Two years ago I participated in an NEH summer seminar for political philosophers. This was during the campaign for the 2012 Presidential election. One evening over drinks, I asked the others (15 or so philosophers from around the country) whether they had ever contributed any money to a political campaign. It turned out that everyone at the table but me had contributed to the Obama campaign that year.
As anyone who has spent some time in academia knows, this is hardly atypical. Many academics (philosophers and non-philosophers) spend considerable amounts of time and money on political activism. They vote (duh), put signs in their yard, attend party rallies, and so on. Heck, at my school “community-engaged scholarship” is now among the conditions of tenure.
Around the same time, I was reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Both books discuss the ways in which partisanship can bias our thinking. And so I started worrying about this. Because, as anyone who has spent some time in academia also knows, academics (philosophers included) are hardly the most ideologically diverse group. The ideological spectrum ranges roughly from left to extreme left. For a field that is supposed to think openly, critically, and honestly about the nature and purpose of politics, this is not a healthy state of affairs. The risk of people confirming one another’s preconceptions, or worse, trying to one-up each other, is simply too great.
(By the way, it’s likely that the risk is at least somewhat of a reality. I know of many libertarians who think that the level of argument and rigor that reviewers demand of their arguments is not quite the same as what is demanded of arguments for egalitarian conclusions. That is anecdotal evidence. For other fields, there is more robust empirical evidence. Psychologists Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers have found that in their field ideological bias is very much a real thing.)
I mention this episode because it had a significant effect on how I think about the responsibilities of being a philosopher. I now think it is morally wrong for philosophers, and other academics who engage in politically relevant work, to be politically active (yes, you read that correctly).
The argument for this conclusion is, I think, startlingly simple. I develop it in detail in a now forthcoming paper In Defense of the Ivory Tower: Why Philosophers Should Stay out of Politics. Here is a quick summary of the argument:
- People who take up a certain role or profession thereby acquire a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at their tasks
- The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues
- Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues
- Therefore, political philosophers have a prima faciemoral duty to avoid being politically active
I have given this paper at a number of universities, and I have found that a lot of people are very resistant to the conclusion (to say the least). But each of the argument’s premises is true, I think, and so the conclusion must be true as well.
Lots of people resist premise (3). But that is really not up for debate. It is an empirical question whether political activism harms our ability to seek the truth about politics. And the empirical evidence is just overwhelming: it does. (You can find a bunch of cites in the paper, in addition to Haidt and Kahneman.)
Over at The Philosophers’ Cocoon, Marcus Arvan offers a different objection. He says he disagrees with premise (2), but his real objection is actually a bit different. Marcus suggests that there can be permissible trade-offs between activism and scholarship, such that surely a teensy little tiny bit of activism is surely okay, even if it harms our scholarship. It is too simple, Marcus suggests, to say that we should forgo activism if it makes us worse at philosophy.
I don’t find this a powerful objection. Here is the reply I give in the paper, and it still seems plausible to me. The reason people want to be activist is that they want to make the world a better place. That’s cool – I want that too. But there are many, many ways to achieve this. And activism is but one of these. (It is also, I should add, a really inefficient way.) My point, then, is simple: if philosophers (and other academics) want to make the world a better place, they should do it in ways that do not make them bad at their jobs. That means they should do it without political activism.
So the argument stands, I think. But Marcus ends with a good question. What the hell am I doing on a blog with the word libertarians in its name? If political affiliations harm our ability to seek the truth, and seek the truth we must, then am I not being irresponsible as well? And he is right, there is a real risk in this. By self-labeling as a libertarian, I risk becoming biased in favor of certain arguments, premises, and conclusions, and against others. And that, to be sure, is something I want to avoid.
The honest answer is that I thought hard about it when I was asked to join the blog. (My wife asked the same question as Marcus did when I told her I was thinking of joining.) I decided that there was little additional risk to joining. For one, I have always seen myself as a reluctant libertarian. I grew up a Rawlsian and slowly moved away from those views toward more libertarian views. But I never became an “in the fold” kind of guy. So I apply the label only partially to myself. On the other hand, I am pretty deeply convinced of a number of things that will inevitably put me in a libertarian (or libertarian-like) camp. And this is something I know. So insofar as I do apply the label “libertarian” to myself, joining the blog didn’t add much to it.
Or so I told myself. But that is, of course, exactly the sort of things that a biased person will tell himself. I am aware of that. What won the day, finally, was that the blog has no “party-line.” We have people here who defend basic income, parental licensing, Israel, Palestine, and lord knows what other view will come up next. We are a weird bunch. And I like the blog because of this. I think it helps show people just how diverse, and intellectually rich the libertarian part of the conversation is (or can be). It helps me stay on my toes. And I wanted to contribute to that. So here I am.
Perhaps that was a mistake. I am open to persuasion. I made pretty radical changes to my life after becoming convinced of my thesis of non-activism. I no longer follow the political news, I have tried to distance myself from any sympathies I might have had for parties, movements or politicians (that one was easy), and so on. I highly recommend it. But maybe I didn’t go quite far enough. If someone can convince me, I’ll leave. Take your best shot.