Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Engaged Philosophy Interview

I was interviewed for the "Engaged Philosophy" project! The interview is here and pasted below the fold also.

Nathan Nobis is an associate professor of philosophy at Morehouse College, treasurer of the Public Philosophy Network and is a member of the APA’s Public Philosophy committee. He works to make philosophy publicly accessible in content, writing style, and cost.


Much of my public philosophy is motivated by the goals of demonstrating clear, easy-to-read, yet rigorous philosophy and teaching people how to better think about philosophical and ethical issues. 

I teach philosophy at a college, and I also have a small position doing some bioethics activities at a medical school. I also help run 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, which creates highly accessible, top-quality introductory readings in philosophy. Currently, we have about 115 essays. 

Another thing I have done is created two open-access introductory books, Animals & Ethics 101: Thinking Critically About Animal Rights and, more recently, with my co-author Kristina Grob, Thinking Critically About Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal.


All these projects have been very successful! 

Readers like students appreciate the essays at 1000-Word Philosophy since the essays are direct, to the point, and free! They can really engage the issues through these materials, and so they learn more and have more fun.

Instructors appreciate them since they are useful for many teaching purposes and, most importantly, students can read and understand them, unlike many readings that are, honestly, just too hard for many readers (and that’s often not the readers’ fault; many historical and contemporary academic writings are just not written with general readers in mind). 

1000-Word Philosophy is on its way to getting about half a million views each year, and we suspect that most of the viewers are students or interested general readers from the public looking to learn more about philosophy. There’s a strong public interest in philosophy, so it’s a matter of having good materials and helping people find those materials: Making this connection is, of course, easier said than done. 

My and Kristina’s abortion book, which grew out of two chapters written for an open-access textbook, has also been very successful, in terms of the numbers of people productively engaging with the book and its spin-off content. The book has a lot of great reviews, including some people claiming it’s the best introductory book on the subject. 

Abortion is, obviously, an exceedingly important issue and it’s one that, honestly, philosophers know a lot about. In particular, they know and, I’ll boldly say, can prove or demonstrate that many common arguments given on the issues, on all sides, are bad arguments. If we can get more people interested in learning why this is so (and many people are interested, although some people—on all sides of the issue—seem unfortunately just not interested in finding good arguments and seeing why bad arguments are bad), we can elevate the discussion and at least move on to the more complex issues: Again, philosophers have a lot to teach here, if people are willing to learn, and so we’ve tried to create a great “unit” on abortion that anyone can learn from. 

And the book’s web page gets a few hundred views every day, in part because I share the book and new, related content online quite often. Much of this new content is inspired by themes I observe in engaging people on these issues: What are common deficiencies in terms of how people conceptualize the issues, the arguments they accept and offer and how they respond to other people (especially when they disagree), and how can people do better in engaging the issues, if the goals are better arguments and reasonable and respectful persuasion? Social media is a good “lab” to make discoveries here, and that can happen in productive, friendly ways: Philosophers can and should rise above the typical unproductive ways of engaging controversies. 


Something unique about these educational materials is that they are all very reader-centric in that they very much begin with how ordinary people tend to see things and try to “meet them where they are at.” 

So the 1000-Word Philosophy essays often begin with some kind of example or observation from daily life, and use that to motivate a more abstract discussion. We try to make things “relevant,” as some say, which just makes everything more interesting and inviting. We do a lot to think about what would more effectively reach people, based on our interacting with them. 

The abortion book begins—indeed most of the book is about—issues that most philosophical discussions skip past: Defining abortion, question-begging arguments, and simple arguments that if you’ve had one just lesson about evaluating arguments you can identify as bad arguments. 

So I think philosophers should do more to listen to non-philosophers and see how they understand issues. What we do and the ways we engage and communicate should be motivated by empathy. We do know a lot, but we aren’t know-it-alls, and we shouldn’t seem like that. That’s not true and that’s not helpful, for anyone. 

Speaking of empathy, another thing I sometimes do is philosophical counseling and consulting. I am certified in something called “Logic Based Therapy,” which basically amounts to helping people figure out the arguments they are accepting that’s leading them to feel how they feel, especially when they are feeling down in various ways. So I help people figure out the literal premises they are accepting that’s leading them to how they are feeling, critique those premises (they often involve a false belief about what “must” be the case) and then find better premises and strategies to integrate those better beliefs. This also often involves helping people think through ethical challenges they encounter in their jobs and family life. Philosophy is often said to be personally relevant and this is one activity that proves that: I encourage more philosophers to look into it since, again, we have a lot to offer, even in using reason to help people feel better.


So my general thought here is inspired by a quote from Howard Thurman: 

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I do, however, want to correct him: we should ask what the world needs. And what the world needs is, in part, philosophy, or good philosophy. Philosophy is a partial cause of many of our problems and it’s also part of the solution. 

Almost every current issue is relevant to philosophy. So, to better figure out what to do about COVID, we need to remind ourselves—as we do when teaching utilitarianism—that all consequences of our alternative possible ways of responding “count” in deciding what we should do. In engaging the “blue lives matter” crowd, they need to be reminded that nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, a basic presumption of ethics and a well-justified belief about human nature. About climate change, the looming crisis that most of us are too distracted to think about, we need to recall that knowledge and expertise matters: Wishful thinking based on made-up “facts” is bad. The too many people who seem to deny that Black lives matter should be taught about John Rawls’ veil of ignorance and reminded of the Golden Rule. And everyone needs to be reminded that honesty is good and name-calling is bad: That’s kindergarten philosophy, but too many people have forgotten. 

So in being part of public philosophy, which includes teaching, we demonstrate fair, honest, and rigorous philosophical thinking in engaging other people and ourselves. If we do that, including online, we are part of the solution. Philosophy matters.

How should we do this? Here I go back to Thurman: Do what makes you come alive! There are so many ways to engage the public that are fun and allow people to use and express their own unique talents. So be creative, experiment, and try something new! If you think something would be cool and help people think better about important issues, give it a try! And, better, find some like-minded people and give it a try together. The world needs philosophy, and since we are part of that world, we need it too.

Nathan Nobis with Stephane Dunn, film studies professor at Morehouse, and Issac Wright, Jr., whose story of a wrongful conviction and prison sentencing is the subject of the ABC drama “For Life” and who spoke to Nathan’s class about his experience.

EngagedPhilosophy readers: If you’d like to nominate yourself or someone else for an interview, email us at info@engagedphilosophy.com.

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