The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David (1787)

‘Dissident Philosophers’—A Review

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
9 min read

A review of Dissident Philosophers: Voices Against the Political Current of the Academy, edited by T. Allan Hillman and Tully Borland. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 320 pages (November, 2021)

Dissident Philosophers, edited by T. Allan Hillman of the University of South Alabama and independent scholar Tully Borland, is a compilation of 16 essays by conservative and libertarian philosophers. The anthology resembles a cross between two previous books: Passing on the Right by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. and God and the Philosophers edited by Thomas V. Morris. The former is a sympathetic empirical investigation of the difficulties faced by conservative academics at progressive universities; the latter, to which Hillman and Borland refer in their introduction, is an anthology of essays by theistic philosophers, who are also a minority in the discipline.

As the title suggests, Hillman and Borland, and many of the contributors, believe that the political minorities of which they are representatives are somewhat beleaguered. I quibble with the word “dissident” because it looks overwrought and a bit self-congratulatory to my eye. (I’m reminded of those leftist opponents of Donald Trump’s presidency who anointed themselves as “The Resistance.”) One of the contributors, Neven Sesardić, notes that conservative and libertarian academics satisfy dictionary definitions of “dissident” since they “oppose official policy” and “disagree with an established system of belief.” But surely the term connotes more than this—just as “Resistance” in the context of political opposition recalls those who struggled against fascist occupation, “dissident” recalls persecuted democrats in the former Soviet bloc. That said, of the contributors to this volume, Sesardić probably has the best claim to this title, since he was monitored by the authorities in communist Croatia.

Certainly, philosophers and other academics politically at odds with contemporary progressivism can expect to face stiff opposition and unfair treatment. Sesardić knows this as well as anyone. His hereditarian belief that genetics play a non-trivial role in explaining racial IQ gaps is so incendiary that even expressing agnosticism about this question can be a cancellation-worthy offense. He opens his essay by recounting a 2010 incident in which a Harvard law student expressed such agnosticism in an email to a few of her friends. This email was shared with others, precipitating a pile-on which culminated in the dean of Harvard Law School misrepresenting her position in a public letter. In the end, she recanted. The only enlightened response to this heresy, according to the prevailing worldview, is to repudiate it, along with any associates who fail to distance themselves from it.

Political bias is a recurring theme in this volume. Jason Brennan’s essay, “Academia: Hooligans at Play,” gives the issue the most sustained attention. Brennan presents convincing evidence to suggest that left-wing views prevail among university faculty in part due to irrational biases and discrimination against dissenters. Discussing a survey of philosophers’ views, he quips, “As a group, political philosophers are apparently more confident that they ought to vote for Hillary Clinton than they are in the claim that Hillary Clinton exists.”

Bias pervades institutions as well. In the introduction, Hillman and Borland document the ideological capture of the American Philosophical Association (APA). When the APA was founded in the early 20th century, its purpose was to help philosophers solve problems that they identified in their discipline, and to facilitate dialogue between schools of thought. Today, its primary purpose is apparently to colonize the discipline on behalf of left-wing identity politics. This is evident in the organization’s many and various diversity initiatives, the wildly disproportionate funds it awards to diversity-related grant proposals, and the contents of its blog (not to mention the educational backgrounds of the non-philosophers who occupy most of its leadership positions).

In his essay, “Better Somewhere Than Anywhere,” Robert Westmoreland recalls seeing a “largish” sign at the 2020 Eastern Division meeting of the APA that read: “Please take a pronoun sticker … stickers can be worn as a sign of solidarity, and as a way to make our division meetings a friendly and safe environment for all!” Westmoreland reasonably takes issue with that use of the word “safe”; he goes on to criticize the unrelenting extension of bureaucratic “quasi-law” across multiple facets of American life. To which I would add that being cajoled into expressions of solidarity with causes you don’t support doesn’t seem particularly friendly, and certainly isn’t “inclusive.” But things can always get worse—the Canadian Philosophical Association (CPA) makes the APA look like Turning Point USA.

In “Up From Liberalism (But Not Entirely),” the essay that immediately follows the introduction, Francis Joseph Beckwith argues that the state has a legitimate role to play in maintaining moral standards beyond the enforcement of individual rights (the libertarian contributors would beg to differ). Edward Feser argues that political conservatism presupposes certain metaphysical assumptions, which he labors to tease out, and classifies different forms of conservatism according to their degree of metaphysical commitment. By contrast, Jan Narveson defends a metaphysically minimalistic version of moral contractarianism that he thinks cuts across the Left-Right divide.

Most of the contributions, like Beckwith’s, are at least partly autobiographical, but some are straightforward argumentation. Rafael De Clercq defends the “cultural preservation” argument for immigration restrictions (persuasively, to my mind) against well-known libertarian objections. J.P. Moreland, a prominent Christian apologist, uses his contribution to argue that social conservatism follows from an Evangelical Christian reading of the Bible. John Bickle and Marica Bernstein make a libertarian case that conspiracy theories are sometimes reasonable, so you can keep your tin foil hat.

In one of the more adventurous contributions, Daniel Bonevac presents a novel moral theory that he claims to have found in Rudyard Kipling, in particular his poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” which portrays humanity as a species imperiled by its failure to remember the most basic lessons of life. Bonevac’s Kipling-inspired moral theory is a version of consequentialism “which takes as its basic unit of analysis an entire civilization.” That is to say, roughly, that the best moral systems are those that best promote long-run civilizational survival and flourishing; the morally best actions are those that accord with those systems.

Bonevac asserts that “Civilizational consequentialism is profoundly conservative,” but I’m not sure this is so. The Effective Altruism movement, and in particular the Long Now Foundation, are concerned with long-term civilizational survival, though they don’t generally think of themselves (and aren’t usually thought of) as conservative. Moreover, it’s unclear whether civilizational consequentialism would instruct us to conserve our own civilizations; perhaps it would entail that Westerners should abandon their cultural inheritance in favor of Islamic or Chinese civilization. Whatever problems these cultures have, they are certainly durable.

It’s also unclear how Bonevac’s theory would get around a variation of J.J.C. Smart’s famous “rule worship” objection to another form of indirect consequentialism. In short, why should we abide by civilization-promotion norms in instances when doing so wouldn’t promote value, as we must if the theory is to avoid collapsing into act consequentialism? In fairness to Bonevac, though, responses to all these objections would be a lot to expect in a single short essay.

Irving Kristol famously defined a neoconservative as a liberal who has been mugged by reality, and collisions with reality crop up repeatedly in Dissident Philosophers. Dan Demetriou recounts his experience coauthoring a paper with a transgender student. They argued that if moving along a gender “spectrum” constitutes a transition, then gender exaggeration, moving the same distance in the opposite direction, should also qualify as “trans.” With the adorable innocence of a child, Demetriou thought that this paper would be well-received. Instead, reviewers told him that it was harmful, and a student shed tears—of outrage, apparently—during one presentation.

There’s no written rule that says making this point is impermissible. Nor is there any evident reason why anyone who identifies as trans should find this thesis insulting. Yet it should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent much time in contemporary universities that this idea would cause trouble. Success in academia requires the ability to detect and conform to unstated, and perhaps unstable, norms of inquiry and expression. Like those shimmering sea fish that swim in schools, and somehow all seem to get the memo at the same time, one has to be sensitive to abrupt changes of direction. How many philosophers are performing these intricate acrobatics without realizing it?

In “The Humbling of an Impatient Cosmopolitan,” Steven C. Skultety describes his own mugging by reality. Skultety had been a star student in college, confident that he was usually the smartest person in the room. But when he dropped out and started working in a succession of ordinary jobs, he discovered just how demanding the day-to-day operations of small businesses were and how little “know-how” he possessed. People rarely went to him for help. At one job, whenever he had a question, he was told to ask Angie, a humble employee who had little in the way of education, but who seemed to know how to handle any problem that arose. Her practical know-how was based on familiarity with the unglamorous particulars of inventory and budgeting and the like that can only be acquired through patience and plodding experience.

Intellectuals, administrators, and policymakers are, like Skultety’s younger self, enamored with theory, and animated by “insatiable and implacable impatience” for change, unaware of their dependence upon people like Angie:

I was aspiring to be the sort of person who would (somehow) rise above the tedious back-and-forth of politics and instead champion the universalism of science and humanism. But that isn’t a political attitude so much as it is a way of bypassing politics. Within the political realm, and especially among those in the regulating clique this impatience takes on a distinct trajectory: a preference for non-democratic processes that too readily accommodate domination.

William F. Vallicella’s essay, “From Democrat to Dissident,” describes his own political journey, which was propelled by his revulsion for Marxist materialism. As readers of his Maverick Philosopher blog will know, Vallicella pulls no punches. I’ve always appreciated the way his writing conveys his religious temperament and conviction without compromising rigor. Elaborating a theme he has taken up before, Vallicella contends that conservatives face a disadvantage because leftists, but not conservatives, invest all of their spiritual yearnings in politics.

Consequently, only the Left fights the culture war as a total war:

It has been said, correctly in the main, that for a conservative, leftists are wrong, whereas for a leftist, conservative are evil. … This is why they pepper us with purely emotive epithets like “fascist” and “phobe” that are designed to impugn our sanity.

There’s something to this, but recent years have seen a hardening of attitudes, so that not much of a civility gap (if any) remains. The centrifugal forces that are pulling America apart affect the Right as well as the Left. Plenty of people on the Right now see politics through a good-versus-evil lens that’s no less stark than the Left’s oppressor-oppressed paradigm (behold Michael Anton’s 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election”). Nevertheless, I agree that the Left’s discussion-ending rhetoric remains a big part of the problem, and partly explains why many conservatives (or people who until recently have called themselves conservatives) now feel that it’s time to repay their political opponents in kind.

One of the most personal essays in the anthology is Michael Pakaluk’s “Away from Omelas.” Pakaluk describes how he rejected the “naturalistic” view of philosophy that one of his Harvard professors pushed on him and turned toward Christianity and transcendence. The title of the essay is a reference to a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin about an apparently perfect city, the happiness of which depends upon the suffering of a single neglected child. The implication is that academia, like Omelas, conceals moral rot, including some truly gratuitous cruelty and humiliation—not to mention hypocrisy—from some of Pakaluk’s colleagues:

I went to college thinking that the point of discovering the truth was to live our lives by it once it was found. By the time I left graduate school, it seemed to me that my peers and even my teachers, in the matters that affected them the most, were inclined rather to tailor their convictions to what they wanted [to believe].

In their contributions, Michael Huemer and Eric Mack each describe how they arrived at their current libertarian positions. Both journeys included the standard youthful pit stop at the shrine of Ayn Rand; thankfully, in both cases this was short-lived. In fact, when Mack was 18, he and a few other philosophy students had the audacity to walk out of a meeting with Her Objectivity—Rand herself—after they were chided for being insufficiently orthodox. Huemer supplements Brennan’s evidence for pervasive political bias in academia and makes a compelling case for intellectual diversity. I had to laugh, though, when he said that libertarians take “a principle-oriented approach to politics” and that they “prize rationality and objectivity.” Is there anyone who doesn’t think he’s rational and principle-oriented, or who doesn’t think of himself as prizing objectivity? Mack, meanwhile, discusses his own experiences of bias in academia and defends a Lockean rights-based political philosophy against common objections.

In their introduction, Hillman and Borland state that one of their main objectives in publishing the anthology is to encourage aspiring “dissident” philosophers. They have a good chance of succeeding here: young right-of-center philosophers who read these intelligent essays are likely to come away thinking that they’re in good company, after all. From the tone of the introduction—a few of the authors’ remarks seem to be potshots they couldn’t resist—persuading persuadable leftists seems to be a lesser priority.

Together, the essays collected in Dissident Philosophers offer a fascinating and valuable glimpse into the lives and minds of marginalized thinkers. The contributors explore some of the social pressures that enforce official and unofficial orthodoxies, and give some indication of the interesting research proposals that aren’t being pursued as a result. This timely volume should give thoughtful readers of all political persuasions a lot to chew on, even if they can’t swallow everything.

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Spencer Case is a writer and philosophy lecturer for the University of Colorado Boulder living in Wuhan, China. He is the host of Micro-Digressions: A Philosophy Podcast.