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Philosophers take on the world

Matt Pickles

Philosophers take on the world. This isn’t a doomsday news story, but the title of a new book which has been published by Oxford University Press today.

The chapters have been adapted from pieces written for the popular Practical Ethics blog, run by the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in Oxford University’s Philosophy Faculty.

The authors are experts in ethics, medicine, politics and current affairs – and many are academics at Oxford University.

To mark the launch of the book, its editor Dr David Edmonds has written a guest post for the Arts Blog.

Dr Edmonds is a Senior Research Associate at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, as well as a BBC documentary-maker, podcast producer and author. Here is his post, which is titled 'In defence of moral experts':

I’m no expert. Still, I reckon the notorious claim made by Michael Gove, a leading campaigner for Britain to leave the European Union, that the nation had had enough of experts, will dog him for the rest of his career. In fact, he wasn’t alone.  Other Brexit leaders also sneered at the pretensions of experts, the majority of whom warned about the risks – political, economic, social - of a Britain outside the EU.

Those who dismiss experts have a habit of using the prefix “so-called”. Time will tell (probably not much time) whether Gove was right to dismiss the anxieties of “so-called experts”. Still, despite the beating he received in sections of the press, his was on politically safe ground. There is a suspicion of experts in Britain, part of a more general suspicion of elites and of the establishment.

The world of philosophy suffers from a similar malaise. There are few philosophers who can claim to be public intellectuals, at least in the Anglo-American world. As we know, the French are willing to embrace and celebrate their philosophers in a way that the British find uncomfortable. We have one or two philosophers with the flowing locks of Bernard-Henri Lévy but none with his profile or standing.

It’s not just that the British public has a strain of anti-intellectualism, and a weaker appetite than the French for philosophical input to the national debate. It’s also that the few philosophers who do attempt to contribute to the world beyond the Academy risk ridicule within the profession. No doubt this is driven in part by an unworthy, if natural, envy.  “They’re not serious” is the sotto voce (and sometime not so sotto voce) verdict of colleagues who appear in print or on TV or radio.

Within my sub-genre of philosophy – practical ethics – the suspicion of public engagement has a more specific cause.  It’s often asserted that moral philosophers can’t claim expertize in ethics in the same way a chemist, for example, can be an expert on a molecule.

That’s a concern that puzzles me.  Certainly there’s some evidence – from the UC Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel - that those who write about and teach courses in ethics are no more ethical than anybody else.  And it’s true that specializing and so commanding authority in trichloro-2-methyl-2-propanol is disanalogous in various ways to being an authority in some corner of practical ethics – not least in how this expertize can be tested.

Still, I want to defend the expertize of moral philosophers, to maintain that their views in their chosen field merit respect and at least a degree of deference.  We should heed attention because they have mastered the relevant information on their topic and brought to bear the philosopher’s chief tools, depth and clarity of thought. They have marshalled arguments and ironed out inconsistencies.  And practical ethics is tough.  To take just one example – trying to work through the metaphysics of what gives human beings moral status, and the implications of this for a variety of non-standard cases, is hugely complex. 

I endorse what the White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, Jeff McMahan, says: “Questions about abortion and termination of life support, and euthanasia, and so on, are really very difficult. We are right to be puzzled about these issues, and people who think that they know the answers and have very strong views about these matters, without having addressed these issues in metaphysics and moral theory are making a mistake. They should be much more sceptical about their own beliefs.”

Sometimes the philosopher’s arguments about an issue merely shores up common-sense. But the role of the philosopher cannot merely be to describe the standard position. That would reduce philosophy to a branch of psychology, or anthropology, or sociology. The moral philosopher does not just ask how much people give to charity, or want to give to charity, relevant though these questions are, but how much should they give to charity.

But whether it be John Stuart Mill on women’s rights, or Peter Singer on animal rights, philosophical reasoning can produce results that the then majority find objectionable, even repugnant. My appeal is that in such cases we should pay close attention to the philosophy, to how conclusions are reached. Our prima facie position should be that the philosopher has a good case.

There is some evidence that in their quiet way, British philosophers are beginning to assert themselves. I was delighted to see that in a recent week of five BBC essays devoted to post-Brexit Britain - three of the authors, John Gray, Onora O’Neill and Roger Scruton - were philosophers. In the book I’ve just edited, Philosophers Take On the World, over forty philosophers address stories in the news and argue for often counter-intuitive positions.

Counter-intuitive perhaps, but my starting position is that we should take ethics experts seriously. Who knows, Mr Gove, they may even be right.