Archives For collective moral responsibility

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsassowe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Imagining a Different Political Economy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 7-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40v

Image by Rachel Adams via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

One cannot ask for a kinder or more complimentary reviewer than Adam Riggio.[1] His main complaint about my book, The Quest for Prosperity, is that “Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised.”

My opening examination of what I see as the misconceptions of some presuppositions used in political economy is a first, necessary step towards an examination of recent capitalist variants (that are heralded as the best prospects for future organization of market exchanges) and for a different approach tor political economy offered by the end of the book. Admittedly, my vision of a radically reframed political economy that exposes some taken for granted concepts, such as scarcity, human nature, competition, and growth is an ambitious task, and perhaps, as Riggio suggests, I should attempt a more detailed articulation of the economy in a sequel.

However, this book does examine alternative frameworks, discusses in some detail what I consider misguided attempts to skirt the moral concerns I emphasize so as to retain the basic capitalist framework, and suggests principles that ought to guide a reframed political economy, one more attentive to the moral principles of solidarity and cooperation, empathy towards fellow members of a community, and an mindful avoidance of grave inequalities that are not limited to financial measures. In this respect, the book delivers more than is suggested by Riggio.

On Questions of Character

Riggio also argues that my

templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for [my] project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education, and socialization. Contrary to how [I] spea[k] of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

This, too, is true to some extent. Just because I may successfully convince you that you are working with misconceptions about human nature, scarcity, and growth, for example, you may still not modify your behavior. Likewise, just because I may offer brilliant exemplars for how “civil rights and civic institutions” should be organized and legally enshrined does not mean that every member of the community will abide by them and behave appropriately.

Mean-spirited or angry individuals might spoil life for the more friendly and self-controlled ones, and Riggio is correct to point out that “a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in [one’s] heart” are insufficient for overcoming the brutality of capitalist greed. But focusing on this set of concerns (rather than offering a more efficient or digitally sophisticated platform for exchanges), Riggio would agree, could be good starting points, and might therefore encourage more detailed analyses of policies and regulation of unfettered capitalist practices.

I could shirk my responsibility here and plead for cover under the label of a philosopher who lacks the expertise of a good old-fashioned social scientist or policy wonk who can advise how best to implement my proposals. But I set myself up to engage political economy in all its manifold facets, and Riggio is correct when he points out that my “analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.”

But, when critically engaging not only the latest gimmicks being proposed under the capitalist umbrella (e.g., the gig economy or shared economies) but also their claims about freedom and equal opportunity, I was concerned to debunk pretenses so as to be able to place my own ideas within an existing array of possibilities. In that sense, The Quest for Prosperity is, indeed, more critique than manual, an immanent critique that accounts for what is already being practiced so as to point out inevitable weaknesses. My proposal was offered in broad outlines in the hope of enlisting the likes of Riggio to contribute more details that, over time, would fulfill such promises in a process that can only be, in its enormity, collaborative.

The Strength of Values

Riggio closes his review by saying that I

offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions. Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

To be clear, my approach is as much Communitarian as it is Institutionalist, Marxist and heterodox, Popperian and postmodern; I prefer the more traditional terms socialism and communism as alternatives to capitalism in general and to my previous, more sanguine appeal to the notion of “postcapitalism.”

Still, Riggio hones in on an important point: since I insist on theorizing in moral and social (rather than monetary) terms, and since my concern is with views of human nature and the conditions under which we can foster a community of people who exchange goods and services, it stands to reason that the book be assessed in an ethical framework as well, concerned to some degree with how best to foster personal integrity, mutual empathy, and care. The book is as much concerned with debunking the moral pretenses of capitalism (from individual freedom and equal opportunity to happiness and prosperity, understood here in its moral and not financial sense) as with the moral underpinnings (and the educational and social institutions that foster them) of political economy.

In this sense, my book strives to be in line with Adam Smith’s (or even Marx’s) moral philosophy as much as with his political economy. The ongoing slippage from the moral to the political and economic is unavoidable: in such a register the very heart of my argument contends that financial strategies have to consider human costs and that economic policies affect humans as moral agents. But, to remedy social injustice we must deal with political economy, and therefore my book moves from the moral to the economic, from the social to the political.

Questions of Desire

I will respond to Riggio’s two concluding questions directly. The first deals with overcoming the allure of greed: in my view, this allure, as real and pressing as it is, remains socially conditioned, though perhaps linked to unconscious desires in the Freudian sense. Within the capitalist context, there is something more psychologically and morally complex at work that should be exposed (Smith and Marx, in their different analyses, appreciate this dimension of market exchanges and the framing of human needs and wants; later critics, as diverse as Herbert Marcuse and Karl Polanyi, continue along this path).

Wanting more of something—Father’s approval? Mother’s nourishment?—is different from wanting more material possessions or money (even though, in good a capitalist modality, the one seeps into the other or the one is offered as a substitute for the other). I would venture to say that a child’s desire for candy, for example, (candy being an object of desire that is dispensed or withheld by parents) can be quickly satiated when enough is available—hence my long discussion in the book about (the fictions of) scarcity and (the realities of) abundance; the candy can stand for love in general or for food that satisfies hunger, although it is, in fact, neither; and of course the candy can be substituted by other objects of desire that can or cannot be satisfied. (Candy, of course, doesn’t have the socially symbolic value that luxury items, such as iPhone, do for those already socialized.)

Only within a capitalist framework might one accumulate candy not merely to satisfy a sweet tooth or wish for a treat but also as a means to leverage later exchanges with others. This, I suggest, is learned behavior, not “natural” in the classical capitalist sense of the term. The reason for this lengthy explanation is that Riggio is spot on to ask about the allure of greed (given his mention of demand-side markets), because for many defenders of the faith, capitalism is nothing but a large-scale apparatus that satisfies natural human appetites (even though some of them are manufactured).

My arguments in the book are meant not only to undermine such claims but to differentiate between human activities, such as exchange and division of labor (historically found in families and tribes), and competition, greed, accumulation, and concentration of wealth that are specific to capitalism (and the social contract within which it finds psychological and legal protection). One can see, then, why I believe the allure of greed can be overcome through social conditioning and the reframing of human exchanges that satisfy needs and question wants.

Riggio’s concern over abuse of power, regardless of all the corrective structures proposed in the book, deserves one more response. Indeed, laws without enforcement are toothless. But, as I argue throughout the book, policies that attempt to deal with important social issues must deal with the economic features of any structure. What makes the Institutionalist approach to political economy informative is not only the recognition that economic ideals take on different hues when implemented in different institutional contexts, but that economic activity and behavior are culturally conditioned.

Instead of worrying here about a sequel, I’d like to suggest that there is already excellent work being done in the areas of human and civil rights (e.g., Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016) chronicle the problems of capitalism in different sectors of the economy) so that my own effort is an attempt to establish a set of (moral) values against which existing proposals can be assessed and upon which (economic) policy reform should be built. Highlighting the moral foundation of any economic system isn’t a substitute for paying close attention to the economic system that surrounds and perhaps undermines it; rather, economic realities test the limits of the applicability of and commitment to such foundation.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

References

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

[1] Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis for her critical suggestions.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40g

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.

References

Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, Social Epistemology Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zv

From the March for Justice for Police Violence in December 2014.
Sassower’s book does not directly touch on themes of institutional corruption, like the racialization of police forces as they act with undue violence and exploitation toward minority populations. But the communitarian moralities he thinks can overcome capitalism also has the potential to build progress here. More material for that sequel.
Image by All-Nite Images via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

As a work of philosophy, of political economy, of institutional analysis, Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity has only one shortcoming. It makes for a tantalizing setup for his next work, and gives a reader the distinct impression that we are in store for a stunning sequel. Its title would be something like The Nature of Prosperity, or Remaking Prosperity. To the detriment of the actually existing book, reading The Quest for Prosperity makes you want desperately to read Remaking Prosperity, which unfortunately does not exist.

The Quest for Prosperity itself is a brilliant book, synthesizing many different concepts and images from several disciplines and traditions in the history of Western thought. It is a thoroughly researched and beautifully composed groundwork for a groundbreaking new philosophical approach to political economy.

The book drags a little in part three, which catalogues several hilariously inadequate new visions of prosperity that are unfortunately popular today. It would be news to someone who has only heard the hype of Silicon Valley and other ideologies similarly twisted to make working people desire their own slavery. But the average Washington Post, Manchester Guardian, or even Bloomberg News reader or fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley should already understand the toxic lifestyle PR of these moneyed industries.

As for that groundwork for the groundbreaking, the final two chapters offer a tantalizing glimpse of a work that explores the existence and revolutionary potential of the communitarian values underlying several disparate existing institutions. Unfortunately, it remains only a glimpse.

Economies of Scale

Sassower’s book revolves around an important ethical critique of contemporary capitalism and the culture of business and entrepreneurship that has grown so popular this century. In uncritically capitalist ways of thinking, there is only one set of terms in which people, social networks, technology, building and city architecture, institutions, organizations, ecologies, territories, and ideas are valued: their monetary potential. Such a morality of valuation reduces all that exists, including human identity itself, to a single dimension of ethical worth, and a petty-minded one at that.

The typical narratives to validate and venerate the contemporary economic order often appeal to images and concepts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith is a touchstone for Sassower as well, but he is wise not to linger on the image of the “invisible hand” that haunts the populist imagery of harmony through competition. Sassower instead focusses on how Smith describes the molecular connections of market exchanges – vendors and tradespeople buying and selling from each other in a town marketplace.

In the marketplaces where capitalist exchange begins, the individuals making money from each other are not themselves competitors. Their relationships are collegial friendships among professionals, and Smith describes their interaction as “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” So when a community’s prosperity flows from its markets and commercial exchanges, that prosperity is not a product of competition, but of friendliness. (Sassower 60-61)

In such a social atmosphere, a community of people constitutes itself easily from the everyday interactions of the marketplace, where people develop feelings of love at a low intensity for the neighbours who sustain their lives. Relationships of everyday economic exchange occur at such a personal level that the mutual benefit of such exchange is a straightforward fact, discovered through quotidian observation. They are, as Sassower describes them, “sympathetic neighbours.” (Sassower 90-91)

The rapaciousness and greed typical of contemporary business cultures could not arise from such relationship networks of friendly truck and barter. The network’s members connect by dynamics of mutual sympathy. Such a network would not be able to sustain business practices characterized by the greed and hostility into which many young professionals are socialized in the 21st century’s most intense economic hubs. Greed and cheating would result in your immediate expulsion from the marketplace, having betrayed the friendships of the others in the network.

Such sympathetic neighbourliness could most easily be overcome with an outside disturbance. For our case, that disturbance was the flow of massive economic income to those small marketplaces. This was the income of industrialization and colonialism. Speaking more descriptively, it was the income of exponential energy growth in domestic manufacturing, and a huge influx of many kinds of wealth from distant continents (raw materials, currency metals like gold and silver, agricultural goods, slaves).

These enormous flows of capital are too large for truck and barter, too massive to engage instinctual human sympathy. As the stakes of economic activity grow hugely higher, this depersonalization of economic activity leaves a person adrift in commercial exchange. Unable to form the same intimate connections as in the far less intense marketplace exchange, the alienated, angry approach to business as a zero-sum game. No longer sympathy and friendliness, but fear and aggression characterize the psychology of someone engaging with this sort of economic system in daily life. (Sassower 105)

Art by Shepard Fairey. Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Would a Virtuous Oligarch Be?

In an economic system where capital flows massively overpower the capacity for everyday personal relationship networks to manage them, business life tends to condition people psychologically and morally into sociopaths. This problem of the depersonalized economy remains a wall in The Quest for Prosperity that, on its own terms, is insoluble. On its own terms, it likely is impossible to restore the virtue of sympathy to the psychological tendencies of people growing up in a high-intensity industrial capitalist economy. Sassower therefore forges an alternative image of the economic leader.

If capitalism can only express justice when the mega-rich are generally benevolent, community-minded people who care about their neighbours regardless of wealth, breeding, or class, then Sassower can at least describe how an oligarch could become kind. He identifies one economic principle, the recognition of which begins to transform an oligarch from a greedy sociopath to a personal ethic of rationally-justified sympathy. That principle is demand-centric economics.

This is a simple economic principle, fairly well-known in popular culture. If too many people in a society are in poverty, then the economy will stagnate from cratering demand; too few people will have enough money to spend, even for basic necessities. When a very wealthy person accepts this principle, he consents to submit a healthy portion of his income to taxation so that government services can close these poverty gaps. A business owner who accepts the principle of demand-centric economics will pay the workers in his business more, so that their spending can continue to drive economic development (Sassower 123-124).

Demand-centric thinking in economics has not been a major principle in how government policy on incomes and wealth inequality has developed over the last 40 years. The Reagan-Thatcher era of Western governance took the opposite principle, supply-side or trickle-down economics, as gospel. This is the notion that as the wealthy’s tax burden becomes lower and lower, they will spend more of that money in capital investment, backing new business ventures, and expanding private-sector employment.

Although the policy was widely mocked in popular culture from its first emergence, it has become the foundation of tax policy for all the largest political parties in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and among almost all conservative or centrist parties in Europe. Despite its success as legislature, the material consequences have been disastrous, as supply-side tax policies have decimated social democratic institutions throughout the West, intensifying economic precarity for millions across Europe and the Americas.

Why supply-side economics succeeded in becoming, until recently, uncontested common sense in popular culture and state-level politics is its intuitiveness in particular contexts. If an ordinary person’s annual income rises from $40,000 to $50,000, she will spend more money. The supply-side propagandist then derives a universal principle: If you have more money, you will spend more money. With that generality in hand, a principle that applies at middle-class incomes will be taken to hold at oligarchical incomes.

This is, of course, false, for three reasons that Sassower describes. One, personal consumption cannot proceed at an intensity of millions or billions of dollars each year. Two, most of that massive personal income never returns to their domestic economies anyway, and is instead burrowed in tax havens. Three, the capital investment industry no longer focusses on supplying startup funding for businesses. (Sassower 116)

Instead, global finance investment concentrates on the day-to-day trading of stocks in already existing companies, securities bundles, and speculation on the future value of stocks, securities, and currencies. High-frequency trading is a blatant sign that these investments are not for reinvestment into the productive economy. In this practice, a firm’s single algorithm will make millions of trades each day, based on its analyses of minute-to-minute market fluctuations. (Sassower 117)

Turning these massive fortunes away from the communities of non-rich people in their surroundings and around the world is a subtle but harrowing moral failure, considering the many hundreds of billions of dollars are wrapped entirely in these trading concerns.

A Fantastic Book That Falls Short of Its Potential

An economy of oligarchial inequality produces an elite for whom the purpose of living is cartoonishly grotesque personal self-enrichment. Such an economy as the one we live in today on Earth also deranges those who have virtually no wealth at all compared to these titans of mass ownership and securities gambling.

Anxiety over a precarious life of low pay and debt maintenance consumes all personal energy to help others. That anxiety encourages hatred of others as desperation and stress pervert any reflective capacity for long-term judgment into a paranoid social reflexivity. Reduced to egotistic, short-term thinking and habituated into distrust and hostility toward others, the poor become easy prey for financial fraud. The payday loan industry is built on this principle. Poverty does not breed virtue, but fear and rage.

This ties to what I think is the only notable flaw in The Quest for Prosperity. Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised. How he does so reveals the far more profound shortcoming of Sassower’s book.

Sassower is admirable and innovative in his call to regenerate communitarian philosophy as a politically engaged popular intervention. His method is a philosophical examination of how four quite disparate civic institutions express effective communitarian ethics in their habitual structure and behavioural norms. The Catholic and some other Christian Churches socialize its dedicated members as “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), whose primary economic concern is safeguarding people from the indignity of poverty. (Sassower 242-247)

The Israeli kibbutz movement governs distribution of goods and the financial results of their community’s work literally according to Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Countercultural communes in North America operated according to similar rules of management as kibbutzim, but with quite different moral orientation. Kibbutz political philosophy is a secularized agrarian marxism organized around a utopian purpose of building a communal Zion where all oppressed people of the world can live in a Jewish homeland.

American counterculture communes sought to create a living alternative to the immanent political problem of rapacious capitalism’s continuation of genocidal imperialism. Sassower also offers a phenomenological exploration of how military training builds strong interpersonal bonds of solidarity, a communitarianism among soldiers.

All these templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for Sassower’s project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education and socialization. Contrary to how Sassower speaks of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

The Impotence of Civil Rights

You may consider it a bit excessive that a book review would include a brief argument that civic institutions are not on their own adequate to ensure and maintain the freedom and dignity of the people who live in their domain. Nonetheless, Sassower wrote The Quest for Prosperity with an ambition of a similar scope, critiquing fundamental concepts of contemporary ideology and economic morality as part of an argument for communitarian alternatives. So I will maintain my own intensity of ambition with his.

There are two reasons why civic institutions alone, while needed, are not sufficient to overcome with communitarian values the ambitions of people to become oligarchs. Each of the two reasons is a different philosophical approach to the same empirical fact about human social capacities and institutions.

I first want to mention a logical reason. This is the simple fact that, conceptually speaking, law is not itself a material power. There is nothing about the law, as law, that compels your conformity to itself. There may be a moral motive to obey the law, whether that moral reason is a universal imperative or the injunction of social pressure. There may be a coercive motive to obey the law, as when you are under threat of police violence such as arrest, imprisonment, torture, or summary execution. Most often, people obey the law for practical reasons, as when a government’s legislation and regulations structure institutions we need to manage our techno-industrial society. But law alone is not justice, and so compels no obedience.

Law having no power to compel obedience, the existence of laws prohibiting violence against human rights does nothing to prevent such violence. If recognition of the law were all that was needed for obedience, then laws would never be violated. Only some material power, existing in addition to those laws, can ensure their application in managing the actions of a population.

The ultimate material power in the application of the law are state institutions, and any related institutions they support. Raising money through taxation, investment in industrial developments, and central bank mechanisms, states fund law enforcement institutions like courts, rehabilitation centres, prosecutors, and police. But even in institutions whose laws promise equal and fair treatment, individuals operating within those institutions can still use material power to give themselves unfair advantage over the less powerful.

Consider a civil suit whose defendant must make do with the cheapest legal representation in Albuquerque, but whose plaintiff walks into court with Alan Dershowitz at his side. Consider also the many instances where the power of institutions and institutionally-reinforced morality of solidarity encourages police abuse of citizens.

An individual officer may coerce sex from women under threat of arrest, or shoot a civilian with little or no cause; fellow officers or police unions will cover for him. An entire police department will prey on citizens as a matter of policy, as in many cities in the United States whose municipal police departments require a minimum (and growing) number of misdemeanor and bylaw violation fines for budgetary purposes. One of those such cities, incidentally, is Ferguson, Missouri.

The Impossibility of Prosperity?

I give these illustrations to emphasize the ethical importance of the fundamental purpose driving The Quest for Prosperity. Most of the book is taken up by Sassower’s clear and insightful argument for why contemporary capitalism is a moral and ethical disaster. The Quest for Prosperity is a stellar addition to this tradition of critical thought that has accompanied industrial development since its beginning.

Sassower takes a more noble stand than a critique, however, in proposing an alternative to capitalist practice for the domain most essential to resisting and overcoming industrial and economic injustice: public morality and personal ethics. His analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.

My illustrations – deep pockets undermining a court’s fairness, police predation and corruption – describe real injustices rooted in the greed and hatred facilitated through capitalism and the racism that turns the exploited against each other. They are here to remind thinkers who are likewise against such injustice of the urgency of our challenges.

Sassower has offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions.

Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Author Information: Paul R. Smart, University of Southampton, ps02v@ecs.soton.ac.uk

Smart, Paul R. “(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 45-55.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Uq

Please refer to:

Image by BTC Keychain via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Richard Heersmink’s (2018) article, A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education, provides an important and timely analysis of the Internet from the standpoint of virtue epistemology.[1] According to Richard, the Internet is an important epistemic resource, but it is one that comes with a range of epistemic hazards. Such hazards, he suggests, motivate a consideration of the ways in which individuals should interact with the Internet.

In particular, Richard appeals to a specific branch of virtue epistemology, known as virtue responsibilism, arguing that certain kinds of cognitive trait (e.g., curiosity and open-mindedness) are useful in helping us press maximal epistemic benefit from the Internet. Given the utility of such traits, coupled with the epistemic importance of the Internet, Richard suggests that educational policy should be adapted so as to equip would-be knowers with the cognitive wherewithal to cope with the epistemic challenges thrown up by the online environment.

There is, no doubt, something right about all this. Few would disagree with the claim that a certain level of discernment and discrimination is important when it comes to the evaluation of online content. Whether such ‘virtues’ are best understood from the perspective of virtue responsibilism or virtue reliabilism is, I think, a moot point, for I suspect that in the case of both virtue responsibilism and virtue reliabilism what matters is the way in which belief-forming informational circuits are subject to active configuration by processes that may be broadly construed as metacognitive in nature (Smart, in pressa). That, however, is a minor quibble, and it is one that is of little consequence to the issues raised in Richard’s paper.

For the most part, then, I find myself in agreement with many of the assumptions that motivate the target article. I agree that the Internet is an important epistemic resource that is unprecedented in terms of its scale, scope, and accessibility. I also agree that, at the present time, the Internet is far from an epistemically safe environment, and this raises issues regarding the epistemic standing of individual Internet users. In particular, it looks unlikely that the indiscriminate selection and endorsement of online information will do much to bolster one’s epistemic credentials.

We thus encounter something of a dilemma: As an epistemic resource, the Internet stands poised to elevate our epistemic standing, but as an open and public space the Internet provides ample opportunities for our doxastic systems to be led astray. The result is that we are obliged to divide the online informational cornucopia into a treasure trove of genuine facts and a ragbag collection of ‘false facts’ and ‘fake news.’ The information superhighway, it seems, promises to expand our epistemic power and potential, but the road ahead is one that is fraught with a dizzying array of epistemic perils, problems, and pitfalls. What ought we to do in response to such a situation?

It is at this point that I suspect my own views start to diverge with those of the target article. Richard’s response to the dilemma is to focus attention on the individual agent and consider the ways in which an agent’s cognitive character can be adapted to meet the challenges of the Internet. My own approach is somewhat different. It is borne out of three kinds of doubt: doubts about the feasibility (although not the value) of virtue-oriented educational policies, doubts about the basic validity of virtue theoretic conceptions of knowledge, and doubts about whether the aforementioned dilemma is best resolved by attempting to change the agent as opposed to the environment in which the agent is embedded. As always, space is limited and life is short, so I will restrict my discussion to issues that I deem to be of greatest interest to the epistemological community.

Reliable Technology

Inasmuch as intellectual virtues are required for online knowledge—i.e., knowledge that we possess as a result of our interactions and engagements with the Internet—they are surely only part of a much  broader (and richer) story that includes details about the environment in which our cognitive systems operate. In judging the role of intellectual virtue in shielding us from the epistemic hazards of the online environment, it therefore seems important to have some understanding of the actual technologies we interact with.

This is important because it helps us understand the kinds of intellectual virtue that might be required, as well as the efficacy of specific intellectual virtues in helping us believe the truth (and thus working as virtues in the first place). Internet technologies are, of course, many and varied, and it will not be possible to assess their general relevance to epistemological debates in the present commentary. For the sake of brevity, I will therefore restrict my attention to one particular technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is perhaps best known for its role in supporting the digital cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. It provides us with a means of storing data in a secure fashion, using a combination of data encryption and data linking techniques. For present purposes, we can think of a blockchain as a connected set of data records (or data blocks), each of which contains some body of encrypted data. In the case of Bitcoin, of course, the data blocks contain data of a particular kind, namely, data pertaining to financial transactions. But this is not the only kind of data that can be stored in a blockchain. In fact, blockchains can be used to store information about pretty much anything. This includes online voting records, news reports, sensor readings, personal health records, and so on.

Once data is recorded inside a blockchain, it is very difficult to modify. In essence, the data stored within a blockchain is immutable, in the sense that it cannot be changed without ‘breaking the chain’ of data blocks, and thereby invalidating the data contained within the blockchain. This property makes blockchains of considerable epistemic significance, because it speaks to some of the issues (e.g., concerns about data tampering and malign forms of information manipulation) that are likely to animate epistemological debates in this area.

This does not mean, of course, that the information stored within a blockchain is guaranteed to be factually correct, in the sense of being true and thus yielding improvements in epistemic standing. Nevertheless, there are, I think, reasons to regard blockchain as an important technology relative to efforts to make the online environment a somewhat safer place for would-be knowers. Consider, for example, the title of the present article. Suppose that we wanted to record the fact that a person known as Paul Smart—that’s me—wrote an article with the title:

(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

We can incorporate this particular piece of information into a blockchain using something called a cryptographic hash function, which yields a unique identifier for the block and all of its contents. In the case of the aforementioned title, the cryptographic hash (as returned by the SHA256 algorithm[2]) is:

7147bd321e79a63041d9b00a937954976236289ee4de6f8c97533fb6083a8532

Now suppose that someone wants to alter the title, perhaps to garner support for an alternative argumentative position. In particular, let’s suppose they want to claim that the title of the article is:

Fake News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

From an orthographic perspective, of course, not much has changed. But the subtlety of the alteration is not something that can be used to cause confusion about the actual wording of the original title—the title that I intended for the present article. (Neither can it be used to cast doubt about the provenance of the paper—the fact that the author of the paper was a person called Paul Smart.) To see this, note that the hash generated for the ‘fake’ title looks nothing like the original:

cc05baf2fa7a439674916fe56611eaacc55d31f25aa6458b255f8290a831ddc4

It is this property that, at least in part, makes blockchains useful for recording information that might otherwise be prone to epistemically malign forms of information manipulation. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that climatological data, as recorded by globally distributed sensors, was stored in a blockchain. The immutability of such data makes it extremely difficult for anyone to manipulate the data in such a way as to confirm or deny the reality of year-on-year changes in global temperature. Neither is it easy to alter information pertaining to the provenance of existing data records, i.e., information about when, where, and how such data was generated.

None of this should delude us into thinking that blockchain technology is a panacea for Internet-related epistemic problems—it isn’t! Neither does blockchain obviate the need for agents to exercise at least some degree of intellectual virtue when it comes to the selection and evaluation of competing data streams. Nevertheless, there is, I think, something that is of crucial epistemological interest and relevance here—something that makes blockchain and other cybersecurity technologies deserving of further epistemological attention. In particular, such technologies may be seen as enhancing the epistemic safety of the online environment, and thus perhaps reducing the need for intellectual virtue.

In this sense, the epistemological analysis of Internet technologies may be best approached from some variant of modal epistemology—e.g., epistemological approaches that emphasize the modal stability of true beliefs across close possible worlds (Pritchard, 2009, chap. 2). But even if we choose to countenance an approach that appeals to issues of intellectual virtue, there is still, I suggest, a need to broaden the analytic net to include technologies that (for the time being at least) lie beyond the bounds of the individual cognitive agent.

Safety in Numbers

“From an epistemic perspective,” Richard writes, “the most salient dimension of the Internet is that it is an information space” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 5). Somewhat surprisingly, I disagree. Although it is obviously true that the Internet is an information space, it is not clear that this is its most salient feature, at least from an epistemological standpoint. In particular, there is, I suggest, a sense in which the Internet is more than just an information space. As is clear from the explosive growth in all things social—social media, social networks, social bots, and so on—the Internet functions as a social technology, yielding all manner of opportunities for people to create, share and process information in a collaborative fashion. The result, I suggest, is that we should not simply think of the Internet as an information space (although it is surely that), we should also view it as a social space.

Viewing the Internet as a social space is important because it changes the way we think about the epistemic impact of the Internet, relative to the discovery, production, representation, acquisition, processing and utilization of knowledge. Smart (in pressb), for example, suggests that some online systems function as knowledge machines, which are systems in which some form of knowledge-relevant processing is realized by a socio-technical mechanism, i.e., a mechanism whose component elements are drawn from either the social (human) or the technological realm.

An interesting feature of many of these systems is the way in which the reliability (or truth-conducive) nature of the realized process is rooted in the socio-technical nature of the underlying (realizing) mechanism. When it comes to human computation or citizen science systems, for example, user contributions are typically solicited from multiple independent users as a means of improving the reliability of specific epistemic outputs (Smart, in pressb; Smart and Shadbolt, in press; Watson and Floridi, 2018). Such insights highlight the socially-distributed character of at least some forms of online knowledge production, thereby moving us beyond the realms of individual, agent-centric analyses.

On a not altogether unrelated note, it is important to appreciate the way in which social participation can itself be used to safeguard online systems from various forms of malign intervention. One example is provided by the Google PageRank algorithm. In this case, any attempt to ‘artificially’ elevate the ranking assigned to specific contributions (e.g., a user’s website) is offset by the globally-distributed nature of the linking effort, coupled with the fact that links to a specific resource are themselves weighted by the ranking of the resource from which the link originates. This makes it difficult for any single agent to subvert the operation of the PageRank algorithm.

Even ostensibly non-social technologies can be seen to rely on the distributed and decentralized nature of the Internet. In the case of blockchain, for example, multiple elements of a peer-to-peer network participate in the computational processes that make blockchain work. In this way, the integrity of the larger system is founded on the collaborative efforts of an array of otherwise independent computational elements. And it is this that (perhaps) allows us to think of blockchain’s epistemically-desirable features as being rooted in something of a ‘social’ substrate.

All of this, I suggest, speaks in favor of an approach that moves beyond a preoccupation with the properties of individual Internet users. In particular, there seems to be considerable merit in approaching the Internet from a more socially-oriented epistemological perspective. It is easy to see the social aspects of the Internet as lying at the root of a panoply of epistemic concerns, especially when it comes to the opportunities for misinformation, deception, and manipulation. But in light of the above discussion, perhaps an alternative, more positive, take on the Internet (qua social space) starts to come into sharper focus. This is a view that highlights the way in which certain kinds of online system can work to transform a ‘vice’ into a ‘virtue,’ exploiting the social properties of the Internet for the purposes of dealing with reliability-related concerns.

Image by Dariorug via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Filter Bubblicious

Search engines form one of the focal points of Richard’s analysis, and, as with previous work in this area, Richard finds at least some aspects of their operation to be highly problematic. A particular issue surfaces in respect of personalized search. Here, Richard’s analysis echoes the sentiments expressed by other epistemologists who regard personalized search algorithms as of dubious epistemic value.

In fact, I suspect the consensus that has emerged in this area fails to tell the whole story about the epistemic consequences of personalized search. Indeed, from a virtue epistemological position, I worry that epistemologists are in danger of failing to heed their own advice—prematurely converging on a particular view without proper consideration of competing positions. In my new-found role as the virtue epistemologist’s guardian angel (or should that be devil’s advocate?), I will attempt to highlight a couple of reasons why I think more empirical research is required before we can say anything useful about the epistemological impact of personalized search algorithms.

My first worry is that our understanding about the extent to which search results and subsequent user behavior is affected by personalization is surprisingly poor. Consider, for example, the results of one study, which attempted to quantify the effect of personalization on search results (Hannak et al., 2013). Using an empirical approach, Hannak et al. (2013) report a demonstrable personalization effect, with 11.7% of search results exhibiting differences due to personalization. Interestingly, however, the effect of personalization appeared to be greater for search results with lower rankings; highly ranked results (i.e., those appearing at the top of a list of search results) appeared to be much less affected by personalization.

This result is interesting given the observation that college students “prefer to click on links in higher positions even when the abstracts are less relevant to the task at hand” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 6). From one perspective, of course, this tendency looks like a vice that jeopardizes the epistemic standing of the individual user. And yet, from another perspective, it looks like the preference for higher ranked search results is poised to negate (or at least reduce) the negative epistemological effects of personalized search. What we seem to have here, in essence, is a situation in which one kind of ‘intellectual vice’ (i.e., a tendency to select highly-ranked search results) is playing something of a more positive (virtuous?) role in mitigating the negative epistemological sequelae of a seemingly vicious technology (i.e., personalized search).

None of this means that the epistemic effects of personalized search are to the overall benefit of individual users; nevertheless, the aforementioned results do call for a more nuanced and empirically informed approach when considering the veritistic value of search engines, as well as other kinds of Internet-related technology.

A second worry relates to the scope of the epistemological analysis upon which judgements about the veritistic value of search engines are based. In this case, it is unclear whether analyses that focus their attention on individual agents are best placed to reveal the full gamut of epistemic costs and benefits associated with a particular technology, especially one that operates in the socio-technical ecology of the Internet. To help us understand this worry in a little more detail, it will be useful to introduce the notion of mandevillian intelligence (Smart, in pressc; Smart, in pressd).

Mandevillian intelligence is a specific form of collective intelligence in which the cognitive shortcomings and epistemic vices of the individual agent are seen to yield cognitive benefits and epistemic virtues at the collective or social level of analysis, e.g., at the level of collective doxastic agents (see Palermos, 2015) or socio-epistemic systems (see Goldman, 2011). According to this idea, personalized search systems may play a productive role in serving the collective cognitive good, providing a means by which individual vices (e.g., a tendency for confirmation bias) are translated into something that more closely resembles an epistemic virtue (e.g., greater cognitive coverage of a complex space of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and so on). Consider, for example, the way in which personalized search may help to focus individual attention on particular bodies of information, thereby restricting access to a larger space of ideas, opinions, and other information.

While such forms of ‘restricted access’ or ‘selective information exposure’ are unlikely to yield much in the way of an epistemic benefit for the individual agent, it is possible that by exploiting (and, indeed, accentuating!) an existing cognitive bias (e.g., confirmation bias), personalized search may work to promote cognitive diversity, helping to prevent precipitant forms of cognitive convergence (see Zollman, 2010) and assisting with the epistemically optimal division of cognitive labor (see Muldoon, 2013). This possibility reveals something of a tension in how we interpret or evaluate the veritistic value of a particular technology or epistemic practice. In particular, it seems that assessments of veritistic value may vary according to whether our epistemological gaze is directed towards individual epistemic agents or the collective ensembles in which those agents are situated.

The Necessity of Virtue

As Richard notes, virtue epistemology is characterized by a shift in emphasis, away from the traditional targets of epistemological analysis (e.g., truth, justification and belief) and towards the cognitive properties of would-be knowers. “Virtue epistemology,” Richard writes, “is less concerned with the nature of truth and more concerned with the cognitive character of agents” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 2). This is, no doubt, a refreshing change, relative to the intellectual orientation of traditional philosophical debates.

Nevertheless, I assume that virtue epistemologists still recognize the value and priority of truth when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation. Someone who holds false beliefs is not the possessor of knowledge, and this remains the case irrespective of whatever vices and virtues the agent has. In other words, it does not matter how careful, attentive and assiduous an agent is in selecting and evaluating information, if what the agent believes is false, they simply do not know.

What seems to be important in the case of virtue epistemology is the role that intellectual virtue plays in securing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. In particular, the central feature of virtue epistemology (at least to my mind) is that the truth of an agent’s beliefs stem from the exercise of intellectual virtue. It is thus not the case that truth is unimportant (or less important) when it comes to issues of positive epistemic standing; rather, it is the role that intellectual virtue plays in establishing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. An agent is thus a bona fide knower when they believe the truth and the truth in question is attributable to some aspect of their cognitive character, specifically, a cognitive trait (virtue responsibilism) or cognitive faculty (virtue reliabilism).

What then makes something a vice or virtue seems to be tied to the reliability of token instantiations of processes that are consistent with an agent’s cognitive character. Intellectual virtues are thus “cognitive character traits that are truth-conducive and minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3), while intellectual vices are characterized as “cognitive character traits that are not truth-conducive and do not minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3). It is this feature of the intellectual virtues—the fact that they are, in general, reliable (or give rise to reliable belief-relevant processes)—that looks to be important when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation.

So this is what I find problematic about virtue theoretic approaches to knowledge. (Note that I am not an epistemologist by training, so this will require a generous—and hopefully virtue-inspiring swig—of the ole intellectual courage.) Imagine a state-of-affairs in which the Internet was (contrary to the present state-of-affairs) a perfectly safe environment—one where the factive status of online information was guaranteed as a result of advances in cyber-security techniques and intelligent fact-checking services. Next, let us imagine that we have two individuals, Paul and Sophia, who differ with respect to their cognitive character. Paul is the least virtuous of the two, unreflectively and automatically accepting whatever the Internet tells him. Sophia is more circumspect, wary of being led astray by (the now non-existent) fake news.

Inasmuch as we see the exercise of intellectual virtue as necessary for online knowledge, it looks unlikely that poor old Paul can be said to know very much. This is because the truth of Paul’s beliefs are not the result of anything that warrants the label ‘intellectual virtue.’ Paul, of course, does have a lot of true beliefs, but the truth of these beliefs does not stem from the exercise of his intellectual virtues—if, indeed, he has any. In fact, inasmuch as there is any evidence of virtue in play here, it is probably best attributed to the technologies that work to ensure the safety of the online environment. The factive status of Paul’s beliefs thus has more to do with the reliability of the Internet than it does with the elements of his cognitive character.

But is it correct to say that Paul has no online knowledge in this situation? Personally, I do not have this intuition. In other words, in a perfectly safe environment, I can see no reason why we should restrict knowledge attributions to agents whose beliefs are true specifically as the result of intellectual virtue. My sense is that even the most unreflective of agents could be credited with knowledge in a situation where there was no possibility of them being wrong. And if that is indeed the case, then why insist that it is only the exercise of intellectual virtue that underwrites positive epistemic standing?

After all, it seems perfectly possible, to my mind, that Sophia’s epistemic caution contributes no more to the minimization of error in an epistemically benign (i.e., safe) environment than does Paul’s uncritical acceptance. (In fact, given the relative efficiency of their doxastic systems, it may very well be the case that Sophia ends up with fewer true beliefs than Paul.) It might be claimed that this case is invalidated by a failure to consider the modal stability of an agent’s beliefs relative to close possible worlds, as well as perhaps their sensitivity to counterfactual error possibilities. But given the way in which the case is characterized, I suggest that there are no close possible worlds that should worry us—the cybersecurity and fact checking technologies are, let us assume, sufficiently robust as to ensure the modal distance of those worrisome worlds.

One implication of all this is to raise doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue, relative to our conceptual understanding of knowledge. If there are cases where intellectual virtue is not required for positive epistemic standing, then intellectual virtue cannot be a necessary condition for knowledge attribution. And if that is the case, then why should intellectual virtue form the basis of an approach that is intended to deal with the epistemic shortcomings of the (contemporary) Internet?

Part of the attraction of virtue epistemology, I suspect, is the way in which a suite of generally reliable processes are inextricably linked to the agent who is the ultimate target of epistemic evaluation. This linkage, which is established via the appeal to cognitive character, helps to ensure the portability of an agent’s truth-tracking capabilities—it helps to ensure, in other words, that wherever the agent goes their reliable truth-tracking capabilities are sure to follow.

However, in an era where our doxastic systems are more-or-less constantly plugged into a reliable and epistemically safe environment, it is not so clear that agential capabilities are relevant to epistemic standing. This, I suggest, raises doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue in securing positive epistemic status, and it also (although this is perhaps less clear) encourages us to focus our attention on some of the engineering efforts (as opposed to agent-oriented educational programs) that might be required to make the online world an epistemically safer place.

Conclusion

What, then, should we make of the appeal to virtue epistemology in our attempt to deal with the  epistemic hazards of the Internet. My main concern is that the appeal to virtue epistemology (and the emphasis placed on intellectual virtue) risks an unproductive focus on individual human agents at the expense of both the technological and social features of the online world. This certainly does not rule out the relevance of virtue theoretic approaches as part of our attempt to understand the epistemic significance of the Internet, but other approaches (e.g., modal reliabilism, process reliabilism, distributed reliabilism, and systems-oriented social epistemology) also look to be important.

Personally, I remain agnostic with regard to the relevance of different epistemological approaches, although I worry about the extent to which virtue epistemology is best placed to inform policy-related decisions (e.g., those relating to education). In particular, I fear that by focusing our attention on individual agents and issues of intellectual virtue, we risk overlooking some of the socio-epistemic benefits of the Internet, denigrating a particular technology (e.g., personalized search) on account of its failure to enhance individual knowledge, while ignoring the way a technology contributes to more collective forms of epistemic success.

In concluding his thought-provoking paper on virtue epistemology and the Internet, Richard suggests that “there is an important role for educators to teach and assess [intellectual] virtues as part of formal school and university curricula, perhaps as part of critical thinking courses” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 10). I have said relatively little about this particular issue in the present paper. For what it’s worth, however, I can see no reason to object to the general idea of Internet-oriented educational policies. The only caveat, perhaps, concerns the relative emphasis that might be placed on the instillation of intellectual virtue as opposed to the inculcation of technical skills, especially those that enable future generations to make the online world a safer place.

No doubt there is room for both kinds of pedagogical program (assuming they can even be dissociated). At the very least, it seems to me that the effort to resolve a problem (i.e., engineer a safer Internet) is just as important as the effort to merely cope with it (i.e., acquire a virtuous cognitive character). But, in any case, when it comes to education and learning, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Internet is itself something that is used for educational purposes. Perhaps, then, the more important point about education and the Internet is not so much the precise details of what gets taught, so much as the issue of whether the Internet (with all its epistemic foibles) is really the best place to learn.

Contact details: ps02v@ecs.soton.ac.uk

References

Goldman, A. I. (2011). A guide to social epistemology. In A. I. Goldman and D. Whitcomb (Eds.), Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, pp. 11–37. New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Hannak, A., P. Sapiezynski, A. Molavi Kakhki, B. Krishnamurthy, D. Lazer, A. Mislove, and C. Wilson (2013). Measuring personalization of Web search. In D. Schwabe, V. Almeida, H. Glaser, R. Baeza-Yates, and S. Moon (Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference  on World Wide Web, Rio  de Janeiro, Brazil, pp. 527–538. ACM.

Heersmink, R. (2018). A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education. Social Epistemology 32 (1), 1–12.

Muldoon, R. (2013). Diversity and the division of cognitive labor. Philosophy Compass 8 (2), 117–125.

Palermos, S. O. (2015). Active externalism, virtue reliabilism and scientific knowledge. Synthese 192 (9), 2955–2986.

Pritchard, D. (2009). Knowledge. Basingstoke, England, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smart, P. R. (in pressa). Emerging digital technologies: Implications for extended conceptions of cognition and knowledge. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. (in pressb). Knowledge machines. The Knowledge Engineering Review.

Smart, P. R. (in pressc). Mandevillian intelligence. Synthese.

Smart, P. R. (in pressd). Mandevillian intelligence: From individual vice to collective virtue. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Socially Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. and N. R. Shadbolt (in press). The World Wide Web. In J. Chase and D. Coady (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology. New York, New York, USA: Routledge.

Watson, D. and L. Floridi (2018). Crowdsourced science: Sociotechnical epistemology in the e-research paradigm. Synthese 195 (2), 741–764.

Zollman, K. J. S. (2010). The epistemic benefit of transient diversity. Erkenntnis 72 (1), 17–35.

[1] This work is supported under SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines. The SOCIAM Project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant number EP/J017728/1 and comprises the Universities of Southampton, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[2] See http://www.xorbin.com/tools/sha256-hash-calculator [accessed: 30th  January 2018].

Author Information: Gregory Lobo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, globo@uniandes.edu.co

Lobo, Gregory J. “Back to Basics: Straw Men, Status Functions, and Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 6-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Qk

Please refer to:

Image by United To End Genocide, via Flickr

 

“They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid,” said Mr. Saifullah. “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.”[1]

While Mr. Saifullah, quite tragically, gets it, Professor Corlett, sadly, does not. This brief essay is an attempt to help Professor Corlett “get it,” to understand why status functions are important for understanding human rights. Along the way some basic misunderstandings regarding the substance and purpose of John Searle’s reflections on how his social ontology might shed light on discussions of human rights will be clarified. These misunderstandings are evident in Corlett (2016),[2] henceforth simply 2016, and were initially addressed in a scant seven pages by Lobo (2017),[3] henceforth Lobo.[4] In reaction to Lobo’s seven pages, Professor Corlett produced a 22 page response,[5] henceforth 2017, rejecting Lobo’s clarifications and reaffirming his original conclusions as found in 2016.

In the first part of what follows, Corlett’s principal objection to Searle’s thinking will be re-presented. As in Lobo, it will be shown once more that the objection is unfounded, by comparing relevant textual citations from 2016 and 2017 with textual citations from Searle (2010)[6] and Searle (2011).[7] In the second part, the purpose of Searle’s intervention into the field of human rights thinking will be clarified. This will reveal that Corlett’s objections — even if they were not baseless — are in any event not germane.

Finally, what is claimed in Lobo to be Searle’s major contribution to human rights thinking, based on the concept of the status function, will be discussed. In 2017 Corlett mishandled (that is, treated without due care) Lobo’s representation (paraphrase) of what he, Lobo, understands to be Searle’s major contribution to the discussion.[8] It is possible that it is this error by Corlett that led to him dismissing said contribution in 2017 as entirely unoriginal. The discussion will clarify both the substance of Searle’s actual contribution and its originality.

Errors and Corrections

Fundamentally, Corlett errs in his characterization of Searle’s thinking on human rights. Among his initial errors is this: “Searle’s conception of human rights is purely institutional, e.g. he believes that such rights are products only of social construction.”[9] Corlett’s related but more principal concern would seem to be that Searle’s thinking on human rights “is not completely justified”[10] because Searle does not address the issue of what Corlett refers to as the “essential moral properties” of such rights. The best explication to found in Corlett of what this might mean is this: a human right “finds at least part of its grounding in morality.”[11] It is appropriate to ask, what is meant by morality? “By ‘morality,’ it is meant that such rights have moral foundations in an objective sense.”[12]

If the reader is less that satisfied with this tautology, so be it: Corlett offers nothing further. Of more concern, perhaps, is that based on Corlett (2016 and 2017) everything indicates that the guarantor of objectivity, and thus morality (and of the objectivity of objectivity and the morality of morality), would seem to be none other than the “tradition” or the “leading philosophers of human rights.” This, of course, should not worry the reader in any way at all. It is important to point out that Corlett re-words this moral concern of his towards the conclusion of 2016, criticizing Searle’s thinking, both in general and on human rights specifically, for lacking what he refers to as a “morally normative” component or element,[13] for which a non-tautological explication is never offered.

Now, to support this characterization of Searle’s thinking, Corlett quotes from Searle (2011), an article in which Searle is replying to some of the critics of his 2010 work. Having characterized Searle’s conception of human rights as “purely institutional” and “social construction[ist],” and complained that Searle’s thinking “does not even address” questions of morality in relation to human rights, Corlett seeks to give credence to this characterization by quoting Searle, thusly: “‘[o]n my [Searle is using the first person] account all rights are status functions and thus human creations. We do not discover human rights in nature as we discover human chromosomes. But if human rights are created by human beings, then what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?’ (Searle 2011, pp. 139–140).”[14]

Here it is relevant to ask, if Corlett is going to quote Searle asking what rationally compelling justification can be given for the creation of universal human rights, why does Corlett not let Searle answer? For Searle does answer the question Corlett quotes. But Corlett passes over Searle’s answer, as if it does not exist.

Instead of allowing Searle his answer (quoting it), Corlett immediately interjects a non sequitur: “In Searle’s terms, then, human rights are epistemically subjective rather than objective.”[15] Now, this is a non sequitur insofar as it has nothing to do with the question Searle poses; however, it is anything but a non sequitur for Corlett’s purposes. For by interjecting so, Corlett is clearly seeking to hang Searle on what Corlett sees as the problematic inferences one can make when reading Searle’s question in the absence of an answer.

Corlett, it appears, seems to want the reader to imagine that Searle is posing a rhetorical question, out of exasperation, to which everyone already knows the answer. Through his presentation of Searle’s question, absent Searle’s answer, it looks like Corlett is suggesting that in asking the question, “what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?”, Searle is implying that we really can’t give a rationally compelling justification for them at all. This would mean that we are left only with institutions and social construction — or what Corlett sums up as the “epistemically subjective”.

But Corlett is being dishonest.[16] For Searle does answer; his question is not born of exasperation, and it is certainly not rhetorical.[17] And his answer, as much as his question — which is about universal human rights and their justification — shows that Searle seeks, in fact, to ground human rights in moral foundations, even as he continues to understand human rights, indeed all rights, as the result of human creativity.

The Meaning of the Question

Still, before turning to Searle’s answer, it is worth considering further the implications of Searle’s question, especially with respect to Corlett’s accusation that Searle’s thinking lacks considerations of the morally normative. Searle asks about legitimacy in the creation of universal human rights. But for a right to be universal it would have to be, ipso facto, normative, morally so, ethically so, and it would have to be so normative for everyone — for it is universal. In other words, a universal human right is, by definition, always already morally normative, and Corlett’s principal complaint against Searle’s thinking, that it lacks consideration of the morally normative because it is purely institutional, collapses.

That being the case, it is still worth pondering the implications of Searle’s answer to the question he poses. Recall that Searle is asking after a rationally compelling justification for the creation of universal human rights. He immediately responds: “I offer a justification, but if I am right it limits the scope of human rights.”[18] How could this be so; how could his thinking contemplate limits (which again, suggests normativity)? For on Corlett’s reading, Searle’s “purely institutional”, “social construction[ist]” understanding of human rights amounts to a “madness” which does nothing less than pave the way to outrages like white supremacy and slave ownership.[19] On Corlett’s reading, Searle’s thinking allows any old anybody to dream up any whimsy that strikes their fancy and call it a human right. In 2016 Corlett, as is being evidenced, understands Searle poorly and thus his reading is completely wrong (not only plausibly wrong but, to repeat, completely wrong); but in 2017, after Lobo, Corlett still manages to somehow remain refractory to evidence that annuls his thesis.

Here is, finally, how Searle answers the question he posed: “A right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature, a set of values about human beings, and can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it.”[20] In insisting that the rights in question have to be rationally imposable on all, Searle is insisting on something that is equivalent to an insistence on moral normativity and universality. Corlett missed these words. One could argue that he had to miss them, for they incontrovertibly refute all elements of his thesis. Or it could be allowed, charitably, that in 2016 he missed these words due to the pressures of working to deadline, and the employment of the quite fallible strategy of selective reading, which has claimed many more and much greater heads than his.

What is perhaps quite unforgivable however, is Corlett’s reaction when confronted by these words of Searle in Lobo. In 2017, having had the chance to contemplate both the existence of these words, and the damage they quite clearly do to his thesis, Corlett responds in the following manner: he concedes that this “is the closest published statement by Searle of which I [Corlett] am aware that on the surface appears to align his view of human rights with the conception of human rights as moral ones which I attribute to the contemporary human rights tradition.”[21] But his concern, the reader will recall, is that Searle is a pure institutionalist, a “mad”[22] social constructionist, whose work “lacks an essentially morally normative component.”[23] The quotation, one among many (see Lobo for more), confirms that Corlett’s concerns are groundless. So now the less charitable conclusion must be drawn: Corlett is purposefully ignoring the evidence before his eyes.

How Do You Justify?

Look at his initial response: “on the surface,” he insists, superficially, this quotation seems to successfully indicate that Corlett has misjudged Searle. But only there, on the surface. “However, the statement does not quite succeed in doing so,”[24] Corlett continues, in an attempt to regain his footing. This is to be expected, for the reader will recall, Corlett’s standard is “complete justification.”[25] According to such logic, not quite succeeding amounts to nothing less than unmitigated failure. But in what way is the statement not quite successful? How will Corlett justify his use of the mitigating locution, “on the surface”?

As follows: “according to the conception of human rights which I articulate but do not endorse in Corlett (2016) and herein, being rationally justified by a correct conception of human nature is not a jointly sufficient condition of a human right, though it might be relevant to the issue of human rights possession (i.e., of who qualifies in having a human right).”[26] This “justification” is left without further comment. Corlett seems to think it is meaningful. The reader should decide for herself, but it is here deemed — further commentary notwithstanding — twaddle.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: what Corlett does next in his attempt to annul the overwhelming evidence that he has, as they say, constructed a straw man, a straw Searle, against whom to aim his arrows, is nothing less than extraordinary. He extends his attempt to undercut the pertinence Searle’s wholly unobjectionable observation that a “right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature,” by introducing into argument the following, equally unobjectionable, truism: “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[27] This is extraordinary — in this context — because Searle is careful to make this consideration central to his thinking.

In his discussion of human rights he very clearly says:  “I can at least argue for my conception of what I think is valuable in human life.”[28] In other words, and in the same sense, he can certainly argue (as can Corlett) for what he thinks should be morally normative. But as Searle immediately observes: “such arguments, as is typical in ethics, are not demonstrative, in the sense that any rational [and, it might well be added, reasonable] person is bound to accept them on pain of irrationality [or unreasonableness].”[29] Searle concludes this thought with an idea that should interest Corlett, for it speaks directly to the latter’s concerns: “But from the fact that they [the arguments] have an element of epistemic subjectivity, it does not follow that they are arbitrary or beyond the scope of argument”.[30]

It would seem there is little more to be said on this topic, for anyone who understands, at least roughly, how language works, knows that it is possible to say equivalent things without using identical words. Thus it is no stretch whatsoever to conclude on the basis of what Searle says that he is arguing, explicitly, for moral considerations in the elaboration of human rights. He explicitly rejects the notion that they can be elaborated arbitrarily or without reference to moral foundations. This information and argument was presented in Lobo, but ignored in and by Corlett in 2017.

When Is the Universal Truly Necessary?

Sadly, however, this is not in fact the least of it. What is truly astonishing about Corlett’s pointing up that subjectivity and rationality are an important concern — as indeed they are — is that, in neither 2016 nor 2017, is there found any clear (non-tautological) explication of what counts as “morally normative” — his central peeve — anyway; the closest Corlett comes to giving the expression some substance is when he refers to “what are moral rights above and beyond what societies say they are” in 2016,[31] and in 2017, when he says that “human rights are […] are non-institutionally moral or ethical, backed by valid moral or ethical principles or rules.”[32]

To repeat: in an attempt to cut at Searle, Corlett informs his reader (as if the reader were unaware): “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[33] To be clear, Corlett is broadcasting the insight that what counts as rational and as justified (and by extension, surely, what is “true,” “valid,” “objective” and so on) is in fact subjective, relative — to one’s point of view, no doubt. It is claimed here that this intervention is astonishing. Why? Not for its content, certainly, but because the subject of its enunciation, namely Corlett himself, has in both 2016 and 2017 used the following phrases as if they were not tainted with subjectivity or relativity in the slightest: “‘true morality’,”[34] “valid moral claims,”[35] “valid moral rules,”[36] “a morally enlightened moral conscience,”[37] “objectively valid moral rules,”[38] “valid moral principles,”[39] notions like “objectively valid,”[40] “a proper interpretation,”[41] formulations like “[b]y ‘valid’ is meant objectively valid,”[42] “valid moral or ethical principles,”[43]  and this, while exhausting, is hardly an exhaustive list.

In not one single instance that can be found does Corlett allow that something like “true morality” might be a subjective or relative matter, that what counts as “a morally enlightened moral conscience” might be an unsettled question, within the scope of argument.[44] What is to be made of a statement like the following: “what makes a human right valid […] is valid [?] moral/ethical principles or rules which confer [wait for it…] validity on a human rights claim or interest and thereby confer the right in question to a particular individual or group”?[45] It is too distressingly convoluted and tautological to be considered a valid[46] English sentence; but what is more bothersome in the present context is it begs the question (begged by all the other just cited formulations too): who decides what is valid, true, objective, normative, moral, proper and so on?[47]

For Corlett there is a “true morality” that is not subjective, not relative; there are “valid moral claims” that are not subjective or relative matters; there is a “morally enlightened moral conscience” (yes, he uses the redundancy) and this is neither subjective nor relative. It is surprising that Corlett — that anyone engaged in the philosophical, and more pointedly, the social epistemological, if you will, enterprise — would so unselfconsciously, so unreflectively, so unironically, deploy such terms in an attempt to find fault with Searle’s — indeed, anyone’s — thinking. Does he not realize that such formulations are entirely of a piece with the discourses of radical religionists, Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists and so on?

They are not, however, part of Searle’s discourse. And in this regard it is to be noted, as a sort of coda to this section, that in the piece most selectively cited by Corlett[48] in 2016, and which has provided much food for thought above, Searle has the following to say about validity and the morally normative. First, validity: “a valid justification does not necessarily produce agreement.”[49] This observation does not seem to register with Corlett (his truism cited above notwithstanding). Searle goes on: “As a philosopher I would have a much easier life if people agreed with all my valid arguments. (No doubt my adversaries have the same feeling about my inability to appreciate their ‘valid’ arguments.)

The point for the present discussion is that one can legitimately argue for the validity and universality of certain human rights even though one knows that the conception of human dignity that one is arguing from is not universally shared and that one’s arguments will not convince people who wish to deny humans their rights.”[50] Who would dispute this? On the face of the evidence (2016 and 2017) Corlett would: “the moral conception of a human rights holds that such rights do not change.”[51] In other words, Corlett thinks these things can placed beyond argument. An audience of totalitarians would likely be the first to agree.

Regarding human rights more specifically, Searle says: “there ought to be a general account of them and how they relate to our humanity.”[52] This is essentially an argument in favor of something like moral normativity; he then adds, “I try to provide the beginning of such an account.”[53] Indeed. He then offers up a critique of merely “utilitarian” justifications of human rights, which again evinces his understanding of the need for some sort of normative grounding for them. It is deeply troubling that Corlett cannot intellectually grasp this. Finally, Searle reiterates his point, already present in 2010 but ignored for some reason by Corlett in 2016 and 2017, namely, that “a right can continue to exist even when it is not recognized” and that one therefore does “not lose” one’s “rights in a situation where they are generally violated.”[54] This provides a segue into the next section.

Searle’s Purpose and Contribution

In 2017, towards the end of his 22 pages responding to Lobo’s seven, Corlett admits that he doesn’t really know what Searle is up to in Searle (2010): “this discussion of Searle’s view of human rights raises the question of precisely which questions he is attempting to answer.”[55] Corlett offers up a couple of possibilities; but both are wrong. The overall goal for the chapter that so vexes Corlett is not to explore the field or tradition of human rights but to see what light, if any, Searle’s social ontology sheds on the ontology of human rights.[56] Towards the end of his chapter, Searle, having partially (but hardly completely) explored the debate on human rights, summarizes his basic position, using italics:

the justification for human rights cannot be ethically neutral. It involves more than just a biological conception of what sorts of beings we are; it also involves a conception of what is valuable, actually or potentially, about our very existence.[57]

Though he does not speak of morality in this quotation, he mentions ethics and elaborates what he means: it concerns what is valuable about our existence, which is to say, what is good, and best even. In other words, he insists on the need to formulate human rights by the light of reason (it is unclear how else such universal human rights might be formulated), with close attention paid to considerations grounded in the non-institutional, i.e. the biological, and extending into the ethical and moral. This quotation, in and of itself, should be enough to short-circuit Corlett’s argument, and knock the stuffing, the straw, out of the Searlean stand-in he constructs; in the face of it he could gracefully admit that he had misread Searle (for misreading is something to which even the best of us succumb), perhaps express gratitude for the clarification, and all involved could move on. Or not.

And so, in 2016 and 2017 these words from Searle (2010), cited in Lobo, which constitute clear evidence that Searle acknowledges the need to ground human rights in moral norms, are simply ignored or disputed as not saying exactly what Corlett wants (remember: he will accept nothing less than complete justification). It remains to be seen whether they will be ignored again, so it is worth emphasizing what Searle is doing here: Searle is doing exactly what Corlett says he is not doing. That Searle doesn’t use Corlett’s favorite phrases is what seems to make it impossible for Corlett to see this. With the benefit of this second clarification, perhaps he will.

But Searle is also doing something else. While not concerned at all to align his thinking with Corlett’s hallowed tradition, he is anxious to explore and resolve a paradox at the heart of thinking about human rights: on the one hand it is said human rights did not exist before the Enlightenment, but on the other hand, it is also said that human rights have always existed, but were only recognized with the Enlightenment, and indeed, can exist even when not recognized.[58]

Searle’s way of resolving the paradox is what was argued in Lobo to be his big contribution to the debate, which Corlett in 2017 dismisses as unoriginal.

So Who Is Right?

First, it is important to see how Corlett understands Lobo’s paraphrasing of Searle’s contribution. Corlett, conveniently (in more than one sense of the word) cites Lobo summarizing Searle: “Searle ‘… makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community’ (Lobo 2017, 28.).”[59] This quotation is truncated, which would not be a problem[60] were the truncation signaled with an ellipsis; but it is not (and the initial ellipsis is not being questioned here).[61] Here is what Lobo wrote, with the missing words italicized:

…makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers, that each and every member of the human species must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community.[62]

Does it make a difference? Insofar as Corlett’s version of Lobo evinces once more what might at this point be justly characterized as a tendency to selectively read, to conveniently misread, it probably makes a difference. The difference it might make is compounded by the fact that Corlett repeats the misquotation again on his next page, and it is on the basis of this misquotation that he dismisses as unoriginal what Lobo has said is an important contribution to the human rights discussion, as “either assumed, asserted, or argued by many doing rights theory during the past few decades.”[63] Tellingly, he does not cite any textual support for this assertion. He does however again quote the substance of the misquotation (this is the third time), as part of his attempt to denude Searle’s contribution of value.

It is perhaps inevitable that, having misquoted Lobo, Corlett should misunderstand him, and believe him to be saying something already and widely said. What is it that Corlett thinks Lobo is saying, that has already been said? It is this: “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims.”[64] Or, the “fact” that humans are “members of the human community”, Corlett continues, “places them in a position to possess human rights.”[65] Now if this were what Lobo is saying, and if this were what Searle is saying (for Lobo is taken to be explicating Searle here), then Corlett would be right, and Lobo, at the very least, would probably be embarrassed, but grateful for the lesson. But again, this formulation of Corlett is based on a misreading, evidenced by Corlett’s reliance on an unreliable, and ungrammatical misquotation he produced.

What the Meaning of the Argument Was in the First Place

So what is Lobo actually saying? First, a return to the accurate quote, again adding emphasis where appropriate: with regard to human rights “what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers.” To make sense of this (these are the final lines of Lobo; the idea has been explicated previously in that text), one has to understand the socio-ontological difference between potential and actual bearers, and it is here that Searle’s work, whatever faults it may well and otherwise manifest, is so important.

For Searle’s work (specifically his discussion of status functions) allows us to understand that being human is not an ontological condition but a socio-ontological condition. This is a subtle point.[66] But it is profound.[67] One might say that there is the species, homo sapiens, (this is in a sense an assertion about ontological reality) members of which are potential bearers of human rights. But at the level of the symbolic, at the level of social ontology, members of the species homo sapiens are only often, but not always, regarded as humans and thus — lately at least — as possessors of human rights. Thus, potential bearers of human rights, that is members of the species homo sapiens, have to be recognized as humans (members of the human community) if they are to effectively have their human rights. If Corlett does not understand this, it is simply because he does not understand how status functions work, which is the subject for another occasion.

The second part of the text mishandled by Corlett is this, emphasizing with italics where necessary: “each and every member of the human species [i.e. every individual homo sapiens] must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to” human rights. Note what is not being said here. It is not being said that “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims”; nor is it being said that “members of the community of humans […] possess human rights.” These are both by now trite observations which, and Corlett is surely correct here, have long been part of the human rights tradition.

What is being said, based on Searlean social ontology, is that one must be recognized as a human being in order to make valid rights claims, that one must be seen as a member of the human community to (effectively) possess human rights, or to not have one’s human rights violated. What is the difference? The difference is that being a homo sapiens does not mean you are seen as, recognized as, a human being, a member of the community, and it is in this sense that a homo sapiens/human being can be said to both possess and be denied their human rights. Corlett’s whole discourse in 2016 and 2017 is predicated on the (mistaken) assumption that being human is socio-ontologically unproblematic and that the issue is the social existence and recognition of rights; but in fact it is about where and when homo sapiens are recognized and not recognized qua humans.

Corlett, and likely the tradition he invokes (if indeed he invokes its positions accurately, which at this point, it is not uncharitable to imagine, we have reason to doubt), may well say “No! Humans are humans, and as such are possessors of human rights!” Well, he and his vaunted tradition should go say it to Mr. Saifullah.

The Voice of a Lost Man

Mr. Saifullah? The reader is referred to the present essay’s epigraph. Mr. Saifullah, according to the story in the New York Times, is a member of the Rohingya refugee community living in Pakistan for the last four decades, in conditions that the paper describes as “distressingly impoverished even by Karachi’s standards.” He and the community to which he belongs are actively being denied their basic rights.

But how can this be so?, Corlett must ask — for surely Mr. Saifullah is human; clearly he belongs to the human community. Such a “fact”, Corlett would say, means he possesses rights, and he can claim them. Corlett would invoke the morally normative elements of the rights Mr. Saifullah possesses as a member of the human community and insist on the application of the normativity in question. And surely, just like that, Mr. Saifullah’s humanity would be recognized by the relevant parties and his rights, never lost, just violated, would be made effective.

If only it were so easy…

But Mr. Saifullah, unlike Corlett, gets it. He understands (that is to say, his words evidence at least an implicit understanding) that being a homo sapiens does not in fact make you a member of the human community, for he understands that the human community is not ontological in any straightforward way; rather, it is socially and symbolically ontological.[68] He understands that it is not what one is, but how one is seen, for how one is seen is what determines whether one will be afforded the considerations rights supposedly guarantee one.

Look at Mr. Saifullah’s words: “They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid”. And then: “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.” He understands that they — they, those who are not part of any hallowed tradition, but whose thinking on the matter is nonetheless decisive in a way Corlett, safely ensconced in the beautiful University of San Diego, doesn’t seem to even want to comprehend — don’t want to see him as a citizen or grant him citizenship, because then his rights as a human would have to be honored.

But nor will they call him a refugee, because in today’s world, refugees have rights to aid that have to be honored. But Mr. Saifullah is not done. For he knows that the Pakistani functionaries who are not honoring his rights cannot simply ignore him as if he were not there. He is not invisible; he exists.[69] But as what? And so they assign him a status function, though it is not the status function of human: in effect they are saying, this homo sapiens is not (at least not first and foremost) a human; he is, rather, an illegal alien.

As such it is not so much that his rights as a human are violated — for he is not seen as a human, at least not in the important sense; it is that qua this sort of social object — i.e. an other beyond the protections of the law — his “rights” need not be so much be ignored as actively violated. For how else would one treat an illegal alien?[70] In being counted as an illegal alien, he is able to be counted as nothing.

There is little left to say, except for the fact that Searle’s contribution sheds light on the rise in animal rights activism and indeed, on cases where people treat animals better than they treat homo sapiens. The former somehow acquire the status of human (understood in this case as the bearer of “rights” to life and comfort and to not be killed for food, etc.) and receive a level of care that millions of homo sapiens do not, these latter being assigned the status not of humans but of “the poor” or “the criminal” or “illegal aliens” or what have you. This point was made in Lobo.[71]

Conclusion: isn’t it (really) ironic?

Professor Corlett, to conclude, ends with stupendous irony, only adding substance to and validating Searle’s contribution, when he argues, in an attempt to score an inconsequential point against Searle (and Lobo), that there “are humans [what he means to say, though he doesn’t know it, is homo sapiens] both throughout history and today who have neither a moral […] right to life nor to freedom of expression, namely, those who deserve capital punishment based on their” crimes.[72]

Here Corlett is evidencing his subjective, relative perspective. For in Colombia, for example, such homo sapiens do not exist (at least not today): the Colombian constitution explicitly forbids not only capital punishment but also life imprisonment, no matter what the crime. But he is also evidencing an implicit endorsement of the Searlean perspective. For, of course, in contexts where such respect for what are still considered members of the human community in Colombia is absent, such homo sapiens are indeed, as he says, displaced from said community, and thus stripped of the rights that are otherwise a “simple” consequence of being (declared) human.

How? By declaring them to be something else. Which is to say that they are, through an institutional process, assigned a status function which, given the particular institutional arrangement and its foundational moral norms, supersedes the status function of human: they become now the condemned, convicts, guilty of capital crimes or indeed crimes against humanity, all status functions which permit and, in the corresponding situation, possibly demand that the organism to which such status function is assigned be put to death. Hopefully Professor Corlett will take some time to consider the consequences of this latent corroboration of Lobo’s presentation of Searle before dashing off another excessively long response. Or perhaps he will take the higher road, and simply leave things as they now stand.

Contact details: globo@uniandes.edu.co

References

Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 9: (2017): 22-28.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Searle, John R. “Replies.” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[1] Mehreen Zahra-Malik, “Far From Myanmar Violence, Rohingya in Pakistan Are Seething,” The New York Times, Sep. 12, 2017, accessed Sep. 13, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/12/world/asia/rohingya-pakistan-myanmar-violence.html?emc=edit_th_20170913&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=22512676. A version of this article appears in print on September 13, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Far From Myanmar’s Strife, Pakistan’s Rohingya Suffer.

[2] J Angelo Corlett, “Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

[3] Gregory J Lobo, “Reason, Morality and Recognition,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

[4] Fearing that the use of the first person, while often justified, nonetheless interrupts the dialectic of collaborative reasoning, as interlocutors instantiate a personal, private relationship with “their” arguments and interpretations, such that they become embodiments of the same and thus refractory to evidence that contradicts them/their position, the third person is employed consistently throughout this essay, in an attempt to avoid what in Colombia is called a dialogue of the deaf (diálogo de sordos).

[5] J Angelo Corlett, “More on Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

[6] John R Searle, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2010).

[7]John R Searle, “Replies” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[8] Corlett’s mishandling of Lobo’s words is troubling on the face of it; it is even more so in light of Corlett’s insistence that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32 emphasis added).

[9] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[10] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. It shall go unremarked that “complete justification” would seem to be an impossible standard.

[11] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[12] Corlett, “Searle,” 454-455. More will be said about Corlett’s use of the notion of objective below.

[13] Corlett, “Searle,” 461-462.

[14] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[15] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[16] Though Lobo’s sincere attempt to help Corlett understand and correct the errors in his understanding of Searle have been received ungraciously by Corlett and, rather, met with snide but baseless insinuations (see 2017, 32), the temptation to fall into a mimetic replication of Corlett’s unprofessional response will here be resisted. The characterization of Corlett as dishonest, to be absolutely clear, is direct, and based on the evidence: that even though Lobo points out what Corlett has done in 2016, alerting him to his error, Corlett continues to ignore the evidence, and proceeds as if it didn’t exist and directly refute his position. He might have been understandably distracted the first time round, but the second time suggests something approaching dishonesty. Additionally, elsewhere in 2017 (see page 26), Corlett again acts in such a way as to justify the charge of dishonesty, as when he textually cites Lobo paraphrasing Searle, ignores Lobo’s textual citation of Searle, and then faults Lobo for not citing Searle directly.

[17] At the risk of redundancy, the reader is again reminded that in 2017 Corlett points out that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32). It seems that  Corlett exempts himself from this simple standard, actively transgressing it by engaging in selective quotation to serve his ends or by simply representing his own version of an author’s position without recourse to textual evidence. For example, Corlett argues, or implies (the difference is hugely important to Corlett) that someone (probably Searle, possibly Lobo) is “insist[ing] that only humans can have a right to life” (2017, 33). But no one, at least niether Searle nor Lobo, insists on such a thing.

[18] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[19] Corlett, “Searle,” 456.

[20] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[21] Corlett, “More,” 28-29, emphasis added. It is important to point out that the issue is not really whether Searle’s thinking can be aligned with any tradition. What is in question is whether Searle integrates what Corlett refers to as moral normativity into his thinking on human rights. Though Searle doesn’t use that precise phrasing, the evidence is insurmountable: he clearly does.

[22] Again, Corlett deploys the phrase “Searlean madness” in 2016 (456) to make the case that there is no distance between Searle’s thinking and white supremacy. One wonders how much distance there is between this sort of aspersion and calumny.

[23] Corlett, “Searle,” 458.

[24] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[25] Corlett, “Searle,” 455.

[26] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[27] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[28] Searle, Making, 192.

[29] Searle, Making, 192. In footnote 18 on page 29 of 2017, Corlett makes a fuss about the difference between reasonable and rational, emphasizing his preference for the former. His argument is unconvincing and one can just as easily make the case for their interchangeability. A quick online search using Google reveals: rationality — the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. Corlett is quite clearly clutching at straw(s).

[30] Searle, Making, 192.

[31] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. One might ask, justly, in what way this formulation differs from Searle’s insistence that human rights be formulated to rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect them.

[32] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[33] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[34] Corlett, “Searle”, 455. Corlett uses quotation marks around this phrase, though it is not clear why. For they most certainly are not scare quotes. His use of the term is non-ironic, thoroughly sincere.

[35] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 460.

[36] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[37] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 457 twice, 459.

[38] Corlett, “Searle,” 455, 457.

[39] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[40] Corlett, “More,” 20.

[41] Corlett, “More,” 23.

[42] Wait, what? Corlett, “More,” 20.

[43] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[44] It is noted, in passing, that Searle would recognize such concepts to be subject to argument. See below.

[45] Corlett, “More,” 25.

[46] Stipulated here.

[47] To this most basic criticism can be added that Corlett, in repeatedly drawing on the formulation that human rights are “discovered by human reason” (2016, 455; 2017, 25, 34), seems to think that rights are on the same level as black holes and quarks (truly “discovered” by human reason before being empirically observed), and that, moreover, reason itself is an uncorrupt tool, that its ethical discoveries are somehow beyond subjectivity and relativity.

[48] That is to say, cited selectively, for Corlett’s rhetorical convenience, rather than for the dialectical process.

[49] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[50] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[51] Which might well lead one to describe such rights as eternal, insofar as eternal can be taken to mean unchanging.

[52] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[53] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[54] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[55] Corlett, “More,” 33.

[56] Searle, Making, 175.

[57] Searle, Making, 190.

[58] Searle, Making, 177.

[59] Corlett, “More,” 17.

[60] In point of fact it would be a problem, for as cited by Corlett, it is ungrammatical. Corlett appears not to notice.

[61] At the risk of even more redundancy: In 2017 Corlett insists that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32, emphasis added).

[62] Lobo, “Reason,” 28.

[63] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[64] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[65] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[66] Hence, possibly, Corlett’s difficulty with it?

[67] See previous note.

[68] As any high schooler who learned the Greek roots of the word barbarian implicitly understands too.

[69] One might put it this way: his ontology is not in question (but nor is it decisive). What is in question, and what will be decisive, is his social ontology.

[70] This question, should it not be clear, is posed rhetorically.

[71] As further evidence of Corlett’s problematic practice, he usurps Lobo’s use of the phenomena of animal rights to make what seems to be a similar point, but without attribution. But typically, he gets it wrong because he misses the point. Someone who, in his own words, “painstakingly summarize[d]” Searle’s social ontology clearly doesn’t understand Searle’s main contribution to the field, status functions, and thus misses the point that social ontology is not about what is, it is about what can claim to be and what is recognized as being. People treat animals as if they were human, sometimes as if they were more than human. Often, people do not treat humans (homo sapiens) as human.

[72] Corlett, “More,” 2017.

Author Information: Seumas Miller, Charles Sturt University, Delft University of Technology, semiller@csu.edu.au

Miller, Seumas. “Joint Epistemic Action and Collective Moral Responsibility: Reply to Andras Szigeti.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 8 (2015): 40-50.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2ek

Please refer to:

moral_monday

Image credit: -ted, via flickr

In his thoughtful reply[1] (Reply) to my paper, “Joint Epistemic Action and Collective Moral Responsibility”[2] (JEA) Andras Szigeti makes a number of points by way of testing and strengthening my general account. I am grateful for the opportunity to further clarify and elaborate my account.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: András Szigeti, Linköping University, andras.szigeti@liu.se

Szigeti, András.”Seumas Miller: Joint Epistemic Action and Collective Moral Responsibility—A Reply.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 5 (2015): 14-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-23R

Please refer to:

1703228419_4e6fdf0a3c_o

Image credit: Ken Douglas, via flickr

In a series of books and articles, Miller has developed a refreshingly original and complex account of joint action and collective responsibility. This approach constitutes an interesting alternative to the current orthodoxy that seeks to explain shared agency in terms of joint intentions. Miller also offers a novel, moderately individualist conception of group responsibility steering clear of both robust collectivism, according to which group-responsibility does not reduce to the responsibility of individual group members, as well as more radical forms of individualism, according to which collective responsibility is always just the sum of the responsibility of individual group members.

His present paper extends this account to the area of collective epistemic action. [1] I believe the approach is promising overall and its application to epistemology fruitful. In what follows, I will explore how the general account and its application could be further strengthened by making some of the central conceptual distinctions of the paper clearer. Continue Reading…