“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer in philosophy.” Unfortunately, this is actually far from the truth, especially given usual interpretations of what the claim means. For most questions of interest to philosophers, we tend to think that there really is a right or wrong answer. And needless to say, those of us who came to some determinate conclusions about these questions tend to think that we know what the right answers are, or at the very least, have a well grounded opinion about them. And not just because it’s “me” who happened to be holding this or that answer, but because, well, we have thought long hard about the questions and weighted the pros and cons of the differing positions.

If this is so, whence the oft made remark that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer in philosophy? This is because there are some things that are often true about philosophy and philosophy classes that have been confused with that less cautious statement.

First, for pretty much every question still of interest to philosophers, opinions are divided. So apparently 61% of philosophers thought that compatibilism is true and the rest thought otherwise. If an overwhelming consensus exists and remains stable over a long time for some issue, the question tends to drop out. It’s too boring, and best relegated to others. (That said, the possibility of resurrecting an issue most thought settled is not an impossibility; in fact, such things have happened before.) What this means is that for every question currently of interest to philosophers, you will be able to find sincere and smart people on different sides of the issue. So if you came here looking for an authoritative answer that all the experts agree on, you won’t find it.

Second, the reason why the questions of concern to philosophers remain divisive (and so remain interesting to us) is because they are seriously hard questions. They are the ones that, despite millennia of debate, we haven’t resolve to our complete satisfaction. And yet the questions don’t seem as if they are just nothing to be concerned about: the parties to the debate continue to treat the issues as important. As the course description puts it, we are talking about “some of the most enduring challenges to human thought”. So it’s no wonder that there aren’t full agreement on the answers to these questions; else they wouldn’t be all that challenging, would they?

Third, while not all philosophy instructors do this, many do adopt a certain studied neutrality in the way we teach. That is, we often refuse to conclusively settle at least some issues raised in the class, leaving it as a challenge to the student to find their own reasoned opinion. The way I like to put this is to say that students get their money’s worth coming to my class not so much by attempting to divine my opinions (though you will surely hear of them), but in learning to make the best case for what they themselves believe in while facing the objections that I can throw at them.

Fourth, even if the instructor doesn’t adopt that studied neutrality, most of us are fair minded in that should you wish to adopt a contrary position, you won’t be penalized just for doing so. There are always appropriate venues for you to put forward your best arguments in support of your favored position–and you will be evaluated on the pure merits of those arguments. As long as you are able to make a convincing case that you, on your own part, have been charitably and fairly construing the opposing case, and that you really did understand it.

In my own experience (I’ve taught philosophy as a professor for the past ten years, and as a graduate student instructor on and off for another eight years before that), most of the time, students who think that “there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer in philosophy” confused it with the above possibilities–all quite real.

Incidentally, while I tend to think of GET1029/GEK1067 with elements of all of the above in mind, some of the considerations won’t actually come into play. This is because there aren’t any essays to write where you are asked to argue for a case of your own choice (maybe the Special Project counts). The MCQs are focused on testing careful reading comprehension and precise thinking given the concepts as we have introduced them in the class, and that is all. They are also not going to assume that you have memorized which philosopher said what, when, or even the definition of such terms as “compatibilism”. (Though in all likelihood, if you did pay attention in class and diligently followed the discussions, you will very likely remember many such points.)