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Setting aside the sort of lies told by parents to children, are there any lies which, in the panelists' view, it would benefit people in general to believe? (For instance, you might think that although there is no god, religious belief is so beneficial as to outweigh a strict concern for truth.) Or is it the case that there is no lie worth believing?

I think there are probably lots of lies worth believing, and that this probably varies from individual to individual: the person even thinking about drinking and driving ought to believe that he or she will end up harming someone that night, even though statistics do not actually support that belief. The person thinking of cheating on a test ought to believe that she will get caught, even if the chances are very unlikely, and so on. But many people might think the very question of whether or not there is a lie worth believing is a moot one: the question assumes it is possible to make yourself belief in something you know to be false. Many philosophers think this is just not possible, that you cannot "will to believe" something, just because believing it will somehow benefit you. This seems right to me: there is something about belief that has to be sensitive to the truth. If it really were the case that you knew something was a lie, I don't think you could believe it. The situation may change if...

Is it ethical for the civilized nations of the world to research weapons of mass destruction [chemical and biological] for the purposes of warfare? Both Russia and America have stockpiles of small pox a deadly virus that could do considerable damage to humanity. Is it ethical to keep said stockpiles as a precaution, as a counter measure to terrorists and warlike nations? Is it ethical to keep up a chemical and biological arms race through research and weapons development? I find myself wondering how we can fight a war with weapons like Ebola and smallpox. Do you have to become your enemy to defeat them? How far should we go to preserve the West? Are some things not worth the loss of moral standing? Do those that serve and protect our nation states really have to go that far and is it worth it? My concern likely echoes the dilemmas faced by many during World War Two and the question as to whether using nuclear weapons was worth the loss of humanity; either the lives lost or the abstract ideal of...

From an ethical standpoint, the research and development of weapons of mass destruction is justifiable only by appeal to the deterrent effect possession of such weapons has. When a country has weapons of mass destruction, others are deterred from using force against that county. There is a significant catch, though: in order to attain the desired deterrent effect, other countries have to believe that the country who possesses the weapons will, in fact, use them if provoked. And this is where the logic of deterrence gets sketchy: ethical considerations of the efficacy of deterrence support the having of weapons, yet in order to serve as deterrents, a country has to be prepared to use them. Those very same ethical considerations, however, may not support the actual use of weapons of mass destruction. These considerations do not directly respond to one of your central concerns, which is whether or not the use of weapons of mass destruction is justifiable. Yet I do hope to have raised some...

We often to defend an action by justifying the intentions, but isn’t that the straw man’s fallacy? The question was never ‘were his intentions good,’ or even ‘were the results of his actions good,’ but rather ‘was the action itself good.’ Does the greater good justify a smaller evil, and do good intentions make an evil action good? Can somebody do something that’s bad without being bad in doing it? Take for example, suffering. We generally accept that suffering is evil, but that doesn’t mean that I’m doing something wrong for suffering, does it? Even though suffering by its nature is accepted as bad we don’t consider it ‘sinful’ for me to do so. So, to summarize, my question is: Can an action be evil simply by the nature of its existence?

Moral philosophers will disagree on this topic; there are many different theories of moral worth. Some place significant weight on intentions, some do not. I think one helpful way of approaching this issue is to sort out the different considerations at stake. First, consider the act. We can understand the act as it is embedded in the particular circumstance, or the act as it is itself. For example, there is something that is always bad about the act of killing. Yet, killing in wartime is (at least) not always bad. Viewing the act of killing as it is embedded in the circumstance of warfare changes the moral evaluation of the act. Second,consider the agent. We can imagine all sorts of circumstances where "a good person does a bad thing". A person harms someone by accident; a person tries to help someone yet fails miserably through no fault of her own. These are cases where intention and acts come apart. These considerations might help to explain some of the examples you raise in your question. ...

To what extent should our actions be guided by our theories in ethics?

Ethical theories are meant to cover all areas of one's life. If someone truly embraces a particular ethical theory, then all of her actions ought to be at least consistent with her ethical beliefs. Some decisions, and corresponding actions, have no ethical value: choosing which pair of shoes to wear is not something that is normally construed as having moral relevance! And, really, many of our actions are of this neutral sort. Even with these neutral actions, though, the consistent agent will ensure that her actions really are neutral, and do not conflict with her ethical commitments.

I think that moralistic judgements and punishments are insidious: they make people do things out of shame, guilt and for the wrong reasons. It seems to me that they can hinder people from empathetically connecting with their own needs and the needs of others, that is moral judgements are metaphorical defensive walls that we erect as part of our outer shell. Allow me to illustrate what I mean. Suppose one child hits another. If the perpetrator's parent interferes and scolds their child using the moralistic language and punishments that is pervasive in society, e.g. 'you are a bad boy', or 'that was a wrong thing to do' and then banning from watching T.V. Now the usual response this will get is either: a) defensiveness, e.g. 'he started it' and/or b) if the perpetrator does refrain from similar behaviour in the future it will probably be because they want to avoid being punished. This could be contrasted to a parent attempting to empathise with why the child hit in the first place and drawing the child's...

In response to your first question, there is a pretty significant discussion in contemporary ethical theory regarding the concepts of obligation and duty. Elizabeth Anscombe, in “Modern Moral Philosophy” suggests that talk of duty is meaningless absent the existence of a lawgiver. Both Michael Stocker (“The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories”) and Bernard Williams (“Persons, Character, and Morality”) take this concern further, and argue that concepts of duty and obligation can be psychologically damaging to agents. While these authors don’t explicitly discuss the moralistic judgments and punishments your question cites, they do address your more fundamental concern that appealing to “duty” is problematic. Your second question is harder to answer. Some might justify appeal to moralistic language and punishments on the grounds that they can be effective modes of getting people to do the “right” thing (even if they psychologically damage people in the process!). One might try to justify the...

I strongly believe in non-violence and I try to teach this to my 4-year-old son. Nevertheless the result is that I reprove my son whenever he uses violence and at the same time their classmates hit him, probably because he is an “easy target”. Do I have the right to impose a “moral law” to my son, even though this law is not followed by most of the children and causes unhappiness to my son?

The short answer to your question is that, strictly speaking, parents have a right to teach their children whatever they want. My guess is that you are really wondering whether or not you ought to be teaching your son non-violence, or whether or not you are justified in doing so. The answer to these questions, I think, will depend on the nature of your belief in non-violence. If you believe in non-violence because you think it leads to a happier world, then the fact that your belief in non-violence causes unhappiness to your son should carry some weight. But if you believe in non-violence independently of its connections to happiness, then you may very well be justified in teaching this belief even if it does cause unhappiness to your son. You may determine that the central values to be learned through teaching non-violence are so important that they outweigh the temporary unhappiness generated by this commitment.

A common moral argument made against sex or sexual relationships between adults and minors is that there will always an imbalance of power between the adult and the minor involved. Because of this, such relationships are said to be exploitative, even if there is informed consent and the minor is not harmed either physically or psychologically by the experience. Assuming that such a scenario is possible - a minor gives informed consent to a sex act or a sexual relationship with an adult, and is not physically or psychologically damaged by what follows - is the imbalance of power between the adult and the minor really enough to render the adult's behaviour morally wrong or exploitative?

The reason why we worry about an imbalance of power in these cases is because where one party has more power over the other, it is possible that the other is being coerced by the more powerful party. It is not necessarily the existence of an imbalance that is problematic, but the potential this imbalance has to prevent the weaker party from making free and informed choices. The problem is exacerbated when the weaker party is a minor, as the issue of informed consent is trickier when we deal with children. Many believe that children are not capable of giving informed consent in any situation; certainly we would have reason to be concerned in situations where there also exists an imbalance of power. If we could really establish that the minor has given informed consent, then the existence of an imbalance of power might not in itself be problematic. But it is an extremely difficult task to establish the existence of informed consent in such cases, which is why most people think sexual relationships...

Is it immoral to convince someone of some true proposition P, by exposing them to what you know to be an unsound or invalid argument? For example if I told my friend: "If it rains, the grass will be wet. The grass is wet, therefore, it rained." Now supposing it really did rain, would it be immoral to use this invalid argument to convince her? If we answer in the affirmative, it would seem to lead to some unpleasant conclusions. For instance, it would be immoral to put a sign in my yard that says "Candidate X for City Commission", because the sign might convince people without offering them a sound argument. But we answer negatively, it would seem to justify deception. Using unsound arguments to convince people would give them at best an unjustified true belief, not knowledge. Is there a middle ground here?

Your question raises some fascinating issues. I think it will help to separate your question into two distinct concerns: (1) Is it immoral to use faulty reasoning to convince someone to believe something? (2) Is it immoral to place people in a situation where they might believe something on the basis of faulty reasoning? My first instinct is that situations involving (1) are likely to be immoral, whereas those involved in (2) are probably not. In cases of the first sort such as cases where you use poor reasoning to convince someone of something, as Professor Smith notes, there is a degree of deception at work. While most moral philosophers don’t think that deception is always a bad thing, they nonetheless think it is bad absent special justification. We can imagine cases where deception is harmless (as in your example, of using faulty reasoning to get someone to believe it rained, when in fact it did rain), or even beneficial (as could happen when you deceive someone to do something that is good for...

Is there really a Social contract? Many supreme court cases have upheld that the government is not liable to protect you. For example, if a police officer dawdles around while your house is burglarized, he isn't liable to you for not upholding his duty to protect you. How do we consent to government to govern us when it has a monopoly over our area?

In thinking about the existence of a social contract, or lack thereof, the first thing we need to do is separate questions about the possible terms of the contract from questions about its existence. You note that courts have denied that the members of the government can always be held liable to protect individuals; these rulings on their own, however, don’t give us reason to believe either for or against the existence of a social contract. For example, rather than suggesting the non-existence of a social contract, they could instead simply reflect the terms of the contract, and in particular, that absolute protection is not one of the terms. And this would be reasonable: we typically think that the terms of the contract should be limited, at the very least, by what is within each party’s capacities. Yet is not always within the government’s capacity to be both fully informed of possible threats and to be prepared to protect individuals from those threats. Your overall concern about the very...

My friend and I were discussing the nature of justice and we couldn't define it in a way that differentiates it from revenge. Both involve the idea of causing pain/suffering to the perpetrator of a crime since he/she has caused a certain amount of pain/suffering to a person or society. Is the only difference that justice is supposedly 'objective' in the sense that non-involved persons determine the amount of suffering the perpetrator should receive as opposed to the 'subjective' nature of revenge when the victim decides? This led us to wonder what is the opposite of justice/revenge and we thought it might be mercy, when you do not inflict suffering on the perpetrator. My friend pointed out that each Muslim prayer begins with "In the name of Allah, the most just and most merciful". Is it possible to be both just and merciful at the same time? Isn't there a contradiction there?

There are certainly deep connections between justice and revenge. J.S. Mill , in his Utilitarianism, suggests that the sentiment of justice is really just an extended desire for revenge. He argues that we all have a basic impulse for self-defense that directs us to seek revenge on those who harm us. Through a combination of our intellect and sympathy, we extend this desire for revenge to anyone who harms our community, and a sentiment of justice arises. Mill would probably agree with your analysis that justice is distinguished from revenge largely in that the sentiment of justice has an objective nature, while a desire for revenge has an inherently subjective character to it. Notice, though, that Mill is talking about the sentiment of justice, and not justice itself. We can separate the sentiment of justice from justice itself, which covers a sphere of actions, of which acts of retribution comprise just one part. With revenge, on the other hand, it is harder to separate the sentiment of revenge...

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