Philosophy at the RSA

November 29, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Two of my favourite living philosophers have given talks at the RSA over the last few weeks. The fact that these lectures took place at all reminds me what a great place the RSA is to be around, especially for someone like me who is slightly obsessed by philosophy. But I also think that each talk provides a really good illustration of two central purposes of philosophical thinking, and how each links to the work of the RSA.

The first talk – which you can listen to here – was given by Robert E. Goodin, a political theorist whose work on international law and civil disobedience greatly influenced my masters dissertation. Goodin’s paper Enfranchising All-Affected Interests, and Its Alternatives is also a must read for anyone seriously interested in global democracy, or the foundations of democratic theory more generally. In his talk, Goodin discussed his new book titled On Settling in which he argues against the commonly held view that we human beings are constantly striving for more and greater achievement on all fronts. Instead, Goodin argues, the concept of settling, though largely unexplored and underrated, has an incredibly important role to play in human life. In fact, it is precisely what enables us to strive. Settling, Goodin says, “is not in opposition striving. It is rather an aid to striving. We settle on some things so as better to strive for others”.

The most interesting thing about Goodin’s talk is, I think, that his central aim is not really to persuade us to do anything. This might appear strange for a political philosopher because ‘ought’ statements are assumed to be their lingua franca: we remember Plato because he said (among many others things) that philosopher kings should rule; we remember Mill because he said that that society should not interfere with the liberty of the individual if he or she causes no harm to others; and we remember Marx because he declared that the “workers of the world [should] unite!”.

But Goodin’s primary task isn’t to do any of these things. Although his argument has some clear normative implications – implications about how people ought to behave – his main task is try to get clearer about how we do in fact behave. To cut through the bluster and propaganda about the “perpetual and restless desire of power after power” that is often claimed to be our essential nature, and seek, through careful, considered and sensitive analysis, to understand what we are really like. This is philosophy undertaking the crucial task of trying to help explain us to ourselves. It is an essential task because without an accurate account of who we are, how we behave, and how we value, we cannot hope to provide any plausible or realistic principles for action. This links very nicely to the work of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre which seeks to look past the myth of ‘homo economicus’ and to enrich our understanding of how human beings actually behave, in order to help provide solutions to a whole range of social problems.

The second lecture was given by Thomas Pogge and in it he argued that the structure of the global economic order bears some degree of responsibility for the incidence and persistence of severe global poverty. Pogge’s argument is both intricate and important so I’ll save a discussion of it for a blog post all of its own. But for now it is enough to note that Pogge engages in what you might call activist philosophy. By which I mean that he marshals rigorous moral reasoning and an impressive command of the empirical evidence to make us think differently about global poverty, and suggest some ways that we could do better. This intellectual activism also runs through the work of the RSA: applying rigorous enlightenment thinking to today’s social problems and, most importantly, coming up with innovative solutions to them.

Now, the only way that ideas like this can begin to make a difference is for people to hear them, so you should listen to Pogge’s lecture on ending poverty here. But if only there was a more accessible and entertaining – perhaps even visual – way for complex and important ideas to be shared with large numbers of people… RSA Animate anyone?

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