A reply to Agnes Callard

Agnes Cal­lard says on Twit­ter:

Sincerely can’t tell which threat­ens cul­ture of free thought & ex­pres­sion more:
@ny­times de-anonymiz­ing & de­stroy­ing a (rightly) trea­sured blog for no good rea­son
@ny­times in­creas­ingly al­low­ing ex­ter­nal mobs (w/​pow­er­ful mem­bers) in­fluence over what it publishes
I be­lieve that the ar­gu­ments in this op-ed—about why philoso­phers shouldn’t use pe­ti­tions to ad­ju­di­cate their dis­putes—also ap­ply to those non-philoso­phers who, for in­de­pen­dent rea­sons, are com­mit­ted to the power of pub­lic rea­son. https://​​t.co/​​elZkZgBYPD?amp=1

[The link is to a NYT op-ed she wrote; which is now available for free.]

A friend linked to this on Face­book, and I replied with a Bible verse:

Ren­der unto Cae­sar the things that are Cae­sar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

But, in the spirit of pub­lic rea­son, let me ex­plain my mean­ing.

Differ­ent peo­ple pre­sent differ­ent in­ter­faces to the pub­lic. Philoso­phers want to re­ceive and know how to han­dle rea­soned ar­gu­ments; poli­ti­ci­ans want to re­ceive and know how to han­dle votes. Pre­sent a poli­ti­cian with a philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ment, and they might think it’s very nice, but they won’t con­sider it as rele­vant to their du­ties as a poli­ti­can as pol­ling data. “The vot­ers aren’t choos­ing me to think,” they might say; “they’re choos­ing me to rep­re­sent their will.”

This isn’t to sin­gle out poli­ti­ci­ans as ‘non-philoso­phers’; busi­ness­peo­ple have their own in­ter­face, where they want to re­ceive and know how to han­dle money, and ath­letes have their own in­ter­face, and mu­si­ci­ans, and so on and so on. This is part of the so­ciety-wide spe­cial­iza­tion of la­bor, and is over­all a good thing.

Cal­lard ar­gues that philoso­phers shouldn’t sign pe­ti­tions, as philoso­phers—in my fram­ing, that it cor­rupts the in­ter­face of ‘philoso­phers’ for them to both emit rea­soned ar­gu­ments and pe­ti­tions, which are lit­tle more than counts of bod­ies and clout. If they want to sign pe­ti­tions, or vote, or fight in wars on their own time, that’s fine; but those poli­ti­cal be­hav­iors are not the busi­ness of philos­o­phy, and they should do them as peo­ple in­stead of as philoso­phers.

Over­all, this ar­gu­ment seems right to me, ex­cept I think it also makes sense for in­di­vi­d­u­als, even those per­son­ally com­mit­ted to pub­lic rea­son, to honor the other dis­ci­plines by en­gag­ing with them the way they want to be en­gaged with, so long as it is con­sis­tent with one’s con­science. If you want, say, a poli­ti­cian to take se­ri­ously Aliens and Ci­ti­zens, you need to as­sem­ble a vot­ing bloc that is in fa­vor of open bor­ders, rather than sim­ply send­ing them copies of the pa­per. If you want a busi­nessper­son to pro­duce anti-malaria nets for peo­ple in need, the thing to do is as­sem­ble a pile of money to trade them for the nets.

And so the ques­tion be­comes: when an ed­i­tor at the New York Times makes a de­ci­sion that seems wrong-headed and cruel, what in­ter­face do they pre­sent to the world, and how should we make use of it?

In this par­tic­u­lar case, the ed­i­tor in ques­tion is not a philoso­pher, and to the best of my knowl­edge hasn’t elected the in­ter­face of philos­o­phy. [Scott was sim­ply in­formed of the ed­i­tor’s de­ci­sion, not her rea­sons for the de­ci­sion, which we can only imag­ine. If it hinges on a rea­soned defense of pseudonyms, I am happy to provide one; it if hinges on proof that pseudonyms are im­por­tant to our cul­ture, the pe­ti­tion seems like the best way to provide that.]

Cal­lard, in the replies, tweets:

Good thought. I think if there were some way for the doc­u­ment (which wouldn’t then be a pe­ti­tion) to con­vey: “this is what we think but if, af­ter care­ful de­liber­a­tion, you sill be­lieve that you are do­ing the right thing, we will sup­port your de­ci­sion”-I might feel differ­ently.

I have em­ployed this strat­egy in the past, when I felt some­one else owned a de­ci­sion or I over­all trusted their judg­ment. But it feels like this is a tool with a nar­row use, rather than one that ap­plies broadly. I wouldn’t say to Putin, “I per­son­ally think it is wrong to mur­der jour­nal­ists, but if af­ter care­ful de­liber­a­tion, you still be­lieve that you are do­ing the right thing, I will sup­port your de­ci­sion.” His be­lief that he is do­ing the right thing (if he even casts the de­ci­sion in those terms) is not a crux for me, and would not change my views.

Similarly, I don’t see a rea­son yet to trust that the ed­i­tor think­ing Scott’s birth name should be pub­lished, in­stead of refer­ring to him with his pseudonym as the NYT has done many times be­fore for oth­ers in similar situ­a­tions, should up­date any of my be­liefs on the value of pseudonymity, in­stead of sim­ply re­flect­ing on their cal­lous­ness.