How do you define “applied philosophy”?
To be honest, I have no special penchant for any definition of applied philosophy. That said, I once published an article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy and I normally find myself entwined with research projects that many would characterize as ‘applied philosophy.’ So, I better give you something. When I was a Philosophy PhD student at the University of British Columbia, from 2009-2015, I described my dissertation topic to a fellow grad student, and he responded with wonder and surprise, stating: “wow, your research touches the world.” I kind of liked that. So, let’s just go with it. Applied philosophy is philosophy that touches the world.
How does your research fit within applied philosophy, as you define it? Tell us about this research. What made you want to research this topic?
Well, I suppose that my research touches the world insofar as it touches upon problems that have both philosophical and practical significance. Trained as a philosopher and economist, I am a sustainability scholar whose interdisciplinary research focuses on the relationship between sustainability and human well-being, broadly construed. In general, I approach this topic as a philosopher of social science or philosophically informed social scientist.
Let me give you something a bit more concrete. Currently, I am writing a monograph entitled, Sustainability without Sacrifice: A Philosophical Analysis of Human Well-Being and Consumption. My thesis is that some reductions in consumption, particularly among members of the affluent class, can be made voluntarily without negative welfare effects for those who reduce their consumption. Because such reductions are required for sustainability, advances toward this ideal can be made without sacrificing one’s own well-being. The book’s thesis is striking because arguments for limiting consumption are typically made on moral and environmental grounds, not prudential grounds. On my account, prudence in the sphere of consumption is far more consistent with sustainability than is ordinarily recognized. In many cases, the demands of prudence and sustainability coincide. This view represents a radical departure from the recent tendency among environmental philosophers, social scientists, and others who claim that sustainability requires sacrificing well-being.
What made me want to research this topic? A long time ago, I completed an honors degree and master’s degree in economics without being required to take any courses in philosophy of economics, methodology of economics, or the history of economic thought. This left me with a huge gap in my knowledge of economics. I found myself especially concerned with how economists construed agent welfare (the satisfaction of preferences) and appeared to reduce every environmental problem to one that concerns “negative externalities.” Whether these concerns were ultimately warranted, they led me to hang around philosophers of social science. After a few stints tree planting, wildfire fighting, and working as a forest economist in British Columbia, I enrolled in a two-year Research Master in Philosophy and Economics at the Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics (EIPE) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This program was formative. I never looked back. After co-founding the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics and completing this MA program, I enrolled in the PhD program in philosophy at the University of British Columbia. In 2015, I started working at ASU.
Where do you predict your research field will be in five-ten years?
I do not consider myself as someone who contributes to a single research field; that said, I will say that, among philosophers of economics and economic methodologists today, behavioral economics appears to be all the rage. I do not see this changing anytime soon, especially given the collective action problems that we currently face, including anthropogenic climate change. In my opinion, behavioral science (perhaps in combination with new institutional economics) holds part of the solution to such vexing problems.
Does your work in applied philosophy require you to consult with or conduct research with faculty in other disciplines? Does it require you to be proficient in a field outside of philosophy – and how proficient do you have to be in your co-field? Was it difficult to find experts in the field you wish to do applied philosophy?
I am constantly in contact with faculty members in non-philosophy disciplines. As the only humanities faculty member with a tenure home at the School of Sustainability, my unique role has been to help bridge the gap between sustainability and the humanities. To perform this role, my research over the past 5-6 years has consisted of an independent research agenda on sustainability and well-being, and I also have several on-going collaborative research projects on cognate topics, such as health & well-being, energy & well-being, food & well-being, environmental philosophy, and the nature of interdisciplinary science during the Anthropocene. My collaborators, at ASU and beyond, come from a wide range of disciplines, including ecology, engineering, mathematics, environmental history, history and philosophy of science, and environmental philosophy.
Just about every philosopher of science will tell you that doing philosophy of science well requires being acquainted with your object of study. I believe it. As a philosopher of social science who came to philosophy from economics, this was (fortunately) a natural transition.
I have found that ASU makes it easy to find experts in the fields that one wishes to do applied philosophy. Personally, I have found that the most effective way to initially find relevant experts is to pick up the phone or shoot someone an e-mail. Boring but effective!
What philosopher/philosophical School has been most influential in your research?
That is a tough question. I have a special place in my heart for the ancients. Probably Aristotle.
What would you say to a student who is considering studying philosophy to encourage them to do so? How early in one’s academic career can one start doing applied philosophy?
I would tell this student to first enroll in philosophy courses and to see whether they like it. Although it is difficult for me to fathom, philosophy is not for everyone! Rather than asking how early in one’s academic career they might start doing applied philosophy, I would rather encourage junior philosophers to simply pursue their passions and interests wherever they take them. Applied philosophy was never something I pursued intentionally. Instead, my style of doing applied philosophy arose as an unintended consequence of simply pursuing the research projects that I cared about.
Tyler DesRoches is Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Human Well-Being at the School of Sustainability and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in philosophy from the University of British Columbia and his areas of specialization include the history and philosophy of economics, human well-being and sustainability. Formerly, Tyler was a Forest Economist with Natural Resources Canada and a Sessional Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia. He is a Founding Editor of the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics and a co-Founder of the Canadian Society for Environmental Philosophy. A list of his publications, and more, can be found on his website.
Interview conducted by Nathanael Pierce.