As school starts, you probably spend lots of time selecting courses to enroll in. Choosing classes requires careful planning and the consideration of a variety of factors. In order to earn your degree, you must consider the available courses and how they contribute to your plans.
A series of requirements also help determine your course selection. You cannot take overlapping classes. You must complete 180 units. You may take introductory seminars, research, honors, or a co-terminal degree. All of these serve as specific principles of course selection.
Despite these various guidelines, the most important factor remains your future plans. You may spend time exploring a wide range of subjects, but in the end you must select a standard against which you evaluate each course option. Without directing your action toward this goal, you cannot navigate the vast array of educational opportunities and reach your desired future.
Each of the aforementioned principles serves a role in striving for your ultimate goal, and to reach that goal you must attempt to apply those principles. Now, how do you choose that goal? How should you choose a career, and does a similar standard exist for making daily decisions? What should you do?
This is the central question of ethics. Most people think that philosophy is irrelevant to their lives, but that does not mean that you do not need philosophy. Philosophy, when properly considered, provides the answers to the most basic questions in your life. Without the guidance of consciously-chosen principles, you may wander through life at random. Just as you need academic advice to guide your educational path, you need philosophy to determine your goals in life.
Unlike animals, you have a mind capable of forming concepts and identifying principles. On the most fundamental level, you do not automatically know what to eat or how to get it, but most people do not evade the responsibility of making those decisions. On a more complex plane, without principles you cannot successfully choose which major to pursue, what classes to take, or when to do your work.
For example, if you accept the principle of altruism, then you think that the purpose of your life is to serve others. Instead of pursuing the major that you find most interesting in order to pursue the career that is in your self-interest, you will attempt to study a subject that will allow you to serve others. If you decide to become a doctor in order to save lives although you would be happier working as inventor, you act on the ethics of altruism.
If instead you abide by the principle of egoism, you will work for your self-interest, holding your life and your happiness as your highest moral purpose. You will pursue a path that is in your self-interest. This does not mean you cannot be a doctor who helps people, but it does mean you choose to be a doctor because you gain from it.
Regardless of which ethical system you believe is correct, you must consider your values and evaluate what course of action will best serve them. Thus, philosophy provides two important answers to the above questions. First, philosophy tells you which ultimate standard of value to select as a measure for your actions. Second, philosophy tells you the principles by which you can achieve your goals.
It is hopeless to strive for a goal without explicit knowledge of the goal and the means required to achieve it. No one recommends selecting a major or class without thinking about your future. But when you live without an explicit philosophy, you commit the same error. In order to identify your values and the method to achieve those values, you need philosophy.