As I recall my first encounter with Philosophy in during my undergraduate, two historically distant yet similar texts stand out in my mind: Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from the Republic, and Bertrand Russell’s “The Value of Philosophy” from The Problems of Philosophy. At the time, I found both to be interesting and worthwhile pieces which commented on philosophy’s ability to strip away socially and culturally constructed notions of reality in order to see things as they truly are, and I found myself agreeing fully with Russell’s and Plato’s claims that philosophy could induce a kind of moral enlightenment resulting from the perspective gained through its continued practice.
However, after re-reading and discussing both texts in recent years, I’ve begun to seriously reexamine whether the second claim about philosophy and ethics is true or not. On the surface, it certainly seems to hold water, and yet something doesn’t quite sit right about it. But, before we delve deeper, I think it’s worth taking a closer look at these two texts.
Firstly, upon a close reading of both pieces, it becomes clear that both Plato and Russell, though separated by thousands of years of history, essentially share the same view about philosophy – namely, that it gives the people that practice it the power to liberate themselves from preconceived ideas and prejudices in order to arrive at certain truths about reality.
For instance, as an example of this first point, Russell claims that philosophy has the ability to “free our minds from the prejudices of ‘practical men’” through the power of impartial contemplation – an idea which strongly mirrors the argument implicit in Plato’s description of the reason-based ascent from the cave. However, it is important to note that both Plato and Russell don’t stop here, but go further to make a second argument about knowledge as it relates to ethics.
According to Plato’s allegory, the knowledge obtained from the philosopher’s search for truth, symbolized by the ascent from the dark cave of ignorance, also carries with it a liberation from vices of greed, stinginess, pompousness, cowardice, and dishonesty (82). Plato’s reasoning behind this second liberation from vice hinges on his belief that the philosopher’s love of wisdom will lead him to “abandon those pleasures of which the body is the instrument and be concerned only with the pleasure which the soul enjoys independently…” (82). This is because, in Plato’s view, the philosopher’s mind is “constantly bent on grasping the whole of things, both divine and human” – so much so, that he places little value on his own life and does not fear death (82).
Likewise, Russell makes a similar moral claim about the fruits of philosophical contemplation: “The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole” (137). He also goes on to say that, “contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe…” (137). Here, Russell suggests that there is a kind of moral transfer from philosophy (the conceptual world of ideas), to the ethical world of “action and emotion,” allowing us to “enlarge” not only our minds, but also our hearts, thus increasing the size and scope of who and what we care about. In other words, philosophy has a humanizing effect.
Although the end goal of the philosopher’s pursuit of knowledge is different for both authors (for Plato it is union with and contemplation of “The Good,” (85), and for Russell, it is knowledge for its own sake, as well as a kind of “union with the universe,” (138), they nevertheless make the same connection between philosophy and ethics – namely, that there is something inherently virtuous or humanizing about philosophy, and that its mere practice actually makes a person good.
Therefore, in keeping with the spirit of philosophy, let us return to the question at hand: are either of these claims actually true? Is there something about practicing philosophy that actually makes a person better in the moral sense? My own answer to this question, as I hope to illustrate here, is simultaneously simple and yet not-so-simple: maybe.
If we define philosophy broadly to be the search for knowledge/truth, then it logically follows that the people who practice it will necessarily develop a habit of using impartial contemplation as a tool for arriving truths about the world. However, it doesn’t follow that the realization of truth should necessarily be accompanied by moral action. In fact, one could even make a case that the realization of certain truths could result in immoral actions (coming to realize God doesn’t exist, or that your government doesn’t have your best interests at heart, for example). And that is because there is something missing from the equation here – an underlying assumption that both authors make which is logically flawed: that people with the right knowledge or perspective will always act in a morally responsible way, and that the relationship between the two separate acts of contemplation and action is always a harmonious one.
In my view, there is no guarantee that the practice of philosophy will necessarily make one more virtuous or empathic, simply because there are too many variables at play. For example, there is always a chance that the person engaged in contemplation could be missing valuable information needed to make the best possible choice, and therefore one could be mistaken about the action needed to be taken.Secondly, even if one was consistently given access to every piece of valuable information when engaged in impartial contemplation, there is no guarantee that one’s ability to think about things clearly or arrive at knowledge/truth will produce the same or a similar result each time one attempts to engage in it. And thirdly, even if one could manage to bypass these first two problems, there is still no guarantee that the action produced would be an ethical one.
To further illustrate, there is no guarantee that philosophy will always cause one’s love for wisdom or knowledge to overrule one’s love for chocolate cake in every case (In fact, there might be occasions where one’s love for chocolate cake will and should overrule one’s love for wisdom). There is also no guarantee that one’s impartial recognition and contemplation of social justice issues will result one’s becoming a committed activist rather than a cynic, nor is it a sure thing that understanding the underlying causes of poverty and domestic abuse and considering possible solutions to them will result in becoming sympathetic to the plight of the poor and victimized. Furthermore, if philosophy always bestows moral enlightenment upon the practitioner, wouldn’t we naturally expect all philosophers to be shining beacons of ethical behavior?
Therefore, the closer one looks, the more one can see that beneath the common-sense claim about the power of philosophy to directly shape ethical behavior, there exists a rather large gulf between contemplation and action, knowledge and ethics. And it is here that we find ourselves faced with something akin to David Hume’s age-old “is-ought” problem: we can’t know what a person will do given what they know to be the case.
However, this is not to say that philosophy or the knowledge gained through it has no correlation with ethics. On the contrary, the knowledge gained through philosophical inquiry as well as the impartiality that philosophy provides has dramatically informed, transformed, and ultimately improved the models that we currently use to perceive and understand reality. Consequently, the application of new knowledge as well as its interpretation and re-interpretation through these self-updating models of thought has gradually increased our chances of acting ethically (in a way that benefits our well-being and the well-being of others) by increasing the number of best possible solutions available to us.
Although the knowledge and perspective obtained through philosophy are, in themselves, morally neutral, they become inescapably moral (or immoral) when we try to apply them to certain phenomena – or rather, when certain phenomena are interpreted through the framework of the knowledge and the perspective we possess.
For instance, the response of our modern society with its understanding of psychology to a person with mental illness would be quite different than the response of a tribe of ancient peoples, who, thinking the person possessed, would likely have considered exorcism as a possible solution – perhaps the only solution at the time. In this case, we can clearly see the morally enlightening effects of philosophy’s search for truth.
Of course, even this example is flawed from a virtue-based perspective, as it implies that the knowledge that psychologists possess should compel them to care about the mentally ill, and that they are primarily motivated by compassion to act. After all, who is to say that psychologists are only treating mentally ill people because there is practical utility in doing so? Or perhaps they are just doing it for the paycheck. Whatever the case may be, however, I think it’s safe to assume that treating mentally ill people is a net gain moral gain for society from a humanist, utilitarian, and consequentialist perspective.
So at the end of the day, what does this mean? It means that sometimes knowledge of certain things has the ability to guide us to make the right moral decisions, and at other times it doesn’t. It means that, strangely enough, the search for and acquisition of knowledge via the impartial contemplation of facts, for some, may be no more humanizing or morally enlightening than doing the dishes. In fact, one could argue – and could be right – that doing the dishes at a given moment in time might even make a person more virtuous than contemplating all the possible solutions to the most important ethical dilemmas of our modern era. It really does depend on the person, after all. If you are naturally, socially, or culturally predisposed to be virtuous or empathic, the knowledge you gain through philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, or dishwashing will likely have a positive moral impact.
Perry et al., Sources of the Western Tradition, vol. I, From Ancient Times to the Enlightenment, 7th ed. (Boston, 2000).
Russell, Bertrand. The problems of philosophy. OUP Oxford, 2001.