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During a discussion in the pub the other day my friend suggested that morality -

During a discussion in the pub the other day my friend suggested that morality -- and the associated concepts of right and wrong, good and bad -- doesn't objectively exist, and that the universe is therefore essentially indifferent and meaningless. Any meaning or idea of "rightness" or "wrongness" that we perceive is a completely subjective human construct. This seems to me to be intuitively incorrect, but is there a way to effectually counter this view?

Philosophers have been debating this issue for about 2500 years. As things now stand, most academic philosophers deny, or are inclined to deny, that moral rightness and wrongness are purely subjective: in the recent PhilPapers survey, a majority of "target faculty" favored moral realism over moral anti-realism. But it's an area of robust philosophical debate. You might start by looking at the SEP entries on moral realism and moral anti-realism. They contain careful discussions and lots of references to further reading.

Is murder illegal because its wrong?Or is murder wrong because its illegal?

Is murder illegal because its wrong? Or is murder wrong because its illegal?

a great question -- a deep one, and an old one -- basically grounded in the classic theistic question addressed by Plato (in Euthyphro) and many others since -- does God command us not to do things (such as murder) because they're wrong, or are they wrong (simply) because God commands us not to do them ... Stephen's response is excellent, but I'll offer another angle. Re the first half -- is murder illegal b/c it's wrong -- no doubt those legislators who have illegalized murder are at least partly (maybe primarily/exclusively) motivated by its wrongness (that's the sociological/empirical question) -- but presumably your question is meant to be more general, i.e. not merely restricted to murder, whose 'wrongness' most everyone can agree to (though not everyone). If you were to ask 'of all those things that are illegal, are they illegal b/c they are wrong?' surely for many/most of them the answer would be 'no.' It's illegal to go through a red light, not b/c going thru red lights is morally wrong but b/c the powers that be, in their wisdom, have established various conventions for the smooth/safe running of society, so they've set up traffic laws to that end -- just which legislation is motivated by morality and which by (say) the need for societal conventions is an empirical question -- but no doubt both factors play at least some role in much legislation ... (and other factors as well) ... re the sec on half -- 'is murder wrong b/c it's illegal' -- Stephen is right to stress the fundamental distinction between law and morality, but I'll just add one point -- the case might be made that, in general, it's morally wrong to break the laws of your society (all else being equal) -- so at least PART of the wrongness of murder (perhaps a very small part) would consist in the fact that committing it is to break the laws ... (again, generalizing the topic: running a red light IS probably wrong precisely because it's illegal ...) Now of course there are some important complicated cases -- for example, civil disobedience -- in some cases you might argue it's 'right' to break the law -- if you think the law itself is morally wrong -- but that's handled by the 'all else being equal' clause I mentioned ....

hope that's useful!


I have just finished Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and like so many find

I have just finished Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and like so many find the purely wicked Judge Holden the most fascinating character. And there are other wicked characters that fascinate. But pure goodness doesn't seem to make for that kind of interest, in fiction anyway. Assuming you agree with this, maybe you have some ideas why this is so? Would be interested to know them.

You are right, one often thinks that the denizens of Hell would make for much more entertaining company than those of Heaven. I don't know the book you mention, and to a large extent this is a psychological rather than philosophical question, but it probably has something to do with the fact that we are attracted to complexity in personality.

We know how people are supposed to behave and if they do so they often seem to lack depth, as though they are following some formula for action. Evil people, by contrast, are relatively unpredictable, since they are not likely always to be evil, and not in the same way, so they tend to exhibit a variety of behavior that is rather intriguing.

Is adultery really immoral? The act itself is mostly legal, so why can't it be

Is adultery really immoral? The act itself is mostly legal, so why can't it be mostly moral? I'm a male bachelor, so I can only argue from my point of view. Adultery is a simple biological urge that manifests itself onto two persons, one or both of whom are married. Marriage today is becoming more and more a simple legal contract, routinely terminated and routinely redefined by judges and plebiscites. The ease with which marriages can be terminated either on paper or in practice is just a reflection of the fact that people often change in their feelings towards one another--love fades within marriage and sometimes erupts outside marriage. Making it with a married woman can be very thrilling and the same woman would not be equally exciting if she were single; the supposedly unavailable is always more desirable than the easily attainable. Married women accept advances because their husbands can no longer give them excitement, romance or adventure, so why not a net utilitarian gain for two people, and no...

If you allow someone to die when you are capable of saving they life, but do not

If you allow someone to die when you are capable of saving they life, but do not kill them directly, are you a murderer?

In both the legal and the familiar sense of the word "murderer," the answer is no. You certainly wouldn't be charged with murder in a case like this, and if you were, successfully arguing that you didn't actually kill the person but merely allowed them to die would lead to a "not guilty" verdict. Murder, as it's usually understood, is unlawful killing or, in the non-legal sense, morally unjustified killing.

That said, someone might argue that if you're in a position to save someone's life and you don't, then you're guilty of something just as bad as murder. No doubt we can come up with hypothetical cases where this might be so. For instance: Alex intends to kill Bob; he's got the means and the will. But on his way to do the deed, he discovers Bob unconscious and bleeding by the side of the road. Suppose it's clear that Alex could save him; calling 911 and staunching his wound until help arrives would do. But Alex does nothing except wait for Bob to breathe his last. In this case, we might say that Alex has really just taken advantage of a twist of fate to accomplish what he would have done by himself anyway. We might well think: Alex is as morally guilty as he would be if he'd shot Bob to death. But whatever we say about this case, it's hard to draw general conclusions from it. In general, both the law and common-sense morality distinguish between intentionally harming (or killing) someone and simply not helping them and the fact that there are some cases where the distinction seems untenable doesn't show that it's untenable in general. After all, there might be many explanations for the fact that someone doesn't act to save someone else: shock or fear or confusion, for example. None of those add up to malice, let alone murder.

Just to give you something more to chew on: suppose you could save Rob and could also save Bob, but no way could you save both. You flip a coin and save Rob, letting Bob die. You were capable of saving Bob, but you didn't, but pretty clearly this doesn't make you a murderer. It doesn't even mean that you did anything even slightly wrong. Not the case you had in mind, but a clear example of letting die that's not the moral equivalent of murder.

Religious people often claim that human rights must come from God. It seems to

Religious people often claim that human rights must come from God. It seems to me that they could be wrong about their claim because of the objection posed by the Euthyphro dilemma. Am I right about this? Can we have a solid grounding of human rights even if there is no God?

For what it's worth, I'm confident that you're right: moral rights needn't come from God. On the issues raised by the Euthyphro dilemma, let me suggest that you start with the SEP entries linked here and here.

As for human rights properly so-called, I'd urge you to question that concept for the reasons that I gestured at in my answers to Question 5602 and Question 5402.

I have a question about atheism and semantics, although I'm not sure I can

I have a question about atheism and semantics, although I'm not sure I can phrase it properly, as it also includes the concept of "belief" separate from "doctrine." Here goes: atheists claim that they do not believe in "God" while they do believe in ethics, morality, a concept of right and wrong. It seems to me that anyone who says they believe in right and wrong also implicitly believes that there is something more important than one's own personal ego gratification (in other words, everyone "should" curtail their own gratification to the extent that such gratification harms other people). To me, that seems semantically equivalent to a belief in God, except that the concept of "God" also includes an association in most people's minds with a particular doctrine. It sounds to me that atheists are merely rejecting all the doctrinal beliefs that accompany organized religion, while at the very root or core of the situation, do accept that they need to defer their own gratification to something greater or...

You asked, "How can a person say on one hand that they believe that something is more important than the self and also say at the same time that nothing exists that is more important than the self?" I agree that a person who said such a thing would be expressing a self-contradictory belief, a belief that therefore couldn't possibly be correct. However, I think it's simply a misuse of language to use the term "god" or "God" to refer to anything that someone regards as more important than gratifying his or her ego at that moment. If I resist the temptation to insult someone because I think it would be wrongfully hurtful, even if insulting him would gratify my ego, I don't thereby count as believing in God or gods. You dismissed "terminology and doctrine," as if they're irrelevant. But the meanings of words, such as "god" or "God," are of course entirely a matter of terminology, and in the case of religious terminology the meanings are often connected to one doctrine or another. By the same token, the word "atheist" simply doesn't mean "someone who regards his or her own ego gratification as always more important than anything else." English has other words for such a person.

If intelligent people incur a moral obligation to society, can the same argument

If intelligent people incur a moral obligation to society, can the same argument be made for other forms of (for lack of a better word) power? For instance, being beautiful gives you social influence to wield: on this line of thought, would beautiful people have an obligation too?

Interesting! I suggest that one needs more of a foundation or framework to infer from someone having intelligence or some other talent, ability or good (such as beauty) to the conclusion that one has certain obligations to one's society. There are foundations or frameworks to consider: in a case where a person comes to have some good like intelligence through the sacrificial contributions of others (imagine one's family and community pool together resources to pay for your medical education and you have the medical skills and intelligence due to others), a person may have a debt of gratitude (of some kind) to benefit those who helped one. Or an intelligent person may have an obligation to contribute to her or his community if she has volunteered or promised to do so or perhaps everyone in a community has agreed to donate their time and talent to the good of group as a whole. In the last case, perhaps someone who is intelligent or talented at building roads might have an obligation to offer to build roads and someone good at dentistry to do dentistry.... About BEAUTY? A cheap way to dismiss the question would be to claim that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and that it is too subjective to be the grounds for any obligation to anyone. BUT let's grant that beauty is real and that if it is in the eye of the beholder, then there can be reliable (perhaps beautiful?) beholders.

So, imagine someone is actually beautiful and she or he fills others with rapture, a sense of transporting delight. We are all familiar with cases of when the desire to control or possess beauty goes wrong, but what if we bracket such options and adopt a position hinted at by the philosopher Iris Murdoch that the appreciation of something beautiful (in one of her examples, this involves being captivated by a kestrel, a beautiful bird) can take us away from our self-centered, selfish desires and help us see values quite independent of our (to borrow a phrase from another British philosopher) "grubby little egos." In such a case, would the beautiful person (using a gender neutral name) let us call Pat have an obligation to use Pat's beauty for the good of the whole or of society or the good of others? There are moral teachings from Marxism to Christianity that to whom much is given, much is required, but in terms of general moral intuitions, I suggest the following: it may be that it is both good and a duty for Pat to use Pat's beauty for good ends (perhaps this is the way people think of Angelina Jolie being a representative of those concerned with children in dire straits?), but I suggest that there is a strong and long-lived tenant in much reflection on beauty over the centuries that "beauty" should not be subject (or is not subject) to control or manipulation. That is a broad generalization that other philosophers might find outrageous, but I am thinking of William Blake's notion that if one seeks to cage or control one's beloved, she or he (or love itself) will die. In this tradition, the love of beauty requires a surrender of the desire for possession. You can see this (or so I suggest) in Plato's dialogue on love and beauty in the Symposium and in the display of love in Dante's Divine Comedy and elsewhere.

Sorry to go on so long, but I suggest (in summary) that while things that are beautiful and persons who are deemed (and perhaps who truly are) beautiful, can be the cause or occasion for ugly things, any obligation that a "beautiful person" has to do good must (fundamentally) be voluntary or freely given. Once the obligation of someone of beauty is imposed or enforced, there is more than a slight scent of ugliness, going back to the practice in ancient warfare (and not unknown today) of when, a defeated city or state or kingdom is subject to the killing of all males of military age (and sometimes of any age) and the enslavement of women and children.

I really will conclude now: If you are truly (or widely regarded as) beautiful (in, as it were, body and soul --using these terms in a non-technical fashion), then I dearly hope and encourage you to use that beauty for the good (e.g. do not appear in advertisements for products that contribute to climate change that will bring about grave harm).

When I was a teenager, I started to think about sex all the time, but nobody

When I was a teenager, I started to think about sex all the time, but nobody ever talked to me about it. I may have been talking with someone of the opposite sex, for instance, whose dress deliberately accentuated their sexual features, and yet both of us would go on idiotically talking about something else, which neither of us was probably really thinking about. Why is there such a prohibition about pointing out the elephant in the room? Why is it considered morally suspect to make one's sexual reaction to someone an explicit feature of a conversation?

Probably one of the main reasons we shy away from talking with others about sexual attraction unless we are doing so with a partner in a sexually intimate relationship or conversing with a therapist or discussing medical issues (from STDs to pregnancy to birth control) or advising a friend who has asked for advise, is because we see sexual matters as amazingly / profoundly personal and we would find it positively intolerable being told by all sorts of people whether they find you sexy or not. Imagine that in the course of sitting in a coffee shop for an hour you are set upon by hundreds of people who tell you all about their sexual desires as grandmothers who like to have sex while cooking apple pie, former medical students who were expelled from medical school for public nudity, lawyers who have been accused of sexually harassing interns, politicians who will say anything or do anything to get your vote, two tax collectors who have strange, contagious rashes all over their hands and faces and want to touch you.

Back your observation about an elephant in a room: someone's interest or lack of interest in sex with whomever and whenever is rarely (in my experience) a matter that is as easily spotted as an elephant, even a small elephant. But if you do find joy and satisfaction in an intimate relationship, there will be a time and place when "pillow talk" will be so valued, in part, because it is private and such intimate things cannot remain intimate while being talked about as though one is talking about seeing elephants at the zoo.

It seems to me that much contemporary philosophy is a bit obsessed with

It seems to me that much contemporary philosophy is a bit obsessed with clarifying arguments and analyzing statements and lacks real wisdom about the world. For example, I can imagine a typical situation where an ordinary person asks a professional philosopher a question relating to an applied ethics question. The philosopher answers by analysing the component parts of the statements contained within the question and attempting to assess the technicalities of the implicit argument put forward by the ordinary person. The outcome is that everybody is none the wiser as to the real answer to the applied ethics question because the philosopher has no real wisdom about the world but is merely trying to analyse argument structures! What do you think about this? Thanks

I'm not sure that the outcome of analysing arguments is always that no one is any wiser concerning the issue at stake. And that's because there are several possible results of such analysis, all of which would seem to help us better understand the issue at stake and the justifiability of possible answers: (1) Perhaps the (implicit or not) argument the person offers for her answer is invalid; in that case, the philosopher is able to show that, whether or not her answer is right, her argument doesn't give us reason to accept that answer as right. (2) Perhaps there are assumptions the person makes in offering her answer but that she doesn't defend; in that case, particularly if the assumptions seem questionable/controversial themselves, the philosopher is able to show that the answer requires more defense than the person has offered. Or (3), perhaps the way the person has framed the question closes off certain possible avenues of thinking about the issue; in that case, the philosopher is able to point out that, since there may be different ways to frame the question, the choice of a certain frame may itself require defense.

All of this is to say that wisdom isn't confined to knowing the right answers to certain questions. It seems also to include an awareness of when you don't quite have the right answer or when you aren't yet justified in thinking that your answer is right.