philosophy and the long emergency

Being a philosopher interested in peak oil (and other perils of industrial civilization) puts me in an uncomfortable position: philosophy seems to be of little help in the face of such pressing problems.  Don’t get me wrong—I do think that philosophy has practical effects, but they’re diffuse and slow; and the thing about problems like peak oil and climate change is their massive urgency.  Better, perhaps, for the concerned citizen to go into a tech field, or even politics.
So I began thinking: what does philosophy have to offer?  Recently I put together a talk on this question and delivered it to some students in my department.  What follows is an edited and abridged version of that talk.

When I want to know what philosophers can do to ameliorate the long emergency, I could be asking a couple of different questions.  Philosophers these days—and I’m talking about philosophers in the U.S. and other developed states—belong to a number of different groups.  We’re humanists, academics, professionals, and citizens, and for each of these categories we could identify special abilities or responsibilities.  But I’m interested in what philosophers in their capacity as philosophers can do, and I came up with six things:
  1.  Make pesky arguments.  The model here is Peter Singer on global poverty.  That’s an argument with extremely plausible premises and a radical conclusion, and it drives undergrads crazy when I teach it.  I was reminded of it when I read Kris de Decker’s argument about bottled water being “good for the environment.”  But at least half of de Decker’s audience (as judged by comments) appears to have missed his point entirely, and it’s places like this where philosophers can make a contribution—formulating arguments as clearly and forcefully as possible.1
  2.  Do some new applied ethics.  There’s a striking paper by Doug Husak on the morality of driving trucks, SUVs, and other vehicles that impose risks on other drivers—striking because it’s such an unusual issue to address.  I’d bet there are many similar problems that most academic philosophers just ignore, and that are ripe for discussion.  For example, if we take the Transition movement as worth promoting, then there are problems relating to the establishment of alternative currency, of governance at small scales, of the repurposing of private but unused land (for squatting, gardening, or whatever), and so on.
  3.  Clear up ethical confusion in the sustainability/green community.  Lots of discussion amongst environmentalists concerns strictly technical matters of policy or technology, but some of it is about—or depends upon—ethical positions.  So-called minimalism is one example, and I’ve argued (here and here) that it’s problematic.  But any place that ethics comes up is a place for philosophers to step in.
  4.  Articulate a positive view of the good life.  Criticism on its own is negative; it says only what isn’t the case or isn’t correct.  But we also need positive proposals for how to live, and this is a philosophical task as old as philosophy.
  5.  Think harder about distributive justice.  Broadly speaking, distributive justice is the problem of how to justly allocate and distribute goods within a society.  Given our generally industrialized, globalized society, there are special problems having to do with growth and energy and poverty, that in general I think philosophers aren’t dealing with.  This post, by Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber, is a nice exception.
  6.  Do applied philosophy that isn’t applied ethics.  In academic philosophy, applied ethics is big business, but there aren’t any other applied subdisciplines to speak of.  Perhaps this is understandable—in the same way that applied logic turns out to be computer science or math, maybe applied philosophy is in general not philosophy, and migrates its way out of the discipline as it becomes more applied.  Still, we shouldn’t be shy about looking for applications of philosophical ideas outside of ethics.  My pitch for extended mind activism could be one, but surely there are more.  For example, there is a whole cottage industry in formal epistemology and decision theory.  Its practitioners think very hard about how to understand things like probability, causation, and risk, things we know people are bad at.  Applied formal epistemology could yield useful ways of framing massive collective predicaments like climate change and its attendant risks.

fn1: My attempt at reconstructing de Decker’s argument was pretty roundly denounced by my audience.  I’ll have to make another go.

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