Why professors shouldn’t sign petitions

Specifically philosophy professors, but the argument is more general. In the NYT here:

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

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

Agnes Callard is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and the author of “Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.”



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12 Responses to Why professors shouldn’t sign petitions

  1. Dogmatic Ratios says:

    She seems to have misunderstood the reality. People, including philosophers, sign petitions to bring ATTENTION to an argument: they don’t imply accredited or majoritarian truth (and often they don’t fully agree with the argument) they simply want people to read it, and think about it, which is very healthy. Petitions often express minority views, which wouldn’t even become visible to the public without such collective action. The petition often intends to provide some voice to the voiceless, to COUNTERACT dogma and insensitivity, not to promote it.

  2. Janet says:

    Remember all those Duke professors signing a petition after the false rape claim against the lacrosse team. All those professors still are silent about why they did that with egg on their faces.

  3. Publius says:

    I believe the “Declaration of Independence” is a petition. I believe Jefferson was a philosopher.

    • uomatters says:

      It was a Declaration, written after George the Third’s predictably nasty response to the sniveling Olive Branch Petition. Jefferson was all things to all people.

    • Fishwrapper says:

      I believe you’re mistaken. The Declaration of Independence is what it is named, a declaration, a statement that needed to be made before the rest of the world after the many failed petitions that went before it, a statement to proclaim the rightful place among nations for our collection of states – no longer colonies; true states – in favor of its previous place under the heel of a distant tyrant.

      Lord knows that if it’s tyrants we need, we’ve had, and still have,
      plenty on this side of the pond, thank you very much.

  4. Publius says:

    The complaint (above) reads: “… Whether you call it a “petition,” an “open letter” or a “public statement,” this type of document is distinguished by the fact that after stating and arguing for a position, it lists the names of people who endorse the position.“

    This is exactly what the Declaration of Independence does–hence it is a “petition“ in the larger sense the author has in mind.

    • Deplorable Duck says:

      The crucial difference between the Declaration of Independence and many of the open-letter-signed-by-dozens vehicles we have today is that the Founders were risking their freedom, fortunes, and their very lives by signing. Most of today’s signers are risking nothing, and in actuality are cravenly planning to benefit from being seen doing so.

      • uomatters says:

        I’m not suggesting that the “Father of our Country” got the sort of perks that are typical for JH administrators or Duck coaches, but apparently he made out pretty well, ex-post. From the Amazon blurb:

        In George Washington’s Expense Account — the best-selling expense account in history — Kitman shows how Washington brilliantly turned his noble gesture of refusing payment for his services as commander in chief of the Continental Army into an opportunity to indulge his insatiable lust for fine food and drink, extravagant clothing, and lavish accommodations.


        • Publius says:

          “Donald Trump is now the wealthiest person to ever become president. Before him, George Washington was considered the richest president in history. He had an estimated net worth of $525 million, in today’s dollars.“

        • Deplorable Duck says:

          I had no idea.

          Still, it matters little whether our JH betters make out like bandits, as long as they are effective in making UO succeed.

          And if they are not effective, their (hypothetical) pilfering won’t matter much anyway.