An invitation to write an article The Refugee Crisis and the Responsibility of Intellectualsfor The Critiqueprompted some reflections about the professional obligations of political philosophers. Those of us who are able to teach and write political philosophy enjoy the privilege of devoting much of our working lives to our interests and passions and of potentially influencing thousands of students. (Occasionally we even attract readers outside of the classroom!)
Philosophers don’t do as good a job as they might in reaching a broader public (sites such as The Critique and The Stone are changing this). Nor do we have the prominence of economists or even sociologists in public policy. Nonetheless, the combination of privilege and the possibility of influence, combined with the importance of many of the topics we address (or could address), raises the question: what are our moral responsibilities as professionals and intellectuals?
Below are some thoughts, not conclusions.
Selection of Topic
One danger of the discipline is irrelevance: little of what is published, even in the most respected philosophy/political theory journals, is likely to matter to anybody outside of the author’s sub-specialty. Moreover, many sub-specialities are unlikely to matter for more than a decade.
Do we really need another paper about Foucault, Rawls or ________ (fill in the blank with your favorite philosopher who has inspired an enormous, usually not very interesting secondary literature)? When is it worthwhile to investigate a philosopher for her or his own sake (as opposed to using the philosopher’s ideas to understand and evaluate the world)?
Here’s a more controversial example. When I was a graduate student many leading political philosophers such as Amartya Sen, Ronald Dworkin, G.A. Cohen, Richard Arneson, etc., were engaged in the “equality of what” debate: should we aim to distribute resources, capabilities, welfare, etc.? (In hindsight, this debate had for all practical purposes been exhausted, but I was not aware enough to the ebb and flow of academic trends to know that at the time.) I still marvel at these philosophers’ ability to extract implications from ingenious thought experiments, but I wonder at the relevance of these debates. In particular, given the vast inequalities (and I would contend inequities) around the world, it would seem that any position on distributive justice would have pretty much the same consequences: we need to do a great deal more to give people more equal opportunities (e.g., by distributing money and other resources, by creating infrastructure, by not supporting policies and practices that impose inequities, etc.).
Sen’s contributions to the Human Development Index matter far more than his defense of capabilities against his philosophical peers.
It is not just a matter of selecting a worthy topic. There is also the opportunity cost: by devoting our time to one topic we neglect thousands of other topics we could have investigated. Few people have the luxury of choosing what they want to work on. It shouldn’t be squandered.
Of course, defining what makes a topic important is difficult and controversial and most likely needs to include questions about what impact a work can realistically have. Still, it doesn’t seem too hard to point out examples of unimportant work, work that exists merely for the sake of padding a CV for promotion and tenure. The burden of proof should be on the author: why should anyone (ideally outside of one’s immediate circle) care about what we should do? If we can’t come up with a reasonable answer, we’re shirking our vocation.
Arguing is a favorite pass time for philosophy undergraduates. They argue about anything. Even when they know next to nothing about the topic. The preferences of sadists have equal moral value to the preferences of the rest of us. Enlightened dictatorship or “epistocracy” is the best form of government. Kant’s various forms of the categorical imperative are equivalent. Ayn Rand deserves to be taken seriously as a philosopher and/or novelist.
Perhaps endless argument for the sake of the argument has a function, honing acerbity and logical acuity of undergraduates in much the same way that wrestling and play biting prepares puppies to take down prey (or would in a less domesticated environment). Sadly, not everyone moves past this stage, continuing to treat philosophy as a game (often a blood sport).
One way of attracting attention is to cogently defend an unpopular or implausible position or interpretation. Conversely, one way not to get published is to state a sensible but boring truth. Is it an obligation in philosophical debate to really believe what one writes?
What responsibilities do political philosophers have when writing about vulnerable populations? Social scientists who do field work have clear responsibilities and need to have their research cleared by the ethics board. Philosophers write about people in extreme poverty, ethnic and racial minorities, refugees, prison inmates, people with terminal illness, and the mentally ill. Since they don’t usually interact with or directly study the people they write about, there are no safeguards against potential damage they might do.
When is it justifiable to represent vulnerable populations, let alone make moral judgments about its plight and problems? How should vulnerable populations be represented? (The very term “vulnerable” threatens to rob people of their agency.) What if one’s views (e.g., on the obligation to give priority to one’s compatriots, to limit the scope of justice, to oppose policies meant to help some groups) could harm some people? Is there an obligation to take the side of the least powerful? Is there sometimes an obligation to keep silent?
Also, given that philosophy is overwhelmingly Eurocentric in its focus (sometimes unabashedly so), are there obligations to include authors from underrepresented groups because they are from underrepresented groups?
Ideology and Silence
Most of my writing has been on migration. What struck me when I first began reading the political philosophy literature on immigration is that some very obvious topics are downplayed in favor of fairly abstract analyses of rights and equality. Philosophers did not seem to devote a great deal of attention to racism other than to note that it was wrong. Gender, despite being a rich subject among anthopologists and sociologists, was barely mentioned. Imperialism and colonialism, mostly absent. Capitalism and class, similarly not deemed central enough to merit analysis.
It seems a bit harsh to criticize people for what they haven’t written about. Still, what is not said is sometimes as or even more important. We have an obligation to think about what we have left out and ask why.
Responsibility to Be Informed
One of the drawbacks of graduate training in philosophy is that it usually does not prepare graduates to engage with empirical literature. Many philosophers, especially in the philosophy of science, are well-informed about other disciplines, but they are usually either autodidacts or came to philosophy after training in other fields.
Political philosophers are often not well informed about the topics they write about, in some cases a decade or more behind debates in other disciplines. How much economics does one need to know to publish on distributive justice? How much history to write on nationalism, imperialism, or reparations? How much political science to take a position on democracy? (Arguably, one of the reasons some philosophers needlessly about other philosophers is that this is all they know.)
There are limits to how much any non-specialist can know and a danger of not taking on topics because of fear of not knowing enough. Nonetheless, it is alarming when people who claim to be authorities (e.g., by publishing or blogging) wallow in ignorance.
Can intellectuals be held responsible for misinterpretations of their work? Slavoj Žižek recently complained in the Philosophical Salon about his critics misunderstanding him and even resorting to slander by misrepresenting his views. It is hard to have much sympathy, given the rheotrical obstacles Žižek places to understanding much of his work.
So-called “continental” philosophy is not unique in placing obstacles to understanding. It’s not uncommon for analytic philosophers to resort to math not because it actually clarifies their position, but because it makes them look smart. (In fact, the use of math can give the appearance of more rigor and clarity than the topic merits – this is true of much ethical theory.) Jargon is omnipresent and usually unnecessary.
There are also questions about the audience for political philosophy. Is there an obligation to address people in other disciplines when possible? What about the general public? What does it say if we are unable to communicate our ideas to these audiences?
By adopting or creating categories and concepts, intellectuals can make them real. This can be extraordinarily powerful: the construction of human rights has changed the world. So has the invention of race (and racism). The nation-state is an imagined community that enjoys enormous power. People in power use categories and concepts, often supplied by intellectuals, to classify, quantify, and control people and the social environment. By using, clarifying, and advocating, we reinforce them – we make them realer.
This gives rise to ontological responsibilities: when we can influence what exists in the world, we have responsibilities similar to those held by creators of new technologies. When concepts and categories are harmful, we may have an obligation to change them.