I claim to be a pacifist (or: like the idea of it and have not yet had the chance to express it), and honestly do not care for violence or confrontation. I have also been thinking of moments where violence would provide me with a safe route out of a situation: Let's say I am walking the streets with my girlfriend, everything is fine and the sun is just setting. All of a sudden a crook runs up and tries to rob me and my girlfriend. Now, being that I claim pacifism, I would think not to take any physical action towards the crook, but being a good boyfriend I would think to protect my girlfriend with my fists if need be. What would be my options to a situation like this? Would fighting the crook off with violence make me a hypocrite? Would not fighting off the crook make me a bad person/boyfriend for not protecting my girlfriend? I understand that what Mohandas Gandhi did throughout his life would make many consider him a true pacifist, but if he were to be in this type of position and he just sat...

An interesting question on a number of levels. In answering the question much depends upon how one defines "pacifism," "good," "bad," etc. So, if we were to have an extended conversation about the question I'd explore with you some definitions. I also think we should look at a few of the specific words you choose. (Philosophers are picky, I know.) It seems a bit misplaced to say that the "crook" (I really like that word) would "rob" you of your girlfriend. Robbery it properly speaking involves the unlawful or morally wrong taking of property, not persons. We must all guard against the tendency to treat or conceive of women and girls in ways informed by the way we conceive of and treat property. Perhaps "kidnap" would be a better word. And take a look at the question itself. I find it interesting that typically questions like this are posed as men defending women from assault, not men defending men or women defending men. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of any case like this where I...

If every life results in death, then what is the meaning of life?

This is a compelling question. I remember encountering it in a powerful way reading Albert Camus’s essay, “Absurd Reasoning.” Recently, a student of mine broached it during a discussion we were having about the condition the universe seems to be heading towards. It seems, I’m told, that everything in the universe will ultimately degenerate into a vast, endless, more-or-less uniform, horribly cold and dark field of low-level radiation. Some call this condition, the final destination of the universe, “entropic hell.” In light of this apparent fact, the relevant question concerning the meaning of life is this: since everything we accomplish will ultimately be destroyed and degenerate into “entropic hell,” what meaning can anything have? I think there’s something misleading about his question, however, something that lurks in a hidden assumption that the question makes. The question and its force rely largely on the assumption that life has meaning only if it lasts forever. In my view, this is a...

If Cheese is made of bacteria culture, and bacteria is alive, is it wrong to eat cheese and yogurt? Or plants and anything else that is alive? If so, why do we have laws to protect people, animals, and other multi-organism beings, but not bacteria, which plays just as inportant, or even a more important role, than say a cat?

What role? Not the role of my companion. What makes a role "important"? Note that much of the "role" bacteria plays is that of food for other organisms. Like that of Titus Andronicus, some important roles end in suffering and death. So, I don't think the concept of "important role" will explain laws prohibiting the killing and tormenting of various organisms. For my own part, I look to three features of some organisms that distinguish them from others and justify protections and cultivation: (1) the capacity for conscious suffering; (2) the capacity to engage in projects and practices of value (like writing philosophy, making art, building just societies, sustaining families, advanciing learning and wisdom); and (3) the capacity to contribute to the diminishment of conscious suffering and or the support of projects and practices of value. This set of criteria provides a hierarchy of organisms, but not a terribly clean one (I like that about it). Some bacteria are worthy of protction or cultivation...

Why is murder considered a crime when the person who was murdered was going to die whether or not that person killed him or her?

Well, everyone murdered would have died anyway, had he or she not been murdered. After all, we're all going to die, whether we're murdered or not. It strikes me that the difference between death as a result of murder and death that resulsts from some other cause is that the former is in some sense a violation of law and moral principle, rights to liberty and life--not to mention a violation that occurs through some agency and might not have occured then. All deaths are deaths, but murders are illegitimate and wrongful deaths. Other deaths are perhaps unfortunate but in many cases not unlawful.

What's the relationship of freedom to justice? Where is the balance between the two? Is freedom protecting the rights of individuals and justice protecting the rights of communities and societies against the wills of free individuals? Again, how can we find the balance and where is it?

I must honestly say that this question is beyond my capacity and perhaps beyond anyone's. I have my doubts that a clear, enduring point of balance between the two can be formulated--or even that it's meaningful to think about formulating one. Perhaps the best thing to say is that the important thing here is to understand the problem and to acquire some sense empirically about the kinds of abuse and failure that are likely to arise with different ways of addressing it. Having done this, a continuing conversation/argument/struggle/scrutiny of the current state of things should be sustatined. The answer then is not some particular point of balance but rather the establishement of a persistent means of deliberation, review, and revision of the issue. Consult the work of Chantal Mouffe on radical democracy on this score.

What books are most important for a neophyte philosopher to read?

I recommend Plato's Apology , Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy , Camus's Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays , Bryan Magee's The Story of Philosophy , David Cooper's anthologies, and perhaps The Philosopher's Toolkit .

Is the sentence of death really a punishment? Yes, the man/woman who committed the act loses their life, but doesn't it also mean that the person in the end gets away with the act that he/she committed? Wouldn't it make more sense to punish this person with life in prison without the possibility of parole? It just seems to me that the death sentence is just a way to show sympathy or mercy towards criminals. It seems that this would be a harsher punishment; just sitting in your cell day by day, for the rest of the person's life.

An interesting thought. My suspicion, however, is that most sentenced to death would prefer life in prison. That may not conclusively demonstrate much, but if true it at least shows that those convicted of crimes regard life in prison as a less severe punishment. Keep in mind that even inside a cell the mind may enjoy wide expanses, and if Aristotle is correct there are even very simple pleasures bound up with the mere act of living and perceiving the world. Then, of course, prison does offer some opportunities for sociability, for reading, for entertainment, and for contemplation. There is a sense, however, that you are right in saying that the criminal has still gotten away with it--namely, no punishment or repentance can fully restore the state of affairs that preceded the crime. Those murdered, for example, can never be brought back. In a sense, despite their defeat the Nazis did "get away" with killing millions and millions of innocent people. But this defficiency remains true of all options...

Hume lobs some pretty convincing skepticism at the entire discipline of philosophy in the last chapter of his Enquiry . Besides Kant, have other philosophers tackled these doubts head-on? Since his skepticism is not just about metaphysics, but about all philosophy, do contemporary analytic philosophers regard these doubts seriously?

Hume's skepticism is a fascinating thing, isn't it. For myself, I suspect you and I differ on what it means to say that his skepticism is about "all philosophy." In my view, while I think that in a sense that's true, it doesn't follow for Hume that philosophy is pointless. Rather, his skepticism undermines a certain species of philosophy, what he calls "false philosophy," i.e. a kind of rationalistic dogmatism. Hume endorses in the Enquiry and elsewhere a curious kind of what he calls "true" philosophy, which amount to something like, as he characterizes it, "the reflections of common life methodized and corrected" (EHU Section XII, 130 [162]; cf. Section V). That's what he means by his "mitigated" or "academical" philosophy. Although I don't fully agree with his account, may I recommend Donald W. Livingston's books, "Hume's Philosophy of Common Life" and "Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium." The account of scepticism in the latter is closer to my own, but the former lays out in greater...

I'm applying to very competitive doctoral programs in philosophy. Everything in my application package is stellar except for my GRE scores. How much do admissions committees at competitive programs weigh GRE scores? Does Math matter more than Verbal? Is there a general baseline score I should try to aim at getting over?

Unfortunately, GRE 's tend to be very important. Of course, the extent to which they matter or don't matter and the weighting of verbal and math (not to mention baselines) depends upon the specific institution, even the specific composition of the admissions committee, which will vary from year to year. Nevertheless, do what you can to improve your scores. In my experience, verbal tends to be more important. Try to score well into the 90s.

Dear Philosopher, If I and many others believe in true democracy, where everybody votes, why do we still have war, civil and with other countries? Tate Putnins, 13 yrs, Box Hill (Melbourne), Victoria, Australia

I might add two bits to Oliver's remarks: 1. Democracies actually exhibit a rather militant history. 2. Wars of aggression, even if supported by a majority, would still, I think, violate important precepts of democracy. Democracy is not simply, after all, majority rule. It also involves protecting minorities and individuals (including the individuals of other nations) from the predation of the state and of majorities. A war of agreession civilly or internationally would violate these prinicples. Wars of self-defense or for the sake of protecting human rights are another matter.