It is often claimed that certain actions - usually in the field of medical and biological science - amount to 'playing God' insofar as the foundations of life are manipulated and synthesized artifically. However, isn't this merely a rhetorical claim given the impossibility of humans acting as gods? Also, what strength does such the 'playing God' claim have against the irrefutable claim that all knowledge demands risk, and an initial ignorance to provide the impetus for the research?

You are right that saying that someone is 'playing God' is merely a rhetorical claim made by those who oppose the kind of actions that the person is doing are contemplating doing. Since, "given the impossibility of humans acting as gods," as you say, it is a way of saying that you should not do the action because it is inappropriate for a mere human to act in a way that is appropriate only for a god. Insofar as the claim has any force, and it does not have much, it is a warning about making fundamental changes without very carefully considering all of the consequences, long term as well as short term, of making these changes. Many actions have massive unintended consequences, especially those that involve changing how we deal with life and death matters.

I've been reading some encyclopedia articles on utilitarianism. As far as I can see, utilitarians have moved from (the defence of) the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of preference satisfaction. A preference is satisfied, I suppose, when someone gets what she or he wants. Now, I think it's reasonable that we ought to try to make people happy, at least in most cases, but I don't think it as reasonable that we ought to try to give people what they want. And anyway, I think that these are two very different ethical theories. Should we call both "utilitarianism"?

There are different forms of utilitarianism, and they have different names. The view that we should aim at the best balance of happiness over unhappiness is often called hedonistic utilitarianism. The view that we should aim at the best balance of desires or preferences being satisfied over desires or preferences being unsatisfied is often called preference utilitarianism. They are both considered forms of utilitarianism because they claim that achieving the best balance of something, either happiness over unhappiness, or desires being satisfied over desires being unsatisfied, is the ultimate criterion for judging the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. Philosophers moved from hedonistic utilitarianism to preference utilitarianism because of the difficulty of coming up with an objective account of happiness, or even one that commanded anything close to universal assent. It was thought that desires or preferences being satisfied was a more objective criterion, and also one that was more tolerant...

Should the retrospective ideas, advice, and wisdom of a dying person be heeded and followed in our own lives? That is, if a dying person wishes they would have lived in a different way, or says that certain things were the most valuable, should we follow this advice, and even change our lives to suit?

There seems to be no more reason to heed the retrospective ideas, advice, and wisdom of a dying person than of that same person when he is not dying. If he is the sort of person who gave good advice previously, then what he says should be heeded; if he is the sort of person who did not give give good advice previously, then his advice shoud not be heeded. There is no reason to believe that dying makes anyone wiser than they were before.

I have been thinking about the nature of "virtue" as it relates to culture and subcultures. My thought is that a clear way of defining a culture would be to identify the set of virtues that are respected. This would be appropriate with respect to understanding certain political leanings as well. For example, I suspect that many Repubicans would place the virtue of "Constancy" high on their lists, while many Democrats would place "Tolerance" highly. This leads to my question, Has any philosopher proposed a universal set of virtues? There are a couple of ways of looking at this. First, is there a set of virtues that is considered to be universal in that every culture recognizes and appreciates the same set? The second approach is whether there is a larger, yet still finite, set from which one could identify specific virtues that define a specific culture?

There seems to be a set of virtues that every culture recognizes and appreciates, but they may not rank these virtues in the same way. For example, given the appropriate account, it is hard to conceive of a functioning culture that does not regard prudence, temperance, and courage as personal virtues, that is, as virtues that every member of that society would like to have. However, different people in a society and different cultures might rank these three virtues differently, some ranking prudence higher than courage and some the reverse. Similarly, there also seems to be a set of moral virtues that every culture recognizes and appreciates, but they may not rank these virtues in the same way. For example, given the appropriate account, it is hard to conceive of a functioning culture that does not regard truthfulness, dependability, fairness, and kindness as moral virtues, that is, as virtues that every member of that society would like the other members of the society to have. However, different...

It seems that human beings are hedonistic by nature. We use reason to find the course that will serve us best when a decision needs to be made. However, we are also passionate by nature. On some occasions our passion, be it in the form of love, hate, ecstasy, or anger, will cause us to abandon reason and perhaps act in a way that is not in our best interest. It is often said that we should follow our hearts and embrace our passionate side. My question is should we live passionately, for better or for worse, or should we try to contain our passions and live by reason?

If you mean by "hedonistic by nature" that human beings always act so as to secure the most pleasure for themselves, then your next remarks shows that you correctly do not think this is true. However, you seem to equate being hedonistic with doing what is in one's self-interest, and this is not true either. It is not always in one's self-interest to do what gives one the most pleasure. You also seem to take reason to be used solely to further one's self-interest, as if it were irrational to sacrifice one's own self-interest in order to save someone else from harm, but it is clearly rational to act in order to prevent a serious harm to someone else, even if it is not in your own self-interest. However, the main point of your question seems to involve the supposed conflict between reason and the passions. It is true that sometimes our emotions lead us to do something that will cause us harm when there is no compensating benefit for anyone. But, in general, our emotions do not cause us to act...

A barman is asked by a more senior member of staff who is currently off duty, but noticeably intoxicated, for a drink. The law states the illegality of serving to someone who is intoxicated, but the managers not only insist upon the bartender serving the member of staff but also state that they will serve him if the bartender refuses. Given this situation, how might one attempt to address the problem of 'the right thing to do'?

The morally right thing for the barman to do is to refuse to serve the clearly intoxicated senior member of the staff. He should also try to persuade the managers not to serve him. This answer assumes that it is true that the more senior member of the staff is clearly intoxicated. Given the truth of this assumption, the barman should point out to the managers that they are not acting in the best interest of the company that owns the bar. Most obvious, if the senior member of the staff has an accident, there will be serious problems for the bar and for anyone who served the alcohol to an intoxicated person. The barman could point out that his refusal should be taken as a confirmation of his good performance as a barman. By refusing to serve the intoxicated senior member of the staff, even under pressure, the managers can be sure that he will not get the bar into trouble by serving alcohol to clearly intoxicated drinkers. He can present all of this in prudential rather than moral terms, as moralizing...

I begin a selfless task with no thought of reward. While working, the possibility of being rewarded for my task occurs to me. Does this new thought invalidate the selflessness of my action, even though I began with "pure" motives? If I am able to drive thoughts of reward from my mind until I am done, does my action become selfless again? If the thought of reward spurs me on to do an even better job, does that tilt the scales even further away from my selflessness, or does it remain steady, because the task was only begun with "pure" intentions?

The new thought does not invalidate the selflessness of your action, but it is morally unimportant whether your act was completely selfless or not. Most actions are done from mixed motives, and all that is morally significant with regard to how the action reflects on your character is whether you would have done it even if you were not to be rewarded for doing it. And since you initiated the action without thinking about being rewarded, later thoughts are of no moral significance. However, whether your act was morally good or right, or morally wrong or bad is not affected at all by whether your motives were selfless. Many immoral actions are done from selfless motives. Indeed, altruistic immorality probably results in far more harm than immoral actions done because of self-interest. Most of the people fighting in wars or performing terrorist acts are not doing so for self-interest, and may be acting from completely selfless motives.

Are virtues something innate within all people at birth, or are they things that one learns over time, and could the same thing be said about one's morality and motivations? Thanks, Gene Mauldin

If one means by virtues, character traits such as prudence, courage, kindness, and honesty, then, as Aristotle says, they are developed by education and training, although it must also be true that most people are born with the capability of developing the virtues. Hobbes points out that children learn more by example than by teaching, so that if we want to bring up our children to have the virtues we should exemplify them in our own conduct. However, some people mean by virtues, personality traits such as compassion and fearlessness. Personality traits probably are innate although they develop as the child grows and can be altered to some small degree. To talks about one's morality suggests that morality is a private matter rather than a public system that everyone one is supposed to follow. Although there can be some slight differences among people about what counts as moral, there is overwhelming agreement on most matters, e.g., that it is wrong to hurt someone simply because you don't like them....

I've read that The Prince by Machiavelli is all about how the ends justify the means. However, it seems to me that the means are also justified in themselves. I think that many of Machiavelli's tactics are just common sense that should be practiced in any case, though obviously in today's world you'd take care of political enemies by propaganda (for example) rather than killing them. Is there a philosophical case for this idea that the means are justified?

It is not clear what it means to say that anything, especially means, are justified in themselves. It may be that the means do not need to be justified as they do not involve doing anything wrong. It is only actions that would be wrong if not justified that need to be justified. Many of the means that Machiavelli recommends do not involve doing anything wrong, so they do not need to be justified. But killing or slandering someone are the kinds of action that do need justification, and it is not a justification for doing such actions that they benefit oneself.

Why is human life valued more than animal life in the absence of religion? Are arguments based on our being intelligent or sentient valid, after all we make the rules. If you could ask an elephant it might offer other criteria to value species by.

Some people value their pets more than other people, but one reason for holding that morality protects human beings more than other animals is that morality only governs the behavior of human beings, that is, in order to persuade all human beings to follow the moral rules prohibiting killing, causing pain, etc., all human beings must know that they have the protection of the moral rules. Neither elephants nor any other non-human animals that we know about have any criteria for valuing species. And morality is not related to species either; if there were another species that was required to abide by the moral rules, the members of that species would also be protected by the moral rules.