Recent Responses

What are the true reasons behind the prohibition of teachers/lecturers to develop romantic relationships with students [or vice-versa]?

There are all sorts of regulations about this in different jurisdictions, but I assume you are interested in the moral prohibition and the reasons for it.

I don't think it's wrong in general for teachers and students to become romantically involved with each other. It is wrong only when they also have a student-teacher relationship, or a potential student-teacher relationship. I believe that, in such cases, becoming romantically involved is always wrong.

This belief is plausible only if the word "potential" is understood in a robust sense. Otherwise any romantic relationship involving a teacher would be wrong (because it is always possible for the other party to become this teacher's student). So I mean it in a robust sense: You are potentially my teacher only if I am a registered student in a unit of a university in which you teach -- a graduate student in your department, say, or an undergraduate in your college -- even if I have not taken a class with you.

Such student-teacher romantic relationships are wrong, because they subvert the educational environment. When such relationships are regarded as acceptable, then many teachers will try to convert their authority and power over their student's educational success into romantic and sexual affairs, and many students will try to convert their sexual attractiveness into special attention and better grades from their teachers.

Much thought has been given to how such conversion attempts (esp. on the part of teachers) can be blocked without proscribing all romantic involvements by teachers with their students. But such intermediate solutions are bound to fail. To see this, suppose there are widely accepted constraints on how teachers may approach students they hope to become romantically involved with. With these constraints known, teachers will seek creative ways of signaling their interest in a constraint-abiding way. The offensive conversions will not be blocked, but will merely play out a bit differently. And such constraints have a further draw-back: Students, knowing that teachers trying to pick them up must find a creative approach, will often suspect romantic intentions where there are none. And teachers who do not want to be suspected of romantic intentions must then avoid any interactions with their students that the latter might conceivably interpret as a creative but constraint-abiding romantic approach. This is a great loss to the student-teacher relation which, at its best, goes well beyond the classroom by involving mentoring, conversations, even friendship. In an environment in which romantic relations between teachers and their students are simply out of the question, you can take your student for an intensive intellectual discussion on a walk through the park. You can watch a play together, or a movie. In an environment in which such romantic relations are viewed as acceptable so long as they came about "in the right way," the discussion will take place in your office with the door wide open and with some effort at mutual reassurance of the strictly professional character of the proceedings. You'll have a hard time discussing Freud or the Symposium.

I have suggested that romantic relationships between teachers and their students are wrong because of the great damage they can do to the student. Such damage can be enormous. Just imagine the situation of a third-year graduate student under romantic pressure from her or his thesis adviser who, typically, is the only person in the department, or by far the best, for supervising this thesis. If the student falls in love with this teacher and their romantic relationship lasts happily till the thesis defense, then there is little harm to the student. But what if not? Unbelievable numbers of esp. women graduate students have been very severely harmed by such pressures and failed romantic relationships, often finding themselves compelled to quit halfway through graduate school.

I have made the further point that such relationships -- when widely viewed as an acceptable practice within colleges and universities -- also harm other students and teachers. Under this heading of third-party harms one should also mention the discomfort of students who know or suspect that their teacher is having an affair with one of their peers. Such students must assume that everything their teacher knows about them will be passed on to their fellow student, and they will also often suspect that their teacher's lover will be unfairly favored (also by this teacher's colleagues) not just in terms of face time and advice, but also in terms of grades, teaching assignments, funding opportunities, letters of recommendation, and much else.

I am not denying that a teacher and his/her student may fall in love with each other in the most perfect way, nor that something magnificent would then be lost if they could not become romantically involved. But I think that, rather than realize their wonderful gain at others' expense, they should then bear the cost themselves: by waiting until the student graduates, or by one of them moving to another school.

A seemingly common criticism of the media is that its coverage isn't balanced. This begs the question - what would truly balanced coverage look like? Discussing the positive aspects of an issue 50% of the time and the negative aspects of an issue the other 50% isn't necessarily balanced, after all. Car crashes are a good example of this. When they're discussed in the news, 50% of the alloted talk time isn't dedicated to how the world has benefited from them. So what would truly balanced coverage of (as an example) the Iraq war look like? If it isn't 50/50, what would it be? And, of course, how would we even recognize it when we saw it? Just because something "feels" balanced, doesn't necessarily mean that it is.

My colleague Carrie Figdor, who turned to philosophy after a successful career for many years as a journalist, has this to say in response:

"It’s probably too simple to think of balance in terms of a ratio; it doesn’t require us, for example, to give voice at all, let alone equal time, to Holocaust deniers in a report on World War II genocide. To paraphrase Paul Krugman: given what we know, would that even have been ethical? (See his May 2002 response to critics, On Being Partisan, here). Being balanced is just one aspect of a complex professional norm of being objective, which also includes, at least, using neutral language, presenting views fairly, being non-partisan and just presenting facts, without inserting commentary. (For example, what do you call the structure going up roughly between Israel and the West Bank? The Israelis like the friendly “fence”, the Palestinians like the sinister “wall”; many media have settled on “barrier”. It’s still an open question as to what exactly should we call the situation in Iraq: is it “civil war”, “sectarian violence”, “Sunni insurgency” or something else?) So a particular report, or a particular media outlet, may violate the objectivity norm not because it’s unbalanced, but because it does not satisfy some other aspect(s) of the norm (e.g. an article in The Nation may be balanced but partisan; a Fox News story may be balanced, but The O’Reilly Factor is not.)

The norm of being balanced (as a first approximation) requires giving expression to the relevant views on an issue and including the relevant facts. Holocaust deniers are irrelevant because of the facts; the same goes for global warming (political pressure notwithstanding). There is no algorithm to determine what is relevant; hence the difficulty of giving a philosophical robust, strict definition. It’s also important to keep in mind that the news is highly revisable; so balance is relative to what’s known and who’s accessible at a time (i.e. by deadline), and it is not necessarily individualistic (e.g. balance may be satisfied by several stories, not one).

As a heuristic device, though, if someone’s ox is being gored, then the ox will bellow. Reporters and editors do pay attention to public criticism and revise their coverage in consequence. For example, an editor friend at the Los Angeles Times said the paper responded to complaints that the Times didn’t print enough good news from Iraq by seeking out such stories. He added, however, that it is hard to continue to make room for such stories, because from a news point of view the story in Iraq just is that the country is unstable; building a school does not make a difference to the story, while bombing a mosque does. If stability does increase, that would be a change in the story.

The fundamental difficulty may lie with determining what counts as news to begin with, since figuring out which views or facts should be included in a balanced report will be a function of which events count as newsworthy and which of their aspects are deemed most important. If the story, in the largest sense, is that Iraq is highly unstable, then that determines which views and facts are relevant. That’s why a balanced report on Iraq won’t be good/bad in a 50-50 ratio."

Has anyone come up with an adequate or nearly adequate reply to the Euthyphro Dilemma or has it so far proved the nail in the coffin to the Divine Command Theory? Thanks.

Although I agree with Peter Lipton (having actually recently made such arguments in a commentary I did with Thomas Brickhouse on the Euthyphro itself, in the Routledge Guidebook to Plato and the Trial of Socrates, I think it is also fair to mention that some theistic philosophers have recently attempted to defend the Divine Command Theory (DCT), by arguing that it makes sense to think that something might become morally required as a result of God commanding it. Have a look at Philip Quinn's Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford, 1978), 30-52.

I personally do not think this avoids the problem (because we can still ask why God would command it in the first place, in which case, the only available options seem to be "because it is good," which seems to defeat the DCT, "for no reason," which seem to make divine commands completely arbitrary, or "for some reason other than that it is good," which would seem to there being some non-good reason for God's commands, or perhaps that something other than the command itself makes things good). However, as far as I can tell, Quinn's is probably the most sophisticated defense of the DCT I know of, and so if you are interested in this question, it is good to attend to both sides of the debate.

I often find myself to be impatient, often frustrated, when people claim something to be 'obvious', and never more than when I think that they are using it incorrectly. An example of this might be "obviously, Hitler was an evil man", or "obviously, it's better to be poor and happy than rich and sad" - this is because I wish justification for their claim, and do not want to simply accept it (in these cases because of popular opinion). I realise that both of these examples are ethical, but is there anything that is understood by philosophers to be obvious (and by obvious I mean without need of qualification or justification)?

If I may reply in terms of personal experience: when students start"doing philosophy", one of the first thing they (need to) learn isthat what seems obvious to x may be much less so to y. As soon as things become interesting, they stop being obvious. Yet I have noticed that this is not the only important lesson about "obvious". For once they have understood therelativity of "obviousness" then they also need to realize that no answer in terms of “obviously p” will ever convince anyonewho was not already convinced that p in the first place. Philosophy is not doneadverbially, as it were, since “obviously (clearly, truly, certainly…) 2 + 2 =4” is no more (nor less) convincing that “2 + 2 = 4” as a reply to someone whoshare a different sense of the obvious. So there are no obvious p on which philosophers agree (or they would not discuss them) and no obvious way (i.e. "obviously") to tackle them.

What can explain the blindspot of mainstream politics that prevents global warming from being the biggest current agenda? This question is not possible to answer unless you accept the blatant assumption within it viz. that global warming should be the biggest current agenda that our intellectual, moral and political efforts should focus on. I believe this because I have read from various sources that it is scientific consensus that current levels of energy consumption will lead to global environmental catastrophe within a short time period. If you accept this, then this issue really smokes out all of the other important social causes that make up the majority of political discourse. I don’t believe, for example, that democracy matters in the true sense of peoples’ interests being weighted equally and determining equally political outcomes, when – whatever can be said of the virtues of such an ideal – this isn’t the way decisions are made in realpolitik – the amount of political discourse about spreading democracy (even when we do not doubt the motives behind the polemics) demonstrates a political culture of responding mindfully to the most important aspects of reality as we currently are faced with it. What are the philosophical systems most appropriate to dealing with this incredible practical problem – that through lack of will, the world’s economies and power structures are not changing to respond to the scientific evidence we have concerning climate change? A similar question can be raised about culture – global warming is a commonly discussed in papers but it lacks emotional resonance, and even on BBC NEWS, where objectivity of perspective is prized, there is overwhelmingly more TV coverage of more or less irrelavent murder cases than to this issue which throws into tumult the ideals that underlie modern civilisation as developed by enlightenment thinkers (we could question the efficacy of a codified “Right to Life” when the melting of parts of the himilayas, and else, could deprive billions of basic sustenance).

I think there are three plausible candidates for the title of most urgent issue on humanity's political agenda. Global warming is is one. A substantial change in the global climate, induced by human activities, might well have catastrophic consequences.

The second, somewhat related problem is that of world poverty. Today, the bottom half of humankind are still living in severe poverty, and quite avoidably so: the bottom half of the human income hierarchy have less than 2 percent of global income and even much less of global wealth. Among these people, some 850 million are reported to be chronically undernourished, 1037 million to be without access to safe water, 2600 million without access to improved sanitation, about 2000 million without access to essential drugs, some 1000 million without adequate shelter, and 2000 million without electricity. Some 18 million of them (including 10.6 million children under five) die prematurely each year from poverty-related causes, which amounts to nearly one-third of all human deaths.

These two problems are related in that the global poor are vastly more vulnerable to climate change than the rest of us who can prepare and protect ourselves.

The third problem is that of major wars involving weapons of mass destruction. This problem has receded from public consciousness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the overkill capacities of the major powers still exist. And, more disturbingly, new countries, such as India and Pakistan, have been joining the club. Sanctifying their accession by waiving the Pressler Amendment in the aftermath of 9/11 (on 9/22/2001), the Bush administration has severely undermined the principle of non-proliferation by encouraging other countries (such as Iran) to strive for nuclear weapons as well. The message is that we will scold and discourage you while you strive to develop such weapons but, once you have them, we will restore good relations. So there is no long-term cost involved in developing a nuclear deterrent. And there is a great cost in remaining without such a deterrent, as major Western powers deem themselves entitled to invade and occupy other countries, even without UN Security Council authorization.

I don't think it is especially important to work out which of these three problems is the most urgent. What is important is that all three of them receive far less attention than they merit. Why is this?

One significant factor with regard to problems 1 and 3 is surely the short-term orientation of the world's major agents: corporations, national governments and their international organizations. Corporate executives are focused on the price of their company's shares in the short term, and politicians are focused on the next elections. Both groups fear that spreading concerns about possible future catastrophes might undermine that on which their success depends: share prices and incumbents' popularity.

Problem 2 is a different matter, as this catastrophe is happening right now. It is ignored because it does not hurt the agents that matter: politicians, corporate executies, the mass media and their paying customers.

To correct the skewed emphasis of our public discourse, ordinary people must take an interest in the important problems and mobilize to place them on the political agenda. Such popular movements exist -- a global green movement focusing on climate change, a global anti-poverty movement focusing on the lopsided distribution of the benefits from globalization, and a global peace movement focusing on military aggression, arms exports and proliferation. These movements are strong enough to make a difference, but they could be much stronger and better focused if they had more citizen input and support. We do better to give such input and support, I think, than to wait for our governments to live up to their most vital responsibilities.

In times of emergency we are often told that a state must balance the need to ensure national security against the need to preserve individual liberty and rights. How do we reconcile these often competing interests?

This is a very important concern in the post-9/11 political world. Still, we need to be clear about the perspective from which we are looking at the problem. One important perspective is that of the government, which has the best available information about the threats to national security (or rather to the legitimate interests contained under this horribly vague and overly capacious label). Another important perspective is that of us citizens. Your use of the word "state" might indicate that you are interested in the former perspective. But your reference to "we" suggests the latter perspective, and so I will read "state" in the sense of "country" rather than "government".

On this reading, the trade-off is really somewhat different from what you suggest. By giving the government exceptional authorities and moral support, we are losing both knowledge and control of whatever trade-offs it makes in our name. For the rights and liberties our government will curtail first and foremost are rights to information. It will understandably and justifiably conceal what it knows about the threats so as to deny our enemies the advantage of knowing how much it knows. And it will understandably but typically unjustifiably conceal its violations of basic rights and liberties.

The problem today is not merely that citizens are being deprived of their rights (as when our phone calls and other communications are being tapped by the government), but also that this is done at the sole discretion of the executive with no one else knowing which of our rights are being disregarded, how frequently, or for what reasons. It is the government's position that it needs to respect our rights only insofar as such respect is, in its judgment, consistent with "national security." The problem today is not merely that people are held for years on end without charge or trial or access to medical or legal help in secret detention facilities spread over perhaps a dozen foreign countries. The problem is also that we citizens do not know how many are being held in this way, who, where, and under what conditions.

We have made a trade-off that deprives us of knowledge of what we have traded off in terms of individual rights and liberties. The photographs from Abu Ghraib, documenting the use of dogs and electric wires, give us some inkling, to be sure. But the government may well succeed in blocking further photographs even while the torture gets worse. And what incentive does it have to bear the embarrassment of releasing innocent prisoners bearing the marks and traumas of years of abuse when the world does not know that it ever detained these people? It is likely that thousands of detainees will never resurface because they are innocent. The preferred alternative solution is rendition. In the words of former CIA officer Robert Baer: "If you send a prisoner, for instance, to Egypt, you will probably never see him again, the same way with Syria."

In conclusion, we have given away, or lost, so much by way of our basic democratic rights and liberties that we are in no position to assess the balancing you query. We have no way of assessing the security benefits we may be deriving from all the secret eavesdropping, detentions, and torture. By allowing the government to do the balancing for us, we citizens have put ourselves completely in the dark. However ignorant, we remain morally responsible of course for what our government then does in our name. I am very doubtful that any gains in security from our being so ignorant are at all significant relative to the unmerited harms our government inflicts in our names. And the idea that our chosen ignorance renders us any less responsible (a popular idea in Germany after World War Two) is, of course, fallacious. We must urgently take back our democratic right to know the basic facts about our government's curtailment of basic rights and liberties. Only then can we begin to think about the balancing you query.

Is it logically possible to consider yourself in love with someone after a short duration of time? Say, three weeks? Or is this too short of a time period to be able to determine something of such great importance? Ashley S.

It is logically possible to consider yourself Dracula or Cleopatra (people do it), and considering oneself in love after three weeks is surely no less possible. Some consider themselves in love with Schwarzenegger and have never met the guy!

So I assume the question you're really interested in is whether it is actually ("empirically") possible to be in love after knowing someone for merely three weeks.

Of course, this depends on what it means to be in love. Let me propose that being in love does not mean having built a relationship of love together, but merely something weaker: being emotionally ready and personally committed to build such a relationship with this person.

This can surely happen in the space of three weeks. For one thing, you may easily have spent 100 hours together -- more than you spend with your closest friends in the space of a year. And many of these hours may have been extremely intense (compared to shooting the breeze or watching a movie or going swimming with an ordinary good friend). So, yes, it is possible to be in love after knowing someone for merely three weeks.

Your last question leaves me a bit puzzled. Is the "something of such great importance" you seek to determine whether you are in love or not? If so, why is this so urgent? If you are unsure whether you are in love or not, then you can just wait a few weeks until you see things more clearly (but maybe you just can't wait to know).

Or is the "something of such great importance" you seek to determine some other big decision -- e.g., whether to get engaged to this man or whether to break up with your present husband or boyfriend? If so, that's hard to think about without more information.

I've told some very stupid lies recently, and on reflection obviously wish I could take them back. But the prospect of going to the people I've lied to and straightening things out is not so easy to commit to. Is there some kind of moral compulsion to confess to all the lies I've told, or can I balance against it things like losing respect and hurting people?

It's very hard in a matter like this to avoid self-deception -- hard, that is, to separate the (morally irrelevant) discomfort involved in straightening things out from the (possibly morally relevant) concern of not hurting people. Here it may help to imagine yourself in the position of the other (the one you have lied to), reflecting on how important the truth would be to her and how hurtful its belated revelation.

The weight of the first of these considerations depends on the (esp. expected future) importance of your relationship. If you told some tall tale to a stranger on a train, then letting these lies stand is unlikely significantly to augment the harm. So there may then be no great moral urgency to try to locate that stranger in order to set things right. You've acted wrongly, but there is no serious wrong in just letting things ride.

At the other extreme, if you lied to the person you love and hope to spend your life with, then the reason for straightening things out is much stronger. For her sake (and even for your own), you don't want her to commit to such a life with you partly on the basis of lies you told her. To be sure, in such a case your confession is likely to be much more hurtful to her (than that to the imaginary stranger), and also much more uncomfortable for you. And yet, by coming clean you would also make quite clear your solid commitment to a relationship without lies. To be sure, she may find the lie unforgivable and sever relations. But is she not entitled to make this choice?

There are cases intermediate between the stranger and the intended spouse; and the sketched reasons toward coming clean are there of intermediate strength. Other things equal, the more important the person is to you, and you to her, the stronger are the moral reasons to straighten things out.

One final thought. As you make clear, you do not want to be the kind of person who tells stupid lies. And the painful experience of coming clean may be a good way of breaking with the past and of getting a substantial step closer to being the person you want to be (for your own sake, hence regardless of whether others give you credit for this effort).

I have just accepted a tenure-track position at a school that I am convinced suits me quite well; while I love to write, I am a teacher first and consider writing a wonderful (and wonderfully frustrating) secondary priority--and these match the priorities of the school. I taught for several years as an adjunct and have taught for a few as a contract faculty member. So I know much of the goings-on and how to be successful in a university setting generally (or, I assume, I wouldn't have gotten the tenure-track offer). I am wondering if there is advice you can give for a person moving from the contract level to the tenure-track level? Are there particular things to keep in mind during this time? s2

Congratulations on the new job. Without claims to completeness, let me make one point in response to your query. An important new element in your next job is that you will have a voice and a vote in your department and possibly in other university bodies as well. University politics can be very dirty and corrupt, all the way up to the top. Let's hope that in your new academic home all is decent and above board. But do be critically observant, even a bit suspicious at the beginning. And when you find that some matter morally requires action on your part, do take some time for further thought and study. Do not take for granted that just pointing out that (and why) some proposed decision or policy would be plainly immoral will suffice to get this proposal off the table. It is equally possible that your intervention will not alter the outcome and permanently sour relations with some of your colleagues. There are no easy prescriptions about how to act (as an untenured professor) in some particular such situation. But it is wise, I think, to go slow with plenty of thought (and perhaps advice).

In many introductory text that take a topical approach to understanding philosophy theology is not listed as a branch of philosophy; however, the philosophy of religion is. Why is that? This is especially confounding in that texts that take an historical approach always include a section covering Scholasticism.

You are right, it is confusing, isn’t it? I guess the simplest answer is that theology is thinking of a broadly philosophical type that takes place within the framework of a given religion or set of beliefs. Whereas, the philosophy of religion is thinking that takes place, as far as possible, outside of or independently from any particular theology. Within the European tradition, and prior to the Reformation, by far the dominant religion was Christianity, and it was at least to some degree homogeneous in its beliefs. So, up until the 15th Century or so, theology and philosophy of religion overlapped so much as to be often indistinguishable. After the Reformation, however, it became necessary for philosophers to think about religion from a point of view outside either Catholicism or Protestantism, and a more recognisable form of philosophy of religion emerged.