Why majoring in Philosophy might make you a better citizen than you might have thought

by Harry on May 15, 2017

My department just held its second annual ceremony celebrating our graduating majors and, again, the chair was kind enough to ask me to make some remarks (you can find last year’s remarks here). Again I followed two of our majors, whose talks were excellent.

I’m posting the comments here, again, partly because it was fun, and partly as a resource for others. Last time I invited people to use whatever they want without attribution and, again, feel free though in this case the two personal examples make that a little more difficult.

I have omitted four jokes that went down particularly well, three of which don’t look quite right in writing, the other of which was spontaneous. But the video of the speech is up on facebook and shouldn’t be hard to find (it’s public) so you can watch/listen there, and critique my delivery. Maybe someone else can figure out how to embed it here (I can’t).

A tranche of about 10 students graduated this year, all of whom took a class with me in their first semester as freshmen, and who have taken (or attended without taking) classes with me on and off throughout. I saw 9 of them (plus a boyfriend) the night before the event, and realised that not only are none of them Philosophy majors, but none of them are even graduating from my college (Letters and Science). But two of them (and a mum) kindly attended the Philosophy reception, non-awkwardly. The comment about liking, admiring, and respecting at the end — well, that’s how I feel about lots of our majors too, but it was formulated with those others in mind.

Here are the comments:

First I want to congratulate the students who are graduating, and thank the parents, friends, and supporters who are here to celebrate with you. And to thank especially whoever has been paying tuition the past few years. We’re all sad that we don’t get to teach the students any more, but somebody at least is glad that the paying is over.

Last year I reassured the parents about how well prepared philosophy graduates are for the labor market. That was an exercise in futility – if you are here, you either know that they are well-prepared for the labour market, or you don’t care or, perhaps, you are just really pissed off with them, and going through this whole weekend with gritted teeth; and nothing much I say will convince you otherwise.

So this year I thought I’d explore how well-prepared they are to be leaders in our democracy. Now, in saying that, I don’t want you to think they have a high chance of being elected. Probably not, in fact. But they are well-trained and well-prepared to contribute to changing the way the culture of our democracy works.

I realized this earlier in the spring, when students in my large lecture class – all non-majors, majority Business majors – reacted to something I explained to them as if I was teaching them magic.

We have a method in moral and political philosophy that we call reflective equilibrium. It gets us closer to the truth about difficult moral and political questions – like whether abortion is permissible, the extent to which educational inequality is legitimate, whether we should have the death penalty; even what is valuable in life. These issues matter, and people disagree about them. How do we get closer to the truth about them?

Here’s how it works.

We all carry around with us general principles: “Abortion is wrong except in cases of rape.”; “The government should guarantee freedom of expression”; more controversially: “The government would be justified in prohibiting cricket matches if doing so significantly reduced the threat of terror attacks”. From your laughs I can tell you think I am making this last one up. But it’s a very real issue in some countries though not, regrettably, in America. (And I should add, for any legislators listening, that it is the paucity of cricket I regret, not the paucity of terror attacks).

We also carry around judgments, and dispositions to judge, about particular cases: “saving that child by grabbing him by the arm so he didn’t walk in front of the bus was good, but hardly heroic”; “I support censorship of that violent movie”.

But sometimes we discover that some of our judgements, and some of our principles, conflict. I’ll give you a personal example, even though it doesn’t show me in a particularly good light. When I was 17 I heard a radio disc jockey – one of my favorites – saying that he was about to interview a vicar who who was calling for a movie about the great French homosexual, atheist, and anarchist French poet Arthur Rimbaud to be censored. I was appalled – basically it triggered the anti—censorship principle I carried around in my head.

The vicar, it turned out, was talking about an entirely different film – the Rambo in question was an American soldier played by Sylvester Stallone, an actor who, some of you may have noticed, actually plays homosexual French poets quite rarely. I knew that I’d have been open to censoring that film. I was forced to confront a conflict between an anti-censorship principle and a judgement that it was ok to censor a particular movie.

When beliefs conflict in this way, we know, for sure, that one of them is false. A, and something that implies Not-A, cannot both be true. So we have to decide which of our conflicting moral beliefs to hold on to, and which to reject. Consistency is easy; truth is hard, but truth is what we want to aim for. Even in this world in which so many people seem not to care about it.

So which do we reject? Here are three kinds of belief that you might target.

Some of our beliefs were formed under unreliable conditions. My example here isn’t a moral one: but my dad used to tell me of every famous person in history that they were English. For example Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, and Richard Nixon. After all they all have English names, so what other nationality would they be? Catherine the Great has THREE English names. But, now, as an adult, I have to second-guess myself from time to time, because I know that some of my beliefs about who is English might be a bit, let’s say, dodgy. In that case he knew the beliefs he was instilling in me were false – but something my students often discover is that some of their moral beliefs are similarly foundationless – they just believe, without having reasons, what their parents told them, or what their community instilled in them.

Some of our beliefs are self-serving. For example, I am sure that Prince Charles – you know Prince Charles, he’s that unemployed bloke who can’t get a job till his 91-year-old mum retires – believes that constitutional monarchy is an excellent form of government. But – well, he would think that, wouldn’t he?

And in some cases we know that other, entirely reasonable, morally decent, people disagree with us about our values. You might be pro-choice or pro-life about abortion. You might support or oppose charter schools which aim to serve low income kids in urban areas. You might support or oppose increasing redistributive taxation. Whatever your stance, you know for sure that there are morally decent, and reasonable, people who disagree with you.

If you don’t know that, by the way, you should get out more.

These kinds of moral and political beliefs – those you received from your dad, or your family, or your community; those that are self-serving; those about which reasonable and morally decent people disagree – these we should call into question, scrutinize, look for reasons to amend or revise.

Here’s where the magic my students found so exciting comes in. We can’t do this scrutiny alone in an armchair. Each of us knows that we have, at best, a partial grasp on the moral or political truth. (When I say ‘each of us’, by the way, I mean something like ‘each of us who is not a narcissistic sociopath’. Which, I hope, covers most of the people in the room). And we know that other people – who have different backgrounds, who have been raised in different communities, who have different day-to-day experiences – also have a partial grasp on the moral or political truth. So we seek them out. We enter reasoning dialogue with them.

In ideal reflective equilibrium you converse reasonably with the people who are as unlike you in background and outlook as is compatible with actually understanding each other. You try to identify common ground, and reasons for disagreement. You seek out other people’s insights for enlightenment.

Here’s a simpler way of putting it. A slogan if you like. DO NOT LOOK AT FACEBOOK. [1]

That’s what democracy needs. It’s also what our society needs. It’s also, incidentally, what our labor market needs, though I think we’ve established that you either don’t care about that or won’t believe it whatever I say. People who are sufficiently self-confident that they can think beyond slogans, and beyond winning an argument, who think with, learn from, and teach, others. The training we provide prepares our graduates to do that. I infer there’s a space for people with those abilities. If you’ve been paying attention to public discourse the past year or two, you probably agree.

I want to end with two, separate, thoughts.

Like my colleagues I know I’m lucky to teach at UW-Madison. It’s not because of the Lake, or the money, or the enthusiasm with which the legislators frequently express their appreciation – though we do all value all those things. It’s because we like, respect, and admire our students. An eminent professor at a well-known university on the East Coast once alerted me to two distinctions. First, between students who need to learn that they matter just as much as everyone else, and the students who need to learn that everyone else matters just as much as they do. Then, between students who are smarter than they think they are, and students who think they are smarter than they are. The joy of teaching here is that so many of our students are smarter than they think they are, and need to learn that they matter just as much as everyone else.

Finally, I want to send you away with a saying. (If you’re a philosopher it’s always good to have a saying. You know, when you’re on a plane and someone asks what you do, if you are foolish enough to say you’re a philosopher they’ll ask “Oooh, do you have any sayings?”) Some of you know that I study charter schools in my spare time. One famous charter school franchise has a saying: Work Hard, Be Nice. Being nice is great, don’t get me wrong, but doing good is better. Working hard matters, but only if it produces good, and you shouldn’t work too hard for your own good. We’re confident that you can go out into the world and really contribute; and we want you to enjoy yourselves as you do it. We hope we haven’t taught you just to work hard and be nice, but to Do Good and Be Well.

Congratulations, and thank you, to you all.

[1] Yes, I’m aware of the irony of having told you that if you want to watch it you should go to facebook….



casmilus 05.15.17 at 2:08 pm

Allegedly, when the British actor Steven Berkoff heard that Stallone was making a film called “Rambo” he assumed it was a biopic of Rimbaud, because he’d worked with Sly on a film already and had been impressed with the chap’s earnest intellectualism off screen.

Also allegedly, Stallone did want to do a Serious Film back in the 80s, something about Edgar Allan Poe was rumoured, but I think the allure of crap action movies was too great. Though he did try to show he could do real acting in that cop movie with Robert De Niro in the late 90s, everyone involved has forgotten the title.

If you ever have to do a “name as many Stallone movies” bit in a quiz, then a good one to remember is his appearance in the first few minutes of “Bananas” by Woody Allen.


steven t johnson 05.15.17 at 2:27 pm

Well, it seems to me that the questions of whether a good institution is the same as good people, or whether the assumption of necessity for a labor market is justified, or whether good institutions made up of good people of course must process students for the labor market might find different answers from morally decent and reasonable people. Not sure this is an acceptable opinion though.

On the other hand….”And in some cases we know that other, entirely reasonable, morally decent, people disagree with us about our values. You might be pro-choice or pro-life about abortion. You might support or oppose charter schools which aim to serve low income kids in urban areas. You might support or oppose increasing redistributive taxation. Whatever your stance, you know for sure that there are morally decent, and reasonable, people who disagree with you.”

I do not know how it is reasonable in any sense to declare you know that a cell is a person. I do not know that anyone has ever given reasons to suppose that it is the school system policies that are responsible for poorer performance in low income neighborhoods (and how that’s measured) and explained how the charter that exempts individual schools from the policies is supposed to correct that because changing the policies for the whole school system will not work. I do not know how there is such a thing as redistributive taxation at all, instead of progressive taxation (or regressive taxation,) and the separate issue of limitation of government services. Of course, there’s the sense in which all taxation redistributes money from private hands to the state, but then, “redistributive” is not just redundant but misleading.

Worst of all, I am not clear on what “morally decent and reasonable” means. Usage indicates that “conforming to the social usages of higher educational levels and espousing popularly accepted views” is synonymous. But then, it’s not at all clear how genuine moral decency and reason come into the discussion at all.

It occurs to me I should perhaps start over, because I’ve forgotten what the training to be leaders in our democracy is.


Kiwanda 05.15.17 at 4:37 pm

The video on facebook is more funny and charming than the written version. It’s mostly the delivery, but also, there’s more side comments.


Shirley 0401 05.15.17 at 5:23 pm

@2 steven t johnson

I assume you’re being argumentative for fun, but as a non-academic who spends a lot of time with people who aren’t like me, many (likely the majority) of whom I strongly disagree with regarding these issues, I feel like it’s worth sticking up for their decency and reasonableness.
Take abortion, for example.
When the primary source of your moral reasoning is whatever church your parents happen to take you to as a child, and the folks at that church, without exception, treat abortion as essentially identical to murder, it’s hard for someone to view it as anything other than murder. The kind that leads to an eternity in a literal hell. Personally, I think this belief is simplistic, superstitious, and harmful. But believing it doesn’t make them indecent or unreasonable people. It does, however, make it hard for many of them to see how anyone who isn’t anti-abortion is anything other than pro-murder.
And yeah, it’s also a problem that a lot of these people are frankly basically incurious about most things, are uninterested in having their received knowledge and assumptions challenged, and seem to enjoy being told what to think. But that doesn’t make them indecent or unreasonable, either. In many of their communities, in fact, I’d imagine it’s perfectly adaptive and often contributes to social cohesion and qualify of life.
For people who are interested in a society invested in making moral progress and finding real solutions to our systemic problems, this is a problem, of course. And certainly some of the people who hold beliefs in opposition to mine, or yours, are probably just plain awful people, in addition to being indecent and unreasonable. But not all of them.


engels 05.15.17 at 6:08 pm

You might support or oppose increasing redistributive taxation. Whatever your stance, you know for sure that there are morally decent, and reasonable, people who disagree with you.

You may; I don’t.


engels 05.15.17 at 6:18 pm

(I might be willing to entertain the possibility that such people behave decently on other parts of their lives. But if you’re against eg raising taxes on the rich while poorer Americans are literally dying for lack of basic health care you are neither reasonable nor morally decent—pretending otherwise isn’t humility or respectfulness, it’s cowardice.)


Harry 05.15.17 at 6:31 pm

steven johnson — sounds like you could learn something from our classes! Or maybe just from getting out more as Shirley suggests.
engels — I can’t decide whether I prefer the direct insults to your usual passive-aggression. I’ll give it some thought.


Harry 05.15.17 at 6:35 pm

casmilus– I didn’t know that about Berkoff… I’m in good company! I have to say, he’s brilliant in Creed (Stallone that is). And… back in the early 1990s the rumors were that he might play the Doctor in a Dr. Who movie….


rea 05.15.17 at 10:47 pm

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rambo’s
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go


J-D 05.15.17 at 11:04 pm

In my experience, most people (including myself) are reasonable sometimes and unreasonable sometimes. I would expect a binary division of the population into reasonable and unreasonable to be an unhelpful analysis in most situations.


Harry 05.15.17 at 11:07 pm

rea wins. Hands down.


Manta 05.15.17 at 11:12 pm

You really teach people that morality is consistent, and that moral truths actually exists?


Kent 05.16.17 at 12:09 am

If we are going to quote Bob Dylan, in this context I would rather go with …

“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”

… from the end of “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”


F. Foundling 05.16.17 at 12:15 am

The problem might be different definitions of decent and reasonable. Things might be clarified if the question is asked in the following way. If a person adheres to morally indecent and unreasonable views and attitudes, can he/she nevertheless be morally decent and reasonable, and if so, under what conditions? Of course, given the subjective nature of concepts like decency and reasonableness, this really means ‘if a person adheres to views and attitudes that *I* consider morally indecent and unreasonable, is it possible that *I* should consider him/her to be, nevertheless, morally decent and reasonable, and if so, under what conditions?’

Some possible answers that spring to mind:
1. *Some* views and attitudes are indisputably indecent and unreasonable (objectively? according to today’s polite society in the country where I live?). For instance, being a racist is unacceptable, but being a classist or an elitist snob is within the bounds of decency and reasonableness.
2. Views and attitudes are outweighed by practice. As long as a person doesn’t, say, murder people in everyday life, they can, say, condone murders committed by their military in foreign countries, and as long as they take their science-produced medicine in practice, they can claim to rely on God’s miracles in theory.

I don’t see either of these distinctions as a worthy criterion to employ. Since people are complex and inconsistent, I avoid categorising them as ‘morally decent’ and ‘reasonable’ in general, but I rank them as being relatively closer to or farther from my own ideas of moral decency and reasonability. While it does make sense, as a shortcut, to pay a little bit more attention to the judgements of those that one already knows to be closer to oneself in this respect, I consider it extremely important that one should, as far as possible, assess arguments on their own merits and not on the opinion one has previously formed about their adherents, or else one is in danger of putting the cart before the horse.

Besides the treatment of decency and reasonability as something self-evident and in no need of definition, another thing that strikes me in the OP is the assumption that ‘beliefs you received from your dad, or your family, or your community’ (apparently ethnic or religious community, where ‘unreliable conditions’ obtain) need to be questioned especially zealously, but beliefs prevalent and formed in other communities that one might end up belonging to (say, the circles of intelletuals, professionals or ‘polite society’), aren’t mentioned as deserving of such intense scrutiny. IMO, views that are not based on reason or evidence can become established and enforced by conscious and unconscious conformism in *all* sorts of communities, and it is important that people should be taught to be on their guard and watch out for that phenomenon *wherever* they encounter it.


Harry 05.16.17 at 1:01 am

I would remind people that this was a ‘celebratory occasion’ talk, and even 15 minutes was kind of long. Giving a detailed definition of decency and reasonableness, for example, would have been hilariously out of place (but no-one would have laughed!).
Even so I don’t understand why FF thinks that I meant ‘community’ to apply only to ethnic or religious community of origin. The focus on ‘dad’ and ‘family’ for the purpose of the speech reflected i) my personal example and ii) the fact that the grads were sitting in front of me with their parents, at whom the speech was aimed.
And leaving ‘morally decent and reasonable’ undefined was quite deliberate. Its easy to see that some people think that only people who agree with them are morally decent and reasonable, but that’s their problem, not something I could dissuade them from with conceptual analysis.


Alan White 05.16.17 at 1:21 am

Very nice Harry.

Only in recent years have I made a big deal in my 101 classes about the role of constitutive luck in life (Neil Levy’s _Hard Luck _ sold me on this)–and our need to be self-aware in its role in forming our values in that context, and thus our need from thus-extended-self-awareness to reflect on value disagreements as a function of that luck. It should result in epistemic humility about our confidence in our values, but my students’ mileages seem to vary on that.

Still, a very good send-off to them.


engels 05.16.17 at 2:00 am

[Socrates] And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
[Glaucon] You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
[Socrates] Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
[Glaucon] True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
[Socrates] And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
[Glaucon] Yes, he said.
[Socrates] And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
[Glaucon] Very true.
[Socrates] And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
[Glaucon] No question, he replied.
[Socrates] To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
[Glaucon] That is certain.


F. Foundling 05.16.17 at 5:12 am

>Even so I don’t understand why FF thinks that I meant ‘community’ to apply only to ethnic or religious community of origin.

I don’t know, I suppose it was a combination of the specific choice of an example, (my stereotypical idea of) the typical social and intellectual journey of a US student in real life, plus the past tense ‘we received’ (as opposed to ‘we receive’). If you actually meant *any* community or social environment, then, of course, I have no objections.

>Its easy to see that some people think that only people who agree with them are morally decent and reasonable, but that’s their problem, not something I could dissuade them from with conceptual analysis.

Well, again, the way I see it, moral decency and reasonability are, by their very nature, precisely things that you are supposed to *agree* with people on. I mean that the degree to which person A can consider person B morally decent and reasonable necessarily depends on the degree to which person B agrees with person A on *what* is morally decent and reasonable (in thought, word and deed). However, it may be argued in response that it is precisely considerations of this kind that expose their adherents as unreasonable, indissuadable and impossible to ‘converse reasonably with’, so they can be safely ignored in the preparation of a talk. I have to admit that I have no response to this, so I have to surrender.:)


peterv 05.16.17 at 5:30 am

When beliefs conflict in this way, we know, for sure, that one of them is false. A, and something that implies Not-A, cannot both be true.

But your examples are all moral imperatives: we should do or not do something. Truth or falsity make no sense when applied to statements about future actions. So it is perfectly possible for conflicting statements to all be relevant to a decision about what to do.


bad Jim 05.16.17 at 7:29 am

I suppose I should be miffed by the excision of jokes, but even the remarks as given here gave rise to involuntary expressions of mirth.


Neel Krishnaswami 05.16.17 at 9:41 am

You really teach people that morality is consistent, and that moral truths actually exists?

Surprising but true: moral realism is actually the dominant position in academic philosophy! Derek Parfit’s On What Matters is a rewarding (but extremely formidable) book-length account of the argument for moral realism.

Less surprisingly, a classical, truth-functional view of truth is dominant in philosophy, and anyone who adopts both realism and classical logic is forced into accepting noncontradiction.


Harry 05.16.17 at 12:42 pm

“But your examples are all moral imperatives”

No, look carefully and you’ll see they are all moral propositions (except “I support censoring this violent movie” which stands in for a moral proposition).

And Neel’s right: we’re almost all moral realists. Like the rest of you…..


Slanted Answer 05.16.17 at 5:57 pm

“we’re almost all moral realists. Like the rest of you….”

I checked the Philpapers survey results on this issue from a few years back:

Of around 3000 philosophers surveyed, only around 28% accept moral realism (although another 24% “lean” towards it), so at best only a small majority of philosophers accept moral realism. That might be enough to make it the dominant view, but not true that almost all philosophers are moral realists.

I hate to be pedantic, but I wonder if moral realism is being conflated with moral objectivism here. Objectivism being the view that there are moral norms that apply across cultures and times. If the claim is that most philosophers are objectivists, I’m willing to bet Harry is absolutely right about that. Most philosophers I know treat “relativism” like a kind of swear word. I bet he’s also right that, if pressed to think about it, most non-philosophers accept moral objectivism as well.

Realism (i.e. the view that there are mind-independent moral facts that explain moral objectivity) seems another story. Lots of philosophers accept objectivism but reject realism. Hume and Kant (and John Rawls, who developed the method explained in the OP), to take some prominent examples, were objectivists but rejected realism. I had also thought the robust version of realism advocated by Parfit was still a minority view, with many philosophers viewing its rise as an unwelcome trend. I’d also be really surprised if many people outside of philosophy departments had even inchoate views about whether realism is correct.


Vance Ricks 05.16.17 at 8:09 pm

I taught your co-authored Family Values text in the senior philosophy capstone course that just concluded. Given how much some of my students had to say to an imagined version of you, I think they’d appreciate the chance to see that you’re an actual three-dimensional person! Not all of them have Facebook accounts — perhaps following your advice before you gave it. Is there a way to break that video clip out of the Facebook jail, and put it into, say, the YouTube and/or the Vimeo jail? (Or onto your departmental website?)


Harry 05.16.17 at 11:24 pm

Thanks Vance! I’ll look into it — it requires the cooperation of my colleague who made the video (and did last years as well). In the meantime, there is this (which is much less funny, and considerably less fluent — its a book talk about Aims of Higher Education, co-edited with Michael McPherson and including an excellent contribution by our own Chris Bertram!):


Tabasco 05.17.17 at 7:21 am

In the speech, which can only be seen and heard on Facebook, Harry says that a way of reaching the desirable state, a reflective equilibrium, is DO NOT LOOK AT FACEBOOK.

Is this an A and not-A situation?


Vance Ricks 05.19.17 at 12:34 am

We watched part of that video earlier in the semester, but thank you for that reminder. Meanwhile, I hope your colleague’s jailbreaking efforts will be successful!


RD 05.19.17 at 3:08 pm

Phil. major?
Your hired!
Here’s a broom.

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