Recent Responses

Was MLK a philosopher? History doesn't really consider him one, but he did have a lot of views regarding fairness and justice, and his ideas were very influential upon the development of civil rights and equality.

It's an interesting question, but especially at the meta-level. I've been thinking about how it should be answered and here's my tentative theory.

One way someone can count as a philosopher is if people who count uncontroversially as philosophers by and large count the person as a philosopher. In this case: if philosophers generally counted MLK as a philosopher, that would be enough to settle the question. As it happens, this isn't the case for MLK (at least, not that I'm aware.)

Another way is if the person's work is the kind of work that philosophers would generally count as philosophy. That's a bit vague, but here's a sort of operationalized version. Suppose we took samples of the person's work and presented them to lots of philosophers (ideally without telling them whose work it was.) If philosophers tended to agree that the work (however valuable it may be) isn't philosophy, that would make a good case for saying no; the person isn't a philosopher. If philosophers tended to agree that the work is philosophy, that would make a good case for saying that the person is a philosopher. What would happen if we tried this test in MLK's case is not something I have an opinion on; I'm simply not familiar enough with his writing.

Now of course, there are things we'd expect to find in work that philosophers counted as philosophy: careful argumentation, attention to concepts, concern with questions that philosophers tend to discuss, discussed in the ways and at the level that philosophers tend to discuss them... But making a reliable list and deciding how the different items ranked would be controversial. My suggestion is a way of cutting the Gordian knot. The simple version is: if philosophers would judge that the work is philosophy, the person who did the work is a philosopher. That's a rough answer, but since it seems plausible to me, it must contain some wisdom!

I am interested in the slippery slope. Must I accept that the first instance or "slope event" that gives rise to the argument is in itself without much consequence? Or, can I argue slippery slope AND insist that the first instance (developing a parcel of public land, for example, that will result eventually in all the virgin land's demise) is a mistake?

A slippery slope argument in ethics typically has the following form:

If we were to deviate from the status quo in which X is disallowed and instead allow for X, allowing for X (which need not itself be morally objectionable or worrisome) will lead to Y, which is morally objectionable or worrisome. Therefore, we should not deviate from the status quo and allow X.

You ask whether the proponent of a slippery slope argument must hold that the first instance is "without much consequence" or if they can instead see it as a "mistake". As the above form indicates, slippery slope arguments generally assume that the deviation from the status quo that 'sets in motion' the slippery slope is not in itself objectionable or worrisome. Dialectically, the point of slippery slope arguments is to concede to one's opponents that the reform in question is not morally objectionable or worrisome, but argue that we ought not to pursue because doing so will lead us down a slippery slope to an objectionable or worrisome state of affairs. Note that this puts both parties to the dispute on common ground with respect to the intrinsic objectionability or worrisomeness of X, i.e., they both agree that X itself is not objectionable or worrisome.

That said, the common ground established for argumentative purposes does not preclude the proponent of the argument from thinking that the deviation in which X is allowed is objectionable or worrisome -- that it too is a mistake, independent of its alleged role in bringing about the objectionable slippery slope. The proponent might accept X 'for the sake of argument' without in fact believing it acceptable.

Is there a clear-cut distinction between something that is "immoral" and something that is "impolite"? After all, aren't both categories about violating a society's norms?

Quick example: in this country, it's impolite to slurp your soup; not so in some other countries. That's just a matter of differing social norms

Killing innocent people is immoral; it's immoral regardless of where you are, and not just because we happen to have a social norm against it.

Being impolite can also be a moral error, though usually not a big one. It's wrong to upset people for no good reason, and being impolite sometimes has that effect. But it's not just that we have a social custom of not distressing people for no good reason; it's wrong.

Two small points. First, the moral claims above could be subject to qualifications; I leave it to you to consider what such qualifications might be. Second, I haven't argued that it's wrong to distress people for no reason, though the fact that no one one likes having it done to them would be part of any such argument. I also haven't argued that killing innocents is just plain wrong, but similar reasons would apply there with even more force.

In any case, a big part of the distinction is that if we all agree that something is impolite, that pretty much makes it so. But even if we all agree that something is wrong—or right—we could all be mistaken. For example: same-sex intimate relationships weren't wrong even when everyone thought otherwise. Everyone was confused, and the result was a lot of needless misery. The social norms were moral mistakes, albeit wide-spread ones.

Is there any reason to think that happiness is of any importance?

There are different things you might mean, and the answer will depend on which ones you do mean. Since I'm particularly unsure what you mean by "importance," I'm going to look at a nearby question: is there any reason to think that happiness is a good thing? That raises the question of what counts as happiness, and without trying to give anything like a full-blown theory, I suggest thinking of happiness as human thriving. And without giving a precise definition of "thriving," we can come at it this way: imagine someone who has the usual daily ups and downs, but is engaged, resilient, productive, with a normal range of healthy emotions, who can take pleasure in things worth taking pleasure in, etc. etc. etc.

Is this a good thing? It's hard to see what possible reason there could be for thinking it's not. Imagine two villages. In one, most people are thriving; in the other, more or less no one is. Which would you rather live in? Which is a better model for what we'd like other places to be like? For most of us, the answer will be clear. Happiness in this sense seems to be a good, and indeed an important good. Happiness in this sense seems to be of considerable importance. It's the kind of thing we'd like the world to have more of.

Maybe there's some cosmic perspective from which happiness, that is, thriving, doesn't matter—maybe because from that perspective nothing matters. But if so, why invest that perspective with the final say? Why should it matter to us that nothing matters from that point of view?

If a reason is what you're after, it's clear that in one sense I haven't given you one. I haven't given you an argument; I've tried to provoke a way of seeing things. When it comes to matters of what's good, my own sense is that at some stage, it will come down to that. But we can say a little more. If on reflection, informed, thoughtful people tend to agree that something is good, it's not clear what other other sort of evidence we could have. The word "informed" is important here; I might think something is good without understanding its real consequences. But it's not clear what we'd even mean by saying that something could pass this test and yet not really be good.

We could add that even though happiness as we've described it seems to be important, setting it as the goal you work for directly may be a bad way to achieve it. Better, perhaps, not to strive for happiness but rather to pursue the kinds of more concrete goals that make up the bulk of a thriving life. But put that all together and you've got happiness. May there be much more of it!

Hi there. I've recently become depressed over the fact, said by some philosophers, that everything we do and enjoy is merely a distraction. I really don't want to think this as I love my passions dearly. But my anxiety keeps making me believe what they said. Is it true? Or are what we enjoy in life more than just distractions? Thanks.

Distraction from what?

Perhaps these people think there's something else we should be paying attention to, to the exclusion of all else. What? Even if what it is is a Very Good Thing, there are lots of good things, and if we ignore all the others, the world will be the poorer for it.

Maybe they think no one should pursue purely personal interests. But all else aside, if you don't take time for yourself, there's a real chance that you'll be less good at contributing to whatever common good is at stake.

Or is the claim that nothing matters? If so, it doesn't matter that you're doing whatever you're doing; if nothing matters, nothing matters.

In any case, it's pretty plausible that art, music, friendship, play, and countless other things do matter in their varied ways. At least, it's more plausible than hifalutin arguments to the contrary.

So my advice is: don't be bullied by the scolds. The best response (if not the best revenge) is to live well, and that includes making room for the passions that the scolds want to take away from you. Nod, smile, and get on with living.

Can one have delusional knowledge?

Depends on what you mean.

If "delusional knowledge" is supposed to mean that what the person "knows" isn't true, then the usual answer (with which I would agree) is no. We can't know what isn't so.

If "delusional knowledge" means beliefs produced by the person's delusion, but that happen by luck to be true, the answer is no according to most philosophers. The problem is that even though the belief is true, it isn't connected to the facts in the right way. To put it a bit too simply, the fact that what the person believes is true doesn't have anything to do with the fact that they believe it; they would believe it even if it were false.

If the question is whether a person who suffers from delusions can know some things, the answer is yes. A deluded person might know her own name; he might know where he lives; she might know that hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table. But due to his delusions, he might believe that astral beings are whispering the secrets of the universe in his ear. That's not knowledge.

There may be other possibilities, but you get the idea. First, say more clearly what you mean by "delusional knowledge." Then ask if it covers cases where the person holds a true belief that has a reasonable justification or a reliable connection to the facts. If so, it will probably count as knowledge. If not, it probably won't.

Why can’t I argue that God exists noncontingently and is an abstract object? Some say it is because abstract objects lack causal power, and thus to argue as such would deny God at least one essential characteristic which any interesting concept of God cannot lack—omnipotence. But why can’t abstract object possess causal power?

Interesting question. Some philosophers have attributed to abstract objects divine attributes like being eternal and timeless. Perhaps some abstract objects (like the properties of justice and beauty) might be worthy of worship. I have actually argued that abstract objects do have causal roles, so I am sympathetic with your inquiry! Their causal role (in my view) takes place in accounting for our intentionality and thinking. When you think about 1+1, the reason why you reason that 1+1=2 is that you grasp necessary relationships between numbers, which are abstract objects. Moreover, for some of us who think God exists non contingently, we suppose that there is the abstract state of affairs of there being a non contingent, necessarily existing God. And no less a philosopher than Plato suggests that the Good might be the source of what is.

However while abstract objects might have some causal powers, few have thought they can have intentional powers (e.g. the property of justice as an abstract object cannot itself act justly or be loving or know things or hear prayers or care about the world....) This limitation would mean that one or more abstract objects would not be able to function / act as God is thought to do so in most theistic traditions.

Be that as it may, a contemporary, brilliant philosopher, Victoria Harrison, has recently argued for comparing God to an abstract object (she did so last summer at a philosophy conference in Brazil). You might do a search for her work on this topic.

Music is considered an art so can we consider the sound of the wind an art?

Great question. It might be made even more vexing if we compare the sound of wind with a musical piece in which musicians play instrumental music that resembles almost exactly the sound of wind. The chief reason why most of us would distinguish the two is because it is long held that works of art are artifactual: things (events or sounds) that are produced intentionally. The term "art" actually comes from the word "ars" which refers to the technique (techne) that is used to produce something. So, for most of history and today, the term "art" is short for "work of art" and because the sound of wind is (typically) not an intentionally produced to be a work (of art), the two are different.

Still, we can imagine someone recording the sound of wind and then using this in an overall musical production. We can also imagine musical compositions intended only to be performed on windy day or during extreme weather conditions in which there is thunder and lightning. In such ways, artists might attune their work to incorporate a variety of environmental factors.

Most bathroom sprays don't destroy bad odours so much as overpower them with a more pleasant odour. In such cases, can people really be said to be smelling the bad odour if they have no conscious awareness of it?

Philosophers will divide over the question whether tastes, colours, sounds, smells and so on are by nature physical or phenomenal. If these so-called "secondary qualities" are physical, then it makes sense to think of one smell covering up another, which is still there and reappears when the smell covering it up is removed. Similarly, if you think of colour as a physical entity, or you thinkbof it as rather like paint , you can think of one "colour" covering another up, so that the top layer of "colour" could be peeled off to reveal the older underlying colour. But if you think of the qualities as inherently perceptual, then one colour or sound or smell is not covered up by another; it is replaced by it. As Plato puts it in the Phaedo, 'in such a situation it either withdraws or ceases to exist.' My own preference is for a theory in which the "secondary qualities" like tastes are not inherently physical. It makes no sense to think of a physical blue, say, that lacks the quality blue. But good arguments can be advanced for both views.

Given a particular conclusion, we can, normally, trace it back to the very basic premises that constitute it. The entire process of reaching such a conclusion(or stripping it to its basic constituents) is based on logic(reason). So, however primitive a premise may be, we don't seem to reach the "root" of a conclusion. Do you believe that goes on to show that we are not to ever acquire "pure knowledge"? That is, do you think there is a way around perceiving truths through a, so to say, prism of reasoning, in which case, nothing is to be trusted?

It's not clear to me what you're asking, but I'll do my best.

Given a particular conclusion, we can, normally, trace it back to the very basic premises that constitute it.

I doubt we can do that without seeing the conclusion in the context of the actual premises used to derive it. The conclusion Socrates is mortal follows from the premises All men are mortal and Socrates is a man, but it also follows from the premises All primates are mortal and Socrates is a primate. So which pair of premises are "the very basic premises" for that conclusion? Outside of the actual argument context, the question has no answer.

I don't know what you mean by "the root of a conclusion," but you seem to be suggesting that any knowledge is impure if it depends on -- or if it was acquired using -- any reasoning at all. Perhaps the term inferential would be a better label for such knowledge. On this view, even if I have direct knowledge that I am in pain (when I am), I have only inferential knowledge that Some Anglophone is in pain if I derive the latter proposition from the former by way of the premise I am an Anglophone.

Your final sentence suggests that reason is like a prism that distorts any image seen through it. I don't see reason as a distorting influence on knowledge but, instead, as an essential tool for acquiring all of the inferential knowledge that we have. It's true that bad reasoning can take you from premises you know to a conclusion that you fail to know, but bad reasoning is the fault of the reasoner, not the fault of reason.