My friend Bas van der Vossen has an interesting paper, "In Defense of the Ivory Tower: Why Philosophers Should Stay Out of Politics", forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology.
I'm curious to see what people think of it. I'm inclined to think that premise (2) of his argument ("The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues") is false. Seeking the truth is certainly one of our tasks, but must it dominate all other considerations? What would be wrong with balancing truth-seeking against making the world a better place? Bas briefly considers something like this objection on p. 21 of the unpublished draft of his manuscript, but I don't find his response very convincing. He writes:
The problem...is easy to spot. Suppose that the need to make the world a better place really does trump considerations of truth. That raises an obvious question: how should we go about this? In order to make the world a better place, we first need to know what would make it better. But to ask that question is to ask the central question of political philosophy. And to answer it we need to know the truth about political philosophy. In this sense, truth cannot be avoided.
By my lights, the line of argument here hangs on a false dilemma: namely, either (1) we pursue truth, or (2) we pursue making the world a better place. Bas' argument then is that if we want to do (2) effectively, we have to do (1)--thus, the idea that advocacy should "trump" truth is incoherent (one can't advocate properly without first knowing truth).
Suppose, though, that we substitute a weaker goal: that of balancing concern for truth with some probability of making the world a better place. Bas' line of reasoning in the above passage doesn't show that this is incoherent, nor, it seems to me, does anything in the rest of the paper show that it is wrong. Advocacy may well have epistemic and moral risks (viz. the kinds of biases Bas talks about in his paper), but why not think that those risks--the risks of making the world a worse place--might be morally outweighed by a significant probability of making the world a better place through advocacy? To see how this might be the case, consider an oversimplified but broadly concrete case.
Suppose, on the one hand, I do not engage in advocacy. Then suppose that because I don't, my biases are lessened and my chance of finding The True Theory of Justice is 99%. However, suppose that because I do not engage in advocacy, the chances of actually convincing many people of The True Theory are small to nil (so that even if I find the True Theory, my finding it will do very little good). On the other hand, suppose that if I engage in advocacy, my probability of finding The True Theory falls to 70% but, through advocacy, I stand to convince many people of whatever theory I arrive at. Even though I risk great harm in the latter case (should my biases drive me to convince people of a False Theory), there is a far greater chance of doing great good (should I settle on and convince many of the True Theory).
For Bas' argument to be sound, he would have to show that the moral risks of playing it safe (99% of finding True Theory+no advocacy) outweigh the possible moral benefits of the other option (75% chance of True Theory+effective advocacy), given that the benefits of the latter could be tremendous. Now, maybe there is a good moral argument for playing it safe here over playing it risky--but I don't quite see such an argument in his paper.
On one final note, I can't help but wonder what the implications are for Bas' role as contributor over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Given that the blog--by its own self-description--engages in political advocacy ("We seek here to revive, energize, and extend that tradition—to demonstrate that contemporary libertarians can, in addition to their traditional vindication of individual liberty, offer effective, powerful, and innovative responses to the problems of economic vulnerability and injustice and to their social, political, and cultural consequences"), shouldn't Bas call it quits (if he hasn't already)?