Should we judge actions by their outcomes?

Every societytries to find ways of judging whether an action is right or wrong. Some suggest that we can make rules that tell us what is good and what is bad. But others say that it is not so simple. To decide if something is morally right, it might be too simple to look just at what will happen if we do it, and whether that outcome is good or bad. Sometimes, for instance, the outcomes are all bad and you have to chose the least best of them all. 

Rules or outcomes?

There are certain rules about what is right and wrong, and usually we shouldn’t break them. But perhaps what makes something good or bad is the effect it has, not the action itself. Is it what you do, or the result of what you do that really matters? Whenever we make a decision about what is the right thing to do, perhaps we should consider how the outcome will affect other people, instead of just following the rules without questioning them.

Do the ends justify the means?

Does it matter what we do or what means we use, as long as the outcome is good in the end? We have to look at all the consequences. For example, it might be right to let one person die to save 100 lives, but wrong to kill 100 to save just one. Perhaps we need to look at people’s intentions, too. Did they do something bad because they knew
it would have good consequences, or was it just a bad thing that turned out fine in the end?

The greatest happiness

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) believed that we can decide the morality of an action by looking at its outcome. He said that what matters is how much happiness or harm the action causes. To judge whether it is right or wrong, we have to weigh all the good and bad consequences. He argued that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”—a system that became known as utilitarianism.

Pursuing happiness

Bentham based his system on “happiness,” meaning all the things that give us pleasure, such as food, shelter, and doing the things we enjoy. Other philosophers said we should be free to live our lives in the pursuit of happiness, but remember that we all have different ideas of what gives us pleasure.

The harm principle

We must think about the impact of our actions on other people. English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–73) said that something is good if it gives pleasure to other people, but that it is not wrong to do things that make us happy, too. He argued that something is only wrong if it harms someone else, or stops them from doing what brings them happiness. In addition to the happiness caused by our actions, we must consider the “harm principle”— how much our actions hurt other people or interfere with their happiness.

Good or bad? The Trolley dilemma

The idea that a good action is one that brings the most happiness, inspired many others. But the measure of right versus wrong might also not be the greatest happiness, but the least pain. Is it a bad decission and are you a murderer if you have someone killed in order to save a group of friends?

An empty trolley has broken loose and is speeding out of control down a railroad track. Farther down the line, five people are tied to the tracks. The trolley will run them over. There is no way of stopping it, but there is a lever nearby. By pulling the lever you can send the trolley down a different track. However, there is one other person tied to the tracks on the other line. What do you do? If you pull the lever, you save five lives, but the other person gets run over. If you do nothing, you will let five people die. But they would be run over anyway if you hadn’t been there. On the other hand, if you pull the lever, you have deliberately made the decision to kill one person. Is killing someone any different from allowing someone to die? Does your thinking change when you are standing on a bridge and can save 5 people by throwing someone from the bridge in front of the trolley? You can save the 5 people who are on the track, but the man you push will die. Should you push him? Would pushing him off the bridge be different from pulling the lever? What if he is the person who put the people on the tracks in the first place—would that affect your decision?

The hot air balloon trip

Suppose you are in a group of people riding in a hot-air balloon. It beomes clear that the balloon is too heavy, and you begin slowly falling toward the sea. The sea is full of hungry sharks. To make the balloon lighter, you need to get rid of one of the passengers. One person must be thrown to the sharks to save everyone else. But how do you choose who to throw out? It might be a good idea to choose the heaviest. Or do you choose the oldest? Perhaps one of the passengers is a doctor, and another a criminal. Would that affect your decision? Is one person more valuable than another? Would you jump yourself to let the other passengers live?





What is nothing?

For thousands of years philosophers have argued about what exists. Could it be that nothing at all exists? Part of the problem is that we cannot imagine “nothing,” since there is nothing to imagine! Is there such a thing as “nothing”? How can we describe or imagine a lack of anything at all? American philosopher Robert Nozick asks us to try to
think it through, using the following example.. 

Nozick said that for there to be nothing, there must be something making that nothing happen by keeping no object or person there. He asks us to imagine a huge vacuum cleaner that goes around vacuuming everything up. Eventually there is nothing left but the vacuum cleaner itself. For there to be nothing at all, the vacuum cleaner must then vacuum itself up. At this point, however, it will have sucked “nothingness” into nothingness, and when there is no longer any “nothing,” there must be “something.”

If we ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” it sounds as if we think “nothing” is the natural way for things to be, and “something” is a step on from this. But maybe it is  more natural for there to be things, rather than for there to be nothing? If so, we donot have to wonder about why there is something, because it is natural for something to exist.

The meaning of “nothing”

Some philosophers say that when we talk about “nothing,” we are not really talking about a lack of anything at all. We are talking about “something,” but something other than what we were looking for. For instance, if we were to say that “Jane is not tall,” it does not mean Jane has no tallness, or no height. It just means that Jane is something other than tall. She may be short or of average height. Similarly, when we use the word “nothing” it is wrong to think that the word refers to a total vacuum.

“Something” is more likely

Probability looks at how likely something is. For example, children go to school five days of the week when school is in session, and on just two days a week they do not go to school. If someone were to stick a pin in a calendar showing the school year, they would be more likely to hit a school day than a weekend. In the same way, Nozick said, it’s
more likely for something to exist than for nothing to exist at all, because there are many possible worlds of  something, but only one possible world of nothing. He compared it to having a huge sack of red balls (these are all the possible “something” worlds) and adding just one white ball (the “nothing” world) to the sack: Isn’t the chance of pulling out a red ball much higher?

Why is there something rather than nothing?

After thinking about what the world was made of, the ancient Greek philosophers questioned why there was a world at all. Why was there something, rather than nothing? Is it possible that something has always existed? We are so used to thinking of beginnings and endings that it is hard to imagine that something has always been there. On the other hand, could something such as the universe have been created from nothing?

There must be something

Parmenides believed that things don’t just burst into existence. He said it is impossible for “things that are not” to suddenly become “things that are.” Nothing can come from nothing. He also said that it doesn’t make sense even to think of nothing, because we can’t imagine nothing. If nothingness is impossible then there must be something.

Impossibly fast

Aristotle also believed nothingness was impossible, and he used scientific reasons to support his argument. He said that the speed with which something moves through a medium—such as water—depends on how dense it is. But nothingness would have no density, so things would move infinitely fast, which is impossible

What came first?

When we ask “Why is something here?” we normally mean “What caused this?” For example, if you were asked
about why you are here, you might say that you are here because of your parents. And they are here because of
your grandparents, and so on. Aristotle thought that there must be something at the beginning of the whole human chain, and even the universe itself, that was not caused by anything else. He believed this “first cause” was God.

Story of the universe

Scientists say that the universe started with the Big Bang – a powerful explosion – that caused everything else to grow into existence. So that would mean Earth did not come from nothing, but it created itself because of the Big Bang. But what caused the Big Bang? Scientists and philosophers say that it is impossible for there to be absolutely nothing. So perhaps before the Big Bang there were just tiny vibrations. But what caused these vibrations?

Beyond physics

In philosophy, questions about what exists are grouped together under the term “metaphysics.” The word means “after physics” because one of Aristotle’s early works about physics sparked debates about existence. Today, we think of it as all the kinds of things that go beyond or above the physical and that can’t be answered by physics. Questions such as “Why is there something rather than nothing? So, why is there, what do you think?


How can we know what exists?

If someone asked you “What exists?” you would probably point to the things around you and say “Everything!” If asked how you know if it’s real, you probably answer that you can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste it all. But some philosophers think that it’s not that simple. Our senses can be tricked and they might not tell the truth. Can we ever really know what’s real?

The perfect form

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato said that there are two types of reality. One is our world, with everything we see, hear, and touch. The second is another world full of perfect things that Plato called “forms.” He said that in our world we have only imperfect copies of forms that exist in another world. For instance, the dogs we see are less-than-perfect copies of the “form of dog.” Plato believed that we hold the idea of perfect forms in our minds, so we can
recognize the copies when we meet them.

A world of shadows

This imagined scene helps explain Plato’s idea of forms. Imagine a group of people who have been imprisoned in
a cave since they were born. They are tied up facing the back wall of the cave, which is all they can see. Near the cave
entrance there is a fire that casts shadows onto the back wall. Sometimes other people  walk along a path between the fire and the cave. They hold up puppets, which appear as shadows on the cave wall. Since this is all the prisoners have ever known, they think the shadows are real objects. Plato said that we are like these prisoners. We think the things we see and hear around us are real. In fact, they are like shadows of the real things, which are the forms.

Collecting information

Plenty of later philosophers disagreed with Plato’s ideas about reality. They didn’t believe we need perfect forms to explain how we know things, and they suggested instead that our minds gather information. Take an apple, for
example. Our senses tell us about its particular color, shape, feel, and taste. All this information is collected and organized in our minds. We see the fruit and immediately think “apple” because that’s the name we have been taught.

Just an idea?

When we see, hear, or touch something, we form an idea of what it is. So when we feel something fluffy and see brownness and big ears, we might decide this adds up to the idea of a “rabbit.” “Rabbit” is a human word and idea. But if “rabbit” is just an idea in your head, what do you really know? You know you have an idea, but do you really have a rabbit? And what happens if no one is around to have the idea—is there still a rabbit?

Only ideas are real

The suggestion that only ideas are real is known as “idealism.” It can seem very odd to ask yourself how you know something—say, a table— is there in front of you. Your senses give you information about it: it’s hard, wooden, has legs, and so on. But to figure out that this object is a table you have to use reason. Try altering some of the information. If the table moved, all by itself, would you change your mind about what it is? Magicians take advantage of our ideas about what is real to perform their tricks. They say, “See this? And this? But now watch— nothing is as you thought!”

Beyond our senses

Perhaps, as the idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested, there are real things in the world outside our minds. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what they actually are. All we know about things comes from what we sense about them. But what if you had 10 different senses instead of just five? What would the world seem like to you then?

Can we think without language?

We humans have the unique ability to use spoken and written language. Language helps us express complicated ideas and allows us to think about more than simply what we can experience with our senses. Perhaps we also use language to think in the way we do.

Uses of language

Whether it is spoken or written, language lets us communicate ideas to other people. We can discuss things, agree or disagree with other people’s ideas, and come up with new ideas of our own. We use language to communicate with ourselves, too— having a kind of “inner conversation” where we discuss ideas with ourselves in our minds.

Thinking and reasoning

The word “think” means many different things. But there is a difference between having a thought or feeling, and using reasoning—thinking about something rationally. For example, we can think that something tastes good, but that is not the same as thinking through a problem. This kind of rational thought is almost impossible without some form of language.

Thinking in pictures

There are some things that we can think about without using language. For example, when we imagine a machine and how it works, we usually think visually, in pictures. Pictures are often more useful than language to think about things we can see or touch. But pictures cannot communicate abstract ideas such as goodness or fairness. It is difficult to express a complex idea, such as “Jim won’t come if it is raining,” in a picture. To think about these more complex things, we need language.

How do deaf people think?

People who have been deaf from birth learn language differently than people who can hear. They cannot easily learn
spoken language, but can learn sign language, and to read and write. Deaf people may not have the sounds of words in their heads when they have a conversation, or even an internal conversation, but they do use a language. They use this soundless form of language to reason, just as hearing people use spoken language.

Limits of language

Without language, our thinking would be restricted to the things we experience through our senses. Language allows us to use our reasoning. But there are things that we cannot express with language—things we haven’t experienced and we don’t have words for. It is difficult to think about things we have no language for. People living in a desert, for example, might not have a word for “snow” in their language. Without a word for it, they would find it difficult to express the idea of snow if they came across it.

Learning language

Most of the time, we use language without thinking about it. It seems to come naturally, and at a very early age. Philosopher and psychologist Noam Chomsky (1928–) says that humans are born with a unique natural ability to learn language. He has pointed out that a kitten exposed to exactly the same language and environment as a baby would never pick up language in the way the baby would—learning language is uniquely human.

Do animals use language?

Animals are not able to use words like humans. They do, however, have ways of communicating with each other, using sounds and signs to communicate ideas such as “danger” or “food.” Some people say that this type of communication is not really language, since it cannot be used to express complicated ideas.

We  might have our instinct telling us simple things and warning us to stay or get our of trouble. But to think about complicated things we seem to need language. How do you use language?

How do I know what you’re thinking?

How can we prove that other people have minds that work in the same way as our own? Each of us has unique access to his or her own mind— no one can read another person’s mind. But if we don’t know how someone else’s mind works, how do we know what that person is thinking?

Other minds

We can’t get inside another person’s mind to see what it is like, but we can see how others behave. John Locke said
that watching other people’s behavior leads
us to assume their minds are like our own. However, these observations don’t give us actual knowledge, since they are based on our own ideas, which are still only in our own heads!

Understanding behavior

Imagine that you see someone walk up to a store, find it closed, frown, and walk away. Based on your own experience, you might assume that the person felt frustrated. However, that person’s mind and body might operate very differently from yours. Perhaps that person frowns when thinking hard, and therefore may not be annoyed at all. When we see smiling kids we assume these children are happy because they look the way we feel when we are happy.

The language game

German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that we have developed language to help us share our experiences with other people. Language lets us make our private thoughts public, and we can only talk if we understand what is being said. So language proves that there are other minds, because it represents shared thoughts—things that lots of us think or feel. Without language we wouldn’t know that we think and feel in similar ways.

Feelings are common

If there is a word for something, it means that many people have experienced it. For example, if you start using the word “pain” in the wrong way, you will soon realize you are wrong by the way other people react to you. From a young age, you learn to use the word to describe the same kinds of feelings that others do. Learning language lets you learn about feelings that everyone has. If you use a new word to describe something that only you have ever felt, no one will correct you. They just won’t know what you’re talking about!

Is my pain the same as your pain?

Even if you explain to your best friend exactly what happens when you stub your toe, can he or she really know what it is like toexperience that in your body and mind? It’s possible that if you asked 10 other people to describe the feeling of stubbing their toe, they would all use the word “pain,” but they could all be feeling it differently. How can we know exactly what they are feeling?

Similar experiences

We all think we experience the same feelings. But how do we know we all feel the same thing when we say we are happy, hungry, excited, or tired? Some would say that this does not really matter— our experiences are similar enough.

We can understand enough about what is happening to those people, even if we cannot experience their actual feelings, right?

How do we learn?

Many people are very interested in how we know what we know. Do we learn by thinking about things, or by experiencing them? One group of philosophers suggests that we are born with some ideas already in our heads. While others disagree completely.

Born with ideas

Famous philosopher René Descartes suggested that some of our ideas exist in our minds even before we are born. He said that we might not be aware of having these ideas, but they are like rules that we use to make sense of the world. They include mathematical ideas such as shapes and sizes. Without these ideas, Descartes said, the world would seem like a big, colorful, energetic mess that made no sense at all.

Working it out

One of the ideas that Descartes said is we are born with is “cause and effect.” For example, when a baby hits a mobile and it moves, what makes him hit it again? Descartes would say it is because the baby already understands the idea of cause and effect, so he knows that the force of his hand will make the mobile move. But John Locke said this was wrong. He said that a baby has no ideas, but is able to work things out. So he would say that the baby just happens to hit the mobile again, and again, and starts to notice that the hand and mobile movement seem connected.

No set ideas

Other philosopher Locke said that if people were born with ideas already in their minds then every human being everywhere in the world, at any time throughout history, would have exactly the same ideas. But no one has ever found an idea that exists everywhere in this way. This seems to confirm Locke’s suggestion that we are not born with set ideas already in our heads, but instead have to learn everything for ourselves as we grow up.

Hidden ideas

To support his argument that all our ideas are learned through experience, Locke reasoned that if we were born with ideas already in our heads then we would know about them. Because we don’t know about these ideas, then they can’t be there. However, other philosophers say that Locke could be wrong about this. They argue that we don’t know every single one of our memories, until we try to remember them. For example, you might have forgotten what you did last weekend, until someone asks you about it.

Perhaps the ideas we are born with are just like our memories— in our minds already, just waiting to be found? What do you think?