Can there be such a thing as 'progress' in human history? Does time and circumsance have a more than superficial bearing on our beings? Or are we essentially the same regardless of historical epoch or geographical conditioning? I refer to the so-called 'birth of reason' in 17th century Europe, and its so-said 'dawn of modernity'.

There can be no simple, unqualified, unequivocal "progress" in human history because what is to count as progress or regress must be determined as such by some measure, some set of criteria for progress. But, so far as I can seen, anyway, there is no unqualified set of criteria to measure by. One can, however, speak meaningfully about specific kinds of progress. For example, one can speak of technological progress in processor speed, or progress in understanding black holes, or in eliminating poverty, or in curing lung cancer, or in reaching the end of a journey, or in gaining financial independence. Mere "progress" itself, however, seems to have little meaning. About whether or not we remain "essentially the same" across space and time, I think the answer depends upon what you mean by "essentially." For myself, I think of people as plastic but not infinitely plastic. Just as one can make many different kinds of things with clay (even an infinite number of different things), one can't make anything....

Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

It's an interesting question. I note that you don't ask whether literature can "establish" the truth, or "discover" the truth, or "distinguish" the truth. It's also interesting that you ask about "truth" and not "knowledge" or "wisdom"--though you do seem to suggest that literature is one among a number of other areas of "knowledge." And what of "tell"? What does it mean exactly to "tell" a truth? And what of "better"? What can it mean to "tell better" or "tell worse"? Of course, one question I'd have at the outset would be what you consider literature to be. I take it that you mean fiction and poetry. But of course some also would speak of biography, journalistic writing, history, film, song, and what has become known as "creative non-fiction" as literature, too. Philosophers like Stanley Cavell have explored the question of whether or not philosophy might be read as a kind of literature, whether it might even come to regard itself as literature. So far as it goes, I am inclined to say that...

During a heated argument about social placement resulting from speech, a close friend of mine asked me "WHY should I speak correctly?" The question was an inclination that he wanted to be persuaded by my answer, more so that just asking for a fact on the matter. As I answered him, he started to dismiss my opinions, question everything I posed with a simple phrase: "But if I CHOOSE to speak improperly, and I know I can switch back to proper speach (he tried to make it seem to me he had prior knowledge of more enhanced words that he could use when I know he did not (he is pretty dull)), then shouldn't it not be held against me to do so?" I disagree with him. If one knows how to speak properly, they should not need to be persuaded into doing so, they should just do so, knowing it is correct and proper to do so. Can one of you please afford an opinion on this argument.

Yes, issues of speech, morality (and politics) can be rather agitating. Perhaps one way of getting at the issue here is to ask what you mean by "should" when you say "should just do so" and what your friend means by "shouldn't" (and "held against") when he asks with regard to speaking improperly, "shouldn't it not be held against me"? The reason I ask is that philosophers distinguish between what might be called (1) "instrumental" uses of the word "should" and (2) "moral" uses of the word. So, for example, one might say, "To support the load presented by the trucks and cars that drive over it, you should use materials of such and such strength when building the bridge." Or, similarly, "In order to secure your investments, you shouldn't invest in that firm." Or, "In order to cure that disease, you should prescribe this medicine." All these are instrumental uses of the word "should." They're instrumental because they talk about the means that ought to be employed to achieve a certain end. ...

A question regarding the non-feasibility of political separation of church and State: Remarkably often, philosophers, politicians, and amateur debaters make the statement that a group "must not be permitted to force its religious beliefs upon others" in a nation with separation of church and state. However, for instance, in the United States of America, wouldn't this stance be in direct violation to the concept of majority-rule politics? E.G., In "Democratic government X with church-state seperation": 1.) 51% of voting citizens are "Religion Y" 2.) This group is spiritually opposed to "Concept Z" 3.) The no-or-other-spirituality community is pro-"Concept Z" Doesn't this violate support of separation of church and state? Through majority rule, the agreed system of government, laws would most certainly pass forbidding excercise of Concept Z. However, this clearly violates the legal/spiritual disparity implied in Church/State arguments. How can the ideal of separate church and state be balanced...

A really excellent question about some especially thorny issues. I'm not an expert in constitutional law, and so I would advise searching US supreme court and federal court decisions relevant to these issues. For myself, I would at present answer thus: Yes, the doctrine of "separation of church and state" does violate the principle of majority-rule. (The phrase was first used by Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter to Danbury, CT, Baptists: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.") But that this separation limits majority rule is a good thing and something necessary for the realization of a democratic society. Democracy is not simply a matter of majority rule. If it were, the majority would be able to abuse minorities. Majority rule...

Many elderly people I've met are extremely lonely yet somehow extremely strong emotionally. They often say that friendship today isn't the same as when they were young. Can we be too old for friendship? When the years fall and maturity reaches its ultimate heights does our heart turn into a shell?

Loneliness does seem to be an affliction common among the aged in modern industrial/consumerist societies, but I'm not sure empirically that it's greater or less than that suffered by other segments of the population or the elderly of other sorts of societies. If it is, I suspect it may be caused by factors such as: isolation, the deaths of friends and spouses, the loss of meaningful work, and the loss of time with children to mobility and to the concerns of their own lives. In many ways, in our society the elderly seem to be left out and left behind. I doesn't strike me as accurate, however, that among the elderly hearts commonly "turn into shell[s]." On the contrary, I find that many among the elderly possess relatively open, warm, and giving personalities. Factors contributing to this seem to include being unburdened of the demands of work and freed from the business produced by modern life so that one possesses more free time to spend socializing and talking. Friendship often arises through the...

Is homosexuality ethical? If so, what differentiates it from incest? More specifically an infertile incestual relationship that has two consenting adults.

An interesting question. To answer in order: Homosexual relationships, like heterosexual relationships, can be conducted in both moral and immoral, virtuous and vicious, ways. I find no reason to regard homosexuality to be itself immoral. Of course, many others, especially those with religious commitments, think otherwise. For myself, I find that the many pleasures and virtues achieved through homosexual relationships (pleasures and virtues that would be lost to us were homosexuality prohibited) militate against judging homosexuality to be per se immoral. Besides religious objections, there are also, of course, various civic and health-related arguments against homosexuality (e.g. that it undermines the family, that it exhibits and produces illness, that it makes for incompetent parenting). So far as I can tell, these are, similarly, either unsound or outweighed by the goods produced by homosexuality. How is homosexuality different from incest? Well of course the two are different simply by...

I'm puzzled by the Kierkegaardian 'leap of faith' concept. If someone announces he is the son of God and violates the laws of science (i.e. by performing miracles) to prove it, then 'faith' doesn't come into it at all as far as I can see - one has no choice but to believe, like if the current Pope levitated to prove he is Christ's Vicar on Earth. Or does this 'faith' really boil down to the belief that these ancient miracles actually occurred, and that the 'son of God' claims are attendant on and pursuant to them? I don't see how anyone can dismiss Christ's miracles and base their belief solely on faith especially when the Resurrection (a miracle) is so fundamental to Christianity. Surely 'faith' presupposes lack of evidence and is blind. (I would add completely untenable, too.)

Yes, I think this is an important question. The issue of miracles as evidence for religious claims is a fascinating one. But I wonder if there really can be an event that we could have good reason to believe violates the laws of nature. David Hume explored just this question in his little essay "Of Miracles" in the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), and I tend to agree with his conclusions, though sometimes I still wonder. Here's the thing suppose the Pope started levitating. Why should that prove that his religious beliefs and claims are true? Why not conclude that he or someone else has discovered a way to produce levitation using the laws of nature? You see, in the case of any observed event, X, we can either choose to think there's a supernatural cause or a natural cause. Just because an event is extraordinary, like levitating, it doesn't follow that there's a divine cause. There may well be a natural cause that we just don't know about about, a causal sequence we don't...

When philosophers say that something is morally relevant or that a reason is a moral reason, what does "moral" mean? What makes moral reasons different from other reasons? Can something be both selfish and moral?

Well, to a large extent the answer to your first question depends upon the author and the context, because the phrase "moral reason" isn't exactly a technical term. One general way to distinguish moral reasoning from other forms of reasoning (for example, strictly theoretical reasoning) is to say that moral reasoning leads either to action or to a prescription for action. So, while a chain of theoretical reasoning is likely to end in the claim that something is the case (e.g. X is true), moral reasoning is likely to end in an action or a prescription for action (e.g. one ought to do X). Something else one might include in moral reasoning is the ability to apply general moral principles to particular situations (e.g. this is a particular case of Y type and where the right thing to do is X). About "selfishness," the term itself commonly connotes something immoral; and so it seems that selfishness is wrong as a matter of definition. But it does depend upon how one defines the term. If you simply...

Are aesthetic judgements entirely subjective?

Now, of course to some extent it depends upon how one defines "subjective" and "objective." But tersely, I'd say this: No, there are relatively objective bases to aesthetic judgment in at least two senses. For one thing, the criteria by which we come to make aesthetic judgments are in a significant way shared by members of our cultures, socieites, histories, and traditions. For another, the cognitive faculties and sentimental structures that underwrite aesthetic judgment are shared among large numbers of human beings.

If you kill someone in self-defence, is that still an immoral act or does it depend on what form of moral philosophy you subscribe to? If an act is justified does that mean it's moral?

This is an extremely complex set of questions, and really doing it justice is, I'm afraid beyond the scope of this web site. There are many thorny philosophical issues involved in it. But to give a brief answser in the light of these qualifications, I'd say this. Regarding your first question: yes, depending upon what you mean by "moral philosophy and "subscribe." Acts aren't in themselves moral or immoral. Calling them either one involves a judgment on our part, and that judgment is in large measure determined by a set of concepts, ideas, concerns, and feelings that broadly speaking might be called a moral theory. Regarding the second question: yes, depending upon what you mean by "justified." If a set of reasons and statements can be offered that in some sense warrants or licenses or supports us calling an act "moral," then that act is properly called moral. But what gives warrant or license is a very difficult thing to determine. Much of what counts as moral controversy involves figuring out what...

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