would even make the a supplement to the supplementary reading list at my institution, let alone be on the reading list itself.
I also note a dominant pro identity politics theme. Looking at the reading list on one course where hate speech (which gets pretty much unquestionably tied up with pornography) is a main theme, I wondered why Jeremy Waldron’s recent book “The Harm in Hate Speech” was on the reading list but the volumes of Joel Feinberg’s “The Moral Limits of Criminal Law,” wasn’t. The latter is also very much against hate speech and I an informed from a philosopher elsewhere that these volumes are exceedingly important on the subject. I can only conclude (possibly unfairly) that Feinberg’s books didn’t make the list because while he opposes hate speech, he provides a detailed argument as to why pornography should not be covered by his own offence principle.
In conclusion, I do think it is a good idea to investigate political bias in our universities, and that at an easy starting point might be to ask independent panels to look at what courses are offered and what books are on the reading lists.Report
It’s worth noting that the number of philosophers affected by anti-conservative bias is larger than the number of philosophers who are conservatives. My own politics are left-of-center, but I come from a family of committed conservatives. I love my family – I think they are good people who mean well, with whom I happen to have sincere disagreements. And then I hear my colleagues describing my family (inter alia) as lunatics, monsters, idiots, and so on. I find this incredibly alienating; I try to avoid discussing politics with philosophers for exactly this reason. And I have to agree with Case that it just sucks to be confronted with gratuitous political ad hominem when you are in a professional context. (I don’t agree that all of his examples actually are this, but that’s another point.) I wish philosophers would be more thoughtful about tossing around political insults. Some of the people pretending to laugh along with you are actually thinking about people they love and wishing it was safe not to laugh.Report
One thing that seems worth mentioning in this context is that the US political scene is far to the right of the rest of the world, such that (to pick on the example above) I’d imagine almost no-one in Europe having any sympathy for the tea-party whatsoever. On issues like public health care and gun control, “Conservative” views in the US are far from the views of right-wing people and parties in Europe. So it wouldn’t surprise me if US Conservatives tend to find themselves political outliers when engaging with philosophy literature that is written by, or engages with, people outside of the US. It’s not clear to me that this is a bias in the literature rather than a result of a parochial view about where the center is.Report
You get the same thing in the UK, though, except that the names are changed. So you get strong hints that, as a philosopher, you should have a visceral hatred for Thatcher and Cameron. Or you get notable philosophers publishing blogs saying that they don’t want to have any Conservative-voting friends (and therefore presumably colleagues).
“If I say this, it won’t be good for my career” is something you hear from non-left wing graduates/early career philosophers in the UK, just as I imagine you do in the US, if you manage to get into such a circle. (You have to be pretty careful who you discuss politics with at that stage if you’re anywhere to the right of Andy Burnham!) This is more problematic than the hostile environment: irrelevant political signalling is a bit pathetic and does put people off (wouldn’t it be sad if we’d lost out on Quine because he thought that academia wasn’t for people like him?) but the loss of political diversity that politics had as recently as 50 years ago is worrying.Report
It’s interesting that, just as discussions of underrepresentation of women in philosophy often get conflated with undervaluing of feminist philosophy, so discussions of underrepresentation of conservatives in philosophy get conflated with underrepresentation of conservative views in philosophy.
I’m writing this comment while putting off finishing a paper on inertial structure in Newtonian gravity. I am really sceptical that there is a distinctively feminist take, or a distinctively conservative take, on inertial structure in Newtonian gravity. But I don’t see any reason why being male, or being liberal, should correlate with being particularly suited to develop our understanding of gravity and inertia. So insofar as the system of philosophy is putting off women, or putting off conservatives, or insofar as there is active discrimination in hiring and promotion against women, or conservatives, that’s bad for the advancement of our understanding.Report
Yes, but when you present the paper, do you tell jokes about King James II or William of Orange? Whose side are you really on?Report
In my experience as a graduate student and current early career scholar, outright hostility to conservativism and conservatives is normalized enough that those who express it are placidly tolerated, and even politely agreed with, by people who would not themselves make openly hostile remarks. Defending conservatives or conservativism from such stray hostile remarks can paradoxically result in the defender being considered “too ideological,” because the defender is perceived to have started the discussion by pushing back. Moreover, being discovered to have conservative, or even just libertarian, views leads to some degree of exclusion from grad student social life, as well as to a steady stream snide allusions to the dreadful states of affairs of which you supposedly approve. In addition to being tiring and ineffective, pushing back against these allusions only reinforces the tendency of those around you to conclude that you are “too ideological.” It is really not surprising that several of the talented ideologically non-conforming philosophers I know are in the closet.Report
I’m interested in JCM’s comment suggesting that philosophers/philosophy have a unique ability to address the problem of bias. I wonder if JCM or others could say more. In particular I’m wondering what can philosophers/philosophy can do about bias that scientists/science cannot?
JCM mentioned that what is unique about philosophers is that they assume nothing. I’m not convinced of that since — for starters — that seems psychologically unrealistic and — in my limited experience at least — that is not what I find when in philosophy papers, books, presentations, seminars, etc. I’m open to being challenged on this.Report
Gladly! I entirely agree that philosophers, as much as anyone else, are limited, prejudiced and so on. But according to the view of philosophy that Hegel, Collingwood et al. take, it is *in principle* always open to questioning its own assumptions. Questions about the validity of induction, or about whether rationality tracks truth, about whether objectivity is coherent, are outwith the scope of science, but are core philosophical questions. Philosophy is thus able, in principle, to tackle *any* source of bias, and it is alone in being unlimited like this (again, with the possible exception of art – but I don’t want to get into this here). Is this clearer? Of course I don’t take myself to be defending the position! That’s more than I could do here. (I’m a big fan of Collingwood’s ‘Essay on Philosophical Method,’ if you want something more like a defence (though actually the work is more a manifesto).) But the claim, at least, is that science cannot in principle uncover biases that are built into scientific rationality, but philosophy can uncover biases that are built into scientific rationality by virtue of its ability to question science’s assumptions, and further that philosophy does not have its *own* biases because it is methodologically diverse. (The only biases to which it *is* necessarily blind are super-deep ones that are necessary to rationality as such – think the conditions of experience in Kant.)
I have a perhaps naive hope that philosophy’s being in principle open to this sort of self-reflection and even objectivity is more than just something it can be in principle. But then I am incorrigibly optimistic.Report
I see. This is helpful, JCM. Thanks especially for pointing me to some of the literature on this. I wish you well!Report
Right:philosophers can in principle uncover the biases in scientific rationality. What they generally cannot do is parse the statistics. With few exceptions, philosophers have little training in empirical methods and are in no position to critically evaluate, for example, evidence pertaining to the efficacy of school vouchers, insurance mandates, tax cuts, tariffs, and myriad other policy interventions. Yet, with breathtaking frequency, philosophers voice vociferous opinions on all of these issues with apparently little awareness of how ignorant they appear to anyone with the rudiments of empirical training. (Social scientists, of course, have the converse problem).Report
I’m one of those who thinks this is a serious problem, and it’s worth reiterating the point by anonjunior — like this person, I feel uncomfortable when conservatives are maligned openly (they are … ALL THE TIME, if you don’t think so you aren’t paying attention) because many people I love are conservative. Stepping in to defend conservatives is just a losing scenario in a number of ways, so I avoid political conversations with philosophers.
FWIW, I think philosophers *are* better equipped to address this kind of bias. This “signaling” goes on in other disciplines as well (especially, I’ve found, in the soft sciences and in other humanities) and in my experience, it’s much worse and the consequences are much more dire for a person if they *don’t* engage in this kind of signaling, by way of asides or little jokes or knowing laughter: their work is regarded with suspicion and assumed to be conservative in orientation & conclusions. My take is that philosophers are just better at distinguishing between a person’s beliefs and their work, they are less scared to follow an argument where it goes and so less suspicious or dismissive, generally, of people who disagree with them. This doesn’t mean that they are great at these things, but rather that members of other disciplines are really bad about these things. So I think philosophers do have a lot to offer here.Report
sorry for the double post: a great example of such a “failure” to signal is over at Leiter Reports: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2015/08/so-much-for-trying-to-bring-philosophy-to-the-public.html
Here Tannsjo writes a piece with the conclusion “have more kids” — the editor of Vox is concerned that this might be too anti-abortion or anti-contraception to publish. Philosophers, even left-leaning ones (like Tannsjo!), would puzzle a bit and say “But he wasn’t talking about these issues at all!” I’ve seen behavior like that of the editor in other disciplines, and generally, it’s unacceptable in philosophy. This doesn’t mean philosophers are free from bias or assumptions, just that they are better at these sorts of subtleties in reasoning.
Tannsjo could have signaled his liberalism by some comment or aside in the article maligning pro-lifers, which would indicate to the readers and the editor that his views are “safe” — but he didn’t. I think this is because philosophers tend not to make that extra unwarranted assumption about his views.Report
Unless one is dealing with cases as an employer or student the problem seems a small one. If we see philosophy as being essentially metaphysics then politics becomes an irrelevance. Indeed, where a philosopher has strong political views conforming with orthodox voting choices I would down-rate them as thinkers, probably right to the bottom of the heap. When it comes to ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ philosophers should surely be able to see beyond these convenient but artificial and clumsy distinctions, just as for ‘analytic’, ‘continental’ and so forth. As for ideology, why would a philosopher indulge in such a thing? Is ideology ever consistent with good philosophy? Or does it stand in its way?Report
You ask: “As for ideology, why would a philosopher indulge in such a thing? Is ideology ever consistent with good philosophy? Or does it stand in its way?” Great question, and one to which I have an answer I’ve been thinking about for a while. Basically, public policy questions are immensely, immensely complicated questions with normative, empirical, and theoretical subparts. For example, take quantitative easing: good idea or bad idea? In addition to the complicated philosophical questions raised about the nature and limits of state power and about the questions of distributive justice raised, we have a huge empirical literature on macroeconomic policy. And because most of that empirical literature relies on observational data, we have to view it in light of a set of prior probabilities of different states of the world that are set by theory. Those theories rely on more foundational claims about the nature of human psychology, which in turn rely on more foundational claims in action theory and metaphysics and, finally, logic.
This is why no one can have a fully justified set of public policy beliefs–or even one fully justified policy belief! The task is not humanly possible to accomplish. When a brilliant person who spends 50 hours a week working on questions in action theory goes to vote, she isn’t going to hike herself up step by step from metaethics and logic up to questions about Obama care and tax rates. It can’t be done. So pretty much every last one of us has a sort of ideological trampoline composed of working assumptions at a middling level of generality about how the world works and what we owe each other that we sort of springboard off of in the hope that from that handicapped starting place we can reach some sort of partially justified conclusion about who to vote for.
We get handed an ideology at about the same time as we get handed a bus pass, and for the same reason: we actually need one to get around. One hopes that we reflect on the plausibility of our ideological commitments as we go along in life and make justified adjustments, or even wholesale substitution, to accommodate the new things we are constantly learning about each other and the world.
But we’re never smart enough to get along without one.Report
Bias in academic writing is less a problem than the contempt for religion and conservatism that academics casually express while teaching or while interacting with students (e.g. ‘Tea Party crazies’ mentioned above). I love the profession and feel lucky to be in it. But philosophers are an unusually derisive lot in my experience and we often seem to sacrifice interesting intellectual exchange for the rewards of self-congratulation.Report
I’d like to echo what anonjunior and babygirl have said. Suppose it turns out that the profession is better off without conservatives, or that conservative ideas are not up to snuff, or whatever. Even then a lot of the off-hand remarks are damaging insofar as they negatively impact those who we do want in the field. I had a professor in undergrad, someone I hold in very high esteem, who casually mocked conservatives during class. Having come from a (moderately) conservative family, I also felt uncomfortable and alienated when that happened. I still do — I’m just better at hiding it now.Report
A recent paper found that if you apply classic methodology used to detect racism (including IAT, Resume Studies, and work on In-Group Favoritism) to study partyism, you also get significant effects of discrimination on the basis of political party (http://pcl.stanford.edu/research/2014/iyengar-ajps-group-polarization.pdf). This fits with the theory of “belief congruence” according to which degree of similarity in beliefs is a major factor in outgroup formation (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2420130206/abstract#.VcyvKxpZcWQ). To me these results suggest that philosophers concerned about the contribution implicit attitudes make to discriminatory practices in the classroom and workplace should also consider partyism an important factor of study.Report
“…given that many social groups with conservative values tend to be larger in terms of population than are social groups with liberal values (e.g., Evangelical Christians outnumber atheists/agnostics; Pew Research Center, 2012), liberals may be intolerant toward a larger absolute number of individuals.”
I want to echo what anonjunior said above. The bigger problem is not the pervasiveness of claims like ‘There is clearly no good reason for holding conservative position X’, but claims like ‘There is clearly no good reason for holding conservative position X, and the only reason why anyone does hold it is that they are bigoted/stupid/abnormally greedy/etc.’ The former claim says to people who are conservative ‘we don’t think much of your views.’ The latter says to people whose friends and family are conservative (whether they are conservative themselves or not), ‘the people who brought you up, shaped your view of the world, and whom you love are stupid and evil’. The latter claim is far more alienating, and it is also obviously false–obvious, at least, to anyone who has actually gotten to know some conservatives at some point in their lives.Report
I think some thought-provoking points have been made by many.
It seems very likely that academic philosophy has a predominately liberal political leaning, and whether this is professionally healthy or not, I can say in my experience with both grad students and professors that I don’t think I have ever heard a positive word on conservatives or conservatism, either broadly speaking or concerning right-leaning ideas.
I also wanted to point this out: In the philpapers survey of philosophers from 2009, 72.8% of respondents “accepted or leaned toward atheism.” On the other hand, in a gallup poll from 2011, while an astonishing 98% of “conservative” respondents believed in God, only 85% of “liberals” did the same. I think the odds are then, that if you are a professional philosopher you are more likely an atheist and if you are an atheist you are much more likely to be liberal. Whether this is good or bad, I do not know, but it strikes me as strange given my experience (and others) that some think that the profession is immune to the types of bias that seem to naturally accrue in every other social system with a predominant viewpoint.
Philpapers survey: http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=0&areas_max=1&grain=coarse
Gallup Poll: http://www.gallup.com/poll/147887/Americans-Continue-Believe-God.aspxReport
Dichotomies like liberal-conservative have no place in philosophy. They only serve to divide and box in different ideas. It’s high time the discipline abandoned such outdated models. Dichotomies may be attractive to use when attacking an argument but arguments are rarely formed via dichotomic thinking. Often I think, this leads to miscommunication and results in a confusion of real issues.Report
“The antagonism between two primal mindsets certainly pervades human history: Sparta and Athens; optimates and populares; Roundheads and Cavaliers; Inquisition and Enlightenment; Protagonus and
Plato; Pope Urban VIII and Galileo; Barry Goldwater and George McGovern; Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The labels ‘liberal’ or ‘leftist’ and ‘conservative’ or ‘rightist’ may be relatively recent (etymologically they are typically assumed to date to the French Revolution, but they appear to be much older; see Laponce 1981) but the political division they describe is ancient and universal (Bobbio 1996; Jost 2006; Jost & Amodio 2012; McCarty et al. 2006).”
1. I would recommend John Kekes as a conservative philosopher (and embraces the label) whose texts it could be useful to include in a class.
2. Many are probably in the position that when they have to teach conservativism (or any other kind of -ism) they have only a few contact hours to do it. I try to avoid any real emphasis on labels, because, realistically, I am going to review just a few arguments from maybe two authors–not representative at all. Even if you want to give a thumbnail sketch of conservativism (respect for and reluctance to needlessly deviate from tradition, belief that smaller, more integrated units of society [family, towns] are more important than a variety of ways the modern state, etc.), getting into just one aspect of that sketch in any really interesting way is going to take up most of those few contact hours and give a biased view.
3. However philosophers like to conduct themselves around their tribal fires and watering holes (yes, I am imagining the beginning of 2001), mockery as such does not (with rare exception) belong in the classroom. There are better ways to spice up your class time with humor than saying that you’ll speak more slowly and use pictures for the Tea Partiers in the class.Report
The ways I’ve seen this bias, if that’s the right word, manifested in philosophy have mostly been in small asides or examples – with slight or non-existent connection to the topic at hand – that serve the rhetorical and social purpose of identifying the speaker as a member of the correct tribe, and inviting the audience to identify with her or him. Like the little ice breaker-type jokes one puts into the beginning of a talk, or drops ex tempore as an aside, just to reestablish rapport with the audience or the class. In other words, it’s more in the little signals that assume and reinforce the feeling that “we” are all part of the same club, different from those rubes over there. As far as actual arguments go, I don’t see that much neglect of conservative arguments or positions on an individual, argument-by-argument basis. I do, however, see a kind of unearned, triumphal presentist attitude about cultural/social/moral debates – for example, it’s one thing to find the idea of natural law unpersuasive or subject to fatal objections, and thus to find arguments based on it unsound. It’s another thing to consider it beneath one’s concern, a simple relic of purely religious beliefs, without *ever* considering the possibility that one’s worldview, when it comes to the relation of the natural and the normative, might be itself the product of historical contingency – as if there aren’t still deep unsolved questions all around mind, consciousness, action, personal identity and biological organism, etc. To take a related example: I think lots of academics think that liberal education is a good thing, in itself, and deserves political and social support as such – so colleges should not be mere job training centers, etc. Of course that position is not and has not been universally accepted by human beings, and you can’t derive it from biology or scientific anthropology either. It’s a historically-developed, culturally-shaped view of what is good for human beings, individually and socially. And yet academics broadly seem to think that it is a rational view, suitable for public action and commitment and support. On the other hand, arguments about marriage are shot down for just these reasons: “traditional” marriage is not a human universal (true); and the normative linking of procreation and marital union can’t be derived from biology or scientific anthropology (also true). Again, it’s one thing not to be convinced: it’s another to have such an impoverished imagination that one can’t even imagine a rational person being convinced. Given the powerful reasons to be skeptical of our ability to intuit eternal, ahistorical moral truths, many philosophers and other academics seem to me to be pretty lazy about evaluating the reasons they reject the whole large-scale view of things that conservative positions are often drawing on.Report
A follow-up: I find much more hermeneutical and interpretive charity in history of philosophy, towards weird, different, or surprising views that past philosophers held, than I do in most academics’ dealings with politically conservative ideas.
Of course, conservatives as a political bloc have not done themselves any favors when it comes to academia, at least in the US: climate change denial, silly evolution stuff in schools, broad-brush denunciations of all professors as irresponsible post-modern relativists sponging off the public, etc. etc.Report
Here’s a true story (I’m commenting anonymously so that I don’t implicate the professor or university; otherwise, I don’t care because I have tenure): I’m a political conservative. In my first year of PhD work, I shared an office with two other grad students. I didn’t know either of their political views at the time. So one day, a professor comes into our office and asks us to sign a petition to get Howard Dean on the ballot. I had never spoken to her before in my life, and I knew I’d have a class with her next year because she worked in an area in which I was interested (which had nothing to do with politics). I didn’t want to sign the petition (being no fan of Howard Dean), but I also didn’t want to rub her the wrong way. Luckily, it turned out that one of my office mates –a seasoned, graduate veteran in the dissertation stage–just laughed at her and asked, “Now why should I want to sign a petition to get Howard Dean on the ballot when I don’t vote Democratic?” She was shocked. The look on her face was as if it never occurred to her that anyone in philosophy vote anything but Democratic in all close possible worlds. He then proceeded to give her a lecture on the inappropriateness of asking graduate students she didn’t know well enough to sign the petition. So I was let off the hook.
Of COURSE there is bias in philosophy. The question is how much. I have plenty more stories. Like when one night, a group of philosophy students on the far left who were at the house of one of the political philosophers pranked called an even more conservative student than myself in the middle of the night simply because they didn’t like him. And there is that political philosopher himself who routinely went off on tangents in class denigrating Republicans as if it were obvious that everyone in the room voted Democratic. (In point of fact, all in the room probably did vote Democratic except one.) On the whole, my department leaned heavily to the left. There were maybe 3 or 4 someone conservative faculty members, but none ever openly talked politics. At any rate, having given a few illustrations, ON THE WHOLE I think people were fairly tolerant and one could be a conservative and voice one’s conservatism if one were not an idiot. But no one who was conservative was interested in doing political philosophy or taking the classes because the professors who taught such things were vocal in their utter disdain for anything conservative. I definitely kept my conservatism close to the vest and recommend students do likewise.Report
This isn’t specific to philosophy, but I have a published article that argues that there is genuine bias against *conservatives* in education, but that it’s not bias against ideology so much as against epistemology: http://bit.ly/1xKSaLj
(And yes, I’m put off by casual anti-conservatism in philosophical circles. If conservativism is mistaken, we serve our students and our societies better by helping them to see the error of its ways while also acknowledging the source of its appeal.)Report
I have to say, I am a little troubled by the upshot of Case’s argument. The reason is this: it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of why race and gender bias has been such a concern in some parts of the profession, and belies a political move that I take to run contrary to the basic reasons why people have become so concerned with bias (I think my point will echo many of the commenters above who have expressed skepticism about Case’s point).
The mistake is to think that the argument in favor of taking steps to mitigate institutional biases having to do with gender and race is based on the idea that institutional biases, in and of themselves, are problematic and must be eliminated. This is not the case. Some institutional biases are quite acceptable. For instance, there is a general academic bias against racists (as the case of James Watson of DNA fame can attest). As such, racists can will feel excluded and may fear expressing their racist views in professional settings or in journal articles etc. This bias seems perfectly acceptable, even laudable. So it can’t be that institutional biases per se are the problem.
So why care about race and gender bias if bias, in and of itself, is not the problem? The reason is that people have (finally) come to acknowledge the long and excruciating history of systematic oppression and exclusion that women and people of color have faced and continue to face not just in philosophy or in academia but *everywhere.* People concerned with mitigating race and gender bias are concerned with mitigating the overwhelming psychological, social, and often physical harm that this history and these social structure incur on women and people of color from the very moment of birth. Thus people have come to focus on ways of including these groups by focusing on mitigating the effects of these institutional structures that have unjustly oppressed and excluded for so long.
And this is where the crucial disanology between race and gender on the one hand and conservatism on the other comes up. Conservatives have never been oppressed or excluded (at least not in the pervasive and systematic way that women and people of color have). As far as I can see, conservatives (or at least Republicans) have been instrumental in maintaining and perpetuating the institutional status quo that has worked so well to exclude women and people of color from a wide range of discursive and economic sectors.
So I guess what I find troubling is the assumption that there is a prima facie reason that I or anyone else who is deeply troubled by the institutional biases that women and people of color face should care that there is a bias against conservatives in academia. This complaint that there is a bias against conservatives sounds to me like nothing more than the strategy that has become common in some parts of conservative discourse by which one trivializes the very serious injustices experienced by women and people of color by arguing that they deserve an identity politics too, lest we forget the plight of the privileged (examples of this strategy include the men’s rights movement, the all-lives-matter campaign, and the argument that affirmative action is racist against white people).
So basically, I’m calling bullshit on this one.Report
You’re right that women and minorities face wider systematic oppression that conservatives don’t, and for that reason there is an important disanalogy between the two cases. But surely that’s not the only reason why bias against women and minorities is bad. It’s also bad (a) because it’s inherently unjust, (b) because it causes undeserved and unnecessary harm to the people who experience it, (c) because it excludes certain viewpoints from discussions that (even if incorrect) would make those discussions better. Arguably, these reasons are in play in the case of bias against conservatives, too.
In other words, you give good reasons to think that we shouldn’t care *as much* about bias against conservatives as we do about bias against women/minorities. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care at all, or that the bias is justifiable. It would be justifiable, perhaps, if showing bias against conservatives were necessary to prevent bias against women and minorities–as is the case with your example of bias against racists. But there is no reason to think that it is necessary, unless you believe (as you seem to suggest) that all conservatives are racists and misogynists.
Lastly, I’m ‘calling bullshit’ on your insinuation that all conservatives are ‘privileged.’ My hometown has a trailer park full of straight-ticket republican voters that would beg to differ.Report
This just in: it’s wrong to treat someone unfairly even if it’s not an instance of a wider pattern of treating people unfairly.Report
notbuyingit: it is common to argue that Philosophy needs to fight bias ~at least in part~ because bias excludes talented people from making contributions. Being an [underrepresented X] doesn’t prevent one from being great at metaphysics, so excluding [Xs] prevents potentially talented metaphysicians from discovering brilliant new metaphysics. If this rationale is any good, presumably it also applies to conservatives (being conservative is not inconsistent with being great at metaphysics). I take this to be just what David Wallace pointed out above. I rehash it just in order to reiterate that this is an argument in common currency. So it is false to say that none of the reasons to care about bias in philosophy intersect with Case’s concerns. After all, that is one.
But even putting that aside: I am myself extremely liberal, and also, as it so happens, from a traditionally socially disadvantaged group (though one that, insofar as APA stats capture the situation, seems to presently be represented in the field about on par with it’s general representation in the population). I am familiar with the psychological and social harms that oppressive social structures can inflict &etc. Nonetheless, I still find the idea that I, or anyone else, should be fully indifferent to the arbitrary exclusion of conservatives–that, for instance, we should be fully indifferent to talented conservatives being stonewalled out of the profession, or being subject to nasty and unfair barbs at random intervals, etc.–to be disturbingly self-serving and tribalistic, and deserving of precisely none of the righteousness in which you cloak it.Report
I’m an undergraduate at a major university in the northeast. I want to go to grad school in philosophy but I’m worried about how I will be treated.
I can recall at least three philosophy professors make demeaning comments about conservatives/Christians/theism that were unnecessary to their overall point. Another routinely mocked Republicans. I’m not one, but I feel it’s symptomatic of the anti-conservative attitude.
In classes there is often an unspoken stigma associated with conservative opinions.
As an undergrad, the message is that philosophy doesn’t welcome me or people like me. This rejection is not grounded in philosophical critiques, but sociological factors.
As a conservative, I’m just not the right type for philosophy.
I’m still debating whether to scrub my application of any reference to extracurricular activities that might involve religious or conservative associations for all applications bar the one going to Notre Dame.
I wish things were different.Report
I think you are mistaken about Notre Dame if you think that they are a hotbed of conservatism. Perhaps as a conservative, and certainly as a theist, one could find a niche there, but like everywhere else, this aren’t the dominant viewpoints.Report
@Bnonymous: I’m a conservative grad student who, like others, keeps my conservatism fairly close to my chest. Not too close because I like to argue and sometimes I can’t help myself, but I do actively avoid airing my most “offensive” (to some) views. On the other hand, I’m fairly open about my Christianity, and for the most part I haven’t felt discriminated against because of it. My sense is that anti-religious bias, while it still exists, is much less of a factor now than in the past. This is largely through the work of such pioneers as Plantinga. 40 years ago it was easy for philosophers to assume that all theists were idiots, because they didn’t know any philosophically minded theists. Atheist philosophers today might still think theism is wrongheaded, but the clearly excellent work of theists not only in philosophy of religion but also in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science and so on makes it hard to maintain that all theists are just idiots. Perhaps if younger conservative philosophers like us are more outspoken about our beliefs, we will see a similar change in the next couple decades.
Sadly, from a self-interested standpoint I do think you are right to not mention extracurricular activities involving conservative associations. (At Notre Dame it won’t hurt you, although as the previous poster says, there are plenty of political liberals at Notre Dame too.) But I think you can be open about the religious associations — I went to a Christian school for undergrad and so couldn’t have hidden my religious background even if I wanted too, but as I said above, being public about my Christianity has never hurt me.Report
One other thought, following on the above: social psychology research shows that prejudice is greatest when other information is lacking. So a CV is exactly the kind of place where anti-conservative bias is likely to operate. On the other hand, if you spend a while interacting with people and they can see you’re not an idiot or a monster, they are less likely to revise their opinion of you upon learning that you’re conservative. So I think applications, job interviews, etc. are the place where you have to worry about avoiding it most. (I must admit, though, that what I fear is that if I’m quite frank about my views to 50 people I know well, 49 will be fine with it, but the other 1 will start a campaign to blackball me and soon people who don’t know me from Adam will be denouncing my work all over the blogosphere.)Report
Explicit discrimination against conservatives happens all the time in philosophy. I have been on more than one search committee where the presence of the name ‘Ayn Rand’ on a CV has tanked a candidate. And I’ve been on more than one search committee where it was clear the candidate was Roman Catholic and this was held against them.Report
In Wisconsin, in North Carolina, in Florida, in Louisiana, in . . . we have right-leaning administrations that have no effective opposition. What is their collective record on education in general and higher ed in particular?
Vouchers to bleed taxpayer money from public schools to fund mostly religiously-affiliated private schools. Now whom do they assume grads from such schools will mostly vote for?
Extremely deep budget cuts that require department closures, reductions in TT faculty, and increased reliance on underpaid adjuncts while doing nothing to stop administrative bloat.
Long-term refusal to adequately fund higher ed and further cut salaries and benefits. Excuse? Tuition too high. Why? Because they refuse to adequately fund higher ed, and yet they also freeze tuition requiring further cuts.
“Serious” proposals to require all faculty to teach 4/4 loads, even at Chapel Hill.
Deletion of tenure in state statute without any public discussion or disclosure of any problems that might motivate such action.
Reduction of required credentials to teach–including eliminating BA requirements. In my state the only current requirement to teach in a k-12 is to not be a cadaver.
Repeatedly trying to weaken empirically supported views by introducing legislation about “teaching the controversy”.
Proposals to close humanities programs that do not obviously lead to gainful employment, and closing specific programs because they vigorously promote advocacy of the poor (e.g.).
Need I go on? C’mon–it’s not a question of conservatism per se, but just how radical presently-elected conservatives (many in 2010) are in pressing attacks on public education. Will anyone who thinks that public education is a public good, and not merely a function of private capital and self-interest, think that this pattern of attack as presently practiced in US state politics will improve our collective welfare as a society? It’s not as if distrust of conservatism as now prominent in politics isn’t warranted. In fact, as personified in Trump, if that is any kind of conservatism, it deserves ridicule.Report
I hear that philosophy of religion–and the metaphysics it influences–is pretty popular, and surely that counts as “conservative.” It’s not like Peter van Inwagen, Trenton Merricks, and Dean Zimmerman are uncited lightweights…
Or is the concern just about political philosophy and areas that border on it? I genuinely don’t understand.Report
You can’t assume that because someone is working in philosophy of religion, even as a theist, they are a “conservative”. Similarly, you can’t assume that an atheist working on scientific naturalism isn’t a conservative.Report
I’ve observed one of the professors in my department teaching his undergraduate”theories of justice” course. He never explicitly states his personal views, but they are somewhat evident in his manner of presentation and the way he emphasizes and excludes certain material. Libertarianism, unsurprisingly, gets very short shrift. After a very brief presentation of Nozick, the professor pulls a quote from ASU out of context and says “Wouldn’t you just stop reading right here?”
He then goes on to mention that Nozick went on to work in other areas of philosophy and would never say much about political philosophy again yada yada yada. The implication is that Nozick must have realized how embarrassingly wrong he got things and so abandoned the view. Even if one buys that narrative (I do not, and don’t think Nozick’s subsequent “recantations” warrant such a reading of events), these details are decidedly unrelated to Nozick’s arguments, which are really what deserve evaluation within the classroom.
I realize that libertarianism isn’t conservatism, but both are pariahs to some degree in the modern academy, though there are departments that are exceptions to this rule.Report
I can’t speak for academic philosophy in general, but there was definitely bias in my undergrad phil departments. (I had experience of two departments). It was not as blatant as in courses on cultural anthropology and sociology that I took, but it was there, clear as day. I can give a couple of examples. I was not particularly offended by what follows (partly because I expected it). So I don’t want this to sound like some sort of bitter rant. But they are signs of bias nevertheless, which is why I’ve put them here. One of my professors said she was ashamed to be culturally associated with Christian missionaries. Another went on a ten minute rather angry monologue about how bad a person William Lane Craig is specifically because of religious ideas he defends. An introductory course on ethics that I took was generously drenched in far-left feminism and critical race theory, but with no readings that even approached a conservative response. A course on political philosophy that I took had a reading or two on libertarianism (Locke and Nozick) but zero readings on actual traditionalist conservatism ( It is not as if there are not good candidates: Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton to name a few). The professor of this course also made a rather bitter comment about catholicism. An advanced course on epistemology that I took had a professor who spoke rather sneeringly of a conference he had attended that was sponsored by a church. A professor of a philosophy of science course that I took openly mocked Christianity. During a logic course, a professor made tangential comments about the invalidity of arguments for God’s existence. I thought they were biased, because they were irrelevant in terms of the subject matter and because the professor gave no counter for the theist side. He was simply arguing his opinion from the lectern. This is also what happened in an introductory course on epistemology that I took, where the professor said that the problem of evil was insurmountable and then moved on, as if his pronouncement had settled the matter ( again without mentioning what a theist might say in response). The logic professor mentioned earlier mocked Christian martyrs in a later course I took with him. Ideally, philosophy professors should present arguments for both sides of a political or religious issue so that one side isn’t favoured or left standing at the end of the lecture. I think this is a perfectly reasonable definition of what it means to be unbiased and it shouldn’t be that hard either. This also means that students shouldn’t be able to know what your opinions are at the end of the semester. By this standard, many of my philosophy professors were biased simply in their lectures and in what was most apparent to me in the course materials. If I actually took the time to analyse their curricula and think about their neutrality in more detail, I suspect that I wouldn’t find an underlying objectivity.Report
Grad Sockpuppet – I wonder why would philosophy of religion and its metaphysics should be counted as conservative I would expect a study of either to encourage a liberal view and to put paid to any political ideologies. Maybe what you mean is that the study of religion attracts a lot of conservative thinkers. This may well be the case. But I feel that a philosopher should deal with each issue on a case by case basis and not adhere to some clumsy blueprint for constraining their opinions within an ideology. For instance, it would be perfectly possible to be against gay marriage and for sexual freedom of choice. Lining ourselves up officially as a ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ would seems to disallow this kind of subtlety.
You say of ideologies “But we’re never smart enough to get along without one.” Perhaps you’ve hit on the problem here, the tendency to adopt an ideology ahead of giving it a philosophical foundation, thus constraining ones future research and limiting freedom of thought. It seems unlikely that either left or the right have all the good ideas.
It seems to me that adherence to an ideology would be a method for non-philosophers, while the purpose of philosophy would be to debunk ideological thinking by uncovering the subtlety of the issues. This would not prevent a philosopher having a voting preference on election day (or a world-theory) but their brain would not be on automatic pilot.Report
Those metaphysicians’ views reflect their religious views. We could also add Plantinga to that mix. And some debates in ethics have a very strong conservative presence–think of torture, terrorism, and just war. Shrug. This narrative that conservatives are somehow silenced or oppressed is total BS.
And I didn’t say anything at all about ideologies.Report
@GradSockpuppet: It’s simply not true that most Christian philosophers or philosophers of religion are especially conservative. I know two of the three philosophers of religion that you mentioned personally, and would describe their political views as “moderate” and “progressive,” respectively. I have a goodly proportion of the younger philosophy of religion crowd as Facebook friends, and I see progressive viewpoints expressed and “liked” as often or marginally more than conservative viewpoints. Certainly philosophers of religion are on average more conservative than philosophers in general, but that’s because philosophers in general are on average far-left.Report
I’m not claiming that they, as people or political agents, are conservative. I’m merely claiming that the ideas they’re promoting/defending are.Report
What ideas are those? Can you explain how they are conservative?Report
Anonymous, I don’t know if you and I are facebook friends, but I am a liberal graduate student who has done some work in philosophy of religion, I’ve gone to a number of philosophy of religion conferences over the years, and I too have quite a few facebook friends (and some friends IRL, too) in the philosophy of religion crowd — and I tend to feel like a total political alien in that corner of philosophy. It’s definitely not true that all philosophers of religion are conservative, but I would be utterly shocked if the political tendencies weren’t extremely different from philosophy at large.Report
Well, moderation is in the eye of the beholder; no doubt as a conservative I’m more biased towards seeing a community that is (I think) to my left as moderate, whereas you’re more naturally going to see it as conservative.
What’s your sense of, say, the proportion of Democrats to Republicans? I would guess that (among those who are one or the other) it’s around 55-45. Do you think it heavily skews Republican?
I expect it also makes a difference which issues are most salient. I would guess that philosophers of religion lean fairly strongly conservative on abortion, for example. But free markets? Foreign policy? Environmentalism? Race relations? These all seem to me like topics where philosophers of religion are either fairly centrist or lean to the left.Report
Okay, having gone through several reference classes and made a guess of “Democrat” or “Republican” for each member, I’m revising my estimate to 50-50. My overall credence distribution is a bell curve centered on 50-50 with 90% concentrated between 65-35 and 35-65.Report
Anonymous, I laughed out loud at your last comment. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve never known any of them to comment on Daily Nous, the fact that you figured out your credence distribution with respect to the political affiliation of philosophers of religion would have led me to think you were one of maybe three of my facebook friends. I wasn’t thinking in terms of democrats vs. republicans. I think quite a few of the folks I’m thinking of wouldn’t identify with either party but nonetheless have conservative views, especially with respect to social issues (and there tends to be fairly broad agreement between Americans of many political affiliations on economic issues, at least relative to social policy).Report
A quick comment on bullet points 1 and 4:
• Liberal students who notice bias toward their viewpoints may spend less time trying to shore up their own opinions, or conclude that they need not take conservative ideas seriously.
• Philosophers whose political beliefs are constantly affirmed are in danger of being lulled into complacency, and made less receptive to opposing viewpoints.
While it may be easy to see that certain ethical views are false, it is very difficult to see exactly which ethical view, stated precisely, is true. A scholar, and a teacher, and her students, may freely reject large classes of objectionable ethical views, while fully dedicating themselves to intense argument among sensible alternatives.Report
The discussion seemed to shift to “conservatives” as people being treated “unfairly.” But the original topic was “political bias” against supposedly conservative ideas or values.
Case writes, “The concern…is with superfluous asides, selective choices of example, and political references that cue the reader to the author’s (almost invariably left-of-center) opinions.” I still don’t know why this is a serious problem — let alone one bearing comparison to bias against women and racialized minorities, that is, bias directed against people, not simply ideas. Indeed, why not endorse a variation of a Christian dictate: hate the stupid idea, not the person who holds the stupid idea.
I don’t know what percentage of self-identifying conservatives support overturning Lawrence v. Texas, rolling back voting rights protections, permitting gender discrimination in the workplace, building a U.S.-Mexico border wall, etc. But I’m not ashamed to admit that these seem to me stupid and even pernicious ideas — and I can imagine giving expression to some such “opinion” while teaching a class where the topics might come up. While I’m sorry if students who hold such ideas might feel offended, I’d be tacitly criticizing the ideas, not the students themselves. That these students might feel offended is no more worrisome to me than their feeling offended by my dismissiveness about The Bell Curve, say, if they actually believe that blacks are, to some significant degree, a cognitively inferior race and genetically more predisposed to violence.
In fact, I’d like to believe that conservatives generally don’t hold stupid ideas. I’m not even sure what counts as a “conservative” and why. My job as a professor doesn’t commit me to remain neutral regarding the quality of ideas or opinions — even if persons of some political persuasion or other are more likely to hold certain ideas that I believe are plainly stupid. Of course, my judgment about the quality of ideas might sometimes be wrong, as I openly acknowledge to students.
Being a philosophy professor doesn’t mean we should strive for view-from-nowhere “political” neutrality for the sake of avoiding “bias” against ideas of whatever merit.Report
I’m pretty sure you’re not qualified to answer the open scientific question whether racial differences in average IQ have a significant genetic component.Report
It’s clear to me that a philosophy professor should refrain from “judgment about the quality of ideas” in lectures. You can judge the quality of ideas in your published work and elsewhere. A lecture is not the place for that, because its function is to introduce students to the ideas in question, which means the ideal philosophy lecture includes a purely “empirical” or descriptive survey of the ideas in question, where they have been criticised and where those criticisms have been responded to. It is not a forum for the professor’s own criticisms and arguments. If you make judgments about the quality of ideas in your lectures, then your lectures will become platforms for your own opinions, because the ideas you find to be quality ideas are probably mostly the one’s that reflect your opinions. You will thus have succeeded in introducing students to your own ideas, and not really those which are actually included in the syllabus. The same applies to professors who construct courses with particular emphasis on readings which contain most instances of their own ideas.Report
We exercise judgment about the quality of ideas, inevitably, all the time — for example, in putting together a syllabus that represents what we count as philosophy most worthwhile teaching, given the overall aims and limits of a course, as compared to any number of other readings we could assign on the topics.
So I’m at a loss as to what you’re imagining — unless, as a grad student, you mean that you’re deferring to professors who put together the syllabi or simply following their authority about the “ideas in question” that are worth introducing students to. Ideas don’t just enter classrooms on their own. Nor do I understand the view that a philosophy professor’s philosophically-relevant “opinions” and ideas are supposed to be virtually barred from discussion. But I can say that I’m grateful Derek Parfit and many of my other teachers didn’t share your point of view.Report
I did not mean absolutely all evaluative judgments should be barred in constructing a course, because they are unavoidable. But philosophically evaluative judgments should be avoidable. The syllabi can be compiled on a basis which is not philosophically evaluative at least at the level of the individual professor, such as on the basis of the most discussed ideas.This places the judgment of what is worthwhile to the whole philosophical community rather than the individual professor. Of course, what is most discussed does not necessarily represent the best ideas, but it is certainly more objective than leaving it up to the individual professor. This still involves some philosophically evaluative judgment on the part of the whole community. But that can be stripped away as well. Within any given topic, the professor should simply include all the main streams of philosophical opinion on the topic. If there are many of them, the readings for each can be curtailed without excluding any one of them. This, again, is empirical. By “main streams” I mean simply themes in philosophical opinion over the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy (depending on the topic). Identifying those themes should not involve any philosophical judgment ( in the sense of “this idea is bad and this idea is good”.) It simply involves identifying ideas and clusters of ideas which philosophers defend and speak about most often. It is clear to me that this will both eliminate bias and give students a more comprehensive view of the philosophy that’s out there. The professor’s philosophically relevant opinions, especially on controversial issues, should be barred, because s/he is in a position of academic power and every time s/he expresses them in a lecture, s/he risks presenting his/her opinions as incontrovertible. It will clearly make students reluctant to argue against that position in a paper for the class ( for fear that they will be marked down), which means that the professor all but forces the students to take his/her view in the class. It’s a conflict of interest.Report
Ah, I wondered when this might turn into the nice, old-fashioned prejudice that characterizes “water cooler” discussions in philosophy. A group of philosophers are mentioned by name, called conservative (presumably merely because they are Christians), accused of having views that reflect, uh, their views, and it’s “total BS” that there’s any harmful biases at play here.Report
Thanks for drawing my attention to that. One comment in question has now been lightly edited and another deleted.Report
I claimed they promoted conservative views. Maybe they don’t identify as politically conservative, I don’t know. But I thought the discussion was about conservative views being absent from philosophy, or systematically maligned. And the philosophers I mentioned are certainly not absent or maligned; in fact, they’re (and their arguments are) pretty dominant.Report
Oh, I see. Apologies. I wouldn’t call theism or Christianity conservative. Like others have mentioned, there are problems with the labels.Report
A big part of what I’ve continued to see in both the psychological lit I’ve read, and the discussions within philosophy, is that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are being used in *a lot* of different ways. The psychological lit often tries to force everything into an implausible binary that the philosophical lit doesn’t conform to at all. The philosophical lit discusses a lot of positions (e.g., Mill, various Rawlsian views, Nozick, various libertarian(ish) type views) that don’t fit into that binary particularly well. So if we’re talking philosophical lit, I don’t think the psychological lit provides any support for any conclusion whatsoever about bias.
If we’re talking about the generic political attitudes of philosophers and the ways they work mainstream politics into their work, Case’s potentially got more of a case. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that philosophical attitudes lean toward a kind of generic, bland “liberalism” of the sort associated with the “liberal” wing of the Democratic Party. Even if that doesn’t happen, conservative culture encourages young conservatives to believe it does (e.g., God’s Not Dead). And those things very well may turn some conservatives off to philosophy. Then again, as Stacey Goguen pointed out above, these things are also largely driven by social attitudes at large. And society at large is hardly anti-conservative.Report
Well, we openly mock the Flat Earth Society as well and that seems to be okay. I’m not sure I see the difference.Report
I rest my case…Report
Matt – “A big part of what I’ve continued to see in both the psychological lit I’ve read, and the discussions within philosophy, is that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are being used in *a lot* of different ways. ”
Amen to that, and almost every other term as well. I struggle to see the usefulness of such woolly political terms in philosophy where even our common philosophical terms are usually woolly enough, and would be suspicious of any philosopher who claimed to be either. We mock Flat Earthers because they are wrong on this issue, not because they have a different ideology.
This was why I earlier questioned the idea that the philosophical study of religion leads to conservatism. Given the extremities of modern conservatism such a study seems just as likely to foster (what a conservative would consider) a liberal view.
Academic philosophy takes place in a particular social/political/financial environment and I can see that ideology may become a major issue for employers, university deans and social propagandists. I just cannot see what any of it would have to do with philosophy as a study.Report