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on the importance of philosophy

Over at the Times, Stanley Fisk has been hating on philosophy. Okay, perhaps that's not quite fair. He's perfectly happy that philosophy can be interesting and significant to the person who does it - but he argues that unlike religious ideology and political beliefs, philosophy doesn't really influence our daily lives. It doesn't make us more or less likely to be good people, wealthy, happy, etc. It won't drive us to act one way or another - and it won't be taken into account by those judging our actions.

Frankly, Mr. Fisk seems to have a pretty shallow view of human nature. Our beliefs do matter - practically. Let me give an example from my neck of the woods. I study philosophy of religion, which looks at arguments for God and other beliefs concerning religion and tries to apply philosophical rigor to them. One area that gets a lot of attention is something called the the problem of evil. It was put most succinctly by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?


In a nutshell: the kind of God people tend to believe in (all-powerful, all-good) is inconsistent with the existence of evil - if one exists the other can't. That seems nice and abstract until you lose several people close to you, especially in traumatic ways (accidents, suicides, homicides, etc.)If you believe in God then you are faced with the realization that the God you always believed was good and all-powerful let this happen - and the natural conclusion seems to be that either God does not exist or what happened to you was somehow good. That can be hellish to live with. And speaking personally, knowing that some of the greatest minds in history had struggled with it was a comfort. It also led me to reevaluate my own belief in God. (Perhaps God existed but wasn't exactly the kind of person I always believed in?) For me, philosophy had a fairly practical consequence, a good one in this case. And not just for me; I often hear from my students - freshmen who have to take the course as part of a general education requirement - that they got a lot out of working through this particular philosophical position.

Not everyone is religious, so let's take another issue. Over at Salon.com, John Paul Rollert looked at how talk about the importance of job-creators flies contrary to Adam Smith's view of capitalism. To be fair, economic philosophy is not my home turf, not by a long shot. I have never read Adam Smith, or for that matter Karl Marx. So I can't stand here and say that Mr. Rollert read Smith correctly, and that it's the workers and not the tycoons we should be supporting. I'm also not an expert on tea party rhetoric so I can't say that this is what people mean when they talk about job creators. But let's say Mr. Rollert is right. Certainly this is the kind of issue that should be important? It's the kind of issue we would want to resolve, right?

Ideas evolve, of course. Maybe what people mean by capitalism isn't what Mr. Smith meant, just as maybe what people mean by God isn't what Epicurus assumed. But if that's the case, then what I call radical capitalism - the idea that capitalism will solve all ills, and that if we just got out of the market's way everything would be hunky-dory - either needs to match what Smith actually argued for, or else you can't use Smith to defend your view.

Why should this matter? That seems to be the heart of Mr. Fisk's argument. According to Fisk, to say that (for example) the debt ceiling debacle wouldn't have happened "employs the same reasoning that leads some people to believe that if only terrorists, tyrants, and jihadists would read our constitution, the Federalist papers, and a few pages of John Rawls, they would come to their senses and become followers of democracy." But I don't think so. Terrorists and the like are a very small group relative to the population they represent. They're extremists and they get their "persuasion" through raw power. But duly-elected politicians? They get their power because they represent a certain portion of society's beliefs. The Tea Party caucus is in Congress because people voted cor them.

If those politicians don't represent their constituents any more, there's an obvious solution: vote 'em out. If on the other hand, they do represent their constituents, you're saying large portions of society don't care about things like consistency. That just doesn't fit with my experience. Yes, people can run short on time and energy and not have the resources to get beyond their first reaction. But in my experience, given enough thought and information they want consistency. They don't like you saying (for example) that you're a Christian while you espouse beliefs they think are un-Christian. And so I have to believe that if they actually read Rand and Smith as much as they read the Bible, they similarly wouldn't like you saying you're pro-capitalism while espousing beliefs that are un-capitalistic.

So maybe it wouldn't make a difference if the Tea Party leaders read Smith. If they are truly terrorists (and I'm just using Mr. Fisk's position; I'm not calling them that myself), if they're truly beyond help, I have to live with that. But thinking about what capitalism means would still make a great deal of difference to those people who put them in power. And that's philosophy, too.

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/4334.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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