The Need for a Personal Philosophy

The Modern Survival Guide #106

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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

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

The Pitfalls of Personal Philosophy

Well this all sounds just ducky, doesn’t it?

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.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.