The [foreign] seamen were not unskilled in managing wind and water; but they were most grateful to him, Raphael said, for showing them the use of the compass, of which they had been entirely ignorant. For that reason they had formerly sailed with great timidity, and only in summer. Now they have such trust in that loadstone that no longer fear winter at all, and to be careless rather than safe. There is some danger that through their imprudence this device, which the thought would be so advantageous to them, may become the cause of such mischief.—in Utopia (by Thomas More), Part I. (Edited by George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams; Cambridge)
Centuries before social scientists started to worry about so-called risk compensation, More has one of his characters recognize that acquiring novel technology can generate overconfidence (from timidity to imprudence) and move agents’ so-called risk-appetites (perceived advantageousness). If the accompanying harms are social/political then the introduction (or teaching) of new technologies has to be managed carefully (for more on law & economics style reasoning in Utopia, recall). One attentive reader of More, Francis Bacon, makes this issue an important theme in his New Atlantis, where even very useful technologies are regularly shielded from government and population by a secretive scientific elite.
More returns to the issue of technological transmission in Part II when he shows the reader how Utopians acquire foreign technologies and learning from Raphael. So, in what follows I do not wish to pretend that I have dealt sufficiently with More’s perspective on the topic. But it’s also possible to read the compass episode as an parable on the nature of teaching (of philosophy, broadly conceived), responsible speech, and expert guidance. For one of the main set-pieces of Part I of Utopia is an exchange over what to do when expert advice is unwelcome:
“Now don’t you suppose if I set these ideas and others like them before men strongly inclined to the contrary, they would turn deaf ears to me?”--Raphael
“Stone deaf, indeed, there’s no doubt about it’, I said, ‘and by heaven it’s no wonder! To tell you the truth, I don’t think you should thrust forward ideas of this sort, or offer advice [to kings] that you know for certain not be listened to. What good can it do? When your listeners are already prepossessed against you and firmly convinced of opposite opinions, how can you win over their mind with such out-of-the-way-speeches? This academic philosophy is pleasant enough in the private conversation of close friends, but in the councils of kings where great matters are debated with great authority, there is no room for it.”[--More]
“That is just what I was saying’, Raphael replied. ‘There is no place for philosophy in the councils of kings.’
‘Yes, it is true’, I said, “that there is no place for this school philosophy which supposes ever topic suitable for every occasion. But there is another philosophy, better suited for the role of a citizen, that takes its cue, adapts itself to the drama in hand and acts its part neatly and appropriately. This is the philosophy for you to use…If you cannot pluck up bad ideas by the root, or cure longstanding evils to your heart’s content, you must not therefore abandon the commonwealth….Instead, by an indirect approach, you must strive and struggle as best you can to handle everything tactfully – and thus what you cannot turn to good, you may at least make as little bad as possible. For it is impossible to make everything good unless all men are good, and that I don’t quite expect to see for quite a few years yet.’[--More]
‘The only result of this,’ he said, ‘will be that while I try to cure the madness of others, I’ll be raving along with them myself….You wouldn’t stand a chance of changing anything for the better by that “indirect approach”. This is why Plato in a very fine comparison declares that wise men are right in keeping from public business.’[—Raphael.]
More distinguishes between academic philosophy, which speaks truth directly without regard to context. This would be prudential only in public circumstances where much of such advices would be dispensable anyway, that is, in context of well-ordered public institutions (or with philosopher-kings). Direct truth speaking is only appropriate for the ivory tower and among private friends. As an aside, a few centuries later Hume would bemoan the rarity of such intellectual friendship, wistfully looking back at Cicero’s circle; and Adam Smith would commemorate Hume as having such intimate friendships (see here and here). Either way, More implies that sticking to such a theoretical approach to philosophy is uncivilized.
As More’s characters recognize the demand side for expert guidance structures the content of speech among prudential experts. And only experts that are willing to play the game will be heard. This means that in non-well-ordered societies, the available (that is spoken) public council will be sup-optimal from the point of view of truth and general social utility. Note that More’s insight holds even if there is no explicit censorship. More points to a whole range of mechanisms (from group-think, to status seeking, to misaligned incentives) that will be prevent explicit truth from having a seat at the decision-making table.
The character More suggests that civilized philosophers (so-called theoreticians) lower their standards not just in terms of truth speaking – he clearly implies they need to adopt the art of flattery and Raphael is explicitly concerned it also entails practicing Noble lies --, but also in terms of ends sought: now she aims to ameliorate the bad rather than seeking the good. (It could be worse, of course; the expert could just be optimizing her own position.)
Rather than resolving the debate between academic and civilized philosophy, it is worth noting that in the compass example, Raphael learns that his intellectual philanthropy is not sensitive to the unexpected consequences of his education on his students. It is not obvious that transferring technology has made the recipients better off (if they become more accident prone). So, we can say, that Part I of Utopia raises two kinds of concerns about context-insensitive forms of education: in one (e.g., the compass) case it can make the recipient worse off—we are not told if this makes Raphael more cautious in the future. In the other (that is, speaking truth to corrupt power) it is self-undermining and Raphael has learned from experience to avoid supplying it. At the close of part I of Utopia, More leaves his reader with the question if truth-telling, or philosophocal education, can ever be appropriate in public. But he does so in a format -- what I would call philosophical prophecy -- that is far removed from the academic and not wholly the civilized philosophy.