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To what extent is one responsible for how accomplished one can be in life? Many

To what extent is one responsible for how accomplished one can be in life? Many assume that hard work is all that is needed. Personally i'm in college, and i've been getting A's because of hard work. I am however almost tormented by the thought that alot of my childhood was spent doing pretty much nothing. John Stuart Mill was fluent in Latin and Greek by the time he was twelve or so, because he was pushed so hard by his father. Mill was an accomplished man off course, and most people could not do the same things as he did even if they worked hard later in life. Should one just give up trying to excel academically if one has not had a privileged childhood as he did?

John Stuart Mill was a childhood prodigy, as you say, but in later adolescence he suffered a "nervous breakdown" (probably depression) which he thought was caused by too much intellectual work as a child. So, at the same age you are now, he was not very functional. He also died when he was 67--not a long life by today's measures. There are many routes to academic accomplishments; perhaps hard work is the only thing they have in common, and you know that you are capable of that. In any case, you cannot change the past or guarantee the future--only work with the present. If you enjoy academics and aspire to greatness, I wish you the best of luck!

The idea underlying many concepts of illness is that something has gone wrong

The idea underlying many concepts of illness is that something has gone wrong with a biological system and some part of that system which has gone awry must be restored to it's proper function. The proper function of a biological systems is usually whatever allows that entity to live, breathe, exerts it muscles freely and vigorously without pain. When it comes to mental illness we extend that idea of proper functioning to anything that causes mental distress and is presumably due to biological problems with the brain. However there seems to me that something about that way of thinking is flawed because while it seems obvious when biological systems are disrupted rather than acting their natural course it does not seem obvious that mental distress is a product of biological aberrations. It seems rather like it is plausible that that is the normal course of life for humans even if that misery has a biological explanation.. So isn't mental illness essentially a flawed concept?

Hi, Miriam. I completely agree. The concept of illness is very flimsy. It is something like: an abnormality or disorder of a mental or physiological organ or system. Attempts to give a serious scientific account of 'normal' or 'orderly' have proved unsuccessful. Illness is just a vague folk notion and probably does not correspond to anything more scientifically or philosophically solid. Questions about the true underlying nature of specific mental illnesses (psychiatric disorders as they are now called), their treatment etc. are best deal with case by case. The same applies to physical illnesses though. There is nothing special about physiology here.

Philosophers debate persistence conditions for personal identity because

Philosophers debate persistence conditions for personal identity because everything about us seems to change, including our cells, our memories, and our bodies. But DNA doesn't change and it codes for specfic traits in every cell of the human body. It's true that we experience changes in the way phenotypes are expressed in particular experiences or memories, but why not conclude that DNA is the ultimate source of personal identity? Philosophers don't seem to give this biological candidate serious consideration. Can you tell me why?

DNA does change. There are "point mutations", for example, in which say a single nucleotide changes, say from guanine to cytosine. . . . CTG TCA . . . becomes . . . CTG GCA . . . If there is a strand of DNA that suffers such a change, is it then not the same strand of DNA? This is exactly like the question whether persons become different persons if they lose say half a finger. And now we have the problem of DNA identity. When are two descriptions sufficiently similar to count as descriptions of the same strand of DNA? Anthony Quinton has the general issue right, in a 1962 article in the Journal of Philosophy called "The Soul": 'No general account of the identity of a kind of individual thing can be given which finds that identity in the presence of another individual thing within it. For the question immediately arises, how is the identity through time of the identifier to be established? It, like the thing it is supposed to identify, can present itself at any one time only as it is at that time. However alike its temporally separate phases may be, they still require to be identified as parts of the same, continuing thing.' By the way, 6% of identical twins do not have identical DNA, so the members some pairs of identical twins would be metaphysically identical and some would not.

Has a person been wronged if they are cloned without their consent? Presume that

Has a person been wronged if they are cloned without their consent? Presume that the cloning process is non-invasive; a scientist simply picks up stray hair you left behind, and then makes a clone of you. Does that violate your rights? Do we have a copyright on our DNA?

This question is at the extreme end of a cloud of questions. The person who picked up your stray hair might use your entire genetic information (cloning) or any subset thereof. I don't think there is a general moral answer here about where to draw the line. There are some clues to a moral answer about how the line should be drawn in the law.

Obviously, the less of your genetic information is copied, the less of a legitimate interest you have in preventing the copying. If they just copied the bit that controls hair color (I know, this isn't quite the way it works, but let me simplify a bit), then it is hard to see how you would become worse off by the fact that there is someone somewhere 20 years younger than you who has the same hair color.

In cases where more substantial chunks or your genetic information are copied, you may well become worse off -- for example, because your talents, looks, or basic personality traits become less unique. In these cases, the more copies are produced, the stronger your grounds to object.

Whether these grounds can be outweighed depends on the purpose and context of the genetic engineering. Suppose that, thanks to a rare combination of genetic traits, you have immunity against a nasty communicable disease. It's highly desirable that many in the next generation have such immunity. In such a case, the interest of society might outweigh your interest in preventing that, thanks to the use of your genetic information, many in the next generation are uncomfortably similar to you.

There's ample space for reasonable disagreement about how to weigh the competing interests here, and the decision should ultimately (once we get there, technologically, and thus have a better understanding of what is and is not technically feasable) be made by an elected legislature -- differently, presumably, in different jurisdictions. Such legislatures may also need to decide two further matters:

(1) who is allowed to extract and store genetic information, and for what purposes and with what safeguards (there are probably good reasons to make it illegal for any old hobby geneticist to collect stray hairs from people and to extract and store their full genetic information); and

(2) whether there should be (tradable or untradable) private property rights over genetic information and, if so, how these should be conceived.

While there is no good case for saying that persons have a natural right to veto the use of their genetic information, there are good reasons to be cautious in regard to legalizing -- especially commercial -- use of genetic information, even with the consent of the person whose genetic information it is.

If in the future, science makes it possible to use cloning to "create"

If in the future, science makes it possible to use cloning to "create" Neanderthals which were isolated in their own environment, would the revived species of Neanderthals evolve back into Homo Sapiens millions of years later? Would the process of evolution yield a new species of "humans" with Neanderthal ancestry?

You ask an interesting question about the process of evolution. Neo-Darwinians typically argue that species evolve by natural selection on random mutations. At any particular time, there is more than one kind of random mutation that is of selective advantage, and it is contingent which one of these (if any) occurs. So evolutionary history has a certain randomness and unrepeatability. If we recreated Neandertals and did not interbreed with them, they might evolve into yet another (new) human subspecies.

Some biologists have argued that some mutations are directed--i.e. not random and in response to specific environmental challenges. To the degree that this is so (and that environmental challenges repeat themselves) evolution might repeat itself. But this is a controversial theory and is not generally thought to account for much mutation.

Would all possible intelligent species tend towards the same moral and ethical

Would all possible intelligent species tend towards the same moral and ethical precepts that humans do? Or would species with radically different biologies, brain structures, mating patterns, etc. tend towards equally different moral precepts and ethical concerns?

This is a wonderful question, which goes to the heart of just what ethics is about. Some philosophers--such as Immannuel Kant--have maintained that ethics consists in universal principles of practical reason, which must therefore apply to all rational beings, including God, angels, devils, and any other rational being whatsoever. This 'universalist' conception of ethics obviously abstracts away from any other differences among beings to identify rationality and the capacity to be bound by ethical obligations. If, however, one thinks that ethics is about how agents negotiate their relations with one another, how they, as it were, 'get along', then it would seem that the sorts of differences that you point out would be relevant to shaping the ethical relations of these beings, and consequently, differences in biology, etc., might well lead to different ethical concerns. So what is ethics about? Is it about duties that apply to all rational beings? Or is it about how beings negotiate their relations with one another? Or is it about something else altogether? How one answers these questions will have deep and far-reaching implications, and these questions deserve further reflection.

Hello, what do you think about this idea?

Hello, what do you think about this idea? Suppose there is no God / designer and life is just a bizarre event that has happened to have occurred following the big bang. It seems that whatever form of life happened to have occurred following this big bang could possibly have reproduced in a vast number of different ways (eg by pressing a button under a big toe, or perhaps we turned out to be weird alien trapezoid creatures who reproduced by a jolt of electricity etc). In fact, however, humans reproduce in a way which (commonly) involves a profound and beautiful relationship between two people. Given the vast number of ways in which reproduction could have occurred, and given the especially beautiful way in which it actually has happened to have occurred, doesn’t this indicate that there is a designer present rather than blind chance being the cause? Personally I find this quite convincing. If blind chance is the cause then to me it seems extremely unlikely that we would happen to reproduce in...

There are two sorts of issues here.

Suppose that it is, in fact, extremely unlikely that reproduction should occur as it does. The universe is a vast place. For all we know, it occurs in billions of other ways in billions of other galaxies. Even on our own planet, of course, reproduction occurs in a dizzying variety of ways. That it happens to occur as it does among us might just mean we are the lucky ones. This is just a way of saying that astonishingly unlikely things do happen. The odds against someone being dealt, in a game of bridge, a hand consisting of 13 cards all of one suit are 158,753,389,899 to 1. But it does happen from time to time. And the universe has been around for a lot longer than we have been playing bridge.

Probabilities like the one just mentioned concern the probability that an event should occur on a single occasion. Every time a bridge hand is dealt, it is incredibly improbable that it will be a perfect hand. But the probability that such a hand should ever have been dealt is actually quite good, because so many hands have been dealt. So again: The universe is a vast place, and it is very old, and we have pretty good reason nowadays to suspect that life is quite common. So it just isn't clear whether it is unlikely that reproduction should at some time and in some place have evolved as we have it, even if we grant that it is very unlikely, case by case, and even if it is therefore unlikely that it should have evolved that way among us.

One might also question whether reproduction really does generally involve a beautiful relationship between two people. There are many societies in which such relationships between men and women are quite uncommon. Marriage in such societies is considered a largely economic and social transaction between families, one that has very little to do with the people involved, let alone with whether they love one another. That was so even in our own society until not very long ago. The ideal of romantic love, and especially the idea that marriage should involve romantic love, look to be very human creations that are not, in fact, very old, evolutionarily speaking.

Dear Philosophers (and especially Prof. Pogge),

Dear Philosophers (and especially Prof. Pogge), I can see why an empirical theory of DESCRIPTIVE ethics is possible, but can there be an empirical theory of NORMATIVE ethics? It seems to me that, in the final analysis, you cannot deduce "ought" from "is". If all people are born (have evolved) to be selfish and cruel, does it follow that we should be selfish and cruel? Shouldn't we be considerate and kind, even if we are not born with these attributes?

Just to clarify terminology. I would understand an empirical theory of ethics as one that explains the activities of a group of ethicists. An empirical theory of descriptive ethics would seek to explain the activities of those who describe ethical beliefs and practices; and an empirical theory of normative ethics would seek to explain the activities of those who justify or challenge ethical beliefs and practices. An empirical theory of normative ethics would not itself seek to justify or challenge normative-ethical propositions.

Leaving terminology aside, I think what you mean to ask is whether an empirical account of how human beings behave has normative implications. In response, I would certainly agree that it does not follow from the fact that human beings tend to behave in certain ways that they ought to do so. Still, I would not think that empirical knowledge about human beings is normatively irrelevant. Two examples. If a morality is too complicated for human beings to understand or to follow with reasonably accuracy, then we might conclude that it is not the morality that human beings ought to try to follow. Similarly, if a morality is so demanding that we do not manage to educate most human beings to follow it, then again we would seem to have reason to conclude that it is not the morality human beings ought to try to follow. I see morality as solving the practical task of helping us live together peacefully and in a way that lets us flourish individually and collectively. On this account, we should be sensitive to empirical information and practical experience.

Should you be interested in more on this question, you might want to look at my exchange on this with Jerry Cohen (who takes the opposite view to mine). My response to his book -- Rescuing Justice and Equality -- is "Cohen to the Rescue!" in Ratio 21/4 (2008), pp. 454-75.

Marijuana impacts the aesthetic dimensions of human life such as art, nature,

Marijuana impacts the aesthetic dimensions of human life such as art, nature, and especially the subtleties of human interaction? Have any philosophers talked about the effects of marijuana from a philosophical perspective?

Yes, there is a book just out that you might like, called Philosophy for Everyone: Cannabis:

The sub-title is quite fun: "What were we just talking about?"

That book, just published last year, should give you lots to consider.

Probably the most positive treatment of psychotropic drugs by a philosophically minded author is Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception.

Has technology gone too far. With stem-cell research, artificial intelligence,

Has technology gone too far. With stem-cell research, artificial intelligence, bionics, etc. has technology made or is it making humans lethargic? Will we someday not know how to do things for ourselves? With all the advancements in extending age, and overpopulation ever present, will this be the end? Do any of the past philosophers like Kant, Plato Aristotle mention technology or its outcome?

Interesting question! We might distinguish between the 'general public' and the 'experts.' Don't you think there will always be 'experts' driving the technological process? Always innovating, always working, always moving 'forward' (or at least moving)? Such folks will always "know how to do things" etc. -- but then maybe you're right about the general public -- ie the more passive consumers of technology -- perhaps with advancement eventually people won't need to do anything, machines and technology will do everything -- (I'm reminded of the movie Wall-E, where the humans on the space ship just floated around on chaises longues getting fatter and fatter ....) --I suppose one could imagine a scenario in which humans create machines which not only do everything but ultimately control everything and thus leave humans behind .... Hm. But would that necessarily be a bad thing, Hollywood movie ideas excepted?