When To Engage With Harmful Ideas


Are some ideas so harmful or offensive that scholars should not work on them, or even bother to respond to them? And if so, how do we figure out which ones?

University of Virginia professor of philosophy Elizabeth Barnes takes up these questions in “Arguments that Harm—and Why We Need Them,” an essay published yesterday at The Chronicle of Higher Education (possibly paywalled).

Barnes, author of The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, writes:

I think about this issue a lot, in no small part because of the amount of time I’ve spent engaging with the work of the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. If you’re an academic who works on disability, the name “Peter Singer” immediately resonates, and immediately signals contention. Singer thinks that the lives of people like me are (“on average”) less valuable than the lives of nondisabled people. He thinks it would have been permissible for my parents to have had me killed as an infant, and better (“on average”) if they could have replaced me with a nondisabled alternative. I find all this offensive, to say the least. Yet unlike those who think that Singer ought to be treated as a pariah, I engage with him and his work on a regular basis. Yet I struggle to explain why.

She clarifies that her interest is in whether and how academics should respond to such ideas:

When I talk about engaging with ideas, I mean taking ideas seriously—discussing and citing them, having them presented at conferences, responding to them in print or at symposia, and so on. There are separate questions that arise, such as whether academic freedom should protect them (surely it should), or whether they should be taught in the classroom (surely that depends on all sorts of complicated factors, including the size and level of the class, the students enrolled, your pedagogical aims, and your teaching style). And there’s also the issue of how non-academics respond to scholars who defend controversial ideas. (Disability-rights organizations regularly protest Singer’s public lectures, for example.) Here, though, I want to focus specifically on how scholars interact with ideas that many consider harmful or demeaning.

Part of her essay explains why it is reasonable for certain populations to fear the harm that would follow from widespread acceptance of certain ideas, and why even the discussion of such ideas can be difficult:

People who deal with the everyday reality of disability really do have reason to fear the claim—especially when it’s defended by one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world—that disabled lives are less valuable than nondisabled ones. Likewise, queer people really do have reason to fear arguments against marriage equality, and Muslims really do have reason to fear claims that Islam is fundamentally illiberal. To pretend otherwise is to discount the power of ideas… 

When professional norms dictate that you sit quietly and listen while someone says that your life is worth less, or that your child’s life is worth less, that’s hard. It doesn’t make us delicate snowflakes to acknowledge that difficulty and pain. So, contra the liberal ideal, I think we do have things to fear from the open discussion of some ideas. And the things we have to fear aren’t really about “offense”—they’re about harm.

Barnes will grapple with Singer’s arguments but she won’t, she says, take seriously “an argument for the moral goodness of rape,” for example, nor take steps to see that such an argument is engaged with. How should we determine whether to engage with such ideas? Barnes argues for a kind of cost-benefit analysis:

I can’t see how the benefits of discussing [the pro-rape argument] outweigh the harms. Perhaps the argument is clever or original, but let’s be honest—there’s a limited amount of intellectual value in any one argument. If I want to take up a challenging and interesting argument, I can pick one of the thousands of other challenging, interesting arguments out there. So the benefits of engaging with a pro-rape argument are minimal.

The harms, though, are not. Taking seriously an argument that justifies rape has the potential to cause intense pain to victims of rape, not to mention the potential to promote rape. Citing ideas, discussing them, responding to them is a type of scholarly currency. It’s academic signal-boosting. A pro-rape argument isn’t an important “option on the table” in debates about sexual ethics unless (by repeatedly discussing and citing it) we make it one. So the only reason to take it seriously would be the pure intellectual interest of the argument. But whatever minor intellectual value there might be in entertaining an argument that justifies rape, it isn’t worth the callous disregard for the real suffering of real people.

Singer’s views are different though, since even when not explicitly endorsed by people, they are, Barnes writes, implicit in speech and behavior that is quite common. Potentially harmful anti-disability views are thus already on the table, and because of Singer’s stature, they are already taken very seriously. The typical costs of engagement are already being borne, so the marginal costs of Barnes’ engagement are negligible. And if she can show how widely accepted potentially harmful ideas are flawed, the benefits of engagement could be significant.

Academics are “people who think hard thoughts and try to change minds and change culture,” she writes. We should be willing to “take on a measure of discomfort,” if we can, to argue for change for the better.

The whole essay is here.

[note: Many university libraries subscribe to The Chronicle. If you are paywalled by the link, consider trying to access The Chronicle as you would any other online journal, through you university library’s website.]

Robert Rauschenberg, “Erased de Kooning Drawing”

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Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

I’m paywalled and so I can’t read the full article, but does she provide any standard for separating out the “potentially harmful” ideas from the ones that aren’t? If the standard is, “Well, someone may be harmed by this because it makes them uncomfortable or upset” (as it seems to be from the bit excerpted here), then it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t apply to *any* idea. Is that really the standard we want to be pushing? We know how that’ll shake out in practice.

For those of you interested in this topic: Donald Downs and I are editing a volume with Routledge on the value and limits of academic speech (“The Value and Limits of Academic Speech: Philosophical, Political, and Legal Perspectives.”). It’ll be out in May or June. Contributions from a bunch of well-known and outstanding scholars, including Peter Singer who is mentioned here. Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

From what I can see she makes a distinction (rightly so) between “this makes people uncomfortable” and “this does real harm”. You’re absolutely right that almost any argument has the capacity to upset people, so that can’t be our standard. It would help to be able to sort out where our line for “real harm” might be. Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Will Behun
3 years ago

Making that distinction isn’t terribly helpful if we’re not given some meaningful way to distinguish between those things, right? Mill gives a standard when he distinguishes between contingent and non-contingent harms, but all academic speech (and possibly all speech generally) is going to fall into the non-contingent harm category.

My concern is that Barnes and others seem to be advocating for a position where when some people are made uncomfortable then it counts as a “real harm,” but when other people are made uncomfortable than it doesn’t count. She and others who think like her become the judges of what counts. Perhaps I’m being unfair with this characterization, but I’ve yet to see anything substantive that suggests otherwise. Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

Above, I should have said “all academic speech (and possibly all speech generally) is going to fall into the *contingent* harm category” for Mill. That’s an important correction! Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  Will Behun
3 years ago

Also paywalled, but from the excerpts above it looks like the test for a harmful view is:
Suppose a belief B about group X were to be taken seriously by large numbers of people. Now ask about such a scenario “Would individuals in X be more likely to suffer certain harms than they would otherwise?” If so, then promoting B could do real harm.

Not sure if this test will work, but it seems somewhat intuitive.

Would you want to travel to a country where it was widely believed that acts of violence, theft, rape, etc. were morally permissible so long as they were committed against foreigners? Likely not, because foreigners are probably at great risk for harm. Now suppose the reason people there believe this is due to a theory promoted by a famous academic. His speech wound up doing much more than making some people uncomfortable.
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Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Smith&Jones
3 years ago

I’m not trying to be dense and the number of typos in my previous posts (then/than, the harms point, etc.) suggests maybe I should be reading everything a bit more carefully before clicking submit. With that said, I still don’t see how that test is all that helpful, especially when we’re talking about academic speech.

I’m willing to grant that people can suffer harms from certain kind of speech, but those harms seem peculiar to the characteristics of those individuals. It also seems prudent and not-assholish to try to avoid triggering contingent harms for no good reason. But can we say anything more than that?

So, Rule 1: It’s the university, put on your big boy and big girl pants. Here we discuss things that will make people uncomfortable. Academics need to be able to discuss these things for universities to function appropriately.
Rule 2: Don’t be a dick. If you know that an example or certain language will trigger people and cause them to experience some sort of contingent harm, and triggering that harm can be avoided without suffering anything on the teaching/learning side, then you should do it.

Or is what we’re talking about more complicated than that?Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
3 years ago

It’s more complicated than that. The harm in the speech Barnes is primarily concerned with is not students’ adverse reactions to simply hearing this or that view, but harms that may result when such a view is taken seriously and/or widely adopted. And she is especially worried about views that roughly have the form “it’s okay for such and such bad thing to happen to members of group X because of some trait members of group X have.” Report

Carnap
Carnap
3 years ago

I am glad that Barnes thinks “harmful” or “offensive” ideas ought to be protected by academic freedom.
Her focus appears to be on whether or not it is *morally acceptable* for academic to engage with certain ideas. As I understand her view, she holds that whether or not we should “engage” with ideas is to be determined by a cost-benefit analysis. The kind of engagement at issue consists of ” taking ideas seriously — discussing and citing them, having them presented at conferences, responding to them in print or at symposia, and so on.” Given that engagement involves having ideas presented at conferences, it would seem that her view would cover the publication of ideas and whether or not a journal morally ought to publish a paper ought to be determined by a cost-benefit analysis. Three worries. (1) How good are we at determining the costs and benefits of engaging in the stipulated ways with ideas? (2) Whether or not such engagement is harmful often depends almost entirely on whether or not the view is true or false and so it is difficult to see how to separate the cost-benefit analysis from the substantive engagement. (3) The view might imply many many ideas should not be engaged with (depending on the speculative cost-benefit calculation) – Anti-natalism is especially hard to consider if one has children or wants them. Atheism is hard to consider if one’s life is bound up with one’s religious beliefs. Debates about the metaphysics of gender are hard if one is invested in the outcome. I could go on. Report

Erik H
Erik H
Reply to  Carnap
3 years ago

“Whether or not such engagement is harmful often depends almost entirely on whether or not the view is true or false and so it is difficult to see how to separate the cost-benefit analysis from the substantive engagement.”

Right. Look at the current discourse on gun control. Almost all of the debate involves speculation on the actions of unknown persons/governments at some point in the future (look at the two extremes of “prevent constant mass shootings” and “deter future government executions”). If you could know what would happen–which of we don’t–then you could judge the greater harm. The best we can do is to try to guess accurately, and that accuracy requires discussing both sides in an effort to get close to truth.

Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

it seems to me that philosophers routinely fail to engage in debates on burning issues of the day because they don’t want to consider arguments for positions that they think would be harmful if peope believed them. An obvious example, to beat a dead horse, is the Tuval scandal. Where this occurs, all we can contribute is rationalizations for the opinions we have decided that people are to accept.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
3 years ago

Some philosophers engaging with an issue is compatible with philosophers routinely failing to engage with it.Report

Brian Kemple
3 years ago

I think no small part of the difficulty, here, is the lack of principles by which “offensive” and “harmful” can be judged. Then again, I’m probably some sort of obsolete regressive ninny who thinks you *can* derive an “ought” from an “is”.Report

Chris Heathwood
Chris Heathwood
3 years ago

I think this is a nice essay on an important topic. However, I was struck by this remark: “Singer is right that his conclusions flow straightforwardly from these sorts of common attitudes.” If I understand Barnes correctly, the conclusion in question is Singer’s view that it is ok to kill a child with a serious disability (like hemophilia) and replace him or her with a non-disabled child. And the common attitude in question is the view that the lives of disabled people are, on average, less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled.

But surely this conclusion is no straightforward consequence of this common attitude. I feel confident that at least some disabilities make people’s lives go worse, on average, or are, on average, net harms to the people who have them. But I certainly don’t think that it is therefore ok for the parents of children with these disabilities to kill them and replace them with non-disabled children. This isn’t even a straightforward consequence if utilitarianism is true.

As I suspect Barnes would agree, it’s crucial to distinguish the issue of whether a certain disability makes a person worse off from the issue of how we ought to treat people who have disabilities that make them worse off. Not only does it not follow that it is ok to treat them worse, it may even be that they ought sometimes to be given preferential treatment, perhaps in compensation for the harms of their disability.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
3 years ago

I’m not sure how much work “harm” is doing in this discussion.

Consider the question of which arguments to engage with or not engage with, in a field like philosophy of physics where harm considerations are very far away. (For instance, which arguments about the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics should I engage with?) There’s sometimes a tendency to think that you have an obligation to engage with any argument that concerns your research interests or that contradicts a position you hold (so that I owe a reply to anyone who criticizes the Many-Worlds interpretation in print, say), but that’s utterly unrealistic in terms of time and energy. Speaking personally – but I think I’m making explicit most peoples’ tacit approach – I engage with arguments in three situations:

(1) Where I think the argument is basically right, so that I can draw on its ideas and develop them, and my own ideas, further.
(2) Where I think the argument is basically wrong, but interestingly so – sufficiently interestingly so that I can further develop the field by engaging with it.
(3) Where I think the argument is wrong, and uninterestingly so – but where for whatever reason (say, the superficial seductiveness of the argument, or the eminence of the person presenting it, or just the vagaries of what catches people’s attention) I have reason to believe that the argument is not going to go away, but is going to get in the way of the development of the field unless it gets refuted (and, further, I have reason to believe that I can refute it, or at least provide counter-arguments that will be influential).

(3) can be put another way: when confronted with a bad and uninteresting argument against your position, *ignore it* (published or not), unless you have reason to think it’s going to get traction if you don’t ignore it. (A digression: this seems to me the right response to 90% of the “objectionable” articles on this subject or that, which periodically get discussed at DN and elsewhere – if you think they’re bad arguments, then ignore them and let them sink without trace like most published articles, don’t draw attention to them by creating a media storm!)

Now ask how things change when “harm” gets added into the mix. I take it “harmful” arguments, in the sense used here, are definitionally not supposed to be sound, so (1) doesn’t apply. At the other extreme, (3) is already a matter of strategy and prudence, not something that can be assessed on pure intellectual merit. And (I take it) most people think engaging with “harmful” ideas is a good idea if it’s the all-things-considered best way to stop a harmful idea from gaining traction. The only place where “harm” really seems to matter is in (2), where one might avoid discussing some mildly interesting argument for a harmful conclusion. Which seems sensible, but is only a slight thumb on the scale of general considerations.

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J.T.
J.T.
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Are harm considerations also far away from fields like political philosophy and ethics? I must’ve missed the memo. But I’m not surprised that you and others around here find whether or not a claim is of interest to you yourselves to be a much more tractable and significant question than whether or not it poses harm to others. (And no, that isn’t really a point about other minds.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  J.T.
3 years ago

I literally don’t understand this response. (That is: I don’t just think this is a perversely uncharitable reading; I can’t even prima facie see how it connects with anything I wrote.)Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

What I think he or she is trying to say is that ”you and others around here” value your intellectual interests more than the wellbeing of others. Which I think is a nonsensical interpretation of your comment and this entire thread, but I do think that’s what they meant.Report

J.T
J.T
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

I’ll probably regret this, but here goes.

I take it that the rough shape of your argument is one by analogy. In particular, the analogy is to areas where harm considerations are ‘far away’, and as you say, most of us tend to decide to engage with ideas or not on the basis of perceived truth and relevance to our own idiosyncratic sets of theoretical interests and commitments. But given that the relevant areas in this context are not in fact those in which harm considerations are irrelevant, this seems like a silly way to think about it. And given that you ultimately conclude that “The only place where ‘harm’ really seems to matter is in (2), where one might avoid discussing some mildly interesting argument for a harmful conclusion. Which seems sensible, but is only a slight thumb on the scale of general considerations,” which is no surprise given that your analysis begins by considering fields in which such considerations don’t matter, it seems to me that you likely don’t really appreciate the sort of things that Barnes has in mind, and my guess is that this is because you have not taken the time to get acquainted with the lives of the people who must put up with those things.

The difference between your approach to thinking about the matter at issue and Barnes’s can be seen in how she assesses the same trade-off between interest and harm: “I can’t see how the benefits of discussing [the pro-rape argument] outweigh the harms. Perhaps the argument is clever or original, but let’s be honest—there’s a limited amount of intellectual value in any one argument. If I want to take up a challenging and interesting argument, I can pick one of the thousands of other challenging, interesting arguments out there. So the benefits of engaging with a pro-rape argument are minimal.
The harms, though, are not. Taking seriously an argument that justifies rape has the potential to cause intense pain to victims of rape, not to mention the potential to promote rape. Citing ideas, discussing them, responding to them is a type of scholarly currency. It’s academic signal-boosting. A pro-rape argument isn’t an important “option on the table” in debates about sexual ethics unless (by repeatedly discussing and citing it) we make it one. So the only reason to take it seriously would be the pure intellectual interest of the argument. But whatever minor intellectual value there might be in entertaining an argument that justifies rape, it isn’t worth the callous disregard for the real suffering of real people.”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  J.T
3 years ago

Thanks for a careful reply, but you’re completely misreading my post, which is not an analogy at all.

I said “I’m not sure what work ‘harm’ is doing in the discussion”: that is, I’m not sure how much work is being done, in considering which ideas should and should not be discussed, by considerations of “harm”.

To develop that point, I gave a taxonomy of what (I take it) the sensible principles are for which arguments to engage with in a field where everyone agrees “harm” is not a factor at all. Namely, engage when (1) the argument is correct; (2) the argument is wrong but in an interesting way; (3) the argument is bad and not intrinsically worth engaging with, but there are strategic reasons to do so.

Then I considered how those principles would change in a field where harm considerations really do matter. I concluded that in cases (1) and (3), it doesn’t make any difference. Only in case (2) does it make a difference; that’s my “slight thumb on the scales”.

Insofar as there’s a point that I didn’t make sufficiently explicit in my original post, it’s that there’s a temptation to think that absent “harm” considerations, all arguments should be engaged with. But in reality, people don’t usually engage with bad arguments anyway (whether or not they’re in print) and when they do, the reasons for doing so are already strategic and prudential, not purely intellectual.

Finally, you say “it seems to me that you likely don’t really appreciate the sort of things that Barnes has in mind, and my guess is that this is because you have not taken the time to get acquainted with the lives of the people who must put up with those things”, with “those things”, in context, being disability discrimination, and rape and sexual abuse. That’s a fairly remarkable (and frankly fairly offensive) presumption to make about the personal experience of someone who as far as I know you’ve never met. As it happens, it’s also false.Report

J...T
J...T
3 years ago

I take it that the rough shape of your argument is one by analogy. In particular, the analogy is to areas where harm considerations are ‘far away’, and as you say, most of us tend to decide to engage with ideas or not on the basis of perceived truth and relevance to our own idiosyncratic sets of theoretical interests and commitments. But given that the relevant areas in this context are not in fact those in which harm considerations are irrelevant, this seems like a silly way to think about it. And given that you ultimately conclude that “The only place where ‘harm’ really seems to matter is in (2), where one might avoid discussing some mildly interesting argument for a harmful conclusion. Which seems sensible, but is only a slight thumb on the scale of general considerations,” which is no surprise given that your analysis begins by considering fields in which such considerations don’t matter, it seems to me that you likely don’t really appreciate the sort of things that Barnes has in mind, and my guess is that this is because you have not taken the time to get acquainted with the lives of the people who must put up with those things.

The difference between your approach to thinking about the matter at issue and Barnes’s can be seen in how she assesses the same trade-off between interest and harm: “I can’t see how the benefits of discussing [the pro-rape argument] outweigh the harms. Perhaps the argument is clever or original, but let’s be honest—there’s a limited amount of intellectual value in any one argument. If I want to take up a challenging and interesting argument, I can pick one of the thousands of other challenging, interesting arguments out there. So the benefits of engaging with a pro-rape argument are minimal.
The harms, though, are not. Taking seriously an argument that justifies rape has the potential to cause intense pain to victims of rape, not to mention the potential to promote rape. Citing ideas, discussing them, responding to them is a type of scholarly currency. It’s academic signal-boosting. A pro-rape argument isn’t an important “option on the table” in debates about sexual ethics unless (by repeatedly discussing and citing it) we make it one. So the only reason to take it seriously would be the pure intellectual interest of the argument. But whatever minor intellectual value there might be in entertaining an argument that justifies rape, it isn’t worth the callous disregard for the real suffering of real people.”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  J...T
3 years ago

See above reply (I think this is a repeat of the previous post)Report

JT
JT
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Yes, apologies to Justin–it took a few attempts before I could get the system to accept it yesterday for some reason.Report

Owen Schaefer
Owen Schaefer
3 years ago

Thanks for sharing the great piece by Barnes. The concerns about harmful arguments expressed are also mirrored somewhat in some areas of applied ethics. E.g., the concern that philosophical arguments for torture under certain circumstances (see Fritz Allhoff) will be used by states to justify torture, or that arguments for returning to a heartbeat-based definition of death (see Robert Truog) will lead to a shortage of organs. In both cases, though, the harms seem to come about by *misapplication* of the arguments – expansion of torture beyond the artificial ticking-time-bomb scenarios, or changing the definition of death without also revoking the ‘dead donor rule’. Harms from Singer’s arguments, on the other hand, more directly come from *proper application* of the arguments, so perhaps the calculus is different.

In any case, I doubt there are any realistic scenarios where concerns about harms justify not discussing a serious academic argument. Barnes proposes a theoretical case of a pro-rape argument that should not be discussed. But (1) Barnes’s defense of engaging with Singer also applies to a pro-rape argument: just as Singer’s views are implicit in cultural attitudes towards disability, and therefore engaging with it won’t generate an attitude presently absent in society, rape culture arguably reflects already latent pro-rape attitudes; (2) it’s not at all clear to me there could be a realistically grounded pro-rape argument worth investigating on its pure intellectual merits, in contrast with Singer’s views; and (3) if a philosophically uninteresting argument for rape became as prominent as Singer’s views it should probably be engaged with for purely strategic reasons, per Wallace’s point above.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 years ago

What about arguments for policies that (if implemented) would do serious damage to the interests of *rich* people? Or arguments for policies that would do serious damage to the interests of those currently alive in order to avert greater harms to *future* people? Are these arguments off the table in the sense that there is a prima facie reason for not engaging with them? There are many areas of public policy where there are no easy answers, that is no plausible policies that would not have an adverse impact on *some* people’s interests. (To suppose that every problem has a win/win solution is politically naive and those who insist on such solutions are often doing so to protect privileges that have been unjustly acquired and are being unjustly perpetuated.) This being so, the criterion for prima facie exclusion (not absolute exclusion as Barnes is careful to stress) has to be that the policy proposed would cause serious harms to *some* people without benefiting anybody else. But just as it is a very good wind indeed that does not blow anybody any ill, it is very bad wind indeed that does blow anybody any good. So it is not clear that the revised criterion would exclude any topic as not up for discussion (absent very strong counterarguments) that anybody would actually want to discuss. Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
3 years ago

I think the problem with using a “pro-rape” argument as an example of an obviously harmful argument smuggles in our prior understanding of “rape” as inherently bad: of course we are going to agree that we should not take an argument for the performance of inherently bad acts seriously. The interesting argument is over which acts counts as “rape” according to how we conceive rape. For example, suppose some feminists think that all penis in vagina sex under patriarchy is rape. Should we then think of arguments against this view as harmful “pro-rape” arguments that shouldn’t be countenanced?

As for Singer, it’s clear that Singer thinks that if we take his arguments seriously and act on them we are not causing harm but instead alleviating or preventing harm. If he is right, then his arguments aren’t harmful, rather, disagreeing with them is harmful. I don’t think we can say at the outset which arguments are harmful or not: we have to judge each argument and possible consequences of widespread acceptance of the argument on its own merits. Report

Clifford Sosis
3 years ago

Singer’s thoughts on this stuff from his What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher? interview (whatisitliketobeaphilosopher.com/peter-singer/):

Sosis: Were you surprised that people were appalled by some of the things you’ve argued, such as your position on disabled infants, or bestiality? What do you make of the attitude, that seems as if it is increasingly popular, that certain things simply should not be said?

Singer: I think that attitude is deplorable, and especially in philosophers. I wasn’t surprised that people should disagree with my views on these issues. Philosophers expect objections and counter-arguments. That’s how we make progress. What has surprised and disappointed me is that some people have, because of their opposition to my views, attempted to prevent me speaking. That approach hearkens back to the trial and execution of Socrates, which means that it is the opposite of what philosophy should stand for. It’s a stupid tactic anyway, because invariably it means that my views get more attention. You just have to look at a sales chart of the German editions of Practical Ethics to see that. The book sold poorly in Germany for several years. Then when I visited Germany I was prevented from speaking on a few occasions, and this became a major news story, in newspapers and on television. My German book sales soared, and ever since have remained at a higher level than they were before the opposition stopped me speaking.

Sosis: How do does it make you feel when folks protest your talks? Weird for you, given how much of your energy is devoted to trying to make the world a better place?

Singer: People have a right to protest, and I am not disturbed by nonviolent protests that do not seek to prevent me speaking. But it is, as you suggest, weird when – as happened with a talk I gave earlier this year, via skype, at the University of Victoria, British Columbia – people who object to my views on the treatment of severely disabled infants try to prevent me being heard by an audience that has come to hear me speak about effective altruism and global poverty. If people care about those with disabilities, you would think that they would support my efforts to increase donations to effective charities that, among other things, prevent blindness and restore the sight of people in developing countries.

Sosis: Ever avoid exploring an outrageous implication of utilitarianism, because you thought doing so would have bad consequences?

Singer: Maybe. I’ve said relatively little about the suffering of wild animals, because although it raises some serious ethical questions, any attempt to do something about it would immediately put the animal movement in conflict with the environmental movement, and it would be better if both movements put their energy into issues on which there is no such conflict, and on which they can hope to have a more significant practical impact.

I have a somewhat similar problem with Nick Bostrom’s argument that the importance of reducing the risk of human extinction, even by a tiny amount, dominates every other thing that we might consider worth doing, such as reducing the suffering of people in extreme poverty. It’s a difficult argument to refute, but it’s not an argument that many people are likely to act on. Mind you, if a few people do respond, and do research on reducing existential risk, I think that is a very good thing.

Sosis: Do you think things like social media, where we have lots of virtue signaling and moral reprobation for those whose views are unpopular, endanger the future of views like utilitarianism or might make philosophy more homogeneous in general?

Singer: I don’t think it endangers the future of utilitarianism at all. Utilitarianism is too strong for that. It might, for a time, make people more reluctant to express views that are unpopular. I’ve recently been sounded out about a proposal for a journal that would allow people to publish anonymously. The journal would keep a record of authorship that could, on request by the author, be sent to committees considering appointments and promotions. It’s unfortunate that such a journal should ever be considered necessary to enable controversial ideas to be published, but perhaps we have got to the point where it is.Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  Clifford Sosis
3 years ago

Interesting idea about the anonymous journal. And maybe we could still score academia points for publishing in it.

But if the views published are so potentially controversial you wouldn’t want people in the profession knowing it was you who wrote a particular piece, then you might not want the strangers hiring you or the differently minded colleagues looking over your tenure file to know you published this particular piece either.

The journal editors could just keep the author list private and verify upon request that the candidate in fact authored something once published in the journal. If the journal had an excellent reputation, this would in principle still count for quite a lot. People are often impressed when they hear someone has published in [insert top journal], though they may never read the article or even the abstract.Report

Mike
Mike
3 years ago

“The desire to enact absolute freedom of speech as a law results from a dire lack of imagination; while the desire for less than absolute freedom of textual speech results from a dire abundance of totalitarianism of the mind.”

I still think, after thirty-three despicably jaded years, that this (bloated) maxim I produced as an arrogant young philosophy student is good. It is false, like nearly all maxims. For there are possible scenarios in which absolute freedom of textual speech could lead to awesome disaster and thus ought to be circumscribed. But in practice, I almost always side with kingly Milton: allow the words to freely flow—from whatever river’s mouth, no matter how filthy.

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Alison Stone
Alison Stone
3 years ago

I really welcome Barnes’s spelling-out of what sorts of harms are involved or may be involved in such kinds of cases. It prompted me to wonder along these lines:
Here are several statements: 1. if view A became widely accepted then harm to members of group B would occur. 2. if a philosopher provides support for view A, whether or not A subsequently becomes widely accepted, then that philosopher harm members of group B now. Is that in the sense that it makes members of group B more vulnerable to future harm as per 1, and to be made more vulnerable is itself to be harmed?
Alternatively, 3. view A is already quite widely accepted amongst at least part of the general public, and this is harmful to members of group B. Then 4, a philosopher providing support for view A contributes to that harm by further reinforcing the state of affairs that is causing it.
But then because social reality is messy and ever-changing, distinguishing cases falling under 1 and.2 from ones falling under 3 and 4 might not be straightforward.Report