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 ...

Is there a philosophy of luck or does luck not exist? Is luck deterministic in that some people always are more lucky than others? Can luck be considered inborn?

Great questions. Philosophers have been concerned about the role of luck or, as it is sometimes referred to as fortune. Among Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle attention was given to the extent to which a person's character and flourishing depended on luck or, putting it differently, depended on factors outside a person's control. There was concern for what a contemporary philosopher calls "the fragility of goodness." To get to your questions we have to share an understanding about what is meant by 'luck.' Presumably a person is lucky when she is the benefit of some good that she did not deserve. This might be through chance or through some other agent. In this sense, being born might be considered a matter of luck for, unless we are to appeal to Karma and a robust account of reincarnation, it appears that none of us can take credit for being born nor for our fundamental powers and opportunities. In a religious context, this might be thought of as grace. Apart from this major,...

Should love between a man and woman be diminished in any way by differing political viewpoints? My boyfriend and I both think politics is a minor part of life that neither of us gets directly involved in but when we do speak about it he isn't afraid to philosophize about his radical political views. As it follows, he is opposed to marriage including straight marriage and especially gay marriage because he does not accept the legitimacy of any state or institution. I don't mind spending the rest of our lives together unmarried because this in no way negatively impacts my life even though my political views are rather different. I disagree with his stance on gay marriage because I have gay friends but this does not diminish my love since we are both straight, so do political views matter when it comes to love?

Very, very interesting. You are asking about something that is perhaps a matter that is more personal and intimate than political or a matter of public philosophy (or philosophy about public life), but I offer these thoughts with some hesitation about responding to what is probably quite personal. In the West, historically (from the Medieval period on) marriage has been principally been understood as that which is established (and constituted) by two persons So, while there has been a massive tradition of arranged marriages and marriage has often been understood in terms of the transfer of property over generations in the west, at the heart of the very idea of marriage is that it involves a commitment between a man and a woman (or, as we should say today, between two persons). The role of the church and state has (from an historical point of view) been conceived of as RECOGNIZING marriage --rather than establishing marriage or constituting it. So, while in Eastern Christianity, the church is...

I'm developing a rebuttal to Biblical literalists and I'd like to know whether the following is a recognized/named type of syllogism or other type of argument (and if so, what it's called): Verse X prophesied that would happen happened in verse Y Therefore, the prophecy was fulfilled (If this is not a recognized/named type of syllogism or other type of argument, could it be made so by adding one or two lines?)

This is still a little confusing to me, but I take it that you may be looking for the term: Vaticinium ex eventu This occurs when a writer (whether Biblical or not) offers a prophecy that some event will occur when (it is assumed) that the writer already knows the event has taken place. In the context of the Bible, perhaps the most salient case that is the subject of controversy is the New Testament recording of Jesus predicting that the Temple will be destroyed, which it was some forty years after his death. It is not obvious, though, whether this is a case of writing ex eventu. It is possible that Jesus could have foreseen the destruction of the Temple, especially when you consider the evidence available during Jesus' lifetime of how Rome responds to rebellion and recent past cases of Jewish resistance to Roman imperial power. This is more a matter of history, than philosophy per se, though philosophers have long had an interest in thinking about the miraculous and whether it can ever be...

How convivial are modern day philosophers towards other philosophers who have differing views? Is academia totally free of ad hominem attacks and focused on debate?

Good question. At our best, there is conviviality between persons across different philosophical viewpoints. In fact, for many (but hardly all) of us we are invested positively in the welfare of those with whom we disagree. I myself oppose probably as much as 80% of what the philosopher Bernard Williams defended, but I felt genuine remorse over his death and I have spent much of my life re-reading his work, attending his seminars and lectures when he was at Oxford, and I feel strongly that he was an outstanding, brilliant, deeply admirable philosopher. Sadly, there is some vindictiveness among some philosophers, but I think this is clearly in a minority. For any philosopher you find who is patronizing and bullying, showing disdain for other philosophers (I am intentionally not giving any names here!) you can find at least twenty philosophers who are truly considerate and respectful (from John Rawls to Philippa Foot.....).

Can anybody who thinks about philosophical qustions become a philospher? Likewise, is it necessary to have an academic background in philosophy to be considered a philospher?

Great questions! Certainly, "philosophy" can be understood as an academic discipline. After all, there are graduate degrees in philosophy that are offered by academies in most countries around the world; there are official philosophical organizations such as the American Philosophical Association and the Royal Society of Philosophy; there are official philosophical journals, conferences, and sites on the web such as aksphilosophers, and so on. But philosophy as a practice, can be traced back before there were academies and universities, journals and official international philosophical associations. Arguably, it was philosophy that gave rise to there being academies rather than vice versa --for it was Plato, in the fourth century BCE, who founded the first academy. So, yes, one can be philosophical and practice philosophy without being part of some official academy, and in fact many well known philosophers in the early modern era did not hold positions as professors in academies --Hobbes, John...

Is kissing a person on the lips other than one's spouse cheating? What about not on the lips? Does location really matter when it comes to kissing? I don't think it does, and even when it comes to major slip ups as much as penetrative sex, I don't think that's cheating either because promises are but a CONDITIONED vow of not doing any of those things. Because promises between a couple are usually not very precise unless lawyers are involved, I think the greater subject of importance is whether the other person FEELS betrayed and whether there are romantic feelings beyond sexual ones. A condition/promise, I think, even in marriage, is, "I love you so long as you fulfill and do such and such...conditions according to MY needs of such and such." So in other words, because you slept with another person, that does not mean you do not love me, but it does mean you do not love me "to the best of your ability" and so "I would like to change that fact." Do philosophers care for human feelings?

In answer to your first question ("Is kissing a person on the lips other than one's spouse cheating?"), the very idea of "cheating" (conceptually) involves breaking a rule or agreement or promise, and so kissing someone other than one's spouse on the lips would be cheating if you had an agreement (explicit or implicit) that one would only kiss one's spouse on the lips, just as you would be cheating if you cried or laughed or sung a particular song with another person if you had promised only to do so with one's partner / spouse. Before moving to your suggestion about promises, a brief note: I am a little curious about the example you give of kissing as there are many cultures (I have no idea how many) when kissing another person (who is not one's spouse) on the lips is not at all unusual or thought to be even remotely sexual (and thus a domain in which sexual fidelity would not be an issue). Actually, in the first two centuries of Christianity in Europe, unmarried men and women would regularly kiss...

Some time ago I came to know about two horrible stories that happened in my city, one leading to the death of a young child, the other about a 12-year old raped by a 16-year old. Of course, events like these happen everywhere, all the time. We know about major wars and famines, but horrible suffering is happening somewhere at any time. My question is how should we (people who have more or less privileged lives) live with it? I'm not interested in religious answers or worldviews. I guess trying not to think about other people's suffering is not an acceptable response. The other extreme attitude, to go and try to fight suffering where you're more needed, with all your means, is something for saints, not something you could tell everybody to do. The problem is that intermediate ways also seem disrespectful towards those who are suffering most, and if they are the only possible reactions they should still leave us unhappy.

Very tough questions that have implications for any person who knows of situations you describe --and those situations that are more extreme as well as those involving less violence. You note that you are not interested in a response that appeals to world views or religious teachings on such matters. I accept this constraint in offering a reply. There are various factors that come into play in thinking through the cases you note --I will put this in the plural form as your questions concern so many of us: Are WE in any sense responsible if only through neglect or not taking any action to secure the safety of the cities or places where we live for these crimes --or wicked or tragic events? If we are guilty or at least not clearly innocent then I suggest we have some responsibility to care for the victims or, in the cases you cite when there are deaths, to care for the families of victims and their immediate communities. And I suggest that, if we are indirectly responsible for these tragedies we...

The Philippines has recently experiences the most devastating storm, Yolanda, in its history. The most affected areas of the country were wiped out and almost all sources of food and water became scarce. Looting became common in those areas. I honestly believe that stealing is wrong, but looting, which can be defined as stealing in the most extreme situations like those of life-and-death, seems a rather different case. My question then is this: is looting ever morally justified?

I express concern for all involved: the owners, looters, bi-standers.... I have experienced times of scarcity and turmoil, but I am keenly aware that I am reading and responding to you in a coffee shop where conditions seem peaceful and I worry about being presumptuous in addressing someone in the midst of great turmoil. I suggest that a good number of philosophers may well be right in thinking that there is little difference between looting and stealing, but some such as Hobbes, among others have held that in a state of nature when there is a collapse of government and no sovereign power to impose limits which all subjects might agree to, it is "every person for him or her self." I suggest that such a reliance on government or contracts to provide a foundation for obligations and rights is implausible --that is, it cannot actually provide a moral duty for each person or citizen to comply with what is contracted or agreed upon and it also cannot do justice to a basic, intuitive sense we have of...

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