Philosophy in funny places
By Saul Smilansky

An invited piece of mine on philosophy in Israel, “Letter from Israel“, has just come out in The Philosopher’s Magazine (TPM); naturally it has an ethical dimension and some of you might find it interesting.

Preceding this “Letter from Israel” were reports on philosophy in various other exotic lands. I’ve found many to be fascinating. Check out, for example, the

Letter from Singapore

The “Letter from Iceland

The “Letter from Turkey

From South-Africa

And from Italy…

There have also been “letters” from China, Malta, and so on – just Google your favorite country and you might get lucky.

Things have been philosophically very quite over here, so I thought that some of you might like to ponder the question whether you should be sorry that you exist. Some background explanation: Jean Kazez has been posting on the paradoxes in my recent book “10 Moral Paradoxes” in the blog Talking Philosophy. So far she has covered chapters 1 through 6. Chapter 6 is “On Not Being Sorry About the Morally Bad”. The basic idea here is this:

I’ve been looking through the recent issue of Analysis. It has 13 papers, of which one is on meta-ethics, and there’s nothing in either normative or applied ethics. This is a fairly typical showing. There are occasional papers on free will (which is a distinct topic, combining metaphysics and ethics), but very little ethics as such, and (my focus here) hardly any normative or, indeed, applied ethics. Why? And why does this matter?

What can we learn from moral paradoxes?

While each of the questions of my four previous posts in this series could be answered fairly decisively, this question is naturally more open. So I will be able to give only some indication as to why moral paradoxes matter, and why investigating them further should be worthwhile. But there is another reason why it is difficult to speak here with confidence: moral paradoxes, in the strict sense (as we explicated their nature in the first post) have been almost completely neglected. To the best of my knowledge, my recent book 10 MORAL PARADOXES is only the third book ever on this topic, at least within analytic philosophy (the predecessors, in a broad sense, being Derek Parfit’s REASONS AND PERSONS which introduces various paradoxes, and the late Gregory Kavka’s MORAL PARADOXES OF NUCLEAR DETERRENCE; both of them from the 1980s).

What should we do about moral paradoxes?

By now we should have a reasonably good idea of what a moral paradox is, of how a moral paradox differs from other things that might seem like it but are not, and of (some of) the sources of moral paradoxes. But what should we do about moral paradoxes? Some of the answers here will be surprising.

Prepunishment in the Garden
By Saul Smilansky

There is an excellent discussion on prepunishment going on in the Garden of Forking Paths blog. Normally I wouldn’t refer to discussions there as free will is a distinct topic, but this discussion is more on prepunishment and punishment in general than strictly on free will; and the discussion is really illuminating (but it takes a while to get going and the thread is long, so you need to be patient). Other Ethicsetcetniks involved are Neil Levy and Thom Brooks (and sorry if I’ve missed anyone else). The link is:

Where do moral paradoxes come from?

In the first post we asked what is a paradox, and in the second how to distinguish moral paradoxes from non-paradoxes (such as curiosities or puzzles). But where do moral paradoxes come from? I will examine this question through a quick survey of a few of the paradoxes in 10 MORAL PARADOXES.

How can we tell moral paradoxes from non-paradoxes?

In my previous post I proposed that we follow a fairly clear understanding of what a paradox is. A paradox needs to have premises we agree with, leading through argumentation that seems impeccable, to an unacceptable (or reluctantly acceptable but truly absurd) conclusion. I shall assume this understanding of paradox henceforth. But in practice, deciding whether we have a paradox at hand is often not so simple. One reason is that the paradoxicality depends on substantive moral beliefs. Recall the paradox about justice and the severity of punishment that I outlined in the comments to my previous post: if (say) someone does not think that we ever need to mitigate the punishment of those from underprivileged backgrounds, or denies that deterrence is effective, then he or she will not accept all the premises that go into making the paradox. The only thing we can do then is to engage in discussion and try to show that those premises are plausible, and that our discussant should not really reject them.

What is a moral paradox?

First let’s see what a paradox is. Broadly speaking, there are two opinions. One is lax; it is common among non-philosophers, but occasionally comes up in philosophy as well. According to the lax view, a paradox (or the paradoxical – there is a distinction, but I will not make it here) can be anything perplexing, unusual, unexpected, or ironic. The strict view closely connects paradoxes to the idea of a contradiction. Mark Sainsbury in PARADOXES defines it thus: “an apparently unacceptable conclusion derived by apparently acceptable reasoning from apparently acceptable premises” (1996:1).