Recent Responses

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.

Nicholas D. Smith May 25, 2006 (changed May 25, 2006) Permalink 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 s... Read more

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

Nicholas D. Smith May 25, 2006 (changed May 25, 2006) Permalink 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 mys... Read more

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?

Mitch Green May 25, 2006 (changed May 25, 2006) Permalink 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 someth... Read more

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?

Roger Crisp May 24, 2006 (changed May 24, 2006) Permalink 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 n... Read more

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

Roger Crisp May 24, 2006 (changed May 24, 2006) Permalink 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 pr... Read more

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.

Roger Crisp May 23, 2006 (changed May 23, 2006) Permalink 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, neithe... Read more

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 :) )

Peter Lipton May 21, 2006 (changed May 21, 2006) Permalink 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 con... Read more

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.

Alan Soble May 19, 2006 (changed May 19, 2006) Permalink 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 stand... Read more

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

Oliver Leaman May 19, 2006 (changed May 19, 2006) Permalink 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 t... Read more

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?

Nicholas D. Smith May 18, 2006 (changed May 18, 2006) Permalink 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 exp... Read more