The Trolley Problem remains one of my favourite conundrums. It neatly demonstrates human inconsistencies in intuition as it ever so slightly adapts itself.
Here is the basic formulation of the Trolley Problem:
Briefly: you are in a train carriage (not in a supermarket shopping trolley as the American phrasing may suggest). The carriage’s brakes have broken. Ahead of you are 5 innocent people tied down to the tracks. If the carriage continues it will kill these people. You do have an option to save their lives, however. There is a left turning on the tracks and you can steer left to save 5 innocent lives. Of course, there is a catch. And on that left track is one person tied down. He will be killed if you turn on his course.
What do you do?
As with all of philosophy there is no right answer. But there are better answers than others. And a good answer will involve sound and logical reasoning that builds a solid foundation to back up your claim.
This is philosophy. But I’ve jumped the gun.
When I tell people I study philosophy there are two things they react with:
- “ooh wow, that’s cool” (I do think that is ‘cool’ in the genuine sense, not the pitiful sense but who knows)…sometimes they continue with “dude you must just chill and blaze all day” – no comment
- “but tell me, David, what can you actually do with a philosophy degree?”
The second point is what I am interested in answering today. And my response typically takes the following form:
Philosophy, I tell them, is not, as many people may be inclined to think, sitting in a chair with a spliff in one hand, whisky and/or wine in the other hand, and a book for your third hand to hold as your third eye reads and ponders whether this chair is real and whether I actually exist. (That was a long sentence. You’ll learn in philosophy, and in any good writing course, that you should keep sentences short. That was one of Kant’s biggest pitfalls. But creative licenses so yeah.) I digress…
Philosophy does include the aforementioned existential musings (poison optional) but it is so much more than that. “What unites Philosophy of Art with Metaphysics and Ethics and Philosophy of Technology?” is my response in typical philosopher fashion responding to a question with another question.
The answer: how you do the philosophy. See, philosophy is essentially one big argument. It is many different minds with many different opinions going back and forth, ad infinitum. There is no end because there no right answer. But there are better answers than others. Good Philosophy teaches you how to construct these answers. It is at root a logical subject. This is why I had to take classes in Logic and Reasoning & Argument in the first year of my degree. Because without these foundations one cannot even begin to engage in the discussion that awaits.
A pause for a simple exercise:
Premise 1: If it is raining then Tom will get wet
Premise 2: Tom is wet
Conclusion: Therefore, it is raining
Seems logical, no? Of course, it’s a decoy and the answer is no. But someone without logical training may instinctively think otherwise. I say may and not definitely because it is not necessarily the case that whilst philosophy teaches logic other subjects do not. And so in a similar vein, it may be the case that Tom is wet because it was raining but it is perfectly plausible that Tom got wet because he walked passed a garden sprinkler, or because his friends poured a bucket of water over his head (some friends), or because he had a shower…I could go on but you understand the point.
Philosophy teaches you to detect these fallacious arguments and respond to them. Essentially, it teaches you good critical thinking and analysis. This is the first tool required for good philosophy. If one wants to engage in discussion he should want to do so convincingly. The second tool is good writing. If one is to engage in discussion he should want to do so clearly.
I remember handing in my first philosophy essay thinking these profs don’t know what’s coming for them. I had completely dismantled the argument for capital punishment. I had covered all aspects of the topic. I had begun with a scintillating quote and had concluded with a thought-provoking ending. Needless to say it returned with a fat fifty-five. I was perplexed and stunned. They must have missed my scintillating quote. Went straight over their heads. To cut the shit, my writing was far from the level I thought.
I soon learnt that philosophy is a rather dry subject. At first I was a bit annoyed but I soon came to love it. Winding words in flowery sentences were to be shunned like the plague. Half-assed conclusions where you sympathise with both sides simply showed lack of reasoning. And forget any quotes.
A good philosophy essay should be precise and succinct. It should focus on one aspect of the topic. Every word should serve a purpose. Every sentence should further your argument. And, like a firm return on a serve at Wimbledon, your conclusion should be definitive. Then let your opponent conjure a response. And then follow suit. Backhands, forehands, slices and volleys: there is no correct answers but there are better ones…I think I may have stumbled across a pretty good analogy for philosophy here.
Yes, that’s another one, don’t be shy in using examples and parallels to convey a point. A philosophy essay needs to convince the reader of a point, you want to make that understanding as easy as possible.
So philosophy teaches us how to detect an argument and respond to it critically, engaging with it in a clear and logical fashion.
But how can arguing and clear writing help me in life?
Seriously, how can it help me?
I am graduating this June and cannot, for the life of me, figure out what I want to do with my life. I know I’ve got some good skills to offer…anyone need a clear-thinking strategist to solve their problems with good writing?
I’m right here. Somewhere. At least I think so…I mean I can definitely confirm my own existence. That much I know. But I can’t confirm yours. So, if you do exist and think you could give me a job then hire me.
But, Philosophy. It is worth it, trust me…it’s not like I knew what I wanted to do beforehand anyway.
words by David Blanga