A Philosopher's Blog

Spying, Ethics & Prudence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2013
The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

All up in your biz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was recently revealed that the NSA had been tapping the phones of world leaders, such as Germany’s Chancellor Merkel. Naturally enough, these leaders expressed shock and outrage at this practice. Equally naturally, experts on espionage have tended to note that this shock and outrage is mere theater—such leaders surely knew that they were being spied on. After all, they themselves head up countries with robust espionage systems that no doubt spy on everything they can spy on.

While not an expert on espionage, I have noted the various revelations over the years involving close allies spying on and stealing secrets from each other. As such, I was not shocked by the fact that the NSA had been spying on everyone they could spy on. In addition to having learned the lesson of history, I also accept the reality of the principle of Totally in Everyone’s Business. This is the principle that all states endeavor to get totally into everyone’s business to the degree that their capabilities allow. Or, put another way, states endeavor to spy as much as they possibly can. The main limiting factors on the totality include such factors as technology, competence, money, and human resources. Ethics and law are generally not limiting factors—as history clearly shows. Since I was aware that the NSA had the capacity to spy on American citizens and world leaders alike, I inferred that they were doing so.

There is also the fact that snooping, like cocaine, is addictive and it requires ever more to satisfy that desire. In general, people do like to snoop and once they get a taste of snooping, they often want more. As with any addiction, people can quickly become reckless and a bit irrational. This could be called the principle of addictive snooping. So, once the NSA snoops got to snooping, they really wanted to expand that snooping.

Another factor is the fact that folks in power tend to be a bit paranoid. Since they are usually up to something, they tend to believe that other people are also up to something. Hence, they tend to believe they need to keep an eye on these people—be they fellow citizens, foreign citizens or allied leaders.

As noted above, such espionage is generally not limited by ethics or law (although countries like the United States will go through the most insane legal gymnastics to give such things a coat of legal paint). Recently I was listening to bit on NPR about the spying and one of the commentators noted that in espionage it is a matter of prudence rather than morality. This stuck with me because I had recently been teaching Kant’s ethics and Kant makes a clear distinction between acting from prudence (what is “smart”) and acting from duty (what is right). In the case of espionage, the idea is the usual consequentialist calculation: is the potential for gain worth the risk? In the case of spying on allies, it is a matter of sorting out the likely damage from the revelation and the potential gains from such spying. In the case of established allies like Germany, it seems reasonable to take the harm to exceed the potential for gain. Then again, given the history of Germany perhaps keeping a close eye on everything might not be such a bad idea.

The notion that espionage is about prudence rather than ethics is part of a common notion that ethics is a luxury that cannot be afforded in the context of matters of great importance. This seems to rest on the assumption that ethics is for easy and safe matters. This is, of course, somewhat ironic given that it is in the hard and unsafe matters that ethics is most needed. It is rather like saying that safety gear is for the safe climbing situations and one should just go naked when the climbing gets really dangerous.

Of course, it can be countered that such matters as international espionage deal with things that are so serious and that the stakes are so high that one cannot be handcuffed by the restraints of ethics. By analogy, this would be like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back. People also make the same argument when it comes to things like torture and assassination: we have to do these things to be safe and ethics must be set aside so we can preserve what is of value.

There are two obvious problems here. One is the usual concern that if we set aside our ethical values, then we have already destroyed what is of value. The second is the fact that judging what is of value and what should be done in its defense are matters of ethics. As such, this would be like saying that one must throw away his tape measure so that he might properly measure the board he is about to cut. However, his tape measure is just what he needs in order to make the proper cut. Likewise, to make decisions about such things as spying, torture and assassination we need our ethical values. To say they must be set aside is itself a moral judgment: it is the judgment that we should do wrong to achieve some end and pretend that we are not really doing what is wrong—just what is in our interest or expedient.

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Rils’ Lesser Sanctum at DriveThruRPG and the Paizo Store

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2013

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for 3rd-5th level characters.

Description

This adventure is the second in the Rils’ series. It is preceded by the Tomb of Rils.

While scholars of necromancy debate the very existence of Rils, none of them doubt that there are numerous tombs, sanctums and dungeons that are allegedly his handiwork.

The scholars who accept that Rils existed believe that because of his devotion to knowledge, he created numerous repositories holding his scrolls and books.  They also claim that Rils did not wish his knowledge to fall into unworthy hands or to be acquired too easily. As such, these repositories are supposed to be well guarded and thoroughly trapped. Others claim that he created these places as deathtraps to slaughter those who might someday challenge his power. Still others speculate that some of his tombs and sanctums were created to imprison and torment failed students.

Rils’ actual fate and motives (assuming he existed at all) are not recorded in history. Some scholars believe that he was destroyed by adventurers who mistook him for an evil lich. Others contend he was destroyed by adventurers because he was an evil lich. Some say that he still exists and dwells within a vast underground library, penning necromantic tomes. Whatever the truth, from time to time the location of one of Rils’ alleged repositories is discovered and adventurers brave the dangers within. Sometimes, it is said, Rils himself takes a hand in guiding potential necromancers…perhaps to power…perhaps to doom.

Rils’ Lesser Sanctum is a Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure. It is intended for a party of 3rd-5th level characters. It is written to follow Tomb of Rils, but can be run as a stand-alone adventure.

Here are some of the features of the adventure:

  • Detailed color maps for the adventure.
  • Full statistics are included for all encounters—no need to look up monsters.
  • New spells (Animate Desert Zombies, Animate Burning Skeletons, and Bone Dance).
  • New Monsters (Burning Skeletons, Toothed Fish and Desert Zombie)
  • New Magic Items (Binding Bracers, Mummy Unguent, Lesser Necromantic Mask, and Swarm Stone).
  • Free Hero Lab portfolio.
  • Dream sequences.

Available now on Amazon.

Available at DriveThruRPG.

Available at the Paizo store.

Downloads

Rils’ Lesser Sanctum PDF

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

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Another Litter Rant

Posted in Environment, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2013
English: Garbage in Romania

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a runner, I cover a lot of ground on foot. While this allows me to be part of the world in a way that driving through it in a car does not, it also means that I get to see all the trash that people just throw to the ground.

While some folks are content to complain about the trash, I’ve generally followed what a friend of mine said years ago: “talk into this hand and do something with that hand: which gets something done?” So, my response to litter is to pick it up. Then write a self-righteous blog about it latter. The blogging is mostly therapeutic-I feel a bit better after a good rant.

One thing that annoys me about litter is how needless it is. After all, if a person can carry an item to a place, then can surely carry it out again-or at least carry it to a trash can. But, this is apparently a bit too hard for some folks-on a typical run in the park by my house, I end up carry a few armfuls of debris from the trails to the trash cans and recycle can.

When I run on the roads, I also see a lot of trash-many people seem to think nothing of throwing out bottles, cans, food containers and other trash. Presumably it is too much for them to just bring the trash with them to their next destination. I can understand it when people toss out really awful things-like bags of vomit. However, throwing beer cans or Styrofoam trays into the road seems to be either laziness or contempt.

Ranting on, one thing that also annoys me is when people litter in the park by throwing their trash out into the woods. While they are presumably trying to hide their crime, they just make it harder to get their trash-especially in places that have thick and thorny vegetation. So, I’d like to ask folks who simply cannot avoid littering to just leave their trash by the side of the trail-that way it is easy for me or the park workers to get their trash. If one must be an ass and litter, at least don’t be a bigger ass and make it hard to pick it up.

Fortunately, I am not alone in my litter picking. There are two women in my neighborhood area who walk everyday and carry bags to clean up the messes left by others. They are good citizens and get the idea that public spaces are not dumps. Naturally, expecting everyone to pitch in and clean up is probably expecting too much. But expecting people not to litter is expecting the very least they can do-which is surely not too much.

Rant terminates. For now.

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Republicans & Rhetorical Explanations

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 25, 2013
Mitt-Romney

Mitt-Romney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a defeat, it is natural for people to try to explain why they were defeated. In some cases, the explanation provided is aimed at doing what an explanation is supposed to do: to provide an illuminating account of how or why something occurred. In other cases, the explanation is aimed primarily at influencing peoples’ attitudes and behavior. Not surprisingly, an explanation that is aimed at achieving these goals is a rhetorical device known as a rhetorical explanation.

This is not to say that a rhetorical explanation need be in error—it could provide an accurate account of how or why something occurred. Being a rhetorical explanation is more a matter of intent—that is, those offering it do so at least in part to cause people to have a positive or negative feeling about a matter.

Back in 2012, the Republicans lost the presidential election and various people endeavored to explain how this happened. Some folks pointed to the demographics of America and how minorities played a critical role in the election. Others claimed that the media’s love for Obama handed him the victory. One of the more interesting explanations was that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough.

More recently, the Republicans lost on their bid to get the Democrats to agree to delay or defund Obamacare. After this defeat, various explanations have been offered and among them is the claim that it was the result of the Republicans not conservative enough. In this context, this seems to mean not being will to let the shutdown of the government slide into defaulting on the national debt.

On the face of it, presenting the claim that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough seems to be a rhetorical explanation. After all, it seems to be aimed (in part) at chastising the Republicans who are being accused of not being adequately conservative. As such, people are supposed to feel negatively about these Republicans.  It also seems to be aimed (in part) at creating positive feelings towards the conservative Republicans—it is supposed to be believed that they had the winning approach (but were betrayed by the Republicans in Name Only). This explanation might prove to have some bite—many Republicans are taking pains to cast themselves as being very conservative and repudiating the charge that they might be moderates.

While rhetorical explanations such as this are often used to make other people feel a certain way (positively or negatively), people can also use them on themselves. Whether the explanation is inflicted on others or self-inflicted, the problem is that such appealing explanations can make it very easy for a person to buy into an explanation that is not correct, thus leading to obvious problems. As such, it is worth considering whether the explanation about these defeats is correct or not.

If the explanation for the 2012 election was correct, then the prediction that would follow would be that the Republicans would have won if they had been more conservative. In this case, winning is clear—Mitt Romney (or a more conservative Republican like Michelle Bachmann) would have been elected rather than Obama.

For this to happen, more people would have had to vote for the Republican than Obama. Since this did not happen, for the explanation at hand to be correct, there seem to be three main options (and perhaps others).

One is that some conservatives voted for Obama because Romney was not conservative enough.  They would have, however, voted for someone who was conservative enough. It seems reasonable enough to dismiss this option out of hand on the grounds that such people would not vote for Obama. Thus, it seems rather implausible to think that a more conservative Republican would have pulled votes away from Obama.

A second one is that some conservatives voted for someone other than the two main candidates or wrote in someone else rather than voting for Romney, thus allowing Obama to win. This is more plausible than the first option, but is still fairly unlikely. That is, it does not seem likely that enough people to change the election voted in this manner because Romney was not conservative enough.

A third option is that some conservatives decided to not vote at all because they thought Romney was not conservative enough, thus allowing Obama to win. Of the three, this is the most plausible. Elections in the United States have a low turnout and it certainly is possible that some of those who did not vote would have voted if there had been a candidate that was conservative enough. These voters would thus seem to have preferred allowing Obama to win over voting for Romney, but this would assume that the voters were rationally considering the consequences of their failure to vote. It could be a simple matter of motivation—they were not inspired enough by Romney (or their dislike of Obama) to vote.

It is also worth considering that the explanation is in error because a more conservative Republican would have merely increased the votes for Obama. As noted above, a more conservative Republican would not have pulled votes from Obama. What seems more likely is that a more conservative Republican would have lost the more moderate voters who voted for Romney. As such, if the Republican candidate in 2012 had been “conservative enough” Obama would have either still won or would have still won with a larger number of votes. After all, most Americans are not extremely conservative and being “conservative enough” would seem to involve holding views that most Americans do not hold. Thus, the explanation seems to fail.

Jumping ahead to the most recent defeat, the matter is somewhat more complicated in that the victory conditions are not so clearly defined. At the start of the battle, the Republicans wanted to defund or delay Obamacare—that would have been a win. However, as the shutdown continued, the Republicans seemed to become less clear about what they wanted—especially when Obama made it clear that he was not going to negotiate Obamacare.

Interestingly enough, the shutdown was explained by some as being the fault of the Democrats and after the Republican defeat, the more conservative Republicans are using the narrative that they would have won if the Republicans had been conservative enough—thus creating dueling rhetorical explanations.

But, to get back to the main point, the victory conditions were not clear. However, it could be speculated that a win would involve the Republicans getting more of whatever they ended up wanted than the Democrats got of what they wanted. So, I will go with that.

There is also the question of what it meant to be conservative enough. Given the rhetoric, it seems that what this means is being willing to take the United States into default if one does not get what one wants. If so, the Republicans being conservative enough would not seem to have yielded a win—unless what they wanted was a default on the debt and the ensuing economic and political disaster. If this is what counts as a win, then being conservative enough would have led to that “win”—a win that almost everyone else would regard as a disaster.

Most Americans disapproved of what Congress was doing and most blamed the Republicans. Presumably if the Republicans had been more conservative, this would have merely made people more annoyed with them—after all, the view of most people was that what was going on was bad, not that it did not go far enough into this badness. As such, it would seem that the problem was not that the Republicans were not conservative enough. They lost because they had a poor strategy and most Americans did not like what they were doing. The solution is, obviously enough, not being more of that—the result will just be worse for the Republicans.

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Should Killer Robots be Banned?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2013
The Terminator.

The Terminator. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can’t say that civilization don’t advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way.

-Will Rogers

 

Humans have been using machines to kill each other for centuries and these machines have become ever more advanced and lethal. In more recent decades there has been considerable focus on developing autonomous weapons. That is, weapons that can locate and engage the enemy on their own without being directly controlled by human beings. The crude seeking torpedoes of World War II are an example of an early version of such a killer machine. Once fired, the torpedo would be guided by acoustic sensors to its target and then explode—it was a crude, suicidal mechanical shark. Of course, this weapon had very limited autonomy since humans decided when to fire it and at what target.

Thanks to advances in technology, far greater autonomy is now possible. One peaceful example of this is the famous self-driving cars. While some see them as privacy killing robots, they are not designed to harm people—quite the opposite, in fact. However, it is easy to see how the technology used to guide a car safely around people, animals and other vehicles could be used to guide an armed machine to its targets.

Not surprisingly, some people are rather concerned about the possibility of killer robots, or with less hyperbole, autonomous weapon systems. Recently there has been a push to ban such weapons by international treaty. While people are no doubt afraid of killer machines roaming about due to science fiction stories and movies, there are legitimate moral, legal and practical grounds for such a ban.

One concern is that while autonomous weapons might be capable of seeking out and engaging targets, they would lack the capability to make the legal and moral decisions needed to operate within the rules of war. As a specific example, there is the concern that a killer robot will not be able to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants as reliably as a human being. As such, autonomous weapon systems could be far more likely than human combatants to kill noncombatants due to improper classification.

One obvious reply is that while there are missions in which the ability to make such distinctions would be important, there are others where it would not be required on the part of the autonomous weapon. If a robot infantry unit were engaged in combat within a populated city, then it would certainly need to be able to make such a distinction. However, just a human bomber crew sent on a mission to destroy a factory would not be required to make such distinctions, an autonomous bomber would not need to have this ability. As such, this concern only has merit in cases in which such distinctions must be made and could be reasonably made by a human in the same situation. Thus, a sweeping ban on autonomous weapons would not be warranted by this concern.

A second obvious reply is that this is a technical problem that could be solved to a degree that would make an autonomous weapon at least as reliable as an average human soldier in making the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. It seems likely that this could be done given that the objective is a human level of reliability. After all, humans in combat do make mistakes in this matter so the bar is not terribly high.  As such, banning such weapons would seem to be premature—it would need to be shown that such weapons could not make this distinction as well as an average human in the same situation.

A second concern is based on the view that the decision to kill should be made by a human being and not by a machine. Such a view could be based on an abstract view about the moral right to make killing decisions or perhaps on the view that humans would be more merciful than machines.

One obvious reply is that autonomous weapons are still just weapons. Human leaders will, presumably, decide when they are deployed and give them their missions. This is analogous to a human firing a seeking missile—the weapon tracks and destroys the intended target, but the decision that someone should die was made by a human. Presumably humans would be designing the decision making software for the machines and they could program in a form of digital mercy—if desired.

There is, of course, the science fiction concern that the killer machines will become completely autonomous and fight their own wars (as in Terminator and “Second Variety”). The concern about rogue systems is worth considering, but is certainly a tenuous basis for a ban on autonomous weapons.

Another obvious reply is that while a machine would probably lack mercy, they would also lack anger and hate. As such, they might actually be less awful about killing than humans.

A third concern is based on the fact that autonomous machines are just machines without will or choice (which might also be true of humans). As such, wicked or irresponsible leaders could acquire autonomous weapons that will simply do what they are ordered to do, even if that involves slaughtering children.

The obvious, but depressing, reply to this is that such leaders seem to never want for people to do bidding, however awful that bidding might be. Even a cursory look at the history of war and terrorism shows that this is a terrible truth. As such, autonomous weapons do not seem to pose a special danger in this regard: anyone who could get an army of killer robots would almost certainly be able to get an army of killer humans.

There is, of course, a legitimate concern that autonomous weapons could be hacked and used by terrorists or other bad people. However, this would be the same as such people getting access to non-autonomous weapons and using them to hurt and kill people.

In general, the moral motivation of the people who oppose autonomous weapons is laudable. They presumable wish to cut down on death and suffering. However, this goal seems to be better served by the development of autonomous weapons. Some reasons for this are as follows.

First, since autonomous weapons are not crewed, their damage or destruction will not result in harm or death to people. If a manned fighter plane is destroyed, that is likely to result in harm or death to a person. However, if a robot fighter plane is shot down, no one dies. If both sides are using autonomous weapons, then the causality count would presumably be lower than in a conflict where the weapons are all manned. To use an analogy, automating war could be analogous to automating dangerous factory work.

Second, autonomous weapons can advance the existing trend in precision weapons. Just as “dumb” bombs that were dropped in massive raids gave way to laser guided bombs, autonomous weapons could provide an even greater level of precision. This would be, in part, due to the fact that there is no human crew at risk and hence the safety of the crew would no longer be a concern. For example, rather than having a manned aircraft drop a missile on target while jetting by at a high altitude, an autonomous craft could approach the target closely at a lower speed in order to ensure that the missile hits the right target.

Thus, while the proposal to ban such weapons is no doubt motivated by the best of intentions, the ban itself would not be morally justified.

 

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For Profit College, Again

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 21, 2013
For-Profit Education

For-Profit Education (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

While state support for United States public higher education dropped 25% from 2000 to 2010, for profit colleges have enjoyed an ever larger slice of public funds. Part of this is due to the increase in enrollment for the for-profit schools: in 1990 only 2% of undergraduate college students were enrolled in such schools, but in 2008-2009 it increased to 11.8%.

However, the for-profit schools get a disproportionate amount of state money in the form of federal money. While having 10% of the students in higher education, they received almost 25% of the Pell Grant money and 25% of the federal student loans.

The for-profit schools are also beneficiaries of the GI Bill: in 2010-2011 $1 billion of the $4.4 billion disbursed by the Department of Veterans Affairs went to just eight such schools. Overall, 37% of the GI Bill money went to for-profit schools.

As such, the for-profit schools are receiving state funds that are disproportionate to their actual enrollments at a time when public schools are having their state support cut. To use the rhetoric of the Tea Party and Republicans, this would seem to be socialism: the state just dumping taxpayer money to benefit a few takers. Moving away from the rhetoric, it does seem to be a point of concern that state money is being moved away from public institutions so as to enable for-profit institutions to profit. Shockingly enough, the Republicans (and most Democrats) are not outraged by this “socialism.”

This state money is the main revenue stream for the for-profits, so they are truly state-supported businesses. They are also successful at making money in this manner: they enjoy an average profit margin of 19%. This enables them to engage in advertising and thus gain more students who enable them to tap ever more into that sweet taxpayer largesse.

The obvious reply is to contend that the for-profit colleges earn these profits while state schools flounder in financial woes. This, it might be claimed, is proof that the for-profit approach is superior to the inherently inferior public approach. However, there are two replies to this.

The first, and most blindingly obvious, is that the for-profit colleges get most of their revenue from the state, thus their success depends on siphoning off taxpayer money into their coffers.

The second is that the for-profit schools often turn out to be disasters for their students, especially when compared to public schools.

While student debt is a serious problem, it is far worse for those who attend for-profit schools. 54% of the students who graduate with a BA from a for-profit school end up with over $30,000 in debt. In contrast, only 12% of public college graduates end up in that dire situation.

The for-profit schools also do poorly in actually placing students in jobs—the public schools do much better. As such, it is hardly a surprise that although students who attended for-profit colleges make up a fraction of the total college student population, they made up 48% of those who defaulted on student loans in 2010.

Given their rhetoric regarding government spending, socialism and people “taking” from the government, one would think that the Republicans would be leading a charge against the for-profit schools. After all, these schools are receiving large sums of public money and doing a poor job. As a faculty member at a public university I can attest to the Republican obsession with making public institutions prove that they are providing a return on the state money they get. I serve on various committees that exist primarily to collect and process assessment data to prove to the state legislature and governor that we are getting results for every penny we receive and our funding is tied to this data. Also not surprisingly, there is also a push to have private sector companies provide expensive tests at the taxpayers’ expense to, somewhat ironically, make sure the taxpayers’ money is being well spent.

However, this does not seem to be the case. Instead, the push by Republicans (and many Democrats) is for even more for-profit education that is funded by the taxpayer. This indicates that the opposition is to “socialism” of the sort where public money goes to  public colleges. The “socialism” that involves redistributing wealth from the taxpayers to the problematic for-profit colleges is apparently just fine.

 

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The Day After

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 18, 2013
Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the Republicans, the initial motivation for the shutdown came from their desire to prevent the damage they alleged will be inflicted by Obamacare. It is thus rather ironic that their shutdown, as a matter of fact, cost the United States about $24 billion and slowed growth. It also harmed the government employees who were furloughed and the other Americans who were impacted directly by the shutdown. Naturally, it also impacted how we are perceived by the rest of the world. As such, the Republican strategy to protect America seems to have the exact opposite effect. Thus it is no wonder that while the majority of the public disapproves of the way the situation was handled, the Republicans are bearing the brunt of this disapproval.

One counter is to endeavor to lay the blame on the Democrats. Fox, for example, did its best to spin the story so that the Democrats were morally accountable for the shutdown. This does raise an interesting question about responsibility (and perceived responsibility).

In terms of the facts, the Republicans initially insisted that, on the pain of putting the government on the path to shutdown, Obamacare be delayed or defunded. Obama and the Democrats noted that Obamacare is a law and that it had been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. As such, they refused to negotiate the matter. Given that Obama had yielded in the past, the Republicans probably expected that he would yield once more. However, he did not and the shutdown went on until the brink of the default.

The facts would seem to show that the Republicans bear the moral blame for the shutdown. After all, the law was passed and upheld in accord with the constitutional process. That is, it was done by the proper rules. The Republicans partially shut down the government and threatened to take the country into default if they did not get what they wanted. Obviously enough, this sort of thing is not in accord with constitutional process. That is, the Republicans were not acting in accord with the proper rules and the Democrats refused to give in to them.

To use an analogy I have used before, this is like having the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a legitimate game and then having the Yankees threaten to burn down the stadium if the Red Sox refuse to negotiate the outcome of the game. If the Yankees then set the stadium on fire, it is not the fault of the Red Sox-they are under no obligation to yield to the unwarranted demands of the Yankees. The Yankees bear full blame for the burning of the stadium. As such, the Republicans bear the blame for the shutdown and the damage it caused. As a general rule, if someone threatens to do harm to others if he does not get what he wants, then the responsibility for the harm he inflicts rests on him and not on those who refuse to give him what he has no right to demand by means of a threat.

It could be countered that Obamacare is so bad, “the worst thing in our country since slavery”, that the Republicans were in the right to inflict such harms in order to try to stop it. It could even be argued that by passing such a wicked and destructive law the Democrats are to blame-the Republicans had to take such extreme measures in order to try to save America.

This, obviously enough, rests on establishing that the law is so wicked and destructive that such extreme measures are warranted. It would also involve showing that the damage done by the Republican strategy is outweighed by the harms that the strategy was supposed to prevent. This would most likely involve a utilitarian assessment of the harms and benefits.

The damage done by the Republican strategy is known: $24 billion in 16 days. Obamacare would certainly have to deal some serious damage in order to match that, but perhaps it can be shown that this will be the case. As it stands, there are only guesses about what the impact of Obamacare will be. There is plenty of rhetoric and hyperbole, but little in the way of disinterested, rational analysis. However, it does seem reasonable to believe that Obamacare will not be the worst thing since slavery (let alone as bad as slavery) and that it will not destroy America. After all, its main impacts will be that people without insurance will need to get some (or pay a small fine) and that large employers will need to provide insurance (or pay a small fine) or evade the law by cutting employee hours. Even if the worst case scenario is considered, it will hardly match the hyperbole. As such, Obamacare does not seem bad enough to warrant the Republican strategy.

To be fair, the Republicans might honestly believe that Obamacare is as bad as they claim. That is, they believe their own hyperbole and rhetoric. If this is true, they could be morally excused to the degree that they followed their informed consciences. However, if they are operating from willful ignorance or do not really believe their own hyperbole, then they would have behaved wrongly—both in their hyperbole and their actions based on this.

In any case, most Americans do blame the Republicans and this is one of the political impacts of the shutdown. Whether this has an effect on the upcoming elections remains to be seen—as many pundits have noted, voters often have a short memory. As with the alleged damage of Obamacare, we will have to wait and see.

As a final point, one ironic effect of the shutdown is that it gave the Democrats an amazing distraction from the real problems with the implementation of Obamacare. One legitimate concern is the fact that employers get a one year delay in implementing Obamacare while individuals have been denied this same option. This, on the face of it, is unfair and the main “defense” of this has been the use of the red herring and smokescreen, as I noted in an earlier essay. While the Republicans did initially want to delay Obamacare for a year, they handled this poorly and instead decided to go with hyperbole and a shutdown. What could have been a potential win for them turned into what seems to be a major loss. A second legitimate concern is the problems plaguing the sign up and implementation of Obamacare. While there were some attempts to raise criticism about these serious problems, the shutdown dominated the center ring of the political circus. Thus, what could have been a reasonable criticism of Obamacare was drowned out by the Republicans themselves. In the Game of Obamacare, you win or you die. The Republicans did not win.

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Political Impact of the Shutdown

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 16, 2013
English: Boston Red Sox Cap Logo

English: Boston Red Sox Cap Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One point of concern among the pundits and politicians is the political impact of the shutdown on upcoming elections. In a sense, this involves looking at the handling of the shutdown as moves in the larger game of political maneuvering. In the specific scenario of the shutdown, there seem to be four main goals. The first is to achieve specific objectives (for example, defunding or delaying Obamacare). The second is to keep the other side from achieving its specific objectives. The third is to score positive political points for one’s side. The fourth is to make the other side accumulate negative points.

While achieving the first two goals can impact the second two goals, there is actually no need to achieve or prevent the achievement of actual objectives (such as delaying Obamacare). After all, positive and negative points can be gained or inflicted by the means of various rhetorical devices as well as the classic tactic of simply lying about the facts.

The Republicans apparently initially set out to defund or delay Obamacare and have been using the shutdown and threat of default to try to force the Democrats to yield to their demands. Interestingly, the Republicans do not seem to actually know what they want, which makes achieving these unknown goals rather problematic. However, they do seem clear in one goal: they want to shut down the government.  Some Republicans, such as Michelle Bachmann, seem to think that the shutdown was itself a desirable goal. If so, that could be considered a “win” for her and people who think that way.

The Democrats do seem to be clear about what they want-they want the Republicans to accept the legal reality of the situation: Obamacare is a law and it has been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. They also want the shutdown to end, but refuse to yield to the Republican threats and coercion.  Naturally, the Republicans have tried to spin the story so that the Democrats are to blame for not negotiating the matter.

On the face of it, the Republicans certainly seem to deserve the blame. To use an analogy to baseball, it is as if the game has been legitimately won by the Red Sox, but the Yankees want to negotiate the matter. When the Red Sox refuse, the Yankees say they will burn down the stadium unless the Red Sox negotiate. True to their word, the Yankees then start burning things, all the while blaming the Red Sox for the fire. In the case of the shutdown, Obamacare won-it was passed, ruled constitutional and set to go into effect. The Republicans then decided they did not like the result and set out to burn things down, all the while blaming the Democrats. That said, politics is mostly about perception and not so much about the reality. So, a rather important matter is how the voters perceive the situation.

Not surprisingly, no one is looking particularly good to the voters. Congress started off with an abysmal approval rating, so it is hardly a shock they still look bad to the voters. However, the shutdown has also spilled over onto the parties and the president.

As of October 14, 2013 74% of Americans disapprove of the manner in which the Republicans in Congress are handling the situation. To be honest, I am somewhat surprised that the number is that low-I would expect a higher disapproval given that congress seems to be handling the matter exceptionally poorly. Last week it was 70% and at the start of the shutdown it was 63%, thus indicating that the longer the shutdown continues, the more disgruntled Americans will become. This does give the Republicans some reason to end the shutdown, assuming they are concerned about public opinion.

While the Democrats are suffering from a 61% disapproval rating, they are still better off than the Republicans. Also, the Democrats seem to be suffering less of an impact: at the start of the shutdown they had a 56% disapproval rating. As such, the Democrats are “winning” in terms of being perceived as somewhat less bad than the Republicans. While this might not seem like much of an advantage, the fact that we have what amounts to a two party lock on politics, the side that is doing less bad is thus the winner.

An obvious counter is that given the clever gerrymandering of congressional districts, the parties do not need to worry as much about disapproval. After all, if a district is rigged to be mostly Democratic or Republican, the dominate party is all but assured of victory. However, the once unified Republicans (who followed Reagan’s eleventh commandment) have become divided into factions, thanks to the Tea Party Republicans.

The Tea Party members have shown considerable willingness to go after their fellow Republicans for not being “conservative” (or, apparently, crazy) enough and this has created a situation in which moderate Republicans face the greatest challenge from their own Tea Party faction and not from the Democrats. This has played a significant role in the shutdown, which seems to have been largely orchestrated by the Tea Party faction. In contrast, the moderate Republicans would seem to prefer to have avoided the shutdown. Of course, how this plays out depends a great deal on what the voters think about the situation.

As it stands, 47% of Republican voters approve of the way their party is handling the matter, while 47% disapprove. In terms of how this will impact upcoming elections, much depends on the approval or disapproval of the voters in those cleverly gerrymandered districts. If the majority of Republican voters in a specific district favor what has happened, then this will bode well for the incumbent. It seems likely that Tea Party voters would tend to approve of this situation, thus it seems unlikely that the Tea Party incumbents will not be re-elected. However, the more moderate Republicans who have more moderate Republican constituents could run into problems-they might end up losing to a Democrat as punishment for riding the Tea Party tiger too far. Alternatively, if a moderate Republican decides to jump off the tiger, they might be punished by the Tea Party members in their district and end up being defeated in the primary. Then again, the voters might forget about all this by the time the elections come around.

The Democrats are doing better internally: about 60% of Democrats approve of how the Democrats are handling the situation. Not surprisingly, the Democrats are hoping to cash in on this division in the Republican party in the next election cycle. If the Tea Party comes off looking bad to the general population of voters and the once moderate Republicans continue to ride the Tea Party tiger, then the Democrats might come out ahead. This might see the beginning of the decline of the influence of the Tea Party and the more moderate Republicans might decide to abandon their more radical fellows. After all, if people get that the Tea Party folks are fine with shutting down the government and taking us to the brink of ruin, people might start rethinking the matter. However, the Tea Party folks might rather like what grows from what they have sown and their influence might grow stronger. Much depends on whether the voters can see the Tea Party for what it is-and whether or not they like what they see.

As a final point, Obama is doing the best of the lot: his disapproval in this matter is at 53%. His disapproval rating increased by three points since the start of the shutdown. As such, Obama seems to be winning in approval in that he is losing the least.

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On Having Less Government

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 14, 2013
Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my college days, I embraced the philosophy of anarchism. As I saw it then, the state was the main cause of human suffering through oppression, war, violation of natural rights and its other ills. While individual criminals and small criminal groups could do bad things, they could not match the capacity for evil of the full state. Despite the wildness of youth, I mainly accepted the relative mildness of Thoreau’s anarchism. I did not advocate violence and hope that social change could come about by evolution rather than bloody revolution. I also did not drink the Marxist Kool Aid—I saw it as just another dubious religion with a problematic metaphysics.

While much of my commitment to anarchism was philosophical, honesty compels me to admit that some (or perhaps most) came from my rebellious nature and the insolence of youth. Since I did not like being bossed around by authorities (which I discerned to often be immoral and more often incompetent), anarchism provided a nice theoretical framework for my youthful rejection of authority. Oddly enough, I was not a chaotic individual: even then, I was a person of strict discipline (thanks, perhaps, to running) and very orderly. As such, I was not against order, but against immoral, irrational and ineffective authority.

Because of my youthful experimentation with anarchism, I have considerable sympathy for the Tea Party folks and the Republican politicians who honestly believe that “the government that governs least, governs best.” Those that are merely trying to hang on to the Tea stained tiger, well, they get no sympathy from me.

When these folks cry out that taxes are too high, that the state regulates too much, and that the state is violating our rights, I feel that old spark of anarchism flare up in my soul. However, when I look at the facts of what they are complaining about, that spark typically dies. As a former anarchist, I cannot get outraged that people are not allowed to pollute the environment as much as they would like. I cannot get mad that there have been some feeble attempts to put in regulations regarding what wrecked the economy. I also certainly do not see passing restrictive laws regarding women’s reproductive rights as “small government.”

That said, I do like the idea of smaller government—in the same sense that I like the idea of keeping myself lean. As a runner, I know that extra pounds of fat slow me down. As someone who knows a bit about health, I know that extra pounds of fat are unhealthy. By analogy, the same can be said to be true of the state: having unnecessary spending, programs and agencies makes the government larger, more expensive and more intrusive than it needs to be. This fat should be trimmed away.

The trimming should, of course, not slice into the necessary parts—the vital organs, the muscles and the bones. To simply cut away at the government for the sake of making it small would be analogous to starving oneself (or cutting) just to get smaller, without any consideration of what impact it would have on health. Obviously, that would be both unwise and dangerous.

In the case of the body, it is fairly clear what is essential and when damage starts to occur. In the case of the government, there is considerable debate over what is essential and what should be sliced away. This is hardly surprising: the body is a matter of objective anatomy and physiology without political ideology at play. In the case of government, ideology and values are in conflict and one person’s essential program is another’s fat. That said, it is still possible to rationally assess programs, policies and such. Sadly, reason now cries herself to sleep each night: her sister, persuasion, gets all the dates now.

Thanks to the Republican’s government shutdown, the United States is getting a small taste of what smaller government is like. In an interesting coincidence, about the same time I learned that Michelle Bachmann was excited about the shutdown and saw it as achieving exactly what she wanted, I was reading an article in National Geographic about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Much like the United States, the DRC enjoys incredible natural wealth—it has valuable mineral resources that are critical to modern electronics. Unfortunately for the people, they have a government that seems to be little more than a corrupt shadow of a proper state. While the government of the DRC is a long way from the condition of the United States’ government, it does provide an example of what it is like to have a small government that does not interfere much (because it cannot) in such matters as “business” and the environment. The DRC is, to be blunt, close to hell on earth.

The situation in the DRC does provide us with a cautionary example of what can happen when the government is too weak and too small. I am not claiming that the United States will quickly descend into the situation of the DRC, but this sort of small government hell should be considered by those who believe in the small government heaven.

In my own case, it is exactly these sorts of real world situations that helped lead me away from anarchism. Though I still believe that governments can be rather evil and that government should be limited in the scope of its interference, I also believe that the state has an important role in maintaining order, safety and rights. The challenge is, obviously enough, a matter of balance: avoiding the excess that leads to totalitarianism while also avoiding the deficiency that leads to chaos.

 

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Tomb of Rils at DriveThruRPG & Paizo

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2013

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for 1st-3rd level characters.

Description

The history of Rils is a matter of considerable debate among the great scholars of necromancy. Some of the learned even assert that Rils never existed. Some claim that stories about different necromancers were combined over the centuries and this fictional composite was named Rils.

While the myths and historical accounts vary, a common point of agreement is that unlike many other necromancers of his caliber, Rils was not interested in spreading undeath across the world. Instead, Rils has been portrayed as devoted to the study of necromancy and the undead as a matter of intellectual curiosity.

The scholars who accept that Rils existed believe that because of his devotion to knowledge, he created numerous repositories holding his scrolls and books.  They also claim that Rils did not wish his knowledge to fall into unworthy hands or to be acquired too easily. As such, these repositories are supposed to be well guarded and thoroughly trapped.

Rils’ actual fate (assuming he existed at all) is not recorded in history. Some scholars believe that he was destroyed by adventurers who mistook him for an evil lich. Others contend he was destroyed by adventurers because he was an evil lich. Some say that he still exists and dwells within a vast underground library, penning necromantic tomes. Whatever the truth, from time to time the location of one of Rils’ alleged repositories is discovered and adventurers brave the dangers within.

Tomb of Rils is a Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure. It is intended for a party of 1st-3rd    level characters.

Here are some of the features of the adventure:

  • New traps.
  • Detailed color map for the adventure.
  • Full statistics are included for all encounters—no need to look up monsters.
  • New spells (Bone Dance and Glue).
  • New Monster (Bone Dancer)
  • Free Hero Lab portfolio.
  • Zombie fish.

Available now on Amazon.

Available at DriveThruRPG.

Available at the Paizo Store.

Downloads

Tomb of Rils Monsters, Spells & Maps

Hero Lab Portfolio Folder

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

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