The Responsibility of Intellectuals
Thursday, February 23, 2017 -- 7:14 PM
Truman Chen

50 years ago today, Noam Chomsky's famous essay in protest of the Vietnam War, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," was published in The New York Review of Books. The essay makes the case that intellectuals ought to use their privileged positions and access to information to speak truth to power and to help the public distinguish truth from lie. Truth telling is no easy task for Chomsky, as one has to understand the intellectual's "role in the creation and analysis of ideology," and "[i]f it is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective." But it is worth keeping in mind that the intellectual for Chomsky is not an expert to whom all opinion should be deferred; after all, Chomsky understood this undeserved trust in "experts" to be one of the primary reasons the Vietnam War had been able to survive on lies for as long as it did. Rather, the intellectual is "expose the lies of government, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions."

Coincidentally, a lengthy interview with the influential contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum was just published as well, in which she too discussed the responsibility of public intellectuals and how she had actually been encouraged by John Rawls to work publicly. Nussbaum brings to memory: "One day at lunch, [Rawls] urged me to devote part of my energy to writing and speaking for a broader public: if you can do it, he said, you have a moral duty to do it." But Nussbaum actually believes that it is not entirely necessary for one to throw one's intellectual output into public work if one is not fit for it. After all, one can contribute to the public good in a number of ways that might not always be apparent. In her example, a philosopher of physics won't have the same directly practical application as a political philosopher, but their work is important nonetheless. In Nussbaum's phrasing, "I do think that every human being should make some contribution to the future of humanity somehow, but there are so many ways of doing that: political engagement, giving money, teaching, raising children. You don't have to do it through your writing." 

These two opinions aren't entirely at odds, but it is worth asking: in times like these, in which truth and lies seem just as indistinguishable as they were when Chomsky first wrote his piece, do all our intellectuals have a responsibility, a duty to devote their efforts toward directly speaking truth to power and mobilizing for social justice? Or are some exempt from this duty to wholeheartedly pursue their interests that may or may not lead to direct public benefit?