Opening up ethical debates, one question at a time

November 23, 2017 by Jovana Jankovic - Department of Philosophy

Have you ever wondered if it’s ethical to have children, and if so, how many? Or what makes someone’s advice “good” ― or just good for you? Now there’s a podcast for that, thanks to Department of Philosophy PhD students Jeremy Davis and Eric Mathison.

Produced in collaboration with U of T’s Centre for Ethics, the new podcast Open Questions strives to make ethical conundrums accessible, easy to understand and even a little bit fun.

Arts & Science News decided to ask Davis and Mathison why they launched this podcast — especially when they are both working hard to complete their doctoral dissertations.

Read more about our graduate students and graduate education in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

What gave you the idea to start a podcast about ethics?

We were inspired by a lot of great podcasts that aim to bring academic research to public audiences, like Planet Money and Science VS. We saw an opportunity to do a series with short, digestible episodes on real world problems. Ethical questions, such as the ones we consider in our episodes, are pretty clearly applicable to the real world, so that was a natural starting point.

There’s been a lot of hype about the so-called “digital humanities” in the past decade; what advantages do you think podcasting offers to the humanities, and to philosophy in particular?

We both believe that public philosophy is really important. Podcasts produce a type of connection that is much harder to get with print. With podcasts, you aren’t only getting the information, but also the sound of the person’s voice, which makes it more intimate. We think it’s great for the humanities because it demands more clarity in the production. Listeners can’t easily rewind if they’ve missed something, whereas they can reread a passage. This means that podcasts are often more approachable and digestible. Another advantage is that podcasts are much easier to consume when you’re doing other stuff, like making dinner, doing the dishes, or commuting.

While your podcast covers some intense philosophical ground, it’s actually very easy to understand and quite accessible. How do you achieve this?

The main goal in each episode is to ask ourselves: What is the main question that the average non-philosopher is going to have about this topic? And then we try to give the listener the philosophical tools for answering it. The title of the show is a reference to a famous philosophical argument, G.E. Moore’s “open question argument.” But it is also the central ambition of the show: we don’t want to answer the question decisively, or tell you what we think the answer is.

What resources or supports have you received from your U of T departments, supervisors, or colleagues for the podcast?

Initially, the podcast was conceived as just a side project to our other academic projects. But once Jeremy was made a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Ethics, we realized that we could integrate the podcast with the centre’s programming quite naturally. The director of the centre, Markus Dubber, has been great to us. A couple of professors in the philosophy department, Ronnie de Sousa and Mark Kingwell, appear in our episodes, and have been generous with their time. The administration of the department has also been helpful in spreading the word and supporting our project. We’re very grateful for all the support we’ve received.

What has the reaction been so far to the podcast, either at U of T or from outside the university?

Well, Jeremy’s mom is our self-proclaimed number one fan so that’s about all that matters, right?

We’ve gotten some great feedback from some of our colleagues here and elsewhere, as well as some other folks who do academic podcasts, like Barry Lam (who produces Hi-Phi Nation) and Gordon Katic (who co-produces Cited). It has been really rewarding to hear that folks are enjoying it and getting something from it. It’s grown a bit bigger than we expected, which is wonderful.

What has been the most fun, rewarding, or surprisingly positive thing about doing the podcast?

Collaborative work like this is just really fun. It’s fun to bounce ideas off one another, to chat about future episodes, and to think about ways of crafting the episode. The podcast is also a great excuse to look at topics in ethics that we aren’t researching and to speak to people about them. We get to pretend to be journalists instead of academics.

Download Open Questions now on SoundCloudStitcher or iTunes. You can also follow the podcast on Twitter.