Sep 302013

On Sunday’s episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, Greg Perkins and I answered questions on keeping secrets, choosing an ultimate end, studying history, moral blacks and whites, and more. The podcast of that episode is now available for streaming or downloading.

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Whole Podcast: 29 September 2013

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Podcast Segments: 29 September 2013

You can download or listen to my answers to individual questions from this episode below.


My News of the Week: I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my forthcoming book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame. Alas, my horse Lila is still slightly lame.

Question 1: Keeping Secrets

Question: When should I respect a person’s request to keep information secret? Often, people ask me to keep something they’ve told me (or will tell me) to myself. Or, they’ll ask me not to share it with anyone other than my spouse. Such secrets might consist of happy news that will soon be known, such as future career plans or a pregnancy. That’s no problem. However, when the matter is more serious – like psychological struggles, personal wrongdoings, marital troubles, and conflicts with mutual friends – I feel like I’m caught in a bind. Often, I have reason to fear that other people I care about might be hurt, and I feel an obligation to warn them. Is that right? Or am I obliged to keep secrets scrupulously?

My Answer, In Brief: Discretion about private or sensitive information is important to functional and decent relationships. Iron-clad secrecy, however, is morally perilous for everyone.

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To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

Question 2: Choosing an Ultimate End

Question: Can a person choose an ultimate value other than his own life? Ayn Rand claims that each person’s life is his own ultimate value. Similarly, Aristotle says that each person’s final end is his own flourishing or well-being. Does that mean that a person cannot have a different ultimate value or final end? Or just that they should not?

My Answer, In Brief: There is only one rational and justified ultimate end: a person’s own life and happiness. Yet a person can pursue other values – whether genuine values or not – as his ultimate end. The results of that are not good for anyone, however.

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To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

Question 3: Studying History

Question: How should a person approach the study of history? I’ve always prided myself on being a “student of history” – meaning that I read and think a great deal about the past and try to apply its lessons to the future. Is this a valid approach? Am I missing a bigger picture? Do you have any tips on being a better “student of history”?

My Answer, In Brief: A person can choose from a variety of rational approaches to history, depending on his purpose. Beware of ideologically heavy and overbroad histories, as they’ll be impoverished on facts.

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To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

Question 4: Moral Blacks and Whites

Question: Can life be morally black and white? People often say life is not “black and white,” meaning that sometimes we must navigate morally gray zones, particularly when dealing with complex decisions involving other people. However, if we make decisions based on objective absolutes, doesn’t that eliminate these so-called “morally gray zones”?

My Answer, In Brief: Reality is black and white, but grasping that is often difficult – even when armed with clear and true principles.

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To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

Rapid Fire Questions


  • What do you think of the looming government shutdown?

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  • Start Time: 1:05:54
  • Duration: 3:47
  • Download: MP3 Segment

To comment on these questions or my answers, visit its comment thread.


Be sure to check out the topics scheduled for upcoming episodes! Don’t forget to submit and vote on questions for future episodes too!

  • Start Time: 1:09:41

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  • Adam Fitchett

    In regard to your response to the question about choosing ultimate ends, I think that we need to distinguish between what people believe that they are pursuing, and what they are actually pursuing.

    For example, would it be possible for me to pursue the eating of chocolate as an end in itself, and to integrate all my other values with my ultimate end of chocolate? Technically yes, I could believe that chocolate was my ultimate goal, and act in accordance with my belief, but would I actually be pursuing chocolate as an ultimate end? I do not think so.

    Because, as Ayn Rand made clear, there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe, existence or non existence, and with living things, the alternative manifests itself as the alternative of life or death. Every action a living thing takes either increases or diminishes its chances of survival; thus, every action a living thing takes is either aiming at death or at life.

    The pursuit of chocolate would not be sufficient to sustain my life in the long term, and so, if I attempted to pursue chocolate as an ultimate end, I would in fact be pursuing death as my ultimate end, whether I knew it or not. The nature of the universe only permits two ultimate ends to human beings: existence or nonexistence.

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