We Have Work To Do

On Friday, January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America. 


Though there were some warning signs (Brexit, for one) and some consideration of the prospect (see #5 here, for example), not many people predicted that Trump would win the election. Certainly very few people in academia thought he would win.

But he has won. I find this horrifying. And while the expression of horror, fear, sadness, bewilderment, anger, and so on, is perfectly appropriate, I want us to here focus on a different question.

The question is: what should we do? By “we” here, I mean we in our capacity as members of the community of professional philosophers. 

We can reach more people, and do a better job teaching our students.

Here are three contributions to Trump’s success that philosophers and other academics can address in their courses and engagement with the public in a largely nonpartisan way:

1. Lack of respect for expertise. One glaring hallmark of Trump’s campaign is his apparent lack of respect for expertise, and the concomitant belief that the relevant questions are simple and their answers easy. The confidence with which he expressed his detail-less assurances that he could offer “tremendous” solutions to problems it was quite clear he did not understand ought to have been a bright warning sign. Philosophers are in the business of showing how the apparently simple is really quite complicated, once you think about it. This point is applicable across nearly every domain, especially governance and the various political, economic, and social challenges that governments address.

from Indexed by Jessica Hagy

from Indexed by Jessica Hagy


2. Inattention to sense. Is it that people don’t know when what they’re hearing doesn’t make sense? Or do they not care? Or do various cognitive biases interfere with people’s understanding of what makes sense? Yes, yes, and yes. Philosophers have long placed careful reasoning among their pedagogical goals. We need to do a better job of that, though. And we need to take up the task of motivating rationality. We academics—philosophers, especially—don’t generally need to be motivated to try to think rationally, but we are not normal. Additionally, we need to incorporate into our courses findings on the biases that interfere with proper reasoning, along with debiasing strategies.

3. Focus on the visible, rather than the important. Part of Trump’s success was owed to his ability to paint challenges as conflicts, and then foster solidarity with potential voters against their “enemies.” Yet the construal of these conflicts works by drawing attention to superficial and ultimately unimportant differences, and ignoring underlying and more important similarities. Insofar as philosophers teach others to look below the surface, and to not take things simply as they appear, they have a role to play in undermining some divisive appeals. Merely drawing attention to the pervasive role of chance or luck in everyone’s life can get students to be more thoughtful about the kinds of problems governments tend to address.

There is more that could be said about each of these, and I’m sure that others have different answers to what we should do. Please share them.

We have work to do, people. Let’s figure out what it is and how to do it.

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