Our weekly workshop at the Harlem Justice Community Program supports the following proposition: Philosophy is uniquely placed among the humanities to promote rational deliberation and persuasion without reference to scholarly subject matter. The concepts we discuss are at once thoroughly familiar and yet surprisingly elusive to pin down: power, authority, responsibility, punishment, equality. Our most effective lessons introduce two sides of a philosophical debate—for example, retributivism vs. consequentialism about the justification of punishment—and model disagreement while encouraging students to take a stand for themselves, without ever mentioning any philosophers or even the word ‘philosophy’.
Our most effective pedagogical technique has been first of all to listen. Many of our students are accustomed to having their voices silenced in class, but we provide them with a forum to articulate and defend their own commitments. No matter how provocative or seemingly outlandish the statement, we first listen and then attempt to rationally engage: What reasons could you give for believing that there are no moral authorities? How could you persuade someone else that morality is not grounded in self-interest alone? What would you say to someone who claimed that racial profiling is good because it promotes public safety? Simply by taking our students seriously as rational agents, we hope to encourage their own self-appropriation as responsible knowers.
By working with a historically neglected population—parolees and ex-convicts—we aim not only to develop habits of reflection and autonomy within that group but also to demonstrate to a wider public the possibility of a more elevated level of discourse beyond slogans and talking points. In the future, we hope to work with current prison inmates and police officers in training; we believe that these groups would also benefit from thinking more deeply about their social and political views. Finally, we believe that academic philosophers would profit from thinking about the resources their discipline has to effect change outside the confines of the university.