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.
“if you feel good about your conclusion, you are probably doing a bad job of defending it.”
this heuristic is *heavily* personality dependent – and I mean literally, as in Big Five. what makes one person feel good or bad about their conclusion will vary tremendously from disposition to disposition.Report
In contrast to what is suggested, criticizing (arguments for) feminism/homosexual marriage/constructivist views of gender or race/… does not imply “insulting or undermining colleagues, students or acquaintances” who are female, homosexual, transgender or non-white. It doesn’t even imply “insulting” feminists or constructivists or homosexual marriage activists (although it may “undermine” their arguments). As a result, I don’t see why unabashedly engaging in such criticism is likely to result in “naïve” or “incomplete” or “poor” treatments—or more likely to result in such treatments than less critical approaches.Report
Thanks, Raf. I added the parenthetical “(or doing things which might readily be perceived as such)” which better, though not quite perfectly, gets at what I’m aiming at. I don’t expect that to fully satisfy you but I don’t at the moment have time for more detailed engagement on this point.Report
Your parenthetical invokes a distinction without a meaningful difference in today’s academic-political environment.Report
Here is one topic that the professoriate refuses to discuss more frequently and thoroughly: the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel contrary to UN directions to Israel to leave these lands.Report
As I said in the OP, please limit suggestions to philosophical ideas outside of applied or normative ethics or political philosophy. Thanks.Report
The problem is that il n’y a pas d’hors-ethique appliqué. Defending the existence of God? Well that’s just evidence of your Christian privilege and erases the oppression of nontheistic people. Etc.
Progressive academics have politicized everything. There can be no aesthetics or metaphysics without someone, somewhere taking it as evidence of privilege and oppression. Guaranteed.Report
Onion Man, please take a breather. Thanks.Report
KEN, in 2013, one of the the APA’s “Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest” winners (“Ignoring the Most Promising Option”) was about how Israel needs to end the “occupation.” One of the winners this year talks about how Israeli’s “political, cultural, religious and military leaders” are racist against Arabs. Two-and-a-half weeks ago in the New York Times Jason Stanley (at Yale) sympathetically quoted his father’s view that “the establishment of the state of Israel was implicated in the horrors of colonialism.” How much more approval from powerful institutions and individuals in the philosophy establishment do you need before you can criticize Israel without fear?Report
It simply does not follow from the fact that “several” philosophers (with tenure) defend positions going against the Progressive academic mainstream, that others–who are without tenure, or on the job market, or both–are not afraid to defend those positions.
In fact, tenure doesn’t even really have all that much to do with it. Spend a day over at Heterodox Academy. Ideological monoculture in the Humanities is real and it forces anyone who is even just skeptical of Progressive orthodoxy (to say nothing of those who are actively opposed to it) deep, deep underground. Why do you think I use a pseudonym and a “burner” email? I’m sure if my internet presence were ever significant enough I could be doxxed by the SJWs, but in the meantime I’m just trying to protect myself and my family.Report
“I’m sure if my internet presence were ever significant enough I could be doxxed by the SJWs, but in the meantime I’m just trying to protect myself and my family.”
That’ a big ‘if’, buddy. Anyway, an academic being doxxed and harassed by other academics for holding regressive moral and political views is not a thing that has happened, ever–I think your tin foil hat might be pinned on a bit too tight there. (Also, “and my family,” seriously? We Reds weren’t the ones who left that bloody horse’s head in your bed last night, I swear.)Report
(1) Daily Nous is not an island separate from the rest of the internet. Despite being a part of the academy (for now) I actually discovered this site through my interest in issues of procedural justice, or more accurately the total miscarriage of justice, concerning men who are accused of sexual misconduct. Not everyone who reads or posts here is an academic.
(2) You are, willfully or not, misrepresenting the relationship between the academy and the SJWs. To put it bluntly, my concern is not fellow academics, but SJWs who are being “educated” in departments of Gender Studies (etc.) by people whose views on “applied ethics” dovetail with our gracious host’s. If you claim you don’t see the connection between internet “social justice” activism and academic discourse, you are either lying or blind.
(3) As incredible as this may sound, my loss of employment prospects due to holding unpopular (“regressive”) views will have an adverse impact on my family. Crazy, I know.Report
Oh yes, I forgot about all those students we’ve indoctrinated to be our attack dogs. (Which reminds me; note to self, get more kool-aid.) I’m glad to hear that our grand conspiracy to punish your family by making sure that you’ll never find a job is working though–seems that the PC thought police are finally getting some results!Report
Justin, you write that “some of the ideas identified as ones that philosophers fear defending are ones that several philosophers defend, including criticism of affirmative action.” So, you argue, this isn’t an idea that philosophers are too scared to defend.
Are you suggesting that a junior philosopher can make a name for themself refuting pro-affirmative action arguments and be competitive on the job market? Is there an example of a junior philosopher becoming successful after criticizing affirmative action?
You say that “several” philosophers have criticized affirmative action (and have defended the other controversial views you list). But posts questioning orthodoxies such as the justice of affirmative action often get dozens of up-votes on Daily Nous–and (presumably) only a small fraction of the profession votes on these comments. There is reason to think that, out of the thousands of professional philosophers, there are a lot more than “several” who think affirmative action is wrong. Yet the vast majority of published philosophy on this subject is decidedly pro-affirmative action. Is this not evidence that philosophers with the politically unpopular view are holding their tongue?Report
Affirmative action is not one thing. There are many different types of programs (quotas, points, extra consideration, looking at other qualities that correlate with the one being targeted, etc.) and many different arguments that are quite often discussed for and against each of these. It may well be that the majority of discussions of affirmative action end up coming down in favor of *one* of the many possible positions that could be called “affirmative action”, but if you’ve got four separate types of policies being discussed, and supporting any one of them counts as “supporting affirmative action”, then you should expect 15 out of 16 people writing in the area to end up “supporting affirmative action”, if there’s only one possible collection of views (out of the 16 possible combinations) that could count as not supporting it.Report
Re. your estimate as to how many philosophers we would expect to support affirmative action: The Wikipedia entry “Existence of God” discusses 6 arguments for God’s existence. Does that mean that we should expect (1 – 1/2^6 =) 63/64 philosophers to believe in God?
“There are many different types of programs (quotas, points, extra consideration, looking at other qualities that correlate with the one being targeted, etc.)” – These “different types of programs” are just different means to the same end. The end is favoring blacks and Hispanics over whites and Asians (or in some fields women over men) because, if judged only by their accomplishments, the former would be under-represented at competitive universities and jobs. My point was that more than “several” philosophers think that it is wrong to favor one person over another just because of race (or gender), but only “several” have been cited as publicly defending this position. This is evidence that philosophers who oppose affirmative action are hiding their views out of fear.Report
“My point was that more than “several” philosophers think that it is wrong to favor one person over another just because of race (or gender)”
I think the majority of people probably believe that it is wrong to favor one person over another just because of gender or race. Describing the end of affirmative action as ‘favoring’ misdescribes one of the most plausible justifications of the practice, which is that it is about correcting for practices that *already do* favor people of one race or gender over another. (So the AA advocate can agree with you that favoring people of one race/gender etc is bad – that’s exactly what they are trying to prevent). There are of course some important empirical questions here: is it really the case that people of Race X or Gender Y are (unfairly) favored over other races or genders, and if so, are any of the suggested programs an effective way to compensate for that?Report
This is only a somewhat-related phenomenon, but I happen to think there are very important insights in both Kripke’s work and Wittgenstein’s work on language. That said, I’ve noticed that, when I present to a room of Kripkeans, they don’t take me very seriously when I try to bring Wittgenstein into the mix and, when I present to a room of Wittgensteinians, they don’t take me very seriously when I try to bring Kripke into the mix. One consistent exception to this has been the folks at the Society for the Study of the History of Analytical Philosophy.Report
“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.”
I am not so sure that an accurate version of the applied ethics/political philosophy list might be shorter than what the many comments suggest. Just because these views have been defended by some philosophers does not mean that these are not views that philosophers in general may fear defending. I for one can say that I have completely avoided the area of applied ethics as a grad student because I fear defending views that would damage my chances in the job market. It may be true that there are many philosophers brave enough to defend such unpopular views, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a significant number of philosophers who silently bypass talking about these issues. To really know whether philosophers fear defending these views, we cannot simply look at how many philosophers in fact defend those views; rather, we should look at how many philosophers who do not openly defend these views would have openly defended these views were the climate less hostile. And as the “many” comments in this discussion have suggested, i think there are many of us who would have defended these unpopular views were the climate less hostile.Report
Wait, are you now suggesting that commenters amass a list of verboten topics, in which you’ve already circumscribed a selection of topics as verboten to put on that list?
Perhaps I misunderstood.Report
Teleology and essentialism in metaphysics, are I’d venture fairly uncommon among academic philosophers outside of some sub-specialties (Aristotelians, medievalists, virtue ethicists, etc) at least in my experience but I don’t think they bring the ire that several of the applied ethics positions (abortion, opposition to homosexual marriage, etc) in the previous post would provoke, except to the extent they are implicitly/explicitly linked such positions. Theism (which though obviously having implications for ethics, isn’t an ethical position per se) is similar, the majority
of academic philosophers and grad students I’ve met are atheist or agnostic, but the only time theism became a heated issue, rather than an intellectual/academic (heh) discussion is when talk turned to the applied ethics implications of such a position.
Given this I’m not really sure we are going to find really outline positions totally divorced from applied ethics that are censored (albeit implicitly) in the same wayReport
Essentialism has been widely discussed in mainstream metaphysics, at least since the 1970s when Kripke and Putnam made arguments connecting essentialism to theories of direct reference. (Of course, things were different in the mid-20th century, when Quine’s views on the subject were dominant.) Right now there is a growing cottage industry of papers (published in mainstream analytic journals) reacting to Kit Fine’s work on essentialism (specifically, his paper “Essence and Modality”).
As for teleology and theism, I am less sure of their status. I will say, however, that there seem to more theists (specifically, Christians) in philosophy than in other academic disciples (such as physics, and even English). But this is just my impression.Report
Here is a verboten thesis outside value theory, though one I think is worth exploring. Godel’s version of Peano Arithmetic (PA with Godel numbering) is inconsistent.
To question Godel is to question one of our high saints, and an unestablished member of the profession would probably be marginalized (to a large extent) for doing so. (Who are YOU to question Godel’s achievement??) Even so, everyone grants that Godel’s proof establishes incompleteness only on the assumption that the system is consistent. (Yet per the second incompleteness theorem, you can’t prove consistency within the system. And long story short, to prove consistency in a different system assumes the consistency of the second system.)Report
Good example! Jack Silver at Berkeley tried at many points to argue that ZFC was inconsistent, and Ed Nelson at Princeton even tried to argue that PA was inconsistent, and while both of them were recognized for a lot of other valuable work, most people generally thought these ideas were sort of crankish (though in many ways essentially connected to the very valuable work they did do!)Report
Justin writes, ” 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…” If critiquing feminism is insulting, undermining or harming women (or might readily be perceived as such), do feminist arguments likewise insult, undermine, or harm men (or might readily be perceived as such)? If not, there seems to be a double standard here. If they so, then if someone producing a feminist argument isn’t afraid of harming people, does that mean that their argument will be a poor philosophical treatment? If not, then there seems to be a double standard, again.Report
I should have included, Justin also writes, “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.” Does this likewise apply to feminist or other arguments that might critique the behavior or males, or whites, or heterosexuals, or what have you?Report
The heuristic would probably have to be refined to involve some moral claims and a normative baseline (e.g., one generally shouldn’t feel bad confiscating stolen goods from a thief, despite the fact that doing so is bad for the thief), but for the purposes of a heuristic proposed in a blog post I’m ok with it being a bit rough around the edges, so sure. Maybe sub in “don’t feel in one way bad” for “feel good.”Report
But isn’t that just assuming that the feminist critique isn’t harming anyone innocent but that the critique of feminism is? Surely a feminist argument can in principle be a bad one and a critique of feminism can in principle a good one. It seems like a double standard that it is bad for people to afraid to present one but good for them to be afraid to present the other.Report
“If critiquing feminism is insulting, undermining or harming women (or might readily be perceived as such)…”
It may be, sometimes. Depends on what’s said and how it’s done.
“…do feminist arguments likewise insult, undermine, or harm men (or might readily be perceived as such)?”
They may, sometimes, though I doubt it is with the symmetry your comment seems to suggest (for various reasons, including that not everything is zero-sum, that there is a difference in the background standing of the parties that may be relevant, and so on…).
But to humor you, consider an argument for affirmative action on behalf of J over K. I’d think that the better argument is likely to be produced by someone who is sensitive to how K might see this as an attack, or how K might be made worse off by the policy being argued for, and so on, regardless of who J and K happen to be.Report
OK, I like that you want sensitivity for K too. Sensitivity and concern for feelings is a good thing. But I put it to you that we don’t want someone to be afraid to put forward an argument for affirmative action. We can speak, in a loose way, of being afraid to hurt other people’s feelings, but if someone were just to straight up say “I’m scared to defend the idea that affirmative action is a good thing”, that sounds like a very serious problem, not a case of appropriate sensitivity. Likewise, I’m not interpreting people’s claims in the earlier threat that they are afraid to speak up as indicating just that they don’t want to hurt feelings.Report
I have a hard time thinking of much of anything these days that meets your explicit qualifications. There are plenty of areas of philosophy that are low-status, and so faculty are worried about working on issues that fall under them. Recall that interview with Jonathan Ichikawa that you linked to recently, where he explicitly says that now that he has tenure, he wants to turn some of his attention to issues arising from photography. It’s probably too much to characterize that as “fear”, but the reticence and the worries behind it are real, and the result is probably not so great for the philosophy of art in general.
The best case I can think of that meets your criteria is one that’s no longer really an issue: paraconsistent logic before Graham Priest made it respectable.Report
I totally agree with your proposed solution to the problem–rigor combined with interpersonal sensitivity. But I think it can only be part of the solution, and this part has to be done across the board. As Charlie pointed out in the earlier thread, topics like white fragility and the like are also very hard to talk about in class without people getting offended and running to the Dean. So, first, sensitivity needs to be cultivated and displayed on all sides in order to minimize this sort of reaction. But, as I suspect most of us can see in the context of white fragility (not to mention serious criticism of U.S. foreign policy, the Israeli occupation, etc.), sensitivity isn’t enough. I think we also need to cultivate a culture that is far more reluctant to describe views as “offensive”, especially where that is meant to suggest that the view should not be aired or defended. This just cannot be a permissible move (in general) if we want to be able to talk about the history and present realities of white racism, white fragility, and the like; if we want to talk seriously about the nature and ends of U.S. and Israeli (and many other nations’) foreign policies; if we want to be able to criticize (or even explain) the motives of many of those defending the status quo with regard to mass incarceration, black ghettos, radical income and wealth inequality, and almost any of the serious ills that plague our society. We have to be able to argue that, for example, many men (and women) are interested in controlling (other) women’s decisions about reproduction, often in line with religious dogma.
As you rightly suggest, these arguments should be properly sensitive to the groups which are being criticized (or whose motives are being explained). But even (and perhaps especially) where this job is well-done, we can expect (unwittingly) strategic anger and outrage. We’ve seen the right adopt this strategy, having learned how effectively it has been employed by the left. We (philosophers, not only on the left) cannot do this. We have to set an example, and I fear we (many of us) have largely been failing to do this, by invoking double standards and replacing argumentation with (unwittingly) strategic anger and outrage.
When I am arguing with someone who thinks white racism is a non-issue today (in the rare cases that such a person is willing to listen to me for long), one of the first things I do is try to show that this would essentially be a miracle. We know for sure that white racism was a huge issue in the recent past, and we have every reason to think that very many white people would be strongly motivated to think that they are superior. The reason that white people would be motivated to think they are superior is that they are people. The reason they would be prone to think their superiority is racially based is that there is a very deep history of this sort of thing here, and there are lots of superficial sources of evidence for it.
Now, I also think that it would be a miracle if many women and minorities and other sorts of white men were not motivated to gain a sense of power and superiority (or at least to ward off threats from others seeking to gain this sense), and to signal their moral rectitude in an environment prone to moralistic aggression and ostracization. Taking into account what ‘we’ know in moral psychology, it would be a miracle if many of the people who support fashionable ideas in the academic left were not at least in large part motivated by attempts to signal (to themselves and others) their own moral righteousness and superiority (this will be more prevalent the more moralistically punitive the community is, and the more that character-based reputations are vital for material and social rewards, and the more that the culture prizes moral virtue over other sorts). Since these signaling processes don’t work as well (especially with regard to self-signaling) if one is aware of what one is doing, then we can expect many people to be quite unaware of what they are doing–and to respond with anger and outrage to the idea that they are doing these sorts of things.
In sum, to the extent that we philosophers are after (especially uncomfortable but ultimately valuable) truths about ourselves, the more that we need to encourage both sensitivity to those (whose arguments) we are criticizing, but also a much greater willingness to put aside objections from offensiveness and be willing to accept the possibility that we are as mistaken and self-deceived as we believe our opponents are. In my view, these elements are both necessary for real progress. We can hear each other better if we are coming from a place of sensitivity and authenticity, and we can come from a place of sensitivity and authenticity better if we can expect others to hear us.
Sorry that was so long.Report
I agree with all of this, Eric.
We may disagree (I don’t know) on the conditions under which the merely offensive traverses into the harmful, but yes, philosophers should be able to tolerate and handle mere offensiveness.
I’d add—as I’ve said in other posts and comments here at Daily Nous—that those with unpopular (in philosophy) points of view need to be a bit more courageous in voicing and defending them. The more people who do this, the less “risky” it is for each to do so.
Yes, it’s a kind of collective action problem, so we should note the positive examples that some philosophers set in doing this, with the hope that others follow suit.
In that spirit, let me draw attention to Dan Demetriou (U Minnesota, Morris), who I admire for his courage and integrity in defending views outside the academic mainstream. I recently saw him give a talk defending the right to own a gun and I’d bet that most of those in the audience would agree it was a great presentation: thoughtful, provocative, non-dogmatic, and creative.
Perhaps better known in the philosophy blogosphere is Jason Brennan (Georgetown), a prolific libertarian philosopher who, as far as I can tell, has never shied away from a view because it would piss people off (if anything, he sometimes comes off as delighting too much, for my tastes, in pissing people off, but to each his own).
Even some grad students—e.g., Spencer Case (Colorado) and Philippe LeMoine (Cornell)—have had the courage to defend rather unpopular ideas or lines of questioning in various public fora, and deserve credit for that.
Those who have followed Daily Nous will likely know that I am skeptical of “oppressive PC thought police” narrative that is so popular nowadays (which perhaps—hopefully?—reached its apex with that silly letter from that dean at Chicago). I’m of the view that you could defend almost any view, and teach almost any topic, provided you do so carefully, knowledgeably, and skillfully. Yes, these conditions will rule out the defense of certain views, because no one meeting the conditions would be able to defend them, but that’s okay—there is still plenty left on the table to fight over. Just do it (well).
In short: iconoclasts of philosophy, give us your arguments; you have nothing to lose but an excessive fear of doing so.Report
Isn’t Brennan’s primary home in the business school?Report
It is, but to be clear, that’s by my choice, as I am greedy and wanted more money than philosophy departments offered me.Report
Justin — “I’d add—as I’ve said in other posts and comments here at Daily Nous—that those with unpopular (in philosophy) points of view need to be a bit more courageous in voicing and defending them. The more people who do this, the less “risky” it is for each to do so. ”
My thoughts exactly. The trouble is that on a forum one can come across as a troll.
If I had to pick just one issue that meets your specs. I’d choose the philosophical failure of the Academy and the reasons for it. I see almost no discussion of this. I do not even see this failure being acknowledged. Thus there is no motivation for change and endless discussion of issues that currently professional philosophy cannot resolve and that might as well be a matter of opinion. They will remain a matter of opinion until the basics are dealt with.
More precisely – the topic that seems to be permanently off-limits is the well-known undecidability of metaphysical questions and what it tells us about the world. This is the source of the stagnation of Plato’s notional tradition but the threat to the status quo seems too great for it to become an openly discussed issue. if it is not clear that this metaphysical result threatens the status quo then this would be the price of not discussing it. .
Although outspoken I’m usually wary of bluntly drawing attention to this failure, sensitivity and all that,. but you did ask.
It is an odd situation when one tradition of thought claims that metaphysics can be solved and the other claims it is intractable, and surely the basis for an interesting discussion. But the issue is kept well under wraps. For me this issue would encompass all the others. At any rate, I’d like to see it on the list.Report
The following “observation” struck me:
“[W]hen these [poor philosophical treatments] 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.”
Remember that the kind of person most at issue here is someone who holds a certain unpopular view and thinks that academic philosophy is unfairly hostile to those who hold that view. Obviously such a person isn’t going to think that the unpopular view in question has no good evidence behind it. Nor is he likely to think that existing defenses of it (quite possibly including his own) simply suffer from a lack of argumentative rigor or interpersonal sensitivity. After all, the very problem he alleges to be present is that even if one *does* defend the view rigorously and with appropriate interpersonal sensitivity, one will *still* be liable to face ostracism, ridicule, and vilification; that, I take it, is largely the thought behind the idea that such responses are unfair. Now, whether this person’s charge is plausible is one question. But the present point is simply that that is what he does think, and what you’ve said doesn’t seem to address it (which one might have thought from its being framed as an “observation”) so much as condescendingly deny it. I imagine such a person having more or less the following reaction to what you’ve said (though perhaps he would phrase it more politely):
“Oh, of course! *That’s* what the problem has been this whole time: poor philosophical treatments! Thank you, Justin–why didn’t I think of that? For someone who, by all indications, has never had the experience of holding the unpopular view in question, you sure do have a keen insight on these matters. Silly me–I actually thought that the view had merit and that the existing defenses of it were quite good, and that people were just reacting to it unfairly harshly, but now I see the truth. If I had just followed your ‘solution’ of ‘argumentative rigor informed by interpersonal sensitivity,’ I would never have encountered such hostile backlash. People would never have thought of me and spoken to me as if I were a horrible person the moment I voiced sympathy for the view. It was all just my own philosophical blunders and insensitivity that were to blame! From now on I’ll make sure to be more rigorous and sensitive. And if people *still* react to me with contempt and ridicule? Well, as you’ve so wisely implied, Justin, that just shows that the view has nothing going for it ‘besides some easily refutable opening gambits.’ I guess that settles it!”
At the risk of belaboring the point, let’s imagine an example from another context. Suppose that some feminists claimed to be unfairly ridiculed and vilified in academic philosophy for holding feminist views (e.g., people immediately assuming that they’re anti-male bigots and subsequently wanting nothing to do with them). Imagine, further, that I had just written a blog post soliciting such people’s thoughts and experiences to try to get a better sense of just what the problem, if any, might be. Now imagine that I followed up the initial blog post and comment thread with this:
“Feminism concerns the identity, status, and treatment of people. Some of these people are your colleagues, students, and acquaintances. I am not surprised then, that feminist views are among those that some people claim to be verboten.
“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.”
I think it’s fair to say that this would not do anything to engage with the concerns of those whose experiences I had solicited. The present situation seems to me analogous.
Still, I appreciate that you’re continuing the discussion in some form.Report
This is easy: intelligent design.Report
Does pseudoscience qualify as pseudophilosophy?Report
Thanks Justin. I think it’s worth noting that Dan and Jason are tenured (if Jason isn’t yet, it’s a formality). And congrats to Spencer and Philippe. But with respect, it doesn’t seem realistic to say that people have nothing to lose by defending views likely to inspire anger or outrage or dismissal than their own excessive fears. I can tell you for sure that the people who know me would not characterize me as overly fearful of what other people think about what I say, or generally reluctant to voice my opinions. But I have felt extremely reluctant to voice my opinions, or even inquire into what my opinions ought to be, about a number of issues in the contemporary climate. Things are better now that I have a job, but I’m still reluctant to engage publicly. But for those without one, this is a brutal labor market. From everything I’ve heard (and know about people), it only takes one person on a committee to be pissed off by a person’s work to undermine that person’s job prospects. And though some people would laud such work, it is worse to have one person on a committee strongly opposed to you than it is good to have one person strongly in favor (which is made less likely the more unpopular the view). So while I think you are right in a way to encourage people to speak out, I don’t think that there isn’t a potentially great cost to doing so.
I honestly don’t mean this to be confrontational or aggressive, but I think it’s worth taking what Gray is saying seriously. I had essentially the same reaction. Anyone working in issues of race or gender or disability (or who pays attention in life) knows very well how reluctant people can be to take other people’s experiences and views seriously, especially when those experiences and views imply a criticism of one’s worldview, so to speak. This is just human. So, I wonder if you are taking the fears being expressed here seriously (as by reasonable people who have experienced and witnessed dismissal, hostility, ostracization, etc–as I have btw), and whether you are taking seriously that a big part of the problem in academia might be this very dismissal, hostility, and refusal to engage respectfully with people who hold “offensive” views. Moreover, even if you are right that such views will be tolerated and engaged with when presented with great rigor and care and sensitivity, this leaves aside that orthodox (or “permitted”) views needn’t be presented with anything like the same care or rigor in order to be taken seriously. For example, I have personally witnessed talks with ‘feminism’ in the title that were, by any remotely reasonable standard, terrible. But nobody says so, except perhaps in private afterward. People (very much including me, and I assure you I am no wallflower) are visibly, manifestly unwilling to critique the talk in anything remotely like the way they would demolish an equally bad talk on a ‘neutral’ topic, not to mention one advocating an “offensive” view!
Again, an analogous Chomskian point: in corporate mass media, orthodox (roughly, pro-business) views will get a hearing and be treated seriously, even when the arguments are godawful. Heterodox views can sometimes be presented and treated seriously, especially in times of crisis, but here the standard is far, far higher. Heterodox views will, in other words, be ruthlessly (and often unfairly) critiqued, while orthodox views will be subject to a far, far more lenient standard. This is of course a recipe for epistemic disaster. I think that liberal academia, while being certainly better than corporate media in this regard, is closer to this model than those with orthodox views are likely to see or acknowledge, while those with unorthodox views will be better-positioned to see it (just as, more generally, those oppressed or suppressed are almost always in a better position to see this than the oppressors/suppressors, especially when the oppressors/suppressors view themselves as passionately anti-oppression/suppression).
And of course it is and has always been the case that those with orthodox views (especially in socio-religio-moral domains) will be motivated to think that those with heterodox views don’t have good arguments for their views (though the more important phenomenon is the orthodox community signaling to others that they had better not bother with developing such arguments, and so they don’t. This is almost all unwitting, btw). But by and large, these arguments are directly and indirectly suppressed, and even when unsuppressed, tend to be ignored, and when that can’t be done, are treated unfairly (cf. Chomsky’s treatment by the mass media). This should all be platitudinous, but when we’re the ones with the orthodox views, it won’t seem that we’re doing this. But, absent ruthless and sustained efforts to the contrary, we will be.
Again, a warm thank you for hosting and engaging in this discussion.Report
Substance Dualism seems to be severely frowned upon in a lot of circles – which isn’t to say it doesn’t have it’s advocates, it’s just to say that in a lot of departments it does not seem wise to defend it as a student.Report
I don’t think I have ever met a philosopher who seriously entertained global skepticism, rather than treating it as a foil to be refuted or rhetorical device by which to understand how it is that beliefs are justified. I’m not sure that serious entertaining global skepticism is compatible with teaching or any interpersonal engagement whatsoever, but I figured I’d throw this out there.Report
“Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” –Charles Sanders PeirceReport
I just want to throw my hat in the ring here as someone who things that while your ‘solution’ is certainly a good prescription, and may help to a good extent, it will not always suffice, and not just because the hot-button ideas in question may not have anything going for them. I think there really is a problem in academia of people “going tribal” and suspending critical thought when it comes to some questions relating to ethics and politics, and I worry that your post here is basically denying this.
I don’t think there’s any question of completely eliminating the problem – it’s too deeply ingrained in human nature, and bound up with stuff we don’t want to get rid of, for that – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant about combatting it in the name of knowledge.Report
The kind of views that are likely to get one into trouble are mostly in politics, political philosophy and ethics. In philosophy of science, questioning evolution is likely to have some negative consequences. Whenever I say anything critiquing evolutionary theory I hedge a lot, as I know the risks.
However, more generally there is a phenomenon where popular views have lower standards of argumentation than unpopular views. Look at Mackie’s almost totally question begging argument from queerness, for example. It assumes a kind of materialist view of the universe that his opponents are likely not to hold. However, as materialism is the orthodox position, this is allowed. However, imagine someone trying to do the opposite? Imagine an argument that assumed a non-materialist view of the world?
I think this is a prime example of a double standard in philosophy more generally. Mackie can assume a world view in his argument against moral realism that many of his opponents would reject, but his opponents cannot assume their worldview when arguing against the error theory. In other words, the queerness of moral properties is largely due to a materialist world view that many moral realists are going to reject (I do), but even though Mackie’s argument is question begging in this way, it’s a popular argument. In reality, it’s a very poor argument that if the situation were reversed wouldn’t get the time of day.Report
You say that the status of “materialism” as the “orthodox position” among professional philosophers creates a tendency to defend or weakly criticize the argument from queerness, while treating criticisms with an iron fist or not at all. I myself haven’t encountered this, but am sure it occurs to varying extents (albeit a smaller extent, I suspect, than you seem to allege). However, contra your implication, I would invite you to consider that the physicalist family of views predominant among philosophers (myself included) may well not reside in their minds as an axiom or careless assumption, but rather as the inference to the best but always tentative explanation based on the preponderance of evidence. If this leads specific philosophers to examining views with self-serving variation in standards, it should be pointed out and criticized when and where it appears, but that doesn’t mean that a discussion of views that ends unfavorably for one’s own position is a sign of bias or slavish deference to an “orthodox position.”
While Mackie’s own deductive formulation via modus tollens is too strong for my liking, supporters of the argument from queerness need not hold a materialistic view with anything approaching dogmatic presumption, let alone a deductive premise. To make its core challenge, the argument need only be given in the following abductive way: all proposed explanations about the operations of the world are inescapably offered within an enormous, complex, and entangled context–namely, an existing web of prior observations, findings, and theories about the cosmos. Entities, qualities, and/or relations that conflict with our best evidence (and this can include intra-scientific debate) either directly impinge on the natural world, or they do not. If they do (e.g., the god of classical theism exists), then even without the vexing question of determining causes, we should find some empirical evidence to detect or infer noteworthy effects (e.g., a higher rate of healing or lower rate of harm among believers in the god). If they don’t impinge (e.g., the god of deism exists) or the impingement is claimed to occur through means completely indistinguishable from natural processes (e.g., some forms of theistic evolution), it’s not at all clear how speculative reason alone could ever reach even a probabilistic justification.
Enter moral properties. As a proposed state of affairs, supervening moral properties likewise stand at the admissions gate guarded by our existing best evidence about the world, and that backdrop is equally inescapable. Under pain of an argument from ignorance, an inability to explain how moral properties can supervene on natural properties doesn’t allow anyone to *rule out* the possibility that they do. We may, after all, be forced to revise our view of the world under some conditions. However, the major consequence of that possibility–” entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe” (Mackie’s words)–forces upon us a recognition of the *contrast* between our existing body of evidence and the proposed status of moral properties. (This is the queerness.) As before, the great fallibility of speculative reason alone militates against accepting a conclusion about moral properties that, to date, can’t be joined to our best scientific picture of the world by any explanatory mechanisms of any kind. In other words, even warmly allowing for a possible future in which we may have to accept supervening moral properties, the current disjunction between them and everything else we know makes them precarious, and the consequences of doing so unlicensed by more than speculative argumentation.Report
This is an excellent response, Epikoureios. Thank you. More generally, not all unevenly-imposed dialectical requirements are the result of bias or thoughtlessness.Report
I’m having a very hard time tracking a clear argument in that purple prose. The best I can do is that you’re saying something to the effect that the materialist picture is justified and not just a bald assumption. That may be. However, Mackie’s opponents, or at least many of them, do not think that materialism is the correct picture of the world. So, the argument is question begging, at least when it comes to non-materialist, moral realists. Looking at materialists, we have those who are moral realists and those who are not. The former group is probably already going to have a response to the argument (as it’s so obvious), and the latter group already endorses the argument (as it’s so obvious). So, really all the argument does is speak to the choir. And that’s ultimately my point. The standards for arguments that speak to the choir are very low, whereas the standards for arguments that tell the choir they’re wrong are very high.
What I’m saying shouldn’t be controversial. It’s just common sense. It’s an obvious truth about human nature and human systems. Controversial things are held to much higher standards than non-controversial things. Does anyone really want to argue that this is not true?Report
This is a good paper on the argument from queerness. It does a much better job of engaging with it than I can in this thread. He makes the point that under many interpretations it is question begging, which I have always thought. He can find no variant of the argument that is the least bit convincing.
You’ve misconstrued the bulk of my response, Postdoc. (Incidentally, I also didn’t find my prose to be purple—mauve at the very worst.) I’ll try to address your points individually. Apologies for length.
“The best I can do is that you’re saying something to the effect that the materialist picture is justified and not just a bald assumption.”
In the absence of evidence for entities possessing no physical substratum whatsoever, I do think that’s the case, but let me try to clarify more precisely:
(1) A little housekeeping: a justified position and a bald assumption are not the only possibilities.
(2) Simply declaring that most philosophers hold materialism as a bald assumption is itself a bald assumption, if not a naive conclusion at odds with reams of sophisticated and considered books, papers, and talks on the subject. That various physicalisms are *common* among philosophers is not in doubt, but your inference from the mere fact of this commonality to an alleged bias or tacit presumption behind it borders on a caricature.
(3) Again, one need not say exhaustively that the only existing entities possess a physical substratum. Rather, one can do exactly what I did by framing a physicalist view in abductive terms. “We have no current evidence for entities with no physical substratum whatsoever,” I might say, “and may never have a reliable way to discover them even if such entities do exist. Speculative reason alone is far too fallible, and logic alone can only provide a helpful pathway to drawing conclusions from evidence that must be provided from outside of it. Still, I’m genuinely happy to remain open. When and if evidence of some kind accumulates for their existence, including their absence of a physical substratum, I will welcome them into the fold, but not before.”
“[People] educated in [the critical habit of thought]…are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other.” –William Graham Sumner
(To be sure, I think Sumner is engaging in a level of idealization that our post-Wittgensteinian sensibilities might or might not allow, but he drives home my point: holding a thesis doesn’t preclude being open to a possible outcome that conflicts with it, let alone preclude holding it for substantive reasons.)
“That may be. However, Mackie’s opponents, or at least many of them, do not think that materialism is the correct picture of the world.”
Certainly, but to put my own foot forward, they will be hard-pressed to say that science isn’t the single most rigorous and reliable way to gain information about the operations of the world. I’d venture to say that the number of speculative inferences put into their graves by still-living empirical findings is quite vast. One can recognize and appreciate this fact without becoming a cultist of scientism. As I previously explained, the abductive queerness of supervening moral properties (pardon the jargon) comes by way of a conflict: our best scientific picture of the world (with its *methodological* naturalism) on one hand, and the existence of properties “utterly different from anything else in the universe” on the other. Over human history, it’s true that many strange relations and phenomena began as bizarre anomalies that were later jettisoned or incorporated, and we can’t rule out that supervening moral properties may eventually fall into either of these groups. However, it’s important to note that the litany of strange creatures incorporated into our picture of the world over the past few centuries were only allowed through the gates once we had, or thought we had, sufficient evidence of their existence and connection to prior knowledge (sometimes including radical revision thereof). It’s a messy, complicated, painful, and imperfect process, but for all that, it remains the best family of practices we have, and one that often leads to strikingly precise vindications and explanations.
Boiled down, one may or may not accept some form of physicalism, but doing so isn’t required in order to see the difficulty of squaring supervenient moral properties with our knowledge of the world in every other domain of study, and the even greater difficulty of going on blithely as if they exist when speculative argumentation provides the sole source of reasons. (Ditto for substance dualism in philosophy of mind and Platonism in philosophy of mathematics.)
“So, the argument is question begging, at least when it comes to non-materialist, moral realists.”
Not at all, for the reasons I just gave. A non-materialist can still perceive the conflict between our best scientific picture of the world and the proposition that moral properties exist as supervening, completely non-material entities accessed somehow by human brains. Substance dualists routinely confess this titanic challenge, and with good reason: they generally have no idea how material and non-material entities could interact even in principle. The non-materialist may be able to affirm that she believes in supervening moral properties, but with no way to explain our alleged access to them or justify the metaphysical extravagances that tend to result,
“Looking at materialists, we have those who are moral realists and those who are not. The former group is probably already going to have a response to the argument (as it’s so obvious), and the latter group already endorses the argument (as it’s so obvious).”
If deferring to fixed codes of belief were all philosophers did, so much the worse for them. As it happens, I don’t think it is what most philosophers do, even if rigidity and dogmatism are by no means unheard of. If reading or listening to a philosopher is to be called anything like critical inquiry, held beliefs cannot be unalterable pieces of furniture in individuals’ minds.
“So, really all the argument does is speak to the choir.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Every argument for a position one doesn’t already hold will contain some content with which she disagrees, and many arguments for a position she *does* hold will contain such content. If a philosopher’s only approach to reading or hearing an argument is to filter it through her current beliefs without seriously entertaining the possibility that the author or speaker might be right, she isn’t engaged in inquiry at all: she’s merely rehearsing her own conclusions and prejudices.
“And that’s ultimately my point. The standards for arguments that speak to the choir are very low, whereas the standards for arguments that tell the choir they’re wrong are very high.”
So far, you’ve done little more than assert this point on the basis of an alleged materialist orthodoxy, itself an assertion for which you’ve provided no real evidence. As I did before, I’ll again say that some philosophers certainly do this, but I’m loath to agree with either the epidemic status you claim or the severity of its symptoms until I see some clearer indications.
“What I’m saying shouldn’t be controversial. It’s just common sense. It’s an obvious truth about human nature and human systems.”
Sorry, I have to call it what it is:
“Controversial things are held to much higher standards than non-controversial things. Does anyone really want to argue that this is not true?”
I’m happy to admit this, and if we care about the topics at issue, a higher standard for controversial topics seems to be warranted. In any case, your point here is very different from the main point of your original post, and most of the points made in your replies to me. Moreover, it’s not clear why you’ve now drawn an axis between controversial and non-controversial topics, rather than between critical of alleged orthodoxy and uncritical of it (as you do just above). I can only assume you meant that the critique of orthodoxy is what makes a topic controversial, but your terms are unusual.Report
Maybe someone else can chip in if they want. I really don’t have time to get into a debate at length about the argument from queerness. There are papers out there, one of which I linked to, that engage with it better than I can.
I’m happy you are willing to admit the obvious: Controversial things are held to much higher standards than non-controversial things.
As for whether it is good or bad that controversial topics require higher standards than non-controversial topics, I think that upon reflection we can see that the answer is ‘no.’ Either our standards are good enough for determining philosophical truths or they are not. If they are not, then we do not have good reason to believe orthodox positions. If they are, then they are good enough for our opponents as well.Report
Please look again more carefully. I made it a point to distinguish controversial status from alleged orthodoxy (and more specifically from the desire to preserve it with double standards) for exactly this reason, because while the two may overlap, they are not synonymous. Since you didn’t clarify your apparent conflation between these two things, it’s hard for me to know what you mean. As you used the word “controversial” in your last post, you seemed to be saying that the lynchpin of controversial status is the criticism of some “orthodox position” (e.g., materialism) among the community of philosophers. This would be akin to saying that a topic is controversial if it criticizes and/or challenges the “orthodoxy” of nontheism among most philosophers. This is problematic on its own, because it’s not clear that the level of agreement among philosophers on topic X is proportional to their willingness to recognize an opposing argument’s importance and the force of its challenge. That is, even if the position qua position of full-blooded substance dualism isn’t prevalent among philosophers, this alone tells us nothing about how seriously philosophers are willing to consider arguments for this position, or to appreciate real difficulties and nagging questions about their own view. You, however, go even further by claiming not only that there is an epidemic of double standards favoring materialism, but also that (a) the “orthodox position” of materialism gets almost a free pass with little internal criticism among its adherents; *and* (b) that this itself is merely a symptom of holding materialism as a bald assumption rather than a considered position. Even by the most charitable metrics I can conceive of, both of these claims give the acute impression of a totalizing caricature, and without any supporting evidence from you to support them, I don’t know how they could do otherwise.
On my view, burdens of proof are met (or not) in historical time, and consequently, some currently held views will be better supported than others. A flat Earth and an oblate spheroid Earth aren’t symmetrically supported, and it wouldn’t be unfair to work on the conclusion that our planet is an oblate spheroid, even if the flat-Earther feels ostracized and the imagined global skeptic in the peanut gallery won’t let us state that as a metaphysical absolute. (I for one will happily bite the Peircean bullet here.) The standard of assessing the ethics of abortion and the argument from queerness will be higher at the present time than the standard of assessing whether we are evolved primates, because the latter position is overwhelmingly supported in the affirmative by scientific evidence.
In other words, at one time in history the standards for evolution and the argument from queerness might have been more comparable (though assessed with only partly overlapping tools), but since then, the former has gained extremely robust credibility, while it’s hard to imagine how the latter could be verified in the same way to begin with. (This is not a point for verificationism.) Consequently, one can agree or disagree with various aspects (and various forms) of the argument from queerness without incurring the same ridicule as claiming that we were willed into existence by a cosmic ethnic cleanser 6,000-10,000 years ago. (That extends to this very thread: I don’t at all consider you ignorant for opposing Mackie’s error theory, but I would consider you ignorant for endorsing Answers in Genesis as a reliable pathway to truth.) More importantly, the fact that all of our best evidence points overwhelmingly to evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life doesn’t imply that scientists hold to evolution as a bald assumption, or that they would be unwilling to consider empirical evidence purporting to challenge it. The fact of the matter is that most such purported evidence has been crap. The same certainly isn’t true of criticisms of Mackie’s error theory, which range the full gamut from terrible to potentially compelling, but this imperfect analogy gets to my last relevant point: if the prevalence of a position among scientists or philosophers can’t tell us much about their willingness to consider opposing arguments to it, it also doesn’t license us to wave their positions away as mere axioms presumed without any real consideration. In more frank terms, it may actually be the case that philosophers’ attention to the subject has given them strong reasons to support various physicalist and related positions. (I follow most philosophers in considering property dualism compatible with physicalism, and Erik Banks in including neutral monism an “enhanced physicalism.”) If you mean to hold yourself to the same benchmark as you urge other philosophers to do, it might be worth asking yourself how seriously you take the possibility that you might be mistaken in your non-materialism. That isn’t to say that you don’t, or that materialism is true, but in light of your overt willingness to declare materialism more often presumed than reached by genuinely critical evaluation, I can only surmise that you haven’t considered it as a position that actually *could* be true.Report
Thanks to Gray and Eric for participating so thoughtfully in this discussion. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to adequately respond to their comments at the moment (running this website doesn’t leave me with much time to comment on it, alas). But two things for now:
First, in your view, do you think that those who defend unpopular views well face “ostracism, ridicule, and vilification”? If so, do they face less of that than those who defend the unpopular views poorly? That is my sense of things, but I’m curious about yours. If you could provide examples of those who defend an unpopular view well but still face ostracism, ridicule, or vilification, that would be particularly helpful.
Second, my opinion on these matters is partly motivated by my experiences here at Daily Nous. I get criticisms that I am biased (say, in discussions about whether to cover same-sex marriage in an applied ethics course) or that I exclude certain viewpoints (say, in the Philosophers on Brexit post). I get these criticisms much more than I get defenses (even pseudonymous defenses, or even pointers to good defenses elsewhere) of the views I am alleged to oppose. Even when I explicitly ask for defenses of these views, it is like pulling teeth. And so I am inclined to believe that the bias/vilification story is often used as a cover for the lack of good argument: one can spare oneself the trouble of spelling out the argument for one’s unpopular view if everyone is biased against it anyway—but of course not spelling out the argument means protecting it from scrutiny, and from the criticisms that might get one to change one’s mind.Report
“Even when I explicitly ask for defenses of these views, it is like pulling teeth. And so I am inclined to believe that the bias/vilification story is often used as a cover for the lack of good argument”
Being charitable I think there are at least 2 good reasons that might explain the tendency for people being unwilling to proffer defenses of unpopular views other than the suspicion that they have no good arguments for them.
1) First and Brexit is probably the best example here, wishing to see an argument in defense of position X doesn’t imply that once is in fact a proponent of position X, one could simply be curious as to what the positions and arguments in fact are. I’m a North American, who has no intention of ever living in the UK or the EU, I’m entirely emotionally and personally neutral on the matter Brexit. However I for that same reason have only a cursory knowledge of the issue from reading media coverage, thus I’d be unable to offer more than a basic defense of either side without doing a bunch of research. Thus I’m curious to see the two opposing positions outlined. However the Philosophers on Brexit post was remarkably one-sided (please note this alleges no bad faith on your part Justin, you can only post what you receive in response to your soliciting) However given that Brexit received 52% of the referendum votes the idea that there are no good arguments in its favour is prima facie suspicious to me. Given that the pro-Brexit side alleged bias in the academy towards the EU for a host of reasons including the fact that continued EU membership would be beneficial to the UK universities from a funding perspective, this does seem to be at least a prima facie case of bias/academic orthodoxy
2) The other thing worth keeping in mind is that defenses of a minority/unpopular position X to be effective will often need to be much longer and more elaborate than a defense of the majority/popular position Y, because the reason for the popularity of Y over X is often the popularity of more fundamental propositions that underlie Y over the more fundamental propositions that underlie X. This is a natural human response (and indeed is related to the complaint that unpopular views get harsher scrutiny than popular views which has arisen several times in this thread) but it imposes its own limits on who is able/willing to author a defense of position X since the time demands for doing so are greater.
Take same-sex marriage as an example here, a philosophically sophisticated criticism of it (I have in mind something like the work of Analytic Thomist Edward Feser but it doesn’t really matter for my broader point) requires a ton of background work defending metaphysical, epistemic and ethical positions that are not presumably widely shared among the Daily Nous readership. If defending unpopular view X in any sort of serious way is going to take more work than defending popular view Y the amount of people willing to the former is going to be less than the latter, even absent other concerns about bias and hiring/hurting one’s career prospects that have arisen in these last two threads .Report
I suspect that the project is essentially a hard one.
There’s some really easy examples that no one’s going to mention. For instance, consider the following views: knowledge is a mental state that belongs only to inanimate objects; truth is a property of sentences in English but not French; what is morally right is that which is endorsed by a minority (and not a majority) of members of the community; the mind is a non-physical substance but thought is an activity carried out only by the brain with no mental connection.
That’s because these views are just patently ridiculous, with no intuitive pull at all. But when we’re asked to list views that get one ridiculed by members of the philosophical community, we’re necessarily going to be listing views that strike many people like ourselves as ridiculous, and thus might strike *us* as ridiculous as well. So they’re going to look somewhat similar to the ones mentioned above.
In applied ethics or political philosophy, there are often going to be major pockets of society that have some non-philosophical motivation to hold various beliefs, so it’s going to be easier to find views that *someone* holds that are ridiculed by the academy. But for these other things it’ll be harder.
Still, I’ll make some attempts (even though all of the views I’m going to list probably have a few academic defenders):
Knowledge has nothing to do with evidence, and everything to do with strength of conviction.
Moral goodness is an objective property with no connection to the well-being of any sentient being.
Natural languages have uncountably many grammatical sentences, including ones that are infinitely long. (Defended in a famous book by Postal and Langendoen, “The Vastness of Natural Language”!)
There is no such thing as the mind and no mental activity.Report
From your previous post: “The Great Academic Absorption might help us put in context the complaints we’ve been hearing so much of lately: complaints about universities being places today in which students aren’t exposed to a range of unfamiliar ideas some of which they might find unsettling, and complaints about universities being places in which faculty with unpopular ideas live in fear.”
I agree that the complaint you’re talking about is completely over-stated. But I think there are more realistic worries in the vicinity:
1. The extreme wing of the identify politics left (EWIPL) has espoused views and tactics that are anathema to academic freedom; 2. EWIPL ideology encourages individuals to restrict their studies and conversations to a narrow range of views;
3. Although EWIPL views are in the minority, they have been on the rise over the last four years or so (though I myself suspect this process has plateaued);
4. Due to 3, incidences of “no platforming” and other tactics that prevent (token) expression of certain ideas have been on the rise;
5. Liberals and left-wingers who do not swallow the full body of EWIPL doctrine have been on the whole too open to EWIPL’s influence, or too willing to be bullied by EWIPL;
6. If 5 persists, since liberals and left-wingers constitute a significant majority of the humanities faculties, anti-free speech tactics like no platforming are likely to continue to increase unless they are denounced and actively opposed (for a stark example of a moderate liberal caving to EWIPL in this way, see how the DePaul administration caved in to the protesters who shut down a talk by Milo Yannopoulous).
The combination of 2, 4, and 6 may not make it impossible for academics to express their views. But they will cause more individual violations of free speech and will seriously harm the quality of discourse at universities. Given the aim of university, such a worsening of discourse is not a small price to pay.Report
Thanks for the follow-up. I’ll consider your questions in order:
“First, in your view, do you think that those who defend unpopular views *well* face ‘ostracism, ridicule, and vilification’?”
Yes, at least a good portion of the time.
“If so, do they face less of that than those who defend the unpopular views poorly?”
It wouldn’t surprise me if defending an unpopular view well makes one less likely to face great personal backlash. That said, it may only be *slightly* less likely–more in a minute about why I prefer to hedge here.
“If you could provide examples of those who defend an unpopular view well but still face ostracism, ridicule, or vilification, that would be particularly helpful.”
At least two examples come to mind for me. The first is David Benatar, who has been publicly denounced as a bigot for his views. (See http://dailynous.com/2016/03/11/student-faces-tribunal-for-calling-philosophy-professor-racist/ and http://hypatiaphilosophy.org/HRO/reviews/content/174.) (I should also mention, however, that to her credit, one of the co-authors of the Hypatia review later apologized for the personal attack at the end of the piece. See http://www.philosophy.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/160/Lindsay%20Kelland%27s%20apology.pdf. Other possibly relevant links can be found on Benatar’s webpage: http://www.philosophy.uct.ac.za/philosophy/staff/benatar/selectedbooks/secondsexism.)
Another example is Theodore Everett, who was vilified on Jezebel (!) and in the comments of a post on feministphilosophers for giving a talk titled “Against ‘Sexual’ ‘Assault’ ‘Awareness.'” (See http://jezebel.com/malignantly-dense-prof-lectures-against-sexual-assau-476428570 and https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/philosophy-professor-argues-against-sexual-assault-awareness/.) Also, students at SUNY Geneseo circulated a petition, ultimately reaching 1,687 supporters, demanding that the administration of the university condemn his talk. (https://www.change.org/p/reaffirm-geneseo-s-commitment-to-saa-and-condemn-dr-everett-s-scheduled-lecture-against-sexual-assault-awareness?utm_campaign=share_button_mobile&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition)
Did Everett defend his view *well*? Here I’d say that the question is irrelevant. For, in an important sense, he did not even get a chance to defend his view, much less to defend it well; the backlash came in advance, and was based on little more than the talk’s title. People were outraged not because of what he said *at* the talk; they were outraged because the talk *was being planned*.
A few further points here: First, so far I’ve been considering only the publicly observable consequences. There’s no telling what kind of personal attacks or other vile behavior people may have directed at Benatar and Everett in private. Second, Benatar and Everett have tenure. They’re established. While they might be able to get away from such incidents with their careers intact, what *junior* philosopher of minimal prudence would want to defend views like theirs, given the prospect of being so publicly demonized for it?
Here I’ve offered only two examples, of course. But there are other cases of philosophers being ostracized and vilified for defending unpopular views, and not all such cases (in fact, almost certainly the strong minority) are ones that someone could readily appeal to in an online discussion. In many cases, the hostility will not have been publicly observable. In many cases, the person who faced the hostility will not be able to describe the incidents in much detail, for fear of having his identity found out and subsequently facing harm to his career. For whatever it’s worth, I can say that both of these apply to me, and, by all indications, to some of the others who have been commenting on these threads. I wish I could offer more than this, since vague semi-anonymous testimony is obviously not ideal. But I know for a fact that some of my professors and colleagues read these discussions, so, regrettably, I dare not say more about my own case.
To get a better sense of the depth of the problem, I’d recommend (not just to you, but to anyone interested) simply asking philosophers who defend one or more of the deeply unpopular views in question (if you’re acquainted with any such philosophers) what her experience has been. Has the response to her generally been hostile, etc.? While this may not be a good way of gauging just how widespread the problem is, it could, if nothing else, help us realize that the problem is indeed out there (assuming that that is after all what the responses suggest).
Another point I’d like to touch on here: While it’s not just conservative views that are alleged to be verboten in academic philosophy, it does seem that conservative views are most plausibly among those that are verboten. I say this in large part because–as anyone who’s paying attention can surely see–it’s fairly common in academic philosophy to casually smear conservatives. Any time someone needs a stand-in for “crazies, lunatics, etc.” the go-to option is conservatives. (If you’d like me to give examples, I can, but somehow I suspect that it’s not necessary–this really does strike me as something that most philosophers can probably attest to.) Because the myriad jokes and smears here are often presented as casual asides, there’s an implicit suggestion that despising conservatives is common ground for philosophers. With this background in mind, is it really that hard to believe that conservative philosophers (or even simply philosophers who decide to defend a conservative view here and there) *actually are* treated badly? This touches on something I’ve found baffling about your posts on the matter: It is often with evident disdain that you write about the suggestion that conservatives are disproportionately treated badly in philosophy, as if it’s so hard to believe. But is it really *that* hard to believe? Given how open philosophers generally are about how much they despise conservatives, is it not plausible that conservative philosophers are, in fact, treated poorly?
Note that if we count not just personally directed insults, but the more collective insults described earlier, the hostility to which conservative philosophers could count themselves subject would no doubt increase a great deal.
Again, I’m not conservative, but when it comes to the issue of people being mistreated for their views in academic philosophy, it seems to me that conservatives have a case that is prima facie especially worth taking seriously.
I’ll now briefly touch on the second point you brought up: the appearance that people are using the bias/vilification narrative as a cover for their own lack of argument. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was, indeed, sometimes the case. As to how often it happens, I can only say that it probably depends on which view we’re talking about. (Some views within the category of verboten views are much more plausible than others, after all.) But even when people do use the appeal to bias/vilification as a cover for lack of argument, it seems to me that there’s enough other, independent evidence that bias/vilification is indeed a problem, regardless of whether some are co-opting it for an unfortunate purpose.Report
Justin, you said this: “I get criticisms that I am biased (say, in discussions about whether to cover same-sex marriage in an applied ethics course) or that I exclude certain viewpoints (say, in the Philosophers on Brexit post). I get these criticisms much more than I get defenses (even pseudonymous defenses, or even pointers to good defenses elsewhere) of the views I am alleged to oppose. Even when I explicitly ask for defenses of these views, it is like pulling teeth.”
I think I wrote something like how I wished you would include contrary opinions on e.g. “Brexit” and refugees, *but I did not do so because I had some knockdown argument I thought should be included*. Rather, I wanted contrary opinions included so that I could see what both sides think. Furthermore, the uncritical reader might get the impression that all philosophers believe the same basic thing if they were to just read those you selected. You say that one can give a defense of the unpopular position in the comments, but why relegate the debate to the comment section? That seems to suggest that the contrary opinion is not at important, and, on top of that, fewer people read the comments section than do the main text. Suppose that a journal editor edited an issue like “Philosophers on feminism”, but she only included negative views of feminism in the issue. When told that she ought to have put in at least one pro-feminist essay (since there are no doubt philosophers who support *every* position), she responded that she preferred that the pro-feminist defend her thesis at a conference, but she didn’t see reason to put her in the journal (she was too busy with her blog, lack of time, etc). Obviously something is not right here. (And, obviously, this isn’t entirely analogous to your situation.)
TL;DR: when I ask for the contrary opinion, it’s because I want to see their arguments, not because I have one to give. Please keep that in mind next time you omit any contrary opinions.Report
Trying to get political dissenters to shut up is something humans do. To think that we don’t have to worry about it in philosophy would be to treat philosophers as being very different from ordinary people. Obviously, not all humans do it all the time, and the degree to which it goes on can be overstated, but if it didn’t go on at all in philosophy, that would be weird.Report
A view that is not exactly normative ethics, but is in the same conservative wheelhouse, is the status or conception of rationality in philosophy. Why do we study only Western philosophers, and then principally from two short eras: ancient Greece, and the Enlightenment?
What philosophers would have said in 1950: because the West has developed a unique practice of questioning authority through the use of reason. This habit resulted in democracy, science, and Western philosophy, and stands opposed to mysticism, religion, obscurantism, monarchy, superstition, etc. Other cultures didn’t do it, or not nearly to the same extent, but everybody should.
What many would say now: (some combination of) because of the historical inertia of the textual canon. It is false that there is just one (“Western”) type of rationality. Every culture uses reason, we just ignore it outside the West. Because of racism or colonial history. Etc.
I have seen a lot of discussions of the need to broaden the philosophy reading list, but I have never seen a squarely-faced presentation of the old-school rationale for the way it is (or has been).Report
I suspect you would earn yourself some enemies if you argued that so-and-so canonical figure was actually a second-rate philosopher and shouldn’t be in the canon because so-and-so is hopelessly confusing and gives students the wrong ideas about what good philosophy looks like. But I’m interested to see if this perception of mine is accurate. Thoughts?Report
I happen to like Wittgenstein.Report