Interested in doing research on one of our recommended directions? Apply for our coaching for further guidance.
How can philosophy and ethics research help to solve the world’s most pressing problems?
Philosophical research investigates conceptual and normative questions, some of which are highly important for making decisions about which of the world’s problems to prioritise, and how to best work on them. For example, philosophers might ask: ‘Which non-human beings matter morally and to what extent?’; ‘What obligations do we have to future generations?’; and ‘How can we rationally respond to moral or empirical uncertainty?’
The contributions that philosophical research can make to addressing global problems belong mainly to three broad categories. First, philosophers can investigate the ethical significance of empirical facts and events. For instance, philosophers might explore the value of bringing new lives into existence (and the factors that affect this). Second, philosophers might explore general questions of rational reasoning and decision-making that are relevant for many kinds of decisions. For example, how should one act if one is uncertain about which of several relevant moral views is correct or how should one adjust one’s confidence in the event of peer disagreement? Third, many philosophers engage with important empirical questions at the intersection of science and ethics. For instance, philosophers are among the most influential contributors to debates on animal and artificial sentience, and there are also philosophers working on the question of how safe and beneficial artificial intelligence can be designed.
The skills of theoretical reasoning and conceptual precision, which are heavily emphasized and trained in analytic philosophy, are quite domain general. Moreover, when aiming to improve the world in some way, it is often necessary to explicitly reflect on relevant ethical considerations. Both factors explain why philosophers contribute to a wide and very diverse range of important research questions.
The profiles below are on some of the research directions that could be particularly valuable to explore through a philosophical lens. Some of the most useful research in these directions will likely involve identifying new global priorities, evaluating the ethical importance of the far future and of non-human beings, developing and improving accounts of decision-making under moral uncertainty and scrutinizing crucial considerations relevant to the risks of future artificial intelligence. If you’re interested in any of the research directions below, our coaches can offer you further support and potentially connect you with researchers who can offer you guidance on refining a research question.
Examples of work on some of the research directions we recommend
If you’re interested in how philosophical questions may impact concrete cost-effectiveness analyses of how to improve the world, this report by the Happier Lives Institute and The Moral Weight Project Sequence by Rethink Priorities provide instructive examples.
To provide some further examples of work which seems especially valuable, here are some important philosophical contributions that have been made on normative decision-theory, applied ethics, animal ethics and wild animal welfare.
Further exploration of how philosophy research can help improve the world
80,000 Hours has written a career profile on the expected altruistic impact of an academic career in philosophy.
Peter Singer is one of the most impactful living philosophers. This interview by 80.000 Hours provides a starting point for learning about his career and philosophy.
Research agendas and potential sources for research questions
This list of open questions in philosophy related to global problems contains many directions for further research that a philosophy student could take inspiration from. In particular, the research agenda of the Global Priorities Institute and the list of relevant research questions by 80,000 Hours might be of interest.
This profile was last updated 5/02/2023. Thanks to Leonard Dung for creating this introduction and Ina Jantgen for helpful feedback.