Recent Responses

Most questions I see asked about the death penalty seem to center on whether it is wrong because of the harm it does to the person who is executed. What about the harm done to others by keeping a dangerous sociopath alive? Let's posit that we have a person who is so depraved that a prison sentence is no deterrence; and this person will gleefully cause pain, suffering, even death to prison guards and other inmates whenever he has a chance. Is it reasonable for all these other people to have to be exposed to such danger? Granted this scenario is an extreme case, that prison guards (let alone other prisoners) never anticipated such a danger to themselves when they first signed up for the job.

When people argue for capital punishment, one of the considerations they sometimes raise is deterrence. We can ask about general deterrence: does the death penalty tend to lower the murder rate? That's not your question. But we can also ask about specific deterrence: do we need the death penalty to keep particular, especially dangerous murderers from killing again? Someone could argue that death penalty statutes need provisions to deal with cases of the sort you've described: murderers who are likely to be a serious danger even if they're incarcerated.

I'll confess that I find it hard to imagine a case where we had no other way of protecting guards and other inmates; far as I know, so-called super-max prisons already do that, though of course I could be wrong about how well they succeed.* If your question is whether there's a potentially legitimate question here, I'd say the answer is yes. But whether it will amount to an important part of a case for capital punishment, all things considered, is harder to say. It will depend at least partly on how serious the worry you raise actually is in practice. As I've said, my instinct is that we don't need capital punishment to protect guards and other inmates. But as I also said, I don't actually know how effective the means we already have for addressing this problem are.

* There are other questions about super-max prisons, such as whether the extreme solitary confinement they use is unconstitutionally cruel. I think there's a case for saying that it is, but I'm not about to insist on that.

Is one immoral just by virtue of having immoral thoughts? So for example if Joe really wants to steal from his neighbor, or in his heart he approves of the act of steaing for no reason, but didn't put that into action because he forgot or didn't have the chance. Is joe still "sinning"? He won't be punished for just having such thoughts but I don't see why in this case he is morally any better than an actual thief.

There's a strong case for saying that Joe really isn't any morally better than an actual thief. It's just fluke luck that separates Joe from Moe, who actually stole the neighbor's wallet a little later that day. Among others, you certainly have Kant on your side; Joe lacks what Kant calls a good will, and Kant though that a good will is the only thing that's truly good.

As for whether Joe is "sinning" by wanting to steal from his neighbor, having an impulse probably doesn't count as a "sin," though sin is not a notion that has much currency in contemporary ethical theory. Just how one ought to deal with such impulses is an interesting question. The obvious first answer is by resisting the temptation, and that's fine as far as it goes. Giving in to the temptation is wrong, even if lucky circumstance has it that the giving in doesn't end up going anywhere. If we want to use the word "sin," we might want to say that forming the intention to do wrong is already wrong, even if nothing comes of it.

But your first question was whether having immoral thoughts is enough to make a person immoral. If the question is whether on balance a person who sometimes has immoral thoughts is immoral, then saying yes will almost certainly entail that pretty much all of us are immoral. I don't find that to be a very helpful thought, though it's one that Pauline Christianity seems to embrace. It seems enough to say that we all fall short of the glory of fully-developed goodness, and some of us may even be unequivocally evil, but in spite of that, there are people who don't deserve to be called immoral, even though they aren't perfect. In short, there really are good people.

It is believed that space is infinite, therefore containing an infinite number of universes. Since there is an infinite number of universes, then there are an infinite amount of Earth's exactly like ours, an infinite number of Earth's with subtle changes, etc. However, if this is true, then there is also an infinite amount of universes in which this is not true, creating a sort of paradox. How would you solve this?

It doesn't seem difficult to solve, if we're willing to accept more than one universe. Analogy: There are infinitely many numbers that are even, infinitely many numbers that are odd, and infinitely many numbers that are neither even nor odd (because they aren't integers). The infinity of numbers satisfying the description "even" and the infinity of numbers satisfying the description "odd" doesn't preclude an infinity of numbers satisfying "neither even nor odd." It would be paradoxical only if there had to be numbers satisfying more than one of those descriptions.

In the Stanford Encyclopedia the predicate "is on Mt. Everest" is given as an example of the sorites paradox applied to a physical object--where does Everest end and another geological formation begin? It seems to me that people who climb Mt. Everest (including Sherpas who live in the area) know that the base camp is where Everest begins. The millimeter objection in the article seems arbitrary. Why not an operational definition of "being on Everest is at or higher than the base camp used to reach the summit"? I have no problem accepting that as fact. Likewise, if I describe something as a "heap", and the person I'm communicating with recognizes it as such, what difference does it make how many units are in it?

The problem simply recurs with the phrase "at the base camp" in your definition: Which millimeters of terrain belong to the base camp, and which do not? At the limit, nobody knows. But unless there is a sharp cutoff between those millimeters that belong to the base camp and those that do not, the sorites paradox shows that the phrase "at the base camp" has logically inconsistent conditions of application, and therefore either nothing is at the base camp or the entire earth is at the base camp.

I see no hope of solving the sorites paradox for one vague phrase, such as "Mt. Everest" or "a heap," by appealing to some other vague phrase, such as "at the base camp or higher" or "what someone I'm communicating with recognizes to be a heap." If only it were that easy.

Is it consistent to oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, and also believe that life in prison is actually worse anyway?

I’m not sure I fully grasp the motivation behind your question, but here’s a guess as to how you may be reasoning:

A punishment can be ethically indefensible if it is too severe, either in its own right (50 years of continuous physical torture, say) or in proportion to the seriousness of the crime (a decade in prison for petty theft, for instance, would be excessive). If life in prison is worse than execution, then if the death penalty should be opposed because it is too severe, then we should also oppose life in prison, since if the death penalty is too severe, and life in prison is (by stipulation) worse, then life in prison must also be too severe. So if this reasoning is correct, then either
(a) both the death penalty and life in prison should be rejected on moral grounds for being too severe – a position that some may hold but many will reject on the basis that life in prison is not necessarily too severe
(b) the death penalty must not be as bad as we think, and should not be opposed.

Before addressing the reasoning here, let me say that (a) does not strike me as so implausible a stance. In my estimation, we tend to underestimate the badness of life incarceration, and in particular, the ways in which the unrelenting infringements on a person’s liberty, etc., are bad for a person. So perhaps both punishments really are too severe.

That said, there are, I’d say, two places where this reasoning seems open to question.

The first concerns your thought that life in prison is ‘worse’ than death. For one, how bad life incarceration is depends a great deal on prison conditions. Whatever its hardships, life in a Scandinavian minimum security facility is not anywhere near as bad for an inmate as life imprisonment in a US-style supermax facility that uses prolonged solitary confinement, etc. So whether life imprisonment is worse than death will turn on contingent facts. Moreover, we might question an assumption that seems hidden in your question, namely, that how bad something is depends only on its experiential properties. Suppose we grant that the experience of life incarceration is (often) worse than the ‘experience’ of death. (Note the quote marks there; I’m assuming that death is the permanent cessation of selfhood, that there’s no afterlife, that death is not something we experience, etc. — debatable propositions, yes, but let’s operate with these assumptions for now.) In other words, undergoing prolonged suffering behind bars will often be worse than simply not existing. Nevertheless, it may not follow from this that incarceration is worse than death, given that death may deprive a person of a life she wishes to keep living or of goods that she would have enjoyed had she continued to live until her natural death. (Note that these considerations make the badness of execution contingent on what kind of future a person is deprived of, how long she has to live, etc.) The death penalty may therefore be worse for a person’s overall lifetime well-being even if being dead is not worse than spending life behind bars. (Incidentally, I take it that the fact that almost every condemned prisoner exhausts their appeals before being executed is an indication that there is at least something worthwhile about continuing to live, even in the very adverse conditions life incarceration presents.)

A second set of questions we might raise about this reasoning is whether the severity of punishment is the only moral grounds for opposing a punishment. We might conclude, in connection with the death penalty for example, that it tends to be allocated in ways that are unjust — that defendants from certain social groups are more likely to be executed, etc. Note that these are moral considerations against the death penalty that don’t turn on how bad it is (or how bad it is in comparison to alternatives such as life imprisonment). Or one might oppose the death penalty believing it’s too risky for a society to impose. Death, as many have said, seems different than other punishments; it’s ‘final’, irrevocable, incompensable, unappealable, etc., in ways that other punishments may not be. So perhaps the reasons to morally oppose the death penalty is that societies ought not to risk imposing a penalty that’s unique in having these properties.

Is suicide immoral?

This is a question with a long and disputed history. My own article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy outlines some of the main moral arguments surrounding the permissibility of suicide:

There's a long of history of religious anti-suicide arguments. I don't find these convincing as moral arguments, even granting the theistic assumptions on which they rest. And while I find Kant's position that suicide violates duties to oneself plausible, let's set that aside and treat your question as equivalent to 'does suicide wrong others?', I think the fairest answer is 'it depends.' The most credible argument for the immorality of suicide is that it harms specific others -- family members, etc. — who are are harmed psychologically or materially (a child whose parent's death via suicide deprives her of her parent, for instance) and who have come to rely upon the suicidal person in various ways. As I lay out this role-based obligations argument in the SEP article:

No doubt the suicide of a family member or loved one produces a number of harmful psychological and economic effects. In addition to the usual grief, suicide “survivors” confront a complex array of feelings. ... . Suicide can also cause clear economic or material harm, as when the suicidal person leaves behind dependents unable to support themselves financially. Suicide can therefore be understood as a violation of the distinctive “role obligations” applicable to spouses, parents, caretakers, and loved ones. However, even if suicide is harmful to family members or loved ones, this does not support an absolute prohibition on suicide, since some suicides will not leave survivors, and among those that do, the extent of these harms is likely to differ such that the stronger these relationships are, the more harmful suicide is and the more likely it is to be morally wrong. Besides, from a utilitarian perspective, these harms would have to be weighed against the harms done to the would-be suicide by continuing to live a difficult or painful life. At most, the argument that suicide is a harm to family and to loved ones establishes that it is sometimes wrong.

Now it’s true the Eagles won the super bowl. Is the following statement true.?The team had always a winning chance of 100 percent regardless of their preparation , and there was absolutely no power in the world that could have changed the outcome .

Let's focus on one bit of your question. You ask if this is true:

          The team had always a winning chance of 100 percent regardless of their preparation.

Now compare that to something more mundane. As I write this, it's 3: 45 here in College Park. The light in my office is on. Would you say this?

          The light always had a 100% chance of being on at 3:45 on February 15, regardless of whether anyone flipped the switch.

I'm guessing you'd say no. The flipping of the switch was an essential part of the process that turned the light on. Likewise, the Eagles' preparation was an essential part of the process that brought about their win. No switch flipped, no light on; no diligent preparation, no win.

It's not that this answers all the questions someone might have about freedom and determinism (or, in this case, freedom and determinateness). It's just to say that there's no reason to think things would have turned out as they did regardless of the events that led up to them. The possibility you're asking about is sometimes labeled fatalism, and the belief in fatalism is often a consequence of overlooking the point made by our little example of the light switch.

Hi. I have been struggling lately. I was just wanting to confirm that determinism is a THEORY,correct, as to ask if it has been proven? Has there been any 100% consensus as to say we don't have free will? Will we ever really know for sure? I'm sorry I'm just going through many questions right now. Determinism (in any form) has not been proven 100% correct? And all of those theories on determinism, and indeterminism, are all not confirmed correct? They're just perspectives correct? Thank you so much for any relief/ information you can give me.

Determinism is neither as well-established as (say) the sun-centered model of the planets nor as well-refuted as (say) the earth-centered model of the planets. The truth or falsity of determinism is an open empirical question.

But perhaps I can provide some relief from the threat that you think determinism would pose for free will. Please see this answer to a question posted here in 2016:

Is there any way to define coincidences so as to make their existence possible in a deterministic world?

I think so. Suppose you encounter an old acquaintance, whom you haven't thought about in years, on a street corner in a foreign city. That unexpected encounter sounds to me like a paradigm case of a coincidence, precisely because it was (as we say) "the last thing you were expecting." Nevertheless, the encounter might well have been guaranteed to occur by prior conditions, as determinism says all events are. Our very limited knowledge of the prior conditions -- indeed, our total lack of interest in their precise details -- makes such an encounter surprising, i.e., not at all predictable by us given how little we knew about the prior conditions. Even so, those prior conditions could have determined that the encounter would occur exactly when, where, and how it did.

How is this argument valid? Either Oscar is an octopus or he is a whale. Oscar is a zebra. Therefore, Oscar is an octopus.

Validity in an argument comes down to one question: Is it possible for all the argument's premises to be true and its conclusion false? If no, then the argument is valid. So, assuming it is impossible for Oscar to be both a whale and a zebra, the argument is valid. Even so, the argument is not formally valid, because the following is not a valid form:

Octopus(Oscar) or Whale(Oscar)
Therefore: Octopus(Oscar)

Not all valid arguments are formally valid.

Furthermore, assuming that Oscar is not both an octopus and a zebra, the argument is unsound despite being valid, because in that case the second premise and the conclusion are not both true. The same holds for this argument (on similar assumptions):

Oscar is an octopus, or Oscar is a whale.
Oscar is a zebra.
Therefore: Oscar is a whale.

Valid but unsound. So neither argument establishes its conclusion.