In a conversation on philosophy and environmental action, beginning philosophy teachers who are also very concerned about the degradation of the environment worried that philosophy classes on environmental ethics disempower students. Philosophic criticism of every thesis and of every proposal leaves students feeling that there is something wrong with ANY course of action. While that understanding does not imply paralysis, it often conspires with laziness and denial to encourage paralysis.
I get the point. Three responses:
1. Philosophy itself has not ignored this problem. There is an interesting literature within philosophy on the topic: what to do when you don't know what to do. Descartes' provisional ethics, laid out in the third book of the Discourse, and amplified in letters to Princess Elizabeth, says an important first word on this topic, as does Plato's Crito. Introductory ethics teachers should seek out the real literature of applied ethics, the literature that begins with a realization of the complexity of the questions and the depths of our ignorance.
2.Very smart people have made big messes by under-thinking important problems. Think about the career of Robert Moses, the architect of New York City's freeway system. He had some good ideas, and his success in promoting those gave him the power to promote some very bad ideas that seemed to him just continuous with his good ideas. The result was the destruction of many neighborhoods and many lives. Like the hotheads Socrates was annoying in Athens, Moses over-reached. It is one job of philosophy to study great smart failures and to put obstacles in the path of people with ideas. That's a thankless task, since the result is just: something really stupid doesn't get done. But being adult means taking on thankless tasks.
3. The education of the head to criticize has to go along with the education of the heart to care about something. Philosophers often don't like talk about educating hearts. It sounds sentimental. That's too bad. We cannot responsibly show people that it is very hard to fix a particular problem unless we first of all give them all the reason we can to care about fixing that problem. That's just part of the job.Posted by shea0017 at November 22, 2005 11:04 AM