Some Thoughts on Problematic Arguments
06 April 2017
Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer—the latter a famous philosopher and public intellectual, the former famous enough among philosophers, but not so much among the broader public—wrote an article in The New York Times philosophy forum, "The Stone," that has gotten lots people I know and respect pretty upset. Some have reacted to the article with very reasoned and persuasive counter-arguments. Some have thrown in a good measure of anger and disgust at them in addition.
You can check out the original article here: Who Is the Victim in the Anna Stubblefield Case? For what seems to me a fair-minded reaction to this piece, check out this, Singer and McMahan on the Stubblefield Case from Brian Leiter, who has been a guest on our program several times. There is also this thread from the Daily Nous blog, McMahan & Singer: Stubblefield Is A Victim Of Injustice (updated) that you may find worthwhile. It links to still other threads in other places. So if you follow it all out, you will get a good sense of how various philosophers have reacted to their piece.
I don’t intend to weigh in on the merits of McMahan and Singer’s argument, or on the many arguments that have been offered in response to their original piece. I do want to weigh in on something related, though, since it touches on something that has long puzzled me at least a little.
Not just in this case, but in a lot of these cases, I usually don’t find myself getting viscerally ANGRY at people—even when they are famous people and ought to know better—for holding, expressing, or even defending, even when it’s done in a ham-fisted and confused way, ideas that I abhor. But I have noted over the years that that lots of people have much more visceral reactions than I do. Even people who deal in ideas professionally and are expert at pointing out the flaws of ill-conceived and ill-defended idea often react with visceral anger and disgust to what they regard as nonsense.
Now, I am not at all sure what that shows about me or about the people who feel such anger and disgust toward the likes of Singer and McMahan as well as others. I should say that I’m not trying to cast aspersions on anybody here. To each his/her own reaction to nonsense and confusion. But I am curious about the source of the difference between my approach and theirs.
Here's a half-believed pseudo hypothesis. Perhaps the difference between me and people like that rests on different attitudes about the task of rebutting problematic ideas. It is awfully tiresome to have to bother to rebut ideas that you strongly disagree with, in any case. It is even worse when you find them confused and even abhorrent. It's especially tiresome when you expect better of the purveyors of the relevant ideas. The pedigree and position of the purveyors can easily lead you to expect better of them. That much may be common ground between us.
What may not be common ground is the level of, for lack of a better word, resentment one feels in response to abhorrent nonsense. It would not be surprising feel resentment at being called on to do exhausting work that, in one's own view, simply shouldn't have to be done—not when there is so much else that needs to be done, not when one has such limited time, attention, and opportunities. Perhaps one resents the purveyors of the problematic ideas, not just because they are wrong-headed or misguided—lots of people with no pedigree or position are that. But when the purveyors of nonsense enjoy pedigree and position, one may find in the propagation of nonsense an abuse of their pedigree and position. After all, only their pedigree and position allows such abhorrent ideas, with such ham-fisted defenses, to achieve a wide-spread hearing, one might think. In the pens of lesser schmucks, those same ideas might be brushed aside, laughed off, but certainly not given wide berth.
One may even see the ham-fisted defense of confused, even abhorrent ideas as a kind of betrayal. It is a betrayal of standards of argument and reasonableness that their pedigree and position would otherwise suggest they must hold themselves to and must at least tacitly endorse. Else how did they achieve the pedigree and position in the first place?
I can see the reasonableness of getting upset about all that. I really can. But I seldom get angry about it myself. But perhaps it depends on one's expectations. There seems to me an implicit optimism behind the tendency to be emotionally upset by shoddy arguments proffered by those with position and prestige. The implicit optimism bespeaks a belief in the force of the better reason, a commitment to allowing your ideas to be shaped merely by that force. I share those commitments. Don’t get me wrong. But I also have to admit to having at times a pretty bleak and pessimistic view of human beings. The thing is that in my heart of hearts, I am only willing to give two, not three cheers, to the power of human reason. This is what my forthcoming APA Presidential Address, “Charting the Landscape of Reason” is about really. It could easily have been called "Two (Muted) Cheers for Human Reason."
The thing is that human beings, being what they are, are full of blinders and biases. We are often oblivious to our own cognitive failings. We are mostly devoid of intellectual humility. We mostly do think that our own cloistered intuitions and beliefs are backed by the force of the better reason. But, somehow, magically, we think we can precisely identify the force of the better reason, since it just happens to line up perfectly with own inner voices.
Taking a critical distance on the self is both an extraordinarily hard thing for us and an extraordinarily important thing. It’s hard and important even for those of us who are professional peddlers of ideas. The work of ferreting out the true from the false, the admirable from the abhorrent in what is produced by the "rational" mind, in its distributed and diverse totality, is bound to be hard and exhausting labor. In fact, it's much worse than hard. It's a sort of Sisyphean labor. Or, to put it a bit more kindly, it is a messy retail business, in which success is never assured.
I am sorry to be such a downer. But I think Camus got it basically right, when he said, in a different context, that despite the seeming futility, we must imagine Sisyphus happy! In my own approach to nonsense, I try to achieve something like that attitude. I try to be a happy warrior, as it were, even in the face of a possibly futile, frustrating battle against the forces of darkness.