In a three-part series, the ORB interviews Kwame Anthony Appiah. Raised in Ghana, educated at Cambridge, and now a University Professor at NYU, Appiah is a prize-winning philosopher of, among other things, identity, race and ethics. Also a novelist, he writes and speaks extensively on cosmopolitanism and race, having last year given the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures on the subject of ‘Mistaken Identities’. His latest book, As If, published by Harvard University Press, deals with the phenomena of imagination and idealisation, in domains from representations in mathematics to weather forecasting. In Part II, interviewer Daniel Kodsi and Appiah talked about the contrast between transgenderism and transracialism, the personalities of distinguished 20th-century philosophers, green card marriages, and Trump. Here, they discuss standpoint epistemology, political divisions in society, small-c conservatism, no-platforming, and Appiah’s new book As If.
DK: About the contemporary left, what do you think about concerns that it has moved too far in that direction of an identitarian politics?
KAA: Sure. As I said, people over-interpret elections, because somebody wins and somebody loses, and that’s often interpreted as if there’s been a great shift in the culture, where all it means is that fifty-two percent of the population has gone one way rather than the other, so there’s this soul-searching, and the soul-searching has included the thought that the main politics of the Democratic party is too tied up with gender, race and sexual orientation questions – and gender identity questions – and that this is alienating for straight white males. It’s not good to make people feel that the only way they can participate in the political life of the culture is by beating their breasts and saying mea culpa. And that’s not a helpful thing, but the fact is, one of the reasons why there’s this push-back is because if you pursue the agenda of the American Democratic party, you will take away historic advantage from people who have sources of advantage. Even if they’re very disadvantaged people, they nevertheless have sources of advantage in their race and their gender, for example, which, you know, people don’t like. Even if they’re not entitled to it, they don’t like losing privilege. Rich people don’t like being taxed, but they’re not entitled to keep all their money. So I think it’s reasonable to be concerned about how to bring those people in and to get them to develop an agenda that is one that they can get behind but I don’t think that it was a mistake to worry about the exclusion of gay people and racism and the patriarchy. Those were objective wrongs, and it required social and political work to move in the right direction, and we’re still not there.
But one of the difficulties in our society, I think, is that at the moment we don’t have enough interest in the class dimensions of these problems: that is, that class is a source of unjustified inequality in our society. Why you would think that that was a reason to go for the Republican Party escapes me, but it isn’t a reason to go for the Democratic Party, which isn’t very good on these things either anymore. And it was, once. One of the things it once was, was a labour party of unions and workers and so on. Unfortunately, the way in which it was a party of unions was often racist. That is, it was about supporting the white working class and not supporting the black working class, and the way in which a lot of the structure of welfare state was built in the post-War period was built on a deal between the Dixiecrats and the Northern Democrats which basically said, ‘You can do social programs but they mustn’t advantage black people.’ There’s a great book about this called When Affirmative Action Was White. So, it’s always hard to put together a coalition, a bundle of issues that can induce enthusiastic support from a wide range of the population and it’s certainly something we should do, but I don’t think it’s a mistake to worry about those things. There are mistakes in the area, obviously… As I said, I don’t think it’s ever helpful to claim that there are things that you can only understand if you have certain identities, I don’t think that’s helpful. There are things that it’s easier to understand. It’s easier to understand what’s bad about being a slave if you have been a slave, but it should be possible to explain what’s bad about being a slave to someone who’s never been a slave, so that they understand what’s bad about it.
DK: That’s related to standpoint epistemology. That if you’re not a woman, if you’re not black, if you’re not trans—
KAA: Right. There aren’t many philosophers who claim things like this but there is, in the wider culture, a tendency in that direction which I think is bad, which is to claim – as I say – that there are propositions that are inaccessible from certain social locations. I mean, just, unintelligible. I just think that’s… I know of no genuine example of that.
DK: What it’s like to be a bat might not be accessible—
KAA: But that’s different because that’s not a social position… There’s a certain sense in which I don’t know what it’s like to be deaf, and there’s also a certain sense in which someone who’s born deaf doesn’t know what it’s like to be hearing, but that’s in part because you literally don’t have certain concepts if you don’t have certain experiences. But I don’t believe that social life is like that, that it deprives you of access to concepts. I think all the concepts worth having in social life can be explained to anybody. But as I say, there’s an obvious truth in the standpoint epistemology, which is… the blind man and the elephant – different people are located in the world in ways that make a difference to what they have access to, so if you want to learn what’s on the other side of the elephant, you should ask someone who’s on the other side of the elephant or you should go around and adopt that standpoint. That all seems true, but also I’m also not sure that anyone would have denied it.
DK: Not very interestingly true, then. A lot of those claims perhaps come from a different philosophical tradition.
DK: And there are certain things people believe in popular culture which come from a different philosophical tradition. Some philosophy has been able to influence the way people think much more than analytic philosophy has been able to.
KAA: Yeah, I suppose that’s true… Yes, and I’m a bit puzzled about why that is, because one of the features of that kind of philosophical work that has had this kind of impact is that it’s very opaque, and the question why that should be attractive… I think Williams says something about this too, mistaking the obscure for the profound. I think that people want to feel that what they’re doing is deep, and if it’s murky, it can seem deep when all it is is murky. So some of it is that. Some of it is, I think, the appeal of a kind of Foucauldian view in which everything is about power, which is really a Nietzschean view… And there is some truth. It’s a hyperbolic articulation of something that I think has a lot of truth to it. Look, part of what’s appealing about those sort of standpoint claims is that it authorizes people who feel unheard and alienated. It gives them authority, because if you can only talk about trans topics if you’re trans and if trans people have been historically – as they have been – ignored and oppressed, that authorizes speech on the part of trans people, and that’s all to the good. But trans people can say things that are false about trans issues just as gay people can say things that are false about gay issues and straight people can says things that are false about straight things, and that ought to be acknowledged. Of course there are questions of the sort that Miranda Fricker writes about [of epistemic injustice]… We do miss features of the world because we don’t attend to certain people. We don’t solve problems that we could solve if we don’t let certain people speak and if we don’t take them seriously and so on. And also, we screw up people’s lives. We make their lives less pleasant. So these are all absolutely things to be worried about, and they’re particularly features of knowledge about the social.
DK: To what extent do you think one’s views in some parts of philosophy, especially in metaphysics or epistemology, determine what views are available to hold in other parts?
KAA: I think those things always go in both directions. Jason Stanley at Yale is very keen to get us to see the ways in which if we get the politics wrong, we get the epistemology wrong. He thinks that representation is always, somehow, political. Even the representation of tables and chairs. So you can’t, as it were, separate out the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’ in the domain of representation. I think that it’s always possible to ask the question, ‘what are the political effects of representing things in a certain way?’, I think that’s almost always a perfectly reasonable question. It’s perfectly proper in many contexts to raise the question of how representing things in one way or another – we talked about this earlier – has political effects. But I think in the last analysis, you can distinguish questions about how things are from your standpoint and how they should be, and I think he thinks that goes all the way down, and I don’t believe that. But there’s no doubt, for example, that the centrality of certain questions in physics – in contemporary physics – has been driven by the vast amount of funding available for defence-related research. It just skews what you can get funding to work on, so we don’t know what modern physics would look like if nuclear weapons hadn’t been discovered and the defence department hadn’t suddenly gotten huge amounts of money to encourage high energy physics. Maybe physics would have gone in different directions. I don’t mean the world would have been different. That’s where I think I disagree with some people, but the physics would certainly have been different. And similarly the political obsession with cancer has profoundly shaped how modern cell biology has gone, again, in ways that are traceable, and the history of those sciences will show that, I think. That’s a fact. I don’t deny that. And we need to decide, sometimes, whether the way in which our other choices are shifting studies of things is good or bad. We should at least be attentive to the fact that that’s going on and think about whether we like the way it’s happening and whether we want to make different choices. I just went to a conference in Harvard in the spring about new work on gene editing. What’s funded in there, a lot of it is connected with political issues, and also, legitimately, normative questions: do we want to be fiddling with the human gene line? If so, under what conditions? And part of the issues there are just scientific questions about what the risks are – we should study those – and some of those are just normative questions. I don’t know if there’s a sharp boundary there, but I want to say in the last analysis, we can distinguish between the normative and the scientific questions.
DK: Another question about how philosophy is done, I guess, concerns how far one is supposed to follow an argument where it leads – whether there’s a difference between this approach Singer and Unger seem to have, which involves accepting deeply non-commonsensical conclusions, and the view Lewis had, for instance, that some conclusions are clearly wrong and if an argument leads there, we cannot follow it.
KAA: Well, that’s just the point that’s sometimes made by saying that one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. ‘If p, then q, p so q.’ If you don’t like q, you’ve got to reject either p or ‘if p, then q.’
DK: It has something to do with intuitions, as well.
KAA: Yes. In general, I’m more of a coherentist, so – this is sort-of like Quine – I don’t think that there’s anything that we should take as a starting point. Take any proposition at all, any sentence at all – if it turns out that in the development of the picture of the world that we have, abandoning that will lead to greater coherence, abandon it. I’m not a foundationalist. I don’t think that there are starting points that you can establish and then proceed axiomatically to theorems. It can go either way. I wrote a paper once about conditional logic and I drew a conclusion and Lewis responded, ‘yeah, you can draw that conclusion, or you can reject one of the premises.’ And he favoured rejecting one of the premises. There’s a question of judgment there – the issue there was whether you should begin with your default position being that you should look for a truth-conditional account of something, whether that was just one of the things that was up for grabs, and he was saying he’d rather hold onto the idea that you need the truth-condition for something central like conditional semantics, and I just don’t see why. I think you should just develop the best theory you can, and if it turns out that it isn’t truth conditional, that’s fine by me. So those sorts of things happen all the time in every subject. Quite how it comes about … Some of the new, more experimental, psychological theory involving ethicists –
DK: x-phi [experimental philosophy] kind of stuff?
KAA: Yeah, like Josh Greene or someone like that tend – partly because I think they’re looking at us to some extent from outside, which is a natural way for someone who’s doing psychological theory (especially evolutionary psychological theories) to stand – they think, well… Josh Greene is a good example, because he’s an instinctive utilitarian. He thinks it’s obvious that maximizing some form of the good is the answer – how could anything be better than that? as it were – and so part of his thing is to stand outside our practices and ask how it could have come about that we should have evolved to be creatures that didn’t maximise the good, that we have all these constraints on ourselves. That’s a perfectly legitimate set of questions in evolutionary psychology, but you could also take the inside standpoint and say this is what we are. We are creatures that care about these things and not about those things, and the fact that you can explain why we are creatures that care about these things is neither here nor there to whether that’s the right attitude… One model of this is in the economic pictures of human nature and reasoning, to which it’s hard to know how to respond, because they – I think of them as developing one picture of how we are, which is one of our pictures, but not being able to entertain the thought that it’s only one of our pictures. And in particular, it’s not even a very good empirical picture; it’s not a very good picture for predicting behaviour, the rational choice picture. And what they tend to assume is that what’s going on is that we are, in fact, rational utility maximisers, and that the deviations in our behaviour from that are the result of failures of performance, that we have competence to be rational utility maximisers, and so behavioural economics is all about explaining why, in certain, particular contexts, people don’t do what a rational utility-maximiser would do… And if you’re offering this as an empirical picture of human beings, then it’s a decisive refutation of it that people don’t do that, and so economics doesn’t show that we’re rational utility-maximisers. The fact that you can explain some of what we do by supposing that we’re rational utility-maximisers no more makes it true that we’re utility-maximisers than the fact that you could explain some of the behaviour of gases by supposing they’re made of tiny billiard balls means that gases are made of billiard balls. The reason the rational choice picture is so pervasive is because it does draw on a very strong body of intuitions that we have about what reasonable people do. it’s just that you have to look at the whole picture, and in the whole picture, it turns out that there are other very compelling normative ideas that don’t fit with the rational choice picture.
DK: Speaking of intuitions, what is called intuition has really influenced the course of epistemology over the last fifty years in a way that’s… it’s a tool that’s not always been used carefully, perhaps.
KAA: That’s right. The best literature on this isn’t actually in epistemology, it’s in the literature on the role of intuition in moral psychology understood as a branch of philosophy, so, yeah, I think … In epistemology, to produce an intuition is to describe a situation and to say about it, ‘Look, this is clearly not a case of knowledge,’ or, ‘This is clearly a case of knowledge,’ where that’s the intuition. In the Gettier paper, the intuition is that Smith doesn’t know that the guy that’s going to get the job has coins in his pocket, so one possibility for explaining that response is that we have a concept of knowledge, we have the capacity to apply it, and the application of that capacity to the example produces the right result. But there are lots of other ways in which intuition might be produced, and that’s the thing that the experimental philosophy people do. First of all, they often show that different people have different intuitions, even about these core cases that are supposed to be driving the literature, that if you actually ask people who appear to be perfectly competent in the language what the right thing to do is in the trolley case, it turns out that it’s only 70 percent of them or 80 percent of them would think that the thing that the philosophers say is the intuitively correct thing, and then you owe yourself an explanation of why the other 20 percent think something different, given that you’re assuming that these are exercises of a competence that every normal speaker of the language has. As I say, it’s at least as interesting that 20 percent of the people don’t think that as it is that 80 percent of the people do, in my view, in many of these cases.
DK: Let’s go back to something I was asking about before, how in our society there seem to be two groups with very different views about the truth of various moral and political propositions –
KAA: Yeah, I don’t know that I think that it’s obvious that what we’ve got is, as it were, two relatively homogeneous clusters, and maybe people that don’t fit into either.
DK: Or three or four or –
KAA: Yeah, or some small n. This is back to the distinction between what people say and what they think. When you set it up in such a way that there’s, let’s say, a Democratic and a Republican position on something, then what happens is the people over on the Democratic side who are actually not as confident as all that in whatever the official thing is nevertheless feel that in the context of a row with Republicans, it’s an identity issue to insist on this, because this is the Democratic view, so they don’t say, ‘Well, I’m fairly convinced that people ought to be able to decide whether or not to have abortions to the first trimester without anybody telling them what to do, but I can see that you might think otherwise’; they just say, ‘I’m pro-choice,’ and mutatis mutandis, ‘I’m pro-life,’ and if you then explore in detail, and alone and away from the political battle what people are actually thinking, many of them are somewhere in the middle. The middle position may be quite incoherent; it might be quite incoherent to hold the view that many people actually hold, and maybe these other two positions are somehow more coherent in some cases, but it’s like… My favourite example of this is, it’s absolutely clear, I think, that the Quran condemns homosexual relations, at least between men. I think it’s clearer than that the New Testament does, for example. But there are lots of modern, liberal Muslims who are, in fact, gay-tolerant, and they don’t have necessarily a theoretical reconciliation; they just go about their life being nice to their gay friends. That’s often how toleration works. It’s not that people have abandoned the thought that there’s something wrong with you; it’s that they’re just living with the fact that there’s something wrong with you. But they won’t say that, so the analogy with the United States is that if you put them on the stand and say, ‘what do you think,’ they’ll say whatever the official line is, which is that it can’t be allowed.
DK: Even if it’s not quite that there’s very deep theoretical disagreement, it seems reasonably clear that there are two very much distinct identities that have developed in the country. And when somebody takes on a belief and makes it part of their identity, regardless of the arguments he is presented with, he will be very hesitant to let it go –
KAA: Yeah, I think that it’s a problem, because once your allegiance to the proposition is an identitarian matter, you stop attending to the arguments. You just stop attending to the reasons that you might have for thinking in another way. It’s not quite true that there’s a parallel here on both sides, because it’s part of the liberal (in the colloquial sense) self-understanding that you are attentive to the arguments of the people that disagree with you. Robert Frost said that a liberal is someone who can’t take his own side in an argument.
DK: It’s a flattering self-conception.
KAA: Yes. What’s false is that people live up to it, but it is part of the picture. It’s all built into our ideas about public reason, in the grand Rawlsian way of putting it. We are supposed to give weight to all the reasonable positions, and there’s not one reasonable position on all the great topics and so on, so it’s part of the (in the colloquial sense) liberal American conception that you should at least appear to be willing to hear the other side, whereas it’s not, I think, obvious that that’s part of the small-c conservative picture, that you should… It can be perfectly okay, on that side, to say ‘We’re right; we don’t have to listen to the arguments of the other people, because we’ve got the truth, and all we have to do is beat them. All we have to do is make sure that their view doesn’t get established.’ On the other hand, precisely because the way they articulate it is meant to be conservative, they’re stuck with the fact that the system that they’re defending has a First Amendment in it, and they’re not going to explicitly repudiate that. So they are going to at least insist on the right of other people to say things, but they’re… I guess my experience is that if you genuinely – and I have one sister who’s a Pentecostal Christian, so I have people I know pretty well who have pictures of the world that are very different from mine – but my experience is that if you have loving and frank conversations with people with whom you disagree about things like that, that you come to have some better sense of what the view is and why it might seem attractive.
DK: I think you’re right that the parallel isn’t perfect. But even so, polarisation has increased and, in the absence of a close-knit community or a family in which you’re able to lovingly discuss your beliefs, there’s a question about how well this society can stick together –
KAA: Yes. Again, the liberal tradition (and I’m using it in the name of a philosophical tradition) is organised around the thought that modern societies should be configured so it’s possible to have quite different views about fundamental questions – ‘conceptions of the good,’ is Rawls’ way of putting it – but still have a modus vivendi, still be able to live and share many of the institutions.
DK: But not all the same institutions.
KAA: Sorry, the same political institutions. But to have lots of institutional life that’s not state institutional life, to have judges and temples and synagogues and all that, in which people …
DK: So you can live together without living fully together.
KAA: And only part of the time, as it were. That’s difficult. The great mediating institutions of the United States used to be religious, and two things are important: one, the fundamentalist thing has passed its zenith. That is not, I would say, the rising form of American religiosity the way that it was. But more importantly, perhaps – and I think these things are connected – Americans now live, in so far as they live religious identities, they live them in multi-religious families. In the 1950’s, your typical Catholic was married to a Catholic, only went to Catholic weddings and so on, and Jews were much more endogamous than they are now, but it was even sectarian. Presbyterians were more endogamous, and Methodists were more endogamous, and Anglicans and Episcopalians were more endogamous and so on. Now the typical American is … First of all, a very large portion of Americans change, over the course of their lifetime, their religious affiliations. A way larger portion than used to. And b) and again, these facts are connected, people live in families where they’re Catholic but they have a Jewish cousin or a Jewish auntie or something. What that produces is a different kind of religiosity, because again, in the 1950’s, your view of the other religious traditions, in the case of the Abrahamic faiths, was they are all going to Hell. But psychologically, you’re not going to be attracted to that view if it’s your Auntie Mary that we’re talking about. It’s one thing for people across the street, across town, to be going to Hell. It’s another thing for your relatives and your in-laws to be going to Hell. So, perhaps predictably, very few Americans now, whatever their religious adherence, think that they’ll only meet people of their own faith in Heaven, if they believe in Heaven. And, in fact, that’s associated with another very interesting and political phenomenon, which is that religiosity as such, independent of creed, is regarded as a good thing by religious people, and it’s also come to be associated with conservative politics, whereas religiosity as such in the United States was not associated with conservative politics in the 1960’s. In fact, radical politics was pretty much all religious too.
DK: I was reading a conservative site recently, and had the funny realisation that just as liberals use ‘religious right’ as a pejorative, the right bears its own animus towards the ‘secular left’.
KAA: One phrase I don’t particularly favour myself is ‘evangelical,’ because it really doesn’t …. Being convinced that the Gospel is ‘good news,’ which is what the core of evangelical thought is, or being born again, doesn’t have much to do with politics, and, as the Catholics point out (since it’s official Catholic teaching), could lead you to be in favour of radical redistribution and anti-poverty programmes, which are normally not regarded as conservative in this country, just as easily as lead you to be focused on questions of the place of women in the home and family and be opposed to abortion and gay marriage and so on.
DK: Do you think there’s much coherence in the notion of small-c American conservativism?
KAA: Conservatism in the modern sense was created out of a coalition of anti-Communism and … Well, there was a view about the economy, which was that the state should keep far away from the economy – it should just create the conditions in which economic activity took place, but it shouldn’t be actively involved in the economy – increasingly over the period of so-called neo-conservativism, with a particular social agenda, meaning, basically, thinking of the family as being an institution in which heterosexual males should lead, heterosexual females should focus on social reproduction in the family (they wouldn’t call it social reproduction) and therefore that then leads to anti-abortion politics; it also leads to anti-gay politics and so on. There’s really no reason why those things should go together, you might think that if you want to keep the state out of private life, why not keep it out of the family as well as out of the economy, and that would be a different package. In fact, that package existed, once. Goldwater, in the 60’s, was not interested in anti-gay stuff, long before it was popular on the Democratic side of the ledger, because he was against the state. So there is a coherent package, which is the one that people who call themselves libertarians are struggling towards, which is one that says, ‘let’s minimise the state.’ What’s incoherent about it is I think that there’s no very … Unless you take that as your axiom, you could have an argument for minimising the state, and it’s not obvious that once you start thinking about minimising the state, the same reasons apply in the economy as in family life or anywhere else, so you have to start decomposing it. And again, this healthcare thing, apparently it’s now thought to be a Conservative view that state should be as little as possible involved in the provision of health care, but the bill that President Obama eventually signed hugely favours all sorts of private choice in economic decision making and was designed by the Heritage Foundation and first implemented by the Republican governor of Massachusetts, so … I think there are things that have just been attached to Conservativism because they’ve been attached to the Republican party, and they’ve been attached to the Republican party because they were not favoured by the Democrats for one reason or another. In the case of health care solution, they were favoured by the Democrats because they thought they would be a good compromise with the Republican principles, and it just turned out that because they were pushed through by the Democratic party, Republicans turned against them.
And conversely with a lot of anti-regulation stuff. Democrats are now instinctively hostile to people who want to reduce regulation, but there’s a very good argument that regulation does reduce economic efficiency. There’s always a trade-off between regulation and the good that it achieves and the cost of achieving it, and sometimes it isn’t worth it. When we did some changes on our house in Princeton, in an area that has a Democratic congressman, we wanted to have a room between the bedroom and the bathroom where we could have a sitting and a reading area, and it turned out that in that room we were required to have electric plugs every eight feet on the wall, in a room that was going to have one chair in it. I perfectly understand how that happened – somebody had a long wire somewhere; it started a fire. So they make a rule. But it’s an empirical question how many fires have been stopped by this rule, and it’s an interesting question whether it was worth the extra time involved in putting them in and having some guy come and check that we put them in… Again, when we did some changes on our New York apartment, we discovered that we couldn’t, in fact, redo the shower in one of the bathrooms because if we had done so, we would have been required to make it ADA compliant, even though there was a perfectly ADA compliant bathroom in the apartment, which only had one bedroom, so you would have thought it was okay for a disabled person to have access to one of the two bathrooms in the apartment. It’s not like it was a hotel.
DK: Is it your impression that there’s a great deal of anti-intellectualism in the US?
KAA: I think that people just don’t like intellectuals who disagree with them. They’re perfectly willing to treat… It depends what that means. There’s been this poll recently that says that a majority of Republicans think that American universities are bad overall for society. Again, that’s what people say. I don’t know if they’ve thought about it very much and whether they actually believe it, but I think what they feel is that they wouldn’t be comfortable in the atmosphere of these places and that’s just an expression of hostility rather than an expression of a judgment about the question they were asked, which is is there a net benefit. Anti-intellectualism is often, as I said earlier, it’s about knowing that if you have to engage with that view, you may end up having to give up something. You know that you don’t have very coherent views about something. If there’s somebody who comes along in this profession that’s about being coherent about things, they’re probably going to beat you in the argument, so the best thing is not to engage with them. Now, you may think that they’re going to beat you in the argument even though they’re wrong because they’re just better at arguments, so that’s not the fact that the fact you don’t want to argue with them means you’re not sure you’re right, it’s just what’s the point of arguing with these people, that’s what they do, that’s their business. They argue. So I think some of it is just an unwillingness to engage, but there is also … We have, in our society, a significant number of people who believe in a religious epistemology in which the truth manifests itself to good people if they just prayerfully attend to it, attend to the question what’s true, and so they have a theory according to which there’s no point in the kind of study of these questions that a philosopher would engage in because the answer will be made manifest to you if you just pray carefully about it or read the Bible or something.
DK: On a similar point, I suppose, what are your throughts on ‘no platforming’?
KAA: Universities can’t be completely indifferent to the question of the truth-value of what people are saying. That is to say, if we give money to student organisations to invite people in, we’re supposed to be inviting people in who have views worth attending to, and if a society wants to give its … and the university has views; we don’t have a department of astrology, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not just prejudice. But I guess my general feeling is that if there’s a bunch of people in the university who want to listen to someone, let them.
DK: The two recent cases I can think of are Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos.
KAA: Yes. They’re different… Yiannopoulos is a professional provocateur, and the object of the exercise in getting him to come to campus is to get him to be banned, so I think it’s very foolish to ban him. I think ignoring him is fine. He’s not very interesting. Murray’s interesting and makes arguments. Like most of us, once he’s committed to a view, he’s not very good at seeing that people have genuine arguments against it, and I think that he’s making mistakes in his current work that have been pointed out in his earlier work and he doesn’t seem to have made much progress, but that’s normal. Once you get invested in a position, it’s very hard to give it up. I would invite both of them – I mean, I wouldn’t invite either of them, but I would permit the invitation. I think there are cleverer Conservative intellectuals than Murray who I’d rather hear.
KAA: I read stuff from the Cato Institute. Maybe they don’t count as Conservative anymore, because they’re anti-Trump. They think he’s ridiculous, because they’re thoughtful people. They agree with some of the things he wants to do, because some of the things he wants to do are normal Republican things to want to do, but they think he’s an idiot, correctly. I don’t know their names because I don’t read the names. I don’t agree with many of the arguments, but they seem like arguments.
DK: Are philosophers any better at giving up a position that they become attached to or that they’ve previously advanced?
KAA: Some. Hilary Putnam’s a good example. Hilary Putnam has held p and ~p for a very large number of p’s and made excellent arguments on both sides. It’s a temperamental thing. Hilary never changed his mind about basically being Left, for example. His politics didn’t change, but he didn’t write much about politics as a philosopher. I don’t know. I think it’s hard not to get invested in a view, and indeed you want people invested in a view, because the function in the general intellectual ecology is to make the best case for a view and then people can see what the best case is for that view and decide whether they want to accept it. But in order for you to do that with vigour and conviction, you have to be a little resistant to saying, ‘oh yeah, that’s a point,’ every time somebody says something, so I think there’s a pressure for us to hold onto things in part just to see how long you can hold on, and the easiest way to do that is not to do it as a matter of method but to do it because you’re actually holding on.
DK: There’s a question about how rational it is to hold onto a belief that other clever people very strongly disagree with –
KAA: Right, there’s this big literature right now about this question. I think that there are different cases, and philosophers discuss this as if it’s ever the case that two people have access to the same evidence, and of course two people never have access to the same evidence, nor do two people ever address the same evidence starting with the same full repertory of intellectual resources or trainings or backgrounds, so it’s a bit hard to form intuitions about what it would be like to genuinely be facing the world with exactly the same resources as somebody else and having them say ‘everybody can see that that’s not the correct view,’ as it were, so I don’t find myself equipped with intuitions about those cases, but in the real world, where people have different resources, the fact that a smart person with whatever resources she has disagrees with you, I think is something you should take seriously. You can’t do this on every topic, so you have to allocate your resources, but if it’s a topic you work on – if it’s your topic – I think you should pay very careful attention to the arguments offered by people who disagree substantially with you even though they seem to have read the same literature, as it were. But you believe what you believe, and what changes your mind is something that seems to you like an argument, and x doesn’t believe that p isn’t an argument about p.
DK: Well, as Nozick has pointed out, it’s not often the case that people’s minds are changed, quite simply, by a compelling argument.
KAA: I think that is generally true, that arguments don’t work by knocking you over, even … But that doesn’t mean that arguments aren’t playing a role in changing people’s minds. It’s just that it doesn’t happen like that. I’m probably an example of someone whose atheism was the result of a lot of thinking about arguments, including the ontological argument, the argument from design, philosophers’ arguments …
DK: I suppose there are some people who really do think, ‘that’s the argument for p; that argument seems right; that’s how I’m going to start living’.
KAA: Yes. In the normative domain, people can be … You have people who make very good arguments for conclusions but don’t live by them. You have people who make terrible arguments for conclusions they do live by, and you have people who have demanding views that they try to live by but they admit that they don’t. That’s what Peter Singer’s like. He’s very honest that he’s doing a great deal more than most people to do what he thinks is right, but on his own account he should be doing more. So the quality of the arguments doesn’t really … In the case of moral beliefs, anyway, believing it and living it are, I think, pace Socrates, distinct things. I think one can be convinced of something and still not do it. It’s a genuine puzzle why it’s possible. An old puzzle, goes back to Plato.
DK: One place where I think it occurs, maybe, is in the area of climate change. It seems that many liberals think that climate change is quite a serious, even overriding, issue, but don’t treat it as if it really is. At least, I feel that way about myself…
KAA: Part of the problem is the marginal effect on the problem of any one person committing themselves to turning off the lights and so on, it’s not clear that it would make any difference. It’s not just small; it might actually be non-existent. So what you want is to support policies that would help, and most of the liberals are supporting policies that would help. They’re in favour of policies …
DK: But couldn’t they then actively campaign, try and convince people who don’t already agree –
KAA: I don’t know. I guess my understanding … I haven’t thought a lot about climate change, the policy aspects of climate change. I guess my feeling is that there are lots of things that the experts know we ought to be doing, and some moves are being made towards doing them by some people: the mayor of New York, the mayor of Los Angeles, the governor of California, the mayor of Beijing, and I’m all in favour of that, and if the mayor of New York asked me or requires me to do things as my contribution, I will do them. There are many big issues where there’s a collective action problem where there’s nothing that any one person can do, and it’s hard to figure out how to get everybody to do something, though if everybody did something, it wouldn’t have to be very much and we could make a big difference. That’s true of certain forms of global poverty. It’s clear that we could do something about lots of them; it’s clear on the other hand that I can’t do anything about them – anything really meaningful. So I support the adoption of policies which would have effects on … but I have some difficulty in figuring out how to get them adopted. I can repeat them over and over again – I do, actually – but it doesn’t seem to make very much difference. You feel feeble in the face of the entrenched intransigence in the political world… That’s why I said earlier that I think the big important move in epistemology in our century was to move away from individuals to communities of knowledge. That’s a move from asking ‘what do I know’ to ‘what do we know.’ I think in ethics it’s important to focus not so much on what I would do but on what we do on these big issues and to figure out how to connect those two.
DK: Speaking of social behaviour, how apt do you think the metaphor of fashion is for explaining why some people hold (or claim to hold) the political views they do?
KAA: In some ways, what it’s about is these mechanisms of social contagion, of structures of status, so what happens is it becomes, I suppose, ‘cool’ is the best word, to stress about something and to signal that you’re a morally serious person, and patterns of that – all societies have patterns of that. Sometimes it’s good when it becomes, as it were, ‘fashionable’ to worry about something. I don’t have any problem with the fashion for worrying about trans issues; I think it’s been good. It’s meant that we’ve moved far and fast to help …
DK: Although with that issue, it’s often unclear to me how coherent various parts of the transgender movement is, especially in terms of how well it fits into the broader feminist movement, and how well the trans movement has really figured out their concepts of gender.
KAA: Right. When you get shifts in structures of identity… The old structure works for a lot of people, but it doesn’t work for everybody. That’s true of race and all kinds of things. The race system we have in this country is pretty good for most white people for a long time, and in modern times, for some black people. It’s been terrible for a lot of black people, a lot of Asians and so on. The gender system – go back to the 1950’s, the gender system is pretty bad for most women. Terrible for most gay people and indescribably awful, probably, for most people who would now be thought of as trans. So we made progress. We reconfigured the gender system to be better, to fit the lives of more women – More women had better lives as result of the changes brought about in the gender system by the first wave feminist movement, but some women had worse lives than they were having. They fitted in nicely in comfortable, upper-middle class homemaker lives. They didn’t want to make a shift. It was hard for them. Their lives were made worse. But that was okay because their daughters’ lives were mostly being made better. I think that was okay perhaps even for them. But still, there were losses as well as gains, it’s important to see. And similarly, of course, men. It was meant to make things worse for men, because some of what was bad about the old system was it automatically granted men privileges that they weren’t entitled to. As you make these adjustments, you make life harder for some people but easier for an important class of historically disadvantaged people. And we’ve been doing that. We adjusted it for women. We adjusted it for gay people. We adjust it for trans people now. But that will produce new categories of people who don’t fit in. It will leave some people out. There’s a whole category, for example, maybe 1% of the population, that is not very sexual at all, one that doesn’t … We don’t have much acknowledgment of the fact that it’s possible to be asexual. I’m sure that we’ll do something about that. It’s the sort of thing that something will be done about. We’ll acknowledge that. People who think of themselves as bisexual say that the lesbian and gay thing was unkind to them, and so on.
DK: But supposing a system is bad for a group of people, there might be a number of ways of making it better for that group of people, some of which displace more people than others. It’s conceivable that making the lives of trans people better off, which obviously needs to be done, can be done in a way that is worse for, perhaps, women than it needs to be.
KAA: Yes. I think, right, that’s possible. I think the bigger problem is the underlying reality that gender tries to shape doesn’t have a lot of sharp boundaries in it, but we tend to produce systems which are focused on sharpening boundaries.
DK: Leslie Green has described it somewhere as boxes. He says we have two boxes and they’re not great, but it would be a mistake to make them bigger, so should we add more boxes or should we get rid of the boxes?
KAA: There was a gender abolitionist part in early feminism. There were people for whom that was the agenda, but it looks like the way human sexuality works, it’s going to continue to be important for an awful lot of people what the sex is of the people they have sex with, so we’re not likely to do very well with a system that doesn’t allow us socially to signal what our sex is to people we don’t yet know.
DK: And that’s an important disanalogy between race and gender metaphysics.
KAA: Yes, there’s not an obvious analogue to sex and sexuality in the case of race, and you’re right, that is one of the interesting points, which is why I think racial abolitionism makes more sense than gender abolitionism. But on the trans side, it is important that the underlying phenomena include – perhaps 1-2 percent of the population is some kind of intersex, and even if people are not morphological intersexes, a lot of people have … you know, people are getting in touch with their feminine side and that kind of thing. So the central metaphor of the trans thing, which is something that really seems not right to me, that what you want to express will depend on what’s out there, what are available as models for expression – I’m in the middle, right now, of Arundhati Roy’s new novel, which just came out. It is, I think, fabulous. But the main character, one of the characters in it, is a person who’s an intersex person at birth, raised as a boy and then identifies as a woman, but not as any old woman, as a hijra, which is a particular kind of man-who-lives-as-a-woman that is recognised in India and is therefore an available category for this person to identify with. Absent the category of the hijra, there wouldn’t have been anything for her to want to be. You can’t say she would have wanted to be that anyway; that doesn’t make any sense.
DK: It seems that a lot of the trans rhetoric assumes a form of gender essentialism.
KAA: Yeah, some. People vary about this, and people are getting more sophisticated about this, but yes. If you read someone like James/Jan Morris, who was this macho Vietnam War reporter who became a wonderful writer as a man who became a famous woman, Jan Morris, as a different kind of writer, the book (I forget what it’s called) about the transition is very gender-obsessed. She’s all about how at the end of the process … There’s this moment that epitomizes the process where she’s moving into a cottage and the big, masculine man is moving stuff around and he knocks over a vase and she says, ‘just like a man!’ And you think, ‘Okay. This is buying into a particular way of being a woman which a lot of women were giving up at the time that Jan Morris was making this transformation.’ The truth is that if you just have the two categories, then there will be people who are of one biological sex who identify with the other one, but there’ll be people who don’t really identify with either and so on, and for them maybe the gender abolition thing would work.
DK: Is there a reason we can’t signal sex in identification of one’s literal sex, without the gender structure?
KAA: We could. Obviously, in societies where people don’t wear much in the way of clothing, for example, breasts will do it. Something that’s basically morphological will do it. So you could have it. You could have a system where we marked something or put something on our forehead. I don’t know. It just seems to me that everything about sexuality would have to be different, even if actually it’s not hard to tell men from women even if they don’t do anything, even if they just stand stock still and are wearing a dressing gown. We’re pretty good at telling most men from women. There are cases when we don’t know how to do it, but mostly we can do it pretty easily, but as I say we’re going to have to find ways of signalling sexual interest that don’t have codes that depend on whether you’re of one sex or the other. It’s all theoretically possible. I just think it’s very unlikely. And why bother? That is to say, if you make all the jobs available to either, and all the social positions equally available and you run a meritocratic society, why would you want to eradicate signals of any particular characteristic? And there are other differences between people that we might care about, and as long as they don’t produce unjustified forms of inequality, nothing wrong with signalling them. I think what’s happening … It’s indicative of something that in a large civilization like India, they don’t have one transgender category. They have two, and neither of them corresponds to any of ours. Neither of them corresponds to lesbian or gay or trans or … They both correspond inexactly to any categories that we have. Hijra is a social identity of a very explicit kind – You join a club and then you dress in a certain way and there are gurus and so on. Kothi is just a man who is effeminate and wants to have sex with men.
DK: One contrast, then, is that unlike how India has two additional categories, the trans movement usually seems to want to simply expand our meaning of woman to include trans women as women simpliciter
KAA: Yes, and that trans men are men.
DK: Are men simpliciter.
KAA: I’m insisting on the distinction because in India, they don’t care about the second thing at all. They don’t have a concept of trans men. It’s not one of their things – It is now because they’re part of the global culture, but it wasn’t.
DK: That’s interesting. And not particularly surprising.
KAA: No, absolutely.
DK: But what do you think of that particular move? To make the claim that trans women and men are women and men simpliciter, instead of belong to a third and fourth category that we should acknowledge?
KAA: I suppose what I feel, about the way in which that has been argued, is that as a matter of theoretical principle, it has to be up for negotiation, because the gender system belongs to all of us. It seems to me, you can’t say ‘we insist on this way of interpreting the situation.’ You have to explain why you want to interpret it that way and ask whether … I don’t mind if people who were raised as girls want to be boys and want to be in the men’s room. For me, I’m cool with that. But, for example, I wrote an Ethicist column about this, it seems to me it’s the case now that we have not negotiated the transition in such a way that you can begin a sexual relationship with someone as a trans man without letting them know before you begin to have sexual relations that that’s what you are, and also for trans women. Now, I can imagine a world in which that wasn’t true, but it isn’t our world, and to get there we have to go through arguments and the social process of transformation, and it’s not clear to me that we have to end up where this part of the trans movement says we should end up. Not clear that we shouldn’t, but we need to … I think that, as it were, ‘this is what I feel,’ isn’t enough. Likewise I don’t think people have the right to command others to talk, even about them, in a certain way without offering some reason to do so. ‘This is how I feel’ matters, because I don’t want people to be denied central aspects of what they feel, but that isn’t the only that matters, because the gender system, as I said, belongs to everybody.
DK: Wrapping up now, how would you describe the central thesis of your new book? And is there anything philosophically controversial in there that you put forward?
KAA: The thrust of the book is that we need many pictures of the world to do anything – to do science, to do ethics, to do politics – that a picture is always in various ways going to be imperfect – it’s not going to reflect the full reality of what it aims to picture – and that it’s only useful if it leaves stuff out. So the Borgesian image of the map that is the thing that it’s meant to map is exactly a model of what you shouldn’t be aiming for. And I try to argue this over a very wide range, from physics and biology and psychology and probability theory to political philosophy. I don’t know how controversial it is. I expect some of the things I say are a little bit controversial because they’re about issues to do with representation, which is a central topic in philosophy, and people have strong views about it, but I think the old idea that our task was the unity of science, the picture that came out of logical positivism and so on, that the object of the exercise was to build one picture, which captured everything – I don’t think that anybody has been trying to do that for a while and I think the difficulties of doing that have been acknowledged for a while, so I don’t know that the central claim is … I suppose what’s odd or distinctive about the book is that it goes over these fields that are normally looked at separately, so there’s philosophy of science and philosophy of probability and political philosophy and so on, and it may be that it’s nowadays a little bit controversial to think that you can responsibly do that, and that you could stand …
DK: So there’s a methodological point or something like that?
KAA: Yes. Yes, and especially to do it in a book that aims not to be very technical. The most technical stuff, I suppose, is about subjective probability in the middle chapter, but even there I’m trying to do it in ways that I hope will be followable by the intelligent general reader if she’s interested. In a way, the book is meant to encourage people to see the connections between these issues. Questions about idealization are widespread in the philosophy of science literature, and they’re obviously present, in another way, in the political philosophy literature because that’s what discussion of ideals is partly about, so it’s suggesting that there’s a connection among them and that Hans Vaihinger, whose Philosophy As If is what got me going, got it roughly right… In thinking about systems of representation and claims made through systems of representation, you have to ask yourself how they can be useful for guiding us through the world, and in order to think about that, you have to decide useful for what, what are you trying to do, and the answer is trying to do different things in different contexts. So one, different pictures will be useful because you’re trying to do different things, but also, two, it may be there are more than one useful ways of think about the very same thing, of trying to solve the same problem, and again that’s something that he anticipated. So, as I mention in the book, our best weather prediction computing models actually use three different models which make three completely different and incompatible idealizations, and then they run them all and then they plug them into each other and that’s what they use to make the final picture. Each of the idealizations captures something important about the large-scale and small-scale movement of the weather. But they capture different things, and the useful thing is to have all three of them, it turns out, and there’s no way to integrate them into one picture.
DK: What works have had an influence on your thought, and what books do you think are worth reading for someone interested in the things you’re interested in?
KAA: I read A Theory of Justice … I went to Cambridge to be a doctor, so I was a medical student, and the summer that I moved from that to philosophy, I read A Theory of Justice, which was a relatively new book at that point. So that, I’d recommend.
DK: A little-known work.
KAA: Yes. Well, what I mean is that it happens to have been a very influential book in making me switch to philosophy, which is odd, because it was at the beginning of the idea that analytic philosophy of politics could be as serious as analytic philosophy of something else. And what I did for the next seven or eight years was all philosophy of language or mind. I didn’t actually do any political philosophy in that period. In thinking about those things, the person who influenced me the most probably was Frank Ramsey, who’s not widely read anymore, and there’s only one book to read, ‘cause he died before he was thirty, but it has in it some very, very deep essays on really important questions, on theories, on subjective probability and so on and I think it’s a beautiful book. I hung out, as an undergraduate and a young graduate student, a great deal with Richard Braithwaite, who was a rough contemporary of Ramsey’s and a friend and was the editor of the first collection of Ramsey’s papers, and then it was re-edited by my dissertation advisor, Hugh Mellor [a podcast with Mellor on Ramsey here – DK], later, so I was close to the two people who did the most … They’re distinguished philosophers in their own right, but they did the most to get Ramsey’s views known (views in philosophy, because he’s also an important figure in the history of economics and mathematics as well). So those are people that interest me a lot. I read On Liberty at least once a year with students. Not all of it, always, but some of it. So it’s influenced me a lot. And I was very influenced in my thinking about lots of things by Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, which is not a philosophical work but is, I think, a very self-reflective account of what it is to try and understand the thought of a society that’s very different from your own, and I’ve taught that book quite a lot, too.
I love Montaigne’s essays, in part because his philosophical stuff is so much about just how to live one’s life, and you can see that he just wouldn’t have had the life he wanted if he hadn’t been doing philosophy, and I feel like that too. I would have had a very different and … I don’t know if it would have been a less satisfactory life, because I’m a paradigm of what economists call adaptive preference formation. I’m not one for regrets. I have made relatively frequent moves, never out of unhappiness, and I’ve not regretted them. Of course I haven’t regretted the things I haven’t changed, either. I’m happy to have had the same husband for the last thirty-something years, and the same good relations with my sisters. So those are some books. Also, I’ve been influenced and learned from and enjoyed some novels over the years, and I read a fair amount of poetry. I like many poets, going from Horace to CK Williams. Donald Trump says he doesn’t read books. It’s not other people saying it about him; he says he doesn’t read books. I think one of the biggest divides in the world is between people who could say that and people who can’t say that, who couldn’t imagine their lives without books. They don’t have to be like that [Appiah points to a copy of As If]; they can be like this [he holds up a Kindle]. Certainly they don’t have to be literally books, but extended prose, whether it’s fictional or nonfictional, I think, is a deep part of my life. I just think that literacy was an amazing invention. And the massification of literacy was an amazing achievement.