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FORESIGHT MEETS UNDERGRADUATE PHILOSOPHY: HOW PHILOSOPHY CAN ENRICH FUTURES WORK

Although he later wrote in a tweet that “We need both” philosophers and welders, United States Senator Marco Rubio created waves when he said that, "Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers" (Griswold, 2015). Philosophy and other humanities disciplines are often criticized for not having practical benefits, especially in terms of preparing students for employment. While this could be true, I am of the view that philosophy is worthy of study, as education has value beyond practical benefits.


Yet, I think there are good reasons to believe that studying philosophy also has practical benefits. Reading, discussing, and writing about philosophy develops students into better critical thinkers who learn how to create logically rigorous arguments and disagree in a productive manner when presented with opposing perspectives. This supports the development of students into engaged citizens and effective team members and leaders in the workforce. Philosophy also has many practical disciplinary applications, especially related to applied ethics in areas such as business, medicine, environment, and war. Encountering these topics in an introduction to philosophy course develops students in ways “useful” for employment, provides opportunities to think more deeply about life and eternal questions, and (hopefully) inspires them to continue learning about philosophical topics.


Philosophy can also enrich futures work, even basic philosophical concepts that a student would learn in an undergraduate introduction to philosophy course. One way this is possible is through the relationship between specific philosophical concepts and the Association of Professional Futurists’ Foresight Competency Model (Futurists). This model depicts a shared view of what professional futurists consider to be central to carrying out futures work. The model’s technical competencies, which provide an approach for completing futures work, are one of its components that would benefit from being more philosophical. Although philosophy includes a range of branches, this post will focus on basic critical thinking concepts and ethical theories that are often studied in undergraduate philosophy courses.


The Competency Model’s technical competencies, which represent the knowledge and skills necessary for futures work, are: framing, scanning, futuring, visioning, designing, and adapting. Framing a project includes defining its scope, identifying the focal issue, and researching current conditions (Futurists, 2016, 12). If a project is not framed properly, the work that follows will probably not be useful. When researching current conditions, foresight practitioners should always identify the ethical beliefs that currently exist, especially those that are dominant. Students in introduction to philosophy courses learn the importance of ethics for all aspects of human endeavors, as well as different ways to categorize ethical beliefs using different theoretical approaches. These beliefs play a significant role in how people act as members of families, citizens, consumers, and workers, which makes it important to identify them when framing a futures project. Futurists might, for example, look for ethical beliefs regarding technology and privacy, views on whether it is fair for people with genetic or technological enhancements to compete in athletic or other types of competitions, or commonly held beliefs on the ethical status of the environment. A more explicit focus on ethics would deepen the framing effort and establish a foundation for considering how these views might change in the future and what could possibly result from these changes.


Another technical competency is scanning, which is described as exploring, collecting, and analyzing “signals of changes or indicators of the futures” (Futurists, 2016, 13). There are many frameworks that provide direction for scanning efforts by identifying categories. One popular framework is STEEP, which includes social, technological, economic, environmental, and political categories, but does not explicitly identify ethics as a category. For the same reasons that considering ethical beliefs when framing is important, futurists should look for ethical beliefs and moral dilemmas to identify weak signals of change. This makes a framework like STEEPLE, which adds legal and ethical categories to STEEP, and other frameworks that explicitly address ethics, more helpful and reflective of the important role ethics plays in our lives.


The technical competency of Futuring involves “identifying a baseline and alternative futures,” and this is often done through the development of scenarios that are based on what was found during framing and scanning (Futurists, 2016, 13). Looking for fallacies, which are often taught in introduction to philosophy courses to highlight examples of poor reasoning, can be helpful during and after writing scenarios to ensure they reflect sound reasoning. Students often encounter fallacies when they are being taught the qualities of effective philosophical claims and arguments. Being able to identify fallacies is important because they appear at first to represent effective claims and arguments, but upon reflection they reflect poor reasoning. Some examples will illustrate how fallacies might appear in futures work.


One fallacy, a hasty generalization, involves making a conclusion based on a sample size that is too small. For example, you might make a generalization about a large population based on interactions with only a few of its members. One error that might occur during scanning is representing the strength of a signal as stronger than it actually is and basing aspects of the scenario on this mistaken generalization. Familiarity with the hasty generalization fallacy can help avoid this error. The slippery slope fallacy, which depicts an unreasonable chain reaction from a small event to a significant catastrophe, is another fallacy useful for evaluating the logical rigor of scenarios. This fallacy could appear in a scenario through the depiction of a minor event as having significant consequences, even though, upon reflection, it is not reasonable to think that it would cause these consequences. This undermines the credibility of the scenario.


Another relevant fallacy is a false dilemma that presents only two extreme options, ignoring the possibility of a middle ground. This may occur when the options presented in scenarios are two extremes (for example, world peace or world war, megacities or small communities). While it is often helpful to depict these extremes in scenarios to illustrate the extreme range of possibilities related to a critical uncertainty, those writing scenarios should ensure that portraying what appears to be a false dilemma is necessary and useful.


Finally, futurists should look out for faulty analogies - the belief that because two things are alike in some ways, they will be alike in others. This may arise when scenarios unreasonably assume that what may happen in the future is possible because of what has happened in the past.


Another way scenario development can be enriched with philosophical ethics is by explicitly depicting changing ethical views and then considering the significance of these changes in the scenario. This might, for example, involve describing a shift from a predominant focus on individual rights to one focused on community. Scenarios might also reflect a greater acceptance of the ethical importance of animals or the environment, or even the granting of some rights to advanced robots. While this is being done in some scenario work now, emphasizing this element as a part of writing scenarios and using the language of philosophical ethics within scenarios would produce scenarios that more helpfully reflect the ethical complexities of possible futures.


Visioning, another technical competency, involves “developing and committing to a preferred future” through “considering the implications suggested by past, present, and alternative futures” and then using this to make “a choice of one’s strategic direction/preferred future” (APF Competency Model, 13 2016). Ethical perspectives are especially useful for evaluating scenarios in terms of their ethical implications and their appropriateness to being a preferred future. Consequentialist theories, which judge morality through the consequences of an action, provide one way to do this. Futurists would identify and evaluate the consequences related to each specific scenario using a theoretical approach like utilitarianism, which employs happiness to determine which action is morally preferable.


Kantian ethics, which looks at the nature of actions rather than their consequences, is also helpful through its requirement that we treat people as ends rather than mere means. This directs us to treat people as rational beings who have value and, because of this value, deserve not to be coerced or deceived. It also requires that in some way we provide the support people need to exercise their capabilities as rational beings. Employing this perspective to evaluate scenarios would allow foresight practitioners to explore whether some people are being coerced or deceived through policies or conditions reflected in a scenario, as well as whether the scenario provides the support people need to thrive as rational beings.


Another useful ethical perspective is the ethics of care. This perspective recognizes the importance the interconnectedness of humans and, therefore, recognizes and prioritizes the ethical value of relationships. It asserts that we have an obligation to care about and help one another. When thinking about the desirability of a particular scenario, the ethics of care urges us to consider whether it recognizes our interconnectedness and reflects care for people. The ethics of care can also be applied to non-human animals and the environment, which widens the scope for evaluating a scenario and determining if it is ethically worthy of being considered a preferred future.


There are many other aspects of introduction to philosophy courses that can enrich futures work. What students learn about fallacies and ethics in these courses, however, is especially important if futures products are to reflect sound reasoning and if ethics is to play the role that it should in futures work.


References:

Association of Professional Futurists. “Foresight Competency Model.” Association of Professional Futurists. https://www.apf.org/news/442269/Final-Version-of-Foresight-Competency-Model.htm


Griswold, A. (November 10, 2015). “Marco Rubio Says Welders Make More Money Than Philosophers Do. He’s Wrong.” Slate. https://slate.com/business/2015/11/marco-rubio-says-welders-make-more-money-than-philosophers-hes-wrong.html


Rubio, M [@marcorubio]. (2018, March 28). I made fun of philosophy 3 years ago but then I was challenged to study it, so I started reading the stoics. I’ve changed my view on philosophy. But not on welders. We need both! Vocational training for workers & philosophers to make sense of the world. [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/marcorubio/status/978961956504788994


© Chris Mayer 2021

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