Do I need to have a 'greater authority' to know that murder is wrong? I don't believe in god. But I believe that murder is wrong. What is my logical reason to hold to rules that I don't 'need' to be bound to?

I don't know why you think that belief or otherwise in God is relevant to this issue. You hold certain moral beliefs, including that murder is wrong. You might have this view because of the role that murder plays in some of your other beliefs, such as the importance of human life and the need for people to respect the autonomy of others. These beliefs would give you a logical reason to disapprove of murder, it seems to me. If you think murder is wrong just because this is a feeling you have, then I can see why you might think it is not a belief you are bound to have. You could still link it logically with other beliefs you do think you have reasons for accepting, and hence establish a rationale for it. You may think that morality has to be grounded in religion, but this would surely be wrong. The idea that we do good things and avoid evil because God has told us to act in this way does not do justice to morality even for most theists. For one thing, if God stands behind ethics, this would...

There are many arguments for the existence of god (e.g., the ontological argument) which, though interesting, probably don't actually account for the religious belief of even their primary exponents. I suspect that a person may be aware of many reasons for belief in a proposition "P" but that only some of these are actually causally linked to his belief that "P"; others he may offer as a way of persuading non-believers, or convincing them of his reasonableness, but these don't actually explain his own conviction. How do we differentiate between arguments or evidence which create belief, and those which merely support it? Is there some link that we perceive between certain reasons and belief but not others?

I am sure you are right that there are certain beliefs that we acquire due to other reasons than reason. Wittgenstein is good on this in his On Certainty where he pokes fun at the idea that our most basic presuppositions could be based on anything at all. Perhaps he sometimes goes too far, since presumably there are situations where one's deepest held belief might be threatened by an argument or some piece of counter evidence. But it also might not. One of the entertaining aspects of listening to the news of the financial markets is the explanation for what is happening. If the markets decline and there is bad economic news these two facts are often linked. But equally often the news is bad and markets rise, and bull markets are defined as taking place when people climb a mountain of worry. There are of course important economic features like optimism or despair which come into play, and which may have little if anything to do with the actual facts on the ground. There are even some market players...

Am I morally wrong if I can understand why my son took his own life? Am I wrong to see that his decision was a positive one, given the circumstances? Of course I am distraught, heartbroken and miss him terribly but the guilt I feel for understanding his reasons for ending his life seem to come from expectations of society. The acceptable moral viewpoints that society seems to have over suicide leave caring family members looking like we don't give a damn, when in fact the absolute opposite is true....the question in my head remains I really morally wrong in understanding his reasons and believing he did the right thing for himself? To give some background:- My son was an extremely intelligent, gentle and kind young man, who had battled with schizophrenia for 7 years from the age of only 18. His hopes and dreams in life had to be abandoned through the terrible experiences of hallucinations and panic attacks. Despite the daily routine of taking drugs that left him with slurred speech...

I don't think you are wrong to have such a belief, and we can all think of situations in which people might come to the reasonable conclusion that death was preferable to life. There are of course religious, and not only religious, principles on which suicide is morally ruled out, but social stigma is not nowadays normally much attached to suicide, it seems to me. For example, relatives who assist in the death of someone are rarely now convicted by juries of anything illegal, and in a sense they are assisting in suicide, the suicide of someone who is no longer able to carry it out by themselves. Suicide itself is no longer a crime, in most jurisdictions, and there exists a long tradition in many cultures of respecting the decision to end a life when one no longer believes it is worth preserving. I would not be overly concerned at feelings of guilt, because we often feel guilt for things over which we have no control at all. It is not as though in a fit of sudden despair when you were not available...

Is it important to save endangered species?

Not necessarily. It is only worth saving things that are worth saving. One would need to have a view on whether a particular species was good to have around, serves any useful purpose or is an obstacle to the welfare of what we regard as important species, like us. Otherwise our attitude to nature would be like the attitude of those deranged individuals who never throw anything away because "it may come in useful one day". Indeed it may, but it is more useful not to have trash all over the house.

I studied a bit of René Girard as an undergrad, and enjoyed his thinking quite a lot. What sort of reception, if any, do his works receive in mainstream philosophy these days? Are there any critiques or treatments of his work that you recommend?

I frequently come across discussions of Girard's work and its relevance to our understanding of religion. The most interesting writer on him in my opinion is Fergus Kerr and it would be worth looking up his work on Girard.

It seems to me that with moral dilemmas of Today, in the information age and in a democracy, people try to solve them by some balanced blend of different theories, say utilitarian consequentialism and kantian respect for the individual. For example, Torture and Abortion. It seems your ordinary citizen of today would consider both what is humane and dignifies the individual, but also tries to consider what the consequences are and how they might affect the greater number of people. Now, I'm sure as in every age there is a large group of intellectuals bemoaning the state of intellectual backwardness of Today, but I happen to believe that, as a whole, the average intelligence of society is a lot more than in the past. On that view, the hot button moral dilemmas of today are evolved questions of difficulty - they're morally "harder" than questions in the past. In part, I suppose, because new technology gave rise to new complex possible scenarios. Isn't it likely, given these assumptions then, that...

I don't agree with you that improvements in technology have led to a different conceptual level of philosophical problem. Society is certainly different from the past, but not that different. The same issues arise of justice, fairness, equality, welfare and so on, and that is why the classic texts still seem so relevant today, despite what you suggest. The examples you give of abortion and torture are perfect for the case against you, since they seem to me not to have changed at all over the years as moral issues, despite changes in technology. The fact that we can now, for instance, torture people with electrodes does not make it essentially different from pulling out their finger nails. So you need more of an argument to show why we should think that the familiar issues of the past no longer have purchase today. On the other hand, I certainly agree with your last point, that ideas of much greater depth may be found outside of philosophy journals today. But then, it was ever so.

Is Catholic philosophy, like that of Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, etc., considered by modern philosophers to be true philosophy, or is it thought of more as philosophy in the service of dogma?

I think on the whole it is highly regarded as real philosophy. What is important is how the dogma is brought in. Were they to argue that the Catholic Church has the view that p and so p is obviously true regardless of what philosophy might suggest, then their views would not be interesting. But they don't argue in that way. They take the principles of Catholicism, as they interpret them, and submit them to the rigors of philosophy, and out of that mixture a very potent brew emerges. One should distinguish between the motives that lead one to philosophize and the character of the resulting philosophical work itself. Their motives may have been to defend the Church, but what they produced does much more than that, since it comprises solid philosophical argumentation. Whether their work actually goes any way to realize their purpose is of course another story.

Could aesthetics be considered an aspect of intuition? Or is the philosophical definition of intuition more specific? (I'm basing this on Herbert Spencer out of context, so you know ("Opinion is ultimately determined by the feelings, and not by the intellect").) Thank you.

There certainly does seem to be something subjective and based on feelings in our response to questions of beauty etc. but whether this is ultimately what determines our judgments seems dubious to me. If it were then argument and persuasion in aesthetics would be very limited, but it is not. One can quite easily have one's mind changed on the aesthetic qualities of something, and that is not a result of a sudden change in feeling, but in reason changing our feelings. So I think Spencer's comment here is implausible.

Do you think that gender roles are socially constructed? I realize it's reductionist not to consider both the biological and the social influences, but I was wondering which could be said to have a greater effect on average, and what arguments would support this. Is there any inherent difference between male and female mannerisms (not thought patterns, because I believe that the differences there have been established empirically, as far as these things can be), or are they assumed gradually due to social pressures and expectations? Also excuse my English! Thank you, Isabella

It is as you say difficult to know how one would unwind social and biological factors in determining gender roles, or indeed a whole variety of other roles also. If people were brought up in a rather different manner from the norm, and then exhibited rather different gender expectations and behavior, that would be suggestive of the significance of the social. These experiments are easier to carry out on animals, of course, and there does seem to be some evidence there that gender roles are to a large degree social and not natural. Many philosophers would want to query the radical distinction that sometimes is held to obtain between the social and the natural in any case. Even if a particular gender distinction is natural, that does not mean that we should make it, or act in accordance with it. Civilization is often taken to be the curbing of the natural by the social, and so even if it is natural for me to act as a brutish male, I hope I resist the temptation as far as I can.

First, congratulations for the website. I'll try to phrase my question in an intelligible way: How do we realise, if we ever really do, that we are mortal? Indeed, until we are dead, at which point we are not conscious anymore, we have no affirmative knowledge of the fact that we are mortal. Is it an inferrence made from our observation of the world, and of the idea that we are no different? Or is it something that is culturally acquired by social influences - in which case I should maybe seek answers from social anthropologists? Could then it be considered more of a presumption than a realisation? And yet it is holds such a grip on people that it would be hard to suppose it is a mere presumption. Thank you. Olivier

I suppose it is both an observation from our experience of the world and also socially influenced. Freud suggests that we cannot really think of ourselves as dead; even when we imagine our funeral taking place, we are still sort of there watching, and so alive and conscious. As you say, we cannot actually experience no longer being alive, outside of movies anyway, but there are many things I cannot experience yet believe are true. Since I cannot swim I cannot experience moving across the top of water, but I believe it happens to people. I have even seen it happen. The same is true of mortality.