Monday, July 03, 2017

The Union Station Test of Philosophical Relevance

When I think about moral philosophy, one perspective that I like to adopt is something I tend to call the Philosophy of Union Station. In downtown Denver, Union Station is a major hub for public transportation. The light rail, and a great many of the Denver busses serving not only the city but surrounding communities, meet there. It has a lot of different kinds of people. Union Station is often quite crowded.

When I think about various philosophical ideas, I like to look around at the people and ask, “What does it matter to them if this is true or not?” Another way of expressing the same question is to ask, “If I were to approach these people and tell them these ideas, would they have reason to care?” I am not asking whether they would actually have reason to stop and listen, as if I was a corner preacher telling them to repent because the end of the world is near. I am talking about them having a reason to care – even if their other reasons (to get to work, to meet with their friends, to get to the Denver International Airport to catch their flight) might make them too busy to listen.

John Rawls “Veil of Ignorance” thought experiment – whereby people choose the rules of justice by imagining themselves being ignorant of the actual station they have in society – fails this test spectacularly. Everybody in Union Station is aware of their position and their relationships to other people, and they are not choosing to ignore these facts in evaluating the merits of their actions. In fact, a great many of their actions depend on these relationships. Their duties to their employers and their families, the promises they have made, their relationships to the people they are with and those they meet, all are relevant in determining how they are going to interact with those people. A morality of union station is going to have to tell them how they can make better, more moral choices in that life and as people who are aware of those relationships.

There are two types of "reasons to care" that are relevant to answering these questions. There is the reason to care because they could put the information to use in making their own lives better. However, there is also the possibility that if I were to walk up to them and present them with a technical discussion of the results of recent research in the treatment of diabetes, they may not have any particular reason to listen to my presentation. However, they do have reasons to care - reasons that are grounded on the fact or the potential that they or somebody they care about could have diabetes. Consequently, an idea does not pass or fail the Union Station test merely because it is not something that people at Union Station can find immediately useful.

I have mentioned in my last post that I am going through the episodes of the New Books in Philosophy podcast. One of the things that strike me is the way in which many books are simply contributions to a conversation that involves, perhaps, a couple dozen people - those who are studying the specific subject that the book is about. I listen to the podcast while walking through Union Station, or standing there waiting for my own bus, and the subject matter does not pass the Union Station test. Whether true or false, is not saying anything that the people in Union Station have reason to care about - either directly or indirectly.

As I have been thinking about my return to graduate school, I have started giving thought to the question of what I will choose as a Master's thesis. One of the questions that I have been having is whether my Master's thesis will be something that can pass the Union Station test.

My counter says that I will be attending my first class in 56 days and 6 hours (as I write this).

I have come to realize that, from the first day of class until I get my MA in philosophy – if I go according to schedule – will be 1 year and 9 months. That is a longer period of time than the time from when I started my application to graduate school until the first day of class. We can make a round number out of it and call it 700 days from today. In those 700 days I need to pass 10 classes, write, and defend a Master’s thesis. Can this be done in 700 days?

I will have next summer off – working half time and taking no classes. That will be the summer of writing my Master’s Thesis. I will do my frequent editing and rewriting during the next school year.

So . . . what to choose as a topic?

A bold and reckless part of me wants to just put desirism on the table in front of my committee and say, "See what you can do to this?" My worry here is that it is too big of a topic for a Master's Thesis. I would need to pick something narrower that I can actually cover in some detail in a document the length of a master's thesis.

However, when it comes to the more narrow focus, I fear that the paper would not pass the Union Station test. I could say some things about the subjective/objective distinction, about the fact that motivating beliefs do not exist and that all value relates desires to states of affairs, that morality cannot be concerned with evolved dispositions, and that not only is free will not required for morality but that determinism is required. The people at Union Station have little reason to be concerned about these things - either directly or indirectly. These are topics of discussion within the ivory tower that have no impact on the lives being lived outside the tower.

On this matter of things that pass the Union Station test, I hope to be done with a draft of "Criticizing an Idea" this week and get that posted. This is a set of instructions regarding the distinction between the legitimate criticism of an idea on the one hand and bigotry on the other. This is something that the people in Union Station have reason to care about. I want it done and on the web site before classes start.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of the Masters thesis being a shorter, condensed version of desirism and then the a doctoral dissertation being an expanded more detailed description. The masters thesis might then make a good short book written for the general public and then the doctoral dissertation could be a longer, more technical book written for professional philosophers (or as a philosophy of desirism textbook).