In a world where theory and practice are in ever-greater harmony, can there be such a thing as a dangerous question?
Outside of a Lovecraft story, the very idea seems bewildering. How can questions be dangerous? Dangerous how? Dangerous to whom?
I believe there is such a thing. In what follows I will discuss two types of dangerous question, and the vague boundary that separates them. I will flesh out the characteristics of knowledge that make such dangers not only possible, but unavoidable.
Two Types of Dangerous Question
The last time I discussed this matter, I gave an example I felt was uncontroversially evil—“What should be done about the Jewish problem?”
I could have had an even more forward question, such as “how are we going to eradicate the Jews?” This is the first type of dangerous question—the sort resting on morally monstrous foundations and seeking to pursue their implications without restraint. In this scenario, using the is-ought distinction as a cover would be especially heinous, but oddly enough it seems that people are rarely fooled when the proposed “is” is so extreme.
Nagging that “it is merely a factual question, we don’t have to suggest we ought to eradicate the Jews” does not really convince anyone, except perhaps for those who already agree with the morally monstrous premises and aren’t yet willing to openly say so.
It may seem that we needn’t concern ourselves with such questions at all. But to do so would be to exhibit a remarkable degree of short-term memory. On the scale of history, it was not so long ago that America had Jim Crow laws, internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, and, of course, slavery. Nor was it long ago that a country considered to be at the heart of advanced western civilization created factories of death for the precise purpose of exterminating the Jews and other groups considered undesirable. We should never, ever forget that questions that seem unaskable now can always be brought back into play if political circumstances change, and indeed were asked in very recent history.
Which brings us to the second type of dangerous question—those that share many premises with more innocent or harmless questions but point towards potentially dangerous answers. The larger part of the danger comes from their connection to the first type of question—perhaps a line of inquiry carries with it the potential to make certain premises acceptable that were not beforehand. And perhaps those newly acceptable premises will bring us a few steps closer to a situation where the first type of dangerous question can be openly asked.
The first type of question—which let’s simply refer to as the immoral question—should naturally be resisted with all the resources we can bring to bear against it. We should apply social sanctions against those who insist on pursuing them, deny them positions within organizations which can assist them in their line of inquiry. Socially isolate them to the greatest extent possible.
The second type of question, however—which we can call the volatile question—cannot be avoided entirely. Depending on the particular question, it may well be that we shouldn’t avoid it. Consider the American federal system. Some have argued that it is inherently unstable, compared to parliaments. Certainly, this is an important and central concern. So what makes it volatile?
For one thing, the degree of precision available to us for answering the question is, unfortunately, inadequate to the task. In a complex system, very small errors can have enormous consequences. Even if the best evidence we have points to the greater stability of parliamentary systems in general, we cannot with sufficient precision demonstrate that it would definitely be stable or take roots at all in America. To begin building a coalition around this goal, therefore, is a very risky proposition.
Nevertheless, the stability of our system of government is obviously an important question, and one that needs to be carefully investigated. To claim that no one should ask after it because some might be overhasty in applying the answers is a logic that would bind us from asking far, far too many important questions.
One way to think of these questions is in terms of risk and expected value. The combination of the probability and magnitude of the outcomes an immoral question opens the door to give it a sharply negative expected value. Volatile questions have many more positive outcomes and a much lower risk of the negative ones—but part of that risk is constituted by the potential they create for asking immoral questions. For instance, one can imagine that certain inquiries about the biology of human beings create the possibility of drawing conclusions which ultimately make ethnic cleansing a more acceptable thought to entertain.
If we can distinguish among the types of questions by recourse to risk, it is uncertainty that creates boundary cases. And uncertainty looms very large, in as much as we are dealing with complex systems and the outcomes of specific choices are basically impossible to see beyond a few meager steps. And so there are many questions that might be either immoral or volatile, but also ones that might be harmless or volatile—even ones that might be immoral or harmless. Such boundary cases are what make these categories vague in the formal sense; and no amount of increased precision can resolve these boundary cases, as they are intrinsic to the concepts themselves.
To summarize, we can say that all questions exist on some spectrum of risk, and that irreducible uncertainty makes it hard to place many questions on that spectrum in any sort of precise way. In terms of ideal types, we can speak of high risk immoral questions, medium risk volatile questions, and low risk harmless questions.
The trouble with this way of thinking of course is that we tend to equate high risk with high rewards. But that is not the case here. Immoral questions can be thought of as being high risk with zero payoffs at best, genocide-as-loss at worse.
The Hermeneutic Question
At the end of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II asked what is certainly a volatile question within the Catholic Church: what is the relationship between the wrongs committed by the Church in the past and the present Church? To what extent is a wrong ever perpetrated by the Church as opposed to simply individuals who form a part of “the community of the baptized”? How should one even approach such a question, fraught with historical as well as theological and ethical presumptions?
Their answer was provided in the document Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past. The sins of the past that they take responsible for in this document include the treatment of the Jewish people throughout the history of Christianity, even going as far as to ask whether the attitude of Christians towards Jews paved the way for the Nazi atrocity.
For their hermeneutics they drew entirely on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. In it he asserts, among other things, the primacy of the question over the answer in our pursuit of understanding. He also puts prejudice (that is, prejudgement) at the center of our ability to interpret and understand. He asked:
Thus we can formulate the fundamental epistemological question for a truly historical hermeneutics as follows: what is the ground of the legitimacy of prejudices? What distinguishes legitimate prejudices from the countless others which it is the undeniable task of critical reason to overcome?
The answer, in Memory and Reconciliation, is as follows:
a certain common belonging of interpreter and interpreted must be recognized without which no bond and no communication could exist between past and present. This communicative bond is based on the fact that every human being, whether of yesterday or of today, is situated in a complex of historical relationships, and in order to live these relationships, the mediation of language is necessary, a mediation which itself is always historically determined. Everybody belongs to history! Bringing to light this communality between interpreter and the object of interpretation – which is reached through the multiple forms by which the past leaves evidence of itself (texts, monuments, traditions, etc.) – means judging both the accuracy of possible correspondences and possible difficulties of communication between past and present, as indicated by one’s own understanding of the past words and events. This requires taking into account the questions which motivate the research and their effect on the answers which are found, the living context in which the work is undertaken, and the interpreting community whose language is spoken and to whom one intends to speak. For this purpose, it is necessary that the pre-understanding – which is part of every act of interpretation – be as reflective and conscious as possible, in order to measure and moderate its real effect on the interpretative process.
Emphasis added by me.
Our interpretation of something depends a great deal on what we bring to it—including why we are attempting to interpret it at all. Unlike the German idealists and historicists, Gadamer did not believe that we are merely trapped within our own path-dependency here. Instead, he believes that there are legitimate prejudices which are necessary for understanding, and illegitimate ones which distort our understanding.
The Catholic Church’s approach, drawing on Gadamer, was to attempt to bring out the prejudices that are in play in order to enter them into dialectic directly. As fellow Sweet Talker David put it:
Well, that was the entire point of my paper, which had failed to convince the Harvard University types: we don’t really know history. I did not go so far as to radicalize my view inasmuch as to say that we construct history wholesale, but it is certainly true that we arrange data within a certain framework until we are pleased with the outcome.
A healthy skepticism of the self is thereby necessary. What am I up to? Can I identify my biases? What are my external influences? Why is this emotionally significant to me? Moreover, when it comes to historical realities (for a lack of a better term), an academic humility is very helpful, namely that we don’t know very much at all, and we know that we don’t know very much at all because we don’t have much physical evidence, and we are, most assuredly, arranging evidence as taught, not as is obvious. We make a convincing case, that is all.
This is important, because it is very rarely the question as such that is immoral or volatile. Rather, it is the context the question is asked in, the background that the question brings with it, the tight inner logic between the situation and the question which pull towards particular answers and political responses to those answers.
Even the most seemingly immoral of questions can be virtuous in the right context. If we are asking “how would you exterminate the Jews?” but the broader context is not government policy but rather the war with the Third Reich, and attempting to figure out what they are up to in order to sabotage it, the question takes on a rather different character.
All of this gets at why we must not be dogmatic about distinguishing questions of fact with questions of morality. All questions of fact are asked because we believe there is some reason we ought to be asking them. All answers offered to such questions are essentially answers we believe people ought to believe. And all of this is always tied up in larger political and moral questions in a way that can never be separated in practice, even if they can be treated separately in theory.
The Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric of Dangerous Questions
The hermeneutic question is always answered by recourse to politics, ethics, and rhetoric. Politics, because we are only capable of knowing together and because what we think we know always has joint implications beyond the individual. Ethics, because to know together means being able to trust one another, and also because becoming authoritative in a field carries with it institutional force that can be abused, as well as many others reasons. Rhetoric, because ultimately knowledge and understanding boil down to conversation and persuasion. As David put this latter point, “we make a convincing case, that is all.”
David also described what is political in this process:
He asked, “What do you do with history?”
Without thinking, I blurted out, “I just ignore it,” which is true, in one sense because of my deep respect for the science of linguistics, but not quite right, again, out of a deep respect for post-modern philosophical currents. What I was getting after was the primary importance of community in interpretation, but I didn’t say as much, so the entire room burst into laughter. I tried salvaging my point, but, you know how these things go.
Emphasis added by me.
When post-modernists say that all knowledge occurs within a community of rhetoric, most modernists simply smell relativism or anti-realism and run screaming (sometimes to return with a mob and torches). But there’s nothing anti-realist about it at all; it’s simply a characteristic of our knowledge stemming by necessity from specialization and the sheer scope of how much is known collectively compared to what can be known individually.
This is why the ethics of it is tied inseparably to the politics of it. Specialization of knowledge requires trust; in this way faith undergirds modern science as much as pre-modern theology. Trust can be betrayed, as in the vice of infidelity. But trust can also be misplaced, as in the vice of imprudence—a vice in the one doing the trusting.
I have seen several people today pursuing volatile questions and believing it to be an act of courage. This is true, but I think they only see part of the picture. So far as I can tell, in their eyes the courage is required because of the risk of social sanctions. From my point of view, the courage is required not only for this narrowly prudent concern, but also because, as I said, there is a larger social risk involved in those questions.
If you believe they are none the less important questions, it takes courage to proceed. It is like attempting to cross an unreliable bridge over a deep valley, but with a group of people you care about following behind you, rather than alone. If the destination is important enough and the alternate paths too few or too far, it may still be worth the risk.
My criticism of impolitic arguments, therefore, is not an argument that volatile questions should never be asked. Instead, it is an argument that prudence matters here, and not just in the sense of narrow self-concern against social sanctions. But a broader prudence, one in which your connection to other people is acknowledged and the risks of your undertakings managed responsibly.
Which brings us to rhetoric.
Garett Jones, so often my explicit or implied interlocutor on these matters, indicates I’m supporting some kind of Noble Lie story:
I will say right now that I do not believe in Noble Lies. Garett offers a possible alternative:
There may be something to this.
Consider the example of the post in question: libertarians who simply insist that a single vote can’t sway a big election. What was I getting at by calling out this particular phenomena?
It seems to me troubling that so many Americans make the idea that a vote “makes a difference” so central to their faith in democracy. I actually happen to think democracy, and the one we’ve got, is among the best forms of governance we can hope for in this fallen world of ours. As such I would like to substitute this belief for a different story of the legitimacy of these institutions, something that would obviously take a great deal more space than I could devote to it here. One doesn’t have to agree with my prejudices in this regard to agree that we should seek to improve our politics rather than worsen them—whatever you might take that to mean.
Well, it seems to me that libertarians who hammer on this point about the margin of victory in elections have no interest in improving our politics. Many are quite proud of this fact. It’s not so much that I think this simple, mathematical fact of voting should not be made at all. It’s the context, the way they make it, that turns it into something intentionally volatile. They have found a vulnerability in people’s faith and gone for it for no other purpose than dispelling that faith, or perhaps feeling satisfied with being right. But if people in America lose faith in democracy entirely, the results are highly unlikely to be good for much of anyone. Libertarians included.
The rhetoric of negation is a poison of our times, levied by imprudent, spoiled children who do not realize how good they have it, and haven’t the courage or the patience to work towards actually addressing the very real problems that exist. The latter cannot be done if we reject authority entirely, because without trust in authoritative sources we cannot build the knowledge required to face any sufficiently challenging task.
To Salvage or to Sever
I don’t think Schelling points (Garett’s “Focal Points”) is exactly the right metaphor here, though they undoubtedly play a role. But communication and rhetoric are far too central to this. I have in mind something more like an attractor, similar but not the same as an equilibrium in comparative statics. A great deal of variation in politics, ethics, and rhetoric may be possible that still keeps us circling that specific attractor.
However, for some variations in politics, ethics, or rhetoric, we may get knocked off course from that attractor entirely, with no way back. If there’s another fairly similar one “nearby” this may be only a moderate change. But of course that’s not always the case. And the transition could be quite violent in any case.
Now, this sounds like a very conservative way of looking at things, I’m sure. But I’m not saying that revolution is categorically impermissible. I’m saying that we need to take responsibility for the implications of what we do and what we ask. It’s clear to me that the libertarians I criticize really believe that America’s political order is illegitimate and needs to be torn down and replaced. But if that is so, their life choices seem, to me, to be quite irresponsible—they continue to pay taxes and enjoy the benefits of that political order. If ethics demands revolutionary politics, perhaps they ought to behave a little less like every other conventionally middle class American and a little more like revolutionaries?
I think their revolutionary politics is misplaced, but I am more troubled by their willingness to erode the faith in what we have without doing much of anything to pave the way for anything better.
Garett’s example—the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon—was interesting to me, especially when compared to David’s post on Leviticus:
In secular universities, and those religious universities whose worldview is formed by Nineteenth Century Continental philosophy, the minimalist Documentary Hypothesis is still taught as de rigueur, a hypothesis which posits that the books of Moses, especially the Levitical material, were fabricated by a power-mongering priestly caste during the Judahite exile in Babylon during the Fifth Century BCE. I am under the impression that this hypothesis is presented as ironclad secular scholarship, i.e., the truth, when it is essentially the telos of the Sacramentarian movement which came to dominate Enlightenment Era religiosity.
Religious fundamentalism, deeply offended by this radical minimalism, developed a response which became reflexively maximalist, in defiance of all evidence (even internal evidence) to the contrary, namely that Moses wrote every jot and tiddle of his five scrolls somewhere between 1550 BCE and 1440 BCE, and never shall a true Christian vary from that view lest he deny the efficacy of the Word of God.
David speaks of fundamentalists, but in fact there are two. There are those for whom, as Garett said of the Mormons, to simply ask some volatile questions is a sign of apostasy. Perhaps even proof of it!
But then there are those whose dogmatic embrace of a cynical hermeneutics, a hermeneutic of suspicion, allows no other answer than that Leviticus was a cold, calculated Noble Lie.
David, a believer himself, nevertheless argues that we ought to proceed with an evidence-based approach. He defends, among other things, the use of the science of linguistics in order to attempt to “make a convincing case.”
To return to Memory and Reconciliation, it’s clear that the official of the Church believed that all the tools of the historian should be brought to bear in determining what wrongs were committed by the Church in the past:
What are the conditions for a correct interpretation of the past from the point of view of historical knowledge? To determine these, we must take account of the complexity of the relationship between the subject who interprets and the object from the past which is interpreted. First, their mutual extraneousness must be emphasized. Events or words of the past are, above all, “past.” As such they are not completely reducible to the framework of the present, but possess an objective density and complexity that prevent them from being ordered in a solely functional way for present interests. It is necessary, therefore, to approach them by means of an historical-critical investigation that aims at using all of the information available, with a view to a reconstruction of the environment, of the ways of thinking, of the conditions and the living dynamic in which those events and those words are placed, in order, in such a way, to ascertain the contents and the challenges that – precisely in their diversity – they propose to our present time.
It seems to me that the most hardy equilibriums of politics-ethics-rhetoric are capable of dealing with an enormous number of volatile questions without blowing themselves up. Secular people too often underestimate religion this way. Garett’s comments on Mormonism (which may very well suffer from the sort of fundamentalism that David encountered on the subject of Leviticus) put me in mind of a counter-example: the career of Lorenzo Valla.
Valla is most famous for proving that the Donation of Constantine was a fraud, something very politically inconvenient for the Vatican’s wordly aspirations. He was able to do so because of political cover from a king, it is true. And the regime of Pope Eugenius IV certainly made trouble for him, especially when he went on to question the provenance of the Apostles’ Creed.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church did not dissolve in the face of his inquiries, and in fact Eugenius IV’s successor actually appointed Valla as papal secretary. Moreover, the techniques employed by Valla were spread most widely, in the end, by Jesuit schools.
In those days the volatility of questions was able to be kept under control to some extent because of how easy it was to restrict who entered the conversation. Valla entered at a moment when Renaissance humanism suddenly expanded the number of participants, but ultimately the Church and other institutions adapted to this new reality.
The printing press resulted in a major break, and not on purpose, either. If Martin Luther’s 95 Theses hadn’t done the early printing press equivalent of going viral, it’s highly likely he would have simply lived his days as a fairly successful member of the Catholic Church. Restricted to a small circle of fellow scholars, his arguments were much less volatile than when they were made available to the public at large.
Restriction is obviously no longer a viable strategy, and both modern science and modern standards of living are possible because of the drastic reduction in such restrictions. So not only is restriction unavailable, it’s not something we should pursue even if it was available.
For that reason, the burden on our ethics is heavier than ever. Not only to be trustworthy and to have trust in others, but to have prudence in how we approach our questions and in the rhetoric of our answers, and to have the courage to pursue the inquiries and actions worth pursuing once we have appraised the dangers.
Great openness in our conversations requires greater responsibility from ever more people. I was once very optimistic about how this would play out; I am less so lately. But I will continue to argue for greater responsibility in this area, and I will do my best to show people that they can trust me to argue in good faith.
I would encourage you to do the same.
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