Tuesday, October 18, 2005

New Philosophy Blog

It's taken some time, but it looks like I may have finally infected my friends with the blogging bug. There's been some very active discussion over at Prior Knowledge recently, and Reuben has gone ahead and started up a new blog of his own, Mapping out the Moral High Ground, with the intriguing description: "Each week or so I will ask a question concerning some aspect of my lifestyle. After it has been discussed and a conclusion reached I shall alter my life style accordingly."

The introduction invites commentators to suggest possible questions for discussion. (Sagar's suggestions sound especially interesting, I must say. I'll be looking forward to these discussions!) Reuben also invites "any comments on the merits of such an approach to life’s choices." It's certainly a novel idea, so head on over and let him know what you think!


  1. He should of course answer the big question, how can any of us justify our studying philosophy on a student loan when we could be helping starving people overseas? Surely our philosophy does not help the poor (at least can't be expected to help them much, although it might help them through indirect means). Surely we could do better.

    Unfortunately I have not found an adequate response to this yet (nor am I certain that a response can be made).

    (Sorry about this being posted here, but he doesn't allow anonymous comments on his blog. Why must we all submit to this blogger thing?)

  2. Err, sorry about that. It is fixed now. And yes, good question. I might be buying a plane ticket to go over and help the starving people before i know it :)

  3. Two posible answers ( i thought of a third but forgot it)

    1) "the world is a complex place and I cant be sure anything is helful or not helpful" (you may even be able to find an argument why going to africa would hurt people, maybe cause global warming or somthing) - you then extract your own behaviour from the moral analysis and just discuss things as an observer

    2) When push comes to shove you are not perfect but as the christians say - no one is perfect and everyone is a sinner - the basic requirement is that you regret your sins. (so you reget not going to africa but still dont do it)

  4. Here are two reasons:

    1) The whole point of helping the starving people is that, by doing so, we will increase the number of people in the world with satisfying lives. By finding a satisfying pursuit of our own, we are doing the same thing, though on a more modest scale. Of course, helping the starving people might be just as satisfying a pursuit as studying philosophy, once we got into it; but obviously we don't think so at the moment, or else we'ld be over there.

    2) If we go and help the starving people, we will improve the lives of a handful of poor people. If we do philosophy, and use it to alter the conditions that lead to the existence of starving people (changing the way people think and act) then we can improve the lives of more starving people, both now and in the future. Perhaps the study of philosophy, as it currently exists, does not equip us to improve the condition of human society. If that is the case, there is something dreadfully wrong with the study of philosophy, given that half the aim of philosophy is to use reason to improve the condition of humanity (isn't it?).

    Also: It's possible to help the poor without either completing a philosophy degree, buying a plane ticket, or paying off a student loan. If I was a morally excellent person I would probably do it now, without leaving my desk.

  5. Slightly off-topic, but I'd note that clicking the 'hunger site' button (see my sidebar) once each day is a really easy way of (potentially) saving someone's life...

  6. Many different people, including some (though not all) philosophers, are in the business of acquiring knowledge for the human race, or helping the race to acquire knowledge somehow. All of these people probably have enough money, or the means to get enough money, to help people who could use it, like Africans. I assume it is for this reason that people, including myself sometimes, question whether they should be doing philosophy, or whatever they do. Some of the people in the knowledge industry, like computer scientists, pharmacologists, and genetic engineers, are doing something that is obviously useful, and helps the people who are helping the Africans (among countless others) do what they do. They are obviously not guilty. Other people in the knowledge industry are doing things that do not help the Africa-helpers qua helpers at all, like many phonologists, cosmologists, mathematicians, historians, and philosophers. The question is apparently: Should these people allow themselves to work, or should they go help out? I'm a non-cognitivist about ethics, so I don't think this is a question that can be answered conclusively yes or no, but I do think that the consequences of saying yes or no should be fully surveyed before we commit ourselves one way or another.

    Suppose they should help out. Nobody is saying that any one knowledge-seeker is duty-bound to go help out, say, the Sudanese. No, they should go do one of a certain number of things, like help out the Sudanese, or the Rwandans, or the Iraqis, or the Tibetans. There is some vaguely defined class of activities, any of which these people should be doing. "These people" are people who would otherwise be seeking "useless" knowledge, who want to do that, and who have the means to do otherwise. Moreover, adherents to this view would probably say, it is in virtue of these characteristics that these people, and not some other group of people, should be doing these things. So, what are we really saying when we claim that philosophers, etc. (no pun intended) should be helping out the Sudanese, etc.? It seems to me to be this: that helping people out who really need it is more important than acquiring "useless" knowledge; that anyone who can help out, but who wants to acquire useless knowledge, should; by implication - that what someone wants to do professionally is not as important as their helping people out; that what individuals want to do with their lives, if what they want to do is acquire useless knowledge, is not as important as what people who could really use their help want and need more strongly.

    For me, that last implication is the kicker. I can't buy it. Call me selfish or a rightist, but that sounds like the first step down a slippery slope to Communism.


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