Recent Responses

When assessing an act of violence, we tend to be less severe on violence committed in the heat of the moment than on premeditated violence, which we judge to be far more cruel. Yet, when we punish hot-blooded violence with the violence of, say, long-term imprisonment, we do so with premeditation. Are we therefore more cruel as judges than the criminals we condemn?

Great question! I suggest that premeditation may work in both cases in a parallel fashion. So, I propose that If we reach what turns out to be an unjust or wrongful punishment of someone (who is innocent) then the fact that we did so with great premeditation makes our wrongful decision worse than if we made a "heat of the moment" verdict. In the later case, imagine a police officer believes there is sufficient evidence that a person is armed, dangerous and putting innocent persons lives at risk, but this turns out to not be the case (the person is acting, and only simulating a school shooting with a realistically looking guns, but these are props). In such a "heat of the moment" event, an officer might be expected to act on her best judgment even if it turns out to be wrong. But in cases of premeditation --either in the use of force or in reaching verdicts in court-- I think we rightly expect there to be enough time for persons to scrutinize the evidence more thoroughly to reduce the risk of wrongful death or unjust verdicts.

A medical doctor has graduated from an accredited school of medicine, passed board exams and completed a residency at a teaching hospital. A barrister has passed the par exam and graduated law school. Even a cosmetologist has received a relevant certification after a training course. What then, qualifies one to bear the title, "professional philosopher?" Adam Smith says, “Many improvements have been made by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines, when to make them became the business of a peculiar trade; and some by that of those who are called philosophers, or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do any thing, but to observe every thing, and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects in the progress of society, philosophy or speculation becomes, like every other employment, the principal or sole trade and occupation of a particular class of citizens. Like every other employment, too, it is subdivided into a great number of different branches, each of which affords occupation to a peculiar tribe or class of philosophers; and this subdivision of employment in philosophy, as well as in every other business, improve dexterity, and saves time. Each individual becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it.” If we are to accept his definition, no formal education seems to be required of a professional philosopher. Rather, the status of being a professional philosopher seems to be more of an analogous to being able to speak or write in the manner expected of a philosopher than the status of having received specialized training or certification. What then, prevents any layman from calling himself a philosopher a priori and considering himself equal to you?

Nothing prevents a layperson from calling herself a philosopher. Likewise, nothing prevents someone from calling himself a concert violinist, or a master gardener, or a novelist or a mathematician. Of course, whether someone who calls herself a philosopher or calls himself a master gardener actually has the skills and knowledge that would persuade the well-informed to agree is another matter, and someone who doesn't even know how to tune a fiddle isn't a concert violinist no matter what she calls herself.

When we add the word "professional", things get more complicated. There's no law that stops me from simply calling myself a neurosurgeon. There are laws to stop me from performing neurosurgery on people—particularly if I charge for my "services." Having an unqualified person perform your brain surgery is likely to be bad for your health. Having an untrained cosmetologist give you a perm may be temporarily bad for your social life, but hair grows pretty quickly. We've decided (wisely in my view) that if people are going to charge people to do certain jobs that can go badly wrong, it's worth having a certification system to protect the public from hucksters. In some cases (surgeons, for example), we're pretty strict. Performing surgery without a medical license will get you into a lot of trouble; giving someone a haircut without training—even if you charge for it—will provoke less severe penalties.

Philosophy isn't a profession in the way that medicine or the law or plumbing is. People do get paid to do philosophy (to my continuing astonishment, I'm one of those people) but most of us don't hang out signs and advertise to the untrained public. Academic departments will pay a lot of attention to skills and credentials before they hire someone as a philosopher, but there's no standard list of requirements. I have one colleague whose entire academic training was as a physicist. I have another whose education was entirely as a mathematician and computer scientist. Both of them count as philosophers because they have the knowledge and skills to work in the branches of philosophy that led my department to hire them. Before we hired them, we read their work, heard them lecture and sought the opinions of people with recognized expertise in the relevant subfields. We don't need a licensing system for philosophers. The public isn't at much risk from unqualified people charging for philosophy, and even (especially?) philosophers would have a hard time agreeing about what the required qualifications ought to be.

You may still wonder: what does it actually take to make someone a bona fide philosopher? I don't think there's a precise answer, but there's an old-fashioned kind (old-fashioned, that is, in philosophical circles) that gives us a sort of rule of thumb. It's not a definition because it starts by assuming that at least some people count as philosophers. People who have several publications in respectable philosophy journals would count, for example. So would people with PhDs in philosophy who have positions in philosophy departments at accredited universities. Such folk are paradigm cases of philosophers (at least, in the early 21st century in the west.) People recognized as philosophers by paradigm-case philosophers will count. People similar to paradigm-case philosophers are candidates for being counted as philosophers; the stronger the similarity the stronger the case. That said, there will always be interesting exceptions and the boundaries are bound to change over time.

As you can see, this is close to your "walks like a duck, squawks like a duck" suggestion. It's a functional approach; you might have hoped for a story in terms of what people can do and what they know. There are things we could say here, but the fact is that two people who both count as philosophers by any reasonable standard might have very different professional interests, have read very different books and papers, know about very different corners of the profession. The functional answer is in many ways more useful.

As for your last question, nothing prevents people from calling themselves philosophers. But if they want to get hired by a philosophy department, they'd better have some moves. Philosophers may not have as much in common as you might expect, but they're exquisitely good at sniffing one another out.

Are all concrete objects contingent objects and all abstract objects noncontingent objects? Thank you!

I'm inclined to say that all concrete objects are contingent. But those who believe that God exists noncontingently would likely disagree, because according to standard versions of theism God is a concrete object, since God has causal power.

But I'm inclined to say that not all contingent objects are concrete. The Eiffel Tower is a concrete object, whereas the set whose only member is the Eiffel Tower -- the set {The Eiffel Tower} -- is an abstract object, as all sets are. The identity of any set depends solely on its membership: had any member of a given set failed to exist, then the set itself would have failed to exist. Therefore, because the Eiffel Tower exists only contingently, the non-empty set {The Eiffel Tower} itself exists only contingently. Indeed, any set containing at least one contingent member is itself a contingent, abstract object. Or so it seems to me.

Hi; please, I would like a philosophy professor to answer this question for me: is religion an ideology? And if it's not, then what is the difference? Thank you

An ideology or politically organizing world view doesn't have to be about God, so ideology and religion are not the same thing. Is religion a false view that organizes society? (This is Mannheim's "particular" conception of ideology.) Well, you might think so, but you would then have to think that religion is false. You could study religion under the "general" conception, in which it "arises out of life conditions", but it seems to me that a religious person might not disagree with that, provided that "life conditions" is understood sufficiently deeply.

Dear philosophers: In my reading of Descartes's Discourse on Method, I am fascinated by his project of universal doubt and the promise it seems to give to eliminate the many presuppositions we have. However, it seems that Descartes meant whatever belief one has is not justified if it can be subjected to any doubt, including skepticism. Therefore it would seem that answering skepticism should be among the priority in philosophical research. But this is a very strict requirement - is it the case in current philosophy research? If not, how do philosophers justify not making it the priority?

Three points:

1. It's not clear that the project of eliminating all of our presuppositions even makes sense. For instance: Could we coherently try to eliminate our presupposition that eliminating a given presupposition is inconsistent with keeping that presupposition? I can't see how. Indeed, Descartes himself seems ambivalent about the possibility, or desirability, of eliminating all of our presuppositions, because in his work he frequently appeals to unargued-for principles that, he says, "the natural light" simply shows us must be true.

2. Your argument for the claim that "Answering skepticism should be [a] priority in philosophical research" relies on this premise: Descartes was correct to claim that no belief is justified if it can be subjected to any doubt. Most philosophers, now and in Descartes's time, would reject that condition on justified belief as far too strict. They would challenge Descartes to derive that strict condition from a recognizable concept of justified belief, rather than from some more rarefied concept he simply made up.

3. Even if Cartesian skepticism isn't the central priority of contemporary philosophical research that you think it ought to be, there are many philosophers who take it seriously enough to work on it. For recent and current examples, see the International Journal for the Study of Skepticism.

It's been said that the lottery is a "stupidity tax," and that people only buy tickets who fundamentally misunderstand the odds against them. However, I've seen people reply that, although they understand full well the infinitesimally small chance of winning, they view the lottery as a form of entertainment, and buy tickets with this in mind. Is this a sound rationalization for playing the lottery? Or is it just a way of laundering the same old irrationality?

Well, either it's not a way of laundering the same old irrationality or I'm irrational in this respect. I don't buy lottery tickets often, and even when I do, I don't spend much, but I do occasionally buy them, and it's for exactly the reason you suggest: it has a certain entertainment value.

Now I admit: there is quite likely an irrational corner of my psyche that holds out a stronger hope of winning than the probabilities warrant. But I know how the probabilities actually work, am reasonably self-aware about my lurking id, and haven't shown any tendencies toward compulsive lottery-ticket purchasing. That little irrational bit of me is no doubt what makes the "entertainment" possible. A certain sort of caution would would counsel that it's unwise indulge this benighted part of my nature, though I'd need more evidence to be convinced.

That said, my overall view is that government-sponsored lotteries are iniquitous because for many people they are indeed a tax on irrationality. It's a sleazy way for the State to feed its coffers, and I doubt that any lottery official could deny with a straight face that it's a way of preying on the desperate, the confused, and the superstitious. So I suppose I should admit not so much to irrationality but to a moral failing: my occasional purchases support an institution that I can't defend in good conscience. I now feel ashamed of myself.

But I bet I will still by an occasional ticket.

Hello! I have a question about a particular line of reasoning in a debate that, to me, only leads to a "do I care" conclusion. I have now encountered this reasoning in several debates and can't think of a better conclusion. There must be a name for this that I am not aware of. Most recently this happened in a debate about cults. We were chugging along on the topic of cults and what gets something labeled as a cult vs say a religion or a tribe or, more universally, just humanity. The conclusion, again to me, was that when you expand the definition of "cult" so far out, yes, the entire human race can be labeled a cult. That is to say that under that definition of the word "cult" everything can be labeled a cult and the only conclusion is "do I care". This did not help my friend who wishes to avoid all cults but seemingly proved they were in a cult called the human race. Is there a name for this type of semantic bloating? Is this perhaps a long established logical fallacy I'm not aware of?? Regards.

I don't know the name, though I like "semantic bloating." In any case, a couple of observations.

First, words mean what people use them to mean. Words in English mean what competent speakers use them to mean—or, at least, that's close enough for our purposes. Competent speakers of English don't use the word "cult" to refer to the whole human race.

But the issue isn't really about the word. If your friend has a point, s/he ought to be able to make it by setting the word "cult" aside. What bothers us about the things we typically label cults is that they display a cluster of undesirable traits and tendencies. They make a rigid distinction between insiders and outsiders; they enforce membership conditions that alienate members from family and friends who mean them no harm; they insist on accepting dubious beliefs; they make it psychologically distressing for people to challenge or doubt those beliefs; they expect unquestioning obedience to the group's authority figures. All of these things show up in a variety of human circumstances, and if that's what your friend means, s/he's right, of course. But we can make that point without adding the unhelpful claim that the whole of humanity is a collective cult. The whole of humanity is a variegated patchwork, parts of which are highly cult-like and parts of which aren't.

Your basic insight is right: if we use the word "cult" with so few restrictions that humanity itself counts, we've robbed the word of its meaning. That means we've robbed ourselves of a useful way to make distinctions that are worth making. The Branch Davidians were a cult by any reasonable standard. The local PTA isn't. If we lump them together, we do ourselves no analytical favors. And if we broaden the net to include the collective everyone, we no longer have a net at all.

Is consequentialism utilitarianism?

The usual way of understanding their relation is that utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism. Consequentialism holds that the only facts about an action that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc., are facts about the acts' consequences — roughly, how good an act's consequences are. Utilitarianism offers an account of the relevant good, namely, well-being or happiness, so that, according to utilitarians, the only facts about an action that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc., are facts about the acts' consequences for well-being or happiness. (Note that it is possible to be a consequentialist without being a utiltiarian: so long as one holds that there are consequences of an act unrelated to its consequences for well-being or happiness that matter to whether the act is morally permissible, etc.)

Is there any point in listening to sad music?

The best answer, surely, is yes. Whether we can say why the answer is yes may be another matter.

Here's an external reason: untold millions of sane, healthy people listen to sad music and find it rewarding. It's possible, I suppose, that this is a kind of pathology, but that seems hard to believe.

There's nothing special about music here. In literature, poetry, film, painting and dance, sad works abound. I found the ending of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day deeply sad. (Not the movie, by the way; in my view the ending missed the whole point of the story.) I'm also glad I read the book. Many others feel the same way.

Scary stories raise a similar puzzle. Many people read horror stories and watch scary movies. But why? Very few people want to be frightened in real life.

So far: art that deals with difficult emotions brings up the same sort of puzzle as sad music. If there's no point in listening to sad music, there's no point in any of these other cases. But too many people find such things valuable for it to be believable that they have no point.

We can still ask what the point might be. Catharsis is one possibility (think of the idea of having a good cry.). This is something Aristotle considered. Another possibility is that art dealing with difficult themes lets us explore important aspects of life at one remove from the real thing. Thinking about the character of Stevens might provide me with a sense of the consequences of ignoring vital emotional parts of oneself. It might help me empathize with the real-life analogues of someone like Stevens. It might enrich the available ways for me to think about the world.

Music isn't literature; music doesn't represent possibilities in the way that literature does. But there may be similar things to be said. Sometimes a sad piece of music seems to express something I'm feeling, and having it expressed may both provide a sense of relief (something like catharsis) and also make me feel less alone because it reminds me that there are others who have felt as I feel. There's also an undeniable beauty in some sad music, even if it's hard to say just what that consists in. I can appreciate the beauty without actually becoming sad myself.

However, there's a further and simpler thing to be said: something can be valuable, whether or not we can say why. The fact that we persistently find value in listening to sad music (or reading tragic literature, or...) gives those things a point. That's because, other things equal, there's a point in doing things that we persistently find valuable. This may be a truism, but it's still true.