Consider this: you tell a lie, a small white lie, that you only had one drink at the party. Even though you actually had a few, you still agree to be the designated driver. Are you responsible for any consequences that occur? Or perhaps you tell somebody that they look nice in those skinny jeans, and that person wears those jeans to work, and they are then reprimanded for inappropriate attire. Are you somehow blameworthy?
Perhaps you were faced with a more difficult choice. Say you were driving a train, and came to a fork in the tracks, giving you two options. You could choose the first option, and kill a single person strapped to the tracks. Or you could choose the second option, and kill five people strapped to the other track.
Most people will choose the first option; surely it is okay to save five people for the death of one. Would you answer change if that single individual happened to be a close friend of yours? Again, most would say yes. But why? What is it about this situation that prompts a change in response? Studying philosophy can provide answers to these somewhat unnerving moral dilemmas.
Known as the Trolley Problem, the scenario detailed above is a fundamental thought experiment in the study of philosophy and ethics. Both these disciplines examine our decisions, actions and morals, and how these are impacted by personal context and societal pressures. Philosophy provides the tools to analyse our behaviour, and encourages people to think critically about the world. To use a popular analogy: philosophy would like to make each individual their own shepherd, independent of any sheep.
It seems to me that the importance of this is drastically underestimated. The first time I studied philosophy, my outlook on life was completely transformed. If people truly understood the life-changing impact of philosophy, then perhaps they would also appreciate the benefits of mandatory studies of the discipline. Not only has my self-awareness grown throughout my philosophical journey, I have also become more conscious of the implications of my actions on others and in broader society.
When my views do conflict with others, I now have the tools to argue my own perspective in a respectful way that affirms my view, without deprecating the person whose view I am opposing. If everyone knew just a small bit of philosophy, people would no longer justify their opinions in a nonsensical manner. (“Why do you believe that?” “Because! I just do. It’s just wrong!”)
If people actually stopped to actually consider the reasons behind their racial or sexual discrimination, the way those issues are debated could change. Debates could occur in a more thoughtful and attentive manner, without one side immediately condemning the other or arguing their view is fact without providing any reasons for such a view. If everyone studied a bit of philosophy, people might finally learn what it means to be considerate of others.
By the way, philosophy isn’t just reserved for the archetype of the old cis white man either. In fact, if philosophy studies were mandatory, this stereotype would no longer hold any weight, and philosophy would no longer be misconstrued as an activity only available to elite intellectuals.
In a society where the actions of others can seem thoughtless, the obvious solution is to put more thought into things. And how can we ensure people actually think before they act?
By studying philosophy.