Summary: In Chapter Three of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops the outlines of a theory of moral responsibility. He argues that responsibility requires (1) control and (2) knowledge. In Chapter Five of my book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame, I explored and further developed this theory of responsibility. In our discussion of this chapter, we'll explore this theory in depth, considering twists and turns like the role of regret and involuntary ignorance and incapacity.
Question: 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?
Question: Is it wrong to con jerks and blowhards? I know that dishonesty is wrong, but conning jerks and blowhards out of their money (as seen here) seems like justice at its best. So is it wrong?
Summary: As we live our lives, some people will harm us by their moral wrongs and honest errors, and we may commit such wrongs and errors ourselves. Objective moral judgment is an essential part of the rational response to such events. Yet circumstances often call for more than judgment: sometimes, forgiveness and redemption come into play. In this lecture given to ATLOSCon in 2012, I explored the nature, function, and limits of forgiveness and redemption in relation to the virtue of justice. Then we applied that understanding to common examples of wrongs and errors.
Question: 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?
Question: Should I pursue justice against a wrongdoer at great personal expense? I am trying to decide if I should file an ethics complaint against my former property manager for a rental property. Basically, she managed the property for me for several years until I visited the property and found it in a state of disrepair that annoyed and concerned me. So, I wanted to fire her. But before she would release me from our agreement, she charged me $1,200 for repairs and maintenance that she had done to the house between tenants. She never asked me if I wanted the work done and when pressed she told me it was a matter of routine and our contract granted her the power to make decisions like that. Upon inspection, I discovered that not only were some of the prices she paid were above market rate, it was her husband's company doing the work. I've reviewed some of the past records and she did this about 50% of the time. The Association of Realtors' code of ethics in my state specifically notes that she has to disclose relationships like that, but she didn't. So, I think whether she was in violation is pretty clear cut; however, some have argued that our contract supersedes the code of ethics. (If the board agrees with that argument, then this becomes a contract dispute and not an ethics concern.) If I file the complaint and the board decides to hear the case, I will have to hire a lawyer, make trips to the area, and basically shovel out even more money. The board could take her license or fine her, but in talking to a lawyer, and a couple of officers on the board it's more likely that they will push for some sort of education rather than taking her license. And none of that would do anything to get my money back. To get my money back, I'd probably have to go through an even more costly process of mediation, then arbitration, then suing her in small claims court where I would never recoup all of my costs. I think it's pretty obvious she's in the wrong and I think I can make the case strong enough to bring some measure of justice on her, but it would be expensive and stressful. On the other hand, she was very unpleasant to me and I hate to see her get away with being a horrible person and a corrupt professional. What should I do? How do I decide whether pursuing justice is worth my time and effort?
Question: Do libel and slander laws violate or protect rights? Every few weeks, the media reports on some notable (or absurd) defamation case – meaning a claim of "false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another, as by slander or libel." While a person's reputation as a business or person is certainly important, do people really have a "right" to their reputation? Isn't reputation the reaction of others to your own actions and character? How can a person create or own their reputation? Do defamation laws violate the right to free speech by protecting a non-right?
Summary: The purpose of a theory of moral responsibility is to limit moral judgments of persons to their voluntary doings, products, and qualities. However, moral judgments are not the only – or even the most common – judgments of people we commonly make. So what are the various kinds of judgments we make of other people? What are the distinctive purposes and demands of those judgments? What is the relationship between those judgments and a person's voluntary actions, outcomes, and traits? I answered these questions and more in this discussion of Chapter Four of my book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame.
Summary: What does Thomas Nagel's control condition for moral responsibility really mean? Does it set an impossible standard? Have others noticed and capitalized on this problem? I answered these questions and more in this discussion of Chapter Three of my book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame.
Tags: Academia, Aristotle, Common Sense, Crime, Egalitarianism, Epistemology, Ethics, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Justice, Law, Luck, Metaphysics, Moral Judgment, Moral Luck, Philosophy, Politics, Responsibility
Question: Does the lack of respect for rights among some Muslim immigrants justify banning all Muslim immigrants? Sometimes, I hear people say that immigrants from Muslim countries are so illiberal (in the classical sense) that they ought to banned from entering the United States and Western Europe. The anti-immigrationists say that when people from Muslim countries are allowed to reside in the West, such immigrants remain committed to political Islam, honor-kill their own daughters, rape native-born women, and plot to impose sharia law on the West through "stealth jihad." Is the illiberalism of some (or even many) Muslim immigrants grounds for limiting immigration from Muslim countries? What is the proper response to this problem?
Summary: What are some of the common proposed solutions to the problem of moral luck? How and why do they fail? I will answer these questions and more in this live discussion of Chapter Two of my book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame.
Summary: What is the "problem of moral luck"? Why does it matter to ethics, law, and politics? What is its connection to John Rawls' egalitarianism? Why did I choose to write my doctoral dissertation on the topic? I answered these questions and more in this live discussion of Chapter One of my book, Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame.
Question: Should an egoist be willing to torture millions to benefit himself? In your discussion of explaining egoistic benevolence on December 22, 2013, you indicated that you regarded such a scenario as absurd. Could you explain why that is? Why wouldn't such torture be not merely permitted but rather obligatory under an egoistic ethics? Why should an egoist even care about what happens to strangers?
Question: What is "open Objectivism"? Recently, I checked out the website of "The Atlas Society," the organization run by David Kelley. It advocates for "open Objectivism," which I assume means that each person defines what Objectivism is. Am I interpreting that correctly? What's wrong with that approach? Does regarding Objectivism as "closed" lead to intolerance, insularity, and schisms?
Question: Is "body acceptance" rational and healthy – or dangerous? Many people are divided on the issue of accepting one's body for whatever it is. Some think that a person should be proud to be "healthy at any size" (or even just a larger-than-average size). Others say that such views perpetuate unhealthy lifestyles and destroy standards of beauty and health, perhaps out of envy. What is a rational view of body acceptance? Is "fat shaming" or "fit shaming" ever acceptable? More generally, what are the boundaries of morally acceptable comments on such matters between acquaintances, friends, and strangers?
Question: Does ethical egoism promote narcissism and insensitivity to others? People often suggest that ethical egoism – such as the Objectivist ethics advocated by Ayn Rand – promotes unfriendly if not hostile behavior toward other people. Ultimately, the egoist cares for himself above everything else, perhaps to the point that the thoughts and feelings of others aren't even noticed or of concern. The problem seems to be exacerbated by a commitment to moral absolutes and moral judgment. So do these ethical principles incline a person to be self-absorbed, insensitive, hostile, unkind, or otherwise unpleasant to others? How can egoists take care not to fall into these traps?
Question: Is it wrong to invent stories about yourself to tell to strangers? In the past, I've made up stories about myself (basically assuming a character) and told them to strangers on the bus or in an airport. When I mentioned this to my spouse, I hadn't really thought of this as lying until I saw his horrified reaction. Do you think this is wrong? If so, why? Would it be acceptable in some contexts, such as for an acting class?
Question: Is it morally wrong to profit from someone else's distress? People often decry "taking advantage" of other people as cruel and wrong. For example, suppose that a person desperately needs water after a hurricane or other natural disaster. I charge him $1000 for a gallon jug, knowing that he can pay that much if he's really that desperate. Is such price gouging immoral? Is it fundamentally different from other kinds of trade – or just different in degree? Is it morally wrong to profit so handsomely by the distress and scanty options of other people in this way?
Question: What justifies punishing people for committing crimes? In your 2006 graduate paper, "The Scope Problem in Punishment," you criticize utilitarian theories of punishment that aim for deterrence of future crimes on the grounds that they don't punish all and only those who are guilty. Yet why is that a problem? Moreover, why should a criminal be punished if doing so won't have any future benefits, such as deterring future crimes? Doesn't self-interest require that actions have some future benefit – and if so, shouldn't all punishment have some positive future effect like deterrence?
Question: Should a person feel guilty for not acting selfishly enough? According to rational egoism, a person ought to act selfishly – not in the sense of hurting others, but in the sense of pursuing his own good. If a person fails to do that, should he feel guilty for failing to act morally?
Question: What is the individualist response to claims about "white privilege"? In May 2013, you published a blog post entitled "Personal Motives for Benevolence" where you introduced the idea that prejudice is often formed by favoritism and not overt bigotry. Clearly, such favoritism can be based on race too. So what is the proper and just response to claims of "white privilege" – such as found in the article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh?
Question: Are public shamings morally justifiable? I often read of judges handing down sentences designed to humiliate the offender, such as standing at a busy intersection wearing a sandwich board apologizing for their offense. Many people favor these kinds of punishments in lieu of jail time because they consume less resources of the penal system. They may be more effective too. Does that justify such shamings? Moreover, what's the morality of similar shamings by parents and businesses? A bodega in my neighborhood posts surveillance camera footage of shoplifters, usually with some snarky comment about their theft. I find this practice amusing, but is that moral? Is it akin to vigilantism?
Question: Is it wrong to walk away from a person who suffers from repeated medical emergencies due to their own irresponsibility? Over a year ago, I was the tenant of a type-1 diabetic who refused to eat properly. As a result, I regularly had to call the ambulance for her, as she would allow her blood-sugar to drop to dangerous levels, such that she couldn't think or move for herself. She never learned anything from these experiences. She never put emergency food within reach, for example. So a few days or weeks later, I would have to call the ambulance again. I believe that I was being forced – literally – to take care of her. I feared that I'd face manslaughter or other criminal charges if I left her alone in that state. Would it have been morally proper for me to leave her in that state without any advance warning? Should that be legally permissible?
Question: 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... cold turkey." 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?
Question: How forthcoming should I be with new people I meet about my checkered past? My past is not a source of pride for me. Over four years ago, I read "Atlas Shrugged." That book altered the radical change I was already bringing into my life for the better. I've recently begun meeting other fans of Ayn Rand in real life, and I dislike discussing my white-trash, moocher-esque history with these new acquaintances. (At the time, I was between 17 and 20 years old.) If I shared my past with these people, I think they might judge me harshly and cut ties with me, given that they don't know me well. However, given my past, I have a clearer understanding of the irrational, twisted, cruel, and nasty nature of people who choose to live like leeches off of other human beings. I think that sharing these experiences with others can be a source of strength to them. (I don't want others to stumble into these poor decisions when they could do better!) So how much of my past should I share with other people, and how should I share it?
Question: Is it wrong for an atheist to patronize religious businesses? Is it an endorsement of religion or failure of integrity for an atheist to buy goods or services from a religious business, such as hiring an explicitly religious (and advertised as such) plumber or joining the local YMCA?
Question: Are hate crime laws just? Hate crime laws impose additional penalties for crimes motivated by hatred for or bias against the victim for his group membership, such as religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or ethnic background. Do such laws protect or violate individual rights? Should such laws be maintained, modified, or repealed?
Question: How much sympathy should I have for people failing in their obligations due to personal struggles? In the past two years, I've witnessed two businesses (both one-person operations) crash and burn due to the owners' inability to continue to operate while suffering from severe depression. I don't know the trigger in the first case, but in the second case, the depression was precipitated by a divorce, then the murder of a toddler in the family. The business is online, and unhappy customers have been airing their frustration with the fact that they never received goods already paid-for. Some friends are stepping in to help, but the owner's reputation has been ruined. How much slack should I – or others aware of the situation – cut the owner? How far should my sympathy go?
Question: How can I better identify dangerous or immoral people in my life? I don't like to be morally judgmental about personality and other optional differences. In fact, I like being friends with a variety of kinds of people: that expands my own horizon. Yet I've been prey to some really awful people in my life. Looking back, I'd have to say that I ignored some signs of trouble – dismissing them as mere optional matters, as opposed to moral failures. How can I better differentiate "interesting" and "quirky" from "crazy" and "dangerous" in people I know? How can I see "red flags" more clearly?
Question: Are there moral limits to romanticizing historical figures in art? For example, a writer might romanticize Robin Hood as the Ragnar Danneskjöld of the Middle Ages. If this is proper, is there an ethical limit as to what kinds of persons one may or may not romanticize, or as to how far one may stretch the historic truth? For example, does it matter if there are still contemporaries of that historic person alive who suffered unjustly because of him? Would it be wrong to ignore some unpleasant facts in order to present a fictionalized heroic character?
Question: Can a person be a racist yet still a morally decent person? Paula Deen has been in hot water – with her shows and sponsorships cancelled – because of allegedly racist comments that she admitted to making in a deposition. (The lawsuit was brought by Lisa Jackson – a former manager of a restaurant owned by her and her brother. Ms. Jackson alleges sexual harassment and tolerance of racial slurs at the restaurant.) Based on Ms. Deen's admissions in the deposition, is she racist? If so, can she still be a moral person? Do matters of race trump all other moral convictions?
Question: Should the military ban marital infidelity? On your June 2nd, 2013 radio show, you explained why marital infidelity should not be illegal. I agree with you, but I wonder about other contexts. Might some government groups legitimately ban and even criminalize infidelity for its members? According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, infidelity is against the law for military members. Might that be proper, particularly given that we have a volunteer army? More generally, might the military want to enforce strict rules of moral conduct on their members, even for seemingly private matters?
Question: Do people have a right to emergency medical care? EMTALA (a.k.a. the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act) is a federal law that requires emergency rooms to stabilize any patient with an emergency medical condition, regardless of the patient's ability to pay. Is that proper? Is that the same as a right to medical care?
Question: Is it wrong to be indifferent to the rights-violations of people who advocate rights-violations? Some celebrities actively promote the violation of rights by lending their support to political groups. For example, former American Idol contestant Krista Branch has actively campaigned against gay marriage on behalf of Focus on the Family. However, in a recent interview, Branch complained that people were pirating her songs. I know that Branch's intellectual property rights should be respected, and I would never pirate her music. Yet I can't feel any sympathy for her, given that she advocates violating other people's rights. I'm of the opinion that people who advocate for the use of force against others should not be spared from the consequences of the kind of culture that creates. Is that wrong? Am I being malevolent? Should I defend her rights, even though she advocates violating my rights?
Question: Am I obliged to help a friend in trouble due to her own poor choices? I have a friend who is emotionally draining to me, and she is especially "down on her luck" this month. However, her situation is a direct result of especially poor personal choices over the last year, and there is no good path to get her out of the hole of poverty and depression. We don't have much in common other than similar-aged kids, and active participation in a local moms' group, but because I have come to her aid in the past, I feel an unspoken obligation to continue. (Maybe it's guilt, or pity, or empathy?) What are my obligations in a friendship that has recently become more taxing than beneficial? I don't dislike her, and we have many mutual friends, but I just don't think I can muster the time, financial resources, or energy this time to help bail her out of the latest fiasco. Is it morally acceptable to refuse to help? Should I talk to her about why now – or wait until she's less vulnerable?
Question: When is it moral to resist police action? Last year, the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law granting protection to citizens that resist the unlawful actions of a public servant. If a police officer enters your home without your knowledge or consent – legally or illegally – and you have no way of knowing whether he is an unlawful intruder, are you morally justified in taking violent action against him? When is it moral to forcibly resist police actions?
Question: Is it right or wrong to condemn people for being obese? Obviously, obese and morbidly obese people have made mistakes in their lives. Are they morally culpable for those mistakes? How should other people judge their characters? If I see an obese person on the street, should I infer that he is lazy and unmotivated? Should I refuse to hire an obese person because I suspect he won't work as hard as a non-obese person? Is obesity a moral failing – or are there other considerations?
Question: What's the proper response to the dissolution of a friendship within a social group? I loved your your May 6th, 2012 discussion of "unforgivable acts," and I have a follow-up question. Now – after cutting my losses with a best friend, after years of giving second chances, talking with him repeatedly, and determining that there's no more basis for a friendship – how do I judge mutual friends of ours? Some of them think that my actions weren't justified. Some resent me for breaking up a group of friends. Many want me to either make up with this person or tolerate him at gatherings. Is this reaction by these mutual friends fair? How should I respond to them?
Question: How can a person deal with overzealous ideologues? Suppose that an overzealous follower of a particular belief system constantly monitors and polices the behavior of other followers. When he sees what he believes to be a failure by someone to live up to their ideals, he attacks that person publicly, trying to shame him into proper behavior. What is the proper response if I am attacked by this overzealous follower in public? What if the attacks are private? Should I respond if my friends and acquaintances are attacked?
Question: Are arguments of the form "what if everyone did that" valid or not? Often, people will claim that some action is wrong on the grounds that not everyone could or should act that way. For example: it’s wrong for a couple not to have children because if no one had children, civilization would collapse. Or: it’s wrong for you not to donate to charity for the poor because if no one donated, lots of innocent people would suffer. Or: it’s wrong for any doctor to limit his practice to concierge service because if every doctor did that, most people would not have access to medical care. What’s right or wrong with this kind of argument?
Question: Is the welfare state a good reason to restrict immigration? Conservatives – and even some Objectivists – claim that immigrants are flocking to the United States for our welfare benefits. They claim that immigration must be restricted until the welfare state is curtailed. Doesn't this view amount to punishing would-be immigrants for our own welfare state?
Question: Is the Golden Rule a valid and useful principle of ethics? In past podcasts, you've mentioned that you consider the Golden Rule – meaning, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" – as flawed. What are some of the problems with this rule? Does it have any value?
Question: Are materialistic couples less likely to have a lasting relationship? A recent study by Brigham Young University claims to show that concern for money causes stress in a relationship and that people who love money tend to be more impersonal and less passionate towards their loved ones. Is that right? Does it reveal some defect with a morality of worldly values?
Question: Is 'moral luck' a self-contradictory term? What does it mean? Does it exist?
Question: Is it wrong to root for antiheroes in movies? I often root for characters like Daniel Ocean (of Ocean's 11, 12, etc.), Erik Draven (of The Crow), Harry Callahan (a.k.a. Dirty Harry), and "Mad" Max. Should I instead seek out movies with more consistently good heroes?
Question: What's the difference between griping about people and morally judging them? I try to be careful in my moral judgments of others, and then act accordingly. However, most people don't seem to do that: they bitch about other people out of annoyance, but then do nothing to solve their problems. What's wrong with such bitching? How can I explain my objections to such bitching in a friendly way? How can I avoid being bitched-to or bitched-about?
Question: It is wrong to judge others when I'm still flawed? Given that I have various inconsistencies and unresolved contradictions, for me to morally judge others seems like self-righteousness. Does a person need to be morally good (or even perfect) to justly judge others?
Question: Does a person deserve extra moral praise for acting rightly despite strong contrary emotions? How does overcoming strong emotions in order to do the right thing (or refrain from doing the wrong thing) factor into morally judging a person? If person A has no emotional conflict and thus does the right thing more or less "effortlessly," while person B takes the same correct action despite strong emotional motivation to act otherwise, does person B deserve any extra moral credit for the amount of emotional or mental effort he made? Or is moral judgment to be made solely on the basis of actions, with internal mental effort being irrelevant?
Question: How can I stay out of conflicts between family members? When two people you love have competing claims about the facts in a conflict between them, how do not imply that one or the other is lying? My daughter said she told my wife something important. My wife said my daughter didn't say anything about it. How can you react without destroying one or the other's trust? I wasn't there: I can believe or dis-believe either one. But I am forced by each to choose. When I refuse to choose sides, I'm still subjected to being accused of taking the other's side and calling each one a liar. What can I do to make peace, at least with me?
Question: Why do so many cultural commentaries condemn the evil rather than praise the good? The virtue of justice, properly understood, means that praising good is more important than condemning evil. As Leonard Peikoff says in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand: "The conventional view is that justice consists primarily in punishing the wicked. This view stems from the idea that evil is metaphysically powerful, while virtue is merely 'impractical idealism.' In the Objectivist philosophy, however, vice is the attribute to be scorned as impractical. For [Objectivists], therefore, the order of priority is reversed. Justice consists first not in condemning, but in admiring – and then in expressing one's admiration explicitly and in fighting for those one admires..." (pg 284). Despite that, the majority of cultural commentaries, including those written by Objectivists, focus on exposing and condemning evil, rather than praising the good. Why is that? Is it a mistake?
Question: When should a person speak up against bigotry? My boyfriend and I were at a party at the home of one of his coworkers. One person at the party started using offensive homophobic slurs, so I asked him not to use that kind of language. He persisted, and the conversation escalated into an argument. My boyfriend did not take a position, and he later said he "didn't want to get involved" and that it had been "none of my business" to stick my neck out against the bigot. I believe that silence implies acceptance. Though there may not be a moral obligation to intervene, it still seems like the right thing to do. What is the moral principle behind this? Is it important enough to end a relationship over?
Question: What's wrong with multiculturalism? Many people think that "multiculturalism" just means being tolerant of people with different cultural practices than your own. Is that right? What is multiculturalism? What are some examples of it? What's wrong with it, if anything?
Question: How can a person objectively assess his own character? If a person has a good character, then he'll recognize that fact. But if a person has a bad character, then he'll probably deceive himself into thinking himself good. So it seems likely that every person will think that he has a good character, even when that's not true. So, is objective assessment of one's own character possible? If so, how?
Question: How can a person learn to take criticism well? Some people don't take kindly to criticism, even if offered in a benevolent and constructive way. Why are some people intolerant of criticism? Why is that a problem? How can such people learn to take criticism better? How can others deal with someone overly sensitive to criticism without compromise or dishonesty?
Question: Is it wrong to skip over advertisements? Many people use plug-ins that block advertisements on web sites, and many more people skip advertisements on television by recording shows with a DVR. Is this moral? Is it a failure to act as a trader?
Question: Should an employer have to explain and justify his firing of an employee? Should an employer be able to fire an employee for some alleged misconduct, even though the employer never bothered to verify the misconduct, nor asked the employee for his side of the story? For example, suppose that when the employee shows up for work he is simply told that he's been fired because someone made a complaint about him. The employee could easily prove the complaint to be false but the employer isn't concerned with proof or lack thereof. The employee's reputation in the eyes of possible future employers is damaged, even if the employer never discusses the firing with anyone else. In such a case, should the employee be able to sue for having been fired without proper cause?
Question: Should you warn others about vicious people in your community? If you know a person to be dishonest, but that person is well-regarded in your community, should you tell others in that community what you know? Does it matter if the person is in a position of authority (perhaps over an organization's finances), such that he could do a whole lot of damage? What kinds of immorality would be serious enough to warrant warning others?
Question: Can an ordinary person do something unforgivable? Could a friend act in a way that would make rational forgiveness impossible? Might a person do something so hurtful or unfair that you couldn't ever trust them again? In such cases, how should the person wronged acted towards the unforgivable person?
Question: Should we forgive ourselves? How can a person free himself from guilt over past errors and wrongs, particularly irrationality? Should such a person forgive himself – and if so, what does that entail?
Question: Is it wrong to "out" a hypocritical anti-gay public figure who is secretly gay? Some conservative politicians have taken strongly anti-gay positions, but are secretly gay themselves. If one learns of this, is it wrong for gay activists to publicly "out" them? What if they don't engage in public hypocrisy, but are just quietly "in the closet"? Should activists respect their privacy in that case?
Question: Should I use the term "selfish" in conversation without explanation? According to Ayn Rand, selfishness means acting for your own long-range life and happiness, and that's moral and proper. Yet most people think that selfishness means brutalizing other people, lying and cheating to satisfy your desires, or at least acting like an insensitive jerk. Should I avoid using the term unless I can explain what I mean by it? And how can I best explain its proper meaning?
Question: When should we give another person the benefit of the doubt? Often, people say that public figures facing some scandal should be given the benefit of the doubt? What does that mean in theory and in practice? When ought people give the benefit of the doubt? Is doing so a matter of generosity or justice?
Question: Is the death penalty moral? I understand why people are opposed to the death penalty when there might be genuine doubt as to whether the accused person really committed the crime. Certainly, we've seen cases where DNA evidence has exonerated someone who was convicted several years ago for a crime they didn't actually commit. But if someone confesses to first degree murder and if there's incontrovertible physical evidence to confirm their guilt, is the death penalty then appropriate?
Question: Why is punishing an innocent man worse than failing to punish a guilty man? English jurist William Blackstone said that "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." What does this mean, and is it true? Is some higher ratio of wrongly-punished to wrongly-released acceptable?
Question: Is it fair to judge a person's intellect or other qualities of character purely based on his age? I am 16 and am facing problems with some people who seem to think that my views aren't clear even to me just because "I am a lazy teen with no experience in life." Is that unjust? Should I try to show them they are wrong about me or is it not worth it? If I should try, how might I be effective?
Question: Should people be willing to "walk on eggshells" around temperamental people? Some people – often very talented – are known to be highly temperamental. They'll explode in anger if others disagree with them, make innocent mistakes, or just act differently than they'd prefer. Is that a moral failing, and if so, what is its source? How should people around them act? When and how much should others try to placate them?
Question: How should a rational person evaluate unproven accusations of serious wrongdoing about people he deals with? I recently heard some information about a business associate's dealings with another of his associates that, if true, would make me reconsider doing business with him. However, his side of the story is that the other person is the one who acted wrongly. This is a serious matter, and it's clear that one or both of them acted very badly, but since I was not personally involved and the only information I have is of a "he said/she said" nature, I am not sure how to decide what I should do. Am I right to consider the information I heard at all, since I can't confirm it?
Question: Is it moral to help inept co-workers? On my team at work, we have only a very few people who use their time productively. We all get paid for 8 hours of "work", every day, but most of my team would rather talk on their phone, hide from management, and underperform at their job. We also belong to a union, which makes it harder for management to fire the ones who don't work despite being informed about the situation. I often find myself in the position of helping these people, or going in behind them and fixing their work. I am beginning to feel taken advantage of, and am getting fed up with most of my co-workers. Is it moral to continue helping people who do not take their own work seriously?
Question: Is working for a minister giving religion moral sanction? As an atheist, I once worked for an ordained minster who was the owner of a gallery. I became his manager when I made it clear that I was an atheist, but that I was a good framing manager. I don't think I gave him a moral sanction for his irrationality by working for him under those terms. What do you think?
Question: How should I judge my college-age peers, given the upbringing they've had? I know that we are ultimately responsible for our actions and our character, yet character is also heavily influenced by our culture, education, and upbringing. I was raised roughly the same way as my peers were, and I went through the same standardized, state-school educational system. Yet I did not end up like them – largely due to the fact that I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I got to see an alternative to the ideas offered to me, unlike most of my peers. Without that, I could have ended up just like anyone else. Knowing that, I try to treat my peers gently – meaning not taking the bad ideas they hold seriously, showing a benevolent warmth to them, and not focusing too hard on negatively judging their characters. But am I doing right, or should I be harsher in my judgment and treatment of them?
Question: When should a person maintain a relationship with his parents – or not? When, if ever, should an adult child distance himself from his parents – or cut them off completely? Does it matter if the parent was awful years ago, but since then, he's seemed to reform his ways?
Question: Is it proper to join non-mandatory professional groups? Many professional organizations provide great benefits to their members, such as educational opportunities, professional conferences, networking, journal subscriptions, insurance, and product discounts. However, many also engage in lobbying of government officials on issues both related to the profession's direct interests and on issues only loosely associated (i.e. funding for political candidates). While some of this lobbying can be viewed as professional self-defense in an immorally regulated industry, where does one draw the line? Is there a point where joining professional associations is providing sanction to activities you believe are wrong?
Question: Should I terminate friendships with people who steal music and other intellectual property from the internet? I don't know a single person who doesn't steal something off the internet. I used to do this myself, but stopped when I realized it was wrong and why. Normally, I would cut off contact with anyone who violates rights, because that's worse than just holding wrong ideas, but the activity is so prevalent now that doing so would end my social life. Even now, my clear moral position strains my friendships. So what should I do?
Question: How can I maintain my integrity in friendships with people of opposite philosophic views? I struggle to keep good relations with family and friends who support our current political system in which some people are helped at the expense of others, which I regard as slavery. They support ObamaCare, EPA restrictions, and welfare programs. Through years of caring discussions, I realize that they do not hold the individual as sacred but instead focus on what's best for "the group." At this point, I often feel more pain than pleasure being with them, even though we have many other values in common, yet I hate to cut them off. How can I maintain good relationships with them – or should I stop trying?
Question: Should public figures be held to higher moral standards? Public figures – like actors, politicians, and athletes – are often lambasted in the media for committing commonplace wrongs like dishonesty and hypocrisy. Is that fair? If Michelle Obama is an outspoken opponent of childhood obesity and lists the things my children and I shouldn't eat, is she a hypocrite for publicly indulging in junk food? Should I not value Tiger Woods as a professional golfer with exceptional talent because he screwed around on his wife?
Question: If you find money in a house that you've purchased should you return it? A man recently found about $45,000 hidden in the house that he'd recently bought. (See this article.) It was saved up by the prior owner, now dead. He returned it to the man's children. Should the buyer of the house have returned the money? Was he morally or legally obligated to do so? If not, was doing so foolish or altruistic?
Question: What should you do when you meet someone who treated you badly in the past? Recently, I ran into a person at an event who I used to know as a fellow member of a local discussion group. When he left the group about a year ago, he posted a long rambling e-mail to our mailing list condemning us for all kinds of imaginary sins. The letter was unfair and rude – not to mention wholly unnecessary. I avoided talking to him when I saw him recently, but I wish I'd said something pointed to him. What, if anything, should I have said?
Question: Should JK Rowling repay the British government for welfare payments made to her? She famously wrote the first Harry Potter novel while "on the dole." She has been fabulously successful since then, but she likely could not have written that first book without state support. Should she now pay back all the government welfare paid to her during that period?
Question: Should the police lie to suspects in the course of an investigation? Police routinely do this, usually in order to trick people into admitting something or revealing information they would normally not reveal. Note that the people they lie to may not have been convicted of any crime, and are merely "persons of interest" or suspects. Is this routine constant lying moral? What do you think it does to the policeman's character after many years?
Question: How should I respond to the urban legends forwarded by a family member? I've repeatedly pointed this family member to Snopes.com, in response to his forwarding of yet another urban legend. I keep hoping that he'll get the hint – and check for himself before hitting the "forward" button. Yet he never does so, and he's sending false, defamatory, and/or possibly dangerous information to everyone in his address book. This person is pretty smart – and he's kind and friendly. I'd hate to do anything that would mar our relationship. What should I do?
Question: Are people in real life as evil as in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged? In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents almost every bad person as very evil. I understand the purpose of that in the novel, but are their equivalents in real life (meaning the legislators passing similar laws nowadays) as evil as that – or are some of them just misguided or even stupid? In other words, do real-life people act on the death premise and hate the good for being the good? I just can't imagine that. Am I being too optimistic?
Question: What is the best way to handle "proud" looters? What is the safest and most effective way to deal with the people who ignorantly brag about the fact that they are free-loaders on others, including using government programs and "public" funds?
Question: What do you think of people using pejorative terms for themselves, such as gays referring to themselves as "faggots" or Objectivists calling themselves "Randroids"? The term "Randroid" is supposed to imply that Objectivists are unthinking, mindless drones. However, I happily use this term to describe myself – after first calling myself an Objectivist, of course – because I think it squashes a lot of the negativity behind the pejorative when I adopt it willingly. Do you think it's for good Objectivists to adopt this term – and more generally, for people to use insults as badges of honor?
Question: Was Immanuel Kant evil rather than just wrong – and if so, why and how? I understand that Kant's ideas are very wrong, even evil. But couldn't he have been honestly mistaken, perhaps not taking his own work seriously? Given that he never advocated or did anything even remotely comparable to Hitler's genocide, why should he be regarded as evil, if at all?
Question: What is the proper process of forgiveness? In your March 6th episode, you spoke about forgiveness from the perspective of the person wronged. However, imagine that you're the person who has done wrong to someone else, thereby harming him. What should you do now? How can you prove to that person that you're not as bad as you seemed at that time? What should you do if the other person isn't willing to hear you out?
Question: Why are subpoenas justified but not compulsory juries? In your 15 May 2011 webcast, you contrasted your position on jury duty with that of Dr. Peikoff's, saying that compulsory jury duty constituted the initiation of force. My understanding is that Ayn Rand's position was that subpoenas and the jury selection process are entirely consistent with justice, as Peikoff mentions in this podcast. Juries are selected using subpoenas. How would you reconcile being for subpoenas but against compulsory jury duty? And, does this also mean that you disagree with Ayn Rand's view of justice?
Question: Is revenge ever moral? In a famous song, singer Carrie Underwood describes trashing her boyfriend's truck after she finds out that he cheated on her. Is it ever moral to seek out revenge like this on someone who has lied to you or has done something for which there are no real legal repercussions? What are the limits of moral revenge, if any?
Question: Why is receiving the counsel of an attorney a right while receiving health care is not? In both cases, you would receive something that you need for free from the state. So what's the difference, if any? Why should a repeat offender have access to free legal counsel at taxpayer expense while an innocent, law-abiding sick person shouldn't receive life-saving medication or treatment at taxpayer expense? In the former case, the criminal might lose his liberty, but in the latter case the sick person might die. So what I am missing?
Summary: This podcasts consists of two impromptu tidbits from my April 6th, 2011 appearance at Liberty on the Rocks in Denver. The first is on the factual basis for rights, and the second concerns the Rawlsian argument from luck against capitalism.
Question: Is it morally wrong to be a free rider? Some people say that it's wrong to be a free rider – for example, by sneaking into a movie without paying for it, using a gas station bathroom without buying anything, accepting a ride to the airport but refusing to return the favor, hiking on trails in your community without helping to maintain them, or enjoying the Christmas lights of your neighbors without putting up your own. In such cases, you seem to be enjoying a benefit from someone else that you've not paid for or earned. Isn't that unjust, and hence, morally wrong?
Question: What is the best way to cut someone out of one's life? When ending a friendship with someone is one obliged to give them reasons or is a simple "I no longer want to have a friendship with you" sufficient? What if the person would not accept the reasons or maybe even be driven to revenge or depression by such an action?
Question: Is forgiveness necessary? Religious connotations aside, popular psychology often tells us that we must forgive those who have hurt us, even if they are no longer in our lives. It's "healthy". Is forgiveness really necessary to emotional healing? Should I forgive, if the offending party hasn't recognized his/her fault?
Question: Does a rational person feel regret over past mistakes? Clearly it is most productive to focus on the positive: What can you learn from your mistakes? Etc. Does this mean regret can be eliminated? What do you make of people who say they never have any regrets?
Question: Would you recommend buying Nathaniel Branden's Vision of Ayn Rand or not? Given Nathaniel Branden's history of dishonest attacks on Ayn Rand and Objectivism, would you recommend that anyone buy this book? (It's the book version of his "Basic Principles of Objectivism" course.) I've thought about buying it, but I don't want to support that man in any way.
Question: I have an object in my possession that I stole almost 20 years ago. Finding the rightful owner and returning it is impossible. What should I do? I once lived in a large, very old apartment building, with a bike room in the basement, where residents were supposed to keep their bicycles. The room was virtually unused, as residents tended to keep theirs in their apartments. There were many dusty old unused bikes in there. I cut the lock off one, got new tires for it (the old ones were flat and brittle) and used it frequently while I lived there. I rationalized that a) it was probably abandoned (although I didn't know that, really) and b) the owner was always free to call security, have my lock cut off, and reclaim his bike. When I moved away, a couple years later, I kept the bike. Clearly I shouldn't have done so, and I would never do such a thing today. Should I just donate the bike to charity and move on? This is really bothering me.
Question: Would it be wrong to steal from a thief? If an individual were placed in a position where they could steal from a con-man or a common burglar, and they did, would their decision to steal from a thief be moral or immoral and why?
Question: In the essay "Racism" in The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand mentions that public institutions and government agencies should not discriminate against or on behalf of individuals. In her talk of private property, however, she says that government should not attempt to prevent private racism in private establishments and that a man's rights are not violated by a private individual's refusal to deal with him. My question is: How are his rights not violated if the owner discriminates against him?
Question: Is it proper to date a girl who smokes pot? This woman, while not being an Objectivist, has many great qualities like being smart, attractive, funny, pro-reason and pro-man in general. She, however, likes to smoke marijuana. She says that it provides a great pleasure and relaxes her body and mind after a long day of work. What should I do about it? Confront her? Immediately break up with her?
Question: Why are some people such jerks on the internet? Some seemingly decent people become downright malicious bastards on the internet, particularly when posting anonymously. Why is that? What does such behavior say about a person's moral character? How can a person keep his manners, his benevolence, and his cool in full force when online?
Question: How can I judge people more efficiently? It would be helpful to be more efficient in judging whether certain individuals are appropriate for a friendship. Sometimes it takes me a long time to decide whether I would like to be friends with someone or not. It takes me even longer to decide whether I would like to be in a romantic relationship with someone. How can I speed this process up? What are some key factors that might help me make these types of decisions more efficiently?
Question: How does one properly judge a person's actions and ideas? I've read that one can judge a person's ideas as good or evil based on whether they are true or false, respectively. I've also read/heard that it's usually better to judge a person's actions since people often aren't very exact in their ideas and in what they say. Should you judge a persons ideas or actions? Or both? And, what is the proper way to judge a person's ideas and actions?
Question: How do you judge people of mixed premises? Many people are of "mixed" premises. How does one develop close and personal friendships or pursue long-term, serious, romantic relationships when many people are not consistently rational or moral? How does one judge such people objectively as to their worthiness for friendship or as a potential romantic interest?
Question: Is revenge moral or not? Is it wrong to want to hurt people who have hurt you? It is wrong to make them hurt?
Question: Is toleration (or tolerance) a virtue?
Question: Are all cultures equal? How can you prohibit or restrict anyone's cultural norms or say they're better or worse than our culture? Is there an objective barometer by which this can be achieved?
Question: How should we judge NFL quarterback Michael Vick? As an animal lover, I was appalled when the NFL allowed Michael Vick to play pro football again after his dog-fighting episodes. But now that he's doing well, part of me wants to cheer for him, telling myself that he's a "reformed man who deserves a second chance". Is that rational of me? How do we know if someone has truly turned over a new leaf morally after prior bad acts?
Question: Are people who abuse their pets immoral? Or: Should we think ill of someone for neglecting or abusing their pets? If so, why?
Question: Would it be ethical for a public relations practitioner to work for a client whose activities, while legal, potentially damage others--e.g., defend cigarette/alcohol companies, or fast food producers, or asbestos manufacturers?
Question: If you were physically abused as a child, but have grown up and "gotten over it," is it still reasonable to demand justice if only in the form of refusing to deal with the abuser?
Question: Objectivists seem to be disagreeing a lot recently about some hot button issues. Do you have any principles to suggest on how to best handle such disagreements?
Question: How would you treat an adult child who wishes to move back home after a history of poor self-control and irresponsible choices?
Question: What are your thoughts on people who complain about their problems but never pursue to solve them, or, worse, actively evade and ignore solutions that confront them? E.g. a student who complains about his budget but continues to spend irrationally.
Summary: I answer two questions – one on the morality of accepting an inheritance and another on a moral conflict about doing agreed-upon work when that promotes Islam on the anniversary of 9/11.