Notes on public philosophy

A recent salon made me think about public philosophy” for the first time in a while. An odd omission, on my part, given that 80,000 Hours and effective altruism can easily be thought of in this light, and I’ve often thought of our work as centrally about popularising the ideas of Parfit, Bostrom, Ord.

Public philosophy” is a broad and diverse category.

Most obviously, there are different publics”: someone writing in the LRB is addressing a university-educated high/middle-brow, while Alain de Botton makes books and videos for more or less everyone.

A lot of public philosophy is educational” in spirit: a focus on accessibile introductions to the existing debate, not original ideas.

Some people operate in public philosopher” mode most of the time. Most great philosophers put on this hat at least some of the time.

A few modes of public philosophy:

1. Bringer of clarity

The philosopher makes some distinctions, points out some common confusions, considers cases for and against.

The aim is to improve the debate on a particular issue.

More generally, they model and hope to spread various intellectual virtues: disintested truth-seeking, care and precision, interest in counterarguments.

Example articles: #todo

2. Creator of doubt

The philosopher says you know less than you think you do”, it’s worse than you think”.

Example articles: #todo

3. Moral entrepreneur

A clear moral agenda, beyond the mere promotion of intellectual virtues. They aim to change people’s beliefs about what matters and/or what one ought to do, in a particular direction.


A moral entrepreneur is an individual, group, or formal organization that seeks to influence a group to adopt or maintain a norm, altering the boundaries of altruism, deviance, duty or compassion.


Moral entrepreneurs often take the lead in labeling a particular behaviour and spreading or popularizing this label throughout society.

The moral crusader” is a sub-type of the moral entrepreneur, who is concerned chiefly with the successful persuasion of others, but is not concerned with the means by which this persuasion is achieved.”

The public philosopher wants to distinguish themselves from the crusader. The public philosopher claims to limit themselves to a set of kosher” methods, often called rational persuasion”. They usually present themselves as impartial, disinterested truth-seekers who humbly follow the arguments where they lead (rather than a particular individual with particular interests, dispositions, tastes, agendas).

Example articles: #todo

For the public philosopher, the ideals of truth and truthfulness are stubborn attachments. The philosopher’s love is wisdom: she hopes to inspire this love in others, and to teach the art.

The nature of rational persuasion, and the social role of moral philosophers, will be another early theme for this blog. So too, will be Nietzsche’s question: why do we not prefer untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance?”

writing public philosophy moral philosophy sociology rational persuasion