After reading this interview in which Rev. John Paris, a bioethicist at Boston College, discusses the Terry Schiavo case, I began to wonder about the absence of philosophers in public discussions of ethical issues. The Schiavo case raises all the issues that are the stock in trade of the contributors (and many of the commenters) at PEA Soup: the value and purpose of life, the moral obligations among family members, the significance of personal autonomy, moral disagreement in a pluralistic society. And that just scratches the surface. But it’s frustrating to see that of all the talking heads that emerge when an issue like this leaps to public attention, none are philosophers. (I’m not blaming us here at PEA Soup; CNN hasn’t called me to comment, and I’m assume that’s true of my fellow PEA Brains as well!)
Oh, you might see Penn’s Arthur Kapan pop up once in a while, and some well-known philosophers have had their moments in the media sun (cave?) over the past decade or so (Nussbaum testifying about the Colorado gay rights legislation, the ‘Philosophers’ Brief’ on assisted suicide). But the media will turn to religious leaders, medical professionals, heads of lobbying orgnizations, elected officials, and the usual cavalcade of self-appointed media experts before they would think to contact those with professional training in how we might think through ethical issues. And of course, much of the public discussion is exactly what we in the philosophical ethics community try to avoid: shrill, uninformed, careless, hasty, pointlessly argumentative, lacking in nuance.
So: Why? Are we in the academic community at fault? Why doesn’t philosophy have a better public face? (I’m thinking in particular of ethics, which seems the most ‘practical’
of philosophical specialties — when would metaphysicians get called to
comment on some burning punlic controversy?) I’m aware there’s an APA committee for this issue, but I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on this topic.