Hi- I got this question from Harvard Econ. Prof. Greg Mankiw's blog. He got it from Richard Rorty. Here it is: "Aliens from another planet, with vastly superior intelligence to humans, land on earth in order to consume humans as food. What argument could you make to convince the aliens not to eat us that would not also apply to our consumption of beef?" What's the answer!?!?! Thanks!

It's a fine question, isn't it. Short, sweet, and deeply provocative. In the interests of full disclosure, however, I should, at the outset, let you know that I don't think we should eat beef--in part because of the sort of reasons this question elicits. That being said, I don't think that the claim the question seems to advance is by itself decisive--namely that it's human's superior intelligence that provides grounds for eating beef. After all, if minimal intelligence itself justified eating an organism, then humans with minimal intelligence (including the aged, those with brain injuries, infants and fetuses, the mentallly retarded, public officials, etc.) would be candidates for consumption, and various computers would have moral standing. But establishing moral standing isn't simply a matter of determining intelligence. Rather, I'd say that what principally (not exclusively) marks an entity as one not to be consumed is its sharing or its capacity to share (or have shared) in certain projects and...

Why are performance-enhancing drugs seen negatively for athletes, but no problem for musicians? Why do we worship The Beatles (big-time drug takers and their creativity amplified substantially through drug use) and attack Ben Johnson?

I think this is a fascinating question, one which will probably bounce around in my mind for a while. I can well imagine music companies, for example, writing recording contracts only for musicians who pass drug tests. But I do think there are a couple of relevant differences between musicians and athletes concerning performance enhancing drugs. (1) The nature of the competition in music is not as exclusive. And (2) the extent to which drugs enhance rather than undermine performance is clearer in sports than in music. You see in a running race or playing a match, there can be only one winner. The victory of one implies the defeat of another. In music, by contrast, many musicians can be successful, and it's not clear that the success of one prevents the success of others. Many records can go gold. Now, I'll grant you, in music sometimes success is exclusive. Only one person can be first violin of the New York Philharmonic. Only one performer can win the Grammy in a given year. It's in cases like...

1.) Would you label free market/vanilla capitalism (however you choose to answer) as moral or immoral? Now, is it more or less moral in comparison to its alternatives, such as socialism and all its variations? 2.) Is it moral/immoral to infringe upon property rights in the name of the "common good"? Thank you for your time. I am a student with a strong interest in governmental philosophy and appreciate the concise answers your website provides. Sincerely, Alexander C. R.

Okay, here's a concise answer: Immoral, unless certain predictable consequences are mitigated or corrected. Why? Well, it depends precisely what you mean by capitalism. If one takes a pure form of market capitalism, I'd say it's immoral because it makes no evaluative judgments that take into account the distribution of goods and services or costs and benefits, the suffering of various actors, or considerations of flourishing. Says the radical capitalist: whatever outcome the market produces is okay. I disagree. I think that because of (1) the profound importance in human life of the issues and (2) the intimate connection between (a) economic matters like distribution and (b) moral matters like need, fairness, flourishing, justice etc. the operations of a capitalist economy must be regulated, guided, and directed to produce morally desirable outcomes. In particular moral considerations should guide economic activity to produce outcomes that are fair, moderate and equitable, outcomes that promote...

How can anybody, including myself, be sure that what is seen is real? My right eye was scratched, and I can see this scratch-mark before "reality", as one would see their right hand before their left if they arranged the two that way. I wonder if this proves the external to be an actual place within something (the universe?), like it has an absolute position within my (a sentient being) perception. This brings me to my final question: How can I prove the distance between my two hands? When I look at my right hand in front of my left hand, I see them as two objects apart from each other, but I sometimes see a flat picture, like a movie screen: it is manifestly flat but produces 3-dimensional pictures. Does this mean that my eyes create reality to be other than what it is, like how they create depth to be where it really is not? Or does this mean that my eyes are perceiving reality as it should be perceived? Ugh! And the thought that those who cannot "see things" in ink-blots on white paper have learning...

Yeah, these are the kinds of questions that lead many of us to "Argggh!" They're also the kind of questions that I approach with a great deal of trepidation because they are knottier than knotty. So, please understand that what I say here by the nature of this kind of exposition will be very rough and overly simplistic. You'll also probably find more than a few of my colleauges to disagree. But anyway, let's barrel right on with it. I don't think you can be absolutely sure that what you see is what's "real"--though you really ought to take some time to parse out what you mean by that word because it's LOADED. I take it that you mean by "real" something like what's out there independently of us. In a sense, actually, my best shot is that what you or we see isn't exactly real in that sense. Do remember that old Aristotelian question, "When a tree falls in the forest and there's no one around to listen, does it make a sound?" Well . . . get ready . . . almost yes, but no. No in the way that...

This is a question about the pertinence and legitimacy of the approach towards contemporary philosophy. Increasingly it seems that philosophy has become divorced from common culture, which is sad as the subject has offered so much insight on, and for the sake of, society throughout the ages. Since the advent of the 'new realism' philosophers do not, as I understand, attempt to build systems of philosophy but rather try to answer small and well-defined questions with consistency and through giving a justification for their own notions. However, there seems to be several problems with this approach which I will present: (a) One can be consistently false. In particular, if one focuses on small questions, chances are one is just not including anything within the remit which will challenge one's argument. (b) If one begins from the standpoint of one's own intuitive notions, this is effectively reinforcing one's own opinion and bias. If two people give an argument justifying their opinion, this will not...

I have often found the appeal to intuitions, unsatisfying and sloppy. But I'm not sure it's always so, especially in cases where the intuition is widely shared, or anyway shared by the audience or readership. In that case, it is true that the intuition itself lacks scrutiny, but I have my doubts that we can ever get to the sort of bedrock Absolutes you describe. In fact, even with an appeal to the Absolute, I don't see any way one can be sure one isn't consistently supporting a delusion--since one's appeal to the Absolute might be erroneous. In fact, the many different Absolutes that people have promote today demonstrates that most and perhaps all appeals to the Absolute comprise systems, perhaps even consistent systems, of falsehood. And in any case, is there any difference between calling "p" an Absolute Truth from saying simply, "I believe p very strongly"? I'm inclined to say that appeals to Absolutes and articles of faith impede philosophical discussion by placing certain ideas beyond...

Today in English class we were shown a list of "moral developments" that seemed to progress linearly - how people determine what is moral when they are 5, and how they determine this when they are 40. At lunch, my friend said, "I think it is silly to say there are developments of morality". I replied, "No, they were not developments of morality, but developments how we DETERMINE what is moral. You cannot develop morality because there IS only one true answer to what is moral and what isn't. The list was just showing how people differ in the way they DETERMINE whether something is moral or not." My friend replied that there is NOT only one true answer to what is moral and what is not - that everyone has "his/her own" set of moral values, and there is not any set that is more correct than another, that I was just biased for thinking so. (In other words, she claims that although murder might seem immoral to me, this does not mean that is IS immoral, only that is is immoral by my moral standards. Nothing...

You and your friend have articulated extremely well a philosophical problem that's been debated for thousands of years. Some of my favorite ancient places to think about the question are Plato's Republic and Gorgias and Cicero's De Finibus . I'm afraid I must tell you, however, that the matter really isn't settled--though I do think we're a bit more sophisticated today in working through the alternatives. Some philosophers think there is an objective truth to morality--that morals is somehow grounded in elements of the world independent of our subjective feelings. There are various candidates for this kind of grounding--the divine, nature, language, even the idea that 'goodness' is an objective property of conduct. Others think that the essential element, or at least a necessary condition, of morality is subjective. A couple of things you might consider of the debate you're having with your friend: First, the idea that morality is grounded in something subjective, entirely or just in...

Do we "see" black objects in the same sense that we see objects of other colors? Black objects being those which reflect no light, how is looking at a black object different than closing your eyes (it seems absurd to say that we see anything with our eyes closed); in either case, no light reflects from the object to our eyes. If I have a white piece of paper with a black spot on it, do I "see" the spot, or do I infer it?

This question reminds me of an experience I had going to rent a tuxedo. I told the clerk I wanted a black tuxedo, and he responded with the question, "What shade of black?" I suppose the answer here depends upon what you mean by "see" and by "black." I'm inclined to think that all "seeing" of objects involves a kind of inference or judgment. That is one judges what one sees to be an object. Does it really matter whether the physical cause of what one sees and hence the basis of judgment is light or the absence of light? I'm not sure I see why. What my haberdasher taught me, however, should also be said. That when we see some "black" object, we really don't see utter colorlessness. We see all kinds of shades of gray, etc., so much so that one might argue that we never really see a purely black object (unless one is staring a black hole, I suppose, which perhaps isn't really an object, anyway). We also see boundaries with other hues, as well as shadows and patterns of motion and interaction...

Regarding Mill's (was it?) thought experiment about rather being Socrates dissatisfied than some caged subspecies with a non-ending supply of food. My thought is that the objection "YOU can't be (or justifiably imagine yourself as) someone else" is a non-trivial one. In fact, it seems to me a crushing one to the whole thought experiment. You can't be Socrates; you can't have his wisdom and your consciousness since all of it was a package and defined him, as distinct from you. I also have an inkling that this whole division of someone into parts: consciousness, wisdom, emotional control, etc., is a non-helpful one and gives us the wrong picture of our identities. From personal experience I can attest that the addition of life experience has changed my consciousness, as has the addition of book knowledge. So if I had Socrates' wisdom I would have his consciousness (if we must divide it this way) and I would BE him. Isn't it entirely more productive to think about how WE could be happy as ourselves,...

Your point is well taken. The separateness of persons, the problem of making interpersonal comparisons of happiness, and just plain difference are serious issues, indeed. It's important to use a lot of caution in making judgments about what will and will not make people happier or better off. (And your point about the wholeness of persons is important, as well.) But I think this cautionary principle can be taken too far. In making moral judgments and public policy it's often not possible to avoid making these sorts of judgments. And even in offering kindnesses to others, selecting gifts, taking their interests into consideration, offering them courtesies, raising our children, don't we try to figure out what will make others happy or better off? Don't we even sometimes argue with our friends, lovers, and children about what will make them happy when we think they're making a mistake (say in marrying the wrong person, or eating too much)--that is, when we think we know better than they do what's...

I am impressed by the attempt of some pro-sex thinkers to bring together anarchism and feminism, particularly with regard to the controversial issue of pornography. Since I agree with them that freedom is the guiding principle, I also agree that pornography, like any other form of sexual expression, should be considered morally and legally permissible as long as it is consensual. However, given that anarchism is libertarian socialism, it seems that this principle of liberty should be extended to embrace the ideal of a society (or a network of communities) acceptable to all, including those who wish to be free from pornography, or certain types of it. When, for example, women are involuntarily exposed to men's pornography in the workplace, or on a mass scale in popular culture, can the argument not be made that pornography is then transformed from a private consensual activity into sexual harassment or forced sexist propaganda which violates women's own freedom and sexual autonomy? Could we not, then,...

Yes, in short, I think you're right about restricting the display of pornography while preserving the liberty of those who wish access to it. And isn't that just the kind of balance that is often sought. Pornographic materials are sold from separate rooms of shops, encased in opaque wrappings, excluded from billboards--but access to them for those who wish to acquire them is often in many parts of the U.S., anyway, nevertheless not unreasonably difficult to obtain. It's a tricky thing to figure, however, this balance. On the one hand, there is the liberty interest of those who choose to acquire pornography; and clearly many people find it enjoyable. Arguably, there is also a general political value to pornographic materials insofar as they are part of the conversation about what proper sexual morality and proper sexual expression should be. On the other hand those who find pornography obnoxious have an interest in not being harmed in the sense of embarrassed or annoyed or grossed out by...

To what degree do humans have an ethical responsibility to sustain the species? Let's imagine a situation in which every single person on the planet decided to opt for voluntary sterilization (or every person of child-bearing age). Would this be unethical? Does the human species, as a species, have a responsibility to reproduce itself? Clearly, the planet and the other species on it would, on balance, be much better off without humans on it.

This is a fascinating question, in some ways, I think, it's connected to the question of whether we have responsibilities to things bigger than us in the sense of things that can continue to exist without us--e.g. things like families, nations, political and artistic movements, cultures, universities, businesses. Generally, I would say there is a moral obligation to sustain good things generally--at least where sustaining some good thing doesn't require undermining another of greater value. To your specific question: I would say that considering the species itself, there is no obligation to sustain it, since the simple existence of the species is neither good nor bad, so long as there are other species to substitute for it. Considering the species as part of the larger ecosystems of the planet, where genetic diversity is salutary for the health of living things generally, there is an obligation insofar as the well being of living things is good. Considering the existence of the species as the...

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