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James Medd
December 2016.
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What should my personal philosophy be?
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I am tempted to say, a good glass of wine, or two, in the evening, while opening one’s eyes to the world — and dipping into The Big Think Book by Peter Cave. Failing that, these are some caricatures of what other schools of philosophy say, though I have sympathy with Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the philosopher of pessimism, who stresses that the human lot is either to be dissatisfied because we strive for things – or dissatisfied because we have acquired those things and hence are bored. The answer is to lose oneself in music.

Utilitarianism is a standard model for a way of life. As we have seen, it says that the right thing to do is whatever will maximize happiness – “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. It is attacked because it seems far too detached and cold, ignoring the special agent’s relationships, but the great utilitarian John Stuart Mill (1806-73) would say that, although the ultimate aim is maximum happiness, you ought not to conduct your life in that way. He recognised that it wouldn’t maximize happiness – it would ruin relationships, make people insecure about who was going to die next, and so on. If you consulted the effects on the common welfare before kissing your mistress, things would not go well.

The Existentialists, through Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) and others, argued that we must be authentic and recognize our freedom and hence responsibility in what we do. It is “bad faith”, they argue, to treat oneself as an object without choice. Sartre’s famous example is that of the man who fixes himself as a waiter, as an object at the mercy of his employer. The slogan is “existence precedes essence” – we exist and we freely choose to make ourselves.

Alternatively, you could be an Aristotelian, or a modern “neo” version, in which you would seek happiness but you’d be sufficiently knowledgeable to know human beings are social political animals and need to get on with other human beings, rejecting slavery, for example. Or you could follow the Stoics, who think you should try to lead a life of tranquility, to apply reason and not be beset by bad emotions.

You could be a Materialist, Physicalist, of a “Reductionist” bent, committed to “Scientism”, and think that anything to do with love or morality, or anything at all, is just a matter of physics; there’s nothing more ultimately to understanding a human being or the world – reality – than the movement of physical particles. You might be a Determinist as well, believing that at the level of human beings, everything is causally determined and hence free will is an illusion. Of course, these stances all need explanations, nuances, and are open to challenge.

“You could follow the Stoics, who think you should try to lead a life of tranquility, apply reason and not be beset by bad emotions.”

Then there’s Humanism. Most humanists are atheists, or at least agnostics, and so they try to understand the world in terms of human values; they do not rely on a god in order to conduct themselves, but stress the need to have a sense of fellow feeling. On the opposing side would be the religious thinker who grounds morality in the injunctions of God. Humanists, of course, worry about the horrendous deeds that can be committed, if believed to be the instructions of an all-powerful deity. Morality, according to Humanists, runs the risk of corruption, if grounded in the commands of a mysterious all-powerful being. Just look around, they are inclined to say.

And, of course, there are the Egoists: they think everything revolves around self-interest and ought so to revolve. That may remind us of the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, of political concerns for free markets, for increases in gross domestic product. That may remind us of the observation about those who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

At the very heart of philosophy is, at the very least, a recognition that we need to reflect on all such points and theories as outlined above, consider the assumptions, the reasoning, and be prepared to challenge. That cannot be done speedily. As Wittgenstein (1889-1951), the great Cambridge philosopher, quipped, “When two philosophers meet, they should say, ‘Take your time’.”

Peter Cave is the author of The Big Think Book: Discover Philosophy Through 99 Perplexing Puzzles.