Taking Philosophy to the Public

By Kevin Hua ‘23

About two years ago I first encountered philosophy in an untraditional fashion over the Internet–it all began when a schoolmate of mine urged me to check out “a cool online philosophy course on death.”

My high school in China did not have philosophy in its curriculum, but among the general public and high school students, the subject was considered lofty and abstruse. Although skeptical, I watched the first few lessons and was blown away. Philosophy was almost like a spiritual practice: the analytical approach the lecturer used to examine various assertions inspired and galvanized me to think about many fundamental questions in life. Through the lens of philosophy, I, for the first time, experienced the euphoria of being able to think with utmost clarity and precision.

screen grab of video playlistOn my quest to pursue philosophy, I have been thinking about how I can inspire others like myself to enjoy learning about the subject. Last summer, continuing on my journey under the guidance of Professor Tannenbaum and the support of Pomona’s Remote Alternative Independent Summer Experience (RAISE) program, I explored philosophical literature on the Grounds of Moral Status and produced a philosophy video series for beginners focused on the subject.

An Overview of The Grounds of Moral Status

screen grab of Kevin explaining a conceptWhen philosophers say that a being has moral status, they mean that the being matters morally or bears moral significance. To understand the term in a familiar context, consider the debates on abortion: one key issue in the controversy is whether the fetus has the same moral status as you and I do. And, if so, do they have the set of what is commonly deemed as the basic human rights such as the right to not be killed? To solve this puzzle, we have to first ask what could give a being moral status. The answer to this question is not only important to the abortion debate but also has significant implications for disability rights and the animal rights movements. In my research, I explored what confers or grounds moral status: is moral status grounded by an entity’s intellectual capacity, emotional capacity, or perhaps one’s level of sentience?

Project Outcome

screen grab of the video lessonsAfter completing my research on moral status literature, I started to “take philosophy to the public” by organizing my findings into four episodes of 10-12 minutes each where I aimed to invite the audience to exercise their minds and enjoy philosophy with me. I designed a series of concrete examples and vivid animations for the viewers to learn the concept of moral status in a fun and engaging way. Viewers have the opportunity to join the philosophers to criticize different theories on the grounds of moral status and consider their implications on contemporary moral debates including those on animal welfare, abortion, and disability rights. These videos familiarize the audience with the unique process of philosophical reasoning and communicate the significance of studying philosophy.

screen grab of Kevin presenting a philosophical argumentNeedless to say, presenting philosophy in an accessible and engaging fashion without compromising the rigor of the subject proved very challenging. I often found myself needing to convey complex philosophical notions in a minimally technical and easy-to-understand fashion. Finding this balance felt like walking a tightrope. On one hand, keeping the terminology comprehensible and examples concrete was essential to ensure viewer understanding, but I found it difficult simultaneously to do justice to the delicacy and nuances of moral status’ deepest concepts. Fortunately, my mentor Prof. Tannenbaum is a very experienced instructor and offered me tremendous help with this issue.

Impacts I hope to create

screen grab of Kevin with graphicsFor people unfamiliar with the subject, philosophy can sometimes feel out of reach. This was also my impression until my friend recommended that inspirational philosophy video series on death. I came to realize that philosophy requires us to think rigorously and critically. Moreover, it allows us to explore the most fundamental questions in life. But for most people, the only point of entry is a philosophy course at school. Educational videos on philosophy can play a critical role in improving philosophy’s visibility and fostering a broader public understanding of the subject. All Pomona students who receive funds for summer research projects have the opportunity to share their work with the college community in the fall. This year, the 2020 Pomona College Intensive Summer Experience Symposium was virtual, of course. Presenting my work, “Taking Philosophy to The Public – An Invitation to Explore The Grounds of Moral Status” last month, I hoped to inspire Claremont College students to take a philosophy class and staff to learn more about philosophy. By circulating my work on various social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram, I aimed to enable everyone to think about the critical issue of moral status as well as to enjoy the unique framework of philosophical thinking without having to read somewhat daunting academic papers. So far, my philosophy playlist on YouTube has received 170 views, and I hope to continue promoting it as a resource to learn philosophy.

Next Steps

Currently, philosophy is absent from the Chinese high school curriculum and thus remains unpopular in major Chinese universities. I myself only accidentally discovered philosophy online. Hence, I am working on Chinese subtitles for my videos to make the philosophy series accessible to Chinese audiences. Next, I plan to circulate the captioned videos on major Chinese video platforms, such as WeChat and BiliBili, as well as on my own high school academic forum. I am eager to evaluate whether the Chinese audience would enjoy content like mine.

In addition, I will continue to make adjustments to my videos based on the feedback I received during Pomona’s Intensive Summer Experience Symposium. I will seek out resources that will help me learn to produce additional educational videos on a wide variety of philosophical topics. In the future, I will reach out to YouTubers specializing in the production of public educational videos and seek opportunities to get involved in their production processes and gain more experience. Overall, this past summer has been an incredible journey and I am very glad that the videos are helping people learn more about philosophy and moral status.

And don’t forget to check out my YouTube videos if you are interested in learning some philosophy.  I hope you will enjoy them!