I've often heard people make the following argument about the n-word. It is self-defeating to insist that it is offensive for people, especially white people, to use the n-word. This taboo is precisely what empowers the word and makes it harmful; if we let people say it freely, it will lose its effect, which is what those concerned about racial invective should really want. I was wondering if the panelists are convinced by this theory of the meaning of the n-word and slurs more generally.

I am in my sixties, and I used to hear the N-word uttered quite freely and frequently by whites. The term still retained its poisonous power, which comes from a bloody history of oppression. It is true that some words like "sucks" lose their potency and connection with their original meaning as they come into common usage, but I see no reason to believe that this would hold for racial slurs. Moreover, I suspect that some taboos, some limits on expression are healthy. It would not be salutary for the psyche for people to feel relaxed in the use of terms that landed like stones on some people's ears. Thanks for your question.

Suppose I behave altruistically, because I believe that doing so will help create a better community for all - and because I want to live in such a community. Am I acting according to altruism or egoism? Or are the two actually compatible?

I agree with Professor Smith that in this context concepts like altruistic and egoist are a recipe for confusion. Clearly, if your only intention were to improve the community for your own benefit -- like working on your house or something --- then it would be egoistic but it would be hard to imagine someone devoting their lives to others with purely selfish motives. As a footnote, I don't think one needs to be a Freud to note that it is really impossible to be transparent to ourselves with regard to our motives. There are wonderful passages in Dostoyevsky's THE IDIOT in which characters believe that they have only selfish motives and Prince Myshkin points out that they were oblivious to their good intentions. Of course, it is usually the other way around.

My (now-ex) girlfriend recently took up heroin use, which led to the end of the relationship, mainly because of the deception she practised about it and the emotionally manipulative/aggressive reactions when it turns out she was actually lying, but also because I just don't find it intelligible as a life decision to make and lost all respect for her. However, when she asks a me to justify WHY I think it's dumb, why it bothers me, why it hurts me to see her do this, and why I'm against it, I find it hard to come up with a logical reason. She can just say that 'well, there's nothing else to do, so why shouldn't I, and why should you care?', and all I can come up with 'Look, it's just how I feel, it's what I believe and if it's not obvious to you then I can't explain it.' This feels less than satisfactory. She has said, and there is some evidence for this, that alcohol is worse than heroin. However I think the studies that show this are more related to frequency and wide-spread abuse of alcohol, compared...

I think you are over thinking this one a lot--- it might be an argument against philosophy if the practice of philosophy encouraged you to think that maybe heroin isn't so bad... I don't know about the rights language here but if this is someone you care deeply about you have good reason to feel extremely upset, hurt, disappointed, sad, etc. I was deeply involved with a woman on heroin once. She got off the drug for a few years but then decided that she would never really experience anything like that happiness again-- and back on it she went--- and there was nothing and no one that she cared about more than that drug. If you need an argument that might be it--- that the drug is so powerful that the user soon comes to make procuring it a higher priority than anything else- and often hating themselves for it - which of course can lead to even more heroin use. But deal with the issues at an emotional and personal level - not the abstract. I hope it goes well and I hope she quits the drug - the...

Is the purpose of ethics to seek out a universal code of right and wrong? or is it's purpose merely to justify or criticize actions based on subjective beliefs about right and wrong? or perhaps some third purpose?

Ethics is concerned with relations, our relations to others, ourselves, and the enviornment. I don't believe there is any purpose to ethics per se. Those who study ethics do it with different ends in mind. For Aristotle, the study of ethics was intended to improve your moral life -- make you a better and for him "happier" individual. Others are more concerned with how to decide right from wrong in particular cases- and so to be able to give some justification for their choices and actions.

What is it about neurological pain, as opposed to other forms of suffering, that makes the pain experienced by humans and many animals morally relevant? Imagine an intelligent, autonomous robot that reacts to damage the way a human reacts to pain - fear, cries, complaints, etc. Why wouldn't the "pain" of the robot be morally relevant? Similarly, why isn't the suffering of plants considered to be morally relevant?

I suspect that if people could be convinced that a robot felt pain they would consider it morally relevant. Convincing people or other robots would require more than mimicking the actions of humans in pain. As for plants, most people do not believe they have the sensory apparatus to suffer. Some -- Jains-- do worry about plants suffering but this seldom persuades anyone to refrain from eating tomatoes or whatever, perhaps simply because eating is necessary for living. As for vegetarians, the belief would be that lettuce suffers much less than cows.

Do we have a right to try to convince people to abandon demonstrably false, or socially harmful, opinions? Clearly we have no right to force them, but do we have the right to criticize their opinions and try and get them to engage with reality or with other human beings? Conversely, do people have a duty to adopt true beliefs whenever they have the opportunity to do so knowingly?

I'm not sure about the rights language here but I can't imagine that there would be anything amiss with trying to dissuade someone of the notion that the earth is flat or that 2+2=5. As for adopting true beliefs, I'm not sure that we are put together so that we can choose my beliefs. If I know something to be true it would seem to imply that I believe it. But to be sure, there are a wide range of issues and some of the most important in life, in which what is true and false are beyond definitive proof.

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