February 22, 2011

For the last several years, Amherst College Professor of Philosophy Alexander George has been on a mission: to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the public sphere.

Click play to hear an interview with George
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He’s done that primarily through AskPhilosophers.org, the website he launched in 2005 to field questions from the world at large about life’s great existential puzzles. Under George’s direction, the website enlists a global team of professional philosophers to tackle the questions that have been vexing mankind for centuries. Thus far, more than 3,000 queries have been posted, archived and organized according to categories that include Ethics, Love and Rationality.

Along with all those queries, AskPhilosophers has also spawned a mobile application and a successful book, titled What Would Socrates Say? Now, a second book promises to further George’s goal of bringing philosophy to a larger audience.

In the forthcoming What Should I Do? Philosophers on the Good, Bad, and the Puzzling (Oxford University Press, March 2011), George has compiled an array of ethics-themed queries—and responses—that have been submitted to AskPhilosophers.org over the years.

What Should I Do? represents George’s latest attempt to countervail what he observes to be an enduring paradox: Although people frequently encounter philosophical questions during the course of their daily lives, they rarely look to philosophy for their answers.

George is careful not to be prescriptive on matters of ethics. Life, he observes, is too complex for one-size-fits-all moral codes. When pressed, however, he makes it clear that both words and actions matter.

The professor himself is a good example of this axiom; as was the case with the first book, all proceeds from What Should I Do? will be donated to educational charities.

George recently discussed the book, and the role of philosophy in society, with Peter Rooney, Amherst College’s director of public affairs. An edited transcript follows below. You can also listen to an excerpt from the interview at right.

In the new book’s introduction, you write that philosophers can be of some value when it comes to moral issues. What is it about a philosopher’s training and background that makes this so?

There are many ways of trying to approach these questions, and philosophers provide one way. Two of the interesting things they bring to the table are, first, they are often well trained in making fine distinctions, in seeing differences that might otherwise be obscured from view, and that’s a very valuable thing.

The other thing about a philosopher’s training is that human beings have been thinking about ethical questions for a very long time. It’s been at the core of philosophy, and there are a lot of amazing ideas about how to approach these questions. Philosophers can bring all the wealth of human ingenuity that we know about over millennia to these kinds of questions.


Much of your career has been devoted to providing the public access to philosophers and philosophy. What has motivated you to do this?

There is a paradox about philosophy: Unlike other intellectual pursuits of human beings, it is of great concern to most people. I think very few people manage to go through their lives, or even a month, without asking themselves a recognizable philosophical question. That doesn’t usually happen with many disciplines. Unfortunately, very few people have access to material or information that would help them respond to these things, because very few people are exposed to philosophy in the course of their education.

It’s that disconnect between the relevance of philosophy—in some sense its ubiquity—on the one hand, and on the other hand its absence in the public culture, that makes one think that perhaps it would be a valuable service for philosophers to bridge that gap.

In your opinion, what should people do, in a moral or ethical sense?

Ducking that question a little bit, I think one of the admirable things about the responses from the panel of philosophers is that very few of them are trying to give definitive answers to the questions that are being asked. Most of them are trying to give what I prefer to call “responses”—trying to not answer the questions so much as to put more materials on the table that would allow the questioner to think about the question himself or herself at a more advanced level.

Do you think people by and large either do the right thing or try to do the right thing?

Yes, I think people do try to do the right thing often. In fact, philosophers get very absorbed by the question of whether it’s even possible to recognize that something is the right thing to do and yet not do it. Philosophers are quite divided about that.

Some say, “You don’t really have any reason to be moral. You could be immoral, and it wouldn’t be a strike against your rationality in the least.” Other philosophers say “No, it’s not quite like that. There’s a much closer connection between the two, and there’s a way in which everyone has a reason to be moral. You’re actually failing to be rational in some way by failing to be moral.”

Some of these questions get taken up in the book, because some very natural questions that people ask all the time are, “Why should I be moral? Let’s say I’m not; what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t I be immoral if I want to be?”

In a response to a question about vegetarianism, you write that while you’re not persuaded by some of the arguments for vegetarianism, you have chosen not to eat meat, and you observe there are others who are persuaded by the arguments, but they still eat meat. I guess in some way this gets at the relationship between words and actions?

I think there are two separate issues here. One is “Are there correct positions to take with respect to some of these issues?” Another question has to do with, “What is the relationship between philosophical argumentation and action?”

I certainly don’t want to say there are no right responses to these questions—maybe there are. Maybe plenty of these questions have definitive right answers, and if we could just find that cell phone to God, we would be able to get those right answers.

I am somebody who is skeptical about the power of philosophical argumentation as it’s often pursued to convince people to change their ways. As in the case of vegetarianism, I often find myself with strong convictions about these matters, but they don’t seem to be the result of having a wonderful argument for them. I know that philosophers differ about this. Some people think, “The reason I’m a vegetarian is I’ve got this five-step argument that seems completely compelling to me; I can’t escape its conclusion, so that’s why I’m going to be a vegetarian.”

But that’s not how I work, and I actually find that’s not how a lot of people work. Whatever it is that moves people on these big, difficult issues, it’s not being presented with some kind of argument.

I enjoyed a response in the book that included this line: “You have what’s known in the industry as a Hard Problem.” Does the philosophy “industry” really have such terms? And, if so, what are some of the other ones?

We do have whole bunch of terms, but they tend to be Greek. But you’re pointing out something that I really value as well: The [philosophers’ responses in the book] are so far from being pedantic and dry and didactic; they’re not anything like that. They’re notable for their playfulness and the personal approach they take to things, and I think that’s great.

In addition to the responses you contributed to What Should I Do? you edited it as well. What did that job involve?

It entailed working out the overall structure of the book. I didn’t want a hodgepodge of questions about ethics. I wanted it to be organized in a particular kind of way, and so the questions are organized in widening spheres: first, dealing with ethics in one’s personal life, then ethics in the public arena, then ethics in the political realm and finally a whole series of more general questions about the nature of ethics.

One of the more fun aspects was to find the right cover for the book. We managed to get the absolutely perfect Saul Steinberg cartoon, with a person confronting a forest of different question marks.

Do you attempt to adhere to any sort of ethical or moral code that’s influenced by philosophy? And if so, how would you articulate it?

Ethics doesn’t seem to me like the kind of thing that you can have a rulebook that you could follow to help guide you through all the kinds of intricate complexities that everyday living is going to throw your way.

Sure, you can have very general recipes: “Try to think about the other person.” “Don’t cause any unnecessary harm.” But those are only going to get you so far. When the extraordinary richness, texture, complexity and messiness of everyday ethical questions come your way, those very general rules are going to provide very little guidance. If anybody has those rules, I would love to have them myself. Trying to lead an ethical life is very different from trying to find the right move in tic-tac-toe. And it’s precisely because there aren’t such foolproof, specific rules of guidance that ethical problems are so much more difficult and interesting than tic-tac-toe.

What’s the philosophical reason for donating all proceeds of this book, the previous book and AskPhilosophers.org, more than $92,000 to date, to educational charities?

It’s just the right thing to do. Everybody is contributing his or her labor to this. Amherst College has provided so much support, philosophers have put a lot of time in, and programmers have volunteered their time. It would be inappropriate to take that money and decide it was going to go to some individual. It is so in keeping with the kind of institution that made the website possible—a nonprofit educational institution—and so in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise—public service on the part of philosophy—to give all the money that is made to educational charities.