Some philosophers think that morality boils down to one idea: we should make the world better for everyone. But who counts in "everyone"—babies, animals, future people?
Making a better world would be a great thing—but do we need philosophers to help us do that? Famously (or infamously), not all philosophers have been such great people. So are they the folks we should be taking ethical advice from?
To be fair, plenty of thinkers have had excellent ideas, and some have even used them to change the world for the better. To take two shining examples, W.E.B. Du Bois played a crucial role in the Civil Rights movement, and Hannah Arendt helped organize reparations for Jews after WWII. So why not learn from their thought and their example?
Plus, even in cases where philosophers made some questionable life decisions, we may still be able to learn from their philosophy. John Stuart Mill worked for the East India company, which was heavily involved in the slave trade. At the same time, he said some very interesting things about freedom and, together with Harriet Taylor, advocated for the equality of men and women. Perhaps we can apply the motto “do as I say, not do as I do”: we can reject Mill’s career, that is, while still learning something important from his ideas. If we want to make the world a better place, it may help to listen to folks like him.
Then again, there are also philosophers who had some dodgy ideas, as opposed to committing some dodgy actions. Immanuel Kant, for example, said women were not fully rational beings, and David Hume said Black people are “naturally inferior” to White people. These are terrible beliefs—the very opposite of ideas to live by. So should we consider Du Bois, Arendt, and (in a different way) Mill and Taylor mere exceptions? When we think about building a better world, should we still avoid philosophy?
One very reasonable response would be to say that philosophy isn’t just a matter of beliefs; it’s also, crucially, a matter of skills and habits of mind. The point of studying moral philosophy isn’t just to pick up a bunch of ideas—even in cases where the ideas are good—but also to sharpen our skills of moral reasoning. If we want a better world, we need to think critically, carefully, and insightfully about the problems we all face. Even if those habits periodically failed some philosophers, allowing them to reach abysmal conclusions, we still shouldn’t abandon them as a lost cause. We should just use them better.
And we should supplement them with something equally important, something recommended by philosophers such as Charles Mills. That is, we should do our homework, researching the actual facts on the ground. We should consider, as best we can, the likely consequences of any course of action. We should listen to the voices of those liable to be affected, for good or ill.
Philosophers don’t always do that. When they talk about the “trolley problem,” for example—imagine a person tied to one train track who will die if you pull a lever, and five people tied to another train track who will die if you do nothing—philosophers often simplify enormously. In real life, for all we know, the train driver could throw on the brakes, or the whole thing might be a stunt for a movie, or maybe there are even more potential victims down the track that you just can’t see. These details are important, and philosophy doesn’t tell you how to think them through.
But still: once we’ve done our research, and listened to the voices of those affected, we will still need to weigh up everyone’s needs and concerns. And that means, most likely, that we will need moral philosophy after all. That's certainly the view of our guest, renowned ethicist Peter Singer, who has spent a lifetime trying to put his philosophical values into action.