Friday, June 05, 2020

“Activists for Reason”: A Defense of Philosophical Activism

Activists try to change the world, for what they see as the better. And it’s a plausible thought that one point of seeking knowledge, understanding, and other skills in reasoning, listening and communicating, is to change the world, in some ways, for the better. 

Combining these concerns, when the knowledge, understanding, and skills are philosophical in nature, yields philosophical activism, or using one’s philosophical knowledge, understanding and skills for activist purposes, to try to “change the world” for the better. Here I characterize or define philosophical activism by distinguishing it from simply teaching philosophy, “public philosophy,” and just general philosophizing including on important issues, and non- and anti-philosophical activism. 

Should philosophers be philosophical activists? Is this permissible? Is it smart? Is it wise? Is it ever a moral obligation? I will argue that many philosophers - who have special knowledge and skills - can and should be philosophical activists in that they can use their special knowledge and skills to make the world, in some ways, a better place. I argue that basic ethical and justice-related concerns justify philosophical activism and that there’s no good reason that philosophers should never engage in such activism or always stay on the sidelines of important ethical and social engagement. 

There are good and bad forms of philosophical activism and I argue that, above all else, however, philosophers should be “activists for reason” in whatever issues they address in that they teach, encourage and model intellectual and moral virtues of honesty, self-reflectiveness and seriousness, and more. I illustrate these themes with examples of good and bad philosophical activism from two topics - ethics and animals, and abortion - which I have extensive personal experience with. There are good and bad philosophical activists on many sides of these issues and general lessons about can be gleaned from their good and bad examples.

So, as there are good and bad forms of activism simpliciter, there are good and bad forms of philosophical activism: I aim to clarify these and argue why good philosophical activism is necessary and why it’s the most effective and just thing that can be used to fight bad philosophical activism, and so is especially important. 

Nevertheless, I do observe that most activists, as individuals, do not make the impact they wish they could make: in most cases, it’s hard to know that one has done any good. I argue that these concerns are especially relevant to philosophical activism, given the abstract nature of the task and the often unclear or mixed evidence of effectiveness: despite these concerns, however, I do argue that many philosophers are indeed morally obligated to engage in some forms of philosophical activism. 

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