Monday, September 3, 2007

The Labor of Teaching Philosophy

On labor day, I thought I would quickly raise the issue of whether teaching philosophy &/or being a professional, academic philosopher is (morally) justified labor.

At least two contemporary philosophers have argued that sometimes -- if not often -- it is not. Peter Unger in Living High and Letting Die argues -- too simply put -- that younger, less established philosophers should quit teaching and go to law school to become corporate lawyers to make a ton of money to donate to organizations that help desperately poor people. And Saul Smilansky, in 10 MORAL PARADOXES and "The Paradox of Beneficial Retirement", argues -- again too simply put -- that many philosophy teachers should retire because they would be replaced by better philosophy teachers (he argues this about any profession where there are many, many qualified people for the positions).

A first question I have is whether there are other arguments for views that are morally critical of the profession of teaching philosophy and, perhaps especially, doing philosophical research (or certain kinds of research, perhaps on certain topics...). Perhaps philosophers who develop these arguments never get them out on paper since they found them so convincing that they quit the field (!!), but I'm sure there must be more arguments than these two above (which, of course, need much more explanation than what I gave).

Second, and more importantly, are any of these arguments any good?

I have some thoughts on these questions, but I have to get back to work so I can't answer them now.


  1. Unger's claim sounds patently ridiculous. What would he have done with a young Kant? The Critiques didn't appear until Kant was receiving social security. Or what would he have said to a young Heidegger who took a ten year publishing hiatus before he dropped Being and Time. How can you know someone's potential before they actually achieve anything? Furthermore, what if someone actually enjoys teaching philosophy? Of course, those who have actually read Unger's argument can respond. Also, who's to say you should go and i should stay?

  2. I've never read either of these works, so I'm not sure exactly what their arguments are. Of course, my initial thought turns to ad hominem -- if I get into trouble around Manhattan should I look Unger up at his law firm where he's working doggedly in order to send his ever-generating discretionary income to Oxfam? My non-ad hominem thought is that this is just another version of the "we're all just causal levers for the advancement of utility" argument. Williams anyone?

    But I guess in fairness I'd have to hear more about what they're saying.

  3. I don't know Smilansky's argument, but Unger's is utilitarian if I remember correctly, and one can (as Chris suggests) simply rehearse familiar problems with that sort of position. I think that the ethical requirements associated with work should perhaps be lower than those for life in general. Most everyone has to work, and while it would be nice for everyone to pursue those vocations that are most socially beneficial, my snap opinion is that work is morally objectionable only when the work causes harm, violates others' rights, etc.
    This might set the bar higher than we ordinarily expect (developing WMD, paparazzi might not meet it) but not so high that most people's work is morally objectionable. I've always thought that the least can say for being an educator is that your work won't hurt anyone (even if it often doesn't help anyone either!). So the bar I'd suggest is low, but teaching philosophy clearly passes it.

    And to follow up on Anon's points: If everyone opts to give up their profession to feed the hungry, then the surplus from which the hungry are fed might erode: So why should certain people rather than others give up their professions? On the whole, teaching philosophy seems pretty benign compared to being, oh, an agribusiness lobbyist.

  4. Thanks, Nathan, for mentioning my work. Just a clarification of a point that came up in the comments: my argument isn't yet another one of those over-demanding utilitarian requests that one give up for the greater good. My argument in a nutshell is that in professions where it matters what people do, and there is a large pool of candidates who don't get a chance (or not so quickly or well) to enter the profession, then INTEGRITY seems to require that one retire or otherwise leave, so that a better person can replace you. This is in contrast to Bernard Williams's well-known use of the notion of integrity in order to limit one's obligations. I argue that the concerns with one's personal project, and with personal integrity, might require giving up one's place, for (say) one cannot say that one is a medical doctor because one cares about people's health, and then stay on, when one knows that someone who will save more patients will replace one if one leaves. (It is a paradox, incidentally, because the demand to leave is at once compelling - or so it seems to me - and absurd, for normally we don't require people to give up anything nearly as important for the sake of others.)

  5. Hi
    It seems to me that we can look at Saul's interesting problem in the context of a range of acceptable professional performance. As long as a person operates within the parameters that define the range then one is entitled to the job, all else being equal.

    As far a 'academic' philosophy being immoral I would suggest that it is if all we are doing is analyzing the implications of if-then scenarios without attempting to remove the 'if.' If we do not try to remove the 'if' then I suggest we are 'in the clouds' and wasting time. I think we should remember the character that this blog is named after an recall that he conceived of philosophy as a public enterprise who goals were 1) the clarification if concepts and arriving at truth, and 2) providing guidance for how to lead a meaningful life that leads to happiness. Both of these goals are certainly important and philosophy seems best suited to help us achieve them. That is important labor!

  6. Picking up on John's comments, one way in which remaining in one's post as an academic philosopher could be justified is that if we offer our students strong arguments in favor of helping the poor and advancing the realization of human rights, then we are possibly doing more from the perspective of utilitarianism than if we left and worked "on the ground" somewhere. Of course, this assumes that a portion of students every semester are applying some of the arguments covered in class.

  7. I'm certainly not well versed in these arguments, but it seems to me they imply that philosophers (for our purposes here, philosophy professors) don't get better with experience. I'm not sure I agree with that. I know I'm a much better teacher than when I started. What we may gain in new research ideas we'd probably lose in quality teaching, following Saul's argument.

    i'm not so sure philosophical knowledge would benefit either. Take Kant, whose philosophical work was built on a lifetime of accumulated knowledge in philosophy. Less anecdotal, I think there's something out of place with the idea that we should make way for people who are better than we are. If you knew they were better, that would be one thing, but that's far from certain. And with this ignorance in mind, you can certainly quality control your own work better than you can that of some other person who may or may not be better than you. I would say that if you think someone else is doing better work than you are, don't jump ship -- work harder!

    I wonder how such an argument would work in the case of being very much in love with someone and wanting the best for them. If that person doesn't love you, then by all means, make way for someone better. But sometimes we can feel undeserving in the face of people who love us back and want us in their lives. To tell a loved one like that that he or she should forego our love because there are lots of loving single people out there and one of them might be better would be an odd choice. Better to stay in that relationship (or, per the analogy, department) and try to live up to the task.

  8. Saul notes that the argument is restricted to professions in which it matters what people do. In fairness, I’m not sure if this includes philosophy (Unger apparently would think that I could be doing something more ‘useful’), but given that this is the subject of the thread, I’ll just assume that it applies to philosophy as well, even if Saul doesn’t intend for the argument to be extended to philosophy.

    It seems that the central feature of Saul’s argument is that being a practitioner of X (or being committed to X, or having integrity with respect to the pursuit of X) means being committed to the object of X or the aim of X’s field. So, doctors are focused on maximizing health and philosophers are focused on the advancement of theoretical knowledge. But I’m not sure that this is a fair way to characterize ‘being a practitioner of X’, at least in philosophy. As a philosophy professor the advancement of knowledge is a goal of mine. But it does not capture all of what it means to be a philosopher. An essential part, for me, is to be committed to the life of philosophy, which means (at the least, but not exclusively) participation in the investigation of philosophical problems by me with the hopes of reaching answers. The furtherance of knowledge is surely an internal aim of such a life (at least, not the only one), but for someone for whom philosophy is a way of life this aim (attained knowledge) is not separable from the actual embodiment of its pursuit. Thus, although solving philosophical problems may, in fact, be something that someone else could do better than me (I’m sure there are many such people around, some even unhappily unemployed), the pursuit of and embodiment of the philosophical life is not something that someone else can do for me by proxy – it would shatter my commitment and my integrity as a philosopher. Only if a philosopher were committed simply to the solution of such problems, strangely abstracted from the desire to pursue those answers by that self-same person, would the argument appear compelling to me. Given that it doesn’t describe the commitment I made (I can't speak for others), I’m not convinced by the argument. I wonder whether similar arguments can be given for other fields as well.


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