When people learn about my background in philosophy, I often get one of two responses. Either they consider the topic impractical and removed from reality, or they are intimidated by it due to some unfortunate college experience—such as one individual I came across who left his Intro. to Philosophy course having learned only that he does not exist. If so, why bother going to college or even getting out of bed?
Both of these reactions assume a caricature of my discipline. Not only is philosophy not useless and impractical, but in my view it is absolutely critical to happiness. Because guess what? Whether or not you have consciously adopted it, you, and each of us, live by a philosophy.
Humans are conceptual creatures who relate to the world using abstract ideas—reality, objectivity, truth, peace, justice, love, right and wrong, number, etc. The system of ideas, beliefs and values that are your daily operating system are your philosophy. The study of philosophy as a discipline is the science of evaluating those beliefs and values for logic, consistency, meaning, implications, and ultimately application to real life. You don’t have to do philosophy to have a philosophy, but if you don’t do some philosophy, the philosophy you have will be random and haphazard.
Why does that matter? Consider an example, say the idea of moral virtue. You undoubtedly possess a concept of what a morally upright individual should look like and presumably try to match your behavior to it as best you can. This engages you every single day, so it’s important.
But where did your idea come from? Unless at some point you reflected deeply on what it really is to be an ethical human being, chances are that the idea of morality that daily guides your behavior was arrived at by pure chance. Maybe it combines elements of your parents’ views, lessons from school or church or synagogue, literature or movies, childhood experiences, and so on. But can one truly imagine a coherent concept of anything, much less a complex idea such as morality, arising from such a grab bag?
So what? you say. Why does it matter if my idea of morality is patched together like this? I’m comfortable with the way I lead my daily life, and I feel I’m a pretty good person. But if you’ve never truly thought about what makes for a good person, how can judge yourself to be one? Just because you “feel” it?
Equally important, to what could you appeal when you encounter ethical quandaries? Let’s say you learned from your priest that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal, but you learned from a psychology professor that insufficient self-love leads to misery and anti-social behavior, and also from a bad childhood experience that sacrificing yourself for a friend doesn’t always lead to what seems the morally proper outcome. How do you reconcile all of these contradictory ideas if you never think the matter through, and which of these random sources do you look to for guidance on a related problem you’re having this week?
That’s an example from ethics but I could give you equally compelling ones from every area of philosophy. The point is simple: if you want to lead what Socrates called an “examined life”—in his view, the only life worth living because the only fully human life—philosophy is not optional. Think and run your life by your own judgment, or forfeit the effort and put who knows what at the helm…
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