How To Treat Your Fellow Philosophers In Public


Jason Brennan (Georgetown) thinks that facts about public ignorance haven’t been sufficiently appreciated by political philosophers and political theorists. Such facts should temper our enthusiasm for democracy and make us more sympathetic to epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable). The self-described “bleeding heart libertarian” recently published a book, Against Democracy, making his case. In the run-up to the book’s publication, its thesis was promoted or considered in various news outlets (including a piece by George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy blog at The Washington Post*).

Yesterday, Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam) and his colleague Tom Van Der Meer authored an article on another WP blog, The Monkey Cage, in which they criticize Brennan’s views (as well as sortition, advanced by Rutger’s Alexander Guerrero here.)

Now the dispute over these ideas has turned into a dispute about the dispute. (Because we philosophers just sometimes cannot help ourselves.)

I didn’t put the piece by Schliesser and Van Der Meer in the Heap of Links yesterday in part because I already link to a lot of Schliesser’s writing (typically from his blog, Digressions & Impressions) and so the bar is higher for him—just like I usually refrain from linking to the nth interview of Peter Singer (sorry, Eric and Peter). But also, I didn’t much care for this line:

it would be a mistake to assume that limiting the franchise by lot or by brains would be an easy solution, if any, to the challenges of representative democracy today.

For all I know this line was thrown in by a WP editor, but still it was there and it was off-putting. This is because, for all of his bravado, Brennan does not think that he has come upon an easy solution to the problems of democracy. The line was a bit intellectually insulting and self-serving.

Brennan himself thinks that he is being criticized by Schliesser and Van Der Meer unfairly, because they are responding to versions of his ideas that have been put before the general public instead of his academic work, such as Against Democracy, which provides a more thorough treatment of his ideas and objections to them. In a post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians yesterday, he says:

I take this as a “We haven’t gotten our copy of Against Democracy yet” sort of criticism rather than an actual criticism. In all fairness,  Against Democracy might not be available in Europe just yet. But as I say in the preface, there are like 10,000 books defending democracy out there, and it’s not as though I try to refute every possible argument for democracy. I just take down some popular ones and some important ones… I’d sure be interested in hearing their response to what I say in the book once they get a chance to read it.

Today, Schliesser responded at D&I, defending his and Van Der Meer’s approach to Brennan’s ideas.

we know that writing for the even highly educated and savvy readers of the Washington Post requires different style and argumentative content than writing for referees, the seminar room hand-out, or even our own academic blogs.

Because the piece responded to two distinct reform proposals, we did not do full justice to either, as several proponents of these proposals quickly argued (on Facebook and blogs). That is, in fact, to be expected in writing for the public. In fact, we focused primarily on the common flaws of both proposals and less on their unique selling points (more on this below)—our critics ignored this fact. Rather, they claim that we did not address the philosophically most sophisticated advocate(s) of sortition nor did we get into all the fine-grained arguments offered by Jason Brennan in his many publications….

In fact, as is clear from the hyperlinking in our editorial, Tom and I responded explicitly to public philosophy in the service of changing public opinion. While we drew on scholarly research and linked to it, we were not acting as referees or as book reviewers. Rather, we noticed that some highly specific views associated with sortition and with epistemocracy were receiving favorable publicity in the (mass) media without these views receiving critical push back in the media and so we took it upon ourselves to criticize views already in the public domain (e.g., The Guardian and the Washington Post).

The charge is, rather, that we did not discuss the best versions of the views we were criticizing because these views can be found in journal articles and books (sometimes by the very same authors and sometimes by others). If we were trying to publish a journal article, this would be a cause for some concern. In addition, if we were introducing a topic for public debate in an editorial but did so by preemptively ridiculing opposing views, this would certainly be a reason to cry foul. We would be falling short of our duty to educate the public in alternatives or down-sides to our own view–in my view adhering to some such norm is the bare minimum for being a public philosopher rather than being a philosophical partisan or public hack (recall and here)… But rather than introducing the topic we were responding to particular pieces and calling attention to limitations in them…

If Jason wants public criticism (as opposed to in papers and book reviews) of the best versions of his arguments, he needs to present them to the public.

So, readers, the questions before us concern how we treat each other (and each other’s ideas) in public. It’s more than just, “were Eric and Tom too quick?” and “Is Jason being too sensitive?” Certainly the standards of discourse are different for blogs and newspaper editorials than they are for journal articles and academic books, but how? How do the limitations of the public square affect our understanding of how accurate, thorough, or fair we should be? How do the pressures towards effective rhetoric and the delivery of a digestible message alter our sense of appropriate discourse?

 

(not Jason or Eric)

(not Jason or Eric)

* That Somin likes what Brennan has to say should not be surprising, given that Somin launched the contemporary strand of thought linking public opinion research to support for libertarian ideals of small government in his 1998 “Voter Ignorance and the Democratic Ideal” in the journal Critical Review (which itself began as an apostate libertarian outpost in which some of ideas now popularized as “bleeding heart libertarianism” first emerged).

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SCM
SCM
4 years ago

My as-yet-to-be-written response to Brennan’s as-yet-to-be-read book will be entitled “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Vote”. I’m just getting dibs on that here in case anyone else has the same idea.Report

PC
PC
4 years ago

Could we just delve into the dispute about the dispute about the dispute and ask whether it’s a helpful impulse to reframe debates about a matter of some urgency to the public as an issue about academic-professional norms?

Also:

“I didn’t put he piece by Schliesser and Van Der Meer in the Heap of Links yesterday in part because I already link to a lot of Schliesser’s writing (typically from his blog, Digressions & Impressions) and so the bar is higher for him—just like I usually refrain from linking to the nth interview of Peter Singer (sorry, Eric and Peter).”

I know Digressions and Impressions has an audience that rivals The Washington Post, but come on! Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

At the very least, I don’t see how their final line is justified: “If Jason wants public criticism (as opposed to in papers and book reviews) of the best versions of his arguments, he needs to present them to the public.”
In essence, Schliesser and Van Der Meer have been accused by Brennan of the straw man fallacy. Are Schliesser and Van Der Meer claiming a special exemption from the fallacy based on the audience?
(Cards on the table: I’m rooting for Schliesser and Van Der Meer to defend democracy, but their final line of their reply to Brennan troubles me.)Report

CW
CW
Reply to  Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

This seems a fair question. But, as I haven’t read the book, or Brennan’s other stuff, I wonder: Is Brennan presenting straw versions of his own arguments for public consumption? Or is he saying instead (and publicly) that the public versions of his arguments aren’t the best versions, but are just meant to give a sense of what he’s about in his academic work? Is there some sense in which the legitimacy of attacking the public versions of the arguments depends on the way the public versions are presented, i.e., as (serious) arguments, or as mere sketches of (serious) arguments?Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Phoenix, son of Amyntor
4 years ago

“…is he saying instead (and publicly) that the public versions of his arguments aren’t the best versions, but are just meant to give a sense of what he’s about in his academic work?”

I’m not sure about Brennan, but I took this to be the essence of Schliesser’s response to Brennan’s complaint, that it was appropriate to address only the public versions of Brennan’s and Van Reybrouck’s respective arguments rather than the their best and most recent academic instances because they were writing a blog post in a public forum. This seems reasonable to me, but I haven’t had the opportunity to think it through (and so my instinct in this case may well be biased by my admiration of Schliesser).Report

dmf
dmf
4 years ago

I think it’s good that the public is getting to see how academic philosophers treat other people, a whole different world as anyone knows who is familiar with dept politics/personalities from what appears in formal papers and books, one can see in the posts and comments on blogs what if anything formal training of these sorts brings to actual matters of sorting out manners/politics/etc and the more transparency the better.
“Patricia Churchland ‏@patchurchland Jun 30
more data that Dennett is wrong about filling in http://illusionoftheyear.com/2008/05/filling-in-the-afterimage-after-the-image/ …”Report

Alexander Guerrero
4 years ago

I think this is an important discussion to have. One frustration about so-called “public philosophy” is how condensed and lonely the ideas must be made to appear.

It’s of course unsurprising that one can’t go into as much depth, but I wish it were more generally permitted to have the op-ed think piece present as more of a headline, drawing the non-academic’s attention to work that might be of interest elsewhere, and suggesting that although this is one word on the subject, it is by no means the last word. In my experience, however, these kinds of explicit nods and references and suggestions are among the first things to get cut (which editor wants to send the reader away from their website?), as well as any suggestion of uncertainty or openness to being wrong. The original WP does a commendable job of linking out to some of the relevant work (not any of my work on sortition, actually), so that people might track a bit of it down, if so inclined. But it would be nice to have a “for further reading” section that was more explicit and in-depth, rather than staying just within a think-piece echo chamber. Of course, this is also impeded by the absurd cost of access to much academic work, behind paywalls and $100 books and the like.

On the other hand, I think there are great innovations like MOOCs that aim to make these ideas free and publicly accessible (plug: my Coursera course on Revolutionary Ideas has a whole unit on Lottocracy in which I go through the idea, pros and cons, and relevant work to look at, in some detail). And I also aim to write so that my work–or at least much of my work–could be read by specialists and non-specialists alike. I try to avoid the distinction, drawn so starkly in the linked post, between work for “the seminar room” and work for “the public.” And, very much to his credit, this is certainly true of Jason Brennan. Indeed, the new book is very much written as public philosophy (save for a section here or there). It becomes less clear to me in those circumstances that one should act as if the think-pieces are the right target. Maybe it would be better to suggest people go in more depth themselves, rather than being the largely passive recipients of some expert opinion.

Finally, it is worth stressing that there is a danger of conservatism inherent in this approach to public philosophy, I think. Any big new way of seeing things will have a ton of potential problems and complications. It is impossible to get the idea in view in a way that makes it immune to the many easy and serious objections. Do we really want to impede the interest in significant changes to the system at this very early stage in trying to build such interest? I think that in such cases, we should be especially concerned to respond to (and introduce, if necessary) the best versions of ideas that are out there, not just those that have been already offered to a public audience. Just something to consider. Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
4 years ago

Anyone remember Brennan’s adjunct posts? From what I recall, those only engaged with claims made in the public debate (actually, with caricatures of a few high-profile cases), not the much more carefully thought-out and presented side of the argument.

Do as I say, not as I do?Report

Magnus Solheim
Magnus Solheim
Reply to  Grad Sockpuppet
4 years ago

That seems like a pretty straightforward tu quoque fallacy, Grad Sockpuppet. If Brennan failed to engage with the best arguments in the past and Schliesser/Van der Meer failed to engage with the best arguments in this case, then it was either a problem in both cases or a problem in neither. The latter failure (if, indeed, it is a failure) can’t be justified by the former failure (again, if it was a failure).Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Magnus Solheim
4 years ago

I was merely observing the irony, not making an argument.Report

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
4 years ago

1. In our post at the Washington Post Tom van der Meer and I discussed not Guerrero’s version of sortition (as you imply above, Justin), but Van Reybrouck’s version. I was unaware (or had somehow forgotten) that Guerrero had penned this very stimulating, long-form essay. Guerrero’s version is superior to Van Reybrouck’s version, and it is a shame we did not engage with it. [Having said that, the public media has been focusing on Van Reybrouck’s version.]
2. One of the commentator’s above suggests that Van der Meer and Schliesser are pleading exemption from a strawman fallacy. That commentator seems to imply, perhaps (yes?), that the D&I defense should also be attributed to Van der Meer; but Van Der Meer had no hand in the writing the D&I response.
3. Guerrero is right to call attention to the status quo bias of our WP piece and I am happy to see more discussion of this issue. For, I can understand why it may be seen to be problematic (although, again (a) we were not in full control over all the framing over our words and (b) *we did explicitly end our piece by insisting that these ideas need to be hashed out*). But I would argue that some of the disenfranchisement ideas are being given a very public hearing before they have been digested by the seminar room and argued over for a while by the academic community in journals, conferences, dissertations, etc. And, as Guerrero notes, these disenfranchisement ideas are not intended as, but can easily be abused as a cover for all kinds of awful projects some of them already existing (it’s not as if attempts at obviously immoral forms disenfranchisement are not happening) and some possible projects. Moreover, timing matters in another dimension. We are in a period of democratic fragility [that’s contestable, of course], where some such ideas could have quicker uptake before they have been hashed out in the seminar room and in the public. So, because the downside risks are rather huge some status quo bias can be defended. [I also happen to think the downside risks of sortition are far smaller than of partial disenfranchisement and that sortition fits much better with well developed wide ranging moral views..]

Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
4 years ago

I feel like some of what’s at issue here could be solved by sitting down and doing an in-person (okay, Skype would work if necessary I suppose), podcast style debate.

Lay the down the gist of things in the beginning, and continue to flesh things out. Go on for three hours if need be, but doing things verbally allows for depth to be attained much more quickly and makes it harder to get away with strawmanning weaker versions of arguments.

I actually wonder why that sort of thing isn’t part of what we do? What better way to attract public interest than a podcast series with philosophers engaging in debate around important issues. It’d be great for the profession.

…and maybe the public would become more informed and better able to reason as a result, and democracy is saved! (Wishful thinking here, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.)Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
Reply to  Henri Perron
4 years ago

Please excuse my egregious grammatical blunders. Twas a long night. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Henri Perron
4 years ago

Check out Philosophy TV! Not exactly public-oriented, but maybe a step in that direction.

http://www.philostv.com/Report

Magnus Solheim
Magnus Solheim
4 years ago

It seems to me that one of the advantages of having experts engage in public discourse comes precisely from the fact (or at least, one hopes it is a fact) that they are familiar with more than what already exists in the public discourse. If they aren’t going to draw on this expertise to focus on arguments that get at both the public and academic versions of the idea they are discussing, then we lose out on one of the very things that makes them worth asking for a comment.

It’s the same reason we prefer classes to be taught by experts on the subject matter (or at least someone reasonably more advanced in their knowledge than the students). Consider an introductory ethics class. The students aren’t going to read everything Aristotle, Kant, or Mill has to say on ethics. Furthermore, the instructor is going to have to simplify their explanations of each thinker for the benefit of the class. But when a particularly bright student comes up with an objection to one of these philosophers that is adequately covered in the unread material, we expect the instructor to explain why the objection doesn’t work. Even if the instructor ought to praise the student for realizing that the objection isn’t covered by what was read, we don’t expect the instructor to declare that the student has presented a successful refutation.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
4 years ago

“If Jason wants public criticism (as opposed to in papers and book reviews) of the best versions of his arguments, he needs to present them to the public.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think that the best and most intellectually honest way to investigate a topic is to seek out the strongest arguments and engage those. If doing that isn’t suitable for a “public format” then maybe doing philosophy in a “public format” isn’t desirable. Report

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen
4 years ago

Though this is not an attempt to solve the issue of whether public philosophy has to be addressed only by a person who has read the author’s academic work, here are some other (rough, quick, humble) suggestions for ethical norms related to critiques of public philosophy that could guide those of us motivated by that kind of thing.
*If critiquing another philosopher’s work for the public, be sure to link to or point out the most-thorough version of the work being assessed. (Give readers the chance to realize there is a better version they could read.)
*If it is a public version of philosophy being offered up, match citation practice for citation practice (is the public philosophers citing and quoting her sources?)
*Only match harsh tone to harsh tone. If the original author uses very combative and dismissive language about other philosophers’ views (for example calling the views “childish,” “foolish”), fine (and fair) to do the same to that particular author. (But regrettable. How about some awareness of how unproductive and unimpressive such vitriol is? How about points for not matching it?)
*Worry about punching down. If the public vetting is one where you are bringing attention to a little-known philosopher with barely publicized work (on a personal blog, etc.), that is a form of punching down.
* Worry about punching. If the issue is scholarly, no escalation to the personal in a public forum. No move to insults on twitter, no attempts to get others to join in, no self-aggrandizement or tough guy talk or biography in lieu of a response to a response.

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