Philosophical Norms & Cancel Culture


There are “certain norms that prevail in the discipline of philosophy that are threatened by the new communication environment,” according to Joseph Heath (Toronto).

These are “norms that prevail within the discipline that are not respected in public discourse, and that expose philosophers to cancellation risk,” he says.

They are:

1. Affective neutrality in discussion of moral and political issues. One of the major differences between philosophers and the general public is that most people find it extremely difficult to discuss any controversial moral or political issue without getting upset. Philosophers, on the other hand, typically draw a distinction between entertaining a proposition and affirming it, and so assume that one should be able to debate various questions in a hypothetical register, without triggering any of the emotional reactions that might be appropriate if one actually held them. As a result, there is a disciplinary tradition in philosophy of maintaining a stance of affective neutrality when discussing morally charged issues, and even when contemplating abhorrent conclusions… Over time, a lot of people working in philosophy start to take this sort of affective neutrality for granted… This leads them to forget just how far offside a lot of the views that we debate are with the general public. 

2. Reconstructive presentation of arguments. Since the good old days of ancient Athens, philosophers have taken themselves to be more interested in argument than in rhetoric. This is reflected in a variety of disciplinary practices, including the sometimes elaborate efforts undertaken to avoid scoring merely symbolic victory over “straw man” versions of one’s opponent’s position. One of the most basic components of a philosophical education therefore involves learning how to demonstrate, prior to criticizing a position, that one has a correct understanding of it, and that the view is worthy of being taken seriously… Because of this, it is extremely common for philosophers to spend a fair bit of time offering “reconstructions” of positions that they do not actually hold… It is possible to admire the inner coherence of a position and to communicate that to an audience without at the end of the day endorsing it. This generates certain risks, however, that with context collapse, along with the shortened attention spans of online audiences (or uncharitable video editing), one will to be taken to have endorsed a position that one does not actually hold. 

3. Stipulative definition of terminology. Because of the somewhat obsessive interest in argument that is central to the profession, philosophy also places a great deal of emphasis on the definition of terms. In order to track inferences it is essential to be clear about what one is and is not committed to in making a particular claim, and in order to be clear about that one must be clear about the terms one is using. This demand for terminological clarity generates both obligations and entitlements. We tend to be more aware of the obligations – there is little tolerance of ambiguity and equivocation, and so philosophers are always under pressure to provide definitions of their key terms. But there is also an important entitlement, which is that philosophy gives its practitioners broad license to engage in stipulative definitions of terms. So if one says that “X =def Y” then for the purposes of the argument that follows, X means Y, and one can only be held accountable for the inferences that follow from that. In particular, the fact that other people use X to mean Z becomes irrelevant to the argument. Again, philosophers have become so used to this disciplinary practice that they often take it for granted. Yet it is also quite unnatural…. Needless to say, this indulgence that philosophers are willing to show one another, when it comes to the use of terms, is not shared by the broader public. Most obviously, speakers who have been targeted for cancellation have been striking unsuccessful in attempting to defend themselves through clarification of their semantic intentions. Context collapse has been something of a field day for those who are keen to engage in uncharitable interpretations of the speech of others, but attempts to clarify one’s meaning through reference to the context of utterance have usually failed to placate online mobs. 

Read the whole post, which contains several useful examples, here.

See also “When Philosophizing in Public, Remember How Strange We May Seem,” which also discusses some of the ways in which discussions among philosophers are distinctively risky.

Discussion welcome.


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Marc Champagne
1 month ago

True, the standards and practices listed all go against the public grain. But, judging by the actual cancellations, the decisive factor seems to be: content of the conclusion endorsed (no matter how adroitly or abrasively it is communicated).

Last edited 1 month ago by Marc Champagne
Hasko von Kriegstein
Hasko von Kriegstein
Reply to  Marc Champagne
1 month ago

I don’t see it. Here are three examples of conclusions that got people cancelled from Heath’s piece:

  1. all forms of female genital mutilation are impermissible. (Weinstock)
  2. “harm to the child” is not a good reason to condemn child pornography that involves no real children. (Flanagan)
  3. parents should be allowed to choose their children’s traits. (Anomaly)

What is the common thread?

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Hasko von Kriegstein
1 month ago

To split the difference, I’ll say that the norms that Heath extracts enable any culturally/politically radioactive material to be seized by partisan hacks and amplified by the outrage machine, whereas innocuous material simply doesn’t get traction, with or without such norms. The common thread here seems to be: being exactly the sort of material that gets traction.

Last edited 1 month ago by Nicolas Delon
Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
1 month ago

While I have a lot of sympathy toward the argument offered here, I think fails to think seriously about the necessary discursive conditions to allow this sort of inquiry to take place. If I know that my moral standing in the seminar room is not in question, I can perfectly well entertain hypotheticals about the permissibility of my murder or dismemberment, or of the taking away of my bodily autonomy, in a detached way, as an element in a process of abstract reasoning we are all engaged in together. This was certainly my experience as a philosophy student.

But the touchstone in my own education for realizing the limits to the idea of treating everything as a matter of abstract debate in that way came from a serious reading of Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July oration, which includes a great example of moral reasoning, joined with a demonstration of the ways in which the demand for abstract argument can be disrespectful and offered in bad faith. Asking Frederick Douglass, in 1852, to treat the wrongfulness of slavery, and the humanity of slaves, as a matter for detached, affectively neutral discussion would be to treat his very right to be part of the conversation as an open question.

I don’t mean to say that these forms of philosophical argumentation and discourse aren’t valuable. But any serious discussion of their value must recon with their limits, and with the social preconditions necessary for their (virtuous? appropriate?) usage.

Here are a few quotes from the relevant passages from Douglass that provide the shape of his argument. But really read the whole thing (and assign this section as an exercise in argument reconstruction for your students).

https://edsitement.neh.gov/student-activities/frederick-douglasss-what-slave-fourth-july

“But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less; would you persuade more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.” But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave…

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. … There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him…

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.”

Last edited 1 month ago by Derek Bowman
Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 month ago

Philosophy is not always the most effective means to bring about political change. Philosophy is much too good at generating doubt rather than certainty and at leading people to different conclusions. But then, I think philosophy has important functions other than bringing us closer to the political goals we’ve chosen.

Edith Sanders
Edith Sanders
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 month ago

By all means, invoke Frederick Douglass when you hear philosophers arguing about whether to enslave a segment of the population. But Douglass, and claims like his, are often invoked to silence and shame legitimate philosophers inquiring into legitimate philosophical questions such as whether trans women are women (Byrne, Stock, Lawford-Smith), whether there are on-average genetic differences in IQ among racial groups (Cofnas), whether transracialism is possible (Tuvel), whether it’s permissible to euthanize severely cognitively disabled children (Singer), and whether governments should promote (by means of incentives) the selection of certain genetic traits (Anomaly), just to name a few.

These questions/views are not morally “out of bounds” in any interesting sense, but they are often claimed to be because they “disrespect” or “demean” or “harm” certain people. No doubt it is not fun for people with certain gender and racial identities or certain diseases to see people having these debates. But they are no more disrespected, demeaned, or harmed than meat-eaters are disrespected, demeaned, or harmed when vegans argue that eating meat is severely morally wrong, or than theists are when philosophers argue that God doesn’t exist and religious belief is irrational, or than men are when researchers argue that men are on-average far more genetically disposed to violence than women.

Someone has to inquire into important questions about race, sex, gender, disability, and other radioactive topics. If philosophers don’t, other people will. When philosophers address these questions, as they should, they will foreseeably (but not intentionally) make people feel bad (which is different from disrespecting, demeaning, or harming them). The solution to this problem is not to invoke Frederick Douglass and proceed to silence and shame these philosophers. It’s to bid the philosophers to handle these subjects with due care (consistent with their expressing their genuine and considered views), and when they do, leave them alone and let them do their jobs.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Edith Sanders
28 days ago

Who exactly am I silencing or shaming if I suggest that standards of “due care” should be sensitive to the fact that my meat eating friends are not currently under systematic threat of social exclusion, legal sanction, and violence, while many of my trans friends are.

If we value open philosophical inquiry of the sort that Heath describes, then we should think seriously about how to create spaces in which we can assure one another of the mutual trust and respect such a form of inquiry implicitly depends upon.

I found Eidelson’s “Etiquette of Equality” helpful in thinking about some of the difficulties involved with signaling the necessary respect. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/papa.12230

Edith Sanders
Edith Sanders
Reply to  Derek Bowman
27 days ago

I’m not accusing *you* of silencing and shaming anyone. I said that Douglass’s claims, and claims like his, are often used by academics (even philosophers) to silence and shame people like Kathleen Stock, Alex Byrne, Holly Lawford-Smith, Peter Singer, Nathan Cofnas, Rebecca Tuvel, and others.

Academics often claim that to entertain, teach, engage with, or publish arguments from these philosophers is *thereby* to disrespect, demean, or harm a group of people–the “marginalized and oppressed” such as trans people, racial minorities, or people with disabilities. The implication is that one side of the debate (the anti-Stock, anti-Cofnas, anti-Singer, anti-Tuvel side) should be allowed to advance their views in academic philosophy (since this is the respectful, morally sensitive side), but anyone with Stock’s, Cofnas’s, Singer’s, or Tuvel’s views should (be forced to) stay silent about their views (since this is the disrespectful, morally insensitive side willing to disrespect the oppressed!). This is transparent silliness. No philosophical view is correct merely in virtue of being held by the oppressed. Even the views of the oppressed should be subject to rational scrutiny. Trying to block critical engagement with their views is not respectful to them. It’s patronizing.

Are you suggesting that, when a group is oppressed, they and their allies should be allowed to advance their views in academic philosophy, but their critics should remain silent (despite making every effort to clarify that the oppressed group should not be mistreated)? Otherwise, the critics will be doing something on par with arguing with black people about whether they should be enslaved?

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Edith Sanders
25 days ago

Thanks Edith. The inference I’m proposing is much less ambitious than this, as I tried to indicate in my exchange with Justin below.

I think what the Douglass example shows is that there can be issues of status, standing, and respect at stake that are much more serious than ‘meat-eaters don’t like being criticized’ and ‘theists can be sensitive about their beliefs’.

Perhaps we can make progress by agreeing that in many of the cases you cite the stakes are somewhere between the threat of arrest and re-enslavement on the one hand and not liking one’s dietary choices criticized on the other. Granting that doesn’t automatically give license to everything that might fall under the rather broad umbrella of the term ‘cancellation,’ but it does mean we have to do more than just shrug our shoulders and say ‘hey, we’re philosophers this is just what we do.’

I’ll avoid the temptation to weigh into some of the specific controversies you allude to, because I don’t think we have time to fruitfully has them out in this forum. I will report my own subjective experience with some of the figures you name and/or their fellow travelers. I’ve often started off persuaded by the ‘Look, we’re not disrespecting X group, we’re just engaged in dispassionate inquiry into contested frameworks, principles, ontology, etc.’ But then before I’ve made it to the end of the paper/post/speech I find them saying needlessly insulting things about, or contributing to moral panics against, members of group X.

The result has been to make me suspicious of invocations of Heath-style defenses of philosophical method, in much the way you and Justin are suspicious of my invocation of Douglass here. I think this is either an instance of, or at least connected to the kind of “mimetic” significance of our speech acts that Eidelson lays out in the piece I linked above.

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 month ago

This is a great quote by Frederick Douglass, but I don’t think he is saying what you take him to be saying.

He is addressing an anti-slavery organization and pointing out that it would be pointless for him to have to argue there for the immorality of slavery: He asks whether such a thing is really in question “for Republicans” (i.e. for what was best-known at the time as the anti-slavery party). He also says that the other premises he would need to establish the wrongness of slavery are already implicitly granted even by the defenders of slavery, since (as Douglass points out) there would otherwise be an inconsistency in the laws, which imply that slaves are persons.

In the context of his speech — a context in which the only necessary premises in an argument for a certain position are already granted by everyone present — Douglass is right that there would be no point wasting his time making that argument. Instead, he could wonder aloud why people continue to resist implementing changes that would bring us more in line with the conclusion of an argument nobody seriously objected to.

Nothing Douglass says here seems to imply that nobody should be permitted to raise objections against his proposals on the grounds that his ‘moral standing’ in the discussion would then be in question. Such a move would be much less fair, and much less effective, than the move he actually seems to be making here. For instance, suppose that Jack believes that he is a special creation of God. This is, he says, essential to his self-conception. Anyone who denies or questions Jack’s religious beliefs (Jack claims) treats him as a liar and a fraud and a mere animal, which as he sees it denies his moral standing in the conversation. An odd thing about such a tactic is that it will be effective if, and only if, Jack’s views are not marginalized in that conversational context. If Jack’s religious beliefs about himself are not taken seriously, then his ploy will get him nowhere, and he will be exposed at once as trying to strong-arm others into letting his remarks evade rational inquiry, contrary to the spirit of philosophical discussion. It is only if enough people in the discussion are ashamed or terrified of doubting Jack’s beliefs about himself and/or his moral status that this move could effectively shut down conversation and allow his views to dominate. But this implies that he already has dominant social power in that context.

Someone who is socially marginalized in a certain context, and who is agitating for change, cannot avoid making an argument. Douglass seems right when he complains that it would be much better if he didn’t have to waste his time presenting arguments whose premises everyone implicitly accepts already. And in a speech to abolitionists, he doesn’t have to do that (though he still reminds his audience of just what those arguments are). But since he wanted change and his views were not yet dominant, he was obliged to make those simple arguments over and over again when speaking to those who didn’t agree with him. If he and his fellow abolitionists had instead just complained that anyone who expected them to make a case for abolition was arguing in bad faith, or that such a person thereby made the discursive space affectively fraught, they might have generated consensus among themselves, but they would never have persuaded the large numbers of people they ultimately did. In reality, they knew they didn’t have the luxury of not arguing their case over and over again.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Justin Kalef
28 days ago

Thanks for the reply, Justin. The rhetoric and context of Douglass’s speech are richer and more interesting than either of us is equipped to do justice to in this forum. So let me instead clarify the role this passage played in my own thinking.

I came to this passage in precisely the context of defending the sort of account of philosophical inquiry that Heath lays out. And I imagined myself offering that kind of defense of detached argument to someone in Douglass’s position. “Look, Fred, we’re philosophers right? Nothing is sacred, everything’s up for debate. Just offer your arguments to the light of reason and challenge and let the truth win out. Don’t take it so personally.”

Whatever we can say in the third person about the value of philosophical discourse, or of the necessity of confronting those who disagree, I realized that second-personal demand could only be made in bad faith in such a context. This was a point of insight for me, and it’s an insight that seemed to be missing from Heath’s account.

As to your Jack example, there’s a big difference between questioning someone’s sense of their own moral importance and asking someone to be part of a conversation in which it is treated as a genuine question whether they are even entitled to basic respect as a member of the community of inquiry, or indeed as a human being. But also, I’m not sure that we’d be positioned to engage in productive philosophical inquiry with Jack anyway – again this comes from recognizing that their are social and interpersonal preconditions for conducting that mode of inquiry. The rest of us can talk about the merits of Jack’s moral-theological views, but we shouldn’t be surprised (perhaps we could be disappointed) if he’s unwilling or unable to engage with us.

Last edited 28 days ago by Derek Bowman
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Derek Bowman
28 days ago

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Derek.

It seems to me from what you say that the insight you gleaned from pondering this speech of Douglass’s is not so much something Douglass wrote into the speech or even that he was thinking about as he prepared those words, but rather an idea that might have been anachronistic for Douglass’s time but would occur to some readers of today based on conversational norms in certain sociopolitical subcultures. And that’s fine, I suppose: the real issue is not whether Douglass meant it, but whether the conversational norm has merit.

On that point, I have my doubts. I have heard the move made several times, but can’t see how it could be universalized fairly without creating overall problems for reasoned discourse.

The way it’s always presented, which I find to be something of a straw man, someone says, “because you have property P, you shouldn’t even be allowed in this conversation. Go away.” If I ever heard someone say that, I would object strongly. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say such a thing. Instead, the person who has (or claims to have) property P always seems to be dealing with others who are perfectly willing for P to take part in the discussion fairly, but are unwilling to grant certain claims that the person insists everyone take for granted.

I actually agree with you that it might be unreasonable to tell someone not to take something personally: all sorts of things can be personally upsetting to people, sometimes reasonably so. But suppose that you and some other people are discussing something that I find too emotionally intense to reason about impartially. The whole thing just makes me uncomfortable. I feel that I should be free to walk away from that discussion, or even (supposing the people involved have already agreed to spend the afternoon in philosophical conversation on whatever topic turns out to be of interest) to request that we stick to other topics for the next hour or two, so that we can all enjoy our time together.

But what if you and other people want to talk about something on your own, and I don’t feel comfortable discussing it? Or what if you want to talk about it with anyone who is willing to discuss it? Could I rightly prevent you from doing so, if I’m not compelled to be involved? Suppose that my Jack character belongs to a not-very-popular religion, and finds it personally insulting that anyone would question that religion. If Susan wants to write a philosophical article critically assessing those religious beliefs, and Jack finds that so profoundly offensive that he feels uncomfortable attending a philosophy conference that Susan or anyone who likes her article attends, should we take his complaint about this seriously and join in when he blames Susan for his lack of involvement, even on conversations of different topics?

This seems to me to give an extraordinarily powerful veto power to anyone with enough social sympathy to pull that move. Except in some really extraordinary circumstances, if even then, I think the proper reaction in such cases is just to choose not to join the conversations you don’t think you can handle in a philosophical spirit.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Justin Kalef
27 days ago

Justin,

Though we no doubt still disagree, I’m not sure how far apart we actually are on this issue. All I’ve tried to do here is identify an additional dimension of moral and pragmatic consideration that I think is often missing from the sort of defense of philosophical norms that Heath gives. I don’t think the result of taking that dimension into account will be any sort of universal prohibition of topics or styles of discourse. Indeed, I don’t think the result will be any simple universal rule at all.

The reason I don’t think we’re that far apart is that the series of questions and scenarios you offer are clearly designed to track some of the contextual and interpersonal dimensions that will go into determining when it is and isn’t appropriate to engage in this mode of discourse on a particular topic.

As your questions show, sometimes we might simply face a choice between either excluding someone from the conversation or constraining our choice of topics and/or modes of inquiry on that topic. Which choice we should make will depend on all sorts of things, including our relationships to one another. It will also depend on the topic and our purpose in coming together to discuss it.

If you’re my student, I might first seek ways to signal my uncompromising respect for you as a full member of the classroom and campus community, and my commitment to ensuring that other students treat you with similar respect during our discussion. If I can effectively signal that commitment, I might be able to include you in our discussion, and we might all benefit from insights connected your personal stake in the matter. (I would again recommend the Eidelson piece I linked above for a discussion of the dangers and difficulties of this.)

If I can’t do that, and the topic is one that is ancillary to the point of the class, I might instead redirect the conversation, saying that we should get back on topic, or indicating that it’s an important topic but one we don’t have the capacity to properly set up and discuss in this context.

If the topic is one closer to the core purpose of the class, I’d have to instead figure out whether there was a way to let you opt out of this one discussion, or whether I had to tell you this class just isn’t for you. That would be a pretty tough call to make, but in some cases it might be the right call.

And we’d have similar choices to make, with different contours, if we’re talking about a friend group, an online forum, a reading group, an academic department, or other tightly or loosely defined communities and activities.

What we can’t do is simultaneously pretend that being philosophers exempts us from being concerned with the social dimensions of our mode of discourse, then complain about the social response to our philosophizing in that way.

Last edited 27 days ago by Derek Bowman
Daniel C
Daniel C
1 month ago

Professor Heath’s article also mentions our general norm of charity which provides backing for these three minor norms. Philosophers learned through the millennia that debates are just more productive when charity is granted. This is an insight we should teach the folk. And doing so would earn us more elbow room to do substantive philosophy from there. An obstacle is that charity naturally flows from trust, and there is a trust recession with several causes.