Philosophy as good advice

Philosophy has always been an art of conversation. Much of what we know about the thoughts of philosophers in the past we can only read in their books, but rarely have they lived purely reclusive lives, without any contact to others. At the very least they were engaged in a silent discourse with their predecessors; most had teachers, students and like-minded friends whose works they followed, and with whom they have discussed their own ideas; many had lively exchanges with the broader public. Philosophy in general, and reflection on ethical questions in particular, benefits greatly from honest and intense dialogue with those who share our estimation for it.

Especially in important matters, like how one should live, your ways of sharing your insights should reflect the insights themselves. If you think that you have gained by reflecting, then do respect the capacity for reflection in others: accept that they can, and will, think and decide for themselves. You may suggest and advise, but the choices are theirs.

There is more value in advising someone than in missionizing them — it simply shows more respect for the reason and intelligence of who you talk to. It still leaves it their decision what to think, and how to feel. (If, on the other hand, you try to decide for someone else, you attempt to take choices away from them. In a sense, you act to restrain, not to empower them.) And respecting their decision is not just more honest and helpful towards them: if you think about it, it is also more valuable for you. Partly that is because a considerate and respectful attitude towards others is in itself an honorable quality; partly it is because an inability to respect diverging views in others, even if you have good reason to believe them false, might indicate a questionable element in your own personality.

What does it mean if you find yourself hesitant to accept that someone thinks and feels differently than you do? Do you find a delight in getting others converted over to your own position? Do you see this as a game, or contest? Or is there a fear behind it, are you perhaps afraid that their differing views may influence you? An uncertainty may be at work here that you have about your own views, and possibly you should scrutinize them. You may have to correct them; perhaps add some qualifications, make them more nuanced; or you might confirm them, providing them with a firmer basis — in any case, you'll gain from the exercise, and you are better off having done it than you would have been if you'd just ignored your doubts.

If you find yourself compelled to press someone on a subject where you've given advice that hasn't stuck with them: ask yourself why it should be so important to you to change their mind. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.