Disasters: Core Concepts and Ethical Theories

  • Commission on Higher Education
  • 2020-06-22 08:57:32
  • 383

How have philosophers defined and conceptualized disasters? The short answer is: surprisingly little. They have hardly defined it explicitly, and they have provided implicit definitions pretty much like everyone else who has attempted it; that is, they have defined it in ways that suit their own purposes. That is the short answer, and of course it is too short. In what follows I will present a slightly longer one. Approaching the question of conceptualization of disasters in philosophy requires an idea of what philosophy is. Does the term refer to the activities carried out by people working from within academic philosophy departments? That characterization would be unsatisfactory, since it would leave out very significant parts of the historical philosophical canon—there were no philosophy departments in antiquity, for instance. And a lot of what is regarded as philosophy today would not fit the bill either. For instance, important contributions to political philosophy have come from political scientists or people working in government departments, and theologians have made important contributions to ethics. A more plausible characterization would be to say that ‘philosophy’ refers to a set of topics, including but not limited to ethics (including political philosophy), epistemology (including logic), and metaphysics, all very broadly conceived. Philosophy in this sense is about searching for answers to the questions—and I am paraphrasing Kant here—‘What is there? What can we know? What ought we to do?’ I take this to be a rather conventional characterization and will employ it in the present paper. I will, however, emphasize contributors who are identified by themselves and others as philosophers. The reason for this is simply that conceptualizations of disasters in other fields have been examined by others, who are no doubt more knowledgeable about those fields than I am. In this paper I attempt to give an overview of how disasters have been conceived of in philosophy. My focus will be on the analytic tradition. I will summarize and discuss some works where philosophers have explicitly engaged in defining disasters, and devote some more space to philosophers who have discussed philosophical issues pertaining to disasters and disaster-like situations without so much discussion of the definition of the term. Those have mainly been ethicists, normative as well as applied, and political philosophers. I also highlight how imagined disasters have been employed in philosophical thought experiments. I conclude by sketching some possible future developments.

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