The Moral Obligations of Moral Philosophers

In a review of a book on bioethics over at The New Republic’s excellent new online book section, Sally Satel writes:

Fox and Swazey have faith that expertise in ethics does exist, but they believe that such expertise will not be fully realized until bioethicists take on matters of social justice. Disconcertingly, they are not concerned that a social justice agenda risks blurring the lines between disinterested ethical analysis (the authentic expertise of bioethicists) and outright political activism.

Where that line lies isn’t an easy question to answer, but I often find myself wondering if a some academic philosophers these days are a little too cautious about avoiding it. Because if you do, in fact, have an expertise in ethics–whether that’s even possible is still a controversial topic, but I think it is–then it seems to me that there are certain moral responsibilities that come along with that.

To some of my philosophically minded readers: has there been any good work published on what those responsibilities might be? The only thing that comes to mind right now is Republic, in which Plato holds up the philosopher as the ruler of his ideal society. And obviously I wouldn’t go that far, although I think there’s something to be said for the idea that in a democracy, ideally everyone would know a little bit about ethics and political philosophy.

With that in mind, I think people know a lot about it have something of a moral imperative to do some outreach. That, more than his actual work (which I only have a glancing familiarity with) is why I admire Michael Sandel; he manages to lay out major topics in political philosophy in a clear but accessible way, and his lectures are available to anyone with Internet access.

That’s hardly political activism, although I’m still not convinced political activism is off limits. I still strongly object to much of Dylan’s critique of philosophy, but one area where I agree is that political philosophy is kind of flaccid if you can’t find any way to connect it to concrete issues. The reason I believe political philosophy is valuable to our society–indispensable, in fact–is because it can serve as a useful guide to unraveling tricky ethical situations. As I’ve already said, I think students and experts in philosophy have a certain responsibility to distribute those tools to a wider audience.

But beyond that, if Jane the political philosopher comes to the conclusion that a certain moral imperative exists for members of a given society to take action on political issue X, it’s hard for me to imagine what her rationale could be for giving herself a free pass from it. “Professionalism” seems a little weak, as does impartiality–if the chain of reasoning was solid, then not taking action would be more about preserving the image of impartiality than actually being impartial. And besides, I think philosophers do a grave disservice to their discipline if they make the same mistake that mainstream journalists have made for so many years, and assume that their natural inclinations and beliefs are so easily separable from what they do.

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