But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.--Xenophanes
"Not all ethical issues are equally important. Many ethicists spend their professional lives performing in sideshows.
However entertaining the sideshow, sideshow performers do not deserve the same recognition or remuneration as those performing on our philosophical Broadways.
What really matters now is not the nuance of our approach to mitochondrial manipulation for glycogen storage diseases, or yet another set of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes in the debate about the naturalistic fallacy. It is: (a) Whether or not we should be allowed to destroy our planet (and if not, how to stop it happening); and (b) Whether or not it is fine to allow 20,000 children in the developing world to die daily of hunger and entirely avoidable disease (and if not, how to stop it happening). My concern in this post is mainly with (a). A habitable planet is a prerequisite for all the rest of our ethical cogitation. If we can’t live here at all, it’s pointless trying to draft the small print of living....
So: University philosophy departments should be restructured. The junior members should cut their teeth on lesser subjects such as the mind-body problem. As their experience, status and salary rises, they should increasingly specialise in problems (a) and (b). By the time they have reached the top of the tree, that’s all they should be doing. Anyone who wants to spend their lives paddling around in the philosophical shallows, along with Kant and Wittgenstein, should of course be free to do so, but should realise that it will condemn them to a life of penury and obscurity."--Charles Foster. [HT Ingrid Robeyns.]
Foster relies on the -- welcome to me (now that I am balding and greying) -- premise that philosophy has a very long apprenticeship. Let's grant this for the sake of argument and learn to ignore the purported boy-wonders in our midst (there might be other good benefits that flow from not focusing on them). Sadly, Foster does not suggests that ethical reflection requires considerable schooling in life--a point I have long been more partial to. Foster unabashedly endorses [A] a practical conception of philosophy; in fact, in the post he relies on [A] as a tacit premise because while at first he only speaks of "ethical issues," "ethicists," and "ethical cogitation," his conclusions involve the organization of philosophy an sich. This is why Foster's really important ethicist reminds me of Xenophanes' cattle and horses and lions. Foster's post (and the subsequent discussion) is primarily useful for posting what is often said sotte vocce, especially in contexts where philosophers need to prove their usefulness. Blessed are those who work in an environment -- primarily rich private institutions -- where their philosophical lack of utility is status-enhancing!
Now, the philosophy as madness defense will seem unappealing to many (even if they believe it), and it is rhetorically not very effective against the tribunal headed by Foster:
I can’t see any point whatever in improving the critical editions of (eg) Hume. There’s already a deeply unhealthy, scriptural view of the works of Hume and people like him.
...by all means use Kant and Wittgenstein as intellectual gymnasia to develop the muscles needed for really worthwhile works. But let’s not pretend that they matter in their own right.
There will be no condescending solidarity toward the rest of us from executioners inspired or legitimated by Foster. (In the post Foster relies on a court analogy.) But Foster's position is vulnerable to a simple reductio. If God and Spinozistic eternal minds are off-to-table, we're stuck with science -- the authority which informs Foster of the destruction of the planet --, and science tells us that the extinction of the planet is inevitable anyway: our solar system will not last forever (well before the universe will end in a Big Cruch, Big Freeze, or Heat death etc.). So, Foster's [B] should incline the consequentialists among us to fatalism, if not right now, then at at some arbitrary point; and what makes that point different from any other point?
Of course, the whole idea that a feauture of the future is required to give the present its "point" is itself deeply committed to what one might call a redemptive view of philosophical history (think Luther, Marx, etc.). The Fosters, Singers, Savulescus are our would-be-messiahs. Like many zealous anti-Christs, they cloak their world-improvements in the garb of philosophy and scientific expertise (and often appeal to the vanity and shared prejudices of smart folk), and they appeal to our fears and our shared humanity. One can recognize this feature without being a climate-change-sceptic. But there is nothing in science that privileges a redemptive view of history.
Anyway, I don't want to be accused of ignoring the merits of Foster's proposal. After all, there is something to be said to incentivize senior philosophers to focus on very hard problems. It might make us shut up a bit more; the inevitable silent reflection on deep problems will free up journal space for junior scholars; junior scholars bring fresh ideas (and the latest formal tools, etc.); this will allow faster progress in philosophy. So, the cunning of history might welcome Foster's proposal.