How do we know that some beings have a status as 'persons' and some beings do not? If we attempt to delineate certain characteristics of personhood, we run into the quandary of, say, labelling the mentally ill as non-persons or labelling cancer cells as persons. Is this a problem? Is there a way to avoid this? Must we have the rights which personhood entails in the first place?

A person (from the Latin persona , mask) is merely one who has standing as a legal agent, and so, almost without exception, a person is a human being. (There is a body of law in the United States which suggests that groups of persons, in particular corporations, are also sometimes to be taken as persons, but this extension is best understood as a so-called legal fiction.) The mentally ill are persons because they are human beings. Cancer cells are not, for they are not human beings and they have no legal standing. There is not much more philosophical difficulty, as I see it, about the concept human being than there is about the concept squirrel , a member of the family Sciuridae , flat-tailed creatures, as a human being is simply a member of the species H. sapiens , a species that has "sapiens", wisdom or understanding, uses tools, and has language. The important thing is that we define the species, and then ask whether this specimen of whatever (the mentally ill person, the cancer cell)...

How important is translation in the study of philosophy? It seems like, in certain areas of philosophy, precise definitions and subtle nuance can have significant impact in outcomes. I was curious how a difference in translation might affect it. One example: I have three different translations of the Tao te Ching , and for some of them, the same original comes out so differently one wonders what each translator thought they were reading at the outset! Another example: when I first read Das Kapital (in English), I was initially confused by the recurring term "means of production." Finally, it dawned on me, that term meant "technology" and serendipity! it all clicked. thank you for your consideration.

Translation is enormously important in philosophy. It is a philosophical topic of interest in its own right. There are issues that arise in connection with the thesis of the indeterminacy of translation and "radical translation", from scratch, associated with Quine, that call for an account of what translation actually is. Should language preserve poetry, or is it true that poetry is what is lost in translation? Is it acceptable to turn a Hebrew original into perfect English iambic pentameter, for example, as the King James Bible did, 'She gave / him of / the fruit / and he / did eat'? Or is the importation of a majestically inevitable and continuing process into the language itself a specious artifact? There is also the question whether translation into an ideal language is translation at all, or whether it is a funny kind of reconstruction. Besides all this, we have the question whether, since French and German, for example, lack an equivalent word for the English "mind", English sentences using "mind"...

On a answer dated February 2, 2016, philosopher Michael Lacewing distinguishes between "the right" and "the good". In common usage "right" and "good" often mean the same thing: "do the right thing" means "do the good thing". Could he or others explain that distinction? Thank you.

If I pass the butter, that might be the right thing to do. It might also be a good thing to do, though to my ear it sounds strange, even incomprehensible, to say that it is "the good thing to do", rather than "a good thing to do". "The right thing to do" or "Doing the right thing" are phrases the tell us that an action conforms to a moral rule specifying what is right. The word “right” typically appears in principle- and rule-based connections and contexts, such as legal ones, or the rules of an organization such as a school or a military organization, or a profession with a code of principles or ethics, where what it is right to do is expressed as a given or fixed set of standards of behavior. There is as a result more of a suggestion of a present or potential criticism, so that the word “right” introduces a context in which what is wrong is something that is definitely being ruled out or is not in accordance or conformity with the principle or standard, or because it does not conform. There is some...

Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist. Conclusion: Therefore, God exists. Can we accept the conclusion above as valid or even fact?

Stephen is right. The argument is valid, but it's not sound. It has a false premise. Even if you are a theist like me you can think that if God did not exist, there would be or could be such things as objective moral values and duties. Honesty would still be good, and we would still have a duty to help those in need. Philosophers who share my view find a great ally in Leibniz. For him, God loves the good because it is good. It is not the case that it is good because he loves it. In God reason comes before will.

It seems that one characteristic of the present Western culture is redefining anything. The unborn has now been defined as a human being who is not a person. Marriage is no longer just between a man and a woman. Homosexuality is no longer a mental disorder. With all these redefinition, it is confusing whose testimony is to be believed. My question is: is there any correct criteria for defining anything, or is it simply the case that the definition of something depends on what people thought about it?

I do not believe that it is a "characteristic of the present Western culture" that it is in the habit of _redefining_ everything, as if that were some sort of local parlour game. The re-definitions come about because many people are making the claim that their own views about such things as marriage and the unborn _are_ the right ones. The reason is that Western culture has become a less traditional culture, so there is less automatic acceptance of the concepts that in the past would have been inherited from the previous generation, and not questioned, or not as much. But our experience has become more extreme and more troubling. I am thinking of reactions to the Great War, for example. How could anyone whole-heartedly accept the wisdom of the Establishment when just one battle (the Battle of the Somme) resulted in 1,250,000 casualties? War in the past had a kind of nobility; not so scientific and "total" wars. "Whose testimony is to be believed?" It cannot be right to say that the definition of...

What happens, morally speaking, if I promise to do something that happens to be slightly immoral? Do I still have some kind of obligation to do it?

I think a lot hinges in your question on the word "slightly". Is there a moral obligation to keep a promise to do something that is "slightly immoral"? I think that the answer has to be "No", since the value of duty to keep promises is not in question, and the act contemplated is only "slightly" immoral. OK, but how slightly? Would it help if you had written, "if I promise to do something that is utterly and completely immoral"? Or if you had written, "If I promise to do something that is only ever so slightly, just the teeniest barely discernible bit, immoral"? I think such gradations make a big difference, and it is not very clear how "slight" the immorality has to be before it ceases to conflict with the important general obligation to keep promises. Of course much depends also on the question to whom the promise was give, why, under what circumstances, and so on. These all need spelling out before we can address the question with any hope of answering it.

If we have no free will, then is the entire legal system redundant since no one can be held accountable for anything since no one has control over their own actions?

Your question is a very important one and has been very important historically. It has driven quite a lot of discussion about freewill. Alas, I do not agree with Stephen's answer. If hard determinism is true, which is to say that we have no free will, then, Stephen says, the legal system would be corrupt. So also would be the moral systems, including the one that allows him to use the concept corrupt . Corruption is moral depravity, and if determinism is true and it undercuts law and morals, then there is no such thing as corruption. Those like me who are compatibilists take the view that the truth of determinism would have no consequences for law and morals. The classical compatibilist makes a distinction between those actions that are caused, and those that are coerced, though this distinction is often expressed in different pairs of terms. If an action is caused and subject to scientific law, it is not unfree unless it is also coerced. One would want to include of course psychological self-coercion,...

Consider two otherwise identical worlds, in one of which determinism is true, and in the other of which it is not. In the second world there is freedom of the will. What difference does this make to the legal system and the moral system? Ex hypothesi, none. When I wrote that if hard determinism is true, moral systems cannot be corrupt, I was describing Stephen's view, not my own! Hence I think the apparent contradiction that he detects. Here's another way of putting the point I wanted to make. We can imagine a deterministic world in which people are thinking good thoughts and doing good things, and making good laws. The world of law and morality seems to have survived the loss of freedom! In this world, some philosophers believe in determinism, and some in freewill. But of course the having of those beliefs is part of a deterministically produced system. There could be incidentally be a deterministic world that is morally and legally better than a world with freewill. Consider the worst world imaginable...

Why is so little phenomenology taught and researched in North American philosophy departments? Because it studies the essence of consciousness is it too continental for your analytic minds? Why must philosophy be categorized so strictly?

I think the answer may be that phenomenology has produced so disappointingly little. In a non-philosophical sense phenomenology is defined as the preliminary classification of phenomena in an enquiry. So one might for example regard it as a piece of phenomenology in this non-philosophical sense to say that a white surface seen through a light blue filter looks stone-cold white, and not blue at all, as per the philosophical folklore. The question the analytic philosophers ask themselves, I suspect, or at least this one does, is whether there is something as solid and productive that can be gleaned from phenomenology in the philosophical sense, in addition to its methodological meanderings.

If we as professional and amateur philosophers are to accept psychology as a science (see question 5362 answered by Charles Taliaferro), then what does that make psychiatry? Even if a person fits all the criteria for having a mental disorder according to principles of psychology yet he refuses treatment, why should medical or pseudo-medical psychiatrists intervene so long as that individual decides to refuse to concur with the diagnoses or more importantly refuses to to acknowledge the treatment while accepting the diagnoses? Isn't psychiatry then just a mostly futile exercise in normative ethics to the whim of the patient?

I don't think much depends here on whether psychology or psychiatry is a science. What matters is whether they are doing good or not for patients. Supposing we think they are, a commonsense criterion seems to be that even if patients do not accept the diagnosis or the treatment, things change if they are contemplating harm to themselves or others, as the jargon has it. The jargon persists and is more than jargon because it has a real role; it is a criterion. A second criterion or perhaps test might be this. Can the patients get through the day or week to their own satisfaction, or look after themselves OK? If I have a friend who never gets up, doesn't bathe, won't look me in the eye, can't work and doesn't eat, and has gone down to eighty pounds, then I feel justified in intervening, because of this second criterion, over the stated wishes of the patient. Something is wrong, and I have an obligation, or some responsibility anyway, to help, especially if I am a psychiatrist. Most people in trouble do want...

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