Recent Responses

Through some years of philosophical study I've become confused about what exactly it means for me to have knowledge. What was once a familiar and seemingly clear concept has now become unfamiliar and obscure. Can it be made clear again for me? Can I ever know whether or not I know? It seems as though the more I read about knowledge the more obscured it becomes.

I don't know the answer to your question, but since this topic interests you, I would recommend you take a look at the skeptical traditions generally categorized as Pyrrhonian and Academic skepticism. One famous device you might use to think about these questions is called Agrippa's trilemma. An ancient chronicler of skepticism called Sextus Empiricus reports that one Agrippa posed the following problem: Justifications for knowledge claims seem problematic because knowledge claims must be justified by other claims, just as premises are needed to justify a conclusion. How are the justifying claims to be themselves justified? Either (1) they are self-evident and self-justifying--but this seems wrong and little better than making assumptions, which justify nothing. Or (2) the supposed justification starts an infinite regress where the supporting claims get justified by other claims and those claims get justified by still other claims, ad infinitum--but an infinite regress doesn't seem like justification. Or (3) the justifying claims run finally in a circle where one set justifies others, which are justified by others, which require the initial claim for justification--but arguing in a circle doesn't justify anything either. Since there's no alternative besides stopping with assumptions, an infinite regress of justifications, or arguing in a circle, and since none of those three offer adequate justification, then it seems that knowledge is impossible. For Sextus's formulation of this trilemma, see his book, _The Outlines of Pyrrhonism_, Book 1, Chapter 15, Line 164 (usually cited as PH 1.15.164). Do you see a way out of Agrippa's trilemma? I confess that as of this moment, I don't.

When you look at non-human animal communication, for instance birds and cats, you can explain what's going on simply in terms of cause and effect. Now, human language is more complex, but if you happen to have determinist beliefs, at some level you believe it's all cause and effect, right? So, when describing why and how people use words, would an ideal observer need to talk about the meanings of words at all, or would the concept of meaning drop out as unnecessary?

Since no one else has answered your question, I'll chime in. I confess that I find it hard to see how any explanation of human communication purely at the level of (say) sounds and scribbles, with no reference to the meaning conveyed by sounds and scribbles, could avoid leaving out something important. But I'm no expert on this topic, so all I can do is recommend reading the SEP entry on "Eliminative Materialism," found here. I'm going to read it now myself.

A common defense of an unethical act is to say, "If I didn't do it, someone else would." Let's say for the sake of argument that such a claim is true. Is it a credible defense? I wonder if a utilitarian in particular should be receptive to this line of thought.

Good question. Yes, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism and, as the term suggests, the concern is with the net consequences of action. If some consequence is inevitable (imagine this involves an injury) and it cannot be prevented, then it may be an open question about who brings about the consequence. I note that this would be an "open question," because a utilitarian might still have good reasons to be very concerned about who does the act. Let's say you and I have applied for a job that will result in one of us (unfairly) injuring someone and, for some reason, this unfair injury cannot be prevented. I get the job and reason that, well, if I don't do it, you would. It still may be worse for me to do the act for, having done it, perhaps I have a weak character and am more likely to do far more unjust acts (than you). But, setting aside this additional way of measuring and comparing consequences, it is usually the non-utilitarian (the Kantian or advocate of virtue theory) who claim that it matters a great deal who actually does the harm. For some, it is a matter of integrity. For a classic case for integrity do a search for Bernard Williams on integrity against utilitarianism.

Not sure whether this question would fall under philosophy or psychology (both perhaps) but I was always curious why it is that children love video games but hate homework. Cognitively they are pretty much the same. They challenge the child to think critically to solve a problem, and provide a sense of reward when completed, so why is one cherished while the other despised?

Plato recounts a conversation in his magisterial dialogue "Republic" (at lines 475e-476b) where a young man names "Glaucon" and Socrates discuss education and philosophy (the love of wisdom). A distinction is generated between "lovers of sights and sounds" and "lovers of truth." I suspect something of that explains the difference you've discerned. Some people find satisfaction in sensuous experiences (the "lovers of sights and sounds"). They like images and fictions, make-believe, movies, shows, representations. They enjoy vivid and delightful shapes, colors, movement, music, powerful sub-woofer explosions, etc. Others enjoy ideas, theories, concepts, arguments, principles, and the discovery of fundamental truths about what's real, actual, and factual. They're less interested in exciting moments than in enduring wisdom. There's also a discussion perhaps relevant in work by the quasi-Platonic philosopher, Augustine, about how people get caught up in the desires of their eyes and senses generally, rather than desires related to knowing ultimate truth. Finally, your question reminds me of the end of the novelist Herman Hesse's book "Steppenwolf" (from which the band took its name). It's a passage where the main character reflects upon Mozart heard on a lousy old radio and discovers that he can still appreciate the music even when badly conveyed. The sound reproduction of the radio is poor. It's not high fidelity. No deep, subwoofer base. No digitally remastered production values. But the extraordinary quality of the music is still discernible to him nevertheless. In contrast many people spend enormous amounts of money and invest substantial pride in their hi-fi "sound" systems, but the music they play is terrible. What delights the latter kind of listener (the ones with the great audio systems but stinky music), aside from the social status symbolized by their expenditures, are the sensuous elements of what plays (the sounds) rather than the intellectual dimensions of the music (the composition, harmonies, complex rhythms, its conversation with musical history). I don't know how much of this difference is inborn in people and how much is cultivated, but I suspect that the problem is that while lots of educational programs try to wrap learning in video game-like sensory experiences, they inadvertently teach students to love the sights and sounds but not the ideas and truths conveyed by them. They give students the medicine with a spoonful of sugar, but the students come to love the sugar instead of the medicine. (Lots of the rest of our culture also cultivates the love of sensuous experiences at the expense of the love of ideas). Good education must cultivate students loves and desires and direct them in the right direction. The distinction you're seeing is the result of inadequate education, or perhaps just the starting point from which all education must take up its work.

If two different truths exist that call for opposite actions, can both still be true? An ongoing trade case I am writing about is being pursued by four domestic wire rod producers that claim exported wire rod from 10 countries is unfairly priced so low that it threatens their businesses. They want antidumping penalties to be imposed. Domestic wire manufacturers oppose this action as they say it will mean higher prices for them, and that they will lose business to their counterparts in other countries that have access to the lower-cost wire rod. Both have voluminous details and arguments…yet their “findings” are the exact opposite. The only belief they share is that if they do not win, the results will be horrific. If both side speak the truth, can either side's truth be considered a greater truth, one that subordinates the now lesser truth? Or, is truth a concept unto itself, meaning that it either is or isn’t, and truths cannot compete for being most truthful.

I'd suggest setting the word "truth" aside, at least at first. You've given us a decision with two alternatives. There are reasons for and against each, and it's not clear that the reasons on either side have an edge. If, suppose, the case for imposing penalties was stronger overall, then we could say that that's what ought to happen, and we could even put this by saying it's true that penalties ought to be imposed. But saying that there are two different "truths" tends to confuse us.

Think about a less fraught case. You're trying to decide where to go on holiday and as it happens, there are two choices. If we want, we can model the decision-making process using the tools of what's called decision theory. There will be different considerations—say, expense, climate, quality of acomodations, sight-seeing possibilities... You could give each possibility a score on each dimension. You could also decide how much you care about expense, climate, etc. relative to one another. Putting all that information together, you could even come up with an overall score for each of your vacation possibilities. It's possible that the scores could end up dead even. This doesn't mean that there are two opposing "truths" about your vacation. It's just what we said: overall, the pros and cons even out.

In the case of the vacation, I'd probably flip a coin. In the case you have in mind, the law doesn't allow for coin flips, far as I know. I'd hope that the rules allow for hammering out compromise, though I'm completely naive about how such things actually work. But there's no paradox.

If I read your last question correctly, you're asking if things are simply true or false, or if there's room for incompatible claims to be true, with one being more true than the other. The standard answer in logic is that since nothing can be both true and false at the same time, incompatible things can't both be true, though one could be closer to the truth. (Simple example: you say that Al, Biff and Clancy robbed the bank. I say it was Al, Bart and Chuck. In fact, it was Al, Biff and Curley. We're both wrong overall, but you're closer to the truth than me.) This case isn't the same as your example, but laying out the differences would get tedious pretty quickly. My main suggestion is that in thinking about your question, we do well to lower the philosophical temperature. Talking about "Truths" as abstract Platonic thingees encourages us to leave more common-sense and, frankly, more nuanced description aside. We risk ending up trying to do our thinking on a level of abstraction where the air is too thin for keeping our focus.

I've known some professors to ban laptops from their class. Students often complain about this, and one argument they make is based on a kind of transactional view of higher education. They argue that, since they are paying tuition for their courses, it is their right to conduct themselves as they wish (to use laptops, perhaps even to send text messages on their phones or take naps) so long as they do not disturb others. For similar reasons, many students complain that things like attendance requirements are also illegitimate. Is this reasonable? Do professors have a right to enforce a more demanding classroom ethic?

I don't know about this "transactional" model of college education -- for one thing, tuition doesn't begin to pay for the cost of higher ed, so a student is deluded if he or she thinks higher ed is a straightforward economic exchange -- but let's leave aside my scruples about that and examine the major premise here, which is that if one has contracted for something, one is not subject to any regulation in one's use of that thing.

This premise is obviously false. For one thing, it might be part of the contract that there are "terms and conditions" governing both the provider of the good or service, and the consumer. So in downloading a movie or some music, you agree not to show the movie or play the music for any commercial purpose. Similarly, a student who enrolls in a college agrees to abide by the regulations set by the school -- generally encoded in a student handbook. (Faculty, similarly, are required to abide by the regulations in the faculty handbook). I expect that, for almost all colleges, the faculty are given the right to determine some of the rules for their particular classes -- like whether or not students must raised their hands before speaking, and whether or not they are allowed to use electronic devices when class is in session. (An exception -- colleges and universities generally require faculty to permit the use of such devices if they are needed to accommodate a student's disability.)

Another reason the premise is false is that individual contracts cannot invalidate general, background laws. So for example, a professor has a copyright on any of the materials he or she produces for the classroom, unless he or she explicitly waives those rights. That means that if a student gives copies of a handout or an exam to a note-taking company, who then sells the materials, the company (and possibly the student) are liable for suit for copyright infringement. This may hold as well for photos of slides or chalkboards.

Maybe the students who make this argument would find their professors more receptive if they asked them, respectfully, whether they would consider a change of policy, and gave some pedagogical pertinent reasons for doing so.

In a primary school in South Korea, a teacher asked the students to think how happy they are when watching a video of children with famine in Africa. The teacher meant that they must be happier compared to poor children. Then one of the students responded "It's wrong that one feels happy to know other's unhappiness." When I read this article, I deeply agreed with the student. I think most of the NGOs for children in need are using that kind of way to move people and to encourge them to donate. That is, the organizations make people compare themselves to the poor and feel happier and sympathy for the poor. Then they would be willing to donate for the poor. I think this method is effective but wrong. I wonder if those organizations take the wrong method or I am wrong. Could you please let me know your opinion on this issue?

Consider the situation in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. When I think about the people on that island, I don't feel happy; I feel distress. Imagining myself in their situation is painful. That distress is an in-the-moment feeling. If I shift my focus to something else, the feeling abates or disappears. If I turn my attention back to Puerto Rico, the distress returns.

That said, I'm also glad that I'm not living in the midst of that devastation. I am glad even in those moments when I feel distressed about the plight of people living on the island. This "gladness" isn't so much an in-the-moment feeling as a recognition that I have something to be thankful for. In fact, it seems odd to say that I'm happy not to be struggling in the way that the people of Puerto Rico are, even though we sometimes talk that way. Insofar as I'd put it that way, it would be another way to say that I'm relieved or thankful. To whatever extent there's a feeling that goes with that gratitude, it sits in a complicated relationship with distress.

Emotions aren't just "raw feels." Emotions have a cognitive component, and describing them sometimes call for a subtlety that's beyond the reach even of otherwise articulate people. What primary-school children have to say is unlikely to get it right. Do the children feel happy with then think about starving African children? If we looked for the physiological signs of pleasure or contentment, would we expect to find them? I'd guess not.

Charities do try to make us feel sympathy for victims of disasters. But if I feel sympathy for someone, I am at least somewhat moved by their plight. The word "moved" is an interesting one because it suggests motivation. I may give to a Puerto Rican relief fund precisely because thinking about the terrible situation Puerto Ricans find themselves in motivates me to do something. I'm not donating because thinking about people's distress makes me feel happy. I'm moved to donate partly because I don't feel happy when I contemplate the devastation.

There are problems here. Decisions about charitable giving shouldn't simply be a matter of which things I feel worst about. That leaves too much to chance. But that's another issue. The point for now is that NGOs and relief organizations aren't trying to make us feel happy. They're trying to get us to recognize and respond to desperate situations. Accurate descriptions of the emotions that go with the recognition are complicated, and "happiness" is an odd word to use in trying to get it right.

Hello, My dad died before I could pay him back $20,000 that he lent me. My dad had a Will that left 50/50 to my sister and myself. $1,000,000 each. My sister changed my dad's Will when he had dementia and he had no idea what he was doing. My sister ended up with all the money being $2,000,000 in total. Do I have a moral obligation to give me sister half of the $20,000 that my dad lent to me that I never repaid to my dad?

Tough decision. If the father were still alive, even with dementia and even if the sister had altered the Will, I think you would owe him the $20,000 due to the (I presume) promise you made to pay him back. The promise was made to him, after all, and was probably not qualified in terms of mental fitness ("I will pay you back so long as your are mentally competent"). With his passing (and I am sorry for your loss) I suggest that matters change insofar as your sister manipulatively (wrongly) altered the Will. Ideally, the sister might have a moment of conscience and, realizing the wrong she committed, she would voluntarily half the bequest. Perhaps (from a strategic point of view) offering her the $20K might even shock her into some repentance, e.g she might be incredulous (in a good way) that while you have been wronged, you were still trying to make amends. Failing that, there might be legal recourse of declaring the Will null and void, given that your father was not competent to make the change he did in the Will. If both of these options are not open (and you did not sign an agreement that paying the loan back to the estate would occur in the event of your father's death), I suggest you would not be wrong to keep the money and not give it to your sister. This is because she (essentially) stole from you in terms robbing you of your inheritance. This stealing would, in my view, even nullify a promise you made to your sister to give her money for almost any purpose, e.g. imagine you made a sincere promise to pay off her student loans which are $20,000. After she has stolen $1,000,000 from you unfairly, it seems she has taken the $20,000 herself, along with an additional $980,000.

What is the right (ethical) thing to do with money that has landed on your lap? I recently won $500 based on a workplace recognition award. My nomination was based on strong achievements in the workplace over the past year, but the final selection of the top five nominees was random. I feel that the money would be better served by donating to a charity - but I am interested in whether there is a moral obligation to do so. I am very financially secure, and do not "need" the money

Great question. Some philosophers believe that the distribution of property should be governed by utility or happiness. So, some utilitarians might well contend that you are obligated to give disposable (non-essential) income or wealth to those whose welfare is worse than yours and who would (probably) benefit from the bequest. Some political liberals like John Rawls argue similarly that goods should be distributed to the less fortunate, thus seeking to correct the ostensible unfairness of the fact that some of us have greater goods than others (and this is often not based on merit, but on inheritance or the good fortune of being born in good health, and so on). Robert Nozick, on the other hand, would hold that you are entitled to your good fortune, seeing that you did not receive it unjustly and, you at least partly earned it (even if the final matter was determined by lottery). I am inclined to this later position on the grounds that the utilitarian approach would put us on a slippery slope requiring burdensome re-distributions and Rawls' fairness principles would not be sustainable without regular, intrusive government control. So, with Nozick, I am inclined to think you do not have a duty to give the money to those in great need, but that it would be good for you to do so. If such an act were known, it might well motivate others to give. You might even offer the funds in a matching fashion: you will match gifts by co-workers to Oxfam dollar for dollar up to $500, thus doubling the amount given for famine relief. On the other hand, while I think such a course would be noble, it might bring resentment ("are you trying to be like Jesus or something?!"). Speaking of Jesus, while secular ethics often leaves you some room, for persons in the Abrahamic faiths, giving to those in need is considered a religious obligation (a show of love); giving alms is one of the pillars of Islam. So, if you share such religious values, giving the money away would be a spirited act.

Are rights just an idiom for really strong moral rules? (By "really strong," I mean that these rules typically take precedence over other rules.) For example, when we say that someone has a right to life, is that just another way of saying that it's immoral to kill people? Or are rights supposed to be somehow different in kind from other moral rules?

Some philosophers (utilitarians most notably) would agree that rights are "an idiom for really strong moral rules" that typically (though not necessarily) take precedence over other moral considerations. In the language made popular by Ronald Dworkin, rights function as "trumps," i.e., to have a right is to be protected against certain kinds of mistreatment even if that mistreatment would have very good consequences. So (for instance) a right to a fair trial is a right to be judged on the basis of certain procedures and evidence even if suspending those procedures might have very good consequences.

But many philosophical advocates of moral rights would likely assert that while rights are really strong moral rules, when we say 'she has a right to X' we are saying something more than 'it would be immortal not to provide her X'. Rights are personal entitlements, claims to be treated in particular ways by others. Talk of rights thus seems aimed at capturing our sense that individuals are morally important over and above their place within groups or larger wholes. Rightholders are protected against certain forms of mistreatment by others. Rights talk thus reflects the sense that individuals are sources of moral worth, not simply interchangeable 'parts' of some larger ethically salient whole. It's thus not surprising that 'rights' have been strongly associated with individualism in political philosophy and with 'deontological' theories of morality.