Sensitivity Epistemology: A Knowledge-Stopper to Avoid

“So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.” – Isaiah 59:14, NIV

I am a sixty-six-year-old philosophy professor. If you are still reading, consider an approach to teaching and writing that I have practiced ever since I went to college and, especially, since I received my degrees in philosophy and began to teach and write strenuously and prolifically. This approach is not unique to me, but is part of the great Western intellectual tradition—until recently. If we lose it, we lose much of value—even truth itself—and the culprit will be sensitivity.

Truth is the goal of writing and teaching if we are being intellectually honest. (I exclude intentional deception.) A true statement is one that corresponds to reality objectively. Our best shot at finding and promoting truth is through marshalling reason and evidence in support of truth claims using some form of argument, either inductive, deductive, or best explanation (abduction). A well-supported truth claim is what is called knowledge, as opposed to mere opinion (true or false).

The best forum for gaining knowledge is debate and discussion in which one hopes that the best argument wins. If a good argument turns a truth claim into knowledge, this occurs irrespective of anyone’s feelings about the matters under discussion. As Ben Shapiro says, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” We can add, “Truth stands independent of our whims.”

[Related: “Future Lawyers Who Are Afraid to Debate”]

Things have changed for the worse. On certain topics, particularly gender and race, gaining knowledge (classically understood) takes a back seat to making sure everyone feels “safe” and is not “harmed.” In some Christian circles, “being loving” means not using facts or inferences to reach knowledge, but rather making sure no one is traumatized by the very thought of something with which they are not comfortable. To make someone feel unsafe is an offense to his sovereign self, which, he thinks, legislates reality. Consider an earlier, wrongheaded idea of love: “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” Now our take is: “Love means never making anyone uncomfortable.” We may call this “sensitivity epistemology.”

But neither love nor truth is safe, and both can (and often should) make us uncomfortable. Jesus said that the truth sets us free (John 8:32). Paul exhorts Christians to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In Paul’s great chapter on the meaning of love, he writes that love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6, ESV).

But today’s hyper-sensitivity to “harm” often forbids pursuing truth properly since it might offend someone. But person S’s being offended by proposition P says nothing at all about the truth of P. Disallowing P on the basis of personal offense by S becomes a knowledge-stopper if P is true and can be adequately supported rationally. If S’s brother (a biological male) is transgendered (“a trans-woman”), and if S supports S’s brother in going transgender, then the idea that going transgender is morally wrong will offend S. But this is utterly irrelevant as to the moral question. S may well feel “unsafe” if the issue of transgenderism is brought up, given S’s sensitivity. But feeling “unsafe” in itself says nothing about objective reality, and these feelings cannot be substituted for rational arguments. Many white racists during the Jim Crow era in the United States were offended by the thought of blacks eating at their diners and having equal access to seats on the bus. Their subjective response was irrelevant to matters at hand, and, in fact, their response was morally wrong.

[Related: “The Corruption of Science by Social Justice”]

Philosophy classes—or any liberal arts classes—at their best encourage vigorous debate and dialogue about truth claims. I have fond memories of debating moral and theological matters in the classroom. The attitude there was, “May the best argument win!” The goal was not for any one person to win an argument but for knowledge to emerge through back-and-forth argumentation. I remember spirited debates in the classroom with theological students in the late 1990s about the biblical role of women in the church and the home. I would state and defend my views, and students challenged them. I listened—without being offended or feeling unsafe—and responded. If I am wrong in a belief, I do not want to feel safe in that belief. A good person values knowledge over feelings of personal security. Being refuted if you are wrong is better than being invulnerable to criticism.

However, this kind of intellectual repartee requires a thick skin, some courage, and an engaged mind. If one is confident in a belief, then one should be willing to argue that view in the face of criticism. I have participated in several formal and many informal debates on important matters such as the truth of Christianity and moral issues in the last forty years. My concern was not to feel safe or make anyone else feel safe. At my best, I want to speak the truth in love with good arguments. I want to hear criticism of my views with humility and exhibit a willingness to change my mind or alter my approach if needed.

Today many speakers are shouted down—or worse—at college campuses simply because they hold controversial views. Or they are not invited at all, since their views are taken to be intolerable. They must be silenced, not refuted, since their ideas are offensive. In other settings, some topics are off-limits or will be treated with kid gloves simply because taking certain positions will offend people. It is probably beyond the pale now to ask that we all try to “agree to disagree agreeably,” yet the maxim stands as an ideal of civilized people.

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2 thoughts on “Sensitivity Epistemology: A Knowledge-Stopper to Avoid

  1. Unfortunately many students are way, way too immature to be in college. The problem is colleges today are filled with hyper-woke administrators who cater to these students’ puerile whining. These administrators are cowards. I do not see that changing any time soon.

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