I think the question “Why not change the world” can look quite irresponsible, so I’m going to try to make it sound more sensible than it might at first.
Some background: There’s a non-obvious link between two recent posts, the one on the AWID Istanbul conference and that on Homophobia. The link is actually Elizabeth Reid, with whom I’ve been meeting up in Oxford. We were grad students together at Somerville College, and she has a B.Phil. in ancient philosophy, with special emphasis on Aristotle.
It is Elizabeth who has just been to the Istanbul conference. It is also Elizabeth who has tried to reconnect virtuous behavior and eudaimonia in her work in developing countries on topics such as women’s welfare and AIDS. Some things she has done are spectacular, I think. She was the UN Development Program’s first Director on AIDS in developing countries and from about 1986 advocated what is now a standard opinion: AIDS is as much a social problem as a medical problem.
Advocating new approaches can make one’s life difficult, but I am certain Elizabeth thinks she has been extremely fortunate to bring philosophical and feminist positions to her now quite long period of advocacy.
So of course I have been wondering about the comparative quality of a life as, say, a UN official working for things that are probably more important than, e.g., developing a better account of the mind’s cognitive relation to its environment. Such as working on alleviating the suffering of millions of people.
Going into work on global problems is not especially easy. Entry points today are very often internships, Elizabeth tells me. That is, exploited labor, even with the UN. Still, when we think of what we might do other than teach philosophy, it might be worth shaking things up for a bit and looking at something entirely different, as Monty Python might say. Elizabeth does say one should start with some area one would really like to affect. But she did have a clarity of insight that might have provided unusual motivation.
I can hardly believe I’ve raised this topic, but I probably believe it is true that there are more important things than being a philosophy professor. One answer to “Why Stay?” could be “Don’t”. Mind you, thinking about trekking around Africa to hold workshops on AIDS prevention does make staying in philosophy seem like an easier option.