Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Peter Suderman, Consequentialism, And The Path Of The Wanker

Katha Pollitt on Ross Douthat going to the NYT:
So who would I like to see in the Kristol slot? Actually, Kristol. I was livid when they gave him the job, but he was perfect: a dull, complacent apparatchik who set forth the Bush line in all its fact-free glory. His columns were like press releases—you could hardly remember them two minutes after reading them. But his presence on the page reminded readers that David Brooks is not really what Republicanism is all about.
I'm not totally sure what to think of the whole thing (I don't know whether he'll be influential in pushing his freaky right-wing social views, or whether he'll just make those views look properly freaky), but Katha's view certainly seems plausible. Peter Suderman's response:
assuming Pollitt actually believes this, this strikes me as a deeply cynical exercise in intellectual bad faith. Partisans and hacks may want the other side to put forth their worst defenders, but shouldn’t anyone who considers herself an intellectual hope for the best from her political opponents?
Well, no. This seems to beg the question against any consequentialist intellectual. If the government enacted my favored policies (universal health care / climate change legislation / liberal social policies / humane foreign policy with huge global antipoverty spending), but the debate in major op-ed pages was reduced to ungrammatical raunchy limericks, I'd call that a wonderful state of affairs. And since I think that good consequences are the criterion of what you should do and what you ought to hope for, I'd say that Pollitt's hopes are in the right place. I don't see anything anti-intellectual about holding these views or honestly expressing them.

This doesn't mean that acting to produce good consequences is always consistent with retaining one's credibility as an intellectual. One can't maintain one's intellectual credibility while making bad arguments just because one thinks they'll be effective in getting people to vote the right way and make the right consequences happen. Now, in some situations, ceasing to be an intellectual and becoming a hack will be the morally right move, because in these situations, hackery has tremendous benefits to others. (Similarly, in some unusual situations, ceasing to be a law-abiding citizen and becoming a thief will be the morally right move, because there are large social goods to be generated by theft.) Of course, none of this is what Pollitt is doing -- she's just expressing an honest opinion about what will best serve her political ends.

Suderman's position seems to be that being an intellectual involves wanting public debate to go well, with smart people on both sides carrying on a respectful and informative discussion. I agree that that's a pretty good thing. But much more central to being an intellectual is presenting good, well-thought-out arguments that you believe in. Someone who honestly presents an interesting argument for why it would be okay for public debate to go to hell is doing the intellectual thing a lot better than somebody who presents a bad argument he doesn't actually believe for why it's important for public debate to be conducted on a high level.

A participant in high-minded public discussion who values high-mindedness so highly that he loses sight of the consequences for the outside world indulges in the vice of wankery. While good intellectual discussions can be quite pleasant and are certainly worthwhile, pursuing them should not lead one to lose track of important and valuable things in the outside world. My purpose is not to accuse Suderman of this vice, but to make clear that the path of the intellectual need not be the path of the wanker.
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