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Why philosophy? Should I spend my time philosophising?

April 3, 2013

Why should you find philosophy interesting? Even if you do find it interesting, why should you spend your time reading and thinking about philosophical questions? Is it a waste of time? These are questions that have been plaguing me for a while now, and I think I’ve finally got some (at least partial) answers.

This all got started when I was thinking about a classical thought experiment relating to consequentialism. Basically the thought experiment asks you to consider a situation in which you are walking along wearing your brand new £1000 suit and you pass a pond and see a child in danger of drowning. You are the only person in a position to help. Do you jump in and ruin your suit or keep on walking?

Hopefully you dive in and save the child. If there are no other considerations than the ones given above this seems like the intuitive (and right) response. Peter Singer draws the conclusion that, if you should effectively lose £1000 to save a child you should also donate £1000 to a charity that will use this money to save a child. The act (lose £1000) and the consequence (save a child) is the same in both cases. This is a pure consequentialist conclusion, and Singer lives up to it by donating significant amounts of his own money to charity.

While it raises lots of interesting questions about the nature of consequentialist judgement, the question it raised for me was, if the conclusion holds for donating money, surely it also holds for “donating” time. If I am happy to lose 30 minutes saving the drowning child, shouldn’t I also spend 30 minutes on some good cause (say vaccine advocacy) that will also save a childs life?

It seems to me that this is a harder conclusion to ignore than the monetary conclusion. While donating money seems significant, it is usually others who do the hard work on the ground, using their time to put my money to work. It is at a distance from me and the remoteness can lead me to say that I shouldn’t donate the money. But with time it seems different. It is me putting in the work, I am the one who is making the difference. The consequentialist gain seems more personal and therefore harder to ignore.

The obvious question is now: instead of talking about a theoretical ethical problem, why aren’t I out there fixing an actual  problem? Why spend the majority of my spare time reading and thinking about philosophy when it doesn’t appear to have the equivalent impact on real-world problems that using the same time volunteering for charity, say, would have?

For the sake of full disclosure, I will admit that while this problem has been really bothering me, I didn’t set down all philosophy and concentrate on this one problem until I had made my mind up one way or the other; I enjoy philosophy and this is obviously why I spend my time on it. So I have in a way been seeking an ethical justification for an enjoyable pastime. That doesn’t mean that I don’t firmly believe in the conclusions I’ve drawn, just that it hasn’t been an entirely open-minded thought process.

As a starting point for answering this problem, I think that if philosophy was just comprised of the stereotyped “academic” style of philosophy in which only obscure questions with absolutely no application to real life were considered, then the objection would hold. I am not at the forefront of modern philosophy, creating new knowledge for the sake of knowledge – I am learning for the sake of learning and my time could be spent doing much more to help others. If what I do (not what philosophers in general do) makes no difference whatsoever, then yes, I should spend my time differently, at least by cutting down on the amount of philosophising I do and replacing it with some other form of activity.

But… philosophy isn’t like this. It is a common misconception that philosophy is a waste of time and inapplicable to real life – just this weekend a friend was disparaging philosophy with exactly this accusation. But this is fundamentally misguided. Imagine someone saying:

I think philosophy is a waste of time and has no bearing on real life. But, I do think we should consider how best to act towards others, what basis we have for our beliefs and what it is in our lives that gives us meaning.

That seems to me to be as incoherent as saying:

I don’t think feminism is useful. But we should be on the lookout for sexism in society and do our best to overcome it.

What is being dismissed is something fundamentally different from the natural meaning of the term. Feminism just is being on the lookout for sexism and trying to overcome it. Philosophy just is thinking about the good life, about ethics, about lifes problems. Our imaginary speaker may mean a particular subset of the discipline being dismissed (academic philosophy and radical feminism perhaps), but they certainly do not mean the discipline as a whole.

So the question becomes: is it the case that we should believe the statement:

I do think we should consider how best to act towards others, what basis we have for our beliefs and what it is in our lives that gives us meaning?

I believe the answer to this is yes, and on the basis that our beliefs affect our actions, that we should all acknowledge that philosophy can and does have an impact on our lives.

What effects does thinking about philosophy have? It can make us think about whether our beliefs are true, and hence whether our actions are based on true beliefs about the states of affairs in the world that our relevant. It can make us think about how we live our lives and the impact that our life choices make upon ourselves and others. It can help us mind the meaning in our life and face the difficulties that get thrown at us along the way to the end of life. It can show us what matters and what doesn’t. It can give us the ability to see things from the point of view of the other and hopefully make more informed ethical choices. Surely these are all good things?

Importantly, philosophy provides a framework around which to discuss these things with others. This is philosophy at its most important, an argument amongst peers about philosophical issues through which we can come to have our cherished beliefs challenged and come to a new understanding that we are not capable of alone, and one that furthers all those causes listed in the previous paragraph.

My conclusion at this point is that philosophy can and does have a positive impact both for myself and others (as well as being fun). But now we run headlong into the wall that I always find myself up against when dealing with consequentialism. How do I measure different “goods”? Is the good of spending my time doing charitable work worth more than the good of my spending the same time arguing about ethics with friends? From a consequentialist perspective, how would I measure these two goods in a way that lets me compare them? I don’t think there’s a good answer, and the consequentialist argument finds itself at a standstill.

The differences between the time and money arguments now become important. One is that in the money argument we faced comparable acts and outcomes: lose £1000, save a child. In the time argument this is not the case. Spend time differently, get a different positive outcome. This is an important difference and one that I have not been able to get beyond.

At the end of the day, perhaps we need to be more pragmatic. There are people who are much better able to spend their time directly helping others. Everyone is different, with varying talents and interests. I love philosophy and seem to be good at arguing about it. Hopefully now and in the future I will have a positive impact on the lives of others, even if it is very indirect. If I have persuaded one person that humanism is a better philosophical outlook than Christianity then I count my intellectual life a success, even if it has taken years for an initial seed to grow large enough to displace the religious ethic. That thought keeps me reading and arguing, and hopefully will for a long time to come.

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