Education, Philosophy, recent

The Dearth of Conservatives in Academic Philosophy

It is no secret that conservative political views are underrepresented in the academy. In Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, John A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. cite surveys that put the number of professors who self-identify as conservative in the humanities at between four and eight percent. It should therefore come as no surprise that conservative political views are scarce in philosophy. While it may seem impolite to raise this issue when the philosophy profession is contending with a rather different diversity problem, the fact itself is philosophically interesting. It is strange, for instance, how rarely philosophers agree about a wide range of thorny philosophical problems, and yet they appear to be unified on a range of complex issues that divide the American public roughly in half.

Why are there so few political conservatives in philosophy? Some hypotheses stand out immediately. One may notice that philosophy requires a critical attitude that sits uncomfortably with the characteristically conservative respect for authority. As a profession, philosophy also does not offer career prospects that risk-averse conservatives may value higher than their more idealistic liberal counterparts. Lastly, as Peter K. Jonason has shown,1 openness to ideas and experience—the philosophical character trait par excellence—is associated with political liberalism, not conservatism.

What do we know about conservatives in philosophy? In the absence of good data—and there is little—it is difficult not to fall back on anecdote and conventional wisdom. One resource that is available, however, is the PhilPapers Survey from 2009, which surveyed members of the philosophy profession on a broad range of philosophical issues. What does the survey tell us about conservatism in philosophy? Perhaps most notable is that “conservatism” is not even listed as an answer to the only question about political philosophy: “Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?” Among faculty or Ph.D. holders, about a third accept or lean toward egalitarianism, 16 percent communitarianism, and 13 percent libertarianism. The largest percentage (37 percent) is “Other,” which covers various hybrid, nuanced, noncommittal, or agnostic positions. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that conservatives make up a large chunk of that percentage. The egalitarian tilt goes up to 50 percent if you isolate respondents with social and political philosophy as an area of specialization. Meanwhile, of the 153 conservative academics in the humanities interviewed by Shields and Dunn Sr., 10 percent were philosophers.

Why does the underrepresentation of conservatives in philosophy matter? Or more precisely, given the aforementioned psychological hypotheses, which may explain the lack of conservative persons in philosophy, why does the underrepresentation of conservative views matter? After all, like any intellectual trend, it may be temporary, reflecting the current state of society and many other factors beyond the control of the philosophy profession. A collective shrug, then, may be expected or, given the current political climate, maybe even a collective “good riddance.” Nevertheless, I will make the case that there are good reasons to lament the lack of conservative views in philosophy.

The first reason draws on one of John Stuart Mill’s best-known arguments for freedom of speech in On Liberty. Mill, you’ll recall, argues that would-be-silenced opinions either a) turn out to be true, or b) even if false, are beneficial for the light they produce when colliding with the truth. And on highly contested topics, especially political ones, more typically the opposing opinions share some of the truth between them, producing a salutary synthesis. Importantly though, Mill maintains that in order to obtain these beneficial effects, we must hear the opposing opinions voiced by those who actually hold them, with arguments strongly formulated, not simply parroted by their ideological opponents. Thus, even if conservatism turns out to be false (or detestable), there are good epistemic reasons to keep its ideas in the conversation, and defended by its sincere adherents.

The second reason concerns the lack of representation of conservative views in philosophy relative to the general population. According to recent data, these are underrepresented at the faculty level by about 75 percent. There may or may not be discrimination-based reasons for this fact, and it would in any case probably be difficult to prove. Moreover, I see little reason to expect a rarified discipline like philosophy to reflect isometrically the demographics of the general population. Nevertheless, given that roughly half of the American population has conservative political views, most of whom are taxpayers who fund institutions of higher learning, and some of whom attend such institutions (or pay for their children to), such persons are either subsidizing views they disagree with, or being undereducated by a faculty that does not take their moral viewpoint seriously. Consequently, conservative persons in the general population, who may crave intellectual support for (or at least discussion of) their views, may then look to more disreputable, dishonest, and disgraceful sources in this new age of decentralized information, political extremism, and “fake news.” (This point was made by Steven Pinker in a discussion of “Is Political Correctness Why Trump Won?” Unsurprisingly, he was vilified as “alt-right” for pointing this out.)

The third reason looks to the psychological sources of political disagreements. Jonathan Haidt, for instance, has argued that moral intuitions operate like taste receptors (e.g. salty, sweet, bitter, etc.)—everyone has access to them, but they are activated differently depending on social, cultural, and educational factors, just as worldly cuisines combine universal flavors differently. The critical point here is that liberalism appears weighted toward three moral intuitions—fairness, harm, and liberty. Conservatism, in contrast, draws on a fuller palate, adding to these, moral intuitions about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Are these intuitions somehow less interesting from a philosophical point of view? They make up the moral psychology of family, patriotism, and the sacred. Liberalism confines these matters to the private realm or ignores them entirely. But given how important these areas of life are to the average person, it is no wonder that there is so little interest in academic political philosophy when its cuisine is confined to intuitions about harm, fairness, and liberty. Such parochialism is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of those who search for meaning beyond justice.

There are also practical lessons here about the pressing issues of diversity and political polarization. The diversity problem has gripped philosophy due to its well-known shortcomings in representing the pluralistic culture of liberal democracy in what is, admittedly, a homogenous history judged through the lens of culture, gender, race, identity, and so on. Such efforts to include hitherto marginalized persons in the great tradition of philosophy is laudable. There are also, as I’ve argued, good reasons for diversity from an epistemic standpoint, where the truth is more likely to come from the collision of many different experiences and viewpoints. That was Mill’s point. But in order for Mill’s point to be put into practice, we must also have viewpoint diversity. A community in which people look different, come from different cultural backgrounds, yet reach the same conclusions on a surprising number of complex issues is not a community that values the pursuit of truth.

Diversity is also not an unalloyed good. For, in time, diverse (and divided) opinions about fundamental ideas like justice and the good are likely to slowly tear at the social fabric of a society, risking the dangerous levels of political polarization witnessed in recent years. Without a healthy mix of a conservative and liberal center, the poles of left and right are much more likely to tilt toward the extremes. And if there simply are no conservatives, as we witness in philosophy, then people will quarrel over the minute details about what true equality requires, rather than working on approximations to justice that can only be found in conversation and compromise.

The reconciliation of diversity and equality is sometimes sought by the addition of “inclusion” to form the triad of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Consider the slogan I witnessed recently on a college campus promotional banner: “To unify and to be inclusive, we need to accept and value all perspectives and experiences.” But it is, by definition, impossible to unify around all perspectives and experiences. Every social group orients itself around an agreement to treat some values, perspectives, and experiences as foundational, some as tolerated but not promoted, and others as excluded or excised altogether. One need only wonder about the extent to which a conservative perspective and experience is tolerated—much less accepted and valued—for that slogan to ring false.

The glue for diversity and the solution to political polarization is to revitalize the central conservative notions of social-membership, responsibility, love of country, and a shared morality. Such notions constitute the philosophy of “home,” whether that be the home of family, country, or neighborhood. The conservative insight here is that, as Haidt puts it, “you can’t help the bees by destroying the hive.” A healthy political order depends on social membership, and social membership is held together by loyalty, authority, and sanctity—things the group holds sacred. We exercise reason in service of these things, not by way of overcoming or transcending them. “Reason,” as Hume put it, “is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

What, if anything, should be done about the problem I have identified? Conservatives themselves are unenthusiastic about affirmative action policies designed to increase their number in the halls of the academy. In that case, perhaps the medicine is worse than the disease, as conservatives tend to be champions of meritocracy, even in the face of known biases and disadvantage. If anything, conservatives may also benefit intellectually from their marginal place in philosophy, since they are the beneficiaries of having to defend their views from tough (and sometimes unfriendly) critics. More realistically, philosophers who are not conservatives could make more of an effort to seek out dialogue and discussion from conservatives. After all, there is undoubtedly some level of self-censorship present, which could be alleviated by a genuinely more welcoming and inclusive environment.

Finally, philosophers should refocus their love of abstraction on the love of the actual, if only for short moments, to appreciate the great tradition of philosophy and the great privilege it is to participate in it. For if anything is worth conserving, it is that. And perhaps, in time, philosophers might begin to take conservatism seriously where it must begin: at home.

 

Tristan J. Rogers is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at California State University, East Bay. His research interests lie in political philosophy, virtue ethics, and ancient philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @tristanjrogers1

Reference:

1 Peter K. Jonason, “Personality and Politics,” Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 71 (2014), pp. 181-4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.08.002

Featured Image: Wikicommons

80 Comments

  1. Suzy Que says

    “One may notice that philosophy requires a critical attitude that sits uncomfortably with the characteristically conservative respect for authority. As a profession, philosophy also does not offer career prospects that risk-averse conservatives may value higher than their more idealistic liberal counterparts. Lastly, as Peter K. Jonason has shown,1 openness to ideas and experience—the philosophical character trait par excellence—is associated with political liberalism, not conservatism.”

    This is astonishing to me. This does not comport with the vast majority of conservatives that I actually know. I don’t know how to explain the wide divide between what you think are conservatives and what I experience.

    • V 2.0 says

      Not only that but those that identify as political liberals are not very open to fresh ideas either, unless you consider ideas from the sixties fresh these days.

    • E. Olson says

      SQ – I was drawn to the exact same passage from the article, but had the reverse conclusion – it doesn’t comport with the vast majority of “Liberals” that I know. The very fact that their own survey of philosophy faculty does not have an option for “conservatism” as a political viewpoint shows how open they are to “ideas and experience”. I think the major problem here is that most of these “Liberal” philosophy faculty are actually “Lefty”, which in reality is associated with being closed minded and highly censorious of non-woke viewpoints – in other words disdain for the real world. I do agree with you, however, that it is conservatives today (aka the Right) who are the proponents of free speech, and debate and research of unpopular viewpoints – in other words the true Liberals in the classic sense.

      As for increasing the number of Conservative/Right faculty in the humanities and social sciences, it might be helpful if undergraduate and graduate students weren’t constantly barraged with Trump/Republican/Right/Western Culture bashing lecturers when taking courses that are ostensibly supposed to be about history, literature, philosophy. It probably also doesn’t send a very “inclusive” message when those same lecturers egg on their students to protest, disrupt, and stop any campus event involving a topic or speaker who is insufficiently “woke”.

      Given the general population, it might otherwise be assumed that 50% or more of the student body actually is Right leaning, but when they are made afraid to speak their mind for fear of losing grades or being publicly ostracized, it won’t encourage very many to continue towards a PhD and future faculty position (see link). A more open and inclusive campus might even reveal a greater than expected number of conservatives already on the faculty, but who have remained silent and anonymous to protect their jobs and promotions.

      https://www.thecollegefix.com/unc-professor-speaks-out-conservative-students-silenced-too-many-peers-biased/

      • Kencathedrus says

        @E. Olson: this is so true. Students hate being taught to an agenda. Being conservative is now counter-cultural.

    • Agreed. Most philosophical radicals appear in hindsight to be quite bent on conserving any number of things in their time. Good article as usual though. Thought provoking to say the least. Is it a matter of defining or redefining preservation apart from a naturalist bent that’s something conservatives should consider? Maybe defining the axiomatics is again in order.

    • That is a fair point. For what it’s worth, I am not reporting what I think here, but offering some possible hypotheses. And unfortunately, given the lack of conservatives in my field, I actually know very few conservatives outside of the online world. Thus I would not take my own experience of what conservatives are like to be indicative of much.

    • Albigensian says

      Part of the disconnect is that although those of the left still like to characterize themselves as “rebels” and “nonconformists,” it is leftism that has become the de-facto establishment on campuses everywhere and, it’s surely safer to ally oneself with it than to risk even a small rebellion against the reigning conformity.

      So, perhaps there’s some contradiction in describing conservatives as nonconformists, but it does take a willingness to think for oneself and to chart an independant course for anyone in this environment to reject even a small part of this dominant-left orthodoxy.

    • Savager says

      To start, there’s the heavy underrepresentation of conservatives among the classes that research and promulgate these ideas…

  2. Victoria says

    “Lastly, as Peter K. Jonason has shown,1 openness to ideas and experience—the philosophical character trait par excellence—is associated with political liberalism, not conservatism.”

    It inadvertently speaks volumes about liberalism that its “philosophical character trait par excellence” isn’t honesty.

  3. Andy Patton says

    Reading again of Mill’s argument, that an opposing view is beneficial, reminded me of just how valuable I found many of George Grant’s argument, though I’m a let-liberal sort. Through his arguments I came to see how much of “my” “thought” was not though at all but a parroting of received ideas. Later, I was warned not to read Grant by a well-meaning fellow-traveller on the left. It was Grant too whose wrestling with Nietzsche was accompanied by a statement about how much one’s thought is enriched by a confrontation with those incomparably deeper than oneself, something that imprinted itself on my mind. Grant’s example—and Burke might be another—reminds me often of how valuable conservative thinkers can be.

  4. codadmin says

    Surely philosophy and opinion have to be separated otherwise you’re talking about ideology and not philosophy.

    Philosophy is the science of ideas. A true philosophical idea stands on its own without rhetoric or power propping the up.

    The idea of a ‘leftist philosopher’ is just as absurd as the idea of a ‘leftist scientist’.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Codamin,
      You make a very good point. A leftist philosopher is a person who looks at every problem using the same basic framework of ideas. After a 150 years of left-wing thought, I would have thought that there is really no new things for these left-wing thinkers to discover. They aren’t looking new ideas with an open mind at all, but in fac hardening their viewpoints. As you say they have ceased to be philosophers.

      • I’m not sure we can avoid doing philosophy through the lens of a framework or a viewpoint. I just think there should be more in the conversation to counteract confirmation bias.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Philosophy is unlike science and technology, where innovation is the norm. The biggest philosophical ideas have been expressed, with little “new philosophy” that turns the page on how people think.
      And they don’t get paid well after spending many years in primarily leftist universities.
      Who can think clearly when non-PC ideas are thought hateful and require bans or deplatforming or loss of your job?

  5. JohnLee says

    ‘One ponders the question, why so few jewish catholic bishops?’

    The answer is self evident in the question

    • Only if you define “philosopher” as “not a conservative.” Is that your contention? Is it an analytic truth that “conservative philosophers” is an empty set?

    • JohnLee says

      I would submit: Academia is now a priest hood, The debates allowed are of a ‘Angels on the head of a Pin’ as far as philosophy goes- of interest to the woke. too many subjects are excluded from scientific inquiry, and are treated as received dogma….

      • Okay, I understand your point now. I have sometimes thought that the current state of academic philosophy resembles the old scholasticism of the medieval period. If so, maybe it’s time for a new Baconian Revolution.

    • Northern Observer. says

      Someone likes the smell of his own stink.

  6. Should there be more conservatives in Academia?

    Who cares?

    codamin is correct: An ideologicl philosopher is about as relevant as an ideological plumber..

    The lack of political diversity in academia is no doubt symptomatic of a problem, but I doubt that problem can be solved by creating a greater “balance” of political views. In fact, to even suggest this to be the case is symptomatic of the problem.

    A good philosopher probably has political views but if those views dominate or define his or her philosophizing then we’re probably dealing with a mediocre philosopher.

    The problem in academia seems to be simply that philosophy doesn’t exist or barely exists. And as the great and neglected Ortega y Gasset once said, for philosophy to rule it need only be recognized to exist.

    • E. Olson says

      CA – you wrote “we’re probably dealing with a mediocre philosopher” and given the dearth of “new” philosophies over the past 100+ years that seem to have much correspondence to the real world, I think it is safe to say that philosophy as a field is mediocre. Certainly within the field, as with most others, the vast, vast majority of campus philosophers are not “great thinkers” and indeed are mostly just regurgitating the philosophies of the past and talking about current events in the classroom and their “scholarship”.

      • I would disagree with your claim that the “vast majority of campus philosophers are not ‘great thinkers’.” Despite my complaint about the ideological imbalance in philosophy, the intellectual abilities of the philosophers I know is first-rate, regardless of their political opinions. If such philosophers are not “great thinkers,” I think it’s mostly because they do not engage with ideas in the public sphere, not because they lack the ability, but because of philosophy’s echo-chamber.

        • E. Olson says

          Can someone be a “great thinker” if they are totally blinded by political ideology, particularly when their political beliefs and preferences seem to be contradicted by the real world outside academia?

          • How about “good thinker”? Philosophy is hard enough that I (and perhaps my colleagues) would be satisfied with being a good thinker.

  7. Jim Gorman says

    Philosophy should not be concerned with political ideology at all. Why would being left or right matter one iota in the assessment of a philosophical question. How many current philosophy professors could even give a cogent assessment to the following two statements: I think, therefore I am. and its converse I am, therefore I think. Forget about the inverse or the contrapositive versions.

    Here is a pertinent example, equal outcomes. How about an assertion like, If equal outcomes are good for mankind, then everyone will be allowed to be a tenured philosophy professor! Let’s see a philosophy professor discuss the pros and cons, the effects on mankind as a whole, the reasonableness of ignoring merit while making outcomes equal and all the while not mentioning politics or Trump.

    • Ryan says

      I don’t see how that is possible, and am frankly surprised so many people think there can be a clear division of ideas and ideology.

      You must not forget that Marx is considered a philosopher, who advocated that philosophers try and change the world. Furthermore, there is a subfield of philosophy called political philosophy. If that isn’t enough, because both philosophy and politics can cover everything, they are bound to influence one another.

      Now one can speak in abstract terms, and try to decouple. However at the end of the day, whichever worldview a philosopher develops will influence his political view.

      • Yes, I think it’s pretty clear from psychology that we cannot think without certain a priori presuppositions and implicit motivations. Philosophers like Rawls (and his followers) advocate for the method of “reflective equilibrium,” whereby you seek a balance between pre-theoretical moral intuitions or “considered judgments” and a theoretical apparatus. I think it’s pretty clear, however, that the moral intuitions do most of the work, and if only the intuitions of an unusual bunch (i.e. academic philosophers) count, then the theory is going to be unsurprisingly idiosyncratic.

        • Joana George says

          @Tristan J. Rogers

          What you wrote here is exactly what’s missing from your piece! It’s not only necessary in order for your argument to stand but it also hints at the fundamental difference between hiring somebody for being conservative and other affirmative action practices. I suggest making this difference explicit.

          I’m mentioning this in case you want to make this argument again in some other setting. It’s a good argument to make.

          On a side note, I loved how you used the word “home”. It made me smile. Thanks!

          • Thanks, Joana. I am working on a longer version for an academic audience, so I will take your suggestion on board. As for the “home” reference, I initially began this project as a conference presentation for the International Social Philosophy Conference in July whose theme this year is “Home: Sanctuary, Shelter, and Justice.”

        • Jim Gorman says

          TR –> Philosophers must deal with things the way they are. You may have “certain a priori presuppositions and implicit motivations”>/i> but these should be identified and discussed. For instance, equal outcomes may fit into your belief system but one must also hurt their brain trying to derive all the pros and cons, costs and benefits, and what other unintended consequences might occur. Should we make sure that brilliant scientists don’t develop new things that less brilliant scientists could never do in order to have equal outcomes? Is this best for humankind? These are things that philosophers should be dealing with so politicians and policy makers have a fundamental basis for making decisions.

          You’re letting so-called philosophers off the hook by saying that because of their innate characteristics they are unable to develop logical arguments whose results are true and best for humankind. Without holding their feet to the fire all you will get is ideological based underpinnings of policy. We already see way too much of this from narcissistic college students who are triggered too easily and whose beliefs have no basis other than their “feelings” being hurt.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Where do you think political ideologies comes from?

  8. Angus Black says

    There are few conservatives in philosophy because the almost exclusively left wing philosophy departments will neither graduate nor hire them.

    Conservatives have to earn a living, you know.

  9. Bob Johnson says

    I would say that the greatest philosophers today – John Gray, Alisdair Macintyre, Patrick Deneen, Alexander Dugin, Charles Taylor – are conservatives. Ions ahead of the hacks

    • Paul says

      Charles Taylor is not a conservative. I wouldn’t have thought MacIntyre is either.

      • Phil H. Wright says

        It’s an interesting question. Macintyre is Scottish and Taylor is Canadian, so they don’t fit American or Australian or European political party categories very well. Each is philosophically sympathetic to religion, which is often taken to be a conservative attitude. Macintyre’s valorizing of virtue, Aristotle, and Aquinas are also seen as generally conservative. Taylor’s leaning on Hegel might also seem to be conservative. Yet both philosophize in a completely modern (liberal) way insofar as their reasoning and their taken-for-granted view of facts and contemporary science and modernity go. Taylor always insists, even at his most religious, that, in this respect, we are all in the same boat.

        • I believe Taylor ran for office under the New Democratic Party in Canada. That puts him firmly on the left as far as real world politics go. But I agree–his intellectual influences and framework has some affinity with conservatism. His article “Atomism,” which criticized Lockean-style liberalism, was a big influence on my work.

    • Phil H. Wright says

      Deneen is a political scientist.Gray took his degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Dugin is unclassifiable.

      MacIntyre (90) and Taylor (87) are genuine philosophers, brilliant men. Ions beyond, at least.

  10. X. Citoyen says

    You’re a regular Candide. If you can’t see that the progressives surrounding you work continuously to exclude anyone who’s not a progressive and that the dwindling number of liberals around you pretend not to see this happening, you’re either a liberal or you’re next on the list.

    Very little of this takes place in the open or directly—it’s quiet and some of it is unconscious. But you’ll see it most clearly on hiring committees and in who gets grants. You should’ve looked at the stats on the number of progressive faculty who admit to political bias in hiring—again, those are only the ones who admit it.

  11. Peter from Oz says

    The fact that there are few conservative philosophers at American universities points to the conclusion that those few are individually far mnore culturally valuable than the masses of lefty thinkers. Rarity imputes value.
    In any case, it seems clear that most right wing philosophers are outside universities in the punditry. The idea that only academics can be philosophers is absurd.

  12. Chad Chen says

    Readers should note that Tristan could not help mentioning that conservative taxpayers would probably like to see more conservative philosophers in taxpayer-supported universities.

    I agree. Just like many female taxpayers undoubtedly want to see more female philosophers, physicists, and engineering students in taxpayer-supported universities. And just like black taxpayers want to see more black students enrolled in science and professional programs at taxpayer-supported universities.

    In Michigan, for example, the flagship University of Michigan enrolls a paltry 200 black freshman annually (many of them athletes) in a state with a 15% black population. UM is financed by state sales taxes as well as federal income taxes.

  13. Chad Chen says

    Which is why systems of selection and hiring cannot be based only on narrow “merit” criteria in a diverse democratic nation.

    • Jim Gorman says

      Your statement is entirely sophomoric. In your business would you hire someone who could make 10 widgets or another who could only make 5 widgets. Would you pay them both the same? On what would you base your choice if merit is not the only criteria? Would you hire an asian who could make 15, a black who could make 10, or a latino who could make 5.

      Same with entering college. Would you use race even if some could not perform college level work? How does that advantage anyone and most of all the person who cannot do the work?

      Equal outcomes only lead to a race to the bottom. The least productive person controls the total outcome since by definition no one else can be allowed to exceed the output of the lowest performer. How does this help humankind or any individual?

  14. Barry Dixon says

    Has the author of this article ever considered the work of Sir Roger Scruton? I would also suggest that the author sorts out his language and uses English in a form that is not corrupted by North Americanisms. For example, I have for many years considered myself liberal (Classical Liberal) and therefore I have to be conservative and I’m a member of the Conservative Party but I mostly read Libertarian works. But then these are nuances that the author would seem to choose to pass over. To draw out that the opposite (?) of liberal is conservative is not sustainable.

    • Yes, I am familiar with Scruton’s work. I don’t know the specifics of his story, but as I understand it, he left academic philosophy, perhaps for some of the reasons I have cited. As for language, I agree there is plenty of room to mix up and obscure the terms liberal/conservative/libertarian. I am Canadian and have spent most of my intellectual life in America. But I am aware things are understood slightly differently across the pond.

  15. Anonymous says

    Progressive : “There are too few black students in college ! That’s racial discrimination !”

    Conservative : “How come all the professors are progressives ? There are hardly any conservative professors nowadays ”

    Progressive : “That’s because conservatives are too stupid to be college professors !”

  16. Richard Barrett says

    That is my alma mater (Trinity College Dublin) in the picture, and I can safely say that the philosophy staff in my day were pretty damn conservative.

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  18. K. Dershem says

    Tristan, thanks for the excellent article. I think you’re exactly right. Viewpoint diversity is important in nearly every field, but it seems particularly necessary Philosophy — especially less abstruse parts of the discipline that deal with political and ethical issues. I hope the scholarly version of this article is well received by your colleagues. As a Philosophy instructor myself (at a small community college with a one-person department, but nevertheless), I like to think that our discipline has been less affected by the rise of the Regressive Left than Sociology, area Studies, etc. and may still be capable of reflective self-criticism.

    • Thank you for reading. I agree that philosophy has been mostly immune from some of the recent craziness. However, there have also been some worrying signs. We shall see!

  19. Jeff says

    Im not a Professional Philosopher (my background is in Finance). However if you all could indulge my opinions as a layman in this area, I would like to just observe that it it appears there may be some confusion on what the true boiled down definitions of what a modern Western Conservative and modern “Liberal” truly is, at least the way I understand it. Bottom line, under the most basic description, a modern Conservative believes in the power of the Individual and the importance of Individual Liberty. Whereas the modern Liberal is more in favor of putting faith in the collective power of the State. It has nothing to do with which side has more “respect for authority”..because each side has their own definition of who that authority should be. Anyway, thats just my observation as kind of an outsider to this discussion. And would welcome any of your feedback/opinions on that point….

  20. Cornfed says

    “To unify and to be inclusive, we need to accept and value all perspectives and experiences.” A pet peeve of mine. This kind of nonsense (also prevalent in news media, where all sides, no matter how marginal, are treated with equal weight) is absurd on its face. All perspectives? How about Hitler’s? Should we accept and value his perspectives? David Duke’s? Are we not allowed to weigh competing ideas with critical analysis? Are some ideas not better than others? And the irony is, those that preach the “all perspectives” silliness are typically the first to attack any ideas not in line with their leftist views. Think, debate, and don’t trust any teacher who tells you what to think, instead of how to think.

  21. Cornfed says

    Oh, and kudos to the author for getting on here and answering some posts. Nice to see the interaction.

    • Thank you. I saw that slogan, by the way, pasted on banners all over the campus of Cal State, Stanislaus, where I taught briefly last semester. I imagine there are similar initiatives on most campuses, pushed largely, I think, by the administrations, which by some estimates are even more so dominated by leftists.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      Yes, it is interesting to see the author utilising the inter-active opportunity of this format. The interventions read as informative and constructive.

      Worth saying though that I equally respect the instinct of contributors who leave the comments well alone.

      Thanks to Tristan Rogers for his efforts here. It rises above some of the more tediously adversarial contributions.

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  23. Geoffrey Scoitius says

    In the academy, the only place for conservative of classical minded philosophers is in non-philosophy departments. I am able to teach conservative ideas and classical and medieval philosophy in an internationally focused discipline.

    I ran into a Philosophy professor at my university and he was shocked to find someone teaching Aristotle’s Ethics. He told me in his class on Ethics, they only talk about modern politics.

  24. The problems of order (of creating and sustaining it), which strike me as being at the heart of conservative thinking, certainly get short shrift in much of academic contributions to public debate.

    The narrowing of the range of academic political diversity is clearly a narrowing, which makes me suspicious of structural explanations (such as “openness to experience”). I suspect more dynamic patterns are at work, as I discuss here:
    https://areomagazine.com/2019/03/05/virtue-signal-or-piety-display-the-search-for-cognitive-identity-and-the-attack-on-social-bargaining/

  25. Eddie says

    Thank you very much for writing this. I have two degrees in philosophy (both from top ranking schools with among the largest faculties), and this was certainly my experience. Actually, I think matters are much, much worse.

    I appreciate your drawing the distinction between conservative philosophers and conservative ideas. I would be interested to see how those few conservative philosophers are distributed across teaching/research areas. My impression is that they’re probably statistically over-represented in the history of philosophy. I would think that it is these fields–especially when we’re reading Aristotle, medieval philosophers, Hegel, etc.–that students would come closest to hearing conservative ideas. But, of course, students are learning those ideas in the context of understanding a thinker, the historical development of certain ideas, etc., rather than in the context of any kind of contemporary political, moral, or legal issue.

    When it comes to research/teaching on those issues, my experience was that conservative philosophers are entirely absent (with the exception of a few religious philosophers). And as you suggest, this largely meant the absence of conservative ideas. I took so many classes in legal philosophy, political philosophy, applied ethics, etc. in both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and the MOST conservative articles I was exposed to were 1) a Catholic argument against abortion, and 2) two articles defending originalism in constitutional interpretation. That was it, over 6 years.

    But what I think is equally telling is what IS included in these curricula. I had to read arguments for political anarchism, political terrorism, anti-natalism, polyamory, animal rights, eco-feminism, Marxism, and the like. (And remember–this was in analytic philosophy, not critical theory and postmodernist departments.) And all that is fun and challenging and interesting to read. But it strongly suggests that the range of reasonable opinion is so far to the left of what most people think. (Even Mill’s classical liberalism or Nozick’s libertarianism were too far right. None of the “applied” articles I read argued from these positions.)

    I was a lefty when I went in, and I was a hardcore lefty when I came out. And I was utterly unprepared to even entertain ideas further to the right. When I stumbled across Edmund Burke, Roger Scruton, Robert Nozick, etc., I was dumbstruck. I had the kind of experience you mention Pinker describing.

    On a side note, I wanted to add a few suggestions for trying to sort out where philosophers stand politically. First, you can glance through the two most popular blogs for the philosophy profession–The Leiter Reports and Daily Nous–which are run, respectively, by a hardcore Marxist and a hardcore SJW. Second, you could look through the membership of the Heterodox Academy; very few are philosophers. Obviously, membership does not imply conservatism, and there may be other reasons there are so few (after all, psychologists appear to wildly over-represented)–but it may be suggestive. Third, it may be interesting to search through some of the top journals in these fields and see whether conservative arguments are even being published. Given some of the scandals that have occurred in academic publishing (e.g. Rebecca Tuvel), and the fact that the American Philosophical Association is seriously considering issueing guidelines for philosophy journals regarding genetic diversity requirement for citations (!), I would suspect not.

    • Thanks for sharing, Eddie. Your comment about conservatism in classical and medieval philosophy reflects my experience. It was reading Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics more seriously in graduate school that tilted my own thinking toward conservatism. Their virtue ethical framework also opened up my mind to the religious-based ethics of Augustine, Aquinas, et al.

      It’s true that the Overton Window is very wide on the left side of the spectrum. That seems especially so in applied ethics, where people are constantly trying to stake out new bold positions on the moral frontiers. As for political philosophy, Nozick is, of course, the usual foil to Rawls’s liberalism in your standard political philosophy course. But if you consider libertarianism part of the “liberal family” of views (which Samuel Freeman denies), it doesn’t really present a genuine alternative to left-liberalism, except on economic issues. A full presentation of the alternatives, in my view, would juxtapose socialism and libertarianism, on the extremes of left and right, and liberalism and conservatism nearer the center.

      Like most in the profession, I read Leiter and Daily Nous pretty regularly. I agree that it would be beneficial to try to get a better picture of the political views of philosophers. The PhilPapers survey was a quick and dirty way to do so. I have often wondered how many conservative themed papers would turn up in a survey of the top journals in political philosophy. I suspect very few. My data collection skills are quite poor, so I have some work to do.

      • Eddie says

        Thanks for replying, Tristan. (I recently wrote a critical response to a very well-known legal philosopher’s blog post about legally mandated ‘preferred pronoun’ use, only to find that he removed the piece from his site. My arguments were pretty standard Millian positions, so I found this fairly telling about the range of acceptable philosophical opinion these days.)

        I should say that perhaps my experience is somewhat unusual, having pursued my degrees in Canada and the UK. (Though perhaps, as in most cases, it is the US that is unusual.) Libertarianism and classical liberalism are not typically included in survey courses on political philosophy, or even offered in advanced courses. From what I’ve seen, Mill is more typically included in survey courses on political theory (i.e. in political science departments, which seem to lean further to the right of philosophy departments).

        I did, though, have a similar experience with ancient virtue ethics (especially Stoicism) opening my mind to more conservative ideas. Interestingly, I have found that even contemporary virtue ethicists typically defend standard left positions.

        On a final note, you may be interested in watching this: https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/48380 — an openly conservative philosophy PhD student!

  26. Finnian says

    Relying on Jonason’s research to support the claim that openness correlates with political liberalism is a problem. Consult the actual study and you will see that he used to samples. The first was made up entirely of university students, not exactly a random sample. His second sample was drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. He wants us to think that Mechanical Turk users are representative of the entire population. More importantly though, we have to wonder what his operational definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” are. My guess is that, like most social scientists, he simply fell back on the generally assumed meanings of these words present in popular culture rather than trying to define them in a more precise way.

    • Good point. My understanding was that this was a generally accepted claim of political psychology with respect to the Big 5 Personality Types. And Jonason’s article seemed prominent in the literature. My argument doesn’t hinge on it, but you’re right, those are some issues with the study.

  27. John Pepple says

    Thanks for the article, which I enjoyed. First, many of the people who self-describe as egalitarians are not actually egalitarians. This is what drove me to the right a quarter of a century ago; I realized that many of my fellow leftists were not really egalitarian, but were elitists who were merely pretending to side with the downtrodden.

    So, I moved to the right, and I brought with me the knowledge that there were a number of areas in which the left was weak that I thought would be of interest to those on the right. No one was in fact interested. One of these areas is the exploitation of adjuncts in academia, which I will return to shortly, but no one seemed interested.

    Now to my last point, which is that the right is bad at marketing itself. I didn’t move to the right because I was persuaded by right-wing arguments, but because I felt betrayed by the left. I thought I’d give the right a try. But let me take as an example of bad marketing what might be called the founding argument for the left as it existed when I was young and as it still exists among people like Bernie Sanders, namely that two hundred years ago poor workers were exploited by the capitalists. As I read more and more writings from people on the right, it eventually hit me that no one was addressing that argument directly. What was the standard reply that the right had about that exploitation? Eventually I began asking people directly, and there seemed to be no consistent answer.

    No one gave what I take to be the best answer, which is that exploitation can occur anywhere, even when leftists are in control. And this is what the adjunct situation means for the right. It is the best gift the left has ever given to the right, yet virtually no one on the right is interested, even though the exploitation of adjuncts has been going on for a few decades. The exploitation of adjuncts by institutions controlled by the left shows that capitalism is not inherently exploitative, as leftists concluded, but that exploitation is simply part of the human condition. It is not the result of a system, capitalism, whose solution is another system, socialism, but is the likely result of a situation, namely too many workers chasing too few jobs, whose solution is another situation, robust job creation.

    It also took me a while to realize that job creation is the right’s solution to the problem of poverty, and that it is a better answer than redistributions. Yet, I was unaware of it when I was on the left. The best I could see that the right was saying is that one ought to better oneself so as to be more attractive to employers. No one talked about job creation, as far as I could tell. Part of this is again marketing. People on the right will say that such-and-such a policy is more desirable because it will lead to more growth, apparently unaware that the word “growth” has somewhat negative connotations for people on the left. Why not say it will lead to more job creation for the poor?

    One last point: it seems pretty clear by now that the left (at least here in the West) wants to support conservative Muslims, while the right supports conservative Christians. This means it is very difficult to avoid supporting religious conservatives no matter what one’s ideology is, and because of that, there is good reason to include conservative philosophers in our colleges and universities.

    • E. Olson says

      Good comment JP. It is more inherently more difficult to be a Right leaning politician than a Leftist, because the Right tells people to work hard, get skills and trust that unregulated markets will generate growth and jobs. In contrast, the Left tells people they have been exploited by those who work hard and have skills, and that they therefore deserve to be compensated with free health care, free college, free food, free pensions, etc. paid for by those exploitative bastards. Unfortunately telling people to work hard is a less attractive message to most than telling people they deserve a bunch of free stuff.

      Then you have the regulatory and spending side of politics that also favor the Left. Pass some new law and the bill’s sponsors almost always get their name on it and the associated fame (e.g. Obamacare), but who remembers the deregulators who free up the economy and generate growth and jobs? Pass some new infrastructure spending and the sponsors almost always get their name on the airport, highway, school, etc. and credit for helping their community by spending other people’s money (half of W. Virginia is named after a member of the KKK – aka former Senator Robert Byrd), but who remembers the “tightwads” who vote against bridges to nowhere or vote to shut down uneconomic public schools and hospitals? About the only area where the political Right gets their name attached to something is when they cut taxes (e.g. the Reagan tax cuts, the Trump tax cuts) to allow people to keep their own money and spend it to grow the economy and create jobs, but of course the Leftist politicians and media always frame tax cuts as “gifts” to the rich at the expense of the poor and helpless.

      In contrast to the desire on the Right to grow economies and industries that create wealth and jobs, the only area where Leftists consistently support growth is in the size and scope of bureaucracies that they control. And within the higher educational industrial complex the Left has created huge administrative bloat from kindergarten to PhD, and because of those damn Republicans who occasionally show some restraint in spending other people’s money, the expense of administrative bloat has had to be paid for by the use of cheap adjunct instructors.

  28. K. Dershem says

    The exploitation of adjuncts by institutions controlled by the left shows that capitalism is not inherently exploitative, as leftists concluded, but that exploitation is simply part of the human condition. It is not the result of a system, capitalism, whose solution is another system, socialism, but is the likely result of a situation, namely too many workers chasing too few jobs, whose solution is another situation, robust job creation.

    There’s another solution: strong labor unions that represent both temporary and permanent faculty. I teach in the Minnesota community college system, and our contract mandates that at least 65% of classes across the system be taught by full-time, permanent faculty. In addition, temporary instructors who teach five or more credits per semester are compensated according to the negotiated salary schedule (on a pro-rated basis). Unless an adjunct is only teaching one class, there’s no much of a financial incentive for administrators to rely on temporary faculty.

    Public policy in the U.S. has devastated public-sector unions, and conservatives (including the conservative majority on the Supreme Court) now have their sights set on public-sector unions.

    • As an academic on the job market, this situation certainly resonates with me. There have been some noises here and there about the exploitation of temporary faculty in philosophy, even among the left-egalitarians. Libertarians, meanwhile, have mostly defended it as a rational response in a market driven educational system. I always appreciated G.A. Cohen’s book “If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?” Cohen at the time had a cushy position as a fellow of All Souls College Oxford, so the irony was certainly not lost on him. Although his solution, that we should simply expect highly productive persons to work more for less in the name of equality, never satisfied me.

    • John Pepple says

      You shouldn’t need a union in institutions dominated by leftists.

  29. The Resolute Mind says

    The fact that non-Leftist/Marxist students were run out of the universities as far back as the 1960s (I was there) might have something to do with the low percentages. It’s been a private cult since the ’60s.

  30. robin lathangue says

    Happily, the eternal can look after itself, and therefore these questions, however difficult, are not easily avoided. – George Grant.

  31. KjO says

    As a ‘closet Philosopher’ with definite classic liberal tendencies I really enjoyed your essay and the discussion that followed. Thank you Tristan et al.

    • Thanks, KjO. “Closet Philosopher” is a good term. I wish these issues were being discussed more broadly in the profession.

  32. As I espoused in my book, PRISONERS OF OUR THOUGHTS (an especially appropriate title in light of this essay and the ensuing comments), “You cannot connect meaningfully with others if you believe you have a monopoly on truth.”

  33. TofeldianSage says

    Most modern Philosophy dwells in Aristotle’s ‘excluded middle’, that zone which any classically trained philosopher would instinctively avoid, knowing that it is built on impossibilities.

    But when a philosopher is put on a payroll and told to philosophize all day, suddenly the excluded middle doesn’t seem so bad. You can come up with all manner of Impossibilities from dawn to dusk, and they are all grist for the academic mill. You can get paid good money for talking utter nonsense. If we were to restrict these poor souls to talking only about what is logically possible they would run out of material after one week.

    There is a small subset of philosophy that a conservative would consider worthy of study, and you would have to downsize every philosophy department to about one twentieth of it’s current size in order to properly address it. That would leave 19 out of every 20 current philosophy professors out of work. Damn straight they are not interested in that kind of diversity. They may talk philosophical nonsense all day, but they know which side their bread is buttered on.

  34. Reading Eddie’s comment, above, on “preferred pronouns,” reminds me of a different pronoun-related issue in philosophy, one that I think is heavily infected by the holier-than-thou moralism exhibited by many who are highly committed to their identity politics-related ideological beliefs. That is the systematic and invariable of “she” in places where “he or she” could well be used — the places where “he” was systematically and invariably used before the feminist critique of that usage became well-known in the late sixties.

    I was readily convinced to drop the invariable use of “he” and transitioned readily to regularly using “he or she,” regarding it as a fair-minded usage, and a worthwhile upgrade. The campaign to eliminate the inveterate use of “he,” and to replace it with the non-sexist “he or she” appealed to me and many others, persuaded by the argument that the default use of “he” appeared to subsume the “shes” of the world under the larger and presumably transcendent and more important category of “hes,” and seemed to suggest that “hes” were synonymous with “mankind” and that females were of second and unequal rank. I didn’t regard the old style use of “he” as intentionally offensive, but I had no difficulty agreeing to the program of getting rid of it, as it appeared that a growing number of women thought it was wrong. I was happy to make a change in favor of a usage that was overtly fair in form, as shown by its lack of one-sidedness. However, the original non-sexist program, involving transitioning to using “he or she,” has been replaced in much philosophical writing (and, increasingly, in my primary field, law) by the use of “she” in every instance where it can be used, with the word “he” or the construction “he or she” being completely, and scrupulously, avoided.

    I have seen the use of the invariable use of “she” and the accompanying utter avoidance of “he” defended on the ground that “he or she” is awkward, and that “he” bespeaks and reinforces sexism. So, the argument goes, we are therefore left with “she” to be used without variation. It seems to me that “he or she” is not obviously cumbersome, and I have often used it in court without regarding it at all as a labored usage. In fact, I continue to regard it as fair and preferable. But I am irritated by what I see as the tendentious use of “she” in every instance when it can possibly be used, and the simultaneous exclusion of “he,” as that manner of writing seems to me to commit the very offense that the original non-sexist language project’s move to substitute “he or she” for “he” was designed to eliminate.

    That is, the systematic and exclusive use of “she,” and the systematic exclusion of “he” and “he or she” strikes me as a strategic and ideological manipulation of language that deliberately positions females as transcendent, as if, in the moment that “she” is used, all the reference to human beings that is necessary or appropriate has been accomplished. As such, under this approach, any direct reference to males is extraneous. I have also seen it written that the systematic and exclusive use of “she” in the manner I have described is an appropriate turnabout for generations of the use of “he” as the default form of reference to all people. It seems to me that is is a far cry from the original platform of transitioning away from “he” to “he or she” in order to achieve justice. .

  35. Alan D. McIntire says

    “As a profession, philosophy also does not offer career prospects that risk-averse conservatives may value higher than their more idealistic liberal counterparts. ”

    I found that statement laughable. There is virtually NO market for philosophers in the private sector. Government jobs are the way to go for the risk-averse, not overly ambitious.

  36. grey@cliffhanger.com says

    The solution is to remove all public funding from higher education. Without public funds academic ideas will need to be useful in the real world

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