Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Moral Philosophy's Moral Risk: Should You Deplatform Yourself?


Chris Freiman's and my paper “Moral Philosophy’s Moral Risk” is out on early view at Ratio today.

Here’s the summary from the conclusion: 


There is a very good chance that your moral theory gets something seriously wrong—your views may amount to a defense of oppression, dehumanization, or genocide. If you accept the commonsense position that it is wrong to believe and advocate morally heinous ideas, then moral theorists should not take the sorts of risks they are accustomed to taking.  We should instead confine ourselves to offering only safe, narrow, and conservative arguments that are unlikely to be too far off track. You may find this alternative deflating—and frankly, a bit boring—but perhaps this is simply the price of honoring our doxastic and expressive duties.


On the other hand, you might think that moral theorists need to be able to take risks to properly do their job. After all, ours is a discipline that entertains the notion that getting an abortion is as morally trivial as getting a haircut and that human extinction could be a good thing. It would be a serious loss if these kinds of arguments vanished from the pages of ethics journals and books. This view would count in favor of granting moral theorists a special moral license to engage in morally risky behavior—a license that in turn forbids attempts to ‘deplatform’ McMahan, Singer, Stock, and others.


We take no stand on how to resolve this dilemma. We insist only that moral theorizing is more ethically fraught than it appears and that moral theorists need to reckon with the moral risks of doing their job. 


We start by noting that most people believe thought is not a morality-free zone. Instead, commonsense ethics holds it can be wrong to advocate, believe, or in many cases even serious contemplate the serious possibility that certain ideas might be true. For example, my friends owe it to me not to contemplate the serious possibility that I might be trying to murder them.

But if so, this leads to a problem: Moral philosophers are at near constant risk of contemplating, advocating, defending, and believing heinous things. Part of the problem is that philosophers work on hard problems where it is likely they will get the wrong answer. Part of the problem is that the public culture of philosophy is unlikely to overcome our epistemic biases. And there’s more.

Here’s an excerpt. But do download and read the whole thing--an excerpt doesn't do it justice:

For instance, consider again the question or what conditions are necessary and sufficient for sexual consent. Imagine, for simplicity’s sake, these conditions fall on a one-dimensional scale from fully consensual on the left to horrifically nonconsensual on the right. Imagine the correct place to draw the divide is at point C. If you draw the line to right of C, then a moral critic might condemn you, saying you defending de re, if not de dicto, the permissibility of actions that in fact constitute rape. You might have a clever argument to the contrary, but in fact, the action you defend is sexual assault. You just spent a few months seriously contemplating that a form of sexual assault might be permissible (though you did not describe it that way). However, it goes the other way, too. If you draw the line to the left of C, then a critic might condemn your behavior as not merely mistaken but morally wrongful. After all, but calling a consensual case non-consensual, you thereby infantilize adults and deny their agency over their own bodies. Either way, you could plausibly be accused of violating doxastic, contemplative, or expressive duties. 


This critic might not be persuaded if you say you genuinely believe the actions are right, and you are not condoning what you yourself would call (de dicto) rape or infantilization/denial of agency. After all, in many other cases, we condemn people even when they do not describe their beliefs that way. For instance, many racists sincerely deny they are racist, but we condemn them because they are in fact racist. Similarly, many pedophiles (e.g., NAMBLA members) believe de dicto that children can consent to sex with adults, and so believe de dicto that sex with children need not be rape. Nevertheless, most condemn them for holding those beliefs. So, it seems, merely having certain de dicto beliefs (such as ‘Sex with minors is consensual, autonomous, and permissible’) does not save one from moral wrongness.


Or consider the question of when we must accept others’ testimony. Draw the line too far to one side, and you thereby commit epistemic injustice against those who testify. Draw it too far the other way, you thereby commit epistemic injustice against those who listen. Either way, you belittle someone’s epistemic capacity, either by wrongly demanding they submit to what they have the right to reject or wrongly authorizing them to reject what they should accept.


This point generalizes. During moral inquiry, we at high risk of giving incorrect answers to momentous questions. Consider:

·      If the pro-choice position is wrong, then it looks like many philosophers defend what has been, in effect, genocide. 

·      If the doing/allowing distinction is not viable, then many philosophers have rationalized and defended the moral equivalent of murder.

·      If philosophers’ defense of atheism is incorrect, the effects could be catastrophically harmful for eternity, and they have also violated their duty to acknowledge and love God.

·      If Marxism is correct, then the typical Rawlsian or egalitarian social democrat ends up advocating and rationalizing rights violations from capitalist firms aided by the social democratic state.

·      If libertarianism is correct, then the typical Marxist, centrist, Rawlsian, or other person ends up advocating and rationalizing frequent rights violations by the modern state.

·      If it is wrong to kill and eat animals, then factory farming is a moral catastrophe, and advocating the permissibility of meat eating is endorsement of a catastrophic moral horror.

·      If the doctrine of double effect is wrong, then many bioethicists and just war theorists have been rationalizing what is in fact murder.

·      If communitarianism is correct, many liberal philosophers are rationalizing social systems which undermine people’s happiness and interpersonal connections.

·      If the open borders position is correct, then many philosophers are rationalizing what amounts to a severe systematic rights deprivation, and severe harm, to the world’s poor. Since the harms of closed borders fall disproportionately on non-whites, their position amounts to systematic racism.