The Authority of Testimony

Whom do you trust?

Of the many potential pieces of knowledge I have gained this week, numbering amongst them are the facts that the late Pope John Paul II was responsible for a miracle, and that U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden. These stories are presented to me, and I must somehow decide whether to accept them or not. Enter epistemology.

WARNING: CRACKPOT CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT! On Monday, over a million people crowded the streets of Rome to celebrate and witness the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. One of the requirements for such a beatification is the confirmed attribution of a miracle to the “blessed” one in question. This requirement was satisfactorily fulfilled by the testimony of a nun, Marie Simon-Pierre, who claimed that she had been miraculously cured of Parkinson’s Disease by the supernatural intervention of John Paul’s spirit. Now, denounce me as a sceptic if you wish, but I’m just not sure that this is entirely reliable. Continue reading “The Authority of Testimony”

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Assassination, Citizenship, and the Limits of Political Authority

We are perhaps more familiar with public figures being assassinated by private citizens than with private citizens being assassinated by states. But two weeks ago, it was reported that the Obama Administration has approved and implemented a policy whereby American citizens can be made the targets of assassination by their own government. Although it initially received some attention in the media, including harsh criticism from the likes of Glen Greenwald (see Greenwald’s take here), the American public was nonplussed, and the story has since disappeared from the headlines. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration’s assassination policy raises a host of philosophical and ethical questions. Continue reading “Assassination, Citizenship, and the Limits of Political Authority”

Are Scientists allowed to have Faith?

The_hand_of_godThe recent debate about Barack Obama’s nominee Dr. Francis Collins as the next director of the National Institutes of Health highlights a problem that is seldom discussed within philosophy of science. One leading opinion within the philosophy of science seems to be that in order for someone to be a good scientist or philosopher of science, one has to be at least an agnostic, if not an atheist. The general idea seems to be that it is absolutely irrational to believe in some higher being whose existence cannot be proven, and to be a good and dedicated scientist at the same time. The deeper reason for that idea seems to be that scientists that do believe have an “easy way out” if they encounter a difficult problem. Continue reading “Are Scientists allowed to have Faith?”

Politicians and Promises

120px-Jurvetson_-_Barack_Obama_on_the_Primary_(by)During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama made a promise to not raise taxes (of any kind) on families making less than $250,000 per year. On this past Sunday, however, President Obama’s top two economic advisers, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, went on multiple nationally televised talk shows and implied that the President would be willing to break his campaign promise if it were necessary to reign in the national deficit. Not surprisingly, political opponents and the White House Press Corps were quick to pounce on the apparent flip-flop. In response to growing questions and criticism, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued the following statement: “The president made a commitment in the campaign. He’s clear about that commitment, and he’s going to keep it.”

What is a responsible citizen to make of this situation? Putting aside questions of political sport, it seems that she should ask a variety of moral and philosophical questions inspired by the situation. For instance, what kind of a commitment is a promise? Is it categorical as Immanuel Kant would have it? Or are there circumstances in which it is permissible (if not required by duty) to break one’s promises? More to the point, are there circumstances in which duties associated with political offices — such as President — outweigh or trump promises made in the heat of a campaign? And if so, does it ever make sense for politicians to make categorical promises of the sort that the Obama Administration now finds itself renewing?

See here for a New York Times article with more details on the above situation.

See also the following related articles in Philosophy Compass.

Preempting Principles: Recent Debates in Moral Particularism
By Sean McKeever and Michael Ridge, Davidson College University of Edinburgh
(Vol. 3, November 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Kantian Virtue
By Anne Margaret Baxley , Washington University in St. Louis
(Vol. 2, April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Consequentializing
By Douglas W. Portmore , Arizona State University
(Vol. 4, February 2009)
Philosophy Compass