We Need Philosophy & Ethics More than Ever

Now is the time to bring Philosophy and the study of Ethics into our schools, communities, and businesses

By: Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director of the Ethics Institute; Alida Liberman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Methodist University; and Jonathan Spelman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Northern University

This document was created by the authors during a working group session of the 2020 American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT) Virtual Conference

The Importance of Philosophy for this Moment

Philosophy has an especially powerful role to play during this global pandemic, as the collective challenges we face become ever more pervasive and complex. We must make philosophy relevant, and respond to the moral, epistemological, political, aesthetic, and existential challenges that the threat of COVID-19 poses. We must be proactive and innovative in thinking about how to prevent and prepare for future pandemics. We must be courageous both in seeking productive dialogue that aims at truth and in moving forward in the face of troubling uncertainties. And we must draw on our best reasoning and ethical theories to act in solidarity and seek liberation for all of us.

At its best, philosophy is

  • Relevant: Philosophy helps us to respond to the world around us to: understand who we are and what gives our lives meaning, think about how we can live well together, figure out what the truth is and who can be trusted to help us find it, and reflect on the nature of reality.
  • Proactive & Innovative: Philosophy is forward-thinking: instead of only reacting to existing problems, philosophical practice includes speculating about what problems might arise in the future, and reflecting on what purely imagined or theoretical problems might tell us.
  • Courageous: Philosophy encourages us to seek the truth, even when that truth is scary; philosophical practice can help motivate us to speak truth to power and fight for justice, even when it’s an uphill battle. Philosophy requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and provides us strategies for making progress in the face of the unknown. Philosophy also provides us a framework for having meaningful and productive dialogue about difficult topics with others with whom we disagree, as well as changing our minds when we have good reasons to do so.
  • Liberating: Philosophy teaches us to examine long-held assumptions and to not to take the status quo for granted. Philosophical practice requires that we question everything, from what we’ve been taught to what is and what ought to be. Philosophy gives us a space to do this with ourselves and others; it requires that we take seriously the task of thinking for ourselves while also engaging with expert knowledge to inform our thinking and actions. 

A justification for teaching the pandemic in your ethics or philosophy courses

Over the past eight months, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed over six hundred thousand lives and dramatically reshaped our world. It has forced us to consider a number of new and difficult questions. For example, how do we balance our needs to socialize, sustain our relationships, observe important rituals, and maintain our mental well-being with the need to remain socially distant and protect ourselves and others from the virus? Should we shop for our own groceries (which may put ourselves or our families at risk) or have them delivered (which outsources this risk to a gig economy worker)? Should we shop online and order take-out to bolster the economy and prop up local business even if this requires others to put themselves at risk to manufacture and ship our goods and prepare our meals? How do we balance the deep and urgent need to advocate for racial justice with the risks that may come with protesting in large groups?

Questions like these, especially when focused on risk and when phrased in terms of safety, may seem like questions for scientists or epidemiologists. But while epidemiology and science play an important role in answering them, they cannot settle them on their own. In the end, answering these questions requires a different sort of expertise: it requires expertise in thinking about what our deepest values are and in how we should act when our values conflict.

These sorts of questions are the proper domain of the humanities, of philosophy, of ethics. As such, they are precisely the sorts of questions we should be talking about, especially right now, and the work that we’ll be doing in this class can help us answer them. 

Figuring out how to live has always been difficult, but it’s especially challenging right now, as we grapple daily with tough decisions that have no obvious right answers. So, now is a great time for you to be taking this class. It’s a great time for you to learn how to identify and evaluate arguments, critically reflect on what matters to you and why, and to begin to develop intellectual courage, empathy, and humility. These skills and habits of mind have always been useful, and they’ll continue to be useful long after you leave this class. So that’s what we’ll be dedicating ourselves to this semester, to developing the skills and habits of mind we need to live well during this pandemic and whatever future ethical challenges we may face.