Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Questioning Political Dogmas

There's an interesting thread over at Daily Nous asking whether there's a problematic lack of political diversity in academic philosophy.  I don't think this is something that can be answered in a value-neutral way.

In particular, one cannot just assume that the spectrum of views in the general populace is privileged and ought to be reflected proportionally in academia, (or anywhere else, for that matter).  As we know from history, morally abhorrent views can enjoy substantial popular support.  There was once widespread support for slavery, fascism, etc., amongst certain populations. Otherwise decent and "reasonable" people held, and advocated for, these abhorrent views.  That doesn't mean that they were actually reasonable in doing so, or that the views are ones that (ever) merited representation amongst the intelligentsia.

There's no a priori reason to expect our moment of history to be uniquely enlightened, or lacking in morally abhorrent perspectives and ideologies.  Just because a view is held by some, or even many, does not establish that it is morally respectable.  There's really no alternative to using one's moral judgment to attempt to discern which views are reasonable (even if false) and which are truly beyond the pale.

Having looked closely at the arguments offered against gay marriage, for example, I think they are utterly lacking in intellectual merit. These views are morally abhorrent, irrational, and betray their proponents as (in this respect) bad people who have let motivated reasoning corrupt them. (Again, they may be otherwise decent people, just as many past slaveholders were presumably otherwise decent people.)  We should no more want (or expect) to find anti-gay views represented in academic philosophy than we should want (or expect) to find racist or fascist views being defended. Representation of rationally indefensible views is not a worthwhile kind of diversity to seek, especially when the views in question are also deeply morally abhorrent, betraying a lack of sufficient respect and concern for one's fellow beings.

So there can be reasonable political/ethical "dogmas". (I put this in scare quotes since commonly "dogmatism" is understood to involve holding a belief in a way that's resistant to any countervailing evidence. But in this sense we do not "dogmatically" believe that grass is green, or that slavery is wrong: rather our extreme confidence stems precisely from our rational responsiveness to the overwhelming weight of reasons suggesting that the contrary view is untenable.)  If their negations would be truly indefensible, then widespread academic consensus on this point is obviously not a problem.  Of course, which views thus qualify is a judgment call. But again, just because judgment is required, it doesn't follow that any possible judgment on the matter is equally reasonable or legitimate.

On to the big question, then: Which political "dogmas" of academia really are reasonable ones, and which admit of reasonable questioning?  Here are a few moral theses that I think can't be reasonably denied (despite many people actually denying them):

* There is nothing morally wrong, or inferior, about homosexuality or same-sex relationships. Gay couples should be allowed to marry just as straight ones can.
* Current immigration policies are unjustly restrictive. (Individuals born in other countries matter morally, and it is wrong to prevent them from escaping a dysfunctional society in pursuit of the far greater opportunities available to them in our country.)
* Animal suffering matters morally, and as a result much (esp. factory-farmed) meat production is morally atrocious.

Of course, if anyone in comments wishes to dispute these suggestions, you're welcome to try! You're also welcome to suggest other plausible candidates that I've left out.

More interestingly, perhaps, which contra-party-line views should academic philosophers take more seriously?  Some proposals:

* Abortion: While pro-life views are, I think, ultimately misguided, I think it's also pretty clear that one can hold (some) pro-life views reasonably.
* Free markets: I suspect that many academics are unreasonably biased against libertarian economic views (though less so in philosophy than in many other arts & humanities disciplines, I imagine).
* Utilitarian policy proposals that may seem prima facie "discriminatory" e.g.,  QALYs, procreative beneficence, non-random asylum allocation proposals, etc.

Other suggestions welcome!

More generally, I think, the focus of political/ethical concern amongst many philosophers (at least on social media, etc.) strikes me as troublingly parochial.  There's a lot of concern about (i) economic inequality within a country, and (ii) various injustices regarding the local treatment of minorities. The consensus view on these matters doesn't strike me as wrong exactly, but I think there are much more important humanitarian matters that end up being comparatively neglected.

As Scott Alexander puts it:
The moral of the story is that if you feel an obligation to give back to the world, participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it. Giving even a tiny amount of money to charity is hundreds or even thousands of times more effective than almost any political action you can take. Even if you’re absolutely convinced a certain political issue is the most important thing in the world, you’ll effect more change by donating money to nonprofits lobbying about it than you will be reblogging anything.
There is no reason that politics would even come to the attention of an unbiased person trying to “break out of their bubble of privilege” or “help people who are afraid of going outside of their house”. Anybody saying that people who want to do good need to spread their political cause is about as credible as a televangelist saying that people who want to do good need to give them money to buy a new headquarters. It’s possible that televangelists having beautiful headquarters might be slightly better than them having hideous headquarters, but it’s not the first thing a reasonable person trying to improve the world would think of.


  1. Hi Richard,

    I have a couple of questions and tentative points:

    1. On the issue of which views merit representation, I'm intuitively inclined to think that no false moral views merit representation among philosophers, or anywhere else for that matter (except, perhaps, for some resulting from non-moral errors, but that's also doubtful).

    Perhaps, given how some false moral views are widespread, it is better if some philosophers address them and argue against them, but wouldn't it be better if they were not held by any philosopher (or by anyone, for that matter)?

    Granted, as it happens, there will likely always be false moral theses being defended by some philosophers, and some are more unreasonable than others, but I don't see in which sense they would merit being represented.

    Perhaps, a problem might be that if some views are rejected for the wrong reasons, but the rejection is widespread and strongly held among a community of people (in this case, academia), some people in that community either improperly accept those rejections (due to in-group bias, perhaps, and without realizing they're wrong-headed), or shut up when they do have objections, to avoid strong social condemnation.

    That would be bad of the rejected views were false, worse if they were not, but in any case, I think the basic problem would not be lack of diversity, but social pressure in the wrong direction (even if some diversity might reduce that social pressure).

    2. On a different note, what sort of anti-abortion view do you think is pretty clearly reasonable?
    Does it involve embryos, or only late-term fetuses?

    3. With regard to the three theses you mention, it seems to me that [substantive, not epistemic] moral error theorists are committed to denying the second and third - and many others.
    So, it seems to me a candidate no less plausible than some of your theses is P4: "Substantive moral error theories are false". That may not count as a political view, but maybe it counts as an ethical one (unless you exclude metaethics).
    Another ethical one: P5: "The Bible [or any of its books] is not inspired by a morally perfect, omniscient being, nor a generally reliable guide to moral truth".
    Then again, given that it's a minority view in the field of philosophy of religion, maybe it does not enjoy the widespread consensus you're looking for - and so, it does not qualify as a "dogma" of academia -, but on the other hand, I don't know that all of the three ones you propose enjoy greater support.

    1. Hi Angra, interesting questions!

      1), I guess I'm inclined to think that there are many false philosophical views (including in moral philosophy) that are nonetheless reasonable and well worth exploring, developing, etc. Part of this may be pragmatic: we often can't (reasonably) be all that confident of the answers to hard philosophical questions, and so it's good that alternatives be sympathetically and systematically explored in case we turn out to be wrong! But more than that, I think there are often interesting arguments to be offered in support of legitimate-but-false views, and important insights to be gained from understanding the appeal of various (even ultimately misguided) perspectives, and I think our discipline would be the poorer for neglecting these.

      2) perhaps even embryos, via the sort of "humanity" argument my evil twin suggests here. But I'd agree that objections to late-term abortion are more clearly reasonable.

      3) Oops, yeah, my theses should be read as presupposing a context in which moral discourse is accepted, not asserting that error theories are also unreasonable. (Rephrase them as negative claims, if you will.)

    2. Richard,

      Thanks; interesting replies too.
      I'd like to challenge a couple of points a little, though:

      With regard to 1., it seems to me that even if some false moral beliefs are held reasonably (but: see below), moral diversity is not a good thing. It's a bad thing, because moral diversity entails people hold false moral beliefs, and that's surely bad, on its own and also because of its consequences, considering that people tend to act upon their moral beliefs, so they might end up behaving immorally while believing that they're not behaving immorally.

      Granted, moral disagreement on one issue is better than agreement on the wrong answer, but agreement on the right answer would be better - with the caveat that people may get the right answer for the wrong reasons, but I think that that would involve other false moral beliefs as well, unless the false moral belief results from false non-moral ones.

      In any event, lack of moral diversity because people know the moral truth would seem optimal.

      That aside, and regarding whether some false moral beliefs (not resulting from false non-moral ones) are held reasonably, the difficulty I see is that people holding such beliefs might end up acting immorally if they act on them, so they would be acting in a reasonably, epistemically rational way, but immorally. That seems at least unusual, even if possible.

      For example, going by the abortion example (which I'll address in another reply, and from a different angle), a person who claims that embryos are human beings and as such as morally worthy as others, may promote a ban on all abortions, including in cases of rape (after all, victims of rape are not allowed to kill their 6-year-old children even if those children resulted from rape, and even if the existence of those children causes them psychological suffering), which I would say is immoral - well, actually, I would say the ban is immoral even when no rape is involved.

      Moreover, they would be (implicitly or explicitly) accusing someone who did nothing wrong (e.g., someone who took emergency contraception, etc.) of attempted murder or murder.

      In my assessment, the behavior of the defender of the anti-choice stance (i.e., promoting that stance, supporting a ban, etc.) is immoral, and I'm not inclined to find it reasonable; similar considerations apply to most other examples at least, in my view.

    3. Yes, you're surely right that there's a clear sense in which it would be morally optimal for everyone to have only true moral beliefs. But I think there might be philosophical costs to reaching total consensus in such a way (just as there would be philosophical costs if everyone were born omniscient: there would no longer be any discipline of philosophy at all!) There are also interesting questions regarding the long-run pursuit of truth, if we only stipulate present convergence on the truth, will we be in as good a position to attain further philosophical knowledge in future? Maybe, if it's straightforwardly incremental from our current store of knowledge; but maybe not if it requires more diverse insights. It's an interesting challenge you raise, in any case, and I definitely grant the force of it (even as I wish to resist it, at least in part).

    4. I think in some contexts, the fact that some people hold and defend false moral beliefs - like immoral behavior - can be instrumentally useful and even have a net positive moral effect in the present or the future, as long as some specific features of the context are fixed, but it's still a bad thing on its own, and it would be both presently morally better and even better in terms of future moral truth-finding if there were no such diversity, as long as some other features of the context were changed too.

      As a (more or less) analogous situation, moral diversity would then be like a drug that can keep a viral infection mostly in check for a very long time without curing it, but at the cost of a number of negative side effects (say there are no other drugs to simplify). If an infected person is not treated, one may in a sense say she's worse off than she would be if she were treated, but on the other hand, the more basic problem here is not the fact that she's not treated - the more basic problem is that she has a viral infection in the first place (here, the more basic problem would never be a lack of moral diversity, but rather whatever failure to find truth makes moral diversity instrumentally useful in context, assuming it is - but see below).

      Generally, the potential philosophical costs and benefits of a lack of diversity depend, in my view, on why there is such a lack of diversity, and what features of the context are fixed, so I'll grant that exposure to different false views might help finding truth in some actual cases given context. However, I think there is another side to that coin, and my personal impression is that the other side is heavier so to speak. In other words, I think there are serious philosophical costs of philosophers' holding and defending false moral beliefs too, in terms of making it more difficult to find truth presently and in the future, because:

      a. Philosophers tend to make sophisticated arguments in defense of their beliefs (unlike most people), and tend to be committed to defending their moral beliefs (like many, perhaps most people). Those defenses of false beliefs often perpetuate them, even convincing more people. We see evidence of that in the long-time persistence of disagreements on specific issues.

      b. Related to a., more specific false moral beliefs in philosophy tend to be defended on the basis of rather sophisticated more general theories, which tend to generate new more specific false moral beliefs later.

      c. Even those who are inclined towards some true theses will more frequently grant them a lower probability, due to the presence of (otherwise) intellectual peers who claim different intuitions and/or accept different arguments and hold different beliefs.

  2. Richard, if it's true that animal suffering matters morally, and that (at least) factory farming is abhorrent, does it follow necessarily that any single person ought to be vegetarian or vegan?

    1. Not necessarily -- people can reasonably raise doubts about the efficacy of individual choices, for example (though I personally find that kind of move ultimately unpersuasive). I'm personally inclined to the view that it's better to avoid buying factory-farmed animal products as much as possible, and so plausibly we each ideally ought to be vegan, but it's not necessarily a huge priority (and one can achieve some proportion of that good by simply reducing one's intake by degrees -- the final 10% is less important than the first 90%). At least, that's how I rationalize my current failure to be vegan :-). But yeah, I think all these details are subject to reasonable disagreement (at least to some extent).

  3. On the issue of abortion and the evil twin argument, Ricardo seems to hold that the human egg does not have the moral worth of the conceived embryo (not sure what he would think of embryos that do not result from conception; they are not viable but viability does not seem to be part of his criteria), apparently because the former does not share the kind "human being", but the latter does, so somehow that specific life begins at conception.

    But I don't see how that classificatory move might be reasonable; for that matter, I would not call an embryo a human being (and I don't think all people, or even most, use the words "human being" in such a way that an embryo qualifies, regardless of whether it's conceived or not), going by the way I use the expression "human being".

    But even if most people use the words "human being" in a way that includes embryos, that particular classification would not seem to provide moral reasons.

    For example, let's say that there is a community that uses a term "uman eing" in a way such that the referent includes human adults, children, fetuses, embryos, and also ova. Clearly, it would be unreasonable for them to hold that ova share the moral worth of children because they all share the type "uman eing". But how is "human being" any better? (even granting for the sake of the argument that "human being" is used, at least by some people, in a way that includes embryos)

    Perhaps, Ricardo believes that "human being" - but not "uman eing" - is a natural kind in some sense intuitively recognized (or something like that), and that said kind includes embryos.

    That would be difficult for him to defend, it seems to me, since at least some of us (perhaps most) use "human being" in a way such that embryos do not classify - at least, that's my analysis of my intuitive grasp of the term.

    But even if he were right about the natural kind stuff (or something like that), Ricardo's move (if he were to make that move) would seem similar to the move defenders of anti-same-sex-marriage views might make: for example, they might say that marriage between a man and a woman without vaginal intercourse, still is a member of the kind "marriage" which is allegedly a natural kind, and bestows moral worth, whereas gay relationships do not. The kind "human being" might appear intuitively relevant...as long as one is not including entities like embryos when assessing relevancy the kind!

    I don't see why a kind – intuitively recognized or not - that includes embryos but excludes ova (or one that includes them too) would be any more reasonable a candidate for bestowing moral worth than a kind that includes all committed heterosexual relationships but excludes gay ones, or some similar variant.

    Out of curiosity, what does Ricardo think about the following scenarios?

    S1: In the future, people use genetic engineering, making it possible for GM-human ova to develop/change into embryos via parthenogenesis, so that women can reproduce without fertilization of any kind.

    S2: On a distant galaxy, there are social beings (say, phumans) more intelligent than humans. As a result of their own evolutionary past, they can and often do reproduce via parthenogenesis.

    Would he consider the change in S1 still a change in kind - and morally relevant? If so, why?
    What about S2?
    We may also stipulate than, in S2, the beings in question also have a term "phuman being", and in their language, it applies to ova as well. They have another term "pperson", but that one does not apply to either.

  4. Hi Richard,

    Hope all's well! I came across this post via the Daily Nous thread.

    I was surprised to see this on your list of obviously reasonable dogmas included this one:
    >* Current immigration policies are unjustly restrictive. (Individuals born in other countries matter morally, and it is wrong to prevent them from escaping a dysfunctional society in pursuit of the far greater opportunities available to them in our country.)

    I would have thought the best arguments against unrestrictive immigration are "Utilitarian policy proposals that may seem prima facie "discriminatory"." The lifeboat analogy made famous by Hardin, for example, doesn't rest on any assumption that non-citizens don't matter morally. (The argument is that the populations of poor countries are like an ocean full of drowning people surrounding an already-full lifeboat; all you would accomplish by allowing them to immigrate freely is the destruction of wealthy nations through overconsumption.) It grants that they do matter, but argues that for consequentialist reasons we must nonetheless avoid sharing our wealth with them, since doing so would only lead in the long run to global collapse.

    This argument rests on Malthusian empirical premises which were popular in the 70s and appear extremely questionable now, but I'm not sure that it's obviously unreasonable for someone to believe them. Anyway, it certainly doesn't rest on an obviously false *normative* premise.

    Thanks for sharing the Scott Alexander quote. I completely agree.

    1. Thanks Dave!

      I agree that one could reasonably oppose fully open borders on (probably misguided) consequentialist grounds, so my parenthetical addition there was perhaps a bit misleading. The key point is that I don't think anyone could plausibly claim that a marginal increase in immigration, from our current position, would be harmful on net. (I worry that anyone holding that empirical view today would have to be in the grip of motivated reasoning -- as Arpaly nicely points out in Unprincipled Virtue, holding ill-motivated empirical beliefs can reflect poorly on one's moral character.)

  5. What the hell is a "false moral belief"? The only counter necessary to your statements is "I think you're wrong" and there's not really anything you could do to prevent that from invalidating your position. You don't even set up axioms (such as "human suffering is bad") and just assume that your personal moral positions are objectively correct without even constructing a framework in which they are correct. Right now, all you're saying is that "Taylor Swift is better than Beyoncé" and that isn't a positive statement, it's normative. It's not possible to have "false" moral views.

  6. I agree that viewpoint diversity is not valuable, but I think that diversity in cognitive styles is likely valuable. My pet idea, that I'll never develop into anything rigorous, is that because it's easier to confirm than to initially identify worthwhile ideas it is generally better to pour effort into multiple specialized viewpoints rather than to invest exclusively in the development of one most favored or likely to be correct viewpoint.


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