Must we destroy the profession in order to save it?

Jason Brennan, The Ethics of Voting, 2011, page 5:

“The right to vote and the rightness of voting are different things. I do not argue that we should disenfranchise anyone. Though I think many voters are wrong to vote, I will not argue that anyone should prevent them from voting.” (Emphasis mine)

Eric Schliesser, New APPS, 1/3/12:

“The following tentative remarks were caused by reflection on the recent publication of books that (with qualification, of course) condone… disenfranchisement of ignorant voters.”

Jason Brennan, interviewed for a web article posted to The Daily Need, 4/15/2011:

“Since writing ‘The Ethics of Voting,’ I’ve actually become more sympathetic to the idea that maybe people should be formally excluded from voting,” Brennan said.

Of course, there are obvious dangers implicit in this view, as Brennan admits. Special interests, for example, might co-opt the voting process to exclude those who won’t support their agenda. Incumbents might bar voters who are likely to oust them from office. And literacy and comprehension tests have an ugly history dating back to the Jim Crow era, when they were used to disenfranchise African-Americans. That led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Emphasis mine; the second paragraph is from The Daily Need article, but it is partly a gloss of Brennan’s book, page 108)

Eric Schliesser, New APPS, 1/4/12:

“When I wrote my original post, I had no idea that Brennan had already slipped down the slope of my not so ‘idle concern.’ As a community, we are politely witnessing (refereeing, reviewing, etc) the philosophic ground-clearing being done for –and the accompanying public marketing of — ideas that will justify a certain kind of elite rule. […] (In the book he argues for a sub-set [of disenfranchisement], self-disenfranchisement.)” (Emphasis mine)

In his post, Schliesser argues that we ought to consider a professional code of conduct that bars sympathetic consideration of topics like not-voting or torture when that research threatens to supply “a rhetorical fig-leaf to let politicians and generals morally off-the-hook for atrocious deeds,” or research that assists the state in “annihilat[ing] enormous number[s] of innocent people deemed enemy by the government.”

Unfortunately, as stated, the proposition is self-refuting. Here’s why: Schliesser suggests we ought to consider restrictions on easily misunderstood work on moral taboos. His own post could easily be interpreted as a call for a ban on politically unpopular research. In fact, my friend Leigh Johnson interprets his question in this way: as an encouragement to ban “Forbidden Knowledge.” In the comments, Schliesser claims that this is a misreading, but Johnson is both a charitable and smart reader: if it’s possible for her to derive this interpretation of his words, it’s quite easy for them to be misused in this way by “politicians and generals” in search of a “rhetorical fig-leaf.” If Brennan’s book with its clear warning against disenfranchisement can be read as a call for disenfranchisement, then certainly Schliesser’s post can be read as a call for a ban!

In this sense, Schliesser’s post is precisely the sort of thing that would violate a code of professional ethics like the one he’s describing! The counterfactual is not: “What would the world look like if Brennan had not written his book and articles?” The relevant counterfactual is: “What would the world look like if there was a code of ethics that restricted research on moral taboos?” Such a world is more likely to involve illiberal restrictions than the ones that Schliesser seems to favor.

But I want to focus on the justifications he gives between two different kinds of restrictions: informal norms and codes of conduct. As he points out, there already are norms of collegiality, politeness, and prudence that govern our professional interactions, norms that Schliesser violates by reviewing and now attacking a book he has not read and using a likely-sensationalized web interview to justify his position after the fact.

What is added when these informal norms are codified? The clarity and transparency of codified norms at first seems promising, but wherever there is a code of conduct, there must also be a process for amending it. Since Schliesser advocates against elite rule, I assume he would want this process to be open to all members of the profession, as would I. The alternative is elite rule by the professional ethicists!

But what makes Schliesser think that our profession would adopt rules that outlawed research on torture or epistemic problems with democracy, given the fact that such research is popular and widely believed to be central to the profession’s mission? Here it’s important to note that while many professions have codes of conduct, there is little evidence that they actually bind members of the profession meaningfully because they are a isonomic: the professionals themselves make the rules. Finance professionals, lawyers, engineers, and research scientists are all bound by rules of conduct that are so laughably generic that these same groups are regularly caricatured as unprincipled and even evil, both by the public and by disillusioned members of the same professions.

Another reason to codify norms is because codification supplies an opportunity for an intervention: though informal norms will govern what sorts of rules are considered legitimate, it’s also possible that new rules will eventually be internalized as informal norms. This is obviously what Schliesser hopes: that by sneaking a politically radical provision into the rules banning research on moral taboos, we will finally internalize the informal norms that actually prevent such work. But this is certainly not a democratic hope: it is governance through trickery by a different set of elites.

Now, Schliesser is certainly right that the philosophy profession is driven by the demand to scrutinize all assumptions and follow arguments where they lead, and that some professional philosophers are so enamored of this ethos that they will adopt contrary positions and embrace iconoclasm over prudence.

However, these drives seem less dangerous than Schliesser supposes, especially because these drives are already limited by the existence of informal norms governing the profession, which dictate who is considered fit for jobs, tenure, and grants. I think it is likely that efforts to codify and enact punishments to fit these informal norms are more likely to harm than help, more likely to transform into a broad and toothless set of guidelines or into Johnson’s feared ban on “forbidden knowledge” than to successfully institute new moral taboos.

Perhaps, in part, research like that of Brennan and Alhoff is not justificatory but rather inspired by the fact that we already inhabit a world governed by “a certain kind of elite rule” and one where torture is condoned by the highest political authorities. Jason Brennan’s voting ethics is looking pretty good the day after the 2012 Iowa caucuses with democracy reduced to an adolescent joke: “Obama, Romney win Iowa caucuses; Santorum slips into #2 spot.” Someone has to formulate that argument, if only so that we can discover a winning refutation or design institutions that do not so easily suggest the argument’s conclusion to onlookers.

If we want to do research that combats the status quo of elite rule and torture, we must understand the arguments that currently justify it, or else fall victim to overuse of “Weak Man” argumentation and research that is irrelevant to contemporary needs. To ban discussion of the facts of our common existence is an absurd self-destruction of the profession, especially its most emancipatory traditions, in an attempt to save it.


One response to “Must we destroy the profession in order to save it?”

  1. […] my last post, I noted that Jason Brennan’s published work strongly opposed disenfranchisement in the […]

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