[This is a guest-post by Neil McArthur.--ES]
I first read Arthur Koestler as a teen-ager. He came to me recommended by what I then considered to be the highest possible intellectual authority: Sting. The Police’s visionary album Ghosts in the Machine is an extended riff on Koestler’s book of (almost) that title, and much of the equally-wondrous Synchronicity was inspired by his Roots of Coincidence. I devoured both books, and a couple of years later Koestler’s lucid introduction to the scientific revolution, The Sleepwalkers, was one of the texts for my undergraduate course on the history and philosophy of science. But it was his brilliant, harrowing novel Darkness at Noon, an exposition of the Stalinist show trials, that affected me most. It helped shake me out of the far-left idealism that had somehow managed to survive the fall of the Berlin wall. It still quite literally gives me nightmares.
Koestler spent much of his life travelling through Europe and America as an intellectual superstar, on what the Observer recently described as “a rolling bacchanal of binge drinking, fashionable restaurants and sex with a dizzying array of star-struck young women.” When these women failed to succumb to his charms, as they often did, he raped them. He was a violent serial predator, and his circle of fashionable intellectual friends, which included Sartre, Orwell, and Timothy Leary, all knew it. No one said anything while Koestler was alive, and when in 2000 a biography finally documented the appalling truth about what the Observer laconically called his “personal failings”, several members of the liberal intellegentsia stepped forward to minimise his misdeeds.
I don’t think Koestler could be described as a moral philosopher, but anyone who has read his brave essays such as “The Yogi and The Commissar” knows that he certainly aspired to be a voice of conscience, and his work offers a strong, and often inspiring, moral vision. There has recently been some discussion on-line of the question, do moral philosophers have a special obligation to be minimally decent people? I have trouble, I confess, making sense of the idea that anyone has a special obligation to be minimally decent. Surely we all have an equal obligation to be so. To turn the question around, I cannot imagine that we could mitigate our condemnation of someone who behaves monstrously on the grounds that, well, at least he is not a moral philosopher. But I think that the Koestler case raises another question that has gotten less attention, but that presses on all of us who ourselves aspire to be minimally decent [see here--ES].
Koestler was able to find his victims and get away with his numerous assaults because of his fame as an intellectual. Given that famous intellectuals who are also sexual predators have their predations enabled by their celebrity, how are we to behave towards their work and ideas? Koestler is now long dead, so teaching and citing his work does not put anyone at risk. But pretend he were alive. Could we teach him, cite him, write about him? The simplest solution would be just to ignore him. One might think we should take him off our syllabi, refuse to cite him or write papers on his work, and refuse to invite him to speak and to attend his lectures. We would thus deprive him of the oxygen on which he depends in order to commit his acts of violence with impunity. Collectively, we have a lot of power. Most prestigious universities, for instance, are disinclined to hire professors who are never cited and are never invited to speak at conferences.
But the view that we have an obligation not to promote the work of moral monsters runs hard against two other, very fundamental obligations we have as philosophers and academics: to expose our peers and students to critical discussion of the best, most important ideas available to us, and to give the originators of those ideas due credit for their insights. If Rawls were still alive and if (per impossibile, I dare say) he was found to have committed unconscionable acts, could we live without the Difference Principle? If we were to ignore A Theory of Justice, would we not be guilty of the worst professional negligence? And could we in good conscience discuss its central ideas without attributing them?
At least in the classroom we could, I suppose, try to contextualise the work, by informing our students the sort of person the author was. But Koestler was never charged with a crime, and, though historians have managed to accumulate quite compelling evidence, it would surely have been slanderous during his lifetime to introduce his writings as the work of a rapist.
Philosophers often enjoy wrestling with seemingly-intractable questions. I confess I don’t enjoy wrestling with this one. I’m grateful for any insights anyone has.