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Many pro-choice advocates maintain that, though abortions should be permissible, they are regrettable nonetheless. For instance, Bill Clinton famously said that he wanted to keep abortions "safe, legal and rare." I don't understand this view. To my mind, whether abortion is immoral turns on the question of whether a fetus is a person with a right to life. But this seems a clear dichotomy--either fetuses have such a right, or they don't. If they do, then abortion is immoral. If they don't, then not only should abortion be permitted, but there is nothing objectionable about them at all. Indeed, it is every bit as innocuous as using condoms. Sometimes I think that what is happening is that people who advocate this position are still captive to some kind of residual pro-life sentiment. They believe that abortions should be permissible, but they can't shake the feeling that they are still, somehow, a bad thing. (And not just because of circumstantial considerations, such as that women who need abortions are...

You slide too easily from "ought to be legal" (which is what Clinton was saying) to "is morally permissible" to "is not regrettable". Neither of these transitions is valid. The problem with each transition can best be brought out by example. There are strong reasons for insisting that the expression of beliefs about scientific matters should be legal even when these beliefs are idiotic. So we strongly believe that people should be legally free to express the beliefs that there is no global warming, that global warming is not caused by human beings, that the members of certain races have inferior intelligence, that women have less native ability to deal with numbers, and so on. Expressing such beliefs is hurtful and damaging to social relations, and expressing such beliefs carelessly is therefore morally wrong/impermissible, at least in many cases -- and ought nevertheless not be criminalized. Similarly, it is often morally wrong to lie to your spouse; and yet we have good reason not to outlaw such...

Is one who spreads a contagious disease unconciously held responsible for the victimes? Or under what circumtances should he be held responsible?

If the choice is to impose the cost either on the infectors or on the infected, the former rule seems preferable because it gives suitable incentives to potential infectors to find out whether they have a contagious disease and, if so, to avoid infecting others. This reason might be overcome in special cases where the infectors are very much poorer than those they infect. There is a third option, probably better, namely to cover such costs through universal health insurance. This saves the research and litigation expenses associated with determining who the infector is. One could then still pursue cases of gross negligence through the criminal justice system.

According to Hillary Clinton, "Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat." On what conceivable grounds could such a statement be made given that dying tends to be kind "victimizing"? Has feminist discourse gone so far that it egocentrically sees even male loss in terms of female victimization? Should feminist thinking be criticized for it tendency toward sexism toward men? Or if feminism is by definition something that isn't sexist because feminism is about opposing sexism how do we address the fact that so much that is called "feminism" doesn't live up to that definition?

One might try to argue that men are typically the proponents and organizers of war and, in this sense, not really victims (because, like boxers, they bring the harm to themselves). I don't think this is empirically accurate: many men are pacifists and many women have strongly supported wars. Moreover, support for war is often manufactured with false information and cruel manipulation of people's patriotic sentiments -- producing victims even among the war's supporters. So I agree with you that this is a silly statement. Most of us say silly things sometimes; with top politicians the silly things they say are often broadcast to millions. I doubt Hillary Clinton would care to defend what she said if pressed to do so.

Do academics in particular have a moral responsibility to be outspokenly critical of social injustice?

The journal Ethics and International Affairs had a symposium on this question very recently, see www.ethicsandinternationalaffairs.org/2012/summer-2012-issue-26-2/ -- focused mostly of the topic of world poverty as addressed by the new organization Academics Stand Against Poverty (www.academicsstand.org). <Fair disclosure, I have been involved with both ASAP and the E&IA symposium.>

Should I save bad people? For example, if a murderer is drowning and I have the ability to help him, do I do it? I do not have the right to judge whether he/she is worthy or unworthy so what should my reaction be? Sure, he/she could go through the trial process but why should I risk my life for someone who might not be worthy of saving?

We might distinguish three levels of help by reference to the cost or risk to the helper. There is help you are legally require to give, for instance under the "Good Samaritan" laws of your state. Then there is the help you are morally required to give, which would typically go beyond the first category. Finally there is the help you are not legally or morally required to give, help "beyond the call of duty" or supererogatory help. The law typically requires only help that imposes little cost or risk on the helper. Standing safely on the deck of a boat, you may be legally required to toss a life preserver to a drowning swimmer, for example. Here the law will not excuse you if you fail to help on the ground that you believe the drowning swimmer to be a murderer. This is indeed not a judgment you should be making, but one you should leave to the trial process, as you say. In regard to supererogatory help, on the other hand, you are surely free to discriminate. If trying to save a drowning swimmer...

Should I stop someone from committing a suicide? I do not know his/her life and what he/she might have been through so it is fair for me to assume that he/she is not making the right decision. For example, he/she is suffering and had already done everything he/she could in order to improve her life, ex. talk to someone, reflect, meditate, etc. What if I had just cause him/her to suffer even more? Suicide could have been the best way out for that specific person.

Sure, it's possible that suicide is the best way out for some particular person. But it's just as possible that the decision to kill oneself is an overreaction to some experience or event which the person would get over in due time. Because you don't know, you might go wrong whatever you do. But there's an important point that breaks this apparent asymmetry: if you err on the side of stopping the suicide, the option of suicide remains available to the person -- s/he can do it later or the next day or the day after. If you err on the side of not stopping the suicide, there will be no second chance. For this reason alone, I think, it makes sense to stop the suicide -- even, if needed, by force (e.g., by restraining the person or by calling the police). Many of those who are seriously thinking about suicide are conflicted and uncertain. Others go forward with cold determination. I would think that the first group is considerably larger. But quite apart from this, members of this group are far more...

Does an Omniscient God contradict Free Will? Yes, a very age-old question, with many answers. The problem seemed to arise when we thought that if God knows what we will do or "choose" then it's metaphysically necessary for us to choose or do that, because what God knows IS true, thus it's true event A will happen if God knows it will. There's no Free Will because there's no chance that event A can NOT happen, in this view Free Will is just an illusion. But! Some Philosophers have objected by saying that God's knowledge is from or depends on our choice, it's formed by the choices we genuinely (freely?) make for ourselves, because God's omniscience is "logically simultaneous" with our choices. So God's knowledge doesn't write out history, history writes out God's knowledge. (By the way doesn't this make god a contingent being? Thus precluding God from "working" as an answer for the modal ontological and cosmological argument, since God is not a non-contingent being?) But I've never been convinced by...

First, I don't think it matters for the answer to your question whether the omniscient God is or is not the creator of the beings whose conduct He foresees. Thus suppose the rats are created not by God but by some fairy. God observes the rats and, knowing of each whether it is smart or dumb, foresees whether it will end up rewarded or punished. Can this new wrinkle in the story -- that the rats are created by some fairy rather than by God -- possibly make a difference to whether the rats have free will or not? I cannot see a reason for believing this. (To be sure, the wrinkle makes a difference to God's responsibility: if He creates dumb rats Himself, then he is actively responsible for the suffering they predictably undergo in the punishment zone. If He's merely an onlooker, then He is at most passively responsible insofar as He could but fails to protect the dumb rats from pain.) Second, I don't understand why there should be felt a tension between foreseeability by others and free will. The...

Take the case of a box sitting on a table. In an introductory physics course, we'd say that there are two forces acting on the box: the force of gravity, pulling it down; and a normal force of precisely equal magnitude, pushing it up. Is there any real difference, though, between saying that there is no net force acting on a body, and saying that no forces are acting on it at all?

Sure there's a real difference. The first account implies that the box is being compressed vertically because gravity acts on all its parts (molecules) whereas the opposing force is acting on its bottom surface (where it touches the table). The second account implies that there is no such compression, that the box, even if it is somewhat elastic, has the same height when it is sitting on the table as when it is floating in outer space. The first account -- correctly -- implies the opposite: that the (not perfectly rigid) box is slightly less tall when it is sitting on the table than when it is floating in space. The first account is also more elegant in this sense. Suppose the table is forcefully kicked out from under the box so that the box starts falling. The first account can easily explain this by pointing out that, with the table out of the way, the gravitational force now acts unopposed. The second account has to say -- oddly -- that the kicking away of the table somehow brings a gravitational...

Where in philosophy does the question of "cost" arise, if at all? If someone presents us with a "moral imperative," is it even permissible to ask "what does it cost?" or do we simply abdicate that answer to economists and psychologists?

The question of cost arises in different accounts of morality in different ways. Consequentialist accounts may center around the moral imperative to act so as to make the outcome best. Here cost is factored in by considering how a candidate course of conduct will affect various people, including the agent. I shouldn't try to help a stranger, for example, if the cost to me and third parties of doing so is larger than the benefit to the stranger and other beneficiaries.And I should not help this stranger if doing so came at the expense ("opportunity cost") of something even better I might do instead. Duty-focused moralities often say very little about cost. They may issue the moral imperative not to lie, for example, without addressing the cost that such abstention might impose on the agent and on others. Kant was famously taken to task for this by Benjamin Constant (see also Sartre's much later story "The Wall"). Some duty-focused moralists have addressed the question of cost by delimiting the...

Frequently, one finds the following statment: "You cannot prove a negative." My question is, in this context, what is meant by the word "negative?" I understand how the word is used in mathematics and I "think" I know the meaning when used in logic. I just cannot seem to get a handle on how it is used here. Moreover, does it, perhaps, refer to a total position in the debate over the existence of God? Any comments you would make would be greatly appreciate. I enjoy your application very much and, moreso, since I am so old. Thanks. JH

This is a pretty confusing expression. What's usually meant, I think, is that a negative general proposition -- a proposition asserting that a certain kind never occurs -- requires much more by way of justification from its defender than from its opponent. Take the proposition "there are no black swans," for example. To prove it, you would have to comb through the whole universe, presumably all the way backward and forward in time, to demonstrate conclusively that nothing contained therein is a black swan. To disprove the proposition, by contrast, all you need do is produce a single black swan. Given this asymmetry, it thus makes sense to saddle the opponent, rather than the proponent, of a negative general proposition with the burden of proof. What's confusing here is that the same sort of asymmetry is present with affirmative general propositions as well. Thus the proposition "all elks like mushrooms" requires much more by way of justification from its defender than from its opponent. To...

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