Recent Responses

In a code of intellectual conduct in a truth-seeking argument between A and B for positions X and NOT X respectively, starting a new thread of attacking the person A either by B or by the some members of the audience is definitely a fallacious argument (Argumentum ad Hominem) for the context under discussion. What about glorifying tributes to person A by some members of the audience as a part of the SAME thread of discussion? It obviously is irrelevent to the argument or the issue under discussion. How far is it inappropriate, sinister, or otherwise in the code of conduct in an intellectual truth-seeking debate between two participants A and B in front of the gallery of audience? My strong gut sense is the behaviour is inappropriate because it does not contribute to the strengthening or weakening of arguments in favor or against X. What do the panel of distinquished philosophers have to say on this (not so much the irrelevance but the inappropriateness as an intellectual conduct)?

If you're after truth, it's often a big win to trust people. And in deciding whom to trust, the reports and evalutions of others can be of great value. So there's nothing specifically about truth-seeking that makes it inappropriate to support, or indeed to attack, the reliability of someone who claims to know the answers.

However, if a person is trying to establish something not by asking you to trust their word but by claiming to provide reasons which, independently of their source, ought to convince you, then you seem to be right that testaments to their character are as out of place as personal attacks. Similarly, there are two different ways to evaluate the validity of a mathematical proof: you might rely on the expertise and good will of the person who supplied it, or you might evaluate it step by step. In the former case evidence as to the person's character and track record is obviously relevant; in the latter, not.

But maybe that's too simple. Even if the propounder of an argument is relying only on the power of the reasons themselves to convince you, he might (intentionally or otherwise) be providing misleading reasons---feeding you a convincing but fallacious argument. Information as to the person's character and track record might well be relevant to weighing the odds of this and hence to whether you should rely on even what seems to be air-tight reasoning. Maybe this is no big danger in mathematics, but surely it can be, for instance, in economics.

And in philosophy.

I have a rather simple question. I am majoring in biology right now and am thinking of switching to philosophy. The thing is the advisor told me that there really aren't any jobs for that field. He said I would basically have to go to a prestigious school to get one of the few jobs out there. Is this true? Are there really not many jobs in the philosophy field? Thanks.

The answer depends a bit on the country you're in. I answer on the assumption that you are an undergraduate student in the US.

Finding a job as a professional philosopher after completing a PhD in this field is a good bit harder than the average for all careers. Still, the odds are not against success. There are somewhere around 25,000 professional philosophers in the US and only about 75 philosophy departments producing PhDs. So, much of the selection takes place already at the stage where people apply to graduate schools. Those who get the PhD normally find a job. In this job search, the quality and prestige of the university, of its philosophy department, and of the student's supervisor do indeed play a major role. You can find lots of information about these matters on and elsewhere.

All this suggests that a philosophy major aiming to be an academic philosopher should think seriously about other careers if s/he cannot get into a philosophy department that is in the top half, at least in his/her intended specialty. Choosing another career goal at this stage does not mean that the undergraduate study of philosophy was wasted. There are alternative careers in which undergraduate philosophy training is highly useful. A career in the law is one: many philosophy majors go on to law schools and do quite well there. But philosophy is good preparation for a wide variety of careers, and may well be the best major to choose for those whose career choice is still quite unsettled. Moreover, studying philosophy and learning to think philosophically has its own rewards which often last a lifetime (as I have been told many times when meeting people in other careers who had majored in philosophy).

In conclusion, if you are attracted to a career in biology, you should probably stay with it and satisfy your philosophical curiosity through an occasional course in philosophy. If you feel that a career in biology (or a related area) is probably not for you, then career worries should not keep you from majoring in philosophy.

What is virtuous about a partnership in marriage (not necessarily the legal construct - the idea of committing to a life together)? What characterizes what is virtuous in leaving such a partnership (even) when the partners love each other and want one another to flourish but one partner doesn't see the partnership as a whole flourishing? To put it another way: How is it that most of the parts of such a partnership can individually appear to be so esteemable, and even to outweigh the less esteemable parts, and yet the whole be judged lacking?

This is tough to answer in the abstract, but I'll give it a shot bysupplying a bit of hypothetical context. First, I think it matters agreat deal which specific parts of the partnership are esteemed, andwhich not, in the calculation of the value of the partnership as whole.For instance, it may be that both parties value highly going out toeat, discussing politics, spending time with family and working out atthe gym. Additionally, both parties like one another and there is peacein the home. However, as it happens, there isn't a lot to laugh aboutin a day either, within the partnership domain, i.e., not a lot of joy.How to assess the quality of such a partnership?

Here there isno objective standard, to be sure, for much depends upon thespecificity of the feelings, desires, and values of the individuals,along with their own idiosyncratic histories, much of which is not soeasily tracked by introspection. So: on one scenario, daily laughtermay be valued somewhat by both parties, and the value of the many othershared activities outweigh this attribute or lack thereof. On adifferent scenario, this ability to laugh at life's trials and at one'sown bloopers, and a capacity for joy regardless, may matter a greatdeal to one party, more than he or she realizes; in this case, it couldrender the partnership as a whole less esteemable, depite the many,many valued shared aspects AND the felt sense by BOTH parties that themany more positive parts outweigh the negative one(s).

This mayseem puzzling, but becomes less so if one sees that the character ofthe relationship between the different parts of a relationship (as wellas their weighting) is often less than straightforward. Thus, to staywith my hypothetical case, on the second scenario, it may be the casethat the attribute of laughter (or lack thereof) is something that"colors" or insinuates itself into all of the other activities(positive and negative), affecting the overall quality of the relationship, eventhough in discussion it is assigned a quite specific place in thehierarchy of valued aspects.

That said, I do believe that it canalso be the case that the worth of a partnership as a whole isstraightforwardly a result of a calculation of the value of differentparts of which it is made. It all depends upon the individuals involvedand the character of the parts that comprise their respectivepartnerships.

I am stuck on a decision that I hope one of you can help me with. I am graduating in June (2006) and everyone is telling me to go to college. I am currently protesting college - thinking that if I self-teach myself (by reading many books), then I could possibly gain more knowledge than if I am sitting in a classroom with many other students. I am stubborn with this idea. I assume that with a teacher in a classroom full of students, (s)he is teaching the subject, not the people. (I hope that makes sense.) I am not too sure if my thinking is something I should go by, or if I should just grow up and go to college. Any opinion would be great.

When college works as it should, it allows you to imagine alternate possible ways of living your life in the "real" world, as you experiment with different disciplines, and are thrust into the orbits of sometimes unlikely people who might serve as mentors and role models. These could be your teachers, or, more often than not, your fellow students.

It gives you a terrific opportunity to become acquainted with people from cultures very different from your own, to acquire a new repertoire of tastes from books to food to music.

But mostly, when college works as it should, it gives you that precious, precious time, in and out of class, to muddle through, and, in so doing, to figure out who you are and what you are like, first, for yourself, and then, crucially, in relation to the community to which you belong.

Why do people say that some things mankind does are unnatural? Isn't every human development natural because we are part of nature?

I agree with Nicholas that where we can take natural to mean 'conducive to human flourishing', in Aristotle's sense, there will be a connection between being natural and being good. But there are natural functions that do not carry this meaning. In biological cases, functions often correspond to 'selected effects'. Thus the function of the white fur of a polar bear is camoflage, and that coloration is the result of natural selection. Bears in that environment with white fur did better at reproducing than their more colourful cousins. Selected effects are in that sense natural: they are what the trait is for.

From a moral point of view, however, selected effects may be bad and unselected effects may be good. Thus we may have evolved a tendency to deceive other people in certain circumstances, even if this is not morally decent behaviour, and someone who decently resists this temptation may be bucking that evolved inclination. Selected effects may be conducive to what we might call 'reproductive flourishing', but as Nicholas emphasizes, this is not what Aristotle meant by 'flourishing' and it is not the same as what is morally valuable.

Was the discovery of fire, by humans, a scientific discovery?

The discovery of ways to reliably produce fire was a great achievement in technology and engineering. The first observation of fire is not what I would call science (and presumably predates the existence of humans). But there is no sharp border between ordinary observation, inference and explanation and science, though there are clear cases on either side.

Dear philosophers, why should we respect the dead?

Here are three reasons to consider.

First, because they want to be respected. Sure, being dead, they do not want this now. But they did want it when they were alive -- just as you now want to be respected after your death. Imagine you have a certain deeply embarrassing secret that only your best friend knows. You very strongly want no one else to know. This fact gives your best friend a weighty reason not to tell others, even when she can do so in a way that you will never find out about. This reason may disappear when you change so that you no longer mind others knowing. But it persists when you die without having changed your mind -- or so one could hold.

Second, because respecting the dead makes their lives better. The quality of our lives depends not merely on our mental states but also on our contributions to the world. These contributions can continue when we die: composers, artists, and novelists enrich many lives even after they die, and this in turn makes their own lives more valuable. Not respecting the dead, e.g. by obliterating their work or memory, can cut off such posthumous contributions and thereby reduce the value of the dead person's life (relative to what it otherwise would have been).

Third, because respecting the dead is a practice from which the living benefit. Here I am not referring to the benefit of ourselves being respected after we die (else I would just be repeating points 1 and 2). Rather, I am thinking of how we living would alter our conduct, in ways that are bad for all of us, if we believed that, once dead, we would no longer be respected. For example, we would expend much worry and effort on trying to ensure that our assets go where we want them to go. If a last will and testament cannot ensure this (because it would not be respected), then many will dispose of their assets before they die, often becoming very poor or dependent on support from friends, family, or the state. So you benefit now from the fact that you and others live in the secure knowledge that your/their last will is going to be respected. You benefit in that you need not worry about or implement the proper disposition of your assets now and also in that you need not deal with the additional poverty and other problems that would result from others' early disposition of their assets.

Note that the above reasons cover different (albeit overlapping) aspects of what "respecting the dead" might mean. They do not all support exactly the same conclusion.

Is it better to have a criminal justice system that runs the risk of, in every 100 people being acquitted, that 1 will go on to commit a terrible future crime; or one that runs the risk of, in every 100 people being convicted, there being 1 who was innocent? Sorry about the tortured phrasing of my question...

Any realistic criminal justice system will make both types of error: T-errors (terrible future crime committed by one wrongly acquitted) and I-errors (innocent person wrongly convicted).

It seems morally more appropriate here to compare alternative systems feasible for the same society in terms of the total number of errors, not in terms of the ratios you focus on (ratio of T-errors to total number of acquitted, ratio of I-errors to total number of convicted). To see this, take a criminal justice system under which 100,000 are acquitted of whom 2000 are wrongly acquitted and go on to commit a terrible crime. Now suppose we modify this system so that many more innocent people are tried and properly acquitted. So now we have 200,000 acquitted of whom 2000 are wrongly acquitted and go on to commit a terrible crime. So we got the T-error rate from 2 percent down to 1 percent. But have we improved the system? Surely not.

So I rephrase your question this way: In designing our criminal justice system, should we give greater weight to avoiding T-errors or to avoiding I-errors?

There is a widely held view bearing on this question. In one famous formulation by William Blackstone (, it says: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.” I think what stands behind this view is the idea that we as a society bear a far weightier responsibility for harms to innocents that we directly bring about than for harms to innocents that we merely might have prevented.

This idea is familiar in pedestrian contexts. It would be wrong to kill one innocent person in order to save another. It would be wrong to harm one innocent person in order to rescue another from a similar harm. It would be wrong to risk the life of one innocent person to prevent a risk to the life of another (risks being equal). And it would be wrong to cause a risk of harm to one innocent person in order to prevent the same risk of harm to another. In all these cases, agents ought to give more weight to harms and risks of harm they directly bring about than to similar harms or risks of harm that they merely fail to prevent.

This almost answers the reformulated question: We should give greater weight to avoiding I-errors than to avoiding T-errors. I say "almost", because the average harm associated with errors of each kind may not be equal. So the conclusion might conceivably be overturned if the harm done by the average I-error is just a few days in jail without public stigma while the average harm resulting from the average T-error is a minor massacre. But this is not true in the real world. Here, in order seriously to reduce the number of terrible crimes committed by persons wrongly acquitted, we would have to make it easier to convict people accused of very serious crimes and then take those convicted out of circulation for very long periods or forever. And doing this will inevitably increase the number of innocent people who, wrongly convicted, are locked up for very long periods or even executed.

Aristotle began studies at Plato's Academy at the age of 17. I have a few questions. 1) How smart was Plato compared to Aristotle? 2) Who would you say is as intelligent as Plato or Aristotle (preferably someone who is still alive)? 3) I am 17. Who can I go to in order to gain the same education that Aristotle did from Plato? 4) How did Aristotle go about becoming Plato's student? Did he have to pay to be his student in the same way people pay to become a student at a college? I pretty much got myself into philosophy, and upon finding out about the greater of ancient philosophers, I have been wondering how I might be able to gain knowledge compared to that of the aforementioned. Is this possible in today's society? Thank you, Steve

Your questions seem to focus on how smart people were (or are), and thus on how you can become that smart.

Maybe you mean something different than I do, when you use the word "smart," but I think the only honest answer one can give to many of your questions is "no one knows, and no one can know."

But I can say that Socrates (and Plato, and Aristotle) would all agree on the best thing you can do to get the best education you can have: Find others who have that same interest, and those credibly reputed to be able to serve that interest, and follow the inquiries that follow where they may. This does happen at universities (and at colleges, in the US--a "college" is not post-secondary education most other places), and I would also pick your college or university in the same way that Aristotle probably did. He found out that the most famous thinkers and educators were at Plato's Academy, and so he wanted to work with--and to think alongside--the best minds. So my advice is: Find out where the best minds are (or at least the best nearest to you, or at places you can be admitted to and afford), and then at those places find the best minds of those who work there to work with--and also find the best ones among your fellow students to discuss and hang out with.

On one point, I tend to disagree just a bit with Oliver Leamon: Ancient Athens was spectacularly good, I acknowledge. But thinkers today have the advantage of thousands of years of thinking that followed, and we now stand on the shoulders of those early giants, and on the shoulders of all of those who followed them. So when Oliver Leamon says that "we do our best," you can be sure that we do pretty well, indeed!