Dr Tania Lombrozo, a philosophically-minded professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, writes in a NPR commentary that some recent major news stories reveal how public discourse would benefit from input from academic philosophers. She cites the complex moral, social, metaphysical, and epistemological issues arising in the resignation of a NAACP official who was “outed” as white; in the white supremacist murder of nine black church-goers in Charleston; and in the stance taken on climate change by Pope Francis.
Two thoughts – neither of them particularly original – meant to complement Lombrozo’s insights: First, while stories of this magnitude serve as good examples of the need for philosophical contributions to public discourse, it is probably not an effective strategy to wait for stories of this magnitude before getting involved in public philosophy. Not only is there a good chance of the more subtle voices being lost in the commentary noise anyhow, but without a consistent public presence in the first place, philosophers will not be sought out for commentary either by readers and viewers or by venues and hosts. Only by contributing habitually on the small things, I think, are philosophers likely to find an audience for the big things.
Second, it is worth considering whether the strong disposition to do philosophy, and especially analytic philosophy, in terms of hyper-idealized fabricated examples might comprise a sort of anti-training for public philosophy. The message that real philosophy requires that issues first be framed in terms of the simplest (often bizarrely simple) toy scenarios plausibly socializes philosophers to feel uneasy about commenting in a professional capacity on complex cases – at least, without their commentary comprising a blizzard of caveats. If we want a more influential, vibrant public philosophy in the longer run, it is worth training philosophy students to be comfortable philosophizing about actual cases. Perhaps the most important step in that training will be to model the approach.