Unpacking Jesse Prinz’s Moral Mary.

A woman sits, thinking, on a red couch which is shaped like a pair of lips. There is a neon sign behind her which says “feelings.”

Jesse Prinz’s “Moral Mary” is a thought experiment where he asks us to imagine a person who has had no inherent moral inclinations, but knows everything that there is to know about normative theories of ethics.

The point is to make the argument that emotions are inescapably tied to morality. Prinz’s example is compelling as a supporting element of his argument for strong emotionism.

Judgments vs. Facts

In The Emotional Construction of Morals, Prinz explains that making moral judgments is not the same as observing apparent facts about reality. …


Nietzsche on Zarathustra and Eternal Recurrence

an orange circle of light illuminates the darkness

The doctrine of “eternal recurrence” is Nietzsche’s idea that history repeats itself in the same series of patterns, forever. If the doctrine is true, then you and I will repeat the lives we are living now an infinite number of times, and we have done this already.

Scholars differ in their opinions of whether or not Nietzsche considered this idea to be literally true, though he does seem to have reverted to his initial Schopenhauerian metaphysics by the time he reaches The Will to Power.

However, it is not necessary to interpret the doctrine as literally true in order to…


Nietzsche on the origins of morals

An osprey soars across the sky

Friedrich Nietzsche isn’t much of an ethical theorist, but he offers a great critique of morality. He is insistent that there are no normative moral facts, or totally universalizable moral theories. There is also a sort of virtue ethics that emerges out of his own personal value judgments about what is “healthy” or what makes a “higher” or “lower” kind of person.

Since Nietzsche is a determinist, he finds most moral practices to be based on an incorrect metaphysical assumption. If we don’t have free will, it’s difficult to demand moral accountability of individuals in the ordinary sense.

Moral psychology

Nietzsche’s analysis…


Foucault on discipline, punishment, and sex.

A woman in a nurse costume with two long braids in her hair presses her fingers to her lips, somewhat provocatively

Does more advanced technology lead to greater freedom? Michel Foucault characterizes the modern world as a decidedly less free place than in previous eras.

As evidence for his claim, he points to the rise of disciplinary technologies (collectively called “biopower”) which are designed to encourage subservience and conformity in the population.

Discipline Before the Modern Era

Before the dawn of the 19th century, retribution and deterrence were the central functions of punishment. Gruesome consequences were given to criminals in public in order to deter the populace from such behavior through direct threats of force. …


Spinoza on freeing ourselves from emotional bondage

A woman looks at a wall upon which the word “freedom” is graffitied.

In his Ethics, Baruch Spinoza explains that we are inextricably tied to our emotions. He teaches that we must learn to accommodate our bondage to our emotions in service of the good. We can overcome the emotions which assail us from the outside with the power of the emotions that come from our essence, the part of ourselves which seeks the good. If we do not understand what is good, we will be ruled by the less-powerful emotions that do not serve the good.

Spinoza believes that there is only one substance, and that this substance is God. Since we…


Responding to Karl Menninger’s “Therapy Not Punishment”

A bespectacled man takes notes as he sits on a plush couch in front of a person in a hoodie.

In his essay, “Therapy Not Punishment,” Karl Menninger makes a case for a therapy-based model of justice. He argues that the threat of punishment does not effectively deter crime, that previous models of justice have failed, and that an effective therapy-based model of justice is superior to other models of justice.

Why punishment fails

Menninger explains why using punishment as a deterrent often fails to prevent crime. He argues that most people are deterred from criminal behavior by their own conscience, rather than by the threat of punishment. He explains how those who are found guilty of crimes are often ostracized by society…


Thoughts on Jeremy Bentham’s Ethics

barbed wire lines a prison fence

In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Jeremy Bentham outlines his utilitarian system of ethics. He argues that a punishment should fit the crime and that punishment is, “in itself,” evil.

I agree that punishments should fit crimes, but I don’t think that punishment itself is inherently evil.

The Principle of Utility

The foundation of Bentham’s ethics is The Principle of Utility. This principle dictates that actions are only “good” as far as they promote happiness for individuals or for the world at large. …


Women still earn less than men, and it’s still important

A woman lays on her back on the edge of a cliff, with her leg dangling into a gap between two large rock faces.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 mandated that men and women be paid equally for equal work. Nearly sixty years later, women still earn about 80% of what men do for the same kind of work. They make even less if they are Black, Indigenous, Asian, or Latinx.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to the wage gap, including misogynistic attitudes towards women in the workplace and the fact that women are more likely to assume the responsibility of bearing and caring for children. …


Laws that mean well sometimes have unintended consequences

A pair of hands are handcuffed behind the back of a man in orange pants.

Mandatory arrest laws ostensibly exist to protect victims of violence. They are designed to send the message that domestic violence is intolerable and will result in immediate consequences. While mandatory arrest laws seem to have been born of good intentions, in practice, they often have negative results. They amplify the existing systemic racism in the criminal justice system, and they can also negatively impact the victims of crimes in a variety of ways.

These laws don’t actually keep survivors safer. Instead, they create many incentives that actually discourage survivors from reporting abuse. …


Stories to help you understand what you believe and why.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

- Edward Morgan Forster

While we’re trying to decide what’s “right” or “wrong,” or learning how to be better people, we’re usually left with complicated questions.

Philosophers use thought experiments to communicate complicated questions in simple language. When it comes to questions of ethics, thought experiments can be an extremely useful tool.

Thought experiments usually tell a story. The idea is to think through the potential outcomes and what they might mean for the question at issue. You can think of these stories as a trial run…

Meredith Kirby

Learned Lady

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