Recently there has been a great deal of discussion on this blog (and elsewhere) about Clark Glymour’s attack on philosophy where it does not either (a) engage with problems that scientists (would care about but) have not perceived, or (b) bring in at least a dribble of grant money. The idea, I suppose, is that philosophy has no autonomous value. I strongly disagree with Glymour’s implication, though I certainly agree that in certain circles there is a tendency to circulate dirty laundry (a practice that Glymour quaintly calls “incestuous”).
Now one of the reasons I find philosophy valuable is that it makes genuine progress. Of course, detractors say the exact opposite, but look at the record.
It is for this reason that I find Eric Schliesser’s recent proposal on professional ethics startling. Citing two recent publications, Fritz Alhoff’s limited defence of torture and Jason Brennan’s argument that ignorant voters should abstain, Eric observes that philosophical debate can be misused for partisan ends. And he asks: “Should we be more willing to hold each other responsible for the foreseeable public impact of our words or shared standards?” I find this startling because I believe that philosophical debate is precisely what is required if we are to arrive at reasonable positions on such matters.
Of course, I am aware that no matter how enlightened we become, there will be evil people and morons who not only preach and practise disgusting and immoral doctrines but who will quote or misquote philosophers in their defence. (An example, by no means the worst, is how creationists seize on debates within philosophy of biology to try to discredit evolution. The tautology debate, for instance.) My question is: ought we to refrain from writing and saying certain things because they will foreseeably be misused? Should we really take responsibility for predictable misuse of what we write? Is Popper to be held responsible for the creationist "tautology" rhetoric? Or should he be thought to have taken an important step toward clarifying the cognitive status of the theory of natural selection?
One of Eric’s examples is the debate on double effect, which, he says, serves as “a rhetorical fig-leaf [for] politicians and generals.” Perhaps Eric overestimates the value of such fig-leaves—generals are going to do what they are going to do, and diplomats are going to defend it as persuasively as they can. But this is not my point. My question is: Ought we to halt a significant debate in moral philosophy because Tony Blair might be listening in?
Now, some might liken these questions about philosophy to those like the following: Should physicists have worked on fission and chain reactions knowing that this would lead to the a-bomb? Should biologists work in infectious diseases knowing that their lab samples may find their way into biological weapons? Should engineers work on new materials knowing that they might end up improving weapon systems? I don’t know how to answer these questions, and for present purposes, I don’t think they are relevant. For I believe that the end-result of philosophical discussion cannot be bad. I do appreciate that while we search for a solution to the problem of double effect, we may say some things that Churchill might have used to justify acquiescing in mass murder in Katyn. Nevertheless, I do believe that “that within philosophy we should follow the arguments to whatever conclusion, come what may.”
I do not believe that we need “taboos” against “exploring subtle distinctions that can help illuminate the inherent moral inferiority of some ethnic groups.” In the first place, we already know that there are no such “subtle distinctions”. And second, even if we didn’t know this, rational discussion would show that inherent moral inferiority would not follow. The question could be asked: how about Heidegger and the Nazis?—or people worse than Heidegger for that matter? How about odious anti-Semites in interwar Europe--philosophers among them? My response is: it is overwhelmingly likely that they knew they were being monsters, not philosophers. But even if they didn’t the philosophers around them did. Here we are not talking about philosophical discussion: rather we are talking about propaganda and base emotions and all of those bad things.
Philosophers have been bad. But they haven't been bad by being good philosophers.