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I'm a lawyer. One of my previous clients asked me for specific legal advice that

I'm a lawyer. One of my previous clients asked me for specific legal advice that he later used to commit financial fraud. I strongly suspected at the time that he was going to use my advice for that very purpose but I told him anyway because I like him as a person and I also disagree with the law that prohibits the particular type of fraud that he committed. Have I acted immorally according to virtue ethics?

First, a thought about the question: you ask whether you've "acted immorally according to virtue ethics." You might be trying to understand what light virtue ethics in particular casts on a case like this, or you might be interested in whether what you did was wrong, period. In either case, I don't think we have enough information to say. But let's take the cases in turn.

Some views provide what's supposed to be a criterion that we might be able to use rather like an algorithm to figure out what's right or wrong. Utilitarianism would tell us to do a sort of cost/benefit analysis, toting up the goods and the harms and deciding whether one action is better than another by seeing how the arithmetic works out. Kantianism would direct us to apply the Categorical Imperative in one or another of its forms. (For example: we might ask whether what we're considering would call for treating someone merely as a means to an end.) Virtue ethics doesn't work that way. It's often understood as telling us to do what a virtuous person, aware of the situation and properly informed, would do. We can get a grip on that by asking what virtues are relevant—honesty, for instance, or fairness or courage or kindness. But the list of virtues is open-ended, and even once we've identified some relevant ones, there's no recipe for saying how they apply in a particular case. For example: a person with the virtue of honesty isn't necessarily someone who unfailingly tells the truth. Rather, a person with this virtue knows when truth-telling is the right thing, and acts accordingly. My own view is that it's a virtue of virtue-ethics that it has this open-ended character, but not everyone feels that way. In any case, it's hard to say with so little information just how the virtuous person might act in your situation without knowing what's at stake and what the law actually is forbidding.

The fact that you ask your question in the first place suggests that, virtue ethics aside, you may not be sure you did the right thing. If you told your former client what the law actually calls for and he chose to break the law anyway, then it's not likely that you breached any duties of professional ethics. However, that doesn't necessarily answer the larger question; things can be in accord with professional codes of ethics and still be wrong. If you were implicitly encouraging him to commit some sort of fraud, that would be at least somewhat worrisome even if this particular sort of "fraud" is something most people wouldn't see as wrong. The worry is that we have at least some duty to obey the law even when the law is less than ideal. One reason: picking and choosing among laws might weaken your own overall respect for the law, and might likewise make other people respect the law less. Again, this isn't conclusive and a lot would depend on the details. But as a lawyer, you arguably are held to a higher standard than most people when it comes to matters of the law. It doesn't sound like you literally broke your professional oath, but we can still ask whether you behaved as we would ideally like lawyers to behave. Did you caution your former client? Did the way you answered his question suggest that you take the general maxim that we should respect the law seriously? Or was there a wink and a nod? How good are your reasons for thinking this kind of "fraud" isn't really wrong?

I don't know the answers to any of those questions. But if you're trying to decide whether you acted wrongly, they're the sorts of questions I'd say you should ask.

What happens, morally speaking, if I promise to do something that happens to be

What happens, morally speaking, if I promise to do something that happens to be slightly immoral? Do I still have some kind of obligation to do it?

I think a lot hinges in your question on the word "slightly". Is there a moral obligation to keep a promise to do something that is "slightly immoral"? I think that the answer has to be "No", since the value of duty to keep promises is not in question, and the act contemplated is only "slightly" immoral. OK, but how slightly? Would it help if you had written, "if I promise to do something that is utterly and completely immoral"? Or if you had written, "If I promise to do something that is only ever so slightly, just the teeniest barely discernible bit, immoral"? I think such gradations make a big difference, and it is not very clear how "slight" the immorality has to be before it ceases to conflict with the important general obligation to keep promises. Of course much depends also on the question to whom the promise was give, why, under what circumstances, and so on. These all need spelling out before we can address the question with any hope of answering it.

Hello. Listening to a radio programme about utilitarianism I was struck by the

Hello. Listening to a radio programme about utilitarianism I was struck by the difficulty of making a universal framework fit in our relationship-driven world, and how a concept of egoistic or relative utilitarianism might do this. That is, we maximise utility not equally over everyone but across those with whom we feel a relationship, and to the extent that we do. So, where a utilitarian sacrifices his children to make a small dent in third world poverty but ignores his newly unemployed neighbour because she is not starving, an "R.utilitarian" buys his children the cheaper laptop, using the balance to contribute to the starving and to help his neighbour out with an interest-free loan while she gets back on her feet. I googled every combination of relationship/relative/egoistic and utilitarianism that I could find, and came up blank. Please can you tell me what this theory is called, and who came up with it 200 years before I did? If not, please don't steal it before I write it up ;-)

Interesting. Here's a possible way of thinking about it. Utilitarianism (Capital "U") as a philosophical view says that the right thing to do is what maximizes utility, where "utility" is characterized in a very particular way: roughly, the sum total of well-being among sentient creatures (or something like that.)

That may or may not be the right account of right and wrong, but most people probably don't have a view on that question one way or another. However, it's at least somewhat plausible that people are utilitarians (small "u") in a different sense: they try to maximize utility, understood as what they value. Whether it makes us good or bad, many of us actually do value the well-being of our children more than we value the well-being of strangers, and our actions reflect that. A small-"u" utilitarian, then, might well behave as what you call an R-utilitarian. That would be because the small-"u" utilitarian is maximizing over what s/he values.

In any case, there's been a fair bit written on the place of relationships in morality. Here's a link to the results of a Google search, with papers by philosophers and social scientists.

What would aristoteles do to answer the trolley problem ? would he kill the 5

What would aristoteles do to answer the trolley problem ? would he kill the 5 people or switch the tracks to kill only one ?

Great question, and one that is rarely discussed in the over-worked trolley problem literature, mainly because the cases are set up to illuminate a conflict between the utilitarian response that seems to suggest killing 1 to save 5 regardless of the means of doing so and the Kantian response that seems to allow switching the track to save 5 (with a mere side-effect of allowing 1 to die), while disallowing pushing 1 intentionally as a means of saving 5. But what would a virtue theorist like Aristotle, or the originator of the trolley problem Philippa Foot, say?

Well, there's no simple answer since virtue theory is (intentionally) open-ended and detail-driven. It would say that right thing to do in each case is what a virtuous person would recognize as the right thing to do, given the specific details of the case. Personally, I think the virtuous person would say it is morally required to switch the track in that case and morally wrong to push someone to stop the trolley in the other case. In part, that's because a virtuous person will recognize that the agent in the 'push' case is not justified in believing that it will work to save 5 people (hence it risks killing 6), while she is justified in believing that switching the track will save 5 at the cost of 1.

But one worry is that I may be justifying my intuitions about the cases by ascribing them to the virtuous judge.

If theft is committed as a form of political protest or civil disobedience

If theft is committed as a form of political protest or civil disobedience against capitalism, does that make it less immoral than if it was done solely for amusement?

Fascinating question. Off hand, it does seem that, in some cases, the motives you cite would make a difference. Imagine two people steal a sign advertising a bank that is involved with the unfair foreclosure of homes, leaving (let us imagine) many innocent persons homeless. A person who does the stealing as an act of protest and who, let us imagine, turns herself in to draw attention to this act of disobedience, seems (to use your terms) "less immoral" than one who steals the advertisement as a joke (perhaps using the sign as a tray to serve beer to friends while watching the world cup). In fact, we may find the person who did the theft out of matters of conscience heroic.

The difficulty in weighing motives, however, emerges when we dig deeper into why the persons have the motives they do. Is the person who acts to protest capitalism doing *that* solely for the sake of amusement? I came of age in the early 1970s and was present protesting the inauguration of President Nixon. A good number of us were protesting (or speaking for myself, I was protesting) as part of a date weekend. I did oppose the Nixon administration, but I also wanted to spend time with Melissa. Professing some overt political motive may not be the whole story. Moreover, there might be at least three factors that come into play in addition to matters of motive, and these involve (A) what is stolen, (B) how it is stolen, and (C) what happens after the theft.

(A) Stealing some things might be so gravely wrong that it does not matter what the person's intention might be. If I were knowingly to steal medicine that an innocent child needs and she dies for lack of the medicine, I think I should be judged equally guilty of homicide whether this was done to protest capitalism or for the sake of amusement.

(B) In terms of how a theft is committed, I think there would be a significant difference if the theft was committed violently or not, independent of motives. We might also want to factor in the mental state of the robber at the time: imagine the thief who was protesting capitalism was dangerously intoxicated or highly confused about the nature of property and capitalism. Similarly, imagine the thief who stole solely for amusement was under the confused impression that his amusing theft would help his friend coping with clinical depression. We might be more concerned about the thief's basic competence and mental health quite independent of motive. Silly examples, I agree, but they have some relevance.

(C) Our judgement on theft might be partly determined by what the thief does afterwards. Was what was stolen returned undamaged? What if the person who did the stealing out of amusement decided to use what was stolen later to help out the homeless?

Anyway, great question.

Would it be ethically sound to love a machine that is a perfect replica of a

Would it be ethically sound to love a machine that is a perfect replica of a human? For example. If it was impossible for anyone to tell the difference, would it be wrong? If this robot were programmed to have human feelings and think in a manner that is indistinguishable from a human, would it be moral to love them as though they were a human. (apologies if this is unclear, English is not my first language)

To get to the conclusion first, I think that the answer is yes, broadly speaking. But I'd like to add a few qualifications.

The first is that I'm not sure the root question is about whether it would be ethically right or wrong. It's more like: would it be some kind of confusion to love this sort of machine in this way? Suppose a child thinks that fancy stuffed animal really has feelings and thoughts, but in fact that's not true at all. The toy seems superficially to have emotions and a mind, but it's really a matter of a few simple preprogrammed, responses of a highly mechanical kind. This might produce strong feelings in the child—feelings that seem like her love for her parents or her siblings or her friends. But (so we're imagining) the feelings are based on a mistake: the toy is just a toy.

On the other hand, if an artificial device (let's call it an android) actually has thoughts and feelings and is able to express them and to respond to what people like us feel or think, then it's hard to see why it would be a confusion to have feelings for the android like the feelings we have to ordinary people. After all, we're supposing that the android has real feelings, possibly including feelings for us.

Put it another way: what you have in mind is an artificial person. The android would be a person because it really has the kinds of psychological characteristics that persons have. It would be an artificial person because it was designed and built rather than born and grown. Whether we'll ever be able to build such things is hard to say. We'd have to understand more than we do now about how matter, organized in the right way, gives rise to minds. But however that works, there's no clear reason to think it couldn't be replicated artificially.

All this said, the relationship between humans with a history of infanthood and childhood, and the looming prospect of old age and death, and, on the other hand, artificial creations with very different origins and prospects wouldn't be psychologically simple. That might have all sorts of implications, moral and otherwise, for what went on between us and them. But the main point is that highly intelligent creatures with complex feelings would deserve our moral consideration even if they were made and not born. And they would also be fit objects for our feelings, quite possibly including feelings of love.

One final note: fiction often does at least as good a job of exploring the issues here as philosophy. And though it's not directly on point, the recent Spike Jonze movie Her raises some interesting questions that you might enjoy pondering.

The probability in my mind that I am correct in attributing extensive moral

The probability in my mind that I am correct in attributing extensive moral personhood to other humans is very high. With non-human vertebrate, I attribute slightly less extensive but still quite broad moral personhood, and I am in this too quite confident. But I accept given I am a fallible human being I might be wrong and should give them no moral personhood or moral personhood of the kind I ascribe to humans. Continuing in the same line, I ascribe almost no moral personhood to bacteria and viruses. But again given I am fallible musnt I accept some non-zero probability that they deserve human like personhood? If so, and I am a utilitarian, given the extremely large number of bacteria and viruses on the planet it seems even if I am very sure that bacteria are of only minimal moral importance, I still must make serious concessions to them because it seems doubtful that my certainty is so high as to overcome the vast numbers of bacteria and viruses on this planet. (I am aware it is not entirely clear how...

It's a very interesting question. It's about what my colleague Dan Moller calls moral risk. And it's a problem not just for utilitarians. The general problem is this: I might have apparently good arguments for thinking it's okay to act in a certain way. But there may be arguments to the contrary—arguments that, if correct, show that I'd be doing something very wrong if I acted as my arguments suggest. Furthermore, it might be that the moral territory here is complex. Putting all that together, I have a reason to pause. If I simply follow my arguments, I'm taking a moral risk.

Now there may be costs of taking the risks seriously. The costs might be non-moral (say, monetary) or, depending on the case, there may be potential moral costs. There's no easy answer. Moller explores the issue at some length, using the case of abortion to focus the arguments. You might want to have a look at his paper HERE.

A final note: when we get to bacteria, I think the moral risks are low enough to be discounted. I can't even imagine what it would mean for bacteria to have the moral status of people or even of earthworms.

If someone were presented the option to permanently undo a major aspect of their

If someone were presented the option to permanently undo a major aspect of their own life, and "rewrite history", would it be morally wrong to do this? Consider the following scenario: a person dedicates their life to an ideal such as justice or peace or any morally sound ideal such as those. They sacrifice so much of their time, energy, life, and sanity to the fulfillment of this ideal. However, due to unforeseen circumstances their actions lead to an outcome they were unsatisfied with. Would it be wrong for this hypothetical person to change their entire life to avert this terrible fate?

Before I could consider the ethics of this scenario, I'd have to satisfy myself that it's a coherent scenario. Let's call the person in question "Jane." The scenario seems to require that something like the following be true: "Jane sacrificed much of her time and energy to achieve justice, but because her sacrificial actions led to an unsatisfying outcome Jane didn't sacrifice much of her time and energy to achieve justice." I can't see how such a scenario is comprehensible enough to be assessed ethically.

The question also arises whether Jane's sacrificial actions contributed so much to Jane's identity -- to who she now is -- that it's incoherent to ask what Jane's life would be like now had she not made those sacrifices: we wouldn't be asking about Jane but about a numerically different person.

Most all ethical theories have a problem with them, whether it has some sort of

Most all ethical theories have a problem with them, whether it has some sort of internal inconsistency, has no answer for a certain scenario, or whatever. How can anyone accept an ethical theory that they know is flawed? Don't the flaws mean we need to keep looking and thinking?

There are two sorts of things that might be at issue here and they call for different answers.

If I want the best ethical theory we can come up with, and the available alternatives all seem flawed, then that's a reason to keep looking and thinking—especially if the goal is to get as close as possible to the (probably unattainable) ideal theory.

But if "accept an ethical theory" means something like "use it as the basis for making ethical judgments," then the issue changes. That's because it's debatable, to say the least, that the best way to make ethical judgments is to come up with an ethical theory and apply it.

What's the alternative?

Here's one. Assume that by and large, we're able to make reasonable ethical judgments. The job of an ethical theory on this view is to provide a coherent account of what makes those judgments right or wrong (or true or false, or whatever the appropriate contrast may be.) It could very well be that even though we have the capacity to make sound moral judgments, boiling the judgments down to a tidy theory is very difficult. If that's so, then we'd expect that our ethical theories would be inadequate in various ways. But that wouldn't give us a reason to become ethical skeptics. On this way of looking at things, ordinary ethical knowledge is a bit like practical knowledge or practical skills: we don't need to know the theory to get things right. Theoretical thinking might feed back into our practical skills and refine them, but it's not the place to start.

is there any philosophical reason to be polite? A lot of being polite is just

is there any philosophical reason to be polite? A lot of being polite is just plain lying--why must the truth succumb to social conventions?

An interesting problem.

To begin, I'd put the question differently: is there any reason to be polite? Adding "philosophical" in front of "reason" doesn't really help. And of course, there are many reasons to be polite. It helps avoid needlessly hurting people's feelings; it helps keep disagreements from turning into shouting matches; it provides a set of conventions that help keep us from wasting time sorting out how certain sorts of social interactions should operate; it's a way of showing respect for other people; it helps keep other people from concluding that I'm a jerk. And so on.

All of these reasons are defeasible, as they say. They aren't ironclad, and there are situations that call for ignoring them. But there are also plenty of situations that don't call for ignoring them.

Your worry is about truth. You say "A lot of being polite is just plain lying." Of course, a lot of being polite is not not "just plain lying." It's not polite to smack your lips at table with others. Whatever you think of that convention, it's clear that it doesn't have anything to do with telling the truth.

That said, there are, indeed, cases where politeness and the truth come into conflict. You call me on the phone and start the conversation by saying "Hi, Allen. How are you?" I answer "Fine, thanks," even though I've got a headache. Has the truth succumbed to social conventions?

I'd say that in this case, the answer is mostly no. The pattern of greeting I've just described is one we all recognize as a conventional way of starting a conversation. We both understand this, and neither of us thinks my answer is meant as a report on the state of my well-being. In other words, in a case like this, no one is misled. The exchange of greetings isn't an exchange of information.

Other cases are trickier of course. You have a new haircut. I don't think it suits you, but you say "How do you like my hair?" If I say "Nice," there's a fair case to be made that I'm misleading you. Have I sacrificed the truth to social convention?

Let's agree that I've sacrificed the truth. But I'd say it's not social convention I've sacrificed it to. It's the desire not to hurt your feelings. It's not just that we have a convention about not hurting people's feelings. It's that hurting people's feelings causes them distress. People don't like being distressed, and sometimes the distress isn't worth it.

Should I have told you what I really think about your hair? The answer may or may not be yes; it depends on a lot of things that would only become clear if the context were clearer. If you and I are only nodding acquaintances, I may well think it's not my place to tell you. I may think I don't know enough about your tastes to make the truth helpful, and I may realize that my own tastes in these matters don't count for much. And so on.

The trouble with The Truth is that it has a capital "T." Of course honesty is an important value. And of course it's generally useful to know what's actually so. But that doesn't add up to an argument that truth-telling is of transcendent importance. Honesty is one value among many.

There's a larger point about social conventions and my comment about leaving out the word "philosophy." If we look at our conventions from the outside, like anthropologists on Mars, they seem strange. But if we say a word to ourselves many times in a row ("rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb...") the word will start to seem strange. Sometimes there's a point in the outside, dare I say alienated point of view. But much of the time there isn't. The kind of sense that social life makes from the inside is a perfectly good kind of sense on its own.