If a person pushes a fat man into an on coming trolley and in doing so prevents five people from being killing should that person be tried for murder? Is the law clear on whether this was murder? If it clear then wouldn't it be clear that switching tracks to avoid the death of five people but leading to the death of one person is also murder? Or does the law objectively determine that the "intent" in that instance is different than in the other instance?

Good questions. The "fat man" and "switch" cases you described have been discussed ad nauseum in philosophy and more recently in psychology. These discussions have focused almost exclusively on the different intentions of the person deciding whether to act so as to kill one and save five. In "fat man" the person intends to harm and kill the one as a means to save the five (saving the five is also intended), whereas in "switch" the person intends to save the five knowing, but not intending, to kill the one as a side-effect . I think this difference would in fact be significant in a court of law, where I doubt prosecutors would press charges in the case of "switch" (and I doubt juries or judges would convict--of what crime exactly?), but they likely would in "fat man" (e.g., assault and battery, perhaps manslaughter). I actually think the law would be getting things roughly right here. An important part of law is preventing risky and dangerous behavior. In "switch" there is...

What exactly is relatvism and could you give me a more elementary definition of it? I have a hard time understanding it. Here's the thing, I was having an argument on a religious forum and I said that I personally believe there is nothing wrong, immoral, or sinful with homosexuality, however if you believe that it is immoral, I'll respect that. I was called a moral relatvist and I looked that up online, and I hard a hard time understanding how that applies to me. I may not agree with your opinion, but I still respect that. Is that what (moral) relatvism is?

I want to add a point of emphasis to Prof. Stairs' excellent response to your interesting question. It is quite common to hear people suggest that being tolerant or respectful towards the moral views of other people or other cultures suggests a commitment to moral relativism. It sounds like that's what people were suggesting to you. That idea is false and might even be self-contradictory. If your being tolerant or respectful is based on your thinking that it is morally right to take a tolerant or respectful attitude towards other people (in the way Stairs suggests in third paragraph), then it might be that you take it to be a universal moral truth that one should take such an attitude towards others (barring moral reasons not to do so--e.g., because their views or behavior call for harsher attitudes). That most liberal, politically correct people are not really relativists is suggested by the fact that most of them are not tolerant or respectful towards people who hold intolerant...

Recently I read a newly published very short book criticisng the concept of Free Will. I thought the book made some good points and some not-so- good points, but what really disturbed me is that the author didn't ever carefully define what he meant by Free Will. Is the definition of Free Will so obvious and clear that there is no need to define it in a book intended for lay readers?

It sounds like you might be talking about Sam Harris' new book, Free Will . If so, you might be interested in my review of it at The Philosopher's Magazine here: Much of my response focuses on Harris' confused definitions of free will. The answer to your question is a definitive NO: free will does not have a single or obvious definition such that it need not be defined when discussed, especially in a book that claims we lack free will (what exactly do we lack? and do we care about the thing we are being told we lack?)

Who are some modern philosophers that argue for either dualism or the idea that mind is a nonphysical substance?

By "modern philosophers" I am assuming you mean contemporary philosophers. (We philosophers use "modern philosophers" to refer primarily to European philosophers from roughly 1600-1900, and among that group there are a number of substance dualists, including Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, and arguably Kant). Among contemporary Western philosophers, there are not that many substance dualists, though it is making a bit of a comeback recently. Of note are E.J. Lowe, Richard Swinburne, and (I think) Alvin Plantiga. I am likely leaving out others. There is an even bigger resurgence of "property dualists", people who argue that the universe consists of just one kind of substance, but all (or some) of that substance has both physical properties and mental properties. David Chalmers played a big role in motivating this position. Recently, Susan Schneider (if I understand her correctly) has argued that you can't be a property dualist without accepting substance dualism. The dominant position in...

How responsible are we for the things we do by accident? I was recently on the phone with my sister, and she was telling me how she accidentally left the tap on in her apartment, which flooded the kitchen and damaged the cupboards and floor. She was extremely ashamed of herself, but she was even more upset that her boyfriend got angry at her for doing so, since she says she didn't intend to leave the tap running (and I'm inclined to believe her; why should she?). It's clear she is responsible, in a causal and financial way, for the damages, but is she morally responsible in such a way that justifies anger or punishment against her, despite the fact that she had no ill intent? Or does intent not matter in such cases?

Assuming one doesn't take the skeptical view that no one is really responsible for anything (in the sense of justifiably deserving anger, punishment, etc.), then I think the answer to your question is that we are responsible for bad outcomes we do not intentionally bring about if we were negligent--that is, if we did not take precautions to prevent a bad outcome that we should have know was probable if we failed to take such precautions. In the case of your sister, it seems she was negligent. She should have (and could have) turned off the tap, and she presumably knew that failing to do so might cause significant problems. But the details matter. Did she have reason to believe that leaving a tap on will cause flooding (was the drain closed)? Were there mitigating circumstances (e.g., something distracted her in a such a way that it is reasonable to think would distract most people from remembering to turn off the tap)? Again, without getting into the complexity of the free will debate, which...

Is an anti-intellectual website because it is predicated on the idea that basic questions about life can be answered in two easy-to-read paragraphs via a panel of philosophers?

Well, I don't see any evidence that or the philosophers on the panel think they are answering the big questions in two paragraphs. Most of the responses suggest the beginnings of an answer, one or two of the many answers that philosophers have offered, more questions, further reading, etc. Sometimes panelists, including me will offer what we take to be the best answer to a question, but I suspect we rarely think we've said all there is to say. But sometimes the questions aren't that philosophical or basic (like this question!). So, sometimes we can offer a pretty definitive answer, like this one: No, this website is not "anti-intellectual." (I hope it is accessible, even fun, but that doesn't rule out being "intellectual," or at least, philosophical!)

To what extent are our actions in virtual reality (by which I mean virtual representations of physical worlds, and not the Internet) subject to ethical criteria?

I can think of only two ways that your actions in virtual reality are "subject to ethical criteria" (i.e., are appropriate targets of ethical judgment). First, if they somehow have effects on real people (for instance, if you have virtual reality sex and your spouse finds out about it). Second, if your virtual reality actions shape your beliefs or character in ways that make you more likely to behave unethically in the real world. For instance, having virtual reality sex or killing virtual reality characters in a video game might make you more likely to cheat on your spouse or to behave violently in the real world. I say "might" because, as far as I know, the research on this is either non-existent or inconclusive (though I think there is some good evidence that children who play a lot of violent video games are more prone to violence). This offers a nice example of how ethical theory depends in part on facts about our moral psychology. Virtue theory suggests that our ethical behavior...

Besides the problems surrounding various applications of biomedical science and neuroscience (including questions of the nature of the mind), are there any other major new fields of philosophical inquiry, or any major new insights, that have been opened up by social and/or technological change over the past century? Or are most new problems just old problems rehashed with new examples or with greater magnitude?

Yes, yes, no. There are new fields and insights and its not just old problems rehashed (though the new fields certainly contribute to the old problems). Google "neuroethics"; check out discussions of artificial intelligence or extended mind; look at the way most of the problems considered in philosophy of mind intersect with discoveries in the sciences of the mind. You'll see many ways that new scientific discoveries and technologies raise new philosophical questions and influence the answers to old philosophical questions.

Why are the lives of plants not considered ethically relevant, when there are more than a few people who think the lives of all animals, including the simplest insects, are? Plants, too, can whither and die. What's the difference between the ethical value of an apple tree and that of a termite?

You would probably appreciate this recent column in The New York Times on whether it is ethical to eat peas (and other plants): I didn't. I thought it was pretty stupid. Why? Because the sort of "communication" that plants may be capable of does not seem relevant to being an object of ethical concern (which is not to say that we may not have ethical duties to protect the environment, including animals and plants). I'm not sure you are right that more than a few people think insects have ethical value. Heck, given the way we treat and eat factory farmed animals, I'm not sure many people think mammals and birds (other than their pets) have ethical value or deserve ethical consideration. Personally, I think people are wrong about the mammals and birds, probably right about insects (and maybe fish), and certainly right about plants. Why? Because for me, the main reason (and minimal threshold) for a...