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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!

Is understanding a person (what a person does) necessarily interrelated to approving of it, and is approving of it necessarily interrelated to sympathizing with it, and is sympathizing with it necessarily interrelated to identifying oneself with this person? Thanks, Susanne

Dear Susanne,

I think that you have an interesting slippery slope here. In my opinion, we should not start down it at all. We need to try to understand people and the conditions that make them the kind of people that they are. But that need not (and should not) lead to approving much less to identifying with them. We would be much better off if we tried to understand suicide bombers and pedophilic priests and the social and psychological factors that shaped them. Sympathy of a sort may be in order as well. But, approval? Not at all. Indeed, in the cases that I mentioned, part of the motivation for understanding is to try to prevent the behavior.

Lynne Baker

Whose opinions are worth more? The Philosophers (the ones who create the philosophies) or the Philosophologists (the ones who study and critique the Philosophers). And which one are you?

I don't myself see that there is any real distinction between philosophers and "philosophologists". I've never even encountered the latter term before. It's hard to imagine doing philosophy without reading, understanding, and criticizing it, and I don't honestly know how one could read, understand, and criticize philosophy without doing it---unless, I suppose, one was some kind of skeptic about philosophy.