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Polly Mitchell (King's College London), Alan Cribb (Victoria University of Manchester), & Vikki Entwistle (University of Aberdeen), "Truth and Consequences"
“But is that really philosophy?”
Along with many applied philosophers, I have been challenged by academic colleagues who question whether my research clears philosophy’s, often implicit, hurdles. This can whisk me back to petty playground exclusions—“You can’t be in our gang”—but the underlying attitude has significant professional and personal consequences. I have had papers rejected from journals and been passed over for jobs and interviews for being insufficiently philosophical. I have been told not to describe myself as an ‘applied philosopher’ on personal statements.
Perhaps this sounds like a self-pitying whinge. The thought may have crossed your mind that I am bitter and resentful at having failed to achieve academic successes I mistakenly believe are due to me. In our recent paper, ‘Truth and Consequences,’ Alan Cribb, Vikki Entwistle, and I turn these gripes into metaphilosophy! We argue that the barriers erected between applied and theoretical philosophy reflect a metaphilosophical stance that casts applied philosophy as a methodologically poor cousin of ‘philosophy proper.’ This view is, we think, widely held but largely unacknowledged and rarely explicitly defended. Our aim is to point out and resist it.
One philosopher who has made an explicit case for such a methodological distinction is Dan Brock. He argues that, while theoretical philosophers are chiefly concerned with the search for truth, philosophers working ‘in the field’ should primarily be concerned with promoting social good consequences. In his paper ‘Truth or Consequences,’ Brock reflects on his time working as a staff philosopher for the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine. In this role, he advised elected commissioners on bioethical reports which made policy recommendations. Brock reports that this work required him to shift his focus from philosophical truth to the consequences of his actions for policy and policy outcomes. This involved what he describes as manipulation: he felt he had to withhold sound philosophical and ethical arguments from commissioners in order to prevent them from recommending harmful policies, as well as package and ‘sell’ arguments so as to increase the likelihood of good social outcomes. Brock suggests that it would have been irresponsible for him not to do this.
Brock’s paper concludes with a bid for philosophers’ forays into the world of policy to be “limited and temporary, not full time and permanent.” This is bad news for us and other applied philosophers whose work involves sustained and collaborative engagement with non-scholarly practice and non-philosophers. While Brock largely restricts his discussion to his experience of policymaking, his argument, if correct, applies more broadly. For applied philosophers whose work engages with healthcare, education, law, commerce, the military, technological research and development, and other complex human activities may similarly need to consider the effects of their assertions and arguments on decision-making outcomes. Must they also forego truth for consequences?
In our paper, we argue that applied philosophers can have it all: they are rightly concerned with both truth and consequences, including the consequences of making philosophical arguments. In brief, we try to paint a richer and more optimistic picture of applied philosophy. We argue that applied philosophy is a distinctive way of doing philosophy that is highly attuned and responsive to the goals and substance of non-philosophical practices and practitioners, but which retains the capacity to offer expansive and transformative critique. We defend the idea that philosophical truths—much like many truths emerging out of scientific and social-scientific research, and indeed everyday life—can be localised, non-generalisable, and at least sometimes need to be self-referential. A concern with consequences need not undermine a concern for truth.
Rather than summarise our argument—for that, you can read the paper!—I will sketch out why we think these issues are of philosophical and metaphilosophical importance, by calling attention to three questions that emerged out of and shaped our research.
What is the point of philosophy?
Sometimes philosophy is portrayed as wholly academic and, in some sense, disconnected from ‘real life.’ We took as our starting point Brock’s concern that when philosophers descend from the theoretical realm and become answerable to the interests and commitments of non-philosophers, at best their philosophy gets sloppy and at worst they cease to do philosophy at all. This amounts, we think, to a restricted view of the significance of philosophy.
In her excellent 1941 paper, Margaret MacDonald argues persuasively that we miss the point of philosophy if we don’t recognise that it makes prescriptions about how the world should be or should be understood. People use philosophical arguments to interpret and shape the world—and philosophers philosophise with knowledge of and often intentions about this. Understood thus, generating psychological and material effects, including potentially profound social consequences, is part of what philosophy is for. And attending carefully to the consequences and potential consequences of philosophy and philosophising is a critical part of philosophical practice.
What is the scope of philosophy?
When people are first faced with Trolley problems and similarly stylised thought experiments, they instinctively want to investigate the terms or set-up of the problem. Can I shout to the workers to get off the railway track? Can I talk to the violinist who is attached to me? Shouldn’t I be more concerned about Mary’s psychological safety than what she learns when she is released from her black and white prison? Philosophers quickly learn that they are not allowed to challenge the formulation of these questions: the only acceptable responses are narrowly circumscribed.
Against this, we are interested in the possibility that some of the most interesting and valuable philosophy operates with a wider scope. Philosophers can, and often do, engage not just with issues as framed, but also the way issues are framed. To make this more concrete, consider the supposed manipulation that Brock felt he was morally required to engage in in his policy advisory role. In so far as ordinary practice incentivises manipulative behaviour on the part of advisors, this phenomenon should plausibly be treated as an object of philosophical inquiry and critical attention, rather than accepted as an intrinsic part of the role. Of course, occasional high stakes dilemmas might put philosophers in a position to avert dangerous policymaking through deception or other dark arts, and sometimes justifiably But, on the whole, philosophers are rightly concerned with the means as well as the ends of decision-making and with questions that are not explicitly put to them.
This is not to say that narrowly defined questions are not sometimes useful for bringing attention to concepts and issues. But if their investigation eclipses broader questions about, for example, what matters or the costs of narrowly framing ethical and conceptual issues, it may tend to unhelpfully restrict philosophy’s critical and reflective potential.
What is the substrate of philosophy?
Brock contends that philosophy grows and flourishes in the sheltered soil of the philosophy department and, at best, becomes distorted and unhealthy when released into the wild world. But this may misconstrue what many applied philosophers take themselves to be doing. There is a strong methodological tradition in applied ethics, for example, which sees this work not as applying prior normative theories and arguments to particular problems, but instead taking observation and interpretation of practice and practitioners as a starting point for thinking about what matters and what is right and wrong. That is, applied philosophers are embarking on the, often challenging, endeavour of taking the messy, uncertain, and political realities of complex human activities as the substrate for their philosophy. What transpires, we ask, if we start from here and not from an ideal, abstracted or highly intellectualised account of human activities and values?
This undoubtedly comes with challenges; it may require applied philosophers to engage in and reflect on power dynamics, balancing acts, and the resolution of practical disagreements. But, for the most part, these judgements can sit within, rather than outside of, distinctively philosophical scholarship. One important upshot of this is that doing philosophy in this way cannot be seen as entirely outside of or distinct from the activities and practices under scrutiny. Because of this, philosophers working in the field in this way must be attentive to the consequences and potential consequences of their philosophy and philosophising, and the truth of their theories may depend on it.
Dan W. Brock (1987). ‘Truth or Consequences: The Role of Philosophers in Policy-Making,’ Ethics 97(4):786-791. https://doi.org/10.1086/292891.
Margaret MacDonald (1941). ‘The Language of Political Theory,’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 41(1):91-112. https://doi.org/10.1093/aristotelian/41.1.91.
Polly Mitchell, Alan Cribb, and Vikki Entwistle (2023). ‘Truth and consequences.’ Metaphilosophy (2023). https://doi.org/10.1111/meta.12644.
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