New Questions in the Queue

 Posted by on 9 September 2014 at 8:00 am  Question Queue
Sep 092014

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 it wrong to suggest that a crime victim should have taken greater precautions?

My wife and I were discussing the recent iCloud data breach in which a hacker stole and published nude photos of hundreds of female celebrities. I made the comment that while the hacker’s actions were despicable, at the same time I thought the celebrities were stupid to have trusted iCloud to protect the privacy of their photos in the first place. My wife balked at this, saying that this amounts to blaming the victim, and is no better than saying a woman who is raped was stupid for wearing a short skirt, or for drinking alcohol. But I see it as being more akin to saying a person whose bag was stolen from their car was stupid for leaving the door unlocked. Do comments of this sort really amount to ‘blaming the victim’? Is it proper or improper to make such comments? Does my level of expertise or the victim’s level of expertise make any difference? (As a computer engineer, I am very aware of the dangers of the cloud, whereas your average celebrity would probably be clueless about it.) Intuitively, I feel like the comments would be improper in my wife’s example, proper in my example, and I’m unsure about the data breach itself. But I’m struggling to identify what the defining characteristics are for each case. What’s the right approach here?

Should a person study mindsets before philosophy?

In a prior radio show, you said that adopting a rational philosophy like Objectivism is not a guarantee of rationality and other virtues in practice, but appears more to be a kind of “moral amplifier.” If I remember correctly, you said that studying and adopting that philosophy will make a person morally better or morally worse depending upon whether that person has a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset” about ethics. So if someone has a fixed mindset and embraces Objectivism, that person may not act rationally or decently: he will tend to use the philosophy to beat other people over the head with (often unwarranted) moral judgments and commands. By contrast, a person with a growth mindset who embraces Objectivism will tend to focus on applying that philosophy to improving his own life, while acknowledging and correcting mistakes along the way. If being able to apply rational philosophy to life properly is contingent upon having a growth mindset, does that mean that before even learning that philosophy, a person should work on developing a growth mindset? Does that mean that until a person feels reasonably confident that he has a growth mindset, he should refrain from studying rational philosophy? If learning rational philosophy is valuable only insofar as a person holds a growth mindset, does that mean that the distinction between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets is more important or fundamental than philosophy? Or it is an aspect of philosophy?

Was the Civil War fought for just reasons?

Typically, we hear that the American Civil War was fought to free the slaves in the South. A competing narrative is that the South was fighting for state’s rights. It would seem to me that neither of these are strictly true, the North was fighting to maintain the Union, the South to keep their right to slaves. In that case, was either side justified in fighting the war? Should the North have simply allowed the South to secede, then welcomed runaway slaves? Would slavery have died on its own due to economic inefficiency?

What’s right or wrong in Michael Huemer’s critique of “The Objectivist Ethics”?

I found Professor Michael Huemer’s essay “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’” to be a very thoughtful and persuasive essay. It convinced me that Ayn Rand’s ethics has a number of logical and possibly empirical flaws in it. Do you find any of his arguments valid? If, so which ones? Which ones do you think are wrong? Why? It this essay reason enough to reject Ayn Rand’s meta-ethics?

Is charity to strangers virtuous?

In a recent podcast, you answered the following question: “Does providing voluntary, non-sacrificial help to innocent, unfortunate poor people qualify as virtuous? In a free society, would such charity be a moral obligation?” You said that it’s not a moral obligation, and I agree with that. You also said that you think it’s a “great thing to do.” But why? I’d evaluate it as such if the person you’re helping is a good friend or a close relative. In that case, the act would be an expression of integrity, or of loyalty to one’s personal values. But I don’t understand why it’s a “great thing” to provide charity to people you don’t know, even if you’re contextually certain that they didn’t bring their hardship upon themselves and you don’t view it as a moral duty. I’d think that such an act is morally neutral, or at best slightly positive. Can you explain your evaluation a bit more, please?

Is voting for the welfare statist policies and politicians an initiation of force?

I come across right-wing people who proclaim to me that the State is justified to use physical force to deport undocumented Latino immigrants. They tell me this is justified because Latinos consistently vote in favor of politicians who expand the welfare state. They say that even if undocumented immigrants themselves do not vote, their children, who were born in the USA, will eventually become old enough to vote. These right-wingers then tell me that Latinos voting in favor of welfare-state politicians is an initiation of the use of force against them. Therefore, they conclude, if a right-wing government uses force to deport such illiberal Latino voters, the right-wing government is not initiating the use of force against innocent, peaceful people. Rather, continue the right-wingers, the right-wing government is using retaliatory force against the Latinos who initiated the use of force by voting in favor of rights-violating laws. I’m deeply offended by this argument. I think it’s ridiculous, to put it mildly. I have many relatives and neighbors who also consistently vote in favor of welfare-state politicians. If I followed the logic of the anti-immigrationist argument, I would have to conclude that simply because my relatives and neighbors voted for illiberal politicians, I should condone the idea that my relatives and neighbors should be violently removed from the USA. I’m troubled by my relatives and neighbors voting for the welfare state but, of course, using force “in retaliation” against them is absurd. Still, while I cannot condone any so-called retaliatory force against people who simply vote for rights-violating measures, I cannot say that I think that such people are completely morally innocent. I think that if someone votes in favor of legislation that initiates the use of force – or votes in favor of a politician promising to support such rights-violating measures – that voter is, in some manner, complicit in the violation of rights, and an accessory to the wrongs that the regulatory-entitlement state commits. I can always try to explain to my relatives and neighbors my own reasons for thinking as I do on politics, but I know that most of them are at least as stubborn as I am and will probably never change their minds. What is the moral status of someone who publicly supports a rights-violating regulatory-entitlement state but otherwise treats other people’s lives and property with due respect?

Should scientists value philosophy?

Recently, when an interviewer asked the famous astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson about his opinion on philosophy, Tyson replied that he has low regard for the entire discipline of philosophy. Tyson said that the problem with philosophy is that it bogs philosophers down in esoteric nitpicking over matters that will not affect anyone, whereas scientists like himself produce practical results in the real world. That is, Tyson dismissed philosophy as impractical. I think that is a rather common reaction from scientists about philosophy – they dismiss philosophy as impractical. I find that odd, as people once recognized science as “natural philosophy” – they thought that philosophy provided wisdom-lovers and knowledge-seekers with good ideas on how to collect data and analyze it for their own understanding. How did this philosophy-versus-science divide originate? When scientists dismiss philosophy as impractical, is this more the fault of the philosophers for being impractical or of the scientists for being too dismissive? How can philosophers explain the value of philosophy to scientists?

Should medical debt be treated like any other debt in a person’s FICA score?

Recently, credit scoring company FICO announced that it wouldn’t treat medical debt the same as other debts. Most unpaid debts are medical debts. A FICO representative explained the change as follows: “What research has shown us is medical debt is not like other types of collections. For people who have a clean credit history, it’s not an indicator of financial problems that they’re not going to be able to pay their debt. It’s an anomaly, a blip on the screen.” Doesn’t this mean that people can more easily ignore their medical debts? Doesn’t this effectively apply EMTALA to the entire field of medicine? Isn’t this wrong?

Should judges refuse to hear cases from lawyers behind frivolous suits?

In your 15 May 2014 show, you expressed curiosity about possible improvements to the justice system. I came up with the following idea after sitting on a jury for a civil trial where, after the plaintiff presented his case, the judge dismissed the suit without even having the defendant present his defense. In cases where a judge thinks everyone’s time and money were wasted by a pointless case, the judge should refuse to hear any future cases from the lawyer for the losing side. That would cause the lawyer to think twice about representing any frivolous cases, since he would risk being banned from the presiding judge’s courtroom henceforth. In addition, judges who know each other could share lawyer blacklists, preventing the lawyer from wasting other judges’ time as well. Would this be possible? Would it fix the problem of frivolous lawsuits?

Are sports fans collectivists?

A friend of mine thinks that sports fans are living vicariously through the players and are thus collectivistic. I think this is an overgeneralization from contact with super-fans of pro sports. Getting mad when “my” team loses and saying things like “we won” are some of the examples of the collectivist thinking he cites. Is there a logical link between fans and collectivism or are super-fans inherently collectivistic, even if it is compartmentalized? Is team competition or “us-versus-them mentality” a good indicator of someone that should be avoided as a friend or partner?

Are manners objective?

In a recent Rapid Fire Question, I think you rather too quickly dismissed the idea that manners or etiquette can be objective. You fairly quickly threw the whole lot of them over into the socially-subjective category. However, I think there’s a lot that’s not at all subjective, nor even optional, about manners. I happen to live in a country, China, which is much-renowned for its lack of basic human decency, and I would argue that this is a fair claim. For example, it’s quite regular for a parent to pull his child’s pants down and facilitate his or her urinating or defecating all over a vehicle of transportation, up to and including an international flight. It’s also quite normal to hawk in such a way as to clear every cavity in one’s upper torso, admire a particular piece of ground, and splat the results of one’s personal nasal expiration for all to admire and tread upon. After a home-cooked meal, a guest is expected to belch massively. A small belch is a sign of dissatisfaction. To me, the latter seems quite a matter of optional cultural choice. What you said before about manners applies quite nicely to that issue: it’s fairly arbitrary whether you should or you should not belch after your meal. At my in-laws’ place, please do. At my mom’s place, please don’t. However, when I think about other ways in which Chinese people are “rude” to an American, I can think of a thousand examples where it’s not just subjective. Pissing or shitting on a public bus is not just arbitrarily unacceptable to us silly overwrought Westerners. It’s objectively rude. For another example, today when I was trying to get onto a bus, hale and hearty Chinese twenty-somethings were pushing in front of me in a giant triangle of evil. Nobody cared if I was there before them, nobody cared if the signs all said to line up respectfully, they just elbowed each other out of the way in order to get on the bus. So are manners objective, at least in part?

Is it immoral or unwise to accept a better job soon after starting a different one?

I am ready to change jobs. I could probably move to another role within my company pretty quickly and easily and continue to move my career forward, but I could make more money and get better experience outside of my company. Outside job hunts can be lengthy and full of disappointments and all the while I would have to work at a job that is, frankly, killing my soul. I think it’s pretty clear that – if I accept a new job in my company and immediately turn around and give notice to go somewhere else – I run a high risk of burning bridges with key contacts at my current company. But would it be unethical in some way to do that? When you accept a job are you making a tacit promise to work there for some period of time? If so, what’s the minimum amount of time?

Should publicly funded abortions be opposed?

In Victoria, Australia we have fairly good laws on abortion and there are almost no legal or social barriers to access. We also however have a very generous public health care system which means that most if not all of the costs of an abortion will be covered by the public. Is there something especially wrong with publicly funded abortion that advocates of individual rights should be concerned with or is it morally equivalent to the immorality of forcing others to pay for less controversial treatment such as dental surgery? Does the cultural context influence how a free-market advocate should approach this topic? While the majority of the community supports the current laws, there seem to be signs of an anti-abortion faction developing in the Liberal Party (the conservatives). I wouldn’t want to have opposition to publicly-funded abortions result in any kind of ban on abortions. So should publicly funded abortions be opposed or not?

Why aren’t people grateful for what others do for them?

I volunteer a lot, and I try to be very generous with my time and efforts in the groups that I’m involved with. Mostly, I just want people to express thanks and gratitude for what I’ve done for them. Mostly though, they don’t thank me – or their thanks just seem perfunctory. Why is that? Am I wrong to want a little gratitude? Right now, I feel taken advantage of, and I want to tell everyone to go to hell. Is that wrong?

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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