Thursday, May 04, 2017

Is The Disinterested Pursuit Of Truth Ever Permissible In Philosophy (When Someone Might Be Harmed)? If Not In Philosophy, Then Where?

   This is too fast, but I'm either going to say it sloppily or not at all:
   Certain sectors of the intellectual / philosophical left--e.g. people in the anti-Tuvel crowd--seem to hold that the disinterested pursuit of truth is not particularly important. Some folks in that sector don't believe in the truth, and/or don't believe that it's possible to be disinterested in the relevant ways. Others seem to recognize its importance, but think that considerations about harm to certain groups trump purely intellectual considerations fairly easily/often. And many have a very expansive conception of harm and violence--holding, e.g., that merely expressing politically incorrect opinions can constitute violence.

   This seems to raise the question:
Is it ever permissible in philosophy to think about or discuss an issue in a relevantly disinterested manner? 
That is: without keeping one eye on possible harmful effects of one's inquiries? Or perhaps: effects harmful to the relevant kinds of groups?
   It seems to me that the philosophical left comes fairly close to answering that question in the negative.
   Which raises, among many other questions, this one:
If not in philosophy, then where? 
I think their answer to that would be: nowhere. It's not plausible think that philosophy has to be concerned about such harm, but that there's some other, more abstract analog of philosophy where understanding can be freely pursued.
   People shy away from saying or even thinking things like this explicitly...instead, they tend to slide toward saying and thinking them, and then scurry away when the question is posed explicitly. Knowing what I know about such matters, I think this is a safe guess: more people are committed (or semi-committed) to such a position than would admit it, even to themselves.
   Even someone so benighted as myself might admit that there are tougher questions here than he'd like to admit. It doesn't seem to be worth knowing the exact number of ants in the world if that would somehow kill all of us off. Similarly: whether reliabilism is true. That value of knowing the truth probably isn't infinitely great. So the other side might respond: you generally don't worry about such things because they're not real possibilities. But if the issue arises, it'll be a different story.
   I hope it doesn't give up the game to think what I currently more-or-less think, which is roughly: the search for truth (and understanding) is extremely important. At the very least, it's so important that it cannot easily be blocked / trumped /whatever by the fact that someone might be harmed. Even if we grant that considerations about harm can override purely intellectual considerations, we can hold that the relevant harm must be pretty severe and pretty certain.
   There are obvious differences between people with my intellectual commitments and affinities and people like the anti-Tuvel crowd. These are closely related to the differences between liberals and a certain kind of  (as I tend to put it) illiberal leftist. One way to think about these differences is: folks I disagree with about this sort of thing have a very expansive conception of harm, and believe that even a rather speculative possibility of causing harm to certain groups is enough to make it impermissible to make or endorse certain arguments, and value the disinterested pursuit of truth less. (Exactly what all the relevant degrees of difference are like isn't clear.)
   I think that the better reasons are on my side; the other side disagrees. But right now I just want to try to note that and how we disagree. I think that (as is so often the case) just articulating their view is halfway to refuting it...but I'm not going to try to defend that now.


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