By: Michael S. Dauber
In the course of my studies and in my everyday experiences, I have often been asked about the significance of philosophy. What is it? Does philosophy even matter anymore since science answers many of our pressing questions?
There is a grain of truth in this sentiment; as the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking is quick to point out, science can answer many of the questions philosophy has traditionally attempted to answer. However, this is not always the case: indeed, the primary role of philosophy in our world is to understand things that science simply cannot answer.
The most significant of these questions is ethics and morality. Science – which is specifically centered on questions about the physical world – may tell us in what manner we exist, how life occurs and how to sustain it, but it does not tell us how to live our lives with other people, nor is it particularly relevant to questions regarding non-physical phenomena, such as how consciousness operates and whether or not God exists.
Now, how to live one’s life is a complicated question, as the answer largely depends on a person’s specific situation, desires, dreams, and role in society. Some, like Immanuel Kant, James Griffin, and Brian Orend, even argue that the fact that our species can have opinions on how to live a good life at all gives us rights to be free from harm from others.
How do we begin to establish how best to live our lives? The most basic, broad component is to distinguish things that we can and cannot do, both to ourselves and to others. This most fundamental question is exactly the charge of ethics, the discipline in philosophy that determines what actions are permissible and impermissible. Without these distinctions and rules, the world would descend into chaos, and living a worthwhile life might not even be a reasonable expectation.
Granted, there are many theories of what actions are right and wrong, and indeed what makes them so. Arguments focus on the consequences of certain actions, the duties we have toward others, and what kinds of actions make us excellent individuals. But despite the vast diversity of theories, there is a general consensus on some basic principles.
Every major religion and moral philosophy agrees that we should not wantonly, unjustly, or brutally kill people. We should not go out of our way to deprive individuals of things they need to survive; in other words, we have a duty not to harm people. We have a duty, when possible, to help other individuals if it does not place an unreasonable burden on ourselves. Without such guidelines, daily life on Earth would be unrecognizable. While a scientific understanding of the world may be useful, it seems that ethical questions compose the very core of human interactions and determine how we should live our lives, both on an individual and collective scale.
Perhaps this is why moral disagreements and controversial ethical issues are so visceral. We have strong reactions to violations of human rights or things we consider to be unfair or unjust. Questions of abortion, immigration, female circumcision, eugenics, different medical therapies, reasons for war, and our responsibilities to humanitarian aid or intervention are all pressing ethical questions that spark heated debates and grab headlines.
Many disciplines attempt to answer these questions or contribute to solutions in some way. Science may shed light on whether or not we should consider a fetus a person, what genetic modifications are possible, what he harmful effects of given actions may be, and the nature of sexuality. Politics may attempt to speculate on the consequences and take steps toward realizing whatever the answer may be. But neither offers the complete solution; science only provides the background information for decisions and politics generally focuses on the emotional manipulation of individuals to gain support or implement a policy voters demand without truly wrestling with why it may be good or bad.
Philosophical ethics, on the other hand, attempts to understand the values behind the questions themselves and provide definitive answers based on logic and what values individuals should hold. Think of a game of rock paper scissors: different symbols “defeat” or “win” over others; the same is true in ethics, with different values and different rights being more important in certain situations than others. Philosophy not only provides the solutions to such problems, but attempts to reason why – something that many other disciplines ignore or do not accomplish effectively.
Philosophical ethics is not without its flaws: there are many theories that conflict with each other, and answers may be complicated or difficult to implement. Yet moral philosophy seems to be one of the most effective ways of establishing how we should live our lives and how to settle our problems with each other. Only by understanding each other and our values can we truly coexist.
Michael S. Dauber, FCRH ’15 is a Philosophy major and an early-admissions student in the M.A. in Ethics and Society program, President of The Philosophers’ Society, and Editor of Akadimia Filosofia.