On ethics and reason

Mehran asked:

If iI don’t believe in god and afterlife why should I help people or put my life in danger for them? and if I help a human that he/she can live why do I do that when I am going to be dead and be nothing?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There was a time when I would have attempted to answer your question by an appeal to reason. You will find this in Pathways to Philosophy Program E. Reason, Values and Conduct. I won’t repeat the argument here, as I no longer have much confidence in its validity. Instead I will answer your question in a different way. You ask for a reason but there is no reason that logically compels me to act, beyond the plain statement of the facts of the case.

In Sheffield UK, where I live, there are now increasing numbers of homeless people sleeping in doorways or begging for coins to pay for a bed-and-breakfast room for the night — or for drugs or alcohol. In one of the Bridget Jones movies (I forget which one) Bridget gives a brilliant answer to a rich Yuppie who asks this question. Why help these people when they are capable of work? Why are they so pathetically idle? There are various explanations why a person might end up on the street, and Bridget enumerates them. The last one is that they are simply ‘helpless and pathetic’. In other words they have lost the ability or will to improve their situation. Instead of seeing this as an excuse for contemptuously refusing to give money, that is precisely why they need our help.

When I go to the city centre, I usually have two or three fifty pence pieces in my back pocket to give to street musicians if I like what they’re playing, or to a homeless person who appeals to my sympathy. Aren’t I just allowing myself to be manipulated? Yes. The philosopher David Hume argued that ethics is based on sympathy, on the ability to be moved by another person’s plight. It is an essential part of human nature. As we would now add, only a psychopath is incapable of being moved at all. But why fifty pence, and not ten pence, or a pound? It’s a judgement call, or, equally, a measure of how much I care. Other persons might care more, or less, or have more or less to give.

Sympathy is not the only factor here. Human beings are also tribal, caring for other members of their tribe or family but not others, and at times malicious in responding to a perceived hurt or offence, or just for the heck of it. So you could ask, why are some natural inclinations ‘good’ while others are ‘bad’? Why should we promote altruistic actions while resisting those that are malicious?

The answer is that the great majority of human beings have altruistic impulses. Instead of looking for a reason or justification, you need to see that the alleged ‘reason’ for resisting altruism has no more force than the alleged reason for being altruistic. The American thinker Ayn Rand notoriously held altruism to be a ‘vice’, but her argument is no stronger than those that have been given by moral philosophers in favour of altruism — by Kant, or in recent times by Thomas Nagel.

It is not ‘rational’ to care, nor is it ‘irrational’. It is simply the way we are. Even Adolf Hitler cared for animal welfare and loved his dog, despite being full of hate. There are also circumstances that would require our self-sacrifice for a greater good, for example resisting torture in order to save the lives of comrades, on the grounds that one ‘could not live’ knowing that you have betrayed them.

To experience altruistic impulses is normal. As I have indicated, it is one of the aspects of psychological health. But that is not the same as being totally altruistic, supposing such a thing to be possible. It is also normal to care more for ourselves, or our family, or for fellow nationals than for peoples or persons whom we don’t know. Caring less is not the same as not caring at all. On the other hand, the more we are acquainted with the facts, the more we see, the more we are likely to care, because our sympathetic feelings are aroused.

It is irrelevant what may or may not happen in an afterlife. I personally don’t believe in a heaven or hell. but if these did exist, then arguably there would be no such thing as altruism because seemingly altruistic actions would be motivated by the prudential desire to receive a reward or to avoid punishment. However, one could say the same about prudence. There is no logically compelling reason to be prudent, apart from our natural inclination for self-preservation.

In short, the belief that one day you will be ‘nothing’ is not grounds for ethical nihilism. Nor is the prospect of heaven or hell a reason to be ethical. In stating this, I am giving a reason for resisting the impulse to search for logical ‘reasons’.

On truth and revelation

Jonathan asked:

I wondered if there was any rational and logical reasons in disbelieving stories of divine interventions that many religions pretend. Most certainly yes, as we do not have any reason to believe them in the first place. However, if such divine revelation were to happen directly to any one of us personally (you or me), we would certainly be obliged in believing it.

So my question is: What if such revelation were to happen to thousands of people at once, but you personally are not part of this group, should you believe it? What kind of credibility such event should have? I am asking this because I think it is the case with the (pretended) revelation found in the Bible at Mount Sinai, and wondered if any historian, theologist, or philosopher has ever thought of this. Thank you in advance for your help as this question does bother me for quite a while now.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This an excellent question that applies as much to epistemology — or ‘theory of knowledge’ — as it does to theology. The sense that something has been ‘revealed’ to us, when it comes, seems beyond all uncertainty and doubt. One example outside theology would be the sudden illumination that tells you your life’s purpose. You ‘see’ the way ahead. You ‘know’ what you have to do, from here onwards. There is no obstacle so great that it could block your path.

Yet even on the personal level, leaving aside other persons and whatever they believe or disbelieve, you may also recall that you have experienced more than one such episode in your life. And later, in the cool light of day, all you can do is wonder that you were so easily persuaded of the ‘truth’.

But let’s stick with theology. After months of anguish at my failures, or losses, one day I wake up with the absolute and certain knowledge that Jesus loves me. Human beings love to be loved. The emotion of divine comforting embrace banishes all questions and doubts. And yet, thereafter, doubts may return, and it becomes harder and harder to recall that moment when I ‘knew’. The words reduce to a mantra or magic spell that over time loses its efficacy, fades and dies from over use.

Or not. Human beings differ. Those who claim to have been ‘born again’ might yet succeed in shoring up their defences against doubt, especially — band this is the important point that relates to your question — while in the company of other persons who claim to have experienced a similar episode of illumination. Should we believe them when they say that they know, beyond all doubt, that they have been ‘saved’?

Human testimony can be a source of knowledge, but I doubt whether this is true in the case of the claim of revelation. Regardless of the numbers of persons involved, One would have to experience the revelation for oneself. That is my answer to your question.

There is something else, that relates to truth telling. If you’re going to tell a lie, be crystal clear and honest with yourself that you are lying. What do you hope to achieve by your lie? What are the likely consequences if you are found out? The worst kind of lie is when you give in to the temptation to believe. As if you could change the facts by your lying words. Ministers of religion, as persons looked up to by their congregations, are especially prone to this trap.

This isn’t a soap box and I am not going to call al religious believers liars. If you had a problem in engineering and then a sudden revelation of the solution, there would be a way of testing this out. The broken machine is now fixed, or not fixed. Knowing that God has spoken to you, or that Jesus loves you may make you a happier person, or drive away the fear of death, but that is not in itself a test of the truth of what you believe.

Justice and the death penalty

Iling Chen asked:

I have a question about the connection between justice and death penalty. There was once, our class was discussing if there is a justice behind “a life for a life”, the classmates who oppose such saying were much more than those who support. However, when the question changed to”Do you support death penalty?” The supporters were much more than those who opposed. But such a difference doesn’t make sense to me. If you oppose the former, how come you support the later at the same time? Do you have any explanation for such a result? Thank you.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question is an example of the kind which regularly puzzles producers of opinion surveys. At first glance it seems that your two questions amount to the same thing. However, in this case there is an important nuance. ‘A life for a life’ is a condensed argument. Is it always the case that you have to forfeit your life if you cause a human being to die? Consider, for example, death caused by dangerous driving.You are undoubtedly to blame, but you had no intention to case another human being to die. In the UK, as I believe in many countries, you would expect to spend some time in jail, even where there is a death penalty.

On the other hand, there are countries where you can receive a death penalty for theft, notably China. Is this deserved? In the time of Charles Dickens, you could be hung for stealing a loaf of bread. According to Wikipedia, ‘Although unused, the death penalty remained a legally defined punishment for certain offences such as treason until it was completely abolished in 1998’. The death penalty for murder was abolished in 1969, and the last hanging took place in 1964.

To some persons, there is something horrendous and frightful about the very act of judicial killing. I have an opinion on this but the Ask a Philosopher site is not a forum for expressing personal opinions. The question is whether there is an argument in favour of the death penalty for any offence, however severe, or whether, on the contrary, the death penalty is never justified, in any circumstances whatsoever.

So there will be persons who reject the simplistic, ‘a life for a life’ argument, who would nevertheless be willing in principle to support the death penalty, perhaps for mass murder, or rape and murder. I think that answers your question. I don’t have a compelling argument for or against the death penalty in principle, except to say that a supporter of the death penalty ought to be prepared to be the one who does the killing, the execution, rather than leaving this to a functionary of the state.

Ask a Philosopher by Geoffrey Klempner 2011-2021

Ruth asked:

When is your book coming out?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It’s here!

Here are 244 answers by Dr Klempner to questions submitted online to askaphilosopher org from 2011–2021. The ‘Ask a Philosopher’ service was launched in 1999 originally on the University of Sheffield web site and has been running continuously from that date.

This book covers everything that a person approaching the study of philosophy for the first time might want to ask, as well as frequent college essay topics. The questions range from the urgently practical to the metaphysical – to the absurd. In Klempner’s view, ‘There is no such thing as a foolish question. But be prepared to consider the possibility that you may be wrong!’

Klempner has written articles on metaphysics, ethics, practical philosophy, business ethics, science fiction and the philosophy of photography. While a graduate student at Oxford University, he supplemented his grant as a singer and guitarist at a popular bar and retains a keen interest in contemporary music. His wide range of interests illustrates his motto on the philosophos org web site, ‘Philosophy is for everyone, not just philosophers. Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.’

Born in London in 1951, Klempner attended University College School. Hampstead, London. After graduating with First Class Honours in Philosophy from Birkbeck College London he went on to University College Oxford, gaining his D.Phil in 1982. In 1995 he founded the online distance learning program, Pathways to Philosophy, which has attracted students from over 90 countries.

Enjoy your reading!

If you liked Ask a Philosopher 2011-2021 please add a review on Amazon :)

Causation and personal identity

Michael asked:

I have a question about personal identity, specifically theories that rely upon causal continuity.

I recently came across an objection that I haven’t seen before and this is my attempt to reconstruct it.

1. Theories of Personal Identity rely upon causal continuity, specifically theories such as Psychological Continuity Theory.

2. We stand in causal relationships with other people as well. For example, causing them to feel emotions or remember events.

3. We bear no relationship with the people we are in casual relationship with. I.e. I’m not identical my dad whom I caused to remember his birthday.

4. Therefore, causal connections cannot ground personal identity.

This was a very brief argument I read in a paper, and I was trying to figure out its validity and how to respond to it. Thank You.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

To fully answer your question I would have to write a book — which I am not going to do! However, I will try to unpick the main strands of argument.

There is a theory, proposed in the 18th century by John Locke, which holds that psychological continuity is all there is to personal identity. Locke was a mind-body dualist, but argued in a thought experiment (the Prince and the Pauper) that you and I could switch ‘souls’ without either of us being aware of that fact. I am still GK and you are still Michael. In other words, psychological continuity is all that is necessary and sufficient for personal identity.

The main objection to this from David Wiggins (Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity, Sameness and Substance) is that Locke fails to distinguish ‘genuine’ memory from mere ‘seeming’ memory.

For example, I wake up tomorrow morning convinced that I am Napoleon. Under exhaustive questioning, amazingly I am able to ‘remember’ lots of things about Napoleon’s life that no-one could possibly know. It’s nothing short of miraculous. Well, maybe it is just a miracle, or possibly a massive fluke aided by my vivid imagination. What would make the difference, Wiggins would say, is if there is continuity in an organized package or bundle of ‘all that is causally necessary and sufficient’ for my seeming memories of Napoleon to be genuine memories. For that, I would have to possess Napoleon’s physical brain.

In common with many theories of personal identity, there is a problem of ‘splitting’, as in Sydney Shoemaker’s famous ‘split brain’ thought experiment. In a ‘Star Trek’ episode, one of the crew members, Riker, is ‘beamed down’ to a planet but owing to a glitch, two identical Rikers materialize. I’m happy to say that both persons are Riker. They share life histories up to the point when the transmitter beam was switched on. In principle, there could be a thousand or a million Rikers populating the planet, each and every one of them was born at the same time, in the same place, conceived from the same sperm and egg.

David Lewis argues for this view, but it is not that popular. Wiggins rejects it on the grounds that it makes talk of ‘identity’ almost meaningless, but we can bring in Locke here, arguing that personal identity is a ‘forensic’ concept. If Riker committed murder before being beamed down then both Rikers fully deserve to be punished, don’t they? It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the physical ‘stuff’ of Riker is preserved in the process of beaming down. Let’s say there are pots of ‘people stuff’ waiting to be used to make physical copies of Riker’s body. The body of the original Riker was destroyed.

Well, maybe the concept of personal identity is merely a convenience. Maybe the very idea that punishment is ‘deserved’ or not is questionable (an issue that also arises in connection with the free will debate). However, it would not follow that my causing you to have a belief that P would somehow entail problems with the causal account. I wake up in the morning hearing a familiar patter on the roof and form the belief that it is raining. You phone me up and ask what’s the weather like here. I say ‘It is raining,’ and now you believe this too. But the causal link in either case is completely different.

Up until a few years ago, I would have been happy to give a version of this theory. Now I am not. I no longer accept that the physical facts whatever they may be are sufficient for identity. Causation, conceived a physical instance falling under a causal law, is not sufficient. Why? Because ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place’ (as in my book of the same title). The thing I call ‘I’ might or might not have come into existence five seconds ago. If I came into existence five seconds ago, no-one, including me, would ever know. But there is an answer to that question — in ‘ultimate reality’.

On the difference between the truth and facts

Jaqueline asked:

What is the difference between the truth and facts? Is the difference shown more clearly in human science than natural science?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This looks like an essay question. The professor who set the question already has an idea of the kind of answer he/she is looking for. I will deal with this first, and then show why the question is actually of momentous importance.

The facts are the facts, whatever they may be. This is something we say. The facts are the facts, independently of language, or our interests in pursuing them. However, it is well known that in the human sciences there are multiple angles, interpretations, ways of approaching the facts. In historical explanation, or psychology, for example, there are multiple lines one can take, multiple interests in pursuing ‘the truth’. There’s no no single answer to what is the ‘real’ truth of the matter. But the facts are the facts.

In natural science, the distinction is less clear, if it exists at all. However, it remains the case that we never get to the actual facts. Natural science gives theories, and the theory we accept is merely the theory that works best at the present time. The theory of evolution, for example, as far fetched as it may seem to some, is at present the ‘best’ theory we have. To infer from this that it is the truth, or the one and only true representation of the facts, is to go too far. It’s on the table. We look for evidence from the fossil record, test the explanations for consistency, use the theory to classify species. It ‘works’. But it could still be supplanted by a better theory, should one come along.

However, this answer, for me, misses the real question. In 1950 there was a famous debate between the Oxford philosophers J.L. Austin and P.F. Strawson (who, incidentally, much later in 1977 was my tutor for my Trinity Term as a graduate student). The debate took place at the Aristotelian Society. Austin was the chief representative of the ‘old guard’, the Oxford philosophers who believed that the key to solving philosophical problems was the careful analysis of ‘ordinary language’. On the question of the truth and facts, Austin pushed the line that according to ‘what we say’, it is the facts that make true statements true. It was a correspondence theory of truth, albeit nuanced. Strawson rebutted Austin’s account, arguing that there is no real difference between true statements and facts. A ‘fact’ is simply what a true statement states, nothing more.

Still with me? Strawson won the debate. At least, that is the accepted view. His victory marked the end, or the beginning of the end, of Oxford linguistic philosophy. Any talk of ‘correspondence’ is saying more that can meaningfully be said. Decades earlier, the German mathematician Gottlob Frege had argued against any notion of correspondence between statements and ‘facts’. Correspondence would merely be some relation between statements and some entity in the world, but any talk of relation raises the question whether or not it is true that the relation holds. Which immediately leads to a vicious regress. (There is an illuminating account of this in Michael Dummett’s seminal book on Frege, Frege Philosophy of Language, 1973.)

In my second year as an undergraduate at Birkbeck College London, I grappled with this topic in an essay I wrote for David Murray (who died in 2016). I felt that Austin had been hard done by, and that there must be a sense in which the facts make true statements true, even if we can’t speak of correspondence. I remember Murray’s pencilled comment, ‘Facts, if they exist, must exist as a matter of necessity. But I would rather defend the necessary existence of God than the necessary existence of facts!’ The point being that even if nothing exists, it is a fact that nothing exists. The universe could be destroyed, leaving nothing behind but it would still be a fact that the universe was no more.

As I would now prefer to state this, there is, there must be, something Real. Whatever we believe, whatever investigations we undertake. We may never know what is Real, with a capital ‘R’, or ultimately Real, but the Real is the Real. — When, in philosophy, one is prompted to assert a tautology as if it expressed a deep and meaningful truth, that is cause for suspicion, a point Wittgenstein repeatedly made in his later philosophy. But I am not moved. For me, nothing is more important than recognition of the existence of the Real, the facts, or the real facts, regardless of it being the case that we may never, or perhaps cannot ever, know what the facts are. We make ‘statements’ we put forward ‘theories’ but these statements or theories, even when accepted as ‘true’, are not the facts.

There is something Real. To really think about this, and at the same time realize the impossibility of conveying any meaningful knowledge, or useful ‘information’ by that statement, is the first step towards metaphysics, a discipline that Austin and his disciples rejected with contempt, and about which Strawson was happy to offer his relatively tame, diluted account in Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics, 1959. We clashed over this in our tutorial meetings, but as one student had warned me in advance, ‘If Strawson says you are wrong, then you are wrong. Don’t attempt to argue the point!’

In answer to your question, emphatically yes, there is a difference between the truth and facts. But the issue goes way deeper than your teacher who set this question is likely to have considered.