Just recently a spate of questions on ethics have been put on hold;

Is it ever acceptable to go by the principle of "guilty until proven innocent"?

Why is invasion of privacy necessarily a bad thing?

Can an assassination equal mass murder?

Is killing one evil person as bad as killing millions of innocents? (this one simply rapidly down-voted, but it follows the trend)

I can't make out the common reasoning. The first question particularly is a perfectly valid question within philosophy of law, I've read a number of excellent papers discussing this exact issue.

Obviously the wording of the titles is such that they appear to invite opinion (they all seem to request affirmation), but that's not uncommon. This question for example (Can we fit non-euclidean geometry into Kant's theory?) is in exactly the same format, it's not asking 'do any philosophers think we can..., but directly asking for an affirmative 'can we...'.

So, is there something wrong with the way these questions are being asked that is not present in non-ethical questions?

I'd just like to add now that more time has passed, that we have literally only just had a discussion here admittedly about new users, but basically raising the issue of questions which are put on hold and then edited but not re-opened. Barely a week later we have a question put on hold (for slightly spurious reasons, as acknowledged in comments), edited to explain the focus the mod thought lacking, but which 4 days later is still on hold.

  • I absolutely agree that the first linked question is perfectly fine for this site; I was very surprised at the negative reaction it garnered (part of me assumes that it's because of the political stances it talks about but who knows). It's pretty clear that Joseph is what is common about the closing of the three that were so I would be interested in hearing his reasoning. The invasion of privacy question seems like an on the fence question that a lot of users would prefer if they added some "what philosophers have written on x" or something else, so I'm surprised it was closed without comment
    – Not_Here
    Sep 17, 2017 at 4:20
  • 1
    I hadn't realised all were the work of a single moderator, perhaps just a bad day then? Oddly enough scanning the list of related questions to the right, this one actually posed by Joseph asks for more of the exact type of question he seems to have closed, which is a bit contrary. I'm sure he had his reasons, but I would be keen to know them.
    – user22791
    Sep 17, 2017 at 6:26
  • Post number 1 above concerns a certain type of proceeding. It is a non-criminal proceeding. The penalties, as far as I know, are administrative: expulsion, suspension, etc. The OP begins his post by discussing two standards of proof. One civil, one criminal. At the "boiling down" procedure, they both oddly become criminal standards of proof, essentially.
    – Gordon
    Sep 17, 2017 at 11:53
  • The Op begins by stating he is "troubled" by certain outcomes of the Obama Admin. guidance. He rather dramatically states that preponderance of the evidence is our lowest standard of proof. Technically, this is incorrect, probable cause is our lowest standard. Preponderance of the evidence is our civil standard, and thousands upon thousands of cases are tried in America every year using this BOP. What kind of cases? Non-criminal cases. The college investigation/hearing, even with Title IX dressing, is non-criminal.
    – Gordon
    Sep 17, 2017 at 12:02
  • My hat is off to Ben Carter for going above and beyond the call of duty in making his comments to the posts and an answer concerned here. I would guess he's had legal training. He is probably a lawyer. I have given 135 upvotes here, four downvotes; I spent two downvotes on the post we are discussing, plus I voted to close, which I had only done one other time.
    – Gordon
    Sep 17, 2017 at 12:10
  • Ms. DeVos may exercise her perogative to change the guidance under Title IX concerning this proceeding to a criminal standard of proof, maybe she has already done so, I haven't followed the political static on this matter. But even if she does so, it is still an administrative proceeding, not a criminal proceeding. So how to we get to speaking about "Guilt"? It's the "boiling down" transition that I find so troubling with the post we are discussing.
    – Gordon
    Sep 17, 2017 at 12:18
  • Sorry, Barry Carter.
    – Gordon
    Sep 17, 2017 at 12:35
  • 2
    @Gordon This is not a Law.SE. Whether the OP correctly identified the procedure as criminal or civil, whether they correctly stated the lowest burden of proof in the American Legal System and what anyone thinks of the associated politics are all completely irrelevant. The OP simply asked if any philosophers of ethics consider "guilty until proven innocent" defendable and gave an example of where such an assertion is used in modern proceedings. I don't see any reason to down-vote or close.
    – user22791
    Sep 17, 2017 at 13:27
  • Sorry, I meant ... So how do we get to speaking about "Guilt"? (We simply do not reach the idea of "guilt" at all in this proceeding, hence such awkward phrases as "Innocent until proven guilty", and "Guilty until proven innocent" are irrelevant). One is guilty or not guilty of a crime. Penalty jail, fine etc. Here, penalty is administrative: expulsion, suspension, etc.
    – Gordon
    Sep 17, 2017 at 13:31
  • @Isaacson Here OP posts about a particular type of proceeding. And I would point out that most philosophers' ears prick-up when any sort of "boiling down" procedure is put into play. There is naturally a suspicion of sophistry (very loosely defined) when we start "boiling down" which a philosopher would take the time to investigate, I would think. I do not make a charge of sophistry, but I did investigate the "boiling down" transition.
    – Gordon
    Sep 17, 2017 at 13:38
  • Now what argument can be made against me? I don't think a de jure argument could be made, though I have not followed this matter closely in the news, nor in the legal press. However, I would imagine the argument would be: true, it is not a criminal proceeding de jure, but to the extent the administrative decision would appear on a permanent transcript (if indeed it does) then it is de facto a criminal-like matter, hence we need the criminal BOP. But even so, I would object to the use of the concepts of guilt, innocence etc.
    – Gordon
    Sep 17, 2017 at 14:33
  • @Gordon In philosophy of law, guilt is simply the state of having transgressed some moral code sufficiently to justify punishment. I'm not familiar with this ruling either, but it certainly sounds as though punishment will be administered and so guilt is an entirely appropriate term.
    – user22791
    Sep 17, 2017 at 15:32
  • @Gordon Everything that you've written so far on this post is you expressing why you disagree with Alexander's views in the first linked question; none of that is an argument for why that question is off topic or should have been put on hold as being "primarily opinion based". As Alexander explicitly stated in an edit, he is not soliciting opinions, he is asking for any references or explanations of philosophers who have written on this topic. You expressing your disagreement with Alexander's views doesn't in any way further the idea that the question is off topic.
    – Not_Here
    Sep 17, 2017 at 23:24
  • 2
    It's been stated numerous times that down voting and voting to close are things that should happen when the question is off topic, formatted incorrectly or otherwise isn't a good fit for the site, not because you personally disagree with views expressed in the question. That question is completely on topic and you going on about jurisprudence doesn't change that fact or in any way supply an argument as for why the question is off topic.
    – Not_Here
    Sep 17, 2017 at 23:25
  • In other words, I simply never took seriously the "guilty until proven innocent" conclusion/ now question.
    – Gordon
    Sep 18, 2017 at 1:14

1 Answer 1


I think several of the ethics questions we get suffer from a similar set of problems (I'm not going to specifically address the above questions as I see them more as a prompt than a highly localized expression.

Problem 1: Invite Opinions

We often get ethics questions that are not well-suited to the SE format. Such as

Is X wrong?

The problem with these sorts of over-generalized questions is two-fold.

First, sometimes there is no such consensus in the philosophical literature. In such cases, it's not really helpful to give answers, because it's more complicated than the person assumes. Generally, people who ask questions in this way aren't really open to hearing what different philosophers have said on this.

Second, this invites a large number of answers rather than producing a single "correct" answer. As far as I know these types tend to attract non-philosophical answers (here by "philosophy" I mean grounded in philosophical ethics and aware of the literature). Instead, they attract a certain sort of off-the-cuff folksy answer or certain users who have a dial-a-view (Ayn rand fans, adamant religious believers and non-believers, adamant ethics = evolutionary biology [we have all of the above plus some more level headed people]).

The second problem tends to drown out the first. The first would require rather lengthy answers that address what many major views say about an ethical problem. The second creates an impossible situation for SE-style voting. Questions are in principle supposed to be answerable much like a tech question, and it just doesn't work to have SE questions fundamentally be polls.

Problem 2: Confused Questions

For instance, Are drugs and addiction in general bad, a priori?, contains multiple non-identical questions using terms in different ways:

  1. "Are drugs and addiction in general bad, a priori?"
  2. "But how do we justify banning a drug, ethically?"
  3. "And on the individual scale, how could I justify telling a friend to stop using a drug or engaging in some (harmful, in my eyes) addictive behavior, without encroaching on his liberties?"

Based on the length spent on each theme, I assume the OP is most interested in third version, but these are far from identical questions. The third also has the best chance of being something that one could answer in an SE-votable format (viz., this is a common problem considered in the autonomy literature about when "freedom" and "autonomy" clash and whether we can violate someone's freedom to encourage them to autonomy and if so under what circumstances and when it delves into paternalism).

Problem 3: Hidden Assumption Variation of Invite Opinions

Sometimes there's also a hidden assumption variation on the invitation of opinion questions. I can recall off the top of my head, people assuming:

  • An ill-defined utilitarian or consequentialist principle behind their question
  • Assumptions that ethics is evolutionary biology
  • Religious assumptions about right/wrong.

In all these cases, I don't think it's wrong to ask about ethics in these frameworks. It's just wrong to do so in a way that obscures the framing assumption. In fact, with the framing assumption in place, the question can often be quite good.

Problem 4: Law-Morality Confusions

Many of these questions don't draw a distinction between legality and morality. While there are forms of legal positivism or ethical positivism that see the two as identical, most philosophical accounts distinguish between what we should have as law and prosecute vs. what is right/wrong.

When a question confuses these deeply in its manner of asking, it's nearly impossible to get enough focus to answer the ethical question without confusing it with (usually) the US legal framework.

Severance Clause

I think there's often other problems as well, but I can't think of them off the top of my head right now.

  • There are a few problems with this answer, but I don't want any of them to detract from the fact that it gives a really good overview of what problems to avoid when writing a question about ethics and I have up-voted it according, it would make a good FAQ. The problems essentially spring from the failure to distinguish these types of error in ethics questions from the same error in other question and it's this trend that I'm actually concerned about.
    – user22791
    Sep 18, 2017 at 10:51
  • It is for that reason that I contrasted the treatment of ethics questions with the highly popular recent question philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/45965/…. That question also invites opinion, it is far from given fact how non-eucledian geometry might fit into Kant's theory, and most of the answers skirt very close to being unreferenced opinion, or at least personal exegetical work, and certainly range from 'yes we can' to 'no we can't'.
    – user22791
    Sep 18, 2017 at 10:52
  • I'm concerned that we're in danger of implying, not that un-referenced opinion is to be discouraged, but that un-referenced opinion on certain topics is discouraged whereas on others it is positively encouraged. An opinion on the rights and wrongs of drug use is no more an opinion than one on whether non-eucledian geometry fits into Kant's models.
    – user22791
    Sep 18, 2017 at 10:55
  • 3
    I don't see that question as fitting the same mold. Kant's views on epistemology give us a clear reference point for guessing how he would interact with the idea of non-Euclidean geometry. So while there's "opinion" in everything, the sort of opinions that work there are bounded by the writings of a single author who wrote extensively -- including examples from geometry.
    – virmaior
    Sep 18, 2017 at 11:41
  • Conversely, a generalized "is drug use wrong?" has no bearings to guide an answer -- in fact, it invites answers from multiple theoretical approaches with no criteria for distinguishing them in voting but our own whims.
    – virmaior
    Sep 18, 2017 at 11:42
  • I'm not suggesting that the 'drug use' question is ideal, just asking why this group was singled out for closure. This well received question quite clearly asks for a range of philosophical views about the commons. What's different from the first or second questions I cite which ask for a range of philosophical views about guilt before innocence and privacy respectively?
    – user22791
    Sep 18, 2017 at 12:58
  • As an ethicist, I am (perhaps to a fault) frustrated by the attitude that "is X wrong?" can't be answered so why bother, but "can we ever know X?", or "what does X really mean?" are considered endless sources of objective fascination.
    – user22791
    Sep 18, 2017 at 13:00
  • I'm not really following you there. The question you reference in the comments is more akin to "Does Kant think X is wrong?" which would be answerable within the bounds of an SE. "Is X wrong" is more akin to "is knowledge justified true belief?" but it's worse because the latter is something people don't normally have an opinion about outside philosophy but the former is something people nearly always do have a pre-philosophical opinion of.
    – virmaior
    Sep 19, 2017 at 0:51
  • The question I referenced, by my reading, simply asks "a recent law has been passed about commons ownership, what have some philosophers said about it?". This seems almost identical in form to the first question in my post "a recent law/rule has been made about presumed guilt, what have some philosophers said about it?", or the second "I've just had a discussion about invasion of privacy, what have some philosopher's thought about it?". These all seem like perfectly valid questions as the subject matter is sufficiently narrow that a range of philosophical positions can be outlined briefly.
    – user22791
    Sep 19, 2017 at 6:25
  • As to the second half of your comment, that is exactly the issue I'm talking about. Ethics, unlike some other branches of philosophy, does suffer from the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter. It is nonetheless a valid branch of philosophy in which some excellent work has been and is still being done and I'm concerned it is being too easily dismissed (not just here) as too relativistic, not on any justified grounds, but simply because a lot of lay people think about it also. As a result, it often (though not from you personally) ends up just sounding rather elitist.
    – user22791
    Sep 19, 2017 at 6:30
  • I'm sorry when I said the question you referenced I meant (philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/45965/… which you referenced above that. / The second question you reference regarding the commons reads as pretty garbled to me, but it's at least a topic that doesn't naturally occur in most people's heads.
    – virmaior
    Sep 19, 2017 at 7:00
  • The problem isn't that everyone has an opinion, but that few people recognize the difference between raw opinions and appropriate material for an SE. / A further issue in what you suggest is that questions are not supposed to inspire either encyclopedic answers or multiple incommensurate answers. By restricting questions to ones that attach to something in the literature, we avoid that.
    – virmaior
    Sep 19, 2017 at 7:02
  • 1
    I understand the problems, but what I'm saying is that they are insurmountable with ethics and so responding in this way effectively either bans questions on ethics, or requires them to meet a standard that other questions do not have to meet simply because of the possibility of some ill-informed answers. I think that would be a poor solution to the problem, much better to hold such questions to the same standards as others but be vigilant with the quality of the answers.
    – user22791
    Sep 19, 2017 at 10:43
  • 2
    It would be nice if people who took the trouble to actually consult what they hope are experts in philosophy, about some day-to-day ethical question could have their effort (and insight that it might not be so simple) rewarded by a introduction to the issues as philosophers see them, but if such an answer really is going to be buried somewhere in the ad hoc 'reckons' of the internet in general then I can see that's not going to work. Can we not moderate answers to the same degree we moderate questions, putting them on hold for editing/deletion etc?
    – user22791
    Sep 26, 2017 at 10:55
  • 1
    @Isaacson: We can only delete and/or (temporarily or permanently) lock answers. Locking prevents editing and commenting by anyone but moderators, deletion prevents at least commenting (not sure about editing by the author right now, but tending to "no").
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Sep 27, 2017 at 7:17

You must log in to answer this question.