‘All dissent or critical analysis will be taken as evidence of insincerity.’

What attracted me to philosophy in the first place was a desire to think critically about whatever came my way and left me wondering. I take it that I have this in common with just about everyone else in the discipline.

I love considering wild counterfactual scenarios for their own sake to see how they press on my intuitions, and contemplating paradoxes: it’s an occupational hazard for most of us. But I don’t think it’s what makes philosophy worth doing. If I had to justify philosophy to an outsider — as I often have — I would say, honestly, that 99% of the work we do is rehearsing for the times our skills are really needed: times when a momentous decision has to be made, tempers are running high, and our long years of training in being cool, collected, rational, and imaginative are needed.

Strangely (to me), I’ve found that some people in the discipline have exactly the opposite view. They’re happy bouncing along, doing their work most of the time; but as soon as a major decision with practical consequences has to be made, they not only abandon their standards of philosophical dialectic, but openly urge others to as well!

I find that astonishing. It seems a no-brainer to me that, when a practical decision must be made and we have time to think and talk about making it, we must raise our argumentative standards, not abandon them. And yet, with respect to several issues (e.g. whether to support a war or policy, whether to applaud or reject a social change, etc.), I’ve often heard it said that too much is at stake to reason about it: the situation demands unanimity, not discussion or re-evaluation.

I have a hard time seeing how this could possibly be right, but I’d like to give it a go. First, I admit that I can think of two types of cases right now in which dissent or critical analysis are inappropriate:

1) Emergencies in which there are not even a few minutes to spare thinking and discussing the matter (e.g. the building is on fire and there’s no time to reason about what to do); and

2) Cases in which it’s uncontroversial that one side of the issue has the legal (or perhaps merely moral) right to dictate a solution to the issue (e.g. A is in B’s home, and B asks A to leave and doesn’t want to discuss the matter with A).

Aside from those cases, it seems to me always illegitimate for one side of an issue to cast aspersions on the other for merely wanting to discuss the matter. And even in those two cases, I think it’s illegitimate to stigmatize people for raising reasoned criticisms on these issues later on: once we’re out of the building, there should be no taboo against arguing that there was no good reason to leave so quickly or that B violated the norms of etiquette in throwing out A. The criticisms might be unfounded depending on their substance, but the mere discussion or consideration of them should not be taken as a sign of bad argumentative faith.

Facing dissent in the face of an important cause will always be annoying; but rejecting it without careful consideration strikes me as dangerous and positively vicious.

4 thoughts on “‘All dissent or critical analysis will be taken as evidence of insincerity.’

  1. Interesting. In my experience, those who are most likely “cast aspersions on the other[s] for merely wanting to discuss” an important cause are usually people who fear disagreement and debate, usually because they have not been taught how to argue for their own positions. I think they feel threatened by the prospect of been pulled into a debate that they’ll lose and/or that they’ll be tricked into changing their own minds.

    But it’s strange to see this behavior from professional philosophers and others who should feel comfortable in these sorts of situations (not only because they are confident they can make a good case for their opinions, but because they are confident that if they are going to be convinced it will be for a good reason). Any idea why it happens?

    • Hi, LB. I think there are two plausible reasons why certain philosophers make this move. I suspect that these two reasons are often both at play simultaneously.

      The first reason is that the people who do this feel that it’s so important that the issue be resolved in a certain way that they can’t risk having the public believe otherwise; so they put measures in place to prevent what they see as merely kicking up dust. There is a long history of major and minor social institutions doing this.

      The second reason is that some of them have been taught a somewhat anti-intellectual approach to philosophy, or perhaps identify with a charismatic philosophical mentor who dismisses opposing views with bluster, eye-rolling and sarcasm rather than argument. In the more extreme cases of this type, students may wind up not learning the methods and value of impartial reasoning, and may thus have nothing else at their disposal with which to fight their fights.

      Either way, those who get in the habit of dismissing opposing views rather than rationally engaging with them seem to get worse as time goes on. Perhaps this is due in part to an atrophy in their unused dialectical ‘muscles’. I think we’ve all seen this phenomenon even in people who don’t fit into either of the two categories: philosophers who come to be surrounded with admirers, as Hobbes famously was at the end of his life, are particularly vulnerable to this. I’ve met a number of such philosophers who, despite their eminence, get to the point where they cannot even mention an opposing view without attacking a straw man that could be identified as such a mile away.

  2. I think there is a third category of cases where objecting to discussion of an issue could plausbily be argued as inappropriate. I think the relevant features of the type of case I have in mind are roughly that there is a significant (and probably morally unacceptable) power difference exists between parties and the discussion of the matter compounds the power difference.

    For example, suppose I am holding someone prisoner in my basement, a la “Silence of the Lambs,” and I insist that they debate with me about whether I ought to kill them or not. This is not a matter which should be up for discussion, and posing it to them, when it is literally a life-or-death matter to them but not to me, could plausibly be understood as contributing to the injustice I am inflicting on them, a way of inflicting psychological suffering on them by flaunting my power over them.

    Of course, in this case, one might think this example is an example of your 2, where it is uncontroversial that one side of the issue is on the moral right.

    But I bring this up because there are instances where it is certainly not uncontroversial that one side of the issue is on the moral right, and discussing matters may contribute to injustice against that side. For example, the discussion of an oppressed group’s right to something that they do have a right to, but it is not widely agreed that they do. A gay person refusing to engage with an opponent of same-sex marriage, for instance, is not failing to treat her opponent with humanity by refusing to hear their view; plausibly, the opponent is failing to treat her with humanity by asserting that her rights are up for debate. Both the power difference between the sides, and the related fact that the matter under discussion significantly impacts one side and has little or no impact on the other side seem relevant.

    I’ve seen this idea expressed informally often enough that I am sure it is formally discussed somewhere.

    • Thanks for the interesting counter, SH. I enjoyed reading your comment and I hope it will lead to a good discussion of the issue.

      First, I’d like to clarify that I’m not going as far as to say that everyone has an obligation to debate with everyone else who wants to. If someone approaches me and wants to debate some issue, there might be all sorts of legitimate (to me) reasons why I might not want to. I might be in a rush, or preoccupied with some other problem that demands my attention, or in a conversation with someone else, or I might have just had thousands of other discussions with other people on the same topic and not be in the mood to have any more at present. In all those cases and many others, I think it would be perfectly acceptable to politely decline to debate the issue. I never meant to deny that.

      What I do want to deny is that it’s legitimate to go further and cast negative aspersions on the other person just for wanting to discuss the issue.

      As for the opponent of same-sex marriage who wants to debate the subject with a gay person: I think, again, that there is nothing wrong with the gay person refusing to get into that discussion if he finds it upsetting or just doesn’t feel like it, and I personally agree that the opponent of same-sex marriage is incorrect in her moral/political views about same-sex marriage and possibly in violation of etiquette (it depends on the context) for bringing up a topic of conversation that might be very unwelcome to the other person.

      However, I don’t think the same-sex marriage opponent is _also_ to be branded as insincere or pseudophilosophical just because she feels less than certain about the rights and wrongs of gay marriage. Unless there’s good evidence that she knows perfectly well that gay marriage is fine and is simply using logic-chopping as a stalling technique, we should give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she is serious. And if she has some interesting reasons for thinking that gay marriage should not be permitted, then anyone who refuses to listen to or consider them _but nonetheless treats himself to the assumption that there are no such reasons_ is being epistemically and dialectically irresponsible. It is someone like that, and not the dissenter, who is acting in bad faith.

      Interestingly, something like this has happened to me a couple of times. I belong to an ethnic minority, and I’ve (very occasionally) met people who have negative feelings toward my ethnic group. On two occasions that I can recall, I’ve spoken with people who recommended political changes that would limit the political equality of my ethnic group in various ways. On one occasion, this was said in front of some friends of mine, who became very angry and told me later that they thought the comments shouldn’t have been dignified with an argument. If I hadn’t been present, I’m pretty sure they would have told this person to get lost and that would have been that. I’m pretty sure in both cases that the interlocutor was sincere and not just trying to get my goat.

      I actually engaged argumentatively with both interlocutors. I don’t want to give too much away about my ethnicity, so I’ll explain the reason in terms of the gay man in your story. The opponent of same-sex marriage might have no reason at all for her views: if that’s the case, then she’s probably expressing her view because she assumes pretty well everyone agrees with it. It could be useful for her to have the opportunity to tell a gay person (or the friends of a gay person, if the gay person isn’t interested) why she’s against gay marriage, and to realize that, when it comes down to it, she’s got nothing.

      On the other hand, she might think that she has good reasons for her view. In that case, she’s probably got some of her facts wrong. Maybe she’s heard that gay people are hostile to society, or are much less likely to pay taxes, or want to molest children, or whatever. If they give those reasons as justifications, then others can just point out that those claims are false. That seems like a good result, too. Something akin to that happened in my discussions with the interlocutors. I also suspect that it might have been a good experience for them to have a decent conversation with a member of my ethnic group and realize that we’re in the same ballpark on most things.

      On the other hand, I can’t really see what good is meant to come from refusing to talk to or respect the interlocutors. We who collectively dismiss them from our midst by declaring their ideas unworthy of rational discussion might feel great about it, but they’ll just walk away offended and report back to their friends that liberal academics are so intolerant in their views that nobody’s even allowed to raise doubts about them without social censure. I really don’t think that’s helpful. So, while I disagree with the anti-same-sex-marriage position, I think we should engage with those people respectfully (if we have the time, etc.) and never blame them for raising apparently sincere doubts. And I think the principle of charity demands that we give people the benefit of the doubt if their reservations might be sincere.

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