We already know that philosophy provides a lot of benefits for your personal life and for your career. But most of us--fortunately--care about more than just ourselves. We at least care about our children. We might care about people elsewhere in the world. We might also care about animals, and about the environment. So we might want to know:
How does philosophy benefit the world?
Let's start with a smaller question, albeit still a pretty big one:
What is a benefit?
Or: What really makes lives better?
To answer that question, we need philosophy. Philosophy is the only way to study axiology: what kinds of things are good and bad. Incidentally, that's why philosophy is so beneficial for your personal life. But let's widen our scope. We want to know about benefiting the world.
Maybe we can make some guesses about what would make the world in general better, though.
Probably, making the world better will involve making people better. So:
How does philosophy make people better?
Overall, the world will probably be a better place if people are:
- More informed;
- Better at evaluating people's claims;
- More caring; and
- More reflective.
Why are these valuable? Well, they won't always be valuable. But in practice, overall, they will be.
The first two items--being informed and being good at evaluating claims--are useful because there are many people who want to trick other people in various ways. For example, many politicians want to make citizens think that certain policies benefit those citizens, when they really don't. And in general, there are free riders in the world. One kind of free rider is a person who is willing to harm the population in general, as long as it benefits that person more than it harms them. (Someone who regularly sneaks onto a bus without paying is causing the bus to have to spend more money on gas, which means the paying riders have to pay more.) The more free riders there are, the worse for society in general. But more informed people will be better at detecting free riders in general. (We will be better at detecting the politicians who harm society in general to benefit merely their constituency, or themselves.) Similarly, the better we are at evaluating people's claims, the less likely we will be to be tricked.
Philosophy teaches us how to evaluate claims better than any other discipline. Indeed, philosophy is all about evaluating claims. Philosophers study logic and critical thinking; we are constantly on the lookout for unjustified leaps in reasoning and for logical fallacies. And philosophy tends to make us more informed. The main reason is that philosophy is one of the most general areas of study there is. (There are many sub-fields of applied philosophy, for example.) Everything informs philosophy, and philosophy informs everything. And the more we study philosophy, the more we find ourselves caring about the truth itself. Philosophers tend to insist on having true beliefs (or at least justified beliefs), even when those beliefs are troubling, such as the belief that we are unjustified in trusting the senses, or the belief that we have no good reason to trust induction. Thus, philosophy instills a genuine love of wisdom: the desire to pursue the truth, no matter where that pursuit takes us.
The third item--more caring people--seems to have a fairly obvious value. Philosophy tends to teach impartiality: the idea that other people and things might be just as valuable as we are. It also widens the scope of the creatures we care about. For example, philosophers commonly argue that animals should have direct moral consideration--they have rights beyond their value to humans. Some philosophers expand this idea to nonsentient things, such as species and ecosystems. Philosophers also often argue that future generations require our moral consideration, and that we have strong moral obligations to people we've never met. These are not always immediately intuitive ideas. In general, philosophy asks us to look beyond ourselves and our communities, and beyond our species.
This goes hand-in-hand with being more reflective. We humans are pretty smart, as animals go. We can put people on the moon; we can cure diseases; and we can create great works of art and literature. We shouldn't waste our minds. Being more reflective means opening ourselves up to discovering important things about ourselves and about each other. It's what allows us to care about others more, to notice where we can improve ourselves, and to avoid taking things for granted. It requires thinking carefully about things, instead of merely believing what others have told us. We can accomplish a lot, as humans, when we put the power of our minds to use.
Still, so far, we've seen why we might expect philosophy to improve the world by improving people. But will this actually do anything? We might still ask:
How has philosophy made the world better?
Think about how much progress we've made as a species. We used to be pretty awful. We enslaved people, we tortured people, we killed people for being different from us, and we started wars for personal gain. Well--we still do those things, sometimes, but not nearly as much as before.
Why did we abolish slavery in the United States? One main reason is that we decided, as a culture, that slavery is morally impermissible. And of course that's a philosophical position. The abolitionists made philosophical arguments, and eventually, people became persuaded. The same goes for segregation; see the arguments of philosopher Martin Luther King, Jr. As a culture, we've also begun to treat animals and the environment a lot better. We are familiar with appeals for ethical vegetarianism and veganism, and calls to reduce our harms to the environment. These all require philosophical arguments, and they are all philosophical positions.
We can also look to the recent past. Why does the United States exist, at all? If you read the Declaration of Independence, you'll see that it contains obvious philosophical claims, from philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau. The States decided that it was morally permissible or even obligatory to dissolve their ties with Britain, and to form their own government, a republic--at the time, more democratic than most states. The argument for democracy is, of course, another philosophical argument.
Thus, philosophy is at the forefront of social change. We have a lot of progress yet to make, but it's usually philosophers who first call for that progress, and we owe much of our progress to philosophers and to philosophical arguments.
Further reading ...