Advanced Search

What might be the impact, if any, on philosophical theory or practice is we found life elsewhere in the universe?

Funny you should ask this: The philosopher Tim Mulgan just published a nice article exploring this question, particularly its ethical and meta-ethical implications. Here's Mulgan's piece: https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-discovery-of-extraterrestrial-life-would-change-morality

A friend of mine committed suicide recently, and I find myself instinctively trying not only to understand why she did it and the cause and effect of how it happened, but trying to impose meaning -- trying to work out what the "significance" of her death is, and looking to sum up her whole life the way a funeral celebrant might, and say these are the patterns and themes and shape of it, this what it amounted to, this is what it represented, these are the takeaway ethical messages for your own life. But is there really any significance in suicide, is there any point to asking what it means, or is it senseless, like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn or any other physical event or act? And is it disrespectful to try to interpret meaning into someone's life or death or reduce their life to a moral lesson? The process not only feels a little bit like a lie, but also like it objectifies them and takes away from their humanity.

You are obviously grappling with your friend's death, and I appreciate the sophistication and sensitivity evident in your question. I think it's crucial here to distinguish the meaning or "significance" of suicide from the meaning or significance of your friend's suicide. It's important that we resist what I think of as the easy mystification of suicide. There is an unfortunate tendency to infer from our inability to understand a particular suicide or to imagine ourselves engaging in the act ourselves that suicide is unfathomable, incomprehensible, or beyond reason. The truth is we understand a fair bit about the causes of suicide, have growing knowledge of how to prevent it, and so on. We should not let our emotional reaction to suicide -- whether it be shock, dismay, anger, whatever -- lead us to treat suicide as a "senseless" or trivial act. That said, what we know about suicide in general can be difficult to extrapolate to particular people and cases. Individual people are in certain ways more...

Not sure whether this question would fall under philosophy or psychology (both perhaps) but I was always curious why it is that children love video games but hate homework. Cognitively they are pretty much the same. They challenge the child to think critically to solve a problem, and provide a sense of reward when completed, so why is one cherished while the other despised?

Looks like a psychological question with philosophical implications! Difficult to say for certain, but I would venture that the difference comes down to the nature of the reward. Unless a child is a professional video game player, playing the game has no rewards beyond the satisfaction of playing. The child is moved to play by intrinsic motivation . In contrast, in most cases, the rewards of completing one's homework are largely extrinsic , stemming from the praise a child gets from parents or teachers for completing it, grades, etc. And there's an abundance of evidence that the nature of our motivation for engaging in an activity shapes how rewarding or worthwhile we find it: Activities we perform for their own sake are experienced as more rewarding or worthwhile than activities whose rewards lie outside it (in social esteem, income, and so on). This is why most of us find play more gratifying than work, even when play is hard work! Edward Deci https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_L._Deci has...

Are rights just an idiom for really strong moral rules? (By "really strong," I mean that these rules typically take precedence over other rules.) For example, when we say that someone has a right to life, is that just another way of saying that it's immoral to kill people? Or are rights supposed to be somehow different in kind from other moral rules?

Some philosophers (utilitarians most notably) would agree that rights are "an idiom for really strong moral rules" that typically (though not necessarily) take precedence over other moral considerations. In the language made popular by Ronald Dworkin, rights function as "trumps," i.e., to have a right is to be protected against certain kinds of mistreatment even if that mistreatment would have very good consequences. So (for instance) a right to a fair trial is a right to be judged on the basis of certain procedures and evidence even if suspending those procedures might have very good consequences. But many philosophical advocates of moral rights would likely assert that while rights are really strong moral rules, when we say 'she has a right to X' we are saying something more than 'it would be immortal not to provide her X'. Rights are personal entitlements, claims to be treated in particular ways by others. Talk of rights thus seems aimed at capturing our sense that individuals are morally...

Any reason someone could give for why they love me renders me replaceable. For instance, if they love me for my appearance, intelligence, kindness, well, there's always someone more attractive, smarter, kinder. So, all things being equal, they ought to trade up to a better model if presented with the choice; or if God is the most perfect example of all desirable traits, then they ought to love God and no one else. I'd like to ask the panel: in contrast to loving someone because of some quality that they might or might not be the best exemplar of, does it at all make sense to love someone in their particularity, ie simply because they occupy a certain position in the time-space continuum? Or does that make a nonsense of the concept of love? Or is it silly, in the first place, to look for reasons for love?

I don't know about loving someone thanks to their position in the time-space continuum, but yes, we can and do love people for their particularity, as you put it. It's important to distinguish what sparks love for someone and what sustains it. It's certainly true that we cannot love just anyone. We vary in the traits we find attractive or lovable. When we first encounter someone, their attributes are what sparks our love for them. But love has a history, and as loving relationships develop or evolve, we often come to love someone less for their attributes than for the person that they are. It's then that the beloved seems irreplaceable, for only that person will have their distinctive set of attributes, etc. Christopher Grau's article "Love and history" (https://philpapers.org/archive/GRALAH.pdf) is very good on this subject. Bennett Helm's article on love in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/love/) is a good place to get a foothold on the philosophical issues...

We laud veterans for having "fought for their country" regardless of what the fight may have actually accomplished. For example, many people who regard the Vietnam War as a failure--or worse, a moral atrocity--still hold Vietnam vets in high regard. It strikes me that reverence for veterans rarely considers whether their actions actually made any of their countrymen better off (never mind people in other countries). We have a notion of honorable military service that is tenable only insofar as it abstracts away the actual practical outcomes of warfare. When we praise a veteran, what exactly are we praising them for?

One morally important distinction here is between conscripted and voluntary military service. As you are probably aware, the United States currently has an all-voluntary military; every soldier is a soldier by choice. This has not always been the case (either in the U.S. or elsewhere). Nations sometimes requires military service of all citizens as a matter of course and/or utilize a draft during wartime. Let's focus first on those whose service is voluntary. Our attitudes toward those who volunteer for military service are, in my estimation, incoherent. We have become too quick to "thank them for their service" without due concern for the morality of their service. Classical just war theory divides the moral appraisal of war into two: there is the question of whether a nation's waging war in a given set of circumstances is just, and there's the question of whether a war is justly waged (whether, for example, the tactics or strategies used to pursue victory are just). Soldiers can therefore err morally...

I'm told Kantians believe something like the following: that it would be inconsistent to respect our own preferences and not the preferences of others. If so, while pro-vegetarian arguments are often couched in terms of suffering and consequences, aren't there strong Kantian arguments for vegetarianism also? After all, many non-human animals do have preferences and desires, and generally prefer not to be eaten or killed.

Kantian ethics does appeal to notions of consistency, but the consistency that Kantian morality requires is not consistency in respecting "preferences" (as you expressed it.) Rather, Kantian morality requires consistency in respect for practically rational agency, i.e, the capacity to set one's ends and choose the means to one's ends. Kant believed (not incorrectly, for the most part) that non-human animals lack this capacity and hence are not owed respect in this sense. Indeed, Kant held that, strictly speaking, we have no moral obligations to animals at all; animals lack the property (practical rational agency) that lends something moral standing. Many moral philosophers, including many Kantians, find Kant's conclusions troubling, inasmuch as it certainly seems intuitively plausible that we can wrong animals. Kantians have tried a number of solutions to rescue Kantian ethics from this position. Here are some articles in that vein: https://philpapers.org/rec/CHOADK https://philpapers.org/rec/DENKCO-2...

According to Kant, prostitution is morally wrong. The second formulation of the categorical imperative states that one should never use themselves, or another as a mere means. 1. I can see how prostitution would fail to respect self, as it is using one's body as a "mere means" to earn money. But how is that different from a farmer, who use his body to work in the fields to harvest crops for food and money? 2. Prostitution also fails to respect another, by using the person to satisfy his sexual urges. However, by paying the prostitute, isn't it also respecting her by recognizing her dignity and worth and paying her for her "work"? On the basis of these 2 points, can you please explain why prostitution is morally wrong?

I'm not sure that most contemporary Kantian moral philosophers agree with Kant on the morality of prostitution. As you note, prostitution does not seem to make use of one's own humanity in a way that's fundamentally different from other forms of work or labor which are clearly morally permissible. Why think that prostitution, unlike farming, involves the wrongful use of ourselves merely as a means? Much of the reason is that Kant was deeply skeptical about the compatibility of sexual desire with the moral requirement to treat rational agents as ends in themselves rather than merely as a means. He writes: “Sexual union is the reciprocal use that one human beings makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another” for the purpose of enjoyment. As Kant saw it, sexual desire is not a desire for a person's good but for the use of their body for one's own physical pleasure. Hence, sexual desire is fundamentally at odds with respect for others' rational natures. Sex is animalistic in that we treat ourselves ...

If you had a child to make yourself happy, as most people do, would that violate the Kantian imperative to avoid treating people as means?

Unfortunately, this is a tricky question for Kantian ethics to address. On its face, it might appear that procreation (bringing a child into existence) in order to advance one’s own happiness treats the child merely as a means: One ‘uses’ the child to promote one’s own happiness. But things get more complicated once we attend to exactly what this Kantian imperative says. The Kantian moral requirement you mention states that we are not to treat “humanity” merely as a means. There are debates as to exactly what Kant had in mind by “humanity” but the standard view is that “humanity” means the capacity for rational agency — the ability to choose our ‘ends’ (our goals or objectives) and the best means to those ends. But a newborn lacks “humanity” in this sense; it cannot choose ends for itself, etc. Nor can a fetus. All the more, a child who does not yet exist does not have humanity! Hence, it would appear that the apparent answer to your question is ‘no’: You cannot treat someone’s capacity for...

It is a common moral conviction that it is better to let many guilty people go free than to wrongly imprison a single innocent person. My understanding is that this principle underlies the presumption of innocence in criminal trials. I can see that this strikes us as profoundly right, but I'm not sure why. I mean, off the top of my head it seems fairly easy to refute it along a crudely utilitarian line: all we need is to suppose that the guilty parties are liable to do harm enough to outweigh the suffering of the wrongly imprisoned innocent party.

Setting aside the question of whether the principle 'better to let many guilty go free than to wrongly imprison a single innocent person' is the rationale for the presumption of innocence, that utilitarians would reject the principle is not as clearcut as you appear to assume. We seem to be considering two possibilities: (a) letting some number of guilty persons (you say 'many') go free but thereby ensuring that an innocent person is not punished (b) punishing an innocent person but ensuring that 'many' guilty persons are also punished For utilitarians, the question of whether (a) or (b) is morally preferable will turn on empirical facts or tendencies. You suggest that utilitarians will opt for punishing the guilty even at the cost of punishing the innocent "if the guilty parties are liable to do harm enough to outweigh the suffering of the wrongly imprisoned innocent party." I suspect this move overlooks two factors that might tilt the balance of costs and benefits (happiness and unhappiness) in...

Pages