A Philosopher's Blog

Perhaps Too Furious?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2012
Deutsch: the fast and the furious logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The narrative at Fox News is that the Fast & Furious incident is Obama’s Watergate (of course, Obama has had at least three other Watergate events by Fox’s count). One problem with the way Fox describes this event is that classifying it as being on par with Watergate is hyperbole, a standard tactic at Fox (and MSNBC). In addition to the concern about the fact that such rhetoric is misleading, there is also the practical concern: what will Fox use as a point of comparison if Obama does something really bad? However, my main concern here is not to discuss Fox, but to consider whether or not the Fast and Furious scandal has been accurately presented.

In many ways, this sort of consideration is a foolish waste of time. After all, the narrative of this scandal has largely been written and the “facts” are mostly cemented in the public mind. Anything that deviates from the narrative will tend to be rejected by those who embrace the narrative and, in fact, will merely encourage them to cling more strongly to the narrative. Those who are willing to change their views in the face of new information will tend to be cast as merely following their ideology by those who are following their own ideology. As such, it is tempting to despair of ever discussing anything that might deviate from the narrative.

However, part of being a philosopher is considering that the accepted narrative might not be accurate and having a willingness to take into account new information. In the case of Fast and Furious, Fortune conducted an extensive investigation that appears to reveal facts contrary to the current political narrative. I must, of course, admit that I have largely accepted the erroneous narrative-primarily because this additional information was only recently made available.

As per the original narrative, guns purchased under ATF surveillance  ended up in the possession of criminals. However, Fortune’s investigation provides evidence that the ATF did not purposely allow guns to be trafficked illegally. In fact, it is claimed that the ATF attempted to seize weapons but it was, ironically, handicapped in its efforts by prosecutors and the existing laws covering firearms. Fortune’s investigation also reveals that the claims against the ATF include distortions, errors, partial truths and lies.

The Fortune investigation also covers the process of how right-wing bloggers and CBS escalated the story and then how Representative Issa and others used it to score political points. Interestingly, it is claimed that Obama basically yielded on this matter do as to avoid getting into a rhetorical battle about gun control (which is denied by the administration).

If these claims are true, then the accepted narrative being spun out in the media is flawed and does an injustice to the ATF and those involved. Given the general credibility of Fortune, it is worth taking the investigation seriously and this should impact the assessment of the situation. It should also serve as yet another lesson of the importance of being critical of the facts and being willing to consider new information.

If the Fortune investigation is accurate, then this makes Obama’s choice to use executive privilege even more interesting. After all, if the claims made about the ATF are accurate, then the ATF was trying to do as well as it could within the context of the existing laws and practices. That is, the ATF has been wronged by the erroneous judgments against it-including those I myself made. As such, the administration could have responded by asserting the facts and thus countered the scandal without resorting to executive privilege. After all, there would be nothing to hide.

However, the Fortune investigation does suggest why the Obama administration would have something to hide: perhaps there were discussions about how to handle this matter without getting caught up in the said rhetorical battle over gun control. After all, while Obama has only expanded gun rights, some folks have very strong beliefs that Obama is just biding his time and is waiting to attack gun rights (despite a total lack of evidence for these beliefs). As such, Obama probably wants to avoid getting tangled up in this rhetoric. If so, it is ironic that the use of executive privilege is taken as evidence that Obama is trying to hide something, perhaps some sort of conspiracy to infringe on gun rights.

Of course, it is not impossible that the administration did discuss how the existing gun laws would need to be changed to address the easy flow of arms from the US to Mexico. Such talk would, of course, be presented as attempts to infringe on gun rights. This also shows the challenge Obama faces in regards to this flow of guns. One the one horn, attempts to seriously address the problem will be seen as attempts to infringe on gun right and no doubt strongly opposed by the right. On the other horn, using weaker methods will have little or no impact and will result in condemnation from the right for failing to address the problem. In short, Obama (and the next President) would seem to be in a no win situation: anything he does to seriously address the problem would get him bashed as anti-gun and feed the conspiracy theories. Doing nothing serious about the problem gets him bashed as being weak on this matter.  Bush also faced the problem of this easy flow of guns and was not able to solve it. Obviously, whoever gets elected in 2012 will still face this problem and the challenge of solving the problem without being bashed as anti-gun.

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Obamacare Ruling

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2012
HR3590-Patient-Protection-and-Affordable-Care-...

HR3590-Patient-Protection-and-Affordable-Care-Act_1 (Photo credit: Obama For America – California)

The big news today is the ruling on Obamacare. While I am not a constitutional lawyer, the ruling seemed to be fundamentally sound. First, it does seem accurate to say that the commerce clause does not explicitly empower the federal government to compel citizens to buy commercial products. As such, this view is in accord with a narrow interpretation. Second, it also seems accurate to say that the constitution provides congress with broad powers of taxation. The health care tax seems to be comparable to Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid taxes and they set a clear precedent for the ruling.

Interestingly, this ruling is also a victory for conservative principles. First, it validates Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts as well as what his position was on health care until he changed his mind. Naturally, the fact that Obamacare is based significantly on Romneycare and Romney used to be for this approach does not prove that Romney is wrong now. That inference would be fallacious. However, all the arguments that Romney gave in favor of his earlier view still stand on their own merits. As do the reasons that he gives now against his previous view and the view of Obama. Second, it validates the constitutionality of the individual mandate which is not only the product of a conservative think tank but is also a conservative principle. After all, this mandate addresses the current free rider problem that I discussed in an earlier post on this mandate. It is, of course, ironic that the  Republicans are dead set on going after the aspects of the law that have the best conservative foundations. But, politics does not seem to be about holding to a consistent set of principles but rather about saying the other guy is wrong in what he says, even when one used to say the same thing and even gave the other guy the idea.

Obviously, this ruling is not a defeat for Obama. However, it is not a complete victory and the Republicans have the material they need to fuel some serious political rhetoric. First, the ruling makes it clear that it is about the constitutionality of the law and not its wisdom. On one hand, this can be seen as a case of explicit neutrality. However, it can also be seen as innuendo. After all, the assumption is that the court just rules on the constitutionality of laws and to pointedly say that the ruling is not on the wisdom of the law can be taken as implying that the law is unwise. The Republicans should be able to milk those remarks for some small political points. Second, the ruling makes it clear that the mandate is grounded by the power of congress to tax. As such, the health care law adds a new tax and potentially increases taxes (for people who chose to be potential  free-riders on the system by not having insurance). This can be a rhetorical silver mine for the Republicans-they can push the line that Obama went against his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class (while steering clear of the idea that the taxes are to help offset the cost of medical care for the uninsured) and they can hammer away at the whole tax thing, which should be music to the ears of the Tea Party folks.

While condemning Obama for spending so much time of health care, Romney says that his first act as president would be to get Obamacare repealed. This indicates that he thinks it is a matter of top priority. Of course, he can counter by saying that he has to get rid of Obamacare to save the economy. Whether that would work or not is rather an open question.

One rather obvious question is this: what would the Republicans and Romney offer in place of Obamacare? At this point, we have a great deal of vague and empty rhetoric and little in the way of specifics. This is not surprising. After all, Romney has repudiated his long-time views on health care and the conservative idea of the mandate has been bashed. As such, the Republicans and Romney need to start from scratch and that takes time.

I must admit that I have not read the entire act and I do not know what impact it will have. I do, of course, have concerns that it will have unintended negative consequences and I do believe that there are fundamental problems in health care that the law does not seem to address. I do think that we all agree that health care needs fixing. Unfortunately, we also seem to agree that the other guy is always wrong and hence there can be no meaningful compromise.

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The Temple of Rats

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2012

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for character levels 10-12.

Description

While the canines and horses fought alongside their beloved humans during the war of the First Kingdom, the cats, mice and rats debated among themselves. Eventually most of the cats threw their lot in with the humans and even the normally timorous mice elected to side with humanity against the demons (the human mastery of cheese was instrumental winning over the mice). The rats, however, remained undecided at the start of the war. Their deity, the Rat God, remained neutral in the conflict and did not side with the forces of order or the demonic forces.

While the rats mainly lived in human cities, they remembered well that before the war humans had attempted to be rid of their kind, often by employing cats. While most of the rats remained technically neutral, some of them actively aided the demons or at least benefited from their actions. A small number of rats did join the battle with the demons and legend says that they were rewarded for this role by being transformed into the ratfolk. While some scholars debate this, others claim that the rats that allegedly became the ratfolk were actually the victim of a curse.

While the First Kingdom fell before the onslaught from the Abyss, humanity survived. While the humans brought their loyal horses, dogs and cats (and even the mice) with them to new lands, the rats simply tagged along having grown accustomed to dwelling within and under the cities of humans.

The gods of order rewarded the heroes of the war, famously granting the cats the golden cows. When the rats pushed their way forward to demand their reward, the gods turned away from them—with few exceptions they had done nothing worthy of reward during the war. Angered by this, the rats demanded a reward. In response, the cats mocked the rats, offering them the spilled milk left on the ground from their magic milk feast. Enraged by this, the rats made to attack the cats, but were driven away by the roars of the great cats. These rats fled into the dark and hidden places and plotted their vengeance over the centuries.

The rats were able to kill a few of the golden cows and were overjoyed when they learned that only one cow remained. They were dismayed when the gods intervened and placed it within a dungeon, promising that if it were found by a cat, then the line of cows would be restored with the birth of golden calves.

Determined to prevent this from happening, the Sewer Gang (a thieves guild composed of wererats) dispatched agents to find the location of the dungeon of leche and to ensure that anyone able to acquire the cow would meet a terrible fate—along with the last cow.

While the Sewer Rats failed in their first attempt to kill the golden cow, they learned that they will have a second change at revenge. According to the decree of the gods, the golden cow must be returned to the temple where it was housed and only then will it give birth to golden calves. To prevent this from happening, the rats long ago took over the abandoned temple and stole the altar from it.

Available  on Amazon.

Downloads

The Temple of Rats Monsters & Maps PDF

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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The Ethics of Spinions (Spinning Minions)

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 27, 2012
English: The CNN Center in Atlanta.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being rather interested in politics, I spend a fair amount of time following the news of the day. Not surprisingly, I get to see numerous spinning minions (spinions) working their talking points. In the context of politics, a spinion is a person who takes on the role of presenting the talking points of the ideology being represented. In general, the spinion has two main tasks. The first is to make his/her side look good and the second is to make the other side look bad. Truth is, of course, not really a point of concern. Naturally, there can be spinions in other areas as well, such as business, religion and academics.

One somewhat interesting thing about spinions is that it is often rather easy to tell when a person is in spinion mode. In many cases, there seems to be a certain change in the facial expression, eyes and voice of the person as s/he begins to spin.  This reminds me of the fact that in the Pathfinder role playing game characters can use their perception skill to notice whether another creature’s will is not its own. That is, whether it is charmed, dominated or otherwise being controlled. Being a gaming nerd, I imagine the spinion look is what a person would look like in such cases. More scientifically, research has shown that the brain actually undergoes internal changes when a person is thinking about ideological matters: “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.” Given this, it is not surprising that a person’s external behavior would be altered in discernible ways when engaged in spinning behavior. After all, emotional changes are often manifested visibly in changes in behavior and voice. However, my main concern is not with spotting spinions (although there is probably some interesting research to be done here) but with the ethics of spinions.

When I observe spinions in action, what I mainly notice is that they relentlessly present their side in a favorable manner while being equally relentless in casting the other side(s) in a negative manner. In the context of United States’ politics, this spinning has reached the point that any concession to or positive view of the other side is regarded as traitorous. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke of Mitt Romney having a sterling business record, this created a bit of a political storm. I would present other examples, but they are rather rare-in these times it is almost unheard of for one side to say anything positive about the other.

Another disturbing aspect of the ways of spin is that truth and principle seem to be of little importance. Each spinion attempts to construct a narrative favoring his side and damning the other, warping and ignoring facts as needed. For example, the Republicans bashed Obama because the worth of the middle class fell on his watch but they conveniently ignored the fact that this worth had been falling since before Obama was in office. Similarly, the Democrats bashed Romney regarding Massachusetts’ economic woes while Romney was governor, conveniently ignoring facts that went against this narrative.

Needless to say, spinions seem to also have no qualms about making use of fallacies and rhetorical devices in the place of reason. To see this is the case, simply turn to the 24 hour news station of your choice and watch. You might want to have a book on fallacies on hand to catalog all the examples you will see. This is, of course, prudent of them: while it makes me sad, fallacies and rhetoric are far more effective than good reasoning when it comes to getting people to believe.

Grounding this behavior seems to be the idea that what matters is beating the other side. The view seems to be, as Hobbes would put it, that “profit is the measure of right.” This is perhaps most clearly put by Mitch McConnel, namely that the Republicans top priority should be making Obama a one term president. Rather than, for example, working hard to get us out of the depression. While Democrats are not as overt about this as their Republican associates, it is obviously still a factor.

As might be suspected, I regard the behavior of the spinions as morally dubious at best. After all, they engage in willful manipulation of the facts, they employ rhetoric and fallacies to sway people, they cannot acknowledge anything right or good about the other side, and seem to be solely concerned with achieving victory for their side (or the side that pays them).  This spinning has contributed to the high levels of polarity in politics and had made it rather difficult for issues to be discussed rationally and fairly. I would even go so far as to say that this has harmed the general good through its impact on politics. As such, the spinions are a source of considerable moral concern.

One rather obvious counter is that the job of the spinion is to do exactly what they do and this is a legitimate activity. While philosophers and scientists are supposed to seek facts and engage in good reasoning so as to determine what is most likely to be true, this is not the role of the spinion. Their role is rather like that of any spokesperson or advertiser, namely to sell their product and see to it that the competition does not succeed. This is not a matter of right or wrong and truth or falsehood. Rather it is a matter of selling product, be that product soap or a political party. This sort of selling is how the consumer market works and thus the spinions are acting in an acceptable way.

I do agree that parties do have a legitimate right to have people who speak in their favor and against their opposition. However, the spinions appear to present a danger to society similar to that of the sophists. That is, they seem to be focused solely on the success of their side rather than on what is true and good. Since the top spinions are routinely given time on national and worldwide television, they have a rather substantial platform from which to spread their influence. Spinions are often presented as commentators or panelists (and sometimes they are actually presenting the news) which, as I see, creates a problem comparable to allowing corporate spokespeople to advertise their products under the guise of being panelists or commentators. That is, the spinions often seem to simply be presenting political commercials for their side while not having these ads labeled as such. This can mislead people who might think that they are getting an objective report when they are, in fact, essentially just getting a political advertisement in disguise.

A counter to this is that the spinions are presenting the views and talking points of their respective sides and this is not advertising. After all, there will sometimes be opposing spinions spinning in opposite directions on the same panel or in the same segment. Further, the spinions are often presented as being spokespeople for specific parties or candidates.

One reply is that this is still like advertising. After all, networks are happy to sell time to competitors so that a viewer might see an advertisement for Coke followed by one for Pepsi. Also, while some spinions are identified as such, this is not always the case. As such, people do often get misled into thinking that what they are hearing is a matter of fact when it is, in fact, merely spin.

The obvious counter to this is that the spinions are protected by the right to free speech and hence are free to spin away even when doing so is detrimental to the public good and what they say is contrary to fact.

This, I will agree, is true-spinions do not lose their right to express their views (or the views they are paid to express) just because they are spinning. However, the news networks who enable them to spin (or even hire them to spin) are not obligated to provide the spinners with a platform or to let them operate largely free from critical assessment. Obviously enough, having opposite spinners spinning away is not the same thing as having critical assessment of the spin.  In fact, spinning is the opposite of what the news is supposed to do, namely present the facts objectively.  As such, there should be greater effort to contain spin and to ensure that spinners are clearly identified as such. Finally, what the spinions do is wrong-they should stop doing what they do.

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Booth Babes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2012
English: Booth Babes from Eidos Stand at E3 2000

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the various technology trade shows and video game expos are supposed to be about the technology and the games, considerable attention is paid to booth babes. For those not familiar with the way of the booth babe, a booth babe is an attractive woman (the “babe” part) who works at such an event (typical in or near a company’s booth) in order to attract the attention of the predominantly male attendees and lure them, like sirens of old, to the booth.

The job of a booth babe is typically not extremely demanding: they tend to work in two or eight hour stints (depending on whether it is a product unveiling or a full show). Wages vary, but are generally decent. For example, a booth babe working at Computex in Taiwan might make $100-170 for an eight hour shift of smiling and being leered at by hordes of nerdy men. The pay can, of course, be worse at less prestigious events and better at bigger events.

While booth babes might be considered an odd subject for a philosophical look, they do raise some interesting philosophical issues. For those who are wondering, philosophy events do not, as a rule, have booth babes. Mainly just elderly professors in tweed jackets.

One obvious point of concern for any job is whether or not the pay is just for the work being done. As might be imagined, most booth babes would prefer to be paid more. However, given the extent of the babe’s duties, the pay does not seem entirely unreasonable. What is of greater philosophical interest are the treatment of booth babes and the question of whether or not there should be both babes.

As might be imagined, the sort of technology and game events that feature both babes tend to be male dominated. Also, to fall into some stereotypes, many of the men who attend these events are not accustomed to being close to attractive women. There are also, unfortunately, some strong elements of misogyny and sexism in these areas. As such, it is is hardly surprising that booth babes get leered at. They have also been the subject of what seem to be sexist tweets, such as the infamous Asus tweet regarding the “nice rear” of a booth babe. Booth babes also get plastered all over the net in videos and photos, put on display just like the products they are selling.

On the one hand, it seems wrong to treat the booth babes as objects and to employ them to lure men to the events and the booths. This seems to involve demeaning both the booth babes and the males. The babes are demeaned by being presented as sex objects to lure in males and the males are demeaned because it is assumed that they need booth babes to draw them in (and that they want to see the babes).  This seems to be morally wrong. After all, this is treating people as mere sexual objects used to sell products. Both Kant and the feminists would agree that this sort of objectification is wrong. While this view is very appealing (and almost certainly correct), there are some points well worth considering.

On the other hand, if the booth babes were not sexy and if males were not attracted to this, then there would be no jobs for the booth babes. Put another way, what seems to make the booth babe practice wrong also seems to be exactly what gives it a reason to exist at all. Obviously, if  average looking women (and guys) were hired to stand around the booths in comfortable clothing, then they would not attract people to the booths. If guys were such that they did not have an interest in seeing booth babes, then there would be no reason to have booth babes. As such, the profession rests on the fact that males are lured in by a chance to stare at hot women in person. From this, one might argue that the sexism and leering that people complain about is an intrinsic part of the practice. Complaining about it would be on par with complaining that people ask Starbucks employees to make coffee for them: that is, obviously enough, what they are there for.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that perhaps the booth babe profession should be eliminated. After all, the mere fact that the job seems to be inherently exploitative and sexist hardly justifies its existence. To use an analogy, being an assassin requires killing people, but that hardly justifies the practice. Of course, getting rid of booth babes need not entail a ban on attractive women. This leads to the second reply: attractive women (or men) could still be hired to work booths without the strong exploitative or sexist elements. The Pax gaming events, for example, do not allow traditional booth babes.Of course, some might complain that any use of attractiveness is morally suspect-but it does not seem any worse than, for example, using talented, friendly or witty people to attract attention.

A final point of concern is that while such events are male dominated, there are still females who attend, often as industry professionals. No doubt most of them do not find the booth babes appealing and some of them probably find the practice offensive and insulting. After all, the booth babes make these events seem like a boys’ club rather than a professional event.  There are also no doubt males who find this practice offensive as well. As such, the use of booth babes might have a negative impact, which is opposite of what the companies want.

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Ethics & Porn

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2012

English: Porn star Cytherea at XRCO Awards in ...

“No porno has ever lost money”, or so said a running friend of mine when he quoted one of his economic professors. This was some years ago and it appears that it is no longer true. Ironically, porn has been a victim of the internet. Much as video killed the radio star, the internet has killed the porn star.

At this point, most folks are probably thinking “that cannot be true! Far from killing porn, the internet is for porn.” This is both true and not true: the internet did kill porn. But the internet is also for porn. Fortunately, this is not some sort of Schrodinger’s Porn in which the porn is neither alive nor dead until it is observed. Rather, the situation can easily be explained without any odd quantum physics.

While I am sure that the readers of this blog have never witnessed this in person, the internet tubes are jammed with porn. Because of this, the traditional porn industry (like the newspaper industry) is in hard times (which is surely the name of a porno). After all, when people can get their porn anonymously and  for free (or at least very cheaply) on the web, they are unlikely to buy the traditional porn movies. As such, it is no surprise that the traditional porn industry has gone from a money making giant to being in its death spiral. As such, the internet has killed (traditional) porn, while the internet is most definitely for porn. Interestingly enough, this decline of the traditional porn industry does raise some ethical concerns.

One point of concern is one that arises whenever an industry is in a death spiral, namely a concern for the people who work in that industry. While some porn stars have been able to achieve success outside of porn, the fall of the traditional porn industry will leave most of the performers in a rather hard situation (which, I am sure, is also the name of a porno). To be specific, many of them will have no qualifications beyond having sex on camera and will have little in the ways of savings and opportunities. While some will be able to switch careers, some will not. As such, it seems worth being concerned about these people.

One obvious reply is that this sort of industry death is just the way of things and economic causalities are inevitable. After all, the rise of the steam engine, electricity and so on killed many industries and the internet is just the most recent example of a economic re-definer. As such, while the economic woes of the folks in porn  is regrettable, we have no special obligation to support those who elected to enter a dying industry. They can, of course, avail themselves of the usual support offered to the unemployed and they can attempt find employment elsewhere.

A second reply is that the death of the porn industry can be seen as a good thing. After all, feminists have long argued that the typical porn is demeaning and harmful and thus morally wrong. Religious groups and moral conservatives have also argued against porn because of its corrupting influence (often unconsciously duplicating Plato’s classic arguments for banning the corrupting influence of art from the ideal state). Thus, the death of porn is a good thing.

The rather obvious reply is that the death of the porn industry is not the death of porn. As noted above, porn is thriving on the internet. To use an analogy, the state of porn is somewhat like the state of newspapers: while the traditional professional industry is dying, the amateurs are flooding the web with words and porn.

Given this fact, it might be expected that those who worked in the professional porn industry can flock to the electronic frontier and make a living in web porn. After all, if Facebook can rake in billions allowing people to post about eating a bagel and to share cat photos, surely something like F@ckbook could be created to provide a home for porn performers.

The obvious reply to this is that the people using Facebook do not make money and presumably the porn performers on F@ckbook would be in the same boat-although someone else would probably get rich. As far as the performers working on the web, one has but to look at the financial success of the typical blogger to get an idea how well going amateur typically pays on the web. After all, people are generally not inclined to pay for what they can get for free. This is not to say that clever people are no longer able to monetize porn, just that the performers will almost certainly be worse off in the new porn economy.

A final point of moral concern is whether or not the porn viewers have a moral debt to those who make it possible for them to see porn. This is not, of course, unique to porn and a similar question arises when it comes to journalism, music, books, non-porn movies and so on. After all, people can readily acquire almost anything digital for free (legitimately or by theft) on the web.

Since I have argued about digital theft in other essays, I will simply note that an excellent case can be made that stealing digital content is morally wrong. As such, the arguments I have made elsewhere would seem to apply to stealing porn as well. However, there is an interesting potential twist here: perhaps the moral dubiousness of the porn industry can provide a moral justification for stealing porn. That is, doing something bad to a bad industry is not bad.

While this has a certain superficial appeal, it can easily be countered. First, stealing from the porn industry is still stealing. Second, stealing from the porn industry does not seem to do anything to counter any moral badness of the industry-that is, the theft cannot be justified on the grounds that it makes things morally better. It could, of course, be justified on the grounds that it might be denying income to the wicked. But, of course, this leads to the third counter: a person steals porn to use porn, thus any moral high ground is clearly lost. This would be somewhat like a person arguing that it is okay to steal drugs to use from drug dealers because drugs are bad. This would, obviously, be a rather poor moral argument.

As far as the free content goes, while giving such product away for free might not be the wisest business model, availing oneself of free stuff is clearly not morally wrong. However, there is still the question of whether or not one should simply free ride an industry rather than contributing to it financially.

On the one hand, a person obviously has no moral obligation to support an industry because s/he has taken free stuff from said industry. After all, it is free. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is some obligation. After all, if the person values what they get for free, then they should contribute to what makes it possible for such stuff to be available for free.

The rather obvious counter to this is that it is up to a business to do what it takes to get customers to support them. If they elect to adopt an approach to business that provides potential customers with everything they want for free, then they have no grounds to complain when those potential customers never actually buy things. While it would be nice of the users to give back to the business, business cannot be sensibly based on this sort of model. As such, it is not so much that the internet killed porn. Rather the porn industry is committing suicide with the internet.

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The Tomb of Kerakos

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on June 23, 2012

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for 3rd-6th level characters.

Description

The great city of Thetos arose in one of the early human kingdoms but, for a variety of reasons, its power did not expand beyond its general geographical region. One reason was that the culture became increasingly focused on the preparations for death and the afterlife. As such, vast resources were expended in the construction of monuments and tombs. The great priests and mages of the area vastly increased their research into the afterlife as well as maintaining a physical existence after death. These studies resulted in great discoveries in the field of necromancy and the fame of Thetos among those who studied such arts grew tremendously. Because of this scholars and practitioners journeyed from afar to attempt to study with these masters of the necromantic arts.

One of those who came to study was the necromancer Kerakos. While many were turned away and other seekers were tricked and used in dark experiments, Kerakos was able to persuade one of the greatest and most enigmatic of the masters, Rils, to teach him in many of the secrets he had discovered. Kerakos proved to be an able student and completed the final test of Rils-surviving a tomb constructed by the master. Kerakos rather liked the idea of using such tests and duplicated his teacher’s approach by establishing suitable challenges for his students. After Rils departed from the city, Kerakos decided to honor his master by maintaining Rils’ challenge tomb and putting promising necromancers to the test. The tomb, located thirty miles away from the city of Thetos, remains to this day and awaits those who would seek the treasure and secrets contained within.

Available on Amazon.

Downloads

Tomb of Kerakos Monsters & Maps PDF

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Are Facts Dead?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2012
Ideology Icon

Ideology Icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically “correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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The Fast & The Foolish II: Executive Privelege

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2012
Deutsch: the fast and the furious logo

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back when the Fast & Furious debacle hit the media, I did a critical post on the incident. To this day, I wonder about the thinking behind that plan and had hoped that this mess would at least be sorted out a bit. While congress has decided to pursue the matter (and correctly so), the Obama administration decided to evoke executive privilege to avoid releasing certain relevant documents to congress.

While Fox News tends to flip-flop on executive privilege based on the political party of the president,  I have been consistently critical of the practice. As such, I can recycle much of what I have said in the past about this matter.

In the face of the “Fast and Furious” debacle and its handling by Attorney General Holder, President Obama has decided to invoke executive privilege.

While this alleged power to invoke executive privilege is not specified in the Constitution, the gist of it is that the President can refuse to provide the public with information that he deems as privileged. This power is often invoked in the name of national security but is also justified by the claim that a President’s minions need to be able to freely provide advice without being worried that such advice will be made public. Thus, the justification is based on consequences: such things must be kept secret for the good of the country.

From a moral standpoint this practice can be justified on utilitarian grounds. To be specific, this keeping of secrets  can be justified by appealing to the fact that this practice prevents far greater harms. Although the Obama administration has done little or nothing to show that these matters must be kept secret for the good of the nation, this moral logic is reasonable. However, the challenge lies in showing that revealing the information in the documents would do undue harm to the country and hence that the president is morally justified in keeping them secret.

If, for example, the documents contained detailed information about ongoing law enforcement operations (especially those involving undercover aspects) and releasing such information could prove harmful to these operations (and put people in danger), then it would be reasonable to keep these documents secret. However, this does not seem to be the case. Also, if the documents did contain such information, then the administration would not need to use executive privilege-they could appeal to the importance of secrecy in this case.

On the face of it, the most plausible explanation is that the documents contain information that would be harmful to or embarrassing for the administration. After all, evoking executive privilege will create the impression that there is something they want to hide and, assuming that the security hypothesis is not true, the reasonable inference is that whatever is being hidden would be more damaging than the harm done by creating this impression.

It might be countered that the administration is merely acting to assert the right of the executive branch against an intrusion by congress. While this does have some appeal, congress does appear to be acting well within its legal rights and is doing its job. As such, the president seems to be wrongly impeding congress rather than rightfully defending executive turf.

It might also be countered that this is a partisan attack on the president by the Republicans calculated to score political points. While I am sure that the Republicans would be happy to score points here, they are actually doing what they should be doing, namely investigating a law enforcement debacle and what might well be a cover up that reaches (as they say in the movies) all the way to the top. As such, the points they score will most likely be earned legitimately.

Unless the administration can provide a good reason to believe that the documents contain information that must be kept from congress for legitimate reasons, then this invocation of executive privilege is wrong and it invites people to speculate as to what sort of damaging information is contained in the documents.  It should be hoped that Obama changes his mind and releases these documents voluntarily. After all, while the president does have the right to evoke executive privilege, it is not a screen that is to be used to hide misdeeds. Naturally, if there are no misdeeds, then there would seem to be nothing worth hiding-so they should be released.  If there are misdeeds, then the president has no moral or legal right to conceal them with executive privilege.

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Right Versus Right

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 20, 2012
Spy vs. Spy

Spy vs. Spy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While unemployment is a problem in the United States, there are actually several fields in which workers are in short supply. These fields tend to be in technical, scientific and math heavy areas (such as engineering). As might be imagined, companies like Exxon Mobile need highly educated workers in order to operate. However, educators tend to support Democratic candidates and are often perceived as political liberals. These facts help explain why Exxon Mobile has been presenting advertisements praising teachers at the same time teacher bashing and education budget slashing is very much in vogue in certain political circles.  This creates something of a challenge for the right: how do they destroy the generally pro-Democratic teachers’ unions and slash budgets while at the same time ensuring that the corporations have the educated job fillers that they need?Being an educator, I noticed when Exxon Mobile began running what seemed to be pro-teacher advertisements. I had also noticed when many states cut their education budgets and the concerted attacks on teacher’s unions. This juxtaposition of pro-teacher and anti-teacher got me thinking about how the right was at odds with the right in many key areas.Interestingly, while education budgets in my own state of Florida have been cut, there has been a very strong push for STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) education. In fact, my university recently split the college of arts and sciences so that the sciences would have their own college, thus allowing the budget to be split. By supporting the STEM programs and starving the other programs, the dilemma can be solved: the job creators get their job fillers while the education budgets can be cut on the backs of non-STEM programs.

Of course, this is not a perfect solution. After all, the budget cuts to public and higher education do damage to education across the board. As such, even if STEM is pushed and funded, schools and students will still be lacking because of the cuts to other areas. Also, attempts to destroy educators’ unions and to demonize educators have a negative impact across the board. As such, the right still faces a serious challenge here: the budget slashers and anti-education folks are at odds with those who are well aware that the job creators need educated job fillers.

One solution to employee shortages that the United States has long relied on is getting people from outside the country. For quite some time the United States did this very well, even to the point that it was creating a brain drain on the rest of the world. The United States still welcomes many foreign students to the top schools and our graduate programs are producing top people. However, this solution to the problem of a shortage of STEM professionals runs afoul of the views of a significant portion of the United States’ right. Thanks to the fear generated by 9/11 and what appears to be a blend of xenophobia and racism, there is a significant political push against immigration and foreign workers-even in the STEM fields. This has resulted in severe limits on the number of foreign workers and immigrants allowed to remain in the United States. We are literally graduating the people we need and then booting them out. As might be imagined, corporations are doing what they can to work around this problem-generally by setting up offices in places where such talent is more welcome (such as Canada). In short, the xenophobia of some folks on the right is running afoul of the needs of the fiscal conservatives who support corporations. This does raise the question as to whether or not corporations will push for immigration reform to get the people they need or decide not to do so to avoid antagonizing the anti-immigration base they need to support their candidates.

Another related problem is the fact that while critical thinking, scientific thinking, creative thinking and problem solving skills are in demand, the United States is doing poorly in all these areas. One reason (among many) for this is the slashing of education budgets and the attacks on educators. Another reason is the increase in anti-intellectualism in the Republican party. Bashing experts, intellectuals, education and science  has become a standard tactic on the part of very influential elements of this party. These attacks are typically either religious based (to support creationism and other religious doctrines) or politically/economically based (bashing environmental science regarding climate change, pollutants and so on). While the left does have its share of anti-intellectuals, these folks are the fringe of the left and have rather limited influence. In start contrast, the Republican party seems to be steered by what were once the fringe elements.  One nice bit of irony is that while the fossil fuel companies and others have a vested interest in waging a war against climate science, environmental science, scientific thinking and critical thinking, they also need critical thinkers and scientists. Ideally, of course, they would get people who can do good science and critical thinking while at the same time going along with the political and economic agendas that require denying scientific evidence.

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