How Philosophy Can Make a Difference (True Story)

Talk about serendipity! Just today, (originally published in 2013, but still asks the important questions) I had a discussion with a very prominent philosopher. Independently of this discussion on Episyllogism, which has got me thinking, he told me about a very interesting way his philosophical work ended up making a difference. I’ll tell the story just as he told it to me, with a few questions of my own along the way.

Several decades ago, this prominent philosopher arrived in Princeton as a young man to take his PhD in Philosophy. He happened to take a course with Derek Parfit, who was then a little-known visiting scholar from Oxford. He spent the next year at Oxford, working with Parfit as his supervisor. The topic he worked on was the philosophical definition of equality. He and Parfit both spent months, and later years, of their lives refining various notions of equality and testing them with thought experiments, one or two of which I have posted here (to great hostility by certain episyllogists who seem particularly averse to thought experiments). Not a single one of the thought experiments was based on a real-life case: they were all based on constructed counterfactual scenarios devised to help test and refine various principles of justice, equality, and so on.

Question 1: Was this a good and productive use of the young philosopher’s time and energy? Should he be praised? Should he be ridiculed and hated for doing this?

The young philosopher earned his PhD in Philosophy, and went out into the world as a professor. He continued to grapple with these same questions, writing articles for professional journals and presenting his ideas to other philosophical devotees at academic conferences. The young philosopher cared a great deal about social issues, but spent none of his time working on applied ethics or presenting his views to the general public. Instead, he perfected his skills as a very engaging teacher. Students came to love his classes, and kept puzzling over his philosophical conundrums years after they were over. He won teaching award after teaching award.

Question 2: How about now? Is he spending his time well? Does he deserve scorn, ridicule, shame or hatred for what he is doing? Is he making a useful contribution, so as to justify his existence?

Years later, the philosopher presented his views at an academic conference. In the audience was a bioethicist. This bioethicist was puzzled by some questions regarding the proper allocation of medical resources. When he attended the philosopher’s session, the bioethicist realized the importance of the philosopher’s work on equality to the bioethical problem he was working on. Since the philosopher had been working on the theoretical issue of equality and little else for decades at this point, he was far more adept at recognizing the problems of different conceptual issues concerning equality than the bioethicist, with his much broader scope, could be. The philosopher’s understanding of the literature on the topic of equality was encyclopedic, and his contributions to that theoretical field were considerable. The bioethicist approached the philosopher and they had a number of conversations on the subject, later continued by email.

Question 3: What about now? Do you think the philosopher’s work is a good use of his time, now that a bioethicist (who works on applied ethics) takes it seriously? Or not? Is the philosopher worthy of scorn and vituperation? Is he a worthless fool, wasting his chances to make a difference?

A few years later, the bioethicist was working with a senior member of the World Health Organization. This individual with the WHO was troubled by something: many of the existing medical rankings of nations paid little attention to matters of equality within nations. The WHO member had long wanted to remedy that deficiency, but didn’t know where to begin and so had never started. The bioethicist excitedly told the WHO member about the philosopher, and said that he (the philosopher) was definitely the man to bring in to discuss the subject with. So, out of the blue, the philosopher received an invitation to come to Geneva to present and discuss his view to the WHO. He was surprised, but gladly accepted and packed his bags. In Geneva, he explained to this WHO member that there are in fact at least twenty-seven somewhat plausible ways of measuring equality, all of which produce results that are inconsistent with one another. There were, he continued, reasonable grounds on which to eliminate most of these from consideration. But that still left one with a handful of good models of equality, and it wasn’t clear which was correct. The WHO member realized at once that the philosopher had completely refuted the notion of equality he had previously accepted, and was very grateful to the philosopher for showing him the state of art on the issue. After much further discussion, the philosopher went home.

Question 4: Now what? Has the philosopher been wasting his time, even though he’s presented his views to a senior WHO member? Should he have been doing something else instead? Is he an idiot with his head in the clouds, good for nothing?

The senior member of the WHO puzzled for some time over the extant notions of equality, considering the matter with all the tools left at his disposal by the philosopher. Then, he made a decision: he took the best four models (which he knew to be the best through the philosopher’s explanation, in turn the fruit of decades of intensive work on the subject) and made up a survey. The senior official blocked the email account of every WHO worker worldwide in such a way that, when they tried to log in the next morning, they would not be able to access their emails until they had taken the survey asking which of the four models of equality most closely accorded with their own. The thousands of WHO workers voted, and the senior WHO member was satisfied that this represented the best available understanding of equality available, given the philosophical state of the art and the views of the WHO workers. Fortunately, the philosopher’s groundwork on that model of equality made it a very straightforward matter to work out, for any two countries, which country had a more equal distribution of health care resources than the other. Using this model, the WHO official worked with several others to compile the relevant data and create an official WHO ranking of countries, from most equal to least equal in their distribution of medical resources. That document was released in 2002.

Question 5: How about now? Were the philosopher’s years wasted? Should he be the object of ridicule and scorn for having spent years of his life working on thought experiments, culminating in work that was essential to the WHO’s landmark report?

Some high-ranking members of the Chinese government read the WHO report and were troubled by the fact that, despite its growing wealth, China was listed very low in the equality rankings. For years, the Chinese government had focused its energies on its industries, trying to be as competitive as possible with the US and other western nations. The low ranking of China in the WHO publication was eye-opening to many in the Chinese government, many of whom had previously ignored such complaints as vague and difficult to fix. But, thanks to the clear measures of equality used in the WHO publication, there was no question about what could be done to improve China’s ranking. Quickly, the Chinese government announced that it would devote its efforts toward improving the equal accessibility of its healthcare. Whereas hundreds of millions of Chinese living in villages and other inaccessible places had long lived without any real ability to access modern healthcare, now things were about to change.

On Friday, the bioethicist wrote to the philosopher to explain what had resulted from his philosophical work. Whereas only a small minority of Chinese had previously been able to access decent healthcare, the percentage has now increased to about 95% and growing. The bioethicist pointed out to the philosopher that, were it not for his theoretical contributions, a billion people who have access to healthcare today would not have had it.

Final question: now what do you think? Did the philosopher squander his opportunity to make a difference in the world by thinking about wild counterfactual thought experiments? Would the world have been a better place if, rather than producing the rigorous work on equality in this way, he had limited his horizons to real-life cases, because of some weird principle that real-life cases are always the best way of approaching problems? Should his work have been cut short by those who think that the only way a philosopher can meaningfully contribute to the world is by working to inform the public about issues in public policy, so that nobody would have produced the work on equality that made health care a possibility for 1,000,000,000 people?

What do you think?

13 thoughts on “How Philosophy Can Make a Difference (True Story)

  1. Persons with special skills who work for the state have an obligation to share their results with citizens. Scientists, philosophers, and other professionals need to communicate more effectively with the citizens who support their work.


    • I think I agree. But what if, when they communicate their work to the public on a blog, their work is routinely attacked by people who hate the fact that they are doing the work at all, on general principle, because it involves counterfactual thought experiments?

      And what if, as a result of these constant attacks, the time that could have been spent discussing their research in clear terms with the lay public is instead spent trying to defend the very idea of work in one’s field itself, so that all the work that one is doing never gets to be discussed?

      Reminds me a little of something Richard Dawkins once said about having to deal with creationist critics: “It’s as though a professor who specializes in Latin and Greek literature had to spend half his time responding to people who doubt that the Greek and Roman civilizations ever existed.”


  2. Actually we agree more than I have indicated in my comments! I was interested in a discussion about experts. The important question for me: are there moral experts?
    Too bad we didn’t have more participants in the discussion.


    • Oh, it’s good to hear that!

      Are there moral experts? Well, there are certainly some controversial areas in moral theory! There are also big controversies in applied ethics, of course; but it’s important that there are some areas that aren’t really controversial (as far as I know) that some members of the lay public think are controversial (like the morality of voluntary euthanasia).

      Approaching philosophy in the sort of Socractic way that I do, I generally see the ethicist’s role in public debates on various issues as interjecting from time to time to point out that things aren’t quite as simple as they might seem, and that principles people are relying on might be questionable. It seems to me that, while this isn’t a big _positive_ contribution to the debates, it at least eliminates some negative components (Immanuel Kant said about something along similar lines: the fact that one is contributing negatively to something doesn’t make that contribution negligible: the police do a valuable service by removing criminals from the streets).

      People like Jeff McMahan are moral experts, I think, in having good reasons for their views on matters of applied ethics. But in a public debate, I worry that members of the public who aren’t aware of how philosophy works might be persuaded by the first philosopher they hear on a given subject. It would be best if they were presented by McMahan with all his positions, but quite often non-philosophers get impatient with this.

      Generally speaking, though, it seems to me that much of what philosophers have to contribute to public discussions is behind-the-scenes work, like the work that the philosopher I mentioned did on equality that later influenced healthcare in China. Most people wouldn’t be interested in hearing all the ins and outs of how he arrived at these conceptions of equality and what’s wrong with all the alternatives, and _that’s_ really where the philosophical work lies. In the same way, most members of the nonscientific public don’t really want to know exactly how various scientific studies were done: they just want the results. The important thing, I think, is for the ideas to get to the right people in a way that the public can benefit. At the same time, I think it’s good that philosophical, mathematical and scientific conferences at which these things are debated by those in the field are open to the public. But I guess it’s understandable (but sad) to me that the public generally doesn’t want to accept the invitation to attend.


      • I agree. I know some philosophers whose opinions on moral matters I would never trust!
        I think one of the commentators earlier made the point about pointing to problems by comparing applied morality to lit crit.
        My three principles: 1. Never trust a philosopher who hasn’t been in jail; 2. the job of the critic is to point; 3. Academics need to have a sense of audience.

        And, really, I love thought experiment! 🙂
        JM and I once had a discussion about the appropriate audience for moral talk about war. My position at the beginning was that philosophers who have never fought in a war will have difficulty in getting a bunch of vets to listen. We agreed that the discussion should probably not take place in the middle of a fire fight.
        After one of the racist letters published in our local paper VIU stepped up by hosting a “teach-in” and inviting several of the main players and the community to talk about the problem, I hope there are those sorts of public institutional sponsored discussions going on in Quebec.


        • “My position at the beginning was that philosophers who have never fought in a war will have difficulty in getting a bunch of vets to listen. We agreed that the discussion should probably not take place in the middle of a fire fight.”

          Why _would_ the discussion take place in the middle of a fire fight? Why would any discussion? There are many things you couldn’t profitably do in the middle of a fire fight, like learn how your weapons work and how to use them. But so what? I never understand these sorts of objections.

          As for the difficulty philosophers have getting people to listen: there’s a part of the WHO story I didn’t tell you. The prominent philosopher who works on equality, when he was informed this weekend that his theoretical work had been used by the senior WHO member he had met with as the basis for the 2002 WHO report, asked the bioethicist whether the report contains any mention — even in a footnote — to the philosophical work that inspired it and made it possible. The bioethicist sheepishly admitted that there was nothing. The reason? The senior WHO member was worried that, if readers of the report learned that the basis lay in philosophy, they would disregard it. Mindless hostility against philosophy is, it seems, viciously circular.

          I often hear the objection, especially in my introductory courses, that people who haven’t been pregnant and considered abortions have no business talking on the abortion issue; that people who haven’t fought in a war have no business talking about the ethics of war; and so on. Many people nod their heads in thoughtful agreement when these comments are made. But I find them odd! Obviously, being in those situations oneself will provide useful information on what they are like. But why should it be impossible for outsiders to make a moral judgment about them? I’ve never participated in ethnic cleansing. Does that disqualify me from holding that that’s immoral? I’ve never been a rapist or a serial killer. Should I withhold judgment on those things because I don’t know what they’re like from personal experience? I’ve never bought printer paper at a store in Peoria, Illinois or eaten a persimmon. Should I therefore resist my present judgment that those things are morally permissible?

          Obviously, someone who writes about the ethics of war should know enough facts about war to discuss the question at hand. For some questions, fighting in a war might be a good way to get that information, but there will be other ways as well. For other questions, it’s not clear why fighting in a war would be helpful at all. For instance, it’s generally agreed that the desire for more land is never a morally permissible reason for initiating a war with a neighbouring state. I honestly can’t see any way in which being a veteran would help in determining whether that principle is correct!

          I think that “Never trust a philosopher who hasn’t been in jail” is a great line, but I wish nobody would think that the question to ask when a philosopher presents something is whether the philosopher should be trusted (though many people do). Properly speaking, as I see it, a philosopher’s job is to undermine bad reasoning and false conclusions and to suggest good reasoning by presenting that reasoning clearly. If you can see the reasoning and assess it for yourself, what is there to trust or distrust except your own powers of thought?

          By the way, I’ve had experience teaching just war theory to several soldiers (some of them veterans). It went well! As usual, the role I played was setting out problems and pointing out difficulties with reasoning as the conversation went on. The students were the ones thinking the matters through. Nobody had to trust me, and nobody had to care whether I had or hadn’t fought in a war (or been in jail, which I haven’t!)


  3. When I taught ethics courses to nurses, cops, prisoners, etc. the first problem was always – ok, dude, what the f*ck do you know about nursing, policing, doing time, etc.


  4. I know, it’s always like that!

    If anyone were teaching mathematics, the broad jump, Swahili grammar, or Fijian rope jumping to nurses, cops or prisoners, and any of them said “What the f*ck do you know about nursing/policing/doing time?”, the answer would be obvious: “Not much. And I’m not here to teach you about that. I’m here to teach you about mathematics/the broad jump/Swahili grammar/Fijian rope dancing, which I’ve spent more time working on than you. That’s why they paid me to come here and teach this to you.”

    Seems to me that the very same is true of ethics. The only difference is that people who don’t know the first thing about mathematics/the broad jump/Swahili grammar/Fijian rope dancing tend to have the common sense to admit it to themselves. But when it comes to ethics, more or less everyone considers him/herself one of the wisest people on the planet on the subject (and the more ethically incompetent they are, the more confidence they have in their ethical views).


  5. Pingback: Looking Back | Episyllogism

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