Better People and Better Societies Through Philosophy

But a smattering of undergrad philosophy classes taught me something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought. Name me one aspect of your life that doesn’t benefit from being able to think something through clearly.

— Shannon Rupp, Be employable, study philosophy

While widely viewed as the purview of ivory tower academics and haughty intellectuals, philosophy — which broadly studies every matter of human concern from morality and values to the nature of reality — has plenty of everyday, practical applications. We come across dilemmas or issues everyday that can be addressed with philosophical values of critical analysis, open discourse, and rational argument.

We may not see the mundane decisions we make on a regular basis as a form of philosophical engagement — again, there’s that image problem of philosophy being too esoteric or aloof — but any time you must make a choice, learn about something, or interact with someone on either a professional or personal level, you benefit from knowing how to think better and how to justify your decisions.

Philosophy allows you to choose the more virtuous path when facing a moral dilemma (how should I resolve this conflict with my friends? How best to respond to an injustice I witnessed?), what is true and why (which source should I trust? why should I trust it?), and even how to live (what is a meaningful life? Where do I find my purpose? How can I be a good person?).

And just imagine how beneficial it would be if society as a whole was comprised of individuals who not only care about thinking and acting better — a value instilled by philosophy — but who have the tools and approaches necessary to ensure that end?

Scott Samuelson at The Atlantic touches on this when defending against the common refrain that philosophy, and humanities in general, are at best secondary and at worst worthless when compared to more “practical” subjects like business or applied science.

Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominantly offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only”.

That is because being a free person means making decisions — in our interactions with one another and in our participation in political and civil institutions — that are best done with a clear and rational mind. Other skills and fields of knowledge are important too of course, but anything and everything you do involves a thought process that can and should be refined by philosophical values.

Obviously, teaching people philosophy is not, on its own, going to solve society’s problems. On both an individual and collective level, humans will always be susceptible to vice, lapses in judgement, poor thinking, and the like. There is no avoiding that (at least for the foreseeable future), but it can be mitigated by instilling into generations of people the principles, tools, and mindsets that help us to resolve problems, both internal and external, more effectively.

What are your thoughts?


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