A Philosopher's Blog

Leadership & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 2, 2014
English: Official image of Secretary of Vetera...

English: Official image of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The recent resignation of Eric Shinseki from his former position as the head of the Department of Veteran Affairs raised, once again, the issue of the responsibilities of a leader. While I will not address the specific case of Shinseki, I will use this opportunity discuss leadership and responsibility in general terms.

Not surprisingly, people often assign responsibility based on ideology. For example, Democrats would be more inclined to regard a Republican leader as being fully responsible for his subordinates while being more forgiving of fellow Democrats. However, judging responsibility based on political ideology is obviously a poor method of assessment. What is needed is, obviously enough, some general principles that can be used to assess the responsibility of leaders in a consistent manner.

Interestingly (or boringly) enough, I usually approach the matter of leadership and responsibility using an analogy to the problem of evil. Oversimplified quite a bit, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling God being all good, all knowing and all powerful with the existence of evil in the world. If God is all good, then he would tolerate no evil. If God was all powerful, He could prevent all evil. And if God was all knowing, then He would not be ignorant of any evil. Given God’s absolute perfection, He thus has absolute responsibility as a leader: He knows what every subordinate is doing, knows whether it is good or evil and has the power to prevent or cause any behavior. As such, when a subordinate does evil, God has absolute accountability. After all, the responsibility of a leader is a function of what he can know and the extent of his power.

In stark contrast, a human leader (no matter how awesome) falls rather short of God. Such leaders are clearly not perfectly good and they are obviously not all knowing or all powerful. These imperfections thus lower the responsibility of the leader.

In the case of goodness, no human can be expected to be morally perfect. As such, failures of leadership due to moral imperfection can be excusable—within limits. The challenge is, of course, sorting out the extent to which imperfect humans can legitimately be held morally accountable and to what extent our unavoidable moral imperfections provide a legitimate excuse. These standards should be applied consistently to leaders so as to allow for the highest possible degree of objectivity.

In the case of knowledge, no human can be expected to be omniscient—we have extreme limits on our knowledge. The practical challenge is sorting out what a leader can reasonably be expected to know and the responsibility of the leader should be proportional to that extent of knowledge. This is complicated a bit by the fact that there are at least two factors here, namely the capacity to know and what the leader is obligated to know. Obligations to know should not exceed the human capacity to know, but the capacity to know can often exceed the obligation to know. For example, the President could presumably have everyone spied upon (which is apparently what he did do) and thus could, in theory, know a great deal about his subordinates. However, this would seem to exceed what the President is obligated to know (as President) and probably exceeds what he should know.

Obviously enough, what a leader can know and what she is obligated to know will vary greatly based on the leader’s position and responsibilities. For example, as the facilitator of the philosophy & religion unit at my university, my obligation to know about my colleagues is very limited as is my right to know about them. While I have an obligation to know what courses they are teaching, I do not have an obligation or a right to know about their personal lives or whether they are doing their work properly on outside committees. So, if a faculty member skipped out on committee meetings, I would not be responsible for this—it is not something I am obligated to know about.

As another example, the chair of the department has greater obligations and rights in this regard. He has the right and obligation to know if they are teaching their classes, doing their assigned work and so on. Thus, when assessing the responsibility of a leader, sorting out what the leader could know and what she was obligated to know are rather important matters.

In regards to power (taken in a general sense), even the most despotic dictator’s powers are still finite. As such, it is reasonable to consider the extent to which a leader can utilize her authority or use up her power to compel subordinates to obey. As with knowledge, responsibility is proportional to power. After all, if a leader lacks to power (or authority) to compel obedience in regards to certain matters, then the leader cannot be accountable for not making the subordinates do or not do certain actions. Using myself as an example, my facilitator position has no power: I cannot demote, fire, reprimand or even put a mean letter into a person’s permanent record. The extent of my influence is limited to my ability to persuade—with no rewards or punishments to offer. As such, my responsibility for the actions of my colleagues is extremely limited.

There are, however, legitimate concerns about the ability of a leader to make people behave correctly and this raises the question of the degree to which a leader is responsible for not being persuasive enough or using enough power to make people behave. That is, the concern is when bad behavior based on resisting applied authority or power is the fault of the leader or the fault of the resistor. This is similar to the concern about the extent to which responsibility for failing to learn falls upon the teacher and to which it falls on the student. Obviously, even the best teacher cannot reach all students and it would seem reasonable to believe that even the best leader cannot make everyone do what they should be doing.

Thus, when assessing alleged failures of leadership it is important to determine where the failures lie (morality, knowledge or power) and the extent to which the leader has failed. Obviously, principled standards should be applied consistently—though it can be sorely tempting to damn the other guy while forgiving the offenses of one’s own guy.

 

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science & Philosophy

Posted in Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2014
Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March of 2014 popular astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Nerdist Podcast. This did not garner much attention until May when some philosophers realized that Tyson was rather critical and dismissive of philosophy. As might be imagined, there was a response from the defenders of philosophy. Some critics went so far as to accuse him of being a philistine.

Tyson presents a not uncommon view of contemporary philosophy, namely that “asking deep questions” can cause a “pointless delay in your progress” in engaging “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” To avoid such pointless delays, Tyson advises scientists to respond to such questioners by saying, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

Since Tyson certainly seems to be a deep question sort of guy, it is tempting to consider that his remarks are not serious—that is, he is being sarcastic. Even if he is serious, it is also reasonable to consider that these remarks are off-the cuff and might not represent his considered view of philosophy in general.

It is also worth considering that the claims made are his considered and serious position. After all, the idea that a scientist would regard philosophy as useless (or worse) is quite consistent with my own experiences in academics. For example, the politically fueled rise of STEM and the decline of the humanities has caused some in STEM to regard this situation as confirmation of their superior status and on some occasions I have had to defuse conflicts instigated by STEM faculty making their views about the uselessness of non-STEM fields clear.

Whatever the case, the concern that the deep questioning of philosophy can cause pointless delays does actually have some merit and is well worth considering. After all, if philosophy is useless or even detrimental, then this would certainly be worth knowing.

The main bite of this criticism is that philosophical questioning is detrimental to progress: a scientist who gets caught in these deep questions, it seems, would be like a kayaker caught in a strong eddy: she would be spinning around and going nowhere rather than making progress. This concern does have significant practical merit. To use an analogy outside of science, consider a committee meeting aimed at determining the curriculum for state schools. This committee has an objective to achieve and asking questions is a reasonable way to begin. But imagine that people start raising deep questions about the meaning of terms such as “humanities” or “science” and become very interested in sorting out the semantics of various statements. This sort of sidetracking will result in a needlessly long meeting and little or no progress. After all, the goal is to determine the curriculum and deep questions will merely slow down progress towards this practical goal. Likewise, if a scientist is endeavoring to sort out the nature of the cosmos, deep questions can be a similar sort of trap: she will be asking ever deeper questions rather than gathering data and doing math to answer her less deep questions.

Philosophy, as Socrates showed by deploying his Socratic method, can endlessly generate deep questions. Questions such as “what is the nature of the universe?”, “what is time?”, “what is space?”, “what is good?” and so on. Also, as Socrates showed, for each answer given, philosophy can generate more questions. It is also often claimed that this shows that philosophy really has no answers since every alleged answer can be questioned or raises even more questions. Thus, philosophy seems to be rather bad for the scientist.

A key assumption seems to be that science is different from philosophy in at least one key way—while it raises questions, proper science focuses on questions that can be answered or, at the very least, gets down to the business of answering them and (eventually) abandons a question should it turn out to be a distracting deep question. Thus, science provides answers and makes progress. This, obviously enough, ties into another stock criticism of philosophy: philosophy makes no progress and is useless.

One rather obvious reason that philosophy is regarded as not making progress and as being useless is that when enough progress is made on a deep question, it is perceived as being a matter for science rather than philosophy. For example, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Democritus, speculated about the composition of the universe and its size (was it finite or infinite?) and these were considered deep philosophical questions. Even Newton considered himself a natural philosopher. He has, of course, been claimed by the scientist (many of whom conveniently overlook the role of God in his theories). These questions are now claimed by physicists, such as Tyson, who regard them as scientific rather than philosophical questions.

Thus, it is rather unfair to claim that philosophy does not solve problems or make progress—since when excellent progress is made, the discipline is labeled as science and no longer considered philosophy. However, the progress would have obviously been impossible without the deep questions that set people in search of answers and the work done by philosophers before the field was claimed as a science. To use an analogy, to claim that philosophy has made no progress or contributions would be on par with a student taking the work done by another, adding to it and then claiming the whole as his own work and deriding the other student as “useless.”

At this point, some might be willing to grudgingly concede that philosophy did make some valuable contributions (perhaps on par with how the workers who dragged the marble for Michelangelo’s David contributed) in the past, but philosophy is now an eddy rather than the current of progress.

Interestingly enough, philosophy has been here before—back in the days of Socrates the Sophists contended that philosophical speculation was valueless and that people should focus on getting things done—that is, achieving success. Fortunately for contemporary science, philosophy survived and philosophers kept asking those deep questions that seemed so valueless then.

While philosophy’s day might be done, it seems worth considering that some of the deep, distracting philosophical questions that are being asked are well worth pursuing—if only because they might lead to great things. Much as how Democritus’ deep questions led to the astrophysics that a fellow named Neil loves so much.

 

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Why is the Universe the Way it Is?

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on April 30, 2014
Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the fundamental questions shared by science, philosophy and theology is the question of why the universe is the way it is. Over the centuries, the answers have fallen into two broad camps. The first is that of teleology. This is the view that the universe is the way it is because it has a purpose, goal or end for which it aims. The second is the non-teleological camp, which is the denial of the teleological view. Members of this camp often embrace purposeless chance as the “reason” why things are as they are.

Both camps agree on many basic matters, such as the view that the universe seems to be finely tuned. Theorists vary a bit in their views on what a less finely tuned universe would be like. On some views, the universe would just be slightly different while on other views small differences would have significant results, such as an uninhabitable universe. Because of this apparent fine tuning, one main concern for philosophers and physicists is explaining why this is the case.

The dispute over this large question nicely mirrors the dispute over a smaller question, namely the question about why living creatures are the way they are. The division into camps follows the same pattern. On one side is the broad camp inhabited by those who embrace teleology and the other side dwell those who reject it. Interestingly, it might be possible to have different types of answers to these questions. For example, the universe could have been created by a deity (a teleological universe) who decides to let natural selection rather than design sort out life forms (non-teleological). That said, the smaller question does provide some interesting ways to answer the larger question.

As noted above, the teleological camp is very broad. In the United States, perhaps the best known form of teleology is Christian creationism. This view answers the large and the small question with God: He created the universe and the inhabitants. There are many other religious teleological views—the creation stories of various other cultures and faiths are examples of these. There are also non-religious views. Among these, probably the best known are those of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, roughly put, the universe is the way it is because of the Forms (and behind them all is the Good). Aristotle does not put any god in charge of the universe, but he regarded reality as eminently teleological. Views that posit laws governing reality also seem, to some, to be within the teleological camp. As such, the main divisions in the teleological camp tends to be between the religious theories and the non-religious theories.

Obviously enough, teleological accounts have largely fallen out of favor in the sciences—the big switch took place during the Modern era as philosophy and science transitioned away from Aristotle (and Plato) towards a more mechanistic and materialistic view of reality.

The non-teleological camp is at least as varied as the teleological camp and as old. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers considered the matter of what would now be called natural selection and the idea of a chance-based, purposeless universe is ancient.

One non-teleological way to answer the question of why the universe is the way it is would be to take an approach similar to Spinoza, only without God. This would be to claim that the universe is what it is as a matter of necessity: it could not be any different from what it is. However, this might be seen as unsatisfactory since one can easily ask about why it is necessarily the way it is.

The opposite approach is to reject necessity and embrace a random universe—it was just pure chance that the universe turned out as it did and things could have been very different. So, the answer to the question of why the universe is the way it is would be blind chance. The universe plays dice with itself.

Another approach is to take the view that the universe is the way it is and finely tuned because it has “settled” down into what seems to be a fine-tuned state. Crudely put, the universe worked things out without any guidance or purpose. To use an analogy, think of sticks and debris washed by a flood to form a stable “structure.” The universe could be like that—where the flood is the big bang or whatever got it going.

One variant on this would be to claim that the universe contains distinct zones—the zone we are in happened to be “naturally selected” to be stable and hospitable to life. Other zones could be rather different—perhaps so different that they are beyond our epistemic abilities. Or perhaps these zones “died” thus allowing an interesting possibility for fiction about the ghosts of dead zones haunting the cosmic night. Perhaps the fossils of dead universes drift around us, awaiting their discovery.

Another option is to expand things from there being just one universe to a multiverse. This allows a rather close comparison to natural selection: in place of a multitude of species, there is a multitude of universes. Some “survive” the selection while others do not. Just as we are supposed to be a species that has so far survived the natural selection of evolution, we live in a universe that has so far survived cosmic selection. If the model of evolution and natural selection is intellectually satisfying in biology, it would seem reasonable to accept cosmic selection as also being intellectually satisfying—although it will be radically different from natural selection in many obvious ways.

 

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Running & Freedom

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2014
Photo by Paula O'Neil

Photo by Paula O’Neil

This past Saturday, I was doing my short pre-race day run and, for no apparent reason, my left leg began to hurt badly. I made my way home, estimating the odds of a recovery by Sunday morning. When I got up Sunday, my leg felt better and my short jog before the race went well. Just before the start, I was optimistic: it seemed my leg would be fine. Then the race started. Then the pain.

I hobbled forward and “accelerated” to an 8:30 per minute mile (the downside of a GPS watch is that I cannot lie to myself). The beast of pain grew strong and tore at my will. Behind that armor, my fear and doubt cowered—urging me to drop out with whispered pleas. At that moment of weakness, I considered doing the unthinkable: hobbling over to the curb and leaving the race.

From the inside, that is in my mind, this seemed to be a paradigm example of the freedom of the will: I could elect to push on through the pain or I could decide to take the curb. It was, as it might be said, all up to me. While I was once pulled from a race because of injuries, I had never left one by choice—and I decided that this would not be my first. I kept going and the pain got worse.

At this point, I considered that my pride was pushing me to my destruction—that is, I was not making a good choice but being coerced into making a poor decision. Fortunately, three decades of running had trained me well in pain assessment: like most veteran runners I am reasonably good at distinguishing between what merely hurts and what is actually causing significant damage. Carefully considering the nature of the pain and the condition of my leg, I judged that it was mere pain. While I could still decide to stop, I decided to keep going. I did, however, grab as many of the high caffeine GU packs as I could—I figured that being wired up as much as possible would help with pain management.

Aided by the psychological boost of my self-medication (and commentary from friends about my unusually slow pace), I chose to speed up. By the time I reached mile 5 my leg had gone comfortably numb and I increased my speed even more, steadily catching and passing people. Seven miles went by and then I caught up with a former student. He yelled “I can’t let you pass me Dr. L!” and went into a sprint. I decided to chase after him, believing that I could still hobble a mile even if I was left with only one working leg. Fortunately, the leg held up better than my student—I got past him, then several more people and crossed the finish line running a not too bad 1:36 half-marathon. My leg remained attached to me, thus vindicating my choice. I then chose to stuff pizza into my pizza port—pausing only to cheer on people and pick up my age group award.

As the above narrative indicates, my view is that I was considering my options, assessing information from my body and deciding what to do. That is, I had cast myself as having what philosophers like to label as free will. From the inside, that is what it certainly seems like.

Of course, it would presumably seem the same way from the inside if I lacked free will. Spinoza, for example, claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. As Spinoza saw it, people think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” As such, on Spinoza’s view my “decisions” were not actual decisions. That is, I could not have chosen otherwise—like the stone, I merely did what I did and, in my ignorance, believed that I had decided my course.

Hobbes also takes a somewhat similar view. As he sees it, what I would regard as the decision making process of assessing the pain and then picking my action he would regard as a competition between two pulling forces within the mechanisms of my brain. One force would be pulling towards stopping, the other towards going. Since the forces were closely matched for a moment, it felt as if I was deliberating. But, the matter was determined: the go force was stronger and the outcome was set.

While current science would not bring in Spinoza’s God and would be more complicated than Hobbe’s view of the body, the basic idea would remain the same: the apparent decision making would be best explained by the working of the “neuromachinery” that is me—no choice, merely the workings of a purely mechanical (in the broad sense) organic machine. Naturally, many would through in some quantum talk, but randomness does not provide any more freedom that strict determinism.

While I think that I am free and that I was making choices in the race, I obviously have no way to prove that. At best, all that could be shown was that my “neuromachinery” was working normally and without unusual influence—no tumors, drugs or damage impeding the way it “should” work. Of course, some might take my behavior as clear evidence that there was something wrong, but they would be engaged in poor decision making.

Kant seems to have gotten it quite right: science can never prove that we have free will, but we certainly do want it. And pizza.

 

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Is Work a Blessing?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2013
English: Photograph from the records of the Na...

English: Photograph from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While watching news clips about the debate over cutting the SNAP program (more commonly known as food stamps), I saw Florida Republican Steve Southerland say “work is a blessing.” As he sees it, there should be a work requirement for people to be eligible for food stamps. This claim is certainly an interesting one.

In the United States, there is an entire mythology devoted to the notion of the blessings and value of work. The largest roots dig deep into the stereotypes of the Puritans: dour white folks dressed in penguin colors who scorned play and lived to work and pray. Or so the myths go. The mythology of Calvinism also contributed to this notion: the idea that people are pre-destined for heaven or hell—though the final destination could be discerned, perhaps, from the worldly success of the individual.

Interestingly, the mythology of work seems to have begun with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. On a not unreasonable interpretation of the text, God punishes man with a curse that will require him to work to survive: “Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life.” On this view, work is not a blessing, but a curse.

The mythology of capitalism, at least that which is distinct from the mythology of religion, also praises hard work and would seem to cast it as a blessing. This makes sense: the capitalist needs the workers to work hard for him so that they generate his profits. For the capitalist, the work of others is indeed a blessing. For him. Not surprisingly, those critical of the excesses of capitalism have contended that such work is not a blessing for the workers—especially children and those that toil in horrible conditions for pittances.

While Southerland simply threw out the claim that work is a blessing, presumably he has not given this matter considerable thought—at least in terms of properly defining work and sorting out what sorts of work (if any) are a blessing. There is also the question of what a blessing is. Perhaps he means that in today’s economic system, it is a blessing to be able to find a decent job. If so, I would agree that he is right. However, his intent seems to be that working itself has a special sort of value.

I would agree that working can have extrinsic value. After all, work is mainly aimed at achieving some end and usually there are other ends beyond that. For example, a person might work to assemble iPads in order to get money in order to buy food and pay the rent so as to avoid starving or dying of exposure. That, I suppose, could be seen as a rough sort of blessing. However, this sort of work seems to lack intrinsic value. That is, it is not something valuable in and of itself. After all, we do such work only because the alternative is worse. Few, if any, people would work most jobs if necessity and need did not drive them to do so, like a whip drives a mule.

I will even agree that work can be good for a person. After all, people seem to grow bored and discontent when they do not have appealing work to perform. Also, as my mother was fond of saying in my childhood, work can build character. She is obviously right—I turned out to be quite a character. However, not all work is of the sort that is good for a person. Working a crushing and demeaning job is work, yet obviously not a blessing for the person. Unless, of course, the alternative is worse.

I even accept that it is good for a person to earn his daily bread, at least when that earning is not destroying the person. After all, it is a matter of integrity to not simply receive but to earn. And even more so to give to those who are in need. Of course, I think a person could have the same or more integrity by living a life of value—and these need not be a life of what would be considered work. Which returns me to the matter of sorting out what is meant by “work.”

People use “work” in many ways, ranging from the toiling of slaves in the field to the creative acts of a free artist to running around a track (speed work). As such, the usual usage slams and jams together horrible things and pleasant things, torments and joys, evils and goods. As such, it is rather hard to say that work is blessing, given the incredible scope of the term. I would agree that some things that are called work are a blessing. I regard working out as a blessing—it is a gift indeed. I also regard much of my work, mainly teaching and writing, as blessings. However, this might be because, in a way, I do not see these things as work.

After all, work seems to be what is done from necessity in order to achieve some practical end (like not dying of starvation). What is done from choice because of the value of the activity itself seems to be another matter. Looked at this way, a workout is both a necessity and a valued choice: I need to do running work because it is necessary to be a runner. But, I also value running in and of itself—it is a choice I make for the sake of what I am choosing, not just to achieve some other end.

One of the grotesque failings of our civilization is that so many people have to engage in work of the onerous sort: grinding away the hours just to survive and seeing little value in what they do. Those who benefit from this often believe that this is a good thing for them, but they hold to a deranged set of values in which the accumulation of profit is seen as the highest good.

I am, obviously enough, borrowing heavily from Aristotle: the life of wealth and accumulation of wealth is not the proper function of man. Rather, it is the life of virtue and excellence. Sadly, as Wollstonecraft noted, wealth and property are valued more than virtue and poverty is regarded as a worse vice than wickedness.

Work, then, is not really a blessing. At best, it is necessity.

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Owning Genes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 17, 2013
Human genome to genes

Human genome to genes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While it sounds a bit like science fiction, the issue of whether or not human genes can be owned has become a matter of concern. While the legal issue is interesting, my focus will be on the philosophical aspects of the matter. After all, it was once perfectly legal to own human beings—so what is legal is rather different from what is right.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the ownership of genes is a stock consequentialist argument. If corporations cannot patent and thus profit from genes, then they will have no incentive to engage in expensive genetic research (such as developing tests for specific genes that are linked to cancer). The lack of such research will mean that numerous benefits to individuals and society will not be acquired (such as treatments for specific genetic conditions). As such, not allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

While this argument does have considerable appeal, it can be countered by another consequentialist argument. If human genes can be patented, then this will allow corporations to take exclusive ownership of these genes, thus allowing them a monopoly. Such patents will allow them to control the allowed research conducted even at non-profit institutions such as universities (who sometimes do research for the sake of research), thus restricting the expansion of knowledge and potentially slowing down the development of treatments. This monopoly would also allow the corporation to set the pricing for relevant products or services without any competition. This is likely to result in artificially high prices which could very well deny people needed medical services or products simply because they cannot meet the artificially high prices arising from the lack of competition. As such, allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

Naturally, this counter argument can be countered. However, the harms of allowing the ownership of human genes would seem to outweigh the benefits—at least when the general good is considered. Obviously, such ownership would be very good for the corporation that owns the patent.

In addition to the moral concerns regarding the consequences, there is also the general matter of whether it is reasonable to regard a gene as something that can be owned. Addressing this properly requires some consideration of the basis of property.

John Locke presents a fairly plausible account of property: a person owns her body and thus her labor. While everything is initially common property, a person makes something her own property by mixing her labor with it. To use a simple example, if Bill and Sally are shipwrecked on an ownerless island and Sally gathers coconuts from the trees and build a hut for herself, then the coconuts and hut are her property. If Bill wants coconuts or a hut, he’ll have to either do work or ask Sally for access to her property.

On Locke’s account, perhaps researchers could mix their labor with the gene and make it their own. Or perhaps not—I do not, for example, gain ownership of the word “word” in general because I mixed my labor with it by typing it out. I just own the work I have created in particular. That is, I own this essay, not the words making it up.

Sticking with Locke’s account, he also claims that we are owned by God because He created us. Interestingly, for folks who believe that God created the world, it would seem to follow that a corporation cannot own a human gene. After all, God is the creator of the genes and they are thus His property. As such, any attempt to patent a human gene would be an infringement on God’s property rights.

It could be countered that although God created everything, since He allows us to own the stuff He created (like land, gold, and apples), then He would be fine with people owning human genes. However, the basis for owning a gene would still seem problematic—it would be a case of someone trying to patent an invention which was invented by another person—after all, if God exists then He invented our genes, so a corporation cannot claim to have invented them. If the corporation claims to have a right to ownership because they worked hard and spent a lot of money, the obvious reply is that working hard and spending a lot of money to discover what is already owned by another would not transfer ownership. To use an analogy, if a company worked hard and spent a lot to figure out the secret formula to Coke, it would not thus be entitled to own Coca Cola’s formula.

Naturally, if there is no God, then the matter changes (unless we were created by something else, of course). In this case, the gene is not the property of a creator, but something that arose naturally. In this case, while someone can rightfully claim to be the first to discover a gene, no one could claim to be the inventor of a naturally occurring gene. As such, the idea that ownership would be confirmed by mere discovery would seem to be a rather odd one, at least in the case of a gene.

The obvious counter is that people claim ownership of land, oil, gold and other resources by discovering them. One could thus argue that genes are analogous to gold or oil: discovering them turns them into property of the discoverer. There are, of course, those who claim that the ownership of land and such is unjustified, but this concern will be set aside for the sake of the argument (but not ignored—if discovery does not confer ownership, then gene ownership would be right out in regards to natural genes).

While the analogy is appealing, the obvious reply is that when someone discovers a natural resource, she gains ownership of that specific find and not all instances of what she found. For example, when someone discovers gold, they own that gold but not gold itself. As another example, if I am the first human to stumble across naturally occurring Unobtanium on an owner-less alien world, I thus do not gain ownership of all instances of Unobtanium even if it cost me a lot of money and work to find it. However, if I artificially create it in my philosophy lab, then it would seem to be rightfully mine. As such, the researchers that found the gene could claim ownership of that particular genetic object, but not the gene in general on the grounds that they merely found it rather than created it. Also, if they had created a new artificial gene that occurs nowhere in nature, then they would have grounds for a claim of ownership—at least to the degree they created the gene.

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The Ethics of Genetic Extermination

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 24, 2012
Ochlerotatus notoscriptus, Tasmania, Australia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.

While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.

One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.

The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.

I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.

A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.

There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.

There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.

A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.

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God and Sandy Hook

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 20, 2012
Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Sandy Hook Elementary school brought the problem of evil once again into the media spotlight. While the specifics of the matter change with each horrible incident, the basic question remains the same: why does God allow evil to occur? I have considered this matter in various other essays, but here I will take a look at what two prominent members of America’s religious right have said about the matter.

Former governor and one time presidential contender Michael Huckabee said “We ask why there’s violence in our schools but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability.”

While Huckabee’s remark has been taken as claiming that God allowed the massacre because American public schools do not religious activities (such as prayer) and religious education (as opposed to teaching about religion), it can also be taken as expressing a slightly different view. Rather than claiming that God is being spiteful and allowing children to be slaughtered because He is experiencing a divine anger, Huckabee could be taken as asserting that the killings at schools occur because people do not have the proper religious education in public schools. Presumably Huckabee believes that if people received the correct religious education in public schools, then such killings would be less likely to occur.

The idea that the correct moral education will result in better behavior is an old one and was developed extensive in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—although I am sure that Huckabee and Aristotle would disagree about the specifics of the education since Aristotle was not a Christian. As such, if Huckabee is simply claiming that the killings at schools are caused by a failure of moral education, then his claim has some degree of plausibility. Of course, whether or not bringing Christianity back into public schools would reduce the chances of violence in America is another matter. One interesting point worth considering is that as people like Huckabee claim that society has grown worse as it has allegedly “removed God”, Steven Pinker argued in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence has been on the decline. While correlation is not proof of causation, this is a matter worth thinking about especially since Thomas Hobbes noted that one major cause of violence is disputes over religion.

Turning back to the problem of evil, Huckabee’s explanation does not really address this concern effectively. While it might explain why people do bad things in terms of a lack of proper education, this does not explain why God would allow the children and the faculty of Sandy Hook to be slaughtered. Bryan Fischer does, however, take this matter on directly.

Speaking about Sandy Hook, Bryan Fischer said “And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.”

Fischer’s explanation is very straightforward: God is too polite to go where he is not invited and hence He allowed the slaughter of children. This seems problematic, to say the least.

On the face of it, Fischer seems to be claiming that God’s sense of etiquette trumps His morality. That is, He would permit slaughter to occur rather than act in a way that might be regarded is impolite. This certainly seems to be an implausible claim. After all, consider the following analogy. Suppose I was accustomed to stopping by a friend’s house to get a drink from his garden hose while on my long summer runs. But then he got divorced and his wife got the house. While she does not dislike me, she asks me to no longer stop by to use the hose. Now, imagine that I am running by one day and she and her daughter are being attacked in her backyard. While I could easily defeat the attacker and save the two, I just run on by because I am no longer invited there. Intuitively, that would be morally wrong of me—even if I elected not to engage the attacker, I should at least do something. Also, if my reason is that I am not invited, then there are two obvious responses. First, it seems intuitively plausible to hold that my moral duty to help people in danger outweighs my moral duty to not be impolite. Second, it seems reasonable to think that my friend’s ex-wife and daughter would be happy to invite me to help them in their time of need. Obviously, since I am a decent person I would rush to help the two people in danger. If God is at least as good as me, He would presumably do the same. Also, God has nothing to worry about—the attacker would pose no threat to Him.

Another point of interest is that Fischer certainly seems to indicate that God would be glad to protect children if he were invited back. If he were right about this, this would seem to indicate that God would protect children in such circumstances. However, he seems to be exceptionally wrong about this. After all, God has allowed people of faith to die. He even has allowed children to be murdered in His churches. As such, the idea that God would protect children if we only asked him seems to be absurd. People have obviously asked and God has done nothing.

Of course, it could be countered that people have failed to properly invite God—that is, God would have helped if they had asked in the right way. Going back to the analogy given above, this would be like me running past by friend’s ex-wife and daughter and refusing to stop because their cries for help were not worded properly or otherwise defective. However, I would obviously help them regardless of how they requested aid—that is what a decent person would do. As noted above, presumably God is at least as good as I am, so if I would help regardless of the wording of the invite, so would God.

Overall, Huckabee and Fischer do not give an adequate response to the question of why God allowed the slaughter to occur. To be fair to them, no one ever has and probably no one ever will.

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Training the Will

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Running by Michael LaBossiere on December 14, 2012

In general, will is a very useful thing to have. After all, it allows a person to overcome factors that would make his decisions for him, such as pain, fear, anger, fatigue, lust or weakness. I would, of course, be remiss to not mention that the will can be used to overcome generally positive factors such as compassion, love and mercy as well. The will, as Kant noted, can apparently select good or evil with equal resolve. However, I will set aside the concern regarding the bad will and focus on training the will.

Based on my own experience, the will is rather like stamina—while people vary in what they get by nature, it can be improved by proper training. This, of course, nicely matches Aristotle’s view of the virtues.

While there are no doubt many self-help books discussing how to train the will with various elaborate and strange methods, the process is actually very straightforward and is like training any attribute. To be specific, it is mainly a matter of exercising the capacity but not doing so to excess (and thus burning out) or deficiency (and thus getting no gain). To borrow from Aristotle, one way of developing the will in regards to temperance is to practice refraining from pleasures to the proper degree (the mean) and this will help train the will. As another example, one can build will via athletic activities by continuing when pain and fatigue are pushing one to stop. Naturally, one should not do this to excess (because of the possibility of injury) nor be deficient in it (because there will be no gain).

As far as simple and easy ways to train the will, meditation and repetitive mental exercises (such as repeating prayers or simply repeated counting) seem to help in developing this attribute.

One advantage of the indirect training of the will, such as with running, is that it also tends to develop other resources that can be used in place of the will. To use a concrete example, when a person tries to get into shape to run, sticking with the running will initially take a lot of will because the pain and fatigue will begin quickly. However, as the person gets into shape it will take longer for them to start to hurt and feel fatigued. As such, the person will not need to use as much will when running (and if the person becomes a crazy runner like me, then she will need to use a lot of will to take a rest day from running). To borrow a bit from Aristotle, once a person becomes properly habituated to an activity, then the will cost of that activity becomes much less—thus making it easier to engage in that activity.  For example, a person who initially has to struggle to eat healthy food rather than junk food will find that resisting not only builds their will but also makes it easier to resist the temptations of junk.

Another interesting point of consideration is what could be called will surrogates. A will surrogate functions much like the will by allowing a person to resist factors that would otherwise “take control” of the person. However, what makes the will surrogate a surrogate is that it is something that is not actually the will—it merely serves a similar function. Having these would seem to “build the will” by providing a surrogate that can be called upon when the person’s own will is failing—sort of a mental tag team situation.

For example, a religious person could use his belief in God as a will surrogate to resist temptations forbidden by his faith, such as adultery. That is, he is able to do what he wills rather than what his lust is pushing him to do. As another example, a person might use pride or honor as will surrogates—she, for example, might push through the pain and fatigue of a 10K race because of her pride. Other emotions (such as love) and factors could also serve as will surrogates by enabling a person to do what he wills rather than what he is being pushed to do.

One obvious point of concern regarding will surrogates is that they could be seen not as allowing the person to do as he would will when he lacks his own will resources but as merely being other factors that “make the decision” for the person. For example, if a person resists having an affair with a coworker because of his religious beliefs, then it could be contended that he has not chosen to not have the affair. Rather, his religious belief (and perhaps fear of God) was stronger than his lust. If so, those who gain what appears to be willpower from such sources are not really gaining will. Rather they merely have other factors that make them do or not do things in a way that resembles the actions of the will.

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God, Rape & Free Will

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 10, 2012
freewill.jpg

freewill.jpg (Photo credit: Thunderkiss59)

The stock problem of evil is that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the Philosophy 101 conception of God, namely that God is all good, all powerful and all knowing. After all, if God has these attributes, then He knows about all evil, should tolerate no evil and has the power to prevent evil. While some take the problem of evil to show that God does not exist, it can also be taken as showing that this conception of God is in error.

Not surprisingly, those who wish to accept the existence of this all good, all powerful and all-knowing deity have attempted various ways to respond to the problem of evil. One standard response is, of course, that God has granted us free will and this necessitates that He allow us to do evil things. This, it is claimed, gets God off the hook: since we are free to choose evil, God is not accountable for the evil we do.

In a previous essay I discussed Republican Richard Mourdock’s view that “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” In the course of that essay, I briefly discussed the matter of free will. In this essay I will expand on this matter.

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that we have free will. Obviously, this can easily be dispute, I am interested in seeing whether or not such free will can actually get God off the hook for the evil that occurs, such as rape and its consequences.

On the face of it, free will would seem to free God from being morally accountable for our choices. After all, if God does not compel or influence our choices and we are truly free to select between good and evil, then the responsibility of the choice would rest on the person making the decision. It should also be added that God would presumably also be excused from allowing for evil choices—after all, in order for there to be truly free will in the context of morality there must be the capacity for choosing good or evil. Or so the stock arguments usually claim.

For the sake of the discussion I will also accept this second assumption, namely that free will gets God off the hook in regards to our choices. This does, of course, lead to an interesting question: does allowing free will also require that God allow the consequences of the evil choices to come to pass? That is, could God allow people moral autonomy in their choices, yet prevent their misdeeds from actually bearing their evil fruit?

One way to consider this matter is to take the view that free will requires that a person be able to make a moral decision and that this decision be either good or evil (or possibly neutral). After all, a moral choice must be a moral choice. On this approach, whether or not free will would be compatible with God preventing occurrences (like rape or pregnancy caused by rape) would seem to depend on what makes something good or evil.

There are, of course, a multitude of moral theories that address this matter. For the sake of brevity I will consider two: Kant’s view and the utilitarian view (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill).

Kant famously takes the view that “A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition—that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination…Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor take away anything from this value.”

For Kant, what makes a willing (decision) good or evil is contained in the act of willing itself. Hence, there would be no need to consider the consequences of an action stemming from a decision when determining the morality of the choice. An interesting illustration of this view can be found in Bioware’s Star Wars the Old Republic game. Players are often given a chance to select between light side (good) and dark side (evil) options, thus earning light side or dark side points which determine the moral alignment of the character. For example, a player might have to choose to kill or spare a defeated opponent.  Conveniently, the choices are labeled with symbols indicating whether a choice is light side or dark side—which would be very useful in real life.

If Kant’s view is correct, then God could allow the freedom of the will while also preventing evil choices from having any harmful consequences. For example, a person could freely chose to rape a woman and the moral choice would presumably be duly noted by God (in anticipation of judgment day). God could then simply prevent the rape from ever occurring—the rapist could, for example, stumble and fall while lunging towards his intended victim. As another example, a person could freely will the decision to murder someone, yet find that her gun fails to fire when aimed at the intended victim. In short, people could be free to make moral choices while at the same time being unable to actually bring those evil intentions into actuality. Thus, God could allow free will while also preventing anyone from being harmed.

It might be objected that God could not do this on the grounds that people would soon figure out that they could never actualize their evil decisions and hence people would (in general) stop making evil choices. That is, there would be a rather effective deterrent to evil choices, namely that they could never bear fruit and this would rob people of their free will. For example, those who would otherwise decide to rape if they could engage in rape would not do that because they would know that their attempts to act on their decisions would be thwarted.

The obvious reply is that free will does not mean that person gets what s/he wills—it merely means that the person is free to will. As such, people who want to rape could still will to rape and do so freely. They just would not be able to harm anyone.

It is, of course, obvious that this is not how the world works—people are able to do all sorts of misdeeds. However, since God could make the world work this way, this would suggest various possibilities such as God not existing or that God is not a Kantian. This leads me to the discussion of the utilitarian option.

On the stock utilitarian approach, the morality of an action depends on the consequences of said action. As Mill put it, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” As such, the morality of a willing would not be determined by the willing but by the consequences of the action brought about by the willing in question.

If this is correct, then God would need to allow the consequences of the willing to occur in order for the willing to be good or evil (or neutral). After all, if the willing had no consequences then it would have no moral significance on a consequentialist view like utilitarianism. So, for example, if a person freely wills to rape a woman, then God must not intervene. Otherwise He would be interfering with what determines the ethics of the willing. As such, if God did not allow the rapist to act upon his willing, then the decision to rape would not be an evil decision. If it is assumed that free will is essential to God being able to judge people for their deeds and misdeeds, then He would have to allow misdeeds to bear fruit so that they would be, in fact, misdeeds. On the usual view, He then punishes or rewards people after they die.

One rather obvious problem with this approach is that an all knowing God would know the consequences of an action even without allowing the action to take place. As such, God could allow people to will their misdeeds and then punish them for what the consequences would have been if they had been able to act upon their intentions. After all human justice punishes people even when they are prevented from committing their crimes. For example, someone who tries to murder another person is still justly punished even if she is prevented from succeeding.

It might be countered that God can only punish cases of actual evil rather than potential evil. That is, if the misdeed is prevented then it is not an actual misdeed and hence God cannot justly punish a person. On this view, God must allow rape in order to be able to toast rapists in Hell. This would, of course, require that God not consider an attempted evil deed as an evil deed. So, actual murder would be wrong, but attempted murder would not. This, of course, is rather contrary to human justice—but it could be claimed that human law and divine law are rather different. Obviously humans and God take very different approaches: we generally try to keep people from committing misdeeds whereas God apparently never does. Rather, He seems content to punish long after the fact—at least on the usual account of God.

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