The Society for Applied Philosophy celebrates its 30th anniversary at its Annual Conference in Oxford this weekend. I delivered earlier today a plenary paper on the conceptualization of the rich, on which I may or may not write another post in the future (you can see that I’m writing this after a long wine reception and being in combative spirits!). Earlier today we had a roundtable on the nature of applied philosophy, which was very interesting. There were a few panelists opening with some statements, but a large part of the session was simply the philosophers present in the room voicing their views and concerns about the nature of applied philosophy and its interaction with society at large.
Part of the discussion was about the interventions philosophers make in society (something that given its nature often happens in this subfield). As someone stated, philosophy has a build-in tendency to not lead to one view, but to a range of possibly conflicting views, which may be puzzling to the public (often a policy maker) who often expect one answer to a question. Philosophers serving on ethics committees raised the issue that such committees often turn to the philosopher to get ‘the ethical view’ on a case—whereas there are often a plurality of perspectives that are relevant to a case, and the philosopher is not someone with privileged access to some ‘ethical truths’. Philosophers have skills (through training) which may help them with illuminating certain views, and helping to clarify people’s own views in case they are muddled, but there was a debate in the room to what extent applied philosophers’ own substantive views that follow from their philosophical thinking are in any sense ‘better’ than those of others. My own take on this is that philosophers should feel free (and in fact be encouraged) to develop substantive positions on a topic, but should be careful in communicating the status of that philosophical view to the wider public: it is not a statement of ‘the philosophical truth on a topic’, but rather a (hopefully) carefully worked out view on an issue or problem, on offer to the public; and since many members of the public actually would welcome well-grounded substantive views in order to be able to better develop their own views, this is an important contribution the (applied) philosopher could make to society.
Another interesting discussion emerged around the issue of whether applied philosophers should be happy or rather worried if their substantive conclusions are taken up by policy makers or other societal actors in the public sphere, since sometimes they are not properly understood or they are taken out of a debate or out of their context. One woman nicely pointed out that she doesn’t mind her substantive views being taken up in public as long as they are considered together with the arguments that support that view—but one should become worried if substantive conclusions start circulating in public divorced from the arguments, given that the arguments are often regarded as the much more important part of philosophical work than the conclusions.
I came out of the discussion thinking: “Applied philosophers and the public at large – not always an easy relationship”. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of years from now we’ll have exactly the same discussion all over, since it’s not a tension that we will easily solve.