Philosophy is important. Not only for human development, but also for life in general, philosophy matters. Philosophy can reveal to our minds the nature of justification: that is, by what measure is something justified? Philosophy can aid in our understanding the problems of good and evil. Philosophy likewise requires, and thus reveals to us, meta-thinking: to think about first principles. And least of all, philosophy has, of all the disciplines, the greatest potential to make us open-minded.
So, philosophy matters for these reasons:
- Philosophy Teaches us About Justification
- Philosophy Teaches us About Ethics
- Philosophy Teaches us About Meta-thinking
- Philosophy Makes us Open-minded
Because of those reasons, I believe philosophy matters; those reasons shall make philosophy matter not only for the current moment, but for many more moments in the future. Such reasons demand that be so.
Philosophy Teaches us About Justification
Within philosophy, there is a branch known as epistemology. Epistemology is concerned with subjects such as truth, justification, argumentation, and knowledge. Matters we are all involved in, even now.
Yet, before we ever lay eyes on philosophical literature, we are seldom aware of our own involvement. Instead, not only do we presume epistemology to fall beyond our concerns, but we also tend to naively adopt what is known as realism: an epistemic view.
A naive realist, to explain, would take things to be extended, mind-independent, and have correspondence. That is, they presume objects are extended and have mass; they presume the content of consciousness exists independently, outside the mind; and they presume our concepts and perceptions correspond to real-world objects: the correspondence theory of truth.
But after having consumed philosophical literature, they come to realize said view as one of many theories about the world. In philosophy, we have other theories of truth, we have other doctrines of knowledge, and other forms of justification.
For instance, within epistemology, there are two views on justification known as coherentism and foundationalism, of which seek to determine what is justified and what is unjustified in rather distinct ways.
Coherentism relies on a circular form of reasoning, and coherentism supposes that something is justified when it coheres with other sets of beliefs. Put otherwise, coherentism is like a feedback loop: the first belief is justified because it is consistent with the second belief, and the second belief is justified because it is consistent with the first belief. A justifies B, and B justifies A.
For example, the belief that I am male and the belief that my mother is a female are consistent with my belief that humans are either male or female. And so, because the two primary beliefs are consistent with the second belief, which is more central and important, the two primary beliefs are justified.
In comparison, foundationalism relies on non-inferential beliefs, foundationalism supposes there exists some beliefs which are inherently true. An example of such a belief would be: “I believe I am conscious”.
The belief that one is conscious cannot be doubted, because it requires consciousness to doubt. That is, the act of doubting entails one is consciously doing something. Such a fact, for a foundationalist, suggests the existence of some beliefs which are simply true.
Yet another view supported by foundationalism is regression. For very complicated reasons, a regression can occur in our belief systems. We can be asked, “by what measure is something justified?” over and over. For a foundationalist, the eventual end-point for said line of questioning is a foundational property: i.e., consciousness, reason, or judgement. Essentially, we regress to the foundations when we subject our beliefs to skepticism, and whatever cannot be doubted must be a foundation from which all other axioms stem.
Thus a foundationalist, on the one hand, believes there is no possible world wherein which one can doubt and not be conscious: it is a foundational belief; while on the other hand, the foundationalist believes regression demonstrates to the necessity of non-inferential beliefs.
So, to put it simply, a foundationalist tells us that things can only be justified if they are foundational: non-inferential truths; whereas a coherentist tell us that things can only be justified if they cohere with other beliefs. Both have different methods to determine whether something is truly justified or not.
And those are only two of the many ways to determine whether something is justified or not within philosophy. There are also many ideas within argumentation theory, a discipline of philosophy, which teaches us about justification. For instance, arguments which follow a barbara format can be considered to be deductively true and therefore justified. So, philosophy has many theories around the notions justification and truth.
Which makes clear to me, without philosophy to teach us, we would be lost on matters of justification and truth, and that makes philosophy matter. But we would also be lost on matters of ethics, without philosophy.
Philosophy Teaches us About Good and Evil
To be good or evil, a decision we must make many times over before we exist no longer. In friendship, work, and romance, we are faced with such decisions. And to leave them unanswered will, much like walking on a broken leg, make matters worse.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
To leave the world alone can mean nothing short of leaving the world to evil, yet one cannot fight for what is good until they know for themselves what exactly good be.
Hence, philosophy must come yet again to our side and commit herself to our service. Philosophy bears much wisdom and insight on matters of morality, and she is more than eager to share.
We all require a framework of morality, so we can place within both acts committed by ourselves and others. To know whether theft is justifiable in some contexts or not, to know whether killing is justifiable in some contexts or not, or to know whether even war is justifiable or not requires of us an ethical doctrine.
Philosophy has no shortage of doctrines, especially ones which regard matters of ethics. To name a few: deontology, utilitarianism, and ethical egoism. Each possesses their own means to construe an act or outcome as either good or evil, justifiable or unjustifiable.
But each also has their own weaknesses and strengths, which is why we must read, reflect, and decide for ourselves what doctrine best suits us. To explain, let us look at the absurd and not so absurd outcomes for each doctrine.
Deontological ethics demands of us a commitment to duty and obligation: to follow the rules. When we suppose lying ought be avoided as a matter of principle, we bear the duty to follow said rule. When we suppose killing ought be avoided as a matter of principle, we bear the duty to avoid war or other forms of violence. That is the gist of deontological ethics. We are to follow our duties, as our duties ensure the outcomes which our principles guide us to.
In many ways, then, we are relieved by deontological ethics while also blinded. Rather than decide over and over again on matters of morality, we instead apply our established principles to every moral problem, like hammer and nail. We are quick to act because we have little to consider, yet overly zealous and unaware of nuance.
To explain by example, let us consider the brevity with which a deontologist can act. In matters of judgement, we must look over the facts and establish a suitable punishment. A process which can indeed take some time. But for a deontologist, of whom supposes theft is theft, the judgement is of a much speedier nature.
No exception to the rule shall be made, for to do so would be wrong; the duty of the deontologist is to combat theft wherever it arises. That is a strength of deontology.
Yet at the same time, that is the weakness of a deontology. Consider a most notorious example: a german soldier adhering to their duties during the world war. Here, the strength of being principled can soon become a foolish hard-headedness.
The soldier has taken upon himself a duty to protect, because he has sworn todo so. Yet, after having witnessed negative consequences from his duties, he is nonetheless obliged to protect. It is not within the beliefs of a deontologist that right and wrong are determined by consequences of actions, they are to adhere to their principles. And in doing so, shall remain within good moral standing.
That to me, and to many others, seems nothing short of blindness. An inability to change one’s view after the fact, or to decide that some principle was not what it initially appeared as, are rigid and inflexible behaviours. Thus, response to situational factors can be hindered: lower adaptability.
In comparison to deontological ethics, utilitarian ethics involves cost-benefit analysis; put otherwise, all principles and rules have a cost and benefit to them. The actions we take ought be determined by maximization of benefit, which in this case is “goodness”.
Utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
So, whatever bears the greatest good should be deemed moral. Which is, compared to deontological ethics, more adaptable; yet, utilitarian ethics can at times be too willing to make change.
When a utilitarian looks at a case of theft, even if they believe theft generally bears negative utility, they are not as committed to deeming the persons actions as wrong; only because the theft could have somehow increased overall goodness; for example, someone who steals food from one and only one glutton, a glutton who wont starve as a consequence of being robbed, to then feed starving children, in accordance to some utilitarian views, can be viewed as a good person.
So, here, a deontologist would deem such an act as wrong, since theft is theft, whereas a utilitarian would deem the act as good. One is more firm and the other more adaptable. Yet, as said before, one can be not firm enough: too willing to change.
Consider the following: suppose John insulted Jane, but then said, “for every insult I give to you Jane, I will feed 10 starving children”. Here, the utilitarian in Jane would agree: “sure, because more good is brought to society by you insulting me,” despite Jane’s preference to not be insulted.
Jane then must accept that being insulted can be a good thing, that insulting others is morally justifiable. Put otherwise, Jane subjugates her personal preference to utilitarian reasoning.
It seems that Jane was too willing to go against her own preferences, to abide by a line of reasoning which places the well-being of others above herself. And as a result, Jane now lives a non-preferable lifestyle. And so, the whimsical nature of utilitarian reasoning can lead to outcomes that collide with our own personal preferences.
Lastly, ethical egoism contrasts strongly to both utilitarian and deontological ethics because ethical egoists neither subjugate their preferences to utilitarian reasoning nor abide by principles.
Ethical egoists can adopt many different positions, but the most notorious of all is as follows:
Self-interest with the satisfaction of one’s desires – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
For that sort of egoist, whatever is good is whatever satisfies one’s own desire. Which has both the strength and weakness of being reliant on the individual.
In the case where the egoist prefers to live in a civil society, then we would expect them to abide by social contracts, engage in pro-social behaviour, and encourage others to follow the rules and laws.
Yet, in the case where the egoist prefers to have the most wealth, then no restrictions on their methods are to be expected; for example, such an egoist, if not deterred in some fashion, would have no problem with price gouging low income citizens; an act, I suspect, most people to find abhorrent.
Thus, egoism is much like a double edged sword; it cannot be determined to be preferable until we see which direction the sword swings: some egoists are civil, while others are not.
So, to have a system of reasoning in morally difficult situations is yet another reason as to why philosophy is important.
Any action is often better than no action, especially if you have been stuck in an unhappy situation for a long time. If it is a mistake, at least you learn something, in which case it’s no longer a mistake. – Eckhart Tolle
Without some normative framework with which to make decisions, we are indeed left to no action; though luckily for us, philosophy has no shortage of normative ethical doctrines.
Philosophy Teaches us About Meta-Thinking
Philosophy, more so than other disciplines, teaches us to think in a meta style: to think self-referentially. To study human knowledge itself requires human knowledge, and to study the first principles of reality requires use of the things under study; put otherwise, we must make reference to reason while we study reason.
But I believe philosophy has yet better branches to offer when it comes to being meta; namely, existentialism and phenomenology.
With existentialism, the entire subject matter is the self-realization of something like anxiety and how that anxiety shapes our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours toward the world. Existentialism is the study of the conscious subject (ourself), and how that subject engages the world.
With phenomenology, the entire subject matter is consciousness itself. Rather than being focused on the content of experience, we instead orient ourselves to the structures of consciousness and experience. To explain, consider the ego. The ego is a property of consciousness, it is an essential element to the nature of consciousness. But it is a property which can vary in content: i.e., the naturalist ego (scientific ego) and the theological ego (religious ego). Those are two different kinds of egos; that is, they are the semantics to the ego structure, similar to how “chair” and “book” have a difference in meaning yet belong to the same category of “noun”.
So, existentialism and phenomenology both seek to study consciousness while relying on consciousness todo so: they are in direct reference to themselves.
Clearly, then, philosophy requires of its students a strong ability to be self-referential: to be meta. For one cannot make very many claims in phenomenology if they are unable to apply logic in conjunction with meta-thinking, nor can an existentialist provide meaningful insights if clear distinctions about consciousness cannot be made using nothing other than logic. Meta-thinking is the essence of these subjects.
Philosophy Makes us Open-minded
In epistemology, there is a problem which I think demonstrates to us the importance of being open-minded. The problem is known as the Münchhausen Trilemma (see here: What Is The Münchhausen Trilemma?). In brief, the problem demonstrates the following:
The Münchhausen trilemma, also known as Agrippa’s trilemma, reveals that any theory of knowledge cannot be certain and that all beliefs are unjustified.
In other words, justified beliefs, which are beliefs founded on reason and logic, cannot be obtained, as the Münchhausen trilemma demonstrates the impossibility of justified premises.
Now, if you want to understand the problem, please click the link above, I explain in more depth the problem in another article. Instead, lets focus on why this problem ought make us more open-minded.
If it is indeed the case that all our beliefs are equally unjustified, then we are left with nothing more than our arbitrary preferences. Which is fine. But that then means, when we try to negate someone else’s worldview, we are far from being “correct” in an objective sense.
And therein resides the open-minded factor. What difference can be found below?
- We should not murder because it is morally wrong.
- We should not murder because it is my preference.
None. The reason being, each is an axiom based on a personal preference. There is necessity for either the first or second view, both are a preference. And if both are a preference, then all that should matter is that some action is not committed: namely, murder.
Whether someone is a moral realist or an anti-realist about morals should make zero difference, because both are arbitrary. We should be open-minded about the differences in viewpoints.
Thus, by learning about the problem of certainty and skepticism, we become more tolerant and open-minded towards the views of others; we become self-aware about the deep arbitrariness in all beliefs.
Conclusion: Why Philosophy Is Important
Without the years of intellectual labour put forth by other philosophers, and without the skills that philosophical literature provide us with, we would be similar to fighters without coaches.
Many fighters require insights from coaches to better themselves in the same way that many people require stoic philosophy the better themselves. Many fighters rely upon exercise regiments given from coaches to learn new physical skills, whereas philosophy students require new books to develop new cognitive skills.
In order for us to learn how to argue, we must study epistemology and argumentation theory; in order for us to better understand the problems of evil, we must study ethics; in order for us to think more abstractly, we must study metaphysics; and lastly, in order for us to be more open-minded, I believe a thorough understanding of skepticism is required.
In conclusion, if we are to be thoroughly developed humans, we should study philosophy. And that is why philosophy is important.
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