Why should I believe you?

You should not believe me unless I offer you, or you have independent access to, compelling reasons to do so. In fact, I think that you’ll find that, so far, most of the responsesthat have been posted to the questions on AskPhilosophers.org have notaimed at persuasion–at getting to you believe something. Instead, mostof us have described ways of thinking about particular philosophicalissues which we ourselves have found helpful or interesting. Certainquestions that used to be very puzzling now seem much less so once wenotice certain conceptual distinctions, certain ambiguities inlanguage, or certain tempting fallacies of reasoning. Equally,questions that initially seemed pretty straightforward can be shown tobe much more complex, and so much more puzzling, once we noticecounter-intuitive implications of the straightforward or common-senseanswers to these questions.

Fair enough, Alan. Based on my experience of human beings, the more sociableand cheerful attitude that you suggest seems appropriate as ageneral day-to-day attitude toward others. I’m generally not worriedthat people are lying to me. But I understood the question differently– not as directed to humanity in general, but at us in particular, the panelists on AskPhilosophers. I took the questionernot to be wondering whether we were lying but whether we knew what wewere talking about. There are a lot of people out there promisinganswers to life’s big questions, and skepticism seems to me to be aperfectly healthy response to these promises. It was for this reasonthat I tried to assure the questioner that we aren’t making any suchpromises.

What are the moral responsibilities of a very intelligent person to the general public? Should they be held to the same standard of behavior as their less fortunate peers?

A widely accepted dictum in ethics is that “ought” implies “can”.Philosophers disagree about what exactly this means– but I think thatthe kernel of truth in this idea is that we can’t hold someone morallyresponsible for doing things that he or she couldn’t have not done.One's abilities in some sense set the limit of one's obligations. Presumably, it’sin virtue of their possession of certain abilities that other people lack that some people aredescribed as “very intelligent.” But it’s not clear to me that one ofthese abilities is necessarily the ability to act morally. For myreasons for doubt, go here .

Is it possible to philosophize about the human condition from a lofty philosophical viewpoint rather than gleaning humble wisdom through the experience of engaging with the messy experience of meeting, befriending and loving the mass of mere humanity?

No. Or, at least, not well. Philosophers, like everyone else, are trying to make sense of it all. But how could you make sense of a phenomenon with which you not familiar in its full complexity and messiness? How could you even know what questions need to be answered?

Is tiredness an emotion, and if not, why not?

Energized as I am by a good night’s sleep and sweet dreams, I’ll givethis question a shot. (I’m hoping also that the inadequacy of myresponse will inspire Alan Soble, who knows far more about these mattersthan I, to answer the question!) Plato drew a distinction (in Republic IV) between feelings like pain, pleasure, hunger, lust, and thirst, andmental states like anger. Anger, he said, was answerable to reason inat least two ways. First, in order to be angry, I must have certainviews about what the world is like. For example, I am angry that myfriend revealed my deep, dark secrets. My anger presupposes my beliefthat my friend did reveal my deep, dark secrets. Second, Platobelieved, in order to be angry, Ihave to have certain views about how the world should be. Myanger is caused not only by my belief that my friend revealed my deep, dark secrets, butalso by my belief that my friend should not have done so. Feelingslike pain, pleasure, hunger, lust, and thirst, Plato thought, are notlike that: I...

Suppose that I'm working on a medical treatment for a project with no known cure or even treatment. My subjects report that they feel much better after receiving the treatment, but subsequent study shows that the treatment is, in fact, ineffective and all that I'm seeing is the placebo effect. Can I ethically tell them the truth and thereby make them feel worse subjectively? Would that violate the "do no harm" principle of medical ethics?

The injunction “Do no harm” is hard to follow unless one knows whatcounts as harm, and there is no clear consensus about this issue. Itdoes seem that by making a person feel worse, I am harming her. Feelingbad is in itself a bad thing, and it might also lead to other badthings. If I feel bad, then I may not be able to do other things that Iwould otherwise enjoy, things that I might believe have value inthemselves. At the same time, it seems that I could be harmed if I amprevented from learning the truth about my situation. If I have falsebeliefs, I might make choices that I would otherwise not make, choicesthat lead me to feeling worse than I would otherwise have felt. Could Ibe harmed by being led to believe something false about myself even ifthis false belief never leads to any decrease of good feelings or anyincrease in feelings of pain, dissatisfaction, or discontent? Let’simagine that I believe about myself that I am widely admired and deeplyloved by my friends and family and that this belief...

I believe in allowing other people to live out their respective journeys in life - this requires a lot of tolerance sometimes. How does one reconcile respecting another person's journey with the great harm the person can do in the community by their actions? A right-wing zealot with his/her black-and-white world view versus a left-wing person whose view on life comes with a much more complex color-shaded world view. It is the right winger, that threatens the community with his/her worship of free-market capitalism (which really isn't so free-market), their dependence on lying and twisting the facts to fit their narrow view of the world (they just do it a lot more than liberals), and imposing their heretic version of Christianity on the rest of us. How does one respond ethically to counter the right-wing influence in this country yet respect this person's journey of self-discovery and their contribution (eventual perhaps?) to the community?

When you say that you “believe in allowing other people to live outtheir respective journeys in life,” do you make no exceptions? Do youthink that it’s a good idea to let anyone do anything that he or shesees fit? Liberals who are committed to tolerance often draw the lineat actions that threaten great harm to others. After all, even liberalsare committed to laws against murder, fraud, maiming, and the like, andmost don’t worry that their endorsement of such laws reveals a morallyobjectionable intolerance of people who are committed to different lifeplans from their own. Your question raises interesting questionsabout when and why tolerance is a good thing. I think that many peopleare committed to tolerance because they believe that tolerance is theonly attitude that is respectful of other people. But if a respectfulattitude toward others is what people who are tolerant are attemptingto achieve through their tolerance, then their commitment to tolerancecannot be absolute (i.e., exceptionless)....

Recently I was debating with others the proposition that solving social problems in games enhances one's ability to solve real-world problems (my view was the negative: many excellent strategic gamers consistently make spectacularly foolish personal decisions in real life). This seems to generate the question: "Do philosophers have a better track record of making successful personal decisions than the average minimally-thinking individual?"

And why, pray tell, can’t one expect someone with philosophical insight always to do the best? Socrates assumed that once we knew what we should do, we would automatically act as we should. His student Plato disagreed– as did most philosophers since him. We have other sources of motivation besides knowledge of what is best. As Plato put it, we have certain appetites– whether natural or acquired– that are insensitive to considerations of what is best and we have emotional responses that aren’t perfectly calibrated to our view about what is best. For this reason, even if I believed that it would be a bad idea to give in to this temptation, I might still have appetites or emotions that over-power my better judgment.