Is there any credence to the idea that acting morally works in evolutionary terms, i.e., that it helps preserve the unity and survival of a co-dependent group? If this is the case, surely talk of absolute morality derived from religious scriptures is worthless, and our morality is just a refined survival technique. Thanks for a great site!

It may well be that there's an evolutionary story to be told about how we come to adopt moral codes and so on. But your question, as I'm reading it, is whether this undermines the objectivity of morality -- leads to the conclusion that our moral views are neither correct nor incorrect, or something like that. In fact, the two issues seem quite distinct. Compare: No doubt our ability to sort things by shape evolved and helps us survive. But that doesn't mean things don't really have shapes, nor that our beliefs about shapes are somehow flawed or empty or merely a "refined survival technique." There's a third strand to be separated out here. If there is such a thing as objective morality, what makes it objective isn't the fact that it's to be found in some scripture or other. On the one hand, none of us needs scripture to be convinced that wanton cruelty is wrong. And on the other hand, some things called for in some scriptures don't seem right on reflection at all. To sum up, what evolution...

I was taught that philosophers should not try to abolish ordinary notions like "existence" or "truth," but only to explore them. But I have also heard that time may not be necessary for fundamental physics. In general it seems possible for science to drop an ordinary type of notion by demonstrating a theory (or theories) without it. Can philosophy also do away with an ordinary notion? Should it try to?

"Shoulds" in philosophy are a tough sell. And in particular, the idea that philosophers "should not" try to overturn ordinary notions is one that's regularly challenged by philosophers. For example: many philosophers have argued that there is no such thing as a "self." Some philosophers have argued that the ordinary notion of belief is incoherent. And challenges to the idea of time, to take your example, have come from within philosophy itself; McTaggart's famous article " The Unreality of Time " offered purely philosophical arguments for abandoning our familiar ways of thinking about time. It would be not just hard but perverse to argue that philosophy should never challenge our ordinary conceptions -- even if the challenge runs very deep. After all, sometimes we are confused, and even when we're not, there's often something to be learned from meeting the challenge. That said, some attacks on ordianry notions may take those notions to carry more baggage than they really do. The case of the ...

Why do most philosophers insist that ethical principles should be universal? Can't I have my own private ethical code, my own set of principles, which I don't expect anyone else to follow, although I would not be against the fact that others follow it, that is, I'm not trying to be a free-rider or harm anyone. One of my principles might be: don't preach.

You could have your own personal code that you didn't expect others to follow. And there's even a familiar sense of the words "ethics" and "ethical" that would let us call this your "code of ethics." No problem there. But there's also a perfectly good sense of the words "ethics" and "ethical," and of related words like "moral" that says there is something else. On the view that these uses of the words aim to capture, there are some things that are wrong whether or not they happen to be part of your private code of ethics. Anyone who thinks that there are such things will say that ethical principles in this sense just are universal. You might think that there are no such principles, or that no one can show that there are, or that people who insist on them are preachy, or arrogant or confused. And perhaps that's the correct view. But perhaps it's not. Perhaps torturing unwilling victims for your own pleasure is just wrong, period . Perhaps using other people as means to your own...

Why do we desire authenticity? Why do we want to be the cause of our own happiness rather than, say, medication? Why do we want to know that the jazz musician is truly improvising her solo rather than playing some pre-composed part crafted to sound improvised? Why is it so important to us that we experience the real world, and not a utopian virtual reality fed to us by machines?

Like Lisa, I also enjoyed your question and have been mulling it over for several weeks -- without making a lot of headway. But here is a thought. It's true that we do value various sorts of authenticity (real creativity, "real" as opposed to "surrogate" experiences, etc.), but there are different ways we could go about asking why. One way would be to ask a sort of scientific/psychological/biological question: what is it about the way we're wired or raised that leads us to put a high value on the things you've labeled as authentic? Not being a scientist, I can't say, but it's reasonable to think that as the world actually works, authenticity and genuine effort are more likely overall to produce beneficial results. If we didn't care about real creativity, for example, then the kinds of innovations that make life better from just about any point of view might never come about. On that way of looking at things, we might say that authenticity has an instrumental value, and that this rubs off on...

I was reading Andrew Sullivan's view about homosexuality (in favor) and was wondering what would be the Kantian and Utilitarian response to his arguments.

Not having the details of Sullivan's view ready to hand, all I can offer are some general comments on homosexuality, Kant and utilitarianism. On Kant, you might want to have a look at the replies to question 1681 , and if you can get a copy, at Alan Soble's paper "Kant and Sexual Perversion," cited in his answer to that question. Prof. Soble makes a strong case that Kant's views on homosexuality are little more than sophisticated gay-bashing. The most relevant Kantian thought might seem to be that we should never treat anyone -- ourselves included -- merely as a means and not also as an end. In Kant's view, any sort of sex outside marriage falls short on this score, including masturbation. (Kant seems to have been particularly hung up about solitary sex.) This means that arguments against homosexuality based on Kant's views are likely to prove more than their proponent may have had in mind. In any case, it's hard to credit the view that non-marital sex always amounts to nothing more than...

How can abortion be so easily accepted in a civilized society? Sure, it is important that a woman or any person be able to have control over their body, but the fetus is a separate entity, a new person completely, as is logically shown by the fact that a mother can give birth to a male child. Anyone can tell this without having to use the available scientific evidence which proves my point. So, what gives any person the right to kill someone else so that they can live the way that they want?

There are plenty of hard issues about when and whether abortion should be allowed, but the particular argument you're offering won''t work. You seem to be saying: a typical newborn is a person (I take that to be the point about giving birth to a male child) and you go on to conclude that a fetus is a person. But this simply doesn't follow. It's perfectly consistent to think that, say, a two-week-old embryo isn't a person, i.e., a being with the same sorts of rights that you and I have, even though other things being equal this embryo will eventually become a person.

Am I correct in thinking that vibrations in the air are just one cause of sound, and that really sounds are what are experienced? So for example under this definition of sound, ringing in the ears is included. Equally then, that sights can be caused by light bouncing off objects but also by the imagination? Can I draw the conclusion then that there are an equal number of sounds/sights/tastes/smells/feelings that have ever existed, than have ever been seen/heard/tasted/smelled/felt? The tree that falls in the woods with no one in it makes no sound at all (but plenty of vibrations)?

The issue here seems to be verbal. It's not clear that ordinary language has a settled answer to the question whether "sound" refers to the vibration in the air, or to the experience that the vibrations cause. If we fix on the former, then there have been plenty of sounds that never led to any experiences. If we fix on the latter, then sounds and experiences of a certain sort are one and the same thing. But there's no deep fact about which is the "right" way to think of it. Something else worth keeping in mind: language doesn't map onto the world in any simple, direct way, and in particular we need to be careful about letting the fact that we have the noun "sound" fool us into thinking that there is some thing in the world -- a sound -- whose location (in the head? in the landscape?...) needs to be sorted out.

As I see it, there is not a single person on the planet who can prove or disprove the existence of God. If there is no provable God and/or afterlife then there can be no better hope for anything beyond the grave than what religion espouses. If there is a God however, then the rewards for correct behavior are well defined. Why then would the rational man NOT believe in some sort of supreme divine being if there is no proof either way?

It sounds as though you're giving a version of Pascal's Wager . One version of that argument runs along the following lines (whether or not this is exactly what Pascal had in mind): If God exist and I believe, I'll get infinite bliss. If he exists and I don't believe, I'm damned. But if God doesn't exist and I believe, I lose little, if anything and if he doesn't exist and I don't believe, I don't gain that much. Since belief potentially gains me much and loses me little, but since disbelief potentially gains me little and loses me much, I should believe. One problem, of course, is whether skeptical people can actually get themselves to believe. Pascal thought they could by going to mass, taking holy water and the like. Let's suppose he's right. What's the downside? One famous difficulty is the "many gods" objection. Which version of God do we believe in? What sorts of actions should we perform? Should we be Christians? What if there's a God who sees that as an unacceptable form of thinly...

Would humans effectively eliminate most emotions given sufficient rationality? In other words, if humans became highly rational creatures then would we become less emotional?

Only if you define "rationality" in a way that makes it opposed to emotion. But for a lot of reasons, that would be a dubious definition. For one thing, we have reason to believe that intelligent decision-making isn't disconnected from emotions. There's been a good deal of work on this topic by philosophers and scientists, but one well-know place to start is with Antonio Damasio's book Descartes' Error . It turns out that the emotional centers in the brain have an important role to play in helping keep us on the rails. We can add: other things being equal, it doesn't sound rational to choose a life that makes it less likely that we'll be happy and fulfilled. But for most of us, a good deal of what makes life meaningful is bound up with our emotions. In a perfectly obvious sense of "rational," it's rational to seek love, let ourselves cry in the face of tragedy and open ourselves to joy. A concept of "rationality" that ruled all this out would be poor and perverse.
Law

The laws in our societies tend to be more and more complex, both in content and amount. Nobody can be supposed to know or understand all of them. Yet, as a citizen you are obliged to know and understand all the laws. Isn't this a dilemma? /Lars

There's the old saying that ignorance of the law is no excuse, because it's an excuse that anyone could offer and we wouldnm't know how to refute them. Legally, things are a bit more complicated. I gather that the Due Process clause of the US Constitution carves out some exceptions. If there's nothing "obviously" illegal about a certain kind of conduct, and the State doesn't provide proper notice to citizens that it's against the law, then the law won't pass constitutional muster. A fanciful example: suppose that buried in the bowels of some omnibus bill was a provision making it illegal to drive a red-and-blue car, but the State made no effort to let people know. Fining someone for this new "offence" would probably not stand up to challenge. So in US law, at least, there's some requirement that citizens have a reasonable chance of knowing what's illegal. But even supposing all the laws were properly promulgated, it's not clear that we have an actual duty to know and understand them all. ...

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