A Philosopher's Blog

Unpatriotic Corporations & The Language Argument

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on September 1, 2014
English: Burger King headquarters in unincorpo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In previous essays I have written about corporate personhood as well as corporate inversion.  Corporate inversion, briefly put, is when a corporation buys a foreign corporation and then “inverts” ownership. For example, an American corporation like Burger King might buy a Canadian corporation and then move its corporate headquarters to Canada to take advantage of the lower tax rate. As might be imagined, some people have been rather critical of this practice. President Obama has even asserted that such corporations are unpatriotic.

While listening to NPR a while back, I heard an interesting argument advanced by one of the guests. He began by noting how Mitt Romney had taken some flak for asserting that corporations are people. He then mentioned how Obama called the corporations that engage in corporate inversion unpatriotic. He then raised the point that criticizing corporations for being unpatriotic is to accept them as people. This does raise a somewhat interesting question about whether this is right or not.

In the United States, corporations are legally persons—and the Supreme Court seems to be committed to granting them all the advantageous and convenient rights of actual persons (while not saying anything about the fact that it is illegal to own persons in the United States). I have argued at length that corporations are not people and should not have that legal status—so I will not repeat those arguments here. However, I will obviously address the issue of whether a corporation can be called unpatriotic without the accuser being committed to the personhood of corporations.

On the side of corporate personhood, it could be argued that being unpatriotic (or patriotic) requires the sort of intentional and emotional mental states that only a person could possess. As such, if a corporation is unpatriotic, then it is a person.

Interestingly enough, this sort of language argument has been used by various philosophers such as Socrates and John Locke. In arguing for universals, Socrates (or Plato) would proceed from how one talks to an ontological commitment. In discussing personal identity, Locke took the fact that people use expressions such as a person not being themselves as evidence that someone in a normal state of mind can be a different person from someone in an abnormal state: “human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did, thereby making them two persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English, when we say such an one is not himself, or is beside himself; in which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first used them, thought that self was changed, the selfsame person was no longer in that man….”

The easy and obvious counter is that when someone refers to a corporation as being unpatriotic (or patriotic), she need not commit to the corporation itself being a person. Rather, the person is just using a shorthand expression in place of asserting that the people who decide to implement the inversion and make it happen are acting in (what is seen as) an unpatriotic way. To use an obvious analogy, if someone claims that a sports team is enthusiastic, the she is not committed to the team being a person—an entity over and above the players, coaches, etc. Rather, she is just using conversational shorthand to refer to the members of the team.  If such conversational shorthand expressed a commitment to personhood, then people would be routinely expressing commitments to a vast number of entities—thus dramatically swelling the ontology of persons. This seems both odd and unnecessary. Given the injunction of Occam’s razor, due care should be used when moving from how people speak to an ontological commitment. In the case of corporations and other groups, it would seem to suffice to attribute the mental states to the people that make them up rather than adding another entity to the matter. As such, the appeal to language argument for corporate personhood fails.

Thus, someone can claim that a corporation is unpatriotic (or patriotic) without being committed to corporate personhood. Just like a person can talk about team spirit without being committed to team personhood.


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The Worst Thing

Posted in Philosophy, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2014
Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...

Anselm of Canterbury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It waits somewhere in the dark infinity of time. Perhaps the past. Perhaps the future. Perhaps now. The worst thing.

Whenever something bad happens to me, such as a full quadriceps tendon tear, people always helpfully remark that “it could have been worse.” Some years ago, after that tendon tear, I wrote an essay about this matter which focused on possibility and necessity. That is, whether it could be worse or not. While the tendon tear was perhaps the worst thing to happen to me (as of this writing), I did have some bad things happen this summer and got to hear how things could have been worse. Since it seemed like a fun game, I decided to play along: when lightning took out the pine tree in front of my house I said “why, it could have been worse” and then was hit with inspiration: what would be the worst thing? The thing that which nothing worse can be conceived.

I can say with complete confidence that there must be such a thing. After all, just as there must be a tallest building, there must be the worst thing. But, of course, this would not be much of an essay if I failed to argue for this claim.

Interestingly enough, arguing for the worst thing is rather similar to arguing for the existence of a perfect thing (that is, God). Thomas Aquinas famously made use of his Five Ways to argue for the existence of God and most of these arguments relied on a combination of an infinite regress and a reduction to absurdity. For example, Aquinas argued from the fact that things move to the need for an unmoved mover on the grounds that an infinite regress would arise if everything had to be moved by something else. A regress argument with a reduction to absurdity will serve quite nicely in arguing for the worst thing.

Take any thing. To avoid the usual boring philosophical approach of calling this thing X, I’ll call this thing Troy. If Troy is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists. If Troy is not the worst thing, then there must be another thing that is worse than Troy. That thing, which I will call Sally, is either the worst thing or not. If Sally is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists and is Sally. If it is not Sally, there must be something worse than Sally. This cannot go on to infinity so there must be a thing that is worse than all other things—the worst thing. I’ll call it Dave.

The obvious counter is to throw down the infinity gauntlet: if there is an infinite number of things, there will not be a worst thing. After all, for any thing, there will be an infinite number of other things. As Leibniz claimed, the infinite number cannot be said to be even or odd, therefor in an infinite universe a thing could not be said to be worst.

One might be inclined to reject the infinity gauntlet—after all, even if there is an infinite number of things, each thing would stand in a relation to all other things and there would thus still be a worst thing.

Another obvious counter is to assert that there could be two or more things that are equally bad—that is, identical in their badness. As such, there would not be a worst thing.  A counter to this is to follow Leibniz once again and argue that there could not be two identical things—they would need to differ in some way that would make one worse than the other. This could be countered by asserting that the two might be different, yet equally bad. In this case, the response would be to follow the model used in arguing for the best thing (God) and assert that the worst thing would be worst in every possible respect and hence anything equally as bad would be identical and thus there would be one worst thing, not two. I suppose that this would have some consolation value—it would certainly be a scary universe that had multiple worst things.

Of course, this just shows that there is something that is worse than all other things that happen to be—which leaves open the possibility that it is not the worst thing in another sense of the term. So now I will turn to arguing for the truly worst thing.

Another way to argue for the worst thing is to use the model of St. Anselm’s ontological argument. Very crudely put, the ontological argument works like this: God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. If God only existed as an idea in the mind, a greater being can be conceived, namely God existing for real. Thus, God must exist.

In the case of the worst thing, it would be that which nothing worse can be conceived. If it only existed as an idea in the mind, a worse thing can be conceived, namely the worst thing existing for real. Thus, the worst thing must exist.

Another variant on the ontological argument can also be used here. A stock variant is that since God is perfect, He must exist. This is because if He did not exist, He would not be perfect. But He is, so He must. In the case of the worst thing, the worst thing must exist because it is the worst. This is because if it did not exist, it would not be the worst. But it is, so it does. This worst thing would be the truly worst thing (just as God is supposed to be the best thing).

This approach does, of course, inherit the usual difficulties of an ontological argument as pointed out by Gaunilo and Kant (that existence is not a quality). It would certainly be better for the universe and the folks in it for the critics to be right so that there is no worst thing.


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Terraforming Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on August 27, 2014

J’atorg struggled along on his motile pods, wheezing badly as his air sacs fought with the new air. He cursed the humans, invoking the gods of his people. Reflecting, he cursed the humans by invoking their gods. The gods of his people had proven weak: the bipeds had come and were transforming his world into an environment more suitable for themselves, showing their gods were stronger. The humans said it would take a long time for the world to fully change, but J’atorg could already see, taste and smell the differences. He did not know who he hated more: the hard-eyed humans who were destroying his world or the soft-eyed humans who poured forth words about “rights”, “morality” and “lawsuits” while urging patience. He knew that his people would die, aside from those the humans kept as curiosities or preserved to assuage their conscience with cruel pity.

English: Terraforming

English: Terraforming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Terraforming has long been a staple in science fiction, though there has been some practical research in more recent years.  In general terms, terraforming is transforming a planet to make it more earthlike. Typically, the main goal of terraforming is to make an alien world suitable for human habitation by altering its ecosystem. Since this process would tend to radically change a world, terraforming does raise ethical concerns.

The morally easiest scenario is one in which a lifeless, uninhabited (including non-living creatures) planet (or moon) is to be terraformed. If Mars is lifeless and uninhabited, it would fall into this category. The reason why this sort of scenario is the morally easiest is that there would be no beings on the world to be impacted by the terraforming. As such, there would be no rights violated, no harms inflicted, etc. As such, terraforming of such a planet would seem to be morally acceptable.

One obvious counter is to argue that a planet has moral status of its own, distinct from that of the sort of beings that might inhabit a world. Intuitively, the burden of proof for this status would rest on those who make this claim since inanimate objects do not seem to be the sort of entities that can be wronged.

A second obvious counter is to argue that an uninhabited world might someday produce inhabitants. After all, the scientific account of life on earth involves life arising from non-life by natural processes. If an uninhabited world is terraformed, the possible inhabitants that might have arisen from the world would never be.

While arguments from potentiality tend to be weak, they are not without their appeal. Naturally, the concern for the world in question would be proportional to how likely it is that it would someday produce inhabitants of its own. If this is unlikely, then the terraforming would be of less moral concern. However, if the world has considerable potential, then the matter is clearly more serious. To reverse the situation, we certainly would not have wanted earth to be transformed by aliens to fit themselves if doing so would have prevented our eventual evolution. As such, to act morally, we would need to treat other worlds as we would have wanted our world to be treated.

The stock counter to such potentiality arguments is that the merely potential does not morally outweigh the actual. This is the sort of view that is used to justify the use of resources now even when doing so will make them unavailable to future generations. This view does, of course, have its own problems and there can be rather serious arguments regarding the status of the potential versus that of the actual.

If a world has life or is otherwise inhabited (I do not want to assume that all inhabitants must be life in our sense of the term), then the morality of terraforming becomes more complicated. After all, the inhabitants of a world would seem likely to have some moral status. Not surprisingly, the ethics of terraforming an inhabited world are very similar to those of altering an environment on earth through development or some other means. Naturally enough, the stock arguments about making species extinct would come into play here as well. As on earth, the more complex the inhabitants, the greater the moral concern—assuming that moral status is linked to complexity. After all, we do not balk at eliminating viruses or bacteria, but are sometimes concerned when higher forms of life are at stake.

If the inhabitants are people (albeit non-human), then the matter is even more complicated and would bring into play the stock arguments about how people should be treated. Despite the ethical similarities, there are some important differences when it comes to terraforming ethics.

One main difference is one of scale: bulldozing a forest to build condos versus changing an entire planet for colonizing. The fact that the entire world is involved would seem to be morally significant—assuming that size matters.

There is also another important difference, namely the fact that the world is a different world. On earth, we can at least present some plausible ownership claim. Asserting ownership over and alien world is rather more problematic, especially if it is already inhabited.

Of course, it can be countered that we are inhabitants of this universe and hence have as good a claim to alien worlds as our own—after all, it is our universe. Also, there are all sorts of clever moral justifications for ownership that people have developed over the centuries and these can be applied to ownership of alien worlds. After all, the moral justifications for taking land from other humans can surely be made to apply to aliens. To be consistent we would have to accept that the same arguments would morally justify aliens doing the same to us, which we might not want to do. Or we could simply go with a galactic state of nature where profit is the measure of right and matters are decided by the space sword. In that case, we must hope that we have the biggest sword or that the aliens have better ethics than we do.


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Police, Protests & Rights

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2014

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a series of protests in the town. Not surprisingly, these protests led to additional incidents involving conflicts between the citizens and the police. Initially, the local police met the protestors like an invading army: many of the officers were in military grade combat gear and backed up by armored vehicles. As noted in my previous essay, this sort of approach is based on a common philosophy of order held by authorities. This philosophy of order is that perceived threats to the existing order are to be met with physical force—even when the perceived threat consists of citizens acting within their rights. One reason for this is practical—the state generally has an advantage over the citizens in terms of force. As Thoreau notes, “…the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Another reason for this is conceptual—authorities are often similar to bullies in that their view of how to address problems mainly involves coercion rather than persuasion and reason. There is also a philosophical element—those in authority often seem to have a philosophical view about the rights of citizens that rather differs from that of the founders they so often praise when running for re-election.

As this is being written, it is not yet know if Brown rights were violated. As noted in the previous essay, the officer might have used force legitimately. However, the response to the protests has been the systematic and repeated violation of rights.

To begin with the most obvious violations of constitutional rights, the rights of free speech and assemble have been routinely violated by the police. The curfew is the most obvious example of these violations. The harassment and arrests of journalists also seem to be clear violations of the freedom of the press.

Section 1 of the 14th amendment has also been relentlessly violated since citizens have been “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and citizens have been denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The violations of the 14th amendment are not limited just to the treatment of the protestors—the policing of Ferguson’s disproportionality clearly illustrates systematic violation of this amendment. Obviously, this is also a nationwide problem.

There are also clear violations of internationally established human rights: the protestors are being shot with rubber bullets (admittedly this is better than being shot with metal bullets) and tear gas has been used.

Those who accept natural rights, such as John Locke, would certainly agree that these rights are being violated in Ferguson. The most obvious being the right of liberty.  As such, the violations are not just a matter of violations of human law but also violations of natural rights (assuming there are such things). For those who prefer a more utilitarian approach to liberty, Mill’s utilitarian arguments would certainly support the claim that the state is violating the rights of the protestors in Ferguson.

The conflict in Ferguson can thus be seen as having a significant connection to past struggles for liberty and rights. The most obvious link is that the protests are a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This struggle can, of course, be traced back to the development of the very notions of liberty and rights. As such, Ferguson is a recent battleground in the struggle for justice, rights and liberty.

One obvious counter to this view is the claim that the police are justified because of the nature of the situation. People are looting, shooting and destroying property and the police are acting to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. This, of course, does require the use of force and it might appear that some rights are being violated in the keeping of order.

This counter does have considerable underlying merit. The state does have an obligation to prevent protestors from violating the rights of other people. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in unwarranted violence or other misdeeds can be justly stopped or arrested.

There is also the obvious concern with people who use protests as an excuse to engage in or as cover for misdeeds such as looting. If the police arrest someone who has come to “protest” by stealing from local homes, they have not violated that person’s rights—he has no moral right to steal even if he claims that he is doing so as an act of protest.

The easy reply to this counter is that the legitimate need to prevent the violation of rights does not justify violating those same rights. So, while the police have an obligation to keep protestors from committing crimes against life, liberty and property the police also have an obligation to not violate the rights of the protestors. I will freely admit that this can be challenging in practice since opportunists and criminals often mix in with actual protestors. However, if our society is supposed to respect rights, effort must be taken to ensure that these rights are protected—even (and especially) in heated moments. After all, rights are not just for corporations.


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Ferguson, Police & Race

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2014

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson. Repeating an all too common pattern, Brown was unarmed when he was killed. While some claim that Brown was murdered, others claim that the shooting was justified because Brown was attacking the officer. While this might strike some as implausible, unarmed people do attack police officers and, though this might seem odd to some, an officer can be morally justified in using lethal force against an unarmed attacker. As this is being written, the facts of the matter have not been established so I do not know whether Brown was shot down in cold blood or in a legitimate use of force. Obviously enough, if the officer used force legitimately (that is, in defense against an unprovoked attack), then he acted in a morally acceptable (though regrettable) manner. If Brown was not a threat or if Brown was a threat but could have been subdued without killing him, then the shooting would be immoral. This is, of course, a matter of the ethics of the incident taken in isolation. That is, was the officer morally justified in shooting Brown or not, regardless of the broader context? Settling this will require knowing the facts of the matter.

In discussing this matter, I have found that some people consider this aspect of the incident the most important one. That is, the critical issue is whether or not the officer was justified in shooting Brown or not. This view is clearly reasonable, but has an obvious defect: it does not consider the broader context. Roughly put, it could be the case that the officer was morally justified in shooting Brown in what could be regarded as the individual context of one person facing off against another. However, there is also the broader context that involves the social roles of the individuals, the social context, the history of race in America, the political context and so on. That is, the incident is not just a matter of two men who confronted each other. It is also a confrontation of class and race heavy with the weight of history. These considerations lead to the broader moral concerns regarding why Brown and the officer were in that situation.

One obvious part of the answer is the history of race in America, both recent and in the more distant past. This history, as it has done so many times before, has set the stage for death. To state a truism, being black in America is generally rather different from being white—despite the untrue claims that America is post-racial. Since I look very white, my experience has been the white experience. However, I have taught at an HCBU (Historically Black College and University) since 1993 and this has given me a perspective somewhat different from most other white folks. One rather obvious difference between whites and blacks in general is how they tend to be treated by the police. It is a considerable understatement to say that blacks tend to be treated rather worse by the police and young black men tend to be singled out for some of the worst treatment. It is, of course, important to note that many police officers are decent people—one should no more stereotype people by profession than by race. Not surprisingly, young black men tend to look at the police rather differently than white folks and the dynamic between young black men and police is often a rather bad one. I have had indirect experience with this dynamic: many years ago I was training for a marathon with a fellow grad student who happened to be African American. While running through a neighborhood we apparently did not belong in, we were stopped by a cop who inquired what we “boys” were doing. I have never been fond of being called “boy” and my friend clearly hated it. Not wishing to be arrested so close to the race, I reigned in my pride and engaged my diplomatic skills while my friend stood in silent anger. The cop let us go and we left the area at a good clip. I am not sure how things would have gone if my friend had been alone—but I suspect it would have not gone quite so well. I have been stopped by police while running one other time and also while biking—although I was not doing anything illegal on any occasion. From these incredibly limited experiences, I can only imagine what it would be like to be subject to such police attention on a regular basis. Once again, to be fair to the police, I have also had many positive experiences with the police and it would be unjust to sweepingly condemn all police because of the actions of some. However, there is clearly a serious moral problem in America in this regard.

Another obvious part of the answer is the philosophy of order held by many in power. While perhaps not familiar with Hobbes, they tend to operate in accord with his view of order and morality. The practical application of this view is that force is the primary (sometimes sole) tool in the toolbox of order.  The most visual manifestation of this is the militarization of the police: even small town police forces have combat gear and sometimes even armored vehicles. As Thoreau noted, “thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” That this approach leads to violence is hardly surprising.

When the context of race is combined with a philosophy of force, it is hardly a surprise that violence and death are all too often the results. As such, even if the officer was justified in his individual actions, they were taken in a context that is fundamentally morally flawed.


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Automation & Ethics

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2014
Suomi: Heronin aeolipiili Türkçe: Yunanlı mühe...

Suomi: Heronin aeolipiili Türkçe: Yunanlı mühendis Hero’nun yaptığı ilk örnek türbin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hero of Alexandria (born around 10 AD) is credited with developing the first steam engine, the first vending machine and the first known wind powered machine (a wind powered musical organ). Given the revolutionary impact of the steam engine centuries later, it might be wondered why the Greeks did not make use of these inventions in their economy. While some claim that the Greeks simply did not see the implications, others claim that the decision was based on concerns about social stability: the development of steam or wind power on a significant scale would have certainly displaced slave labor. This displacement could have caused social unrest or even contributed to a revolution.

While it is somewhat unclear what prevented the Greeks from developing steam or wind power, the Roman emperor Vespasian was very clear about his opposition to a labor saving construction device: he stated that he must always ensure that the workers earned enough money to buy food and this device would put workers out of work.

While labor saving technology has advanced considerably since the time of Hero and Vespasian, the basic questions remain the same. These include the question of whether to adopt the technology or not and questions about the impact of such technology (which range from the impact on specific individuals to the society as a whole).

Obviously enough, each labor saving advancement must (by its very nature) eliminate some jobs and thus create some initial unemployment. For example, if factory robots are introduced, then human laborers are displaced. Obviously enough, this initial impact tends to be rather negative on the displaced workers while generally being positive for the employers (higher profits, typically).

While Vespasian expressed concerns about the impact of such labor saving devices, the commonly held view about much more recent advances is that they have had a general positive impact. To be specific, the usual narrative is that these advances replaced the lower-paying (and often more dangerous or unrewarding) jobs with better jobs while providing more goods at a lower cost. So, while some individuals might suffer at the start, the invisible machine of the market would result in an overall increase in utility for society.

This sort of view can and is used to provide the foundation for a moral argument in support of such labor saving technology. The gist, obviously enough, is that the overall increase in benefits outweighs the harms created. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, the elimination of these jobs by means of technology is morally acceptable. Naturally, each specific situation can be debated in terms of the benefits and the harms, but the basic moral reasoning seems solid: if the technological advance that eliminates jobs creates more good than harm for society as a whole, then the advance is morally acceptable.

Obviously enough, people can also look at the matter rather differently in terms of who they regard as counting morally and who they regard as not counting (or not counting as much). Obviously, a person who focuses on the impact on workers can have a rather different view than a person who focuses on the impact on the employer.

Another interesting point of concern is to consider questions about the end of such advances. That is, what the purpose of such advances should be. From the standpoint of a typical employer, the end is obvious: reduce labor to reduce costs and thus increase profits (and reduce labor troubles). The ideal would, presumably, to replace any human whose job can be done cheaper (or at the same cost) by a machine. Of course, there is the obvious concern: to make money a business needs customers who have money. So, as long as profit is a concern, there must always be people who are being paid and are not replaced by unpaid machines. Perhaps the pinnacle of this sort of system will consist of a business model in which one person owns machines that produce goods or services that are sold to other business owners. That is, everyone is a business owner and everyone is a customer. This path does, of course, have some dystopian options. For example, it is easy to imagine a world in which the majority of people are displaced, unemployed and underemployed while a small elite enjoys a lavish lifestyle supported by automation and the poor. At least until the revolution.

A more utopian sort of view, the sort which sometimes appears in Star Trek, is one in which the end of automation is to eliminate boring, dangerous, unfulfilling jobs to free human beings from the tyranny of imposed labor. This is the sort of scenario that anarchists like Emma Goldman promised: people would do the work they loved, rather than laboring as servants to make others wealthy. This path also has some dystopian options. For example, it is easy to imagine lazy people growing ever more obese as they shovel in cheese puffs and burgers in front of their 100 inch entertainment screens. There are also numerous other dystopias that can be imagined and have been explored in science fiction (and in political rhetoric).

There are, of course, a multitude of other options when it comes to automation.


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DBS, Enhancement & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2014
Placement of an electrode into the brain. The ...

Placement of an electrode into the brain. The head is stabilised in a frame for stereotactic surgery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) involves the surgical implantation of electrodes into a patient’s brain that, as the name indicates, stimulate the brain. Currently the procedure is used to treat movement disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease, dystonia and essential tremor) and Tourette’s syndrome. Research is currently underway for using the procedure to treat neuropsychiatric disorders (such as PTSD) and there is some indications that it can help with the memory loss inflicted by Alzheimers.

From a moral standpoint, the use of DBS in treating such conditions seems no more problematic than using surgery to repair a broken bone. If these were the only applications for DBS, then there would be no real moral concerns about the process. However, as is sometimes the case in medicine, there are potential applications that do raise moral concerns.

One matter for concern has actually been a philosophical problem for some time. To be specific, DBS can be used to stimulate the nucleus accumbens (a part of the brain associated with pleasure). While this can be used to treat depression, it can also (obviously) be used to create pleasure directly—the infamous pleasure machine scenario of so many Ethics 101 classes (the older version of which is the classic pig objection most famously considered by J.S. Mill in his work on Utilitarianism). Thanks to these stock discussions, the ethical ground of pleasure implants is well covered (although, as always, there are no truly decisive arguments).

While the sci-fi/philosophy scenario of people in pleasure comas is interesting, what is rather more interesting is the ethics of DBS as a life-enhancer. That is, getting the implant not to use to excess or in place of “real” pleasure, but to just make life a bit better. To use the obvious analogy, the excessive scenario is like drinking oneself into a stupor, while the life-upgrade would be like having a drink with dinner. On the face of it, it would be hard to object if the effect was simply to make a person feel a bit better about life—and it could even be argued that this would be preventative medicine. Just as person might be on medication to keep from developing high blood pressure or exercise to ward off diabetes, a person might get a brain boost to ward off potential depression. That said, there is the obvious concern of abusing the technology (and the iron law of technology states that any technology that can be abused, will be abused).

Another area of concern is the use of DBS for other enhancements. To use a specific example, if DBS can improve memory in Alzheimer’s patients, then it could do the same for healthy people. It is not difficult to imagine some people seeking to boost their memory or other abilities through this technology. This, of course, is part of the general topic of brain enhancements (which is part of the even more general topic of enhancements). As David Noonan has noted, DBS could become analogous to cosmetic/plastic surgery: what was once intended to treat serious injuries has become an elective enhancement surgery. Just as people seek to enhance their appearance by surgery, it seems reasonable to believe that they will do so to enhance their mental abilities. As long as there is money to be made here, many doctors will happily perform the surgeries—so it is probably a question of when rather than if DBS will be used for enhancement rather than for treatment.

From a moral standpoint, there is the same concern that has long held regarding cosmetic surgery, namely the risk of harm for the sake of enhancement. However, if enhancing one’s looks via surgery is morally acceptable, then enhancing one’s mood, memory and so on should certainly be acceptable as well. In fact, it could be argued that such substantial improvements are more laudable than merely improving appearance.

There is also the stock moral concern with fairness: those who can afford such enhancements will have yet another advantage over those less well off, thus widening the gap even more. This is, of course, a legitimate concern. But, aside from the nature of the specific advantage, nothing new morally. If it is acceptable for the wealthy to buy advantages in other ways, this should not seem to be any special exception.

There is, of course, two practical matters to consider. The first is whether or not DBS will prove effective in enhancement. The answer seems likely to be “yes.” The second is whether or not DBS will be tarnished by a disaster (or disasters). If something goes horribly wrong in a DBS procedure and this grabs media attention, this could slow the acceptance of DBS. That said, horrific tales involving cosmetic surgery did little to slow down its spread. So, someday soon people will go in to get a facelift, a memory lift and a mood lift. Better living through surgery.


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Corporate Inversion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 13, 2014

Taxes (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

Corporate inversion is a strategy in which a corporation (usually one located in the United States) merges with a foreign corporation and then shifts its income from its original country.  The usual purpose of this strategy is to reduce taxes and this is done by shifting the income from the higher-tax country to the lower tax country. While this strategy has been used for quite some time, it started attracting media attention in the summer of 2014.

Those who defend tax inversion point to the obvious fact that it is currently legal. As such, the strategy is exempt from legal criticism as long as it is legal. Of course, the fact that something is legal does not entail that it is morally right or even that it is pragmatically prudent. A quick glance at history will show an abundance of practices that were legal (such as slavery) yet morally repugnant. A similar look back will also reveal laws that turned out to be bad ideas on pragmatic grounds. Thus, the actual dispute about corporate inversion is not a matter of whether it is legal or not. Rather, the substantial dispute is whether it should remain legal or not. Interestingly, opposition to corporate inversion is not limited to the left and avowed capitalists have been critical of the practice (usually as part of a general criticism of the tax laws of the United States). There is also the fact that the practice is legal because the corporate lobbyists ensure that is legal. To use an analogy, it would be like a person claiming it is not cheating that they are winning because she is following the rules when she is the one who writes the rules.

One obvious moral concern regarding the practice is that the corporations that invert are able to reduce their tax burden (which tends to already be quite low in practice, despite the relatively high tax rate that exists in theory) while still enjoying the support of the United States. These corporations still utilize the physical infrastructure of the United States, they still benefit from the legal system (which often serves their interests quite well), they still benefit from United States foreign policy and military operations, and they still enjoy the usual corporate welfare, and so on. In short, they contribute less while still receiving the same. If one believes that people should not be takers and should contribute fairly in return for what is received, this tactic would seem wrong. To use an analogy, it would be somewhat like eating a meal at one table and then relocating oneself to another table with a smaller bill so as to avoid paying what one actually owes. While some might see that as brilliant, it does seem rather morally dubious to use such a shift to avoid responsibility. Then again, it could be argued that this is brilliant and there is nothing wrong with eating one meal while paying for a cheaper one. There is, however, the fact that the rest of the folks at the original table will be stuck with the bill—but perhaps they deserve it for being too stupid (or moral) to ditch the table for a cheaper bill. Some might wonder what would happen if everyone jumped tables—but obviously enough not everyone will or can, so there will always presumably be fewer people stuck with more of the bill.

A second stock defense of corporate inversion is that corporations are obligated to make a profit for their shareholders. On the face of it, this inversion would do just that. After all, if the corporation is taxed less, that entails more profits and thus larger payouts to the shareholders. Interestingly, though, the Wall Street Journal notes that this corporate inversion strategy could result in the shareholders paying more taxes—thus perhaps resulting in a somewhat ironic shift of the tax burden. This dispute is a factual matter rather than a matter of value: if the justification of corporate inversion is the benefits to the shareholders, then it certainly matters whether the shareholders benefit from this or are harmed by it. There is also the matter of value. Justify inversion on the grounds of increasing profits is to hold that what matters in terms of what should be done is profits, rather that other factors such as fairness, morality and so on.

While thinkers like Thomas Hobbes would agree that “profit is the measure of right” in the state of nature, there is a reasonable moral concern that gain is not the standard of right. If profit trumped everything, then corporations should engage in such practices as slavery, organ harvesting, prostitution, drug dealing and so on—provided that such endeavors were profitable. This principle would allow a drug cartel to justify its practices—as long as it kept its books in the black (though the streets might be red). It might be countered that these practices are illegal (in some places)—but changing that is just a matter of lobbying or relocation. After all, if a company can relocate to avoid a tax burden so as to maximize profit on the grounds that profit is what matters, it could make the same appeal to relocating so it could deal in slaves or cocaine.

The obvious counter is to say that corporate inversion is not really comparable to engaging in slavery or organ harvesting. The easy reply is that this is true.  But if the principle is that profits are the measure of what one should do, then it follows that as long as the wicked is profitable, one should do it.

Another approach to the matter of warranting actions in terms of profit is to consider the matter from another angle. To be specific, consider the ethics in regards to an individual taking the same view. For the sake of the example, imagine a fellow (a California surfer, perhaps) who follows the principle of profit. That is, he aims to get as much as he can for as little cost to himself. Imagine that he finds that there is a perfectly legal system that will provide him with goods and services at no cost to himself. Given that his goal is profit maximization, this would be a good system for him—he profits at no apparent cost to himself. This scenario seems to nicely work in the two stock justifications for corporate inversion, namely that it is legal and it is profitable. So, if it is acceptable for a corporation to invert because it is legal and because doing so is profitable, then it is acceptable for the California surfer to do the same thing on an individual level. However, if the surfer is in the wrong because he is a taker (that is, he is getting without contributing his fair share), then it would seem that the corporation is also in the wrong.

It could be countered that the corporation is at least employing some people and making profits for the shareholders, etc. However, the surfer can counter that he is making profits for himself and also contributing to employment. After all, someone has to make and sell the sushi he eats, so he is also a job creator.


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Tech, Wages & Profits

Posted in Business, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2014
Factory Automation with industrial robots for ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite the Great Recession, the profits for corporations have doubled since 2000. In contrast, the median household income in the United States has fallen from $55,986 to $51,017 (dollars adjusted for inflation, of course). Not surprisingly, corporate profits have gone from 5% to 11% of the GDP while wages of employee have dropped from 47% to 43%. While these numbers can be interpreted in various ways, one obvious implication is that corporations are making more money with fewer employees. It is also evident that corporations are doing better than most people (although some would say that corporations are people).

One plausible explanation for this is automation that increases productivity without increasing employment and employee income—a claim put forth by the authors of The Second Machine Age. Historically automation and other technological advances have increased productivity and eliminated jobs—but these have also consistently resulted in higher incomes in general (often by creating new and better jobs). That is, as some folks like to say, the rising tide of advancement lifted all boats. What is different about the current situation is that the rising tide of advancement has lifted the corporate yachts while causing the rowboats of the common folks to flounder (and some to sink).

If Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are right, recent advances are destroying jobs at a rate that exceeds the creation of jobs. This does have a certain plausibility since it is well-established that technological advances do eliminate jobs. The obvious example is how factory automation has reduced the number of factory workers. It certainly would not be shocking or amazing if the elimination of jobs exceeded the creation of jobs—even if the past has been different. One reason for this could be a matter of the nature of the advances. Another reason could be a matter of choice: employers elect to stick with the lower number of employees rather than creating more jobs and employing those whose jobs have been eliminated.

It also seems worth considering the impact of the “internet economy” on these numbers. To be specific, this economy features highly (over) valued companies that have relatively few employees. Consider, for example, companies like Facebook. Facebook was valued at $192 billion in July. 2014. IBM was valued at $198 billion. Facebook has about 7,000 employees while IBM has over 400,000. By way of comparison, Walmart has 2.2 million employees (making it the largest private sector employer in the United States). Behind Walmart are the fast food empires of Yum! Brands (523,000 employees) and McDonalds (440,000).

Having such highly (over) valued companies with relatively low numbers of employees would result in a high concentration of profits and wealth. Adding in the fact that the largest employers are in low paying industries (retail and fast food), it would certainly seem to help explain why corporations are doing much better relative to 2000, while most people are doing worse in terms of income.

If there is merit to this explanation, then there are some obvious concerns regarding the sort of economy in which the biggest employers are in low-paying sectors and big profits are made by companies that employee few people (and seem to profit from being excessively overvalued). Some are already suggesting there is a new class system emerging based on this new economy while others point to past bubbles and are waiting for companies like Facebook and Twitter to pop like digital balloons.

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Buffer Zones & Consistency

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 8, 2014
English: United States Supreme Court building ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the summer of 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law that forbid protesters from approaching within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The buffer zone law was established in response to episodes of violence. Not surprisingly, the court based its ruling on the First Amendment—such a buffer zone violates the right of free expression of those wishing to protest against abortion or who desire to provide unsought counseling to those seeking abortions.

Though I am a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression, I do recognize that there can be legitimate limits on this freedom—especially when such limits provide protection to the life, liberty and property of others. To use the stock examples, freedom of expression does not permit people to engage in death threats, slander, or panicking people by screaming “fire” in a crowded, non-burning theater.

While I do recognize that the buffer zone does serve a legitimate purpose in enhancing safety, I do agree with the court. The grounds for this agreement is that the harm done to freedom of expression by banning protest in public spaces exceeds the risk of harm caused by allowing such protests. Naturally enough, I do agree that people who engage in threatening behavior can be justly removed—but this is handled by existing laws. That said, I do regard the arguments in favor of the buffer zone as having merit—weighing the freedom of expression against safety concerns is challenging and people of good conscience can disagree in this matter.

One rather interesting fact is that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone—there is a federal law that bans protesters from the plaza of the court.  Since the plaza is a public space, it would seem analogous to the public space of the sidewalks covered by the Massachusetts law. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the principle seems to be that the First Amendment ensures a right to protest in public spaces—even when there is a history of violence and legitimate safety concerns exist. While the law is whatever those with the biggest guns say it is, there is the matter of the ethics of the matter and this is governed by consistent application.

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Naturally, a person’s actions can affect the initially equality. For example, a person who commits horrible evil deeds would not be morally equal to someone who does predominantly good deeds.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

Given that the plaza of the court is a public space analogous to a sidewalk, then if the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest in public spaces of this sort, then the law forbidding protests in the plaza is unconstitutional and must be struck down. To grant protesters access to the sidewalks outside clinics while forbidding them from the public plaza of the court would be an inconsistent application of the principle. But, of course, there is always a way to counter this.

One way to counter this in a principled way is to show that an alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. If the Supreme Court wishes to morally justify their buffer while denying others their buffers, they would need to show a relevant difference that warrants the difference in application. They could, for example, contend that a plaza is relevantly different from a sidewalk. One might point to a size difference and how this impacts protesting. They could also contend that government property is exempt from the law (much like certain state legislatures ban the public from bringing guns into the legislature building even while passing laws allowing people to bring guns into places where other people work)—but they would need to ground the exemption.

My own view, obviously enough, is that there is no relevant difference between the scenarios: if the First Amendment applies to the public spaces around private property, it also applies to the public spaces around state property (which is the most public of public property).

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