So, all going well, this October will see me in Romania, where I will reside for a year at the Research Institute of the University of Bucharest whilst working on my project ‘The Ethics of Investigation: When are we obliged to take conspiracy theories seriously?’.

I’ve been pitching this project for several years now, and had almost entirely given up the idea it would ever get anywhere. I had a back-up plan for achieving the ends of the project another way, but now it looks as if plan C (for there is never a plan A; plan A is always a post facto justification for what actually happened) can disappear into the mist, never to be spoken of again.

The project, which I sometimes just call ‘Taking conspiracy theories seriously’, is an extension of my PhD and book. After all, whether or not you think conspiracy theories are typically false beliefs, or that they do not entirely deserve their bad reputation, conspiracy theories in contemporary political discourse are problematic. On the one hand, if some claim about the existence of conspiracy involving the members of an influential, public institution turns out to be true, then we are obliged to take action. On the other hand, there are so many conspiracy theories bandied about in public discourse that – for the average person – it is hard to know which conspiracy theories to take seriously.

In my book I argue – qua Charles Pigden – that the notion conspiracy theories are prima facie unwarranted (and thus not worth taking seriously) is a modern superstition; it turns out that there are a range of cases where it permissible and sometimes obligatory to believe conspiracy theories. I am extending that analysis into the development of an ‘ethics of investigation’: in what range of cases are we actually obliged to go and look at the evidence. Not just that; when – if ever – might we be entitled to be dismissive of a conspiracy theory without investigating it?

I plan to examine three related problems:

  1. When is it rational for citizens to trust public officials, given that conspiracy theories which portray them as guilty of suspicious or even sinister activities sometimes turn out to be true?
  2. What sort of political culture, and what kinds of social arrangements, would ensure that it is, on the whole, rational for citizens to trust politicians and others acting in a public capacity (and to also take a sceptical view of conspiracy theories)?
  3. When is it rational for journalists and others to take conspiracy theories seriously and even to investigate them? Could it be rational to take a conspiracy theory seriously even when it is not rational to believe it?

In an environment in which people take a dim view of conspiracy theories, conspiracies can multiply and prosper. If nobody takes conspiracy theories seriously, then it is much easier for conspirators to succeed. Conversely, in an environment in which conspiracy theories are taken seriously, and investigated by journalists, police and the like, conspiracies should be much likely to fail. Thus, influential institutions and the people who run them are more likely to be trustworthy if they are not automatically trusted, but, rather, are subject to the vigilance of, say, an investigative press –- moreover, a press which does not think it a mark of intellectual sophistication to dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand.

My project will provide a framework for such an ethics of investigation with regard to conspiracy theories, which is rooted in Epistemology — with respect to the rationality of such beliefs — and Ethics — with respect to when we might be obligated to treat claims of conspiracy seriously.

Roll on October!


Bob Jase says:

You would say that.

Dr. Lee Basham says:

Good news! Your (1), (2) and (3) might use a bit more explicit acknowledgment of your context, an explicit preamble of the limitations you wish to assume on social forms and their varieties. Given that,

Clearly (2) determines (1), and (3) is contingent on the exact manner in which (2) determines (1).

If we are going to limit ourselves to the current nation state capitalist systems, welcome to the current world. But Q2 transcends it, and even within in such limitations, it works some interesting mischief.

A philosopher, or any thoughtful person, would want to know what the background ethical theory you wish to deploy. The admixture here of epistemology with ethics should not distract us from that fundamental.

Sounds like a really interesting project! Just don’t get distracted by the stunning landscape in Romania, a mountain and cave-filled paradise.

The longer version of the proposal fleshes out some of those details (I cut it down to a quarter its size for the blogpost). But, in essence, as a pluralist in just about everything, I guess I’ll be mounting a case for a deontological, consequentialist, and virtue ethics account. Not to prejudge the conclusion, but I think the deontological and virtue ethics approach will have significant overlap. The consequentialist account could be trickier to pin down. Rawls distinguishes what? At least 17 varieties?