Intellectual honesty & obligation

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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7 Responses

  1. RTod says:

    I tend to think of the term ‘intellectually honest’ as being a specific kind of intellectual argument – a sub-genre, if you will. And I think that the phrase (and the concept behind it) useful, and think that we would get farther in hammering out our disagreements if people were called out on it more often.

    For example, I know people who will argue, very intellectually, that they have nothing against gay marriage, they simply want to do what they can to protect the sanctity of traditional marriage; they will argue well thought out points to this effect. However, that argument isn’t intellectually honest. For most people who have this position, it is entirely true that they don’t like gay marriage (even find it immoral and icky at the same time), and don’t really consider it a threat to their own vows. It is, therefore, an intellectual argument, but it is intellectually dishonest.

    How much time, ink and pixels are wasted on slogging up the history of marriage, polygamy in the Bible, wives as property, etc. when this really has little to do with the true disagreement?Report

    • RTod in reply to RTod says:


      I had meant to add, in reference to the Alan Jacobs comment, that such arguments can be honest, as in you are not lying: You might site a poll that shows the majority of Americans say the exact same thing you said, and may even believe it. But it’s important to go that next step, to challenge your own arguments, and see if they stand up against the rigors of intellectual honesty. (oo, see, I used it right there!)Report

      • M. Farmer in reply to RTod says:

        Yes, the bottom line is that intellectual honesty is an individual pursuit. There might be those who are actually delusional, but most of us know when we are being intellectually honest and when we are being intellectually dishonest. Arguments from an intellectual perspective are too often made with winning or defending a position in mind rather than finding the truth. Emotional subjects are another matter, like in matters of how we feel about something — it’s better to be honest here, too, but emotions can be confusing — but intellectually we’ve usually researched the intellectual issue, and we often know the flaws in our stance, yet in order to protect an ideology or a partisan position, we’ll use intellectually dishonest tactics rather than admit the truth and change our positions.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    There are (usually) dozens of good arguments for most controversies… both sides.

    Some arguments appeal to principle, some arguments appeal to pragmatism, some arguments appeal to nature, some arguments appeal to social mores, so on and so forth.

    The problem comes when one is arguing “folks like me and mine are right in this argument as a matter of pure political pragmatism” and, two weeks later, let’s say there’s another issue where the shoe is on the other foot and it’s one’s own ox is getting gored and the argument switches to “folks like me and mine are right in this argument as a matter of pure principle!”

    Both of these arguments are fine by themselves… but using them within moments of each other sort of gives away the idea that “it doesn’t matter why, me and mine are always right”.

    In truth, it pretty much always boils down to that… no?Report

  3. Sam M says:

    “Unless there’s some form of non-intellectual honesty.”

    I think there probably is, and it makes sense that Yglesisas id driving so much of this. Part of his dispute with Mark Hemingway stems from the politics of mass transit. Not so long ago, Yglesias made a comment along the lines of, “Well, of course transit supporters trot out unrealistically optimistic ridership numbers. It would be irresponsible for them not to.” I guess this makes POLITICAL sense, and in that sense is POLITICALLY honest. But to use numbers that you know to be wrong, or even very likely to be wrong, would seem to fly in the face of honesty as it’s commonly understood.

    Which is fine. He’s right. That’s politics. But that’s pretty rich coming from someone who carps on and on about being part of the reality based community, and so regularly harrangues people for being liars.

    But in the end, will his lying impact the politics of transit in any way? I doubt it.

    That is, does honesty even matter? At all?Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    Intellectual Honesty is also a handy club.

    The automatic assumption being that if there are two people in the argument, one of them *MUST* be dishonest on one level.

    One of them has a firm grasp of the facts on the ground while the other is a Denialist.

    One of them is willing to deal with Hard Truths while the other is engaging in, at best, fancy.

    In its worst manifestations, it reaches the point where someone shouts X! and people who disagree with Not X! are painted as, at best, dishonest… and when it comes out that Not X! has been vindicated, the Xers point out that, sure, perhaps X has not, in actual fact, been verified HOWEVER given the facts that we *ALL* had, at the time, pointed to X the only intellectually honest position was Xism and notXism, though reflective of reality, was the dishonest position and those who held it were only coincidentally correct.

    The whole “I was right to be wrong and you were wrong to be right” thing.

    Why is this? Well, because only *ONE* side in any given argument could possibly be Intellectually Honest.


  5. Kyle says:

    Color me jaded but this whole Yglesias takes on intellectual honesty bit today has been supremely boring, considering it’s based on the punditry classes unironically calling two of their own intellectually honest. Dog bites man, eyes cat. News at 11. A bit like praising one’s maverick, crossing the aisle bona fides….

    That said the trouble we seem to be having is that intellectual dishonesty is a very real, very specific thing that implies the existence of a form of intellectual honesty, that is much vaguer and possibly does not exist. Alan is right, there isn’t a substantive difference between honestly arguing and intellectually honest arguing.Report