Advanced Search

When assessing an act of violence, we tend to be less severe on violence committed in the heat of the moment than on premeditated violence, which we judge to be far more cruel. Yet, when we punish hot-blooded violence with the violence of, say, long-term imprisonment, we do so with premeditation. Are we therefore more cruel as judges than the criminals we condemn?

Great question! I suggest that premeditation may work in both cases in a parallel fashion. So, I propose that If we reach what turns out to be an unjust or wrongful punishment of someone (who is innocent) then the fact that we did so with great premeditation makes our wrongful decision worse than if we made a "heat of the moment" verdict. In the later case, imagine a police officer believes there is sufficient evidence that a person is armed, dangerous and putting innocent persons lives at risk, but this turns out to not be the case (the person is acting, and only simulating a school shooting with a realistically looking guns, but these are props). In such a "heat of the moment" event, an officer might be expected to act on her best judgment even if it turns out to be wrong. But in cases of premeditation --either in the use of force or in reaching verdicts in court-- I think we rightly expect there to be enough time for persons to scrutinize the evidence more thoroughly to reduce the risk of wrongful...

A common defense of an unethical act is to say, "If I didn't do it, someone else would." Let's say for the sake of argument that such a claim is true. Is it a credible defense? I wonder if a utilitarian in particular should be receptive to this line of thought.

Good question. Yes, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism and, as the term suggests, the concern is with the net consequences of action. If some consequence is inevitable (imagine this involves an injury) and it cannot be prevented, then it may be an open question about who brings about the consequence. I note that this would be an "open question," because a utilitarian might still have good reasons to be very concerned about who does the act. Let's say you and I have applied for a job that will result in one of us (unfairly) injuring someone and, for some reason, this unfair injury cannot be prevented. I get the job and reason that, well, if I don't do it, you would. It still may be worse for me to do the act for, having done it, perhaps I have a weak character and am more likely to do far more unjust acts (than you). But, setting aside this additional way of measuring and comparing consequences, it is usually the non-utilitarian (the Kantian or advocate of virtue theory) who claim that it...

Hello, My dad died before I could pay him back $20,000 that he lent me. My dad had a Will that left 50/50 to my sister and myself. $1,000,000 each. My sister changed my dad's Will when he had dementia and he had no idea what he was doing. My sister ended up with all the money being $2,000,000 in total. Do I have a moral obligation to give me sister half of the $20,000 that my dad lent to me that I never repaid to my dad?

Tough decision. If the father were still alive, even with dementia and even if the sister had altered the Will, I think you would owe him the $20,000 due to the (I presume) promise you made to pay him back. The promise was made to him, after all, and was probably not qualified in terms of mental fitness ("I will pay you back so long as your are mentally competent"). With his passing (and I am sorry for your loss) I suggest that matters change insofar as your sister manipulatively (wrongly) altered the Will. Ideally, the sister might have a moment of conscience and, realizing the wrong she committed, she would voluntarily half the bequest. Perhaps (from a strategic point of view) offering her the $20K might even shock her into some repentance, e.g she might be incredulous (in a good way) that while you have been wronged, you were still trying to make amends. Failing that, there might be legal recourse of declaring the Will null and void, given that your father was not competent to make the change he did...

What is the right (ethical) thing to do with money that has landed on your lap? I recently won $500 based on a workplace recognition award. My nomination was based on strong achievements in the workplace over the past year, but the final selection of the top five nominees was random. I feel that the money would be better served by donating to a charity - but I am interested in whether there is a moral obligation to do so. I am very financially secure, and do not "need" the money

Great question. Some philosophers believe that the distribution of property should be governed by utility or happiness. So, some utilitarians might well contend that you are obligated to give disposable (non-essential) income or wealth to those whose welfare is worse than yours and who would (probably) benefit from the bequest. Some political liberals like John Rawls argue similarly that goods should be distributed to the less fortunate, thus seeking to correct the ostensible unfairness of the fact that some of us have greater goods than others (and this is often not based on merit, but on inheritance or the good fortune of being born in good health, and so on). Robert Nozick, on the other hand, would hold that you are entitled to your good fortune, seeing that you did not receive it unjustly and, you at least partly earned it (even if the final matter was determined by lottery). I am inclined to this later position on the grounds that the utilitarian approach would put us on a slippery slope requiring...

The attempt of religious believers to understand what atheism is has led many people to have misconceptions about what it entails. I recently went on Facebook and was confronted with an argument/arguments which belies atheism, and science in general. The belief expressed in the Facebook post was that the logical conclusion to an atheistic evolutionary worldview is that we would all be stabbing and raping each other, and simply doing everything we can just to survive. (Additional details about the post are at the end of my question in case of confusion) The conclusion this person is implying is that because we do not live in such a world of violence, we must be relying on the morality of god. This claim seems clearly rediculous to me, yet to many believers it appears cogent. My question is about how to represent this argument in a formal deductive style. Here I will present two propositions i think are involved in the confusion. The first proposition A is my rendition, and the second proposition B is a...

The philosophical terrain is a bit tricky here. I suspect most of us (whether religious believers or not) know (or maintain) that murder and rape are wrong because they violate other people, as well as (presumably involving a host of vices) like malice, hatred, spite, lust, and so on. A moral argument for theism (the belief that there is a supremely good Creator-God) comes into play when one asks a general question such as: Is the existence of our cosmos in which there are inteterdependent, moral agents who are ethically obliged to care and respect each other (as well as there being laws of nature, diverse life forms, etc...) better explained naturalistically (e.g. evolutionary biology, etc, but no God) or theistically (e.g. evolutionary biology, etc but with a Creator God)? So, I think that, rather than your versions of A and B, the better framework for reflection involves looking at a broader picture. But getting closer to the argument that you reported, I suspect that someone who claims that the...

What do we mean by the assurance, "It's not personal"? Why is that supposed to mollify us?

Great question! It might mean different things in different contexts! When a firefighter tells you this after rescuing you, she is probably trying to prevent you from thinking she is the new love in your life. "It's all part of the job" sort of thing. In the context of philosophy, the expression probably comes up when one philosopher is criticizing another. Aristotle says something like he has loyalty to Plato (his teacher for 20 years) but he loves truth more. He might have said: "Plato. My not accepting your theory of ideas and the soul is not personal." I suppose the expression conveys (on occasion) that mutual affection, even close friendship, is not a guarantee of agreement or loyalty to the views and arguments at issue. In that sense, while the expression may not "mollify" it might be intended to convey the message that disagreement does not mean personal disrespect or (even) lack of love for the persons involved. Still, I am drawn to the (at least general) idea that philosophers should...

I'd like to ask about the morality of homewrecking: if two people, say B and J, are married, is there anything wrong with a third person, A, actively pursuing B? It seems to me that A could say: it takes two to tango; everyone has a right to maximise their happiness; one should respect B's autonomy; and I'm not responsible for the consequences of B's actions. J could reply: but you cause foreseeable suffering by your actions. To which A could respond: I think autonomy and the morality of what actions are permitted should trump the morality of thinking about consequences, but even when applying the morality of consequences: if B stays, then both he and I will be unhappy; if B goes, then it is only you who are unhappy. What do you think? Is homewrecking clearly morally wrong?

The way you set up the question is quite interesting. While you are right (as J points out), one reason to think that the "home wrecking" is wrong would be foreseeable suffering, but this would seem to be not the strongest reason because (as you point out) the "home wrecking" might actually produce a net gain in happiness even if J suffers quite a bit from the loss. I suggest that the stronger reason for A not to pursue the breakdown of the marriage is that marriage itself consists of mutual promises (vows) between two persons to be steadfast in their loyalty / faith to each other. In most cases, this is probably a vow for life-long fidelity in terms of sexuality -- but also in terms of the primacy of allegiance in a couple constituting a family, even if only two are the family with no children. Assuming that the marriage vow is for life-long fidelity, the third party "A" really is the outsider and is launching an external (intentional?) challenge (J would probably see it as an assault) on the vow...

John needs money to buy the farm he has always dreamed of. If his aunt dies this week, John will inherit the needed money from her, although John does not know that. He does not like his aunt very much. Miles away, his aunt is stuck in her home, which is in flames. Mary breaks into the house and saves the aunt, who would have died otherwise. My question is: did Mary (unknowingly) harm John? (I am a lawyer.)

Great question! I suggest that Mary did not (unknowingly) harm John, given the case as described. One reason for thinking this is not a harm is a kind of slippery slope line of reasoning. If John is harmed by the rescue of his aunt, many, many people are being harmed right now when their benefactors are enabled to live. You have singled out John as facing a timely opportunity (without the money this week, the farm of his dreams slips through his fingers), but I suspect that my nephews and nieces would really like their inheritance from me right now for all kinds of reasons and, while I hope they actually love me and would prefer I lived a while longer, I think it would be (at least) odd for them to believe they were harmed when I narrowly escaped death from a drunk driver car accident. Actually, come to think of it, I can imagine my nephew and niece thinking "if only that bloke had driven a little faster, we would have the funds we want from Uncle Charles's estate' so maybe this is not so odd. But ...

It is said that one should put others before oneself, but isn't this impossible? Consider two people, Mr A and Miss B. If A succeeds in putting B before himself, B can't put A before herself. Hasn't B been forced into being selfcentred by A?

There can be a paradox here: imagine Mr. A vows he will not go through a door unless Miss B goes first, and Miss B vows she will not go through the door unless Mr. B goes first. Sadly, they may be in a fix, unless the two of them fall prey to optical illusions or somehow wrongly come to believe that the other has slipped through the door first and the way is clear for them. But in your case of A and B altruism, I am not sure the problem is arresting: imagine that A gives primacy to B and so goes and prepares lunch for her, whereas B gives primacy to A and prepares lunch for him. In this case, perhaps they both enjoy lunch (especially if they both believe it would be showing respect to the other to eat together --Mr. A might enjoy his lunch out of consideration for Miss B, while Miss. B would enjoy her lunch for the sake of Mr. A). I wonder whether your case might raise a question about the alternatives you have set up. You seem to give us two choices: either put another person first or be self...

Are all moral questions philosophical? Some moral questions depend on factual questions (historical or scientific), but I mean the other ones.

Not an easy question to address. "Moral questions" might refer to questions about a particular act (is it morally permissible for you to buy a cup of coffee when that money might go to Oxfam and save a life) or a general practice or an institution. Moral questions might also include general questions about an overall moral or ethical theory. I suggest that in questioning the moral status of something, it is difficult to avoid some philosophy of values, even if this is not being explicitly invoked or applied. Even when employing historical and scientific methods in addressing the moral status of some state of affairs, some philosophy will be (or so I suggest) at work, even if this principally involves the philosophy of inquiry itself.

Pages