Paper Review – The Ethics of Conspiracy Theorizing (Juha Räikkä)

Juha Räikkä, “The Ethics of Conspiracy Theorizing” in The Journal of Value Inquiry (2009) 43:457–468

Juha Räikkä’s paper “The Ethics of Conspiracy Theorizing” worried me, because I currently have in preparation a project on the ethics of investigation into conspiracy theories (i.e. when is it going to be appropriate to not just believe conspiracy theories but also when is it going to be rational to investigate them, especially in case were they seem unwarranted but, if true, would be the kind of thing we should know about). Having covered Räikkä’s 2009 paper “On Political Conspiracy Theories” (in the Journal of Political Philosophy) in my thesis I was both curious to see what new material Räikkä would bring to the debate but also concerned that maybe the ethics of conspiracy theorising might well say some of the things I was planning on saying.

Luckily for me, Räikkä’s paper does not presage my new research project. Unluckily (for someone at least) I am not convinced by Räikkä’s argument about the ethics of conspiracy theorising.

Let me start with a minor but still irkingly particular problem I have with Räikkä’s analysis: his distinction between “global” and “local” conspiracy theories.

A conspiracy theory is global rather than local when the person who advances it aims to explain global or international events or when the explanation the person provides refers to international affairs. (p. 459)

I don’t run such a distinction in the thesis because I don’t need to; my argument that conspiracy theories can be warranted (and the attendant analysis of how we infer to the existence of a conspiracy) isn’t in anyway predicated on the size of the conspiracy. As such, I do not distinguish between local conspiracies (say, the organisation of a surprise party) with global conspiracies (the destruction of the Twin Towers) because I don’t think size really has much to do with the warrant/rationality (or lack thereof) of such beliefs. I think it is a distinction which seems all very nice but doesn’t actually do anything to advance our understanding of whether belief in conspiracy theories (or how they are generated) is warranted. That being said, Räikkä uses his notion of global conspiracies to admit to yet another class of conspiracy theory, the “total conspiracy theory:”

Total theories are advanced to explain the course of world history or the whole of global politics by referring to a conspiracy or a series of conspiracies. (p. 459)

Now, I can kind of see why you might want to define a set of total conspiracy theories: these are the kinds of conspiracy theories which most people (perhaps rightfully) find epistemically suspicious, given that whilst we can easily point towards, in Räikkä’s terms, warranted local and global conspiracy theories, the evidence seems to be against total conspiracy theories. However, I worry that running such a set of distinctions is just another way of defining away problem cases as ipso facto unwarranted (and thus ignoring the possibility that maybe there is an argument for there being a total conspiracy in effect). Indeed, on page 460, Räikkä basically defines away total conspiracy theories as being unwarranted because if they were true, then the entire history of the world, apparently, would be the result of a conspiracy and Räikkä thinks this is obviously false. He ends up throwing away a class of conspiracy theory because he thinks such claims are ridiculous, but that seems like a weird move to make if we aren’t going to inspect the arguments for such total conspiracy theories.

I also was perplexed by this:

Although total theories can be and have been used for political purposes, they do not cause political quarrels as systematically as political conspiracy theories. Hence, total theories are not, strictly speaking, political theories, although total theories may naturally have political relevance. (p. 459-60)

That’s also weird. Why would you consider, because total theories explain all politics (and everything else) with reference to some controlling group, that such theories are non-political? Surely, indeed as Räikkä goes on to argue, these total conspiracy theories end up being very much structured on Left/Right lines, being that the groups which are considered to be “the menace” are the enemies of the theorist, politically-speaking.

It also doesn’t help that his set of distinctions between the sizes of conspiracy theories doesn’t really play much of a role in his argument about the value/consequences of conspiracy theorising.

Räikkä’s purpose, in “The Ethics of Conspiracy Theorizing” is to analyse whether it is ethical to theorise about conspiracies. He summarises some of the views various theorists have had about the virtue (or lack thereof) of political conspiracy theorising but then goes on to say something I think is both odd and skews the rest of the paper.

For our purposes, it is more important to pay attention to the fact that every now and then people have negative attitudes toward single conspiracy theories. If we assume that they are justified in having their negative attitudes, we can ask what justifies them. (p. 462)

Räikkä’s argument seems to be based upon adopting the common usage form of “conspiracy theory” as being an example of a suspicious belief to hold. Surely, I would argue, that just makes the rest of his argument trivially true, given that Räikkä then goes on to argue that conspiracy theorising is unethical. Because, whilst Räikkä started the paper with the claim:

The ethical evaluation of conspiracy theorizing as a cultural phenomenon should be distinguished from the ethical evaluation of particular conspiracy theories. Political conspiracy theorizing may be a valuable cultural phenomenon, even if most or all political conspiracy theories have moral costs. (p. 458)

his focus is really on the unethical consequences of conspiracy theorising. I think he ends up labelling conspiracy theorising in the pejorative sense rather than asking when it might not be an irrational thing to engage in. As I said, I think his argument is skewed here because he assumes that we have grounds to be suspicious of conspiracy theorising and thus seeks to justify them. This, I would argue, is the wrong way to deal with these suspicions. We need to know if the suspicions are justified, not assume they are justified and then work out the how and why. Assuming conspiracy theorising to be suspicious, without looking at the argument for that suspicion, means you are going to end up playing down the virtues and overplaying the negative consequences of such theorising. He writes:

Too often the conspiracy theorist gets her motivation for conspiracy theorizing from her prejudices about religions, mass media, professional elites, public health authorities, academia, intelligence agencies, the police and the military. (p. 463)

To which I say “So do non-conspiracy theorists.” Räikkä charges conspiracy theorists with, it seems, being more involved, and prejudicial than non-conspiracy theorists but it isn’t clear that this is really the case. Were Woodward and Bernstein particularly prejudiced journalists? Was John Dewey (and the rest of the Dewey Commission) particularly prejudiced when they investigated the Moscow Trials? This seems like the kind of bold assertion (about the psychology of conspiracy theorists) that needs to be based upon evidence rather than anecdote (Räikkä’s evidence for this claim is to cite the Conspiracy Encyclopedia; hardly the best source for the psychological attitudes of conspiracy theorists and there is still the lingering question of “Isn’t this true of non-conspiracy theorists as well?).

But the real problem I have with this paper is the analogy Räikkä runs between apologists for the War on Terror and those who argue that there are benefits to conspiracy theorising:

For a comparison, let us consider the following argument in defense of what is often called the war against terrorism, where the conclusion is that the war against terrorism is morally justified, as it serves extremely important goals such as democracy, justice, and freedom. It is true that the individual actions in the war violate systematically human rights and narrow basic rights of people all over the world. In target countries human sacrifices are common. The war harms especially women and children in many areas. No doubt, these are moral costs of the war, but, the argument continues, they are small price to pay. Although some individual actions may be unnecessary and could be replaced by more humane actions, an effective warfare requires actions that are not morally acceptable if evaluated one by one. Intentional killing of non-combatants is generally morally impermissible, but in the context of terrorism it may be morally permissible and even required in order to remove the terrorist threat.

Whatever the initial plausibility of the argument may be thought to be, it will not convince the opponents of the war against terrorism. It is unclear whether the alleged goals of the war are consistent with the means used in it. It is also unclear whether the means are necessary or even effective. People who defend conspiracy theorizing by referring to its desirable social consequences should be ready to face similar suspicions. (p. 464)

I think this is both a terrible analogy (because theorising that a conspiracy might be in existence is not the same thing as making a moral claim for a war) and it somewhat shows that, despite the neutral language Räikkä uses at the beginning of the paper, his view on conspiracy theorising is obviously one of moral condemnation.

When it comes to political conspiracy theorizing, publishing suspicions can be morally problematic, because harsh claims are made in too early a stage of the investigations. (p. 466)

This seems to be his main worry but if this is the cost of conspiracy theorising he is worried about, then the war analogy really is very, very terrible indeed. This is the ethics argument the author is running. It’s about the cost of accusing someone of conspiracy rather than looking at whether such a claim is worthy of investigation. The former issue, however, bears on the latter because if we think we should not conspiracy theorise because such claims are “harsh,” then that rules out some investigation into claims of conspiracy which might turn out to be warranted.

Whilst I agree that we should look at more prosaic alternative explanations whenever possible, we should not reject conspiracy theorising merely because it might present some people or organisations in a bad light. For one, that may very well allow conspiracies to flourish and, for another, given the way we treat conspiracy theorising in our culture, such claims are not likely to be taken all that seriously anyway.