Discussing Philosophical Ethics Without Shouting
David Sobel co-edits online blog PEA Soup
In early October, David Sobel initiated a discussion about hypocrisy on the ethics blog PEA Soup. Usually, he pointed out, we think the hypocrite is the person who fails to do what they think others are morally required to do. But imagine someone who thinks morality requires you to give most of your money to charity, but who nonetheless thinks it makes no sense to do so. Morality just asks too much, this person thinks, and so she advises herself and others not to live up to the demands of morality. Is that person, Sobel asks, hypocritical in failing to give or not?
A spirited discussion followed Sobel’s post, including references to moral rationalism, Bernard Williams’ proleptic mechanism and Plato. The exchanges, in which Sobel responded to comments and pushed forward the conversation, were thoughtful and respectful. Comments are monitored for tone (although not for content), and commenters must use their names—practices Sobel says the blog insists on to keep potentially divisive conversations from getting too heated.
“We hope people who are interested in ethical issues would consider us one of the go-to places to pay attention to the discussion,” says Sobel, Irwin and Marjorie Guttag Professor of ethics and political philosophy and co-editor of PEA Soup. (PEA stands for Philosophy, Ethics and Academia.) “There’s a culture of mutual respect, and we’re very proud of that,” he adds. “It makes it an inviting place to come to and overhear what other people say and you won’t be shouted down.”
Sobel, who has worked on the 12-year-old website about four years, says PEA Soup is the most popular blog for academic ethics in philosophy. The site recently partnered with the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, to update the site and help connect it with non-academics.
“Historically it was just academics talking to each other,” Sobel explains. “The change was driven by the thought that professional ethicists have something to say that non-academics would be interested in, but academics tend to talk to each other rather than in ways that make our work accessible.”
PEA Soup’s topic areas are metaethics, normative ethical theory, applied ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of action and personal identity. The site regularly posts recent journal articles and seeks responses. It also lists job openings and publications and collects syllabi for professors to share. The site will present a regular newsletter, and almost 400 people follow its Facebook page.
Since the presidential election, PEA Soup has posted entries raising questions about normalizing Donald Trump and how to resist him. “We welcome different perspectives, but we try to keep it non-ideological,” Sobel says.
PEA Soup also recently partnered with Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, a blog that addresses free markets and social justice. A Nov. 19 guest post is called “A Bleeding Heart Libertarian View of Paternalist Drug Laws.”
Sobel spends about 10 hours a week working on PEA Soup, time made possible by support from the College of Arts and Sciences.
PEA Soup aims to broaden discussions about philosophical ethics. “There’s a lot of people asking, ‘What’s the point in academia? Why do we need it? Why do we put so many resources into it?” Sobel notes. “We’d like to tell people, “Look, we’re talking about issues of interest to everyone and we have something to share.”
Sobel says PEA Soup brings professionally trained philosophers to talk about issues lay people might be interested in. “We can talk about general themes and topics,” he says. “There are principled theories people propose and we can say, ‘That’s one way of organizing your ethical perspective.’ We hope there’s something for people working in academic ethics as well as for undergraduates and for the accountant who is interested in abortion or euthanasia.”