Advanced Search

If it is not immoral to shoot dead an intruder into one's house without asking

If it is not immoral to shoot dead an intruder into one's house without asking questions, why would it be immoral to shoot dead an intruder into one's country?

Some folks are enamored of the idea of “shooting dead an intruder in one’s house without asking questions,” but I’m not one of them.

Necessary self-defense has always been a basic part of common law, but it is quite another thing to kill a man or woman on the sole pretext that that person is an intruder, whether or not the person constitutes a genuine threat to anybody in particular. Even jurisdictions that have stand-your-ground laws, or “castle” laws, generally require that you have a genuine fear of harm, or at least a genuine fear of a serious felony, before you are justified in using deadly force. And even then, the level of force must be necessary. Stephen Maitzen is entirely right when he points out that an undocumented alien is almost certainly not a genuine and immediate threat to you. Beyond this point, however, the notion that you can lawfully kill someone just because that person has intruded into your home now circulates broadly, and it is, in fact, legally false. You have no such legal right. The notion is also morally pernicious, because it has encouraged a number of gun owners to commit murder—for which they have rightly been prosecuted.

(I say this, by the way, as someone who enjoys shooting guns—indeed, I never saw a gun I didn’t want to shoot. And I admit that there can be circumstances where there is simply no opportunity to talk and where you must fire to protect yourself or others. But guns should be kept out of the hands of fools. Many developing nations have higher homicide rates than the U.S. does, but among developed countries, the U.S. per-capita homicide rate stands alone, and so does the ease with which Americans obtain guns.)

John Locke discusses the use of deadly force as a means of necessary self-defense in his Second Treatise of Government, and he has at least two memorable lines that seem relevant here: “When all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred.” And yet, “Even the guilty are to be spared, where it can prove no prejudice to the innocent.” (These lines appear in paragraphs 16 and 159.)

I recently read that the majority of philosophers are moral realists. I either

I recently read that the majority of philosophers are moral realists. I either do not understand moral realism or, if I do understand it, I don't buy it. Below I describe how I view the ideas of 'right' and 'wrong.' Is my understanding incompatible with moral realism? And how would you critique my understanding? Also if you want to give a version of moral realism that is easy to understand that would be greatly appreciated. Let’s say that I find test taking difficult. I declare: test taking is difficult. This statement is relational in nature. I am saying that because of various elements of my personal makeup the action of taking a test is difficult for me. It would be incorrect of me to say that test taking was objectively difficult. Some, as a result of various differing elements of their personal makeup, may find test taking easy. It is hypothetically possible to enumerate all of the events in my life as a child and the specific neuroanatomical structures that cause test taking to be difficult for me...

Let's start with "test taking is difficult." There's a difference between "test taking is difficult for me" and "test taking is difficult." If what I mean is just that I personally find test taking difficult, then simply saying "test taking is difficult" is a recipe for being misunderstood.

Now of course if I say something is hard, I'm usually not saying it's hard for literally everyone. I mean, roughly, that it's hard for most people. That's fine, but it can be true—whether or not the task is hard for me personally.

This gives us our first point: if a statement doesn't seem just to be about the speaker, then don't read it that way unless there's a good reason to.

Now let's turn to moral statements. When people say that punching a child in the face is wrong, they don't just mean something about themselves. In fact, most people, including most philosophers, would reject that reading out of hand. If I say "it's wrong to punch a child in the face" and you say "what you really mean is that you have negative feelings about punching kids," I'd say no; that's not what I mean. I mean that it's wrong, and it would still be wrong even if I happened to enjoy it.

Now maybe there's no real difference between right and wrong. But at this stage, we're talking about what statements mean. Roughly, that's a matter of what people who use the statements us them to mean. And I think we're on safe ground in saying that when most people say something is wrong, they don't just mean that they don't like it.

You might say that there's nothing else meaningful that they could mean. But the argument you give doesn't show this. Your argument is that there's a causal story that accounts for my saying that it's wrong to punch a child—some story about my upbringing and my influences and my neurons or whatnot. The problem is that even granting this, it doesn't show what you need to show. Compare: I say that 537 times 24 is 12,888. There's certainly a story about my upbringing, education, and the workings of my brain that explains why I say this. But the statement that 537 times 24 equals 12,888 isn't a statement about me, and in fact it's a true statement. My upbringing and the workings of my brain made me into the kind of person who's a reasonably reliable source of information about basic arithmetic.

This brings us to our second point: just because there's a causal story explaining why someone says, that doesn't make their statement subjective, and doesn't give us any reason to think it's not true. On the contrary, the causal story might help us understand why the person is reliable about this sort of thing.

Finally, back to moral claims. When people say that punching children is wrong, they don't just mean that they have a certain feeling about punching kids. If Mary says punching kids is wrong, there's certainly some complicated story about Mary's upbringing, influences, and brain that explains why she says this. But for any statement there's always some such story, and that doesn't usually give us a reason to doubt that what the person says is correct. (It could, of course; maybe the person is on drugs. But the fact that some causal stories give us reasons to doubt what someone says doesn't mean that all of them do.) Mary might be (is, I'd say!) right about punching kids. And because of her empathy, sensitivity, intelligence and wide experience, Mary might even be an unusually reliable source of moral advice.

This isn't to say that there aren't any reasons to doubt moral realism. But those reasons will have to be quite different from the ones you've proposed.

Whenever ethics and aesthetics come into conflict, is it always aesthetics that

Whenever ethics and aesthetics come into conflict, is it always aesthetics that must give way? What is so bad about killing ugly people to decrease the net ugliness in the world?

A postscript: the larger question was whether ethics always trumps aesthetics. A closely-related question is whether a life that always puts moral considerations above all other considerations, no matter how apparently trivial the issue, is a good one. Susan Wolf had interesting things to say about this some years ago in her paper "Moral Saints." (Journal of Philosophy, August 1982.) Here's a link to her essay:

I have trouble understanding the value of moral luck as a concept. If I am a

I have trouble understanding the value of moral luck as a concept. If I am a conscientious juror who weighs the available evidence, deliberates in good faith, then returns a guilty verdict, yet the defendant is in fact not guilty, then I have in every sense met my moral burden. I am not "wrong" in the moral sense because I did everything asked of a citizen placed in that situation. My guilty verdict was, rather, incorrect. Moral luck does nothing to explain or illuminate the situation. My decision more likely resulted from an incomplete investigation or a poor defense. To claim that it is bad moral luck that my beauty attracts many suitors and enhanced my chances of infidelity is as absurd or empty as to claim that beauty is good moral luck because attractive people are perceived to be more credible.

Moral luck is a tricky concept. The examples you offer in your question illustrate why.

Philosophers use the notion of moral luck to refer to situations where a person is subject to moral judgment for something which is (at least in part) outside of her control. A common example: Two drivers side by side speed recklessly through an intersection. A pedestrian enters the intersection from the right, and the driver on the right strikes her. The driver on the left speeds through the intersection without injuring anyone. That the driver on the right struck the pedestrian is to some extent a matter of luck (the pedestrian could just have easily having been entering from the left side). So too, that the driver on the left did not strike the pedestrian is to some extent a matter of luck (again, the pedestrian could just as easily entered from the left with the result that she is struck by the driver on the left). In his seminal article on this topic, Thomas Nagel distinguishes four different kinds of luck. ( This example corresponds to 'resultant luck,' luck having to do with the fact that outcomes of our actions are not entirely within our control. The right side driver, we might say, had "bad" resultant luck inasmuch he may well be blamed for a bad outcome that was outside his control. The left side driver is the beneficiary of "good" resultant luck since, despite driving recklessly, he did not injure anyone thanks to facts outside his control and is likely to escape blame altogether.

As to your two examples: I agree with you in the conscientious juror case that moral luck doesn't explain much — but that's because if you deliberate conscientiously, etc., you aren't morally blameworthy for reaching the wrong verdict. While factors outside your control explain why you reached the wrong verdict, your reaching that verdict doesn't reflect any moral wrongdoing on your part (you weren't careless or inattentive in considering the evidence, etc.). Moral luck requires both:
(a) a person is blameworthy for some act
(b) but that act (or some feature of it, such as its outcomes) is at least part the product of luck
As I see it, (a) doesn't hold in this example. (Incidentally, this might be an example of what epistemologists have come to call epistemic luck.)

Your second set of examples raises a slightly different set of issues: they concern constitutive luck, luck relating to traits outside one's control. (I'm assuming beauty is such a trait). You seem to be pointing out that one and the same trait can be good moral luck or bad moral luck depending on other factors. That's a good observation, though it doesn't undermine the claim that luck can often explain good or bad outcomes.

"Eating animals can't be bad because how do you know plants don't have feelings

"Eating animals can't be bad because how do you know plants don't have feelings" is a common argument against vegans. Is that a good argument?

No. Many vegans (and vegetarians) aim to minimize unnecessary suffering and believe that eating animals causes unnecessary suffering. A crucial premise of this argument is that animals can suffer pain, discomfort, and possibly even more complex unpleasant thoughts or emotions. What is the evidence for that premise? It's a best explanation (or abductive) argument. We have good reasons, based on a wide range of scientific evidence from psychology and neuroscience, to think that complex nervous systems are required to experience suffering, and the mammals we eat (and probably the birds and perhaps the fish) have nervous systems that support these experiences. Plus the behavior of these animals suggests that they can feel pain and discomfort.

Plants do not have nervous systems (or anything analogous) and they do not show the behavior associated with experiencing pain (or anything else). So, we have no reason to think they suffer while they live or when they are harvested. (Personally, I think humanely raising and killing animals is ethically defensible.)

Ironically, souls might be brought into the discussion to cut in both directions. Someone might argue that animals do not have the ineffable soul or mind required to experience suffering, so it's OK to do what may *seem* to cause them pain. Or someone might argue that, even though they don't have nervous systems, plants have the sort of soul (or being) that allows them to experience suffering.

A very close relative of mine admitted to committing a murder, but revealed few

A very close relative of mine admitted to committing a murder, but revealed few details about the crime. Do I have an ethical obligation to report what I've heard, even though I doubt very much that there is enough information there to lead to an indictment/trial/et cetera? Of course legally I'm not expected to incriminate an immediate family member, but my conscience seems to be pushing me towards reporting the information despite the lack of any significant real world consequences for the relative.

Before reporting the supposed crime, I'd ask myself a lot of questions:

First, how strong a piece of evidence is an admission of guilt? Increasingly, psychologists and legal scholars are discovering how remarkably common "false confessions" are:
Is there any reason your relative might admit to this crime aside from having actually committed it?

Second, you say that there is not enough information to lead to an indictment or trial. But of course that determination isn't yours to make, and it may be that once your relative is under suspicion, an investigation will yield more information about the crime, information that could lead to your relative's being indicted. So do you really know what you claim to know, i.e., that there's not enough evidence to indict (as opposed to your not having access to sufficient evidence to indict)?

Third, you say that there aren't any "significant real world consequences" for the relative if you report this. But again, that's not clear and not solely up to you to determine. Do you believe in good conscience that your relative ought to suffer the punishment associated with murder (a lengthy prison term, or in some places, execution) if the relative in fact committed the crime, and if so, why? (Here's a quick primer on how to think about the ethical justification of criminal punishment:

Lastly, I'd point out that in most legal systems, you would be required to "incriminate" a close family member unless the individual is your spouse. So are you willing to play such a role in the potential prosecution of this family member?

What is the difference between Emotivism and Quasi-realism?

What is the difference between Emotivism and Quasi-realism? Wikipedia says that Emotivism is '... a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes', and that Quasi-realism is '... the meta-ethical view which claims that: Ethical sentences do not express propositions.Instead, ethical sentences project emotional attitudes as though they were real properties.' It is said that these two theories stand in opposition to each other.

This is not an easy question to answer! Part of the difficulty is that quasi-realism is a very technical theory. So I can start by saying that Wikipedia is not quite right…

Quasi-realism can be understood as a descendant of emotivism, and both theories claim that ethical sentences express emotional attitudes. They agree that these attitudes are not representations of how the world is; they can’t be true or false. But the two theories disagree on further details about ethical language and how it functions. There is even disagreement within emotivism. Ayer’s emotivism takes the expression of emotion as central: in saying that an action is wrong, I’m not making any further factual claim about it, but expressing my moral disapproval, he says. Stevenson’s emotivism argued that the purpose of ethical language is not merely to express how we feel but to influence how we and others behave, to motivate us to act in certain ways and not others.

Blackburn’s quasi-realism argues that ethical language is rather more complex than either emotivist theory claims. First, ethical language does express propositions, such as ‘what she did was courageous’ or ‘his remark was unkind’ as well as ‘murder is wrong’. The predicates ‘was courageous’, ‘was unkind’, ‘is wrong’, attribute a property to something (what she did, his remark, murder). However, second, these predicates aren’t genuine descriptions of what she did, etc. but ‘projections’ of our evaluations. In using ethical language, we don’t speak of and think in terms our personal evaluations, but in terms of the properties of things in the world. We treat our evaluative commitments (to courage, to kindness etc.) as though they were judgments about how the world is. This is enormously useful, because it is much easier to coordinate our attitudes with other people if we think in terms of an intersubjective world of moral properties. Third, this isn’t simply a mistake or illusion. Quasi-realism argues that we can meaningfully talk of moral judgments being true or false. These are all important differences from emotivism.

If moral judgments don’t ascribe genuine properties to actions, how can they be true or false? We shouldn’t think that our evaluations make something right or wrong – that’s a confusion. We can only talk about things being right or wrong from within some evaluative perspective; but having a certain perspective is not a reason for something being right or wrong. For instance, suppose I kick a dog, and you tell me off. The fact that you disapprove of my action doesn’t make it wrong, nor do you think this (I shall assume!). Rather, what makes my action wrong is the pain it causes the dog.

But don’t people simply have different evaluative perspectives? If so, how can we talk about truth in ethics? Because nobody’s perspective is perfect (and if they think it is, that’s so arrogant it shows that their evaluations are perfect!). ‘True’ ethical statements are those that form part of the ‘best’ set of attitudes we can have, and the best set is what results from improving our attitudes as much as possible. There are not may ‘liveable, unfragmented, developed, consistent, and coherent systems of attitude’, says Blackburn.

How does one know when is it acceptable to break a promise? Is there something

How does one know when is it acceptable to break a promise? Is there something special about a vow, or is it just a social construct? I can envision various scenarios involving onerous mortgages and starving children, and my conclusion seems to be: "Well, you'll just know it when you see it". But that seems to suggest it's just based on my present whim.

I think that you are right that there are no clear, definite rules about exactly when one may break a promise. But I don't think that this shows that whether or not it is acceptable is based on your whim.

Aristotle argued that there are only very rarely fixed rules in ethics, but there are nevertheless objective reasons for why (and when) actions are right and wrong. It just means that reasoning in ethics doesn't take the form of discovering rules. There aren't laws of ethics the way there are laws of nature. He argued that to know what is the right thing to do, at least in complex and unpredictable situations like this, you have to be good. So 'you'll just know it when you see it' is only true if you are a good person; if you aren't, you will probably think it is okay to break a promise when, really, it isn't (e.g. not being good, you might be swayed by selfishness to disregard the harm that breaking the promise would do to someone else).

Knowing when to break a promise is a matter of weighing up the reasons for and against breaking it that apply to the actual situation you are in (such as the importance of keeping your word v. the suffering of your starving children and the absence of any alternative). There aren't any algorithms for weighing up reasons, and in a different situation, there might be different reasons. So it is very difficult to base one situation on another. (We might at least think the fact that you'll break your promise is a reason not to do it, but what if you had made a promise to a morally bad person to do a morally bad thing? Then it seems it would be good to break your promise!)

The approach to ethics I've outlined here is known as 'particularism'. It rejects the idea that ethical reasoning is always about finding rules for behaviour. But we still have to reason in ethics - it isn't about our whims, and we can get the answers wrong.

A final point about your second sentence. Promises can be special and yet be a social construct (we don't have to choose). If there was no social agreement on promising, there could be no promises and nothing special about them. (If no one accepts your promise, you can't make it!) So promising is definitely a social construct in that sense. But being able to trust people to do what they say they will do is so important for us to live together that promising is special. It requires some very good reasons (again, not a mere whim) to justify breaking a promise.

If we accept that caring for disabled members is an obligation of all society,

If we accept that caring for disabled members is an obligation of all society, is it permissible to prevent people from disabling themselves?

I’d be interested to know exactly what’s motivating your question, but here’s a stab at the reasoning that might be behind it:

Suppose that a society is (collectively) obligated to care for the disabled. Caring for the disabled imposes burdens on the rest of society. But it’s wrong for us to knowingly act so as make ourselves (more) burdensome to others. So it would be wrong for us to knowingly act so as to disable ourselves, and since it is permissible to permit others from wronging us, it is permissible to prevent people from disabling themselves.

Before we address the soundness of this reasoning, I’d note that very few disabled persons have chosen to be disabled. In the vast majority of cases, disability either doesn’t stem from a person’s choice at all (the disability is traced to genetic or environmental causes) or results from a choice that carried a risk of disability (working in a dangerous profession like logging, engaging in a dangerous form of leisure). Most societies address these with schemes of insurance, either government-provided or through the private market. The idea there is to spread the risk of inherently dangerous activities (such as driving a car) across a large population. That isn’t inconsistent with certain people bearing more of the risks (bad drivers, those who operate logging companies). And of course, there’s health insurance in order to distribute the risk of being alive!

So I suspect that if you have in mind individuals intentionally disabling themselves, that phenomenon is rare. But does the reasoning I outlined above support the conclusion that it’s morally permissible to try to prevent others from intentionally disabling themselves because that’s burdensome to others? On the one hand, maybe the best reasons we have for putting suicide barriers on bridges or requiring that consumer products be safe is that these policies preclude people from harming themselves in ways that result in disabilities for which others in society will ultimately bear the costs. On the other hand, we sometimes permit people to impose burdens on us through means other than disabling themselves. Pollution burdens others. So does procreation (societies end up caring for many children who are abandoned, etc.) This suggests that whether we have a right to prevent others from burdening us may not depend on how they cause that burden — whether by disabling themselves or through other activities or choices. In the end, my guess is that the best account of when someone else can permissibly burden us, versus when it is permissible for us to prevent them from burdening us, turns on how important the ‘burdening’ activity is.

A final note: Even if it is permissible in general to prevent people from disabling themselves, that moral permission has limits. I doubt that it would be morally permissible to (for example) install surveillance cameras in every dwelling in order to prevent people from disabling themselves through drug abuse, ‘failed’ suicide attempts, etc.

Is lying by omission really a form of lying?

Is lying by omission really a form of lying?

Allen Stairs is right in suggesting that it is possible to lie by saying nothing, and perhaps it is worth adding that lies of this sort often form the basis of prosecutions for fraud.

Fraud is legally complicated, but the basic idea is that you can injure someone by causing that person to rely on your assurances, even when you know that your assurances are false. Many legal systems assume that such conduct should sometimes be punished, depending on the circumstances, but they also assume that false assurances (or false representations) can come from what you don't say as much as from what you do say.

For example, if I sell you a car without telling you that it has no brakes, and I omit this fact knowingly, my conduct might well be punishable as fraud. One can label such conduct with a variety of names, of course, but the basic idea is that there is something fundamentally wrong and dishonest about it, and many societies have sought to punish it.

A key element in these situations is trust. If I sell you the car, then you have a legitimate right to expect that you can trust me to disclose any gravely serious defect that I know about, like the car’s having no brakes. (Such expectations are sometimes “fiduciary,” from the Latin fiducia, for trust, and this is especially so when one gets advice from a lawyer or an agent, who is expected to disclose relevant information.) To betray this trust, by commission or omission, is often punishable. By contrast, enemy combatants are not normally expected to disclose their strategic plans to each other, and one reason is that neither side has any obvious right to trustworthy information from the other side. (Perhaps it is just this assumption that lies behind Sun Tzu’s famous aphorism in the Art of War, “All war is based on deception.”)

Similar distinctions often appear in sports or business. Sports teams have no obligation to tell their competitors that the competitors are preparing for the wrong play. But they do indeed have an obligation to disclose violations of the rules by their own players. (“Sure, he played with regulation footballs; we’re just not telling you that the balls were all intentionally deflated.”) Business competitors have no obligation to tell each other of their strategic plans, but they do indeed have a responsibility, both moral and legal, to disclose serious defects in a product to their own customers. In many of these cases, people have a right to trustworthy information, and this right can be violated by what we don’t say as much as by what we do say.

Even in war, an adversary who accepts terms of surrender has a right to expect that there are no undisclosed conditions that would make the surrender absurd or the equivalent of suicide. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, Prince John of Lancaster promises rebel leaders that their grievances will be redressed and urges them to surrender. After the rebels lay down their arms, Prince John orders their arrest and sends them off to execution. He explains that their grievances will indeed be redressed; he simply left out the part about their being arrested and executed.

I am tempted to leave it there, but trust requires that I disclose an additional fact—that I am not a lawyer, just a fellow who teaches philosophy. So if there is any possibility of fraud by omission, it is certainly prudent to consult an attorney.