Answer Man

Philosophy Professor’s Internet Advice Points Out the Limits of Common Sense
by Chris Carroll | Illustration by Jason A. Keisling

Is there a point in listening to sad music? Does pure chance actually exist? Is dating my brother’s ex-girlfriend immoral if it freaks out my family? For more than a decade, philosophy Professor and Associate Chair Allen Stairs has fielded questions like these on, where he and colleagues worldwide wrestle with “Dear Abby”-style relationship questions alongside inquiries into the nature of reality. Stairs, who studies the meaning of quantum physics, actually prefers the former—he finds it refreshing not to hand out answers, but to help people carefully examine problems—and he’s become the site’s No. 1 contributor, approaching 700 responses.

That’s a lot of questions answered. Is this just for fun, or do you feel a sense of duty?

There’s certainly an element of pleasure about it, because no one’s going to do philosophy for many years if they don’t find it satisfying to try to come to a right answer. But I do feel a responsibility to take questions seriously and give something useful to carry away. I occasionally get people following up offline to ask for further thoughts—in that case, you know you’ve done something worthwhile.

How long do you spend on a response?

Sometimes I feel like I have something useful to say and I can write it up in five or 10 minutes. There are other cases I start drafting something and then I’m not happy with it, so I come back to it, and I can end up spending hours.

What’s the most meaningful question you’ve dealt with?

There was someone in Zimbabwe struggling with the difficult situation in their country, and trying to understand if patriotism was an acceptable motivation to work for good, because patriotism was also being used to justify the government’s bad actions. As a Canadian who is now a U.S. citizen, I also think about nationality and nationalism. I just tried to offer empathy with their personal situation and provide a little clarity on some peripheral issues, even if I couldn’t do much more.

What do philosophers have to offer people seeking answers?

When it comes to personal questions in particular, I emphatically don’t think philosophers have any special training or insight that allows them to deliver perfect answers. But a philosopher may be a bit better than most people at helping to take the question apart, see what the pieces are, see the different ways you can look at it, and consider different answers that might be reasonable.

Any advice for the rest of us confronting a dilemma, philosophical or otherwise?

Resist the impulse to just assume your instincts are likely to be right. Be willing to recognize when common sense has something to say, but be willing to step back and not take the easy answer for granted.


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