Summary: In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of cultivating virtues by repeatedly doing certain actions in certain ways. However, he never clearly explains the relationship between a person's thoughts, emotions, actions, and character. So, we must ask: What is character? How is a person's character formed? And what is the role of character in a person's life? This lecture draws on my dissertation, now published as Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame, to answer these criticial practical questions of ethics. This lecture was originally given at SnowCon in March 2011, then re-recorded in April 2011.
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: What does the term "inductive" mean? What is the distinction (if any) between some claim being "inductive" versus (1) ad hoc, (2) non-systematic, (3) disintegrated, (4) anecdotal, and (5) empirical? Basically, what is the proper meaning of the term "inductive"?
Question: Does being rational mean having faith in reason? I'm a high school student in a religious school. Many of my classmates claim that my belief in a knowable reality, science, and reason is merely a form of faith. So how can a person validate his own reason and senses? How can a person know that they are reliable means of knowing reality – unless he uses them and thereby engages in circular reasoning? My classmates claim that God is the only way out of this puzzle: God checks our reasoning by verifying and opposing our various conclusions. How can I respond to their arguments effectively?
Question: How can I convince myself, deep-down, that God does not exist? I was raised Catholic, although I was never deeply religious. Now, many years later, a friend is showing me Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. I can see its benefits, but my religious upbringing still lingers in the back of my head. So part of me still thinks that God exists, even though I don't really believe that any longer. It was just engrained in me from such a young age that I can't seem to let it go. Can I change that? If so, how?
Question: When would suicide be rational? What conditions make suicide a proper choice? Are there situations other than a terminal illness or living in a dictatorship – such as the inability to achieve sufficient values to lead a happy life – that justify the act of suicide?
Question: What is the relationship between empathy and morality? Must a person possess a strong sense of empathy to be moral? Is empathy an important quality of character or moral emotion – or the most important? What's the role of empathy in a rational person's life?
Question: What must I do to reach certainty about a course of action? Suppose that I'm being careful in my thinking about a practical matter – perhaps about how to solve a problem at work, whether to move to a new city, whether to marry my girlfriend, or whether to cut contact with a problem friend. When can I say that I'm certain – or at least justified in acting on my conclusions? Given my personality type (INTP), I tend to leave questions open for far too long, when really, at some point, I need to close them. Are there any general guidelines or principles around figuring out what that point of closure should be? Even then, when should I revisit my conclusions, if ever?
Question: Is "common sense" a form of rationality? Wikipedia defines "common sense" as "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts." Is that a form of rationality? What's the value of such common sense? Should a rational person rely on common sense in moral decision-making?
Question: How should I respond to my morally corrupt sister? My 20 year old sister is morally destitute. She is an unapologetic shoplifter. Her justifications amount to things like: "My shoplifting is not an addiction because I can stop anytime I want to," "everyone does it," "companies account for shoplifters in their business plans so they mark prices higher to compensate for it," "I'd never steal from a friend," "I need to steal while I look young and can get away with it because no one suspects me," etc. Over the years she has stolen hundreds if not thousands of dollars from our parents, too. She lies and cheats frequently. She's accepted money in return for writing a paper for a friend. She knows what she does is "wrong," and she maintains that such is better than not knowing, at least. (That makes no sense, I know.) I also just found out that she's selling marijuana because, as she says, she needs a way to support her expensive taste in clothes and makeup. She has no integrity or moral conscience. She doesn't care about my horror at her behavior. She does not respond to reason. Part of me wants to help her by trying to talk sense into her. I care about her, and I want her to be a healthy person and not have a miserable life. Another part of me wants to forget her and let her ruin herself. Yet I don't want to stand by and watch that happen, and I also know that there's only so much I can do to really help her. What is the rational thing to do?
Question: Should a person cultivate his powers of self-control? What is self-control? Is strong capacity for self-control of value? Does self-control have a downside or limits? How can a person develop more self-control?
Question: Is an armed society a polite society – or a violent society? Author Robert Heinlein famously said that "An armed society is a polite society." Many liberals, however, fear an armed society as barbaric and violent. Is widespread ownership and/or carry of arms a positive or a negative feature of a society?
Question: When is a relationship broken beyond repair? Relationships can be severely strained, fraught with anger and frustration, and perhaps put on ice for weeks or months or years. Yet in the end, the two people can often reconcile in some way, so that they can enjoy a genuine (even if not deep) relationship again. In some cases, however, that's not possible. Why not? In such cases, must the problem be that one person (or both people) continue to behave badly? Or might reconciliation be impossible between two good people? If so, why?
Question: Can the consistent practice of wrong ideas lead to mental illness? Often, the most consistent practitioners of an ideology – such as Naziism or Islam – seem to become increasingly unhinged over time. Does fully embracing a fantasy-based ideology entail or encourage mental illness, such as paranoia and delusions? If so, are such people then not responsible for what they say or do?
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: How should a person respond when pressured to reveal private information? Some people think themselves entitled to know about the private lives of their co-workers, acquaintances, family, or friends. They won't take a hint, and they might even demand the information in front of other people or in a public forum. How should a person who wishes to protect his privacy respond to such invasive inquiries? Is lying justifiable?
Summary: Many people struggle with difficult decisions about complex medical problems as they near the end of their lives. That time is wrenching for family too. How can people make good decisions about medical care? What mistakes should they try to avoid? How can people prepare for that future now?
Question: Should a person allow his ideology to set his default positions? When people adopt a religion, philosophy, or politics as their own, they often don't think through every issue - or they've not done so yet. Does accepting the various positions of that ideology as a kind of default amount to accepting them on faith? What should a person do when he hasn't thought through the issue for himself?
Question: What is mysticism? Is mysticism distinct from religion, faith, and belief in the supernatural? Can a person be non-religious but mystical? Can a person be religious but non-mystical?
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: What is the proper role of deductive reasoning? Is it proper, for example, to deduce the principles of intellectual property from the more general principles of individual rights? Or is that rationalism? More generally, when and how should a person use deduction as opposed to induction?
Question: Are psychic powers bunk? A friend convinced me to join him in visiting a psychic for a tarot card reading. Although I am opposed to mysticism, I didn't mind going and thought it would be funny. I was surprised to find this psychic knew things about me that (while vague) were very accurate descriptors, and could not have been known from my appearance (nor prior knowledge since it was an impromptu visit). It seems highly unlikely they could have guessed (and have guessed so accurately) correct character traits, issues and feelings. Is this evidence in favor of psychic powers? Or have I been misled?
Question: How can a person be certain of his own objectivity? It's often difficult to stick to the facts in reasoning, and it's even harder to make sure that you're focused on all and only the relevant facts. How can a person know that he's being objective – as opposed to relying on unwarranted assumptions, ignoring relevant facts, or rationalizing what he wants to be true?
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: How should a person respond to another's irrational discussion tactics? What should one do when engaged in an intellectual conversation with someone where you're trying to advance your ideas, but the other person has irrational, or even outright dishonest conversation techniques? Such techniques include frequent interruption, talking over you, giving arbitrary time limits for answers before arbitrarily ending the conversation or moving on, and so forth. All of these tactics make it difficult to fully explicate your position or even get full sentences out. In a one-on-one, unobserved conversation, I know it's obvious that one should simply not deal with this person, for they're obviously not listening if they utilize these habits so regularly and frequently. So my main concern is in those cases when you happen to be talking to an irrational conversationalist where other people are observing, such as in a classroom or meeting where you might want to continue the conversation in hopes of reaching the audience instead. In such cases, what should one do?
Question: Am I obliged to disclose that I am gay if I know that the person then wouldn't wish to do business with me? Let's say that I have a job that I enjoy, but I find out that my boss does not like gay people and would refuse to hire or would fire anyone that she knew was gay. Somehow, she doesn't know that I am, in fact, gay. Should I tell her knowing that she would want to fire me – a decision that I think is wrong, but nonetheless something she should be free to do? Assume that in every other regard I enjoy my work and job, and sharing her discriminatory view is by no means a requirement for my work.
Question: Did Ayn Rand regard women as inferior to men? I admire Ayn Rand, and I've used her philosophy in my business and personal life, but I disagree with her view of women. In her article "About a Woman President," Ayn Rand said that "For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship – the desire to look up to man. 'To look up' does not mean dependence, obedience or anything implying inferiority." Yet her view seems to imply inferiority in practice: Rand says that no woman should aspire to be U.S. President because that would put her in the psychologically unbearable position of not having any man to look up to. So, does Rand's view imply that women are inferior to men? What is the factual basis of her view, if any? Do you agree with her?
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 possessiveness wrong in a romantic relationship? I have a drawback: I'm extremely possessive. I expect that the person who loves and understands me – he being the only one who understands me – should be mine and only mine. I can accept other women in his life and contain my jealousy on the condition that he reveals to me every single of them who was, is, or will be. But he should love me the most. And I expect that he should stay with me till the end and that we spend the last days together reflecting on the past and life. Am I wrong in expecting all that from my partner? If so, what can I do to change?
Question: What is the problem with and solution to perfectionism? Lately, I've realized that I might have a problem with "perfectionism" – meaning that I hold myself to unrealistically high standards in some areas of my life. For example, I feel like I should be much more productive, to the point of being unrealistic about what I can do in a day. What's the basic error of such perfectionism? And what can I do to overcome it?
Question: What's wrong with being pragmatic? My dictionary defines being pragmatic as "dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations." What's wrong with that, if anything? Is that the same as "pragmatism"?
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: How can a person regain his rationality in the face of overwhelming emotions? On occasion, I find my rational judgment swamped by strong emotions like anger and anxiety. In such cases, my thinking seems distorted by my emotions. While in the grip of such emotions, what can I do to re-establish my powers of rational thought? Also, how can I prevent myself from saying or doing things that I'll later regret?
Question: How do I know that I'm reasoning based on facts, rather than just being driven by my emotions? Often, I feel strong emotions on some personal or political issue. How do I know that I'm not rationalizing what I want to be true?
Question: Is it irrational to be "crazy in love" with your boyfriend or girlfriend – such as wanting to keep an old shirt and other discarded items? Does it matter whether the relationship is in an early or later stage?
Question: Do our genes affect our reasoning? Evolution makes fruit taste sweet and burning human flesh smell awful. Presumably, evolution can hard wire pleasures and pains because interaction with that thing has caused our ancestors to live longer or die earlier. Wouldn't this same process make certain actions easier or more difficult, such as sacrificing yourself to save your child versus watching your child die? Couldn't evolution affect that decision by making focus more difficult, so that a person is easier impelled by his immediate emotions?
Question: Why do some people of faith survive and even flourish? If reason is required for life, and faith abdicates reason, then how can anyone who has faith live and prosper? In particular, how do some devoutly religious people manage to be so productive and creative in business?
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: How do you change from being an emotionalist to being rational? I have the tendency to reminisce on fantasies and memories of martyrdom. I do it because it gives me a emotional surge of ecstasy and heartache. For example, I fantasize about telling the people who mistreated me so badly in Army Basic Training about what that was like for me. This indulgence is costing me my mind. I want to be emotionally competent. Any advice on how to be level-headed lucid/rational thinker, and stop the habit of indulging my emotions?
Question: Is it rational to do silly things? A friend of mine (non-Objectivist) quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein: "If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done." So she thinks it's alright and rational to do silly things once in a while. ... Would it be rational to do silly things consciously (in lab, for instance) in the hope that you might end up discovering / inventing something new?
Question: Is it moral to be sentimental? Some dictionaries define sentiment as an attitude based on emotion rather than reason. Is this accurate? Would it then be moral or rational to be sentimental? For example, would it be moral or rational to: (1) Hold on to your favorite childhood toys when you are an adult (assuming you have the space for them), even if they don't carry the same meaning for you now but they bring about good memories and feelings? (2) Keep old love letters or pictures of friends that you are not on speaking terms with (but were, at one time, good friends with) because they remind you of "the good times"?
Question: Is it ever rational to rely on a "gut" feeling? More than once I have dismissed feelings that a person is not trustworthy, if I couldn't find a rational basis for them. Every time my initial instinct was proven to be accurate. Is it possible that I'm picking up on something that I can't consciously identify?
Question: Suppose you were a rational man in a relationship with a less rational woman, how would you handle your girlfriend's ever-expanding irrational behavior?
Question: Which mind-altering or mood-altering substances are rational to take? (alcohol, caffeine, marijuana, etc.) And what principles do you apply in deciding?
Question: Is it possible to think too much? And where does one draw the line between necessary thinking and overthinking? Objectivists are people who take ideas seriously; they are intellectually inclined (as far as I can discern) and spend a lot of time "inside the mind." With all this emphasis on rationality, thinking, introspection, analysis, judgment, reading, etc., how does one avoid the frustration or sense of "analysis paralysis" and ultimately depression that ensues from all this deep thinking and focus on ideas. For example, I've heard numerous people in forums or in letters to Dr. Peikoff state that they are depressed about the state of current politics, our culture, etc. What principles or general rules does one use to put the breaks on all the deep thinking and just chill out, "live and let live," and stop one from becoming crazy. Meditation? Get drunk? (Kidding). On a personal note, I've found that it is necessary for me to literally suppress my thinking and let myself drift into an out of focus state in order to maintain a sense of serenity necessary to get through the day.
Question: What is the proper etiquette in regards to dealing with a deeply irrational person you have to deal with temporarily? Especially when his irrationality interferes with your value pursuits to some extent.
Question: How would you treat an adult child who wishes to move back home after a history of poor self-control and irresponsible choices?
Summary: I answer two questions on whether people are obliged to respect the rules of property owners to the letter.
Summary: I discuss two books: Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo and Dr. Morton Cooper's Change Your Voice, Change Your Life. Then I examine the moral significance of a story from the latter book in which a person struggling to solve a major problem for a very long time rejected a simple solution thereto.