Home » Our Stories » The Value and Limits of Academic Speech » The plausibility of abhorrent views, and why it matters 
Calum Miller
Calum Miller

Suppose that there are two competing views, both of similar plausibility, but both of which entail that the other view is not only wrong but utterly wickedly so. It is not difficult to find real-life approximations. Consider the clearest case: those who support abortion choice often tend to think that their opponents have the contemptible view that women should not have basic autonomy over their own body, while those who oppose abortion choice think that their opponents have the contemptible view that women should be allowed to kill their own children. 

I argue, firstly, that some such disputes – where both sides are liable to hold views which, if wrong, are wicked – are sincere, and secondly, that there is no theoretical reason within moral epistemology why they should be obviously soluble. That is, there may be some such dilemmas in which a sincere agent has a considerable degree of agnosticism. 

There are a number of implications of the fact that moral epistemology has this uncomfortable structure. The first is that it is extremely unlikely that all morally wicked views are obviously wrong or implausible – and especially unlikely that all morally wicked views are obviously implausible to all sincere agents. This has a further implication uncomfortable for many: that some morally abhorrent views are nevertheless plausible, or even probable (given limited evidence sets). This should not surprise us too much: most of us have probably held views we later thought to be abhorrent. It is possible that we were simply being irrational at those times – but it is also possible that some of us simply lacked some of the relevant evidence or had different intuitions which were not demonstrably false. In any case, why assume the current zeitgeist is entirely immune to the same limitations that have pervaded human moral thought for so many centuries? And if we are not, then it is likely that even the ethical elite largely hold to some abhorrent views – and perhaps on matters in which they think precisely the alternative is abhorrent. 

A second implication is that it should prompt us to re-examine any moral discourse which divides people into the essentially decent and the wicked. Sincere agents likely, in some cases, hold abhorrent views, and they should not thereby be discounted as thoroughly wicked or bigoted people on those grounds alone. Likewise, holders of wicked views are not necessarily culpable for their doing so. So there should also be greater sympathy and openness to those with ostensibly wicked views on account of their plausible sincerity. 

These two main sets of implications – about the plausibility of some abhorrent views and about those who hold them – jointly generate one final, and most salient, implication. That is, they generate substantive reason to preserve a relatively liberal conception of academic freedom. There are many practical and theoretical reasons for preserving academic freedom (in a broad sense), no doubt. But the recognition that the geometry of moral knowledge itself draws a fine – and sometimes evidentially or rationally indeterminate – line between the morally abhorrent and the morally obligatory should give us very strong reason to do so. For there are a number of reasons to engage in an academic way with sincere disputants who seem to us to hold contemptible views. 

The first is that such engagement is good for them. As described, it is possible that such disputants are still otherwise reasonably good people. And in that case, we ought to help them come around to the more probably correct view – for their own sake and for others (indeed, this is probably true even if they are not otherwise good people – but their being otherwise good is extra motivation). Simply banning their view from discussion is more likely to breed resentment, and is a great injustice to them if they are, in fact, correct. 

The second, more pressing reason is that such engagement is good for the pursuit of truth. This was captured most favourably by JS Mill (1859, 33): 

Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. 

For Mill (and I think he is probably right), the chance that the minority opinion-holder is right is an obvious reason in favour of free speech: convincing the academic community thus would be a great service to it, and probably to the whole world if it should be accepted more widely. But even if it is wrong, Mill suggests, our knowledge is edified, since the nature of its wrongness helps to illuminate the truth. Suppose, for example, we are appalled by Jeff McMahan’s view that infanticide is morally permissible, and that he is wrong. Nevertheless, his work on the topic is extremely sophisticated, and his discussion may help us to navigate moral territory better. Suppose we think he is right, for example, that certain psychological connections in an agent (which he thinks is an embodied mind) give that agent some interests to be respected, but find that his arguments elsewhere are lacking. This gives us considerable reason to rethink our attitude towards animals and the harmful ways in which we treat them. Locating our disagreement most precisely gives us moral and practical clarity in other domains, and so serves truth. Even cases where our disputant is most obviously wrong – say, in denying the Holocaust – thinking about what exactly is so contemptible about such a position (it could be the result of culpable ignorance or intellectual laziness, or it could be subconscious racism, or it could be simply correlated with antipathy towards Jews, and so on), prompted by such discussions, may help us in other areas of ethics. So truth, too, is served. 

Finally, returning to the possibility that our disputant is correct, it helps all of us. For it might just correct our views and might, indeed, prevent us from committing heinous acts on the basis of them. Of course, this will be very unlikely in some cases. And it might be that our views are relatively harmless even if false, and so we are playing a low risk game. But there is always at least the risk of the injustice of moral carelessness and wrongful condemnation. 

One might wonder, given this final consideration, whether an additional or alternative criterion might be used for academic censorship: particularly, that of plausibility. 

There are a number of reasons why this might not be so simple. First, there is the problem of arbitration. Who decides how implausible a view is? Sincere experts might disagree, and in any case it is not commonplace for experts in relevant fields to be in charge of policy on academic freedom. What we would need is for the view to be implausible to all sincere agents, and this simply casts the net too wide to generate much more than minimal restrictions on academic claims. Secondly, showing that a view is implausible in the first place will require some engagement with it, and so some academic engagement with implausible heinous views is necessary to begin with. There is, moreover, the problem of new evidence and arguments: it is always possible that new arguments may overturn even a very implausible view, and unless we are prepared to countenance those arguments, we cannot reasonably maintain that no strong counter-arguments to our position exist. 

The problem is that once we have accounted for these (e.g. by finding cases where all sincere agents do agree), there will not be much left to censor – and it is particularly unlikely that reasonable censorship will line up with what many contemporary activists are attempting to censor (for example, debates on abortion or transgenderism). For it is not plausible that there are no intelligent, sincere, informed agents who hold to conservative positions on the foremost of these social issues. 

In short, a view’s being appalling is not good reason to think it is also extremely improbable. This warrants greater informal sympathy and a hearing for sincere agents expressing contemptible views, and moreover it recommends that such hearings extend to the academy.