Syria and Misconceptions about Philosophy

In the wake of suspected recent chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians by their own government, The Atlantic reached out to a few philosophers to learn what the “moral course of action” is for the United States. The collection of answers suggests a problem with public philosophy.

The article’s author, Sigal Samuel, writes:

The war [in Syria] has left roughly half a million people dead—the UN has stopped counting—but the question of moral responsibility has taken on new urgency in the wake of a suspected chemical attack over the weekend. As President Trump threatened to launch retaliatory missile strikes, I spoke about America’s ethical responsibility with some of the world’s leading moral philosophers. These are people whose job it is to ascertain the right thing to do in any given situation. All of them suggested that, years ago, America might have been able to intervene in a moral way to stop the killing in the Syrian civil war. But asked what America should do now, they all gave the same startling response: They don’t know.

I think it is great that Ms. Samuel reached out to philosophers. However, I think we can ask how it is she came to think that it is the job of moral philosophers “to ascertain the right thing to do in any given situation,” for it is not. And we can ask how she came to think that it is “startling” that “they don’t know,” for if philosophers are experts in anything, it is in revealing the complexities that make it hard to know anything at all.

Short answer: it’s not her fault; it’s ours.

Philosophers, more than anyone else, are in a position to know about the extraordinary amount of disagreement there is now, and has been throughout the history of philosophy, over answers to big philosophical questions. Such collective disagreement, among the people who have thought about these questions the most, is a reason why we should have little confidence in the truth of our own answers to them, and to be skeptical that providing true answers to big philosophical questions is what philosophy is about—we’re much better at the undervalued tasks of creating questions and otherwise complicating matters.

This skepticism is especially salient regarding practical questions. Most philosophical training prepares us for mapping the possible and the necessary. This is of limited use in navigating the actual and the advisable. Yet this has little effect on how some philosophers comport themselves, especially when engaging with the public on matters of current events. We quite frequently see in such contexts philosophers offering answers to questions about what to do and providing practical advice. We give the impression that we are all about the answers. It is no surprise, then, that others come to see us that way, too. And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem that Ms. Samuel’s article conveniently illustrates. She assumes that the job of moral philosophers is to answer practical moral questions. She then asks three philosophers—Helen Frowe (Stockholm), Nancy Sherman (Georgetown), and Peter Singer (Princeton)—what the actual United States should do now. To their credit, each of them says in one form or another, “I don’t know.” But the impression the article conveys is that this is a failure. And once again, doubts about the value of philosophy are reinforced.

At a time when education in the humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, is being targeted for reduction or elimination by short-sighted administrators and legislators, such doubts may have harmful ramifications for the profession.

Philosophers have not done a good job of explaining the value of what they do. If we had, then Ms. Samuel would not have asked her interviewees, “What should we do?” Instead, she would have asked them, “Why is it so hard to know what to do?” That’s a valuable and helpful question, and one that philosophers are expert at taking up.

Lu Xinjian, “Beijing (City DNA)”


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