Democratic systems of government are supposed to reflect the interests of ordinary citizens, and not some shadowy political elite. But more and more, we see the influence of big money and special interest groups in so-called democratic politics, while income inequality and voter suppression grow. With millions convinced that politicians don’t speak for them, is there a "crisis of representation" in the US? Are these problems a result of political decay in our institutions, or is democracy in trouble everywhere?

Philosophy Talk asks: Should hurtful words be forbidden?

Mar 14, 2015

Some words, like n****r, ch*nk, and c*nt, are so forbidden that we won't even spell them out here. Decent people simply don't use these words to refer to others; they are intrinsically disrespectful. But aren't words just strings of sounds or letters? Words have life because they express ideas. But in a free society, how can we prohibit the expression of ideas? How can we forbid words? Where does the strange power of curses, epithets, and scatological terms come from?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is the primary reference catalog for mental health illnesses. But whereas a medical textbook will show you the picture of a broken bone or a tumor, leaf through the DSM and you will find just one thing: lists of symptoms. Who creates these lists, and based on what criteria? Do such lists really capture the nature of a mental illness? What does it mean to be a disease of the mind versus a disease of the body? Does our classification system construct mental illness, or does it reveal underlying facts from genetics or neuroscience?

Albert Camus is most famous for his existential works of fiction including The Stranger as well as his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. He led the French resistance press during Nazi Occupation and became one of the youngest Nobel laureates in literature. His contemporary, Hannah Arendt, described him as “head and shoulders above the other intellectuals.” How does Camus' philosophy of Absurdism compare and contrast with Sartre’s popular existentialism, especially in their conceptions of freedom?

Whether it's making donations and signing petitions online, or using social media to highlight political causes, cyber-activism has never been easier. With a few clicks, we can make our voices heard around the globe. But who's listening, and is anything actually changing? Does cyber-activism mobilize real-world action on the ground, or does it reduce political engagement to simple mouse-clicking and ultimately threaten the subversive nature of change?

Whether it's making donations and signing petitions online, or using social media to highlight political causes, cyber-activism has never been easier. With a few clicks, we can make our voices heard around the globe. But who's listening, and is anything actually changing? Does cyber-activism mobilize real-world action on the ground, or does it reduce political engagement to simple mouse-clicking and ultimately threaten the subversive nature of change?

Philosophy Talk asks: Who (else) has a right to your body?

Feb 6, 2015

Most countries allow their citizens to smoke cigarettes, get intoxicated, and eat unhealthy food – despite the harms that such behaviors may bring to the individual's health and to the social and economic interests of the state. Yet taking certain narcotics, selling one's organs, and driving without a seat-belt are often prohibited by law. Is this an arbitrary distinction, or is there a principled reason for these diverging attitudes? What can government legitimately prohibit its citizens from doing to their own bodies -- and what can it legitimately compel them to do?

The number of chronically hungry people in the world is over 800 million, yet developed countries are facing health challenges from rising rates of obesity. The growing problems of food security and water scarcity seem an issue of distribution rather than availability. But other factors also influence the status of food and water security worldwide. So where does the problem with food and water security lie? Do developed countries – or any other entities or individuals – have any moral obligations to ensure a global network of water and food security?

Philosophy Talk asks: Why be moral?

Jan 16, 2015

Morality tells us how we ought to behave, if we want to do the right thing. But is there a reason why we ought to be moral in the first place? Both Plato and Kant believed that morality is dictated by reason and so a fully rational person is automatically a moral person too. But how can we derive morality from reason? Isn’t it possible to be a rational but amoral or even immoral person?

Philosophy Talk asks: Why (not) believe in an afterlife?

Jan 9, 2015

The question of what happens to us after we die remains as mysterious now as it always was. Some think that death amounts to total annihilation of the self; others adhere to certain religious traditions, which teach that the immaterial soul (and, in some traditions, the resurrected body) can ultimately survive death. So how are we to judge between these radically different views of what happens to us in death? What would it mean for the self to persist beyond the destruction of the body? Is there room in a scientific account of the mind for the existence of an immaterial soul?

The unexamined year is not worth reviewing:

The Year in Race and Justice with Chris Lebron, Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University and author of The Color Of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time

The Year in Academic Freedom with Katherine Franke, Professor of Law at Columbia University and Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law

Philosophy Talk asks: What's wrong with selling sex?

Dec 26, 2014

Some consider the commodification of sexual services inherently wrong, something that ought to be abolished outright. Others claim that prostitution is a legitimate form of commerce and that changing its legal status would reduce or eliminate most harms to sex workers. So in a just society, are there any conditions under which buying and selling sex are morally acceptable? Does the sex trade inevitably involve coercion of some kind, or can becoming a sex worker ever be a free, fully autonomous choice?

People tend to treat other people who differ from them, even in seemingly small and insignificant ways, as less than fully human. Our tendency to dehumanize the "other" has sometimes led to great atrocities like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and the slave trade. It is arguably responsible for such widespread social ills as racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Where does our tendency to dehumanize others come from? Is it based on bad arguments hat can be rationally refuted, or are its origins deeper in the human psyche? Are we bound to see the "other" as less than fully human?

Philosophy Talk asks: Would you want to live forever?

Dec 5, 2014

Would you like to live forever? It is a tempting notion that has been explored and imagined for centuries. Perhaps immortality is desirable, but it might also be that death is a significant part of what gives meaning to life. So what would a society of immortal individuals look like? What might some of the challenges or rewards of an immortal life be? How would living forever affect our relationships with one another, our life goals, or simply the way we perceive time? Would the impacts of immortality ultimately be beneficial or detrimental to us?

Philosophy Talk asks: Is hypocrisy a vice or a virtue?

Nov 28, 2014

Hypocrites believe one thing, but do another. Jefferson opposed slavery, but owned slaves. Jesus professed universal love, but cursed an innocent fig tree. Jerry Brown opposes the death penalty, but as governor of California will be responsible for executions. Hypocrites all – but vile hypocrites? Surely it was better that Jefferson was a hypocrite, and articulated the case against slavery, than not opposing it at all. Does it take courage to defend a view that you, yourself, don't have the courage or the character to follow through on?

Philosophy Talk asks: What's wrong with favoritism?

Oct 31, 2014

Imagine that your eight-year-old son arrives home boasting that he won the race that day in gym class. Right as your heart begins to swell with pride, he reveals that he wasn’t the only winner—the whole class won the race. The gym teacher, it turns out, thought that naming just one winner would be unfair. If our obsession with fairness leads to absurdities like this, why should we be so committed to being fair? Why not reserve the best we have to offer for those who actually deserve it? Can there be justice, kindness, and compassion in a world without fairness?

Can Philosophy be therapeutic?

Oct 23, 2014

From Plato and Sextus Empiricus to Wittgenstein, many important thinkers have thought of philosophy as a type of therapy. But can philosophy really help those who experience mental anguish? Don’t we have shrinks and medication for that? Isn't philosophy more likely to raise more questions than it offers answers? John and Ken seek solace with David Konstan from NYU, author of The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature.  Join the conversation live this Sunday, 10/26 by calling 1-800-525-9917.

Philosophy Talk asks: why do we blame and resent others?

Oct 17, 2014

When someone acts without regard for our feelings or needs, a natural response is to feel resentment toward that person. But is that a rational response? What if there's no such thing as free will? Is blame still appropriate in a deterministic universe? Or are we simply genetically programmed to respond emotionally to perceived injuries? John and Ken talk freely with Pamela Hieronymi from UCLA, author of Reflection and Responsibility.  Philosophy Talk with John Perry and Ken Taylor ~ Sunday, 10/19 at 10 am and Tuesday, 10/21 at 12 noon.

Whether for counterterrorism measures, street level crime, or immigration, racial profiling of minorities occurs frequently. However, racial profiling is illegal under many jurisdictions and many might say ineffective. Is racial profiling ever moral or is it always an unjustified form of racism? Is there any evidence that certain races or ethnic groups have a tendency to behave in particular ways? Or is racial stereotyping a result of deeply-held biases we're not even aware of?

Philosophy Talk asks: When should we second-guess ourselves?

Sep 26, 2014

We like to think of ourselves as self-aware, reflective beings, but psychological studies demonstrate that we’re usually overconfident in the accuracy of our own beliefs. Memory, for example, can be extremely unreliable, even when we feel certain we know what happened. Surprisingly, when we’re made aware of this, we adjust our level of confidence in ourselves only slightly. How, then, can we doubt ourselves in a rational and efficient manner to bring our beliefs closer to reality?

Babies and the Birth of Morality

Sep 11, 2014

Doing the right thing is often an extremely difficult task. Yet psychological research indicates that infants as young as 21 months old have a crude sense of what is right and wrong. This capacity is reflected by infants' decisions to reward or punish characters in social scenarios. But surely a genuine, robust, mature moral compass is much more complicated than that. So what can babies tell us about adult morality? How much of morality is innate, and how much must we develop as moral thinkers?

Recent advances in neuroscience have revealed that certain neurological disorders, like a brain tumor, can cause an otherwise normal person to behave in criminally deviant ways. Would knowing that an underlying neurological condition had caused criminal behavior change the way we assign moral responsibility and mete out justice? Should it? Is committing a crime with a "normal" biology fundamentally different from doing so with an identifiable brain disorder?

Philosophy Talk asks What Might Have Been

Aug 21, 2014

When we make claims about things that could have been—what philosophers call counterfactual statements—we are, in some sense, sliding between different worlds. We all use counterfactual statements frequently. But what would make our speculations about what might have been in a different scenario true or false? When I say things could have gone differently than they did, I am speaking of a possible world in which things did, in fact, go differently. But how do we make sense of this talk of possible worlds? How can there be facts other than facts about the actual world?

Remixing Reality on Philosophy Talk

Aug 16, 2014

For decades, literary critics have been questioning the relevance of the novel as a literary form, with some going so far as to declare its death. But if the novel is dead, it’s not clear what new form can take its place. Should we treat the popularity of the memoir as a sign that what readers want is more truth, less fiction? Or is the memoir, like ‘reality TV,’ mostly just fiction dressed up as fact? In these fragmented times, when everything has already been said or done before, can there be any truly original innovations in art and literature?

The Ethics of Captivity on Philosophy Talk

Aug 9, 2014

Whether it's people incarcerated in prisons, or animals confined in zoos, aquariums, laboratories, farms, and in our own homes, millions of upon millions of sentient creatures live in captivity. To be held captive, some might say, is to be denied basic rights of autonomy. But physical captivity, others might say, can have significant social benefits. So under what conditions could it be morally justified to hold a creature in captivity? Should we think of humans and animals differently? And in a civil society, is captivity a necessary harm, or should we work towards eradicating it?

What books should thoughtful people be reading this summer?

Jul 31, 2014

What philosophers, philosophies, or philosophical issues would you like to read up on over the summer? John and Ken discuss one of this year's most talked-about books, Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, with political scientist Shannon Stimson. They also get summer reading suggestions from author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose new book is Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, and Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, author of the forthcoming Why Propaganda Matters.

Imagine discovering that your grandfather was a serial killer. Would you feel guilty about it? Would you be at all tempted to contact the families of his victims? Philosophers have long thought that we can only be responsible for what is under our voluntary control, but sometimes we feel guilty about events we didn’t bring about, simply because we are connected in some way to those who did. Many Germans, for instance, feel guilty about their ancestors' participation in the Nazi regime. Can we really be responsible for things outside of our control?

Philosophy Talk asks: What are Leaders made of?

Jul 10, 2014

There seems to be a paradox in leadership: the qualities of ruthlessness and opportunism necessary to attain power and become a leader are not necessarily the qualities of morality and a sense of justice that make for a good leader. Do the traits that make it likely that someone will become a leader correlate positively or negatively with the traits that make a good and effective leader? Do our democratic institutions lead to better leaders than, say, a lottery like the Athenians used?

Philosophy Talk asks: What is Love?

Jul 4, 2014

It may seem doubtful that philosophers have much to tell us about love (beyond their love of wisdom). Surely it is the poets who have the market cornered when it comes to deep reflection on the nature of love. John and Ken question the notion that love cannot be captured by the light of reason by turning their attention to the philosophy of love with philosopher-poet Troy Jollimore from CSU Chico.

Philosophy Talk examines the Anatomy of a Terrorist

Jun 26, 2014

Since George W. Bush first declared a "war on terror," the US has been engaged in a global campaign to rid the world of terrorists. But what exactly is a “terrorist,” and how do we distinguish illicit terrorist organizations from legitimate freedom fighters? Do terrorists exhibit particular psychological patterns of behavior, or are there some tactics that only terrorists use? And what is the most effective way to combat terrorism – by waging war, engaging in "de-radicalization" processes, or some other means?