Recent Responses

I have come to despise the society I live in. I find the people's "values" abhorrent and the things they do vile and misguided, but it seems clear that nothing will change the status quo, judging how those who speak out against these vile things are often met with hatred and anger. I do not want to live in my society anymore, I am so disillusioned with it, nor do I want to lend any skills I might have (by being in the workforce) for it to benefit from. I have sometimes considered moving to another country that might share my values more closely, but if there are any, I don't know if I'd be able to "survive" in it due to factors such as language barriers. After I really started to think about it, I began to realize that putting an end to my own existence may be the ultimate solution to this dismal problem. I am not happy in this life and this society. If I choose to live out my life but force myself to keep my mouth shut about the issues that bother me, it will mean a lifetime of misery as I slowly rot on the inside with anger and despair. But if I do choose to speak out against the issues that bother me, I will likely be ridiculed and ostracized (or worse). In other words, if I live, it will be a lose-lose for me, no matter what I do. However, if I die prematurely, I will be free of this abhorrent culture I live in and any servitude to it. My society will benefit as well, because it will not have an unwelcome "maverick" living on its resources and capital and it can continue doing whatever it wants in peace. A win-win. In today's day and age, suicide tends to be discouraged and is seen as a bad thing. However, in a situation like this, where both the individual and his society hate each other and neither will change, it seems like the perfect solution. There is no one in my life who is dependent on me for survival. And isn't death inevitable anyway? Still, it would be nice to have some nonjudgmental feedback from someone on this kind of situation and my proposed solution. Do you have any thoughts on the matter? Please do not feel obligated to provide an "alternative" solution if it's only out of a feeling of moral duty or fear of accountability. Thanks.

Before asking if something is a solution to a problem, it's worth asking whether we've gotten the problem right.

There's a sign I found a few years ago; it's on my office door. It reads "Don't believe everything you think." Almost everyone needs that advice from time to time; I certainly do. A lot of what our brains churn out, especially when we're unhappy, just isn't true. While I was reading what you wrote, that slogan kept coming back to me. The reason? An awful lot of what you say just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Yes: some people have abominable values. But there are also people who are decent, thoughtful, try to do the right thing and often succeed. I'm not guessing about this. I could make a long list drawn just from people I happen to know personally. This includes people who disagree with me about lots of things, including politics and religion. Furthermore, I'm not in any way exceptional. I'm completely comfortable saying that almost everyone knows a great many good people. There are quite literally millions and millions of such people. And while I don't know where you live, I'd be willing to bet large sums of money that plenty of good and even wise people live near enough to you that you wouldn't need to go to another country to find them.

We could talk about other things you write and the conclusions would be similar. I'm not saying this to insult you or make you angry. I'm saying it because of what I said at the beginning: if we want to know whether something is a solution to a problem, it matters whether we've gotten the problem right in the first place. I don't know anything about your circumstances, and so I don't know why it seems to you that pretty much all of what you call "society" is a pack of miscreants. But since you use the word "society" for a much broader group than your own circle of acquaintances, I think I can safely say that you're suffering from a kind of illusion.

What's the cure? Specifics matter, but some general points are likely to apply. The first is the slogan on my sign: Don't believe everything you think. Really; just don't. Detach from your judgments. When big, broad, negative generalizations intrude on your thoughts, don't fight with them, don't resist them, but observe them without judgment and let them pass on through. This is the technique behind what's sometimes called "insight meditation" (a contemporary name for Buddhist Vipassana meditation) and it can be quite powerful once you get the hang of it. There's nothing mystical or supernatural or cultish about it. You don't need to take vows or wear robes. It's just a technique that centuries of experience and a fair bit of recent research bears out. What you learn is that thoughts are just thoughts. You don't need to give them power over you.

Like any technique, it takes some practice and a good teacher can be helpful. There are also things worth reading. One book from a few years ago may be worth your time: Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Well worth the few dollars it costs.

One other thing: Tara Brach's book talks a lot about compassion: compassion for others, but also compassion for ourselves. The world could use more of that—the world and everyone in it.

Dear philosophers, Professor Stairs recently addressed a question about the difference between 'immoral' and 'impolite' where, if I understand him correctly, he basically said that there's a fact of the matter about morality, whereas norms of politeness are society-relative. But I think it's worth pointing out that there are a variety of other views about morality: for instance, relativism, error theory, and even some views where moral claims aren't considered truth-apt (as in logical positivism). May I ask Professor Stairs a potentially more interesting question: assuming relativism, or some similar view where there is no universal moral fact of the matter, is there a bright-line difference between the immoral and the impolite?

Perhaps not a bright line. But let's take relativism as our foil, where we understand relativism to mean that standards of evaluation are relative to norms, traditions, etc. of societies or groups. (I'm paraphrasing a definition from ). If that view happens to be correct, notice that it doesn't leave us without a distinction between morals and manners. Even if relativism is the right meta-ethical view, we still make a distinction within this society (US society for the sake of example) between matters of politeness and matters of moral right and wrong. Close enough for our purpose, we Americans agree that stealing is wrong and not just rude. We also agree that showing up to a wedding in ragged shorts and a T-shirt is rude but not really a moral wrong (though see below). The line between the two cases seems to be something like this: we can imagine, though we might not find it an attractive prospect, that fashions might change and showing up to a wedding "badly dressed" might come to be acceptable. Nothing in the kinds of reasons we appeal to in moral argumentation provides a basis for treating the rudeness of ragged shorts at a wedding as anything deeper than custom. When we offer moral arguments, we appeal to considerations of such things as harm and fairness that we don't treat as matters of fashion. Those sorts of reasons don't get much of a grip in arguments about what to wear to weddings.

The general idea is that even if relativism is the correct metatheory, there is a set of norms, rules and reasons that limn what the group takes to constitute morality. Appeals to those kinds of reasons are what makes an argument about how to behave a moral argument. Other cases, such as whether it's okay to slurp your soup or wear white to a wedding if you're not the bride, don't appeal to those sorts of reasons.

This still doesn't give us a bright line. For example: in the US (and in lot of other places!) it's rude to constantly interrupt people when they talk. Some cases of interrupting don't bump up against the boundary of what we count as moral transgressions. Some people are just socially clueless. But in other cases, constant interruption amounts to not showing respect for the person you're interrupting; it may count as an affront to their dignity. However, we don't just count respect and dignity as matters of manners; they're moral issues too.

So it's doubtful that we'll find bright lines, but we do find not-altogether-blurry ones. In fact (as my earlier answer indicated) this will be so whether or not we're objectivists. The rude can sometimes amount to a wrong.

I have a mother with alzheimer dementia in a very advanced stage and she is unconscious about anything is happening around her. I think she is alive phisically but not a conscious being, she acts by instincts, grabbing a piece of bread or crying when she needs something, like a baby or an animal. Cant talk, dont know who she is or anything... I cant stop asking myself wether she is "alive", alive here meaning as a conscious human being. If I was religious I would ask where did her soul go?? Is it still there? Is it only her body what is left? Is all mad people also "alive"under this terms? What about very young children (who hasnt developed self awareness yet)? What about people who lives in auto pilot all their life and never question ther existence? Actually when do we start being "alive" under this concept? "I think therefore I am" Sorry for the long lines, I hope I explained myself. Thank you in advance. Juan C.

It is very sad to hear your story. I can give a guess about the awfulness of what you are going through, but I am more certain that I cannot appreciate the full daily horror for you.

Your question is a most reasonable one. Is your mother "alive"? It is interesting that you feel obliged to put this word in scare quotes. It is something that "you can't stop asking yourself". So there is something very important here, an important issue. But you have also answered your own question, or part of it. Let us distinguish between the mental and the physical. Is your mother alive physically? Her body is not dead, if we can put it that way. Is she alive "as a conscious being"? Here you give your own answer: ' . . . she is unconscious about anything [that] is happening around her.' I think perhaps you should say that she is conscious only of the most immediate and restricted domain. That perhaps is part of the reason the question is difficult. She is conscious, but not in a full sense. The whole difficulty about this kind of condition is that it seems to be a kind of living death, and we have not fully developed ethical concepts to match its metaphysical complexity.

I hope this answer does help with your question. You should ask more questions if they present themselves.

All the best to you.

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.