Recent Responses

When asked to choose between two competing theories, A and B, each of which fits the facts, people will sometimes resort to asking questions like, "Which theory is the more probable?" or "Which theory is simpler?" or even "Which theory involves the least upset to all my other beliefs?" Well, what about, "Which is the less weird theory?" Could weirdness (that is, something like distance from everyday experience) count as a good criterion on which to endorse one theory over another? Einstein seems to be appealing to some idea like this in the comment that God doesn't play dice. And would it be fair to say that many philosophers appeal to something like this when they reject panpsychism?

Philosopher John Haugeland once offered a sort of counterpart to Ockham's razor: "Don't get weird beyond necessity." (from "Ontological Supervenience," 1984, Southern Journal of Philosophy pp. 1—12.) Of course, the hard part is spelling out what weirdness amounts to and why it counts against a hypothesis. For example: Ockham's Razor tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity: it stands in favor of parsimonious theories. Panpsychism is certainly weird, but from one point of view it's parsimonious: it says that there aren't actually two kinds of physical things (conscious and unconscious) but only one. Does the weirdness swamp the parsimony? If so why?

So as a quick and dirty rule of thumb, "Pick the less weird theory" seems fine. As a serious methodological rule, it may need some work.

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 (and others) as animal-like:

"When a man wishes to satisfy his desire, a woman hers, they stimulate each other’s desires; their inclinations meet, but their object is not human nature but sex, and each of them dishonors the human nature of the other. They make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts and inclinations, and dishonor it by placing it on a level with animal nature."

For Kant, objectification is therefore built into the nature of sex. Sex invariably involves seeing oneself and one's sex partner merely as means. There is a way for sex to be mutually respectful, according to Kant, namely, through marital monogamy. (I won't go into the complicated dynamics of how Kant thought marital monogamy makes sex morally innocuous.) But Kant's opposition to prostitution stems from the contention that sex as such treats the partners merely as means.

Needless to say, Kant's view of the nature of sex is open to question. He seems to think that sexual desire is by its nature an uncontrollable impulse that can't be tamed by reason and is thus inescapably a form of objectification. What I suspect Kant misses is that some measure of objectification may nevertheless be compatible with respect for rational agency. There is certainly a sense in which prostitutes, by commodifying their bodies, are treating their bodies as means (so too are their customers treating prostitutes' bodies as means). But when such a transaction is consensual, non-coercive, etc., one might think that this 'objectification' takes place against a background of respect for one's own rational agency and that of others. (Note that Kantians are likely to find non-consensual, coerced, exploitative sexual activity to be particularly objectionable; sadly, prostitution all too often falls into that category.)

So in the end, it's not clear that Kant's case for the immortality of prostitution is that compelling. It rests on peculiar views about the nature of sexual desire and its compatibility with respect for rational agency that even Kantians might well reject.

What is the panel's response to the philosophic community's ad hominem attacks on Rebecca Tuvel and her article in Hypatia? There was no engagement of her ideas at all, and the editors of Hypatia were forced to remove her article and publish an apology, merely because Ms Tuvel asked uncomfortable questions.

I just wanted to clear up an important point. The article was not removed. It is still in the journal, including the online edition, and it will stay there. I'd suggest reading this piece

http://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Journal-Article-Provoked-a/240021

which gives a clearer picture of the review process of the journal itself. In particular, it makes clear that the associate editorial board doesn't make decisions about what gets published, and isn't involved in the day-to-day operation of the journal.

I will leave it to others to discuss more substantive issues.

If you're a pilot who drops a nuclear bomb on a city, do you have any moral responsibility for the action?

Why wouldn't you? If having moral responsibility requires (say) being free, you surely are free about whether to do this act -- whether to join the air force, whether to participate in this mission. Perhaps there are degrees of compulsion in play: you were drafted (faced jail if you resisted), you were assigned the mission (faced punishment if you refused). But still: you are free (we assume) to choose the punishment over the action. Perhaps the punishment is so severe that we decide you have no reasonable choice--and we require having reasonable alternatives for an action to be free--ok then: perhaps in that circumstance you might argue the pilot has no moral responsibility here. But even then, the action itself is so extreme (presumably producing the deaths of thousands or millions), we might hold the standard very high: hold the individual responsible even for accepting an extreme punishment before doing such a heinous action. (I'm assuming of course the pilot does not want to do the mission; and we could vary the case in various ways, for example make it quite compelling that the action is profoundly wrong: it was ordered by your insane or evil dictator leader, for example .....) But these are some of the kinds of considerations (I would think) that might be brought to bear on a question like this ....

hope that's useful! >..
Andrew

Many people think of corporations as essentially amoral. By its very nature, they say, a corporation only seeks to deliver value to its shareholders. It's a category mistake to criticize corporations for acting immorally, since this misunderstands their purpose. To the extent that we are concerned to ensure that corporations act morally, that is the purview of lawmakers and regulators, not the corporations themselves. As long as corporations act legally, they are beyond reproach. I was wondering if the panel had any remarks about this. It strikes me as a perverse conflation of what corporations tend to do, or what they have incentive to do, and what they ought to do. I see no reason not to view corporations as moral actors in more or less the same way as ordinary people.

A great question/topic. I'll offer no particular insight except to add to it an additional question: what reasons are there, if any, to distinguish the moral responsibility of corporations from that of individuals in the first place? As candidate Mitt Romney put it a few years back, corporations ARE people, they're made up of people, their decisions are decisions that people take, ontologically they are presumably reducible to people (don't think Romney would put it that way!)--so why even introduce the idea of a 'corporation' as any sort of morally relevant entity distinguishable from the individuals who (say) make the decisions for the corporation? .... This in turn raises the very interesting question of whether groups of individuals might have decision-making processes that are different in nature from (say) individuals acting alone, and whether those differences are morally relevant ... We may (eg) recognize morally relevant influences on individuals who are acting within or as part of a group v those acting purely individually (if that ever genuinely occurs); perhaps those would introduce factors relevant for "corporate responsibility." I'm not familiar with any literature on this topic, but I would imagine it is out there -- perhaps in the business ethics world?

Do words only have the power that we give them?

By "power" in this context, I take it you're referring to the psychological, rhetorical, or political power of words. I can't see any source of such power except us humans. That isn't to say that the power is unreal, only that words possess no internal magic, contrary to what humans in general used to (and some still) believe. Nor is it to say that any individual can render words powerless simply by deciding to. A racial slur, for instance, might induce people to physically harm the person targeted by the slur even if the person targeted decides to regard the slur as having no power over him or her.

Has American philosophy lost interest in metaphysics?...thanks, Arnold

No, indeed. I don't know which periods of American philosophy you're comparing when you ask whether American philosophy has lost interest in metaphysics. But if you check the current tables of contents of general American philosophy journals such as Nous, Philosophical Studies, and Philosophy & Phenomenological Research -- to say nothing of more specialized American journals such as The Review of Metaphysics -- you're sure to find articles in metaphysics written by American philosophers. You'll also find plenty of American-authored metaphysics articles in philosophy journals that are headquartered outside America, such as Mind, Analysis, and Erkenntnis. If anything, the interest of American philosophers in metaphysics has increased compared to, say, the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Hi! In Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' she states 'context is all.' Does this mean there is no such thing as truth? Thank you!

One of the greatest philosophers on totalitarian states, Hannah Arendt observes that in totalitarian states, "truth" and even "empirical facts" are relative to the needs of the state. In such a setting, Arendt notes (and I agree with her) almost nothing is so absurd that people cannot be coerced to believe it or profess (or act as though) it is true. So, I think the answer to your question is (sadly) "yes" in terms of the culture, but in reality, I think the question is "no" in the sense that truth and falsehood (from a realist philosophical point of view) cannot be subject to state control. The state cannot make it the case that 1+1=3 (though see Orwell's 1984, and check our Arendt's book Origins of Totalitarianism. published in 1951).

Many people, like myself, think of Ayn Rand when we think of philosophy, having read her books when young, etc. Coming from this sort of background, it was surprising to me, recently, to be told that the majority of professional philosophers don't regard her as a philosopher at all, or, if they do, take little notice of her. Is that truly the attitude amongst philosophers? If so, is there any particular reason for it? For instance, is it to do with resistance to ideas that come from outside the university?

I don't know if most philosophers would say that she's no philosopher at all, but I suspect many would say she's a marginal philosopher. One reason is that however influential she may have been, many philosophers don't think she's a very good philosopher—not very careful or original or analytically deep—even if they happen to be broadly sympathetic to her views.

The fact that she came from outside the academy by itself wouldn't be disqualifying, but in one sense, philosophers are not just people who engage with philosophical issues; they're people who are part of a community whose members read and respond to one another (even when they disagree deeply) and interact in a variety of particular ways. Being outside the academy tends to put you outside the ongoing conversation of that community. Whether that's good, bad, or neutral is another story, but to whatever extent "philosopher" means "someone who's a member of a certain intellectual community," the fact that she was outside the academy is part, though only part, of the explanation.

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