Recent Responses

Do you believe that freedom is just being able to do what one wants without constraint? If so, why and how?

Sean Greenberg rightly says that the absence of physical constraint does not guarantee freedom. Moreover, as Harry Frankfurt has plausibly claimed, absence of physical constraint isn't even necessary for free will, though it is necessary for freedom. If I start out with free will, you don't take it away from me just by putting me in prison, though you do take away my freedom.

Could there ever be any logical basis for the thought: "I am untrustworthy"?

I assume your worry is not about whether you are untrustworthy in some areas, or in some sorts of enterprises. As Peter Lipton says, if you are dishonest as a general rule, then plainly you can know that about yourself. And all of us have excellent reason to think that we are not good at many things.

But if your question is whether you could have any good grounds for thinking that you are untrustworthy in some very general way (for example, epistemically--in the way you generate beliefs about the world), then I think the answer is also yes. Most skeptical arguments seem to me to give at least some reason for thinking that we are epistemically untrustworthy. Most philosophers these days are not won over by skeptical concerns, but that is not to say that they regard such concerns as logically impossible or incoherent. I think, moreover, that the field of moral psychology gives us some reasons for thinking that we may be somewhat untrustworthy in other areas, as well.

I am a physician taking care of a woman with bad asthma who requires admission to the hospital. She happens to be six months pregnant, which is clinically relevant because low oxygen levels in the blood will affect the fetus. I inform her that if she refuses treatment, her unborn child will suffer oxygen deprivation, and will likely be mentally retarded. She says that "God will take care of us, I'm going home."

The situation that you describes raises all sorts of interestingphilosophical questions,y, I’m not surewhich to address. I'll assume for the sake of this discussion that you’re not wondering whether yourpatient could possibly be right about God’s intentions. So, let’sassume that she’s wrong: God won’t take care of her and her fetus, andshe’s placing her future child at significant risk of harm that would permanently and seriously restrict his (let’s give him a gender for thesake of this discussion) future life opportunities. There are then twoquestions that you might have in mind. One: “Is she doing somethingthat is morally wrong?” Two: “What are my own moral obligations in thissituation?” The answer to neither question is straightforward.

First question: The answer to the first question is complicated by two facts– (a) theindividual who would be harmed by your patient’s lack of treatment iscurrently a fetus, and (b) your patient is apparently ignorant of thefact that she really is putting her future child at risk of harm.

While the rights of children are fairly uncontroversial, the rights offetuses are highly contested. However, we can avoid this controversy bytalking simply about your patient’s future child. If this future childwere to be mentally handicapped because she now refuses to taketreatment, then she would have made him much worse off than heotherwise would have been. As a result of her action, he would have asignificantly more restricted range of reasonable life plans available tohim than he would otherwise have had. Her action, then, puts her futurechild at significant risk of significant harm. From a moral point ofview, it seems to me, it is irrelevant whether one’s actions causesomeone immediate harm or harm someone some time in the distant future.On these grounds alone, I would conclude that your patient’s refusal oftreatment is morally wrong.

However, some might argue that wecannot say that her action is morally wrong, since she is doing whatshe thinks is best for her future child– she just happens to be mistaken aboutwhat is best for her future child. Only if her ignorance is itself culpable,can we charge her with immorality.

Though many philosopherswould disagree with me, I would like to distinguish the conditionsunder which one counts as performing an action that is wrong and theconditions under which one counts as being a bad person or as doingsomething that is morally blameworthy. An action can be wrong, perhapsbecause it has terrible consequences. But the person who does the wrongaction might nonetheless be a good person because through no fault ofher own, she did not anticipate these bad consequences. To use afamiliar example, a Good Samaritan might go to some trouble to save thelife of a person who turns out to be a serial murderer. Was her actionmorally correct? I would want to say “no.” Had she not so acted, manyvaluable lives would not been shortened. No action with such bad (evenif indirect) consequences could be morally right. Other philosopherswould insist that what the Good Samaritan did was morally correct,since the direct result of her own action was the extending of the lifeof a fellow human being (who just happened to be a serial killer) andsince the shortening of the lives of his victims wasn't the directresult of her own action but instead was the direct result of theserial killer's actions. Despite this disagreement about the moralityof her action, all of us can agree that the Good Samaritan was a goodperson and that she could not be morally blamed for doing what she did.

Returningnow to your patient. I would say that her action is morally wrong.Others would say that her action is morally wrong only if she isculpably ignorant of the likely harmful consequences of her action.It’s an interesting question, which I can’t answer here, whethersomeone who lives in the 21st century who believes that God will takecare of her and her fetus is culpably ignorant and thus morallyblameworthy for the consequences of actions that are based on thisbelief.

Second question: What are your moral obligations? Onthe assumption that your patient’s behavior is morally wrong, whatfollows? Unfortunately, not much. The fact that one person’s potentialactions are immoral does not by itself imply that another person ismorally permitted to prevent her from acting immorally. Physicians playan important beneficial role within our society and their ability toplay that beneficial role could be jeopardized if they were to take itupon themselves (especially as a matter of professional obligation) toprevent their patients from acting immorally. Patients might refuse toget further treatment from those whom they regard as meddling doctors,and the health consequences for both patients and fetuses (and thefuture children they become) could be devastating.

Why does the Universe need to have a beginning (or an end)? I am trying to understand why so many scientists believe in the Big Bang theory and why more people don't believe that the Universe has just always existed.

I think most scientists would reject an assumption in your question — that they believe the Universe needs to be one way or the other. Theories in science do not say how matters must be, they describe how they are.As to why scientists think the Universe does have a beginning, well,presumably it's because that hypothesis best fits the availableastronomical data. If you want the details, talk to yourlocal physicist.

I recently heard about mathematical paradoxes and I have a perhaps strange question: It seems to me that the goal is to figure out what the fundamental problem is, i.e. what gives rise to the paradox, so we can perhaps rewrite the axioms so that the problems disappear. But why not just say: "Well, paradoxes arise when you talk about sets that contain every set, so let's avoid talk about sets that contain empty sets." (Kind of like saying that bad things happen when you divide something with zero, so don't do it!)

Let me add one other thing. I thought the first thing you said was aboslutely right: "the goal is to figure out what the fundamental problem is, i.e. what gives rise to the paradox". The reason is that it is supposed that our being led to paradox in the case of, say, sets or truth or vagueness shows us that there is something about sets or truth or and vagueness that we don't really understand. If we understood things properly, we would understand how the paradox could be avoided, and not simply because we put our heads in the sand. So paradoxes are manifestations of our lack of understanding, and it is the lack of understanding that we really want to remedy.

Is it true today what I will do tomorrow?

If on Tuesday you play chess, then if you had said on Monday "Tomorrow I will play chess" you would have said something true. It's easy to think that the truth of that future tense statement as uttered on Monday constrains what you can do on Tuesday; that is, it's easy to think that the claim's truth on Monday restricts your freedom. It seemed as if you had a choice about whether to play chess on Tuesday — but really you didn't, since it was already true the day before that you will play chess! Most philosophers reject this threat to our freedom. To many, it seems like a piece of verbal trickery. Yet there are disagreements amongst them about what precisely the trick is.

Why do bad things happen to people who are good or try to be good? Is being good all your life ultimately boring and thus having bad things happen adds "spice," i.e., challenges to our lives? Tests our mettle? Or is it simply "karma"? What goes around comes around? Be careful what you wish for because you may get it. Sow the wind reap the whirlwind, etc. Are people, basically, good? Why does it always seem that the "bad" person prospers while the "good" person suffers? Where is the justice in this? Is goodness something that you just acknowledge within yourself when you know you have done your very best at an activity? Is this your reward for being "good"? Thank you. Bill

You express some thoughts that many people often have (including me).You expressed them in a way that makes no reference to God, but formillennia the natural way of putting one of your questions was to askwhy God — an all knowing, all powerful, all good being — would allowmisery to befall those creatures who abided by His laws. This is thefamous Problem of Evilthat philosophers, theologians, andcountless others have wrestled with forever. (Richard Heck says alittle more about the problem in his response to another question.) Onecan see why theproblem is so pressing for someone who believes in God's existence. Isit pressing, is there even a problem, if one doesn't? For in that case,why should one expect that acting ethically would keep one from harm'sway? Some thinkers have argued that to act ethically is to act in sucha way that, if everyone were to act like you, everyone would findthemselves better off. But even on this view, it isn't the case that toact ethically is to act in a manner that will protect one from misfortune (for others might not act ethically).You hint at another response along these lines: that acting ethically(immorally)is in itself good (bad) for one. (One needn't add that people actethicallyin order to get this good.) If it's true that acting immorally isactually bad for one, a personal misfortune — it brings about, notcancer, but disease of another kind — then perhaps the thought that some badpeople prosper across the board is just an illusion. They might avoid certain illnessesor poverty or earthquakes, but still a misfortune has befallen them invirtue of their immoral actions. Not all misfortune consists in pain,and perhaps the misfortune of having acted immorally is like that.

Is it ethical for me to take a shortcut that involves leaving an expressway a few miles before an overcrowded bridge and taking local roads only to re-enter the expressway just before the bridge. I have observed that much of the slowdown at this bridge is caused by merging traffic coming from this shortcut.

The expressions "Free Rider" and "Easy Rider" both fit nicely with this cute example. I'm not convinced (yet) that it is not a moral question. When I refrain from making that automotive move--or when I give in to temptation, and do it--I feel my moral sense at work. I'm a cheater, or I rose above the base human urge to cheat. I suspect that utilitarians, deontologists of various stripes, and virtue-ethicists all would have something to say, or pontificate, about it. Jan Narveson, by the way, would say (has said) that the fact that we have such crowded highways is a sign that our lives are getting better (and not, say, environmentally worse).

Update February 14, 2006: I took a passenger van from O'Hare airport in Chicago to a hotel in the Loop last Thursday. The cars on I-90 were crawling up each other's tailpipes. My driver scooted off the interstate at an obscure exit, zipped through the intersection (the light was green), and dove right back in on the other side. When I got out of the van at Club Quarters on W. Adams, I mentioned to him that I thought he didn't save any time by that maneuver. His reply: "Oh? I skipped past 100 cars." Not quite. There were 3 lanes of traffic. On my calculation, he skipped by 33.3333 cars. (Another update, 04/03/06: maybe he skipped by 300 cars!)