Tag Archives: practical philosophy

Missing out on my promotion

By Socrates

Practical philosophy, my friends, is a worthy pursuit. By using the techniques of philosophical reasoning, practical philosophy can help people see their life problems in a different light. Yesterday I was conversing with someone who had missed out on a job promotion. My friend was feeling a mix of anger and depression. She had deduced that failing to gain her promotion meant that she, herself, was a failure. Her reasoning was straight forward and deductively valid, though unsound:

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I must agree with my boss

By Socrates

By the gods, how many times have I seen people following the lead of authority figures, I don’t care to count. Sometimes authority figures are clever orators who can build agreement through carefully crafted rhetoric. We know these people as sophists. They make bad arguments look good and good arguments look bad.

But sometimes people follow the lead of authority figures even when they don’t agree with the arguments. Rather than challenge the arguments, they turn a blind eye and feign agreement. By Zeus, I have even seen people become so accustomed to a bad argument that they come to agree with it.

My life has been dedicated to challenging bad arguments. Identifying faulty premises is the first step in finding an antidote to poor reasoning. I must admit, however, that this approach eventually led to my trial and subsequent penalty. Nevertheless, I have been commanded to continue my work and I shall do so by examining every day reasoning.

I met an intelligent person whose boss had convinced him that a certain workplace policy should be enacted. But he wasn’t convinced through good argument. Rather, he was following his own behavioral reasoning based on this syllogism:

P1. (premise) If my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

P2. (premise) My boss believes we should enact a new policy

C. (conclusion) Therefore, I should believe it too.

Now, you are a wise reader and will no doubt find it confusing that anyone should follow behavioral reasoning such as this. But when we examine the reasoning more closely, we see that the first premise (P1) emerges from a prior deduction:

P1. (premise) I must have the approval of my boss

P2. (premise) If I must have the approval of my boss, then if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

C. (conclusion) Therefore, if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

This syllogism deduces the first premise of the main behavioral argument. So, good reader, you can see that my friend was agreeing with his boss because he believes he must have his boss’s approval.

For clarity, let us construct the reasoning in full.

P1. (premise) I must have the approval of my boss

P2. (premise) If I must have the approval of my boss, then if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, if my boss believes that we should enact a new policy, then I should believe it too (from P1, P2)

P3. (premise) My boss believes we should enact a new policy

C2. (conclusion) Therefore, I should believe it too (from C1, P3)

How can we help this unfortunate person? We can help by identifying weak or false premises. For example, premise 2 could very well be false. It is possible that my friend’s boss might not approve of unquestioned agreement. He may prefer to be challenged and therefore approve of employees who can articulate weaknesses in a plan.

But the main problem my friend’s reasoning is his first premise: I must have the approval of my boss. It may be true that he will gain his boss’s approval, but in insisting that he must have approval, my friend puts at risk his ability to think for himself. He risks his soul being twisted into a new shape by someone else.

At a more fundamental level, the word “must” implies that approval is unconditional and that there is no other way the world can be. My friend must have his boss’s approval. But surely his boss is free to decide for himself where he places his approval. There is no must, as if it is a universal law. I wonder what my friend would think if someone held him to the same demand: “you must approve of me”.

Our stoic friends would remind us that we cannot control the thoughts of others. They choose for themselves where they place their approval. We can, however, control our own actions. Insofar as it is more rational to focus on the things one can control rather than the things one cannot control, my friend should focus on developing his own values and making his own decisions. This, to me, seems preferable than assimilating someone else’s values in the hope of gaining approval.

— Socrates

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Examination pressure

By Socrates

Examinations are designed to probe student knowledge. I have read that the brain treats assessments, appraisals, and performance evaluations in the same way. As a threat. The interesting thing about a threat is that it triggers either one of two responses: fight or flight. Last week I had the fortune of dialoguing with a student who was experiencing the threat of an impending examination. I was eager to learn about the cause of the fight or flight response and the associated anxiety.

The student in question was anxious and was feeling immense pressure to perform well. She said that she had to get an A+ on her examination because her future studies depend on good grades. For her, it would be terrible to get less than an A+ , and a complete catastrophe to fail the exam. This student was in a most unfortunate predicament. But she didn’t realize that she was a victim of her own reasoning:

P1. (premise) I must never fail an exam

P2. (premise) If I must never fail an exam, failing this one would be a catastrophe

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, failing this exam would be a catastrophe

This reasoning is simple but misguided. In her first premise, she is suggesting that the world must be such that she never fails exams. Her use of the word “must” suggests a level of control over the world that is reserved for the gods. I suggested an alternative wording: I prefer that I don’t fail exams. In stating a preference rather than demanding that the world conforms to a desire, the student may find a reduction pressure.

I also talked with the student about her second premise. Would failing this exam really be a catastrophe? I asked if she could re-take the exam at another time. She said that it would, indeed, be possible to sit the exam the following year, which indicated to me that failing wouldn’t be a catastrophe. An inconvenience, sure. But a catastrophe, not really.

Still, the student was not convinced. So I asked what else might happen if she failed her exam. The poor student talked about her parents and friends, and was clearly worried that they would think negatively of her if she failed her exam. Not only was she worried about failing the exam because it might impact on her future study, she was also worried that she would lose the approval of her friends and family. Her reasoning took the following form:

P1. (premise) If I don’t have the approval of my friends and family, then I am not worthy

P2. (premise) If I fail my exam I won’t have the approval of my friends and family

C1. (conclusion) Therefore, if I fail my exam, I am not worthy.

It is no wonder the student was anxious. She had done herself a great harm by forming this unsound deduction. So we discussed her first premise. I asked about her life outside of school. As it happens, she is an artist and also helps care for homeless animals. These are worthy endeavours. Her actions make her worthy, not the opinions of other people. After further discussion, it was revealed that her parents and friends are proud of the work she does with animals. And they love her art. Bringing this to the surface disarmed her second premise. She has the approval of her friends and family regardless of her performance in exams.

I am uncertain how much help I was able to provide to the student. But I can report that she appeared more relaxed about her exam after we talked.

— Socrates


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Road Rage

By Socrates
How can people deal with real life situations with wisdom? This question is at the heart of the stoic philosophy and is a natural extension to my own search for wisdom. I have maintained that philosophy should be available to the people rather than remaining with the gods. It is the art of living. So in addition to interrogating people about values, justice, and ethics, I examine their responses to life issues. I am not a teacher, but through dialogue I hope to help people learn how to question their own lives.

Last week I encountered a car accident. The driver who was at fault seemed remorseful. So I took it upon my self to talk to this poor fellow.

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