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Fr. 567

September 26, 2014

Maintaining the first of these two claims, the non-role of discursive hygiene in the public sphere, Leiter seeks to show just how omnipresent are failures in discourse by appealing to the recent Salaita case at the University of Illinois-Champaign. Although, as Leiter explains, the case shows all the features of a typical hate speech case and should thus, juridically speaking, be dictated by previous rulings of the sort, the university administration ignored or circumvented free speech rights law in order to get its way. All of this despite there being a clear and relatively objective, unambiguous formulation of such rights in the legal landscape of the United States. The fact that such a clear-cut case went against the dictates of free speech rights goes to show just how the subtle argumentation of a philosophical claim could go awry, where there are no hard and fast distinctions and goods to be presented. This intersects with recent empirical evidence showing that:

[…] people’s beliefs about matters of moral and political urgency – and, perhaps more importantly, what they do based on those beliefs – are only slightly influenced by a regime of discursive hygiene; instead, their emotional and affective responses mostly determine their moral attitudes […] (p. 10).

To further this claim, Leiter references Jonathan Haidt’s famous “incest” experiment”:

[…] according to which in most ordinary situations, moral judgments are produced by emotional or affective responses, the reasons adduced in their support being post-hoc: they do not explain the judgment, as evidenced by the resilience of the judgment even in the face of the defeat of the proffered reason […] (idem.).

This social intuitionist model is echoed in recent findings in support of a sentimentalist model of moral reasoning, i.e. a theory holding that that which prompts us to moral judgments (the force which carries us from mere analysis of the facts and situation to proffering a normative assertion or moral judgment) is precisely emotion or feeling rather than rational inference from conditions to consequence. This has been to a large extent corroborated by results from psychological experiments showing that individuals having certain deficits or impairments in emotional processing centers of the brain and their are unable (particularly in the case of sociopaths) to emit an assertion having the normative, binding characteristics of a moral judgment. If these considerations do not disprove the effect of discursive hygiene on moral and political judgments, it serves as a limiting case to the overly rosy or optimistic that so-called rationalist proponents and public philosophers might put forward.

With this, Leiter moves to the second sub-claim making up his broader argument. If “prejudice and bias are dominant forces in human life”, this owes in great part to what Leiter dubs “tribalism”, defined as follows:

Tribalism – the propensity of creatures like us to identity with those “like themselves,” and to view others as unacceptably different, deficient, depraved, and perhaps dangerous – is, as any realistic appraisal of human affairs will reveal, the dominant force in public life (p. 12).

If, as Leiter concedes, such tribalistic mindsets have receded to some extent as the world has grown smaller, the fact remains that such institutions as the United Nations and notions as universal human rights first made their appearance following horrendous, widespread conflict. To this end, Leiter notes that “argument played little or no role” therein; rather, such progress is to be attributed to “emotional revulsion at barbarity” (idem.).

The key point, however, is that we philosophers must recognize that moral change depends fundamentally on the emotional attitudes of people, and that these attitudes tend in a strongly Tribalist direction (p. 13).

As evidence lending credence to the second paradox, Leiter turns to the case of Peter Singer, perhaps the best embodiment of the public philosopher available to today’s Western audiences. Singer is best known for his defense of human rights and support for certain forms of euthanasia, resting largely on the claim that we should do all in our power to reduce suffering in the world, regardless of species. Yet, in his role of public philosopher and upholder of discursive hygiene, Singer fares no better than the irrational public to whom he addresses himself, for:

Singer has no actual argument against such a response [that infanticide is wrong], since his entire position rests simply on an equally brute, and unexplained, emotional attitude, namely, that suffering per se is abhorrent. But if the consequence of believing that suffering per se (regardless of species) is the only thing that is morally salient leads to the conclusion that it is permissible to kill human babies with defects, it is equally reasonable to take that to show that species membership (namely, being human) is morally salient, since it explains why killing human babies is wrong, even when their cognitive and physical defects will impose burdens on others (pp. 14-15)

From this it follows that Singer’s role is no more that of a public philosopher than any other participant in public debate, and this seems to cast further doubt on the role of public philosophers in the first place. Leiter gestures to just such limitations when he invokes more general lessons of contemporary philosophy:

No belief about any subject-matter is rationally obligatory for all agents regardless of their ends […] any recalcitrant evidence elicited in a test of an hypothesis is compatible with the hypothesis as long as we are willing to give up the background assumptions such a test requires. In choosing among competing hypotheses and background assumptions, we must always fall back on non-rational considerations, such as theoretical simplicity, methodological conservatism, and consilience […] unless there were a plausible substantive conception of rationality […], then rationality itself is instrumental, imposing normative constraints only on the means chosen to realize our ends, whatever they may be. Thus, even norms for belief are hostage to ultimate ends, and so particular beliefs are “irrational” only relative to the believer’s ends (p. 15).

This concludes Leiter’s initial assessment of the state of public philosophy and discursive hygiene today.

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