Interview with Hugh LaFollette

HughLaFollette[1]Hugh LaFollette, Editor-in-Chief of the IEE, talks to us in this interview about the inception of the project, how he got into the study of ethics, and some of the major influences on his thought.

How did the idea for the IEE come about?

Six years ago, I had several discussions with two different Wiley-Blackwell editors (mostly Jeff Dean) about editing an encyclopedia of ethics. Initially, I was reluctant to edit it. I know just how time consuming (and exasperating) editing can be. I finally agreed . . . if Wiley-Blackwell was willing to support my effort to make this the most extensive, most definitive single resource in ethics. I wanted more and more substantial entries, wider coverage, and a thorough blind review of all entries. Jeff was more than happy to accommodate. So I agreed. Although I knew it would be time consuming (how time consuming, I knew not), I thought it could be a supremely valuable resource. I also thought I would learn a great deal about the best current thinking about ethics.

What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?

I would like it to be generally recognized as the most comprehensive, authoritative ethics resource available. I would like it be widely used in classes; I think it provides an overview of important issues and identifies the most plausible views on important ethical topics. Finally, I hope that philosophers wanting to know more about unfamiliar areas of ethics would use the IEE as the place to begin their inquiry.

Why do you think Ethics is such a huge and growing area?

Part of the explanation is political. People are prone to think that many people’s ethical standards, such as they are, are declining. So the powers that be sought to compel professionals to study ethics. In my more optimistic moments, I think the aim of these efforts is to make professionals more sensitive to the ethical dimensions of their action; in more pessimistic moments, I think it is all window-dressing: to make the public think professionals are more ethical.

I think something else is also going on. Reflective people understand that people much like themselves have committed horrible moral atrocities: the Holocaust, genocide in Armenia and Rwanda, etc. If we are aware of this history, we should see the need to be more cognizant of our own ethical failings, including our moral blind spots. If so, we should seek to think more systematically about ethics and how we should comport ourselves.

How did you first become interested in these issues?

I grew up in a religious household where I was imbued with a rigid set of moral rules. As I grew older, I found those rules did not serve me well in the real world; I was often faced with apparently incompatible moral demands and I did not know what I should do. I became even more aware of these conflicts while I was working at The Tennessean as a city reporter. More times than I dare count, I was pulled in seemingly incompatible moral directions. In my quest to think more carefully about these choices, I decided to take some philosophy courses — although originally I had no interest in getting a degree or teaching. The more I read, I more I realized the less I knew (Socrates wasn’t crazy after all!).

Are there things you have written that you wish received more attention?

Sure. That is true of two essays and one book. The essays are “Living on a Slippery Slope” and “The Truth in Psychological Egoism.” Both essays take a different tack that most who have written on these topics. I acknowledge that I have a penchant for approaching issues differently than many others do. The question, of course, is whether I do so because I have something unique to say, or am I just not smart enough to follow the standard lines of argument. Obviously I would prefer for the former explanation to be true. I cannot, though, categorically dismiss the latter one. I never want to downplay the propensity to deceive ourselves. Of course, there may be a third option: the essays were not well placed to gain serious attention. Still, I think I make important points in each, points that are often overlooked in the extant literature.

POE CoverI also wish that my latest book — The Practice of Ethics — had more uptake. I think the book is better than the response indicates. Perhaps I did a sloppier job than I think. I may have been insufficiently clear about the book’s purpose. I also think some readers didn’t understand or heed the “Preface.” The book does not pretend to offer a definitive account of deontology and consequentialism. Rather, my aim was to show that questions in Practical Ethics, Normative Ethics, and Metaethics are deeply entwined in ways and to degrees not normally noticed. If the reader understood the book’s aim, then the order of the chapters—which might seems positively screwy—and some arguments that seemed mysterious, might suddenly make more sense.

Is there another book or project you wish you could claim credit for?

I have a roundabout a way of answering this. What are the books that have been most influential to my own thinking and in my teaching? There are three. Mill’s On Liberty is probably at the top. I think it remains the most powerful defense of freedom of speech and action available. Moreover, I think embedded in its argument for free speech is a powerful statement of the nature and value of a liberal education: that to be wise we should seek opposing views and be intellectually honest enough to change our views in the face of compelling evidence.

John Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct opened my eyes to the insights of American pragmatism. Dewey said things I had already begun to think, yet had rejected since his views were unfamiliar, not at all in the mainstream.

warriors-reflections-on-men-in-battle-j-glenn-gray-paperback-cover-art[1]Finally, J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle gave me a better understanding of war and warriors; it also helped me understand that the way to end war is not by railing against it, but by helping to build a world where war’s siren’s call is not heeded, a world in which we can find meaning and happiness.

What’s your current project? What’s next?

I have a paper I want to finish — “The Greatest Vice?” I have a reasonable draft of a monograph on liberal education (Liberating Education) that I am designing for use in a variety of introductory courses. I find many students have never heard of a “liberal education;” those that have, assume that it must be bad since they think anything liberal must be morally dubious. My aim is to convince them that they are wrong.  I want to show them how such an education prepares them for numerous jobs in a volatile world, and then isolate the myriad other benefits of a liberal education.

I have also been approached about writing a short monograph on Gun Control.

About Liam Cooper (Managing Editor)

I'm the managing editor of Philosophy Compass half the time (www.philosophy-compass.com) and the associate commissioning editor for Wiley-Blackwell philosophy books the other half. I am also a disembodied brain in a jar. No, really.
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One Response to Interview with Hugh LaFollette

  1. Pingback: Just Published: The International Encyclopedia of Ethics | The Philosopher's Eye

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