Today’s column by economist Gregory Mankiw in the New York Times provides an occasion to reflect on a problem for public philosophy. In the column, Mankiw contrasts a rudimentary form of utilitarianism with a thoughtless version of the precautionary principle. Even if you agree with the policy prescriptions that he concocts from this mix of ingredients, no philosopher should be happy with how these ideas are presented.
On the one hand, it seems good for the discipline of philosophy for there to be public reminders of the way that philosophical ideas can inform real world policy decisions. On the other hand, when the philosophical ideas are presented so simplistically and in the service of a predetermined ideological position, it seems like a kind of intellectual abuse. So on balance, should philosophers be pleased or displeased when something like this happens? How good does “public philosophy” need to be?
UPDATE (3/25/14): Matt Bruenig at Demos.org has some critical remarks on Mankiw’s “philosophizing” here.