“If philosophy is to thrive, it must be sensitive and responsive to the world it is meant to engage with. The non-philosophers in our reading group shed light on a world that may be difficult for us philosophers to see and point out aspects of lived experiences that we may not have access to.”
In the following guest post*, Jesse Hamilton, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, talks about a novel way to bridge the gap between academic philosophy and the general public.
A Pandemic Ethics Book Club with the General Public
by Jesse Hamilton
Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
-Karl Marx, Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach
I am a Ph.D. student studying moral and political philosophy, and I know a moral dilemma when I see one. I am also an Iraq War veteran who knows what it is like to be on the front lines and live with the consequences of my moral decisions. The pandemic has put us all on the front lines of a morally murky world and left the general public with questions about what they ought to do. The University of Pennsylvania Philosophy Department’s “Pandemic Ethics” Book Club attempts to help them answer those questions.
Engaging with the general public on topical moral and political issues is vital in a liberal democracy. Moreover, if there was ever a time when our communities needed this type of engagement, it is now. But this initiative aspires to do more than than just deliberate about a topical issue. Our current book club is the first step in a series of public reading groups that aim to bridge the gap between academic philosophy and the general public. The mission is simple: Bring together a diverse group of graduate students and philosophy professors with a diverse group of people outside of academia and discuss topics of philosophical interest.
Accessible philosophy writing is critical to public engagement. Our group is currently reading Pandemic Ethics by Ben Bramble (ANU) and holds weekly meetings over Zoom. We have twenty-five total participants—five philosophers and twenty non-philosophers. The philosophers contribute the theoretical perspective and lead the breakout room discussions. The non-philosophers are a diverse group of working professionals—teachers, nurses, lawyers, corporate executives, local legislators, and retirees—and contribute their real world perspective. Some participants in the group make pandemic-related decisions that affect thousands of people. Indeed, many joined because they acknowledge the moral importance of their daily decisions. Others joined because they have a general interest in discussing philosophy. Regardless of why they joined, each book club participant will be well-prepared for an inevitable Thanksgiving Day pandemic debate with their crazy uncle.
This public engagement is more than just philosophy shifting the world. How can the world shift philosophy? This is a question worth exploring and requires us to get our hands dirty. If philosophy is to thrive, it must be sensitive and responsive to the world it is meant to engage with. The non-philosophers in our reading group shed light on a world that may be difficult for us philosophers to see and point out aspects of lived experiences that we may not have access to. This allows us to see how our ethical theories, concepts, and arguments play out in real-time in a real crisis.
Dr. Bramble made his book available free of charge, and our team is making all the materials we have used to get our book club up and running available to anyone who wants them. Please contact Jesse Hamilton ([email protected]) to receive more information or to join a session, held on Thursdays, 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM ET. All are welcome, and feel free to invite a non-philosopher, too—the more, the merrier.
Special thanks to Chetan Cetty, Karen Detlefsen, Allauren Forbes, Julian Gould, Sukaina Hirji, Paul Musso, Tyler Re, Jacqueline Wallis, Daniel Wodak, and Elise Woodard for inspiration, support, feedback, and participation.