Do academic strikes undermine collegial governance? Three ways of saying ‘no’

Academic freedom comes hand in hand with collegial governance. Take one away and you lose the other. Here, as shown in recent blogging by Shannon Dea, collegial governance is just this idea of scholarly autonomy — as an institutional fact, it is the scholars who get to decide how to manage job postings, candidate searches, hiring, tenure review, and so on. In contrast, when collegial governance dries up, you end up with institutions that are governed adversarially, where as an institutional fact, scholars have to fight and negotiate to maintain their legitimate institutional powers.

These ideals make sense in the abstract. But when we think about how collegial governance relates to academic unions, the reality can be complicated. To probe the question, I will imagine three ways that someone might claim that academic strikes are threats to collegial governance. I will then provide some replies. Each time, the upshot is that the act of striking can be consistent with collegial governance (for this post, “collegiality” for short).


Some people – call them Strike-Skeptics — believe that the threat of an academic strike inherently undermines collegial governance. On this view, the ‘fight-and-negotiate’ stance of the academic union is necessarily non-scholarly. To threaten to strike just is to transform the whole institution into an adversarial contest, because it involves a political and economic act, which means taking a stand in a place that isn’t fitting for an academic union concerned with scholarly and pedagogical affairs. Hence, the Strike-skeptics may conclude: if you are turning adversariality into an institutional fact, then you can’t be contributing to a system of collegial governance.

Let’s accept that all strikes are political and economic acts. Does that support the conclusion that strikes are necessarily non-collegial (or that academic labor-relations are inherently adversarial)?

Certainly not. To see why, all you need to see that is a bit of charity. So, for the sake of argument, assume the best of everyone in a strike position. That is, assume that everyone is just trying to fulfill their institutional role. If that is so, and you look at the intentions of the strikers, then you will find that academic unions represent scholars that ostensibly hope to continue to manage affairs that are properly under their remit: hiring, tenure, and teaching. Insofar as they make financial demands on management, it is for the sake of maintaining what is required for academic self-governance. The same, presumably, can be said of the intentions of administrators – but, again, only on the assumption that they play their appropriate role as managers of finances of the institution in conformity to its mandate. So, it is false to say that the act of going out on an academic strike is necessarily anti-collegial.

On the other hand, there is a sense that the governance structure considered as a whole cannot be antecedently ‘collegial’ in such cases. If it were, there’d be no need to strike to perform those functions. Even on the charitable interpretation, if an academic union needs to strike, it is acting like the canary in the coal-mine. So even if both managers and strikers intend to govern collegially, the institutional fact is that it is not being governed collegially. And that’s a bit of a puzzle. It says that, even in a best-case scenario, two parties can each intend to govern together — yet, in fact, jointly end up governing adversarially (at least for the duration of a work stoppage). But that is not the fault of the strike. It is something you have to say about the whole package.

Upshot: you can’t infer the worst from individual parties just from the fact that they don’t succeed in coordinated governance. Your pessimism – or optimism — has to be established through argument.


A Strike-skeptic might insist that the ideal of collegial governance antecedently assumes that a scholarly body only manages scholarly affairs, not fiduciary ones. Nobody ever said that the academics had the right to manage the University’s pocketbooks. The Strike-Skeptic could then say that to extend your ambitions, in this way, would be to fly in the face of collegial governance. For, by parity of reasoning, just nobody ever said that management has the right to manage scholarly affairs. So, if you turn the tables on that argument, it looks as though the strikers must be adversarial, because they are making claims about finances. Right?

Well, I’ll grant the premise. For, it sure does seem to me that insofar as the Board of Governors’ decisions over financial matters undermine and underwrite the academic decisions of the Senate (and affiliated bodies, committees, etc.), we should have the critical resources at hand to be able to say that collegial governance has been compromised. So, e.g., if funding for a faculty position were to disappear when it turned out the leading candidate chosen by the search committee is politically controversial, or if Senate-side offices were strong-armed into accepting departmental restructuring which resulted in layoff of tenured positions, then we should say that institutional fact of the matter is that the governance structure is non-collegial. And the adversariality owes to the fact of obvious intentional overreach on the side of the Governors.

I won’t grant the Strike-skeptic’s conclusion, though. Because there is an important difference, which is that we are talking about institutions with an academic mandate. The task of the Board is to act as steward over the finances of the institution insofar as it is a place of learning, research, and teaching – that is, to protect academic freedom in its many stripes and guises. That means they have a definite positive obligation to respect the sovereignty of the academics. So, through these cases of overreach, the Governors neglect their own duties as stewards. In contrast, the task of an academic union is to function as a steward over their academic functions, first and foremost. That does not imply anything at all about what they are able to demand on the financial side. It only implies that their fiduciary concerns must be a function of their academic ones.


But what about cases of bad intentions during a strike? Surely they do occur — and they matter when they occur, don’t they? Yes, fine. But at this point, I want to stress that I am talking about collegial governance full stop, and that I have a certain idea about what that amounts to.

To get at that idea, we have to observe a difference between two ways of undermining collegial governance. In one sense of collegiality has got to do with following procedures, e.g., the rule of deferring to committees in hiring; the other, to do with substantial cooperation, e.g., making all and only those demands that are consistent in spirit with the reasons that grant these powers to committees. This is worth noting because, during times of crisis, when confronted with the question, “is this contributing to collegial governance?”, I default to asking whether the parties are being substantially collegial, while in times of normalcy, I default to asking whether they are procedurally collegial. Let me explain.

Procedural collegiality. You can undermine academic sovereignty by brute force, by interfering with the ordinary processes of governance. So, e.g., if the Board at Miskatonic University were to ignore the recommendations of the Tenure & Promotions committee in the Department of Cthulhu Studies and instead convinced the Dean to choose their drinking buddy, they would be violating the procedural sovereignty of the academics. This may be commonplace at Miskatonic, but thankfully in the real world this is less common. Presumably, violations of this kind are rare because they are so egregious that you’d never be able to get away with it, normally.

Substantial collegiality. As we have seen, it is possible to undermine academic sovereignty by respecting the process but not the substance, i.e., by making strategic reallocations of funding to avoid substantial outcomes: say, the hiring of a controversial professor, or the firing of tenured professors through departmental collapse. In such cases, there is a thin procedural sense in which collegial governance has been maintained, because when questioned everyone can apparently say that they are fulfilling their institutional roles. But in substance, that cannot be said, as their claims to fulfill their institutional roles seem like cloak-and-dagger tactics, better fit for a Cold War novel. And this sense of adversarial governance certainly can occur when an academic union is on a legal strike, due to the wrong intentions of one or both parties.

We can use the words however we like. But when our task is to make sense of the idea of ‘collegiality’, full stop, in contentious cases like strike situations, my view is that we should care quite a bit about the substantial requirements of collegial governance. So, it is perverse to refer to bad faith participation in a process as ‘collegial’ as such; if either employer or union were to negotiate in bad faith during a bargaining year, we wouldn’t want to call that collegial governance full stop, even if it turned out to be procedurally collegial in some sense. Then the task is to figure out what counts as ‘bad faith’, as an intellectual community. But in this case, there is no excuse for ignoring the burden of argument. If an informed observer cannot make a competent appeal to some objective standards of fair cooperation during legitimate bargaining, then they have no business referring to the relations as inherently adversarial.

(As an aside, in less contentious cases – during the ordinary day-to-day business of governance — I think the procedural aspect is the more important default issue. But I have to insist that the procedural aspect can’t be a necessary and sufficient condition in the discussion. If it were the whole story, it would pre-empt an important kind of conversation that is required in order to protect the institutional promise of the colleges.)


Secrecy and imminent threat

According to US law, “top secret” means “information, the unauthorized disclosure of which reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security” (1, sic). The Espionage Act, going back to Justice Holmes, and subsequently interpreted by the courts, rebuffs First Amendment arguments through the “imminent threat” standard (previously the “clear and present danger” test) — resonant with the famous analogy that the value of “freedom of speech” does not protect the man who yells “fire!” in a crowded theater.

Yet, reportedly, in recent cases of the Espionage Act, the prosecution has successfully argued that both the actual and expected value of leaked information to the American public are not relevant considerations. [2] By analogy, it does not matter whether the man shouting “fire” in the theater thought he saw a fire (e.g., a hallucination), and it does not matter if a reasonable person in that position would also have seen a fire (e.g., a mass delusion, or hologram). It does not even matter if there was a fire. Evidently, it only matters that yelling “fire” is not the thing to do in theaters.


Women in philosophy in Canada

It is worth asking whether academic philosophy has made any progress in hiring women and non-binary gendered persons. While answers have to be cautious (since CPA data that has been collected on this matter since 1991 is incomplete), the trend seems to be movement in the right direction:

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This data was collected by asking Departmental Chairs to report the gender breakdown of their faculty. For various reasons, our surveys ended in 2011, so the data comes to a halt at that point.

That led me to be curious as to how things are turning out in 2017. So, I went to every Canadian philosophy department website I know of, and found the demographic information using the totally non-scientific and fully unreliable method known as “counting heads”. The results can be found here. The result is that 72% of those on the tenure-track present as male, and 28% as female. Notably, the asymmetry is even more pronounced for lecturers and contract faculty, who are mostly male (80:20%).


  • It is worth keeping in mind that the data collection techniques are incommensurable with previous ones; not all Chairs participated in previous iterations of the survey.
  • Also worth noting that I canvassed a larger pool of universities and colleges than was done in the past.
  • I did it quickly and gendered each person based on my judgment of how they presented. My French is also not as good as it was as a child, which possibly led to errors. If you see mistakes, let me know in the comments and I’ll update this post accordingly.

So, the face-value decline of women in the ranks may not necessarily reflect an actual decline. But if there is any progress, I would need to see evidence of it. From these numbers, I have to infer that the best case scenario is that things are stagnating.

Who killed the Agrippan trilemma?

Are most logical fallacies defective? Below, I will argue that the answer is ‘yes’. That is, I shall argue that a great many logical fallacies do not themselves provide even prime facie grounds for rational doubt, even when applied in the standard appropriate context.

The Agrippan trilemma isn’t what it used to be. A complaint about infinite regress is wholly uninteresting to the defender of infinitism; complaints about arbitrary assumptions are of no consequence to the foundationalist; the complain about circularity has no traction for the coherentist. None of these views are absurd (though some are late bloomers). Even the idea that all contradictions are false is now suspect, if you’re a dialetheist.

The “strawperson fallacy” is hard to take seriously when many quite good articles in philosophy engage in a refutation of ideal-types of a cluster or syndrome of related arguments in a corpus. On one very plausible reading of the concept of intuition, the “appeal to incredulity” is simply an appeal to intuition under a guise, which has a non-trivial (though limited) role in legitimate inquiry. Since intuitions are an intellectually complex form of feeling, “appeals to emotion” must also be valid on occasion: in particular, when pointing to the difference between inferences and mere associations.

The “slippery slope fallacy” is hard to reconcile with a standard worry issued in critical theory, which is that inquiry has to take into consideration the consequences of the thing being posited. If my conception of “racism” or “sexism” has pernicious consequences, then that would seem to count as a reason against that conception, irrespective of its empirical plausibility. The reason is *not* because we think justice trumps truth, but because we acknowledge that social groups are interactive kinds.

If Kuhn is right, then “special pleading” is routine in the natural sciences. When you are confronted with a surprising and seemingly unnatural result, the right heuristic is to assume you did the experiment wrong. Potential falsifiers show up all the time, and nobody cares, because these would-be falsifications are probably just mistakes. See, e.g., cold fusion.

If we are to have any respect at all for the dignity of other groups to define their own self-conceptions, then we end up having to concede that “ad hominems” are legitimate when they are levelled against speakers who have crossed epistemological jurisdictions, and the assertion of what counts as a “true Scotsman” is legitimate when asserted within the scope of those jurisdictions. “Bandwagons” and the “genetic fallacy” are legitimate under the same conditions.

On the face of it, “appeal to authority” would make nonsense of legal positivism (and, in my opinion, the entirety of moral discourse), which if true would be pretty good reason to think it is a hasty accusation. Also, the accusation latent in the “tu quoque fallacy” seems to undermine a vital presupposition of moral claims, which is that the person who asserts a moral claim has some kind of shared access to the conditions that make the rational authoritativeness of the claim. Hence if I say “stealing is wrong,” and I am a thief, then not only can you accuse me of hypocricy — you can also infer that I am no justification for believing that stealing is wrong. Since the burden of proof is on me to provide that justification, then all other things equal, you can forbear from deferring to what I have said: i.e., that stealing is wrong. But maybe, when it comes to some subjects, the burden of proof does not lie in the one who asserts, but instead in any interested party. In that case, “tu quoque” remains a fallacy, though the idea of “burden of proof” looks like it has some holes in it.

They say that “the plural of anecdote is not data”. (Taken literally, this is nonsense: if anecdotes were not data, they would be so fully uninstructive as to be unintelligible.) What people mean is that anecdotes are not evidence — that is, it is not on the face of it public reasons for belief in the truth of some proposition. But while anecdotes are not public reasons for belief, they surely are private reasons for belief insofar as the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences are involved in the production and reproduction of accurate memories. The plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence”, but rather, “narrative”: and I am partly made up of my honest narrative, so that had better count for something.

In the above, I presented a litany of arguments against many fallacies. If I am right, then they are defective: either they apply in a narrower ranger of contexts than are advertised, or they apply across those contexts with null force. In either case, it seems like a pedagogically important point to make.

After all, that list is incomplete. I have ignored some other fallacies, which I do not really have occasion to doubt: the gambler’s fallacy, false dichotomy, loaded question, begging the question, false cause, appeal to nature, composition/division, Texas sharpshooter, and the middle ground. (I could probably appeal to ordinary usage in nitpicking some of these fallacies, too: e.g., I might say that current citation practices in philosophy are less about rigorous meta-analysis and more about “Texas sharpshootin'”. But good taste forbids doing such a thing.)

Multi-Act Consequentialism?

I used to be a Mill-style utilitarian, and continue to admire many aspects of his moral philosophy. That said, the theory eventually seemed too logically messy for me to endorse. So I abandoned it maybe a little less than a decade ago.

I started to come back around to Millianism a few months ago after discovering Mendola’s (2006) “Multiple-act consequentialism” (MAC). Mendola points out that “act-consequentialism” usually refers only to individual actions, and makes no sense of group actions (or relegates such actions to the status of remoter effects). But once you admit that there are such things as group actions (as many now do), it follows that one and the same behavior can involve multiple actions: the one that proceeds the individual’s intention, and the ones that proceed from the group’s intentions. So a moral theory needs to have some kind of choice-procedure for weighing between the individual act and participation in the group.

But then you start to learn the details of Mendola’s choice-procedure. For Mendola, we might say that the right thing to do is to conform to group actions so long as the benefits of the group activity as a whole are greater than the individual benefits of defection. That is the theory.

Now suppose that you are a cop and discover corruption in your police department. Suppose also that if you rat on the corruption, you risk sending the department into chaos. Finally, suppose the status quo produces a lot of good — more good than would be achieved by defection alone. What do you do?

On first blush, MAC should ask us not to defect. But I do not see that as an especially compelling moral result. Not just because it is unintuitive, but because it violates an internally held conviction I have held for some time: when you’re in a no-win scenario, go with your integrity.

(To unpack that a little. If you’ve got any morals at all, you’ve got to try to make a better world — but along the way, you can’t undermine your capacity to choose to make a better world. This owes to the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘better world’ without people there to fight for it. Goodness is a property both ascribed and aspired, if it is anything at all.)

That is not to say that Mendola’s MAC cannot be defended. We might be engaged in still other group projects that might recommend snitching. Still, even if his choice-procedure did turn out to be a dud, I do like the idea of MAC. Though I am not for the moment sure that my parenthetical principles do it any justice.

Is philosophy self-indulgent?

Thinking about the accusation that recent professional philosophy suffers from self-indulgence. Anyone who pays attention to the cycles of colorful meta-opinions about philosophy will know by now that “X is self-indulgent” is maybe one of a handful of favorite insults that gets tossed around on a pretty regular basis (alongside “X is just logic-chopping”, “Only crazy people would worry about X” and “People who do X are sycophants”). Sometimes with justification, sometimes not, and usually asserted as generic broadside complaints that are conspicuously difficult to refute.

So let’s ask: suppose recent philosophy is self-indulgent. So how can we tell?

Well, since [for the moment] we care about self-indulgence, not sycophancy or whatever other insult, let’s assume that, if something has been published in a prestigious professional journal of philosophy, it contains rational, non-crazy, non credulous argumentation. (Falsely, perhaps.) To do lip-service to those assumptions, let’s consider journal offerings that score quite highly on every impact measure, are generalist (e.g., unlike Bioethics), and are dedicated to original research (unlike, e.g., Philosophical Review). And for the purposes of seeing if things are any better or worse than in the past, let’s find a journal of long-standing. For those purposes, I chose Nous.

Now, for fun, let’s imagine a test, analogous to the Bechdel test, which we use to assess individual works; though, like the Bechdel test it is meant to say something illustrative about the self-indulgence of works *in the aggregate* without necessarily proving anything about individual works. We might call it the Null Test (or, if you prefer, Navel test).

For every article in an issue of a journal, there might be three questions we might ask:
1. Can someone with an education in philosophy state the philosophical problem this article is trying to solve without the use of proper names?
2. Whose problem is it?
3. Did it get solved (by the author’s own lights)?

And now let’s say that the Null Test is failed if, even after charitable reading, one of the following conditions obtains: the answer to (1) is a null answer or cannot be briefly stated (e.g., in one or two English sentences); OR the answer to (2) is “Mine alone”; OR the answer to (3) is “Not at all”.

What do we find, if we try to run the Null Test? Are the results at all illuminating? Or are are they fully unfair? You’ll see my findings below.

The result, amusingly, supports the idea that philosophy is more self-indulgent in the 2016 sample than the others, though it seems like a return to the same pattern as the 1976 sample.


Nous 1976 (September): 3/6 PASSSES

TITLE: Reference of Theoretical Terms
PROBLEM: Is semantic externalism suitable to examine theoretical terms in science?
WHOSE: Kripke-Putnam
SOLVED: Yes (No, because some terms are non-ostensible)

TITLE: Sentence, Utterance, and Samesayer
PROBLEM: Does Davidson’s account of indirect discourse mesh with a Tarskian theory of language, and do its part in characterizing the truth-conditions of every sentence in indirect discourse?
WHOSE: Davidson
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: Truth, Meaning, and Paradox
PROBLEM: Is Davidsonian semantics defeated by the Liar’s Paradox?
WHOSE: Davidson
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: What Could Have Happened
PROBLEM: Is the freedom to act properly captured by sentences that express possibilities about the conjunction of events?
WHOSE: White
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: When Rational Disagreement is Impossible
PROBLEM: Is it rational to remain steadfast when everyone is searching for truth shares the same information?
WHOSE: Social epistemologists
SOLVED: Yes (No)

TITLE: Identities and Reduction: A Reply
PROBLEM: Have Ager et al. succeeded in creating a model for reductionism in science?
WHOSE: Ager et al.
SOLVED: Yes (No)

Three critical notices omitted

Nous 1986 (September) 4/6 PASSES

TITLE: Revealing Designators and Acquaintance with Universals
PROBLEM: Are universals meaning-like entities?
WHOSE: Quine
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Ways of Holism
PROBLEM: What is holism, as far as the philosophy of science is concerned?
WHOSE: Quine, Hegel, Duhem
SOLVED: Yes (Holism is a feature of those theories which occur in specific contexts, insofar as the theories presuppose and are consistent with the existence of other more general theories in those contexts)

TITLE: Persons and Their Micro-Particles
PROBLEM: How can new objects (e.g., persons, basic-level objects) be made up of old objects without destroying the old objects (e.g., particles)?
WHOSE: Aristotle
SOLVED: Yes (By re-engineering Davidson’s anomalous monism)

TITLE: Metaphorese
PROBLEM: What is figurative meaning?
WHOSE: Searle, Black
SOLVED: Yes (Figurative meaning is not semantic meaning belonging to a vernacular, but rather is a kind of passing dialect that emerges from cooperative engagement)

TITLE: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism and the Autonomy of the Master Type
PROBLEM: Is Nietzsche able to reconcile the demand for moral autonomy of the ‘master’ with an account of how the master might come into being?
SOLVED: Not really (Exploratory)

TITLE: Questioning the Basis of Hume’s Empiricism: “Perceptions”, What are They?
PROBLEM: What does Hume mean when he talks about perceptions?

Eight reviews omitted

Nous 1996 (September) 5/6 PASSES

TITLE: The Function of Consciousness
PROBLEM: Is there any point in arguing about the evolutionary function of consciousness?
WHOSE: Various
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Limited Unity of Virtue
PROBLEM: Is there anything we can salvage from the unity of virtue thesis?
WHOSE: Walker, Foot, Flanagan
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: ‘Ought’ and Extensionality
PROBLEM: Are deontic operators (in deontic logic) referentially transparent with respect to singular terms?
WHOSE: Kanger
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: A New Argument from Actualism to Serious Actualism
PROBLEM: Does actualism entail serious actualism?
WHOSE: Fine, Hinchliff, Pollock
SOLVED: Yes (Yes, plus new argument to that effect)

TITLE: Analyticity Reconsidered
PROBLEM: Is there an analytic (a priori)/synthetic distinction?
WHOSE: Quine
SOLVED: Yes (Yes; the epistemic analytic apriori)

TITLE: Analyticity Regained?
PROBLEM: Was Boghossian correct in his reading of Quine?
WHOSE: Boghossian
SOLVED: Yes (No)

1 critical study omitted

Nous 2006 (September) 5/7 PASSES

TITLE: Multiple-Act Consequentialism
PROBLEM: Is act-consequentialism false?
WHOSE: Scheffler
SOLVED: Yes (No — there is an unexplored version of act-consequentialism that meets standard objections)

TITLE: Is Mental Content Prior to Linguistic Meaning?
PROBLEM: See the title
WHOSE: Lewis, Fodor
SOLVED: Not really / it’s complicated

TITLE: Realism and the Meaning of ‘Real’
PROBLEM: What is the meaning of ‘real’ and its cognates?
WHOSE: Various
SOLVED: Yes (It signals a transition between meta-discourse to discourse)

TITLE: Appearance Properties?
PROBLEM: Is there any such thing as appearance properties?
WHOSE: Shoemaker
SOLVED: No (Shoemaker’s appearance properties might exist, but they’re not properties)

TITLE: Does Informational Semantics Commit Euthyphro’s Dilemma?
PROBLEM: See title
WHOSE: Dretske, Fodor
SOLVED: Yes (Yes)

TITLE: The Determinable-Determinate Relation
PROBLEM: What is the nature of the determinables / determinate relationship (e.g., color is determinable related to red, and red determinate related to color)?
WHOSE: Prior, Yablo
SOLVED: Yes (Eight desiderata)

TITLE: The 3D/4D Controversy
PROBLEM: Is there anything of substance to the controversy between three and four-dimensionalists?
WHOSE: Sider
SOLVED: Yes (No)

1 review omitted

Nous 2016 (September): 5/9 PASSES

TITLE: Leibniz on the Modal Status of Absolute Space and Time
PROBLEM: Are absolute space and time impossible?
WHOSE? Leibniz
SOLVED: No (Exploratory, not Leibniz’s view)

TITLE: Causes and Categories
PROBLEM: Must a theory of causation presuppose a specifiable ontology, and especially an ontology that is shared in common by both cause and effect?
WHOSE? Various (too many to list)
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no)

TITLE: Why Every Theory of Luck Is Wrong
PROBLEM: Do we have any adequate account of luck at all?
WHOSE? Various
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no)

TITLE: Endurantism vs. Perdurantism? A Debate Reconsidered
PROBLEM: Do objects persist because their parts do, or because their wholes do?
WHOSE? Contemporary metaphysicians
SOLVED: No (Answer: clarification)

TITLE: Triviality for Restrictor Conditionals
PROBLEM: Might restrictor conditionals be trivial?
WHOSE: Kratzer, among others
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: there is some reason to think so)

TITLE: On the Innocence and Determinacy of Plural Quantification
PROBLEM: Does (higher-order) plural logic inherit the ontology established in first-order claims? And is it susceptible to Henkin interpretations?
WHOSE: Plural logicians
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: no to both)
STATUS: Fail (Proper name is essential to problem)

TITLE: Conciliation, Uniqueness, and Rational Toxicity
PROBLEM: Can conciliation be upheld even when our standards for rationality are highly permissible?
WHOSE: Social epistemologists
SOLVED: Yes (Answer: yes, depending on the kind of peer)

TITLE: Self-Reinforcing and Self-Frustrating Decisions
PROBLEM: Is there ever any sense in which ‘shall’ implies ‘ought’?
WHOSE: Unclear; nobody really believes it does
SOLVED: Yes (it doesn’t)

TITLE: Attitude, Inference, Association: On the Propositional Structure of Implicit Bias
PROBLEM: Are implicit biases associative or propositional?
SOLVED: Yes (Not associative, therefore propositional)

Journal rankings and prestige bias

If you want to know about the prestige of a journal or school, there is no substitute for subjective rankings. If prestige is something you value, then the (perhaps limited) importance of these evaluations should be pretty clear. For one thing, if all other metrics of philosophical productivity are unavailable, then prestige will matter quite a lot. For another thing, the pursuit of alternative measures can be emotionally exhausting.

As it happens, I do not consider prestige to be a particularly effective sales pitch when selling the value of philosophy. It seems relatively clear to me that evaluating philosophy in terms of prestige is effectively conceding that it is a boutique discipline; as self-images go, it reeks of undignified desperation. And they are not a great reason to keep doing philosophy so long as you think philosophy is a productive activity.

Instead of prestige, people might instead look at citation rates, or ‘impact’. Presumably, those who attend to impact factors believe this idea, embedded in the notion of peer review, that the attention of experts in a discipline towards content ought to be some kind of indication that it is productive.

Impact of a journal can be measured in at least three ways: average citation, average weighted by network centrality, or h-index. Average citation is, importantly, indifferent to the volume of output; so, a journal that publishes a small amount but gets a lot of citations might have an equivalent average to one that publishes a lot but which has a lot more variability. Average weighted by network centrality means (very roughly) if two journals have the same average of citations, but one journal gets cited by a whole variety of different journals, then that journal will be ranked higher — it is more central to the network. The explanation of h-index is unintuitive enough that it resists being expressed in a parenthetical, but maybe we could think of it roughly as a journal’s ‘highest floor’. Which metric do you choose? It depends, really, on what it is that you value about impact: what it is about impact that makes it interesting, philosophically.

That said, the gulf between impact and productivity is wide. Much depends on your choice of scales, which depends on your values. So, some might think that the quality of a journal depends on whether it is willing to take risks on very good content, while others might prefer a relatively conservative approach which only publishes content for which it has absolute faith. And some might want to produce work that is relevant to non-philosophers; others might want to keep philosophy pure.* It makes an enormous difference to how we come up with rankings, and not all systems of rank are a good fit for measures of prestige. And if you don’t believe me, try looking at the h- indices for philosophy journals, and see how they relate to subjective rankings.

*[These values strike me as being about as philosophically significant as musical tastes. So, whether you prefer “alternative rock” as opposed to “classic rock” (high vs. low risk), or “genre music” vs. “pop music” (endogenous vs. exogenous uptake). And of course even the choice to pay attention to impact factors betrays an aesthetic disposition for “radio-friendly” music as opposed to the punk or indie view, but I’ve always been a pop sort of guy.]

Where does moral responsibility come from?

I am uncomfortable with the idea of moral responsibility. Not because I deny there is such a thing, or because I don’t know what it entails, but because I’m not sure where it comes from.

We might want to say that moral responsibility emerges naturally from the facts, and is not dependent upon our other moral convictions. So, moral responsibility is a kind of gloss on causal responsibility, which can itself be read off of the world, and which subsequently forms an indispensable part of a complete moral theory. If that were the case, we should expect non-confused convictions about the nature of responsibility to be relatively insensitive to the contents of normative moral doctrines. Evidence of its truth might be the fact (if it is a fact) that people really do think that responsibility has some important connection to agency, consciousness, and control.

Lately I have been teasing myself with another idea. Maybe the idea of moral responsibility plays no antecedent part in a moral theory at all — perhaps it is the output of such theories in practical application. If that were the case, we should expect our non-confused convictions about the nature of responsibility to be very sensitive to the contents of theory. Evidence of its truth might be the fact that utilitarians endorse a theory of responsibility that will be wildly at odds with a Williamsian theory of responsibility.

I suppose that another possibility is that the notion of responsibility is just a convention which contingently functions as an input to our moral theories, and which itself has no moral significance. That is a confused relativistic position that I find upsetting, but I suppose it’s possible.

Sophiboles: or, cases of cooperative misleading

I am still thinking about misleading and truth from an interesting and thought-provoking talk by Jennifer Saul last week. Many of my intuitions have gained form and structure from her presentation. In it, she argued that misleading and lying are not (all other things equal) morally different. Importantly, Saul suggested that misleading can be different than lying in one special subset of cases — effectively, in those contexts where the listener can be reasonably expected to have special duties to scrutinize the testimony before them, owing to the adversariality of the context and the capacity of the listener to engage in critical inquiry.

I have long had reservations about academics and the subject of truth-telling. So, here’s an essay from 2006: (…/who-needs-sophistry-…/) In it, I argued that the public assertion of certain kinds of exaggeration are sometimes both faultless and laudable. Over the past decade I have had plenty of occasion to have that thesis challenged, but am generally unpersuaded by those challenges.

In that essay I argue that philosophers and scientists frequently engage in a kind of wise exaggeration, which I have mentally given the label of “sophiboles”. That is, we faultlessly assert things in a black-and-white bivalent fashion, when the closest justified belief is much more complex. Example. According to his critics, Galileo was guilty of asserting a sophibole when he decided to cast aside fictionalist and probabilist readings of the evidence; and for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to say that he is guilty of doing right. (Anyway, this is my simplistic conception of the history, and reminds me I really ought to read Alice’s Dreger’s 2015 book, “Galileo’s Middle Finger”. But for now it’ll suffice as a toy case.)

Are sophiboles cases of misleading? Much depends on how you define “misleading”. To me, “misleading” involves distracting someone away from apprehending a true proposition that is worth caring about in a conversational context, and hence to cue belief in a falsehood, or distract away from a truth, without explicitly thereby asserting a falsehood. (It is hard not to include reference to what conversation partners care about if we are to assess them in terms of the cooperative maxims.)

Unlike most cases of misleading, sophiboles are constructively focusing our attention upon *true* beliefs worth caring about, and are not directed towards the malicious creation of false beliefs. e.g., for Galileo, the truth of the theory of heliocentrism as a model of the solar system; it is not to inculcate a false belief in the solar system. Suffice it to say, Galileo did not lie in any of this; he did not assert a falsehood. Moreover, his intention was to lead us to a truth about the world, not to lead us to a falsehood.

But that will not save his sophibole from being a case of misleading, since people in a cooperative conversation can be concerned with different things, and they can disagree about the truths worth caring about in such contexts, so long as those cross-purposes are jointly acknowledged. So, the Church — wanting Galileo to tone down his rhetoric — encouraged him to adopt a probabilist or fictionalist vernacular. Those little qualifiers (i.e., “In all probability, p…”) mattered to them. For them, Galileo was attempting to mislead away from the epistemic, or second-order, status of his claims. Galileo’s actual heliocentric claims were true, but (according to his critics) the realist statement of his claims misled people from the form of justification, and in that sense were distracting people away from an important truth about the limits of our knowledge. Galileo was misleading about something worth caring about.

To be sure, Galileo’s highly politicized insistence on realist rhetoric soon evoked an adversarial context. And, FWIW, I would even argue that he was right to be adversarial, because while neither departed from intellectual good faith, it is the case that the Church’s epistemic concerns are not so much worth caring about as the realist ones are. (There’s that famous middle finger of his.)

But that’s a historical contingency. My point is that we should be able to see the two parties continuing to accuse each other of misleading even if they had been able to maintain a cooperative dialogue. And so misleading, at least in the form of sophiboles, is generally not so bad as lying.