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Do people owe a debt for investments made in them which they never had an option to refuse? Some examples might be: Debt to society for paying for your childhood education Debt to parents for raising you Should it be considered ungrateful for someone to discontinue their affiliation with the investor if they feel that the relationship isn't beneficial to them?

You pose the question twice: first by asking if people owe a debt and second by asking if behaving in certain ways would be ungrateful. I think the difference matters.

I don't know whether a child owes a debt to her parents—at least not in a certain strict sense. The primary use of the language of debt deals with contracts, promises and, in any case, cases of mutual consent. There are other uses, but the further they are from the primary ones, the harder it is to be sure of their force. Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Suppose we agree that the child doesn't literally owe her parents a debt for raising her—even if they did it lovingly, conscientiously and well. But would it be ungrateful for her to turn her back on her parents because, say, her new social circle made it embarrassing for her to have these people as parents?

I think the answer is obvious enough.

Asking what the daughter owes to her parents invites quibbles and evasion. But moral language is broader and more supple than the legalistic part. Someone who turned their back on parents who had done their best just because the relationship was no longer beneficial to them sounds like a selfish jerk. We should repay our debts when we have them, but we should also not be selfish jerks.

J. L. Austin once remarked that we'd do well to worry less about the beautiful and more about the dainty and the dumpy. The same point goes for moral language. This case is a good illustration.

Is it ethical to favour one soccer team over another?

The answer is surely no: it's not unethical or wrong or immoral to favor one team over another. But there's an interesting issue in the background. At least some views of what morality calls for say that we should be impartial. If I'm a utilitarian, then everyone's pleasure and pain count equally. If I'm a Kantian, then I should act only on maxims that I could will to be universal laws. But in that case, it seems, they can't favor particular people—or particular sports teams.

Whether this is really what utilitarianism or Kantianism call for, this would be crazy. It's also an issue that comes up in an important essay by the British philosopher Bernard Williams ("Persons, Character and Morality," 1976.) Toward the end of the essay, he considers a hypothetical raised by another philosopher, Charles Fried. Fried imagines a man who is in a position to save one of two people, one of whom is his wife. Fried is clear that it should be acceptable for the man to save his wife instead of the stranger. But Williams isn't happy with the way that Fried makes the case. He adduces considerations meant to show that perhaps somehow, in this case, the man isn't actually being unfair.

Williams thinks that going about things in this way would leave the man "with one thought too many." Williams writes:

...it might have been hoped by some (for instance, by his wife) that his motivating thought, fully spelled out, would be the thought that it was his wife, not that it was his wife and that in situations of this kind it is permissible to save one's wife.

What is Williams' point? It is that deep attachments are part of any life that has "substance," in Williams' word, even if deep attachments risk offending against "the impartial view." Williams thinks that there is always a potential conflict between life's having depth and substance, and the requirements of our system of morality.

What about soccer? Saving one's spouse and rooting for one's team seem pretty different. And they are. But what they might have in common from Williams' point of view is that a life infused through and through by the demands of system of impartial morality would not be a good life, even if the rules of that system have a legitimate claim on us.

There are lots of issues here, and doing them justice would call for a very long essay or, more likely, a book. But extrapolating from what Williams says, if someone convinces herself that it's wrong to root for her hometown team, something is indeed wrong, but it's not the rooting. It's that in a way not altogether easy to articulate, morality has become, if not a tyrant, then something less than human.

My understanding is that philosophers like Wittgenstein held that thought without language is impossible. I've seen many people reply that they have non-linguistic thoughts all the time, and my guess is that what they mean is that they often "think" in imagery rather than words. For example, rather than saying with their inner voice, "I should advance my pawn," they picture a chess board with a pawn moving forward. Does this demonstrate non-linguistic thought?

I'm no expert on Wittgenstein, and I don't know the particular argument of his that you're alluding to. He does give a famous argument that anything properly regarded as a language must be usable (if not also used) by more than one person.

But your question is about something else: whether a being can think without possessing language, or maybe whether a being can have thoughts with no linguistic content.

I think the clearest reason for answering "yes" is given by the problem-solving behavior of non-human animals to whom we have no reason to attribute language. Mice seem able to solve mazes, octopuses can figure out and open screw-top jars, and so on, yet it seems a stretch to attribute language to them. When an octopus encounters, for the first time ever, a closed glass jar containing attractive prey, which linguistic resources or concepts must it use when it figures out how to remove the screw top? What sort of linguistic content is the octopus representing to itself? None that I can imagine. But some sort of problem-solving -- some sort of thinking -- is happening, just the same.

If the unconscious exists as part of our working brains, how can we tell what is in it? Can we find out what is in specifically our own unconscious by ourselves?

There are different theories about that but one prominent theory, namely, Freud's - that repression and resistance are the reasons why much of our mental life is unconscious and save for himself -- he thought ordinary human beings could not break through that resistance on their own. As usual, Freud overstated things a mite, but there is something to be said for the view that we need some help in understanding the meaning of what is beneath the waves of our conscious lives - but that joint effort requires the ability to tolerate vulnerability and anxiety.

For some reason, the sorites paradox seems quite a bit like the supposed paradox of Achilles and the turtle with a head start: every time Achilles reaches where the turtle had been, the turtle moves a little bit forward, and so by that line of reasoning, Achilles will never be able to reach the turtle. Yet, when we watch Achilles chase the turtle in real life, he catches it and passes it with ease. By shifting the level of perspective from the molecular to the macro level, so to speak, we move beyond the paradox into a practical solution. If we try to define "heap" by specifying the exact number of grains of sand it takes to differentiate between "x grains of sand" and "a heap of sand," aren't we merely perpetuating the same fallacy, albeit in a different way, by saying that every time Achilles reaches where the turtle had been, the turtle has moved on from there? If not, how are the two situations qualitatively different? Thanks.

In my opinion, the reasoning that generates the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise isn't nearly as compelling as the reasoning that generates the sorites paradox. The Achilles reasoning overlooks the simple fact that Achilles and the tortoise are travelling at different speeds: if you graph the motion of each of them, with one axis for distance and the other axis for elapsed time, the two curves will eventually cross and then diverge as Achilles pulls farther and farther ahead of the tortoise. All of this is compatible with the fact that, for any point along the path that's within the tortoise's head start, the tortoise will have moved on by the time Achilles reaches that point: that's just what it means for the tortoise to have a head start. It's not that the Achilles reasoning is good at the micro level but bad at the macro level. It's just bad.

By contrast, the only thing overlooked by the sorites reasoning is the principle that a small quantitative change (e.g., the loss of one grain of sand) can change the category to which something objectively belongs (e.g., a change from being a quantity of grains large enough to make a heap of sand to being a quantity of grains too small to make a heap of sand). This principle is forced on us by the facts that (a) zero grains is objectively too small a quantity to make a heap of sand, (b) some number of grains (e.g., 1 billion) is objectively large enough to make a heap of sand, and (c) classical logic holds without exception. Although the principle forced on us is true, many people find the principle hard to accept, but I think they may be confusing the principle with the stronger (and false) claim that we can always identify or specify where these objective cutoffs occur. It may be that we never can.

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?

Nice question - I wish philosophers thought more about questions related to domestic choices like this one!

No doubt the disagreement between you and your wife could reflect variations in personal preferences that are morally defensible. Some can tolerate noisy environments, others prefer solitude, and so on. And on its face, there's nothing objectionable in wanting living conditions that reflect such preferences.

But there does seem to be something more than personal preference at issue. I'd encourage you to research this yourself, but based on what I've learned about gated communities, they tend to be very homogenous with respect to who lives there. For one thing, the homes all fall within a narrow price range, generally toward the higher end of the income scale. They also tend to be less varied with respect to religion and race. In and of itself, these facts may not be problematic: Sometimes individuals with similar backgrounds opt to live in close proximity, as in many Jewish ghettos and 'Chinatowns.' Yet gated communities look morally different to my eye; this is not a phenomenon in which similar people happen to live near one another. They also throw up a gate with the express aim of keeping others out. The gated community turns what is ordinarily public space -- roads, sidewalks, greenspaces, and the like -- into private space available almost exclusively to community members, often policed so as to discourage outsiders from entering. In this respect, gated communities look like engines of social exclusion, both reflecting and reinforcing social divisions and inequalities about which we should be morally uneasy. As you nicely put it in your question, we should be concerned that gated communities contributes to us vs. them thinking and social stratification. For what it's worth, I don't think "gated community" is an oxymoron exactly -- those in gated neighborhoods are community in an obvious sense and may feel a strong sense of community among themselves. But community isn't the only important value — it may need to be balanced against justice, equality, etc. — and one might legitimately ask whether 'community' achieved through the heavy handed and exclusionary mechanisms of gated communities is the most desirable form of community (or even a genuine community at all!).

I'd encourage you to express these concerns to your wife, as well as asking her more about what appeals to her about a gated community. Something about the lifestyle? Worries about crime and security? Perhaps there are alternatives to gated communities that answer to her concerns without raising the moral 'red flags' that motivated your question.

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.

We've been pondering the Problem of Evil. How can a good God allow evil to exist? I think the solution is right there in opening pages of the Book of Genesis. According to the Bible, after six days' labor, God needed to rest to regain his strength. When God is enjoying some necessary down time, then evil takes advantage and spreads. Is this a convincing argument?

This argument is a variation on solutions that assume a non-omnipotent God. If God doesn't have the power to prevent all evil, then the fact that there is evil would be no surprise. This version's variation is just that God gets tired and sometimes has to rest.

For the moment, leave aside the point that this is far too anthropomorphic a conception of God for most theologians' tastes. And leave aside that at least some theologians would say that anything less than an omnipotent god doesn't deserve the label "God" to begin with. (I'm sympathetic to the first point, less so to the second.) Ask instead what patterns of evil we might expect if we accept this explanation. Suppose there's a flood and people are drowned. Is the idea that if God hadn't been napping, they would have been saved? Suppose some crazy person walks into a school with a gun and kills a bunch of people. Are we suppose to say that they would have been saved if God hadn't been tired?

It's probably safe to say that at every single minute of every single day, there's something bad happening somewhere. Is God always asleep? Or is the idea that, since thousands of years are but a blink of an eye to God, God has been asleep since humans appeared on the scene, though from the cosmic perspective, that's almost no time at all?

Assuming God exists, maybe there's something to be said for the idea that God is limited and doesn't have the power to prevent all evil. No reason to add the speculation that God needs to spend time chillaxin. But even if something like this idea has a place in a proper theodicy, some of the more traditional responses seem, well, more interesting. Suppose God is up and about when the flood crashes through the valley. Should we assume that in that case, God will suspend the laws of nature and save everyone in harm's way? Maybe. But maybe not. There's a lot to be said from a lot of points of view for a world with stable laws of nature. And again, if God is paying attention, is the idea that whenever any of us are about to follow through on an immoral decision, God will step in and stop us? If so, that would presumably mean that free choice is quite a bit more limited than one might think a God would want it to be.

It's a big topic. For those who believe, the limited God idea has some advantages. But for those who believe, there's also a point in approaching the problem of evil from the most challenging assumption: suppose that God isn't limited. On that assumption, what can be said about evil? Whatever the cosmic facts may actually be, my guess is that there's more to be learned if we start there.

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