The Modern Survival Guide #106
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. I’ve been writing those two sentences for more than a hundred articles now, and today I want to put some focus on the latter one. My views are my own. My own. Mine. They are one of the few things to which I can justifiably lay claim. But they didn’t emerge spontaneously; I have a lifetime of education, experience, and curiosity that molded them… and that’s important.
Today I want to talk about something somewhat controversial — the concept of a “personal” philosophy. I think I have one. And I think you should too.
So what does that mean? Well, when I talk about personal philosophy, what I mean is that I tend to follow a self-imposed, self-derived code of living. Beyond that, I tend to look at the world through my own viewpoint, and I don’t place much faith in the viewpoints of others without serious justification. I do what I think is right, for reasons I think are right, based on a worldview that I think is correct enough for practical work.
This is not a popular concept. Religions don’t like it. Nor do lawyers or governments. It’s a chaotic idea. I’m not super fond of it. I simply believe that it is the best option available. With that in mind, in this article I’ll talk about the benefits of having a personal philosophy, my suggestions for how to develop one, and the pitfalls you might encounter by using a personal philosophy. Let’s start with good things.
The Benefits of a Personal Philosophy
Many years ago, I first came into contact with the field of psychology. It fascinated me. In particular, I recall my first exposure to some of the classic psychological experiments — the Milgram Experiments, the (since debunked) Stanford Prison Experiment, the Gorilla Experiment, and others. The Milgram episode in particular amazed me. How could people who claimed to be rational, empathetic individuals do such horrible things?¹
There are several conclusions that researchers have developed from Milgram. One was the idea that some people will simply conform to authoritative direction under stress. Another was the idea that people who are given orders often come to see themselves simply as the instrument for those orders, and therefore not the responsible party. Still another was the idea that people are willing to do awful things in pursuit of what they believe to be a noble ideal.
What I took away from it was that the people who “failed” the experiment did not have an actual, factual moral center. They either caved to authority or surrendered their autonomy. What they didn’t do was obey their own purported ideals. Everything else seems to flow from that.
This isn’t a new concept. Hypocrisy is pretty much everywhere; I have a different article on that. It’s the politician who says he’s anti-gay, but secretly hires male prostitutes. It’s the school board chairman who promotes freedom of speech in her opening remarks, then sets about banning books. It’s the neighbor who decries drug abuse in the most heinous terms, then goes to their doctor for their weekly Valium prescription. Most people do not have a comprehensive moral code; they have a bunch of concepts that they apply to particular situations, sometimes they get them twisted around, and sometimes they’re missing a particular scenario and they have to improvise.
This bring us back to a personal philosophy; most people don’t have one, and don’t follow any organized philosophy at all. They have a piece of moral code cobbled from TV, another piece from church, another piece from 5th grade civics class, and a large chunk from their favorite echo chamber on the internet. But it’s not cohesive, it’s not internally consistent, and there are big gaps. And where there are gaps, there’s wiggle room for someone else to come in and exploit that opening.
Enter the big benefits of a personal philosophy: it forces you to come to grips with this problem. It forces you to sit down, figure out the things you think are important, and put them in some sort of order. It encourages you to imagine counterfactual arguments, holes in your logic, and situations where your philosophy might fall down. It makes you engage with the reality of the world when considering the implications of things you think are “good” or “moral.” And it enables you to develop personal reasons to stick to the philosophy, which is nothing to sneeze at.
The ultimate benefit of a personal philosophy, I think, is that even going through the exercise of articulating one better prepares you to resist something like the Milgram experiment. It helps you to remain a self-empowered, rational, moral person. It helps you to avoid charismatic charlatans, dangerous ideologies, and religious extremists. It helps you stay your best self.
As Aristotle said, “I have gained this by philosophy — that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law.”
How to Develop a Personal Philosophy
There are no hard-and-fast rules to developing a personal philosophy. I have my ideas; other people have other ideas. But in general, here are some tips:
- Start with what you know: We’re exposed to a mishmash of competing philosophies over our lives. Think about what you took away from these “known” sources. Doesn’t matter where they’re from; Knight Rider is just as valid a starting place as the Bible. Almost every philosophic system has something worthwhile. These are starting points for your personal views.
- Think about what is important: What gives your life meaning? What do you enjoy about living? What motivations do you have? What changes do you want to make in the world, or in your life? These are additional starting points. Look beyond the surface, though — try to think about deeper connections and values that you see in these important things.
- Write these things down: Starting with what you took from known philosophy sources and what you think is important, write down value statements. “Murder is wrong,” for example, is one value statement; “Life is precious,” is another spin on the same thing. Then write down the values you’ve identified in your life. It’s OK to have overlap; we’ll get to that in a moment.
- Ask why: We’ve talked about the Five Whys in other articles, and it’s coming back again. Once you have your value statements written down, ask “why” for each one. Do this five times. If you can defend the value through five whys, you probably have a good enough understanding to follow it.²
- Find the overlaps: Find the areas where the values or ideas you’ve written down seem to be saying the same thing. These are important, because they’re likely significant areas for you. Re-write these statements into the most complete form you can think of. For example, “Murder is wrong” and “Life is precious” could be combined into “Human life is important and should be valued, not discarded or taken lightly or needlessly.” It’s OK to be wordy; you’re not in English class anymore, and concise statements are only valuable if they aid in comprehension.
- Find the gaps: Start thinking about things that you believe to be important, but haven’t yet written down. Write them down. For example, after stating the value of life, you might find it necessary to add, “The defense of myself and my people is a valid reason to end another person’s life, should no other option present itself.” Fill in as many of these gaps as you can think of, and be prepared to find more as time goes on.
- Check for consistency and logic: Look over what you’ve written so far. Are there obvious points of inconsistency? Are there obvious points of bad logic? Try to reconcile these as best you can. It may help to get a trusted friend or acquaintance to talk these things over; sometimes a second pair of eyes sees things more clearly.
- Check for broad applicability: Look over what you’ve written so far. If everyone you know followed these values, would the world be better or worse? Try to avoid any value statement that would, if broadly applied, make the world worse.
- Check for originality: Look over what you’ve written so far. Does it strongly conform to one or more of the philosophies you already know? For example, are all of your values in lockstep with the ideology in which you grew up? If so… be careful. You’re likely still working from someone else’s assumptions, and that’s not what we’re here to do. You may want to examine these assumptions before you go any further.³
- Imagine Counterarguments: Imagine how other people might see your personal philosophy from the outside. Imagine ways in which it might be challenged. See if you can defend it. If you can’t, it needs work. If your defenses are bad, it needs more work.
- Compose a final list: Look over what you’ve done. Organize your “final draft” list of values and ideas. Decide if it works. Rinse and repeat from step 2 until you have something that looks good.
- Apply to the world: Now it’s time to test. Take your philosophy and apply it to your daily life. See if it’s doing what it’s supposed to do (remember that philosophy is a tool for better living, not an end state in and of itself). If it’s not working properly, if it’s not representing your values and the things you find important in life, take it back to the editing stage and try again.
- Iterate: Keep applying your philosophy to your life, and track things that need to change. Life is not static, and your personal philosophy may change over time. Be prepared to examine, assess, and either accept or reject those changes.
Now for an obvious point, this is work. There’s no getting around that. If you want a personal philosophy, you’re going to need to work for it. Be prepared to take a day or two, at some point every few years, to do this. Find a free weekend, or maybe just an hour a night, and work through it on your own pace. It’s not a race. There are no prizes for turning in the homework first. These are your values, your ideals, your proscriptions. It’s worth taking the time to get them right.
The Pitfalls of Personal Philosophy
Well this all sounds just ducky, doesn’t it?
It’s not that easy, is it?
There’s a catch, isn’t there?
Of course there’s a catch, there’s always a catch in philosophy. How do you think nihilism got started? In this case, the catch is that there is a reason why religions, governments, and legal organizations dislike the idea of personal philosophies: it’s very, very easy for people to go dark side.
Think about that one libertarian friend you have who uses their philosophy as a crutch to justify being selfish. Or that Republican friend you have who uses their ideology as a crutch to justify being xenophobic. Or that one environmentalist friend who uses their ideals as an excuse to make other people feel bad. Or that one ultra-religious friend you have who uses their faith as a shield to justify being judgmental. Now, imagine they got to make it all up as they went along.
Holy shit. That is one messed-up human being with a godawful massive chip on their shoulder. That is what all those institutions were trying to avoid, and that’s the pitfall of a personal philosophy. Any halfway smart person can design a philosophy that justifies their worst impulses. Rationalization is the bane of humanity.
This gives us a simple goal to start with when developing a personal philosophy: don’t be evil. If you don’t know what evil is… don’t develop a personal philosophy. Just pick one off the rack, you’ve got decent odds it’ll turn out better.
So why do I bother advocating for a personal philosophy at all? Well… the short answer is that this objection turns into an “any given Tuesday” issue. If your problem with developing a personal philosophy is that people may be dicks, how is that different from any given Tuesday? People are always going to be dicks. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a dick.
The big pitfall of personal philosophy isn’t that some asshole will turn it to their own ends, because that’s going to happen with any philosophy; it’s that you won’t realize if you do the same. Introspection is required.
If you’re not good at introspection, work on that first and then develop a personal philosophy. Here’s how you know that you’re not good at introspection: ask yourself if you’re good at introspection. If the answer is an unabashed “Yes,” you’re not good at introspection. Go sit in a quiet room and think about your life for a while.
The Banal Reality of Personal Philosophy
There are two big reasons why personal philosophies aren’t a major problem, and in fact end up being rather beneficial when taken as a whole.
The first is that, from a macro perspective, there’s very little reason to worry about personal philosophies. The vast majority of humans have come to the same moral conclusions over the course of our history; our main areas of moral conflict tend to come from how we get there.⁴ The people who don’t come to those conclusions will subvert any philosophy you put in front of them anyway, so they really don’t count.
The second reason is that, functionally speaking, everyone is walking around with a personal philosophy in any case. Even the most stringent moral code is subject to interpretation (and saying your moral code isn’t is in fact an interpretation), and we all do this, all the time, every day.
The difference between someone following a prescribed philosophy versus a personal philosophy is simply that the former individual hasn’t taken the time to work on deconflicting their values; they’re still walking around with their ideas, their understanding, their interpretations. The only difference between them and someone with a personal philosophy is that the latter person better understands their values, has worked to make sure they have a code they agree with, and has the incentive to apply all of it to their life.
Despite it being somewhat pedestrian in the macro sense, it is still very much worth your time to develop a personal philosophy because, remember, this isn’t about other people. It’s about you. It’s about your ability to articulate, defend, and live by a code. It’s about your understanding of your place in the world and how that fits in with everything else. Those are worthwhile goals on their own.
So please, do me a favor and take an afternoon to sit down and write down what’s important to you. Take an evening to come up with your ideals. Take an hour here and there to reconcile your views. Have a drink with a sympathetic friend and deconflict the logic in your beliefs. And then practice, practice, practice your philosophy in the world. I can’t guarantee you’ll become a paragon of virtue overnight. But I can pretty much guarantee that (if you start with the premise of don’t be evil) this will make you a better person.
¹For those of you who didn’t click the link, the general conclusion of the Milgram Experiments was that, if you put people in a stress situation, the majority will obey an authority figure who tells them to kill another human being. It’s fucking terrifying, and it’s part of an explanation for “Why Did Nazis Do Things?” which was a hot topic after WWII.
²For example, “Why do I want free will?” (1) Because it’s important to be in charge of my own life so I can do what I consider important. (2) Because if I’m not in charge of my own life, someone else is. (3) Because if I’m not in charge of my own life, whoever is may have ill intentions. (4) Because if I’m not in charge of my own life, whoever is may not be competent, and I want my life to be good. (5) Because my life has potential, and if people of ill will or incompetence are using me, my potential may go to things I disapprove of. Therefore I should have free will.
³Why is this important? Well, my argument is that part of developing a personal philosophy is that you’re controlling for worldview assumptions. These are the basic statements about the world that you assume to be true — not because you have a good reason, but because that’s how you were raised and indoctrinated. Most of the common philosophies of life are chock full of these, so all of us — all of us — operate with some assumptions. If you find that your personal philosophy is identical to an existing philosophy, you’re probably holding the same assumptions. If nothing else, it’s good to know what they are. You may find that, upon further inspection, you don’t actually believe them.
⁴For example, the abortion debate isn’t about whether or not it’s wrong to kill babies. Everyone involved agrees that it’s wrong to kill babies. The debate is about what counts as a baby. It’s an issue of deciding when a collection of cells becomes a full human being, not the ideal morals regarding human beings.