One of the most common criticisms of philosophy is that it’s not ‘practical’; that is, the study of philosophy doesn’t require students to learn anything useful. I strongly disagree with this charge, of course. For those who are studying philosophy develop many highly valuable ‘meta-skills’, such as those required by activities involving careful analysis and clear communication, that can be applied directly to countless specific endeavors. But there’s one area of philosophy that’s immediately practical par excellence, for it’s concerned with the choices we all make every day of our lives. This, of course, is the study of ethics.
Philosophers aren’t only concerned with what the world is like; they’re also concerned with how we should live in the world. Note the distinction between how we in fact live and how we should live. The former is descriptive in nature, and is studied by sociologists and anthropologists (among others). The latter, however, is normative in nature. It doesn’t merely describe; it prescribes.
Nearly all of us initially acquire our beliefs about how we ought to live from social, cultural, political, and religious authorities. But we all also reach a point in our lives when we notice that these authorities make conflicting demands on us. For example, my religious authorities may tell me that I have an obligation to give to the poor, full stop. That is, this obligation to give to the poor binds me regardless of the cause of their poverty. However, my cultural or political authorities may tell me that many poor folks ought not to be helped because they need to learn self-reliance. Should I give to the poor or not?
In addition to cases of apparent moral conflict, I may simply notice that I’m unable to justify some of the moral beliefs I’ve acquired. Why, for instance, think that I am obligated to give to the poor? Suppose you sincerely believe that you have a duty to help the poor, but a friend disagrees with you. How would you go about trying to persuade her that you’re right and she’s wrong?
Further, when I combine the fact that many of my moral beliefs are inconsistent and unjustified with an increasing awareness of the undeniable diversity of moral views, both inter-culturally and intra-culturally, both presently and throughout time, I may begin to question whether anything is really right or wrong. Why think that when I say something is wrong, I’ve said something that’s true? Haven’t I just expressed a preference? And wouldn’t I have different preferences if I had been raised in a different place or time?
I’d imagine almost all of us have had these sorts of experiences and thoughts, and have asked these sorts of questions. If you have, then although you may not have been aware of it, you’ve been doing philosophy for some time now. That is, moral philosophy is not merely practical; it’s practically unavoidable. The real question, then, isn’t whether philosophy is practical; rather, it’s whether we’re doing it well or poorly.
Eric is studying for the BA Philosophy by distance learning in Rhode Island, USA.