Western Philosophy: How to be Smart and Happy at the Same Time (pt.5)

Rev. Thomas Bayes
Theologian and Logician Rev. Thomas Bayes (1701 – 1761)

So How Will I Ever Use This?

Or as someone asked me after reading the past few articles “What’s the point, Brian.  You’re writing for Men, why should Men care?  How can it apply to their practical lives.”

And I am glad he asked.

There are five ways that learning a little bit about Western Philosophy for yourself can vastly improve the way that you live starting today.  And they will make you a healthier person, let you grow as one, and help you attain greater success.  I will generally describe them as:

  • Seeing the Reality in Front of Your Face
  • Detecting Bullshit
  • Arguing Bullshit
  • Setting Your Priorities
  • Living Virtuously

I’ll elaborate on each.

tumblr_m4xamlW3eR1qjh5dso1_1280Seeing the Reality in Front of Your Face

At its core, Western Philosophy assumes that if we pay attention to reality, and make choices accordingly, you’ll be better off than if you base your choices on what makes you feel good. Ayn Rand said it best:

“You can ignore reality, but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

Many people make decisions based on their feelings, on ideologies, or religion, or on the things they learned as a kid that may or may not be true.  When we act on the things that seem right or feel right, but that aren’t actually a reflection of what is really going on, we rarely get the results that we are hoping for.  Nothing holds us up quite like trying to solve the wrong problem.

Philosophy includes a range of tools and systems that help you take a moment to stop and analyze what is happening around you.

The Socratic Method – Also called “The Elentic Method” or “Socratic Questioning” this is a simple way of taking an argument and breaking it down into the ideas hiding underneath that argument.  It is a great way of figuring out what you don’t know, what you don’t understand, and what needs more investigation.

Logic – Logic is a system that was developed 2500 years ago. Based on the Laws of Thought (I described them in part one of the article), logic can help you identify where your ideas are badly flawed and not serving you.  The Laws of Thought in turn allow you to identify logical fallacies, common patterns of thinking or speaking that are either false, or have a good chance of being false.  We generally recognize a little around thirty logical fallacies (check out this poster by Jesse Richardson for examples: Fallacies Poster by Jesse Richardson)

Bayesian Logic – A modern expansion of Logic, based on the work of Rev. Thomas Bayes, this system takes logic to another step.  It teaches you how to use probability to augment your logic, and how to look at what assumptions you are putting in to your thinking that may or may not be true, and how to think of alternate explanations for situations,when your current one is not serving you.

The Scientific Method – The scientific method itself is a derivative of logic, itself.  Most people assume that science happens in a well-funded lab by men in white coats with tall foreheads.  In reality the scientific method is a clear, and well-defined way of solving problems by trying solutions, noting the results, examining what the results mean, and then adjusting.  You can use science in your everyday life to improve work performance or solve problems.

Methodical Thinking – What Western Philosophy teaches more than anything else is how to think in a structured, meaningful way, rather than an unstructured way.  When we don’t think using a clear system of thought, we tend to slip into emoting and opining, rather than really thinking.  Rather than coming up with good explanations for problems, we come up with excuses for doing or behaving the way we want to behave.

Many of the greatest philosophers in the world either talked about how to think in a way that got you good results, or modeled smart, methods of thinking without breaking them down.  Philosophers like David Hume and Renee Descartes can show you powerful ways of thinking about the world, while others like Ayn Rand, Immanuel Kant, and Aristotle will walk you through it step by step.

Ethics – Most people’s moral framework is ad-hoc; they have a sense of right and wrong based on how they trained their emotions, their religious sensibilities, and their basic sense of empathy for other people.  This is usually enough to get by in life, but when you are posed with a moral dilemma that is new or difficult, the natural human tendency is to do what is best for them, whether it is the right thing or the wrong thing, and then find a good justification for why serving yourself is the right thing to do.  We often do this so quickly we don’t even realize that we are doing it.

When you are coming across new moral dilemmas, or your job includes a lot of situations where you have to make decisions where right and wrong is very important, relying on yourself to be good person can be hazardous.  Accordingly various philosophers have created ethical systems: sets of tools based on logical ways of thinking that let you put your instincts aside for a minute and use your brain to figure out what the right thing to do is.

A system of ethics can help you work your way through a morally hazardous situation, and at the end of it have a clear reason for why you chose as you did, without falling back on feelings, appeals to God or authority, or “just because” arguments.  Many modern professions have created a code of ethics that everyone doing the job is expected to adhere to as a way to keep corruption and graft out of their profession.

Adding these tools to your toolbox is as easy as taking a few courses online at a place like Khan Academy or a community college, and can make your life much easier, simply because you deal with the world how it is, rather than how you think it “kinda might be.”

Detecting Bullshit

Of course, the Western Philosophical toolkit is not just good at helping you make sure you are not deceiving yourself  or barking up the wrong tree when it comes to solving a problem.  It can help you spot when other people are trying to deceive you, too.

If you know your logical fallacies, you can turn on any newscast, open magazine, or tune into any political debate, and play “spot the fallacy” very easily.  Appeals to Emotion, Ad-Hominem attacks, Begging the Question, Straw Man arguments, and No True Scotsman arguments fly thick and fast in today’s discourse.  In fact, I will warn you that turning “spot the fallacy” into a drinking game is a god way to get alcohol poisoning in two hours or less.

If someone needs to rely on an logical fallacy, they are bullshitting you, whether they know it or not.

Likewise, having a good system of ethical thinking can be highly valuable when it comes to listening to arguments and debates.  Systems of ethical thinking like John Stuart Mill’s Calculus of Happiness, Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, or Stefan Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behaviour can help you decide whether an argument being made is moral – or even just a good idea – before or in tandem with sussing out it’s logic.

Western Philosophy also includes two tools that take a little more time to learn than Logic and Ethics – those are Rhetoric and Debate. Rhetoric is the art of speaking in a way that is highly appealing, motivating, and inspiring, while Debate is a system for having an argument in a calm, intelligent, and reasonable (logical) fashion.

The thing about Rhetoric, is that it is meant to be used alongside Logic, but it is often not.  People use rhetoric to convince others of all kinds of things.  It is third only to Hypnosis or NLP for persuasive methods of speaking.  Knowing how to spot Rhetoric is a great way of know when someone really wants you to believe something, and when you should turn up your own logical study of their thinking to eleven.

The word “Debate” is often badly misused (I’m looking at you, American Electoral Primaries,) because what really happens is that people are invited to Debate, but instead get up to the lectern and begin immediately to engage in Rhetoric, without really offering any logical, reasonable arguments of any kind.  Knowing what Debate is and what Debate is not, can let you very easily spot people being manipulative and deceptive.

One thing you often learn as you study philosophy is that Common Sense, is not particularly common, and a lot of what people think is “common sense” is rarely that sensible.  There are a lot of sayings and ideas out there that are completely irrational and self-destructive.

Finally it really pays to study the most influential philosophers in our culture. Studying Locke, Mill, Rousseau, Aristotle, and Hobbes may not be the most exciting thing you can do in the world, but it will also let you really understand why we have the system we have.  It will show you why we have rule of law, why we live in democracies, and why we consider due process and contracts so important.  They will give you the reasons for freedom of speech and the ideas behind basic human rights (including what ought to be a right and what oughtn’t)

It will show you what we have been trying to build for our culture, and why it is a good idea.  More importantly, it will show you what our culture needs to thrive.  When we act in a way that is logically opposed to the ideas that are the foundation of our system of law and government, we undermine it.  We set precedents which would-be tyrants can use to keep undermining it.  We set up for debate things that have no right being up for debate.

For example, in order for our culture to thrive, we need to have free debate:  everyone needs to be allowed to speak their mind and make their proposals.  This is critical to our basic freedom, because our governments need to represent us to the best of our ability.  When we pass laws like “cyber-bullying” or “hate speech” laws we create tools that will let people shut someone up just because his ideas are not “nice,” or are inconvenient for someone in power – such laws cannot be trusted to be used just for the purpose that they are written for – and any debate limits the effectiveness of the democratic process,

This creates a creeping police state where tyrants, con-artists, and totalitarians can take power, and use those laws as jumping-off points for even worse ones.

Arguing Bullshit

One thing you need to understand is that much of what we think and say about Men today is driven by philosophers – namely Feminists.  The first wave of feminism was a grassroots political movement, but the second wave of the 1970s and the third wave of the late 1990s to today are philosophical.

In the 1970s writers like Friedan and Dworkin took the movement created by the Suffragettes and wrapped it around the philosophy of Karl Marx.  They made men out to be monsters, tyrants, and abusers.  The idea of “toxic masculinity” has proliferated to the point that is shaping the way schools and universities treat male students.  It has helped establish some of the most toxic and unjust laws in our culture as well.

Arguing that laws such as mandatory arrests for domestic violence, rape shield laws, one-sided sexual harassment statutes, predominant aggressor policies, and tender years doctrines are unjust will not work so long as there is a massive and powerful contingent of ideologues promoting them.

Likewise the current state of policing is based on dangerous ideas that policing is about declaring “war” on crime.  That criminals are evil, and enemies of the state who must be stopped at all costs, and that the function of government is to ensure that people live safe and moral lives.  This kind of thinking justifies militarizing the police, letting them use agent provocateurs to subvert peaceful demonstrations, using mercenaries to bolster police forces during protests, arguing for “police rights” as being something above and beyond the rights of everyday citizens or other civil servants, and even justifying using espionage and paramilitary forces to enforce one nations’s laws on foreign soil.

The original philosophy that justified the existence of police forces, the Peelian Principles, held that police were just everyday citizens who took it upon themselves to protect order, peace, and the welfare of their fellow citizens, that they did not have, nor deserve any special rights, and cannot be considered to be above the common man was critical to having a legitimate  police force that is consistent with the ideals of our culture.  As was the idea that the people needed to consent to being policed.  The drug war and “broken window” policing has completely destroyed the Peelian principle, and created a culture among police that make them see themselves as separate from the “civilian” population.  And in the process it has caused the police themselves to forget the value of civil rights, and to see violence as a reasonable solution, rather than a last resort.

If we want to move back towards a more just society, we can’t just argue against the laws; we need to be able to show why they are bad ideas, and why the philosophies driving them are dangerous, flawed, and counterproductive to our society.  That means understanding their arguments, and dismantling them on the marketplace of ideas.

Likewise, the myth of toxic masculinity, along with several similar ones has an incredibly poisonous effect on the mental health of the people subjected to it.  Much of my work involves figuring out where men have adopted nasty ideas about what it is to be a man, unpacking them, and showing my client why those ideas are both irrational, poisonous, and how those ideas are holding them back from having the life that they want.

Setting Your Priorities

According to Plato, Socrates once said that “the life that is unexamined is not worth living.”  What he meant by that was that was that if you don’t think about what you are doing – if you don’t consider what is really important and make choices based on that, you are not going to lead a particularly happy life.  To a person who doesn’t consider and plan, things just happen, and usually they don’t fall into place in a way that person would choose.

When you think about what makes sense to you, then you can find a set of ethics that also makes sense.  Having a code – a set of principles – and an idea of what is non-negotiable to you can make your life far easier in a lot of ways:

  • It lets you choose which battles to fight, and where to simply let things slide.
  • It helps you decide where to invest time and effort.
  • It gives you an easy method to decide how to vote and resolve business problems.
  • Most systems of ethics also teach you how to keep perspective on what is important: family over work, love over money, experience over things…

Living Virtuously

When Socrates started his war on the Sophists, he had one overarching idea:  goodness, decency, justice, love, and wisdom are not just abstract ideas, they are real things.  People who live immorally and abuse others do lasting harm to themselves and their community.  They make things worse for everybody around them.  People who believe in being just, who try to be decent, who do what they think is the  right and good thing to do make the world a better place by trying.

They do so by being trustworthy.  By spending their time and energy making sure that toxic ideas have reasonable voices opposing them.  They do so by doing their best at their work and in their home.  They do so by setting an example and doing the right thing.  And they do so by spending a little of their energy on doing the things that they consider right or beautiful to do.

Decent people also tend to attract a better class of friend and better workplaces, because good people tend to associate with others who share their values.  You might no get rich quick by practicing virtue, but you are more likely to be hired on by a boss who treats you like a human being.  You might not be surrounded by dozens of hangers-on, but the people you make friends with will have your back and lend you a hand because they know you would do the same for them.

Philosophers in the West have always recognized that the right person at the right time can make all the difference in the world; every one of us can make the world a better place.  We each can matter… and if we remember that and act as if our actions did matter, then the world really will become a better place.

The reward for living virtuously – for examining your life and living by a code is that the world around you becomes a better place, both through the company you keep and through the actions you take that build trust, comfort and safety in your community.

One thought on “Western Philosophy: How to be Smart and Happy at the Same Time (pt.5)

  1. Brian, you said above:
    “…If we want to move back towards a more just society, we can’t just argue against the laws; we need to be able to show why they are bad ideas, and why the philosophies driving them are dangerous, flawed, and counterproductive to our society. That means understanding their arguments, and dismantling them on the marketplace of ideas…”

    Two observations: even if you can show the laws in place are bad laws/bad ideas, you have to have an alternative. What was done in the past seems singularly incapable to working now. In the UK, there’s a phrase “When policemen wore high hats” to suggest a time long ago when things were done differently – in a way that is neither applicable nor relevant now.

    Second, there seems to be no marketplace of ideas. Parliament is a talking shop for an “in crowd” who toe party lines, the newspapers are hosts for meaningless discussion of pop culture or regurgitating the appropriate party line.

    Yes, we discuss stuff here, on forums, down the pub, but so what? It has no impact. If these are the marketplace of ideas, it’s a tuppenny-ha’penny market. Set against vested interests and pop culture, it’s like saying a car boot sale has some importance compared to the London Stock Exchange.

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