New Questions in the Queue

 Posted by on 17 July 2013 at 8:00 am  Question Queue
Jul 172013

As you know, on Sunday morning’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I answer four questions chosen in advance from the Question Queue. Here are the most recent additions to that queue. Please vote for the ones that you’re most interested in hearing me answer! You can also review and vote on all pending questions sorted by date or sorted by popularity.

Also, I’m perfectly willing to be bribed to answer a question of particular interest to you pronto. So if you’re a regular contributor to Philosophy in Action’s Tip Jar, I can answer your desired question as soon as possible. The question must already be in the queue, so if you’ve not done so already, please submit it. Then just e-mail me at to make your request.

Now, without further ado, the most recent questions added to The Queue:

Isn’t every action selfish, ultimately?

Unless coerced, people act however they deems best at that moment. Even if that action is self-destructive, aren’t they acting selfishly, so as to satisfy their own desires? Even paragons of altruism act because they want to help people, please God, or save the environment: that’s what makes them happy. So isn’t true, deep-down altruism impossible?

What is the meaning and value of sportmanship?

Kids are often taught – or not taught – to be “good sports.” What does that mean? What’s the value in that? More broadly, what’s a healthy versus unhealthy attitude toward competition in life – not just in sports, but also work, hobbies, friendship, and so on?

If a person instigates a fight with another person, does he retain the right to self-defense?

Suppose that Bob bumps into Frank, and Frank takes offense. The argument escalates from harsh language to yelling to threats to pushing. Neither man makes any effort to placate the other or depart. Ultimately, a serious fistfight ensues. At that point, does either man have the right to defend himself using deadly force? If so, doesn’t that mean that a person might use that method to murder another under the guise of self-defense? Basically, does instigating or escalating a verbal or physical altercation with another person preclude claims of self-defense?

Should free-market reforms be gradual or instantaneous?

Many advocates of free markets concede that reforms toward capitalism should be gradual. For example, Yaron Brook said recently about abolishing Social Security, “There is no way to eliminate it tomorrow. There is no way to eliminate it, to go, in a sense, cold turkey.” (See this video.) But why not? What’s wrong with the “cold turkey” approach? Is the concern simply that the only way to get people to accept reforms is to make them slowly? Or would it be somehow unjust to cut off people’s entitlements suddenly, given that they’ve come to depend on them?

Are “psychopathy” and “sociopathy” distinct from evil?

Many psychologists and psychiatrists want their disciplines to be “value-free,” and they claim not to make moral judgments. However, they call behavior destructive to self and others psychologically unhealthy and pathological, with the cruelest sorts of people being called “psychopaths” or “sociopaths.” Are those merely euphemisms for evil – or do they have a distinctive psychological meaning? Also, what do you think of the claims of psychologists like Robert Hare that diagnosed psychopaths and sociopaths are physiologically different from the general population? Does that make a difference?

What must I do to reach certainty about a course of action?

Suppose that I’m being careful in my thinking about a practical matter – perhaps about how to solve a problem at work, whether to move to a new city, whether to marry my girlfriend, whether to cut contact with a problem friend. When can I say that I’m certain – or at least justified in acting on my conclusions? Given my personality type (INTP), I tend to leave questions open for far too long, when really, at some point, I need to close them. Are there any general guidelines or principles around figuring out what that point of closure should be? Even then, when should I revisit my conclusions, if ever?

What are the implications of the importance of conflict in literature for real life?

In her lectures on ?The Art of Fiction,” Ayn Rand argues that conflict is the most important element of plot, and that one must try to include as much conflict as possible in a novel in order to make it interesting and enjoyable. Does this mean that conflict is very metaphysically important? Is this similar to the Nietzschean notion that life is about overcoming, and that resistance is beneficial? Is this why we tend to value a good villain as much as a good hero?

What would a rational system of educational system look like?

Everyone knows that the government education system is flawed in many ways. Many private schools aren’t terribly different from public schools in their basic format and teachings. How might a school based on rational principles function? What would it teach – and by what style? Apart from questions of funding, how would it differ from current government schools?

How can I help my partner accept my doing risky activities?

I would describe my partner as modestly adventurous. He’s willing to try things now and then, but there are lots of things that I want to do or would like to do that he not only refuses to do but forbids me to do as well. For example, I saw on LivingSocial a deal to take a beginner pilot lesson. I have no interest in getting my pilot’s license, but I think it would be fun to sit in the seat with a teacher and learn a little something about how it’s done. To my mind, this is perfectly safe. My partner, however, says, “No way.” Another example, I want to go swimming with sharks. Not like jump into the mouth of Jaws, but to get inside one of those cages with supervision and all that. Yes, there’s some risk, but I think this sounds like a lot of fun. My boyfriend disagrees. I did talk him into going skydiving with me once, but he refuses to go again. He bought be a gift certificate so I could do another tandem dive. But I loved it enough that I would consider getting certified to jump on my own. He forbids it. There are lots of other such examples and even though these seem exotic and crazy ideas, I really don’t think they are. People do these things all the time with no ill-consequences. Plus, I want to do them with all proper supervision and safety precautions. I’m certain that my boyfriend understands such mandates carry little to no weight with me, but I wish he would be a little more reasonable about the way he assesses these risks. I definitely wish he’d find a better way of expressing his concern for my safety than just issuing commands about what I will and will not do. What should I do?

Should a woman give back her engagement ring if the relationship goes sour?

A friend of mine asked his girlfriend to marry him, and she accepted. However, they broke off the engagement – and the relationship – a few months later. Is she morally or legally obliged to give back the ring? Is the answer different if they married, then split?

Should a person be prosecuted for property damage when committed to rescue the property owner’s pet from harm or death?

Recently, I heard a story about a man who smashed the window of a stranger’s car in order to rescue a dog left inside. It was a very hot day, and the dog would have died or suffered brain damage if it had not been rescued. Was it moral for the man to do this? Should he be charged with criminal damages for smashing the window? Should the owner of the dog be charged for leaving it to die in the car?

Should the law permit the removal but not the killing of a viable fetus from a woman who wishes to terminate her pregnancy?

I agree that the woman has a right to have the fetus removed from her body: she’s not obligated to serve involuntarily as its host. But could it be argued that the “baby” has the right to be removed in a way that doesn’t result in its death? Perhaps it could be delivered prematurely or removed via c-section, nurtured in a hospital, and adopted by a willing family – with all of the costs paid for by this family. By Judith Thomson’s violinist analogy, I would seem to have a right to remove the violinist – or transfer him to a willing host – but not to kill him. Given that, shouldn’t we do the same for the viable fetus?

How can I learn to act on principles that I know to be true?

I believe in reality, rationality, individualism, self-interest, and self-esteem. Yet I don’t act on these beliefs. Right now, I don’t have any self-esteem. Once I act upon believing in reality, instead of merely believing in it, I will develop self-esteem. But I’m really lost as to how to apply reality in my life. I don’t know what that would mean. How can I act on my beliefs?

Is Aristotle right that ethics is not an exact science?

In Book 1, Chapter 3 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that ethics does not enjoy the clearness and precision of other subjects, in part because even positive values may be harmful in some circumstances. Hence, we must “indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premises of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better.” Is that all the precision that’s possible in ethics? Or does Ayn Rand’s ethics provide greater clarity than was possible for Aristotle?

Is it wrong to hire others to spray hazardous chemicals?

I live in a country where I doubt the regulations pertaining to any household pesticides are more than a rubber stamp. At present, my kitchen is full of cockroaches, and labor is cheap. Would it be immoral for me to hire the old housekeeper who does tasks for me to spray the pesticide that I bought at our supermarket for me? I wouldn’t be willing to do the spraying myself, due to the potential hazards.

To submit a question, use this form. I prefer questions focused on some concrete real-life problem, as opposed to merely theoretical or political questions. I review and edit all questions before they’re posted. (Alas, IdeaInformer doesn’t display any kind of confirmation page when you submit a question.)

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