How philosophy and ethics can make you a better student and person

Cyril Ip

Philosophising is the way to better judgments and awareness, maximising what we know and making it relevant to our lives

Cyril Ip |

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We should not neglect the power of our minds because it can change nothing or everything

Independent thinking is arguably the primary purpose of education. In the Chinese classic text Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu said: “Knowing yourself is true wisdom … mastering yourself is true power.” Knowledge is only useful when a person acquires it to benefit him or her and the common good.

Today’s young people suffer from a dilemma that many call “You don’t know what you know” – many have substantial knowledge and wisdom, but fail to put it to good use because they neglect the importance of “practical wisdom”.

“Phronesis” is the word Aristotle used for practical wisdom, meaning conscience or common sense. Last year, Gucci released a T-shirt printed with the header “Common sense is not that common”, which perfectly captures society’s desperate need to activate people’s conscience, and I would argue, to do so, we must philosophise more.

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Firstly, learning ethics provides a foundation for good judgment and decision-making. Those who lack ethical knowledge tend to judge impulsively, which is why the result is often unreasonable. On the other hand, by studying ethical theories, our minds will focus on self-examination, which will lead to better decision-making.

For instance, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism argues that an action is only good if it delivers the greatest pleasure for the greatest number, whereas German philosopher Max Stirner’s egoism argues that “true morality aims at what will benefit self”. Reflecting upon such contradictory views activates our conscience, develops our independent thinking and, ultimately, we make more adequate moral judgments.


Once we become used to our practical wisdom, we can apply substantial knowledge into our lives. I once thought the content of A-Level mathematics was meaningless and inapplicable to life, unless one uses it in their university studies and career. This view is shallow and displays a lack of practical wisdom. One should adopt valuable skills and experiences from any form of knowledge, whether they are useful or applicable depends on our ability to use them, independently, in a self-seeking manner. From mathematics, I have gained problem-solving skills, resilience, and adaptability, which are transferable to all aspects of life.

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Finally, we challenge the dilemma of “You don’t know what you know”. Repeated good judgment and habitual identification and use of transferable skills combine to increase our awareness of self; we become exactly aware of the knowledge we have and will naturally maximise the benefits from it. As Aristotle argues in Virtue Theory, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”. We will become naturally accustomed to philosophising and making good choices.

In conclusion, we first stimulate our common sense, then develop independent thinking by using it. As a result, the process becomes a habit, leading to better awareness of ourselves, maximising what we know and making it relevant to our lives. All of which are acts of “philosophising”, or profound thinking – we as a society should not neglect the power of our minds because it can change nothing or everything. To promote independent thinking, we should promote “philosophising” first.

Edited by M. J. Premaratne