Thursday, November 20, 2008

Some Reflections on World Philosophy Day

Today is “World Philosophy Day”, a celebration of philosophy. In that spirit I offer the following brief reflections on the state of contemporary political (and moral) philosophy.

(1) Philosophy means “love of wisdom”.

(2) The current currency of trade in contemporary moral and political philosophy is “moral intuitions”. The merits of a principle or theory are largely assessed by how well they cohere with our moral sensibilities when isolated in the abstract (e.g. Trolley type examples, hypothetical two-person worlds, etc.). This is what Rawls called the process of “reflective equilibrium”, and for over 30 years philosophers have had many spirited debates- between consequentialists and deontologists, egalitarians and libertarians, egalitarians and prioritarians, egalitarians against other kinds of egalitarians, etc.- to see whose intuitions were the most “intuitive”.

How much wisdom has this “battle of intuitions in the abstract” yielded? My own opinion is, very little. At a minimum, the benefits have not been proportionate to the large investment made. But I think it is actually worse than this. By fixating our attention on the wrong kinds of questions, we have generated new dogmas that impair, rather than enhance, our deliberations concerning how to live our individual and collective lives. It is almost akin to the fixation once given to the question: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? To what extent have debates concerning luck egalitarianism, for example, helped us grasp a better understanding of the basic principles that should be guiding our collective action? I have posted my thoughts on this before (see here). The failure of luck egalitarianism, like many a political theory, is its failure to place concerns of responsibility in their proper context, and to see the other relevant considerations that play a much greater role in influencing our life prospects (see this post, for example).

Or consider the much debated Trolley cases. As noted before, Schmidtz does a great job of showing how such abstract examples miss important nuances in our views about trust and justice. They nuances are either bracketed or discarded. Schmidtz asks us to consider the following two examples:

Trolley: A trolley is rolling down the track on its way to killing five people. Switching the trolley to another track on which there is only one person would save five and kill one.

Hospital: Five patients are dying from lack of suitable organ donors. A UPs delivery person walks into the hospital. She is a suitable donor for all five patients. Kidnapping her and harvesting her organs would save five and kill one.

Most people say you ought to switch tracks and kill one to save five but you cannot kidnap and murder one to save five. Why not? Trolley, argues Schmidtz, "tells us that numbers sometimes matter. Hospital tells us that sometimes what matters is being able to trust others to respect us as separate persons". Unlike the contrived thought experiments philosophers often concoct, the real world does not stipulate that there is no other way. And when people object to Hospital their objection is often premised on the belief that there must be another way.

Abstraction often impairs, rather than enhances, our understanding of practical wisdom. The examples philosophers should consider are ones that contain such complexities, rather than ones that bracket or ignore them. The latter is preferred, however, because many academic philosophers value precision over proportionality (see this post ). And the cost of this academic obsession is, unfortunately, often wisdom. But Philosophy department’s do not grant tenure and promotion by “how much wisdom” you have generated; and thus there is little incentive for academic philosophers to concern themselves with this. Indeed, many philosophers look down on applied or interdisciplinary philosophy, as if it were “Philosophy-Lite”. I believe this is unfortunate.

One complaint that political philosophers often make against taking real-world constraints (like scarcity, our biology, etc.) more seriously is that it suffers from a form of “status quo” bias. But what these same philosophers fail to realize is that by investing so much in “the battle of intuitions” they are in fact appealing to their own “status quo” bias. Namely, the emotions and intuitions we happen to have at this stage in our evolutionary history, and living in the particular societies we happen to be living in at the time we happen to be living (and typically those they share with their supervisors, and others in the field).

But there is a wealth of empirical studies, from psychology and economics to law, which document many different limitations, biases and fallacies which humans are susceptible to when making various decisions and judgments. And so the choice is not between a “status quo” bias and no “status quo” bias. Rather it is between different frameworks, some of which are better protected against some biases than others. A framework premised on abstraction and idealization is particularly dangerous because the theorist is often unaware of the biases they are invoking.

So today, World Philosophy Day, is a day for philosophers to critically reflect upon the wisdom of placing a high premium on intuition and abstraction.

It is fitting to give Bertram Russell the final word today... [CLICK]