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by Benson Ju
Benson Ju is a freshman at ASU studying Philosophy, Economics and Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. He graduated from Gilbert Classical Academy and adores utilitarianism (could you tell?)
Instagram comments and memoirs taglined with “I want to live a life that matters” and “One Woman's Struggle to Bring Hope to Thousands of Children in Vietnam and India” leaves one with the impression that volunteering, especially abroad, exemplifies ideal morality. After all, giving one’s time and effort to help others seems to go above and beyond what is expected and required of anyone. How could volunteering with its ostensibly altruistic heart be considered anything less than morally laudable?
One way to find the answer is through a combination of statistics and utilitarian ethics. Utilitarianism is the belief that the morality of an action is based on the amount of utility (well-being) it creates. Onthis view, the right action is that which creates the most utility. Thus, an action that does not fully maximise utility in a given situation is not the morally correct action.
I argue that the main goal of volunteering is to do good and that one should care more about the good being done than the act of volunteering itself. So, I aim to show that volunteering is an inefficient way of achieving its own primary purpose. To do the most good possible, one should make and donate as much money as possible. Not quite as romantic, I know, but I think the almost incontestable pragmatic benefits outweigh the loss of flair.
The concept of effective altruism drives this conclusion. Using organizations such as GiveWell, Charity Navigator, and Philanthropedia, adherents seek out the most efficient charities to give their hard-earned money to, choosing to maximise earning potential rather than spend their time volunteering. This strategy is ideal for making the biggest possible impact for several reasons. First of all, the top-rated charities on any of these meta-charities’ rankings have been confirmed to be extremely efficient in terms of money utilization. For example, the top-rated charity on GiveWell, known as Malaria Consortium, averages approximately one death averted for every $2041 donated. While units of utility are certainly hard to quantify, deaths averted are a common metric and, even as a rough estimate, can give useful insight into the effectiveness of an action. Currently, Arizona’s minimum wage is $11, meaning that approximately 200 hours of work at a minimum wage job will be equivalent to saving someone’s life. Thus, in order to compete with the altruistic efficiency of working and donating money, a volunteer organization must convert 200 hours of volunteer work into something morally equivalent to avertingone human death.
However, the economically disadvantaged tend to donate less time and less money to charities, perhaps due to the lack of financial stability (Yao 4). Thus, it seems likely that the majority of volunteers are making above minimum wage, making their time comparatively more valuable and their money comparatively less valuable due to the concept of opportunity cost. The more money one makes, the greater moral obligation they have to spend their time making money and donating it, as they have a comparative advantage in the production of money, which, through charities, can become human lives saved.
One interesting statistic is the suggestion that volunteering time and donating money to charitable causes are complements rather than substitutes (Yao 4). This suggests a sort of altruistic mentality that may be a result of experiences volunteering, or perhaps just that the types of people who volunteer or give money are more likely to do the other. It is common to hear of volunteers reporting heightened life satisfaction and income compared to non-volunteers, however. The ethical weight of the benefits to the volunteer seems to pale in importance compared to the lives of others, however.
This is not to say that volunteering is never good. Volunteering can be beneficial under certain circumstances. A case like an eye surgeon traveling to a low-income area to do surgeries pro bono may be ethically ideal for several reasons. First, the eye surgeon provides a service either unavailable or unaffordable in that area. Second, there is not an unlimited number of patients to undergo eye surgery, so the surgeon’s income is likely to be limited by patients rather than time spent working. However, cases like these constitute only the extreme minority of volunteering hours.
Far more common and insidious is the growing “voluntourism” movement. As implied by the name, voluntourists travel to foreign countries in order to attempt solving serious issues such as alleviating poverty, building homes, or creating educational systems. Voluntourism as a whole has been shown to be largely ineffectual and low-commitment, and in some cases, downright harmful. Rebuilding homes in Haiti following earthquakes, for example, involves myriad costs, both from missed earning opportunity and direct financial costs. There would be flights paid for, housing, and food, along with missed earnings for the amount of time volunteered for. Additionally, volunteers building houses are likely to have fewer skills than local builders, as well as arguably denying them jobs.
While volunteering is not inherently bad, it's not the right choice for the majority of its participants. It's like winning ten dollars on the lottery: bad because of what could have been, or “sub-optimal.” So, if you think utilitarianism makes sense, and unless you're one of the unlikely few, do your best to enable others to do it better.
by Michelle Saint
Dr. Michelle Saint is a Lecturer of Philosophy at Arizona State University. Her work is focused around the nature of fiction, emotion theory, and the social and moral significance of storytelling.
There is a book on my bookshelf written by a Reprehensible Person. I love this book--or, at least, I did. I first read it as a teenager, and it has helped shape me as a person. I didn’t know, when I first read it, that its author was a Reprehensible Person. But I know now. When I look at that book on my shelf, I feel a tinge of discomfort. I am uncomfortable that something that has mattered so much to me is the creative product of someone who has been revealed to be as terrible as Reprehensible Person is.
With the rise of the #MeToo Movement, among with other social developments, many of us are now confronted with this uncomfortable truth: we have laughed at jokes told by rapists; we have felt exaltation at movies made by serial abusers; we have been consumers of art produced by reprehensible people.
One might ask: does it matter? Should I care about how terrible Reprehensible Person is, when I look at his book on my bookshelf? Does his moral deplorability make any difference to my life, as someone who has read and loved a novel that he wrote?
I believe that it does matter, and I would like to share with you my reasoning for this belief. In doing so, I hope to convince you that your aesthetic choices are socially and morally significant, and that determining whether to keep a book on your bookshelf can appropriately be morally and emotionally complex.
Many people are inclined to say that it doesn’t matter. They use phrases like, “Death of the Author,” to express the idea that artwork exists independently from its creator. On this view, information about the author is irrelevant to how we should judge the artwork itself. You may judge the artwork, itself, to be morally reprehensible--you may condemn a piece for containing harmful stereotypes or promoting immoral viewpoints, for instance--but the author’s moral status has no bearing to how you should feel about the artwork.
I don’t accept this view. I think, instead, that it is important to keep in perspective that art is a social phenomenon. I believe that the following analogy is appropriate: a novel, or any piece of art, is like a gift that the author has given to us. The importance a gift has for us is shaped in part by our attitude towards the gift-giver. So, our attitude towards a piece of art should be shaped in part by our attitude towards the artist.
Let me extend the metaphor. Suppose you have a childhood friend, Jimmy. Let’s say that you and Jimmy were close enough that you spent a fair amount of time with Jimmy’s mother. She played an important role in your childhood. As a result, you have mementos from your childhood that are connected to her: ticket stubs from an event all three of you attended; a book, let’s say, that she encouraged you to read. Now you are an adult, and you find out the sickening truth: Jimmy’s mother abused him horribly throughout his whole childhood. You never knew until now. Consider: with this new knowledge, how do you feel about those ticket stubs? How do you feel about the book that she gave you? Are you as willing to keep them now as mementos, knowing what you do? Suppose you run in to her, and she offers to give you another gift--would you take it from her?
If you are like me, you would not want another gift from her. You would instead now find yourself uncomfortable with keeping the ticket stubs, the book she gave. This is because gifts matter to us in part because they are given by another: the social context in which we come to have access to a good determines, in part, the significance that good has for us. Since artwork is like a gift from the author, the same holds true when artwork is produced by reprehensible people. The abuse Jimmy suffered at his mother’s hands is morally relevant to my decision to accept a gift from her; the terrible deeds performed by Reprehensible Person are relevant to the choices I make with regard to Reprehensible Person’s novel.
I have been working to flesh out this view for several years now. I have been surprised, when I present my position to others, how often I receive a response like this: But of course we shouldn’t ban artwork made by deplorable people! We would lose too much good art!
This response is interesting to me, for two reasons. First, it’s correct that we shouldn’t ban artwork. My focus here is on the personal decisions an individual may make, regarding her own interaction with a piece of art. At issue here is a matter of individual moral conviction, not legal or social policy. Second, and perhaps more significantly, this response assumes that, if the moral status of an artist is relevant to the aesthetic choices we make, then it is obvious that we should reject any artwork made by a reprehensible person. The claim seems to be that, if I am right, then the question of what to do with beautiful art by terrible people has an easy answer. But I don’t think this is true at all.
Psychologically, we humans aren’t great with moral complexity. We easily fall into dichotomous, all-or-nothing thinking, even when we know this style of thinking is wrong. Superman is easy for us to categorize, morally, as is Voldemort. It is much harder for us to keep focus on the moral complexity of a person who could abuse her child and yet be kind to us. Note that this is an issue that children of abuse face, themselves; they confront the challenge of reconciling both the cruelty and the nurturance they have received from their parents. We tend to experience great emotional discomfort when we have to confront that the same person can hurt us terribly and also love us, that the same person can be cruel in one context and friendly in another, that someone we are right to condemn on moral grounds has been a positive influence for us personally.
Thinking of Reprehensible Person’s book on my shelf, my natural inclination towards dichotomous thinking leads me to two easy answers. It would be easy for me to say, “I love this book, so I don’t care about what awful things the author did.” But this would be incorrect, because it fails to account for the fact that the novel is like a gift and we care about who we allow to give us gifts. Alternatively, it would be easy for me to say, “Reprehensible Person is reprehensible, so I hate his book.” But this would be incorrect, because it fails to account for the obvious fact that I don’t hate his book. I may wish, now, that I had never accepted a gift from Reprehensible Person, but it would be obtuse, wrong-headed for me to pretend that his gift never mattered to me. Thus, neither of these two easy answers is correct.
What I need to do, instead, is find an answer that accords with both truths, that I wish Reprehensible Person was someone from whom I had never received a gift and yet also that the gift I received from him truly was important to me. Should I remove his book from my bookshelf? Answering this question requires working through the emotional discomfort that comes from accepting both that he gave an important gift and also that I wish I had never accepted a gift from him.
Responding to the #MeToo movement, in the context of our own aesthetic choices, requires us to accept the emotionally challenging task of reflecting on the fact that we have been benefited by those we find reprehensible. We should not shrug off what we learn about the crimes of artists whose works we love, proclaiming the death of the author. Similarly, we should not pretend that we never loved their works, that we would not lose something of importance by casting their artworks to the fire. What I hope I have convinced you is that what we should do is a hard question without easy answers.
It is likely that you, too, have a book on your bookshelf like mine--or perhaps a DVD, a painting, or a video game--that makes you now feel a twinge of discomfort. Maybe you should throw that artwork away. Maybe you should donate it. Or maybe you should keep it and permit yourself to return to it now and then. Any of those may be the appropriate response, provided that the action you choose comes from careful consideration of the full complexity of your relationship with that artist, as someone who has given you an important gift and as someone from whom you now wish you had never accepted that gift.
by Cindy Bolton
Cindy Bolton is a lecturer in the philosophy department at Arizona State University. Her interest in the philosophy of horror stems, in part, from the fact that her students tend to write more interesting papers on horror than on other philosophical topics.
Aliens in science fiction often are not all that alien. Granted, they look different than creatures on Earth. Yet while the aliens in the various Star Wars or Star Trek movies look rather odd, they act much like humans. We know their motivations and how they think. The heptapods from Arrival are certainly alien, but humans still learn their language; and by doing so, develop some sense of the heptapod view of the world. We even understand the xenomorphs, who bear us no good will, from the Alien movies. But the alien in Solaris and the alien remains in Stalker do not look odd. These aliens are seemingly just landscapes. And while these landscapes resemble familiar landscapes on Earth, we never learn how they think and just what motivates them.
In most fictional works, the landscape does not play an active role. It provides the setting in which the characters perform their actions. At best, the landscape can influence this action, but it does not play an active role. But in Solaris and Stalker, the landscape is conscious and active. It is more than the passive background that provides a setting for the action of other beings. The landscape itself has agency and its own agenda. These truly are alien landscapes. And to suggest how strange these aliens happen to be, I will use terms that are generally reserved for horror. Using the terms generally reserved for horror, we can describe the aliens as uncanny, weird, and eerie.
What do we mean by this? The words ‘uncanny’, ‘weird’, and ‘eerie’ are often treated as synonyms. While we treat these words synonymously in ordinary language, it is also true that we make distinctions between them. Fisher suggests that what these words have in common is a preoccupation with the strange. (9) The uncanny gives us the sensation that there is something strange about the familiar. Freud discusses how doubling and repetition give rise to this sensation. This sensation also occurs when something that should be hidden reappears. The weird gives us the sensation of wrongness. A weird entity, on Fisher’s view, is one which should not exist, according to the ontological categories that we use to make sense of the world. (15) The eerie gives us the sensation that there is something there that should not be there or the sensation there is something absent that should be there. Ruins and abandoned structures give us the sensation of the eerie. This is because these buildings suggest that there should be people and there are no people. When it comes to the eerie, Fisher believes that “the central enigma at its core” concerns agency. Is there an agent? What is the nature of this agent? Are we being observed by an agent that has yet to reveal itself? (63)
The alien landscapes in Solaris and Stalker are uncanny. Initially, the landscapes resemble ordinary landscapes that we have seen. Solaris is a giant ocean. The Zone, in Stalker, was filmed in Estonia; and Tarkovsky made very little changes to the actual landscape that he found. But there is something hidden in both landscapes. Contrast the water world, Solaris, with the water world, Miller’s Planet, from Interstellar. While Miller’s Planet is dangerous, this danger is not hidden. We are given a scientific explanation for everything that occurs on Miller’s Planet. But we have no explanation for the events on Solaris and on the space station. Tarkovsky makes use of doubles. The visitors that appear on the space station are created by the planet from the memories of the scientists on the station. But we do not know how the planet does this. In Stalker, as the characters get closer to their destination, the room that will grant their deepest desire, the scenery becomes stranger although it also remains familiar.
The landscapes in Solaris and Stalker are also weird. Other than the animists among us, we do not believe that landscapes possess consciousness. The idea that some sort of animism may be true does not fit in our conceptual categories. The idea that a planet can create material forms from our memories or the fact that a landscape can create a room that grants our deepest desires is not part of our current scientific view of the world. If such things exist, then our conceptual categories are inadequate.
But most of all, Solaris and Stalker are eerie. We have remains of human habitation in Stalker and we are not quite sure what happened in the Zone to cause people to abandon this area. We see objects, possibly alien objects submerged in shallow water. In Solaris, we know the space station is essentially empty, and perhaps we suspect, in part, why scientists chose to die by suicide, but since we are not told the reasons for their decisions, we are not quite sure; and this adds to the sensation of eeriness.
But Solaris and Stalker are also eerie in that the landscapes themselves are active agents. Solaris, the planet, has some sort of consciousness, but the scientists do not understand this consciousness. In Stalker, The Zone is a bit subtle about its sentience. According to the character, Stalker, The Zone sets traps. A way that may be safe for one trip in The Zone may be dangerous at another time. It is The Zone that sets traps and it is The Zone that grants the deepest wish of the person who enters the room. But there is also the fact that in the movie, The Zone actually has one line of dialogue, “Stop. Don’t Move.” The characters in Stalker may suspect that they are being observed, and certain camera shots reinforce this feeling of surveillance, but they cannot confirm this suspicion; and if they could confirm the suspicion, they still cannot determine the nature of consciousness that is observing them.
What is interesting about the aliens, or the alien intelligence, in both Solaris and Stalker is not due to special effects. Rather, it is how the ordinary becomes alien. An ocean and an ordinary landscape in Estonia become alien once we accept the fiction that there is something hidden and unusual in these landscapes, some sort of consciousness, a consciousness that does not fit with our ordinary knowledge. The aliens do not appear alien—they just appear like landscapes.
Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. Repeater Books. 2016
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by David McClintock. Penquin Books. 2003
Solaris. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Mosfilm. 1972. Criterion
Stalker. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Mosfilm. 1979. Criterion
By Maura Priest
In 2010, a South Carolina mother was taken to court when her fourteen-year-old son reached 555 pounds. An article on the story reported, “His mother, Jerri Gray, lost custody of her son and is being charged with criminal neglect. Gray is facing 15 years on two felony counts, the first U.S. felony case involving childhood obesity” (Dolgoff:2010). In 2011, The Los Angeles Times published a debate about holding parents of obese children responsible for child abuse. One contributor compared the caretakers of obese children to negligent caretakers: “Removing children for nutritional neglect is fairly common, but the form of nutritional neglect is usually undernutrition—children who are starving—not overnutrition. Morbid obesity is just another form of malnutrition” (Ogilvie:2011).
I want to suggest that important ethical distinctions exist between negligent or abusive caretakers and the caretakers of obese children and that these differences ought to make a moral and legal difference. The distinctions are nuanced, and the ethical picture in cases of abuse, neglect, and obesity is far from black and white. However, the various types of harm that obese children face should be placed in neither the same ethical nor the same legal category as traditional abuse and neglect.
Persons traditionally called “negligent caretakers” fail to provide a child with basic life necessities. They rarely do so out of malice, as abusive parents might, quite the contrary: rather than having too much of an emotion (such as anger), parents who are neglectful might be better characterized by a lack of emotion (such as concern or caring). In contrast, caretakers of obese youth rarely ignore their children in this way.
Caretakers of obese children commonly respond to their children’s needs in two distinct fashions. The first is that they try to prevent overeating but simply fail. In some cases, the children outsmart them and successfully sneak into the kitchen and eat as they wish. In these situations, caretakers are not morally blameworthy for neglecting their children. Instead, they seem to be doing their best and falling short. This is very different from neglect.
Another kind of parental response is to give in to their children’s pleas. In the words of pediatrician and childhood obesity expert Joanna Dolgoff, “Many of the caretakers of my morbidly obese patients have been struggling (unsuccessfully) to keep their kids’ weights down. They beg. They plead.” (2010). Eventually, however, parents give in to their children’s desires to eat, and in doing so, these parents are guilty of an all-too-common parental fault. Surely all parents have, at one time or another, given in to their children’s pleading and granted what they knew they should not have. As Lindsey Murtagh and David Ludwig have noted, “Even relatively mild parental deficiencies, such as having excessive junk food in the home or failing to model a physically active lifestyle, may contribute to a child’s weight problem” (2011). The point is that, as bad as the effects of obesity are, the caretakers who contribute to these negative consequences are not nearly as terrible.
In many ways, environmental contingencies offer a legitimate ethical excuse to parents dealing with their children’s obesity. By “environment” I refer to social, political, and physical surroundings in which people live but that are, unlike one’s family or household, largely outside of individual control. While the health consequences of obesity are harmful, there might be few options available for parents to address the problem. Or even if parents can take actions to remedy the situation, doing so might impose an extremely heavy burden, such that falling short, even if harmful to the child, is quite understandable. One of the uncontrollable environmental factors that has received much popular and scholarly discussion is that of food deserts. Food deserts are communities where there is a paucity of healthful eating options. Food deserts might offer few options besides fast food and convenience stores (Morton, 2001; Smith 2009; Walker, 2010 and Widener, 2014). The inability to access convenient, healthful eating options quite plausibly contributes to obesity. Considering this, is it fair to say that neglect causes obesity? Or is it rather circumstances over which families have no control?
The laws used to warrant intervention in cases of obesity are typically those laws concerning abuse and neglect—the same laws that are used to justify intervention in cases where a child has been beaten, sexually molested, or not provided food or shelter. These legal justifications for action, however, are not appropriate in cases of obesity because they were specifically designed to address an issue which has important ethical and practical distinctions.
A major difference between abusive or even negligent caretakers and the caretakers of obese children involves the inferences one might justifiably draw about general parenting skills. Abusive or negligent parents demonstrate traits and habits that generally make them unfit caretakers. If, for instance, caretakers are caught beating one child, then there is enough evidence to deem them unfit to care for their other children. Similarly, parents who are negligent due to addiction are also unfit caretakers overall. With childhood obesity, however, one child might have a weight problem while others are fine. And if this is the case, then the parents can remain satisfactory caretakers for their other children. Laws against abuse and neglect are not built to handle these types of cases but rather to deal with caretakers who have more generalized problems.
Sometimes the legal punishment for abuse and neglect might indeed be appropriate for obesity. Yet even in these instances, there is reason to have separate laws and to have parents be charged with different crimes. Consider that those convicted of abuse or neglect will likely face severe moral judgements from the community. These judgements might not accurately reflect their circumstances. A jury, a judge, an employer, a school, or a day-care center may all draw certain conclusions upon learning a parent has been convicted of abuse or neglect. It is unfair to even allow the possibility of such grave misjudgments. If a parent has an obese child, labeling that parent as abusive or negligent is misleading at best and an injustice at worst. It gives the impression of a parent who just doesn’t take care of their children or of one who actively works against their interests. While parents of obese children are imperfect, they are not imperfect in this way. We need legislative measures that would justify legal intervention on a different basis and thereby have different consequences and connotations for the children and parents.
In conclusion, the most critical similarity among child abuse, child neglect, and childhood obesity is the mandate to take all of them seriously. Despite this similarity and some others, the differences between child abuse or neglect and childhood obesity are significant—so much so that they should not be grouped together in the same ethical or legal category.
Dolgoff, Joanna. “Should Child Obesity Be Considered Child Abuse?” The Huffington Post, April 13, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joanna-dolgoff-md/should-child-obesity-be-c_b_508680.html.
Morton, Lois Wright, and Troy C. Blanchard. “Starved for Access: Life in Rural America’s Food Deserts.” Rural Realities 1, no. 4 (2007): 1–10.
Murtagh, Lindsey, and David S. Ludwig. "State intervention in life-threatening childhood obesity." Jama 306, no. 2 (2011): 206-207.
Ogilvie, J.P. “Pro/Con: Does Obesity Qualify as Child Abuse?” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/29/health/la-he-childhood-obesity-custody-20110829
Smith, Chery, and Lois W. Morton. “Rural Food Deserts: Low-Income Perspectives on Food Access in Minnesota and Iowa.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 41, no. 3 (2009): 176–87.
Walker, Renee E., Christopher R. Keane, and Jessica G. Burke. “Disparities and Access to Healthy Food in the United States: A Review of Food Deserts Literature.” Health & Place 16, no. 5 (2010): 876–84.
Widener, Michael J., and Jerry Shannon. “When Are Food Deserts? Integrating Time into Research on Food Accessibility.” Health & Place 30 (2014): 1–3.
By Christopher Horvath
With the holiday gatherings quickly approaching I am likely to hear the question, probably for the hundredth time, ‘why are you studying philosophy?’ Before I get to that answer however, I want to talk about the question in the first part of my title, do we have a right to food?
This seemingly benign question is really a philosophically complex one and I don’t want to pretend to give any definitive answers here. Instead I want to briefly explore the source of one possible answer and to raise some of the additional questions to which it might lead.
One way to think about the question of whether we have a right to food is through the lens of James Griffin’s influential work on rights and normative agency. According to Griffin human beings are normative agents. That is, we possess autonomy (the ability to make decisions for ourselves) and liberty (the freedom to act on those decisions free of the undue influence of others). For Griffin, however, merely possessing autonomy and liberty is not enough, we must also possess the means to obtain our minimum welfare if we are to exercise our autonomy and liberty in a meaningful way. A simple example may help to make the point clear.
Imagine for a moment a young woman, she is the mother of two small children and the primary support and care-giver for her own elderly mother. Because she cares for her mother, she is only able to work part-time and barely has enough to make ends meet. Now imagine that one of her children becomes ill with a serious but treatable condition. Her insurance will not pay for the treatment her child needs and she is unable to earn more money by working more hours owing to the care which her mother requires. She can’t afford to pay for her child’s medical care and she can’t stop caring for her mother, what is she to do?
In this example the woman lacks the means to supply the minimum amount of welfare required for herself and her family. According to Griffin the fact that the woman possesses autonomy and liberty is of little consequence. Because she lacks the means to meet the needs of her family her ability to make a choice and act on it in this situation is essentially meaningless. Griffin thus concludes that human rights exist to protect and promote the autonomy and liberty of the individual and to ensure that individuals have the minimum of welfare needed to exercise those abilities in a meaningful way. So, while Griffin may not have started out with the intention to establish a right to food specifically, such a right would certainly fall under the umbrella of rights needed to guarantee minimum welfare and thus enable the meaningful exercise of autonomy and liberty.
So, to what other questions does this possible answer to our original question lead us? One obvious question is, what other things are included under this umbrella of minimum welfare? Things like clean water, shelter, and basic medical care may seem like obvious candidates. What about an education or a secure retirement? The answers in these types of cases seem less obvious and yet including or excluding them is likely to raise a host of other philosophically thorny questions. What about more practical questions like how do we establish such rights, what do we do, locally and internationally, if these needs go unmet and the rights violated? These and many other questions are grappled with every day by applied philosophers and theorists working in a variety of disciplines, from economics to social justice to political philosophy.
So maybe the next time I’m gathering with my family and friends around the holiday table and one of them asks, ‘so why are you studying philosophy?’ I’ll answer, because I want to help feed the world.
By Nathanael Pierce, President of ASU’s Undergraduate Philosophy Club.
A few weeks ago, many philosophers partook of a long-held tradition. Donning togas, philosophers went to parties, chugged Hemlock like Socrates, and delved into conversations, making eyes roll with uncalled-for philosophical inquiries. But for everyone else, Halloween is a celebration of things not there. At least, things we are pretty sure aren’t there: ghosts, vampires, Maximus Prime, etc. Most would agree that throwing parties for the unreal should be reserved to one day a year, at most. So it can be surprising that a whole field of philosophy brings into doubt the reality of everything from barns, to hands, to the entire external world. Epistemology is what I’m referring to here, A.K.A., the theory of knowledge.
A quick survey of popular mind-experiments in epistemology reads like a horror movie. They include brains in vats, deceiving demons, clairvoyants, and creepy fake barns. How do we know we’re not being deceived by an evil demon – or aren’t just a brain in a vat being stimulated to have experiences by super-duper neuroscientists? How can we trust our perceptions? The critiques badgering and nitpicking common concepts, like justification and knowledge, with elaborate mind-experiments drive some away from the field.
However, applying the theory of knowledge to contemporary issues is timely and important. Applied epistemology is defined by philosopher Larry Lauden as “the study of whether systems of investigation that purport to be seeking the truth are well engineered to lead to true beliefs about the world.” This study is more relevant than ever in our Digital Age. Philosopher David Coady remarks that “as the sexual revolution and breakthroughs in reproductive technology have changed our moral landscape,” the “information revolution and the knowledge economy have radically changed the way that we acquire knowledge and justify our beliefs.”
Epistemology can be applied to many of today’s most important issues. Beyond “fake news,” it can apply to building online search engines, innovative reforms in healthcare, and to the #MeToo movement.
Googling “Epistemology” will give you 23,700,000 results (and 23,700,001, when this article is published). That is a massive amount of information! But who decided that Wikipedia would be the first result for me, beating millions of others? Computer programmers and data analysts, programming online search engines, are tasked with the difficult job of building software that filters each website, giving you the personalized best match to your search. For this, epistemology becomes a handy tool. In ciphering search results, programmers have to consider which epistemic values to regard most. Meaning, should websites with the most truth be forwarded? Or the ones most understandable? Those two values, truth and comprehensibility, don’t always go hand-in-hand. Imagine a child looking up “mitochondria,” finding only academic research papers! And even in some cases, such as looking up medical diagnoses, the truth is not as highly valued as merely avoiding falsity. Here having a strong foundation in epistemology can serve mightily in building software.
Epistemology can also help “healthcare reform” in the sense of improving patient care. For example, a 1984 study found that, on average, it took only 14 seconds before a doctor would interrupt a patient just beginning to speak. While the doctor may have had good intentions, like questioning for clarity, epistemologists would categorize this as “epistemic injustice.” First introduced by philosopher Miranda Fricker, an epistemic injustice is “a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower”. Someone’s capacity as a knower can be weakened by negative stereotypes projected onto them by listeners. So, as a fragile patient sits down to tell what she knows, the physician could believe that her deductions are inherently weak, needing clarity. But this attitude leaves many patients, especially those with chronic health conditions, feeling detached and helpless in their care.
A third area epistemology can advance are important social movements, such as the #MeToo Movement. Proponents of the movement, recognized by Time Magazine as the 2017 Person of the Year as “The Silence Breakers”, confront personally experienced sexual misconduct. Time Magazine says, “These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal… their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced.” Philosopher Kate Abramson elucidates how survivors are hushed into corners of silence. Abramson uses the term “gaslighting” to describe a survivor’s suppressed experiences. Similar to Fricker’s epistemic injustice, gaslighting occurs when a survivor’s testimony is met by “that's crazy,” “it's not a big deal,” “you're overreacting,” and similar phrases. This pulls the epistemic rug out from beneath a testifier, destroying not only others’ belief in her, but her own belief in herself. An all too common occurrence, those who experience gaslighting can reach severe, major, clinical depression. But Abramson expresses hope, as depression is “a fitting evaluative response to what she has been subjected and the first signpost on the road back.”
Now you know to be careful during next Halloween. Because it isn’t just those draped in togas that are philosophers. Applied epistemology brings philosophical discourse to real-world application. We philosophers could be anywhere. The one costumed as a computer nerd? Philosopher. The one with the stethoscope? That’s a philosopher! And the one holding a sign, dressed as an activist? You guessed it: philosopher.
By Nathanael Pierce, ASU Philosophy and History Major
Nathanael Pierce is President of ASU’s Undergraduate Philosophy Club: find us on Facebook.
The superiority complex from STEM friends. The unwanted spotlight in parties. Frantic mothers and disappointed fathers. It seems that all of this and more are common tribulations among philosophy students. At least, as many think, until you secure tenure. Then, high-fives all around.
Philosophy has had a bad rap. Its philosophers have been decried for corrupting the youth (Socrates), naively chasing off demons (Descartes), and creating the bloodlust of the last century (Nietzsche). Its practitioners have been homeless (Diogenes), and lived either long enough to be depressed (Kierkegaard) or long enough to go mad (again, Nietzsche).
But the heart of antagonism towards philosophy stems from ignorance. Ignorance of this simple fact: philosophy is useful! And this fact deserves far more recognition than the one-time-only-mention-in-your-academic-advising-appointment treatment it often times receives. Thankfully, this is the axiom in the growing field of applied philosophy.
At Arizona State University, now recognized four years in a row as one of the world’s most innovative universities, applied philosophy is the blood in the veins of its Philosophy Ph.D. program. As the ASU Philosophy program defines it,
Applied philosophy includes both the application of theories developed within any of the subdisciplines of philosophy to everyday problems or phenomena and the application of research produced by methods used in other disciplines in order to understand and address philosophical questions.
How is philosophy applicable to “everyday problems or phenomena”? In many and surprising ways!
For example, Dr. Shawn Klein at ASU is general editor of Studies in the Philosophy of Sport and blogger/podcaster at SportsEthicist.com. Klein combines applied philosophy with sport analytics and similar fields. “Philosophy”, Klein says, “is essential here because it helps to get more precision in the concepts or brings out various assumptions or implicit premises.” His research and classes focus on the many ethical questions on and off the field of sport, such as:
- What is a sport, anyway?
- Considering the permanent debilitating physical toll many players receive from concussions, is enjoying American football ok?
- Should American football, if so dangerous, be allowed?
Interestingly, applied philosophy does not only inform sport, but the reverse is true as well. Sport, Klein says, “has become our universal text. The Ancient Greeks had the Iliad; the Early Moderns had Shakespeare, we have football.”
Another example of applied philosophy in action is Joan McGregor, ASU professor and head of the ongoing project, Dinner 2040: The Future of Food . McGregor is interested in exploring “avenues to a future food system which is more sustainable, respects the ecological integrity of the place, preserves cultural traditions, health, and ensures just practices in the production, distribution, and consumption of food.” This is an important project, considering that 700,000 Arizonans reside in areas without fresh and healthy foods available, sometimes traveling up to 100 miles to acquire nutritious food.
Douglas Portmore, another ASU philosophy professor applies philosophical questions about morality, rationality, and the relationship between them to questions about posthumous harm:
- Is there an obligation to fulfill last wills and testaments?
- Can you wrong a dead person?
Those studying philosophy are equipped with analytical skills, such as logic and reasoning, which help them address such applied topics – and which show in their future careers. For those still skeptical, students who study philosophy are equipped with the skills needed to perform well in multiple functions – applying those skills to other areas. Looking at statistics from GRE scores, philosophy students rank highly in verbal reasoning, analytical writing, and more. Ironically, statistics from the GMAT scores, the test taken for business and management graduate schools, show that philosophy students outperform their peers who studied business-related degrees in their undergraduate years.
A philosophy degree is also a great tool to have for pursuing law. Philosophy students consistently have some of the best LSAT scores around. And, compared to other popular degrees, philosophy students are more likely to be accepted to law school.
All this to say: philosophy is useful. So the next time brows are raised at the news of your philosophy degree and the ensuing question of your post-graduation plans arises, you have justifiable and legitimate reasons to reply that you plan on moving into sports analytics, wish to solve world hunger, or go into law. Applied philosophy is providing many academics, professionals, and students with the intellectual skill sets which only come from philosophy to dissect and solve many of the diverse challenges the world is facing today.