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.

No New Thing in the Cloud

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a new entry on “Information Technology and Moral Values,” by John Sullins, a professor of philosophy at Sonoma State University. It is a useful summary of (many of) the moral issues that information technology raises, and a reminder that issues that we are used to considering from a policy standpoint also have moral dimensions. At the same time, it is a reminder that there is no new thing under the sun – itself an old observation.

Generally speaking, the moral issues which prof. Sullins thinks information technology are pretty much the same moral issues that you would expect a left-leaning intellectual to worry about in just about any context – income inequalities, gender inequality, “justice”. (I might be wrong to attribute these leanings to pof. Sullins of course; I have no other ground for this attribution than the article. And yet it feels like ground enough.) A libertarian or a conservative would probably have written a substantially different-sounding piece on the same topic; different-sounding, but equally predictable. New technologies seem not so much to create moral issues as to serve as a new canvass on which to apply our old concerns.

A couple of specific examples seem also to confirm the timeless cynicism (or is it wisdom?) of Ecclesiastes. One is given by prof. Sullins himself:

The move from one set of dominant information technologies to another is always morally contentious. Socrates lived during the long transition from a largely oral tradition to a newer information technology consisting of writing down words and information and collecting those writings into scrolls and books. Famously Socrates was somewhat antagonistic to writing and he never wrote anything down himself. Ironically, we only know about Socrates’ argument against writing because his student Plato ignored his teacher and wrote it down.

Socrates worried that writing would cause people to stop learning stuff – why bother when you can look it up a book? Just imagine what the grumpy old man would have said about Google and Wikipedia.

The second example came to mind when reading prof. Sullins’ discussion of the concerns raised by the “Moral Values in Communicating and Accessing Information.” Among the concerns he explores under this rubric are that with “[w]ho has the final say whether or not some information … is communicated or not” and that over the accuracy of the information communicated about someone or something (and the problem of who bears the burden of ensuring accuracy, or perhaps of dealing with the consequences of inaccurate information being communicated).  This reminded me of the passage in The Master and Margarita where Yeshua Ha-Notsri – Jesus – tells Pilate that he “is starting to worry that this whole confusion” about what he told the people “will go on for a very long time. And it’s all because he is writing down my words incorrectly.” “He” is the Levi Matvei – Matthew. As Yeshua goes on to explain, Matvei follows him “with a goat-skin and writes all the time. But I once looked at this goat-skin, and was horrified. I never said anything, anything at all of what’s written there. I begged him: for God’s sake, burn your goat-skin! But he tore it from my hands and ran away.” He might as well have been trying to get Facebook to delete some information about him, right? As the ensuing confusion shows, there are indeed dangers in recording information about someone without his consent, and then communicating it to all sorts of not always well-intentioned people.

So there is nothing new in the cloud, where this text will be stored, any more than under the sun, on goat-skins, or anywhere else, is there? Yet it is just possible that there is nothing new only because we do not see it. Perhaps new technologies really do create new problems – but we are so busy trying to deal with old ones that we do not notice.

So, so, so! So… what?

Yale Law School will be hosting a second annual Doctoral Scholarship Conference in December. Its topic will be “the relationship between law and the creation or destruction of social, political and economic solidarity.” I would like to go, so I got thinking about what I might write on this topic (which is not naturally congenial to me). And that, in turn got me thinking about what, exactly, “solidarity” means.

“Solidarity” has very specific meanings in some contexts. Sociology is one, according to Wikipedia anyway. Civil law is another: the Civil Code of Québec has a subsection on “solidary obligations,” which for example provides that there exists “solidarity” “between the debtors where they are obligated to the creditor for the same thing in such a way that each of them may be compelled separately to perform the whole obligation and where performance by a single debtor releases the others towards the creditor” (art. 1523). But I don’t suppose that the good people at Yale are referring to these special meanings.

To understand what they meant, it seemed more logical to turn to (political) philosophy. But the concept of solidarity just doesn’t seem to be of concern to it. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has no entry on this concept, for example. Nor does it appear in the index of a collection of essays called Contemporary Debates in Political Philosophy edited by Thomas Christiano and John Christman. This is quite remarkable. The idea of solidarity seems to feature regularly in the political discourse (at least on the left). What is it that they’re talking about?

What I’m left with is a dictionary definition. The Oxford English Dictionary says that solidarity means “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; [or] mutual support within a group.” Now these two meanings seem quite different. Unity of feeling and action might well yield little mutual support (so striking workers do not necessarily support each other, though they act together and with a common goal); conversely, mutual support need not entail unity of feeling, nor indeed the existence of common interest (members of a family might support each other despite much disagreement and lack of common interests). And I’m not entirely sure which of them, if either, the call for papers refers to.

I’d be delighted to have your thoughts on this.

UPDATE: Further digging on Wikipedia reveals that solidarity also has a specific meaning in Catholic social thought. The encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis defines it as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is … desire for profit and … thirst for power.” (s. 38) Again, I’m not sure just how relevant this is.