The public face of philosophical ethics

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.

6 Replies to “The public face of philosophical ethics

  1. Hi, Michael. Good question. When I was at Cal State Bakersfield, the local media (which consisted mainly of subpar local news–that is, subpar even by the normally low standards of local news) frequently sought out a couple of us ethics folks in the Philosophy Dept for comment. Any time one of these issues, but particularly those with local community relevance, would crop up, they’d come calling. Now that I’m in the big city, here in LA, I don’t see that at all. (Which isn’t to say that it never happens, of course.) I think that one reason for this disparity between cities that are only 100 miles apart is that in Bakersfield a long-standing relationship had been built between the media and the Philosophy Department, in large part through Chris Meyers’ stewardship of the Kegley Institute of Ethics. The Institute regularly holds various academic and more community-oriented events (and hybrid events), and it has the machinery in place to drum up publicity for those events in the local media. After many years of this (and Chris and others being active in the community in other ways), I think it probably just became commonsense that it is the ethics resource in town.
    So I think the lesson is that if you want the media to call, you have to build relationships with them. In Bakersfield, that’s very easy to do: call the local news folks and pitch ’em a story or publicize an event, and after a few times, they know you. Obviously, though that’s much harder to do on the national level, and I can think of only one way to do it (not that I’m an expert, it’s just the limit of my knowledge on this stuff): hire a PR agency to bridge those relationships for philosophers.
    I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing, because I think you’re right that we’ve got things to say on these topics that probably ought to be heard. And I think working with PR folks is probably the most efficient way of building those important relationships. But I also wonder whether that sort of thing isn’t looked down upon by others in the profession, as somehow beneath us, or perhaps as shameless self-promotion. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way (and maybe I’m just being cynical here).
    Also, I think some philosophers have done a good job of getting their voices heard. Chalmers comes to mind as someone who’s seen fairly regularly in the popular media.

  2. Philosophers can influence the media “directly,” by actually appearing in person on tv talk shows, for instance. But philosophers can also impact the media “indirectly,” if their ideas end up somehow “trickling down,” via some circuitous route, from the universities into the general population. It seems to me that some sort of indirect influence would be more fitting for philosophers. I don’t think philosophers usually make very good talking heads, but I think they might be able to offer helpful suggestions on how to improve the way that the talking heads talk.

  3. This is an issue in which there is huge difference between my home country Finland and my current country of residence, UK. In Finland actually, certain philosophers appear in media on a weekly basis. They are household names in popular media and you see them everywhere; on TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and even in the tabloids. I know that some of them have actively seeked exposure in various ways, but there are also people who have gradually become well known through their ‘interesting’ comments on various topics.
    Now, I am not sure even if the different strategies people have used to get to media in Finland would in fact work here in UK or in States. Anyway, I thought it would also be good to keep the downsides of the media attention in mind. I think few people in Finland have had to bear a significant burdens through their media popularity. Unfortunately it’s not all good. So, before any of you guys embark on an attempt to become famous philosophers in media outside the academia, you should at least think about things like:
    1) What you get to comment. One thing I’ve heard there from both journalists and philosophers is that once you get your phone number to a journalists lists its there. This means that you are not going to get to comment only the latest public ethical dilemmas, international crisis and horrendous crimes and accidents but also summer fashion, office affairs and the success of the national olympic team. And, you better think of something snappy to say each time if you want to keep your name on the list for the interesting stuff as well.
    2) Control. When you write a paper in philosophy you are in total control of things yourself usually. Not so in media. You are going to get misquoted, your comments and arguments are going to get badly cut, and most of the time how you are presented differs totally from what you perhaps would have wanted to point out about the issue. If they want a comment for how bad and blameable certain policy or action is, they are going to get you to say so or at least imply it even if you are not sure about the matter.
    3) Effects in academia. For some reasons others at the universities usually do not like someone else being at the media. What the reason for this is I do not know. Jealosy perhaps? But, anyway, some philosophers have lost their academic credibility through being in the media. Perhaps the thought has been that because someone says *that* in the media, he or she cannot be any good in serious scholarly philosophy. Of course this is not necessarily true, but there are cases where this phenomenon has harmed the career prospects of certain people at the universities.
    So, there are both good and bad sides to it. I would really think twice about it.

  4. In dark moments after having read loud ideological blogs, it seems to me that the people with the most energy for the hot button issue of the moment are the people who are most unlikely to change their minds on the issue. Often, I fear, what lots of energetic folk are really looking for is self-congratulatory reinforcement of what they already believe together with some good times at the expense of people that think otherwise. Such types tend to start discussion very loud and excited and provoke similar reactions in others. In such a context, philosophers come across as party poopers and nerdy.
    One thing we need to find, and I believe it is out there somewhere, is adults out of academia who are genuinely interested in various important real world ethical topics, with some spare time and energy on their hands. But we will have a hard time finding these people if we aim to connect with them only when a hot button issue is hot–for it is at times like these when anything one says feels ripe for some all-purpose “they are just saying that because it suits their interests” dismissal.
    Any ideas about how Pea Soup might better manage to connect with the people I have in mind? Just to be clear, this is something of an alternative to (but not incompatible with) the goal of making the local or national news when an issue is hot. I suppose I am somewhat enamored with the example that Left2Right sets on this score.

  5. Since Josh kindly mentioned the work of our Institute, I figured I’d throw in a few cents’ worth. The very simple answer to how philosophers can have an impact on public discourse is for us to enter that discourse. Most local newspapers crave well-written and intelligent op-ed pieces on contemporary issues from local authors. I’ve lost track of how many I’ve had published in The Bakersfield Californian (and have another coming out next week on Schiavo).
    The trick to these is to be philosophical without sounding like a philosopher. While you can (should) develop arguments, you simply have to avoid jargon and all but the most simplistic theory. When I first started doing them, I had to bounce them off non-academics before submitting, since I couldn’t see my own jargon, as it was so ordinary in my lexicon. Those columns led to requests for interviews, which led to scholarly publications on journalism ethics, which led to national requests for interviews, etc.
    Does it make a difference? Yes. I’ll never convince a right wing fundamentalist. But I’ve been stopped at least a dozen times by complete strangers, people who recognized my name or my face, who said words to the effect of (for example), “your column last week changed my mind on the death penalty.” Obviously that person had to be open-minded enough to listen to argument. But isn’t that exactly who we’re trying to reach? And even if we don’t change their mind, at least they’ll better understand the issues and be better able defend their own view.

  6. I recently was talking with a philosopher who manages to get on the media fairly often about the ethical issues of the day. He was saying that the most gratifying thing he sometimes manages to do is to change the story–that is, talk at length to the reporter and get them to appreciate the issues. This strikes me as a good model to try to emulate.

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