Why Philosophers Should Stay Out of Politics

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:

  1. 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
  2. The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues
  3. Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues
  4. 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.

Published on:
Author: Bas van der Vossen
  • Marcus Arvan

    Hi Bas: thanks for your reply to my piece! I think you overstate my claims a bit. I didn’t state that there *is* a permissible trade off between activism and sound scholarship. I merely pointed out that there may be a permissible trade off, and that I didn’t see any sound argument against this in the paper. I also don’t think you’ve quite made the case here, as you’ve assumed that one has a moral obligation to do the best possible job at one’s occupation, to the exclusion of all other considerations–something which I think no self-respecting libertarian should accept. Did I sign a contract agreeing to do the best possible job? No! I agreed to a contract which leaves my overall level of performance up to judgment–both mine and the administration who rate my performance. Since I did not contractually agree to be the best possible scholar, I violate no one’s rights if I am merely a good scholar but an awesome activist.

    I’m also not persuaded by your defense of your participation at BHL. You can’t say that it’s wrong for philosophers to engage in political activism…except when they think they’re doing it in an unbiased way! Also, how do you know your judgment that there is no party line doesn’t suffer from the kinds of biases you cite? I daresay many observers who are less sympathetic with BHL will have a different take. In any case, I enjoyed thinking about (and now discussing) your paper. As you know, I was at that summer seminar too. I was not one of the 15 who contributed to Obama, and I have never engaged in activism myself because I prefer truth over activism myself. I am also (as you may not know) a libertarian myself (I defend a new version of it in a just-drafted book), but I do not engage in activism for it or any other political view. I just didn’t find your moral argument for it quite convincing, and I still don’t).

    • Jason Brennan

      It’s been a year since I read Bas’s paper, so I don’t remember what his paper says about this. But why think that BHL counts as a form of activism? The section you quoted from the blog description didn’t seem particularly activistic to me, and even if it were, it’s just a bit of puff Matt wrote that I’ve never seen and which doesn’t guide me in any way.

      Take Kevin’s posts–He writes high-level philosophy here, and has turned at least one set of posts into a published paper at Phil Studies. I mostly just report on previously published stuff or call out dumb libertarians on their bullshit.

      The biggest worry about this blog is that it has a label, and using a label can be intellectually corrupting. Once you take a public stance as an X, intergroup bias, confirmation bias, etc., kick in, and you’re likely to be overly sympathetic to arguments for X and unduly critical of arguments against it. But this a problem with labeling, not with activism. It holds for people who only do academic publishing but who identify themselves with various positions. Indeed, it’s a risk associated with coming to any conclusion, not just to coming to conclusions with a clear ideological label.

      • Marcus Arvan

        Hi Jason: Thanks for engaging with my comment. Let me preface my reply by stating that, as a kind of libertarian myself (and someone who does not accept Bas’ argument), I don’t have a bone to pick with BHL activism.

        That being said, I think BHL is a form of political activism–at least as far as Bas’ argument is concerned–in several different ways.

        First, even if high-level philosophy is sometimes done here (and I agree it is), it is hardly an unbiased forum. It primarily attracts libertarians, and (I know this all too well from talking with some people) alienates many non-libertarians. Given that (1) Bas’ entire argument is based upon the spectre of bias, (2) many of the biases Bas reports arise (and are deepened) precisely by practices of associating with politically like-minded individuals, (3) BHL is a forum of primarily politically like-minded individuals, and (4) there are none of the bias-counteracting elements of serious academic scholarship at BHL (blind review, etc.), there are ample reasons to believe that (A) participating in BHL *may* foster the very kinds of biases that Bas believes to be (B) anathema to doing our jobs well as truth-seekers, which (C) he thinks is immoral.

        Second, even if high-level philosophy is done at BHL, it is political activism in the sense that it adds academic legitimacy to what many people consider to be a dangerous, fringe-y political view. Again, I’m not saying that *I* think libertarianism is dangerous (though I think that some versions of it are). The point is simply this. Many people regard libertarianism to be a fringe view. Second, demographically speaking, it *is* a fringe-y view (although it is gaining popularity, libertarians have not been particularly successful in gaining political offices). Finally, serious academics collectively lending their weight in favor of a political theory–in a public forum such as this–surely adds some level of *perceived* legitimacy to the theory (so far as public perception is concerned). Indeed, I have heard such things myself (viz. “Libertarianism is really gaining popularity. Just look at BHL. They are a bunch of serious academics who espouse the view”). If lending legitimacy to a political view through *publicly* endorsing it in a non-academic milieu (on a public blog, rather than in journal articles, books, etc.) is not a form of political activism, I guess I don’t know what is. It is a bunch of individual and collective actions that have, as one of their aims as effective outputs, lending *public* legitimacy to a political theory.

        Third, the blog amounts to political activism (in my view) in large part due to its comments-sections. BHL is not, after all, merely a place where your contributors do serious philosophical blogging. It is a place where non-philosophers can come and advocate in favor of libertarian moral and political views. You have provided a public forum where non-philosophers often voice very strident views and (sometimes not very fair or sophisticated) criticisms of rival political theories, political parties, etc. It sometimes approximates an “echo chamber” where people do not have to seriously engage with people on other sides of moral and political issues, but instead primarily reinforce views already held. And providing people a public forum–sanctioned by serious academics–to (1) reinforce their own views, and (2) systematically criticize rival views seems to me a form of political activism. An analogy: is CPAC (the conservative conference) a form of political activism? Surely. Why? Because it provides a public forum for like-minded individuals to come together to commiserate, reinforce their existing views, criticize rivals, etc. But that is what BHL does, too, only online.

        In short, I think there are many grounds to consider BHL a form of political activism. Although I am a libertarian of sorts myself, I’ve long considered it a form of activism, for the reasons I’ve just given. Further, I’ve encountered very many other people who consider it as such (I’ve often heard it referred to as such by people who are unsympathetic with its mission). Finally, despite your comment about its “about/mission statement”, the mission of BHL very much is to publicly advocate, and draw attention to, a particular kind of libertarianism (the “bleeding heart” variety). Insofar as that is its official aim–an aim pursued in practice–it is a form of political advocacy, not pure academic scholarship.

      • Basvandervossen

        I agree, Jason. I thought Marcus’ ad hominem criticism was worth responding to because I do worry about labels. It’s true that this leaves my point about activism intact (and in any case, my behavior does not affect the truth about my conclusions), but it is a real worry. I think I’m still within the bounds of the responsible, but it’s a real question.

    • Basvandervossen

      Hi Marcus,
      I wish you’d be a little more charitable. Three quick things:
      1) I never said that you have a duty to be the best possible scholar. I said you have a duty to avoid things that are (a) easily avoidable and (b) increase the risk of being bad at being a scholar. It’s a point about avoiding risks at low cost.
      2) It is very implausible to think that the responsibility to do a good job requires you to sign a contract that you will do a good job. I tend to think of it as a part of simple human decency. Note that the examples I use in the paper to illustrate this point do not depend on contractual obligations.
      3) About my BHL-dom. My reasoning is not: “bias for thee, but not for me”. My reasoning is that I take myself to (a) have a duty to avoid things that increase the risk of my becoming worse at philosophy, and (b) my judgment that joining BHL carried very little risk of that kind. I might be wrong about (b), I’m open to persuasion. But as of now, I think I can live with it.

      • Marcus Arvan

        Hi Bas: Sorry if I wasn’t being charitable. I thought I was!

        On (1): The costs aren’t low. If a person thinks they can make the world a substantially better place through activism, then failing to engage in activism has substantial costs (I may well think to myself, “I am failing to do a substantial amount of good in the world!”).

        On (2): Yes, but decency allows acting to make the world a better place. If I think that activism is likely to make the world a better place, and I think there’s only a *small* risk of making me a worse academic, then there’s no reason to think that decency requires me to avoid the risk.

        On (3): yes, but your judgment that your involvement at BHL carries very few risks could be, for all you know, a judgment infected by bias (I suspect unsympathetic readers of BHL would take the biasing risks you face to be very substantial, your own judgments notwithstanding.”

        A final point: your argument hangs on the premise that we have a “prima facie” duty not to do things that make us worse at our jobs. But in that case your argument at most establishes that philosophers have a prima facie duty not to get involved in politics–and prima facie duties can be overridden by other considerations. I am suggesting there *are* other considerations, namely the likelihood and amount of good one might give rise to through activism.

        • Basvandervossen

          Suppose you can do two things, both of which have a good chance of making the world better. And suppose option A carries significant risk of you messing up your job, while option B does not. It is obvious that you ought to choose B over A.

          (Note: I am granting that activism has a good chance, something which for many people is likely false.)

          • Marcus Arvan

            Hi Bas: It all depends on whether A and B have (1) the same likelihood of making the world better, (2) to the same extent. I think both matters of parity probability do not obtain in the context at hand.

            Suppose I am a pretty influential political philosopher. I have two options: (A) engage in political activism, (B) don’t engage in it.

            Given that I’m influential, if I choose (A), there’s (1) a significant chance, that (2) I will give rise to a significant amount of good in the world (suppose I will be able to convince thousands of blog readers that libertarianism is true, contributing substantially to a social movement in favor of libertarianism).

            On the other hand, if I choose (B), what (political) good can I bring to the world? Suppose I think that the failure of the world (e.g. my society) to be libertarian is the single biggest blight on the face of the earth today. By abstaining from (B), I fail to contribute to what I take to be the most important social movement–and moral and social good–on the face of the earth.

            Hence, options (A) and (B) are not on a par. And, I want to say, this reality. Political philosophers tend to take their political theories very seriously. Activism, for them, can promise *great* moral and social benefits. Avoiding activism, on the contrary, will fail to promote those great goods.

            Thus, it is not obvious that I–or any other political philosopher–should choose (B) over (A). (B) may cause me to mess up my job…but it may be the only (or best) way to pursue a greater good.

          • Basvandervossen

            You slide here from a claim about philosophers that are “influential” to a claim about philosophers in general. But 99,9% of philosophers are not influential.

            I have never claimed that there cannot be exceptions to the rule. But for most of us, and that definitely includes you and I, activism is off the table. We should do other things to help out. You know, like volunteer in the community, donate to charity, start up a great business that offers good jobs to employees and products or services to customers, sweep your sidewalk, etc.

          • Suppose that Option A can be performed at a cost so minimal as to be insignificant (such as writing political advocacy on a blog during stolen* moments between your larger commitments). Even if Option A has a small chance of impacting the world, if the cost is low enough, there is a compelling moral justification for taking it.

            * No, not truly stolen, wise-guy… 😉

          • Theresa Klein

            The real conflict here is that engaging in political activism without objectivity may well make the world a LESS good place.

            So it’s more like:
            Option A: Do the apparently good thing, knowing that you won’t be able to tell what that actually is. But at least you’ll be doing something.
            Option B: Be able to tell good from evil, but be unable to do anything about it without losing the ability to tell good from evil.
            It’s like a classical greek dilemma!

          • The Choice of Heracles is what it’s called. I discovered this while researching non-cognitivism, when Jason suggested that I was defending it. 🙂

          • Marcus Arvan

            Theresa: No one denies that there’s a problem determining what *is* good from what merely *appears* good. This is a ubiquitous issue we face in moral life. It is hard to know what is in fact good, versus what merely appears good. But this is not the extent of Bas’ argument. Bas’ argument is that it is wrong to run the *risk* of a certain bad in this case (becoming a worse philosopher), even for a possible benefit (making the world a better place, given that one’s estimation of the benefits *may* be correct). I do not think he has made a sound case for this. Almost all choices we make have moral risks. The question is whether the risks of philosophers engaging in advocacy outweigh the potential benefits. Bas thinks they do. I am unconvinced, at least by the argument he provides

          • Theresa Klein

            I generally agree. However, it’s not just that you’ll become a worse philosopher. It’s that the more politically active you are, the more biased you become and the less able you are to tell what the good political policies are. You become a worse political actor too.

    • Sam

      Premise 1 of Bas’ argument also seems false to me. In general, we
      don’t have any moral obligations to be good at our jobs apart from our
      contractual obligations. Suppose that Bob is a dishwasher for a
      restaurant. The job is boring and it pays a minimum wage. Bob shows up,
      does the job, and satisfies his contractual obligations. Does Bob have a
      moral obligation to do a better job than this? That seems implausible.
      What is the source of this obligation? If Bob wants to put in the bare minimum, that strikes me as morally permissible (maybe it’s imprudent, but that’s different).

      The examples Bas uses in this paper are inconclusive. For instance, we can
      explain why surgeons should be good at their jobs without accepting that
      people in general have this duty. Surgeons should not get drunk the
      night before major surgery because this imposes excessive risks on
      patients. I also accept that we have duties to be perform tasks for our
      job that we didn’t contractually agree to perform if we culpably lead
      people to form the expectations that we will do these things. But this
      does not entail that people in general have obligations to avoid doing
      things that make them worse at their jobs.

      • Sam

        You might say that philosophers in particular have duties to seek out the truth. But that also seems false as a general claim. Philosophers have no duties to figure out the truth about how many blades of grass are on the lawns of their universities or how many clouds are currently in the sky. In general, no one has a duty to seek out the truth in general, including philosophers.

  • Marcus Arvan

    Quick follow-up: I’m also a bit puzzled by your claims that (1) there are many, many ways to make the world a better place without political activism, and (2) activism is really, really inefficient. Really? What’s a better way to make the world a better place *politically* than effective political activism–perhaps in favor of one’s favorite theory? (I for one have known political philosophers who have engaged in effective activism, and I have a hard time seeing how they could have done a more effective job without it!)

    • Jason Brennan

      “Effective political activism” is sort of by definition effective and efficient. But Bas’s point is that most activism isn’t effective or efficient. For every MLK who gets things done there are 2,000,000 college students who use activism as a form of moral masturbation.

      • Marcus Arvan

        Jason: Bas did not merely say that “most” activism isn’t effective or efficient. He said that activism (simpliciter) *isn’t* efficient. And it’s crucial to his argument (in the post) that it never is. For, if it sometimes is, and a particular philosopher has reason to expect that his/her activism is likely to be effective, then Bas’ argument does not go through for *that* philosopher.

        Also, Bas’ argument is not directed at college students (who I agree often engage in activism wrongly and on the basis of little-to-no understanding of philosophical arguments for/against political vidws). Bas’ argument is directed at professional philosophers. And, while many professional philosophers may not have much political cache, some do. In fact, *you* do (I would say, in increasing amounts). Further, someone like Rawls or Nozick at the height of their philosophical fame almost certainly *could* have engaged in fairly effective forms of activism (Rawls’ book TOJ, if I recall, was a NYT best-seller, yet Rawls refused to engage in advocacy/PR). Finally, there are political philosophers (not only/primarily in the US, but elsewhere) who, through activism, contribute to policy-making.

        • Jason Brennan

          Okay, good points. What if he weakened his thesis to saying that most political philosophers should stay out? Also, if we do a CBA about staying in and staying out, how should we figure in the probability that we might make things much worse?

          • Marcus Arvan

            Hi Jason: Thanks. Look, I have no problem with Bas’ thesis, or the weakened version of it you just gave (viz. most political philosophers should stay out). I am, in fact, very much inclined to accept the weakened version. I just don’t find Bas’ particular argument for it persuasive. I would say that most political philosophers should stay out of politics *not* because (1) activism lends itself to biases that lead away from truth, and (2) our professional duty is to pursue the truth. I would simply say that most political philosophers should stay out of politics because most political philosophy is straightforwardly wrong and harmful (viz. I think a lot of ideal theorizing fails to deal with important parts of the world in the worst possible way. Consider, to take the most obvious case, all of the harm that Marxism has caused by failing to appreciate human nature, incentives, etc.). In other words, I’m happy to accept Bas’ conclusion (or rather, the weaker version you give). I just disagree with the diagnosis. The problem isn’t bias. The problem is bad philosophy.

        • Basvandervossen

          The point about activism being ineffective was an offhand remark. Hence the parenthesis. In any case, whether or not it is effective is irrelevant to my conclusion. If you look at my premises, you will see that point does not appear anywhere.

          I accept that in cases where non-activism would lead to very bad results, the duty to refrain from activism is overridden. Hence the “prima facie” qualification. I think it’s clear we are almost never in those circumstances.

          Finally, I think that for any college student who is genuinely interested in seeking the truth about politics, similar results might apply. But that’s a slightly different question and would require a slightly different argument.

          • Marcus Arvan

            Hi Bas: Thanks for the clarification. But in that case, my comments above about the “prima facie” character of your argument apply. If the argument is merely a prima facie one, and your argument does not address the countervailing considerations I adduce (that the likely moral benefits of activism can sometimes, or even often, outweigh the morally negative aspects), then the conclusion of your argument is very weak: it is that academic philosophers should stay out of politics, except when they could do more good than harm by engaging in it. That’s not a trivial conclusion by any means, but it’s a lot less strong than the one your paper seems to suggest (that, in general, philosophers should stay away from activism, since, for all you’ve shown, the prima facie duty may be overridden quite often!).

      • LLC

        I think, Jason, you judge the 2 million students too harshly. At the very least their activities will, even if to varying degrees, help shape the adults they are in the process of becoming. Plus, if their activism induces them to consider issues and vote their convictions, this alone breaks the pattern of apathy shared by so many of their cohort.

    • Basvandervossen

      Jason is right. Also: there are only so many hours in a day, and there are MANY great things we can do for others or society. There is no reason to think that if we do not include directly political activities, we are somehow falling short. Given that we can fulfill our duties to be good citizens in nonpolitical ways, and given that political ways violate our duties to be good philosophers, it follows we ought to choose the nonpolitical ways.

      • Marcus Arvan

        Well, again, *only* prima facie. My point is that, for all your paper shows, the overall/pro tanto likely benefits of activism might sometimes–or even often–outweigh the prima facie duty to refrain. I’m also still not convinced that we can “fulfill our duties to be good citizens in nonpolitical ways.” If I think that being a good citizen means being a good libertarian, and getting my society to become more libertarian, then the best way for me to be a good citizen may well be libertarian activism.

    • j r

      Maybe I am missing something here, but the idea that political activism is almost always one of the least efficient ways of doing good is so obvious as to be a truism. A $1000 donated to a soup kitchen is of a much more direct benefit than $1000 donated to the campaign of a politician who promises to do something about homelessness. Political activism almost always two or three steps removed from the actual issue.

      There are and have been those issues which are primarily political (Jim Crown laws or military engagements come to mind) and thus necessitate a primarily political response. In those cases, political activism may be the first order reaction, but most problems are not like this.

  • Dshapiro

    Hi Bas. It’s hard to dispute the premises. But what does ” politically active”mean?

    Daniel Shapiro

    • Basvandervossen

      I give a brief explanation in the paper. But I have in mind a commonsense idea. Things like what I mention in the post.



    You say: “3. Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues.” But, is it “political activism” that causes bias or simply having strong political views, which then warps the way we gather and interpret evidence? On its face, it seems far more likely to be the latter, and how does one avoid having strong political views?

    • Basvandervossen

      Hi Mark,
      It’s likely the self-identification that oh so readily comes with activism. Given how difficult the two are to separate, and given how risky these self-identifications are for honest philosophers (and other academics), the responsible approach is simply to avoid it altogether.


        Thanks for the reply, and I understand your point (I think), but my intuitions differ. I can’t see why being convinced that Obama, Bush, whomever, is our great political savior permits me to competently evaluate evidence and arguments, but “self-identifying” as a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian and giving that “savior” money or putting up a lawn sign makes me a partisan hack. I just don’t see human nature functioning like this. If I think Obama is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it seems to me that I’m not going to be open to contrary evidence and arguments, whether or not I contribute to his campaign.

      • Linear

        But Mark’s point is that you are not “avoiding it altogether”, rather you are simply hiding it. Knowing how someone self-identifies and pursues political activism can be very useful in discerning their larger perspective and motives, and in fact makes it easier to identify bias in their work.

  • The fact that you self identify as a leaning Libertarian (not was) is evidence that you are not living by what you’re preaching; in fact, I tend to suspect you just want the majority — more liberal and/or progressive co-workers — to give up their own political activism while you keep up yours.
    There may be more but there is only one Washington based reporter of which I’m aware that, reportedly is not even registered to vote. Jamie Dupree. I’ve listened to his pre-noon WSB (Atlanta) radio segment for some years and since self described Libertarian (Republican) Boortz retired and self described Conservative (Republican) Herman Cain has taken that time slot, Dupree sounds noticeably more conservative.
    Our views are colored by our life experiences and the company we keep. Giving up the right to exercise rights of a citizen to be a part of a process to decide who will govern w/consent of the governed is nonsensical. It would be far better to be honest and disclose such associations along with any work submitted for peer review or public scrutiny and demand others in the field do the same than be disingenuous..

  • Matt Mortellaro

    I agree that there are some serious concerns about philosophers (or anyone, for that matter) engaging in political activism, but I’m not convinced of your argument here that it is prima facie morally wrong for philosophers to do so. I haven’t read your paper, so maybe you address this concern, but the premise I would want to reject in your argument is (1). One’s profession is just one part of one’s life, and it’s not clear to me why I should regard my career as taking prima facie precedence over the rest of my life.

    Take for example the decision to take up a hobby, say, tennis. I start playing tennis 10 hours a week. Previously, I would have spent that time working. I enjoy tennis more than the marginal hours of work that I am no longer doing. However, I end up doing my job worse as a result – less time and energy is spent on it than before. I still do a sufficiently good job so as to keep my job, but I advance more slowly (if at all) through my career. Still, I am happier for my decision to start playing tennis, even though my career suffers. Supposing that this result was predictable, would you say that I have, prima facie, violated some moral duty by taking up tennis?

    If you do think there is a prima facie duty that I violate in that case, do you think that it is defeated/overridden by the benefits I get from playing tennis (enjoyment, exercise, friends, etc)?

    • Basvandervossen

      You got me there: I LOVE playing tennis.

      On a more serious note: of course we should lead rich lives. And doing that can (for many of us, at least) make us perform worse in our jobs than we might had we not lead a rich life. So be it. The cost of giving up a rich life is significant.

      But you can live a rich life without political activism. (E.g. by playing more tennis!) And if you can’t, if activism is so important for you, that’s fine too. You are just not cut out to be a philosopher (or other academic who deals with political issues).

      • Matt Mortellaro

        It sounds like (correct me if I’m getting you wrong here) you are saying that the prima facie duty to not engage in activities that predictably make you worse at your job is still violated by the decision to take up a hobby, but that this duty is overridden by the value of the richer life that is gained from having the hobby.

        I’m failing to see why political activism is treated differently, then. You didn’t ask of the tennis player, “is tennis absolutely necessary for you to live a rich life?” yet that seems to be the standard you are holding the political activist to here. Nor did you say to the tennis player, “alright, playing tennis is fine if it is so important to you, but you’re just not cut out for your job” – even though, by hypothesis, the person is made worse at their job as a result of playing tennis.

        So why is it that political activism can’t just be like tennis – it’s a hobby I do that I know makes my work worse than it would have otherwise been, but that’s a cost I’m willing to accept for all the benefits I get from my hobby. Do you think political activism makes philosophers *so much* worse at their jobs that they fail to do even a minimally good job if they engage in it?

        • Basvandervossen

          I think you’re pressing on the right spot here. But there is a difference between not doing everything one can do in order to be the best one can be (which is what your example is about) and avoiding certain things that really mess up one’s ability to do one’s job well (which is what my argument is about). By asserting we should do the latter I do not commit myself to asserting we should do the former. Especially since doing the former would come at the expense of living a rich life. Hence my original reply.

  • Roderick T. long

    Isn’t writing for a libertarian blog political activism?

  • Ethan Pooley

    Disclaimer: I thought this was a very worthy BHL post and I appreciate your causing me to consider the topic.

    I object to #1 and #3. Matt Mortellaro just made some of my point about #1, and you did present it as a “quick summary”, so don’t know that I need to say much else. But I am pretty unmoved by it. What moral system is producing this result? I am not very inclined to view individuals as ruled by their professions, which Matt points out are only one part of life. I would normally allow any professional to say “This is what I’m willing to do. Take it or leave it.” Universities, peers, readers, etc. may respond as they wish. A surgeon who insists on drinking on the job? He needs to notify potential patients, but that’s all.

    I think #3 is the more interesting objection, though. Your quick summary of this point comes across as establishing a false one-dimensional scale. I can grant that political activity has observable, negative effects on truth-seeking, without granting that its net effects are negative. Many political philosophies care about what is possible as well as what is true or ideal; political action can lead to maturity in areas where aloofness would not serve. Or, political action could lead philosophers to confront the losers—or champions of the losers—from their ideology face-to-face, whether that be the poor, the free-spirited, the unborn, or some other group. In other words a roll in the mud, while placing the truth-seeking faculty at a disadvantage, should be considered from many other angles before being discarded as a net loss.

    I think your argument is a better fit for moral philosophy. Moral philosophers can much better avoid politics. It is not their task to translate morality into systems of government. Here the arguments about bias and visceral involvement are more likely to win the day. I am still not at all sure they would win, though, because opportunities for offsetting benefits still abound. I also think that pure moral philosophers tend to be less tractable.

  • SG

    I would be curious to know how you solve the philosophical issue of the intersection between the public sphere (job, citoyen) and the private sphere. It seems to me that you demand political philosophers to restrict their privat sphere significantly, maybe similarly to fiduciary duties of a CEO, who shall not accept any kind of compensation offered to him. However, I don’t see fiduciary duties of an academic and so I find your approach somehow over-demanding and odd, but maybe you have a few words ons that.

  • Stefan Sciaraffa

    HI Bas. Great post, and provocative paper. I’m sure you’ve heard this worry before, so I’d be curious what your response is. Namely, i am suspicious about the applicability of (3) with respect to the particular issues that are the research focus of any academic (including but not limited to political philosophers), for I would think that the typical subject of the studies you cite has a day job that precludes intensive inquiry into the relevant issues. Hence, the subjects of these studies might be significantly more prone to take affiliation-based cognitive shortcuts than is the typical professional academic with respect to the particular subjects of her research Some evidence against (3) as applied to professional academics might be James Fishkin’s observations that non-experts consistently experience significant change in their views about particular political issues when given the opportunity to study them closely and debate them. http://cdd.stanford.edu/polls/docs/summary/

    • Jason Brennan

      Fishkin’s views are pretty controversial–most studies don’t get that result. In fact, most studies on deliberation find that it doesn’t deliver the promised results. Also, even if experts are slightly less biased than non-experts, they’re still biased. Finally, increased activism at least positively correlates with increased bias, and is probably causal. See, e.g., Mutz’s work on cross-cutting political discussion and activism, or the lit on intergroup bias and politics, or, e.g., Westen’s work.

      • Stefan Sciaraffa

        Thanks Jason. I’ll check out Mutz and Westen.

    • Basvandervossen

      Hi Stefan. It’s possible that what you suggest is true. But not very likely. In the paper, I cite evidence that shows that intelligence and education do not protect against bias. Eric Schwitzgebel has done some very interesting work showing that moral philosophers are just as biased as the rest of us. So I don’t see any reason (except self-congratulatory ones – the least reliable!) to think we are an exception.

      • Stefan Sciaraffa

        Hi Bas. Thanks for the reply!

        1.) I now have three papers to check out: Mutz, Westen, and now Schwitzgebel. Thanks.

        2.) My thought isn’t that education and intelligence are the key variables beyond some minimal threshold that many meet. Rather, it is that practiced expertise in an area might make a significant difference with respect to that very particular area. So, I wouldn’t expect a brilliant physicist to be less affected by affiliation biases when thinking about areas outside her particular areas of expertise, but I would expect a Republican climate scientist to be largely immune to the party line on that issue. And, I wouldn’t think a political philosopher would be significantly less affected by affiliation bias with respect to issues outside her direct area of study. So, on this view, a political philosopher actively researching and writing with respect to, say, issues about the justice and efficiency of markets would be significantly less prone to affiliation bias with respect to those particular issues, but not with respect to political issues outside of her active areas of research, say, the value of gun culture and the efficacy and fairness of gun-control laws. At least at a birds-eye level, this possibility seems consistent with Kahneman’s idea that we possess both fast and slow cognitive systems. Perhaps, the luxury of time to study and debate a particular issue gives greater play to the slow cognitive system, thereby largely offsetting the affiliation-bias that afflicts the fast-cognitive system.

        3.) A further thought that occurred to me is that your thesis might rest on an unduly individualistic notion of the philosopher’s duty to seek the truth. The philosopher’s most pressing duty is not grasping truths for herself but rather to contribute as best she can to a larger veritistic practice. And, it is not obvious that a philosopher in the grip of affiliation bias would be less able to contribute to these practices than if she were not. Though this philosopher might never shake her affiliation biases, the truth-seeking efforts of others might benefit from being forced to work out where exactly this philosopher’s seemingly powerful yet biased arguments go wrong.

        • Basvandervossen

          Hi Stefan. I’ve got to be quick because I’m at the airport. I discuss variations of your second and third points in the paper. See pp. 16 and 22ff. Sorry to be so brief!

  • Jameson Graber

    I guess the lingering question is going to be, what exactly *is* activism?

    In any case, I’m happy because nothing in your argument suggests that I, as a mathematician, have a duty to stay away from activism. On the other hand, activism is exhausting, so maybe I won’t do it anyway.

  • TracyW

    It strikes me that a philosopher who has actually governed (not just been activist) might well be a better philosopher, at least on political topics. They might have a better idea of the limitations and possibilities of what politicians can really do.

  • Interesting. I’d also take issue with premise (2). For me the point of philosophy isn’t to maximise the number of one’s true philosophical beliefs. Crudely, the point is to find a coherent worldview — the idea is that, given some basic features of the human condition, no coherent worldview can be too unhinged from reality. And that’s why philosophy and activism can go well together, in a measured dosage. (Incidentally, this is also why I find Brennan’s paper on scepticism about philosophy rather toothless.)

    To put this another way, the psychological results you refer to are usually reached through self-contained experiments, where the worldview is fixed and then the likelihood of arriving at a true proposition is tested. But in philosophy the worldview is up for grabs.

  • Hi Bas,

    Here are a few comments on your paper.

    (1) You say that Phoebe fails to carry out her professional responsibilities if she studies libertarian writers but ignores people like Karl Marx, John Rawls, G. A. Cohen and Ronald Dworkin. Your reason is that the search for truth requires an honest assessment of all the available evidence (p. 8). The problem is that no one has the time to study everything that might be relevant to his problem. One has to focus on the most promising leads; and some theories are so bad that one may judge that it is not worth spending any time on them at all (that judgement may, of course, be mistaken – any judgement may be mistaken). So what matters is not whether Phoebe ignores the listed authors, but what her reasons are for ignoring them. It would not be reasonable to criticise an astronomer for failing to take account of the latest writings of astrologers.

    (2) You use the term ‘prima facie’ in connection with wrongs or duties. Your definition of the term (in footnote 3) shows that you mean ‘pro tanto.’ I mention this because the term ‘prima facie’ is regularly used in two different senses which are often not distinguished (though they have very different implications), viz., pro tanto and apparent. A pro tanto duty/wrong is a real one not a merely apparent one. Some passages in Ross, Feinberg, Shafer-Landau and others are confused and confusing because they use the term ‘prima facie’ and appear to shift between its two different senses. See Searle’s criticism of Ross in ‘Philosophical Subjects,’ ed. Zak van Straaten. I think the term ‘prima facie’ should be avoided.

    (3) ‘Bias’ may mean three different things, which you tend to conflate. First, ‘bias’ may mean accepting one of a set of rival theories. Second, ‘bias’ may mean dishonestly skewing an evaluation of rival theories to favour some of them. Third, ‘bias’ may refer to some cognitive impairment which prevents one from seeing the merits of some types of theory. The first type of bias is unavoidable, because observation presupposes a point of view (see Appendix *x of Popper’s ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’; also ‘The Bucket and the Searchlight’ in his ‘Objective Knowledge’). But that type of bias can be counteracted by holding our views open to criticism and being prepared to give them up in the light of criticism. The second type of bias is reprehensible. The third is lamentable. As you say, psychological research does seem to indicate that political activism tends to generate biases of the second and third types. But, as Stefan suggests, we may need to distinguish people with a commitment to open inquiry from those who are activists first and researchers second. Anything that can be done can be done well or badly. There may be a good type of activism, which is open-minded and ready to give up accepted views in the light of criticism as well as the bad type of activism which is closed-minded tribalism. Indeed, awareness of the psychological research may help people engaged in the first type of activism to avoid falling into the second type (you mention but mistakenly discount this point on p.15). We are not passive effects of circumstances: we can shape our circumstances. We need not be victims: we can take counter-measures. The psychological research does not seem to have attempted to distinguish the two types of engagement in activism. That would require distinguishing subjects into closed-minded and open-minded groups. That is not a straightforward exercise; and one would not expect that political philosophers (or any other theorists) would all be found in the open-minded group.

    (4) Like you, I describe myself as a kind of libertarian. My libertarian view influences the problems I investigate and the sorts of solutions I regard as promising. But I change my views in response to my investigations, i.e. I try to appraise my problem-solutions in comparison with the solutions offered by others. Where someone else’s solution seems better, sometimes I adopt it, other times I try to improve my own solution, depending on circumstances. This is a biased approach, in the unavoidable sense, because I start from a libertarian position. So I am not your ‘disinterested seeker of the truth’ (p. 17). But it is an open-minded approach because I am seeking objectively-better solutions to theoretical problems. For relevant disussion, see Popper’s ‘Open Society’ chapter 23.

  • sbozich

    Your premise is flawed: they are not “political philosophers”, they are paid party hacks. They are no more a philosopher than drunk frat boy contemplating an alcohol-induced epiphany.

    • Jason Brennan

      Can you elaborate on this? Who is a paid party hack?

      If there’s a big pile of party money out there, I want it. Where can I get it, and how? Right now I have to make all my money working for a university, giving guest lectures at other universities, and selling some books published by academic presses, but if there’s a big enough pile of cash out there for party hacks, I can be bought. Can you point me to the money pile?

      • sbozich

        If you’re not smart enough to figure it out, you’re already overpaid.

        • Jason Brennan

          Bas, I think we have a nice example of bias right here.

          • David Ottlinger

            I enjoy your sassy comment.

  • JH

    Hi Bas, interesting and novel paper. But I think that there is something missing in your argument. You aim to show that it is wrong for philosophers to be politically active. But it seems that your argument really shows that it is wrong to do things that make us biased.

    You cite evidence that suggests that voters are biased. Yet this does not show that political activism makes up biased. It seems equally plausible that we start out biased and then our political activism reflects these biases. For example, most people have the same political ideology as their parents. They acquire this ideology before they ever participate in politics and they endorse it for non-rational reasons. Predictably enough, people then reason about politics in biased ways, even if they never participate.

    I have not read your paper closely and so the following may be wrong. But after looking over section 3, I don’t see any evidence that political involvement causes us to become more biased. I see evidence that people are who are involved in politics are biased. Did I overlook something?

    Sure, political activism might make us more biased–that’s plausible. But it is hard to know how often this is true and the magnitude of the effect without more evidence.

    • Jason Brennan

      I’ll cite some evidence on Bas’s behalf. Look up the Tajfel experiments on minimal grouping. Henri Tajfel would randomly assign people to groups, and then lie and tell the groups they had, say, a different taste in art. He’d then get them to play games with one another or do activities where they could judge one another. He found that people separated into such groups would immediately be biased toward members of their own group and antagonistic toward members of other groups. His experiments were designed such that self-interest couldn’t explain it. In short: once people identify as members of a group, they act badly, and the more strongly they identify, the worse they get.

      • JH

        Good, thanks. A couple of points about this though. First, these results would show that group affiliation leads to bias, not political activism. Of course, political activism often goes along with group affiliation, but so does non-political activity (do you accept reductive realism about value or are you an error theorist–this seems like group affiliation too). Second, even if group affiliation generates bias, this does not show that for most people political activism generates bias. Most people already identity with political groups and ideologies before they ever participate in politics. It is unclear whether they get any more biased on average from actual activism and participation. Again, it is plausible that activism generates bias, but do we know the size of the effect? So, I don’t know how much follows from the results on group affiliation.

        • Basvandervossen

          Jason is right. And I cite more evidence in the paper. The more strongly one is politically activist/ideological/self-identifying, the worse these biases. That’s a general result. Now it’s true that group affiliation leads to bias. In the political context, activism almost invariably includes (strong) group affiliation. Hence the conclusion. (Of course other things might be excluded too. I don’t claim anything to the contrary.)

          • JH

            Thanks for the response, and I think you might be right, but this “The more strongly one is politically activist/ideological/self-identifying, the worse these biases” sounds like a correlation, not a causal claim.

          • Jason Brennan

            Some of it has to be causal the other direction–bias tends to make one more extreme. But the Tajfel stuff looks causal.

          • Basvandervossen

            What Jason said. Also, it is not at all controversial among psychologists that there’s more than mere correlation here.

          • Linear

            Tajfel does look causal, but the problem is that internal group alignment cannot be objectively identified, and Bas’s principle would eliminate external representations of group affiliation which are useful to observers, in part because we know about Tajfel. In other words, it’s useful to know that the 15 philosophers donated to Obama.

            Perhaps ideally, people would internalized Bas’s principle, but as it stands, it reminds me of judicial appointees who try to pretend they are apolitical.

  • Rob MacDougall

    This post was thought provoking. But I hesitate to accept the argument because I think the reverse would be absurd. If we started with activists, wouldn’t the same concerns lead us to the conclusion that activists shouldn’t make any efforts to do political philosophy, since such would presumably compromise their effectiveness as activists? I for one wish more activists would engage in at least some degree of political philosophy, and think this would make the world a somewhat better place to live.

    • Basvandervossen

      I address this on pp. 19-20 of the paper.

  • I reject premise (2) on grounds that there is no truth in politics. Something can either be true or political, but not both.

    Considering that, I feel that many of the other things you say in this blog post (I have not read your article) are unnecessary. The human condition is one of limited knowledge and competing priorities. If it were possible to “just focus on the truth” then there would be no such thing as matters of opinion, and morality would by and large cease to exist.

    But that’s not the real world.

    • Jason Brennan

      Ryan, I’m not sure you mean what Bas means. Consider the following political question:

      “Should states require people to own slaves?”

      Are you saying there’s no true answer to that question? Because that’s what Bas has in mind. (He thinks there’s a true answer, and the answer is no.)

      • Good question. I think what we consider “true” depends on our moral opinions, which are subjective. In order to reject the political idea of slavery, I must first reject it on moral grounds. (Otherwise, what would I be objecting to in the first place?)

        But that slavery is despicable isn’t a “truth,” it’s a moral sentiment. It’s an opinion. It’s an opinion most of us – including myself – would fight to defend. But there isn’t any way to “prove” it.

        Unlike Bas, I think it’s perfectly fine that opinions and morality are based on subjective value-judgments rather than a loudly proclaimed desire to remain consistent with Bayesian rationalism and a pat on the back from the Less Wrong camp.

        Morality may be subjective, but it’s still important. We can get better at defending our moral positions rationally, but we can’t use those defenses to claim that we have identified “the truth.”

        The best I can do is lay out an argument that says, “Based on X, I conclude Y – If you also agree with X, then you have as good a reason as I do to conclude Y.” That’s a powerful argument, but it’s not an objective fact. It’s important to remember that.

        • Jason Brennan

          So, you’re defending either error theory cognitivism or non-cognitivism about moral claims. Still, even then, Bas can say that political philosophers should seek the truth. After all, one of the questions of political philosophy is whether there are any true, procedure-independent moral facts or standards by which to judge political outcomes.

          That said, you don’t need to be able to prove something for it to be true. Consider, e.g,, that Godel proved that there are truths in arithmetic than can’t be proved.

          • Good point about Godel.

            We’re getting out of my depth, but based on a quick investigation, it does appear that non-cognitivism comes closest to what I’m defending.

            I believe that there are true, procedure-independent facts or standards by which to judge political outcomes. I just don’t believe that they are moral facts. Think in terms of Misesian political philosophy, where we assess the efficacy of politics based on the stated intent of the policy. If the policy fails to optimize, subject to its own stated intent, then it should be rejected in favor of something that performs better. This forms the basis of my own personal sense of morality: I believe what I believe because I take certain values on assumption (virtue ethics), and from there determine what does the best job of satisfying my pursuit of virtue-or-eudaimonia-or-whatever-we-wanna-call-it.

            But the key point: My choice of virtues is subjective, not factual. I think people would be happiest if they chose the same virtues as I do. I think happy people tend to choose the same virtues independently of other happy people (based on anecdotal experience with the many good people I know). But I’ll change my mind if I meet someone much happier than myself who chooses significantly different virtues (and I’ll probably change my virtues accordingly, too).

  • M Lister

    I’m quite unsure about both (2) and (3), in part because I think they are ambiguous between different claims. (Perhaps the argument comes out as sound when the ambiguity is removed- I don’t want to say it depends on the ambiguity for its plausibility- but I think it’s unclear as put.) (I’ll add that I only very quickly looked at the paper, so perhaps this is all cleared up in it.)

    Take (2). I’m not sure what counts as “political issues”, but for many of these, on a typical understanding, I don’t think political philosophy has anything deep or useful to say. Many “political issues” are technocratic in nature, or depend on types of knowledge or expertise that philosophers contribute to only in the roughest sense. (I might think that governments have an obligation to help the least advantaged in society, but whether this means wage subsidies, a BGI, a minimum wage, just letting the market run on its own, or something else isn’t the sort of thing philosophy is likely to be a huge help on, for example.) I can try to become informed on these issues, and vote for people who I think will be honest and try to do a good job, but this seems independent from philosophical inquiry. (I think a lot of political philosophers over-estimate the possible contributions of philosophy here, but that’s a different problem.)

    Take (3) I’m not sure what counts as being “politically active”. On some accounts, I think this is probably true. If you take “true believers”, for pretty much any cause, this is often so. Such people often start by picking an end, and then figuring out arguments for it. This happens in political philosophy. But I don’t see that it follows that we ought not, say, vote or donate money to the party or candidate we think will best fulfill what we take to be the right outcome. This is, of course, compatible with thinking that the party we vote for is a pretty sorry bunch, after all.

    On the other side, certain sorts of being “active” seem likely to help in philosophy, if one is careful. But, there is danger here. Take an issue I work on- immigration. Most philosophers who write on immigration know very little about it. Their views are mostly a priori, and often based on nonsense. This makes for bad philosophy, as is transparent to people who know more about immigration. Now, it’s not the case that the only way to know more about immigration is to work with immigrants or the immigration system. But, this is one way to know more, and to gain useful insight. Doing this sort of thing can make one’s philosophical work better, though of course it’s not guaranteed. Of course, this can have the opposite effect as well. Many immigration law professors, for example, are clearly activists or advocates first and scholars second. They approach every question as if they were lawyers for clients (not surprising, given their backgrounds) rather than as someone who is trying to find the right answer. This sometimes happens with committed philosophers, too. (Not just in political or moral philosophy. I think it’s obvious in some parts of philosophy of religion, too, for example.) But, it doesn’t have to be the case, and isn’t always the case.

    This makes me think that the most plausible conclusion is a more modest one than you draw- that there are dangers here, and that we should be aware of them and be careful. That still seems to me to be an important conclusion, even though less strong or sweeping.

    • Basvandervossen

      Obviously, I do not recommend philosophers be uninformed about their topics. I just deny that personal activism is necessary to be informed. (Perhaps activism is necessary to see the full political truth. In that case, philosophers ought to talk a lot to activists. There’s no reason to think that first-personal experience is necessary to know the truth about politics.)

      I agree that the correct conclusion is to be careful about the dangers of bias. My point is that being careful means staying out of politics.

      • M Lister

        I suppose I’ll have to read the paper and see if the ideas are more carefully spelled out there, but in the post, and your replies, a lot seems to turn on moving back and forth between “activism” and “activity”. I don’t think the two are plausibly the same on normal understandings, and think the argument only works, insofar as it does, for “activism”.

        (Here’s something I would say- at times I considered taking or applying for certain sorts of government jobs, but decided against it, despite their attractive features, because it seemed pretty clear that these jobs would require me to mouth or support positions I thought were wrong. Such activity does seem to me to be at least in tension with, and probably incompatible with, wanting to know the truth. When philosophers or academics have “gone in to politics” in the sense of working for or in government, they have not tended to cover themselves with glory in terms of being truth-seeking. So, there may be good reasons to refrain from this sort of “political activity” if one has truth as a goal. But, it is at least not obvious that, on this basis, refraining from political activity in many more mundane senses, is a requirement for being truth seeking.)

        • Basvandervossen

          I agree with the latter point. I don’t see how ” a lot seems to turn on moving back and forth between “activism” and “activity”.”

          Keep in mind: the point of the paper is practical, not conceptual.

          • M Lister

            I don’t see how ” a lot seems to turn on moving back and forth between “activism” and “activity”.”

            I’d say, because an interesting conclusion only follows from the former, but you’re often using the later. That’s relevant for the “practical” aspect. If you’re saying, “don’t be an activist”, (on a plausible understanding of that term), as it will likely cause you to be less good at finding the truth”, I might agree, at least as a general rule. But if you extend that to “don’t vote or donate to political parties”, I’ll think you’re pushing your conclusions well beyond what’s supported, and that your “practical” point has now lost solid grounding.

          • Basvandervossen

            Please keep in mind that I primarily address partisan activism. It is possible, of course, that one might send money to a candidate without becoming personally invested in that candidate. It is just highly unlikely. The two mention almost always seem to go together, and there are well-known reasons for this. So given that it seems to be very difficult for people to engage in the latter without engaging in the former, the safe route to take is to avoid activism altogether.

          • M Lister

            It is possible, of course, that one might send money to a candidate
            without becoming personally invested in that candidate. It is just
            highly unlikely.

            I guess I’m not 100% sure what it means to be “personally invested” in a candidate, but if this means something less than “wants the candidate I donated money to to win”, then I guess this seems not at all likely to be true to me. I can only generalize from my own case and of some people I know, but I’ve donated money (relatively small amounts- I think never more than $50) to quite a few candidates without being “invested” in them, any more than in the sense that I thought the candidate I donated the money to was better than the one he or she was running against. I would be surprised if that was very unusual, though I suppose I could be wrong. I do feel reasonably confident, though, that you’re pushing the reasonable point well past the point that it’s supported.

  • CbyN

    A human being is not just an X. He can be a Y. And if X and Y have competing moral obligations, then we get into a weighting game between each obligation.

    So even if I grant your argument that political philosophers are obliged to not be political activists (I don’t agree necessarily), the ideal of a political philosopher can easily be at odds with a non-political philosopher. Better to think in terms of a specifc human:

    1) Sam is a political philosopher
    2) Sam is also a pacifist
    3) Sam weighs his obligations to pacifism > obligation to political philosophy
    4) Sam engages in political activism for politicians devoted to pacifism

    We can disagree with Sam on how he weighted his choice in 3), but my view is that individuals should be their own moral agents, and thus 3) is beyond reproach insofar as it doesn’t lead to the obvious harm of others.

  • JH

    There seems to be another problem with Bas’ argument. Consider the following case. Lysander is a political philosopher in 1840 in the United States (there were obviously few professional philosophers around then, but let’s just assume this). After considering the arguments for and against slavery, Lysander arrives at the conclusion that slavery is radically unjust. Let’s stipulate that Lysander can actually contribute in a meaningful way to ending slavery (or, at least, freeing some individual slaves) if Lysander gets involved in political activism–in particular, if Lysander becomes a politically active abolitionist.

    Does Bas’ argument entail that it is morally wrong for Lysander to get involved in the abolitionist movement? If so, then it seems like there is something wrong with Bas’ argument.

    • JH

      Well, I suppose that Bas can just say that Lysander’s prima facie duty is overridden. But, if that’s the case, then it seems like a comparable defense is available to many philosophers who are politically involved.

      • Marcus Arvan


      • Basvandervossen

        In principle, yes. But VERY few of us are in fact in situations comparable to Spooner. For all of us who are not (and that includes pretty much all of us here), my conclusions apply.

        • JH

          Doesn’t this depend on how weighty the duty to avoid being politically active is? If this is a relatively weak duty, then it seems possible that it is frequently overridden if a philosophy can contribute to doing good in a minor way through political activity.

          For example, while Matt Zwolinski does not free any slaves (as far as I know), he does good by promoting a more inclusive and nuanced kind of libertarianism–and this strikes me as political activism. If he only has a weak duty to avoid being politically active, then plausibly Matt’s actions are justified because he brings about some good. Perhaps Matt could bring about even more good doing something else, but (a) this might be false and (b) it seems we have some moral freedom in deciding how to contribute to the common good.

          Obviously, this depends on the claim that the duty to avoid being politically active is relatively weak. This seems right to me–even if you’re argument is right, a philosopher’s duty to avoid engaging in activities that might cause bias seems like a relatively weak moral obligation.

  • ThaomasH

    Let’s see, most people should not vote and philosophers (and the same augments ought to apply to other academics) should not be active (but it’s OK if they vote?). Just who is supposed to participate in politics?

  • Jonathan Mulcahy

    As citizens who think about politics for a living (who are able to easily recognise patterns, weigh arguments and identify rhetoric

  • Jonathan Mulcahy

    Does voting count as being ‘politically active’? If so (and it should), as citizens who think seriously about politics for a living, political philosophers are probably amongst some of the best qualified for the task of voting — as they are able to easily assess and weigh arguments and identify rhetoric etc., should we not allow this kind of expertise from the democratic process? Especially now ‘party politics’ are on the way out and are seen as destructive to the project of democracy (political ideologies are blurring in this respect to garner more interest in said party) — an informed voter must then be able to separate empty promises and idle game playing from legitimation and social/ political reality. We must all become Philosophers!?

    • Jonathan Mulcahy

      *should we not allow this kind of expertise into the democratic arena

  • Theresa Klein

    I agree with Marcus Arvan, that Premise (1) is problematic.
    It seems to me that one could (and many do) make an argument that one has a moral obligation TO be involved in politics, because of the power which politics exerts over human lives, and the potential harm to others (and oneself) that could come about from bad policies. At least, it’s not obvious to me that this doesn’t override any moral obligation one has to be a good philosopher.
    Maybe the philosopher should attempt to be a neutral observer in order to better decide what are the good policies in the first place. But then, at some point, the philosopher must descend from the ivory tower and tell people what those are, and the instant he does that, he is involved in politics. Thus, you have a catch-22. What’s the point in philosophizing if you’re not allowed get any of your ideas enacted in policies?
    Perhaps the correct recommendation is to advise that philosophers periodically take vacations from politics in order to regain some objectivity. It seems to me that completely severing oneself from political activity wouldn’t be possible or desirable in any case.

  • David Ottlinger

    I wrote this in response to a friend who posted the article elsewhere. Please forgive the use of the third person:
    What I find extremely dissatisfying is that while the author carefully considers the (potential) costs of engaging in public discourse he completely neglects the costs of staying out of public discourse. I see public discourse in this country at this time as a kind of Mad Max post-apocalyptic scene of horrors or perhaps like an insane asylum in which inmates are trying to derive morality from science, reading on brain scans that they have no free will, claiming it is true that there is no truth and a thousand other feats of lunacy. I understand the urge to just pull down the shades but I dont find it responsible. So many of our public debates need philosophy. Desperately. This is to say I would accept (with gusto) a form of the trade-off objection considered. 1 is ambiguous. The way it functions in the argument seems to imply the further claim that the only responsibility of a public intellectual is to produce the best research possible or at least that this is the only responsibility which matters almost all of the time. That is not something I share. In fact the anti-philosophy sentiment is so strong and pervasive that we should really be making a prudential argument rather than a moral one. Departments outside the top 50 are threatened with being cut or dissolved often enough that there could be serious ramifications for the future of the discipline. And the author is writing like the house isnt burning down around our ears. He better defend the ivory tower because he’s already in it.

    Also Im suspicious of the line of thought which says research shows that what you are doing hurts your research so stop. I’d be inclined to say research shows what youre doing *can* hurt youre research so proceed with caution. The first line seems defeatist.

    • Basvandervossen

      Sorry to keep referring people (you) to my paper. But I don’t have the time right now to respond in the same detail (I’m at an airport). If you look at pp. 19-20 of the paper, you’ll find my attempt at dealing with something like your worry. I hope it helps!

      • David Ottlinger

        No apology needed, thank you for responding.

    • If the data says that we cannot persuade anyone to change their moral values. And if most political decisions are made by means of moral values. Then the problem is democracy requires majority (monopoly). Isn’t that the only philosophical question at hand?

  • Bas:

    Great piece. I would state the argument a bit more analytically:
    1) In a democracy, political debate has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with obtaining power by marketing, rhetoric, and ideology. Policy preferences are secondary to obtaining power to enact what must result in compromise policies.
    2) A philosopher’s only special function is to act as professional judges of reasoned arguments on logical or moral grounds. We can claim no other skill. Just as judges do NOT act on moral or logical grounds, but on legal grounds. Law abides by a lower logical standard than philosophy.
    3) If we determine the truth or falsehood of statements, arguments, and policy preferences, then we are performing as judges of reason.
    4) if we perform as advocates of policy then we are not acting as judges.
    5) Academia is corrupted by activism. This is the unfortunate consequence of competing for funds and attention.
    6) Since by necessity democracy imposes monopoly rule, models of government represent irreconcilable differences by which to make judgements: we must assume a particular good as a theory or a preference in the choice of political models to make judgements within. Now it is possible to make a judgement from each point of the ideological triangle, and that is perhaps the position we all should take in rendering our judgements. However if we are asked to choose one or the other it may be that the optimum solution to any problem is satisfied best by one model, and the next optimum solution to any problem satisfied best by another model.
    7) Therein rests the problem of philosophical neutrality under democracy: democracy imposes monopoly rule under which we cannot easily construct the best solution to any given problem using different forms of government.
    8) It may be possible to make use of all forms of government, but only under libertarian government is such institutional diversity possible. Why? because only fully atomic property rights allow for rational calculation of voluntary exchanges necessary for the construction of contractual government that provides the features of any form of government.

    As such is it is most logical to construct a libertarian government, but to advocate an administrative structure for any given policy problem best suitable to its execution.

    We can model the universe in mathematics because a number system consisting of individual units can represent any combination of units. We can model any political economy in libertarianism because individual property rights allow us the same logical freedom as unitary mathematics. The difference is that in math, we use an equal’s sine to test for truth, whereas in libertarianism we rely upon voluntary exchanges free of externalities.


  • Billy

    I can see it as less of a moral imperative and more of just lack of time to focus on such a thing. It’s analogous to any theorist of any field, compared to the praxis of the applicable counterpart. Ought a bioethicist not practice medicine? Ought a theologian not prostelytize? Ought a physicist not engineer? I’m not seeing the moral connection.

    • Billy

      So, to make sure of it, I think there is no reason to accept your first premise.

  • Marcus Arvan

    Bas: you asked readers to suggest how your judgment of the risks of contributing to BHL might be off — that is, how it might contribute to harmful biases, even though you already had strong libertarian leanings prior to joining. This has not been discussed, but let my offer a substantial risk.

    It is well known–from ordinary life and social sciences–that we have allegiances (and biases) not merely to views but also to *people*. When people criticize others we care about, there is a strong human inclination to rush to their defense–and not just because we hold the same views as our froends, but simply because they are our friends.

    One sees this on many philosophy blogs, as well as in book reviews and journal articles. People, well intentioned though they may be, tend to lobby for and defend their friends.

    In joining BHL, you joined not merely a disconnected group of people. You made human connections with them. You are now a member of their community. And this invites biases–potentially dangerous ones, if history is indication. Yes, there were many true believing Marxists–but once they joined Marxist groups they came to have allegiances to particular people (Lenin, Trotsky, etc.).

    Now, I’m not saying BHL has analogues to these people–but the general point is a serious one. Joining groups gives rise to personal and professional relationships that can interfere substantially with truth-seeking. Thus, even if you were a hard-leaning libertarian heading in, joining a group like BHL could lead to personal and professional biases that, on your argument, are immoral (since they detract from truth-seeking). Perhaps you have some evidence that you are immune to such conflicts of personal and professional interest–but let’s just say that human beings don’t have a very good record of judging their immunity from these kinds of things!

    • Basvandervossen

      This is true. The question is how much joining this blog adds to my already existing and practically inevitable group-membership. My judgment was that it added practically nothing.

      • Marcus Arvan

        Right–but the relevant question is: how unbiased is *that* judgment? You may think that it adds practically nothing, but what is your evidence for that? Introspection? History–and everyday life–both strongly suggest that personal and professional ties and conflicts of interest play a biasing role. People are often apt to defend their friends over the truth…except the people doing it think they are defending the truth. That’s what bias is! So, unless you have strong empirical evidence that you are counterexample to this, I say that your judgment that group-membership adds nothing lacks evidentiary basis.

        On a further note, I think you may underestimate other features of group membership. When one is a member of a group, there is a certain tendency–again, an empirically well-verified tendency–to take on certain dispositions and manners common to members of the group. One’s manner of writing and arguing, for instance, may be influenced (negatively) by the patterns of others in the group (e.g. arguing more stridently, for instance, in contrast to one’s old habits of arguing less stridently). Perhaps you judged this to add practically nothing to the risks of joining too, but then I really begin to wonder again…isn’t Bas relying on introspective beliefs about added risks rather than sound empirical data–the very data he relies upon to argue that people shouldn’t take risks like these?

  • Brauh

    My objection to the argument lies in the idea that there seems to be an unstated premise in your argument, namely that truth cannto be found but is only ever sought after. I think, therefore, there needs to be a clarification of waht the word ‘truth’ really means in terms of your argument. For if a political philosopher finds out the ‘truth’ about a political issue – that is to say he has understood and fully analysed all arguments for and against a certain issue – then being politically active no longer makes us worse at finding out the truth because the truth has already been found. Then the role of the political philospher changes to attempting to make others more aware about the topic concerned. Truth, to my mind as well as many including the great Martin Heidegger, is a kind of seeking, and therefore, the seeking takes its meaning from what is sought after. In other words, we cannot seek truth unless there is a truth to seek. Political philosophers first try to arrive at a truth and then provide an argument which represents the truth which was sought after and, hopefully for them, found.

  • Brauh

    My objection to the argument lies in the idea that there seems to be an unstated premise in your argument, namely that truth cannto be found but is only ever sought after. I think, therefore, there needs to be a clarification of waht the word ‘truth’ really means in terms of your argument. For if a political philosopher finds out the ‘truth’ about a political issue – that is to say he has understood and fully analysed all arguments for and against a certain issue – then being politically active no longer makes us worse at finding out the truth because the truth has already been found. Then the role of the political philospher changes to attempting to make others more aware about the topic concerned. Truth, to my mind as well as many including the great Martin Heidegger, is a kind of seeking, and therefore, the seeking takes its meaning from what is sought after. In other words, we cannot seek truth unless there is a truth to seek. Political philosophers first try to arrive at a truth and then provide an argument which represents the truth which was sought after and, hopefully for them, found.

    • Basvandervossen

      There is no unstated premise, since the argument is valid (indeed, it’s sound). That said, as I discuss in the paper, I do not think any political philosopher is justified in believing s/he knows the truth about politics.

      • M Lister

        (indeed, it’s sound)

        Well, I suppose we all hope, and often believe, that our arguments have true premises, but since several of them are being disputed here, I hope you’ll not mind that we don’t just take your word for it! (I can add, it never increases the credence I give to a disputed premise in a argument when those asserting it assert again that it’s true. If anything, it tends to make me look with an even more skeptical eye.)

  • Kurt H

    Leaving aside proper strategy for philosophers (which is IMO, largely an internal matter), I want to draw attention to the motivating paragraphs in your opening. It is well known that academics tend to be more left-leaning than the population at large. There are at least three good theories for this:

    a) The kinds of people who think very systematically and precisely about issues are drawn to academic work and this mental framework ALSO correlates with liberalism
    b) Reality has a liberal bias and more educated people are thus likely to be more liberal.
    c) A deliberate conspiracy exists to bar right-wing views from academia.

    Theory c), while commonly alluded is very unlikely since it has the unreasonable coordination requirements of all conspiracy theories plus a mild form of c) is indistinguishable from the results of a) or b). If a) were entirely true, we would expect all academics regardless of field to have a liberal bias. While some of the effect is tied to education alone, the liberal bias is clearly larger among people whose field of study is more closely related to politics. This means it is likely that at least some amount of b) is occurring.

    To the extent that liberal bias in academia is an accurate reflection of reality, then there is nothing wrong with this bias. In fact, deferring to academics would actually be more reasonable than the reverse.

    This is my chief criticism of Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” which you cite. Haidt lays out considerable evidence that conservatives use moral “modules” that others do not, yet he never successfully argues that those moral modules (like, say, Purity) are *valuable* in the modern age. He commits the naturalistic fallacy when he fails to consider that the Purity module might be the mental equivalent of the appendix — something that was adaptive long ago, but is no longer.

    • Basvandervossen

      Regarding c), I recommend you read the study by Inbar e.a. tow which I link in the paper. That may not be the whole truth, but it’s hard to deny it’s part of the truth. See also the things that Haidt (not Haight) has on his website about this.

      • Kurt H

        I will concede that the Inbar paper provides evidence of biases being reinforced in a systemic manner (not really a conspiracy, but still an substantial impact). However, that paper also provides evidence for theory b) in that the type of liberalism (social issues) that social-psychologists’ field most relates to is the one where the bias is strongest.

    • c) need not be a conspiracy theory. To succeed in any line of work, one must make nice with the decision makers and send strong signals that one is a good fit for the existing in-group.

      In short, nobody wants to hire someone who doesn’t gel with the rest of the team unless the applicant’s potential is so strong as to be inarguable. So, other than the case of rare geniuses, every business lends itself to in-grouping. The corporate halls are filled with MBAs and consultant-types. The academic faculty lounges are packed with left-leaning linguistic-types. And why do so many construction workers chew smokeless tobacco?

      It’s not a conspiracy, it’s human nature. Like gravitates to like. The best way to overcome that sort of bias is to cultivate a diverse group of close friends and never spend too much time in your own personal “bubble.”

  • Joe Duarte

    Hi Bas. Our paper on politics and social science was just pre-posted by Cambridge yesterday: http://journals.cambridge.org/images/fileUpload/documents/Duarte-Haidt_BBS-D-14-00108_preprint.pdf

    It’s very related to your thesis and book.

    I’ve always wondered why these proofs don’t accommodate degree or severity. These binary triggers seem off to me. If the impact was small in your 3, and the philosopher’s overall impact or contribution was large, the logic wouldn’t work. I don’t think binary-trigger proofs are a valid method, but I know very little about why they’re used.

    There’s also an issue of training in bias-correction techniques, and some very specific applied epistemology. I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface there. On the philosophy side, this will ultimately be intermingled with deep questions about method. It might be a bit more workable right now for social science, where we can constrain the methods more, at least in theory.

    More here on related issues, maybe, where political activists were used to rate climate abstracts to determine the consensus. I’m still confused how this is possible, and I’ve called for retraction of the paper: http://www.joseduarte.com/blog/ignore-climate-consensus-studies-based-on-random-people-rating-journal-article-abstracts

    • Basvandervossen

      Thanks for pointing out your forthcoming paper, Joe. And congrats! I’m waiting on the proofs of mine and will see if I can still work in a cite.

      I’ve looked a little at studies on bias correction. I may be wrong, and please let me know if I am, but I believe the evidence for success here is scant, no?

  • MarcusW

    Interesting paper and thesis. Regarding how partisanship can bias our thinking I wonder if you are familiar with Lewandowskys paper “Motivated rejection of Science”? If so, wouldn´t it also have been a fitting reference in your paper?

  • Kenyon Colloran

    Isn’t the real objection to the argument step 1. Why does accepting a job require you to avoid things that make you worse at your job? That is just a part of people’s lives and shouldn’t necessarily be prioritized over other parts of it. Having a family for many people makes them worse at their jobs as well. Should that be avoided? Or is that an unreasonable expectation? If so, why isn’t not partaking in political activism also an unreasonable expectation? Where is the line drawn?

  • Here is one argument you could have made in response to Marcus’ closing question: your claim is *not* that no political philosopher should *ever* engage in political activism, it is that political philosophers have a *prima facie* reason not to engage in political activism. Your claim is completely consistent not only with a world in which it is OK for you to write for BHL, but with a world in which it is OK for *all* political philosophers to engage in political activism — they (and you) just have to show that doing so trumps their (your) prima facie obligation.

    PS — Your argument works just as well for affirmations of belief of any kind, not just political activism. Affirming that one believes in Proposition X biases a political philosopher in favor of Proposition X, which affects their ability to consider Proposition X later in light of new evidence or arguments. Maybe political philosophers should only make arguments, and never affirm beliefs..?

  • The honest philosopher (particularly one who is self-identified as ‘libertarian’) would instantly recognize the essential moral problem of coupling the word “political” with the word “philosophy”.

    If the threat or use of violence employed in the service of a personal or social goal is a moral evil, then there can be no role whatsoever for the honest philosopher, but to condemn the concept of the state outright, and all of its consequent rituals and institutions — and, as much as is practically possible (you can’t fault a man for feeding himself with state bread, if state bread is all that is available), eschew involvement in the state wherever it appears.

    If, on the other hand, there is some sort of logically consistent explanation I’m not aware of, for why the threat or use of violence in the pursuit of a personal or social goal is acceptable in some cases, but not in others (don’t you people call this ‘special pleading’?), then all you’re really doing here is haggling over the price with your colleagues, and all the bluster about the “moral duties” of philosophers is nothing more than a bargaining tactic.

    I understand this is a provocative response. I understand many will dismiss it because it is provocative, and rationalize that I am merely painting the problem in naive black-and-white terms. But so what? A few others will read it, and stop at least for a few minutes to *think* about it.

    And THAT is the job of the philosopher. His activism, his advocacy, lies in _provoking others to think for themselves_, and most certainly *not* in forcing others to act in certain ways by means of the guns of the state.

    • Jonathan

      I assume you believe the entitlement theory of property is correct and that violence is morally permissible to defend one’s property. You think violence is permissible to defend the property rules that you approve of but not those that other people approve of. You and your fellow hard right-libertarians are the true special pleaders.

      • You’re free to assume whatever you like, of course.

        • Jonathan

          Of course. And you’re free to ignore my questions and leave them unanswered when you have nothing to say about them. But what do I expect from a follower of Molyneux?

    • Jonathan

      I take it that you think you have some a priori reason why the state is immoral in itself. I’d love to hear your argument for this, with a clear definition of ‘state’ and explanation of what you think the true moral theory is and why.

      • If you have good reasons for why the use of violence in pursuit of a personal or social goal is morally permissible, I’m all ears. School me.

        On the other hand, if you have good reasons for why the use of violence in pursuit of a personal or social goal is not morally permissible, then I’d appreciate it if you could help remove my confusion, and explain how the concept of a state is consistent with those reasons.

        • Jonathan

          You yourself think the use of violence in pursuit of a personal or social goal is morally permissible, since you think violence is acceptable to defend the resources you claim as your own and to exclude others from those resources. That’s the thing about you AnCaps. Everybody else’s violence is unjust and immoral, but your violence is just and moral. And you talk about special pleading.

          • You’re extremely gifted at telling other people what they think.

  • Dale

    Two worries:

    First, I’m not convinced that the “team” mindset that’s damaging to one’s scholarship and the behavior of political activism, however that’s defined, are closely connected enough for any obligation to protect one’s scholarship to entail an obligation to avoid politics. On the one hand, I might be a political activist without having ties to any team, by supporting whatever candidates seem likely to do the most to uphold my principles irrespective of their party. On the other, I might already have that mindset even if I abstain from activism. I root for the Steelers to win even though I don’t do anything to contribute to their efforts. Even if you convince me to abstain from political activism, I might still have a party that I’m rooting for, and if so my scholarship is already corrupted. And since I’m guessing that activism more often follows than precedes partisanship, this means that simply telling political philosophers to avoid activism is too little, too late. They would have to distance themselves from contemporary politics far more thoroughly than that.

    Second, even if this prima facie or pro tanto obligation exists, it may well fall short of being an all-things-considered obligation. I’m inclined to think that all citizens have a pro tanto obligation to be involved in politics to some extent, although I know that not everyone here will agree, and I think it’s plausible that this obligation is if anything stronger where people who have spent more time considering political questions is concerned. So our civic obligations may outweigh our scholarly ones.

  • As a kind of deflationist about political theory, I challenge (2). There is no such thing as truths about politics qua politics.

    Let me explain. There are indeed social facts, demographic facts, psychological facts, institutional facts, and so on. That’s all perfectly fine and intelligible. And when we talk about politics (say, what’s going in in Gaza), we often want to refer to a bunch of behavior facts of those kinds.

    But political theory is doing something different from all that. Political theory involves the examination of social facts through some cognitive-affective orientation to the world and the opportunities for action in it: whether it be idealist, realist, pessimist, or ironic, or their perversions. In other words, political theory involves taking a stance towards the facts of social science. And the stance you adopt is optional; each is consistent with the facts; and each is incommensurate with the others.

    It would take an essay to sketch out the view; I guess I’ll upload an imperfect little thing to my academia.edu profile if anyone really cares to track it down. But my purpose here is just to point out that I don’t agree with an essential premise or your conclusion, and second, that my objections rest on prior convictions.

  • vicky warshawski

    “Being diverse” and “finding the truth” are mutually exclusive, via Hannah Arendt, who is, I believe, a better political philosopher than you are (which I don’t mean to be as snotty as it souhds — she’s a better political philosopher than the vast majority of political philosophers). Once you think that “being diverse” is itself an intellectual rather than ethical value, then “thinking through issues via activism” (which, after all, exposes you to all kinds of information once you go beyond ‘give money’ and ‘put up yard sign’) is a different way of thinking, i.e. part of diversity, i.e. a good thing via your closing (self-serving, as you know) point.

  • WHS72

    “The ideological spectrum ranges roughly from left to extreme left.”

    Isn’t it insulting to claim that the many conservative and moderate professors in business schools, law schools, medical schools, etc. not to mention religious schools are not really “academics.”

  • JEH

    I want to say that this argument is complete bullshit. I do not mean to be rude, but its premises are not true.

    First, I reject the premises based on the erroneous conception of philosophy
    that must be true. The end game of philosophy it endorses is detachment and
    contemplation of concepts rooted in how philosophers collective conceive of the
    political world. To assume that activism will make the philosophy and
    philosopher worse off can only be true if and only if one has a very insular
    conception of philosophy—the very type of philosophizing that worries about
    problems as they occur in detached journal articles from the armchair.

    Second, it’s a highly questionable premise that one should
    avoid being political if one is pursuing political philosophy. Life activities
    that deeply involve us do not detract from our abilities to be scholars as the
    argument assumes (not necessarily any way), but rather we can be enhanced by
    those activities and commitments that connect our philosophy to the lived-experience of us and other people. We can accept this and also accept a revised premise (1).

    (1) should be rephrased: (1’): People who take up a certain role or
    profession thereby acquire two prima facie moral duties (A) to make a
    reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at
    their tasks and (B) to make a reasonable effort to embrace those things that
    predictably make them better at their assigned tasks. Certainly a political
    philosopher who ignores the suffering of people can wax on about just war
    theory and drones do in a theater of war. But what is the cost of being such a
    philosopher? Doesn’t one’s philosophizing lose touch with the affairs of the
    world! If Socrates is to be judged as living a successful and exemplar
    philosophical life (it’s a different story as to whether or not he lived
    successfully), then the success term of our efforts should be asking questions
    that connect us to the affairs of the world.

    Let me put this insight into a thought experiment. Certainly, there are great
    scholars in, say, aesthetics that cannot draw, paint, or sculpt. But, there are
    no aestheticians that I have come across that do not care for art. Let’s name
    this scholar, Dr. Smith. She cares about art, and is an accomplished
    aesthetician publishing in top journals in her field. She has museum
    memberships in the city where she teaches, and reads outside of philosophy in
    both art history and art criticism. Compare her to Dr. Jones, a philosopher of
    language who attended a top university in the United States. He is published in
    top-tier journals in the field of philosophy and his specialty. However, Jones
    does not speak any other language other than English. In his PhD, he
    substituted “logic” for his foreign language requirement, and he reads little
    in linguistics. Who’s the better philosopher?

    Smith embraces the balance to be achieved between A and B. She could embrace art and spend way too much time in another discipline that hurts her chances when going up for tenure. Jones clearly embraces A but does nothing to enhance his abilities and ignores B.

  • Mike Valdman

    Hi Bas. I’m late to this party, and I haven’t had a chance to read the other comments (or your paper), but I thought I’d share with you a few thoughts. I’m sympathetic to your conclusion but not to your premises.

    Regarding (1), my sense is that your prima facie duty is extremely weak unless being worse at your job carries significant costs to others (it’s strong for pilots and weak, say, for upholsterers). (1) also seems excessively broad. After all, lots of things could make one a worse philosopher — poor eyesight, a bad relationship, too many graduate students, etc.

    My main beef, however, is with (2), and that may put me at odds with most members of our profession. I don’t think that philosophy in any form, political or otherwise, is about seeking truth. I take the Sellarsian view that philosophy is an attempt to understand how ideas hang together. It’s about mapping logical relations between ideas. We’re glorified cartographers. Or, if you prefer, conceptual engineers.

    If one rejects (2) then (3) becomes irrelevant. I’m an epistemological skeptic about moral/political truth, so I don’t see how anything we do could make us better or worse at discovering it. Might political activism, however, make one a worse logician — worse at mapping relations between ideas? Perhaps, but I gather that there’s no empirical evidence to back that up (I could be wrong about that — perhaps being committed to X blinds one to argumentative moves that one could make against it).

    That said, I like your conclusion because I’m suspicious of strong conviction in general, and I think that genuine activism requires something like strong conviction (though I suppose one could be politically active ironically!).


  • Jakub Simek

    To be honest this line of thinking reminds me of the TED or technology critics who play the same spiel by simply stating some counter-intuitive or provocative arguments, often at TED-like conferences. Hence writing for an ideological blog. The problem is no one cares about pure philosophy or word games so people in “ivory tower” end up writing just for some bots. I think for example development cooperation is in fact applied philosophy. If you read the likes of Kahneman maybe you know that the mind/body duality is just a fiction and concept. How can a mind think without the inputs from sensors that are in real, political world?

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  • Rob Rock

    Politics are based on Philosophy. How can anything by argued without it? A big DUH on this one.

  • JohnQuiggin

    Coming in very late, this seems to be an argument about partisanship, rather than activism. Suppose, for example, that your political philosopher rigorously avoids all engagement with public policy issues, but instead spends her entire career on polemics for or against, say, consequentialism. Won’t all the adverse effects you describe be present? Won’t they come to share the prejudices of their allies, and dismiss as worthless the ideas of their opponents?

    Conversely, it seems to me strange to suggest that a political philosopher studying slavery in the 19th century should avoid the contamination that might arise from joining and writing in support of the abolitionist movement. What would be the point of such a person?

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