Lessons Learned: How to talk about philosophy without getting punched

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Jackie Hu/The Occidental

Philosophy is a notoriously pretentious subject. It evokes names like Kant and Aristotle and Kierkegaard, that belong to dead white men who probably said and did a lot of terrible things while they were alive. When I tell people that I am a Philosophy major, they likely picture me sitting in a room lit only by candles, smoking a pipe and theorizing on what it really means to be alive — or whatever it is philosophers do. The reality is much less aesthetically pleasing but infinitely more accessible, meaning most days I have a highlighter in my hand rather than a pipe.

I have taken a number of wonderful Philosophy classes in the pursuit of my degree, and Ethics Bowl has been one of the most engaging and dynamic of them all. Similar to a debate team, but with a focus on explaining your point of view rather than confusing your opponent, Ethics Bowl involves structured arguments around a variety of ethical issues. This year’s cases involve subjects ranging from the regulation of performance-enhancing drugs to the personhood of elephants. Leading up to the regional tournament in December, each team researches and develops arguments for each case. At the actual competition, a case and an ethical question are selected at random for the team to present on. There are no notes and little deliberation allowed, meaning teams must be organized enough to draft an argument on the spot. The judges are people who have volunteered to spend their Saturday judging an Ethics Bowl tournament, and are typically not experts on philosophy. Teams that make their arguments accessible to those who may not be familiar with philosophical theory are therefore more successful at delivering a clear and easily understood presentation.

Using language that anyone can understand not only makes arguments about complex topics easier to follow, but allows the utility (pun intended) of philosophy to become more apparent. The essence of ethics bowl — and ethics as a broader subject — is to decide how you feel about things and eloquently explain, using anecdotal and statistical evidence, why you are correct in feeling that way. The opposing team is given the opportunity to respond to your argument with questions and counterarguments, to which you can then offer your own response. Unlike debates, ethical arguments are structured more like a conversation between two parties who may or may not agree. The goal is to collaborate with your opponents through the challenging of each other’s viewpoints.

Not only is this a useful skill within the scope of academia, but it can also be applied to everyday life. Maybe I wouldn’t ramble on about consequentialism at the dinner table (maybe), but I would certainly present my position and address responses to that position. Ethics, at its core, isn’t about using fancy words. It’s about reckoning with the fact that your instinctive feeling of what is right and wrong must be balanced against the practical application of your values. One of the biggest things I’ve learned in philosophy is that it is possible to simultaneously be very aware of the way things are and still let your morals take the reins of your imagination. In philosophy, you are encouraged to imagine how things should be as often as you are urged to look at how they are.

To give an example, take one of the cases my team has been working on this semester. The case is about how Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When considering this case, we have sought to address questions surrounding whether or not it is ethical to punish those uninvolved with egregious acts in order to condemn the actions of their country. This is a case about sports as a tool for international relations, the condition of athletes as state representatives and the moral responsibility of private organizations to respond to world affairs. Philosophy is not just pondering abstract questions about the meaning of life — it is addressing how we should live.

As I sit here in my candle-filled room reading Plato and Aristotle and Kierkegaard, I find it sad that philosophy is still seen as an antiquated and inaccessible field. I find I am at my most philosophical when I am simply talking to someone with any level of passion about a subject — any subject! Philosophical discussions can be centered on something as seemingly inconsequential as what nondairy milk you find best (is drinking almond milk morally impermissible given its environmental impact?) or something as important as whether Thanksgiving should be a national holiday (is it ethical to get a day off to do nothing but eat food and celebrate colonialism?). At the end of the day, philosophy isn’t practiced in a room filled with candles — or an ivory tower, as we philosophy lovers say. Philosophy is practiced every day in all sorts of rooms by all sorts of people — and very few of them are named Aristotle.