When there is no clear solution to an issue, it would seem to me that assessing risks would be the most reasonable way of dealing with it. In the case of abortion we risk a mother losing the civil right to address her pregnancy within her own moral reasoning, verses a child losing its fundamental right to live. The latter risk seems more pressing and with greater consequence. Can a struggle for justice be assessed upon risk?

You've raised an interesting question. The general approach you're suggesting sounds like a version of what's called "multi-attribute utility theory." Without going into detail, multi-attribute utility theory lets us make decisions even when different sorts of values are at stake. Acting in a certain way might carry a high risk of losing money, but a high likelihood of keeping a friend. Depending on my "trade-off weights" (roughly, how much I care about money vs. friendship), and depending on the possible results and their probabilities given various choices, the tools of multi-attribute utility theory might give me a way of picking a course of action. It seems at least plausible that we could reconstruct any rational way of making decisions within this framework, and so in principle, we might be able to represent the way we think about the case you've offered. But this is really just where all the hard questions start. The first problem is that different people will weight different values...

If we consider the possibility of superior life forms and the possibility of their interference of our own human species for their own gain, and then looking back at our own treatment of animals (inferior species), are Zoos ethical?

A nice question. The thought is something this: there might be creatures out there who are as intellectually advanced when compared to us as we are when compared to, say, three-toed sloths. If it would be wrong for those creatures to exploit us in various ways, doesn't this at least raise the question of whether it's acceptable for us to put sloths in zoos? Or conversely, if our superiority to the sloths makes it okay to put them in zoos, mightn't a race of super-intelligent aliens be justified in putting us on display or "serving" us for dinner? I'm not going to offer an opinion on whether it's wrong to enzoo the sloths, though I think that the answer depends at least partly on whether they're able to thrive in that sort of setting. But there is a point that seems to me worth raising: mere comparitive superiority may not be the issue. There may be a difference between us and the sloths that puts us in a different moral category. At least some philosophers (Kant being the most notable) think that...

Is there a logical contradiction with the notion of having two or more minds? What if it is intelligible that there are two or more minds and that you're the only "self" that is existing but you got so lonely that you created an elaborate delusion (that other minds exist) so that you can escape your loneliness? (Solipsism.) Is the plurality of minds/selves a coherent concept?

I wasn't entirely sure how many issues were on the table here. Your first question seemed to be whether it's contradictory to say that one person has two minds. But as your question continued, the issue seemed to be whether it's possible in general for there to be more than one mind. There's no obvious reason to think there couldn't be many separate minds, and of course what we usually assume is that there are. Whether solipsism is coherent is something that some people have doubted, but I've never found the doubts very convincing. So the question we'll tackle is whether you or I might have more than one mind or self. Interestingly enough, there are serious reasons for saying that the answer is yes. There are two bits here. One has to do with the brain. It has two hemispheres, and in patients with severe epilepsy, sometimes the only way to relieve the symtoms is to sever the corpus callosum -- the bundle of nerves that connects the two sides. Although there is room to argue about the details,...

Is it morally right to make fun of someone I don't even know because it's funny? The person doesn't know they are being made fun of and they most likely will never find out they were being made fun of, so, their feelings aren't in jeopardy and it's entertaining for me.

Although the issues aren't exactly the same, you might want to take a look at Peter Smith's answer to question 2012 . The fact that someone doesn't know they are being mocked or deceived doesn't imply that they aren't harmed. True, if they never find out, then their feelings may not be hurt (though see what follows), but many people -- I'm one -- find the thought of a life in which they are blissfully ignorant of how badly people think of then quite a bit less desirable than one in which they know what people really think. Now of course, it's not an all or none affair. Human nature being what it is, my profession being what it is, and having a certain sense of my own quirks, I'm reasonably confident that some people make fun of me behind my back. (I would hardly be the first teacher in that position.) This doesn't bother me, since I'm non-neurotic enough not to think that most people look at me that way. In particular, I think I have a reasonable idea (no doubt not completely accurate) ...

What good is an apology? For example, the Australian government has decided to formally apologize for the historical wrongs against the Aborigines. Isn't this just an outlet for guilt, rather than actual concern for the victims?

I think there may be two rather different questions here. The first is the general one that you begin with: what good is an apology? The second is whether in a particular case -- the apology by the Australian government in your example -- the apology might be simply a sop to the conscience. I can't pretend to answer the more particular question since I know so little about the details of the case, but what of the larger issue? Apologies by themselves may not be enough; there are plenty of cases where much more than an apology is called for. But for most of us, the practice makes sense from the inside. Suppose I have said something hurtful to you that was entirely uncalled for. Then I've wronged you. At the least, I may have made you feel bad for no good reason. I may also have made you look bad in front of others. I've put the moral relationship between us out of whack. When I apologize, I acknowledge that what I did was wrong, and in doing so, I go at least some distance toward restoring the moral...

In my philosophy class I am told that when I am in deep meditation I can understand that I am something other than a composition of body and mind and that this something other is eternal consciousness. In meditation apparently I should experience a state of detachment from both my body and my mind and apparently in this state of detachment I will realsise that I am observing my body and my mind and that this observing is proof that I am something other than my body and my mind, i.e. that I am the observer of my body and my mind and this is proof that I the observer am eternal consciousness. I find this reasoning hard to accept. Surely it is just a sensation of detachment or disassociation I am feeling and cannot be reasonably be accepted as proof of life after death, etc.

Couldn't agree more. I can imagine what it would be like to feel that I was observing my body from some detached perspective. And I can certainly imagine what it would be like to have the sense that I'm aware of various things "passing through my mind" without identifying with them. But even if it somehow seemed to me that I was actually outside my mind observing it (whatever that's supposed to mean), it is a very long step from there to conclusions about what I am, or what my mind is, and how the mind or the self fits into the rest of reality. I'd add: the experiences on offer here are interesting. But anyone who simply offers the conclusions you've described as the only reasonable way to interpret them doesn't seem to me to be doing what philosophy does. There is a large boatload of objections to the conclusion being drawn, and what someone doing philosophy would do is examine the conclusion in light of those objections. It's also worth noting that the meditative traditions don't...

I am a very ordinary art teacher, one who breaks into a rash at the merest glimpse of an equation, and one who is trying to get to grips with the quantum world. Can you answer me this question about the double slit experiment? In the Double Slit experiment, why is it assumed that the particle splits and then reconverges at a point in between the two expected points, rather than a single particle merely bending and curving its trajectory to arrive at the in between point? Yours, Keith

Hi Keith. A perfectly good question. The short answer is that any such assumption is, to put it mildly, controversial. There are respectable ways of thinking about quantum theory that look at it in more or less the way you suggest. Those ways, however, come at a price: they require us to assume that there are influences on the particile that propogate faster than light. They also go beyond what the theory itself has to say, and add some extra physical/interpretive machinery. That's not a criticism of such views; it's just a remark. Quantum theory, alas, is a topic that leaves us in a peculiar lurch. As physics, it's fantastically well-confirmed and scientists and engineers make use of it in a vast number of ways that give us things like cell phones, laptop computers, MRI machines and a good deal else. But there are weird things about the math of the theory (I'll spare you any equations) that make it quite different from "classical" theories in ways that are still enormously controversial. Just to...

My friend and I were debating about what is considered cheating and what would simply be considered unethical behavior. Suppose two people (call them A and B) were in a weight loss competition. Every Monday the two of them would weigh-in, and the first person to reach the target weight goal would win the contest. Let's assume that this is a friendly competition and the real objective for both participants was weight loss. Both of us agreed that the following would clearly be cheating: a) Prior to weigh-in, A alters the mechanics of the scale resulting in a win for himself. b) A slips some weight-gain contents into B's food without anyone knowing. And, we both agreed that the following would not be cheating: c) A tells B that he has been eating a lot of fatty foods and has not been exercising lately. A has actually been eating healthy meals and also has been hitting the gym daily. The lie was told with the intention of lowering the sense of urgency and reduce the effort put forth by B. Now, here...

There are two sorts of questions here, I think. The first is the one you're actually asking: does the trick with the barista count as cheating – as a violation of the rules that define the game – and not just as doing something wrong? The second question is what settles questions like this. On the first question, the cases you agree on suggest this: tampering is out by the rules of this game, but misleading your opponent about your own progress, etc. is okay. And if direct tampering is out, it's hard to see why getting someone to do the dirty work would be in. That means it would be cheating to hire someone to rig the scales, and it would be cheating to pay someone to lace the coffee in your opponent's thermos -- coffee you can assume he planned to drink anyway. But the case you describe is a matter of tricking him into doing something he might not otherwise have done and might decide not to do exactly because he knows that fibbing is part of the game. So what's the right answer? Is it cheating? ...

Human beings have evolved similar physical attributes over time. Though there is some genetic variation among individuals, we share many traits. But isn't it also possible that, as a result of our common evolutionary heritage, we share similar emotional and moral traits as well? If we all have basically similar emotional machinery, why couldn't we appeal to the general constellation of desires that most of us share, and use them to construct a universal ethics? If the good is what makes us happy, and happiness is the fulfillment of various desires, and if humans have similar desires because we share evolved mental traits, then why couldn't an appeal to those traits in the search for moral agreement? Just as medical experts can give general advice about physical health because most humans share similar physical bodies, why can't psychologists and ethicists give general advice about morality based upon our shared mental traits?

We do have a lot in common psychologically, and all of that matters when we're trying to decide what's right and wrong. And the more we know about the psychological effects of how we treat people, the more information we'll have to feed into our ethical decisions. Psychologists have relevant things to say, as do doctors and, for that matter, economists, massage therapists, and various other specialists. Whether or not knowing everything about what makes people happy would settle all ethical questions, however, is another matter. (Not sure if you were suggesting it would.) For example: suppose that there are things that would make me happy at your expense. Most of us don't think it's just a matter of comparing the sum of my potential pleasure to the sum of your potential pain. Questions about fairness, for example, will also matter, and psychologists have no special expertise in sorting out what's fair. (Neither do most philosophers, for that matter.) There's also room to argue about...

As a young philosophy fanatic attempting to get to grips with the incumbent philosophical zeitgeist's obsession with logic as the source and answer to all its 'problems', I am having trouble finding any substantial reason for the unwavering authority and importance with which this analytic and logical character is treated within the whole of philosophical academia. Where is the incontestible evidence for such an incontestible reverence of such fundamental logical principles as the law of non-contradiction, other than within human intuition and common sense?

Before getting to your question, just an observation: all the philosophers I know believe that they should reason well and steer clear of contradiction, but I don't know any who think that logic is either the source of or the answer to all our philosophical problems. In any case, I'm not sure what would do the trick here. If I'm going to give you "evidence" for the law of non-contradiction, then presumably I'm going to have to reason from the evidence. And I don't know how to reason to the conclusion that one thing is so rather than another unless I take it for granted that contradictions can't be true. Unless you already assume the law of non-contradiction, you could reply to any argument I give for it by saying "I agree it's also true that sometimes a statement and its denial both hold. And in particular, even though the law of contradiction is true, it's also false." I don't really know what would count as "evidence" that the law of non-contradiction is true -- especially if I'm not allowed...

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