Do not sign petitions « Why Evolution Is True

Agnes Callard is one of my colleagues: an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. She was recently asked to sign a petition opposing the deplatforming of philosophers who didn’t share ideologically acceptable views of sex and gender. Although I agree with that petition, Callard didn’t sign it—but not because she disagreed with the premise. In fact, she doesn’t sign petitions at all. In this longish New York Times piece, she explains why. I can understand her position, but I think she’s wrong.

Callard’s argument is simple, and I’m mystified why it takes so long—nearly 1400 words—to explain it. In short, she says that petitions are supposed to be persuasive not by the force of their arguments, but by the weight of the number of signatories. And that, she argues, is not how philosophy works: you are supposed to persuade solely by the quality of your argument. Having 100 prominent philosophers sign a petition, she thinks, doesn’t make it one iota more persuasive than if just one philosopher signed it. So what’s the point of accumulating signatories? Here’s what she says:

I refused to sign, because I believe that petitions, regardless of their content, compromise core values of intellectual inquiry. Here’s why.

Whether you call it a “petition,” an “open letter” or a “public statement,” this type of document is distinguished by the fact that after stating and arguing for a position, it lists the names of people who endorse the position. The petition aims to effect persuasion with respect to what appears in the first part not only by way of any argument contained therein but also by way of the number and respectability of the people who figure in the second part. Such a document tries to persuade you to believe (that it is right to do) something because many people, some of whom are authorities, believe it (is the right thing to do). It is not always wrong to believe things because many people believe them, but it is always intellectually uninquisitive to do so.

The problem here is not that what many believe can be false, though that is a problem. The problem is that even if it’s true, the fact that many believe it doesn’t shed any light on it why it’s true — and that is what the intellectually inquisitive person wants to know. Is this problem mitigated by the fact that the list is not about sheer numbers because authorities appear on it? I think intellectually inquisitive people do gravitate toward those with expertise, because they are in an especially good position to answer our questions. But this goes only for experts taken severally. One expert is a learning opportunity; being confronted with an arsenal of experts is about as conducive to conversation as a firing squad

There is something aggressive about the way in which voices gain strength and volume by being joined together. Numbers generate a pressure to believe that isn’t grounded in explanatory force, because having more and more adherents to a view doesn’t give rise to better and better accounts of why the view is correct. Philosophers ought to be especially sensitive to introducing this element of belief imposition into our culture. As a philosopher, I want my influence to be philosophical, which is to say, I want to bring people to believe only what they, by their own lights, can see to be justified; I don’t want them to believe something because (I am one of the) many people who think it.

That is 402 words, and the other thousand don’t add much more. She does note that she isn’t asking her colleagues to refrain from political activity, but that a group of philosophers signing a petition “is instead the politicization of philosophy itself.”  She is right about that, and all of us worry about a discipline adopting a uniform stand of ideological purity and demonizing dissenters. But signing petitions doesn’t really politicize philosophy so long as dissenters aren’t ostracized. It merely expresses a unanimity of views.

Here’s why I think Callard is somewhat mistaken.

1.) Often petitions do make arguments in the text. I haven’t seen the one she was asked to sign, but most petitions explain why the signatories are taking their stand. That is an argument that can be considered.

2.) Numbers and, especially, expertise, do matter. This is especially true for petitions which refer to actual data that has been scrutinized, such as ones in which climate scientists underline the danger of global warming. A call for reduced carbon emissions carries more intellectual weight when signed by, say, 100 recognized climatologists than when signed by just one. This is in line with “Coyne’s Fourth Law”, one of my many guides for life: “If someone criticizes something you do or say, examine the argument. If two or more people tell you the same thing, they’re probably right.”

Now philosophy is about how to think and not usually about assessing data, but philosophers can think about issues relevant to their discipline and come to a consensus. And the more well-known thinkers that sign on to that consensus, the more seriously we should take it, regardless of Callard’s claim that the argument is all that counts. Why? Because each philosopher has a slightly different take on the issue, and therefore has slightly different arguments and reasons. But if they all conclude the same thing, then we might think about it more seriously. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should buy it tout court. 

Take an issue that I’ve written about and that has brought me a lot of grief from others. I think that infants born with an incurable disease or deformity that will certainly kill them after a prolonged period of suffering (e.g., anencephaly) should be allowed to be euthanized: with, of course, the parents’ consent, medical concurrence, and a proper way of painlessly ending its life. (Peter Singer has argued the same thing, leading to many people calling for him to be fired.) I can make that argument, and I have, and have been dismissed and sometimes vilified. But if a hundred ethical philosophers—who have expertise in thinking about such issues—agree with me, doesn’t that make you think more seriously about the issue? That is, it’s easy to dismiss one person as an outlier or even a crackpot, but it’s not so easy to dismiss the intellectual cream of an entire field.

To be sure, Callard makes a good point when she argues that philosophers don’t sign petitions about matters that are purely philosophical, just as I’d be unlikely to sign a petition that says, “We believe that evolution happened, and that all species have common ancestors.”


We’d never approach questions such as “Are possible worlds real?” or “Is knowledge justified true belief?” by petition, so why are we tempted to do so in the case of questions around sex, gender and hurtful speech? The answer is that the latter question involves real feelings and real people, and it is about something that is happening now — for all these reasons, it strikes us as being of grave importance. The petition writers are thinking to themselves, this time it really matters. I think it is a mistake for a philosopher to take the importance of a question as a reason to adopt an unphilosophical attitude toward it.

Well, is signing a petition really “adopting an unphilosophical attitude towards it”? Especially when the issue is a philosophical one that has practical consequences (assisted suicide, for example), is it really “unphilosophical” to band together to try to persuade society to do something specific? After all, you are using your expertise in a socially useful way.

I know petitions in general aren’t very effective—in fact, I can barely think of one that had any effec. But even if they don’t, I think that at least they can prompt people to think seriously about an issue. And if that’s the case, then it’s maladaptive to adopt Callard’s purist attitude that philosophers should persuade people simply by the force of their arguments. In principle that may be true, but it’s not the sole way to influence people in the real world.

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