Is having lots of money wrong?

Nigel asked:

What’s so wrong about having lots of money?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Depending upon which philosopher you ask, having ‘lots’ of money may not necessarily be a bad thing. That said, it is argued here that current liberal societies should be wary of too few people having enormous amounts of money.

For libertarians, one should ideally be able to own all of ones produce without interference from anybody, and if this includes lots of money, then being wealthy represents a natural state for some (and for more detail, the reader may like to visit my recent article on this site, entitled Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership).

The libertarian position may expect to be opposed by various factions, and this would include communitarians. They may argue that a person is not an entity that can be separated from their surrounding society, and for this reason, an individual cannot expect sole control over wealth, which is in fact society’s wealth. They may further elaborate this argument by noting that individuals learn their skills from society and owe society a debt for their enrichment; additionally persons are dependent upon society in which to exercise and benefit from their skills (and for more discussion, the reader may like to visit one of my older articles on this site, entitled Man is semi-autonomous). Hence, the individual may be considered to be enmeshed within society.

That said, most societies in practice, such as liberal and socialist ones, occupy a position in between these two extremes. In order to prevent suffering within their populaces, or because they feel society would benefit if money was redistributed, most societies value some form of redistribution between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

However, the modern age may have brought a new phenomenon. It would appear that with the advent of globalisation and the free movement of capital, greater and greater amounts of money are being concentrated in the hands of fewer people. In 2017, the following statement came to light:

‘…the world’s richest one per cent […] own more than the other 99 per cent combined’

This was published by Oxfam (Oxfam. 2017. ‘Press Releases’., and admittedly, there have been those who query its accuracy. Nevertheless, if we accept for the purposes of argument, that it is roughly correct, then it may contain the seeds of problems for some societies.

This may be particularly true of liberal societies, which generally exalt the freedom of the individual and encourage personal aggrandisement (and a definition of liberalism may be found here: To explain, if a few people own enough money to control manufacturing, then they may limit the goods a person may buy, and if a few people own the media, then they may attempt to dictate how people should think. Hence, a paradoxical situation may be arising: although liberalism extols individualism, there may actually be less individualism in practice where a mere handful of individuals dominate the resources.  Liberal societies may be inadvertently limiting liberalism, and when this is realised, they may decide to take remedying action. Hence, from a liberal viewpoint, if too few persons have so much money that they confine liberalism, then it may be considered ‘wrong’ for these individuals to have too much money.

Locus of mind-body interaction

Ladevel asked:

‘In resolving the problem of interaction, Epiphenomenalism shows itself to be a stronger theory than Cartesian Substance Dualism.’ How do I offer a critical analysis and evaluate this in a high school essay for philosophy? I need a solid argument that encompasses objections, weaknesses etc but also arrives at a solid, well justified conclusion.

Answer by Gershon Velvel

Don’t you love it when philosophy instructors tell you in advance what conclusion you should come to in your essay? What if you decided, after looking at the arguments for and against, that substance dualism is the stronger theory? Would you automatically get a D?

It is at least arguable that epiphenomenalism as a solution to the mind-body problem — the theory according to which the brain ’emits’ consciousness in a similar way to a factory emitting smoke — is a feeble attempt to account for our seeming awareness of something ‘inner’. When an epiphenomenalist writes, ‘I believe in epiphenomenalism,’ the causal chain that led to those words appearing on paper or on a computer monitor is physical all the way. The ‘inner’ never came into it, because according to epiphenomenalism, the ‘inner’ is merely an inert by-product of physical processes.

On this count, at least, substance dualism is a clear winner. As Descartes observes in his own case, I am aware of something — my thinking, my experiencing — that could exist even if the physical world did not. When the dualist writes, ‘I believe in dualism,’ the causal chain goes from the actions of ‘mental substance’ — my Cartesian ‘soul’ — to changes in physical substance.

But how could such action, or interaction, possibly take place? Where is the locus of mind-body interaction? This is a point on which Descartes was pressed by several critics, including Pierre Gassendi and Princess Elisabeth. That’s only part of the problem, because the idea of physical changes being brought about by something outside the physical realm clashes with the Law of Conservation of Energy.

The latter, apparently, wasn’t an issue for Descartes because his physics was non-Newtonian. In Cartesian physics, no physical force is required to change the direction of motion of the ‘animal spirits’. If that seems crazy to us today, remember that for Descartes, mental substance and physical substance are maintained in existence by God’s continuous action. The ‘laws’ of physics are based purely on the geometry of extended bodies. The only violations that these laws forbid are geometrical violations (for example, two bodies existing in the same place at the same time). The rest is up to God, who by decree has endowed mental substance with the power to affect, and be effected by the animal spirits.

Well, of course, we don’t believe that now. Our physics is Newtonian (at a first approximation), not Cartesian. But, still, given indeterminacy at the quantum level it not inconceivable that, God or not, mental substance might still have the power to alter local probabilities without violating any laws.

For example, suppose I discover to my extreme surprise that whenever I think of a proposition from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, say, ‘The world is all that is the case,’ the words appear on the fluorescent tube light in my kitchen. The energy emitted by the fluorescent tube remains the same, all that is altered is the pattern of ‘random’ photon emission. That would be very spooky, and one would want to know the explanation. But one candidate explanation which can’t be logically ruled out is that I did it, myself, by a form of telekinesis. Maybe with God’s help. But the laws of nature remain more or less intact. (No mentally knocking vases off mantelpieces, for example.)

The locus of interaction at first sight seems a more intractable problem. Descartes said that this occurs in the pineal gland located in the brain. At what location, exactly? You might be thinking that, as a ‘unextended substance’, the soul could only occupy a geometrical point. But this is wrong. The soul is not in space, because it does not possess any of the essential attributes of extension. It acts  at a specific place, which could be the whole body, or the brain, or the pineal gland — whichever hypothesis seems the most plausible.

Our naive view of causation requires contiguity of cause and effect. Gravity, which at first sight seems to be an example of action at a distance, in fact (according to physics) involves a ‘gravitational field’. Our experience of causes and effects is an acceptable starting point for defining ‘causation’, but it is only a starting point. Descartes believed that he had given a powerful argument against the idea that all causation involves physical pushes and pulls.

Is Cartesian substance dualism a ‘strong’ theory? That all depends on how favourable you are to the alternative view to either substance dualism or epiphenomenalism: namely physical monism. There’s no question that if you give up physicalism, there’s a price to pay, but the question remains open. In academic philosophy, doubts about physicalism are on the rise, though relatively few philosophers would be prepared to go the whole hog and defend Descartes, as I would.

Can philosophy be defined?

Col asked:

What is your definition of ‘philosophy?’

Do you see any possible objections to your definition?

How would you defend your definition against those objections? 

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I’m going to answer your question with another question: Why is it so important to ‘define’ philosophy? How does it help? What insight might such a definition give into the activity we call ‘philosophy’?

In a wide range of cases (and despite what Socrates repeatedly says in Plato’s dialogues) it is perfectly in order, in response to a request for definition, to cite a range of paradigm cases.

What is physics? Well, Newton’s laws of motion is physics. The structure of the atom is physics. The age of the universe is physics (or, if you want to be precise, the branch of physics known as ‘cosmology’). Still, it is useful to be able to say, with some degree of precision, how ‘physics’ chunks up physical reality in contrast to, say, chemistry or biology. That doesn’t seem too difficult a thing to do although although I won’t attempt that here.

What is science? is a more philosophically challenging question. Karl Popper in his 1934 book Forschung. Zur Erkenntnistheorie der modernen Naturwissenschaft (published in English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1959) proposed a ‘falsifiability’ criterion as a means to demarcate science from what he called ‘pseudo-science’. Astrology and astronomy both deal with the heavens, but whereas astronomy is a science — putting forward theories about the stars, planets and galaxies that can, in principle, be overturned by empirical observation — astrology is arguably not falsifiable in this way.

A similar challenge to separating science from pseudo-science arises in philosophy. A lot of things go under the term ‘philosophy’ in popular parlance that professional ‘philosophers’, regardless of their individual differences, would not wish to describe as such. ‘Pop’ philosophy isn’t really philosophy, they would say. Although here the boundaries are more blurred. An increasing number of books have been written by academic philosophers popularising philosophy, and to make a subject accessible you have to make short cuts, over-simplify, paint things in black and white which are more like shades of grey.

Another challenge comes from a different direction. One might say, ‘That’s not philosophy, that’s psychology,’ or, ‘That’s not philosophy, that’s history of ideas.’ I’ve heard student essays criticised on both of these counts. Presumably, the critic has a clear notion of the difference between psychology and philosophy of mind/ philosophical psychology, or between history of ideas and history of philosophy.

For both these reasons — philosophy versus ‘pop philosophy’, or distinguishing philosophy from other disciplines — it would be nice if we could find a formula that would demarcate philosophy, properly so-called, from other things that we would not call ‘philosophy’.

I might state that philosophy ‘uses reasoning to discover things about the world,’ but that won’t do because Sherlock Holmes does exactly that when he solves a case. Certain aspects of ‘the world’, then? Mathematical reasoning discovers things about mathematical reality, the universe of numbers, sets and so on. By contrast, when a philosopher thinks about free will, or the mind-body problem or the problem of scepticism they are thinking about the actual we live in, our life, our place in the universe, not merely a world of grey abstractions.

In the absence of a simple formula, what I propose instead is a more like a template: in philosophical thinking, two fundamentally distinct but connected faculties are deployed in close harness: the faculty of logic (as in Sherlock Holmes) but unlike that great detective the philosopher always employs logic in combination with a faculty of intellectual vision. Philosophy describes the actual world, our world, that’s all it does. But it does this in a way that makes no additional empirical claims.

In a not dissimilar way, an art critic describes a painting, enabling us to see what we did not see before. The ‘facts’, the patches of paint on canvas, are already known. What is more difficult to grasp is the meaning, or the value of what we are looking at, how it all adds up to make a statement, as intended by the artist.

I’m not putting forward an argument for God as the ‘artist’. That’s not the point of the comparison (although a theologian might disagree). The point is that philosophers seek to uncover things that matter in our lives, by using vision and logic to make sense of the world. I wouldn’t even attempt to put this forward as a demarcation proposal, in the spirit of Popper. So ‘objections’ and ‘replies’ aren’t really to the point. But I hope that what I’ve said does help to make sense of the activity we call philosophy.

On this account, ‘pop’ philosophy is philosophy, it just isn’t very good philosophy, because it is marred by illogical thinking as well as false factual claims. Psychology can be philosophy, given a suitable context (for example, Nietzsche’s psychology). History of ideas, done by an historian who is gripped by the ideas in question rather than taking the stance of a detached spectator, shades imperceptibly into philosophy.

Divine command theory and the sinking lifeboat

Julie asked:

What would a Divine Command Theorist do or say in a “Lifeboat Ethics” situation?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

First off, I want to say that this is a really good example of a type of scenario that poses a serious challenge to divine command theory — although one that can be met if we are prepared to bite the bullet.

What is divine command theory? You can start by looking at these three answers:

I am going to assume that we are dealing with the version of divine command theory defended by Peter Geach (first answer, above). If you can get hold of it, I recommend reading Geach’s chapter, ‘The Moral Law and the Law of God’ in his book God and the Soul (1969) which is the best I have seen on this topic. (I found this on Google, but the link seems to have disappeared.)

What would be an example of a ‘lifeboat ethics’ situation, as you call it?

Here’s one possibility. The ship has gone down, survivors are in the water clinging to bits of debris. You are in charge of a lifeboat. You can’t rescue everyone — the boat is too small, there is not enough time — so you have to make hard choices. The obvious course of action is to go for the nearest survivors first. That’s the plan that promises to maximize the number of lives saved.

Now, we can tweak this by supposing that you know the identities of the survivors. All lives are equally valuable, according to divine command theory, regardless of whether there may be beneficial consequences in saving one individual, say, a famous scientist working on a cure for cancer, in preference to another, say, the ship’s cook. If the cook is nearer to the boat, then you go for him first, even if that risks the scientist’s life.

But maybe you would do this anyway, regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the divine command theory of ethics. At least, it’s not clear. Regardless of which course of action you choose, you are doing good, you are saving lives.

So let’s look at a different case. The lifeboat is overfull and about to sink. The only way to save the lives of the people on the lifeboat is if at least two of those on board go back in the water. If they do that, their death is inevitable. You might consider sacrificing yourself, but that still leaves one to go. You have to make the decision. But, as divine command theory states, taking the life of an innocent individual is absolutely forbidden regardless of the consequences.

Draw straws? That would be acceptable, provided all those on board are willing to abide by the draw. However, it only takes one recalcitrant individual to scupper that plan. ‘Look, you agreed to draw straws and you got the short straw. So, jump already!’ Would you?

Divine command theory forbids taking the life of an ‘innocent’ individual. The person holding the short straw, quaking with fear, is ‘guilty’ only of breaking a promise — to commit suicide. That seems insufficient ground for the use of lethal force although the point could be debated.

At this point, it is possible — indeed, highly likely — that the other survivors on the boat will take the law into their own hands. If they do, and despite your best efforts you are unable to stop them, then the problem is solved. There’s no blood on your hands. But there is no guarantee that this will happen.

The only remaining possibility is to persuade just one person to sacrifice him or herself. You’ve already made the decision to go overboard. Maybe, at the last possible moment, before the boat starts sinking, someone will jump. But if they don’t, then the lifeboat sinks and you all die.

I am not putting this forward as a ‘refutation’ of divine command theory. It is simply what has to happen, if one makes the decision never to do wrong — never to do an action forbidden by divine law — regardless of the consequences.

Is randomness mind-dependent?

Eddie asked:

Is randomness mind dependent? Can any random process possibly be generated in a deterministic world?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In the first year of my BA at London University in the early 70s I had a part-time job as a clerk in the OPCS, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in Holborn, London (which later in 1996 became the Office of National Statistics). I was in a small office with four or five clerks and a Senior Executive Officer (SEO). Our job was the most boring imaginable. We had to select addresses from the Electoral Register and compile address lists for interviewers to visit for the UK Government’s ‘General Household Survey’.

For the statistics gathered to be reliable, it was essential that the selection was done randomly. It would have skewed the statistics badly if we’d skipped all the East European sounding names, or names from the Indian sub-continent — or houses with twee names like ‘The Nook’ or ‘Rose Cottage’ — or on the other hand gone out of our way to select them. (I’m not saying this was never done. We were very bored.)

According to our SEO, a young woman who had joined the Civil Service after gaining her degree in Statistics, the only correct way to do the selection was use a mathematical formula to generate random numbers. Using a haphazard method, like throwing dice for example, wasn’t always a reliable way of generating random numbers because you need to be 100% sure that the numbers you produce would not appear to support a prediction.

An example of the dangers of relying on a haphazard method would be a penalty kicker in soccer who before the match uses a coin spin to decide which way he will kick the ball, right or left. He spins his lucky penny a few times: heads for left, tails for right. Unfortunately for him, the last six throws have all landed heads. And this time it’s heads again. The goal keeper, noting the kicker’s seeming predilection for going left in recent games, dives left and saves the goal and the match.

As time was pressing and none of us was sufficiently competent in maths (this was before computers) our SEO said it would be OK to select the last digits from telephone numbers in a telephone directory page opened ‘at random’. I hardly ever saw anyone do this. We just thought up two numbers in our heads. The first number n was the nth address on the Electoral Register for the district the interviewer was due to visit. The second number m was the number of addresses to skip before selecting the m+1th address.

Provided this relatively lazy procedure was followed, with no cheating, then the selection probably would have been sufficiently random for the purpose intended. Our SEO had a story to tell her boss. There was always an open telephone directory in the room so we could claim that we’d got our numbers from there.

What is the point of this story? Randomness is a practical concept, which applies differently in different areas of activity. In statistics, you want your results to be reliable, because policy decisions may depend on the outcome. In a game, you want your actions to be unpredictable. In a lottery, you want the result to be fair with no possibility of cheating. And so on. In none of these areas, or other examples you can think of, is randomness merely ‘mind dependent’. That is because in each case, there are consequences in the real world.

However, randomness in the sense I have described, isn’t purely ‘objective’ either. With sufficient knowledge (you might need to have powers approaching those of a Laplacian Super-Mind) you could predict any supposedly random selection or sequence — in a deterministic world, as you say, otherwise the bets are off.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Mary asked:

When is it ethically acceptable to rob Peter to pay Paul?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Often, this saying is used where distributions of wealth are considered to be a zero-sum game: nobody really benefits from an act of ‘robbery’ as resources are merely moved around. However, if one or more parties could benefit from an act of redistribution then this becomes an easier question to answer: under certain circumstance, some political philosophies would not hesitate in redistributing Peter’s property in order to make Paul’s life, or the lives of both parties, better. Some simple examples are provided to demonstrate this.

For instance, imagine Peter and Paul live quite happily on a desert island. Peter is the island’s landlord, and using his own efforts produces two bushels of corn with the land, and this provides enough for both parties to subsist.

However, if all of the land were given to Paul, he would be able to produce four bushels of corn. This would enable the island to subsist, produce some surplus grain and allow the island to trade with nearby islands to acquire other goods. Now, if Paul could not come to an arrangement with the landlord, whereby he could lend or lease the land, then some utilitarians, seeing how this second scenario benefits the island materially, would wish to see Peter’s landholdings given over to Paul.

A third scenario may be favoured by egalitarians who would wish to see equal holdings of land. They may favour a situation where Peter’s property in land is distributed equally between the two islanders. This would be likely to yield 3 bushels of corn and although more productive that the initial arrangement, would not be as productive as the second. However, if you value the equal distribution of land over everything else you would be content with this this arrangement.

So there you have it, some political philosophers would be quite ready to ‘rob’ Peter to pay Paul. That said, one should be warned that other political philosophies would vehemently oppose the enforced distribution of any goods held by an individual, and some libertarians may even consider a redistribution of a person’s goods to be akin to an assault upon the person (and the reader may like to visit my recent article on this site, entitled Nozick’s libertarianism and self-ownership). The libertarian Robert Nozick was adamant that only voluntary donations should ever be redistributed: in his Anarchy, State and Utopia Nozick felt that the vast majority of persons would voluntarily contribute to schemes to rid society of an ‘evil’ such as poverty for example, as people desire to be part of the solution to such problems (Nozick 1974: 265-7).

Although this may seem to be a very simplistic question to ask, it actually opens up a hornet’s nest for political philosophers and yields a variety of answers (and should the reader have time to spare, then a visit to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on ‘Distributive Justice’ may prove to be enlightening: However, in concluding, as most societies continue with some form of redistribution between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, then it may be a deeply held ethical view amongst human beings that acts of redistribution, similar to those demonstrated, hold great value.

Visual appearance and illusion

JimJim asked:

Visual size is illusory: it shrinks in all three dimensions. Before we correct for this, not only do the railroad tracks meet in the distance, but a train travelling down them gets shorter, narrower, and smaller. So my question is: how far away must a visible object be for us to see it real size?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The premise of your question is false. There are visual illusions, which require a special setup to work, but in general things appear the size that they are, no larger or smaller.

You can verify this for yourself easily. Pick an object on the far side of the room and walk towards it. Does the object (a framed picture, say) ‘get larger’ as you move towards it. Of course not. Hold out your arm and look at your hand. Now move your index finger towards your eye. At what point does your finger appear bigger than it is? At no point.

The notion, e.g., that a train travelling away from us ‘gets shorter, narrower, and smaller’ is based on a overly simplified model of perception. When you look at the train as it travels into the distance, the image projected upside down onto your retina gets smaller and smaller. But what you see, what you perceive, isn’t that image. You see the train. Moreover, you see it as a train, that is to say, an constructed object of a kind that maintains its size over time. (I’m ignoring the fact that a train gets longer or shorter if you add or subtract carriages.)

There are common objects that get larger and smaller. A balloon, for example. Let’s say we are watching a clown walking the road with a large balloon. The balloon has a puncture, and is visibly shrinking, getting smaller and smaller as we look on. The clown turns towards us and shakes his head, sadly. Being able to tell when things actually get bigger or smaller is a pretty important ability, don’t you think?

In order to explain this, a distinction is sometimes made between what we ‘actually see, with our eyes’, and the perceptual judgements based on what we see. So, in your example of the train, we ‘actually see’ the train get smaller, but this is then corrected by our judgement.

There are special cases where this is true. The moon in the sky doesn’t look that large. But then when you take into account the information that the moon is a quarter of a million miles away, a quick calculation shows that it must be pretty big if we can see it at all at that distance.

Then there are artificially constructed experimental setups where a man walking across a room appears to get smaller because the ‘room’ in question is designed with a false perspective: we see the room as rectangular, but in fact the far wall is twice the size of the near wall.

In each of these cases, judgement is required to correct what we see, or seem to see. But these are necessarily exceptions to a rule: The rule being that our faculty of perception (eyes, optic nerve, brain — not forgetting our capacity to physically manipulate the objects that we see) is ‘designed’ by evolution to produce veridical appearances. We need accurate information coming through the senses on which to base our judgements. That’s how perception works.

The concept of perception applies not only to the five senses but also to things like understanding what a person is saying. We perceive meaning. Sometimes we can be wrong, and often those errors can be corrected by judgement. But judgement needs something to work on on. Language isn’t a cacophony of sound, or squiggles on a screen or on paper that we then have to interpret — although, as in the special case it can be, e.g., if you don’t ‘know the language’ and have to work what the person is saying from a phrase book.

A good question to ask in alleged cases of perceptual illusion is, How would things look otherwise? Discussing ancient beliefs about the cosmos, one of Wittgenstein’s students once remarked about the fact that the sun appears to go round the Earth. ‘And how would it look if the Earth appeared to go round the sun?’ was his reply. — I’ll leave you with that question to think about.