what are the characteristics of a philosophical question

A tough one - I'd be interested to see other panelists weigh in! The first thing to say is that it's hard to identify any limits to the subject matter of philosophical questions. Traditionally, philosophy has addressed questions about human nature, the nature of reality, knowledge, value, beauty, reason, and so on. But in recent decades, philosophers have turned their attention to an ever-widening circle of topics: medicine, law, the family, race, sports, business, gender, technology, religion the environment, and so on. So it doesn't seem as if the defining characteristic of a philosophical question is what it asks about . One characteristic of a philosophical question is that it tends to be general. This is not to deny that we are often motivated to ask philosophical questions by very specific concerns. We might be motivated to ask the philosophical question 'what makes a person morally responsible for our actions?' by our interest in whether Charles Manson was responsible for his criminal actions....

In answering question 24759, Michael Cholbi writes: "It's important not to confuse the facts by which others know or identify a person and the facts that constitute his or her identity as a person. The way you and I think about Nelson is in terms of social facts about him (his accomplishments, etc.). If I were struggling to remember who was South Africa's first post-apartheid leader, you'd naturally tell me, "Don't you remember? It was Nelson Mandela."" Professor Cholbi intended that as an argument in favour of the theory that "He's not Mandela unless he has that genetic constitution." But suppose we are extremely well informed geneticists and you were struggling to remember who was the person who had the unique sequence of nucleotides CTAG repeated for 999 times between locations 1A237C and 1A324A. I would also tell you: "Don't you remember? It was Nelson Mandela." What is the difference between the genetic and the social fact? Or the difference between genetic constitution and whatever events that...

Thanks for following up. You're asking about a number of issues at once, so let's see if we can distill them out. First, you wonder why people must have "essences" at all. That's a big question -- Hume is a well-known philosopher who can be read at suggesting that persons or selves don't exist. That 'no self'' position is a minority view within philosophy, but is arguably the position espoused by Buddha and has some affinities with the 'eliminative materialism' defended by Paul and Patricia Churchland. I'd encourage you to explore those views further. Second, in my earlier response, the point that we might identify someone on the basis of social facts about him or her was not an argument for genetic facts being essential to a person. Rather, my purpose in making that point is to illustrate how this line of reasoning is invalid: Whether a is F can be reliably determined by whether a is G. Therefore, G is a's essence. To see why, suppose (again) that the way we would normally identify Mandela is by...

Some states mandate an automatic death penalty for murdering a law enforcement officer. How can this possibly be just when it elevates the victim above that of common civilians? I agree with the Aristotelian conception of justice as only partially overlapping that of morality but consistency is crucial to rationality in both judgment and conduct. Actions ought to be judged similarly unless there are morally relevant dissimilarities between them so a law-abiding or even a vindictive police officer, already armed and aware of the risks of his profession, is the same as any other civilian, both legally and morally. Common law jurisdictions work on the basis that all citizens are equal in intrinsic worth--wouldn't the imperative be to either entirely repeal the death penalty for murder or use it in every single instance?

I'm going to largely duck your last question: I doubt even the most enthusiastic proponents of the death penalty believe it should be imposed for every murder. Most jurisdictions distinguish between first-degree murder, second-degree, etc., precisely because not all murders are morally serious enough to merit the death penalty (which it is not to say that any murder merits the death penalty). But on to your main question: Should the death penalty be automatic for murdering a law enforcement officer but not automatic for murdering anyone else? I can think of three possible rationales for an affirmative answer. I'm not sure I find any of them convincing, but I'll leave that to your judgment. The first is that killing law enforcement is morally worse than killing someone else and so automatically deserves a harsh punishment. Your position seems to be that this is not so: That in order for killing law enforcement to be morally worse than killing someone else, there must be something about the...

I have been reading Stanford Encyclopedia's article on the "non-identity problem". I find it very interesting, but in the whole article it is assumed that one person is the same person in two alternative realities if and only if he or she came out of the same egg (genetically and perhaps atom by atom) produced by her biological parents. I find this idea very wrong. Consider an alternative reality where a man named Nelson Mandela did the same important things that Nelson Mandela did in our reality, but who was conceived and born two months later than our Nelson Mandela. Does it make any sense to say that he would not have been Nelson Mandela? It doesn't, it makes sense only for philosophers who don't want things to make sense at all.... And what if the same egg produced a person completely different from our Nelson Mandela and with a different name? Would that person be Nelson Mandela? I am sure he wouldn't, for no reason, except if you *stipulate* that it has to be that way. Now you may ask: where do you...

I'm pretty confident philosophers do want to make sense of personal identity. But you are taking issue — not unreasonably, in my estimation — with a claim many philosophers make in motivating the non-identity problem. Let's review the reasoning that's supposed to generate this problem. Let's imagine Nelson is brought into existence in circumstances C1. In order for Nelson to have been harmed by being brought into existence in C1, then there must be some other circumstance C2 in which Nelson could have been brought into existence which would have been better for Nelson. But (the reasoning goes) in any circumstance beside C1, the individual brought into existence would not have the same genetic constitution, and so would not have the same identity, as Nelson. Hence, there is no other circumstance into which Nelson could have been brought into existence, and so Nelson could not have been harmed by being brought into existence at C1. (And the point generalizes: No one is ever harmed — or benefitted — by...
Law

I feel that it is okay for private citizens to break certain laws. As a matter of fact, when that law is unjust, I feel that it is a private citizen's duty to break that law. On the other hand, if someone is acting as a public official or as an authority figure then they should follow the law down to the last letter. Is this opinion valid or just inconsistent?

There are a few different issues in the air with your question. Whether it's morally permissible to break the law depends on whether, or under what conditions, there is a moral obligation to obey the law in the first place. This is an old philosophical question, perhaps addressed most memorably by Socrates in the Crito , where he argues that it would be wrong for him to escape from Athens to avoid his death sentence. The question of whether (and how) we have a moral obligation to obey the law has come to be known as the question of "political obligation." (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-obligation/). Philosophers disagree about whether such an obligation exists. 'Philosophical anarchists' maintain that there is no obligation to obey the law as such (though there may be an obligation to obey laws that require us to do what we are morally obligated to do anyway). Those defending political obligation offer a variety of different arguments, appealing to the notion of a 'social contract,' a...

I've read and heard some atheist philosophers (like Peter Singer) argue that it's our capacity to reason that makes us moral. But this would seem to imply that we can take advantage of people who don't exercise or do not fully have this capacity, like young children. Is this point valid?

Let's begin with the statement "our capacity to reason makes us moral." Philosophers often distinguish between moral agents and moral patients . These are somewhat technical terms, but the rough idea is that an individual is a moral agent just in case that individual can be properly held morally responsible, that is, it can be correct to say of that individual that it has an obligation to do A, a duty to do B, etc. Adult human beings are typically thought of moral agents — they are capable of acting rightly or wrongly. Bacteria, for example, definitely aren't moral agents. An individual is a moral patient if facts about it make it worthy of moral consideration. Moral patients have some property or status that necessitate moral agents taken those individuals into account in their moral reasoning. Philosophers disagree a little about what makes an individual a moral agent -- and a lot about what makes an individual a moral patient. Some philosophers, such as Kant, thought one and the same property...

For many years, I believed that I was responsible for having injured someone, and I accepted that. However, due to extenuating circumstances, while I believed that I was indeed responsible for having caused this injury, I was unable to feel guilty for it, and wondered why I was so callous. Decades later, I learned that I had NOT injured this individual after all! While I felt relieved to learn this, I also feel that it doesn't really absolve me of my apparent callousness during all those years when I'd thought I really HAD hurt her. In other words, I feel rather guilty now for NOT having felt guilty in the past! Philosophically and ethically speaking, what do you think?

Ethically speaking, I'd say that your present guilt at not having felt guilt in the past speaks positively of your own moral character. As it turns out, you did not in fact have reason to feel guilt in the past because you had not injured another person. Nevertheless, to feel guilt when you (believe you) have injured another is morally valuable. For one, such guilt indicates a recognition of your own wrongdoing and is evidence of your moral knowledge and perceptiveness. And from a more consequentialist or utilitarian point of view, being susceptible to guilt encourages us not to injure others. After all, guilt feels bad, so being susceptible to guilt is good inasmuch as the desire to avoid justified guilt should engender a desire to avoid injuring others. The guilt you're feeling now is what philosophers such as Harry Frankfurt call a 'second-order' attitude: Your present guilt is directed at (or we might put it more technically, has as its object) your earlier lack of guilt. It is an attitude...

Do you feel that philosophy suffers from a lack of respect from the public and do you think any of that is deserved?

It's tough to get a handle on whether philosophy is respected by the public. First and foremost, my guess is that most people living today don't respect or disrespect philosophy. They simply have no attitude toward it whatsoever. In large measure, that's because most people are exposed to philosophy through university education, and only a small minority of people receive such educations. It's also important to distinguish philosophy the practice from philosophy the academic discipline. One could respect the former and not the latter, and vice versa. Finally, attitudes toward philosophy seem to vary from community to community (it seems more respected, in my observation, in Europe than in the U.S.). So I'm reluctant to make any sweeping statements in response to your question. But here are some relevant (and contestable!) observations: 1. The world is thirsty for philosophy. I think that those who are exposed to philosophy see that it engages questions that impact themselves and their communities in...

Is bearing a child really a right? The state does not know much about its own citizens other than date of birth and tax information so bringing unwanted children into the world is unfair to the child and the rest of society that must deal with all of the associated problems. Irresponsible parents or single mothers cannot guarantee the welfare or even the survival of their wanted children so why not prevent problems by passing a law allowing the state to licence and decide what type of people are allowed to have children according to certain criteria just like a driver's license? Those denied a license can always reapply at a later date once they've proved they are responsible enough. Right to privacy ends once the child leaves the womb since it is then a separate human and legal entity.

Your questions touches on a number of issues within the emerging philosophical field of procreative ethics , the field addressing questions concerning the ethics of reproduction and parenting. I concur with the spirit of your last sentence: It is interesting that landmark legal rulings in the United States establishing legal rights to use birth control and the right to abortion both appealed to the right to privacy. But if there is a right to procreate, it is probably not best modelled on a right to privacy. Your comments about licensing parents echo a well-known argument given by Hugh LaFollette in a 1980 article (http://www.hughlafollette.com/papers/licensing.parents.pdf). Here's my reconstruction of LaFollette's argument: 1. Incompetent parenting is harmful to children. 2. Societies are justified in restricting access to activities that are potentially harmful to others if those restrictions significantly reduce the likelihood of harm from those activities. (Compare, for example, driving...

Although I am aware of the distinction between deduction and induction in logic, which relies on the strength of the link between premises and conclusion, with deduction a matter of necessity and induction a matter of probability, I find the distinction problematic. For instance, the argument "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. So, Socrates is a mortal" is a classic example of a deductive argument. But the first premise is based on particular cases, so it cannot be universally guaranteed that it would be always true. But the fact that it may not always be true makes it one of probability and not necessity. Would this consideration make a difference as to the argument is deductive or inductive?

Whether an argument is deductive or inductive depends on the nature of the link between its premises and its conclusion. As you say, a deductive argument is one in which the premises entail the conclusion as a matter of necessity, i.e., that its conclusion must be true if its premises are. In contrast, an inductive argument is one in which its premises putatively support, but do not entail, its conclusion. As you say, the premises are supposed to make the conclusion more probable, but the conclusion could still be false despite the premises being true. Deductive and inductive are therefore properties of arguments, not properties of their premises. What your example, the classic Socrates syllogism, highlights is that the premises of an argument can be justified in different ways. Certainly All men are mortal is a premise we would justify inductively: We observe that every man [sic] who's ever lived dies eventually, and so on the basis of inductive reasoning (person 1 died,...

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