To lock yourself up in an ivory tower is impossible and undesirable. To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer. We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is.--Orwell (1948) "Writers and Leviathan."
Liam Kofi Bright ignited discussion on Facebook of a (fairly) recent paper by (BHLer) Bas van der Vossen. This paper argues for a normative conception of the division of labor, between "consumers," that is, "activists," and producers, that is, political philosophers (19), of political philosophy such that pure specialization between them should be maintained:
for precisely those academics that work on politically relevant topics, most prominently among them political philosophers. For them, the university should become more like an Ivory Tower, not less.... the problem with these [political] activities is that they encourage us to think about ourselves in partisan terms. And this is incompatible with our academic professional responsibilities.--Bas van der Vossen (2015) "In Defense of the Ivory Tower: Why Philosophers Should Stay Out of Politics" (1-2)
Before I get to his main argument, I want to note, first, that throughout his paper Van der Vossen equivocates among (i) 'working on politically relevant topics' and (ii) "those who are serious about thinking through political issues" and (iii) being "paid to think about politics." (On (iii) he notes that political philosophers do not have a monopoly and he also lists "sociology, political science, economics, gender studies, psychology." (2)) By this I do not mean that (i-iii) are not synonymous in the strict sense (they are not). Rather, there are quite a few sciences (genetics, climate-science, epidemiology, civil engineering, IT, etc.) that are politically extremely relevant, but that are not, in the first instance, about thinking about political issues (although, interestingly enough, it does happen). Because Van der Vossen ignores those latter sciences he can escape having to think about difficult, hybrid contexts where the distinction between consumer/producer is not so easy to draw. In what follows, where necessary, I distinguish between policy relevant research and research about politics and political issues.
Second, Van der Vossen's paper presupposes non-trivial commitments about the good life: "Many people stay out of political activism and they do just fine. Activism is not a necessary ingredient of a good life." (18) One need not be an elitist, a Republican-thinker, or a follower of Hannah Arendt to see that appealing to what "many people" do and that they are doing fine is an odd standard. The paper is also oddly complacent about the status quo (b) "many people in even the healthiest democracies around the world are not politically active and, in the grand scheme of things, these democracies seem to do just fine." (19) Even if this were true (when the paper was published in 2015 [i would reject this]) a cosmopolitan, political philosopher may take an interest in the health of transnational political subjects and promote these via transnational activism.
Third, and this is more important, Van der Vossen takes for granted that the bridge between consumers and producers of political philosophy can be bridged without the producers being politically active. His is a magical theory of dissemination; if you produce it, it will be consumed. This may be true for (lots of) highways, but it is rarely true otherwise. While there are many different ways in which the gap can be bridged between policy relevant research and politics, a key way is by way of what Merel Lefevere and I call aggregators. Aggregators are distinguished researchers, whose professional function is, in part, to act as an interface between research and policy. There are many different kinds of aggregators (journal editors, science policy-advisors, science-journalists, etc.) and not all of them maintain active research profile or need to do so. But because cutting edge research is often extremely complex/subtle it is important that some of the best researchers are also aggregators. In practice, these researchers-aggregators often have high prestige within the field (think of Singer, Pogge [sic], Nussbaum, Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve, Norman Daniels, etc.). (This is not the place to explore all the tricky issues pertaining to this class of researcher-aggregator, especially if they deviate from professional consensus and advocate their own views, but recall this post.) In some grant-driven environments, researchers are, in fact, expected by the grant agency to play some role as an aggregator or actively disseminate their research.
That he misses the very issue becomes clear when we turn to his argument (which he has helpfully summarized):
(1) People who take up a certain role or profession thereby acquire a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at their tasks
(2) The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues
(3) Therefore, political philosophers have a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at seeking the truth about political issues
(4) Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues
(5) Therefore, political philosophers have a prima facie moral duty to avoid being politically active (17-18)
Aggregators clearly violate the conclusion of the argument, But one could accept all the premises of the argument, even its conclusions, and still see a need for aggregators in practice. That is, (5) is at best a defeasible duty. It becomes defeasible for two interesting, interdependent reasons: (a) research is esoteric, and so requires expertise to navigate; (b) political activists lack time to explore and master an esoteric realm.
In addition, it is, of course, also an empirical question if aggregators really become worse at their research. (This is not to deny that Van der Vossen draws on rich empirical research on the effects of partisanship and also about motivated reasoning and rationalization--including work by Dan Sperber that I happen to be reading this week, too.) I bet the most admired 20th century professional economists -- by other economists -- were Samuelson, Arrow, Friedman, and Keynes.* While the first two cultivated a decidedly technocratic image, it's hard to say they stayed out of politics--they certainly functioned as aggregators in the sense I use the word. Would they have been better at their craft if they stayed clear of policy relevance? That's hard to imagine. Their biases animate their research. Would they have been even better researchers if they stayed clear of policy and the role of aggregator? That's a tricky counterfactual. I am not confident it can be answered.
So, far I have pretended to accept all his premises. Regular readers, who may discern a skeptical strain in these Digressions, may suspect that I would hesitate at (2). But, for the sake of argument, I accept it. As it happens, I think there are also aesthetic goals of research that are not properly captured by 'truth.' (Not unlike Marcus Arvan I think there are also excellent reasons to think that there are other very respectable, epistemic and moral goals of research that may have to be balanced.)
But I close with a final objection that is directed at the way Van der Vossen cashes out premises (3-4). For, he thinks that biased research is incompatible with the pursued of truth. That is, he conflates unbiased (and partisan) research with truth-apt research.** As the previous paragraphs make clear individual researchers are part of a larger epistemic process in which motivated reasoning may well have some use. In fact, this theme is a feature, not a bug, of the law, which is an adversarial process in which the conflict between motivated reasoning, advocacy, helps uncover the truth. Obviously, academic research is not fully analogous with that (and being lawyer-ly is, in an important sense, inimical to a proper, collaborative research ethos). But if we think of research as a community-activity, then we can immediate see that's compatible with individual bias--as long as these individual biases contribute to a social, epistemic process that is truth-conducive. (Regular readers will recognize in the previous sentence my interest in combating biases -- purportedly truth-apt status quo and hierarchy biases -- with other biases in research.) That is, the process requires mechanisms and filters that help to transform the biases in truth-conducive activity. There is a nice formal (see here for useful discussion) and empirical literature on the role of diversity in research, when it is or is not apt. [So, I am certainly not saying that all individual biases are good!] So, for (4) needs to be rewritten as follows:
(4+)Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues unless the research institutions in which we operate are designed to prevent our biases from undermining the epistemic process.
I started this post with a quote from Orwell. Throughout his writings, Orwell discusses the problems of partisanship and its relationship to (artistic) integrity (recall, for example, this post; and here). And he discerned that we should not conflate partisanship and group-think with all political activism. That is to say, he recognizes that party-politics and group-enforced ideology do corrupt (he was primarily interested in writing, but his arguments carry over easily to research). But the answer to this need not be political quietism or withdrawal into the ivory tower. The problem is party-politics and ideologies.
For, there are lots of ways one can be politically active in which one's research (artistic vision) need not be undermined at all. Sometimes this is due to functional role (e.g., recall the stuff above aggregators above). But sometimes is due to the fact that corrupting elements can be avoided. This is most clear in advocacy work on single issues (death penalty, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, basic income, human rights, racism, etc.). The researcher can be uncompromising in her single-issue advocacy and maintain her integrity. (Grant me the distinction between single-issue and systemic ideology.) Often this generates a kind of lack of moderation, even fanaticism in the name of truth. While there are problems with that, these are political problems not research problems.