A Philosopher's Blog

The Ethics of Asteroid Mining

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2012
Asteroid mining spacecraft

Asteroid mining spacecraft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While asteroid mining is still the stuff of science fiction, Google’s Larry Paige, James Cameron and a few others have said they intend to get into the business. While this might seem like a crazy idea, asteroid mining actually has significant commercial potential. After all, the asteroids are composed of material that would be very useful in space operations. Interestingly enough, one of the most valuable components of asteroids would be water. While water is cheap and abundant on earth, putting into orbit is rather expensive. As for its value in space, it can be converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen-both of which are key fuels in space vessels. There is also the fact that humans need water to survive, so perhaps someday people will be drinking asteroid water in space (or on earth as a fabulously wasteful luxury item). Some asteroids also contain valuable metals that could be economically mined and used in space  or earth (getting things down is far cheaper than getting things up).

Being a science fiction buff, it is hardly surprising that I am very much in favor of asteroid mining-if only for the fact that it would simply be cool to have asteroid mining occurring in my lifetime. That said, as a philosopher I do have some ethical concerns about asteroid mining.

When it comes to mining, asteroid or otherwise, a main points of moral concern are the impact on the environment and the impact on human health and well being. Mining on earth often has a catastrophic effect on the environment in terms of the direct damage done by the excavating and the secondary effects from such things as the chemicals used in the mining process. These environmental impacts in turn impact the human populations in various ways, such as killing people directly in disasters (such as when retaining walls fail and cause deaths through flooding) and indirectly harming people through chemical contamination.

On the face of it, asteroid mining seems to have a major ethical advantage over terrestrial mining. After all, the asteroids that will be mined are essentially lifeless rocks in space. As such, there will most likely be no ecosystems to damage. While the asteroids that are mined will be destroyed, it seems rather difficult to argue that destroying an asteroid to mine it would be wrong. After all, it is literally just a rock in space and mining it, as far as is known, would have no environmental impact worth noting. In regards to the impact on humans, since asteroid mining takes place in space, the human populations of earth will be safely away from any side effects of mining. As such, asteroid mining seems to be morally acceptable on the grounds that it will almost certainly do no meaningful environmental damage.

It might be objected that the asteroids should still be left alone, despite the fact that they are almost certainly lifeless and thus devoid of creatures that could even be conceivably harmed by the mining. While I am an environmentalist, I do find it rather challenging to find a plausible ground on which to argue that lifeless asteroids should not be mined. After all, most of my stock arguments regarding the environment involve the impact of harms on living creatures (directly or indirectly).

That said, a case could be made that the asteroids themselves have a right not to be mined. But, that would seem to be a rather difficult case to plausible make. However, some other case could be made against mining them, perhaps one based on the concern of any asteroid environmentalists regarding these rocks.

In light of the above arguments, it would seem that there are not any reasonable environmentally based moral arguments against the mining of the asteroids. That could, of course, change if ecosystems were found on asteroids or if it turned out that the asteroids performed an important role in the solar system (this seems unlikely, but not beyond the realm of possibility).

Naturally, the moral concerns regarding asteroid mining are not limited to the environmental impact (or lack thereof) of the mining. There are also the usual concerns regarding the people who will be working in the field. Of course, that is not specific to asteroid mining and hence I will not address the ethics of labor here, other than to say the obvious: those working in the field should be justly compensated.

One moral concern that does interest me is the matter of ownership of the asteroids. What will most likely happen is that everything will play out as usual:  those who control the big guns and big money will decide who owns the rocks. If it follows the usual pattern, corporations will end up owning the rocks and will, with any luck, exploit them for significant profits.  Of course, that just says what will probably happen, not what would be morally right.

Interestingly enough, the situation with the asteroids nicely fits into the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke: there are resources in abundance with no effective authority (“space police”) over them -at least not yet. Since there are no rightful owners (or, put another way, we are all potentially rightful owners), it is tempting to claim that they are they for the taking: that is, an asteroid belongs to whoever, in Locke’s terms, mixes their labor with it and makes it their own (or more likely their employer’s own). This does have a certain appeal. After all, if my associates and I construct a robot ship that flies out to asteroid and mines it, we seem to have earned the right to that asteroid through our efforts. After all, before our ship mined it for water and metal, these valuable resources were just drifting in space, surrounded by rock. As such, it would seem that we would have the right to grab as many asteroids as we can-as would our competitors.

Of course, Locke also has his proviso: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. While this proviso has been grotesquely violated on earth, the asteroids provide us with a new opportunity (presumably to continue to grotesquely violate that proviso) to consider how to share (or not) the resources in the asteroids.

Naturally, it might be argued that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space and that things should be on a strict first grab, first get approach. After all, the people who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to reach and mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will end up, as they always do, out of luck and poor.

While this has a certain appeal, a case can be made as to why the resources should be shared. One reason is that the people who reach the asteroids to mine them did not do so by creating the means out of nothing. After all, reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to humanity and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Second, there is the concern for not only the people who are alive today but also for the people to be. To use an analogy, think of a buffet line: the mere fact that I am first in line does not seem to give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself so I can sell it to those who just happened to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Fortunately, space is really big and there are vast resources out there that will help with the distribution of said resources. Of course, the same used to be said of the earth and, as we expand, we will no doubt find even the solar system too small for our needs.

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Suppressing Voters

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 25, 2012
Scott Walker, 45th Governor of Wisconsin

Scott Walker, 45th Governor of Wisconsin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the 2012 election coming up, it is only a matter of time before we start seeing the ads encouraging people to vote. Given that voting is an essential part of a proper democracy, this sort of encouragement is quite reasonable and even laudable. What is far less laudable are the attempts to suppress voters.

As might be imagined, politicians will not come out and state that they are attempting to suppress voters via legislation. Rather, they present these attempts under the guise of preventing voter fraud. The main problem with this justification is that these are solutions in search of  a problem. That is, voter fraud is simply not a significant problem. To present two examples, the 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State revealed a fraud rate of 0.0009% and the Ohio election that same year had a fraud rate of 0.00004%. As such, an individual voter is more likely to be struck by lightning while going to vote than s/he is to commit voter fraud. While people do present anecdotes and alleged evidence of fraud, these generally turn out to be mistaken.

Naturally, if countering even this microscopic problem could be done with no cost or inconvenience, then it would be worth doing. However, this is not the case. Rather, the attempts to “prevent” this extremely unlikely voter fraud impose costs and inconvenience on the voters far out of proportion to the significance of the problem. Even worse, these “anti-fraud” measures actually seem calculated to suppress people who tend to historically vote for Democrats, such as the poor and students. As such, it is hardly a shock that these laws have been presented by Republicans. While it might be the case that they are acting from good intentions, the fact that the problem they are addressing barely even exists and the fact that those most impacted by the methods are those who tend to vote for Democrats gives rational grounds for suspicions regarding the motivation behind said laws. If, in fact, these laws are aimed at suppressing voters, they are wicked laws because they strike at a fundamental right of citizens, namely that of being a participating citizen. As such, these laws certainly seem to be immoral. While it might be claimed that my view is unfounded, due consideration of the facts should reveal the plausibility of my view.

Under the rule of Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin passed the Voter Photo ID law which requires citizens to show an official photo ID (such as a driver’s license) in order to be able to vote. Some other Republican dominated states have passed similar laws. On the face of it, this might seem like no big deal. After all, most people already have such IDs and those who do not can simply get them. In fact, Wisconsin offers voters the necessary ID for free. However, there are some points worth considering. First, some DMV offices have been closed or have had their hours changed. This makes it harder for people to get the needed IDs. Second, there is the challenge in getting the documentation needed to get the ID. For example, if a resident’s utility bills are included in the rental fee, they will not have that proof of residence. There is also the matter of the certified birth certificate. Most people do not have these and they cost $20. While most people will see $2o as no big deal, this can be a problem fro people who are very poor and there is also the hassle of getting the document. Adding to the hassle is that women voters will sometimes need to buy copies of their marriage license or divorce papers to prove their identity so they can vote.

It might be replied that this is still no big deal. After all, the worst case estimate seems to be that about 5 million voters will have a tougher time voting in 2012 and, of course, people need to go through all that documentation hell to get a driver’s license (I went through it myself-fortunately I had the foresight and the money to get my passport before the laws went into effect). While it is surely tempting to some to dismiss this as not a problem, it certainly seems to be a problem for a country that purports to be a democracy and one that is supposed to value voting.

One point worth considering is that voter turnout is already rather low, with less than 2/3 of eligible voters turning out for presidential elections. Adding in extra obstacles to voting will no doubt lower this turnout, which would be contrary to the values of a democracy. If we believe that voting is important, then we should be focusing our efforts on improving participation rather than impeding it under the deceitful guise of eliminating almost non-existent voting fraud.

Once again, if voter fraud was a serious problem, I would support steps to prevent it from occurring. Of course, what is going on now can be seen as a type of voter fraud: one in which certain Republicans are using fraud to try to keep American citizens away from the voting booths. This is, of course, an attack on the core values of a democracy, yet is being pushed by the self-proclaimed champions of America.

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Two Conservatives

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2012

Karl Marx 1882 (edited)

Back in my undergraduate days, one of my political science professors semi-jokingly explained the difference between our  (the United States) political system and the Soviet system: “they have one political part, we have one more than that.” While this was obviously a oversimplification, he did make a very good point. After all, while we do get a choice, it is a rather limited choice between the Republican or the Democrat.

Because we just have two truly viable parties, this tends to create a political compression in which people are often forced to pick a party that does not, in fact, reflect their full range of beliefs. While this is true of the Democrats, it has really stood out for the Republicans as that party has gone through the process of selecting their 2012 candidate. To be specific, this process has made it rather clear that there are at least two distinct types of conservatives.

The first type is the fiscal conservative. Being a fiscal conservative is generally taken to involve being conservative about taxation and  government spending. To be more specific, fiscal conservatives favor keeping both of these at a minimum.

While I typically get branded as a liberal, I am actually a fiscal conservative: I favor lowering taxes and government expenditures to a minimal level consistent with the government fulfilling its legal and moral duties (such as defense). I am also against wasteful spending, corruption, and pork. As might be imagined, the disputes tend to get started when it comes to the matter of defining the legal and moral duties of the state.

The second type is the social conservative. Being a social conservative is generally taken to involve the idea that one should conserve (or preserve) “the way things were” and thus avoid change in social areas.  The social areas include things such as religion, morals, race-relations, gender roles and so on. As might be imagined, there are degrees of conservatism in this area. Some folks tend to regard almost any change in the social areas as suspicious and would prefer to keep everything as it was. Others are considerably more flexible and focus on conserving what they regard as good, but are willing to accept certain changes. Of course, a “conservative” who is too willing to accept change (even good change) runs the obvious risk of becoming a liberal or even a progressive.

In a limited sense, I am a conservative: I am quite willing to conserve what is good and I am against changing things without justification. This is, of course, a reasonable position: to infer that past idea, morals and values are incorrect simply because they are old is just as fallacious as assuming that they are correct just because they are old. The age of such things, at least by itself, has no bearing on their goodness or badness. As might be imagined, being a conservative in this sense is not what people usually think of when they think of what it is to be a conservative. After all, someone who thinks that something should be conserved on the basis of rational arguments for its goodness just seems to be, well, rational. As such, a mere willingness to conserve what is both old and good does not seem to be enough to count as a social conservative. The question is, of course, what more is needed.

While some might take the easy path and try to define conservatives against a straw man version of the liberal, that would be rather unfair and not exactly reasonable. It would, of course, be equally unfair to present a straw man version of the conservative. That said, given that the political vocabulary is so limited in this regard, it might be rather hard to avoid creating straw men.

The easy and obvious approach is to regard social conservatives as  people who regard the way things have been in the social areas as being correct. Naturally, if they claim that such things are good because they are old or traditional, they are committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. If they prefer such things because of their psychology, then this says why they believe what they do, but does nothing to support the correctness of said beliefs. After all, if they just like the old and dislike the new, this does nothing to show that the old is good and the new is bad. It just says something about their mental states. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that I have some preference for music from my college days does not entail that the music of today is inferior or bad. Likewise, the fact that some folks prefer the music of today to the music of that time does not prove that the music of the 1980s is inferior.

To avoid falling into fallacies, a conservative would need to argue that the traditional value are better than the liberal alternatives based on grounds other than mere tradition. That is, they need to show that the traditional values (as they see them) are good, rather than saying that they are good because they are traditional. Of course, this would make such people contingent conservatives. After all, their commitment would be to what is good rather than what is merely traditional and this would leave open the possibility that they could accept “liberal” values as good. Unless, of course, it is a matter of necessity that traditional values are always better than the liberal values. The challenge then, obviously enough, is to account for the initial goodness of today’s conservative values-after all, there are various much older values that they replaced.

It is, of course, somewhat tempting to take “liberal” and “conservative” as being marketing and rhetorical terms rather than having much value in categorizing political views. After all, people who identify as liberals take being a liberal to involve the virtues of tolerance, acceptance and so on while regarding conservatives as clinging to an unjust past out of fear of change. In response, those who identify as conservatives often see themselves as defending what is good and holy from the depravity of the godless liberals and their agenda.

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The Penny

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 20, 2012
Large amount of pennies

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the saying goes, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” However, a new saying might be in order: “a penny made is 2.4 pennies spent”-this is because it currently costs 2.4 cents to make a penny. Because of this cost and the view that the penny is not very useful, there is some push to be rid of the coin. Canada recently did so, showing that the move is possible.

Of course, the cost of the penny might be a reasonable expense for the taxpayer to pay if the penny were useful or at least desired. The Americans for Common Cents (which is, shockingly enough, run by the chief lobbyist for the zinc industry) recently issued a press release that was run by some media folks as an actual report. This “report” claimed that most Americans are still in favor of the penny. However, the survey data for this claim seems to be rather out of date and the source seems to be somewhat biased. This does not show that the claim is in error. However, these two facts do lower the credibility of the claim in terms of its showing what people currently believe about the penny.

Whether people favor keeping the penny or not is an empirical matter, easily resolved by an appropriate survey that presents the question in a neutral manner. After all, it is easy enough to “game” a survey by slanting or loading questions and various other techniques. For example, if I ask “do you favor keeping the penny despite the fact that each penny costs 2.4 cents to make and some people regard it as useless?” I will get rather different results than if I asked “do you favor keeping the penny when getting rid of it could mean that business would round up their prices, thus costing you more money?”

Since I do not have the resources to conduct a representative random survey of at least 1,500 people, I cannot solve this matter myself. I am, however, inclined to think that many people would be willing to do without the penny because of 1) its cost and 2) the fact that it seems ever less useful with each year.

Naturally, the penny is beloved by the folks who sell the metals needed to make it (such as the folks in the zinc industry),  those folks who own the machines that count up coins and, of course, their well paid lobbyists who see to it that congress keeps the penny going.

Of course, the preservation of the penny is not without some support. First, there is the matter of tradition. The penny has been around a long time and perhaps the nostalgia value is worth the cost of keeping pennies as currency, despite the cost and reduced usefulness.

Second, there is the not unreasonable concern that prices will need to be changed to account for the  demise of pennies. No longer would we see, for example, $9.99, but instead $10-at least in the context of physical money. I suspect that online retailers would still work in cents, since they do not actually deal with physical pennies.  So, for example, Apple and Amazon will still have 99 cent items. As might be imagined, merchants  in the physical world will almost certainly round up rather than down, which means that people would be paying marginally more to avoid the need for pennies. This does raise the empirical question of whether the increase in prices for the average American would or would not exceed the savings in government spending (and, of course, the financial impact on the industries with a vested interest in the penny). I would assume that even if the penny ceased to be, the money “saved” on this would be rapidly squandered on something else, perhaps on a Vegas conference.

In my own case, I would be fine with seeing pennies go away-provided that the savings where not squandered.  For example, if that money were used to support significant programs in education or research into treating some diseases, then that would be fine with me. But, since I suspect that congress would just waste the “savings”, I am also fine with keeping pennies-while they are waste, perhaps they are less of a waste than what the “savings”would be wasted on.

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Screw PETA

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 18, 2012
Cover of a comic book created by PETA as part ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During an interview with Rolling Stone, actress Jennifer Lawrence discussed her squirrel skinning scene in Winter’s Bone  and said “I should say it wasn’t real, for PETA. But screw PETA.” Predictably, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk replied by saying that Lawrence “is young and the plight of animals somehow hasn’t yet touched her heart. As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘The squirrel you kill in jest, dies in earnest.’ We are told that this squirrel was hit by a car, but when people kill animals, it is the animals who are ‘screwed,’ not PETA, and one day I hope she will try to make up for any pain she might have caused any animal who did nothing but try to eke out a humble existence in nature.”

While it might seem somewhat odd, I find myself in agreement and disagreement with the views expressed by Lawrence and Newkirk.  This is both in terms of substance and style.

While I do hold that hunting and eating animals can be morally acceptable, I do agree with Newkirk and Thoreau  that killing animals “in jest” creates pain that makes such actions morally wrong. This is, obviously enough, something that can easily be argued for on utilitarian grounds. Even Kant would agree-after all, he notes that cruelty to animals for sport cannot be morally justified. As such, I am in agreement with Newkirk on this point. That said, I also agree with Lawrence-or at least I am sympathetic to her statement.

While PETA often has laudable goals, their approach often has unfortunate tendencies. First, they often do things that are rather silly or questionable (such as the infamous holocaust and slavery analogies). PETA folks are, of course, aware of this and have argued that such methods are necessary in order to get media attention. While this does have a certain appeal (after all, PETA is famous), there is the concern that PETA undercuts its own effectiveness by such tactics. After all, while they do get media attention, their actions often seem to create the impression that PETA is silly and out of touch. This makes it easier for people to (fallaciously) dismiss PETA and the issues it raises as silly, which actually does harm to the causes they purport to serve. While I do get the need to put on a show for the media, I tend to think PETA is perhaps more about the show than about the causes. But perhaps I am just jealous of the attention that they get and I do not.

Second, PETA often holds what seem to be absurd positions, perhaps also calculated to get attention. For example, PETA condemns the “pastime” of owning pets. Since many PETA folks have pets, it is not surprising that their substantial criticism of pet ownership focuses on the abuse of  pets rather than on simply having a pet. After all, while pet ownership does enable the abuse of pets, condemning it because some people are bad to pets is on par with condemning relationships because some people are bad to their partners (or condemning parenthood because some parents are bad to their kids).  In the case of relationships, it is true that without relationships, there would be no domestic violence. However, it is absurd to claim that relationships thus cause domestic violence. Likewise for pets. After all, while it is true that there would be no abuse of pets if there were no pets, this does not show that the abuse of animals is caused by the “pastime” of having pets. As Aristotle might say, it is not all pet ownership that is to be condemned, but only the bad sort.  While I do agree with their view that abusing pets is wrong, I do not find their apparent bashing of the “pastime” of having pets to be very appealing or well supported. Of course, I have a husky-so perhaps I am blinded by being a part of this “peculiar institution.”

Once again, I do get the need to take seemingly startling positions in order to attract the attention of the media. After all, while PETA gets into the news, philosophical essays on animal issues rarely garners attention (with the exception of Peter Singer, who is also skilled in self-promotion). However, I am inclined to think that such tactics can do more harm than good in that they provide significant rhetorical ammunition to people who oppose the moral positions taken by PETA. However, I am open to the very real possibility that a PETA stunt does more good than a reasoned essay on the ethical treatment of animals. If this is the case,  then I would have to accept that PETA is in the right and that my criticism is off the mark.

Third, the attitude expressed by Newkirk and other PETA folks inclines me to take some pleasure in Lawrence’s remark. While the moral points are reasonable, the tone of this approach strikes me as both patronizing and self-righteous. Of course, folks have said the same about me (sometimes correctly). While I do agree with many of the ethical views held by PETA folks, the approach PETA takes does sometimes incline me to say “screw PETA.” While rejecting  a statement because of one’s attitude towards the tone of the speaker is a fallacy, a patronizing and self-righteous approach is not very polite nor does it seem conducive to persuading people. Of course, Newkirk did get considerable attention for her response while this posting will no doubt not even be the smallest speck on the media radar.

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Untied Prisons of America

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 16, 2012
Federal Bureau of Prisons (seal)

Federal Bureau of Prisons (seal) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the United States has been passed by other countries in some areas (such as education), we are the world leader in imprisoning our citizens.  For every 100,000 Americans, there are 760 in prison. By way of comparison, Germany has 90, Britain 153, and Brazil 242.  Interestingly, in the 1980s the United States was at 150 imprisoned for every 100,000 people and this raises the obvious concern about the increase.

Of course, the cause of the increase is obvious: the war on drugs. The majority of federal prisoners are imprisoned on drug charges and in 2009 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges (80% of these being arrested for possession). Despite the vast expenditure in the seemingly endless war on drugs, there has been no significant reduction in drug consumption-merely an increase in prison populations. Because of these facts, even Pat Robertson has come out in favor of legalizing marijuana.

While some of the motivations for this war on drugs were laudable (namely getting rid of drugs and drug crimes), the main driving force in keeping the harsh anti-drug laws in place is money. Many prisons have been privatized and have become significant centers of profit and job creation. Of course, these prisons need to be populated and this provides an incentive to keep the laws in place and to imprison people for what would seem to be rather minor offenses, such as drug possession for personal use.

It might be countered that it seems absurd and unthinkable that people would engage in the vile practice of imprisoning people just to make money (and create jobs). However, even a cursory look at history will show that such a thing is far from absurd and is quite thinkable. After all, the United States had a slave based economy for decades. As such, the idea that people would imprison other people to make a profit is hardly a surprising idea. Morally offensive, yes. Surprising, no.

It could also be countered that the privatized for-profit prisons are good because they can save the state money. However, it is unclear how allowing private companies to make profits saves the state money. After all, there is no metaphysical essence that enables a private company to work with magical efficiency that is denied to the public sector. There is also the more important matter that even if the private companies saved the state money, there is the question of whether or not we should be imprisoning such a large number of people for drug crimes.

It might be argued that such people must be imprisoned in order to protect society. After all, drug criminals can be rather dangerous. However, it seems rather odd that the United States would have such a significantly higher percentage of dangerous drug criminals than all other countries (even drug drenched Mexico imprisons about 200 people per 100,000) and there is the obvious fact that 80% of the arrests for drug charges involve simple possession. As such, it seems likely that people are being imprisoned that do not actually need to be in prison (that is, they are not actually a threat to society).

It could be countered that drug users are a threat. After all, they sustain the drug dealers who engage in violence and other crimes.  Of course, they only sustain these dangerous drug criminals because these drugs are illegal. Obviously, making them legal and turning production and distribution over to companies would solve most of these problems. As such, the irony is that it is the illegality of drugs that actually creates the real drug criminals (the killers, thieves, money launderers and such). Thus, the solution to these crimes is not prison, but legalization.

It might be added that drugs are also harmful to health and they impair people in ways that can lead to accidents. Of course, the medical and safety issues regarding illegal drugs also apply to legal drugs. Alcohol and tobacco are major killers, yet are not illegal. It would thus make sense to treat the illegal drugs like alcohol-it is legal to possess them, but being impaired in public, behind the wheel and so on would be crimes.

Changing the drug laws would, obviously enough, lower the prison populations and have some immediate positive effects. One is that it would help reduce the expenditures of the states. While this would help with the budget woes, it could also allow states to spend money on more positive things such as education. After all, over the past twenty years state spending for prisons has increased at six times that of spending for higher education. California provides an excellent example of this. That state spent $9.6 billion for prisons and $5.7 billion for state universities and colleges in 2011. Since 1980, the state has added one college and twenty one prisons. Spending per student is $8,667 a year, while a prisoner costs $45,006. While this spending has helped create jobs and profits for private companies, it does seem rather wasteful and it seems more sensible to use the resources on education. After all, by changing the drug laws and reducing the number of people needlessly and senselessly locked up, five students can go to school for every person who would otherwise have been locked up. It seems obvious that five college students will do more good than locking up a person for having marijuana in their possession. It is, of course, true that there would be less profits for the private companies who run the prisons and less jobs for those involved with prisons. Perhaps these companies can start private colleges in place of prisons and the former guards and such could take classes there. They could then get jobs with the companies producing legal marijuana products.

In addition to the money matter, there is also the concern that the war on drugs and the obsession with prisons has created and continues to create an underclass. People who are arrested for drug offenses and imprisoned are taken from society and thus do not contribute (and actually cost society a great deal). Also, these people become marked with the stigma of being criminals, which will be a considerable obstacle the rest of their lives. Getting a job or going to college will be much harder and this will, ironically, serve to increase the odds that they will turn to other crimes as their only option. As such, one irony is that those waging the war on drugs have created a mechanism for  perpetual defeat and a prison state.

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SWTOR Patch Notes

Posted in Humor, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2012
George Lucas

George Lucas (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

For those who play SWTOR, the Legacy Patch Notes:

- C2-N2 and 2V-R8 are now considered hostile and may be freely engaged and looted.
- Corrected an issue that caused weapons to display inappropriately beneath some Droid companions (like T7). The weapon graphics have been replaced with mechanical testicles, as intended. These mechanical testicles will be known as “droidicles” and provide two upgrade slots for droids. An upcoming patch will address female and transgender droids.
- Many gathering nodes that were spawning in unreachable places (such as underneath the world) are now reachable. However, they are now surrounded by level 50 champions, as intended.
-Light side and dark side mission results no longer occasionally display decimal values. They now display in Roman Numerals, as intended.
- License costs for Vehicle Piloting rank 1, 2, and 3 have been reduced. However, expensive mandatory emission inspections have been added to the game, as intended. 
- Players with a Legacy can now send unbound and bound-to-Legacy items to other characters on the same account via in-game mail (even if the characters are not of the same faction). Legacy items include only non-combat items, such as the George Lucas non-combat pet and transgender outfits.
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Strip Searches

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 13, 2012
The United States Supreme Court, the highest c...

They are, in fact, the judge of you. And me, too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the media and public were briefly focused on the Supreme Court’s consideration of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the court made a rather troubling ruling on a case involving Albert Florence.F

Florence, a finance director for a care dealership, was stopped on the way to a family event. He was then arrested when the trooper determined that there was a warrant for his arrest. While the warrant was in error (he had paid the fine in question) and he had a document to that effect, he was still jailed. While in jail he was strip searched. Six days later he was transferred and strip searched once again. Florence took issue with this treatment and his case made it to the supreme court.

By a predictable 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that anyone who is arrested (even for minor offenses, such as traffic violations) can be stripped searched. The ruling allows this even when there is no reasonable suspicion the person is concealing anything that would require a strip search to locate.

In the majority opinion Justice Kennedy noted that it would be “unworkable” to require jail officials to strip search only in cases in which they had reasonable grounds to suspect that a strip search would be needed. As might be imagined, this seems like an absurd thing to say. After all, it seems to be saying that it would not work to limit strip searches to cases in which a strip search would be reasonably justified. I certainly hope that this same logic is not extended to arrests. After all, the police are currently limited to arresting people when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a person needs to be arrested. I do hope that this is not also “unworkable.”

Kennedy did attempt to back up his point with an example, specifically that of the infamous Timothy McVeigh.  McVeigh had been arrested for driving without a license plate which caused Kennedy to note that “people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”

One rather obvious response to this is that his example is irrelevant to the matter of strip searching. After all, nothing about the McVeigh case involved finding something dangerous or important by strip searching him. Now, if McVeigh had been arrested on a traffic stop and the police had found a bomb taped to his genitals and had thus prevented the horrific bombing, then Kennedy’s example would have had at least some relevance. It would, of course, still be just one example and thus an incredibly weak argument by example.

It might be countered that Kennedy did not mean for this to be an example directly showing the importance of strip searching people but rather as evidence that very bad people can be arrested for minor offenses. Presumably his reasoning is that such people would be more likely to hide things in places that only a strip search would reveal. Of course, this logic would also seem to apply to having the police check anyone, such as folks who eat fast food. After all, “people who eat at McDonald’s can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.”

It might be replied that people who are arrested for minor offenses have been arrested and hence are legitimately subject to searches in ways that people who are just out and about are not subject to arrest. This can, of course, be countered by the reply that it seems to be unwarranted to treat all prisoners the same, regardless of the offense and other factors. After all, if the police can distinguish between who should and should not be arrested, they should be able to distinguish between who needs to be strip searched and who does not.

This can be countered by arguing that the strip searching is done for the safety of the prisoners and the guards. After all, if everyone is strip searched, then the chances of dangerous items getting into prisons is somewhat lower. However, there is the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who are arrested for minor offenses are not concealing anything and to strip search people on the minute chance that they have something would be overreacting. To use an analogy, putting all prisoners in straight jackets and masks would provide greater protection, but that seems needlessly excessive for the vast majority of prisoners.  There is also the rather important fact that people are not supposed to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment.

While searching prisoners is a legitimate practice, strip searching certainly seems to go beyond what is needed in the case of minor offenses. After all, even Alito notes that strip searches are humiliating. As such, to subject a minor offender to such unnecessary humiliation  would be to punish them in cruel and unusual ways-even before they are found guilty.

Naturally, the ruling does not require that everyone who is arrested be strip searched-it just allows it to occur.  Alito even noted that for most people arrested for minor offenses, “admission to the general jail population, with the concomitant humiliation of a strip-search, may not be reasonable.” As such, jails could elect to house those arrested for minor offenses apart from the general jail population and not strip search them. However, the fact that this could be done does not mean it will be done and there is the rather obvious concern that this ruling will be exploited to allow the humiliation of people who are arrested on minor offenses. This would add nothing to public safety and would merely serve to impose on liberty, privacy and dignity.

Given that the court accepted that the police have a right to strip search even without probable cause, it would seem sensible to think that they will rule in favor of the Affordable Care Act. After all, if the state has the right to strip you naked and check out your junk when you are arrested for anything at all, then surely the state has the power to require you to buy health care insurance. In fact, given that an increased number of Americans will be exposed to the chilliness and psychological stress of being strip searched, they will need health insurance more than ever.

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The Aesthetics of the University Dress Code

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 12, 2012
Example of a common dress code for males in mo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My university, Florida A&M University (FAMU), recently adopted a dress code (or, to be more technical the trustees approved new dress standards). This code allows professors to prevent students from attending classes (or other functions) if the students are not dress appropriately. Previously only the school of business had a dress code.

There seem to be three main reasons for this code. The first is that it is taken as educational. That is, it is supposed to teach students what sort of dress will serve them best professionally and socially. The second relates to classroom order, namely it is intended to deter students from wearing clothing to class that could disrupt the class. The third is a matter of image, specifically that it is aimed at preventing students from wearing clothing that will make FAMU look bad.

While I have not (as of  this writing) been supplied with a list of banned attire, it does include “do-rags”, hoods, and the infamous underwear revealing “saggy pants.” Rumor also has it that tube tops and t-shirts with inflammatory language will also be banned.

While the matter of dress codes can be approached in a variety of ways, I will approach it from an aesthetic standpoint. This will not be in terms of the beauty of the clothing but rather looking it the matter within the context of the branch of philosophy relating to art and beauty.

While a university is supposed to provide substance, it (like almost all things) can also be seen as an institute of appearance and, in many ways, as a stage upon which various theatrical  roles are played. The role I happen to play is, of course, that of a professor. As might be imagined, this role does require knowing certain things.The same would seem to hold true for students as well. While they are not expected to know nearly as much as professors, they also have their roles to play. As with any role played out upon the stage, there is the expectation that the costume will match the part. That is, a professor should be costumed as a professor and not as something else, such as a marathon runner or a pirate. Likewise a student should be properly costumed as a student and not as a night club patron or thug. As such, a dress code could be seen as being on par with the costuming specifications for a play, movie or TV show and warranted on the grounds of aesthetics. That is, it would just not look right to have the actors costumed inappropriately. This ties in nicely to the second and third reasons. After all, an actor in the wrong costume can disrupt the production and, of course, make the theater company look bad.

Another way to look at the matter is that the university is not only teaching students the material in the subjects of math, chemistry, philosophy and so on, but also training students in the matter of appearances. That is, students are also being trained for the proper aesthetics of the roles they will be taking on when they are working for the job creators. This, of course, ties nicely to the first reason given in support of the code, namely the training of the youth in how to dress professionally and socially. In this regard, the university can be seen as a literal dress rehearsal for the show that starts (hopefully) shortly after the students graduate.

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University Dress Codes

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 11, 2012
Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soh...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My university, Florida A&M University (FAMU), recently adopted a dress code (or, to be more technical the trustees approved new dress standards). This code allows professors to prevent students from attending classes (or other functions) if the students are not dress appropriately. Previously only the school of business had a dress code.

There seem to be three main reasons for this code. The first is that it is taken as educational. That is, it is supposed to teach students what sort of dress will serve them best professionally and socially. The second relates to classroom order, namely it is intended to deter students from wearing clothing to class that could disrupt the class. The third is a matter of image, specifically that it is aimed at preventing students from wearing clothing that will make FAMU look bad.

While I have not (as of  this writing) been supplied with a list of banned attire, it does include “do-rags”, hoods, and the infamous underwear revealing “saggy pants.” Rumor also has it that tube tops and t-shirts with inflammatory language will also be banned.

As might be imagined, I am somewhat divided on this matter. However, I will endeavor to sort through the matter from a philosophical and professorial perspective. I will do so by looking at the reasons behind the code.

The first reason nicely matches Aristotle’s views of education. When discussing moral education, Aristotle notes that young people do not find a temperate life to be particularly appealing, so it is necessary to condition them to such a life. Doing so, he argues, will make it less irksome and hence it will be all the easier to ensure that they follow the right path throughout life. As might be imagined, many college students would prefer to not dress like professionals and prefer to be rather more casual. Also, some college students clearly prefer the now forbidden styles. As might be imagined, the job creators who will hire the students when the graduate will expect their employees to dress in appropriate ways. As such, the university would merely be extending its mission of conditioning students for the workplace by adding in control over their modes of dress. After all, the American education system has been training students to follow schedules, do boring work at the behest of others, obey petty authorities, stand in lines, and so on. What, it might be asked, is the problem with adding a conformity of costume to the curriculum of conditioning?

The obvious problem is, of course, that such an imposition seems to violate the liberty of the students. Since they are adults, there is a presumption in favor of their right to dress as they choose. Naturally, this should match the laws regarding public indecency (although those could be challenged as well). However, provided the students are not violating such laws, it would seem reasonable to not impose on their liberty. Unless, of course, the harm done by specific attire would morally warrant imposing on the liberty of the students. This takes me to the second reason.

The second reason does have some appeal. While I have never had a class actually disrupted by someone’s choice of attire, it does seem possible for this to happen-provided that the clothing was such that it would create a significant and lasting impact on the class. In all my years of teaching, about the most extreme reactions I have seen is having some students stare briefly at another student because of his/her choice of clothing. This has sometimes been followed by some whispering. However, this sort of “disruption” is nothing compared with the disruptive influence of personal electronics and people talking to each other in class. Naturally, students coming to class partially or fully naked would probably have a significant impact-but that is already covered, I think, by existing laws regarding public nudity. Because of this, I have never really considered improper attire a threat to my classroom-but my experience might be unusual. There is also the possibility that I am blind to the damage it has been doing in my classes.  If other professors’ classes (and mine) are, in fact, being disrupted by improper attire, then the code would make sense on this ground. After all, the disruption of class would harm the other students and thus warrant imposing on the liberty of the student whose attire is causing the disruption.

Of course, it could be countered that there are cases in which the student cannot be reasonably held accountable for the reaction of others. To use the obvious analogy to free speech, if a student says something that annoys, offends or otherwise bothers other students, this does not automatically entail that the student should be compelled to be silent. For example, if a student presents an argument in favor of God’s existence that really annoys some atheists in a religion class, it would hardly be right to silence the student because of this.

The obvious counter to this is to argue that the clothing being banned is not the clothing equivalent of a rational argument that bothers those who disagree. Rather, the clothing is on par with someone shouting vulgarities in class. If this is so, the code would seem sensible.

The third reason also has some appeal. While philosophers are supposed to be concerned with wisdom rather than with the “sights and sounds”, I recognize the importance of appearances when it comes to matters such as recruitment and reputation. For example, if prospective students and their parents see FAMU students dressed inappropriately for higher education, this might impact their decision to attend FAMU (although our enrollment has been at record levels). As another example, photos of the university that feature inappropriately attired students could also do damage to the school’s reputation. After all, reputation is often more about appearance than substance. Naturally, it might be countered that people should be more concerned with the substance than with the appearance, but that idea seems quaintly out of touch in a time when people assert that “perception is reality.”  In any case, if the damage done to the university by the inappropriate attire exceeded the damage done to the students by imposing on their liberty, then the imposition of the code would thus seem morally warranted.

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