Your Philosophy and Your Culture
In the late 17th Century the ethical philosophy of Utilitarianism was a popular, almost religious movement. Utilitarianism advocated the greatest good for the greatest number of people, where ‘utility’ was almost a reverential word for a particular kind of goodness or happiness for the masses. Utilitarian hard liners however came to see the largest average amount of good as the most laudable goal, even when attained at the expense of individuals. In that sense, it was ok to tax the few, to benefit the many, or to imprison the few, to benefit the many, or even in extreme cases to kill the few in order to bring about the greatest good. Soviet dictator and megamurderer Jospeh Stalin famously summed this up when he coined the phrase "You cant make an omelet without breaking some eggs" Naturally philosophers around the time of the popular utilitarian movement reacted negatively to it, and the most cogent of these was Immanual Kant, who insisted that no person should ever be used as means to an end. While not directly contradictory to utilitarianism, it put significant checks on the methods by which the greatest good for the greatest number could be achieved.
Today the term ‘utility’ in economics is a common remnant of this religious form of utility, and we still have a common conception of striving for the greatest good for the greatest number, but when pressed most people would be reluctant to achieve that good by crushing a few individuals. In a very prominent way, Kant’s ethical imperative has permeated popular culture, even among those who have never heard of nor read him.
So how did the writings of a reclusive obsessive compulsive anti-social farmer from 200 years ago have such a strong influence on modern ethical views in your average person today? And more generally, how do the ideas of philosophers relate to our everyday life and end up influencing life and culture. Few of us have ever heard of Kant, fewer still have ever read him (he is almost unreadable and makes little effort to clearly express his ideas) so virtually no one has directly assessed and integrated his ideas into their own ethical system. Even when my professor of ethics explained the difference between utilitarianism and Kantianism, and described the resulting union of the two, he was only putting the label and the history to an ethical view point I, and most of my fellow students, all ready held. So why did we all ready feel that way?
Each of us has a philosophy, and what that philosophy means to us is the integrated set of values and ideas we hold about the world, our place in it, and what we should do about it. If your friend robs someone, your integrated philosophical ideas are what guide your response. If your friend cheats on their spouse, or your classmate copies your work, or your coworker screws up, your integrated philosophical ideas, which are the root of your moral ideas, are what guide your responses. Even if we’ve never read Plato, Aristotle, or Kant each of us has a philosophical outlook which we pick up from our surrounding culture. From movies, music, television, literature and the morals, religions, and ideas taught to us throughout our lives. If you do not actively study and examine your own philosophical view points, then it tends to reflect whatever the most predominant viewpoint is in your cultural sphere of influence.
As another example, let’s say you had a coworker looking for a new job, if he got one and left, your work would be harder, but it would provide better opportunity for him. The pejorative, manipulative, and exploitative person would focus on preventing their coworker from leaving. But to treat another person as an end of his own (Kant), or to never ask him to live for your sake (Rand) is to want what is best for them, as an individual person, for their own sake. It is NOT to want what’s best for YOU at their expense. To Rand, the only proper behavior between two people was where each, acting in their own long term rational self interest, would find themselves traveling together on the same journey. Such behavior is not only moral, but cultivates the deepest most sincere relationships with friends and loved ones.
Considering the simple fact that we each have a philosophy, and that philosophy comes from our cultural sphere, the question arises then - where does the media of our culture get its philosophy from? This then is the role of the ivory tower intellectuals, elite philosophers, and our education systems. If our philosophical outlook is picked up from our cultural sphere, one must ask then where the authors of our cultural works get their philosophical ideas. They, of course, as creators, producers, business people, religious practitioners, get their ideas from their instructors, or from their study of the world. The instructors then, of course, nearing the top of the intellectual influence pyramid, get their ideas from the philosophers. In other words, as philosophers expound powerful ideas, instructors in our education system pick up the ones they find of value and integrate them into their views of issues, and in teaching these to their students, ultimately cultivate a new generation of producers which create cultural products that reflect these new philosophical principles. Finally, we, being raised inside this cultural sphere of influence, end up adopting many of the these ideas either explicitly or implicitly. Through a complicated and dynamic chain of events new ideas in philosophy have been promulgated from the page of the often esoteric philosopher to the minds of nearly every individual.
Perhaps a more obvious, and simpler to understand concrete example of this infusion of new ideas is in scientific fields, where advancements and new paradigms are exceedingly difficult to ignore and in many cases so objectively obvious that text books must be revised immediately. In this way the ‘good ideas’ in science (the ones easily proven to be objectively true) quickly promulgate throughout the academic community and then into the minds of students and then to industry and popular culture. The same happens with ‘good ideas’ in philosophy, though the nature of a ‘good idea’ in the realm of philosophy is perhaps not as easily distinguished as the good idea in science and also why it can take hundreds of years for these ideas to become prominent.
So just as new scientific discoveries are unavoidably integrated into the current teaching paradigms, and so disseminated to students and then to the popular culture in general - the writings of philosophers and intellectuals are also adopted by professors and members of the academic community where they influence those students who then go on to produce the products of our culture. All of this ultimately brings about the means by which the ideas of philosophers and intellectuals are amplified and infused throughout the common mentality of everyday life.