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A man has a full grain silo and he refuses to feed the starving village people who the starve to death. I know he’ll be absolved in a court of law but, isn’t it wrong to let people die when you have the means to save them?

Great question. You are right that, very often and in many places through history, there has been some reluctance to compel persons (through law) to save others when they are in a position to do so. This has included not just a reluctance to compel persons (as in your case) to provide food or other resources to aid others who would otherwise die from starvation, but compelling persons to physically aid others who are in peril (rescuing someone who is drowning, for example). Gradually, in the United Sates and elsewhere, there have emerged Good Samaritan Laws that require (and protect from liability) persons to make *some* effort to assist innocent persons in need (e.g. a passing health professional is expected to assist someone who has had a heart attack when no one else is available, and the professional knows basic means of reviving the victim), but these concern emergency situations. Be that as it may, there have been philosophers who prioritize the right to life over the right to property, opening the...

What is it to know what a thing is? Suppose I can identify a laurel tree by its smell, but not by the shape and colour of its leaves. Or the other way around. Do I know what a laurel tree is in each of these cases? Or suppose I am a scientist and can identify it by analysing its genome, but not by its smell nor by the shape and colour of the leaves... Suppose I know only or, on the contrary, do not know the uses people give to laurel leaves. How many properties of laurel must I know so that I can know what laurel is? I think I must know something, otherwise I wouldn't even know what the word"laurel" means. But what? It can't be just one small thing: I wouldn't say that I know what laurel is if I can identify it only by its smell.

Great question(s). I suggest that "the bottom line" philosophically in such matters involves whether your concept of a "laurel" enables you to identify the plant as distinct from other plants and things in general (including minerals, animals, computers,...). Another criterion that philosophers use involves identifying what features are necessary or sufficient for a thing to be what it is. Such an analysis will probably take shape in terms of differentiating a thing's essential characteristics from its accidental features. So, I assume that an essential feature of being laurel would be being a plant, but it would only be an accidental feature that the plant was used in ceremonies to make a kind of crown that was conferred on someone quite distinguished (a successful poet, say). Because things like laurels will have almost indefinitely many features (the way it tastes, the sound it makes or does not make, when harvested.....), we tend to prioritize what features are vital depending on the context. So, for...

My wife wants to retire to a gated community. I find the phrase to be an oxymoron, and believe that the whole gated project is morally flawed; for example, it can lead to us vs. them thinking, social stratification, etc. Is there an argument here, or just a personal preference?

Fascinating situation. And really important to resolve in a marriage or intimate relationship! There might be some interesting empirical evidence or social science that can shed light on the situation: my guess is that gated communities probably contain more persons who prize privacy than public works, the greater community or a nearby municipality, but this might or might not be backed up by social research. If I was in your situation, the most important factor for me would be to reach agreement on core values with my spouse. Perhaps she shares the same values you do, but either fears or has been the victim of violence / crime or (as a woman) she believe she is more likely to be assaulted than males, and so a gated community is preferred for her safety or she may feel the need to be more protective of both you and her and your family. If so, those may be good reasons (for her sake or for the sake of those values) to (perhaps reluctantly) joining the gated community as I would think one could offset...

Say the universe is natural (say it had 'natural' beginnings and there was no creator)... what should this mean for my life? If we took this a step further and said we are the products of some accidental RNA interaction and there is no soul or afterlife, what should this mean about an overall worldview? Am I to live happily? How am I to struggle through moments of toil - work hard in society - if there is no meaning?

The topic of the meaning of life is now very big among philosophers. Most non-theistic / atheistic philosophers would respond that even if there is no meaning or purpose OF or FOR life, there can be meaning IN life. So, even if all life is the result of purposeless, accidents, etc, there is no reason to not love other people, work as a doctor in society, be an artist, fight for justice. I agree, but it is worth considering that IF theism is true and the cosmos exists for goods (such as persons loving and caring for each other, etc) then perhaps life has even more meaning than if theism is false. This is a quick reply; for more nuanced reflection see T.J. Mawson's God and the Meaning of Life or The Purpose of Life by Stewart Goetz.

Why can’t I argue that God exists noncontingently and is an abstract object? Some say it is because abstract objects lack causal power, and thus to argue as such would deny God at least one essential characteristic which any interesting concept of God cannot lack—omnipotence. But why can’t abstract object possess causal power?

Interesting question. Some philosophers have attributed to abstract objects divine attributes like being eternal and timeless. Perhaps some abstract objects (like the properties of justice and beauty) might be worthy of worship. I have actually argued that abstract objects do have causal roles, so I am sympathetic with your inquiry! Their causal role (in my view) takes place in accounting for our intentionality and thinking. When you think about 1+1, the reason why you reason that 1+1=2 is that you grasp necessary relationships between numbers, which are abstract objects. Moreover, for some of us who think God exists non contingently, we suppose that there is the abstract state of affairs of there being a non contingent, necessarily existing God. And no less a philosopher than Plato suggests that the Good might be the source of what is. However while abstract objects might have some causal powers, few have thought they can have intentional powers (e.g. the property of justice as an abstract object...

Music is considered an art so can we consider the sound of the wind an art?

Great question. It might be made even more vexing if we compare the sound of wind with a musical piece in which musicians play instrumental music that resembles almost exactly the sound of wind. The chief reason why most of us would distinguish the two is because it is long held that works of art are artifactual: things (events or sounds) that are produced intentionally. The term "art" actually comes from the word "ars" which refers to the technique (techne) that is used to produce something. So, for most of history and today, the term "art" is short for "work of art" and because the sound of wind is (typically) not an intentionally produced to be a work (of art), the two are different. Still, we can imagine someone recording the sound of wind and then using this in an overall musical production. We can also imagine musical compositions intended only to be performed on windy day or during extreme weather conditions in which there is thunder and lightning. In such ways, artists might attune their...

I'm thinking about writing a book to teach kids philosophy, but I've run into a bit of a writer's block from the onset. I'm not sure whether to start with epistemology(theory of knowledge) or metaphysics(theory of reality). At first I thought about starting with epistemology, then metaphysics, on the grounds that people base their views on reality around knowledge. But then I realized that one's understanding of reality will often influence how they perceive knowledge. Which one is better to start with? Or perhaps is starting with one or the other inaccurate and should both be introduced at the same time?

I wish you great success in this project! For inspiration, you might look at the entry on philosophy for children on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The books by Gareth Matthews are particularly good and are reference in the SEP entry. I suggest you might begin with both metaphysics and epistemology. It is very difficult to do epistemology without some (presumed) metaphysical claims (there are observations / sensations / there is thinking / doubting...) and difficult to consider metaphysical claims without engaging in epistemology (what do we know -or have good reason to believe about observations / sensations / thinking / doubting). You might even begin the book with making the claim that while it is tempting to prioritize epistemology (for example) it is difficult to do without some commitments or assumptions about what there is. One blended way of practicing philosophy with both epistemology and metaphysics can be found in the tradition of so-called critical common sense philosophy as...

When assessing an act of violence, we tend to be less severe on violence committed in the heat of the moment than on premeditated violence, which we judge to be far more cruel. Yet, when we punish hot-blooded violence with the violence of, say, long-term imprisonment, we do so with premeditation. Are we therefore more cruel as judges than the criminals we condemn?

Great question! I suggest that premeditation may work in both cases in a parallel fashion. So, I propose that If we reach what turns out to be an unjust or wrongful punishment of someone (who is innocent) then the fact that we did so with great premeditation makes our wrongful decision worse than if we made a "heat of the moment" verdict. In the later case, imagine a police officer believes there is sufficient evidence that a person is armed, dangerous and putting innocent persons lives at risk, but this turns out to not be the case (the person is acting, and only simulating a school shooting with a realistically looking guns, but these are props). In such a "heat of the moment" event, an officer might be expected to act on her best judgment even if it turns out to be wrong. But in cases of premeditation --either in the use of force or in reaching verdicts in court-- I think we rightly expect there to be enough time for persons to scrutinize the evidence more thoroughly to reduce the risk of wrongful...

Through some years of philosophical study I've become confused about what exactly it means for me to have knowledge. What was once a familiar and seemingly clear concept has now become unfamiliar and obscure. Can it be made clear again for me? Can I ever know whether or not I know? It seems as though the more I read about knowledge the more obscured it becomes.

The topic of knowledge is an old one, going back at least to Plato who wrestled with the difference between knowledge and correct opinion. The traditional, most common understanding of knowledge is that a person knows X (whatever X stands for) if that person has a true, justified belief about X. Justification refers to evidence. This traditional understanding of knowledge has been challenged on the grounds that you might have a justified true belief about X --that Pat Jones is in Spain-- and yet the justification / evidence is spurious, e.g. imagine you are seeing Jones' identical twin, Chris Jones, in Spain and you inappropriately conclude you are actually seeing Pat. This has caused some philosophers to amend the definition to: A person knows X if the person's belief is true and the evidence for this belief does not involve essential reasoning by way of a false premise. Matters that remain unsettled include (a) Just how much evidence or justification is needed for one's belief to count as knowledge,...

A common defense of an unethical act is to say, "If I didn't do it, someone else would." Let's say for the sake of argument that such a claim is true. Is it a credible defense? I wonder if a utilitarian in particular should be receptive to this line of thought.

Good question. Yes, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism and, as the term suggests, the concern is with the net consequences of action. If some consequence is inevitable (imagine this involves an injury) and it cannot be prevented, then it may be an open question about who brings about the consequence. I note that this would be an "open question," because a utilitarian might still have good reasons to be very concerned about who does the act. Let's say you and I have applied for a job that will result in one of us (unfairly) injuring someone and, for some reason, this unfair injury cannot be prevented. I get the job and reason that, well, if I don't do it, you would. It still may be worse for me to do the act for, having done it, perhaps I have a weak character and am more likely to do far more unjust acts (than you). But, setting aside this additional way of measuring and comparing consequences, it is usually the non-utilitarian (the Kantian or advocate of virtue theory) who claim that it...

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