I was recently reading about the potential effects of violent media, such as film, on people. I noticed that the effects of film were being condemned using language that was rather utilitarian. Such films are said to be problematic because that kind of influence could cause the spectator to become violent and harm others in the future. However, this kind of argument seems, to me, to be remarkably similar to virtue ethics - where it is wrong to cultivate the wrong kind of character (in this case, a violent character). It would seem the wrongness of cultivating certain kinds of character stems precisely from the kind of influence that character has on its surroundings, which actually sounds rather consequentialist. So I wonder, is virtue ethics really just utilitarian ethics, but with a focus on the person performing the action rather than on the potential victims? Or is there more to it than that?

This is a wonderful question, deserving of many responses, so let mine be brief. I would suggest that because a virtuous character is deemed to be the desired telos of human being, it is a type of consequentialism, but it is not utilitarianism. Utility, strictly defined, demands to maximize benefits and minimize harms, based on the reality of sentient beings' capacity to suffer. This foundational point is very different than Aristotle and more recent virtue approaches that focus on the goodness of the individual's character per se. This said, I cannot read Mill on the cultivation of higher pleasures without hearing echoes of Aristotle! Perhaps we seek ethical types to be more differentiated than they are. For the purpose of teaching, I draw bright lines between types, but when I read Kant's discussion of the only possible good in this world or beyond it is that of the good will - it is a matter of character that he is discussing! I think addressing violence from the standpoint of character...

In scenarios where the metaphorical glass is either half-full or half-empty, so to speak, are there any compelling rational reasons to come down on one side or the other? Or is a person's optimism or pessimism just a character trait independent of rational thought?

Thank you Andrew, for this thoughtful response. I have been wanting to respond with notions of false dichotomies and the like, but yours is far more probing and engaging. In my thought world, however, when someone asks me if the glass is half-empty or half-full (as my academic dean did once!) I simply say it is neither - it is time for a refill! In Vino Veritas, and cheers, bjm

Hume stated that there is a gap between "is" and "ought." What about hypothetical imperatives? For example, it seems that, given a certain state of the material world, if I want to arrive on time for a certain meeting, then I ought to leave the house before, say, 8 AM. Did Hume's statement make room for such constructions, or does he not believe that the premises of hypothetical imperatives justify their normative conclusions?

A bit more information would help me in answering your question. The "gap" you mention between what is and what ought to be the case seems to permeate practical philosophy down to the ancients. Are you citing a particular passage in Hume? As for hypothetical imperatives Kant comes to mind; he suggests that the term "ought" in this sense is not normative language at all but addresses our freedom to let desire have a role in choices (hence the hypothetical part). The moral sense of "ought" for Kant is categorical, and he is well aware of the gap between the is and the ought. So I guess I'm needing to have a text - or a Hume expert to reply - before I can get the gist of your question.

For me the answer to the question of whether abortion is right or wrong depends on the ontological status of the fetus. Is a fetus the kind of being that has a right to live or is it not? I don't know. How on earth can I know that? If I knew then I wouldn't be an agnostic on this issue. Most people, if I am not mistaken, take it for granted that a new born baby has the kind of being that gives it the right to live. So what reason is there to think that a young baby has the kind of being that gives it the right to live? What about an older baby or an adult...if we can stretch this question to its limits.

Ontology is always in the mind of the person contemplating the nature of being, so I applaud your agnostic stance. Beneath your question lies a very important question: what is the role of science in philosophy and morals? Our ability to visualize the tiniest gametes meet to form a zygote is a wondrous thing indeed. But science cannot provide ontological insight on the matter; it can only trace its trajectory toward becoming a fetus or not based on conditions in the uterine and hormonal environment. The fetus (9 weeks gestation and beyond) has overcome many obstacles, but again, its ontological status is elusive at best. I don't believe "potentiality" can be a claim of ontological status, but I'll defer to my colleagues who study Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law. But it seems to me there is a very risky step made by those who would accord person-hood status to the fetus. What is the presumption? Because science can observe the various stages of embryonic development, we suddenly "know...

Is it ever possible to do something we don't want to do? If I think/feel that I prefer not to do something but I do it anyway aren't I really just "wanting" not to face the consequences of not doing it more than wanting to do something different? A really simple example could just be preferring to watch the baseball game rather than driving to the airport to pick up my in-laws. If I suck it up and go to the airport and skip the game aren't I really "wanting" to not deal with the consequences of stranding them at the airport more than "wanting" to watch the game? Thanks!

It seems to me that there are many layers of meaning to your question: are we free to be moral? Is altruism possible? Can I shape my desires or am I just kidding myself?! In a sense you are in a pretty pickle here, because if I understand you correctly, you can neither prove nor disprove the nature of your choices. Psychological egoism asserts that all actions are done out of self-interest - and any attempt to deny this is simply not acknowledging that your wants might include pleasing your in-laws by picking them up. As a description of our human state, I find this to be a poor account of the complexity of our moral lives. As a theory, it is not open to revision or willing to entertain counter-factual evidence, so it is not even a great theory. Desire is so complex and the human heart so mysterious, I'm not sure we gain much by reducing every action to one (selfish) motive. Perhaps I'm going against Ockham's razor here, but the simplest answer, even if correct, doesn't get me to the airport!

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy Schopenhauer was one of the first philosophers to advocate for the idea that the universe was not something "rational" What is an "irrational" universe then? Is there a difference between a universe being beyond the grasp of human reason and saying that the universe is "irrational"? Does he mean to say that the universe can do things that are illogical such as have square triangles?

It's been years since I've read Schopenhauer, so I cannot respond with his position as such. What I am noticing is that you seem to have excluded other possibilities by assuming that if the universe is not rational it must be irrational. What about non-rational, for example? No squared circles needed! If we posit that rationality is a capacity of human consciousness - and a mysterious thing consciousness is - what might it mean to call the universe "rational?" Are we saying it is conscious? Does the analogy to human consciousness hold sufficiently to apply to the vast universe? There might be human minds that see order and disorder and apply rational principles to their observations, but it is quite another thing to ascribe rationality to ... what? The universe is one of those concepts that is not a reality one can experience. Perhaps we can thank Schopenhauer (and his 19th century counterparts) for helping us see our anthropomorphizing for what it is. Does this help? -bjm

What is the nature of "privilege", as in "white privilege"? Is it just the statistical fact that (for instance) people of European descent tend to be more prosperous overall than others? Or is it something more substantial?

Perhaps examining the root meaning of "privilege" could help us unpack this question a bit. The term means "private-law" - or to put it another way - the laws that operate for most persons do not apply to some particular thing or person or group. For example, one might have "privileged information" which means it is not available to most others. When I teach a college class of students from a wide variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, I am keenly aware of the disparity of their life circumstances. But the very fact that they are in college is a form of "privilege" insofar as the vast majority of human beings (across cultures and time) have not had access to higher education - and advantages that follow from this privilege may continue to accrue throughout life, regardless of race, gender or class. When we look at various and exceptional gains that appear to be generated by groups, we see real clusters of advantages in terms of race or whatever other category/social marker you...

Is there such a thing as an obligation to trust? It seems a peculiar kind of obligation, if it exists. Suppose that although my fiancée has always been faithful, on the night before our wedding I endeavor to test her fidelity. To this end, I hire an attractive man who attempts to seduce her in private. My fiancée rebuffs the man, at which point I present myself to her and happily explain that she has passed the test. I think most would say that my fiancée would be rightfully indignant in this case, that I have wronged her somehow. Does this show that I violated an obligation to trust my fiancée? Is that obligation contingent on her history of fidelity (such that a history of cheating might justify the test)? Perhaps we can explain the wrongdoing without reference to trust--by way of a prohibition on manipulating or deceiving others, say. Or perhaps no wrong committed here at all.

Framed in the language of duty, as you have done, I cannot see how you can universalize this as a duty, find it in natural law or divine command. A rule consequentialist might weigh in and say what greater good was your aim or even, do brides, as a rule, betray their intended on the night before their wedding? Trust is the outcome of a relationship, not a duty or test of one. To my mind the question is best framed as one of character: "who am I" - am I suspicious, paranoid or simply love to mess with someone's head? Better yet, "who do I wish to become" within this relationship? I wish to be a trusting partner and do trust, until I have cause to revisit the wisdom of this way of being. More important is whether I wish to be trust-worthy than trusting. Personally, I'd rather be a foolish lover proved wrong than a cynic who cannot or will not trust my lover. Perhaps trust is not even a question of ethics - but the sting-operation really is!

Is there any scientific evidence that history proceeds in dialectical fashion ala Marx and Hegel?

I do not have the scientific or historical chops to answer you adequately, but the question made me smile - the dialectical thinker discovers the dialect everywhere - evidence be damned! I love Hegel and yet I am sad to report that as I look at the news, especially current political discourse, I am dismayed. Where is the Aufhebung in a filibuster? I look forward to other replies!

Why do some feminists like to criticize rationality so much? Doesn't that just reinforce the idea that women are less rational?

Let me begin by saying that any meaningful discourse requires reason,including feminist attempts to mount a critique of reason! Feminists differ significantly, so there is no one answer to your query, butthere seems to be a shared conviction that rationality alone is insufficient toshed light on many of the deeper problems humans seek to solve. One wayto ask the question could be: "Given its rightful role in any inquiry,does rationality exhaust all aspects of a given question?" or: “Howdoes one's experience, cultural identity, gender, along with many other socialmarkers shape the nature of the questions one raises and the answers one iswilling to consider ‘rational?’" Historically speaking, the raising and answering of significant humanquestions has been done in the context of educated, white, European maleacademics or clerics. Perhaps Descartes could sit by the fire and believehe is but une chose qui pense ( a thing that thinks), but is this theexperiential norm for most men...