A Philosopher's Blog

Spill, Baby, Spill!

Posted in Business, Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 30, 2010
A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

During the 2008 campaign the Republicans had the slogan of “drill, baby, drill!” After Obama won, he rather quietly decided to endorse that loud slogan by opening up areas to drilling. In an interesting coincidence, disaster struck an offshore oil rig shortly after this policy change.

In addition to the loss of the rig crew, the disaster also damaged the well. Because of this damage, oil has been pouring into the ocean creating a slick about the size of Rhode Island (as the media folks are fond of saying). While the Coast Guard is doing the best it can, oil containment of this type is difficult (if not impossible).

As the oil drifts about, it will no doubt do severe damage to the ocean ecosystem. Once it starts hitting the beaches it will also create additional damage.  For the folks who hug money rather than trees, this is of concern because the economic damage will potentially be catastrophic. This area is heavily fished and the states in the area (such as Florida) have a significant part of their economy based on tourism. Needless to say, people are generally not very eager to spend a vacation at a beach covered in oil.

This situation raises numerous concerns, of which I will address two. The first is, obviously enough, who is going to pay for the cleanup costs and the economic damage?

In regards to the cleanup, it could be argued that the taxpayers should pay the bill. After all, an analogy could be drawn to a house fire. If your house catches on fire, then the fire department takes care of it. At least in most places-some communities have considered billing for such services.

One weak point of this analogy is the matter of scale. After all, the cleanup will be rather expensive. Of course, this might not be relevant: the fire department deals with burning skyscrapers and not just tiny shacks. Perhaps a better attack on this analogy is the fact that the oil companies are making vast amounts of money by engaging in risky activities. To expect the taxpayers to pay to clean up the mess would be rather unfair.

For those who are against socialism, the argument against the state cleaning things up is easy enough: the state should not be a nanny state and should not provide a socialist clean up. The Tea Party folks and others who have been attacking Obama for being a socialist should rally and demand that the oil company provide every penny that the clean up costs. For th state to pick up the tab would be socialism of the most dire sort. So, Tea Party folks, get those signs made up and demand that big government stay out of the clean up. Demand a private sector solution: the company that made the mess pays every damn cent to make things right.

In regards to the damage to the economy from the oil, it seems that the oil company has a moral obligation to pay for all the damages. True, they did not intentionally blow up the oil well. However, they are (as noted above) engaging in a high profit venture that also involves serious risk for everyone else in the area. Since they knowingly put the area at risk (the threats posed by offshore drilling are well known) then they should be obligated to pay for all the damage that they will inflict on the local economies. Failure to do so would be a profound moral failure.

Turning to a final point, this incident shows that perhaps “drill, baby, drill” is not a great idea. True, major oil rig disasters are rare. However, when calculating risk, the possible extent of the damage needs to be considered. This incident shows that offshore drilling poses a significant threat to the environment and the economy. As such, Obama’s rethinking of the change of policy should be reconsidered.

I must admit that I am biased in favor of oil free water and beaches. Also, I live in Florida and having oil defiling our beaches will hurt the economy and income for the state that pays my salary as a professor. I do recognize the need for oil and the desire to make money off oil. However, this incident is yet another lesson as to why it makes good sense to get away from such a polluting, risky and damaging fuel source.

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Being a Man III: Manly Morals

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2010
Hume made the famous is-ought distinction

Image via Wikipedia

When considering what it means to be a man one approach is to consider what is meant when someone says “be a man.” This is usually presented as either a criticism (in response to non-manly behavior) or to provide inspiration and guidance (in the hopes that the person will man up).

This sort of command is a normative imperative. That is, it tells a person what he should do and contains an element of value judgment. Presumably being a man is good while not being a man is bad (at least for those who would be men). This part is easy enough. The challenge lies in figuring out how to obey such an imperative-that is, how to be a man.

Since this is a normative imperative it seems reasonable to consider that there might be a moral aspect to being a man. Aristotle, for example, rather explicitly links being a man and being good. As he sees it, a man is a rational animal and to properly be a man is to develop excellence as a rational being. This, of course, assumes that there is a human nature and that what people should do is to achieve excellence in accord with this nature.

The idea that there is a natural foundation to being a man does have considerable appeal-after all, being a male is a matter of objective biology and it is very tempting indeed to link being a man and being a male. However, there are a few problems here. First, being a male is simply a matter of biology and seems to have no normative aspects to it.  After all, to be a male simply involve having the right parts (be these macro parts or micro parts like genes). Second, there is the old Humean injunction against deriving an “ought” from an “is” (although Hume never really gives an argument for this).  From ‘I am a male” it seems problematic to infer what I should do. Third, it seems to be at least possible that a person could be a man without actually being male. For example, a soul could perhaps be a man but would lack the biology to be a male. Despite these problems considering the nature of maleness might be an avenue worth exploring. In fact, Male Studies has gained some slight traction as an academic discipline in the United States (and is distinct from Men’s Studies).

However, if a foundation for being a man cannot be found in biology, perhaps it can be found in ethics. That is, perhaps being a man is a matter of being good. This idea does make sense. After all, when an intuitive list is assembled of what it is to be a man it will tend to include the classic virtues: honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, strength, loyalty, and so on. Obviously enough, women an children (and genderless beings) could also share this traits, thus indicating that they are not unique to men. This is hardly surprising since being a good person and being a good man would seem to overlap a great deal.

But, it might be asked, are there virtues specific to men (the manly virtues) that cannot be possessed by non-men? An easy (and easily refuted) manly virtue might be that of being a father. However, this can be refuted by arguing that this would fall under being a parent and also that a woman (or even an intelligent machine) could have the qualities of being a father. We already distinguish between being the biological father of a child and being a father (for example, in cases of adoption). As such, it would seem that a non-man could be a father and fulfill the functions of that role.

It seems possible that all the manly virtues could be possessed by people who would not, on the usual view of things, men. After all, there are women who seem to be better men than most men. For example, I know many female athletes who are physically and mentally tougher than the majority of men. They also exhibit the classic virtues of integrity, character, and so on.

Of course, these female athletes are still regarded as women and perhaps this indicates that there are some virtues that are unique to men. Then again, it might be that they are regarded as women not because they lack certain manly virtues but because they are still biologically female. As Locke noted in his discussion of personal identity, people can mean many things by terms like “man” (and presumably “woman”). As such, part of the problem might be that “man” and “woman” are used to refer to normative roles (ethical, legal, and gender) but also to biology.  As Locke suggests, clearing up our terminology can go a long way in clarifying matters.  I will not, however, endeavor to do this here.

One plausible approach is that being virtuous is largely neutral when it comes to men and non-men. So, for example, being a good man and being a good person would be the same thing. However, there still seems to be a residue of manliness left to account for. This is, to be honest, mainly just a feeling that there is still something to being a man that is distinct from being good in the general sense. That is, if a person were perfectly good there would still be some qualities that would be needed to truly be a man.

However, I must confess that suspect this feeling is primarily the product of my social conditioning. I have, as has everyone, been trained and conditioned to accept that certain roles and behavior are fitting for men and others for non-men. As such, perhaps the residue I mention is merely the results of these smudges on the lens of reason.

That said, this interests me enough to ask this question: what virtues and qualities could be unique to men? Naturally, I am not asking what is unique to males-this is a different question.

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Goldman Sachs

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2010
Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.
Image via Wikipedia

Since it is finals week, I have been using the schedule feature to post pre-written blogs. This has, of course, meant that the posts have not been at the cutting edge of events. As such, I thought I’d take a moment to do an up to date post.

As most folks know, the fine people from Goldman Sachs have been called up before Congress. As most folks should know, Goldman Sachs has been a major campaign contributor. For example, the company provided Obama with a nice wad of cash for his 2008 campaign for President. Goldman Sachs has also donated significant sums to other politicians, mostly Republicans. In short, it seems reasonable to suggest that the company has considerable influence over many politicians.

But, someone might say, surely congress is not in the pocket of Goldman Sachs. After all, they called the Goldman Sachs folks to appear before them and asked some tough questions.

The obvious reply is that while politicians take money from companies like Goldman Sachs, they ultimately need to get votes in order to keep their position at the trough. Goldman Sachs is something of a villain today and hence the politicians need to appear that they are taking this villain to task. Of course, they cannot really put the whip to the villain; they need his gold for the upcoming elections. As such, it seems reasonable to expect the usual political theater to play out here.

Given the fact that Goldman Sachs has been a major campaign contributor, it certainly seems reasonable to point out that there seems to be a conflict of interest in having congress grill these folks. In fact, it is tempting to use scenarios like this to argue for campaign finance reform: how can congress be expected to hold hearings regarding the very companies that hand them vast sacks of campaign cash?  If a judge were in that position, she would hardly be allowed to remain the judge in such a case.

It can, of course, be pointed out that congress is not a judge. After all, it is the legislative branch and not the judicial. However, congress does craft the laws and hence there are still grounds for concern.

Ironically, this situation might help Goldman Sachs. Interestingly enough, their stock actually improved after the executives were grilled by congress. Also, the company admits to having a credibility gap and this situation can perhaps give them an opportunity at the appearance of redemption.

As a final point, Goldman Sachs might have a very good defense-they seem to have talked congress into changing the rules a while back and then seem to have largely played by these rules. As such, if Goldman Sachs and other companies did wrong, it seems that many folks in congress and government were their willing accomplices.  I doubt congress will hold hearings on itself, so it is up to the voters to judge what they have done (or not done).

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Facts & Lies

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2010
Still Using Those Same, Tired Old Lies?
Image by nyominx via Flickr

It is a generally accepted truism that politicians lie.  What is interesting is that this view does not generally result in a healthy skepticism on the part of most people. Instead, people tend to assume that the liars are the politicians they disagree with and that the folks they agree with are speaking the truth.

For example, there are folks who believe that Obama is lying about his nationality and insist on proof for his being an America. Some of this same folks simply accepted the claims about death panels without even pausing to consider the credibility of the claims. Folks on the left are also guilty of this. Interestingly enough, people have very strong views about matters yet they rarely bother to critically consider the key claims. Fortunately, the folks at FactCheck.org seem to do a decent job of actually checking on the facts. Sadly, the facts often seem to have little political weight.

One interesting question is why politicians make false claims. The obvious answer is that they think that lies will work. In many cases, they seem to be right: telling people what they want to believe often works far better than the truth.

There is also the possibility of honest mistakes. After all, merely being wrong is not the same thing as a lie (a lie requires an intent to deceive). Being a professor, I am well aware that most people are not that great of keeping track of the facts. As an obvious example, most people get about 70% of the exam or quiz questions right on material they have actually studied. As such, it is hardly a shock when someone makes a factual error.

People often seem to simply fail to listen to what is being said, thus leading them to say and believe things that are not true, even though there is no intent to deceive. To use a specific case, for the past few weeks I announced(and wrote on the board) that my last office hours would be Thursday April 22 from 3:25-4:25. As always, shortly after I said that people would say things like “so, your office hours are 3:00 to 4:30…so can I take my make up test at 3:00?” or on April 22 they would say “Okay, I’ll come in on Friday during your office hours to talk about my grade.” If people can be honestly mistaken about something as simple as when my last office hours are, then it seems easy enough for people to be mistaken about more complex and contentious matters.

In some cases the idea of a mistake does not fit. After all, when the false claims consistently match  the person’s ideology or are in accord with her political ends then something else is likely to be at work.

One likely explanation is bias-people tend to see the world through the filters of their political ideologies. As such, a person will tend to “process” the facts in such a way that matches her world view. In some cases this is primarily a failure to be a critical thinker rather than being deliberately deceptive. To use an analogy, a parent will see her baby as beautiful even when the baby is, in fact, wicked ugly. As with the parent, people who tell (and buy) political lies might truly believe the claim.

Another likely explanation is that the lie is just that-an intentional act aimed at deceit. Historically the Greek sophists argued that there is no objective truth and what mattered is success. It seems likely that we still have contemporary sophists who take that view: it is not the truth that matters but merely winning.

The cure for errors and bias is, of course, learning critical thinking skills and learning the facts. Of course, learning to be critical is much harder than simply believing whatever matches a person’s ideology and prejudices. However, if we prefer truth over lies then this is something we must do. We do not have to tolerate the lies of politicians-we can call them on this and make sure that there are consequences to such deception. This requires being critical of all politicians, including the ones that share a person’s specific ideology. This is, I admit, a hard thing since it is so very tempting to believe that what we like is what is true.

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Posted in Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2010
Nokia E71 against black background

Image via Wikipedia

A few years ago I noticed a student who was twitching his arms and not paying attention in class. I took a step for a clearer view and could see that he was staring intently downward, his hands jerking away under the desk. At first I thought he was having a seizure…then the horrible thought crossed my mind that he was doing something else (one time someone was conducting phone sex in the classroom across the hall, so strange things happen). When he noticed that he was being watched by myself and the students, he looked up and said “sorry, texting.”

Since then texting has become the standard classroom activity. Students seem to think that they cannot be seen as they twitch away with their hand under the desk, but it is rather obvious. Of course, at this point most students make no pretenses about it-they openly text in class.  I have had students try to cheat using their phones-hence my early adoption of a no phones during tests policy.

While I do warn students that texting in class will tend to have a negative impact on their performance, I do not have a strict no phone policy. The main reason for this is that I believe that people have a right to self-fail. After all, a student can zone out and not pay attention as they wish. A smartphone just lets them take zoning out to a new level. Also, I am something of a libertarian-if a student is not interfering with me or the other students, then I do not feel compelled to interfere with his/her choice.

When texting was new, I noticed a clear correlation between grades and texting: students who spent class texting generally did rather poorly. However, I have observed that texting has had less and less of an impact on performance.  One possibility is that students have gotten accustomed to multi-tasking so that they can text with their hands while still absorbing some of the class with their ears. Another possibility is that students do their texting in class and do their class preparation outside of class (or in other classes).

While I do not text, I would bring a laptop (now a netbook) to meetings. I have found that I can actually track what is going on during the meeting while working on my netbook. As I see it, I am shifting my attention often enough to keep up with what is going on, sort of like looking at a TV show once in a while and being able to follow the show. It is sort of a mental snorkeling, like a submarine shifting from sonar to a snorkel view.

This seems to work because, to be honest, most of what I or other people say is not really critical or important and can generally be safely ignored. Of course, the shifting is not quite as good as paying full attention and it can be a problem when the majority of what is being said is actually important. For example, when I am going over how to build a truth table there is no fluff and hence anything that is  missed will be rather important information.

The problem that students face while texting is that they are not often very good at discerning between what they can drift through and what requires their complete attention.  The easy and obvious solution is to simply not text during class.

However, this is probably very hard on students. Apparently texting is actually addictive-sending and receiving messages stimulates the brain like drugs. Since humans are social animals and enjoy communication, the appeal of this sort of instant gratification is hardly surprising. I also suspect there is something about the technology itself that adds to its addictive quality. Texting is still new enough that part of the appeal might be the shiny factor. Or perhaps it is because when people are not texting they feel they are missing out-that things might be happening with their friends that they do not know about.  This addictive factor also effects adults-when I go to faculty meetings it is just like being in a class in terms of texting.

I am apparently immune to the addictive power of texting, probably part of my general immunity in regards to phones. I do, of course, blog-but this is merely an extension of my love of writing (actual sentences).

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Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2010
Image by moleratsgotnofur via Flickr

While Apple’s iPad is designed to restrict the user’s access to things like Flash animations, a porn company has found a way to get around Apple’s restrictions (and the app store). Apparently users can now access porn via their iPads, thus creating iPorn. I suppose that is one use for the iPad given that it has a decent viewing screen and is…um..small enough to hold with one hand. I suspect that this porn option will help boost sales of protective coverings for the iPad’s screen. While Apple will probably try to close this loophole, the porn folks will no doubt find a way to reach around it once again.

The arrival of porn on the iPad is hardly a shock. After all, porn has been at the cutting edge of technology all along (movies, VHS, DVD, the web). Years ago I jokingly came up with an Iron Law of Technology: “any technology that can be misused will be misused.” Shortly afterwards I added “Probably for porn.” This Iron Law has been dead on ever since.

One reason why porn keeps up with technology is that it is a moneymaking business without any pretensions of art or merit. New technology means new ways of making money, hence the early adoption. Another reason is that although porn is a huge industry, most of its consumers would rather not have their consumption known. Technology adds new ways to view porn in private and in secret. For example, before VHS, DVD and the web, folks had to go to sleazy porn theaters to see videos, thus risking being seen and judged. Now people can view it in the privacy of their own home (or cubicle at work). A third reason is that porn is probably like other addictive things-a person always needs something more. Technology can help add that something more, be it HD porn or 3D porn (seriously-they are already filming it).

Another possible reason why porn is generally on the technological edge is that perhaps people who are tech geeks are also inclined to like porn. This might be because most tech geeks are men and most men like porn. Or it might be that tech geeks often lack access to the genuine article and hence are drawn to porn. Then again, married men often view porn, so maybe that reason is not a primary motivation. It might be, as per the episode of Futurama, that porn is driving towards its ultimate form: robotic “women” to replace real women. There are already crude sex-robots and the R&D on such machines is continuing. If the past is any indication, it is just a matter of time before sex-bots are available on Amazon.com.

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Being a Man II: Manly Metaphysics

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 25, 2010
Herma of Plato, Musei Capitolini, Rome
Image via Wikipedia

In my previous post on this subject, I considered that being a man might be merely a matter of meeting certain social norms. In short, perhaps being a man simply amounts to determining the standards set by the group in question and meeting them.

However, perhaps there is more to being a man than that. Perhaps there are objective elements to being a man. One possibility is that being a man is actually grounded in the nature of reality. That is, being a man is a metaphysical matter.

One way to look at this is to go back to the dispute over universals during the Middle Ages.  To oversimplify things quite a bit, one option was to believe that metaphysical universals are real. Roughly put, this is the view that individuals are grouped into types on an objective basis and this basis is a metaphysical property. So, for example, all men would be men because they instantiate or participate in the universal of man. This sort of view dates back to Plato. There are, of course, many views about the nature of properties. For example, there are trope theories (sometimes refereed to as theories about abstract particulars).

On this sort of view, then being a man would be an objective matter. A person who has the quality in question would thus be a man.  This, if Plato was right, could be a matter of degrees with some men being more men than others. This would be comparable to his account of beauty: objects come in degrees of beauty based on how well they instantiate the form of beauty. On this sort of view, how manly a man is would be an objective manner (although people can, of course, still dispute relative manliness).

This might also not be a simple matter of having a single quality-being a man might also involve having a set of properties and thus be a complex rather than a simple. This is, however, consistent with their being an objective basis to being a man.

The main alternative to this sort of metaphysical realism is known as nominalism. Crudely put, this is the view that individuals are grouped on the basis of names. In short, all men are men because they are called men. This sort of approach is like the one considered in the first blog on the subject.

While there are numerous versions of metaphysical views about the basis on which individuals are grouped into types,the division between there being an objective basis and the denial of such a basis cuts across all the various views. Clearly, whether being a man is objective or subjective is rather important.

On the plus side, this sort of metaphysical realism has a long and established pedigree (with a multitude of supporting arguments). Also, the idea of there being an objective basis to being a man has a certain appeal-if only to provide a foundation for our judgments that goes beyond mere opinion.

On the minus side, the opposition to this approach also has a long and well established pedigree. Also, the idea that being a man involves weird metaphysical entities rather than mundane factors such as character traits or behavior seems to be rather weird. But, of course, weirdness is not a very serious charge in philosophy.  Finally, being told that being a man is a matter of instantiating the property (or properties) of being a man does not go very far in telling a man how he should act should he desire to be a man.  To misquote Aristotle, what we are concerned with is no so much knowledge of men, but what it is to be  a man. Otherwise, our study would be useless.

Thus, while the metaphysics of being a man are of interest, what seems to be of even greater interest is what it actually is to be a man in terms of how one should act.

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Posted in Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2010
Lain's custom computer, which features hologra...
Image via Wikipedia

Back in the 1990s Cyberpunk was hot in science fiction. A central theme of this genre was battles in cyberspace. Fast forward to 2010 and the dystopic future envisioned in those tales has failed to materialize. However, the theme of cyber warfare was rather prescient. The internet is literally a war zone in which attackers try to breach the defenses of networks and individual computers. While much of this is done by criminals, there are also states playing this new game.

While criminals are a serious concern, the actions of nation states are also extremely worrisome. After all, software experts with the backing of a national budget could do considerable damage to another nation by attacking the private and governmental computer infrastructure. Financial systems, energy systems, defense systems and communication systems could be disrupted or even crippled. In theory, such attacks could be done anonymously. This would allow a nation to do damage and avoid retaliation.

China has shown that it is quite willing to use computer hacking (in the bad sense of the term) as part of national policy. While Google was the main target recently, there is no reason to think that China has any qualms about this method.  Other nations also seem to be willing and able to use such methods.

While the United States has been a center of computer and network innovation, the United States government has done rather poorly in the area of cyber security. This, obviously enough, needs to be rectified. Part of the problem is, no doubt, that our main focus has been on dumping money to counter the (non-cyber) terrorist threats (or to create the illusion that we are doing so), to fight our two wars, and so on. Another problem is that we have a hodge-podge system and lack a unified approach to this matter. There is also the concern that some government folks seem to be more concerned with downloading porn at work rather than focusing on the issue of security.

Whatever the reason, our country has a serious vulnerability in this area that must be addressed. Of course, this might be “addressed” by companies with high paid lobbyists getting fat contracts to provide useless security measures that will need to be repaired and patched to actually be effective.

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Arizona’s Immigration Law

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2010
Great Seal of the State of Arizona
Image via Wikipedia

Now that the health care issue has faded a bit, folks need a new focus for their righteous outrage. The matter of immigration seems set to take center stage once more.

Arizona currently is considering some of the toughest immigration laws in the country. The gist of the law is that immigrants “must carry their alien registration documents at all times and requires police to question people if there’s reason to suspect they’re in the United States illegally.” The bill also has provisions for people who hire illegal immigrants or provide them with transportation.

On one hand, the laws can be seen as quite reasonable. After all, being in the country illegally is (by definition) against the law. The police are tasked with enforcing laws and hence it makes sense that they should be directed to ensure that people are not breaking the law.

The aspect of the law that deal with people hiring illegal immigrants or transport them also seem sensible. After all, illegal immigrants are not here legally and hence businesses should not be hiring them to work. This, one might argue, would be on par with hiring known criminals and failing to report them to the police. The same would apply to people who transport illegal immigrants. If I knowingly give a criminal a ride and fail to report it, then I would seem to be aiding the person in his/her crime.

On the other hand, there are some serious concerns about the law.

One minor one is that the idea that people need to carry around identity papers at all times has sort of a totalitarian feel to it.

A much more serious concern is the requirement to question people who are suspected of being here illegally. The obvious concern is determining what would count as legitimate grounds for suspicion and what would not. Obviously enough, if an officer sees someone running across the border, then that would be reasonable grounds to ask questions. There are also other cases that would justify such questions as well, such as when the police raid an employer known for hiring illegals. However, there is a serious concern that the law will lead to American Hispanics being harassed and profiled. After all, some folks regard being Hispanic or not speaking English as grounds for being suspicious of a person being an illegal immigrant. I suspect that if I went to Arizona, I would never be asked to provide proof that I am here legally. However, I suspect that the same cannot be said for Americans with darker skin.

A practical concern is that, ironically enough, illegal immigrants apparently make significant contributions to Arizona’s economy. By driving out illegals and failing to handle the situation in a more reasonable manner through immigration reform Arizona might turn out to be hurting itself.

This is not to say that the state should simply do what many other states do and mainly just ignore the problem. Rather, what is needed is for the states and the federal government to seriously address the matter of illegal immigration and work out a solution that is both just and practical.

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Can Video Games Be Art?

Posted in Aesthetics, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2010

In short, yes.

Of course, being a professional philosopher, I am obligated to more than make a mere assertion. I had, oddly enough, thought that this matter had already been settled. However, Roger Ebert argues (at length) that video games are not and perhaps never can be art. This was done as a reply to a YouTube video by Kellee Santiago in which she claims that video games can be art. The folks at Penny Arcade also weigh in on the matter.

As with most classification battles, this conflict hinges on the definition of “art.”  After all, with definition in hand a person could sort the world into two piles: art and non-art. While Santiago goes with Wikipedia as her main source, Ebert considers more historical definitions, such as those offered by Plato. However, all these definitions have serious flaws. Since I have been published professionally in the field of aesthetics and have taught a university course on the subject for sixteen years, I am somewhat qualified to discuss definitions of “art.” My considered view is that although we have many interesting and appealing definitions, we have yet to develop one that is truly adequate. To be specific, the definitions all tend to be too narrow (leaving out too much) or too broad (letting in too much) or have other serious flaws. Fortunately, it is possible to argue whether something is art or not without having that elusive perfect (or at least adequate) definition.

One effective way to argue that something is art is to use an argument by analogy. If it can be shown that X is analogous (in relevant ways)  to something that is a paradigm example of art, then this goes a long way in establishing that X is art. Naturally, this is an inductive method and is also subject to some serious criticism.

Turning to video games, they seem to have components relevantly similar to established art forms. First, video games have graphics. These can be compared to paintings or movies (since video game graphics often move). While some video games might not actually hit a level that would qualify them as art (not even bad art) at least some of them would seem to be adequately similar to paintings, drawings or films in ways that would qualify the visual component as art. As far as the main argument, it seems that anything that can be said that would argue that a sketch, painting or film is art (references to creativity, imagination, expression of emotion, proportion, imitativeness, and so on) could also be applied to the graphics of a video game.

Second, video games have sounds and even sound tracks. While the simplest bloops and bleeps most likely are mere noise rather than music, games such as Halo have true musical soundtracks. Since music can clearly be art, the musical elements in video games would also seem to be eligible for this status.

Third, video games often have stories and narratives. While this is not true of all of them (Tetris lacks a plot, for example), some of them have plots and narratives that rival those of novels. For example, the  Mass Effect and Uncharted games serve to illustrate the narrative depths of games. The Uncharted games have been compared favorably to movies and movies are clearly art. Also, as with graphics, almost anything that can be said about a story or novel (or movie) can also be said about certain video games. As such, the story aspect of video games would also seem to qualify some of them as art.

It might be objected that although the parts that make up a game can be artistic elements, to infer that the whole game is thus art would be to commit the fallacy of composition (to assume that what is true of the parts must be true of the whole). That is, while the game has artistic parts, the game as a whole is not art. To use an analogy, the fact that a house has art on the walls and music playing within its walls does not make the house itself a work of art. To use an even better analogy, if someone decided to play checkers using great paintings as the pieces, this would hardly make the game of checkers art.

In reply, if the components are art, then the coherent combination of these parts into a whole should not someone render this whole into non-art through some sort of mysterious alchemy. In the case of the checkers analogy, the fact that the pieces are art is not actually relevant to the game of checkers. The art is not serving a role in the game as art, but rather as mere objects. This role would be served as well (even better) by small pieces of plastic. If the art is actually serving a role in the game as art, then that would change matters in a relevant. way. Provided that the art is playing a role in the game in which it being art is relevant, then it would seem to be able to give the game itself some standing as art. It could even be argued that the burden of proof rests on those who would claim that video games composed of such artistic elements are not art. Of course, such burden of proof arguments are rather weak.

As for a better argument, a reasonable approach is to consider what fatal alchemy would somehow deprive all the artistic components of a video game from combining into a work that qualifies as art as a whole. If no such fatal alchemy exists and a game is meaningfully composed of artistic elements, then the game as a whole could qualify as art.

One possibility is that video games, unlike works of art, are played rather than merely experienced. One views a painting, hears a song, or watches a movie. The artist delivers a work of art and the audience receives this work. In a game, the work is unfinished (in some cases, so much so that patches are needed) and the player is required to complete the process.

While this is a tempting argument, it can be replied to in two ways. One is that there are numerous types of accepted art that are interactive. For example, stand up comedy is an art, yet we do not say that it ceases to be an art if the comic interacts with the audience in her act. Also, there are plays that invite audience participation yet this does not deny them their status as art. At the very least, the audience interacts emotionally with the works.

A second reply is that perhaps the player is also an artist by adding his input into the game. In role-playing games, the player selects and modifies the flow of the narrative, helping to tell the story along with the creators of the game. As such, this does not seem to disqualify video games from being art.

Another possibility is that there is something else inherent to games that is able to nullify the artistic elements of video games. However, it seems difficult to sort out exactly what these fatal elements might be. Games have rules, but so does art. While art cannot be won, there are some games that are also not based on winning or losing. One could, I think, run though all the elements of games and fail to find that fatal ingredient. However, I am clearly open to this possibility. True, not all games are art. However, this hardly shows that video games are thus not art because they are games.

As somewhat of a side point, there are some arguments that attack the status of video games as art by pointing out that video games cannot match the greatest paintings, novels, films and so on. However, this argument rather misses the point. Even it is conceded that video games have not matched the greatest works of art, this does not show that they are not art. It would merely show that they are not on par with the greatest works. This would be like arguing that the Twilight books are not art because they are not as good as Shakespeare’s works or arguing that I am not a runner because I cannot place in the top ten at the Boston Marathon. Bad art is still art and non-world class runners are still runners.

Finally, I obviously have just presented a sketch of a case. One glaring weak point is that an account of what it is for artistic elements of a video game to combine to form an artistic whole. Fortunately, this is the sort of challenge any composite work faces. For example, a film has to combine the plot, the visual aspects, acting, sound effects, sound track and other elements to create a whole. As such, an analogy to films can be pressed into play here and perhaps help serve as the basis for building an account of video games as works of art.

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