Think Differently: Open your mind. Philosophy for modern life: 20 thought-provoking lessons

Think Differently: Open your mind. Philosophy for modern life: 20 thought-provoking lessons

by Adam Ferner


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Philosophy is about our lives and how we live them. 

Using a unique, visual approach to explore philosophical concepts, Adam Ferner shows how philosophy is one of our best tools for responding to the challenges of the modern world.
From philosophical ‘people skills’ to ethical and moral questions about our lifestyle choices, philosophy teaches us to ask the right questions, even if it doesn't necessarily hold all the answers. With 20 dip-in sessions from history's great philosophers alongside today's most pioneering thinkers, this book will guide you to think deeply and differently. 

At Build and Become we believe in building knowledge that helps you navigate your world. Our books help you make sense of the changing world around you by taking you from concept to real-life application through 20 accessible lessons designed to make you think. Create your library of knowledge. For further information on Build&Become, follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781781317174
Publisher: Aurum Press
Publication date: 05/03/2018
Series: BUILD+BECOME Series
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 8.37(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Adam Ferner is deputy editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, and has published several academic publications. He works at the Royal Institute of Philosophy and is associate researcher at Bordeaux Montaigne university. In addition to his philosophical work, he writes fiction under the pseudonym A.M. Moskovitz.

Read an Excerpt





Arguments are essential for generating new ideas. So is it weird to think they're oppositional?


Is it ever okay to lie? Can a lie be a victimless act? Immanuel Kant says 'no' – should we trust him?


We respect different things; laws, nature and people. Do we respect them in the same way?


It seems obvious that loyalty is a virtue and disloyalty is a failing. But just because something's obvious doesn't make it true.

* * *

'Morally as well as physicall, there is only one world, and we all have to live in it.'

Mary Midgley

In this chapter we're going to look at what folk in management would call 'people skills': interpersonal relationships. How do we interact with others? And, importantly, can philosophy help us see better ways of doing so? The Lessons focus on ethical behaviours we exhibit – and sometimes fail to exhibit – in our day-to-day dealings with other people. Whether at home or at work, out shopping or on the bus, the way we interact with other human beings is unendingly fascinating. Even the most humdrum encounter can benefit from philosophical investigation.

Say you're arguing with your buddy over what to have for dinner – pizza or curry? How are you arguing? And why? Are you open to having your mind changed?

What about if you want to call in sick – is it bad to lie to your boss? Even if they don't find out, what happens when you corrupt the capital T: Truth?

And think of all the times you're told to 'respect your parents'. Is this just parental propaganda? In order to know whether it's sound advice, we have to work out what 'respect' is, and when and whether it's appropriate.

Loyalty is another issue. When our friends criticize us to other people, we think they're being 'disloyal'. We rarely stop to wonder whether what they've said is justified. Maybe disloyalty isn't such a bad thing ...

In each situation, philosophical examination can help us understand what's going on, and whether it might be ethical or unethical, effective or ineffective. Each of the lessons can be read independently of the others, although there are not insignificant links between them. At the end of the chapter, we'll look at the lessons we've learned and start building our philosophical toolkit.

Argument is a blood sport – that's how many of us see it at any rate. We talk about engaging in a 'battle of wits', delivering 'killer blows' or seeing 'fatal flaws' in other people's positions. When you describe the 'cut and thrust' of debate, you're describing people stabbing each other – which is, it must be said, pretty grisly stuff.

Of course, these are metaphors. Things might get heated, but you tend not to literally shoot down your opponent in the middle of a conversation. In fact, a lot of the time arguments are amicable; it's not uncommon to actively enjoy the parry and riposte element, in the same way you might enjoy a game of ping-pong. And like competitive sports, we think of arguments as things we can win or lose. If you've prepared your defences well and speak with sufficient dexterity, you can vanquish your adversary. You can dazzle them with rhetoric, undermine their premises or simply shout them down. It doesn't much matter how you do it – the aim, we think, is to triumph.

But is this central to what an argument is?

The answer to this question depends, predictably, on the context in which the argument is taking place. If you're in a debating squad preparing for a semi-final, it's very much expected that there will be adversaries and, ultimately, a victor. Points are scored. There are judges to adjudicate. You might, if you're lucky, even win a prize at the end.

Sadly, not all arguments work like this – most of the time we don't get prizes. More importantly, the arguments we engage with in our daily lives are rarely so cut and dried or as static as they are in competitions.

Consider the structure of arguments. There are 'premises' – for example, the claims that 'all humans are mortal' and 'Rebecca is a human'. And there's a 'conclusion' that's supposed to follow from the premises, such as 'Rebecca is mortal'. In a competitive debate, you're assigned a pre-established conclusion, like 'Money is evil', and you're supposed to defend it without compromise while undermining your adversary (who holds the opposite view). There are various ways to argue that money is evil, and the debaters can deploy different premises, but ultimately they can't relinquish their conclusion. They have to hold their position. If they don't, we can't say whether the debate has been won or lost.

But what about an ordinary exchange, one you might have in the office? Jim from accounts keeps taking your pens – the scoundrel. You complain, telling him how annoying it is. Jim, being Jim, replies that pens are a small price to pay for having the best seat in the office (which admittedly you do). That's annoying, he says, if anything is. A seat right next to the water fountain. And the fan. And the snacks.

Sure, you might try and win this argument. You were assigned your seat, you may say. He, however, is wilfully nabbing pens. He's in the wrong. The argument could carry on, with both of you listing your petty grievances and the reasons you're right. And maybe you will win. Perhaps, with your rhetorical prowess and disarming verbosity, you'll succeed in irritating poor Jim right out of the room. But will your winning have solved anything? Will that even constitute winning? In all likelihood, Jim will continue to take your pens and resent you for sitting where you sit. This is a context in which the winning or losing element drops away, and another feature of arguments comes to the fore.

Arguments can be used to solve things. Imagine if, instead of trying to beat Jim, you try to recognize the truth of his position and adjust your own position accordingly. Perhaps a compromise can be reached? Perhaps the water fountain could be moved? Perhaps (dare I say it) some more snacks could be bought?


So here are two different forms of argument. On the one hand, an argument can be a kind of game, to be won or lost. On the other, an argument can be a way of problem-solving or exploring ideas. There are no winners per se, and participants don't lose anything if they relinquish their original position.

Take a moment to think about how you normally argue. Do you argue to win? This is how a lot of people – from philosophers to lawyers and politicians – are trained. And it's significant that this approach puts up tangible obstacles to understanding. The game requires you to defend your starting point, even in the face of good evidence to relinquish it. In some sense, this leads to what we might call 'epistemic losses', a setback in what you know. Even on its own terms, winning isn't quite what it's cracked up to be. Phyllis Rooney, in her paper 'Philosophy, Adversarial Argumentation, and Embattled Reason' (2010), puts this point well:

'I lose the argument and you win ... But surely I am the one who has made the epistemic gain, however small. I have replaced a probably false belief with a probably true one, and you have made no such gain ...'

When you use argument as a form of problem-solving, everybody ends up better off. The focus isn't on defending a position at whatever cost – it's on gaining understanding, hopefully even access to truth. Objections can still be raised and rebutted, but in a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect (as we'll see in Lesson 3).

This distinction isn't simply academic. It's crucial. One kind of argument is aggressive and can impede understanding. The other can generate solutions and agreement. A competitive argument is static, but a collaborative argument is dynamic.

The next time you see an argument – whether a family dispute or a political debate – have a think about who's winning and who's losing. Who's trying to win? And might the argument be more productive if people stopped point-scoring and began to collaborate?


Immanuel Kant was nothing if not ambitious; in his book Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), he aimed to map out the structure of what he saw to be an objective moral reality. He claimed that there are incontrovertible moral facts – some acts are just always going to be wrong (murder most foul). There's no wishy-washy, hand-waving 'matter of opinion'. Moral truths do not depend on your perspective; they're facts, wherever you're standing.

It was this objective moral reality that he took himself to be tapping into with his concept of the 'categorical imperative'. It's a multifaceted notion of what it is, categorically, imperative that people do if they are to be moral. It's one concept, a single, formal moral law, but it has different formulations. For the sake of present purposes, we can focus on the first two. To begin with, we've got the Principle of Universality, which states:

'Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.'

Kant isn't really known for snappy writing – but in essence, this is a version of the 'do unto others' idea that you find in most religions. When you act in a certain way, you should consider whether it would be okay if everyone acted in that way. Say you decide to start filching other people's chocolates – would it be okay if everybody did that? How would we get by if everyone was always filching everyone else's chocolates (or money, or lives)?

The second formulation is known as the Principle of Humanity and states, roughly, that you should always treat others as 'ends in themselves' rather than as means to some end of your own. When dealing with friends and strangers, you have always to bear in mind that they've got their own lives, with their own hopes and dreams (and they must recognize that you have all of these things too). At the centre of Kant's ethical system is the thought that we must respect the dignity and equality of human beings. If we fail to do so, if we use other people, we commit a moral violation.

Imagine, for instance, that you want to impress your boss by making your work-mate look like an idiot. Even if you don't hold a particular grudge against Gilbert, you'd be failing to acknowledge his humanity; you'd be treating him as a stepping stone, not a person.

Kant's moral system has its drawbacks. For one thing, as Lewis R. Gordon has pointed out (and we'll see in Lesson 13), the man was a horrible racist – so his claims about the importance of universal respect for human beings seem hypocritical at best. For another thing, his picture is hugely formalistic. In claiming that there's an objective moral reality, he paints our ethical world in black and white with no shades of grey.

However, despite these failings, his categorial imperitive has been hugely influential – not least because it aspires to flesh out a moral system without appear to theology. His Groundwork is an exercise in reason alone – so it speaks equally, he contends, to all human beings.


There are a whole host of lies you can tell. You've got your little white lies and your whoppers, and typically we think some are worse than others. If you told me you don't like asparagus, but secretly you do, I wouldn't mind too much. If you told me you haven't murdered anyone when actually you have – well, that's another matter. Some lies seem to be more serious than others.

Kant, however, thinks all lies are equally bad – because lying, as an act, violates the second formulation of the categorical imperative, The Principle of Humanity. For Kant, human dignity and equality are of the utmost importance. We should never treat humans, he says, as anything less than what they are – free, rational agents with unique and self-governable lives. When you lie to a human, you've stopped treating them in this way because you've deprived them of the ability to assess a situation rationally and to respond to it freely.

* * *

Consider a story (100% fictional). I'm short of cash and want to go to the cinema. I ask you to lend me £20 – and I tell you I need it to pay my rent (lie) because I think you're less likely to lend it to me if you think I'm just going to fritter it away on pick n' mix. Being the generous soul you are, you lend me the cash and I go and glut myself on sweeties and my third viewing of some trashy Hollywood blockbuster.

In this scenario, I've deceived you to further my own end. I've robbed you of the ability to assess the situation rationally (by depriving you of salient facts) and so I've undermined your ability to choose freely to give me the money. I'm treating you as a means to an end rather than an end in yourself, like a cash-machine rather than a person.

Of course, there are trickier cases. Take the story of the axe-wielding maniac, often trotted out in the philosophical literature. If he asks you where your loved ones are, should you lie to save their lives?

In a less melodramatic vein, consider a situation where a lie might save a friend's feelings from getting hurt. Should you ever promise that 'everything will be all right', without knowing that it will?

Kant's response to these kinds of cases is famously hard-line. He says you should never lie. Never ever. It's not surprising he's been accused of adopting a rather unsubtle approach to moral theory. At the same time, we can see this as another example of a certain kind of ambitiousness. He thinks we should never lie – but that doesn't mean we should let the axe-wielding maniac kill our loved ones. We should create a world where such maniacs either don't exist or don't get to ask us questions. And, similarly, we should nurture our friends and our friendships so that we don't have to lie in order to reassure them. All in all, that doesn't sound like a terrible idea.


Respect each other. That seems like a fairly good rule of thumb for our everyday interactions. 'Love each other' isn't always workable, since love isn't necessarily the kind of thing you can turn on or off. And 'tolerate each other' isn't much better; you tolerate or ignore bad smells, and treating people like bad smells is a terrible rule of thumb – it doesn't foster understanding or lead to harmonious living.

But is everyone worthy of respect? What about racists? Homophobes and sexists? Should we respect those who spout prejudice? If you find yourself faced with a bigot spewing dangerous hate speech, I'm guessing you're going to find it hard to 'respect' them. So maybe we think there are people who aren't worthy of respect?

Maybe ... but let's think a little harder about the issue.

Unless you lead an unbelievably sheltered life, it's easy to find yourself confronted by people whose views you fundamentally disagree with. Arguments often result. And sometimes these arguments escalate because, in spite of your best efforts, it appears impossible to find common ground. There's no compromise. You don't just disagree with them, you think their views are dangerous and should be called out as such. They think, for example, that women are genetically configured to do housework – you think this is an abhorrent and ridiculous thing to say.

How does all this square with the seemingly sensible claim that we should 'respect each other'?

Well, what is respect exactly? We respect different things in different ways. We respect nature (like the sea and its terrifying power), and concepts (like the speed limit and the law). 'Respect' can mean 'don't underestimate'; don't underestimate the ocean and its ability to pulverize your boat. It can be a call to recognize the importance of something, and the consequences if you fail to do so. The speed limit is an important part of traffic regulations – if you don't respect it, bad things happen.

And of course, we respect people too – also in a variety of ways. If you say, 'I respect Martin Luther King Jr', that would likely mean you admire him. But not everyone is so admirable. The suggestion above that we should 'respect each other' uses 'respect' in a slightly different sense. This usage is closer to what we were talking about in Lesson 2; when we respect people, we treat them as ends in themselves. We treat them as unique entities that have value in and of themselves. The political philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah connects respect with the notion of human dignity. We're all humans, he says, irrespective of our political views – and we need to recognize this when we're interacting with one another. It's not what we say that garners respect, in this sense, but what we are.


Let's return to the bigot. Undignified as they may seem, they're still human and possessors of human dignity. In fact, we should probably stop calling them a 'bigot'. It's not helpful. Despite all the hateful things they say, they're worthy of our respect (if not our admiration).

What does this mean in practical terms? What should we do when faced with people who say atrocious things? Shout? Jeer? Throw rotten fruit? No, says Appiah. If you respect them in this philosophical sense, then you'll talk to them about their ideas.

It is, Appiah says in his essay 'Relativism and Cross-Cultural Understanding' (2010), 'better to treat one another's moral beliefs as responsive to reasons, because to treat a person's moral views as bare facts about them, ungrounded in reasons, is to treat them with disrespect.' If you respect someone, this involves seeing them as human, as beings with a capacity for thought and self-determination, as responsive to reasons. They're more than just by-products of a cultural milieu. They're people who can assess facts and analyze them, and come to judgments for themselves.

Imagine your grandmother says that being gay is 'wicked'. Now, you love your grandmother but it's a horrible thing to hear.


Excerpted from "Think Differently"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Adam Ferner.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

01 How to Argue, 18,
02 Telling the Truth, 22,
03 Respect, 28,
04 The Limits of Loyalty, 32,
-> Toolkit 01&8212;04, 36,
+ Further Learning, 38,
5 Marriage, 44,
6 Making Babies, 48,
7 Eating Meat, 54,
8 Shopping, 58,
-> Toolkit 05&8212;08, 62,
+ Further Learning, 64,
09 Staying Alive, 70,
10 The Real Me, 74,
11 Dealing with Death, 80,
12 Death and Taxes, 84,
-> Toolkit 09—12, 88,
+ Further Learning, 90,
13 Group Mentality, 96,
14 Club Rules, 100,
15 Making Amends, 106,
16 Moral Rubbish, 110,
-> Toolkit 13—16, 114,
+ Further Learning, 116,
17 Horror Films, 122,
18 Fine Dining, 126,
19 Creative Genius, 132,
20 Virtual life, 136,
-> Toolkit 17—20, 140,
+ Further Learning, 142,
Epilogue, 144,

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