Can philosophy be polemical?

A reader asked me to reprint the following essay, first published at the now defunct Conservative Philosopher group blog in February of 2005. Those who object to the polemical tone of The Last Superstition should give it a read. I have also addressed this topic here.

Recently I was reading two very interesting posts made by Bill Vallicella over on his personal blog. One of them dealt with Paul Edwards’ well-known critique of Heidegger, the other with David Stove. Anyone familiar with Edwards’ essay or with virtually anything written by Stove knows that both writers are capable of being fiercely polemical – often to hilarious effect in the case of Stove, who was in my view one of the greatest stylists in recent philosophy. Bill argues with great elegance and cogency that Edwards’ critique is worthless, whatever one thinks of Heidegger, both because it too uncritically assumes the truth of Russell’s doctrine of existence-as-instantiation, and because of its needlessly polemical tone. He also argues that whatever interest and value Stove’s work has, Stove was not really a philosopher at all, and that the polemical nature of his work kept him from seriously appreciating the nature and depth of philosophical problems. In general, Bill seems to hold that polemical arguments, while definitely having a place in other contexts (e.g. politics) ought for the most part to be kept out of philosophical debate.

I think there is obviously something right about this. Gratuitous personal insults, resorting to rhetorical flourishes in place of arguments, or presenting simplistic distortions of an opponent’s views, are unacceptable in the context of professional philosophical discourse. Indeed, all of this should go without saying. At the same time, I’m not sure whether there sometimes isn’t in fact a place in philosophical argument, if not for polemics, then at least for something very similar. (In fairness to Bill, let me note that I realize he was not necessarily presenting a general view about how philosophical argument ought to be conducted in either of the posts I referred to – what I say here is intended not as a criticism of anything Bill wrote, but rather as some reflections inspired by what he wrote.)

G. E. M. Anscombe famously held that there are some positions in ethics that are so odious that in many cases the proper way to respond to someone who holds them is, not to discuss his error with him, but rather to refuse to discuss it. Her example was someone who proposes, in all seriousness, to kill an innocent person for the sake of some allegedly greater good. In Anscombe’s view, the person who makes such a proposal manifests a “corrupt mind,” even if he is sincerely open to debating its merits; we might even say that his corruption is all the greater precisely because he sincerely wants to debate it. One way to understand the reasoning behind her view is in terms of the Aristotelian idea that moral understanding is more a matter of having the right sensibilities and dispositions than it is the having of a correct theoretical understanding. Indeed, it is on this view difficult for someone even to have a correct theoretical understanding in the first place if he does not to some extent already have the right traits of character. This seems to me an eminently conservative view to take, insofar as it reflects the insight that much of our knowledge is tacit rather than articulate, embodied in habit and tradition rather than in the explicitly formulated propositions of a philosophical theory. It is a paradigmatically anti-rationalistic conception of ethics (which, of course, does not mean that it is anti-reason).

Now Anscombe’s claim, I think, is not that to debate the question of whether to kill an innocent man would be a waste of one’s time insofar as one would almost certainly be arguing with an unreasonable person. It is rather that even to treat a proposal to commit such an act as a live option that is “on the table” and worthy of debate cannot fail to corrupt us morally by desensitizing us to wickedness and altering our intuitive sense of the boundaries of decent conduct. The point isn’t that some debates cannot be won; the point is that some debates should never get started, and that if they ever do get started, the moral battle is already halfway lost.

Of course, sometimes we might have to engage in such debates anyway, at least to cut our moral losses and hopefully stem the tide of widespread moral corruption, if not to turn it back completely. If Anscombe is correct, though, then it is very difficult to see how a thorough and effective critique of the views of a philosopher who entertained an intrinsically immoral position of the sort Anscombe had in mind could fail to constitute, at least implicitly, a critique of that philosopher himself. To imply such a critique would not be to engage in a gratuitous personal attack on a philosophical opponent. It would rather be to give a straightforwardly objective description of the state of a person’s moral character.

Suppose, then, that a philosopher proposes to debate the question of whether an adult ought to be allowed under certain circumstances to engage in sexual contact with a three year old child, or wants to discuss the “issue” of whether bestiality and necrophilia are always immoral. Suppose he even suggests with a straight face that there are some very good arguments in favor of these practices that we ought to take at least as seriously as any arguments that might be put forward against him. Does it suffice patiently to point out to such a philosopher that he has made several serious mistakes in argumentation? Surely not, at least if Anscombe is right. For to fail to see that “sex” with a three year old child, or with a corpse or a chicken, is simply and unarguably morally depraved, is not merely to make an intellectual mistake; it is of itself to be, to some extent, depraved in one’s moral sensibilities. Similarly, if a National Socialist philosopher (if such a thing exists) tried earnestly to defend the view that the extermination of certain races is morally required of us, such a philosopher would surely already have exhibited a certain degree of moral depravity even by making such a suggestion, whether or not he could “defend” it with arguments and whether or not he ever acted in accordance with it. (Obviously he would be worthy of even greater moral condemnation if he were to act on it.)

Any philosopher who seriously proposed such things for discussion would manifest thereby a kind of moral blindness, an inability to perceive basic moral facts. Arguing with him might well be a waste of time, like arguing with a blind man who insists that colors do not exist, and who accuses you of dogmatism because you continue to believe in them yourself despite your inability to convince him. But the deeper point is that merely to argue with him, with as respectful and genteel a tone as one uses when arguing with one’s accountant, would be inadvertently to reinforce his moral blindness, and even help spread it to others. For to fail to point out that the very act of putting forward for discussion such inherently indecent proposals is itself indecent would arguably make one complicit in lending credibility to the making of such proposals. It would constitute a failure to tell the whole philosophical story, and might even contribute to a general decrease in moral understanding.

Now, would this entail, in some cases and to some extent, the incorporation of a polemical element into one’s philosophical argumentation? Arguably it would. At the very least it would seem to entail incorporating into one’s argumentation a common aspect of polemic, namely personal criticism, or at least implied personal criticism, of one’s opponent. Of course, this raises all sorts of questions and practical problems, both about matters of principle and about matters of prudence. It is one thing to critique an immoral point of view in the context of a society which is generally morally healthy; it is another thing altogether to try to critique it in the context of a society that has to a considerable extent gone to the dogs already. The latter situation clearly entails that a certain measure of tact would be well advised (though, on the other hand, it might also entail that polemical arguments are all the more required, in order to shake people out of a complacent decadence). Furthermore, there is an obvious difference between a sincere person who entertains an inherently immoral position merely because he is naïve, muddle-headed, or immature, and a cynic or demagogue who takes it because he is generally of a corrupt character. The former sort of person may be far less morally culpable for the defects in his moral understanding, and thus far less worthy of polemical criticism.

The extent to which one’s critique of a philosopher’s moral views entails criticism of the philosopher himself, and the manner of that criticism, will of course depend on the moral theory from which one is operating. A natural law theorist and a Kantian, say, might have significantly different views about what is beyond the pale and indicative of a “corrupt mind”; other moral theories would entail even more radically different sensibilities. Indeed, I think that the points I have been raising might account for the fierceness of the debates that often occur between even the most intelligent and well-meaning left-wing and right-wing philosophers, a fierceness one might at first think incompatible with the commitment of all philosophers to rational debate. Even the most rationalistic moral theorist surely recognizes deep down the truth of the Aristotelian insight that our moral sensibilities reflect our moral character as much as they reflect our intellect. Left-wing philosophers and right-wing philosophers will thus inevitably, to some extent anyway, regard each other with moral suspicion and even hostility. This is not necessarily a failure of rationality; it reflects the very nature of moral disagreement. To see someone as committed, even sincerely, to a view one regards as seriously immoral is inevitably to see him as to some extent morally, and not just intellectually, deficient.

Obviously, this makes fruitful debate all the more difficult to achieve. Charity, tact, and prudence are therefore called for even in the context of polemical criticism – indeed, especially in the context of polemical criticism.
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