Lecture 01: What is Philosophy? What is Ethics?
Take Away Points:
- The difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy
- Philosophy’s general concerns
- The focus of ethics
- The difference between descriptive and normative ethics
What is Philosophy?
That is the most basic question of the class and it’s one that needs to be answered before we can truly begin. To understand philosophy, there are two important distinctions we need to make. The first is the distinction between having a philosophy and doing philosophy (philosophizing, as Craig puts it). The second is the distinction between two sets of questions: What are things like and why are things the way they are? and What can we do about it? Let’s start with the first distinction.
We have all heard someone say something like “My philosophy has always been that when the going gets tough, the tough get going” or “I always say put your faith in God and everything will be okay” or even “Our company prides itself on have a customer serve philosophy truly devoted to the customer.” What is all this really supposed to mean? What is going on here? In a certain sense, these statements come off as superficial truisms or tired homespun wisdom. But if we look deeper there is often more (although I doubt in the case of most company “philosophies”). The first person might be taking a stand on the virtue and possibility of persevering over hardship. The second person is making a strong statement about the existence and nature of a divine being that controls the world. What these statements have in common (even that third one) is that they are taken something as a solid truth. Having a philosophy is to have a set of beliefs that one takes to be true. Having a philosophy is essential to living because it organizes the way you interact with the world. As Craig points out, even someone who is unreflective (and isn’t that most of us most of the time) has a philosophy. They must in order to function and act in the world.
Yet, having a philosophy is just the starting point. It is where we begin. Doing philosophy (philosophizing) is the act of interrogating our set beliefs and the beliefs of others, sometimes rejecting them, sometimes accepting them, and sometimes creating entirely new beliefs (acting out your philosophy is, of course, called living ;)). When the pious person above says “Put your faith in God and everything will be okay” and our rough and tumble person says “That’s absurd! You can’t wait around for something to make your life okay. You have to make it happen!”, a door has been opened. Our rough and tumble person is using her beliefs to evaluate the beliefs of the pious person–she is doing philosophy. Of course, if this is all that happens, if our pious person simply shakes her head and turns away, the door closes rather quickly. In our ever day life, this is often as far as philosophizing goes. Two people butt heads over conflicting beliefs, but nothing is revealed, nothing really shared because the discussion goes no further than that initial evaluation: “I think this, so you are wrong.” How many times have you seen an internet discussion that was really just two people repeating their one point over and over again?
The basic benefit of studying philosophy is that it pushes us to go beyond this hammering of others with our fundamental beliefs. A drive to question the beliefs of others must also leave open the possibility of questioning our own beliefs. We, of course, take the beliefs we hold to be right–they are our basic means of evaluating the world around us and, thus, the positions of others–but this doesn’t mean they are actually absolutely right (although they may be–do not mistake this position with relativism). When we are truly doing philosophy we are engaging in an open, honest dialogue with others about our fundamental beliefs. We are trading perspectives–trying to see another’s perspective–and in doing so we may find flaws in our own perspective and so have to reevaluate (sometimes dramatically) our view of the world. A key part of doing philosophy is argumentative, yes–we have to know how to state and defend out beliefs so others understand them–but it is also listening. Without listening to the other side we cannot examine our own position. Sometimes that other side might simply be a voice in our head!
Of course this all opens up a question of how philosophy is something unique and separate from other topics. Doesn’t history engage in the same debates? Doesn’t science find the truth? This brings up an interesting point about academic philosophy–philosophy as it exists now as a field.
And so, also brings us to our second set of distinctions: the questions “why are things the way they are?” and what can we do about it?” In the beginning, all investigation of the world was philosophy. Even as recent as 100 years ago science was explicitly thought of as “natural philosophy” and one of the major scientific organizations was the American Philosophical Society. Philosophy encompassed astronomy, anthropology, physics, mathematics, geology, history, and so on. All of these pursuits ask the question “why are things the way they are?” But because philosophy is basically about the questioning of foundations–the basic process of doing philosophy–as different fields accepted set premises as foundations, they broke off and formed their own field (this, by the way is why there are subsets of philosophy like philosophy of history and philosophy of science–they question these basic foundations). This left philosophy in the interesting position of being made up mostly of problems and questions on which solid foundations had not yet been set. In other words, questions in philosophy sit on a constantly crumbling foundation and when they don’t, they’re removed from the field of philosophy!
Academic philosophy is part of a particular tradition–trained in a certain language, familiar with certain arguments. In many ways, academic philosophy is training that refines the minds that practice it. So, in some ways, professional philosophers will be better at thinking through problematic ideas: they are already familiar with what has gone before (so they don’t repeat history) and they are schooled in a rigorous method of thought (that makes them more aware of the philosophical arguments around them). At the same time, this training can only be so broad, so most academic philosophers are deeply familiar only with certain specific trains of thought in the field. For example, I am most familiar with ethics in various strains, but I’m unlikely to be particularly good at talking about philosophy of science; I’m good at feminist theory, but much weaker at critical race theory. This narrowing of specialization means that there is much to learn from the different areas of philosophy–especially in regards to the basic process of doing philosophy–but there may also be blind spots in the field that those from outside philosophy can fill in.
The benefit of studying the field of philosophy is, then, two-fold: first, we learn the basics of doing philosophy and, second, we accumulate a body of knowledge that we can build on when attempting to figure out difficult questions about the things we take to be true–what things are like and why they are the way they are.
As I said above, what is most important about the investigation of our beliefs is that we live by these beliefs, act on these beliefs. It is because of this that some schools of thought argue that ethics is the true culmination of philosophy. It is not enough to say “the world is like this,” we must also be able to say what this says about the way we ought to live. If the world is a particular way, how ought we to live? And if we don’t like the way the world is, how can we change it? These questions are part of the two basic foci of ethics as a field. Ethics tells us how to live and it does this by either being descriptive or normative. Descriptive ethics tells us how people actually do live. Normative ethics tells us how we ought to live. In other words, descriptive ethics (as the name explicitly states) describes what moral beliefs people actual have. Normative ethics looks at the state of the world and asks what moral beliefs people should have. The question attached to descriptive ethics is “What do people believe is right and wrong?” The question attached to normative ethics is “What should people believe is right and wrong. Both of these questions are subsumed under the larger question: what can we do about the state of the world?
Thus, while philosophy is generally concerned with the investigation of the truth of the world (What are things like and why are things the way they are? ). Ethics is concerned with changing the world (What can we do about the way things are?). Ethics is our concern in this course and we’ll go into more detail tomorrow.
Pause to Consider: After learning new information it helps to pause, review, and think through that information. At the end of each lecture I will have some questions to help you check your understanding.
- What is Philosophy?
- What is the difference between having a philosophy and doing philosophy?
- What is the difference between philosophy in general and academic philosophy?
- Why is academic philosophy a distinct field from science?
- What is the difference between descriptive and normative ethics?
Important: Read instructions for completing the writing prompts.
Purpose: Doing philosophy involves recognizing that you have a philosophy, even if it is unarticulated and merely implied. In addition, doing philosophy involves understanding that your philosophical beliefs are wrapped up in where you have grown up, who has raised you, the friends you have, the things you do, and–generally–just the life you live. In this assignment, you will introduce yourself and attempt to explore a philosophical belief you hold and how it is related to who you are.
Word Count: The best posts will be around 500-700 words. Note: There are no strict word counts for the writing prompts. You should write what you need to write in order to complete the assignment successfully. To keep your word count down, do not write to think, but instead think before you write so that you already know what you want to say. Overlong posts can have just as little information as posts that are too short and posts that are short can be packed with information (in a coherent fashion, of course)!
Choose one of the following sentences and think about whether you agree or disagree with it. If you’ve never thought about any of these issues before, think about how you live from day to day and how they would conform (or conflict) with values that you know you have:
- Eating animals is wrong because they can feel pain.
- Forests should be preserved because they can be appreciated by humans.
- Zoos are cruel because they prevent individual animals from living their natural life.
- We should protect the environment to make sure we have enough natural resources for future humanity.
- Mosquitoes should be preserved because they are part of the natural ecosystem.
Notice that there are two parts to each sentence: a position and a reason for holding that position. You can agree or disagree with both the position and the reason or you can agree with one part and disagree with the other. This can lead to several questions:
- If you agree with the whole statement, what beliefs do you hold that make the position and reason convincing to you?
- If you disagree with the whole statement, what beliefs do you hold that make the position and reason unconvincing to you?
- If you disagree with the position, what reason do you have for the contrary position?
- If you agree with the position but disagree with the reason, what reason would you give for taking the position?
- If you agree with the reason but disagree with the position, what position do you think the reason actually supports?
When you have chosen a sentence and thought about your position, move on to the writing portion.
Who are you? The class wants to know! Introduce yourself to the class, give some interests and some background so we can better understand you. In the process, tell the class what sentence you chose, whether you disagree with it, and why. Think of what it is about who you are that makes you take the stance you do.
You can use the sentence you chose to start the post, integrating your introduction into your discussion of the sentence, or you can introduce yourself and discuss the sentence separately (keeping in mind that that part of the assignment is still focused on your personal values and beliefs).
This prompt (and in fact much of the course) is about exploring and evaluating your personal values. This means it is important that you bring in the topics that matter to you. One way to do this is to consider why you re taking this course in the first place: what drew you to this course? What is it about environmental issues that is important to you? And if you’re taking this just for the composition requirement, now’s the time to start thinking about the environmental issues. You’re going to have to do it eventually! 😉
Here are selections of a response to this prompt:
Looking over the possible sentences to talk about today, I was conflicted about which to choose. But then I realized that one of those sentences was one I could talk about from personal experience. See, I worked at a zoo for a summer, so I know something of the conditions in a zoo. And after that experience I think that I can’t completely agree with the statement that “zoos are cruel because they prevent individual animals from living their natural life.” Zoos are sometimes cruel, but not always, and it’s the different cases that I want to talk about today . . . .
. . . On the other hand, endangered species often aren’t able to live their “natural life,” so a zoo can be the best option for them. If humans destroyed the natural habitat of a animal, isn’t it our responsibility to help that animal? When I was little, I found a rabbit that had been hurt badly and helped nurse it back to health. In the cases of endangered species, zoos are just doing what I did with the rabbit at a higher level. I was taught that it’s important to care for other people. I don’t see why we can’t extend that to other animals.
Note: Grammar does matter in this course. How you communicate has a massive impact on how your ideas are perceived and this is simply a truth that many of you will face once you leave college. Our ideas our conveyed through language, thus our mastery of language and our ability to write impacts the ability of others to understand those ideas. Your audience can only judge your ideas by the strength with which they are conveyed. Use these prompts as an opportunity to practice writing as clearly and precisely as possible.
- Double Check: Your set up from Jan 09. Did you do everything you need to in order to prepare for the course?
- Read: Craig: Philosophy [Electronic]; Pojman: What is Ethics? [4-7]
- Read: Instructions for completing and submitting writing prompt
- Post: Prompt 01: Intro
and Personal Goals for Course| Due 1:00 PM EST
- Read: Your fellow students introductions on their own blogs (you can reach them by using the links in the sidebar to the right, under each name on the People page
, or (hopefully) the trackbacks in the comments section below of the Lecture. Edit Jan 09: Trackbacks do not work (in general) on Blogger, so do not rely on them to see what posts are up. Use the links in the sidebar or a feedreader.).
- Comment: On at least 5 Intro posts | Due 8:00 PM EST
- Comment: On Lecture 01 | Due Noon EST
- Consider: Doing Extra Credit