Recent Responses

What are the moral responsibilities of a very intelligent person to the general public? Should they be held to the same standard of behavior as their less fortunate peers?

A widely accepted dictum in ethics is that “ought” implies “can”.Philosophers disagree about what exactly this means– but I think thatthe kernel of truth in this idea is that we can’t hold someone morallyresponsible for doing things that he or she couldn’t have not done.One's abilities in some sense set the limit of one's obligations. Presumably, it’sin virtue of their possession of certain abilities that other people lack that some people aredescribed as “very intelligent.” But it’s not clear to me that one ofthese abilities is necessarily the ability to act morally. For myreasons for doubt, go here.

I am a philosophy undergrad. What should I do to guarantee I get the most I can out of grad school?

Remain fascinated to the point of distraction by the questions, problems,solutions, arguments of philosophy. I don't know how much this is inone's control: you can avoid bad teachers and seek out inspiring ones;you can select to focus on areas that grip you; you can learn to put aproject away for a while if it's causing you grief; etc. But there'sonly so far one can force a fascination. Sadly, there are no guaranteesof the kind you seek. Or rather, not so sadly.

I was perusing the site, and I came up with this weird thought: Can a person think about the thought that they are thinking? Because at first I thought no... but then I thought by posing this question I was thinking about what I was thinking... but I started to doubt my thoughts... so I thought it might be a good idea to get a second opinion.

Might the question have concerned self-referring thoughts? Viz: Is it possible for me now to think about the very thought I am now thinking?

But, if you think about it, I just did. So it is.

I can do it again: I think that the very thought I am now having is a true one. Is it?

Why should society put such a high value to the act of taking an oath. Oath to say the truth, Oath to become a Citizen, Oath to take an office, Oath to serve a commission, etc. Oath is only as good as a person taking the oath, so what is different about a person expressing an opinion or a belief and doing it under oath? Is our society correct in accepting a higher level of integrity or commitment because of the ceremonious nature of it? After all, it is not difficult to act out an oath as a matter of convenience and not have any sincere feelings about the act.

One way to think about oaths would be to regard them as a ritualized form of promise. If so, then one aspect of these questions is: What's the significance of promises? There's a difference between saying that one plans to do something, which can certainly create reasonable expectations and moral obligations secondary to those expectations, and promising to do it, which creates moral obligations that are not secondary to and do not require any such expectations. So one purpose of oaths might be simply to create the sorts of moral duties a promise would. Whether one who makes a promise, or takes an oath, takes those duties seriously is, of course, another matter.

Another aspect of the questions is: Why should promise-making be ritualized as an oath? I can think of two kinds of answers worth exploring. One might be that the public and ritual character of oath-taking might encourage taking it seriously. (Perhaps that used to be true more so than it is now.) Another might be that the ritual form creates legal obligations as well as moral ones. It's one thing to lie and another to lie on the stand, and part of the point of the witness's oath might be (i) to create the difference and (ii) to make that difference vivid.

Loyalty. Is it unethical to move loyalty to another sports team just because the current team you're rooting for isn't doing well?

Most fans of the New Orleans Saints (football team) remained loyal to 'dem Saints even though the Saints were almost always a losing team. Loyalty in The Big Easy for the Saints was fierce. But now that Katrina has destroyed much of New Orleans, the team's owner, car franchise hot shot Benson has decided to move the team to San Antonio or California permanently -- at precsiely the time when New Orleans dramatically needs the team to stay, for both financial and spiritual reasons. For all the loyalty shown to the Saints by the N.O. community, Benson returns a kick in the testicles.

Update February 14, 2006: Benson seems to have come around. But the Hornets -- who have been playing in Oklahoma City (Oklahoma????), except for 3 games in New Orleans this season -- are now the culprits. They plan to play all of six games in N.O. next season, and N.O. might get the NBA all-star game as compensation. Big deal.

How widespread is the use of deontic logic? Hrafn Asgeirsson, Iceland

So far as I know, deontic logic has never entered mainstream work on moral philosophy. One of the key ideas of deontic logic is to allow for impossible (combinations of) obligations. My sense is that, while there have been proponents of the idea that there could be such things (notably, Bernard Williams), most have rejected the idea. The argument I have usually heard (this is going back to grad school, so it's been a while) is that the relevant notion of obligation is one of all things considered obligations, and these cannot conflict. Perhaps deontic logic would be of more interest, however, if regarded as a logic of prima facie obligation. But then the deep question is how conflicts between prima facie obligations are supposed to be resolved, and, so far as I know, that's not really the focus of work on deontic logic. Perhaps more recent work than is known to me has addressed that question.

(1) What is a question? (2) Are there sentences that have the grammatical form of a legitimate question, yet nevertheless fail to be legitimate questions? (3) Does this sentence (i.e., (3)) have the grammatical form of a legitimate question, yet fail to be a real question?

The word 'question' has several senses. In one sense it is a grammatical term referring to sentences of interrogative form. In another sense it is a semantic term, referring to the sort of thing that could be the content of an interrogative sentence - as in "The question that 'What is the meaning of life' is really asking". In the latter sense there can be sentences that have the form of a legitimate question yet nevertheless fail to pose legitimate questions - e.g. "Why has no dog ever barked?" or "Why have more people been to Berlin?". The answer to (3) is 'no', so the answer to (3) is 'no'.

The mathematical examples used to support the notion of chaos in nature (e.g., fractals resembling coastlines) seem at times to have more the force of analogy than scientific persuasiveness. Is there currently a philosophical debate over the veracity of chaos theory?

I'm not a philosopher of science, so I have no first-hand knowledge here. But a search of Philosopher's Index turned up a review by Jeffrey Koperski, in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 2001, of Peter Smith's Explaining Chaos. I also found a few papers on the relation between chaos theory and quantum mechanics, in which there is, apparently, no room for chaos. See, for example, Gordon Belot's "Chaos and Fundamentalism", Philosophy of Science 67 (2000), 454-465.

Oddly enough, most of the references I discovered were to papers in philosophy of religion....

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