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03 January 2012


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Since Alhoff's book on torture comes in for (at least) implicit criticism here, and explicit criticism on the thread you link, with little discussion of the book's arguments, I'll respectfully suggest that the critics might read the book before critiquing it. I read it in draft, and although I'm a strict prohibitionist on torture, I found it to be serious contribution to discussion of the issues. As Eric notes, the book's permissivist conclusion is qualified (I'd say highly and carefully qualified) and it is not obvious to me that it can be defensibly dismissed "a priori." (I believe the decision to have Yoo blurb does the book a disservice, since I do not think Alhoff's book should be painted with the same brush that may quite justifiably be used on Yoo's apologies for U.S. torture.)

Eric Schliesser

John, except to say, "go read the arguments," you offer no response to the concerns raised by the post or (more seriously) "the disservice" that comes from the *all-too-predictable uses* that folk like Yoo will make of the publication of the book. It might be better for the status of the book if it did not contain a blurb by Yoo; the blurb does offer vivid reminder of the kind of concerns one *should* (no?) have!

John Protevi

The exchange here between John Doris and Eric Schliesser perfectly reflects Eric's worries in the post: the conflict between our self-image as philosophers, brave seekers after truth wherever it leads -- fiat veritatis ruat caelum -- and our obligations as citizens and moral agents, given our more than reasonable expectation that our arguments will be flattened out to be used as sound bites by torture advocates, Merchants of Doubt, et al. "See, even the philosophers admit there's room for argument here..."

J Boyd

What form would/should this "hold[ing] each other responsible" take? Are the "ethics" that make some subjects "taboo" codified? Should they be?

The publication of the two books you mention seems (to me) ethically questionable only in the sense that ANY publication is ethically questionable: that is, that it is public and available for ethical questioning.

I agree that we should hold each other responsible (while ourselves responding - after all, it is the irresponsible that must be "held" responsible). But I think we ARE doing this, as the types of discussions found on this blog are evidence of.


I'm curious why you distinguish philosophy from literature (or "art" more generally), especially given some of your recent posts concerning whether philosophy should follow the model of science. What does art have to offer - that philosophy doesn't - such that only art stands to be diminished if Satan is not given his airtime?

Eric Schliesser

This must be the first instance of 'an argument from the existence of NewAPPS!'

Eric Schliesser

To be frank, Richard: the artists I know (in Liberal Democracies) treat art as if not dangerous; they seem very comfortable with their self-marginalization (which is compatible with fame, status, and money, by the way). By contrast, I treat philosophy as capable of harm despite its potential self-domestication within universities. In a different context I might think differently--and I am open to philosophers who do think differently.

John Protevi

Anthropology offers us an analogy to a profession where cooperation by anthropologists with the military branch of the American Empire -- in particular its "Human Terrain" project in Afghanistan -- has been met with resistance by its professional association:

Is it time for us to call on the APA to consider a study on the professional ethics of philosophers writing on torture?


"See, even the philosophers admit there's room for argument here..."

I really think this is vastly exaggerating the significance of philosophy. I find it extremely hard to think of a case in which a philosopher's work has been put to this kind of use in any prominent position. Scientists do have this kind of authority, and their work is regularly cited as "showing that X", where X can be all kinds of crazy stuff (there is reasonable doubt over global warming, for instance).

But when we pay attention to how these scientists are used in debate, what we see is often distortion and lying. So for instance a scientist publishes a paper on temperature changes in the pacific, and the paper is widely cited as showing that global warming is not happening, or a paper suggesting that a fossil has been misdated which is cited as evidence against evolution. You can't guard against this kind of thing. And it is not the fringe and the cranks who are guilty of blatant misrepresentation, it is the Wall Street Journal (okay, it *is* the fringe and the cranks).

My own work was once cited in a brief to the US Supreme Court against physician-assisted suicide. The citation was deployed as follows: We know that many philosophers would disagree with the claims made here. But look at the kinds of crazy claims made by philosophers! (cite paper by Levy and Bayne). Clearly philosophers should not be taken seriously.

anon grad

The idea of discouraging (or even censuring, depending on how you construct a code of ethics) philosophy that pursues certain lines of inquiry strikes me as more dangerous than allowing the occasional proponent of torture to promote his or her view. It seems to me that most arguments against censorship would apply, mutatis mutandis, in this case. Since I'm guessing most here are not proponents of censorship, what do you see as the relevant differences?

Eric Schliesser

Neil, first, I do not wish to play by your self-marginalization rules. But, first, as an empirical fact there certainly is some judicious use of moral philosophy in legal decisions. Second, one can guard against to misuse of one's words. (For example, formal techniques can be used to keep uninformed outsiders away!) Third, John Yoo *was* enlisted as a blurb-writer, and the US armed forces take a healthy interest in ethics intelligence: <>

Eric Schliesser

The relevant analogy may be more like yelling "fire" in a packed theater when there is no fire at hand. But, again, it looks to me as you do not engage with the argument/concerns of the post at all and just recycle (self-serving?) pieties.



I agree that there are delicate issues here about misappropriation, although I'm not sure that one is required to eschew publicly stating a moderate and defensible position because it might be co-opted by those defending an immoderate and indefensible position. As Neil notes, scientific results are continually reported in misleading ways, but I doubt the solution to this problem is for scientists to stop reporting their results (though it might be a good thing if the most egregious grandstanders did so).

I continue to disagree with the notion that it is permissible to publicly dismiss (or morally condemn) a book without seriously reading it, when, as with Alhoff's book, a cursory look indicates that it is not beyond the intellectual pale (quite unlike the worst examples of climate denialism). To insist on this isn't to dismiss the wider concerns you raise, which I share, although I'm unsure what to say about them.

Eric Schliesser

John: by blogging about it I am quite adamantly not engaging in (discrete) silencing of this particular book (on the contrary)! Rather I want to encourage a more public discussion among, say, moral experts like you on these matter!
I should say, by the way, that there are now plenty of examples where scientists release sensationalist PR statements on behalf of their own research results. This is becoming a common vice, in fact. These folk are basically tempting the public for misappropriation. I think having a blurb from John Yoo is akin to a sensationalist PR statement. This is why your notion of "disservice" is not innocent at all, and why 'misappropriation' is the wrong concept here.


My point was that argument formulation, especially by the ill-motivated, is Haidtian: people grab at whatever available piece of evidence that fills a gap in their argument without much attempt at assessing it (even when they try, there is an enormous amount of evidence that we are bad at assessing claims we agree with: Lord and Lepper, Ditto, etc). I would be surprised if legal decision making is guided by moral philosophy, in very many cases: rather moral philosophy is wheeled in to support the conclusion that the author has come to, and whether it genuinely supports it will have little relevance (of course Haidt claims all moral reasoning is like this). My claim was only that there is only so much one can do to guard against the misuse of one's work, not that one has no obligation to do anything.

if anything, your response is an illustration of this tendency (which of course we all have, me no less than you), if you see me as setting down rules.

Eric Schliesser

I would welcome learning more about your views on the obligations philosophers have against misuse of their work.

N.J. Jun

Is it any wonder that a "profession" without professional standards (ethical or otherwise) is filled with so many "unprofessional" people who behave in such egregiously "unprofessional" ways?

Whether or not Professor Althoff's book is "unethical" in some absolute sense, it is certainly not "unprofessional." Our "profession" does not have any "ethical" standards. Truth be told, behavior which would seem morally reprehensible or even sociopathic to people outside the "profession" is quite normal within it. If you want empirical evidence of this, just attend the Eastern APA or read the typical philosophy blog (excepting NewAPPS, of course). Our "profession" always makes me think of Deleuze's book on Coldness and Cruelty.


If I had anything substantive to say, I would say it! I believe Cordelia Fine has a forthcoming paper on the responsibility of neuroscientists when it comes to reporting gender differences. Among other things, she calls for an end to automatic tests for gender differences, since we know (given how p values are defined) that if you run a sufficient number of these tests across a sufficient number of data sets, you will get spurious correlations. So it is reasonable to think that tests like these should be performed only when hypothesis driven. She also documents what you might call the zombie life of spurious results. Researcher X publishes a paper showing a gender difference on function A. Y and Z publish later papers which show no gender difference. But X's work is cited widely, without mention of Y and Z, well after Y and Z have published their work. Thirdly she shows how gender differences are highlighted in papers. X's paper shows that (say) face processing is carried out by mechanism m, and that facial recognition is correlated with score on three different scales. It is also correlated with gender in experiment 2 of the paper, though not 1 or 3. The paper is called "Gender differences in facial recognition capacity". All of these are misconduct by scientists: fishing for data, failing to cite relevant evidence, sexing up the results. Philosophers are guilty of the second and third, and analogues of the first.

Eric Schliesser

You really are Gloom and Doom today! Anyway, thank you for the compliment, I guess.

Eric Schliesser

Together with Merel Lefevere (at Ghent) I have been working on developing a framework for the moral responsibility of policy scientists and the scientific communities in which they are based. (We are tackling an interesting argument by Heather Douglas.) But it strikes me as odd that we do not have much discussion on the moral responsibility of professional philosophy (and that so many initial responses seem automatically dismissive).
I like Fine's approach, by the way. (I have articulated concern over the use of p-values and empirical evidence by some bio-ethicists and <>.)

N.J. Jun

Sorry about that. I actually think your idea is a fine one. Apparently something like this was proposed in Canada in the 80s:

D.G. Brown, "On Professing to Be a Profession," Dialogue 25 (1986), pp. 753-56
D. MacNiven, et al., "A Code of Ethics for Canadian Philosophers," Dialogue 25 (1986), pp. 179-190

David Wallace

Unformed thoughts:

Dennett has a nice line somewhere about academics being responsible both for what they say and for predictable misunderstandings or misuses of what they say. That sounds reasonable to me. Suppose we apply that to the torture case (in the abstract; I'm not familiar with Alhoff's book). It's predictable that even a careful, nuanced argument that falls short of strict prohibitionism runs a risk of misappropriation and misuse by people who (let's stipulate) advocate ethically indefensible views.

What to conclude from that seems to be rather dependent on the actual content of the argument in question. At one extreme, a purely abstract argument to the effect that torture is acceptable in some wildly counterfactual scenarios isn't going to have much direct positive benefit, so it might well be wise to keep such an argument at least out of public view, and perhaps out of sight altogether (though this would probably depend on what, if any, broader (meta)-ethical point the argument was supposed to serve). At the other extreme, a (carefully reasoned, appropriately researched) argument to the effect that it's a moral mistake to abjure torture in all *practical* situations does have direct positive benefit, in that it might guide us to adopt the (ex hypothesi) correct nuanced position on torture. Any reasonable assessment of what to do with such an argument, whether to try to get publicity for it, etc, would then depend on the details: are the policies on torture currently in place going to be improved or harmed by the argument? (I'm not suggesting those are the only salient issues; academic value per se also counts.)

Note this is doesn't apply to a *bad* argument in favour of torture. There's a general rule of professional ethics that applies here: "don't produce poor-quality work". But I'd have thought that it's especially culpable to produce poor-quality work if there are predictable public-policy consequences. (The recent debate on Fodor's and Piattelli-Palmarini's book on evolution is another example here.) And of course, it's possible to think that there are topics where the conclusion is sufficiently clear, that any argument to a different conclusion must be a bad argument; indeed, it's possible to think that about the case of torture.

But because the academic merits of an argument are intertwined with the ethics of speaking on it, I think talk of a "professional code" is unwise. (And indeed Eric doesn't talk about it; the title is a bit misleading.) We ought to recognise that our professional ethics require us to consider the consequences of our actions, but assessing those consequences as applied to other people is itself going to be a partly academic judgement. That's not to say that we shouldn't make that judgement, but I think it has a slightly different character from the engineers' code.

Eric Schliesser

Thank you for these references. Sadly, my library does not appear to have access to the journal.

N.J. Jun

Here's the URL at Cambridge Journals, if it helps:

Dr. J

Eric, this is a really great post. I'm completely sympathetic with your concerns. And/yet/but... here's are some reservations: The Problem with Forbidden Knowledge

Eric Schliesser

I added a link your reservations in the main post.
One perhaps not-so-small point: there is a non-trivial difference between ""Forbidding" certain questions, or certain arguments, or certain conclusions," and NOT WRITING/PUBLISHING them. Since you cite Aristotle, I counter by suggesting that Plato had thoughts on this. Moreover, it may be a contingent, empirical matter (perhaps depending on institutional or historical context) whether keeping certain things philosophically taboo "poses a far more pernicious danger" to the public than bad arguments do. You seem to accept that on faith.
Finally, with the advent of grants into philosophy, it is not clear to me that philosophers are client-less. (I certainly often wonder if accepting money from, say, Mellon Foundation, Libertyfund or the Dutch and Flemish science foundations -- all things I have done -- doesn't produce subtle distortions in my work.)

Eric Schliesser

Thank you for these very interesting comments, David! One line jumps out at me "the academic merits of an argument are intertwined with the ethics of speaking on it." This seems to me the nub of the matter. But I doubt that in the instances that really matter one will find it easy to articulate "academic merits" without articulating one's most fundamental commitments. Anyway, these matters are better discussed by way of Abe Stone's work on Carnap and Heidegger (as well as Husserl) that I linked to above.

Aaron Garrett


If moral consensus is necessary for a taboo topic then doesn't the existence of a work defying the taboo show that there's not a consensus. And moral consensus of whom? Those people who just so happen to be philosophers? Academics? The folk?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you're point.


Aaron Garrett

Excuse the "you're" for "your". That's something we all should agree is taboo.

Dr. J

Eric, thanks for the link. I'm not sure, for professional philosophers anyway, that there *is* a real difference between "forbidding" certain questions and forbidding "writing/publishing" them. I suppose my appeal to Aristotle was only meant to reinforce my suspicion that (morally, politically) "unthinkable" thoughts WILL be thought, and there's not much a professional ethical code can do about that other than (as I said in my post) resign those thoughts to a realm that philosophers can't talk about. I'll concede that my cconcerns about what does or does not pose a "more pernicious danger" to the public rely on certain unverifiable assumptions. I hope I'm right about them.

Point taken about the grants. We are most definitely NOT "client-less."

Finally, I just want to reiterate that I'm on your side here. Just wish I could think of a way it could be done.

Eric Schliesser

I wrote "It is possible that moral consensus is a necessary condition for a taboo topic." That is an extraordinary thin commitment, if at all. But either way, it may be a mistake to think that a few exceptions disprove a consensus (which is not like a exception-less-law). Of course, once the cat is out of the bag a particular argument may well become a popular topic. But in my humble opinion this ought to raise concern over the incentives in our discipline for creating intellectual trends, recall my reference to Brit Brogaard's reflections here, <>!

Eric Schliesser

Well, I do not see why professional philosophers need to publish *all* their research. Some things can be explored in graduate seminars without making it to journals.

Eric Schliesser

As my co-bloggers remind me, I am averaging about three pernicious typos a day on NewAPPS.

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