The central questions of philosophy

Donald asked:

Do you agree with Professor Roger Scruton that “there are no ‘central questions’ of philosophy”? (Modern Philosophy, p. ix).

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I completely see where this is coming from. Just compare Roger Scruton’s book with, e.g. Ayer The Central Questions of Philosophy. (Both books can be found in the Pathways Introductory book list.)

As it happens, Scruton taught me when I was an undergraduate at Birkbeck during 1972-6. He was highly respected as a teacher, and fondly regarded even by those whose political views were very much more to the left of Scruton’s brand of conservative philosophy.

I credit Scruton in particular with exciting my interest in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and F.H. Bradley.

The first point to make is that if you are going to write a book on philosophy with lots of chapters (lots of topics!) you need to make a statement explaining why you didn’t narrow down your choice. This is what authors do in a Preface. Scruton’s philosophical interests are broad, if not encyclopaedic. However, it is fair to say that the emphasis is more on the practical and social significance of philosophy.

Philosophy can be many different things, the one uniting thread according to Scruton is the analytic method. That’s something Scruton and I agree on. What he taught us was respect for philosophers who are underappreciated by the analytic tradition.

How do we differ? I see metaphysics as being the core of philosophy, so its problems are for me the ‘central problems of philosophy’. For Scruton, aesthetics, moral psychology, social and political philosophy are equally if not more ‘central’.

So what use is there in trying to identify the central questions of philosophy? Is there a point in doing so? If you look at the pages of Ask a Philosopher going back to 1999 (when I was the only person answering the questions) you will see an incredibly broad range of questions, covering every aspect of human life and endeavour.

And yet, there do seem to be a just a few, constant threads that connect many of these. One thread is the question of human knowledge and how views about about every kind of belief can be justified. What counts as knowledge? when is an argument for a knowledge claim valid? Another thread concerns the questions of metaphysics, such as the nature of causality or time (which is also, as it happens, a question in the philosophy of physics). Another thread connects metaphysics with problems of logic and language, looking at the concepts of truth, existence, meaning.

Which of these threads you identify as being of particular importance says something about you as a philosopher. As does the refusal to make such a judgement.

So I am with Ayer, in his quest for the central or ultimate questions of philosophy, but also with Scruton with his emphasis on the amazingly broad sweep of philosophical questions.


Locke’s view on just/ legitimate government

Chun Lok asked:

In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he outlines his overall political philosophy. Explain Locke’s view as to what a just and legitimate government is.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

According to Locke, what constitutes a just and legitimate government is one which is based upon the consent of the people and which governs wholly in the common interest. People originally exist in a State of Nature prior to the passage to Political or Civic Society.

State of Nature

Locke proposes three factors which characterise the State of nature. Firstly, there is Freedom. The individual can order its actions without the leave of any other person or authority. Secondly, there is Equality. Each person has the same Power and jurisdiction precluding the rule of a select few or individuals based on claims of nature or Divine Right. Finally, what normatively justifies the above and guides people in this condition is Natural Law/ Right.

“The state of nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone and reason (which is that Law) which teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that all being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions, for men being the work of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are His property whose workmanship they are made to last during his, and not another’s pleasure.” (#6)

Natural Law prevents the rather bestial view of the state of Nature as espoused by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan. Although Hobbes would equally maintain that there are Natural Laws, he held human nature to be too strong to observe and be restricted by them. Hence for him, the State of Nature is identical with a State of War.

Luckily for Locke, the State of Nature and its Natural Law appears to be a Christian one which is guided by Scriptural law concerning the preservation of Life, Liberty and Estates and the right of punishment for their violations. Every individual has this right, the right to punish offenders being termed the Executive Power of Natural Law. (#7) Although everyone has the right to do this, not every one, despite the equal possession of Natural Law/ Reason, agrees on the appropriate punishments. The State of nature increasingly becomes unsafe as ‘the greater part do not apply nor recognise equity and justice. Some are ignorant of the apparently apodictic teachings of Natural Law and allow their passions to cloud their judgements. As there is no consistent application of the Natural Law, it increasingly becomes evident that it might be a good idea if there could be an Impartial authority which could disinterestedly and impartially apply the Law (#131)

Despite the obvious disagreement between people concerning Natural Law, an agreement is to be reached to find a common and consistent application of Natural Law with each other. To achieve this, a Compact is composed, agreed upon and made with each other. This Compact requires that each and every one give up their right to execute the Natural Law. They further agree that this executive power shall be pooled together to be put at the disposal of the community — or at least, those who have managed to agree to the Compact. Thus the State of Nature is suspended and a Civic or Political Society is arrived at.

“Men, being… by nature free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and be subject to the political power of another, without his own consent, which Is done by agreeing with other men to join and unite in a community for their comfortable, safe and peaceable living, one amongst another in a secure enjoyment of their properties and in a greater security against any that are not of it.” (#95)

Civic or Political Society

Note the Compact is made between people and not between the people and a government. The people are bound to each other and not a govt. This then allows the people to decide on the type and nature of a political power to govern them, make laws to this end and, to invest their trust in it.

“Political Power then, I take to be the right of making laws with penalties of death and consequently all less penalties for the regulation and preservation of property and, of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws and in defence of the Commonwealth from foreign injury and all this only for the defence of the common good.” (#3)

The end and justification of a Government is ‘for the defence of the Common Good’. As there is no compact made between the governed and their government, the former can enact their Natural Law and rebel against government, whatever its form, if it ceases to defend the common good. So on Locke’s view, illegitimate government can never arise on the grounds of de jure — of legal and moral right. If such a government does arise, it has departed from moral right, positions itself outside the Moral Law and ipso facto, the People have the right of not obeying it and more importantly, of outright rebellion to replace it.

So a ‘just and legitimate’ government is one which is based upon Natural Law. By means of its laws, institutions, it must internally and externally observe and defend the right of its peoples’ to life, liberty and property. Government exists at the consent of the People and not vice versa. This is quite a revolutionary declaration that Government should be the servant of the people: that the People are sovereign in terms of the justification of the very existence of Political Society.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Politically, the Two Treatises was written in response to the political crisis in England in the 1680’s. The Monarch was inching toward a restoration of Absolute Powers which had been overthrown in the English Revolution of the 1640’s. Many personages feared such a reactionary move would prescribe their liberties and property. The Treatises, in particular the Second, justify and promulgate such liberties. Further, elements and influences of the Second Treatise can be found in the republican Constitution of the United States of America viz: ‘Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness and arguably the right of the People to bear arms in the interest of morally justified rebellion against a usurping government and for the protection of liberty.

As such, Locke can be regarded as one of the philosophical authors of what would later be termed Liberalism. This is viewed as a just and legitimate society by many. The problems Locke reflected upon still remain contentious issues today such as what can be understood as the liberty of citizens and, by what means or none, government could or should defend them. This relevance is further exemplified by his chapter on Property. Here, Locke gives numerous justifications for the recognition, justification and protection of private property. Numerous commentators (such as CB MacPherson in his The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism) perceive this as an ideological defence of private property of the then emerging capitalism. Hence Locke can be regarded as an early defender of Capitalist Liberties and Property rights: a just and legitimate society for some, unjust and illegitimate for others. The debates initiated the Two Treatises on Government continues.


Good and bad arguments vs non-arguments

Zhoravlik asked:

Regarding valid/ invalid deductive arguments.

Ex 1:

P1 Grass is green
P2 Paris is the capital of France
C Poodles are dogs

How is this ‘deductively’ valid (or invalid) since no claim of inference is being made? Or for that matter, how can it be considered an ‘argument’ at all if what is meant by an argument is an attempt at persuasion? A series of unrelated but true statements placed together in ‘argument’ form do not make a deductive argument if that is the intent. It isn’t a bad argument either, a bicycle isn’t a car even if the speaker wants it to be. No one in the real world would seek to persuade by forming such an ‘argument’. Please give an example of invalid argument with true premises and true conclusions that is not nonsense.

And whatever you give, let that argument fail on logic not knowledge.

Ex 2:

P1 Atoms are tiny
P2 The smallest particles of hydrogen gas are tiny
C Therefore the smallest particles of hydrogen gas are atoms

This is invalid based on the counterexample of oxygen gas in place of hydrogen gas. But the difference between the two is that we have knowledge of of oxygen gas as a molecule, not that the logical form is wrong (?)

We use knowledge as the basis to make true statements to form valid arguments, but the knowledge may be flawed, does that mean that logic is?

Answer by Craig Skinner

I will say what an argument is, distinguish a deductive from an inductive one, distinguish the three features of a good deductive argument, then answer the queries you raise.

An argument is a movement of thought in which a series (one or more) propositions (premises, Ps) warrant a final one (conclusion, C).

Arguments can be deductive, inductive or abductive. I wont say any more about the last two, except that they are not logically watertight, lacking the logical feature of entailment which is intended in a deductive argument.

A deductive argument has the intended feature that the Ps logically entail the C. If the Ps are true, the C must be true. It is impossible for the Ps to be true and the C false. The C is a logical inference from the Ps.

A good deductive argument is:

* valid

* sound

* persuasive

Let’s deal with each:

Validity: the C does follow from the Ps. The logic is correct, the intended feature (entailment) is present. This is decidable from the form of the argument. No knowledge of the world is needed.


P1 All As are Bs
P2 All Bs are Cs
C All As are Cs

A useful way to see this (and other deductive arguments) is Venn diagrams: make a small circle (the As); make a bigger circle around it (the Bs); then a yet bigger circle around the Bs (the Cs). You can now see that if all As are Bs and all Bs are Cs then all As are Cs.

Notice that validity says nothing of truth, the Ps may be true or false, the C true or false. Validity only guarantees is that if the Ps are true, then the C is definitely true.

Soundness: the C is true because the Ps are true and the argument valid. In short, a sound argument is a valid one with true Ps, so that the C can be relied on. These are the arguments we want in real life (including philosophy).

Persuasiveness: this is not just a question of arguments of course (flattery, threats, bribes, images, endorsement by authority or a celebrity may all make a poor argument more persuasive). However an argument is more likely to be persuasive, especially to a critical, impartial listener, if it is sound, short and simple. As an aside, Lewis Carroll dreamed up ‘fun’ arguments with, say, twenty connected Ps, so that long before the C one had completely lost the thread.

Now to the points you raise:

Your Ex 1 could be called a non-argument (as you suggest) or else a very bad one (invalid, unsound, unpersuasive). The fact that it’s set out with Ps and C, and that the C implicitly, as in all arguments, starts with an unstated ‘Therefore’, inclines me to call it a very bad argument.

You ask for an invalid argument with true Ps and true C. Here is one:

P1 Poodles are mammals
P2 Dogs are mammals
C Poodles are dogs

Make a Venn diagram: in the circle for mammals are two smaller circles, one for dogs, one for poodles. But, from what is said in the Ps, these little circles needn’t connect or overlap. In short, if As are Bs and Cs are Bs, we can’t say whether or not any As are Cs.

This argument fails on logic, not on knowledge, as you asked. In fact the knowledge, that all poodles really are dogs, just gets in the way of seeing the invalidity.

Your Ex 2 is invalid. It has the same form as my above example i.e. As are B and Cs are B, and it doesn’t follow that Cs are As. Again draw a Venn diagram. The invalidity, to repeat, is a logical notion, decidable from the form of the argument without reference to the world, so that knowledge about oxygen isn’t needed and isn’t what makes the argument invalid. Substituting ‘oxygen’ for ‘hydrogen’ simply illustrates that the argument is flawed. Substituting more familiar terms is often an alternative to a Venn diagram in illustrating validity/invalidity. For example, the following has the same form as your Ex 2 and helps convince us of its invalidity:

P1 Ants are tiny
P2 Dust specks are tiny
C Dust specks are ants

You talk about knowledge being flawed, and could logic be flawed.

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘flawed’ knowledge. Certainly, some of the things we take as knowledge turn out to be untrue (mere gossip, misleading appearances or deceit, say). Or knowledge may be incomplete. But knowledge by definition is true.

As regards logic being flawed, I think we can take it for all practical purposes, including argumentation, that classical logic is correct. Paraconsistent Logic holds that classical logic is incomplete because some contradictions are true, but that’s a wholly different matter and irrelevant to your question.

In conclusion, distinguish validity (a purely logical matter of entailment), soundness (combines validity with truth) and persuasiveness (a practical, pragmatic matter); and, if unsure about validity, use Venn diagrams to picture all Xs are Ys, some Ys are Zs etc.


Where is time?

Kelwin asked:

Where is time?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Wrong question. Time is not anywhere. Rather, it is an abstract name we give to the sum of all occurrences in the universe.

To follow this, conceive of the universe as a space with contents, all of them motionless objects. It is hard to envision this, because (for a start) there could be no stars. But as it happens, there is a also a residual potential in the objects, as some of them possess characteristics which conflict with the characteristics of their neighbours. For ease of reference, think of magnets which can either attract or repel each other. If two such objects physically repel each other, there is evidently something happening that will have consequences. Namely that each is going to be propelled into a different neighbourhood, where the same thing might happen again.

What you witness here is a succession of events. In due course, many of these will occur simultaneously; but on the whole the nature of succession is such that some events occur before and others after those which are simultaneous. Further, as the objects in the universe range from extremely small to extremely large, the succession of events is complicated by the duration which objects of different magnitude require to complete a specific occurrence.

We humans possess an innate sense of succession, based on the fact that as we age, our bodies keep changing. In addition, we have to make many voluntary changes of locality, some of which may take us a long way from home — such as shopping for food. While we do this, many other people do things at the same time, others have already done and yet others will do later.

As we humans are social creatures and also depend on many occurrences in the natural world for the organisation of our lives, we started looking at ways of assessing all the events which we can witness, in terms of human events. Some occur in the blinking of an eyelid or the flash of a lightning; others may transpire from sunrise to sunset; yet others in accordance with the seasons; and so on. And now, at some juncture in human history, people set about elaborating a system of occurrences and tied them to these observable natural phenomena. Very recently — after the invention of mechanical clocks — that system acquired the form which we still maintain today: whereby a day is divided into 24 hours, which in turn have 60 minutes, while they each have 60 seconds; and on the other side 7 days a week, 365 days for a set of 4 seasons; as well as some astronomical nomenclatures.

So you can see from this that time is not a thing, nor an event, nor a location: indeed nothing at all. It is a gauge devised by humans to correlate occurrences in the world to make them intelligible to ourselves in terms of past, present and future. In other words, it is a creation of the human intellect. Accordingly it does not make much sense to speak of time as if it were an existent in itself. It is a human invention, and has no relevance to any existent other than ourselves.

So as not to disregard one other issue: Science (still done by humans!) is of course obliged to work on a definition of time which purports to be an absolutely objective. But as we pry deeper and deeper into the subnuclear realm, this brings defects of the system to the fore in the apparent ‘travel backward in time’ of some phenomena. Richard Feynman used to say to his students, ‘don’t worry about it — as long as the equations work out, everything is fine!’ I make mention of this, because time travel is such a fashionable topic today, as if such events could be magnified into our common time scales without being cranked into the succession/simultaneity factor. Whereas (as I said) it simply reveals a flaw in the system; and it helps to understand this simple issue so as to get out of the rut of believing things that don’t pertain or exist, just because some mathematical equation in an almost inconceivably small dimension ‘comes out right’ that way!


God and morality: Euthyphro’s dilemma

Tammy asked:

For the philosopher, ‘because God said so’ is an unsatisfactory answer to the question ‘why is act X moral (or immoral)?’ Why?

Answer by Stuart Burns

For two reasons.

One — it ends all discussion, and inquiry. Since God is, by stipulation, beyond human understanding, it is pointless to enquire any further. And since philosophy is a search for underlying reasons, such an answer stops philosophy cold. Not a result that a philosopher will accept lightly.

Two — it remains afflicted by Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In modern language, it would be cited as ‘Does God command that which is Right/Moral/Good/True, or is Right/Moral/Good/True defined by what God commands’. To choose the first horn of the dilemma means accepting that there is a concept of Right (or Moral, or True, etc) that exists independent of God. And in that case, one can inquire as to what that standard is, and how we can learn about it, and so forth. ‘Because God said so’ is not the end of the inquiry. To choose the second horn of the dilemma means that what God commands (or says, or does) is purely arbitrary from the level of our human understanding. Believers in God do not generally warm to the notion that their God acts arbitrarily, and their moral compass swings with (what appears to us to be) the arbitrary whims of God. In either case, ‘because God said so’ does not resolve the issue, because it does not resolve Euthyphro’s Dilemma.


Answer by Graham Hackett

The idea that an act is moral because God says it is, is an aspect of the Divine Command theory of morality. It seems perfectly reasonable to a committed Christian (I will restrict my remarks to the Christian tradition). After all, we hold that God is omnipotent, the final resort of anyone desperately seeking for two things;

* a guide to the correct thing to do

* some idea as to what makes it the correct thing to do.

So if God says ‘thou shalt not steal’, then that is the correct thing to do, and it is correct because God has said it.

We immediately find ourselves immersed in problems with the divine command theory. God does not appear to have covered everything, and there may be long silences between his utterances. We therefore have the question of interpretation as to exactly what the word of God may be, and we cannot demand that He speak to order, so as to clarify every instance where his Word might apply, and how it might apply if there is to be any variation to fit specific circumstances. God does not fill in the blanks. What we need is some general principle rather than a specific commandment. It would be good if we also had some reason for seeing that this command is moral; some way that motivates us to accept it. Can the divine command theory do this?

Then we have the problem as to whether God’s moral judgements apply to Himself. It might seem intuitively obvious that they will do, because he has spoken them and therefore must think them fitting things to do. But wait a moment. If he is bound by his own Word, then he ceases to be omnipotent. He is no longer the final authority on morality; his past corpus of sayings is the final resort. He is no longer omnipotent. What if we say that His Word applies to all other beings, but does not bind Him? We still get trouble, because it seems that the ground beneath the divine command system is not very firm. Can God contradict Himself? What if he does issue contradictory commands. How would he ever be able to resolve this problem?

We can express this dilemma a little more formally by referring to the so-called Euthyphro Dilemma. Euthyphro is a dialogue written by Plato, and the main character in the dialogue asks the following question;

‘Is an action morally good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally good?’

If we say that an action is morally good because God commands it, then we preserve His sovereignty but make him appear arbitrary. If we say that God commands something because it is morally good then we remove the arbitrary element at the expense of saying that there is something else (ethical standards) which he is bound by, which removes His sovereignty and also his free will.

There does not appear to be a principled answer to this question without arbitrarily (like God Himself) making stipulations. We need not go into the enormous body of debate by the Medieval Schoolmen in order to understand the favoured reaction from theologians anxious to preserve the divine sovereignty of God. This reaction is that the nature of God is that he has Goodwill, which means that we can opt for saying that his word is morality, and this morality is grounded in his goodwill, and not therefore arbitrary. This however, just seems like the Divine Sovereignty advocates just saying what they have to say in order to preserve the theory.

I maintain (and this my own view) that there is a principled answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, but it would involve God having to share some of his sovereignty with his subjects. This might be the system proposed by Kant, where he allows humans to have a good will, which is intrinsically good in itself, not just for the good ends it might achieve. And in addition to this, Kant also suggests that humans can internalise and universalise laws and make them generally applicable. We can treat others as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end. We can belong to a kingdom of ends, in which we legislate for universal laws, binding ourselves as well as others. There is nothing in Kant which means that we can have no place for God. As Kant himself said,

‘Only two things inspire awe, the starry sky above and the moral law within.’

This seems a defensible piece of theology to me, but of course, I would not wish to seem to be offering God advice.


Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

The best way I can think of to answer that question is to tell you a story. Imagine that it is the year 399 BCE or thereabouts. We are in Athens, walking beside one of the greatest figures of Western civilization, the philosopher Socrates. As it happens, Socrates is on his way to the Agora, the main gathering place for citizens in ancient Athens. He is not going there for commerce, nor to engage in a discussion with one of his pupils. Rather, Socrates has been summoned on urgent business at the Royal Stoa, the office of King Archon. The reason for the summons is that a young Athenian named Meletus, whom Socrates hardly knows, has charged the philosopher with impiety (disrespect for the gods and general immorality) and of corrupting the Athenian youth. As we learn from one of Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedo, Socrates’s defense (described in detail in another Platonic writing, the Apology) will fail, and he will be put to death by the Athenian democracy.

But that nefarious day in the history of philosophy is still ahead of us; at the moment, Socrates has encountered an acquaintance, also on his way to the magistrate’s office. The character in question is Euthyphro, which is also the name of a dialogue in which Plato (who was Socrates’s student and Aristotle’s teacher) describes one of the most powerful arguments ever deployed to show that even if gods existed, and contrary to popular perception, they would have no role in how we decide what is moral and what is not. This is a crucial issue, because for most people a main reason for believing in God (or gods) is their feeling that only the supernatural could possibly guarantee the existence of a universal morality, and by implication that only the existence of that sort of moral code provides ultimate meaning to our existence. But if Socrates is right, then the question of the existence of gods is irrelevant to both morality and the quest for meaning in life- which implies that no shortcut based on sacred books will do and we need to do some sort philosophical work to figure things out.

So let’s follow Socrates for a bit longer and see what happens when he encounters Euthyphro. After exchanging greetings as customary, they inquire into each other’s business at the King’s Court. Euthyphro is aghast that someone would file suit against Socrates, but it is Socrates who is more surprised when he finds out Euthyphro’s business: the guy is going to denounce his own father, who accidentally caused the death of a household employee, who had in turn been guilty of murder. Socrates wants to know how Euthyphro can be so certain, judging from his boundless self-confidence, that this is the right course of action for him to take. Euthyphro’s response is that he knows what he is about to do is right because that’s what the gods want. But how, replies Socrates, do you know what the gods want? Completely unperturbed by the obvious irony in Socrates’s question, his interlocutor candidly responds: ‘The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?’

Socrates feigns then much reverence for Euthyphro and declares himself to be the latter’s disciple, so that he too can learn about such important matters. This setup immediately leads the philosopher to ask the obvious question: ‘And what is piety, and what is impiety?’ In modern parlance, this question is about the same as asking what is moral and what is immoral. Euthyphro’s first answer is one that most people would give: ‘Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.’ In other words, gods define what is moral or immoral. This same sort of answer is why so many people are absolutely convinced that morality cannot possibly exist without gods , and that therefore denying the supernatural is equivalent to embracing moral relativism, and from there the distance is short to the conclusion that life is meaningless. But not so fast, says Socrates. He points out to his companion that, according to the stories we hear, the gods often disagree vehemently on what is right or wrong in any particular instance. This, of course, is a problem not just for polytheistic religions but also for monotheistic ones once we realize that the intelligent person ought to ask herself why she should embrace the moral dictates of one particular god rather than those espoused by another god of a competing religion. But Socrates this day is in a good mood, so he lets Euthyphro off that particular hook by postulating that there probably are at least some moral dictates on which all gods would agree (for example, that killing without reason is not permissible). Still, Socrates presses the point by rephrasing the question: ‘The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.’ Let us examine these two alternatives — the horns of what is now known as ‘Euthyphro’s dilemma’ — very carefully. If you understand why the dilemma is so powerful, you will have liberated yourself from the misguided notion so common among humanity that morality and divinity are inextricably entwined.

Consider first the second horn, that something is moral because it is approved by the gods. Rather counterintuitively, this essentially means that morality is arbitrary! If God decides that, say, murder, rape, or genocide are okay, then we would have to assent, regardless of how repugnant such a thought might be or how much our own sense of right and wrong would be offended or crushed by it. Indeed, it is not at all difficult to find perfectly good examples of God’s commandments in various sacred scriptures that no person in his right (moral) mind today would follow, regardless of their alleged divine origin. I’ll leave the reader to do some googling around in order to verify my statement, it isn’t difficult.

Perhaps, then, we should embrace the other horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma and agree that a given action is approved by the gods because it is moral, not the other way around. Except that such an agreement provides only temporary relief. Think of it this way: if God approves of a given action because that action is moral, this means that there is a God-independent standard for morality by which God himself abides. But if that is the case, two astounding conclusions follow: first, we do not need gods to be moral; and second, we now need to figure out how to be moral (which just happens to be the goal of ethics). The surprising outcome of Euthyphro’s dilemma, then, is that the religious believer has to agree that either morality is arbitrary or the divine, even if it exists, has nothing to do with it at all.

Of course, few people like this conclusion the first time they hear it, least of all our good old friend Euthyphro, who tries desperately to escape the horns of the dilemma on which Socrates has managed to impale him. He does not succeed, and his attempts reveal such a poor logic that Socrates pokes a bit of fun at him. Then, as the infinitely patient teacher that he is (or, depending on how you interpret his character, the always sarcastic commentator on society), Socrates tells Euthyphro that they now have to begin the discussion from scratch. But Euthyphro cannot take it anymore, and in one of the most unceremonious hasty retreats ever to appear in Western literature he takes leave of the philosopher by saying, ‘Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now.’

The Euthyphro dialogue was written twenty-four centuries ago, and its conclusion is devastating for the whole idea that divinity and morality are intimately linked.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Just as a footnote, the British philosopher Peter Geach has another take on this. See my 2009 answer, God, ethics and Euthyphro’s dilemma.


Fallacy of ‘we are only human’

Sil asked:

What kind of fallacy is it when someone says ‘we are only human’?

Answer by Maria Blommestijn

If taken as a statement it is obviously true, if it refers to humans not being gods: also true, if it is rhetorical (it probably is), it means we are not perfect and not all our actions will be successfull: true again! You might have an issue with the word ‘only’? That could be seen as stating that creatures more perfect then humans, or that god/ gods actually do exist. And that is only wrong if you happen to be an atheist.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I sense that there is a fallacy, or potential fallacy here.

Let’s say, that you ask me to look after a precious vase while you are away on holiday. While cleaning my study, I carelessly knock the vase over and it smashes into little pieces on the floor. When you discover what has happened, you angrily remonstrate with me.

‘Why didn’t you take more care of my vase?!’

My laconic reply, ‘I’m only human. I occasionally knock things over!’

You have every right to be angry. But what did I say wrong, exactly? I spoke the truth. I am only human. I do occasionally knock things over. We all do. But this wasn’t my vase, it was your vase, so I should have taken special care.

The fact that I am human is true. But it is also irrelevant, with regard to your objection that I didn’t take sufficient care.

What I might have said is something along the following lines. I took exquisite care of your vase, but a bird flew in through the window and knocked it over. That’s a kind of rare event that one can hardly plan for. You couldn’t reasonably have expected me to keep the windows tight shut (in summer!) just in case a bird flew in.

The fallacy in question isn’t exactly a logical fallacy, more a fallacy of informal reasoning. The fact that ‘I am only human’ is a bad excuse for your vase having fallen over, whereas ‘a bird flew in’ is a good excuse.

We are assuming, of course, that in telling you that a bird flew in, I am speaking the truth. Otherwise my excuse would have the same status, in logic, as a valid argument from a false premise.


Do philosophers have a duty to heal human suffering?

Mark asked:

‘A philosopher’s words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.’ (Epicurus). Agree, or disagree?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Yes and no. It all depends on how one conceives of philosophy itself — most certainly a philosophical question! Epicurus surely had a point, which was consistent with much of the ancient Greek tradition in philosophy. Socrates, the Cynics, and the Stoics, would certainly have agreed. They all conceived of philosophy as a type of inquiry into the human condition, and one that had to have practical applications. For Socrates the unexamined life was, famously, not worth living; the Cynics flaunted their minimalist lifestyle as a model for how one should live; and the Stoics developed a series of meditative and spiritual practices built into their general philosophy — practices that turned out to be useful to politicians, generals and emperors, as well as the person in the street.

However, philosophy has always (not just in the form of contemporary academic practice) also been a broader quest for understanding and making sense of the world, a quest — let’s not forget — that span off a number of important fields, beginning of course with the natural sciences, but also, more recently, psychology, and economics.

While Socrates had little use for discussions that stranded too far from what today we would call moral and political philosophy, many of the pre-Socratics (e.g., the atomists) belonged very much to the same intellectual lineage that eventually led to modern science. Even the Stoics developed their versions of logic and physics (by which term they meant, more inclusively, all the natural sciences as well as metaphysics), and were not just concerned with ethics.

Moving closer to modern times, Kant is famous for his disquisitions about the moral law, but he was also instrumental in debates about the nature of science, epistemology, and metaphysics. The same goes for Descartes, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, and many, many others.

Contemporary so-called ‘analytic’ philosophy is admittedly fairly remote from any practical application. It started with philosophers who were very much interested in logic and mathematics, such as Bertrand Russell, and is now one of the dominant ‘traditions’ of philosophical inquiry. Interestingly, while Russell’s technical work is rather abstruse and of relevance largely or exclusively to other philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians, he was also very much concerned with the public use of philosophy, as a tool for ethical reasoning and even political activism.

Epicurus’ analogy with medicine is interesting, but, I think, rather misleading. Medicine, unlike philosophy, is by definition a practical pursuit. Philosophy, as I have argued above, has always been both practical and theoretical, as the ancient Greeks themselves clearly recognized.

So perhaps a better analogy is between philosophy and science, or even better philosophy and mathematics. Some science, as well as some math, is most definitely useful to address human problems. Just think of the innumerable technological applications that have had a (not always positive) impact on our lives.

But it is equally clear upon a moment’s reflection that there is a lot of science, and arguably even more mathematics, that doesn’t have, and likely will never have, any practical import whatsoever. Many scientists and mathematicians spend their entire lives going after decidedly non practical problems, such as establishing whether the foundational stuff of the universe is made of particles or strings, or how to prove abstract conjectures such as Fermat’s famous Last Theorem.

Are these efforts — and the parallel ones of theoretical philosophers — not worthy of our attention and support? That would mean that we are adopting a very limited view of human flourishing, one that is concerned only with the practical problems of living one’s life. But very clearly human beings are interested in much more than that. We pursue knowledge for its own sake, just like we do art and music simply because it enriches our existence. So why not theoretical philosophy?