Friday, July 01, 2005

Easy and hard questions

Texas Law professor Brad Leiter explains the difference between hard and easy questions:

America has become an astonishingly backwards and reactionary country over the last two decades, but huge swaths of the country are still not brainwashed, not cowed, not fooled by the daily servings of moral parochialism and factual distortions from Fox TV, and CBS, and NBC, and InstaIgnorance, and The New York Times, and on and on. The pathological liars and intellectual buffoons of the right haven't succeeded in making a real dent, yet, on the universities (though they have their sights set on them, as we had occasion to note many times before).

Against this cultural backdrop, it is important, in my view, not to adopt a moderate and temperate tone with respect to the purveyors of lies and half-truths, however earnest they may be. (I've addressed this topic before.) One should not be polite and dispassionate with respect to the folks at the Discovery [sic] Institute: these pathological liars and wannabe theocrats want to harm children, make them stupid, and timid, and twisted in their own image. To treat them with civility is to dignify their pretense that they are really interested in discovery, in knowledge, in honest intellectual inquiry.

So, too, one should not be respectful and calm when talking about crytpo-fascists and grinning apologists for inhumanity, even when they show up on CNN and Fox, or in the pages of The New York Times, or on blog sites with tens of thousands of visitors. Respectful, dispassionate treatment dignifies them, legitimates them, gives them a foothold in the space of reasons.

What always strikes me in debates about "tone" and "civility" is that the critics, without fail, will abandon civility and adopt a harsh tone in the presence of the views that they deem "beyond the pale." Invariably, it turns out that they simply draw the line somewhere else (a good example is here--see the last paragraph, and the second comment), and that what really galls them is not the fact of my harshness and dismissiveness--they are equally capable of that when it comes to, e.g., Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader or me--but rather that it is directed at the views they've been taught to take seriously, to think are serious, the views they've been led to believe are entitled to respect, even if one disagrees.

Unfortunately, they are wrong about where the line should be drawn. And they're not happy when I make that all too clear....

There is a more general point here, though it is one that may be hard to impress on those of limited intellectual ability or parochial horizons: not all topics are of equal
intellectual merit, and not every issue has "two sides" with equal epistemic merits. There are, to be sure, tons of "hard questions" with multiple serious answers in contention; but most of the discussion on the blog (especially the political discussion) pertains to what are "easy questions."

Start with some examples of hard questions, the kinds of questions I largely avoid on the blog (though some of them are the subject of my scholarly work):

  • Does the now orthodox thesis of the token-identity of the mental and the physical (the supervenience of the mental on the physical) have the unintended consequence that the mental is epiphenomenal? (Relatedly: is there really an intelligble kind of metaphysical relationship between properties [i.e., supervenience] that is intermediate between property-dualism and type-identity?)
  • Is there any reason to think that putative moral facts will figure in the best causal explanation of any aspect of our experience?
  • What exactly is Nietzsche's doctrine of the will to power, and what role is it playing in the argument of the Genealogy?
  • Do authoritative reasons in Raz's sense really have to be exclusionary reasons, or will it suffice if they simply have more "weight" than other kinds of reasons?
  • What reasons, if any, does (or can) Quine give for his naturalism, and are they sound?
  • Is it an obstacle to descriptive jurisprudence that the concepts central to law are (as I have called them) hermeneutic concepts, i.e., concepts whose extension is supposed to be fixed by the role they play in how people understand themselves and their social world?
  • What is Foucault's view of the cognitive and epistemic status of the claims of the human sciences?

By contrast, here are some easy questions:

  • Was the U.S. justified in invading Iraq?
  • Are Bush's economic policies in the interests of most people?
  • Is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection a well-confirmed scientific theory?
  • Is there a social security "crisis"?

These questions, and many others, are easily addressed in the blogosphere, since there is no serious--or at least no honest or intelligent--dispute about the epistemic merits of the possible answers. Where I get into "trouble," of course, is with those who can't tell the difference between the two kinds of questions, the ones who think that the dialectical care, caution, and intellectual humility required for the genuinely "hard" questions ought to apply to the easy questions as well. These folks are a bit
miffed when I dismiss their positions out of hand. But that is what their positions usually deserve.

Yeah, that's about right.

No comments: