The Ethics of Field Philosophy

What are the responsibilities of the philosopher? The American Philosophical Association (APA) has a Code of Conduct as well as a Good Practices Guide.1 The Code emphasizes the importance of academic freedom of speech along with philosophers’ obligations to their students and professional institutions. The Guide includes many other topics such as diversity, harassment, accessibility, discrimination, and the uses of social media. Tellingly, though, the Guide notes that “we have not attempted to discuss the role or responsibilities of philosophers as potential agents in the public or political sphere....”

Yet this is what matters most for field philosophers. Given that field philosophy is about putting philosophy into practice out in the world, it naturally raises ethical questions that go beyond the norms governing teaching and disciplinary philosophical research. Rather than start with the APA, it would be better to consult codes of conduct from fields that conceive of themselves in more practice-oriented ways. An obvious example would be engineering and the way its codes of conduct evolved from loyalty to client or employer to a commitment to public welfare (Mitcham and Duval 2000). Analogously, field philosophy represents a widening of professional responsibilities to take into account not just the free pursuit of knowledge, but also the broader impacts on society.

Perhaps a better comparison is with anthropology. The American Anthropological Association begins its Principles of Professional Responsibility by stating, “Anthropology ... is an irreducibly social enterprise.” The next sentence affirms its goals not just to disseminate knowledge but also to “solve human problems.” The statement goes on to note that anthropologists work “in a variety of contexts” with many different kinds of research participants in ways that often create ethical ambiguities and conflicting obligations. The first principle is “Do No Harm,” and it guides anthropologists to consider direct and indirect ways in which their work might negatively impact their research participants or society more broadly.

This framing is more suitable to field philosophy, but of course there is no way to codify our way out of ethical dilemmas. For example, advocating for the fracking ban was advocating against the interests of many individuals and companies. In other words, harm was inevitable. To take another example, in thinking about whether to pursue the ban, I had to wrestle with questions of motivations. To be candid, I liked the idea of a big campaign with lots of media. I needed to sort through these selfish desires carefully to discern the appropriate motives for my decisions. Especially when working on controversial issues, there is the temptation to use the people involved for professional advancement or to satisfy cravings for attention. As one activist put it to me: some people walk away with rap sheets and some walk away with resumes. That haunts me, because here I am still using this case study for publications when, for the people living near fracking sites in Denton, this is hardly a ‘case study.’ It is their life.

Choosing the Field

I think of the field-selection process as a Venn diagram where you are looking for the spot with maximal overlap of several factors, including: a) your passion; b) your skill set; c) societal need; and d) possibilities for access and influence. I will just say a word about the second and fourth criteria.

Policy scientists talk about having the skills to get involved in any issue and make productive contributions (see Clark 2002). I think field philosophers should adopt the same attitude. I am not suggesting a know-it-all arrogance. To the contrary: field philosophers are not bringing knowledge across domains but questions and concepts informed by their philosophical studies. Indeed, there is a virtue in not having specialized knowledge, because that always comes with a certain diformation professionnelle. Field philosophers should be in a position to challenge the assumptions of any given field—the stuff that gets built into supposedly neutral technical lingo and the hierarchies of authority that coalesce around that supposedly neutral core.

Should a philosopher choose a local field? I did so for reasons of ease of access and influence. I figured that staying local would allow me to be embedded in rich ways. I could attend all the important meetings, even at short notice. Field philosophers should work locally if conditions seem ripe. But I would add a word of caution. Being local means your work gets tangled up with friendship. The further you get embedded in a community of practice, the harder it is to disentangle your allegiance to collaborators and your allegiance to wisdom, understood as at least an honest pursuit, and appraisal of the evidence (see Dreger 2015).

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