Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Little Knowledge Can Be A Deadly Thing

The word "sophomore" is usually used to denote a student in his or her second year of college-level education (it is also applied, in some places, to students in the 10th grade). It is a compound of two combining forms with Greek roots: sopho- comes from the Greek sophos, wise, and the -more comes from the Greek moros, fool. A sophomore is a "wise fool" because s/he has, on the one hand, a full year of college education under the belt, but, on the other hand--that's not much to go on. It often makes one cocky, in fact: I can't tell you how many sophomores in my classes have a tendency to launch into a critique of a philosophical argument originating with, say, Plato, or Aristotle, or Kant, or Quine, by saying something like "this argument is ridiculously invalid". Oh, to have balls like that again! My own shrivelled cajones have learned to be a little more circumspect.

But some folks never get past the sophomoric stage of analysis. I recently came across an astounding example of it here. It is a philosophical paper, written by a learned lady at the number-one rated philosophy department in the United States, the one at New York University. The thesis is that we can save the case for abortion rights if we accept the fact that fetuses less than one week old do not have any moral status. It is one of the oldest, and worst, arguments in the book, but that doesn't stop otherwise intelligent folks from trotting it out time and time again.

The reason smart people do things like this is because lots of smart people are smart enough to construct arguments to prove whatever it is that they want to prove. They lack the "philosophical spirit" that Plato claimed Socrates had, the impulse to discover the truth by means of a cooperative search rather than merely persuading folks that some antecedently accepted idea is the truth. This occurs in the abortion debate all the time. The pro-choicers approach the problem this way: we must save the case for abortion rights, so the question is not "Is abortion right or wrong," but rather "Given that I already believe abortion is OK, how can I prove it, or else prove that my opponents are neanderthals?"

The paper at the other end of the link above is a case in point. The author has antecedently decided that abortion is OK, and the case for it must be defended at any cost. So she is not embarrassed to trot out vapid and banal arguments in its defense on the off chance that someone will be fooled. Of course she does not say that this is what she is doing--who would, after all, confess to such sophistry--but I have actually heard colleagues in the academy say that this is what they are doing. Only a couple of years ago a colleague of mine said "But if we say that the case for abortion will be weakened" and this was offered as a Very Good Reason for not saying the thing in question.

This attitude is rather shocking, not just because it has to do with abortion but because it is anti-intellectual and anti-philosophical. It is not something done in a genuine spirit of inquiry, but is rather mere rhetoric, mere sophistry, mere persuasion. It is also sophomoric, since if people knew better they wouldn't do it. But they know enough to sound smart when they make their arguments, at least to some ears. In many cases this attitude does not have very interesting or important consequencs. But when this kind of intellectual drool is applied to the defense of abortion, lives are at stake, and ignorance, in this case, really is death.


Tom said...

It is also sophomoric, since if people knew better they wouldn't do it.

Is sophistry by its very nature sophomoric, then?

Scott Carson said...

I wouldn't have thought that the two classes are co-extensive, but I think that they certainly overlap.

Some sophists know perfectly well what they are doing, though.

It does raise an interesting question. Plato has Socrates talk as though all wrongdoing is a matter of ignorance, and so even a sophist whom we would describe as knowing perfectly well what they are doing Plato would describe as acting out of ignorance. That would be the equivalent of saying that such folks are sophomoric.

I'm not sure that all wrongdoing is done in ignorance, though, so I'm not sure I would buy Plato's reduction of the one to the other.