Four Examples of Philosophy Making a Difference

Philosophy has something of a bad rap. While associated with high mindedness and culture, it popularly perceived as an armchair discipline with very little real-world application. (Nevermind the research showing how surprisingly lucrative a philosophy degree can be.) But philosophy has more to give us than interesting thought experiments to chew on, or intellectual credibility among our peers. Even as we speak, it is being utilized in some very potent ways, as philosophy professor Patricia Illingworth highlights in a HuffPo piece.

Today innovative work in philosophy combines philosophical analysis and rigor, with organizational acumen and leadership. Much of this innovation is taking place in applied ethics. Typically, applied ethics involves identifying and analyzing social problems; sometimes it also proposes means for solving those problems in an ideal world. It rarely creates mechanisms capable of solving problems in the real world.

Personally, applied ethics is the part of philosophy that matters most to me, given how very relevant it is in a world beset with so many problems yet also so many potential solutions. Why humanity still struggles with hunger, poverty, war, and exploitation despite unprecedented abundance and freedom (by historical standards) must necessarily lead us to consider reflecting upon, and tweaking, our own moral and ethical foundations.

That said, here are some of the ways philosophers are seeking to improve the world by applying philosophical principles and discoveries:

  • Lisa Fuller helps Médecins Sans Frontières (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) ground its missions and goals “on the basis of sound moral principles”, as informed by field research and the voices of those it has served. She helped refine the group’s values, such as organizational independence, solidarity, and integrity, and fleshed them out more transparently so as to improve moral and decision making, as well as set the bar for other humanitarian organizations.
  • Thomas Pogge’s Health Impact Fund (HIF) addresses one of the most glaring yet little discussed injustices in the world: why so many sick and poor people are deprived of medicines for often treatable diseases. The HIF incentivizes research on neglected diseases by rewarding research and development funds to pharmaceutical firms that demonstrate quantifiable good health outcomes. This model is already being tested in Mumbai, India with regards to tuberculosis.
  • The Life You Can Save organization, founded by Peter Singer, encourages people of all incomes to give more money to charity, and to do so in a way that will have the greatest impact. Through extensive and rigorous research, it highlights the best charities for donors to consider, and even offers a public forum through which people can pledge — and be accountable to — a certain promised amount. The group’s efforts have spawned the “effective altruism” movement, which emphasizes evidence and reason as guides towards high-impact giving.
  • In the book Blood Oil, (which is on my reading list), Leif Wenar makes the case that the “purchasing practices of affluent countries, guided by the rule of might makes right” leads to untold human suffering in resource-rich countries. He advocates two solutions: the Clean Trade Act, which would make it it illegal to purchase oil from mis-governed nations; and the Clean Hands Trust, in which countries that purchase oil from exploitative regimes are subject to taxes that are then used to fund trusts in the interests of citizens of resource-cursed countries.

These are just some of the appreciable ways in which philosophy is being applied. They may not all prove effective or viable, but the point is to expand the limits of what we think we know in terms of evidence, reason, and ethics so as to continually improve the world and the human condition. The more analyze, debate, and reflect upon the state of the world and how we can better it, the closer we come to a fairer, more just, and more prosperous global society.

What are your thoughts?

 

Roger Ebert On Kindness And Death

The iconic film critic, who died in 2013, redirected his talented writing from film to public reflections on his own mortality. His thoughts are relevant to any one of us who has ever contemplated the inevitability of our demise and how we come to terms with it, especially within a secular worldview (as Ebert himself prescribed to).

The following excerpt from his book, “Life Itself: A Memoir”, courtesy of Salonreads as an ode to the humanist approach to life and death.

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing”. I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.

Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.

Zen Pencils has an excellent and touching comic told through Ebert’s words on kindness. It is well worth giving a look.

Needless to say, as a self-identifying secular humanist, I subscribe to wholeheartedly to the idea that a contemplative, ethical life is the one most worth living. Regardless of one’s theological or metaphysical views about the nature of our universe and our place in it, trying to make the world a better place in any way is a relevant and life-affirming cause. It fills us and others with hope, meaning, and happiness, and allows us to face the prospect of death with greater courage — a life well lived makes death less scary, for we can die knowing that we did the most with our finite time on Earth.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Wise Words From Seneca

What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?

— Seneca

Ideally, these reflections would be part of everyone’s daily  routine. We should begin everyday with the mindset that there may be some injustice that we must remedy, a flaw or problem that we must work on, an internal or external challenge that we must persevere against. We should end everyday reflecting on what we did or did not do, what we learned, what we changed for the better. Being a good, productive, and life-affirming person requires constant effort and mindfulness; it means making ethical conduct a habit, something to incorporate in one’s day-to-day activities, interactions, and decisions, big and small.

This is of course difficult to do on a consistent basis; it requires effort and force of will. And certainly, anyone with the time and mental clarity to devote themselves to thinking deeply about how they live and behave is likely in a position of socioeconomic privilege — financially stable, able to enjoy a certain amount of downtime, etc. But that just means we have all the more reason to make the most of our fortuitous circumstances, to apply ourselves in a meaningful way in the lives of others. It not only makes the world a better place, it makes us happier and more well-adjusted people.

Each day that we can count some measure of progress in some area of our lives — in our personal goals, moral character, etc. — is a day of gratification, of life affirmation, of hope that the next day will bring more opportunity, growth, and meaning in our lives. And if you are unable to cite any instance in which you did right by others or for yourself, then ask yourself why and learn from it. None of this is easy to do consistently, but few good things worth doing are.

What are your thoughts?

 

The fact is that, despite the emphasis we place on good intentions, we do routinely pass moral judgment on ourselves and others for outcomes that were not intended, not foreseen, and influenced by factors beyond our control. Philosophers call this
“moral luck”, by which they mean that the judgment we deserve often depends not only on our intentions, but on how our actions happen to turn out.

This moral vulnerability to luck is pervasive, because nothing at all that we do as parents is fully under our control.

[…]

The moral quandaries we face aren’t dissolved when we find their neurological and evolutionary basis any more than our appreciation of art is undermined by the neurological and evolutionary basis of our perception of depth and color. But the knowledge that we are influenced by these competing psychological processes supports the somewhat comforting philosophical idea that we will never find an entirely coherent, tidy, systematic view of our moral responsibility. We see that it is problematic, unfair, even tragic, to burden people with responsibility for outcomes beyond their control. But equally it would, in the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, “be a kind of insanity” never to experience sentiments like Ariel Castro’s mother—never to feel a need for forgiveness, a need to atone, a sense of being at fault—when our otherwise blameless actions (like giving birth to a child), or our nearly blameless actions (like parenting a child imperfectly) cause unforeseen disaster for others. Rather than attempting to reason ourselves into coherence, we should embark on the more modest task of reflecting on the actual experiences that are the stuff of our moral life so that we can see our untidy morality in all of its contradictory richness. Since we can neither eliminate our responsibility for chance outcomes, nor find clear criteria for when we should accept blame, we ought to shift our focus and ask how we can live with parenthood’s painful uncertainty. What obligations does it place on us? What consolation can we seek?

— Claire Creffield, “Parenthood, the Great Moral Gamble“, Nautilus

Continue reading

Philosopher Convicts

One of the nation’s finest debate teams lost to a group of New York inmates. It reads like something from a feel-good movie, but it happened back in October, and I had only recently heard the news. According to The Guardian:

The inmates were asked to argue that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students, a position the team opposed.

One of the judges, Mary Nugent, told the Wall Street Journal that the Bard team effectively made the case that the schools which serve undocumented children often underperformed. The debaters proposed that if these so-called dropout factories refuse to enroll the children, then nonprofits and wealthier schools might intercede, offering the students better educations. She told the paper that Harvard’s debaters did not respond to all aspects of the argument.

The Harvard team directed requests for comment to a post on its Facebook page that commended the prison team for its achievements and complimented the work done by the Bard initiative.

“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend, and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event,” the debate team wrote days after their loss.

Aside from Harvard, the team has beaten rivals from West Point and the University of Vermont.

Launched in 2001, Bard Prison Initiative is a privately funded program by nearby Bard College that offers inmates over sixty courses in the liberal arts; it has already expanded to six prisons. Anyone with a GED or equivalent can apply, and there is so much interest in it that each available spot has almost ten applicants.

While in prison, Kenner said students are encouraged to “make the most of every opportunity”.

Carlos Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens and a member of Bard’s winning debate team, is among the roughly 15% of inmates at the correctional facility in Napanoch who has taken advantage of the education program.

“We have been graced with opportunity”, Polanco, who is in prison for manslaughter, told the Wall Street Journal after the debate. “They make us believe in ourselves”.

Indeed, only 2 percent of Bard’s graduates return to prison within three years (the usual assessment period) — compared to 40 percent statewide. It is amazing what an education, particularly in the humanities, can do for the human spirit. Here’s hoping more programs like this emerge around the country.

Bring Philosophy Into Grade School

In a previous blog post, I shared the case for teaching philosophy to children. In the almost two years since, the idea of having such a seemingly esoteric and irrelevant subject as part of grade school curricula seems to have gained traction.

One case in point is an article in The Washington Post by , who not only advocates for more philosophy in school, but stresses that such courses are as important now than ever, given recent sociopolitical developments. Continue reading

How Morality Shapes Personal Identity

What makes us who we are? Is it the experiences we have, the memories we hold, or the behaviors we display? Is it a combination of these factors? These fundamental questions of identity and self have concerned humans across all cultures for millennia. Psychologist Nina Strohminger at Aeon offers an intriguing answer: moral character. Continue reading

The Power of Stoic Indifference

The truth is, indifference really is a power, selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption of certain attitudes, but facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living. Joy and grief are still there, along with all the other emotions, but they are tempered – and, in their temperance, they are less tyrannical.

— Lary Wallace, “Why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever“, Aeon

If you want to better your understanding of one of the world’s most enduring and influential philosophies, then read the rest of the article here. It dispels the myth that Stoicism is an apathetic and dispassionate mindset, and unveils the versatility of the Stoic approach to almost every circumstance. Even slaves and prisoners of war have been counted among its adherents and promoters.

The real hero of Stoicism, most Stoics agree, is the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

He’d been a slave, which gives his words a credibility that the other Stoics, for all the hardships they endured, can’t quite match. He spoke to his pupils, who later wrote down his words. These are the only words we know today as Epictetus’, consisting of two short works, the Enchiridion and the Discourses, along with some fragments. Among those whom Epictetus taught directly is Marcus Aurelius (another Stoic philosopher who did not necessarily expect to be read; his Meditations were written expressly for private benefit, as a kind of self-instruction).

Among those Epictetus has taught indirectly is a whole cast of the distinguished, in all fields of endeavour. One of these is the late U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale. A prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years during that conflict, he endured broken bones, starvation, solitary confinement, and all other manner of torture. His psychological companion through it all were the teachings of Epictetus, with which he had familiarised himself after graduating from college and joining the Navy, studying philosophy at Stanford University on the side. He kept those teachings close by in Vietnam, never letting them leave his mind even when things were at their most dire. Especially then. He knew what they were about, those lessons, and he came to know their application much better than anyone should have to.

Of course, you do not have to be a POW or human chattel to appreciate the merits of Stoicism. No matter your lifestyle or circumstances, the Stoic response is applicable. Difficult to maintain, yes, but nonetheless beneficial and life affirming.  Continue reading

Think Like a Philosopher With Daniel Dennett

Big Think has a collection of five short videos featuring Daniel Dennett, a renowned philosopher and cognitive scientist who addresses how humans can be better thinkers — and thus better people. They offer a quick and digestible guide to avoiding logical pitfalls and exploring the world with more clarity. If you can spare a little less than thirty minutes, I highly recommend checking them out by clicking the above hyperlink.

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Propaganda is at the Heart of Democracy

Democracy might be the least bad form of government there is, but that only means that it is no less vulnerable to certain weaknesses than the alternatives. Take for example propaganda, typically viewed as the staple of totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Though it is utilized across all political cultures, it is perhaps most pernicious in democratic forms of governance, ironically enough because of the principles of freedom enshrined in such societies.

As Quartz explains:

Democracy is susceptible to propaganda … because liberty protects free speech and so propagandistic statements can’t be banned. But, as [Jason] Stanley writes in his book How Propaganda Works, humans have “characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation”, and so are vulnerable to spin. This is not a recent discovery: As Stanley notes, Aristotle recognized that demagogic propaganda posed the biggest threat to democracy.

Stanley argues that there are two kinds of propaganda. The most obvious kind, typically present in times of emergency such as war, uses fear mongering and nationalism to garner support through appeals to emotion.

But there’s also a more subtle form of propaganda, which Stanley defines as when an affront to a certain ideal is presented as though it’s an embodiment of that very ideal. For example:

“How do you defend bigotry against gays? You can’t just stand up and say, ‘We hate gays’, so you evoke religious liberty. Package anything in liberty and you’ve got yourself a deal”, he tells Quartz. As this uses the ideal of liberty to curtail another’s liberty, it meets Stanley’s description of this kind of propaganda.

I plan on reading Stanley’s book at one point, as it seems to offer a new and perhaps controversial way to look at propaganda. Many Americans tend to imagine propaganda to be a lot more overt and old fashioned than it really is — vitriolic radio broadcasts, colorful posters, organized rallies adorned with party paraphernalia. But more often than not, especially in a 21st century inundated with stimuli and signaling at all directions, propaganda can seep into our consciousness in the most subtle and seemingly mundane ways. One need only frame an idea a certain way, and communicate with a degree of pizazz, for it to seem substantive and true.

What are your thoughts?