Some people say that "safety" is a very important thing and that the main function of the state is to promote (e.g., liberty and) safety. I think this makes no sense because one can only be safe from something, and one is never completely safe, only some of our goods are safe. So the important thing is not "safety", but whatever else is important. And it is not "safety" that the state should promote, but the keeping of our most important goods.

Great observations. "Safety" itself, in the abstract, does seem an odd goal or ideal for a state or person. You suggest the focus should be on "our most important goods" and suggest that the safety of those good (which might include personal integrity, opportunities to flourish in ways that persons choose freely, the freedom to raise families, the opportunities to pursue education, the arts, to engage in trade, and so on) is what is duly important. I might be wrong, but your observations suggest you are taking issue with libertarian accounts of the state, as libertarians argue for what might be called a minimal state --a state that governs the least possible (using the least amount of coercive power) compatible with the guarantee of basic rights. Those rights will, themselves, be pretty modest in number, but they usually include persons' rights to be free from violence and illegitimate coercion (e.g. illicit force and threats from other persons). Ironically, in order to truly secure even such basic...

Does the idea of "conflict of interest" figure into any contemporary discussion of ethics in philosophy? For example, few would argue that a professor having a sexual relationship with a student in his class is immoral in itself, but why would that necessarily be a conflict of interest? Banning such relationships is what is immoral because it reduces people's humanity by presupposing that humans are totally unable to separate their private lives from their professional ones. Are we to ban family businesses too? Even if empirical studies DO show that a majority of these kinds of relationships result in preferential grading, universities can always discipline such professors--disciplining the student would certainly be excessive. Banning relationships are the worst kinds of bans as without relationships we are dehumanized; it seems to me that if a person personally wishes to jeopardize his career for the sake of a relationship, then we should acknowledge and accept that.

Philosophers have given significant attention to identifying conflicts of interest in the course of developing theories of justice, accounts of fairness, business ethics, philosophy of law, and even museum ethics. Your focus seems to be on sex and the academy, so I will go right to that topic: in most colleges and universities there is indeed a regulation against professors and students having sexual relations, but I believe this is not primarily a matter of what may called a conflict of interest. I suggest it is more of a matter of preventing exploitation as well as a matter of a common sense approach to professor-student relations. Even if it happens that the sexual relationship does not lead to preferential (or unfair) grading, it is occurring in a relationship in which both parties have responsibilities to each other that sexuality almost cannot help but compromise or overshadow. The primary role of the professor in teaching or practicing philosophy (or any subject) with students is one in which ...

Can historical value judgements be objective? Because questions presuppose other questions having been answered, it seems crucial to figure out what prior questions it assumes, and philosophy of history often boils down to the psychological motives of people and individuals which must involve interpretations and not just a listing of facts.

To begin with some of your observations and then move to your question: I believe you are quite right that history involves more than the listing of facts that might be more true of a chronicle than a history and the practice of history involves interpretation. While for some historians and in some philosophies of history psychological motives and individual agency are important, but for Marxist historians and a Marxist philosophy of history there is more of a stress on economic forces and social relations. I suggest that the more plausible philosophies of history recognize historical explanations as a species or type of causal explanation. So, in my view, an historical explanation of the French Revolution identifies elements persons, events the explain what happened in France in 1789 for example implying that if those elements had not occurred, the French Revolution would not have taken place. If the historian thinks the French Revolution WOULD have occurred any way, her primary explanation...
Art

A question about art for you. If consensus could be reached on a theoretical definition of art, stating the necessary and sufficient conditions for anything to be called a work of art, would that imply a closing off of art, similar to art in say a former socialist country or a tight religious community that prescribes how art has to be? And if not, what use would the definition be? Would it have any effect on the production of art at all? Or was is the point of a theoretical definition of art? Thanks in advance.

Great questions. Today, standard reference works e.g. the Blackwell Companion to Aesthetics will offer a dozen variations of definitions of art that are of historical and contemporary interest. In my view, none of them are highly restrictive. The idea that works of art are mimetic or imitations or that art is expressive or a form of communication or it embodies emotions or works of art are intended to prompt aesthetic experiences or works of art are objects that make-up the art world, and so on, can each recognize and possibly inspire multiple, almost limitless kinds of works of art. There will be cases, however, when some works of art fit some definitions or philosophies of art better than others. There are works of art today that seem so conceptual and austere from an aesthetic point of view that the aesthetic account of art and art-making is stressed. For the record, I defend an aesthetic account of works of art --see Aesthetics: A beginner's guide. I suggest that the whole undertaking by...

I was always wondering, is it possible to deliberately chose to be irrational ?

Great question. There seem to be cases when a person might rationally chose to act irrationally --as occurs in Shakespeare's play Hamlet when the main character, Hamlet, acts as though he is mad to confuse his father-in-law (and, it turns out, the murderer of Hamlet's father) and this buys Hamlet more time in his contemplating how to avenge his father's death. I believe that USA President Nixon --and I am sure some other world leaders- sought to project to potential enemy states that he was capable of being irrational. There also seem to be cases of when persons deliberately put themselves into states of mind in which rationality goes out the window, as when a person deliberately becomes heavily intoxicated or allows their passions to be so completely unedited that they are in an 'anything goes' mode. Apart from such cases, there may be a different, more paradoxical case, and perhaps the following is what you have in mind. Imagine a person is deliberating about whether to choose A or B and...

I would like to know if duty implies value. If I have the duty to take care of my daughter, does that imply that it is better that I take care of her than that I don't? If two people promise each other to meet that evening, is it then better (at least, according to their promises) that they meet? If I have the duty to join my country's army, is it better that I do than that I don't? Thank you.

Great questions. Many philosophers recognize that we have multiple duties which sometimes conflict. And they also recognize different degrees of complexity that come with duties. So, in a parent-daughter relationship, it is widely acknowledged that a parent does have a duty to take care of her and thus, it is recognized that, other things being equal, it is better to care for her than not but some of the following circumstances can come into play: imagine that there are great social and political forces that would make it fatal if the parent comes forward to acknowledge that he or she is the parent. Or imagine that the parent was abusive and for example a daughter is utterly estranged from a father she never wishes to see again. And sometimes duties such as those you mention can present us with cases when one duty might be served by following another duty. So, your duty to care for your daughter might be satisfied by your joining an army: imagine that your city is under aggressive military attack and...

I will be taking my first philosophy class soon although my major is not philosophy. I already know the basics of philosophy and the philosophical positions of my professor so I can anticipate what kind of essays I will be writing. I know for a fact that my philosophical views are radically different from both his and society in general so should I just argue for the sake of arguing or should I take the safe route and agree with what I think his views are so that I can be judged to lesser standard and get a higher mark? Just how biased are philosopher professors really?

Addressing your last question first: Although some of my colleagues will probably disagree, I think that on the whole philosophers tend to be (by training and disposition) quite adept at distancing themselves from their own convictions and are pretty good (sometimes excellent, sometimes just so-so) at seeing any given issue from multiple points of view. No philosopher can possibly only work from the standpoint of her or his preferred position (argument or framework) because, historically and today, we all know that (for example) a Kantian approach to ethics or metaphysics is not the only viable alternative or that Wittgenstein has said the last word on philosophical methodology or .... There are some exceptions to the vast majority of philosophy professors who are aware the diversity of reasonable positions worthy of deep consideration on almost every topic. I met a recent graduate from a Ph.D. program who roared with self-confident laughter when I mentioned the possibility that human persons have...

If a customer walks into a store and pulls a toy gun on the owner as a prank resulting in the owner thinking it is a real gun and suffering a fatal heart attack, then is the customer morally responsible for his death? If so, what ought his punishment be? Should it be less if the owner is in his late eighties and the customer attempted CPR?

Great set of questions! You put your question in terms of morality rather than legality, but it might be worth first noting the legal angle. Basically, the law would attach responsibility and the consequences of the act based on what reasonable people would do and how they would interpret the act involved. So, imagine that the toy gun is obviously a toy (it is made of vegetables and has the word "toy" spelled on it out of carrots) and that the customer had a long history (known to the owner) of pranks. Under those circumstances, we might well conclude that the owner's belief that the gun and customer were real dangers was irrational. If the customer knew that the owner was subject to irrational judgments and that he/she had a weak heart condition, we might rightly find him morally blameworthy --the death would be a murder. But if the customer did NOT know of the irrational tendencies of the owner and did not know of the heart condition, I think we would be right in thinking this was a case of...

People from the distant past are forgiven for believing that the earth is flat or that the sun orbits around it, because they lived in an era when science was less advanced; and it would have been pretty difficult for a lay person back then to figure this stuff out on her own. Is morality like science in this way? Is it understandable that 18th-century whites believed blacks were subhuman, and are they less culpable for the crimes of slavery as a result?

Interesting analogies and interesting questions! Two very modest initial observations: The idea that most in the past believed the earth is flat is open to question; there is an interesting book called (something like) the myth of a flat earth. Another point that is a bit less modest: substantial numbers of whites in the 18th century did not believe that blacks were subhuman. More on this below in connection with a comment on David Hume. You are right about how views change substantially in both science and ethics, and while in the 17th and 18th century European (and eventually American) views on slavery shifted, in the ancient Greco-Roman world slavery was considered as basic as any natural, unsurprising phenomenon. I suggest that in cases when, in a society some practice like slavery is thought of as natural and without a live alternative, then those who participate in the practice are less culpable than those who realize that slavery is unjust and that there are alternative cultures and...

As an academic philosopher what do you think are your biggest responsibilities outside of teaching and research in terms of to the world and to the field in general? Why do you feel you even have those responsibilities at all?

Good questions! For myself and those in a similar position as a professor in the liberal arts each of the faculty is understood (and this is part of our job description) to have obligations in terms of teaching (or, putting this slightly differently, the obligation to be a professor in terms of engaging students in the practice of philosophy) and research, as well as the obligation to contribute to the life of the department (being available and assisting colleagues and majors), the life of the college as a whole (engaging in policy decisions, supporting students, staff, and colleagues in the general college community) AND to contribute to: the general profession of philosophy (whether this be only nationally or internationally) AND to contribute to the larger non-academic community. Contributions to the greater community might involve some kind of civil service (speaking on behalf of some group or articulating some neglected alternative at a town meeting) or promoting an international exchange ...

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