Modern philosophers are a touchy bunch. They resent their own irrelevance. The question is, why have they become so marginalized. After all, it wasn’t always so. Consider, for example, the immediate and enduring impact of the French philosophes of the 18th century. I can’t presume to give a complete answer in this blog post, but an article by Uri Bram that recently turned up at Café.com entitled, This Philosopher Wants to Change How You Think About Doing Good might at least contain a few hints.
It’s an account of the author’s encounter with a young philosopher named Will MacAskill who, not uncharacteristically, has a job in the Academy, in his case at Cambridge. Bram assures us that, “he’s already a superstar among his generation of philosophers.” We learn he also has, “fondness for mild ales, a rollicking laugh, a warm Scottish accent and a manner that reminds you of the kid everyone likes in senior year of high school—not the popular kid, mind, but the kid everyone actually likes.” If you get the sinking feeling that you’re about to read a hagiography, you won’t be mistaken. It reminded me of what Lenin was talking about when he referred to “the silly lives of the saints.”
According to Bram, MacAskill had already sensed the malaise in modern philosophy by the time he began his graduate studies:
“I kept going to academics and actively trying to find people who were taking these ideas seriously and trying to make a difference, trying to put them into practice,” he says. But (for better or worse), academic philosophy as a whole is not generally focused on having a direct, practical impact. “Someone studying the philosophy of linguistics or logic is probably doing it as a pure intellectual enterprise,” says MacAskill, “but what surprised me was the extent to which even applied philosophers weren’t having any impact on the world. I spoke to a giant in the field of practical ethics, one of the most successful applied philosophers out there, and asked him what impact he thought he’d had with his work; he replied that someone had once sent him an email saying they’d signed up for the organ donor register based on something he’d written. And that made me sad.”
Then he had an epiphany, inspired by a conversation with fellow graduate student Toby Ord:
One of the things that most impressed MacAskill about Ord was the extent to which the latter was walking the talk on his philosophical beliefs, manifested by his pledge to give away everything he earned above a certain modest threshold to organizations working effectively towards reducing global suffering (a story about Ord in the BBC’s news magazine became a surprise hit in 2010).
Ord, it turns out, was a modern incarnation of Good King Wenceslas, who had pledged to give away a million pounds to charity in the course of his career. To make a long story short, MacAskill decided to make a similar pledge, and founded an organization with Ord to get other people to do the same. He has since been going about doing similar good works, while at the same time publishing the requisite number of papers in all the right philosophical journals.
As it happens, I ran across this article thanks to a reference at 3quarksdaily, and my thoughts about it were the same as some of the commenters there. For example, from one who goes by the name of Lemoncookies,
I see nothing particularly original or profound in this young man’s suggestion, which basically amounts to: give more to charity. Lots of people have made this their clarion call, and lots of people already and will give to charity.
Another named Paul chimes in,
I find the suggestion humorous that a 27-year-old is going “to revolutionize the way you think about doing good.” What effort the philosophers will go to in order to maintain their hegemony on moral reasoning. Unfortunately, I think they missed the boat 150 years ago by ignoring evolution and biology. They have been treading water ever since yet still manage to attract followers.
He really hits the nail on the head with that one. It’s ludicrous to write hagiographies about people who are doing “good” unless you understand what “good” is, and there has been no excuse for not understanding what “good” is since Darwin published “On the Origin of Species.” Darwin himself saw the light immediately. Morality is a manifestation of evolved “human nature.” It exists purely because the features in the brain that are responsible for that nature happened to improve the odds that the genes responsible for those features would survive and reproduce. “Good” exists as a subjective perception in the mind of individuals, and there is no way in which it can climb out of the skull of individuals and magically acquire a life of its own. Philosophers, with a few notable exceptions, have rejected that truth. That’s one of the reasons, and a big one at that, why they’re marginalized.
It was a truth they couldn’t bear to face. It’s not really that the truth made philosophy itself irrelevant. The way to the truth had been pointed out long before Darwin by philosophers of the likes of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume. At least a part of the problem was that this truth smashed the illusion that philosophers, or anyone else for that matter, could be genuinely better, more virtuous, or more righteous in some objective sense than anyone else. They’ve been fighting the truth ever since. The futility of that fight is demonstrated by the threadbare nature of the ideas that have been used to justify it.
For example, there’s “moral realism.” It goes like this: Everyone knows that two plus two equals four. However, numbers do not exist in the material world. Moral truths don’t exist in the material world either. Therefore, moral truths are also real. QED. Then there’s utilitarianism, which was demolished by Westermarck with the aid of the light provided courtesy of Darwin. It’s greatest proponent, John Stuart Mill, had the misfortune to write his book about it before the significance of Darwin’s great theory had time to sink in. If it had, I doubt he would ever have written it. He was too smart for that. Sam Harris’ “scientific morality” is justified mainly by bullying anyone who doesn’t go along with charges of being “immoral.”
With the aid of such stuff, modern philosophy has wandered off into the swamp. Commenter Paul was right. They need to stop concocting fancy new moral systems once and for all, and do a radical rewind, if not to Darwin, then at least to Westermarck. They’ll never regain their relevance by continuing to ignore the obvious.