For the blog's mission and comment policy, see http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2012/05/mission-statement.html Another reply to Van Der Vossen's argument for philosophers staying out of politics--and a case for feminist philosophy, critical race theory, etc. - The Philosophers' Cocoon

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08/21/2014

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Jason Chen

Thanks for this Marcus. Perhaps you're less susceptible to Bas' criticisms because you've already figured out some basic philosophical truths, i.e. that people should be empowered. I feel like some of my most basic philosophical beliefs don't come from pure reflection, but from emotion and experience. For example, one of my most important beliefs (and one that informs my conception of justice) is that self-development is part of a full, flourishing human life. The main reason why I believe this is because I've experienced both a life without self-development and a life with it. And besides being able to cite others who have thought the same thing, I've been unable to give a philosophical justification to support why my claim is true. So perhaps I should listen to Bas' argument, for it is possible that my basic belief is mistaken and that participating in politics would only make me think less clearly.

Brad Cokelet

Hi Marcus,

I just looked over the paper and was not convinced that he provides strong evidence for premise 4.

(1) to support premise 4 he needs evidence that trying to be politically unaffiliated leads people to track the truth *better than* being politically affiliated. He provides lots of evidence that people tend to fail to track the truth when they are affiliated, but I did not see evidence that if these people try to be unaffiliated they tend to track the truth better.

One possibility here is that while hot political thinking does have its epistemic liabilities, cold thinking has its own problems.

(2) It is also interesting that he seems to focus on individual belief formation mechanisms. I would think that in the teaching context we might want hot-headed/affiliated people teaching because they are likely to get people thinking, for and against them. If we want to know what kinds of philosophers increase knowledge we need to take a social epistemology take on this issue, and then it is not clear that the best bet is to each follow a personal knowledge maximizing strategy. This suggests that even if our overall goal is truth, his premise 2 is questionable because of its individualist formulation.

Last, I just skimmed the evidence though (it is annoying to read study after study like that) -- did I miss something?

Phil H

You appear to be assuming here that if a philosopher advocates for a something which is in fact just, then this does not affect her ability to seek truth; but if she advocates for something which is not just then her truth-seeking is compromised. That doesn't seem right to me. Any kind of systematic bias is surely a bias?
Or, you are saying that if justice requires you to be biased in a particular way, then following that bias makes you a good philosopher (or does not impair you as a philosopher). I think this is false as well. If non-ideal justice demands that we advocate for the disadvantaged (about which I agree with you), then that's a demand on us as human beings. But the argument here is about specifically professional duties.

I still thing that Van Der Vossen is wrong, but he's wrong because of something implicit in the premise you number (4). VDV says, "For philosophers even provisionally adopting biased beliefs is dangerous," but he doesn't give any evidence that those who advocate adopt more beliefs than those who do no political advocacy.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Brad: You know, it hadn't occurred to me, but I think those are good worries.

Here's a way of deepening them. I would assume--though I would have to go back to make sure--that all of the studies Bas refers to are based upon a *between-subject* design (i.e. comparing affiliated individuals with unaffiliated individuals).

Notice that between-subject designs like these are really poor evidence for the kind of argument Bas wants to make. For Bas' argument to work, it not only has to be the case that affiliated people are more biased than unaffiliated people; it has to be the case that (1) an individual who is unaffiliated at one time but develops an affiliation later will be more biased after becoming affiliated, and (2) an individual who is affiliated but then becomes *unaffiliated* will be less biased afterwards.

In other words, he would need longitudinal, *within-subject* studies showing that people who shift in either direction (from unaffiliated to affiliated, and vice versa) experience changes in bias and truth-tracking *themselves*.

Indeed, here's why between-subject studies won't do. Between subjects studies can fall prey to self-selection effects. It may turn out that less-biased individuals tend to be unaffiliated *because* they are unaffiliated, not vice versa (it's not their being *unaffiliated* that causes them to lack bias. It's their lacking bias that causes them to be unaffiliated). If this is the case, it may not be true, for any given individual in the unaffiliated class, that *they* would develop greater biases were they to become affiliated. For, on the flip-side, for all between-subjects studies on people with affiliations can show, it is not being affiliated that causes them to be biased but rather the other way around: it is their being biased that leads them to be affiliated -- in which case it may not be the case any individual who moves from being affiliated to not being affiliated that they will become less biased.

In other words, Bas' argument really needs within-subjects studies. Between-subjects studies are subject to uncontrolled confounds that are at cross-purposes to his argument.

Now, of course, all of this falls by the wayside if some of the studies Bas refers to have a within-subject design--but, although I don't have time to check right now, I would be very surprised if any of them did, as people only shift affilations/non-affiliations very rarely, and in irregular time-scales that are tough to run studies for.

I also think your point about p(2) is apt.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Phil: Thanks for your comment!

Yes, on my nonideal theory of justice -- which is derived from a model of freedom and equality -- only some biases are unjust/contrary to the aim of truth. Not all are. According to my theory, treating people as free and equal persons in nonideal conditions is a matter of being biased in favor of empowering the unjustly disadvantaged. Such biases are not only required as a matter of justice, but also (in my theory) a necessary means for arriving at social-political truth (given that truths about nonideal justice emerge, in my theory, from social-political conditions that favor the unjustly disadvantaged).

On your point about Bas' argument merely being about "professional duties", I don't think that can be right. Bas is making a moral argument, which is to say, he means to be talking about morally *justified* professional duties, not unjustified ones.

Here's why this matters. Suppose I agree to be a contract-killer. Do I have any legitimate professional obligations? Moral philosophers are pretty univocal on this question: the answer is no. Morality sets side-constraints on the professional duties we can have or inherit. "Professional duties" that conflict with morality are not genuine duties at all.

By a similar token, I cannot have any legitimate duties qua slaveholder. Why? Because slavery is unjust. I am in no way entitled to be a slaveholder, nor to any of the "duties" associated thereof.

In short, if my theory of nonideal justice is correct, then Bas' first premise -- that we have prima facie duties to not make ourselves worse at our professional tasks -- is really quite weak. It is defeated by any and every duty of justice it comes into conflict with. And, if I am right, nonideal justice requires (or at least permits) us to to be politically active in favor of the disadvantaged (subject to other constraints of fairness). In which case, even if the rest of Bas' argument is sound, its prima facie conclusion is always outweighed by demands of justice to be politically active on behalf of those who suffer injustice.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jason: Thanks for your comment! However, I fear that you might have misinterpreted it a bit.

My argument was not (merely) that I have stumbled onto truths about the nature of nonideal justice that thereby insulate me (but perhaps not you) from Bas' argument.

It is that -- if indeed, my theory about nonideal justice is broadly on the right track -- that very kinds of real-worldish experiences that people (like you!) have can be relevant to determining truths about nonideal justice in nonideal circumstances!

On my theory, there is no single principle from "on high" that states what nonideal justice is. Rather, the principles of nonideal justice I derive from the nonideal original position give us a method -- empowering those who suffer injustice to collectively deliberate and act given their experiences(!) in the real world -- for determining what justice requires in the real-world, all things considered.

The important then is this. My theory entails that what feminists, critical race theorists, scholars of Native American studies, etc., are doing -- contributing to (A) collective deliberation about their experiences, and (B) active empowerment of their (unjustly) disadvantaged members -- is part of what nonideal justice is all about.

A simpler way of putting this is: feminist philosophy, critical race theory, ethnic studies, etc., are all (on my theory) vital *constituents* of nonideal justice (provided they are fair and inclusive to nonmembers who share the correct principles of ideal justice) -- and so, even if they engage in advocacy, that is significant part of the (academic and social) *good* they comprise!

Brad Cokelet

Hi Marcus,

Nice work turning my vague idea into a hard to refute objection. I am also sympathetic to your main argument...Bas's argument is not looking good!

Brad

Marcus Arvan

Brad: Thanks! Nice doing work together. ;)

Phil H

“Bas' first premise -- that we have prima facie duties to not make ourselves worse at our professional tasks -- is really quite weak. It is defeated by any and every duty of justice it comes into conflict with.”

I don't see that at all. It seems to me that you are saying that we actually don't have a moral duty to be good at our professions. If you think that literally every moral duty takes priority over professional duty, then you must be saying that professional duties have a moral salience which approximates to zero, right? Which is fine - professional duty as moral duty is not obvious, and if you want to disagree, you can. And that would indeed defeat VDV's argument. But it has nothing to do with ideal/non-ideal justice, and it would be clearer if you just said "I don't accept (1)."

On the contrary, I think non-ideal justice necessarily implies that we *don't* allow absolute rules like "all moral requirements defeat requirement X". Non-ideal justice seems to me to be a way of acknowledging the messiness of the world and the failure of any set of absolute requirements.

For example, imagine a circumstance where your three candidates for a job are a privileged man with high scores, and an ethnic minority candidate and a disabled candidate with slightly lower scores. You might have a calculus for deciding among them, or an ordering rule, or something, but the requirement of non-ideal justice would surely be that you *can't* say "scores don't matter" or "ethnicity doesn't matter," etc.

Non-ideal justice demands that we allow competing requirements of justice, and navigate among them in some way. If you don't think professionalism is a moral requirement, then fine, but it is compatible with non-ideal justice.

If all the moral requirements on us are M, and M includes justice, and P is the requirements of professionalism, then you've argued that P is a subset of M. I'm not sure I agree, but I'm happy to stipulate. Given that non-ideal justice necessarily demands that we balance competing demands of justice, P will be balanced against all non-P in the same way as other requirements. Unless, as seems to be the case with you, you don't believe in P at all.

Simon Evnine

The conclusion of van der Vossen's argument is just that "political philosophers have a prima facie moral duty to avoid being politically active." But that doesn't imply that they have a moral duty, all things considered, to avoid being politically active. And it is even consistent with there being an all things considered moral duty for them to *be* politically active!

I agree that there are concerns about the truth of some of his premises, but I'm not all that repelled by his use of them. There is *something* to the ideal of disinterested inquiry, conducted in the Ivory Tower. It's just that there are also much stronger moral reasons for political philosophers to be politically active. For one, there's a lot of injustice they may be able to help eliminate through their work.

David Bzdak

Imagine a world in which the academy is stacked with political philosophers who systematically disagreed with your worldview (so if you're left-leaning, imagine a world of mostly right-leaning political philosophers, and vice versa). In such a world, would you still be arguing that political philosophers should be politically active?

Marcus Arvan

Hi everyone: Thanks for the comments. I'm traveling at the moment so I won't be able to reply to most of them until this evening.

But I would like to respond to your question, Dave! The short answer is: yes, within certain bounds. Let me explain.

On my approach to no ideal justice, only some types of political advocacy are just: namely, those types informed by true principles of ideal theory. So, lots of forms of political activism -- nazi activism, racist activism, etc. -- would be ruled out as unjust, on my view, and if academics engaged in those sorts of advocacy, they would be complicit in injustice.

That being said, I think the correct ideal theory of justice combines leftist egalitarianism with a "right-leaning" libertarianism. In my just-completed book manuscript, "Rightness as Fairness", I defend a new moral theory which entails a new political theory that I call "Libertarian Egalitarianism" -- a view which holds that (1) leftism/egalitarianism contains part of the truth, (2) rightist/libertarianism contains part of the truth, and finally (3) morality requires fair compromise between both sides. So, I would most certainly *not* object to many types of leftist *or* tightest activism -- namely, those types which seek dialogue, negotiation, and compromise with the (true) ideals of the other side. What I would object to (on principled grounds, given my theory) is non-compromising partisanship on *either* side...which I think is exactly right. The tragedy of politics today is (on my view) precisely the narrow minded partisanship on both sides (left and right)...and I believe my book can help us see this.

Now, obviously, this is just my view, and I can't give a full summary here...so let me just say that I hope the book comes out (it's currently under review)! ;)

BB

I like Brad's response and Marcus's development of it. However, I think there is a simpler and stronger objection to premise (4) available, which to my knowledge hasn't yet been raised. Bas doesn't even provide very good evidence that people tend to fail to track the truth when they are affiliated.

Bas's evidence for this claim is that we treat the fact that some political group with which we affiliated supports some claim as prima facie evidence for its truth. (He writes: "Instead of rationally evaluating the case for or against a certain position, we base our views in part on how “our” group thinks, how it makes us feel about ourselves as partisans, and other biasing grounds.") This is very plausible. However, he gives no argument that these grounds are actually biasing. Sometimes relying on testimony is perfectly warranted! (On scientific questions, I defer to the scientists.)

The social psychology literature from which Bas quotes shows, at most, that we are disposed (partly via the emotional mechanisms he describes) to treat testimony from the political groups with which we are affiliated with as reliable. But there are pretty obvious prima facie reasons why some political groups actually would be pretty good sources of testimony!

Bas van der Vossen

I just discovered this new thread. Thanks for the comments Marcus. I'm glad to see you're trying to take my arguments seriously!

For now, I'll briefly respond to Brad Cokelet. The claim that political activism heightens bias in people (premise 4 of my argument) is entirely uncontroversial among psychologists. This will be clear to anyone who undertakes an even cursory survey of the psychological literature. My interpretation of that literature in the paper has been checked by a number of psychologists working on these issues, including a leader in the field. You might note also that I back up these findings in the paper with large-scale empirical studies that look at voter-behavior over time. These fit the same model. So we have (a) the psychologists' identification of a mechanism by which premise 4 would be true, backed up by (b) experimental evidence and (c) studies of voter actual behavior. This is about as solid as it gets.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Bas: Thanks for weighing in, and again for writing such a provocative paper! I'll have to take your word on the empirical stuff for now, as I'm admittedly not well-versed in the empirical literature here (though I do plan to take a deeper look!).

In any case, my primary worry isn't about the empirical issues -- as my main argument is that even if political activism biases people, some biases are required by (nonideal) justice and may actually be necessary, as *just* biases, for reaching genuine social-political truths.

Brad Cokelet

Hi Bas,

I did not doubt you thought your claim was backed by the data, and did not intend to question whether you were up on the literature in a way that I will never be.

I was curious about the evidence that people will track the truth *better* (on policy issues, e.g.) if they are not party affiliated. It might be that if I go Republican I will tend to adopt the views that Sarah Palin's adopts, but maybe if I go independent, I will adopt crazy views of my own. I know lots of independents with insane beliefs about all kinds of things, and I am sure the psychologists can help me pick out the mechanisms that produce these views.

I am wondering which study shows that people who are not politically affiliated or active reliably track important truths *better* than those who are affiliated.

Looks like the Lenz book abstracts from questions about the truth of people's views and only looks at how their views change with their leader's views, so I can't see his work providing the answer here. Can point me to the relevant study?

Brad Cokelet

A cursory glance of the Lenz book also reveals that he is upfront about the limits of his conclusions. Those limitations seem to open space to resist your conclusion (or at least to resist how well Lenz's diachronic work supports your conclusion).

Bas van der Vossen

Thanks Marcus. Brad: most experimental studies are comparative in ways that respond to your concern. Here's a discussion - with links - of a pretty interesting one. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/09/new-study-politics-makes-you-innumerate

Brad Cokelet

Thanks!

Brad Cokelet

Ok, last time to wade in on this, but in the study you just linked it looks like political affiliation actually is a mixed bag (!!)

The reported result is that when presented with conclusions that tell against their view, people engage in motivated rational deliberation that they would not have otherwise engaged in. They also are less likely to note the false claims in line with their positive views. But it is a mixed bag!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Phil: thanks for your follow-up comment, and sorry for the delay in responding. I just got home from traveling last night only to find that our cable and internet were knocked out by a storm (and they haven't been fixed yet!).

You write: "I don't see that at all. It seems to me that you are saying that we actually don't have a moral duty to be good at our professions. If you think that literally every moral duty takes priority over professional duty, then you must be saying that professional duties have a moral salience which approximates to zero, right? Which is fine - professional duty as moral duty is not obvious, and if you want to disagree, you can. And that would indeed defeat VDV's argument. But it has nothing to do with ideal/non-ideal justice, and it would be clearer if you just said "I don't accept (1)."

I didn't say we don't have any prima favor moral duty to be good at our jobs. I remained agnostic on that, and my contention was that if we do have any such duty, it will always be outweighed by pro tanto duties of (nonideal) justice. For what it's worth, I do think (1) is false. At most, I think we have a prima facie duty to live up to our explicit and implicit contractual obligations -- obligations which do not entail (1), even prima facie. But this is just to say that I think there are lots of problems with the argument. I think (1) is false *and* so weak (if it were true) to always be outweighed by competing considerations.

Next, you write: "On the contrary, I think non-ideal justice necessarily implies that we *don't* allow absolute rules like "all moral requirements defeat requirement X". Non-ideal justice seems to me to be a way of acknowledging the messiness of the world and the failure of any set of absolute requirements."

I agree with this as a first-order claim about nonideal justice (a substantial part of my book manuscript is dedicated to the proposition that moral duties in a nonideal world must be actively negotiated in response to competing considerations). But I was not making a first-order claim in my earlier reply. I was making a higher-order, meta-normative claim that whatever nonideal justice is (at the first-order), its requirements always outweigh prima facie duties.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Simon: Thanks for your comment!

You write: "The conclusion of van der Vossen's argument is just that "political philosophers have a prima facie moral duty to avoid being politically active." But that doesn't imply that they have a moral duty, all things considered, to avoid being politically active. And it is even consistent with there being an all things considered moral duty for them to *be* politically active!"

Of course, this is right. But my argument in the post is that I think all three of the argument's foundational premises are false.

Next, you write: "I agree that there are concerns about the truth of some of his premises, but I'm not all that repelled by his use of them. There is *something* to the ideal of disinterested inquiry, conducted in the Ivory Tower. It's just that there are also much stronger moral reasons for political philosophers to be politically active. For one, there's a lot of injustice they may be able to help eliminate through their work."

Well, if his premises are false, you should be repelled by them! For my part, I tend to think Ivory Tower thinking has obscured more than it has illuminated -- that it is a bad habit that needs to be undone. The best political philosophy (and here I won't name names) has always, in my view, been deeply embedded in the politics and human experiences of its time. The more we remove ourselves from reality and simply think from within the safe confines of our privileged lives, the worse political philosophy is for it. This is also what I argue for in my "First Steps Toward a Nonideal Theory of Justice." Proper theorizing about nonideal justice drives us *from* the ivory tower, and it's ways of distorting the truth about what justice requires of us in the real, nonideal world.

Phil H

"I was making a higher-order, meta-normative claim that whatever nonideal justice is (at the first-order), its requirements always outweigh prima facie duties."

I see. But I can't go along with the way you're using the word "duty" there. To me a duty is something which exists within a theory of morality (or justice, which I see as a subset of morality). If you accept that a duty exists, then you have to deal with it as a duty - negotiate it, as you say. You seem to be saying that if we qualify the word duty with the phrase "prima facie," then it is no longer like other duties. You seem to see it as existing outside of justice/morality, and so being defeated by any other duty. But to me, that is just saying not-duty. I can't make any sense of this "meta-normative" category you want to place it in of "duties which always fail". That just seems to me to be the same category as holds ice-cream which isn't cold.

I understand that you were trying to stipulate (1) in order to engage with the argument. But I don't think you succeeded. You fake stipulated it! If you're really going to stipulate (1), then you need to accept that the duty to be good at our professions is one of the competing claims to be negotiated within morality.

WRT the (4), where I still think VDV's argument fails: There is an implicit assumption that the politically engaged philosopher does her work in the field in which she is also an activist. It's a fairly safe assumption, but it should be noted.

But my big argument with (4) would be this. VDV makes the assumption that there is such a thing as neutrality, and that being an activist moves one away from it. I dispute that there is such a thing as neutrality. I'd accept the evidence that being an activist shifts the way a person-philosopher thinks, but I don't think we have any standing to claim that we know the movement will be in a "bad" direction.

Simon Evnine

Marcus, thanks for responding. I guess I should have said that I didn't find the conclusion repellent (my English way of saying that I rather like it!), rather than the use of the premises. I'm not committed to the view that there is a prima facie reason in favor of doing political philosophy from the Ivory Tower, but I do think it has some appeal. On that, we seem to disagree. But I don't disagree with your claim about the best political philosophy's having been deeply embedded, etc.

Eric

I skimmed some of the comments, but I just wanted to comment on the original argument. Premise 4 is so vague that it is almost useless. What counts as being politically active? Can they vote? Contribute to campaigns? Volunteer for campaigns? Belong to the Sierra Club? Run for office? Etc.? How can this argument even be taken seriously when this is not in any way defined?

Furthermore, it seems to me that getting involved in some political issues might even lead to a more involved search for the truth about those issues. This might be a good thing.

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