Social Philosophy and Policy
To Make Progress
We aim to stand up from our desks at the end of every day knowing something we did not know when we sat down that morning.
With our students we will share what we know, along with our uncertainties & struggles. Our students will know the joy & trepidation of exploring the intellectual frontier. In time, they will go beyond us.
To Be Accountable
We avoid being carried along by currently hot topics. Our topic is the human condition. When we theorize, we draw a map whose worth stands or falls with how well it helps readers track that enduring reality.
To Be Honest
We realize that if you want people to be better off for having read your work, or for having been your student, you put honest scholarship first.
We are adults. Truth comes first. When observed truth turns out to be incompatible with our theory, we change our theory.
To Be Open
We will not demonize those who disagree with us. Our engagements will be constructive.
Social Philosophy & Policy (the journal)
Here is an excerpt from David Schmidtz's editorial introduction to Volume 37 (2020) issue on the topic of Freedom of Thought:
Consider the loneliness of the character Winston Smith as depicted in Orwell’s 1984. In that novel, even facial expressions could be punished as evidence of nonconforming thoughts, so people had to learn to avoid thoughts that could be betrayed by facial expressions. To survive, Winston Smith had to learn to have no perspective of his own. Smith’s situation was vastly worse than solitary confinement. He had no human company in which to take solace, not even his own.
Silencing and de-platforming have a way of stifling thought by stifling speech. But of course, that does not tell us where to stand on the question of whether to speak whatever happens to be on our mind. Mill’s argument against censorship is by no means an argument for blurting out whatever crosses one’s mind in an unedited stream of consciousness. Freedom presupposes a confidence that people will use it responsibly, and will practice virtues of dignity, diplomacy, compassion, and tact. Thoughtless words can hurt, so being a bit slow to speak is part of adulthood. While we can celebrate the freedom to speak uncomfortable thoughts, the fact remains that the wrong speech at the wrong time can be chilling, not merely uncomfortable. If we value the conversation, and do not want to inadvertently stop it, self-censorship is part of the picture when we assess the value and the virtue of free thought. Still, that is not what is going on under conditions like those depicted in 1984. As Mill was aware, even the tyranny of the raised eyebrow is a danger. Arguably, self-discipline is not something for a community to be proud of unless it is first something for individuals to be proud of. It needs to start on the inside. Self-discipline is a political achievement only if it is first a moral achievement. If, cowed by social pressure, we practice having nothing to say long enough, there will come a time when we have nothing to say. Unless we feel free to talk about what we think, we ultimately won’t feel free to think about what we think either. We will be Winston Smith.
So, self-censorship driven by pressure rather than by dignity and diplomatic grace can be a terrible master. A basic conundrum: to publish at all is to write in a vocabulary that no longer conforms to the latest fashion (because fashions in vocabulary can change in the time between writing a paper and seeing it appear in print, at least given the time lag associated with academic journals). Consider using the adjective “colored” today rather than the currently correct “person of color.” You know better than to use the outdated word, except in the accepted context of referring to the NAACP. Yet, you probably have no idea why one term would be more correct than the other, aside from the fact that one term has a history that the other lacks. Honestly, I too can feel that there is somehow a real difference between those two names, and I feel that we send different signals by using one name or the other. I simply want to mark that, even when there is nothing to be said for using one term rather than another, we are still left having to contend with the fact that terms demanded by sensitive people today may be rejected by them tomorrow. We will not see the transition coming, and we are not supposed to see it coming.
To some extent the drift of fashion is intrinsically unpredictable. However, it is also true that the arbitrariness can be a weapon, used as a tool for capricious “othering” that leaves any writer with no sure defense other than to cower. Even mentioning as “incorrect” a word as I just mentioned, not even actually using the word, is risky. Many readers will have paused to wonder whether my mention of what is now an unfashionable word will be used against me.
That is the Orwellian point of changing the vocabulary so that people are chronically intimidated, knowing that if they speak at all, they will be using a vocabulary that can be used to mark them as outsiders, and thus as safe to bully. Note about the previous sentence: I used plural pronouns because plural pronouns are not gendered, and therefore currently are politically correct. The downside is that plural pronouns obscure the solitary nature of the terror. Although bullying happens to groups, for sure, the fact remains that nothing feels more lonely than being marked as a safe target.
Fred D Miller, Jr. Ph.D.
Research Professor, Social Philosophy and Policy Center
Jeffrey E Paul Ph.D.
Research Professor, Social Philosophy and Policy Center
Presidential Chair of Moral Science,
Director, Social Philosophy and Policy Center