01/21/2014 02:05 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

A Philosopher at Davos

Among the suits, politicos, corporate titans and activists gathered in Davos for the World Economic Forum is also one philosopher. I teach and write on ethics and international affairs at Oxford University, but once a year as part of the Forum's "Young Global Leaders" program I get to attend the world's most high-octane power-fest in the Swiss Alps.

It is safe to say that I am a bit of an oddity here. Not that I dress in a beard and sandals. An earlier stint as a consultant has enabled me to camouflage myself among the power-dressers. But my intellectual orientation is very different. My questions can be sharper-edged. My inclination is always to seek for the roots and to ask: What lies behind? What lies beneath?

The Forum participants are remarkably accepting of the philosopher in their midst. This is largely a result of the much-vaunted "Davos spirit." Inside the congress center the world's elites mingle unprotected by their minders and gatekeepers. The basic assumption is that if you are in the room, you must be worth speaking to, and participants are in general ready to share their time and ideas freely. The very best thing about Davos is you can approach even the grandest and most exalted master of the universe and engage in a genuine dialogue.

Of course critics will note that it is easy to create an open and accepting community once you have kept almost everyone else out and posted a sniper on every roof.

It is true that the event is irredeemably elitist and often insufferably self-congratulatory. My favorite example is a sign in the Congress center pointing towards the "prayer and bilateral room." In Davos, the sign seems to be saying, even prayer is bilateral (you pray to God, and God prays back to you).

But in general, the spirit is genuine. This is particularly true of my own community within the Forum, the Young Global Leaders, or "YGLs." These individuals, in their thirties and early forties, have a humility and social conscience that belies their often astonishing achievements. If you are going to have a meeting of the world's über-elites, then Davos is probably the best (or least bad) way to do it.

But all this of this begs two questions: Why do they invite me? And why do I come? The first question doubtless has something to do with my exoticism, and with a certain kind of credibility I can therefore bring (the Forum also features artists, composers and spiritual leaders). In this respect, I play a similar -- though far less glamorous -- role as the celebrities who every year spice the program. This year Matt Damon and Goldie Hawn sprinkle the stardust, and I add to the intellectual wattage.

But in the hyper-competitive world of the Forum, no one survives for long without bringing something substantive to the table. Although it may not be obvious, philosophy has a great deal to contribute to the worldly issues debated at Davos. This is because philosophers have expertise in revealing and addressing the deep structure of problems.

The distinguished Oxford philosopher Gerry Cohen used to joke that he was giving an a priori argument because he didn't know any facts. On one level this seems to confirm all our worst prejudices about philosophers: they don't even care about the facts! But, what he was actually pointing out is that a philosopher can contribute something important to our understanding of an issue even if he doesn't know much about it.

Many times I have participated in discussions at Davos on a topic foreign to me -- energy policy or education reform in Africa -- and found that I could make a substantial, and sometimes decisive, contribution simply by structuring the problem in a different and more helpful way: "This is why you disagree. Here is where you disagree less than you think you do. These are the critical components of the problem, and this is how they must be structured and prioritized if we want to move forward."

It is easy for philosophers to see these connections because we have spent a lifetime analyzing how problems work. Having philosophers in the room is useful in places like Davos, because they can often mediate and reconcile seemingly irreconcilable positions.

The question of why I go is easier to answer. I am in the business of generating ideas about how to govern international affairs better and more justly. If that is what you produce, then the Davos set is whom you want to be talking to. That is how you hope to have an impact.

Or as a friend somewhat less charitably put it: "You like to smell the power."

And here is the rub. Philosophy has always had a highly ambivalent relationship to power and the powerful. On one hand, the things that philosophy values -- rigor, clarity, coherence, creativity and truth -- stand gloriously aloof from the trappings of human power.

And yet, there has always been a strand of philosophy -- what we today call "applied philosophy" -- that cares deeply about the political world and how to edge it closer to justice. Plato dreamed of philosopher-kings, Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, and thinkers from Hobbes to Machiavelli addressed themselves to the concerns of sovereigns and princes.

I have long believed that to do moral philosophy well, one has to engage with the world and with the political and commercial actors who move it. In particular, if you want to talk about ethics in a way that will do some good, then there is no point speaking only with the angels. It is the sinners who are your more natural interlocutors.

But how to engage in this world without becoming a creature of it? How to sell the message without stripping it of content? That is the timeless dilemma.

To the extent that I have an answer, it is to encourage the adoption of what I call the "internal perspective" on ethics and value. For much of its history, moral philosophy has focused on how morality can be grounded or justified, in the sense providing a purely amoral rational egoist with decisive reasons to behave morally. But that is not the relevant question for most us. The vast majority of us are not pure rational egoists waiting for a decisive argument to be moral.

We are rather situated moral agents with a variety of commitments about value, obligation, right and wrong. The relevant question is therefore a much more personal one: Given who I am and where I am, what is the best way to understand these values and commitments? In short, what ought I to do?

For those who ask that question honestly and openly, philosophically informed reflection can take you a long way. And for those who come to the Forum this week, my hope is that they will engage with a sense that this is the true meaning of the Davos spirit.