Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Ban Them


"I was wrong to call sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention a crisis. Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse" -Russell Moore


They were right. I was wrong to call sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) a crisis. Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse. Someone asked me a few weeks ago what I expected from the third-party investigation into the handling of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. I said I didn’t expect to be surprised at all. How could I be? I lived through years with that entity. I was the one who called for such an investigation in the first place.

And yet, as I read the report, I found that I could not swipe the screen to the next page because my hands were shaking with rage. That’s because, as dark a view as I had of the SBC Executive Committee, the investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.

The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling, and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform. It includes written conversations among top Executive Committee staff and their lawyers that display the sort of inhumanity one could hardly have scripted for villains in a television crime drama.

It documents callous cover-ups by some SBC leaders and credible allegations of sexually predatory behavior by some leaders themselves, including former SBC president Johnny Hunt (who was one of the only figures in SBC life who seemed to be respected across all of the typical divides).

And then there is the documented mistreatment by the Executive Committee of a sexual abuse survivor, whose own story of her abuse was altered to make it seem that her abuse was a consensual “affair”—resulting, as the report corroborates, in years of living hell for her.

For years, leaders in the Executive Committee said a database—to prevent sexual predators from quietly moving from one church to another, to a new set of victims—had been thoroughly investigated and found to be legally impossible, given Baptist church autonomy. My mouth fell open when I read documented proof in the report that these very people not only knew how to have a database, they already had one.

Allegations of sexual violence and assault were placed, the report concludes, in a secret file in the SBC Nashville headquarters. It held over 700 cases. Not only was nothing done to stop these predators from continuing their hellish crimes, staff members were reportedly told not to even engage those asking about how to stop their child from being sexually violated by a minister. Rather than a database to protect sexual abuse victims, the report reveals that these leaders had a database to protect themselves.

Indeed, the very ones who rebuked me and others for using the word crisis in reference to Southern Baptist sexual abuse not only knew that there was such a crisis but were quietly documenting it, even as they told those fighting for reform that such crimes rarely happened among “people like us.” When I read the back-and-forth between some of these presidents, high-ranking staff, and their lawyers, I cannot help but wonder what else this can be called but a criminal conspiracy.

The true horror of all of this is not just what has been done, but also how it happened. Two extraordinarily powerful affirmations of everyday Southern Baptists—biblical fidelity and cooperative mission—were used against them.

Those outside the SBC world cannot imagine the power of the mythology of the Café Du Monde—the spot in the French Quarter of New Orleans where, over beignets and coffee, two men, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, mapped out on a napkin how the convention could restore a commitment to the truth of the Bible and to faithfulness to its confessional documents.

For Southern Baptists of a certain age, this story is the equivalent of the Wittenberg door for Lutherans or Aldersgate Street for Methodists. The convention was saved from liberalism by the courage of these two men who wouldn’t back down, we believed. In fact, I taught this story to my students.

Those two mythical leaders are now disgraced. One was fired after alleged mishandling a rape victim’s report in an institution he led after he was documented making public comments about the physical appearance of teenage girls and his counsel to women physically abused by their husbands. The other is now in civil proceedings about allegations of the rape of young men.

We were told they wanted to conserve the old-time religion. What they wanted was to conquer their enemies and to make stained-glass windows honoring themselves—no matter who was hurt along the way.

Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a “pastor” or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as “distractions” and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.

Most of the people in the pews believed the Bible and wanted to support the leaders who did also. They didn’t know that some would use the truth of the Bible to prop up a lie about themselves.

The second part of the mythology is that of mission. I have said to my own students, to my own children, exactly what was said to me—that the Cooperative Program is the greatest missions-funding strategy in church history. All of us who grew up in Southern Baptist churches revere the missionary pioneer Lottie Moon. (In fact, I have a bronze statue of her head directly across from me as I write this.) Southern Baptist missionaries are some of the most selfless and humble and gifted people I know.

And yet the very good Southern Baptist impulse for missions, for cooperation, is often weaponized in the same way that “grace” or “forgiveness” has been in countless contexts to blame survivors for their own abuse. The report itself documents how arguments were used that “professional victims” and those who stand by them would be a tool of the Devil to “distract” from mission.

Those who called for reform were told doing so might cause some churches to withhold Cooperative Program funding and thus pull missionaries from the field. Those who called out the extent of the problem—most notably Christa Brown and the army of indefatigable survivors who joined that work—were called crazy and malcontents who just wanted to burn everything down. It’s bad enough that these survivors not only endured psychological warfare and legal harassment. But they were also isolated with implications that if they kept focusing on sexual abuse people wouldn’t hear the gospel and would go to hell.

Cooperation is a good and biblical ideal, but cooperation must not be to “protect the base.” Those who have used such phrases know what they meant. They know that if one steps out of line, one will be shunned as a liberal or a Marxist or a feminist. They know that the meanest people will mobilize and that the “good guys” will keep silent. And that’s nothing—nothing—compared to what is endured by sexual abuse victims—including children—who have no “base.”

When my wife and I walked out of the last SBC Executive Committee meeting we would ever attend, she looked at me and said, “I love you, I’m with you to the end, and you can do what you want, but if you’re still a Southern Baptist by summer you’ll be in an interfaith marriage.” This is not a woman given to ultimatums, in fact that was the first one I’d ever heard from her. But she had seen and heard too much. And so had I.

I can’t imagine the rage being experienced right now by those who have survived church sexual abuse. I only know firsthand the rage of one who never expected to say anything but “we” when referring to the Southern Baptist Convention, and can never do so again. I only know firsthand the rage of one who loves the people who first told me about Jesus, but cannot believe that this is what they expected me to do, what they expected me to be.

I only know firsthand the rage of one who wonders while reading what happened on the seventh floor of that Southern Baptist building, how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could. That’s more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.

-Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.


"If the high court adopts Alito’s draft opinion, it will be a legal tidal wave that sweeps away a swath of rights unlike anything America has ever seen" -Laurence H. Tribe


Now that the dust has begun to settle after the initial explosive news that the US supreme court is poised to overrule the right to abortion and that Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization represents what a majority of the court initially voted to do, among the most revealing ways to understand the devastation the court appears ready to wreak on America’s long march toward “liberty and justice for all” is to examine the kinds of arguments being made in the opinion’s defense.

The argument that such a ruling would simply return a divisive issue to the people had long since been widely dismantled. It certainly wouldn’t be returned to the people most profoundly affected once women were told they may have to remain pregnant despite whatever urgent reasons they might have for seeking a safe and legal abortion. It couldn’t be described as returning the abortion issue to the states, now that the possibility of a nationwide ban that the supreme court might uphold is on the horizon. And to the extent the issue is returned to the states, it would be returned to state legislatures so gerrymandered that they often represent the views of a distinct minority of the people anyway.

The argument that “only” abortion is involved because Alito’s draft assures readers that the supreme court’s opinion won’t be treated as precedent for anything that doesn’t involve killing an unborn human is both profoundly insulting and manifestly misleading. It insults every sentient person by minimizing the significance of commandeering the bodies and lives of half the population – and re-inserting government power into every family. And it misleads every reader of Alito’s words by suggesting that a court has the power to shape how future lawmakers and judges will build on its decisions and the reasoning underlying them. Alito’s hollow promise brings to mind similar assurances in notorious cases like Bush v Gore, is inconsistent with how the judicial process works, and wouldn’t offer any solace to anyone who might become pregnant or whose miscarriage might be treated as a crime scene for police to investigate.

The foolishness of the argument that there’s nothing to see here other than the future of abortion law is underscored by some of what is said in its support. We’re told not to worry about the future of decisions like Loving v Virginia, ensuring the right to marry someone of a different race than your own because, after all, Justice Clarence Thomas is in an interracial marriage. We’re told not to worry about the right to same-sex marriage because, after all, Justice Brett Kavanaugh would never vote to overturn Obergefell v Hodges, the most iconic opinion written by his proud mentor, Anthony Kennedy – the man who left the court only after he had hand-picked Kavanaugh as his successor. We’re told not to worry about contraception (despite the way quite a few people view Plan B or IUDs as forms of abortion) because even supreme court nominees like Amy Coney Barrett, who were cagey about just how “settled” a precedent they deemed Roe v Wade, said they couldn’t imagine anybody today challenging Griswold v Connecticut. All that prognostication is cold comfort to the millions of people whose lives are profoundly affected by these shaky predictions.

The most substantial argument is one that is equally fallacious but more sophisticated and in some ways more devious and dangerous: it is the argument that supreme court reversals of precedent, like the reversal of Plessy v Ferguson by Brown v Board of Education, are often to be welcomed as needed course corrections, and that this “course correction” wouldn’t be the first time the supreme court has rolled back decades-old constitutional rights.

The many commentators who persisted in describing Alito’s draft in those terms – as an unprecedented retreat in the arc of ever-expanding rights – have recently been denounced as either inexcusably ignorant or deliberately duplicitous by distinguished scholars like Yale’s Akhil Amar, who says that every first-year law student learns that the very same thing happened during FDR’s second term as president, when the supreme court in 1937 in West Coast Hotel v Parrish overturned a long line of decisions that had blocked minimum wage and maximum hours and other worker-protection laws in the name of employers’ rights of “private property” and the “liberty of contract”. To be sure, Amar’s argument echoes that of the Alito draft, which cites Parrish and says, in effect, “nothing to see here, we did the same thing before” when we rolled back the liberty of contract line of decisions in 1937.

Justice Alito and Professor Amar are simply wrong: profoundly so. That so-called (and quite misleadingly labeled) “switch in time that saved the nine” was nothing like the switch that Dobbs would represent. The 1937 “switch” was no sudden politically driven turnabout but was in fact the culmination of long-simmering movements in legal and economic thought – movements that were reflected both in scholarship and in judicial opinions from the earliest days of the 20th century in places like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Lochner v New York insisting that “the 14th amendment does not enact Mr Herbert Spencer’s social statics,” movements that represented the growing conviction that the “freedom” to work at low wages and in miserable conditions was an illusion lacking both moral and legal foundations and one that simply helped perpetuate economic inequality and the exploitation of relatively powerless, not-yet-unionized workers by wealthy and powerful corporations.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that West Coast Hotel v Parrish – the 29 March 1937 decision that is usually marked as the pivot point in the great constitutional upheaval – was handed down by precisely the same set of nine justices as the nine who had rendered a decision pointing in the opposite direction less than a year earlier, on 1 June 1936, in Morehead v New York ex rel TipaldoOne justice of the nine, a moderate Republican named Owen J Roberts, who had been rethinking his position on the underlying legal theories, had foreshadowed his shifting views by writing a landmark opinion upholding milk price regulation, Nebbia v New York, by a 5-4 vote in 1934 – less than two months after the court had upheld a state mortgage moratorium law by a 5-4 vote in Home Building & Loan Ass’n v Blaisdell, a decision clearly foreshadowing the 1937 repudiation of Lochner’s legacy by reconceiving the meaning of the constitution’s clause forbidding all state impairments of the obligation of contracts.

That history is important to keep in mind if one is to understand the depth of the error made by those who seek to compare the 2022 tsunami that Dobbs would represent with the gradual shift in current represented by the 1937 movement away from liberty of contract to protection of workers and consumers. The head-spinning and altogether untimely switch in the supreme court’s abortion jurisprudence that Dobbs would represent – if the decision the court announces late this June or early July is in substance what the leaked Alito draft indicated it would be – will reflect not the steady maturation of a long-developing jurisprudential movement but the crude payoff to a partisan political program to take over the federal judiciary, one beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the rise of the Federalist Society, and advancing with supreme court appointments made by Republican presidents all of whom lost the popular vote (George W Bush, appointing Justice Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts; Donald J Trump, appointing Neil GorsuchBrett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett), and made in circumstances of dubious legitimacy.

Professor Amar treats as laughably naïve the observation by ACLU national legal director and Georgetown law professor David Cole that, although “Parrish took away some rights of business owners … its real effect was to expand rights protections for millions of Americans subject to exploitation by powerful corporations.” Amar’s rebuttal? He says, and I’m serious here, that it’d be equally legitimate to say that “Dobbs’ real effect would be to expand rights protection for millions of innocent, unborn Americans … unborn humans, subject to extermination by society.”

It’s hard to know where to begin in unraveling that alleged parallel. Suffice it to note that the status as rights-bearing persons of embryos and fetuses remains a matter of profound sectarian controversy in America and throughout the world while no such controversy attends the status as rights-bearing persons of the array of workers whose rights, at least under laws designed to limit economic exploitation if not directly under the constitution itself, were indisputably expanded by virtue of the Parrish decision and the overturning of the Lochner line of cases.

Perhaps no less important is the indisputable fact that, although there remain a few commentators who continue to think that Lochner was rightly decided and Parrish was wrong, there is a nearly universal consensus, certainly covering the ideological spectrum on the current supreme court, that the “rights” protected by Lochner and the other decisions that Parrish tossed into the dustbin of history were not constitutionally sacrosanct, and that inequalities of bargaining power prevented the common-law baseline that Lochner treated as immune to legislative modification from having any special constitutional status. At the same time, the notions of personal autonomy and bodily integrity that provide the constitutional foundation for the substantive “liberty” at stake in cases like Roe and Casey are almost universally accepted as real, although deep disagreements remain about whether, to what degree, and from what point in fetal development the protection of the unborn fetus can properly trump that liberty.

The upshot is that the radical change in law and society that Dobbs would represent truly has no parallel in the history of the supreme court or in the history of the United States. As David Cole writes, the “proper analogy is not Brown overruling Plessy, but a decision reviving Plessy, reversing Brown, and relegating Black people to enforced segregation after nearly 70 years of equal protection.” For, as Jamelle Bouie rightly observed, “equal standing is undermined and eroded when the state can effectively seize your person for its own ends – that is, when it can force you to give birth.” Whether or not one compares that compulsion and forced labor to literal enslavement, as I did in my 1973 article on Roe v Wade, attempts to minimize the huge retrogression this would represent must be dismissed as little more than shameful efforts to camouflage the carnage the supreme court of the United States is about to unleash both on its own legitimacy and, even more important, on the people in whose name it wields the power of judicial review.

  • Laurence H Tribe is the Carl M Loeb University Professor of Constitutional Law Emeritus at Harvard University, the author of numerous books and articles, a distinguished supreme court advocate, and holder of 11 honorary degrees

Saturday, May 21, 2022

What happens when Plato mixes with playtime? Philosopher Scott Hershovitz answers the questions that confound children and adults alike


Children are constantly wrestling with questions about metaphysics and morality. But most adults in their lives don’t notice or, even worse, discourage them when they do. I’m a philosopher and a father. I’ve got two boys, Rex and Hank. They have been asking philosophical questions since they were little, and they try to answer them too. They’ve recreated ancient arguments and advanced entirely new ones.

People are skeptical when I say that. “Sure, your kids are philosophical,” they respond, “but you’re a philosopher. Most kids aren’t like that.” They are wrong, though. Every child is a natural philosopher. They’re puzzled by the world, and they try to puzzle it out. And they’re good at it, too. Kids are clever and courageous thinkers. In fact, adults can learn a lot from listening to them – and thinking with them.

If God created everything, who created God? Leyha, 7: Leyha, that is a good question. I think the biggest mystery about the world is the reason it exists at all. Some people think the answer is: God created it. But that doesn’t get us very far, since it raises a new question: why does God exist?

Most religious people don’t think God was created by anyone. They think that God simply exists. In fact, some think that God has to exist. A long time ago, Saint Anselm tried to prove that God has to exist. He said that God is the greatest guy we could possibly imagine. Since actually existing would make a great guy even greater, God has to exist, otherwise, we could imagine an even greater guy. (This is called the ontological argument, because philosophers like to give things fancy names.)

I don’t think that works, and neither did a monk named Guanilo. He imagined the greatest island possible – as beautiful as could be. If Saint Anselm’s argument was right, he said, that island must actually exist somewhere. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be the greatest. But that’s just silly! The fact that we can think of something doesn’t make it real.

Does God exist? I don’t know, but I’m skeptical. And your question points to one of the reasons why. Imagining that there’s a God doesn’t help us explain anything. It just raises new questions, which are at least as mysterious as the old ones.

I sometimes feel like I’m the only real person and everyone else is a robot. How can I know if that’s true? Ursula, 8: Have you checked your family and friends for circuit boards and fuse boxes? I’d give them a good look if they’re acting like robots. I’m kidding. If they were really good robots, you wouldn’t be able to tell, at least not without cutting them open. And let’s not do that, since they would get hurt if your hypothesis was wrong.

And it probably is! I can’t say for sure. Because it’s hard to say anything for sure. A philosopher named Descartes once tried to imagine that everything he believed was wrong. He didn’t suppose the people around him were robots, since they hadn’t been invented. Instead, he imagined that an evil demon was filling his head with falsehoods – that none of the people or things he thought he knew actually existed.

But even if a demon was trying to trick him, Descartes thought there was one thing he could know for sure: he existed. After all, he was thinking about the possibility that a demon was trying to trick him. And to think, you have to exist – or as Descartes put it: “I think, therefore I am.”

You’re in the same position. You know you’re real. But what about everyone else? When I worry about this, I remind myself that there’s no reason to think I’m special. I’m just some guy who was born outside Atlanta in 1976. Why should I be the only person in the entire world who’s real? Why would someone make all those robots just to trick me?

Ask yourself the same question, Ursula. Is there any reason to think that you, and you alone, are real? Probably not. Unless you’re the main character in a movie and I’m just another robot trying to trick you …

Why are there numbers? Sahil, 5: Philosophers argue about this, Sahil. Some think we made numbers up – that people created them to help us solve problems. (The fancy word for this is fictionalism, since the idea is that we’re telling stories about numbers.) If we did invent numbers, that was a really good idea. Numbers are amazing; we can do so many cool things with them. We use them to play games and bake cakes and make sure our spaceships get to the right destination.

Other philosophers think we discovered numbers, just like we discovered gravity and electricity. (This is called Platonism, after the philosopher Plato.) They think that numbers would exist even if we didn’t. I think that’s probably right. There are mathematical patterns all over nature. Lots of flowers have either three, five, eight, or 13 petals.

Those numbers appear in the Fibonacci sequence – a special set of numbers named after an Italian mathematician. Fibonacci wasn’t the first to notice that set of numbers, though; mathematicians in India described it long before he did. But flowers seem to have got there first. So I think that numbers are a part of the world that we discovered, even though we can’t see them, smell them, taste them or touch them.

Where was I before I was born and before I was in your belly? Melia, 4: Melia, bad news: you were never in my belly. But you have good company in wondering where you were before you were born …

Where was I before I was here? Josh, 3: Nowhere! The universe has been around for billions of years, but you weren’t part of it until very recently. I wasn’t either, though I’ve been here a bit longer than you. Have you ever made something new – like a picture? It wasn’t anywhere until you made it. And you’re just the same. You weren’t anywhere until your parents made you.

Where do you go when you die? Homer, 7: It’s hard to say for sure, since nobody who is dead can tell us. Some people believe in an afterlife – they think we might go to heaven if we’re lucky. But I think we simply cease to exist – that we aren’t anywhere. That makes some people sad. The universe will be around for billions or trillions of years after we have gone. We only get to hang out here for a little while. But I think it’s amazing that we get to be here at all – to explore the world and have fun. So enjoy it, Homer, and don’t worry too much about death.

What is it like to be dead? Arthur, 8: Same deal, Arthur. We don’t know for sure. But I think the answer is: it’s not like anything at all. Before you were born, there was nothing like the experience of being you, since you didn’t exist. And the same will be true when you’re dead. It won’t be like anything, since you won’t exist anymore. And that’s OK – in fact, it’s good news. Being dead won’t bother you. You won’t even know that you’re dead.

What are our lives for? Caspar, 5: They are for us, Caspar! Lots of people want to know what the meaning of life is. They’re searching for something that will help it make sense that we’re here, and maybe tell us how to live. But I think they’re making a mistake. The universe doesn’t care about us. It’s billions and billions of light years wide, filled with billions and billions of stars, and probably billions and billions of planets. There is not much special about where we are, or maybe even who we are, if there’s life on other planets. And I don’t think anybody put us here for any purpose at all.

But we are here, and we should care about each other, even if the universe doesn’t care about us. There may be no meaning to our lives. But we can find meaning in our lives by filling them with family and friends and fun – and projects that make the world a better place. You get to decide what your life is for, Caspar, so try to make it something cool.

When there is a mummy and a daddy, but their baby dies, are they still a mummy and a daddy? Zahra, 5: Zahra, this is a really tough question. I’ve thought a lot about it because I had twin babies that died just before they were born. It was the saddest day ever. And for a long time after, I was confused because I didn’t know whether I was a daddy or not. When people asked if I had kids, I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to make them sad, so I usually said no. But that felt sad for me, because it felt like I was forgetting the twins.

Here’s what I think now. I was the twins’ daddy, and I always will be. That’s my relationship with them. But because they died, I didn’t get to be their daddy in a different sense. I didn’t get to play the role of daddy. I didn’t get to tuck them in at night or tell them silly jokes. And I’m still sad about that, even though the twins now have brothers, Rex and Hank, who I get to tuck in every night. Zahra, if you know someone whose baby died, maybe give them a hug? Hugs help a lot.

Why is it bad to have everything I want? Abraham, 4: I don’t know if it is, Abraham – it depends on what you want. If all you wanted was peace on Earth, then it would be amazing for you to get everything that you wanted. But I suspect you want lots and lots of treats and toys. That’s OK – I do too. But there are problems with getting all the treats and toys that we want. Sometimes, the things we want are bad for us. If I ate all the chocolate I wanted, I’d get a tummy ache. It’s better to just have a little bit.

Another problem is that other people sometimes want the same things we want. If there’s not enough for everyone, it’s nice to share. Last, there’s a song by the Rolling Stones called You Can’t Always Get What You Want. That’s true. And you have to learn how to be disappointed without making yourself – and everyone else – miserable.

Why do people end up doing things that they don’t want to do? Sarang, 4: There are so many reasons, Sarang. Sometimes, we do things because we feel like we should, even if we don’t want to. I feel that way about flossing my teeth. I don’t want to do it, but I think I should, since I know it’s good for me. Sometimes, we do things so we won’t hurt other people’s feelings. I don’t like cherries. But once a friend baked me a cherry pie, and I ate it with her, since she’d worked really hard at it. I didn’t want her to feel bad.

Other times, we do things we don’t want to do because someone forces us to do them. Has anyone ever forced you to do anything? That’s not fun, especially when the person is being mean. But sometimes the person making you do something is helping you by getting you to do something you should do, like go to bed or go to the doctor and get an injection. Parents have to do that a lot, since kids don’t always know what’s good for them.

There’s another reason, which is a little more complicated. I want to eat sweets. But I also don’t want to eat too many sweets, since I know that’s not good for me. Sometimes, I eat too many anyway because they’re so tasty. Philosophers call that weakness of will. Everyone’s will is weak sometimes. We want to do the right thing, but we also want to do the fun or tasty thing, and sometimes that want wins out, even though we wish it wouldn’t. The good news is that you can work on making good decisions; you’ll get better at it if you practice.

Do the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, or do the needs of the few outweigh those of the many? Arthur, 7: Arthur, did you get help with your homework? Or did some grownup put you up to asking this question? I’m a little suspicious, but I’ll answer anyway. It depends what the needs are – and whether they are really needs, rather than just wants. Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, and sometimes it’s the other way round.

But it’s important to say: needs and wants aren’t all that matter when we’re deciding what to do. Rights are important too. Consider the following story (which philosophers call Transplant). You work at a hospital, and there are five patients there who will die if they don’t get organ transplants. Each patient needs a different organ, but there aren’t any donors. Just then, a man walks into the hospital with a broken arm. He’s not in any danger of dying, but it occurs to you: if you kill him, you could give his organs to the patients that are dying. That way, five people will live and only one person will die. Would you kill the man? I wouldn’t. I think we have to respect his right to life, even if it means others will die. The rights of just one person can trump the needs of many people.

Is your imagination made of atoms? Josie, 7: Josie, this is one of the hardest questions that philosophers think about – so hard that I had to go to my son Hank for help. (He’s nine and a pretty good guy to ask about stuff like this.) Hank says that the thing that makes your imagination (your brain) is made of atoms, but your imagination isn’t. Is he right? It depends what you mean by your imagination. If you mean the mechanism in your brain that lets you imagine things, then, yes, that’s made of atoms, just like Hank said. But if you mean the things that you imagine, such as dragons or fairies, then it’s actually up to you whether they are made of atoms. You can imagine anything you want – even dragons made of fairy dust.

A trickier question is whether the idea of those dragons in your mind is made of atoms. Some philosophers think our minds are just our brains. (This is called materialism, since the idea is that the mind is made of material.) If that’s true, then everything in your mind is made of atoms – including your ideas. But other philosophers doubt that everything in our minds can be explained by the arrangement of atoms in our brains. (This is called dualism, since the idea is that the mind and brain are two different kinds of things.) I’m not sure what to think. It’s really complicated, and philosophers and scientists are working together to figure it out. Maybe you’ll help someday.

The Guardian 

Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids by Scott Hershovitz is published by Allen Lane at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.