Over on Ethics Etc, there is an ongoing discussion of F. Kamm’s Intricate Ethics. Recently I posted a comment regarding some of her claims and ended with a criticism of her utilizing certain types of thought experiments or cases that were so esoteric that they seem to me to be irrelevant. I thought that the issues I raised might be of interest to people who read this blog so I am posting my concluding remarks here for your consideration and comments. This issues deal with methodological and pedagogical concerns that I have with the role of philosophy and philosophers in contemporary society. I do want to make it clear that although I am focusing on examples taken solely from Kamm, that I think that the issues are systemic in contemporary philosophy.
I want to conclude by commenting on some of the examples that Kamm raises in order to make distinctions/points. Many of examples used by Kamm seem to me to be problematically esoteric—that is, they deviate too much from our common ethical experiences. In fact, I think that provided that they deviate so much from our more garden-variety ethical scenarios that some justification for utilizing them needs to be presented. For example, in chapter 11 she gives the example of putting $500.00 into a machine the will mechanically save a child. This example, and others, are so far fetched that it does not have any normative value for me—I simply don’t have the relevant intuitions at this stage because I cannot relate to these types of examples. I can relate to ruining a suit or sending some money to save a life. Many of Kamm’s examples are like so many thought experiments that philosophers find interesting, but the important question is how will the general public react to them. It seems to me that if the study of ethics is to be of value it ought to help us to live better lives from a defensible moral point of view. If this is correct then the examples used should reflect the lives that people are actually living and the options/ choices that are really available to us. The problem with more esoteric thought-experiments is that they serve only to make philosophers and philosophy seem to be ‘in the clouds’ to borrow a famous metaphor. This type of doing philosophy seems to me to create a serious disconnect between philosophy/philosophers and the actual lives people are living which we should be serving. If we are engaged in doing ethics then I think we need to be able to demonstrate how what we are doing is applicable and relevant to the average reasonably intelligent person’s ethical deliberations. How can what we are doing positively impact lives actually being lived? We should all remember that as we are reading this people are dying of preventable diseases and starvation, women and children are being raped and abused, and people are dying in wars that seem to be unjust, etc. The type of doing philosophy exhibited by Kamm (and others) may play well in professional academic circles, but please explain to me how you think it will play to the reasonably intelligent prson trying to find out what it means to live a moral life? Here is my challenge: how can we make our ideas clear so that they resonate with people of average intelligence and understanding? Do we not have an obligation, as philosophers, to try and make our theories and arguments accessible to the reasonably intelligent person? I am sure that Kamm has important points to make, but they are obscured by the way they are presented. Am I the only person who feels this way?