How Can Philosophy Contribute to Public Debates and Discourse?

by Nicole Vincent 

Really? What kind of question is that anyway? I mean, where do I even start?

Personally, I cannot imagine doing philosophy in any other way. But I do often wonder if this is just a reflection of my personal taste that the topics I choose to work on have the potential to contribute to public debates and discourse—for instance, free will and responsibility, neurolaw and neurophilosophy more generally, cognitive enhancement, moral enhancement, psychopathology and mental disorder, distributive justice, philosophy of technology, happiness, and, of late, gender and sexuality. To drive this point home, consider an extract from my current bio:

The concept of responsibility occupies centre stage in Nicole’s work in the fields of neuroethics, neurolaw, ethics, philosophy of tort and criminal law, and political philosophy. Her approach is analytic and empirically-informed, and her past work has devoted equal attention to tackling conceptual, normative, metaphysical and practical problems. She has written on such topics as the compatibility of responsibility and determinism, medical interventions to make criminal offenders competent for execution, how neuroscience and behavioural genetics fit into criminal responsibility adjudication procedures, tort liability for failure to use cognitive enhancement medications, and whether people who live unhealthy lifestyles should have de-prioritised access to public health care resources and to organ transplants.

Yeah, my personal tastes and inclinations probably do dispose me to working on topics that affect people, or at least that people seem to think affect them in some way or another—topics that people care about, that get them hot under the collar. Or, if people don’t care about those topics, then at least I reckon that they should care about them, and this inclines me to spend precious hours of my life trying to figure out how to convince people—anyone who will listen—of why they should care about those topics. Social relevance seems to be an important feature of the topics I choose to work on—such topics appeal to me—and so that’s one reason why I can’t imagine doing philosophy in any other way than for it to contribute to public debates and discourse.

There is more, though. Whenever I do philosophy, I can’t imagine not road-testing the views that I arrive at by thinking through their ramifications in personal, social, and political contexts. For instance, suppose that I were Peter Singer. (I refer to Singer’s work because it is so well known, and hopefully that will help me to convey my point to a broader audience without explaining why I use the examples I do in the next sentence). If my core idea entailed, for instance, that it is my moral duty to eat my grandmother once she passes away, or only to pursue friendships when this maximizes utility, or that there is nothing lamentable about abortion—that there is no moral residue of any sort—then I’d view such ramifications as compelling reasons to re-examine my core thesis or the penumbra of auxiliary assumptions in which my core thesis finds itself embedded. I’m not asserting that those are the ramifications of Peter Singer’s excellent scholarship. They might be, they might not, and I take no stance either way on this matter. Rather, the point I’m making is just that if I found out that those were the ramifications of my core thesis, then I would want to revisit it to figure out what gives, and this involves thinking about what practical ramifications my views might have in a range of personal, social, and political contexts. Could I stomach those ramifications? If not, why not review my position?

More importantly, it often takes another human—someone unfamiliar with and not likely to be impressed by the minutiae that delight my professional colleagues—to ask questions, make observations, and draw out implications that I would otherwise overlook. I’m deeply grateful when anyone donates precious minutes of their life to tell me why I’m wasting precious minutes of my life arguing for the wrong side. I’m also grateful when they notice some cool facet of my own work that I had overlooked. Frankly, why would I not want to engage in public debate and discourse?

It’s not just that the topics I like to work on have roots in personal, social, and political domains. Working on topics of interest to people does make it easier to contribute to public debates and discourse, but that’s not the only reason why I cannot imagine doing philosophy in any other way. It’s also that I deeply appreciate the opportunity to test out the plausibility of my views and, more generally, to learn from engaging with the public.

Could all philosophy be done this way? Would it be beneficial, for our discipline and beyond, if all philosophers tried to figure out how their research might contribute to public debates and discourse?

I have colleagues—even friends—who cringe when I talk about my approach to doing philosophy. I think they view my approach as part of a broader trend that disvalues basic research, foundational research, pure research. “Pure” sounds nice—it’s unadultarated. “Applied,” on the other hand—not so much. From what I gather, they view this as something that cheapens philosophy, dumbs it down, makes it into a service discipline where pre-fabricated theories are merely applied to practical problems to generate solutions, and then we move on to the next problem and do not learn anything new as philosophers. And they also seem to resent what is perhaps an increasing trend around the world toward funding “translational” research, which (depending on your views on these matters) is a euphemistic neologism for the aforementioned tainted applied research. Finally, they resent being expected to have to explain to anyone why the work they do is interesting and how it might contribute to public debates and discourse.

In my view, researchers should not be forced to justify their choice of topics by citing (inventing?) social relevance. That’s just counter-productive. But at the same time, I am also puzzled by why some of my colleagues view it as a chore, rather than as a delight, to figure out how the things they love to do—that they spend precious hours of their lives working on—might bear on public debate and discourse.

Nicole A. Vincent obtained her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Adelaide in 2007. She is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, Law, and Neuroscience at Georgia State University and is affiliated with Macquarie University (in Sydney, Australia) and Delft University of Technology (in the Netherlands). Her work spans a range of topics in the field of neuroethics, but particularly neuroenhancement and neurolaw. Twitter: @drcolekat.

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The aim of this series is to provide APA members with a platform to discuss how philosophy can inform political debate, from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.  

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