On Intellectual Idols

by Kevin Lux

The idea of an intellectual idol is paradoxical in some sense, since ideally intellect should always be concerned with ideas rather than the person that came up with them. But then again, it seems almost inevitable to take a liking to the person whose ideas you almost always agree with. Even though this is not necessarily a bad thing, there is a substantial danger that must be considered. This danger lies not in liking a person because of their views but in liking their views because of the person, which is, of course, a fallacy. But intellectual idolisation does not always go so far as to override all reason. Naturally, this is a good thing, but it also brings with it another kind of problem: How do you deal with your intellectual idol saying something outrageously uncritical?

In my case, the intellectual idol in question is 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell was not only a masterly logician but also a devout political activist. In the following few paragraphs I would like to show what, to my mind at least, made Russell such an exceptional figure. I will begin by talking about Russell as a philosopher.

One of my favourite arguments Russell ever made is the famous teapot argument. Is it atheists who need to disprove God’s existence, or is it theists who need to prove it? This is the question Russell had in mind when he came up with the teapot argument. His answer to the question is a very straightforward one, namely that there is no reason to assume that something exists if we do not have evidence in favour of its existence. But how did he motivate this claim? To answer this question I think there can be no better way than to quote Russell himself.

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

I think that despite its simplicity, this is a beautifully ingenious and elegant argument. Using the analogy of the teapot in space, Russell shows how absurd the expectation to disprove the non-existence of God is. Furthermore, it is counterintuitive to assume the existence of a thing so long as it is not disproved. Think of the way our laws work. I can’t think of anyone who would like to live in a world in which rather than ‘innocent until proven guilty’ people were considered ‘guilty until proven innocent’. (Importantly, it needs to be stressed that Russell does not claim that atheism is the right conclusion to draw from his argument, for absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that, given the absence of proof both for the existence and the non-existence of God, one should remain agnostic.) Now to Russell as an activist.

Russell was heavily involved in the British nuclear weapon opposition movement of the 50’s and early 60’s. He was the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He also published the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which was a call to world leaders to recognise the dangers of nuclear weapons and to find peaceful solutions to disagreements. Even at the age of 89, Russell was still actively involved in the movement, to the extent that he was jailed for a week for refusing to cancel a ban-the-bomb demonstration. And when asked why he is protesting instead of writing something of lasting value, he replied that if he were not out there protesting there may soon be no one left to read any of his works. This kind of commitment is nothing other than impressive. Unfortunately, this is where the praise has to end, at least for now.

Bertrand Russell once remarked of vegetarians that, “if they refuse to eat meat because of humanitarian principles, they should also refuse to eat bread”, because we have to kill wheat in order to make it.

If this assertion were the only thing we are able to associate with the name Bertrand Russell, the only thing we know of him, then we might be inclined to think that Russell was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. Luckily, we do know a fair bit more about the man. But before considering factors specific to Russell’s argument, let us once more talk about idols in general terms.

If we recognise someone as our idol, we generally hold them to a much higher standard than others. This is a consequence of the fact that we have agreed with that person’s ideas many times before, which is what led us to think of them as an idol in the first place. Because of this frequency of ‘being on the same page’, we are in turn led to assume that since our idol is reliably going to keep saying things we agree with. In the case of intellectual idols, it is not just the judgments of a person that influence our opinion of them, but also the way the person motivates their judgments, by which I mean their ways of reasoning. And if, on some occasions, we disagree with them, it is mostly due to disagreements relating to facts as opposed to reasoning. With this acknowledgment in mind, let me repeat the question at hand: How do you deal with your intellectual idol saying something outrageously uncritical?

Well, we could start by questioning whether it is fair to have such high expectations of coherence for our idol. A frequent reminder of human fallibility can temper our expectations and allow us to still see our idol in a positive light despite occasional uncritical assertions. Only by distancing ourselves from our superhumanised perception of our idol can we see that although they may be extremely intelligent, eloquent, and generally critical, they are still but a human being. None of us are always at our best, but we tend to judge others as if they are, especially our idols.

What does this mean in the case of Russell’s argument? Well, essentially we should try to situate and contextualise his claim. Let us start with the former. ‘Was Russell’s quote the result of a thorough consideration of vegetarianism, or was it just a spontaneous remark made in an informal setting?’ It turns out that this question is hard to answer in this case, which is because John Harris—the author of the essay in which Russell’s quote appeared—did not provide a reference. I have also not been able to find a source for the quotation online, meaning a contextualisation of the quote is impossible. The point still stands though that it makes a substantial difference whether such a quote was found in a lengthy and thorough treatise of vegetarianism or whether it was an off-the-cuff remark made to an acquaintance in the canteen at lunchtime.

Since the project of situating Russell’s claim has failed, what remains to be considered is what was, during Russell’s lifetime, the scientific status quo pertaining to the living organisms capacity to feel pain. Part of this consideration will allow us too see what exactly is so upsettingly wrong about Russell’s argument.

The common denominator that Russell sees in meat and wheat is that they both used to be (part of) a living organism that had to be killed in order for us to make use of them. Hence, if eating meat is ethically reproachable, then so is eating bread. Considered from a purely logical point of view, the argument is impeccable, but then again one would expect no less from a renowned logician like Russell. If the structure of the argument leaves no room for criticism, then it is the content that must be flawed, and so it is. The fact of the matter is, whether or not something is a living organism is not the relevant criterion for ethical valuation in this context. Rather, the standard view in animal welfare ethics is that the capacity to experience pain—or, respectively, to not experience pain—is what determines whether or not the killing of animals elicits ethical concerns. This seems like such an obvious thing in our day. But was it the same during Russell’s lifetime? This is the question we need to ask ourselves. Although biology has made incredible advances in the years after Russell’s passing, I think it is still fair to say that enough was known to tell that there is a substantial difference between wheat and a cow. It’s also fair to claim that vegetarians have always been primarily concerned with the pain and deaths caused by eating animal flesh. In other words, Russell really did make a bit of a fool of himself. However, the same method of situating and contextualising someone’s problematic claim could also work out in that person’s favour, and this is what ought to be remembered. Situate, contextualise, then judge!

Before ending the article, I believe there is one final question worth asking. Would Russell, if he were alive today, still hold the same opinion as he did when he originally made the claim? Ideas can exist for a lot longer than those who brought them to life. But unfortunately, it is impossible for a dead person to change their mind. However, we can still guess how Russell would have argued if he had access to the same scientific data and animal welfare literature as we do today. Some may deem this a silly exercise, because no definite answer to it could ever be found. But I think that since we are concerned with intellectual idols here, there is often an overwhelming desire to know if one’s idol would change their mind if they had access to the same data and literature as we do. For whatever it’s worth, I think that, given his life-long pursuit of knowledge and his love of science and logic, Russell probably would change his mind if he were alive today.

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