Can Philosophy Be Justified in a Time of Crisis?

Is it morally acceptable to be apolitical? Is there something wrong with the pursuit of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”?

In 2015, I wrote an abstract for a nonexistent academic article, a kind of parody. It was called “Can Philosophy be Justified in a Time of Crisis?” It was stupid, and I wrote it mainly to amuse myself. I posted it on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). It went like this: 

In this paper, I take the position that a large portion of contemporary academic work is an appalling waste of human intelligence that cannot be justified under any mainstream normative ethics. Part I builds a four-step argument for why this is the case, while Part II responds to arguments for the contrary position offered in Cass Sunstein’s “In Praise of Law Reviews, and Jargon-Filled Academic Writing.” First, in Part I(A), I make the case that there is a large crisis of suffering in the world today. (Part I does not take me very long.) In Part I(B), I assess various theories of “the role of the intellectual,” concluding that the only role for the intellectual is for the intellectual to cease to exist. In Part I(C), I assess the contemporary state of the academy, showing that, contrary to the theory advanced in Part I(B), many intellectuals insist on continuing to exist. In Part I(D), I propose a new path forward, whereby present-day intellectuals take on a useful social function by spreading truths that help to alleviate the crisis of suffering outlined in Part I(A).

The thing is: I was kidding, but not entirely. There was no actual paper, although lots of people wrote to me to ask for a copy. When they did, I told them that because I’d concluded philosophy couldn’t be justified, I had also concluded it would be immoral to write the full paper. The truth was that I was lazy and also unsure where I actually stood on the question. But that question was one I did think seriously about a lot of the time, and still do. It can be put this way: when there is preventable suffering all around you, what are your moral obligations? Can you justify being a “detached” intellectual who pursues “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”? What duties do we have toward society? 

At the time I wrote this abstract, I was in a PhD program, and I was feeling very useless. The research I was doing didn’t seem like it was going to matter to anyone or affect anything. For some people in a university, that fact never upset them. They were there to think through intellectual puzzles, to work on some problem that interested them, and it was valuable because it was interesting, regardless of whether it had consequences for the world. In fact, among many academics I detected a strong suspicion of scholarly writing that seemed intended to have consequences—this was seen as less intellectually pure. It was “activist” scholarship, and its objectivity could not be trusted. There was even a disdain for so-called “popular” writing, i.e., writing aimed at a broad audience. Being popular was suspect, because it suggested selling out, or dumbing down, or pandering. Obscurity was a sign of intellectual integrity. 

Maybe it was selfish, but I always wanted my writing to actually be read, and by as many people as possible. In fact, from my point of view it was almost selfish to do the opposite, to write only for oneself, to practice intellectual onanism. It felt deeply morally wrong to pursue the topics that interested me without any regard to whether they actually mattered, in the same way that just sitting around doing crosswords all day would feel wrong to me. 

Bertrand Russell, after making major contributions to philosophy, turned more and more to anti-war activism as he aged. He was jailed for his pacifist stance in World War I, but even when he was in his 80s and 90s he was speaking out against nuclear weapons. Here he is in 1961, at the age of 89, marching in an anti-nuclear demonstration. Four years later, Russell organized a tribunal on U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, on the theory that international legal institutions were failing to effectively uphold international law. Russell was, by that point, well-off and famous, and he could have done anything he liked with his limited remaining time. He chose the thankless path of peace activism. Russell is reported to have been asked why he was spending his time at protest marches, when he could have been working on intellectually significant philosophical problems. Russell replied that if he and others like him didn’t try to stop the threat of war, there wouldn’t be anyone around to appreciate philosophical work. Stopping a nuclear holocaust is a priority that comes before anything else.

Noam Chomsky, a great admirer of Russell, also went from having a purely academic career to spending much of his time on political activism. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Chomsky’s writing was exclusively on his scholarly interests, linguistics and cognitive science. But as the U.S. escalated the war in Vietnam, Chomsky began to write more and more about the war, producing long, densely-footnoted essays exposing the lies of U.S. government officials and the hideous brutality of the war. While Chomsky continued to publish on linguistics, most of his later books are intensively-researched exposés on U.S. foreign policy. 

Chomsky has, interestingly enough, always implied that he would rather not have written so much on foreign policy but felt a moral compulsion to do it. I once heard him say in an interview that, intellectually, he wished he could have done work on the history of science. Politics doesn’t interest him intellectually at all, but at a certain point he felt he had to get involved, that it would be wrong to simply work on the scientific subjects that he actually enjoyed thinking about. Interestingly, when Chomsky is asked about his regrets, or things he feels he did wrong, he says that he regrets waiting so long to get involved in the anti-war movement, feeling it was a kind of moral failing to stick to “pure” science as the war was escalating.  

Is he right about this? Is it morally wrong to do nothing but scientific research and to be “apolitical”? I think there’s a good argument for that position. The Vietnam War, for instance, was an atrocity. The U.S. government was causing endless unnecessary human suffering. As Americans living in something resembling a democracy, we have a certain obligation to try to steer government conduct in a direction that helps rather than hurts people. I do think it would have been wrong not to speak out against the Vietnam War, just as it would have been wrong not to speak out against the Iraq War. I believe the old cliché about how evil flourishes when the good do nothing

In fact, it’s remarkable that there can even be a question about whether we have an obligation to work to try to lessen the amount of suffering in the world. And yet there are plenty of people who live comfortably, and they are blissfully untroubled by any thoughts of whether they are living up to their obligations or whether pure self-indulgence can be justified. It’s not that they’ve found a way to justify ignoring other people’s troubles. It’s that questions of responsibility and complicity are never even raised. 

I’ve written critically before about the Effective Altruist movement, but one thing I respect about them is that they take seriously the fact that human beings do have duties toward each other (and toward other animals), that morality makes very serious demands on us that we’re not allowed to ignore. Or rather: we’re allowed to do it, in the sense that nobody will care very much if you pursue a completely self-indulgent lifestyle without regard to the interests of anybody else (you might even become president of the United States). But in doing so, we violate moral rules that we have, in other parts of our lives, already accepted. The effective altruists are fond of Peter Singer’s “drowning child” example: we all know it would be wrong to watch a child drown in front of you and do nothing, so why is it okay to let children die far away from you and do nothing? The fact that they’re out of sight changes the moral calculus? How? 

It’s easy to accept that Singer is onto something, that in the same way there is a duty to do something about people being hurt in front of us, there is a duty to do something about the pain of people we’ve never met. But then you have to ask: what does that duty require of us? Do we have to give up everything that isn’t reducing suffering? Would it be wrong for Chomsky to spend any of his time on linguistics, since all of that is more time he could be spending trying to stop wars? Chomsky occasionally liked to play Super Mario with his grandchildren when they were young. Was this time that should have been spent on political work? 

Once you start thinking about all the “drowning children” (not just those who are drowning, but those who are being bombed, starved, abused, or getting sickened with preventable diseases), you can feel as if there’s a duty to become an ascetic, to spend all of your time trying to help. And some people do that. They truly limit their pleasures to a bare minimum and spend all of their lives trying to help others.

But most of us, while we might admire the virtues of these saintly types, find it impossible to give up comforts, hobbies, and pleasures. Are we violating a moral duty? Perhaps. I do often feel as if I live far more luxuriously than I ought to, even if my indulgences are relatively modest (a few nice clothes, fancy lattes) compared to the obscene luxuries of the ultrarich. I definitely feel, though, that I couldn’t have justified spending a career as an academic philosopher. Not in this world. Not at this point in history. It would be nice, perhaps. But I wasn’t born into a world where it was “morally possible” to spend a lifetime thinking about questions like “how do we know that anything is real?” I was born into a world filled with nuclear weapons and escalating great power conflict. I still write and do frivolous things, perhaps more than I ought to. But to pursue only knowledge for knowledge’s sake seems, to me, downright indefensible.

My answer to the question I posed in 2015, then, is “some.” Some philosophy can be justified, just as I think spending some time on a beach reading a novel is a basic right of all people. But I don’t think it’s morally optional to participate in the political life of your country, given the stakes of what happens if we don’t. When I wrote that abstract, Donald Trump’s political career was still something of a joke. But over the next year he became a terrifyingly serious threat, and I was deeply frustrated that plenty of people around me weren’t taking him seriously. I found it hard to concentrate on my graduate school work. I kept asking myself: how can I justify this? Does it need a justification? With the abstract, what I wanted to see was a counterargument: how could you justify doing philosophy in a time of crisis? (Showing just how contradictory and confused my thinking was, the very next year I wrote a paper called “The Necessity of Social Philosophy” that didn’t answer any of the questions raised by the parody abstract.) 

Some people take their moral obligations very seriously indeed. I’m thinking of Aaron Bushnell, who was so overcome by feelings of complicity in an atrocity that he self-immolated in front of the Israeli embassy. Few of us find ourselves compelled to make that level of sacrifice, and I don’t think we need to. But too many of us are unwilling to honestly confront the question that Bushnell confronted: what do I owe the world? Bushnell famously said that the answer to the question “What would you have done during Jim Crow, or slavery, or the Holocaust?” is “You’re doing it now.” He was right about that. In fact, perhaps there is a justifiable way of doing “philosophy” in a time of crisis. But what it means is being willing to follow moral beliefs to their logical endpoints, to think clearly about what our principles actually demand of us in the real world. 

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