Vox’s historical illiteracy is not their only embarrassment this week. Philosopher Brian Leiter, who runs one of the most widely-read academic blogs (Leiter Reports), tells the story of how Vox solicited an article from Torbjorn Tannsjo, a well-regarded philosopher at Stockholm University, about the concept known as the “repugnant conclusion,” which is a recondite approach to thinking about population issues. (If you’re really curious, see this, but otherwise never mind.)
I’ll let Leiter pick up the story from here:
Dylan Matthews, a philosophically-minded editor at Vox.com, solicited Professor Tannsjo to write a piece for Vox on the “repugnant conclusion.” More precisely, Mr. Matthews wrote:
I’m an editor for the US news site Vox.com, and we’re trying to start a new series where philosophers and other thinkers argue for provocative and/or counterintuitive propositions that our readers might find intriguing.
I’m a big fan of your work from my undergraduate years — there aren’t a lot of fellow hedonic utilitarians in philosophy! — and in particular found your argument for accepting the repugnant conclusion very compelling. It’s a fascinating problem, and one that’s fairly easy for lay readers to get into — people care about population size, and “We have a duty to make the world’s population as large as possible” is a proposition that demands peoples’ attention.
I’m writing to ask if you’d like to write up a popular version of your argument on this for Vox.
Prof. Tannsjo obliged, and produced this piece: Download You should have kids (00000003)
After inquiring about its status after a period of silence, Prof. Tannsjo received the following from Mr. Matthews:
Afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news, Torbjörn. I ran the piece by some other editors and they weren’t comfortable running it; I think the concern is that people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which, while I know it’s not your intent, is a real concern.
I’m sorry to waste your time; I really am a big fan of your work and appreciate your willingness to work with me.
Horrible that Vox readers might have to read something that would challenge their comfortable opinions about an issue! Appalling that editors couldn’t figure out a way to work with the author to alter the “intent” (since, it turns out, Tannsjo is pro-abortion) so that it wouldn’t give heartburn to Vox editors.
It turns out that Vox editor-in-chief Ezra Klein is responsible for nixing the piece. After Leiter’s blog attracted a lot of attention, Klein offered a pathetic explanation. Leiter commented that “If I were feeling generous, I would describe the response as pathetically stupid.” Tannsjo offered his own further thoughts on the pox afflicting Vox:
As Vox admits, they solicited a piece from me on the ”repugnant” conclusion, it went through a thorough editing procedure, and it was eventually rejected. I quoted the reasons that were given for the rejection, a concern that “people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which … is a real concern”. To put it mildly, Vox has wasted my time. Furthermore, it is indeed bad policy to defend a right to free abortion and to refuse to take seriously the moral problems abortion gives rise to. That’s what pissed me off. Now other reasons are given. The argument I gave is not convincing enough for us /Vox/ “to stand behind a conclusion so sweeping and dramatic”. But I, and not Vox, would have stood behind the conclusion!
Ezra Klein is appropriately named: he is a petty and small-souled human being indeed.
JOHN adds: Plus, he just isn’t very bright.