New Questions in the Queue

 Posted by on 24 July 2013 at 8:00 am  Question Queue
Jul 242013

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:

Once some children are genetically engineered, wouldn’t discrimination against natural children be inevitable?

Assume that humanity has advanced to the technological capacities of the movie “Gattaca,” where the best possible genes for each child could be (and mostly would be) chosen before implantation of the embryo. In that case, how could society prevent discrimination against people who were conceived naturally, such that their genes were just a random assortment of better and worse? Those chosen genes would include genes for determination, the desire to learn, motivation, on so on, so engineered people would always win out based on merit. The movie “Gattaca” shows a natural child rising above his engineered counterparts because of his great determination and spirit. The movie’s tagline is even “there is no gene for the human spirit.” But if there is such a thing as a human spirit, then there surely must be a gene for it. So would discrimination against natural children be inevitable? If so, would it be unjust?

Is it wrong to discipline other people’s’ children when they refuse to do so?

I was eating lunch at an outdoor market. A woman and her son stopped near me, and the boy (who was probably around 8 years old) leaned over my table and stuck his finger in my food. Then he started laughing and ran around in circles. The mom look at me and dismissively said, “He’s autistic.” Then she walked away. How should I have responded? Is there a respectful way to tell a stranger that her son’s behavior is unacceptable in a public setting? Would it be wrong to speak to the boy directly?

Does a person ever benefit from being forced to act against his own judgment?

Suppose that Wise William intervenes with his brother Foolish Fred, thereby forcing Fred to act sensibly rather self-destructively. For example, (1) William hides Fred’s guns when very drunk Fred proposes to go out to a deserted field to fire his gun in the air. (2) William flushes some dangerous snake-oil medicine down the toilet that Fred ordered via a shady web site, rather than allow Fred to risk serious harm by taking it. And (3) William intercepts a check written by Fred to a fraudulent investment advisor, thereby saving Fred’s life savings. What’s the proper way to think about such actions? Is a person like Fred, in fact, benefitted by others exerting force against him in a paternalistic way, even though his rights are violated? Or is such force, however kindly meant, always a worse cure than the disease of Fred’s irrationality? If the former, does that justify violating Fred’s rights? If the latter, how can we make sense of medical power of attorney or guardianship for mentally incompetent adults?

Does freedom of speech apply to government officials?

Recently, Rolling Stone caused a furor by putting accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. In response, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino wrote to the publisher of Rolling Stone, telling him that doing so “rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment” – treatment the magazine should have given to the survivors. Other government officials were similarly critical of Rolling Stone. My first reaction was that these government officials had no place saying anything about a publication. But then I wondered: Doesn’t the First Amendment still apply to them? In other words, do government officials have freedom of speech? (See this and this.)

Should Bradley Manning have been prosecuted for leaking military secrets?

After being arrested for leaking secret documents, Bradley Manning was held for over two years. He’s currently being prosecuted in military court, and he’s pled guilty to 10 counts. As of July 23, 2013, the trial is currently ongoing. This situation raises a host of thorny questions about national defense and justice. Most importantly, when might a soldier justifiably leak military secrets, given the threat of such secrets being used by enemies? Should that always be condemned as treason? Also, should the media be held legally liable for disseminating such secrets in cases when the leaker is convicted? Finally, should the government be permitted to detain soldiers like Manning indefinitely – or should that power be limited?

Isn’t every action selfish, ultimately?

Unless coerced, people act however they deems best at that moment. Even if that action is self-destructive, aren’t they acting selfishly, so as to satisfy their own desires? Even paragons of altruism act because they want to help people, please God, or save the environment: that’s what makes them happy. So isn’t true, deep-down altruism impossible?

What is the meaning and value of sportmanship?

Kids are often taught – or not taught – to be “good sports.” What does that mean? What’s the value in that? More broadly, what’s a healthy versus unhealthy attitude toward competition in life – not just in sports, but also work, hobbies, friendship, and so on?

If a person instigates a fight with another person, does he retain the right to self-defense?

Suppose that Bob bumps into Frank, and Frank takes offense. The argument escalates from harsh language to yelling to threats to pushing. Neither man makes any effort to placate the other or depart. Ultimately, a serious fistfight ensues. At that point, does either man have the right to defend himself using deadly force? If so, doesn’t that mean that a person might use that method to murder another under the guise of self-defense? Basically, does instigating or escalating a verbal or physical altercation with another person preclude claims of self-defense?

Should free-market reforms be gradual or instantaneous?

Many advocates of free markets concede that reforms toward capitalism should be gradual. For example, Yaron Brook said recently about abolishing Social Security, “There is no way to eliminate it tomorrow. There is no way to eliminate it, to go, in a sense, cold turkey.” (See this.) But why not? What’s wrong with the “cold turkey” approach? Is the concern simply that the only way to get people to accept reforms is to make them slowly? Or would it be somehow unjust to cut off people’s entitlements suddenly, given that they’ve come to depend on them?

Are “psychopathy” and “sociopathy” distinct from evil?

Many psychologists and psychiatrists want their disciplines to be “value-free,” and they claim not to make moral judgments. However, they call behavior destructive to self and others psychologically unhealthy and pathological, with the cruelest sorts of people being called “psychopaths” or “sociopaths.” Are those merely euphemisms for evil – or do they have a distinctive psychological meaning? Also, what do you think of the claims of psychologists like Robert Hare that diagnosed psychopaths and sociopaths are physiologically different from the general population? Does that make a difference?

What must I do to reach certainty about a course of action?

Suppose that I’m being careful in my thinking about a practical matter – perhaps about how to solve a problem at work, whether to move to a new city, whether to marry my girlfriend, whether to cut contact with a problem friend. When can I say that I’m certain – or at least justified in acting on my conclusions? Given my personality type (INTP), I tend to leave questions open for far too long, when really, at some point, I need to close them. Are there any general guidelines or principles around figuring out what that point of closure should be? Even then, when should I revisit my conclusions, if ever?

What are the implications of the importance of conflict in literature for real life?

In her lectures on ?The Art of Fiction,” Ayn Rand argues that conflict is the most important element of plot, and that one must try to include as much conflict as possible in a novel in order to make it interesting and enjoyable. Does this mean that conflict is very metaphysically important? Is this similar to the Nietzschean notion that life is about overcoming, and that resistance is beneficial? Is this why we tend to value a good villain as much as a good hero?

What would a rational system of educational system look like?

Everyone knows that the government education system is flawed in many ways. Many private schools aren’t terribly different from public schools in their basic format and teachings. How might a school based on rational principles function? What would it teach – and by what style? Apart from questions of funding, how would it differ from current government schools?

How can I help my partner accept my doing risky activities?

I would describe my partner as modestly adventurous. He’s willing to try things now and then, but there are lots of things that I want to do or would like to do that he not only refuses to do but forbids me to do as well. For example, I saw on LivingSocial a deal to take a beginner pilot lesson. I have no interest in getting my pilot’s license, but I think it would be fun to sit in the seat with a teacher and learn a little something about how it’s done. To my mind, this is perfectly safe. My partner, however, says, “No way.” Another example, I want to go swimming with sharks. Not like jump into the mouth of Jaws, but to get inside one of those cages with supervision and all that. Yes, there’s some risk, but I think this sounds like a lot of fun. My boyfriend disagrees. I did talk him into going skydiving with me once, but he refuses to go again. He bought be a gift certificate so I could do another tandem dive. But I loved it enough that I would consider getting certified to jump on my own. He forbids it. There are lots of other such examples and even though these seem exotic and crazy ideas, I really don’t think they are. People do these things all the time with no ill-consequences. Plus, I want to do them with all proper supervision and safety precautions. I’m certain that my boyfriend understands such mandates carry little to no weight with me, but I wish he would be a little more reasonable about the way he assesses these risks. I definitely wish he’d find a better way of expressing his concern for my safety than just issuing commands about what I will and will not do. What should I do?

Should a woman give back her engagement ring if the relationship goes sour?

A friend of mine asked his girlfriend to marry him, and she accepted. However, they broke off the engagement – and the relationship – a few months later. Is she morally or legally obliged to give back the ring? Is the answer different if they married, then split?

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.)

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