A reply to Agnes Callard

by Vaniver2 min read28th Jun 202036 comments


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Agnes Callard says on Twitter:

Sincerely can't tell which threatens culture of free thought & expression more:
@nytimes de-anonymizing & destroying a (rightly) treasured blog for no good reason
@nytimes increasingly allowing external mobs (w/powerful members) influence over what it publishes
I believe that the arguments in this op-ed--about why philosophers shouldn't use petitions to adjudicate their disputes--also apply to those non-philosophers who, for independent reasons, are committed to the power of public reason. https://t.co/elZkZgBYPD?amp=1

[The link is to a NYT op-ed she wrote; which is now available for free.]

A friend linked to this on Facebook, and I replied with a Bible verse:

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.

But, in the spirit of public reason, let me explain my meaning.

Different people present different interfaces to the public. Philosophers want to receive and know how to handle reasoned arguments; politicians want to receive and know how to handle votes. Present a politician with a philosophical argument, and they might think it's very nice, but they won't consider it as relevant to their duties as a politican as polling data. "The voters aren't choosing me to think," they might say; "they're choosing me to represent their will."

This isn't to single out politicians as 'non-philosophers'; businesspeople have their own interface, where they want to receive and know how to handle money, and athletes have their own interface, and musicians, and so on and so on. This is part of the society-wide specialization of labor, and is overall a good thing.

Callard argues that philosophers shouldn't sign petitions, as philosophers--in my framing, that it corrupts the interface of 'philosophers' for them to both emit reasoned arguments and petitions, which are little more than counts of bodies and clout. If they want to sign petitions, or vote, or fight in wars on their own time, that's fine; but those political behaviors are not the business of philosophy, and they should do them as people instead of as philosophers.

Overall, this argument seems right to me, except I think it also makes sense for individuals, even those personally committed to public reason, to honor the other disciplines by engaging with them the way they want to be engaged with, so long as it is consistent with one's conscience. If you want, say, a politician to take seriously Aliens and Citizens, you need to assemble a voting bloc that is in favor of open borders, rather than simply sending them copies of the paper. If you want a businessperson to produce anti-malaria nets for people in need, the thing to do is assemble a pile of money to trade them for the nets.

And so the question becomes: when an editor at the New York Times makes a decision that seems wrong-headed and cruel, what interface do they present to the world, and how should we make use of it?

In this particular case, the editor in question is not a philosopher, and to the best of my knowledge hasn't elected the interface of philosophy. [Scott was simply informed of the editor's decision, not her reasons for the decision, which we can only imagine. If it hinges on a reasoned defense of pseudonyms, I am happy to provide one; it if hinges on proof that pseudonyms are important to our culture, the petition seems like the best way to provide that.]

Callard, in the replies, tweets:

Good thought. I think if there were some way for the document (which wouldn't then be a petition) to convey: "this is what we think but if, after careful deliberation, you sill believe that you are doing the right thing, we will support your decision"-I might feel differently.

I have employed this strategy in the past, when I felt someone else owned a decision or I overall trusted their judgment. But it feels like this is a tool with a narrow use, rather than one that applies broadly. I wouldn't say to Putin, "I personally think it is wrong to murder journalists, but if after careful deliberation, you still believe that you are doing the right thing, I will support your decision." His belief that he is doing the right thing (if he even casts the decision in those terms) is not a crux for me, and would not change my views.

Similarly, I don't see a reason yet to trust that the editor thinking Scott's birth name should be published, instead of referring to him with his pseudonym as the NYT has done many times before for others in similar situations, should update any of my beliefs on the value of pseudonymity, instead of simply reflecting on their callousness.