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Hi! I was wondering if I could ask a few moral questions related to Brett Kavanaugh. 1. Is it morally bad to profit from a crime; and, if so, why? It seems to me that most traditional moralities seem to proscribe against acts (like "Thou shalt not murder"), and sometimes against the emotional motivation for acts (greed, lust, pride), but that they aren't focused on the consequences of acts. It also seems to me that act utilitarianism wouldn't regard profiting from a crime as bad per se. If anything, the resulting happiness is a good: it's just that it needs to be weighed together with the resulting suffering. 2. In the case of Brett Kavanaugh, let's assume: (a) that he did commit assaults while drunk 40 years ago; and (b) that, after college, he went on to lead an unimpeachable life. In this scenario, would the assaults then constitute a moral reason not to confirm him to the Supreme Court? What does the panel make of the following claims? -- (a) He's a different person now, so there is no moral problem. 40 years says so. Convicted criminals need to do less than that to prove they deserve to have full citizenship rights reinstated. -- (b) Criminals can still be good Xs -- good doctors, good teachers, good judges, etc -- so there is no moral problem. There is no clear causative link between assaults then and judging ability now. -- (c) Assuming there are moral objections to profiting from a crime, Kavanaugh wouldn't be. Rather, he would be profiting from having got away with a crime, from not having it on his record.

You ask if it's morally bad to profit from a crime. Since the answer seems pretty clearly to be yes, I'm a bit unsure what would count for you as saying why, but let's try an example: Robin's spouse carries a large life insurance policy. Robin kills him—a morally bad thing, I hope you'll agree—and then gets the payout from the policy, thereby profiting from the crime. Sounds bad to me.

Consider two cases. (1) someone commits a crime—a theft, let's say— but they do it in order to help some desperate but otherwise innocent person. (2) Someone commits the same crime, but they do it simply because they want the money, which in fact they manage to get away with keeping and using. Most of us would say that the first case is less egregious, the wrongdoer of less bad character, and the act more forgivable.

Is there a deeper explanation? More than one, no doubt. If my profit flows from a crime, then I don't deserve the benefit I got, and we care about whether people deserve what they're getting. Also, if we don't have sanctions against profiting from crimes, we take away a reason for not committing them. No doubt there are other things to be said here.

As for your remark about act utilitarianism, it actually points to a reason for not being an act utilitarian. Suppose X and Y both murder innocent people, but unlike X, Y actually enjoyed the killing and savors the memory. Only someone in the grip of a bad theory could think that this makes it less bad overall that Y committed his murder than that X committed hers. On the contrary, the healthier thought is that Y's pleasure is worse than morally worthless; it's despicable. Someone who didn't see this is someone I wouldn't trust around sharp objects.

I am not going to offer any view on Brett Kavanaugh. In fact, set him aside entirely. Your broader question is this: if someone doesn't profit from their crime itself, but only from not being caught, should we care? Surely the question is whether we would think it was right to give them the benefit if we actually knew about the crime. Suppose that Z embezzled money from his law firm in a one-time act 20 years ago. (The statute of limitations is less than that, BTW.) Z is nominated for a judgeship. Don't know about you, but if I knew about the embezzlement, that would make a difference to whether I thought Z deserved the judgeship. And if Z served on the bench but it came to light after his death that he had embezzled from his firm, I expect my view would be that he didn't deserve his judgeship. Yes; he might have served honorably. But that's not the only thing we can care about.

Finally, on the bit about someone being "a different person." I think it's wise whenever we can to avoid making moral judgments on the basis of slippery metaphysics. I'd suggest that this is one of those cases.

Can philosophy prove/disprove anything or it is just inconclusive and useless?

One of philosophy's most important uses is in helping us to spot bad questions. It's better to diagnose the defect in a bad question than to try to answer a bad question straight up.

Take your question, for instance. Its defect is your false dichotomy: your assumption that any discipline either can prove or disprove things or else is inconclusive and useless. It might be neither of those. Historians of Tudor England can't prove or disprove things, if that means answering historically interesting questions with absolute certainty: their historical evidence doesn't allow them to do that. But of course that doesn't make the history of Tudor England a useless area of inquiry, and if it's not useless then it's not inconclusive and useless.

Your false dichotomy aside, philosophy does prove some things, such as the principles of logical reasoning. Less abstractly, philosophy often proves that some theory consisting of specific propositions A, B, C (say) is logically committed to some other proposition D that seems implausible. When that happens the theory in question faces a dilemma: revise away at least one of A, B, C; or explain why D isn't as implausible as it seems.

Yes, many of the most interesting claims in philosophy remain both unproven and unrefuted. But the same goes for many of the most interesting claims in any discipline, including physics. In the absence of proof, some claims are nevertheless better-supported by evidence and argument than others.

Why are non-material objects not causally efficacious? Or, why can’t non-material objects partake in causality? Is there a reason other than simply saying that non-material objects are as such by definition? Thank you!

The first point is that not everyone would accept the presupposition of your question. Most obviously, theists wouldn't. According to many varieties of theism, the First Cause of the material world is not a material thing. Needless to say, not everyone agrees. But you can deny that there is a non-physical First Cause without denying that the very idea is incoherent.

There are homelier examples. On at least some views, the fact that something was absent can be a cause. Absences, however, aren't material objects. (In fairness, they aren't non-material objects either.) So the first point is that it isn't simply agreed by the parties to the dispute that only material objects are causally efficacious. We could also add that even among materialists, broadly understood, most would say that events rather than objects are what do the causing, but it's at least arguable that events are in space and time and so even if they aren't material objects, they're physical in a broader sense.

The second point is that there are different theories of causation, and on one important approach, causation should be understood in terms of counterfactuals. This way of thinking about causation goes back to David Hume, although he didn't develop the idea in any detail. The most important recent defender of a counterfactual analysis of causation was David Lewis, and we can illustrate the idea with a simple case. Suppose that if a certain switch were flipped, a light would turn on. And suppose that if the switch were not flipped, the light would not turn on. Then on this sort of view, flipping the switch causes the light to turn on. The more general idea is this: suppose C1, C2,... Cn are mutually exclusive jointly exhaustive possible events (that is, no two can occur at one, and together they exhaust the alternatives.) Likewise, suppose E1, E2,...En are mutually exclusive, jointly exhaustive possible events, all distinct from the C-events. Suppose that the following are all true:

If C1 occurred, E1 would occur.
If C2 occurred, E2 would occur
If Cn occurred, En would occur.

Then the E-family of possibilities depends causally on the C-family. But notice that this approach says nothing about whether causes are material or immaterial. True, as I've presented it, the story relies on the idea of something occurring. That at least invokes time. But there are ways to make the analysis general enough to include, for example, the possibility that the cause of the existence of the material world is the (timeless) fact that its existence is God's will. (Had it not been God's will that the universe exist, it would not have existed.)

Whether a counterfactual analysis of causation is the best way to go is a matter of debate. But the point is that there is a real debate here. You might find the discussion and references in this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy a good place to start.

Lots of science today (meteorology, cosmology) is based on computer simulation or modeling for those phenomena that are difficult to observe directly. If a computer simulation gives me a result consistent with what we can see (star distribution for two galaxies that collide) can we infer that the underlying process is the same in the simulation and in physical world? The simulation is just numbers (or symbols) input as data about the system(s) modeled. Are numbers the underlying "stuff" of objects, too, rather than atomic particles, etc.?

Suppose that instead of a computer producing a simulation, we have an army of thousands of worker-bee science grad students performing and assembling vast numbers of calculations matching all the steps that a computer simulation would call for. Suppose the results are consistent with observation. We wouldn't ask whether what's being simulated is really nothing but desperate grad students chained to desks doing tedious math.

Computer simulations are ways of finding out what our equations and assumptions entail. In an example where it would be feasible to calculate the behavior of the model by hand, we wouldn't doubt that the real target of the exercise is external-world stuff—particles or economic agents or pathogens or whatever. That doesn't change if we move to cases where there's no serious possibility of doing the calculations by hand. The computer simulation doesn't represent itself. It represents what it simulates. If we've done things right, the representation will be more or less accurate. But how we represent doesn't determine what's represented.

In a reply to a question about the sorites paradox, Professor Maitzen writes: "Logic requires there to be a sharp cutoff in between those clear cases -- a line that separates having enough leaves to be a head of lettuce from having too few leaves to be a head of lettuce. Or else there couldn't possibly be heads of lettuce." However, there is no justification that clearly leads from his premise to his conclusion: obviously we can have heaps of sand without knowing exactly how many grains of sand are required to distinguish a "heap" from a pile of individual sand grains, or else there would not be a so-called "paradox" in the first place! The premise as he presents it sounds like a tautology, not a logical argument. What makes a "heap" of sand is not only how many grains of sand there are, but also how those grains are arranged. If you took a "heap" of sand and stretched it out in a line, you would have the same number of grains, but it would no longer be a "heap." You could take a head of lettuce and separate it into its individual leaves, but then you'd no longer have a head of lettuce. So you can clearly have a head of lettuce without knowing the exact number of leaves required, since we can easily validate that assertion through an appeal to empirical experience. The sorites paradox tries to impose a degree of precision on a concept that by design is meant to be indeterminate in number. His answer does not address that consideration at all, but merely insists that a heap "must be" determinate in number or else it could not exist.

What makes a "heap" of sand is not only how many grains of sand there are, but also how those grains are arranged. If you took a "heap" of sand and stretched it out in a line, you would have the same number of grains, but it would no longer be a "heap."

Agreed! Even so, there must be a sharp cutoff between (a) enough grains to make a heap of sand if they're arranged properly and (b) too few grains to make a heap of sand no matter how they're arranged. An instance of (a) would be 1 billion; an instance of (b) would be 1.

Why must there be a sharp cutoff between (a) and (b)? Because otherwise (a) can be shown to apply to 1 (which clearly it doesn't) or (b) can be shown to apply to 1 billion (which clearly it doesn't). That's what the sorites argument shows.

...obviously we can have heaps of sand without knowing exactly how many grains of sand are required to distinguish a "heap" from a pile of individual sand grains, or else there would not be a so-called "paradox" in the first place!

You seem to be saying that the sorites paradox is simply that we have heaps of sand without knowing the smallest number of grains that's enough, if arranged properly, to make a heap of sand. I don't see why that gap in our knowledge would itself be paradoxical, any more than it's paradoxical that the moon exists but we don't know its exact mass in grams. Plenty of exact measures elude our knowledge without thereby being paradoxical.

The sorites paradox tries to impose a degree of precision on a concept that by design is meant to be indeterminate in number.

The sorites argument doesn't impose a sharp cutoff between (a) and (b) that can't exist; instead, it reveals that a sharp cutoff must exist. As I suggested in my previous reply, the everyday sorites-prone concepts aren't designed to be indeterminate. They're not designed at all. We're taught those concepts by being shown clear positive cases; our teachers simply don't comment on the other cases. The indeterminacy results from omission rather than by design.

I recently watched a tv show that produced a line of questioning in my head on the virtue of reality. How do we define reality? What's the difference between reality and a world that is the perfect replication of reality? What would be the difference between the two worlds? Is it truly possible to know when we are living in reality? I guess I'm mostly asking if there is work form past philosophers that I could read on the subject?

A perfect replica of reality would be like reality in all respects. It would contain trees—real trees. It would contain people—real people. It would contain fake butter—real fake butter. And if it were a perfect replica, everything in reality would be in the replica. So in every sense that matters, it would be real.

But I have the feeling you're worried about how you can know that you're not systematically deluded or deceived about more or less everything. This was Descartes' question in Meditations. He thought that there was one thing he couldn't be deceived about: that he was having doubts and therefore that he, the doubter existed.

From there to anything substantial, like trees and people and electrons and burritos is a long way. Descartes thought that just by reasoning about it, he could prove that there's a God who is not a deceiver, and therefore that even though he was no doubt wrong about some things, he wasn't systematically wrong.

Most philosophers don't think his argument was very good. Most philosophers also think that if what you're looking for is some irrefutable philosophical proof, then you're out of luck. And yet most philosophers—none that I know personally— worry about this. There doesn't seem to be much of a reason to take wholesale skepticism about the external world seriously. It could be true, in some weak sense of "could," but that goes for a lot of things that no one takes seriously. (Bertrand Russell's example was the possibility that the work came into existence five minutes ago, looking for all the world as though it had been here since the non-existent-under-that-assumption Big Bang.)

Questions about reality tend to be better the less far they float into the stratosphere. Is that a real Gucci bag or a knock-off? Is that actor in that movie scene really Eksie McWhy or is it her stunt double Aybee Dee? Is the grape flavor in the punch real or a laboratory concoction? Is that a real diamond or a piece of costume jewelry? Questions like that get their grip because they're set against the backdrop of the (perfectly sensible) assumption that we typically know what's what—at least about ordinary stuff and middle-sized dry goods. The farther our questions float away from this sort of grounding, the bigger the risk that there won't be enough air beneath their wings to keep them afloat.

Is the Sorites paradox really a paradox, or is it more properly considered to be a logical fallacy? By definition, the term "heap" is indeterminate. Yet the Sorites paradox tries to force a specific definition on what is by design an indeterminate concept: the very idea of defining the term "heap" as a specific number of grains of sand is fallacious, is it not? I don't see a paradox here as much as I see confusion about how terms are defined. How many grapes are in a bunch of grapes? How many leaves are in a head of lettuce? How many grains are in an ear of corn? How many chips are in a bag of potato chips? in each of the above questions, the answer will vary from one example to the next, the exact number is not particularly germane to the concept. So what makes a heap different from a bunch or any of the other examples?

I see the sorites paradox as a very serious problem, not a logical fallacy that's easy to diagnose and fix. The paradox arises whenever we have clear cases at the extremes but no known line separating the cases where a concept applies from the cases where the concept doesn't apply.

Clearly, 1 grape isn't enough to compose a bunch of grapes. Just as clearly, 100 grapes is enough to compose a bunch of grapes. So which number between 2 and 100 is the smallest number of grapes sufficient to compose a bunch of grapes? If there's no correct answer, then the sorites paradox shows that the concept enough grapes to compose bunch of grapes is an inconsistent concept. But inconsistent concepts, such as the concept colorless red object, necessarily never apply to anything, in which case it would be impossible for anything to be a bunch of grapes.

One might reply, "Okay, fine. Necessarily there are no bunches of grapes. Life goes on." The problem, however, is that the sorites paradox applies to every vague concept, including the concept human body, and presumably we don't want to deny the logical possibility that our own bodies exist: who would be doing the denying in that case? The lesson is that classical logic requires the existence of an arbitrarily precise cutoff falling somewhere in between the clear cases, even if we can't hope to know where the cutoff falls. Many philosophers have tried non-classical logic or non-classical semantics to avoid the need for sharp cutoffs, but all of the attempts I know of either fail to eliminate sharp cutoffs or come to grief in some other way.

Yes, the number of leaves in a head of lettuce varies from one case to the next, but there are limits. A head of lettuce can't have zero leaves, whereas this year's prize-winning head of lettuce at the state fair clearly has enough leaves. To repeat: Logic requires there to be a sharp cutoff in between those clear cases -- a line that separates having enough leaves to be a head of lettuce from having too few leaves to be a head of lettuce. Or else there couldn't possibly be heads of lettuce.

Incidentally, I don't think it's true that "heap," "bunch," etc., are defined as indeterminate. Instead, we learn to apply those words by being shown only clear cases of heaps and bunches. Our teachers simply don't bring up the words in unclear cases (or, I think, in clearly negative cases either). So the indeterminacy results from omission rather than from any deliberate definition.

Do people owe a debt for investments made in them which they never had an option to refuse? Some examples might be: Debt to society for paying for your childhood education Debt to parents for raising you Should it be considered ungrateful for someone to discontinue their affiliation with the investor if they feel that the relationship isn't beneficial to them?

You pose the question twice: first by asking if people owe a debt and second by asking if behaving in certain ways would be ungrateful. I think the difference matters.

I don't know whether a child owes a debt to her parents—at least not in a certain strict sense. The primary use of the language of debt deals with contracts, promises and, in any case, cases of mutual consent. There are other uses, but the further they are from the primary ones, the harder it is to be sure of their force. Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Suppose we agree that the child doesn't literally owe her parents a debt for raising her—even if they did it lovingly, conscientiously and well. But would it be ungrateful for her to turn her back on her parents because, say, her new social circle made it embarrassing for her to have these people as parents?

I think the answer is obvious enough.

Asking what the daughter owes to her parents invites quibbles and evasion. But moral language is broader and more supple than the legalistic part. Someone who turned their back on parents who had done their best just because the relationship was no longer beneficial to them sounds like a selfish jerk. We should repay our debts when we have them, but we should also not be selfish jerks.

J. L. Austin once remarked that we'd do well to worry less about the beautiful and more about the dainty and the dumpy. The same point goes for moral language. This case is a good illustration.

Is it ethical to favour one soccer team over another?

The answer is surely that it's not unethical or wrong or immoral to favor one team over another. But there's an interesting issue in the background. At least some views of what morality calls for say that we should be impartial. If I'm a utilitarian, then everyone's pleasure and pain count equally. If I'm a Kantian, then I should act only on maxims that I could will to be universal laws. But in that case, it seems, I can't favor particular people—or particular sports teams.

Whether this is really what utilitarianism or Kantianism call for, this would be crazy. It's also an issue that comes up in an important essay by the British philosopher Bernard Williams ("Persons, Character and Morality," 1976.) Toward the end of the essay, he considers a hypothetical raised by another philosopher, Charles Fried. Fried imagines a man who is in a position to save one of two people, one of whom is his wife. Fried is clear that it should be acceptable for the man to save his wife instead of the stranger. But Williams isn't happy with the way that Fried makes the case: Fried offers considerations meant to show that perhaps somehow, in this case, the man isn't actually being unfair.

Williams thinks that going about things in this way would leave the man "with one thought too many." Williams writes: might have been hoped by some (for instance, by his wife) that his motivating thought, fully spelled out, would be the thought that it was his wife, not that it was his wife and that in situations of this kind it is permissible to save one's wife.

What is Williams' point? It is that deep attachments are part of any life that has "substance," in Williams' word, even if deep attachments risk offending against "the impartial view." Williams thinks that there is always a potential conflict between life's having depth and substance, and the requirements of our system of morality.

What about soccer? Saving one's spouse and rooting for one's team seem pretty different. And they are. But what they might have in common from Williams' point of view is that a life infused through and through by the demands of system of impartial morality would not be a good life, even if the rules of that system have a legitimate claim on us.

There are lots of issues here, and doing them justice would call for a very long essay or, more likely, a book. But extrapolating from what Williams says, if someone convinces herself that it's wrong to root for her hometown team, something is indeed wrong, but it's not the rooting. It's that in a way not altogether easy to articulate, morality has become, if not a tyrant, then something less than human.