Torbjorn Tannsjo, Kristian Claëson Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University, asked me to share the following experience he recently had.
Dylan Matthews, a philosophically-minded editor at Vox.com, solicited Professor Tannsjo to write a piece for Vox on the "repugnant conclusion." More precisely, Mr. Matthews wrote:
I'm an editor for the US news site Vox.com, and we're trying to start a new series where philosophers and other thinkers argue for provocative and/or counterintuitive propositions that our readers might find intriguing.
I'm a big fan of your work from my undergraduate years — there aren't a lot of fellow hedonic utilitarians in philosophy! — and in particular found your argument for accepting the repugnant conclusion very compelling. It's a fascinating problem, and one that's fairly easy for lay readers to get into — people care about population size, and "We have a duty to make the world's population as large as possible" is a proposition that demands peoples' attention.
I'm writing to ask if you'd like to write up a popular version of your argument on this for Vox.
Prof. Tannsjo obliged, and produced this piece: Download You should have kids (00000003)
After inquiring about its status after a period of silence, Prof. Tannsjo received the following from Mr. Matthews:
Afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news, Torbjörn. I ran the piece by some other editors and they weren't comfortable running it; I think the concern is that people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which, while I know it's not your intent, is a real concern.
I'm sorry to waste your time; I really am a big fan of your work and appreciate your willingness to work with me.
As Prof. Tannsjo remarked to me this sorry affair illustrates "how sensitive abstract philosophical reasoning sometimes is"--and also, I might add, how difficult it is to translate it for a mass audience which apparently is more concerned with taking the "correct" view than with the reasoning.
UPDATE AUG. 26 (EVENING): This item has gotten a lot of traction, so much so that the Vox editor has responded. If I were feeling generous, I would describe the response as pathetically stupid. Prof. Tannsjo actually supports free abortion, as he told me. But what he supports or doesn't support is not the issue! If you solicit a piece from a philosopher, knowing what their work is about (as was clearly the case here), you have an obligation to publish it, subject to reasonable editing. What you can't do, if you are an even remotely serious operation (and not an echo chamber), is reject it because someone not paying attention might think the argument supports a conclusion they find icky. This rule for adult, scholarly discourse applies to the so-called "right" and to the so-called "left." Vox will be hard-pressed to get any serious scholars to write for them after this. But the same warning applies to so-called "conservative" sites (who are terrible offenders on this score too). If you really want to challenge your readers, then invite serious people with serious arguments, and don't reject them because their conclusions might be deemed offensive to casual readers. The Socratic ideal, which so many profess allegiance to, and so few act on, is to let the arguments run their course. That is what Vox failed to do.
AUGUST 27 UPDATE: I asked Prof. Tannsjo whether he cared to respond to Vox's response, and he sent me the following:
As Vox admits, they solicited a piece from me on the ”repugnant” conclusion, it went through a thorough editing procedure, and it was eventually rejected. I quoted the reasons that were given for the rejection, a concern that ”people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which ... is a real concern”. To put it mildly, Vox has wasted my time. Furthermore, it is indeed bad policy to defend a right to free abortion and to refuse to take seriously the moral problems abortion gives rise to. That’s what pissed me off. Now other reasons are given. The argument I gave is not convincing enough for us /Vox/ ”to stand behind a conclusion so sweeping and dramatic”. But I, and not Vox, would have stood behind the conclusion! Of course, the argument is, given the context, very simplified. It would not convince a fellow philosopher. That was not the intent. But those who take a real interest in the subject can read the chapter on abortion in my recent book, Taking Life. Three Theories on the Ethics of Killing (Oxford UP) upon which the short article is built and to which a reference was given. Or, they can read my ”Why We Ought to Accept the Repugnant Conclusion” in the scholarly journal Utilitas (2002). Finally, there is an entry on the repugnant conclusion in Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I have co-authored with Gustaf Arrhenius and Jesper Ryberg.