Ethics Publishing Ethics

I’ve been thinking recently about what’s going on when one’s engaged in a piece of ethical writing, and what counts as a proper parameter for it.  Particularly, I’ve been wondering whether there’s any obligation to be consistent between papers – is there any need for the papers that one publishes to be compatible at all?

Obviously, people sometimes change their minds over this or that issue, and perhaps they issue retractions or write papers saying, “In 2002 I thought that the sky was blue and the grass green.  However, I have been forced to reconsider this in the light of…” and so on.  That’s not really what I have in mind, though.  My thought has more to do with a broadly ethical question to do with the kind of role ethicists ought to take in print or the kind of thing a philosophical researcher ought to be.

Here’s the thought: Imagine that I can see an argument in favour of a given position, and an argument against it.  Each is formally valid – the difference is that they disagree on a premise.  (Let’s say that one is consequentialist, and the other non-consequentialist.)  Would it be OK for me to write and publish two papers – one advocating each position – if I could do so well?

Part of me thinks that there’d be no problem at all, and there’s a couple of reasons for this. In the first place, I think that a lot of what marks a good paper has less to do with the conclusion than with the quality of the argument.  Normally, we think that a true conclusion ought to be the natural consequence of a good-enough argument, and that’s possibly a sufficient reason for valuing good argument.  But it’s also the case that we could have two very good arguments that are incompatible with each other, and settling which is correct would rely on a settling a higher-order dispute (such as that between Millians and Kantians).  Now, since there’s no space or need in most journal articles to delve into whether Kantians or Millians (or whatever) are correct, it looks like that higher-level dispute could be safely ignored.  One might say, “For Millian reasons, I shall take it as read that x” – but an examination of those Millian reasons is often de trop.  (Think of the JME‘s own fairly short word limits – there’s no way you could defend Mill there.  Even in a journal like the JAP or Law and Philosophy, you couldn’t begin to do that.)

So, for a given problem, there might well be any number of contradictory but (prima facie) equally tenable positions. Thus I might feel that I could adopt position A on Millian grounds and ~A on anti-Millian grounds, and be able to argue for each equally well for just as long as I ignore, not improperly, the question of whether one ought to be a Millian or not.  (Part of this goes back to a point I made here before about the difference between an ethicist and an activist – ethicists, as I see them, might want to defend a position, but it’s not really our job to lobby therefor.  Rather, we’re supposed to be about the cool disinterested scrutiny of positions that one might hold.)

In the second, I do tend to think that an enjoyable aspect of philosophical writing is its strategic nature – that is, that one of the reasons we might value good argument is broadly aesthetic.  We might feel that we can take pleasure in mounting an argument for its own sake and not have to worry about the outcome – rather as a barrister’s job is to argue for his client and not to decide on his guilt or innocence.  In other words – you can treat a paper as a game in which the object is to defeat your (notional) opponent efficiently and elegantly.  Moreover, if the arguments work, then that’s a reason to follow them where they take us, wherever that may be.  That they’re true is a bonus – assuming that we can attribute truth to a paper defending a normative claim – but not necessarily the primary concern.

Now, of course, one might want to take care in choosing an opponent.  If one is commited to a cause, then to spend time widening the holes that one sees in a paper advocating it might be counterproductive.  But that doesn’t alter the basic point: sometimes, one might see a paper, agree with it broadly, but simply want to be contrary for the joy of the argument (and the addition to the CV, of course).  It’s the thrill of the chase, not the kill, in this view.

Taking all these things on board suggests to me that there’s nothing too problematic about publishing papers with incompatible conclusions, as long as the quality of the argument in each is up to snuff.  After all, if Smith and Jones can produce papers that contradict each other’s conclusions but which are equal in their intellectual merit, why can’t it be Smith that produces both of them at the same time?

And yet…

There’s something a bit odd about it. We do expect to be able to say “Brassington thinks this”, “Harris thinks that”, “Draper thinks the other”, or at least that they did at a certain point in their careers. We don’t like having to say “Brassington thought this in April, but the opposite in May” – and if we do say it, it seems to indicate a fault in Brassington.  But what’s the nature of the fault? Indeed – why should a writer’s papers have to indicate what he does think at all?  Is it just because publishing in such a manner smacks of dilettantism? And, if so, what’s really wrong with that?

(Maybe dilettantism is a problem because of some tacit claim about what writers ought to be, or about an authenticity they ought to display.  Part of me – the bit that thinks there is a problem – agrees.  And it’s the claim about what we ought to be that makes this an ethical issue.  On the other hand, the part of me that agrees is small, and I’m trying to keep it quiet.)

Or is it that we do expect an ethics paper to be in some way a proper representation of someone’s view?  This can’t be the whole story, though, since a person can have all kinds of views, not all of which make much sense.  There’s more to an ethics paper than simple exposition (which point takes us back to ethics and activism).  We want a paper to represent a well-argued position.  But that being the case, then, we’re back to the point about the argument doing the work, not the claim towards which it drives.  And if you’ve got a good argument for A and for ~A, then why not just revel in it?


I’m reminded of a story about someone I knew when I was a student.  He’d recently completed his PhD in mind and language philosophy, and was attending a paper by a visiting speaker who was A Big Name in the field.  In the questions, my friend forensically took the speaker’s paper to pieces.  “Umm… yes.  OK.  I can see I’ll have to go to think about that,” said the speaker.

“No – don’t do that.  I think you’re right, and that you’d have to be mad to think what I just said.  I’m just suggesting that it’s a line someone could take if they wanted,” said my friend.  The speaker crumpled.  It was a joy to watch.

I think that was amazing and admirable.  But if it’s admirable in a seminar situation to argue well – and devastatingly – for a position that you don’t really hold, why should it be any different in print?

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