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Should ethical constraints be applied to abstract philosophical inquiry?

Matthew Brown, student in Philosophy, University of Edinburgh

How academically free are we as researchers, teachers, and students? In the practical and social sciences, any exploration that directly puts a subject at risk or that might indirectly harm people in other ways must demonstrate that this has been considered and sufficient steps have been taken to mitigate this. You could argue that this is a limitation on academic freedom, which I think it is. Just as not being allowed to murder is a limitation on our freedom, it is one we accept because the risks otherwise are too high. What about abstract philosophical inquiry? Generally understood to be the one domain where an absolutist approach to freedom is appropriate as the objects of inquiry are concepts in the abstract that are detached from the concrete real world i.e., “the unencumbered exploration of ideas”[1]. However, there are those who see a risk in such an approach.

One of the assigned readings in my honours epistemology course introduced the concept of doxastic wronging, the idea that beliefs on their own are sufficient to wrong another person. That it is the belief itself that harms not actions taken on the basis of belief or actions taken in the forming of beliefs. For example, the wife of a former alcoholic coming to believe her husband has been drinking when he hasn’t, even though he smells of wine after attending a works dinner. This hurts his feelings, and it is argued that there is a sense that she has wronged him by believing so and that the wrong done is to be found in the belief not in her coming to form the belief or expressing that belief to him.

The author, Rima Basu, has a forthcoming paper to be published in Hypatia[2] where she argues, using the idea of doxastic wronging, that philosophy is a morally hazardous practice. As a result, abstract conceptual inquiry ought to have similar ethical constraints applied to it as you would find in practical scientific research, where research would be permitted pending approval from an ethics committee. Instead of seeking to prevent direct harm to subjects or indirect harm to individuals as a result of research, the ethics committee for abstract philosophical inquiry would seek to prevent symbolic harm (hurt feelings) under the pretence of respecting individuals from certain vulnerable groups. Who could argue with that? Well, this guy, when such a pretence is used as an emotional and rhetorical manipulation to push for radical policies that would deprive people of their freedom to take problems seriously by considering all that can be conceivably considered around a topic.

Basu highlights three main risks: a risk in the methods used, a risk in the ideas under consideration, and a risk to the subjects of the inquiry. She emphasises that the work of philosophers is of some consequence within a complex social and political world and as such ought to have ethical constraints placed upon it as other fields of consequence do. Basu suggests that one way to do philosophy in a way that is respectful to all would be to bring in a kind of moral encroachment[3] to epistemic standards in philosophical inquiry. That is, even though you may have strong evidence for a claim or idea, if the view under consideration could arguably be considered as racist, for example, then a researcher ought to be held to higher standards of justification to avoid the moral harm of racist ideas. To be clear, this would be applied to all ideas, methods, and abstractions considered harmful by the ethics committee that would determine what can and cannot be investigated philosophically or what standards one is to be held to.

I am sceptical, particularly in the context of the many arguments about the structural nature of racism – and other social ills, i.e., that racism permeates throughout society and can be found in all behaviours, interactions, and processes[4]. By this model literally anything can be argued to be “racist” if you can make an argument about its position in a structurally racist society and either contributing to or failing to resist against said structure. So, only researchers accused of engaging with structurally racist ideas or beliefs are to be held to higher standards of justification, assuming they receive the go-ahead from an ethics committee at all.

Not only does this double standard (presumably because some ideas and research are anti-racist?[5]) seem unfair, but it also seems incredibly gameable. It does not take a lot of imagination to construct an argument that some researcher is perpetuating structural racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia, etc., due to the sociology of their field and its historical exclusion of other ways of knowing and its unconscious existence within a racist, sexist, transphobic, etc., system. Such an argument could easily be constructed and deployed against a field[6] or researcher who is looking into something unpopular. They would then be held to higher standards – perhaps the high standards of the sceptic? – or prevented from doing so all together, while everyone else gets to do their research, being held to a lower standard of justification having avoided sensitive topics. Sensitive topics that would be determined by the aforementioned ethics committee. Which raises the question: who gets to decide what is sensitive and what is not; and what theoretical framework will be used to determine this? This is a similar question to one that arises around hate speech legislation; who gets to define hate? Dr Jordan B Peterson, in several interviews, proposes an answer to these questions: ‘the people you least want to be defining hate and offence’, in other words, tyrants.

Regarding the risk to the subjects of inquiry, Basu argues that in abstracting concepts to investigate there is a kind of removal from the standard moral relationships of the day-to-day. What if, during philosophical inquiry, questions about the worthwhileness of someone’s life or whether it is morally permissible to engage in a discriminatory practice are considered? Basu argues that the person(s) we have abstracted from are still the objects of study and not merely the abstraction. The conclusion of our investigation could have consequences for people. She gives an example of a keynote speaker who suggested that homosexuality was a disability and how this was reasonably taken as offensive to the LGBTQ community and to disabled people. To provide an example of my own, there have been a number of occasions where discussions have taken place around the topic of whiteness as pathology which may equally be seen to be offensive to a certain group of people.

I think this is a fair concern, there are risks, people can be offended by what is under consideration, some things under consideration – if acted upon – could cause harm. This is why I am writing this piece. I believe that imposing ethical constraints on philosophical inquiry would mean the end of academic freedom and that this would have disastrous consequences for the academy and society if implemented. That being said, I still think that Basu ought to be able to explore the concept and to argue for its benefit by abstracting from the academic environment and constructing a model with which to attempt to demonstrate her position. What I do not think she ought to be able to do, is to actively advocate for such an approach while she is in the process of attempting to demonstrate its utility. I won’t deny that there are risks, there are always risks; but having the freedom to consider these for ourselves and to point out where people have missed such risks is what we would be outsourcing to an ethics committee if such ethical constraints were placed on philosophical inquiry.

Basu calls for an ethical “reckoning” in philosophy while advocating for what, I argue, would be the end of academic freedom. If ethical constraints are placed on certain ideas, methods, and objects of abstraction, then academic freedom will cease to exist, even if we still use the term. If one has to ask permission to think about something as an academic, then one is not free to think about that thing as an academic. If one has to ask permission to think about something as an academic and can go ahead and do this regardless of permission, then the constraining mechanism is redundant. So, if ethical constraints are imposed on abstract inquiry, then as an academic you cannot be free to think about, discuss, argue for or against, any idea not permitted. The “unencumbered exploration of ideas” is what academic freedom is, open access to the conceivably possible. Without this, there is no academic freedom.

[1] Basu, Rima (forthcoming). Risky Inquiry: Developing an Ethics for Philosophical Practice. Hypatia.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Race Equality Charter: To which the University of Edinburgh is a signatory.

[5] See Kendi, I.X. (2019) How to Be an Anti-Racist.

[6] See The University of Bristol’s Black Lives Matter statement from the school of mathematics.

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