I simply don’t trust activists. The reason for this is probably quite clear; activists have stopped searching for truth (whatever sort of thing that might be) and simply focus on how they can argue for some given view. Philosophers who deal with topics that interface directly with the world have the difficult task of straddling the line between simple neutrality and activism. Rhetorical skills are extremely important when dealing with those not familiar with a topic; too often clear, valid but dull arguments fall flat when posed to the general public, and this makes such illuminations of truth completely useless if one wants to make a difference. Some topics are simply too complicated to be comprehensible (all at once and quickly) and therefore need to be distilled down to more simplistic elements that might appeal to a general audience. I don’t want to make any big claim here about any of this, but I do want to elucidate the problem for the philosopher of practical problems.
So how do we stay neutral and yet be effective? It certainly requires good faith; we need to approach these issues with as much neutrality as possible and with truth as our goal. But I think this is often ignored. If we decide for some pre-reflective reason (or after some sort of preliminary reflection) that something is true then it is far to common for us to find cleaver ways to argue for that given view. We can simply feel that healthcare is a right or that urbanity is good without any deep understanding of why. Then it is quite easy to practice a little sophistry and make plausible arguments even though we might ignore a good deal of facts. Or we take facts that exist within some sort of complex context as simple (or straight forward) facts without qualification, even though most facts require a great deal of contextualization. I fear that most of the information you hear from activists is of this simplified sort and it seems obvious that this strategy likely leads to a great deal of deception and confusion.
But I (like most people) have social views that are not totally elucidate and vetted. Does such a high mandate for truth-seeking require me to sit on the sidelines until I am very sure that my views at least approach truth in some meaningful way? (of course I don’t require that we are absolutely sure of the truth, just reasonably so) I hope not; however, it seems as though the unthinking mode of politics (in which we never question our lower level assumptions about how to bring about good) would be in direct conflict with the truth-seeking (or modeling of regularities, if one is going to be difficult) of philosophers, scientists, and any other serious theorists.
I have been reading quite a bit lately about how we could design our world to better suit the needs of people. One major debate I have come across is whether Architecture is a form of art. It seems that many architects think of themselves as artists; some of the best are known for the artistry and the revolutionary nature of the structures they design. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright is well respected mainly because of the aesthetic qualities of his structures in and of themselves. People look at the pictures of Wright’s buildings (most of them homes) and see them as works of art; however, we don’t often consider whether they are pleasant places in which to live. It is also interesting to look at the sort of projects that are deemed noteworthy by the architectural community at large, and more importantly how they speak about them. Perusing most publications will reveal that artistically bold designs are the most respected, and much of the debate about their merits happens on this artistic level; there is comparatively little interest given to how these buildings are used or how they affect the people who rely on them.
I think that we should not look at architecture as an art; rather we should consider it to be a science. First, I should probably say that this is not a new idea (J. H. Crawford has said similar things), and also that I’m not making any statement about what architecture currently is (I’m not an architect, so I think it would be odd for me to define the field). However, it seems that the clients of architects (the people who actually live and work in the buildings) would be far better served if the purpose of the profession was to design buildings and living areas that were both useful and psychologically advantageous to the users. If we concern ourselves with these sorts of issues, and leave the more contestable debates about artistic merit behind, then architecture becomes empirical. We can then decide with reasonable conclusiveness which sort of buildings and environments make people happier and allow them to go about their lives most efficiently. Of course, we need to first decide what sort of effects we want buildings to have on people and also the relative weights we should give to the concerns of those who occupy them as apposed to those people for which the building is simply part of the environment. But it seems to me that these are both solvable issues, and once we answered these sorts of questions a systematic description of the properties of ‘good’ buildings is possible. This process, of discovering which sorts of buildings produce positive outcomes for people and then designing these buildings, should be the purpose of architecture.
I don’t find the above process to be all that insurmountable; after all, most of us can discern places we enjoy being around and living in from those that we don’t like. All that architects need to do is take these feelings and systematize their study. Of course, these feelings are culturally relativistic (people in Wisconsin might not be made happy by the sort of architecture that someone in Iran will prefer), however, I would be very surprised if those within cultures had drastically different reactions to many architectural types. If such commonalities can be found, the quality of a great many lives might be drastically increased.