Nomy Arpaly in Pea Soup:
I’ll never forget the old guy who asked me, at an APA interview: “suppose I wanted to slap you, and suppose I wanted to slap you because I thought you were giving us really bad answers, and I mistakenly believed that by slapping you I’ll bring out the best in you. Am I blameworthy?”.
When he said “suppose I wanted to slap you”, his butt actually left his chair for a moment and his hand was mimicking a slap in the air.
Since that event – which happened back when I was a frightened youngster with all the social skills of a large rock – I have thought many times about the connection between philosophy and rudeness – especially the connection between philosophical debating and rudeness. It seems to me that the connection between philosophical argument and rudeness is similar to the connection between fighting a war and immorality. Surprisingly precise analogies can be drawn between the soldier in a just war and the philosophical arguer in pursuit of the truth. Let me explain.
It is a big part of moral behavior in ordinary situations not to kill people. Yet the morally healthy inhibition against killing people has to be lost, of necessity, in war – even in a morally justified war.
It is a big part of politeness – not in the sense of using the right fork, but in the sense of civility – in ordinary situations not to tell another person that she is wrong and misguided about something she cares a lot about, or that she cares about being right about. For brevity’s sake, let’s just say it’s a big part of politeness or civility not to correct people. Yet the civilized inhibition against correcting people has to be lost, of necessity, in a philosophical argument.
A soldier who is fighting, even for a just cause, is in a precarious situation, with regard to morality, because he has lost, of necessity, the basic moral inhibition against killing people.
A philosopher who is arguing with another, even in pursuit of truth, is in a precarious situation with regard to politeness, because she has lost, of necessity, the basic civil inhibition against correcting people.