It’s Possible to Live without Philosophy—but It Wouldn’t Be Wise

Can philosophy give you true understanding about life, the universe, and everything? Sometimes it Kant.

Philip Kitcher: That’s a really wonderful question. What is philosophy and why do we need it?

Of course many people think we don’t need it anymore. And I can sympathize with that reaction when they look at the inward-turning character if much contemporary philosophy, especially written in English.

But I think philosophy is immensely important. I think the search for the large ideas about truth, knowledge, beauty, justice that is in the classical philosophical tradition—not only in the West but also in the East—is a terribly important thing.

That said I think it was misguided.

I am, at the end of the day, a pragmatist, and I don’t think we’re ever going to find the big theories of truth, justice, et cetera that the classical philosophers have sought. But I think what they’ve given us are all sorts of wonderful tools for thinking about the deepest and largest human questions.

Those questions are how should we try to live and how should we try to live together. And the questions are connected with one another. Now I want to suggest that rather than trying to give some definitive theory that will answer those questions what we should do is try to think about our current state and the problems that arise for human beings living well, living happily, living valuable and meaningful lives.

How, at a particular moment in time—our moment in time—are they limited? And how could we get beyond those limits?

And philosophers aren’t in the business in my view of trying to sort of add some sort of knowledge to the knowledge that is given by physicists and art critics and linguists and anthropologists, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Philosophers are in the business of trying to fit all of that together so that we have a picture of where people stand at a particular moment in time and how lives are problematic so that we can be in a position to diagnose ways in which we might go forward.

I said this is a thoroughly pragmatist approach and it is because it’s not about perfection. It’s a matter of improvement. And philosophers I think are in the business of trying to give us that general picture of ourselves and our place in the world and the kinds of lives that we live that will enable us to take the next steps in improving things for ourselves. And that means that philosophy is a synthetic discipline primarily. It’s something that draws from lots and lots of different areas and draws from life as it exists at a particular moment in time. So every age will always need its philosophers and in the past we’ve had great synthesizers. We think if people like Plato and Aristotle in the ancient West. We think of people like Kant and Hegel in the more recent West. We think of people like Confucius and Mencius and so on. These are all attempts it seems to me to find a big synthesis, and that’s what philosophy is all about and that’s what it needs, and that’s what philosophers I think should be trying to accomplish.

 

Philosophy provides a new way of looking at the world and exploring ideas that otherwise might be too heavy, or too big, to comprehend. It's a lot better than the alternative—which is willful ignorance and throwing your hands up in the air and saying "I guess it's all part of a masterplan!". And while this incongruity between the philosophically minded and the more deity-inclined can create some major cultural hiccups, there's at least some semblance of both sides searching for the same thing. Philosophy, Kitcher argues, may not ever give us the ultimate solutions to all the big questions in life. But it does put us in the driver's seat and give us control.


Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.

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  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
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LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.