My friend and I were having a discussion about racism. He made a claim to me that he would never date a black woman, but that he wasn't racist. Now, to me, that seems like a racist comment. But he says that I am misunderstanding him. These are his arguments: "I do not find black women attractive, and so I would not date one. You might call me racist then, but if I said I didn't like women with brown hair, or women with gray eyes, does that necessarily mean that I am discriminating against women with those attributes? It would just mean that I wouldn't consider a woman with gray eyes or brown hair a prospect for a sexual relationship. Furthermore, I could say that you don't wish to have sex with men, and by your logic, that would make you sexist against men." His arguments are persuasive, but I find something very wrong with them. It seems to me that if someone is otherwise compatible with you, it shouldn't matter what race they are (or, in fact, if they had freckles or blond hair, et cetera). ...

Your friend represents you as offering a bad argument: people who saythey're unattracted to people with characteristic X are prejudiced;your friend says he's unattracted to black women; hence, your friendsays, you conclude that he's prejudiced. But that doesn't strike me asa plausible diagnosis of what's going on. The problem isn't that you are relying on the bad argument your friend accuses you of. The problem is that yourfriend's supposed preferences are awfully hard to credit. The obvious question to put to your friend is this: does he find all women with dark complexions sexually unattractive? If he says yes, then he might be telling the truth, but it's not easy to believe. If he says no, then things are equally puzzling: among people conventionally labeled "black," there is a wide, vast variety. Could it really be that there's something that all black women have in common that makes them unattractive to your friend? What could it possibly be? And so we have a puzzle. Your friend...

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Would my life be less valuable if I chose not to examine it? If I simply did everything according to the conventions and mores of my society, would my life be less valuable than someone who questioned these things deeply?

A good question! In the most important sense, the answer is no. But theterritory is a bit complicated. Start with the famous quote from Socrates. If we think about it, we'rebound to say that many unexamined lives are unquestionably worth living.Socrates' comment is hyperbole at best and perhaps something much worse. Somepeople just don't have the temperament for reflection. But that doesn't meanthey can't be kind, generous and decent, it doesn't mean that they can't leadsatisfying lives, it doesn't mean that the world would have been better withoutthem, and it certainly doesn't mean that they might as well not have lived atall. Of course, we're all obliged -- insofar as we're able -- to do some localthinking. At the least, we're sometimes obliged to think about the consequencesof our actions for others. We're sometimes obliged to ask whether our motiveswould stand up to scrutiny. More generally, we're obliged to do what's right,and that sometimes calls for a certain amount of self...

What, precisely, is requested when the question "What is X" is asked?

It depends, doesn't it? If the question is "What is that funny-looking gizmo?" it's likely that the person simply doesn't recognize the sort of thing s/he's seeing. The answer might be "It's a pressure cooker weight" or "it's a memory chip." Sometimes "What is X?" is a way of asking for an explanation of the meaning or reference of a word, as in "What is a basilisk?" (Answer, as any Harry Potter reader knows: it's a giant lizardly sort of beast that can kill you simply by staring into your eyes.) Perhaps what you have in mind is a question about the "essential properties" of something -- about the nature of some kind of thing or stuff. A sample question might be "What is water?" and the candidate answer might be "Water is H 2 O." The idea would be that this is the nature of water -- the kind of stuff it is. If this really is the nature or water, then nothing could count as water unless it was H 2 O, and for reasons that aren't simply linguistic. However, philosophers won't all agree about...

Is religion based around God or can people have a religion without believing in God?

Religion seems to be what is sometimes called a "family resemblance" concept. If we try to tie it up in a neat definition that draws sharp lines between religions and non-religions, we're likely to fail. Instead, what we find is that there are various things we refer to as religions that resemble one another in a variety of ways. For example: although it would be a mistake to say that Buddhism avoids all notions of the supernatural, the idea of a creator God simply isn't part of any form of Buddhism that I've ever heard of. But Buddhism in its various forms is usually counted as a religion. There are many Unitarians who don't believe in God, but think of themselves as religious and as belonging to a religion. Even within familiar theistic traditions there are some interesting variations. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich wasn't a theist by any conventional accounting; his notion of the "Ground of Being" is not much like what most people thinnk of when they think of God. So the answer seems to be...

The Times reports that Martin Tankleff was just granted a second trial after spending 17 years in prison for a crime that he very likely didn't commit. If he's found not guilty, or, more to the point, if he's in fact not guilty, why doesn't he have the right to commit 17 years' worth of crimes "free of charge"? OK, maybe not 17 full years' worth, but you'd admit, I hope, that at least some of the jurisprudence of punishment is based on retribution, so can you discuss the role of his time served in future punishment deliberations? For instance, say he happens to commit a crime later in life, not out of some sense of entitlement, but for any of the other "normal" reasons (like passion!): how relevant should his time served be?

My impulse is to say that we're mixing apples and eggnog. It's true that retribution is part of the way we thinkabout punishment. But however we understand retribution, it's hard tosee how the State's wrong against you would make it okay for you to rob me or beat me up. After all, even though I'm part of the body politic, qua private citizen, I don't represent the state. And in any case, robbery, embezzlement, assault and various sorts of mayhem are the kinds of things we should shy away from. Giving someone a free pass on future misdeeds because of past mistreatment by the State seems to miss that point. If Mr. Tankleff is indeed found not guilty, then it's not unreasonable to think that he should receive some sort of compensation. But 17 years (or even 17 days) of punishment-free crime doesn't seem like the right way to go. Things being what they are (no time machines, no guaranteed life-extending potions...) monetary compensation sounds like a much better idea, even though it...

I thought that modern philosophy tended towards the tentative, the open-ended, and the permanent possibility of error, yet some philosophers on this site answer questions, usually on moral issues, with an almost dogmatic certainty worthy of Pope Ratzinger. How come?

Without discussing specific posts (though I dare say I'm one of the people who fit your bill), it might be something like this: just as some things are pretty clearly true or false, some things are pretty clearly right or wrong. And if the question posed is "first-level" -- i.e., one that asks about the rightness of wrongness of some particular act or policy, rather than raises the question of whether there's really any difference between right and wrong -- then there's not much point in pretending that something is unclear or up for grabs when it doesn't really seem to be. Suppose the question was whether it's okay for Robert Mugabe to run Zimbabwe the way he does, because after all, he has the power to do it, and perhaps might makes right. (Far as I know, no one has ever said that on this board...) I may not know what the best meta-ethical theory is, but if I have any moral knowledge at all, I know that what Mugabe is up to is wrong. So why shilly-shally? Indeed, it's tempting to to say that anyone...

My dog sometimes acts in an aggressive way because he feels he has to protect my family like we're his pack. I find it interesting that although he lives in an environment very different from what would be natural, he still feels the need to do this because of his instinct. He feels that the world is in his control and is oblivious to politics and other issues that affect the whole world. How do we know that we are any different to my dog? We assume that he knows very little about the world, but he probably thinks the same about us and so how can we know that the world isn't actually being run by him? Or if not by him how do we know that everything we think we control and understand isn't actually in the control of ants, or plants, or stars? Millie =]

Or tiny pieces of tinfoil! One way to think about your question is from the day-to-day point of view of ordinary knowledge. From that point of view, we know -- or take ourselves to believe reasonably -- that your dog doesn't run the world because there isn't the slightest evidence that he does and a good deal of evidence that he doesn't. Unless I'm much mistaken, your dog shows the usual signs of doggly limitations. We seem much better at manipulating him than vice-versa. Most of what we do doesn't have any obvious connection with anything that Poochie shows the slightest signs of caring about. In fact, there's no reason to think that Poochie has much of anything in the way of thoughts about who controls what or about what we think. (Poochie probably doesn't have a "theory of mind," as some people say.) Another way of taking your question is as a humorous way of asking how we know anything at all. In some weak sense of "possible," it's possible that the whole world is under the control of...

This question pertains to philosophical education or philosophical pedagogy: Even though I do not hold any degrees in philosophy (I hold undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science), I believe that philosophy should constitute one of the foundations of higher education. It is impossible, I believe, to be truly educated without a sound background in philosophy and logic. To this end, I have always believed that with the wonderful emergence of new technologies it should be incumbent upon every capable institution of higher learning to seek to disseminate such core foundations. This can be done, with remarkable ease these days, through distance learning. However, with the exception of a very small number of philosophy departments associated with certain universities, most departments of philosophy look upon distance learning, seemingly, with great loathing. Furthermore, the thought of actually establishing distance degree programs in philosophy (whether at the undergraduate or graduate...

I have actually taught philosophy online. (I may be the only panelist who has.) In my case, it was a contemporary moral problems course, and I will be teaching an intro to philosophy course online as well. My own view is that there's no good reason why this can't work. A former colleague of mine had a view of philosophy that I've come to think is correct. Although philosophical conversation is good, philosophy ultimately gets done by writing. I don't know how many times I've had the experience of trying to write up an idea that I'd thought about or discussed and discovering that it needs considerable tweaking if it's going to work. The advantage of the online course is that it's all in writing from the outset. One popular format that worked well for me: I would pose a question in response to the readings or to earlier discussion. The question would be of a sort that couldn't be answered in a line or two. Students would have to post a reply on a discussion board, and they would also be required to...

On a TV program tonight, a legal show, the client was a clergyman accused of indecent exposure. He admitted his guilt to the barrister, but said that he was going to plead "not guilty". The barrister replied that under these circumstances he could no longer represent the clergyman. The latter replied "Oh, when did lawyers begin to occupy the high moral ground?" The barrister replied "Probably when the Church first began to confuse morality with ethics". I sort of understand the answer but am not really clear about the distinction, and why the reply was obviously a palpable hit. Could the duty philosopher help on this? David

Our department was having a meet-and-greet a few months ago. A man came up and said to me in a :you'd better get it right" tone of voice: "What is the difference between morality and ethics?" I told him that in my experience, philosophers don't make a sharp distinction in the way they use those words. I told him that some people seem to use the word "ethics" to talk about what we might call "descriptive morality" -- what people happen to think is right or wrong, and reserve the word "morality" for what really is right or wrong. But I reiterated that philosophers don't seem too worried about which word we use for what. He told me I was wrong. The occasion called for stifling the urge to say "Then why the h*ll did you ask if you already know the answer?" and I behaved myself. But I never did figure out what he meant. My guess about the putdown you describe is that it has to do with a curious association: in certain circles, there's a tendency to think of sex when the word "morality" comes up....

My question is following: can we estimate how many validities (formulas that are always true) are there among all formulas of propositional logic? Is there a method of doing it?

As it turns out, the answer is easy: there are aleph-null tautologies (formulas true in every row of a truth table) in any standard system of propositional logic -- for sort, in SC (sentential calculus). Here "aleph-null" is the number of integers. Here's a sketch of a proof. First, how many formulas are there in SC? Infinitely many, of course. But it's possible to set up a function that pairs each formula in SC with a unique positive integer. (There are many ways to do this, in fact.) So there can't be any more formulas than there are integers; no more than aleph-null. But some standard arguments tell us that every infinite subset of the integers has the same number of members (aleph-null) as the set of integers itself. In the usual terminology, every infinite subset of a countable set is itself countable. (I recommend as an exercise thinking about how that might be proved.) So, we know that there are aleph-null formulas of SC. But we also know that there are infinitely many tautologies....

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