Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Philosophy and Public Engagement

Political philosophy, almost by its very nature, demands public engagement. There is something contradictory about a person who espouses a certain conception of social justice, or a vision of a good society, but is indifferent as to whether these are realised.[1] And for political philosophers to realise such goals, they will almost certainly need to engage non-philosophers. While it is more plausible for moral philosophy to be a solipsistic activity – I might only want to discover what is morally right so that I can put it into practice, and be indifferent as to the morality of your behaviour – it is still likely that moral philosophers will want to use their insight to influence non-philosophers.

Ingrid Robeyns and Jacob Williamson discuss the difficulties of such public engagement in a couple of recent blogposts. In so doing they rehearse many of the issues raised by Jonathan Wolff in his book Ethics and Public Policy, which recounts his experiences representing philosophy on various government advisory committees.[2]

The central problem is this: philosophers are regularly called upon to provide an ‘ethical perspective’’ on certain issues. But usually there is no settled wisdom, no accepted consensus that the philosopher can impart. They thus have two options. Either they can present their own view as though it were fact, which would seem to be an abuse of their position representing their discipline as a whole. Or they can present an overview of the different positions and arguments around the issue. But without providing any guidance on how to choose between the competing perspectives, the philosopher is liable to confuse more than they help.

The essential problem, as both Robeyns and Williamson recognise, is working out what exactly philosophers are good for. In a modern democratic society, philosophers are reluctant to proclaim themselves philosopher-kings with special access to moral truth. Even if they did, they probably wouldn’t be taken seriously. On the other hand, what is the point of consulting a philosopher if they are going to tell you that your opinion is as valid as theirs?

The answer they both alight on, and I think this is quite a standard response, is to say that the role of philosophers is to help others work out what they think – to be ‘philosopher-guides’ rather than philosopher-kings’. Presumably this involves things like pointing out inconsistencies, asking probing questions, and demonstrating challenging alternatives. Philosophy, this view would seem to imply, is something that anyone can do, coaxed on by skilled philosophers. The difference between philosophers and the general public, on this view, is just a matter of training and experience.

I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with this drawing of the role of philosophers, but I think that Robeyns and Williamson make it sound simpler than it really is. I think the major difficulty with their view is that they underestimate how much better philosophers are at philosophy than the general public (Which, if I am right, is a good thing for professional philosophy, but problematic for democracy). I don’t need to take a stand on whether this is because people who are ‘naturally’ better at philosophy are likely to become philosophers, or because becoming good at philosophy is not a quick and straightforward process, and requires a lot of training and practice. Either will do for my argument.

If philosophers enjoy a significant advantage over the laity in addressing the sort of questions they are consulted on, this presents two possible difficulties for the Robeyns/Williamson view. The first is that the philosopher-guide will find it hard to maintain the neutrality their role requires. I think a lot of people who have studied philosophy will relate to the experience of having an argument presented so convincingly that it seems impossible to argue against, even though it is really controversial. Given that this is what philosophers do this for a living, isn’t it possible that philosophers will bewitch their audiences without even intending to? After all, it is very difficult to present views you strongly agree and disagree with as if they were the same.

Just as worrying as the possibility that those who seek philosophers’ views will pay too much attention to their substantive positions is the danger that they will give them too little credence. Philosophy would be embarrassingly easy if dilettantes with only a few days’ consideration of an issue could form positions as plausible as professionals devoting their careers to it. If, as I presume, it is not, why should we pretend that the half-baked ideas of non-philosophers should carry as much weight as those of real philosophers? Why should philosophers continue to refine views that they will never have time to properly clean up (without turning their subjects into philosophers), when they have fully-formed ones to offer?

What I want to suggest here is that the role of the philosopher-guide is one that is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible to carry out well. On the one hand, the philosopher risks putting forth their own ideas too strongly. On the other, there is the danger that they fail to provide the full benefit of their expertise. My worry is that the middle course between these two dangers is extremely narrow indeed.

[1] Although Adam Swift makes the valid point that at least one function of the political philosopher is ‘epistemological’: improving understanding of morality and justice, which does not require the philosopher to change the world.
[2] You can find my review of Wolff’s book here.

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