What are philosophers good at? Eric Schwitzgebel reports on the results of an experiment which suggests the answer is “not the things they’d like you to believe they’re good at”:
The simplest interpretation of our overall results, across three types of scenarios (Double Effect, Moral Luck, and Action-Omission), is that in cases like these skill in philosophy doesn’t manifest as skill in consistently applying explicitly endorsed abstract principles to reach stable judgments about hypothetical scenarios; rather, it manifests more as skill in choosing principles to rationalize, post-hoc, scenario judgments that are driven by the same types of factors that drive non-philosophers’ judgments.
You can click the link for the details of the experiment. Here, I just want to say that this fits with other observations that have been made about the nature of philosophy. It’s worth quoting a large section here of a paper I found via Andres Ruiz, titled “There Is No Progress in Philosophy”:
Philosophy does not even stumble forward. Philosophy does not move forward at all. It is the exactly the same today as it was 3000 years ago; indeed, as it was from the beginning. What it does do is stay current; philosophers confuse this with advancing, with making progress. Staying current is not moving forward any more than staying up on the latest fashions or music is movement toward greater social justice.
I know this claim of mine strikes philosophers as obviously false, crazy, and outrageous. I get two kinds looks. One kind is one of utter confusion, as if I’d just sincerely asserted “One plus one equals three.” The other is one of disgust as if I just sincerely asserted “Slavery is morally required.”
“Look,” you might say, in a spirit of trying to correct someone who thinks the moon is made of green cheese, “we all think slavery is immoral. In fact, we know it is. How is that not philosophical progress? How is that not progress in ethics which is branch of philosophy?”
I didn’t say society doesn’t progress. It does. We are now quite clear on the immorality of slavery. (More or less: though slavery is illegal in every country in the world, there are more slaves now than ever, and it is a billion dollar business). But philosophy didn’t discover slavery’s immorality. Philosopher’s weren’t leading the charge against slavery when it was openly and commonly practiced. What happened was that political leaders and social activists (who weren’t philosophers, but social activists) changed the way many thought about slavery to the point that attitudes changed, laws were enacted, and society and culture thereby changed. Philosophers had to catch up. That is true across the board in ethics. Except for a tiny handful of writings (Mill’s on women’s rights, for example; Locke on individual liberty and equal rights), philosophers were, and still are, not at the vanguard of any advance in morality and ethics. Philosophers didn’t discover and start the push for animals rights, civil rights, rights for the disabled, the dienfranchised, they didn’t push first, before everyone else, for increased diversity and respect for all humans and all life. They had to catch up to these ideas, and frankly, many are lagging quite far behind, still.
“But even so,” you might reply, “philosophers now know that slavery is wrong. That’s an advance, as you clearly admitted, so philosophy does advance.”
Oh yeah… why is slavery immoral? No two philosophers will answer this the same way. Even within the consequentialists in my department there are several different explanations as to why slavery is immoral. We just know that it is. And knowing the latter is something many know. Philosophy’s job–if it even has one–is to explain or say why slavery is immoral. And it hasn’t done that.
The thing I want to highlight here is the process of first coming to a conclusion (slavery is immoral) and then trying to come up with a justification for it. Even if philosophers managed to agree on why slavery is immoral, the fact that they mainly tried to come up with a justification after the fact leads you to suspect that their justification didn’t have anything to do with the real reason people decided slavery was immoral. And that would raise suspicions that they hadn’t found the real reason why slavery is immoral, in spite of their agreement with each other.
I also had occasion to think about this when reading Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker, in the chapter on what he calls the “Humanitarian Revolution” of the 18th and 19th centuries, writes:
I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further: The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy–a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers…
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal (pp. 180, 182).
I don’t know how anyone with a halfway decent knowledge of the history of philosophy could read this–or for that matter write it–without wincing. The truth is that there was no coherent philosophy shared by all these thinkers. Hobbes’ Social Contract was motivated entirely by self-interest. Kant was not only fanatically opposed to self-interest but also thought it was morally wrong to take into account the effects of your actions on other people. And Hume infamously denied it was against reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of your little finger. There’s no way we can say that their arguments “slew” anything, because their arguments were mutually incompatible.
Insofar as their conclusions converge, my guess is that it’s because they took conclusions which were already starting to become popular and then set out to justify them. Even of Locke, who the author of “There Is No Progress in Philosophy” allows was an exception to the general pattern. His famous Two Treatises of Government was published a year after the British Parliament established it’s authority over the King in the Glorious Revolution. His Letter Concerning Toleration reached conclusions similar to Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, but through very different arguments, and both works came after Europeans had had plenty of opportunity to get sick of killing each other over religion.
This is extremely relevant to debates over the value of philosophy. And not just because philosophy can’t claim credit for moral progress, but also because it’s a strike against the claim that studying philosophy makes you better at finding the truth. It may just make you better at post-hoc rationalizations of things you came to believe for other reasons.