Friday, July 16, 2004

Goodbye to the sane guy

Today my grad school buddy Brandon Butler announced his decision to leave philosophy. It's kind of funny how whenever he and I talked about this before, I thought he should stay in the profession. But now that I have to look at things from the other side of the decision, I think he's making the right choice in leaving.

Some good reasons for him to leave have to do with the two-body problem -- he wants to live in a good city and he has a wonderful girlfriend whose job puts constraints on where he can live. So it's good that the job market / location mess won't be in his future. But the biggest reason, I think, has to do with his level of obsession with philosophical research.

I can get a crazy amount of excitement from defending a particular philosophical doctrine or attacking an orthodoxy I dislike. I reflected on this as an undergrad and knew that if I end up doing philosophy for a living, I had better not ever go uncrazy. And I think the only thing that's decreased my intensity is seeing that some of those orthodoxies make more sense than I first thought (Kripke's semantics for proper names, for example) and some of the doctrines I used to love aren't that great (infallibilist epistemology). For the most part, I'm still crazy. Crazy about hedonic utilitarianism, crazy about defending internalism about semantic categories, crazy about attacking irreducible moral properties. When you think that some position is wrong and you have just the argument to beat it, writing a paper is fun.

Judging from what he wrote, I think Brandon isn't crazy. I mean, he has positions he agrees with and disagrees with, but I don't think he has the kind of mad lust for the ethereal blood of theories that makes the game fun for me. (Maybe in a world where metaethics was ruled by Moorean intuitionists and he had to join a small band of naturalist rebels to defeat the Empire, he'd be in it... but this isn't that world.) He's right about the importance of being a good researcher for career advancement, and if your heart isn't in the research game, you probably won't publish enough to get a good job. Actually, I think there's some hope for good teachers who don't do much research at small liberal-arts colleges, but there probably aren't enough of those jobs out there that one can be confident of getting one.

In the end, law school isn't such a bad place for a smart liberal guy to end up. We had a really bright student from my year -- Steve Bero -- go to Columbia law after his second year, a year ago. There's lots of need in the world for utility-increasing superlawyerheroes, even if their super power is just making a lot of money and giving some of it away to good causes. (It's even better if they do some socially beneficial stuff as lawyers!) I've even considered jumping ship for law school myself, since that could be a better way to crank out the hedons than philosophy. I don't know if it is -- I have high hopes for what a good ethics class could do -- and that's why I'm staying in philosophy for the time being. There's some pleasure in having your friends choose appealing option A when you had to go for appealing option B, since you can kind of have it both ways. That pleasure will be mine.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

Thanks, Neil - I'm really glad you can appreciate where I'm coming from. It's a tough choice in a lot of ways; I really enjoy introducing philosophy to people who don't know much of it or bringing philosophical theories into non-philosophical discussions, but when it comes to the level of sophistication that good academic philosophers (like you!) enjoy, I always feel like the air is a little too thin up there for me.

I also think you've hit precisely on a major reason that I think academic debates in philosophy are no longer compelling to me -- there aren't any major monsters around I feel the need to slay. Michael Smith, for example, seemed in the contexts of our class discussions to be just egregiously, obviously wrong in too many ways to count, but ultimately I was pretty sympathetic to his "morals are the considered opinions of our better selves" view. Ditto for Korsgaard. Ditto for Williams. Ditto for Scanlon. Ditto for Braybrooke. Ditto for Velleman. Ditto ditto ditto - there's no reigning orthodoxy that I feel compelled to destroy, and there's not even a minor contender by which I'm sufficiently freaked out to be prodded to academic action. It's not because I don't see the differences in these theories; they just don't compel me. And that's not a normative judgment about these theories, but rather a kind of discovery about my intellectual interests - when it comes to philosophy they don't run as deep as I had thought.

Compare this to the kinds of debates in which lawyers are actively engaged, where no lesser evil than George W. Bush is engaged in commissioning amicus briefs in support of policies that are just patently wrong and likely to cause much misery. Where assholes like Jerry Falwell are trying to destroy the separation of church and state, assholes like Ashcroft are trying to destroy pretty much the entire bill of rights, assholes like Napster are (or, were) stealing music and assholes like Metallica are trying to stop them (I'm pretty thoroughly on the fence in the file-sharing debate, but I find it compelling). To philosophy's credit, there just aren't so many malevolent pricks runnning around pushing obviously bad agendas!

So, anyway, it's good to have your support. See you soon!