Recent Responses

Hello philosophers. I have a question I was hoping I could get some insight on. Do teachers have obligations to develop the talents of their students as much as possible? And if they don't, are they in the wrong? If someone who could have been a great pianist becomes an alcoholic, and fails to develop her potential, people sometimes regard that as a tragedy; but is the situation so different to a promising student falling in with a bad teacher, and for that reason failing to develop her potential?

Great question(s). I am in agreement with those philosophers (including Kant) who believe that persons do have a duty to develop their talents, sometimes called a duty of self-cultivation. If musical works are good, and the way to bring about musical works is by cultivating musicians, then the latter is a fitting, good act. Of course complicated issues emerge when, for example, one cannot cultivate all (and in some cases most) talents of persons. The teacher-student relationship may also have complications, depending on time, resources, and the receptivity to learning and growing on behalf of the student. One might also wonder whether the duty to self-cultivation is entirely grounded in the goods that such cultivation will produce or is it also supported by self-interest or a duty to other people, e.g. perhaps I have a duty to be educated because I have a duty to be part of a democratic society and being educated is essential for me to play that part. Your use of the term "talent" also brings to mind that the word comes from the English translation of the New Testament when Jesus calls on persons to develop the talents they have, when "talent" was a unit of money. So, on top of all the above "issues," we might also see a duty to develop talents within the realm of religious ethics.

Taking the term "philosophy" to mean "the love of wisdom" (literal meaning of "philo" and "sophia") I think a wise professor of philosophy will seek to contribute to as many students as she can that are in her care in developing talents, such as the ability to think and act wisely, the virtues of humility in the pursuit of other virtues (integrity, justice...) and that failing to do so on her part, just as the failing of students that might occur when they are unresponsive and unwilling to grow ethically and intellectually, would be like your example of a promising, great pianist who loses her or himself in a disabling, life-destroying addiction.

Is taxation theft?

obviously a highly oversimplified, underspecified question ... to which I might return some similar questions: is using a road you didn't pay for theft? is going to a school you didn't pay for theft? is being treated by an ambulance you didn't pay for theft? .... there are many important concepts that need elucidation before one could answer such questions with any substance, but at bare minimum (seems to me) we need to take into account that the vast majority of us (at least in the US and Europe, say) live in communal structures, and that we cannot avoid recognizing that the bare minima for comfortable lives involve people working together whether they want to or not, and at least within that framework the idea of taxation, to support communal necessities (say), would not prima facie count as a form of theft .... but clearly much more to be said here --

hope that's a useful beginning ...


I am an undergraduate student who is interested in attending medical school. My primary reason for wanting to work in the medical field is to improve access to medical care in underserved further along my career path. However, attending medical school costs quite a bit. While I am fortunate enough to likely be able to pay for med school without crippling debt, I can't help but think that the money going towards my education could go towards better causes, such as improving infrastructure in rural, underserved communities and improving vaccination rates. Would the most moral option here be to donate money going towards my education to these causes or to go to medical school and use my education to improve access to healthcare in underserved populations?

Some people hold the view that if we're doing what we really ought to, we'll give up to the point where giving more would decrease the overall good that our giving produces. The most obvious arguments for that sort of view come from utilitarianism, according to which the right thing to do is the action that maximizes overall utility (good). If I could give more and overall utility would rise on that account, giving more is what I should do.

Other views are less demanding. A Kantian would say that our most important duty is avoid acting in ways that treat others as mere means to our own ends. Kantians also think we have a duty to do some positive good, but how much and in what way is left open. I'm not aware of any Kantians who think we're obliged to give up to the point where it would begin to hurt.

Who's right? I do think there's real wisdom in the idea that a system of morality won't work well if it's so demanding that few people will be able to follow it, and so I'm not persuaded by the point of view that goes with the first paragraph above. (That's entirely consistent with agreeing that most of us do less positive than we should.) But there's another point: it might be that if you, in isolation, were to take the large sum of money that medical school would cost and give it to Doctors Without Borders, then that would produce more good than if you were to go to medical school. But even if this were true in each individual case, taken one by one, the net effect of having everyone act this way would be that there would be no doctors. And that would be a very bad thing. At the least, it's not clear that you're under any special obligation to make this sacrifice.

Add to that the uncertainties of real life. Do you (or anyone else) actually know that more good would come from having you give your tuition money to charity? Doctors, after all, can do a lot of good.

It's not clear that the demanding view sketched in the first paragraph is actually the right one. And even if it is, it's not clear that acting accordingly calls for you to give up your plans for medical school. I'm not convinced that there's anything wrong with you simply making up your mind based on your own inclinations. After all, it's not as though either choice is ignoble. But I'd go further. If you pass up the chance to become a doctor based on a dubious abstract argument, there's a real chance that you'll eventually end up regretting your decision. A moral outlook according to which people are routinely required to set their own goals and desires aside on the basis of abstract calculation about imponderable outcomes strikes me as a recipe for moral anomie.

What drives all the squabbles about free will and determinism? Is it anything more than a desire to reward and to punish, especially to punish?

What you're asking is really an empirical, psychological question -- What motivates the various sides in a particular controversy? -- rather than a question that philosophers, as such, are well-equipped to answer. But I'll hazard an answer anyway.

Take some carefully, even painstakingly, considered decision, such as U.S. president Obama's decision to order the May 2011 hit on Osama bin Laden. If that decision wasn't one for which the agent is morally responsible -- i.e., morally liable to praise or blame -- then I don't know what could be. But according to the incompatibilist side of the debate, if determinism is true then Obama bears no more responsibility for his decision than someone high on PCP bears for his/her decision to try to fly from the roof of an apartment building. According to incompatibilism, if determinism is true then all decisions are equally unfree, equally lacking in responsibility, regardless of how sober, well-informed, and deliberate the decision-maker is.

The philosophical question is simply this: Is that view of the relation between free will and determinism correct? Is our practice of morally distinguishing Obama from the PCP user baseless if every choice is the deterministic result of prior causes? I myself answer no: I think incompatibilism is seriously mistaken. But I can't see how the question is unimportant or how the debate over it is merely a squabble.

Is it strange that you can't divide by zero?

It may seem strange at first blush, but there's a pretty good reason why division by 0 isn't defined: if it were, we'd get an inconsistency. You can find many discussions of this point with a bit of googling, but the idea is simple. Suppose x = y/z. Then we must have

y = x*z

That means that if y = 2, for example, and z = 0, we must have

2 = x*0

But if we multiply a number by 0, we get 0. That's part of what it is to be 0. So no matter what x we pick, we get x*0 = 0, not x*0 = 2.

Is it still strange that we can't divide by 2? If by "strange" you mean "feels peculiar," then it's strange from at least some peoples' point of view. But this sense of "strange" isn't a very good guide to the truth.

On the other hand, if by "strange" you mean "paradoxical" or something like that, it's not strange at all. On the contrary: we get paradox (or worse: outright contradiction) if we insist that division by zero is defined.

I'm told Kantians believe something like the following: that it would be inconsistent to respect our own preferences and not the preferences of others. If so, while pro-vegetarian arguments are often couched in terms of suffering and consequences, aren't there strong Kantian arguments for vegetarianism also? After all, many non-human animals do have preferences and desires, and generally prefer not to be eaten or killed.

Kantian ethics does appeal to notions of consistency, but the consistency that Kantian morality requires is not consistency in respecting "preferences" (as you expressed it.) Rather, Kantian morality requires consistency in respect for practically rational agency, i.e, the capacity to set one's ends and choose the means to one's ends. Kant believed (not incorrectly, for the most part) that non-human animals lack this capacity and hence are not owed respect in this sense. Indeed, Kant held that, strictly speaking, we have no moral obligations to animals at all; animals lack the property (practical rational agency) that lends something moral standing.

Many moral philosophers, including many Kantians, find Kant's conclusions troubling, inasmuch as it certainly seems intuitively plausible that we can wrong animals. Kantians have tried a number of solutions to rescue Kantian ethics from this position. Here are some articles in that vein:

I believe the Sandy Hook shooting happened. I believe this because of what I regard as the weight of probabilities. A friend of mine, however, thinks the whole thing was orchestrated by Obama in order to take our guns, and he's very skeptical of the news reports and beliefs about people's motivations and so on that I've relied on to found my view. Now, both of our viewpoints fit all the facts as we see them. So, is there anything at all that makes my viewpoint more reasonable than my friend's?

Good question! Conspiracy theories are, indeed, very interesting cases for epistemologists (philosophers who think about evidence, knowledge, and beliefs). I would say that, on the face of it, and at least in this case: yes, there is something that makes your viewpoint more reasonable. Let's call your theory "A" and your friend's theory "B." What are the implications of A? Just that someone who is mentally unstable and owned a gun committed an atrocity, and the news reported it on the basis of interviews, police statements, hospital interviews, and video footage. What are the implications of B? Obama "orchestrated" the whole thing. Obama and his agents paid off (presumably) hordes of people at the schools, out on fake funerals, tricked or enlisted local police representatives to lie about being there and catching the culprit, deceived or enlisted dozens of professional reporters, and so on, all in the service of...swaying public opinion about gun ownership, even though it is to be expected that an event like this will actually change very few minds and galvanizing opposition to gun ownership will have a very low chance of actually changing the law. Whew. Ok, now we have some shared background knowledge that bears on which of these sets of implications is less likely. It is extremely unlikely, given our background knowledge of the way people operate, that these dozens or hundreds of people involved in B would execute the plan perfectly, without a single slip up or leak, and furthermore that Obama and his crew would risk criminal charges (let alone impeachment) in order to set up a relatively ineffective mechanism for *sort or* galvanizing *some* support for gun restriction laws. On the other hand, given our background knowledge of the way people operate, how likely is it that, of the millions of people in the US, one of them owned guns and lost his mind for a while, and committed an atrocity? Not so unlikely; this happens, and can be expected to happen. So, unless your friend also has an alternative theory that explains why we all believe the things we do about human capabilities and human psychology (and presumably that can't be Obama's fault...I got my background knowledge of people from just living among people and being a person), I'd say your theory, A, is way, way more likely than your friend's theory, B.
Interesting further question: why would your friend believe B, given how unlikely it is? I think we account for this. You friend has a bunch of interests and desires that make concluding B much more attractive than concluding A. These interests and desires may include: paranoia about people taking his guns away, belief that Obama is awful and is a symptom of all that's wrong with our society, desire to feel superior to the "masses" who trust the news, and so on. This could, predictably, cause your friend to subject evidence for A with withering scrutiny (since he wants to avoid A), while accepting any hint that B is true as decisive evidence (since he wants to conclude B). This is classic wishful thinking, or "motivated reasoning," well documented in many, many studies.
That's my two cents.....then again, maybe I'm part of the liberal academic elite trying to twist your mind by introducing this analysis so that you vote the way my masters want you to can you decide? I say: use your reason, be on guard against concluding things just because you'd rather them be true (and also just because you'd rather them be false!). Who has the better argument to fit with your overall experiences?

I think it's plausible that a good pianist could perform fantastic music without putting any "soul" into it. That is, the audience could have a profound, moving experience, although, for the pianist, the activity is mechanical and repetitive, or even boring, unpleasant or tedious, because they've performed the same piece many times before. What I wanted to ask is -- if the audience learned what the pianist was really doing, would they be justified in thinking that their experience wasn't profound after all, or in feeling somehow cheated? Does it really matter whether or not the performer is themselves connected to the work?

I think it must matter in *some* ways whether or not the performer is connected to the work. For example, the listener's connection with player depends, in part, on the state of mind of the player and the perception of that state by the audience. But I think that in terms of the general quality of the experience, or whether the audience is "cheated" or "profound," the state of the pianist does not settle things. I say this for two reasons. First, it seems that, general, aesthetic experience does not require this sort of emotional investment on the part of the "player," or even any intention at all. A photo accidentally taken by someone's phone, for example, could elicit a profound experience. That doesn't seem like a"cheat" to me, even once I find out it was an accident. Secondly, a musician brings to a performance much more than is consciously present and occurent at the time of the performance. A pianist has practiced for years, and much of that practice was presumably invested with deep emotional involvement. The way the pianist plays a piece reflects many decisions--decisions on how to play it, for example--that may themselves be deeply invested with emotion. Furthermore, the piece itself "speaks" to the audience (the compose may have invested profound ideas and emotions into the writing of the piece), and the pianist's dispassionate execution of the notes might itself be sufficient to communicate that to the audience.

Our bodies consist of chemical components. Our feelings and judgments are the result of the biological activities. Moreover, our mindset and certain beliefs could be instilled by the external world. I wonder, to what extent we can control ourselves?

This is a *great* question, and a difficult one. Let me offer a thought about the question, which may suggest some directions for find answers. You've pointed out that various elements of a person--the body, feeling, judgments, mindset, beliefs--are caused or created in ways that, as we usually think of it, we don't directly control. But then you ask to what extent we can control *ourselves*. What is "ourselves," over and above those elements, and what does it mean for thing like a self to have "control" over something? If I, the self about whose control we are asking, am also the result of biological activities and the external world, then really we are asking whether one thing created by the world controls another thing created by the world. Some elements of me, for example, are desires: I want to itch my knee. The want and the thing that wants are the result of biological activities and the external world. Now suppose that my want successfully causes my arm and hand to move and scratch my knee. What happened there? Part of the world--me and my wants--brought about the action of itching. Now we can ask: does this constitute control, having done what I wanted to do? A natural answer, I suggest to you, is: yes. This is a case in which I controlled my arm (though perhaps the case needs to be further described...but I think the details can be filled in to justify this answer). And my control of my arm seems compatible with what you described, namely the biological, external world roots of my desires and mindset.

Why might many or most people outside of academic philosophy be so disinclined to listen to, or take interest in, philosophical thinking or conversation (even when it is communicated enthusiastically or passionately)? It seems to me, from personal experience, that philosophical thinking or communication is overlooked and ignored in everyday conversations outside of academia, and more specifically, outside the philosophy departments. A recent situation I found myself in sparked this curiosity, the people I was in conversation with seemed to be making somewhat of a concerted effort to avoid philosophical thinking entirely and instead would share the specifics of personal events and intermittently provide (what was to me) banal opinions.

I am surprised! I have never had a hard time engaging with people--all people, not just academics--in philosophical discussion. Of course, sometimes what I'm interested in at the moment is off topic so people don't want to be interrupted, and of course some people (though I in my experience this is rare) have no interest in philosophical questions. But for the most part, I've found people to be willing to engage. I don't know how your conversations have gone, but starting a philosophical conversation typically starts like this, for me: a question or issue is raised, and the other person has an opinion on it. I ask why they have that opinion, and then we pick that apart, or I introduce an alternative. So the question or issue usually comes up on its own, as part of an every day conversation, and then I ask a question about it that relates it to a broader philosophical issue or argument. In this way, perhaps unwittingly, people are usually tricked into talking about philosophy with me.