Sunday, July 18, 2021

Philosopher Spotlight: Hrishikesh Joshi

I'm delighted to introduce another great "philosopher spotlight" entry, this time from Hrishikesh Joshi!

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My work focuses on neglected topics and perspectives within moral and political philosophy. I often employ a philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) approach, by using tools from the social sciences in trying to analyze philosophical problems. In my view, there are these large vistas of underexplored terrain, and what motivates me to do philosophy is the desire to explore that terrain by using the methods and distinctions our discipline has developed. It’s a Wild West out there and I’d rather settle that territory than remain in the crowded coastal cities.

My recent book, Why It’s OK to Speak Your Mind (Routledge, 2021) elaborates on this point in terms of marginal value. As researchers, we have a defeasible duty to seek out projects and defend approaches that add the most marginal value in terms of improving our collective picture of the world. Of course, it is not easy to tell where that value will lie, though we can be reasonably confident about extreme cases. The problem is that in general the incentives need not always align – what’s best for one’s career and social standing need not be the same as what’s best for improving our collective epistemic condition.  

Here’s a toy example from the book to illustrate the broader problem. 3 engineers are in charge of the upkeep of a dam. There are (2) good reasons to think the dam will stand, and (3) good reasons to think it will collapse this year. Let’s suppose these reasons add up as if unit weights on a scale, so that the total evidence suggests the dam is going to break. However, there is social pressure to avoid raising doubts about the dam – imagine that the community and its politicians are heavily invested in the dam’s success. Now, the reasons to think the dam will stand are common knowledge, but the reasons to think it will collapse are distributed among the engineers. So, each engineer thinks, rationally, based on the evidence she has, that the dam will stand (2 reasons in favor, 1 reason against). What’s the point of sharing her countervailing evidence with the others? All that will happen is she will receive flak from the community, and her social standing will be threatened. Since, from her evidential perspective, the dam is going to stand anyway, there’s no reason to bring up doubts.

There’s an interesting structure to this case – each engineer behaves rationally in a sense, given her evidence. She rationally believes the dam will stand, and rationally chooses not to share her one doubt (given the social costs attached to doing so). But the group comes to an irrational conclusion – viz., that the dam is not going to break. For the group, taken as a whole, is in possession of evidence such that the rational thing to conclude is that the dam will break, and so the community needs to be evacuated.

The example illustrates what social epistemologists have stressed in recent years, viz., that our epistemic lives are inextricably tied together. Our picture of the world, then, might be usefully thought of as a collective resource – in the book I call this the epistemic commons. There is, sadly, an associated tragedy. I argue that just as pollution can degrade the atmospheric commons, social pressure can degrade the epistemic commons. When there is pressure to avoid sharing evidence that disconfirms a conclusion the group wants to reach, we should suspect that a blind spot is lurking somewhere. Post-mortem analyses of group decisions leading to, for example, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Chernobyl disaster have emphasized the pitfalls of groupthink and evidential bottlenecks. Recent work on “hidden profiles” highlights the reluctance of individuals to share private evidence in a range of group deliberative contexts.

Now, commons problems are typically to be solved with legal restrictions, or established social norms, or individual morality. Plausibly, we all have an imperfect duty to do what we can to mitigate climate change, until the law and social norms catch up with the situation. I argue that similarly, we have an imperfect duty to try to improve the epistemic commons, by at least sometimes sharing evidence despite social pressure not to do so. (In the book I develop a prudential case for speaking one’s mind as well, part of which is summarized in this recent Aeon piece.)

I suspect that social pressures to epistemically conform and avoid sharing disconfirming evidence with one’s in-group partly explain the patterns of partisan polarization that we observe in modern democracy (notably in the U.S.). What’s remarkable is that positions on a whole range of seemingly disconnected issues (that’s how they appear to me at least) – immigration, climate change, policing, abortion, taxation, etc. – travel together in the partisan mind. If you know someone’s position on immigration and climate change, you can predict, with decent accuracy, their view on taxation or abortion. Why should this be so? In my paper “What are the chances you’re right about everything?” (Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 2020) I argue that there is an epistemic problem lurking here – the pattern of partisan polarization is higher-order evidence of a particular sort. Insofar as one finds oneself in one of the two clusters of opinion, I contend, one ought to reduce confidence in one’s package of beliefs.

My next major project is a book on immigration (under contract, Routledge), where Chris Freiman and I will defend opposing views on the topic. Among other things, Chris (with Javier Hidalgo) has convincingly made the case that liberalism is committed to open borders. The central point is that the putative justifications for immigration restrictions (preservation of culture, protecting domestic workers’ jobs, etc.) would generalize problematically to the domestic case. A regime that restricted migration from villages to the cities, so as to protect city workers’ jobs or wages, for example, would not be a liberal regime, whatever else it may be. In my “Is liberalism committed to its own demise?” (Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2018), I argue that it’s not obvious that liberals must be in favor of open borders. Imagine a possible world where there are two countries: Liberal Democracy and Theocracy. Individuals in the former largely endorse and accept liberal norms of toleration, while individuals in the latter mostly reject these norms. Suppose Theocracy is much larger and much poorer, so that there’s significant immigration pressure from Theocracy to Liberal Democracy. Suppose also that norms and values are sticky – people don’t change overnight. It’s not obvious (unless one is a Kantian absolutist about this) that Liberal Democracy is committed to open borders here. And the extent to which our world is similar to this possible world is, of course, an empirical question, not to be settled in the armchair. In general, I argue that debates on immigration policy need to be sensitive to potential long-run institutional changes in this way (see my “For (Some) Immigration Restrictions,” in Ethics: Left and Right, Bob Fischer ed.). I have also argued (see “Immigration Enforcement and Fairness to Would-Be Immigrants” in The Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy, David Boonin ed.) that the state has a duty to do what it can to humanely enforce its immigration laws, out of considerations of fairness to would-be immigrants who are not in a position to circumvent the laws.


Some other miscellaneous papers:

“Microaggressions and Social Order,” (to appear in Analysis) in which I apply a PPE perspective in engaging with Regina Rini’s excellent recent book on the ethics of microaggression.

What’s personhood got to do with it?” (Philosophia, 2020), in which I argue that the all-or-nothing assignment of moral status and rights vis-à-vis personhood that’s dominant in recent moral and political philosophy is likely a mistake.

Why Not Socialism” (Public Affairs Quarterly, 2019), where I argue that even if everyone gets on board with G.A. Cohen’s two principles of justice, the camping trip structure cannot be expanded to society at large due to issues of scale and complexity, and that coercive measures to realize the two principles stand at odds with ideal theorizing.

What’s the matter with Huck Finn?” (Philosophical Explorations, 2016), where I argue that Huck Finn acts rationally against his best judgment, but try to vindicate the intuition that he’s in some sense irrational.

Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil (212), that philosophers are the bad conscience of their time. If my work has a common theme, it’s an endorsement and embrace of this vision, and a desire to further it and encourage it in others insofar as I am able.

- Hrishikesh Joshi


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