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Teaching about bad philosophy without making the heinous mainstream

In putting together my last post, I was beguiled into rereading some ancient (almost three years' old) W4 history in the form of the comments on one of my posts about infanticidal ethics.

You see, I had chortled a bit over the extremely mild discomfort suffered by the ethical advocates of infanticide when their views became known and the ordinary folk were upset. Worse, in that same brief post, I had implied that the article in question should not have been published. Worst of all, I had done so on the basis of representative quotations from the article without having read the whole thing.

This was too much for one of our commentators, who accused me of undermining my philosophical bona fides.

Quoth commentator Grobi:

You call yourself a philosopher, Lydia? Then try to behave like one. What about READING the article and rebutting its arguments? Philosophers always have defended counterintuitive (and sometimes morally outrageous) claims. Plato approved of eugenics and infanticide, Aristotle advocated slavery, Schopenhauer (and nowadays Benatar) wanted to phase out the human race, some philosophers even tried (and still try) to argue for the immorality of homosexual acts - which, in my humble opinion, is almost as silly as defending the moral permissibility of killing newborn babies. Nevertheless, the mentioned philosophers and their arguments are without a doubt worthy of discussion.

My first response was to defend the idea that, in fact, moral heinousness in conclusions can be a ground for non-publication in a journal, which seems as if it shouldn't be all that controversial a position, yea even for philosophers. Since when are philosophers supposed to have abandoned the reductio ad absurdam? Or is it only in ethics that it doesn't apply?

I also pointed out (both in the thread and later, after getting hold of the entire article, in a separate post) the deceptiveness of the authors and of their editor in implying that they weren't actually advocating public policy.

At the point in the thread at which I got hold of and read the entire article advocating infanticide, I wrote this:

Grobi, I have just read this article, word for word.

If your sneering demand that I read the article was meant to imply that in some way, shape, or form the authors' complaint of misrepresentation is justified, I can only say that it is you who are disgracing philosophy.

If anything, the quotations thus far given do not give the fullest flavor of their clear, unequivocal, and outright defense of infanticide, which simply means that their complaints of misrepresentation are not mere whining and that even the word "sophistry" hardly does justice to the depths to which they have gone. By complaining that they have been misrepresented, they have lied. Neither more nor less. As anyone who reads the article will see.

As for "rebutting" their "arguments," I note that they assert that one is a person and possesses a right to life only if one can subjectively value one's life and have subjective aims. This is not argued for but asserted as a premise of the entire article. Why in the name of all that is good should I or anyone else accept such a premise? (Obviously, the authors assume they can get away with it because it, or a premise much like it, is accepted among their bioethics in-house peer group, for which they explicitly state that they were writing.) So "rebutting" the article's "arguments" involves simply pointing out that they are all based on an incredibly tendentious, not to mention false premise for which the authors do not even attempt to offer a serious defense. End of rebuttal. And this is philosophy? When I think of the work I and others put into real works of philosophy...

It is quite true. The idea that Giubilini's and Minerva's article was philosophically worthy of publication is a joke. Their entire original contribution to philosophy took the form of arguing from a strong form of what Wesley Smith calls "personhood theory" to the conclusion that infanticide should be allowed not only when the baby is suffering greatly or is expected to suffer (which would be bad enough) but also for more trivial reasons concerning the desires and convenience of "real" persons, aka the adults in power over the newborn child. The idea that this is some new discovery that needed to be published is quite simply laughable. So is the implication that some sort of deep arguments were involved in their article which any real philosopher would have to furrow his brow to rebut. If it took professional philosophers several decades to figure out what any sharp college pro-lifer with decent worldview training under his belt could have told you--that if newborns are not real persons with a right to life, then they can be killed for the convenience of others, not merely for more (allegedly) weighty reasons--then maybe we should hire the sharp, pro-life college students to teach our well-paid ethics courses instead.

I also made some suggestions about how this sort of philosophically murderous trash can be countered without treating it as respectable:

Christian philosophers and departments of philosophy at Christian schools need to learn to treat this material with the contempt it deserves. You see here in the comments of Grobi the attitude we are up against: In essence, oh, how gauche you are, how unphilosophical, how ridiculous, for saying even so mild a thing as that this article should not have been published on the grounds of moral heinousness.

As a well-published philosopher myself but not an ethics specialist, I think that I bring an unusual perspective to this discussion. On the one hand, if some kind of "philosophical in-club creds" matters, I'm not just a layman. On the other hand, because my areas of specialty, though impeccably hard-edged and tough-minded (epistemology, probability theory) are not ethics, I have the layman's license to treat this sort of thing with contempt. I do not swoon at the name of Michael Tooley, who evidently invented the concept of "personhood" the authors are so ably (?) wielding. I do not care two hoots about the fact that "ethicists" have been sitting around for forty years in their grubby little rooms using their grubby little two-bit, made-up definitions to come to their nasty little conclusions about infanticide.

Now, I think this kind of spine and this kind of toe-twitching (with the itch, metaphorically, to kick the authors' arrogant derrieres) definitely need to be grafted into any Christian philosophers who need it.

For example: While it is legitimate in philosophy departments at Christian schools to discuss these views, solely because (horrific though it is) they are prevalent, it is important to communicate to students that their prevalence and the prestige their proponents have garnered tell us nothing about their truth. We are allowed to greet them with contempt and horror. "This idea leads to infanticide" should be a reductio ad absurdam of the idea. We are not obliged to treat these ideas with respect, just because they have a "literature" and are "mainstream" and the like. This whole elitist version of the bandwagon argument has got to go.

So if nothing else, I would like to see these authors and the field they represent seen, explicitly, as an enemy and as full of wise fools who use their IQs to justify evil. Not as a "field" with "discoveries" and so forth. And I would like to see philosophers willing to think of it and speak of it that way without being intimidated by people like Grobi into fearing that they are going to lose their Philosopher's Badge by so doing.

It is, I think, useful to consider that we can teach about bad ideas and how to respond to them without thereby giving currency and respectability to those bad ideas. There are ways of doing this in the classroom. Christian schools, in particular, should consider how to do this, and so should Christian philosophers who teach at other schools.

Comments (18)

It's a sad age when one has no recourse to the reductio ad absurdam because there's nothing too absurd for us too believe. Good evil and evil good and all that.

I believe Elizabeth Anscombe said something the same as you have in this post, but you'll probably know more about that than me.

Yes, Anscombe did say something very much like it, though I'm having trouble googling up the quote quickly.

The whole thing is a rather interesting exercise in rhetoric. In that same old thread, my interlocutor pointed out that Frank Beckwith, who has truly done a lot philosophically for the pro-life cause, had participated in a symposium volume on (if I recall correctly) abortion. I don't recall of the volume also included advocacy of infanticide. The commentator implied that I should condemn Frank for debating those who advocate abortion if I was going to condemn the editor for publishing Giubilini and Minerva's article. Now, this is silly to begin with, because there is a stunningly obvious difference between _rebutting_ heinous philosophy once it is out there and giving it currency and prestige by publishing it in the first instance. And the editor, Savulescu, quite clearly implied that their article was important, valuable, and worthy.

But a further point does remain: There are certain rhetorical standards that are often expected in a philosophy article or debate. You can't just say, "My opponent's position is morally disgusting and heinous" or you are thought to be responding unprofessionally. In that context, it becomes a delicate task to maintain these unwritten norms without actually giving the impression that one's opponent's position is respectable, much less that it _should be_ given oxygen.

I have seen some quotations (again, I don't have the links readily available) from someone I very much admire, Prof. Robert George, in which I think he does not fully keep the proper balance here. As I recall the quotes, he implies that Peter Singer's ideas _should_ be aired, _should_ be taken seriously, that it is a sign of philosophical high-mindedness for Singer to be given a platform and discussed seriously rather than a sign of philosophical decay, though of course he deeply, deeply disagrees with Singer's positions. I think this is wrong. The world would be a better place if Singer were unable to get a job anywhere to teach philosophy.

There is another strand playing into all of this, which is a sort of a fortiori argument conservatives sometimes use. And it isn't necessarily bad. It can be an attempt to get leftists to admit their own double standards. One points out that they treat "edgy" views like infanticide advocacy as necessarily open for debate because "we're philosophers, so nothing is out of bounds" but then want to treat advocacy of traditional sexual positions as out of bounds! If infanticide can be considered respectable, then get a sense of perspective folks: Advocacy of traditional marriage a fortiori ought to be philosophically respectable.

There's nothing wrong with making the a fortiori point as a simple if...then, as long as one doesn't confuse oneself into thinking that one is *really defending the position* that all conclusions, without exception, must be considered philosophically respectable.

In my recent post concerning the silly flap over the Marquette TA, I tried to walk that line very carefully, even mentioning infanticide in the middle of the post.


Amen to that, Lydia. And I'm privileged to teach in a place where I can speak truth. I'm proud of the fact that the complaint of our disgruntled students is almost always "great school but too Christian for my taste."

My comment is apropos of the final paragraph of the OP; we must have been typing at the same time!

One obvious question is that if Grobi finds their position absurd, does it not disturb Grobi greatly to find that some policy makers in the West are actually acting on these ideas where possible? Here's an obvious litmus test. If you find infanticide to be beyond the pale, then you should have absolutely no problem with charging anyone involved in a partial birth abortion with conspiracy to commit first degree murder. It's not an abortion in the sense of taking RU486 or something like that; it's real, bona fide infanticide.

But a further point does remain: There are certain rhetorical standards that are often expected in a philosophy article or debate. You can't just say, "My opponent's position is morally disgusting and heinous" or you are thought to be responding unprofessionally.

That's true enough. You can't JUST say that. But you can say that and then back it up in 2 or 3 different ways: first by showing exactly why your opponent's position is wrong, then by showing why it is heinous, and then by showing why it is that for the ordinary joe, his thinking "this sort of idea is heinous" is perfectly reasonable and an adequate basis for such a joe to reject it out of hand without descending into the particulars or treating it as justifying a full on debate.

Sure, it's more work. And maybe on occasion a few people might mistake what you are doing as giving cover to the possibility that the idea was debatable in its own right. But only a very few will make such a mistake if you state up front "This idea is heinous. I shouldn't need to explain why it's wrong, but I will anyway."

Mike T, I'd say we just don't know what G's position is on whether their position is absurd. What outraged him was that I would say it shouldn't have been published and shouldn't be treated as respectable. That was allegedly unphilosophical of me.

Tony, here's an interesting question, though: Aren't some positions heinous in themselves in a way that makes it difficult to go any "deeper" in showing why they are heinous without distorting the immediate heinousness thereof? Suppose that someone advocated seriously the proposal in Swift's "Modest Proposal"--namely, that we humanely kill and eat all the unwanted children in the world below a certain age (say, three), using them as food for the older impoverished people and for the wanted children younger than that age.

Would it really be better to discuss the arbitrariness of the age cut-off (why three rather than ten?) and the like than just to say, "This is heinous?" Or suppose that one said that this was contrary to the intrinsic dignity of man, and that this is why it is a heinous proposal. But in saying that, one would _know_ that one's opponents completely deny any such premise as the intrinsic dignity of man, so no doubt they would call such an appeal as a reason for declaring A Modest Proposal heinous "question-begging" against their more global position that man has no intrinsic dignity.

Mind you, I'm not meaning to excoriate pro-life advocates who _do_ make arguments such as that the birth cut-off is arbitrary and the like. But I think they have only been forced into making them because people's heinous-o-meter is messed up. As long as the heinous-o-meter still is giving readings on some issue, I'm _inclined_ to think that it's better to appeal to it directly instead of to more abstract principles.

This discussion reminds me of the Council of Elrond, wherein a whole host of allies in the struggle against evil, of necessity spent many long hours meticulously imagining the workings of minds given over to evil. At all times the purposes of Sauron are foremost in the minds of those present. A dwarf gives an account of Mordor's menacing and oleaginous emissary to Erebor; Elrond retells the disaster at Gladden Fields; Gandalf speaks at length of treason of Saruman. The Council's purpose is to descry Sauron's intent, to understand his machinations -- not superficially but deeply and fully, so that he might be effective countered.

And yet no one ever loses sight of the fact that he is the Enemy. His purposes and understanding are taken up with seriousness, but never with that feeble neutrality between good and evil that characterizes our lost and foolish philosophers today.

Excellent thought, Paul.

Mike T, I'd say we just don't know what G's position is on whether their position is absurd. What outraged him was that I would say it shouldn't have been published and shouldn't be treated as respectable. That was allegedly unphilosophical of me.

The insinuation he made is that he finds the claims that homosexuality is immoral to be almost as ludicrous as the moral permissibility of killing babies. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, one could reasonably infer that Grobi finds arguments defending infanticide to be ludicrous. Perhaps Grobi is taking the old school liberal approach of being a free speech radical, I don't know.

That aside, one need only look to a variety of issues the left cares about to realize that this attitude is not a mainstream value on the left. For example, for fun and profit I dare you to suggest in a feminist forum that alleged rape victims should be bereft of rape shield law protection. Or go out and suggest that maybe blacks do tend to have lower IQs and that lower IQs + higher testosterone levels might lead to statistically lower time preference/impulse control suggesting that blacks statistically tend to have problems whites and Asians don't have with respect to criminality.

You don't have to believe in any particular thing about those things, just go play the troll and you'll see a perfect reenactment of a two minute hate from 1984. We all agree that some ideas are beyond the pale. Even most libertarians would likely not want to see someone be given any space to enthusiastically preach the merits of raping and eating children with an eye for winning people over to that argument. So it's really just a matter of where we draw the line.

Tony, here's an interesting question, though: Aren't some positions heinous in themselves in a way that makes it difficult to go any "deeper" in showing why they are heinous without distorting the immediate heinousness thereof?

Lydia, somehow the latter part of my comment got cut off. I have repaired it. I think I deal with at least part of your concern there.

There are some questions and subjects that cannot be discussed in certain settings. You cannot discuss explicit sexual matters with 9 year olds, for example. You cannot divulge one person's private failings with a third party for no other reason than to spread nasty stories. And in prudence you cannot discuss the reasonableness of a cop killing a boy who is a real threat to others, with the boy's parents at the first moment they learn of his death. And you cannot expect to discuss very well in a short newspaper editorial a problem that needs several pages of clarifications to be not mis-handled. But if we are within the context of philosophical debate at length, in which you are free to repeat regularly "and this everyone rightly understands is heinous...", I don't think that the fact that the position your opponent takes is heinous means that it cannot be discussed without distorting the reality of its heinousness - if handled properly. It seems to me, for example, that when you read the biblical passages that condemn homosexual behavior, you gloss over it with children, you merely (and slightly) allude to the nature of the problem with teens, but with mature adults you can indeed discuss the real evils, with certain appropriate casts of language, etc. One of the things this "handled properly" might include could be, for example, NOT permitting the use of a hypothetical argument form "well, even IF x were to be assumed true...", when x is heinous.

Sure, a better society would not need to ever descend into a full on discussion of exactly why homosexual behavior is wrong - the mere sensibilities of every half-way decently formed person would be enough. But since men are not angels and each society has its own grave evils, we cannot pretend that we have no need of clear, specific discussions of a subject that is, in itself, heinous.

I think the example of homosexual behavior affords more of a field for answering "why" questions from various angles than the example of infanticide. In all seriousness, I would consider it just about as profound as it gets to answer the "why" question concerning infanticide with, "Because it's murder."

Lydia, I suspect that your here sensibility about homosexual behavior has been modified by the past 30 years of cultural inroads on the normal perspective: 40 years ago few thought it appropriate to be talking about gay activity and why it is wrong was as if it needed actual philosophical support. I don't know just how much of the intervening cultural change came about on account of upstanding people deciding to fight the idiotic philosophy and psychology theories in cold, hard logic, (rather than shouting "heinous" at it), but I would suspect the answer is *very little*, because I think the gay agenda was pushed successfully only OUTSIDE of the sphere of argument: movies, TV shows, music, stories, celebrities made much of, and kids' educations ruined by evil teachers. Nary an argument in sight. Possibly the conservative side could have achieved more results for defeating the agenda by getting control of the media than by argument, but that has never been very likely.

No, I really don't think so--that is, I don't think that what I said there about homosexuality is just a matter of my modified sensibilities from the last thirty years. For one thing, my own sensibilities have, as far as I'm able to introspect, not been modified on the homosexuality issue over the past thirty years, which is why most of what I say about it is so completely offensive to the zeitgeist. I still use words like "perversion," for example. I could be wrong, but I think there is an actual disanalogy to infanticide in how much there is to be said, not just a culturally conditioned perception of disanalogy on my part. I speak as someone who has been arguing in the pro-life movement on multiple fronts for more than a couple of decades, too, so it's not as though I am just more used to considering homosexuality to be an issue to be argued about than the life issues.

I certainly do think that there is a direct intuition of the unnaturalness of homosexual acts. I also think that we need to be willing to stand firm on that intuition and not feel like we are being irrational by using it. But I would say that even *pointing out* that homosexual acts are unnatural and contrary to the telos of sexuality (even if one doesn't get into graphic detail in pointing that out) is already a step of argument that it's difficult to parallel in the case of killing babies.

Consider, too, that in the case of abortion a lot of pro-life argument has taken the form (quite legitimately) of arguing *that* abortion is killing a baby, leaving it from there to be understood that killing a baby is wrong. So much of it is trying to get away from the "clump of cells" nonsense and get it acknowledged that the unborn child is, indeed, a living human being, an unborn child like any other baby. In fact, I recall interestingly that one very tendentious book on religion in the public square even tried to say (in a footnote) that calling the unborn child a "human being" is not a scientific claim! Not a "person," mind you, but even a human being. God forbid we should throw the sacred mantle of science over anything that might have such strong intuitive consequences.

So in the case of post-birth infanticide we're already beyond that. Someone who is considering that infanticide is morally hunky dory has already bitten that bullet. He isn't trying to claim that the newborn baby is just a clump of cells or that you can't call it a human being. He knows he's talking about killing a baby. He just doesn't care.

I certainly don't advocate "shouting" at anybody, but I do think that's kind of the end of the road, morally speaking. There's just very little to say to such a person.

But I am intrigued by the question:

How would or could one go about arguing from more basic premises against infanticide? How much farther back into more basic premises is one even going by saying, "It is the murder of an innocent human being"?

And if one gets any more abstract than that (which I'm even having trouble constructing hypothetically in any event), is there not a danger of abstracting away the remaining legitimate revulsion that most people still feel against infanticide, and which we want to keep intact?

Some evils are gravely wrong and heinous, others are gravely wrong without being heinous. (For the latter, take a man and woman, engaged for 8 months "jumping the gun" just 2 weeks before the wedding.) Homosexual acts are in the former, as is direct premeditated murder. Other evils are also heinous, but what they all have in common (or ought to) is that they are publicly contemptible, they are universally disgusting / abhorrent in the extreme to ordinary men.

In my view, it is quite another question as to how far back one can reach to prove, explain, or reason out the evil of one of these acts. Obviously, not all categories of heinous wrong are equally immediate in how their wrongness (and their heinousness) is, whether the nature of the act is such that it neither need nor can have support, explanation, or derivation for it to be understood most properly. It is one thing to say that a truth is known, quite another to say that it is known _immediately_ as a first principle rather than as a derived conclusion. I do think that the truths that are closer to the principles of the natural law usually are more universally known, but I don't think that it is necessary for a truth to be a FIRST principle, a self-evident truth, in order to be known nearly universally. I would classify child sexual abuse as one such heinous act: nearly universally abhorrent in "normal," decent societies (though some societies did not recognize it), but it can still be understood and explained in concepts and truths still more basic - that sex is for reproduction, for starters.

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