Recent Responses

I am about to start tutoring someone who is soon to be taking their A-level exams in philosophy (UK schooling system), specifically in the field of political philosophy. Can you recommend any good texts that cover this field for this level of study (I don't want to bombard them with undergrad/grad level ideas!)? I need something broad, with enough material to give them confidence and get them thinking about the topic. Thanks.

I think Will Kymlicka's Contemporary Political Philosophy is a very good text for beginners. It may be a little harder than what you're looking for, but it's a standard work now, one likely to have influenced the exam and those who mark it. It's broad and covers well the main schools of thought. The same is true to a somewhat lesser extent of Adam Swift's Political Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide for Students and Politicians. Swift is a British author teaching at Oxford.

My 4-year old son is asking incredibly good questions about God. As for myself, I do not partake in the idea of religion. My wife does. Together we decided to let the children make their own decisions. To that end, on Sundays they go to Sunday School with their Mom and I sat home to “do chores.” My son is questioning nearly everything they are telling him. “Why did God make man first then a woman if they are equals?” “If God made man, where was God before we were there to talk about him on Sundays?” “How did God make God before was us?” (real quotes). I’m amazed, proud, and confused. How do I answer these questions without dashing his chances at the illusion of “it’ll be alright” that Christians harbor in their lives? Do I have an moral obligation to tell him I don’t believe in that “stuff”? Or am I better off to string him along? I hate to discourage this sort of dialogue; I love wondering at the world. The Church people tell him to stop asking questions. Is that healthy?

It's really too bad that there is this common image of religious peopleas simply swallowing what someone else has told them. I don't know manysuch folks myself, though I am sure they do exist. And if the people at your son's church are telling him to stop asking questions, that's even worse: Questioning is not opposed to faith but an integral part of it, and a faith based upon just not questioning is not a faith that will survive very long. Maybe you and your wife should find a different church if this one is not serving your son well.

But whatever you decide on that score, there is no reason you can't engage your son's questions. The three you report are very different. (And, not to torpedo your pride, not uncommon: Children are amazing.) The first concerns the second creation story in Genesis. (If you don't know, there are two such stories, drawn from two different traditions.) Assuming your wife isn't committed to literalism here, then the first thing to tell your son is that this is a story, and then you can discuss what that aspect of the story might mean. I'd strongly recommend Marc Gellman's Does God Have a Big Toe? first for you and then for your son as an example of what it means to engage these stories. (You don't have to be a Christian, or a Jew, to do so. We can talk intelligently, after all, about Shakespeare.) The other two questions are much more philosophical. I'm not sure what the second question is getting at. Perhaps your son is struggling with the idea that there might be something that is non-physical. If so, then that's a nice question to discuss. (Where is love? Where are numbers?) The third is indeed a classic question. Did God make God? If not, what does that mean? And, again, one can certainly wonder about what precisely it is supposed to mean that God "made" man. That's part of the creation story, and it's not a part one has to take literally any more than one takes any other part of the story literally.

How many cells does a 6-week-old human fetus have? And how many cells does a fully developed human adult have? Comparatively, how many cells does a 6-week-old chimpanzee fetus have? And how many cells does a fully developed chimpanzee have? I am interested because I want to see if the abortion debate could be drawn along the lines of personhood relative to number of cells. Do you think this is a plausible way to think about the debate? Also, where could I find more information about this topic? Thank you, Alexander

These are obviously questions about biology, not philosophy. I'd try a good biology text.

That said, it isn't plausible that personhood has to do with number of cells. Number of cells is roughly proportional to size. One would therefore expect that the number of cells in a large tree would dwarf the number of cells in a mature human being. Same for elephants and whales, let alone the strange fungus that is reported to be the world's largest living creature.

Is there really such a thing as being selfless? Every scenario I can think of proves otherwise. Such as someone holding a door open for someone else going into a building. They either expect a thank you or want other people to think they are a good person. Does this make the word selfish essentially meaningless?

"Every scenario I can think of proves otherwise," you write, but where is the proof? The mere fact that, for every piece of conduct I point to, you can think up a selfish motive does not prove your point because the motive you thought up may not be the agent's real motive.

What you have in mind, as proof, may be something along these lines: The fact that the agent did what she did proves that she preferred it over her alternative options. So she followed her preference and acted selfishly.

But this line of thought conflates a conceptual point (the option an agent chooses = the option the agent prefers = the selfish option) with a substantive insight. This is clear from the fact that the conceptual point does not rule out that an agent may (prefer to) do, for the sake of others, what she regards to be worse for herself. Indeed, she may sacrifice her own life for another.

One could respond that she must have regarded what she did as best for herself, for otherwise she would/could not have done it. But this response begs the question by assuming what was to be shown: that all actions are selfishly motivated, are attempts to do what is best for oneself.

In short: What you have is either a harmless conceptual point (the option chosen by the agent = the option preferred by the agent = the selfish option) which, indeed, renders the word "selfish" meaningless -- or an empirical conjecture for which you have given no evidence. An interesting insight into the human character would emerge if you were (a) to define selfless conduct in such as way that it is coneptually possible and then (b) to show empirically that selfless conduct so defined never actually occurs.

I'm in a quandary. My question relates to when does a person's decisions about their own life become reliant on others' decisions; who should have the last say, as it were. My mother, an emigrant who returned to her own country, was recently widowed and has expressed a wish to return to the country where her children are, thus leaving her native country again. Her children, including me, have grave reservations as we think, amongst other considerations, that the trauma of the move may well impact on her health and actually shorten her life. I think she knows this and wants to move back anyway. Apart from all the obvious issues about grief and getting old and frail, for me a big issue is who am I to say she shouldn't come back? Because her decision would require co-operation of her children, does that mean our views should over ride hers? Because she is elderly, should our views have more validity than hers? I don't think there is a right or wrong solution to this but I would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.

As you say, there may be no simply right or wrong answer to your question. It is one that many of us whose parents are aging have to face, in different ways.

But here are a few suggestions. First, I would propose (and can well imagine other philosophers reacting negatively, so stay tuned to see other reactions to your question!) that the best way to try to answer your question would be to avoid, as much as possible, trying to conceive of it in terms of one-size-fits-all general moral principles. If you and your other family members simply act on the basis of such principles, I think you will find that there are several that might seem to apply, and they may not all lead to the same results. And the worst risk of approaching it this way is that you find that you or other members of your family cannot actually LIVE in accordance with the supposedly right principle you settle on.

Instead, start here: This is your MOTHER we are talking about. I hope there is love involved in this decision, and affection, concern, and respect. Her wishes, it seems, are clear. I see nothing in what you have said that suggests she is incapable of making such judgments (you have some concern about her health, but say nothing about her mental fitness--so I am assuming that you do not suspect her of being unfit to make her own judgments). So assume that she is not unaware of the risks--indeed, it sounds to me as if she has evaluated them, and has decided that she is willing to take the risks of moving again in preference to the risk of growing infirm and dying so far from her loved ones. If you love her, you will take that very seriously.

But if she does move, it will have effects on others--not just you, but your other family members. Everyone in this situation should do their very best, first of all, to ask themselves, "Who am I? What sort of person do I want to be in this situation?" And then make the best practical judgments, balancing the needs and wishes of all you care for who will be affected by whatever decision is reached. How will you and the other members of your family feel, if you refuse to assist your mother in her final days? How will you and the other family members deal with your mother's needs and demands, if she does come?

Try to be honest with yourselves about this. Do you not want her to come? Why? If her coming will spoil other lives, then this, too must be a significant factor--but it will not then be a matter of making decisions for someone else, but of each person making honest decisions about themselves, and who they care most for.

In brief, then, start with where the love is, and respect that and make a sensible judgment that takes every important instance of that into account.

Good luck to all of you!

What makes philosophers such as Kant, Aristotle, and Plato (and the many others) able to gain and retain such vast amounts of knowledge? Are they somehow able to use more of their brain than others, or are they merely the same as everyone else yet they have chosen to read and learn more? At the same time... I wish to become as great as these philosophers. Here is the scenario I have in mind: I graduate school in June. Once I graduate, I have a stack of grammar books and philosophy books I have yet to read. Granted they are "beginner" philosophy/grammar books (such as "The Art of Making Sense 2/e", "The Elements of Moral Philosophy 3/e", The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle", "What Does It All Mean?", "The Elements of Style- Strunk and White 3/e" and "An Introduction to Language 3/e"), I aim to move upward and get into the heavy stuff soon. If I keep this steady flow of progression, in due time, will I become a great thinker? I feel as though I have wonderful thoughts circulating inside of my mind, but I have not the intense vocabulary to express them. I want to become a writer, so reading grammar books (and practicing writing often)is the correct pathway to my goal, right? If answering all of these questions is too much of a hassle to post on the site, maybe I can get a personal response from one of the panelists.(?) Thank you Steve,17

It sounds to me as if you are off to a great start, Steve.

No one can really predict how one would become a Plato, Aristotle, or Kant. Greatness such as theirs, plainly, only comes very rarely and may skip many generations before appearing yet again. My advice, for what it is worth (not myself being anything even close to a Plato, Aristotle, or Kant!), is merely to aim to keep growing, intellectually, all of your life. Whether one's work ends up being regarded as great, or merely good, or mediocre, or simply foolish is not up to the one who does the work--it is up to those others who judge it. Because you have no control over what others will think of you and your ideas, I would urge you not to give too much attention to trying to achieve whatever they would require, in order to consider you great. Instead, find what it is that makes you passionate, that calls out for your attention to such a degree that you find your mind drifting back to it even when it is socially inappropriate to do so, something that disturbs your sleep because you find yourself obsessed with thinking about it. And follow that passion, learning everything you can that will help you to develop it, expand upon it, and make it into something you feel proud to have created or figured out. Then share it with others, but do not set too much stake in their reactions--for most of them are also dreaming their own dreams and they may therefore not be in any condition to give yours the same attention that you have.

Aristotle said (in Book 10, chapter 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics) that the contemplative life is the happiest one possible for a human being, and is possible because of something "divine" within us. Seek for this in yourself, engage it, enrich it, and allow it to lead you--and if there is greatness in you, it will thus be realized. If there is not, as in my own case, I can assure you that the results will still produce a life that is rich and rewarding. And just maybe (as I am trying to do now, right?) you may also help someone along the way.

Do we have any control over what we believe? I can think of countless things that I hold to be true that for all the tea in China I couldn’t make myself think otherwise. When we’re presented with good grounds for believing something, is it possible to not believe it? Do we have any choice on the matter? I realize that some people can enter a state of denial over something, but isn’t this just acting as if they didn’t hold that particular belief? Is it possible in theory to be caused (perhaps through hypnosis or indoctrination) to believe or not believe something contrary to what would normally seem obvious to us?

Thanks for your excellent question. The possibility of "believing at will" has received attention from philosophers on and off since at least the Victorian era when there was debate over the "ethics of belief." At this point it seems that there is a consensus that it is impossible to believe something at will "just like that", that is, simply as a result of deciding to do so. By contrast, many philosophers would agree that it is possible to form a belief in an indirect way, say by means of hypnosis or brainwashing. Thus for instance, if I want (perhaps because someone will pay me a lot of money if I do so) to bring it about that I believe that Greenland is not melting, I could hire hypnotists, ask friends to make sure I don't see newspaper articles discussing global warming, hang out with people who deny the phenomenon of global warming, and so on. It seems likely that after a while, belief (in the proposition that Greenland is not melting) will "come to stupefy my scruples", to borrow a phrase from William James' famous essay, "The Will to Believe."

Two questions arise from this distinction beteen forming beliefs directly and forming them indirectly.

1. If it is indeed impossible to form beliefs indirectly, why is that? Many would suggest that this is due to the mechanism by which beliefs are formed, depending in many ways on perception which does not seem subject to our control. However, many of our beliefs are formed in non-perceptual ways--so shouldn't we be able to form such beliefs at will? More generally, is the alleged impossibility of forming beliefs at will a conceptual impossibility (like finding a married bachelor) or an impossibility relative to human psychology?

2. Do we have a solid grasp on the distinction itself? I borrowed the phrase "just like that" from Bernard Williams' well known essay, "Deciding to Believe", but one might have doubts that it marks out a clear phenomenon. Suppose for instance that I am considering an issue on which there is evidence going both ways--say the thesis that a certain drug reduces the risk of cancer. It seems that after a while I might decide that the drug is effective. However, I could do that without gathering *more* data; rather this is a conclusion I reach after careful consideration of the data I already had. Is this a case of decicing to believe "just like that""?

Is it possible to comprehend happiness if one never experiences unhappiness? In a life in which a person has no negative experiences, is it possible for a person to distinguish especially positive experiences? In other words, can happiness exist without something negative to compare it to?

You ask whether a being that had never experienced unhappiness could experience happiness. Alex appears to be suggesting that happiness requires the possibility of unhappiness. Now that possibility could exist even if it were never actualized. I find no difficulty in imagining a human being who has never suffered a moment's unhappiness living a very happy life. Further, I can imagine a being who is actually incapable of unhappiness being very happy. Many have thought of God in this way.

Are there any arguments for the existence of an objective morality that are not religious?

The main argument is probably that it *feels* to most of us as if there are objective moral constraints on our actions. So the burden of proof lies on the person who says that we don't feel like that or that if we do then we're making some mistake.

It may be that you think that religion can indeed provide an argument for an objective morality. If so, then you need to face up to Plato's *Euthyphro dilemma*: either (e.g.) torturing babies is wrong because God says it's wrong (and morality is indeed dependent on God) or God says it's wrong because it is indeed wrong. If you go for the former, then morality appears arbitrary. If God decreed that parting your hair on the left was a terrible wrong, then it would be. And if you go for the latter, then you will need what you are seeking in your question -- a non-religious argument for objective morality.

If you had the chance to save either a newborn child or an elderly woman, which would you choose and why? In this situation would it be immoral to choose on just the basis of their age? Would this show that people's own thoughts on others put down the possiblity of equality? In one idea, I would chose the newborn because they still have not experianced life. But in another idea, it is more righteous to save the elderly woman because she may have offered more to society.

Well, you are asking for my own view, so here it is. I think decisions about who to save are difficult, because we have no secure view on the ideal population level. It might be argued that since resources are finite, and future people are likely to use resources much more efficiently than us, neither should be saved. But let's say I have to choose one. Then I'd choose the newborn, primarily for reasons of equality, broadly understood. Justice requires that each of us has a good enough life, and if we assume that the elderly woman's life has been pretty good then the newborn should be given his or her chance. What if the elderly woman has offered much to society? My view is that desert is a mistaken concept, since it relies on what appears to be an implausible and confused conception of freewill.