A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Philosophy for the Like-Minded

I have a doctorate in philosophy, to which I devoted four and a half years of my life in study and research. Therefore, I consider myself to have some residual claim to the title “philosopher”, despite no longer teaching the subject nor holding a faculty position in a university. Nevertheless, it is with a due sense of grief that I discover myself no longer able to read papers or monographs in academic philosophy without at least one of the following three reactions: (i) intense boredom, (ii) intense headache, or (iii) intense frustration at the smugness, obtuseness, and/or utter pointlessness of what I’m reading. Thus, although I still claim to be a philosopher, I generally only do so if I need to speak to or refute other philosophers. In short, I consider the title to be neither honorific nor a source of any great pride, and I wear it with discomfort.

To paraphrase that great and wise wit La Bruy√®re, one can mark the beginning and end of a love affair by how uncomfortable a man and a woman are when left together in a room. I have fallen out of love with philosophy. I entered the discipline with fear and trembling, and I leave it with considerable disgust and embarrassment (at ever having been in love with it in the first place). My former colleagues seem just as embarrassed for and disgusted with me. And that, I’m afraid, is the end of the affair.

Or not quite. I recently picked up a philosophy book and tried to read it. I had a fond wish to rekindle an old flame, and I thought that a newish book by an academic philosopher writing on an area of applied ethics, purporting to be based on a series of lectures, and with whose ideas I am in general agreement, just might do the trick. But alas, once you break up, things are never quite the same when you hook up again. It’s best not to even try. Since falling out of love with philosophy, I confess I have strayed. I have had flirtations with history, politics, economics, poetry, law, you name it. I have been promiscuous. And when I am left alone with philosophy, I can’t quite get my mind off the other charming ladies. With her, I am alternately ashamed, bored, and annoyed. I need to find a way of extricating myself from the relationship with some modicum of decency. So I can’t wait until this book is finished.

The book in question is Jeff McMahan’s Killing in War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009). As with much other academic philosophy, it goes out of its way to make what should otherwise be an exciting subject mind-numbingly pedantic. Needlessly complicated ways are found to state claims that are trivially true to anyone smarter than the average fruit fly; common platitudes are presented as if they were profundities that no one had ever thought of before. Or else, other claims that are by no means obvious — or even plausible — are offered as if they were self-evident, with little or no argument to back them up. To be fair, they are often claims that all like-minded academics might very well agree with, and so perhaps the author feels little need to back them up. The trouble is, if you haven’t had your common sense educated out of you, or if you lack sufficient leisure and grant funding to be able to believe in the absurd, you will be utterly baffled by what most academic philosophers write, even in ethics, a subject which we should be able to expect to have at least some connection with the lived experience of the masses outside the groves of academe.

I am being a bit cruel, a bit arch, but only to make a point. In truth, one could read far worse examples of what I’m talking about than McMahan’s book. And as I said, I’m in general agreement with much of what he argues in it. Still, there are times when he falls into the common philosophical sin of relying on what I have elsewhere called the “ethicist’s royal ‘we’”. This is the tendency to make or rely on the claim that we all believe that X is good or that Y is bad, where in fact “we” (in the universal sense) do not all believe this, or where “we” simply refers to like-minded academic philosophers of a certain disposition — usually upper middle class, white, and very uncritically left-leaning.

Here is one example from McMahan’s book. Traditionally, in “just war” doctrine, a distinction is made between ius ad bellum and ius in bello (roughly, justice in going to war versus justice in the conduct of war). This distinction has led to the tendency to view combatants in a just war as morally equivalent to their enemy combatants (who, by inference, are combatants in an unjust war). Thus, it may be wrong for one side to enter into a war with another, but once this has been done, whether the war is just or unjust, combatants from both sides are morally justified in killing one another according to ius in bello. Of course, the right to kill non-combatants in a just war is a separate matter. And I leave aside what seems to be implicit throughout McMahan’s book, that it is always or usually clear to both sides whether a war is just or unjust (it is usually not clear, which makes much of his argument moot). But the idea is that, once war is declared, combatants on the unjust side have a job to do, and they are bound to play by the same rules of “the game” as combatants on the just side. On both sides, combatants are tools or agents of the parties who declare war. Or something like that. Killing of enemy soldiers is permitted in much the same way two boxers are morally permitted to pummel each other; the justness or unjustness of the war doesn’t enter into it.

However, McMahan believes that just and unjust combatants are not morally equivalent according to ius in bello. Unjust combatants are not morally justified in killing just combatants; just combatants are morally justified in killing unjust combatants (within the constraints of just war doctrine). I am in general agreement with his position, though I’m not sure where it gets us. In any case, McMahan has to defend himself from possible counterexamples to his view. These counterexamples involve situations in which it seems that some agent is justified in acting on behalf of another in the achievement of an unjust aim. Such situations are supposed to be relevantly analogous to the case of soldiers fighting on the unjust side of a war. McMahan picks out two such cases, offered by the philosopher Frances Kamm. The cases are:

(i)    A lawyer acts to evict a poor tenant from a building on behalf of his client.

(ii)    Someone smashes a beautiful vase on behalf of a paralyzed person who owns it.

Both of these situations exemplify much of what is wrong with academic ethics, though in somewhat different ways. The second example seems horribly contrived. It is hard to imagine circumstances in which such a situation would come up. Counterexamples and thought experiments in ethics often lose much of their force when they can’t be made to seem plausible. I would almost venture to say that if you cannot find either a plausible everyday example, or else a real and poignant historical example, then you do not have a counterexample. Also, besides being contrived, the second situation is also underdescribed, and because of this the principal’s intention and the agent’s action seem unmotivated and unintelligible. If the owner of the vase wants to do this act, then one is tempted to assume he has at least some reason for it. Why does the owner wish his vase to be destroyed? Perhaps he believes it is cursed. Perhaps it was in some way the cause of his being paralyzed. Maybe he knew he was dying and couldn’t bear the thought of someone else acquiring it. Or maybe he simply doesn’t believe that it is beautiful and is just taking up space (notice that the example seems to rely on an implied claim that there is an ethical duty not to destroy something you own which someone else finds beautiful; this claim is itself dubious and in need of separate argumentative support). In short, it is a silly and unconvincing example.

The first counterexample, the one about the poor tenant, seems less contrived and therefore more plausible, at least in the sense that it is regrettably an everyday occurrence. But again, there is an “ethicist’s royal ‘we’” implied here. After all, why should we assume that a poor person, simply by virtue of being poor, has the right to squat on someone else’s property, and that therefore it would be wrong to evict him? Is it because the landlord is rich? We do not know this, nor should it necessarily make a difference in our reasoning. Does the landlord have a duty to provide a place to live for poor non-paying tenants? If so, this claim at least merits some kind of an argument in its support. It may seem obvious to comfortable left-leaning academic philosophers earning a six-figure salary and who are not being asked to make such a sacrifice themselves. It doesn’t seem all that obvious to me. It may also be of considerable relevance how the tenant came to be poor. If he is shiftless, irresponsible, and largely the author of his own miserable fate, does the landlord still owe him the same duty?

Kamm argues that although it would be wrong for the landlord to kick him out, it would not be wrong for the lawyer to do it on his behalf. When McMahan refutes this counterexample, it is telling that he doesn’t call into question its implied premise that a landlord is morally obligated to allow a poor tenant to squat on his property. McMahan accepts this antecedent, but with regard to the consequent he seems to waiver between a) biting his own bullet and condemning the lawyer for being complicit in a wrong, or b) excusing the lawyer on the grounds of his contract with his landlord client. The first strategy is at least consistent with his overall argument, though he would find many who would in fact deny the lawyer’s guilt, whatever they thought of the landlord’s. The second strategy doesn’t sit so well with his overall thesis regarding the moral status of unjust combatants. Through his tacit, unquestioningly liberal (and personally costless) support for the poor, McMahan is forced to tie himself into logical knots to defend his thesis. He has been reflexively wed to spurious but fashionable dogma and, philosophically, it has cost him.

I would have taken the different strategy of simply denying Kamm’s antecedent: other things being equal, and taking the paucity of facts provided by Kamm as it stands, I simply deny that it is wrong for the landlord to evict the poor tenant, and by extension I deny that it is wrong for the lawyer to do so on his behalf. Thus, the counterexample is really no counterexample at all. I do not deny that there would be something wrong with a landlord who felt no regret about doing so, or with a lawyer who positively enjoyed this duty (assuming again that the poor tenant is himself guiltless). But feeling regret for an action is not the same as being morally unjustified in doing it. Similarly, a just combatant in war may feel regret for killing an enemy combatant, but this does not mean that he was morally unjustified in doing so.

I don’t claim that what I have just argued is all that original or profound, and to some readers it may seem downright obvious, even if it is painful to accept. But I can tell you that most academic ethicists, well-meaning lefties that they are, would be shocked at what I have just argued — or at least at the plain way I have argued it. Luckily for them, they are rarely faced with heretics like me. So they can continue to find ways of arguing against each other on certain philosophical issues without ever really disagreeing on the basic (and unwarranted) assumptions about distributive justice they all hold dear. And thus, because they skirt around core issues, their arguments too often seem meaningless or beside the point to outsiders.


So I have fallen out of love with philosophy. But as the song says, breaking up is hard to do. I still have personal friends who are philosophers, but as time goes on, I find I have less and less to talk about with them, and they with me. We have come almost to speak different languages on many philosophical issues. I am always ready to bring in arguments from other disciplines with which I am enamored (e.g. history or economics), and of which they are largely ignorant. I in turn, find their unwillingness to engage with other disciplines maddening. I want an open relationship. I want to see other people, and I want philosophy to do the same.

One of these philosopher friends is a case in point. I still run into her occasionally, but most of our interaction these days is conducted through Facebook, which perhaps is for the best. Even so, I keep expecting any day now to find that she has “unfriended” me for my heterodox views. This friend flies her flag high on all issues concerning “social justice” (a term of art I find almost meaningless, since it has become merely a catch-all for whatever boutique ideas are fashionable among left-leaning intellectuals on any given week). It’s not so much her particular views that stick in my craw, since I actually agree with her on a few of them. And sometimes our disagreements are more over means than ultimate goals. She wants a better world with less poverty, and so do I. I just think that in general her ideas are more likely to hurt the poor than help them. No, it’s not her ultimate goals that annoy me. It is rather the way she assumes that all “reasonable” people (i.e. privileged intellectuals like her) believe what she believes, and that if you don’t believe them, you are either stupid or morally degenerate.

I have genuine disagreements with her, and the positions that I have taken are not stupid (not to say they are not possibly mistaken), and I hold them out of genuine moral conviction rather than mere self-interest. And the fact is, when I have tangled with her intellectually on these issues, it has never taken me very long to back her into some tight corner of intellectual self-refutation. You see, she spends so much time talking among like-minded left-leaning intellectuals that she seems to become paralyzed when presented with an opponent who strays from the accepted dogmas of “social justice”, who comes at her from outside her comfortable echo chamber. And because she only communicates with the like-minded, she is never called out on those of her “arguments” that are, frankly, bullshit. So I like to play this role for her. Socrates would do no different.

In honour of Labour Day this year, this friend posted what she thought was a clever little item on Facebook. It was a Victorian picture of a child working at what looked like some kind of loom or weaving machine. The caption read:


Her like-minded Facebook friends, most of them fellow academics, slapped their flippers together in approval at this cleverness. Rather than do the same, I looked upon this as a “teachable moment” for her. My comment consisted of a link to the Wikipedia entry on the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, along with the following remark:

“Actually, you can thank a certain Tory politician and aristocrat. It’s rather anachronistic to credit labour unions.”

The sound of flippers stopped, to be replaced by the sound of proverbial crickets. Labour unions, in more or less the form we now have them, arose in the last thirty years or so of the 19th century. By then, factory labour by seven-year-olds had been abolished by such legislation as Shaftesbury’s Factories Act of 1833 (outlawing the employment of children under nine in textile factories) and its successors. Unions had little or nothing to do with the outlawing of child labour in industrial nations, since that had already been largely accomplished before unions existed.

To be fair, if unions had been around, they likely would have pushed for an end to child labour, but only because children were competition, representing a downward pressure on adult workers' wages. It is for much the same reason that unions used to try to exclude Chinese and black workers from the labour force.

But hey, an academic philosopher rarely lets facts get in the way of a pet theory, especially when the theory lies entirely outside the philosopher’s professed area of expertise. I should know: I’ve devoted an entire blog to expounding ideas outside my area of expertise (tongue planted firmly in cheek).