Bertrand Russell’s advice for How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

Advice on how to grow old frequently comes from such banal or bloodless sources that we can be forgiven for ignoring it. Public health officials who dispense wisdom may have good intentions; pharmaceutical companies who do the same may not. In either case, the messages arrive in a form that can bring on the despair they seek to avert. Elderly people in well-lit photographs stroll down garden paths, ballroom dance, do yoga. Bulleted lists punctuated by dry citations issue gently-worded guidelines for sensible living. Inoffensive blandness as a prescription for living well.

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Read also: How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

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Morality and Evolutionary Biology

A recent article in The Economist—sporting the provocative subtitle “Biology Invades a Field Philosophers Thought was Safely Theirs”—begins with the following rumination:

Whence morality? That is a question which has troubled philosophers since their subject was invented. Two and a half millennia of the debate have, however, failed to produce a satisfactory answer. So now it is time for someone else to have a go…Perhaps [biologists] can eventually do what philosophers have never managed, and explain moral behavior in an intellectually satisfying way.

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Moral Epistemology

How is moral knowledge possible? This question is central in moral epistemology and marks a cluster of problems. The most important are the following.

This entry has addressed six major clusters of problems that threaten the possibility of moral knowledge. Subject to the constraints noted at the outset, the aim has been to examine these problems with an eye to their complexity, especially their mutual ramifications, and to explore avenues of a possible resolution that are evident in the philosophical and interdisciplinary literature. From this survey, we can see that for each cluster of problems there are avenues of resolution worth further exploration.

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Experimental Moral Philosophy

Experimental moral philosophy emerged as a methodology in the last decade of the twentieth century, as a branch of the larger experimental philosophy (X-Phi) approach. Experimental moral philosophy is the empirical study of moral intuitions, judgments, and behaviors. Like other forms of experimental philosophy, it involves gathering data using experimental methods and using these data to substantiate, undermine, or revise philosophical theories. In this case, the theories in question concern the nature of moral reasoning and judgment; the extent and sources of moral obligations; the nature of a good person and a good life; even the scope and nature of moral theory itself. This entry begins with a brief look at the historical uses of empirical data in moral theory and goes on to ask what, if anything, is distinctive about experimental moral philosophy—how should we distinguish it from related work in empirical moral psychology? After discussing some strategies for answering this question, the entry examines two of the main projects within experimental moral philosophy and then discusses some of the most prominent areas of research within the field. As we will see, in some cases experimental moral philosophy has opened up new avenues of investigation, while in other cases it has influenced longstanding debates within the moral theory.

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Moral Responsibility

When a person performs or fails to perform a morally significant action, we sometimes think that a particular kind of response is warranted. Praise and blame are perhaps the most obvious forms this reaction might take. For example, one who encounters a car accident may be regarded as worthy of praise for having saved a child from inside the burning car, or alternatively, one may be regarded as worthy of blame for not having used one’s mobile phone to call for help. To regard such agents as worthy of one of these reactions is to regard them as responsible for what they have done or left undone. (These are examples of other-directed ascriptions of responsibility. The reaction might also be self-directed, e.g., one can recognize oneself to be blameworthy). Thus, to be morally responsible for something, say an action, is to be worthy of a particular kind of reaction—praise, blame, or something akin to these—for having performed it.

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Collective Responsibility

The notion of collective responsibility, like that of personal responsibility and shared responsibility, refers in most contexts to both the causal responsibility of moral agents for harm in the world and the blameworthiness that we ascribe to them for having caused such harm. Hence, it is, like its two more purely individualistic counterparts, almost always a notion of moral, rather than purely causal, responsibility. But, unlike its two more purely individualistic counterparts, it does not associate either causal responsibility or blameworthiness with discrete individuals or locate the source of moral responsibility in the free will of individual moral agents. Instead, it associates both causal responsibility and blameworthiness with groups and locates the source of moral responsibility in the collective actions taken by these groups understood as collectives.

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Philosophy for Children

In the United States, philosophy typically makes its formal entry into the curriculum at the college level. A growing number of high schools offer some introduction to philosophy, often in special literature courses for college-bound students. In Europe and many other countries, it is much more common to find philosophy in the high school curriculum. However, philosophy prior to high school seems relatively uncommon around the world. This may suggest that serious philosophical thinking is not for pre-adolescents. Two reasons might be offered for accepting this view. First, philosophical thinking requires a level of cognitive development that, one may believe, is beyond the reach of pre-adolescents. Second, the school curriculum is already crowded; and introducing a subject like philosophy will not only distract students from what they need to learn, it may encourage them to become skeptics rather than learners. However, both of these reasons can be challenged. They will be addressed in turn.

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Read also: Handbook of Philosophy for Children

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Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience

The present volume is very ambitious in its thematic scope and covers four dimensions of the implications of neuroscience, or rather, of philosophical interpretations of the role that neuroscience might play for our self-understanding as agents and thinkers. It is based on a sweeping historical claim according to which we live in “the age of neuroscience”, which is supposed to lead to a crisis in the human self-conception worthy of the third wave of existentialism.

As a matter of fact, the papers collected are clearly not all written in order to substantiate the claims of the editors and so make a rather disparate impression. For this reason, I will focus only on some of the papers that are closer to the official aim of the volume, so as to avoid a merely piecemeal discussion.

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Read also: Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience

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How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

Russell places at the heart of a fulfilling life the dissolution of the personal ego into something larger. Drawing on the longstanding allure of rivers as existential metaphors, he writes:

Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.

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Desiring the Good: Ancient Proposals and Contemporary Theory

How does desiring what is good for us direct our decisions and actions? Katja Vogt’s most recent book tackles this question. While it provides interpretations of various texts by Plato and Aristotle, it is written primarily as a contribution to the contemporary debate, advocating a (broadly speaking) neo-Aristotelian approach. Her guiding idea is that to “desire the good” is to desire that one’s life go well. Against a tradition in contemporary action theory that she traces back to Anscombe, Vogt wants to establish that our motivation for small-scale actions is ultimately rooted in this desire to live well and, furthermore, that “pursuits,” as a form of mid-level activity, play a crucial role in mediating between the vague desire for a good life and our day-to-day activities. In response to the question of how we can know the good (for us), she advocates a view dubbed “measure realism.”

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Read also: Desiring the Good: Ancient Proposals and Contemporary Theory

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