The Fight for Science (and Justice)

Moral and political philosophers are concerned with how we ought to act, as both individuals and collectivity as societies.  So we ask questions like: What makes an action right or wrong?  What constitutes the “good life”?  How should society distribute the benefits and burdens of social cooperation (like wealth, and rights and freedoms)?

As philosophers, it is not surprising that we turn to the history of philosophy to help us grapple with these timeless normative questions.  So we turn to intellectual giants like Aristotle, Kant, Mill and Marx for guidance on how we can sensibly deliberate about the demands of morality and justice.  More recently, moral and political philosophers have engaged (and still do) in many a spirited debate relating to John Rawls’s theory “justice as fairness”, and topical applied topics like multiculturalism, animal rights, deliberative democracy and cosmopolitanism.  These are all interesting issues, topics I myself have published on and currently teach.  But something vital is missing…. 

History is important, it can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world we have inherited.  And so if we aspire to achieve wisdom (philosophy means “love of wisdom”) then we must appreciate the things we can learn from the past.  But this must be tempered by a sense of proportionality.  The collective wisdom of the disparate thinkers who lived centuries, even millennia, ago ought to be weighed against the “wisdom of the present”.  Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the *philosophers* of today have more wisdom than those of the past (far from it!).  Rather, I mean that the general knowledge we have about our biology, knowledge that has only come to the fore in the past few years, adds incredible insights to the field of normative theorizing.  Rather than just flipping through the pages of Rousseau or Plato, we need to also stay abreast of the findings of evolutionary biology, medical genetics, neuroscience and behavioural genetics (just to list some examples).  For these empirical insights may prove to be much more valuable than the insights garnished from dead philosophers.  I know that is hard for philosophers to believe (and swallow!), and I myself have opined that more attention should be given to the brilliance of Bentham, and the sharp insights of Marx

But the history of Western moral and political thought is one that has, for the most part, evolved from religion or speculations into human nature.  We now live in the rare and exciting times were this “veil of ignorance” is being lifted!  We are beginning to see and understand how our brain works, why we age and the role genes play in things like intelligence and political behavior.  Imagine if Aristotle, Hobbes or Locke were alive today.  Do you think they would be flipping through the pages of philosophy journals pondering the abstract ideals of equality, or do you think they would be reading science journals and pondering the really big questions concerning the future of humanity?  I reckon it would be the latter.  They would be envious of the opportunities that we now have, and they would be puzzled by the snobbery and insularity of scholars who view such interdisciplinary interests and aspirations as “Philosophy-Lite”. 

Perhaps you think I am being too hard on my fellow moral and political philosophers.  They have an interest in science, you may say, it’s just that science does not really address fundamental issues in “political” philosophy.  Hogwash!  Political philosophy is concerned with the functions of government, and science policy is one of the most important activities of modern day governments.  To illustrate the dire neglect of science in political philosophy consider this question— which major scientific breakthrough has had the greatest impact on the field of contemporary political philosophy- in particular, on debates concerning distributive justice?  One is hard pressed to think of any.  And yet, over the past two hundred years, the life expectancy of humans born on this planet has more than doubled.  What caused this unprecedented and dramatic rise in life expectancy?  Many things, by major contributors include medical knowledge and advances in technology.  If political philosophers spent nearly half as much time pondering the importance of technological progress as they have on Rawls’s extension of his domestic theory of justice to the global arena, the discipline would be transformed in incredible and fruitful ways.  But alas, I am not holding my breath that this will happen any time soon.

Just to be clear, I am not picking on Rawls, he was a great political philosopher.  I am picking on us (and I include myself here, I am also guilty of this neglect!)  Here is another example to illustrate my point.  Rawls’s invocation of the veil if ignorance inspired a prolonged debate between “liberals and communitarians” that dominated much of political theory for the 1980′s and 1990′s.  Is the self “embedded” or “unencumbered”?  But what has been the real significance of this debate?  Have we received a payoff proportionate to what we invested in it?  No. 

Rather than worry about whether or not John Rawls invokes a plausible conception of the person, shouldn’t we be much more interested in what sciences tells us about humans as a species?  Advances in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and genetics are yielding new major insights into the kinds of creatures we actually are.  Will we spend decades debating the consequences of these empirical findings for normative theory?  I hope so, but that will only happen if we can narrow the gap between science and normative theory. 

So my central point so far is this- if philosophers really “love wisdom”, then we ought to recognize the unprecedented bounty of knowledge that science now provides us with.  Rather than viewing moral and political philosophy as a dialogue that occurred among the greats of the past, we should strive to connect the new empirical insights to these debates.  While we may not have intellectual giants like Aristotle, Mill or Marx living among us today, what we do have is a wealth of empirical knowledge that ought to be an integral part of moral and political philosophy.  No doubt some of you will still ask- “But why?”  So let me come at this again from a different angle.    

Moral and political philosophers should aspire to narrow the gap between science and normative theory because:  (1)  no other topic comes even close in terms of the important impact science has had on the wellbeing of humans; (2) these important issues have not received their fair share of attention from moral and political philosophers; and (3) if you want to teach something that will really get students excited about the relevance of moral and political philosophy to the real world, then explore the link between science and moral (be it moral psychology or applied ethics) and political philosophy (e.g. distributive justice). 

The neglect of science is not unique to philosophy, in fact it permeates our culture.  Today I was reading through this excellent lecture on the importance of technology.  Here are a few snippets that really grabbed me:

Humankind’s way of life has depended on technology since the beginning of civilization. It can indeed be argued that civilization began when humans first used technologies, moving beyond the merely instinctual and into an era when people began to impose themselves on their environment, going beyond mere existence, to a way of life which enabled them to take increasing advantage of their intellect.

….My contention is that technology is sidelined and undervalued – we become defensive about it and would rather retreat into the past, or into fundamental science, than to strive to stay in the race. The cost of this major social failure will progressively disadvantage all of us. Technology is determining the future of the human race. We need it to satisfy our appetite for energy, perhaps through nuclear power; to help us address hunger through plant breeding throughout the world; to monitor and find the means for avoiding global warming so that we can rescue our planet for future generations. Technology can improve our health, and lengthen our lives. I want this lecture series to act as a wake up call to all of us. Technology, I repeat, will determine the future of the human race. We should recognise this and give it the profile and status that it deserves.

….I have found that the possession of an understanding of technology, just as with an understanding of music, literature, or the arts, brings with it great personal satisfaction and pleasure. I still pause to wonder at the achievements of humankind, for example, when I am flying in comfort at 40,000 feet and look down on the white caps and spume of a turbulent sea so far distant below me, and realize the difficulties there were in crossing it only a couple of lifetimes ago. I know that I can safely drink the water that runs out of the tap in the majority of places I visit in the world, and can talk with my family or even hold in my hand a real-time picture of them wherever I am. How remarkable it is to gaze up at the moon and the planets and realise that we have already walked on that great sphere and have sent intelligent machines to those planets, even to their satellites, and received high-quality pictures and data from those remote surfaces.

My appreciation is all the greater because I know enough to realise how difficult it has been to accomplish these things, enough in fact to know how little – after a lifetime in science and technology – I actually know myself. I sometimes play the game of wondering how much I would be able to recreate if by some cataclysmic disaster I were to be the only person left with knowledge of how these wonders were accomplished. I am afraid that it would only be a small and specialized fraction of electronics.

At one stage of the lecture reference is made to this survey which took place in the UK a few years back.  When asked what the most significant innovation of the past two centuries was, the general public chose… are you ready for this?… not the sanitation revolution, not antibiotics or the computer or the automobile, but… the bike.  Furthermore, GM food -which could help alleviate global poverty- was chosen as the top innovation they wish we would “disinvent”. 

If this is not proof of the need for philosophers to jump on board and join the intellectual battle against dogma and ignorance then I don’t know what is.  The stakes in these debates are so high, and the champions of reason and reality so few, there is perhaps no other cause more in need of sympathetic allies that the battle for science.  I don’t want my children to inherit a culture that celebrates riding bikes over having access to clean drinking water, antibiotics or genetically modified crops.   Won’t you please consider joining the fight for science (and justice)?


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25 Responses to The Fight for Science (and Justice)

  1. Matt Lister says:

    Hi Colin,
    I agree- we ought to be interested in what science tells us! I wonder, though, how much that ought to influence our views on moral and political philosophy. As you say, Kant, Mill, Marx, and Hobbes were all interested in the science if their day and it had an impact on their moral and political views. Now, though, those parts of their views are ones that are usually seen as silly, embarrassing, or even wicked (in the case of Kant’s “scientific” racists views, for example.) Thankfully, it seems that these aspects can be separated from their moral philosophy proper. Of course, these thinkers were both smarter than we are and more actively engaged with the science if their day. That makes me worried that we philosophers, especially moral and political philosophers, are much more likely to make blunders or worse if we try to move out of the area of our expertise. This isn’t to say we can not comment on the topics of the day- we should. (I too am interested in genetically modified crops, for example, see here:

    but I’m, I think, much more skeptical than you as to whether they are likely to be of much use in solving our problems.) Similarly, in some ways issues in science can be more directly useful to moral philosophy. I think Philip Kitcher, for example, has done a great job showing how many versions of perfectionist theories of ethics and certain sorts of virtue theory depend on accounts of human nature that are not compatible with our best biological theories. But, we ought to move with great caution here, and not be afraid to focus our energy where we have the comparative advantage, and try to avoid the blunders and even evils that came from the inclusion of now-discredited science into the moral theories of Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Marx, and others.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I share most of Matt’s concerns, save the worry about moral and political philosophers moving out of their area of expertise. I don’t think it takes too much for either academics or intellectuals to acquaint themselves with the current practices of science, a bit of the history of science, and even the philosophy of science (especially when we have the likes of Kitcher, Toulmin, Feyerabend, Dupre, Cartwright, Rescher, Ziman, Buller, Putnam, Giere, Hacking, Feyerabend, Mirowski, Shrader-Frechette, Latour, Galison, Hesse, Midgley, Ruse, Keller, Lewontin, even Fuller, to guide us).

    I think the dangers of scientism loom large here (think, for instance, of the work of Deirdre McCloskey in economics or the compelling critiques by Buller and Fodor of evolutionary psychology, or the mind/brain presuppositions and assumptions in neuroethics, or Lewontin’s ‘biology as ideology’ critique, or the work of such philosophers as Avrum Stroll, P.M.S. Hacker, Vincent Descombes, Daniel Robinson, Nicholas Rescher and Daniel Hutto) as does the related inability to understand the character of Big or post-academic science. Relatedly, we need to be careful of narrating predominantly and misleading whiggish histories of science that buttress such scientism. Moreover, manichean stories of the relation between science and religion are equally hazardous to an even-handed appreciation of science.

    Incidentally, political philosophers interested in the science of ecology and environmentalism reveal how an engagement with science does not necessarily help us better adjudicate political and ethical questions as these philosophers tend to fall out across the political spectrum and often have very different ethical orientations: think of Garrett Hardin, Murray Bookchin, Robin Eckersley, Dale Jamieson, Peter Singer, Andrew Light, Robert Goodin, among others.

    In contemporary medicine, the focus on biomedicine is “scientistic” to the extent that it has failed to engage public health questions in particular and the social determinants of health in general. Biomedical and thus scientific accounts of disease causality, for example, often leave out other causal routes that may, in the first and last instance, be responsible for disease(s). We might see this, however, as simply a case where natural science demands its social science counterpart.

    And I would think the conception of “psychology” as a (natural) science has hardly been an unmitigated good, indeed, we’re starting to better appreciate the limits of such conceptualization when it comes to questions of mental health and illness.

    Naturalization projects and agendas of one kind or another are all-the-rage these days (e.g., Leiter’s ambitions with regard to jurisprudence) and I would hope that moral and political philosophy remain areas of human inquiry structurally resistant to such siren calls. There is an ineluctable gap between the scientific and normative, as there is between science and philosophy. This does not of course preclude an intimate connection between the two, as exists in general between facts and values, facts and theories, subjectivity and objectivity, and so on. Finally, as Bennett and Hacker recently reminded us, “science is no more immune to conceptual error and confusion than any other form of intellectual endeavor.”

  3. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I have a few things to say to try to ease some your concerns.

    The word “science” comes the Latin scientia, which means “having knowledge”. And while the greats of the past were engaged with the science of their day, their science was very infantile when compared to where we are today. So the risks you note- like making blunders- were much, much greater two or three centuries ago than they are today (though of course we still can, and do, make big blunders!).

    Aristotle, Kant and Hume, for example, functioned with much less knowledge about the world and humans than we have access to today. Should we tap that wealth of knowledge when thinking about how we ought to live? I think we should. In fact, that wealth of empirical knowledge may prove to be much more fertile grounds for pondering how we ought to live than just combing through the history of ideas, ideas that were developed when we had very little knowledge of the world and our species.

    And so I really do not see that we have much of a “comparative advantage” to offer in terms of reflections on what morality or justice require if we simply close ourselves off from the incredible advances being made by modern day science. To put it bluntly, what are our purported “expertise” if we simply stick our heads in the sand and say- “we can discuss the demands of morality and justice without any knowledge of human nature, our evolutionary history, the political economy, globalization, our cognitive biases, etc.”?

    Now of course we must be provisional about these things (new empirical insights are always emerging, old assumptions are often proven wrong, etc.) and function with the appropriate sense of humility. But all moral or political theories invoke some assumptions (whether implicitly or explicitly) and so the risk of ignoring or bracketing the empirical evidence (because it is “beyond our expertise”) is that we fail to realize we invoke implausible or unfounded assumptions. So we are happy to engage in prolonged debates into the alleged “social” or “asocial” nature of humans made by different proponents of the social contract tradition, and yet evolutionary biologists can now provide us with a much richer understanding of the kind of species we *actually* are.

    Or, to give another example, we concern ourselves with different philosophical accounts of happiness (e.g. hedonism, preference satisfaction, etc.) but in recent years there has emerged a field of psychology (called “positive psychology”) that actually studies, in a scientific manner, what makes people happy. You would think this would be heralded as one of the most significant breakthroughs for moral and political philosophers… that we need not premise moral and political theory on idle speculation about what makes people happy, now we have empirical evidence! And yet, we either ignore these empirical insights or wonder- “what relevance do they have to moral and political theory?”

    The scientific findings of evolutionary biology and positive psychology have enormous consequences for moral and political theory. And yet, as a discipline, only a small fraction of our collective energies are invested in tackling these exciting projects. We would prefer to invest a disproportionate share of those limited energies into comprehending, revising and criticising Rawls’s account of the original position (sorry to pick on Rawls again). I guess my point is to get us to ask- where has this gotten us? I think we are missing great opportunities here. And in order to capitalize on them we need to critically reflect upon what it is we are trying to accomplish, and how best to accomplish it. If it is wisdom we aspire to achieve and impart, then I think we need to seriously consider an “extreme makeover”!


  4. Matt Lister says:

    Hi Colin,

    I agree, of course, that we ought to care about science. (Does anyone disagree? I think that might be a straw-man, if you’re claiming that, but I hope you’re not.) But, to take one of your examples, the “happiness science”, so far it’s a pretty unsettled science. That’s fine- it might get better, and philosophers might even play a useful role in helping those working in the area avoid some conceptual confusions and other problems. But let’s suppose it’s really successful at teaching us how to be happier, and what being happy consists in. Isn’t the answer from moral and political philosophy often going to be, “so what?” Any plausible moral theory, of course, thinks happiness is important and wants people to be happy, especially for the right reasons. But unless we’ve already decided the distinctly philosophical question of whether happiness is what ethics is primarily about, or what we ought to take as our primary aim, or whatever, it seems that this work is, at best, only indirectly related to the philosophical questions that interest us as philosophers. It’s not that I think philosophy ought not be useful for our normal lives, either. If I thought that was true of philosophy I’d get out of the field. But it does seem to me that there are an awful lot of questions in moral and political philosophy that this sort of research is just going to leave untouched. The sorts of questions you list are surely important ones, but many of them seem like questions of public policy, institution planning, and the like that philosophers are usually both ill-equiped to deal with and are largely independent of the more basic questions of moral and political philosophy. Again, this doesn’t mean that science is of no use to these fields- I think Kitcher’s work is a very good example, again, but often it’s orthogonal.

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    My apologies for having the temerity to intrude upon this conversation.

  6. Matt Lister says:

    The more the merrier, Patrick! I’d meant to say (but forgot) that some of the works you mention are useful for pointing out how the science doesn’t really answer the ethical questions, but do give us some useful tools and, even more, new areas to think about.

  7. I agree with some of the concerns Matt and Patrick raise above (Patrick, I had written and then posted the response to Matt before I saw and read your comments, so apologies if you felt excluded).

    Let me still push the point that I think we need to take seriously the idea of transforming the kinds of activity we take ourselves to be engaged in.

    The real greats in moral and political philosophy- like Plato, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill and Marx- aspired to make the world a better place. They were in the business of creating and imparting wisdom. And so philosophy was at the service of humanity. Furthermore, they aspired to do this when they actually possessed much more primitive knowledge (about the world and our species). But I do not think this aspiration currently informs contemporary moral and political philosophy; which is a shame because now humanity has access to a wide range of new knowledge that could actually help make the world a better place.

    Matt asks if I think (moral and political) philosophers care about science. Well, if one tried to answer that question by surveying the last three decades of journal articles published in the most prestigious journals in ethics and political philosophy, I think one could be forgiven for thinking we don’t (as a discipline) really care that much. There are exceptions. But given the great amount of good that science has created in the world, you would think that those who spend their careers pondering morality and justice would be among the strongest advocates for science. I do not think that this is the case.

    So Matt and Patrick are right that some questions remain untouched by empirical knowledge, but my point is that we have to ask if those are the questions we should be most concerned about answering. It’s a question of proportionality. I think the empirical ought to have a profound impact on the questions we ask. So once we get empirical evidence that certain activities (e.g. philanthropy, loving relationships, etc.) actually do create happier people then some of the questions we once thought were so important to answer may not be so important. Or perhaps we need to think of new questions to ask (and try to answer). The ability to engage in this kind of provisional and more proportionate exploration of morality and justice is impaired if we have already decided that the really important questions are removed from (or independent of) the kind of knowledge science provides.


  8. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    But is it not the case that, for example, much of the empirical work on “happiness” assumes conventional or ideological conceptions of what happiness consists of? How many of these scientists are well acquainted, say, with what the Hellenistic philosphers thought about eudaimonia or what Buddhists and Daoists have had to say about happiness? Empirical work, at least the little I’ve read in this area, strikes me as rather shallow. Perhaps what the masses think about happiness is mistaken, and deeply so, and thus the empirical work is so much pissin’ in the wind.

    In any case, I don’t think it’s simply the lack of scientific knowledge that impedes real progress on many fronts, for example, on global distributive justice issues, but rather a problem of political will, among other things. We’ve long had the scientific and agro-technological capacity to feed everyone on the planet, but it’s not been for lack of scientific knowledge that people still starve, that people still go hungry. Same goes, I think, for socio-economic development. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s massive scientific illiteracy among the general population, but the problem is not so much theirs as it is among elites who monopolize, patent and profit from the scientific knowledge and technological products and expertise in their possession. In other words, perhaps the lack of attention from moral and political philosophers is perfectly appropriate.

    And, bioethicists, as well as economists and ecologists with a background in moral and political philosophy, often possess the requisite scientific knowledge germane to their respective fields. Of course one should not ignore the empirical, but the empirical and the scientific are not identical and I suspect the former often does have a profound impact on the questions we ask: consider the work of Partha Dasgupta or Amartya Sen or Jonathan Wolff…. Moral and political philosophers are often quite conversant in the literature of the social sciences, and this strikes me as sufficiently empirical and scientific.

    Again, the great amount of good created by science must examined in light of the dark side: nuclear and biological weaponry, environmental devastation and destruction, horrific experimentation on both non-human animals and human subjects as well as unethical treatment of the mentally ill, and so forth and so on. It simply does not do to highlight the good and ignore the rest. And some of those “goods” have been wrongly attributed to science: for instance, many of the gains in public health were not a result of advances in medicine or medical technology but a result of improvements in quality of life over which science had no control: i.e., it was concrete improvements in material and psychosocial conditions that led to improvements in infant morality rates and longevity (for literature on the ‘social determinants of health’ and related issues, please see I suspect many would be surprised to learn that, in Norman Daniels’ words, “The broad determinants of health and its distribution in a population include income and wealth, education, political participation, the distribution of rights and powers, and opportunity.” Science is not front and center here, and rightfully so. Or compare Thomas Pogge:

    Many kinds of social institutions can substantially contribute to the incidence of medical conditions. Of these, economic institutions–the basic rules governing ownership, production, use, and exchange of natural resources, goods, and services–have the greatest impact on health. This impact is mediated, for the most part, through poverty. By avoidably producing severe poverty, economic institutions substantially contribute to the incidence of many medical conditions. Persons materially involved in upholding such institutions are then materially involved in the causation of such medical conditions.

    In our world, poverty is highly relevant to human health. In fact, poverty is far and away the most important factor in explaining health deficits. Because they are poor, 815 million persons are undernourished. 1,100 million lack access to safe drinking water. 2, 400 million lack access to basic sanitation, more than 880 million lack access to health services, and approximately 1,000 million have no adequate shelter. Because of poverty, “two out of five children in the developing world are stunted, one in three is underweight and one in ten is wasted.” [....] One-third of all human deaths are due to poverty-related causes.

    The problem, again, is not one of science (or lack of scientific knowledge, etc.), at least in the first instance.

    Infatuation with science causes no small amount of trouble in some circles:

    The basic assumption of the diagnostic framework [of psychiatry] is that the presence of enough particular symptoms, regardless of their cause, indicates an underlying disease. This assumption is especially problematic when psychological and psychosomatic symptoms are products of taxing social environments. People who become depressed and anxious or who develop psychophysiological symptoms when they struggle with stressful life events, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, uncertain futures, bad jobs, and limited resources, react in appropriate ways to their environments; they do not have internal dysfunctions and so are not mentally disordered if their symptoms disappear when their social circumstances change. —Allan V. Horwitz

    Or cf.:

    One consequence of the recent “biological” turn is that psychiatrists increasingly fail to appreciate the dynamic of their relationships with their patients. There is a growing split between pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy that is most evident in North American psychiatry. Actual time with patient is shrinking rapidly. Psychiatrists now commonly prescribe medications after only a brief encounter with the patient, and with only occasional follow-ups. There is an almost complete reliance on RCTs [randomized controlled trials], which owes something to the perception that going by evidence other than RCT evidence is just not scientific–that’s what we used to do back in the bad old days. Prescribing antidepressants has become as antiseptic a therapeutic encounter as giving an antibiotic. —David Healy

  9. Hi Patrick,

    Quoting Daniels or Pogge about what causes poverty and disease is systematic of the problem I believe permeates the discipline. So simply quoting them gets us nowhere on our particular debate. The social determinants like wealth and education would not even exist (at the levels we now enjoy) were it not for the technological advances made possible by science. The same applies to the reductions in early and mid-life mortality and public health measures (like the sanitation revolution) you mention. So I think you grossly underestimate the positive impact science has made to our lives.

    There shouldn’t even be a serious debate about whether science has, on balance, created more good than bad. The evidence is overwhelming in favour of science. But of course it is easy to forget this when we ignore the plight that humans have faced historically and take all the benefits we now enjoy for granted (which is why the bike was voted as the #1 technology above).

    And the idea that eradicating global poverty is simply a case of “lack of political will”- that is something political philosophers can say amongst themselves with a straight face but it is trite. If only it were that easy. Last year over 235 science journals simultaneously published articles on the topic of poverty and human development (see details at ). Such contributions are essential if we are serious about eliminating poverty.


  10. Robert Jubb says:


    whether or not Patrick is grossly underestimating the positive impact science has made to our lives, what seemed to me his original point – that it’s not clear what the philosophical implications of that positive impact are supposed to be – stands. Let’s pick a particular scientific advance: say mass sanitation. Clearly it has had a huge impact on the lives of people who have access to it. That doesn’t mean that it raises any interesting philosophical issues at all. It is of course the case that philosophers are going to want to think about the concrete implications of the claims they make: unless they do so, justifying what they say will be difficult, since the general claims will end up being formal and empty and particular ones unconneced to any broader theory. That means, I would have thought, engaging with other disciplines to find out what about those implications, although for political philosophy I would have thought the social, rather than the hard, sciences would be more relevant, since political philosophy is similarly supposed to be making claims at the macro-level. Engaging with other disciplines though, is quite different from saying that hard science matters for political philosophy qua hard science, which at the moment seems to be your claim.

  11. Hi Rob,

    I believe that concrete examples of what has created great good in the world have important implications for moral and political philosophy. You ask if these raise any interesting philosophical issues at all. I guess much depends on what we construe as “interesting” and “philosophical”. My view, which I admit may be in the minority, conceives of moral and political philosophy as being in the business of trying to advance wisdom and make the real world a better place. John Harris (in Enhancing Evolution) cites a great passage from Russell, who says the following about Jeremy Bentham:

    There can be no doubt that nine-tenths of the people living in England in the latter part of the last century were happier than they would have been if he had never lived. So shallow was his philosophy that he would have regarded this as a vindication of his activities.

    I think we currently place too high a premium on “deep” philosophy, which is often detached from the concern to improve the real world, and too low a premium on the kind of activity Bentham would approve of.

    I agree with your point about political philosophy needing to engage with the social sciences. I fixated on the hard sciences to illustrate the point that thinkers concerned which how we ought to live ought to be champions of the activity that has created some of the greatest good in the world. But if in my digression to try to make that point I downplayed the importance of the social sciences that was a mistake. I agree with your point about that, especially for political philosophy.


  12. One further thing Rob. With respect to sanitation you state: “Clearly it has had a huge impact on the lives of people who have access to it”. It also has a huge impact on the life prospects of those who do not (as of yet) have access to it. Why? Because preventing disease and poverty in those areas of the world that now have basic sanitation increases the likelihood of the rest getting it and improving their lives even further.

    The number of humans (about 60% of the world’s population) who now enjoy basic sanitation is almost 4 times the size of the world’s population in the year 1800. The fact that there are still 2.6 billion or so without basic sanitation is of course a major, major concern. But we often tend to downplay the importance of getting at least partial (if not immediately universal) access technological advances. I think this is a problem for political philosophers in particular because we come with our preconceived ideals, like equality, and thus if something is not immediately equally accessible to everyone in the world then it’s positive impact must be, at best, minimal. That is no doubt part of the reason we ignore science.


  13. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    I tried to make Robert’s point above that “although for political philosophy I would have thought the social, rather than the hard, sciences would be more relevant” when I wrote that “Moral and political philosophers are often quite conversant in the literature of the social sciences, and this strikes me as sufficiently empirical and scientific.”

    I agree unreservedly and wholeheartedly with the thought that “we currently place too high a premium on ‘deep’ philosophy, which is often detached from the concern to improve the real world.” And I think this has something to do with the professional and guild nature of the discipline(but that’s an argument for another day). Along those lines I think we can appreciate the following from the Preface to C.A.J. Coady’s latest book, Morality and Political Violence (2008):

    [T]he topics addressed in this book are discussed from a philosophical point of view, but since everyone has, or should have, an interest in the bearing of morality upon political violence, I have attempted to write in a way that avoids philosophical technicalities where possible. My hope is that much of the argument will be accessible to those in disciplines beyond philosophy and to interested nonspecialists. I admire philosophy that is clear and embodies standards of rigorous argument–standards that I aim to emulate here–but on topics having to do with political violence, I have little sympathy with thought that is enclosed in houses of intellect locked and shuttered against the world.

    Indeed, your comment about “deep” philosophy also calls to mind what attracted Martha Nussbaum to the study of Hellenistic philosophy and its “therapeutic” arguments (hence the strong analogy between medicine and philosophy) in The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994). She introduces her book as follows:

    The idea of a practical and compassionate philosophy–a philosophy that exists for the sake of human beings, in order to address their deepest needs, confront their most urgent perplexities, and bring them from misery to some greater measure of flourishing–this idea makes the study of Hellenistic ethics riveting for a philospher who wanders what philosophy has to do with the world. The writer and teacher of philosophy is a lucky person, fortunate, as few human beings are, to be able to spend her life expressing he most serious thoughts and feelings about the problems that have moved and fascinated her most. But this wonderful and exhilirating life is also part of the world as a whole, a world in which hunger, illiteracy, and disease are the daily lot of a large proportion of the human beings who still exist, as well as causes of death for many who do not still exist. A life of leisured self-expression is, for most of the world’s people, a dream so distant that it can rarely even be formed. The contrast between these two images of human life gives rise to a question: what business does anyone have living in the happy and self-expressive world, so long as the other world exists and one is a part of it?

    The European Enlightenment was another historical period worthy of emulation in this regard (before the full-fledged professionalization of philosophy), as is evidenced in Stephen Eric Bonner’s Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (2004).

    By the way, some of the issues raised by concerns over “deep” philosophy are well-covered in several essays in a volume that came out some years ago: Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal, eds., The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis? (1989).

    I perhaps have an idiosyncratic sensitivity to this topic owing to the fact that I entered the academic world comparatively late: in my 40s, and only teach (very) part-time (and although I’m in a philosophy department, most of my training was outside philosophy proper), and thus have never been tempted by the seductions of purely “deep” philosophy (we’ll set aside the question of whether or not I have the talent for same). The few times I have raised this issue with professional philosophers in various fora I’ve been met with astounding condescension, hostility, and anger, indeed, an almost visceral emotional defensiveness that only served to confirm my suspicions about the ethically and psychologically troubling nature of much of contemporary professional philosophy (less so, perhaps, of moral and political philosophy).

    Finally, for a tonic to the ills of purely ivory tower deep philosophy we might read (or re-read) numerous tracts on “intellectual responsibility,” from Sartre to Chomsky….

  14. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    BTW: The quotes from Daniels and Pogge were by way of illustrating the proposition that (natural and ‘pure’/'basic’/ research) science is not now, nor need be, “front and center” on those problems rightfully under the purview of moral and political philosophers today. So I think, to the contrary, that it does get us somewhere in the discussion, even if it’s a place you’d prefer not to go. I am not at all naive nor do I grossly underestimate the positive impact that science has had on our lives (I teach a class on religious worldviews which now and again has students of a certain Christian orientation with whom I stress the scientific ‘truth’ and significance of evolution, as well as the value of science in general). More recently, I have a post on sanitation and toilets at the Ratio Juris blog that further reveals this appreciation: (sanitation having been one of the examples in your original post). [Incidentally, I put bicycles right up there with cars and computers: only first world bias and life of privilege (or a lack of appreciation of the notion of 'appropriate technology') would diminish the technological significance of the bicycle, a mode of transportation more important than ever in the affluent nations.]

    “The social determinants like wealth and education would not even exist (at the levels we now enjoy) were it not for the technological advances made possible by science. The same applies to the reductions in early and mid-life mortality and public health measures (like the sanitation revolution) you mention. So I think you grossly underestimate the positive impact science has made to our lives.”

    I well realize this to some degree and it is beside the points I was making, including the fact that, “The problem, again, is not one of science (or lack of scientific knowledge, etc.), at least in the first instance. I should also point out that there is an abundant literature in the history and social studies of science as well as the history and philosophy of technology (the work of Arnold Pacey comes to mind here, if I’m not mistaken) that make clear the link between science and technology has not always been as strong as you assume here (‘were it not for the technological advances made possible by science’). In other words, many technological advances were relatively independent of science as such, although I agree that both conceptually and historically they’re often still connected, even if those links are rather remote and abstract.

  15. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    One last item before I happily leave the last word to you: Some years ago I put together a fairly decent bibliography on “science and technology” for my students (and some colleagues have found it helpful as well) so as to help them better appreciate both the philosophy and history of science and technology. I think that is further evidence of my not having “grossly underestimate[d] the positive impact science has made to our lives.” I’m sending you a copy, although bear in mind that it has not been thoroughly updated for several years now.

    All good wishes,

  16. Hi Patrick,

    thanks again for the comments and bibliography. I have enjoyed the exchange of points back and forth. I’ll leave things (at least for now) with these final thoughts which no doubt open many other cans of worms but will hopefully help explain my stance a bit better.

    You state that the quotes from Pogge and Daniels illustrate “the proposition that (natural and ‘pure’/’basic’/ research) science is not now, nor need be, “front and center” on those problems rightfully under the purview of moral and political philosophers today”.

    Well, there is much to be said here. I think we (i.e. me and you (and Daniels and Pogge) will likely disagree on what the fundamental problems facing humanity actually are, as well as their cause, hence why we have different views about the importance of science in tackling them.

    The world we now inhabit is one where the chronic diseases associated with aging are the major cause of death in the world. According to the World Health organization (see ) in the year 2005 chronic diseases killed 35 million people worldwide. That number is twice the number of deaths due to infectious diseases (including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria), maternal and perinatal
    conditions, and nutritional deficiencies combined. These numbers will continue to rise as populations age, especially in the developing world. By 2050 there will be 2 billion people worldwide over the age of 60. And unless we figure out a way to prevent these chronic diseases this will be an unprecedented number of humans suffering disease. And those in the developing world will be hit the hardest.

    The causal story of the development of chronic illness is very complex (e.g. smoking, diet, etc.) but there is an obvious reason why it now kills most humans- because we are living longer. So senescence is a major problem. Evolutionary biology is contributing important pieces to the puzzle of why humans are vulnerable to the diseases of aging, pieces that epidemiology, with its fixation only on the proximate causes (rather than ultimate) of disease, has ignored. And so our biological design itself, which is the legacy of an evolutionary history driven by natural selection, is a major culprit. Natural selection only cares about reproductive fitness, it does not care about healthy aging. If we really want to make a serious dent with the diseases of aging we will have to modify the biological processes of aging. (like this – and

    To figure out how to retard aging basic research is necessary- so it should be “front and center” and it should be something moral and political philosophers champion *now*.

    Now Patrick I suspect, given the passage you cited above from David Healy- lamenting the growing split between pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy in North American psychiatry- that the suggestion that we should search for pharmaceuticals that decelerate aging (or enhance intelligence, happiness, etc.) might sound horrific. But I do not have a bias in favour of only external environmental interventions. Whatever means proves the most effective way of altering the biochemistry of the brain (or our general health) is the way to go. Let the evidence decide things. I believe evolutionary biology will revolutionize medicine this century. And this is a good thing because it will help us tackle the biggest problems we shall face this century. I know this is a minority view. And the issues above are enormously complex and I couldn’t possibly do justice to them here. So I don’t expect to win over many with this short post.


  17. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    Regarding bibliography: my e-mail was returned with the following message:

    This is the Spam Firewall at

    I’m sorry to inform you that the message below could not be delivered.
    When delivery was attempted, the following error was returned.

    : message size 15061241 exceeds size limit 12582912 of

    If you have another e-mail address could you please send it to me and I’ll try to re-send the bibliography (28 pgs. as Word doc.). Thanks.

    And thanks for the link to the post on Marx at your blog: I linked to it at my post on a (very select) bibliography for Marx & Marxism at the Ratio Juris Blog:

  18. Robert Jubb says:

    “I fixated on the hard sciences to illustrate the point that thinkers concerned which how we ought to live ought to be champions of the activity that has created some of the greatest good in the world”

    Colin, is your claim then that political philosophers qua political philosophers ought to be going round saying, crudely, things like ‘hooray for mass sanitation’? I can see that that might make sense qua human being – although it’s not clear, at least in the case of mass sanitation, who one’d be saying it to: is there really anyone going around saying ‘boo to mass sanitation’? – but qua (political) philosopher? It’s not something philosophers in general are particularly well-qualified to pronounce on, because they’re not generally experts on the effects of technological advances, and insofar as they are experts on that, it is not qua philosophers. There may be an argument – probably a philosophical argument – to be had about whether it is appropriate to be doing philosophy when there are all kinds of other, quite possibly massively more beneficial things, one could be doing, but that’s neither the argument you’re making here nor one which applies only to (political) philosophers.

  19. Rob,

    Political philosophers concerned with topics like distributive justice ought, qua political philosophers, to recognise the enormous benefits that scientific habits of mind have yielded humanity. They should also have an appreciation of the things that threaten these habits. Furthermore, they should be engaged in the battle to have the former win over the latter.

    So yes, “political philosophers qua political philosophers” ought to be going round saying ‘hooray for mass sanitation’ (and the other benefits of science). For without these advances, we would not have the benefits (levels of wealth and income, rights and freedoms, etc.) that we typically focus on and take to be essential for justice. And the failure to appreciate these background benefits increases the likelihood that the prescriptions of our normative theories will yield misguided conclusions.

    As for the question- “is there really anyone going around saying ‘boo to mass sanitation’?”; well, our inattention to the things that actually create the greatest good in the world (and the fixation on things that have marginal, if any, benefit) is a form of saying “boo”. So is the sentiment Patrick expressed earlier, that the reason we have not (yet) completely eradicated global poverty is due to a “lack of political will” (a sentiment I have heard many a political philosopher express). And so is the sentiment “if something isn’t immediately equally accessible to everyone in the world it is not a laudable benefit” (a sentiment I have also heard many a political philosopher express).

    To go back to my original point above—to someone following the last 3 decades of debates in the field one would think science has *no importance* at all to concerns of distributive justice. And this is the message we send our students when they attend our classes and learn about political philosophy. And then we wonder why democratically elected governments can cut science funding, veto legislation on stem cell research, propose teaching creationism, invade other countries without sufficient evidence, ignore the problem of climate change, etc.


  20. Colin – aren’t you being a little hasty in assuming that your pet interests happen to exhaust “the really big questions”? If you’re interested in really applied topics, that’s fine. But others of us are interested in more theoretical (even a priori) topics — I recently listed some ‘big’ ones here — and it doesn’t strike me as any less “snobbish” for applied folks to belittle theoreticians than vice versa. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that.

    Teaching and philosophical ‘activism’ — i.e. promoting reason in the public culture — are valuable and worthwhile endeavours, I agree. But so is pure inquiry into the most fundamental philosophical problems — including many that ordinary folk would dismiss as too “abstract” or irrelevant to their everyday concerns. Their everyday concerns matter, but they are not all that matters. So while I’m all for (some) people “fighting for science and justice”, I’m also in favour of (some) people doing abstract metaphysics, metaethics, and inquiring into the fundamental nature of rational normativity, etc. I don’t think the former cause necessarily trumps the latter, and in all honesty it strikes me as rather obnoxious to denounce theoreticians for failing to share your pet interests, or for being insufficiently “practical“. (Perhaps this was not your intent, in which case you might want to tone down the polemical rhetoric a notch, to avoid such misunderstandings.)

    On the other hand, if you really mean to argue that empirically-minded philosophy is objectively superior to traditional methods, perhaps it would be appropriate to support such claims with empirical evidence? What is an exemplar of the sort of philosophical methodology you favour, and is it obviously superior to, say, Parfit’s Reasons and Persons?

  21. Well Richard, my post seems to have ruffled your feathers!

    If the moral and political implications of science were just “my pet project” then yes, I agree I would be guilty of being too hasty and obnoxious (as you charge). The fact that you actually think that science is just a pet interest of mine, rather than something that is actually very important to humanity, nicely illustrates the central point I was trying to convey with this post.

    Furthermore, I never said there should be *no* theoretical work (I’ll leave it to you to make the case for championing that cause). It’s a matter of proportionality. If there really were “a thousand flowers blooming” I would not be motivated to write the post in the first place. I still await to hear an example of one major scientific advancement of the twentieth century that has received serious attention from moral and political philosophers in the past 30 years (here is one great example-

    And finally, I don’t agree with your attitude that the discipline should float by on a “whatever rocks your boat” attitude. So the edge of my post that you probably found offensive are the parts that ask (a) what is moral and political philosophy *for*? I think philosophy is at the service of humanity, rather than the other way around; and (b) how does the answer to (a) relate to our role as educators in institutions of higher education? No doubt these two questions make many uncomfortable, as they would prefer that no critical light be cast on the value of the “pet projects” they pursue at the taxpayers’ expense. Having said that, I actually think there is great value in theoretical work, and would defend it in my answers to (a) and (b).

    As for your last point- “that empirically-minded philosophy is objectively superior to traditional methods, perhaps it would be appropriate to support such claims with empirical evidence?” Ok, great works in moral and political philosophy that were informed by the science and politics of their day include Hobbes’s Leviathan, Smith’s The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, and most of Marx’s writings. I suspect any of these would fare pretty well when stacked up against your top choice. Of course we will have to wait 300 years or so before we can confirm which of these books and ideas really have the greatest value. But I feel pretty safe in putting money on my bets.


  22. The fact that you actually think that science is just a pet interest of mine, rather than something that is actually very important

    Where did that “rather than” come from? I think there are any number of things that are very important (as should have been clear from my previous comment). I am by no means denying the value of your particular interests. I merely wish to point out that they are not the only legitimate philosophical interests to have. Again, what I objected to was your telling claim that your favourite questions are “the really big questions.” I don’t doubt that you’re interested in some really big questions. What I find obnoxious is the implication that your interests exhaust the ‘big questions’, and that the rest of us are merely concerned with trivialities. That’s a pretty plain insult to direct at your colleagues; you can hardly be surprised when some take umbrage at it.

    It’s especially annoying because such insults seem completely gratuitous in light of your stated project. If you merely want to draw our attention to some promising but neglected avenues of applied philosophy, you could do that (probably more successfully) in a pluralistic spirit. But instead you needlessly alienate others by offering a hegemonic polemic that belittles the competition (so to speak) in addition to offering a positive case for your preferred approach. It’s the negativity of this zero-sum presentation that I found objectionable. (The positive claim by itself I would probably agree with. I just think this is compatible with also having a positive attitude towards theoretical philosophy. I like all sorts of philosophy, and don’t much like seeing any of it derided.) Again, I can’t quite tell how much of this is intentional; “tone” on the internet is notoriously ambiguous, so perhaps you simply didn’t realize how some of your remarks would “sound” to some readers.

    So the edge of my post that you probably found offensive are the parts that ask (a) what is moral and political philosophy *for*? I think philosophy is at the service of humanity, rather than the other way around; and (b) how does the answer to (a) relate to our role as educators in institutions of higher education? No doubt these two questions make many uncomfortable, as they would prefer that no critical light be cast on the value of the “pet projects” they pursue at the taxpayers’ expense.

    Actually, I’m all for critical consideration of such questions — see, for example, my linked post ‘In Defence of Impractical Philosophy‘. I would reject your anti-intellectual answer to (a) — the deepest problems in normative theory are worth understanding better, even if this never puts bread on anyone’s plate — but I’d argue that even from a utilitarian perspective, academics should pursue their intellectual passions (a defence of the “whatever rocks your boat” attitude, as you call it).

    On the exemplars – no need to wait 300 years. Grad students can read them today and decide for themselves whether they feel more inspired to work in the tradition of (say) Parfit or Marx.

    [P.S. I'd add that it seems gratuitously insulting for you to assume that those who disagree with you "prefer that no critical light be cast" on certain questions. Speaking for myself, at least, what I found offensive is not the question, but my sense that you were endorsing a common anti-intellectual answer. Again, perhaps you didn't mean it that way, as your above comment clarifies that you do consider theoretical work to be of great value, but I did not get that sense from your original post. Hence my cautionary note about the polemical rhetoric. I mean, I'm antecedently sympathetic to your cause, so if you're alienating even me, you might want to work on your PR!]

  23. OK Richard, I’ll grant your final point that I may need work on my PR- me bad. In my defence I will note that in the original post the bold text states “something vital is missing…”. I don’t believe I suggested that “my favourite questions” consumed all the important questions in the field. Furthermore, where I come from, stating on a public forum that someone is obnoxious for expressing an opinion about a neglected topic (and methodology) in the field is also bad PR. So I guess none of us escapes this unpleasant exchange with the moral high ground!


    P.S.- I can’t help but add that the real value of the works of philosophy are not determined by the interests of grad students in philosophy in the year 2008. :)

  24. I’m sorry that you took my criticisms personally, but I stand by my above comments.

    (Note that I was very clear about exactly what I found objectionable; it was certainly not “for expressing an opinion about a neglected topic.” That’s a misrepresentation.)

  25. Hi Richard,

    I do appreciate your general criticisms (the only thing I took personally was the claim about my being obnoxious).

    When I invoked the counterfactual test in the original post – if the exemplar examples of moral and political philosophers (e.g. Aristotle, Hobbes or Locke) were alive today what questions would they tackle and would their work be informed by today’s science?- my aim wasn’t the self-serving one you imply (i.e. that my particular interests consume all the important questions). Rather, it was to get us (as a discipline) to think critically about how the professionalization and specialization of philosophy has constrained the discipline.

    As became obvious in our exchange, you and I disagree on whether the real great contributions to the field were made in our lifetime or long ago. So if the test is “What questions would contemporary theoretician X be concerned with if he/she were writing on the topic 10 years later than he/she actually did write about it?” the heuristic will not result in the transformative conclusion I think it yields when one takes the “long view” of the discipline. [the same is true if the heuristic is utilized by the applied theorist with a short view of the discipline, which was in fact my main target in the post]

    I was surprised by your response to my post as my primary target in the post were not theoreticians working on abstract metaphysics, but moral and political philosophers who take themselves to be engaged in enterprise of creating practical wisdom concerning how we ought to live our lives (which is why I repeated the term “wisdom” many times) . I just assumed the main audience on a blog entitled Public Reason: A blog for Political Philosophers would identify themselves as being committed to the applied project (if I posted my post on a blog for metaphysics then I would really be guilty of being obnoxious!).

    So I think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from the current divide between science and moral and political philosophy. And in my post I offered a diagnosis of this divide (which I know full well would rub many of my colleagues the wrong way, but I think it is an important conversation to have none-the-less). The divide is a very recent phenomenon, one that coincides with (and I suspect was caused by) the professionalization of the discipline. The moral and political philosophers we most admire as making great contributions to the field did not share our contempt for empirical knowledge. If they had access to the new empirical insights that we now have (e.g. concerning human nature) they would utilise this into their work. It would play a formative role in determining which questions and topics they invested their energies into tackling.

    I think it is important to recognise this. It’s not just “my pet interest”, but also the interest of Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill, Marx, etc. Once an interest has received sustained attention for centuries (even millennia) it can no longer be called a “pet interest” can it?


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