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07/21/2014

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Jason Brennan

No worries, Bas is only employed in our truth-seeking division, not our public outreach division.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jason: Thanks for your comment! Of course, even if Bas is only in your truth-seeking division, he's still contributing to an advocacy *organization* (which BHL is)--which is itself a kind of indirect advocacy (his posts do publicly "advance the libertarian cause", do they not?). Indeed, aren't his posts--to the extent that they defend libertarian views, espousing them publicly--akin to public "votes" in favor of libertarianism...in which case, if libertarianism is a harmful view, Bas is akin to a bad voter? (He could, after all, refrain from "voting" at small cost to himself!). ;)

On a more serious note, it's not as though I have a problem with Bas being an advocate! First, I'm not convinced (yet) by his argument against philosophers engaging in political advocacy. Second, given that I defend a (new) version of libertarianism myself (though probably quite a different version of it than anyone at BHL), I'm all for public discussion of the view!

Matt DeStefano

In the post at BHL, Bas describes the first premise as follows: (1) People who take up a certain role or profession thereby acquire a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at their tasks.

From the same empirical research that I imagine Bas is citing, we know that taking a position on a topic (or identifying as X in relation to that topic) can cause bias. Does this mean that we have a prima facie moral duty to avoid taking positions, *especially* when they are public? If so, Bas isn't making an even remotely reasonable effort at avoiding those types of behaviors. He's not only staked out a position, but he has publicly announced it and advocated for it. The commenters in the thread also give other good reasons to suppose that (1) is false.

I also have a slightly different objection to (2) as well. It could be that the best way to find the truth is for political philosophers to take up positions and argue for them. If this is the case, it means means that the *task* of each individual political philosopher is to seek the truth. Instead, we ought to think that the individual's task is to put the best argument forward for the position that they think is most likely to be correct. If this is the case, being a political activist won't be very - if at all - harmful to the political philosopher's task.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Matt: Thanks for your comment.

You write: "From the same empirical research that I imagine Bas is citing, we know that taking a position on a topic (or identifying as X in relation to that topic) can cause bias. Does this mean that we have a prima facie moral duty to avoid taking positions, *especially* when they are public? If so, Bas isn't making an even remotely reasonable effort at avoiding those types of behaviors. He's not only staked out a position, but he has publicly announced it and advocated for it."

I entirely agree. I'm very puzzled by his defense of participating at BHL in his post. His justification, essentially, is that he doesn't *think* his participation there biases him. But this is precisely what the very studies he cites in his paper predict he should think even if it *does* bias him (people judge themselves not to be biased situations that do in fact bias them).

Bas van der Vossen

Matt, that is an interesting challenge. I think the correct response is that it is not reasonably possible to avoid arriving at conclusions. So that's not excluded by my principle in (1). That principle, incidentally, is very plausible. I honestly can't see why you'd resist it.

Marcus, one last time: my response was not that I don't think I'm biased. My response was that, looking at my background and the nature of the blog, the additional risk of becoming biased by joining the blog seemed very low to me. That's an ex ante assessment, not a piece of ex post introspection. The latter is extremely unreliable and, having actually studied this literature, I'm not so dumb as to rely on it. The former is fallible too, and surely subject to biased assessment on my part. Here I can't do anything more than my best. That's why I explained my reasons for the decision and repeatedly invited people to persuade me my ex ante reasoning was flawed. Just saying "but you're biased" isn't exactly helping. But I'll leave it at that.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Bas: Thanks for your comment.

I'm not saying you are biased--merely that you may be, and that, according to your own argument, people shouldn' reply on their personal judgments (ex ante or ex post) of whether they are biased (or the risks of further biasing them), precisely because political activism biases them (making them blind to their own biases!).

The very point of your paper is that philosophers shouldn't engage in activism and then say, "Hey, I'm doing my best. Give me reasons to believe I may be risking greater bias, despite my belief that the risks are small." Demonstrating that your work at BHL has either biased you or increased your risk of bias would be a remarkably difficult task, one that neither I nor, I suspect, other readers can accomplish. But again, isn't the point of your paper that people shouldn't have to do that--that we should take the *empirical* evidence regarding bias as dictating that we philosophers shouldn't engage in political activism, our own judgments of the risks notwithstanding?

Also, bias can be a really subtle thing. You may have already had libertarian leanings before joining BHL, but your work there could well have (1) solidified your views, and (2) given you subtle and hard-to-detect reasons for lobbying harder for views than you might otherwise have, given the personal-professional benefits involved (a community of people who reinforce libertarian views, etc.). These are real risks that anyone faces in joining a political organization. Even committed democrats, for instance, may become *more* committed--and more strident--after working with other democrats. How do you know something similar hasn't happened in your case? (Note: I'm not suggesting that it has! But your paper points to research that this kind of stuff does happen--and it is part of your argument for staying away from activism).

Ram Neta

What counts as "political activism"? If I am on an admissions committee, and I see that my fellow committee members are openly disregarding applications from members of a particular sex or race or ethnic background, should I do nothing to oppose their egregious discrimination? If I witness a lynching, do I simply walk away? If I am a citizen of a nation that allows for discrimination in the workplace of lynching in the legal system, do I turn away, for fear that getting involved will hinder my ability to seek the truth impartially? I think none of us should think that our abilities as impartial truth-seekers are good enough in the first place to suffer very much damage from engaging in these activities.

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