Monday, October 25, 2021

Philosophical Progress Causes The Illusion That There Is No Philosophical Progress


The claim that “there is no progress in philosophy” may be a self-verifying one: the longer we debate it, the more evidence we have for it. So it is with some apprehension that I bring this topic up, since it strikes me as incredibly obvious that this claim is false: not only does philosophy make progress, it is hard to even imagine the discipline without it. If my argument is convincing, it will also prove self-verifying, in that we can progress beyond this debate.

Those who argue that there is no progress in philosophy (and there are many) tend to base their argument on a comparison with the natural sciences. Physics, biology, and chemistry are all much younger than philosophy, but they have all made undeniable progress. They have built a clear professional consensus around previously disputed issues, such as Pasteur's germ theory of disease, Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Philosophy, by contrast, is still actively debating many of the same questions that birthed the discipline, such as whether or not humans have free will, what the meaning nature of morality is, and what the source and foundation of knowledge is. We even debate if framing these questions this way is the best way to investigate these topics or not.


Perhaps even more embarrassing, according to skeptics of philosophical progress, is the fact that science appears to have resolved several debates that once dumbfounded philosophers. Ancient Greek philosophers traded speculations about the nature of matter, space, and time. 2,000 years later, physicists from John Dalton to Albert Einstein swept all such speculative disputes away and settled these issues (to a high degree of approximation, at least.) Neuroscience has put to bed age-old disputes about the nature of the mind, perception and consciousness. And so on.


Looking at these skeptical arguments one might be tempted to ask what the point of doing philosophy even is. If real progress only happens in the sciences why not simply abandon philosophy as a discipline and put all our resources into science. Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V.O. Quine both imagined a future where our intellectual resources would migrate away from philosophy and towards more constructive disciplines. 


But nearly all of these anti-progressive arguments rest on a number of dubious assumptions about the nature of philosophy, science, and progress. For starters, they assume that science is distinct from philosophy, rather than part and parcel of it. Galileo, Descartes, and Newton saw no need to draw a categorical distinction between ‘natural philosophy’ (what we today call ‘science’) and it's more general superset. There is still considerable overlap between the theoretical branches of physics, biology and neuroscience and the philosophers who specialize in these areas. While it may make sense from a university administration perspective to divide up science departments from the philosophy department, substantively such divisions amount to little more than a useful academic fiction. In the words of Robert Cummins, “Science is just philosophy that worked.”


When we turn to examine the conception of ‘progress’ at play in the above arguments, the case against stagnation in philosophy cuts even deeper. It is perhaps debatable whether or not science makes ‘progress towards truth’ (‘truth’ being one of those tenacious, stagnating philosophical problems). But there are two senses in which science seems to make undeniable progress: practical applications and consensus building. Whether or not General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are ‘true,’ they are both incredibly useful in developing technologies like GPS navigation and microprocessors. And likewise, while there are still unresolved debates in science, the generally accepted methods of science drive nearly all practitioners towards agreement over time.


But, as others have argued before me[1], on both of these metrics of progress philosophy has made real, undeniable progress as well. Philosophers used to have major debates over topics like the suitability of women to hold political power, the moral relevance of pain in non-human animals, and whether or not homosexual relationships deserve the same social and legal recognition as heterosexual relationships. These issues are not debated anymore in philosophy journals or at philosophy conferences, save for a very small number of fringe thinkers engaged in post-hoc rationalizing, or pedantic hairsplitting.[2] We have reached a near-universal consensus as a discipline on these issues. And that consensus has clear practical applications in law, politics, and civil society. Philosophy has made so much progress, in fact, that we seem to have forgotten that these were ever issues that concerned us in the first place. Progress in philosophy is hidden by the fact that disagreement is so integral to the discipline that when consensus is reached, we don’t consider the erstwhile dispute to be philosophy anymore.


Moreover, there are no good reasons to limit our conception of progress to consensus building and practical applications. These are plenty of other ways that a discipline can make progress: by proposing/developing novel theories; by connecting previously disparate areas of thought; by introducing new questions; by dissolving illusory problems that arose through conceptual confusion; by amplifying the perspectives of previously ignored groups; by developing new methods for investigating old questions; by drawing attention to the assumptions made by popular approaches to problems, and so on. For all of the arguments made against progress in philosophy, I don’t believe I have ever seen anyone argue that philosophy has never (or even rarely) made progress in any of these respects. 


Yet, for some unargued reason, many assume that if philosophy doesn’t make progress in the same way that science does, that ‘progress’ doesn’t count. It seems like a humble ambition to insist that an argument is required to justify this metric, and to exclude all others. And if such an argument is presented, such an argument itself would seem to be an example of progress in philosophy, which would in turn, be proof that progress in some sense at least, is possible.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

[1] See, for example, Tim Maudlin.

[2] It is worth noting that the sciences also have their fringe contrarians, too. There are a small, but non-negligible number of figures with advanced degrees in science from respectable universities that deny the theory of evolution, the germ theory of disease, and anthropogenic climate change. If we don’t gainsay the notion of progress in science because of such outliers then should we not follow suit in philosophy?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Safe Third Country Agreements and the Availability of Other Rescuers

Former President Trump signed safe third country agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. On February 6, 2021, President Biden suspended former President Trump’s agreements with these Central American states. Safe third country agreements are bilateral or multilateral agreements between or among states that allow the return of asylum seekers to the first safe third country that the asylum seekers traveled through to have their applications for asylum adjudicated there. Under international law, migrants may have a right to emigrate and a right to seek asylum, but they do not necessarily have a right to choose where they resettle. Safe third country agreements serve certain purposes to ensure the efficient administration of international and domestic asylum law, but they also raise some important ethical and legal issues. 

One question to consider is whether the availability of other “safe” countries discharges or diminishes a particular state’s moral responsibility to adjudicate a claim for asylum. 

Under the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees, article 1, a refugee is a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality” and is unable for good reason or unwilling to return. We can describe a refugee as a person in need of rescue. Under article 33, a participating state cannot “expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Once a person steps on the shores of a safe country and seeks asylum, that country cannot send him or her away without adjudicating the person’s claim. 

Consider the following hypothetical situation involving three states. State A borders state B and state B borders state C, but state A and C do not share any borders. State A is an outlaw state, using John Rawls’s term, and routinely engages in oppressive practices such as kidnapping and torturing political dissidents. Peter lives in state A and is a vocal opponent of the current government. Peter has reason to believe that officers of state A may knock on his doors at any moment and whisk him off for “questioning.” Under the cover of night, Peter and his family flee state A, secretly cross through state B by foot over the course of several weeks, and then step foot in state C seeking asylum. State B is a weak democratic state that is overrun by criminal elements. Peter believes that he and his family would not be safe in state B and, if caught there, may be returned to state A. There is a third safe country agreement between state B and C that allows state C to return migrants to state B. Under these facts, does state C have a moral responsibility to consider Peter’s claim of asylum?

This question brings to mind Peter Singer’s consideration of an objection to a duty to the global poor based on the availability of others. He says rhetorically, “Should I consider that I am less obliged to pull the drowning child out of the pond if on looking around I see other people, no further away than I am, who have also noticed the child but are doing nothing?” (Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(3) (1972): 229-243, 233). He also offers the following argument that an objector may make about giving aid. 

1. If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10, there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for the refugees.

2. There is no reason why I should give more than anyone else in the same circumstances as I am.

3. Therefore, I have no obligation to give more than $10.

Premise 2 can be construed as an application of some principle of fair share: a person should be responsible only for doing his or her fair share, no more and no less. You can certainly do more but this would be supererogation and not a matter of duty. Singer points out that while the argument may initially look good, it lacks soundness. It would be sound if the conclusion was also stated as a conditional:

3*. Therefore, if everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10, then I have no obligation to give more than $10. 

Stated in this way, Singer further explains that the argument would have no bearing on the situation because it is not the case that everyone in circumstances like mine will give $10. 

Safe third country agreements can be construed as efforts to say, it’s not my responsibility because there are others who are also available and even better positioned to provide asylum. At this point, one may argue that safe third country agreements are not similar to the “availability of others” situation; it is more accurately a situation involving the “availability of better-positioned others.” 

Theoretically yes, but in practice no. In practice, many safe third country agreements put vulnerable migrants in even more vulnerable positions by leaving them in potentially unsafe situations, even possibly at risk of refoulement, and incentivizing other practices such creating a market for smuggling networks deeper into countries such as state B above. 

Third safe country agreements are designed to create a more efficient system of adjudicating claims of asylum and deter new asylum applications. But, in practice, they have little effect on deterring new asylum applications because of the challenges with enforcement and many of these supposed “safe” third countries lack the capacity to absorb new asylum claims and grant effective protection. Shirking responsibility by forcing countries with poorly equipped asylum systems to adjudicate thousands of asylum applications is the equivalent of providing no protection. Many of these applications will not see the light of day. 

So much for the “availability of better-positioned others.”

We are back at, it’s not my responsibility because of the availability of others. Applying Singer’s critique of such arguments here, we can say that the availability of others does not diminish a person’s responsibility to rescue those in need. If everyone in situations like state C’s provided asylum to a certain number of refugees, then state C would have no obligation to help more refugees. Stated conditionally, we can see that this statement has no bearing on the situation here because it is not the case that other states are opening up their borders and welcoming refugees, at least not nearly enough. According to the United Nations, there are 26.4 million refugees and, in 2020, 34,400 people were resettled in safe countries (this number may be low because of COVID, but, in previous years, the number of refugees resettled globally was usually about double this number). 

This is not to say that safe third country agreements never work or that, at some point, a host country that is admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees cannot complain, “wait a minute, I’m taking on more than my share.” But we are not anywhere near this point yet. This is also not to say that states cannot impose their own orderly system of admitting refugees, vetting them, etc. 

The main point I’m trying to make here is that the availability of others does not diminish one state’s moral responsibility to rescue refugees in dire need of a safe place to resettle. 

Chong Un Choe-Smith
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State