Is Every Idea Worth Engaging?
Serena Wong

28 March 2018

Is every idea worth responding to, or are some ideas so harmful that we should not engage at all?

University of Virginia professor of philosophy Elizabeth Barnes explores this question in a recent article, arguing that it is sometimes worth it to engage with harmful ideas, such as Peter Singer's argument that the lives of disabled people are on average less valuable than the lives of nondisabled people.

For her, whether to engage depends on a cost-benefit analysis. Because real harm can come from engaging with harmful ideas, the benefits of engaging must outweigh the harm. There might be some clever and intellectual ideas that are also harmful—but there are so many other clever and intellectual ideas that are not harmful and worth engaging more.

Read the full essay here:

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, March 31, 2018 -- 12:30 PM

'on-average' is the

'on-average' is the statistician's crutch and allows people to cultivate biases of all sorts. I suppose we could just arbitrarily 'weed out' all people whose base value seems inferior to the gifted, able-bodied or otherwise superior specimens whom we hold in highest regard. But this is only a part of the primary question about harmful ideas, isn't it? The cost-benefit analysis mentioned is the clincher here, seems to me, and might consist of some very fundamental questions: 1. Just how harmful is the idea anyway? 2. Is it so potentially dangerous and irreversible that it is negative-sum from any conceivable aspect, or, are there enough mitigating circumstances to make exploration of the notion worthwhile? (think: buying 1000 lottery numbers for a CHANCE of winning, say, 500 million dollars) 3. Are the long-term effects worth the shorter-term losses which could accrue from a bad decision, or, do those shorter-term losses completely cancel out any sort of longer-term benefit? This is mostly pie-in-the-sky, probabilistic speculation---an approach that is du jour in this teen aged 21st century.

The gambling metaphor has become so popular today that it overshadows many other realities of existence. Singer's stance is reminiscent of eugenics, although he may not have had any sort of evil intent in putting forth such statistical hog wallow. I guess I'M just biased. (Yes, I am disabled. But, I was not always this way...) What was the significance of the ink smudge? Was it a metaphor?

serenaw's picture


Tuesday, April 3, 2018 -- 6:14 PM

Here's the article if you're

Here's the article if you're struggling with a paywall:

Peter Singer's ideas are offensive. Perhaps we should be grateful for his brutal honesty.

Parents may, with good reason, regret that a disabled child was ever born. In that event the effect that the death of the child will have on its parents can be a reason for, rather than against, killing it. …

A woman may plan to have two children. If one dies while she is of childbearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, and then gives birth to a hemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is also plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child than for a hemophiliac. …

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. … It may still be objected that to replace either a fetus or a newborn infant is wrong because it suggests to disabled people living today that their lives are less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled. Yet it is surely flying in the face of reality to deny that, on average, this is so. -Peter Singer, Practical Ethics

Are some ideas so offensive that they shouldn't be engaged with? That question occupies scholars a lot these days, and tends to generate a predictably polarized set of responses - from those who opine that snowflake millennials are destroying free speech to those who call for the retraction of journal articles for ideological (among other) reasons. Meanwhile, I find myself lost somewhere in the middle, attempting to understand my own decisions.

I think about this issue a lot, in no small part because of the amount of time I've spent engaging with the work of the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. If you're an academic who works on disability, the name "Peter Singer" immediately resonates, and immediately signals contention. Singer thinks that the lives of people like me are ("on average") less valuable than the lives of nondisabled people. He thinks it would have been permissible for my parents to have had me killed as an infant, and better ("on average") if they could have replaced me with a nondisabled alternative. I find all this offensive, to say the least. Yet unlike those who think that Singer ought to be treated as a pariah, I engage with him and his work on a regular basis. Yet I struggle to explain why.

When I talk about engaging with ideas, I mean taking ideas seriously - discussing and citing them, having them presented at conferences, responding to them in print or at symposia, and so on. There are separate questions that arise, such as whether academic freedom should protect them (surely it should), or whether they should be taught in the classroom (surely that depends on all sorts of complicated factors, including the size and level of the class, the students enrolled, your pedagogical aims, and your teaching style). And there's also the issue of how non-academics respond to scholars who defend controversial ideas. (Disability-rights organizations regularly protest Singer's public lectures, for example.) Here, though, I want to focus specifically on how scholars interact with ideas that many consider harmful or demeaning.

An idealistic model of academic liberalism says that we should engage with all ideas, no matter what. Truth is its own defense! We have nothing to fear from ideas, even those we find offensive! And so on. I would love it if this were true, but it has always seemed like nonsense to me.

People who deal with the everyday reality of disability really do have reason to fear the claim - especially when it's defended by one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world - that disabled lives are less valuable than nondisabled ones. Likewise, queer people really do have reason to fear arguments against marriage equality, and Muslims really do have reason to fear claims that Islam is fundamentally illiberal. To pretend otherwise is to discount the power of ideas. It's also to discount the practical experience of the people involved in these conversations.

Nearly all the academics I know who work on disability have been touched by it personally. They've kept overnight vigils by their brother's hospital bed because they didn't trust doctors not to remove his life support out of "mercy." They've fought to get their son access to the education he's legally entitled to, impeded by local officials who seem to believe that his education doesn't matter. They've stayed up all night watching a Senate vote to learn whether they'll still be able to pay for their daughter's assistive care. There is no point in telling these people that they have nothing to fear from an open and frank discussion of the value of disabled lives. They know otherwise.

It's also worth considering the emotional toll of engaging with offensive ideas. Most disabled people have, at some point, dealt with a deep sense of shame and inadequacy. Many have wondered, in their darker moments, if their parents really wanted them. Most caregivers have experienced the pain of subtle but never-ending suggestions that their loved one is somehow less valuable. These are unpleasant feelings, the kind of thing you'd ideally talk about only with your therapist or your punching bag or your dog.

It's hard to articulate just how awful it can be to hear them politely and dispassionately discussed in a context - a conference, a seminar, a reading group - where you are just trying to be a professional and do your damn job. When professional norms dictate that you sit quietly and listen while someone says that your life is worth less, or that your child's life is worth less, that's hard. It doesn't make us delicate snowflakes to acknowledge that difficulty and pain. So, contra the liberal ideal, I think we do have things to fear from the open discussion of some ideas. And the things we have to fear aren't really about "offense" - they're about harm.

More strongly, I think that there are some ideas that shouldn't be engaged with. If a fellow philosopher tells me that they have an argument for the moral goodness of rape, I quite simply don't want to hear it. I won't go to that talk, I won't invite that person to my conference, I won't read that paper. I don't think the argument deserves attention.

Saying why, though, is tricky. It's not merely that I'm confident the conclusion is false. I'm a philosopher - I spend lots of time entertaining ideas I'm pretty sure are false, and it's part of the ethos of my discipline that this is a worthwhile activity. It's also not that I think the conclusion is morally wrong or could have morally bad consequences. That's true of many ideas that are obviously worth engaging with. Widespread adoption of libertarianism, for example, would in my opinion have terrible consequences, but that doesn't mean it's not worth taking libertarian ideas seriously.

The pro-rape argument is different because I can't see how the benefits of discussing it outweigh the harms. Perhaps the argument is clever or original, but let's be honest - there's a limited amount of intellectual value in any one argument. If I want to take up a challenging and interesting argument, I can pick one of the thousands of other challenging, interesting arguments out there. So the benefits of engaging with a pro-rape argument are minimal.

The harms, though, are not. Taking seriously an argument that justifies rape has the potential to cause intense pain to victims of rape, not to mention the potential to promote rape. Citing ideas, discussing them, responding to them is a type of scholarly currency. It's academic signal-boosting. A pro-rape argument isn't an important "option on the table" in debates about sexual ethics unless (by repeatedly discussing and citing it) we make it one. So the only reason to take it seriously would be the pure intellectual interest of the argument. But whatever minor intellectual value there might be in entertaining an argument that justifies rape, it isn't worth the callous disregard for the real suffering of real people.

So what's the difference with Peter Singer? His views are, from my perspective at least, no less offensive than the pro-rape argument. Yet he strikes me as different for the simple reason that, when it comes to a description of what many people think or what many people's everyday views imply, Singer isn't wrong.

Most people would, of course, be far too polite to say what Singer says. But Singer's claims about the comparative value of disabled lives follow naturally from the casual remarks that disabled people and caregivers hear all the time. They're implicit in the grave "I'm so sorry" quietly whispered to my friend after colleagues meet her beautiful, smiling daughter for the first time. They're the unspoken message when another friend is reassured, just after her son is born: "But you can have another child." They're the natural conclusion of a well-meaning doctor remarking to me, on learning that I don't have children: "Oh, that's probably for the best - your children might've inherited [your condition]."

I seriously doubt that the well-intentioned people who say these things would endorse Singer's conclusions. But Singer is right that his conclusions flow straightforwardly from these sorts of common attitudes. For this reason, I find myself strangely grateful for the brutal honesty of Peter Singer. He says explicitly what others only gesture at implicitly.

People worry that grappling with offensive views gives those views undue legitimacy. But in the case of someone like Singer, the views have legitimacy whether or not I choose to engage with them. To state the obvious, the arguments of the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University are going to matter whether or not I pay attention to them. But, more important, Singer's views already have legitimacy because people will continue to think about disability in ways directly relevant to his arguments regardless of whether progressive academics decide those arguments are simply too offensive to be discussed. (After all, as Singer himself wryly notes, the sales of Practical Ethics tend to increase whenever there are calls to "no platform" his talks.) Even Singer's views on infant euthanasia aren't a dystopian thought experiment. At least one major European country (the Netherlands) openly practices infanticide in some cases of disability.

Another reason sometimes given for not engaging with views like Singer's is that doing so creates inequality in academic spaces. If we openly debate the value of disabled lives, for example, it creates a burden for disabled and caregiver academics that simply doesn't exist for academics unaffected by disability. This worry strikes me only partly correct. Yes, debating the value of disabled lives does make things harder for disabled and caregiver academics, and that inequality isn't fair. But it's not quite right to blame Peter Singer. The idea that disabled people are lesser or defective is part of everyday reality for disabled people and caregivers - often under the surface, often cloaked in politeness and smiles - whether or not Peter Singer discusses it openly.

It's true, though, that within academe we have the ability, much more than most, to shield ourselves from uncomfortable and prejudiced ideas. We can create contexts in which no one has to be directly confronted with the claim that they matter less, or that they are less valuable. I think such contexts can be enriching and important. But - and here I speak only for myself, since much of this is dependent on personal and professional circumstances - I think they shouldn't be the only professional contexts I work in. As a full professor, I have a remarkable amount of social privilege compared with most disabled people (large percentages of whom are unemployed and live below the poverty line). I have about as much job security as a person can have, I make a good salary, I have great benefits. As academics, we tend to justify this cushy social position by appeal to our social value - we aren't just educators, we're people who think hard thoughts and try to change minds and change culture.

Given all this, it's hard for me to justify the idea that I shouldn't engage with Peter Singer. Do Singer's views make me uncomfortable? Yes, deeply so. But probably not as uncomfortable as they make people living with spina bifida in the Netherlands, given the Netherlands' policy on infant euthanasia in cases of severe disability.

And unlike others more directly affected, it is literally my job to think and talk about difficult ideas. The discomfort and hurt when dealing with views like Singer's are real. But if I'm unwilling to take on a measure of discomfort, given how much privilege I have and how little I have to lose, then I'm not sure I'm using the privilege of an academic life the way I ought to be.

The value of struggling with Singer's ideas doesn't negate the real and material costs, but it does offset them. And in a piece of utilitarian reasoning that Singer himself would approve of, to me the trade-off seems worth it. Prejudice is often held subtly, implicitly, or without much reflection. By giving us clear and well-defined arguments, thinkers like Singer lay bare the case for views which many people hold. Once that case is laid out, it's much easier to begin the work of pointing out its flaws.


By Elizabeth Barnes

Elizabeth Barnes, a professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, is the author of The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (Oxford University Press, 2016).