How can philosophy help the public?

At the Society for Applied Philosophy‘s Annual Conference, Ingrid Robeyns reports on a discussion:

Philosophers serving on ethics committees raised the issue that such committees often turn to the philosopher to get ‘the ethical view’ on a case—whereas there are often a plurality of perspectives that are relevant to a case, and the philosopher is not someone with privileged access to some ‘ethical truths’. Philosophers have skills (through training) which may help them with illuminating certain views, and helping to clarify people’s own views in case they are muddled, but there was a debate in the room to what extent applied philosophers’ own substantive views that follow from their philosophical thinking are in any sense ‘better’ than those of others.

Clearly, anyone with even a vague familiarity with the subject will know it is foolish to ask one philosopher for the ‘moral perspective’ on an issue, as if they could represent the opinion of the entire discipline. There’s just too much diversity for that. I think any philosopher finding himself in such a situation should only accept it, then, on the basis that all parties involved understand that he won’t be presenting views as facts in the way a medical expert might. This is emphatically not to say that there are no right answers in philosophy. It is simply to say that we should show some modesty in presenting our beliefs as to what the truth is. And indeed, as Robeyns goes on to ponder, it is surely the philosopher’s ability to map out the costs and benefits of taking various positions, following through implications and spotting inconsistencies, which should serve as the subject’s true contribution to society. The clarity that such a skill could bring to public discourse would be ten times more valuable than us reciting the substantive conclusions we have individually reached. Which, if you think about it, is the antithesis of how science works: we want doctors to tell us what to take without giving us a lesson in physiology. But we should want philosophers to offer arguments without stressing conclusions.


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