On Philosophy

October 29, 2007

Intellectual Cowardice

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Intellectual cowardice is one of the many sins that an academic can be accused of (I believe it falls immediately after sloth but before not having tenure). When considering it three questions come to mind. First what is intellectual cowardice? Secondly, why is it bad? And, thirdly, how does it actually manifest itself? Defining intellectual cowardice is the easiest of these three tasks, and so I will start with that. To say that someone is demonstrating intellectual cowardice is to say that they are simultaneously putting forward a claim as a claim and refusing to stand by it. For example, a scientist could demonstrate intellectual cowardice by presenting an empirical generalization on the basis of data but refusing to stand by that generalization as a good one. Intellectual cowardice is motivated by a fear of being shown to be wrong, hence its name, but at the same time desiring to recognized for intellectual accomplishments. And this leads to the somewhat contradictory practice of putting forwards claims in one context, but at the same time adopting the position that the claim is not necessarily worth standing by. This allows them to accept any compliments that come their way as a result of the quality of their claim, but at the same time dismiss any criticism of it as reflecting badly on them, because they refuse to stand by it.

Now that we have defined what intellectual cowardice is we can consider whether it is really a sin. Obviously the way it has been described makes it seem like being an intellectual coward is a bad thing. But just because we can cast it in a negative light doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be rejected. After all, fear can be appropriate in some contexts. And isn’t what really matters the claims being made? Why should we care about the attitudes adopted towards those claims by the people putting them forwards? In a sense this is right, in an ideal world all that matters is the claims, and the people behind them are irrelevant; we judge the claims, not the people. But this is not an ideal world, and unfortunately we don’t have an infinite and perfect capacity with which to evaluate claims. Wasting our time with inferior claims can greatly slow down our ability to make progress. And, more disastrously, a claim revealed to be flawed leads people to reject similar claims, and that can be a real problem if some of those similar claims are far superior to the flawed claim. Indeed this is often a problem in philosophy; some position will be discarded in a famous way, and subsequently all similar positions will be rejected as well just because they are reminiscent of the flawed one. The problem with this is not that people tend to reject similar claims to those that have been shown to be bad in the past; that is a reasonable heuristic. The problem is rather with proposing claims that are inferior to some of their close neighbors. But what does this have to do with intellectual cowards? The problem with intellectual cowards is that, because they have no fear of being proven wrong, given their lack of commitment to the correctness of their claims, they tend to produce inferior claims. It is worrying about being wrong that makes us explore all the consequences of our claims and how they stand up in comparison to variations on them, to leave none of their details unexamined, so that they can be the best claims that we can make when we actually put them forward. Someone who isn’t worried about being in error isn’t bound by this constraint. Instead they are free to put forward whatever claims satisfy their pragmatic desires, which are usually for intellectual recognition. This results in pandering to popular ideas, constructing claims so that they will be maximally acceptable to the sensibilities of those who will judge them, or in constructing claims purely to be controversial, so that those claims will receive wider attention simply because so many will wish to object to them. Neither process results in the best possible claims.

So the problem with intellectual cowardice is essentially that it is a form of dishonesty. We treat all of the claims put forward as serious claims, claims that have the full backing of the people responsible for them. Being an honest intellectual coward then would require them to preface their claim with statements explaining that they do not endorse them, or some equivalent disclaimer expressing their belief that a negative reception of these claims is somehow irrelevant. But of course no one would do that, because claims prefaced in this way would never receive any serious attention, which defeats the motives of the intellectual coward. So, to recap, intellectual cowardice isn’t necessarily a problem, we could be perfect evaluators of claims, or the intellectual coward might be such a good theorizer that they produce the best possible claims despite their unwillingness to commit to them. But, in most cases, the intellectual coward will produce inferior claims, because they don’t share the motivations that lead the rest of us to obsess over the correctness of our claims, and most of the time these claims will not be immediately recognized as inferior, and thus have the potential to interfere with honest investigations. And that is why intellectual cowardice is an academic sin.

Finally, allow me to describe how intellectual cowardice often manifests itself. Because few think of themselves as intellectual cowards; I doubt that many actually realize that they are hiding behind a shield that protects them from criticism and that it is interfering with their ability to theorize. Thus, in order to help us recognize possible intellectual cowardice in ourselves let me consider one specific way of being an intellectual coward. The example I have in mind is the simultaneous rejection of truth within a specific field, or that a claim made within it can be correct for everyone, which amounts to the same thing, and making claims within that field. We can imagine, for example, someone insisting that there are no ethical truths, that whether an ethical claims is correct or not depends solely on how it is reconciled with your pre-existing ethical judgments, and still making ethical claims, proceeding on the basis of various ethical intuitions to arrive at them. And you can see how this is an example of intellectual cowardice, because obviously if we contradict them, and argue that their claims are in error, they can simply say that we must have different pre-existing ethical judgments than them, and that while the claim may not be valid for us that it is valid for them, and possibly for other people as well. And naturally either by itself is not an example of intellectual cowardice, you are free to claim that there are no ethical truths, no way of determining what is right in ethics in an objective way, so long as you don’t make any ethical claims yourself. Or you are free to make ethical claims so long as you are open to the possibility of those claims being possibly turning out to be wrong (even if you judge that possibility to be small).

However, I doubt that if we confronted someone who was being an intellectual coward about ethics in this way that they would admit it. Perhaps they might argue that their ethical claims are still relevant because many people share the same intuitions as they do, and that in some way the claims they are making are thus “right” for a large number of people. But the entire edifice rests of the idea that somehow deduction from intuitions to specific ethical claims, or the coherence of ethical beliefs, matters. And that is an assumption that is completely without motivation given the belief that there is no absolutely “right” answer when it comes to ethics. If we believe that there is a right answer then clearly coherence and incoherence matter because of truth preservation and entailment; incoherence implies that some of the claims involved must be in error, possibly the very claim that we are trying to establish, and so in striving for the truth we attempt to eliminate incoherence. But when truth doesn’t matter incoherence has no ill-effects. Certainly there are contradictions buried within many religious belief systems (the problem of evil, for example), and even if those contradictions can be somehow ironed out by dedicated theologians it is clear that most of the religious approach matters naively, such that their beliefs contain actual contradictions. And clearly these contradictions do them no harm. Of course it is true that from contradictions anything can be derived, and thus that we cannot entertain a contradiction when we are attempting to derive a truth. But this isn’t a problem if there aren’t absolute truths in ethics, because we don’t attempt to derive truths from premises that aren’t themselves believed to be true. On the other hand, there is nothing stopping them from stomping their foot and simply insisting that coherence is required, even if nothing necessitates that coherence. But if nothing necessitates that coherence then it is simply an opinion, and if they wish to be intellectually honest they should preface their claims in ethics with a statement noting that they proceed on the basis of coherence despite the fact that they have no reason for doing so besides personal preference. Obviously doing this would result in people not really taking their claims seriously, but the omission of such a disclaimer is intellectually dishonest, since caring about coherence strongly implies the belief that claims can be true or false in this domain without it. And hopefully pointing out that fact would indicate to those who are intellectual cowards in this way that they are doing something wrong, even if it doesn’t exactly reveal the nature of the error.

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