We Need More Philosophy in Public Life

In several posts (most recently here) I have advocated for philosophy to play a bigger role in society, policymaking, and public life. Philosophy should be standard part of primary and secondary school curricula, and professional philosophers should be consulted by both public and private sector institutions. Average people should utilize the tools and principles of philosophy, such as free inquiry and rational argumentation, and apply it to a broad range of matter of human concern, from metaphysics to ethics.

Writing for NPR, psychologist Tania Lombrozo similarly argues that philosophy should be a part of national and social issues, with philosophers themselves needing to play a bigger role in the topics, controversies, and concerns going on in the public sphere.

Many questions fall under the purview of philosophy precisely because they’re entangled in values — they’re not only about the science, the realm of the factual. And in the case of climate change, there’s no less at stake than the fate of our species and our planet.

What responsibility do the rich have to the poor when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change? What responsibility do developed countries have to poor countries? What obligations do we have to future generations? What obligations do we have to other species? Is there intrinsic value to biodiversity?

Answers to these questions will guide policy and politics. Let’s hope we answer them wisely — with the thoughtfulness, care and rigor that characterize the best philosophy.

Like any academic discipline, philosophy has its specialties and subspecialties, its own jargon and insider disputes. I admit: A lot of philosophy can be obscure, at least to the uninitiated. And a lot of philosophers do spend their time in the field’s inner crannies (just like scientists and any other specialists), shielded from the 24-hour news cycle. (Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, a philosopher writing a book about knowledge and knowledge ascriptions, joked last week in a tweet: “I keep accidentally thinking about the world instead of focusing like I should on the semantics of knowledge ascriptions.”)

To paraphrase Shannon Rupp, there is no aspect of your life that does not benefit from being able to think with clarity. Whether you are a professional philosopher or an enthusiast like myself, there is a lot to gain from applying a philosophical mindset to the pressing social, political, economic, and moral issues of our time. There will certainly be no shortage of arguments, debates, and discussions to be had — at the very least let us imbue them with proper perspective and intentions.

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