The Ideas Faculty are Too Scared To Defend: A Follow-Up

Last week I wrote about the Great Academic Absorption and asked about the ideas it left unabsorbed, or squeezed out. At the time, I wrote: “Since this is a blog largely for academic philosophers, let’s limit answers to our area of expertise: philosophy (as broadly construed as you’d like). Which philosophical or philosophy-related ideas are students not being exposed to but should? Which philosophical or philosophy-related ideas do faculty fear being discovered entertaining or believing?”

Most of the answers were in response to the latter question. Here are some observations about them:

First, nearly all of them were topics in applied ethics (with some issues from the more applied end of political philosophy). Applied ethics, though, is just one set of offices in just one wing of the great big hospital of philosophy—and one that more traditional blueprints of the discipline don’t identify as “central”. Should we conclude from this that the rest of philosophy—most of philosophy—is largely a faculty-fear-free zone?

That might be premature. Instead, let’s do this: if you know of philosophical ideas outside of applied or normative ethics or political philosophy that you think faculty are fearful of being discovered taking seriously, please mention them in the comments. (Note: this is not an invitation to go back through the previous answers to argue that there are non-ethicsy elements to them; the goal here is to find different types of ideas. Answers from graduate students in philosophy and current or recent philosophy faculty in colleges or universities only, please.)

Second, several of the more popular answers on the list—critiques of feminism, critiques of homosexuality, critiques of race- and gender-based affirmative action, importance of racial differences in IQ and behavior for social programs, critiques of transgender “ideology”—concern the identity, status, and treatment of people. Some of these people are your colleagues, students, and acquaintances. I am not surprised then, that these ideas showed up on the list.

A person either will or will not have some trepidation about insulting or undermining or harming one’s colleagues, students, and acquaintances (or doing things which might readily be perceived as such). If one does, then that might register as a kind of fear. If one doesn’t, then one is likely, I believe, to approach these topics in a naive or incomplete way, which will result in poor philosophical treatments; when these are rejected or harshly criticized, one might mistake that as a criticism of having an unpopular view, rather than criticism for having a poorly defended view, and one might become fearful of being open about expressing the view.

The solution to this is argumentative rigor informed by interpersonal sensitivity. It isn’t an easy or guaranteed solution. But it can go a long way towards getting unpopular ideas taken seriously. This does not mean that all such ideas will get taken seriously: some ideas have nothing going for them besides some easily refutable opening gambits. But with the right approach, more could.

Here is one heuristic for assessing the quality of your defense of a view that is controversial because of its negative implications for certain populations: if you feel good about your conclusion, you are probably doing a bad job of defending it.

Third, some of the ideas identified as ones that philosophers fear defending are ones that several philosophers defend, including criticism of affirmative action, criticism of religion, defenses of gun ownership, criticism of democracy, defenses of libertarianism, and criticism of abortion. So an accurate version of the applied ethics/political philosophy list might be shorter than the many comments on the earlier post would suggest.

Great Absorption spongeball


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