Philosophy for Change

If we want to help make the world a better place, it is worth taking the time to study philosophy well, strange as that might sound.

I know that sitting back and reading a bunch of old books over the course of several years does not seem like a good way to change the way things work. But I would say it is at least the necessary condition, for being able to change things for the better.

Philosophy allows us to think through the nature and purpose of the world’s political, social, economic orderings. It will force us to seek knowledge where we become able to recognize our ignorance. It will also allow us to work through our own moral beliefs and assumptions, helping us to realize that some of our moral convictions are not as well-founded as we might believe, letting us slow down and ask whether it’s really good to try to change the world into something inspired by an unreflective moral opinion.

Most of all, though, it allows us to shape and change ourselves. We become the sorts of people who can point out the flaws in a bad argument, who can seek out the structure of a good chain of reasoning, who can speak less ignorantly about justice and political effectiveness and human psychology. We become the sorts of people who can learn from others rather than just jealously guarding our own opinion and keeping ourself safe from others’ insights.

We become the sorts of people who focus on virtue, who can play the long game and think in terms of years or decades rather than days and months, who care more about succeeding in our internal efforts than our external ones, who can handle failure with courage and success with grace, who will live with integrity and perhaps not betray and undermine our ideals in a moment of temptation, or of fear.

There’s no shortcut for all that. And the way to get there is not by going along living unreflectively and just getting older. A sustained effort at becoming wiser is necessary as well. It is a tedious journey, across ground that is not well-travelled. Even those who sincerely attempt it will often get stuck partway.

But with perseverance and patience, it is possible.

Now, admittedly there’s an exception to what I’m saying. The person who wishes to change the world immediately and continuously through small acts of kindness and compassion might not need to study much first. The sort of person who sells all possessions and goes to live among the homeless, helping and caring however is needed, will perhaps not have much need for a grasp of philosophy. If that is you, then I praise you and have nothing more to say. However, I think that such folks are the very rare exception, and the vast majority of us are benefited by taking the time to understand, before we seek to bring about change.

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