I’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;
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!