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...

Why is it that solipsism can't be 100% refuted? It seems that the theory is very flawed and is called incoherent. And if this is the case then why is it said to be irrefutable? Is the only reason that it can't be refuted is because we can't directly experience what another peron is experiencing, so in other words we can only experience life through ourselves. Is this correct?

Hume once described skepticism as a "malady that can't be cur'd" (a colleague of mine says it's like herpes in that way), and perhaps it's the same with solipsism. The suspicion that it can't be fully refuted depends upon the concern that any reasons brought against it might be gounded simply in the contents of one's self or one's own mind--and that one doesn't fully know oneself or one's own mind. So, pehaps the world and the people in it one experiences are something like dreams or hallucinations. Perhaps the ideas and languages one encounters are one's own invention. Perhaps one's mind has the power (and exercises the power) to create or imagine everything we experience and think and feel, but that power remains hidden from consiousness. One of the most persuasive strategies for subverting solipsism in recent years has been to show that the very thoughts and language in which it is expressed require others to make those thoughts and words meaningful. So, the very existence of the thought and...

Is there any way for consciousness to be measured? What does it mean to say that my consciousness is at a higher level than that of my dog, or that my dog is at a higher level of consciousness than a flea, or that the flea is at a higher level of consciousness than a rosebush? What are we measuring?

"Higher" and "lower" can be quite slippery terms, and your not likely to find philosophers using them in serious contexts. But one might say that different forms of consciousness can be distinguished by the different capacities they possess and the relative detail, discrimination, or complexity of those capacities. So, a form of consciousness that were capable of 600 shades of emotion might be described as more complex than one with only 2. A form of consiousness that possessed self-consciousness, a distinction between self and world, a capacity for memory, for imagination, for planning, for deception, for long attention spans, for causal reasoning, for symbolic thought, for invention, for metaphor, for memory, for mathematical reasonsing, for logical reasoning, for abstraction, for language acquisition, for a vocabulary of the size of the English language, for spatial conceptualization, for music, etc. might be thought of as "higher" than forms of consciousness without any of these capacities. ...

Do you think that there are important differences between general thoughts (like "People are animals" or "Everybody must pay their taxes") and concrete ones (like "That cat is an animal" or "I must pay my taxes")?

Well, there's "important" and there's "important," but I'd say that the most important difference is in the sorts of logical things one can do with each kind of thought. There are many different forms of argument that depend upon what logicians call fully "distributing" their terms. So, from "All people are animals" we can reason quite easily to Anna Nicole was an animal. But from the fact that "That cat is a pet that belonged to Anna Nicole" we can't reason to the idea that "All cats were pets that belonged to Anna Nicole." In fact, you might say that to a large extent, the sciences are concerned with general ideas, rather than concrete ideas, as you describe them. There are, of course, poetic differences, too, that might sometimes be important. Perhaps the most important thing about concrete ideas is that they refer to the existential particularities of one's own life in a way that general ideas don't. Or perhap better, general thoughts are important to one individually only to the extent that...

Is the sale of human organs ethical?

It is difficult to give an answer that would cover all possible cases, and I suppose I can imagine an individual case where purchasing a organ would be permissible. But as a practice or policy, it is not ethically permissible--this because a market for organs would provide incentives for people to sell when they shouldn't--for health reasons and otherwise. The poor and desparate would be exploited in the most horrific ways. If you'd like an example, the film, Dirty Pretty Things , offers a compelling portrait of just the sort of exploitation a market in organs would cultivate.

Does music have any intellectual content?

As opposed, I suppose you mean, to affective or emotional content? Yes, both in the lyrics or librettos of various musical compositions and in the web work of meanings that have come to be attached to various sounds. Like most, if not all, artforms, music exists in an historical context, and within any context music relates to other music. So rhythms, harmonies, instrumentation, chord progressions, intonation, etc. evoke symbols, social ideas, abstract ideas concerning music theory, social criticism, human relationships, the divine, etc. Musical compositions themselves are associated with cultural movements (modernism, tradition, militancy, rebellion), fashion, politics, even entire civilizations (the Europe, Africa, India). When we listen to a song, we listen to a history and to a society.

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