I wholeheartedly agree with Shane Courtland when he writes in Civil American that being a philosopher means “giving pride of place to open discussion, encouraging intellectual diversity, and allowing a difference of opinion regarding even dangerous ideas.” I also believe it means, among other things, laying bare assumptions, defining terms, distinguishing between seemingly similar concepts, and resisting dogmatism. But having faith in philosophical method is worthless unless we keep in mind what the method is actually for – to allow us to inch closer to the truth even if we aren’t guaranteed a certain, secure, or imminent arrival to it. Therefore, I don’t agree with Courtland that a full embrace of philosophical method entails taking any and every theory seriously. While philosophical method does not always settle our questions, I believe its value lies in ruling out answers that are weaker than others and even disqualifying those that were derived fallaciously.
I also encourage students to draw various and competing conclusions on controversial topics like physician assisted suicide and the moral principles grounding the market system. But I do not ask them to build arguments where strong arguments cannot be built, for example on the torture of babies or the political exclusion of particular religious groups.
Like Courtland, I encourage students to express their views in class. I make pleas for courageous participation of those with minority views so that the entire class can benefit from a rich palette of ideas to consider. However, this is all done within certain acceptable bounds of conduct. Racial slurs and ad hominem arguments don’t have a place in these discussions because they are attacks and serve to erode the minimal amount of trust we require to hold ourselves together in discussion.
Since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time considering John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and his reminder of the danger inherent in thinking that our reasoning is infallible. We are human and we make mistakes. But I’m becoming convinced that certain ideas and public expressions of those ideas not only harm others directly (like racism and sexism), but also harm those who hold those ideas. Unlike bad tasting medicines, furthermore, such expressions offer no compensating good, but only harm. Philosophy shouldn’t just open the flood gates of all opinion. It should also help us to be gate keepers of good will and integrity. When considering the history of our discipline, we can appreciate other thinkers, like Socrates, who have attempted to be guides on our way to truth. His method was not used merely for its own sake, but for the purpose of calling us to examine ourselves and to live well. We should not have faith in mere tools alone, but in the judgment which ought to guide their use.
Dr. Sergia Hay is SOPHIA’s Membership and Chapter Development Officer and is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University. She is representing only her own point of view in this essay. For more information about Dr. Hay, visit her profile page in SOPHIA’s Directory.