Philosophical Research and Political Diversity

There’s an interesting discussion over at Daily Nous regarding whether we ought to pursue political diversity in philosophy. I suspect the following three things to be true:

  1. There is nothing intrinsic or essential enough about political ideologies. Ideologies are arbitrary assemblages of procedural and substantive policy preferences that are aggregated sociologically, so “diversity” may be either an infinitely receding goal or it may end up mistaking sociological groupings for natural kinds.
  2. One of the main problems here is the criterion by which we judge philosophical results. Kristie Dotson’s paper How is this Paper Philosophy?” does a really good job at laying out how the absence of stable criteria for the acceptance of scholarship allows white and male scholars to privilege their own work and exclude the work of non-white and non-male scholars. The same holds for liberal and conservative scholars: if there’s no criterion for good work, it is far too easy to use political heuristics and litmus tests to stand in for the quality of a person’s scholarship.
  3. Insofar as we are engaged in a collective project, we must both mutually support each others’ inquiry and avoid errors. These two goals are at odds: homogeneity can also lead to unchallenged motivated reasoning and thus to polarization and error. But mutual inquiry requires some degree of shared values, assumptions, and methods which make political diversity divisive and paralyzing.

Your Brain on PoliticsIt’s not clear what we want when we say we want more political diversity or conservatives. Much of Haidt’s argument is deliberately equivocating about the relevant terms and tendencies. (That is: using partisan identification as a stand-in for shared values, assumptions, beliefs, and topical interests, where most of the work done by psychologists doesn’t have either explicit or implicit political valence.) According to Haidt’s early work, the problem is that liberals somehow just don’t recognize several fundamental moral intutions: liberals don’t think purity, loyalty, and appropriate authority matter. So he’s been telling this “liberals have broken moral compasses” story for a while now, and it’s dumb, and he’s mostly backed away from it, only to replace it with this other kind of story: liberals have different hobby horses than conservatives, and we need as many hobby horses as possible to keep everyone honest.

The liberal response has largely been to say that Haidt’s (early) description is right (i.e. liberals really don’t care about purity, ingroup loyalty, or hierarchical moral intutions) but that this is really liberals being rational and overcoming bad impulses. I think that story is bullshit, too: everyone on both sides of partisan debates finds ways to incorporate the full panoply of moral intuitions. We just do it differently, on different topics: liberals don’t find homosexuality unpure and thus immoral, they find GMOs and pollution unpure and thus immoral. Liberals don’t respect priests, they respect scientists. Etc.

So if that’s right, then it’s not about a “diversity of thinking styles” when we see calls to include conservative researchers. You won’t be including lost moral intuitions, but rather missing beliefs and priors. There’s no natural liberal/conservative divide, just commitments and policy views that get stacked together arbitrarily or sociologically. So political diversity is about whether we need to include, not just moral conservatives or libertarians, but Republicans. Perhaps without their arbitrary ideological constellations to counter our own, our research communities are prone to systematic errors and biases. But if political diversity gathers people with arbitrarily assembled constellations of beliefs, rather than Republican and Democratic brains, there is value in seeking out disagreement just for its own sake, to engage in some helpful motivated skepticism to counter our own motivated reasoning. When like-minded researchers engage in motivated reasoning to pursue lines of inquiry that support their arbitrary priors, they are likely to fall into error or polarize their results. This is even more likely when the criterion of evaluation is itself murky. (“Philosophers admit falsifying results of thought experiment,” etc.)

To be clear, if the cultural cognition view is correct, it’s not ideology or psychology that is driving my partisan affiliation, assumptions, values, beliefs, and topical interests; it’s identity-protective cognition garnered from my friends and our shared identity. So we can’t have a professional community that won’t have some of that: by dint of calling ourselves philosophers we’ll have some priors we’re not well-placed to challenge. Certainly we COULD do a lot to reduce the potential for bias in this way, but it’s just not clear that we SHOULD. The evidence suggests that research communities require shared beliefs and goals to engage in inquiry at all. It’s really difficult to build professional communities around fundamental disagreements, precisely because that community requires shared goals and methods, and identity-based disagreements create schisms and hunkering down and bullet-biting. Philosophy already suffers pretty badly in that area.

These are all good reasons to hope for more diversity in philosophy, though mostly on race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability lines. But not just the big stuff…. For instance, how many geologists do we have in philosophy of science? Wouldn’t that expand the kinds of research questions there? Where are the dentists and home health aids in bioethics? And sure, where are the great climate change skeptics? Where are the great defenders of Catholic sexual morality? Where are the great pro-IQ philosophers? (And are those even what we mean when we talk about conservatives? I prefer to think not, but Haidt et al explicitly mention IQ issues, so….)

Those dimensions of diversity seem (to me) to be of only minor importance compared to the big stuff, though of course worth cultivating. So far, though, I haven’t yet seen an argument for weighting it comparatively heavier.

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