An Excellent Public Philosopher

“Philosophy always causes offense—perhaps it should cause offense,” says philosopher Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, in a recent interview, below.

Singer is one of the world’s most well-known living philosophers. Some philosophers are clearly bothered by Singer’s renown, in part because he holds philosophical views that many philosophers disagree with. But, of course, that is something he has in common with every other philosopher.

I think that Singer makes for an excellent famous public philosopher.

His underlying moral view is not particularly complicated, so lay people can relatively easily see how he arrives at his views about practical matters in ethics and politics.

His views are in some ways highly revisionist (of “commonsense morality”) and provocative; he has stimulated people to change their minds about moral matters (e.g., altruism and animal welfare), demonstrating one power of philosophy, and has stimulated other people to develop their positions and formulate them more carefully so as to better disagree with him (e.g., on the matters related to disabled people), demonstrating another power of philosophy.

He has also been criticized for being insufficiently revisionist (e.g, complacency with status quo political and economic institutions), and these complaints have received some additional attention in part because they’ve been directed at someone so well-known, and this helps enrich public debate, too.

Though he has received both harsh criticism from his colleagues in the philosophy profession and has been vilified and threatened by certain segments of the public, he has persisted, sharing his ideas with broad audiences, calmly discussing his views in academic and non-academic settings, continuing to engage in philosophical disputes, following what he takes to be the best arguments to their conclusions, no matter how unpopular.

Singer has done well for himself, professionally, too, which is also a good sign. Even if we grant that he likely benefited from being a member of privileged demographic categories, radicalism (if you’re tempted to scoff at the label it’s because you’re failing to appreciate just how much has changed over the past, say, 40 years) did not hinder his success. It’s impossible to determine how many of the careers of others with unpopular philosophical views, and how many efforts at publicizing those views, were directly or indirectly helped along by the widely known example of Singer’s success, but I would guess the number is not small.

For these and other reasons, I think we should appreciate Singer’s work as a public philosopher even if—perhaps especially if—we disagree with him.

(video courtesy of Katrien Devolder)

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