New Questions in the Queue

 Posted by on 23 April 2014 at 5:50 pm  Question Queue
Apr 232014

As you know, on Sunday morning’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I answer 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:

What should be the limits of government spying on citizens, residents, and foreigners?

I have been getting into arguments with my friends about the ethics of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and the ethics of NSA spying on foreigners. My friends say Snowden’s disclosure is evil because it undermined legitimate spying the NSA does for national secutiry. Cited in particular was Snowden’s disclosure that the NSA was spying on the work of a Chinese information-technology firm. I replied that if the NSA had probable cause to suspect that the Chinese IT firm was contributing to a military threat against the USA, I would support the spying, but that the Chinese firm being in IT is not sufficient to justify spying on it. I added that it was highly inappropriate for the NSA to spy on Angela Merkel’s phone calls and that the NSA inappropriately spied on attendees of the Copenhagen climate conference to give President Obama the upper hand when negotiating the climate treaty. I then posed to my friends this question: “How far does the NSA have to go in what it does, before you say it has stepped over the line?” But it occurred to me that I don’t have a set-in-stone answer to my own question. I don’t know how far the NSA should go, other than that I generally think that the NSA should only invade the privacy of specific people and only if it has probable cause to believe they pose a military threat to the USA. So how far should the NSA go? What is and isn’t fair game when it comes to NSA spying – not merely in the case of American citizens and residents but also in the case of foreigners?

Should a business be penalized for past atrocities?

Is it wrong to do business with a company that used to do business for the Nazis? Allianz, the largest insurance company in the world, was started in Berlin in 1890. During the Third Reich, it insured companies belonging to the Nazi government and/or the Nazi Party. By paying claims on those contracts, it helped fund the regime. Moreover, Allianz paid life insurance policies on Jews murdered by the Nazis to the Nazis. Overall, the company was very cozy with the Nazis during the Third Reich. Today, the company is not anti-Semitic, and they talk about those past wrongs openly. Is that sufficient reason to do business with them now? Where should the line be drawn?

Should revenge porn be illegal?

Apparently, it is increasingly common after a break-up for a person to share sexual pictures or videos of his/her former lover that were taken while in the relationship. Some people think that sharing sexual images intended to be kept private should be illegal, while others argue that such “revenge porn” is protected speech. Which view is right? Should the consent of all parties be required for the posting of sexual imagery?

Was Atlas Shrugged intended to save America?

Recently, I ran across this comment on the internet: “”Saving America wasn’t the point of Atlas Shrugged, that’s not the happily ever after it proposes in the end. It chronicles the main characters getting over that misguided mission and why.” Two questions come to mind: (1) What was Ayn Rand’s purpose in writing Atlas Shrugged? And (2) Do you think that being inspired to “save America” after reading “Atlas Shrugged” is misguided?

Is more information always better in making medical decisions?

In debates about health care reform, some doctors and policy wonks have argued that certain screening tests are overused. They say, for example, that women shouldn’t get routine mammograms before age 50 and that men shouldn’t get routine PSA tests. The problem with these tests, they claim, is that ambiguous or worrisome results encourage patients to pursue serious treatments (such as biopsy or surgery) which offer little in the way of genuine health benefits but sometimes result in serious side effects. Personally, I’d always rather have more information than not, and I’m not going to rush into a serious or unnecessary medical procedure just because of some worrisome test results. Isn’t that the right attitude to have? Or is there a limit to how much information a person should seek out for medical decisions?

Is it a mistake to enter into a serious relationship with a person with serious psychological problems?

Recently, my wife took her own life after a long struggle with major depression and other psychological issues. When we started dating, I saw clearly that she had issues although they were not as bad at the time. She was also intelligent, beautiful, and ambitious – among other good qualities. At the time, I thought she could work through her psychological issues with support, and she did improve for a while. However, after her loss, I’ve decided that, when and if I’m to the point where I’m interested in dating again, I will avoid becoming involved with women who display clear psychological problems. This decision has forced me to wonder if it was a mistake to become involved with my wife in the first place. So is it a mistake to enter into a serious relationship, knowing that the person has serious psychological struggles?

Does the morality of homosexuality depend on it being unchosen?

It seems that the advocates of gay rights and acceptance are obsessed with proving that homosexuality is never a choice. I find this confusing as it doesn’t seem to be the best argument. Even if sexual orientation were chosen, I don’t see why there would be anything better or worse about preferences for heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality. Rather, I think that if I were able to pick, I would choose to be bisexual, as being straight limits my expression of admiration towards men who may represent the “highest values one can find in a human being” simply due to their genitals. Is that right? Or does the case for rights for and acceptance of gays depend in some way on sexual orientation being unchosen?

Is it wrong to participate in superstitious rituals without taking them seriously?

If I make some perfunctory observance or participation in some superstitious ritual, and do not believe the superstitious ritual is of any literal importance, am I still promoting irrationality? If I regularly read the horoscope in the newspaper, but do not believe astrology has any real impact on my life, does reading the horoscope promote irrationality? Likewise, in Hawaii, almost all retail establishments possess what are called “good-luck cats.” A good-luck cat is a relatively inexpensive Asian figurine depicting a cat with one paw raised. Having this figurine is supposed to bring good luck to your business. You can commonly see such good-luck cat figurines in doctor’s offices in Honolulu, and for your retail establishment not to have such a figurine would easily strike people as strange. If I spent just a little money on such a good-luck cat to decorate my business, and I didn’t literally believe the figurine itself affected my fortunes, would the purchase be a concession to irrational thinking? Would such a gesture be “social proof” that would help other people rationalize more obviously pathological forms of irrationality, such as wasting hundreds of dollars on fortune tellers and psychic hot lines?

Can a person derive any self-esteem or happiness from university study?

Study is not a productive activity: it is preparation for future productivity. In light of this, how can I draw any self-esteem from my studies, whether successful or not? Can I consider my learning as “productive” achievement even though I am not making any money from it or creating anything? Do I have to wait until later to start being happy or feeling self-esteem? Should I be working on the side while taking classes?

Is displaying the Confederate flag racist?

I’ve been told by southerners that displaying the flag of the Confederate States amounts to a display of “southern pride.” I think it amounts to a display of racism, given the history of the south. That flag was used in a time when the agricultural economy of the southern states relied on slave labor. Many southern states seceded from the Union, largely because of their nefarious interests in preserving slavery. The Confederate flag represents these states and their ideology. Hence, I think it’s morally questionable (at least) to display it. I don’t think the south should take pride in or honor the Confederacy. Am I right or wrong in my thinking? What should I think of people who choose to display the Confederate flag?

Should the government mandate vaccination?

Advocates of free markets often disagree about whether vaccines are safe, effective, and necessary – and whether they could be justly mandated by law. One problem is that the refusal to vaccinate oneself might put others at risk. Not everyone can be vaccinated, and some people who are vaccinated don’t develop immunity. However, when the vast majority of people are vaccinated, that provides “herd immunity” to people who don’t have immunity. People who choose not to be vaccinated degrade that herd immunity and thereby put others at risk. Moreover, parents have to choose whether to vaccinate their children or not, and the failure to vaccinate is regarded as neglect by many people – on par with Christian Science parents refusing to give a sick child antibiotics. Given that, should vaccinations be mandated by the government? If so, under what circumstances? Or might people be held civilly liable for transmitting diseases? Or should vaccination be considered a purely private matter between individuals (and institutions)?

How can I stop obsessing over past conversations?

After having a conversation with someone, I often obsess about what I said to them and the way that I said it. I think about they ways they could have misinterpreted what I meant, and I worry that they thought I was being rude or disrespectful. Most of the time, of course, whatever nuances I thought would offend them were either non-existent or just went straight over their head. How can I overcome this obsessiveness, while still maintaining a healthy level of concern for how what I say may be interpreted?

Can evil be requited with good?

Christians claim that evil can and ought to be requited with good. So in “Les Miserables”, the Bishop inspired Jean Valjean to reform by telling the police that he willingly gave Jean the silver plate (and added the candlesticks) even though Jean stole the silver. Does this strategy ever work to reform an evildoer? Or is it merely a license to further evil? In some cases, might it be useful to “heap burning coals on [an evildoer's] head”? If so, when and why?

Does egoism suffer from “one thought too many”?

Bernard Williams argues that utilitarianism suffers from a problem of inappropriate motivation in which a person has “one thought too many” before acting morally. So, for example, a good utilitarian must calculate whether the general welfare is served by saving a drowning child before jumping into the water. A truly good person, in contrast, simply jumps into the water to save the child without that calculation. Wouldn’t this same objection apply to even rational, benevolent egoism? Or are those extra thoughts between situation and action actually rational?

Is sharing an interest in philosophy necessary for a good romance?

I am extremely interested in philosophy. I’m studying it and planning to make it my career. My girlfriend is not. She wants nothing to do with philosophy, although she is perfectly happy with me doing it. However, I find that I am missing that intellectual engagement with her. I’ve asked a number of times if she would try to talk to me about any sort of philosophical issue – really just anything deeper than day to day happenings – and she just can’t do it. She becomes uninterested or even begins to get overwhelmed and frustrated to the point of tears. Is it necessary for us to engage in this activity together to be happy? Is there any way that I can help her to engage in rational inquiry without it being forced on her, if at all?

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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