A Philosopher's Blog

The Cost of Litter

Posted in Environment, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on April 18, 2014
English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After running the Palace Saloon 5K, I participated in a cleanup of a nearby park. This event, organized by my running friend Nancy, involved spending about an hour and a half picking up trash in the Florida sun.  We runners created a pile of overstuffed trash bags full of a wide range of discarded debris.

On my regular runs, I routinely pick up litter. This ranges from the expected (discarded cans) to the unusual (a blender dropped off in the woods). These adventures in litter caused me to think about the various issues related to litter and most especially the cost of litter.

One obvious cost of litter is the aesthetic damage it inflicts. Litter is ugly and makes an area look, well, trashy. While this cost might be partially paid by those who litter, it is also inflicted on those who visit the area and do not litter. One of the many reasons I pick up litter is that I prefer not to run through trashy places.

Another obvious cost of litter is the environmental damage it inflicts. Some of this is quite evident, such as oil or paint leaking from discarded cans. Other damage is less evident, such as the erosion and flooding that can be caused by litter that clogs up storm drains.  There is also the harm done to animals directly, such as sea life killed when their stomachs fill with plastic debris. As with the aesthetic damage, the cost of the litter is largely paid by those who did not litter—such as the turtles and sea-birds harmed by discarded items.

A somewhat less obvious cost is that paid by people who pick up the litter discarded by others. For example, I take a few minutes out of almost every run to pick up and dispose of trash discarded by others. There are also walkers in my neighborhood area who pick up trash during their entire walk—I will see them carrying full bags of cans, bottles and other debris that have been thrown onto the streets, sidewalks and lawns.  And no, they are not gathering up the debris to cash it in for recycling money.

What I and others are doing is paying the cost of the littering of others with our time and effort. This is doubly annoying because the effort we need to expend to pick up the debris and dispose of it properly is generally more than the effort the discarder would have needed to expend to simply dispose of it herself. This is because such debris is often scattered about, in pieces or tossed into the woods—thus making it a chore to pick up and carry. Also, carrying trash while running is certainly more inconvenient than simply transporting it in a vehicle—and much of the trash beside the road is hurled from vehicles.

Some states, such as my home state of Maine, do shift some of the cost of litter to the litterer. To be specific, these states have a deposit on bottles and cans. When someone litters a can or bottle, he is throwing away the deposit—thus incurring a small cost for his littering. When someone picks up the bottle or can, she can redeem it for the deposit—thus offsetting the cost of her effort. While this approach does not cover all forms of litter, it does have a significant impact on the litter problem by providing people with an incentive to not litter or to pick up the litter thrown away by others.

This model of imposing a cost on littering and providing a reward for cleaning up litter seems to be an ethical system. In terms of fairness, it seems right that the person littering should pay a price for the damage that she does and the cost that she inflicts on others. It also seems right that people who make the effort to clean up the messes caused by others should receive compensation for their efforts. The obvious challenge is making the model work on a broader scale beyond just bottles and cans. Unfortunately, there are many more people who are lazy, uncaring or imbued with a feeling of entitlement than there are who have a sense of responsibility and duty. As such, I know I will be cleaning up after others for the rest of my life.

 

 

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Exotic Pets

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 16, 2014
English: Sleeping lioness at Exotic Animals Pa...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her April 2014 National Geographic article “Wild Obsession, Lauren Slater considers the subject of exotic pets in America. While the article does mention some of the moral issues regarding such pets, I think it is worthwhile to consider the ethics of owning such pets in more depth.

While there are various ways to define what it is for a pet to be exotic, I will focus on non-domesticated animals that are kept as pets. Naturally, some of these pets do not involve much moral controversy. For example, keeping a tank of small fish seems to be morally fine—provided the fish are properly cared for. I am, for this short essay, mainly concerned with animals such as lions, tigers, bears, wolves, kangaroos, chimpanzees and other such animals. That is, animals that are wild and can present a danger to human beings.

One of the most obvious moral arguments against allowing people to own such exotic pets is that they can present a serious danger to human beings—be it their owners or other people. For example, a bear can easily kill its owner. As another example, an escaped tiger would present a rather serious threat. There is also the harm caused to ecosystems by escaped pets, such as the constrictors infesting parts of my adopted state of Florida. This can be cast as utilitarian argument in terms of the harms outweighing the alleged benefits of having such exotic pets.

The obvious response to this argument is that non-exotic pets, such as dogs and horses, injure (and even kill) people. As such, it would seem that the harm argument would also hold against having any pet that could be legitimately seen as a potential danger to a human being. This response could be taken to entail at least two things. One is that all pet ownership of potentially dangerous animals should not be allowed. This, of course, would not appeal to most people. The other is that people should be allowed to have potentially dangerous pets, be the pet a dog or a bear. While this view has some appeal, the easy and obvious counter is that there are clear relevant differences between pets like dogs and pets like bears.

While a domesticated animal like a dog or horse can seriously injure or even kill a human, they are generally less dangerous and far less likely to attack a human than a wild species like a bear or tiger. After all, domestic animals have been (mostly) selected to not be aggressive towards humans and for other appropriate (from the human perspective) behavior. So, while my husky can bite, she is not as dangerous as a bear and is extremely unlikely to attack a human, even when provoked. This is not to say that it is impossible for a previously well-behaved dog to turn violent. This is just to say that a well-trained dog is extremely different from even a well-trained bear or tiger.

As a side point, there are many reports of people being harmed by dogs—but this is because there are so many dogs kept as pets. As such, even a low percentage of aggressive dogs will result in a relatively high number of incidents. There is also the legitimate concern about dogs that have been bred and trained to be very aggressive (even towards humans).  Such dogs, most notoriously pit bulls, would present a threat to people and arguments can be made about restricting ownership of such dangerous dogs (and some places have such laws).

Another obvious moral argument is based on the harms done to the exotic animals. While domesticated animals can do well in a human environment (for example, my husky is quite happy with living in my house—provided that she gets her regular runs and outdoor adventures), wild animals often do not do very well. Most people who own exotic pets cannot provide the sort of environment that a wild species needs (even some zoos cannot) to be happy and healthy. There are also the concerns about medical care, proper exercise, diet and so on. As such, allowing people to own exotic pets would tend to have negative consequences for the animals. Once again, the moral case can be made on utilitarian grounds.

The obvious reply is that domestic animals also have needs that must be met. As such, it could be contended that if the keeping of domestic animals is acceptable provided that they are properly cared for, then the same must hold for the exotic animals. This reply does have considerable appeal. After all, if an animal is properly cared for and is both healthy and happy, then there would seem to be no moral grounds for forbidding a person from having such a pet.

As noted above, the practical problem is that caring properly for such exotic animals is more challenging and more expensive than providing proper care for a domestic animal. As I mentioned, my husky is fine living in my house and going on runs and expeditions with me. While medical care and food is not cheap, taking care of her is well within my financial ability. Exotic pets tend to present much more serious challenges in terms of cost. For example, a tiger is expensive to feed and one should not take a tiger out for an adventure in the local dog park. However, with proper resources these challenges could be addressed.

As a final moral argument, there is the concern that it is simply wrong to keep an exotic animal as a pet. To steal from Aristotle, it is not the function (or nature) of wild animals to exist as pets for humans. While people and animals might form bonds, the wild animals are such that being made into a pet is a distortion or even violation of what they are, which would be wrong. This, of course, would seem to suggest that we have distorted animals and perhaps wronged them by domesticating them—which might be true.

This line of reasoning can be countered in various ways, ranging from arguing against there being such natures to religious appeals to the claim that humans were given dominion over the animals and thus we can do what we wish with them.

My own view is somewhat mixed. Since I have a husky, it should be no surprise that I am morally fine with having a pet (provided the pet is well cared for). However, I tend to lean towards regarding keeping exotic animals as pets as morally problematic. That said, some people do truly love their exotic pets and take excellent care of them. In the case of endangered species, there is also the added moral argument involving the preservation of such species as pets—which does have some appeal when the alternative is extinction.

However, I would certainly not have a lion, tiger or bear as a pet. A dire husky…well, sure.

 

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Men, Women, Business & Ethics

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2014
Journal of Business Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 4/9/2014 NPR did a short report on the question of why there are fewer women in business than men. This difference begins in business school and, not surprisingly, continues forward. The report focused on an interesting hypothesis: in regards to ethics, men and women differ.

While people tend to claim that lying is immoral, both men and woman are more likely to lie to a woman when engaged in negotiation. The report also mentioned a test involving an ethical issue. In this scenario, the seller of a house does not want it sold to someone who will turn the property into a condo. However, a potential buyer wants to do just that. The findings were that men were more likely than women to lie to sell the house.

It was also found that men tend to be egocentric in their ethical reasoning. That is, if the man will be harmed by something, then it is regarded as unethical. If the man benefits, he is more likely to see it as a grey area. So, in the case of the house scenario, a man representing the buyer would tend to regard lying to the seller as acceptable—after all, he would thus get a sale. However, a man representing the seller would be more likely to regard being lied to as unethical.

In another test of ethics, people were asked about their willingness to include an inferior ingredient in a product that would hurt people but would allow a significant product. The men were more willing than the women to regard this as acceptable. In fact, the women tended to regard this sort of thing as outrageous.

These results provide two reasons why women would be less likely to be in business than men. The first is that men are apparently rather less troubled by unethical, but more profitable, decisions.  The idea that having “moral flexibility” (and getting away with it) provides advantage is a rather old one and was ably defended by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. If a person with such moral flexibility needs to lie to gain an advantage, he can lie freely. If a bribe would serve his purpose, he can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then he can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, a morally flexible person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well-equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the morally flexible person has a considerable advantage over those who are more constrained by ethics. If women are, in general, more constrained by ethics, then they would be less likely to remain in business because they would be at a competitive disadvantage. The ethical difference might also explain why women are less likely to go into business—it seems to be a general view that unethical activity is not uncommon in business, hence if women are generally more ethical than men, then they would be more inclined to avoid business.

It could be countered that Glaucon is in error and that being unethical (while getting away with it) does not provide advantages. Obviously, getting caught and significantly punished for unethical behavior is not advantageous—but it is not the unethical behavior that causes the problem. Rather, it is getting caught and punished. After all, Glaucon does note that being unjust is only advantageous when one can get away with it. Socrates does argue that being ethical is superior to being unethical, but he does not do so by arguing that the ethical person will have greater material success.

This is not to say that a person cannot be ethical and have material success. It is also not to say that a person cannot be ethically flexible and be a complete failure. The claim is that ethical flexibility provides a distinct advantage.

It could also be countered that there are unethical women and ethical men. The obvious reply is that this claim is true—it has not been asserted that all men are unethical or that all women are ethical. Rather, it seems that women are generally more ethical than men.

It might be countered that the ethical view assumed in this essay is flawed. For example, it could be countered that what matters is profit and the means to this end are thus justified. As such, using inferior ingredients in a medicine so as to make a profit at the expense of the patients would not be unethical, but laudable. After all, as Hobbes said, profit is the measure of right. As such, women might well be avoiding business because they are unethical on this view.

The second is that women are more likely to be lied to in negotiations. If true, this would certainly put women at a disadvantage in business negotiations relative to men since women would be more likely to be subject to attempts at deceit. This, of course, assumes that such deceit would be advantageous in negotiations. While there surely are cases in which deceit would be disadvantageous, it certainly seems that deceit can be a very useful technique.

If it is believed that having more women in business is desirable (which would not be accepted by everyone), then there seem to be two main options. The first is to endeavor to “cure” women of their ethics—that is, make them more like men. The second would be to endeavor to make business more ethical. This would presumably also help address the matter of lying to women.

 

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Utah, Procreation & Same-Sex Marriage

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 11, 2014
Gay Couple with child

Gay Couple with child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a general rule, I would contend that if something is morally wrong, then it should be possible to present non-fallacious and reasonable arguments to show that it is wrong.  I would also probably add that there should be actual facts involved. I would obviously not claim that the arguments must be decisive—one generally does not see that in ethics. While people continue to argue against same sex marriage, the arguments continue to be the usual mix of fallacies and poor reasoning. There is also the usual employment of “facts” that are often simply not true.

In the United States, the latest battle over same-sex marriage is taking place in Utah. The state is being sued on the grounds that the amendment that forbids same-sex marriage is a violation of their rights. The lawsuit certainly has merit—a state does not get to violate constitutional rights even if many people vote in favor of doing so. As such, a rather important legal question is whether or not same-sex couples’ rights are violated by this law.

Utah is following the usual model of arguing against same-sex marriage, although they have at least not broken out the argument that allowing same-sex marriage will lead to or is equivalent to a person marrying a goat.

As might be expected, they made used of the usual pair of fallacies: appeal to tradition and appeal to common practice by claiming that defining marriage as being between a man and a woman is correct because it is “age-old and still predominant.”

Utah also tried the stock procreation gambit, with an added bit about the state’s interest: “Same-sex couples, who cannot procreate, do not promote the state’s interests in responsible procreation (regardless of whether they harm it).” Utah has also made use of the boilerplate argument about “responsible procreation” and “optimal mode of child rearing.”

Same-sex marriage is thus criticized on two grounds in regards to “responsible procreation.” The first is that same-sex couples cannot procreate naturally. The second is that same-sex couples will fail to provide an “optimal mode of child rearing.” To deny same-sex couples the right to marry because of these criticisms would require accepting two general principles: 1) marriage is to be denied to those who do cannot or do not procreate and 2) people who are not capable of the “optimal mode of child rearing” are to be denied marriage.

The first principle entails that straight couples who do not want children or cannot have them must also be denied marriage. After all, if an inability (or unwillingness) warrants denying same-sex couples the right to marry, the same would also apply to different-sex couples.

This principle would also seem to imply that couples who use artificial means to reproduce (such as in vitro fertilization or a surrogate) must be denied marriage. After all, same-sex couples can use these methods to procreate. Alternatively, if different-sex couples can use these methods and be allowed to marry, then same-sex couples who procreate would thus also be entitled to marriage.

The principle would also seem to entail that all married couples would be required to have at least one child, presumably within a specific time frame to ensure that the couple is not just faking their desire (or ability) to have children in order to get married. This would certainly seem to be a violation of the rights of the parents and a rather serious intrusion of the state.

The second principle would entail that straight couples who are not optimal parents must be denied marriage.  This would seem to require that the state monitor all marriages to determine that the parents are providing an optimal mode of child rearing and that it be empowered to revoke marriage licenses (much like the state can revoke a driver’s license for driving violations) for non-optimal parents. Different-sex parents can obviously provide non-optimal modes. After all, child abuse and neglect are committed by different-sex couples.

While I do agree that irresponsible people should not have children and that the state has an obligation to protect children from harm, it seems absurd to deny such people the right to marry. After all, not allowing them to marry (or dissolving the marriage when they proved irresponsible) would hardly make such people more responsible or benefit the children. Now to the matter of the state’s interest.

For the sake of the argument, I will grant that the state has an interest in having people reproduce. After all, the state is just a collection of people, so if there are no new people, the state will cease to exist. Of course, this also would seem to give the state an interest in immigration—that would also replace lost people.

This interest in procreation does not, however, entail that the state thus has an interest in preventing same sex-marriage. Allowing same-sex marriage does not reduce the number of different-sex marriages—that is, there is not a limited number of allowed marriages that same-sex couples could “use up.” Also, even if there were a limited number of allowed marriages, same-sex couples would only be a small percentage of the marriages and, obviously enough, marriage is not a necessary condition for procreation nor responsible procreation. That is, people can impregnate or be impregnated without being married. People can also be good parents without being married.

In light of these arguments, the procreation argument against same-sex marriage is still clearly absurd.

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Brain Games

Posted in Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 7, 2014
Brain Games box art

Brain Games box art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a general rule, most people want to gain for as little as possible effort. For example, people seem to often buy exercise equipment thinking that it will make exercise easier. They usually find out that is not the case—thus the brisk trade in lightly used exercise equipment and its regularly being buried under clothes. The latest brain training games seem to be offering the same temptation: if a person plays these brain games, she will become smarter. The appeal is, of course, that the games are supposed to fun rather than burdensome—like education tends to be. The obvious questions is whether such games work or not.

On the face of it, the idea that playing these brain games can have positive effects does make some sense. After all, exercising the body improves it—so, by analogy, the same should hold for the brain. The obvious concern is that not everything that people think is exercise actually improves the body. Likewise, the brain games might be like useless exercises for the body: you are doing something, but it is having no effect. To address this matter, the thing to do is to turn to some actual science.

As it stands, the unbiased research seems to show that the current crop of commercial brain training games have no meaningful impact. While people do get better at the games, this is most likely due to familiarity. To use an analogy to another type of video game, doing the same scripted event over and over in a game like World of Warcraft or Deadspace III will cause a person to improve at that specific task. To use a specific example, in Deadspace III the player has to “fly” through a field of debris and avoid being smashed. My friend and I smashed into the debris repeatedly until we finally made it—through familiarity with the process rather than by getting “better.” The same seems to be true of the current brain games and getting better at such a game does not entail that one is smarter or more mentally capable. In light of the existing evidence, spending money on the commercial brain games would be a waste of money—unless one is just playing them for fun.

Interestingly enough, video games of the more “traditional” sort can improve memory and mental skills. This is not surprising—such video games typically place players in challenging environments that often mimic general challenges in the real world. As such, rather than simply focusing on a relatively simple game that is narrowly focused, the gamer is forced to fully engage the general challenge and develop a broader set of capabilities. As such, video games of this sort probably help improve mental abilities in a way analogous to how reality does so. In the case of video games, the challenges will tend to be more challenging and more frequent than what a person would generally encounter in the real world. For example, participating in a World of Warcraft raid involves tracking abilities, maintaining situational awareness, following (or giving) orders, following a strategy and so on. That is, it provides an actual mental workout. So, a person looking for games to make her smarter would be better off getting a gaming console or PC and selecting challenging games. They will probably be much more fun than the brain games and apparently more effective.

I would also like to put in a plug for traditional table top games as well—be they games like Risk or D&D. These games provide enjoyable challenges that seem to have a positive impact on cognitive abilities. Plus, they are social activities—and that is no doubt better for a person than playing brain games online solo.

 

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Unlimited Campaign Contributions

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2014
Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. R...

Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. Roberts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a young political science/philosophy major I learned about the various types of governments. Among these is the plutocracy—rule by the wealthy. I recall thinking, in my young anarchist days, that all governments were, are and will be plutocracies. After all, the rich always have influence proportional to their wealth and society tends to head in the direction desired by the wealthy. I was aware, of course, that there can be momentary disruptions of the plutocracy. For example, a rebellion or revolution might result in the old rich being killed, exiled or stripped of their wealth. However, history clearly shows that a new rich always emerges (or the old rich return). Even in the allegedly communist states, a wealthy class has always appeared. As such, the plutocratic system seems to be eternal.

As might be imagined, my cynical view was countered by some of my fellows—they insisted that America was a democracy and not a plutocracy. After all, it was argued, the rich do not always get their way in everything and money did not always decide elections. In fact, it was pointed out that there were strict restrictions on political spending. A plutocracy would obviously not have such limits.  As such, it was reasonable to conclude that my younger anarchist self was in error. But perhaps I was right after all—there is an ongoing trend to make America into a plutocracy by eliminating restrictions on political spending.

One major move in this regards was the Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations on the grounds that corporations are people, spending is speech and people have a right to free speech. The idea that corporations are people can be easily disproven by a simple reduction ad absurdum: If corporations have the right to free speech because they are people, then they cannot be owned. After all, the constitution expressly forbids slavery (that is, the ownership of people). To contend that corporations can be owned yet are people who have freedom of speech is to either accept slavery or to fail to grasp the logical notion of consistency. So, a corporation can have freedom of speech, provided it is set free from being owned. Since it is blindingly obvious that corporations are things that can be justly owned, it should be blindingly obvious that they are not people. As such, they do not get freedom of speech. Naturally, the actual people associated with corporations have their right to freedom of speech. What remains is, of course, the matter of whether spending is speech or not.

The Supreme Court, or at least five of the current judges, holds that spending is speech. On 4/2/2014 the aggregate campaign contribution limits were struck down. This was based, not surprisingly, on the Citizens United ruling in 2010.  That ruling included the apparently absurd claim that the influence and access offered by such unlimited spending is not a concern in regards to corruption.

The case at hand was brought by Shaun McCutcheon—a very wealthy Republican donor. The impact of his victory is that a single donor, such as McCutcheon, will be able to contribute millions to parties, candidates and PACs. The ruling does leave some limits in place: an individual can give:  $2,600 per candidate, per election; $32,400 to political party committees per year; and $5,000 per PAC, per year. The main change is that there is no longer an overall cap to the total donations. Previously, a donor could not give more than $123,200 to all political committees, with limits of $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political parties and PACs.

McCutcheon claims that this is a grassroots victory against the status quo:  “With the ruling, we continue to chip away at the long entrenched status quo from the grassroots—a status quo that has kept challengers, better ideas, and new entrants to the political arena mostly locked out. Ensuring that citizens are able to contribute to multiple candidates or causes who share their views only provides further support to a system in which ‘We the People’ hold the ultimate reins of power.”

This seems like an odd claim, given that it primarily benefits those who are wealthy enough to make such donations as opposed to the average citizen who will lack the funds to take advantage of this ruling. This ruling would seem to weaken what little grasp the people still have on the reins of power and give the very wealthy a stronger grip. Not surprisingly, this ruling will be a boon for the Republican party. In recent years it has done poorly with small donors (that is, the vast majority of the citizens) and relies very heavily on large donors. This ruling will allow the Republicans to greatly reduce the need for grassroots financial support and instead rely on a few very wealthy donors for financial support. While it is true that the Democrats also have their wealthy supporters, the Democrats rely more heavily on large numbers of small donations.

As might be imagined, there are concerns that this ruling will lead to increased corruption and increased influence on politics by the wealthy. On the face of it, these seem to be the obvious consequences of lifting such restrictions and allowing the money to flow more freely into politics. After all, the original purpose of the restrictions was to address problems with corruption and influence buying. While those who support it insist that corruption and influence buying will not be increased (which seems patently false and unsupported by evidence) they also appeal to a core principle, namely that of freedom. As Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “What I think this means is freedom of speech is being upheld. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

The basic issue, then, is whether such spending is speech.  In regards to spending being free speech, that seems dubious. Suppose that spending money for political purposes is considered speech. Now, it is clearly acceptable to try to persuade a politician by speaking to him or her. If spending is speech, then I should be able to try to persuade politicians by speaking to them with money. However, this sort of thing already has a name, specifically bribery. But, if spending is a form of free speech, it would seem that bribery should be acceptable as a form of free speech. This seems absurd, to say the least.

It might be countered that the contributions cannot be direct bribes in that there can be no direct giving of money in return for specific actions or promises to act. However, it would be extremely naive to believe that campaign financing is not intended to do just that—namely to influence behavior by providing money and support. After all, it would seem rather ludicrous to imagine that millionaires and billionaires would donate millions of dollars and expect nothing in return. While this is not logically impossible, it is exceptionally unlikely.

However, suppose that spending is taken as a form of speech and thus protected by the right of free expression. It does not, of course, follow that such speech should be free of limits. After all, limits are justly placed on speech in other cases. The stock example is the yelling of “fire” in a crowded theater in which there is no fire. In the case of allowing this sort of spending, it would do serious harm to the political process by increasing the influence of an individual based on his wealth and thus proportionally decreasing the influence of those who are less wealthy. To use an analogy, it is on par with having a public discussion in which the wealthy are allowed to use a powerful sound systems up on the stage and less wealthy individuals are expected to try to shout out their views from the crowd.

To counter arguments like this, Roberts made an analogy to newspaper endorsements. As he said, there is no limit to the number of candidates a newspaper can endorse. As such, by analogy, it should follow that there should not be a limit on the number of candidates a person can donate money to. There are two easy and obvious replies. The first is to go back to the original argument that spending is not speech. While a newspaper endorsement is clearly speech—it is the expression of ideas and views, handing people money does not seem to qualify as an expression of ideas and views. When I buy a pair of running shoes or pay my entry to a race, I am not engaged in expression—I am trading money for goods and services. Likewise, when a person donates to a political cause, they are trading money for goods and services. But, if it is accepted that spending is speech, there is still a significant difference. A newspaper endorsement works by persuasion—one is either swayed by it or not. In contrast, large sums of money have far more impact: money allows people to become viable candidates and it allows them to run campaigns. As such, the influence of money is clearly more significant than the influence of a newspaper endorsement and this increases the likelihood of corruption.

This returns to the corruption issue. My contention is that such a flow of money will lead to corruption and grant the wealthy even more influence, while reducing the political influence of the less wealthy even more. The competing claim is that allowing this sort of spending will not have any negative impact. Given the usual effect of large sums of money, I would claim that increased corruption seems to be the likely outcome. However, I will consider any arguments and evidence to the contrary.

 

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The Curators of Culture

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 2, 2014
English: Oprah Winfrey at the White House for ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a well-connected author comes out with a new book, she makes the rounds of the various shows—radio and television. Such others also get mentioned fairly often. For example, a few days ago I was listening to NPR and the author Karen Russell was apparently the author of the day. Her latest book, Sleep Donation, was reviewed and she also was interviewed. Her book was also mentioned regularly throughout the day. Authors who have their own shows, such as Bill O’Reilly, can (and do) plug their own books. The authors are also supported by those who might be regarded (or at least regard themselves) as the cultural elite. These are the people, such as Oprah, who tell the rest of us what is good.

There is, obviously enough, considerable advantage to being blessed by the curators of culture. First, there is the boon of exposure. One way to look at this is a bit inaccurate but still useful. A book can be thought of as having a certain percentage of people who will buy the book—if they hear about it. Alternatively, this can be thought of in terms of there being a certain percent chance that a person who hears of the book will buy it. So, for example, a book with a 5% purchase rating would be bought by 5% of those who hear about it (or each person who hears about it has a 5% chance of buying it). While this is obviously an abstract simplification, it does nicely show that the more people who hear about a book, the more the book will sell. This is true even of books that are not that good. This is the same principle that email spam and blog spam works on: if enough people hear about something, even if the response rate is low money can still be made. Obviously enough, when an author is able to get on a talk show to talk about her book, her sales will increase. Likewise for other forms of exposure for the author and the book. Equal obvious is that fact that access to the curators of culture is limited and carefully controlled—an author has to be suitably connected to make it into that circle of media light. This suitable connection might even be a matter of luck—the book just happens to catch the attention of the right person and the author is invited, perhaps briefly, into the circle.

Second, there is the gift of endorsement. If a book is endorsed or praised by the right people, this will typically grant a significant boost to sales—over and above the boon granted by exposure. While endorsement does provide exposure, exposure does not always entail endorsement. After all, the curators of culture do sometimes speak of books they dislike or regard as bad. While the condemnation of a work can impair its sales, the exposure can increase sales. There is also the fact that being condemned by the right sort of people can boost sales. In the case of ideological works, for example, being condemned by an ideological foe can often boost sales among ideological friends.

As discussed in an early essay, the quality of a work has little connection to its success. Luck, as noted in that essay, is a major factor. Exposure and endorsement add to this (although either or both might be acquired by luck). While the ideal would be that works receive exposure and endorsement proportion to their merit, there is little correlation. The best books need not be the most exposed or most highly endorsed. Mediocre (or worse) books might garner great attention and receive unwarranted praise from the curators of culture.

This is not to say that merit never achieves success, just that merit seems to be a rather small factor in successful sales. Sometimes, just sometimes, a meritorious work does achieve success against long odds—but this is notable in its rarity.

 

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The “Princeton Mom” & Sexual Assault

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2014
Princeton University

Princeton University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Susan Patton, better known as the “Princeton Mom”, has been making the rounds of the talk and news shows promoting her Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE book. This book presents the 18th century view that a woman should focus primarily on finding a husband and do so quickly—fertility diminishes with time.

Patton attracted more attention with her March 11, 2014 interview with the Daily Princetonian. In a letter to the editor written about a year before the interview, she had make a rather provocative remark: “Please spare me your ‘blaming the victim’ outrage” and claimed that a woman who is drunk and provocatively dressed “must bear accountability for what may happen.” When asked why the woman is responsible in the case of rape or sexual assault, she had the following to say:

 

 The reason is, she is the one most likely to be harmed, so she is the one that needs to take control of the situation. She is that one that needs to take responsibility for herself and for her own safety, and simply not allow herself to come to a point where she is no longer capable of protecting her physical self. The analogy that I would give you is: If you cross the street without looking both ways and a car jumps the light or isn’t paying attention, and you get hit by a car — as a woman or as anybody — and you say, ‘Well I had a green light,’ well yes you did have a green light but that wasn’t enough. So in the same way, a woman who is going to say, ‘Well the man should have recognized that I was drunk and not pushed me beyond the level at which I was happy to engage with him,’ well, you didn’t look both ways. I mean yes, you’re right, a man should act better, men should be more respectful of women, but in the absence of that, and regardless of whether they are or are not, women must take care of themselves.

 

As might be imagined, this view has generated some backlash from faculty at Princeton and other people. Given the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and such controversy can help sell books, it is not clear that the view expressed is one that Patton truly holds. However, when discussing the ethics of the content of her claims, her actual belief does not matter. As such, I will take her expressed view at face value.

Patton’s first claim is that since the woman is most likely to be harmed, she needs to be responsible for her safety. There are at least two ways to view this claim. One is the very reasonable claim that a person needs to be responsible for her own safety—that is, a person has an obligation to herself to make sure that she is not needlessly in danger. This view that self-preservation is rational and obligatory is nicely defended by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. Another way to view the claim, which is that apparently taken by her critics, is that the burden falls completely on the woman. While this is certainly a prudent view, it does run afoul of the notion that the person who wrongfully inflicts harm on another should bear the majority of the responsibility for the harm inflicted (if not all of it).

Patton’s second claim is that a woman has an obligation to not allow herself to be incapable of self-defense. Presumably Patton means that a woman has an obligation to not become some drunk that she cannot defend herself from a man who means to assault or rape her. In defense of this claim, Patton offers her analogy: a woman who gets assaulted or raped when she is too drunk to defend herself is like someone who gets hit by a car because they did not look both ways before crossing the street—even though she had the light.

The analogy does have some merit—while drivers are obligated to take care not to hit people, a person should take due precautions to avoid being hit. To do otherwise is clearly foolish. However, there is a distinction between what is prudent and what is morally obligatory. While it makes perfect sense that a woman should not impair herself when she has reason to believe that she will be vulnerable to assault or rape, this is a different matter than her having a moral obligation to herself to avoid being vulnerable in this way. There is also a third matter, namely who is responsible when a drunk woman is raped or assaulted.

In regards to the second matter, this is essentially a question of whether there is a moral obligation for self-defense. It is generally accepted that people have a moral right to self-defense and for the sake of the discussion that will be assumed. This right gives a person the liberty to protect herself. If it is only a liberty, then the person has the right to not act in self-defense and thus be an easy victim. However, if there is an obligation of self-defense, then failing to act on this obligation would seem to be a moral failing. The obvious challenge is to show that there is such an obligation.

On the face of it, it would seem that self-defense is merely a liberty. However, some consideration of the matter will suggest that this is not so obvious.  In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.

John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection or restraint of others rather than one’s self. However, there are arguments against this.

I will start with a practical argument. While the modern Western state projects its coercive force and spying eyes into society, the state’s agents cannot (yet) observe all that occurs nor can they always be close at hand in times of danger. As such, relying solely on the state would seem to put a person at risk—after all, he would be helpless in the face of danger. If a person relies on other individuals, then unless she is guarded at all times, then she also faces the real risk of being a helpless victim. This would, at the very least, seem imprudent.

This argument can be used as the basis for a moral argument. If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own) and others cannot be reliably depended on, then it would seem that she would have an obligation of self-defense and this would include not intentionally making herself vulnerable to well-known threats. These threats would, sadly, include those presented by bad men. As such, a woman would have a moral obligation to avoid being vulnerable. This seems reasonable.

The third matter is the question of moral responsibility when a drunk woman is assaulted or raped by a man who takes advantage of her vulnerability.  In the abstract, it could be argued that the woman does bear some of the responsibility—if a woman has an obligation to defend herself, she would have failed in her obligation by becoming vulnerable in this way. As with her analogy, someone who crosses the road without looking and gets hit has failed in a clear duty to herself. However, even if this point is granted, there is still the matter of who bears the majority of the responsibility.

On the face of it, it seems evident that the man who assaulted or raped the woman bears the overwhelming moral responsibility. After all, even if the woman should have avoided being vulnerable, the man has a far greater moral obligation to not harm her. There is also the matter of reasonable expectations. To be specific, while a person is obligated to protect herself, this does not obligate her to be hyper-vigilant against all possible dangers. To use an analogy, if woman does not buy body armor to wear on campus (after all, there have been campus shooting) and she is shot by a gunman, it would be absurd to blame her for her injury or death. The blame rests on the shooter—his obligation to not shoot her vastly outweighs the extent of her obligation to be prepared.

In the case of rape and sexual assault, while a woman should be prudent for the sake of self-protection, the overwhelming moral responsibility is on the man. That the woman makes herself vulnerable to rape or assault no more lessens the rapist’s responsibility than the fact that the woman was not wearing body armor lessens the responsibility of the shooter. The principle here is that vulnerability does not mitigate moral responsibility. This is intuitively plausible: just because a victimizer has an easier time with his victim, it hardly makes his misdeeds less bad.

Patton does acknowledge that men should act better, but she does insist that a woman must take care of herself. This could be seen as sensible advice: a woman should not count on the goodwill of others, but be on guard against reasonably foreseeable harm. This advice is, of course, consistent with the view that the rapist is the one truly responsible for the rape.

 

 

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Sexbots, Killbots & Virtual Dogs

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2014

Sexbots,_Killbots_&__Cover_for_KindleMy most recent  book, Sexbots, Killbots & Virtual Dogs, is now available as a Kindle book on Amazon. It will soon be available as a print book as well (the Kindle version is free with the print book on Amazon).

There is also a free promo for the Kindle book from April 1, 2014 to April 5, 2014. At free, it is worth every penny!

Book Description

While the story of Cain and Abel does not specify the murder weapon used by Cain, traditional illustrations often show Cain wielding the jawbone of an animal (perhaps an ass—which is what Samson is said to have employed as a weapon). Assuming the traditional illustrations and the story are right, this would be one of the first uses of technology by a human—and, like our subsequent use of technology, one of considerable ethical significance.

Whether the tale of Cain is true or not, humans have been employing technology since our beginning. As such, technology is nothing new. However, we are now at a point at which technology is advancing and changing faster than ever before—and this shows no signs of changing. Since technology so often has moral implications, it seems worthwhile to consider the ethics of new and possible future technology. This short book provides essays aimed at doing just that on subjects ranging from sexbots to virtual dogs to asteroid mining.

While written by a professional philosopher, these essays are aimed at a general audience and they do not assume that the reader is an expert at philosophy or technology.

The essays are also fairly short—they are designed to be the sort of things you can read at your convenience, perhaps while commuting to work or waiting in the checkout line.

The Better than Average Delusion

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 28, 2014
Average Joe copy

Average Joe copy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One interesting, but hardly surprising, cognitive bias is the tendency of a person to regard herself as better than average—even when no evidence exists for that view. Surveys in which Americans are asked to compare themselves to their fellows are quite common and nicely illustrate this bias: the overwhelming majority of Americans rank themselves as above average in everything ranging from leadership ability to accuracy in self-assessment.

Obviously enough, the majority of people cannot be better than average—that is just how averages work. As to why people think the way they do, the disparity between what is claimed and what is the case can be explained in at least two ways. One is another well-established cognitive bias, namely the tendency people have to believe that their performance is better than it actually is. Teachers get to see this in action quite often—students generally believe that they did better on the test than they actually did. For example, I have long lost count of people who have gotten Cs or worse on papers who say to me “but it felt like an A!” I have no doubt that it felt like an A to the student—after all, people tend to rather like their own work. Given that people tend to regard their own performance as better than it is, it certainly makes sense that they would regard their abilities as better than average—after all, we tend to think that we are all really good.

Another reason is yet another bias: people tend to give more weight to the negative over the positive. As such, when assessing other people, we will tend to consider negative things about them as having more significance than the positive things. So, for example, when Sally is assessing the honesty of Bill, she will give more weight to incidents in which Bill was dishonest relative to those in which he was honest. As such, Sally will most likely see herself as being more honest than Bill. After enough comparisons, she will most likely see herself as above average.

This self-delusion probably has some positive effects—for example, it no doubt allows people to maintain a sense of value and to enjoy the smug self-satisfaction that they are better than most other folks. This surely helps people get by day-to-day.

There are, of course, downsides to this—after all, a person who does not do a good job assessing himself and others will be operating on the basis of inaccurate information and this rarely leads to good decision making.

Interestingly enough, the better-than-average delusion holds up quite well even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. For example, the British Journal of Social Psychology did a survey of British prisoners asking them to compare themselves to other prisoners and the general population in terms of such traits as honesty, compassion, and trustworthiness. Not surprisingly, the prisoners ranked themselves as above average. They did, however, only rank themselves as average when it came to the trait of law-abidingness. This suggests that reality has some slight impact on people, but not as much as one might hope.

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