The “Social Harm” of Philosophy

The “Social Harm” of Philosophy


While once I used to think that professional philosophy was a place where it would be easy to do no social harm, I have come to recognize that not only do professional philosophers harm each other distressingly often, but also in our social role as, say, expert-ethicists (not just in medical and professional contexts), we can, in fact, generate and facilitate non-trivial harms to humans and animals.

That’s Eric Schliesser, writing at Digressions & Impressions, in response to the recent revelations about the role of psychologists in the CIA’s torture programs and the cooperation of the American Psychological Association with the CIA, particularly in regard to the association’s ethics policy. Schliesser’s examples are philosophical defenses of torture and animal research, as well as a kind of inequality between the philosophers who advocate various visions for helping the least well-off and those who implement those visions.

The idea that philosophy is socially harmful is not exactly a new one (hello, Socrates), but most philosophers today do not take it seriously. While there are some conservative exceptions, the dominant (and self-serving) view appears to be that what we’re “harming” is complacency, meta-ignorance, thoughtlessness, etc., and that this is all, on balance, socially beneficial. I’m drawn to this line of thinking myself, but I’m susceptible to self-serving biases as much as anyone. Perhaps others are more resistant, and would be able to lay out some good examples of the ways in which philosophy is socially harmful.

(image: detail of “The Death  of Socrates” by Jacques Louis David)

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