The popular idea of philosophy is that it’s just an academic discipline involving arguments and esoteric forms of reasoning. However, in What is Ancient Philosophy? Pierre Hadot argues that philosophy was originally meant to be a “way of life.” This isn’t shocking when you realize that one of the main fields of philosophy is ethics, and ethics is meant to be put into practice. To abstractly discuss and contemplate ethics without trying to live ethically seems very strange. If someone finds out that “killing people indiscriminately is wrong,” then we might think there’s something unphilosophical about that person killing others indiscriminately.
For many people studying philosophy, the fact that it is meant to give us new “way of life” is still apparent. Philosophy can change your life, and there’s something strange about learning about morality or reasoning and yet refusing to be ethical or reasonable. Philosophers pride themselves in making moral progress and becoming more reasonable. That doesn’t mean philosophers are ethical or reasonable. It means that they should at least be more so than they would otherwise be. If they never studied philosophy, then they would know less about being ethical and reasonable, and they would therefore have no choice but to be less ethical and reasonable.
This is where philosophy gets personal. We don’t just want to know why murder is wrong and why other obvious moral statements are true. We want to know what decisions we should be making throughout our lives. We want to know how how a moral and reasonable person would live her life, so that we can be moral and reasonable no matter what our personal goals are, and no matter what our unique situation is in life. We therefore should take a look at ourselves and think about how being moral and reasonable applies to us as unique individuals. Some of our findings will be general and apply to many other people, but some of our findings could be completely unique due to our personal relationships, commitments, and goals.
I will discuss various ways that philosophy has changed my life that I think could apply to other people. Philosophy’s main focus concerns what it means to be reasonable. This in turn helps us attain better beliefs and actions. Our actions can not only be more ethical, but they can also be more reasonable in the sense that there can be more effective ways of achieving our goals. I will discuss how philosophy has affected my thinking, beliefs, and actions.
Philosophy doesn’t just tell us what to believe. It also helps us improve our thinking by improving our ability to be reasonable. This isn’t just by having rules that tell us what forms of reasoning are appropriate, like we learn in logic classes. It also helps us through practice. Reading, writing, and debating philosophy helps improve our intuitive ability to understand what it means to be reasonable. This ability is a form of know-how that either can’t always be put into words or is merely very difficult to fully describe using words. By practicing philosophical thought we transform ourselves into the kind of person who tends to think more reasonably, and becoming a more reasonable sort of person can help us detect poor reasoning.
What we actually believe is influenced by how we think. Philosophy helps assure us that manipulation and poor arguments will have a lower impact on our beliefs, and good arguments and evidence will have a larger impact on our beliefs.
Advertising and political debates are full of poor reasoning and manipulation, and philosophy helps us realize when poor reasoning or manipulation is being employed. For example, statistics are often used to prove something about a group of people in manipulative ways. The fact that atheists or homosexuals might admit to doing certain “immoral” behavior in a poll doesn’t prove that being an atheist or homosexual somehow corrupts people.
Being reasonable requires that we are willing and able to be reasonable—that we have certain intellectual virtues. It means that we must be able to identify good reasoning, be able to use good reasoning, and be willing to use good reasoning. Part of being willing to be reasonable means that (1) we will be open minded enough to listen to the arguments of others and change our mind based on the good arguments and evidence presented to us, and (2) we will be skeptical enough to reject poor arguments and evidence when it’s presented to us. It could be said that these are virtues of being appropriately open minded and skeptical. Not having these virtues means that we will suffer from the vices of close-mindedness and gullibility.
Being reasonable doesn’t guarantee that we will have true beliefs, but it does help us make sure that our beliefs are better—more reasonable (or justified). Such beliefs are more likely to be accurate, but there is no way to make sure all of our beliefs are true. We have no machinery to absolutely prove any belief to be true once and for all.
How has being more reasonable effected my life? I would like to think that I have better beliefs in general and that I look to experts to help teach me the facts whenever appropriate. Additionally, I hope to have a greater amount of intellectual virtue than I did previously. One way that this manifests itself is in our willingness to listen to “constructive criticism” and to be open minded when people question our beliefs. Many people get offended when they are criticized or questioned—especially when it comes to politics, ethics, and religion. They find criticism and questions to be insulting. They might think, “How dare you suggest that I have faults!” I believe that I take much less offense to criticism and questions, but things can still get heated in a debate now and then.
Moreover, responding appropriately to criticism and questions can be quite important. First, if we aren’t willing to engage a person in conversation taking their criticism and questions into consideration, then we are likely to make mistakes in life and continue to make them. Second, if we don’t take criticism or questions seriously, then we are limiting our level of intimacy with our friends and relatives. We will have to “keep a distance” if we aren’t willing to discuss these things. Third, it is of high importance for a boss to be willing to listen to the criticism and questions of their employees because (a) otherwise important information is likely to be withheld from the boss because employees will be afraid to be the “bearer of bad news” and (b) otherwise mistakes made by the boss are likely to cause problems for the employees and the boss will be likely to continue making the same (or similar) mistakes in the future. For example, a boss who is disrespectful to their employees is being immoral and is likely to lower morale, motivate high turnover rates, motivate in-house theft, motivate employee sabotage, and so on. In some cases refusing to listen to criticism or questions could even be considered to be disrespectful and immoral in and of itself.
Philosophy forces us to let others question our beliefs and for us to question our own beliefs. This is likely to cause us to change our mind when we find out a belief we have is unjustified. Nothing is off limits. Our religion, political beliefs, and ethical beliefs could all be questioned. We need to be able to sort through such beliefs and figure out what (if any) beliefs we have deserve our confidence. For example, I think every perspective of ethics will require us to think that “killing people indiscriminately is morally wrong.” That’s a belief that deserves my confidence. However, controversial beliefs tend not to require such high levels of confidence. For example, whether the death penalty is appropriate (if ever) isn’t so easy to know about, and I shouldn’t be as confident that “the death penalty is always morally wrong in the USA” than the belief that “killing people indiscriminately is morally wrong.”
Perhaps the most powerful impact philosophy has on people in general is by debunking common unjustified beliefs or assumptions that can’t withstand scrutiny. For example, the belief that “all beliefs are equal” is something commonly said to quell debate and criticism, but this belief is untenable. There’s no way to think we can be reasonable if all beliefs about what it means to be reasonable are equal. The belief that we should go around killing people indiscriminately isn’t equal to the belief that we shouldn’t.
It is of great importance that we question our priorities in life. For example, the amount of time people tend to spend watching television, playing video games, shopping, and engaging in small talk is staggering. People who spend all their free time watching television, shopping, and engaging in small talk seem to have the wrong priorities, and they don’t seem to be living their lives to the fullest. Our ethical duties, family, friends, intellectual fulfillment, and personal goals should all be valued more than they generally are.
Once we have better beliefs, we will be in a better position to improve our behavior. We could make money by stealing or by getting a job, but getting a job is more ethical—and given knowledge of that fact a person will have a chance to make the right choice. Some decisions we make require a more nuanced understanding of ethics. For example, a philosopher could decide that their money would be better spent to help feed starving people than on a fancy computer, sports car, or mansion.
Improved beliefs are often insufficient to bring out improved behavior because bad habits, addiction, and a lack of motivation can make it difficult for us to do the right thing. I have found that making plans and setting deadlines to be a highly motivating force to help focus my life. This requires me to work on my time management and make long-term plans for the future. I write many of my plans and deadlines down and look them over from time to time. I think about how I am living my life and reassess the priorities that it seems to imply. I keep in mind that I often spend too much time watching television and talking on facebook, and I do what I can to change my habits when they become unproductive. I set goals each week to accomplish various tasks (such as writing philosophy posts). I find ways to do what I enjoy in life without requiring anyone to give me permission to do so (such as study philosophy). I make plans to improve myself in ways that will make it more likely to get into a career I enjoy sometime in the future. For example, some of my philosophy ebooks can be used as notes for teaching various philosophy classes.
Some students love learning about philosophy, get a BA in philosophy, then forget all about it and live the rest of their life like everyone else—shopping too much, watching too much television, and so on. Deliberate effort seems required to be a true philosopher and live a life more appropriately than the people around us. The temptations and addictions that we all face can make it even more difficult. We want to make lots of money, spend it on luxuries, and be entertained. Being around other people who live their lives in such unproductive hedonistic ways can make it even more difficult to live as a philosopher and try to live our lives to the fullest.
The Epicureans advise philosophers to stay away from non-philosophers and alienate themselves from society because it is already so difficult to stay motivated and have appropriate priorities in life. That’s one way to go, but the Stoics reject it. Instead, the Stoics agree with the Epicureans that philosophers need to have higher priorities in life than other people have, but they think a person can and should be virtuous enough to act appropriately, even while having non-philosophers as friends, having a family life, and getting involved in politics. Both groups of philosophers realize that it’s important to live our lives differently than people do in general, and both might even agree that living like a philosopher is easier when philosophers band together and alienate themselves. However, the Stoics seem to make a good point that alienating ourselves from society can be unnecessary and unproductive. Non-philosophers can use a philosopher friend, our educational system can use philosophers as teachers, our political system could use philosophers as politicians, and children could use philosophical parents.
Although I don’t think I’ve done justice to the importance of philosophy or all the ways it has changed my life, I have briefly discussed three ways that it has helped improve my life, and I think those are of interest to everyone—it can help improve our thinking, beliefs, and actions. I am not a perfectly ethical person and philosophers make mistakes like everyone else. Nonetheless, the difference between being a philosopher and someone else is the extent a philosopher sincerely tries to be reasonable and ethical using the best information we have available through personal experience, science, and philosophical research.