A Philosopher's Blog

The End of Men III

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 30, 2010
The Feminine Mystique
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This blog concludes my discussion of Rosin’s essay “The End of Men.”
Rosin continues by noting that the shift is not just a matter of women dominating 13 of the 15 fastest growing job fields. As she points out, women are starting to dominate the realms of middle management and the professional fields.  Women still lag behind men in engineering and the sciences.
Rosin explains this by indicating that women are better educated, brighter, more conscientious and more stable than men.  These claims are, of course, factual claims. Women are currently dominating higher education, which gives them a clear advantage over men. It might also be true that women are better than men in these areas. If so, this would help explain the current plight of men and the excellent situation of women.
However, it is well worth considering this current situation in the light of the past. When men where dominant, it was often argued by feminists that this dominance was unjust and not a “natural dominance” based on on superior abilities. Crudely put, it was often argued that the patriarchy was unfairly excluding women and using various unfair means to keep men in dominant positions. Of course, men tended to argue that they held their dominant positions because of being superior in relevant ways. In short, the situation seems to have been exactly reversed: now that woman are dominate or expanding, this is explained (mostly by women) in terms of the superiority of women. It will be interesting to see if a movement comparable to feminism will arise in any significant way to argue against this alleged superiority. In any case, one would imagine that such critics will point to affirmative action programs and other means that have provided special support to women in education, sports, and business. As such, it seems that a case could be assembled that women have taken advantage of a system that works quite well in their favor-just as men did before them.
Rosin next presents a common lament: while woman are dominating higher education and moving ahead of men economically, these is still a male bastion that remains: the top of the job pyramid. It is interesting that female dominance in an area is often lauded as a good thing, while male dominance is still cast as a problem that remains to be fixed (presumably by female dominance).
Rosin concludes by considering the changing nature of leadership-or at least the changing perception of leadership. Tied into this is, naturally enough, the nature (or alleged nature) of each sex. Interestingly enough, female leadership is cast in terms that are stereotypically female: empathy, sensitivity, communication and so on. The difference is, of course, that these stereotypical traits are now presented as those that leaders should have. The traditional male qualities and leadership styles are, not surprisingly, generally cast as being negative in character. For example, much has been made of the role of men in the economic collapse.
Rosin does not, of course, explore these matters in depth. However, there are many important issues here that are well worth considering. One is whether men and women do, in fact, have distinct qualities. For example, are women actually more empathetic and better at communication? A second is whether such sex based qualities are better or worse in terms of leadership and job success. Right now, women seem to be doing better than men. But, the cause of this needs to be analyzed more. While some are tempted to attribute this to the qualities of women, it is wise to consider the feminist arguments of the past: greater success need not be the result of better qualities-it might be due to other factors, such as unfair advantages or external circumstances. Looking back, some thinkers wrote with great confidence about the superiority of men over women and saw no injustice in this. However, these views were later subject to criticism. Now, it seems to the turn for women-they get to write with confidence about the superiority of women and see no injustice in the disparity.
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The End of Men II

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2010
Former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina
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This blog continues my discussion of Rosin’s article “The End of Men.”

Rosin’s next step is to consider the nature of the current, “postindustrial” economy. She argues that this economy favors women. The basis for her case is that the male’s advantages in size and strength do not provide an edge in this new economy, rather social skills (such as communication) and the ability to “sit still and focus” are the dominant skills. While women do not have a monopoly on these traits, she does consider that these attributes might be held predominantly by women.

Interestingly enough, her view rests on the classic stereotypes: men are strong and woman are social. Of course, when women were regarded as the weaker sex because of this difference, feminists argued that these were unjust stereotypes. However, now that these traits are advantageous, they are lauded. One might infer that the rule is that stereotyping is acceptable, provided that it stereotypes men as being at a disadvantage and women as being superior. Naturally, the reverse of this is still to be regarded as unacceptable.

Those who are rather against stereotyping might point out that this approach is still stereotyping and be critical of such an approach. Also, those who were concerned about how women fared poorly in the past economies should now be concerned about the situation faced by men. If the plight of women in the past was a bad thing, then the comparable plight of men today should also be a bad thing. However, there seems to be an unfortunate tendency to laud the “fall of men” and there seems to be, at best, modest concern for the plight of men.

In fact, as Rosin points out, there is a tendency to blame men for the current woes. She cites Iceland’s Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardotti’s expressed desire to put an end to the  “age of testosterone.” While this probably involves the usual political rhetoric, comparable attacks on women would no doubt be seen as sexist and hateful. However, consistency requires that what is hateful for one sex should also be hateful when applied to the other.

Following the standard approach, Rosin notes that although women have made significant advances and dominate higher education, they still fall behind men in wages. However, she is quick to point out that this is changing and that the  “modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.”

While Rosin might be right, it is also possible that her prediction is mistaken. While the male dominated aspects of the economy have slumped badly, it is risky to make predictions from this situation. After all, the economy might very well shift again during the course of the recovery. As such, the plight of men might not be as dire as she predicts. That said, the general trends do seem to favor women over men.

To be specific, the current prediction is that there are 15 jobs that are likely to experience the most growth. As Rosin notes, only two (janitor and computer engineer) are currently male dominated. The other 13 jobs are dominated by women and, ironically, consist of traditional female jobs such as nursing, child care and food preparation. As Rosin notes, while women have expanded into jobs traditionally held by men, the reverse has generally not occurred-at least not yet. Some, such as Jessica Grose, have claimed that men seem to be stuck in their roles and are largely unable to adapt to the changes.

Rosin and Grose seem to be fairly accurate in this point: while women face cultural obstacles when entering fields traditionally dominated by men, men seem to face even greater obstacles. One difference is that the obstacles men face seem to be internal. That is, men are not being excluded by external forces but by their own decisions not to enter such fields. For example, there have been significant attempts to recruit men into the field of nursing, but men seem to be largely reluctant to enter that field.

If this analysis is correct, then men largely have themselves to blame for this aspect of the situation. If men could adapt as women did and enter non-traditional roles, then this would counter (to some degree) the new gender gap. Making such a conceptual switch would require redefining what it is to be a man, much as women went through a conceptual change when they began entering male dominated fields.

Men might be able to do this and, in fact, might be forced to do so by the realities of the new economy. While it might be unmanly to work in childcare, it might be seen as less unmanly than being unemployed.

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The End of Men I

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2010

Hanna Rosin recently wrote a provocative article entitled “The End of Men” for the Atlantic. Being a philosopher and a man, I thought it would be interesting to critique the essay. Hence, the following critique.

Rosin begins her article discussing Ronald Ericsson, the biologist who developed a means to increase the likelihood that a specific sex could be selected by parents when using artificial means of reproduction.

Not surprisingly, some feminists were rather concerned about this method. As Rosin notes, Roberta Steinbacher expressed worries that this method would be used to ensure male dominance. However, this did not turn out to be the case. The data is that parents now select girls to boys at a 2 to 1 ratio. A newer method, called MicroSort, apparently is used to select girls 75% of the time, at least in clinical trials (which might conceivably influence the results).

Interesting enough, the feminists who were so concerned when they thought Ericsson’s methods would be used to perpetuate male dominance seem to be rather silent. Perhaps this is because they are less worried about such methods in general. Or perhaps it is because the current situation favors females over males. However, speculation about motives is not my primary concern here. Rather, it seems more important to consider if the earlier feminist arguments against using the methods to produce more males can be used today to argue against these methods being used to produce more females. If so and if the arguments from then are strong, then they could be pressed into service today. In any case, it does seem reasonable to be concerned when one sex seems to be getting a leg up over the other. Of even greater concern is the future social implications if the ratio of women to men changes significantly. While this might be beneficial in some ways, there could also be negative consequences that should be considered.

That said, the available selection methods do not work in “natural” reproduction-the ratio of males to females remains the same. Since most reproduction is “natural”, the impact on the population as a whole should be fairly minimal. However, the preferences for females is an interesting change. As Rosin points out, sons have been generally preferred over daughters throughout history.

However, as the title of her essay suggests, this has changed. As she points out, the world is less male dominated now and the preference for sons has diminished. In fact, she claims that the situation is now reversed: there is a preference now for daughters over sons.

Like other thinkers before her, she then turns to considering factors that might be contributing to this change. One option she considers is that women have an advantage in the current economic system.

As I have discussed in earlier blogs of my own, one reason for the change is that the economic meltdown damaged male-dominated industries more heavily than those dominated by women. This, of course, does not entail that women will thus continue to do better than men. After all, these industries might recover and thus swing things back towards the way they were. However, Rosin contends that this shift is not merely a a matter of a temporary economic disaster. Rather, she contends that there is a real and lasting change in the economy and one that is very much in favor of women. This is, of course, an empirical matter and will be settled by the passage of time.

In any case, Rosin is correct to point out that women have become the majority in higher education. For example, for every two men who earn a B.A. or B.S. there are three women. This, obviously enough, will translate into greater employment and economic opportunities for women. After all, education is generally key to getting a job and also a significant factor in the salary of jobs.

As I have pointed out in previous blogs and my book, it is interesting that the feminists who were concerned when men dominated education seem to be rather silent now that men are the minority. Of course, as I have argued before, the same arguments that feminists used in the past in this context can be dusted off and modified a bit to argue that we are in a situation of unjust inequality.

Interestingly, when Rosin was being interviewed on the Colbert Report, Colbert asked her if the affirmative action programs for women would be discontinued. I think this is an excellent question. After all, if women are dominated education and so on, there hardly seems to be any need to maintain programs that were intended (in theory)to bring about equality. After all, they have done that and, in fact, have helped swing the inequality the other way.

While it might be argued that the programs are still needed to keep things from sliding back, that would seem to be more of an excuse to keep a system that favors women in place. While closing these programs would probably result in some shift back towards men, women seem to have taken a commanding enough lead to make such programs unnecessary. In fact, there seems to now be a need for programs for men. If an argument is needed, it is easy enough to go back to when men dominated education and dig up the arguments the feminists used to argue for these very successful programs for women.

Kinect

Posted in Sports/Athletics, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 27, 2010
Atari 2600 - Activision - Decathlon
Image by Sascha Grant via Flickr

Being both an athlete and a gamer I find the idea of a more active way to play video games interesting. Then again, I must admit, I often find the actual implementations a bit silly.

One of the latest attempts in this field is Microsoft’s Kinect. I gather that this clever name is derived from “kinetic” and because it sounds like “connect.” At the very least this shows that Microsoft has advanced in its naming methodology since the days of Bob. The gist of this system is that it allows gamers to control the game play via body movements. These are, of course, body movements other than using a standard controller. For example, a player might move her arm to swing a sword or move her legs to move her character in a game.

Since I am in favor of exercise, I think that almost anything that would get people to be more active would be a good thing. Using a system like Kinect would get the player to move more than he would using a normal controller. Of course, this would provide less exercise than actually doing exercise (like running or going for a real walk). But at least the gamer would be off the couch. Assuming, of course, that people actually decide to buy and use Kinect.

There have been various attempts to combine actual physical activity with video game play. These, as you might imagine, generally did not make it into most living rooms. One reason is that people often prefer not to sweat when playing video games. Another reason is that gamers are generally not the sorts of people who are into exercise and people who exercise obviously already do so. As such, it is not clear that there is a substantial market for this sort of technology.

In my own case, about the only thing that would motivate me to buy a Kinect device would be if some truly awesome video game came out that required this. Otherwise I’m content to get my exercise the old fashioned way and to play video games in the traditional manner (my hands on the controller and my ass in a chair).

One minor concern I have about such systems is that they seem to provide the illusion of exercise. For example, consider the Wii system. The Wii controllers were touted by some as a way to be physically active while playing video games. The idea was that players would swing the controller ferociously when sword fighting or swing it like a real club when playing a golf game. However, moving a little plastic stick around is not much exercise. Also, the controller also produces the same results via rather small motions. That is, you can play Wii in the traditional manner (hand on the controller, ass in the chair).

I do think that the sort of user interface being developed by Kinect does have some potential. After all, manipulating virtual objects with natural motions is…well, natural. Also, think of the really advanced user interfaces shown in some science fiction-the user interacts without a mouse or keyboard by using gestures and by manipulating virtual objects by “touch.” While this is currently being presented as a gaming technology, it might become part of a much more general user interface. For example, imagine never losing a remote again because you can control your TV by hand gestures. You would gesture to call up a virtual remote, then manipulate it from across the room. This would allow you to watch TV in the traditional manner (ass on the couch) and you would never have to get up and look for the remote.

Of course, this technology won’t get really cool until Apple starts developing it. No doubt it will be called iTouch or something equally “i” related.

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Track Blues

Posted in Humor, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2010
Running Track, Par.
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Got them track blues…

zombies on the track, they wander but don’t attack…

fools playing chicken, their brains they need to quicken…

no place to pee, water fountains I can’t reach but can only see….

Got them track blues, baby.

While I love to run, I generally do not like running on tracks. While they are easy on the legs, running around and around can be a bit dull. Plus, they tend to be wicked hot in the summer. But, what makes tracks the most annoying is what people do.

The most annoying people on the track are those I call the  Chicken Players. These are the folks who seem intent to play chicken with people who are running. For example, I was doing mile repeats on a high school track and some ROTC or army folks showed up to do some PT test. I have nothing against army folk, especially since I have friends who are in the military. However, the person in charge made a point of stepping out into the first lane every time I came around the track. He would look at me, so I knew that he was well aware I was doing speed work. Just to be clear, neither he nor his soldiers were using the track (aside from stepping out onto it).  As such, there was no legitimate reason for him to do that repeatedly.

Perhaps the second most annoying people are what I call the Lane One Zombies. By track law and tradition, the inner lanes are for people who are actually running. The outer lanes are for walking and jogging. Despite the fact that many tracks have these rules clearly posted, there always seem to be folks who simply must simply stand in the first lane. Or stretch there. Or wander into the lane while I’m doing speed work. Since they seem oblivious and zombie-like, I call them Lane One Zombies. I’m not mean about it though.

A third annoying thing is that people lock up the bathrooms and even lock the water fountains behind fences. I can understand why track facilities are locked up at night, but it is painful to gaze at water fountains through a chain link fence while I am sweating and hot. While I do bring water with me, it does tend to get rather hot quickly in the summer (I generally run to tracks).

Speaking of hot water, I’ve noticed that track water fountains tend to be cruelly deceptive-they often look like the fountains that produce ice cold water, but turn out to just produce water warm enough for noon tea.  Interestingly, the facilities for more prestigious sports tend to have nice, cold water fountains. I assume that this is because runners are deemed to be unworthy of cool water.

The least annoying of the annoyances is when people are doing things on the track that are not really track related. These typically involve people from other sports doing some sort of leaping or hopping exercises on the track that could (and should) be done on their own field. Of course, I am just grumpy about this because runners often get run off other sports’ fields-even when those fields are not in use.

“Get off my track, you damn kids!”

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The State & Discrimination

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2010
Equality
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One rather important subject is the role that the state should play in regards to discrimination. Put roughly, this is a question about the extent of the scope of the state’s power to regulate citizens.

I will be begin with the obvious: the state certainly seems to have an obligation to prevent discrimination in agencies and organizations that are under its direct dominion. This would include the military as well as civilian organizations like NASA and ESA. The basis for this is that a democratic state founded on a principle of equality seems to be obligated to provide equal opportunity to its citizens. To exclude certain citizens on illegitimate grounds would be to rob them of the rights of other citizens in an unjust manner and this would, obviously enough, be wrong.

Moving to a bit less obvious realm, there is the public realm that is not directly part of the state. This would include private schools, private companies, other business entities and so on. On one hand, it could be argued that private entities should be able to exclude whoever they wish. For example, female only gyms should be allowed to legally exclude men (which they, in fact, do). On the other hand, even private entities enjoy the benefits of the state and are under its umbrella, so to speak. As such, if they accept the benefits of the state, then they cannot discriminate against the citizens of the state.

Of course, a private entity could refuse all the goods of the state and this would presumably allow them to discriminate.  In short, they would withdraw from the public realm and into the purely private and personal realm. Of course, they would have to refuse everything-road access, police & fire protection, and so on. In fact, they would actually have to leave the state. But then they would be free to do as they wished.

One area where the state seems to have no right to intrude is in the case of purely personal, private relationships. To use an obvious example, a beautiful woman might refuse to date poor or ugly men. She might even refuse to date black men, white men or Jews.  While this would be discrimination, this is entirely within the realm of her private, personal life. As such, the state has no business being involved. Of course, buying into this principle would also involve accepting that many existing laws that limit private behavior would need to be repealed.

Of course, the border between the personal and the public can be debated. For example, suppose that the woman mentioned above runs her own escort service. While she can freely refuse to date ugly men, black men, white men, or Jews does she have the right to refuse a client simply because he his ugly, black, white or a Jew? On the face of it, she would be acting in the public realm (in a business context). As such, she would no longer be operating within the realm of the purely private and personal.

However, some folks do argue that businesses should be largely left alone by the state. In a true free market economy, one might argue, the business realm would be a private matter (they do not call it “private sector” for nothing). As such, businesses could elect to refuse to do business with or hire certain people. Those who are fond of a totally free market but who are not so keen on discrimination would probably argue that discriminatory businesses would be sorted out by the invisible hand. After all, they would be denying themselves customers and employees. There is also the matter of the impact of such policies on the reputation of the business.

In light of the above discussion, one key matter that must be settled is the border between the public and the private. After all, the state seems to have far less right to intrude into private matters.

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Defending Gaming

Posted in Miscellaneous, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2010
Dice for various games, especially for rolepla...
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I’ve been a gamer (video games, RPGs, war games and so on) since I was 15. As such, I’ve had to listen to people make fun of gaming and gamers for quite some time. Fortunately, things have been much easier now that video games are cool and big business. However, I do find that my hobby is still subject to criticism.

One stock criticism is that gaming is a waste of time because it does not accomplish “real” things. Gaming is, by its very nature, fake. In the case of video games, the worlds are virtual. In the case of role playing games, it is all in the players’ heads.

Of course, this charge is not specific to gaming. After all, almost all forms of entertainment can be accused of the same thing. Watching other people play sports does nothing real. Nor does watching a movie. Nor does watching TV.

Naturally, saying that gaming is in good (or bad) company does not defend it very well. However, it can be argued that gaming does accomplish something real. After all, relaxation and entertainment are real and humans need both of them. Whether they are acquired via rolling twenty sided dice and pretending to be an elf or by watching men battling over a ball does not really matter. As such, gaming at least has this value.

Gaming also has more going for it than passive entertainment. Unlike watching sports (and swilling beer), a gamer is involved in an activity-so he is at least doing something and not merely a spectator.

Another stock criticism is that gaming is make believe. Of course, the same can be said about many other forms of entertainment. Books, movies, TV shows and so on are often make believe as well.  As such, this hardly a special criticism of gaming.

Another criticism is that gaming is for kids. While there are some games for kids, there are games that are clearly not intended for children. Of course, it could be argued that these games are just kid stuff with serious content and adults should put away such childish things rather than repaint them in grown up colors.

This does have some plausibility. After all, play is something associated with children and perhaps adults should not engage in play. That is, adults should give up sports and games of all types so as to be properly adults. After all, think about sports spectators and athletes. The fans are often screaming and acting like bad children while the athletes are playing kid games like baseball, football and soccer.

However, I think that this is a mistaken view. Adults need to play as well, otherwise (as the saying goes) we become dull (and crazy). If we can still watch and play baseball as adults, then it seems that we can also play games like D&D, Halo, and WoW.

God & Time Travel

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2010
stargate universe logo
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Like most philosophers, I like science fiction and stories about time travel. Recently I watched the episode Time of the SyFy  series Stargate Universe. This episode got me thinking about time travel and God, oddly enough.

Imagine, if you will, the following science fiction situation. Sally is working on a time travel project and during one experiment, her own smartphone appears in the lab. Startled, she checks her pocket and finds that her phone is there. Yet it also appears to be on the table. Picking it up, she finds that video has been recorded on it. Much to her horror and dismay, it seems to be a video of her saying that she has killed her husband for having an affair with her friend, only to find out after that she was wrong.  In the video, she can she the body of what seems to be her dead husband. The video closes with her future self saying that she is sending back the phone to tell her past self to not kill her husband; future Sally then shoots herself in the head as the phone is being sent into the past.

Being something of a skeptic, Sally checks the phones carefully and finds that (aside from some blood on the future phone that matches her husband’s blood type) the two are identical. This convinces Sally and she does not kill her husband.

Now, let God be brought into the picture, at least hypothetically. If one prefers to leave God out of this game, then an omniscient observer who judges people for their deeds and misdeeds can be used in His place.

In this scenario, what would God actually “see” and how would He judge?

On one hand, the future Sally did kill her husband and send the phone back. After all, without those events, then the phone would not have the video recorded on it and would not have been sent back As such, God would judge that Sally was guilty of suicide and murder, hence worthy of divine punishment. Also, both Sally and her husband would be dead and thus would have gone off to the relevant afterlife (assuming there is such a thing).

On the other hand, the time traveling phone prevented Sally from killing her husband and committing suicide. Thus, Sally would not be judged for these deeds. Also, neither Sally nor her husband would be dead. In effect, that future event never will be, although it must have been (otherwise there would be no phone).

One easy way out of the problem is to follow John Locke’s approach in his discussion of personal identity: since God is good, he would not allow such confusing events (in this case, time travel) to come to pass. Of course, this is not very satisfying as an answer.

Another easy way out is to deny the entire scenario and say that time travel is impossible because of exactly this sort of nonsense. But, where is the fun in that?

Another way out is to use the branching worlds approach: what seems to be time travel is actually travel between possible worlds. So, the phone did not come from Sally’s future. Rather, it is from a possible world in which Sally did kill her husband. So, the Sally of that world is a killer and a suicide; but her actions saved her counterpart Sally from her fate.  So, God takes care of the killer Sally and the lucky Sally avoids her fate. Hardly fair, but that is nothing new.

But, let us suppose that the scenario happens as described. From God’s perspective, it would seem that time travel would create all these loops and changes throughout time. Or perhaps not. One classic view of God and time is that God perceives all of time “at once.’ To use an analogy, God’s perspective is like being able to see the entire filmstrip of a movie at once. The past, present and future are just positions on the strip relative to a specific film cell. Hence, He does not see any changes in the past-He merely sees as the events that did occur, shall occur and are occurring all “at once.”  So, God would “see” the phone appear from a future that never was to save Sally from committing a murder that never will be.

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Death & Terror

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2010
Diagram of the brain of a person with Alzheime...
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While Obama’s has tempered down the rhetoric regarding the war on terror, the United States continues to dump vast sums of money into this war. A large chunk of the cash goes to contractors who profit rather nicely from this ongoing “war.”

While I do agree that we should be on our guard against danger, the amount spent on protecting us from something should be relative to the actual extent of the threat. While politicians and pundits love to scare us about terrorists, the rational way to assess the relative threat is to look at the numbers. Here are some figures from 2006 showing the breakdown of what kills Americans:

http://www.cdc.gov/NCHS/data/nvsr/nvsr57/nvsr57_14.pdf

All causes  ………………………..   2,426,264
1  Diseases of heart ………..     631,636
2  Malignant neoplasms ……………..   559,888
3  Cerebrovascular diseases  …………… 137,119
4  Chronic  lower  respiratory diseases ………   124,583
5  Accidents  (unintentional  injuries)  ….    121,599
6  Diabetes mellitus  ……………….   72,449
Alzheimer’s disease…………………    72,432
8  Influenza and pneumonia …………..     56,326
9  Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis .  .  .  45,344
10  Septicemia  ………………….    34,234
11  Intentional self-harm  (suicide) …..     33,300
12  Chronic  liver disease and cirrhosis ……    27,555
13  Essential hypertension and hypertensive  renal  disease  …………………..23,855
14  Parkinson’s disease………………19,566
15  Assault  (homicide)……..   18,573
All other causes  (residual) ………………..   447,805

As the list shows, terrorism doesn’t make it into the top 15. In fact, when it comes to violent death, the top killers of Americans are Americans (suicide or homicide).

So, what do these numbers entail?

First, it makes more sense to be worried that someone you know will commit suicide or be murdered by another American than it does to worry about him/her being killed by terrorists. Also, if you want to worry about death, you should be most worried about health related issues rather than terrorists.

Second, if the state is supposed to protect citizens from harm (and death is a harm), then the state should be focused more on health care, suicide prevention and crime prevention than on terrorism.  By the numbers, all of the above are much more serious threats to Americans.

One obvious reply is that the terrorists might be planning some massive attack that will kill thousands or even millions of Americans. Therefore, the spending and concern about terrorism is justified.

Of course, the obvious reply to this is that there might be some health disaster (some new plague, for example) just around the corner. As such, that should be a top priority for our spending and concern. After all, we know for a fact that plagues and pandemics have occurred and that they can devastate the human population far more than a war. So, if we are going to trot out nightmare scenarios, the horseman of disease should be taken as leading the others.

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Saving Dogmeat

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2010
First encounter with Canigou/ Dogmeat
Image by Jamiecat * via Flickr

For those who are not familiar with video games, Dogmeat is an animal character in Fallout III. He is, of course, based on the character of the same name from the earlier game. This character is, of course, based on Mad Max’s dog. If none of this makes sense to you, suffice it to say that he is a dog in a violent video game.

Back when I was playing Fallout III, I ran across Dogmeat and “rescued” him (he helped out by killing  few bad people), thus making him a companion. This gave me the option of bringing him with me into various dangerous situations, abandoning him, or leaving him in the relatively safety of my modest hut in a post-apocalyptic town. Like most gamers, I usually shamelessly exploit NPCs (non player characters-those controlled by the computer) and allow them to soak up damage for me. However, I elected to leave Dogmeat at home, safe from the virtual dangers of the radioactive wasteland.  Being a philosopher, I wondered a bit about this choice and have been thinking about how this relates to ethics on and off since then.

The main point raised by this, at least as I see it, is whether or not we can have moral obligations to such virtual beings. Or, to put it another way, is it possible for there to be virtually virtuous acts regarding such virtual entities or not? Interestingly enough, I found that perhaps the best philosophical fit for the situation could be found in Immanuel Kant.

In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.

Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot  be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.

Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty-they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.

In the case of virtual beings, like Dogmeat,  they are clearly and obviously lacking in any meaningful moral status of their own. They do not feel or think. They have no independent existence-they are just code in games. As such, they lack all the qualities that might give them a moral status of their own.

Oddly enough, these virtual beings would seem to be on par with animals, at least as Kant sees them. After all, real  animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. The same is true of virtual beings.

Of course, the same is also true of rocks and dirt. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat rocks well. Perhaps this would also apply to virtual beings such as Dogmeat. That is, perhaps it makes no sense to talk about good or bad relative to such virtual beings. Thus, the issue is whether virtual being are more like animals or rocks.

However, I think a case can be made for treating virtual beings well. If Kant’s argument has some merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog.  This should also extend to virtual beings. For example, if being cruel to a virtual dog would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If being kind to the virtual dog (in this case, saving Dogmeat) would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should be kind.

Interestingly enough (or boringly enough), this sort of argument is often employed to argue against people playing violent video games. The gist of such arguments is that they can condition people to behave badly in real life or at least de-sensitize people. What Kant’s argument adds to this is that it would seem to grant virtual beings the same sort of indirect moral duties that he claims we owe to animals. If Kant is right (and I am right in bending his theory) then I did have an indirect duty to save Dogmeat.

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