Interviewed by Nathanael Pierce
Maura Priest graduated with her PhD in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, in 2016, and a Master of Science in Bioethics from Columbia University in 2018. She also has a Certificate in Pediatric Bioethics from Children’s Mercy Hospital (2018). Her published work consists in over 20 articles touching on ethics, applied ethics, epistemology, political philosophy, and collective action. Among other projects, she is currently working on a short book about the ethics of elites and elitism. She has three main areas of research: virtue theory, medical ethics, and the ethics of collective action. Outside of academia, she runs, skateboards, snowboards, and hangs out with her two dogs, Christmas and Spooky.
How do you define “Applied Philosophy”?
In general, I am not a fan of definitions, but prefer general descriptions. Definitions often leave little room for leeway and exceptions, and most terms fit best into what Wittgenstein has called a “family resemblance.” Rather than just having one way to understand a concept, the truth is we use a single word in many, but related, ways. With all that in mind, my general description of applied philosophy is this: using philosophical tools to analyze issues that have direct consequences for real people and their everyday lives. The easier it is to draw this connection, the more likely I would call the topic “applied philosophy.” Consider, for instance, the possibility we are all being deceived by a demon. This is an interesting exercise, but unlikely to have consequences for everyday folk. On the other hand, consider the morality of drug use. Whether or not we should be morally or legally concerned with drug use easily connects to real persons and the everyday problems they face.
How does your research fit within applied philosophy, as you define it? Tell us about this research. What made you want to research this topic?
I do research in several areas in applied philosophy. First, I am concerned with character traits that make us good and bad people. This connects to our lives, insofar as most of us care about being decent persons, and we judge those we consider bad persons. I also work on issues in medical ethics, especially psychiatric issues concerning children. We were all children once, and many of us will become parents. Hence the way that children are treated medically, and troubles they face psychologically, often have serious consequences for the lives of many. Lastly, I research the ethics of drug use, which I consider applied for the reasons mentioned in the previous answer.
Where do you predict your research field will be in five-ten years?
This is hard to predict. Virtue theory has recently seen a large growth in intellectual ethics, and my hope is that this growth will continue and become more main stream. I do think we are headed in a direction of taking psychological harm more seriously, but I am not sure if in 10 years is enough to see a major shift. There are legal and financial difficulties with implementing ethical corrections, and these influence the direction of applied philosophy. I do think more and more states and nations will start to legalize “soft” drugs, and this will take scholarship in the direction of discussing the best way to implement regulations, alongside discussions about whether legalizing harder drugs is acceptable.
Does your work in applied philosophy require you to consult with or conduct research with faculty in other disciplines? Does it require you to be proficient in a field outside of philosophy – and how proficient do you have to be in your co-field? Was it difficult to find experts in the field you wish to do applied philosophy?
Medical Ethics is a fundamentally interdisciplinary field, consisting of not only philosophers, but also physicians, psychologists, lawyers, sociologists, and a few others. To advance in this subfield, I completed a MS in bioethics at Columbia University, and a post-doc at Children’s Mercy hospital. At Columbia there was only a few philosophers in the program. Most were some type of medical professional. Likewise, at Children’s Mercy, I mostly worked with physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. While I am not sure I would say you have to gain proficiency in these other fields, you do need to gain a basic understanding. Knowledge of statistics is helpful for many areas of my research. And lastly, knowledge of psychology is important for work in virtue theory.
What philosopher/philosophical School has been most influential in your research?
I will always be indebted to Aristotle. My first philosophy class was based on The Nicomachean Ethics, and to do this day I haven’t found a work that surpasses it. Virtue theory is in the minority within philosophical ethics, and I still can’t understand why. Adam Smith’s book on ethics, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is probably a close second. His work puts emotions front and center in a compelling way that I try to do in my own work. Lastly, I will mention J.L. Austin, whose straight-forward, no nonsense style is something I wish all philosophers would imitate.
What would you say to a student who is considering studying philosophy to encourage them to do so? How early in one’s academic career can one start doing applied philosophy?
As far as I’m concerned, you can do applied philosophy on day one, or day zero. I disagree with Plato’s claim that you have to be 30 before doing real philosophy. Of course, the philosophy you do on the first day of undergrad may not be particularly sophisticated, but we all need to start somewhere. Thinking deeply about right and wrong in our everyday lives seems a great place to start.
As to what I would say to students. Philosophy is a great major, and provides skills for almost any area of life. It is also correlated with especially high scores on standardized tests like the GRE and LSAT. That said, while you are majoring in philosophy, you might consider two things. First, a second major that supplements philosophy, or alternatively, getting experience through volunteering or internships in areas that you might consider for a career. If you have a career path to go along with your philosophy degree, you will better know how to apply your skills and can perhaps calm your worried parents.
April 12, 2019