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“Armchair Philosophy” and Beyond

A visit with Robert Johnson, Associate Professor of Philosophy

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: philosophy ethics morality behavior

MU philosophy professor Robert N. Johnson found himself drawn to philosophy as a child who was always “lost in his thoughts.” Then, in high school, Johnson happened upon the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and just “got hooked.” The “Zen” part of the book was not what grabbed his attention; it was the discussion of Plato’s dialogues that framed the story. That encounter led him to check out the Collected Works of Plato from his local library. “I was obsessed… I still am obsessed,” he admits.

His challenge now as a professor, Johnson says, is figuring out how to teach philosophy to students. “Philosophy is all about ideas and arguments,” he observes, and “sometimes it can seem un-teachable. It’s more like something you acquire – like a disease or a sort of mental tick,” where one ruminates over the same thing repeatedly trying to get it just right. “Philosophers are often ridiculed for sitting in their armchairs and doing research,” Johnson laughs. That is, in the past philosophers have not seldom claimed to gain insight into the nature of things just by reflecting on them. For instance, they might contend that you can differentiate between a human and a rock without going out into the world to examine humans and rocks firsthand. Although philosophers nowadays are much more hesitant to make absolute claims about the virtues of armchair reflection, there is still room for such discoveries, Johnson maintains: “It turns out that such kinds of information can be quite surprising sometimes. What seems trivial can turn out to be not so trivial.”

Most contemporary philosophers, he points out, argue that if a person wants to learn about the world, he or she must actually go out and look at it, in other words that science rather than sedentary reflection is the main force expanding human knowledge. Nevertheless, philosophy has much to contribute, especially when it comes to understanding and clarifying concepts used by both scientists and “the man in the street.”

The kinds of things philosophers ponder have traditionally included metaphysics (the study of the nature and constitution of reality), epistemology (the theory of knowledge), logic (the study of the rules of thought), and ethics (the nature of right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice). Johnson’s work falls primarily into this fourth area. Ethical or moral reasoning involves deciding what to do in terms of what is considered fair, just, moral, right, or virtuous. “Some philosophers, such as Aristotle,” he explains, “have thought that moral reasoning is a matter of having the right habits…very much like having a skill such as knowing how to play a piano or ride a bike” – something acquired through practice, in other words. Other philosophers, such as Kant, have conceived of moral reasoning as spontaneous, not unlike mathematical reasoning.

Debates about this elusive faculty concern the nature of moral psychology, Johnson’s particular area of research, an area of philosophy that deals with moral motivation, moral judgment, and the nature of virtues and vices. Beyond so-called “armchair philosophy,” Johnson describes how empirical research has had a significant impact on ethical philosophy and his own work. For example, several studies from social psychology suggest that people have a tendency to overestimate the importance of enduring character traits in their explanation of people’s behavior. On the contrary, it turns out that small and trivial adjustments in circumstances can generate marked changes in behavior.

Johnson’s current book project, provisionally titled What We Owe to Ourselves, defends the controversial idea that we have a moral obligation to ourselves to honor our talents and skills and to develop our natural capacities. This is an area of ethics that thrived among nineteenth-century philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, but one that hasn’t been addressed lately. People “letting themselves down”—like the cliché of the ne’er-do-well or the idle rich—can be interpreted as a sort of moral failing, or so Johnson wants to argue. “I sound like my grandmother,” Johnson chuckles at himself, “but it turns out she was right after all.”