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)