The Ethics of Conspiracy Theory – A workshop review

So, on Friday the 9th, I was at the Ethics of Conspiracy Theory workshop at Deakin, Melbourne. The workshop was organised by Pat Stokes, with help from Chris Fleming, whose mysterious funds helped pay for our get together. So, thanks to both of them for organising my trip to Australia. That being said, now that I am in Bucharest, I hope not to see the inside of an airport again for quite some time. I have spent far too much time looking at departure information in the last two weeks. Far, far too much time.

The workshop was made up of four papers from David Coady, Pat Stokes, Chris Fleming, and me. Overall, it was a good mix of work in particularist philosophy of conspiracy theories. The following mini-reviews are merely in order of presentation, and in no way signals my preferences towards the papers. Well, with the exception of my own, but we’ll get to that shortly.

David Coady’s talk, ‘Cass Sunstein, Conspiracy-Baiting, and the Industry of Conspiracy Theory Expertise’, takes a good, long look at Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermuele’s paper ‘Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures’. He points out that if Sunstein and Vermeule’s paper had been about the causes and cures of scientific theories, it would have been easily rejected, not just because such a proposition is ridiculous, but because the same kind of argument run against scientific theories shows up the flaws in their thinking about theories which are conspiratorial. The implication is that Sunstein and Vermeule’s paper only got through because we keep being told conspiracy theories are bunk.

Pat Stoke’s paper, ‘Auxiliary Accusations: On Some Moral Costs of Conspiracy Theorising’, argues there is a moral cost to some kinds of conspiracy theorising. However, Pat doesn’t want to use this point to argue for a general scepticism of conspiracy theories. Rather, he wants to be a particularist who can principally reject certain kinds of conspiracy theorising. He sees a moral problem when conspiracy theorists defend their theories; as the accusations expand, more people are impugned, thus incurring a moral cost.

Chris Fleming’s paper, ‘Conspiracy Theory as Folk Sociology’, looks at said ‘folk sociology’ and its application to conspiracy theories. Chris’ thesis is that we lack, and thus need, some account of agency when talking about conspiracy theories. His concern is that contemporary academic work doesn’t really offer a solution to agency panic. This explains why the work of debunkers – those devoted to quashing conspiracy theories generally – looks awful and misguided.

Which just leaves my presentation. How did I think it went? Well, it’s probably the least of the four pieces presented at the workshop. That’s not necessarily all that condemning; the three papers previously mentioned where very good. Still, my paper was mostly promises of future work, whilst everyone else had strong theses to propound in the here-and-now. You can take a gander at my slides, and accompanying audio, below. Points to the person who is first to work out which slide I accidentally left in…


Dr. Lee Basham says:

Great talk. The Q and A was very good, too. For me the most poignant moment was the man who wanted to flee from humanity, lamenting that he was “sad” we still have to talk about these things. Sometimes coordinated deception is sad. Sometimes not. It can be the bravest thing you’ve ever done. If it is sad, in some general sense, what really makes it that way is it will never go away. You did an excellent job of reminding people they are people; “just say no” to amnesia. As it has been it will be. Will gravity go away? Not likely. Thanks for keeping us grounded.