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.

Are nuclear weapons kosher?

I hesitate to make an absolute declaration, but for nearly all purposes the answer must be "no." They are simply too indiscriminate in their application, destroy disproportionally on too vast a scale, and cause too much suffering and too much environmental damage. There may well be, however, rare occasions when their use is warranted. In the case of bombing cities, I can't imagine a situation that would warrant their use, though that may say as much about my imagination as about nuclear weapons. With regard to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, besides the alternatives of conventional warfare and negotiated surrender, one might I think make a case for dropping the weapon over the sea or on an unpopulated land mass before using it on human populations.

Why isn't Christianity considered evil? After reading the Bible, I noticed that homosexuality is 'abominable', that if anyone chooses to work on a sunday then they should be 'put to death', that slavery is fine, animal sacrifice is fine and that the mentally-ill are possessed by the devil. Why then, do we not actively supress Christianity? How can a Christian legitimately believe that homosexuality, for example, is fine and still call themselves a Christian, despite what it says in the Bible? It seems to me that it is an evil moral theory to subscribe to.

A good and courageous question in my book. First, you should know that there are quite a few philosophers who have regarded Christianity as morally unsound. Nietzsche is perhaps the best known among them. For myself, I have argued that common Abrahamic conceptions of God are immoral (see "The Moral Imperative to Rebel Against God"). But your question calls for some qualification of its own: Don't assume that the Bible defines Christianity. It's true that some Christians hold that the Bible is literally true and inerrant in every statement and command. Most, however, don't accept this view of Scripture. Rather, they hold that some parts of the Bible are today inapplicable, other parts erroneous, and other parts metaphor, symbol, or fable (including the portions you cite). From this point of view, it's not the Bible that defines the Christian church but the church (or community of believers, anyway) that decides how to interpret and what to do with Scripture. Remember that in the early days...

I think that religion is just one's way to answer their own questioning of the meaning of life. Those without religion (like atheists and even agnostics) I believe do not have that internal need to find a meaning, so they do not turn to religion. Believing in God or a god gives a shorthand answer to life: that we were created to live. What are your thoughts?

Religion is a terribly important and interesting affair, isn't it. For myself, I'm a bit unsure about the "just" of your first sentence. I think that simply on empirical terms there can be no question that religion gives a sense of meaning to some people's lives. I have my doubts that religion is "just" or only that. I think that there are many, many (perhaps countless) factors that play into the existence and persistence of religion, among them a projection of parental authority, a desire to explain natural phenomena, an unwillingness to live with ambiguity or to accept human finitude, fear of death, compelling personal experiences, loneliness, custom, peer pressure, the instruction of authority figures, a need to come to terms with suffering, a desire to feel that one's own views are true and good, etc., etc., etc. You may be right about atheists and agnostics--that they lack some need that the religious have. But I also think that atheists and agnostics may simply find (or create) meaning...

What are the most important similarities and differences between "Literature" and "Philosophy"? Akbar Baharlou

First, I would like to say that I don't think there's a clear or distinct line marking the difference between "literature" and "philosophy." Rather, I think that philosophy is a type of literature, or better a family of sub-types of literature. My own sense is that for any specified criteria distinguishing philosophy and literature, significant exceptions can be found. Plato and Kierkegaard use characters and plot, Kundera writes essays, Nietzsche is poetic, Berkeley wrote dialogues, Heraclitus and Wittgenstein are oracular, aphoristic and paradoxical, Dostoevsky uses arguments, etc. Having said this, as a rule one might say that philosophy uses fictitious character, plot, setting, and poetic trope in a less central way. It's easier to think of philosophy without plot or character or metaphor than it is to think of fiction or poetry. One might also, I think, say that philosophy has more often aspired to formulating general truths and doing so through modes of argumentation, while other forms...

Is it morally wrong to only want to marry someone from your own ethnic group?

Simply put, no. Doing so, however, may be immoral if the reasons why one wants to marry only someone from one's own ethnic group are immoral. For example, it would be immoral to only want to marry someone from one's own ethnic group in order to produce children belonging to that group for purposes of creating a dominant population, especially an invasive and newly dominant population, and this because one regarded one's own ethnic group as the natural superior to others. It would also, I think, be morally diminished, though under many circumstances not strictly wrong, to only want to marry someone from one's own ethnic group only because that person belonged to one's ethnic group--so long as one is honest about it. It's preferable to consider other factors in marriage as well. All things being equal, it is also morally preferable (more excellent) to consider partners from other groups. Note, in addition, that there's a difference between "wanting" or "desiring" only members of one's own...

How do the philosophers justify war, if they ever do? I ask this question because even the Prophets have fought wars, for their religion. So, how can mortals remain aloof from it?

Some philosophers don't justify war, holding that all war is immoral, either murder or something akin to murder. I am sympathetic with this view and believe that minimizing or ending war ought to be a goal we pursue. But until we get there, I recognize the importance of developing what philosophers call "just war theory." In just war theory, philosophers distinguish between questions about when it is proper to engage in war (questions "ad bellum") from questions concerned with the conduct of the war ("in bello") once engaged. As you suggest, ideas about both of these are ancient and may be found in the Greek, Abrahamic, and Asian traditions. Typically, however, historians of philosophy turn to Augustine of Hippo for the initial formalizing of the theory. Many have followed him in articulating important principles about just war, many of which have been codified into international and national laws. Here are some of the principles I regard as most important and most basic (note that some overlap a...

Does "intrinsic value" - i.e., the value that nature has as of itself, as opposed to a value for humans - exist? The concept seems like an oxymoron. Nature also has economic values, which include "existence value", being the value that people place on knowing that nature exists even if they never use it. This may be expressed by a hypothetical "willingness to pay" for nature to continue to exist. I am wondering if nature conservation organisations around the world have got the two concepts confused. If so, this would have practical consequences for the way in which funding for conservation is sought.

For the most part, I agree with you that there's a lot of confusion out there about the notion of intrinsic value. As I see it, value can only occur through a valuer or group of valuers. No valuers, no value. The idea that value exists independently of valuers is incoherent. Having said that, I don't think that the concept of "intrinsic value" to be utterly worthless or non-sensical. It's a useful concept for contrasting against "instrumental value" or "commercial value." Hence "intrinsic value" may be used meaningfully to describe what you point to in your question under the rubric of "existence value"--value accorded the natural world as not used, even when it's not used, or because it's not used. But I also think it epxresses a kind of value humans recognize that isn't well expressed through economic categories like "willingness to pay" or "price" or "market value." Translating values, costs, and benefits into monetary figures is notoriously difficult, and I think for good reason. So, it's...