Justin McBrayer’s students wait in a dim classroom, quiet and keeping to themselves before their professor arrives. They’re preparing for the hour ahead, when he’ll ask them to explore their rooted beliefs, own up to their engrained biases, and to take a hard look at how they can correct and expand their thinking. It is a philosophy class after all, and they know McBrayer is an exceptional, and persistent, philosopher.
“Let the light of truth come in!” Mcbrayer hollers, bursting into the room. As McBrayer flicks on the lights, an immediate connection between him and the students is evident. The students are like moths to McBrayer’s candor and energy as he starts in on the day’s topic: “trolleyology.” He has three different scenarios for a runaway trolley, each being a conundrum of unavoidable death for innocent bystanders. The students confidently supply their answers of who should and shouldn’t live, and McBrayer is eager in asking them how they are so sure.
“Fine. Why?” he smiles at a student. “Why does that matter?”
It’s this approach that has McBrayer taking command of the world stage of philosophy, publishing and speaking on national and global problems, and what keeps him dedicated to his roles at Fort Lewis College.
“People are so confident about what they believe, and often I think they should be less so,” says McBrayer. “That really motivates me. What do they know that I don’t?”
He’s received significant national and international attention for his original work, including a Fulbright Scholarship and John Templeton Foundation grant, and is an active member of the campus community as current chair of the Philosophy Department and previous Board of Trustees representative. For this outstanding work in the humanities, he is honored as the 2018-19 Fort Lewis College Featured Scholar.
“He’s an amazing, thoughtful teacher and, at the same time, has managed to produce high-quality scholarly work, publishing in the best academic journals in multiple subdisciplines—philosophy of religion, moral epistemology, ethics,” says Sarah Roberts-Cady, professor of Philosophy and Gender & Sexuality Studies. “Most of us would be happy to publish in just one subdiscipline."
For McBrayer and the Philosophy Department, a constant objective with students is building a consistent worldview. He says everyone views the world through their particular “lenses,” and yet a lot of students don’t think they have lenses on. That makes the beginning of philosophy coursework a mental reckoning.
“He is really good at helping students clarify both philosophical problems and their attempted solutions to them,” says Roberts-Cady. “Students often hear philosophical problems and offer really vague and under-developed solutions initially. In a gentle and positive way, he pushes students to offer clear and systematic arguments for their positions.”
Students find in McBrayer an astute monitor, checking them on opinions they borrowed from their parents and their flip-flops on matters they defended in class the week prior. McBrayer knows he’s doing them a favor.
“I think my greatest contribution to Fort Lewis College is getting to know students and making them think better,” he says. “All of us have contradictions, problems, and inconsistencies in our worldviews, and so I try to help my students identify and repair them.”
Forget teaching the classics, though McBrayer will throw into conversations the musings of great philosophers from time to time.
“Socrates did say an unexamined life is not worth living,” he laughs.
Which is why McBrayer is a great philosopher himself. He’s unrelenting in his examinations and his work is regarded as thorough and cutting-edge. He has published three edited books, 19 articles in peer-reviewed journals, four book chapters, and several editorials in The New York Times and The Denver Post. He finds the problems in society’s conceptual maps and works to fix them, not only for an academic audience but for a general audience, too.
“Each of us makes assumptions about right and wrong, and God and freedom, and all of those things shape a worldview,” he says. “We need to get critical distance from those commitments and become comfortable with the idea that there are problems in the way each of us views the world. Working them out is a long-term project.”
With the Templeton grant, McBrayer explored whether science can explain why humans have always been religious and whether such explanations have any implications for philosophy. McBrayer’s project was a unique interdisciplinary undertaking, since neither scientists nor philosophers alone can answer these questions, that brought together advisors from around the world and even a recent FLC Philosophy graduate.
He’s taken pop-culture probes into moral relativism and moral blindness, and explored questions on chemical weapon use in Syria and property rights and land use in the American West. For McBrayer, this research frontier is where he works best, and in some ways, it isn’t entirely separate from his teaching.
“A lot of my papers have come out of classes, and at least recently some of the work I’ve been doing has been with our students,” says McBrayer. “You cannot separate those two – working on one is working on the other.”
The banter in his class is certainly compelling. McBrayer and the students go back and forth, exchanging points and tangents. One student cheekily quips to him, “I have a slight issue with the way you phrased that.”
“Those are the best students,” McBrayer beams, recognizing his own curiosity in them.
“I was that annoying kid in Sunday school who would ask all of those questions that the teachers hoped wouldn’t be asked,” he says. “I wanted to know why we should think about the world one way rather than another. That’s philosophy, at root bottom, wanting to know why things are the way they are.”