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The Responsibility of Intellectuals
What divides the hack, the apparatchik, and the lickspittle from the true intellectual?
Written by Bo Winegard.
The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty.
— Sam Harris
Public intellectuals should be humble, open, erudite, and perhaps even witty, but more important than all these qualities, they should be intellectually honest. That might strike one as banal. Of course public intellectuals shouldn’t lie. But intellectual honesty is not a simple abstention from mendacities; it is also a positive commitment to telling the truth, to the best of one’s ability, about controversial and even taboo topics. And this is not so simple. Especially when the cost of telling the truth is sufficiently high.
For most of human history and still in many countries today, telling an unwelcomed truth could imperil one’s life and family. Thankfully, in the contemporary West, things are not so grim. Few intellectuals fear death or confinement and espousing even very unpopular truths will rarely result in physical harm.
But contrary to Colonel Jessup’s claim, there is indeed a kind of danger that is not grave. Candor may not end in the tomb, but it can cost a person prestige and even a well-paying job. In academia, this is undeniable as the list of terminated professors has grown steadily since the “Great Awokening.”
Those who do not question cherished orthodoxies might not understand this, for just as a person feels his prison only when he presses against the walls, so too a person feels stifled by the limits of acceptable discourse only when he challenges them. The pushback, the resistance, is real and potentially severe. And the more sacred the belief one challenges, the greater is the backlash.
Many people—probably most academics—have opinions, even scientific opinions, which they keep private. And this is understandable. Many of them have families to support. They employ other people. Honesty might cost them not only their job, but the job of their employees.
And yet, public intellectuals should strive to behave according to a principle that Arthur Jensen articulated: one’s public opinions on serious scientific and political topics should match one’s private opinions. In other words, one should be intellectually transparent. Of course, this doesn’t mean that one needs to divulge secrets or betray confidences; and it doesn’t mean that one must tell one’s mother that her cooking is awful. White lies and silence have their place. This only refers to opinions about consequential intellectual topics — about science, morality, and politics.
We face a collective action problem. It’s better for each individual intellectual to remain quiet about controversial beliefs, hoping that somebody else speaks up and moves the public narrative toward the truth. That way, the silent ones don’t lose status, but somebody still pushes the dialogue in the right direction. But, of course, each somebody thinks the same thing: “I am just going to sit this one out and let somebody else say it.” And so each somebody is silent. And then everybody is silent and lies, errors, and misinformation spread like mildew in a damp cellar.
The only way out of this is to value truth for its own sake — to applaud truth and to reward those who promote it, regardless of how temporarily unpleasant it might be. Of course, intellectual honesty should also be coupled with intellectual humility. One could always be wrong. And the orthodoxy might be the orthodoxy for quite legitimate scientific or philosophical reasons. But humility is no excuse for silence. Those who are lucky enough to get paid to be intellectuals should strive to be intellectually transparent, to forward their views as honestly as possibly, while of course acknowledging uncertainty.
This is especially crucial in an environment in which the regnant ideology suppresses many important truths through moral intimidation. Even rudimentary and incontrovertible facts about group disparities are verboten in many social cliques and institutions. Many academics who desire a long, successful, rewarding career are afraid to claim publicly that men cannot get pregnant. They of course no more believe that men can get pregnant than they believe in alchemy. But they realize that contradicting the dominant view, at least the one that is promoted with most fervor in liberal circles, might cost them prestige or even imperil their employment.
Practically, we can all contribute to more honesty by publicly applauding intellectuals such as Charles Murray and Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan and Amy Wax and Noah Carl who have faced scurrilous personal attacks and opprobrium for forwarding their honest views about controversial issues. There are many public intellectuals, but few with such courage. One does not have to agree with everything they have written or said to applaud their doughty spirit. Indeed, they have all undoubtedly been wrong about many things. We all have. But that does not matter. What matters is contributing to honest conversation. What matters is pushing the boundaries and challenging ossified intellectual dogmas.
Of course, intellectual honesty will never be more lucrative, more materially or socially advantageous, than strategic dishonesty and silence. Therefore, the pursuit of truth must ultimately be driven by a deontological commitment to honesty, a commitment strong enough that it causes anguish if one prevaricates or disguises or remains silent. Some ancient philosophers taught that morality was ultimately its own reward and that the impoverished man who was morally upstanding lived a better life than the wealthy man who was depraved or decadent. Intellectual honesty is the same. It is its own reward. And it is what divides the hack, the apparatchik, the lickspittle from the true intellectual.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.
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