Can Studying Philosophy Make You a Better Person?

05 March 2015

One of the many people who is considerably smarter and more productive than I am is Prof. Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California at Riverside. Eric writes the blog, The Splintered Mind, and one of his many research interests is whether there is any empirical connection between studying ethics in a contemporary college or university and the improvement of one's character.  So far, the evidence is that the academic study of ethics does not make you a better person.  Why?

Historically, the study of philosophy has been intended to make one a better person.  I am often surprised by how often people are surprised by this.  For example, my area of specialization is Chinese philosophy, and I frequently hear from colleagues that the difference between Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy is that the former emphasizes becoming a better person and solving social problems, while the latter is concerned only with purely theoretical truth.  This is perhaps true of what most of academic philosophy has become in the contemporary West, but it is certainly not true as a historic generalization.

In Plato's dialogues, Socrates is presented as asking questions such as "What is courage?" "What is justice?" because knowing the answer will make us better people.  In addition, Plato's Seventh Letter makes clear the ethical motive behind his philosophizing:

And I was forced to say, when praising true philosophy that it is by this that men are enabled to see what justice in public and private life really is. Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers. 

The authenticity of the Seventh Letter has been challenged, but even if it is not by Plato, it is by an ancient Platonist, and represents what must have been one common understanding of Plato's project.

Turning from the pagan world, we find that the relationship between Christianity and philosophy has been complex.  St. Paul warned, "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Colossians 2:8).  Paul obviously sees philosophy as potentially having a negative effect on one's character  But as any careful reader can see, this statement is ambiguous.  Is Paul warning against all of philosophy, which is intrinsically "hollow and deceptive," or is he warning against one degenerate kind of philosophy? Most Christians have thought it was something more like the latter.  Typical is the view of St. Anselm, whose motto was "Fides quaerens intellectum":  Faith seeking understanding.  This, too, is subject to multiple readings, and no Christian could consistently hold that only those intelligent enough to understand philosophy could be saved.  However, the majority view has been that, since God created us as rational creatures, erroneous philosophical views have a bad influence on us and correct views have a good influence.  As Heloise said, "I would rather have the Devil as my confessor than a priest ignorant of philosophy."

Of course, those knowledgeable about the Confucian tradition will be aware that it understands learning as having an ethical focus:  

Imagine someone who recognizes and admires worthiness and therefore changes his lustful nature, who is able to fully exhaust his strength in serving his parents and extend himself to the utmost in serving his lord, and who is trustworthy in speech when interacting with friends and associates.  Even if you said of such a person, "Oh, but he is not learned."  I would still insist that it is precisely such qualities that make one worthy of being called "learned."  (Confucius:  Analects 1.7, Edward Slingerland trans.)

Now, does Schwitzgebel's research show (or at least suggest) that Platonists, Christians, Confucians and others have been wrong in thinking that philosophy can improve one's character?

Consider how we teach philosophy in a contemporary college or university setting.  (1) Students are generally 18 to 22 years old.  (2) They are admitted to the class based largely on their own choice.  Professors cannot refuse students admission to the class if there are spaces available, nor can they eject students from the class for anything other than extremely disruptive behavior.  (3) The student's personal life is none of the professor's business, unless the student chooses to share information.  (When a student does share personal information, it is generally in the context of attempting to justify a request for a special favor, such as turning in an assignment late.)  (4) Professors are expected to grade students solely on their academic abilities, such as vocabulary, memory, logical reasoning skills, and writing style. 

Contrast the preceding with what advocates of ethical education recommend.  (1) In Book I of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes,

Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on social life; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit. (W.D. Ross, trans., slightly modified)

Plato agreed.  For both of them, one needs to be raised in the right habits, and have experience of real life problems, before one can appreciate the insights of philosophy.  Aquinas went as far as saying that one couldn't really begin the study of philosophy seriously until one was 50.  (Ironically, that is the age at which he died.)  Confucius's view initially seems very different.  He says of himself, "At fifteen, I set my heart upon learning."  However, he describes the process of ethical education as continuing throughout one's life:  "At thirty, I was firmly planted. At forty, I was free of doubts."  And so on until, "At seventy, I followed what my heart desired without overstepping the bounds" (Analects 2.4, my trans.)  And remember that "learning" for Confucians is not in any way limited to the study of books and theories.  The later Confucian Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) made the process more explicit.  He proposed that at the age of eight students should begin the Lesser Learning, an education in basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic, along with training in good habits and etiquette.  Only the promising students would go on to the Greater Learning, where they would learn the philosophical basis of the values they had started to internalize:  "Lesser learning is the direct understanding of such-and-such and affair. Greater learning is the investigation of such-and-such a principle -- the reason why the affair is as it is" (Chu Hsi, Learning to Be a Sage, trans. Daniel K. Gardner, p. 90).

(2)  In classical ethical education, a student was expected to make a commitment to become a better person, and held accountable for failure to live up to this commitment.  The ancient Confucian Mengzi (Mencius) said, "There are many techniques of instruction.  My scorning to instruct someone is also a means of instruction" (6B16).  In the Confucian tradition, the student learns from the instructor's refusal to take him as a student that he is not sufficiently serious or committed.  If the potential student changes and becomes committed, the instructor will accept him.  If the potential student does not change, there is no point in trying to instruct him.  I don't think this would fly with a contemporary Dean, though.

So why doesn't the contemporary study of ethics improve character?  (1) The students are too young and inexperienced about life to benefit from the study of philosophy.  Philosophy is about the why, not the what, and college-aged students don't know the what very well yet.  (2) Students take ethics classes without demonstrating any commitment to becoming a better person, and without any penalty for failing to manifest a commitment.  (3) The instructor is institutionally forbidden from inquiring into or attempting to influence the student's personal life, where most of his or her character will be manifest.

Is there anything we can do to change contemporary philosophical education to make it more about character improvement?  Possibly, but it will not be easy.  An important part of a liberal society (in a broad sense of that term) is that we respect the different ethical, religious, and political commitments of our students.  Admittedly, we often fail at doing this. But it is a valuable ideal, and it is not obvious how to teach character without being overly intrusive in a student's life. Still, I cannot shake the sense that Confucius and Aristotle are looking over my shoulder, encouraging me to do more to make my students better humans.

Comments (16)

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Thursday, March 5, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Hi Bryan,

Hi Bryan,
Thanks for a great post! I'm curious about your explanation about why the study of ethics doesn't improve character because you seem to focus on students. But assuming it's true that professors of ethics are not more moral than others, would you say that's because the same student conditions were true when those professors were first studying ethics? Or is there some other explanation?

Jeffrey Wattles's picture

Jeffrey Wattles

Thursday, March 5, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Bryan, I very much appreciate

Bryan, I very much appreciate what you have presented here. Thank you!
I have found that using experiential projects in class facilitates remarkable steps of growth in a majority of my students. I cannot say that character is improved, because habit formation takes longer than the six weeks that the average project runs; but major breakthroughs are common. I propose a theme, such as Living for the Good of the Whole, when the class is studying Mill's Utilitarianism; I invite the students to modify the theme however they like until it fits what they feel good putting into practice. Then they are to do so, journaling their experience, and turning in a paper about that experience and constructing a commentary on their experience report from the perspective of Mill's essay.
Mencius would be gratified to see so many people expressing a "natural" and sincere desire to grow. Skeptical obstacles do not arise for those who are pursuing their own ideals on the way to growth that they desire. They are most diverse in their approaches, and it is my business to support each individual for where they are. I make it clear that self-revelation is voluntary, and take care about privacy issues. Of course there is more to say about this teaching method; but out of three thousand students I've taken through this kind of class, I have needed to give an alternate assignment only to a handful.

Bryan Van Norden's picture

Bryan Van Norden

Friday, March 6, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Dear Laura,

Dear Laura,
Thank you for your thoughtful question!
I think you are basically correct.  Since the curriculum is usually not designed to effect change in character, it has little influence on either those who teach it or those who are taught by it.  I don't mean to take a purely negative view of contemporary academic philosophy.  I am a part of the academy myself, and I feel that philosophy does a great job (and demonstrably so) in teaching reading, writing, and analytic skills.  My point is that these are not the same as virtues.

Bryan Van Norden's picture

Bryan Van Norden

Friday, March 6, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Dear Jeffrey,

Dear Jeffrey,
That sounds like a great course.  I believe that journaling, in particular, is a potentially valuable practice.  I am currently reading M. Theresa Kelleher's wonderful translation of The Journal of Wu Yubi (Hackett, 2013).  Wu was an influential Confucan teacher of the 15th century, and his journal is a very revealing account of his personal efforts at ethical cultivation.  Wu discusses honestly his bad temper, his bouts of despair, and the financial and medical problems that dogged him.  However, he also writes movingly of his love of the natural world and the deep inspiration he found in the Confucian classics.  It is also clear from his wrting how fond he was of his long-suffering wife, his children, and his students, whom he regarded as his friends.
My former graduate school classmate Paul Kjellberg teaches another great course where students integrate Buddhist meditation with readings from works by Gandhi and others that emphasize simplicity and frugality.  Quite a shock to students in our consumerist society!

Walto's picture


Saturday, April 11, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

FWIW, I did a brief bit on

FWIW, I did a brief bit on "the tetris effect" in my intro to ethics class last term, and I showed Dan Gilbert's TED Talk on the science of happiness and a Sean Achor vid.  I doubt that these techniques can make anybody a "better person"--though arguably they could make someone "better off."  Maybe, if meditation can make people calmer, it can also help them avoid "crimes of passion".  In that sense I suppose the study of philosophy--if it is thought to include anger management--can make people better.
But it's definitely a stretch.

mariajonson's picture


Tuesday, May 5, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I think Bryan Van Norden!

I think Bryan Van Norden! According to my point of view, only  two important reason because of that people have to study philosophy. The first is easy curiosity. This is the right for the mainly superior graduate student following highly specialized examine as it is for the first year undergraduate search something innovative and motivating to study. 

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

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Thursday, June 4, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I think philosophy is not to

I think philosophy is not to better a person, it is to open that person eyes. We study philosophy to see others looks on the world, how they thinking of humans and our place in the world. Sometimes learning philosophies can make you a better person, allowing you to see belongings from different standpoints but it can also build you a bad person by being close minded. 

Matthew Van Cleave's picture

Matthew Van Cleave

Thursday, September 10, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I think it is unfortunate,

I think it is unfortunate, but unsurprising, that ethics courses tend not to influence students' behaviors.  I agree with you that part of this is due to a certain tradition, both within philosophy and academia at large, not to tell students who to think or live for themselves but to get them to "think for themselves."  I am inclined, however, to think that this is simply a tradition a professor is free to diverge from, if they are willing.  As I have become further removed from graduate school, an increasingly engaged with my students, I have moved more and more towards making philosophy practical.  At one point I would have looked down my nose at such things.  However, my perspective at this point is almost just the opposite.  Although I still love the airy and arcane debates within philosophy that don't have any obvious practical significance (and debates in ethics can be included within that category, I try to teach my ethics courses in a way that has practical significance for my students' lives.  
I'm not sure if you meant to say or imply this, but regarding your point #1 (of reasons that ethics courses fail to have any practical effect on students' lives) I took you as saying that college students don't know enough about life yet to be able to ask the more philosophical questions.  If that is what you were saying, I'd have to disagree (quite strenuously).  From my experience, my students are quite capable of understanding and raising deep philosophical issues.  They do understand quite a lot about life--at least enough to be able to understand the central philosophical issues.  And, anyway, I tend to think that some of the most profound philosophical issues are accessible to children.  For example, I have had numerous students report that they used to think about what philosophers studying consciousness call "the inverted spectrum" long ago when they were young kids (i.e., perhaps other people experience the world in a radically different way from me--their red is my green, their green is my red, etc.).
I see one of the challenges of being a (good) philosophy professor to be that of making philosophy accessible without dumbing it down or making it convoluted.  They have enough of that from their (all too common) poor primary and secondary education.  Kids are often so much smarter than their teachers.  We just have to encourage their natural thoughtfulness by asking the right kinds of questions, giving the right kinds of readings, etc.  I certainly haven't always done this, but I continually aspire to it.  I can say that as I continue to tweak the way I teach, I increasingly have better and better classes, with more and more interesting conversation and student contribution, and more and more students who rate the course as one of the best they've ever had.  I could brag about that, but I prefer to see it as something that they are as much responsible for as I am.  More and more, my goal is the set things up in the right way and pose the right questions and then not get in the way of their learning.

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