A Philosopher's Blog

The $578 Million School

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2010
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Being a professor, I tend to notice stories about education. While there are the occasional positive pieces (such as success stories), the news generally seems to focus on the negative aspects of education. While it is always reasonable to be wary of making inferences based on media coverage, the American education system does seem to have serious problems.

One obvious problem is that the economic downturn has led some states to reduced spending by cutting the education budget. Given that problem, the headline grabbing $578 million school in LA seems rather bizarre. After all, it seems to be an act of insanity to spend that much on a single school while teachers are being laid off and the education system is facing rather serious problems.

While a $578 million school is a new record, there are other high price schools. Also, those outside academics might find it interesting that universities rather often keep building new buildings and renovating old ones even  during budget problems. This occurs even when the woes are severe enough to result in faculty and staff being fired.

Long ago, as a matter of luck, I got to speak to a major administrator about how schools can build new buildings while being “forced” to fire faculty/staff and cut support for students. I was informed that the budgets for building and renovation are distinct from those used to pay faculty/staff and provide support. Being  very young and naive at the time, I asked why money could not be moved. After all, money is money-it is not like the dollars for building where composed of a magical substance (“buildonium”) that could not be touched by faculty, staff or students. Also, I was well aware that people do move money from one budget area to another (usually from faculty/staff salaries or student funding to somewhere else). It was explained to me that the allocation was fixed and could not be changed. Of course, this was a circular answer (it cannot be moved because it cannot be moved), but even then I had the good sense not to point out such things to the suits.

Since I was rather suspicious of suits then, I inferred that the money for building was fixed and generally safe because the money being spent went to friends, allies, and relatives of the folks who vote on such allocations. After all, a major university construction project would mean some rather sweet profits for the contractors. This suspicion was confirmed when I later learned of the not uncommon (but illegal) practice of contractors doing “free” work for certain administrators who were in charge of  construction and renovation.

Now that I am much older, I do see that there can be legitimate reasons for putting money into infrastructure even when there is a budget shortage. After all, when buildings are literally falling apart, then they need to be fixed. Of course, I still believe that the main focus of education spending should be on the core function of education, namely education and not construction.

Turning back to the $587 million school, while a pleasant and well equipped learning environment can make a difference, it makes more sense to try to create the greatest benefit from the money. So, rather than pouring $587 million into a single school, it would be better to use that money to improve education on a broader scale. Also, it makes more sense to focus resources on the core functions of education. Of course, this alone will not solve the education woes. To use an analogy, the education system seems to be like a drifting ship whose core structure is decayed and fractured. Patching here and there and even adding some fancy cabins to the ship will not solve the core problems. The ship needs to be put on a definite course to a dry dock. Once there, it needs to be rebuilt.

America’s education system at the university level is still the best in the world (maybe). However, it is critical that our K-12 system be elevated to at least this level of excellence. This is not to say that the universities do not need improvement. They do and, of course, the rest of the world is working hard to catch up and surpass us.

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Rational Threat Assessment

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2010
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A seemingly unbreakable law of nature is that all things die. This seems to apply to individuals as well as collectives, such as nations and empires. As history shows, empires rise, stumble, and then fall. Perhaps the end comes in war (as WWI spelled the end of some empires), due to environmental changes or some other means. But, the end has always arrived.

While the United States is regarded by some as being exceptional, we do not seem to be imbued with a special immunity against the death of empire. In fact, it seems certain that some day the dawn shall come and there will be no United States. While this end, like the death of any one of us, seems inevitable, it need not come soon. Just as a person can hold death with good choices and some luck, so can the collective that is the United States.

The first step in doing this is recognizing the real dangers that we face. This requires doing a rational threat assessment rather than following the usual methodology of the pundits and the politicians.

This usual method involves presenting as a serious threat whatever they happen to think people will fear the most or what will result in the greatest profit for those whose interests they serve. Obviously, those on the left and the right do this. Folks on the right tell us that the shabby terrorists who come up with shoe and underwear bombs, who have no warships, tanks, or standing armies are the supreme threat. Well, almost supreme. There are, after all,  the illegals who want to cross the border to steal our jobs, commit crimes and drop anchor babies. Folks on the left tell us that we face sure destruction from climate change, warn of the infinite evil of all corporations (by posting on Facebook using their iPhones), and think we should be rid of guns once and for all. Obviously, I do exaggerate a bit. But just a bit.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am naturally inclined to want people to use the methods of critical thinking and logic when assessing threats. As with assessing anything, it is rather important to attempt the assessment in an objective manner. This does not mean setting aside one’s values or feelings. But it does mean being aware of how these values and emotions impact the assessment. To use an analogy, it is like knowing that you are looking through lenses that are tinted and a bit distorted. Knowing this, you can do a better job of determining what you are really looking at. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we cannot remove our emotional and value lenses. But we can learn to correct for any distortions they might create in our perceptions.

Doing this also means being able to take into account one’s biases, interests and prejudices. For example, someone who can profit greatly from their being a war on terror would be rather motivated to see terrorism as a huge threat that requires very expensive countermeasures. As another example, someone who has invested heavily in “green” technology would be rather motivated to push the idea of climate change. Being aware of these factors can be difficult. Being able to set them aside when making assessments is even more challenging.

Being able to see how these factors impact one’s assessment is a difficult thing. Being able to regulate their impact is even harder. However, it can be done. To use an easy and obvious example, I (and many other educators) can grade papers in a very objective manner. To use another example, although I am sometimes accused of being horribly biased, I seem to do a reasonably good job considering the various sides to issues and their merits and problems. In any case, I obviously consider views that oppose my own and do not, for example, delete replies that criticize me or my arguments.

An obvious question is, of course, why do we need to have rational threat assessments? Can’t we just muddle along as we have, dragged left and right by the pundits and politicians?

Well, we can. But that is like being aboard a ship where the wheel is pulled left or right not based on where the rocks really are, but based on where the folks with the loudest voices say they are. Or, even worse, having the wheel pulled based on fears of imaginary sea monsters or by those who see a minnow as the Leviathan come to devour the ship. This is, obviously enough, a recipe for disaster.

While I generally disagree with Glenn Beck, I do agree that the United States does need some repairs. However, the first repair must be to the way we judge the threats and dangers. We face real dangers, big and small. However, we need to properly sort out the real from the unreal and the big from the small. Then we can do the rational thing and address the real problems based on how serious they really are.


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Used Games

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2010
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The folks at Penny Arcade have been discussing the matter of used games. The specific situation that spawned this current debate involves THQ and one of their wrestling games. A new version of the game comes with a one use code for online play. So, if someone buys a used copy of the game, they will not have that code and thus will miss out on that aspect of the game. When there were some complaints,  Corey Ledesma of THQ responded by  saying “I don’t think we really care whether used game buyers are upset because new game buyers get everything. So if used game buyers are upset they don’t get the online feature set I don’t really have much sympathy for them.” He went on to say “That’s a little blunt but we hope it doesn’t disappoint people. We hope people understand that when the game’s bought used we get cheated.”

While this is, in fact, blunt, Ledesma does have a legitimate point. As this Penny Arcade strip nicely illustrates, when you buy a used game from a reseller, you are a customer of that reseller and not the company that made the game. This seems to be one of those matters that is beyond dispute.

Now, it might be argued that even buying a new game from a seller makes the person a customer of that seller. If the game is not directly purchased from the company, then it would seem to follow that the person is not a customer of, for example, Blizzard, but of, say, Amazon or Best Buy.

However, the situation involving a new game is relevantly different. After all, the seller is (in effect) acting as an intermediary between the customer and the company that makes the game. Also relevant is the fact that the company making the game receives payment for the game. In the case of a used game, the company is effectively out of the money chain. After all, the maker gets no money from used copies being resold by third parties.

As such, the people who buy used games really have no grounds for complaint. If they want the full content, they can buy a new copy of the game. If they would rather spend less and buy a used copy, then they would need to accept that there is a cost for their savings, namely that not all the content will be available. Since the person who buys a used copy is not a customer of the gaming company, the gaming company has no obligation to him as a customer. The purchasers of a used game cannot complain that they are not getting what they paid for, after all they did not actually pay for a new, complete game.

Of course, if the seller of used copies does not inform their customers that the used versions are lacking, then the customer has a legitimate gripe with the seller. After all, it is reasonable to expect even a used a product to be complete except when the seller makes it clear that it is not.

Some people might see this approach by companies as mere greed or as a cruel means to force people to buy games new. While companies do want to make profits (preferably obscene ones), they do need to actually make money to stay in business and produced more games. Obviously enough, the used game business requires that new games be put into the system, so even those who buy used games clearly have an interest in new games appearing. So, for the gaming ecosystem to survive, companies need to make enough profit to make the production of new games a viable enterprise.

But, someone might reply, the big gaming companies seem to be doing very well, even with the sale of used games. So they are just doing this out of greed and not need.

However, this reply misses the point. It is not unfair for a company to not ensure that resold, used versions have all the features and extras of a new version. To use an analogy, suppose that a person gets cash back and a flat screen TV for buying a new car from a dealer. The person then sells the used vehicle to a dealer who in turn resells it. Obviously the person who bought the car used has no right to expect to get the cash back and TV that the original customer received. Sure, it would be nice of the used car dealer to through in the extras, but the customer has no right to expect that. Likewise for video games.

One concern that does have some legitimacy is based on the right to resell. In general, the right to resell what you have purchased is rather well established. There are, of course, some exceptions based on licensing, health factors and so on. But, in general, if you buy something you can resell it. Now, if gaming companies follow the practice of THQ and others by having one use codes and so on that are only usable by those who buy new copies, then those who want to sell back their games will be facing some problems. At the very least, they will get less than they otherwise would get and perhaps they might not be able to sell them back at all. This, one might argue, violates the right to resell.

However, it actually does not. Companies are under no obligation to ensure that a used version of their product can be sold back at a decent price or even at any price at all. To use a somewhat silly example, when McDonalds sells you a Big Mac, they are under no obligation to ensure that you can resell it after taking a couple bites out of it. To use a more serious example, if you buy a printer that comes with paper samples and a free 90 day subscription to a service and use both, the company is under no obligation to send you more paper and another 90 day free subscription if you decide to sell it to someone else. Sure, you can sell the printer, but it will not have everything the new printer had. That is one of the differences between new and used and also sometimes a reason used things cost less than new things.

If you do decide to sell your, for example, used printer, then you are not cheating the company. After all, you paid them for it and did not sign any agreement not to sell it. Likewise for video games. A customer who elects to sell back a game is not cheating the company. He paid for it and thus now has the right to resell that one copy. Unless, of course, the license agreement strictly forbids the reselling of the product. However, if companies do this (assuming that it can be done legally), then this will impact the value of their product. After all it is effectively less valuable if it cannot legally be resold. This applies, in theory, even to those who do not intend to sell back a specific product. For example, I generally do not sell back books. However, if I was forbidden by law to sell back a book, I would certainly expect to receive compensation for this potential loss-most likely in the form of a lower price. After all, I might decide to sell it back or, upon my untimely death, those who inherit my books might wish to sell them.

Being an author I have considerable sympathy for those who create video games. As such, I buy games new so that they will receive the fruits of their labor. However, people do have the right to buy and sell used games. They just do not have the right to expect that the used versions of games will have all the stuff that comes with a new copy of the game.

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Beck: Bringing Honor Back

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2010
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Glenn Beck is holding a rally today to restore honor. Today is also the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, a fact regarding which Beck had made a claim of ignorance.

While I am all for true honor (not the vanity and false pride that masquerades as honor), Beck’s “Restoring Honor” title clearly implies that honor has been lost. Otherwise it would not need to be restored.

I do agree that America has suffered a loss of honor in recent years. Our invasion of Iraq damaged our honor. The way we conducted the war on terror also damaged our honor. Pretty much everything about the economic collapse damaged our honor. As such, Beck is right to claim that we are in need of an honor restoration. I am not sure that Beck is the man for the job, however.

Will he lead people to right the wrongs that have been committed in our name and by us? Will he guide people on the honorable path of truth, virtue and righteousness? Assuming, of course, that honor in this case is taken as being a measure of goodness. Does he have the knowledge of virtue that it takes (as per Aristotle) to serve as the moral educator of America?

Somehow, I think not. But, I do not like to judge in haste. Let us see if Beck fulfills his promise and restores honor. After all, it is easy to talk about what is right. It is a simple thing to draw things on a blackboard. It is no trouble at all to tape up images. But, it is a hard thing to guide oneself and others to an honorable life.

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Topless Women

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 27, 2010
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CNN posted an iReport about national topless day. While there are some limits on when men can go topless, there are many more imposed on women. For example, I can legally run most places without wearing a shirt. A woman runner doing the same thing would risk being arrested for indecent exposure. This leads to the obvious matter of what justifies the difference in treatment.

Some people would point to religious reasons and claim that God does not want people seeing breasts in public. Of course, this cannot be true. Since God is supposed to be all powerful, it would be easy enough for him to prevent women from showing their breasts. He could simply impose selective blindness or make it so that breasts create a blurring effect when gazed upon by those who should not see them. So, it seems that God is not too worried about breasts.

Laying aside the religious foundation, it could be argued that the female breast is obscene and so awful that it should not be shown. However, this seems to be clearly false. While there are no doubt some vile breasts, I am confident that almost all men will agree that they are quite pleased to see breasts. In fact, people spend lots of money buying photos and videos of women with exposed breasts. So, it cannot be that people should be protected from the ugly horror of breasts.

It could be argued, to borrow from Islam, that men are so wicked, depraved and lacking in control that women would put themselves at great risk by exposing their breasts. Of course, this same argument has been used to argue against women showing any skin at all and yet violence against women does not seem to increase in proportion to an increase in the amount of skin displayed.  In fact, places where women are forced to cover the most seem to have the most serious problems with violence against women.

It might be argued that breasts are a private part, like the genitals, and hence should not be exposed in public. Of course, this merely pushes the question back (or lower) to the matter of why these parts should be covered up.

Perhaps a practical argument could be given. Since men are so interested in breasts, having women going around topless would create a potentially hazardous distraction. For example, men might crash their vehicles while staring at women’s breasts. Men might also make errors at work when their brains are focusing on the nipples and not, for example, the numbers.

Of course, the same sort of arguments were given in the past against woman showing skin, but people obviously adjusted to the changes. True, men stare at women, but they did so even when women were covered from ankle to neck in dresses.

One might also argue that going topless would lead to immoral behavior. After all, it might be contended, a woman could start by exposing her breasts and then on the slippery slope to wickedness.  This argument, of course, is nothing new. The same concerns were raised about ladies showing an ankle at the beach.

The argument might have some bite to it, though. After all, people can point to the various over-sexed reality shows, pornography, and bad sexual behavior as evidence that wicked behavior has increased as more skin has been exposed.

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Of course, a look at history shows that people have been rather consistently wicked through the centuries. Also, there is the question of whether such behavior is, in fact, immoral.

As a final argument, it could be argued that women would be presenting themselves as sexual objects by showing their breasts in public. This, as the feminists would argue, would be a bad thing. Of course, this would depend on why the women were taking this action. If they did so to be sexual objects for the lustful eyes of men, then perhaps this would be wrong. However, if women did so primarily for the same reasons men do (because it is cooler, to get a better tan, or to show off) then it would seem to be no more wrong for women to do so then it would be for men.

While I do think that many men would act like idiots if women were allowed to go topless in the same situations as men, this is failing on the part of those men and this should not be I also suspect that if this became the norm, men would return to our usually levels of idiotic behavior and an exposed breast would be no more extreme than an exposed ankle or leg was back in the day.

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The Belief Obama is a Muslim

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2010

Belief is an interesting thing. When people are being rational, they believe in proportion to the evidence and in accord with its strength. When people are being irrational, they believe whatever they happen to feel strongly about. Good reasons and bad reasons matter not, all one needs is to feel it strongly enough.

One excellent example of this is shown by a recent Pew Research center poll. While there has been no new evidence for the claim that Obama is a Muslin, there has been a significant change in the percentage of people who believe that he is a Muslim and not a Christian. As shown in the Pew results (above) only 34% of those polled think he is Christian while 18% think he is Muslim. 43% now claim to not know his religion.

Another interesting bit of information is the fact that 31% of Republicans apparently believe that Obama is a Muslim.

As far as his faith goes, only he truly knows what he believes. However, as far as external evidence, there seems to be about as much evidence to believe that he is a Christian as there is for most people who claim to be Christians. After all, he goes to church occasionally, he claims to be a Christian, and he mentions God from time to time. He is clearly not, as some might say, a “Super Jesus” Christian.

As far as his being a Muslim, there seems to be no real evidence for this claim. No evidence of his being a member of a mosque, no profession of belief, no following of specific Muslim doctrines, and so on. While he has said nice things about Islam and has acted in ways to improve relations between the United States and Muslim countries, this hardly counts as evidence that he is a Muslim. After all, many Christians have said nice things about Islam and have worked to improve relations between the faiths. So, if he is a Muslim, then he is certainly a very secret Muslim.

Of course, that might be exactly what some people believe-that Obama is concealing his true faith under the guise of Christianity. The obvious concern is, of course, how did such people pierce his disguise and what evidence do they have of his true faith?

What I suspect is that they have nothing that would pass muster as evidence. Instead, the change in what people think is based on how they feel about Obama rather than any plausible evidence that supports the claim that he is a Muslim. As noted above, 31% of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim. This seems to indicate that the belief is not based on evidence but on the political views of the believers. Of course, it could be countered that the Democrats fail to see evidence because of their own bias. But, then how does one explain that fact that most Republicans do not believe that he is Muslim? The best explanation, I think, is that he is not a Muslim.

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Weight Discrimination?

Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2010
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CNN recently aired a segment about a woman who was charged an extra $5 by a salon for being obese. Or, to be more precise, she was charged a fee for the extra wear and tear her extra weight placed upon the salon chairs.  This situation, not surprisingly, once again raises the matter of discrimination and the obese.

On the one hand, charging obese people more could be seen a discrimination. After all, they are being charged more simply because of who they are. If a business charged people with dark skin more, that would be condemned as vile discrimination. So, one might argue, to discriminate against people based on how much they have packed under their skin would also be wrong.

On the other hand, charging obese people more in certain conditions would not be discrimination. As a general rule, different treatment that is not justified by a relevant difference would count as discrimination. For example, refusing to allow someone to shop in a store because she is black would be discrimination. After all, ethnicity is not a relevant difference. Also as a general rule, different treatment that is properly justified by a relevant difference would not be discrimination. For example, if someone repeatedly shoplifted from a store and attacked customers and employees alike, then banning her from the store would not be discrimination.

In the case of the obese, it would not be discrimination to charge them more if they, in fact, subject equipment and furniture to more stress and wear due to their greater weight. Of course, this would also apply to the non-obese who are very heavy.  For example, if a salon station is designed and specified to be able to support a 200 pound customer, someone who exceeds that weight would be putting more wear and tear on the station than other customers. As such, it makes sense that they would have to pay more. It even makes sense that they could be refused service on the basis that they could injure themselves and the employee by breaking the chair. This seems to be a rather relevant difference.

In support of this, consider the following analogy. Imagine that Jane and I are renting trucks for some major weekend projects. Jane hauls a lot of light material and does not put much wear on the truck. However, I spend the weekend hauling heavy stones, massive wooden poles, and lots of scrap metal. As such, I put a lot of wear and tear on the truck. As such, it would seem fair to charge me more on the basis of this extra wear. Naturally, this assumes that such extra wear and tear is not part of the normal rental conditions. To continue the analogy, it would seem fair for the rental company to refuse to rent me a truck if I made it clear that I intended to load it beyond its capacity.

it might be countered that this is still discrimination because it is treating people differently because they are obese (or just very heavy). They are, one might assert, being singled out for different treatment and this is unfair.

However, this reply has no traction in the sort of situations under consideration. An obese person whose weight can actually damage equipment and furniture is not the victim of unfair prejudice. Rather, she is a “victim” of physics because her weight increases the cost of providing such services.

Of course, it might be argued that the obese would be victims of discrimination when businesses do not upgrade their equipment and furniture to handle people of greater weight. The analogy to accommodating people with disabilities is obvious. In such cases, the burden of accommodation rests on the businesses.

In reply, accommodating people who are disabled seems to be different from being forced to upgrade to handle the obese. After all, being obese seems to be a matter of choice and the fix is simple and obvious enough (eat less and exercise more). As such, the burden of accommodation does not rest on the businesses but on the obese people. It would thus be unreasonable to expect businesses to make a special effort to accommodate them.

From a practical standpoint, however, it might be good business to upgrade for the obese. After all, obesity is on the rise and hence the obese provide an ever expanding pool of potential customers. But, as Kant argued, what is prudent is distinct from what is a moral duty.

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Defining Islam

Posted in Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2010
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One rather interesting problem is determining who or what determines the true tenets of a belief system. While this is an important matter in many fields, it seems especially important in regards to religion. To use a current situation, there is considerable debate over the true nature of Islam.

When Muslims commit acts of terror, moderate Muslims and others often argue that these acts of terror do not represent the true tenets of Islam. However, there are those who refuse to accept this defense and instead claim that such acts are perfectly in accord with the true tenets of Islam.

While some people make this claim without grounding it in reasons, noted atheist Sam Harris makes a case for his view.  As he sees it:

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations. If they are “extremists” who have deformed an ancient faith into a death cult, they haven’t deformed it by much. When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith. Granted, one path out of this madness might be for mainstream Muslims to simply pretend that this isn’t so—and by this pretense persuade the next generation that the “true” Islam is peaceful, tolerant of difference, egalitarian, and fully compatible with a global civil society. But the holy books remain forever to be consulted, and no one will dare to edit them. Consequently, the most barbarous and divisive passages in these texts will remain forever open to being given their most plausible interpretations.

While Harris makes a clear case, some analysis of his argument is well worth the effort.  His view is quite clear: the alleged extremists are, in fact, acting in accord with the tenets of Islam. As evidence, Harris notes that the Koran, hadith and Muslim jurists clearly support the “extremist” views.

This seems to be quite correct. However, it is hardly unique to Islam to have wicked tenets. For example, most modern liberal democracies have had rather horrible laws on their books in the past. To use an obvious example, slavery was once legal in the United States and the United Kingdom. Even today there are laws that seem to be morally incorrect.

He does concede that mainstream Muslims could solve this problem by ignoring these true tenets of Islam and then deceiving the next generation into accepting mainstream Islam as the true version.

This certainly seems appealing. After all, one might argue, a system of beliefs need not be eternally fixed in place, unchanging and never evolving. Just as , for example, the United States abandoned its acceptance of slavery and racism, Islam can also change.

Harris, however, sees this as an impossibility. He claims that the holy books will remain forever and forever unedited. Thus, he contends, the passages in question will always be available and the opportunity will always be present to give them “their most plausible interpretations.”

This, then, is presumably the critical distinction between other belief systems (like the legal system of the United States) and Islam. That is, Islam can never change its tenets and the worst practices in these tenets define the faith. To use an analogy, this would be as if a country could never removes evil laws from its books and no matter what was done, those laws could always be interpreted and acted on. Further, those acting on the most plausible interpretations of those laws would be acting in accord with the true tenets of the law.

In regards to the first part of the claim, it is not clear that Islam cannot change. One avenue for change is that, as Harris himself concedes, the passages are interpreted. While he regards the most plausible interpretations to be the ones that are the worst, these are not the only interpretations. In principle, there seems to be no reason why the more moderate interpretations cannot be regarded as the correct ones. Of course, that is a rather critical matter: what is the correct interpretation (and who decides)? In the case of law, the correct interpretation is set by the relevant authorities. If religion functions the same way, then the religious authorities could thus legitimately rule in favor of the more moderate interpretations and could even rule that certain tenets no longer apply. But perhaps religion is more of a democratic system in that its tenets are set by the majority of believers. If so, if the majority of Muslims are moderate and interpret their faith moderately, then this would be the correct interpretation. In any case, one might wonder why an atheist who is clearly hostile to religion has the authority to rule on the true tenets of a faith.

In regards to the second part of the claim, it is an interesting matter as to whether the worst tenets of a belief system define that belief system or not.  It is also interesting to consider whether or not a member of a belief system must accept all the beliefs of that system.

Suppose that the worst beliefs define  belief system, that believers must accept all the tenets of their belief system and the the laws (and interpretations of them) of a nation define the belief system of the citizens (just as the religious tenets are supposed to define the belief system of a religion). This would seem to entail that the belief system of Americans is a rather evil one. After all, there are laws on the books that seem to be rather immoral and there are many that seem unjust and unfair. No matter that some people oppose these laws and associated practices-by being Americans they must accept that they are defined by the very worst aspects of their system of belief. Even if an American claims to oppose a specific law she regards as wicked, by Harris’ logic  it would seem that she cannot. As an American, she must accept it as correct. This seems rather absurd. The same seems true of the claims that a member of a religious faith must accept all the tenets of the faith and that the faith is defined by its worst elements.

Naturally, this does not just apply to Islam, but other belief systems as well.

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The Steak Analogy

Posted in Business, Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 23, 2010
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A few days ago I saw a segment on CNN about how some hospitals overcharge patients. For example, a hospital might charge over $100 for a single Tylenol or charge a patient four times the price of a surgical instrument. What struck me as most interesting in the segment was that an administrator defended the practice with an analogy.

He compared going to the hospital to getting a nice steak dinner. As he pointed out, a nice steak restaurant charges the customer far more than it would cost the customer to buy a steak at the supermarket and prepare it at home.  Assuming that a steak dinner and a trip to the hospital are analogous, then the hospital would also be justified in charging the customer considerably more than what it would cost the customer to buy an instrument or pill.

At first glance, the analogy seems reasonable. After all, when you go to a restaurant you pay more because you are getting more. To be specific, they prepare and serve the steak. Likewise, the hospital does not just sell you a pill or instrument-they use it as part of a treatment process. Just as it makes sense to pay for the preparation of the steak, it makes sense to pay more for the service the hospital provides.

However, a closer examination shows that the analogy breaks. When you buy a steak at a restaurant, the price of the steak includes the preparation, service and the setting (that is you are sort of renting a table by buying a meal). As such, the meal is more expensive than an uncooked steak you buy at the market because you are actually getting more than just an uncooked steak. While the restaurant breaks the bill down to include what you order, they do not break down the costs into ingredients, preparation and so on.

In the case of the hospital, the patient is charged “item by item.” To be specific, the hospital bill lists the charge for each service, each instrument, each unit of medicine and so on. So, when a patient is charged four times the cost of an instrument or $100 for a Tylenol that charge does not include the services. It just includes the cost of the item in question. For the analogy to the steak dinner to work, restaurants would have to bill customers for each ingredient at a very steep markup and then tag on charges for all the services and so on that the restaurant provided. For example, a steak that would sell for $15 at the supermarket might cost $60. Naturally, the customer would also be charged for the cooking, the electricity used, the arrangement of the food on the plate, the silverware cleaning, and so on. In this case, the price charged for the steak itself would be unfair. After all, the customer is paying four times the cost of the steak itself and merely getting the steak for that price. Everything else is extra. Likewise for the medical markup.

While it is fair to pay for the services that the hospital provides in addition to the cost of the medicine and such used in the treatment, it is unfair to have to pay for a huge markup on such things. After all, the patient is not getting anything in return for the excessive charge.

The analogy also breaks down in other ways. For example, eating at a nice steak restaurant is a luxury while medical service is often a necessity. Charging excessively for necessities is different from charging a lot for luxuries. As another example, people can easily prepare a steak at home to save money, so going to a restaurant is a matter of choice. In most cases, people cannot provide medical treatment at home (for example, home surgery is not really an option).  To charge people excessively because they have no real alternative is quite different from charging people much more for a nice steak. As such, the comparison to a steak dinner at a restaurant fails in significant ways.

Of course, the folks who defend such charges also have another argument: hospitals need to make money to stay in business. If they did not make enough money, the hospital would not be there the next time someone needed it.

This does, of course, justify hospitals charging for their goods and services. After all, they need money to buy equipment and supplies and to pay employees. However, this argument does not justify charging excessive amounts of money for supplies and medicines. A steak analogy can be used here.

Suppose you go to a restaurant and get charged $500 for your steak dinner. You complain and ask why it costs so much. The manager says that $60 of it was for the cost of the steak and the remainder is for various services, ingredients and expenses. When you point out that they paid $15 for the steak, the manager says that if you did not pay the markup, there would be no restaurant here the next time you were hungry. Obviously, you would not be convinced that the bill was justified. The restaurant could easily stay in business and make a profit by charging much less. Presumably the same is true of hospitals.

Of course, it might be replied that a hospital needs to charge so excessively to stay in business. However, this does not work as a reply. Suppose, for example, that a forceps costs the hospital $200 (including shipping, processing and so on) and they charge the patient $800 for it.  Of course, they also charge for everything else as well, so the $800 is just for the $200 forceps. In terms of staying in business, a $200 charge for the forceps would be enough since the patient also pays for everything else as well. If, however, the patient is being charged $800 for the forceps to pay for other goods and services, then the hospital should simply put those costs on the bill. After all, they are quite adept at listing everything else, right down to the last Tylenol.  As such, charging such excessive fees is not justified by the “staying in business” argument.

It could also be replied that the hospital needs to make a profit. After all, the business of business is not to treat patients or provide affordable care, it is to make a profit. Obviously, the key to profit is to charge the customer for more than he is actually getting. After all, if the fee charged merely equals the cost of the materials, services, administration, and so on, then there would be no profit. While there are some excellent arguments that profit is thus by its very nature unjust, let it be assumed that people have a right to profit. Of course, the question then arises as to the just limits of profit. In the case of medical bills, they often seem to exceed these just limits. After all, unlike steak dinners, medical treatment is often not an optional luxury, but a necessity.

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A New Semester

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2010
Florida A&M University
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Tomorrow is the start of Fall classes for 2010. I started teaching at Florida A&M University back in the fall of 1993, so I have been doing this a long time. However, the start of a new semester is always (mostly) fun and exciting.

While my freshman days are long over, I try to remember the enthusiasm and sense of newness I felt all those years ago. I do this in the hopes of infusing my classes with that spirit. I dread the prospect of becoming a zombie professor who merely goes through the motions of education lifelessly and who has been left behind by the currents of time.

This can be a hard thing to do. After all, college life is no longer new to me and I now have so many years behind me. However, I seem to be able to call up those old feelings when I get in front of a class. True, I don’t always deliver educational gold. After all expecting gold when a person is teaching four overloaded classes and has many other responsibilities is like expecting a peak performance from a runner at every workout and race decade after decade.

Though I am rather tired from a rather tough end of the last semester and the pre-semester adventures in moving, preparation and chairing a search committee, I am gearing up for the new year.

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