(Reading time: 4 minutes, 800 words)
My grandfather, just before leaving life at the age of 94, left these parting words of advice: Be kind to everyone. These four words, reflecting the wisdom of a century of living, now hang as an epitaph on my mother's living room wall.
Seems simple enough.
Most of us think of ourselves as good, kind, and loving. But often our concepts of what it means to be good conflict with the beliefs of others. And other times we fall short in letting our beliefs guide behavior, which raises the question: Can we improve our ability to be kind by critically examining our own beliefs and honestly exploring the moral theories of others?
Contemporary philosopher Mark Siderits suggests that questions of ethics sparked the philosophical traditions in both the East and West roughly 2500 years ago:
In each case the original impetus seems to have come from a concern to answer ethical questions. Out of dissatisfaction with the received view of how people should live their lives, there arose efforts at thinking systematically about these matters.
This pursuit of ethical truth and the good life led to questions of "How can we know? Should we put faith in a god, and if so, why? Can the reasoning mind be trusted? Should we be kind out of duty, or can we find empirical evidence supporting its cause?"
Despite the often simple answers put forth by religious traditions, genuinely exploring these questions is anything but simple. And even if simple answers can be arrived at, an honest inquiry yields a depth and solidarity of character that might not be cultivated otherwise. In straightforward prose, Louis P. Pojman expresses the human value of philosophical study:
Philosophy is revolutionary and vitally important to the good life. It starts from an assumption, first announced by the founder of moral philosophy, Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living and that while hard thinking about important issues disturbs, it also consoles. Philosophy, as Aristotle said over two thousand years ago, begins with wonder at the marvels and mysteries of the world. It begins in wonder in the pursuit of truth and wisdom and ends in a life lived in passionate moral and intellectual integrity. This is the classic philosophical ideal, beginning with the ancient Greeks down through Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and Kierkegaard to the present. Of course, this thesis about the worth of philosophy is to be subject to rational scrutiny.
~Louis P. Pojma
In true philosophical fashion, Pojman, after making his claim that philosophical study cultivates moral and intellectual integrity, admits that the point is debatable. This should not be taken as an effort to be diplomatic. For, paradoxically, philosophical study reveals that a certain "truth" exists in the endless search for it, and not in the notion that it has been found. The fruit of this discovery should be humility, despite the assumption that philosophers are haughty. And humility, by all accounts, seems to be constitutive of kindness and compassion.
It's not just the study of moral philosophy that is beneficial. A study of metaphysics, where questions of free will and the existence of god are explored, helps one see the questionability of their own beliefs. The philosophical study of aesthetics – where the nature of beauty and why we find pleasure in it is examined – will have one questioning the metaphysical theories they had so carefully arrived at. And if that's not enough, epistemic studies will cast a silver-lined cloud of doubt on whether the senses, reason, or intuition can be trusted.
When one continually questions their personal and sacred convictions, people and ideas that were once seen as different or dangerous take on a new light – their humanity surfaces before all else.
The point is that all this questioning does lead to some answers, and one of them is this: wisdom is as much about compassion as it is intellect, and it's cultivated through study; kindness is an unexpected byproduct of critical self-examination.
In a world where knowledge is heralded as the source of power and progress, uncertainty has its practical benefits, and they consist of ethical and wonder-ful living.
But, of course, all of this is up for debate.