The Ethics of Inaction in the Philosophy Profession

Posted on May 18, 2015 by

Earlier this year (in February) I was fortunate enough to present some of my work in St. Louis at the central meeting of the APA. Before I left, I asked (on social media) if any philosophers would be heading down to Ferguson to take part in the protest or to lend a hand more generally, no one responded. Now, things were much more civil in Ferguson by this time (compared to what was going on there between August to December of 2014) so I had assumed that some would be making the 15 minute trek from the hotel where the conference was being held. I’m not sure why I thought this, maybe I’ve been assuming (without much evidence) that philosophers cared about these issues and felt compelled to take part in eschewing the practices that put innocent lives at risk (actions by both government and citizens). If a group of philosophers did make the trek, I was unaware. I had wanted to go but I didn’t want to go alone, so I didn’t. Instead I spent my time getting to know folks in my field by eating and drinking in lobbies and good restaurants. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy this, but it got me to thinking about our role in society as philosophers more generally. In this post I’d like to discuss that role as it is currently practiced as well as how I think it should be practiced. I’m sure many will disagree and I would like to hear from those who view our discipline differently than I do as your views might help me to feel a bit better about things.Ferguson

What is our role as philosophers? Is it only to teach what we set out to teach in our syllabus? Is it to get students (and only students) to think critically about their views and their actions? Does our role extend outside the classroom at all? How about outside of the academy more generally? Do we have an obligation to engage, to some degree, with popular media, current events, with social media, etc.? I know, lots of questions here but these questions have been generating a disdain for the profession as of late. When I sign a contract to teach, and when I signed my contract to do my PhD, it said nothing of public discourse. It mentioned the expectations of teaching and of committee work (when applicable). This suggests that our role is to teach our students and serve our institution in whatever administrative capacity as outlined in our contract. I think we ought to do more, at least those philosophers who engage with issues that are relevant to society at large. So, it seems that I am singling out political philosophers, ethicists, and social epistemologists. Though I’m open to extend this obligation to others as well.

My take is that to be a philosopher is to be more than a philosophy prof. I think that we do have an obligation to engage publicly about the issues we think about on a daily basis. If we believe that what we are doing has any practical import to the real world, then I claim that we have an obligation to share our thoughts, at least some of them, with the outside world. We are lucky and fortunate enough to be paid to think hard about topics that affect the lives of many people. For instance, the topic of punishment; Recently, a jury decided that Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, should die from lethal injection for detonating the bombs that killed 3 people and injured over 100 more. I’ve thought long and hard about the death penalty, I find it barbaric and I find most of the arguments in it’s favor to be some of the worst I have read on any topic. I’m sure many have seen something about this case in their social media news feed. I’ve likely seen more than most given that I am a Massachusetts native but I’m sure we all have seen our fill. When I see some of these arguments in support of the death penalty I can’t help but shake my head. But I think that I should do more than that. I should engage, as much as I can without negatively affecting my life plans, with these bad arguments and unwarranted conclusions. So I did post a little something myself (reluctantly), I posted a quick thought about the death penalty. My post read “Death penalty, huh?! I thought we were living in a civilized society.” As expected, this generated a bunch of comments, they included “Off with his head”, “I hope they kill him in the slowest and most painful way possible”,  and a bunch of others, some of which at least attempted to explain why the death penalty might be justified in this case with more than mere assertion. Now, of course I could have been working on my dissertation instead of posting on FB,  or working on that publication I need to gain employment, but I also think that I have an obligation to dispel some of the clear cut cases of bad argumentation I see on social media, I’m not not even a professional philosopher yet. I’m not saying that philosophers ought to dispel *all* the bad arguments we see, or that we should be policing the internet 24/7. Rather, I do believe that we should all be giving our point of view when time permits. After all, we are paid to think about these topics and engage with them regularly. Who is in a better position to engage about these matters? And, if we want our society to think critically about their views on topics and policies that affect us all (many philosophers share this desire), then it seems that we have some obligation to engage with society at large about these topics to help produce that outcome. This engagement might take the form of going to ground zero when these issues are being discussed (Ferguson) or, putting forth our views on social media or in the blogosphere where more folks can read and engage with them, whether they agree or not. Minimally, we should be linking others to our work on these issues so it’s available to them without too much effort. Am I just off on this? Should we not give a shit? Why not have those with a PhD take an oath as we do MD’s? For those of us with PhD’s, it seems that we ought to be using our expertise to enact societal change. When MD’s begin their practice they take an oath to help people, why shouldn’t we? We can’t help those who suffer from cancer  to regain their health but we can help those who give invalid or unsound arguments. When their views about policy (policies that affect us all) are grounded in these bad arguments it seems that we should point this out, at least indirectly by posting our work or the work of others in the social stratosphere. Just like Md’s who treat their patients, we can’t help them all, but we can try our best to help those who have a fighting chance.

So, how do others feel about this? Is our job only to teach those who are fortunate enough to take a philosophy course or does our obligation extend outside the classroom? Am I alone in thinking we ought to have a presence in various news and media circles when major issues arise in our society? Or, should we watch from afar and shake our heads at how absurd the arguments are that many of our fellow citizens are putting forward?