Frank Leavitt's Questionable Claims

- Haim Marantz

Department of Philosophy, Ben Gurion University of the Negev,
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 70.
Frank J. Leavitt in his paper "Are Philosophers Immune from Ethics?", EJAIB 6 (1996), 28-29 makes the three following claims: 1) "That philosophers, by which he seems to mean professional teachers of philosophy, "are reticent about discussing their own ethics". 2) He finds it "shocking" that Saul Kripke should be upset because had read a paper at a national American Philosophical Association (APA) meeting accusing him of plagiarism. 3) He finds it "shocking" that three distinguished philosophers should write a letter claiming that "A session at a national APA meeting is not the proper forum in which to level ethical accusations against a member of our profession." In what follows I shall comment on each of these claims of Dr. Leavitt's and following that I shall point to something that I find disturbing about his whole approach to the topic.

Leavitt's first claim, "that philosophers are reticent about discussing their own ethics" is simply false. Whose views are they defending when they are arguing for a certain ethical position if it is not their own? What philosophers do at conferences and in journals is to defend their own ethical views and explain why in their opinion the views adumbrated and defended by some of their colleagues are unsound. This seems to be so obvious that even though Dr. Leavitt wrote what he wrote he obviously did not mean literally what he wrote. There are two other possible ways to interpret what he wrote. Firstly Dr. Leavitt may have wished to claim that philosophers are reticent about discussing their own personal ethical problems in public. Now if this is what he meant, then what he claimed is only partly true. There are some philosophers who do not mind doing so while there are some who do. And then not all of the philosophers who do mind discussing some of their ethical problems in public would be willing to discuss all of them. Now those philosophers who are reticent about discussing their own ethical problems in public are no different from those economists, psychologists, medical doctors and lawyers, who are reticent about discussing their own personal economic, psychological, medical or legal problems in public.

Secondly, Dr. Leavitt may have wished to claim that philosophers are reticent about discussing the ethical problems of their professions in public. If this is what he meant, then what he says is simply untrue. Philosophers are constantly discussing these issues both in print and at conferences.

Leavitt's second claim that he find it "shocking" that Saul Kripke should be upset that someone should accuse him of plagiarism. Now plagiarism is a form of theft. What Kripke is being accused of is stealing someone else's ideas and putting them forward as his own. He is not being accused of being influenced by the ideas of someone, or of developing their ideas, or of refining them, but of stealing them. Now I know I would be upset if I was accused of stealing when I know I did not steal. If Kripke believes he is innocent it seems natural that he should be upset I fail to see what is shocking in Kripke's response.

As for Leavitt's third claim, that it is shocking that three well known philosophers should claim that an APA conference meeting is not the proper forum to level ethical accusations against a member of their profession, I do not find shocking because I think they are correct. For to accuse someone of plagiarism is to accuse someone of doing something immoral and/or illegal. Such accusations involve serious factual issues and so need to be decided in a court of law - or similar forum - and not in a conference meeting. Conference meetings are for the exchange of ideas not for the establishment of whether a person did, or did not do, what he or she is accused of doing.

I would like to end by saying that I find Leavitt's form of arguing in this paper unprofessional in that in it he often resorts to ad hominen attacks on people instead of dealing directly with their claims. This is something I am sure he would not accept from his students so why does he himself resort to it?


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