They tell us that technology is the way of the future, that we must focus on development and study science, engineering, and medicine. They tell us to forget the humanities and charge full-throttle towards our economic and scientific development.
So who are “they?”
They’re your parents when they scoff at your choice of anthropology over chemistry. They’re the administrators at your high school who cut humanities and arts programs when school board money was “tight,” but invested in new locker rooms for the football team. They’re the business elites, the 1%, the people who benefit most from your labor as you create new technology, the progress that will reach them decades before it trickles down to the rest of us.
But what are we if our evolution is not ethical? Who are we if we have self-driving cars or bombastic nuclear weapons if we do not also have a well-developed sense of self and virtue? We cannot allow our technological advances to outpace our morality. We cannot let technological innovation overtake us to the point where we no longer consider ourselves thoughtful—or where we no longer consider anything at all.
As a society, we must develop our ethos—our sense of right, wrong, and the grey area in between—alongside our scientific knowledge. Otherwise, we will be converted to mechanical, thoughtless, amoral beings and humanity, once the epitome of critical thinking and adaptability, will lose its uniquely human essence. Without the moral impetus, we will never change. Bound to our lifeless state, we will never allow ourselves to get better. Hence, to retain our most human elements, I believe students must study philosophy in the modern age.
The digital age is already upon us. It has been here for a long time. Let us face it. We are bound intrinsically, immutably to our technology. We have come to need our iPhone for communication, our computer to go to class, our car to go to work.
In 2019, Andrew Yang ran a presidential campaign that, at its onset, may have seemed laughable. His argument was this: our technological development will outpace us. Machines will become our workforce, and we, workers, will be rendered useless or valueless in the face of them. We need a way to continue to give people their most basic needs—a universal income—so they can eat and drink and enjoy some form of shelter.
His call to action, though seemingly fiscally preposterous, hit on the exact discrepancy I’ve outlined here. Our technological development has moved so quickly that it has outpaced our morals and ethics. If we follow the current trajectory, it will only get worse. We must look more deeply at our development through its gravest moral, ethical, and economic implications. We cannot let ourselves suffer as a result of our progress.
In “The Spirit of Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic,” Max Weber, a philosopher known as the “father of sociology,” provides a so-called “neutral” overview of historical capitalism and capitalist spirit and a grim look at the imminent future at how our progress could outpace our ethics. Weber argues that endless progress for the sake of mere progress could turn us into senseless beings, bodies without what makes us uniquely human. Continuing full steam ahead with our capitalistic industrial spirit would make us “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”
His theory, commonly known as the “iron cage,” describes a world in which our capitalistic pursuit of development overruns our human virtues, turning us into feelingless creatures trapped without the development of our virtue, philosophy, or reason.
To make things more efficient, we must give up our unique human connection. Aiming for world mastery, aiming for continued progress, demystifies the reality of our natural world.
Weber’s work suggests this—we need more than technological progress, more than specialization, mastery, and science. We need an understanding of the internal world. We need to study sociology, humanities, philosophy. We need to preserve the most human element of our existence.
The further from our natural human existence, from waking up unconnected to an iPhone, a computer, or a car, the further we advance technologically, the more this development necessitates an advancement of our ethics. The further we are from our natural existence, the more we must focus on the preservation of our natural humanity.
The nature of tech is that it produces more tech. It snowballs.
Take, for example, a shoemaker. He devotes his life to making shoes, to crafting individual pieces of art. A machine comes along and takes over his business. It takes over his customers, makes shoes faster and more efficiently, and gets more people more shoes for a lower price. Yes, these are good things, but that intention, that human quality, that love that went into every individual shoe does not exist in the industry anymore. In the original exchange, the shoemaker traded shoes, and his customers gave their money in return, but the shoemaker also gave his love, his labor, his art. The clients also gave their hard-earned wages, their labor, their love. Funneling this transaction through third and fourth parties, such as machines and corporations, turns the exchange into merely dollars and cents with no feeling behind it.
When you buy a DIY bedside table from IKEA, you must build the piece yourself. Maybe you find it annoying. Perhaps you would rather buy it outright. Nevertheless, does it not feel good to know that you built that bedside table? That you labored for it? Do you not feel a greater affinity for that bedside table than if you were to buy it already in perfect condition? In building it, you impart yourself in it; your time, effort, and love. In creating it with your own hands and your own means, you feel closer to the product.
Only humans are capable of art. Machines are not. They will never have the humanistic qualities necessary to make real art. You can say what you will about our development, but art is intrinsically human. If you cannot feel, you cannot create art. When we divert our work to the machine, we lose our art.
So how does philosophy help us? How can some silly little humanistic theories save us from our technological destruction?
Philosophy is, in its most simplistic form, a study of knowledge—how we acquire that knowledge, how we truly know what we claim to be knowledge, and how we apply that knowledge to our personal and professional lives. The entirety of philosophy is propagated on asking questions—asking the right questions or asking whatever question brings us closer to a greater understanding of what knowledge is.
A study of philosophy necessitates a deep level of critical thinking and a deeper understanding of the human condition that will lead to inevitable intentionality in every step of our constant development. We won’t choose to render our humanity obsolete because we’ll recognize how truly fantastic it is.
While on trial for corrupting the youth of ancient Athens, Socrates, arguably the most influential thinker in the entire western canon, said this of a world without philosophy: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
A life unexamined, a world void of humanist quality and conversations, saturated with technological progress would be, to Socrates, a life not worth living. Asking the critical questions about the current issues that we are presented with—economic injustice, climate change, racial inequality—and developing a sense of ethics, morality, justice, and using philosophy could save the human race from the sort of alienation outlined in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” It could save us from being heartless lovers and spiritless workers. A few lessons in philosophy could give humanity a fighting chance.