Why Read This?

In a single sentence, this is a look at some of the urgent issues of our time from several philosophical points of view, with the intention of shedding light on the actions we should take, and in getting your feedback on these ideas.

We are at a critical point in history. We are on the brink of environmental collapse through climate change and other sources of mass extinction and rising fear and hatred of minorities and migrants are leading us to more conflict. The last time Western nations became so xenophobic in outlook, we had a world war. If we have another, the impact will be far worse, because not only do we have far more destructive weapons, the impact on the environment of the greenhouse gases emitted by large-scale war is likely to be as catastrophic as the direct death toll and it won’t end with the war, the effect will last centuries. Unless we have significant use of nuclear weapons, in which case it won’t even matter that we have a few years of nuclear winter before warming returns.

Some of these issues are so urgent because we are close to making things irreparably worse, in spite of the fact that we have most of the knowledge, skills, resources and technology we need to avoid or mitigate the risks and, where we do not, we have the ability to develop much of it in the near term. What we lack is the wisdom and the will to do what needs to be done. The word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”, which at least provides some motivation to see if it can help.

We need immediate, practical action to address these issues, yet we also need to take the time to think about what to do, so that we don’t inadvertently make matters worse, which has happened several times during past revolutions. This is a contribution towards finding the right balance of thought and action, through a workbook in practical philosophy. It is intended to provide practical tools for everyday use, that we can use to analyze practical issues and suggest courses of action and ways they can be validated and improved, or discarded. I hope that thinking carefully about meaning and consequences will eventually lead to personal and institutional wisdom, but first let us see if philosophy can make a contribution to tackling the immediate problems of bigotry, climate emergency, mass extinction and other urgent problems of our times by providing contains tools, techniques and skills that can help solve practical problems, while reducing the risks of making significant mistakes.

In the broad definition I take for philosophy, roughly “thinking about thinking, bridging gaps between disciplines and seeking wisdom”, I believe that philosophy can help. I will attempt, here, to prove that.

One aspect of this is a set of thinking tools that I find can be applied to multiple problems. I will explain some of those I have found useful, illustrate their use with “toy” problems and then attempt to apply them to bigger issues. The issues are complex and, like all humans, my brain is very limited, so I will make many errors, but I hope people will catch them and let me know.

Another aspect is the “armchair-thinking” phase of sitting back and trying to see things as a whole and of also trying to look closer and finding errors in thinking that sometimes come from being too invested in a particular discipline’s ways of thinking, so expect to find a mix of traditional philosophy, science, history, politics, economics and more.

A third aspect is that of “life philosophy”, often introduced by the phrase “My philosophy is…”. It is a person’s overall approach to living, or some fast guidance for thinking in a hurry. Of course, it should be far more complicated than that and a collection of aphorisms will be needed, hopefully consistent. For example, my philosophy is to celebrate everyone’s individuality and culture, unless they are a danger to others, in which case it is permissible to use minimal means to prevent harm; punching Nazis included”. In a more extended sense it is the collection of attitudes and thinking tools that a person regularly relies on.

Philosophy by itself isn’t much use in proving that things are true. Most grand theories put forward by philosophers have been proven false or at least dubious enough that it would be irresponsible to depend on them to guide actions. But it is useful in showing that beliefs are false and, given that the dominant social, political and economic structures are based on lies, that is useful in itself.

I hope that it is obvious to you that our current systems are based on lies. If not, just consider that the services of the Internet giants and broadcast media are provided to the general public free to us, but paid for by advertising. Very little of it is full, factual information. Much of it is not directly false, because there are some laws about truth in advertising, but it is often very partial and is misleading, or simply meant to push your psychological buttons. And politicians? They lie directly. This is obvious because the main parties in countries that permit more than one party directly contradict each other on factual matters. You can’t rationally believe all of them.

This workbook will show why the system is so irreparably bad that we must replace it and will provide some ideas on how we can do that while causing the least amount of harm to the most vulnerable people. It is only the start; I hope it will promote dialogue among those of us who want to solve these problems. We can only do it as a community. Perhaps we can even find a way that the most vulnerable benefit from the changes as we make them, rather than in some distant future “after the revolution” during which, many will suffer great harm, to judge from earlier revolutions.

I will suggest approaches for combating the outrageous lies that have been used to build and justify the current system, enabled by the billions of dollars spent by the advertising industry on research into effective ways of persuading us into acting against our interests. This advertising industry is so enormous that it supports all of the “free” Internet services and so many of the facts that reach us are paid for by advertising and so intermingled with advertising.

On the other hand, we live in a world where we have access to more facts than ever before, through the effort in research institutions to discover more knowledge, through the access to the knowledge of other cultures through the Internet, through investigations of reporters and other organizations and through gathering and publication of many kinds of fact on the economy and environment through government and other organizations. But when that knowledge is mixed with misinformation of all kinds, from commercial advertising to political persuasion and Internet trolls and bots, this mixture both increases the credibility of the advertising and decreases the credibility of the factual content.

Much of this misinformation is crafted as words and images designed to persuade us to think in certain ways and do certain things. Most of them are crafted to “push your buttons”, to use psychological tricks to embed phrases and images in your brain so that you will buy products or support the social and political ends of the people paying to do this. Some are very obvious, but this does not necessarily stop them from working. Some are far more subtle.

Because our current systems are built on persuasion and lies, tinkering with them will not work. We need principled, radical action to help us change the system for the better, or replace them. It may be too late to avoid violence, which may be coming no matter how much we want to avoid it, but we may be able to limit it and we may be able to put something in place that will reduce the amount of violence that we have to endure in the future.

Critical thinking by itself is not enough. It can only show errors in reasoning. Other foundations are required, including facts and values. Facts are the domain of other disciplines, primarily science and history. Values come from human experience. Facts, values and logic are interdependent since there are no facts free of value or theory, no values are sure without examination and logic is sterile without facts. But even these are not enough if, as in most philosophy, we stick to individual thinking. Humans are social animals and all of our thinking is mediated through the formal and informal institutions in which we are embedded. We need to look at the design of these institutions and how we can change them to tackle the problems we are facing.

This workbook is my attempt to think things through and look for a path to a world that is considerably better than this one. I know that I can’t do that by myself; people with more knowledge and wisdom than I have tried, but I hope that by sharing my thoughts it will stimulate more thinking and doing among like-minded people and that we can work our way through it together.

By “like-minded”, I mean people who think that all other people matter, that we should deal with each other with love, honesty, fairness, compassion and tolerance and that the truth matters. If this is you, it is possible that rest of this work is for you and when I say “we”, I am usually referring to you, me and all others who think and feel this way. Unfortunately, there are people who are so far from agreeing with this that we may never be able to treat them as other than toxic.

I know that most people will never change their minds about some things, that they are so certain of their beliefs that any counter-argument will be met with anger, starting with insults and possibly violence. This includes some of the very dangerous political opinions which are now being voiced by those in power or that may well gain power in the near future. At some point, we have little choice but to refuse to tolerate the intolerant and use force to prevent them from doing harm. I am under no illusions that anything I say will reach them, but I will explain why I think that we can find ways to change most of them.

Of course, I have my own core beliefs, that I hope I will never give up. If you disagree with more than a few of them, this work is not for you. To save you the trouble of reading further, those things I do not tolerate include any variety of fascism, white supremacy or other bigotry. There are no arguments that can persuade me that denying the humanity of people of colour, of women, of people with any peaceful religious belief, of LGBTQ+ people or of different cultures is justified, or that such people should be treated with any less respect than any others.

Even though there are no arguments that can immediately persuade people that their core beliefs are wrong, that is not to say that people, including myself, do not change their minds about them. However, the means are rarely, initially, rational arguments on an individual level. I will discuss this later in more detail. For now, recall how the populations of whole nations change as they attempt to mobilize for crises such as war or as they emerge from those crises; how relatively liberal people become Nazis or how the rank and file of Nazis become liberal again following military defeats.

Our political and economic systems are failures on every level. They may have generated vast wealth, but have concentrated it in the hands of a very few; a dozen or so people “own” more wealth than the poorest billion or so. There are no reasonable arguments that somehow these few dozen have worked as hard or as skilfully as over 100,000,000 other people combined. And they are a direct cause of the environmental disaster we face. If we are to survive, we have to replace the systems.

This will requires a mix of practical politics, informed by the sciences and humanities; in short, wisdom.

Wisdom can be defined as

“The quality of being wise, esp. in relation to conduct and the choice of means and ends; the combination of experience and knowledge with the ability to apply them judiciously; sound judgement, prudence, practical sense”

Shorter Oxford Dictionary

which I think is useful. I hope this will be partly apparent through this work, though I only claim to be wiser than average on days when the local electorate make what I think is a disastrous choice of leader and government. (Or on bad days on Twitter 🙂 ).

I intend this to be practical philosophy, in two senses.

  1. It will be more applicable to everyday life, rather than being primarily of interest to professional, academic philosophers, though they may also find it of interest.
  2. It will focus a lot on ethics, which has been called practical reason by well known European-derived philosophers such as Kant, because ethics is reasoning about what we ought to do, which is directly related to our practise in life.

It will include not only small-scale personal ethics but also social ethics – how we should structure society and its institutions in an ethical manner.

Every day, I decide to do things which affect other people. I think I should have regard not only to my own needs and desires, but to the needs, desires and rights of other people. In short, to act ethically. I don’t always act do so, but I do try to spend some time thinking about the implications of my actions and changing my habits to get a better balance of doing the right thing and doing things that are just for myself, or friends and family.

There are many people who not only do not act ethically, but have no intention of doing so. If that is you, you are wrong, if only because you are not as happy as you would be otherwise. However, you will need to learn about psychology and social psychology to understand why. Feel free to come back here once you’ve done that. Otherwise, there is little point in your reading any further. There are also many people who think they act ethically but do not. That includes all of us on occasion, but some are almost entirely wrong, because they do not understand the concept at all.

I take it as a starting point that our degree of respect, love and kindness from their fellow humans should not be based on differences in skin colour, gender, culture, ability, wealth, intelligence, strength or on much more than how their behaviour affects other people.

Since ethics is the practise of reasoning about what is right and wrong, what we ought to do, I think it is an important topic that should be taught at every level of every school. It is surely not ethical to teach people how to do things, without also teaching them how to decide whether they should even be doing such things, or how they can work out how to live a good life.

Although I have studied philosophy at a graduate level, this is not meant to be a formal work of philosophy. Professional philosophers do not appear to be wiser than other mortals, or behave any more ethically than academics in other departments, nor is there any better behaviour among those specializing in ethics. Studying ethics without it affecting your personal life seems to be an admission that you have missed the point entirely. That is why I left the academic study of philosophy, but I have continued to use the tools I acquired and to learn more. I won’t employ any academic jargon unless I feel it really helps, and I will explain it as well as I can. I also won’t include as much historical philosophy, though I will point to some of the sources that I still lean on, in case you want to explore further.

There are two aspects of human beings that I think are very important but are missing from many other works of popular philosophy.

  1. Individual humans are very limited beings. We are not capable of reasoning things out in full, quickly enough to act, and we do not have all the data we need to understand the consequences of our actions. Grandiose theories of ethics that require things like calculating the benefits of actions for years into the future or for all people are useless.
  2. Human beings are embedded in cultures and institutions. We don’t think for ourselves, we absorb a lot of thoughts ready-made from the cultures we live in and are constrained by the infrastructure, physical, cultural and institutional that we live in. Demands for individual freedom, exempt from the constraints of those cultures, are as pointless as a bi
  3. rd demanding freedom from the friction of the air.

Rather than ignore these, as many works of philosophy do, I believe that they are central and their omission leaves us with a very distorted picture. I hope to demonstrate this more clearly in the course of this work.

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