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Philosophy and Advocacy: The Obligation to Become Socially Engaged

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Philosophy is in danger of becoming irrelevant to non-specialists. While it may be an essential part of a classical liberal arts education, there is some evidence that enrollment in philosophy majors is dropping while enrollment in professional programs is rising. In part, this is because the public does not see that philosophical questions arise in and guide our everyday personal lives as well as our social and political interactions. Field philosophy is one response that academic philosophers can make to this obscuring of the role of philosophy in contemporary public life. We should take our knowledge to the public, not wait for them to come to us. This means, first of all, engaging in public forms of teaching outside of universities as public philosophers. But it also means creating effective change through engagement with professionals and policymakers.

The traditional mode of academic work fits a neoliberal model: philosophical activity is individualistic, non-empirical, self-gratifying, and, for the most part, not directed toward the common good. Methods for doing public and field philosophy are new, and they challenge the norms of the discipline. In addition, incentives between universities and researchers are not perfectly aligned. Universities would like researchers to have public impact, but public work carries more risk and, as my story' shows, it can take a while to develop the social networks and specific additional skills that are required.

I am especially concerned with how the neoliberal value for individualism is expressed through disciplinary norms that implicitly discourage fieldwork. In contemporary society—and in spite of social media—we live isolated lives because we “fail to acknowledge interdependence and obligation in society” (Arai and Pedlar 2003, p. 187). Publishing single-authored journal articles is an important way to develop a philosophical reputation, but it should not be the only way, because it does not build the ties between philosophers and society that are necessary for our work to get purchase. Philosophers use conceptual tools that are useful to policymakers, and even if we are not necessarily obligated to do fieldwork, the norms of the profession should at least support it.

I feel a personal obligation to be civically engaged, and to use my skills to support the public good. The value and effort of this work should be recognized as valuable in the profession. We do philosophy for a reason; we are the “thinkers” in society and we should use our art for the common good. Arai and Pedler (2003, p. 187) remind us that we have lost sight of the common good. A focus on individual liberty risks ignoring social justice. However, we do not have to be communitarian to want to improve our communities.

Whether as philosophers or as ordinary citizens, we are responsible for our actions, our beliefs, and how we affect others in society. We have a responsibility to contribute to just outcomes when we can. For me, this means working for justice for victims of sex trafficking. As a moral philosopher, my duty is to call out the injustices, point out the contributing factors, and do my part. Sometimes this means changing one person’s views at a time; sometimes it means contributing to committee work that will alter policy on a larger scale. I have found this work time-consuming, but rewarding. My connection to the community has motivated me to move from being complacent and concerned with furthering my career to becoming engaged both professionally and personally. Kant’s moral view obligates us to help others. The consequentialist also obligates us to become civically engaged—ending the suffering of those being trafficked or preventing trafficking reduces harm and results in an overall increase of positive outcomes. So, whatever our moral commitments are, we have both personal and professional duties to act when we can reasonably do so. Challenging the status quo, actively or passively, changes the norms and gradually brings about grassroots change.

Concluding Remarks

My experience of working with people outside of philosophy—especially in meeting survivors of sex trafficking—has affected my philosophical thinking. Philosophers contribute to the study and analysis of social issues, and working in the real world improves our philosophical understanding. Meeting with sex trafficking victims has increased my appreciation of the radical importance of nuanced understandings of autonomy and agency. The ethical underpinning of choice and autonomy to the issue of human trafficking is essential both to understanding why it violates human dignity and what victims need in order to move forward. For instance, human trafficking may violate a person’s sense of autonomy but may also, in time, reduce their sense of having the ability to make choices and exercise autonomy. A person’s ethical sense of self is closely tied to a psychological sense of self. Thus, while people in sex work have survival skills that have kept them safe in the sex trade, those might not be appropriate skills for surviving and thriving in mainstream society. Through training and psychotherapy, survivors can gain tools they lack. The younger the age of victimization, the longer the recovery time, and also the greater the lack of skills needed for everyday social life. Emphasizing the role of choice and autonomy in sex work—and distinguishing voluntary' participation from sexual slavery— adds nuance to the framework that caregivers use.

Writing this chapter has been a reminder that I am both an academic philosopher and a citizen. My' obligation to my' community' is not limited to my role as a teacher. My involvement in community' and policy work has increased gradually, and my confidence in the value of my contribution to the community has likewise increased. The taskforce on human trafficking in Oklahoma was an important lesson in humility' about working with practitioners who have different kinds of expertise and a different culture. If you don’t know what to do, show up, watch, listen, ask, and eventually increase your involvement. Non-profit organizations always welcome help, but they are also cautious since they often deal with vulnerable populations. One way' to get involved initially is to attend meetings, workshops, and training sessions, to learn the ropes, and to volunteer for “boring” tasks in order to become known and establish credibility. As for professional and academic recognition, I have found that my home department, the College of Professional and Continuing Studies (Liberal Studies), supports and encourages my' research on human trafficking (Alavi, 2019). However, my contribution to the community goes beyond teaching about human trafficking in class and publishing articles for other philosophers. The impacts that are most important are the ones that more directly impact victims of injustice.


  • 1 See
  • 2 See RISE (Restoring Identities After Sexual Exploitation), Youth Services,; DVIS (Domestic Violence Intervention Services),; The Dragonfly Home,; and Dayspring Villa: Women and Children’s Shelter,


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