Sunday, March 11, 2012

Addressing the pessimistic student objectivist

Reader CD asks in the comments to another post:
I was wondering if we could have a discussion about the following topic (sorry if you have discussed this already). I teach global justice and political philosophy, and the complaint I often hear from students is "well, we agree that X would be fair (X could be something like world equality, the application of Rawls's Difference Principle, or any other moral ideal that students like), but the problem is that it will not happen in real world because agents act according to their self interest and do not care about fairness". Notice that this is different from the typical relativistic objection. They are not saying that there are no objective or universal moral standards. They agree that such standards exist, but believe that it does not make sense to justify them because the world will never be shaped in accordance with them anyway. How should philosophy professors deal with kinds of skeptic objections? Any clue?
I'd love to know others' thoughts, but here are mine: The student in question is not an egoist, but suspects that other people are. So perhaps some traction can be gained by exposing the student to the philosophical arguments against egoism.

Second, the student is not a skeptic per se — more like a pessimist. Now one thing I should say is that I respect pessimism of this sort and don't think it's the sort of position that we should gang up on, with an aim of eradicating it in our students. A healthy respect for the limitations of human nature and of our capacity to act collectively are not bad things. But if we are at least trying to to put this pessimism under a critical lens, then we can point to historical examples where it seems like large numbers of people acted for the common good against their apparent self-interest: the anti-fascist volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Civil Rights protestors in the U.S. (particularly the non-African-American ones), etc.

Any other ideas in response to CD's query?


  1. Good query. I see something like this frequently, not only on justice issues, but on other ethical and political issues. For example, I was recently assessing some papers from a past course, which were about Appiah's Cosmopolitanism. I noticed that several students were concluding their papers by saying, roughly, "it's a nice idea, but most people won't buy into it because they're too closed-minded/tribalist/etc." This perfectly fits Michael's point about pessimism. When I run across things like this, I tend to write comments like "Really?!" or "What evidence do you have for this?" So I think one thing that can be done is to press the students into doing something more than vague speculation. Another thing that could be emphasized, e.g., on writing assignments is that in evaluating positions, students should focus on the plausibility/soundness/truth of the ideas. I agree with what Michael says about "a healthy respect for the limitations of human nature," but I think that some students fixate on what they THINK are the limitations, and then use this as an excuse not to look more carefully at the arguments and/or to imagine that what seem like limitations might not be. (Moral arguments for vegetarianism are another case where this sort of thing happens.)

  2. They agree that such standards exist, but believe that it does not make sense to justify them because the world will never be shaped in accordance with them anyway.

    Are your students saying that they are convinced that the difference principle (or whatever) is just, but that very few others would be convinced? If so, then you might just point out how unlikely it is that there would be very many people in the class convinced it is just if very few people in the population at large were open to argument.

    On the other hand, your students might be making a more sophisticated point along the lines of the prisoner's dilemma. It isn't as if the prisoners' don't know they are best off if they both cooperate; they just can't count on anyone else doing it, nor can we count on anyone acting justly (or so the argument goes). There's not much to do here but take the argument head on. It's a serious objection and should be treated like one---however, I doubt you're presenting them any theories that don't address it in some way. Maybe just walk them through the back and forth on that topic so that they are making their claims more reflectively. A little game theory might help them clarify their thinking, though quick introductions there often do more harm than good.

  3. I agree that this is a remarkably common response, especially when teaching political philosophy. I also agree with Michael's point that "the student is in question not an egoist, but suspects that other people are." Michael's suggestion is a good one, and I'd suggest thinking about a further strategy, though it must be done delicately.

    Since so many students like this think that it's only other people who are such entrenched egoists, it's worth asking the dialectical question, "Why are you all so special?" This might seem a little silly, but unless they can give a reason why they're a special case, it's difficult to see what it is about everyone else that makes them unable to take into account the interests of others or considerations of fairness.

    It's also a nice opportunity to probe students' views. Why do they think people are egoists? If it's something like psychological egoism, then they need some account of why they're seemingly immune.

  4. When I used to teach business ethics (shudder), students were constantly offering this sort of response. It was particularly pressing in that context because they seemed to think that for any firm that adhered to a moral standard not enforced by the law, there's a competing firm that wouldn't and that would grind the first firm into the dust. Lots of them seemed to like that line of reasoning and once it caught on, it undermined many potentially marginally interesting conversations we could have had about duties concerning/to stakeholders.

  5. I agree with all of the above, and only wish to point out that this sort of objection also invites a response from game theory, if the teacher is sufficiently well-versed in that subject to give such a response (I am not).

  6. Perhaps offering historical examples of how change in moral beliefs has led to a change in moral behavior would be useful (for e.g. the civil rights movement, women's rights, etc). I often point to differences in attitudes in countries whose education has a more justice driven ethos, such as Scandinavia, and how that leads to those citizens being more comfortable supporting redistribution of resources.

  7. Some students often respond to various "demanding" arguments with, "Nobody's going to accept this argument, nobody is going to do this," etc. This is usually false: someone has been persuaded by such reasoning to, say, donate to poverty relief, not eat animals, etc.

    But even if this weren't the case, this response presents the opportunity to remind people that separate issues are separate: what people morally should do is, obviously, often different from what they actually do: the fact that there actually are serial killers is irrelevant to the fact that there shouldn't be any.

    In ethics, we are seeking an ideal. If people don't meet it as much as we'd hope, that doesn't seem to debunk that ideal. And then there's the social science question of what would get people more and less in line with that ideal.

    Anyway, this student response seems to me to be an opportunity to distinguish various issues so they can be addressed separately using whatever means are relevant to those issues.

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  9. One way of responding is to point out that justice in the real world is never an either/or but always a matter of degree. Some societies are more, some less just. What this implies is that the struggle for justice, for those who believe it important, must be ongoing. There are, of course, many, many historical examples of progess made in furthering justice, but no society is ever (nor is ever likely to be) perfectly just. Still if, from pessimism, we abandon the attempt to understand and apply principles of justice this itself will almost certainly lead to an erosion of justice. And, of course, things can get very, very bad, e.g. Nazi Germany.

  10. Thanks you all for your responses! They have been very helpful



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