I have a question about sexual ethics and "informed consent". Just what does it mean to be informed about sex such that you can give informed consent?? It seems that it shouldn't be a matter of age but a matter of information. A fifteen year old can take a health class and/or read materials about the consequences of sex, and it seems this 15 year old could be better informed than an 18 year old who grew up in, say, a very traditional society wherein sex was a taboo subject. Also, doesn't being informed about something as physical as sex depend on having had it? I can't imagine being truly informed if you've never experienced it, can you? But if one could, and the law considers it can be gained without actually experiencing it, then couldn't you just "inform" a minor about sex, then have sex with that person, then argue that they gave informed consent. I mean, why does the law harp so much on the age of the minor? Is the true motivation really that they're "informed", or is it something else?

You raise a good point about the rather arbitrary fixing of age limits for various activities. Of course there will always be those over the limit who do not really understand what they are doing, and those under who do, but that is inevitable in any rough and ready measure based on age. The answer is often that it is better to have an inaccurate cut off point than no cut off point at all, since we might reasonably expect that most under-sixteens, say, would not really know what was involved in getting married, even though some exceptionally mature sixteen year olds might. It is better to have some sort of rule like this than to have no rule at all, since if people were able to marry at any age the scope for exploitation would be increased. Similarly with voting, there are plenty of idiots of mature age who have the vote, while thoughtful and intelligent young people do not, but that seems fair, since unless everyone is going to be allowed to vote some restrictions are going to have to apply. And it is...

How should one go about defining their own morals? I have lost track of what I deem completely acceptable behaviour; I am an athiest and hold no reverence to any one religious guide and have recently become apathetic and non-caring. I am having a hard time grounding myself morally and would like to know how one goes about questioning the topic.

I suppose one place to start is to work out whether you feel that what you might consider taking on as moral principles are consistent with each other. Do you feel, that is, that one principle interferes with another in such a way that you don't know how to proceed? Suppose you think that lying is to be avoided at all costs, but then you think of a situation where lying seems the best strategy, since it might prevent harm, and then you would wonder whether the harm caused by lying is more or less than the harm caused by not lying. You might then wonder whether prevention of harm is something worth basing ethics on, or whether some other principle would make more sense. That is not a bad way to start, since instead of having to think up some very important general principles out of nowhere you can consider a variety of candidates and then see how they well they get on with each other. I suppose this is not much help in working out which moral principles to adopt, but it is useful in telling you which go...

I have not written to my MP or participated in a public demonstration about my country's foreign policy, e.g., Britain's involvement in Iraq, although I do condemn it. Am I 'guilty by association'? Can you please explain this phrase. Thank you. Glen.

No, I don't think you are. You can make your views effective, to a degree, through the ordinary political process since you live in a democracy. You could do more, of course, but that would be superrogatory, and so you should not feel guilty if you don't.

I have a few friends who are professional philosophers and who recognize the strength of arguments for vegetarianism, who say they don´t have counter arguments but still don't turn vegetarian. Is rational argument really persuasive? Or can't Mark Rowlands ever convince Roger Scruton that hunting is immoral? What is the authority of moral reasoning? Is there something one can do through reason to persuade the sensible knave?

I have friends who are convinced that one should always tell the truth and yet do not do so, and librarians are familiar with the phenomenon that books on ethics seem to disappear with greater frequency than on many other topics. It is one thing to be convinced by an argument, and quite another to make that fact of personal relevance to your life. This is not just a feature of morality, it occurs also in areas like sport, where we often know what we ought to do to score when taking a penality kick, for instance, but don't, for one reason or another. And that is the essence of the issue, other reasons intervene, such as our habits, who we are with, what image of ourselves we wish to project, and they overcome our reasoning on occasion. The world would be much more boring were this not to be the case, of course, since it is in the contrast here between what we want to do and what we know we ought to do that so much of the pleasure of being alive rests.

How do I become smarter? I want to read works from authors such as Locke, Plato, Aristotle, etc. But I do not know which books will lead me to understanding. Any help?

I don't think that reading anything at all with make you smarter, but anything by the authors you mention would be worth reading. Even if the language is difficult and unfamiliar, the effort to understand is both enjoyable and might raise all sorts of issues that you will enjoy thinking about.

In the end of the movie The Good Son , two children are about to fall over a cliff. One child is good and the other is evil. A lady, who is the evil child's mother, catches them so that she is holding the wrist of one in her right hand and the wrist of another in her left hand but she only has the strength to pull up one, so she has to choose which to let go. She chooses the good child. Did she make the right choice?

One thing it might depend on is how she chose. Did she choose the good child over the evil one, or did she choose to save one child? If the former is the case, then her action is questionable, since all life is valuable and it is invidious to distinguish between different sorts of life. She would need some sort of utilitarian argument to argue by contrast that some lives are likely to be more productive of welfare and so on than others, and so the good child ought to be saved. She would also need a utilitarian argument against mothers favoring their children, if it could be found, since it might be argued even from a consequentialist perspective that we are all better off in general if mothers favor their children. Whether these sorts of utilitarian arguments can be made to seem plausible seems implausible to me, and if they did work then bad children would have a good motive for dissimulating and pretending to be good. This would also work the other way round, so that good children, not wishing to stand...

Today's world seems to be highly critical of war. It is seen as destructive, inefficent and deeply immoral. Though I very much agree with this view, don't wars -and conflicts in general- build cultures and identities? Don't they push civilization to grow? Don't they set history in motion? The real question I have is: Does culture need conflict?

It probably does, and a state of affairs in which everyone was blissfully happy would be very unproductive of anything except happiness. It is a bit like what we tend to think of as normal stress. If an individual is overwhelmed by stress, that is obviously a bad thing both for her and her work. If an individual feels no stress at all, then why should she do anything at all? We need some motivation to get going, presumably, and a degree of stress is fine to motivate us to get things done and succeed in our tasks. The thing about war, though, is that it so easily slips from being a period of some aggravation to becoming a highly destructive environment. What we need from a cultural point of view perhaps is more but much smaller wars!

I have a moral question concerning the following scenario: At a party you talk to another guest who you haven't met before. He is drinking several glasses of beer and intends to drive himself home later. Are you morally obliged to tell him he should not drink and drive even though that would be impolite and he presumably knows he shouldn't anyway? Thanks.

I don't think so. It would be like warning someone who is smoking that it is bad for him, or someone who is not taking much exercise that this is not a good idea. It might be said that these activities are not illegal (at present) and only affect the individual concerned. As for the latter, bad health affects a lot of others too, albeit indirectly, and as for the former, we do not generally feel obliged to warn people that they should not illegally park somewhere or obey the speed limit. We need to give people moral space in which to take their own risks and decide how they are going to act. On the other hand, this does not mean that if the individual concerned is very drink impaired that we should leave him to get into a car and drive home. Politeness only goes so far, but as the question is formulated we seem to be operating at the level of mild and acceptable risk, at least from a moral point of view.

What do philosophy and philosophers do nowadays? In the past new ideas affected politics and all that jazz, sort of. But what about today? Maybe it's just obscure and the general public hasn't noticed but what has philosophy accomplished of late? In my eyes, philosophers just keep arguing about old texts and inferred meanings and things humans will always wonder. So where is philosophy going?

Who knows? But it is wrong to think that contemporary philosophy is merely technical and unconnected with everyday cultural and political events. The major debates about these events are constantly informed by philosophical ideas, and even the explicit contributions of philosophers themselves, just as in the past. For example, it is very difficult to understand political debate in the United States at any time without a solid grasp of the political theory of liberalism and natural rights. John Locke would feel very at home listening to talk radio, as would Jeremy Bentham.

It is commonly stated that evidence, reason and logic are inadequate and inappropriate for claims of the existence of a god, transcendent or supernatural beings or phenomena, etc., and that faith alone must be relied upon. Unless I'm missing something then on these grounds, there can be no misguided faith(s), since to distinguish between misguided and valid faith one would have to give a reason why a particular faith is in one category vs. the other, contradicting its own status, correct? My question: is faith ever valid?

Saying that faith is important is not to say that it is the only important factor in religion. It not unusual for believers to claim that there are good rational grounds for their particular faith that do not apply to other apparent faiths. For example, a Christian might say that there is good reason to believe that Jesus was resurrected, since there were witnesses and they gave reliable reports on it. Muslims often point to the inimitable nature of the Qur'an to establish its incontrovertibly divine origins. It may be that adherence to one of these religions is based on faith, but once that step is taken, good arguments might be found to confirm it. To take a secular example, right now I believe that as I am typing this there is not a huge and terrifying monster behind me about to chew off my head. I believe this on the basis of faith, since I am looking at the screen. When I turn round I shall confirm my faith on the basis of evidence. This is the approach of many religious thinkers, and seems...