A Philosopher's Blog

Aging Action Heroes

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 28, 2014

Arnold  Schwarzenegger

When I first saw Unforgiven, I was struck by the scene in which Clint Eastwood is seeing how well he can still shoot. After missing repeatedly, he switches to a shotgun. Since I was relatively young at the time, I could understand the scene—but I could not properly relate to it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film Last Stand recently made it to Amazon Prime and to my TV. For those not familiar with it, it is standard Arnold action film in most ways: a somewhat implausible plot, plenty of violence, and a hand-to-hand battle between Arnold and the bad guy. What was somewhat more interesting about the film is that Arnold’s age played a role in the film. While he still acted the part of an action hero (shooting, leaping through windows and fighting), he faced the challenges of age: jumping through doors hurt more, falling from a roof required more recovery time, and the running man was not quite as fast. In the final confrontation with the bad guy, the villain makes the point that Arnold is old. Arnold still beats him (of course), but it is quite a battle. What is perhaps most interesting is that the villain is a fairly average sized guy—not the usual large-sized (or Arnold-sized) villain of old. This might be an accidental matter but it might be intentional acknowledgement that Arnold cannot plausibly beat down a young person of Arnold-size and physique.

While I am younger than Arnold (he is 66 and I am 47), I do feel the impacts of aging on my action hero ways. Like Arnold, my fast running man days are behind me. A few years ago I started playing the mental game of comparing my 5K race pace per mile with my previous races. At first, it was not too bad: I could run a 5K at my old 12K pace. Then it was at my old 15K pace…then my 10 mile pace…and finally my marathon pace (I used to run a 2:45 marathon). At that point, I full realized the truth that time is cruel.

While I no longer compete in Tae Kwon Do, I noticed that my speed is less and my jump kicks have much less jump. Plus, my flexibility is…gone. Not that it was great to begin with. My pain tolerance is even better though, perhaps because of so much accumulated damage from running and martial arts.

Like Arnold, I am still trying to be an action hero. I do my regular workouts—although gravity seems to have increased over the years. I also still go up against the young folks (and old folks) at the races. Like Arnold, I can still compete with the young folks…at least to a degree. Just as Arnold’s foe was not exactly of the sort he used to defeat, I face a similar fate: I can still place in the top ten or even win…provided that enough of the top young guys decide to sleep in on Saturday. Unlike Arnold, I have to earn my victories—I do not have a writer to ensure that I win in the end, despite taking a beating. Some days I just get the beating.

Now that I am…older…I can relate to these aging action heroes. I can understand why they want to keep doing action films—no doubt for some of the same reasons I keep running races against the young folks. One reason is a matter of habit—it is what I am. Another reason is that I can still compete—or I think I can. I have, of course, changed my objectives. Back in the day, I was there to do my best and win. Now I am there to do my best and…try to win. Eventually, I’ll be there to do my best…and not bring shame to my ancestors. Fortunately, running in races is something that I will be able to do “legitimately” until I can no longer move. After all, there is no point at which it become inappropriate or silly to show up to a race.

But perhaps action movies are another matter. On the one hand, the action genre is mostly for young folks—the star has to seem plausible pulling off the action (even if it is all done by stunt people). Since people do lose ability as they age, at a certain point an aging action star will simply lack the ability to plausibly play certain roles. They will, sadly, just be too old to leap through doors and to survive plummeting off a cliff while choking a bad guy. At a certain point, seeing an old man in extreme action scenes will go from heroic to absurd. Which is both sad and too bad.

On the other hand, there does seem to be room in the action genre for aging action heroes, provided that the action is plausible for the hero’s age. For example, Unforgiven worked quite well. An aging action hero can still be a hero and still engage in action, but the challenge is to make the action match the age. This still allows a fair amount of exaggeration-after all, even young action heroes do things in the movies that they could not really do.

I am not going to say that Sylvester Stallone should stop doing action movies. At least not yet.

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Academic Freedom vs. Academic Justice

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 26, 2014
English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sandra Y.L. Korn has proposed dispensing with academic freedom in favor of academic justice. Korn begins by presenting the example of Harvard psychology Professor Richard Hernstein’s 1971 article for Atlantic Monthly. In this article, Hernstein endorsed the view that intelligence is primarily hereditary and linked to race. Hernstein was attacked for this view, but defended himself and was defended by others via appeals to academic freedom. Korn seems to agree with Hernstein that the attacks against him infringed on academic freedom. However, Korn proposes that academic justice is more important than academic freedom.

Korn makes use of the American Association of University Professors view of academic freedom: “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” However, Korn regards the “liberal obsession” with this freedom as misplaced.

Korn’s first argument seems to be as follows. Korn notes that there is not “full freedom” in research and publication. As Korn correctly notes, which proposals get funded and which papers get published is largely a matter of academic politics. Korn then notes that no academic question is free from the realities of politics. From this, Korn draws a conditional conclusion: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”

It might be suspected that there is a false dilemma lurking here: either there is full academic freedom or restricting it on political values is acceptable. There is not full academic freedom. Therefore restricting it on political values is acceptable. The reason why this would be a false dilemma is that there is a considerable range of options between full academic freedom (which seems to be complete freedom) and such restrictions. As such, one could accept the obvious truth that there is not full (complete) freedom while also legitimately rejecting that academic freedom should be restricted on the proposed grounds.

To use the obvious analogy to general freedom of expression, the fact that people do not possess full freedom of expression (after all, there are limits on expression) does not entail that politically based restrictions should thus be accepted. After all, there are many alternatives between full freedom and the specific restrictions being proposed.

To be fair to Korn, no such false dilemma might exist. Instead, Korn might be reasoning that because the reality is such that political values restrict academic expression it follows that adding additional restrictions is not problematic. To re-use the analogy to general free expression, the reasoning would that since there are already limits on free expression, more restrictions are acceptable. This could be seen as a common practice fallacy, but perhaps it could be justified by showing that the additional restrictions are warranted. Sorting this out requires considering what Korn is proposing.

In place of the academic freedom standard, Korn proposes “a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”

While Korn claims that this is a more rigorous standard, it merely seems to be more restrictive. There is also the rather obvious problem of presenting an account of what it is for research to promote or justify oppression in a way that is rigorous and, more importantly, accurate. After all, “oppression” gets thrown around with some abandon in academic contexts and can be a rather vague notion. In order to decide what is allowed and what is not, Korn proposes that students, faculty and workers should organize in order to “to make our universities look as we want them to do.” While that sounds somewhat democratic, there is still the rather important concern about what standards will be used.

While there are paradigm cases (like the institutionalized racism of pre-civil rights America), people do use the term “oppression” to refer to what merely offends them. In fact, Korn makes reference to the offensiveness of a person’s comment as grounds for removing a professor from a faculty position.

The obvious danger is that the vagueness of this principle could be used to suppress and oppress research that vocal or influential people find offensive. There is also the obvious concern that such a principle would yield a political hammer with which to beat down those who present dissenting or unpopular views. For example, suppose a researcher finds legitimate evidence that sexual orientation is strongly influenced by choice and is accused of engaging research that promotes oppression because her research runs counter to an accepted view among certain people. As another example, imagine a faculty member who holds conservative views that some might find offensive, such as the view that people should work for their government support. This person could be seen as promoting oppression of the poor and thus be justly restricted by this principle.

Interestingly, Korn does present an example of a case in which a Harvard faculty member was asked not to return on the basis of objections against remarks that had been made. This would seem to indicate that Korn’s proposal might not be needed. After all, if academic freedom does not provide protection against being removed or restricted on these grounds, then there would seem to be little or no need to put in place a new principle. To use an analogy, if people can already be silenced for offensive speech, there is no need to restrict freedom of speech with a new principle—it is already restricted. At least at Harvard.

In closing, I am certainly in favor of justice and even more in favor of what is morally good. As such, I do endorse holding people morally accountable for their actions and statements. However, I do oppose restrictions on academic freedom for the same reason I oppose restrictions on the general freedom of expression (which I have written about elsewhere). In the case of academic freedom, what should matter is whether the research is properly conducted and whether or not the claims are well-supported. To explicitly adopt a principle for deciding what is allowed and what is not based on ideological views would, as history shows, have a chilling effect on research and academics. While the academic system is far from perfect, flawed research and false claims do get sorted out—at least fairly often. Adding in a political test would not seem to help with reaching the goal of truth.

As far as when academic freedom should be restricted, I also go with my general view of freedom of expression: when an action creates enough actual harm to warrant limiting the freedom. So, merely offending people is not enough to warrant restrictions—even if people are very offended. Actually threatening people or engaging in falsification of research results would be rather different matters and obviously not protected by academic freedom.

As such, I am opposed to Korn’s modest proposal to impose more political restrictions on academic freedom. As Korn notes, there are already many restrictions in place—and there seem to be no compelling reasons to add more.


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Fifty Genders of Facebook

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 24, 2014
Sexuality confusion

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Facebook now offers its members to select from among 50 genders. These include the old school heterosexual genders as well as the presumably Spinoza inspired pangender. Since I am awesome gendered, I believe that Facebook should offer that as choice 51, but only for me. However, I suspect I will need to endure the pain of being limited to a mere 50 options.

Upon learning of these fifty options, I was slightly surprised because I was not aware that there were fifty options. However, my colleagues who specialize in gender matters assure me that there is an infinite number of genders. If this is the case, that Facebook is still rather limited in its options.

While mocking Facebook can be amusing, the subject of gender identity is an interesting subject and it is a sign of the progress of our society that this can be a matter of legitimate concern. For folks like me who are comfortable existing within an old school gender identity (in my case, awesome straight male), these fifty options might seem to be of little or no importance. Honesty compels me to admit that I initially laughed at the 50 genders of Facebook—in fact, I thought it was something cooked up by the Onion. However, a little reflection on the matter made me realize that it is actually of some importance.

For those who are dedicated to the traditional genders, these options might seem to be signs of the moral decay of the West.  As such folks might see it, having Facebook offer 50 gender options shows that traditional gender roles are being damaged (if not destroyed) by the media and Facebook. Given that some states have legalized same-sex marriage, the idea that Facebook has embraced gender diversity must be terrifying indeed.

However, the world (and Facebook) does not (as Leibniz noted in one of his replies to the problem of evil) exist just for me. Or for you. It exists for everyone and we are not all the same.

As such, to those who do not neatly fit into the two traditional genders, this change could be quite significant. Although this is just Facebook, having these gender identities recognized by the largest social network on earth is a mark of acceptance and is likely to have some influence in other areas.

As I noted above, I comfortably occupy a traditional gender type. I’ve never questioned my sexuality nor felt that I was anything other than a straight male. This might be due to biology or perhaps I merely conformed perfectly to the social norms. Or some other factor—I do not know for sure why I am this way.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware of the cognitive biases and fallacies that can lead a person to believe that what is true of herself is also true of everyone else. As such, I do not assume that everyone else is the same as me. As part of this, I also do not assume that the people who see themselves as belonging to one of the non-traditional genders are doing this simply because they want attention, want to rebel, are mentally unbalanced or some such similar negative reason. I also do not assume that they are just “faking it.” I also recognize that a person might feel just as natural and comfortable being transgender as I do being a straight male. As such, I should have no more problem with that person’s identification than that person has with mine. After all, the universe is not for me alone.

Because of this, I hold that people should be free to hold to their gender identities without being mocked, abused or harmed. While I have obviously not been mocked for being straight, I am quite familiar with being called a fag or accused of being gay or like a woman—after all, those are stock insults in our society that are thrown out for the most absurd reasons, such as not doing perfectly in a video game and not acting like the meatheads. As such, I have some small notion of how such attitudes can hurt people and I favor steps to change what underlies the idea that genders can be used as insults. Expanding the range of gender identities can, perhaps, help with this a little bit. Then again, I am sure that some folks will looking at the list of fifty for new terms to use in their hateful comments.

As a final point, one obvious reason why I think that a broader range of gender identities is fine is that another person’s gender identity is not my business—unless that identity causes legitimate harm to others. And no, being offended or disgusted are not legitimate harms. As such, if having a broader range of choices is meaningful to some people, then that is a good thing. It does no one else any harm and does some good—as such, it seems quite morally acceptable.

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Suspending Students for Hate Tweets

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 21, 2014
Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook, students can share with the world what some might regard as hate Tweets or hate posts. For example, Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler sent out a series of rather unpleasant tweets about Michael Sam (the openly gay college football player). In response, Kent State suspended Mr. Wheeler from the team. There have been other incidents in which students have posted or Tweeted comments that could be deemed racist, sexist and so on and in some cases the schools take action against the students. There is, of course, the question of whether schools should do so.

One obvious approach is to take the view that students agree to a code of conduct. So, if the student code of conduct specifies certain behavior as being grounds for suspension or other action, then the action would thus be warranted on this gorund. In the case of student athletes, there are also the rules that govern the sport. When I was a college athlete, I had to follow the NCAA guidelines and could be legitimately punished for breaking them. As such, the suspension of an athlete who breaks the rules would be warranted on this ground.

Of course, there is still the question of whether there should be such rules. After all, rules that forbid a student from expressing views would seem to be a violation of the student’s free expression and thus would be, on the face of it, morally unacceptable.

My own view is, not surprisingly, that students do not lose their right to free expression by being students or student athletes. However, freedom of expression is neither absolute nor a free pass to say anything.

Obviously enough, things like actual threats of violence are not covered by the right to free expression and students can be justly held accountable for such things. However, merely saying things that are regarded as hateful (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) would not justify a school taking action against a student. This is because while people have a right to not be threatened, they do not have a right to not be offended or insulted by the speech of another person. So, if a student goes on a homophobic rant on Twitter and does not cross over into such things as threats of violence, then she is acting within her rights and the school has no right to silence or punish her. The school also has no right to create rules that forbid the expression of ideas and views, however offensive those views might be. To do so would, of course, make a mockery of the very idea of the academic freedom that is supposed to be a foundation stone for the university.

A student can, however, be in a position in which she can be legitimately called to task for such speech. If the student is acting in the capacity of a spokesperson for the university, then she can be held accountable in that capacity because she is not acting as a private individual but as a representative of the school. The same can apply to athletes as well—athletes are taken to represent their school and, as such, occupy a position that would plausibly make them spokespeople for the school. As such, they can be held accountable in that capacity. So, for example, a cross-country team captain who insists on making hateful, vulgar and poorly written Tweets about Christians can be legitimately censured—as a member of the team he is in the role of representing his school. If he wishes to remain on the team, he will need to cease that behavior. He can, of course, elect to leave the team—if he regards being able to tweet hateful and vulgar things about Jesus as being more important to him than being on the team.

There is a rather serious concern about the extent to which a student can be regarded as representing the school and also the important matter of sorting out what sort of speech would warrant action being taken against the student. Unfortunately, I cannot cover these matters in this short essay, but in general, I would favor a moral policy of tolerance and erring heavily on the side of free expression.

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Orientation & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2014
English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When discussing the ethics of sexual orientation, it is not uncommon for people to draw comparisons between being gay and being a rapist, pedophile, practitioner of bestiality or a necrophiliac.  My stock response to such comparisons is that there is at least one glaringly obvious difference between being gay and engaging in the sexual behavior mentions. To specific, rapists, pedophiles and so forth engage in sexual behavior that does not involve the consent of their victims. This, in part, makes their behavior immoral. There is also the fact that cases involving sexual coercion inflict harm on the victim. As such, consensual sex between homosexuals would seem to be nothing like those other things. Obviously enough, homosexual rape and homosexual pedophilia would be wrong—but because of the rape and pedophilia.

While it seems impossible to deny that consensual homosexual sex differs from rape and such in regards to consent, there are those who do claim that homosexuality is itself wrong. The question is, obviously enough, this: in what does its wrongness consist?

I’ll run through some scenarios and questions that I hope will lead to some consideration and discussion.

Imagine two married couples: Sam & Ashley and Mel & Fran.  Suppose that Sam and Ashley have the following relationship: they love each other, treat each other well, only have consensual sex, and are faithful to each other. Suppose that Mel and Fran have the following relationship: Mel does not love Fran, Mel treats Fran badly, Mel rapes Fran when Fran is unwilling to consent, and Mel has affairs regularly.

Given just this information, which relationship is morally superior? Why? Now, suppose that Sam and Ashley are the same sex while Mel and Fran have different sexes. Given this information, which relationship is morally superior? Why? Now, suppose that Sam and Ashely are different sexes while Mel and Fran are the same sex. Is this worse than the scenario in which Sam and Ashley are a straight couple? Why? Or why not?

Based on arguments I have seen before, some might argue that the scenario in which Sam and Ashley are a same sex couple is impossible. That is, people of the same sex cannot love each other, or have only consensual sex, or treat each other well, or be faithful. This could, of course, be argued—but arguments would be what is needed. However, even if it is argued that the scenario could not occur, there would still be the interesting question of whether such a (hypothetical) scenario would be morally superior to the scenario in which the straight couple’s situation involves rape, infidelity and abuse.

Overall, this matter can be distilled down the following question: what is intrinsically wrong, if anything, with being homosexual—even in the context of what would be considered an ideal relationship if it held between heterosexuals.

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On Returning the Lost

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2014
A picture of a wallet.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My regular running routes take me over many miles and through areas that are heavily trafficked—most often by college students. Because of this, I often find lost phones, wallets, IDs and other items. Recently I came across a wallet fat with cash and credit cards. As always, I sought out the owner and returned it. Being a philosopher, I thought I’d write a bit about the ethics of this.

While using found credit card numbers would generally be a bad idea from the practical standpoint, found cash is quite another matter. After all, cash is cash and there is typically nothing to link cash to a specific person. Since money is rather useful, a person who finds a wallet fat with cash would have a good practical reason to simply keep the money and use it herself. One possible exception would be that the reward for returning the lost wallet would exceed the value of the cash in the wallet—but the person who finds it would most likely have no idea if this would be the case or not. So, from a purely practical standpoint, keeping the cash would be a smart choice. A person could even return the credit cards and other items in the wallet, claiming quite plausibly that it was otherwise empty when found. However, what might be a smart choice need not be the right choice.

One argument in favor of returning found items (such as the wallet and all the cash) can be built on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. More formally, this is moral reasoning involving the method of reversing the situation. Since I would want my lost property returned, I should thus treat others in the same way. Unless, of course, I can justify treating others differently by finding relevant differences that would justify the difference. Alternatively, it could also be justified on utilitarian grounds.  For example, someone who is poor might contend that it would not be wrong to keep money she found in a rich person’s wallet on the grounds that the money would do her much more good than it would do for the rich person: such a small loss would not affect him, such a gain would benefit her significantly.

Since I am reasonably well off and find relatively modest sums of money (hundreds of dollars at most), I have the luxury of not being tempted to keep the money. However, even when I was not at all well off, I still returned whatever I found. Even when I honestly believed that I would put the money to better use than the original owner. This is not due to any fetishes about property, but a matter of ethics.

One of the reasons is my belief that I do have obligations to help others, especially when the cost to me is low relative to the aid rendered. In the case of finding someone’s wallet or phone, I know that the loss would be a significant inconvenience and worry for most people. In the case of a wallet, a person will probably need to replace a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and worry about identity theft. It is easy for me to return the wallet—either by dropping it off with police or contacting the person after finding them via Facebook or some other means. That said, the obvious challenge is justifying my view that I am so obligated. However, I would contend that in such cases, the burden of proof lies on the selfish rather than the altruistic.

Another reason is that I believe that I should not steal. While keeping a lost item is not the same morally as active theft (this could be seen as being a bit analogous to the distinction between killing and letting die), it does seem to be a form of theft. After all, I would be acquiring what does not belong to me by choosing not to return it. Naturally, if I have no means of returning it to the rightful owner (such as finding a quarter in the road), then keeping it would not seem to be theft. Obviously enough, it could be contended that keeping lost property is not theft (even when it could be returned easily), perhaps on the ancient principle of finders keepers, losers weepers. It could also be contended that theft is acceptable—which would be challenging. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that theft is acceptable or that keeping lost property when returning it would be quite possible is not theft.

I also return found items for two selfish reasons. The first is that I want to build the sort of world I want to live in—and in that world people return lost items. While my acting the way I want the world to be is a tiny thing, it is more than nothing. Second, I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind.


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Fixing Two Windows 8 Upgrade Woes

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 16, 2014
Image representing Windows as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

When Microsoft offered the Windows 8 upgrade at a low price, I bought a copy, but then held off on installing it. On Friday, I finally got around to updating my Windows 7 desktop to Windows 8. When I tried to update from 8 to 8.1 I got the dreaded 0×80240031 error and the update would not install.

I tried the various fixes: downloading all the Windows 8 updates, updating all my drivers, checking my disk for errors, sacrificing a squirrel to Microsoft and so on. Nothing worked. I did notice that the problem was the download-it would just fail at about the 50% mark. The solution seemed obvious: get an .iso of the Windows 8.1 upgrade and use that. If you have a Windows 8 key, here is how to get (legally) a Winoows 8.1 .iso or USB upgrade, courtesy of PC World. Once you have the .iso (or USB), there is still a catch: while the upgrade from 8 to 8.1 is free, the Windows 8 keys will not work with the Windows 8.1 .iso. Fortunately, there is a legal work-around. Microsoft lists generic keys that can be used to install Windows here.  Windows 8.1  Pro is GCRJD-8NW9H-F2CDX-CCM8D-9D6T9. When doing the upgrade, use that generic key to do the install, then go and activate Windows using your legal Windows 8 key. Problem solved. Advice to Microsoft: since Windows 8.1 is free to Windows 8 owners, have Windows 8.1 accept Windows 8 keys. Or fix the damn install problem.

Now, suppose that you want to upgrade your Windows 7 PC to Windows 8.1 but you do not want to re-install all your software and redo your settings. Sadly, Windows 7 to Windows 8.1 makes that impossible. But, you can go from 7 to 8 and then to 8.1 while keeping all your programs  in place. If you have the Windows 8 upgrade, just go from 7 to 8 and then to 8.1, choosing the option to keep your programs. If you only own an 8.1 disk and want to keep your programs, you can do this: get a Windows 8 upgrade (see above about how to get that) and use this generic key for Windows 8 Pro: NG4HW-VH26C-733KW-K6F98-J8CK4. Then use your Windows 8.1 disk to upgrade to 8.1 using your legal key. Problem solved.

Important points:

  • This is for Windows 8 Pro.
  • The generic keys are from Microsoft and while they will allow an install, they will not activate Windows. Buy a key.

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Homosexuality, Choice & Engineering

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 14, 2014
English: Venn diagram depicting the relationsh...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay I rambled a bit about homosexuality and choice. The main point of this was to set up this essay, which focuses on the ethics of engineering people to be straight.

In general terms, sexual orientation is either a choice or it is not (though choice can be a matter of degree). Currently, many of the people who are against homosexuality take the view that it is a matter of choice. This allows them to condemn homosexuality and to push for methods aimed at motivating people to choose to be straight. Many of those who are at least tolerant of homosexuality contend that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. They are, of course, careful to take the view that being homosexual is more like being left-handed than having an inherited disease. This view is taken as justification for at least tolerating homosexuality and as a reason to not allow attempts to push homosexuals in an impossible effort to get them to choose to be straight.

For the sake of this essay, let it be assumed that homosexuality is not a matter of choice—a person is either born with her orientation or it develops in a way that is beyond her choice. To blame or condemn the person would be on par with blaming a person for being born with blue eyes or to condemn a person for being left-handed. As such, if homosexuality is not a choice, then it would be unjust to condemn or blame a person for her sexual orientation. This seems reasonable.

Ironically, this line of reasoning might make it morally permissible to change a person’s orientation from gay to straight. The argument for this is as follows.

As has been supposed, a person’s sexual orientation is not a matter of choice: she is either born that way or becomes that way without being able to effect the result. The person is thus a “victim” of whatever forces made her that way. If these forces had been different in certain ways, then she would have had a different sexual orientation—either by chance or by the inexorable machinery of determinism. Given that the person is not making a choice either way, it would seem to be morally acceptable for these factors to be altered to ensure a specific orientation. To use an analogy, I did not choose my eye color and it would not matter, it would seem, whether this was due to a natural process or due to an intentional intervention on the part of others (by modifying me genetically). After all, the choice is not mine either way.

It could be replied that other people would not have the right to make the choice—that it should be left to blind chance (or blind determinism). This does have some merit—whatever they do to change a person, they would be morally accountable for. However, from the standpoint of the person, there would seem to be no difference: they do not get a choice either way. I ended up with blue eyes by chance, but if I was engineered to have green eyes, then the result would be the same: my eye color would not be my choice. I ended a heterosexual, but if I had been engineered to be a homosexual, I would have had no more or less choice.

Thus, robbing a person of choice would not be a moral concern here: if a person does not get a choice, she cannot be robbed of that choice. What is, however, of moral concern is the ethics of the choice being made to change (or not change) the person. If the change is beneficial, such as changing a person so that her heart develops properly rather than failing before she is born, then it would seem to be the right thing to do. If the change is harmful, such as altering the person’s brain so that he suffers from paranoia and psychosis, then it would seem to be the wrong thing to do.

In the matter at hand, the key concern would be whether making a person a heterosexual or a homosexual would be good or bad. As noted above, since it is assumed that sexual orientation is not a choice, engineering a person to be straight or gay would not be robbing them of a choice. Also, the change of orientation can be assumed to be thorough so that a person would be equally happy either way. In this case, the right choice would seem to be a matter of consequences: would a person be more or less likely to be happy straight or not? Given the hostility that still exists towards homosexuals, it would seem that engineering people to be straight would be the right choice.

This might strike some as horrifying and a form of orientation genocide (oriocide?) in which homosexuals are eliminated. Or, more accurately, homosexuality is eliminated. After all, the people who would have been homosexual (by change or by the mechanisms of determinism) would instead be straight, but they would still presumably be the same people they would be if they were gay (unless sexual orientation is an essential quality in Aristotle’s sense of the term). If orientation is not a choice, it would seem that this would not matter: no one is robbed of a choice because one cannot be robbed of what one never possessed.

A rather interesting question remains: if sexual orientation is not a choice, what harm would be done if everyone where engineered to be straight? Or gay?

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Homosexuality & Choice

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 12, 2014
English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

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Since the matter of choice is rather interesting to me, it is hardly a shock that I would be interested in the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. One obvious problem with trying to settle this matter is that it seems impossible to prove (or disprove) the existence of the capacity for choice. As Kant argued, free will seems to lie beyond the reach of our knowledge. As such, it would seem that it could not be said with confidence that a person’s sexual orientation is a matter of choice. But, this is nothing special: the same can be said about the person’s political party, religion, hobbies and so on.

Laying aside the metaphysical speculation, it can be assumed (or perhaps pretended) that people do have a choice in some matters. Given this assumption, the question would seem to be whether sexual orientation legitimately belongs in the category of things that can be reasonably assumed to be matters of choice.

On the face of it, sexual orientation seems to fall within the realm of sexual preference. That is, in the domain of what a person finds sexually appealing and attractive. This seems to fall within a larger set of what a person finds appealing and attractive.

At this time, it seems reasonable to believe that what people find appealing and attractive has some foundation in neural hardwiring rather than in what could be regarded as choice. For example, humans apparently find symmetrical faces more attractive than non-symmetrical faces and this is not a matter of choosing to prefer one over another. Folks who like evolution tend to claim that this preference exists because those with symmetrical faces are often healthier and hence better for breeding purposes.

Food preferences probably also involve hard wiring: humans really like salty and sweet foods and the usual explanation also ties into evolution. For example, sweet foods are high calorie foods but are rare in nature, hence our ancestors who really liked sweets did better at surviving than those who did not really like sweets. Or some such story of survival of the sweetest.

Given the assumption that there are such hardwired preferences, it is conceivable that sexual preferences also involve some hardwiring. So, for example, a person might be hardwired to have a preference for sexual partners with light hair over those with dark hair.  Then again, the preference might be based on experience—the person might have had positive experiences with those with light hair and thus was conditioned to have that preference. The challenge is, of course, to sort out the causal role of hard wiring from the causal role of experience (including socialization). What is left over might be what could be regarded as choice.

In the case of sexual orientation, it seems reasonable to have some doubts about experience being the primary factor. After all, homosexual behavior has long been condemned, discouraged and punished. As such, it seems less likely that people would be socialized into being homosexual—especially in places where being homosexual is punishable by death. However, this is not impossible—perhaps people could be somehow socialized into being gay by all the social efforts to make them be straight.

In regards to hardwiring for sexual orientation, that seems to have some plausibility. This is mainly because there seems to be a lack of evidence that homosexuality is chosen. Assuming that the options are choice, nature or nurture, then eliminating choice and nurture would leave nature. But, of course, this could be a false trilemma: there might be other options.

It can be objected that people do chose homosexual behavior and thus being homosexual is a choice. While this does have some appeal, it is important to distinguish between a person’s orientation and what the person choses to do. A person might be heterosexual and chose to engage in homosexual activity in order to gain the protection of a stronger male in prison. A homosexual might elect to act like a heterosexual to avoid being killed. However, this choices would not seem to change their actual orientation. As such, I tend to hold that orientation is not a choice but that behavior is a matter of choice.

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Democrats at Work III

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 11, 2014

As a public service, here is Democrats at Work Part III.

Sponsored by: Communists for Mandatory Marijuana Usage.

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