Questions and Replies

The following questions have been submitted by the public and replied to by the current EIN director:


Are there ever situations where self-preservation is ethically unacceptable, i.e. where choosing to stay alive is inexcusable, and where the only ethical course of action is to die? Or is self-preservation always excusable, even if it is not ideal? (July 26, 2012)

Response on July 27, 2012:

I suggest it is not always ethically permissible to seek self-preservation. Imagine that you need a heart transplant to survive and the only way to get a heart is by harvesting and thus killing another person (imagine the person is innocent, unwilling to die to offer you his heart, etc). Or imagine you and another person are in peril at sea, the other person has a life preserver that she owns, it can only support one person, and while it is likely she will survive in time for a rescue boat to arrive, you will otherwise drown. In that case, I suggest it would be wrong in fact, it would be a case of murder for you to take the life preserver from the other person with the outcome that you survive and she drowns. I believe that the criminal law in many countries does not permit self-preservaton as an excuse for killing: for example, I think that if someone made a plausible threat to you (“I will kill you unless you kill those people over there”) this does not mean you can do just anything to preserve your own life.

Having said all that, I think that there are cases when self-preservation does seem to excuse. Imagine you and a companion are in the woods and threatened by a massive, hungry grizzly bear. Probably the heroic thing to do (all other things being equal) would be for you to confront the bear and allow your friend to escape. But while it is not ideal or particularly praise-worthy, you both might simply try to out run the bear, and perhaps it would be completely understandable if you were the faster runner and escaped while your companion did not. Even here, though, ties of friendship or fellowship might make it more noble for you not to out-run your companion, but simply run in different directions thus making both your chances equal of surviving.


What are some questions a philosopher might ask about death or dying? (December 6, 2012)

Response on December 8, 2012:

Almost from the very beginning, philosophers have reflected on death and dying. Here are some questions that have exercised philosophers (and I am sure the list is incomplete):

Is the death of a person physically a matter of the person ceasing to be or is it possible (or even likely) that there is life after death (or, putting it differently) life after life? If so, what shape may it take? Reincarnation? Heaven or Hell?

If a materialist view of persons is correct, might there still be an afterlife through, say, resurrection or God’s re-creating a person?

If death is the ceasing to be of the person, and if we have reason for thinking this is true, what bearing does this have on our ethics? Religious beliefs? Our sense of the meaning of life?

Should death be feared? Why or why not?

When is a person dead? At one time, we measured death with the ceasing of the heart to function. Now we tend to go with the irreversible loss of consciousness. But could it happen that a person in New York and a person in Afghanistan may be in the same state and yet in New York facilities exist that could revive consciousness, but these do not exist in Afghanistan. Could it be that while both persons are in the same state at one time, yet one is dead and the other is not?

Can the dead be harmed?

In a burial or cremation of a dead person’s body, are you burning or burying a corpse (the person’s remains) or are you burying or burning the person?

Might it be just (and could it be legal) to try a dead person?

How should the body of a dead person be treated?

Are some promises (for example, a promise to a spouse to never marry again) made to a person who is now dead, still be binding?

What are the ethics of organ donations? Who gets them? Can they be sold?

Some philosophers and religious thinkers believe that the person (or soul) pre-existed the existence of their body. Is this possible?

Is there a morally relevant distinction between dying “naturally” or through an overdose of morphine? How much weight does the consent of the person dying have? Is physician-assisted suicide morally permissible?

Are your last thoughts and reflections while dying of special significance? Some religious thinkers have thought death bed confessions of sins can be purgative, others have been skeptical. Some might think that if a person’s dying words are, say, “I love you” this might carry greater meaning if the same words are said casually when healthy.

When do you start dying? A month or a year or longer before you die from some illness or wound?

When have you killed a person? In New York, you committed murder if you intentionally kill a person by wounding them and they die from the wound a year and a day after receiving the wound. Any longer (say a year and a day and an hour) and you are not legally charged with murder, though you may be charged with attempted murder or assault. Is such a law reasonable? Why not a year and two weeks after the wound?

Are you responsible for someone’s death if you hit them, doing serious damage though it was not a mortal wound, and yet the ambulance driving your victim to the hospital is in a terrible accident and the person dies.

In the course of dying if the patient undergoes a radical loss of memory, a change of personality, etc, could it be that the person has already died, though they are still suffering in some kind of shattered fashion?

I am sure this is only scratching the surface, but I hope it is enough to entice you into exploring some of the above!


What is the difference between justice and morality? Evidently, the concepts overlap each other, and in many cases they appertain to each other. I have made some observation, though I am not quite sure whether they are of any relevance, in terms of difference. Firstly, it appears to me that morality deals with the means of an action, in most of the cases, rather than the ends, where the motive of your action is of major, if not absolute, significance (whereof Kant suggested good will as the basis of morality, or something done out of reverence of law). In justice, however, the means are scarcely ever mentioned, and all we hear about is the ends. It appears to me that some ends are in themselves the measure of justice, independent of intention. Also, the word justice, apparently, from the word “jus”, which means law, which certainly does make it easier to approach. However, it does not appear to be the case that law is equal to justice. Laws can, supposedly, also be unjust. It really bothers me that I cannot substantiate the difference between the two concepts, for it appears to me that I can apprehend them, though not separate from each other. (November 25, 2012)

Response on November 30, 2012:

Your frustration is understandable! In English, we used to have fine distinctions between the terms ethics and morality, duties and obligations, labor and work, recklessness and negligence….. but we English-speakers seem less keen about the finer distinctions at work. One might easily conflate the terms just and moral; saying a law is unjust seems the equivalent of claiming that a law is immoral (or the establishment of the law is morally wrong). But, there is still some distinctions to observe: justice usually pertains to matters of governance and human rights. And there are different domains of justice: Distributive justice concerns the distribution of goods and burdens; Retributive justice refers to matters of punishment; Restorative justice refers to compensation for past wrongful harms, and so on. Such forms of justice are related to rights, distributive justice may concern itself with a person’s having a right to health care, retributive justice needs to address respecting or violating a person’s right to a fair trial. What we call morality can certainly enter into different domains of justice or specific forms of inquiry about what is just or unjust in war, for example (“Just War Theory”). But morality is, in a sense, broader than matters of governance. In a class on morality, one might take up the moral permissibility of abortion, capital punishment, gay marriage, physician assisted suicide all of which have implications for governance but in a moral inquiry there tends to be less interest in the actual legality of an act. So, you and your friend may fully agree that abortion is legally permitted in the USA, prostitution is legal in Las Vegas, pornography is available to adults on the internet, and you and your friend may have compelling arguments and objections of the morality of each of these domains. What is known as moral psychology is especially concerned with the nature and value of motives: pride, compassion, empathy, anger, greed, lust, envy, jealousy, love, hate…

Your suggestion about means of an action versus ends is interesting, though in the context of many laws concerning life and property, motives (what you are calling ‘means’ I think) come into play. When someone is arrested on the grounds of theft, we need to know if the subject had bad motives (a guilty mind or mens rea) or she was deceived and innocent (she took a bike that was not hers, but she thought it was hers because her Aunt had explained to her that the Aunt bought the bike and had given it to her as a gift. There is at least one troubling area of law, though, where motives are ignored, and that occurs in statutory laws. In statutory rape (an adult has sex with someone under the age of consent), someone may be found guilty of rape even if the girl he had sex with was disguised as a senior citizen in an assisted living, retirement community. I can understand why we have statutory laws, but see them as problematic.

Thank you for your engaging question! I hope you are less bothered after considering my suggestions.


I’m in the middle of writing a thesis on tourists negotiating confrontations with poverty while on holiday in third world countries. It is easy to see that these confrontations touch on ethics and justice as the tourists are (relatively) rich, their hosts are poor and tourism is about enjoying luxuries (hedonism) while around the ‘tourist bubbles’ people are struggling. Considering this I focus on how tourists ‘legitimize themselves’, using discourse analysis (which discursive techniques do tourists employ) following Foucault on power and truth within constructivism, making sidesteps to Baumann (exclusion), Stanley Cohen (states of denial) and Zizek (cultural capitalism). Do you have any more ideas on how I could elaborate on these issues using philosophy? Please point me in the right direction of interesting (modern, postmodern, critical) philosophies! (September 22, 2012)

Response on October 17, 2012:

What a fascinating project!

It seems as though you are very good on resources! I have only two suggestions that you may (or may not!) wish to explore: you might consider how to assess and perhaps how to educate tourists on issues of global justice. Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice and Martha Nussbaum’s Creating Capabilities might be good resources and provide an accessible set of terms to consider. It may be that tourists to places that are poverty ridden do want to help alleviate these conditions, and could be directed to make (an at least symbolic but perhaps substantial) contribution to making lives better. You also might include some attention on how tourists might gaze (and interact) with those they encounter, taking into account Jacques Lacan’s notion of the gaze as articulated in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.


Do academics in particular have a moral responsibility to be outspokenly critical of social injustice? (September 26, 2012)

Response on September 27, 2012:

I suggest that all people have a moral responsibility to be outspokenly critical of social injustice (under normal conditions when being outspoken does not provoke even more injustice, and so on) and because academics are people (let us hope so!), they too have such a duty.

But I take it you are asking, more specifically, about the particular duties that an “academic” has; does a scholar, teacher, professor, administrator functioning in an educational academy have a special duty in this matter? I am not sure it is a duty, but I think it is certainly permissible for academics and an academy itself to take a stand on social injustice. The American Philosophical Association has done so from time to time, and it has censored institutions that it believes use unfair practices of discrimination.


If I was in a situation that forced me to choose between saving the life of an animal or that of a human, which one should I choose? And why? (October 25, 2012)

Response on October 25, 2012:

Not an easy question to answer as one can imagine all kinds of factors entering the picture: imagine the human being is s murderer who threatens to kill you or someone who intends to commit suicide after the rescue or imagine the human asks you to rescue the animal instead of him or herself. Leaving aside that humans are also animals, the nonhuman animal may be carrying a deadly disease or a being with very little evidence of thought, emotion, and rationality (like an ant) or it may be a porpoise who rescued you when you were drowning (there is a record of such a rescue in the first history in the west by Herodotus (Book I of his Histories). But leaving aside all these complications, I think we humans are naturally disposed to value other humans because of our being thinking, feeling, reflective individuals who are capable of appreciating and protecting values, being creative and imaginative, capable of entering into worthy, loving relationships, beings who have meaningful goals and desires, and other such properties and capabilities. There may also be religious reasons that enter the picture. But while I would opt for saving the human (assuming that all the other facts noted at the outset were not in play) and if I am the human I hope you will rescue me, some philosophers such as Tom Regan and Peter Singer regard your question as very important and they allow for cases when (in principle) it would be better to rescue the nonhuman animal rather than rescuing you or me. See Regan’s major work on animal rights.


It seems to me that the power of the first amendment to protect freedom of speech is vastly overstated. If a wealthy corporation doesn’t like a magazine which is agitating against them they can just buy the magazine. Wouldn’t freedom of the press be better served by some degree of government involvement? (January 10, 2013)

Response on January 13, 2013:

Very interesting observation and question!

The first amendment is (I believe) customarily treated as what some philosophers call a “negative right.” That is, the amendment refers to the duty of government and private citizens to REFRAIN from outlawing or unjustly silencing “voices” that are licit (that is, the people speaking / publishing are not breaking some other precept of justice, e.g. a newspaper uses its prestige to make baseless claims about the outbreak of an epidemic that does not exist causing a mass population to a panic that leads to many preventable deaths). So, initially, it seems the first amendment does not involve a positive right, a right that would entail duties on behalf of people to insure that all voices be heard/ made public.

So, in the case you bring up: if a wealthy corporation has broken no laws and (let us imagine) has acquired its wealth justly (from a moral point of view), it seems that the second amendment would not be a sound basis for objecting to their acquisition of a magazine critical of the corporation. But your question and observation brings up a vital point: in a democracy, the citizens need to have access to fair and balanced information about their nation and the world. Other things being equal, it seems that a publicly funded source of information / news would be better than a news organization funded by private financing with a specific ideological agenda or, putting things differently, did not have a vested interest in the result. So, I believe that many of us would be more likely to trust a claim by a study that was funded by the public on the safety of Tobacco products than a study funded by Philip Morris.

While I suggest that there MIGHT be nothing unethical or illegal about a corporation buying a magazine critical of the company, democratic societies have a real and significant interest in insuring that their citizens have a fair and balanced understanding of what occurs locally and internationally. So, if the free market economy is unable to sustain a public investigation into whether a company is implicated in dangerous practices, there is a collective interest in supporting news sources that are not vulnerable to manipulation due to market pressures, especially those advanced by the company itself.


The arguments for vegetarianisms seem to be very convincing to me. Are there any good arguments philosophers have made that eating animals is not immoral? (January 2, 2013)

Response on January 11, 2013:

Good question. There have been at least two lines of reasoning that have some following among philosophers. The first consists of seeking to object to the positive reasons that are advanced for vegetarianism and against raising animals for food. So, Peter Singer initially built his case for vegetarianism on a utilitarian foundation to the effect that raising animals and killing them causes undeserved suffering. Arguably, however, it seems that he would not have a strong reason to object to painless killing. And if you breed animals who have happy lives, there might even be a utilitarian reason for having large numbers of animals that then meet a painless end. A second kind of argument has been launched by R.G. Frey (who, sadly, died last year), Peter Caruthers, and others that animals lack morally relevant interests. Frey and Caruthers argue for this on the grounds that animals lack language. The argument is quite controversial as it is based on the view that there cannot be non-linguistic or pre-linguistic thought and consciousness. This is also quite troubling as it would seem to entail that pre-linguistic human children lack morally relevant interests, but this seems quite counter-intuitive. One may also argue that some animals have language or at least the power to communicate and this is evidence that they have reflection and possibly self-awareness (something that seems reasonable in cases when animals pass what is called “the mirror test,” being able to recognize their reflection and act accordingly. Ockham’s razor has also been deployed to argue that it is not reasonable to believe that the animals we eat have higher order thoughts and reflection that would make them objects of moral concern. Ockham’s razor is, essentially, the policy of only positing entities or phenomena that is necessary to describe and explain something. Arguably, some of our intentional behavior can be explained without positing higher order self-awareness. I, for example, very occasionally sleepwalk and some persons have even been known to sleep drive. These are cases when we are able to do complex things opening doors, getting into a car, turning it on, and so on without knowing what you are doing. If you like, this may involve a subject knowing which car is his, but not knowing that he knows it. Could it be that chicken, cattle, lambs, fish… might have some sensory life and cognition, but they lack the higher order self-reflection necessary to be taken seriously ethically?

I do not personally adopt the above arguments, especially the last one which has the consequence of assuming that nonhuman animals are on a par with sleepwalkers!


Suppose that a group of students petitions their college to divest from certain unethical corporations. In support of their petition, the students argue that since it is their tuition payments that fund the college, they should have a say in the way that money is spent. The college administration responds as follows. Although tuition payments account for much of the college’s funding, a large portion of that funding comes from other sources, such as grants and alumni donations. In fact, the investments in dispute are funded entirely by way of these other sources. Therefore, it is not the students’ money that is being used in ways they deem objectionable, and their complaint is unfounded. I think you can see what I’m driving at. If several groups fund the activities of an organization, such that no one group provides all of its funding, it seems like there’s no clear answer as to which group is funding any activity. We could say that tuition pays for faculty salaries, while alumni donations pay for investments; or we could say that tuition and alumni donations each account for a percentage of all college expenditures across the board. Any division in spending that we might postulate seems basically arbitrary. And this is problematic if we think that supporting an organization provides grounds for making demands of that organization. (I’ve used the example of a college, but I think that my question could also be posed generally. For example, tax payers often make similar complaints of their government.) (January 2, 2013)

Response on January 11, 2013:

Interesting! Your focus on a college may well be more complex than your last example involving the entitlements of taxpayers concerning their government. Concerning the latter, it seems that, at least in a democracy, the taxpayer can join forces with others and control the government through voting. Presumably in most colleges students do not elect their administrators, staff, and faculty, but they can do a vote of no-confidence in the administration through their student governing body (usually a senate), and often student evaluations are taken seriously in the hiring and tenuring of faculty. Concerning your specific example, you refer to “a group of students” contending that their petition for divesting the college’s funds from (for example) supporting arms manufacturing based on the grounds that the funds themselves are generated by the students. In that case, I think you make a good point about cases of when the funding is not tuition-driven. But I suggest that students do not always or often make their case on the basis of tuition. The students at my college, for example, identify themselves as members of this community. As such, when students have advanced certain causes which the administration has complied with (students have had success in getting us to cut back on waste, on only serving meat that was the result of humane farming, and so on), they have simply made their case on the merits of the action and then, sought to get a majority of students, faculty, and staff to see the moral need to comply with what they think is best. So, this is more a matter of students seeking for us (as a whole community) to be better stewards of the resources we have, rather than students claiming a certain ownership of college funds based on their tuition contributions.


Suppose a stranger steals 100$ from me, then has second thoughts and puts it back, before I ever come to look for or need the 100$. If discovered, should he be punished? Why or why not? (February 21, 2013)

Response on March 1, 2013:

I am tempted to ask: What would you think if the roles were reversed, and you were the one who took the $100 from a stranger and what you would hope the stranger’s response would be if it was discovered that you took the money and then gave it back? But I will try a different approach. Taking the case as you describe it: I suggest you would be within your rights (and not wrong) to report this as a theft and the stranger would then face whatever penalty the law specifies for petty theft, but I think you would also be within your rights (and not wrong) to not report this. Imagine that the stranger changed his or her mind within just two minutes and apologized profusely to you, perhaps even offering you the lottery ticket he just bought (and did not steal) and this gives you a finite chance of winning millions later in the week. Still, a theft or stealing has taken place even it the funds are returned. Imagine that the stranger stole millions from a pension account for hundreds of vulnerable, retired people. Even if never detected and the money is returned with interest after a week, the person wrongfully took possession of something that he or she was not entitled to. We might even consider a more dramatic case: imagine a stranger puts a poison in your coffee that you do not detect and it will kill you after 24 hours. After 23 hours the stranger repents. He happens to have a cure that will remove the poison from your system, leaving no trace and, instead will actually provide you with life-extending vitamins. Imagine the stranger is able to put the cure in your sparkling water and the only difference you notice is a renewed sense of vitality and cheer. If discovered later (perhaps there is a reliable informant who discloses what took place or the stranger confesses or the poison and cure-maker comes forward), I think most of us would think (rightly) that the stranger was guilty of attempted murder and that the state has a legitimate reason to take action in the form of punishment (or perhaps committal to a psychiatric ward until one may be certain that the stranger has been cured of whatever pathology drove her or him to put you through this threatening experience).


Breaking up with a partner can be very hurtful for him or her. Should I admit that I cheated on him/her and that this is the reason for me to question our relationship or should I rather keep the secret in order not to hurt him/her more than necessary? (February 28, 2013)

Response on February 28, 2013

I cannot resist at least trying to respond to your question, but please know that this is a rather personal matter and many would think this is a matter for you to consider in light of respecting your partner and your own judgment about the consequences of making such a disclosure. Perhaps, though, I can be helpful in highlighting some factors to consider.

I suggest that promises to others can be (but are not always) binding even if the relationship ends. So, while obviously after a divorce or break-up one is not bound to (sexual) fidelity with one’s x even if that had been promised with a vow, but there may be promises such as promising not to disclose information or secrets that were shared with the understanding that this was to be strictly confidential. I suggest that if the relationship you had (or you are about to break off) was built on the basis of trust and an explicit (or implicit) understanding that either of you would disclose any infidelity if it occurred, that would be a good reason to make the disclosure even as or after the relationship ends. This would be a natural conclusion based on the (at least ostensible) obligation to keep the promises we make (unless these “promises” were coerced, etc) and maintain one’s integrity. On the other hand, one might also take into account the complex matters involved in “cheating.” I have been assuming that the “cheating” you are referring to involves sexual infidelity, but there are all kinds of ways of (as it were) cheating in a committed relationship. If I am neglecting and completely ignoring my partner’s needs or her central projects right now (as I have done, let us imagine, for years) and am focusing only on, say, writing a response to you on the “AskPhilosophers” site instead of being present and responsive to her, then I am (in a sense) right now cheating on my partner, the one with whom I have vowed to love, cherish, and to share our lives together. So, I suggest that sexual unfaithfulness is not the only kind of unfaithfulness (or acts done that are not disclosed). And thus….

I suggest that the key concerns lies in what the “cheating” involved means. Personally, I would regard sexual “cheating” as less grave and a reason for feeling hurt than the emotional withdrawal of love. If my partner “cheated” but claimed she still loves me and she “cheated” at a philosophy conference when she met a former partner and was intoxicated and she was angry about my neglecting her in order to work on “AskPhilosophers,” this would or should be (for me) seem less grave and hurtful than if she “cheated” on the grounds that she no longer loves me. So, I suggest that in making your decision you might consider how much weight you think you ought to give to physical intimacy and the more general concern with your beloved’s (or former beloved’s) well being. If sharing that information is likely to lead to depression, self-hatred, and more by the X, that would count against disclosure. But if sharing might enable you both to change for the better, while you may no longer be lovers, this could be, in the words of the movie Casablanca, be the start of a beautiful friendship.


Do you think jealousy is morally wrong or is it a natural thing to be jealous? (February 21, 2013)

Response on February 22, 2013:

A difficult question! There do seem to be clear cases of when jealousy is a vice, especially when it leads to violence and inordinate, misplaced rage. Imagine I am so possessive of my partner that I constantly read his emails to others (secretly and without permission), I rarely trust him and so I regularly interrogate him when he comes back from a trip and I suspect there may have been some dangerous flirting. But as with envy, there seem to be appropriate and inappropriate kinds of jealousy. Imagine I have been a good father to my son, but when he is in college he becomes fixated on an alcoholic, pro-pornography, racist philosophy professor whom my son idolizes and calls “Daddy.” Probably my response would not be jealousy, but to seek to expose “Daddy” as a fraud, but I think I might well feel that the affections my son should have for me (or, dropping “should,” my son having emotions that are fitting in a father-son relationship) and directing them to a kind of rival, surrogate bad Dad figure. After all I did for my boy, why is he looking to Professor X as a role model and father figure? Jealousy (at least in normal, non-pathological conditions) can also be a way of showing that one cares about a person and a relationship. We are not jealous of things or persons we do not care about. I would only be jealous of a colleague who receives the lion share of adoration on my campus if I cared what students thought and felt about their professors and I felt as though I deserve at least a little bit of affection. A similar point can be made about envy. Envy is destructive if it is in a resentful, grudge mode. This would be a case in which I might envy a philosopher because I want to have her kind of talent and reputation and I want her to somehow fail or loose her edge. But there is a form of envy which may take another form: I might envy a colleague’s talents and take great enjoyment in her success and seek to emulate her wonderful example of what it is to be an outstanding generous philosopher who genuinely cares about colleagues and students.


Can you call an atheist a spiritual person in any kind of context? (February 7, 2013)

Response on February 9, 2013

Yes! While I am not myself an atheist, the idea of “spirituality” or “being spiritual” can describe someone who approaches life with reverence and reflective care regardless of whether they recognize the reality of God. While the idea of “spirituality” emerged with the idea of “spirit” and thus conjures up a background of the supernatural (as in the idea of there being a “Holy Spirit” as part of the Trinity in Christian theology), someone may engage in many of the better or ideal practices we associate with religious tradition (meditation, compassion…) without belonging to any religion. On philosophers who are what I would call spiritual and atheists, you might look at the volume Louise Antony edited: Philosophers without God. Also, see work by Owen Flanagan and Robert Solomon. Keep in mind, too, that most forms of Buddhism are readily recognized as “spiritual” and yet are non-theistic. If you are open to the theistic side of the fence, you might check out Stewart Goetz’s latest book with Continuum Press on the purpose of life or a book I just published with the University of Notre Dame Press called The Golden Cord; A short book on the secular and the sacred. Please forgive the shameless self-promotion but none of us are paid to be a panelist and if even one reader buys one book, I will at least get 25 cents in royalties! But, as you might guess, none of us are engaged in this project for the money! I suppose that insofar as being “spiritual” involves seeking to encourage reflection, respect, and reverence for what is truly valuable, our whole exchange on this website might be thought of as contributing to what is spiritual in life. It is definitely a non-commercial, non-elitist context for the sharing and caring about ideas that matter. I wish you all good things and thank you for your inquiry! CT


What defines a individual? What makes someone who they are?


What a difficult question! I believe (but could be wrong) that you are asking a question in terms of meaning, social significance, psychology, perhaps raising an ethical matter… There are two broad, distinct views to consider: one views individual persons as part of greater wholes –either in terms of societies, tribes, families, the state or the collective, perhaps a religious community or tradition. Another views the individual in terms that are very much anchored on a person’s own values, desires, beliefs, action. So, the first is a kind of external point of view: how is the individual seen or should be seen in a larger context…while the latter is more internal. I suggest that a reasonable position would take the middle ground. An extreme internal position would seem to be close to absurdity: if I think I am a great musical, athletic egg, it is probably reasonable to think I am delusional. And an extreme external position would seem to be very dangerous. In some forms of Marxism, for example, your freedom and character are assessed in ways that seem to crush the understanding that individuals have an integrity of their own.


Does justice necessarily have to be equality? (July 18, 2013)

Response on July 30, 2013:

Interesting! In certain respects, when treating persons in terms of criminal justice, most of us believe that persons should not be given unfair, special treatment because of wealth, gender, ethnicity, family, and so on…. And in many areas, we assume that, in a just society, identical or similar cases should be treated equally. If you and I both earn the same amount of money from the same job and our conditions are similar (that is, it is not the case that, say, I am childless but you are supporting three children), we naturally expect that what we pay in taxes should be the same (or equal). But in a just society, there still may be inequalities in different areas: not all members of a society will be equally healthy or strong, equally intelligent, equally loved by care-givers, you may receive massive attention by fashion magazines because of your irresistible smile, while I get no attention at all, and so on.

One way to make progress here would be to think in terms of justice as fairness. This is something John Rawls pursued over a long period of reflection and debate. So, equality and inequality become important insofar as the equality or inequality is the result of being fair or unfair. So, imagine you and I are equally talented and either of us could have become a brain surgeon, but, as it happens, you are the one who puts the years of training into actually becoming a highly successful brain surgeon, while I decide to make and sell enough tourist art in order to pursue my real passion, surfing. Both of us may be equally happy, but I think many of us would think that the surgeon would rightly be rewarded with greater goods (income) than the surfer.


When it comes to relationships between opposite sexes, there is the ‘platonic’ relationship. Does this have anything to do with Plato? And secondly, after advancing further in life, I find myself more drawn towards this type of relationship. It seems to have more meaning and depth. It transcends beyond any physical desires. Is there any research you could lead me to that uncovers some truths about these types of relationships? (June 7, 2013)

Response on June 10, 2013

Great question. Today, I think most people do think of a Platonic relationship as an intimate friendship without sex. The first time such a notion was explicitly identified was in the Renaissance when the philosopher / translator of Plato, Marsilio Ficino coined the term. Marsilio first called it “Socratic love,” but then changed the term to “Platonic love” and he mostly applied it to male friendship. Marsilio’s shared Platonic love with Giovanni Cavalcanti, a young man famous for his beauty. He maintained that you can be in awe with the beauty of your Platonic friend, but you must not touch or smell him. You refer to a Platonic friendship with an opposite gender; while Marsilio did not address this, Plato himself had female students and, given his high view of women in the Republic (women could be rulers), there is no reason why what we call Platonic love needs to be same-gender.

I would say one of the key elements in what is love in the Platonic tradition is that, whether or not sex is involved, when you love someone you must yearn for or desire their good. For more on such matters, you might check out the book *What Philosophy can tell you about your lover” edited by Sharon Kaye, chapter 8: “Platonic Lovers.”

I am not aware of psychological studies on the nature of Platonic loves, but that chapter will help you get started in further philosophical reflection on love.


Do prenuptial agreements imply a lack of trust, or even a lack of love?(May 2, 2013)

Response on May 27, 2013

Great question! Consider, with apologies for the homeliness of this analogy: Does fastening your seat belt in a car or on an airplane indicate a lack of trust in the vehicle(s) or a lack of love for the pilot or driver or other pilots and drivers? I suspect one might have lots of trust and love and yet be realistic that sometimes the very unlikely and (almost) impossible does occur. In a prenuptial agreement, both parties may be passionately committed to each other and yet, out of a “realistic” understanding of the rate of divorce, they want assurance that there is a fair outcome if (heaven forbid) the life-long vow of commitment is not bourn out), it seems practically wise to have a safety net.


I am interested in learning more about Philosophy, both the history of the development of ideas, and its practical application (or is that an oxymoron!). I am currently enrolled in two MOOCs, one taught by Mitch Green (Know Thyself) and the other by Michael Sandel (Justice). As a Clinical Psychologist, I have been skating around the edge of philosophy in my work as a therapist, so am excited about learning more of this field in depth. My question/curiosity is in the area of maternal obligation. More specifically, under certain circumstances, is it ever justifiable that a mother kill her infant. Lest this question sound too horrible to consider, I can imagine this scenario: a child is born with massive, multiple physical deficits that would make his/her life less than that which an animal might experience and would entail untold expenses, time, and emotional costs for the parents and society. There is clearly, here, an issue of the moral obligation of a mother to her infant, but I think even that is just an assumed rather than examined position. I’m interested in hearing from any panelist on this matter, as well as being directed to any relevant writings. (March 15, 2013)

Response on March 28, 2013:

I feel certain that even in this extreme case, the mother would be at least charged with homicide, if not murder, from a legal perspective. And I think it would also be a case of wrongful homicide or murder from a moral point of view (or, more specifically, from the stand point of natural law, which I accept). You are, after all, asking us to imagine a killing, the mother actively taking her child’s life through, say, suffocation or a gun shot or drowning or using a knife to cut off the baby’s head. This would seem very much like a murder and just as murderous than if the mother cut off the head of her healthy baby. Still, the way you describe the case, it seems that even keeping the baby alive through childhood alone would require extraordinary measures. Often ethicists think that (under normal circumstances) while a person is obligated to take ordinary measures to stay alive, she is not obligated to take extraordinary measures. So, if I am dying of heart failure, but simply taking a few aspirins would keep me alive (and imagine I have several aspirins within reach and I can easily swallow them), many would think that my failure to take them would consider my death a kind of suicide. But imagine that I am dying and the only thing that will save me is an extraordinary heart transplant that may cause unbearable pain. If I refused the heart transplant, most would not think of my death as a suicide. So, if the baby would not live without, say, extensive measures (organ transplant, the amputation of both hands, a dangerous brain surgery that may cause even more harm), the mother would (I think) have the authority (legally and morally) to withhold extraordinary measures with full awareness that her baby would not live.

For a good book on this topic, you may find The Ethics of Homicide useful. Baruch Brody also has some excellent insights on cases such as you mention. For a philosopher who would be far more sympathetic to your case, you may want to look at the work of Peter Singer (Princeton University). I believe his home page has various essays attached to it and you can easily do a Google search to find his views on infanticide. For a very strict, anti-Singer perspective, you might look at the work of Robert George (also at Princeton) or John Finnis (Oxford).


Is it disrespectful to try and tell somebody that you know their thoughts and motivations better than they do? For example, to tell an engineer that the real reason they are passionate about engineering is because they are unable to connect with human beings? (March 14, 2013)

Response on March 16, 2013:

Good question! I suggest this very much depends on the relationship, the circumstances, and motives. I don’t think there would be any disrespect if the engineer had told you in the past that he knows your thoughts and motivations better than you, and when he told you that (for example) deep down you still wanted to be an art historian even though you left the field to make more money in a computer firm, you made a life-changing, satisfying decision to return to art history. In that case, you might well be trying to help him, just as he helped you. But even without this past, I think that an intimate friend (though if the person is unable to connect with others, the notion of an intimate friendship might be a stretch) may avoid being disrespectful if in the course of telling the engineer this, you add something like “And I want to help you connect with others. Let’s spend some evenings after work with Michelle and Osama. They have been concerned with your over-working this year and want to make some we spend some ‘quality time’ together.”

But those cases to one side, many would (I think naturally) see the claim (especially if not invited by the engineer) about greater knowledge and the identification of the “real reason” as presumptuous and hurtful. After all, the real reason concerns a deficiency rather than some virtue. Special circumstances can remedy this, but they would need filling in as I suggested above and I offer one more case when presumption and hurt would not be in play:

Ringo came home, utterly exhausted from work on the new bridge. Ringo: “I feel utterly lost and don’t feel that I know myself at all. I was recognized as the best engineer on site. People celebrated my work, but I felt disconnected from my work and the other workers. You know me better than anyone. What’s going on? Did I go into engineering because I’m unable to connect with others?” Chris: “Darling, I do know you better than anyone even better than you know yourself, and I do think you are unable to connect with human beings. Let’s change that, starting tonight.”


Hello, I am currently studying philosophy and ethics at my school. We are doing an assignment at the moment on human nature and three element of human nature and how they link in with society itself and help to form and maintain it. I was wondering, could selfishness (a definite part of human nature) in any way, benefit society? As in, would it be able to help form or maintain a society? Thank you for any responses. (February 21, 2013)

Response on March 9, 2013:

Good luck in your studies! Philosophers have thought quite a bit about self-interest and selfishness. What is often called psychological egoism is the thesis that humans always act in ways that they believe to be in their self-interest (either directly or indirectly), while ethical egoism is the thesis that people ought to do what is (either directly or indirectly) in their self-interest. One point to clarify here is the difference between “selfishness” and “self-interest.” If psychological egoism is taken as the view that all persons are selfish because all people act in their self-interest, this seems either false or to involve an odd use of the notion of “self-interest.” Clearly many people are interested in living lives of justice, compassion, humility, and so on, but to call such people “selfish” would seem to be quite the opposite of what they are like: namely, they are generous, caring, non-vain, non-pompous, humble. So, I suggest that we use the term “selfish” in ways that pick out traits such as: a selfish person tends to put treat his own needs and desires as more important than others; if food or water is scarce, a selfish person (if he can get away with it) tends to either take or want to take more than his fair share. If a selfish person can achieve an advantage over others through deception, he will be sorely tempted to think of himself first and be tempted to deceive. On this meaning, it does not appear that everyone is selfish (and what might be called psychological selfishness seems wrong) and it also seems that selfishness would do more to endanger social cohesiveness than other traits and motives: like the desire to live in a just society, the motive of caring for others, and so on.

Still, some philosophers have sought to show that rational or enlightened self-interest can lead to benefits. There is a thought experiment called the Prisoner’s Dilemma (you can find this outlined on various philosophy website) which is designed to show that while narrow self-interest will lead to the worst overall outcome, enlightened self-interest can lead to the best outcome under the circumstances. And in jurisprudence of philosophy of law, you will find reflection on what penalties or incentives seem required to promote civic life and reduce crime by appealing to the self-interest of citizens. Ideally, you do not want laws that are so lax (imagine the penalty for ponzi schemes is a few months in jail) that it would be in the self-interest of persons to break the law. Adam Smith is an 18th century philosopher as well as an economist who argued that if persons rationally pursued self-interest they would be guided by what he poetically referred to as “an invisible hand” to bring about the best social benefit.

In terms of books on human nature, I highly recommend two that are accessible, reliable, and clear: Roger Trigg’s Ideas of Human Nature and Leslie Stevenson’s Thirteen Theories of Human Nature.


One of the biggest problems I have found in my struggles understanding common religions is the idea that we as humans always give God praise for his feats of glory, humanity, and miracles, however, it is despicable or even pure heresy to suggest that he is at fault in something not having your desired outcome. I know this is a broad topic with many ways to go but I’m completely stuck. For instance, If a mass murder were attempted and all were spared due to someone performing a heroic act. The press, the public, our Govt. would immediately flood our country with “praise God”, “our prayers were answered”, “I told you he performs miracles” etc. On the other hand, if the complete opposite happened and many were murdered, first of all, most people would quietly try not to mention him, but the more bold person would respond like “God has everything happen for a reason”, “only God knows” or “pray for the victims”. Aren’t these completely opposite outcomes to this tragic situation that result in responses that aren’t so opposite? Very few are negative or questioning; it almost seems like the ultimate cop-out, like when your kid asks you a question that you don’t have the answer to and you say b/c I said so. This is a hypothetical, however, you see and hear it everyday from people getting sick, the sun rising, waiting on test results… Sorry for jumping all over the map and thanks for any responses. (January 10, 2013)

Response on January 10, 2013:

Good question and set of concerns. I gather you are dismayed by how some persons’ faith may seem irresistible to counter-evidence. I suppose an analogy would be a case when I continue to trust my husband is a good man on the grounds that he sometimes demonstrably cares for me and I explain the times that he neglects or seems to injure me on the grounds that he must be so very wise that his action or inaction is actually good for me. That’s a problem. When it comes to reflecting on God in response to your concerns, perhaps three points are worth considering.

First, according to the major theistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is a reality that is omnipresent and immanent to creation, but also the transcendent creator and sustainer of the cosmos. So the concept of God seems vastly to outstrip any ordinary, finite agent. So, when reflecting on God we should think not of the ethical ways of finite creatures but, as it were, the values that would be in play if there is a Creator God. More on this below.

Second, prayer as a practice is much more than a matter of petitions and answers (or non-answers). Prayer is (I think for most practicing Christians and others) a constituitive part of one’s relationship with God (I am writing as though this is a matter of ‘one person’ but obviously in these religions, there are whole communities who pray and see themselves in relation to God). So, in prayers of praise (that you reference) or meditative contemplation, the person places themselves intentionally before the presence of what (he or she believes to be) God. Some philosophers (such as myself and Richard Swinburne, Keith Yandell, William Alston, Caroline Franks, Kai Man Kwam) believe that such experience can count as bona fide evidence that God exists. There are many ways to develop “the argument from religious experience” and you might check out the Philosophy of Religion entry in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to get an overview.

Third, and this is a point that the entry also speaks to, is the problem of evil. If God is all good, all powerful, all knowing, why is there so much evil? Or, more specifically, why is it that when one prays (as I am praying these days) that a good friend does not die of cancer, does the person die? This is too big of a concern to solve (!!!) in this response. But one way to see matters is that through prayerful experiences, some of us believe that there is an evident divine, good reality. And yet the evidence is not always apparent experientially. Here one must come to terms with a question such as: When does the absence of evidence of some reality (my husband, God, weapons of mass destruction, whatever) count as evidence that the reality does not exist? I am probably like some of your friends; while I think evil and unanswered prayers count as an impediment to faith, there is a reasonable case that can be made that there is a living, good God. Although one of the books I wrote, Philosophy of Religion: A Beginner’s Guide, is not apologetics and I bring to bear reasons for and against belief in God’s reality, and explore non-theistic Hinduism and Buddhism, you can see there an overview of how the reasonability of religious belief can be deep, comprehensive, and not rest on, say, “successful” petitionary prayer. In that book I explicitly take on the difference between thinking about the problem of evil as when one compares God with what we expect of a husband or created agent versus when one takes seriously God as a creator and sustainer of the cosmos. And also, for those of us who are Christians, God became incarnate as the Christ who prayed to the Father, and some requests were granted and some not (in the New Testament on the eve before crucifixion Jesus asks the Father for a means of escaping the passion and death) and there is no escape, at least at first, and Jesus has to pass through passion and death to get to resurrection.

Sorry if I sound more like a homilist than a philosopher per se, but I think that when you look at your friends and the broader set of evidence and reasons that may be in play, their trust and practice may seem more reasonable to you. Actually, the perfect book on such matters may be Robert Audi’s most recent book Religion and Rationality. It is non-dogmatic, well argued, and balanced (in my view) and will speak to you of how to assess the reasonability (or unreasonability) of religious faith.


What would you say is the best resource for learning philosophy at the level of an absolute beginner? I have tried MIT OCW, reading articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and taking out books from the library — none of it makes total sense to me. Usually I get the general idea, but I feel like I’m missing something. Should I continue using the Stanford Encyclopedia/will I gain enough from it for it to be effective? Are there other, better ways? Thanks for replying ^_^ (January 2, 2013)

Response on January 6, 2013:

Thank you for this request for connections or routes into philosophy as a practice!

The first thing I suggest is engaging in philosophy with a friend –whether this is someone who is just starting out or someone who has been practicing philosophy for many years (either on their own or professionally or in connection with others, whether this involves a formal institution like a university or not). If you do connect with another person on this entryway you may only shift in your question or request from “I have tried…” and “I get…” and “I’m missing…” to “We have tried…” and “We get..” and “We’re missing…” but the practice of philosophy is (I suggest) enhanced when it involves more than one person (unless the other person is immensely arrogant and closed minded!). Dialogue, after all, was the format of the majority of Plato’s work, and today most philosophers (professional or otherwise) see themselves as part of a community of inquiry. Perhaps a “community” that includes both the living and the dead. I know that will sound absurd, but I suggest that it is important to think of many past philosophers who have lived long ago as still having a contribution to make to contemporary reflection. In any case, exploring philosophy with others can be a wonderful way of expanding one’s friendships and also provide more of a sense of comradeship with others with regard to the deep questions that philosophy raises about everything from the meaning of birth and death to how we should think of “authority” in our political community and beyond.

Second, I suggest using some sources that are more “popular” as a point of entry into philosophy that may be vital as a preface or entry ramp to the more technical channels you are exploring. So, rather than the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you might try out (and I admit the title may sound, at first, insulting) T. V. Morris’s book: Philosophy for Dummies. NOT that YOU are a dummy! This is part of a series of introductory works for various disciplines like economics or physics for “dummies” but by “dummy” they (the publisher) are trying to promote their books for “everyday people” or those who fear they may be branded (unfairly) as “dummies”. In any case, Morris does a credible job of making philosophy accessible and exciting. Another book I will mention which will horrify other panelists is William Durrant’s The Story of Philosophy. At the end of the day the work is too secular (anti-religious) in my view and is guilty of lots of hyperbole, but it makes the central questions and arguments of philosophy come alive. My top recommendation, though, is the Teaching Company’s series by Daniel Robinson on the history of philosophy. You can download these and I believe these lecture (and others by Professor Robinson, available through the Teaching Company) and I think (and almost guarantee) think you will find these lectures both exciting and stimulating for further reflection. Robinson. of the University of Oxford, presents his own views on the history and importance of philosophy, but I believe he is fair-minded, balanced, and he would make an excellent model of a philosophical approach to the deepest issues that engage not just intellectuals, but all of us.


Several days ago the Syrian government began assembling “Chemical” weapons, which it was suspected would be used against that nation’s anti-government force, and presumably any innocent civilian bystanders. The United States Government stated that this action would “…cross a red line,” possibly forcing the direct involvement of the US into the situation. My question is; what does the “Chemical” part of it have to do with anything. How is dropping a 500 pound high explosive bomb on a school yard any more or less horrific than dropping a chemical weapon? The kids in the playground aren’t going know the difference. Does it really matter the “way” in which people are slaughtered, maimed, and terrorized in order to provoke and defend an intervention on those people’s behalf? It all seems a little disingenuous to me to tell somebody it’s OK to hit somebody else in the head with a wooden stick, but NOT OK to hit them in the head with an iron bar…. Is it possible that the 500 pounder is seen as more humane? If that were the case we should encourage the Syrian government to use a small yield nuclear devise and end everything in one quick flash. Ultimately, I see the discussion about the violence being lost in how the violence is executed, and I don’t understand why. (December 13, 2012)

Response on December 27, 2012:

Very compelling question. I see your point, but will try my best in response. Probably a panelist should reply who has more first-hand experience in this area (I have not yet killed anyone with chemical agents, wooden sticks, iron bars, and such), but I suspect that what makes some weapons such as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of special concern is that they are both more difficult to control (and hence more likely than conventional weapons for indiscriminate damage / harm) and they are part of a family of weapons that puts one on a slippery slope. So, for example, if North Korea launched a preemptive strike against the South, and the USA and South Korea in response used a small, contained nuclear bomb launched with great precision against the invaders and avoided any civilian casualties, this would open the door for the North to use a not-so-small nuclear weapon, perhaps going after civilian as well as military targets. There is another reason that may come into play: as odd as it may sound, I think there is a long-standing, sound tradition about honorable and dishonorable ways of fighting. The oldest poem in the west, the Iliad, records a repudiation of Odysseus who wanted to put poison on his arrows: this was deemed unfitting or wrong. In an important essay on war and massacre published during the Viet Nam War, Thomas Nagel argued (I believe cogently) that there are certain ways of killing that are permissible in a just war, and certain ways that are not. He singled out flamethrowers as especially heinous. I share Nagel’s position here. Whether in a case of legitimate lethal force against an individual in self-defense, or use in a war against an invading, military force, I think there are right and wrong weapons and ways of killing. So, I think it was not good that, for example, some USA soldiers in the Viet Nam War smeared their bullets in human feces. This served no military purpose and reflected a demeaning attitude toward the “enemy.” (I might add, though, that I thought at the time, and still think, the war was unjust –I was a Conscientious Objector in that era, despite having two brothers who served in Viet Nam in the army.) Perhaps the reason for seeing the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” is because they are deemed inhumane.

But your main point is well taken. It does seem irrelevant whether one kills with a stick or bar; moreover the mere fact that a bomb is chemical rather than conventional is hardly consoling to someone killed on a playground (using your example). I believe that chemical weapons were actually first invented with the intention of creating weapons that would be more humane than not. And if we could come up with a non-lethal chemical weapon that would, say, make an invading army listless and bored and yet enchanted with non-violent, pacifism and the weapon would have no harmful long-term effects, this sort of thing may be hard to resist. Still, in today’s world, we are dealing with lethal forces, and I suggest we should make some prohibitions. So, imagine that someone unjustly threatens me with lethal force, and the only way I can escape him killing me is by killing the aggressor, but there are two weapons I could use with equal effectiveness in self-defense: an iron bar which could be used to bring about almost instant death with minimal pain or injecting the assailant with ProStrength Drano Max Gel (resulting in internal bleeding and the person suffering a profoundly painful death), I should use the former.


Is there such a thing as the natural right to make or withdraw consent at any time? Or a right to die based on bodily integrity? Thanks, Jude. (December 6, 2012)

Response on December 21, 2012:

Hello Jude! To begin with your last question, some argue the persons have a right to take their own life or allowed to die (when this might be prevented if there was medical intervention) based on the idea that a person owns her or himself or, more specifically, a person owns his or her body. I suppose this might involve an appeal to bodily integrity insofar as this line of reasoning appeals to the notion that a person has a wholeness or an unimpeded right to do what she wants with her body. In many and perhaps most countries we do not legally allow persons to do anything at all with their bodies, even if no harm comes to others. In the USA, there are limits even when use of the body would benefit others. I cannot go to a hospital in my country and offer to donate all my organs to those in need. Well, I physically can do this, but if I demonstrate to a hospital that I am sane and a free agent and request “Please harvest all my organs now!” I will be politely turned down lest the hospital be charged with homicide. The idea that one owns oneself or one’s body has been challenged from time to time. Some have objected that in fact you and your body belong to God and that killing oneself before a “natural death” would violate God’s will and nature. Some have a different objection: they do not believe in natural rights, but instead accept some kind of social contract theory. Ownership rights are (on this view) conferred by society as a whole, and so if your society recognizes that each person owns her body, then perhaps ownership is legitimate, but such self-ownership is not in every constitution. Also of note is that even if each person does have self-ownership and the right to die, some argue that intervention may still be permissible if there is reason to think the person is not in their right mind (or sane). I might take LSD and think I want to kill myself by jumping off a building; others would (or I propose they would) be justified in intervening at least until the LSD wears off.

Your first question is a bit tricky. I am not sure whether you are asking about consent in right to die cases. If so, I think most persons think it is perfectly acceptable for someone who, on Monday, signs a Do-Not-Resuscitate document, thereby requesting that if she has (for example) a heart attack, she will not be rescued, and yet on Tuesday withdraws the DNR and requests that she be rescued if she has a heart attack. More generally, however, the withdrawing of consent at any time might be difficult to determine. I think most of us (rightly) believe that the right to consent to a sexual act can be withdrawn at any time, and this should be respected. If the other party continues after the consent is withdrawn, there is not lovemaking, but rape. But imagine you freely decide to fly Delta Airlines from New York to Paris, you willingly / consensually take your seat on the plane, but half way over the Atlantic you announce that you are withdrawing your consent, and demand to be taken back to New York or you threaten to sue Delta for kidnapping on the grounds that they are taking you somewhere without your consent. I do not think the airlines has a duty to turn back to New York, and it might even be fairer to think you are trying to hijack the plane rather than Delta is guilty of kidnapping. This latter case involves processes that, once begun, it is impractical to reverse. And we can imagine other cases when it may not even physically possible (or morally acceptable) to respect the withdrawing of consent. So, for example, imagine you freely consented to donate some bone marrow to your sister. The operation is a success and you and your sister are both healthy after it. But two weeks later you indicate that the consent is withdrawn and you want your bone marrow back. I think any effort to compel your sister to return the bone marrow would rightly be judged to be more of an assault rather than your exercising a natural right to consent how your body and parts of your body are treated.


I recently asked a question about cops and robbers, and as Mr. Pessin pointed out, it’s difficult to answer such a question when the subjects are children, who are often considered unable to grasp complex ethical problems. Having thought about it a bit, I’d like to ask about a related phenomenon, but with adults. There are more than a few adults who engage in Live-Action Role-Playing (LARPing), which frequently involves dozens, even hundreds of participants coming together in an area (often a rented campground) and engaging in unscripted role-playing. In fantasy LARPing, they take on the role of an imagined person (such as a wizard or a knight), speak in-character, “kill” each other with Styrofoam swords, save each other from giant puppet “dragons,” and so on. In doing so, they, too, simulate acts of violence against one another. I wonder whether these acts of pretend violence can be subjected to ethical evaluation, or whether the pretend nature of the activity frees the adult LARPers from needing to think about their actions in ethical terms. What is the nature of the activities they are pretending to do, and how are they ethically relevant, if at all? (May 24, 2012)

Response on June 2, 2012:

You are on to a puzzle or problem that has vexed some philosophers at least going back to Plato. In some of the Platonic dialogues it is proposed that art (like theatre) is an imitation of life, and that if something is evil in life (like a mother killing her children) there is something evil or not good about imitating it or acting it out as one would in the play Medea. From that point of view, acting out murder (but using only fantasy violence, viz. no one is physically killed) would not itself be good (and a traditional Platonist might even call it evil or murderous). But (after Aristotle and much history) we seem to have moved beyond Plato and enjoy theatre, films, novels that depict horrific evils. I personally am drawn to a middle ground. Let’s say the LARPing includes evil and good knights, wizards, and so on, and we wind up with epic battles akin the one that occurs at the end of The Hobbit. Off hand, this seems no more objectionable than performing Hamlet. But imagine the LARPing is more gruesome: imagine some of the people dress as SS and they make a fantasy death camp, and the SS characters get as committed to “mass killing” as those Stanford students got worked up into being jail guards in that social experiment years ago (in which the students moved from a role-playing enactment to bordering on serious abuse). I think such an event would be ethically relevant or, more specifically, I think it would reflect a profound deviancy and degeneracy. But where to draw the line? If the LARPing involved re-enacting the Illiad they would have to act out slaughtering children, civilians, defiling the body of Hector. My hunch is that the ethical status of the LARPing depends crucially on the subject matter or framework (the more evil acted out, the more justification there would have to be to the effect that it served some good, e.g. it was educational or the evil is ultimately overcome, etc.) and intentionality (e.g. are the players performing evil acts only because they are unable to get away with what they really want, viz. to actually commit murder?).


Is it ethical to force people to do the right thing? (May 3, 2012)

Response on May 16, 2012:

This question is particularly troubling when it comes to Good Samaritan Laws, laws that would penalize persons who do not aid those in trouble. Some have argued that aiding others should be a matter of freely exercised virtues like courage (or exercising the good of compassion) rather than coercion. But in many cases, especially in life and death situations, we do in fact think it proper to force people to do the right thing. We expect persons to drive carefully, to not murder other people, to not steal from others, to pay taxes, and so on, and it seems difficult to conceive of a community in which there are no enforceable rules. I do not think any philosopher from Plato and Aristotle onward have thought it was possible for there to be a human society without enforceable laws of some kind. Philosophers have differed, however, as to the underlying foundation and extent of such laws. Hobbes, famously, located the justification for law in terms of social contracts, while philosophers like Aquinas saw the basis of such laws in human nature itself and the self-evident eternal law that we should do good and not evil. If you want to explore a well argued case for minimal state interference with individual liberty, check out Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford, 1974). For a careful case for limited paternalism (interfering with the autonomy of others), there may be no better work than the four volume, brilliant achievement of Joel Feinberg: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law (also published by Oxford, from 1984 to 1988).


Is killing considered wrong because people have a right to be alive, or because the act of killing someone is immoral? (May 10, 2012)

Response on May 10, 2012:

Good question. Some ethical systems have grounded the ethics against homicide on grounds that do not appeal to the right to life. For example, some divine command theories hold that you should not kill innocent persons because this is prohibited by God. And some utilitarians (Bentham) repudiate the appeal to rights. However, there are other philosophical systems in which rights are given foremost attention, and would claim that the reason why you should not kill the innocent is because they have a right to life. This way of putting the matter puts the focus on the person who has a right not to be violated and also leads us to think that if someone does attempt to kill an innocent person (and fails) that person is owed some restitution (the criminal act is not just a crime against the state or God, though it might be again both; it is also a crime against the intended victim).


Is war inevitable? Since war, like murder, has been historically unavoidable, is war something to be accepted, anticipated, and dealt with as a fact of human nature? Or is war is becoming less frequent and less destructive globally, suggesting it is more natural to cooperate than fight for self-interest. I distinguish between local ad hoc conflict between individuals (you took my sandwich) and small groups (y’all took our sandwiches), not under consideration here. I am talking about extended, global, fatal combat between states and beliefs. A second question inevitably follows: does the development of military power inhibit war or invite it? I suppose your answer will clarify when war is war and when it is not quite war. (April 19, 2012)

Response on April 21, 2012:

An excellent question! You are right to distinguish individual conflict from war. War seems to involve impersonal collaborative lethal conflict, though sometimes the definition of war is stretched to include a state of affairs when two communities (nation-states, cities, empires, tribes…) have declared war and so there might be a war even if the two or more sides never get around to do any actual killing. In any case, you are correct that war is not merely (though perhaps the word “merely” is not the best to use!) a matter of individual stealing or murder. Insofar as your question is more empirical than philosophical, it seems that one can make a pretty good historical argument that war is virtually inevitable. The latest thinking is that warfare probably came about approximately when we developed agriculture (on the theory that hunters and gatherers may fight as groups, but there was not quite the pressure to protect land in the absence of farms and (with surplus agriculture) you can get cities and have armies and have more motives to attack others or defend yourself. I believe (though I may be off a century or two) that the current, best attested case of when there was probably a war was 12,000BCE (that is, this is the oldest date of when there is evidence of the oldest war). There is a mass grave (cemetery 117) in Egypt in which there are 59 bodies of both genders, all ages, and all with signs of wounds which would probably be fatal. The thesis is that the most likely explanation is a mass attack by a hostile group (and thus this is not a case of individual struggle). So, empirically it seems we have had war for 14,000 years of human history, and this is likely to continue without some kind of radical change. From time to time, we have thought that conditions have changed that would make war less likely (better and better communication, better weapons making war too costly, more trade with would-be enemies) but so far, it seems difficult to be optimistic about the end of war.

However, if you bring in a little philosophy, things might look a bit different. Some philosophies of nature (going back at least to Empedocles in the 5th century BCE) have seen human conflict as stemming from a deep conflict within the natural world itself (Empedocles wrote of the conflict between love and strife). But there are other philosophies of nature and humanity that sees the natural world (and human history) as intended for something better. Certainly, in some of the great world religions there have been claims that we human beings were made to love and care for one another and through radical compassion, we can (perhaps with God’s help or grace or luck) live in a world of peace. Check out prophetic visions like Isaiah 65;17-25 (Hebrew Bible / Christian Old Testament). There is also a tradition of cosmopolitanism in philosophy, with ancient roots, but represented today (e.g. by Martha Nussbaum) that seeks to reduce or eliminate mass violence. Perhaps the greatest modern philosopher to push for this was Kant. Check out his work on history from a cosmopolitan point of view. I believe President Wilson got the idea (ideal?) of there being a League of Nations from reading Kant. OK, the League did not work out, but it seems the UN has been doing better, and perhaps a contemporary cosmopolitan might hope a stronger UN is the answer.

You asked a specific question I have glided over: “Does the development of military power inhibit war or invite it?” I believe sometimes it does one, sometimes the other. It seems likely that having a standing army brought down the Roman Republic and caused a bloody civil war, but it also seems like the USA’s military power prevented the cold war with the USSR from going hot (slang for overt, direct violence, as opposed to fighting through proxy parties, etc). You have presented your fascinating question to philosophy panelists, not military generals, so forgive me if I try a more philosophical reply in closing. I suggest that the more a culture cultivates the ideal of a warrior as hero, and perhaps as the culture’s greatest hero for, after all, the warrior is prepared to pay the ultimate price for his or her community, then the more likely it is that we will use our warriors (whether in war or black ops). Please don’t get me wrong here: I think that the military is and certainly can be an honorable calling / vocation, and there are soldier heroes. But there are also heroic fire fighters, police, doctors and nurses, teachers, scientists, artists, civil rights workers, farmers, miners, cab drivers…. I think that one way we might inhibit the attractiveness of going to war (and there is evidence that many Europeans, including the youth, welcomed the outbreak of what we call world war I) is by seeing the virtues and greatness of a warrior alongside of other great vocations, including the vocation to do philosophy and try to love wisdom.

Sorry the reply is so long, but your question(s) are fascinating and important. I might add one more observation, though this is more about British and American culture rather than global. I believe that so-called “liberals” tend to think war is avoidable and so-called “conservatives” tend to think war is inevitable. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, I suggest. If you think something is inevitable (racism, say) you may be less aggressive in trying to eradicate it. But if you think something can be solved easily, you can wind up living on false hopes and be utterly unprepared to reply to aggression. So perhaps we should aim for a middle path?


It seems that when a person commits a heinous act, that act is in no way “compensated for” by any amount of good they may have done prior or since. A firefighter who has saved dozens of lives, lives frugally and volunteers all his spare time for those in need is nonetheless damned if he commits one murder. It is clear that the crime itself is a terrible thing and cannot be excused, and should definitely be sanctioned, but it seems we go further and label the firefighter *himself* a terrible person, regardless of anything else he might have done. Is that really the case? (April 5, 2012)

Response on April 5, 2012:

Very interesting! In the case you describe, the conclusion seems quite plausible. We might even think the firefighter worse than an “average person” or a gang member because we (perhaps rightly) think the firefighter should know and act better, especially given that he has in the past shown so much respect for human life. Still, there are cases in which we do sometimes overlook minor wrongs in the case of persons who have otherwise lived exemplary lives of virtue. I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not always faithful to his wife and plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation, but it would seem very small minded to hold these against the man who led such a radical movement on behalf of Black Americans and for the cause of fairness and integration. Gandhi, apparently, was not a good father (he was not abusive, per se, but not commendable), but this again seems very minor and of only minimal significance, given the greatness of Gandhi’s achievement. If we imagine King and Gandhi did something worse (imagine they burned dozens of innocent people for the sake of entertainment), matters would be otherwise. Perhaps a tough case would be President John F. Kennedy. As more and more is known of his infidelities, I think there is some tarnishing of his character in public, popular culture.


I’ve been trying to learn a bit about communitarian philosophy, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it. The thrust of the line of thinking seems to be that individuals are socially constituted beings and that the community should therefore be the focal unit of ethical and political action, rather than the individual (which is what is advocated by the liberal theorists communitarians criticize). That is, at least, the impression I’m getting. I may be confused, but there seems to be a problem here. Communitarians seem to want to exclude contingent “lifestyle enclaves” from their thought, defining community instead in geographical, historical and familial terms – i.e. communities we can’t escape being defined into, no matter how hard we might try. But just because a person is part of a particular racial, geographical, linguistic and socioeconomic community does not mean logically imply that that community is the best place for them to flourish in the way they desire. What does communitarian thought have to say about people who don’t want to participate in their communities, or who wish to live in ways that are at odds with the practices of their communities? Is the desire to flourish in ways not valued by one’s community pathological in communitarian thought, even if the way a person may want to live is not harmful? (March 31, 2012)

Response on April 1, 2012:

Excellent set of concerns! The history of communitarianism is a bit complex; the term was first introduced by a German sociologist F. Tonnies (d1936), but the term did not really get a lot of philosophical attention until we get the mature work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. I suspect that the form of communitarianism is a very radical one that rules out appeal to concepts of human flourishing that may be used to critique or evaluate communities. Both MacIntyre and Taylor stress the vital importance of communities as philosophically significant contexts for moral, religious, and political reflection but both embrace moral theories that go beyond what a community happens to value. Although I am not positive, MacIntyre seems closest to an Aristotelian perspective in his latest work. Taylor may lean a little more toward the Platonic tradition, but for both of these figures who have promoted communitarianism, religious values (both philosophers are Roman Catholic) are viewed as having a great importance that is missing in secular communities.

Back to your original worry: I share it. More radical forms of communitarianism could well overwhelm and threaten an individual’s bona fide flourishing, and that is indeed a problem.


Prior to the mass availability of condoms, and reliable birth control it seems to me that the act of sex had a very different meaning than it does now. It seems to me that “lust” had a very logical and sane basis for it to be feared. If you had sex then babies would likely happen as a result and unless both parents were prepared to take care of that baby then that would be a bad thing. Of course there were institutions like prostitution or even sacred prostitution that I imagine involved some kind of blunt surgery to prevent child birth. I don’t know really what kind of evils which were really tangible in a way that a baby is tangible, or lack of evils that that institutions provided that may have lead people to condemn prostitution as products of an evil called “lust”. Anyways people tend to want a lot of sex and prostitution has a limited availability. So when people say that we live in an age where people are more “enlightened” about sex I can’t help but to wander if that is the case? Isn’t our so called “enlightenment” over sex really just a product of a new technological environment? Also what when we condemn “lust” these days aren’t we doing it for different reasons than we have done historically? (Perhaps out of force of habit?-or perhaps excepting those who do not believe in any form of birth control- who seem to have different reasons for opposing “lust” than people who are okay with birth control) (January 26, 2012)

Response on February 25, 2012:

Very interesting! I suspect that you are quite correct that the advent of birth control has done much to alter many people’s assessment of the meaning of sex. And it may be that (depending on the kind of birth control used) some of the ethical implications of sex has changed. So, insofar as you can divorce sex and pregnancy, the ethics involving child-birth may be put to one side. But if you look at work on the philosophy of love from the medieval era (roughly from Augustine onward) to this day, there remains in place a tradition that sees what is called “lust” as a kind of degenerated passion. Someone who lusts after another may use the word “love,” but in lust one largely seeks self-gratification and perhaps even a sort of possession over someone else rather than truly valuing the beloved for her or his own sake. For an excellent overview of the difference between love and lust, you might check out the book Love and Western Tradition by Denise de Rougemont.

On the ethics of prostitution, I suspect that the traditional case against the practice extends beyond matters of child birth and rests also on a philosophy or theology of the place of sex in a loving, non-commercial context, worries about when prostitution involves involuntary servitude (the sex trade), exploitation (I have a colleague who has worked hard to help families be successful in Thailand so that girls are not compelled by one or both parents to become prostitutes, and so on).


It seems today that in mainstream media and political discourse proponents of neoliberalism equate freedom with consumer choice. Many arguments about the restructuring of safety net programs, such as social security and Medicare, along market logic of private competition and less government involvement, usually mention how this would bring about more “choice” for individuals and thus more freedom. Neoliberalism has brought a shift in discourse about freedom and liberty more inline with market type of discourse. The shift seems to be from having the freedom OF choice, to freedom IS choice. Much can be said about this from many different philosophical perspectives (an interesting one that comes to mind being Foucault and governmentality), but I want to go back to further, to Kant. My question is what would Kant say about this idea of freedom, that freedom is equated with choice – specifically- consumer/market choice? This type of questions plagues me because this neoliberal logic seems to reduce, and debase, the idea of freedom and liberty to something shallow and unsubstantial. (February 16, 2012)

Response on February 25, 2012:

Interesting! I am not acquainted with the term “neoliberalism,” but I think you are correct that Kant’s notion of freedom was not developed with an eye to consumer / market choices. However, his view of freedom, autonomy in general, and both versions of the categorical imperative would have implications for one’s behavior in the market, e.g. one would not have a healthy market if there was no promise-keeping, for example. For Kant’s views on politics and markets and freedom, you might look at his work on history from a cosmopolitan point of view. You will find something like the liberalism of Adam Smith at work, the idea being that if persons are rational in their pursuit of interests the good of the whole will be served.

FYI: Kant’s work on history influenced President Wilson and his aim of spreading democracy throughout the world with the help of the League of Nations (a term that I believe was used by Kant).

Perhaps a good counter-point to what you are calling “neoliberalism” may be Hegel’s view of freedom. You might find the free, online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy helpful for further investigations.


Why do so many people insist so strongly, even aggressively, that without death, nothing would have any value? What’s the big deal? (February 9, 2012)

Response on February 13, 2012:

That’s a great question! I suppose the idea is that without death, there would be urgency or boundary to our lives. Perhaps people think that part of what makes relationships important is that they will end. Maybe, too, there is a general, biological point, it would be hard for anything to live without death even a vegetarian needs to live on plants that are no longer alive. But the question might be adjusted somewhat: granted there is (perhaps inevitably there has to be death, but is it inevitable or necessary that that there can be no afterlife (at least for persons)? Is an afterlife possible (as is believed by billions of people historically and today, certainly in some of the great world religions) and what impact would an afterlife have on our values in this life? There is a fascinating literature on this. Bernard Williams has a famous essay to the effect that an afterlife would be (ultimately boring and so it would be irrelevant to the values of this life. I have a less famous essay “Why we need immortality” to the effect that if we love this life and people we should hope for more life. You can track both down by just doing a Google (mine is in two anthologies and originally appeared in Modern Theology. You can find Williams’ through the entry on his in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Perhaps the truth lies in between, though I still commend the more up-beat view on an afterlife.

Your question is most often discussed under the topic The Meaning of Life. Stewart Goetz has a terrific book under that title with Continuum you might find helpful and illuminating!


Why do we have some fundamental rights (such as freedom of conscience or the right to life) but not others (such as the right to sexuality, or the right to happiness)? Who decides? Who prioritizes? (January 26, 2012)

Response on February 6, 2012:

When you write about “who decides? who prioritizes?” it sounds as though you are referring to legal rights. While some ethical theories of rights do appeal to contracts and social agreements, much of the philosophy of rights appeals to nature, human nature specifically, or to duties, which are not a matter of convention. So, assuming that we human beings do have a right to life and this is foundational (it entails that others have a duty not to murder me, for example), this is not something normally thought of in terms of a person or group of people deciding we have such a right. In any case, whether legal or ethical, some rights are considered more fundamental because they explain more particular rights. So, it is natural to think that the right of self-expression is more fundamental than my right to write a letter about my beliefs, because the first right explains the latter. Your having a right to liberty (within constraints) is more foundational than your right to start walking toward the setting sun, because (again) the one is more foundational).

Of the rights you mention, each one can give rise to rather complex questions. Some rights are considered more foundational than others when they give rise to duties for other people. One reason for thinking (of those rights you mention) that the right (if there is one) to be sexually active is not as foundational as the right to life is because in the former case (presumably) no one has a duty to have sex with you, whereas if you have a right to life others may have a duty to rescue you when your life is in danger.


It is said that happiness should be attained from the “inside out”. That it should be unilaterally sought, and not externally determined. On a philosophical standpoint, is this view tenable, considering that we do not live in a vacuum? It is, to a large extent, true that we can choose the way we respond to a situation. But wouldn’t undesirable or negative events (or even harassment) trigger the need to choose to respond in a way that does not allow for the event to determine one’s happiness, and that that itself connotes that external events have a role to play? I may be stretching the notion too far, in which case, a rephrasing of the question would involve asking the extent to which happiness should/could be unilaterally determined? On a general level, is happiness a concept that is consensually determined (a social construct) or is it a subjective pursuit, such that one can “choose to be happy” for real? (January 18, 2012)

Response on January 23, 2012:

Excellent question or set of questions! The Ancient Greeks were especially vexed by this concern, some of them (like the Stoics) stressing happiness as something that is almost always an internal matter, but those influenced by Greek tragedy tended to take the opposite view (chance or fate can have a major impact). Probably the best book on this historically and as a substantial question on its own is The Fragility of Goodness; Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy by Martha Nussbaum (Cambridge University Press, 1986). I suspect that some kind of middle ground is the most reasonable: your flourishing or happiness cannot be entirely internal (it would be hard to be happy while being slowly tortured to death), but it cannot be entirely external (we can imagine a chap having the best conditions possible and yet responding with spiteful unhappiness).

As for your general question on happiness, the current debate is quite interesting! Some philosophers are impressed by some empirical evidence that suggests (to them) that a person is not the best judge of whether he or she is happy. There are studies to the effect that most people report being happy with their lives (see “Most People are Happy” in Psychological Science, vol. 7, 1996). There was a 1978 study that reports that accident victims who become paraplegic usually return to their original state of happiness within one year. And another study in 1996 which suggests that few of us (except in non-fatal conditions of course!) are badly effected after three months of a bad event. (There is an excellent paper on this by Jason Marsh entitled “Quality of Life Assessments, Cognitive Reliability and Procreative Responsibility.”) Some philosophers think all this is pretty good news, but others conclude that the data must reveal that people are self-deceived and while they think they are happy, they are not. I personally have a hard time believing these studies (I think it would take me more than a year to recover from being paraplegic), but if these studies are accurate they perhaps support a middle ground position: a person’s happiness is neither entirely internal nor entirely external.


Hi; I’m not sure this is a philosophical question, but nonetheless I would love to know, why is it that people do bad things even when they know they are bad things? Is there a philosopher or a philosophy that answers this question? Cheers Pasquale (January 18, 2012)

Response on January 22, 2012:

Dear Pasquale,

Yes, this is a question that exercised the earliest philosophers in Ancient Greece (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle). It is sometimes referred to as the problem of akrasia, which is the Greek term for weakness of will. Some of these early philosophers thought that ignorance is the key. People often do bad things because (basically) they don’t know any better (or what counts as the good). A somewhat related view (taken up later by Augustine and Aquinas) is that when a person does something bad, he is actually (at least at the time of the act) pursuing something he believes (or he has deceived himself into believing) is actually justified or not wrong. So, on this view, a person might tell himself (and even tell the world) that he is only seeking justice, when in actuality he is a tyrant seeking revenge. Or, someone who in general thinks that adultery and stealing are wrong, gets himself to think that in these particular circumstances, the act is ok. Others, such as St. Paul in the New Testament, seem to affirm that one can do an act that one fully knows at the time is wrong. There is still debate on this view, though I myself suggest that the Augustinian proposal seems pretty intuitive. I suspect that even in the case of St. Paul, while he may know (deep down, so to speak) that what he is doing is wrong, on the surface to carry through with a wrong deed an agent has to (through perhaps self-deception) convince themselves that what they are doing is ok. Still, to be honest, it seems that lots of we human beings can be quite malevolent, irrational, and perhaps some evil we do is even without much thought (e.g. in obedience to an authority). For the classic early investigation of this problem, check out Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 1152a25-27.


There are certain people who, when hearing of a person’s complaints about their working conditions, are fond of saying that those complaining should “just leave” and get work elsewhere, instead of demanding that employers foster better working conditions (which would presumably amount to restricting the freedom of the employers). In some cases, the suggestion might be even more extreme, telling the person that they ought to change fields entirely. My question is, is a system in which people’s only options for improving their quality of life on the job is to leave and hope to find work somewhere better a fair system? Are the conveniences of employers more important than the needs of the employees? (December 20, 2011)

Response on January 17, 2012:

A great question! I believe (perhaps wrongly) that the question, especially the last one, does not have a single, general answer, however there are factors we can identify and find some agreement about. Some of these factors seem to involve loyalty, reasonable expectations, gratitude, fairness, and the availability of alternative employers and employees. So, in terms of loyalty: if a worker has faithful in executing her job and done so with integrity and then requests that, say, the uncomfortable temperature of a room be adjusted or that there be longer and more regular breaks in order to prevent injury due to tiredness, the burden would seem to be on the employer to change, whereas if the employer requested regular, fully paid trips to Disney world there would seem to be little reason to take this seriously. Matters of fairness might also rightly give reason for an employer to change; imagine an employee works with others who are free riders (not pulling their fair share) or, worse, what some call parasites (not only not doing one’s fair share but making the organization worse by taking advantage of it). An employer might have an obligation to respond to an employee’s demand for fairness in the workplace.

As for the “just leave” response, this might reflect a failure of an employer to be grateful for past service. Perhaps this response may be legal, but it may be cruel. But if a worker is making unfair demands and there are available alternatives where the worker might be happier, it is hard to say that such a response is simply wrong.

Your question reminds me of the attitude some take to dissent to one’s country: “Love it or leave it.” As a general attitude, this may be problematic because it underestimates the extent that we expect in a democratic culture for patriotic citizens to dissent to their nation’s policies and it also may underestimate the cost of leaving one’s country. If I asked my students something like the following, they would hardly take me up on the request: “If you disagree with what I have said today, cut off your right arm. Otherwise, no matter what you say, I shall assume you are in full agreement with me.” Other things being equal, I believe we expect that citizens or students may actually love a country or class while at the same time not loving a great deal that is being done.


Many pundits speak about the erosion of personal responsibility by the “nanny state”. But personal responsibility isn’t exactly fun; it can be taxing and costly to have to suffer for your mistakes, your free choices or even your nature. Why shouldn’t the government ease the burden of personal responsibility on citizens? (January 3, 2012)

Response on January 17, 2012:

Great question. I suppose that the general assumption in liberal democracy is that there should be a presumption of liberty in most areas of life except in cases of harm or extreme offense or in some cases where there is a substantial risk of avoidable suffering. So, in most states in the USA I believe that motorcyclists do not have a choice about whether to wear a helmet, something that may reduce head injuries. And motorists are required to wear seat belts in order to cut down on harm. These do not appear to me to be cases of when the state is acting as a “nanny’ –a metaphor (I take it) of treating adults as though they are children. These might be good cases of when the government rightly eases the burden of personal responsibility on citizens (to use your language). And perhaps the government rightly restricts the freedom of people to make some choices such as the choice of whether to sell organs or blood or (in an extreme case) their very freedom (slavery is illegal, even if an individual consents to becoming someone’s slave). But I suggest liberal democratic tradition (from Mill to Rawls) thinks that basic liberty is a good, no matter how vexing or taxing. And at the end of the day, many of us (I suggest rightly) would prefer the state to restrict personal responsibility only in extreme cases, lest we win up with, not a nanny for a state, but a tyrant.


I think of forgiveness as a central principle around which I base my behavior. Lately I have been feeling as though many people close to me take advantage of my generous forgiveness by intentionally doing things that hurt me (not physically) and then offering superficial apologies, knowing that I will forgive them. Is there an ethical justification for forgiveness? If so, does it offer any insight onto the practical application of when and how to forgive and where to set limits? (November 12, 2011)

Response on November 15, 2011:

Great question! There is actually a significant literature out now on the philosophy of forgiveness and some significant controversy over whether and when forgiveness should or should not be given. One of the most prominent philosophers to contribute to the philosophy of forgiveness is Jeffrie Murphy and he definitely thinks that one should not forgive very easily. He thinks that someone who almost always forgives wrongs may lack self-respect or may even have self-hatred or self-deception. Richard Swinburne agrees and he argues that one should not forgive another person unless the person has confessed and repented. I think that is too extreme. Someone may harm us and then die, making confession and reform impossible and yet (it seems to me) one can still forgive the wrong-doer. Still, Swinburne has a point in that if the person does not confess or even ask for forgiveness there is little chance there could be a full restoration of a relationship. So, in your case, I suggest you might consider at least not forgiving right away. Take your time. Forgiveness can (I suggest) be a process. The classical definition of forgiveness is:

When someone forgives a person, the one forgiving foreswears or endeavors to moderate resentment toward the wrongdoer.

For a recent defense of a version of this, check out Charles Griswold’s excellent book Forgiveness; A Philosophical Exploration (2007). I personally do not think this definition is the best and prefer something like:

When someone forgives a person, the one forgiving ceases blaming the one who did the wrong.

The reason why I am not keen about the first, classic definition is that ‘resentment’ seems a defective emotion –Goethe defined ‘resentment’ as ‘impotent hate.’ Whichever you choose, many (but not all) philosophers think of forgiveness as something that is freely given or not obligatory except in unusual circumstances. If you harmed me, and I forgave you, I might rightly be surprised if I did a similar harm to you and yet you did not forgive me. But perhaps even in that case, forgiveness is something like a gift. And maybe that is why it is so valuable and plays such a vital role in when in cases when there is reconciliation. Back to your particular situation, it seems like those who are close to you do not sufficiently appreciate just how important the gift of forgiveness is.


I am a working woman and I am very confused on my personal perspective on “love”. What is love exactly? I love my parents and I also love my boyfriend. But whom so ever I choose, the other one will be hurt. (Because of our separate religious backgrounds, and in the culture which I belong to it has high implications). Till what extent should I let the culture influence my decisions, especially regarding whom should I love? (October 11, 2011)

Response on October 28, 2011:

There is a tradition going back to Plato that there are two aspects of love: when you love another person you desire their good (their fulfillment / well being / happiness) and you also desire to be united with them (in a matter of friendship or Platonic relations this may be just a desire to be in their company, but in romantic love it is a desire to be united with him or her sexually or through eros). The first aspect of love may know no bounds –you may love many people, but in the second aspect of love, that is when (as you note) people can be hurt –in deciding to be with one person, you are deciding not to be with another, and you may decide that if you really love someone (really desire their happiness) you may decide not to seek to be united with him (being in a relationship with some people you love may not be good for anyone).

As for the balance of culture, religion, values, and your individual choice, there is no magic, self-evident set of rules from philosophy! Maybe the one VERY GENERAL point can be made from the history of philosophy: it is (in general) good for persons to make up their own minds when it comes to action and values. With Socrates, philosophy began with asking questions. He thought there was something wrong about going through life without self-examination, without seeking to love wisdom. He and many other philosophers would be very reluctant about an individual making an important choice SIMPLY or ONLY on the grounds of one’s culture or religion. Culture and religion can be important matters, and truly valuable, and so many philosophers would simply want you to think carefully about what is or would be good for you and the person you choose to love, while taking culture and religion into account (as they can either be hurtful or helpful, depending).


My girlfriend and I have recently moved to a new area, and have encountered an unfortunate problem. In this area, the birth control pill is only available upon prescription by a gynecologist, and gynecologists are required by law to refuse handing out the prescription until after a woman has undergone a standard checkup. Normally, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but my girlfriend has only been to a gynecologist once and adamantly refuses to do so again, as she is afraid the check-up will be horribly painful. She has, in fact, declared that we should simply stop having sex until we find a way to acquire the pill without her undergoing a gynecological check-up (we only ever use double-protection, condom and pill, to try and minimize the risk of unwanted pregnancies); her only idea is to get her mother (who works in a pharmacy) to send birth control pills per post. If that doesn’t work, it looks like I’m in for a dry spell. I am confused as to what I am allowed to do, ethically speaking. I know that gynecological checkups are important – my own mother was spared full-blown cervical cancer thanks in part to frequent checkups that caught the abnormalities early. It was frightening to hear that my girlfriend had not had any regular check-ups, and even more so to hear that she intends to never visit a gynecologist. But I feel that my sexual relationship to my girlfriend compromises any authority I might have to try and convince her to go. Ultimately, any attempt I make to convince her to go to the gynecologist to get the checkup and the pill are tainted by my desire to have sex with her; I would effectively be trying to take control of her body and ignore her wishes for my own pleasure, and I’ve always believed that was wrong. So, ethically speaking, what can I do? Am I allowed to try and convince her to go to the gynecologist and get checked up? Or should I accept whatever she decides to do with her own body? What do I have the right to do? (September 29, 2011)

Response on October 7, 2011:

Tough to say. Off hand it seems that trying to convince her to have such a check-up is profoundly to act in her interest in terms of her fundamental health. Also, it certainly seems that desiring to have a healthy sex life is not something that “taints” or should taint the boyfriend – girlfriend relationship. You mention “authority” –which is an interesting term here, but it may not be out of place. I suppose in a close friendship, we do give authority to our friends to offer (even unasked for) advice. But that authority does seem to be limited by an acceptance of one’s friend’s or partner’s independent judgment. You write about accepting “whatever she decides to do with her own body.” That does seem right, don’t you think? You cannot (with justice) compel her or trick her into having the check-up, and that leaves you with deciding what the future of your relationship will be like (under the conditions you both commit to) or to decide whether you even wish to continue being in such a relationship. You may decide that such a neglect of health reflects some serious misjudgment. You and she might get lucky and get the pills anyway. Or you both might explore the many varied ways in which one can achieve sexual satisfaction without intercourse. These are very personal matters, which is my clue to simply wish you and her the very best!


Can we love someone as an end in himself or herself? Can I love A because he is A, not because A is handsome or intelligent or generous or caring or whatever it is. The question may seem absurd but so does the expectation of all such properties to last forever! (September 29, 2011)

Response on September 29, 2011:

Brilliant question, and one that philosophers have struggled with. There is some reason to see Plato and subsequent Platonists as holding the view that our love is always on some property or other, a property that can often be surpassed, and so they run into the problem of why it is one may persist in loving someone even when you come across someone with greater intelligence, generosity, care, beauty and so on. Perhaps one needs to concede to the Platonic tradition that all our loves must begin with properties such as those you mentioned, but these are not abstract properties; they are the properties or qualities of a particular person. And over time (perhaps at our best?) it is the person we love so that when or if such properties are lost, we may still love the person. Whichever position you take, however, I suggest it is difficult to love or even think of a person without thinking or loving of them in terms of some of the properties they have. Some of these properties may now be fixed (e.g. you love someone for their history with you and the past is not changeable) but so many (such as those you list) are indeed contingent.

For a fascinating book on the tension between loving someone for their properties versus an unconditional love of the person her or himself, you might consult Nygren’s Eros and Agape.


John is 30 years old. Jack is 10 years old. They are clinically sane. One day, John feels a sudden, uncharacteristic urge to kill. He murders an innocent stranger. On the same day, Jack feels the same urge to kill. He also murders an innocent stranger. John and Jack both admit responsibility for the murders. They acted in the same way for the same reason. Their actions had the same result. Should they be punished in the same way? (August 25, 2011)

Response on August 26, 2011:

Great question! In practice, at least in the United States, the punishment and even the trial will be different. The 10 year old would be tried in juvenile court. The jury would not be made up of only 10 year olds. John, on the other hand, would have a jury (if there was a jury) of fellow adults or peers, and the possible consequences would be different. I suggest that one reason for a difference in punishment is that while both John and Jack admit responsibility (which I assume involves admitting that they knew that what they did was wrong) the child (and a 10 year old is a child, based on international standards, e.g. UN definition of childhood) did not have as full of a grasp of the wrongness of the action as the adult. It may also be the case that the child had / has less resources mentally to address deviant desires / urges. I think we expect adults to engage in greater self-mastery, to exercise greater restraint and control of desires than children. Although the claim may seem odd: sanity for a child may differ at least in degree from sanity for an adult. It would be odd, but not insane for my four-year-old nephew to think he could put on a ring that would make him invisible (after all, Bilbo Baggins did this in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), but I would be quite insane to think so.

There might also be another way to think of punishment: if a 10 year old is found guilty and given a 10 year sentence, by the time he is 20 he will have spent half of his life in prison. Insofar as part of the role of punishment through prison / incarceration is rehabilitation and reformation, this may be more likely to hurt Jack’s chances of reforming. Under such circumstances, perhaps less than 10 years incarceration is warranted (especially if there is admission of guilt, reform, parole, reliable supervision when released…). Perhaps a lesser sentence would be less likely to harden him into a life of such crime. John getting a 10 year sentence would perhaps also harden him, though it would mean that he has spent less of his life time in prison than Jack. It may be that John is more likely to think that he is not a hardened criminal, but someone who made a mistake and paid for it with one third of his life…as opposed to Jack who might (again “might”) think: “Half of my life I have been branded a criminal. That is who I am.”

That’s my best shot at this point in replying to your most excellent question.

Allow me to add that your question really forces one to think about a philosophy of age or aging. When do the values, the virtues and vices of childhood, differ (if at all) from what we think of as the virtues and vices of adulthood? Along with Elizabeth Olson as co-author, we address this in a chapter in a forthcoming book The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy. There are no easy answers, I am afraid, but there are some good suggestions by other contributors to the book, due out in 2012.


Is it fair to force someone to learn even if it is for his or her own good? (August 10, 2011)

Response on August 14, 2011:

Well, in many countries attending school up to a given age is not voluntary; penalties are in the offing for not doing so. The justification is often articulated in terms of the good of the person who is forced to learn –such education will enable her or him to work, make a living, make decisions for themselves, the education might help the person not to be exploited, and so on. But the justification is sometimes more in terms of the good of a society at large. In a healthy democracy, for example, it is good to have citizens who are sufficiently educated who can understand political, economic, and social policies and vote in light of an informed, reasonable evaluation of the alternatives. I personally think that this practice and enforced education is defensible, but your question raises interesting further questions. How far can a nation state go in terms of imposing instructions? In the USA and the UK, it seems that the state is virtually compelling tobacco users to learn that smoking causes cancer. Again, I am inclined to think this is good or at least permissible, but I am not sure how far this can or should extend. If someone buys a lot of alcohol, should they have to listen to three lectures on the dangers of abuse? How long can or should a nation state compel students to remain in school? Until they can read and write or until they know the law and history of their society? Maybe each citizen should learn some world history? Also, most fundamental question of all: can one really force a person to learn something, if they do not wish to learn it or actively resist the instruction? I certainly do not have all the answers, let alone suggestions here, but I hope that raising these additional questions might help one to see the terrain better and what needs to be addressed.


I have a question regarding moral philosophy as it relates to political viewpoint. I can understand why philosophers in general might have some affinity for an argument that says those of us who are relatively ‘well off’ have a moral duty to assist those who are temporarily (or permanently) ‘in need’ of assistance. However, I want to look at it from the perspective of the person who needs the help. Many of us talk about improving ourselves so that we can make a difference to others. Why do we deny the opportunity to make a difference to those who need help? Isn’t that demeaning and stultifying to them? Isn’t there an implicit message that ‘you are not competent to take care of yourself, and so you have to rely on us to do that for you?’ My father says that is because career politicians are cynical and are merely using ‘we have to help others’ as a reason to entrench themselves in power indefinitely at good salaries with nice benefits. He points out that certain programs are based on income percentiles, and are not based on any standard of material well-being for the recipients. He suggests that any ‘safety net’ program would measure “adequate food with acceptable nutrition, shelter, and clothing” and not go any further; if people want more than subsistence they should contribute something of value and trade up rather than continue to demand more for themselves merely because others have more relative to them. The bluntness of his assessment bothers me; yet I find it hard to refute his logic: why is it that programs that are ostensibly to ‘help’ the less fortunate so often have a way of infantilizing those receiving the help? and how can someone who truly wants to help the less fortunate achieve a ‘fully realized life’ that goes beyond mere physical subsistence? At one time the residents of our state psychiatric hospital grew their own food, and made many everyday craft items for daily use. They were reported to be happy to have something useful to do with their lives. Someone who said they were ‘helping’ them sued the state, and forced them to stop this work in contributing to their own upkeep. Now the patients sit around all day with much less to do and are reportedly far less happy now than they used to be. How did taking away a chance to feel useful help these people? and how can I either respond to my father’s assertions, or find a way to influence those who claim to be ‘helping’ the less fortunate to look beyond only their physical needs and actually provide some ‘help’ that includes helping those less fortunate find meaning and worth in their life, not just daily physical comfort? Thank you very much for helping me sort through this tangle of good intentions and bad outcomes! (August 4, 2011)

Response on August 6, 2011:

Interesting! The case of not allowing the patients of the psychiatric hospital to produce goods seems clearly wrong, though perhaps the worry was that in cases of severely damaged persons who might not even know what they were doing this was in some way exploitive. Still, I know a terrific half-way house for emotionally damaged persons (Spring Lake Ranch in Vermont) in which labor is encouraged and patients produce food and other goods (maple syrup has been important), and I believe this activity is actually part of the therapy.

Addressing your father’s point more directly: one of the reasons why a state government goes beyond mere subsistence in terms of benefits (for the unemployed, say) is because this is a temporary measure and providing more than subsistence contributes to a more stable culture. A neighbor lost his job and was out of work for about 11 months. He received benefits during that time which (along with his savings) meant he did not have to sell his apartment and (now that he is employed again) he can resume paying taxes, etc. and contributing to society without undergoing the trauma of loss of home, moving, etc. There are also cases when persons simply cannot advance or do work that would go beyond subsistence, if that. Members of a home for retarded adults I know of (Chez Nous, in Minneapolis) simply are incapable of such work, and require substantial aid to have a life that is dignified. Under ideal circumstances with healthy adults, I think your father has a point, but conditions in most cultures around the globe today are not ideal and there are opportunities for truly helping others have dignified lives. Still, one does need to be on the look-out for when a culture shows evidence of what the British call parasitism (when persons take advantage of a society or government without returning any benefit) or when a politician is only acting for base motives. Personally, in the United States, I doubt that the politicians who support a welfare system do so only to remain in power. There are too many other motives both secular and religious that can explain why a politician would be concerned with the welfare of those who are vulnerable or not able to achieve a dignified life using their own resources. To cite only one such motive: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all insist that alms-giving and helping out those who are vulnerable (think of the parable of the good Samaritan, for example) is a requirement of believers and a holy calling. This is a motive that is quite the opposite of being self-serving.


I’ve noticed that Western media – and perhaps society as a whole – pay far greater attention to civilian deaths (and coalition deaths) than to the deaths of enemy military personnel. The best current example of this is Libya – when civilian deaths due to NATO’s campaign are suspected, this is heavily reported. But it is hard to get any sense of how many of Gaddafi’s soldiers have been killed by NATO. From the point of view of the media (and NATO) these numbers don’t seem to matter. The neglect of loss of military life (on both sides) seems to me indefensible. If Gaddafi’s soldiers were entering the conflict of their own free will then we may try to argue (incorrectly, in my view) that their deaths have less moral significance than the deaths of civilians. However, it is likely that many of Gaddafi’s soldiers are not in the conflict of their own free will, because defection is punishable by death. My question is this: shouldn’t philosophers fight as hard for the rights of military personnel (whichever side of a conflict they happen to be on) as they do for the rights of civilians (especially those lower-ranking personnel who have no choice but to fight)? I believe that a consequence of this could be greater political will to develop military technologies that focus on disabling military assets (e.g. tanks, aircraft, communication lines) without killing civilians *OR* personnel. For example, focusing on using cyberwarfare to hack into and destroy military infrastructure. (June 25, 2011)

Response on July 2, 2011:

You make very good points! Historically, philosophers have been concerned about the status, importance, and duties of soldiers. Aristotle has a very high view of the warrior (and this perhaps makes quite good sense when one notes that he was a tutor of Alexander the Great) and Socrates was very concerned about not punishing (executing) members of Athens’ navy who neglected to rescue sailors. Actually, Socrates’ interest in soldiers is especially to be appreciated when one takes into account that he himself was a veteran (and, more specifically, a veteran of a defeated army). While there is a long tradition of philosophers reflecting on the ethics and practice of war, probably the topic was most heated recently in the 1960s and 70s during the Viet Nam War and during the Cold War. Today war seems a little less the topic of choice today (compared with the 1960s), though it is not neglected and it is not unusual to see work on international justice, nationalism, global justice, and genocide. I feel sure you are right, however, that soldiers can also serve under coercive conditions (without a real choice) and that non-lethal weapons are preferable to lethal ones for all sorts of reasons.


My aunt once complained about how the dumb the janitor of my high school was. He didn’t seem very bright to me either. But, why do people think it’s okay to put others down just because they are dumb? I am warranted in having less respect for my aunt for being that way or is it hypocritical to be judgmental to people who are judgmental? (June 9, 2011)

Response on June 11, 2011:

Great questions! First, I suggest that a person who feels compelled to use the term “dumb” to describe others may be doing so out of their own insecurity (why feel the need to put others down, unless perhaps to feel superior?), but more importantly using the term “dumb” in that way seems pretty insulting just by itself. Saying someone does not seem very bright is much better (I think) than calling someone dumb or stupid or an idiot or (even) slow. So, to begin to get to your last question, I suggest you might want to avoid thinking or saying that your aunt is dumb for thinking others are dumb! (This would involve simply trading insults.) But I think you might well be warranted in not respecting her being so judgmental, and this can be done while still respecting her as a person and as your aunt. I think there is a difference between making a judgment and being judgmental; the latter seems to involve excessive blaming or being condescending.

Going out on a limb, I wonder if there is an indirect way to convey to your aunt that such condescension is unhelpful? Modestly, one can simply not participate in such insults, but perhaps more positively one might tell her of a case (if true) of when you were thought of as dumb (perhaps quite mistakenly) and this was hurtful. Or, as in my case, I have done some dumb things I am not proud of, and if she were my aunt, I might be able to a conversation that begins: “Dearest Auntie! You think the janitor is dumb? Good heavens! He is a lot brighter than me! Why just the other day, I did the dumbest thing you can imagine. I wound up……….” Maybe this might lead your aunt to think you are both dumb, but there is a slight chance of a change of heart. Or at least a chance of getting a laugh rather than a sneer.


Suppose that once a year, Alice donates $25,000 to a children’s hospital, and that this sum allows them to hire a part-time employee to take care of the children. Bob, on the other hand, volunteers for twenty hours a week at an identical children’s hospital, which saves them from having to hire a part-time employee that would cost them $25,000 a year. Some people might say that what Bob is doing is more ethically admirable than what Alice is doing, because Bob is dedicating time he can’t get back, whereas Alice is “merely” throwing money at the hospital. Is Bob’s behavior really more admirable than Alice’s? If so, why? Why might we assume such a thing? (April 27, 2011)

Response on April 28, 2011:

Great question(s). I wonder if we have simply different goods in play here rather than clear-cut cases of greater and lesser goods. I wonder if there are at least four distinctions that may help us think through your question. I will do my best to distinguish a few of them, though in the end I suggest we may have to conclude that too many additional factors that are not specified in your case may cause us to alter our evaluation(s).

Your point about time is really important. Someone who dedicates time for the hospital will not get that back (as you observe), but it might also be the case that someone who is giving the money to the hospital (but not volunteering) earned the money and will not get that time back that she spent getting the money. Still, maybe we can distinguish between types of what might be called Temporal Dedications or simply (and with less jargon) different types of dedications of time. Other things being equal, I suppose we think the person that dedicates more time to a hospital gives more than someone who dedicates less, but then we would also need to take into account the quality of the commitment and also how the commitment of one person for a day a month might also represent her bringing to this task years and years of training.

The other distinction I believe you are on to has to do with the difference between mediated and unmediated goods. Bob seems to be doing a good that does not have the mediation of others, whereas Alice’s gift seems mediated through employing another party. Especially when you use the words ‘merely throwing money’ I (at least) am drawn to see a good that Bob has and Alice lacks. And maybe that is quite right, though I think that even what seems like our most unmediated goods (Bob directly cares for Susan who is undergoing physical therapy) his training is itself (in the broad sense) mediated or made possible by the contribution of others.

So, things are complicated. Your description of the cases would strongly incline us to think Bob has chosen the more noble cause, but other factors may shift the balance when one takes into account the source of Alice’s money, the quality of time contributed, and then there are some complex issues involving mediated verus unmediated goods. Motivation also seems key: what if Bob is motivated soley by a desire to humiliate Alice, his ex-wife, whom he is trying to brand as an uncompassionate philanthropist (which is actually false) and the only reason Alice does not volunteer because she is handicapped?


What reasons do atheists have for caring about other people or for being socially responsible? Is there any difference other than semantics that differentiates those reasons from reasons derived from religious beliefs? (in other words, reasons to care about others or for being socially responsible seem only to derive from one of two sources: (a) “enlightened expanded selfishness” (if we all do it the world is a better place), or (b) because somehow it is the “right” thing to do, and the only issue in this case is the source that makes it “right”). Whenever I discuss this question with self-professed atheists, their arguments come across as sounding like “I don’t like the term ‘god'” or “I don’t like the bad things that have been done in the name of organized religion”. In other words, they also believe in something greater than the individual and are arguing over what to call it or how to describe it or where its justification comes from, yet underneath it all, they spring from a belief that something important that is greater than the individual is the reason. In other words, are atheists and theists both believers in the same fundamental concept and merely are arguing over how to describe it? Thanks! Joe. (April 27, 2011)

Response on April 28, 2011:

This seems like a very insightful interpretation of what may unite some compassionate secular persons with people of faith who are also compassionate agents today. I especially appreciate your implied view that persons of faith who care for others and are compassionate are not doing so simply in obedience to (for example) divine commands. Both the religious and secular person may well transcend narrow self-interest, but I suggest there still is a significant difference between the two. A religious person in the Jewish-Christian-Islamic tradition as well as in Hinduism and Buddhism and other faiths believe that there is something sacred about caring for others. For Abrahamic faiths, for example. it is not only good to care for others because they are valuable in themselves, but also because they are created and loved by God. I am not suggesting that people who are secular and compassionate are thereby at a disadvantage or somehow working with an impaired view of values. Someone like George Kateb (Princeton University) has actually argued that the secular account of human dignity is actually superior to religious accounts (see his recent book Human Dignity). But the religious person will still have a further story or account of the importance of caring for others that goes beyond what Kateb and other secular naturalists describe. If you like, the religious believer might be able to endorse a strong view of human dignity on similar or even the same grounds as someone like Kateb but claim that there is additional backup religiously. Best of wishes to you Joe and highest regards, Charles


Sometimes, we force people to conform to the law, regardless of what they might want. Other times, we reform the law in order to more properly reflect what our citizens want as a society, how they live their lives and how. How do we decide when people should conform to the law, and when the law should conform to society? (April 20, 2011)

Response on April 23, 2011:

Philosophers sometimes use the terms “perfect duty” to refer to duties that persons have which they can be compelled to obey, as distinct from imperfect duties which cannot compel obedience (these duties might range from a duty to be nice / not rude to acts of amazing courage which we regard as ‘above and beyond the call of duty). Some duties seem obviously perfect duties like the duty not to commit homicide or rape or steal and so on, otherwise one would not have a society. Other duties seem to be imperfect, though highly important for democracy such as the duty to vote. I believe that citizens in a democracy who can vote (they are of age and of sound mind) should vote, but evidently this is not something that the USA and other democracies believe they can force citizens to do. You might check out Joel Feinberg’s excellent book Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty.


When a person’s irresponsible behavior leads to the death of another person such as the case of drunk driving we naturally assign culpability to that person. Should a person who’s irresponsible behavior leads to them being raped be held to a degree of moral culpabilty? To what degree if any? (April 14, 2011)

Response on April 16, 2011:

Interesting questions. I suggest that the disanalogies of the two cases are quite significant. In the drunk driving case, the person drunk is (usually) the direct cause of the death. In the case of rape, the person being raped cannot be the direct cause of the harm. In most, if not all cases without a single exception, I assume most or all of us think that rape is so heinous that no behavior, however irresponsible, by the victim can lead us to blame him or her. While I stand by that judgment myself, perhaps one should concede that there can (in principle) be cases when, for example, a person initiates a “rape fantasy” or consents to an extreme sado-masochist event, and perhaps these make it more likely there will be an actual rape, but once a person says “no” I suggest that “no” means “no” and the guilt borne by the rapist is not at all mitigated by the prior consent. Moreover, the prior consent and circumstances are irrelevant in terms of the harm done to the victim, a harm that is also not mitigated by “irresponsible behavior.”

Leaving aside the cases of drunk driving and rape, there is a broader point that is worthy of pursuit. Irresponsible behavior can indeed (as you suggest) come in degrees and severity can be measured in terms of amount of harm involved and what a rational person should think might happen as a result of the behavior. One of the best books on this is Joel Feinberg’s Harm to Others. I highly recommend a close reading of that and Feinberg’s other work.


Legal status aside, is a person who steals $1,000 from a very rich person acting just as unethically as a person who steals $1,000 from a poor person? (April 14, 2011)

Response on April 15, 2011:

Very interesting! Maybe not. If both cases involved equal malice and hate or the money was extracted with the same amount of violence, we might think both thieves are equally worthy of blame. Obviously the first thief has done more damage because a rich person is less vulnerable to extreme poverty and the second thief has perhaps doomed the poor person to complete destruction, and so we might naturally think that the first thief is less cruel than the second, but I don’t think this is necessarily the case. In some cases we might even reverse this judgment. Imagine that thief who steals from the poor person has no other means of getting money that will rescue his or her family who will die unless they use the funds for medicine (imagine there are no rich people around and EVERYONE is poor), whereas the thief going after a rich person is doing it for a thrill or to buy a ticket to a pretentious play.