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“Right now there are few or no regulations, guidelines, or ethical agreements that have addressed many of the real issues that are facing the world,” a Masthead member wrote on our forums last week. His comment stoked a thoughtful conversation about whether established thinking and entrenched institutions can effectively navigate the complexity of the contemporary world, or whether fresh approaches are required. It led my fellow Masthead editors and I to a question: What subjects are now being confronted at the frontiers of philosophical inquiry, breaking from the familiar philosophical concerns of canonical figures like Plato, Locke, and Descartes? In today’s issue, you’ll hear from two philosophers who have thought deeply about the new questions shaping their field, and explore new additions to one of the most robust online resources for budding philosophers.

—Caroline Kitchener

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What New Philosophical Questions Can Help Clarify the Modern Day?

By Caroline Kitchener

The canon of well-known philosophers is small, and mostly limited to a demographically homogeneous group of figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, and Locke. “Many people just assume we know who the great thinkers are—[the traditional philosophical canon] is not really in question,” said Andrew Janiak, a professor of philosophy at Duke and the editor of Project Vox, a nonprofit devoted to diversifying the field of philosophy. But Janiak, whose work we wrote about in 2015, told me the canon is starting to diversify, slowly, in two key ways: by broadening the range of voices (especially beyond white men) on the longstanding questions of philosophy, and by broadening the scope of philosophical inquiry to new, more current questions.

The new questions go beyond probing the existence of God and the nature of consciousness to respond directly to the concerns of today, from the lives of marginalized groups to the stresses of modern relationships, said Elizabeth Harman, a professor of philosophy and human values at Princeton. I asked Janiak and Harman, a professor of philosophy and human values at Princeton, to each share an example of an emerging philosophical question, and make a few suggestions for further reading.

1. The Lived Reality of Love

By Elizabeth Harman, Professor of Philosophy and Human Values at Princeton University and co-editor (with Alexander Guerrero) of the forthcoming book, The Norton Introduction to Ethics

While philosophers have traditionally discussed the nature of love, philosophers today are taking seriously its lived reality, and the implications of that reality. Love is not just romantic love between two people. The lived reality of love includes polyamorous love, love between siblings, love between friends, love of fetuses and children, and many other types and forms of love. Considering love as it is actually lived leads us to new questions: such as how we should recognize the loving relationships of others, and how we should treat the objects of love.

  • Should we privilege two-person, romantic relationships?

    • Elizabeth Brake, a professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, argues that the benefits of marriage should not be restricted to romantic relationships, and should not be limited to relationships between pairs: Two platonic friends, or three lovers together, should be able to marry.

    • Reading List:

      • Elizabeth Brake, Minimizing Marriage

  • Do we owe our loved ones the benefit of the doubt?

    • Sarah Stroud and Simon Keller have each compellingly argued that the answer is “yes.” Even when we have sufficient evidence for a friend’s guilt, we should refrain from believing ill of her, except perhaps in the face of overwhelming evidence.

    • Reading List:

  • How does love affect the ethics of procreation?

    • I have argued that we can love fetuses from the moment they are conceived, which shows that these fetuses matter morally. This might appear to imply that something bad happens in an early abortion, but I argue that this does not follow. Rather, the moral status of early fetuses depends on whether they actually have futures as persons. (Here’s the actor James Franco interviewing me about this.)

    • Reading List:

      • Elizabeth Harman, “Creation Ethics: The Ethics of Abortion and the Moral Status of Early Fetuses,” Philosophy and Public Affairs

      • Elizabeth Harman, “‘I’ll Be Glad I Did It’ Reasoning and the Significance of Future Desires,” Philosophical Perspectives

2. Gender and the History of Philosophy  

By Andrew Janiak, Professor of Philosophy at Duke University

The old idea that women never produced any important works of philosophy is increasingly being revealed as a sham. The historical record is full of treatises, plays, poems, and letters written by women who contributed to philosophy over the past few centuries, from Margaret Cavendish in England—the first woman to visit the Royal Society in London—to Emilie Du Chatelet in France. Scholars throughout the world are now excavating their works and bringing them into the light. We now have a virtuous circle: The more that scholars search through history for the lost contributions of women to philosophy, the more we find. The more we find, the more we can teach our students about such contributions, thereby generating more interest in new discoveries.

  • What contributions have women made to modern philosophy?

    • Through detailed arguments and footnotes replete with citations, Eileen O’Neill has shown that women made numerous contributions to philosophy from 1600-1800, and that their work has been systematically ignored in histories of philosophy. And in the volume Women and Liberty, 1600-1800, Jacqueline Broad and Karen Detlefsen document how women wrote about liberty and gender-based oppression across several centuries, subjects on which many male “canonical” figures were silent.

    • Reading List:

      • Eileen O’Neill, “Disappearing ink: early modern women philosophers and their fate in history,” in Philosophy in a Feminist Voice, edited by Janet Kourany

      • Women and Liberty, 1600-1800, edited by Jacqueline Broad and Karen Detlefsen

  • What is the state of gender relations in philosophy today?

    • The contributions to the collection, Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change, tackle the dramatic underrepresentation of women in philosophy, suggesting solutions to this increasingly acknowledged problem.

    • Reading List:

      • Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change, edited by Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins

2018, in Trending Philosophical Topics

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) is a collection of more than 1,600 online entries of pertinent philosophical topics. In order to decide which topics make it onto the platform, the Encyclopedia “[relies] on the judgments of our subject editors, who sometimes have to make hard decisions,” said Edward Zalta, the principal editor of SEP, and a senior research scholar at Stanford University. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wrote about the resource in 2012, when a page on the ethics of social networking platforms was added. The Encyclopedia lists their entries chronologically, so we looked into some of its most recent additions, many of which seem to respond directly to the issues of the day. Here are a few of the newer entries, along with brief excerpts from the Encyclopedia.

1. Artificial Intelligence (Added July 12)

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the field devoted to building artificial animals (or at least artificial creatures that—in suitable contexts—appear to be animals) and, for many, artificial persons (or at least artificial creatures that—in suitable contexts—appear to be persons). Such goals immediately ensure that AI is a discipline of considerable interest to many philosophers, and this has been confirmed (e.g.) by the energetic attempt, on the part of numerous philosophers, to show that these goals are in fact un/attainable.

2. Sex and Sexuality (Added July 5)

Sex has received little attention in the history of western philosophy, and what it did receive was not good: Plato denigrated it, arguing that it should lead to something higher or better … Aristotle barely mentioned it, and Christian philosophers condemned it: Augustine argued that its pleasures are dangerous in mastering us, and allowed sex only for procreation, while Aquinas confined its permissibility to conjugal, procreative acts.

3. Feminist Philosophy (Added June 28)

As feminist philosophers carry out work in traditional philosophical fields, from ethics to epistemology, they have introduced new concepts and perspectives that have transformed philosophy itself. They are also rendering philosophical previously un-problematized topics, such as the body, class and work, disability, the family, reproduction, the self, sex work, human trafficking, and sexuality. And they are bringing a particularly feminist lens to issues of science, globalization, human rights, popular culture, and race and racism.

​​​​​​​4. The Ethics of Manipulation (Added March 30)

To say that Irving manipulated Tonya is commonly taken to be a moral criticism of Irving’s behavior. Is manipulation always immoral? Why is manipulation immoral (when it is immoral)? If manipulation is not always immoral, then what determines when it is immoral?

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​5. Disagreement (Added February 23)

You may disagree with your spouse or partner about whether to live together, whether to get married, where you should live, or how to raise your children. People with political power disagree about how to spend enormous amounts of money, or about what laws to pass, or about wars to fight. If only we were better able to resolve our disagreements, we would probably save millions of lives and prevent millions of others from living in poverty.

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Today’s Question: What do you think are some of the new philosophical questions worth considering? Are there any topics you think the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy should include that it doesn’t?

  • What’s Coming: Over on the forums, there has been much talk about the concept of home. How did you come to live where you live, and why do you stay there? On Friday, we’ll look into those questions.

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