Thursday, April 13, 2006

Why We Need More Philosophers: A Service Announcement

I don't think Philosophy departments are booming these days in Academia. I doubt that colleges and Universities are trying to create more lines and expand their philosophy programs. But they should.

I had to tangle with an attorney yesterday. Our goals were so wholly different that I had to just walk out of the room. While I was interested in truth-seeking, fairness, and ethical behavior, she was interested in figuring out (a) either how to discredit me or (b) convince me that the practices I objected to could be defended by case law.

At this point, I asked her what her real goals were in having a conversation with me. While I can argue like the best of them, and spot bad arguments, and fallacies, I was hoping that the two of us could have a real conversation. I asked her if she was interested in seeking the truth or figuring out what she could get away with legally.

To this, she smugly replied: those two goals are not distinct. I was astounded by this comment. Prior to making this comment, she had pulled out every possible crappy trick in the book of poor argument. She threw up red herrings, she tried to make strawmans out of my statements, she engaged in quite a bit of non-sequitor, and relied on innuendo. The experience left me with two main insights. First, whatever the practice of law is, it has nothing to do with justice or truth. Secondly, I was offended as a Philosophy professor to be confronted with this kind of nonsense argumentation.

To all my current, former, or future students who read this blog, do not allow yourself to win this way. If you do, then you have wasted your gifts, your intelligence, and the valuable skills you learned from Philosophy. If you want to make money being a sophist, then please be upfront that you are knowingly throwing out all the skills we taught you.

We are an era of shills and sophists. Rarely do I enter into a discussion with someone--outside of my colleagues, Za, or my friends--who is actually interested in a real debate. My colleague Steve, from Philosopher's Playground, is currently writing a book about the degraded state of moral debates. I hope his book gets published and as many people as possible read it. I am sick of debates with people who simply want to win by hitting below the belt, bending all rules of logic, and using intimidation.

Without the ability to actually debate, substantively, and by following rules of argument and committing ourselves to truth-seeking, then our precious liberty and democracy are worthless. What is legal is certainly not, in many cases, what is right. Moreover, what is legal, is often at odds with telling the truth. Lawyers who have lied to themselves in order to believe that if they can defend their client's practices as legal, then they are honest and ethical people deeply disturb me. I know there are some good lawyers out there. And, I also know that a great many lawyers play this game of sophistry for a greater good.

But, man, life is too short. And, while my love of Socrates and my belief that I should actually live what I teach might is quaint, so be it. If you read this entry, and you are as tired of the lies and posturing as I am--either in your workplace, your campus, or among our elected officials--then take a philosophy course. Sure, probably no one will listen to you right away, but at least you will have done something good for your soul. And, yes, more and more I like the word soul, if for no other reason that I believe it gives us a way to think about our actions, our thoughts, and our beliefs as molding the person we are. We become what we think, how we act, and what we believe. So, take a philosophy class, and ask yourself: "why do I believe what I believe? " "What matters most in my life? " "What value does truth have?" "How do I know when something is true?"

If nothing else, you might be able to sleep better at night.

UPDATE: The Happy Feminist has an interesting post on the presumption of innocence and guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.