Friday, October 23, 2015

Notes on the Philosophy and Politics paper.

I think you have to sign into before you can download. But the idea is that academics have to analyze the issues and come to terms with them fairly and honestly, and not pay attention to what the political implications of their statements are. 

An example of this would be criticisms of Thomas Nagel. Nagel is a non-theist who develops a lot of the arguments against naturalistic materialism that I do. But he thinks you can accept the arguments supporting the idea that reason and "the mental" is fundamental to the universe without becoming a theist. In the process he is critical of the overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything. Now, I can understand why many secularists think that he's mistaken, that materialistic naturalism doesn't have quite the severe problems Nagel thinks they do. But, on top of this comes strong message that he's giving aid and comfort to religious believers and even (gasp!) intelligent design advocates, and they virtually imply that if that is what he really thinks he ought to shut up about it because of the bad political implications of making his case. After all, you don't want someone giving ammo to those "armies of the night." When people criticize them for heresy hunting, they just reply by saying "We're just criticize arguments we don't accept. Shouldn't all ideas be open to criticism?" But no, you aren't just doing that, you're saying his ideas lead to "mischief" and one philosopher, perhaps jokingly, said that his books should be put on a modern secular version of the Index of Forbidden Books. 

To them, I want to say, cut the political correctness and follow the argument where it leads. 

The paper argues that the political involvement of philosophers may lead them to not give fair consideration to positions that could be used to support their political opponents. I am inclined to agree.


Angra Mainyu said...


While I do share the concern about what might be characterized as demonization or character assassination for not adhering to some views - though that's less common among philosophers than on other places -, I think the matter is complicated.

For example, I would like to ask whether you don't think that people sometimes ought to shut up if that's what they really believe.

Let me give you two examples:

1. Let's say a philosopher believes that promoting certain beliefs (e.g., Nagel's views, or Christianity) is immoral, and that those who have those views ought to shut up (because not shutting up is promoting those beliefs, which is immoral). Do you think the person who believes that ought to shut up? Or do you think she's not doing anything immoral by promoting the belief that those who promote Christianity or Nagel's views ought to shut up?

2. Do you think a moral error theorist is not doing anything wrong by promoting a moral error theory? Shouldn't he shut up?

Victor Reppert said...

While there are plenty of people whom I would like to see shut up, I have to recognize that my position with respect to the marketplace of ideas also has to be defended in the marketplace of ideas. However, I think they can. What the alternative is going to be is not the end of the end of any of the relevant positions, but rather the fragmentation of the intellectual community, people who are marginalized in the larger community will form smaller communities where their views will be accepted.

I don't think that positions can be pushed into oblivion by the harshness of polemics against them. Ideas become marginalized when leading intellectuals lose interest in defending them.

Angra Mainyu said...

I was asking was whether you think they have a moral obligation to shut up (so, they ought to shut up, in the moral sense of "ought"), not whether you think that those positions could be pushed into oblivion by the harshness of the polemics against them.

That aside, I tend to agree that harsh polemics will usually not end a position, but on the other hand, I don't think public debate will end many, either. Any non-contradictory position (at least) can be defended with sophisticated arguments, even if the defenses involve epistemic irrationality. Public debate can reduce the incidence of some views, but usually that's about that. Purely for example, there are plenty of religious views incompatible with each other. Some of them are centuries old, and they keep going.

I do think that debating is generally better than trying to force people to shut up by means of social shaming and similar methods - it's better for social peace -, but that's not to say I don't think some (many) people ought to refrain from promoting certain beliefs.

Victor Reppert said...

I take it these people think that their positions are true and defensible, and if you persuaded them that they were neither defensible nor true they would stop defending them.

In one sense, if I argue for something, my goal is to show you that I am right, which means that you won't keep defending the position you are now defending if it opposes mine.

But is there something over and above this that you are saying?

Angra Mainyu said...

These people think that their positions are true and defensible (well, they are defensible by sophisticated arguments in the sense pretty much everything is (even, say, Moon landing conspiracy theories), but it's epistemically irrational to hold them), and if one persuaded them that they were neither rational nor true they would stop defending them. But I think the goal of persuading a sophisticated opponent who publicly promotes another position would be unrealistic in most cases, at least when the positions are very important to them (maybe not secondary points); perhaps, a more realistic another goal would be to show some third parties that the position that one's opponents are defending is false or at least unwarranted - though the matter has to be decided on a case by case basis.

But I was getting at is that regardless of that, I hold they have a moral obligation not to promote those views, in many cases (i.e., they're doing something wrong by promoting those views). Which is not to say that if I engage them in a debate, I'm likely to bring that up and make moral judgments about their promotion of their views, but I might depending on the case (e.g., if they pass negative judgments themselves (e.g., against me, or against third parties) for promoting our views, etc.).

Do you think otherwise? In other words, do you think that whenever A thinks that belief X is true and rational to hold, it's not morally wrong for A to promote belief X?