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People from the distant past are forgiven for believing that the earth is flat

People from the distant past are forgiven for believing that the earth is flat or that the sun orbits around it, because they lived in an era when science was less advanced; and it would have been pretty difficult for a lay person back then to figure this stuff out on her own. Is morality like science in this way? Is it understandable that 18th-century whites believed blacks were subhuman, and are they less culpable for the crimes of slavery as a result?

Interesting analogies and interesting questions! Two very modest initial observations:

The idea that most in the past believed the earth is flat is open to question; there is an interesting book called (something like) the myth of a flat earth.

Another point that is a bit less modest: substantial numbers of whites in the 18th century did not believe that blacks were subhuman. More on this below in connection with a comment on David Hume.

You are right about how views change substantially in both science and ethics, and while in the 17th and 18th century European (and eventually American) views on slavery shifted, in the ancient Greco-Roman world slavery was considered as basic as any natural, unsurprising phenomenon. I suggest that in cases when, in a society some practice like slavery is thought of as natural and without a live alternative, then those who participate in the practice are less culpable than those who realize that slavery is unjust and that there are alternative cultures and market economies that can function without such injustice. Switching from slavery to what today we would see as clear cases of racism, I suggest that if a person (Jones) is brought up in a culture which deems a particular ethnic group inferior and this seems supported by those in authority and perhaps it is even endorsed by those who are subjugated, then Jones seems to share in the collective blame-worthy or injustice of his/her culture, but Jones is not individually as culpable than in a setting where Jones is confronted with (or Jones can and does conceive of) an alternative.

Two additional points worth noting.

First, when one comes to realize the horror of white supremacy, there may be a more radical shift than what occurs when one realizes that the earth orbits the sun. When one comes to realize that the sun does not orbit the sun, one might still talk as though the sun sets and the sun rises (we might and do even navigate using the sun and stars based on the assumption that they are moving,not us), even though it might be more accurate to speak about the orbit of our planet and when it is we can or cannot see the sun. But once we see the equality of all races, it would not be appropriate to talk as though they are not equal.

Second, looking back at the 17th and 18th century it is hard to assess whether the persons of that time who maintained the inferiority of blacks made an honest effort to look at the available evidence. The case of David Hume is quite vexing on that point. If you do a search for Hume's racism on the web you will find some interesting links. Years ago, I compared Hume' treatment of the evidence reporting that there were miracles (evidence Hume rejected) to his treatment of the evidence reporting that there were blacks who were poets, artists, and as gifted as whites. I hasten to add that I (and my co-author) did not argue that because Hume was wrong about black inferiority therefore he was wrong about miracles! But we did point out how Hume's reasoning in both cases was analogous. (Our article appeared in the journal Philosophia Christi). A lingering concern in the case of Hume as with Kant as well is whether his blind spot (or failure to seek out counter-evidence to the view he adopted) was something he was personally responsible for (in terms of vice) or whether he was part of a larger group and thus sharing in some collective guilt or shame but individually not culpable.

Is it fair to label childhood religious indoctrination as abuse ? at the moment

Is it fair to label childhood religious indoctrination as abuse ? at the moment in any given society it's seen as the norm , I often wonder will future generations look back in astonishment at this practice .

I agree with my co-panelist that it's hard to peg this as abuse. But I'd like to focus on a somewhat different issue: the word "indoctrination" is being used to mean an illegitimate way of inculcating beliefs. That's fine, and isn't my issue. But the notion of "religious indoctrination" is left unexamined. And so I want to know what counts.

In particular, suppose someone brings their children up in a religious tradition: introduces them to the texts and doctrines, participates in the rituals, makes clear that s/he is an adherent, and so on. If indoctrination counts as something bad, is this automatically a case of indoctrination? Surely it depends on the details. Suppose that the religious tradition has admirable moral precepts. Suppose it encourages thoughtful reflection. Suppose it doesn't threaten non-adherents with hellfire and brimstone. There really are such traditions; I know many people who belong to them. The tradition may well include metaphysical claims that you think are just wrong. But is that the criterion for indoctrination? If so, it's hard for me to see how it warrants the label "child abuse."

And for that matter, why pick on religion? How about ethical views? When my children were young, I certainly hoped that they would come to share at least the more dearly-held of my ethical views. Near as I can tell, they largely did. Was that indoctrination? Was it child abuse? If it might be, where do the lines lie?

We influence our children in lots of ways. It's not unlikely that if my children had been brought up in a different sort of household, they'd think differently than I do about some things I care about. Some of these things are eminently debatable; some reasonable people would say that the views my children learned from me are wrong. But without a lot more analysis, the word "indoctrination" doesn't get us very far, and without a great deal more analysis, the accusation of "abuse" is even less helpful.

There's another problem with invoking the notion of abuse here. If we label a child-rearing practice abusive, this suggests that we ought to do something about it$mdash;perhaps that the State itself should step in. I don't know about you, but I'm not confident that the State would draw the lines wisely.

So to sum up: maybe some cases of bringing a child up in a tradition count as indoctrination, but it's not plausible that all do. And maybe some of those cases count as abuse. But we'd need to think hard about what we mean when we invoke that word. And even if we decide there's a sense in which some cases of religious upbringing count as abuse, we need to think really hard if we want to take that as a license for any sort of intervention.

Do people have something like a right to have children? What would be the basis

Do people have something like a right to have children? What would be the basis or justification for such a right?

It might be argued that people who want to have children and cannot then fail to live the lives they choose for themselves, and since other things being equal children are generally taken to be a good thing, their efforts should be supported. After all, we are naturally designed to have children, as members of a species that reproduces, but not everyone can have children at all, or not without complicated procedures. Whether this should count as a right is an interesting question.

It is a bit like the right not to have children, where otherwise one would. It is often argued that if having a child is not something welcomed by someone who is pregnant then they have the right to discontinue the pregnancy by removing the fetus.

There are two interesting aspects of rights language here. If someone has a right to something, then someone else, like the state, has the duty to support them in exercising that right. The other pertinent remark is that rights language has tended to replace the idea that one should just put up with the way things are, whether an unwanted child is on the way or if one cannot get pregnant.

If a philosopher or any thinking individual thinks an act is moral or not, then

If a philosopher or any thinking individual thinks an act is moral or not, then should that apply to everyone in the world equally including his own family members? Suppose he thinks performing in pornographic films is not immoral, then should he think any less of his daughter who decides to do so?

Morality is generally taken to be different from subjective taste. If I think something is right then that claim is taken to apply to everyone, whether they know it or otherwise. I may respect those who differ from my opinion, but still think their action is immoral. Whether someone is in my family or not is irrelevant.

What would a consequentialist say about acts that have seemingly moral

What would a consequentialist say about acts that have seemingly moral dimensions but no apparent consequences? For instance, it seems wrong to wish for something really bad to happen to someone (e.g. to be hit by a car), but if this wish has no impact on what actually happens, it seems it cannot be wrong due to its consequences.

Well, having bad feelings about other people may not directly impact on them, but it impacts on us, and this has consequences. For example, the more we contemplate their undoing the more we accustom ourselves to think approvingly of others suffering and this might well weaken our disapproval of such suffering. It may well be that we do nothing to bring about such suffering, but it is difficult to believe it would not have an effect on us.

To give an example, my negative feelings towards a group of people might not result in my treating them in any way differently from anyone else, but if others act in line with my feelings it would be less easy to disapprove. Even if this never happens, I change as a result of my feelings and become a different sort of person, and this is certainly an effect.

I'm a first year philosophy student and I really don't understand what it means

I'm a first year philosophy student and I really don't understand what it means when philosophers present the three usual normative ethics of Aristotelian, utilitarianism, and deontology. If all three are equally valid, then that would seem to imply that there are no moral truths and utilitarianism wins out. If there are moral truths, then it would seem deontology takes precedent. But if all three are not equally valid and there are not moral truths, does Aristotelian ethics win out by virtue of elimination? If so why bother teaching the other two?

Philosophical accounts of ethics (e.g., utilitarianism) are theoretical proposals. They are attempts to sum up right and wrong in tidy formulations. It might be that utilitarianism captures right and wrong perfectly, but this is controversial. It might be that the Categorical Imperative does the job. But this is controversial. And virtue ethics isn't an attempt to give a formula for summing up right and wrong, but rather discourages us from looking for rules of that sort. But whether we can understand morality fully in term of the virtues is controversial.

My own guess is that each of these approaches (and by the way: there are others) provides genuine but incomplete insight. But this is controversial.

Whether there are moral truths, however, is NOT the same question as whether any of these approaches to accounting for morality are correct. Thoughtful, intelligent human beings were making moral judgments long before philosophers cooked up their theories. Indeed, most thoughtful, intelligent human beings to this day make moral judgments without consulting ethical theories. Many of the judgments people make could be correct whether or not they fit one of these theories. The philosophical theories are attempts to account for right and wrong, but the existence of right and wrong doesn't depend on our ability to capture right and wrong in our theories.

However, I was puzzled by other things you said. If all of these theories are "equally valid," why would it follow that there are no moral truths? And why would that imply that utilitarianism is right? After all, if utilitarianism is right, there are moral truths, though they are sensitive to the circumstances in a particular way. And if these three approaches aren't equally valid, why would this suggest that Aristotelianism wins?

But to give the already-dead horse another whack: philosophical theories are after-the-fact attempts to systematize our understanding of things. The things themselves don't much care whether our theories do them justice.

I am in love with my brother's ex-girlfriend of 2 years. Over those 2 years, we

I am in love with my brother's ex-girlfriend of 2 years. Over those 2 years, we became best friends and I developed feelings for her. My question is, now that my brother and her are no longer together, is MORALLY wrong to start a relationship with her? Here is what I have considered: From what I have learned about objective morality/ethics I could follow the Golden Rule "Treat other as you would want to be treated". I have dismissed this on the basis that yes, if I were my brother I would be annoyed by my brother dating my ex, but I would also want my brother to be happy and, after weighing everything on both sides, I would concede to allowing my brother to do what makes him happy. If I take an egoistic approach, I probably wouldn't be asking this question because I would do what is best for me. If I take a utilitarian approach I would consider everyone I am affecting equally, and do what is best for the majority and in that case, I would harm one person (my brother) and do what's best for the majority ...

It's hard to see why it would be morally wrong. No doubt it would upset a few people for a while, but it's not clear that they'd be entitled to be upset. Beyond that. it's not clear what else might make it wrong. If both families are mortally opposed, then I suppose someone might say that one's obligation to one's family demands that you stay "just friends." But it's not obvious that we owe that sort of deference to our families' wishes, and it's certainly not obvious that our family members are entitled to make such demands on us.

Of course, I don't know the details of the story. Perhaps if I did, things would look different. But this brings me to what is the actual philosophical issue here. You say that you want the matter settled by reference to some "objective moral standard." But this makes me wonder: are you looking for some sort of derivation of the right answer from a maxim or two? There's not much reason to believe that moral wisdom works that way. The right thing to do is usually a matter of balancing different considerations. We think about who will get hurt. We think about long-term consequences. We think about loyalties we owe to other people. We think about fairness, kindness, courage. We think about whether we are being impulsive or whether we're being clear-eyed. And we may think about a good deal more. Theories like utilitarianism are attempts to tie all this up with a bow, but all such theories are controversial and post hoc.

Here's a nice quote I saw today. It's from C. D. Broad's Ethics and the History of Philosophy: "Moral philosophers, as such, have no special information not available to the general public, about what is right and what is wrong." Knowing moral theory or being able to cite abstract principles isn't even remotely guaranteed to make us better at sorting through complicated moral issues.

There is one question that seems relevant to all this, however: does this woman feel the same way about you that you feel about her? If not, the issue is moot. If so, then I'd think that there would need to be weighty reasons that you haven't mentioned to make it wrong for the two of you to begin a relationship.

Recently, the NFL has become embroiled in high profile cases of domestic

Recently, the NFL has become embroiled in high profile cases of domestic violence by its players (most notably, Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson). Many critics demand that the league suspend or otherwise discipline the guilty parties. But why, in general, should an employer be expected to address bad actions by its employees when those actions fall outside the scope of work-related duties? What business is it of my employer's whether I commit crimes when I leave work?

I suppose the argument is that anyone who might serve as a role model for young people has to abide by a higher moral standard than everyone else. If he or she misbehaves and is tolerated by their employer, that might suggest to those who admire them that such behavior is acceptable. That might encourage others to indulge in it. Provided these rules are made clear to all sides I cannot see that any great injustice results.

I just watched the movie "Interstellar," in which the heroes try to begin a

I just watched the movie "Interstellar," in which the heroes try to begin a colony on another planet in order that the human race survive. Is there any compelling reason to do something like this? To be clear, as far as the heroes know, everyone who is currently alive on earth will die. The point is not to save those people, but only to see that there are future generations of humans that live after them. I can see that we have reasons to save actual, living people--they're capable of suffering, they have various interests, and so on--but those reasons don't apply to the hypothetical inhabitants of a future colony. Why should we care that humanity survive this larger sense?

great question! What I might say is ask your genes (a la "selfish gene", by Richard Dawkins). our DNA seems to have built into us this force for survival, if only for the sake of our DNA ... But that of course doesn't answer your question, b/c that perhaps descriptive account of where our 'instinct' for survival/continuation might come from doesn't address the normative question of why we should care or whether we should pursue that end. Those who attempt to collapse normatively via evolution might say that's all the answer we need -- but those who don't won't be satisfied. From my perspective I agree with what seems to be your own intuition -- no good reason why we should care. Indeed, the same question can be raised more immediately: why should we care about having our own children? Of course for many having/raising children helps give their lives a sense of meaning, but that's a very selfish reason -- you have children b/c it makes your life better, but that is not looking out for the children themselves! and of course that doesn't help explain why anyone should care if a few humans escape to colonize another world ....

great question! --


Are we really obliged to help the poor? What is the main reason for helping them

Are we really obliged to help the poor? What is the main reason for helping them without a bias in religious beliefs?

Let's ask a simpler question: is it a good thing to help the poor? By and large, the answer seems to be yes. And it seem even more clearly to be yes when you think particular cases. If someone is poor because they're the child of poor parents, or because they're disabled, or elderly, or unemployed in spite of serious efforts to find a job, or employed and hard-working but not making enough money to make ends meet, then the answer seems even more clearly to be yes.

Now maybe there are some people who are poor entirely because of their own bad choices and who don't deserve our help. I'd guess that if so, there aren't nearly as many of them as is widely believed. But even if I'm wrong about that, there are many poor people whose poverty isn't their fault. Seems pretty clear that it would be good to help those people.


Because being poor is bad for your health. Because being poor can hurt your prospects for a better life. Because if you're poor, people look down on you. Because if you're poor, life is going to be harder in ways that those of us who aren't poor may not even be able to imagine. Because if you were poor, you'd probably be grateful if someone helped you.

There's a maxim you're no doubt familiar with: treat other people the way you'd like to be treated. That's a version of the Golden Rule, but what recommends it isn't that Jesus (among others) said it. What recommends it is that it seems right to most of when we think about it, whether or not we believe in a god.

All this said, the question of what we're obliged to do is a step beyond the question of what would be good to do. None of us has the time or the resources to do everything that would be good to do. But a good life will include doing good. And it's hard to see why helping the poor wouldn't count as one of the many ways we could choose to do good.