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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

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14 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for the provocative post. Nonetheless, I wonder if
    a) is not it better to focus on, say, improving the critical edition of Hume’s works in a great way, rather than on doing a bad job about the two topics you mentioned (because one is not interested in them, because one is more precise than broad or because of any other possible reason)?
    b) do not you think that working on Kant or Wittgenstein (or many other philosophers) CAN have an impact on the two topics you mention? To name an example, the philologist and Buddhologist Lambert Schmithausen (working on Sanskrit, Pāli and Chinese) wrote several books on our obligations towards the environment and especially plants, and had them also translated into Japanese. He hopes that, by using Buddhist sources, he will make Japanese Buddhist fishermen aware that killing whales (etc.) is against their own religion (I discussed S’s work here: Don’t you think that this sort of approach will be theoretically and rhetorically justified?

    1. Elisa: many thanks.
      As to (a): I can’t see any point whatever in improving the critical editions of (eg) Hume. There’s already a deeply unhealthy, scriptural view of the works of Hume and people like him.
      As to (b): by all means use Kant and Wittgenstein as intellectual gymnasia to develop the muscles needed for really worthwhile works. But let’s not pretend that they matter in their own right.
      Of course I’m all for cross-cultural translation of powerful and transformative ideas. So yes, by almost any means, to the conversion of Japanese fishermen to decent behaviour.

      1. (P1)”But let’s not pretend they (Kant and Wittgenstein) matter in their own right.” (A)
        (P2). I don’t want to live in a world where sentence A is implied.
        (C). Therefore, I don’t feel obliged to safe your world.

        Now, what about the efficiency of your ideas and analytic philosophy? It’s such a mess. Too many untalented people with big mouths.

  2. Very amusing. As someone whose interest and research has been in the philosophy of science and technology and other “hard” areas of philosophy, I do not think problems (a) and (b) are philosophically very interesting (they are important and interesting but not central philosophical problems). I am a great advocate of philosophers communicating their knowledge and understanding to all who wish to listen, but they should not be looked upon as professional big problem-solvers or social engineers (I get memories of “philosophy” in the Soviet Union when this is suggested). Indeed, the growth of well funded philosophy and applied ethics institutions that direct their energies to what they perceive to be big problems and risks is, I believe, a worrying trend. On this issue I am more inclined to agree with Wittgenstein than Marx.

      1. Charles

        As I say, I agree with Wittgenstein not Marx. It’s all a matter of what you think philosophy is and how it should be used. Perhaps I worry too much and should keep to quietism.

  3. Just a point of clarification. I believe the total number of child deaths every day is under 20,000. And many of these won’t be deaths from hunger. Still an awful figure, but the trend is steadily heading in the right direction.

  4. Your post reminds me of the beginning to The Myth of Sisyphus, except of course Camus was talking about suicide, and you were less poetic. Aha, interesting post though.

  5. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks, Charles, for your post.
    It seems to me that if a budding philosopher needs to spend a lifetime answering questions a1 and b1, they are probably in the wrong job, as the answer seems so evidently to be «no».
    However, as Keith implies, the answers to your follow-up questions are practical, empirical questions – to which persons having identical philosophical views could easily have different, even conflicting, solutions.
    It sounds to me as if you’re saying that ethics is a waste of time compared to finding practical solutions to major problems, but we can compensate for this impotence by philosophising about them.

    From my obscure corner it looks as though the reply to «what can philosophy do to fix my car’s brakes?» is : its duty is to ask whether it’s fine to drive without brakes and then launch a course on the philosophy of the automobile.
    Or am I being unfair?

  6. Anthony and Keith: many thanks.
    Yes, whether or not one agrees with my post will depend on what one thinks philosophy is. I take the literal and unfashionable view that it is about the love of wisdom, and that inherent in a proper love of wisdom will be the conviction that wisdom’s highest expression entails the elimination of obvious evils. Yes, how best to effect that elimination will involve the consideration of empirical questions, but that doesn’t involve departure from my definition.
    But even if one doesn’t agree with my definition, surely we can agree that Kant and Wittgenstein are excellent gymnasia in which to develop the muscles necessary to wrestle with the really important practical questions?

  7. I am very unfashionable and agree about the love of wisdom, but I do not think philosophy should be used to eliminate obvious evil. Philosophical analysis has little to offer to (a) and (b) and has even less to offer when it come to solutions. There are some minor branches of philosophy that may be able to make a small contribution to the analysis and solutions to (a) and (b). The philosophy of economics, for example, could have a role in what are essentially economic problems. Ethics can contribute very little beyond stating the bleeding obvious. Not sure the study of Kant and Wittgenstein could have much practical use when dealing with these problems. At best we might get from Wittgenstein that philosophy is pretty much useless and that we should give it up and do something practical (something of course he did many times). I think we should remember the ‘broken key in the trunk lock’ problem when we think about Wittgenstein and practical reason.

  8. Just got a h/t over here from Schliesser.

    I think this is too strong. As someone who has spent his entire career working on planetary and environmental issues, I do think these issues are existentially and philosophically important. I appreciate your nod to the importance of these topics and I do wish that other more centrally located philosophers would take the time to read up on these topics and take them seriously as matters for investigation and discussion.

    But the truth is, many of these environmental problems are not necessarily all that deep or mind bending, and they simply don’t interest philosophers. A lot of the problems are “how to get things done” style problems, and those are in some respects anti-philosophical. Not all of the problems, granted, but many. Better, in my view, just to approach this in a “big tent” sorta way. What you should be arguing is that philosophers oughtn’t to kick environmental ethicists off the bus, which they have been doing for decades. Philosophers and ethicists really ought to be engaged in these global environmental problems, they really ought to be speaking up in policy debates… because if they don’t, then the entire suite of solutions will be left to our engineers, our scientists, and our cynics.

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