Thursday, August 16, 2018

To Reduce the Risk of Moral Catastrophes, Should Society Hire Lots of Philosophers?

In June, I wrote a post arguing that future generations might find our generation especially morally loathsome, even if we don't ourselves feel like we are morally that bad. (By "we" I mean typical highly educated, middle-class people in Western democracies.) We might be committing morally grievous wrongs -- atrocities on par with the wrong that we now see in race-based slavery or the Holocaust or bloody wars of conquest -- without (most of us) recognizing how morally terrible we're being.

In Facebook discussion, Kian MW pointed me to a fascinating article by Evan G. Williams, which makes a similar point and adds the further thought, bound to be attractive to many philosophers, that the proper response to such a concern is to hire lots of philosophers.

Okay, hiring lots of philosophers isn't the only remedy Williams suggests, and he doesn't phrase his recommendation in quite that way. What he says with that we need to dedicate substantial societal resources to (1) identifying our moral wrongdoing and to (2) creating social structures to implement major changes in light of those moral discoveries. Identifying our moral wrongdoing will require progress, Williams says, both in moral theory and in related applied fields. (For example, progress in animal ethics requires progress both in moral theory and in relevant parts of biology.) Williams' call for dedicating substantial resources toward making progress in moral theory seems like a call for society to hire many more philosophers, though I suppose there are a variety of ways that he could disavow that implication if he cared to do so.

The annual U.S. military budget is about $700 billion. Suppose that President Trump and his allies in Congress, inspired by Williams' article, decided to divert 2% of U.S military spending toward identifying our society's moral wrongdoing, with half of that 2% going to ethicists and the other half to other relevant disciplines. Assuming that the annual cost of employing a philosopher is $150,000 (about half salary, about half benefits and indirect costs), the resulting $7 billion could hire about 50,000 ethicists.

[With 50,000 more ethicists, these empty chairs could be filled!]

Two percent of the military budget seems like a small expenditure to substantially reduce the risk that we unwittingly perpetrate the moral equivalent of institutionalized slavery or the Holocaust, don't you think? A B2 bomber costs about $1-$2 billion. The U.S. government might want to consider a few bomber-for-philosopher swaps.

I write this partly in jest of course, but also partly seriously. If society invested more in moral philosophy -- and it needn't be a whole lot more, compared to the size of military budgets -- and if society took the results of that investment seriously, giving its philosophers prestige, attention, and policy influence, we might be morally far better off as a people.

We might. But I also think about the ancient Athenians, the ancient Chinese, and the early 20th-century Germans. Despite the flourishing of philosophy in these times and places, the cultures did not appear to avoid moral catastrophe: The ancient Athenians were slave-owners who engaged in military conquest and genocide (perhaps even more than their neighbors, if we're grading on a curve), the flourishing of philosophy in ancient China coincided with the moral catastrophe of the period of the Warring States, and the Germans perpetrated the Holocaust and helped initiate World War II (with some of the greatest philosophers, including Heidegger and Frege, on the nationalistic, anti-Semitic, political right).

Now maybe these societies would have produced even worse moral catastrophes if philosophers had not also been flourishing in them, but I see no particular reason to think so. If there's a correlation between the flourishing of philosophy and the perpetration of social evil, the relationship appears to be, if anything, positive. This observation fits with my general concerns about the not-very-moral behavior of professional ethicists and philosophers' apparent skill at post-hoc rationalization.

I'm not sure how skeptical to be. I hesitate to suggest that a massive infusion of social capital into philosophical ethics couldn't have a large positive impact on the moral choices we as a society make. It might be truly awesome and transformative, if done in the right way. But what would be the right way?

[photo credit: Bryan Van Norden]

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

My impression is that Effective Altruism organizations (such as Open Philanthropy and the Future of Humanity Institute) often hire philosophers for this reason.

Anonymous said...

To quote an internet comment I read years ago, I don't fear that future societies will regard us as morally inferior; my bigger worry is that they'll envy us.

howard b said...

If the majority of Americans sup on fake news- I can't foresee them giving audience to philosophers- this scenario is the Philosophers King dream- first what would 50 thousand philosophers give you that 100 won't? And second, it is best to have a government open to philosophers and other experts

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 1: Yes.

Anon 2: I suspect the might both envy and condemn us, esp if ruining the planet’s ecosystem turns out to be the moral catastrophe we are perpetrating.

Howard: Both legitimate worries, I agree.

Unknown said...

Is our suffering moral catastrophes a constant in the cosmos...
...Is It more important than the subjective tensions holding a relative universe together...

Can moral theory represent at least two structures, place in our known world and place in an unknown world...
...Hiring non-pretentious philosophers might work...

Nick A said...

If the government hires philosophers for the, at least partial, purpose of identifying potential, current moral catastrophe’s then I think there’s some reason to be more hopeful. I don’t know too much history of philosophy, but I suspect that many of the Chinese, German, or Greek philosophers you have in mind didn’t directly consider the question “are any moral catastrophes currently being committed?”. Nor were they probably aware, or at least thinking about the fact, that philosophers have, in the past, often overlooked practices which were later considered moral catastrophes. The ancients certainly couldn’t have known this since there was no significant history of philosophy for them to know. But, we recognize this now and, if this project gets underway, would be directly trying to identify current moral catastrophes. Maybe this means that things would be different this time around.

jeffy said...

Oddly I had been thinking about just this question when you posted this. Brief background: I've been playing this game lately: https://eternagame.org/web. Advancing to the higher levels of the game (as part of a related book project) has me thinking about possible biotech futures, e.g. one where you can affordably grow a tail or point-and-click design your children. My intuition is that a future involving more rather than less applied ethicists and philosophers as inputs to the overall biotech area would be a better one. So I think I agree with Williams, but I also share your doubts. Here are two followup questions, in case you or anyone has insights. (1) Any thoughts on how, say, the use and regulation of nuclear technology or even gunpowder would have been different (and worse?) in a world with far fewer ethicists involved than have been involved with those issues? Nick A's comments are relevant here. Have we done in better in these cases, thanks to the existence of a whole bunch of ethicists? Also (2), the meta-philosophical question: what methods do we even have available to answer these questions? Comparing a technology's influence on worlds with and without ethicists is pretty tough sledding. How do we even get started? Eric I guess you have made a start via x-phi, but the results are not too promising. Is there hope?

Lee Roetcisoender said...

Eric,

Hiring more philosophers is not the answer, neither is any endeavor executed through governmental institutions. Nevertheless, there is a model in the private sector which could be copied. An example would be an architecture modeled after the X-Prize paradigm founded by Peter Diamondis. This is where rhetoric would be used to recruit and groom a wealthy Philanthropist who has a passion for the Humanities to fund the project. A cash prize could be awarded to the best idea reinventing our institutions, not only the scientific institutions, but the academic and political institutions as well. A great place to start the reformation of culture, one that would garner immediate results would be re-defining policing in America. When I was a kid, a policeman was known as a “peace” officer, now a policemen is known as a law “enforcement” officer. The mentality of "law enforcement" escalates already tenuous and chaotic circumstances. In contrast to enforcement, if peace was the overall objective through a skilled technique of managing chaos, de-escalation would be the outcome, and then some poor schmuck wouldn't get shot by a policeman just because he was high, drunk, mad at his girlfriend, or just happen to have a bad attitude that day.

Law enforcement is an archaic paradigm, one that has to shift before any meaningful changes can be made on the cultural front. The human being has to be first in the hierarchy of any philosophical architecture, not enforcement of the law. J. Edgar Hoover once commented that law and order takes precedence over any and all types of personal freedom. There is a time and place for that ideology, but that ideology should not be the overriding principles of day to day policing in America. Human beings are more sophisticated than brute beasts and need to be policed with dignity and respect, respecting that dignity over and above the enforcement of some arbitrary law such as illegal drugs for example. In the thirties, at least it took an amendment to our constitution to make people who use alcohol criminals. And we saw how well amending the constitution in an attempt to legislate morality worked. In contrast to an amendment to the constitution, people who choose to use drugs in our culture today are classified criminals simply by the stroke of a pen through our legislative process. And again, we see how well the "war on drugs" is going, it's a total disaster, far exceeding that of prohibition in the thirties.

A CULTURAL X-PRIZE, that would be a place to start, not more philosophers....