Recent Responses

The law mandates that people must wait until they are 21 years of age in order to consume alcohol, on the grounds that that is the age at which the body is fully capable of handling alcohol. But it is well understood in biology and physiology that people's bodies grow and develop at different rates depending on any number of factors: environment, genetics, etc. And that is just the physical aspect of it. There is also the mental aspect of understanding the potential dangers of alcohol and knowing how much is safe to consume. Many 18 - 20 year old college students consume alcohol without any harm resulting. Is it accurate to draw a line in the sand and say "this is when you are ready for alcohol"? Sartre says that "existence precedes essence" which I interpret to mean that people are responsible for determining the course of their own lives. So shouldn't we have the freedom to determine for ourselves when we are ready for alcohol? Why should the government make that decision for us? If a person is both physically and mentally capable of drinking alcohol, but under the age of 21, then to enforce the minimum drinking age against that person you would be relying on argumentum ad baculum, wouldn't you? It seems like a violation of human dignity to deny me autonomy over my own digestive system.

And people are ready to drive cars at different ages. But I'm going to guess that it would be a bad thing overall if 12-year-olds were allowed to drive. And people are intellectually capable of entering into contracts at different ages, but even the 10-year-olds who think they are probably aren't.

In America, we tend to favor laws that aren't paternalistic. We tend to think that we should err on the side of treating adults as able to make responsible decisions, even though there are lots of cases where they aren't. But in America (and most places), we tend to think that paternalism about non-adults is another matter. It's not just that on average, non-adults are less ready to make decisions than adults. It's also that there are plenty of adults who would be quite happy to exploit the over-confidence, lack of experience and impulsivity of many non-adults. They'd be happy to sell whisky to 10-year-olds. They're be happy to hire children for bad wages to do dangerous work.

If you want to argue that there just shouldn't be any differences at all in what the law allows adults and non-adults to do, even if some of the non-adults are, well, children, then you've picked an interesting row to hoe, but that's not how your question is phrased. You seem to agree that not everyone is ready to decide if they should drink. It's just that you think the law should leave alone the people who are ready to make adult decisions. But as long as you agree that it's okay for the law to put some age- or maturity-related restrictions on people's actions, then we need to think about how laws like that can work. It would be an enormous waste of time and resources to have the police or the liquor store employee or whomever apply some kind of test to figure out if the person in front of them is really ready. So the law does what legal systems need to do to function: it creates rules that can be applied and enforced relatively straightforwardly and don't stray too far from common sense. In the case of alcohol, it's an aged-based criterion. It's rough. It lets some people drink who aren't ready to make that decision. And it prevents others from drinking who are. But it does at least rough justice to the facts about people's ability to decide this sort of thing.

Now I suppose we could have a drinking license that anyone can get if they can pass some kind of biological/psychological test. And we could even say that unless you've passed the test, you don't get to drink. Almost everyone would agree that this system has way too high a cost in individual liberty. But almost everyone would agree that letting 10-year-olds use their allowances to buy gin doesn't pay enough attention to the fact that children aren't simply small adults.

Maybe you're (I don't know) 17 and mature enough to make wise decisions about alcohol. And so maybe in some attenuated sense, the laws as they stand don't fully respect your dignity. But one likely cost of rejiggering the rules to carve out an exception for you would be a fair bit of harm to people who actually aren't ready to decide these sorts of things.

Legal systems don't have to produce perfect justice in every case to be legitimate. Offhand, laws that put age-based restrictions on drinking don't seem like the sorts of examples that would help make a strong case for anarchy. They seem more like the kind of trade-off that any workable legal system entails.

Many people build their moral beliefs out of deep-seated gut feelings that themselves have no rational grounding. What I wanted to ask is: is this a good way to construct a belief system? If so, could any feeling at all serve as a foundational principle? For instance, would a moral system that takes a deep-seated racism as a building block be any less justified than one that relies on deep-seated empathy?

If I want to construct a sound system of beliefs, then there's not much to be said for merely relying on gut instinct. That's not because gut instincts are necessarily wrong or unreliable. It's because if I'm trying to construct a system as opposed to simply enumerating my commitments, critique, evaluation and adjustment are part of the process. But most people don't have a system of beliefs, and even to the extent that they do, it's bound to be a limited system. My beliefs about some things are much more systematic and reflective than about other things. Given that none of us have endless resources to commit to working out our beliefs, that's inevitable.

But you say that "many people build their moral beliefs out of deep-seated gut feelings that themselves have no rational grounding." I'm worried about that way of putting things. If by "rational grounding" you mean something like "argument from explicit reasons," then I'd disagree that this is what's always needed. It's not just that giving reasons has to stop somewhere on pain of infinite regress. It's that, to use Alvin Plantinga's phrase, some beliefs are "properly basic." I don't need to give reasons to be reasonable in believing that there's a floor under my feet. It's enough that I notice that it's there. (I could be mistaken, of course. Or dreaming. Or crazy. But I don't need to chase down those blind alleys to be reasonable.) I don't need to give reasons to be reasonable in thinking it would be wrong to slip out of the restaurant without paying my bill. It's not that there are no reasons to be given; it's that people who aren't good at identifying and articulating the reasons can still be reasonable in thinking that stealing is wrong.

This sort of thing is true in pretty much every area of knowledge or belief. Being reasonable or justified is one thing. Being able to articulate reasons and justifications is another. There's a much bigger story to be told here, but part of the takeaway will be that we aren't epistemic islands. Knowledge is social; gut instincts don't come from thin air; being reasonable is partly a matter of being plugged into a reasonable community in the right sort of way.

Turning to your specific example: if someone's moral outlook rests on deep-seated racism, it's not reasonable. It's not reasonable because racism is wrong, and moral beliefs built on racism are very likely to be wrong. (Yes; it's quite possible to give a raft of reasons for that claim. But that's a whole other topic.) People whose guts tell them to hold racists attitudes have badly trained guts. People whose guts lead them to reject racism are more fortunate, even if they get tongue-tied when they find themselves arguing with glib-gabbing nasties. But this doesn't mean that the anti-racists are just mindlessly parroting what they've been told. It's quite possible—indeed quite common—to have well-tuned judgment that outstrips one's ability to justify the judgments.

This doesn't at all mean that looking for explicit reasons is bad. It also doesn't mean that societies should do without people who spend time reflecting, investigating, criticizing. What it means is that none of us need do this about everything we think, and for many people, it's fine if they do it in a relatively limited way.

I am reading "How Physics Makes Us Free" and have a question about the central Daniel Dennett thought experiment in the opening chapter. The experiment treats body parts, crucially the brain, as a component of the body like a spark plug in a car (brain in a vat). It is, rather, part of an organism and in my mind indivisible from the nervous system. Even when higher brain function is dead a body will still reject a donated organ and attack it as alien. A thousand same-model spark plugs will work in a car without any issues. It is at the level of biology that identity first appears. Yet the thought experiment treats physics and psychology as the only relevant domains. If the thought experiment were true to biology it would not be enough to replicate all the synapses and nerves but the entire body as the biological instantiation of identity. Am I overstating a life-science claim to some part of this scenario?

You give an interesting argument that the ground of one's identity is biological rather than (just) physical and/or psychological. But it may run into a problem. Not only can one's body reject organs transplanted from someone else. It can also, in the case of autoimmune disease, "reject" (i.e., attack) one's own cells and tissues: sometimes the body doesn't "know its own." Yet it seems incorrect to say that sufferers of autoimmune disease have a "compromised" identity. Does this problem cast doubt on your proposal?

On theory that I've heard for the justification of ethics and moral responsibility in a deterministic viewpoint was that they would act as a kind of "conditioning" to make society better (i.e. we reward for the hope of them doing good and the future and punish so they refrain from doing bad). Are there any arguments against this viewpoint, and are there any other arguments for moral responsibility from a deterministic perspective?

This purely instrumental justification for assigning moral responsibility is typical of hard determinism, which says that, because determinism is true, agents are never morally responsible for their actions, even though society can benefit from talking and acting as if they were. One obvious objection is that it would be dishonest and unfair to treat agents as morally responsible if in fact they are not.

But there is another deterministic view of moral responsibility: soft determinism. It says that agents can be genuinely morally responsible for their actions, even though determinism is true, provided that the agents (1) act from motives that they would endorse on reflection, (2) know what they are doing, and (3) are not coerced by other agents. All of (1)-(3) are compatible with determinism. For this reason, soft determinism is a compatibilist attitude toward determinism and moral responsibility. It avoids the charge that assigning moral responsibility is dishonest and unfair.

You can find more in this SEP entry.

Is there any good reason why it is improper to point out white disadvantage or hardship and lobby for white power? Historically, this sort of idea has been associated with violence, but is that history so toxic that the conversation can't even be had?

A few points.

At least in the US, the idea that there is widespread, systematic discrimination against white people, let alone systematic oppression, is not defensible. This is true even if some white people are sometimes discriminated against because they're white. It's also true even if some of the policies that are sometimes used in an attempt to redress the results of past discrimination and oppression are wrong.

For example: let's suppose that some affirmative action programs are unjust. If that's so, it's appropriate to object, sue, work to have the policies and laws changed... But that's not what "lobbying for white power" suggests.

Why? After all, the expression "white power" takes its cue from the older expression "black power." But bet's think about the slogan "Black power!" What's the message here?

It's not that black people should have power over white people. The claim that lies behind the slogan is that overall, black people have had less power than white people and that this is the result of historical discrimination and mistreatment. The point of the slogan isn't that black people should have more power than some other group; it's that they shouldn't have less.

Do some black people have more power than some white people? Yes. But is this systematically true? No. In every social stratum, whites have long been at an advantage on average compared to their black fellow citizens. Some people will deny this, but the weight of evidence is heavily against them.

Demands for "black power" are protests against deep-seated inequities and injustices that have been been baked into the system over decades and centuries. White working-class people may justifiably feel that they have been left behind and neglected by the political and economic system. They may justifiably be angry about this. But it would be very hard to make the case that their plight is because they are white. And it would be even harder to make the case that African-Americans with comparable skill- and education-levels are systematically better off. There are people demanding "white power" who will try to tell you different. They are either badly misinformed or worse.

There's a problem of inequality in the United States. Some politicians and others have tried to turn that undeniable fact into an argument that whites are now the victims of systematic discrimination. But as the old saying goes, that dog just won't hunt. There are conversations to be had about how to address the effects of racism justly and fairly. There are conversations to be had about the damaging effects of inequality and how to address them. But the facts about contemporary American society don't come close to justifying the toxic rhetoric of white power.

Some Christians claim to oppose homosexuality by saying, "hate the sin, not the sinner." Is this a meaningful distinction? Is it a cogent defense against accusations of homophobia?

Yes and No. (I'm a philosopher. What did you expect?)

Yes, it's a perfectly reasonable distinction. Suppose your sibling or parent or child (as makes the most sense to you) were to murder someone. I hope that you would find what they had done to be horrible and worthy of moral condemnation. But that doesn't mean that you have to think they are horrible. It doesn't mean that you should stop loving them, or stop supporting them. In fact, I myself think that it would be horrible and worthy of moral condemnation if you did stop loving them, or stop supporting them. So, when (right-wing) Christians say things like, "Hate the sin, love the sinner", that's what the sort of thing they mean: You can love this person, even if you think that they are doing bad things. We should all agree with that.

But no, it's not, by itself, a cogent defense against accusations of homophobia. The reason it seems like this might be a 'defense' is that the (right-wing) Christians say that they don't condemn people who are not heterosexual. It's only when those people engage in non-heterosexual behavior that they've got a problem. But this just misses the point. The issue, or so most of us thought, was precisely whether homosexual behavior was morally problematic. And the charge of bigotry is based upon the kinds of reasons opponents of homosexual behavior tend to give for their views, which, in my experience, have little grounding in reality and are based upon little more than prejudice. That's where the charge of homophobia originates, and "Hate the sin, love the sinner" doesn't being to answer it. To answer it, one needs to give some reasons to think that non-heterosexual behavior is wrong that aren't grounded in prejudice. I've yet to see them, myself.

A question was asked earlier, "if something cannot be defined, can it exist?". I would like a better answer to that question, if you would please. The question refers to the existence of a 'thing' that cannot be defined, the answer was given for an object that has not defined yet. These are not the same thing. If there is no possible way to define an object, ever, can that object exist? Can a 'thing' exist with no identity?

Your distinction between something not yet defined and something for which there could never be a definition is a reasonable one, and thus an answer that bears only on the former doesn't answer your question.

Here's one possible approach. If something exists, it has some properties or other; for every property a thing might have, the thing either has it or it doesn't. If that's right, then we might say that nothing could be that thing unless it has that set of properties. And in that case, we might say that the set of properties "defines" the object, whether or not any finite list could capture all the properties.

That's a rough sketch. It would need careful spelling out and it would also be subject to various objections; leave those aside. The point is that if we look at things this way, the notion of "definition" we're appealing to needn't have anything to do with how limited creature like us get a grip on the object. If this line of reasoning is correct, then nothing could exist unless it had a definition, but things would have "definitions" in this sense whether or not anyone knew or could know those definitions.

What if we insist that a definition must be something a finite knower could grasp? In that case, it's hard to see what connection there would have to be between existing and having a definition. The world in all its complexity was around long before we arrived and will still be around long after we're gone. Why think that what we (or our evolutionary successors) can grasp should limit what there can be in the world itself? Thus, if definition is what we might call an epistemic notion (a notion having to do with what we can know), then it might very well be that some of the things that exist can't be defined.

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.