You don’t have to drop philosophy for activism

The United States has always been a relentlessly pragmatic place, which doesn’t leave it much room for philosophy. Watching three Republican presidential candidates all take pot-shots at philosophy on the same night was only the most vivid recent example. But it’s not just right-wingers. Today Helen De Cruz discussed a recent article from socialist former philosopher Nathan J. Robinson that wonders whether we should do philosophy at all – whether, in fact, we have an obligation not to do philosophy. He claims, “I definitely feel, though, that I couldn’t have justified spending a career as an academic philosopher” – not because there are so few such jobs out there and you’re taking them from people who want them more, but because the time you spend on such a career is supposedly abdicating a larger political responsibility.

The examples Robinson cites as models are Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky – perhaps the two activist intellectuals most famous for having an activism that they saw as completely unrelated to their intellectual work. (An earlier and less famous example is the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus.) Chomsky, according to Robinson, claimed that “intellectually, he wished he could have done work on the history of science. Politics doesn’t interest him intellectually at all” – and yet “when Chomsky is asked about his regrets, or things he feels he did wrong, he says that he regrets waiting so long to get involved in the anti-war movement, feeling it was a kind of moral failing to stick to ‘pure’ science as the war was escalating.” His linguistics was his love, his politics was his advocacy. Robinson views Chomsky’s political involvement as an admirable self-sacrifice – one that Chomsky thinks he should have pursued even further. Maybe, he muses, all of this intellectual work is wasting our energy that could be used more effectively on political action In A Time Of Crisis.

Photo of Bertrand Russell by Yousuf Karsh, CC0.

There are multiple problems with Robinson’s view. First of all, it only makes sense if one assumes that one’s philosophical or intellectual work isn’t making a practical contribution to the world. In Russell’s case, the purported separation between his activism and his philosophy seems only possible given his impoverished conception of philosophy. His popular works like “In praise of idleness” and “Zest” were about the good life and how to live it, questions that Plato and Aristotle would have considered self-evidently philosophical. His powerful mind could have come up with more sustained philosophical arguments giving deep, powerful, convincing justifications for Russell’s political convictions. Yet Russell was too mesmerized by the bizarre self-important conceit of his generation at Cambridge, that somehow the great ethical questions of life and how to live it didn’t really count as philosophy: a bizarre view that, at its most extreme, led to A.J. Ayer’s berserk self-contradicting claim that empirically unverifiable claims are meaningless, and one that continues to infect the study of Indian thought. A John Rawls, by contrast, did a lot for political activism through philosophy. I’m less familiar with Chomsky, but my father (with a dearly departed friend) argued that Chomsky’s case for the distinction between linguistics and politics is weaker than Chomsky made it out to be.

But more importantly, even if one is doing the sort of intellectual work that has no clear application, Robinson doesn’t show us what would be wrong with that. For one thing, we never know what’s going to become useful in the future. When he came up with them in 1854, George Boole’s “laws of thought” seemed like fancifully abstract logic-chopping, but it created the field of Boolean algebra that is fundamental to modern computer science.

More fundamentally, most of us who do philosophy love it – after all, everyone desires to know. (On the original meaning of philosophy, a love is exactly what it is.) And it’s on that point where Robinson really pushes his critique: you shouldn’t do something just because you love it, but because the state of the world demands it of you. “I wasn’t born into a world where it was ‘morally possible’ to spend a lifetime thinking about questions like ‘how do we know that anything is real?'” His key argument for this:

Is it morally wrong to do nothing but scientific research and to be “apolitical”? I think there’s a good argument for that position. The Vietnam War, for instance, was an atrocity. The U.S. government was causing endless unnecessary human suffering. As Americans living in something resembling a democracy, we have a certain obligation to try to steer government conduct in a direction that helps rather than hurts people. I do think it would have been wrong not to speak out against the Vietnam War, just as it would have been wrong not to speak out against the Iraq War. I believe the old cliché about how evil flourishes when the good do nothing

In fact, it’s remarkable that there can even be a question about whether we have an obligation to work to try to lessen the amount of suffering in the world. And yet there are plenty of people who live comfortably, and they are blissfully untroubled by any thoughts of whether they are living up to their obligations or whether pure self-indulgence can be justified. It’s not that they’ve found a way to justify ignoring other people’s troubles. It’s that questions of responsibility and complicity are never even raised. 

This last paragraph is interesting rhetorically. The last sentence, reasonably, is concerned that questions of responsibility are not raised – but the first sentence says the opposite, that these questions should not be raised: “it’s remarkable that there can even be a question”. And to be fair, relatively few would disagree that we should “work to try to lessen the amount of suffering in the world”. But what Robinson hand-waves is the question of what that actually means.

Epicureans and Theravādins (like the author of the Dhammapāda) would argue that we should lessen the amount of suffering in the world by striving at the difficult task of lessening our own suffering while not increasing anyone else’s. (While she doesn’t foreground suffering per se, De Cruz rightly reminds us of ethical egoists – she points to Yang Zhu, Spinoza, and Audre Lorde – who agree that “you should benefit yourself foremost.”) Mahāyānists like Śāntideva say that we should be reducing other people’s overall suffering, but that the source of their suffering is in internal states like craving, so the way to lessen that overall suffering is through teaching people to be more serene and mindful, not through politics.

So there probably isn’t much question that we should “work to try to lessen the amount of suffering in the world”. The problem is when that modest and loosely defined task suddenly gets transformed into something more narrowly and specifically political, something like “we should only work to try to minimize the total amount of suffering in the world, and that is most effectively done by changing political states of affairs.” It’s only that position that could justify the claim that doing philosophy is irresponsible or frivolous – and Robinson shies away from discussing the backing for it. Yes, evil may flourish more when the good do nothing – but Robinson gives us no reason to think that that must be our problem. There is a difference between naming a bad state of affairs and proclaiming that everyone has an obligation to prevent it. The latter is the position associated with Peter Singer, whom Robinson quotes admiringly but whose views Confucians would rightly consider monstrous. (As De Cruz notes, of course you should play games with your grandchildren even when that’s time you could spend on political work!)

For most of human history, people assumed that it was not their problem if people thousands of miles away whom they’d never met were starving or hit by an earthquake. They were not required to drop everything and get on a horse to bring their gold to help out with the suffering of lands unknown. Should they have been? If not, why are we so different from them? In Robinson’s piece, these questions are – never even raised.

The closest he comes is that interesting claim that “As Americans living in something resembling a democracy, we have a certain obligation to try to steer government conduct in a direction that helps rather than hurts people.” The problem with this claim is that most of the work is done by the missing premise – i.e. that those who do live in “something resembling a democracy” necessarily have an obligation to steer government conduct in a positive direction. Perhaps that is the thing that distinguishes us from the medievals who kept to their own business. But why exactly? This could be a reasonable case that we have an obligation to vote in a productive direction – that the right to vote carries with it that corresponding responsibility. But Robinson’s not talking about voting, he’s talking about public protest. He doesn’t tell us why living in a democratic-ish state gives an obligation to do that – let alone to sacrifice the other things that make life worth living. (Russell had the plausible response that “if he and others like him didn’t try to stop the threat of war, there wouldn’t be anyone around to appreciate philosophical work” – but that only makes sense if what one is trying to do is stop global nuclear war, not a smaller-scale conflict like Vietnam.)

My interest in essays like Robinson’s is becoming increasingly sociological. Robinson is far from alone in assuming that we have a duty of activism and being startled that anyone could think we don’t. You see a similar view in Judith Simmer-Brown’s story of the founding of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: encountering the views of anti-political Buddhist teachers, she ignored everything they had to say and simply proclaimed “Something had to be done”. (See pp. 268-70 of my Disengaged Buddhism article.) There was no need to argue whether her own teachers were wrong, because she already knew. How did we get here, to a world in which a duty of activism gets assumed as so obvious?

(Cross-posted from Love of All Wisdom – while this post isn’t about Indian philosophy, it touches on Indian philosophy enough times that I thought it was still relevant here.)

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