Are Philosophers Morally Obliged to Engage in Debates about Important Public Policy?

socrates.jpgI’ve changed my view on this over the years. What I think now entails that there should be no expectation that any philosopher engage in such debates, and that no department has any obligation to host a conference on such issues, and that the discipline’s collective failure to do so is no good basis for criticism. I’ll try to set out why.

First of all, I agree with Bob’s view — that to a significant extent at least, the worth of a social institution should be measured by how much it promotes humanity’s good. However, I think the extent of this will vary with a couple of things, at least:
1) funding: a thousand academics securing extensive government funds to research something of no imaginable social utility may be acting objectionably, but if some billionaire wanted to fund those same thousand academics to do that same research, it would not seem very objectionable (and may be completely unobjectionable).
2) numbers: if 100,000 Canadians were to receive full funding (full salaries plus benefits) from the government to research something with limited practical significance, that would be very bad. However, if Canada (at its current economic strength) refused to support even one single poet, artist, classical literature scholar or other researcher because poetry, the research in question, or whatever isn’t of clear social benefit, that would seem philistine and cheap.

The funding of professional philosophers comes from a combination of tuition money, government subsidies, and grants. And the funding really goes toward two main things: teaching and research. Taking them in turn:

A professional philosopher’s funding for teaching comes from a combination of tuition and government subsidies. What is the purpose of this teaching? To help students develop better critical thinking skills, to teach them to be more careful readers, to teach them to be better, clearer writers, to help them refine their moral thinking by showing them the problems with the oversimplified methods they might have for solving moral problems (in line with Socrates’ practice of showing people that they don’t know the things they don’t know), and to a lesser extent presenting people with empirical facts of moral significance about the world they inhabit.

Philosophical teaching is therefore, primarily, a matter of _training_ students to be good at _doing_ philosophy. The best teaching, therefore, will be directed at engaging students in that training. Very little, if any, of the emphasis should be on presenting students with a set of doctrines to accept: this is actually antithetical to teaching students to think carefully for themselves. And while it will be important for the student to be aware of, say, the facts of animal experimentation, nuclear waste disposal, the extent of wealth inequalities, etc., it is not the _primary_ role of the philosophy teacher to convey this information to the students. The simple reason for this is that acquiring this information requires no philosophical skills, nor does learning these facts develop them. It may be (and I think it is) good for philosophical teachers to provide students in with some of this empirical information in passing, but it will generally be better to have an expert researcher in the field (a sociologist, historian, political scientist, etc.) present it.


1) Is there a social benefit to having large numbers of philosophy teachers? I daresay the answer is yes. It is an important thing to train members of society to be reflective critical thinkers. There is a strong human tendency to be intellectually lazy and to dogmatically stick to views and principles that have big problems. People are better citizens and better workers if they receive this kind of training. And that requires the support through some means of enough people to undertake that training. Philosophy, properly taught, is the discipline most closely devoted to inculcating this virtue.

2) Do all philosophy teachers have an obligation to indoctrinate students with particular views about public policy? Clearly not: indoctrinating students with any view runs contrary to the purposes of philosophy and, indeed, to the purposes of a university. Moreover, it is questionable how legitimate it would be for a university to demand public support when it has a tacit or overt policy of indoctrinating students into having views the public (or the state) may not share.

3) Do all philosophy teachers have an obligation to spend all or most of their class time discussing public policy? Again, the answer seems to be a clear no. Doing so would be contrived and phony, and would make the classes seem disjointed. Students in programs whose professors have a particular agenda in common often become disaffected with the process and have an easy time seeing through the charade. Students who take a seminar on the philosophy of mathematics with an expert in that area should not have to, and typically would not, sit through half a term or more of discussion of just war theory or our obligation to the needy. It’s simply off-topic, and would decrease rather than increase their appetite and ability in independent critical thought. Moreover, the professor would be unenthused and might be very bad at teaching those things.

“But,” it might be objected, “all training must be directly and immediately applicable, and consist of real life cases!” Well, if that were true, consider what would follow:
– Punching bags would be useless in boxing training, since nobody in the ring ever has to punch a bag;
– Jumping rope would be useless in training for a police physical, since no police officer has to jump rope in the course of duty;
– Running on a track with a heavy dummy is useless in training for fire fighters, since they will never have to carry dummies around but rather real, live, kicking and squirming people;
– Arithmetic would be useless in training to be an accountant because it deals with numbers in the abstract and not particular countable objects;
– Abstract geometry would be useless training for engineers, since no materials are made up of infinitesimally small points in real life;
– Etc.
Nobody accepts these crazy limitations on training in other areas, and for the same reasons they should not accept them in philosophy. The ability to consider ideas in the abstract has been shown to be very helpful in training people to develop skills they can later apply to real-life cases.

4) Do all professors who work primarily on _ethics_ have an obligation to train students through debates on important public policy? Here again, the answer seems to be a clear no, though there are some philosophers (like Peter Singer, Jeff McMahan, Michael Waltzer, Tom Reagan, and hundreds of others working on applied ethics) whose chosen areas of expertise would make these subjects naturally optimal seminar discussion choices. Just as applied mathematics is impossible if not informed by pure (theoretical) mathematics, applied ethics is impossible if not informed by theoretical ethics (I don’t know of a single applied ethicist who denies this, and there are good reasons why none do). Since the aim of philosophical training is to promote rigorous critical thinking skills and facility in reasoning about the area rather than to indoctrinate students, and since students who only learn applied ethics without also studying ethical theory will be at a severe disadvantage in reasoning, there seems to be no reason to force all ethicists (including those whose passion lies in the theoretical side) to teach through debates and readings on current public policy issues.

Moreover, as I have learned through experience, including debates in public policy in one’s seminar discussion topics can often _distract_ students from their philosophical training. It can quite often happen that different students in class have had to learn the empirical facts about these issues for their economics, political science, etc. courses, and will continue to get sidetracked from any debate of moral content (for instance, by arguing at length over whether a certain policy would increase or decrease the number of hectares of old growth forest — no doubt a very important issue, but very bad for the purposes of _ethical_ training, since there are no ethical issues to be resolved there).

So, given the aims of philosophical teaching and the diverse research interests of the faculty, there is no good reason to think that all professional philosophers or even all professional ethicists have an obligation to teach debates about important public policy. But are all these research interests legitimate? Might all professional philosophers have an obligation to do research on public policy matters? Seemingly not, as I’ll explain presently.

_Research_: most professional philosophers teach at community colleges or other institutions that do not demand research from their faculty. But of course, some do. A very good deal of this research funding comes from various foundations, alumni donations, and so on, and much of it is earmarked specifically for research.

1) Do all academics engaged in research have a moral obligation to demonstrate immediate practical consequences for their work? Clearly not. If such a principle were implemented, all work in science, medicine, history, the arts, mathematics, computing science, and so on would come to an abrupt halt.

The reason is that research (in the only method that has ever been broadly effective) relies on large numbers of researchers working painstakingly on very small projects, gradually forming the foundations of larger projects whose aims normally cannot even be conceived by those whose supporting work made the large discoveries and developments possible. Almost no researcher in any field could, individually, survive such a cull.

2) Do ethicists have an obligation to devote their research to public policy issues rather than ethical theory? No: such a view simply fails to account for how ethical (and political) theory works.

Without a framework of ethical theory in place, the vine of applied ethics and applied political theory would have no lattice on which to grow. Without Locke and other political philosophers, the American and French revolutions would not have had an articulate inspiration (just as, without the theoretical work of Bacon and Descartes, the scientific revolution would not have been possible). Without Rawls, modern political theory (with its countless practical implications) would not have been possible. Limiting research in ethical philosophy to projects with clear, immediate practical consequences is simply short-sighted. Had such limitations been accepted centuries ago, we would never have progressed politically to the extent that we have.


_Extracurricular debates for the lay public_

Do philosophers have a moral obligation to engage in debates about important public policy on their own time? Well, I do think that _everyone_ has a moral obligation to do _some_ things to help make the world a better place. If someone (philosopher or not) happens to know a great deal about a certain issue, has thought about the matter carefully, and is likely to debate well on the matter, then I think it would probably be good for that person to join such a debate.

But clearly, most philosophers are not (and should not be expected to be) in that position. Many of them will rightly have no expertise in the relevant area;  some might be terrible public speakers; others might not be very fast on their feet; and so on. It seems clear then that the job should be left to those who are not professional philosophers.

Clearly, an intelligent division of labour seems in order here. Most public policy issues will involve a combination of the application of general moral/political principles to some salient facts that a philosopher will have no particular reason to know about. In those cases, the following seems the best way to tackle the debate issue: philosophy teachers train members of the public to reason carefully and critically, and familiarize them with the high points of moral and political theory. These members of the public also learn from political science teachers and their own research about (say) the new laws in Quebec. Those members of the public who are most adept at bringing these skills together, and speaking well in public, then have public debates to bring the matter to the attention of the remainder of the public (the most influential of whom should also be trained in critical thinking and moral theory). It is far from clear why philosophy researchers or teachers should take part in these debates personally rather than playing an auxiliary role.

In some other cases, it would seem odd for professional philosophers to play any role at all. For instance, in 2001 I attended a meeting on the USA PATRIOT Act in the US. Several lawyers had divided up the massive Act between them, subjected it to close legal scrutiny and noted their most alarming findings, conferred with one another, and put together a very informative session for the lay public. Did philosophy contribute to this? Yes: most, and perhaps all, of these lawyers had taken philosophy courses and learned to be good critical thinkers and to analyze and read well. Would the session have been better if an ethicist or political philosopher had been there? Almost certainly not. The ethical verdict on the USA Patriot Act was extremely obvious and not really controversial: it was an immoral piece of legislation. Nobody in the audience required a philosopher to tell them why it was wrong. This is a case where philosophy seems better off in an auxiliary role.

_Departments hosting philosophical conferences on important public policy_

Should any (or all) philosophy departments hold conferences on all (or any) important public policies? Perhaps in some cases. For a department to hold a conference on any topic is a large ordeal. First of all, the aim of these conferences is never to directly inform the public about something: rather, it is to give researchers working on the area an opportunity to present their research to one another in a critical spirit in order to inform each other’s work and refine their own views in the light of the criticism they receive. In nearly all philosophy departments, the number of researchers working on any given area will be few (since most departments have fewer than a dozen faculty members and will deliberately seek out those with diverse areas of specialization so as to cover a broad range of teaching needs).

Therefore, any such conferences will involve inviting researchers from a wide variety of departments to one location. If one in ten researchers works on area Y, and University A hosts a conference on Y, then the researchers from Universities A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I and J will go to A for the conference. Even in that unusual scenario (where 10% of researchers work on the area), nine out of the ten departments will _not_ have conferences in the area.

But now, let’s factor in some other points:

1) The  researchers working in ethical or political philosophy are a small subset of researchers  working in philosophy;

2) the researchers working on applied ethical or political philosophy are a small subset of researchers working on ethical or political philosophy; and

3) the researchers who are working on and informed about the particular details of the new Quebec laws are a very small subset of those working on applied philosophy.

So at best, the number of researchers (and hence roughly the number of departments hosting such conferences) will be one in fifty, or less. But the numbers get much smaller than that. Some reasons:

4) Most philosophy departments do not devote any money to research;

5) Most philosophy departments do not have, and cannot get hold of, _any_ funding to host conferences (they need to have enough money to fly in guest speakers, etc.); and

6) Whoever organizes the conference must be able to make a clear representation to those funding the conference that this is a good expenditure of research funds.

In the case of the Quebec laws, it would probably be rather difficult to convince a funding body that philosophers (whose area does not require them to be intimately familiar with the details of the laws) will be better experts in the field than political scientists or law professors.

Law schools are typically the recipients of far greater funding than philosophy departments are. For that reason combined with the others I just mentioned, conferences of this sort will often be hosted by law schools, possibly with the inclusion of one or two philosophical guest speakers who might happen to know a great deal about the situation and have important new research to present on the matter.

So: is there any obligation for some philosopher, somewhere, to do research on the charter in Quebec? Probably not; but if there is something in the charter that only the direct work of a philosopher (aside from those working in law or political science with a philosophical background) can advance, then perhaps.

Is there any obligation for someone organizing a conference on the Quebec charter to include a philosopher among the presenters? Yes, _if_ there are philosophers doing important research in that area.

Should some philosophy department, somewhere, host a conference on the Quebec charter? Probably not, since research on the issue will presumably cluster around law or political science rather than philosophy and it will be difficult for philosophy departments to get funding for hosting it.

Should _most_, or _all_, philosophy departments try to host such conferences? Surely not!

And… is it an indictment against philosophy that some hand-picked departments are not hosting such conferences?

Certainly not in any way!

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17 thoughts on “Are Philosophers Morally Obliged to Engage in Debates about Important Public Policy?

  1. Love the picture!

    Here’s the tweet version:

    Philosophers, as philosophers, aren’t experts on social issues and have no more reason to debate them than taxi drivers. But anyone who can debate social issues probably should.


  2. I remember attending several of Bob’s Institute of Practical Philosophy Social Issues Seminars over the years before he retired. those were eye-openers. I don’t know how he got the funds but he did and they were well attended and important to our community. Topics included pornography, censorship, euthanasia, responsibility of media, drug legislation, etc. I really don’t care what you think, what he did was good for the community.


  3. Thanks, Frank. Yes, it is possible to raise funds. My first attempt, which was quite successful, was to write a letter to all of the businesses that sold stuff to the college. 90% of them sent me cheques. I must have “donated” hundreds of hours to the Institute as did some of my colleagues. We didn’t think of ourselves as “professional philosophers” so much but rather as members of the community we lived in.


    • As I explained in a previous comment, I’m using the term ‘professional philosopher’ in the standard way — to refer to anyone who earns money by ‘doing’ philosophy (whether teaching it or publishing in it).

      Naturally, any professional philosopher is a member of the community (s)he lives in, just as professional bus drivers, professional chartered accountants, and professional janitors are.

      I’m not sure why you see a dichotomy between thinking of oneself as a professional philosopher and thinking of oneself as a member of one’s community, unless you are ascribing to ‘professional philosopher’ some weird, elitist implications that I’ve explicitly said aren’t a part of the standard definition of that term!


  4. jfc opines: “Should some philosophy department, somewhere, host a conference on the Quebec charter? Probably not, since research on the issue will presumably cluster around law or political science rather than philosophy and it will be difficult for philosophy departments to get funding for hosting it.” – Bullshit! Of course they should. $$ can be raised. People are interested. Philosophy needs to engage with community not hide out waiting for funding.
    [I should clarify. When I wrote Bullshit! I of course meant to write, “Sir, I do beg to differ with your well reasoned statement, but I have a somewhat different view.”]


  5. Bob and Frank:

    I think there may be a misunderstanding here over what’s meant by a ‘conference’. Typically, when a department puts on a conference, what they are referring to is _not_ something aimed at bringing in members of the lay community and informing them about current social issues, getting them involved in discussions, and so forth. What the term ‘conference’ normally refers to is inviting researchers in a broad or limited area to present, attend, and offer critiques on academic papers on a given topic (or perhaps a variety of topics). Since a conference typically consists in researchers preparing to present to other experts in the field, the presentations are very rarely the sorts of things that non-experts would find interesting. It might be worth keeping that in mind, particularly when asking departments whether they are putting on conferences!

    And yes, for conferences of _that_ (more usual academic) kind, which are not of interest to the general or educated public, the sort of grassroots funding Bob mentioned is harder to come by.

    I attended one of Malaspina’s IPP conferences (as the IPP uses the term) back when Bob was still doing them. I enjoyed it very much. It corresponded to what I have attended at other universities and colleges under the label “teach-in”: They involved members of the lay public coming in for a day and learning about issues pertaining to the Afghanistan war, to the bombing of former Yugoslavia, and so on.

    Whether we call these latter sorts of things ‘teach-ins’ or ‘conferences’, I agree that they are very good things for people to put on, whether or not they’re connected with a university.

    However, there doesn’t seem to be anything in them that makes them _particularly_ the province of philosophers as opposed to the area of any of a large cluster of people with overlapping interests:
    – Historians:
    – Sociologists;
    – Law students;
    – Political scientsits;
    – Lawyers;
    – Public policy wonks;
    – Veterans;
    – Reporters;
    – Doctors with wartime experience;
    – Psychologists who deal with PTSD;
    – Economists;
    and so on.

    An ideal person to have at such an event, if you ask me, would be Noam Chomsky. He’s a prominent academic (incidentally), and he also happens to be perhaps the world’s foremost expert on US foreign policy throughout the past half century and beyond. But that’s no reason, I think, for the MIT Linguistics department to host such a teach-in (though if Chomsky wanted to use his position in the department to help with room bookings and fundraising for such an event, I don’t see anything wrong with that).

    My point is that, while such events are good to put on and anyone who can contribute usefully to them would be doing a good thing by being involved, and while some people who happen to be able to contribute usefully to them happen to be philosophers, I still can’t see any reason whatsoever for thinking that it’s the job of a philosophy department to put one on. If, as when Bob was more actively involved with Malaspina, a member of the department wishes to put one on, that’s excellent! It’s just that I’m not sure why it’s the task of a philosophy department per se to do that.


  6. All citizens of a democracy have an obligation to engage in discussion and analysis of public policy.
    Philosophers (even pros) are citizens.
    So, philosophers have an obligation to engage in discussion and analysis of public policy.


    • OK, Bob, I agree with that! I agree because I think it’s a part of living in a democracy that one takes on those duties.

      However, there’s a further question whether philosophers, _more than any other citizens_, have an obligation to debate or speak on these matters _in public, as philosophers_. And there, I think the answer is no — _unless_ the philosopher in question happens to be particularly well-versed in the matter in question and good at speaking or debating on the topic.

      Just so I’m clear: the reason why has nothing to do with some weird sort of elitism (I don’t think being a philosopher makes one better than anyone doing any other non-criminal job). On the contrary, it’s because I think philosophers need to exercise intellectual humility.

      You and I both have a former colleague — I think you know who I mean — who took the preposterous (to me) view that knowing some philosophy gave him the magical ability to understand science better than scientists who devoted their entire lives to it. On the basis of this vast overestimation of his talents, he became convinced that human-caused climate change is a myth. How could he have thought that tens or hundreds of thousands of climate scientists could all have been fooled while he, with no real scientific background at all, could discern the truth? Because he had romanticized himself as some sort of Sherlock Holmes character whose reasoning abilities left all the plodding constables in his wake, the better to accentuate his glory.

      This colleague felt a great deal of social responsibility, as a philosopher, to disseminate to the public the things he thought he knew on the basis of his training. So he taught courses on the subject, spread the word outside of class with students in awe of him, and so on. I met at least nine or ten students while at VIU who had actually been convinced by this former colleague of ours that we should do absolutely nothing about climate change. There might well have been a hundred others, for all I know; and many of them were spreading the word to their friends. This seems to me to represent a great deal of public harm. And he never would have been nearly as effective at causing this harm if he hadn’t had his credentials and position as a philosopher to lean on while unwittingly disseminating oil-industry propaganda on a subject he really didn’t know very much about.

      A moral I take from this story is that having academic credentials brings with it a moral responsibility to limit the things you say under cover of those credentials to stuff that really does lie in your area of expertise. To do otherwise seems to me to risk a sort of malpractice.

      If someone were to ask me, as a philosophy instructor, to give my views on some area of philosophy I know about, I’d be glad to do so. If I were asked about a matter I know a little about but not much, and that isn’t really a matter in which my philosophical training gives me any advantage, I might give my opinion but not as a PhD in philosophy, which might give my opinions a weight they don’t deserve.

      As for the Quebec Charter, I can see that it’s a very important and interesting piece of legislation. But I simply don’t know much about it at all, and it would take a very long time for me to learn the facts of that particular matter. In the meantime, there are many other people who have been following this issue carefully as it’s developed. It would seem very arrogant of me to speak about it publicly, given my extremely limited knowledge on the subject, when there are many others (mostly non-philosophers, I presume) who know the issues far better, and when I couldn’t catch up to their level of understanding even with a solid week or two of research.

      If I had to vote on it, I’d learn as much about it as I could while consulting with people I respect on some of the issues I don’t understand. But that wouldn’t entail my thinking that I’m qualified to make a fairly ignorant public declaration on the topic. Why should I?


      • Some philosophers are dumb-shits.
        Some scientists are dumb-shits.
        That is why discussion, debate, and publicity are important.
        Just as scientists could do a much better job of communicating their findings to the public, so too could philosophers (even their trolley and hat puzzles).


        • Agreed. But my points was that part of being a dumb-shit philosopher or scientist is feeling competent to make statements, engage in debates, etc. as someone with credentials when in fact you have no relevant background in the area and are apt to misinform others (and confuse yourself).

          Since most philosophers presumably don’t know the finer points of the Quebec Charter, they (the ones who don’t know enough about it and aren’t even close) should leave that job to those who understand it better.

          Hence, I think, those philosophers are under no obligation to speak or debate on the topic (though they are probably under some moral obligation to _avoid_ speaking on the topic in a way that would make them seem to be authorities).


    • Three logicians walk into a bar. The bartender asks, “Would you all like some beer?”
      The first logician says “I don’t know.”
      The second logician says “I don’t know.”
      The third logician says “Yes.”
      (that’s one of my favorite jokes!)


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