When Others Philosophize in Public

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.

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Ben Hale
10 years ago

Anyway, here’s why I think this is okay; and why I think philosophers should in fact be happy with how these ideas are presented.

It’s true that this is a bastardization of much of the great work in the philosophy corpus, and particularly in the utilitarian corpus, but it is also true that this is how utilitarianism and the precautionary principle “trickle out.”

The same can also be said about science communication, econ communication, and basically any translation that emanates through the public windbaggery that is the current state of contemporary journalism.

Philosophers oughtn’t to focus on how unfairly very sophisticated arguments are presented, and thereby discount them or poo-pooh them; but rather to assess these sorts of articles and arguments as starting points for further elaboration. Such articles can be the starting point of inquiry and not just extra noise. In my view, this is how you tackle the problem of public philosophy: what are people saying about X? What are common arguments? Where do they go wrong?

If I had a dime for the number of times I’ve heard philosophers say, “…but nobody actually believes this,” where this is a proxy for “…but no serious philosopher believes this,” I’d be a rich man. People believe all manner of stupid shit; and often they have very bad arguments for believing what they believe. Philosophy can tackle these arguments, but it must take them seriously as just that, _bad arguments_.

Howard Frant
10 years ago

Whether you should be happy or not, get off your asses, philosophers.

I am always astonished by Greg Mankiw’s disingenuousness. It reminds me of his endorsement of the Earned Income Tax Credit, something that escaped his notice before there was talk about increasing the minimum wage. I doubt any economist would give these ideas ten seconds of consideration. “Gosh, we really don’t know what’s going to happen, so we should do nothing.” He can’t quite bring himself to apply that to global warming.

So get into the mix, philosophers. Don’t tell us that he doesn’t understand the fine points. He may not, or he may and is hiding the ball.

Brandon Beasley
10 years ago

I’m with Howard Frant. What this shows, above all else, is that philosophers need to make an effort to be more present in public debate and mainstream media.