Philosopher: Do not sign petitions

Agnes Callard is one of my colleagues: an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. She was recently asked to sign a petition opposing the deplatforming of philosophers who didn’t share ideologically acceptable views of sex and gender. Although I agree with that petition, Callard didn’t sign it—but not because she disagreed with the premise. In fact, she doesn’t sign petitions at all. In this longish New York Times piece, she explains why. I can understand her position, but I think she’s wrong.

Callard’s argument is simple, and I’m mystified why it takes so long—nearly 1400 words—to explain it. In short, she says that petitions are supposed to be persuasive not by the force of their arguments, but by the weight of the number of signatories. And that, she argues, is not how philosophy works: you are supposed to persuade solely by the quality of your argument. Having 100 prominent philosophers sign a petition, she thinks, doesn’t make it one iota more persuasive than if just one philosopher signed it. So what’s the point of accumulating signatories? Here’s what she says:

I refused to sign, because I believe that petitions, regardless of their content, compromise core values of intellectual inquiry. Here’s why.

Whether you call it a “petition,” an “open letter” or a “public statement,” this type of document is distinguished by the fact that after stating and arguing for a position, it lists the names of people who endorse the position. The petition aims to effect persuasion with respect to what appears in the first part not only by way of any argument contained therein but also by way of the number and respectability of the people who figure in the second part. Such a document tries to persuade you to believe (that it is right to do) something because many people, some of whom are authorities, believe it (is the right thing to do). It is not always wrong to believe things because many people believe them, but it is always intellectually uninquisitive to do so.

The problem here is not that what many believe can be false, though that is a problem. The problem is that even if it’s true, the fact that many believe it doesn’t shed any light on it why it’s true — and that is what the intellectually inquisitive person wants to know. Is this problem mitigated by the fact that the list is not about sheer numbers because authorities appear on it? I think intellectually inquisitive people do gravitate toward those with expertise, because they are in an especially good position to answer our questions. But this goes only for experts taken severally. One expert is a learning opportunity; being confronted with an arsenal of experts is about as conducive to conversation as a firing squad

There is something aggressive about the way in which voices gain strength and volume by being joined together. Numbers generate a pressure to believe that isn’t grounded in explanatory force, because having more and more adherents to a view doesn’t give rise to better and better accounts of why the view is correct. Philosophers ought to be especially sensitive to introducing this element of belief imposition into our culture. As a philosopher, I want my influence to be philosophical, which is to say, I want to bring people to believe only what they, by their own lights, can see to be justified; I don’t want them to believe something because (I am one of the) many people who think it.

That is 402 words, and the other thousand don’t add much more. She does note that she isn’t asking her colleagues to refrain from political activity, but that a group of philosophers signing a petition “is instead the politicization of philosophy itself.”  She is right about that, and all of us worry about a discipline adopting a uniform stand of ideological purity and demonizing dissenters. But signing petitions doesn’t really politicize philosophy so long as dissenters aren’t ostracized. It merely expresses a unanimity of views.

Here’s why I think Callard is somewhat mistaken.

1.) Often petitions do make arguments in the text. I haven’t seen the one she was asked to sign, but most petitions explain why the signatories are taking their stand. That is an argument that can be considered.

2.) Numbers and, especially, expertise, do matter. This is especially true for petitions which refer to actual data that has been scrutinized, such as ones in which climate scientists underline the danger of global warming. A call for reduced carbon emissions carries more intellectual weight when signed by, say, 100 recognized climatologists than when signed by just one. This is in line with “Coyne’s Fourth Law”, one of my many guides for life: “If someone criticizes something you do or say, examine the argument. If two or more people tell you the same thing, they’re probably right.”

Now philosophy is about how to think and not usually about assessing data, but philosophers can think about issues relevant to their discipline and come to a consensus. And the more well-known thinkers that sign on to that consensus, the more seriously we should take it, regardless of Callard’s claim that the argument is all that counts. Why? Because each philosopher has a slightly different take on the issue, and therefore has slightly different arguments and reasons. But if they all conclude the same thing, then we might think about it more seriously. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should buy it tout court. 

Take an issue that I’ve written about and that has brought me a lot of grief from others. I think that infants born with an incurable disease or deformity that will certainly kill them after a prolonged period of suffering (e.g., anencephaly) should be allowed to be euthanized: with, of course, the parents’ consent, medical concurrence, and a proper way of painlessly ending its life. (Peter Singer has argued the same thing, leading to many people calling for him to be fired.) I can make that argument, and I have, and have been dismissed and sometimes vilified. But if a hundred ethical philosophers—who have expertise in thinking about such issues—agree with me, doesn’t that make you think more seriously about the issue? That is, it’s easy to dismiss one person as an outlier or even a crackpot, but it’s not so easy to dismiss the intellectual cream of an entire field.

To be sure, Callard makes a good point when she argues that philosophers don’t sign petitions about matters that are purely philosophical, just as I’d be unlikely to sign a petition that says, “We believe that evolution happened, and that all species have common ancestors.”

Callard:

We’d never approach questions such as “Are possible worlds real?” or “Is knowledge justified true belief?” by petition, so why are we tempted to do so in the case of questions around sex, gender and hurtful speech? The answer is that the latter question involves real feelings and real people, and it is about something that is happening now — for all these reasons, it strikes us as being of grave importance. The petition writers are thinking to themselves, this time it really matters. I think it is a mistake for a philosopher to take the importance of a question as a reason to adopt an unphilosophical attitude toward it.

Well, is signing a petition really “adopting an unphilosophical attitude towards it”? Especially when the issue is a philosophical one that has practical consequences (assisted suicide, for example), is it really “unphilosophical” to band together to try to persuade society to do something specific? After all, you are using your expertise in a socially useful way.

I know petitions in general aren’t very effective—in fact, I can barely think of one that had any effec. But even if they don’t, I think that at least they can prompt people to think seriously about an issue. And if that’s the case, then it’s maladaptive to adopt Callard’s purist attitude that philosophers should persuade people simply by the force of their arguments. In principle that may be true, but it’s not the sole way to influence people in the real world.

39 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I suppose Tw773r could be viewed as a living, dynamic petition – with far less clear a set of premises than a strongly written genuine petition… and genuine petitions can be viewed as a form of voting….

    I suppose a lot also depends on what is to be lost by the signatories- if lots of anonymous signatories sign, as is common now, does a good petition lose its strength?

  2. annarussellk
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    That’s so interesting; something I’ve not given much thought to before (even though I have signed petitions before…) I’m not sure how it works in the US, but in the UK our Parliament is obliged to consider petitions with a certain number of signatories:
    https://www.gov.uk/petition-government
    Which means that, in the UK, numbers do (factually) matter!
    I also agree with you – in that they inherently matter anyway.

  3. Posted August 13, 2019 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Off the top of my head I can recall signing at least one petition that clearly seemed to have had an effect and also highlighted a (as the organisers said), “a number bigger structural problems in immigration policy, public funding, and even the undervaluing of Integration workers and social workers in general.”

    https://www.thelocal.de/20140514/berlin-authorities-deny-berlin-immigrant-helper-visa-simran-sodhi

    It’s a stereotypically German form of bureaucratic lunacy where an immigrant was about to be deported by the Immigration Office because her employer refused to pay her according to her qualifications, thus preventing her from fulfilling the employment criteria. She was working as an integration helper with migrants — funded by another branch of Immigration Office, which was refusing to pay her the award wage. By the time the petition hit 70,000, the public ridicule was enough to make local politicians move to stop the deportation.

  4. Steve Gerrard
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    A petition is meant to communicate to the administrators of our social institutions, government or otherwise, the position of the signatories. It is not asking them to agree to a philosophical point of view; it is asking them to take some action.

    The idea that such administrators should just contemplate the questions themselves, and take action based solely on their own personal conclusions, is decidedly non-democratic. We don’t want them to agree with us; we want them to do something, and we should let them know that, and why.

  5. another fred
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    For someone in a somewhat public position that she is in, I can sympathize with a general reluctance to sign petitions, although that particular petition is one I would “defend to the death” (or at least to my dying breath).

    I can see a slippery slope that would make me reluctant to sign anything if I were the kind of person that petitioners would try to recruit (I am not).

  6. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I will sign petitions relating to political issues, because in a democracy it makes sense to use sheer numbers to signal concern about an issue. After all, we don’t use philosophical arguments to get rid of a leader in a democracy, we use simple tallies of votes.
    I don’t get rid of Boris Johnson or whoever it is by constructing some multifaceted argument: I just hand in my vote and trust that enough people agree.

    Sure, there were philosophical/political arguments made beforehand to shift me one way or the other, but the country can’t ultimately rely on them to make political decisions, you need an objective measure, which is where force of numbers comes in.
    If we could make political decisions based solely on the best argument that would be wonderful, but it’s a fantasy to believe that could ever legitimately work in a world where we can’t even agree on yanny or laurel. In the end we need some objective measure of consensus.

    So I don’t see much of a clash between believing in rational argumentation on the one hand, and also signing petitions.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      What I DO oppose, however, is when petitions are aimed at art, art of any kind. Especially when a group of ‘fans’ take it upon themselves to attack a director or a writer or whatever for the crime of not giving them what they want. Never mind that these people might just be the loud minority among the audience, never mind that most of the time fans of film series, games, albums, actually _have no clue what they really want_: they’ll still drum up some petition to have a film reshot or a book rewritten or a game director removed.

      Those kinds of petitions against creatives are becoming more and more frequent and I genuinely hate them. Even when I agree completely with their content.

      Every time I hear some film studio or publishing house or game developer say ‘we listened to the fans’ my heart sinks. Personally I don’t think fans should have any say in the art that’s made whatsoever. If they don’t like it they can go elsewhere and the artist in question will suffer from the loss of audience – that’s how it works. What the ‘fans’ should not have is some kind of self-designated right to veto any creative decision they don’t like.

      I could write a lot more about this, about how destructive it tends to be when fans think they own some kind of artistic property or long running series, but I’ll stop now before I give myself a head hernia.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 15, 2019 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        I agree, Saul, on both counts.

        Petitions on matters of public policy are entirely legitimate.

        Whereas petitions in respect of such things as TV series are just silly, IMO. As well as the fact that many fans are completely daft and a few have difficulty separating fiction from reality. In fact the deeper one ventures into fandom, the more one seems to encounter bitter and twisted individuals full of wild conspiracy theories who spend far more time slandering producers, writers and characters they dislike, than they ever do praising ones they do like (if any).

        In fact the first time I observed a fandom in action I was staggered – these are *fans*?

        In fact it makes no logical sense to have critical fans – the characters ‘belong’ to the producers, writers and actors, and the only raison d’etre for being a fan is that the makers have done a good job. And they should be trusted to continue to do so. If the fans don’t like it they can just stop watching, there’s no point in getting all bitter and twisted about it. But it seems there’s something about TV fiction – especially scifi/fantasy – that attracts the sort of obsessive personality who can’t let it go.

        I have seen ‘fans’ argue vehemently that they – the fans (or rather their clique) are responsible for the success of the series and even that the makers are jealous of their insight and influence and are trying to sabotage their own series (by, of course, mistreating their characters and having the plot go in a direction said fans don’t approve of…)

        None of this is relevant to the original issue, of course… 😉

        cr

  7. Jim Swetnam
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I like your comments about consensus. I have thought about what that word means quite a bit in the context of the climate crisis. I think that argument by consensus is qualitatively different from argument by authority, for precisely the reasons you state. It is a valid category of argument, but not, perhaps, the strongest.

    • Jim Swetnam
      Posted August 13, 2019 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Interesting…I see that you did not ever actually use the word consensus, though I inferred that meaning in your second point on first reading.

  8. Cate Plys
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Agreed with Jerry. Just read this op-Ed, and while it appeared to be well-reasoned on the surface, it was also apparent all the way through that the steps in her argument did not add up, and avoided issues. The comments are well worth looking at—the NYT Reader Picks, anyway. The comments are wiser and better reasoned than the op-Ed. To Jerry and the NYT Reader Picks, I would add three things:

    1. Her argument assumes that although the petition starts with a well stated argument, that the mere presence of signatures below it somehow erases the argument. In other words, she assumes that people can’t read the petition’s argument and consider its merits if it’s followed by those pesky signatures. This could be true for some people, but it’s neither correct or fair to assume no one can separate the argument from the signatures.

    2. If she doesn’t want to sign any petitions, fine. But by advocating against any philosophers signing petitions en masse, she proposes really to potentially keep me and others from seeing such petitions and knowing how prominent philosophers line up on important topics. That is deeply anti-free speech.

    3. I may have missed it, but it seemed to me that she deftly avoided taking any stance on the actual question of de-platforming, or this specific reason for de-platforming. In fact, her essay included several sentences setting up the idea which made it sound like she does not agree with opposing de-platforming. She stated the issue as if it is a fact that mere speech can cause real harm.

    Overall, I would respect her position only if she followed her own advice and stated her opinion on the topic, and supported it. Without that crucial element, it reads like an excuse not to take a public stance against de-platforming academics with unpopular opinions.

  9. Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I have helped present two petitions to Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, one to keep creationism out of the science classroom, and the other one for the removal of the Church appointees who still by law sit on Scottish local authority education committees. Both have had some degree of success.

    Signing a petition shows that you are concerned about the issue, and this is surely relevant information for someone who is trying to decide whether or not to examine the matter.

    The English petitions system is a fake. A petition that gets more than 10,000 signatures elicits a government answer, and one that gets more than 100,000 signatures leads to a half hour debate in the House of Commons, which the government then totally ignores. And recently, notoriously, they completely ignored the arguments advanced in an anti-Brexit petition that had attracted SIX MILLION signatures.

    The Scottish petitions system is for real. The petitions committee consists of some half-dozen MSPs drawn from different parties, who decide which petitions to hear on the basis of the supporting documents, as well as the number and stature of its supporters, and I was impressed by the quality of their questioning. The committee then posing specific questions to the Scottish government, which in its replies, in my experience, tends to shift its position to avoid trouble while pretending not to have done so. The entire activity contributes to the vitality of public debate.

    To refrain from petition signing because your signature does not add weight to the arguments is pompous and precious. And the premise is not even true; expert support for petition can and should be an argument of some weight to a non-expert, including the non-experts who have the power to act on it.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Good for you, Paul. I was delighted to read about the Scottish local authorities that are pushing back against the automatic presence of (voting) church members on LEAs. I wish we had a similarly powerful system in England!

      But some petitions do have practical effects. There is an ongoing campaign against allowing 4x4s and motorbikes to drive up ‘green lanes’ in the Lake District, resulting in huge damage to the lanes themselves, as well as noise pollution in what should be a tranquil part of the country. Over 300k people have signed this petition, which has drawn a censorious report from UNESCO about the failure of the supine National Park Authority to act. There is now a real chance of change.

      Sorry to be so parochial. But maybe being parochial is the place to start.

    • Posted August 14, 2019 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      England doesn’t have a petitioning system. The Brexit petition was done under the UK system.

      The Brexit petition was ignored by the UK government (note: not the English government) because it didn’t suit their agenda. I imagine that the Scottish government would do the same if presented with a petition with a proportionate number of signatures (about 600,000) that fundamentally opposed what it wants to do. If Nicola Sturgeon was presented with a 600k signature petition that urged her to stop pursuing Scottish Independence what would she do?

  10. Historian
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Would Callard approve of 100 philosophers writing their own individual letters saying the same thing in their own words as a common document signed by all? It seems to me that a petition is nothing more than a means of convenience for people to state a position on an issue with the hope of convincing a person or agency to take a certain course of action. Obviously, if a potential petition signer doesn’t agree with the message in part or whole then it should not be signed.

    • Posted August 14, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      This is similar to my view.

      I regard petitions as similar to citations within a document. It means something like “I endorse this more or less” or “I antiendorse this”.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    In short, she says that petitions are supposed to be persuasive not by the force of their arguments, but by the weight of the number of signatories.

    Chrissake, that’s a swell reason for a philosopher not to sign a petition endorsing, say, Deontological Ethics, but it’s no reason at all not to sign a petition regarding matters that are not merely intellectual but essentially political — and matters of free speech are, at bottom, political, where numbers can matter.

  12. Posted August 13, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, petition can and do matter, even bad ones.

    Callard should consider that petitions can reveal important details of our society, even with biases.

    Consider a hypothetical Fox News supported petition that shows 90% of American favor the death penalty. That would be disheartening, but it’s also informative especially when compared to other petitions that might show obvious contradictions.

    Ignoring petitions is more likely to keep people like Trump in power. Just like stomping one’s foot down and saying I do not participate in social media therefore I am not part of the problem which gave us Brexit and Trump.

    We’ve all apart to play to make the world better and, for better or worse, petitions can be a valuable input to the zeitgeist of both moral and economic policies.

  13. GBJames
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Sometimes it seems that Philosophy is the art of arguing yourself into a corner.

  14. Posted August 13, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Petitions from animal rights groups and individuals have been very effective targeting actions against individuals, promoting change in shelters, legislation, and pet food companies.

    They have had gradual success against bigger issues— against dog fighting and puppy mills, certainly in terms of education.

  15. Posted August 13, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    “… just as I’d be unlikely to sign a petition that says, “We believe that evolution happened, and that all species have common ancestors.” ”

    Is that because you are not called “Steve”? 🙂

  16. DrBrydon
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Petitions are essentially political and not intellectual. The force of the argument might be self-evident, but in most cases showing how much support you have gets attention.

  17. GBJames
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m wondering if Professor Callard declines to vote because that isn’t an intellectual act and doesn’t provide anyone with the reasons behind the vote?

    • Filippo
      Posted August 13, 2019 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      Sub.

      Am reminded of several years ago reading an op-ed by an active duty middle-grade military officer, stating that military personnel, considering the rather political tightrope positions they are in, should not vote (let alone sign petitions).

  18. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted August 13, 2019 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    The last thing anyone on planet earth wants to do is read 100 philosophical papers on any given proposition.

    That way, madness lies, or ineffable boredom.

    On political issues, it can be extremely useful for people, decision makers, or other influencers, to know that a large number of interested people do support a particular proposition.

    Whether two philosophers could come up with arguments for any position, in philosophy speak, that couldn’t be deconstructed by other philosophers and argued over till reductio ad absurdum had put a stop to it is questionable, let alone a hundred.

    But, all that work as philosophers in philosopher land does mean something hopefully, so putting one’s name, as an acknowledged thinker or interested party, to something you believe, makes sense.

  19. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted August 14, 2019 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    I think numbers do matter and I do sign petitions from time to time when they relate to issues that concern me. As the point has been made several times above, in a democracy it is persuasive to show that you have the weight of public opinion behind your argument and even more persuasive to show that you have the weight of informed opinion behind you.
    Having said this I do not think that Callard is entirely wrong. The weight of numbers does not by itself make a persuasive argument. I am sure we can all think of numerous propositions that are flat wrong but would nevertheless easily recruit large numbers of people to sign up and agree with them. For this reason I was a little surprised by “Coyne’s fourth law” as expressed in the OP. I hope that Professor Coyne is not really as easily made to change his opinion as this suggests and in fact am highly confident that this is not the case. If the critics’ arguments are false or weak I am sure he sticks to his guns no matter how many critics there are.
    Perhaps the nub of this argument boils down to the kind of question that is under consideration. If the point at issue is a matter of fact (even if disputed) then numbers are indeed irrelevant: a million people signing a petition to state that they consider the Earth and its inhabitants were created in seven days by an all powerful deity does not make this statement any more true than if only a single person makes the claim. If on the other hand the question at issue is more about how we wish society to operate then the numbers are important. If millions of people sign a petition to say they do (or don’t) want gun control or controls on hurtful speech, say, then the weight of numbers should be taken into consideration as an indication of the direction government should take on the issue.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted August 14, 2019 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      For some reason this comment made me write:

      The number of petitions anyone has not signed far exceeds the number signed. Obviously, one must be aware but only of petitions, but which ones matter – and that suggests some are more important than others.

      Another related topic is the open letter. I think there have been such letters that appear in Science or Nature magazine, urging action on topics such as carbon emissions/reforestation, antibiotic abuse, etc, and the signatories can be Nobel laureates. I tried to find an example but the entire comment I wrote here was erased.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 14, 2019 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      The question of whether to sign a particular petition is very different from the question of whether to sign petitions at all. Nobody takes the position (I presume) that one should sign all petitions. One person I know of, Prof. Callard, takes a position on the second question that is, I think, entirely wrong. I don’t see how one can be partially right (“not entirely wrong”) on this.

  20. Posted August 14, 2019 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I both agree and disagree with Agnes Callard.

    She is correct that an argument should stand on its own merits regardless of how many people agree or disagreee with it.

    However, she forgets that petitions are not aimed at philosophers as a rule, but at politicians. Politicians, not usually being trained philosophers, are swayed much more by what they think people want than by good arguments (see Brexit). A petition is a way to show politicians that an idea has popular support.

  21. Roger
    Posted August 14, 2019 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Just sayin but these days petitions are sometimes a form of spam harvesting. People “sign” them and then the spammers have a list of “live ones” (oh boy we got a live one here folks). And they sell the lists they gather to other spammers too.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 14, 2019 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      More to the point, IMO, is the fact that a great many of today’s petitions are fund-raisers-in-disguise. I’m skeptical that many of the on-line petitions I’ve signed actually get delivered to anyone.

      It is best to think, when receiving an invitation to sign, “Do I want to donate some money to this operation?”

      • Roger
        Posted August 14, 2019 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        Yup that too. I think the marketing term for what I was trying to get at is “lead”. Sign a sketchy petition and you are now a “lead”. Prepare for the spam avalanche.

      • Posted August 14, 2019 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        Most of the petitions I get online are so obvious that they can hardly be called “spam,” as at the end, they directly say— in very large type— ‘As long as you’re here, donate.’ And mostly I don’t.

  22. dvandivere
    Posted August 14, 2019 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    I think her argument that because of her profession she ought not sign petitions is a bit silly. She’s also (presumably) a citizen; I assume she votes?

  23. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 14, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Callard does not recognize how democracy works.

    And this is an example among many others why philosophy is at best harmless, at worst harmful.

  24. Posted August 14, 2019 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    The deplatforming of speakers is already a political issue. You can’t politicize an issue that is already political. More generally, the overlap between philosophical issues and political ones is considerable.

  25. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 15, 2019 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Callard’s point was made far more succinctly (reputedly) by Albert Einstein, in the well-known anecdote of his riposte to the book ‘100 Authors Against Einstein’ – “If I were wrong, one would have been enough”.

    But that applies to the validity of scientific theories, not to questions of public policy or opinion, where facts are less clear-cut and numbers do count.

    cr


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