Wise Before the Event
I have often had casual conversations with strangers which followed a pattern of questions – where do you live? what about your family etc. until we got to the question: ‘What do you do?’ The reply that I was a teacher would evoke an interested: ‘Oh! What do you teach?’ A hesitation…‘I teach philosophy.’ Often that produced an awkward silence - sometimes broken abruptly by a comment about the weather.
So I tried switching my answer to: ‘I teach ethics’, which had a slightly better chance of continuing the conversation: ‘Oh! That’s interesting. You teach about abortion, capital punishment, war?’ Then perhaps we would exchange a few words about the big moral questions and or even the rights and wrongs of avoiding paying car park charges if you can, or what you do if you have been undercharged for an item.
But then would come a frequent killer line:‘These days it’s all a matter of personal opinion. There are no right answers, are there?’
I often felt that the breakdown of such conversations was unfortunate because all of us do some simple philosophy every day of our lives. As soon as we ask the questions ‘Why…?’ Or ‘What does that mean?’ we are beginning to do philosophy. We are doing ethics when we say something like: ‘I am anti-vax’ or ‘anti ‘transgender’…it’s just not natural, is it?’
Ethics and philosophy are the stuff of every day conversations...just couched in different terms.The word ‘philosophy’ simply means ‘love of wisdom’. Who of us does not want to be wise in the small judgements and decisions of life?
Philosophy and ethics have never been more important than they are today when there are so many voices trying to persuade us that what they are saying is true. President Trump may be a classic example of one who bends ideas of truth and morality to suit himself but he is far from alone. The war of ideas continues furiously in tweets, on websites as well as via more traditional arms of the media octopus.
We do not need to do any formal study of subjects which seem difficult to us. But we can ask questions like: ‘Is that really true?’ What is the evidence?’ ‘What assumptions are being made which lead to that conclusion?’ ‘What does that word really mean?’ These questions are at the very heart of the search for wisdom. Basically it’s not all that complicated.
We have just been witnessing in the USA a battle for the soul of the nation. But a similar struggle is going on everywhere – on the grand scale and in local and personal settings.
About 2,500 years ago a Greek thinker called Aeschylus said: ‘In war, truth is the first casualty’. Five hundred years later Jesus said: ‘The truth will set you free’.
Being wise after the event brings sorrow. Being wise before the event is often not easy but it deserves our best efforts. We need to have good questions if we are to arrive at good answers.
If we are going to philosophise – and we all need to – it’s important to do it well.Believe it or not, the search can be a lot of fun!
So – finally - just a couple of ethical questions: will you travel a distance to be with loved ones over Christmas just because you can? How will you decide which household to mix with? will you bend any other lockdown rules this Christmas? Will you have the vaccine as soon as possible? Why? Where does wisdom lie?