A Philosopher's Blog

The Intellectual Challenges

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2013
English: The 1st generation iPod Touch, with a...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I am a philosophy professor, people might suspect that my main intellectual challenges as a professional  involve problems in philosophy (or determining how to best turn students into Atheist-Marxist-Omnigendered-Socialist Intellectuals). However, this is not the case. I have two main areas of challenges that eat up significant mental resources and they have nothing directly to do with philosophy.

The first area is countering cheating. As might be imagined, the small percentage of students who cheat include a number of innovators. These innovators constantly develop new methods of cheating (or refine old ones) that are then copied by the less inventive cheaters. Obviously, the advent of smart phones has created new avenues of cheating, which faculty counter by requiring students to put away their phones. However, clever students have made use of blue-tooth earpieces to listen to their audio cheat files. The smart watches (such as the upcoming Apple device) also provide a means of cheating.

Of course, some students still go old school in their cheating, relying on crowded classrooms to cover their copying of others or from their cheat sheets. Some also take the approach of cheating after the fact, such as altering test answers and claiming that the professor marked them wrong. Some even claim that the professor lost the test or paper that was never actually turned in.

A few years back I had a small outbreak of this sort of after the fact cheating and countered it by snapping photos of all the graded answer sheets with my iPod Touch. This year, some students tried to counter that counter by claiming that I had given their tests back before I took the photos.  I had already started moving to Blackboard and my counter will be to let Blackboard handle this problem.

Of course, this creates the problem of countering cheating on Blackboard. Some programs require students to buy proctoring devices and software that record the student taking the test. Currently, I do not have that option. However, during test runs this past year I was able to create questions that required knowledge of the material and simply having access to books, notes, and the web did not help. Randomizing everything (questions and answers) also helps, as does setting a time limit.  I suppose that the students can do a George W. Bush and get other people to do the thinking for them, but I suppose that at least teach them about how life actually works.

The second area is minimizing unproductive time. As with most jobs, being a professor involves a fair amount of annoying work that is essentially a waste of time from the standpoint of the true goal of the profession. For example, I spend hours each semester handling emails that are not about the course material, but are about various issues a few students have created for themselves. For example, a student might regularly miss classes and email me after every missed class asking about make-up work or what was missed. As another example, students will email me with questions that are explicitly answered in the syllabus. As a final example, there are the students who arrive at the end of the semester to explain, at great length, why they did not do the work during the semester. And, of course, there are the make-up exams, late papers and administrative ordeals that eat away time that should be spent on things like improving course content.  But, at least in these cases I am interacting with students.However, I also face the challenges posed by administrators.

There are always forms to complete, mandatory meetings, assessments, committees and so on. While some do connect to actually educating students, much of what is done simply eats up time and produces little of value to education. For example, while I recognize the value of rational assessment, one “does not fatten the pig by weighing it.”

My objective over the years has been to try to spend my time as productively as possible. While technology has helped a bit, it has also hindered it. One obvious example is email. Back in the day, people had to call me or come to my office and eat my time in real time on their own time-now email is chewing away 24 hours a day. On a typical day, I’ll wake up at 5:00 am to find dozens of emails have been sent since I checked my email at 8:00 or 9:00 the night before-I often get some that were sent at 1:00 or 2:00 am. Apparently being nocturnal is a common thing these days. People do, of course, expect rapid replies-I’ll get emails asking if I have seen the previous email.

I’ll go through one example of  a common time-waster and show how I have endeavored to counter it.

As most professors will tell you, one major time-waster and annoyance is make-up work. While some students are good about handling missed work, the common cycle is this. The student begins by missing the work (such as a test).  Oddly enough, students often do not seem to realize they have missed something, so a few years ago I started emailing everyone who missed a test to let them know and what was to be done to make up the work. In most cases, the students ignore the email for a while and then, usually near the end of the semester, they start sending emails about make-ups, typically saying they will come in at time T. As might be guessed, time T passes without the makeup being done, which is followed by more emails. Students who attend class also do this in person, usually while I am either trying to set up for class or trying to get to my next class.  Eventually (usually at the last minute) everyone shows up at my last office hours wanting to complete their make-up exams. For good measure, people usually show up to be advised or with other problems at the same time, thus creating a bit of chaos. Naturally, I do try to convince people that they should consider coming in the day before the last day-I have five hours of office hours that day. But, people seem to prefer showing up for the last office hour.

I did try a no make-up policy for a while, but that proved…problematic. Some professors do stick to such a policy-a friend of mine on a grade appeals committee says that those professors’ students routinely file appeals semester after semester until the professor just gives up.

I also tried building make-up work into each class. For example, my Critical Inquiry class has 27+ assignments and only the best 10 count. My reasoning was that with 27 assignments, students would surely not ask for make-ups or need them. That proved to be incorrect-since students had to turn them in at the start of class so we could go over the answers, this resulted in many students either not showing up on time or not showing up at all. Also, the assignments came from the book and students are very reluctant to buy the book (although the insane prices of text books makes me sympathetic to this).

I then turned to technology and made the assignments available on Blackboard. That way students could do them at anytime from anyplace their smartphones worked. As I expected, the  percentage of completed assignments increased and their was a decrease in people emailing me to ask about making up assignments. However, I was slightly surprised that the increase in completed assignments was relatively small. That is, even though the assignments could be done just about anywhere at anytime, a significant percentage of students simply did not do them.

When I taught my hybrid class I also noticed the same when it came with tests: although the tests were available for an extended period of time (weeks in some cases) and could be done with a smartphone or tablet from almost anywhere, the percentage of people who did not complete the tests before the deadline was only marginally smaller than that of a traditional class (and well within the boundaries of chance).  Naturally, I got emails from students asking me to open the tests up for them again. And, of course, Blackboard added some new problems, such as Blackboard issues preventing students from finishing tests. However, most problems were still student related, like people trying to take tests at work and getting interrupted by, you know, work or students using unreliable connections to take tests.  But, I keep endeavoring to minimize the time I have to waste.

I now suspect that there is a constant Tr (for Trouble) that cannot be eliminated no matter how I design my classes. This probably connects to the Peters’ Principle: my friend Michael Peters noted that 10% of his students caused 90% of his problems, no matter what he did. I have found that to hold true: my typical class is 38 students and I usually have 3-4 students who generate the majority of the problems. The other 90% generally do what they are supposed to do (such as showing up and doing the work on time). But, the Troublesome Ten more than make up for them.

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Automatic Grading

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2013

When I learned that EdX had developed software that would instantly grade written work, my first reaction was one of skepticism. After all, while

The Turing Test (Doctor Who)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

spell-checkers work well and grammar checkers work sort of well, it seems unlikely that software could properly evaluate written work. My second reaction was that of hope-after all, I grind through hundreds of papers each year and automating that task would make my job much easier. This lead to my third reaction, namely worry regarding the implications of such software.

While my knowledge of programming is mostly obsolete, I do know enough about artificial intelligence to know that the current technology is most likely not up to the task of properly grading written work such as essays. After all, while checking such things as spelling and grammar can be automated relatively easily, properly assessing a written work would seem to require robust language comprehension-something that existing artificial intelligence can not do. Interestingly, in a letter about animals, Descartes argues that purely mechanical systems cannot engage in true language. While he was writing about animals, his view also applied to automatons and would now apply to computers. While Descartes might be proven wrong someday, I would suspect that day has yet to arrive.

Of course, it would be foolish of me to take my view to be certain. After all, I am not an expert on artificial intelligence and perhaps EdX has made an exceptional break through in the field. Naturally, the rational approach is to consider what the experts have to say about the matter and to consider the available evidence.

One expert who has been critical of such software is Les Perelman. In a detailed paper, he does a careful analysis of the effectiveness of the grading software. While the paper is somewhat technical, it does make a compelling case against the claim that such grading software is effective. In any case, readers can review the paper and assess his reasoning and evidence. Perelman is also well known for crafting nonsense that receives high marks from grading software. That this occurs is hardly surprising. After all, the grading software is obviously not actually capable of comprehending the essay-it is merely running it through a series of programmed evaluations and someone who knows how specific software works can create nonsense essays that a human reader would recognize as nonsense yet pass the programmed evaluations with flying colors. This sort of thing could be seen as a variation on the Turing test: being able to properly grade a written essay and distinguish it from cleverly crafted nonsense would be a passing mark for the software/hardware.

In regards to the matter of hope, the idea of automatic essay grading is appealing. Like many professors at teaching schools, I grade hundreds of essays each year. Unlike many professors, I get the graded work back to the students within a few days.  In most cases, I am sad to say, students merely look at the grade and ignore the feedback and comments. As such, an automatic grader would reduce my workload dramatically, allowing me more time to handle my usual 6-9 committees, being the unit facilitator and so on.

Also, I believe the software might encourage students to write more drafts. My students have to wait about 15-30 minutes for me to review a draft during my office hours or as long as a day if they drop the paper off at the end of the day. But, if a student could get instant feedback, they would have more time to revise the paper and hence might be more likely to do so. Or perhaps not.

As might be imagined, not all professors have my rapid turnaround time on drafts and papers (my students alway seem shocked when they get their work back so quickly). In such cases, automatic grading would be even more useful-rather than waiting days, weeks or even months a student could get instant feedback. There is also the fact that some professors do not provide any feedback beyond a grade on the work. If the software provide more than that, it could be rather useful to the students. There is also the practical point that even not-so-great software could still be better than the evaluation provided by some professors.

Of course, the usefulness of the software is contingent on how well it actually works. If it can be gamed by nonsense or does not actually assess the essays properly, then it would be little more than a gimmick. That said, even if it was limited in functionality, it could still prove useful. For example, I already use Blackboard’s Safeassign to check papers for plagiarism. While it does yield false positives and can miss some cases of plagiarism, it is still a useful tool. As such, the grading software might also serve as a useful tool for drafts and for a preliminary evaluation. However, I am still skeptical about the ability of software to assess written work properly.

My final response was concern about the implications of the software. While it might be suspected that I would be worried that such software could put me out of a job, that is not my main worry. While I would obviously not want to be unemployed because I was replaced by some code, I am well aware of the nature of technological advance and that automation can make certain jobs obsolete. If a program could do my job as well as me, it would be unreasonable of me to insist that I be kept on the payroll just because firing me would be bad for me personally. After all, the university is not there to give me a job.

My main concern is not that I would be replaced by an automatic equivalent or better (that is being replaced because the task no longer requires a human), my main concern is that I would be replaced by something inferior for the main purpose of saving money. In more general terms, my worry is not that progress will make the professorship obsolete, but that the grading software will be used to cut costs by providing students with something inferior (most likely without informing students of this fact).

It might be countered that such grading software could be combined with the massive online courses and thus produce fully automated education factories that could provide education to people who could otherwise not afford it. To use an analogy, the old model for universities would be a fine (or less fine) restaurant with chefs and the new model would be the fast food joint with food technicians.

I will admit that this does have considerable appeal. After all, bringing education to people at a low cost would have numerous advantages, such as allowing people who could otherwise not afford education to be able to acquire it.

Of course, there is still the obvious concern that the software would be used to sell an inferior product at the price of the premium product and also the concern that education could become a degree mill in which students just click their way to a diploma.

Having been in higher education for quite some time I can attest to the desire to make education more like a business. Being able to automate education like a factory would certainly be appealing to some (such as certain politicians and the folks who would sell or license the software and hardware). As might be expected, while I do believe that certain things can be automated (like grading T/F tests), education does not seem well suited to the factory model.

Another obvious concern is that automated education might not democratize education by allowing everyone low-cost access to higher education. It might very well create an even more extreme inequality than exists today. That is, the premier institutions would have human professors providing high quality education while the other schools, such as state schools, would have automated classes providing education to the masses.  While this sounds like a science-fiction scenario, it is actually well within the realm of possibility. I can attest, from my own experience, the push to standardize and automate education and the education factory is not many steps away from the model being strongly pushed today. This is not to say that the education factory will arrive soon or even at all. But it is likely enough that it is worth being concerned about.

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Cruzing the Slippery Slope

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2013
English: Ted Cruz at the Republican Leadership...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because of its psychological appeal and versatility, the slippery slope is a very popular fallacy.  Thus, it is no surprise that Senator Ted Cruz employed it in his recent “argument” against expanding background checks.

The slippery slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no adequate reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:

  1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
  2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there is a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

In the case of Cruz, his  reasoning was as follows:

“The Department of Justice has been explicit that when you require background checks for private firearms transactions, the only way to make that effective is through a national gun registry. So if the bill that is pending on the floor of the Senate passed, the next step in the process would be that critics would say, ‘Well this isn’t effective. We don’t know if you’re selling your firearm to someone else unless we know you have your firearm.’ And in my judgment a federal registry of firearms … would be terrible policy and would be inconsistent with the Constitution.”

On the face of it, it might be contended that Cruz is not presenting a slippery slope fallacy. After all, he does  claim that making background checks effective would require such a registry and the “critics” would presumably make that “terrible policy” a reality.

However, looked at more closely, he is still presenting a slippery slope fallacy. While he does purport to provide a reason to think that passing the law in question would lead inevitably to a national gun registry, he actually fails to adequately connect the two.  As he conceded on 4/17/2013, the proposed legislation does not create a national gun registry. In fact, the Manchin-Toomey background check legislation actually makes it a felony for government officials to store gun records.  Thus, the legislation that is alleged to lead to a national gun registry actually would have made it illegal which would, obviously enough, stop the slippery slope slide immediately.  As such, the argument given by Cruz fails to support his conclusion and its only appeal is the psychological fear that passing the law would have led to a national gun registry.

It might be countered that someone could come along a pass a law that would allow a national gun registry, thus there is no slippery slope. However, what is wanting would be the same thing that is wanting now-adequate evidence that this would occur because of the passage of the original law.

I am reasonably sure that Cruz knows he employed a slippery slope-I do not think that he said what he said out of an ignorance of logic. Rather, I suspect he employed it intentionally, knowing how effective the fallacy is as a rhetorical device. After all, he is an Ivy League graduate and perhaps even an intellectual under his new persona. It was, it seems, clever of him to use this approach: he won, despite the fact that the majority of the senate and the vast majority of Americans supported the proposed legislation.


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Dropping the Ball

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2013
FBI Badge & gun.

FBI Badge & gun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it was learned that the FBI had checked up on  Tamerlan Tsarnaev and failed to predict that he would become radicalized, some politicians implied that the agency might have “dropped the ball.”

Given that Tamerlan Tsarnaev did apparently turn out to a threat, it is tempting to infer that the FBI did drop the ball. Now that it is known that he was a threat, people are going back and reconstructing the evidence that he had become radicalized, such as his YouTube links and his outburst at a Mosque.  However, this temptation should be resisted (unless evidence emerges to the contrary).

In regards to tracking people and predicting whether they will become a threat, the FBI faces two main philosophical challenges. The first is epistemic: that is, how do they know that a person will become a threat? This, as might be imagined, can be rather problematic. After all, as some commentators have noted, the FBI checks on many people every year and the vast majority of them do not turn out to be threats.

To use the obvious analogy, some people have mental health issues that might lead to serious violence, but the vast majority of such people never actually engage in such violence. When someone with such issues does engage in violence, people endeavor to backtrack and look for what was missed-and it always seems that the definitive evidence is never found. This might be because people have free will, because behavior is ultimately random, or because we lack the epistemic abilities to find the key evidence. Or something else entirely.

In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it might be found that there is no decisive evidence that would have revealed him to be on the (alleged) path to the bombing. That is, given the reasonably available evidence, perhaps the FBI lacked an adequate reason to expend its limited resources in tracking Tamerlan Tsarnaev in detail.

This possibility seems likely. As is often the case, the only definitive evidence that a person will engage in violence is when the person actually does so. Naturally, it would be rather useful to be able to definitively sort out the pre-criminals/terrorists before they act-but this is a rather difficult challenge given our capacity to know.

The second challenge is ethical and deals with such matters as the right to privacy and concerns about having a police state. While the state could keep closer checks on people who are even suspected of being potential wrong doers, there are obviously moral concerns with such an invasive state. The recent battle over expanding background checks for gun purchases showed the extent to which some people are concerned about matters of privacy and rights even in the context of public safety. After all, if there are significant concerns with expanding background checks for buying guns, then one can only imagine to concerns with having the FBI keeping close tabs on people on the basis of a foreign state making an inquiry about them and other such reasons.

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Feeding the Beast

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2013
English: The Pure Speculation Festival Logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a runner who had friends at the Boston Marathon, I followed the news relating to the event with great interest and concern. Like many others, I was struck by the moral and critical defects in some of the coverage.

Not surprisingly, the New York Post led the way in terms of defective coverage. The Post started off by getting the death toll wrong and then proceeded to link a Saudi national to the bombing. The Post then topped it off by putting two innocent people on the cover with a heading (“bag men”) that clearly implied they were involved.

While other folks in the media did not reach the depths explored by the Post, the coverage of the event was widely marked with factual inaccuracies and unfounded speculation.  While it is reasonable to forgive the folks in the media for not having all the facts when a story is evolving, it is also reasonable for the folks to use proper diligence and critical methods to assess the alleged facts before committing to them. It is also reasonable to expect the alleged professionals to be clear when they are just speculating and to restrain such speculation to its proper scope.

I do understand why the media folks often engage in speculation and hasty judgments. News is a for-profit business and they need to keep people watching the news so that they are watching the advertising between the stories. If a media person honestly reports that they do not have the facts and refuses to engage in unfounded speculation, then people will tend to turn to other media sources in the hopes of getting the facts. If these sources do not have the facts, they obviously need to choose between the ethical course of being clear about the lack of facts or engage in  unfounded speculation and unwarranted judgments. Obviously, the speculation and judgments have a better chance of keeping the audience’s attention. After all, if one source reports that the suspects are not known and another claims that a Saudi national is a suspect, people will turn to the sources making the claim about the suspect-even if the claim is completely unfounded.

While this approach does make some sense from a business perspective, it can obviously be rather harmful. In the case of the two innocent people who appeared on the Post’s cover, they have to worry about being harassed or harmed by people who bought what the Post was selling. There is also the concern that such misleading reporting can impeded investigations by leading the public to think that the suspects have been found and hence there is no need to keep looking. There is also the ethical concern regarding making claims when a person knows that they are not properly grounded in evidence.

In addition to the defects, I was also struck by the volume of empty chatter, such as the repeated statements of the very obvious and the vague filler comments. I do get why they talking heads have to do this-they need to stay on the big story to keep people watching, but when they have no actual facts to report and run out of unfounded speculation, they still have time to fill. To fill this time, they typically take the easiest route-empty chatter. Sometimes, as I saw on CNN, they even run out of empty chatter-the image of  John King standing with two people desperately checking their phones for something to say nicely exemplifies this situation.

While the media folks could do the obvious and switch to another story that involves actual facts, that creates the risk of losing the audience. Presumably CNN believed that showing people standing around would keep the audience better than going to another story. There is probably also the concern of backlash-that going to another story might create the impression that the media folks do not care enough about the big story to remain focused on it even when they have not a damn meaningful  thing to say.

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The Polygamy Argument & Same-Sex Marriage

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on April 19, 2013
Wasatch Polygamy Porter

(Photo credit: Dave77459)

One of the many stock fallacious arguments against same sex-marriage is the slippery slope argument in which it is contended that allowing same sex-marriage will lead to allowing polygamous marriage (or at least bigamy). The mistake being made is, of course, that the link between the two is not actually made. Since the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy, this is obviously a bad argument.

A non-fallacious argument that is also presented against same sex-marriage involves the contention that allowing same-sex marriage on the basis of a specific principle would require that, on the pain of inconsistency, we also accept polygamous marriage. This principle is typically some variant of the principle that a person should be able to marry any other person. Given that polygamous marriage is supposed to be bad, this would seem to entail that we should not allow same-sex marriage.

My first standard reply to this argument is that if different-sex marriage does not require us to accept polygamous marriage, then neither does accepting same-sex marriage. But, if accepting same-sex marriage entails that we have to accept polygamous marriage, the same would also apply to different-sex marriage. That this is so is shown by the following argument. If same-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person they wish to marry, then it would seem that different-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person of the opposite sex they wish to marry. By analogy, if allowing a person to marry any person they want to marry allows polygamous marriage, then allowing a person to marry a member of the opposite sex would also allow polygamous marriage-albeit only to a member of the opposite sex. But, if the slide to polygamy can be stopped in the case of different-sex marriage, then the same stopping mechanism can be used in the case of same-sex marriage.

In the case of different-sex marriage, there is generally an injunction against people marrying more than one person at a time. This same injunction would certainly seem to be applicable in the case of same-sex marriage. After all, there is nothing about accepting same-sex marriage that inherently requires accepting polygamous marriage.

In light of the above, the polygamy gambit against same-sex marriage would seem to fail.  That is, the claim about the slide into polygamy that would supposedly result from legalizing same-sex marriage is unfounded.

There is, however, still an interesting question in regards to polygamy, namely the matter of whether or not it is wrong. After all, even if it could be shown that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy, this would only be a problem is polygamy was actually wrong in some relevant way.

While polygamous marriage is not unheard of and there are also traditions of the practice, appealing to common practice or tradition to defend polygamy would obviously be fallacious. What is needed is a proper examination of the practice.

It is often the case that polygamy is condemned not directly because it is polygamy, but because of other factors associated with the specific sort of polygamy in question. For example, a culture that accepts polygamy might do so based on the view that women are inferior to men. In this case, it would not primarily be the polygamy that is problematic, but the way women are regarded and treated. As another example, polygamy might be practiced with under-aged and coerced brides (as has been seen in certain cults in the United States). In this case, the main concerns would seem to be with the coercion and age.  In these and similar cases, the main point of concern would seem to not be that a man has many wives, but the treatment of the women.  Thus, the moral problem with polygamy might not be a moral problem with the polygamy aspect, but the context of the polygamy.

Let it be supposed that polygamy was occurring in a situation devoid of such other negative factors. That is, those involved were not coerced, underage, or mistreated.  The question would then be this: what is it about having multiple spouses itself that is wrong, if anything?

It might, obviously enough, be countered that any polygamous nature would be defective. For example, it could be argued that polygamy, by its very nature, must involve an imbalance in marital power (usually the male over the females) or, at the very least, it would always result in some of the spouses being denied the full benefits of marriage (that is, a single man could not attend to the emotional and physical needs of multiple women).

Naturally, it can easily be pointed out that critics of “traditional” marriage have pointed to the traditional imbalance in power between men and women and women being denied the full benefits of marriage. As such, these defects could be defects in marriage rather than a defect specific to polygamy-a polygamous marriage might merely multiple the disparities.

It is worth noting that these defects seem to arise from polygamy of the traditional sort: a male possessing a harem of wives. As such it would seem worthwhile to consider various forms of non-traditional polygamy, especially one involving multiple spouses of different sexes. Naturally, there could be different-sex polygamy of this sort (the marriage holds between the different sexes but not between the same sexes) or same-sex polygamy or bi-sexual polygamy. The notion of an extended marriage (with co-wives and co-husbands) was considered in science fiction by Robert Heinlein and he seemed to regard it as a potentially healthy and effective system of marriage. Of course, the fictional consideration of this matter could, at best, be considered a thought experiment. However, Heinlein did note the advantages for children (which he seemed to be regarded as of great importance in the context of marriage) in terms of the number of parents available to provide care and support.

Obviously enough, we have no real evidence of how a polygamous marriage between free and equal spouses would actually work-we just have our unfree and unequal world to draw upon for examples.  However, it should, perhaps, not be dismissed out of hand or regarded as inherently defective.

In response to the obvious question, I would not want multiple wives. I failed with one wife and have no desire to multiply my failure.

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Owning Genes

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

Human genome to genes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pirate Fort Pathfinder RPG Compatible Adventure Free on Amazon

Posted in Miscellaneous, Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2013


A Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 2nd-3rd level characters.

Free on Amazon from 4/15/2013-4/19/2013.


After the Empire expanded into the Aegus region via the transport towers, Imperial scouts searched for valuable resources. Investigating tales about a mountainous island containing wealth and monsters, Imperial scouts (Althus, Altus, and Ulthus) located caverns that contained rich veins of copper-already being mined by Troglodytes. Eager for the resources, the Empire slaughtered many of the troglodytes and enslaved the rest as miners. A small village, Ulthus, grew up around the mines and a large town, Altus, grew on the coast. The influx of wealth enabled the town to thrive and even construct a theatre for the entertainment of the people. While the theatre was originally a place of the finer arts, as the Empire became more debased, so too did the performances. Eventually, corruption spread throughout the town, infecting even the church.

When the Cataclysm struck, Altus was cast into ruin. The theatre and those who frequented it became the focus of much of the curse. They were transformed to match the evil and depravity in their souls, creating a dangerous and vile show upon the accursed stage. The church also met a terrible fate, becoming a haven for undead beings.

While Ulthus was mainly spared the direct effects of the Cataclysm, the destruction of Altus gave the troglodytes the chance they had been waiting for. They rose up and fought their enslavers. The battle was brutal and costly, but eventually the troglodytes won and were free to go back to enslaving their own kind in order to work the mines for their mysterious masters.

In more recent years and far away from AlthusIsland a great power arose in the lands of the Old Empire. Servants of this power have captured numerous Imperial transport towers and have made use of these to expand into areas once controlled or visited by the Empire. Recently a force of humanoids arrived on the island and established a fort. This fort serves as a base for a variety of pirate operations in the area. These pirates have been raiding various small islands in the area including AlthusIsland.

Available  on Amazon.


Pirate Fort Maps & Monsters

Hero Lab Portfolio Folder

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Review of Manuscript Found in Accra

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2013
English: Davos (Switzerland) - The Brazilian w...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manuscript Found in Accra
Paulo Coelho
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
190 pages
$22.00 Hardcover

Paulo Coelho is best known for The Alchemist, a book I have not read—although I have read some of the works it imitates. His latest work, Manuscript Found in Accra, is classified as fiction while clearly endeavoring to convey philosophical and religious ideas to the reader.

The author uses the device of the found manuscript—that is, the fictional content of the book is presented as being from a manuscript from the 11th century which was found by chance. Coelho creates a fictional backstory for the finding of the manuscript. He also crafts a fictional backstory for the creation of the work: in 1099 the crusaders are about to invade Jerusalem. A wise man, known as the Copt, is asked various questions by the people who have remained in the city. These questions and his answers are written down by one of those present and the manuscript is hidden for safe-keeping, only to be discovered centuries later.

The work is clear and well written (or, more accurately, well translated by Margaret Jull Costa) and is thus an easy read. While the book has 190 pages, it should be noted that the work is double-spaced, the question for each section appears on its own page (with a following blank page) and the margins are robust. As such, the work is also a quick read.

While I am a professional philosopher, I did endeavor to read the book from two perspectives. The first, obviously enough, is that of a professional philosopher. The second is that of a casual reader.

From my casual reader perspective, the work proved to be an interesting light read. While the author does not go into any real depth, the presentation of Big Ideas in a casual manner does provide some light entertainment and, more importantly, did get me thinking about the ideas raised. As such, I liked the book and can say that it would appeal to those who enjoy the presentation of Big Ideas in the context of fiction.

From my professional philosopher standpoint, the work also proved to be an interesting light read. The author borrows heavily and obviously from various traditions such as Taoism and Christianity and there is not much in the way of original thought here. The author also clearly seems to be trying to imitate the Socratic Method by presenting the Big Ideas in the context of a discussion. However, the intellectual rigor and depth of the full Socratic Method is absent—this is casual conversation with some Big Ideas and not a serious philosophical examination of values. The author also seems to have been influenced by Confucius’ Analects in that there is a wise man speaking his words of wisdom (without any supporting argumentation) to listeners and these words are written down by one of the followers/students.

The comparison to Confucius seems especially apt since the author is employing a method commonly used by the classic Eastern philosophers, namely appealing to intuitions and engaging in storytelling. This is in contrast with classic Western philosophy of the sort done by Plato and Aristotle: rigorous argumentation and in-depth analysis. However, the practice of philosophizing by storytelling has gained considerable traction in contemporary Western philosophy, although it is often dismissed on the obvious ground that telling stories is not a substitute for argumentation.

Since the work is being marketed as fiction, it is certainly tempting to simply say that the lack of argumentation and intellectual rigor is not a big deal. After all, while these things are expected in a work of philosophy (Big Ideas require equally Big Arguments), the standards of fiction are far weaker in this regards. Crudely put, while a philosopher must prove her points, the author of fiction must merely tell a good story. Thus, the question would seem to be whether or not Coelho tells a good story. While there is nothing exceptional about the work, a decent story is told reasonably well. However, Coelho (or at least the folks marketing his book) have the view that it is more than just telling a story for the amusement of the reader. Rather, the book is cast as presenting Big Ideas.

Looked at this way, the work could be seen as engaged in the philosophical method of the appeal to intuition. An intuition is a blend of how one thinks and feels about a matter prior to reflection. Crudely put, it is sort of a “gut” reaction. Naturally, a “gut” reaction is not an argument for a claim. An argument is when reasons are provided in support of a claim.

In the case of an appeal to intuition, the goal of the method is to “motivate” the reader’s intuitions so s/he accepts the claims being presented. This makes the method a blend between persuasion and argumentation.

It is an argument to the degree that the goal is to support a position by providing reasons. It is also persuasion in that the goal is also to get the audience accept a view because the author has presented something that appeals to their intuitions. That is, the goal is to make the audience feel as the authors wants them to feel so that they will think as the author wants them to think. A major weak point of this method is that intuitions are obviously intuitions and not the result of reflection and argument. Because of that fact, this method is strong and effective with people who share intuitions, but tends to be weak and ineffective with people who do not share the same intuitions.

The Big Ideas presented in the book do have intuitive appeal, mainly because they are Big Ideas that have been presented elsewhere (sometimes with arguments backing them up). Naturally, those whose intuitions match these ideas will find the book appealing while those who do not will probably not.

Overall, if you are looking for a light read that dabbles in telling stories about Big Ideas, you will probably like this work of fiction. If you are looking for something with philosophical depth, then you will want to keep looking.

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We’re From Exxon and We’re Here to Help…

Posted in Business, Ethics, Humor, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 12, 2013
English: To create this SVG-format logo, I too...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the failure of the Exxon pipeline has resulted in a significant spill in Arkansas, the media coverage of the incident has been rather limited.  Part of this is due to the nature of the media, but part of this is due to Exxon stepping in and imposing “Corporate Law” in the area. To be specific, Exxon seems to be employing the local sheriffs as their own private security force to keep reporters out of the area. While I am not a constitutional scholar, I would contend that this is a clear violation of the freedom of the press.

Naturally, I would understand it if the sheriffs were being employed to keep people from blundering into the contaminated zones-after all, being exposed to the spill would not be good for a person’s health. However, Exxon is directing its sheriffs to keep reporters away from areas in which there is no actual danger-other than the danger of Exxon and its associates being exposed to press coverage. As usual, I would infer that if they are engaging in such heavy handed and seemingly unconstitutional tactics, then what they are trying to conceal must be very bad indeed. There is also the obvious problem with an oil company using the sheriffs to do their bidding.

Another important point of concern is that the FAA has imposed a no-fly zone over the area of the spill and has apparently put Exxon in charge of this. Obviously, the folks at Exxon are not going to say that they have had their FAA impose the no-fly zone to prevent the press from taking pictures from the air. After all, a corporation imposing a no-fly zone over such an area simply to exclude the press would presumably be illegal. Instead, the claim is that the area must be kept clear to allow a helicopter to fly about without interference.

Now, if there was a significant air operation in the area so that the airspace was crowded, then the imposition of a non-fly zone would make sense. However, this is not the case and there is no reason why other aircraft should be excluded from the area-other than keeping people from seeing what is actually occurring in the area.

To some folks, this might seem to be the sort of thing that could only happen in a third world country with a weak government. After all, the United States government is supposed to have sovereignty in Arkansas and not Exxon. But, this sort of situation does not surprise me in the least.  It merely reminded me of a cartoon I saw years ago in college on the wall in the petroleum engineering department. I don’t recall the whole cartoon, but I remember the main point was “no one screws with the oil companies.” That seems to be as true now as it was then.

It must be inferred that the folks in Exxon think that what they are doing is a good idea and that the consequences of acting in this manner will be better for them than allowing the media the access they are entitled to under the constitution. Or perhaps getting their own way is simply a matter of habit-they are just openly showing who is really in charge here.

For full disclosure, I must note that I own Exxon stock. As such, the profit loving part of my soul is pleased by this show of dominance over the government.  I know that I can count on Exxon to have the power to do what it takes to keep the oil and money flowing. However, the part of my soul that loves the rule of law, freedom of the press and ethical behavior is appalled by this.

I do believe that a company can be ethical and still make a profit-Exxon could handle this situation both effectively and with moral correctness. In fact, they would actually benefit from doing so. But, the habits that arise from owning a chunk of the government are no doubt hard to break.

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