Recent Responses

I often find myself to be impatient, often frustrated, when people claim something to be 'obvious', and never more than when I think that they are using it incorrectly. An example of this might be "obviously, Hitler was an evil man", or "obviously, it's better to be poor and happy than rich and sad" - this is because I wish justification for their claim, and do not want to simply accept it (in these cases because of popular opinion). I realise that both of these examples are ethical, but is there anything that is understood by philosophers to be obvious (and by obvious I mean without need of qualification or justification)?

If I may reply in terms of personal experience: when students start"doing philosophy", one of the first thing they (need to) learn isthat what seems obvious to x may be much less so to y. As soon as things become interesting, they stop being obvious. Yet I have noticed that this is not the only important lesson about "obvious". For once they have understood therelativity of "obviousness" then they also need to realize that no answer in terms of “obviously p” will ever convince anyonewho was not already convinced that p in the first place. Philosophy is not doneadverbially, as it were, since “obviously (clearly, truly, certainly…) 2 + 2 =4” is no more (nor less) convincing that “2 + 2 = 4” as a reply to someone whoshare a different sense of the obvious. So there are no obvious p on which philosophers agree (or they would not discuss them) and no obvious way (i.e. "obviously") to tackle them.

What can explain the blindspot of mainstream politics that prevents global warming from being the biggest current agenda? This question is not possible to answer unless you accept the blatant assumption within it viz. that global warming should be the biggest current agenda that our intellectual, moral and political efforts should focus on. I believe this because I have read from various sources that it is scientific consensus that current levels of energy consumption will lead to global environmental catastrophe within a short time period. If you accept this, then this issue really smokes out all of the other important social causes that make up the majority of political discourse. I don’t believe, for example, that democracy matters in the true sense of peoples’ interests being weighted equally and determining equally political outcomes, when – whatever can be said of the virtues of such an ideal – this isn’t the way decisions are made in realpolitik – the amount of political discourse about spreading democracy (even when we do not doubt the motives behind the polemics) demonstrates a political culture of responding mindfully to the most important aspects of reality as we currently are faced with it. What are the philosophical systems most appropriate to dealing with this incredible practical problem – that through lack of will, the world’s economies and power structures are not changing to respond to the scientific evidence we have concerning climate change? A similar question can be raised about culture – global warming is a commonly discussed in papers but it lacks emotional resonance, and even on BBC NEWS, where objectivity of perspective is prized, there is overwhelmingly more TV coverage of more or less irrelavent murder cases than to this issue which throws into tumult the ideals that underlie modern civilisation as developed by enlightenment thinkers (we could question the efficacy of a codified “Right to Life” when the melting of parts of the himilayas, and else, could deprive billions of basic sustenance).

I think there are three plausible candidates for the title of most urgent issue on humanity's political agenda. Global warming is is one. A substantial change in the global climate, induced by human activities, might well have catastrophic consequences.

The second, somewhat related problem is that of world poverty. Today, the bottom half of humankind are still living in severe poverty, and quite avoidably so: the bottom half of the human income hierarchy have less than 2 percent of global income and even much less of global wealth. Among these people, some 850 million are reported to be chronically undernourished, 1037 million to be without access to safe water, 2600 million without access to improved sanitation, about 2000 million without access to essential drugs, some 1000 million without adequate shelter, and 2000 million without electricity. Some 18 million of them (including 10.6 million children under five) die prematurely each year from poverty-related causes, which amounts to nearly one-third of all human deaths.

These two problems are related in that the global poor are vastly more vulnerable to climate change than the rest of us who can prepare and protect ourselves.

The third problem is that of major wars involving weapons of mass destruction. This problem has receded from public consciousness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the overkill capacities of the major powers still exist. And, more disturbingly, new countries, such as India and Pakistan, have been joining the club. Sanctifying their accession by waiving the Pressler Amendment in the aftermath of 9/11 (on 9/22/2001), the Bush administration has severely undermined the principle of non-proliferation by encouraging other countries (such as Iran) to strive for nuclear weapons as well. The message is that we will scold and discourage you while you strive to develop such weapons but, once you have them, we will restore good relations. So there is no long-term cost involved in developing a nuclear deterrent. And there is a great cost in remaining without such a deterrent, as major Western powers deem themselves entitled to invade and occupy other countries, even without UN Security Council authorization.

I don't think it is especially important to work out which of these three problems is the most urgent. What is important is that all three of them receive far less attention than they merit. Why is this?

One significant factor with regard to problems 1 and 3 is surely the short-term orientation of the world's major agents: corporations, national governments and their international organizations. Corporate executives are focused on the price of their company's shares in the short term, and politicians are focused on the next elections. Both groups fear that spreading concerns about possible future catastrophes might undermine that on which their success depends: share prices and incumbents' popularity.

Problem 2 is a different matter, as this catastrophe is happening right now. It is ignored because it does not hurt the agents that matter: politicians, corporate executies, the mass media and their paying customers.

To correct the skewed emphasis of our public discourse, ordinary people must take an interest in the important problems and mobilize to place them on the political agenda. Such popular movements exist -- a global green movement focusing on climate change, a global anti-poverty movement focusing on the lopsided distribution of the benefits from globalization, and a global peace movement focusing on military aggression, arms exports and proliferation. These movements are strong enough to make a difference, but they could be much stronger and better focused if they had more citizen input and support. We do better to give such input and support, I think, than to wait for our governments to live up to their most vital responsibilities.

In times of emergency we are often told that a state must balance the need to ensure national security against the need to preserve individual liberty and rights. How do we reconcile these often competing interests?

This is a very important concern in the post-9/11 political world. Still, we need to be clear about the perspective from which we are looking at the problem. One important perspective is that of the government, which has the best available information about the threats to national security (or rather to the legitimate interests contained under this horribly vague and overly capacious label). Another important perspective is that of us citizens. Your use of the word "state" might indicate that you are interested in the former perspective. But your reference to "we" suggests the latter perspective, and so I will read "state" in the sense of "country" rather than "government".

On this reading, the trade-off is really somewhat different from what you suggest. By giving the government exceptional authorities and moral support, we are losing both knowledge and control of whatever trade-offs it makes in our name. For the rights and liberties our government will curtail first and foremost are rights to information. It will understandably and justifiably conceal what it knows about the threats so as to deny our enemies the advantage of knowing how much it knows. And it will understandably but typically unjustifiably conceal its violations of basic rights and liberties.

The problem today is not merely that citizens are being deprived of their rights (as when our phone calls and other communications are being tapped by the government), but also that this is done at the sole discretion of the executive with no one else knowing which of our rights are being disregarded, how frequently, or for what reasons. It is the government's position that it needs to respect our rights only insofar as such respect is, in its judgment, consistent with "national security." The problem today is not merely that people are held for years on end without charge or trial or access to medical or legal help in secret detention facilities spread over perhaps a dozen foreign countries. The problem is also that we citizens do not know how many are being held in this way, who, where, and under what conditions.

We have made a trade-off that deprives us of knowledge of what we have traded off in terms of individual rights and liberties. The photographs from Abu Ghraib, documenting the use of dogs and electric wires, give us some inkling, to be sure. But the government may well succeed in blocking further photographs even while the torture gets worse. And what incentive does it have to bear the embarrassment of releasing innocent prisoners bearing the marks and traumas of years of abuse when the world does not know that it ever detained these people? It is likely that thousands of detainees will never resurface because they are innocent. The preferred alternative solution is rendition. In the words of former CIA officer Robert Baer: "If you send a prisoner, for instance, to Egypt, you will probably never see him again, the same way with Syria."

In conclusion, we have given away, or lost, so much by way of our basic democratic rights and liberties that we are in no position to assess the balancing you query. We have no way of assessing the security benefits we may be deriving from all the secret eavesdropping, detentions, and torture. By allowing the government to do the balancing for us, we citizens have put ourselves completely in the dark. However ignorant, we remain morally responsible of course for what our government then does in our name. I am very doubtful that any gains in security from our being so ignorant are at all significant relative to the unmerited harms our government inflicts in our names. And the idea that our chosen ignorance renders us any less responsible (a popular idea in Germany after World War Two) is, of course, fallacious. We must urgently take back our democratic right to know the basic facts about our government's curtailment of basic rights and liberties. Only then can we begin to think about the balancing you query.

Is it logically possible to consider yourself in love with someone after a short duration of time? Say, three weeks? Or is this too short of a time period to be able to determine something of such great importance? Ashley S.

It is logically possible to consider yourself Dracula or Cleopatra (people do it), and considering oneself in love after three weeks is surely no less possible. Some consider themselves in love with Schwarzenegger and have never met the guy!

So I assume the question you're really interested in is whether it is actually ("empirically") possible to be in love after knowing someone for merely three weeks.

Of course, this depends on what it means to be in love. Let me propose that being in love does not mean having built a relationship of love together, but merely something weaker: being emotionally ready and personally committed to build such a relationship with this person.

This can surely happen in the space of three weeks. For one thing, you may easily have spent 100 hours together -- more than you spend with your closest friends in the space of a year. And many of these hours may have been extremely intense (compared to shooting the breeze or watching a movie or going swimming with an ordinary good friend). So, yes, it is possible to be in love after knowing someone for merely three weeks.

Your last question leaves me a bit puzzled. Is the "something of such great importance" you seek to determine whether you are in love or not? If so, why is this so urgent? If you are unsure whether you are in love or not, then you can just wait a few weeks until you see things more clearly (but maybe you just can't wait to know).

Or is the "something of such great importance" you seek to determine some other big decision -- e.g., whether to get engaged to this man or whether to break up with your present husband or boyfriend? If so, that's hard to think about without more information.

I've told some very stupid lies recently, and on reflection obviously wish I could take them back. But the prospect of going to the people I've lied to and straightening things out is not so easy to commit to. Is there some kind of moral compulsion to confess to all the lies I've told, or can I balance against it things like losing respect and hurting people?

It's very hard in a matter like this to avoid self-deception -- hard, that is, to separate the (morally irrelevant) discomfort involved in straightening things out from the (possibly morally relevant) concern of not hurting people. Here it may help to imagine yourself in the position of the other (the one you have lied to), reflecting on how important the truth would be to her and how hurtful its belated revelation.

The weight of the first of these considerations depends on the (esp. expected future) importance of your relationship. If you told some tall tale to a stranger on a train, then letting these lies stand is unlikely significantly to augment the harm. So there may then be no great moral urgency to try to locate that stranger in order to set things right. You've acted wrongly, but there is no serious wrong in just letting things ride.

At the other extreme, if you lied to the person you love and hope to spend your life with, then the reason for straightening things out is much stronger. For her sake (and even for your own), you don't want her to commit to such a life with you partly on the basis of lies you told her. To be sure, in such a case your confession is likely to be much more hurtful to her (than that to the imaginary stranger), and also much more uncomfortable for you. And yet, by coming clean you would also make quite clear your solid commitment to a relationship without lies. To be sure, she may find the lie unforgivable and sever relations. But is she not entitled to make this choice?

There are cases intermediate between the stranger and the intended spouse; and the sketched reasons toward coming clean are there of intermediate strength. Other things equal, the more important the person is to you, and you to her, the stronger are the moral reasons to straighten things out.

One final thought. As you make clear, you do not want to be the kind of person who tells stupid lies. And the painful experience of coming clean may be a good way of breaking with the past and of getting a substantial step closer to being the person you want to be (for your own sake, hence regardless of whether others give you credit for this effort).

I have just accepted a tenure-track position at a school that I am convinced suits me quite well; while I love to write, I am a teacher first and consider writing a wonderful (and wonderfully frustrating) secondary priority--and these match the priorities of the school. I taught for several years as an adjunct and have taught for a few as a contract faculty member. So I know much of the goings-on and how to be successful in a university setting generally (or, I assume, I wouldn't have gotten the tenure-track offer). I am wondering if there is advice you can give for a person moving from the contract level to the tenure-track level? Are there particular things to keep in mind during this time? s2

Congratulations on the new job. Without claims to completeness, let me make one point in response to your query. An important new element in your next job is that you will have a voice and a vote in your department and possibly in other university bodies as well. University politics can be very dirty and corrupt, all the way up to the top. Let's hope that in your new academic home all is decent and above board. But do be critically observant, even a bit suspicious at the beginning. And when you find that some matter morally requires action on your part, do take some time for further thought and study. Do not take for granted that just pointing out that (and why) some proposed decision or policy would be plainly immoral will suffice to get this proposal off the table. It is equally possible that your intervention will not alter the outcome and permanently sour relations with some of your colleagues. There are no easy prescriptions about how to act (as an untenured professor) in some particular such situation. But it is wise, I think, to go slow with plenty of thought (and perhaps advice).

In many introductory text that take a topical approach to understanding philosophy theology is not listed as a branch of philosophy; however, the philosophy of religion is. Why is that? This is especially confounding in that texts that take an historical approach always include a section covering Scholasticism.

You are right, it is confusing, isn’t it? I guess the simplest answer is that theology is thinking of a broadly philosophical type that takes place within the framework of a given religion or set of beliefs. Whereas, the philosophy of religion is thinking that takes place, as far as possible, outside of or independently from any particular theology. Within the European tradition, and prior to the Reformation, by far the dominant religion was Christianity, and it was at least to some degree homogeneous in its beliefs. So, up until the 15th Century or so, theology and philosophy of religion overlapped so much as to be often indistinguishable. After the Reformation, however, it became necessary for philosophers to think about religion from a point of view outside either Catholicism or Protestantism, and a more recognisable form of philosophy of religion emerged.

I have a question about something Nietzsche said in <i>Twilight of the Idols</i>. Under morality of physicians he writes "... some advice for our dear pessimists and other decadents. It is not in our hands to prevent our birth; but we can correct this mistake- for in some cases it is a mistake. When one does away with oneself, one does the most estimable thing possible. one almost earns the right to live." Is Nietzsche advocating suicide for weak-minded people? joe s.

As always with Nietzsche the context needs to be reconstructed. The passage as a whole is addressed to physicians, but the claim you quote is addressed to ‘pessimists’; to those who would renounce life and its values, while continuing to live. Nietzsche is simply asking such pessimists to take seriously their own position. However, we shouldn’t miss the irony of the last phrase: ‘one almost earns the right to live’. Pessimism, on Nietzsche’s analysis, is actually a kind of perverse clinging to life, defending one’s mode of life. So, to be capable of ending it would also mean to not be a pessimist. It would be a contradiction in act.

To my mind, the dominant idea in this section, and a beautiful one at that, is the notion of ‘death at the right time’, earlier. This is an affirmation of a generalised suicide, of ‘death chosen freely …[that] makes it possible to have a real leave-taking’. He contrasts this with a Christian attitude towards death, as the last chance to repent, as the last chance for morality to take advantage of one weakened (aided by medicine that will ensure one becomes very weak indeed before dying), and thus as an imposition of a value judgement on a life. If we take Nietzsche at his word, he is in fact advocating suicide – or at least control over the manner of one’s death – for, to use your phrase, the strong of mind.

Putting aside Nietzsche’s often worrying rhetoric, there is a nice contribution here to the debate about the continuing validity of the Hippocratic Oath.

My parents tend to blame the ills of UK society on the Thatcher government. In relation to this, I wonder to what extent a single figure or political era can shape a people, given that whatever a party or figure says or does comes from the prior possibility for that particular action or speech. Philosophically speaking, can we hold a single figure or political era responsible for any society considered 'as a whole' (i.e., seen in general)? Also, can you direct me to any philosophers who have written about this? thank-you.

I suppose we could point to important figures such as Hitler and Stalin who surely can be said to have made a significant contribution as individuals to political life, albeit negatively, and Winston Churchill in a more benign manner. It might be said that they could only have exercised such influence had the context been right, and no doubt that is true, but it is difficult not to acknowledge the ways in which they stamped their individual characters on their societies and the world in consequence. I don't know which philosophers have written on this, it is more an issue for political scientists I suppose.