Law

We usually assume that there is law in a society only if that society has its... laws. But I would like to ask if you think there is another important sense of "law" or of "legal matters" (I'm a law student). Suppose Pete goes to some wise and strong person, Justine, and tells her: "I want that guy, Pat, to be forced to give me back the tool I lent him, since the time has passed when he sould give it back to me, according to what we agreed." As far as I see it, if Justine wants to hear Pete and Pat and have some intervention in their dispute, she has a legal question in hands. She will be like a judge. I think that some questions are legal irrespective of whether some group of people has any previous legal organization. This story between Pete, Pat and Justine could take place on a desert island where the three might have just arrived coming from different places.

As you say, Justine would be "like" a judge, but I don't think that actually makes her a the sort of judge who presides over a court of law. She might be making a moral judgment or even a political judgment. Clearly, ideas like what one "should" and should not do are operant here, and clearly it seems to be relevant to appeal to reasons, such as the agreement Pete and Pat made. But those are also the sort of things to which friends or students or romantic partners appeal in disputes. You don't have, however, a formalized legal code. Procedures for adjudication and appeal. Etc. So, while I'd say you have some of the elements of the rule of law or legal institutions, what you describe isn't quite sufficient to warrant describing their situation as "legal."

Do you think that it is morally wrong to store the DNA of innocent people on a central database? Living in Scotland, the law says that people who have been charged of a 'violent or sexual offence' can have their DNA stored in a database for 3 years (with the possibility of extending that to 5). This isn't the DNA of people who have been convicted, but the DNA of people who have been charged and subsequently released (essentially innocent in respect to the law). In discussions with friends, I often come across the argument as follows: 'if you haven't done anything wrong, then you don't have anything to worry about'; at which point I often reply: 'if I haven't done anything wrong, then you have no need to hold my DNA'. Do you feel that a government has a duty to hold the DNA of 'potential' criminals like this in order to benefit society at large?

I'm with you. There is a security interest in having as complete as possible a database of DNA, but there is a contrary interest in privacy that I believe trumps the security interest. One reason for this is that, alas, your friends are simply wrong to think that simply because one is innocent one has nothing to fear from the government. Innocent people are convicted perhaps more often than your friends think. I recommend a book called Actual Innocence , which along with the Innocence Project explores how false convictions occur. One way they seem to occur is through the misuse of biological evidence. Or Google "Fred Zain" and "Ralph Erdmann" to learn more about the laboratory misconduct. The case of the Guilford Four in Britain is instructive, too. Sadly, the most prudent course and the course that best protects innocent people is not to allow the state access to the DNA of people charged but found to be innocent. This will, of course, in some cases diminish people's security; but the...

Where moral codes come from? Are they something to aquire or are they inherently in our genes?

Both. General capacities and inclinations for thought, feeling, and conduct are biologically based (not just in our genes but in virtually all our tissues). But the specific way those capacities and inclinations are conceptualized and formulated in principle, narrative, argument, and prohibition shapes, limits, and cultivates them--often in different ways by different people and societies.

Peter Singer has popularized the term "speiciesism." It's the idea that we are biased or prejudiced towards our own species. Therefore, the argument says, we should have equal consideration for animals. However, this won't apply to animals. The lion will still eat the gazelle, the sharks will eat the dolphins, and any carnivore will eat any animal. I can imagine Singer replying that animals don't have the rational capacity to do ethics. The ideas that Singer presents only applies to us humans. But if this is the case, isn't that a form of speciesism?

You've landed upon what I think of as the reciprocity issue in morals. Do moral agents like us have obligations towards beings that do not or cannot reciprocate? One thing to keep in mind is that even among human beings we don't require reciprocity. We recognize moral obligations to treat criminals in morally acceptable ways even when those same criminals won't reciprocate. We recognize moral obligations to treat children, the mentally ill, the comatose, and even the dead in morally proper ways even though they can't reciprocate. So, why should it be problematic that humans recognize moral obligations towards non-human animals that can suffer even when those animals are incapable of reciprocating? One has to, I think, distinguish between beings that I would call "moral agents" from beings that have "moral standing." Beings that are moral agents are beings that are capable of understanding and acting on "moral considerations." Beings that have moral standing are beings to which...

In social, political and economic discourse it is common to hear people discussing a concept like wealth as if what constitutes real, actual, or true wealth was both a clear and a settled matter. Both the term and the concept, wealth, are a close relative to the term and concept, value. In conventional and nearly ubiquitous usage, value and wealth are considered to be measurable or at least determinable in units of currency, or money. Yet careful examination reveals that a person, community, or nation can grow its stash of cash (money) while diminishing other social, ecological, spiritual (etc.) goods in this same persuit. Such goods are treated as "externalities" by economists and societies, and thus-and-therefore some economists have sought to measure these apparently incommensurables in monetary units, in order to gear our economy toward valuing these. My question is, isn't this whole project in a thousand ways doomed?

Yes, it's doomed. And, moreover, in many ways it's pernicious. It's pernicious because it biases the direction of social policy and even personal conduct in the direction of things measurable in monetary terms and thereby arguably misallocates resources. For example, consider one of the most prominent monetary measures of national wealth--GDP. The growth of GDP is typically taken to be a good thing. But really the best course of action would be to maximize the things that truly matter while minimizing GDP. GDP (or GNP if you like) measures the monetary cost of producing goods and services. But suppose you could produce the same goods and services while reducing GDP. Or, more importantly, suppose you could reduce GDP but actually increase things like happiness, life spans, general health, peaceableness, ecological well-being, biological diversity, educational attainment, artistic achievement, scientific advancement, moral virtue, athleticism, family stability, etc. The very...

Would Hitler be a just sovereign according to Hobbes?

As a Hobbesian might say about sovereigns, "absolutely" not. The "justice" of sovereigns is, more seriously, a curious issue in Hobbes and more complicated than it may at first appear. One might be tempted to say that because the Hobbesian sovereign is an "absolute" sovereign, that anything he or she does is "just." In other words, one might say that whatever the sovereign commands is for Hobbes by definition "just." But justice in Hobbes might be thought of in two ways: "civil" and "natural." In terms of civil justice (the justice defined by actual laws and dictates made by governments), one question concerning Hitler's conduct would be whether or not it was unjust of him to violate the terms of international law and the various treaties his government negotiated--for example, the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviets and the peace treaty Hitler's representatives negotiated in bad faith with Neville Chamberlain. Arguably, however, for Hobbes, the sovereign is not bound by civil law in his or her...

I would like to know more about the (supposed) difference between dictionary and philosophical definitions. There is a free access introduction by Norman Swartz on the Internet. Swartz says that dictionary definitions are "reports of common usages". My problem is that dictionaries (try to) explain what words MEAN in common usages. Even if you accept that there is not more to meaning than usage itself, dictionaries seem to report THEIR UNDERSTANDING of usage, which is something quite different from usage. For instance, when dictionaries quote writers who used some word, they never give information on how READERS reacted to that usage. I think that they assume that those quotations somehow prove by themselves the accuracy of the proposed definitions. On the other side, I suppose that philosophers also rely on usage when they try to define the meaning of a term (if they are not stipulating it). Aren't philosophers reporting their (or arguing for a certain) understanding of a word usage?

I think you have a real point here. Standard dictionary definitions don't simply "report" usage. Both philosophical and standard dictionary definitions "explain" (as you put it) or "interpret" (as I might put it) the meanings of words. And both the authors of standard dictionaries and philosophers may be reasonably described as advancing "arguments" for their interpretations. There are, of course, different methods of argument at play in the production of philosophical and standard dictionary definitions; and philosophers and the authors of standard dictionaries interpret words in different ways, in the light of different audiences and different histories. In short, the contexts of usage with which philosophical definitions and standard dictionary definitions are concerned is generally different (though sometimes overlapping). The word, "valid," for example, is used differently and means something different in the contexts of ordinary conversation and the formal language of deductive logic. ...

Tautology is popularly defined two main ways: 1) An argument that derives its conclusion from one of its premises, or 2) logical statements that are necessarily true, as in (A∨~A). How are these two definitions reconciled? The second definition is only a statement; it has no premises or conclusions.

You've definitely put your finger on a problem. I'd say that for most purposes the two definitions aren't reconcilable because they belong to different discourses or contexts. The first usage is more colloquial and rhetorical. The second is a technical definition. The term "valid" is used in similarly different ways. In common discourse, one can make a "valid point"; but in technical terms only arguments or inferences, not points, can be valid. There is, however, at least one way to make the two definitions consistent: assume in the first that the premise from which the conclusion is derived is the same as the conclusion. From two premises A and B, the conclusion A follows. This, of course, becomes a variant of begging the question. Conversely, I suppose, one could argue that a tautology follows from itself, making the second definition applicable to an argument. (Note that the way you've phrased the first definition is a bit odd, since all good arguments derive their conclusions from their...

Some proponents argue that in the judicial system, matters of policy reasons are best left in the hands of Parliament to decide. For instance, cases involving moralities which appear before the courts such as deviant sexual practices, assisted suicide and the likes where consent is clearly given and that these practices have not yet been made illegal/unlawful. In these cases, is it over the board to say that judges who decide based on the general consensus of morality in a particular society are interfering with one’s conduct (because it has not yet been made illegal/unlawful) even though it is generally understood that these practices are inherently wrong? Can this statement be countered by Dicey’s third postulate on the rule of law that the courts are the guardians of citizens’ rights and that judicial activism is necessary to solidify a common morality? Or is it best for a judge to merely sit back and apply the law as it is, despite knowing that had Parliament decided on these issues, it would be...

This question merits a much longer answer than I am capable of giving. But, with apologies for the compression, I'd say that the distinction between "activist" and "non-activist" judging is a popular-political distinction, not really one with much philosophical basis. Both the legislature and the judiciary produce new law and nullify old law, and they have always done so. They create and nullify law, however, in different ways--the legislature by enacting new legal codes, the courts by issuing rulings. Nor, however, is the line between the law and morality a clean one to draw. And, so, while I think it proper (indeed unavoidable) for the judiciary to enact new law, I also think it proper for judges to appeal to custom and common morality in rulings (for example in matters of indecency). Appeals to custom and common morality, however, must be balanced and in some cases simply limited by stipulated rights of non-interference and claim rights. They must also be balanced by countervailing lines of...

Research in anthropology and related disciplines reveals that there is no strong evidence of any universal morals; there are no set of moral beliefs that are found uniformly across all existing countries or cultures. This has often been interpreted to mean that morality is unrelated to the existence of a deity. Some, however, believe that while the lack of universal morals is true it does seem that there is a universal sense of “oughtness”, or a universal tendency to justify what we do, or to place value judgments like “right” and “wrong” on behavior. From a philosophical perspective is this universal tendency toward morality better explained by a need to “get along” to increase fitness in our world (roughly a sociobiological explanation of morality), or is it perhaps better explained by our possessing an intrinsically moral nature, i.e. one that may exist because of the existence of a deity or deities (or even because life may continue after physical death without the existence of a deity). Sociobiology,...

About universal morality: while it's true that among cultures (as among individuals within any culture) there are variation in moral beliefs (as well as scientific beliefs), there are general (nearly universal, so far as I can tell) moral categories. One finds incest regulations, for example, in every society (though the boundaries of those prohibitions vary). Rules concerning possession, killing, and even, arguably, the sacred are more or less universal. I would be pretty reluctant to walk into any human society and start taking bites out of people's children. Moral beliefs and conduct do exhibit variation, but variation by itself doesn't disprove the existence of universal commonalities. Any pharmacist will tell you that different people respond to different drugs differently, but that doesn't refute the universal laws of chemistry. Human moral life, then, exhibits both remarkable variation and remarkable commonality. As you say, there are various possible explanations for this. ...

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