Friday, February 23, 2018

When to engage

Elizabeth Barnes has a nice piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on an important topic: when is it a good idea to engage in a serious way with harmful and offensive ideas? Barnes draws a distinction between, on the one hand, Peter Singer’s discussions of the value of disabled people, and on the other, a hypothetical philosophical argument in favour of rape. She finds both stances morally problematic, offensive, and pretty clearly false, but sees value in engaging with the former, but not with the latter. The difference lies the opinions of people at large. As Barnes puts it: “A pro-rape argument isn’t an important ‘option on the table’ in debates about sexual ethics unless (by repeatedly discussing and citing it) we make it one”; by contrast, Singer’s view about disabled people reflect widespread assumptions.

I like Barnes’s piece, and I think her strategy of looking beyond views’ intrinsic features to social facts about how views are distributed, is a sensible and correct one. (I wrote something making a similar point a little while back.) That said, I think I have a couple of points of disagreement about how this kind of framework plays when we look to specifics.