Does Philosophy Matter?
Iíve felt the urge to return to teaching, despite having been away
from it for going on three years now. Maybe this is due to the handful
of lectures on logic Iíve done at the Ludwig
von Mises Institute reminding me that lecturing is something
I greatly enjoy doing. Some will no doubt say I am crazy. My subject,
after all, is still philosophy, which if taught right, is not easy
for students. One of the reasons I ceased seeking academic employment
was the lowering of admissions standards at universities
an insidious dumbing down that is now worse than it was in 1995
(the last year I taught full time). Colleges
and universities are now admitting students whose reading level
would once have been judged fifth to seventh grade or worse.
How can someone unable to read at a high school level understand
or Lockeís theory of natural rights?
this is not about to morph into another exercise in academic philosophy
bashing (for those go here
I do, however, distinguish the subject itself with its university-based
stepchild. The subject itself goes back beyond Socrates and probably
beyond Thales, the first of the pre-Socratics of whom we have any
record. The term philosophy comes from two Greek words meaning
love of wisdom. This involves articulating a comprehensive
account of the world and our place in it: a comprehensive worldview,
in other words, that can supply us with a guide to action. The stepchild,
on the other hand, is a product of the modern university. It subsists
by having made its compromises with the academic-bureaucratic setting.
The stepchild is therefore not the real thing. The real thing calls
forth a mindset that is ultimately not compatible with bureaucracy.
why endeavor to teach the subject? Partly because it is something
I know how to do, and at one point in my life had gotten fairly
good at. But also because I have never taught it from an openly
libertarian point of view, and would very much like to try it sometime.
My suspicion is that a lot of students would be receptive to the
approach especially those in adult education and distance
learning settings who are usually a bit older and more experienced
than the 1820-somethings attending major state universities.
They are not "adolescents" on a four-year vacation. Many
are doubtless fed up with government being everywhere and then taxing
them for it. They are not obsessed with sports and parties. They
are adults, and retooling for reasons that vary from case to case.
Some, doubtless, have had careers destroyed by circumstances ultimately
traceable to acts of government, or government interference with
the workings of the marketplace.
such people be open to a point of view that, once developed systematically,
showed in comprehensive fashion what is wrong with the idea that
government either can or should do everything? It seems to me a
reasonable working hypothesis that they would be.
there is one problem. The past several years have witnessed the
creation of countless adult education centers, including distance
learning centers for students desiring to take college and university
courses via the Internet. So far, so good. The problem is that the
vast majority of these are glorified business and technical schools.
They might be very good an imparting, say, a webmasterís skills.
They might have put together a solid MBA program that can be pursued
online. But to date they offer no place for anyone seeking either
a comprehensive view of the world and our place in it, or the slightly
more modest but equally important goal of understanding this countryís
founding principles and their philosophical basis. Most of those
setting up and administering such schools therefore arenít interested
in philosophy. Many of their institutions donít even offer courses
in the subject.
if the courses are just more exercises in postmodernist relativism,
or politically correct indoctrination, they probably shouldnít.
if the course is tailored towards students who want to be intellectually
as well as financially independent, they probably should. Here is
out properly, a philosophy course teaches students how to improve
their thinking. And this is a skill that can be transferred to almost
any other activity, professional and otherwise. Citizens of a free
society need to know how to think well in order to keep a watchful
eye on their political leaders; otherwise they will not remain free
for very long. Back in Thomas Jeffersonís day, this was common knowledge.
In our era of government-sponsored "education for all,"
it has gone into total eclipse. Today one of the things we must
do is work to recover the mindset of political vigilance. Philosophy
logic, about which Iíve written both here
While logic has a variety of purposes, three of its most practical
and valuable are: (1) evaluating the reasoning of others to see
if their evidence really supports their conclusions; (2) learning
how to improve oneís own reasoning, for whatever purpose; and (3)
being able to spot specific fallacies in reasoning.
first might help a person determine for himself, after close scrutiny
of the situation, whether Bushís reasons for going into Iraq really
hold up that is, if his conclusion that the War in Iraq was
necessary is really supported by his premises (Saddam had weapons
of mass destruction, Saddam was a threat to his neighbors, Saddam
was a tyrant in the "axis of evil," etc.). The second
might help a person make a case for liberty. Many people will allow
themselves to be persuaded at the very least that something is wrong
when they pay almost half their income into taxes to help prop up
huge government bureaucracies many of which are borderline dysfunctional.
The third might be useful to the person publicly accused of racism
for having criticized racial favoritism if presented to an
audience that has at least heard of ad hominem and is aware
that arguing ad hominem is fallacious. Today, of course,
most audiences probably have not but many of them might be
vaguely aware that something is wrong when the response to a thoughtful,
well-reasoned argument is a litany of impassioned namecalling. We
are all, after all, better logicians than we think. I believe we
have large amounts of logical knowledge simply because that is the
way our brains are wired. We werenít designed to be creatures functioning
solely on emotion, or instinct, even if these have important roles
to play in the lives of all healthy people. The problem is how to
make this implicit, innate logical knowledge explicit. Studying
logic can help.
is also a very good stepping stone to the economics of a free society.
At present, the most rigorous such economics is that of the Austrian
school founded by Carl Menger and developed during the past century
by Ludwig von Mises, Murray N. Rothbard, and others. What distinguishes
the Austrian school of economics from all alternatives is its method
strict logical deduction, the unpacking and working out of
the consequences of the indisputable basic fact that man acts.
(It is indisputable because its denial is self-contradictory: the
denial that man acts would itself be an action. The action axiom,
as economists of the Austrian school call it, is an axiom precisely
because it must be employed even in efforts to deny it. It is, in
a word, self-validating.)
take another area: ethics. We live in an "ethically challenged"
age. I have known people who think nothing of low-level stealing
from their employers, even if it is just reams of paper to use in
their printers at home. "The companyís rich," they rationalize,
"they can always get more. Theyíll never miss it, anyway."
Of course, this isnít the point. Surely stealing from an employer
is wrong, just like stealing from anyone is wrong. It involves violating
anotherís property rights. Such examples may seem like small potatoes.
But what happens when we have an "ethically challenged"
Presidency? We had one from 1993 through 2000. Itís likely that
we have one now. Lies and concealment have become a way of life.
what are property rights? What are rights generally? Who has them,
and why are there any rights at all? Such questions are all grist
for the ethicistís mill, because rights is fundamentally
a moral concept. Rights are moral claims to a sphere of sovereignty
around your person, the fruits of your labors what you have
created with your intellect and whatever resources you can muster
and what you have voluntarily acquired through trade with
others. In a free society and here the discussion ties back
into economics you have the right to trade your produced
goods and abilities, intellectual or otherwise, for money or other
services, with anyone who voluntarily accepts the trade. Both parties
to any trade must expect to benefit from it; otherwise the trade
will not take place. But the point is, you have the right to make
your own choices. So does the other party. You exchange economic
value for economic value.
take some other applications: is slavery wrong? If so, why? The
answer: because it violates the enslaved personís right to that
personal sphere of sovereignty that translates into a right to self-determination.
Why is rape wrong? With all the appropriate modifications, for essentially
the same reason. Rights belong to individuals, not groups, because
only individuals can think and act. Collectives cannot. Individuals
are conscious, acting agents. Groups are not. Around each individual,
rights serve the moral purpose of erecting the equivalent of a sign
reading: Keep Out! Unless you are invited in. From this it
follows that policies premised on the assumption either that groups
have rights or that individuals have rights deriving from their
membership in some group are morally wrong, and ought to be abolished.
are rights not political entities? Many people today surely
see them as political entities. Does not the government claim to
grant people rights through such legislation as civil rights acts?
Do these not, moreover, apply to groups (blacks, women, gays, etc.)?
course politicians and legal eagles of all stripes claim this. I
consider it a very dangerous point of view. Itís a well-known adage
among libertarians: if the government can grant you rights,
it can also take away your rights. If it can give a group
whatever the groupís members want, it can take away everything they
have. Thatís not freedom. Thatís tyranny.
belief that rights are creatures of a political system is therefore
a stepping stone to tyranny.
antecede government. This is what we mean when we speak of
natural rights. It is a legitimate function of any government
to recognize rights, and perhaps encode them, as in
the Bill of Rights. But rights should never be viewed as being created
by some document. The Framers certainly did not view them that way.
Under the influence of the British philosopher John Locke (whose
Second Treatise on Government is required reading here) and
fresh memories of the war for independence fought against the tyrannical
British Empire, the Framers knew that political power was dangerous.
It had to be checked. They were not utopians. They would not have
seen political philosophy as the quest for utopia, the perfect society,
for there is no such thing in a land filled with imperfect people.
We ought to see political philosophy as our best effort to answer
a single question: how does society control power? That is a tad
sloppy, though. Society doesnít do anything or control anything;
again, only individuals can act. Letís clean it up a little.
How do those individuals with the wisdom to recognize human
failings act so as to restrict or restrain those who want power?
The answer of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was: with a written
Constitution. The document wasnít perfect. It was subject to criticism
at the time as having too many loopholes through which the power-hungry
would eventually slither. History would seem to be on the side of
the critics. Even die-hard Constitutionalists such as myself have
to concede as much.
started this discussion with the ethical concept: rights. We ended
up in a position to examine the countryís founding as well as our
own nature and failings (failings the Bible calls sin). How
are checks placed on those who want power? In the last analysis,
educated citizens have to do it. There is no one else. Being genuinely
educated means being able to ask the right questions, and not take
everything the authorities or other "great men" say for
granted. The challenge: how to teach people to do this?
there are aspects of his philosophy with which I disagree profoundly,
I love teaching the ancient Greek philosopher Platoís short dialogue
The Euthyphro. In this dialogue, which takes place in Socratesís
day, a man named Euthyphro is preparing to prosecute his own father
for having murdered a slave. Euthyphro is a rather arrogant sort
a man of the world, who knows what to do and is doing
it. No double-standards or preferences based on familial relations
for him! To Socrates, his action evinces evidence of profound wisdom
("piety"). Socrates (who never claimed to be wise) proposes
that Euthyphro instruct him. He begins to interrogate the man (employing
the famous or infamous Socratic method of asking questions and then
carefully examining the responses). He tries to draw out of Euthyphro
the special knowledge and wisdom that informs him sufficiently of
right versus wrong, and would account for his willingness to prosecute
a member of his own family for a crime. As it turns out, Euthyphroís
answers go in circles, and the student eventually realizes that
Euthyphro doesnít have the wisdom his actions would imply. Socrates
goes away disappointed.
Euthyphro is a sterling and very accessible instance of the
philosopher in action. What can students acquire from studying it
closely? Possibly the sense that "experts" do not necessarily
know what they are talking about. Does this apply to fields such
as economics? You bet it does! Todayís "experts" are mostly
Keynesians of one sort or another. Need I say more? Possibly students
can be gently led to the idea that no one should believe an action
is right, or that a policy is sound, simply because all the authorities
or those who are popular have endorsed it, or are
doing it. The students will have learned to ask some acute if sometimes
awkward and uncomfortable questions.
will emerge from studying and mastering a work such as The Euthyphro
a more critical, discerning thinker. This is what philosophy, carried
out properly, can do for you. This is just one example. I have
only scratched the surface here. There are plenty of others where
that came from.
wonít get rich from learning to think philosophically. You wonít
reap immediate, material profits. But if a course in the subject
is carried out properly, you will emerge better and hopefully wiser
and more suited for life in a free society. So to answer
the question posed in the title: yes. Philosophy does matter. Given
our present headlong rush toward global empire, it matters more
Yates [send him mail]
is an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A professional
writer and editor with a Ph.D. in philosophy, he is the author of
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994). His latest book manuscript, In
Defense of Logic,
is undergoing revisions. He works out of Columbia, South Carolina.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com