Why Do Philosophers Behave Badly on the Internet?

I think all philosophers can agree that there’s an influential subset of us who behave very badly on the internet. We don’t agree about which philosophers populate the subset, but we do agree that there is such a subset. One key feature of the subset is that they seem to treat other philosophers worse than academics in other fields treat their own. Assuming this is true, what explains it?

Here’s one hypothesis: philosophers behave badly on the internet in part because they know that high status persons aren’t paying attention. Contrast philosophers with economists. Economists can behave badly on the internet, but they tend to be far more professional than philosophers. That’s at least in part because economists can more easily ascend various status hierarchies. They can become far wealthier than philosophers, both in their academic posts and the private sector. Economists can also acquire more political power, since elected officials nearly always consult with economists in forming their policies, and almost never consult philosophers. If economists behave badly on the internet, that lowers their chances of climbing these status hierarchies, since they’d leave a public record of bad behavior. Philosophers have no hierarchies to climb outside the profession itself.

Imagine that most outrageous internet philosophers could be hired by the Federal Reserve or serve as advisors to presidential campaigns (yikes). I suspect they’d behave better.

Here’s a complementary hypothesis: perhaps there’s some kind of selection mechanism that leads philosophers to be abnormally high in neuroticism (experiencing intense negative moods and emotions like fear, anger, frustration, envy, etc.), which drives bad internet behavior. Maybe persons high in neuroticism are disproportionately drawn to obsess over philosophical questions, in contrast to the sciences. For that reason, the philosophy profession will have a disproportionately high number of persons high in neuroticism.*

I wish we could behave better, but personality traits are deep set, and I don’t know how to get high status people to watch the profession before we clean up our act.

I welcome other hypotheses.

* I’m using the term “neuroticism” in the strict sense solely to denote one of the big five personality traits.


  • Robert A Gressis Posted October 2, 2019 10:09 am

    I’m actually not convinced that philosophers behave worse than others. Worse than economists, perhaps. But worse than history professors?

    Assuming you’re right, though, another hypothesis is this: philosophy has more intellectual diversity than other humanities fields. When it comes to political unanimity, we’re probably 10-20 years behind anthropology, history, English, etc. Consequently, to progressives, those fields show how much more enlightened philosophy can become. So, the fact that there are neanderthals in the field is extremely upsetting — libertarians, moderates, and conservatives are holding progress back! Think of how many more women and people of color philosophy would attract if only reactionary political views weren’t tolerated!

  • Diving Cyprus Posted October 3, 2019 1:35 pm

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