Philosophy and the Republican debate

In the absence of gotcha questions at Tuesday’s debate, philosophy moved to the fore. It was trashed twice.

In an exchange with Ted Cruz over a hypothetical bailout of Bank of America, John Kasich said:

That’s the difference of being an executive. And let me just explain: when a bank is ready to go under, and depositors are getting ready to lose their life savings, you just don’t say we believe in philosophical concerns. You know what an executive has to decide? When there’s a water crisis, how do we get water to the city? When there’s a school shooting, how do you get there and help heal a community? When there are financial crisis, or a crisis with ebola, you got to go there and try to fix it.

Philosophy doesn’t work when you run something. And I gotta tell you, on-the-job training for president of the United States doesn’t work. We’ve done it for 8 years, — and almost 8 years now. It does not work. We need an executive who’s been tried, has been tested, and judge the decisions that that executive makes.

(Emphasis added)

As usual, Kasich blustered his way from insight — an executive must have a pragmatic streak — into fallacy — philosophy doesn’t work in governance. As Peter Wehner contends, “the practice of politics, like the practice of life, needs to be guided by philosophical assumptions. It needs to provide a framework for the laws that we pass and how we seek to advance, even imperfectly, justice and human flourishing.”

Assigned its proper function, good philosophy works fine “when you run something.” It did for Ronald Reagan. Without a philosophy, an executive lurches from problem to problem often imposing “solutions” that make things worse.

Marco Rubio also took a shot at philosophy. He said:

For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational training. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

Liberal “fact-checkers” pounced. Polifact found that the average person who majored in philosophy make an average first-year salary of $42,200. His or her average mid-career pay is $85,000 per year. The median salary for a philosophy professor is $90,000.

Meanwhile, the median wage for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers is $37,420. (Note that Polifact is intermingling “median” and “average,” perhaps due to limits in available data).

Polifact’s analysis is flawed. One doesn’t become a philosopher by majoring philosophy. John and I both so majored and we don’t claim ever to have been philosophers.

We became lawyers. Our pay reflected what lawyers, not what philosophers, make.

The salary of philosophy professors also is a poor surrogate for what philosophers make. Philosophers include not just those lucky enough to become a philosophy professor. The ranks also include those who receive advanced training in the field but are unable to land a decent position at a university. As Rachel Lu of the Federalist explains:

Yes, it’s true that (tenured) academic philosophy is nice work if you can get it. I would imagine the same could be said of working as a sportscaster, or being a rock legend. But we don’t often advise children to pursue those jobs, because they’re very hard to get, and an enormous up-front investment is required to put them even within the realm of possibility.

Likewise academic philosophy, which demands about a decade of study (give or take), followed by an abysmal slate of job prospects. Many people who go this route find themselves stuck at 30 with a Ferrari-level back-pocket degree and no job, money, or future prospects. . . .

Those who [dispute Rubio’s statement] need the experience of standing in line at the American Philosophical Association’s job fair in December, waiting to be tagged and numbered as an officially-recognized job-seeker. This hell-hole of cynicism and despair is filled with once-promising students who peer into the abyss of looming unemployment, trying to figure out why nobody explained to them, six or eight or ten years earlier, that money and employment make adulthood much more palatable. If they’d only become welders, these people would probably be several years into a secure career already, feeding their kids and everything.

I don’t know whether a proper analysis would confirm or refute Rubio’s statement. I do know that Polifact hasn’t performed a proper analysis.

As for the proper stance on the philosophy vs. welder question, I think that, as with the philosophy in governance question, it’s a case of “all of the above.” Both are respectable professions in theory (I can’t vouch for contemporary academic philosophy, though).

Moreover, I doubt that many individuals are torn between becoming a philosopher and becoming a welder. To many, it will be self-evident that they are cut out to be one or the other, but not both.

The real issue is society’s posture on the two professions. This, of course, which is what Rubio was talking about.

For a sensible and amusing final word on this question, I turn to Lyndon Johnson, who once served up this gem of a quotation from John Gardner:

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

As to philosophy, I suspect these words have proven prophetic.

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