In the comments section of Helen's excellent post asking how professional philosophy "affects our moral lives", a few commenters raised broader concerns about the extent to which professional philosophy is concerned with living a good life at all, as opposed to merely studying it. One commenter, 'Sigh', initially wrote:
[T]hose who suggest philosophy is about 'living a good life' are openly mocked...It is so sad professional philosophy is an endless race to improve one's reputation. It also creates a bunch of very unhappy philosophers: we are never done and have never achieved enough. All of this is especially problematic for those who believe they ought to lead a life that pleases God rather than people.
After I responded that it seemed to me that many philosophers do care about the good life--thinking, writing, and teaching about it on a continual basis--'Ambrose' and 'Sigh' clarified the concern:
Sigh originally wrote that "those who suggest philosophy is about 'living a good life' are openly mocked" and that instead "professional philosophy is an endless race to improve one's reputation". So the contrast here seems to be between two ways of life, one that is about living a good life and another that's about reputation and competition. You may be right that people publish papers on ethics or the meaning of life, or teach about these topics, but I take Sigh's initial point to be that, regardless of what our papers or lectures may be about, professional philosophers don't take seriously the idea that our _lives_ as philosophers should be about living a good life. We tend to be cynical about that conception of philosophy (as a way of life not just a subject matter). I realize that Sigh now says that he or she is just claiming that the topic of the good life should be a focus, but I think the original comment is about another and possibly more important problem. - Posted by: Ambrose | 02/28/2016 at 09:28 PM
I am a bit concerned that people care so little about the connection between studying the good life and living it. However, I don't expect this to be part of professional responsibilities. That is, I don't expect people to 'pay us' to live a good life. But I do think that as people who focus on this all day, there ought to be some personal and social norms that encourage us to 'practice what we preach'. One norm might be, "don't be self-aggrandizing"...As far as my concerns about being mocked, maybe this depends on what circle one works in. I have run into many big shot people from big shot departments who do mock this kind of thing. Marcus, do you disagree that applied ethics is looked down upon in the field as a whole? Consider, for example, papers published in top journals, few ethics papers, and almost none in applied ethics. So my perspective might be from a narrow window of those who work in top research schools... - Posted by: Sigh | 02/29/2016 at 04:05 PM
I think 'Sigh' is running several distinct concerns together here, and I am not persuaded by some of them. For instance, although I have met professional philosophers who express negative attitudes toward applied ethics, I just don't think it is true that few applied ethics papers are published in top journals. Ethics, for instance, is a top-ranked journal, and papers on applied ethics appear there regularly (here are just a few in recent issues). Some of the most famous articles in all of contemporary philosophy (e.g. Thomson's and Singer's papers) are in applied ethics. And top-ranked generalist journals publish fascinating applied ethical work quite often (see e.g. Ryan Preston-Roedder's fascinating recent article on having faith in humanity).
On the other hand, I think the deeper question 'Sigh' and 'Ambrose' are asking--why the prevailing focus in academic philosophy is on understanding the good life (as opposed to actual living it)--may be worth dwelling on, and discussing. I have a few thoughts here.
Thought #1: Maybe some philosophers don't think philosophy is a matter of living the good life because they don't think philosophy has provided any reliable answers as to what the good life is.
If this thought is true, it is not hard to be at least somewhat sympathetic! Consider the nature of human well-being, happiness, or eudaimonia. Yes, there are of course philosophers who defend views on these questions--but it's not as though we have anything remotely like a consensus on what they are. Some defend Stoicism, others defend hedonism, others "the middle way"/Aristotelian Golden Mean, etc. Like most philosophical questions, answers are all over the map--and uncertainty prevails all around. Something similar in turn seems true of moral philosophy (which is also concerned with "the good life", at least insofar as this notion is disambiguated in a moral sense). Yes, some philosophers are dyed-in-the-wool Kantians, or Aristotelians, or whatever--but we don't have a consensus view about what morality is. There are some who think morality is a mirage, and others (such as myself) who don't think moral philosophy as it currently exists is reliably truth-conducive (what's my argument here? You'll have to read Chapter 1 of Rightness as Fairness!)
In short, maybe this is one reason why some philosophers--especially those who don't focus on value theory--don't think the purpose of philosophy is living the good life. The skeptical concern is: for "the point" of philosophy to be living a good life, we'd have to have some reliable idea as philosophers of what the good life is. But, if philosophy had provided some reliable idea of what the good life is, surely we would all know it by now. But it hasn't, so we don't. Thus, there is something odd about thinking that philosophy is a matter of living a good life: philosophers don't have a reliable account of what the good life is. If you want a more reliable account of that, ask the psychologists, who actually study these sorts of things experimentally.
Is Thought #1 actually warranted? I'll leave that for discussion--but I cannot help but wonder whether this is part of what leads some philosophers away from thinking the point of philosophy is living a good life. I suspect many recognize that philosophy doesn't provide clear answers as to what the good life is...so instead of thinking it provides a path to enlightenment, we content ourselves with thinking, writing, and teaching about these things the best we can, admitting to ourselves and our students that we are unsure of the answers.
Thought #2: perhaps more philosophers are concerned with living the good life than the above commenters think!
I know that I am not simply concerned with thinking, writing, and teaching about the good life. I am concerned with living a good life--and, as I hope to explain in future posts, I actually do think that philosophy has helped me pursue such a life (thought I will raise some concerns about academia below). It also seems like the Helen, and the commenters in question, are concerned with living a good life. Perhaps, then, there are plenty of philosophers concerned with living the good life--but it's just not emphasized in professional life (which focuses, for fairly obvious reasons, on "philosophical achievement", i.e. good argumentation, publications, etc.).
Thought #3 (final thought): perhaps academic philosophy really is deeply in tension with living a good life, both morally and in terms of personal well-being.
Although I cannot speak for others, I will say that my own experience here is very mixed. I truly love philosophy. My family aside (who I love most of all), I live for ideas. After all of these years (I took my first philosophy class at 16, and am now 39), I still take great joy in doing philosophy--and I feel very grateful for that. I also feel blessed to teach it, and have truly experienced few things as rewarding as (A) seeing students find a passion for it, and (B) seeing "the light go on", where students become something greater than they, or I, might have initially expected. I feel blessed to be an educator. And yet...for all that, I will not mince words: I have spent most of my adult life struggling not only with happiness/personal well-being, but with being good and fair to those around me. How many times have I ignored or been gruff with my family or friends because I've stressed out about my dissertation, the job market, or whatever? Answer: far too many times. Similarly, how many times have I laid awake at night--unable to sleep--because of stress? The answer, again: far too many times. And I'm not afraid to admit it. For, I know it's not just me. I know others in academia (not in just in philosophy), including people very close to me, who I have seen transformed by academia, in people who are constantly stressed out, never feeling "good enough." And indeed, others have written about how we all have to be "academic superheroes" these days.
Is academic philosophy compatible with living a good life? This seems to be the real crux of 'Sigh's' and recent grad's comments--that academic philosophy is, due to its competitive nature, incompatible with living a good, happy life. Are they right?
Over a series of future posts (I hope to make this an extended series), I hope to investigate these questions in more detail, focusing in particular on what we can plausibly do, both as individuals and as a discipline, to better make the good life and academic philosophy (more) compatible. I don't pretend to have all of the answers--and indeed, like I said, it has been an ongoing struggle, both for me as well as other people I know. Still, following Helen's lead, I hope we can get a good, continued conversation started on these issues going, as I think they are clearly important. As conversations here and elsewhere show, there are clearly a good number of academic philosophers who struggle with these issues.
So, then, I suppose I will begin by asking you all several questions:
- In your experience, is academic philosophy is compatible with a good life (morally and personally)?
- If not, why not?
- If so, what do you think the keys are to achieving/reconciling them?
- Additionally, what do you think philosophy could do as a profession here?