Supply-side philosophy

Many with whom we have been in dialog point us toward bioethics as a field that escapes our criticism. And bioethics offers an interesting case.

Bioethicists often work in the field with stakeholders from other disciplines and various walks of society. But bioethics didn’t so much propel itself out of the gravitational forces of disciplinarity as it was pulled out into space (that is, society) by doctors, patients, hospitals, and scientists who demanded help with their problems.

Bioethics exposes the importance of the demand-side within applied philosophy. People out in the world recognized a conceptual space that was philosophical (or at least ethical) in nature, and helped to clear a social space where this new creature, the bioethicist, could take root and speak with some measure of authority.

Still, this has not been the case for other types of applied philosophy. In the main they have practiced a kind of supply-side philosophy, trying to convince stakeholders to buy the notion that their problems have philosophical dimensions. On endangered species, for example, people have not reached down asking for help. Rather, they saw the issue as economic, political, ecological, and/or biological in nature. No ready-made space was carved out for the philosopher. And environmental philosophers, lacking (with a few exceptions) that tug from the beyond, have fallen back to disciplinary ground. It’s no wonder, then, that (for instance) environmental ethics has not matched the success of bioethics.