If the basis of morality is evolutionary and species-specific (for instance, tit for tat behaviour proving reproductively successful for humans; cannibilism proving reproductively successful for arachnids), is it thereby delegitimised? After all, different environmental considerations could have favoured the development of different moral principles.

There's an ambiguity in the words "basis of morality." It might be about the natural history of morality, or it might be about its justification. The problem is that there's no good way to draw conclusions about one from the other. In particular, the history of morality doesn't tell us anything about whether our moral beliefs and practices are legitimate. Even more particularly, the question of how morality figured in reproductive success isn't a question about the correctness of moral conclusions. Here's a comparison. When we consider a question and try to decide what the best answer is, we rely on a background practice of reasoning. That practice has a natural history. I'd even dare say that reproductive success is part of the story. But whether our reasoning has a natural history and whether a particular way of reasoning is correct are not the same. modus ponens (from "A" and "If A then B," conclude "B") is a correct principle of reasoning whatever the story of how we came to it. On the other...

Is there any problem, moral or otherwise, in mixing money and enlightenment? For instance, asking people to pay spiritual guidance. Should philosophers receive a salary?

Even spiritual teachers have to eat. One might be suspicious of someone who withheld "enlightenment" unless the seeker paid, though in many traditions, support for spiritual guidance comes from voluntary donations. Whatever one thinks about people who explicitly claim to be providing spiritual help, counselors and psychotherapists offer something that's at least in a ballpark not too many miles away. For instance: there are interesting similarities between what one might learn from Buddhist practice and from cognitive behavioral therapy. I, for one, would be puzzled if someone thought a therapist shouldn't charge for her services. Exactly how the lines get drawn here and what, if anything, underlies the difference is an interesting question. If gurus shouldn't be paid, should doctors? How about artists? After all, insofar as I count any of my own experiences as spiritual, some of the more profound ones came from paintings, works of literature, pieces of music. In any case, I'd suggest caution about...

Is there a particular philosophical discipline that deals with large numbers of people doing something innocuous, but having a deleterious effect on a much smaller number of people? If so, does it have a name? Like blame-proration, guilt-apportionment, or anything? Thanks!

Perhaps an example would help, but I think I have the idea. We might want to start by modifying your description a bit. You wrote of large numbers of people doing something innocuous but having a bad effect on a small number of people. If you think about it, however, that means the word "innocuous" isn't really right. And so I'm guessing you have something like this in mind: there's a certain sort of action (call it X-ing ) that large numbers of people perform that has something like this handful of features. First, it doesn't harm most people at all. Second, though X-ing is potentially harmful to some people, the harm would be minimal or maybe even non-existent if only a few people X-ed, and only occasionally. Third, however, enough people actually do X that it causes palpable harm to the small minority. And given your suggested terms ("blame-proration," "guilt-apportionment") I take your question to be about just how culpable the people who X actually are. If that's right, it's a nice...

Is there a way to confirm a premises truth? When I looked it up I found two ways suggested. The first was the idea that a premise can be common sense, which I can't compartmentalize from the idea that appeals to consensus are considered a fallacy. The second was that it can be supported by inductive evidence, which to my knowledge can only be used to support claims of likelihood, not certainty.

The answer will vary with the sort of premise. For example: we confirm the truth of a mathematical claim in a very different way than we confirm the truth of a claim about the weather. Some things can be confirmed by straightforward observation (there's a computer in front of me). Some can be confirmed by calculation (for example, that 479x368=176,272). Depending on our purposes and the degree of certainty we need, some can be confirmed simply by looking things up. (That's how I know that Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in 1889.) Some call for more extensive investigation, possibly including the methods and techniques of some scientific discipline. The list goes on. It even includes things like appeal to consensus, when the consensus is of people who have relevant expertise. I'm not a climate scientist. I believe that humans are contributing to climate change because the consensus among experts is that it's true. But the word "expert" matters there. The fast that a group of my friends happen to think that...

There are certain kinds of moral belief that we view in a pluralistic manner, and others that we take to be absolute. For an example of the former, suppose that I'm a vegetarian who believes that eating meat is immoral. Most people would say that it's inappropriate for me to harangue meat eaters, since they are just as entitled to their beliefs about diet as I am to mine. By contrast, we don't reason this way about things like murder. I am not obligated to respect the beliefs of someone who thinks murder is permissible--on the contrary, I may be morally remiss if I don't try to stop or correct him. What explains the difference between these two kinds of moral belief?

It's an interesting question. Some thoughts. Suppose Rufus believes that murder is morally acceptable. If I know of a murder he's trying to commit, then most of us agree that I'm not just allowed but even obliged to do various things to prevent it. (Telling the police would be the most obvious.) But if I have no reason to think that Rufus is planning to kill anyone, then while it's perfectly okay for me to try to argue him out of his view, most of us don't think it's okay to harass and harangue him about this admittedly despicable view. One reason for this is a matter of keeping civil peace; more on that below. Of course, there may be gradations here. Suppose it's not just that Rufus thinks it's okay to commit murder; suppose he makes a career of trying to convince other people. We'd still think there are limits to how far we can go in protesting, objecting and so on, but the limits would be fewer than they'd be if he were just some random weirdo who wasn't likely to act on his views and also wasn't...

The Constitution may prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, but should common sense? After all, to give extreme examples, religions have advocated such things as cannibalism and human sacrifice. What stops people concealing any sort of immorality or false beliefs under the label of religion?

First a point about "discrimination." The Constitution prohibits government discrimination against religion, but it doesn't, for example, prohibit me from refusing to associate with known worshipers of the Great Spaghetti Monster. So we'll take it as read that government discrimination is what's at issue. With that in mind... Cannibalism is illegal whether or not it's done under the banner of religion. So is human sacrifice. More generally: various kinds of conduct are either illegal or could be made illegal if that seemed to be the right thing to do. That means it's not clear what's gained by outlawing religions that supposedly advocate such things. Maybe someone could say that advocating bad things should also be illegal, whether done in the name of religion or not. And depending on what we mean by "advocate," that's already true in some extreme cases. Conspiring to commit a crime is illegal. Inciting a riot is illegal. But the Constitution and American political mores give people very wide...

Hello! My question concerns the word, "theory". Can a theory be considered fact, and what gives one theory more credibility than another? I know that some theories are empirical, and can be tested scientifically for validity. So if a theory such as evolution seems a fact, why is it still called a theory? Should it not be fact? Obviously, some non-empirical theories, like String Theory, can't as yet be tested, and are questionable. But scientifically, do empirical theories get closer to truth, and can some be called true?

The word "theory" has a common meaning, which is something like "hypothesis" or "speculation." It also has a scientific meaning, which, close enough for our purposes, is "organized set of principles." When we call something a theory in that sense, we aren't saying anything at all about whether the principles are true or false. Keep in mind that the word "theory" even gets used in mathematics---for example, when mathematicians talk about number theory (roughly, the study of the properties of whole numbers.) The word "theory" here isn't meant to suggest that the principles number theorists use are suspect. The "theory/fact" confusion is unfortunate. Evolutionary theory is a theory in the scientist's sense: an organized collection of explanatory principles. As it turn out, those principles have been very successful tools for making sense of nature. So why not just call these principles facts ? We could, but theoretical principles tend to be abstract and general. We tend to use the word "fact" for...

Is it worse to break a promise in order to avoid telling a lie, or to tell a lie in order to keep a promise?

There's no all-purpose answer. Breaking some promises is worse than breaking others. Telling some lies is worse than telling others. But there's no good reason to think that every broken promise is worse than any lie or vice-versa. Telling some lies is worse than breaking some promises; breaking some promises is worse than telling some lies. If you really have to choose, the least bad choice will depend on the details.

Are people and businesses misusing the word philosophy when they say, for example, "My philosophy is to always tell the truth," or "Our philosophy is that the lowest price is the best price?" Isn't that closer to a creed or an ideology?

Briefly, no. Words mean what people use them to mean, and words can have multiple meanings. Expressions like "My philosophy is..." are so common that they represent one of the meanings that the word "philosophy" has come to have in English. Of course it's not what professional philosophers usually have in mind when they use the word, but professional philosophers don't get veto power over usage. A further thought or two: I can't really get bent very far out of shape by this one, but it's a bit unfortunate in at least one respect: it gives some people the impression that philosophy is all about truisms and banal principles instead of being something that calls for rigorous thought. But the cure for that is not to complain about how folks use the word; it's for philosophers to do a better job of helping people understand what we do and why it's worth doing.

Not everyone who smokes gets cancer, but we still say things like "smoking causes cancer." How should we understand causal statements like this?

A good question, but as you no doubt guessed, one that people have thought about. The short answer is that we'll say that X causes Y if X raises the probability of Y, even if it doesn't raise the probability to 100% Let's be a bit more concrete. Think about clinical trials of a medication. Suppose we think that some new compound lowers blood pressure. We might test this by selecting a set of test subjects with hypertension, and then randomly assigning some of them to the treatment group and others to the control group. Ideally the test would be a double-blind test. That is, neither the people administering the treatment nor the people being treated would know if they were getting the actual medicine or a mere placebo. We'd measure everyone's blood pressure before the trial, and then after. And then we'd compare. Normally we wouldn't expect that everyone who received the actual treatment would have lower blood pressure at the end, and we also wouldn't expect that no one who got the placebo would end...

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