Recent Responses

I generally believe to give birth to a child or not is completely a woman's own decision. Personally I never want to have a child. However someone recently said to me that to insist on that belief would be a little selfish when a woman is in a country threatened by rapid aging and declining population, which could in turn lead to far worse consequences like economic collapse. What do philosophers think?

A fascinating question. Let’s first examine the question of whether one might have an obligation to reproduce. Under normal circumstances, we honor the autonomy of individuals in such matters, largely as an extension of the principle that one should have ultimate control over one’s body to the extent it does not harm others. Of course, that raises the questions of whether refusing to reproduce might harm or injure others, and what harm or injury is relevant. This is part of a larger question of whether not doing something can be understood to be a kind of harm. Are we obligated to save others in peril, for existence? It’s a big question, but I’m inclined to think that we do bear a limited obligation. If that’s true, I can imagine a scenario where someone with a terminal illness is the only person in the world with a certain genetic trait and that trait is required to produce a cure for a disease that will otherwise kill everyone else. The trait cannot for some reason be preserved in tissue samples. In that case, the person could be said to have an obligation to others to sustain the existence of that trait. But let’s face it, that’s an unlikely scenario. You raise a case where not having children would lead to economic collapse. Collapse of that sort would seem an injury or likely to produce injury, too. So, the logic of the question suggests we have an obligation to prevent that injury. But, practically speaking, I don’t think that’s so under present world circumstances. The world is already over-populated in my view, and so it would seem that there are plenty of people available to sustain economic activity. Really, a more relevant question today is whether we have an obligation to refuse to have children or at least to limit our reproduction to less than the replacement rate. I think that is so, because continued reproduction entails harm to others. Now, I can imagine that those who argue for the obligation to reproduce might argue for their point on cultural rather than economic grounds. It’s possible that negative reproduction rates in some parts of the world in conjunction with immigration from groups with positive reproduction rates will eventually lead to the elimination of a nation or culture. In that case, the question becomes whether or not we have an obligation to sustain the culture in which we live and have inherited. I think in that case the situation is rather like voting. Individuals are free to decide whether or not they wish their nation or culture to survive. The answer may be yes or no depending upon any individual’s judgment. So long as people are well informed about the risks to their culture’s survival and about the relevant qualities of their culture that will be lost, each individual gets a vote. Now, I think it reasonable from the point of view of cultural diversity and in light of an understanding of the treasures most cultures contain to start from the assumption that cultures should be conserved and sustained, but there is no a prior reason to think so in any particular case.

Hello. A roll of dice is supposed to be the perfect example of randomness, but it's easy to see how you might go about explaining why someone got a 1 instead of 6. The die was this way up when it hit the table at this angle, it had this amount of force, there were certain weight imbalances that caused it to spin this way rather than that, etc. So is there really such a thing as chance, or is that just the word we use for when something is too complex for us to disentangle all the cause and effect that goes into it?

Good question. In fact, most people who work on these matters wouldn't agree that a roll of a die is a perfect example of randomness. And you are quite right: we believe that if we knew enough about the prevailing conditions when the die was rolled (and if we could do the calculations!) we could figure out how the die would land. That convinces many people that dice rolls aren't really chance events at all, though not everyone agrees. The issues about "deterministic chance" tend to get technical, but they have partly to do with the amount of complexity involved in disentangling the causes and effects.

But your question still stands whatever our view on whether determinism and chance can somehow fit together. That question is: are all apparent examples of chance cases where a complete account of the details would determine the outcome of the supposedly "chance" process? The answer is a solid "Maybe not." The reason is quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, as you may know, is a theory in which probability is the order of the day. For example: suppose we prepare a beam of photons (light quanta) so that each of them is certain to get past a filter for polarization in the vertical direction. But suppose that instead, we set up a filter at 45 degrees to the vertical. Quantum mechanics says that for each photon, there is a probability of 50% that it will get past the filter. But it says no more, and given the mathematics of quantum theory, there's no way to make it say more without adding extra assumptions.

It's possible to do that. There are theories that posit an underlying deterministic story. One important example is Bohmian mechanics. It's deterministic but it calls for faster-than-light action-at-a-distance. Some people think that the experimental and theoretical arguments more or less force us to accept that; others disagree.

Another way to recover determinism is to adopt the Everettian or "many worlds" account of quantum mechanics. That story doesn't call for faster-than-light signals, but it tells us that when we perform a polarization experiment like the one we described, the world branches. Both outcomes occur; in one set of branches, the photon gets past the filter; in another set, it doesn't. Some researchers think that this is the best, most natural way to understand quantum theory. It would amount to determinism with branching. For others, this is the least attractive alternative.

To make matters worse, in virtually any realistic scenario both Bohmian mechanics and Many-Worlds quantum mechanics make the same experimental predictions as more orthodox views . Simply making more measurements is extremely unlikely to settle the debate.

Where does this leave your question? Unsettled. Some people believe that quantum processes are deeply random, with no underlying deterministic process. Others disagree and believe that there is an underlying deterministic story, though they disagree about what the story should be like. If I had to pick, I'd side with the non-determinists, but there's a whole lot of room to argue.

Recently I was trying to talk someone out of suicidal thought and he replied along the lines of "no one asked for my permission when they brought me to this world so it's my right to leave without their permission". Thank god he didn't actually do it but does that argument carry any weight? Would a philosopher be persuaded? If so surely anyone could freely commit suicide?

There's a fine book by Jennifer Hecht called "Stay," that outlines the many different positions philosophers have taken on the topic. It's a fascinating read. For myself, I don't wholly agree with your friend's claim. I do partially agree in that I think individual autonomy, including autonomy in the decision to end one's own life, should be valued a great deal and overridden only for very good reasons. There are, however, some very good reasons to override the choice of suicide in many circumstances (not all). Here are two I find compelling: (1) obligations to our future selves and (2) the effects of our lives upon others. The basic idea with (1) is that your current self is not the only iteration of you that will exist. In the future, things might be very different, many people miserable today are happy and virtuous later in life. Moreover, our later selves are dependent upon the survival of our current selves. That dependency matters--which brings me to (2). With (2) the important bit is to realize that our lives affect others, and our deaths affect others. Our children, friends, parents, students, those who benefit from our work, etc. Those effects upon others are morally significant, even if we don't choose them or choose those relationships ("I didn't choose to be your child," is no basis for refusing the obligations of children to parents). I think it's a mistake to ground moral obligation entirely upon choice, agreement, or consent ("I'm only obligated if I've chosen to or agreed to be"), in part because that implies that there can be nothing problematic in retracting or not giving consent ("If I choose not to go on living, that's my choice"). I think there are circumstances where it's wrong not to acknowledge obligations to which we did not consent. Our obligations are better understood, I think, as being grounded in our recognition of the good of certain practices and ways of being rather in our having chosen them. You will have noticed that my scheme does allow for suicide in cases where (1) there are no future selves (perhaps because of terminal disease) and where no one depends upon the person contemplating suicide and no bad consequences to others will result. I also accept that enormous and untreatable pain can provide grounds for suicide, and I accept that there may be cases where a suicide can be permitted because the consequences for others is good (e.g. in a case where someone sacrifices his or her own life to save others).

How can I be morally 'good' and make sure I'm not seeking moral dessert? I'm trying to be a good person but it's impossible to do that without deep down inside wanting something out of it. I don't mean that I'm doing good things to get something I want. I don't feel like I deserve something because I did something good. However I don't think anyone can say that they don't do something good without having any selfish thought of wanting something because of it. Even if that thing is wanting to be seen by others as a good person. That's all I want. I am just afraid that what I'm doing doesn't count as good because I want the littlest thing out of it. I'm afraid that I can't become a good person because of this.

You write "I am just afraid that what I'm doing doesn't count as good because I want the littlest thing out of it." That would only be true if actions had to be completely free of mixed motives to count as good. But that's not very plausible.

Consider two scenarios. In each of them, you're in a coffee shop. In each of them, the person at the next table gets up to leave, having forgotten to pick up the wallet that you see sitting on the table. In the first scenario, the person is someone you'd like to have an excuse to meet. In the second it's not.

Are you the kind of person who wouldn't do the right thing in the second case? If you are, you're right to worry about your moral state. If you are, then you're the sort of person who may do the right thing, but only if there's something in it for you. But I'm betting that in both cases, you'd get the person's attention and point out that s/he left the wallet behind. The fact that in one case, you have an extra reason doesn't show that you wouldn't be doing good.

We might put things metaphorically in terms of forces. In the case of the person you'd like to meet, there are two forces acting on you, getting you to make sure the wallet doesn't get left behind. One of those forces has nothing to do with doing right. But the other does, and if it would have been enough by itself, you're hardly to be blamed for getting a benefit as an incidental side effect of doing good.

In many questions about government, the terms "the state" and "the government" seem to be used almost interchangeably: a common theme in the answer is that "the state" is a vehicle by which people agree to abide by standards of order as to how they interact with each other, and "the government" is the vehicle by which "the state" then enforces these agreements. However, in real life, "the government" is actually two different entities, is it not? a) "the government" as the agency that enforces agreements, as described above, but also (b) "the people who collectively work for the government," who often make sure that they themselves are taken care of before anyone else, and not infrequently, at the expense of everyone else. We see Congress, for example, exempt itself from laws it imposes on everyone else. We see state employees receiving large pensions (far larger than anyone in the private sector receives) even as states run large budget deficits and/or raise taxes on non-state employees to fund said pensions. Does this distinction between "people who work for government watching out for their own interests first" and "the government as some abstract entity to enforce social agreements" have much significance in philosophy of government?

My perception is that distinctions of the sort you describe can be found but that they are both largley modern and contextual. So, one might determine the distinction in Hegel, Rawls, Foucault, etc. rather than find a uniform distinction across texts. A quick search of JSTOR raises this article that seems to offer some historical contextualization:

“Theories of the Origin of the State in Classical Political Philosophy” by Harry Elmer Barnes, in a journal called “The Monist.”
Vol. 34, No. 1 (January, 1924), pp. 15-62.

Dwight Waldo’s book, The Administrative State (1948 but reissued in 2017 by Routledge), is a classic and makes an interesting distinction between the administrative and welfare state that may be helpful to you.

As for the importance of the distinction, I leave that to others with more expertise in political philosophy, but my perception is that it is not terribly central. You will find some discussion of elite theory among political scientists. Trotsky’s critique of the Stalinist USSR comes to mind as relatively important, too.

Less relevant to your main question is your elaboration of the distinction. That elaboration seems tendentiously freighted—and I’m curious about whether there’s a connection between the distinction you draw and the politics of your elaboration. You do raise important philosophical questions about the proper role and function of the state and what sort of compensation and taxation policies are fair and just. What strikes me as tendentious is that you use the practices of private economic organizations as a standard against which to measure those of the government. Why not the other way around? Why not use the public to judge the private? Perhaps it’s not that workers and officials in government are treating themselves and others improperly but that the private sector is treating owners and employees improperly. Perhaps the unfair, self-interested conduct is not properly located among government workers but among the owners and managerial class of the private sector who have hoarded for themselves the wealth generated by the economy, leaving others unjustly without pensions and generally with diminished compensation.

I lived during a time when private sector pensions and medical benefits were much more extensive and substantial than they are today, and I saw them whittled away over the decades. Perhaps that was the injustice. Similarly, perhaps the trouble is not that government employees wish to hold onto their benefits in the face of deficits but that deficits have been unjustly created either deliberately, through incompetence, or though neglect by those responsible for securing state revenue through taxation, etc. Perhaps through the use of their assets in political donations, lobbying, think tanks, etc., the wealthy have improperly advanced an ideology of austerity at the expense of the polity generally.

—Of course, this alternative view is arguably tendentious, too. I raise it to illuminate the apparent implication of the way you put things. You may have thought this all through on a philosophical level, but it may instead be that the distinction you’re after is a tool of political activism and ideology of which you’re unaware rather than sober political philosophy.

Hi. I'm having some trouble with a presentation that I'm gonna have in a couple of weeks in my philosophy class. The teacher mentioned that Locke, Rousseau and Voltaire had thoughts that sparked the French Revolution. Are there any other philosophers which thoughts and ideas also had an impact even if they were not as big as a revolution? (Other philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Luther and Aquinas). I'm hoping someone could give me any tips and such. Anything helps! Thanks!

In a way, the answer to your question is that much of our civilization manifests the impact of philosophers. From our forms of government (Locke, Hegel, Hobbes, Rawls) and economics (Marx and Smith on socialism, free markets), to scientific inquiry (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Newton), to ideas of self (Plato, to religious theologies (Aquinas, ibn Rushd), to important movements in the arts (Locke, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Schiller with Impressionism and Romanticism), to our practices of medicine (Kant and informed consent), to ideas about liberty (Spinoza, Mill, Locke, Sartre, Foucault), women’s rights (Beauvoir, Wollstonecraft, Butler), etc. etc. The list goes on and on. It’s hard, in fact, to think of a region of culture and society upon which philosophers have not have an impact. There’s much for you to explore, and it’s all very exciting. Have a great time learning about it!

Does the following successfully establish a presumption of strong global atheism? "Define strong global atheism as the view that there is no god. There is a presumption of strong global atheism because theists propose the addition of a supernatural entity (a god) to what is already known to exist (the natural world). That is, theists make an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of such evidence, strong global atheism is warranted."

I'd say no. (By the way, I'm not sure what "strong global" adds to "atheism," but let that pass.) The trouble is that the argument begs the question against various forms of theism. To state the most obvious problem, there are plenty of theists who think that God is already known to exist and has been for millennia. Now perhaps these theists are wrong, but in this context one can't simply assume that without argument.

Nor could you expect the theist simply to agree that knowledge of God is "extraordinary" compared to knowledge of the natural world. This is a topic that Alvin Plantinga has discussed extensively, but one of his persistent themes is that the theist is entitled to her beliefs without having to produce arguments for them; she is entitled to them as "basic beliefs," not unlike your belief that you are looking at a computer screen right now. Again, you might disagree, and Plantinga might be wrong. But once again, in this context you can't simply presume that he's wrong. (By the way: Plantinga goes further. He argues that pure naturalism can't make sense of knowledge of the natural world. I don't find his arguments convincing, but rebutting them takes a bit of work.)

Just to be clear: what I've said isn't an endorsement of theism; that's not the point. The question is whether theists are intellectually obliged to meet the burden that your argument would put them under. My point is simply that if they are, it would take a lot more to show it.

What do you think is a satisfactory response to external world skepticism? I'm having a hard time finding one I can accept.

The external-world skeptic purports to show that I can't know any external-world proposition P. How about this response?

1. Conceptual analysis reveals that knowledge is nothing more than reliably produced true belief, where reliability falls far short of logical infallibility.

2. If knowledge is nothing more than reliably produced true belief, then the skeptic's sensitivity condition on knowledge is false: I can have a reliably produced true belief that P, and hence knowledge that P, even if I would falsely believe that P if I were being deceived by an evil demon. (Analogy: My gas-engine car can be reliable even if it wouldn't work at all if it were on the airless surface of the moon.)

3. In particular, I can have a reliably produced true belief, and hence knowledge, that I'm not being deceived by an evil demon even if, were I being deceived by an evil demon, my belief that I'm not being deceived would not be reliably produced.

The skeptic then predictably asks: "But how do you know that your belief of P was reliably produced?" If my proposed analysis is correct, that question goes to the issue of how I know that I know that P, and second-order knowledge (my knowing that I know that P) isn't required for my first-order knowledge that P.

See also Question 26681.

Most questions I see asked about the death penalty seem to center on whether it is wrong because of the harm it does to the person who is executed. What about the harm done to others by keeping a dangerous sociopath alive? Let's posit that we have a person who is so depraved that a prison sentence is no deterrence; and this person will gleefully cause pain, suffering, even death to prison guards and other inmates whenever he has a chance. Is it reasonable for all these other people to have to be exposed to such danger? Granted this scenario is an extreme case, that prison guards (let alone other prisoners) never anticipated such a danger to themselves when they first signed up for the job.

When people argue for capital punishment, one of the considerations they sometimes raise is deterrence. We can ask about general deterrence: does the death penalty tend to lower the murder rate? That's not your question. But we can also ask about specific deterrence: do we need the death penalty to keep particular, especially dangerous murderers from killing again? Someone could argue that death penalty statutes need provisions to deal with cases of the sort you've described: murderers who are likely to be a serious danger even if they're incarcerated.

I'll confess that I find it hard to imagine a case where we had no other way of protecting guards and other inmates; far as I know, so-called super-max prisons already do that, though of course I could be wrong about how well they succeed.* If your question is whether there's a potentially legitimate question here, I'd say the answer is yes. But whether it will amount to an important part of a case for capital punishment, all things considered, is harder to say. It will depend at least partly on how serious the worry you raise actually is in practice. As I've said, my instinct is that we don't need capital punishment to protect guards and other inmates. But as I also said, I don't actually know how effective the means we already have for addressing this problem are.

* There are other questions about super-max prisons, such as whether the extreme solitary confinement they use is unconstitutionally cruel. I think there's a case for saying that it is, but I'm not about to insist on that.

Is one immoral just by virtue of having immoral thoughts? So for example if Joe really wants to steal from his neighbor, or in his heart he approves of the act of steaing for no reason, but didn't put that into action because he forgot or didn't have the chance. Is joe still "sinning"? He won't be punished for just having such thoughts but I don't see why in this case he is morally any better than an actual thief.

There's a strong case for saying that Joe really isn't any morally better than an actual thief. It's just fluke luck that separates Joe from Moe, who actually stole the neighbor's wallet a little later that day. Among others, you certainly have Kant on your side; Joe lacks what Kant calls a good will, and Kant though that a good will is the only thing that's truly good.

As for whether Joe is "sinning" by wanting to steal from his neighbor, having an impulse probably doesn't count as a "sin," though sin is not a notion that has much currency in contemporary ethical theory. Just how one ought to deal with such impulses is an interesting question. The obvious first answer is by resisting the temptation, and that's fine as far as it goes. Giving in to the temptation is wrong, even if lucky circumstance has it that the giving in doesn't end up going anywhere. If we want to use the word "sin," we might want to say that forming the intention to do wrong is already wrong, even if nothing comes of it.

But your first question was whether having immoral thoughts is enough to make a person immoral. If the question is whether on balance a person who sometimes has immoral thoughts is immoral, then saying yes will almost certainly entail that pretty much all of us are immoral. I don't find that to be a very helpful thought, though it's one that Pauline Christianity seems to embrace. It seems enough to say that we all fall short of the glory of fully-developed goodness, and some of us may even be unequivocally evil, but in spite of that, there are people who don't deserve to be called immoral, even though they aren't perfect. In short, there really are good people.