Asking the Wrong Questions

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, I’ve been struck by how seemingly unconcerned social scientists, theorists, and philosophers often are with the practical relevancy of their own work, with its capacity to benefit actual people. It seems unremarkable that, in the face of this disinterest in the problems of real people, the general public would come to hold a contemptuous view of ivy tower intellectuals, one that likely only serves to further predispose intellectuals to ignore their problems. So today I’d like to posit a reciprocity view of what academics ought to be doing and discuss the various ways in which we are presently failing to uphold our end.

Academics typically work for universities, often state-funded, where they are paid tens of thousands of dollars (or, if they’re quite lucky, maybe even hundreds). In order to be an academic, one has to be quite clever and swear off other forms of productive work. Academia is chosen instead of law, business, finance, engineering, medicine, any number of fields. Why does our society choose to pay some people to be academics when it could pay those people to be doctors or engineers instead? Presumably, our society believes that there is some unique service that academics provide that would otherwise go unprovided for. The work of social science academics is presumed to have some value. What value is that? In the details, it varies widely, but broadly speaking I would sum it up as follows:

We pay social science academics to determine what kind of society we ought to want and what sort of policies and structures are best suited to achieving that society.

We do not pay philosophers to think about what justice requires for grins, we pay them to think about what justice requires because we want a just society. We want to know what justice requires and what policies and structures we should institute to get it. Social science academics are exempt from the unpleasant practical toils ordinary people are subject to only because these ordinary people expect the ideas these academics generate to benefit them. In the absence of this benefit, the general public grows resentful, because it finds itself in a relationship in which its benevolence is not reciprocated. When academics get paid to write papers and books that don’t help people, they are parasitically wasting social resources to indulge private hobbies. We academics like to whine about how our brilliance is not appreciated in the same way that the brilliance of doctors or engineers is, but this is because the average person sees a tangible benefit from doctors and engineers that he does not see from us. As far as he is concerned, he is making an investment in us that we are failing to return. In summation, academics have a moral duty of reciprocity to be useful to the people who pay them.

For this reason, a responsible academic wishing to reciprocate the benefits society has given to him ought to ask himself two questions before proceeding to write anything for which he expects those benefits:

  1. Does my paper have a normative output? Can people act upon my paper in a way that improves their lives or the lives of others?
  2. Is my normative output a realistic one? Is its normative output practical or otherwise feasible, given the current social context?

Most of the work I run across does not adequately answer these questions. Typically this is because the work indulges to some degree in metaphysical conceits. In such cases, the academic is more interested in answering questions about what is than he is in answering questions about what should be. Instead of using theory as a tool to solve existing problems, to secure benefits for people or eliminate problems or harms, these thinkers make the theory itself the focus of their investigation, with practical outputs viewed as merely incidental, perhaps even vulgar.

There are many incarnations of this disdain for the useful, often in places one would not expect. Marx is oft-quoted for having said:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

However, contemporary Marxists are often the biggest offenders of this principle of usefulness. Take the late GA Cohen, who argued that it was completely irrelevant whether or not a given theory of justice could be practically or sustainably implemented in a real society, that justice is a concept that need not be made contextually relevant. As I argued last year, justice is a concept we use to identify and solve problems, to make real people’s lives go better. Whether or not justice is a real metaphysical entity is not especially relevant, nor is it relevant what justice requires if justice requires things that real people cannot realistically do. Indeed, by defining justice so as to make it unattainable, Cohen only serves to make justice irrelevant in practical arguments, inhibiting implementation of any part of justice. It is quite possible to define justice in such a restrictive way that one’s own definition of justice makes it harder to achieve even small parts of the plan. Many Marxists claim that justice requires a society in which citizens do not require a diverse continuum of incentives. We do not live in such a society, nor is there any obvious mechanism by which the natures of contemporary people would be changed such that we would. As a result, in the real world, Marxist solutions to our problems don’t go anywhere. They are nearly universally acknowledged to entail a kind of behavior we all know we won’t get a sufficient quantity of. Yet this has not, to this point, convinced the Marxists to propose any alternative, more limited conceptions of justice or any alternative structures by which these limitations might be circumvented. As a result, the body of thought is made insular and insignificant.

This is not merely a Marxist problem–many existentialists have chosen to concern themselves with questions of what “being” is, attempting to derive their moral and political outputs from this metaphysical foundation. The trouble is metaphysics is ever fickle–it is impossible to determine the answers to metaphysical questions with certainty due to the limits of our subjective points of view, so the output is a myriad of conceptions of the person, from Heidegger’s to Foucault’s to Sartre’s and so on, each of which is only ultimately justifiable on the basis of whether or not one intuitively thinks the work captures what it means to be a person, with the inevitable consequence that different people with different intuitions arrive at disparate conclusions. There is no mutually recognized means by which these intuitive differences are to be resolved, and as a result they never are. When we try to ground our moral and political views on metaphysics, we end up conceding that metaphysics is not objectively knowable. We end up with subjectivism, relativism, and finally moral and political nihilism. The ultimate problem with nihilism? It is of no use to the general public–when people are experiencing harms, philosophizing of this kind gives them no tools with which to express themselves or rid themselves of these troubles–it only serves to call into question the legitimacy of their grievances in the first place. In order to do any useful work, academics need to divorce their moral and political views from their metaphysical ones, as I once argued in some detail.

It is not enough for academics to write work that is merely interesting, it needs to be useful, it needs to do something for ordinary people. It is unacceptable for academics to use their intellectual gifts to indulge their curiosities while we live in a world in which all people everywhere experience on a daily basis a wide array of potentially avoidable, unnecessary harms.