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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ecklund on Singer

One of the more annoying passages in Science vs. Religion by Elaine Howard Ecklund presents the view of one scientist that universities are turning off the general public by funding meretricious and alienating pseudo-scholarship. Ecklund presents this at such length, and in such a context, that the irresistible conclusion is that she endorses this scientist's views, or is at least sympathetic to them.

What this shows me is that neither the scientist nor Ecklund properly understands what universities are all about. An important component of the role of universities is the creation of a space where what seem like commonsense ideas - handed down through socialisation and tradition - can be held up to the light and challenged. One thing that we want from academics, especially in fields such as philosophy, is the capacity and courage to attack popular ideas, including popular ideas of morality. This kind of intellectual critique, which may involve the development of unpopular critiques of how ordinary people think, is one way that we make progress as a society.

Accommodationist thinkers in the style of Ecklund or, say, Chris Mooney, want to reverse this. The idea is to market a product, such as science, by showing how it is safe for people to consume without it challenging their existing worldviews (which may be based on religion or traditional morality). People with various existing worldviews are taken as demographics, and the idea is to market science to them.

But science and scholarship are dangerous - not necessarily in the sense of creating physical risks, but in the sense that they can lead to ideas that undermine received wisdom. Universities are places where dangerous ideas, in this sense, are created, refined, and tested in debate. To suggest otherwise, and adopt the marketing strategy favoured by accommodationists, is profoundly ignorant and anti-intellectual.

The example given by the scientist in Ecklund's passage is Peter Singer:
Mentioning perhaps Singer's most extreme view, he said that Singer has "been saying infanticide is acceptable under some circumstances. I mean maybe an academic can justify that, because he can write that in a fancy paragraph. But to any level-headed human being, it doesn't matter what kind of paragraph you write. It's simply wrong and that's the end of it."
I have to laugh at an academic, of all people, complaining about someone writing "a fancy paragraph" - I wonder what someone who thinks in such an anti-intellectual way is even doing in the academy.

But setting that aside ... there goes the entire sub-discipline of moral philosophy. If we are not allowed to challenge what "any level-headed human being" supposedly knows, we might as well go out of business. Ecklund doesn't even notice what a stupid understanding of the role of universities this scientist has, which makes me wonder about her own understanding of it. Does Ecklund "get" academia at all?


Kari McKern said...

Well a swipe the valueless twaddle of the Post-Modern Academy is usually OK, but, as its hard to do Moral Philosophy with discussing values its only a lame "guilt by association" fail.

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, the humanities do go down some bizarre, baroque paths at times - but even then the cure is further debate and critique.

The big thing about Singer is that he's the opposite of a pseudo-scholar. Whether or not we end up agreeing with all his views, he argues for them clearly and honestly. As I've said here before, I think he's a great model for students to try to follow at the level of how to put a well-structured argument in clear, strong, but adequately complex prose. If we could all write as well as Singer does, academia would be a better place.

Kari McKern said...

That should have been a "without". But you got that. Sorry. Probably also could have passed on the qualification "Moral", as well.

Thx Russell.

But those Literature and Arts might at least tell us what they like and why, hey.

Whereas, Singer, he most always makes sense to me.


Jerry Coyne said...

Oh Lord, Russell, why are you reading this Templeton-funded nonsense? I weep for you!

Bubblecar said...

'level-headed human being"

It's "the man on the Clapham omnibus" again, cultural relativism based on the unthinking maintenance of local traditions, rather than rational argument that is open to empirical enquiry and new intellectual perspectives.

Russell Blackford said...

I know, Jerry - it's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it.

Charles Sullivan said...

Singer is great to read and listen to. I sometimes show to my ethics class Singer being interviewed by Dawkins (really more of a conversation) in The Genius of Darwin: The Uncut Interviews. It's packed with lots of talking points for class discussion. Here's a link if you haven't seen it:


Ophelia Benson said...

Great post. Para 3 is a very good point.