Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Problem with Forbidden Knowledge

Over on the NewAPPS blog, which is becoming a more and more excellent philosophy blog by the day, Eric Schliesser has authored a provocative (and provocatively brief) post asking whether or not we need a professional code of ethics for philosophers. Schliesser's question was prompted by the recent publication of two books-- one that condones torture and the other that condones the disenfranchisement of ignorant voters (in both cases, Schliesser adds, "with qualifications, of course")-- leading him to wonder whether we philosophers ought to collectively disavow the sorts of arguments about which there is a negative moral consensus. As an example of "arguments that are not treated as worthy of consideration" currently by philosophers-- other than arguments that are obviously trivial-- Schliesser offers those "exploring subtle distinctions that can help illuminate the inherent moral inferiority of some ethnic group." I think we are meant to presume that Schliesser (implicitly) judges arguments that "condone torture" or the "disenfranchisement of ignorant voters" as worthy of the same moral opprobrium with which we currently regard pseudo-scientific and manifestly racist arguments, and I think we are meant to presume that any argument morally equivalent to those would be the target for Schliesser's putative Philosophical Code of Ethics. The problem is, of course, that Schliesser's comparisons are more equivocal than equivalent for many (if not most) philosophers. How do we determine which arguments rise to the level of philosophical "taboos"? Schliesser suggests that "disciplinary moral consensus" is likely a necessary, even if not a sufficient, condition for delegating a certain philosophical topic taboo. But, again, it's evident even to Schliesser that disciplinary moral consensus is very difficult to locate.

Interestingly, the main point of Schliesser's post seems to be to elucidate the sometimes "very pernicious policy consequences" of philosophic activity. He suggests that most philosophers likely wouldn't sign on to a professional code of ethics like that of engineers, which obligates engineers first and foremost to "hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public." Why not? Because the "safety, health and welfare of the public" is not the paramount virtue of philosophic activity. Schliesser writes (my hotlinks added):
Let me offer two (controversial) examples: i) a great deal of philosophic sophistication is regularly deployed in order to clarify the doctrine of double effect. In practice the main function of the principle, however elegant, is to be a rhetorical fig-leaf to let politicians and generals morally off-the-hook for atrocious deeds. ii) Plenty of prominent philosophers are engaged in projects that facilitate the development of causal discovery software to be used in expert systems with the (foreseeable) dual use to fight, say, cancer or annihilate enormous number of innocent people deemed enemy by the government (etc.).

Should we be more willing to hold each other responsible for the foreseeable public impact of our words or shared standards?
So, in the case of the principle of double effect, Schliesser rightly notes that the products of philosophic activity quite often provide excuses for morally objectionable acts. In the second case, Schliesser worries that too many philosophers are willing to under-emphasize or overlook problems endemic to causal discovery algorithms-- e.g., the problem of ignorance and the problem of inconsistency-- in effect providing philosophical sanction for the development of systems that are predictably antithetical to the "safety, health and welfare of the public" (even if the "double effect" of those systems is positive). He asks: should we be more willing to hold each other responsible for the foreseeable public impact of our words or shared standards?

I can't imagine that many philosophers would answer "no" to Schliesser's question. That general agreement notwithstanding, I also can't imagine that many philosophers would agree to the formulation of a Professional Code of Ethics of the sort that Schliesser seems to want, either. As he notes, there are several categories of arguments that professional philosophers might have a collective professional interest in disavowing. To make things clearer, let's say they're of three general sorts:
  • Untrue Arguments, which may or may not also be morally objectionable. For example, "some ethnic groups are inherently inferior."
  • Trivial Arguments, which are not morally objectionable, but rather which tend to (in Schliesser's words) "diminish the beauty or elegance or worthiness of an argument."
  • Arguments with Foreseeably Negative Policy Implications. I imagine that arguments that "condone" torture in exceptional circumstances, like the infamous "ticking time-bomb" scenario, would be examples of this sort.
Obviously, there are already more general practices and rules of Academia in place (like graduate training and peer-review) that safeguard against philosophers engaging in manifestly untrue arguments or poorly executed ones. So, a Professional Code of Ethics wouldn't be needed for those. It's the third category that's Schliesser's real concern here, and for good reason. Unfortunately, I just don't think there's an Ethical Code that could do what he wants it to do.

Let me say that I am completely sympathetic with Schliesser's concerns. I think he lays them out well, and I think his examples (in the comments section, which is expanding even as I write this) of philosophic activity with deeply problematic policy implications are spot-on. Here's my issue: what would the putative Philosophers' Ethical Code forbid? Let's return to the general principles of the Engineering Ethics Code for a moment. They are as follows:
  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.
  2. Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest.
  5. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others.
  6. Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero-tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption.
  7. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.
Principles 2-7 could easily be adopted by professional Philosophers (with the possible exception of 4 which doesn't have much purchase for client-less philosophers). In fact, they would likely be adopted without much objection, as I'm guessing they're already accepted as general practice. But adopting any or all of those first seven principles wouldn't assuage Schliesser's concerns. It's some variation on the engineers' First Principle that we need for that. Presuming, as I think we must, that there are many good reasons to pursue philosophical arguments that do not serve the safety, health and welfare of the public, we have two options for those arguments: either (1) keep them "secret" from the public, or (2) trust "the public" to do with them what they will.

I'm not sure what could possibly serve as the First Principle for a Professional Philosopher's Code of Ethics that wouldn't amount to something like declaring "forbidden knowledge." Many years ago, I attended a lecture by my (at that time) dissertation advisor, John D. Caputo, where he was asked to answer the question: is there such a thing as "forbidden" knowledge? Jack answered "no"-- not because there aren't some questions that, if pursued to their philosophical ends, produce knowledge that has foreseeably pernicious consequences for the public, but rather because the pursuit of knowledge per se can't be forbidden. If we can ask a question, Caputo speculated, we will pursue it to its end. In fact, we're already engaged in the pursuit of its end. (See the first sentence of Aristotle's Metaphysics.) I don't think Caputo's point was to say that "anything goes" in philosophical speculation-- a position he, and many other deconstructionists, are often wrongly credited with holding-- but only to say that the fact of the matter is that if we can think it (even as a question, as a possibility), "it" already is in the realm of that for which we are, and ought to be, held intellectually (and, I would add, professionally) responsible. "Forbidding" certain questions, or certain arguments, or certain conclusions, only serves to resign those matters to the realm of the Secret, which poses a far more pernicious danger to the public than bad arguments do, because it removes them from the public space where we hold each other accountable for our arguments and their consequences.

For that reason, I think Schliesser's question-- should we be more willing to hold each other responsible for the foreseeable public impact of our words or shared standards?-- is the MOST important question. But it can only be asked because professional philosophers don't have an ethical code that forbids any particular question from being asked and answered, however incompletely, imperfectly or, in some cases, dangerously.

UPDATE 1/5/12:
Schliesser's essay has generated several other critical responses. See Mohan Mathhen's here and here. Joshua Miller's (excellent) criticism is here. Schleisser's rejoinders are here and here.


jdrabinski said...

Huh, don't we hold one another responsible all the time? It's called book reviews! Ignoring people at a conference! Banning European philosophy from the U.S. academy! (Oops...)

I imagine he's trying to be provocative. His examples are terrible, though; both are worth arguing about. Plus, if we censure philosophers because they lend hands to atrocious cultural and political projects, then pretty much the major dudes from the 18th century gotta go...they loved them some race hate.

DOCTOR J said...

@John: Actually, I'm not sure his example of arguments that condone torture are not worth arguing about. I teach Alan Dershowitz's Tortured Reasoning essay in my "Justice" course every semester and find that it produces amazing (complex, reflective, problematic, provocative) conversations. I like to think that's partially because the premise of Dershowitz's essay is so obviously objectionable, but I find every time that things are not that easy. My problem with Schliesser's position is that he seems to take for granted that *everyone* will find these sorts of philosophical arguments untenable, while I think that such (in my view, untenable) arguments have to be out there for discussion in order to get at something approximating the moral "truth" of the matter.

I don't think 18th C. philosophers are any more culpable than 20th C.(or 21st C.) philosopher. As to the wisdom of disallowing morally censurable arguments in advance of their "collective" moral censure, see forthcoming post.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Before claims like this could be made, we'd need to have a much better account of the relationship between philosophical claims (even those that straightforwardly argue for a morally objectionable practice) and various forms of political and ethical action. We'd need, in other words, a sophisticated account of ideology (this is a problem which I think anyone who works in the history of philosophy will have encountered). Although I think there's a connection between apologia and justifications for bad acts and bad acts, I don't think any theory of ideology would hold that it's simply causal --- and it seems like you'd need there to be a strong causal connection to warrant the kind of prohibition Schliesser seems to be advocating (this is why , for example, we ought to ban hate speech that calls for violent acts).

Holding someone responsible for holding a bad view (and we all ought to do so) is a different kind of thing than holding someone responsible for a bad act (which we also ought to do...) Arguments like the one Schliesser brings forth seems to me to miss this difference.

Eric Schliesser said...

As a lurker to this discussion, so maybe it is unethical that I respond. Anyway, I am not and need not be committed to the claim that "*everyone* will find these sorts of philosophical arguments untenable." (See my response to Aaron Garrett at NewAPPS).
I agree that a theory of ideology may be one way to go to put more meet to my argument, but I do not see why it would be the only way to go. But as it happens, there may well be a very straight causal link between the book on torture and the army's improved regulations on the matter:

DOCTOR J said...

Eric, you're hardly a "lurker"-- you STARTED this discussion! For my part, I'll just say that if we *could* prove a "direct causal link" between philosophical texts advocating torture and governmental policies advocating torture, I'd be the FIRST to sign on to your professional code of ethics forbidding such texts!

DOCTOR J said...

For those keeping up with the debate, here's Mohan Matthen's "rebuke" of Schliesser.

Art Carden said...

I found this especially interesting as one of the things I was hoping to get off my desk today is my review of Brennan's The Ethics of Voting. Brennan, incidentally, will be one of the speakers at an IHS weekend seminar on the same weekend as the Mid-South Philosophy Conference at Rhodes (I regret the double-booking, but time is a scarce resource). Brennan does not condone disenfranchisement; in fact, he explicitly argues against it. The text overlapping pp. 6-7 of The Ethics of Voting in which he explicitly argues against disenfranchisement is part of the Google Books preview and is available here.

Incidentally, I think this exchange illustrates your larger point: the possibility of the conversation in the pursuit of truth and justice is a prerequisite for the identification of truth and justice.

While we're on the subject of short and provocative contributions, James Buchanan's "Order Defined in the Process of Its Emergence" probably contains the highest ratio of insight-to-word-count of anything I've ever read.

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Art. It occurred to me after I posted this that I should've noted that I've not read Brennan's book nor Allhoff's book, both of which Schliesser uses as targets. (So, in deference to Allhoff, I should note that my previous comment regarding the fecundity of Dershowitz's essay should not be taken to assume an equivalence of opinion between Allhoff and Dershowitz.)

Also for the record... Art, you are my prime and go-to example of what a friendship between reasonable people who disagree on core issues can produce: namely, a genuine pursuit of truth. ;-)

Art Carden said...

@Leigh: thanks, and likewise. Your central argument was about professional rules and norms rather than Brennan's argument per se. It raises an important caveat that (I think) underscores your fundamental point about what happens in conversation and illustrates a few others. First, Princeton University Press has a brand name to protect. Second, as I read Eric's post, he's offering Brennan as an example of someone who might be worthy of professional censure based not only on an argument he doesn't make, but one he specifically and explicitly repudiates.

What I find interesting--and interestingly enough, Brennan's argument in Ethics of Voting is relevant here--is the focus on whether people are responsible for what happens if their ideas fall into the hands of those who use them for intentional evil. I'm particularly interested in the disastrous unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies and our failure to update our beliefs about the effects of these policies in the face of pretty clear evidence (see everything I've ever written about shortages after natural disasters or immigration).

Eric Schliesser said...

I am puzzled by the claim that I misrepresent Brennan's position; he argues for a particular form of (or species of) disenfranchisement, namely, self-disenfranchisement.
Moreover, my fears about where this argument leads are not unreasonable. *Brennan* has been publicly quoted as follows: "“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." http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/the-daily-need/are-bad-voters-like-drunk-drivers-new-book-says-they-are-and-that-they-should-stay-home-on-election-day/8609/

Art Carden said...

@Eric: I don't think that's what "disenfranchisement" means in common usage or in the context of Brennan's argument; a few seconds with the Google yields a Merrism-Webster definition of "to deprive of a right to vote." We muddy the analytical water if we lump abstention in with that. Becoming "more sympathetic" to something is not the same as condoning it, and I think the best guide to Brennan's argument is his book itself. Scholars' arguments are regularly stripped of nuance (if not butchered outright) when they are filtered through the media; indeed, part of my forthcoming review is going to discuss how this might happen with Brennan's thesis.

Eric Schliesser said...

Two general points. I have come to think that framing my concern in terms of "Forbidden Knowledge" is misleading because the taboo is not on secret knowledge but on inquiry into topic (that may or may not establish) knowledge. Now it is true that a premise behind my concern is that not all knowledge needs to be salutary, but that premise is not required for my concern; all that is required is that during inquiry some folk will settle on positions that may be harmful to philosophy and the communities we belong to. Second, and this is more in response to Art Carden, I am specifically targeting philosophic work that is being promoted to various policy-makers/policy-elites (and public media may play a role in that)

Eric Schliesser said...

Just for the record, Brennan does advocate legal disenfranchisement (starting with voters in New Hamsphire--I felt I was reading Swift!) in a forthcoming paper: http://www.jasonfbrennan.com/RestrictedSuffragePQ.doc
The book's framework naturally leads to the new steps that Brennan is taking (and that folk are willing to fund and make sure gets a wide hearing among policy wonks in DC, etc). I'll be curious to see how you try to explain this away, Art.