Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Bad Ideas

Harper’s Magazine will publish, in its October 2020 issue, A Letter on Justice and Open Debate signed by a number of writers and academics. One of the key points that it makes is as follows:

The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.
I suspect that the audience people perceive need to read this (which may or may not be the target audience of the letter) will find that unconvincing. There could be multiple reasons for this.

The first could very well be that it hasn’t yet been shown to work. For the person who believes that exposure, argument and persuasion have yet to fully realize “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” after 244 years, there has to be some rationale given as to why today is so different. What about people has changed such that the bad ideas that survived being exposed, argued and persuaded against for all that time are now suddenly vulnerable?

The second might be a disagreement on the nature of “bad ideas.” To a degree, the point behind the marketplace of ideas is that there are no clearly wrong ideas. A “bad idea” may be one that doesn’t suit the moment, or doesn't meet people’s needs, but those are different than openly harmful. In the marketplace metaphor, people knowingly peddling “attractive nuisances,” in the sense of things that are actively dangerous yet outwardly desirable, are rare to non-existent.

In Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore, in The Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum (who is, interestingly, not a signatory to the letter) notes that “‘Democratic government, being government by discussion and majority vote, works best when there is nothing of profound importance to discuss,’ the historian Carl Becker wrote in 1941.” People don’t commonly think of high-stakes moral issues as being “nothing of profound importance.” In order to push people towards being more accepting or discussing things in the marketplace of ideas, it’s not enough to call for that discussion. People have to also understand that losing the debate is an acceptable outcome. I’m not sure that one would find widespread agreement with the statement “People are generally united in their answers to important ethical questions.” And even that presumes that people are united in their understanding of what the important ethical questions are.

When Karl Popper described the Paradox of Tolerance (“In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.”) he noted: “I do not imply for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would be most unwise.” But this does not itself offer a test that can be applied to determine which intolerant philosophies can be countered by rational argument and/or kept in check by public opinion. A universal and unwavering commitment to a norm of open debate and toleration of differences would imply that it is at least somewhat self-evident, or otherwise clearly established, which ideas are objectively bad.

If one actually believes in morally impermissible ideation, a reliance on exposure, argument and persuasion must then be seen as infallible routes to preventing their adoption. If failure is unacceptable, then it must be impossible. And history argues against that interpretation. In a society in which people commonly refer to their fellow citizens as unintelligent, undiscerning and/or unethical, I’m not sure that it’s reasonable to presume that people will conclude that bad ideas are doomed to failure and lack of adoption simply because they are bad. While it's true that a culture of ideological purity may sanction some people who do not deserve sanctioning, as long as the stakes are high, their sacrifice will be seen as an acceptable price.

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