Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, born on February 28, 1533, was a thinker after my own heart.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality.

While Montaigne highly valued education, he also recognized that it can be overemphasized to the detriment of learning from our own experiences. In his day, education often consisted largely, even mostly, of rote memorization of a vast quantity of facts. This learning method can stifle our ability to exercise practical judgment and serve to blunt social skills as well, preventing us from learning from and about each other, which is essential for cultivating moral understanding. We should learn as much about the world and each other as possible, Montaigne thought, through interpersonal interaction as well as through more formal types of education.

Montaigne also thought that sometimes, our big, smart brains can even hinder our quest for wisdom. For example, we can become ashamed, insecure, even hateful of our own bodies when we contrast the refinements of education and the arts to the material, often messy, even disgusting reality of caring for the body and satisfying its needs. This distaste for our bodies is ungenerous and ungrateful, said Montaigne, considering how we rely on our bodies for so much. In fact, even to this Catholic Christian man who believed in the soul, we are our bodies in an essential way. Our bodies are much more than just meat that our souls inhabit, they are intimate partners of souls, and together, they comprise whole human beings. As such, our bodies deserve our compassion, gratitude, love, and respect.

Our big brains can make also make us too proud, unable to recognize wisdom in humble or unexpected places. Those of little or no education, Montaigne maintains, sometimes display more wisdom than the most rigorous scholar. This includes animals, who, especially, are sometimes wiser than we are; for example, they live their whole lives with the natural, unembarrassed, proper attitudes towards their own bodies that allows them to unapologetically enjoy the pleasure of being alive. Montaigne believed that we should learn from them and imitate them in these respects. Those who have the most wisdom to teach us, then, can come from all walks of life, and the wisest person will be receptive to the lessons that can be learned anywhere.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t limit our exposure merely to our own cultures, but should learn about as many other cultures and beliefs as possible. Montaigne, like Confucius, believed that before you can be a philosopher or a moral theorist, you must first be an anthropologist. A wide-ranging education and exposure to the world has two major advantages. First, the information you have to work with will be much more vast, your scope much wider, than if you merely stuck to the received wisdom of your own culture. Secondly, you will cultivate in yourself the very virtues that characterize the wise and moral person: tolerance, benevolence, respect, kindness, generosity, understanding, and so forth. Conversely, narrowness of outlook and xenophobia lead to hatred, violence, and so on, as the horrific stories coming back from the conquest of the New World made him all too aware. Montaigne believed we shouldn’t base our attitudes about right and wrong on habit, which is morally lazy and which a narrow education can easily lead us to do; rather, we should temper our moral attitudes with reason, and our reason, in turn, should be informed by an expansive and ever-expanding body of knowledge.

michel-de-montaigneThis can make Montaigne seem like a moral relativist, but I don’t think that this is so. He was a committed Catholic, which seems to rule that out. Yet he did recognize that some things society traditionally recognized as wrong are in fact both bad and good, sometimes one or sometimes the other depending on the circumstances, sometimes both at the same time. For example, consider drunkenness. It can be bad, such as when it gets you fired or leads you to violence. But, it can also be good, such as promoting sociability or artistic disinhibition. Montaigne recognized that if there are universally true moral maxims, they’re likely to be few. Rather, his approach to philosophy is a skeptical one: he recognized that an attitude of uncertainty and doubt is a fruitful one for gaining wisdom. When you don’t easily accept the first easy answers that come along, when you’re always waiting for more information to come in, when you generally accept that there’s a possibility you are wrong, you are practicing a wise skepticism; otherwise, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn.

Ethically, Montaigne espoused some behaviors as universally preferable: those that are inspired by tolerance, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, benevolence, curiosity, a good-humored attitude towards other people and their varied ways of living, and so on; he specifically denounced cruelty and narrowness in thinking and feeling. He described his ethical theory not by outlining a rigorous system, however, but by enacting and describing a moral attitude that inspired moral behavior in others. In sum, he may or may not have been a relativist when it comes to a specific theory or set of maxims, but he was definitely not relativistic in the overarching value he placed on the art of being a good, complete human being, and on promoting the same in others.

Montaigne’s Essays demonstrate that the most well-reasoned advanced moral theory may never be quite as convincing, effective, or influential when spelled out as that which is lived out. Montaigne showed us how we can all be philosophers, how we can live ethically, and how we can discover it all for ourselves.

Philosophers, if they’re doing it right, will be the happiest of all people since philosophy can and should be a joyful enterprise, and we should all be philosophers.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ I wrote this essay in 2012 and edited it substantially for this publication in 2017

Learn more about this great master of introspection here:

Essays – by Michel de Montaigne

Me, Myself, and I: What Made Michel de Montaigne the First Modern Man? – by Jane Kramer for The New Yorker

Michel de Montaigne – by Marc Foglia for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne – from The Book of Life

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592) – by Christopher Edelman for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) – by Terence Green for Philosophy Now

Michel de Montaigne: French Writer and Philosopher – by Tilde A. Sankovitch for Encyclopædia Britannica

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living – by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No – by Manuel Bermudez

Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Montaigne on Self-Esteem – by Alain de Botton

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!

angelina-weld-grimke-image-public-domain

Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of the wonderful and far-too-unknown author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on her birthday!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date… Read the complete bio and a wonderful selection of poems here

angelina-weld-grimke…and learn more about Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké – in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké – by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké – from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) – by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké – by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

“Why” before “How”

“Why” before “How”

I very much recommend this very thoughtful piece by Steve Rose. This is a particularly timely read for me…

Finding Purpose

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Those seeking change look toward the mountain ahead, ambivalent to whether or not they should make the trek. They want to get to the top, but are comfortable and safe. Torn between these two competing desires, one may seek out professional advice on mountain-climbing, buy all the top-notch gear, and painstakingly plan their route, perpetually putting off the climb. This is the danger of putting the “how” before the “why”.

We all know people who’ve procrastinated by planning perfectionist plots, while never getting to the hard work of actually making a change. The problem with this approach is that it continues indefinitely, leaving the person wanting the end-goal, yet not having the level of motivation required to take action. The reason for this lack of motivation is the lack of focus on why one is pursuing…

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New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger and Race

Dr Dorothy Ferebee - Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Dr Dorothy Ferebee – Planned Parenthood as a Public Health Measure for the Negro Race, speech for Birth Control Federation of America, 1942

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Since the earliest days of her birth control activism, Margaret Sanger has been often accused of being a racist, among other things. To many of her critics, her birth control advocacy must be understood as a nefarious plot to undermine human morals and decency, and any means of twisting her message to convey this are fair game. As I discuss in an earlier piece, a favored method of attack, which persists to this day, is to present a sentence or phrase of Sanger’s out of context to ‘prove’ her ‘true’ beliefs about people of other races. Her detractors even claim that she was on a genocidal mission to reduce or even exterminate black people, Jews, and other immigrant groups by destroying future generations. Never mind that Martin Luther King, Jr. praised her work on behalf of his beleaguered people. Never mind that she worked closely with civil rights leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois. Never mind that she opened clinics to serve black and other minority women because so many existing clinics refused to serve anyone but whites. Never mind that she wrote in 1944:

‘We must protect tomorrow’s Chinese baby and Hindu baby, English and Russian baby, Puerto Rican, Negro and white American babies who will stand side by side… to bring promise of a better future’

Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

There Is a Moral Argument for Keeping Great Apes in Zoos, by Richard Moore

Who's Who in the Zoo Illustrated natural history prepared by the WPA Federal Writers Project, 1937-38, public domain via Library of Congress

Who’s Who in the Zoo Illustrated natural history prepared by the WPA Federal Writers Project, 1937-38, public domain via Library of Congress

I get apprehensive whenever someone asks me about my job. I’m a philosopher who works on the question of how language evolved, I reply. If they probe any further, I tell them that I work with the great apes at Leipzig zoo. But some people, I’ve discovered, have big problems with zoos.

Plenty of philosophers and primatologists agree with them. Even the best zoos force animals to live in confined spaces, they say, which means the animals must be bored and stressed from being watched all the time. Other critics claim that zoos are wrong even if the creatures aren’t suffering, because being held captive for human entertainment impugns their dignity. Such places ‘are for us rather than for animals’, the philosopher Dale Jamieson has written, and ‘they do little to help the animals we are driving to extinction’.

But I want to defend the value of zoos. Yes, some of them should certainly be closed. We’ve seen those terrible videos of solitary apes or tigers stalking barren cages in shopping malls in Thailand or China. However, animals have a good quality of life in many zoos, and there’s a strong moral case for why these institutions ought to exist. I’ve come to this view after working with great apes, and it might not extend to all species equally. However, since great apes are both cognitively sophisticated and human-like in their behaviour, they offer a strong test case for evaluating the morality of zoos in general.

The research my colleagues and I conduct isn’t harmful to the animals and, if it goes well, it will help us get a better grasp on the cognitive differences between humans and apes. For example, we did a study with pairs of orangutans in which we tested their ability to communicate and cooperate to get rewards. We hid a banana pellet so that one orangutan could see the food but couldn’t reach it. The other orangutan could release a sliding door and push the pellet through to her partner, but wasn’t able to take it for herself. They did okay (but not great) when playing with me, and they mostly ignored each other when playing together. We then performed a similar set of studies with human two-year-olds. Compared with the apes, the two-year-olds were very good at getting the reward (stickers) when they played with an adult.

Taken together, these studies tell us something about human evolution. Unlike apes, humans are good at pooling their talents to achieve what they can’t do alone. It’s not that the apes don’t care about getting the food – they got frustrated with one another when things were going wrong, and one orangutan in particular would turn his back and sulk. However, unlike humans, they don’t seem to be able to harness this frustration to push themselves to do better.

The value of research aside, there’s an argument for zoos on the grounds of animal welfare. In the best zoos, such as Leipzig, great apes live in spacious enclosures modelled on their natural habitats, and are looked after by zookeepers who care about them deeply. Large jungle gyms keep them stimulated and stave off boredom; they’re also kept busy with ‘enrichment’ puzzles, which they can unlock with tools to get food. Zoos recognised by the two main accrediting bodies in Europe and the United States are rigorously vetted and required to take part in education and conservation programmes. And there’s no solid evidence that apes living in well-designed enclosures get stressed or disturbed by human observation.

Of course, zoos can’t provide their animals with conditions such as those in an untouched forest. But for the great apes in captivity, there’s rarely a viable alternative. There are estimated to be more than 4,000 great apes living in zoos worldwide. Most of the regions where they are found in the wild – orangutans in Indonesia, chimpanzees and gorillas in Central and West Africa, bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – are ravaged by habitat loss, civil war, hunting and disease. As few as 880 remaining mountain gorillas survive, in two small groups in the eastern reaches of the DRC, while orangutan habitats have declined 80 per cent in the past 20 years. While some conservationists dream of rehoming zoo apes in the wild, these vanishing forests mean that it’s rarely feasible. The orangutans in Leipzig are certainly better off than they would be trying to survive in forests razed to make way for palm-oil plantations.

Since zoo apes cannot be returned to their natural environments, specialised sanctuaries are another option. But these require large plots of land that are both safe and uninhabited by existing populations, and such locations are scarce. As things stand, sanctuaries are already struggling to survive because they’re almost exclusively dependent on charitable donations. And most of them are full. In Africa and Indonesia, inhabitants are typically orphans that have been taken from the forest by hunters or palm-oil workers, who kill larger apes and kidnap the babies to sell or keep as pets. Elsewhere, sanctuaries are overflowing with retired lab apes or rescued pets. These institutions lack the capacity to accommodate the thousands of apes currently living in zoos, let alone the money that would be needed to support them.

Given the obstacles and the great expense of rehoming apes, very few places try to do so. Damian Aspinall of Howletts Wild Animal Park in England leads one of the few programmes that release gorillas back into the wild, by taking them to a protected reserve in Gabon. His intentions are heroic and hopefully the plan will succeed. Some gorillas have resettled well. But the results so far have been mixed; in 2014, five members of a family of 11 were found dead within a month of their release. We also don’t really know whether zoo-born apes possess the skills they need to survive, including the ability to retrieve different local foods, and knowledge of edible plants. Young apes learn these skills in the wild by watching the knowledgeable adults around them – but that’s an opportunity that creatures in captivity simply don’t have.

Now, all of this isn’t necessarily an ethical argument for continuing to breed apes in zoos. You might argue that if we can’t save the apes already in captivity, we should at least end breeding programmes and let the existing populations die out. However, captive breeding helps preserve the genetic diversity of endangered species. Moreover, research shows that visiting zoos makes people more likely to support conservation efforts – an effect that’s amplified by more naturalistic enclosures. So first-person encounters in zoos serve to educate visitors about the incredible lives animals lead, and to raise money for wild conservation programmes.

Allowing the ape populations in zoos to wither assumes – without justification – that their current lives are so bad as to be not worth living. It also risks inflicting harm. Boredom is a real risk for zoo animals, and it’s widely believed (although not yet scientifically established) that the presence of infants brings both interest and happiness to the families. Mixed-aged groups create collective dynamics that more closely resemble those in the wild. If we care about the welfare of captive apes, we should allow them to breed – at least in controlled ways.

One day, the prospect of returning captive apes to their natural habitats or housing them in well-funded, spacious sanctuaries might be realistic. Currently, it is not. Instead of condemning zoos, we should dedicate our efforts to supporting them: to pushing bad zoos to reform or close; to funding more research into the welfare of captive animals; and to encouraging all zoos to strive to do more for their inhabitants. That way, perhaps, I will no longer need to shy away from telling strangers what I do.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Richard Moore is a post-doctoral researcher at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. His work has been published in journals including Biology and Philosophy and Animal Cognition. (Bio credit Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois!

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Let us remember the life and legacy of the great American writer, historian, journalist, professor, activist, philosopher, and race theorist W.E.B. Du Bois, born on February 23, 1868.

The NAACP (of which he was a founder) writes of DoBois:

‘William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.

On Feb. 23, 1868, W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Mass., where he grew up. During his youth he did some newspaper reporting. In 1884 he graduated as valedictorian from high school. He got his bachelor of arts from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1888, having spent summers teaching in African American schools in Nashville’s rural areas. In 1888 he entered Harvard University as a junior, took a bachelor of arts cum laude in 1890, and was one of six commencement speakers. From 1892 to 1894 he pursued graduate studies in history and economics at the University of Berlin on a Slater Fund fellowship. He served for 2 years as professor of Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children.

In 1896-1897 Du Bois became assistant instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. There he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois’s place among America’s leading scholars.

Du Bois’s life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority… Read his NAACP bio in full here

Donald J. Morse writes of DuBois for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘W. E. B. Du Bois was an important American thinker: a poet, philosopher, economic historian, sociologist, and social critic. His work resists easy classification. This article focuses exclusively on Du Bois’ contribution to philosophy; but the reader must keep in mind throughout that Du Bois is more than a philosopher; he is, for many, a great social leader. His extensive efforts all bend toward a common goal, the equality of colored people. His philosophy is significant today because it addresses what many would argue is the real world problem of white domination. So long as racist white privilege exists, and suppresses the dreams and the freedoms of human beings, so long will Du Bois be relevant as a thinker, for he, more than almost any other, employed thought in the service of exposing this privilege, and worked to eliminate it in the service of a greater humanity. Du Bois’ pragmatist philosophy, as well as his other work, underlies and supports this larger social aim. Later in life, Du Bois turned to communism as the means to achieve equality. He envisioned communism as a society that promoted the well being of all its members, not simply a few. Du Bois came to believe that the economic condition of Africans and African-Americans was one of the primary modes of their oppression, and that a more equitable distribution of wealth, as advanced by Marx, was the remedy for the situation…. Read the full IEP bio here

You will find another good short bio and list of DuBois’ writings at The Pennsylvania Center for the Book‘s website here

…and here are some more works about or featuring DuBois to be found at Ordinary Philosophy

On Authoritarianism And Civilization, by Neil Roberts
Margaret Sanger and Race
Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!
Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1 (yes, he appears a few times in my series on Sanger; they worked together at times and shared some common ideas about how to improve the lives of black Americans)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

 

Q&A With Singer: A Philosopher On His Craft and Practicing it at Princeton, by Michael Hotchkiss

Peter Albert David Singer at The College of New Jersey in 2009, by Bbsrock, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Albert David Singer at The College of New Jersey in 2009, by Bbsrock, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Singer is one of the world’s best-known philosophers, recognized for his thought-provoking views on topics including animal rights, bioethics and the plight of the world’s poorest people.

Since 1999, he has been the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He splits his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne in his native Australia, where he is Laureate Professor.

Singer’s influential books include “Animal Liberation,” “Practical Ethics” and “Rethinking Life and Death.” His book “The Life You Can Save” challenges readers to help improve the lives of the world’s poorest people, and he is the co-founder of a nonprofit group by the same name that is devoted to effective philanthropy to serve people living in extreme poverty.

Singer also regularly writes brief essays on topics related to current events. A new book, “Ethics in the Real World,” compiles many of those essays with other reflections to explore, in an easily accessible form, some of the deepest philosophical questions.

Singer recently answered questions about his book, philosophy and teaching at Princeton.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Why do you write the kinds of brief, topical essays that are compiled in “Ethics in the Real World”?

Singer: I think it’s important to play a role in contributing to public debates and hopefully trying to improve the standard of those debates. In many areas of academic life — but perhaps particularly in ethics — there’s a lot of debate that goes on and a lot of it is to a rather low standard. If you can contribute to showing people how it’s possible to have reasoned discussion of ethical issues, I think it’s a valuable thing to do. A lot of people think ethics is all just subjective, a matter of taste. They think you can’t really say anything, therefore you might as well just abuse your opponents. I think there are other possibilities.

What does it mean to do philosophy?

Singer: I think doing philosophy really means learning to think more deeply and rigorously about hard questions that cannot be answered by straightforward empirical investigation. There are many things people think hard and rigorously about — physics, history or whatever it might be. In some of those fields you can answer questions by doing an experiment or finding the relevant documents. Generally speaking, you can’t run experiments to settle the kind of questions philosophers talk about. And you’re not going to turn up documents in some archive that are going to solve them either. So you have to think. The discipline of thinking, of recognizing good and bad arguments, of recognizing fallacies and where an argument is rigorous or where its weak points are, that’s something you can be trained in and can develop through practicing. That’s why we want people to do philosophy, to talk about it and write about it, not simply to learn what other philosophers of the past have said.

What does it mean to do philosophy at Princeton?

Singer: I think this is a great environment for doing philosophy, particularly for the area I work in, which is practical or applied ethics. Having the University Center for Human Values sitting alongside the philosophy department and the politics department produces a substantial body of people who are very good at discussing a range of practical and applied ethical questions. Plus, of course, we have really excellent students. For me, that’s one of the most rewarding things about being at Princeton. You get truly outstanding students who are very rewarding to teach, and that is just the undergraduate level. Many of them are also really enthusiastic about the role they are hoping to play in the world. When you get to the graduate level, you get yet another level of discussion. All of that makes a really exciting combination.

“‘Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter’ by Peter Singer” book jacket

In his new book, Singer compiles brief essays on topics related to current events that explore some of the deepest philosophical questions. (Courtesy of Princeton University Press)

What are the most important tools you have at your disposal to engage people?

Singer: The primary tool is the ability to express ideas. As a teacher, you will mostly do that using your voice, speaking, though sometimes you will get students to read things. As a public intellectual, I’m much more likely to do that in writing. Being able to express yourself clearly is the most important tool for what I do. I’m grateful for my education in analytic philosophy at the University of Melbourne and Oxford because of the emphasis placed on clarity of expression. If something you said wasn’t clear, then it wasn’t good even though there might be some deep thing lurking there. You had to try to bring that out. It’s a contrast that exists to this day between most English language philosophy that comes out of that analytic tradition and that which comes out of what you might call a continental tradition, where clarity is not really prized and it seems to me at least that profundity is hinted at through ways of expression that might be clever but certainly aren’t clear.

The course description for your undergraduate class ‘Practical Ethics’ is full of questions: Should we be trying to live our lives so as to do the most good? Does a human embryo have a greater claim to protection than a chimpanzee? Should we be able to choose to end our own life, if we are terminally ill? Why do you take that approach?

Singer: I ask questions because I see the role of the course as challenging students to think about issues that otherwise they might not think about a great deal. I do not simply want to get them to absorb the truth, whatever the truth might be on these ethical questions. I certainly don’t want to encourage the idea of professors as authorities from which they just take statements and write them down. I want to challenge their way of thinking so they may come to see that what they’ve been thinking is superficial and they need to go deeper.

What are the questions you find your students engage with the most?

Singer: We have a lot of spirited discussions. Probably in recent years the two topics that have been most spirited have been questions about the treatment of animals and whether we ought to be eating them, and questions about global poverty and what we ought to do about that. Do we, as comfortably well-off people in an affluent nation, have an obligation to actually do something, to contribute some of our wealth to people to whom it can make a much bigger difference than it makes to us?

Many academics have critics, and you have your share. In the ‘Practical Ethics’ course, you assign a book called ‘Peter Singer Under Fire’ that features essays critiquing your views and your responses. Why do you bring your critics right into the classroom?

Singer: That book is listed because it has critical essays about me. And if students are going to get my views from me firsthand they need to have ways of pushing back and seeing what other people have said that is different. Those essays are specifically written to criticize Peter Singer’s views. A lot of the reading, not just the essays from that book, is opposed to what I think. There are a number of other books on the reading list that are written by people who have a very different perspective, people who differ from me. Those views do get represented in my courses, always.

Do you find a lot of students become really engaged with your ideas and pursue them further? What’s that like for you?

Singer: I find a significant number of students do become engaged and continue to live in ways that are influenced by some of the thoughts that maybe they started thinking in my classes or reading some of my works. In fact, one example just came up recently. It’s not the majority of students who become as engaged as that, of course, but a few individuals can have a very big impact on many people. I find that rewarding. I find it really encouraging when I discover my teaching has made a significant difference, changed someone’s life in some important way, perhaps, or just reinforced them in going down a path they were going down anyway. If that’s a positive path, as it is generally, I feel pleased because I have indirectly made a positive contribution to the world.

In the book, you mention that you learned from some of your students about the racist parts of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy. What else do you learn from your students?

Singer: I learn lots of things from my students. You get a range of people I would not ordinarily meet and get to talk with. You also learn a lot about the way young people think. I consider myself very fortunate to be always mixing with young people both in the classroom and out of the classroom because it keeps me fresh in terms of what’s going on in the world and what people are thinking about. I think it’s easy to be mixing mostly with people of your own age group and not really be aware of what 20-year-olds are likely to be thinking.

You came to Princeton from Australia in 1999. What have you taken from that experience?

Singer: It’s a pretty cosmopolitan campus, really. We have a lot of international students. We have other students who are immigrants or children of recent immigrants. I really value that. I think it’s tremendously important that we think about the world as a whole and that we be a truly cosmopolitan place. That connects with some of the essays in the book, which talk about how we should be thinking about the world, globalization, global poverty, what we should be doing about it. I value the “service of humanity” aspect of the University’s informal motto and the experience of Princeton because they point the way to getting beyond just a focus on the United States. When you come to the United States as I did, it’s one of the things you discover. Because you have come to a really big and important country, it’s natural that the media are going to be more focused on the United States here than the media would be on Australia in Australia, for example. Even having said that, I think the lack of attention on other parts of the world where America’s interests are not directly affected is something that’s pretty deplorable, and I think it’s important that universities try to counterbalance that by having international breadth and international understanding.

In one of the essays in your book, you describe the experience of learning to surf later in life. Why is that kind of experience important?

Singer: My experience with surfing shows that even if you think you might be too old to learn something new, that’s not necessarily going to be the case. Sure, you may never be really good at it. I’ll never be really good at surfing. But I can do it well enough to enjoy it and get a lot of satisfaction out of it. There is a lesson there for people at any stage of life: Don’t think things have passed you by. Obviously, objectively some things will have passed you by. I’m never going to become a footballer, but there are a lot more things that are still open as you go through life. More people are realizing that. You can change career directions later in life. If there’s something you want to do but you’ve thought it’s too late, think about it. Maybe it’s not.

Originally published in News At Princeton, at Princeton University’s website

~ Michael Hotchkiss, social sciences writer, went to Princeton in 2012 after seven years as an editor at The Wall Street Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2000 but really learned the ropes of writing and editing at Mississippi community newspapers… At Princeton, he develops news and editorial content about the teaching, research and service missions of the University, with a special emphasis on the social sciences. (Bio credit: Princeton University)

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