What is a moral environment?

Jessica asked:

What is a moral environment?

Answer by Paul Fagan

A moral environment, here interchangeable with a moral community or society, for me, should encapsulate both of the qualities of longevity and a shared code of conduct that is agreed by the majority of its inhabitants. Initially this may seem to be an obtuse answer but I will attempt to explain my standpoint.

With regard to longevity, I would not expect an amoral community to be long-lasting. Even if all agreed that the correct code of conduct included lying, thieving and cheating; the element of cooperation that I believe persons need, as beings that intrinsically belong to a community, would not be present. Society would reduce to a few individuals leading lives that are ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

This leaves the problem of just exactly what are the values and practices that inhabitants of a moral environment would need to agree upon. This is very tricky to answer and is an intense area for debate as human beings have a tendency to adhere to differing philosophies.

There is often the tendency to imagine what a moral society would look like by adopting a particular political philosophy and then extrapolating it to all areas of life. Plato’s Republic and John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice represent just two of them. They are often interesting academic activities and quite good reads; but their problem for me is that living persons are often influenced by, what may be termed, ‘cultural relativism’ and would find it difficult to jettison the identity, history and baggage that comes attached with their own culture. I have written on this before and now borrow from my earlier piece entitled ‘The Consequences of Cultural Relativism’:

‘…the culture that a person inhabits, sets norms and standards, that inculcate a person. This may become a ‘mindset’ that a person is either unwilling or unable to reject. This affects many obvious aspects of life such as the clothes persons feel comfortable wearing or the food they prefer: however, it should be appreciated that the process sinks deep into a person’s psyche reaching areas that one may not be aware are affected…it causes problems when assessing whether persons from other cultures have behaved rightly or wrongly. Generally, one’s own inculcated variant of cultural relativism would be expected to encourage criticism of other cultures; with more criticism generated the further a culture is distanced from your own…ideally, the good philosopher should be able to dispense with their own cultural relativism when judging others.’

Hence, cultural relativism discourages the understanding of other environments. To explain, just say a society had practised infanticide as a way of birth control (as attributed to the ancient Spartans by Plutarch in his Life of Lycurgus: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/lycurgus*.html): then most modern persons would consider this to be an immoral society. However, if the majority of inhabitants of this society felt this to be agreeable conduct; and the society in question had flourished for centuries, then it would also seem to contain the longevity that made it a moral society.

Hence, I would conclude that a moral environment is in the eyes of its beholders: which may not be a satisfactory answer for many, but one should understand that we have a high tendency to judge others by our own cultural relativism.

Most good books concerning ethics have sections concerning ‘cultural relativism’, but it is described in greater detail by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy; where one chapter is entitled ‘The Challenge of Cultural Relativism’ (1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill), pp. 15-29).

Define a ‘pen’

Venessa asked:

In philosophy, we got a question and it was: what is a pen? then the second question how do you put a pencil, pen, digital pen in one definition to explain it to a person who has never seen a pen, like give all of these pens in one definition.

I don’t know how to answer it philosophically. I will be grateful if you helped me, thank you.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

You’re confused by the notion that the question, ‘What is a pen?’ might be a philosophical question. But I think what your instructor wants you to do is think logically and conceptually, in the way that philosophers do.

As an exercise. That’s all.

A pen can be a biro, but a biro can also be a weapon — as Jason Bourne brilliantly demonstrates in The Bourne Identity (2002). Does that mean there is really no difference between a pen and a weapon? What sorts of things can be weapons? or pens?

We once had a question, ‘People ask, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but can philosophers answer something as simple as, ‘What is the meaning of a spoon?” You can read Rachel Browne’s answer here:


Your instructor wants you to work the answer out for yourself, so I am not going to answer the question for you. But that should get you thinking.

Is it sometimes OK to jump the queue?

Afser asked:

Is it morally permissible to jump the queue? The situation is: Ken wanted to take a mini-bus. When he reached the bus stop, he found that his friend was in the first position of the queue. His friend let him jump the queue. In fact, there were only ten people waiting for the bus. That is, no one missed the next bus because of Ken’s jumping the queue. Have Ken and his friend acted wrongly?

Can we prove that it’s morally permissible?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Anyone who uses the phrase ‘morally permissible’ with me is likely to get a smack in the face. Who talks that way?

There are things that are fair or unfair, cruel or kind, or polite or impolite, or maybe just OK or not OK. Et cetera. Queue jumping can sometimes be unfair, and not just when the bus is nearly full. Maybe, because of Ken letting his friend go in front, I wasn’t able to get a window seat. I like a window seat and get annoyed when unfairly deprived of one.

Even when it’s not unfair to queue jump, it is seen as impolite. People have quite a refined sense of the etiquette of forming queues. At least in Britain, where you could almost describe it as a national fetish. However, in my experience, queues are not what they used to be.

Nowadays, maybe over the last decade or two, people have become much more conscious of their personal space. If one person is standing at a bus stop, and you stand right behind (forming the beginning of a queue) that would be seen as a bit creepy. No, what you do is stand somewhere in the middle of the bus shelter. When more people come, they slot themselves in. (Let’s say, it’s raining, so there is a strong disincentive to form a long straggly queue going way back past the bus shelter.)

But the amazing thing is (in Britain, anyway, I can’t speak for other countries) that people remember where they were in the queue. If I slot myself in front of someone who got there before me, I am expected to stand back and let them get on first when the bus comes.

In your story, the assumption is that no-one is harmed. That’s what makes you think that maybe queue jumping can sometimes be OK, even if it is not always OK. I’ve questioned the assumption that it is fair when the bus isn’t full (the window seat) but let’s assume there’s enough space on the bus for everyone to get a seat that they like. Speaking as a Brit, it’s still impolite and annoying. So it is not OK. OK?

Problems with J.S. Mill’s Harm Principle

Taylor asked:

What would be the most prominent objection to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle “[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

Any help with objections to the Harm Principle would be greatly appreciated to help me further understand the idea.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

J.S. Mill’s Harm Principle is an essential component in his case in On Liberty (1859). Intuitively, the idea seems clear. Living together as responsible individuals in a free society means that we have to take care not to infringe upon others in a way that hurts them, or limits their freedom of action.

At the same time, each individual is responsible for the actions that affect his or her own welfare. So long as my actions do not hurt others, then I should be free to do things I enjoy, or which give meaning to my life, regardless of the risk to myself. It is not up to others, it is up to me alone to decide what is in my own best interests, so long as I am the only one who suffers when things go wrong.

What is wrong with that? There are actually two objections I can think of, neither of which is more prominent than the other.

At one time the law in the UK did not require the wearing of seat belts in cars, or crash helmets on motorcycles. The law was changed, because of the carnage caused by car and bike accidents. But surely, on Mill’s view it should up to the individual to decide on the risks and benefits? Well, no (so the argument goes) because when you get smashed up in a car accident, or brain damaged in a bike accident, the National Health Service — funded by tax payers — has to foot the bill. Moreover, the extra strain you put on the emergency services means that someone else will have to wait that bit longer for an ambulance, or to be treated in an accident ward.

The trouble with that argument is that you could extend it indefinitely. One can draw up a long list of ailments and diseases attributable to poor self-management — for example, obesity, lung disease, sexually transmitted diseases, sports injuries — that would be reduced dramatically by instituting the appropriate legislation. Ban the eating of more than one double cheeseburger and fries per week, why not? It could be done, by issuing food rationing books as Britain did in the Second World War.

The fact is that society at large has an interest in your well being, not just for your own sake (which would be ‘paternalism’ according to Mill) but because the things you do to yourself impinge on the well being of others. But there are limits. Exactly how these limits are defined is difficult to explain. As there is no universal agreement on what the limits are, legislators have to take a practical approach, based on an assessment of which laws would be enforceable, and also acceptable to the majority of citizens. On that question, Mill’s harm principle has nothing to say.

The other objection focuses on the people who consider themselves to be ‘harmed’ by a person’s actions.

Let’s say that one of my favourite dishes is Lamb Madras, which I always cook on a Monday. Every Monday, my neighbours have to put up with very strong cooking smells coming from my kitchen window. ‘It’s only once a week!’ is all I can say in my defence.

Sometimes, when I am driving my car I like to listen to trashy Euro House music with the bass turned full up. Not everyone likes Euro House, but, it’s my choice isn’t it? If my music annoys you, it’s only for a short while, as I wait for the traffic lights to change.

These are just examples of how the choices we make for ourselves, the things we like, impinge on others. A lot depends on how easy going you are, whether or not you feel that I have ‘harmed’ you by my actions. Unwanted smells or unwanted noise are potentially cases of harm, but we only object to them when this goes over a certain threshold. However, as with the previous objection, how that threshold is defined is difficult to explain. It’s no good saying, ‘It’s harm when other people object,’ because that begs the question whether they are right to object, whether their objection is reasonable or not. On that question, once again, Mill’s Harm Principle is silent.

Regretting my decision not to invest in Bitcoin

Michael asked:

About 14 years ago a couple of friends were talking about Bitcoin when it was about $1 or so and saying it would probably be a good investment. I had already become interested in an Australian start up called Permodrive — a regenerative braking system that saves fuel for heavy vehicles. I bought 30,000 shares for $42k. They went broke and I lost every cent. Recently Bitcoin hit $6k Aus dollar, my $42k investment would be about 240 million.

Not happy about my decision. I often think about the life I could have had if I made the right decision. How should one think about this? I don’t want to be regretting it for the rest of my life but I think it is quite possible I will. What would a wise philosopher be thinking if it happened to them?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Michael, you have my sympathies. If it were me, I would regret my judgement call that failed so dramatically, and go on regretting it. There are incidents in our life that we can put behind us as we move forward, and other things whose effects spread forward in ever widening circles.

This is about regret, how we judge our past actions, and also about the value of money. Let me deal with the money aspect first.

As a philosopher, how much do I care about money? Not at all, provided I have sufficient to live on. There’s nothing I want that money can buy. If someone forced me to go on a luxury holiday cruise, I would fret every day that I was away from my computer, doing things like answering questions on Ask a Philosopher, or posting entries in my Glass House Philosopher blog, or working on my next book.

I remember a TV interview where the inventor of Bitcoin said something similar: all he wanted to do was work. People wouldn’t leave him alone. What torment!

What money represents is the ‘ability to do’. With 240 mil, I would be able to do a lot of things for other people. That has a good and bad side, because with that amount of cash it’s a full-time job just deciding where the money goes. I would be the last person to say ‘it’s only money’.

Let’s look at judgement calls. From your account, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that you would be sceptical about the prospects for Bitcoin, but enthusiastic about the Australian startup. It is only in retrospect that you judge that your judgement call was wrong. It annoys me intensely to see in the News people being blamed for failed judgement calls, where they could not possibly have known at the time that they were doing something ‘wrong’.

That said, a good gambler hedges his/ her bets. You could have put 1 per cent of your stake aside as a side bet on Bitcoin, and today you would have 2.4 mil. People who make their living out of playing the stock markets have an ‘investment portfolio’. You never put all your eggs in one basket. So that error of judgement is down to you, and something to regret. But then again, how many dubious-seeming prospects could one put a side bet on? The answer to that is moot.

Lastly, regret. I said earlier that there are ‘incidents in our life… whose effects spread forward in ever widening circles’. Let’s say you are in a hurry to get home, stone cold sober, but driving 10 mph over the speed limit when you knock down and kill a pedestrian. I wouldn’t trust, or like, a person who told me that they had gotten over that regretful incident. We all live with the foreboding that something like that could happen to us — a psychic injury, no less permanent than the loss of a limb.

You are hurting. I would kick myself every day for doing what you did, but it would be a kind of token ‘kick’. We mustn’t let these things defeat us. And keep a look out, because worse things can happen.