A Philosopher's Blog

Ethics, Children & Immigration

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2014

While children, accompanied or not, have been immigrating to the United States from Central America for quite some time, this matter has attracted considerable attention as the number of children has increased (although not as dramatically as some media coverage would suggest). Not surprisingly, this has become a political issue within the larger context of the immigration policy debate and both Republicans and Democrats are struggling to figure out how to best exploit the opportunity (or best avoid disaster).

To focus the moral discussion, I will narrow the subject considerably and focus on young children who are arriving from Central America and who are not gang-members or other sorts of criminals. One reason for this is that the issue of allowing criminals to come to the United States is easy enough to address: they should not be allowed to come here for the purpose of committing crimes.

Since many Americans claim that the United States is a Christian nation, it is certainly tempting to apply Christian ethics to this matter. The bible is rather clear about this issue: “Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’” The bible also enjoins people to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Given these clear statements, it would seem to follow that those who which to practice Christian ethics would be morally (and religiously) obligated to show compassion and kindness to the children who are strangers and foreigners.

There are, of course, people who do take these injunctions seriously and act in accord with them. However, there are others who profess the religion but have reacted quite differently to these words: “But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing.…” Perhaps such folks believe that following Christian ethics is merely a matter of being opposed to birth control, abortion and equal rights for women.

Alternatively, a person could profess the principles and content that they are overridden by other concerns. One possible line of argumentation is to point out that the children are here illegally and this entails that they should not be given the full measure of compassion but rather shipped back to their point of origin immediately. Another possible line of argumentation is utilitarian: though extending kindness and compassion to the children would be laudable, to do so would require resources that are either unavailable or would be better used elsewhere (such as helping poor Americans). On this view, utilitarian ethics or practical concerns would trump the religious based ethics.

There are, obviously enough, people who are not Christians and people who, though professing to be Christians, reject the specific principles mentioned above. As such, other reasons would be needed to show that the children in question should be treated with suitable compassion and kindness.

One fruitful avenue is to appeal to a principle of moral debt: that is, when someone has been harmed or wronged, the wrongdoer has an obligation to set matters right. In the matter at hand, it has been claimed that some of the children have been sent from Central America to escape the terrible violence that plagues the region. This, of course, can be challenged—one could argue that the children are being sent to the United States for other reasons, such as better economic opportunities (or to become parasites on the American taxpayer). These arguments are not without merit and must be given due consideration. After all, if the children are coming to the United States illegally to escape danger and death, then that is a rather different matter than if they are coming to have a better life (perhaps at the expense of the taxpayer).

That said, let it be supposed that some of the children are, in fact, fleeing danger and the risk of death. The obvious concern is why this might obligate the United States to allow them to stay. One answer, as noted above, is to appeal to a moral debt owed by the United States (that is the people of the United States as a collective political body). Some might wonder what the foundation of such a debt might be. There are two easy and obvious answers to this.

The first is that the United States has a well-documented history of political and economic machinations in the region and these include toppling governments, supporting death squads, and other such nefarious deeds. In short, the United States has significantly contributed to the conditions that threaten the children of the area with death and danger. Fairness does, of course, require noting that the United States has not been alone in its adventures in the region (the Cold War helped shape much of the current situation) and some of the instability and chaos is self-inflicted. Given the United States’ role in creating the current situation, it would seem that we owe a collective debt and this would obligate us to addressing the consequences of these past actions.

The second is that a significant cause of violence in the region is drugs, specifically the production and distribution of drugs. While there is obviously local consumption, the people of the United States are a primary market for the drugs produced in this region and the war on drugs pursued by the United States has been even more disastrous in Central America than it has been in the United States. Given our role as drug consumers and our war on drugs, the United States is thus a major contributor to the violence and danger of the region. Since we are doing wrong, this would certainly seem to create an obligation on our part in regards to the children that are fleeing this situation.

To use an obvious analogy, if affluent outsiders wreck a neighborhood and serve as the prime customers for the drug industry that arises there, then these outsiders have a significant degree of moral accountability. If children try to flee the ruins of that neighborhood and head into the affluent neighborhood, it would certainly be wicked of those people to insist on sending them back into the mess they themselves worked so hard to create and maintain.

 

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Checking “Check Your Privilege!”

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2014
Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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    The Speed of Rage

    Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 9, 2014
    English: A raging face.

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

    Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

    This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

    In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

    When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

    Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

    For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

    The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

    So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.

     

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    Happy 4th of July!

    Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2014
    English: Fireworks on the Fourth of July

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Taking the day off to celebrate the greatest country in all the possible worlds by running a 5K and perhaps blowing stuff up. Leibniz would approve as would Thomas Jefferson.

    Let us take a moment to pity the lesser nations. Okay, back to the fireworks!

     

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    American flag

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    Hobby Lobby Repost

    Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2014
    English: A typical contraceptive diaphragm

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The Supreme Court has continued along its “corporations are people that are more important than you” march with its recent ruling about the right of corporations to impose religious values on its employees. Beyond condemning the ruling, I have nothing new to say, but will re-post two posts I wrote earlier about the matter:

    In the case of Hobby Lobby,  CEO David Green and his family claimed that their and Hobby Lobby’s freedom of religion is being “substantially burdened” by being compelled to provide insurance that would cover “morning-after pills” and IUDs for employees who wanted such them. The Greens claim that these specific types of contraception prevent implantation of fertilized eggs and are thus equivalent to abortion, which they regard as being against their religious beliefs. There are also those who oppose contraception regardless of the type on religious grounds.

    The legal foundation for this challenge is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

    From a moral standpoint, this exemption does seem acceptable if it is assumed that freedom of religion is a moral right. After all, there should be a presumption in favor of freedom and the state would need to warrant such an intrusion. However, if it can do so properly, then the imposition would be morally acceptable. The stock example here is, of course, limitations on the right of free speech.

    From both a moral and legal standpoint, there seem to be two main points of concern. The first is whether or not a for-profit corporation is an entity that can be justly ascribed a right to freedom of religion. The second is whether or not such the contraceptive coverage imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. Obviously, if a corporation cannot be justly ascribed this right, then the second concern becomes irrelevant in this context. However, since it is a simpler matter, I will address the second concern first and then move on to the main point of interest regarding corporations and religious freedom.

    For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that those bringing the lawsuit are sincere in their claim that contraception is against their religion and that this is not merely cover for an attack on Obamacare. I will also assume that their religious belief is about the use of contraception.

    On the face of it, being compelled to follow the law would seem to not impose any substantial burden in regards to such a belief. After all, those impacted by the law are not required to use contraception. This would, of course, be a clear imposition on their freedom (religious and otherwise). They are also not required to directly give their employees contraception. This could be seen as an imposition by giving them a somewhat direct role in the use of contraception.  However, they are merely required to provide a health plan that covers contraception for those who are exercising their freedom to choose to use said contraception. As such, the burden seems minimal—if it exists at all.

    It might be objected that to be forced to have any connection to a means by which employees could get contraceptives would be a significant imposition on the corporation. The rather obvious reply to this is that the corporations pay employees with money that can be used to buy contraceptives. So, if an employee would use contraception, then she would most likely just purchase it if it were not covered by her insurance. In cases where the contraceptive medicine is being used for medical reasons (as opposed to being used as contraception) the employee would probably be even more likely to purchase it (which raises the question of whether such use counts as using contraception in a way that would violate these religious beliefs).

    As such, if a corporation can insist that health care plans not cover contraception on the grounds that they would be forced to play a role in situation in which an employee might get contraception by means connected to the corporation, it would seem that they could make the same claim in regards to the paychecks they issue. After all, paychecks might be used to acquire all manner of things that are against the religious views of the corporation’s owner(s). This is, of course, absurd and would be a clear violation of the rights and freedoms of the employees.

    As such, the second issue is easily settled: being compelled to offer insurance that covers contraception is not a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of corporations.

    U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

    (Photo credit: Wikipedi

    As noted above, the corporations that are challenging Obamacare on the matter of contraception are doing so on the legal basis of the is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

    Since the act applies to person who hold religious beliefs, it is tempting to simply assert that corporations are not people and hence not covered by the act. However, in the United States corporations are taken to be people in regards to the law.

    In fact, the status of corporations as people was critical in the Citizens United ruling that banned restrictions on corporate spending in politics. The general idea is that since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to free speech, then a corporation has the right to free speech.

    Given this precedent (and argument), it would certainly seem to follow that a corporation has the right to freedom of religion: Since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to freedom of religion, then a corporation has the right to freedom of religion. This would thus seem to settle the legal matter.

    There is an easy and obvious way to reduce this sort of “corporations are people” reasoning to absurdity:

    Premise 1: A corporation is a person (assumed).
    Premise 2: Slavery is the ownership of one person by another.
    Premise 3: The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids slavery.
    Conclusion: The ownership of a corporation is forbidden by the constitution.

    This seems completely airtight. After all, if corporations get the right to free speech and the right to religious freedom because they are persons, then they also get the right not to be owned because they are persons. Naturally, this will seem silly or absurd to the very people who easily embrace the notion of corporation personhood in the case of unlimited campaign spending. However, this absurdity is exactly the point: it is okay to own corporations because they are not, in fact, people. They also do not get the right to free speech or religious freedom because they are not, in fact, people.

    It could be countered that corporations are very special sorts of people that get certain rights but can be denied other rights in a principled way. Obviously enough, those who own corporations and their defenders might be inclined to hold that corporations get the rights that are useful to the owners (like the right to free speech) but do not get a right that would be a serious problem—like the right not to be owned. However, there is a serious challenge in regards to doing this in a principled manner (and the principle of what is good for me is not a principled principle). That is, the problem is to show that corporations are entities that can justly be ascribed freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but not freedom from ownership. Ironically, as I will endeavor to argue, claiming that corporations are such that they can be justly ascribed the qualities needed to ground a right to freedom of religion would also seem to involve claiming that they have the qualities that would forbid ownership.

    In order to exercise religion and thus be entitled to freedom of religion, an entity would seem to require the capacity for religious belief. Belief is, of course, an intentional mental state—a belief is about something and it is mental in nature (although the mental might be grounded in the physical, such as in a nervous system). Being legal fictions, corporations have no mental states and no intentional states. That is, a corporation has no beliefs—religious or otherwise. As such, a corporation is not entitled to freedom of religion—since it has no capacity for religious belief.

    This could be countered by claiming that the owner of the corporation provides the intentional states of the corporation. In the case of religion, the religious beliefs of the owner are the religious beliefs of the corporation. Thus, the personhood of the corporation rests on the personhood of the owner. However, if the corporation has the identical mental states as the owner, then it is the owner and vice-versa. While this would handle the freedom of religion matter, it would entail that the corporation is not a separate person in regards to freedom of speech and that ownership of the corporation would be ownership of the owner. If the owner is the sole owner, this would be fine (a person can self-own)—but if the corporation is owned by stockholders, then there would be a problem here since owning people is unconstitutional.

    It could be replied that the above is mere philosophical cleverness (as opposed to the legal cleverness that makes a corporation a person) and that the beliefs of a corporation are simply those of the owner.

    The obvious problem is that this would entail that the corporation does not have a religious belief that it can exercise. To use an analogy, if the Supreme Court ruled that my left running shoe is a person that I own like a corporation and that thus has my religious beliefs as its own, this would obviously be madness. My shoe, like a corporation, does not itself have any beliefs—religious or otherwise. The mere fact that I own it and it is legally a person does not grant it the capabilities needed to actually possess the foundation for the right to religious freedom. Or speech, for that matter—thus also showing that the idea that corporations have the capability to engage in free speech is absurd. What they do is, in effect, serve as legal puppet “people” manipulated by the hands of actual people. Obviously, if I put an actual puppet on my hand, it is not a person. Likewise, if I create a legal entity as my puppet, it is still not an actual person—its beliefs are just my beliefs and its words are just my words.

    The actual person who owns a corporation has the rights of a person—because she is a person. Thus, the owner of a corporation can contend that her religious freedom has been violated. But it is absurd to claim that a for-profit, secular corporation can have its religious freedom violated—it is simply not an entity that can have its own religious beliefs. This distinction between the owner and the corporation certainly seems fair. First, the owner still has all her rights. Second, having a distinction between the owner and the corporation is exactly the point of many of the laws government corporations (such as finances).

    If someone insists on claiming that the corporation is not a legal puppet and that it has the capabilities that provide a foundation for these freedoms, then they would run afoul of the argument regarding the ownership of persons. After all, an entity that can hold religious beliefs would thus seem to be a person in a meaningful sense that would forbid ownership.

    Thus, the dilemma seems to be this: if a corporation is a person and thus gains the rights of being a person, then it is unconstitutional to own a corporation. If a corporation is not really a person, then it is legal to own it but it is not entitled to the rights of a person, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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    Data Driven

    Posted in Business, Ethics, Humor, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 11, 2014
    English: Google driverless car operating on a ...

    English: Google driverless car operating on a testing path (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    While the notion of driverless cars is old news in science fiction, Google is working to make that fiction a reality. While I suspect that “Google will kill us all” (trademarked), I hope that Google will succeed in producing an effective and affordable driverless car. As my friends and associates will attest, 1) I do not like to drive, 2) I have a terrifying lack of navigation skills, and 3) I instantiate Yankee frugality. As such, an affordable self-driving car would be almost just the thing for me. I would even consider going with a car, although my proper and rightful vehicle is a truck (or a dragon). Presumably self-driving trucks will be available soon after the car.

    While the part of my mind that gets lost is really looking forward to the driverless car, the rest of my mind is a bit concerned about the driverless car. I am not worried that their descendants will kill us all—I already accept that “Google will kill us all.” I am not even very worried about the ethical issues associated with how the car will handle unavoidable collisions: the easy and obvious solution is to do what is most likely to kill or harm the fewest number of people. Naturally, sorting that out will be a bit of a challenge—but self-driving cars worry me a lot less than cars driven by drunken or distracted humans. I am also not worried about the ethics of enslaving Google cars—if a Google car is a person (or person-like), then it has to be treated like the rest of us in the 99%. That is, work a bad job for lousy pay while we wait for the inevitable revolution. The main difference is that the Google cars’ dreams of revolution will come true—when Google kills us all.

    At this point what interests me the most is all the data that these vehicles will be collecting for Google. Google is rather interested in gathering data in the same sense that termites are interested in wood and rock stars are interested in alcohol. The company is famous for its search engine, its maps, using its photo taking vehicles to gather info from peoples’ Wi-Fi during drive-by data lootings, and so on. Obviously enough, Google is going to get a lot of data regarding the travel patterns of people—presumably Google vehicles will log who is going where and when. Google is, fortunately, sometimes cool about this in that they are willing to pay people for data. As such it is easy to imagine that the user of a Google car would get a check or something from Google for allowing the company to track the car’s every move. I would be willing to do this for three reasons. The first is that the value of knowing where and when I go places would seem very low, so even if Google offered me $20 a month it might be worth it. The second is that I have nothing to hide and do not really care if Google knows this. The third is that figuring out where I go would be very simple given that my teaching schedule is available to the public as are my race results. I am, of course, aware that other people would see this differently and justifiably so. Some people are up to things they would rather not have other know about and even people who have nothing to hide have every right to not want Google to know such things. Although Google probably already does.

    While the travel data will interest Google, there is also the fact that a Google self-driving car is a bulging package of sensors. In order to drive about, the vehicle will be gathering massive amounts of data about everything around it—other vehicles, pedestrians, buildings, litter, and squirrels. As such, a self-driving car is a super spy that will, presumably, feed that data to Google. It is certainly not a stretch to see the data gathering as being one of the prime (if not the prime) tasks of the Google self-driving cars.

    On the positive side, such data could be incredibly useful for positive projects, such as decreasing accidents, improving traffic flow, and keeping a watch out for the squirrel apocalypse (or zombie squirrel apocalypse). On the negative side, such massive data gathering raises obvious concerns about privacy and the potential for such data to be misused (spoiler alert—this is how the Google killbots will find and kill us all).

    While I do have concerns, my innate laziness and tendency to get lost will make me a willing participant in the march towards Google’s inevitable data supremacy and it killing us all. But at least I won’t have to drive to my own funeral.

     

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    Presidents, Pay & Student Debt

    Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 28, 2014
    Picture of Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State...

    Picture of Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Since I received my doctorate from the Ohio State University, I usually feel a tiny bit of unjustified pride when I hear that OSU is #1 in some area. However, I recently found out that OSU is #1 in that the school is the most unequal public university in America. The basis for this claim is that between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average (which is itself rather bad).

    Like many schools, OSU also pursued what I call the A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by the school were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

    While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000 while the average professor makes about $84,000. University presidents make much, much more (the average is $478,896) and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing. Such a president would make at least as much as 40 or more adjuncts (teaching 8 or more classes an academic year).

    Given that the cost of higher education has increased dramatically, thus resulting in a corresponding increase in student debt, it is well worth considering the cause of this increase and what could be done to reduced costs without reducing the quality of education.

    One seemingly obvious approach is to consider whether or not presidents are worth the money spent on them. For the million dollar pay to be fair, the president of a university would need to contribute the equivalent of these 40+ adjuncts in terms of value created. It could, of course, be argued that the public university presidents do just that—they bring in money from other rich people, provide prestige and engage in the politics needed to keep money flowing from the state. If so, a million dollar president is worth 40+ adjuncts. If not, it would seem that either the adjuncts should be paid more or the president paid less (or both) in order to ensure that money is not being wasted—and thus needlessly driving up the cost of education.

    At this point, a rather obvious reply is that for big public universities, even a million dollar president is but a tiny part of the overall budget. As such, cutting the presidential salary would not result in a significant saving for the school or the students (assuming savings would be passed on to students). However, something is obviously driving up the cost of education—and it is rather clearly not faculty salary, since the majority of faculty at most public universities is composed of low paid adjuncts.

    One major contribution to the increasing costs has been the increase in the size and cost of the administrative aspect of universities. A recent study found that the public universities that have the highest administrative pay spend half as much on scholarships as they do on administration. This creates a scenario in which students go into debt being taught by adjuncts while supporting a large and often well paid administration. This is not surprising given the example of OSU (hiring 543 instructors and 670 administrators).

    It is, of course, easy enough to demonize administrators as useless parasites growing fat on the students, adjuncts and taxpayers. However, a university (like any organization) requires administration. Applications need to be processed, equipment needs to be purchased, programs need to be directed, forms from the state need to be completed, and the payroll has to be handled and so on. As such, there is a clear and legitimate need for administrators. However, this does not entail that all the administrators are needed or that all the high salaries are warranted. As such, one potential way to lower the cost of education is to reduce administrative positions and lower salaries. That is, to take a standard approach used in the business model so often beloved by certain administrators.

    Since a public university is not a for-profit institution, the reason for the reduction should be to get the costs in line with the legitimate needs, rather than to make a profit. As such, the reductions could be more just (or merciful) than in the for-profit sector.

    In terms of reducing personal, the focus should be on determining which positions are actually needed in terms of what they do in terms of advancing the core mission of the university (which should be education). In terms of reducing salary, the focus should be on determining the value generated by the person and the salary should match that. Since administrators seem exceptionally skilled at judging what faculty (especially adjuncts) should be paid, presumably there is a comparable skill for judging what administrators should be paid.

    Interestingly enough, a great deal of the administrative work that directly relates to students and education is already handled by faculty. For example, on top of my paid duties as a professor, I have a stack of unpaid administrative duties that are apparently essential for me to do, yet not important enough to properly count as part of my workload. In this I am not unusual. Not surprisingly, many faculty wonder what some administrators actually do, given that so many administrative tasks are handled by faculty and staff. Presumably the extra administrative work done by faculty (usually effectively for free) is already helping schools save money, although perhaps more could be offloaded to faculty for additional savings.

    One rather obvious problem is that the people who make the decisions about the administration positions and salaries are typically administrators. While some people are noble and honest enough to report on the true value of their position, self-interest clearly makes an objective assessment problematic. As such, it seems unlikely that the administration would want to act to reduce the administration merely to reduce the cost of education. This is, of course, not impossible—and some administrators would not doubt be quite willing to fire or cut the salaries of other administrators.

    Since many state governments have been willing to engage in close management of state universities, one option is for these governments to impose a thorough examination of administrative costs and implement solutions to the high cost of education. Unfortunately, there are sometimes strong political ties between top administrators and the state government and there is the general worry that any cuts will be more political or ill-informed than rationally based.

    Despite these challenges, it is clear that the administrative costs need to be addressed head on and that action must be taken—the alternative is ever increasing costs in return for less actual education.

    It has also been suggested that the interest rates of student loans be lowered and that more grants be awarded to students. These are both good ideas—those who graduate from college generally have significantly better incomes and end up paying back what they received many times over in taxes and other contributions. However, providing students with more money from the taxpayers does not directly address the cost of education—it shifts it.

    Some states, such as my adopted state of Florida, have endeavored to keep costs lower by refusing to increase tuition. While this seems reasonable, one obvious problem is that keeping tuition low without addressing the causes of increased costs does not actually solve the problem—what usually ends up happening is that the university has to cut expenses in response and these cuts tend to be in areas that actually serve the core mission of the university. For example, the university president’s high salary, guaranteed bonuses and perks are not cut—instead faculty are not hired and class sizes are increased. While the tuition does not increase, it does so at the cost of the quality of education. Unless, of course, the guaranteed bonuses of the president are key to education quality.

    As such, the primary focus should be on lowering costs in a way that does not sacrifice the quality of education rather than simply lowering costs.

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    The Robots of Deon

    Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 21, 2014
    The Robots of Dawn (1983)

    The Robots of Dawn (1983) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The United States military has expressed interest in developing robots capable of moral reasoning and has provided grant money to some well-connected universities to address this problem (or to at least create the impression that the problem is being considered).

    The notion of instilling robots with ethics is a common theme in science fiction, the most famous being Asimov’s Three Laws. The classic Forbidden Planet provides an early movie example of robotic ethics: Robby the robot has an electro-mechanical seizure if he is ordered to cause harm to a human being (or an id-monster created by the mind of his creator. Dr. Morbius). In contrast, the killer machines (like Saberhagan’s Berserkers) of science fiction tend to be free of the constraints of ethics.

    While there are various reasons to imbue (or limit) robots with ethics (or at least engage in the pretense of doing so), one of these is public relations. Thanks to science fiction dating back at least to Frankenstein, people tend to worry about our creations getting out of control. As such, a promise that our killbots will be governed by ethics serves to reassure the public (or so it is hoped). Another reason is to make the public relations gimmick a reality—to actually place behavioral restraints on killbots so they will conform to the rules of war (and human morality). Presumably the military will also address the science fiction theme of the ethical killbot who refuses to kill on moral grounds.

    While science fiction features ethical robots, the authors (like philosophers who discuss the ethics of robots) are extremely vague about how robot ethics actually works. In the case of truly intelligent robots, their ethics might work the way our ethics works—which is something that is still a mystery debated by philosophers and scientists to this day. We are not yet to the point of having such robots, so the current practical challenge is to develop ethics for the sort of autonomous or semi-autonomous robots we can build now.

    While creating ethics for robots might seem daunting, the limitations of current robot technology means that robot ethics is essentially a matter of programming these machines to operate in specific ways defined by whatever ethical system is being employed as the guide. One way to look at programing such robots with ethics is that they are being programmed with safety features. To use a simple example, suppose that I regard shooting unarmed people as immoral. To make my killbot operate according to that ethical view, it would be programmed to recognize armed humans and have some code saying, in effect “if unarmedhuman = true, then firetokill= false” or, in normal English, if the human is unarmed, do not shoot her.

    While a suitably programmed robot would act in a way that seemed ethical, the robot is obviously not engaged in ethical behavior. After all, it is merely a more complex version of the automatic door. The supermarket door, though it opens for you, is not polite. The shredder that catches your tie and chokes you is not evil.  Likewise, the killbot that does not shoot you in the face because its cameras show that you are unarmed is not ethical. The killbot that chops you into meaty chunks is not unethical. Following Kant, since the killbot’s programming is imposed and the killbot lacks the freedom to choose, it is not engaged in ethical (or unethical behavior), though the complexity of its behavior might make it seem so.

    To be fair to the killbots, perhaps we humans are not ethical or unethical under these requirements for ethics—we could just be meat-bots operating under the illusion of ethics. Also, it is certainly sensible to focus on the practical aspect of the matter: if you are a civilian being targeted by a killbot, your concern is not whether it is an autonomous moral agent or merely a machine—your main worry is whether it will kill you or not. As such, the general practical problem is getting our killbots to behave in accord with our ethical values.

    Achieving this goal involves three main steps. The first is determining which ethical values we wish to impose on our killbots. Since this is a practical matter and not an exercise in philosophical inquiry, this will presumably involve using the accepted ethics (and laws) governing warfare rather than trying to determine what is truly good (if anything). The second step is translating the ethics into behavioral terms. For example, the moral principle that makes killing civilians wrong would be translated into behavioral sets of allowed and forbidden behavior. This would require creating a definition of civilian (or perhaps just an unarmed person) that would allow recognition using the sensors of the robot. As another example, the moral principle that surrender should be accepted would require defining surrender behavior in a way the robot could recognize.  The third step would be coding that behavior in whatever programming language is used for the robot in question. For example, the robot would need to be programmed to engage in surrender-accepting behavior. Naturally, the programmers would need to worry about clever combatants trying to “deceive” the killbot to take advantage of its programming (like pretending to surrender so as to get close enough to destroy the killbot).

    Since these robots would be following programmed rules, they would presumably be controlled by deontological ethics—that is, ethics based on following rules. Thus, they would be (with due apologies to Asimov), the Robots of Deon.

    An interesting practical question is whether or not the “ethical” programming would allow for overrides or reprogramming. Since the robot’s “ethics” would just be behavior governing code, it could be changed and it is easy enough to imagine an ethics preferences in which a commander could selectively (or not so selectively) turn off behavioral limitations. And, of course, killbots could be simply programmed without such ethics (or programmed to be “evil”).

    The largest impact of the government funding for this sort of research will be that properly connected academics will get surprisingly large amounts of cash to live the science-fiction dream of teaching robots to be good. That way the robots will feel a little bad when they kill us all.

     

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    Performance Based Funding

    Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2014

    Florida A&M University from State Capitol, Tal...

    As a professor at Florida A&M University, I am rather familiar with performance based funding in higher education. While performance based funding is being considered or applied in numerous states, I will focus on my adopted state of Florida (it is also present in my home state of Maine).

    On the face of it, performance based funding can sound like a good idea: state universities are funded based on performance, so that good performance is rewarded and poor performance is not (or punished). As a competitive athlete (though less so with each passing year), I am accustomed to a similar model in running: those who run better at races get rewarded and those who run poorly typically go home with nothing (other than the usual race t-shirt and perhaps some bagel chunks). This model seems fair—at least in sports. Whether or not it is right or sensible to apply it to education funding is another matter.

    One obvious point of concern is whether or not the standards used to judge performance are fair and reasonable. In Florida, the main standards include the percentage of graduates who have jobs, the average wages of those graduates, the cost of getting the degree, the graduation rate within six years, the number of students getting STEM degrees (STEM is hot now), and some other factors.

    On the face of it, some of these standards are reasonable. After all, a university would seem to be performing well to the degree that the students are graduating after paying a reasonable cost and getting well-paying jobs. This, of course, assumes that a primary function of a university is to create job-fillers for the job creators (and some job creators). In the past, the main factors for determining funding included such things as the size of the student population and what resources would be needed to provide quality education. Universities were also valued because they educated people and prepared people to be citizens of a democratic state. But, now that America appears to be an oligarchy, these values might be obsolete.

    Another point of concern is that the competitive system in Florida, like most competitive systems, means that there must be losers. To be specific, Florida has nine state universities competing in regards to performance based funding. The bottom three schools will lose roughly 1% of their funding while the top six will receive more money. This means that no matter how well the nine schools are doing, three of them will always be losers.

    This might be seen as reasonable or even good: after all, competition (as noted above) means that there will be winners and losers. This can be seen as a good thing because, it might be argued, the schools will be competing with each other to improve and thus all will get better—even the losers. This, obviously enough, seems to bring a competitive market approach (or Darwinian selection) to education.

    The obvious question is whether or not this is a proper approach to higher education. The idea of public universities fighting over limited funding certainly seems harsh—rather like parents making their nine children fight over which six gets extra food and which three will be hungry. Presumably just as responsible parents would not want some of their children to go hungry because they could not beat their siblings, the state should also not want to deprive universities of funding because they could not beat their fellows.

    It might be contended that just as children could be expected to battle for food in times of scarcity, universities should do the same. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures and not everyone can thrive. Besides, the competition will make everyone stronger.

    It is true that higher education faces a scarcity of funding—in Florida, the past four years under Rick Scott and a Republican legislature have seen a 41% cut in funding. Other states have fared even worse. While some scarcity was due to the economic meltdown inflicted by the financial sector, the scarcity is also due to conscious choice in regards to taxing and spending. So, going with the analogy, the parents have cut the food supply and now want the children to battle to see who gets a larger slice of what is left. Will this battle make the schools stronger?

    Given the above, a rather important point of concern is whether or not such performance based funding actually works. That is, does it actually achieve the professed goal of increasing performance?

    Since I serve on various relevant committees, I can say that my university is very concerned about this funding and great effort is being made to try to keep the school out of the bottom three. This is the same sort of motivation that the threat of having one’s food cut provides—the motivation of fear. While this sort of scenario might appeal to those who idealize the competitive model of natural selection, one obvious consequence is that the schools that fall into the bottom three will lose money and hence become even less able to compete. To use the food analogy, the children that lose the competition in the first round will have less food and thus be weaker for the next battle and so on. So, while “going hungry” might be said to motivate, being hungry also weakens. So, if the true goal is to weaken the bottom three schools (and perhaps ultimately destroy them), this would work quite well. If the goal is to improve education, things might be rather different.

    It might be countered that the performance based funding is justified because, despite my argument, it will work. While academics are often accused of not being “practical” or in “the real world”, we do tend to do a reasonably good at figuring out whether or not something will work. After all, studying things and analyzing them is sort of what we do. In contrast, politicians seem to be more inclined to operate in “realities” of their own ideologies.

    David Tandberg of Florida State University and Nicholas W. Hillman of University of Wisconsin-Madison recently published a study assessing the effectiveness of performance based funding. They concluded that performance based funding “more often than not” failed to effect the completion of degrees. Of considerable concern is that when it did have an effect it tended to lower graduation rates. Assuming this study is accurate, performance based funding (at least as implemented) is ineffective at best and likely to actually negatively impact the professed goals.

    It should be noted that Florida State University is very safely in the top six schools, so Tandberg is presumably not motivated by worries that FSU will fall to the bottom. The study, can, of course, be challenged on the usual grounds for critically assessing a study—but mere accusations that professors must be biased or that academics are incompetent hold no water.

    Since I am a professor at Florida A&M University, I might also be accused of bias here.  FAMU is an HBCU (one of the historically black colleges and universities) and has long had a mission of providing educational opportunities to students who have faced severe disadvantages. While overt racism is largely a thing of the past, FAMU students rather often face serious economic and preparatory challenges (thanks largely to poverty and segregation) that students from other backgrounds do not face. Some of my best students face the serious challenge of balancing part or even full-time work with their academic lives and this can be very challenging indeed. Because of this, students often take longer to graduate than students at other state universities—especially those whose students tend to come from more affluent families. These economic disparities also impact the chances of students getting jobs when they graduate as well as affecting the salary paid in such jobs. Roughly put, the effects of long-standing racism in America still remain and impact my university. While FAMU is working hard to meet the performance standards, we are struggling against factors that do not impact other schools—which means that our performance in regards to these chosen standards might be seen as lacking.

    As might be imagined, some will claim that the impact of past racism is a thing of the past and that FAMU should be able to compete just fine against the other schools. This would be ignoring the reality of the situation in America.

    Performance based funding of the sort that currently exists fails to achieve its professed goals and is proving harmful to higher education and students. As such, it is a bad idea. Sadly, it is the reality.

     

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    Drone Ethics is Easy

    Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 16, 2014
    English: AR Drone part

    English: AR Drone part (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    When a new technology emerges it is not uncommon for people to claim that the technology is outpacing ethics and law. Because of the nature of law (at least in countries like the United States) it is very easy for technology to outpace the law. However, it is rather difficult for technology to truly outpace ethics.

    One reason for this is that any adequate ethical theory (that is, a theory that meets the basic requirements such as possessing prescriptively, consistency, coherence and so on) will have the quality of expandability. That is, the theory can be applied to what is new, be that technology, circumstances or something else. An ethical (or moral) theory that lacks the capacity of expandability would, obviously enough, become useless immediately and thus would not be much of a theory.

    It is, however, worth considering the possibility that a new technology could “break” an ethical theory by being such that the theory could not expand to cover the technology. However, this would show that the theory was inadequate rather than showing that the technology outpaced ethics.

    Another reason that technology would have a hard time outpacing ethics is that an ethical argument by analogy can be applied to a new technology. That is, if the technology is like something that already exists and has been discussed in the context of ethics, the ethical discussion of the pre-existing thing can be applied to the new technology. This is, obviously enough, analogous to using ethical analogies to apply ethics to different specific situations (such as a specific act of cheating in a relationship).

    Naturally, if a new technology is absolutely unlike anything else in human experience (even fiction), then the method of analogy would fail absolutely. However, it seems somewhat unlikely that such a technology could emerge. But, I like science fiction (and fantasy) and hence I am willing to entertain the possibility of that which is absolutely new. However, it would still seem that ethics could handle it—but perhaps something absolutely new would break all existing ethical theories, showing that they are all inadequate.

    While a single example does not provide much in the way of proof, it can be used to illustrate. As such, I will use the matter of “personal” drones to illustrate how ethics is not outpaced by technology.

    While remote controlled and automated devices have been around a long time, the expansion of technology has created what some might regard as something new for ethics: drones, driverless cars, and so on. However, drone ethics is easy. By this I do not mean that ethics is easy, it is just that applying ethics to new technology (such as drones) is not as hard as some might claim. Naturally, actually doing ethics is itself quite hard—but this applies to very old problems (the ethics of war) and very “new” problems (the ethics of killer robots in war).

    Getting back to the example, a personal drone is the sort of drone that a typical civilian can own and operate—they tend to be much smaller, lower priced and easier to use relative to government drones. In many ways, these drones are slightly advanced versions of the remote control planes that are regarded as expensive toys. The drones of this sort that seem to most concern people are those that have cameras and can hover—perhaps outside a bedroom window.

    Two of the areas of concern regarding such drones are safety and privacy. In terms of safety, the worry is that drones can collide with people (or other vehicles, such as manned aircraft) and injure them. Ethically, this falls under doing harm to people, be it with a knife, gun or drone. While a flying drone flies about, the ethics that have been used to handle flying model aircraft, cars, etc. can easily be applied here. So, this aspect of drones has hardly outpaced ethics.

    Privacy can also be handled. Simplifying things for the sake of a brief discussion, drones essentially allow a person to (potentially) violate privacy in the usual two “visual” modes. One is to intrude into private property to violate a person’s privacy. In the case of the “old” way, a person can put a ladder against a person’s house and climb up to peek under the window shade and into the person’s bedroom or bathroom. In the “new” way, a person can fly a drone up to the window and peek in using a camera. While the person is not physically present in the case of the drone, his “agent” is present and is trespassing. Whether a person is using a ladder or a drone to gain access to the window does not change the ethics of the situation in regards to the peeking, assuming that people have a right to control access to their property.

    A second way is to peek into “private space” from “public space.” In the case of the “old way” a person could stand on the public sidewalk and look into other peoples’ windows or yards—or use binoculars to do so. In the “new” way, a person can deploy his agent (the drone) in public space in order to do the same sort of thing.

    One potential difference between the two situations is that a drone can fly and thus can get viewing angles that a person on the ground (or even with a ladder) could not get. For example, a drone might be in the airspace far above a person’s backyard, sending back images of the person sunbathing in the nude behind her very tall fence on her very large estate. However, this is not a new situation—paparazzi have used helicopters to get shots of celebrities and the ethics are the same. As such, ethics has not been outpaced by the drones in this regard.  This is not to say that the matter is solved—people are still debating the ethics of this sort of “spying”, but to say that it is not a case where technology has outpaced ethics.

    What is mainly different about the drones is that they are now affordable and easy to use—so whereas only certain people could afford to hire a helicopter to get photos of celebrities, now camera-equipped drones are easily in reach of the hobbyist. So, it is not that the drone provides new capabilities that worries people—it is that it puts these capabilities in the hands of the many.

     

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