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My preference is to live a simple lifestyle, minimizing my carbon footprint,

My preference is to live a simple lifestyle, minimizing my carbon footprint, buying and consuming less, checking out books from a library instead of purchasing them, biking to work instead of driving, eating vegetarian, etc. Yet it's clear that if everyone lived in such a minimalistic manner, the global economy would be in a shambles. Am I somehow obligated to live a life of conspicuous consumption in order to help support and maintain economic stability and progress even at the cost of continued environmental destruction?

I think it might be argued that the present sort of economy would certainly come to an end if everyone started to consume a lot less, but that this might lead to the creation of a new sort of economy which could produce a happier, healthier and more relaxed community. Poorer perhaps in terms of GNP but not otherwise.

Dear Philosophers

Dear Philosophers I recently posted the following on a forum for a course in Global Health that I took: “India going to Mars while 48.9% of its population can’t go to a flush-toilet! Is it just me, or is there a moral disconnect here? The international press is reporting that India intends to launch a space vehicle which is slated to orbit Mars. India's space program is reported to cost the country US$ 1.1 billion (yes! that is "_illion" with a B) annually from 2011-2013. I am kind of wondering how extensive a sanitation infrastructure India could have had for the combined budgets of their space and nuclear weapon's programs? I am also wondering at what point practitioners from the global health community start to call into question the ethical and moral responsibility of a government toward its citizens? For myself, I think I have reached that point - the next time I get solicited (a.k.a. fleeced) for some health project in India I may just tell them to go to h... Mars, because to me, this stinks worse...

Well, India is a democracy and so one has to suspect that a substantial part of the population is in favor of such expenditure. Perhaps even those who have no flush toilets. Then there is the prospect that out of the Mars project there will be a result which may be of general benefit to even the poorest part of the population. I have no idea what the situation is here but presumably the Indian government is going to argue that the expenditure is worthwhile for the general population.

It seems obvious that when there is spending on something that looks superfluous while there are unmet basic needs in society, that a reallocation of resources needs to take place. But why? If I choose to spend my last few dollars on champagne and not my rent, which results in my becoming homeless, it is my choice. If I ask you to cover the rent money, you may well decline. But then it is up to you. I think the Indians are fed up with being regarded as basket cases when much that goes on in the country is the reverse of that. It is for them to decide how to allocate their resources. A basic principle of charity is that one gives money freely and perhaps hopes it will be well used. It is paternalistic to adopt any other attitude.

I realize that I have not succeeded in rephrasing your two interesting questions but I think they are based on a suspect presupposition that there is something here morally questionable.

Does democracy necessarily assume that the voters are rational and educated? I

Does democracy necessarily assume that the voters are rational and educated? I was always of the opinion that democracy was the best system because there is no way in non-democratic systems to ensure that the state is acting in the best interests of the people. Is this a compelling argument or is there a better counterargument? Do the arguments that "voters are irrational" or "voters are unduly influenced by the media" really defeat democracy? Is it better to have a well-intentioned non-democratic state look after the interests of the people?

Wonderful question, deserving of complicated book-length responses .... As (I think) Churchill said, democracy is a terrible form of government, but even so it's less terrible than every other possible form ... A few disorganized thoughts. I suppose some might hold that "ideal" forms of democracy would exist where voters are rational, educated, etc. (and historically various democracies have tried to restrict franchisement to those who fit various conditions -- such as having property, being literate, etc.). Of course, those forms of democracy tend to be seen these ways as involving those in power propagating their power and suppressing those below them ... Even if you're okay with restricting the vote in some such way, democracy is messy -- even very educated, rational people disagree. (Ask three professional philosophers, get four opinions ...) So I suppose that if the goal of government is to act "in the best interests of the people," what you would most like would be very wise, autocratic rulers -- forget majority votes, forget even votes of the majority of educated citizens, just make the decisions yourself! (A philosopher-king, a la Plato, would be nice here.) But of course we all know the problem here -- power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely ... There probably haven't been too many genuinely wise, benevolent autocratic rulers in history ... So (some conclude) the best thing to do is go the opposite direction -- maximize the franchise -- let EVERYONE vote, get involved (more or less... ok, not children ...) But here what you probably have to give up on is the idea that gov't is "in the best interests of the people" -- after all, who could define that, what are "the people," esp. in a heterogenous society with many different interests in conflict ... Instead, gov't is about doing "the will" of the people, whatever exactly that means -- with no guarantee (and perhaps very little likelihood) that the will of the people is actually aligned with the "best interests" of the people .... But since nobody -- not even the wise autocratic ruler -- can really claim a monopoly on knowing what the best interests are, at least, in such a system, people are "getting what they want" ...

just a start .... great (hard!) question ...


Does justice necessarily have to be equality?

Does justice necessarily have to be equality?

Interesting! In certain respects, when treating persons in terms of criminal justice, most of us believe that persons should not be given unfair, special treatment because of wealth, gender, ethnicity, family, and so on.... And in many areas, we assume that, in a just society, identical or similar cases should be treated equally. If you and I both earn the same amount of money from the same job and our conditions are similar (that is, it is not the case that, say, I am childless but you are supporting three children), we naturally expect that what we pay in taxes should be the same (or equal). But in a just society, there still may be inequalities in different areas: not all members of a society will be equally healthy or strong, equally intelligent, equally loved by care-givers, you may receive massive attention by fashion magazines because of your irresistible smile, while I get no attention at all, and so on.

One way to make progress here would be to think in terms of justice as fairness. This is something John Rawls pursued over a long period of reflection and debate. So, equality and inequality become important insofar as the equality or inequality is the result of being fair or unfair. So, imagine you and I are equally talented and either of us could have become a brain surgeon, but, as it happens, you are the one who puts the years of training into actually becoming a highly successful brain surgeon, while I decide to make and sell enough tourist art in order to pursue my real passion, surfing. Both of us may be equally happy, but I think many of us would think that the surgeon would rightly be rewarded with greater goods (income) than the surfer.


Hello, I am currently studying philosophy and ethics at my school. We are doing an assignment at the moment on human nature and three element of human nature and how they link in with society itself and help to form and maintain it. I was wondering, could selfishness (a definite part of human nature) in any way, benefit society? As in, would it be able to help form or maintain a society? Thankyou for any responces.

Good luck in your studies! Philosophers have thought quite a bit about self-interest and selfishness. What is often called psychological egoism is the thesis that humans always act in ways that they believe to be in their self-interest (either directly or indirectly), while ethical egoism is the thesis that people ought to do what is (either directly or indirectly) in their self-interest. One point to clarify here is the difference between "selfishness" and "self-interest." If psychological egoism is taken as the view that all persons are selfish because all people act in their self-interest, this seems either false or to involve an odd use of the notion of "self-interest." Clearly many people are interested in living lives of justice, compassion, humility, and so on, but to call such people "selfish" would seem to be quite the opposite of what they are like: namely, they are generous, caring, non-vain, non-pompous, humble. So, I suggest that we use the term "selfish" in ways that pick out traits such as: a selfish person tends to put treat his own needs and desires as more important than others; if food or water is scarce, a selfish person (if he can get away with it) tends to either take or want to take more than his fair share. If a selfish person can achieve an advantage over others through deception, he will be sorely tempted to think of himself first and be tempted to deceive. On this meaning, it does not appear that everyone is selfish (and what might be called psychological selfishness seems wrong) and it also seems that selfishness would do more to endanger social cohesiveness than other traits and motives: like the desire to live in a just society, the motive of caring for others, and so on.

Still, some philosophers have sought to show that rational or enlightened self-interest can lead to benefits. There is a thought experiment called the Prisoner's Dilemma (you can find this outlined on various philosophy website) which is designed to show that while narrow self-interest will lead to the worst overall outcome, enlightened self-interest can lead to the best outcome under the circumstances. And in jurisprudence of philosophy of law, you will find reflection on what penalties or incentives seem required to promote civic life and reduce crime by appealing to the self-interest of citizens. Ideally, you do not want laws that are so lax (imagine the penalty for ponnzi schemes is a few months in jail) that it would be in the self-interest of persons to break the law. Adam Smith is an 18th century philosopher as well as an economist who argued that if persons rationally pursued self-interest they would be guided by what he poetically referred to as "an invisible hand" to bring about the best social benefit.

In terms of books on human nature, I highly recommend two that are accessible, reliable, and clear: Roger Trigg's Ideas of Human Nature and Leslie Stevenson's Thirteen Theories of Human Nature.

What is impartiality for a judge deciding something like a legal case? I'm not

What is impartiality for a judge deciding something like a legal case? I'm not asking about an impartial decision by the judge, but about an impartial situation. For instance, I'm necessarily partial (in this sense) when deciding a case concerning myself. But it seems that I'm also partial when deciding a case concerning my children, since I love them a lot. A racist is necessarily partial when deciding a case between people from different races, isn't he/she? What about a human deciding a case related to the interests of animals? And what about any decent person deciding a case against a criminal?

I'm a little worried about the distinction between the decision and the situation. A judge's decision is impartial, roughly, if it amounts to applying the law to the facts as opposed to tinkering with what the law actually calls for or what the facts actually amount to. The decision can be impartial even if the judge privately wishes that the right verdict were otherwise. A simple example: I might judge that one of two students deserves a prize because his record is stronger, even though I wish the other student were the one who should win. My judgment is impartial even though I have private and partial attitudes that, if acted on, might lead to a different result. Is the situation impartial? Perhaps not; I do, after all have a preference about how I wish things would turn out. But that's consistent with the decision being impartial. That's because there are many cases where we're capable of setting our personal views aside. And that's all we can reasonably ask.

That said, in some cases it's asking too much to expect the person judging to put his or her views aside. For example: it would be asking too much in a legal case to expect a judge to act impartially if the defendant were his or her spouse or business partner or friend.

The phrase "impartial situation" isn't one I've heard used and I'd prefer to say that a situation is conducive to impartiality. We might say that a judgment situation is is conducive to impartiality if we can reasonably expect the person making the judgment to decide impartially. The crucial thing is that it doesn't have to be a case where the person judging has no private preferences; it just has to be one where those preferences can be put aside.

Which situations are those? There's no good blanket answer, but a decent human being might well be able to decide whether a defendant is guilty under the law even if what the defendant is accused of is pretty nasty. And if the accused is found guilty, a decent human being might well be able to decide that the law doesn't allow for a certain harsh penalty even if the person deciding privately wishes it did. That seems to me to be all we can reasonably ask.

hello - i am trying to identify the school of philosophy that posits that

hello - i am trying to identify the school of philosophy that posits that optimal systems or societies are created only when the designers or creators are blind to the role they will play in that system or society. I haven't the foggiest idea where to start. i apologize if the question is too vague but if you can point me in a direction that would ehlp i would be most appreciative. thanks

What you describe sounds very much like the "veil of ignorance" imposed on the designers of society in John Rawls's hugely influential book A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971). I recommend starting there.

Why is propaganda considered bad? If a government wants to express a viewpoint

Why is propaganda considered bad? If a government wants to express a viewpoint why shouldn't that be allowed? Why do people have to be informed that their government is expressing a view rather than some other entity? For example the government made a series of news segments which it then gave to various news agencies who aired them without attributing their source to the government. I mean if those videos didn't contain any lies what is the problem?

Good question, and perhaps your last sentence hits the nail on the head. Perhaps in its earliest days the concept of "propaganda" didn't necessarily have a negative connotation -- it was just a matter of getting information 'out there', and surely there is nothing wrong with the idea of a gov't participating in and faciliting the distribution of information. But the concept these days DOES carry a negative connotation, precisely in the assumption that the information so conveyed is not reliable. When you refer to 'propaganda' these days you are implying that the information is biased, selective, misleading, etc. -- which it can be in all sorts of disturbing ways even if it falls short of being an outright "lie." For example the government might release a report citing a bunch of economists praising a particular economic strategy the gov't is backing -- and conveniently leaving out reference to the numerous other economists who argue it won't work. That's not a lie, exactly, but if you are expecting the gov't to be providing complete/objective information, it falls short of that. The great difficulty, naturally, is how to distinguish in any actual case (a) the gov't making a good, reliable argument for its policies and (b) the gov't releasing propaganda, i.e. something designed to convince and persuade but not necessarily on the basis of good, reliable argument ...

hope that's useful!


What is the difference between revenge and justice?

What is the difference between revenge and justice? Example: Some guy holds you at gun point and wants your money. You manage to snatch the gun from him, would it be considered justice or revenge if you now rob him instead?

I don't think that justice and revenge have all that much in common. Justice is about fairness and morality: doing what is right. Revenge is about inflicting hurt or harm on someone in response to wrong suffered at their hands. But two wrongs do not make a right... acting purely out of vengefulness is rarely just at all. If someone has done something wrong then they should make it right if possible ...make an amend, redress the balance. In a just society the legal system may enforce this. But the point is not to make the wrong-doer suffer. That does no good to anyone. It is only to make things better. If you manage to snatch the gun from the would-be robber, then robbing him would be vengeful but not just.

I am researching for a book on Shamanism and neo-Shamanism and an issue that

I am researching for a book on Shamanism and neo-Shamanism and an issue that emerges from this work is that of ownership. Neo-Shamans (i.e. Euro-Americans who are creating contemporary expressions of shamanism) are accused of cultural appropriation and theft of ceremonial forms. Such activity is defined as colonialism. My question is how do we determine who owns what in this scenario? I don't mean this in a legal sense necessarily. More, is there a moral or ethical justification for stating that traditional indigenous Shamans are right? How would one define such a moral or ethical right. I guess I'm asking in an absolute sense who owns what and how do we justify such ownership: what does philosophy have to say about this?

I don't think anyone owns ideas or forms of culture. If someone wants to incorporate shamanism in their lives we may suspect their motives or the authenticity of their approach, but why should they not try it? You don't have to be an Indian to make Indian food or a German to play Beethoven, surely.