Should “the ignorant” be denied access to audiences?

John Stuart Mill

People who ended up voting for Donald Trump were famously characterized by Hillary Clinton as the “basket of deplorables.” And I must admit that I wonder in stupor at the foolishness of US politics, the recent Italian elections, Brexit, or the re-election of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not to mention what seem to be genuinely adoring crowds in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

How is any of this possible? It’s always a complex combination of factors, of course, ranging from people’s socio-economic situation to their ideological or religious commitments, to deficient education, to the pure and simple human herd instinct that so annoyed Nietzsche. But surely one thing that contributes to the current insane state of affairs is the reach that pernicious ideologues have in the modern era, a reach made far more efficient by the existence of the internet and social media. And by the fact that these people are often offered platforms to address audiences by institutions such as universities, newspapers, television stations and the like.

My colleague Bryan Van Norden, a professor of philosophy at Wuhan University, as well as the author of “Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto,” has published a thought provoking op-ed about institutional platforms in the New York Times. It is well worth considering in some detail, as I see where Bryan is coming from, but I consider his proposed path dangerous, and his argument self-contradictory.

He begins with a couple of examples. Ultra right-wing commentator Ann Coulter recently appeared on Fox News to say that the crying migrant children separated from their parents by the Trump administration were child actors. Van Norden comments: “Does this groundless claim deserve as much airtime as, for example, a historically informed argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates that structural racism makes the American dream possible?” University of Toronto psychologist, and darling of the alt-right, Jordan Peterson talked about how difficult it is to control “crazy women” and the fact that men naturally can muster respect only for people whom they can threat with violence. Bryan’s comments: “Does this adolescent opinion deserve as much of an audience as the nuanced thoughts of Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, about the role of ‘himpathy’ in supporting misogyny?”

The classical liberal response to these questions is that Ann Coulter and Jordan Peterson ought to be accorded freedom of speech, on grounds famously laid out by John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty, published in 1859. The argument is based on the following considerations: (i) you may think opinion X is clearly wrong, but history is littered with people, even majorities, who were sure that something was wrong when it turned out that it wasn’t (say, that gays should have a right to marry); (ii) if X is indeed wrong, then we learn something from people who defend it, because we need to make clear to ourselves why a given notion is, in fact, wrong (otherwise, we reject it out of prejudice, not knowledge or understanding); (iii) truth is not an all or nothing matter, so we may learn even from partially or largely wrong opinions; (iv) if an opinion offends you, that’s not sufficient reason to suppress it; and (v) who, exactly, ought to be in charge of limiting the expression of unpopular or “offensive” opinions?

Van Norden calls the above line of reasoning “specious,” adding that it is rooted in “a naïve conception of rationality that [Mill] inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes.” [Technically, Descartes influenced the Enlightenment, but was not an Enlightenment thinker, since he lived from 1596 to 1650, and the European Enlightenment was an 18th century thing.]

Bryan argues that “If you do have faith in a universal method of reasoning that everyone accepts, then the Millian defense of absolute free speech is sound,” but he very clearly states that there is no such thing as universal reason, so we should reject Mill’s argument. I think that Van Norden’s statement is ambiguous and that what he argues in the remainder of the NYT op-ed flatly contradicts his opening statement.

He writes: “I wish it were self-evident to everyone that we should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, but the current vice president of the United States does not agree. I wish everyone agreed that it is irrational to deny the evidence that there was a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, but a syndicated radio talk show host can make a career out of arguing for the contrary.”

But the fact that Mike Pence does not agree with a given notion does not mean that the notion in question is not self-evident, it may simply be that Pence denies self-evident truths, either because he is too ignorant to see them, or because of bigotry, or political expediency. Similarly, a nutcase radio talk show host, syndicated or not, may deny empirical evidence all he wants, but that doesn’t mean that his denial is reasonable. At all.

Bryan understands why Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville, made their argument. Mill was a strong proponent of women’s rights and an opponent of slavery, and he knew too well that many people found such topics offensive, resulting in what he famously termed a tyranny of the majority.

But, argues Van Norden, we are in a very different situation from 19th century England and America. We are witnessing the worsening of a scenario already described by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse back in 1965, when he wrote: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.”

This is quite obviously true, of course (or is it?). Only a foolish society would give “equal time” to the discussion of evolutionary theory and creation “science,” or to a climate researcher and a so-called “skeptic” of global warming, or a medical researcher and Jenny McCarthy. But setting aside that a lot of other cases, especially political opinions (as distinct from scientific theories) are not quite so easy to settle, what is the alternative? Mill wasn’t naive about how difficult it is for most people to wade through public controversies. He just thought that freedom of speech was the least of possible evils.

Marcuse famously advocated the outright suppression of right-wing perspectives, a position that, thankfully, Bryan does not endorse. Instead, he makes an intriguing proposal: to distinguish between free speech and just access: “access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole.”

But that comes perilously close to begging the question against Mill: on what criteria should we apportion the merit of different opinions? How do we figure out what is just? How do we measure the benefit of an opinion for the community as a whole? Recall that Van Norden has denies that there is such thing as universal reason. It follows that all such judgments are bound to be arbitrary, and therefore simply to reflect the will of the people who happen to be wielding power by virtue of controlling the limited resources Bryan is referring to. This may not be quite a tyranny of the majority, but it is still a tyranny (of the elite, perhaps?).

Let’s take a look at some of the specific examples Van Norden brings up. In 2004 one Nathaniel Abraham was fired by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute because he admitted to his employer that he did not believe in evolution. Correctly, Bryan asserts that Abraham has a right to his wacky opinion, but that Woods Hole has a right to fire him on the grounds that he holds such opinion. But this has nothing to do with freedom of speech or institutional access: Woods Hole is a preeminent research laboratory that carries out a lot of work on evolution, so Abraham had simply admitted to his incompetence at working there. It would be like NASA firing a flat-earth believer. Or a hospital a doctor who did not “believe” in vaccines.

The next example is more pertinent, but far less clear: Van Norden claims that a number of universities, including Columbia and NYU, should not have invited Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life to speak on their campuses. Why? Because Murray’s notions are junk science. That is true, I think (for a variety of reasons, including those explained here and here), but there are two additional factors to consider. First off, “universities” don’t invite anyone; often it is specific faculty or student associations that do. And to bar invited speakers in either case amounts to an infringement of academic freedom or students’ rights. Second, I am of the opinion that a significant chunk of what goes on in a number of legitimate university departments is either questionable or downright junk (no, I will not mention names). But, again, I don’t get to decide which is which. I do get, however, to argue — in perfectly Millian fashion — in favor or against certain programs, positions, claims, and so forth.

Bryan’s third example is the recent firing by ABC of their television star, Roseanne Barr, because of her racist public remarks. But that’s yet another situation altogether. Barr did not make her remarks on television, and she was fired from ABC because the network was (rightly, I think) embarrassed by her behavior, and feared a public backlash. Of course, had the episode happened, say, in the 1950s, ABC would have likely not moved a finger about it. I assume it is a rationally objective fact that we have made (some) improvements in our thinking about race and gender since then, but of course Van Norden cannot claim so, because he does not believe in universal reason.

Bryan mentions recent research in social psychology showing that if a falsehood is repeated, even when it is in order to debunk it, people are more likely to believe it. This is both true (maybe, since there is a replication crisis ongoing in that field) and worrisome, but is it — as Van Norden claims — reason to cheer MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” decision never again to invite Kellyanne Conway because of her bizarre notion of “alternative facts”? I don’t know. It is very unfortunate that someone like Conway is currently a high profile government official, but isn’t a journalist supposed to challenge that sort of notion, rather than suppress it? Besides, by way of similar actions MSNBC has now gathered the reputation (deservedly or not) of the left’s Fox, which makes their decision about Conway come across to many as naked partisanship. Is this really helpful to public discourse? I’m not so sure.

Bryan says that “right to free speech is not the right to an audience,” and he is correct. But in philosophy we make a distinction between negative and positive rights. You may have, say, the negative right of being allowed to leave the country whenever you wish. But if things are such that you could never muster the means to actually leave, you do not have a corresponding positive right, and negative rights by themselves are largely useless. To pick a more concrete example, in the US (for now) women have a right to abortion. But such right is meaningless if local state legislatures make it so difficult for abortion clinics to practice that for all effective purposes a woman in Texas or Alabama has to drive hundreds of miles, or even go out of state, to get an abortion. Ironically, it is a typical tactic of the right that whenever they cannot eliminate a negative right (like abortion, again, for now) they go after its positive counterpart, thus making it difficult or impossible for people to enjoy that right. The same goes for speech: if I have a “right” to it, but I am then systematically denied audiences by a small number of gatekeepers, I might as well shout in the void. And, again, who gets to make such decisions, and on what grounds, given that there is no universal reason?

Van Norden concludes his op-ed by stating: “These views [that he criticizes] are specious, and those who espouse them are, at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists,” calling people who hold those views “invincibly ignorant and intellectual hucksters.” It sounds to me like Bryan thinks he has good reasons to think that these people’s opinions are, in fact, wrong. I agree with his assessment. And so should any reasonable person, because reason isn’t a matter of your personal opinion — across time and cultures. There are standards of evidence and argument that have been worked out over the past two and a half millennia of philosophy and science, way before the European Enlightenment came about. On my part, I prefer by far a society where we do our utmost so that more and more people are familiar with such standards and apply them properly, rather than one in which whoever happens to be in charge is going to decide which resources to apportion to whom. Call me an old fashioned Millian, in that sense.

74 thoughts on “Should “the ignorant” be denied access to audiences?

  1. Robin Herbert

    I always found it quaint that Haidt thought that I could learn the true meaning of community from the very people who had fought ferociously for decades to prevent me from being part of the community.

    Perhaps he should consider that perhaps limitations on rationality apply to him too.


  2. Robin Herbert

    And I think that my previous comment underlines the essential correctness of the Millian position. Haidt is convinced that he has some insight into human nature that I have missed and I think that perhaps he needs to rethink some of what he is saying.

    I fear that Van Norden’s arbitrer of ignorance would come down on Haidt’s side as the credentialled professional rather than mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jesper Valgreen


    I think part of the problem in the current environment, not just in the US, but in Europe as well, is a certain deliberate dishonesty couched in vagueness, like ‘Let’s make America great again’, or similar slogans elsewhere, that for many people means ‘bring back the jobs’ and maybe ‘bring back the sense of a well-ordered world that surely we had in my grandfathers time’. But for others it secretly means something else entirely. Steve Bannon openly expresses his admiration of Julius Evola, who as far as I can make out conceived of history as a cosmic, Manichean battle between the Masculine principle represented by the ‘Man of Tradition’ modelled after the Roman Paterfamilias as the ‘unit of civilisation’, and the Feminine principle represented in Evola’s mind by the Hellenistic culture…
    This conception of public discourse as (part of) a Manichean battle, with true knowledge a secret shared by initiates, revealed in coded speech, is by no means restricted to one side. The nature of the Evil differs of course, but the whole point of public debate becomes winning, and any discourse concerned with finding a common ground based in some pragmatic truth has already lost. Thus it becomes impossible to discuss e.g. climate change, because it’s not about climate change, but about declaring one’s colours.
    The only remedy that I see, is pointing out, and to keep pointing out, how corrosive this is, and how crazy the underlying beliefs. And that is certainly not served by restricting free speech.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Jesper Valgreen

    Another matter is that very many people do not have the resources to adequately comprehend complex issues, and that elites by inclination get complacent about their own understanding, which is very much how we got into this mess. So the “idiots” and the “deplorables” need to be heard, and listened to by better people than the likes of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannigan.


  5. Scientific Christian

    The reason why Bryan’s arguments seem contradictory and incoherent are because, well, they are. Free speech used to be a given in the political spectrum, but ever since the left has established their little hegemony over the media and social science/humanities academia, they’ve just tried ending the debate all together and simply try to get rid of right-wing perspectives, no matter what terms they define this as, or the means they try getting at it.

    This allows Bryan to do bewildering, yet unsurprising things as labelling intellectuals like Jordan Peterson as “darlings of the alt-right”. Nevermind that this is a refuted talking point, the fact that Peterson is a classic liberal, has lectured against alt-right ideology for decades, and is responsible for stopping thousands of people from joining the alt-right (far more than Bryan’s work will ever hope to accomplish), but Bryan finds it acceptable because he thinks, since Peterson doesn’t line up neatly with the “right side of history”, he must be taken down. Oh yeah, replace him with Kate Manne, a “feminist philosopher” (or something) that was caught endlessly misrepresenting Peterson’s book and claims. Voila;

    In the end, calling on for a restriction of peoples access to platforms that they’ve been given and have earned is a restriction to free speech. And it’s not motivated out of concern for meritocracy or civility (usually just the opposite). It’s a political agenda. Free speech is not up for debate in a free society.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Massimo Post author


    I second your comments on Haidt. You may remember this:

    When they read it, Haidt, Green and someone else wrote privately to me, insensed that I had attributed “prescriptive” intentions to them which they did not have.

    So I invited them to co-write a short piece for the blog of the American Philosophical Association, explaining what they thought the point of their research was, and whether it has any bearing on prescriptive issues. They all declined, vaguely mentioning that they were busy. One of them even said that it would be unfair, because philosophers then would “nit pick” what they had written…

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Massimo Post author

    Scientific Christian,

    you are woefully incorrect about Jordan Peterson. He very much is admired by the alt-right, gets some of his money from right-wing organizations, and never officially takes any position critical of them, because that’s where his audience is. None of that, of course, means that Peterson should be censored or shut down during campus speeches, as he has been. For plenty of evidence to back this up see:

    And my take, from the perspective of the claim often made that Peterson’s ideas are “stoic” (they are not):

    Liked by 4 people

  8. brodix


    If there is something deeper, wouldn’t it seem sensible to try laying it out in the most basic terms and not hiding in mythical associations. For instance, the Manichean concept you mention might reasonably be explained as a dichotomy between nodes and networks, with men as the tribal nodes and women as the networks. Which, given recent genetic studies showing a male bottleneck some 5 to 10 thousand years ago, logically argued as an effect of paternal centered tribes and warfare wiping out the occasional tribe and their genetic heritage, there might be something to the point.

    I’ve argued the elemental difference between liberal and conservative goes to the basic Darwinian process of organic growth and expansion, mediated by selection processes. Such that liberalism is social expansion and opportunity, while conservatism is the civil and cultural consolidation, giving top down communal form to this life force.

    As Robert Frost said; “If you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart and if you are not conservative when you are old, you have no head.”

    Which all goes deeper into the fact that reality is, on so many levels, a tension between opposite forces and elements. Yin and Yang.

    The problem arises when we instead think in terms of singular ideals as absolutes. Such that anything impeding our beliefs is evil, not just a necessary balancing effect.

    Possibly the proper definition of ignorance would be simply pointing fingers at other people, who don’t completely conform to one’s beliefs, rather than trying to understand the dynamics at work.


  9. Robin Herbert

    Scientific Christian

    Kate Manne, a “feminist philosopher” (or something)

    Assistant Professor, Philosophy at Cornell University.

    And if you read the interview in question it is more a case of Peterson misrepresenting Manne.

    Manne doesn’t claim that Peterson said the woman hadn’t been raped. She quotes a passage where Peterson casts extreme doubt that the woman knew anything and notes it’s contemptuous tone.

    She offers the suspicion that Peterson had sown this doubt in the woman’s mind.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. SocraticGadfly

    And also, Scientific Christian, maybe there’s less difference in space between classic liberals and alt-right than you think on some issues? You can take that up with Dan if he comments here.


  11. Chris J. Porzenheim


    What do you make of Daniel Kahneman’s work? Haidts whole elephant and rider metaphor is, by his own admission, just Kahneman using a different metaphor.

    And you, and some commenters in this thread, seem to think Haidts moral intuitionism pushes it claims about post hoc rationalization too far. Given that Haidts drawing on Kahneman in no small way here, do you also feel Kahneman is pushing his claims too far about System 1 and System 2 etc?


  12. Massimo Post author


    Given that Haidts drawing on Kahneman in no small way here, do you also feel Kahneman is pushing his claims too far about System 1 and System 2 etc?

    To be honest, I think Kahneman and Tversky’s work is far more robust than Haidt’s. And the latter has a tendency to border on the prescriptive, while the other two don’t.

    First off, S1 and S2 is a metaphor, they are not actually suggesting that there are distinct systems of thought in the human brain.

    Second, I keep not seeing why this — while definitely interesting — should be a problem for rationality, decision making, etc.

    It boils down to the observation that a lot of information processing is unconscious and fast (but often inaccurate), and some of it is conscious and slow (and more accurate). What a philosopher would say, indeed what they have been saying since the time of the Stoics, is that our goal should be to engage the slow system any time we want to make a good decision, and that we should arrive at our decisions while training our ability to reason well and take evidence into account.

    Which, of course, is also how science is done. That is, the sort of thing that Haidt uses to tell everyone else that we only rationalize, that we make moral decisions based only on gut feelings, and so forth.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Daniel Kaufman

    Socratic: Mill is a classical liberal. If you think he is close to the alt right then you are profoundly confused.

    And given the alt right’s proximity to white supremacists, suggesting I am close to them is not only preposterous but really insulting, in light of my family’s background.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Massimo Post author


    I’m not sure that was the sense of Socratic’s comment, but I’ll let him clarify.

    While you are right that Mill has nothing to do with the alt-right, modern American libertarians do think of themselves as inspired by Mill. And they are, often, uncomfortably close to the alt-right, or at least to conservatism. (There is a reason libertarian elected officials usually caucus with Republicans, not Democrats.)


  15. Paul Braterman

    Massimo, “our goal should be to engage the slow system any time we want to make a good decision, and that we should arrive at our decisions while training our ability to reason well and take evidence into account.”

    Indeed. And one very important and surprisingly difficult part of this is to make explicit the implicit assumptions built into all our thinking, even the most deliberative..

    Liked by 5 people

  16. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: I hope you’re right. I don’t see otherwise why I would be mentioned in the comment though.

    I would not say that classical liberals are the same as libertarians. I certainly am not a libertarian. Indeed, I’ve written against it. I am not against social security and welfare, etc, and am inclined towards single payer healthcare or perhaps, a system like they have in France.

    As for libertarians and the Right, it is a pretty awkward relationship, but that’s in part because the American Right is essentially in incoherent coalition. Plus the fact that there is no genuine conservative tradition in the US. There also is a wing of libertarians known as “liberaltarians” the prominent members of which are people like Wil Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey, whom I doubt would caucus with Republicans if they were in government.

    I suspect that if the Democcrats hadn’t moved so far away from classical liberalism themselves, more libertarians would caucus with them, but who knows.


  17. Scientific Christian

    Sorry Massimo, but by taking a weak position to begin with with such confidence, you’ve opened yourself up to a stunning refutation. Read this full article, from itself, the central website for these kooks, on their interpretation of Jordan Peterson.

    The conclusion;

    So we can conclude a few things: that a Jewish television producer put Peterson on the map, that Jewish-dominated mainstream media outlets give him incredible coverage and access, and that his fierce pro-Jewish stance indicates a loyalty to the Jews supporting and promoting him. This makes Peterson essentially a tool of the powerful Jews backing his weak, inconsequential pushback against radical leftism.

    What I have to say about that is “LOL”. Here’s what Richard Spencer says about Peterson (a guy who openly disavows free speech, might I add);

    You claimed that Peterson has never officially taken an open stance against the alt-right. How little you actually have seen of Peterson to assume this, I know little of.

    See this video. Like, watch it. Few minutes long. I don’t know how many times he’s disavowed the alt-right, probably something approximating around a hundred from what I’ve seen, considering he constantly says that the far left and far right are both players of identity politics. I wouldn’t be surprised, of course, to hear that you’ve seen, maybe, two of his videos and the rest of your information comes from … well, hit pieces.

    You do offer some links to provide evidence for Peterson being an alt-righter (or something), and the links don’t actually provide any such evidence in the least. The “Intellectual We Deserve” article, when I saw it, I concluded was one of the most unbelievable stunning failures to even comprehend a detail what Peterson is talking about in his book. The “Jordan Peterson is soooo dangerous I used to support him” was devastatingly refuted by Conrad Black;

    I know many people who very much appreciate Jordan Peterson in my life. The strange thing is, that, well, most of them are liberals. Why does that seem strange? Well, it’s only strange because of the absurd picture a handful of journalists are hellbent of maintaining on Peterson. It’s not a credible picture in the least, as I’ve just shown.


  18. Steve Watson

    Massimo: Thanks for the link to your review of Haidt et al. I’d been thinking of posting something about it, but you did it better ;-). It seems to me that Haidt gets stuck on the moral psych, in which humans just have fundamentally different moral commitments (issuing in different sociopolitical commitments), and therefore there can be no basis for one party to convince the other of their error. But then perversely he scolds liberals to be more friendly to conservative concerns, rather than urging conservatives to abandon some of their excess moral baggage. Make up your mind, Jonathon: either descriptive psychology is all we can have, or we can argue about normativity on grounds other than psychology (though informed by it as to the range of possibilities, e.g. demanding universal perfect altruism is unrealistic). But you can’t have it both ways.

    Also: In one of the later chapters of Better Angels, Pinker mentions Haidt, and indirectly argues that violence has declined precisely as Western society has moved away from the conservative-specific Foundations.


  19. Massimo Post author

    Scientific Christian,

    thanks for the links, I’ll get to them. For now I stand by my claim, because I have watched Peterson, and because — unlike you — I find “The intellectual we deserve” a very thoroughly research and well argued piece. Not to mention the other piece I linked to, from a colleague and friend who knows Peterson well and knows where some of his funding comes from. The “stunning refutation” you posted is anything but.

    Also, “LOL”? Can we please stick to adult language? Thanks.

    At any rate, this post is not about Peterson, so I will not entertain any further comments about him here. I’m sure there will be other occasions.


  20. brodix

    Given the various groups and labels refer to some underlying spectrum, from far right to far left, with all degree of complex interactions emanating around the middle ground, it does seem that under the bickering and sensitive feelings would be an interesting study of the dynamic at work. Yet that might require being a little too objective about one’s own network.


  21. SocraticGadfly

    The reference to “talk to Dan” was simply that Christian said he was a classic liberal, Dan. If I were to draw a Venn diagram, I would say that classic liberals and libertarians have … about a 20-25 percent overlap.

    As for who the alt-right is and their relation to others? Given things like Sully’s snarky support for Trump on the border … maybe we could call that particular classical liberal “alt right lite” or something like that.

    What Trump’s election has done is let many people who are on the right (and some centrists on other issues, too, I’ll be honest) … “take the sheets off” (pun very intended) of their true stance on racial issues.

    Given all the above, while I don’t think you personally have such beliefs, and haven’t thought that, Dan, once again, you are a sample of N=1 on defining what a “classical liberal” is.


  22. SocraticGadfly

    Christian said:

    ever since the left has established their little hegemony over the media and social science/humanities academia

    Per Massimo, I won’t “LOL,” but rather, you’ll get a serious answer.

    First, the media.

    Fox, or Faux, News is “the left”? Many conservatives, let alone far-rightists, like to basically act as if Fox is not part of the media, like it’s a separate Sixth Estate rather than part of the Fifth Estate. Well, it’s part of the media, for better or for worse.

    Also, the NYT? With Brett Stephens’ climate denialism, Bari Weiss’ intellectual dark web, and David Brooks and Ross Douthat, is certainly NOT “the left.” Nor is warmongering cheering Washington Post.

    And, this is a problem with people of your political persuasion.

    Liberals are not “the left.”

    As an actual socialist of some sort, to the left of Bernie Sanders domestically and far left on foreign policy, I know that.

    So, you’re wrong in your whole framing.

    As for academia?

    Massimo, and others, have long ago refuted you and Haidt.

    Rather, most conservatives have self-selected out of mainstream academia.

    In biology, they won’t accept evolution by natural selection for the most part. Some do accept theistic evolution, but still won’t accept discussing evolution scientifically from a naturalistic perspective, which is the only way it can be scientifically discussed.

    In the social sciences, many more self-select out because they simply won’t accept the sociological impacts of the biological reality of non-heterosexual sexuality and similar things.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. wtc48

    Massimo: “Here is another way to put it: Mill never said that people will agree on something, he only said that they could, if they reasoned well.”

    If they could agree on how to reason well, that would be well enough indeed. It could be something like playing chess, but with awareness of the emotional consequences of the moves.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Chris J. Porzenheim


    Yes, System 1 and 2 are metaphors, sadly all too often taken as literal organs or facts, but still useful metaphors.

    I agree with your general remarks on Haidt v Kahneman, though in my experience I haven’t quite seen his claims as that overblown.

    Sometimes philosophers (and people) do talk about reason (system 2) as if that is how they and we all primarily think (rather than system 1 continously modified by 2). This is what I read Haidt as pushing so hard against, the type of people who identify as ‘rational’ rather than emotional. But, yes, sometimes he does push his point too far in rhetorical excess.

    I’m wondering how you feel about Lakoff and Johnsons claims about the central role of metaphor in embodied philosophy? You tend to be very attentive to metaphors in your writing, and I’m wondering if this is a coincidence or not. Also because their work is the reason why Haidt uses the elephant and rider metaphor rather than system 1 and System 2.

    Once again, thanks for answering my questions, especially these less obviously related to the OP ones.


  25. Chris J. Porzenheim


    Now that I think about it, if I recall properly Haidt does a pretty lousy job explaining Stoicism in his Happiness Hypothesis book. If you’d like to write another post on a popular and influential misunderstanding/critiquing of Stoicism, you can use Haidt… Don’t know if that interests you, but if memory serves he sadly repeats many of the old stereotypes, and his Happiness Hypothesis is super trendy.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Jesper Valgreen


    I read Evola many years ago at the behest of an older friend who was much taken in by this. I regard it as atrocious nonsense, but I have no doubt that there are people who believe it, and that that, or similar cranky beliefs, inform how they approach public debate.

    Nor is this restricted to the Right or Alt-Right. Years ago when I went to college, there was a small group of hardline communist students, who, for whatever reason declared me and a few others, ‘Enemies of the Proletariat’ or some such. By then anything we said was automatically wrong, simply by virtue of it being one of us saying it. I had ressources and support elsewhere, so I don’t think I suffered much, but public debate suffered immensely, in precisely the place where it should have thrived. When I got wise to their tactic, I sometimes applied it myself against them, and it is scarily effective. But I failed to expose it publicly, and that, I believe, was a serious mistake.

    The point that I was trying to get across is that some people think they have good reason to regard public debate as a zero-sum game of cosmic or historical significance, and that it only takes a few such zealots to spoil it for everyone. They think themselves so evidently right that debate is a matter of convincing people, and never a matter of listening. They’ll hide their real agenda behind bullshit words like ‘freedom’, ‘progress’, ‘tradition’, that turns out to mean one thing to the average listener, and another thing entirely in the agenda being pushed.
    I offer this as a tentative alternative to Van Norden’s analysis; under this, not only should ‘the ignorant’ not be denied their free speech, but it is imperative that they are listened to, and their concerns addressed in honest and open debate; and that also requires exposing the hidden agendas that people have, and making it hopefully clear to everyone just how corrosive this brand of dishonesty is.

    I assure you, I’ll have no truck with Manichean nonsense, or metaphysically reified cooties.


  27. Massimo Post author


    yeah, I’m aware of Lakoff’s work on metaphors, which I mention in a couple of my papers. As you say, I’m weary of metaphors, as any philosopher will tell you, analogical arguments are the weakest of them all. But metaphors are pretty much impossible to avoid altogether, and in some cases are truly enlightening. One just needs to keep in mind their limitations.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. brodix


    The basic point I was trying to make is there is a lot of political heat and how does one go about lowering the temperature?

    Personally I don’t have a lot emotionally invested in the current political situation. One of my ancestors was A. Jackson’s sec of state, treasury and ambassador to England and the family have been Democrats ever since, for a variety of reasons. Though I admit voting Green last time.

    I like to think I am fairly objective and my primary beef of the last 38 years has been the parabolic debt and its long term consequences.

    It is a historical fact that racism was actively promoted as a way to keep poor whites and blacks politically separate. Given the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, is it entirely coincidence there seems to be enormous effort being put into enflaming left/right tensions?

    As I’ve pointed out a fair number of times, money functions as the social contract that enables mass societies to work, but the current system treats it as a commodity to be mined from society. (Much of which is then stored as public debt and will be used against the public when it cannot be increased.)

    Just as government functions as the communal nervous system, in its executive and regulatory functions, finance amounts to the circulation system and it is at the “Let them eat cake” moment.


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