- August 25, 2015
Philosophers may be lovers of truth, but that doesn’t mean they are exempt from the cognitive biases that bedevil humans generally. Given that philosophers often have strongly-held political opinions, it’s worth asking: To what extent are their opinions conveyed in their academic writings? If political bias is present, then how does it influence the discipline? To the best of my knowledge, there has been no organized attempt by philosophers to address these questions, let alone attempt to study them scientifically. I’m here to make the case that the discipline would benefit from this kind of investigation and to suggest, in general terms, how it might be undertaken.
By “political bias,” I don't mean whether the positions being defended in professional publications seem more left-leaning or more right-leaning. Having equal numbers of philosophers on each side of every issue is neither achievable nor desirable. The concern, rather, is with superfluous asides, selective choices of example, and political references that cue the reader to the author’s (almost invariably left-of-center) opinions.
A good example can be found at the outset of The Imperative of Integration, Elizabeth Anderson's acclaimed book on the ethics of structural racism in contemporary American society. Anderson defines “cultural imperialism” as “the imposition of a dominant group's culture and interpretation of the world on subordinate groups.”1 Turkish repression of Kurdish identity during the twentieth century and the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition are two examples she gives of cultural imperialism. Anderson also cites Westerners’ portrayal of Islam “as a terrorist religion” and the fact that some textbooks “falsely represent everyone as heterosexual.”2
Anderson does not mention dhimmitude, the systemic oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Zoroastrians and polytheists at the hands of Muslims, which in some places continues to the present day.3 The precise method of this form of oppression varied over the centuries and between locales, but it was – and is – invariably degrading. To mention just a few of the indignities: non-Muslims “dhimmis” have been forced to wear discriminatory badges resembling animals (apes for Christians, pigs for Jews),4 and pay a special tax (jizya, Arabic for “tribute”) in a humiliating ceremony.5 Non-Muslims were also forbidden to ride “noble” beasts like horses and camels.6
Surely dhimmitude is a better example of cultural imperialism, as Anderson defines it, than either negative portrayals of Islam or the (apparent) absence of non-heterosexuals in textbooks. Her choice to highlight these comparatively trivial instances of “cultural imperialism” seems to reflect an academic liberal disposition to view Muslims and non-heterosexuals – but not Christians – as members of victim groups.
Here are a few more examples:
- James and Stuart Rachels' The Elements of Moral Philosophy – now the standard introductory ethics textbook – asks the reader to imagine being duped into voting against Obama on the basis of an irrational prejudice: “Suppose I know that you are prejudiced against Muslims. And I say: “Obama, you know, is a Muslim.” That does the trick; you now decide not to vote for Obama.”7 We are then informed: “President Obama is not in fact a Muslim.” This is an irrelevant comment in a context where all that is needed is an example of a person who is motivated to do something for a bad reason.
- Another example occurs in Alastair Norcross’s “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases,” a widely anthologized article arguing for ethical vegetarianism. At one point, Norcross tries to debunk the claim that the general rationality of human beings is relevant to the moral status of particular human beings who are not rational. To underscore the importance of the traits of particular humans, he gives an example in which an innocent man, Gandhi, is sent to hell because he shares an irrelevant feature, maleness, with four guilty men: “The other four – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George W. Bush and Richard Nixon – are guilty.” Although the example succeeds in illustrating Norcross’s point, the decision to mention Bush and Nixon alongside Hitler and Stalin is unnecessary and objectionable.
- In another paper, “Killing, Abortion and Contraception: A Reply to Marquis,” Norcross advances a reductio ad absurdum argument that requires him to discuss hypothetical mass casualty incidents, including massacres. What he does not need to do is give the fictional agents of these atrocities names that suspiciously resemble those of real-life politicians: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, and former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle. After a nuclear accident in London, “The Prime Minister, Ms. Butcher... orders the army to round up the survivors, make a record of their names, and kill them.” American President “Shrub” and Vice President “Fowl” commit similar crimes.
- The political commentary in Allen W. Wood’s Kantian Ethics is particularly venomous. In the preface, Wood writes, “The very ideas of democracy, community and human rights are in the process of dying in our civilization – or they are being willfully murdered by those in power and that segment of the population who support this regime [the Bush administration]” (emphasis mine). Later, without pausing to consider any anti-abortion arguments, Wood asserts that “It is an affront to human intelligence to pretend that [pro-life] views are anything but an attempt to confine women, as far as possible, to their traditional sexual subordination as less than free persons.”8
- In his book, In Praise of Reason: Why Rationality Matters for Democracy, Michael P. Lynch observes that political and ethical decisions are often emotionally loaded “as anyone from Machiavelli to Karl Rove could tell you.”9 Of course, both major political parties in the U.S. make use of calculating strategists in order to win elections. As the book was published in 2012, Lynch could have used the more recent example David Axelrod, a chief campaign advisor to Barack Obama during the 2008 election. His decision to mention Rove alone suggests that only Republicans are Machiavellian, or that they are especially so.
- In an earlier book, True to Life: Why Truth Matters, Lynch wastes no time presenting his objections to the George W. Bush administration. The blurb for the book on the MIT Press website poses the question to the reader: “Why be concerned over an abstract idea like truth when something that isn't true – for example, a report of Iraq's attempting to buy materials for nuclear weapons – gets the desired result: the invasion of Iraq?” The Iraq war example also occurs in the first sentence of the introduction. Since True to Life addresses abstract philosophical questions about truth, not untruthfulness in American politics, the political example is irrelevant and unnecessary.
Although pointed political asides can add zest to dry academic prose, we should be guarded about using academic articles as platforms for editorializing, especially in pedagogical contexts. Of the examples cited, James and Stuart Rachels’ Elements and Norcross’s “Puppies, Pigs, and People” are both widely used in introductory ethics courses. Anderson’s Imperative of Integration is widely used in introductory political philosophy courses. Norcross’s abortion paper and Wood’s Kantian Ethics have also been used in undergraduate philosophy classes at the University of Colorado, Boulder.10
The bias in these texts thus has the potential to influence a large number of students, and it may influence them negatively. Liberal students who notice bias toward their viewpoints may spend less time trying to shore up their own opinions, or conclude that they need not take conservative ideas seriously. Conservative students may conclude that the profession doesn’t take them seriously and be less disposed to consider a career in philosophy. More importantly, discussion of political topics has a tendency to inject heat into any discussion when dispassionate reason is called for. So an excess of political bias in pedagogical texts might frustrate efforts to make the field more diverse (at least ideologically) and hinder the learning environment for students generally.
Political bias is also problematic for reasons unrelated to pedagogy. Philosophers whose political beliefs are constantly affirmed are in danger of being lulled into complacency, and made less receptive to opposing viewpoints, at the expense of the philosophical enterprise. Anyone who has been to philosophy conferences has probably absorbed political zingers that fail, sometimes spectacularly, to zing. Once, during a philosophy of science presentation, the speaker asked the audience for an example of something knowable through induction. One sparkling wit then blurted out, “Republicans are stupid!” to uproarious laughter. The speaker, appeared uncomfortable and, to his credit, said some nice things about conservatives in reply.
Such jabs seem to be tossed out less for their (negligible) comedic value than as a means of affirming membership in the academic tribe. By sneering at the right things, you identify yourself as an enlightened insider. Some philosophers defy this trend. Professor David Boonin at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is generally left-leaning on the social issues he writes about, but is exceptionally conscientious about fairly considering conservative positions. The frequency with which philosophers unselfconsciously make such barbed comments nonetheless testifies to widespread ideological complacency, which is no doubt reinforced through the bias frequently found in scholarly works.
The American Philosophical Association (APA), the primary professional organization for philosophers in the U.S., has shown a great deal of concern about diversity and inclusiveness when it comes to race, gender and sexual orientation. So far, it has shown little concern about diversity of political perspectives. Whether diversity and inclusiveness are equally valuable in all of these domains is a question I don’t propose to investigate here. But if the APA decides that ideological diversity is an asset to a well-rounded education, they ought to investigate the extent and effects of political bias in their field.
It might begin with a survey asking published philosophers how frequently they notice political examples and asides in their own writing. Such studies wouldn't be all that different from the demographic survey that the APA regularly conducts (indeed, questions about political ideology could be included in that very survey). Additional studies might look into whether philosophers are more likely to be persuaded by a paper that uses examples amenable to their political leanings, and whether they are more likely to reject journal submissions that challenge them.
These more sophisticated studies that would have to be interdisciplinary endeavors involving social scientists. But similar interdisciplinary work is already being undertaken. New interdisciplinary sub-disciplines like neurophilosophy and experimental philosophy (a.k.a. “X-Phi”) have flourished in recent years. Kieran Healy, associate professor of sociology at Duke University, has done interesting empirical research on gender and citation patterns in published academic philosophy papers. Undoubtedly, some interdisciplinary-minded social scientists and philosophers will welcome the opportunity to do more work in this vein.
This is not to say that there are not special challenges for the study of political bias. Thorny questions include: Who could be trusted to fairly evaluate papers for political bias? And what metric for political bias could evaluators use? Ideally, each paper examined by the study – perhaps the 300 most-cited ethics papers over a ten-year period – would be evaluated by multiple philosophers of differing political perspectives.
The trouble, of course, is that philosophers who are not left-of-center are few. New studies could get around this problem by asking evaluators to consider questions that allow reasonably clear-cut answers. Examples include: Does this paper make references to contemporary political leaders? Can any of these references reasonably be construed as ad hominem attacks? Could an intelligent reader detect some of the author’s political opinions from asides?
Of course, not all forms of bias can be discovered, no matter how simple the survey. It’s inherently difficult to get any objective assessment as to whether a certain political viewpoint has been treated fairly, or whether the examples chosen to illustrate a point are selected to affirm some political ideology (the kind of bias that I alleged might be present in Anderson’s work). For this reason, any study restricted to such questions could be expected to understate the true amount of bias in the texts being examined. Such studies would, nevertheless, provide us with more knowledge about political bias than we currently have. Future studies could improve on them.
Even if we had perfect knowledge about the extent and significance of political bias, we’d still face the problem of what to do about it (assuming, as I believe, that further inquiry would show its influence to be deleterious.) I suspect that no corrective measures will be as powerful as simple acknowledgment that political bias is present. There are almost certainly limits to the degree we are able to transcend personal biases.
What we can and ought to do is seek awareness of our own cognitive limitations. This, after all, is the essence of Socratic humility.
Spencer Case is a philosophy doctoral student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.
1. Anderson, Elizabeth (2013). Imperative of Integration. Reprint edition. Princeton University Press, p.13.
2. Ibid, 14.
3. The routine use of discrimination and mob violence to keep the Coptic Christians in Egypt socially in check is a good example of twenty-first century dhimmitude. So is the ongoing oppression of the Baha’i in Iran.
4. Yo’er, Bat (1996). The Dhimmi: Christians and Jews Under Islam. Translated from the French by David Maisal, Paul Fenton, and David Littman. Farleigh Dickinson University Press, pp. 66, 186, 190-194.
5. Yo’er, Bat (1996). The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam. Translated from the French by Miriam Kochan and Kavid Littman. Farleigh Dickinson University Press, pp. 77-79.
6. Yo’er, Bat (1996). The Dhimmi: Christians and Jews Under Islam. Translated from the French by David Maisal, Paul Fenton, and David Littman. Farleigh Dickinson University Press, pp. 63, 66-67.
7. James and Stuart Rachels. (2010). The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 6th edition. McGraw-Hill Education, p. 40.
8. Wood, Allen W. (2007). Kantian Ethics. 1st edition. Cambridge University Press, p. 229.
9. Lynch, Michael (2012). In Praise of Reason: Why Rationality Matters for Democracy. The MIT Press, p. 12.
10. To be precise, Wood’s Kantian Ethics was used in a “slash” course that included both graduate students and advanced undergraduate student.