Philosophy is often impractical. That’s an understatement. It might therefore be surprising to think of a career as a philosopher as a potentially high impact ethical career - the sort of career that enables one to do a huge amount of good in the world. But I don’t think that philosophy’s impracticality is in the nature of the subject-matter. In fact, I think that research within certain areas of philosophy is among some of the most important and practical research that one can do. This shouldn’t be surprising when one considers that philosophy is the only subject that addresses directly the fundamental practical question: what ought I to do?
In this post I’ll focus in on normative ethics, practical ethics, and decision theory. Within these areas, I’m going to give a recipe for choosing research topics, if one wants to maximise the practical importance of one’s work as a philosopher. Here it goes:
- Begin by asking ‘which issues might conceivably be the most important moral issue that we currently face?’
- Then ask ‘what are the crucial normative considerations for determining which of these issues really is the most important?’
- Then figure out which of these crucial considerations is most likely to produce an action-relevant outcome given your marginal research time?
- Then work on that topic!
That was the outline. It’s by no means a perfect methodology, and there are many ways in which it could be expanded upon. Its main point is to give one the gist, and hopefully to make one wonder about why research topics within ethics aren’t typically chosen in the above way. In the rest of the post I’ll briefly flesh out these different steps.
1. What’s the list of the conceivably most important current moral issues?
There are many problems in the world, and there are many ways of carving up the space of ‘problems’. I’ll talk about these issues in a later post. But, in the mean time, here are a few contenders:
i. Global poverty
Currently 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, purchasing power parity adjusted (that is: they consume fewer goods than $1.25 could buy in the US in 2005). 18 million people die per year of poverty-related causes - that’s about one third of all human deaths.
Around 42 million abortions are performed per year. Many people think that a fetus has similar rights to an adult person, in which case performing an abortion would be roughly on a par, morally, with murder. To get a sense of scale on this issue, consider that if this were true then the murder toll from the government sanction of abortions would outstrip all previous genocides combined.
iii. Animal suffering and slaughter
A staggering 50 billion non-human land animals are killed every year for food. A large proportion of those animals are factory farmed, living in extreme suffering. There are compelling arguments to the conclusion that we should treat non-human animal suffering as being on a par, morally, as human animal suffering. If this were true, then the annual animal suffering caused by humans could easily outweigh all human suffering.
iv. The risk of human extinction
The number of people who might live in the future, if we survive the next few centuries, numbers in the trillions (consider that, if humans live at current population levels for the average lifespan of a mammalian species, then there are over 10^13 (or ten trillion) humans in the future). If we ought, morally, to value potential future people in the same way that we value present people, then the loss from the human race going extinct in the near future might number in the trillions of lives.
2. What are the crucial normative considerations?
It would be controversial to claim, of any of the above issues, that it is the most important moral issue that we face. Even if we knew all the empirical facts, there would still remain tricky moral issues – moral considerations that are crucial insofar as, if we knew the right opinion on the matter, we could write off certain of the above issues as not of the greatest importance.
There are many we could put on the list. But the list would certainly include:
How should we value future people, and merely possible people, compared with present people? (Relevant to abortion, animal suffering, extinction risk)
What moral status do non-human animals have, and how should we make inter-species comparisons of wellbeing? (Relevant to animal suffering)
At what stage does a human fetus become a person, with rights to life similar to that of an adult? (Relevant to abortion)
How should we act under empirical uncertainty – in particular should we follow expected utility even when it comes to tiny probabilities of huge amounts of value? (Relevant to extinction risk)
All other things being equal, should we prioritise the prevention of wrongs over the alleviation of naturally caused suffering? (Relevant to abortion, animal suffering)
Given that we aren’t ever going to be certain in answers to the above questions, how should we take into account uncertainty about these moral issues in our decision-making? (Relevant to: global poverty, abortion, animal suffering, extinction risk)
3. Which topic would be advanced the most from one’s marginal research time?
This one is more dependent on one’s own abilities and interests. But, in general, we could suppose that research time on a particular topic has diminishing marginal value. So, for example, working on the question of when a fetus becomes a person probably isn’t the area when one will have greatest marginal research impact: the subject has been extensively studied by hundreds of good thinkers. In contrast, the topics of how to handle moral uncertainty, or how to make inter-species wellbeing comparisons, or whether to prioritise averting wrongs over preventing naturally caused suffering, have been comparatively rarely studied.