Turning Bad Rubbish into Good Lessons

Posted on May 30, 2018 by

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Alternately titled: What we talk about when we talk about Jordan Peterson.

I should begin by saying that all thoughts here are mine. They are not endorsed or shared by the University of Calgary, the Department of Philosophy, or any other group with which I’m affiliated, unless those folks choose to endorse or share them.

One of the persistent problems in teaching philosophy (and, I suspect, other subjects) is that students are often eager to discuss positions advanced in popular media, the positions their parents argue for over a holiday dinner or that friends share on Twitter. Some of those positions are philosophically (including ethically, metaphysically, epistemologically, and so on) bad or even outright silly.

Still, it is not immediately clear if and how a course instructor ought to deal with those positions. After all, philosophers are people and (as such) have opinions about things happening in the world, including arguments raised in editorials or on podcasts.

The particular discussion that has become salient for me, and many of my colleagues, is the discussion of various popular works styled as intellectual that are not up to snuff, but receive widespread attention in the media and (as a result) make their way into the lives of our students and our classrooms. There are various iterations of this; recently the work of Jordan Peterson and Christina Hoff Sommers has popped up; at various other points, I’ve had students bring up William Lane Craig, Sam Harris, the anti-philosophical physicists, and various religious and political leaders.

A student comes up to me and says, “What do you think about x?” where x is some thinker on that list or an argument they’ve made in print or on youtube.

If you don’t know who some or all of these people are, they’re largely grouped by a unifying characterization: they’re people who are smart and/or educated and present arguments that, while popular, are philosophically bad. To avoid folks asking me to comment on why I’ve included each of the relevant names I call out below, I’ve linked to critiques of their arguments by other (more senior) philosophers.

I want to get into the details of how I think about answering those questions, and how I have approached it. I recognize that there are a lot of different lines that emerge around this issue, and hope that some of my colleagues and more experienced folks will also share some thoughts on this issue in the comments, correspondence, or other modes of interfacing.

Developing the problem

There are a few dimensions of these questions that are worth pulling apart and talking about. The first, and most potent, is the question of whether these views are harmful, and how to address them.

In the case of some areas of discussion that arise in class, especially in ethics, it is common to come across some views that the students might see as benign (or that act as benign in the context of the classroom) but aren’t. The discussions around issues of Peterson’s work, or the discussions of race advanced by Charles Murray and (more recently) Sam Harris, are paradigm cases of views students might initially take to be pretty harmless, but can cause harm under various circumstances. After all, such views influence the way that people interact with each other and the way that they advocate for particular policy positions. The classical picture of masculinity that crops up in Jordan Peterson’s pop-psychology is a view that is problematic as soon as it comes into contact with the social world.

Celso Neto has discussed the philosophical issues around race here, though those discussions tend to be much more acutely attuned to the ethical concerns than Murray and Harris are.

Some views genuinely are benign. That does not make them particularly defensible, but certain views about (e.g.) the relationship between God and moral facts are not going to cause serious problems unless they are supplemented by a lot of other problematic material. The views are still bad, but the fact that they’re less likely to produce harm does change the sense of urgency.

You can see William Lane Craig’s debate with Nielsen for positions that on God and moral facts that, while philosophically vacuous and silly, are not particularly dangerous.

Another dimension is the context in which the discussion of the idea arises. If a student brings something up in office hours, in a private discussion, then the norms for such discussion differ significantly than if it comes up in lecture. (After all, in a private discussion with a student, we can focus on the audience of one; in a lecture, we can’t.) Discussions in public writing, in blog posts like this that is likely to be distributed outside of the boundaries of my department, differ. Further, the standards for disciplines are different; someone who brings up an implausible theory in a biology course is likely to get a different reaction than in a philosophy course, given the approaches to discussing implausible theories in each domain.

Finally, as an extension of the question of context, there is a concern about whether the issue is appropriate, and the level of discussion that is reasonable. For example, in a course on euthanasia, it isn’t appropriate to talk about very tangential views on Peterson’s “criticism” of post-modernism; in a unit where it is relevant, though, to classical and feminist ethical theories, it may be relevant. Further, there’s a difference between how one goes about discussing the issue with someone who is in their first course on ethics, in contrast to a graduate-level seminar.

These variables might seem pedantic and excessive, but they play a large role in understanding the following section and, I hope, will offer some help in avoiding confusion in discussion of the issue, by establishing the different kinds of cases where our obligations and opportunities may differ.

Marking up some potential decisions

Perhaps the most common point of discussion that comes up around this question is whether it is appropriate to address these questions at all. There are a few interesting reasons to think that academics ought not engage with these views; it seems to lend credibility to popular views that is not warranted and it elevates their position in the discourse. This sort of worry is a serious one, but I’m not sure it counts against talking about these arguments so much as informing how we talk about them.

Another is that the discussion of arguments, especially those with racist, misogynistic, transphobic, or otherwise morally problematic content can alienate students who belong to the impacted groups. This is the most serious worry I have about the discussion; again, I think this does more to raise the issue of how we respond, rather than suggest that we shouldn’t respond at all.

Hopefully it is clear that my view is that we should discuss the questions, but do it in a way circumscribed by these worries.

The most puzzling challenge for me in this discussion is the question of how candid it is appropriate to be. I have strong opinions both about the content of a lot of these arguments and on the various implications of their endorsement. How candid should I be with students when trying to have this discussion? Does deciding not to be candid put my in a position of being dishonest or deceptive about my own views? I find this to be a serious challenge, especially when balanced against practical and ethical considerations; this marks a complex set of little branches within a decision tree.

More important, in my view, than the question of being candid about my own positions, is thinking about the way that the articulation will be of benefit (or not) to students; in the context of a lecture hall, this is especially difficult, because there are groups of students that subdivide in different ways: those sympathetic to the argument; those who are unfamiliar with the argument; those who may be adversely effected by the consequences of the argument; and so on. These competing interests are common in the ethics literature, but they make a mess of many decisions.

How do I respond in a way that is to the benefit of the community of students? This requires parsing a few more difficult questions; what is the intended and appropriate benefit to students? How do I think about balancing the interests of students? How do I practically go about achieving any of that?

These are questions and branches on the tree that I hope are at least clear enough in this rough sketch for folks to locate where their own thinking lies. The purpose of the longer set-up is to acknowledge that I’m still developing my own thinking, and so trying to parse the problem really is the most important thing for me. It also helps those who might disagree or have improvements to identify the bits that I’m neglecting in the treatment, rather than trying to work backwards over the inferences.

A perspective on this discussion

One of the relevant issues has to do with what obligations we hold as in teaching a class. Developing learning objectives will vary significantly based on discipline, level of the course, and general university and social context; for my current purpose, and what seems to come about through the discussion I’ve had with other faculty, is that the principle obligation is to help students develop an understanding of the relevant concepts and skills necessary to reason over the subject matter, both in the course and (optimistically) beyond. There are some concrete ways of fleshing this out, but let’s fix the context to an introductory ethics course.

One obligation for instructing such a course is to position students with the understanding of the basics of theory and modes of evaluation to reason over the ethical issues they encounter in life and over the broader ethical issues discussed in the discipline and in society. These include being able to evaluate ethical arguments around and involved with political positions, health care, social interactions, and so on.

Cashing out concrete objectives (like those that I would include in a syllabus) is more difficult and would require a longer chain of reasoning, much of which would be irrelevant to this discussion, but one is to get students to acknowledge and understand the ethical implications of ostensibly banal beliefs and behaviors they hold or will otherwise come across in their lives. I think this obligations some answer to the question, and an answer that acknowledges the problematic social context and significant philosophical (and general intellectual) failures of the relevant figure.

I’ve alluded above to the competing interests of students, and this is the biggest challenge I’ve had in discussing these things with students in public. (During office hours, it is easy, as I can just focus on what will be beneficial to that particular student’s understanding.) The competing interests are maximizing the satisfaction of the learning objectives of the student bringing up the relevant thinker (and others in the class who are Peterson-curious, or sympathetic) and those who find the arguments repulsive.

My approach to the exercise is simple. First, give an account of what I take a central argument to be; second, ask the student if that sounds about right to make sure they get what the argument is and that I’ve understood it; last, take it apart as quickly and cleanly as I can (while remaining considerably more sympathetic than would reflect my own internal attitudes). The strategy is to show by doing, but also to maximize the likelihood that students on both sides will understand why the arguments are bad.

Tying the last loose end

I’ve noted above, without much qualification, that I regard the arguments of presented by the implicated public figures as “bad.” I haven’t really said what I mean by that, and have largely depended on the sympathies of those who have arguments that they consider bad (and the general agreement among my colleagues that the folks I cite at the beginning fit that mold). But to the uninitiated reader, or those who perhaps want a little more philosophical precision, I have something particular in mind when I talk about bad arguments.

I don’t mean arguments that are merely unsound. In philosophy, there are lots of arguments that are cool, interesting, informative, or meet some other standards of philosophical virtue despite being unsound. Kant’s arguments for the unqualified goodness of the will are almost certainly unsound; they are also very interesting and provide useful insights into Kantian approaches to metaphysics and ethics.

What I mean by “bad” is that an argument meets a few general conditions. None of these are strictly necessary or sufficient, but the more of them an argument meets, the worse it is likely to be:

  1. Includes basic logical fallacies. (Most commonly: affirming the consequent.)
  2. Involves category mistakes regarding central subjects of the argument.
  3. Makes anachronistic claims about central subjects.
  4. Equivocates with regard to central subjects.
  5. Applies a standard criticism to interlocutors, while failing to satisfy that standard itself.
  6. Asserts substantive empirical claims without adequate empirical support.

This is an incomplete list, but useful as a starting point. Peterson’s discussions commit 1, 3, 5, and 6 fairly clearly and regularly. (They also commit 2 and 4, but usually in more subtle ways.)

These are the sort of basic mistakes to which it is often useful to direct students’ attention, as they can be expressed intuitively and wind up as decisive philosophical objections to the arguments in which they appear. I have found that parsing arguments for these basic conceptual mistakes provides success with regard to learning objectives, and helps students to evaluate and engage with those arguments when the circumstances prevent themselves.

For any given professional engagement with students or the general public, a hope is that we can communicate, demonstrate, or help cultivate some useful philosophical idea or skill; in these sorts of discussions, it seems like there is a useful opportunity to develop the critical thinking and evaluative abilities that are a marker of good and responsible civic and intellectual engagement. That strikes me as the major intellectual and moral strand running through these discussions.