Especially with the advent of the internet and social media, there has been a significant amount of “inspirational”, “motivational”, and “life style” advice spreading amongst people. This ranges from “motivational posters” in the American workplace to a picture shared on Facebook that offer some kind of philosophical advice for living a better life. While the spreading and appreciation of philosophy is a good thing, especially since it shows people the usefulness of philosophy, this advice tends to be quite shallow, or even unjustified.
Such advice tends to vary, presumably because it comes from people who think they have someone intelligent to promote. Sometimes they are correct, and the advice they give has meaning, and sometimes they are just promoting fallacies and irrational actions that only sound like good ideas.
These messages tend to be spread more than a philosophy book because they are short and seem to offer a lot of “life changing” meaning for such a small amount of effort to read. Essays such as this one however would take too long to read, and as such don’t tend to be as popular.
One issue with short messages is that they don’t always justify their ideas, often because there is no justification but rather just a shallow, mistaken, and reactionary gut instinct. An example of this is the idea that
“People don’t deserve a second chance, because if they cared they would have done it right the first time.”
This isn’t only extremely selfish, it’s also illogically wrong. It presumes that people who fail you once do so willingly, but it ignores the possibility that the person either made a mistake or was not able to do whatever it was. So while this message appears to be useful advice on how to avoid trusting people who will betray you, it actually just makes you cynical and a worse person.
Telling as Opposed to Showing
One of the reasons such wrong or shallow messages are so prevalent is that there is a tendency to want to tell people what you believe is right. This is natural as when you see something wrong, you wish to tell people that you believe they are mistaken, or at least to show them that there is another possibility.
The problem is that we are merely reiterating what we believe and receive support when other people who believe it see what we write. There may be some people who did not have an opinion on the matter or who did not care, and when they see this philosophy they either realise that they agree or they did not have an opinion and think this one makes enough sense to be true. Instead of really helping people by spreading truth, this is just isolating the people who agree from those who don’t, and staying in your circle of like-minded people.
What we should be doing is not repeating a message to people who already agree because that serves little purpose, we should also not be telling people who disagree that they are wrong, because that doesn’t help you or the other people to come to any sort of understanding.
Philosophy by its nature requires open minded discussion where people do not simply tell others what they believe, but instead show each other why they believe those things. One cannot be expected to accept a new idea without justification, so simply telling someone that they are wrong is not enough to make them change their minds. In fact, you should not simply change your mind because of a message without explanation. If you do have beliefs and thoughts that you have justified, then you have a reason for having them. In order for you to reasonably believe otherwise, you have to be shown why that justification is wrong or incomplete. That cannot be done by simply telling someone that they are wrong.
So to anyone who writes or tells people things of philosophical importance:
- Do not just tell people what you think is right.
- Instead, show people what you mean and why you think it is right.
That is not only so people who disagree can understand your message better, but so that in case you are wrong, other people can explain to you why that is.
Short, witty messages tend to sound better and more meaningful, but they are generally not meaningful without justification. Stop making unjustified arguments, and stop believing them when you see them.
Rather than telling people your message, show them why you believe your message is true by explaining your argument so everyone is open to being wrong.