Why Bother?

Does research in philosophy make the world a better place, beyond the pleasure it gives one? There was an interesting discussion on this topic on the Leiter Reports (in the comments). Though I’m two weeks late to the party, it’s worth saying a few words about it. Although the discussion there focused on philosophy, I think the general principles one can gather from it are more widely applicable ― to legal theory, for instance (which is why I found it so interesting), but perhaps, to some extent at least, to just about any sort of abstract research.

The danger in any such discussion lies in the fact that human beings are generally poor judges of their own work, both of the significance of the enterprise they are engaged in to human affairs and of the quality of their own contribution to this enterprise. Most overestimate the importance of what they do; some underestimate it; nobody can be objective. Philosophers might be a bit better than others at avoiding biased judgments, but I doubt that they are much better at it.  At the same time, just because one’s judgment is in one’s favour, it is not necessarily wrong.

Be that as it may, a strong minority of the participants in the discussion argue that philosophical research does not actually make the world a better place. It is, often by design, too remote from practical concerns to make a difference; and the people who make a difference are not interested in philosophy. Indeed, says John Gardner, this might be for the best, because much philosophical research “is ripe for abuse. It is better not to have any effects than to have predictably unwelcome effects through the kind of people who are likely to put my work to use.” You’d think the man is a nuclear physicist rather than the Oxford Professor of Jurisprudence. But the most caustic version of the skeptical position is those who say that academic philosophy is basically a waste of good brains, and those who are tempted by it ought to do something else that would be of more tangible benefit to humanity.

Most, though, are not so pessimistic, and do in fact believe that philosophical research makes the world better in one way or another. One commonly cited reason is the indirect contribution research makes by making the researcher a better teacher ― and teaching, in turn, is what really makes the world a better place. But many say that research itself is (also) valuable. There are, so far as I can tell, three main claims about why this might be the case.

The first is that doing philosophy is intrinsically valuable ― that, to quote prof. Gardner again, “the world is a better place ― constitutively ― just in virtue of containing more good philosophy, and more good philosophers.” Or, as a scientist quoted by Richard Baron answered when asked why the United States should bother spending money on particle physics put it, “[i]t has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

The second and third justifications of research in philosophy both claim that it is instrumentally valuable because it helps us get (closer) to Truth. The difference between them is in how they perceive the contribution each individual researcher might make. The first claim about the instrumental value of philosophical research is that, although the odds of any individual philosopher of making a valuable discovery are very low indeed, a few will get lucky. Philosophy, on this view, is a bit like venture capitalism ― it involves lots of investments, most of which will have to be written off, but a few of which will. hopefully, yield returns rich enough to make up for the rest. The second claim is that, on the contrary, an individual philosopher’s work does make a contribution, albeit small, and that we get closer to Truth as these small contributions add up. As Craig Duncan puts it, a philosopher a “medieval mason helping to build a cathedral. An individual mason’s contribution was doubtless small, and he likely did not live to see the conclusion of the project and witness its full value” ― but that doesn’t mean it hadn’t any.

For my part, I find all three of these claims somewhat appealing, though perhaps the “venture capitalist” one more than the others. It is consistent with Sturgeon’s Revelation (a.k.a. Sturgeon’s law), which holds that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” There seems to be no reason to be reason to believe that it doesn’t apply to philosophy, or jurisprudence, or any other area of academic research. But the revelation’s universal applicability means not only that much of the philosophers’ collective output is going to be worthless, but also that they would not necessarily be better occupied at anything else, and that their collective contribution, like that of any other profession, is to be judged by small fraction of non-crap that it produces. (Of course, this is no excuse for the individual who consistently only produces crap ― he or she should indeed try to find something else to do. The point only holds for groups.)

I will end with two similar quotes from very dissimilar economists.

The first is a well-known bon mot from Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

The second is from Milton Friedman’s introduction to a 1982 edition of his Capitalism and Freedom:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.

Despite a difference in emphasis (it would be too much to expect Keynes and Friedman to quite agree!), the point that both make is that ideas matter, in everyday life (so Keynes), but especially so in times of crisis (so Friedman). And I am pretty sure that this is true not only of ideas on politics, policy, and economics, which both had in mind, but also of those on ethics, law, and any number of other “abstract” areas of inquiry. Good ideas can make the world a better place.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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