Recently, a young American sailor attempting to circumnavigate the globe was saved after her boat was badly damaged at sea. I am always struck by rescues like these, which are often as time-consuming and expensive as they are dramatic. (The search for the American sailor involved several ships, as well as the involvement of three different countries.) How can we justify the expenditure of so much resources in order to save a single person? It seems to me that the money spent on finding the sailor, if used to purchase something more basic (food or medicine, say), could just as easily have saved dozens if not hundreds of other people. Indeed, this sort of thing strikes me as somewhat perverse, because the individuals rescued in situations like this have very often deliberately put themselves in dangerous situations.

Good points. Moreover, some adventurers appear to want to have "no-rescue zones." This topic sometimes comes up under the general heading "a wilderness without hand-rails." Still, cases arise when persons set out on ventures without renouncing rescue efforts and this does raise troubling issues. We routinely don't blame persons for not rescuing those in peril if the rescue is highly dangerous and is likely to lead to even greater dissaster. But in cases such as the one you are referring to other factors seem to come into play. Perhaps the American sailer comes to symbolise or represent more than herself: she is not merely Jane Doe, but she comes to represent American youth or teenage ambition or female courage or all three. And how we respond to her in a case of distress seems to reveal, in part, the value we attach to youth, courage, and so on. I agree with you that there is a sense in which it would appear to be more ethical to use funds to buy food or medicine for those who are in peril due to...

What happens to thoughts once they are acknowledged? I.e. where do thoughts go once they have surfaced in the mind?

Great question! Undoubtedly there is a neurological basis for conscious thinking and so there is a sense in which the brain plays a role in sustaining thinking and the brain definitely has a location, BUT it is not clear whether thoughts themselves are the sorts of things that can have location. Does the thought "New York City is not the capital of New York State" have a certain size or weight or mass or color? It would be odd to think so. But let's consider where thoughts go, not in terms of spatial location, but in relationship to our conscious minds. Some philosophers acknowledge that in addition to our conscious mental life there is the unconscious and the sub-conscious. The difference between these is not obvious, but in general the former is thought to be more difficult to retrieve or bring to the surface of full consciousness. Presumably you know many things or can be said to have lots of thoughts about subjects you are not consciously reflecting on now. This knowledge is sometimes...

Would it be wrong to eat a cow that had been specially bred to WANT to be eaten? (a la Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy)

Great question. Off hand, it seems that this would not make a difference. Presumably, it would be just as wrong to have a human child in order to harvest his organs whether or not the child had been engineered to want this fate. Sometimes wanting or consenting does make a substantial moral difference. Robbery, rape, and the like, crucially depend on a person not consenting to an act; if I want you to take something I own then (in a general sense) I am more or less giving it to you and a robbery (in the straight forward sense) has not taken place. But in the case you present, we do not think the cows are exercising their freedom; it appears they have no choice but to want to be eaten. In this case (unlike the robbery case) it seems their wanting this fate does not make a moral difference. If we assume (for the sake of argument) some form of moral vegetarianism (it is morally wrong to kill cows to eat them), then the presence of the 'want' would not seem to make a moral difference. However, let us...

When does a question becomes a philosophical question?

Brilliant question. I suggest that simply to have a world-view or general outlook on what there is and its meaning or value is to have a philosophy. In this sense, virtually all persons have some kind of philosophy (even if it is highly skeptical). In this very general sense of the word 'philosophy' I suggest that any question about world-views is (again, in general) a philosophical question. Questions about governance can be interpreted as questions about one's philosophy of politics (or political philosophy). More specifically, though, 'philosophy' names the practice of inquiry into world-views (what exists and why?) values, and so on, with an aim to identify which positions are more reasonable or evident (hence the preoccupation of philosophy with matters of justification). Some questions can, I believe, be more philosophical than others. So, a question about (for example) what a person believes about God would be philosophical in a general sense if the question was aimed at doing no more than...

Is it equally wrong to hurt a cow and human, if the pain experienced by each is equal?

Great question. A huge amount of thought is being devoted to the assessment of the mental life of nonhuman animal. Some (but I don't think a majority) philosophers still deny that we can rightly recognize (morally relevant) pain in beings without language, but I think it is quite reasonable to think that cows feel pain (given what appears to be pain-avoidance behavior, their brains and nervous system) even in the absence of language. So, let us grant that a human being and a cow can be hurt, they both can feel pain, and then ask whether if the hurt causes equal pain, then hurting the human and cow is equally wrong. There is some reason to think that we cannot draw that conclusion, because of factors that go beyond pain. Imagine a cow feels the same intensity of pain, you feel when someone slaps you (hard). The pain felt by the cow and you may be equal, but there could be more serious harms going on in your case (you have just been insulted or been betrayed by a friend or ..) that is not undergone by...

Can you give me a short answer to what is meant by "philosophy of action"?

Philosophy of action concerns the analysis of agency and take up such questions as: What is it to be an agent? Is agency best explained in terms of beliefs and desires? In addition to beliefs and desires, must agency also involve a unique, additional power, such as the power to act or the power to form and act on intentions? How should acts be distinguished? Arguably, you can be doing more than one thing in making a single move (greet someone as well as signal an espionage agent that you are ready to return to the submarine). Should we count how many actions you are doing right now (reading, passing time, thinking about your own views on this topic) based on what you deliberately will? When is an agent free? Are free actions explainable scientifically? When are you responsible for your actions? And then there are more peripheral, but interesting questions: Do corporations act? Do you act in dreams and, if so, are you responsible for what you do in dreams?

Assume it were discovered that certain mental aspects of a person - their temperment, their inclinations, their basic attitudes and desires - were at least partly the result of the person's genes. Now assume that a couple (for whatever reason) decides that they want their child to be an energetic, extroverted, optimistic and competitive; or that they decide they want a calm, collected, intelligent, questioning and cooperative child; or any other variation. They then go on to their doctor and have the embryo's genes modified such that their child will have these qualities. Is the control exercised over the child's fundamental nature an imposition of the parents' wills onto the will of the child? And is a person whose will has been designed by another will as free as a will that has not been designed at all?

Excellent question. It is excellent partly because it goes to the heart of the nature of freedom: freedom makes little sense without a context. So, it makes sense to ask of a person at any time whether she or he is free to do X, but in the case you are imagining there is no will of the child prior to the parent's decision making. So, we do not have a case of when, say, a two year old child is given some character-transforming infusion, we are rather focussing in on the very gestation and emergence of the child. I suggest that there might be reasons to discourage this kind of engineering (perhaps such engineering might tend to make parents feel they have a kind of ownership over their children), but that such engineering need not be seen as an imposition of the parents' will "onto the will of the child" with one proviso. That condition concerns whether the child has any freedom once she reaches maturity to be (for example) not optimistic, not competitive, to neglect her intellectual talents, to be non...

Are there any extensive philosophical examinations of a link between aesthetics and ethics? I had heard that Nietzsche and Rousseau, for example, argued that the two were fundamentally linked. Specifically, I am curious as to whether any philosophers have advanced the position that ethics and morality are sub-fields of aesthetics (an "Aesthetics of Human Behavior", if you will).

Great question. In a sense, the claim (or assumption) that there is a link between a major aesthetic category beauty and ethics / morality goes back to Plato. From a Platonic point of view, is some act is wicked, it is evil, and if some act is ethical it is beautiful (or, in difficult matters), the least ugly act possible. The close link between beauty and moral goods and virtues continues on up through the Renaissance. Today, there is disagreement about the extent to which ethics and aesthetics conflict; some argue that the two realms are altogether different (a standard claim by those who believe in the separation of ethics and aesthetics is that Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will is an excellent film aesthetically but morally horrifying) whereas some of us still seek to bring them together. You can get a good overview of the state of play in this debate in the collection Aesthetics and Ethics edited by Jerrold Levinson (Cambridge University Press). In terms of systematic defenses of the...

Does the brain contain the mind or does the mind extend beyond the brain?

GREAT question! Most philosophers today in the English speaking world are materialists of one sort or the other. And so, they would hold that (to use your terms) the brain contains the mind or the brain is the mind or the person is the body, and so on. Those who hold that the mind (again, to use your terms) extends beyond the brain may still be materialists. Lynne Baker, for example, contends that the person is composed of the body as a whole (not just the brain), but she is still a materialist, and not a dualist. As it happens, I adopt a very unpopular position: integrative dualism, the view that while the person and body are a functional unity, the person (or mind or self) is not identical to her body or a body part (the brain). Arguments over theses positions would take us deep into the philosophy of mind literature. For a defense of integrative dualism, keep your eyes open for The Soul Hypothesis, ed by Stewart Goetz and Mark Baker (London: Continuum Press, forthcoming).

I am a junior in high school and am already well into the college process. I would consider myself to be smarter than average, but will not hesitate to admit that I am not of the most elite caliber (some would say I am more 'street smart' than 'book smart'). During the college process I am looking at schools that would be considered tremendous stretches for my academic profile, however, connections I have at these schools may make up for this gap and allow me to coast on in. Should I feel guilty that I am receiving all of this help? What if I really do like the schools that are outside my profile? The whole point is to end up at the best school you possible can, right? Is there a difference between my possible best and the possible best of myself and connections combined?

Interesting situation! The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca tells us that the most important thing we have is time, and the most important decision we will make in life is how to spend our time and with whom. I suggest that you may want to go to that school which (after you have completed four years) you can look back upon with proper pride (proper pride as opposed to vanity or egoism). Insofar as skills and adventures (intellectual and otherwise) often involve risk-taking and moving against the line of the least resistance (in other words, not taking the easy route), I suspect it would be better to opt for the college or university community that would most challenge you. Where I teach, there is a tremendous (growing) stress on students discovering their vocation. A vocation is not just a job, but a sense of calling or having a goal of pursuing a fulfilling profession. I would recommend finding a college or university which takes vocation seriously.

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