Joseph Heath

Current affiliation:
University of Toronto

A renowned philosopher with an acute capacity to debunk widespread ideas on environmental, economical, social, and political issues, the scholarly and mainstream works of Professor Heath engage Canadians to ask fundamental questions about our society and how to make it more just.

How would you define yourself?

I am a philosopher, with a particular interest in politics and economics. One of my intellectual heroes, Wilfrid Sellars, described the aim of philosophy as being “to understand how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.” I spend a lot of time reading theory from different areas of the social sciences and humanities, and trying to figure out how things fit together.

What is the public purpose of your work? How does it impact the lives of Canadians?

Like many philosophers, I have a particular interest in trying to sort out conceptual confusion. One of the reasons that I got interested in economics is that it is an area where people fall victim to a lot of fallacies. The problem is not that they get the facts wrong, it’s that they aren’t thinking coherently about how things must work. I’ve written a series of three popular books, all with a connection to economic thinking: one on the nature of the welfare state (The Efficient Society), another on the problem of consumerism (The Rebel Sell, co-authored with Andrew Potter), and the third a general catalogue of economic fallacies (Filthy Lucre). These are all, in one way or another, an attempt to intervene in contemporary public debates. There is no specific impact, other than just helping people to better understand the world that we live in.

Briefly explain one of the most interesting discoveries you have made so far.

Most of my “discoveries” consist of conceptual clarifications. Perhaps my most interesting concerns the nature of risk-pooling and social insurance. Many people assume that the fundamental role of the “social safety net” is to redistribute wealth, in order to promote greater equality. Another way of looking at it, however, is to see them as essentially a set of insurance programs, which are run by the government because the private sector fails to provide that sort of insurance, either at all, or at an appropriate price. From this perspective, the reason that the government provides medicare, or employment insurance, is fundamentally the same as the reason that it provides roads and sewers. This view always struck me as plausible, but a little odd. The reason for this, I subsequently discovered, is that the mechanism of cooperative benefit in an insurance arrangement is different from the mechanism that produces benefits in an ordinary market exchange. The details are a bit complicated, but getting clear on this is extremely useful in understanding events like the 2008 financial crisis, which was caused by, among other things, widespread misunderstanding of how a lot of insurance-like financial products were being used.

How will the Trudeau Fellowship help you pursue your work?

The Foundation puts me in contact with a really exceptional group of researchers and students, and I’m really looking forward to participating in their sponsored conference and events. The fellowship funding itself gives me that thing that I need most, which is time – or more specifically, free time, free from the ordinary pressures of teaching and the incessant writing of grant applications – so that I can concentrate on writing and doing my research. I will also use it to fund both students and co-investigators with whom I have been collaborating.

Joseph Heath is the director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto and a professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Public Policy and Governance. He began his teaching career at the University of Toronto in 1995 before spending two years as the Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Political Economy at the Department of Philosophy at the Université de Montréal, where he was a founding member of the Centre de recherche en éthique de l’Université de Montréal (CREUM). Heath returned to the University of Toronto in 2003.

Heath was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1967. There he attended École St. Paul School and Nutana Collegiate. He received his BA in philosophy from McGill University in 1990 and his PhD in philosophy from Northwestern University in 1995. He has worked extensively in the field of critical theory, philosophy and economics, practical rationality, distributive justice, and business ethics. His papers have been published in academic journals such as Mind, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, and the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. He spent time as a regular columnist writing for the Montreal Gazette and Policy Options magazine, and still contributes the occasional piece to the Literary Review of Canada and the Ottawa Citizen.

Heath is the author of several books, both popular and academic. Filthy Lucre (HarperCollins, 2009) is an analysis of economic fallacies and the role that they play in popular political discourse. Following the Rules (Oxford University Press, 2008), reflects on the phenomenon of rule-following and its significance for rationality and social interaction. Communicative Action and Rational Choice (MIT Press, 2001) studies the work of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Finally, The Efficient Society (Penguin, 2001) is an articulation and defense of the logic of the Canadian welfare state. Heath is also the co-author, with Andrew Potter, of the international bestseller The Rebel Sell (HarperCollins, 2004), a critical analysis of the political ideas inspired by the 1960s model of “countercultural” rebellion. His books have been translated into over a dozen languages.