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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.

I am only in my first few years of studying philosophy, yet I have been reading simple introductions, and philosophical novels since I was quite young. When I was younger I often thought I had stumbled upon some "great new theory" or other, only to find out that, not only had it been done before, but done much better than I ever could have. Now that it is the main focus of my academic life, I find myself truly discouraged every time I have what I think might be something new to the world of philosophy, or some original thought. It seems that all there is to discover in philosophy has been picked apart to the bare bones, or that my own thoughts simply could never in my wildest dreams stand up to any critical analysis. I have thought of simply giving up on the subject to start writing novels about my far-fetched ideas. Should I let it go and save myself the discouragement and disappointment? (please don't take this late night e-mail as evidence of my writing skills... I promise with some coffee I could do better :) )

I suspect that many of us suffer from your incoherent-footnote-to-Plato worry from time to time, but let me say two encouraging things.

The first is that although philosophy does often circle back to issues and arguments in its own history, when we consider them anew we consider them in a new context, and this makes room for originality. Of course it helps not to expect too much. You don't have to provide a definitive reply to scepticism about the external world: it's glory enough to push the discussion along in smaller but still productive ways.

The second encouragin thing to say is that originality isn't everything. Even if it turns out that someone else had the idea centuries ago, working things out for yourself has a special intellectual value for you. Philosophy is not a spectator sport.

In Western culture, polygamy is generally considered immoral. Is there sufficient justification for this classification? Can it honestly be said that polygamy is wrong? I don't only mean one man/many wives but all the various possible arrangements of multiple partners, for instance one woman/multiple husbands, multiple husbands/multiple wives, etc.... There are some economic advantages to multiple adult partners living together. Take for example a situation where a man has two wives. The man works and so does one of the women. You now have a dual income household. The second woman does not work, but instead stays home and cares for any children and housekeeping duties. What would normally fall on one woman (working, housekeeping and child-rearing) is divided between two. It is assumed that all parties are consenting adults who consider themselves equal to one another. This has the added advantage of reducing the child day care costs so often frustrating for households with just two parents who both work.

You might want to consult question #341 on this web site. There I wrote, in response to the obverse question, "Why monogamy?", the following wiseacre answer that, nevertheless, contains some truth [which answer I have mildly revised, since it was first written on November 3, 2005]:

Here are some standard replies to the question "Why monogamy?" (some worse than others): (1) Why not? [Vy a duck?] (2) Monogamy reduces your chances of contracting an STD; polygamy implies that you must trust more than one spouse or mate to be sexually faithful and to practice safe sex effectively if not faithful. (3) Monogamy is better than polygamy because you barely have enough time and energy and money for one relationship, let alone two. [Woody Allen: You want an orgy? We can barely get 4 people together for bridge or bowling.] But: it is not necessarily true that it is more difficult to get along with 2 or 3 or 4 spouses in one dwelling than with only 1. The presence of the other spouse(s) may very well defuse tensions that arise most powerfully in the binary pair, when 2 and only 2 people are stuck with each other and their faults every day and night for eternity. [See Soren Kierkegaard, although he advises to bring God into the binary pair as the third member.] (4) Because God said so, and you shouldn't tamper with Him; see Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles (unless you believe in a 1960s Love God). (5) Because your mama said "monogamy, mein Kind," and you shouldn't tamper with Her. At least wait until she dies. (6) From 4 to 8 years of monogamy are built into us genetically and we shouldn't tamper with Nature. That allows the very popular serial monogamy, which is why Las Vegas was invented and for which Elizabeth Taylor is justly famous. [Can you name all her husbands? I recall only Richard Burton, twice her legally-married mate. A good "Jeopardy" question, the category being: Husbands of Elizabeth Taylor. For why I cannot remember more than Burton, see questions 150 and 599 . ] But the genetic approach seems not to justify polygamy. You can, however, get all the benefits of polygamy by well-timed serial monogamies. (7) Monogamy wins because your Number One/Earliest wife or significant other (SO) says, "no way, Jose" to your group marriage proposal. (8) Monogamy is required because you promised to be monogamous [if you did, and the question is whether you should] and it is wrong to break promises, ceteris paribus. Can you think of a situation that would permit the breaking? Maybe: your SO already broke it. So polygamy may be OK if all ten of you agree, providing fully informed and voluntary consent. [But consent to what, exactly? It looks like any such consent must be opaque.] (9) Monogamy may be the best arrangement for the rearing of children. Although maternity is not ever in doubt, in some kinds of polygamy severe doubts about paternity can arise, causing interfamilial warfare (and earful), if not infanticide (as in some great apes). Step fathers abuse chldren far more frequently than biological fathers. (The nonbiological fathers in a group marriage are similar to step-dads.) (10) Because monogamy (even if not followed by 50-80% of those who claim to follow it, or at least to believe in it) supports the economy better than does polygamy. I might grant that polygamy is economically better for each family; it does not follow that it is economically better for the society as a whole. And if it hurts the society as a whole, that will undermine how much it benefits each extended family to begin with. [We might have a kind of "Problem of the Commons" here; see question 3.] (12) Monogamy must be the choice, because in true love and true marriage, there is a union of two into one flesh (Genesis, Kant) or into one mind (Montaigne, Shakespeare) that is disrupted when one party even glances sideways at a third party (ergo Matthew 5:28-30). Indeed, if there is a true union, the glance becomes logically impossible. So the third person in a polygamous arrangement will be totally ignored (but he or she will have control of the clicker).

Are there some things about which we actually should not philosophize? Sometimes when I get too deep into thinking analytically about things like love or happiness I get this feeling of disdain for the application of tedious thinking to sacred things. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine such a thing as too much reflection; I often wonder if I want to retreat from philosophy simply because it sometimes tells me maybe-true things that I don't want to here (ack, I philosophize about whether I should philosophize!). Is this a common experience? Should anything be off-limits to philosophy, so to speak? -andy

Perhaps the only thing that should be off-limits to philosophy is thinking that there are some things we ought not to reflect on! It seems to me that reflection is generally useful whatever the topic, but then I would say that since it is my means of earning money. But even the things you mention that we value such as love or happiness can be the fruitful objects of reflection, as when we consider whether we are really in love, for example, by thinking seriously on what love is, and whether it is more than sexual attraction and so on. Reflection becomes problematic if it interferes with action, if one thinks action is worth pursuing, of course, but one does not have to be a philosopher to appreciate that thinking before doing is generally a good idea.

I have background knowledge in philosophy but I now live in a place where I have discovered no source of any remote answer to the question about ethics which I formulate below. (Honestly). Three propositions follow: (1) Male cardinals are red (2) Hamburgers are delicious (3) Lying is wrong Consider (1) first. To dogs, the color blind, the blind simpliciter, or bees, male cardinals just aren't red. Male cardinals are not red in the same sense that there are 12 ounces of Budweiser in that can. My claim here is that it is actually FALSE that male cardinals are red. What's really true is that we PERCEIVE male cardinals to be red, and others do not. The same can clearly be said about (2), since hamburgers probably taste awful to vegetarian species. I see no reason why we can't similarly say that (3) is 'subjective' as well in that lying is only wrong because we experience the feeling that lying is wrong. Ethical theories like utilitarianism, deontology, divine command theory, etc. don't really move us past our ethical perceptions because they are simply flawed attempts to generalize them. Utilitarians might say that lying is usually wrong because it decreases overall utility (pleasure), but that's similar to saying that hamburgers taste delicious because they have a high fat and cholesterol content. The question can continuously be levied, 'Why is THAT (a decrease in utility) wrong?' I think the answer is always finally that we just feel that way. So it is false that lying is wrong, and it is also false that lying is right, just as cardinals are neither red nor gray. It is simply true that various individuals perceive cardinals and killing in various ways. But nothing additional follows from the fact that I or any number of people perceive things in a certain way; at one point people perceived the world to be flat, but that's not the way things are. Therefore, I hereby (with tongue in cheek) brashly declare all moral judgements on this site and elsewhere false! Aren't I correct?

If I reply that something has gone wrong in your reasoning, you will accuse me of begging the question!

At any rate, that is what I think. Here's why:

First of all, although I take your point that the redness of male cardinals is not something those who are color blind (or simply blind) can experience in the same way you or I do (assuming you are neither color blind nor blind), but that does not make the claim that male cardinals are red false! It just means that its truth is not (easily) discernable to those unable to sense it directly. (After all, the redness of male cardinals could be established by measurements of the frequencies of light their feathers reflect. But perhaps now we can quibble about what "red" really means, so let's move to your main point. Before we do, however, note that my stipulation here shows that there IS an objective correlate, and that in the whole story of "red" there will be at least some reality "out there," as it were.)

As for lying, the first thing I want to say is that not all systems of ethics actually hold that lying is (inevitably or always) wrong. The very example you give (utilitarianism, or at least act utilitarianism) would count lying as right in any case where the utilities to be maximized are produced to a greater degree than they would be by telling the truth. Virtue theorists, too, would sometimes say that lying is morally preferable--for example, in the famous case of lying to a dangerous madman (first introduced as a good time to lie in Book I of Plato's Republic).

Now, your view seems to presuppose that the "why is that good?" question can be repeated indefinitely--after all, if the answer "because I feel that way" is given, why couldn't one simply reply, "OK, well, why is that good?" once again?

One way to avoid this sort of regress of justification is to regard the relevant sort of reasoning as a kind of axiom system. In an axiom system, one can ask the "why?" question and receive a well-founded answer, at the level of theorems of the system--but not at the axiomatic level. Axioms are justified differently than theorems: Theorems are justified by their derivability from the axioms, whereas axioms are justified by the way in which they support and generate the system itself. If they generate a system that does what we want the system to do, then that counts as one ground (but not the only one by which we judge axioms) for regarding the axioms as correct.

So think about another axiom system, such a geometry, say. If you ask about an axiom in geometry, "Why should I accept that?" the correct answer to give to you would be something like, "Do you want to do geometry or don't you?"

Now some philosophers regard ethics as an axiom system, in which case continuing the "but why is that good?" question will at a certain point show either that you are simply fooling around--or that you are incapable of doing ethical reasoning. "Do you want to do ethics or not?" Maybe you think you don't--but let's see whether you can sustain that thought if others really accepted that ethics no longer applied to you (as agent or patient)!

There is also another way to look at this, as well (the apporach given in what is called eudaimonistic virtue theory, which I actually prefer to the idea that ethics is an axiom system), and that is to conceive of ethics as the study of how to live. If we actually do share an interest in living well rather than poorly, then all ethical questions are actually prudential or practical questions about how we can do will and avoid being miserable. Now if you ask, in this approach, "but why is that good?" the answer will be one of puzzlement: "Huh? You mean you would prefer to be miserable than to flourish? Well, then, suit yourself!" Notice, this is NOT a version of your answer, which involves subjective states of feeling, because in eudaimonism, the values are objective--one can be misreable and wretched and not be subjectively aware of that fact (for example, the drug addict when loaded with his or her drug of choice, feels great but is not flourishing). What makes things good, in this view, are those (objective) facts about the world and about human beings that can--all other things equal--make some lives objectively preferable to other lives (and hence, for the most part, because our subjectivity is generally well aligned with objectivity, also subjectively preferable to other lives). You don't want to flourish? Huh? Well, then, suit yourself!

WHAT IS GOOD? DONALD S. AMHERST MA.

German chocolate cake is good! ;)

Kidding aside, philosophers have identified several ways of trying to answer this question, and I will allow those whose views are different from mine to provide their own replies. As for me, I am inclined to follow the view of the ancient Greeks, who supposed that there may be several sorts of goods, but that ultimately the highest good for human beings is eudaimonia (a Greek word that is difficult to translate, but which is usually translated as "happiness" or--my own preference--as "flourishing"). But what is eudaimonia? Perhaps the clearest answer to this question is given by Aristotle in Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics. There, Aristotle identifies the highest good for human beings as something that must be

(a) distinctly human (hence pleasure, though generally good, cannot be the highest good for human beings),

(b) something for the sake of which we do what we do, but which we choose for its own sake, and not only for the sake of some further thing (so Aristotle calls it a "final" end, and this is why wealth cannot be the highest good for a human being, because we pursue wealth for the sake of what we can use it to obtain)

(c) something that, once obtained, is fairly stable and not easily taken away from one (hence, transient feelings of various sorts can't be the highest goods for human beings)--this is what Aristotle calls the "self-sufficiency" condition

(d) something that is realized in activity (because what's good for a human being is mostly to be assessed in what happens when we are awake and active, and not when we are unconscious).

Surveying this list of conditions, Aristotle decides that the highest good for human beings is activity in accordance with a rational principle (that within us by which we make deliberate and intelligent judgments and choices), or--in his theory, the same thing--activity in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Aristotle says that if we live our lives in such a way as to pursue this (eudaimonia) in intelligent and prudent ways, we will live the best lives possible.

Sounds good to me!

In Western culture, polygamy is generally considered immoral. Is there sufficient justification for this classification? Can it honestly be said that polygamy is wrong? I don't only mean one man/many wives but all the various possible arrangements of multiple partners, for instance one woman/multiple husbands, multiple husbands/multiple wives, etc.... There are some economic advantages to multiple adult partners living together. Take for example a situation where a man has two wives. The man works and so does one of the women. You now have a dual income household. The second woman does not work, but instead stays home and cares for any children and housekeeping duties. What would normally fall on one woman (working, housekeeping and child-rearing) is divided between two. It is assumed that all parties are consenting adults who consider themselves equal to one another. This has the added advantage of reducing the child day care costs so often frustrating for households with just two parents who both work.

You might want to consult question #341 on this web site. There I wrote, in response to the obverse question, "Why monogamy?", the following wiseacre answer that, nevertheless, contains some truth [which answer I have mildly revised, since it was first written on November 3, 2005]:

Here are some standard replies to the question "Why monogamy?" (some worse than others): (1) Why not? [Vy a duck?] (2) Monogamy reduces your chances of contracting an STD; polygamy implies that you must trust more than one spouse or mate to be sexually faithful and to practice safe sex effectively if not faithful. (3) Monogamy is better than polygamy because you barely have enough time and energy and money for one relationship, let alone two. [Woody Allen: You want an orgy? We can barely get 4 people together for bridge or bowling.] But: it is not necessarily true that it is more difficult to get along with 2 or 3 or 4 spouses in one dwelling than with only 1. The presence of the other spouse(s) may very well defuse tensions that arise most powerfully in the binary pair, when 2 and only 2 people are stuck with each other and their faults every day and night for eternity. [See Soren Kierkegaard, although he advises to bring God into the binary pair as the third member.] (4) Because God said so, and you shouldn't tamper with Him; see Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles (unless you believe in a 1960s Love God). (5) Because your mama said "monogamy, mein Kind," and you shouldn't tamper with Her. At least wait until she dies. (6) From 4 to 8 years of monogamy are built into us genetically and we shouldn't tamper with Nature. That allows the very popular serial monogamy, which is why Las Vegas was invented and for which Elizabeth Taylor is justly famous. [Can you name all her husbands? I recall only Richard Burton, twice her legally-married mate. A good "Jeopardy" question, the category being: Husbands of Elizabeth Taylor. For why I cannot remember more than Burton, see questions 150 and 599 . ] But the genetic approach seems not to justify polygamy. You can, however, get all the benefits of polygamy by well-timed serial monogamies. (7) Monogamy wins because your Number One/Earliest wife or significant other (SO) says, "no way, Jose" to your group marriage proposal. (8) Monogamy is required because you promised to be monogamous [if you did, and the question is whether you should] and it is wrong to break promises, ceteris paribus. Can you think of a situation that would permit the breaking? Maybe: your SO already broke it. So polygamy may be OK if all ten of you agree, providing fully informed and voluntary consent. [But consent to what, exactly? It looks like any such consent must be opaque.] (9) Monogamy may be the best arrangement for the rearing of children. Although maternity is not ever in doubt, in some kinds of polygamy severe doubts about paternity can arise, causing interfamilial warfare (and earful), if not infanticide (as in some great apes). Step fathers abuse chldren far more frequently than biological fathers. (The nonbiological fathers in a group marriage are similar to step-dads.) (10) Because monogamy (even if not followed by 50-80% of those who claim to follow it, or at least to believe in it) supports the economy better than does polygamy. I might grant that polygamy is economically better for each family; it does not follow that it is economically better for the society as a whole. And if it hurts the society as a whole, that will undermine how much it benefits each extended family to begin with. [We might have a kind of "Problem of the Commons" here; see question 3.] (12) Monogamy must be the choice, because in true love and true marriage, there is a union of two into one flesh (Genesis, Kant) or into one mind (Montaigne, Shakespeare) that is disrupted when one party even glances sideways at a third party (ergo Matthew 5:28-30). Indeed, if there is a true union, the glance becomes logically impossible. So the third person in a polygamous arrangement will be totally ignored (but he or she will have control of the clicker).

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