101 Philosophical Questions – The Big Questions

Are you keen to click your conscience into gear and take on some of the philosophy’s trickiest moral dilemmas? Or maybe you’d like to bend your mind around questions on the nature of our universe and reality? Or perhaps you’d like to ponder the precarious principles behind painting and poetry? Well, in our list of over 120 brain-twisting philosophical questions, you’ll be wrestling with all of these topics and more.

Philosophy is a practice nearly as old as humanity itself, yet so many questions remain unanswered. Do you have brainpower brilliant enough to get to the bottom of things finally? We imagine some of these may leave you scratching your head, but if you do uncover the meaning of life or the exact nature of the universe, then we’d love to hear about it! Without any further ado, here are 120+ mind-bending philosophical questions:

Morality

  • Is morality subjective (based on personal opinion) or objective (based on actual fact)?
  • Is it ever okay to lie? When and why?
  • Is it ever okay to kill? When and why?
  • Is any one person’s life worth more than another’s? Why or why not?
  • Do evil people exist? If so, what characteristics make them evil people?
  • Can a good person do evil things and remain a good person? Under what circumstances?
  • Does a person’s motivation matter regarding whether an action is morally good, or does only the action itself matter? For example, James donates money to charity solely to impress his friends. Is James’ action morally good and, if so, in what sense?
  • A train is running down a track which has five people on it. You can flip a switch that would divert the train to a track with only one person on it. Should you flip the switch?
  • When should we forgive a wrongdoing? Under what circumstances?
  • Holocaust survivor Eva Kor famously forgave all Nazis for their crimes. Can one person give forgiveness for atrocities that were also done to others?
  • Are there acts that are beyond redemption? What can and cannot be redeemed? How and why?
  • Do you prefer the moral viewpoint of consequentialism, which focuses on the consequences of actions, or deontology, which focuses on the innate rightness or wrongness of the actions themselves?  
  • A building is burning. You have time to either save a child trapped inside or a valuable painting which you would then sell, using the money to save 20 children from starvation. What should you do and why?
  • Is somebody morally culpable if they take a morally wrong action at the orders of a superior? What if their life is at stake?
  • What makes something a morally good or morally bad action? Where does morality come from?
  • Are you ever morally obliged to take action? Under what circumstances?
  • The moral stance of hedonism asserts that the core ethical principal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • Moral relativists claim that something being morally right simply means that it is approved of by the surrounding society. This implies that different things are right for people in different societies and at different points of history. Do you agree with this claim? Why or why not?
  • Do we have a moral obligation to look after the environment? Why or why not?
  • Are we morally obligated to be charitable, if we have the means to?
  • Are people innately good, or is moral virtue a learnt thing?

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Law, Society and Practical Ethics

  • Should the death penalty be legal? Why or why not?
  • Should euthanasia be legal? Under what circumstances?
  • Is it okay to eat animals? Under what circumstances?
  • Is it best to respond to criminality with punishment or rehabilitation?
  • Can a dog suffer? What about an ant? What about a plant? What about a bacteria cell? Why do we claim that some come suffer yet others can’t?
  • If we developed technology to genetically edit our children before they were conceived, should we use it? Why or why not?
  • Is abortion morally permissible? Under what circumstances?
  • What is, or should be, the main purpose of law?
  • Should smoking or alcohol be banned? Or should other drugs be made legal?
  • Should organ donation be made compulsory?
  • Should animal testing be legal? If so, under what circumstances should it be allowed?
  • Would the world be a better place if nuclear weapons didn’t exist?
  • Are we obliged to live by the rules of the society we are born into?
  • What purposes does humour serve in our society?
  • Do you think the distribution of wealth in the world is fair? Why or why not?
  • What is the most important moral dilemma your society currently faces? Why is it so important?
  • Should we be held responsible for the well-being of future generations?
  • What rights should every human being have, if any? How can society ensure these rights are maintained?
  • Is universal basic income a good idea?
  • Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Do you agree with this sentiment?
  • Churchill also said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Do you agree with this sentiment?
  • Law professor Roger Fisher suggested that the US nuclear codes be implanted into the heart of a volunteer. If the President wanted to use the terrifying power of nuclear weapons, they’d have to kill the first innocent with their own hands to retrieve the codes. Do you think this is a good idea? Why or why not?  
  • If a system were created that directly rewarded people for taking morally good actions, would that be a good idea?
  • If you could change, remove or add one law, which would it be and why?

 

Self and Personhood

  • What does it mean to be a person?
  • If somebody is technically alive but their conscious mind has permanently shut down, are they still a person?
  • At what point does a fertilized egg or developing foetus become a person?
  • A chimpanzee is as intelligent and mentally active as a human toddler. Why are toddlers considered people when chimpanzees are not? Should chimpanzees be considered people?
  • Before you died, you created a computer program that perfectly replicates your consciousness. Can that computer program now be said to be ‘you’?  
  • Is there a distinct divide between the mind and the body?
  • Is the ‘mind’ different to the ‘brain’? If so, in what ways?
  • Are you the same person that you were yesterday? What about ten years ago? What about two seconds ago? Does the concept of ‘you’ include your history, or is it only the person you are right now?
  • What is consciousness?
  • Will artificial intelligence ever attain consciousness? How would we know if an artificial intelligence did attain consciousness?
  • You may know that you have consciousness, but it possible to prove it to other people?
  • Are you replaceable? In what sense or senses?
  • If all of your memories were erased, would you still be you? In what sense or senses? What kind of person would result from this procedure?

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Art and Literature

  • How can we define what is and isn’t art?
  • Is the quality of an artwork subjective (based on personal opinion) or objective (based on actual fact)? Think of a film you think is great and a film you think is terrible, can you say one is objectively better than the other?
  • If there were a universe where the only thing that existed was the Mona Lisa, no-one to view it, no-one created it, is it art?
  • What is the distinction between art and craft?
  • In a fictional world, could a four sided triangle exist?
  • You are watching a horror movie. You know the characters and killer aren’t real, but you are frightened. Who are you frightened for? What are you frightened of? If none of it’s real, and you know it isn’t real, is the fear you are feeling real fear?
  • If fictions can be up for interpretation, can anything be said to be ‘true’ in a fictional world?
  • Where does artistic meaning come from? The artist’s intentions? The viewer’s interpretation? Something else entirely?
  • A piece of art can be interpreted in many ways. Are some interpretations of a piece of art more valid or correct than others? Why or why not?
  • Tracy Emin famously put her own actual messy bed into an art gallery as her latest piece. Was this a work of art?
  • John Cage is a composer who composed a piece named 4’33” for any instrument. The performance are instructed not to play their instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Is this music? Is this art?
  • When assessing an artwork, should we consider who made the art? Are they relevant to our appreciation of the work?
  • Is it okay to consume and endorse art made by people who have done terrible things?
  • How does art serve society and the individual?
  • Why do we find certain things beautiful and other things ugly?
  • Pablo Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” Do you agree with this sentiment?  
  • Where does the pleasure we get when we experience a piece of powerful art come from?
  • In what ways should morality be applied to fiction?
  • Is it morally bad or a negative trait if somebody enjoys watching teens get murdered in a slasher film, even though they are a good-hearted and caring person when it comes to real life?
  • Is beauty truly ‘in the eye of the beholder’ or are some things objectively beautiful?

 

Knowledge and Reality

  • Can you ever know anything with complete certainty? If so, which things can we know with complete certainty and why?
  • Is there a meaning of life? If so, what is it?
  • Supposing that there is no set meaning to life, would this be a reason to despair?
  • Is the universe more chaotic or ordered?
  • Some intellectuals believe we may be living in a huge simulation, do you think this is possible? Why or why not?
  • Is there a strong argument for the existence of a god or gods?
  • Do you think time travel is possible? Why or why not?
  • Is there such a thing as free will? In what sense?
  • Supposing there were no free will, could we justify holding people morally responsible for their actions?
  • Is the future already determined? Why or why not?
  • If different people and animals perceive reality differently, what can truly be said to be real?
  • Do you think anything existed before the beginning of our universe? What and why?
  • The law of causation states that every change in nature is produced by some cause, but if everything was caused by something else, how can such a chain of cause and effect have a beginning? Could the universe stretch backwards in time infinitely?
  • Do all beliefs require evidence to be justified? If not, which beliefs do not require evidence and why?
  • Do you hold any beliefs that cannot be logically justified?
  • Is there anything we can know without drawing that knowledge from our experience of the outside world?
  • Mary is completely color-blind. Nevertheless, she is an expert in the neurophysiology of vision, she knows all there is to know about seeing and color. If gets a pair of magical glasses that let her see color, will she learn anything new?
  • Is knowledge intrinsically valuable, or must it have a practical use to be of value?

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Happiness

  • Can happiness be measured? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • You have the option to plug into a virtual world where your dream life awaits you, but once plugged in you can never return to the real world. Do you do it? Why or why not? What if, once you were plugged in, you wouldn’t know that it was all fake? Would this change your answer?
  • Is it better to live a happy life or a morally good life? Who is each option better for?
  • Kate is seemingly happily married for years, that is until she discovers that her husband has another family, isn’t who he said he was, and never really loved her. Was Kate ever actually happy in this marriage, or does the fact that it was all a sham mean her happiness was also never true?
  • Is happiness possible without also experiencing negative emotions like sorrow and pain?
  • Aristotle’s concept of ‘eudaimonia’ implies that happiness is more than a feeling of pleasure or contentment, according to him, to attain true happiness one must achieve a flourishing and good life. Do you agree with Aristotle?
  • What characterises a ‘good life’?
  • Some philosophers claim that happiness is the satisfaction of a person’s desires. Under this definition, could a person fulfil a desire to be unhappy?
  • Is being happy important to you and why? Is it the most in important thing, or are there other things for which you would sacrifice your happiness?

 

Miscellaneous

  • If over many years, you replace every single part of a ship, is it still the same ship? If you think it is, what if you use the old parts to make another ship? Do you then have two of the same ship?
  • If you could live forever, would you want to? Why or why not?
  • In what sense or senses does karma exist?
  • If you learned that your who life is a dream, would you want to wake up? If so, now or at the end?
  • In what ways do you think the human body might evolve in the future?
  • Are humans the most successful species on the planet? Why or why not?
  • The loving father does not feel obligated to care for his children, but is a good father because he loves them. The dutiful father feels it is his duty to be a care for his children, even though he’d rather not, and so acts as a good father out of duty. Which father would you rather have? Which approach to fatherhood would serve society better as a whole?
  • Given that there is no such thing as biological racial divisions, in what sense or senses is race real?
  • Are there any repeating patterns that recur throughout human history?
  • What are the purposes of recording and studying history?
  • Is there anything that the most creatively-minded human could not imagine?
  • If you had to grade humanity as a whole for its performance over the last century, what grade would you give it and why? Does the average person from this time period also deserve that grade?
  • What does it mean to love someone?
  • Are emotions rational or irrational? If you think they can be either, then what kind of circumstances make an emotion rational or irrational?
  • Should history be told with more emphasis placed upon the leaders or upon the common people?
  • What is the most influential driving force of human history, the most prominent reason that societies expand, fall and progress?
  • Should we respect tradition solely on the basis of it being tradition? Why or why not?
  • Is there such a thing as luck? In what sense or senses?