New Questions in the Queue

 Posted by on 30 May 2014 at 11:00 am  Question Queue
May 302014

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:

Is karma real?

Although the concept of “karma” has religious roots, it seems to contain a grain of truth, namely that people will, in the end, get what they deserve. So if a father is mean to his children, he will find them unwilling to help him when he suffers a health crisis in his old age. In contrast, children raised with love and kindness will be eager to help their ailing father. Is this understanding of karma true? Is this a concept that rational people might or should use in their moral thinking?

Can an egoist have too big an ego?

People often speak disapprovingly of “big egos.” The idea seems to be that a person is not supposed to think too well of himself or be too assertive. Is this just the product of altruism, including the idea that a person should be humble? Or could a self-valuing egoist be too big for his britches?

Do good ideas in superhero movies and television change people’s philosophy?

I have really enjoyed the pro-freedom and pro-personal responsibility messages of some recent superhero movies. However, I wonder whether those messages do any good. Rationally, I believe that a person can enjoy these superhero characters and then relate their qualities to a normal human standard. However, for the average viewer, I wonder whether the gulf between their superpowers and ordinary human powers creates a moral gulf too, so that people see the moral ideals of the superheroes as beyond the reach of us mere mortals. Is that right? Can these movies really affect people’s ideas?

Can the non-existence of God be proven?

I see how a person could believe – purely based on rational argument – that God’s existence cannot be proven, thereby becoming an agnostic. On the one hand, many non-theists criticize theists for believing in a deity strictly on faith, claiming that there’s no rational reason to believe in a deity. Most theists, however, would probably reject that, saying that they have rational reasons for their beliefs too. On the other hand, atheism seems just as unproveable as theism. Yet atheists claim that their beliefs are based on reason, rather than emotion or faith. As a result, aren’t the atheists covertly relying on faith? Or can atheism be proven purely based on reason?

Aren’t politicians like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul allies in the struggle for liberty?

Although I’m an atheist and a novice Objectivist, I’ve always wondered why so many advocates of individual rights oppose candidates and movements that seem to agree with us on a great many issues. Despite their other warts, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are the most likely men to promote our causes. The notion that they evangelize is dubious. And even if true, are there better alternatives today? I’ve also seen this attitude towards Libertarian candidates and their party. Ronald Reagan was the only President who advanced the ball towards free markets in the last fifty years, and yet people condemn him because of his position on abortion and because of his religious/political partnerships. I’ve never understood this. Shouldn’t we embrace the advocates of free markets out there today, even if not perfect?

Do moral principles break down in extreme cases?

When faced with bizarre hypotheticals, advocates of rational egoism often assert that such scenarios would never happen. This seems to be dodging the question. It’s said that conventional understandings of physics break down at microscopic and extremely grand-scale levels. Does morality follow a similar pattern? For example, what if a small society of people stranded on an island faced a shortage of clean water, and a single individual who owned all access to clean water refused to sell it? is that really impossible? Doesn’t that show that the principle of individual rights breaks down in extreme cases?

Why would anyone even want to sleep around?

Ayn Rand used Francisco D’Anconia to describe her view of sexuality in Atlas Shrugged, but while her explanation was easy enough to understand, there were some things she left out. Namely: why would someone, anyone, sleep around? I’ve met, and read articles by, women who describe their experiences in the “hookup” culture, and across the board they agree that most of the men they slept with were poor lovers who cared little for them once the act was finished. I know men like this in real life who seem surprised at how unfulfilling their sex lives (admittedly much more active than mine) really are. So I have to ask: why would someone choose to have sex with someone when they know, or at least have no good reason to not believe, that the person has no actual interest in them personally?

How much generosity is too much?

Generosity seems like a trait that would fit well into your theory of moral amplifiers. But how does one best deal with someone who is being overly generous? I recently relocated to a new city and one of my coworkers with whom I am friendly has really gone above and beyond trying to help me get settled. She is constantly offering to help, lend me things, or even give me things to make life easier. I appreciate her offers and turn down many of them as politely as I can. But I struggle to find the right balance of accepting her generosity in due proportion to our friendship. She seems to be fairly wealthy, so I don’t think her offers are sacrificial in any way, my issue is that we are friends, but not close enough friends to justify the incessant barrage of motherly offerings. Through consistent communication about what I am willing to accept and what I won’t – and also owing to actually getting settled in the new city – she’s backed off a bit. More broadly, how would you recommend dealing with this sort of problem? How can a person make sure not to make this mistake of being overly generous?

Is it wrong for an atheist to believe in some kind of afterlife?

I don’t believe in God, but I hate to think that this life is all that I have. I can’t stand the thought of never again seeing my parents, my children, or my friends again. So is it wrong to think that some kind of afterlife might exist? What’s the harm?

What’s wrong with agnosticism?

In your radio show of May 11th, 2014, you indicated that agnosticism – the view that a person can’t know whether God exists or not – is wrong. But what’s wrong with honestly admitting that you don’t know? Can the question of God’s existence really be answered without some kind of faith? Moreover, isn’t the agnostic – practically speaking – basically the same as an atheist?

How can a disabled person overcome a toxic childhood?

I am a fifty-one-year-old woman with several neurological disabilities, and I would have liked to have been reared as a human being. Instead, I was frequently informed (usually by my mother) that I was a “retarded, subhuman spectacle” – a “vegetable,” a “handicapped monstrosity,” a “travesty of a human being.” It was daily made plain to me that I was being reared purely out of my parents’ sense of duty, so as not to burden other people with my existence. It was likewise continually made clear to me that, whenever anyone played with me or tried to become acquainted with me, they did this purely out of an imposed sense of a duty to do so: for instance, because they were following a parent’s or teacher’s commands in order to avoid being punished for avoiding me. My disabilities (dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and severe Asperger’s among some others) are not physically visible. However, their effects on my behavior led to my being perceived as retarded despite a tested IQ above 150. (This tested overall IQ, in turn, was although scores on three of the subtests were in the 80-90 range.) By that standard, at least – the objective standard of lacking some reasoning power – I am a handicapped human being. As you know, Ayn Rand points out that no child ought to be exposed to “the tragic spectacle of a handicapped human being.” How should this principle have been carried out with regard to me, as a child? Further, the consequences for me of growing up in this way include an immense fear of other people, and a feeling (which I have been unable to change or vanquish) that I am indeed subhuman and should be rejected by anyone I admire, anyone worth dealing with. This feeling persists despite what I rationally consider to be productive adult achievement in the personal and professional realms. So how best can I undo the damage that has been done to my sense of life by my situation itself (being a handicapped human being, and recognizing this) and by how I was reared (which was at least partly a consequence of what I was and am)?

What advice would you give to a new Objectivist?

In late May, you led a discussion at ATLOSCon on “What I Wish I’d Known as a New Objectivist.” Personally, I wish I could tell younger self that the term “selfish” doesn’t mean the “screw everyone else, I’m getting mine” behavior that most people think it means. Other people will use the term that way, and trying to correct them is an uphill battle not worth fighting. I’d tell my younger self to just use a long-winded circumlocution to get the point across. What other kinds of obstacles do people new to Objectivism commonly encounter? What advice would you give to new new Objectivists to help them recognize and overcome them?

How can I convince myself that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side?

I always think that the grass must be greener on the other side of the fence. Whatever subject I study, I think about all the other subjects I’m not studying. Whatever work I’m doing, I think about all the other work I’m not getting done. Whatever book I’m reading, I think about all the other books I could be reading. I want to do everything, and I want to do all of it right now. How can I convince myself to be happy with what I’m actually doing and able to do? How can I stop this perpetual cycle of boredom and longing for change?

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 security. 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?

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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