For decades abstruse, technical philosophy has dominated the field—but is that changing, and should we want it to?by Alex Dean / July 26, 2016 / Leave a comment
In June I had a conversation with the formidable Australian philosopher Peter Singer—well-known to philosophy undergraduates around the world for his “muddy trousers” thought experiment. Over the course of 45 minutes or so we chatted about the branch of philosophy of which he is a key proponent—called “effective altruism”—but also about the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophical inquiry, Singer argued, should be directly aimed at encouraging people to do good in the world.
He isn’t alone in thinking that. After decades of abstract, technical philosophy dominating in the west, some in the discipline have been pushing for a revival of hands-on, ethical thinking. This could be a good thing—if it is done right.
I spoke to Singer, who is the Ira W DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and who turned 70 this month, over the phone. His arguments were detailed and precise—much as you would expect from a man who is one of the world’s most widely-read thinkers. He is particularly known for his essay Famine, Affluence and Morality, published in 1971—the year he began his academic career at Oxford’s University College. This established him as a key proponent of effective altruism—a movement which aims to alleviate suffering through, for example, encouraging charitable giving. He has lost none of his conviction on this topic; indeed, this year Famine, Affluence and Morality was republished with a new introduction by him. In it, he explains why effective altruism was such a departure from the philosophy that preceded it. He reiterated these ideas during our conversation last month.
“When I was an undergraduate back in the 60s, English language philosophy was very much about analysis of the meanings of moral terms… the business of philosophers was seen as explaining the meanings of concepts,” Singer explained to me.
“There was a period when philosophy was in a phase of linguistic analysis and ordinary language philosophy… [20th century philosopher] AJ Ayer would probably be the leading example of a philosopher who argued that the proper role of philosophy is morally neutral…. But fortunately around the time… that I went to Oxford, which had been in the stronghold of this kind of language philosophy, things had started to change a little.” (AJ Ayer was a proponent of logical positivism. He later…