Matthew Konieczka

What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?… Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design[i]

In his new book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking, together with co-author Leonard Mlodinow, argue that the quest to find the answers to life’s biggest questions is no longer the charge of philosophers, but scientists.  But why would Hawking, a renowned physicist, sound the death knell for a field of study that he has no expertise in?

Ultimately, Hawking understands the history of intellectual discovery as a progression from mythology, through philosophy, and finally to science.  On his view, philosophy was a step in the right direction in that it involved a rational attempt to make sense of the universe.   That rational attempt to understand the universe, however, often goes wrong.  For instance, Hawking points to the disagreements among ancient Greek philosophers for whom, “there was no objective way to settle the argument” because they didn’t yet have the scientific method.[ii] Moreover, philosophers are stuck with a classical view of the world and have not “kept up” with modern physics.  According to the classical view, objects exist at one place at one time and every object has a definite history.  But these views are not true, at least on the atomic level.  Quantum mechanics implies that subatomic particles behave in ways that, according to the classical view, are impossible, seemingly popping in and out of existence as we observe them.

Hawking paints a picture of a world where life’s biggest questions are finally being understood by physicists.  Our universe is merely a quantum fluctuation that resulted in a specific set of physical laws, but is only one of many universes in the “multiverse.”  What is more, our understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity allow physicists like Hawking to claim that there was “no beginning of time” and therefore no need for a God to start the chain of causation:

The issue of the beginning of time is a bit like the issue of the edge of the world. When people thought the world was flat, one might have wondered whether the sea poured over its edge…. Time, however, seemed to be like a model railway track. If it had a beginning, there would have to be someone (i.e. God) to set the trains going…. However, once we add the effects of quantum theory to the theory of relativity, in extreme cases [like the Big Bang] warpage can occur to such a great extent that time behaves like another dimension of space.[iii]

On this view, time, like the shape of the earth, is not “flat” but “curved” in such a way that the concept of the “beginning of the temporal series” makes as much sense as the concept of the “edge of the world.”  For Hawking, this implies the multiverse is a closed system which does not need any explanation from outside of itself.  As Ockham’s razor suggests, where there is no need to posit the existence of a supernatural being, one should not.  The universe, then, is simply the product of purely physical laws.  Hawking claims, then, that physics is finally providing answers to three historically philosophical questions:  “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?”[iv] Given this new role for physics, philosophy is not so much dead as it is obsolete.

But, has Hawking really shown that philosophy is obsolete?  I think not.   A charitable reading of The Grand Design would grant Hawking the point that philosophers need to take some of the more bizarre implications of modern physics seriously.  But there are a number of philosophers who do take science seriously and attempt to base their arguments on firm empirical grounds.  Perhaps Hawking hasn’t spent a lot of time with his colleagues in the department of philosophy at Cambridge.

But the best interpretation of Hawking’s arguments, I would argue, is that he himself is doing philosophy in this book.  One common way of distinguishing philosophy from science is this.  Science attempts to use observation and mathematics to discover the empirical truths of the world (i.e. the underlying physical laws, states, and processes) while philosophy , attempts to draw rational non-empirical conclusions from empirical, logical, or other basic truths.  As soon as Hawking begins to infer non-empirical conclusions from quantum mechanics and general relativity, he is in effect, practicing philosophy.  And, just as the philosopher would be required to empirically verify or experimentally test any empirical conclusions he or she makes, Hawking is subject to the methods and measures of good philosophy when he engages in philosophy.

The Grand Design is an excellent book in that it explains cutting edge physics in a way that is understandable for the layman and because it provokes a number of important philosophical questions.  One should be weary, however, when interpreting his conclusions.  As with any argument from authority, we should trust it only when it pertains to the author’s domain of authority.  When your pharmacist tells you not to take medications A and B together because they will have an unfortunate side effect, we should trust that advice.  When your pharmacist tells you to vote for candidate C because of that candidate’s economic policies, we have no reason to trust that advice.  Hawking is, by all accounts, one of the most brilliant scientific minds living today.  Nonetheless, many of the philosophical conclusions in The Grand Design are not empirically verifiable, but rest on philosophical assumptions such as “model-dependent realism” which could certainly be false.   We should trust the scientific claims made in the book, but question the philosophical ones.  Philosophy is not dead, but very much alive, as demonstrated by Hawking himself in the book and hopefully by the reader as he or she reads it.

[i] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Random House, 2010), 5.

[ii] Ibid, 22.

[iii] Ibid, 134.

[iv] Ibid, 10.

The debate over sweatshops in developing countries conjures images of young children working in dangerous factories for pennies a day and large rooms packed with women sewing clothes until their fingers are raw. As many people argue, it is immoral for large corporations to have their products produced by these sweatshops because it makes a profit by means of near-slavery. Employees are often paid very low wages. For example, Nike came under criticism in 1992 for purchasing from an Indonesian supplier that paid its employees $1.03 a day. Sweatshop employees also often work in conditions with virtually no safety standards, and in many cases are children. What is more, they often have unreasonable demands placed upon them and, if they want to keep the only job they can find, must work unreasonable hours to meet those demands. For these reasons, many argue that it is immoral for a company to make use of sweatshops and perhaps for consumers to buy products from the companies that do.

On the other hand, many argue that “sweatshops” are actually good for the employees that work at them, the companies that support them, and the consumers who can buy cheaper products because of them. Supporters point to the dire conditions many are living in, particularly in the developing countries where sweatshops are likely to be created. In these communities, sweatshops are warmly welcomed as a path out of extreme poverty. If this choice is between scavenging for food in garbage dumps and working for very low wages, the choice is obvious. What is more, if employees were paid more, sweatshops could not employee as many people. Thus, sweatshops are able to benefit more people than the alternative.

Of course, just because those in poverty would choose to work in sweatshops does not mean that it is morally permissible to make use of them. As an analogy, suppose that you are kidnapped by someone who wants to kill you. I am an opportunistic capitalist and see that it would be quite profitable for me to cut a deal with your captor to buy you and make you my slave. Given the choice, you may prefer slavery to death. Nonetheless, slavery is immoral. In making you my slave, I am using you as a mere means to achieve my own ends. Your desperate situation makes purchasing you possible and I am more than happy to take advantage of it.

It seems that Kant’s distinction between using a person as a mere means (e.g. as a slave) and simultaneously using someone as a means and respecting that person as an end (e.g. asking a friend for a favor) would be helpful in the case of sweatshops. The typical employment situation is an example of using a person as a means and an end because the employee makes a free agreement to exchange labor for pay. Thus, the free choice of the employee is respected; he or she is treated as another rational human being capable of make choices. The case of slavery is clearly the opposite. Even when the slave might choose slavery over an even worse alternative, the behavior still involves using the slave as a mere means because he or she is not treated as a person capable of making free choices. In the example above, your freedom is compromised because you quite literally “have a gun to your head.”

Sweatshops fall somewhere in between the typical employment situation and slavery. Although sweatshops vary quite dramatically from one another, opponents typically point out a number of principles that every employer should uphold: (a) a “living wage,” (b) bans on child labor, (c) international safety and health standards, etc. I argue, however, that employers can treat their employees as rational human beings with free choice without necessarily meeting these standards.

Must an employer pay each employee a “living wage” in order to treat them as ends? One way of defining “living wage” is to calculate the cost of one’s basic needs, including the minimum dietary requirement of calories, in the local economy. A living wage is one that allows the employee to pay for these basic needs. Although paying employees a living wage would be one way of treating others as ends in themselves, it is not the only way. It is not necessarily the responsibility of corporations to provide all employees with their basic needs. Other entities such as the local government or international organizations are also responsible for meeting those needs. If I hire a teenager to rake my lawn, I should not have to consider if my payment to him is enough to meet his basic needs. What should concern me is whether I am treating the teenager as a rational human being whose free choice is respected. In the same way, companies should ask whether or not the employees are less than free when they choose to work for a certain wage. Certainly, there is a point where a wage is so low it could only have been agreed upon by a less-than-free employee. There is not much difference, for example, between a slave and someone who works for $0.01 a day. Nonetheless, it is not clear that a living wage is the relevant point. Unfortunately, the distinction between treating someone as a mere means and treating someone as a means and an end is not as precise as we would like it to be. Still, it is possible for an individual to freely choose to work for less than a living wage because it is a good opportunity to improve his or her situation, although it may involve working at some odd jobs to make ends meet. Thus, in some circumstances, it may be morally permissible for a company to pay less than a living wage, but it is not necessarily morally permissible to pay an employee any amount to which the employee agrees.

Similar criteria can be applied to other concerns of sweatshops such as child labor and safety regulations. Although there is a point where employing a child is immoral (e.g. hiring 7-year olds to work in dangerous factories), that point should not arbitrarily be drawn at 15 or 16 as it is in the United States. If a child of 13 or 14 can freely choose to work to help his or her family and that child is not otherwise taken advantage of by being paid drastically low wages or by being coerced into performing unsafe tasks, it should be permitted. In the case of safety standards, it certainly is unjust to take advantage of the desperate circumstances of one’s employees by cutting out as many safety precautions as possible. In these cases, employees often do not have the option to quit and find another job so they are forced to put up with tremendous health risks. This is not to say that the same safety standards in use in the United States should apply to everyone. Although there are some standards by which “sweatshops” should be measured, those standards are often difficult to quantify and do not always match our own customary standards.

What should matter is that people are not used as “tools” or near-slaves to achieve the goals of the corporations they work for. In the worst cases, employees are forced to sleep at work because they have to stay so late to complete their quotas that they have no time to go home or employees are not permitted to leave without being fired, even for serious medical reasons. In these cases, employees are clearly being used as a mere means and not provided with the respect that all of humanity deserves. In other cases, sweatshops meet some standard for treating people as rational and free (i.e. as ends in themselves), although they may not meet the same standards present in the United States. In these cases, “sweatshops” provide a great opportunity for their employees to choose a path out of poverty. These sweatshops are not really sweatshops at all.

The members of the Philosophy Department were asked which book they thought would be important to teach to students in an introductory philosophy course. Their answers are below. You can listen to them all at once or you can click on the name of the individual professor below to listen to each professor’s answer.

All answers in one mp3 file.
click the link to play or right click to download.

-Professor Robert Anderson

David Hume-An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

-Professor Robert Augros

Professor Augros argued that the dialogue between teacher and student was more essential to the philosophical process than any book.

-Professor David Banach

Euclid’s Elements

Albert Camus- The Stranger

-Professor Montague Brown

Plato- The Republic

Online edition

Saint Augustine’s Confessions

Online edition

-Professor Drew Dalton

Marcus Aurelius-The Meditations

Online edition

Slavoj Zizek


-Father John Fortin

Saint Anselm- Monologium


-Professor Susan Gabriel

Bertrand Russell- The Problems of Philosophy

Online edition,M1

-Professor Sarah Glenn

Sophocles- Oedipus Rex

-Professor Matthew Konieczka

Leo Tolstoy-The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Plato- The Apology

Online Edition

-Professor Thomas Larson

Plato- The Republic

Online edition

-Professor Max Latona

Josef Pieper-The Philosophical Act

Professor James Mahoney
C.S. Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief”

Michael Novak, Belief and Unbelief

-Professor Joseph Spoerl

Plato- The Gorgias

Online edition

Plato- The Republic

Online edition

Plato- The Apology

Online Edition

-Professor Kevin Staley

Plato- The Euthyphro

We have all seen the commercials asking for donations to feed the hungry. They typically show children suffering, often visibly malnourished and diseased, in order to appeal to our empathy and move us to act. Yet, our reaction to these images is often to change the channel or otherwise divert our attention from the suffering in front of us. While our tendency may be to shy away and avoid the problem of poverty, the philosophical tradition encourages us to lead an examined life and reflect upon important questions, especially those that might make us feel uncomfortable. The tragic reality is that poverty is an enormous problem that requires our moral consideration. Over three billion people live on less than $2.50 a day, the price many of us pay for a cup of coffee.i Roughly 33,000 children under the age of five die each day from the consequences of extreme poverty.ii That is a million young lives lost every month! Clearly, an issue that causes this many preventable deaths deserves some moral consideration.

Often we think that, although donating to charitable organizations is permissible and should be praised, it is not an obligation of ours. After all, we are not responsible for the poverty of others, as unfortunate as their condition is. Nonetheless, there are many who argue that we do have some obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I want to explore here three such arguments. After discussing a utilitarian and a Kantian argument, I will ultimately claim that virtue ethics provides the best explanation of our moral obligation to the poor.

First, Peter Singer offers a well-known utilitarian argument in favor of such an obligation. On his account, donating to the poor ultimately has better consequences than if we had used that money to buy new televisions or fashionable clothes. Indeed, we would only be sacrificing some “disposable” income to save lives. Appealing to this intuition, Singer claims that, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought, morally, to do it.”iii This principle implies that we ought to sacrifice a great deal of our income to help alleviate poverty because it is otherwise being used on items that are not of “comparable moral significance.” Singer even recommends that a family making $100,000 in annual income donate $70,000.iv Failing to do so, of course, would mean that such a family has gone morally astray.

Singer illustrates his argument with a number of memorable examples, even likening our indifference toward poverty to allowing a child to drown. While Singer does well to call this enormous problem to our attention, his argument is inadequate. The failures of his argument can be traced to some of the failures of utilitarianism in general. Most notably, utilitarianism (at least in its classical form) seems to ignore the special obligations we have toward friends and family members. Certainly the mother who spends more time reading to her children than volunteering at the local soup kitchen (although she does that too) should not be blamed. Indeed, she should be praised for being both a good mother and a conscientious community member rather than blamed for not getting more involved with those less fortunate than herself. The flaw in Singer’s view is that he fails to recognize that we have more obligations to some people than others.

The second argument for an obligation to help the poor comes from Kant. In the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he distinguishes between perfect and imperfect duties. A perfect duty is one which, “permits no exception in the interest of inclination” while an imperfect duty is one which does permit of such an exception.v An example of a perfect duty would be the duty not to enslave another individual. Such a duty must be fulfilled at all times without exception. Imperfect duties, however, can have exceptions if we are inclined to partake in other (moral) activities. Kant discusses the duty to help those less fortunate than oneself and categorizes this as an imperfect duty. On his view, we ought to help. We cannot rationally will that indifference to poverty become a universal law of nature. Doing so would rob ourselves of the beneficence of others when we need it at some time in the future. Nonetheless, because the duty to help the less fortunate is an imperfect duty, it can have exceptions. The mother who volunteers and finds time to read to her children does not shirk her duty because, by occasionally volunteering, she sufficiently fulfills her obligation to help.

Kant’s approach to this issue is an improvement over Singer’s in that he allows for us to have different obligations toward our friends and family members than complete strangers. Nonetheless, his approach falls short in the following way. Imagine a morally decent man, Minimal E. Goode, who regularly donates a small amount of money to charitable organizations that help the poor. He hears of a community effort to help a neighbor whose house has burned down. All that is needed to help this effort is the donation of some small household items that are of very little value. Minimal has no interest in doing such a thing. Instead, he decides to spend the money on beer and corn chips, comforting himself with the thought that he has already fulfilled his imperfect duty to help others by sending in his small monthly check to charity. How would we evaluate the moral character of a man such as this? Is he virtuous? Clearly, our response is that Minimal is a decent individual, but he is not what we call virtuous. Although Minimal is morally decent, he fails to have the virtues of generosity, empathy, or selflessness. It is clear that Minimal falls short in his obligations. The Kantian conception of an imperfect duty, then, fails to fully explain our obligations to the poor.

The third approach, that of virtue ethics, best explains our obligations. It captures the conviction that we ought to do something to help, and yet it avoids the shortcomings of both Singer and Kant. On the virtue account, in order to determine the right thing to do in a given situation, we need to determine what a virtuous person would do. While it is admittedly difficult to make this determination, there are two things we can do to clarify our obligations. First, we do know of a number of virtues and could create a sizable list if we wanted to (for evidence of this, write a list of all of the features you would want in a good friend). Second, we can intuit quite easily what a virtuous person would not do. The case of Minimal’s indifference to his neighbor’s suffering is a case in point. This is where Kant falls short. Although Minimal may completely fulfill his imperfect duties, he may not be virtuous. The inadequacies of Singer’s account are also clear on a virtue ethics approach. If a mother gave her children only minimal attention in order to spend more time at the soup kitchen, she would fall short of virtue in a number of categories. She would lack the proper amount of love and care for her children. Clearly the virtuous mother would not neglect her own kids.

When imagining how virtuous people would act, however, we do not need to envision some “ideal human being” who always does the right thing. Virtue does not entail perfection. Most of us know some virtuous people, but very few of us know saints. Instead of wondering what a saint would do, then, we simply need to determine what a person would have to be like in order to be described as generous, selfless, empathetic, and so on. Let us imagine the following case:

An eccentric philanthropist visits a small town in the third world suffering from the grips of extreme poverty and disease. Looking to donate $1 million a year, he randomly selects twenty individuals each of whom he gives $50,000 and pledges to do the same every year. Ms. Respectable, a single, healthy 25-year old woman, is one of the lucky winners of the philanthropist’s lottery. In a few years, she is able to invest in a large home, put some of the money in savings in an offshore bank account, and purchase a television, a personal computer, some designer clothes, and an SUV. Every time she leaves her home she is faced with the thousands of lottery losers who have no access to sufficient nutrition, shelter, medical care, or education. Occasionally she is moved to pity and gives a dollar or two to the children dying in the home next door. For the most part, however, Ms. Respectable enjoys her new life and is considering leaving her hometown to join a wealthier community.

While Ms. Respectable may be a decent person (she has not committed any cold-blooded murders for instance), she certainly is not generous or selfless. She sees dying people all around her and yet does very little to stop it. Although she occasionally feels empathy, it would be a stretch to call her an empathetic person. While we may not condemn her, we certainly would not praise her. Acting as Ms. Respectable does is not virtuous; it is certainly not how we ought to act.

But, is our situation that much different than Ms. Respectable’s? Most of us living in the United States live relatively comfortable lives. We usually do not have to worry about whether we will eat today or have access to clean water. If we have children, we know they will be immunized from preventable diseases. Many of us also have a number of luxuries: computers, televisions, nice clothes, and so on. But why is it that we enjoy luxuries while others live in squalor? In a way, we have won a lottery. Although we do work for our money, we were born at a time and a place where there is the opportunity to work, where goods and services are freely traded, and basic rights are protected. Like Ms. Respectable, we are aware of the billions in poverty, and though we can provide helpful donations with a phone call or mouse click, we often ignore them.

If our situation is relatively similar to Ms. Respectable’s, then what are we obligated to do? Remember that Singer mistakenly overlooks our special obligations to friends and family. We should acknowledge that the virtuous person would spend more time and money on those closest to her (in this way, Ms. Respectable differs from us). Indeed, the virtuous person would not want to neglect the virtues associated with being a good friend, child, or parent. On the other hand, as demonstrated by the cases of Minimal E. Goode and Ms. Respectable, the virtuous person would do more than make the occasional small donation. What is required to be generous, selfless, and empathetic is to truly care for those less fortunate than ourselves and to make genuine sacrifices in order to alleviate their suffering. Although precisely what contribution we ought to make will depend largely on our unique economic circumstances and particular responsibilities, we can be assured that accumulating unnecessary luxuries while millions starve is not the virtuous thing to do.


ii Mylan Engel Jr., “9/11 and Starvation” in The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 4th ed., eds. James Rachels and Stuart Rachels. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 136.

iii Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in World Hunger and Morality, 2nd ed. Eds. William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 28.

iv Peter Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” in The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 4th ed., eds. James Rachels and Stuart Rachels. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 144.

v Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment, 2nd ed rev. , trans. Lewis White Beck. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), 38 ff.