Esther asked:

Hi, I know this question may be a little personal, But I am a philosophy major at university, and I have a passion for the subject. Unlike most undergraduate majors, I do not simply study it because I need a degree, but I actually take it to heart and live by it. I am a Kantian ethicist and try to live my life by Kant’s imperatives. The thing I am wondering is, when I try to date people and tell them this they get scared and ‘weirded out’. Why are people so scared of dating a philosopher? Why does philosophy scare people when Religion does not? They are both contain the same basic elements: a ethical theory, system of values, and a basic treatise yet one scares potential dates off and the other does not. Why is this so?

Answer by Stuart Burns

I don’t know that this is the only answer, but it the answer that I have come up with over the almost 50 years I have been a self-described philosopher.

It takes a very special attitude towards life to be a self-described philosopher. It takes a special kind of generalist approach to understanding questions. And it requires a very sceptical attitude towards edicts handed down by authority, any authority. Very few people have that attitude or can adopt that approach. So as philosophers, we tend to view all sorts of questions and issues in a way that confuses most people.

The vast majority of people do not think in generalist terms, and never question their values or their ethical assumptions. This vast majority prefers to let other people instruct them in this regard. Which is why religion is so prevalent. Religion provides ready answers to generalized questions, and simple edicts instead of moral theory. (Super-market tabloids serve a similar purpose.) Asking people to think like a philosopher scares them, because they do not know how. (Schools do not teach people to think for themselves – good heavens, can you imagine the chaos if the students began to question the lessons provided by their teachers!!) Most people would not know what to do with an ethical theory or a basic treatise. They are much happier with simple to follow edicts, and a simple list of values. ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ or ‘Life is Sacred!’. No if ands or buts, no requirement for thinking, no requirement for dealing with consequences.

Since most people accept their handed-down moral system without question, it makes them uncomfortable in the presence of someone who announces to all and sundry that they do so question such things. Someone who has learned to think in this generalized way, to examine their values and ethical premises, and to question the authority behind the edicts that society proclaims is a very scary person to most people.

So over the years, I have learned to keep my mouth shut with regards to my interest in Philosophy. Except for some very rare occasions, or with some very rare friends, I do no more than mention my interest in philosophy, and then only if asked. If you have not already discovered this, I think you will find that you cannot have a philosophical discussion with most people – no matter how intelligent they are; no matter what the topic might be.

So I don’t think that it is the oddity (to me, at least, not being a fan of Kant) of your Kantian ethics that is the problem, it is the uniqueness of your outlook on the questions of daily life that threatens.