Recent Responses

Is it consistent to oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, and also believe that life in prison is actually worse anyway?

I’m not sure I fully grasp the motivation behind your question, but here’s a guess as to how you may be reasoning:

A punishment can be ethically indefensible if it is too severe, either in its own right (50 years of continuous physical torture, say) or in proportion to the seriousness of the crime (a decade in prison for petty theft, for instance, would be excessive). If life in prison is worse than execution, then if the death penalty should be opposed because it is too severe, then we should also oppose life in prison, since if the death penalty is too severe, and life in prison is (by stipulation) worse, then life in prison must also be too severe. So if this reasoning is correct, then either
(a) both the death penalty and life in prison should be rejected on moral grounds for being too severe – a position that some may hold but many will reject on the basis that life in prison is not necessarily too severe
(b) the death penalty must not be as bad as we think, and should not be opposed.

Before addressing the reasoning here, let me say that (a) does not strike me as so implausible a stance. In my estimation, we tend to underestimate the badness of life incarceration, and in particular, the ways in which the unrelenting infringements on a person’s liberty, etc., are bad for a person. So perhaps both punishments really are too severe.

That said, there are, I’d say, two places where this reasoning seems open to question.

The first concerns your thought that life in prison is ‘worse’ than death. For one, how bad life incarceration is depends a great deal on prison conditions. Whatever its hardships, life in a Scandinavian minimum security facility is not anywhere near as bad for an inmate as life imprisonment in a US-style supermax facility that uses prolonged solitary confinement, etc. So whether life imprisonment is worse than death will turn on contingent facts. Moreover, we might question an assumption that seems hidden in your question, namely, that how bad something is depends only on its experiential properties. Suppose we grant that the experience of life incarceration is (often) worse than the ‘experience’ of death. (Note the quote marks there; I’m assuming that death is the permanent cessation of selfhood, that there’s no afterlife, that death is not something we experience, etc. — debatable propositions, yes, but let’s operate with these assumptions for now.) In other words, undergoing prolonged suffering behind bars will often be worse than simply not existing. Nevertheless, it may not follow from this that incarceration is worse than death, given that death may deprive a person of a life she wishes to keep living or of goods that she would have enjoyed had she continued to live until her natural death. (Note that these considerations make the badness of execution contingent on what kind of future a person is deprived of, how long she has to live, etc.) The death penalty may therefore be worse for a person’s overall lifetime well-being even if being dead is not worse than spending life behind bars. (Incidentally, I take it that the fact that almost every condemned prisoner exhausts their appeals before being executed is an indication that there is at least something worthwhile about continuing to live, even in the very adverse conditions life incarceration presents.)

A second set of questions we might raise about this reasoning is whether the severity of punishment is the only moral grounds for opposing a punishment. We might conclude, in connection with the death penalty for example, that it tends to be allocated in ways that are unjust — that defendants from certain social groups are more likely to be executed, etc. Note that these are moral considerations against the death penalty that don’t turn on how bad it is (or how bad it is in comparison to alternatives such as life imprisonment). Or one might oppose the death penalty believing it’s too risky for a society to impose. Death, as many have said, seems different than other punishments; it’s ‘final’, irrevocable, incompensable, unappealable, etc., in ways that other punishments may not be. So perhaps the reasons to morally oppose the death penalty is that societies ought not to risk imposing a penalty that’s unique in having these properties.

Is suicide immoral?

This is a question with a long and disputed history. My own article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy outlines some of the main moral arguments surrounding the permissibility of suicide:

There's a long of history of religious anti-suicide arguments. I don't find these convincing as moral arguments, even granting the theistic assumptions on which they rest. And while I find Kant's position that suicide violates duties to oneself plausible, let's set that aside and treat your question as equivalent to 'does suicide wrong others?', I think the fairest answer is 'it depends.' The most credible argument for the immorality of suicide is that it harms specific others -- family members, etc. — who are are harmed psychologically or materially (a child whose parent's death via suicide deprives her of her parent, for instance) and who have come to rely upon the suicidal person in various ways. As I lay out this role-based obligations argument in the SEP article:

No doubt the suicide of a family member or loved one produces a number of harmful psychological and economic effects. In addition to the usual grief, suicide “survivors” confront a complex array of feelings. ... . Suicide can also cause clear economic or material harm, as when the suicidal person leaves behind dependents unable to support themselves financially. Suicide can therefore be understood as a violation of the distinctive “role obligations” applicable to spouses, parents, caretakers, and loved ones. However, even if suicide is harmful to family members or loved ones, this does not support an absolute prohibition on suicide, since some suicides will not leave survivors, and among those that do, the extent of these harms is likely to differ such that the stronger these relationships are, the more harmful suicide is and the more likely it is to be morally wrong. Besides, from a utilitarian perspective, these harms would have to be weighed against the harms done to the would-be suicide by continuing to live a difficult or painful life. At most, the argument that suicide is a harm to family and to loved ones establishes that it is sometimes wrong.

Now it’s true the Eagles won the super bowl. Is the following statement true.?The team had always a winning chance of 100 percent regardless of their preparation , and there was absolutely no power in the world that could have changed the outcome .

Let's focus on one bit of your question. You ask if this is true:

          The team had always a winning chance of 100 percent regardless of their preparation.

Now compare that to something more mundane. As I write this, it's 3: 45 here in College Park. The light in my office is on. Would you say this?

          The light always had a 100% chance of being on at 3:45 on February 15, regardless of whether anyone flipped the switch.

I'm guessing you'd say no. The flipping of the switch was an essential part of the process that turned the light on. Likewise, the Eagles' preparation was an essential part of the process that brought about their win. No switch flipped, no light on; no diligent preparation, no win.

It's not that this answers all the questions someone might have about freedom and determinism (or, in this case, freedom and determinateness). It's just to say that there's no reason to think things would have turned out as they did regardless of the events that led up to them. The possibility you're asking about is sometimes labeled fatalism, and the belief in fatalism is often a consequence of overlooking the point made by our little example of the light switch.

Hi. I have been struggling lately. I was just wanting to confirm that determinism is a THEORY,correct, as to ask if it has been proven? Has there been any 100% consensus as to say we don't have free will? Will we ever really know for sure? I'm sorry I'm just going through many questions right now. Determinism (in any form) has not been proven 100% correct? And all of those theories on determinism, and indeterminism, are all not confirmed correct? They're just perspectives correct? Thank you so much for any relief/ information you can give me.

Determinism is neither as well-established as (say) the sun-centered model of the planets nor as well-refuted as (say) the earth-centered model of the planets. The truth or falsity of determinism is an open empirical question.

But perhaps I can provide some relief from the threat that you think determinism would pose for free will. Please see this answer to a question posted here in 2016:

Is there any way to define coincidences so as to make their existence possible in a deterministic world?

I think so. Suppose you encounter an old acquaintance, whom you haven't thought about in years, on a street corner in a foreign city. That unexpected encounter sounds to me like a paradigm case of a coincidence, precisely because it was (as we say) "the last thing you were expecting." Nevertheless, the encounter might well have been guaranteed to occur by prior conditions, as determinism says all events are. Our very limited knowledge of the prior conditions -- indeed, our total lack of interest in their precise details -- makes such an encounter surprising, i.e., not at all predictable by us given how little we knew about the prior conditions. Even so, those prior conditions could have determined that the encounter would occur exactly when, where, and how it did.

How is this argument valid? Either Oscar is an octopus or he is a whale. Oscar is a zebra. Therefore, Oscar is an octopus.

Validity in an argument comes down to one question: Is it possible for all the argument's premises to be true and its conclusion false? If no, then the argument is valid. So, assuming it is impossible for Oscar to be both a whale and a zebra, the argument is valid. Even so, the argument is not formally valid, because the following is not a valid form:

Octopus(Oscar) or Whale(Oscar)
Therefore: Octopus(Oscar)

Not all valid arguments are formally valid.

Furthermore, assuming that Oscar is not both an octopus and a zebra, the argument is unsound despite being valid, because in that case the second premise and the conclusion are not both true. The same holds for this argument (on similar assumptions):

Oscar is an octopus, or Oscar is a whale.
Oscar is a zebra.
Therefore: Oscar is a whale.

Valid but unsound. So neither argument establishes its conclusion.

All chariot racers are musicians. Some chariot racers are soldiers. Therefore, some musicians are soldiers. Valid or Invalid?

Valid. Your second premise tells you that some chariot racer is a soldier. Let's call him "Alfred". So Alfred is a chariot racer and Alfred is a soldier. So Alfred is a chariot racer. This last fact, combined with the first premise, tells us that Alfred is a musician. But Alfred is also a soldier. So Alfred is both a musician and a soldier. Hence, someone is both a musician and a soldier. Which is your conclusion.

Suppose a friend tells us something that happened with him and asks us to keep it a secret. Suppose it is nothing very important, but our friend thinks it is. Suppose the story could have been known by many people, because it happened in a public place, but in fact no relevant person knows of it, except for our friend and us. Do we have the duty to keep it a secret? It seems that if we have that duty, it is only because our friend asked us to do so. But do people have the power to create duties for other people only by asking them to do something?

Let's consider two scenarios.

1) The friend asks you to promise not to divulge what she's about to tell you. You agree and then she tells you the "secret."

2) The friend tells you her story without any preamble to her tale. Then she asks you to promise not to tell anyone.

In the first case, the obligation is a matter of your making a promise. Promises create obligations. You could have said no. Or you could have said "Only if I can keep it secret in good conscience." If you hadn't said "I promise," there wouldn't be an obligation. Your friend didn't create the obligation; you did.

In case 2), you can still say no, but leaving things at that misses something. Respecting your friend's wishes could still be what you ought to do, because she's your friend, and not respecting her wish would distress her, and you've got no good reason to do that.

In case 2), do we want to say that when your friend asked you not to tell, that created an obligation? Your friend's request isn't like an order from the court. It doesn't create an obligation in that sense. But worrying about that risks worrying about words rather than about the real question. The real question is what you should do all things considered, and one of the considerations is the fact that hurting your friends for no good reason is usually the wrong thing to do.

We tend to use the word "obligation" when what's at stake is a matter of law or widely-accepted convention or explicit or implicit promise or contract. If that's the sort of obligation you have in mind, then the fact that your friend asked you not to tell doesn't create an obligation. But respecting her wishes is probably what you should do anyway.

Hello my question is about the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I personally do agree with the premises and the conclusion, however a person on youtube said that you cannot say that an infinite regress does not make sense but an infinite being does. So my questions are what is the difference between an infinite regress and an infinite being, can you say they are both absurd? Does an infinite being make sense?

A response to Jonathan's point: To deny that the universe had a beginning is not to deny that a Big Bang occurred several billion years ago, nor is it to discount the evidence for such an event. But the available evidence doesn't imply, and it may not even favor, the claim that a Big Bang event occurs only once rather than cyclically, with the cycles going back, in principle, forever. So I stand by "eminently."

While I'm at it: Jonathan wrote that "some infinite series don't make sense (e.g. an infinite series of events leading up to a present event, since one could never take the last step, since there is no last step)." I take it that Jonathan meant to write "there is no first step," since we're talking about a series that is infinite in the earlier direction. But either way -- "first" or "last" -- his reasoning sounds like Zeno's argument that I can never begin to traverse (or finish traversing) any distance because there is never a first (or a last) fraction of the distance that I traverse. That argument is invalid. I can traverse all of the fractions of the distance even though there is no first, last, or nth fraction that I traverse.

I've often heard it said that Americans are uncomfortable with sex, and that this is seen in the fact that it is often forbidden to depict sexuality or nudity in popular media, yet depictions of graphic violence are ubiquitous. Implicit in this observation is that depictions of violence should rightly seem as bad, or worse, than depictions of sex. But what makes any such depiction bad? Is it just a matter of the psychological distress they cause? Is it that they encourage people to do what they depict? Are some things just intrinsically obscene?

I think what you say about American attitudes towards sex may be true, if we stick to the surface of the culture, and these attitudes are Puritanical compared with European ones, for example French and Swedish ones. What makes depictions of violence wrong, surely, is not just the distress they cause. The answer to that is for people to avoid violent movies. Or if movies with sex in them cause distress, they can easily be avoided. And you are obviously correct that there is something wrong with depictions of sex and violence together, even or even especially from a narrow utilitarian point of view. For one thing, they can make people jaded with the real things; they can make sex less appealing and violence routine and routinely acceptable. And you are right again, I think, to ask the question whether some things are intrinsically obscene. Consider the Madonna and Child in so many representations. There is often a quiet tenderness here that cannot be missed. Then consider juxtaposed some viscous and violent and exploitative sexual act without love or shame. The degradation of "the act of love" combined with vulgarity is certainly "ill-omened" (which is the meaning of the Latin obscaenus) - it goes nowhere and no good will come of it - and it can also liable to cause moral revulsion, which is another apparently unrelated meaning of the word. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' response to a radio interviewer, who started off the interview hoping to trap Lewis, with the question, 'Professor Lewis, as a Christian, what exactly is your objection to pornography?' Lewis' answer was, 'My objection to pornography [pause] is that it is insufficiently erotic.'