Ever since the trial of Socrates, we know that public utterances matter philosophically. Sometimes we need a reminder that our deepest differences (as say analytic or continental types) even originate in diverging views on how to be responsible speakers of language. But as professional philosophers we are also often (necessarily) forgetful of this topic. The following tentative remarks were caused by reflection on the recent publication of books that (with qualification, of course) condone torture and disenfranchisement of ignorant voters. My views are guided by two axioms: i) philosophic utterances have public consequences; ii) philosophy is different from law (where very bad human beings and acts deserve the very best arguments on their behalf in order to make a potentially moral institution function properly) or literature (where the art may be diminished if -- to speak poetically -- Satan is not given airtime [see Elizabeth Costello’s struggles]).
First, as professional philosophers we do accept tacitly a professional ethics. This may have its origin in (potentially conflicting) norms of collegiality, or duties as teachers, or roles as referees/editors. We at New APPS often tacitly rely on them when we try to challenge entrenched habits that deform either the content of philosophy or the way it is practiced. These norms, together with simple prudence or politeness, often encourage us to be silent on some matters. For example, even if every philosopher would agree with Clark Glymour that Humanities departments say and teach “a great deal of foolishness,” most of us should not bring this up at regular meetings of the Faculty Senate if we wish for a future for professional philosophy at universities. (For the record: ALL Departments teach “a great deal of foolishness.”)
Second, even so, professional philosophers often also say and probably believe that within philosophy we should i) follow the arguments to whatever conclusion, come what may, and ii) all assumptions are open to scrutiny. We respect the integrity of arguments and pride ourselves on our disciplinary, principled self-scrutiny (even if we are all aware of the existence of personal blind-spots). Nevertheless, there are arguments that are not treated as worthy of consideration. For example, today we are not open to exploring subtle distinctions that can help illuminate the inherent moral inferiority of some ethnic groups. This is (rightly) taboo. (Anybody with familiarity with past philosophy will recognize more such taboos.) As practitioners of philosophic craft we recognize that some ends are not worthy of our efforts. To give a slightly less loaded consideration: we often allow that triviality diminishes the beauty or elegance or worthiness of an argument.
Third, even if we leave aside morally neutral taboo topics, the existence of moral knowledge or disciplinary moral consensus is not a sufficient explanation for taboo topics. There is widespread consensus that murder is bad, but philosophers continue to fruitfully explore relevant distinctions that illuminate the topic. It is possible that moral consensus is a necessary condition for a taboo topic.
Now, one might think that the existence of (just) taboos can be explained in terms of, say, the paramount virtue of our engineering colleagues, “the safety and welfare of the public.” But I don’t think that we philosophers think like this at all. In practice philosophic activity has very pernicious policy consequences, but this does not make us hesitate in engaging in it. Let me offer two (controversial) examples: i) a great deal of philosophic sophistication is regularly deployed in order to clarify the doctrine of double effect. In practice the main function of the principle, however elegant, is to be a rhetorical fig-leaf to let politicians and generals morally off-the-hook for atrocious deeds. II) Plenty of prominent philosophers are engaged in projects that facilitate the development of causal discovery software to be used in expert systems with the (foreseeable) dual use to fight, say, cancer or annihilate enormous number of innocent people deemed enemy by the government (etc.).
Should we be more willing to hold each other responsible for the foreseeable public impact of our words or shared standards?
UPDATE: See here for very interesting critical reflections on this post.