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.


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?

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.

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.

Patricia asked:

If Y is the sole necessary and sufficient conditions for X

And if there are no other necessary conditions for X,

And if there are no other sufficient conditions for X,

And if Y is always the entirely subjective belief of any given individual, not susceptible to justification,

Then in what sense can X be said to exist? Or in what sense can the word which is a marker for X be said to have any meaning?

I hope I have phrased this in a way that makes sense. I’m not an expert logician by any means!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thank you, Patricia, for your beautifully formed question. I would not change a single word of it.

First, I am going to tell you what immediately comes to mind with regard to this ‘X’ (and was probably on your mind too) and then talk about a rather different case which you may not have considered.

What immediately comes to mind? Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations para. 258 which begins:

“Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign “S”…”

From around para. 200 onwards, Wittgenstein has been leading up to this, his case against the notion of a ‘private language’, a language that purportedly refers to subjective ‘objects’ such that ‘a definition of the sign cannot be formulated’. This last bit is crucial, because although we normally consider things like pains and tickles to be subjective or private, these events exist in the arena of public discourse, with repeatable and recognizable causes and effects.

‘S’ is different. Apart from my writing ‘S’ in my diary, nothing physical changes in me to prompt the writing of ‘S’ nor is there any characteristic external behaviour for S, nor any physical event that can be observed to cause me to write ‘S’.

By the end of para. 258 the argument is already over. Game, set and match. (I’m not going to go over this here, books have been written about it.) All that follows are objections that Wittgenstein bats away with ease. The idea of ‘belief’ is the very first thing he considers, in para. 260:

“Well I believe that this is sensation S again.” — Perhaps you believe that you believe it!

What is it to ‘believe’ something, or ‘believe in’ the existence of something? Our first thought is that ‘I know what I believe’. The fact that I believe that P, or believe in the existence of X, is self-validating. I know what my beliefs are, a priori. So what, exactly, is it that presents itself to my mind when I have a belief that P, or a belief in the existence of X?

There are things one can say about many beliefs that are not true of all beliefs. For many beliefs, there is evidence that one would point to; but not for all beliefs (e.g. the belief that the universe has existed for more than 5 minutes, Russell’s famous sceptical hypothesis). For many beliefs, there are actions that are appropriate if you have that belief, but not for all beliefs. Let’s say that (for whatever reason) I believe that Donald Trump will be remembered as one of the great American US Presidents. There is nothing that I can do to show that I have this belief other than asserting that very statement, or repeatedly Tweeting it, or saying (in 8 years time after Trump’s second term) ‘I told you so!’

This ‘sensation’ that I’m having now, which I call ‘S’ is one I ‘believe’ I’ve had before, when I first gave it the name ‘S’. What makes this a case of belief? We’re all familiar with that feeling you get when you recognize something or someone. ‘I’ve seen that car before, what is it?’ ‘It’s a Pagani Zonda.’ ‘Ah!’ Problem is, the ‘feeling’ I get when I ‘believe’ I am having S again is just another incorrigibly subjective feeling, like S. Maybe I’m just imagining it all. What is the difference between ‘belief’ and ‘imagination’? Like cases of deja vu, where you really can’t say exactly what is in your mind or what you’re thinking.

In short, the appeal to belief doesn’t help. It doesn’t go a single step towards weakening the case that Wittgenstein has made in para. 258.

— Now, I want to consider a seemingly very different case, or rather cases, of your ‘X’.

Here are two examples. I believe that I have a guardian angel. I also believe that I have a virtuous soul.

Because I have a guardian angel, whatever bad things may happen to me will not be as bad as they would have been had I not had a guardian angel. If I break my arm, then I can console myself with the thought that were it not for my guardian angel, I would have broken my arm and my leg.

Similarly, I may have done some despicable things in my life, but I believe that because I have a virtuous soul, these were aberrations, the result of ethical misjudgement, rather than reflections of my true character. Were it not for my virtuous soul, I would have done far worse things.

I believe that I have a guardian angel and a virtuous soul because I really do have a guardian angel and a virtuous soul. I have these gifts because I believe it and only because I believe it.

Moreover, unlike the case of ‘S’, these beliefs definitely have consequences. Because I have a guardian angel, I am prepared to take risks that I otherwise would not have taken. Because I have a virtuous soul, I am prepared to put myself in moral danger that I would not otherwise have put myself in.

Wouldn’t this be a case that fits your schema? We can go further and generalize. I could believe these things about you. Because you have a guardian angel, your question was more cogent and logical than it otherwise would have been, etc. (So this isn’t, as one might have first thought, merely a case of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.)

Over to you.

Jess asked:

I just want some guidance on writing a philosophy paper on Crito! I have to basically write 3 paragraphs of:

1) Socrates argument

2) the counter argument

3) why i think Socrates’ argument overrules any counter argument.

I don’t know how to extend this to be 1200 words.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I would like to help you, Jess, but first I want to say something about this kind of question. I don’t mean questions about Socrates or the Crito, I’m talking about instructors who basically tell you all the steps you need to do to write your ‘paper’. Do this, do this, do this and you’re done. Easy.

Except that philosophy isn’t like that. The whole point about studying philosophy is learning to think for yourself. Maybe your ideas on the Crito don’t fit the instructor’s easy scheme. Why must Socrates win every argument? Is he a god? Didn’t he say that all he knew was how much he didn’t know? Can’t he ever be wrong?

Casting my mind back to this famous dialogue by Plato, I seem to recall that Crito visits Socrates in prison where the great philosopher is awaiting execution after being convicted by an Athenian court on a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the young. ‘Hey, Socrates,’ says Crito, ‘My friends and I can help you escape to a place where your philosophical ideas will be appreciated. You can live like a lord. Look what the Athenians did to you, you don’t owe them anything.’

And then Socrates says something to the effect that he couldn’t live with himself if he ‘harmed the laws of Athens’. Or some such nonsense.

If Socrates had said, ‘I want to be a martyr to philosophy. I want Plato to write his greatest dialogue, the Phaedo, about how I bravely drank the hemlock discussing the immortality of the soul with my friends,’ one could understand. Martyrdom is a theme of contemporary politics. Everyone dies, so make your death count for something. Take a few dozen unbelievers with you and let them be dragged to hell.

Now, I can be wrong about this and often am. Maybe you disagree with my casual dismissal of Socrates’ argument. This is about what you think. I’m not going to put words in your mouth or write your paper for you.

As for the length, 1200 words is nothing. If you were talking about this with your friends, how many words would your conversation run to? Several thousand, I’d guess. So my advice is: forget that you are following a ‘how-to-do-it’ guide for writing a paper. Read the Crito at least twice. Then write what you make of it all. Let it all hang out. Risk being ‘wrong’. (You might still be in the right, but unfortunately regardless of how stupid they are, instructors are the ones who give the grades.)

Most importantly, argue with yourself. Don’t assume that the first thought that comes into your mind is valid or even relevant. Write your paper, criticize it, then rewrite it from scratch. I guarantee that the result will be something of which you can be justifiably proud.


Books by Geoffrey Klempner

=== Solve this riddle ===


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