Philosophy Majors and Business: not as unique as you think

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A Philosophy Major is not Unique

There has been a surprising amount of online articles written on the value of a philosophy major with regards to the world of business. The purported value of philosophy, according to many of the writers of these articles, is the acquisition of particular skills which, I assume, they do not think can be learnt by majoring in other subjects. After all, if they did think those particular skills could be acquired by studying other subjects at university, then why would they single out philosophy? But what are those skills? Below are some of the skills I have seen across numerous articles. Said skills are not an exhaustive list, and are in no particular order:

1. Critical thinking: philosophers learn how to think clearly and critically about problems.

2. Ability to debate and argue: philosophy is all about arguing, so philosophers can follow arguments and spot logical fallacies and inconsistencies. 

3. High tolerance of ambiguity: philosophy is okay with ambiguity and not having the right answer.

4. They can keep track of the big picture and the small details: philosophers learn to keep the big picture in mind when working on the smaller details.

5. They are more rational and less emotional: because arguments respond to reasons, philosophers learn that emotions play no important role in philosophy, thus to keep a clear head.

6. They can pull apart complex problems: In virtue of the type of things philosophers engage with, they learn to compartmentalise problems.

7. They question all foundations: because philosophy has no rules, philosophers are okay with having no rules or questioning those rules that exist.

Most of the articles seem to just assert their claims without providing any real evidence. If there is evidence provided,  it is fairly easy to over turn. Perhaps the most common form of evidence given is the suggestion that, because philosophy involves certain skills, then those who engage with philosophy must develop these skills. What’s wrong with this view?  

So far as I can see, there are three things that are obvious, at least to me. Consider the following: 1) the purpose of a university education is the acquisition of the above skills regardless of the major, 2) these skills are not unique to philosophy, and 3) studying philosophy does not teach these skills. These three observations undermine the view that a philosophy major can do anything unique for you, at least with regards to its application to the world of business.

Consider what it would look like if 1) were false; what would be the value of a university education if 1) was wrong. I imagine the reason many people go to university is to gain these sorts of skills. If one is earning a university degree, one should expect to learn these skills regardless of their major. To think one would finish university without learning these skills is, quite frankly, tragic. After all, it seems university is about engaging with the topics/subjects you choose to study – but how can you engage with a subjects problems if you do not learn the above listed skills? 

Now, while these articles argue in favour of the benefits of a philosophy degree, they do not say explicitly state no other degree can provide these skills. So, perhaps I am setting up a bit of a straw man here. But I don’t think I am. After all, if the writers did not think philosophy unique then it is hard to understand why they would single out and praise philosophy, rather than all university courses, or the special class of university courses, they believe taught these skills. It would also be hard to understand why the writers of these articles would praise philosophy as teaching these skills, and not just telling people what sorts of skills are valuable with regards to a business. Considering they do not do this – but, rather, praise philosophy – it would be very, very strange to pick the subject out uniquely amongst a universities subjects.

Next is 2), these skills are not unique to philosophy. Imagine if they were – imagine if critical thinking were only something philosophers do, or that only philosophers learn to keep their emotions ‘in check’ when considering problems. Surely, this is surely ridiculous. Examining historical, astronomical, math, biological, problems involves the same sorts of skills – how could they not? Engaging in a research heavy degrees (MA, PhD), you are going to the edge of knowledge in a particular field. Simply in virtue of doing so you are going to be engaging with ambitious, complex micro-problems and figure out how your niche research fits into the bigger picture of an academic discipline. 

And, finally, 3) – philosophy does not teach any of these skills. This is anecdotal, but in my experience as both a student and a tutor, none of these skills are ever taught. Rather, they are picked up in passing by those engaging successfully with the material. While anecdotal, my experience is not unique. Rather, it seems to be more widespread than contrary. People who are successful in philosophy (marks wise, at least) are already good at these skills, or at least prone to them. All they are doing is sharpening what’s already there. And given the amount of people I have seen study philosophy, even at the higher research end, they do not share these amazing skills these writers purport philosophy teaches us. 

In fact, the reason these writers think philosophy does this is because they meet, the people who praise philosophical training, people who went to the best universities – who were already smart – and met people who just so happened to do philosophy as a major. People like Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Stewart Butterfield, might have studied philosophy, but they went to institutions like Stanford and Cambridge. They were already critical thinkers.

My final point is that suggesting a philosophy major are good for business because of a set of skills they might learn – and should learn from any university subject – cheapens the importance of philosophy. It turns the pursuit into an instrumental good – good only because it acquires something of actual value – rather than being valuable for its own sake. This attitude is misguided. And in the next few entries, I want to make an argument for why a philosopher, and the study of philosophy, is uniquely placed to help startups and businesses.

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First Publication ever!

I’ve been noticeably absent from this blog primarily due to efforts placed elsewhere. That place, namely, was my thesis and several papers I managed to draw out of said thesis.

I’m happy – no, ecstatic! – to report that one of those papers was accepted for publication in UtilitasThe paper, entitled, ‘Experience Machines, Conflicting Intuitions, and the Bipartite Characterization of Well-being’, is about a series of experimental surveys that show when people are given the choice between living in reality and living in an experience machine (e.g., the matrix), opinions are divided. This division of intuitions, some argue, show that the original experience machine thought experiment by Robert Nozick, shows us nothing substantive about well-being. I suggested that the conflicting intuitions was due to mental calculations about the prudential welfare pay-offs and trade-offs of given scenarios.

Hopefully I’ll have all my PhD applications done within a week or so and I can spend a little more time getting back to finishing off some of the mini-projects I had started on this blog.

Meat Matters

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 40 odd years, you’ll probably be familiar with Peter Singer and his work on animal equality. Roughly, Singer argues animals are, by and large, treated unfairly simply due to the species they belong to. That is, humans give greater weight to humans – and less to animals – because of an unethical (and therefore morally unjustified) bias towards their own species. He believes (whether rightly or wrongly) that our belief humans are more important than other animals is a predjudice we can call speciesism: “[…] a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species,” (Singer 2009, p. 6).

And, Singer suggests, speciesism is not different than any kind of prejudice –ism, such as racism (the bias towards a particular race) or sexism (the bias towards a particular gender). Racism and sexism are, obviously, unjustifiable – morally or otherwise – and so too, Singer contends, is speciesism.

The argument he presents is simple and straightforward.We start with the principle of equal considerations of interests; that interests, preferences, etc. count equally, no matter how those interests (preferences, etc.) were generated. My preferences do not count more than yours – and nor do yours count more than mine. But whose preferences? Here, Singer turns to widely cited passage by Jeremy Bentham (1791): “the question is not, Can they reason? Can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

In other words, the only morally relevant input into whose preferences/interests matter, are those beings that can feel pain (or suffer). But why think this? For Singer (at least at the time of writing, I understand he has changed his mind on this in recent years, but I do not have a reference to support this claim) is that “the capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way,” (Singer 2011, p. 50).

His point here is that, the interests which are to be considered at all are those of sentient creatures – those capable of feeling pain and pleasure, as things like inanimate objects do not have preferences (nor do we feel we owe them morally) because they do not feel pain, such as rocks and stones. This is why, according to Singer, we can draw the line at sentience, as it is “the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others,” (Singer 2011, p. 50).

But if we accept this proposal, it is immediately obvious that there are other beings that are sentient, can experience pain and pleasure and, therefore, have interests and preferences. These beings are, obviously, other animals other than our own species.

And, clearly, animals have an interest in staying alive and not being placed into tight confines, force-fed gruel tortured or slaughtered. And when we measure our interests in consuming meat against those interests of being not killed or being kept in conditions tantamount to torture, it seems our interests are not as important than the animals themselves. Indeed, our preference to eat meat at all, when considering what the animal must go through, seems almost trivial.

Whether we are speciesist or not does not, I think, matter so much as whether we are, at least in some sense, permitted to consume animal flesh. And, if so, how much and how often?

The answer to the first question, I think, is yes; we are permitted to eat animals. But – and this cannot be stressed enough – the amount we consume, how often we consume it and, more importantly, how we source this food are definitely less than what the average layperson might think.

Meat is consumed often and usually for the simple fact that it tastes good. Worse, the quantity of meat consumed in one sitting is often greater than is necessary for the person who is eating. Meat does taste good – I can’t deny that. But there are clearly alternatives, that are just as delicious. I don’t think we need to take the taste good argument particularly seriously.

The problem, really, is consumption. And the reason this consumption is beyond what it ought to be, is simply for the fact that we have forgotten what role meat plays in our lives. Meat has played a significant role in the development of tradition, both social and religious, and often given a kind of reverence, or at least brought out only on the proper occasion.

However, due to the easy accessibility we have (at least in the first world) to meats of all varieties has made us forget the importance it had with the family, with the neighbourhood, and with society. But what has accessibility have to do with the importance, or lack thereof, of meat?

Meat, for much of human history, has been resource intensive: financially, time-wise, effort, etc. Meat was (and still is) expensive because it is both rare and requires significant work to rear the animals. There is the land it requires – the space it needs to graze upon – the food it eats itself – and other things that it requires to live. It therefore is a big deal to kill this animal – to take its life – as the loss of life itself is recognized as a serious moral loss, but additionally it is the final ‘cashing-out’ of resource investment.

Meat is the centre piece of any meal, and it is often hard to conceptualize a meal without it. But due to the mass production of it, the competitiveness of its pricing, and its availability, meat has lost its importance – how it brings people together on special occasions. Roger Scruton makes much the same points I have tried to raise here, and he says the following:

“The lifestyle associated with the Sunday roast involves sacrifices that those brought up on fast food are largely incapable of making – meal times, manners, dinner-table conversation, and the art of cookery itself. But all those things form part of a complex human good, and I cannot help thinking that, when added to the ecological benefits of small-scale livestock farming, they secure for us an honourable place in the scheme of things, and neutralize more effectively than the vegetarian alternative, our inherited burden of guilt,” (Scruton 2004, p. 90).

Of course, this has only made meat eating permissible under certain, particularly niche, circumstances, and Singer (and the like) can easily retort that appeals to how things are in a tradition is certainly not a good moral reason for why we ought to keep a behaviour. After all, can we not just replace meat with some sort of meat-tasting/looking alternative perform the exact same function? Surely it can, but it seems the importance of meat is the fact that it was alive and now it is not.

Indeed, if we grew meat in a laboratory instead of rearing an animal for slaughter, this ‘lab-meat’ still does not perform the function of bringing us together as meat from a once-living animal can. We recognize in the meat of a once-living animal the sacrifice that has been made, the loss of life to continue and celebrate life with friends and family, as being why meat matters.

But the way in which meat is produced on the mass-scale ought to revolt us – for it is not just ‘inhumane’, so to speak, but robs us of the kinds of sacrifices made when the animal is killed for food. We deeply care about where our food came from, how it was raised, what it was fed, because we recognise that these things inherently add value to the meat itself. And – importantly – is that we ought to.

The solution, to me at least, seems something like this. We must severely reduce the quantity of meat we consume, both in terms how often we eat it, and portion sizes when we do, as well as how the livestock was raised. Meat ought to be preserved for special occasions, for family and friends, so that we may appreciate what we have and who we have it with.

 

References

 Bentham, J. (1781). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Scruton, R. (2004). “The Conscientious Carnivore,” in Steve Sapontzis (ed.) Food For Thought, pp. 81-91.

Singer, P. (2009). Animal Liberation.

Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics, 3rd edition.

 

About the Philosopher’s Quarry

The purpose of this blog is pretty straight-forward: to have a public space to sketch out how philosophers can uniquely help us grow and enrich our lives. This includes how companies, both established and startups, can enrich the lives of their clients, employees, and stakeholders. But also how we, as individuals in our private lives, might reflect upon our values and live a better quality of life for ourselves and others.

I specialize in value theory, ethics, moral philosophy, and well-being. And I approach problems from the unique position of considering how ethics and morality might shed light on a given problem.

The title of this blog reflects my personal philosophy and approach to problem solving: dig deeper. 

While ideas, rules, and traditions might appear immutable, nothing is set in stone. Regardless of how solid things might appear to us, or how impossible digging deeper might seem, we can always, with a little effort and guidance, dig a little deeper.