An inventor creates a life-saving drug for disease X, which has no other cure. Worldwide, death by disease X among white people has been eliminated because of his drug; however, the death rate remains at pre-drug levels among non-whites because he has contractually restricted its sale and use to white people. For non-whites who die from disease X, is this inventor a causal factor in their death? My friend and I have debated this. I argue YES. The actions the inventor has taken to restrict the sale of his drug demonstrate intent with full knowledge of the consequences of the actions he has taken. I think his actions are not only causal, but in a world where this medicine is readily available everywhere, he becomes the primary cause of death. My friend argues NO. The inventor has done nothing with respect to non-whites. There is no causal relationship. Pulling a man from a burning building saves a life, but not doing so doesn't cause a death. Where I see actions that cause harm, my friend sees...

As you've described the case, there's something the inventor could do that would save lives. There's also a dispute about how to analyze the notion of a cause. Some would say (your friend apparently is in this camp) that absences—in the case, not doing something—can't be causes. Others disagree and provide accounts that allow absences to be causal. This is an abstract and complicated issue, but how much difference will it make to how we judge the inventor? Suppose I'm in a war zone and happen to know that there's an IED in a certain spot. I see someone running on a path that will take him over the IED and almost certainly leave him dead. Let's assume I even know who it is and know that in all relevant respects, he's an innocent. As it happens, I'm behind a barrier, but I could easily warn him. I don't. He runs over the IED and dies in the blast. Is there something I could have done that would have saved him? We've already said yes. Would it have come at any significant cost? We can stipulate for...

Hello philosophers in a recent debate I was involved in a theist stated “For morality to be objective, moral propositions such as "Killing is bad","Stealing is bad", etc... need to be true independently of the person who is stating them. “ I countered “That is the way this position is normally put but a problem arises as in if there are objective moral facts how would we know this to be the fact? To know something is an objective moral fact only needs an agent to know this , how can a moral fact be known independent of a human mind to decide?” Is my position logically sound or are there problems with my reply?

I think your counterargument is conflating issues that need to be kept distinct. Your interlocutor ((I'll call him or her your friend) said, correctly, that if morality is objective, the truth of moral claims doesn't depend on the person who makes them. That seems fine. To say that something is objectively true is to say that it's true whether or not anyone believes it. Your response was to ask how we could know that there are objective moral facts, if there really are. But that's a separate issue, and in fact it has nothing in particular to do with moral claims. If there are objective facts about what's going on now (say, in the Earth's frame of reference) in some remote part of the universe, then those facts are facts whether or not we could ever be in a position to know them. Whether X is mind-independently true and whether anyone is in a position to know that X is true are different matters. You ask: "how can a moral fact be known independent of a human mind to decide?" That's...

By what definition, and extent, and to what purpose do we as humans classify the idea and act of murder as evil? To most people I ask this question seems ludicrous and the answer alarmingly obvious, but I have yet to understand why we identify this occurrence as ‘evil.’ I can understand that the intent of murder and its outcome can result in a way that selfishly benefits the murderer at such a terrible cost, and I can understand that the action of taking someone’s life is just as cruel to the deceased as it is to the people that knew and loved that victim, but it seems hypocritical to me that we as a society generalize the idea of killing as evil when relatively many of us favor capital punishment, strong military, and, at least in fiction, vigilante justice. We send men and women to violent battlefields yet, before they leave, indoctrinate the poor souls into thinking that the very act of murder is evil just by itself. They come back scarred because of this. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto...

Well, we think that murder is wrong, and that it's often (usually?) not just wrong but very wrong—wrong enough to count as evil. Robbing someone of their purse is bad; robbing them of the life is worse. What you say you don't understand is why we count murder as (typically? often? almost always?) evil in spite of the fact that we think killing isn't always wrong. You see some sort of hypocrisy here. But why? After all: not all killing is wrong. The obvious example: killing in self-defense, which I hope we can agree is morally acceptable in a way that murder isn't. Even more so: killing by a police officer to protect the life of an innocent person threatened by an assailant. Capital punishment is a harder case. I think it's wrong, but I don't think people who believe otherwise are therefore morally blind. War is complicated business, but there's a case to be made that going to war is at least sometimes morally acceptable too. The place where what you're saying seems to miss the mark is here: it...

Hi! I was wondering if I could ask a few moral questions related to Brett Kavanaugh. 1. Is it morally bad to profit from a crime; and, if so, why? It seems to me that most traditional moralities seem to proscribe against acts (like "Thou shalt not murder"), and sometimes against the emotional motivation for acts (greed, lust, pride), but that they aren't focused on the consequences of acts. It also seems to me that act utilitarianism wouldn't regard profiting from a crime as bad per se. If anything, the resulting happiness is a good: it's just that it needs to be weighed together with the resulting suffering. 2. In the case of Brett Kavanaugh, let's assume: (a) that he did commit assaults while drunk 40 years ago; and (b) that, after college, he went on to lead an unimpeachable life. In this scenario, would the assaults then constitute a moral reason not to confirm him to the Supreme Court? What does the panel make of the following claims? -- (a) He's a different person now, so there is no moral...

You ask if it's morally bad to profit from a crime. Since the answer seems pretty clearly to be yes, I'm a bit unsure what would count for you as saying why, but let's try an example: Robin's spouse carries a large life insurance policy. Robin kills him—a morally bad thing, I hope you'll agree—and then gets the payout from the policy, thereby profiting from the crime. Sounds bad to me. Consider two cases. (1) someone commits a crime—a theft, let's say— but they do it in order to help some desperate but otherwise innocent person. (2) Someone commits the same crime, but they do it simply because they want the money, which in fact they manage to get away with keeping and using. Most of us would say that the first case is less egregious, the wrongdoer of less bad character, and the act more forgivable. Is there a deeper explanation? More than one, no doubt. If my profit flows from a crime, then I don't deserve the benefit I got, and we care about whether people deserve what they're getting. Also, if we...

Is it ethical to favour one soccer team over another?

The answer is surely that it's not unethical or wrong or immoral to favor one team over another. But there's an interesting issue in the background. At least some views of what morality calls for say that we should be impartial. If I'm a utilitarian, then everyone's pleasure and pain count equally. If I'm a Kantian, then I should act only on maxims that I could will to be universal laws. But in that case, it seems, I can't favor particular people—or particular sports teams. Whether this is really what utilitarianism or Kantianism call for, this would be crazy. It's also an issue that comes up in an important essay by the British philosopher Bernard Williams ("Persons, Character and Morality," 1976.) Toward the end of the essay, he considers a hypothetical raised by another philosopher, Charles Fried. Fried imagines a man who is in a position to save one of two people, one of whom is his wife. Fried is clear that it should be acceptable for the man to save his wife instead of the stranger. But Williams...

Do people owe a debt for investments made in them which they never had an option to refuse? Some examples might be: Debt to society for paying for your childhood education Debt to parents for raising you Should it be considered ungrateful for someone to discontinue their affiliation with the investor if they feel that the relationship isn't beneficial to them?

You pose the question twice: first by asking if people owe a debt and second by asking if behaving in certain ways would be ungrateful . I think the difference matters. I don't know whether a child owes a debt to her parents—at least not in a certain strict sense. The primary use of the language of debt deals with contracts, promises and, in any case, cases of mutual consent. There are other uses, but the further they are from the primary ones, the harder it is to be sure of their force. Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Suppose we agree that the child doesn't literally owe her parents a debt for raising her—even if they did it lovingly, conscientiously and well. But would it be ungrateful for her to turn her back on her parents because, say, her new social circle made it embarrassing for her to have these people as parents? I think the answer is obvious enough. Asking what the daughter owes to her parents invites quibbles and evasion. But moral language is broader and more supple than...

Race and the history of slavery in the US is a highly sensitive topic (here in America). Recently, a news story came out about a town - Charleston, SC - that has officially apologized for its key role in slavery. According to the numbers, roughly 40% of all African slaves taken to the US were brought to Charleston. A lot of people are upset about this, and the main idea seems to be that no living persons are connected to and/or responsible for slavery (either directly or indirectly), and so no apologies should be made. The argument can probably be more formalized as follows: P1 - People should only apologize for those things which they are either directly or indirectly responsible for. (The 'responsible' party, here, being the causal antecedent of slavery) P1.2 - People should only receive apologies for those things in which they were either directly or indirectly affected by. P2 - No person alive today is either directly or indirectly responsible for slavery. C - There should therefore be no...

Both in the law and in morality we have a notion of corporate responsibility. In the case of the law, "corporate" will include corporations and that's a good place to start. Suppose it comes to light that fifty years ago, Corporation X ignored environmental requirements and polluted the water in some town. As a result, people were harmed, including children who are now living adults.. Suppose a team of journalists uncover what happened. The authorities decide to take Corporation X to court. The law would not look kindly on the argument that there are literally no members of the Corporate board or management from fifty years ago who are still alive today, and therefore Corporation X can't be found liable. But it's not just the law. If we allowed this argument to succeed, Corporation X, which continues to do business and thrive today, would get off scot free. Many people, perhaps most, would think that this is unjust. Someone could reply with a version of the argument you've outlined, but in the context...

Dear philosophers, Professor Stairs recently addressed a question about the difference between 'immoral' and 'impolite' where, if I understand him correctly, he basically said that there's a fact of the matter about morality, whereas norms of politeness are society-relative. But I think it's worth pointing out that there are a variety of other views about morality: for instance, relativism, error theory, and even some views where moral claims aren't considered truth-apt (as in logical positivism). May I ask Professor Stairs a potentially more interesting question: assuming relativism, or some similar view where there is no universal moral fact of the matter, is there a bright-line difference between the immoral and the impolite?

Perhaps not a bright line. But let's take relativism as our foil, where we understand relativism to mean that standards of evaluation are relative to norms, traditions, etc. of societies or groups. (I'm paraphrasing a definition from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/ ). If that view happens to be correct, notice that it doesn't leave us without a distinction between morals and manners. Even if relativism is the right meta-ethical view, we still make a distinction within this society (US society for the sake of example) between matters of politeness and matters of moral right and wrong. Close enough for our purpose, we Americans agree that stealing is wrong and not just rude. We also agree that showing up to a wedding in ragged shorts and a T-shirt is rude but not really a moral wrong (though see below). The line between the two cases seems to be something like this: we can imagine, though we might not find it an attractive prospect, that fashions might change and showing up to a...

Is there a clear-cut distinction between something that is "immoral" and something that is "impolite"? After all, aren't both categories about violating a society's norms?

Quick example: in this country, it's impolite to slurp your soup; not so in some other countries. That's just a matter of differing social norms Killing innocent people is immoral; it's immoral regardless of where you are, and not just because we happen to have a social norm against it. Being impolite can also be a moral error, though usually not a big one. It's wrong to upset people for no good reason, and being impolite sometimes has that effect. But it's not just that we have a social custom of not distressing people for no good reason; it's wrong. Two small points. First, the moral claims above could be subject to qualifications; I leave it to you to consider what such qualifications might be. Second, I haven't argued that it's wrong to distress people for no reason, though the fact that no one one likes having it done to them would be part of any such argument. I also haven't argued that killing innocents is just plain wrong, but similar reasons would apply there with even more force. In any...

Which is the more morally detestable action. To discriminate against people due to the color of their skin, or to discriminate against people due to their religious beliefs? On both accounts one discriminates against an involuntary characteristic, race being innate, and religious views being a matter of conviction. In the question, I assume that one cannot choose ones conviction, one cannot be forced to believe in God, not truly. Thus, being convinced of the truth of a certain religion is involuntary. Therein lies my question, if we accept the moral detestability of racism, should we also accept a moral detestability of religious prosecution? And if so, wouldn't morality dictate the refrain from verbal offenses against religious people, on par with those against races?

There are at least two issues here. One is whether race and religious belief are involuntary in the same way. Another is whether it's ever okay to discriminate on the basis of a person's beliefs—religious or otherwise. On the first issue I'm going to simplify by mostly setting aside some important questions about whether there is such a thing as race in any deep sense, and just what race amounts to insofar as there is such a thing. The important point is that in typical cases, there is for most any practical purpose nothing people can do about their race; racial identity is strongly involuntary. That's not so clearly true of matters of conviction. There's nothing at all unusual about people changing their convictions, including their religious convictions. Non-believers become believers; believers become non-believers. This doesn't tell us whether such changes are voluntary, but it's an important difference. Are such changes belief voluntary? That's too simple a way to frame the issue. It's often...

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