A Philosopher's Blog

Cop Cam

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2007

Earlier this week I saw a segment on CNN about the Bobby Cam. This is a video camera that some British police (known as Bobbies) wear. It is similar to the American dash cam-this camera on a police car captures video of what happens in front of the cruiser.

While some privacy advocates argue against such cameras, they seem to be an excellent idea. First, they are actually good for innocent citizens. Assuming the recording is done properly, such video footage would be able to show that a person is not guilty of a crime. Second, they are good for the legal system. Video evidence is far superior to that of eye witnesses (eye witnesses are extremely unreliable for a variety of reasons) and quality evidence is good for the legal system. Third, they are good for the police. In cases in which lies are told about police officers, the video can reveal the truth of the situation. For example, a friend of mine who was a police officer found himself in a difficult situation. He acted properly, but the others involved in the situation lied about what happened. The press jumped on the bandwagon against him and things looked grim. Fortunately for my friend, a credible witness corroborated his story and the truth was revealed. A video of the incident would have enabled that ugly situation to be avoided.

It might be objected that the video would be tampered with. This is possible, but is not a special objection against video-almost all evidence is subject to tampering. It might also be objected that the police might tape things in violation of various rules and use such evidence improperly. In reply, the same can be said of any type of evidence and hence this is not a special objection against video evidence. There are legitimate privacy concerns that can be raised, but these can be handled by the same sort of rules that govern police entering and investigating various places.

Thus, the cop cam seems like an excellent idea and one that should be adopted in the United States.

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Why I Run…sort of. :)

Posted in Running by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2007

People sometimes ask me why I run. My true answer is a very personal thing, but when I’m in a smart-ass mood (which I usually am) the exchange goes like this:

Non-runner: “Why do you run?”
Me: “You are asking the wrong question.”
Non-runner: “So, what is the right question?”
Me: “The right question is not to ask me why I run. The right question is to ask yourself why you do not run.”
Non-runner: “Why are you such a smart ass?”
Me: “You are asking the wrong question…”

Ada Calhoun, Tucker Carlson and Hate Crime

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2007

 Ada Calhoun claims that the coverage of the Senator Craig “incident” “rapidly degenerated into a smug homophobia-fest.”


 As an example, she notes that on MSNBC “Tucker Carlson bragged that when a man hit on him in a bathroom in Georgetown, he went back with a friend and “grabbed him . . . and hit him against the stall with his head.”

Her view of the matter is that “beating up a gay man for propositioning you was a crime — a hate crime, even.”

 She then compared Carlson to Imus and asked if Carlson should be in at “least as much trouble for revealing (with glee!) his past violence against a gay man?”

 Tucker Carlson, in a statement, claims that he was actually attacked in the men’s room and he and a friend returned to detain the individual until a security guard arrived. He asserts that “I wasn’t angry with the man because he was gay. I was angry because he assaulted me.”

If events were as Carlson described, then there was no hate crime. After all, restraining a man who has attempted to assault a person is not a crime-hate or otherwise. It is actually a public service. While Carlson could have perhaps told the story in a different way, Ada Calhoun was clearly remiss in leaping to accuse him of committing a hate crime. She should have learned more about the details before allowing her emotions to sweep her towards such an accusation. After all, to act against a person because of a prejudice would be wrong-perhaps even hateful.

But, if Carlson and his friend beat up a man for merely propositioning him, that would be an unjustified response. Naturally, as any feminist will tell you, unwanted sexual advances and propositions are wrong and should be dealt with accordingly. However, a mere proposition does not warrant physical violence-a simple rejection would be a proportional response. Returning with a friend to deliver a beating would clearly be unwarranted in such a case, however offensive the proposition might be. This is because the response would be out of proportion to the offense.

 Even if Carlson and his friend attacked the man for a mere proposition, this need not be a hate crime. If Carlson attacked the man because of a hatred for gays, then that would obviously be a hate crime. But, if he attacked him because he propositioned him and not out of a hatred for gays, then it would not be a hate crime as such.  

 Obviously, such an attack would not be morally justified-physically attacking someone for making a proposition is not a proportional response. However, such acting out of proportion to a provocation does not seem to be, in itself, a hate crime. To see this is so, consider the following analogy: suppose that there is a traffic accident involving Sam (a Caucasian ) and David (a Hispanic).  David calls Sam an idiot and Sam runs over and punches David in the face. Obviously, Sam has committed a crime and has acted out of proportion to the provocation. But, if Sam acted because he was angry about the insult and not because he hates Hispanics, then he did not commit a hate crime.

 Obviously, it can be difficult to determine a person’s true motives. But the distinction is still morally relevant.  So, even if Carlson attacked the man because of the proposition, it need not have been a hate crime.

 I would be rather taken aback if a stranger asked me for sex in a public restroom. Such an inquiry would be both presumptuous and rude. Honesty compels me to say that I would be less upset if a woman made the offer, but I would still be disgusted by such a thing. I would not respond with violence. I would either simply leave quickly or suggest to the person that s/he seek help. Anyone who is soliciting sex from strangers in public places obviously has some serious problems that need professional attention.

 Treating sex in this way is, on my view, both pathetic and morally unacceptable-it involves using oneself and others as mere means to physical gratification. That sort of behavior is incompatible with respecting oneself and others as persons. But perhaps I’ve taught Kant, feminism, and ethics far too many times.




Senators, Sex and Solicitation

Posted in Law by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2007

Recently Senator Craig of Idaho was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover policeman in a public restroom. Not surprisingly, the senator publicly endorses a conservative agenda and has actively denied being gay for quite some time.

The senator was not specifically targeted. He was simply caught in a net that is routinely cast in the United States to catch men soliciting gay sex in public places such as restrooms. Interestingly, the men are not arrested under laws governing prostitution (unless, of course, they are offering to buy sexual services). Instead they are typically charged with indecent exposure and committing sexual acts in public places.

Not surprisingly, there is considerable debate about whether the police should be enforcing such laws.

The main argument against having the police enforce such laws is that such enforcement uses resources that could be better used elsewhere. From a moral standpoint, police resources should be deployed in way that does the most good for society. While such sexual behavior is clearly not a very good idea, it does not seem to generate enough harm to warrant such extensive police efforts. Instead of staking out restrooms to arrest men looking for sex, the police could be dealing with people that pose a clear danger to society. Thus, it could be concluded that such laws should not be enforced.

The standard and correct reply given by most police officials is that the police have a duty to enforce the law. It is not their role to decide which laws should and should not be enforced. It is the responsibility of the law makers to decide what the laws should be.

Of course, the police do get to decide the extent to which they will commit resources to enforce a law. Since there are so many laws, the police cannot hope to equally enforce them all. For example, speeding is illegal but the police lack the resources to patrol all streets twenty four hours a day year round. Instead, they assign traffic control resources as they see fit. So, the police could spend less effort enforcing the laws in question and thus better utilize their limited resources for the good of society.

Naturally, if such laws do not adequately serve the good of society and are wasting resources, then such laws should be repealed. If it is not a good idea to enforce a law, then it is clearly not a good idea to have that law. This raises the question about whether such laws serve the good of the community.

On one hand, soliciting sex from strangers in public places is clearly a bad idea. There is the risk of disease and, as the senator found out, the risk of damaging one’s reputation. Further, many men who have been arrested are involved in long term heterosexual relationships. Some are married and some even have children. Such men are clearly doing wrong-they are violating the trust of their partners, potentially exposing them to sexually transmitted diseases, and engaged in deception. Since the law should aim at preventing harm, it seems reasonable to have such laws.

On the other hand, there are many types of harmful behavior that are not illegal. For example, a person can smoke, drink, not exercise and cheat constantly on his girlfriend and everything is perfectly within the law. So, the question comes down to what sort of harms should be dealt with by the law.

Buying a Wife?

Posted in Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2007

Recently Money Magazine published an article describing tactics on how to meet and marry a billionaire (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/19505458/). This article mentions organizations that serve to procure women for men.

Patti Stanger, the CEO of MillionairesClub123.com charges the man $10,000 to $150,000 to find a suitable woman.

Of course, the service is not supposed to actually be a case of pimping out prostitutes. Stanger does not claim to be providing the man with a sexual encounter. What she offers is a selection of women suitable for marriage. To her credit, she does tell women to “date for love.” However, she also is careful to tell people to do their dating in a “rich pond.” Her reason is practical-if you marry a rich toad and he loses his money, you are stuck with a poor toad. Of course, if what matters is love, then it seems odd to use her service. As many philosophers have argued, great wealth is often incompatible with good character. This is because the means of acquiring wealth either destroy good character or are not compatible with it. Also, if the true goal is to find a good person, why should a woman only limit herself to the very rich?

Janis Spindel, who owns Serious Matchmaking, charges men a mere $20,000 for her services. In return for this fee, a rich man will be introduced to a pool of suitable women. Women who want to land a rich man will need to fill out an application or pay to meet with her or an assistant. Once a woman is accepted, she is on the market and available for acquisition-presumably for the right price.

On the face of it, these services seem a bit morally questionable. That this is so can be shown by considering the following: Suppose that Bill pays Patti to procure Betsy for him. In most such transactions, we have the following terms for these roles: Bill is the John, Patti is the madam/pimp, and Betsy is the prostitute. Naturally, this sort of transaction seems morally questionable. This is because it treats a human being as a commodity to be used for financial gain.

It can be replied that the marriage services are not like whorehouses. After all, the women are freely participating and they are not being sold as sexual objects to men by a madam or pimp. Instead, the company is being paid (very well) to provide men with the chance to find a suitable woman to marry. It is up to the woman herself whether she wishes to marry the man. This can be seen as analogous to corporate head hunting: just as a rich CEO pays a company to find suitable employees for his business, a rich man can pay a company to find a suitable woman to marry.

It is tempting to argue that this approach transforms marriage into an economic matter-finding a wife is like finding an employee. Love, one might argue, should not be sullied by such economic machinations.

An obvious reply to this is that love has as much to do with marriage as it does with business-that is to say, none at all. Marriage is essentially a legal and financial contract. If you doubt this, consider the nature of divorce. Assuming economics is what marriage is truly about, then these services make perfect sense: just as a CEO wants the best employees money can buy, a rich man will want the best wife that money can buy.

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Is Philosophy Useless?

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 27, 2007

A common misconception about philosophy is that it is useless. It is often assumed that philosophy is useless. Philosophers often help fuel this misconception by creating the impression that they simply split hairs and debate endlessly about meaningless problems. These charges do have some merit-philosophers, like all academics, often get lost in their ivory towers and become needlessly isolated from the world. Because of this, it is not unfair to conclude that at least some of what philosophers do is quite useless. However, it is a mistake to assume that philosophy is useless.

This misconception often rests on how people define “useful.” People who have this misconception often define usefulness in a very narrow and very concrete way such as making money, baking bread, or killing lots of people. Even under these narrow and concrete definitions, philosophy is still useful. As will be shown, philosophers have made many useful contributions.  In addition, there are broader definitions of “useful” that seem quite plausible. Under very limited definitions of “useful” most of the sciences would not be useful either, which seems to be an implausible view. In order to make good on these claims it must be shown that philosophers have (as philosophers) made useful contributions. This is easily done.

One major contribution made by philosophy is science. Science originated in philosophy and philosophers were also scientists-in fact, in the past little distinction was made between the two. Science is based on and utilizes philosophical methods. In the past, some types of science were often called “natural philosophy” and even now doctorates in the sciences are still called “philosophy doctorates.” Famous philosopher-scientists include Thales, Descartes, Bacon, Newton.

A second major area of contributions is in the realm of logic and mathematics. Mathematics and logic were developed by philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, and Pascal. Science, technology, and engineering depend on mathematics and logic. Logic is the basis of computers-ranging from PCs to car chips to digital phones to hand held game systems. In is no exaggeration to say that without philosophy, the modern information economy and technology it is based on would simply not exist. Critical thinking was developed by philosophers and this is quite a useful thing.

A third major area where philosophers made great contributions is in society. Philosophers have laid the foundation for rights, reform and revolution. Aristotle developed political science. Hobbes developed the theoretical justification for the modern state. Locke developed the notion of God-given human rights. Adam Smith laid the theoretical foundations for capitalism. Henry David Thoreau created the concept of civil disobedience. Marx and Engels developed the theory of Marxism. Martin Luther King, Jr. refined and applied the concept of civil disobedience. These are but a few examples. It is quite clear that society has been shaped and influenced in many ways by philosophers.

A final major area is the realm of ethics. Philosophers developed the notion of formal ethics and ethical reasoning is philosophical. Ethics and ethical debates are a critical and unavoidable aspect of life.

Thus, philosophy hardly seems useless. Of course, most of these contributions lie in the past and thus one might ask “what has philosophy done for me lately?” and “what will I get from studying philosophy?” Fortunately, philosophy still has much to offer.

First, the study and practice of philosophy develops essential skills. These include critical thinking, logical thought, problem solving and writing skills.

Second, the study and practice of philosophy broadens the mind. It enables a better understanding and appreciation of your own views. It enables a better understanding and appreciation of other views. It encourages intellectual tolerance. It encourages the development of intellectual imagination.

Of course, studying philosophy is not without risks or side effects. Philosophy can result in some confusion, doubt and distress. These can be natural side effects of thinking and questioning previously held beliefs.

Is philosophy just a matter of opinion?

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2007

One of the most common misconceptions about philosophy is that philosophical views are just opinions and hence any view is just as good (or bad) as any other.

An opinion is a belief. In common usage, to say “it is my opinion that X” is to say “I believe X.” An opinion is also typically taken as an unsupported opinion. That is, a belief that is not backed up with reasons or evidence. An opinion can become a fact-a belief that is adequately backed up by evidence or reasons.

This particular misconception involves thinking that all philosophical views are just opinions and can never reach the status of being facts. Those who fall victim to this misconception assume that there are no better or worse opinions on philosophical matters. So, any position is as good as any other and there is really no point in discussing it. From this is generally thought that once you have stated your opinion, that is enough and it should be accepted as being as good as anyone else’s opinion. 

This misconception typically involves two assumptions: philosophical positions are simply opinions and the assumption that all opinions are equally good. These assumptions are appealing, but mistaken.

In regards to the first assumption, it is true that philosophy begins with an opinion-what a person thinks about a particular issue. However, the practice of philosophy involves reasoning about and arguing for the position in question. A position backed up with arguments is not simply a matter of opinion-the position is now supported with evidence and reasons. Given that logic and reasoning are not simply matters of opinion, these supported positions cannot be dismissed as being simply matters of opinion. If someone wishes to disagree with a supported position, they will need to provide arguments of their own-otherwise there is no reason to accept their opinion over the supported opinion. Thus, supported philosophical positions are not simply opinions.

In regards to the second assumption, it is often assumed that since people are “entitled” to their own opinions, it follows that all opinions are equally good. While this view enjoys some popularity, it seems implausible in. For example, in the case of cancer treatments, the opinion of medical doctor seems quite a bit better than that of a 5 year old. As another example, in regards to designing airplanes, the opinion of an aeronautical engineer is better than that of a 1st year PE major. If all opinions were equally good, then there would no sense in paying such high fees to doctors-you could just ask anyone for medical advice. There would also be no sense in companies hiring engineers-any one should be able to design a plane or determine if a building is safe.

The second assumption is also logically self refuting. If all opinions are equally good, then the opinion that not all opinions are equally good is as good as the opinion that all opinions are equally good.  This is a contradiction that arises from the assumption that all opinions are equally good. Therefore, the claim that all opinions are equally good must be rejected.

While this misconception might seem to have been easily defeated, it is often based on sophisticated views of relativism and subjectivism .Relativism is the view that truth is relative-typically to a particular culture. There are specific types of relativism, such as moral relativism-the view that moral truths are culturally relative and not universal. For the relativist, truth varies from culture to culture. So what is true in Rome need not be true in Newark.

A more extreme view is subjectivism.  Subjectivism is the view that truth is completely subjective-it is relative to the specific individual. There are specific types of subjectivism, such as moral subjectivism-the view that moral truths are entirely dependent on individual opinion. For the subjectivist, truth varies from person to person. So, what is true for you need not be true for someone else?

Some people assume that philosophical issues are all relative or subjective in nature, so philosophy is thus a matter of opinion. While relativism and subjectivism are defensible positions, to simply assume they are correct is to beg the question. Begging the question is a mistake in reasoning in which a person actually assumes what they need to prove. So, while subjectivism or relativism in regards to philosophical matters might be correct, such a position must be argued for and defended. It would be an error to simply assume that philosophic views simply are subjective or relative.


The conflict between an objective view of philosophy and relativism is an old one and dates back before the time of Plato. In his dialogue Theatetus Plato agrees that some things are relative. For example, a wind that seems chilly to one might seem pleasant to another. But, he argues that relativism is self-refuting. His specific nemesis in the dialogue is Protagoras, a sophist. Protagoras claims that all opinions are true. This must, of course, include the opinions of his opponents who believe he is wrong. So, his belief is false if those who disagree with him have true beliefs. Plato also points out that Protagoras charged for his teachings and justified this by claiming he was teaching people what they needed to know. But once he claims that his teachings are better than those of others, he has abandoned his relativism. In more general terms, when someone starts arguing for the truth of relativism, they certainly seem to be undermining their own position.

Kittens & Cat for Adoption + “The Cat Scale For Men”

Posted in Humor, Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2007

A friend of mine still has adorable kittens and an adult cat up for adoption. If anyone in the Tallahassee, Florida area is interested, let me know and I’ll pass on the contact info.

I’d adopt them myself, but here is the Cat Scale for Men:

0 Cats: Right on, dude.
1 Cat:  Okay. Maybe.
2 Cats: Better have a manly tale of how you saved the cats from death.
3 Cats: “You are worrying me, my brother.”
4+ Cats: “So, I need some advice about interior decorating.”

I already have two cats. One (Zax) was rescued from a storm sewer. I had to lift up a mahole cover (those suckers are heavy and, FYI, they are not really flat-they have metal triangles welded to the bottom). That is manly. :)

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Sympathy for Lisa Nowak

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2007

I was watching the coverage of Lisa Nowak today on CNN and now feel a great deal of sympathy for her.While it is quite evident that she did many wrong things, it is sad to see someone who is so intelligent and capable in such a situation (albeit self-inflicted). Although most people would not go that far, almost everyone knows that love (or similar strong emotions-I’m not quite sure if love truly fits here) can lead people to do crazy things. However, the fact that I feel sympathy does not mean that her actions were not wrong.

Being a mother, she has duties to her children and she should have thought of them when she was packing her bag to go after the other woman. While parents do have the right to have a life apart from their children, they are obligated to not do things that could harm their children-directly or indirectly. Nowak should have realized that her actions could very well lead to jail, thus denying her children her care.

Being married, she was also obligated to not be messing around with another man. If she was unhappy with her husband and wanted to be with the other man, then she should have gotten a divorce. Divorce is fairly quick and easy in America.

Obviously, she should not have attacked the other woman. While the whole situation is a moral mess, attacking another person is clearly not acceptable in this sort of situation. She was not defending herself-she was apparently acting from jealously and anger. Despite her moral failings, I still have sympathy for Nowak. In my youth, I was very judgmental and very limited in my sympathy. But, time has taught me that anyone can fall-we are imperfect beings and sometimes we take the wrong path. My sympathy is mainly this: it makes me sad that she made the choices she did and ended up where she did. Do I think she made a wrong choice? Yes-many wrong choices, in fact. She should not have cheated on her husband. She should have thought about her children. She should not have gone after that other woman. But she did and I am sorry that she did those evil things. Should she be punished? Yes. Should someone try to help her? Of course, but redemption is up to her. She has to decide to seek forgiveness and take the steps needed for redemption. I hope she is able to do this and that she finds happiness some day.

My sympathy is consistent with my moral judgment-I can feel bad for someone and still regard them as in the wrong. For example, I feel sympathy for students I catch copying papers off the web. I am sorry that they made such a bad choice.  I fail them not just to punish them but in the hopes that they will learn to do what is right. I do so not out of anger, but because I care about them. So, they have my sympathy…and a zero.

For those who might wonder, I feel sympathy for almost everyone who has fallen. I think this is right and important-we have an obligation to care about each other and to want the best for others. Sometimes what is best for someone is punishment-it is what they need. In many cases when people do wrong it is because they lack caring and sympathy. They hurt someone because they do not care enough about other people. If we do not care about such people, then we are making the same moral mistake they make. This does not mean that we have to give a murderer a big hug and a teddy bear. We might have to give such a person a bullet.

One obvious reply to all this is to ask “would you feel sympathy is someone did you a terrible wrong?” Being an honest person, I admit that how I feel is not something that I can control at will. So, I might feel only anger and hate towards someone who did me or someone I loved a horrible wrong. But, unless they are a monster without even the slightest bit of humanity left, they would still deserve sympathy. They might not get it from me, but that would be my failing.

This, of course, raises a final question: are some people so evil that they do not deserve sympathy at all? While it is often said that everyone has some good in them, I do consider it possible for there to be someone who is beyond human sympathy. This person would need to have knowingly and freely chosen evil and would have to be devoid of all the better human qualities. In short, such a person would be purely monstrous and completely inhuman. I suspect that some of these creatures do walk among us, but I sincerely hope not.

Isis & The Armadillo

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on August 23, 2007

I let Isis out back as soon as I get up. After doing her business she likes to grab more beauty sleep in the great outdoors. To make her snooze extra comfy, she has dug several Isis shaped sleeping pits out back.  When I was getting ready to run I noticed that Isis was not napping in one of her puppy pits.

Instead, she was staring intently into the neighbor’s yard. I went out to look and saw an armadillo digging away in the lawn. It ignored Isis completely and eventually went into the neighbor’s shed.

If they could talk, I suspect it would have played out like this:

Isis: “Hey you, what the heck are you?”
Armadillo: “I’m an armadillo. I dig holes.”
Isis: “I dig holes, too. Perhaps we can be friends and do lots of damage together.”
Armadillo: “You’re weird looking.”
Isis: “What? I’m beautiful. Everyone tells me so.”
Armadillo: “You have no armor , your legs are too long and  you are coated in fur. I avert my eyes from your ugliness.”
Isis: “Well, speaking of digging holes and legs, I think I’ll use my long legs to jump the fence. Then I’ll bury you up to your knees in a hole.”
Armadillo: “Hah! That would do nothing to me. I’d just walk out of the dirt.”
Isis: “Did I mention that you’d be upside down when I bury you?”
Armadillo: “Hey, none of that! I think I’ll go poop in this shed.”
Isis: “Freak.”
Armadillo (from shed): “Darn, I already read this issue of USA Today!”
Armadillo: “Do  you believe in God?”
Isis: “No, I’m a dog.”
Armadillo: “What does that have to do with it?”
Isis: ” ‘God’ backwards is ‘dog.’ Also, dogs have no knees. So we can’t pray. That’s why we’re all atheists.”
Armadillo: “What the hell?”
Isis: “What about you, rat in plate armor, do you believe in God?”
Armadillo: “Of course.  I’m obviously the product of intelligent design.”
Isis: “Hmm, I’m not an atheist anymore. “
Armadillo: “Ah, the perfection of my design has swayed you.”
Isis: “Um, no. The fact that you are a rat in plate armor has convinced me that only a being with a sense of humor could have created something like you.”
Armadillo: “Hey!”


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