Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Interview with Mike Austin: "Ethics for Everyone"

Christian philosophers like Mike Austin continue to make waves not only in the academic arena but in non-academic environments as well. I recently interviewed Mike about his writing on ethics at the Psychology Today website, along with his passion to see the good of wise, philosophical reflection and insight accessible to everyone. Mike is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University and the author or editor of various books, including Conceptions of Parenthood (Ashgate, 2007), which we chatted about here, and also he's written Wise Stewards: Philosophical Foundations for Christian Parenting (Kregel, 2009), Running and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), Football and Philosophy (University Press of Kentucky, 2008), and Cycling - Philosophy for Everyone (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He has also contributed to Philosophia Christi, Journal of Applied Philosophy, International Philosophical Quarterly, The Journal of Value Inquiry, Southwest Philosophy Review and many other journals and periodicals.

Since July of 2010, you’ve been blogging at the website for Psychology Today. But you are a professor of philosophy. What gives?!? Aren’t professionally-trained philosophers supposed to stay within the corridors of academe and just write for professional and specialized publications? I am kidding, of course. But, seriously, how did this writing opportunity for Psychology Today come about?
This one came out of the blue. I received an email from one of the editors at Psychology Today asking if I would consider becoming a blogger at their site. The invitation was based on my work in popular philosophy.  I have another work in the popular philosophy genre that will be published in March, in Wiley-Blackwell’s Philosophy for Everyone series on Fatherhood, which I co-edited with Lon Nease. The publisher had contacted Psychology Today about this book, and from there I received the invitation. I wasn’t aware of it, but the Psychology Today website has quite a few people blogging, including not only psychologists, but also philosophers, other academics, and popular writers on a very wide variety of topics.
Your blog is headlined as “Ethics for Everyone: Moral wisdom for the modern world.” Indeed, you are covering a variety of topics: from the challenges of Facebook too understanding what lust is. I notice that you don’t exclude your topics to just typical (if not, predictable) ethical issues (perhaps, e.g., whether war is just or whether abortion is immoral, etc). Why is that? What might the diversity of topics suggest about how a Christian philosopher can serve in public spaces like your work at your blog?

I made a fairly conscious decision to emphasize topics related to everyday ethics, rather than the standard fare one might find in an applied ethics anthology. While it is very important for Christian philosophers to engage the topics you mention, and I do so occasionally on my blog, I think that many people in our culture are starved for moral wisdom that can be applied to their everyday concerns of work, family, school, and individual character.

While Christianity is not merely an ethical system, it has a significant and essential ethical component. Those who are not believers in Christ can still benefit by what I write, of course, insofar as they can embrace and apply some of the content to their lives without embracing the theological foundation. Moreover, I think that such work in public spaces serves as a unique form of apologetics, insofar as the moral wisdom on offer that is grounded implicitly and sometimes explicitly in the Christian worldview actually works. It leads to a better and more fulfilling life. When this happens, and people are able to connect the dots, the plausibility of Christianity is increased.  For some, this might be more significant than the classic arguments of natural theology, because the truth is born out more directly in the experiences of their daily lives.

Which topics have been most commented on? Why? What might it indicate?

Far and away the post that has received the most views and comments is my “Why atheism can’t replace religion,” which I wrote in response to a post by another blogger on the site entitled “Why atheism will replace religion”. One reason this received so many comments is that a link appeared on Real Clear Religion, which brought in a lot of traffic. Apart from this unique case, the posts receiving the most attention deal with ethical issues connected to Facebook, the ways in which depressed thinking exhibits logical fallacies, and another on the tension between pursuing victory in sports and practicing virtue in that context. I think this supports my view that people are interested in the connections between ethics and daily life. In general, my posts on ethics connected to current events receive less attention. This isn’t a reason to stop posting on these social issues, but it does reveal something about the audience and their interests.

What has it been like to write as a Christian in this environment? What does that mean to you? Moreover, what are the top lessons that come to mind (so far) about what it means to be a Christian philosopher in this environment? How are you growing?

It has been a very positive experience for me, trying to take the things I think about as an academic and put them out in a popular form for the general public. I’m taking the skills I’ve developed in my work on the pop philosophy books and transferring them to the blogosphere.  One lesson that has been reinforced is that to communicate effectively requires foregoing the use of philosophical jargon without sacrificing depth. This is sometimes a difficult tension, but learning how to do this has helped me to grow as a writer and hopefully been beneficial to readers.

One thing that has become very apparent to me is the prominence among many of the bloggers of both scientism in general and a form of physicalism about the human mind in particular. A recent post by another blogger talked about “competing neurons” as a way to understand the tension many experience between their sexual desires and morality. The claim is that this is not a matter of character, but rather of different parts of the brain in conflict. I’m not even sure what it means for neurons to be in conflict.  However, while there are many posts written by others that I disagree with, I am being pretty selective about the posts I respond to by other bloggers on the site. When I do publish a response, I seek to disagree in a charitable way rather than to engage in the abrasive form of dialogue that is so ubiquitous on the web.  Many Christians feel the need to respond to everything they disagree with, but sometimes the better approach is not to be reactive in this way in every case. I’m trying, over time, to cultivate and communicate a certain moral view of the world and human nature that I believe is theologically and philosophically sound.

As far as my own personal growth, I’ve written a lot in recent years about the connections between sports and character. Recently I started playing soccer again in a league for old people, and I’ve had opportunities to seek to apply my views to my own life.  For example, the past two games I’ve played in have presented opportunities for my growth in humility. This has been a bit painful, but a good reminder that there are so many ways to grow in virtue or descend into vice in sports. This is also true of the rest of our lives. My hope is that my blogging will encourage and equip many to embrace opportunities for moral growth.

Your “Bluegrass Ethics Consulting and Education” (great title, by the way) is, no doubt, another extension of your “ethics for everyone” vision. Let’s talk a little about that. It reminds me of the Morris Institute of Human Values. Why did you start this consultancy? How has it shaped you has a writer and professor? What opportunities has it provided you that writing and teaching have not?

Starting this consultancy was inspired by several things, including the model of the Morris Institute. I also realized that, as far as I can tell, no such thing exists in this region of Kentucky, even though we are only 20 miles south of Lexington where the University of Kentucky is located. Also, when philosophical concepts, especially those related to logic and ethics, are presented to people in a clear and understandable manner, they see the connections with their own lives. I have done a little bit of speaking for the Kentucky Humanities Council around the state on moral issues, and while the turnout has been small, the people eat it up. I wanted to expand the reach of this type of work.  So far, I’ve only met with a local physician a couple of times, but I’m working now on a plan to inform businesses and other organizations about this resource, with the hope that some further opportunities will arise. This is just one more way to permeate the culture with goodness, truth, and beauty.

Do you have any models of other philosophers (Christian or otherwise) who wrote or who are writing to serve a non-academic readership with their philosophy expertise and training? If so, what do you find encouraging/compelling about them as a model?

As I mentioned, the work of Tom Morris has been one model that has been influential for me. Many other Christian philosophers, such as J.P. Moreland, Scott Rae, Doug Geivett, Jim Spiegel, and Paul Copan are good models of this sort of work.  Also, much (not all, of course) of the work done in the different philosophy and popular culture works that have been edited by William Irwin is quite good insofar as it communicates important ideas in clear, concise, and relevant ways.

There are two extremes to avoid in this type of work. Some philosophers treat a chapter or a book that is intended for a popular audience as if they are writing a journal article, and these are two very different animals. This is not because one is necessarily easier, but rather the aims are different and many people are just unable to get out of the mode of writing for a scholarly audience, perhaps because that is the only type of audience they have ever addressed in their writing. The other danger is trying too hard to be relevant and dumbing down the material you are discussing. The best popular philosophers are able to combine clarity, relevance, wisdom, and creativity in their work.

You have a growing series of books in practical or applied philosophy that you have edited and contributed to (including some like the forthcoming Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate, which looks to be especially delectable!) I can’t help but noticing that the features and phenomena of one’s “ordinary life” are the advantage points from where philosophical reflection is motivated and done in this series. That’s beautiful! To me, it has something of a good-of-creation value to it. So, I got to ask you, what difference does it make to the health of philosophical reflection when our philosophizing is not routinely attentive to ordinary life but mainly or mostly caught-up in a preoccupation with highly specialized, academic topics.

I love the conceptual and analytical bent of much of contemporary philosophy. However, I also think that in order to be a good steward of the education and resources I’ve been blessed to have at my disposal, I ought to take some of the fruit of that scholarly reflection and make it available and accessible to those outside of the academy. In my own life, in order to avoid hypocrisy and seek genuine human flourishing, when possible I try to take the tools of philosophy and put them to work. If we are not at least sometimes philosophizing about ordinary life, especially as Christian philosophers, then we are missing something crucial not only for ourselves, but for those we can serve via our vocation as Christian scholars. And our philosophical reflection will benefit because we won’t be merely solving philosophical puzzles for the sake of puzzle-solving, but rather seeking wisdom and depth of insight.

What does writing for Psychology Today or doing your series of books on “Philosophy and x” suggest to you about how Christian philosophers should be trained, developed and formed?

We must be trained to write well. Those who are educating and mentoring Christian philosophers need to put a premium on this ability. My own professors at Talbot School of Theology did this with excellence. They were demanding, and I still rely on that training as I write for both scholarly and popular audiences today.   Learning the craft of philosophical writing has helped my writing in these other venues. We also need to be countercultural in the academic context, insofar as we must resist succumbing to the elitist values that are so prominent. It is of course very valuable to publish a paper in one of the best philosophy journals, but writing for Atlantic Monthly or Christianity Today is no less important from a kingdom perspective. Each kind of work is important, in its own way. It’s too easy to take on by osmosis the disdain for popular-level work that many contemporary philosophers exhibit. So perhaps Christian philosophers should be trained not only to write for other philosophers, but also for a more general readership.  Some may do much more of one than the other, but we ought to be able to do both.  Finally, I think that we need to take Aristotle’s words to heart, from the Nicomachean Ethics: “Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others; for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use.” I would only amend this by saying that we want theoretical knowledge, and we seek it not only for its own sake but also for the sake of becoming good.

Since about 2001, I have been championing among various folks and institutions the idea that while the last few decades has enjoyed “a renaissance in Christian philosophy” what we now need (in addition to that good work) is a “translation revolution.” By that, I mean, we need a fresh generation raised-up of Christian philosophy influencers (among others) who have their ear to the ground in the scholarly discussion but who are listening for the sake of translating to non-academic arenas. What do you think about that? Do you have some encouragement to share for this endeavor?

I wholeheartedly agree, and I like that phrase “translation revolution”. In my position as a professor at a public university, I find that my students who are atheists have been influenced by people like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, but there are no Christians with the same sort of prominent influence among Christian students. We have people who are responding to the new atheists, doing the type of translation work you mention, but there are so many other areas in which such work is needed. Most of it, as far as I can tell, is focused around questions of God’s existence and other issues in philosophy of religion, as well as bioethics. This is crucial, but we need people who have scholarly credibility that are doing this sort of translating on a whole range of issues connected with the realm of value, including political, social, and personal ethics. We need the scholarly foundation and the vision and ability to translate it in non-academic venues.  I’ve tried to do this by developing a Christian philosophy of the family that I believe is superior to the new ideologies of the family and is also grounded in sound biblical, theological, and philosophical scholarship (see my most recent book with Kregel, Wise Stewards).  We need to develop a well-crafted political philosophy and communicate it with excellence.  We need more of this kind of thing in business ethics, ethics and technology, and sports ethics, to name just a few areas of inquiry in need of more translation work. There is so much out there that can help people to live better and more fulfilled lives, and so much potential for doing further work with these goals in mind, that it would be a shame if no “translation revolution” occurs. This is a crucial way to continue to build the kingdom of God in ourselves and those whom we serve in our vocation.

You can learn more about Mike Austin by visiting his website and following his blogs (Ethics for Everyone, Philosophy of Sport, In Socrate's Wake), and connecting with him on Twitter and Facebook.

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