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November 4, 2005

Have you ever wanted to know what wasn't art, or the difference between ethics and morality, or if, assuming there is no afterlife, it's irrational to fear death? Now members of the public with a desire to have such profound questions answered can turn to a website launched last month by professional philosophers.

The idea behind AskPhilosophers.org, hosted by Amherst College in the US, is to put the skills and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the public.

Already signed up are Simon Blackburn and Peter Lipton, both of Cambridge University; Roger Crisp, fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Anne's College, Oxford University; and Gabriel Segal, head of the philosophy department at King's College London.

Professor Lipton, head of Cambridge University's department of history and philosophy of science, said the project created a "philosophers' commune".

"It's very important that philosophers get out more. It's a profession, and we have highly technical literature - but we are asking questions that lots of people are interested in," he said. "I find it refreshing to answer questions that are non-academic."

The tricky part was writing clearly enough for a general audience while not boring the other philosophers on the panel, Professor Lipton said. "It's a challenge, but it really is fun. I'm addicted."

The site was set up last month by Alexander George, chairman of Amherst's philosophy faculty. So far, the 36 panellists have answered 380 questions.

Of more than 1,100 questions submitted since the site's launch, some 360 were posted, and they drew almost 500 responses. Questions run the gamut of existential angst: why are people sometimes mean; why is stupidity not painful; and is happiness possible?

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

Art, life and death: sample of postings on AskPhilosophers.org

Q: Assuming there is no afterlife, is it irrational to fear death?

A: It's irrational to fear what death will feel like if you know it won't feel like anything; but it doesn't follow that it is irrational to fear death. It's not irrational to look forward to the pleasures of living, and if we know that death will take these away, the fear of losing those pleasures doesn't seem irrational either.

Peter Lipton, head of department of history and philosophy of science, Cambridge University

Q: Are there arguments against gay marriage that are not religious, bigoted or both?

A: There are no good arguments meeting that description.

Gabriel Segal

Q: What is not art?

A: Lots of things: the orange in front of me, the bus outside my window, George Bush, the number four, Palo Duro Canyon and so on.

What makes something not art calls for a definition of art. Once we knew what the definition was, we could determine what did not fall into the category. I suspect this is not the best way to go.

Aaron Meskin, lecturer in philosophy, Leeds University

Q: What is the difference between ethics and morality?

A: A distinction is sometimes drawn between ethics as concerning all the values or goods that might be instantiated in a person's life (wellbeing, friendship, virtue of character, aesthetic qualities and so on), and morality as the narrower domain of moral obligation only (right and wrong, what is forbidden and permitted and so on).

Roger Crisp, Uehiro fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Anne's College, Oxford University

Q: Should education be a means to an end?

A: I do not see anything wrong with using education as a means to an end, such as when I suffer through a dreary course on car mechanics so that I can learn how to fix my own engine.

Having said this, I don't think education is always merely a means to an end.

Not only can it be fulfilling to learn certain things even if this knowledge is put to no practical use, but the very process of educating oneself can be fulfilling independently of any value practical or otherwise in the things learnt.

Joseph G. Moore

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