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Should I care about the starving people in Africa? Am I responsible for feeding

Should I care about the starving people in Africa? Am I responsible for feeding them? With all the Christmas charity drives, is it not unfair to ignore the poor right here in my country and instead give money to people in distant country? I feel sorry for them, but I'm not sure about how morally obligated I am to donate my money.

Terrific, and challenging, question, and a very relevant one given all the 'occupy' movements of the past few months -- where many people (young, American, etc.) who are better off than most other people on Earth are demanding to be even better off, rather than demanding to help those who are genuinely worse off! .... Rather than give you my answer, let me refer you to a recent and very provocative and influential (and very readable) book on the subject: Princeton ethicist Peter Singer published, a couple years ago, a book called "THe Life You Can Save," which explores that very question at great length, arguing (in short) that most of us ought to do an awful lot more towards helping even distant others than we actually do .... And once you've read that, you can google 'responses to Singer' and begin exploring the various reasons philosophers offer to suggest that Singer goes too far ...

hope that's a start --


As it's the holiday season I've had a definite overdose of holiday mythology.

As it's the holiday season I've had a definite overdose of holiday mythology. The bit that got me thinking the most was re-encountering the character E. Scrooge, of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", particularly in light of recent political/economic events in the US. How would a thoughtful philosopher characterize him and Dickens in this book? I'd not like to think that Dickens was engaging in mere sentimentality, that Scrooge is a character suitable merely for children, with no complexity to interest adults (though I'm aware "ACC" is mostly taught at the elementary school level). One of the talk-show hosts, I think it was Bill Maher, recently tried to cast Scrooge as simply a Republican, economically conservative. Is this a fair characterization? If we read the situation sentimentally, it's a moral tale against excessive greed. But the extent to which we should have a sentimental reaction to the economic plight of other people is an unanswered philosophical question, to my view. Is Dickens just being a...

I know exactly what you mean, I have always thought that poor old Scrooge got a rather bum deal from Dickens. The trouble with being uncharitable, though, which Dickens gets right is that it harms far more the potential giver rather than the recipient. Scrooge holds onto his money but is miserable and gets very little benefit from it, while those with little who are generous with it and their time also are much happier. In a sense, then, Scrooge sees the light and becomes generous not because he understands he ought to help others, but primarily because helping others helps him most of all.

Can a nation have an official religion and be a democracy?

Can a nation have an official religion and be a democracy?

I would consider Norway and the UK to be examples of this. Here the fundamental equality of citizens is not seriously undermined because the role of the state religion is largely ceremonial. In other countries, of course, citizens who do not share the state religion suffer severe discrimination which can be grave enough to defeat, by itself, the claim that the state in question is democratic.

It makes sense here to think of "being a democracy" as a matter of degree. Most of the states we call democracies fail fully to live up to democratic principles in one way or another. Having a state religion is a shortfall, but can be a relatively minor one if any resulting discrimination is not too severe.

I've been reading about the attempts of the US and other western nations to

I've been reading about the attempts of the US and other western nations to dissuade Iran from its nuclear program. On what grounds might a country that maintains nuclear arms insist that other countries not acquire such arms themselves?

I suppose the argument would be that Iran is an aggressive country that frequently threatens to destroy its enemies, while the United States is not. Whether the argument is valid depends of course on one's political point of view, but that is the general approach, it seems to me.

Are the American Soldiers at Abu Ghraib responsible for their actions, and

Are the American Soldiers at Abu Ghraib responsible for their actions, and should they be considered the 'evil wrongdoers' they were made out to be.

I find it hard to see why anyone would suggest they are not responsible at all for their actions. But surely it is a good question whether they alone are responsible for their actions. And here, of course, the controversy becomes political. Did "higher-ups" issue orders that were tantamount to suggesting that such abuse would be tolerated or even welcome? Did the "higher-ups" turn a blind eye to what was happening and fail to supervise the prison properly, perhaps intentionally, so as to distance themselves from what they knew was likely to happen? This latter responsibility, for oversight, is particularly important, since we know, from the Stanford prison experiment and the classic work by Stanley Milgram, that otherwise decent human beings, when subjected to the right sorts of stresses, will do almost arbitrarily horrendous things to one another.

Finally, then, one might ask whether what we know from these experiments does to some extent excuse the behavior of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, that is, reduce their responsibility. This is a very hard question, and I am not qualified even to try to answer it. I will say, however, that I recently heard an excellent paper by Gideon Rosen on this very topic---not on Abu Ghraib specifically, but on the moral implications of the Milgram experiments. The paper doesn't seem to be available anywhere yet, but one day....

Is this a valid argument? If not, what is the fallacy committed?

Is this a valid argument? If not, what is the fallacy committed? (1) A hypocritical agent is one that says one thing, but does another. (2) The government kills people. (Through wars, the death penalty, etc.) (3) The government tells us not to kill. (By making it a law to not murder. Murder is a form of killing, thus making it a law to not murder is a form of making it a law to not kill.) __________________________________________________ Therefore, (4) The government is hypocritical.

I think your argument is logically valid--that is, IF the premises were true, then the conclusion would be true. And I don't think it commits any formal or informal fallacies (except perhaps equivocation in the sense I'll explain shortly).

The problem is that it is unsound, because it has at least one false premise; hence the conclusion is not "made true" by the premises. Premise 3 is false. The government does not tell us not to kill no matter what. As you point out, it tells us not to break specific laws against specific types of killing. Typically, citizens are not breaking the law (and are morally justified) in killing in self-defense or to protect others from an immediate and deadly threat. And (legal) killing in war and use of the death penalty (where it is legal) are also not forms of killing the government tells us not to commit.

Now, we may have reasons to think that some or even all killing in war is morally problematic and even more reasons to think the death penalty is morally wrong. And we have greatly narrowed the scope of such legalized killings over time (in the U.S. and even more so, in other industrialized nations, most of which, for instance, have made the death penalty illegal). And we may believe that it is hypocritical to say some killing is OK but not others (though almost no one, perhaps Jesus excluded, suggests that you cannot kill, if necessary, in self-defense). But I don't think that the government is "saying one thing but doing another" in these cases, because the government, just like most of us, does not treat all killings as the same thing (hence the equivocation in the use of "killing").

Fox "news," busily enjoining viewers to mock the idea of wealth redistribution,

Fox "news," busily enjoining viewers to mock the idea of wealth redistribution, has posted a story entitled "College Students in Favor of Wealth Distribution Are Asked to Pass Their Grade Points to Other Students" Their ludicrous point is "if wealth is going to be redistributed, we should do the same with grades." Is this a "fallacy by false analogy?" If not, what would be the most succinct explanation to explain what's wrong with this comparison? Thanks, Tom K.

Thanks for a few moments of idle amusement!

Perhaps the best response is "Oy!" But to earn the huge salary in Merely Possible Dollars that the site pays me, a bit more is called for.

So yes: it's a case of false analogy, and the analogy goes bad in indefinitely many ways. But one of them has at least some intrinsic logical interest.

Suppose that as a matter of social policy, we set up a system that left everyone with a paycheck of the same size at the end of every month. What does that amount to? It amounts to saying that each person can acquire the same quantity of goods as each other person. Maybe that would be a bad idea; maybe the result would be that people would get lazy and less wealth would end up getting produced overall. But that's not built into to very logic of the idea. It's an empirical claim, even if a highly plausible one. There's nothing logical incoherent, as it were, about a system intended to produce completely uniform distribution of wealth, whatever the practical upshot might be.

Suppose, on the other hand, that we set up a system that smooths GPAs out completely, so that every student gets the same GPA - say, 3.2. Then what we've done amounts to getting rid of GPAs. It gets rid of them because what a GPA does, at least roughly, is tell us how well people did on certain sorts of tasks. For that to be possible, the system for awarding GPAs must allow (though needn't require) that different people can end up with different GPAs.

We've looked at the extreme cases of completely uniform distribution. In practice, the reply might be, no one has anything that extreme in mind. But the point of looking at the extremes was to draw attention to a difference between the very logic of the two cases. Redistributing income doesn't as a matter of logic affect the purchasing power of a dollar, even though redistribution schemes raise lots of perfectly good policy and empirical questions. But unless the "redistribution" of grades is a mere matter of relabeling, redistributing GPAs destroys the information that GPAs are intended to convey. It's logically a bit like what we'd have (to borrow Kant's example) if it was understood by everyone that when we say "I promise" there's no real expectation that we'll do what we "promised." That would be a case where promising in any meaningful sense would be impossible.

Real life redistribution schemes would no doubt be less total. But the underlying logical point doesn't go away. GPA redistribution schemes would amount to fuzzing out the information at the core of what a GPA is. Near as I can tell, there's no similar logical problem for wealth redistribution. And so the analogy really is an apples and oranges affair.

Is democracy a just form of government because it leads to the fairest results,

Is democracy a just form of government because it leads to the fairest results, or because it is inherently most fair to let everyone have an equal say in the decision-making process? In a situation where the population overwhelmingly makes a decision that will harm them in the long-term and reduce everyone's standard of living (for example, when the population votes for parties whose policies lead to individual freedom in the short term but collective suffering via environmental decay, financial crisis, war and poverty in the long term), are we witnessing a failure of democracy to do what it is supposed to do (i.e. create the fairest possible society), or are we witnessing democracy doing exactly what it is supposed to do (i.e. let everyone have a fair say in the decision-making process)?

Both extreme views seem patently implausible: we should not be indifferent either to the procedure of political decision-making (e.g., to the disenfranchisement of women and African-Americans) nor to the outcome (e.g., collective suffering via environmental decay, financial crisis, war and poverty). So in specifying, institutionally embodying and adjusting democratic procedures we should be guided by both: the concern to enable citizens fully to participate in political deliberation and decision-making and the concern to achieve just and otherwise morally good outcomes. This requires some balancing, a willingness to compromise one or both of these concerns for the sake of better realizing the other. Different political philosophies will differ in how they formulate and balance these two concerns. But I don't think any democratic theorists are dismissing one of these concerns entirely.

I have a question regarding moral philosophy as it relates to political

I have a question regarding moral philosophy as it relates to political viewpoint. I can understand why philosophers in general might have some affinity for an argument that says those of us who are relatively 'well off' have a moral duty to assist those who are temporarily (or permanently) 'in need' of assistance. However, I want to look at it from the perspective of the person who needs the help. Many of us talk about improving ourselves so that we can make a difference to others. Why do we deny the opportunity to make a difference to those who need help? Isn't that demeaning and stultifying to them? Isn't there an implicit message that 'you are not competent to take care of yourself, and so you have to rely on us to do that for you?' My father says that is because career politicians are cynical and are merely using 'we have to help others' as a reason to entrench themselves in power indefinitely at good salaries with nice benefits. He points out that certain programs are based on income...

Interesting! The case of not allowing the patients of the psychiatric hospital to produce goods seems clearly wrong, though perhaps the worry was that in cases of severely damaged persons who might not even know what they were doing this was in some way exploitive. Still, I know a terrific half-way house for emotionally damaged persons (Spring Lake Ranch in Vermont) in which labor is encouraged and patients produce food and other goods (maple syrup has been important), and I believe this activity is actually part of the therapy.

Addressing your father's point more directly: one of the reasons why a state government goes beyond mere subsistence in terms of benefits (for the unemployed, say) is because this is a temporary measure and providing more than subsistence contributes to a more stable culture. A neighbor lost his job and was out of work for about 11 months. He received benefits during that time which (along with his savings) meant he did not have to sell his apartment and (now that he is employed again) he can resume paying taxes, etc and contributing to society without undergoing the trauma of loss of home, moving, etc. There are also cases when persons simply cannot advance or do work that would go beyond subsistence, if that. Members of a home for retarded adults I know of (Chez Nous, in Minneapolis) simply are incapable of such work, and require substantial aid to have a life that is dignified. Under ideal circumstances with healthy adults, I think your father has a point, but conditions in most cultures around the globe today are not ideal and there are opportunities for truly helping others have dignified lives. Still, one does need to be on the look-out for when a culture shows evidence of what the British call parasitism (when persons take advantage of a society or government without returning any benefit) or when a politician is only acting for base motives. Personally, in the United States, I doubt that the politicians who support a welfare system do so only to remain in power. There are too many other motives both secular and religious that can explain why a politician would be concerned with the welfare of those who are vulnerable or not able to achieve a dignified life using their own resources. To cite only one such motive: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all insist that alms-giving and helping out those who are vulnerable (think of the parable of the good sameritan, for example) is a requirement of believers and a holy calling. This is a motive that is quite the opposite of being self-serving.

It is said that the government officials we elect represent the people. But do

It is said that the government officials we elect represent the people. But do they represent those who voted against them as well, in a meaningful sense? (i.e. beyond the pure legal sense)? Or do they only represent the majority that elected them?

That is a brilliant, timely question, especially given the current political state of play in the United States --where I live and work. In practice, it seems that some congressman (perhaps a little more commonly than senators in the USA) see themselves as largely or even only representing those who voted for them. There is clearly some reason to think that if a candidate ran on the promise that she or he would advance policy X, then it is both likely and appropriate that, once elected, the congressman would advance policy X. However, there remains a very real and evident sense in which that congressman is the representative of all in her or his district. If, for example, a citizen from her or his district dies in the service of their country (as a soldier, say) or dies as a rescue worker (policeman or fireman, say), it is very natural and expected for that congressman to express and embody the grief and gratitude of the people as well as the government for the person's sacrifice, irrespective of whether the person who lost their life voted for the congressman. If there is a natural catastrophe (flood, wildfire, famine) or terroristic attack on any democratic nation state, it would be very odd (if not clearly criminal) for elected representatives only to respond to the needs of those who voted for them. Similarly when good things occur deserving praise (imagine a group of citizens in a democratic nation make a major effort to combat the spread of AIDs), I believe that citizens of all persuasions expect their elected officials to offer praise even if everyone involved in the praise-worthy action voted against them. Because of this, I think that in a healthy democracy elected officials should understand that they have a responsibility to everyone in the commonwealth, and not just accountability to, and advocacy of, those who voted for them.