10 Big Questions


Big Bang Theory

Time Travel

Meaning of Life

Creation vs. Evolution

Artificial Intelligence

Life After Death

Extraterrestrial Life

Cultural Relativism

Ethical Dilemmas

Ethical Dilemmas by Geoffrey Klempner
BUY on Amazon

Social Justice

Further Study

Philosophy and Sci-Fi


Ethical Dilemmas

Neil asked:

Does a Jehovah's witness have the right to refuse a blood transfusion for his/ her sick baby?

Many physicians would be prepared to concede to the parent's refusal to allow their child a blood transfusion, provided that the life of the infant was not in imminent danger. This implies recognition of the principle that in virtue of a religious objection which the parent holds, but the infant is too young to hold, one may withhold treatment from the infant which would, were it to be applied, be of positive benefit. In other words, the infant does not have the absolute moral right to the best treatment on offer, irrespective of the religious views of the parent.

However, the line would be drawn in cases where the infant would almost certainly perish if the treatment was not given. The parent does not have the right to let their child die for the sake of his or her religious beliefs.

This is the default position, the common sense view. It acknowledges that a person's religious views are something to be respected, and in that sense valued, even if we do not hold those views ourselves. It also acknowledges that human life is a pre-eminent value. I believe that the onus of proof is firmly on the person who rejects this default position, for example, by asserting the Jehovah's Witnesses right to allow their child to die.

How would the argument go? One might raise the question whether absolutely anything would be permitted, that did not itself involve harming another human being, in order to save a child's life. Those of us who are not Jehovah's Witnesses do not see what is wrong with giving a blood transfusion. However, there may be other things which would arouse our moral repugnance — for example, putting a human heart or brain in the liquidiser and feeding it to the infant in a bottle — to the point where we would be prepared to prohibit such a form of treatment being given, even to save a life. Anyone who is convinced by this example owes the Jehovah's Witness an explanation of why the repugnance against cannibalism has any more right to respect than the Jehovah's Witnesses repugnance against 'partaking of blood'.

On the other hand, if we bite the bullet and accept that, under certain circumstances, cannibalism would be justified on medical grounds, that makes the Jehovah's Witnesses position look rather stronger. We started off defending blood transfusions, and ended up defending cannibalism! As one who is prepared to bite the bullet, however, I am not embarrassed by having to make this admission.

Geoffrey Klempner


Hana asked:

What positions would Mill and opponent of his take with respect to whether white supremacists have the right to march in a black neighborhood? and why?

Mill would say that it is okay for white supremacists to march in a black neighbourhood, so long as they do not harm those living in the area, or encourage others to harm them. And so long as they do not prevent those living in the neighbourhood from expressing their own opinion or marching themselves. This is because Mill argues that we are free to do what we want providing what we do does not harm others. Mill also argues that mere offence or distaste does not constitute harm, so the white supremacists would be allowed, and perhaps even encouraged by Mill to march.

Now there are problems for Mill in saying just what it means to harm someone, or the limits of encouragement that is allowable, but generally most people would perhaps agree with his views. There are however opponents that would disagree with Mill, I think we can identify three major types, one that I call 'free speech hypocrites', a second which could be called 'free speech humanitarians'. Both of these work within a Millian framework and disagree with then details of Mill's theory. But a third opponent is one who would reject entirely what Mill has to say about liberty.

Free speech hypocrites all those like the white supremacists, who argue the case for freedom of speech as a constitutional right under law, so that they can march, but only appeal to the value of free speech in order to actively deny such rights to others, namely those living in the black neighbourhood. Such opponents would not accept the consequence of Mill's view that every has the freedom to do what they want. They would not want others to be free to march against them.

The second group agree with Mill that liberty is a good thing and free speech should be permitted, but disagree with Mill that whatever its content, free speech does no harm. They would argue that racism, homophobia, fascism, and other prejudiced beliefs are harmful and should be prevented from being freely expressed. The problem here is that no matter what anyone says it will offend someone, should we therefore ban all differing opinion, or offensive behaviour?

The third opponent does not agree with Mill that free speech or individual liberty is necessarily a good state of affairs. They usually would argue that individual freedom leads to unfulfilled lives. Such opponents would find support in the works of Plato and Aristotle, who argue the need to live the Good Life, a life that is defined by the role one plays within a society. Hobbes would also disagree with Mill. He thinks that individual freedom must be sacrificed to a powerful sovereign if those individuals are to avoid war and conflict.

I do not think that Hobbes would allow the white supremacists to march, if the march would lead to frustration or harm the black community, because it would them mean that there was an imbalance in the freedom given up by some. If this imbalance was corrected by the sovereign allowing the blacks to have their own march, it would lead to frustration on the other side, possibly resulting in conflict, and so the sovereign would not be doing his job. The only way the sovereign could protect all the members of society would be to ban the march in the first place. Freedom is given up for the sake of peace and survival.

Brian Tee


Louise asked:

What I regard as cheating is considered OK by many American university students — one survey revealed that as many as 75% of the interviewed students had purchased essays, term papers or even their masters theses from other writers, usually through online "paper mills", instead of doing their own work. One student responded to the question Why do you cheat? by saying "If you're not cheating, you're not trying."

As a non-cheating student in classes as large as 400 students, I can vouch for the difficulty of competing against students whose written work is done by professionals and whose exams and classes are taken by paid substitutes. They get better grades, look smarter on school records and get better opportunities for jobs as the "A" students. Professors don't bother to make themselves available to students or to get to know them, so they have no way of knowing that many of their "best" students got their grades by cheating.

These papers cost a lot of money, but cost is irrelevant to students who use Daddy's charge cards to pay for them, stay in party mode and assign their education to writers and sit-ins. I do not see that they really lose out. They do not care whether they are educated, they want to make money and hang with people like themselves, and they will graduate with far more social advantages than I will, swotting away while they cruise the clubs and make the connections that will get them the best paying jobs. I'm sure they will continue to cheat at their jobs by using insider information and paying underlings to do all their work for them as they take the credit for it. They will have better grades and no doubt get into better grad schools after they get tutoring for GMAT exams or even get access to tests, and present their references as top of the class pupils with good social connections.

I am bitter and struggling for my grades and wish I could find a way to rationalize cheating, because it seems I am being a sucker by not doing it.

They say it doesn't matter if they cheat to get through required courses that they'll never use, (like Ethics, haha.) What is your take on this cheating epidemic? It is not only common in University, but also in lower schools, where 75% of seventh grade students had cheated, and 63% of sixth grade students, according to a Duke University study. Professors do it too! One east coast professor was allowed to continue teaching after being caught lying to his Vietnam History of the War classes about his (non)experience fighting in Vietnam, or the several historians and writers who have been caught presenting plagiarized material as their own work in books, or the journalist who made up his own "sources" to quote. I know one cheating professor who even used old, forgotten dissertations in his newly published book and presented the work as his own, because I worked for him!

Is there a new philosophy that makes cheating laudable because it is so prevalent and because there is no benefit to not doing it except a feeling (useless) of virtue? I can't say that I recall anything much from my courses, even ones I got excellent grades in only a year ago, so it's not as if I am so much better educated than cheaters are.

They all act as though cheating is an out of date concept and practical results are everything. I feel as if I am adhering to some outmoded philosophy (not religious — I was brought up Unitarian) that works to my ultimate disadvantage yet I can't seem to let go of it. Please comment, this disturbs me every time I see a fellow student sitting in the U. pub while I am flogging myself toward the library. It is ruining my educational experience, plus there are not very many fascinating minds to connect with. My University is ranked in the top 5 in the U.S. — it's not as if this is happening where it won't affect the future, but then look at the President — did he really have what it takes to get to, let alone through Yale? I wonder.

There is no philosophy of cheating. Instead, cheating is a strategy for accomplishing a goal with a minimum of effort. Moreover, cheating is a calculated risk. The cheater reasons that his professor will likely not check his work, and he may thus escape capture. However, penalties are severe if a cheater is ever caught (expulsion or other severe penalties, in Universities where I have been). Honestly, a notation of expulsion on a college transcript is something that is never washed away. That horrid legacy will haunt anyone who is caught cheating. The fact that increasing numbers of Universities are subscribing to anti-plagiarism systems should sound a note of caution to all potential cheaters.

You have high ambitions for yourself, as you described. I applaud your effort. However, it is important to remember that not everyone shares your desire for top grades, nor do they have the same talents as you. When you find yourself admiring the guy drinking beer at the bar as you trudge to the library, remember this: He might have paid his look-alike friend to take a test for him. Or, he might be celebrating an "A" on a test, after hours of his own studying. Or, he may have a photographic memory. Or, he may simply keep a different schedule than yours. Or, this person may be content to get the lowest passing grade and does not see the need to study until his grades fall below passing.

Cheating is not a philosophy, it is a strategy. People who cheat to succeed are also the same people who ran Enron, WorldCom, and any number of other businesses with abysmal ethics records. Their "luck" ran out and now most of them are scrambling to cover their hind sides before someone else exposes them. That is the life of the cheat.

At the end of the day, the only opinion of yourself that matters is your own. If you are willing to risk a college degree for the sake of a better letter grade, then perhaps your life's priorities require reassessment.

Take care and don't cheat.

Jeffrey Kenton


Let me tell you something about honesty. Nothing philosophical, nothing religious, but practical:

It is about being honest to yourself, to your own way.

If you identify something in the world around you that might be of help to you and you feel good with it then take it. If you do not feel good with it then leave it and do it your own way. This is real simple. If you saw the whole world cheating around you and you don't feel good with it then do not look left or right! Do not compare your way to the way of the others! This is very essential! Never compare! Honesty might bring material disadvantages with it but not necessarily. The example I have before my eyes is my boss. He was one of the German top managers and I was real lucky to be his secretary in the past 5 years. He was an honest man through and through, he had an outstanding career in our company over the past 35 years and last Friday he retired and he got lots of good-bye emails of which I read some. It is unbelievable how he was seen as an example to others, how much respect all those people paid him. He was the one in our company in several years who retired on his own terms, he was forced to nothing.

It is a deep and very real experience to me that people who go their own way in honesty to themselves and to others are guided by some invisible hand. This is nothing religious but a real experience! This way is not the bright and shining, funny and good looking way of the mass but your own which may often be dark and full of hindrances but in going this way you will become a personality people can trust. Would you ever trust somebody or pay respect to someone of whom you know how he got his degrees or whatever by cheating. What he achieved is a lie. Would you want to build your life on a lie? Besides being afraid that it will be known some day. If you see them sit together, drinking beer in a pub do you really think they can ever trust each other knowing that they are all able to cheat? Leave them alone. Let them live their lives how they want. Find people in your school or university who are honest like you. Be together with them, your own people. This gives some confidence and you are not alone. If there is no one you can turn to the way to the library is the best way you can choose. In case there are no fascinating minds alive around you be sure there are lots of the most fascinating minds who left their thoughts to us in the books.

My favourite is still Seneca and his letters to Lucilius. They are brillant for somebody in your situation. I know because I was in a similar situation but I was the one being cheated. And not only once. It helps to stay honest, go your own way despite of what happens to you and gives you confidence doing the right thing and showing this to all the others. And the strength to separate from people who are not good for you which might bring with it that you are often alone but again, not necessarily.

I wish you the strength to not looking left or right when there is nothing good for you to see.

Martina Blumenroth


There has always been dishonesty, cheating, lying, stealing, torture, maiming, and killing throughout human history. Many times it results in no punishment for the unethical; they get rich and powerful. If you doubt that, just look at world leaders and the rich today and throughout history. I assume that you've just realized that, and that you're shocked by it. I don't blame you, really... but there isn't much difference between conduct today and in the past, as far as I can tell. Human beings haven't changed much. Actually, things might be a little better... people don't usually torture others, at least physically, for public entertainment any more, as virtually all societies used to do, and there are watchdog groups, such as Amnesty International and the ACLU, now.

If cheating is successful, then you will do worse than cheaters in your grades and future jobs and money, probably. However, you will learn the subjects you study, and you will learn to behave ethically under duress. Children learn from example, and you will be setting an example. If you feel very strongly about it, start making a fuss: write letters, start a club, talk to the administration. Perhaps something will come of that, perhaps not. I'm certainly not going to give you a message of hope here... given human nature as it is shown by human history, the picture is bleak. There are a few people, here and there, who try to keep things going, intellectually, artistically, ethically. Not very many, really... most are indifferent, some are hostile. That you can reflect as you do above is a good sign... you are able to choose your values, which most people do not do. Good luck.

Steven Ravett Brown


Your letter to us is eloquent and disturbing and I am sad to read it. As you say, this is a practical problem that affects what our society turns out to be like.

The first comment I would make is that I don't think the situation is the same here in England. I studied at Uni here a few years ago (I graduated in 1995). The classes here, both at school and Uni, were certainly much smaller than your 400. At Uni, our exams were set by the lecturer who had taught the course, and often invigilated and marked by them — certainly by one of the departmental staff. They all knew who I was!! (I used to draw cartoons and write limericks about them.)

I'm sure our lecturers recognized the students who showed themselves in the department and regularly attended lectures. These students would be expected to get better grades than those who never attended. I worked hard and read a lot, but I was rewarded with a 1st. I don't think the people who used to come up to me and my friends 2 weeks before the exams and ask "What books are we studying?" did so well — although I don't think they failed, either... My only experience of cheating was when another student borrowed one of my essays 'to help him understand', and I had some difficulty getting it back.

That said, it sounds like cheating is a common and accepted fact in the US. Do you believe the statistics produced by the surveys? Do you think, from your own experience, that those figures are accurate? In England, few students would admit to cheating, even if they were doing it! Here, there is a great suspicion about the results of surveys, the accuracy of which depends on many things, including the sample size, the truthfulness of those conducting the survey and of those questioned, and the statistical analysis applied, which are often not disclosed when the survey's results are quoted.

If everyone knows about this cheating, doesn't anyone else besides you want to stop it? Do you think there's anything you could do about it? Would it be possible for you to expose people you know to be cheating? What about if a group of people formed an association or campaign against cheating? Don't your schools and Uni's want to do something about it? Is there any group you can join that works to reduce cheating? Is there any action that can be taken against those who take exams for others, or who supply essays and papers to cheats? If no-one would agree to do this, it would be much harder to cheat. These people are as much to blame for the continuance of cheating as those who pay them.

Looking at this issue from a different angle, do you really believe that cheats have the happiest lives? Would what they have make you happy? Cheats only benefit if, as you suggest, having lots of money and status are the things most to be desired in life. Are they what you most want? Our society seems to tell us that they are indeed important. Do you agree? Do you think these things are what is really valuable in life? Because I don't. But I often find it hard to remember they're not. Rich and famous people are admired, they seem to have it all.

By the way, I was interested in your comment that "...there are not very many fascinating minds to connect with." I don't think this is anything to do with cheating — there just aren't many fascinating minds, not anywhere! Statistically speaking, the majority of people are of average intelligence, and even the clever ones aren't all interesting! Like you, I wish I could meet more people I would enjoy talking to, and perhaps become friends with. But as there are not that many of them, the chances of meeting one are relatively small. I hope Pathways to Philosophy is one place where 'fascinating minds' can meet!

Katharine Hunt


Geoffrey Klempner

This site is brought to you by Pathways to Philosophy the world leading distance learning program run by the International Society for Philosophers. More answers to philosophical questions can be found at Ask a Philosopher and the PhiloSophos Knowledge Base.

Webmaster Geoffrey Klempner