I have come across a dilemma, I could not find the question on the site presently so I hope it has not been answered yet. If an atom is the smallest piece of matter that we are aware of, doesn't some form of matter have to make up an atom? And whatever the form of matter that makes up an atom, would have to be made up of some other form of matter and that matter would have to be made up of a kind of matter as well, and on and on forever. Where does that stop? How can a human being ever comprehend something like this? Thank you.

This is a wonderfully knotty question that has occupied philosophers at least since Zeno of Elea in the 5th century BCE. One way of interpreting Zeno on this is to say that the problem shows that space is illusory. David Hume later, like the atomists ('atom' meaning uncuttable) seems to have thought that there must be a point at which the cutting stops, at least so far as the world of experience goes. I might say that Zeno is right that certain ways of conceiving space are flawed, including the way the problem as you pose it conceives of space--that is, as continuous all the way down, becoming just a finer and finer Cartesian grid if you will, always subject to the same sorts of properties or ways of conceiving things (like length, height, depth, etc.). It seems, however, that once we reach the sub-atomic realm these ways of conceiving things just don't hold, so that it becomes impossible to apply mathematical divisions of space. Space seems dependent on, you might say, the ability of energy to...

Is it wrong to lie when we're questioned on matters of our intimacy? I mean cases where the other reasonable option would be to refuse to answer but for some reason we prefer not to. More specifically, I mean cases where it was wrong to ask in the first place.

While in general truth-telling is morally preferable to lying, I suppose it might depend upon what precise reason one has for preferring not to answer or precisely how wrong or in what way wrong the question was. But as a general matter, no, I don't think it reasonable to hold that it would always be wrong to lie in circumstances of the sort you describe.

Was I right or wrong in marrying out of a sense of duty as opposed to marrying for love? Some years ago I fell in love with an unavailable woman. We did not have a relationship but while still in love with her I met, had a long term relationship with and married a woman I was fond of and needed. My wife believes that I love her and she loves me. I am aware that if I had not had a long relationship with my wife she might have met and married someone who truly loved her. However, I stayed with her in the hope that she would help me get over the unavailable woman and that I would eventually grow to love her. This did not happen. Had I told her after being with her for a few years that I did not love her and that I wanted to end our relationship it may have then been too late (we are both in our late thirties) for her to meet another man and have children with him. Also deep down I must have felt that I had used her and did not want to admit this to myself. I felt I was obligated to marry her. Was...

The texts of intimate relationships are generally too complicated to make judgments about using simple moral principles. But as a weakly stated general rule, I'd say that it's not wrong to marry or simply remain in a marriage out of a sense of duty. In fact, I would say that a sense of duty is a desirable element of a good foundation for marriage. It is, however, wrong to marry or remain married for the sake of duty but do so deceptively--that is, it is wrong to marry or stay married only or principally for sake of duty when your partner in marriage believes otherwise.
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. ...

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