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Philosophical Shock Tactics

Not long ago Peter Singer sent a shock wave around his home country when on national television he provided an ethical justification for bestiality. This year three analytical philosophers were taken aback at the ridicule they attracted for proposing that humans be biologically engineered to reduce their carbon footprints as a response to global warming.
And in April two philosophers were surprised by the abuse and threats they received after writing a  journal article arguing that infanticide, or ‘after-birth abortion’, is permissible.
What is mystifying about all this is not the public reaction to these arguments, which was predictable, but the philosophers’ dismay that they should attract hostility. Why, it is worth asking, are many academic philosophers so insensitive to the offense certain kinds of positions cause? Why do so many philosophers today seem to have tin ears?
I think the answer lies in the predisposition of large parts of the profession towards a certain kind of hyper-rationality that devalues and suppresses emotional intuitions that would both flag problems in their arguments and warn them of the likely reactions.
In lectures and seminars, philosophy students learn that while emotional intuitions and non-rational sensibilities may be a useful starting point, moral reactions must be rationally justifiable to have validity; otherwise they are merely ‘emotional’ (with all of the connotations that go with that accusation).
Ethical arguments that incorporate anything other than logical propositions based on accepted facts are much harder to make and defend, so students learn quickly in essays and tutorials to steer clear of them and stick to ‘analytics’.
The process reaches an intense level among graduate students who have proven themselves in the established mode of argument, so that other kinds of philosophical thinking have been winnowed out. (A similar process occurs in economics departments).
At least, this tends to be the case in universities dominated by the analytical tradition (most universities in Anglophone countries), where philosophy has attempted to gain greater respectability by moving away from the humanities and towards the more positivist fields of study (much like economics).
In this way the exercise of rationality tends to detach reason-giving from some things that matter, but are hard to articulate. The result is what might be called a kind of learned autism.
The types of interventions I mentioned at the start (in favour of bestiality, bioengineering and infanticide) are sometimes defended as the free expression of views in a liberal society. Well, yes; although one has to ask what the point is when the arguments are inflammatory and likely to alienate the public.
This is not to say arguments that attract hostility should not be made. I receive plenty of angry abuse from climate deniers for my writings on climate change; but if a coherent case could be made that social utility could be maximized by ‘deniercide’ it would be foolish to put it forward, and not just because of the reaction it would spark. A coherent argument would be a wrong argument.
The tin ear to public reaction is the same one that is deaf to the deeper aspects of being human that are at the centre of other philosophical traditions. I recently attended a seminar on Wittgenstein and Heidegger at which it was asked whether Wittgenstein (a hero of the analytical tradition) was right in thinking that Heidegger’s arguments were ‘nonsense’.
In posing this question, the enormous richness and depth of Heidegger’s thought would be judged according to the stringent precepts of logic, to see whether his arguments could be declared non-sense.
Simply by posing the question the work of the twentieth century’s most influential philosopher is eviscerated. If you go to Heidegger’s work with a view to running the analytical ruler over it, then don’t bother. It is all nonsense. But those who approach it in that way risk marginalizing themselves from the broad sweep of human concerns.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. “This is not to say arguments that attract hostility should not be made. I receive plenty of angry abuse from climate deniers for my writings on climate change; but if a coherent case could be made that social utility could be maximized by ‘deniercide’ it would be foolish to put it forward, and not just because of the reaction it would spark. A coherent argument would be a wrong argument.”

    So, there are various moral claims such that (a) a coherent argument can be made in their favour but (b) they spark strongly hostile emotional reactions from some members of the public. As I understand it, your claim is that, among these claims, some but not all are such that (c) they ought not to be publicly defended, and this fact is partly explained by their satisfying (b). But you don’t seem to have given any hint about how to decide, if an moral claim satisfies (a) and (b), whether it also satisfies (c).

    Arguing that infanticide is permissible and arguing that people ought to change their behaviour to prevent climate change, for example, both satisfy (a) and (b). There are plenty of people, apparently, who also think that they both satisfy (c). Why is it, then, that you get to tell Giubilini and Minerva that infanticide satisfies (c), but but nobody gets to tell you that your views on climate change don’t?

    Is it just because society is overwhelmingly against bestiality? But if so, wouldn’t that also mean that a philosopher who lives in, say, an overwhelmingly homophobic society ought not to publicly defend homosexuality? By doing so, would they be exhibiting a kind of “learned autism”? (a usage, incidentally, that seems to me to be demeaning both to philosophers and to autistic people)

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      Hello Clive, and thank you for your post. 
      I agree with your observation that it seems surprising that philosophers who propose controversial ideas seem taken aback by the reactions that they receive. But I am not sure that the reasons are those that you give, viz that it’s the fault of analytical philosophy. 
      (It seems to me, by the way, that a real analytic philosopher should be able to distinguish an insult from a “death threat”.)
      I’m sure that Heidegger is worth reading (and he won’t be eviscerated simply because Wittgenstein is reported to have called his work “nonsense”).
      But at least Wittgenstein’s philosophy didn’t lead him to support fascism…
      The over-theatrical reactions by the philosophers you mention could more simply be explained by their desire for philosophy to be in the news and not merely an ivory-tower activity – “high-impact philosophy”, as a previous post called it.

    2. Thanks for this response. The essence of my post was that in their pursuit of coherent positions from ‘first principles’ some philosophers are insensitive to strong messages that somthing is ethically repugnant. I then speculate on why this may be the case; why they don’t stop and reflect on this signal.
      I think your comment reveals the same tendency. Instead of stopping to ask why pretty much everyone reacts with repugnance to the idea of having sex with animals, you revert to the kind argumentation that demands consistency, as if the difficulty of explaining something automatially rules it invalid. This demand for consistency srikes me as a kind of fetish.
      The argument that if homophobia turned out to be wrong therefore every kind of sexual taboo must be wrong seems to me to be a bit lazy. Isn’t it more interesting to try to understand why they are different (something I attempted in my book “The Freedom Paradox”). After all, the fact that every society at every time has had a taboo on bestiality must tell us something.
      There is an essential difference between the reactions to arguments on infanticide and climate change. While the extremely hostile reactions in each case come from small and possibly fanatial minorities, the hostility to infanticide is a general one throughout the community, which ought to signal something. In the case of climte change the arguments are based on science and rejecting them means rejecting the whole body of modern science and scientific practice.

      1. Thanks for your reply. It’s not my intention to suggest that “the difficulty of explaining something automatially rules it invalid”, or that nobody has the right to be against bestiality unless they can explain why. I roughly agree with Owen Schaefer’s comments below about how public reaction should be taken into account; specific moral intuitions (e.g. “bestiality is wrong) have the status of data that need to be taken into account, but the same is true of general ones (e.g. “if something causes no harm, it isn’t wrong”).

        My claim, rather, is the very weak one that widespread repugnance towards a particular view shouldn’t (as I took you to be suggesting) have a lexical priority over other considerations, such that philosophers shouldn’t even give serious consideration to such a view. It’s one thing to object to the substance of Singer’s philosophical defence of bestiality, or to disagree with him without being able to explain why; it’s something altogether different to suggest that defending bestiality simply isn’t a philosophically respectable thing to be doing.

        I also don’t mean to suggest that “if homophobia turned out to be wrong therefore every kind of sexual taboo must be wrong”. It’s entirely plausible to think that, when the issues are fully understood, it will turn out that homosexuality is okay but bestiality isn’t. What I do claim is that if widespread repugnance towards homosexuality isn’t a sufficient reason against even trying to defend it, the same applies to bestiality. To put it another way: if you think people’s emotional reactions towards bestiality are decisive reason for thinking bestiality is wrong, you’d better be prepared to explain to the people of (say) Uganda why their reactions towards homosexuality don’t have the same status, and hence why they should even bother listening to your arguments for accepting homosexuality.

        You may be right (I don’t know) that repugnance towards bestiality has always been much more widespread than repugnance towards homosexuality, and if so then I suppose you could argue that this difference is sufficient to make it respectable to defend homosexuality but not to defend bestiality. But even if you can formulate a principle that would provide this result, I doubt it will draw the line you want to draw. It clearly wouldn’t rule out defending slavery, for example, as slavery has historically been practiced by many or most cultures. And as Owen points out, such a principle might even mean that people in pre-industrial times ought not to have advocated the abolition of slavery. But I don’t suppose you want to claim that defending slavery is more respectable than defending bestiality, or that pre-industrial abolitionists had a “tin ear”.

  2. I often think about the more immediate role we philosophers have in the society, and on which way is the best to transmit our ideas the lay public. Is it by self-help books? Is it by specialized journals? Is it by something in between, such as blogs like this one?

    I have never found a definitive answer, because there are way too many factors to consider. There is, for example, the matter of the expected public. I see no problem with Minerva’s and Giubilini’s paper, aside from their stylistic choice (they should have used lower-impact words, but that is all). A free and open discussion of polemic topics is expected of a journal of medical ethics, and the publication of that article is an indication of the journal’s academic health. They did it in the right place, to a public that supposedly would respond with similar degree of objectivity. Now, if they had published a self-help book named “Is infanticide good?”, then I concede it would be their mistake, because that would just be plain stupid.

    This is why you can’t really compare Singer in the TV with JME’s paper: their contexts are completely different.

    There is also plenty of flammable content published in the hard sciences, but those never become public knowledge, simply because the means for bridging the technical gap does not exist – they do not care for letting people know what they are doing. To my knowledge there is no “Oxford University Microbiology Blog”. For instance: some time ago some people from Stanford managed to successfully write and rewrite information on DNA, something similar to a very rudimentary computer program. Well, building computers with DNA seems like the sort of thing that religious groups would stridently complain against, but I have not heard a word about it.

    1. On a second thought, the scientists did an interview to their Campus network, though. So I suppose they were not completely locked in their ivory towers. Although, naturally, it does not have ABC’s reach or public.

  3. Hmmm… I agree that by trying to be as parsimonious as possible with regard to assumptions and parameters economics and analytic philosophy often become disengaged with important intuitions, but the benefit of parsimony is generality; by being free to reason without worrying too much about how the punters might feel about things, new frontiers of behaviour (eg geoengineering, genetic modification, animal rights, etc) can be explored intellectually. And while I agree that this lack of groundedness in human experience can lead to some daft arguments, I worry about attempts to ground reasoning in “some things that matter, but are hard to articulate” given the lack of political diversity among academics in the social sciences and humanities. I worry a bit that calls like yours are attempts to elevate “some things that matter, but are hard to articulate” for some groups (left-leaning academics) while downplaying or even deriding “some things that matter, but are hard to articulate” for other groups (political conservatives, libertarians, traditionally religious folks). I agree there’s something a bit “autistic” about some analytic philosophy and modern economics, but I don’t find it any more troubling that the prospects of a kind of kulturkampf in which social scientists attempt to define – and hence narrow – the set of “preferences” against which reasoning is allowed to take place.

    And in defence of Matthew, Anders and Rebecca – I don’t find their proposal (biologically engineering smaller people for carbon footprint reasons) remotely compelling, but I don’t think it’s any more bonkers than the per capita emissions allocations approaches which get a lot of support among academics (but not among real policy people, who are attempting to deliver welfare (etc) across multiple policy objectives). Both involve heroic, deeply counterfactual assumptions about people’s appetite for bearing climate-related burdens. [Both are, in the words of James Ellroy “long on theory and short on precedent”.]

  4. The main thrust of this post is quite compelling. Philosophers (whether of the analytic persuasion or not) should take seriously popular concerns and occasionally-vehement reactions to their positions. These popular reactions constitute objections to the given position that must be met.

    The first thing that must be done in meeting an objection is understanding it, interpreting it in a way that is fair to the objector. This will involve clarifying ideas that are otherwise hard to articulate – something that philosophers should aspire to in general. Such clarification is important for both comprehension and communication.

    Once the objection is understood, it can then be evaluated on its merits. We might disagree about whether these responses are adequate, or work properly; but I think if the effort is seriously made (and popular concerns are not just waved away) then the philosopher need not worry about further vehement reactions (putting aside odd/unlikely cases where philosophers will incite violent mobs). That is, as long as the philosopher has seriously engaged with the public’s concerns, the public’s continued vehement reactions should not be a reason against publishing the argument. Have defenders of infanticide or bestiality seriously engaged with such opposition in their work? I’m not certain, to be honest.

    To hold that public reaction is a strong reason against publishing even when the public’s concerns are addressed would have problematic implications. As Ben Plommer points out, this would imply strong reasons against publishing an anti-homophibic text in a very (or vehemently) homophobic society. Or if you think homophobia is not currently widespread enough to have such an implication, consider abolitionist arguments in pre-industrial times; those would have met with widespread public disapproval (except for the slaves…), but it would be wrong to think that such public disapproval would have been reason against publishing abolitionist texts. Also, such a policy would lead to philosophical conservatism – ideas are ruled out of public discourse if they are too far from the public mainstream. Part of the public benefit of philosophical discourse should be to help nudge public discourse towards more reasonable and (one hopes) accurate views. That will involve some terrible ideas being put forward, but also some good ones – hopefully, enough to make some progress.

  5. I don’t believe proposing genetic engineering or advocating infanticide is analytic philosophy. What would be analytic philosophy is to analyze cultures in history that performed infanticide. I believe they have existed. The mother named the child after three days and once named it had rights but not until then. If the child was defective and the mother left it out to be eaten by wolves within those three days it was not deemed immoral. The analytic philosopher would examine and clarify those moral arguments but not make any of his or her own. When Hercules was ordered to clean the stables nothing was said about putting anything back. I though the job of the analytic philosopher is to simply clean the stables.

  6. I’m one of the climate human engineering authors, and I don’t think I was taken aback by the strong reactions as much as by the surprise that there were reactions in the first place. As my response in the Guardian admits, I knew I was trolling to some extent. We wanted to explore a particular question, but it was also interesting to explore because it lies in the intersection between different moral views on the environment and human enhancement. I mostly expected some upset environmentalist ethicists. Actually finding that we had pressed the hot buttons of bioconservative climate denialists hard was a bit of a surprise, as was the traction the story got on the internet.

    In our case I think the uproar was not too bad. I am more worried about the quiet people, the people who might actually take our ideas at face value and *miss the point* of the paper. We wanted to investigate a possible approach, not to argue in favour of it. But that easily gets lost in the reporting.

    So if I have any advice on this to give, it is that when people get aroused they tend to react to surface characteristics of the message or imagined contents and not its real contents. Making people too upset means they will not think very much about the topic, and the discourse will suffer. However, sometimes it is useful to make a punchy claim or get a debate going. To fine-tune this is hard, and I doubt academics or anybody else will be reliably good at it.

    1. Anders wrote: “So if I have any advice on this to give, it is that when people get aroused they tend to react to surface characteristics of the message or imagined contents and not its real contents. Making people too upset means they will not think very much about the topic, and the discourse will suffer. However, sometimes it is useful to make a punchy claim or get a debate going. To fine-tune this is hard, and I doubt academics or anybody else will be reliably good at it.”

      Maybe… or maybe it’s because they think it’s a really bad idea. My issue is that climate change discourse is full of bad ideas, including “ignore it”, variants of “panic!” and “use it as an excuse to declare emergency powers and stage the revolution”. Those ideas irritate me because I think they’re terrible ideas – unconstructive, ill-thought out and neither well-aligned with long-term human welfare nor justified by the evidence regarding the nature and scale of the problem. And because I hear them time and time again. Your idea was at least bonkers in a new way, which is refreshing. And I thought it had a nice touch of self-interest, along at least one axis: (1) relatively tall people tend to win at basketball; (2) Matthew is not tall; (3) Matthew likes basketball, and likes to win at basketball; (4) policies that decrease the mean height of people also increase Matthew’s odds of winning at basketball. So your idea would both reduce carbon emissions and help Matthew win at basketball, which sounds like just the kind of co-benefits we climate people like. If Jordan’s nationally appropriate mitigation actions can include buying new military vehicles (more fuel efficient, you see)*, I don’t see why helping Matthew win basketball games shouldn’t count, too.

      *eg P6 of

  7. I think it is not enough to say that “Bestiality is wrong!” and leave it at that. If we are to be reflective ethical agents (and I think it is an ethical good that we be such agents), we are going to have to ask ourselves “Why is it wrong?” And here work like Singer’s becomes very useful. If we accept his logic, then what he has demonstrated, is not that bestiality is right or wrong, but that given a restriction to certain ethical first principles, we cannot reach the conclusion that bestiality is wrong. That then leaves us with two choices – either we look for other ethical first principles, beyond those which Singer presumes; or we give up our idea that bestiality is immoral. For myself, I go for the first option rather than the second. But even while I don’t agree with Singer’s conclusion, I can appreciate the value in his work in this way. Whereas, the people who react to his work with alarmism, and hence fail to engage with it, are in a sense ethically deficient – they are both failing to be reflective ethical agents, and are even acting to discourage others from so being.

    I can make similar arguments with respect to infanticide.

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