About Me

My Photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, December 26, 2011

When should we tell each other to shut up?

And how should we respond if someone tells us to? Over at Talking Philosophy, Jeremy Stangroom has a post in which he raises these questions, using the example of a book that he may or may not write about the evils (as he sees them) of multiculturalism in the UK.

While British multiculturalism may have its evils, and there may be better policy options, might this be an inopportune time to say so? Might that claim be misunderstood, even subconsciously, in ways that will exacerbate social tensions and strengthen the hands of political extremists (some, perhaps, driven by cultural xenophobia or outright racism)? Would the book be misused and its message distorted by those extremists? Might the eventual outcome be a contribution to the very forces in society that the author opposes?

If so, might it be wise not to go ahead with the book? But what if another person advised you not to go ahead? Should you be angry, or grateful for the advice, or what? What if someone says publicly that such books should not be written - perhaps while you are immersed in writing the book, or, perhaps worse, after it has already been published? Should you be angry, grateful, detached and reflective, or what?

He concludes:
Well, at least one answer, which in my more pious moments I’m inclined to favour, is that one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.

How one should not react is simply to assume that they are beyond the moral pale because they make the request or demand. Sometimes, shutting up is the best option. And sometimes telling people to shut up is morally justified (and perhaps even obligated).
Now, that may be right. But telling people to shut up may not be the best option in a class of cases (perhaps even a very large one) where it's a tempting option. Does it matter how clear-cut the case is? What if the case for shutting up depends, in part, on claims that are obviously bullshit (perhaps showing the person who is calling for the shutting up to have poor judgment and/or a strong bias)? Doubtless there are many different scenarios to consider.

There's a good thread going over there at TP, and I've made a couple of comments so far. As I say there, I'm certainly not an absolutist about it. I wouldn't claim, in all cases, that a person calling for others to shut up is of vicious character. Still, I do think that as a general rule we should try to avoid getting into meta-level debates about whether certain things should be said at all, as opposed to whether those things are likely to be true. (I don't see any horrible paradox in this; it's usually possible to distinguish between a debate about, say, the merits of a government policy and a debate about the propriety of expressing a particular view on the policy.)

Notwithstanding the example used in the post, I'm sure we could think of other salient examples where arguments about some topic or other have quickly "gone meta". I'm not especially interested in discussing the merits of these examples - see, folks, another paradox! I'm not interested in discussing them in this place, at this time, because I want to discuss with you the general merits of shuttuppery and when it's appropriate ... and how we should respond to it.

So if we do use examples from the "Exhibit A" debate, or Elevatorgate, or Chris Mooney's response to "Seeing And Believing" (and the backlash that he copped), or any other recently-heated topic in the blogosphere, let's use some good sense and discretion. I don't actually ask you to shut up on those topics in your wider lives - by all means go and write a book about "Exhibit A" - just that you not try to settle the merits of those topics here. That's not the purpose of the thread.

It may be better to stick with the multiculturalism example or with made-up examples, but I'm not going to jump up and down about what examples are used unless they are used in the wrong spirit. As judged by me.


Russell Blackford said...

I'll start by referring to some discussion on the earlier "Magnificent 7 Posts" thread. Adapting my words just slightly, I say in the thread, talking about the "Exhibit A" business, something very like the following:

The Exhibit A thing always seemed very implausible to me. It set off my bullshit detector. [I responded immediately with a taunting comment about it.]

Here, I do disagree with Jean Kazez. I just couldn't see this story as anything other than clumsy fiction - perhaps confabulated from real incidents, but in a way that was grossly false overall. It didn't add up psychologically. [And of course it turned out to be false.]

It's interesting that some people - including Mooney but also others such as Jean - found the story plausible. In my view, that showed bad judgment, and it would have been nice if Mooney could simply have admitted this after he put so much weight on it.

Now, I'm sure I have also showed bad judgment now and then. I can think of examples. But this was a rather egregious case. It was a case where the bad judgment was fairly important, and Mooney had gone a long way out on a limb in his unwise reliance on Exhibit A. His later attitude, when the story fell apart, of, "How was I supposed to know?" is not impressive. I can't think of a case where my own bad judgment has mattered so much, but I can certainly think of cases where it has been bad.

Importantly, Exhibit A was supposed to be a key exhibit in the case for shutting up about some things, such as alleged tensions or incompatibilities between religion and science. Although I'm not an absolutist about it, I do think you should be pretty sure of your ground before you start publicly telling people to stop expressing their viewpoint on a topic (as opposed to arguing against their viewpoint).

I suppose we should commend Jean for her attempts to get people to moderate their language, but I do think this was a case where her bad judgment about an important aspect undermined those efforts. Many of us felt - with some justification - the impulse to say, "But, but, Exhibit A was always obviously bullshit." If only there had been some admission of this from Jean's side it would have helped a lot.

But that doesn't excuse the most excessive language from "my" side, including my own at some of the most heated moments. Even my initial taunting of Mooney over Exhibit A was unnecessary: I could have made the same point in a more civil way. On the gripping hand, attempts to be civil didn't get far with Mooney and his supporters, either.

Here we have a case where, presumably, the people involved were subjectively sincere, but the argument appeared to be completely and obviously lacking in merit ... and its use appeared to show judgment heavily clouded by bias. The story also tended to slander a whole category of people and in that sense was damaging - I'm sure these factors led to some of the anger and some of the feeling that Mooney was morally beyond the pale. Now, that may not have been totally justified. Some of the taunting may well have gone too far [I think it did]. But it still looks to me as if it had some justification.

Someone who still thinks the story was plausible on its face will disagree with that judgment about Mooney and want to exonerate him of any wrongdoing or bad character. And I don't think this thread is the place to try to settle that.

But what if the story had been even less plausible - so ridiculous, perhaps, that even Jean did not believe it for a moment - and yet it continued to be held out as proving something about why a class of people should shut up? Would that, at least, have proved something?

Villa said...

It seems like there are a few issues being jumbled together.

One is that an author is worried about a writing book that might get used in an inaccurate and harmful way.

That seems entirely fair. 'Don't write books that will be mis-used' is just a step beyond 'don't create plots that are true but misleading'.

But, I've also seen 'shut up' used as a way of dismissing a factual argument. As in, "X might be true, but you have a moral obligation to believe otherwise -- or at least to not try and convince people of X."

That seems much more troubling.

March Hare said...

Assuming there is a truth that you wish to announce it is the height of arrogance to assume that not only are you in sole possession of this truth but you are the only human that can handle said truth.

If people can't deal with it properly then it's their problem and the ONLY correct response is to fix how people react to FACTS, not to withhold facts from them.

The more we know the better we are, even if we occasionally act like idiot when presented with information.

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Russell, OK, let's talk about this! I don't (frankly) think my judgment about the TJ business was bad at any point.

At the time when TJ talked about Exhibit A (October 2009) I recall finding the story not wholly plausible, mainly because of the whole idea of a conservation conference where people talked so openly about religion. That seemed weird. At the same time Mooney said he checked TJ out, and my sense about Mooney at the time was that he wasn't a liar. Verdict as of October 2009--none. I was just puzzled.

Then "William" came forward in July 2010 and confessed to all sorts of lies, and also claimed he had completely made up the "Tom Johnson" persona, making it appear that Mooney had lied in October 2009 about receiving corroboration as to the identity of TJ and the events in question. I found that suspicious. A guy who's done all sorts of lying himself isn't to be trusted when he says or implies that someone else is a liar. I think my skepticism about "William" was entirely appropriate.

Next chapter in the saga: Mooney shows me the email that "TJ" sent him in October 2009, corroborating his original story. Now it became clear to me that William's confession really had contained some new lies. "TJ" was not a sock puppet, but a real graduate student who had indeed sent Mooney some corroboration of both his identity and some aspects of the Exhibit A story in October 2009. So Mooney had been truthful about checking out TJ, contrary to the flood of allegations against him.

Based on the email Mooney showed me, I thought Exhibit A might have been true, but that's as far as I ever went--it might have been true. If you go back to my posts from this period, you won't find me ever saying anything stronger. The idea that I was actively promoting or embracing the story is nonsense. I was actively promoting only the idea that Mooney had received a corroborating email, contrary to what William said about TJ being a total fabrication.

Now, you think Exhibit A was so implausible on its face that I should never have seen the email as "corroborating", but we'll just have to disagree about that. Based on how I see atheists talking at many blogs, it doesn't seem out of the question at all that such an event could take place. Post-elevator-gate, I'm all the more convinced that there are a lot of seriously deranged people in the skeptical community, and it's entirely an open question how they behave in public.

Thanny said...


It's one of the most basic and well-understood facts of psychology, as it pertains to written communication, that people will behave through writing in ways that they never would in person.

If you believe that blog comments can in any way be used to predict in-person behavior, then you are (once again) exhibiting bad judgment.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, Jean, we're going to have to agree to disagree on the merits of Exhibit A. I still think the story was wildly implausible on its face, and the claim that civil criticism of religion based on science - the kind of thing we see from Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and smaller fry like me - somehow causes such loutish behaviour as that recounted in Exhibit seemed crazy then and still seems crazy. I thought that Mooney was incredibly gullible.

I never doubted that Mooney may have checked TJ's identity, but that didn't make the story plausible. At most, it was evidence that the story had been confabulated from real incidents (though, again, grossly false overall). I always thought there was probably some confabulation involved, and I think I said so at an early stage. Few people make up lies from whole cloth.

I don't recall you saying before this that you initially found the story implausible. Perhaps you did somewhere, and I simply hadn't seen it when you said that. Bear in mind that my comment above was not meant to be an attack on you in any way. My reference to you is more an (almost rueful) acknowledgment that someone I respect, and consider one of the good guys, disagrees with me. I'm actually pleased to see you say (again, for the first time that I know of) that your initial response to the story was to find it implausible.

You still want to say that it wasn't all that implausible, judging by how people act on the internet.

Okay, the thing is, you just can't extrapolate from internet behaviour how people will act in real life. The internet brings out the worst in people.

As I've said before, I think, this is not specific to the atheist blogosphere. We see the same thing on the internet no matter what the topic, as long as it's something that arouses strong emotions and opposed loyalties - it can be politics, sport, opposed views about the merits of rock and jazz music, opposed views about movies or TV or comics, or just about anything else.

As you know, I've done a lot of soul searching over the last few months, prompted by witnessing the total train wreck that was Elevatorgate. Elevatorgate is still going on, with plenty of idiocy from participants on both sides, but at least it provided an opportunity to reflect on how we should conduct ourselves if we want to avoid this kind of total meltdown.

I now think, on reflection, that some of my own behaviour surrounding the Exhibit A incident was considerably less than exemplary. But it doesn't change the fact that my judgment about Exhibit A was right and Mooney's was wrong, and this wasn't just a fortunate coincidence - the story really was hard to credit.

Okay, let's work back to my substantive point in the post. I've admitted that some of my own language toward Mooney could have been more civil - I've pretty much apologised for it on this blog more than once, but I'll save any actual apology to Mooney until such a time as I run into him in person.

On the gripping hand, I don't think I was wrong to feel anger about either Exhibit A or Mooney's response to "Seeing And Believing". More generally, I think that feeling anger about being told to shut up is very frequently, depending on the circumstances, quite justified.

Russell Blackford said...

One correction: when I say that I never doubted that Mooney may have checked TJ's identity, I mean I never doubted that claim once it was made. I don't recall it being made until quite late in proceedings. As I recall, my very first response to Mooney was at a time when we had no reason to think that TJ was anything other than totally anonymous to all of us.

Russell Blackford said...

And ... sorry to keep coming back here ... although I do agree with Thanny's comment I just want to emphasise that I am not so much interested in anyone's specific behaviour in the past. If this turned into a witch hunt against Jean, or anyone else, I'd feel that the thread has wandered away from its purpose. I'm not even interested in witch hunting Mooney. The guy was wrong about many things, and much of his behaviour was annoying in my view, but some of the crap he encountered was not justified. E.g., he shouldn't have been called a "disgusting traitor" (by me!) and the whole "Colgate Twins" thing was pretty puerile in retrospect. Don't y'all agree?

No one on this thread has done anything wrong yet! Not IMHO. But maybe it's worth emphasising these things at an early stage, just in case this turns into a long thread.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, The reason I found Exhibit A implausible originally was because I was imagining it as going on at some kind of academic or professional meeting. The type of behavior described is unlikely to occur at academic/ professional meetings, in my experience. What the email revealed is that "TJ" was talking about a community outreach event involving a Baptist group and some science graduate students (or the like--I don't remember the details now). That made me less skeptical. What might go on at an event like that? I have no idea, having no directly related experience, and wouldn't rule anything out a priori.

Russell Blackford said...

Jean, I agree that such behaviour would be unlikely at an academic/professional meeting. But if you then take the people at the academic/professional meeting down the road to "reach out" to the folks at the local Baptist church it seems (well, at least to me) even less likely that they'd suddenly start acting like that. It simply doesn't ring true.

Once again, that's a bit tangential ... but we're just comparing how we thought about it, right?

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think the meeting took place in a church, creating a host-guest sort of dynamic. Also, the email had lots of details creating credibility. I will give the grad stiudent credit for being a skilled liar, both in that email and during his later half-lying "confession" as "William". Typing on tiny keys, so must be brief.

Ophelia Benson said...

"Does it matter how clear-cut the case is?"

Yes, it matters very much. I think for instance the case in Jeremy's example isn't as clear-cut as he makes it - as someone commented on that post (I think), another way of looking at it is that the rise of the EDL makes it all the more urgent for liberals to give well-argued versions of the problems with multiculturalism, so that EDL types won't be the only source of criticism.

That was certainly our view of the utility of Does God Hate Women? Yes, people with sinister motives suddenly become "feminists" when it comes to sharia and the like, but that doesn't mean real feminists should shut up about sharia, it means we should make the better arguments.

Russell Blackford said...

To be fair to both of us, Jean, I haven't seen the famous email. What was on the public record didn't look very skilled at all. But I guess I have to believe you that the email was more skilled and that that coloured your perceptions (and Mooney's) in a way that is sort of more understandable in principle.

OTOH, people who are being told to shut up can't be expected to pay a lot of heed to others who are saying, "My best reasons for Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne to shut up are in a private email that I can't show you, and which you can't scrutinise, but which I can assure you is very convincing."

See, I'd be happier with Mooney if he'd even admit that what he said publicly was unconvincing, but that he was fooled by the stuff that he couldn't show people but that was much more so. The lesson is that you can't rely in public debate on private knowledge. You might be able to say something about having private knowledge, and therefore having an opinion different from that of others, and therefore asking for some understanding or something, but you can't expect to convince anyone else if what you can say in public is weak, and you won't look good if you are aggressive.

I'm not saying you were aggressive, Jean. But Mooney was. And some of the people who were siding with him were even more so. Yet, their public case for people shutting up was not only not clear cut - it was actually very flimsy.

Ophelia, you've given me an excuse to mention that I also felt the need to say something about this in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State where I discuss issues to do with "Islamophobia" at some moderate length. I do think that there's a problem with opportunistic people who have sinister motives who suddenly become feminists and animal rights activists all sorts of other things that everyone on this thread probably approves of.

Worse, we may not be able to make better arguments than they do in all cases, because in at least some cases it will suit them to make the exactly same arguments that we do. Those arguments don't become bad ones just because sinister opportunists are making them.

So what do we do? I doubt that my discussion in FRSS has the magic solution, but one thing we can do is actually talk about the problem openly even as we discuss the substantive issues. The cost imposed on us might not mean be that we should shut up, but it might be that we are forced to engage in some meta-level discussion that uses up some of our energy.

Jean Kazez said...

people who are being told to shut up can't be expected to pay a lot of heed to others who are saying, "My best reasons for Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne to shut up are in a private email that I can't show you, and which you can't scrutinise, but which I can assure you is very convincing."

Russell, I'm surprised you see events this way. I don't think "exhibit A" had any major importance to Chris Mooney. It came up out of the blue, a whole year after his book came out. It wasn't important to his case against the new atheists, but rather just a fortuitous bit of extra ammunition that landed in his lap. The reason why Chris talked about that email (and showed it to me) had nothing at all to do with supporting his case against new atheists. It was entirely a question of responding to extreme accusations that had been made against him. He was being accused of lying about receiving corroboration from "TJ", so needed to clear himself of that charge (and many other wild charges). The point wasn't to insist on Exhibit A as an important data point, but just to defend himself against these charges.

As to the email--he established his identity in it and his very strong academic credentials. I tend to think smart, successful graduate students aren't in the making-up-stories-about-atheists business. So the credentials would have made me find Exhibit A more believable, if I'd seen it when Chris did--i.e. before "TJ" was known to be into sock puppetry and all sorts of other strange, obsessive stuff. But yes, you didn't see it, and I don't have it in front of me now--and don't remember lots of details. So maybe that's enough on that score.

Jean Kazez said...

Sorry, I meant the fracas about Exhibit A was a year after the book--the anecdote itself came up 3 months after the book.

Russell Blackford said...

Jean, just calling it Exhibit A suggests it is something very important in the case for the prosecution - which was to prosecute the case that people should not make so-called "counterproductive attacks on religion", i.e. should not say that religion somehow runs afoul of science.

The post wasn't about defending himself against any supposedly unfair attacks on himself. It was squarely about how we should not make "counterproductive attacks on religion" and how we should "build bridges with those who might be different from ourselves [i.e. religious people] so as to achieve shared goals, [rather] than to score intellectual points" against them.

His leading example of a counterproductive attack on religion to this point had been a perfectly civil and acceptable (and indeed useful) review by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic of books by a couple of Christian theists. It was the initial telling Jerry to shut up (yes, I know not in so many words and not in the second person) that upset people.

And of course there was the book, which contained a pretty vicious, and arguably treacherous, attack on PZ Myers. His other leading example was the whole crackergate thing, which he described and analysed in an appalling way in the book.

(PZ is not my favourite person, thanks to his approach to Elevator Theory and his general style on the internet of naming names and kicking heads. I'm not a fan of the general ethos of Pharyngula. But I still see the relevant chapter of Unscientific America as pretty shoddy work, and pretty much an act of betrayal toward PZ. It's not surprising that there was anger around already relating to that.)

And remember, Mooney went to the trouble of elevating a comment on his blog to the status of a post of his own (as well as giving it the name Exhibit A). And the whole thing was about how, thanks to Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, there were now academics ("many of my colleagues" according to Tom Johnson) running around the countryside acting in this incredibly vulgar way that was described in the "exhibit".

The actual "exhibit" said this:

Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.

So what do you think happens when you spit in someone’s face, mock them openly, figuratively throw them to the ground and kick dirt in their face – and then ask “now we really need your help!!”? When my colleagues do this, you can watch the attention visibly disappear from the crowd when you finally start talking about conservation and real science.

That’s the problem with the blogosphere – you can say all the extreme, controversial things you want without consequences. But when your readers start echoing those things to the public (the people that science desperately needs to translate research to action), I’m afraid the consequences are rather severe.

And Mooney's observation on this lunatic comment (I'm sorry,but that's how the comment reads) was, that it was "so striking that I believe it deserves greater attention". That is an aggressive act in itself.

By the way, note that, according to Johnson these were events (plural) "hosted" by the religious folks in question where "many" of Johnson's "colleagues" would "make a point of" doing such things as indulging in forced laughter in their hosts' faces. I.e. they were supposedly events where academic scientists turned up to forums with exactly the host-guest dynamic where you'd expect the academics to be polite and especially keen to win over the support of their hosts for conservation.

Plausible? I mean, really, it just isn't.

Russell Blackford said...

We may be slightly at cross-purposes, though. I was talking about Mooney and commenters being aggressive at the time Exhibit A was relied on, not at the time when it was supported by the private email. My memory is that he claimed at an early stage to have some sort of private corroboration, and in any event that must have given him some confidence. But we couldn't have been expected to share that confidence either then, or when facts came to light, or now.

Note that in its original context, TJ's comment supports one by "Wes" (who may have been one of his own sockpuppets; I can't recall) who said:

So, here is my question on this issue. Will the focus of Dawkins et. al. on this issue prevent religious groups from working with the rest of us to deal with the biggest scientific issues of the day: climate change, water and healthy oceans.

If they are not contributing to that and unwilling to work on those things, then I have no reason to pay attention to what any of them say.

"This issue" was (per Mooney) "When you want to promote evolution, it’s just plain counterproductive to attack faith; rather, you want and desperately need religious allies."

As for the aggression of Mooney's supporters that I referred to, some of it was pretty outrageous if you go back and look at the thread. Ophelia and I have our differences about Elevator Theory, and I'm not going to say that she's some sort of saint. But she was treated pretty aggressively and badly on some of those threads, by a couple of people in particular, including being called a liar; and Mooney was totally one-sided in the way he handled that. I'm not saying that Ophelia acted like a saint in those threads any more than is her normal modus operandi, but given the level of nastiness from the other side I think her own frustration was understandable, and it seems unfair that she was the one who got banned from the site - rather than, say, an effort to calm everyone down.

Russell Blackford said...

Er, I meant to write go back and look at the threads (plural). I think there were several threads involved.

Again, I didn't so much want to discuss the pros and cons of all this. I only raised the issue parenthetically and illustratively. The point of the thread is: When is it okay to tell people to shut up and how should you respond when told to shut up?

If you think it was okay for Mooney to tell Richard, Jerry, and PZ to shut up, and they and their supporters should not have been angry, at what point do you think a call to shut up does become so egregious, presumptuous, or whatever that anger is justified?

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, We're talking about lots of different events now, at lots of different times. The reason the email was being discussed in July 2010 (when I saw it) was different from the reason why it was being discussed in October 2009.

OK, but going back to October 2009--my perspective on that time period is (I'm afraid) very different from yours. I didn't find Mooney's critique of new atheists in his book particularly outrageous, and had great sympathy with him in the months after the book came out, when he was being ripped to shreds. I found it understandable that he accepted support from "Tom Johnson" who did seem somewhat suspect (especially at the point in time when I hadn't seen the email). When people are being ripped to shreds, they're less choosy about their allies.

Getting back to the key issue--I don't have a bit problem with "shut-uppery" (so to speak). It doesn't deserve that pejorative name! Example: I am a huge fan of Peter Singer's, yet occasionally think maybe he should speak less about some of his views. His most important influence is in the area of poverty and animals, I think, and I sometimes worry about it when he makes himself a prominent atheist, and also when he defends infanticide. Both the atheism and his stance on infanticide could make him less effective at saving lives and helping animals.

I think it's perfectly legitimate for me to worry about that. Likewise, I don't see anything outrageous or out of bounds about Mooney questioning how atheists talk to the broad public about religion and science.

I have the feeling we've discussed this enough and should just accept that, for whatever reason, our instincts about Mooney are different.

Russell Blackford said...

Phew! Okay, that's all cool. I'd prefer not to pursue the Exhibit A example further unless someone is absolutely frakking bursting to say more about it (and is prepared to keep the thread civil in doing so).

The Peter Singer example is a really good one. Perhaps some of the things he says about issues X and Y undermine his credibility when it comes to important issue Z and Z'.

Does anyone want to take this up, or does Jean want to pursue it further? Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we agree with Jean's point, should there be any limitations on how we should best break that bad news to Peter Singer?

ColinGavaghan said...

I'm not convinced re the Singer example. His views about animals arise from precisely the same set of moral axioms and factual beliefs as his views about infanticide.

To talk/write only about the former would not only be intellectually dishonest, it would leave him open to attack on the grounds that he hadn't followed his views to their logical conclusion - which he evidently has.

Russell Blackford said...

Colin, I probably agree with you. Singer has a comprehensive moral philosophy. It produces some conclusions that might be politically embarrassing. But OTOH it's very comprehensive has raised his status as a philosopher and perhaps (I can't be entirely sure one way or the other)outweighed whatever political embarrassment it might cause.

Still, I am not entirely out of sympathy with Jean (she might be surprised to know!). I have some pretty "extreme" views as judged by most people. Perhaps expressing some of them can only damage my credibility in many people's eyes, thus making it harder to be influential on matters that might be dearer to my heart.

Greg Egan (are you reading this thread, Greg?) made this point once in one of the long discussions we've had here on transhumanism. The point, as I recall, was that if I identify myself too closely with the transhumanist movement, which has more than its share of nutcases, it can only make it even less likely that I'll be taken seriously on, say, bioethical issues, by players with real power. That may well be true.

On the other hand, Greg said that here, on this blog. It's not as if he was off criticising me by name in some other forum that is read by many thousands of people. It was done in a way that was a friendly act, and I do think that makes a difference. I wasn't the least bit angry with Greg, and I enjoyed the discussion, but what if he'd try to disparage or shame me in some other forum?

ColinGavaghan said...

Sure, it all depends on the particulars. It just seems that the idea that there is nothing special about human life, just by virtue of being human, is so central to Singer's approach that he couldn't easily avoid those conclusions re human infants. Even if he decided that it was politically advantageous to soft-pedal those views, I'm pretty sure that his opponents would rarely miss a chance to bring them up.

I'd also be wary of academics allowing themselves - ourselves - to be silenced by the same sort of considerations that apply to politicians. There are some topics that are very difficult to deal with in a manner that won't risk a degree of tabloid teeth-gnashing; I have a chapter coming out in 2012 about the law's treatment of 'paedophiles', for instance. It's likely to be controversial (assuming anyone reads it!), and were I standing for election, I probably wouldn't go near the subject with a 10-foot pole. But I do think it's an important subject, and I think it's both a privilege and a responsibility to grapple with such things.

But yeah, I don't entirely disagree with Jean's point either. Sam Harris, for instance, has had his all-round credibility tarnished by some (IMO) very ill-judged comments about nuking Iran. Unlike Singer's infanticide views, I don't think that was a necessary conclusion from his other views, and adding that paragraph to the book has had, I fear, the effect of weakening rather than strengthening his overall argument. (Of course, it's always possible that Harris thinks otherwise, and views that as the most important part of his book.)

Russell Blackford said...

In that case of Harris on nuking Iran, he has often been misinterpreted. As I recall, he wasn't recommending that we do such a thing a pre-emptive measure. He was saying that, on one scenario which we must avoid at all costs, that's what we'll end up doing - which is one of the reasons why we must avoid it at all costs.

But it does raise an issue with how he writes. Although he is a good writer, and among other things writes clear sentences, he has a way of writing that sometimes seems to lend itself to misinterpretation. I'm not sure what it is, exactly. I don't think it's the individual sentences, but probably a certain willingness to take seriously certain ideas that, at the end of the day, he doesn't necessarily agree with. There's a willingness to entertain extreme ideas in the abstract, and this might be a good thing in a work of more technical philosophy, but in more popular works it lends itself to an impression that he is more in sympathy with, say, nuking potential enemies or torturing prisoners than he really is.

Now, some of it is not his fault. I can understand why he gets pissed off with opponents who cherry-pick sentences and paras to give them meanings that are then used to discredit him. Some of the treatment Harris has received has been deplorable. At the same time, there's a certain ... I dunno ... almost naivety about some of it. E.g. some of the things he says in his defence actually seem to compound the problem, perhaps partly because of an admirable, but almost excessive, wish to nail down the subtleties of his views on highly abstract scenarios.

All that said, if he tried to change, if he lost that sense of relentless honesty and bravery in what he writes, he might be a less interesting writer. It's probably part of his charm.

ColinGavaghan said...

I think you are being a bit too kind to Harris here, Russell. The scenario that he envisages is one where 'an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry'. Assuming that he's thinking of some of the existing Islamist regimes, such as the one in Iran, then this is not a particularly far-fetched scenario. At very least, it isn't far-fetched that the US government would come to be persuaded that they possessed such weapons.

He then goes on to say this:
'In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.'

On my reading, this goes well beyond being a mere philosophical hypothetical, and comes pretty close to a policy recommendation; a recommendation that - on a particular set of facts that are not wholly far-fetched (an Islamist regime merely acquiring long-range nuclear weapons; it needn't even have threatened to use them) - a nuclear first-strike would be, or plausibly could be, the correct course of action.

In short, Harris is at least taking seriously the notion that the USA, the only country to have used nuclear weapons, should continue using nuclear weapons, to offset the mere possibility that other countries might use nuclear weapons, even where they have not explicitly threatened to do so. All based on his understanding of 'what Islamists believe'.

It's an astonishing claim to make in a single paragraph, without a helluva lot of further qualification and justification. While it's unfortunate that it has overshadowed much the other, and better thought-out, content of the book, I can't say I find it particularly surprising, or even especially unfair.

Russell Blackford said...

That's interesting, Colin. His sentences are clear at the level of syntax - he doesn't produce ambiguous constructions. And he certainly writes engagingly and vividly. But here he has conveyed different things to different people, and your comment makes me see something of why.

You say: The scenario that he envisages is one where 'an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry'. Assuming that he's thinking of some of the existing Islamist regimes, such as the one in Iran, then this is not a particularly far-fetched scenario. At very least, it isn't far-fetched that the US government would come to be persuaded that they possessed such weapons.

Gotcha. I see how it can be read like that, against a certain background.

I read it differently. I.e., I didn't read it as being about any actual regime that currently exists, but about some hypothetical regime so extreme that it would be prepared to bring on Armageddon (it is dewy-eyed at the idea of Paradise, and so prepared for all its citizens to die). And I was reading the bit about having long-range nuclear weapons not as a mere suspicion as with Saddam's Iraq but as being actually armed to the teeth with nukes as the USSR was.

Imagine the 9/11 hijackers in control of the Soviet ICBMs.

While that's a very extreme hypothetical scenario, it's one that I can see Harris taking seriously as a possibility in the future.

I still think that Harris probably subjectively intended something like what I am describing, but I concede that a fair bit of charity would have to be brought to bear to defend the passage against your reading. So, here you might think that, even if Harris meant what I think he meant, there was a certain insouciance about how the passage could be read by people making pretty reasonable assumptions. Caution about that has been sacrificed for vividness and rhetorical force.

And also, Harris does tend in other passages to blur the line between the most extreme Islamists and what other Islamists or even other Muslims think. That tends to support your interpretation.

I suppose there's now a question as to what we should say about it. What's done is done, and presumably we don't Harris to shut up. But perhaps there's a lesson in it for him.

March Hare said...

Not to go hideously off topic, but in defence of Harris' scenario - is it better to economically sanction a country, causing millions of potential deaths, in order to make te regime bend to our will, or to allow the regime to make its own choices and then react to them (with nuclear weapons if necessary)?

While I am most definitely not in favour of pre-emptive murder, I think the entire scenario has to be considered along with all possible options before we go off half-cocked about the use of nuclear weapons (which are overly feared imo).

Perhaps it's Harris' willingness to look at the entire scenario and the more extreme options that makes him susceptible to such criticisms. I have to say, it is only in reading your criticism of him here that I seriously thought about the number of deaths in multiple countries sanctions would cause, whereas a single pre-emptive strike would send a message to all countries not to have a nuclear program. Not that I am in favour of that, but I think we must consider all scenarios before we can sensibly pick a best one.

March Hare said...

Back on topic, I think to allow ourselves to be silenced by public idiocy is to be dishonest and does the public, in the long run, a massive disservice. By pandering to the illogical, emotional will of the public regarding A, in order to pursue B, we ultimately harm our own credibility regarding A.

For example, by going along with the public's wish for punishment of paedophiles (rather than treatment!) we harm our actual arguments against the death penalty. Sure, in the short run we are more likely to be heard and taken seriously by politicians and the public alike, but facts, as someone said, are stubborn things. If we wish for our thoughts and ideas to be taken seriously we must, like scientists, go where the data/reasoning leads.

Incidentally, as to animal welfare by kosher and halal butchers, I think we must separate out the two arguments:
Is there any justification is a secular society to allow one group special animal handling privileges?
Is it a (more) cruel practice?

These are two different discussions and we shouldn't allow them to be conflated.

Russell Blackford said...

On the last point, I do actually discuss issues to do with animal sacrifice, special ways of killing animals, etc., in the book (sorry to keep plugging it, but inevitably it deals with some of these things in more depth than I can do here).

Yes, there are lots of things to tease apart. I'm always attracted to Locke's view that religiously neutral laws of general application should apply to everyone, so no exceptions get made. I certainly don't think the courts should be carving out exceptions to them, though this puts me at odds with most American constitutional scholars.

With the legislature, though, it's a bit different. Legislatures carve out all sorts of legislative exceptions for all sorts of reasons that are expedient.

The legislature should act for worldly reasons, not because it wants to assist in someone's spiritual salvation (which would require it to know that a religion is true and which one). But those worldly reasons can include its knowledge that some of its citizens have religious motivations, and effects that will (likely) follow if they are not allowed to act on them. I go into this problem at some length in chapter 3 and especially chapter 6.

ColinGavaghan said...

March Hare:

'is it better to economically sanction a country, causing millions of potential deaths, in order to make te regime bend to our will, or to allow the regime to make its own choices and then react to them (with nuclear weapons if necessary)?'

Is it better to be garrotted than boiled in oil? Probably, if those are actually the only two options on the table. This was the same false choice that was presented re Iraq's fictitious WMDs, remember.

'a message to all countries not to have a nuclear program'

No such message is being communicated, either by Harris or by the countries exerting pressure on Iran. The USA is quite content for its allies to maintain nuclear arsenals, and of course it has no intent of disarming unilaterally (despite its record as the only country to have used nuclear weapons in anger). At best, it desires unilaterally to police who can and who cannot maintain such arsenals. At worst, it is seeking a(nother) pretext for pre-emptive attack/invasion of yet another country.

Assuming that Sam Harris wants to distance himself from such efforts - as I'll charitably assume he does - then I think he should take the opportunity to clarify his statement. Not shut up, no, just speak more clearly. But I also wonder whether, in the present climate - with US and Israeli hawks blatantly eyeing up Iran - his point could have been made with a less ambiguous and inflammatory example.

I think your second post is pretty much spot on, though.