Why people feel entitled to bad philosophy

Writing my last post has got me wondering about something that Sanchez gets at - why should it be that people are so ready to feel complacent about their inadequate philosophical views in a way they are not complacent about their inadequate scientific or economic views? Even if I explained to the drivers of cars with bumper stickers such as "My body, my choice" or "It's a child, not a choice" that their bumper stickers beg the question (and, in the latter case, is also an equivocation) my guess is that the owners will not be tempted to peel off their bumper stickers. We don't usually see cars driving around with bumper stickers that say, "Heavier objects accelerate faster while falling!"

On the moral questions, it's clear people are afraid of undermining a strongly held view. But I notice this propensity even when the philosophical view doesn't have immediate moral implications, such as external world skepticism.

Part of it must be lack of exposure to philosophers and philosophy. Most people have taken science in school, at however elementary a level, and almost everyone has gone to a doctor. In such cases, you are occasionally disabused of a preconceived notion in the face of someone more educated than you are. (I hear from Dan that this is not always the case in medicine - but my guess is the majority of his patients' parents realize that Dan has a welcome experitse to contribute to the discussion of their child's health). But philosophy is not taught in elementary or high schools, and many of the people who do go to college manage to skate through without philosophy. Of those who take any philosophy, the vast majority will take a very simple intro class (Intro, Intro to moral issues, or basic logic). So most people go through life without being disabused of any philosophical notions.

Philosophical insights also feel good, whether they are true or useful or not. It makes people feel as if they have done something profound and meaningful when they come up with a philosophical view, and they don't want to be told that their emotion is not worthwhile. It's really awful when a student comes in super eager and excited, telling you he stayed up all night with his friends talking about proving the existence of God and has come up with view X, and you are faced with telling him why view X is not viable. It can be rather crushing, and they are likely to attribute to you a sourness or lack of openness rather than attribute to themselves a problematic view.

The last reason I can think of is actually a result of bad philosophy. It's the same line of thinking that engenders the casual moral relativism that most people (or students in intro classes) claim to hold (they aren't usually really moral relativists - almost all will agree a society without slavery is better than one with). It goes something like: 1) We don't know for sure the answer to most philosophical questions (we actually often do know why some proposed responses won't work, but most lay people don't know this). Even philosophers disagree. 2) Therefore, no one is right or wrong when it comes to a philosophical view. 3) Therefore, I am entitled to my own philosophical view, and anyone who tells me it is wrong is being close-minded. Of course, (2) confuses metaphysics and epistemology, and (3) does not follow. If they took philosophy, they'd know that!


  1. I have several thoughts:
    1) I'm going right out and peeling my "Heavier objects accelerate faster while falling!" bumper sticker off my car.

    2) In all seriousness, I think you're absolutely right about the lack of philosophical education most people get in this country. (You made a similar point with your post on the philosophy of science.) My only exposure was a survey course of the history of philosophy. Which would explain a lot, probably.

    3) Your very thoughtful posts are almost enough to make me stop posting snarky little snippets about Sarah Palin. But not quite.

  2. Oh, one more thing. Many people are happy to hear what I have to say when diagnosing their children. However, medical expertise ain't what it used to be, and plenty of people evince a marked lack of agreement if I tell them something they think is wrong. (Eg. the presence of green snot doesn't mean your child needs an antibiotic.) For questions of a quasi-philosophical bent, particularly the decision to not vaccinate one's child while relying on the vaccination of the community at large, trying to change people's minds is a lost cause in most cases.

  3. Mandatory philosophy sounds like a great idea.

    We should probably start with mandatory logic & rhetoric classes, though. If you can't recognize a proposition when you see one, you're probably not going to be able to actually grok a real philosophical argument, I'll warrant.

    (See what I did there, at the end? Man, I'm funny on Tuesday mornings without coffee).

  4. I think there's much of Europe where some philosophy at the HS level is standard, though I can imagine that opening up an enormous can of worms in the US—you can probably write your own script for the enraged parental calls about the lecture on the Euthyphro on day one.

    As for complacency, I think two related factors loom large. First there's the "looks like" factor. Crack open a textbooks on physics or biology and you'll see a lot of recondite diagrams and equations; it's immediately clear that you don't know what's going on there. Even a fairly difficult philosophy book will generally be laying out some kind of ordinary-language argument. One may not be much more likely to properly understand what's going on there without some preparation, but it's not, if you'll forgive an oxymoron, transparently opaque in the same way.

    Second, there's the question of external validation. If you want proof that an engineer or a physicist or a doctor has some special knowledge, you observe that they can build rocket ships and cure diseases, and you can't. The only way to really get that philosophers genuinely have a better handle on what counts as a sound argument than someone without training is... well, to get the training (or at least do the reading) yourself. Reality—not to mention the authorities—are apt to much more quickly disabuse me of any illusions that I understand surgery as well as a medical doctor.