Are there any ethical considerations when it comes to helping or harming representations of human beings, such as lifelike dolls, video game characters, images, or humanoid robots? Does one have a duty to help a video game character in need? Should one refrain from punching lifelike dolls for fun?

I don't see any moral reasons to help or protect such entities, which have no interests of their own that might be set back by being shot or stabbed on screen (video game characters and images) or in the real world (lifelike dolls and humanoid robots). But there are moral reasons to refrain from "hurting" such entities (e.g., punching lifelike dolls for fun): each of us presumably has better things to do by way of improving oneself or the world around us.

Is the obligation to behave ethically itself an ethical obligation? If not, what kind of obligation is it? It certainly doesn't seem logically necessary to behave ethically, since people do it all the time without becoming entwined in reality-shattering logical paradoxes, (although perhaps one could argue that people behaving unethically are, in a sense, schizophrenic...), and it isn't an explicit legal obligation, either.

I don't think it makes sense to say that there are meta-duties of the sort you contemplate. The duty to fulfill the duty to help children in need is nothing over and above the duty to help children in need. And the broader duty to fulfill one's moral duties is nothing over and above those moral duties. Still, there are other meta-duties, esp. the duty to work out what one's moral duties are and the duty to fortify one's disposition to act as one's moral duties require. These are simply additional moral duties -- and ones that presumably any plausible morality would postulate.

It seems to me that Kant's categorical imperative implies that we all have a duty to procreate. Is this actually the case? I say this because it seems that any person choosing not having children would be forced to admit that, if their behavior was made a universal law, society would collapse, with a slowly aging and ailing population and nobody to take care of them. Society would die out, and the last generation before the end would be helpless geriatrics suffering the problems of old age with nobody younger to look after them. So do Kantian ethics actually demand that we have children? Or is there a subtler way of looking at the issue?

I used exactly this example in an essay published over 20 years ago as one of the arguments in support of a more subtle interpretation that had been first proposed by Tim Scanlon. On this reading, it is the permission one is claiming for oneself that is to be universalized. So instead of asking whether one can will that all people act on one's maxim of remaining childless, one is to ask instead whether one can will that all people be permitted to remain childless. In the world as it is, we can certainly will this universal permission (because enough others would decide to conceive even without a duty to do so), and therefore each of us is permitted to act on the maxim in question.

if you have an unethical position or emotion towards a person or issue, but never act on it, is it still unethical?

Because you take a position to be something one can act on, I interpret this in the sense of "commitment" or "disposition". So suppose a person has the deliberate disposition to "fix" student grades whenever he is offered $100 or more to do so. (This might be a professor or an administrator or a person with access to the university's computer system.) Surely this is an unethical disposition, that is, a disposition that one ought not to have, and the person so disposed is typically unethical on account of this disposition even if he never engages in any unethical conduct (e.g., because he is never offered a sufficiently large amount). It's different with emotions because these cannot be simply willed away. It is problematic, then, to characterize a person as unethical on account of an emotion that she just finds herself having, without choice. Still, we do have ways of influencing our future emotions, and there are surely emotions that we ought to try to diminish or eradicate (e.g. disgust for...

Where should we draw the line between conduct that is required and conduct that is good although not required? If we have the means to alleviate poverty for example (knowing how serious poverty an issue is), and we did not help alleviate it (or at least the help we gave them was not sufficient enough), should we feel guilty?

While some conduct is clearly morally required and some other conduct is clearly morally good but not required, I don't think there is a line separating the two kinds of conduct. If there were such a line, then there would be -- given all the relevant empirical facts about poverty in the world today and all the relevant empirical facts about your situation -- some precise amount that you would be required to contribute to poverty alleviation. I don't think there is such a precise amount, though it may be helpful to have some reasonably precise guidelines of the sort Peter Singer has proposed (in "What Should a Billionaire Give -- and What Should You?"). There's a grey zone, much like there is about baldness and heaps. Of course poverty is a horrible thing. Out of seven billion, over one billion human beings are so poor that they are chronically undernourished, more than ever before. Right now in East Africa people are dying by the thousands from famine. Of course we are required to act in the face...

Over at, a website where videos are posted of speakers discussing things from consciousness and virtual reality to comedy and architecture, there are often talks dealing with issues such as hunger, AIDS, and poverty. Shockingly, to me, many people who post comments on these videos strongly oppose measures helping those suffering based on the fact that "there are already far too many people on this planet." Helping those who are currently dying or otherwise suffering, the logic goes, increases the ecological and economical burden on the world by letting more people live longer and healthier lives, which, they seem to think, will ultimately worsen conditions for everyone via lack of resources. So my question is this. Assume it is true that there are too many people on this planet (a debatable fact that depends on what metrics one uses). Is it then ethical to let millions die because helping them would further increase the ecological burden humanity places on the planet?

I let others answer the hypothetical. The key point to stress in response to such comments is that the assumption on which they are based is empirically false (see my answer to question 2459 at ). We are fortunate that the moral imperative to eradicate the massive incidence of hunger, severe poverty and trivial diseases is in harmony with the moral imperative to bequeath a sustainable world, with a sustainable human population, to future generations. It is very unfortunate that this fact is not widely known. It should be stressed in any discussion of your hypothetical: a morally attractive and highly cost-effective way of slowing human population growth is to fight hunger, severe poverty and trivial diseases and to promote education, especiaally for girls and women.

Has a person been wronged if they are cloned without their consent? Presume that the cloning process is non-invasive; a scientist simply picks up stray hair you left behind, and then makes a clone of you. Does that violate your rights? Do we have a copyright on our DNA?

This question is at the extreme end of a cloud of questions. The person who picked up your stray hair might use your entire genetic information (cloning) or any subset thereof. I don't think there is a general moral answer here about where to draw the line. There are some clues to a moral answer about how the line should be drawn in the law. Obviously, the less of your genetic information is copied, the less of a legitimate interest you have in preventing the copying. If they just copied the bit that controls hair color (I know, this isn't quite the way it works, but let me simplify a bit), then it is hard to see how you would become worse off by the fact that there is someone somewhere 20 years younger than you who has the same hair color. In cases where more substantial chunks or your genetic information are copied, you may well become worse off -- for example, because your talents, looks, or basic personality traits become less unique. In these cases, the more copies are produced, the...

In a recent question / answer, it was asked "how can a person know that an action is immoral, yet do it anyway?" and the response was "a person can 'know' things on different levels and so can engage in self-deception." I have a question about the response, which then leads to a deeper more qeneral question. Suppose a person knows that an action is immoral, yet does it anyway. Might that not indicate that the person [at least in this instance] does not care whether s/he behaves in a moral manner? and where does the concept of 'evil' stand in philosophy, and how might the concept of 'evil' explain this apparent disparity?

I agree that a person can, without self-deception, do what she knows to be immoral. This happens quite frequently. People lie to their parents and spouses about matters that legitimately concern them; people lie to colleagues and supervisors in order to get out of unwanted chores; people ignore the urgent needs of others, such as the famine currently endangering the people in the Horn of Africa. Many people doing such things know that they are acting wrongly and they do it anyway. Does this show that they don't care about morality? Not necessarily. It may show that they don't care a lot. They care more about avoiding an unpleasant conversation, an unloved chore, or an undesired charitable donation. Such conduct may also indicate moral sloppiness: some people don't pay enough attention to clearly make the judgment they they are acting immorally. This is analogous to ordinary sloppiness, where someone knows where the speed camera is and nonetheless fails to slow down on the relevant stretch of road....

Do people have a right to be racist? I argue that people don't. They have a legal ability to be racist but not a right because a right implies that you are in some fundamental way their is justification to be racist and that's just not true when it comes to racism. Am I right? Am I almost right?

Your position is that it is -- and probably also that it should be -- legally permissible to be racist but that this is not morally permissible. I think most people in contemporary democracies (myself included) would agree with this. But they would typically understand the phrase "people have a right to be racist" in the sense of legal permissibility and would then disagree with your denial of it. Once its clear what they mean by affirming the phrase -- namely that it is and should be legally permissible to be racist -- then you would have no objection.