Recent Responses

Do words only have the power that we give them?

By "power" in this context, I take it you're referring to the psychological, rhetorical, or political power of words. I can't see any source of such power except us humans. That isn't to say that the power is unreal, only that words possess no internal magic, contrary to what humans in general used to (and some still) believe. Nor is it to say that any individual can render words powerless simply by deciding to. A racial slur, for instance, might induce people to physically harm the person targeted by the slur even if the person targeted decides to regard the slur as having no power over him or her.

Has American philosophy lost interest in metaphysics?...thanks, Arnold

No, indeed. I don't know which periods of American philosophy you're comparing when you ask whether American philosophy has lost interest in metaphysics. But if you check the current tables of contents of general American philosophy journals such as Nous, Philosophical Studies, and Philosophy & Phenomenological Research -- to say nothing of more specialized American journals such as The Review of Metaphysics -- you're sure to find articles in metaphysics written by American philosophers. You'll also find plenty of American-authored metaphysics articles in philosophy journals that are headquartered outside America, such as Mind, Analysis, and Erkenntnis. If anything, the interest of American philosophers in metaphysics has increased compared to, say, the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Hi! In Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' she states 'context is all.' Does this mean there is no such thing as truth? Thank you!

One of the greatest philosophers on totalitarian states, Hannah Arendt observes that in totalitarian states, "truth" and even "empirical facts" are relative to the needs of the state. In such a setting, Arendt notes (and I agree with her) almost nothing is so absurd that people cannot be coerced to believe it or profess (or act as though) it is true. So, I think the answer to your question is (sadly) "yes" in terms of the culture, but in reality, I think the question is "no" in the sense that truth and falsehood (from a realist philosophical point of view) cannot be subject to state control. The state cannot make it the case that 1+1=3 (though see Orwell's 1984, and check our Arendt's book Origins of Totalitarianism. published in 1951).

Many people, like myself, think of Ayn Rand when we think of philosophy, having read her books when young, etc. Coming from this sort of background, it was surprising to me, recently, to be told that the majority of professional philosophers don't regard her as a philosopher at all, or, if they do, take little notice of her. Is that truly the attitude amongst philosophers? If so, is there any particular reason for it? For instance, is it to do with resistance to ideas that come from outside the university?

I don't know if most philosophers would say that she's no philosopher at all, but I suspect many would say she's a marginal philosopher. One reason is that however influential she may have been, many philosophers don't think she's a very good philosopher—not very careful or original or analytically deep—even if they happen to be broadly sympathetic to her views.

The fact that she came from outside the academy by itself wouldn't be disqualifying, but in one sense, philosophers are not just people who engage with philosophical issues; they're people who are part of a community whose members read and respond to one another (even when they disagree deeply) and interact in a variety of particular ways. Being outside the academy tends to put you outside the ongoing conversation of that community. Whether that's good, bad, or neutral is another story, but to whatever extent "philosopher" means "someone who's a member of a certain intellectual community," the fact that she was outside the academy is part, though only part, of the explanation.

As all logical arguments must make the assumption that the rules of logic work, is there any way to derive the laws of logic?

As you suggest, all logical arguments (and hence all derivations) depend at least implicitly on laws of logic. So I can't see any way of deriving any law of logic without relying on other laws of logic. Nevertheless, we can derive every law of logic, provided we're allowed to use other laws of logic in our derivation. We needn't fret about our inability to derive a law of logic while relying on no laws of logic, because the demand that we do so is simply incoherent.

If you had a child to make yourself happy, as most people do, would that violate the Kantian imperative to avoid treating people as means?

Unfortunately, this is a tricky question for Kantian ethics to address.

On its face, it might appear that procreation (bringing a child into existence) in order to advance one’s own happiness treats the child merely as a means: One ‘uses’ the child to promote one’s own happiness.

But things get more complicated once we attend to exactly what this Kantian imperative says. The Kantian moral requirement you mention states that we are not to treat “humanity” merely as a means. There are debates as to exactly what Kant had in mind by “humanity” but the standard view is that “humanity” means the capacity for rational agency — the ability to choose our ‘ends’ (our goals or objectives) and the best means to those ends. But a newborn lacks “humanity” in this sense; it cannot choose ends for itself, etc. Nor can a fetus. All the more, a child who does not yet exist does not have humanity! Hence, it would appear that the apparent answer to your question is ‘no’: You cannot treat someone’s capacity for rational agency merely as a means if they simply do not have such a capacity.

This is (I suspect) the orthodox Kantian answer. But this answer has counterintuitive implications. For if wronging someone involves treating their humanity merely as a means, then it would seem impossible to wrong anyone without humanity. So it would be impossible to wrong a child at all – and that doesn’t seem correct. Surely it’s possible to wrong children by treating them merely as a means (having a child purely for the sake of, say, harvesting its organs to save others’ lives). So how might Kantians arrive at a more intuitively plausible answer?

The most promising route, in my estimation, is to cast doubt on an assumption on which the orthodox Kantian answer seems to depend. That assumption, very roughly, is that if it would be wrong to treat someone in a particular way because she has property F, then she must have property F at the very time the mistreatment occurs. This assumption is, pretty clearly, false: Jane is fully unconscious and unable to feel pain on Monday. On Monday, a sadistic doctor injects her with a drug that, when Jane awakes on Tuesday, will cause her great pain. In order for Jane to be wronged by this act, she must be capable of feeling pain. But when the injection is made (Monday) she is not able to feel pain. And yet it’s hard to deny that Jane is wronged by the injection. (Perhaps we should say she is wronged on Monday but suffers the wrong on Tuesday?)

Yet if that assumption is rejected, then it seems open to Kantians to argue that despite children not having humanity, they can never nevertheless be wronged by choices that will subsequently treat their humanity merely as a means. A child born so as to make her parents happy is wronged though perhaps not at the very moment she is born.

(There is one final wrinkle here: Does existing matter to whether one is wronged? Jane exists throughout the duration of Monday and Tuesday. A not-yet-conceived child does not exist. Is it possible for a wrong to be done by conceiving her that she only suffers later on?)

In any event, this isn’t a simple question for Kantian ethics to handle, but at least this response may help in discerning how Kantians might analyze it.

I the Koran subject to interpretation or to be taken literally?

I'm curious why you raise this question only with respect to the Koran--and not with respect to other sacred literatures (or perhaps you have them all in mind). I'm no expert on the Koran but I am pretty sure that, first, your question has a false dichotomy: "interpretation" is a matter of determining the meaning of a text (or of a speaker), and sometimes the meaning you settle on is what might be called a literal one, so interpretation CAN itself be literal in nature. Presumably what you have in mind then is a different contrast--between metaphorical or symbolical interpretation v literal interpretation. But even there I would imagine (said without claim of expertise) that the Koran is filled with much symbolic/metaphorical language, not least because ordinary (non-sacred) speech is itself filled with such; it's rather hard to imagine a text in which every single sentence is possessed (or meant to possess) only literal meaning. THAT said, perhaps your question is actually a little different, something on the order of, "Are passages in the Koran legitimately subject to divergent interpretations, some more literal, some less literal, etc.?" And here again as a non-expert I would imagine that that is a question itself under debate by those whose lives are devoted to interpreting the text--that the many different branches/sects/denominations of Islam (like the different branches of all major world religions) may well be generated by divergent interpretations of the same text. To determine whether (all) those divergent interpretations are equally legitimate is thus to determine just which branches/denominations are the legitimate ones--a question that probably shouldn't be left to the philosophers likely reading this website, but to specialists in Islam/Koran etc. (The last thing I'll offer, as a non-expert, is that to be sure any text is subject to multiple interpretations, and sacred texts seem to be particularly rich in multiple interpretability--but what you're asking for in effect are criteria for determining which of the many possible interpretations are "legitimate" or "correct"--a question that probably cannot be answered in the abstract.)

hope that helps!

Does one have to be aware that one is exercising one's free will, in order to have free will?

Hard to see why, in my opinion. If (say) a free action is one that you undertake such that, at the moment of acting, it was at least logically, and perhaps even physically, possible that you either perform that action or not perform that action, those facts themselves at least seem to be independent of what your awareness is. What would be interesting is an argument that shows that only IF one is aware of the facts just described could those facts obtain ... but at the moment I don't see how to generate such an argument. Perhaps in the mix here is the thought in the other direction, a kind of old-fashioned argument for free will, that states that if one believes one is acting freely then one IS acting freely--or using our conscious experience of (or as of) acting in a way in which it seems to us that multiple options are logically and perhaps physically available as a sufficient condition for acting freely. (Your question concerned whether such awareness was a necessary condition, but here it is offered as a sufficient condition.) But that kind of strategy is very old fashioned, and doesn't seem very convincing to most people -- at best we may be aware of some/many of the causal factors that determine our behaviors/choices, but we hardly seem aware of the "alternate possibilities" that may or may not be open to us when we act--plus the fact that most people believe that there are many causal factors affecting our behavior of which we are not aware, so whatever we ARE aware of could hardly suffice to guarantee the freedom of our action .... so it seems to me that "awareness of alternate possibilities" is neither necessary nor sufficient for freedom ....

This entire answer presupposes a libertarian conception of freedom -- that freedom is/requires alternative possibilities. But you may get a very different sort of answer from compatibilists, who (perhaps) may be more inclined to give positive answers to both the necessary condition and sufficient condition version of your question ...

Is it morally acceptable to hate a crime but not the criminal?

I'm having a bit of trouble understanding why it wouldn't be. Among possible reasons why it would be just fine, here are a few.

1) People, and more generally sentient beings, occupy a very different place in the moral universe than mere things (including events and abstract ideas). Moral notions don't even get a grip unless they refer back one way or another to beings as opposed to things. There's simply no reason to think that our attitudes toward people should be in lock-step with out attitudes toward non-sentient things.

2) Moreover, you might think that hating people is almost always not a good thing. It makes it harder to see their humanity, it makes you more likely to treat them less fairly, it fills you up with emotional bile. Hating a crime might not be emotionally healthy either, but given the distinction you're interested in, it's not personal; it's strong moral disapproval of a certain kind of action, and that might be both appropriate and productive.

3) Suppose someone you care deeply about commits a crime that you disapprove of deeply. In spite of this, your care for the person doesn't just go away. It would seem morally very peculiar to say that because you strongly disapprove of what someone did, you should cultivate hatred of the person. On the contrary, one might think that if you succeed in making yourself hate the person you formerly loved, something good has gone from the world.

4) Someone might say that the real point here runs in the opposite direction. If you don't hate the person, then you shouldn't hate the crime. But that sounds at least as odd. Certain ways of behaving just are despicable—should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. But we don't treat the person who performs an action as one and the same with the action itself. Notice: I can (rightly!) be very angry with someone for behaving in a certain way. But everyone I know who's reached moral maturity knows what it means to be very angry with someone and yet not stop loving them. It's hard to see how that could be wrong.

When I read most discussions about free will, it seems that there is an implicit unspoken assumption that might not be accurate once it is brought forward and addressed explicitly. We know from research (and for me, from some personal experiences) that we make decisions before we are consciously aware that we have made that decision. The discussions about free will all seem to assume that one of the necessary conditions of free will is that we be aware that we are exercising it, in order to have it. (sorry if I did not phrase that very well). In other words, if we are not consciously aware that we are exercising free will in the moment that we are making a decision, then it is assumed that we do not have free will, merely because of that absence of conscious awareness. Suppose we do have free will, and we exercise it without being consciously aware that we are doing so at that particular moment. That might merely be an artifact that either we are using our awareness to do something that requires concentration. Only later do we then use our awareness to reflect on what we just did.

Part of the problem with this debate is that it's not always clear what's really at issue. Take the experiments in which subjects are asked to "freely" choose when to push a button and we discover that the movement began before the subject was aware of any urge to act. The conclusion is supposed to be that the movement was not in response to a conscious act of willing and so wasn't an act of free will. But the proper response seems to be "Who cares?" What's behind our worries about free will has more or less nothing to do with the situation of the subjects in Libet's experiment.

Think about someone who's trying to make up their mind about something serious—maybe whether to take a job or go to grad school. Suppose it's clear that the person is appropriately sensitive to reasons, able to reconsider in the light of relevant evidence and so on. There may not even be any clear moment we can point to and say that's when the decision was actually made. I'd guess that if most of us thought about it, we'd conclude that for many important decisions, we eventually just found ourselves thinking in a certain way at some point. We noticed or realized that our views had settled down. And yet it may be clear that in spite of this, conscious reason and reflection were part of the process out of which the decision eventually percolated and that we can offer reasons that we're willing to endorse for our decision. Put another way, it may be clear that our decision is one that an informed but disinterested third party would see as the fitting outcome of a process of reasonable deliberation.

It seems plausible to me that at least some of the time, what we decide fits this description. This emphatically includes the kinds of decisions where we might be most interested in whether something worth calling "free will" was at work. But cases like this are so different from what Libet's experiments studied that it seems bizarre to think of them as addressing the same concept. In any case, if our important decisions by and large fit this description, then for it's very unclear (to me at least) what more in the way of "free will" is left to care about.