New Questions in the Queue

 Posted by on 24 September 2014 at 6:00 pm  Question Queue
Sep 242014

As you know, on Sunday morning’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I answer 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:

Do verbal insults sometimes justify a response of physical violence?

In a recent discussion of bullying, most people agreed that the child in question should not have hit the kids bullying him, given that those bullies were merely making awful remarks, as opposed to being violent or threatening. However, one person suggested that a physically violent response might be justified if all other avenues were exhausted – meaning that the bully was told to stop, efforts to enlist the help of the authorities failed, and a warning was given. Is that right? Is it ever right to respond to purely verbal insults with physical violence?

Do I have a moral obligation to stay at my current company?

I am actively looking for a new job at a new company, but my current company has a position that would fit my skills and goals. For various reasons, I would prefer to work for a new company. If I got a new job at my current company, would I be obliged to stay in it for some period of time?

Should spanking be banned as child abuse?

Studies have shown that spanking is harmful and ineffective, and yet spanking remains a common parenting discipline approach. (Some public schools use it, even against the express wishes of the parents.) Does spanking violate a child’s rights? If so, is it time for a ban on spanking in the United States?

Is it wrong to conceal information from my father while I live in his home?

I am a 21 year old gay college student still living with my parents as I pay my own tuition and progress through college. Both of my parents know I’m gay. My mom is completely fine with it; it’s a sore subject with my dad and it’s something we don’t discuss. He threatened to kick me out of the house when I came out but then recanted because (I think) he’s wrestling with the morality of the issue. Two months ago, I started dating a really wonderful guy. He comes over often and sometimes spends the night. My mom knows we are together; she is happy for me and approves of my relationship. I haven’t told my dad for fear of being kicked out. My dad specifically told me that he “did not want that kind of activity in his home.” I understand that it is his house (as well as my mom’s, who doesn’t have a problem with my sexuality), and I try to keep things low-key whenever my boyfriend comes over; I also try to spend as much time with him away from my home as possible. But. sometimes I would just like to sit down in the comfort of my own room and watch a movie with him. I think my dad would kick me out if he ever thought there was anything going on between me and this guy he knows only as my friend. Am I obligated to tell him about our relationship? Doing so may result in me having to couch-hop until I find a suitable dwelling. It may also make it impossible for me to continue paying my own tuition, a thing I’m quite proud to be able to do. Living at home helps cut a lot of expenses to make that possible. But, is it immoral to lie to my dad about my relationship? I am planning to move out after my bills for the semester are paid and I can save up enough money to afford the down payment on an apartment or house. I will not be keeping my relationship a secret from anyone after that. But, until then, do you think it is immoral to continue lying? I do not understand or sympathize with my dad’s aversion to my sexuality. He’s told me once before that no one else can know, because it would bring embarrassment to him. I think that’s second-handed and irrational. My sexuality has no bearing on anyone but me. Still, I feel like I have to lie to protect my own interests.

Is the distinction between needs and wants valid?

Anti-capitalist philosophers such as Giles Deleuze accuse the capitalist system of depending on blurring the distinction between needs and wants and tyrannizing over us by implanting artificial needs into our minds. In contrast, George Reisman justifies capitalist extravagance on the basis that human needs are technically infinite and that our needs expand as we become more affluent. Who is right? Is the distinction between needs and wants valid or not? Is it useful in thinking about ethics or politics?

What is moral character?

In “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics,” Tara Smith describes moral character as an aspect of human action, as a sort of averaging of the type of actions someone performs. In contrast, most Aristoteleans regard moral character as an aspect of the person themselves, as some sort of abiding, internal thing which has the power to affect your actions. Are either of these views correct? Or is moral character something else?

Is random jury selection necessary to ensure defendants receive a fair trial?

In your 15 May 2011 podcast, you discussed whether or not it is moral to compel people to serve on juries. I agree with your conclusion that it is not moral, and that jury duty should instead be voluntary. But you went on to suggest that volunteers should be able to choose what time range to serve, and even what case to serve on. Wouldn’t this just lead to attempts to ‘stack’ juries? An influential organization could encourage, and perhaps even compensate, its members to ‘volunteer’ for a certain case, thereby influencing the outcome. For example, an anti-abortion organization could try to ‘stack’ the jury for the trial of an abortion doctor. Of course the pro-choice organizations could try and counter with the same, but that just means the verdict is ultimately determined not by objectivity, but by numbers – by whoever is able to round up more volunteers. Isn’t a random selection process necessary to keep this sort of influence out of the system and thereby ensure that defendants receive a fair and impartial trial?

Can morality be studied via scientific studies?

In other words, is it possible to conduct research into morality, especially larger field studies, thereby bolstering the case for ethical egoism? I’ve seen several such studies that examine moral behavior and what it might mean. For example, I found one today that seems especially interesting for Objectivists: it found that “Texted responses from participants across political and religious spectrums indicated that being the target of moral or immoral deeds had a big impact on their level of happiness.” Is such research possible? Is it worth doing? Is anyone doing it?

Is it wrong to suggest that a crime victim should have taken greater precautions?

My wife and I were discussing the recent iCloud data breach in which a hacker stole and published nude photos of hundreds of female celebrities. I made the comment that while the hacker’s actions were despicable, at the same time I thought the celebrities were stupid to have trusted iCloud to protect the privacy of their photos in the first place. My wife balked at this, saying that this amounts to blaming the victim, and is no better than saying a woman who is raped was stupid for wearing a short skirt, or for drinking alcohol. But I see it as being more akin to saying a person whose bag was stolen from their car was stupid for leaving the door unlocked. Do comments of this sort really amount to ‘blaming the victim’? Is it proper or improper to make such comments? Does my level of expertise or the victim’s level of expertise make any difference? (As a computer engineer, I am very aware of the dangers of the cloud, whereas your average celebrity would probably be clueless about it.) Intuitively, I feel like the comments would be improper in my wife’s example, proper in my example, and I’m unsure about the data breach itself. But I’m struggling to identify what the defining characteristics are for each case. What’s the right approach here?

Should a person study mindsets before philosophy?

In a prior radio show, you said that adopting a rational philosophy like Objectivism is not a guarantee of rationality and other virtues in practice, but appears more to be a kind of “moral amplifier.” If I remember correctly, you said that studying and adopting that philosophy will make a person morally better or morally worse depending upon whether that person has a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset” about ethics. So if someone has a fixed mindset and embraces Objectivism, that person may not act rationally or decently: he will tend to use the philosophy to beat other people over the head with (often unwarranted) moral judgments and commands. By contrast, a person with a growth mindset who embraces Objectivism will tend to focus on applying that philosophy to improving his own life, while acknowledging and correcting mistakes along the way. If being able to apply rational philosophy to life properly is contingent upon having a growth mindset, does that mean that before even learning that philosophy, a person should work on developing a growth mindset? Does that mean that until a person feels reasonably confident that he has a growth mindset, he should refrain from studying rational philosophy? If learning rational philosophy is valuable only insofar as a person holds a growth mindset, does that mean that the distinction between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets is more important or fundamental than philosophy? Or it is an aspect of philosophy?

Was the Civil War fought for just reasons?

Typically, we hear that the American Civil War was fought to free the slaves in the South. A competing narrative is that the South was fighting for state’s rights. It would seem to me that neither of these are strictly true, the North was fighting to maintain the Union, the South to keep their right to slaves. In that case, was either side justified in fighting the war? Should the North have simply allowed the South to secede, then welcomed runaway slaves? Would slavery have died on its own due to economic inefficiency?

What’s right or wrong in Michael Huemer’s critique of “The Objectivist Ethics”?

I found Professor Michael Huemer’s essay “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’” to be a very thoughtful and persuasive essay. It convinced me that Ayn Rand’s ethics has a number of logical and possibly empirical flaws in it. Do you find any of his arguments valid? If, so which ones? Which ones do you think are wrong? Why? It this essay reason enough to reject Ayn Rand’s meta-ethics?

Is charity to strangers virtuous?

In a recent podcast, you answered the following question: “Does providing voluntary, non-sacrificial help to innocent, unfortunate poor people qualify as virtuous? In a free society, would such charity be a moral obligation?” You said that it’s not a moral obligation, and I agree with that. You also said that you think it’s a “great thing to do.” But why? I’d evaluate it as such if the person you’re helping is a good friend or a close relative. In that case, the act would be an expression of integrity, or of loyalty to one’s personal values. But I don’t understand why it’s a “great thing” to provide charity to people you don’t know, even if you’re contextually certain that they didn’t bring their hardship upon themselves and you don’t view it as a moral duty. I’d think that such an act is morally neutral, or at best slightly positive. Can you explain your evaluation a bit more, please?

Is voting for the welfare statist policies and politicians an initiation of force?

I come across right-wing people who proclaim to me that the State is justified to use physical force to deport undocumented Latino immigrants. They tell me this is justified because Latinos consistently vote in favor of politicians who expand the welfare state. They say that even if undocumented immigrants themselves do not vote, their children, who were born in the USA, will eventually become old enough to vote. These right-wingers then tell me that Latinos voting in favor of welfare-state politicians is an initiation of the use of force against them. Therefore, they conclude, if a right-wing government uses force to deport such illiberal Latino voters, the right-wing government is not initiating the use of force against innocent, peaceful people. Rather, continue the right-wingers, the right-wing government is using retaliatory force against the Latinos who initiated the use of force by voting in favor of rights-violating laws. I’m deeply offended by this argument. I think it’s ridiculous, to put it mildly. I have many relatives and neighbors who also consistently vote in favor of welfare-state politicians. If I followed the logic of the anti-immigrationist argument, I would have to conclude that simply because my relatives and neighbors voted for illiberal politicians, I should condone the idea that my relatives and neighbors should be violently removed from the USA. I’m troubled by my relatives and neighbors voting for the welfare state but, of course, using force “in retaliation” against them is absurd. Still, while I cannot condone any so-called retaliatory force against people who simply vote for rights-violating measures, I cannot say that I think that such people are completely morally innocent. I think that if someone votes in favor of legislation that initiates the use of force – or votes in favor of a politician promising to support such rights-violating measures – that voter is, in some manner, complicit in the violation of rights, and an accessory to the wrongs that the regulatory-entitlement state commits. I can always try to explain to my relatives and neighbors my own reasons for thinking as I do on politics, but I know that most of them are at least as stubborn as I am and will probably never change their minds. What is the moral status of someone who publicly supports a rights-violating regulatory-entitlement state but otherwise treats other people’s lives and property with due respect?

Should scientists value philosophy?

Recently, when an interviewer asked the famous astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson about his opinion on philosophy, Tyson replied that he has low regard for the entire discipline of philosophy. Tyson said that the problem with philosophy is that it bogs philosophers down in esoteric nitpicking over matters that will not affect anyone, whereas scientists like himself produce practical results in the real world. That is, Tyson dismissed philosophy as impractical. I think that is a rather common reaction from scientists about philosophy – they dismiss philosophy as impractical. I find that odd, as people once recognized science as “natural philosophy” – they thought that philosophy provided wisdom-lovers and knowledge-seekers with good ideas on how to collect data and analyze it for their own understanding. How did this philosophy-versus-science divide originate? When scientists dismiss philosophy as impractical, is this more the fault of the philosophers for being impractical or of the scientists for being too dismissive? How can philosophers explain the value of philosophy to scientists?

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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