Recent Responses

We laud veterans for having "fought for their country" regardless of what the fight may have actually accomplished. For example, many people who regard the Vietnam War as a failure--or worse, a moral atrocity--still hold Vietnam vets in high regard. It strikes me that reverence for veterans rarely considers whether their actions actually made any of their countrymen better off (never mind people in other countries). We have a notion of honorable military service that is tenable only insofar as it abstracts away the actual practical outcomes of warfare. When we praise a veteran, what exactly are we praising them for?

One morally important distinction here is between conscripted and voluntary military service. As you are probably aware, the United States currently has an all-voluntary military; every soldier is a soldier by choice. This has not always been the case (either in the U.S. or elsewhere). Nations sometimes requires military service of all citizens as a matter of course and/or utilize a draft during wartime.

Let's focus first on those whose service is voluntary. Our attitudes toward those who volunteer for military service are, in my estimation, incoherent. We have become too quick to "thank them for their service" without due concern for the morality of their service. Classical just war theory divides the moral appraisal of war into two: there is the question of whether a nation's waging war in a given set of circumstances is just, and there's the question of whether a war is justly waged (whether, for example, the tactics or strategies used to pursue victory are just). Soldiers can therefore err morally either by volunteering for an unjust war or by participating in unjust tactics. Either way, we ought not laud their service. Of course, whether a war or a wartime tactic is just are complicated questions, and I make no pretense of answering them here. And we might sometimes be justified in excusing soldiers who willingly participate in an unjust war on the grounds that they could not reasonably have known that their participation would be unjust or could not reasonably have anticipated that it would be unjust. A solider might volunteer for service under the influence of deceptive propaganda, say. And in some cases, we could be justified in sympathizing with soldiers on the grounds that they are sometimes put in moral dilemmas largely not of their making. But I don't see a rational basis for lauding immoral military service. And a soldier who knowingly volunteers to fight in a war of conquest or who willingly participates in the torture of prisoners of war deserves no praise for her service.

Indeed, I think we can put this conclusion more strongly: When we fail to morally criticize such soldiers, we in fact fail to respect them as moral agents. Unless we believe (extremely implausibly, I'd say) that war is a morally neutral activity, those who participate in it can be rightfully subject to moral blame for their contributions to war. (Notice that if soldiers can be praised morality, it has to be true that they can be criticized morally too!) To refrain from moral appraisal of military personnel is to infantilize them, to see them as somehow immune from moral demands.

What of those whose service is conscripted, that is, non-voluntary? Here it seems to me there is a stronger basis for lauding their service inasmuch as they have a reasonable excuse if, in the course of their service, they either contribute to an unjust war or engage in unjust war tactics. The conscript, after all, is coerced, and can suffer imprisonment (or worse) for either failing to serve or failing to follow superiors' orders. Their behavior is no less subject to moral scrutiny than military volunteers, but praise and blame are less apt. (I'll duck for now the obvious next question: might someone have a moral duty to engage in civil disobedience to avoid serving in an unjust war or to refuse an unjust order?)

One last point: My suspicion is that a good bit of the knee jerk praise of military service comes from the belief that service exhibits courage. Surely it does exhibit courage. Military personnel can be injured, maimed, or killed in combat. And part of courage is a willingness to undergo hardships in the service of some end. But notice that the justifiability of the end matters to the moral appraisal of courageous acts. A terrorist may exhibit courage in an act of terrorism, but that doesn't make the terrorism morally justified. Whether an act that's praiseworthy for being courageous is all things consider morally defensible thus depends upon facts besides whether it's courageous. We ought therefore be more hesitant about praising military service solely on the grounds that it exhibits courage.

Some biblical scholars claim that events recorded in the bible justify them to believe that a miracle like the resurrection most likely happened. What's puzzling to me about their claim is that it seems to me the job of historians in general is to determine whether a particular event most likely happened given historical documents they have. However, even if we grant that the resurrection is possible, isn't it also true that it is an extremely unlikely event to begin with? Are these biblical scholars consistent in holding that the resurrection (a highly unlikely event) happened when the methods they employ can only be used to determine whether a particular event most likely happened?

If I have it right, your issue is with Biblical scholars who think what's recorded in the Bible justifies believing that the Resurrection (for example) "most likely happened." But your last sentence asks whether these scholars are being consistent if they say that the resurrection happened when their methods can only establish whether an event most likely happened. So I'm a bit confused. But before we proceed, another point. You use the terms "Biblical scholar" and "historian" interchangeably. However, not all Biblical scholarship is historical scholarship, and some Biblical scholarship is unashamedly sectarian. A Biblical scholar who argues for the Resurrection (we'll stick with that case) on purely Biblical grounds would happily concede that s/he isn't offering a purely historical argument. Whether the argument is adequate or merely question-begging is a rabbit-hole we won't go down.

Returning to your post, it sounds as though you're saying in your last sentence that the scholars you have in mind make too strong a claim: that an event actually happened, without qualification, when the most they could say qua historians is that it most likely happened. And to make the issue non-trivial, let's assume that these scholars aim to be functioning at least in part as historians. In that case, there's no inconsistency with the historian's role as you see it in drawing the conclusion that a particular event probably happened. There's still no inconsistency if the event is improbable to begin with. Historians often argue that some antecedently improbable event likely happened. They do it by arguing that the totality of the evidence supports that conclusion.

The sin of eliding between "most likely happened" and "happened" is a small one. If the evidence suggests that something is most likely true, there's not necessarily anything wrong with believing on that basis that it actually did happen. After all, there are few things we believe that are beyond all doubt. So what else might be at issue here?

Historians who argued for the resurrection solely on the basis of what they find in the Bible wouldn't be giving purely historical arguments. I've seen some scholars argue in a rather different way. Christianity was based on the claim that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, and not only did a small band of followers who saw Jesus crucified rapidly become convinced that he was resurrected; Christianity itself went from obscurity to virtual hegemony in that part of the world in a short time by historical standards. According to such scholars, the best way to make sense of all this is on the assumption that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Whatever you make of this argument, it's not a scriptural one but rather, broadly speaking, historical. But even if it's not purely historical, the fact that someone is a historian by training or profession isn't a reason to avoid making arguments that go beyond the discipline of history proper. The right question is whether their arguments are good overall, regardless of whether they stay within the usual boundaries of some discipline or other.

Just to be clear, I am religiously (no pun intended) avoiding the question of the merits of believing in miracles. As I read your question, is was not about whether the Resurrection (or any other miracle) really happened, but about whether a certain sort of scholar who argues that it did is thereby guilty of some kind of inconsistency or abrogation of professional duty. And as near as I can tell, the answer is no.

I recently wondered what the airport does with all the stuff they steal at the security checkpoint. The person that I asked was annoyed because he claimed it was not stealing because I had an option to not go through the line and board my plane. After thinking about this awhile, I still think it is theft. Rule 1: It is not theft because I have an option to pick A and keep my stuff. Scenario 2: Give me your car or I kill your family member. According to Rule 1, Scenario 2 is neither theft, nor murder, because you have a choice. I think the airline is stealing property. What do you think?

You clearly know that there are things you're not allowed to take on a commercial airliner. Presumably you also know that there are reasons why you're not allowed to take those things on the plane, even if the reasons aren't all equally good. Also: you don't have an unqualified right to travel on an airplane. Commercial air travel is regulated, and not by a gang of goons. It's a matter of laws enacted by a government that ultimately owes its ability to regulate to the consent of the citizenry (though not, of course, consent of every single citizen.)

Maybe you think all government is illegitimate and that there shouldn't be laws at all. That's way too big a topic to take up here. But even if air travel weren't regulated by the government, it's a safe bet that airline companies would have some restrictions on what they allow you to take on board. And while someone might argue that rather than making you forfeit your can of gasoline, they should hold onto it until you show up later to reclaim it, it's hard to see why it would be wrong for the airline company to say "Cans of gasoline on the plane are dangerous. If you show up with them, you'll either have to forfeit them or not fly." But if that wouldn't be theft, it's hard to see that what the TSA does is.

Of course, some of the regulations might be overkill, but your question wasn't whether it makes sense to stop people from taking a 6-ounce tube of toothpaste in their hand luggage while letting them take a 4-ounce tube. Your question was whether what the airline authorities do in general amounts to theft (or its moral equivalent.) On that question your analogy doesn't work. (Pointing to the most obvious difference, the goons have no right to your car in the first place; the government does have the right to regulate what you take on a plane, and for good reason.)

So no: airport security isn't a shakedown racket and confiscating your contraband isn't theft. The analogy is too thin to make the case to the contrary.

Why is it important to study logic in philosophy? One answer might be that logic teaches you correct reasoning, but that is not something that is unique to philosophy, as it's important in other fields as well (e.g. history, economics, physics, etc.), and those usually do not include any explicit study of logic.

In my experience, philosophy courses take the explicit, self-conscious formulation and evaluation of arguments (i.e., reasoning) more seriously than any other courses of study, with the possible exception of those math courses that emphasize proofs. Moreover, the breadth and depth of philosophical problems exceed those encountered in math. Therein lie the advantages of philosophy courses as compared to, say, math or economics courses. If you pursue philosophy, I think you'll discover that the standards of argumentative rigor expected in philosophy courses surpass -- sometimes by far -- the standards of rigor expected in any courses outside of math, and again they're applied to a much more varied, and often deeper, set of questions.

Hey Philosopher folk: Do you know of any viable or at least well-examined arguments ever proposed that conclude that one murder (or some equivalent malfeasance) is no better nor worse than 8 million murders? Or generally, that multiple instances of a wrongdoing have no greater or lesser value of any kind, apart from numerical? If not, could anyone conceive of a possible argument for this? Please note, I am not a serial killer or mass murderer, this question just arose in a debate about an unrelated topic.

Well, I'm glad to hear you are not a murderer. If you were, I would argue that it is worse to kill greater numbers of people like this:
1. If act or outcome A is morally wrong, then A x n (n number of As) is more morally wrong than A. [stronger version might say A x n is n times morally worse.]
2. Murder is morally wrong.
3. So, n murders are morally worse than one murder. [Or any greater number of murders is worse than just one, perhaps n times worse.]

Like most good arguments, this one just puts things in a good form for us to be able to consider the premises. It sounds as if you (like me) accept premise 2. So, what justifies premise 1? The easiest way to justify it is if one is a utilitarian (or other consequentialist) who measures wrongness in terms of bad consequences or outcomes. So, if one murder causes X amount of bad consequences (e.g., suffering, loss of potential flourishing for victim, etc.), then n murders would cause (roughly) nX bad consequences. And it would be morally worse [n times worse] for that reason.

But on just about any moral theory, more wrong acts or outcomes is worse than fewer. If a Kantian says one murder is wrong because it violates the categorical imperative (it cannot be universalized, and it treats the victim as a means not an end), then she will also be able to say that Hitler's (helping to cause) 8 million murders is much worse, because he has done something wrong many more times.

Maybe the basic support for premise 1 is a powerful moral intuition that seems hard to deny.

If there is a category "Empty Set" it has to have the property "emptiness". It must have this property that separates it from every other set. Thus it is not propertyless - contradiction?

I don't see a contradiction here any more than I did back at Question 26649, which is nearly identical. Yes, the empty set has the property of being empty and is the only set having that property. But the emptiness of the empty set doesn't imply that the empty set has no properties. On the contrary, it has the property of being empty, being a set, being an abstract object, being distinct from Mars, being referred to in this answer, etc. Why would anyone think that the empty set must lack all properties?

Doesn't trying to demonstrate how we know anything beg the question?

It needn't. Like Descartes, you might try to demonstrate a priori that you possess perceptual (i.e., external-world) knowledge. Your demonstration needn't presume perceptual knowledge in the course of demonstrating that you possess perceptual knowledge. Therefore, your demonstration needn't beg the question of whether you have perceptual knowledge in the first place. Most philosophers, I think, regard all such demonstrations (including Descartes's) as failures, but I don't see any reason to think that all such demonstrations must fail because they beg the question.

Consider a more interesting case. Suppose I analyze knowledge as true belief produced by a reliable mechanism, i.e., a mechanism that yields far more true than false beliefs in the conditions in which it's typically used. A skeptic then challenges me to show that some perceptual belief I regard as knowledge, such as my belief that I have hands, was in fact produced by a reliable mechanism. In response, I offer empirical evidence in favor of my belief: others verify that I have hands; I clap my hands; I shake the skeptic's hand; I cite other outputs of my perceptual belief-forming mechanism, etc. The skeptic then protests that I'm begging the question because my method of verification simply assumes that I have perceptual knowledge: I simply assume that the evidence I offer was reliably obtained.

I think the skeptic's protest is unfair. It's unfair to ask me to show that my perceptual belief-forming mechanism is reliable while disallowing me the very means I would need to show it, namely, data that I obtain by perception. Alternatively, the skeptic could try to show that my belief-forming mechanisms are not reliable, but skeptics seldom if ever try to show that. Or the skeptic could reject my analysis of the concept of knowledge, but then the skeptic would have to offer grounds for rejecting it, which skeptics seldom if ever do.

Consider the mathematical number Pi. It is a number that extends numerically into infinity, it has no end and has no repeating pattern to its digits. Currently we have computers that can calculate Pi out to many thousands of digits but at a certain point we reach a limit. Beyond that limit those numbers are unknown and essentially do not exist until they are observed. With that in mind, my question is this, if we could create a more powerful computer that could continue to calculate Pi beyond the current limit, and we started at exactly the same time to compute Pi out beyond the current limit on two identical computers, would we observe the computers generating the same numbers in sequence. If this is the case would that not infer that reality is deterministic in that unobserved and unknown numbers only become “real” upon being observed and that if identical numbers are generated those numbers have been, somehow, predetermined. Alternatively, if our reality was non-deterministic would that not mean that the two computers would generate potentially different numbers at each iteration as it moved forward into unobserved infinity inferring that unobserved reality is not set and therefore we live in a reality defined by free will?

You're no doubt right that any computers we happen to have available will only compute π to a finite number of digits, though as far as I know, there's nothing to stop a properly-designed computer from keeping up the calculation indefinitely (or until it wears out.) But you add this:

"Beyond that limit those numbers are unknown and essentially do not exist until they are observed"

Why is that? Let's suppose, for argument's sake, that we'll never build a computer that gets past the quadrillionth entry in the list of digits in π. Why would than mean that there's no fact of the matter about what the quadrillion-and-first digit is? What does a computer's having calculated it or (at least as puzzling) somebody having actually seen the answer have anything to do with whether there's a fact of the matter?

To be a bit more concrete: the quadrillion-and-first digit in the decimal expansion of π is either 7 or it isn't. If it's 7, it's 7 whether anyone ever verifies that or not. If it's not 7, then it's something else whether or not anyone every figures out what. It would take a lot of arguing to give a reason why we should think otherwise.

This is related to another of your questions. Yes: if two properly-programmed, properly-functioning computers kept spitting out the digits in π, they would print out the same digit when they got to the quadrillion-and-first entry. π is the ratio of the radius of a circle to its circumference. This number is the same for all circles not as a matter of incidental empirical fact but because of what it is to be a circle. That ratio is a specific number, and if two computers disagree about one of the digits, at least one computer is wrong.

But this doesn't help us with the question of determinism. Let's suppose that the world is indeterministic. (For all any of us knows, it is.) This doesn't mean that every physical process is also indeterministic. It just means (roughly) that from the laws and the total state of the world at one time, the total state of the world at other times doesn't follow. But the word "total" matters here. Even if quantum processes are indeterministic at some level, the output of a computer running certain sorts of programs isn't. If a computer fits the requirements for being a Turing machine, its output is deterministic. Of course, any physical machine can break down, and it could be that what makes some particular machine crap out has a chance element. But that doesn't mean that all particular physical processes are indeterministic and in any case, doesn't make mathematics mushy.

Finally, on free will. The connection between free will and physical determinism is actually not as simple as it seems. If you're interested in thinking about that, there is a recent book by Jenann Ismael called How Physics Makes Us Free. It's accessible, engaging and rigorously argued. I recommend it highly.