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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...

How can I be morally 'good' and make sure I'm not seeking moral dessert? I'm trying to be a good person but it's impossible to do that without deep down inside wanting something out of it. I don't mean that I'm doing good things to get something I want. I don't feel like I deserve something because I did something good. However I don't think anyone can say that they don't do something good without having any selfish thought of wanting something because of it. Even if that thing is wanting to be seen by others as a good person. That's all I want. I am just afraid that what I'm doing doesn't count as good because I want the littlest thing out of it. I'm afraid that I can't become a good person because of this.

You write "I am just afraid that what I'm doing doesn't count as good because I want the littlest thing out of it." That would only be true if actions had to be completely free of mixed motives to count as good. But that's not very plausible. Consider two scenarios. In each of them, you're in a coffee shop. In each of them, the person at the next table gets up to leave, having forgotten to pick up the wallet that you see sitting on the table. In the first scenario, the person is someone you'd like to have an excuse to meet. In the second it's not. Are you the kind of person who wouldn't do the right thing in the second case? If you are, you're right to worry about your moral state. If you are, then you're the sort of person who may do the right thing, but only if there's something in it for you. But I'm betting that in both cases, you'd get the person's attention and point out that s/he left the wallet behind. The fact that in one case, you have an extra reason doesn't show that you wouldn't be...

Is one immoral just by virtue of having immoral thoughts? So for example if Joe really wants to steal from his neighbor, or in his heart he approves of the act of steaing for no reason, but didn't put that into action because he forgot or didn't have the chance. Is joe still "sinning"? He won't be punished for just having such thoughts but I don't see why in this case he is morally any better than an actual thief.

There's a strong case for saying that Joe really isn't any morally better than an actual thief. It's just fluke luck that separates Joe from Moe, who actually stole the neighbor's wallet a little later that day. Among others, you certainly have Kant on your side; Joe lacks what Kant calls a good will, and Kant though that a good will is the only thing that's truly good. As for whether Joe is "sinning" by wanting to steal from his neighbor, having an impulse probably doesn't count as a "sin," though sin is not a notion that has much currency in contemporary ethical theory. Just how one ought to deal with such impulses is an interesting question. The obvious first answer is by resisting the temptation, and that's fine as far as it goes. Giving in to the temptation is wrong, even if lucky circumstance has it that the giving in doesn't end up going anywhere. If we want to use the word "sin," we might want to say that forming the intention to do wrong is already wrong, even if nothing comes of it. But your...

Suppose a friend tells us something that happened with him and asks us to keep it a secret. Suppose it is nothing very important, but our friend thinks it is. Suppose the story could have been known by many people, because it happened in a public place, but in fact no relevant person knows of it, except for our friend and us. Do we have the duty to keep it a secret? It seems that if we have that duty, it is only because our friend asked us to do so. But do people have the power to create duties for other people only by asking them to do something?

Let's consider two scenarios. 1) The friend asks you to promise not to divulge what she's about to tell you. You agree and then she tells you the "secret." 2) The friend tells you her story without any preamble to her tale. Then she asks you to promise not to tell anyone. In the first case, the obligation is a matter of your making a promise. Promises create obligations. You could have said no. Or you could have said "Only if I can keep it secret in good conscience." If you hadn't said "I promise," there wouldn't be an obligation. Your friend didn't create the obligation; you did. In case 2), you can still say no, but leaving things at that misses something. Respecting your friend's wishes could still be what you ought to do, because she's your friend, and not respecting her wish would distress her, and you've got no good reason to do that. In case 2), do we want to say that when your friend asked you not to tell, that created an obligation? Your friend's request isn't like an order from the court....

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