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Why you need to have a happy workforce

8th May 2024

Emma Roche on the possibilities of a philosophy degree

Emma Roche

I remember, aged 14, reading Socrates’ famous dictum ‘’the unexamined life is not worth living” in the book Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner and feeling inspired by it. The book was written as an introduction to philosophy. I was always curious. I wanted to ask the “big” questions.  Philosophy made sense to me . I enjoyed knowing there was a body of wisdom spanning two millennia to help me think about what really mattered.  This passion for the subject led to my successful campaign to get philosophy on to my school’s A Level syllabus.

Simply translated philosophy means the “the love of wisdom”. It gets a bad reputation for being an abstract and opaque subject. Yes, it is a subject with a long history, but it is not outdated. Its concepts have a timeless application: rational reflection and analysis. It can be criticised for not being a science and therefore not providing definitive answers. This is to misunderstand the position as in practice philosophy provides the framework which enables problem solving.

Philosophy is also a broad field that covers a wide range of topics. It informs ethical debate, political theory, the function of language/communication, the relationship between the mind and the body and more recently artificial intelligence. It asks questions such as: “What is the nature of justice?” “What is the good life?”; “What is truth?”; “What should you do and why?.

When discussing the subject, I am often asked“..but what can a philosophy undergraduate really offer future employers?” or  “How can I convince my parents that philosophy is a worthwhile use of three years at university?”. To help answer these questions, I reached out to Dr Stevie Makin, who was one of my philosophy lecturers at Sheffield University. He recently retired after 32 years of teaching philosophy undergraduates. His response to the question was both unequivocal and enlightening. He said “Employers want people who can think. Problems are best dealt with by thinking. And philosophy teaches you how best to think – Clearly; Critically; Carefully. That’s what employers are after. The actual content of the job, what it is that they want you to be good at thinking about, is down to whatever career you are drawn to, be it law, school teaching, accountancy, social work, healthcare … whatever. They all require people who are good at thinking. Indeed, if a career path didn’t require good, clever, creative, flexible and trained thinkers, then that career is likely to be shunted off to AI in the coming years”.

When philosophy is presented in these terms its value seems more obvious. What employer would not want an employee who (a) had chosen a degree which encourages rigour of thought and problem solving and (b) is the kind of individual who is drawn to examining  and interrogating ideas for the benefit of the employer/colleagues or clients.

Philosophy is therefore a great foundation for a range of careers. I read philosophy at university knowing I wanted to be a lawyer. It was the sage advice from my cousin (who at the time was a criminal barrister) that I should read a subject that I was passionate about and would enjoy. I therefore read philosophy at university knowing that on completion I would then immediately begin my legal qualifications (at the time about 50% of newly qualified lawyers were non-law undergraduates).  I am still, to this day, very grateful for this advice because philosophy is a discipline that I have used throughout my life both professionally and personally. It is important to think about your choice of degree in a wider context.

Whilst a degree in philosophy enabled me to pursue a career in law it can equally provide the foundational skills which would be relevant to a full spectrum of career options from law, accounting or finance through to careers such as a government ethicist, filmmaker, journalist or a computer scientist. Philosophy helps to facilitate meaningful discussion, to step outside normative beliefs and to disagree agreeably. These are really useful skills for any career.

It is also interesting to anticipate the future of AI and the role philosophy may play in a career with it. Aristotle wanted to understand the nature of beings and their functions. He might view AI as a fascinating artifact of human ingenuity, perhaps seeing it as a tool that extends human capacity for communication and knowledge retrieval. He may categorise AI inventions like ChatGPT within his framework of “techne” or craftsmanship, considering it as an example of human beings using their rational faculties to create something useful.

However, Aristotle might also raise questions about the limitations of AI. He might inquire into the extent of its understanding and its capacity for moral reasoning, and suggest that it is something we may end up relying on too much rather than thinking for ourselves. Aristotle emphasised the importance of practical wisdom and virtuous action, so he might question whether AI could possess such qualities or merely simulate them.

Philosophy graduates could help navigate the complexities of our rapidly evolving technological landscape. They are armed with a nuanced understanding of ethics, critical thinking and human values. It means they can serve as stewards of ethical AI development, advocating for transparency, accountability, and the protection of human rights. Their expertise in philosophy of mind could contribute to discussions on the nature of consciousness and the ethical implications of creating sentient machines. Philosophy graduates could therefore facilitate meaningful human-machine interaction, designing AI systems that prioritise empathy, inclusivity, ethical decision-making and possibly even AI rights!

Putting degree choices to one side for a moment, we must not forget that philosophy is also an important and practical tool to help us live well and in ways that we can flourish. It helps us think about purpose, what we value and our own moral compass.  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the first psychotherapists,  psychologists and life coaches. You only need to look at how popular the Stoic movement is becoming with various celebrities such as Adrian Edmondson and athletes such as Mark Tuitert practising and advocating Stoicism as way of life.  It is for this reason that, alongside being  a lawyer, I qualified as a philosophical life coach. I wanted to learn how to use the philosophical art of inquiry to specifically help people find the courage to understand themselves, find purpose and also to have a different sort of impact on the world by connecting with it more meaningfully.

Ultimately philosophy teaches us to think critically, to be open to and to respect the fact that there may be more than one way to view a problem. In an age that is so information-rich, philosophy teaches us that wisdom and knowledge are different. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts, information, and skills acquired through education, experience, or learning. Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge and experience to make sound judgments, decisions, and choices. It involves deep understanding, insight, and discernment about the complexities of life, human nature, morality and the universe. Philosophy teaches us to love wisdom.


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