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?