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Why Philosophers Fail to Influence Public Debate—and How They Can Do Better

As Plato noted, once one has ascended to the pinnacle of wisdom, or at least successfully defended a PhD thesis.

Why Philosophers Fail to Influence Public Debate—and How They Can Do Better

We all know that philosophers are expert thinkers but most philosophers, and especially moral philosophers, want to change the world as well. As Plato noted, once one has ascended to the pinnacle of wisdom, or at least successfully defended a PhD thesis, it is hard to resist the temptation to come back down again and help to spread the light to others.

However, for most of us, the idea of actually succeeding at this is little more than a dream. Attempts to get heard often end up backfiring or simply proving a waste of time and energy. Even philosophers whose work is in areas of real public interest, such as applied ethics, can struggle to get a hearing above the noise of pundits, preachers and politicians whose views, though ill-considered and even inconsistent, are far easier on the ear and offer people a sense of certainty in a baffling world.

At a recent workshop on Personal Identity and Public Policy held at Oxford, we considered what to do about this problem. Our shared interest was in what makes people – well, people. In particular, what makes me the same person when I am young as when I am old. The answer to this question is vital to many issues, from health care to criminal justice, emerging technologies to the diagnosis of death. However, these are often issues on which people, including doctors, lawyers and scientists, have already made up their minds. So why should anyone care what philosophers think about them?

Whose problems are these anyway?

Here’s an example. Should people be punished for crimes they committed in the distant past? It seems pretty obvious that we should only punish a person for a crime if we are reasonably convinced that they are the same person who committed that crime. However, on many views of personal identity, once enough time has passed between the commission of the offence and the punishment, then, even if the criminal is still alive, they will no longer be the same person that they were and so could not deserve punishment.

One critical issue for philosophers is that having considered a problem like this for many years, we tend to think about it in fundamentally different ways to people coming to it for the first time. For us, there is nothing wrong with asking questions such as ‘is there really a moral distinction between punishing somebody many years after they have committed a crime, and punishing someone who never committed any crimes to begin with’. However, for many people such questions appear heretical at best and incomprehensible at worst.

Therefore, before we can hope to engage in genuine public debate, and still be taken seriously, we need to find ways of addressing problems that people actually have. To articulate views in a way that can have an impact it is necessary that they are located within an area of debate for which their relevance is clear and easy to understand. Furthermore, while philosophers like to deal with arguments and arguments alone, most non-philosophers deal mainly in conclusions. A view, no matter how well expressed and cogent it may be, whose implications are unclear or unacceptable to a mass audience may well be worth pursuing academically, but will not be of wider interest – at least not without a lot of hard work.

So, while, for philosophers, there is a simple matter of principle here, there is no chance of making any progress unless we recognise that the conclusion that rapists and murders should avoid being convicted of their crimes is probably a step too far. Best then to restrict oneself, at least in the early stages, to cases in which our conclusions appear less outrageous – for instance to crimes that depended more upon the identity of the criminal to begin with, such as fraud or conspiracy.

Making friends – in high places

The next problem philosophers face is that, much as we hate to admit it, we don’t have all the answers. Getting moral philosophy right is an important part of good decision making, but it is only one part. Public debates, however, tend to focus on a whole package, means, motivation and opportunity, and if philosophers cannot find ways of speaking to all these things our opinions will only ever play a marginal role.

A first question is whether philosophers tend to agree amongst themselves. Let’s return to the issue of criminal responsibility. As I mentioned earlier, some scholars take the view that one is simply not the same person in one’s old age as in one’s youth, one is merely a ‘successor self’. This view tends to be supported by those who believe that personal identity over time is a matter of ‘psychological continuity’, the degree to which our memories, intentions, beliefs, desires and personality traits vary over time. Given enough time almost all of us change psychologically, so philosophers who take this view find it easy to conclude that, in at least some cases, it is morally wrong to punish somebody for crimes from their distant past.

What of philosophers who do not share this view? The main alternative is ‘animalism’, the idea that personal identity consists in being the same biological organism over time. On this view, it is almost impossible, barring certain radical medical interventions, that somebody is not the same person in their old age as they were in their youth. However, many who take this view find, as a result, that personal identity over time is not so morally significant as we might think. Sure, punishing somebody for a historical offence is not the same thing as punishing an entirely different person, but why should their continuity as a biological organism matter to us when so many other morally interesting facts about them, such as their personality and behaviour, might have changed? So at least amongst philosophers, there is broad agreement about the conclusion that we should often not punish people for historical offences, even though there is less agreement on why this is so.

Building bridges outside of philosophy can be more difficult. While philosophers often find common ground with certain others groups, such as psychologists, sociologists and even criminologists, others who may have more of an impact on public debate, like economists and lawyers, have very well-defined conventions and norms.

It is invariably easier to influence a debate when someone is already interested in what you have to say, and more people are going to be interested in what philosophers have to say if this can easily express it in terms that are relevant to them and carry clear implications for the kinds of decisions they face. Often, it is only in trying to engage others that we find people who are prepared to listen and, through talking with them, find better ways to tell them what you have to say.

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Getting one’s hands dirty

So, if philosophy is to live the dream of influencing public debate then philosophers must think a lot more about what we are saying, how we are saying it, who we are saying it to and why they might care. However, there is still one more thing that needs to be done, the hard bit, actually getting out there and saying it. This leaves philosophers with probably the biggest problem of all, where to start.

Is it better to write a book and become the ‘go-to academic’ on an issue in the hope that people will come and ask you about it, to talk to relevant policymakers and find out what they most want to hear or to take to the streets and shout at the top of one’s voice? Of course, this is not a question that can be answered once and for all. However, one useful proposal is often to find those people who one can influence most easily and who carry most influence over others. If this is a well-informed general public, then write a book, or better yet a series of blog posts. If it is a small group of specialist policy makers then go to them directly – sometimes it can be surprising how interested they can be (especially if they took a class or two in philosophy at university). Finally, however, if what one has to say is too big and too important to be left for others to help communicate it, then it’s probably time to get behind those barricades.

Anyone care to join us?

Simon Beard and Michael Plant

Simon Beard is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. His research examines the ethical challenges in evaluating existential risks, with a special focus on the ris

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