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The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

Guest Speaker Jonathan Floyd Discusses ‘The Death of Armchair Philosophy’

The Colgate University department of philosophy hosted Jonathan Floyd, professor of political philosophy at the University of Bristol, on Wednesday, Oct. 11. Floyd’s lecture, “Actions Speak Louder Than Thoughts: Normative Behaviorism and the Foundations of Political Philosophy,” offered criticisms of the standard model of philosophy. Floyd compared this approach, called mentalism or “thinking about thinking,” to a more involved practice of political philosophy in which political theories are directly implemented and studied. 

According to Floyd, political philosophy is a matter of two questions, the first being “How should we live?,” and the second being “Why this way and not another?”. Political philosophers debate various political systems according to their motivating principles. 

“Political philosophy should be answered in terms of a question, a starting question, an organizing question: how should we live?” Floyd said. “But we do not simply state a position. We provide an argument. We give reasons and those reasons very quickly take the form of principles. These are the right policies because they express certain values: equality, freedom and so on.” 

Floyd identified the typical practice of political philosophy as mentalism – a sort of armchair philosophy that relies on normative thoughts to hypothesize behaviors. Mentalism involves introspection but no real-world application. Floyd discussed the famous trolley problem as an example of mentalism. 

“We think about our thinking. We consider various possibilities. We study our convictions, our commitments and so on. We ask ourselves what we would do if we were on a runaway train, and that runaway train, if nothing happens, will hit four people. If I pull a lever on the train it will switch and hit one person. Should I pull the lever?” Floyd asked.

Floyd pointed out that this system is essentially flawed because normative thoughts can be inconsistent across populations and even within an individual. Age group, economic status, religion and many other factors can influence beliefs. Even something as trivial as blood pressure can cause an individual to have variable thought processes. In contrast, Floyd encouraged the use of normative behaviorism, which is based on direct behavioral observation. 

“Actions speak louder than thoughts, with greater clarity and with greater commitment. Because, remember, from the comfort of our armchair, contemplating a [drowning] child in a pond, we don’t have to get wet,” Floyd said. “Instead of hypothetical actions, look at real actions. Instead of what we call thought experiments, why not think about politics including political history, but also things we might want to try in the future: real experiments?”

Specifically, Floyd focused on crime data as indicative of the success of a given political structure, because low crime rates suggest economic and political stability. Floyd concluded that the most successful political bodies are “Social-Liberal-Democracies,” given that they are the least brittle and have lower insurrection rates than other implemented governments.

Floyd pointed out that this new approach cannot exist without mentalism. He suggested that mentalism be used in the brainstorming stage as a tool to decide which ideas are worth implementing. However, normative behaviorism is the most important instrument for political philosophy. 

First-year Annika Stimac noted that Floyd’s presentation and teaching style were particularly engaging. Stimac especially appreciated Floyd’s use of comedic examples.

“His sense of humor made the talk very entertaining. It was fun how he gave examples of different problems – the trolley problem, the drowning child,” Stimac said. 

Junior Mikayla Cairns joined a group of students and faculty who had dinner with Floyd after the presentation. Cairns noted that much of the group’s conversation revolved around the possibilities and limitations of applying normative behaviorism.

“Most of the questions had to deal with the practicality of experimenting with political systems in the real world and what happens if societies choose to adapt political systems that allow for immoral actions to occur,” Cairns said. 

Floyd is an active figure and an awarded teacher in the world of political philosophy. His work can be further explored through his academic publications and his two books.

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