I realize this post is not really something directly relevant to experimental philosophy--but given the recent Supreme Court ruling concerning the execution of juveniles, I figure it is topical enough to merit attention. Plus, I am presently too busy with dissertation writing to post anything more philosophically substantive in nature!
Studies show that a majority of Americans believe that harsh legal sanctions--e.g., the death penalty, manditory-minimum sentences, three strikes and you're out laws, etc--deter crime. Studies also show that these beliefs may very well be false. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that harsh penalties do not reduce crime, why should we be beholden to the intuitions of average Americans? Of course, even if we agree that we should not be beholden, what other choice do we have? Legislators are supposed to cater to our interests--which are in turn determined to a large extent by our beliefs. As a result, no legislator who wanted to be either elected or reelected would suggest that we should be "softer on crime"--even though it may turn out that "being softer on crime" would ultimately reduce crime. For instance, if we spent more money on preventative measures such as improved primary and secondary education and better funded community outreach programs as well as on better rehabilitative programs such as drug treatment, vocational training, and anger management, we might see a reduction in violent crime. Yet, these kinds of programs are typically unpopular with the "average Joe"--who thinks these are just liberal attempts to coddle criminals. Hence, there is virtually no chance that the only kinds of programs that might actually reduce the number of violent crimes in this country will be adopted--while obscene amounts of money continue to be spent on constructing prisons (indeed, some states spend nearly as much on their "criminal justice systems" as on their educational systems!). How is this pernicious cycle to be broken? More specifically, isn't this an area where philosophers--along with criminologists, sociologists,and psychologists--ought to be doing more byway of educating the public? Peter Singer once famously suggested that philosophers were finally "back on the job"--i.e., that philosophers are finally starting to take a more active role in public policy issues. Should this be part of our job qua philosophers? If so, what is the best way of living up to our civil duties and obligations? If not, whose job is it? More importantly, to the extent that we do not join the public fray concerning issues that we examine in the comfort of our studies, why should the"average Joe" care much about what we have to say?
I suppose this post is really about my struggle to figure out how to make philosophy relevant to more "pedestrian" concerns--something many (if not most) philosophers frequently fail to do. In some areas of philosophy--e.g., contemporary analytic metaphysics, epistemology, or the philosophy of language--the reasons for this are quite clear. But in other areas--e.g., social political theory, legal theory, and ethics--it seems less excusable. Indeed, it is telling that one area of philosophy that is often treated with derision among contemporary analytic philosophers is "applied ethics"--an area that is purportedly less rigorous or scholarly.