Not all philosophers are equal
Not all ethical issues are equally important. Many ethicists spend their professional lives performing in sideshows.
However entertaining the sideshow, sideshow performers do not deserve the same recognition or remuneration as those performing on our philosophical Broadways.
What really matters now is not the nuance of our approach to mitochondrial manipulation for glycogen storage diseases, or yet another set of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes in the debate about the naturalistic fallacy. It is: (a) Whether or not we should be allowed to destroy our planet (and if not, how to stop it happening); and (b) Whether or not it is fine to allow 20,000 children in the developing world to die daily of hunger and entirely avoidable disease (and if not, how to stop it happening). My concern in this post is mainly with (a). A habitable planet is a prerequisite for all the rest of our ethical cogitation. If we can’t live here at all, it’s pointless trying to draft the small print of living.
There’s a good parallel in the way the European Court of Human Rights approaches the question of the relationship between the various articles in the ECHR. There’s a hierarchy in the Convention. Article 2 protects life itself. It is rightly seen as foundational. In Pretty v UK (2002) 35 EHRR 1, the Strasbourg court said:
“The Court’s case law accords pre-eminence to Article 2 as one of the most fundamental provisions of the Convention. It safeguards the right to life, without which enjoyment of any of the other rights and freedoms in the Convention is rendered nugatory” 1 (Emphasis added)
So: University philosophy departments should be restructured. The junior members should cut their teeth on lesser subjects such as the mind-body problem. As their experience, status and salary rises, they should increasingly specialise in problems (a) and (b). By the time they have reached the top of the tree, that’s all they should be doing. Anyone who wants to spend their lives paddling around in the philosophical shallows, along with Kant and Wittgenstein, should of course be free to do so, but should realise that it will condemn them to a life of penury and obscurity.
1. Para 37