By In Ideas, Normative Ethics, Political Philosophy, Practical reasons, Reasons and rationality Comments (8)

Conversion Stories

Much is made these days of ideological bubbles and commitment cocoons (OK, I made up that one), in which people stick to their beliefs regardless of any “evidence” or “reasoning” otherwise. But, let’s admit it, it’s hard to change your mind about something you’ve been committed to solely based on your assessment of reasons. This is true even for — perhaps especially for — professional philosophers.

It might be worth hearing, then, about your true conversion stories and the role contrary reasons played for you: What moral/political view were you committed to — perhaps even published about — that you abandoned solely in the face of good reasons otherwise? Were the reasons available to you all along and you just saw them in a newly salient light, or were they new reasons to you? Have you “backslid”? Have you gone on to publish on the contrary view? (See my conversion story below the fold.)

For my part, I used to be a died-in-the-wool psychological theorist about personal identity, convinced by the standard thought experiments Parfit leaned so heavily on: teletransportation, brain transplant cases, fission cases, and so forth. I wrote a dissertation and published 5-6 articles defending a version of this view. But in finally reading Eric Olson’s Human Animals in 2001, I came to realize that I’d been convinced to be a psychological theorist by my sympathetic responses to the normative applications of the theory, that, for instance, it would be rational to anticipate the thoughts and experiences of the person “teleported” to Mars, and that it would be appropriate to view the products of fission as nevertheless morally responsible for the actions of the pre-fission person. But once I realized that the person-related metaphysics could be prized apart from the person-related ethics, as it were, I was free to shop around for the right metaphysical theory of personal identity. And then the reasons given by the animalists (that we are all human animals, and so our persistence conditions across time are just those of biological/animal continuity) were freed up, in a way, to make their case to me, which was strong. I haven’t backslid, and I’ve published a few articles since in defense of animalism (or at least making clear that those inclined toward my normative views are free to be animalists).

8 Responses to Conversion Stories

  1. Ben says:

    This is a great idea for a post! I don’t have one yet, since I’m junior enough the committed views I have are no more than a few years old, but I can’t resist posting this anecdote from Raymond Geuss’s “Did Williams Do Ethics?” (which is full of fun anecdotes like this):

    “Williams took an extremely dim view of the powers of reason to persuade. He once told me he had only once in his life seen a case of a person convinced to give up a deeply held belief by the force of rational argumentation. This was when he was the chairman of the Royal Commission on Pornography, one of whose members was a former military man who was completely uninterested in any restrictions on sexual relations between humans or the depiction of such relations, but was deeply anxious about bestiality. Men and women could do what they wanted with each other, as far as he was concerned, but what about pictures of men with sheep or cows; surely that could not be allowed. He was finally convinced in a lengthy, emotion-filled session that various arguments that he himself had presented implied that there should be no legal regulation of representations of bestiality, either. This man’s conversion by the sheer power of reason was so unique in Williams’s experience that he never forgot it.”

  2. Thanks for this great anecdote, Ben! I think I share Williams’ skepticism, frankly, when it comes to genuine conversions of strictly ethical or political views. Notice that my own conversion story is primarily about metaphysical conversion, in light of various ethical commitments, which themselves haven’t changed. So I cheated on my own challenge. I’m really interested, then, in whether non-cheaters have the sort of conversion stories Williams and I are skeptical about.

  3. David Sobel says:

    I don’t know how much this counts as I am not sure I had given the matter enough thought before hand to count as truly opinionated, but watching a “Meet Your Meat” video about the treatment of factory farmed animals rather quickly persuaded me that it was not ok to eat and produce a demand for animals treated that way. Afterwords I learned about all the environmental issues involved that make it a bad idea to get so many of our calories from factory farmed meat, but it was the simple depiction of life as a factory farmed animal that persuaded me that that is not ok and that I should not be part of it.

  4. Joel Marks says:

    Well, I have certainly happened upon the right Webpage. I have spent the last decade dealing with the aftermath of a conversion experience. This happened — not coincidentally, I think — shortly after I so-called retired from my university. I had been teaching as many as eight courses per year, plus the usual university service, pressure to publish, etc., and so, oddly enough, I hardly had a moment to question my own most basic assumptions — even though I was teaching my students that is what philosophy is all about. Also, the bulk of my teaching and writing had to do with applied ethics, and the quick and dirty way of teaching this in my mostly intro courses was to introduce my students to a few basic moral theories and then have them “apply” them to real-world issues.

    Lo and behold, as soon as that unceasing activity came to a halt upon my retirement, I suddenly had all the time in the world to really ponder all this stuff and – zap! – I quickly came to the conclusion that it was largely bunkum. (Cf. Thomas Aquinas’s straw.) In a word: I ceased to believe in morality at all. Thereupon I found myself without foundations, not only professionally but personally. Fortunately I was now ideally placed to work it all out in my accustomed way, namely, by writing. With a year or two I had come up with an alternative ethics, about which I have been writing and discussing etc. unceasingly ever since (five books and counting, plus columns and so forth).

    So what brought about the conversion? I have described it as an anti-epiphany, and actually one of my books is a memoir about the experience. It did in fact happen at a single moment. And there probably was a sort of argument involved. However, it is also obvious to me that that “moment” was the culmination of all I had experienced theretofore. And since one of my new insights was that there are no objective values, it was a foregone conclusion that my new ethics could not possibly be proven, because it could not be true, but only a preference.

    Since I had not only been a moralist but a Kantian, and threw it all over, the question that remains is whether I will someday re-Kant. So far, not a chance.

  5. Sobel: I think Singer once remarked that what really changed minds in his Animal Liberation were the pictures, not necessarily the arguments. I’m wondering about so-called “rational arguments” that changed your mind on some view. Or do you take the depictions to have, for all intents and purposes, constituted a rational argument? (Or perhaps such an argument could be rationally reconstructed?)

  6. David Sobel says:

    Shoe: Good question. I do think of it as conversion that was responsive to reasons. It is not clear to me whether this rises to the level of “argument” or not. I guess I am inclined to think it is a simple form of argument.

  7. Dale Miller says:

    I came into grad school a convinced libertarian of the Robert Nozick school. My real opponents, I was convinced, were not left-liberals of the Rawlsian variety, since they at least believed in rights, but consequentialists. (A word that I probably didn’t know at the time.)

    Today I edit Utilitas, the journal of the International Society for Utilitarian Studies.

    What happened in between was my discovery of J. S. Mill, who I had read but not thought too much about as an undergraduate. In my first year at grad school I persuaded Kurt Baier to do a directed reading on utilitarianism with me. The plan was to start with history (Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick) and then move on to contemporary work. I was happy to be done with Bentham, but when we got to Mill every week I ended up saying that I wanted to read more. And I’ve been reading Mill most weeks since then. Like Nozick himself I had always believed in natural rights without having any arguments for why they exist. In Mill I found, or thought I found, a way to explain why people have many of the rights that I believed they had. And I found that I didn’t much miss the ones whose existence I couldn’t explain.

  8. David Sobel says:

    Dale: I am a sucker for a story with a happy ending.