It's Complicated

By Alexander George


The world ceaselessly throws problems our way.

Where can you buy a good bagel? How thick must the metal be so that the pressure cooker does not explode? Who left that chicken in my bedroom? When did Caesar cross the Rubicon? And so on. Many questions, such as these, merely require that we provide some information. The world also confronts us with problems that call for appropriate actions. Every day, we need to act so as to avoid cars, earn money, make the meal edible. The goals in these cases are relatively clear.

But we are also regularly called to act in such a way as to... do the right thing. In some cases, this too can be straightforward: I should not steal library books, I should assign grades fairly, I ought not to step on this frog. It can be straightforward, but, what with the curious curveballs life pitches us, it often isn’t. I shall spare you examples, for surely your life has not spared you many bewildering, often painful, demands to act in the midst of a moral morass. How to decide what one should do in such circumstances? The goal of acting ethically is frustratingly elusive: What kind of goal is this, anyway? What does it mean to reach it? And how can we tell if we have?

Philosophy can be of some value here. Philosophers, after all, have been in the business of thinking about such matters since there have been any philosophers at all. By “some value” I do not mean that philosophy always, or even often, supplies answers. But even when it does not, it can provide some clarity and some guidance as one tries to make one’s way through the usual cloud of confusions, fears and aspirations that settles around our moral deliberations.

Unfortunately, few people have access to whatever help philosophy can offer. Philosophy hones one’s powers of analysis and expands one’s imagination, yet it is rarely taught in our schools. We live in a culture that values facts and techniques, or what passes for them, and derogates critical scrutiny and imaginative inquiry. It is little wonder that philosophy appears an esoteric enterprise at best, far removed from the vexing questions of daily existence that, in fact, provide the fodder for much philosophical reflection.

In 2005 I launched to bridge, or at least to shout clearly across, the chasm in contemporary life between those with burning questions of a philosophical nature and those who have been trained in the skills and history of philosophy. Since its inception, the website has received tens of thousands of questions from around the world, from young and old, from the educated to the barely schooled. And the professional philosophers who volunteer to be panelists have provided many thousands of responses. Not answers, but responses—clarifying distinctions, interesting arguments, some alternative positions, pointers to pertinent reading—that might help refine further reflection.


A couple of years later, I gathered together some entries from the site and published them as the book What Would Socrates Say? (Clarkson Potter). Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that there was an appetite for such a collection: foreign presses purchased and published editions in Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Brazil, Israel, Greece, Italy and Japan. This year, a second volume has appeared: What Should I Do? (Oxford University Press), which is focused on ethical questions. (All profits from the sales of these volumes are donated to educational charities.)

The books obviously do not seek to provide a systematic or historical overview of philosophy. The idea is rather to bring, in a light, conversational style, the techniques and riches of philosophy to bear on questions that have been sufficiently pressing to ordinary men and women (and children!) that they have been moved to email them to a panel of philosophers for comment. The question-and-response format makes the book quite unlike didactic works on philosophy: the entries have an informal, even personal, tone to them, and responses aim not so much to instruct as to provide ideas to stimulate further thought. Yet the fact that the responses are written by professional philosophers trained in the rigors of philosophy and immersed in its history means that the philosophical content of those responses is high. This unusual combination—the high-octane rigor and intelligence of professional philosophers together with the easy informality of the format—is missing from much public discourse. The continued fascination with the website and the success of the first book speak to its felt absence.

What follows are a few questions and responses from the most recent book.



Is it morally right to inculcate in your child religious belief when you do not firmly share that belief? Along the same lines, is there anything wrong with avoiding religious topics with your child, hoping that she will choose her own set of beliefs when she becomes more mature?

Louise Antony: I should say right at the outset that I am not speaking as a specialist in ethics. I am a parent. My husband is also a philosopher. Our considered view is that, basically, one should not tell children things that one believes to be untrue. Perhaps there are exceptions—I’m not about to criticize the parents of a dying child who encourage the child to have hope. But if you’re going to encourage a child to believe something you think is false, you need a really good reason. For one thing, it’s imprudent: you risk your own credibility if the kid finds you out. In your case, what are your reasons for “inculcating” in your child a set of beliefs that you think are false?

Neither my husband nor I believe in Santa Claus, and therefore we did not tell our children that there was a Santa Claus. We didn’t go out of our way to tell them that there wasn’t, but neither of our kids seemed inclined to believe that there was. They talked about Santa Claus pretty much the same way they talked about Big Bird—they could enter into the pretense when it was fun to do so, but they weren’t confused about the difference between reality and make-believe.

We also don’t believe in God. We followed the same policy. Despite the urgent advice of many people whose business this wasn’t, we did not feign religion “for the sake of our children.” Whatever benefits there may be to belonging to a religious community—and my husband and I are prepared to admit that there are many—we just could not possibly have tried to persuade our children of something we believed to be false. There are always social benefits involved in believing what most people believe, or at least in acting as if one does. But if we want our children to resist peer pressure when it comes to drugs and sex, why not also belief?

Jyl Gentzler: I have long been a nonbeliever, but I remember that when my first daughter was born, I too began to worry about the sorts of questions that are raised here. It’s one thing for me to be a nonbeliever—I can’t really help that, since the only thing that can give me a reason to believe in God would be evidence that suggests the existence of a God—but it’s a separate matter whether I should try to inculcate a belief in God in my daughter. After all, I reasoned (in a panicky sort of way, overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the responsibility that I had just taken on), I could be wrong, I’ve been wrong before, and if others are right in their belief that the existence of God is necessary for eternal bliss and nonbelief in God is sufficient for eternal damnation, then perhaps it would be morally wrong for me to take a chance and doom my child to eternal damnation. I got over this worry pretty quickly, but now that I’ve just rehearsed it again, I’m beginning to panic again. What in the world is wrong with that reasoning?
Richard Heck: I don’t think I’d want to say that it is permissible to “inculcate” one’s children with a religion one doesn’t accept. But that is strong and fairly loaded language.

Suppose Alex and Tony are a white couple who have adopted two black children. They know that the church is and long has been the center of the black community, so they believe very strongly that it is important for their children to grow up in a black church. So they attend one of the local black churches and take their children, even though they themselves are not believers. I don’t myself see anything impermissible about their doing so. In fact, it strikes me as admirable, even though it probably would not be consistent with their broader goals to convey their lack of belief to their children, since doing so could undermine their children’s involvement in the church.

So let’s ask a more general question: Is it permissible to expose one’s children in a serious way to religious life even if one is not oneself a person of faith? Here again, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, and I can well imagine good reasons for wanting to do so. It doesn’t have to be a fear of damnation.

That isn’t, of course, to say there is some obligation to expose one’s children to religious life. That would be a much stronger claim.

Many communities in the world are populated by the descendants of aggressive invaders, but we do not hold these people responsible for the atrocities their ancestors committed. For example, most reasonable people would not blame modern Americans for the mass murder of Native Americans. On what grounds, then, could the descendants of the aggressive invaders be said to owe anything to the descendants of the invaded?

Jay L. Garfield: It is useful to distinguish between blame and responsibility. One may not be to blame for a set of actions taken by one’s ancestors, but if one benefits from them, and another is harmed by them, one might still morally owe reparations.

For example, suppose that my parents stole all of your parents’ wealth and left it to me. I’m now quite rich, and you’re destitute. I’m not to blame for what my parents did—I didn’t steal anything—and likewise you’re not the victim of any theft. But there is still a strong case to be made that I am in possession of stolen goods that rightly belong to you and that I owe you reparations.

Now, the more distant the harms are from current circumstances, the harder it gets to assign particular benefits and injuries. But the more immediate cases, or those where, despite the passage of time, the benefits and burdens remain clearly traceable, might well demand reparation, even if they don’t demand guilt.

In what sense is being put to death a punishment? How can we talk about things like #suffering" or #loss" if a person is dead?

Thomas Pogge: It is true that, once a person has been executed, she is no longer around to suffer the loss of years she might otherwise have lived. But the point of an execution is not to punish the person after she’s dead, but before. She is subjected to the experience of living on death row and later to the experience of being killed in the execution chamber, and she must expect all along that many things she cared for are less likely to thrive or to come to fruition.

You might respond that this answer works only for people who know about their impending execution. What about someone who is killed painlessly in her sleep? Could this ever be construed as a punishment? We can give an affirmative answer if we think of punishment in a somewhat extended sense as the setting back of a person’s interests. Suppose you have given offense to someone and, in order to punish you, he has been embezzling money from your account. Being an affluent entrepreneur, you never notice the losses (you rather take your business to be less successful than it really is). But nonetheless, there is a sense in which he really has succeeded in punishing you. Your wealth is something you care a great deal about, and it really has been substantially diminished over time. Similarly, you might be punished by someone who is spreading false rumors about you that damage your reputation among the people who know you, even if no one confronts you with these rumors and you thus remain ignorant of how your reputation has been gravely tarnished.

Once we allow that there can be plausible cases of unexperienced punishments, then it may also be plausible to say that someone is punished after her death by the setting back of interests that were important to her. (After all, if the punishment is not experienced anyway, why should it matter whether the punished person is capable of such an experience at the time of the punishment?) Of course, this is stretching the ordinary notion of punishment a bit, but not, I believe, beyond recognition.

Alexander George: Most of Thomas’ response focuses on your observation that once one is dead one is “not conscious,” and he nicely tries to clear a space for the possibility of harm’s being done to someone even if that person doesn’t feel the harm. But in most of the cases he considers, there is still someone to be the subject of the misfortune: the clueless entrepreneur, for instance, is still around to have his interests set back (even if he’s not aware that this is happening).
Death is rather peculiar, however, in that it’s a misfortune that eliminates from the world the subject of the misfortune. (Of course, someone’s death might be a misfortune for others. But as you note, we put people to death to punish the very people who, if the punishment is carried out, are no longer around.) Once one’s dead, not only does one cease to experience things, but one ceases to have interests too. That’s what makes your question hard. It’s really the question the Ancients (and everyone else) argued about: whether someone’s death is a misfortune for that person. As one of my students asked when we were discussing this in class, “So murder is a victimless crime?”

Jyl Gentzler: Of course, murder is not a victimless crime! But how can that be, Professor George asks, if the victim no longer exists in order to suffer the harm that has been done to him? If you must exist in order to have interests, then how can a dead person’s interests suffer as a result of his death?

To see the harm that is suffered by a murder victim, let’s think first about what it means to be harmed. If I were to harm Harry, what sort of thing would I have to do to him? Intuitively, when I harm Harry, my actions make him worse off than he would have been had I not acted as I did. So when I spread vicious gossip about Harry, I have harmed him because, had I not spread the vicious gossip, his reputation would have been intact, and he would have been well-respected in his community, loved by his family and able to complete more easily certain projects about which he cares deeply, projects that require the goodwill and cooperation of others. Because of my vicious gossip, Harry is now a social outcast, unloved and unaided.

So let’s try out this definition of harm: X harms Y if and only if X’s action A makes Y worse off than Y would have been had X not performed A. But now, it seems, we have a problem. If I kill Harry, how can we compare the state that Harry would have been in, had I not killed him, to the state that he’s now in, namely, dead? Since he is dead—and we’ll suppose for now that if he’s dead, he’s nonexistent—he’s in no state at all. How can we compare this “non-state” to the state he would have been in had he been alive?

The answer to this puzzle, I think, is this: If Harry had survived, he would have attained all of the goods that generally come with living: pleasure, deep relationships with others, philosophical knowledge and so on (complete this list with whatever you count as genuine goods). Of course, had he lived, it’s likely that he would have had some hard times, too—some pain, frustration, heartbreak and so forth. But so long as his life would have been worth living, the goods would have outweighed the bads. When I kill Harry, I prevent him from attaining these goods.

When we attempt to figure out the harm that Harry has suffered when I kill him, we should not compare Harry’s state after his death to the state that Harry would have been in had I not killed him. For the reasons that I give above, such a comparison is impossible. Instead, when we attempt to figure out the harm that Harry has suffered when I kill him, we should compare the totality of goods that Harry would have had over the entirety of his life, had I not killed him, to the totality of goods that he actually attained in the life that I cut off. If his life would have been worth living, then I did indeed harm Harry when I killed him: I deprived him of all of the goods that he would otherwise have had, had I not killed him.



Clearly, one does not have to be a professional philosopher to find morality perplexing. One should do the right thing, of course, but that only gets one so far. Is there always a right action? If so, how does one tell which it is? And what kind of feature of an action is its rightness anyway—what makes something right?

Vexing as such questions may be, take a moment to consider what our lives would look like without them. As sad and flawed as our individual and collective histories of moral decision-making may be, their failures are as nothing in comparison to the brutish world that would result from our asking fewer questions, from our trying less hard to gain clarity about our moral obligations, from our giving up the struggle to figure out what we should do.

Who’s who

  • Louise Antony is a professor of philosophy at UMass.
  • Jyl Gentzler is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Philosophy at Amherst and associate director of the college’s Writing Center.
  • Richard Heck is a professor of philosophy at Brown.
  • Jay L. Garfield is the Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities at Smith, where he is also a professor of philosophy. Among his other appointments, he directs the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program and is a member of the graduate faculty at UMass.
  • Thomas Pogge is the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale, professorial fellow at the Australian National University Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics and research director at the Oslo University Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature.
  • Alexander George is a professor of philosophy at Amherst and creator of the website

This article is excerpted from What Should I Do? Philosophers on the Good, the Bad, and the Puzzling, by Alexander George. Published by Oxford University Press © 2011. Used by permission.

Top photo by Samuel Masinter '04