A Philosopher's Blog

Is BLM Responsible for Increased Crime?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on September 26, 2016

One talking point on the political right is that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is causally responsible for an increase in crime. This point has been made by such sources as the National Review and Bill O’Reilly. As would be suspected, those to the left of the right have denied this connection and, of course, BLM has denied this claim.

In general terms, BLM is alleged to make two major contributions to crime. The first is in regards to videos: BLM encourages citizens to take videos of the police and also supports the release of police videos. These videos are said to create what is known as the ‘Laquan McDonald Effect.’ Laquan McDonald was a 17-year-old black man who was killed by officer Jason Van Dyke. The police video shows the officer shooting McDonald 16 times as he was moving away from the officers. McDonald was holding a small knife; as such he was technically armed. The effect of this video and the following protests, it is claimed, was to cause officers to step down in their policing out of fear of being the next Van Dyke. For example, police in Chicago reduced their street stops by 80%. This reduction in policing is supposed to contribute to the increase in crime (or at least fail to address the increase).

The second is in regards to the protesting against the police. One alleged impact is that the hostility towards the police damages their morale and this negatively impacts how they do their jobs. In the face of weakened policing, crime increases. Another alleged impact is that the police are burdened by dealing with BLM protests and this pulls away resources, thus allowing crime to increase. There are also the assertions that BLM engages in criminal activities (under the guise of protesting) and that it encourages or inspires (intentionally or not) criminal activity.

The hypothesis that BLM has a causal role in the increase of crime is certainly something that should be given due consideration. Those that already think it does would presumably want confirmation and those who disagree would want it to be disproven. Naturally, many people see BLM through the lens of ideology and proof contrary to their views could merely cause them to double down on their claims. However, those willing to accept reason should be prepared for the possibility they will need to adjust their views in the face of adequate evidence.

As some people see it, the fact that BLM’s appearance was followed by an increase in crime in some cities is sufficient proof that BLM was the cause of this increase. While cause normally precedes effect, to infer that BLM is the cause of the increase because it occurred after BLM arose would be to fall victim to the classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim. While this sort of error is usually the result of a lack of caution, it can also arise from motivated thinking: those who dislike BLM could be quick to link it with the increase of crime because of their dislike.

Properly sorting out the connection, if any, between BLM and the increase in crime would require a robust and objective analysis of statistical data, causal connections and human motivations. As of this writing, this has not been completed. As such, whether or not BLM really is a causal factor remains an open question. That said, it is certainly worth assessing the arguments advanced in support of BLM responsibility.

The first argument, as noted above, focuses on the claim that BLM encourages people to take videos of police and pushes for the release of police videos when incidents occur. This causes officers to worry that they will be filmed, thus leading them to scale back on policing. It is this, it is alleged, which increases crime. In terms of a causal explanation, this has considerable plausibility. If the police are afraid of being filmed, they are less likely to engage in activities that would result in their being filmed. When the police cut back on those activities, such as stops and aggressive policing, the pressure on criminals is lessened and they have a freer hand in committing crimes.

The second set of arguments also do establish a link between BLM and the increase in crime. The idea that the protesting demoralizes the police does make sense and dealing with protests does pull away police resources. As such, the causal link between BLM and an increase in crime can be established. While those who dislike BLM would be content to take this as the end of the story, this is actually just the beginning. There still remain causal questions as well as questions about moral responsibility.

One way to consider the matter is to use an analogy that is, hopefully, less imbued with ideology and emotion. Imagine that it was found that some doctors were prescribing unnecessary medications in order to get money and gifts from pharmaceutical companies. It can also be added that some doctors engaged in Medicare fraud that also proved harmful to the patients. Suppose that this was exposed by videos taken by patients and an organization arose called Patients’ Lives Matter to address this mistreatment of patients by some doctors. Suppose that the rate of illnesses started increasing after PLM started protesting.

Some might argue that PLM is to blame. One argument might be that doctors are now afraid to properly treat patients because someone might take a video of them. Another might be that doctors have become demoralized by the protests and hence do not do as well on the job. Presumably the solution would be for PLM to disband and allow the doctors to return to what they were doing. But, this seems absurd—the moral responsibility rests on the doctors who engaged in the misdeeds, not on PLM. The bad doctors need to be corrected or replaced—getting rid of PLM will merely “solve” the problem by returning to the previous problem.

In this case it would seem odd to blame the patients alone. After all, but for the doctors who engaged in the misdeeds, there would be no PLM to demoralize the doctors. Going back to BLM, but for the police who engaged in misdeeds, there would be no BLM. As such, the police who have engaged in misdeeds are also a causal factor. BLM would have nothing to encourage people to film and no videos to press for release if there were no misdeeds. As people so often say, those who have nothing to hide have no reason to fear scrutiny—ironically, this is often said about cases in which the police or other agents of the state are intruding into the privacy of citizens. If it applies to citizens, it surely applies to the police as well. After all, if an officer does nothing wrong, video will vindicate the officer. This is why some departments actually want officers to have cameras.

In terms of the protests, while it is true that such protests can be demoralizing, BLM is not protesting nothing—they are protesting events that are quite real. Naturally, it is reasonable to be concerned about how the community regards the police. However, BLM seems to be a response to the already poor relationships between many communities and their police, not the cause of those poor relationships.

The complaints about BLM disrupting communities seems analogous to the complaints about civil rights activists “damaging” community relationships by protesting the violation of civil rights. That is, that race-relations were just fine until the civil rights activists came in and caused all the trouble.

While it is true that people reacted negatively to civil rights activists, the moral blame for the reactions lies with those responding, not with the activists. And, of course, race relations were not fine—at least not fine for those being lynched. In the case of BLM, the problems are already there in the community, BLM is merely bringing them into the national spotlight—and some would prefer that they remain in the shadows. Blaming BLM for the increase in crime is thus a red herring—an attempt to distract people from the real cause and to discredit a movement that makes the white right very uncomfortable by bringing what was once in the shadows into the light.


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Automated Trucking

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2016

Having grown up in the golden age of the CB radio, I have many fond memories of movies about truck driving heroes played by the likes of Kurt Russell and Clint Eastwood. While such movies seem to have been a passing phase, real truck drivers are heroes of the American economy. In addition to moving stuff across this great nation, they also earn solid wages and thus also contribute as taxpayers and consumers.

While most of the media attention is on self-driving cars, there are also plans underway to develop self-driving trucks. The steps towards automation will initially be a boon to truck drivers as these technological advances manifest as safety features. This progress will most likely lead to a truck with a human riding in the can as a backup (more for the psychological need of the public than any actual safety increase) and eventually to a fully automated truck.

Looked at in terms of the consequences of full automation, there will be many positive impacts. While the automated trucks will probably be more expensive than manned vehicles initially, not need to pay drivers will result in considerable savings for the companies. Some of this might even be passed on to consumers, resulting in a tiny decrease in some prices. There is also the fact that automated trucks, unlike human drivers, would not get tired, bored or distracted. While there will still be accidents involving these trucks, it would be reasonable to expect a very significant decrease. Such trucks would also be able to operate around the clock, stopping only to load/unload cargo, to refuel and for maintenance. This could increase the speed of deliveries. One can even imagine an automated truck with its own drones that fly away from the truck as it cruises the highway, making deliveries for companies like Amazon. While these will be good things, there will also be negative consequences.

The most obvious negative consequence of full automation is the elimination of trucker jobs. Currently, there are about 3.5 million drivers in the United States. There are also about 8.7 million other people employed in the trucking industry who do not drive. One must also remember all the people indirectly associated with trucking, ranging from people cooking meals for truckers to folks manufacturing or selling products for truckers. Finally, there are also the other economic impacts from the loss of these jobs, ranging from the loss of tax revenues to lost business. After all, truckers do not just buy truck related goods and services.

While the loss of jobs will be a negative impact, it should be noted that the transition from manned trucks to robot rigs will not occur overnight. There will be a slow transition as the technology is adopted and it is certain that there will be several years in which human truckers and robotruckers share the roads. This can allow for a planned transition that will mitigate the economic shock. That said, there will presumably come a day when drivers are given their pink slips in large numbers and lose their jobs to the rolling robots. Since economic transitions resulting from technological changes are nothing new, it could be hoped that this transition would be managed in a way that mitigated the harm to those impacted.

It is also worth considering that the switch to automated trucking will, as technological changes almost always do, create new jobs and modify old ones. The trucks will still need to be manufactured, managed and maintained. As such, new economic opportunities will be created. That said, it is easy to imagine these jobs also becoming automated as well: fleets of robotic trucks cruising America, loaded, unloaded, managed and maintained by robots. To close, I will engage in a bit of sci-fi style speculation.

Oversimplifying things, the automation of jobs could lead to a utopian future in which humans are finally freed from the jobs that are fraught with danger and drudgery. The massive automated productivity could mean plenty for all; thus bringing about the bright future of optimistic fiction. That said, this path could also lead into a dystopia: a world in which everything is done for humans and they settle into a vacuous idleness they attempt to fill with empty calories and frivolous amusements.

There are, of course, many dystopian paths leading away from automation. Laying aside the usual machine takeover in which Google kills us all, it is easy to imagine a new “robo-planation” style economy in which a few elite owners control their robot slaves, while the masses have little or no employment. A rather more radical thought is to imagine a world in which humans are almost completely replaced—the automated economy hums along, generating numbers that are duly noted by the money machines and the few remaining money masters. The ultimate end might be a single computer that contains a virtual economy; clicking away to itself in electronic joy over its amassing of digital dollars while around it the ruins of  human civilization decay and the world awaits the evolution of the next intelligent species to start the game anew.


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Don’t Say the C Words

Posted in Business, Environment, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2016

While weather disasters have always plagued humanity, there has been a clear recent uptick in such events. Naturally, the greater scope of these disasters is due partially to the human population being larger than ever and occupying more land—especially in areas prone to such events. That said, events such as the floods in Louisiana and the steady inundation of the sea in many places (such as Miami) are indications of a real change.

Nearly every climate scientist accepts that climate change is occurring and that human activity has had an influence. Given the historic record, it would be irrational to deny that the climate changes and few claim that it does not. The battle, then, is over the cause of climate change. Unfortunately for addressing the impact of climate change, it was brilliantly changed from a scientific issue into a political one. Making it into a partisan issue had the usual impact on group psychology: it became a matter of political identity, with people developing a profound emotional commitment to climate change denial. When denying climate change became a matter of group identity, it became almost impossible for reason to change minds—in the face of overwhelming evidence, people merely double down, deny the evidence, and craft narratives about how scientists are biased and environmentalists hate corporations and jobs.

To be fair, some of those who accept climate change do so out of political identity as well—they are not moved by the science, but by their group identity. They just happen to be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Not being an expert on climate change, I follow the rational approach to any issue that requires expertise to settle: I go with the majority view of the qualified experts. As such, I accept that climate change is real and humans play a role. If the majority shifted, I would accept that view—after all, the history of science includes numerous shifts.

If this matter were a purely abstract debate, then there would be no real worry. However, the impact of the changing climate is already doing considerable harm and the evidence suggests that it will continue to get worse unless steps are taken to address it. Unfortunately, as noted above, climate is now a political issue with deeply entrenched interest groups and strong emotional commitments. In some places, such as Florida, there is considerable political pressure to not even use the words “climate change.” The problem is, of course, that not using the words does not make the problems go away. Miami will slowly vanish into the ocean, even if people refuse to say “climate change.”

As a philosopher, I do believe in reason. However, I am also a practical person and know that reason is the weakest form of persuasion. Because of the entrenchment over climate change, trying to use reason and evidence to change minds would be a fool’s errand. As such, I suggest a purely pragmatic solution: stop using the C words (“climate change”) when trying to influence public policy, at least in cases in which there is strong ideological resistance. Using those words will simply evoke an emotional response and create strong resistance to whatever might be proposed, however reasonable.

As an alternative, the approach should be to focus on the specific threats and these should be cast in terms of risks to the economy and, perhaps, the lives and well-being of voters and consumers. There should be no mention of man-made climate change and no proposals to change behavior to counter man-made climate change. In short, the proposals must focus solely on mitigating the damage of weather events, with due care taken to present the notion that these events “just happen” and are “natural” with no connection to human activity.

It might be objected that this would be analogous to trying to combat the Zika virus by dealing only with the effects while refusing to say “virus” and not proposing any efforts to address the cause. This is certainly a reasonable point. However, if there was a powerful political movement that refused to accept the existence of viruses and citizens emotionally devoted to virus denial, then trying to persuade them to deal with the virus would be a nigh-impossible task. If they did accept the existence of the effects, then they could be enlisted to assist in addressing them. While this approach would hardly be optimal, it would be better to have their cooperation in mitigating the consequences rather than facing their opposition.

It might also be objected that I am deluded by my own ideological views and have been misled by the conspiracy of scientists and liberals who are in the pocket of Big Environment. Since I rather enjoy a good conspiracy theory, I certainly admit that it could be the case that the noble fossil fuel companies and those they pay are right about climate change and the scientists are either villains or dupes. If so, then not talking about climate change would be the correct approach—just as not talking about climate demons is the correct approach (because there are no such things). Since the weather events are really occurring, then addressing them would still be reasonable. So, regardless of whether climate change is real or not, my approach seems to be a sound one: avoid the resistance of climate change deniers by not using the C words; but enlist them into addressing those perfectly natural severe weather events that will be occurring with increasing regularity.


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Hillary, Secrecy & Pneumonia

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2016

While attending a 9/11 event, Hillary Clinton seemed to succumb to the heat. It was later revealed that she had been suffering from pneumonia, something her campaign had failed to disclose. As would be expected, her critics rushed to claim that this is yet another example of her problematic obsession with secrecy. As should also be expected, those who have long been advancing the narrative of her ill health were given a fresh magazine of ammunition. Her supporters mostly responded by downplaying the incident.

Assuming she really does have pneumonia, her illness is not really a big deal. After all, if getting sick disqualified a person from being president, then there would be no one to fill the office. The real concern was, of course, about the failure to announce in a timely manner that she was sick. This ties into the damaging narrative that Hillary is needlessly and problematically secretive.

It could be countered that the decision was not based in this desire for secrecy but was a calculated move in response to Trump’s strategy of claiming Hillary is unwell. While everyone gets sick at some point, there was no doubt concern that Trump would exploit such an announcement and ratchet up his attacks. Hillary and her handlers probably thought they could bluff their way through the illness; something that might have worked.

While that approach has some appeal, there is the very reasonable concern that the failure to disclose this illness was, as noted above, just another example of Hillary’s problematic obsession with secrecy. Hillary also recently faced the backlash from Bill’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch. This was rightly presented as an example of an approach so often taken by the Clintons. After all, while any sensible person would expect that Bill would use his influence to help Hillary, doing this in such a blatant and clumsy manner did considerable damage. Given that Hillary is supposed to be such a savvy politician, it is interesting to consider why she engages in what seem to be so many self-damaging actions. While the discussion focuses on Hillary, it also applies to people in general. Poor decision making is a common affliction.

One possibility is that such behavior is in her nature—she is what she is, so she does what she does even when it harms her efforts to fulfill her ambition to be president. This is illustrated by the classic story of the fox (or frog) and the scorpion.

A fox was about to start his swim across a river when a scorpion called out to him, asking for a ride across. The fox, being good natured, wanted to help. But, he was worried that the scorpion would sting him. The scorpion assured him that he would be in no danger. After all, if he stung the fox, they would both drown and he certainly would not do something so foolish.

The fox agreed and the scorpion climbed up on his back. When the pair was half way across the river, the scorpion stung the fox. When the fox asked the scorpion why, he replied “it’s my nature” and they both died. Each thing is what it is and does what it does because of what it is. So, perhaps it is simply Hillary’s nature to engage in such behavior—she simply cannot do otherwise. This does raise many interesting questions about whether people have a nature or not and it certainly ties into the endless philosophical battle over free choice.

An alternative that avoids metaphysics is to take the view that Hillary is habituated into doing as she does. While habits can be very powerful, they are obviously weaker than having a nature. This is because, as Aristotle discussed at length, habits can be made and broken. But, habits can be rather hard to break, especially bad ones and it is quite obvious that people will stick with detrimental habits even in the face of continuous negative results. For example, most people have the habits of eating poorly and exercising too little or not at all. As such, they suffer needless and easily avoidable health problems. As another example, many people form habits involving damaging substances ranging from sugar to opioids. These do considerable harm, yet people persist in their habits. Hillary seems have learned the habit of secrecy and, like many habits, she seems unwilling or unable to break it.

A third alternative is that Hillary has consciously adopted secrecy as a strategy. People do often stick with failing strategies for various reasons. It is also worth considering that she actually has a winning strategy. While the revelations about her email and her pneumonia have cost her politically, it could well be that she has other secrets that have been effectively kept and that doing so has proven very advantageous for her. To use a sports analogy, a team that has a good strategy does not win every time. However, they win enough to make it rational to stick to that strategy. One interesting thing about the strategy of secrecy is that the public only knows about cases in which the strategy failed, not the situations in which it worked very well. So, what seems to be a bad strategy because of a few very visible failures might actually be very effective—who knows what secrets remain hidden and what damage they would do if they were revealed?

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Political Parties & Principles

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2016

While the United States does have numerous third parties and many voters now register as independents, politics is dominated by the Republicans and the Democrats. While there are independents in office here and there, independent voters still identify strongly with the two parties. They are also almost entirely limited to voting for candidates from these two parties.

My own party affiliation is Democrat, although it is a very weak affiliation. While I do share some of the values professed by the party (such as support for education and protecting the environment) my main reason for being a Democrat is that Florida is a closed primary state. If I did not have a party affiliation, I would be limited to voting between the candidates picked by the Democrats and Republicans. That is not acceptable and I regard the Democrats as less evil than the Republicans. At least for now.

While people do sometimes change parties (Reagan started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican, while Hillary Clinton took the reverse path) most people stay loyal to their parties. Trump has tested the loyalty of some Republicans, but it seems likely that most will vote along straight party lines. Likewise for Hillary and the Democrats.

Being a philosopher, I endeavor to operate from consistent moral, logical and political principles rather than merely embracing whatever my party happens to endorse at any given moment. Because of this, I could end up leaving the Democratic party if its professed values changed enough to be broadly incompatible with my own. This can certainly happen. As Republicans love to mention, their party was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. As they also love to point out, the Democratic party was once an explicitly racist party. Now, of course, both parties are very different from those days. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled by the current Republican party and the Democrats are now regarded as a civil rights focused party that is very welcoming to minorities (and certainly welcomes their votes).

While political parties presumably provide some benefits for citizens, they mainly exist to benefit the politicians. They provide politicians with resources and support that are essential to running for office. They also provide another valuable service to politicians:  a very effective means of cognitive and moral derangement. Like other groups, political parties exploit well-known cognitive biases, thus encouraging their members to yield to irrationality and moral failure.

One bias is the bandwagon effect; this is the tendency people have to align their thinking with that of those around them. This often serves to ground such fallacies as the “group think” fallacy in which a person accepts a claim as true simply because their group accepts it as true. In the case of political parties, people tend to believe what their party claims, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is well-established that people often double down on false beliefs in the face of objective evidence against this belief. This afflicts people across the political spectrum. The defense against this sort of derangement is to resist leaping on the bandwagon and train oneself to accept evidence rather than group loyalty as support for a claim.

Another bias is the tendency people have to obey authority and conform. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in obedience purport to show that people are generally obedient by nature and will obey even when they also believe what they are doing is wrong. This derangement forges people into obedient masses who praise their leader, be that leader the objectively unfit Donald Trump or the morally problematic and Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Since obedience is so ingrained into humans, resisting is very difficult. In fact, people often think they are resisting authority when they are simply bowing low to some other authority. Being disobedient as a matter of principle is difficult, although people such as Socrates and Thoreau do offer some guidelines and inspiration.

Perhaps the most powerful bias here is the in group bias. This is the natural tendency people have to regard members of their group as having positive qualities while seeing members of other groups as being inferior. This tendency is triggered even by the most superficial of group identifications. For example, sports teams stand for nothing—they do not represent moral or political principles or anything of significance. Yet people routinely become obsessive fans who regard their fellows as better than the fans of other teams. This can, and does, escalate into violence. Violence of the most stupid and pointless sort, but real violence nonetheless. In the case of politics, the bias is even stronger. Republicans and Democrats typically praise their own and condemn their competition. Many of them devote considerable effort scouring the internet for “evidence” of their virtue and the vice of their foes: it is not enough to disagree; the opposition must be demonized and cast as inferior. For example, I see battles play out on Facebook over whether Democrats or Republicans give more to charity—and this sometimes becomes a matter of deep rage that has ended friendships. Since I prefer to not let politics or religion end an otherwise fine friendship, I make a point of not getting engaged in such battles. There are, after all, only losers in those fights.

This bias is extremely useful to politicians as it helps fuels the moral and cognitive derangement of their supporters. The most pronounced effect is that party members will typically rush to defend their politician over matters that they savagely attack the other side for. For example, Donald Trump is, as a matter of objective fact, unrelenting in his untruths. His supporters who otherwise regard lying as wrong, rush to defend and excuse him, while bashing Hillary as a liar and a crook—despite the fact that Hillary says untrue things far less often than Trump. As should be expected, Hillary’s devout backers do the same thing—excusing Hillary for things they condemn about Trump (such as sketchy business deals).

As a matter of rational and moral principle (and consistency), a person who regards lying as wrong should take liars of both parties to task and criticize their lying appropriately. To do otherwise is to be irrational and morally inconsistent. The same should apply to other matters as well, such as sketchy business deals. To avoid this derangement, people need to train themselves (or be trained) to assess politicians as objectively as possible to avoid being morally and cognitively deranged by the undue corrupting influence of party.

This is not to say that a person should fall into the trap of false equivalency or regard any misdeed as equal to any other. Simply saying “they are all equally bad” when they are not is also a failure of reason and ethics. Using the example of the 2016 campaign, while Trump and Clinton both have their flaws, Clinton is objectively better than Trump in regards to qualifications for being president. As Republicans argued when Obama was running in 2008, experience is critically important and the presidency is not an entry level political job. Naturally, I expect some to lash out at me over such claims. Some will rush to praise Trump and tear apart Hillary. I also would expect Hillary backers to be displeased by my fairly negative view of Hillary (while Hillary haters will probably have the mistaken impression that I am all in for her). Such things will actually help prove my point: people tend to be ruled by their biases.

I am not advocating that people become apathetic or abandon their parties. Rather, I want people to hold all politicians to the same standards of criticism rather than rushing to defend their side simply because it is their side and bashing the other simply because it is the other. This would, I hope, force politicians to actually be better. As it now stands, they can be rather awful and simply count on the derangement of voters to work in their favor.


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Policebot Profiling

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2016

In 2016 the Dallas police used a remotely operated robot to kill a suspect with a bomb. While this marked a new use for robots in the realm of domestic policing, the decision making process was entirely conventional. That is, humans decided to use the machine and then a human operator controlled it for the attack. As such a true policebot is still a thing of science fiction. That said, considering policebots provides an interesting way to discuss police profiling in a speculative setting. While it might be objected that the discussion should focus on real police profiling, there are advantages to discussing controversial matters within a speculative context. One important advantage is that such a setting can help dampen emotional responses and enable a more rational discussion. The speculative context helps make the discussion less threatening to some who might react with greater hostility to discussions focused on the actual world. Star Trek’s discussion of issues of race in the 1960s through the use of science fiction is an excellent example of this sort of approach. Now, to the matter of policebots.

The policebots under consideration are those that would be capable of a high degree of autonomous operation. At the low end of autonomy, they could be deployed to handle traffic laws on their own. On the higher end, they could operate autonomously to conduct arrests of suspects who might resist arrest violently. Near the highest end would be robotic police at least as capable as human beings.

While there are legitimate worries that policebots could be used as unquestioning servants of the state to oppress and control elements of the population (something we will certainly see), there are also good reasons for using suitably advanced policebots. One obvious advantage is that policebots would be more resilient and easier to repair than human officers. Policebots that are not people would also be far more expendable and thus could save human lives by taking on the dangerous tasks of policing (such as engaging armed suspects). Another advantage is that robots will probably not get tired or bored, thus allowing them to patrol around the clock with maximum efficiency. Robots are also unlikely to be subject to the corrupting factors that influence humans or suffer from personal issues. There is also the possibility that policebots could be far more objective than human officers—this is, in fact, the main concern of this essay.

Like a human office, policbots would need to identify criminal behavior. In some cases this would be fairly easy. For example, an autonomous police drone could easily spot and ticket most traffic violations. In other cases, this would be incredibly complicated. For example, a policebot patrolling a neighborhood would need to discern between children playing at cops & robbers and people engaged in actual violence. As another example, a policebot on patrol would need to be able to sort out the difference between a couple having a public argument and an assault in progress.

In addition to sorting out criminal behavior from non-criminal behavior, policebots would also need to decide on how to focus their attention. For example, a policebot would need to determine who gets special attention in a neighborhood because they are acting suspicious or seem to be out of place. Assuming that policebots would be programed, the decision making process would be explicitly laid out in the code. Such focusing decisions would seem to be, by definition, based in profiling and this gives rise to important moral concerns.

Profiling that is based on behavior would seem to be generally acceptable, provided that such behavior is clearly linked to criminal activities and not to, as an example, ethnicity. For example, it would seem perfectly reasonable to focus attention on a person who makes an effort to stick to the shadows around houses while paying undue attention to houses that seem to be unoccupied at the time. While such a person might be a shy fellow who likes staring at unlit houses as a pastime, there is a reasonable chance he is casing the area for a robbery. As such, the policebot would be warranted in focusing on him.

The most obviously controversial area would be using certain demographic data for profiles. Young men tend to commit more crimes than middle-aged women. On the one hand, this would seem to be relevant data for programing a policebot. On the other hand, it could be argued that this would give the policebot a gender and age bias that would be morally wrong despite being factually accurate. It becomes vastly more controversial when data about such things as ethnicity, economic class and religion are considered. If accurate and objective data links such factors to a person being more likely to engage in crime, then a rather important moral concern arises. Obviously enough, if such data were not accurate, then it should not be included.

Sorting out the accuracy of such data can be problematic and there are sometimes circular appeals. For example, someone might defend the higher arrest rate of blacks by claiming that blacks commit more crimes than whites. When it is objected that the higher arrest right could be partially due to bias in policing, the reply is often that blacks commit more crimes and the proof is that blacks are arrested more than whites. That is, the justification runs in a circle.

But suppose that objective and accurate data showed links between the controversial demographic categories and crime. In that case, leaving it out of the programing could make policebots less effective. This could have the consequence of allowing more crimes to occur. This harm would need to be weighed against the harm of having the policebots programmed to profile based on such factors. One area of concern is public perception of the policebots and their use of profiling. This could have negative consequences that could outweigh the harm of having less efficient policebots.

Another area of potential harm is that even if the policebots operated on accurate data, they would still end up arresting people disproportionally, thus potentially causing harm that would exceed the harm done by the loss of effectiveness. This also ties into higher level moral concerns about the reasons why specific groups might commit more crimes than others and these reasons often include social injustice and economic inequality. As such, even “properly” programmed policebots could actually be arresting the victims of social and economic crimes. This suggests an interesting idea for a science fiction story: policebots that decide to reduce crime by going after the social and economic causes of crime rather than arresting people to enforce an unjust social order.


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CSI Overconfidence

Posted in Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2016

Television shows and movies about CSI often seem to present a science fiction version of investigation that involves amazing technology and incredible inferences. While people do get that the almost magical solving of crimes is fiction, there is still considerable overconfidence in many methods used in real investigations. This overconfidence plays a significant role in some of the problems infecting the criminal justice system.

The history of criminal investigation is replete with debunked methods, such as the use of phrenology to diagnose criminal tendencies. There are also technologies that have little or no validity and are not admitted in court, yet enjoy some public confidence (such as lie detectors). There are also methods that might have some value in investigations, yet are the subject of unwarranted overconfidence in their efficacy. These include such things as bite mark analysis and fiber analysis. Other methods are reasonable useful, such as fingerprints, yet are still often accepted with an unwarranted level of confidence—especially in situations where the defendant has an ill-prepared and overworked public defender. Defendants of means or fame can, of course, purchase a better sort of justice.

In contrast with the above methods, DNA identification strikes many as a silver bullet. After all, aside from identical twins (or clones), no two people have the same DNA. This would seem to make the presence of a person’s DNA at a crime scene extremely good evidence for their involvement.

While such evidence is valuable, it is rather important to consider the limitations of and problems with this method. Contamination and transference should always be given due consideration because DNA can travel quite far. This can be illustrated with an example involving my husky.

Like all huskies, my husky generates an incredible amount of fur and this fur gets onto everything and everyone. The fur is thus transported from my house to various points around the world—I know for a fact that her fur is now in at least five states—although she has not left Florida. As such, if fur sampling was used to determine what dogs had been present, she could show up as being present in many, many locations that she did not visit. The same also holds true for humans. While humans do not shed like huskies, humans do shed hair and this can get onto people and objects that could end up in crime scenes. For example, if Sally wears a hat and it ends up in someone else’s possession, that hat will almost certainly still have Sally’s DNA on it. So, if the hat is found at a crime scene, Sally’s DNA will be found there as well, which could be trouble for Sally.

These concerns do not show that DNA testing should not be used; rather they show that is wise to maintain a degree of healthy skepticism in the face of such evidence. It also shows the importance of informing law enforcement, judges, juries and lawyers about the limitations of methods This assumes, of course, that those involved (have the time to) care about justice—which is not always the case in the criminal justice system. There is also the concern, as noted above, that the quality of a person’s defense is a function of their available resources (be they money or fame). These are, of course, concerns that go far beyond worries about particular methods.

It can be objected that educating people about the limits of such methods could create a skepticism that might undermine convictions. For example, that the possibility of “wandering DNA” could be used to create unwarranted doubt, thus allowing the guilty to go free. A skilled and well paid lawyer could exploit such doubts quite effectively and allow a lawbreaker to go free—thus preventing justice from being done.

This concern is reasonable; while overconfidence is problematic, so is under-confidence. However, the United States’ criminal justice system is supposed to operate on a presumption of innocence: it is better to err on allowing the guilty to go free than to err towards punishing the innocent. As such, the greater mistake would be overconfidence in a method. However, there is the concern that these doubts would be exploited by those who have the resources to purchase an effective defense, while the less fortunate would not benefit from them. But, as has been noted, this is a general problem with America’s pay-to-play legal system.



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Florida Hurricane

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on September 9, 2016

English: Solar Panel

My adopted state of Florida was just hit by a category one hurricane; my adopted city of Tallahassee sustained considerable damage. A week after the storm hit, there are still people in the city without power. There are also people who suffered considerable property damage. Fortunately, there seems to be only one death attributed to the storm here.

I was rather lucky; though my power was out from Friday to Monday, my house sustained no damage and I was well-prepared. I also had the good fortune of leaving the city on Sunday morning on an already scheduled program review at St. Francis University. While I normally dislike airports, it was great having access to AC and electricity again. While I waited for my first flight out, I enjoyed the cool air and recharged my laptop.

While random chance is a major factor in storms, it is wise to be well prepared for them. I did the usual stuff: checked the area for things the storm could pick up and hurl around, had the trees trimmed two years ago and inspected them again, stocked up on canned and dried goods, filled the tubs with water and made sure my phone was charged. I also went beyond the usual preparation and thought I’d share some of the things that worked.

Being a runner, I have a stock of those cold packs that I use for swelling and pain-I made sure those were all in the freezer well before the storm. I also moved the food to the lowest part of the fridge and freezer. I then filled up sturdy freezer bags with water and placed them around the food (do not overfill these!). After the storm knocked out the power, I quickly moved some of the ice into the fridge along with some of the frozen meat. As the meat thawed, I cooked it and ate it. As did my husky. This was a great week for her.

I was able to cook because I had a camp stove (butane fueled) and a propane BBQ. These are well worth having and it is a good idea to have a stock of fuel on hand. As always, be sure to cook in a well ventilated area and be aware of fire hazards.

While some people bought generators ahead of time, I elected to do without due to cost and the hassle of storing fuel. I did, however, have solar chargers on hand. Nekteck and Anker make small panels (also great for hiking and camping) that are easy to store, but will charge USB powered devices. I also have chargeable battery packs on hand; specifically the Brunton Freedom. This handy device can charge from USB or its own solar panel and holds plenty of charge for small USB powered devices like phones and tablets.  Florida is a sunny state, so solar is an excellent option for an endless supply of power. The fact that these panels can be stored indefinitely (unlike batteries) makes them very useful indeed. And, of course, I have an assortment of crank charging lights, lanterns and radios on hand-these are very useful.

I also have a bow saw, garden shears and axes–all very useful for cutting up trees and they do not require gasoline or electricity. These saw a lot of use over the weekend. I did not have a chance to use my tent, but I have one on hand in case my house is too damaged to live in.

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Virtual Vacations

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2016

In Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” Rekal, Incorporated offers its clients a form of virtual vacation: for a modest fee, memories of an amazing vacation are implanted. The company also provides relevant mementos and “evidence” of the trip. In the story (and the movie, Total Recall, based on it) things go terribly wrong.

While the technology of the story does not yet exist, a very limited form of virtual reality has finally become something of a reality. Because of this, it is worth considering the matter of virtual vacations. Interestingly, philosophers have long envisioned a form of virtual reality; but they have usually presented it as a problem in epistemology (the study or theory of knowledge). This is the problem of the external world: how do I know that what I think is real is actually real? In the case of the virtual vacation, there is no such problem: the vacation is virtual and not real. Perhaps some philosopher will be inspired to try to solve the problem of the virtual vacation: how does one know that it is not real?

Philosophers have also considered virtual reality in the context of ethics. One of the best known cases is Robert Nozick’s experience machine. Nozick envisioned a machine that would allow the user to have any experience they desired. Some philosophers have made use of this sort of a machine as a high-tech version of the “pig objection.” This objection, which was used by Aristotle and others, is against taking pleasure to be the highest good. The objection is often presented as a choice: you must pick between continuing your current life or living as an animal—but with the greatest pleasures of that beast guaranteed.  The objector, of course, expects that people will choose to remain people, thus showing that mere pleasure is not the highest good. In the case of the experience machine variant, the choice is between living a real life with all its troubles and a life of ultimate pleasure in the experience machine. The objector hopes, of course, that our intuitions will still favor valuing the real over the virtual.

Since the objection is generally presented as a choice of life (you either live life entirely outside the machine or entirely inside of it) it worth considering there might be a meaningful difference if people take virtual vacations rather than living virtual lives.

On the face of it, there would seem to be no real problem with virtual vacations in which a person either spends their vacation time in a virtual world or has the memories implanted. The reason for this is that people already take virtual vacations of a sort—they play immersive video games and watch movies. Before this, people took “virtual vacations” in books, plays and in their own imagination. That said, a true virtual vacation might be sufficiently different to require arguments in its favor. I now turn to these arguments.

The first reason in favor of virtual vacations is their potential affordability. If virtual vacations eventually become budget alternatives to real vacations as in the story), they would allow people to have the experience of a high priced vacation for a modest cost. For example, a person might take a virtual luxury cruise in a stateroom that, if real, might cost $100,000.

The second reason in support of virtual vacations is that they could be used to virtually visit places where the access is limited (such as public parks that can only handle so many people), where access would be difficult (such as very remote locations), or places where access would be damaging (such as environmentally sensitive areas).

A third reason is that virtual vacations could allow people to have vacations they could not really have, such as visiting Mars, adventuring in Middle Earth, or spending a weekend as a dolphin.

A fourth reason is that virtual vacations could be much safer than real vacations—no travel accidents, no terrorist attacks, no disease, and so on for the various dangers that can be encountered in the real world. Those familiar with science fiction might point to the dangers of virtual worlds, using Sword Art Online and the very lethal holodecks of Star Trek as examples. However, it would seem easy enough to make the technology so that it cannot actually kill people. It was always a bit unclear why the holodecks had the option of turning off the safety systems—that is rather like having an option for your Xbox One or PS4 to explode and kill you when you lose a game.

A fifth reason is convenience—going on a virtual vacation would generally be far easier than going on a real vacation. There are other reasons that could be considered, but I now turn to an objection and some concerns.

The most obvious objection against virtual vacations is that they are, by definition, not real.

The idea is that the pig objection would apply not just to an entire life in a virtual world, but to a vacation. Since the virtual vacation is not real, it lacks value and hence it would be wrong for people to take them in place of real vacations. Fortunately, there seems to be an easy reply to this objection.

The pig objection does seem to have bite in cases in which a person is supposed to be doing significant things. For example, a person who spends a weekend in virtual reality treating virtual patients with virtual Ebola would certainly not merit praise and would not be acting in a virtuous way. However, the point of a vacation is amusement and restoration rather than engaging in significant actions. If virtual vacations are to be criticized because they merely entertain, then the same would apply to real vacations. After all, their purpose is also to entertain. This is not to say that people cannot do significant things while on vacation, but to focus on the point of a vacation as vacation. As such, the pig objection does not seem to have much bite here.

It could be objected that virtual vacations would fail to be as satisfying as actual vacations because they are not real. This is certainly an objection worth considering—if a virtual vacation fails as a vacation, then there would be a very practical reason not to take one. However, this is something that remains to be seen. Now, to the concerns.

One concern, which has been developed in science fiction, is that virtual vacations might prove addicting. Video games have already proven to be addicting to some people; there are even a very few cases of people literally gaming to death. While this is a legitimate concern and there will no doubt be a Virtual Reality Addicts Anonymous in the future, this is not a special objection against virtual reality—unless, of course, it proves to be destructively addicting on a significant scale. Even if it were addictive, it would presumably do far less damage than drug or alcohol addiction. In fact, this could be another point in its favor—if people who would otherwise be addicted to drugs or alcohol self-medicated with virtual reality instead, there could be a reduction in social woes and costs arising from addiction.

A second concern is that virtual vacations would have a negative impact on real tourist economies. My home state of Maine and adopted state of Florida both have tourism based economies and if people stopped real vacations in favor of virtual vacations, their economies would suffer greatly. One stock reply is that when technology kills one industry, it creates a new one. In this case, the economic loss to real tourism would be offset to some degree by the economic gain in virtual tourism. States and countries could even create or license their own virtual vacation experiences. Another reply is that there will presumably still be plenty of people who will prefer the real vacations to the virtual vacations. Even now people could spend their vacations playing video games; but most who have the money and time still chose to go on a real vacation.

A third concern is that having wondrous virtual vacations will increase peoples’ dissatisfaction with the tedious grind that is life for most under the economic lash of capitalism. An obvious reply is that most are already dissatisfied. Another reply is that this is more of an objection against the emptiness of capitalism for the many than an objection against virtual vacations. In any case, amusements eventually wear thin and most people actually want to return to work.

In light of the above, virtual vacations seem like a good idea. That said, many disasters are later explained by saying “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”


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Am I my Own Demon?

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2016

The problem of the external world is a classic challenge in epistemology (the theory of knowledge). This challenge, which was first presented by the ancient skeptics, is met by proving that what I seem to be experiencing is actually real. As an example, it would require proving that the computer I seem to be typing this on exists outside of my mind.

Some of the early skeptics generated the problem by noting that what seems real could be just a dream, generated in the mind of the dreamer. Descartes added a new element to the problem by considering that an evil demon might be causing him to have experiences of a world that does not actually exist outside of his mind. While the evil demon was said to be devoted to deception, little is said about its motive in this matter. After Descartes there was a move from supernatural to technological deceivers: the classic brain-in-a-vat scenarios that are precursors to the more recent notion of virtual reality. In these philosophical scenarios little is said about the motivation or purpose of the deceit, beyond the desire to epistemically mess with someone. Movies and TV shows do sometimes explore the motives of the deceit. The Matrix trilogy, for example, endeavors to present something of a backstory for the Matrix. While considering the motivation behind the alleged deceit might not bear on the epistemic problem, it does seem a matter worth considering.

The only viable approach to sorting out a possible motivation for the deceit is to consider the nature of the world that is experienced. As various philosophers, such as David Hume, have laid out in their formulations of the problem of evil (the challenge of reconciling God’s perfection with the existence of evil) the world seems to be an awful place. As Hume has noted, it is infested with disease, suffused with suffering, and awash in annoying things. While there are some positive things, there is an overabundance of bad, thus indicating that whatever lies behind the appearances is either not benign or not very competent. This, of course, assumes some purpose behind the deceit. But, perhaps there is deceit without a deceiver and there is no malice. This would make the unreal like what atheists claim about the allegedly real: it is purposeless. However, deceit (like design) seems to suggest an intentional agent and this implies a purpose. This purpose, if there is one, must be consistent with the apparent awfulness of the world.

One approach is to follow Descartes and go with a malicious supernatural deceiver. This being might be acting from mere malice—inflicting both deceit and suffering. Or it might be acting as an agent of punishment for past transgressions on my part. The supernatural hypothesis does have some problems, the main one being that it involves postulating a supernatural entity. Following Occam’s Razor, if I do not need to postulate a supernatural being, then I should not do so.

Another possibility is that I am in technologically created unreal world. In terms of motives consistent with the nature of the world, there are numerous alternatives. One is punishment for some crime or transgression. A problem with this hypothesis is that I have no recollection of a crime or indication that I am serving a sentence. But, it is easy to imagine a system of justice that does not inform prisoners of their crimes during the punishment and that someday I will awaken in the real world, having served my virtual time. It is also easy to imagine that this is merely a system of torment, not a system of punishment. There could be endless speculation about the motives behind such torment. For example, it could be an act of revenge or simple madness. Or even a complete accident. There could be other people here with me; but I have no way of solving the problem of other minds—no way of knowing if those I encounter are fellow prisoners or mere empty constructs. This ignorance does seem to ground a moral approach—since they could be fellow prisoners, I should treat them as such.

A second possibility is that the world is an experiment or simulation of an awful world and I am a construct within that world. Perhaps those conducting it have no idea the inhabitants are suffering; perhaps they do not care; or perhaps the suffering is the experiment. I might even be a researcher, trapped in my own experiment. Given how scientists in the allegedly real world have treated subjects, the idea that this is a simulation of suffering has considerable appeal.

A third possibility is that the world is a game or educational system of some sort. Perhaps I am playing a very lame game of Assessment & Income Tax; perhaps I am in a simulation learning to develop character in the face of an awful world; or perhaps I am just part of the game someone else is playing. All of these are consistent with how the world seems to be.

It is also worth considering the possibility of solipsism: that I am the only being that exists. It could be countered that if I were creating the world, it would be much better for me and far more awesome. After all, I actually write adventures for games and can easily visually a far more enjoyable and fun world. The easy and obvious counter is to point out that when I dream (or, more accurately have nightmares), I experience unpleasant things on a fairly regular basis and have little control. Since my dreams presumably come from me and are often awful, it makes perfect sense that if the world came from me, it would be comparable in its awfulness. The waking world would be more vivid and consistent because I am awake; the dream world less so because of mental fatigue. In this case, I would be my own demon.


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