Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Philosophy: Should Adk Professionals SpeakTheir Mind?

A few months back one of my colleagues here at the Almanack wrote a fine post that raised the question of whether or not it is feasible for New York State to acquire Follensby Pond and surrounding lands.

I had great fun weighing-in on an element of philosophical gamesmanship that Phil Brown touched on related to Aristotle’s notion of begging the question. A short while later, I was describing what I thought had been my clever contribution to a friend who asked “yes, but what was your position?” Well I never! No really, I never even considered entering the conversation with my position on the situation.

As a philosopher, much of my work involves drawing out the views of others into a constructive space where disagreement operates alongside mutual respect for differences of opinion. In this process I act as facilitator, offering my own opinion only when it might help to further the discourse. This method is useful, at the same time it is almost entirely without risk. Whereas others who participate in a dialog (say around Adirondack land acquisition) lead with their position and without the safety of neutral ground. This came up for me during a recent conversation with a few colleagues who work in the field of environmental education.

We were talking about how much of what we believe can and should we reveal when talk turns to issues that are invariably fraught with tension and where perspectives, and ultimately the people who hold them, are judged by what they believe. In other words, how much of our personal and ideological positions can we show up with while taking care to subject ourselves to the least amount of ire?

Each of us enters into a private negotiation to gauge this type of risk countless times a day. And the stakes are particularly high when viewpoints push past our personal belief into a professional space where often unspoken expectations about who we are and what we think are nearly written into our job descriptions as environmental educators, ecologists, biologists, and naturalists etc.

But what happens when our personal and public personas don’t seamlessly match, or when I hold to a belief that might put the two in conflict? What are the boundaries of my duty or the limits of my professional responsibility when what I believe isn’t consistent with what I am expected to believe? Am I duty bound, as German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed, to conduct myself with an artificial unanimity when I am in service to an institution or organization acting in the interest of the community? In this case is Kant right to call for obedience or submission to a disciplinary or professional agenda?

Maybe, but as members of the whole community or of a society of world citizens and thus in the role of a scholar he can argue without hurting the affairs for which he is in part responsible. In other words, as citizens and public intellectuals we are indeed obligated to speak our minds. Kant’s adamant belief in our responsibility as public and private citizens comes from his belief that freedom and righteousness always operate in concert. He envisions a landscape where we emerge as independent thinkers who value our own worth and every man’s vocation for thinking for himself where a greater degree of civil freedom appears advantageous to the freedom of mind which fosters the propensity and vocation to free thinking.

From What is Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, 1784.

Marianne is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondacks.

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to [email protected]




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