Appears at The Philosophers' Magazine

Immoral Philosophers

Michael La Bossiere

(with Objections and Replies)

…one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or to his own small group, writing pompous and pretentious that no one else can understand…

The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff

Imagine, if you will, a once noble vessel, now stricken and adrift. Many of the decks are ruined shells, filled with debris and inhabited by the lost and helpless. Other decks are nicer, but still plagued with troubles. To make matters worse, members of the crew and passengers live in rival groups and periodically slaughter each other over various matters. The situation is all the more hopeless because there are no lifeboats and virtually no chance of any outside help (although some swear to have seen lights in the sky).

Some few do try to set the ship right and get her back on course. Oddly enough some of the brightest passengers have retreated into the ship's towers (the walls of which are lined with tiles of finely cut elephant tusks). In the towers, these bright people scribble furiously on scraps of paper in languages only they and their fellows can understand. These scraps, which deal with such dire matters as whether blue is green or green is blue, are passed from tower to tower to the delight of the inhabitants. Sometimes they gather together in bands and, behind tightly closed doors, discuss important matters such as whether they exist or not. While one might expect the crew and passengers would unite and toss such oddballs to the sharks, they do not. Instead, regular tribute is given to the tower dwellers.

Given the dire plight of the ship, it seems immoral for the tower dwellers to squander their intellects and the ship's resources in such activities. Instead, it seems fair to expect them to help solve the problems that plague the stricken vessel, and those on board.

Not surprisingly, the stricken ship is a crudely obvious metaphor for the earth and the 'oddballs' in the tower are, of course, philosophers.

While the analogy might seem a bit silly, it is not all that far from the truth. After all, one has but to look at the daily paper or any news show to see just how well things are going. War, crime, disease, sexism, racism, violence, genocide and other problems abound in the 'real' world.

Philosophers are often regarded as being detached from the 'real' world. This is shown, in part, by the fact that philosophers tend to focus on highly abstract, often self-generated puzzles and conundrums whose solutions (if ever obtained) would seem to have no significant consequences. Further, even when philosophers attempt to address 'real' problems, they seem to take perverse delight in creating the most diabolically convoluted and irrelevant papers and presentations possible. Naturally, these papers and presentations are largely for the consumption of other philosophers.

Additionally, philosophers are conspicuously (but not entirely) absent from the media, political debates, primary schools, secondary schools and other places outside of the ivory towers of academics.

Thus, it would seem that philosophers are all too similar to the 'oddballs' on the stricken ship. Given that the 'oddballs' seem to be immoral, it would seem that philosophers are immoral as well.

Perhaps philosophers can be defended from this charge. The charge of immorality can only stick if philosophers are actually morally obligated to become involved in the problems of the 'real world'.

Now, it might be thought that this essay is begging the question by simply assuming that such an obligation exists. However, the analogy of the stricken ship counters this. When people are on a stricken vessel, each person is expected to help out with the situation unless they have a reasonable excuse that limits or eliminates their responsibility. It seems reasonable to take the current situation on earth to be remarkably like that of a stricken ship. Thus, philosophers are under an obligation to help out. Now, the discussion turns to the matter of determining whether philosophers have a reasonable excuse or not.

On a stricken ship, people might be excused from helping if they are ignorant of the plight of the ship, if they are incapable of helping, if the danger is too great, or if they are doing something more important. The same excuses might be offered in defence of the philosophers.

Philosophers might claim that they are ignorant of the problems in question. If this were true, the philosophers could be excused. This would be analogous to excusing passengers who, out of ignorance of the plight, kept playing cards and drinking while their ship was sinking. While philosophers often claim to be skeptics and to 'know nothing' a philosopher would truly have to spend all her time in a cave to maintain ignorance of the problems that take place daily. Thus, ignorance would seem to be no excuse for most philosophers.

Philosophers might claim that they are incapable of helping. If philosophers could not help, then they would not, of course, be obligated to attempt to do so. Using the ship analogy, infants and severely injured people are excused from helping, because they lack the capacity to assist. While most philosophers are not up to demanding physical tasks, virtually every problem confronting people today has at least some aspect that requires thought and logical problem solving. Philosophers could, of course, assert that they lack the intellectual and logical abilities to confront such problems. However, given that philosophers pride themselves on their intellectual prowess and problem solving abilities, this path does not seem to be a viable one. In fact,the possession of such finely honed mental abilities creates an even greater obligation for philosophers. By analogy, an extremely strong, healthy and skilled sailor would be regarded as being that much more obligated to help out with the plight of the ship. If she simply stood idly by while people drowned, she would be regarded as all the more villainous because of her capabilities. Thus, it would seem that philosophers could not be excused because of a lack of abilities.

Philosophers might claim that the danger of involvement is too great. To use the ship analogy, people are not expected to put themselves at great risk, even to rescue others. Philosophers can point to the fate of Socrates. He became actively involved in the affairs of his community and was given a nice cup of hemlock for his troubles. It would be unreasonable, they might argue, for a philosopher to risk such a fate. While this would be a reasonable reply for philosophers living in dangerous countries, most philosophers live in places that have laws that prevent philosophers from being put to death (or even charged at all) for such 'crimes'. Such philosophers could argue that becoming involved in 'real' problems could doom their careers as professional philosophers. They could become branded as 'pop' philosophers and end up being laughed out of the ivory towers. While this reply does have some merit (this is actually a real risk), the 'pop' philosopher charge only has validity if the 'real' problems have less merit than the 'philosophical' problems. It is to this matter that the discussion now turns.

The last defence of philosophers is that they are doing something more important and hence are excused from involvement. To continue with the ship analogy, a doctor struggling to save the life of a patient would be excused from helping passengers into the lifeboats because her task is more important. The same might be said of the work of philosophers. Since at least the time of Plato philosophers have regarded themselves as being involved with the truly important problems, with the real world. Other people, to use Plato's metaphor, are living in dark caves and playing with mere illusions. If this is true, then it is not the philosophers who are in the wrong. Rather, it is everyone else, for they are simply wasting their lives, resources and energy on illusions and pseudo-problems.

This reply, as noted, has a very distinct pedigree and a long and noble lineage. There is also some truth to the matter. Many philosophic problems are rightly regarded as very important matters and some are even regarded as eternal and essential questions. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, presented an eloquent and excellent case for the value of philosophy and philosophic questions. To blend Russell's words with a wonderful line from the Matrix, it's the questions that drive us to expand our imaginations, to open up new possibilities and to free ourselves from dogmatism. These things certainly seem good and worthwhile.

While Russell argued for the value of philosophy, he also recognised the importance of being involved in the problems of the 'real' world. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1960 when Russell told a journalist that there was no time to talk about philosophy in the face of the nuclear threat. True to his word, Russell went out and was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. Thus, it would seem that philosophers are not excused from being involved in 'real' world problems. Of course, such an argument from authority is relatively weak. Fortunately, another argument can be given.

If philosophers defend their pursuits by claiming that the importance of the philosophic problems obligates them to work on them, then it would seem that philosophers would be equally obligated to work on problems of similar importance. It seems reasonable that matters of life and death, the survival of the human race, and human freedom are matters which are equally important as the problem of personal identity, epistemology and whether beauty is a real quality of objects or not. Hence, it would seem that philosophers cannot be excused simply by claiming that what they do is too important to allow the 'real' world to interfere. This does not mean that philosophers should stop doing philosophy. Many philosophic questions overlap with and are relevant to critical 'real' world problems. And, as noted above, philosophers are actually ideally suited to deal with problems in a rational and logical manner.

Thus, philosophers should still do philosophy, but they should also become more involved in the problems of the world.

It might be objected that philosophers are being cut from the general herd of professional academics and given an unfair branding. While the criticism raised in this work can be brought against virtually all academic disciplines, the criticism is most telling against philosophers. There are four reasons to believe this. First, philosophers pride themselves on being 'lovers of wisdom'. Because wisdom is essential for dealing with problems, the wise are under a special obligation to deal with such problems. Second, philosophers already work on many 'real world' problems on an abstract level. Hence, they are better qualified than many other academics to work on many such problems (such as critical ethical issues). Because of this greater ability, they would have a greater obligation. Third, ethics is a domain of philosophy. Since the argument is a moral one, it should be most effective on those who do ethics, namely philosophers. Finally, philosophy is the most general field of 'problem solving'. Virtually any problem can be recast as a philosophic problem. This is not true of other disciplines. For example, one would be hard pressed to recast the ethical quandaries of the human genome project as mathematical problems or matters for art historians. Hence, philosophers are 'intellectually responsible' for a broader range of problems than other academics, and this responsibility extends to the problems of the real world.


Objections and Replies

Objection 1

Michael LaBossierre's article 'Immoral Philosophers?' made a number of claims which seem clearly unjustified, among them the implication that philosophers do not partake in the solution to problems in the 'real' world, and criticising them for their lack of participation. He gives as examples of 'real' world problems, 'war, crime, disease, sexism, racism, violence, genocide and other problems'.

Let us examine in what way philosophers can find solutions to one of these problems. War is invariably the result of greed evidenced by a dictator, ruling faction, or even an entire country (after having been convinced by some individual or small faction). What would LaBossiere suggest as a method of solving the problem of war? While remaining philosophers (because to operate in some other discipline would be to invalidate his criticism, which is directed at philosophers and, by implication, those activities which are recognised as philosophy) we can only offer entreaties for ethical standards of behaviour to political and military figures. As philosophers we hold no special powers of enforcement. As philosophers we don't have the ability to enlighten by force, to inject reason and sanity into the minds of the power elite. As philosophers we cannot command attention or respect or understanding from anyone, and certainly not from those who, by dint of their egotistical ambitions, clamour for positions of power, perfectly willing to sacrifice their honour, integrity and morality for public office and its attendant influence. These people are the least likely to respond to entreaties for patience, tolerance, diplomacy, fairness, justice and laissez-faire practices.

What else can we do? Does LaBossiere really think that the philosophical community does not offer solutions to the problems of war? Where has he been looking? Solutions to war can easily be found in philosophical literature. Appeals to ethically superior behaviour, materialistic conservatism, philanthropy, benevolence and tolerance abound in the literature. This is what philosophy is about.

If LaBossiere expects war to be solved by some other means, let him deliver to us an alternative method. If that method involves force, then let him criticise those who employ force: the military. If that method would involve public office, then let him direct his criticism to politicians. To criticise philosophers for not being politicians or military leaders ignores the probability that philosophers, by their very involvement in ethical and moral studies, would make poor politicians and generals, and certainly not long for those roles.

Certainly our awareness and adherence, as a society, to ethically superior values in politics and the military is evidenced by our increasingly democratic governments, the waning of monarchies and dictatorships, rules of conduct in war, and gains against racism and other forms of bigotry. And where did those ideas originate? Could it have been Plato, and Locke, and Russell, among others - philosophers all?
Harry Blazer, Olympia, WA, USA

Reply 1

Harry Blazer's reply raises an excellent question: what is the appropriate role of the philosopher? As Socrates argued in the Ion, each profession has its proper sphere. Presumably, each profession has its main (or perhaps its only) obligations within that sphere. Thus, it is important to determine the philosopher's proper sphere.

As Blazer points out, a member of one profession (a philosopher) would fare poorly when attempting the tasks of another profession (such as those of a soldier or politician). Blazer's argument is further strengthened by the generally accepted view that the domain of action is not the domain of philosophers. Philosophers, as he contends, are supposed to be limited to making entreaties. If this is the case, then the most that can be said in criticism of philosophers is that they should follow the path laid down by Plato, Locke, and Russell and strive to put forth better and better entreaties.

However, Blazer (following Aristotle) also contends that such entreaties have no force behind them and that they are likely to be ineffective. Thus it would seem that philosophers ineffectiveness would free them from my criticism. However, this is not the case.

Ironically, Blazer's argument actually aids my case. As Blazer points out, philosophers have largely limited themselves to entreaties and this is seen as appropriate to the profession. Part of my criticism of philosophers is that they have not, in general, taken an active role in addressing the problems of the world. It seems likely that the view that philosophers, as philosophers, are limited to entreaties and not action is a contributing factor to their lack of active involvement. Because of this it would seem time to redefine what it is to be a philosopher.

While the view that being a philosopher limits one to a particular sort of philosophic (in)activity is an accepted view, it is not the only one. While much can be said about this matter, for the sake of space I will limit my discussion to Plato and Aristotle.

In the Republic Plato envisioned a very active role for philosophers in society - they were to be the rulers. Given Plato's argument, it does not seem unreasonable to regard taking an active leadership role as incompatible with being a philosopher. In fact, in the light of Plato's argument, it might be regarded as the philosopher's proper role in society. Thus a philosopher could take an active role while still engaging in philosophical activities.

Further, a common criticism of philosophers is that while they think a great deal, they generally take no steps to implement their ideas. They are like people who talk about various ways of running, but never even get around to lacing on a pair of running shoes. This distinction between thought and action is almost certainly part of the problem that has separated philosophers from the problems of the real world. Thus, to say that philosophers cannot be criticised for failing to take action because they are regarded as incapable of action is to simply restate the problem.

Blazer makes a point of focusing on ethics and it is to this matter that I now turn. Aristotle claimed that ethics is a practical science because its aim is not to study goodness, but to make people good. Aristotle and Blazer rightly point out that discourses on morality are ineffective in making people good. Not surprisingly, Aristotle advocates an active method of teaching ethics and this is done via habituation. Now, if moral discourse and entreaties are ineffective in making people good and philosophers are limited to discourse and entreaties, then philosophers would do a poor job in the realm of ethics. However, ethics is supposed to be a special domain of philosophers and it would not seem proper for philosophers to do such a poor job in one of their own areas. Hence, given Aristotle's view, philosophers should be able to take an active role in moral education and still be philosophers. In fact, since people should be expected to do well in their chosen professions it would seem to follow that philosophers should be expected to take just such an active role in moral education. By taking this role, philosophers could contribute to a more ethical society. Presumably, a more ethical society would be less inclined to make war (at least unjust war).

It might be repeated that expecting philosophers to take such an active role in moral education would be expecting philosophers to go beyond the realm of philosophy. However, this does not reply to my criticism, it merely restates part of the problem. This is because the view that the role of the philosopher is an inactive one is part of the problem. Redefining what it is to be a philosopher or rather, bringing back the older definition of what it is to be a philosopher is part of the solution. In fact, in this 100th year of the American Philosophic Association, the APA leadership has called on the members to 'raise the visibility of philosophy in our communities and to call attention to the important contributions it can make'. Thus, it would seem that the redefinition of the role of the philosopher has begun. And perhaps not a moment too soon.

Objection 2

LaBossiere claims that philosophers pride themselves on being 'lovers of wisdom' and then jumps from this to 'because wisdom is essential for dealing with problems, the wise are under a special obligation to deal with such problems', concluding that philosophers are under a special obligation to deal with such problems. Now the wise no doubt are under such an obligation, but philosophers do not pride themselves on being wise! As LaBossierre notes, they are 'lovers of wisdom' or 'in pursuit of truth' but this does not necessarily lead to the definition of philosophers as being wise. So on this account of wisdom, philosophers are under no more obligation than anyone else to engage in the problems of the 'real' world.
Marianne O Brien, Wishaw, North Lanarkshire, Scotland

Reply 2

The gist of this objection is that while philosophers are lovers of wisdom, this need not necessarily entail that philosophers are actually wise. So, although the wise are under a special obligation, philosophers are not.

Naturally, I must concede that the fact that philosophers are seeking wisdom does not necessitate that they are wise. By analogy, simply because a mountain climber seeks the top of a mountain does not necessitate that she will achieve that goal.

Fortunately for my position, an analogy can be used to counter Marianne O'Brien's argument. Clearly, medical doctors are obligated to help those who are sick or injured. Those who are pursuing a medical degree do not (obviously) pride themselves on being doctors. They are in pursuit of their degree, but this does necessarily lead to them being doctors. Therefore, those who are pursuing a medical degree are under no special obligation to help others. This conclusion is flawed. Those who are pursuing medical training, but who have yet to receive any training, are clearly under no special obligation to attempt to provide medical aid to others. However, as they receive training (and hence capabilities) they would presumably fall under an ever increasing obligation. After all, people would be outraged if a person who had just learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation in class simply stood by and let a person die of a heart attack. The same can be said of philosophers. Those philosophers who have no wis 'As philosophers we cannot command attention or respect or understanding from anyone' dom at all would be under no special obligation to try to solve such problems. In fact, it could be argued that their lack of wisdom should obligate them to not become involved because of the danger they would pose. However, those philosophers who have had some degree of success in their efforts would be under an ever-increasing obligation to help solve the problems in question. It seems reasonable to believe that just as medical students become better at their medical skills as they train, philosophers make progress toward their goal as well. Thus, the argument presented by O'Brien would only undercut my case if it can be shown that philosophers never become wiser or achieve wisdom through their philosophical efforts.

Finally, the wisdom argument is but one of four arguments intended to show that philosophers are under the special obligation I discussed. Even if this objection succeeded, the other three arguments remain unchallenged.

Third Objection

The ship was sinking. That, they could all agree upon. Having established this, Dr Hylas, the unofficial leader of the funnel-dwellers, had grand hopes that the group might be able to concoct some scheme that might avert such a disaster. Led by him, for the next year the funnel-dwellers had argued relentlessly over several stratagems, incorporating all epistemological, aesthetic and ethical questions such action might procure.

At last they had a solution. Grudging consent had been coerced from the last of the radical empiricists, and so with unanimous, though slightly taciturn support, Hylas began the long climb down the funnel to speak with the ship's captain. The door at the bottom of the funnel was so badly rusted Hylas could barely open it, so long had it been since any correspondence had been made.

Nevertheless, the old funnel-dweller forced it open. The crashing sights and sounds of frenetic activity inundated his senses, as he suddenly came face to face with the bustling ship's crew in their ceaseless struggle to keep the ship afloat. Ignoring a sudden longing for the quiet of his sequestered funnel, and, needing to find the captain, Hylas called out to some of the crew, but in their relentless haste, they did not answer.

How ironic, Hylas thought, if it were that, standing here with the solution to this disaster, I could not even be heard, for they were all so busy merely averting the immediate problems of their lives. Resolving to himself that this would not happen, Hylas set out to find the captain.

After several long and arduous hours searching, Hylas' perseverance paid off, and he forced his way through a small crowd of sweating, angry sailors to speak to the captain.

'Ship's captain,' he cried, 'My name is Hylas, from the funnel dwellers, and I have a solution to the sinking of this ship...

The Captain laughed. 'My dear fellow,' he asked Hylas, in amusement, 'did you really believe that your imprisonment was of your own volition? Have all you funnel-dwellers been under the impression, all these years, that you are on your own because that is what you choose?'

Hylas blinked. The captain's words did seem to jog some part of a distant memory.

'Don't you remember all that time ago,' continued the jovial captain, 'when your bunch last had a perfect plan? We all believed every word you said, and the next thing we knew, we were all at each others throats, in a terrible conflict that spread across the entire ship, even down to the lowest decks, where some had barely even heard of your ideas...

He grinned. 'It was then that we made the decision to let you live out your days imprisoned in the funnel, and we all made a deep and lasting commitment to ignore you all, and just hope that the system we were using would wind up working in the long run. We know it's not perfect, but hey,' he said, and he shrugged his broad shoulders, 'we're still afloat aren't we?.

The captain ordered the philosopher to be taken back to his funnel. Dejected, Hylas climbed the rusty ladder and returned to the quiet of his home. When he arrived at the top, his companions gathered excitedly around him. Hylas looked about at his hopeful friends. 'They were desperate to hear what we had to say,' he lied, 'But in the end, I decided not to bother telling them. They wouldn't have understood it anyway...

And in sad wisdom, the funnel-dwellers all nodded their heads.
Hugh Breakey, Queensland, Australia.

Third Reply

The main criticism behind this well written and entertaining allegory seems to be that philosophers are poor solvers of real world problems and that they might, in fact, pose a serious danger should anyone attempt to embrace their 'solutions'. Thus, it is actually a good thing that philosophers remain isolated from the real business of day to day life.

This argument does have a great deal of appeal. After all, many of the views put forth by philosophers often seem to border on madness - and who, in their right mind, would trust a madman with the solution of real problems.

Fortunately, I have two replies to the argument. The first is as follows. Ironically, this argument can serve to support my case. The fact that philosophers are viewed in this manner shows just how much of a problem exists in philosophy. If philosophers have in fact become so detached from the 'real world' that their interaction with society would actually be dangerous, then there is clearly a need to redeem philosophy and philosophers. How philosophers might be redeemed was discussed in my reply to the first objection. If philosophy and philosophers cannot be redeemed, then perhaps we should do away with them. After all we can hardly afford the luxury of supporting yet another useless or even dangerous class of people (unless by doing so we prevent them from doing a greater harm). In this worst case scenario, it would seem to be immoral to even be a philosopher. This is obviously not where I would like the argument to go, but if it leads there, so be it.

Second, it can be argued that while some philosophic ideas have proven harmful, others have done great good. In this, the philosophic profession does not differ from other professions (just think about politicians and religious leaders). While philosophic ideas have brought some harm (especially Marxism) and others would be harmful if implemented, it certainly seems that philosophers have made great contributions in the past. As Blazer notes, past philosophers have played essential roles in the development of ethics and the rise of democratic societies. But, as Breakey seems to suggest, modern philosophers do not seem to be keeping up with their ancestors. However, if philosophers have done great things in the past it does seem that they can do great things now. This would, as argued above, require redefining the role of the philosopher. But who better than philosophers to take up this new challenge of the twenty first century?