New Questions in the Queue

 Posted by on 19 June 2013 at 8:00 am  Question Queue
Jun 192013

As you know, on Sunday morning’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I answer four questions chosen in advance from the Question Queue. Here are the most recent additions to that queue. Please vote for the ones that you’re most interested in hearing me answer! You can also review and vote on all pending questions sorted by date or sorted by popularity.

Also, I’m perfectly willing to be bribed to answer a question of particular interest to you pronto. So if you’re a regular contributor to Philosophy in Action’s Tip Jar, I can answer your desired question as soon as possible. The question must already be in the queue, so if you’ve not done so already, please submit it. Then just e-mail me at [email protected] to make your request.

Now, without further ado, the most recent questions added to The Queue:

What is the meaning and value of a central purpose?

In “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand says that “productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values.” I find that confusing. What constitutes a central purpose? How does it function in a person’s life, particularly in relation to other values like a spouse, children, and hobbies? Should I be worried if I don’t have a clearly-identified central purpose?

Is it ever okay to tell a lie as part of a happy surprise for someone else?

This question is from Ryan (age 11) and Morgan (age 8). We bought birthday presents for our brother Sean, and we had to sneak them into the house. We wanted Sean not to know what we were doing. At first, we thought we should make up a story about why we were going back and forth to the car. Morgan thought she should tell Sean she was going outside to swing. But then we talked about how that would be a lie and she decided to go out and actually swing before bringing her present inside, that way there was no lying involved. Should we have told the lie to Sean? Is it okay to tell a lie as part of doing something nice for someone?

Is studying philosophy in academia a waste?

I have a strong interest in Objectivism, and I’d like to learn more about philosophy. However, my experience taking philosophy classes has been horrible. I’d like a class in which (1) I can trust the professor’s objectivity enough to enjoy a lecture, (2) I can agree with the professor’s analysis of a particular topic, and (3) the class and material is taught in an integrated, logical fashion. I’ve not found any of that. When I’ve mentioned my interest in Ayn Rand, I’ve gotten comments like “Well, I think she’s someone to be outgrown.” Do you know of any schools with good philosophy departments? How should I approach studying philosophy in academia? How could I make the best of what’s offered?

How should I respond to panhandlers asking for money?

What are the better ways to respond to panhandlers? I live and work in a downtown area, and am often asked by strangers on the street for money. These requests vary in form from the brief but honest (“Spare some change?”) to the manipulative and dishonest. My stock response is to say that I have no cash, which is almost always true, but somewhat dishonest in that my lack of cash is not my main reason for refusing to give. Explaining my real reasons – I don’t know who this person is, I don’t know how he will spend the money, and I don’t think giving people money helps reduce their reliance on handouts in the future – seems overly harsh on someone who is obviously having a rough time of it already, and takes a long time to boot. I feel like I should acknowledge the request somehow, but I want to effectively disengage from the situation as quickly and safely as possible. Is my stock response inappropriate because it is dishonest? Would it matter if I claimed to have no cash on those rare occasions when I am in fact carrying cash? If I shouldn’t be using my stock response, what can I say to quickly and safely disengage? Also, I get a lot of dubious stories about being stranded downtown without bus fare. I’ve often thought about carrying a few valid, single-use transit tickets with which to respond to such stories. It’s something I can afford, and it would in theory limit how my charity gets used. Would this be a wise or safe course of action?

What’s so special about the seven virtues?

Ayn Rand identified seven virtues: rationality, honesty, productiveness, independence, justice, integrity, and pride. What’s different about those qualities – as compared to other commonly-touted virtues like benevolence, creativity, temperance, or courage? Basically, why are those the virtues in Objectivism?

How can I better identify dangerous or immoral people in my life?

I don’t like to be morally judgmental about personality and other optional differences. In fact, I like being friends with a variety of kinds of people: that expands my own horizon. Yet I’ve been prey to some really awful people in my life. Looking back, I’d have to say that I ignored some “red flags” – dismissing them as mere optional matters, as opposed to signs of moral failures. How can I better differentiate “interesting” and “quirky” from “crazy” and “dangerous” in people that I know?

Does mental illness excuse wrong behavior?

Recently, a friend of mine apologized for making hurtful and unfair comments to me. (It’s not the first time she’s done that.) She said that she’s been struggling with depression, and she’s now on anti-depressants and in therapy. I’m not sure how to take that. I feel for her, yet I also feel like I’m being manipulated into overlooking her bad behavior because she’s “sick.” How should struggles with mental illness figure into explanations and apologies for wrong behavior – if at all?

Are concepts of color objective?

Given that people from different cultures conceptualize colors differently, I don’t see how concepts of color – or at least the demarcation of colors – can be objective. For example, in English, the colours ‘green’ and ‘blue’ have different names because they refer to different concepts. In Japanese, however, the word ‘aoi’ can refer to either light green or blue: they don’t draw a distinction between them. Similarly, English speakers refer to both the sky and a sapphire as ‘blue.’ But in Italian this is not the case: the word ‘blu’ only refers to dark blue, and the sky is the distinct color of ‘azzuro.’ Do these cultural differences undermine the claim that concepts of color are objective?

Should juries nullify bad laws by refusing to convict?

Imagine a criminal case of drug possession, tax evasion, or prostitution – meaning, where the law is wrong because the outlawed activity doesn’t violate rights. Should a rational juror refuse to find the defendant guilty? Would that be morally obligatory or merely acceptable? Does the juror endorse the violation of rights inherent in the law by voting to convict? Basically, shouldn’t the juror use his own independent mind not merely to judge the evidence, but also to judge the morality of the law?

Should a person always care to work or earn money?

Most people need to work to earn their bread, so to speak. They need to be productive – and be paid for that – to survive. However, that’s not true in all cases. Perhaps someone has inherited enough money to provide for his life, or he has won the lottery, or a spouse can provide for the two of them. That person still needs a purpose in life to work toward, but must that purpose be productive, in the strict sense of creating material values? Might the person reasonably choose to spend his time studying subjects of interest to him, without any other goal in mind? Might he choose to spend the rest of his life travelling? Or producing art for his own personal satisfaction? Could such a person live a happy, virtuous, and meaningful life?

Could unwilling people be compelled to govern?

Imagine a situation in which no-one – not a single person – wants to work for the government. This would create a state of anarchy by default because government requires people to govern. Since the existence of a government is necessary for the protection of individual rights via the subordination of society to objective moral law, would compelling some people to govern be necessary and proper?

How should crimes be defined?

Criminal law bans actions such as murder or theft completely. Does this imply that these actions are inherently or intrinsically wrong? Is that a problem? Should statues instead be guidelines, rather than absolutes prohibitions? Would that create a government of men rather than laws?

Is it wrong to indulge romantic infatuation?

I am infatuated with a young woman for whom I am not a suitable match, including because I am 30 and she is 16. It is strictly a fantasy; I no effort to pursue or to make my feelings known to her and have no intention to ever do so. However, in private, I am deeply in love with her and practically worship her like a celebrity and collect all her pictures. (I refrain from masturbating to her because doing so makes me feel guilty.) Due to deficiencies in my life that I consider unfixable, I have low self-esteem and have given up on dating for the foreseeable future, if not indefinitely. Do you think my behavior is creepy, immoral, or bad for my own well being?

How should a person judge whether an activist organization is worthy of support or not?

What is the proper process for judging activist and advocacy organizations? Do the standards for moral support differ from those of financial support? What kinds of problems would make you withdraw support from an organization?

How should I respond to my morally corrupt sister?

My 20 year old sister is morally destitute. She is an unapolegetic shoplifter. Her justifications amount to things like: “My shoplifting is not an addiction because I can stop any time I want to,” “everyone does it,” “you have to lie and cheat to keep up with the competition,” “companies account for shoplifters in their business plans so they mark prices higher to compensate for it,” “I’d never steal from a friend,” “I need to steal while I look young and can get away with it because no one suspects me,” etc. Over the years she has stolen hundreds if not thousands of dollars from our parents, too. And justifies this by saying that they’re wealthy and don’t even notice because she does it in small increments. She lies and cheats frequency. She’s accepted money in return for writing a paper for a friend and says of course she would do it again if some one were willing to pay her. She knows what she does is “wrong,” but maintains that this is better than not knowing, at least. (That makes no sense, I know.) I also just found out that she’s selling marijuana because, as she says, she needs a way to support her expensive taste in clothes and makeup. (Stealing these things directly and the money with which to buy them doesn’t cut it, apparently.) She acknowledges that this is, on some level, “wrong,” but does not care. She has no integrity or moral conscience. She’s my sister and despite my horror at these behaviors and the cavalier attitude with which she knowingly does wrong, but she laughs this off and doesn’t care! She does not respond to reason. She is vain, ignorant, and idle. Part of me wants to help her and try to talk sense into her because I care about her and want her to be a healthy person and not have a miserable life, another part of me wants to forget it and let her ruin herself. But I don’t want to stand by and watch that happen, and I also know that there’s only so much I can do to really help her. What is the rational thing to do?

To submit a question, use this form. I prefer questions focused on some concrete real-life problem, as opposed to merely theoretical or political questions. I review and edit all questions before they’re posted. (Alas, IdeaInformer doesn’t display any kind of confirmation page when you submit a question.)

  • Bill Perry

    You’d better answer Ryan and Morgan’s question!

    • Diana Hsieh

      I switched around some other questions this morning so that I could answer it on Sunday!

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