A Philosopher's Blog

Age of Awkwardness

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2015

Some ages get cool names, such as the Iron Age or the Gilded Age. Others are dubbed with word mantles less awesome. An excellent example of the latter is the designation of our time as the Awkward Age. Since philosophers are often willing to cash in on trends, it is not surprising that there is now a philosophy of awkwardness.

Various arguments have been advanced in support of the claim that this is the Awkward Age. Not surprisingly, a key argument is built on the existence of so many TV shows and movies that center on awkwardness. There is a certain appeal to this sort of argument and the idea that art expresses the temper, spirit, and social conditions of its age is an old one. I recall, from an art history class I took as an undergraduate, this standard approach to art. For example, the massive works of the ancient Egyptians is supposed to reveal their views of the afterlife as the harmony of the Greek works is supposed to reveal the soul of ancient Greece.

Wilde, in his dialogue “The New Aesthetics” considers this very point. Wilde takes the view that “Art never expresses anything but itself.” Naturally enough, Wilde provides an account of why people think art is about the ages. His explanation is best put by Carly Simon: “You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you.” Less lyrically, the idea is that vanity causes people to think that the art of their time is about them. Since the people of today were not around in the way back times of old, they cannot say that past art was about them—so they assert that the art of the past was about the people of the past. This does have the virtue of consistency.

While Wilde does not offer a decisive argument in favor of his view, it does have a certain appeal. It also is worth considering that it is problematic to draw an inference about the character of an age from what TV shows or movies happen to be in vogue with a certain circle (there are, after all, many shows and movies that are not focused on awkwardness). While it is reasonable to draw some conclusions about that specific circle, leaping beyond to the general population and the entire age would be quite a leap—after all, there are many non-awkward shows and movies that could be presented as contenders to defining the age. It seems sensible to conclude that it is vanity on the part of the members of such a circle to regard what they like as defining the age. It could also be seen as a hasty generalization—people infer that what they regard as defining must also apply to the general population.

A second, somewhat stronger, sort of argument for this being the Awkward Age is based on claims about extensive social changes. To use an oversimplified example, consider the case of gender in the United States. The old social norms had two fairly clearly defined genders and sets of rules regarding interaction. Such rules included those that made it clear that the man asked the woman out on the date and that the man paid for everything. Now, or so the argument goes, the norms are in disarray or have been dissolved. Sticking with gender, Facebook now recognizes over 50 genders which rather complicates matters relative to the “standard” two of the past. Going with the dating rules once again, it is no longer clear who is supposed to do the asking and the paying.

In terms of how this connects to awkwardness, the idea is that when people do not have established social norms and rules to follow, ignorance and error can easily lead to awkward moments. For example, there could be an awkward moment on a date when the check arrives as the two people try to sort out who pays: Dick might be worried that he will offend Jane if he pays and Jane might be expecting Dick to pick up the tab—or she might think that each should pay their own tab.

To use an analogy, consider playing a new and challenging video game. When a person first plays, she will be trying to figure out how the game works and this will typically involve numerous failures. By analogy, when society changes, it is like being in a new game—one does not know the rules. Just as a person can look for guides to a new game online (like YouTube videos on how to beat tough battles), people can try to turn to guides to behavior. However, new social conditions mean that such guides are not yet available or, if they are, they might be unclear or conflict with each other. For example, a person who is new to contemporary dating might try to muddle through on her own or try to do some research—most likely finding contradictory guides to correct dating behavior.

Eventually, of course, the norms and rules will be worked out—as has happened in the past. This indicates a point well worth considering—today is obviously not the first time that society has undergone considerable change, thus creating opportunities for awkwardness. As Wilde noted, our vanity contributes to the erroneous belief that we are special in this regard. That said, it could be contended that people today are reacting to social change in a way that is different and awkward. That is, this is truly the Age of Awkwardness. My own view is that this is one of many times of awkwardness—what has changed is the ability and willingness to broadcast awkward events. Plus, of course, Judd Apatow.



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Ethics (for Free)

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2015

LaBossiere EthicsThe following provides links to my Ethics course, allowing a person to get some ethics for free. Also probably works well as a sleep aid.*

Notes & Readings

Practice Tests

Power Point

Class YouTube Videos

These are unedited videos from the Fall 2015 Ethics class. Spoiler: I do not die at the end.

Part One Videos: Introduction & Moral Reasoning

Video 1:  It covers the syllabus.

Video 2: It covers the introduction to ethics, value, and the dreaded spectrum of morality.

Video 3: It covers the case paper.

Video 4: No video. Battery failure.

Video 5: It covers inductive arguments and the analogical argument.

Video 6: It covers Argument by/from Example and Argument from Authority.

Video 7:  It covers Inconsistent Application and Reversing the Situation.

Video 8:  It covers Argument by Definition, Appeal to Intuition, and Apply a Moral Principle. The death of the battery cuts this video a bit short.

Video 9:  It covers Applying Moral Principles, Applying Moral Theories, the “Playing God” Argument and the Unnatural Argument.

Video 10: It covers Appeal to Consequences and Appeal to Rules.

Video 11:  It covers Appeal to Rights and Mixing Norms.

Part Two Videos: Moral Theories

Video 12:  It covers the introduction to Part II and the start of virtue theory.

Video 13: It covers Confucius and Aristotle.

Video 14:  This continues Aristotle’s virtue theory.

Video 15: It covers the intro to ethics and religion as well as the start of Aquinas’ moral theory.

Video 16: It covers St. Thomas Aquinas, divine command theory, and John Duns Scotus.

Video 17: It covers the end of religion & ethics and the beginning of consequentialism.

Video 18: It covers Thomas Hobbes and two of the problems with ethical egoism.

Video 19:  It covers the third objection to ethical egoism, the introduction to utilitarianism and the start of the discussion of J.S. Mill. Includes reference to Jeremy “Headless” Bentham.

Video 20: This video covers the second part of utilitarianism, the objections against utilitarianism and the intro to deontology.

Video 21: It covers the categorical imperative.

Part Three Videos: Why Be Good?, Moral Education & Equality

Video 22: It covers the question of “why be good?” and Plato’s Ring of Gyges.

Video 23: It covers the introduction to moral education and the start of Aristotle’s theory of moral education.

Video 24: It covers more of Aristotle’s theory of moral education.

Video 25: It covers the end of Rousseau and the start of equality.

Video 26: It covers the end of Rousseau and the start of equality.

Video 27:  It covers Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Video 28:  This video covers the second part of Wollstonecraft and gender equality.

Video 29: It covers the start of ethics and race.

Video 30: It covers St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of animals and ethics.

Video 31: It covers Descartes’ discussion of animals. Includes reference to Siberian Huskies.

Video 32: It covers the end of Kant’s animal ethics and the utilitarian approach to animal ethics.

Part IV: Rights, Obedience & Liberty

Video 33: It covers the introduction to rights and a bit of Hobbes.

Video 34: It covers Thomas Hobbes’ view of rights and the start of John Locke’s theory of rights.

Video 35:  It covers John Locke’s state of nature and theory of natural rights.

Video 36:  It covers Locke’s theory of property and tyranny. It also covers the introduction to obedience and disobedience.

Video 37: It covers the Crito and the start of Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience.

Video 38:  It covers the second part of Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience.

Video 39:  It covers the end of Thoreau’s civil disobedience, Mussolini’s essay on fascism and the start of J.S. Mill’s theory of Liberty.

Video 40:  It covers Mill’s theory of liberty.

Narration YouTube Videos

These videos consist of narration over Powerpoint slides. Good for naptime.

Part One Videos

Part Two Videos

Part Three Videos

Part Four Videos

*This course has not been evaluated by the FDA as a sleep aid. Use at your own risk. Side effects might include Categorical Kidneys, Virtuous Spleen, and Spontaneous Implosion.

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Owning Asteroids

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Science by Michael LaBossiere on December 25, 2015

While asteroid mining is still just science fiction, companies such as Planetary Resources are already preparing to mine the sky. While space mining sounds awesome, lawyers are already hard at work murdering the awesomeness with legalize. President Obama recently signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which seems to make asteroid mining legal. The key part of the law is that “Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law and existing international obligations.” More concisely, the law makes it so that asteroid mining by U.S. citizens would not violate U.S. law.

While this would seem to open up the legal doors to asteroid mining, there are still legal barriers. The various space treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, do not give states sovereign rights in space. As such, there is no legal foundation for a state conferring space property rights to its citizens on the basis of its sovereignty. However, the treaties do not forbid private ownership in space—as such, any other nation could pass a similar law that allows its citizens to own property in space without violating the laws of that nation.

One obvious concern is that if multiple nations pass such laws and citizens from these nations start mining asteroids, then there will be the very real possibility of conflict over valuable resources. In some ways this will be a repeat of the past: the more technological advanced nations engaged in a struggle to acquire resources in an area where they lack sovereignty. These past conflicts tended to escalate into actual wars, which is something that must be considered in the final frontier.

One way to try to avoid war over asteroid resources is to work out new treaties governing the use of space resources. This is, obviously enough, a matter that will be handled by space lawyers, governments, and corporations. Unless, of course, the automated killing machines resolve it first.

While the legal aspects of space ownership are interesting, the moral aspects of ownership in space are also of considerable concern. While it might be believed that property rights in space is something entirely new, this is clearly not the case. While the location is clearly different than in the original, the matter of space property matches the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. To be specific, there is an abundance of resources and an absence of authority. As it now stands, while no one can hear you scream in space, there is also no one who can arrest you for space thievery.

Using the state of nature model, it can be claimed that there are currently no rightful owners of the asteroids or it could be claimed that we are all the rightful owners (the asteroids are the common property of all of humanity).

If there are currently no rightful owners, then it would seem that the asteroids are there for the taking: an asteroid belongs to whoever can take and hold it. This is on par with Hobbes’ state of nature—practical ownership is a matter of possession. As Hobbes saw it, everyone has the right to all things, but this is effectively a right to nothing—other than what a person can defend from others. As Hobbes noted, in such a scenario profit is the measure of right and who is right is to be settled by the sword.

While this is practical, brutal and realistic, it does seem a bit morally problematic in that it would, as Hobbes also noted, lead to war. His solution, which would presumably work as well in space as on earth, would be to have sovereignty in space. This would shift the war of all against all in space (of the sort that is common in science fiction about asteroid mining) to a war of nations in space (which is also common in science fiction). The war could, of course, be a cold one fought economically and technologically rather than a hot one fought with mass drivers and lasers.

If the asteroids are regarded as the common property of humanity, then Locke’s approach could be taken. As Locke saw it, God gave everything to humans in common, but people have to acquire things from the common property to make use of it. Locke gives the terrestrial example of how a person needs to make an apple her own before she can benefit from it. In the case of space, a person would need to make an asteroid her own in order to benefit from the materials it contains.

Locke sketched out a basic labor theory of ownership—whatever a person mixes her labor with becomes her property. As such, if asteroid miners located an asteroid and started mining it, then the asteroid would belong to them.  This does have some appeal: before the miners start extracting the minerals from the asteroid, it is just a rock drifting in space. Now it is a productive mine, improved from is natural state by the labor of the miners. If mining is profitable, then the miners would have a clear incentive to grab as many asteroids as they can, which leads to a rather important moral problem—the limits of ownership.

Locke does set limits on what people can take in his proviso.: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. When describing this to my students, I always use the analogy to food at a party: since the food is for everyone, everyone has a right to the food. However, taking it all or taking the very best would be wrong (and rude). While this proviso is ignored on earth, the asteroids provide us with a fresh start in regards to dividing up the common property of humanity. After all, no one has any special right to claim the asteroids—so we all have equal good claims to the resources they contain.

As with earth resources, some will probably contend that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space. Instead, those who get there first will contend that ownership should be on the principle of whoever grabs it first and can keep it is the “rightful” owner.

Those who take this view would probably argue that those who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will remain poor—their poverty will, in fact, disqualify them from owning any of the space resources much in the way poverty disqualifies people on earth from owning earth resources.

While the selfish approach is certainly appealing, arguments can be made for sharing asteroid resources. One reason is that those who will mine the asteroids did not create the means to do so from nothing on their own. Reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to human civilization and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Another way to argue for sharing the resources is to use an analogy to a buffet line. Suppose I am first in line at a buffet. This does not give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself in order to sell it to those who had the misfortune to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Naturally, these arguments for sharing can be countered by the usual arguments in favor of selfishness. While it is tempting to think that the vastness of space will overcome selfishness (that is, there will be so much that people will realize that not sharing would be absurd and petty), this seems unlikely—the more there is, the greater the disparity between those who have and those who have not. On this pessimistic view we already have all the moral and legal tools we need for space—it is just a matter of changing the wording a bit to include “space.”



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Terraforming & Abortion

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2015
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 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While terraforming and abortion are both subjects of moral debate, they would seem to have little else in common. However, some of the moral arguments used to justify abortion can be used to justify terraforming. These arguments will be given due consideration.

Briefly put, terraforming is the process of making a planet more earthlike. While this is still mostly a matter of science fiction, serious consideration has been given to how Mars, for example, might be changed to make it more compatible with terrestrial life. While there are some moral concerns with terraforming dead worlds, the main moral worries involve planets that already have life—or, at the very least, real potential for the emergence of life. If a world needs to be terraformed for human habitation, such terraforming is likely to prove harmful or even fatal for the indigenous life. For example, changing the atmosphere of a world to match that of earth would probably be problematic for whatever was breathing the original atmosphere. While it can be argued that there might be cases in which terraforming benefits the local life, I will focus on terraforming that exterminates the local life. I call this terminal terraforming.

One way to look at such terminal terraforming is to consider it as analogous to abortion. As will be shown, there are some important differences between the two—but for now I will focus on the moral similarities.

One stock type of argument in favor of the moral acceptability of abortion is the status argument. While these arguments take various forms, the gist is that the termination of a pregnancy is morally acceptable on the grounds that the woman has a superior moral status to the aborted entity (readers are free to use whichever term they prefer—I am endeavoring to use neutral terms to avoid begging the question). This sort of argument is very similar to the sort used by St. Aquinas and St. Augustine to morally justify killing plants and animals for food. Roughly put, humans are better than animals, so it is acceptable for us to harm them when we need to do so.

This argument can be pressed into use to justify terminal terraforming: if the indigenous life has less moral status than the terraforming species, then this would provide the grounds for arguing that the terraforming is morally acceptable.

The status argument has numerous variations. One common version uses the notion of rights—the rights of the woman outweigh the rights (if any) of the aborted entity. This is because the woman has the superior moral status. This argument is also commonly used to justify killing animals for food or sport—while they have some rights (maybe), the rights of humans’ trump those of animals.

In the case of terraforming, a similar sort of appeal to rights could be used to justify terminal terraforming. For example, if humans need to expand to a world that has only single-celled life, then the rights of humans would outweigh the rights of those creatures.

Another common version uses the notion of utilitarianism: the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the woman is weighed against the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the aborted entity. Those favoring this argument note that the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the woman far outweigh that of the aborted entity—usually because it lacks the capacities of an adult. Not surprisingly, this sort of argument is also used to justify the killing of animals. For example, it is often argued that the happiness people get from eating meat outweighs the unhappiness of the animals that are to be eaten.

As with the other status arguments, this can also be used to justify terraforming. As with all utilitarian arguments, it would involve weighing the happiness and unhappiness of the involved parties. If the life on the planet to be terraformed had less capacities than humans in regard to happiness and unhappiness (such as world whose highest form of life is the alien equivalent of algae), then it would be morally acceptable for humans to terraform that world. Or so it could be argued.

The status argument is sometimes itself supported by an argument focusing on the difference between actuality and potentiality. While the entity to be aborted is a potential person (on some views), it is not an actual person. Since the woman is an actual person, she has the higher status. The philosophical discussions of the potential versus the actual are rather old and are a matter of metaphysics. However, the argument can be made without a journey into the metaphysical realm simply by using the intuitive notions of potentiality and actuality. For example, an actual masterpiece of painting has higher worth than the blank canvas and unused paint that constitute a potential masterpiece. This sort of argument can also be used to justify terraforming on worlds whose lifeforms are not (yet) people and also, obviously enough, on worlds that merely have the potential of producing life.

While the analogy between the two has merit, there are some rather obvious ways to try to break the comparison. One obvious point is that in the case of abortion, the woman is the “owner” of the body where the aborted entity used to live. It is this relation that is often used to morally warrant abortion and to provide a moral distinction between a woman choosing to have an abortion and someone else who kills the product of conception.

When humans arrive to terraform a world that already has life, the life that lives there already “owns” the world and hence humans cannot claim that special relation that would justify choosing to kill. Instead, the situation would be more similar to killing the life within another person and this would presumably change the ethics of the situation.

Another important difference is that while abortion (typically) kills just one entity, terraforming would (typically) wipe out entire species. As such, terraforming of this sort would be analogous to aborting all pregnancies and exterminating the human race—as opposed to the termination of some pregnancies. This moral concern is, obviously enough, the same as the concern about human caused extinction here on earth. While people are concerned about the death of individual entities, there is the view that the extermination of a species is something morally worse than the death of all the individuals (that is, the wrong of extinction is not merely a sum of the wrong of all the individual deaths.

These considerations show that the analogy does have obvious problems. That said, there still seems to be a core moral concern that connects abortion and terraforming: what (if anything) morally justifies killing on the grounds of (alleged) superior moral status?


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Politifact’s Lie of the Year 2015

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2015

I was quoted in Politifact’s Lie of the Year 2015 article. This was not because my lie won; two of my quotes about the winner were used in the article. Well, maybe next year I’ll be the winner.

Since Politifact (perhaps wisely) does not have a comment section under the essay, I thought I would offer people the chance to comment about it here.

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On Being a Graphite Technician

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2015

One of Hitch 2015my core aesthetic principles is that if I can do something, then it is not art. While this is (mostly) intended to be humorous, it is well founded—I have no artistic talent. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I have successfully taught aesthetics for over two decades.

In the course of teaching this class, I became rather interested in two questions. The first was whether or not a person without any artistic talent could master the technical aspects of an art. The second was whether or not a person without any artistic talent could develop whatever it is that is needed to create what is often referred to as a work of genius. Or, at a much lower level, a work of true art.

While the usually philosophical approach would be to speculate about the matter over boxes of wine, I decided to engage in some blasphemy and undertook an empirical investigation. To be specific, I decided that I would see if I could teach myself to draw. I would then see if I could teach myself to create art. I began this experiment in the August of 2012 and employed the powers of obsession that have served me so well in running. It turns out they also work for drawing—I have never missed a day of drawing, even when I had to scratch out sketches on scraps using a broken pencil. Yes, I am like that.

While this experiment has just one subject (me), I have shown that it is possible for a person with no artistic talent to develop the technical skills of drawing. To be specific, I have trained myself to become what I like to call a graphite technician. At this point, my skill is such that people say “I like your drawings because I can tell who they are of.” That is, I have enough skill to create recognizable imitations. I refuse to accept any claims that I am an artist, on the basis of the principle mentioned above. Fortunately, I also have an argument to back up this claim.

When I started my experiment, I demonstrated my lack of drawing ability to my students and asked them why my bad drawing of a capybara is not art. They pointed out the obvious—it did not look much like a capybara because it was so badly drawn. When asked if it would be art if I could draw better, they generally agreed. I then asked about just photocopying (or scanning and printing) the picture I used as the basis for my capybara drawing. They pointed out the obvious—that would not be art, just a copy.

Part of the reason the photocopy or scan would not be art is that it is just a mechanical reproduction. When I draw a person well enough for others to recognize the subject, I am exhibiting technical skill—I can re-create the appearance of a person on paper using a pencil.  However, it is clear that technical skill alone does not make the results art. After all, this technical skill can be exceeded by a cheap camera, a photocopier or a computer connected to a scanner and printer. Just as being able to scan and print a photo of a person does not make a person an artist, being able to create a reasonable facsimile of a person using a pencil and paper does not make a person an artist—just a graphite technician.

Why this is so can be shown by considering why a mechanical copy is not art: there is nothing in the copy that is not in the original (laying aside duplication defects). As such, the more exact the copy of the original, the less room there is for whatever it is that makes a work art. So, as I get better at creating drawings that look like what I am drawing, I get closer to being a human photocopier. I do not get closer to being an artist.

This sort of argument would seem to suggest that photography cannot be art—after all, the photographer is just a camera technician. An unaltered photograph merely captures an image of what is there. One counter to this is that a photographer (as opposed to a camera technician) adds something to the photograph (I do not mean digital or other manipulation). This seems to be her perspective—she selects what she will capture. So, what makes the work art is not that it duplicates reality (which it must by the laws of physics) but that the photographer has added that something extra. This something extra is what makes the photograph art and distinguishes it from mere picture taking. Or so photographers tell me.

It could be countered that what I am doing is art. Going back to the time of the ancient Greeks, art was taken to be a matter of imitation and, in general, the better the imitation, the better the art. Of course, Plato was rather critical of art on this ground—he regarded it as a corrupting imitation of an imitation.

Jumping ahead to the modern era, thinkers like d’Alembert still regarded fine art as an imitation, typically an imitation of nature aimed at producing pleasure. However, his theory of art does leave a possible opening for a graphite technician like myself to claim the beret of the artist. d’Alembert defined “art” as “any system of knowledge reducible to positive and invariable rules independent of caprice or opinion.”  What I have done, like many before me, is learned the rules of drawing—geometry, shading, perspective and so on. As such, I can (by his definition) be said to be an artist.

Fortunately for my claim that I am not an artist, d’Alembert distinguishes between the fine arts and the mechanical arts. The mechanical arts involve rules that can be reduced to “purely mechanical operations.” In contrast, d’Alembert notes that while the “useful liberal arts have fixed rules any can transmit, but the laws of Fine Arts are almost exclusively from genius.”  What I am doing, as a graphite technician, is following rules. And, as d’Alembert claimed, “rules concerning arts are only the mechanical part…”

What I am missing, at least on d’Alembert’s theory, is genius. On my own view, I am missing the mysterious something extra. While I do not have a developed theory of “the extra”, I have a vague idea about what it is in the case of drawing. As I developed my technical skills, I got better at imitating what I saw and could cause people to recognize what I was imitating. However, an artist who draws goes beyond showing people what they can already see in the original. The artist can see in the original what others cannot and then enable them to see it in her drawing. All I can do is create drawings where people can see what they can already see. Hence, I am a graphite technician and not an artist. I do not claim this to be a proper theory of art—but it points vaguely in the direction of such a theory.

That said, the experiment is continuing. I intend to see if it is possible to learn how to add that something extra or if, as some claim, it is simply something a person has or does not have.


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Threat Assessment II: Demons of Fear & Anger

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 18, 2015

In the previous essay on threat assessment I looked at the influence of availability heuristics and fallacies that directly relate to errors in reasoning about statistics and probability. This essay continues the discussion by exploring the influence of fear and anger on threat assessment.

As noted in the previous essay, a rational assessment of a threat involves properly considering how likely it is that a threat will occur and, if it occurs, how severe the consequences might be. As might be suspected, the influence of fear and anger can cause people to engage in poor threat assessment that overestimates the likelihood of a threat or the severity of the threat.

One common starting point for anger and fear is the stereotype. Roughly put, a stereotype is an uncritical generalization about a group. While stereotypes are generally thought of as being negative (that is, attributing undesirable traits such as laziness or greed), there are also positive stereotypes. They are not positive in that the stereotyping itself is good. Rather, the positive stereotype attributes desirable qualities, such as being good at math or skilled at making money. While it makes sense to think that stereotypes that provide a foundation for fear would be negative, they often include a mix of negative and positive qualities. For example, a feared group might be cast as stupid, yet somehow also incredibly cunning and dangerous.

After recent terrorist attacks, many people in the United States have embraced negative stereotypes about Muslims, such as the idea that they are all terrorists. This sort of stereotyping leads to similar mistakes that arise from hasty generalizations: reasoning about a threat based on stereotypes will tend to lead to an error in assessment. The defense against a stereotype is to seriously inquire whether the stereotype is true or not.

This stereotype has been used as a base (or fuel) for a stock rhetorical tool, that of demonizing. Demonizing, in this context, involves portraying a group as evil and dangerous. This can be seen as a specialized form of hyperbole in that it exaggerates the evil of the group and the danger it represents. Demonizing is often combined with scapegoating—blaming a person or group for problems they are not actually responsible for. A person can demonize on her own or be subject to the demonizing rhetoric of others.

Demonizing presents a clear threat to rational threat assessment. If a group is demonized successfully, it will be (by definition) regarded as more evil and dangerous than it really is. As such, both the assessment of the probability and severity of the threat will be distorted. For example, the demonization of Muslims by various politicians and pundits influences some people to make errors in assessing the danger presented by Muslims in general and Syrian refugees in particular.

The defense against demonizing is similar to the defense against stereotypes—a serious inquiry into whether the claims are true or are, in fact, demonizing. It is worth noting that what might seem to be demonizing might be an accurate description. This is because demonizing is, like hyperbole, exaggerating the evil of and danger presented by a group. If the description is true, then it would not be demonizing. Put informally, describing a group as evil and dangerous need not be demonizing. For example, this description would match the Khmer Rouge.

While stereotyping and demonizing are mere rhetorical devices, there are also fallacies that distort threat assessment. Not surprisingly, one of this is scare tactics (also known as appeal to fear). This fallacy involves substituting something intended to create fear in the target in place of evidence for a claim. While scare tactics can be used in other ways, it can be used to distort threat assessment. One aspect of its distortion is the use of fear—when people are afraid, they tend to overestimate the probability and severity of threats. Scare tactics is also used to feed fear—one fear can be used to get people to accept a claim that makes them even more afraid.

One thing that is especially worrisome about scare tactics in the context of terrorism is that in addition to making people afraid, it is also routinely used to “justify” encroachments on rights, massive spending, and the abandonment of important moral values. While courage is an excellent defense against this fallacy, asking two important questions also helps. The first is to ask “should I be afraid?” and the second is to ask “even if I am afraid, is the claim actually true?” For example, scare tactics has been used to “support” the claim that Syrian refugees should not be allowed into the United States. In the face of this tactic, one should inquire whether or not there are grounds to be afraid of Syrian refugees and also inquire into whether or not an appeal to fear justifies the proposed ban (obviously, it does not).

It is worth noting that just because something is scary or makes people afraid it does not follow that it cannot serve as legitimate evidence in a good argument. For example, the possibility of a fatal head injury from a motorcycle accident is scary, but is also a good reason to wear a helmet. The challenge is sorting out “judgments” based merely on fear and judgments that involve good reasoning about scary things.

While fear makes people behave irrationally, so does anger. While anger is an emotion and not a fallacy, it does provide the fuel for the appeal to anger. This fallacy occurs when something that is intended to create anger is substituted for evidence for a claim. For example, a demagogue might work up a crowd’s anger at illegal migrants to get them to accept absurd claims about building a wall along a massive border.

Like scare tactics, the use of an appeal to anger distorts threat assessment. One aspect is that when people are angry, they tend to reason poorly about the likelihood and severity of a threat. For example, the crowd that is enraged against illegal migrants might greatly overestimate the likelihood that the migrants are “taking their jobs” and the extent to which they are “destroying America.” Another aspect is that the appeal to anger, in the context of public policy, is often used to “justify” policies that encroach on rights and do other harms. For example, when people are angry about a mass shooting, proposals follow to limit gun rights that actually had no relevance to the incident. As another example, the anger at illegal migrants is often used to “justify” policies that would actually be harmful to the United States. As a third example, appeals to anger are often used to justify policies that would be ineffective at addressing terrorism and would do far more harm than good (such as the proposed ban on all Muslims).

It is important to keep in mind that if a claim makes a person angry, it does not follow that the claim cannot be evidence for a conclusion. For example, a person who learns that her husband is having an affair with an underage girl would probably be very angry. But, this would also serve as good evidence for the conclusion that she should report him to the police and then divorce him. As another example, the fact that illegal migrants are here illegally and this is often simply tolerated can make someone mad, but this can also serve as a premise in a good argument in favor of enforcing (or changing) the laws.

One defense against appeal to anger is good anger management skills. Another is to seriously inquire into whether or not there are grounds to be angry and whether or not any evidence is being offered for the claim. If all that is offered is an appeal to anger, then there is no reason to accept the claim on the basis of the appeal.

The rational assessment of threats is important for practical and moral reasons. Since society has limited resources, rationally using them requires considering the probability of threats rationally—otherwise resources are being misspent. There is also the concern about the harm of creating fear and anger that are unfounded. In addition to the psychological harm to individuals that arise from living in fear and anger, there is also the damage stereotyping, demonizing, scare tactics and appeal to anger do to society as a whole. While anger and fear can unify people, they most often unify by dividing—pitting us against them.

As in my previous essay, I urge people to think through threats rather than giving in to the seductive demons of fear and anger.



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Threat Assessment I: A Vivid Spotlight

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2015

When engaged in rational threat assessment, there are two main factors that need to be considered. The first is the probability of the threat. The second is, very broadly speaking, the severity of the threat. These two can be combined into one sweeping question: “how likely is it that this will happen and, if it does, how bad will it be?”

Making rational decisions about dangers involves considering both of these factors. For example, consider the risks of going to a crowded area such as a movie theater or school. There is a high probability of being exposed to the cold virus, but it is a very low severity threat. There is an exceedingly low probability that there will be a mass shooting, but it is a high severity threat since it can result in injury or death.

While humans have done a fairly good job at surviving, this seems to have been despite our amazingly bad skills at rational threat assessment. To be specific, the worry people feel in regards to a threat generally does not match up with the actual probability of the threat occurring. People do seem somewhat better at assessing the severity, though they are also often in error about this.

One excellent example of poor threat assessment is in regards to the fear Americans have in regards to domestic terrorism. As of December 15, 2015 there have been 45 people killed in the United States in attacks classified as “violent jihadist attacks” and 48 people killed in attacks classified as “far right wing attacks” since 9/11/2001.  In contrast, there were 301,797 gun deaths from 2005-2015 in the United States and over 30,000 people are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.

Despite the incredibly low likelihood of a person being killed by an act of terrorism in the United States, many people are terrified by terrorism (which is, of course, the goal of terrorism) and have become rather focused on the matter since the murders in San Bernardino. Although there have been no acts of terrorism on the part of refugees in the United States, many people are terrified of refugees and this had led to calls for refusing to accept Syrian refugees and Donald Trump has famously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

Given that an American is vastly more likely to be killed while driving than killed by a terrorist, it might be wondered why people are so incredibly bad at this sort of threat assessment. The answer, in regards to having fear vastly out of proportion to the probability is easy enough—it involves a cognitive bias and some classic fallacies.

People follow general rules when they estimate probabilities and the ones we use unconsciously are called heuristics. While the right way to estimate probability is to use proper statistical methods, people generally fall victim to the bias known as the availability heuristic. The idea is that a person unconsciously assigns a probability to something based on how often they think of that sort of event. While an event that occurs often will tend to be thought of often, the fact that something is often thought of does not make it more likely to occur.

After an incident of domestic terrorism, people think about terrorism far more often and thus tend to unconsciously believe that the chance of terrorism occurring is far higher than it really is. To use a non-terrorist example, when people hear about a shark attack, they tend to think that the chances of it occurring are high—even though the probability is incredibly low (driving to the beach is vastly more likely to kill you than a shark is). The defense against this bias is to find reliable statistical data and use that as the basis for inferences about threats—that is, think it through rather than trying to feel through it. This is, of course, very difficult: people tend to regard their feelings, however unwarranted, as the best evidence—despite it is usually the worst evidence.

People are also misled about probability by various fallacies. One is the spotlight fallacy. The spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that all (or many) members or cases of a certain class or type are like those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media. After an incident involving terrorists who are Muslim, media attention is focused on that fact, leading people who are poor at reasoning to infer that most Muslims are terrorists. This is the exact sort of mistake that would occur if it were inferred that most Christians are terrorists because the media covered a terrorist who was Christian (who shot up a Planned Parenthood). If people believe that, for example, most Muslims are terrorists, then they will make incorrect inferences about the probability of a domestic terrorist attack by Muslims.

Anecdotal evidence is another fallacy that contributes to poor inferences about the probability of a threat. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. This fallacy is similar to hasty generalization and a similar sort of error is committed, namely drawing an inference based on a sample that is inadequate in size relative to the conclusion. The main difference between hasty generalization and anecdotal evidence is that the fallacy anecdotal evidence involves using a story (anecdote) as the sample.

People often fall victim to this fallacy because stories and anecdotes tend to have more psychological influence than statistical data. This leads people to infer that what is true in an anecdote must be true of the whole population or that an anecdote justifies rejecting statistical evidence in favor of said anecdote. Not surprisingly, people most commonly accept this fallacy because they want to believe that what is true in the anecdote is true for the whole population.

In the case of terrorism, people use both anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization: they point to a few examples of domestic terrorism or tell the story about a specific incident, and then draw an unwarranted conclusion about the probability of a terrorist attack occurring. For example, people point to the claim that one of the terrorists in Paris masqueraded as a refugee and infer that refugees pose a great threat to the United States. Or they tell the story about the one attacker in San Bernardino who arrived in the states on a K-1 (“fiancé”) visa and make unwarranted conclusions about the danger of the visa system (which is used by about 25,000 people a year).

One last fallacy is misleading vividness. This occurs when a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence to the contrary.

People often accept this sort of “reasoning” because particularly vivid or dramatic cases tend to make a very strong impression on the human mind. For example, mass shootings by domestic terrorists are vivid and awful, so it is hardly surprising that people feel they are very much in danger from such attacks. Another way to look at this fallacy in the context of threats is that a person conflates the severity of a threat with its probability. That is, the worse the harm, the more a person feels that it will occur.

It should be kept in mind that taking into account the possibility of something dramatic or vivid occurring is not always fallacious. For example, a person might decide to never go sky diving because the effects of an accident can be very, very dramatic. If he knows that, statistically, the chances of the accident are happening are very low but he considers even a small risk to be unacceptable, then he would not be making this error in reasoning. This then becomes a matter of value judgment—how much risk is a person willing to tolerate relative to the severity of the potential harm.

The defense against these fallacies is to use a proper statistical analysis as the basis for inferences about probability. As noted above, there is still the psychological problem: people tend to act on the basis on how they feel rather than what the facts show.

Such rational assessment of threats is rather important for both practical and moral reasons. The matter of terrorism is no exception to this.  Since society has limited resources, rationally using them requires considering the probability of threats rationally—otherwise resources are being misspent. For example, spending billions to counter a miniscule threat while spending little on leading causes of harm would be irrational (if the goal is to protect people from harm). There is also the concern about the harm of creating fear that is unfounded. In addition to the psychological harm to individuals, there is also the damage to the social fabric. There has already been an increase in attacks on Muslims in America and people are seriously considering abandoning core American values, such as the freedom of religion and being good Samaritans.

In light of the above, I urge people to think rather than feel their way through their concerns about terrorism. Also, I urge people to stop listening to Donald Trump. He has the right of free expression, but people also have the right of free listening.


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Trumping Along

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 14, 2015

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, many people laughed. He even managed to create some bipartisan agreement among my liberal and my conservative friends: they generally believed that while Trump would be good theatre, he would either fade away or implode in a magnificent and huge manner. As Trump kept Trumping along, many of my conservative friends began to sweat just a little—while they are often dedicated conservatives, the idea of a Trump presidency was not very appealing. My liberal friends tried to reassure themselves that if Trump was picked to run against Hillary, a Democratic victory was assured. However, I could tell they were sweating a little. Now that it is the second week of December and Trump is Trumping along, I am sure that at least some people are waking up in the middle of the night, visions of President Trump trumpeting in their heads.

Since expert pundits and establishment politicians predicted that Trump would not go the distance, it is certainly worth considering why he is doing so well. While primarily a matter of politics and psychology, there are also matters of philosophical interest here.

One major factor in regards to Trumps success is that the Republican party and conservative strategists created an ecosystem that is nearly perfect for Trump. First, there has been a sustained attack on reason and intellectuals. For example, Obama is derisively described as professorial and thinking too much. Trump does not create the impression that he is thinking too much and is regarded more as the school bully rather than the professor. This seems to be a factor that is hurting Bush—he is a man who thinks and grasps the complications of politics.

Second, there has been a narrative of weakness leveled against Democrats and there have been unfavorable comparisons made between Obama and “strongmen” like Putin. Trump nicely fits the “strongman” model—he is brash, full of bravado, bullying and loud. While this stick was mainly used to beat Democrats, Trump has gleefully employed it to bash his weaker Republican opponents, such as the “low energy” Jeb Bush.

Third, there have been subtle and not so subtle uses of race in political scare tactics and manipulation. While people do have race issues and fears that do not come from the politicians, the use of race has helped forge a space for Trump. He also has a very effective narrative in that he is engaged in the culture war against the politically correct culture. Trump is willing to take this fight beyond lines that most institutional Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Dick Cheney, are unwilling to cross. It is worth noting that some blame the political correctness machinations of some Democrats for helping Trump out here.

Fourth, there has been a repeated narrative of attacking the establishment. For the most part, this has been mere rhetoric—establishment figures say they are going to go (back) to Washington to fight the establishment. But they usually just settle in. Trump is a genuine outsider to politics and he is clearly willing to go hard against the establishment. This is not to diminish the fact that people also have their own reasons to be angry at the establishment—mainly because of what it has (and has not) done. If America had been better governed, Trump would probably not have made it past the first few months. While this is a dagger that the Republicans like to use to stab the Democrats, it works great against fellow Republicans.

Fifth, there has been an ongoing war against the “liberal media” which has trained many people to reject the mainstream media as biased and lacking in credibility. Since one role of the media is to vet candidates and to call candidates out for lies, this means that Trump has an easy reply to any criticism from the media—even from the conservative media (such as Trumps bouts with Fox).

Sixth, while the use of scare tactics (the fallacy of offering as “evidence” for a claim something that is intended to cause fear and thus motivate acceptance) is as old as politics, the conservatives have beaten the drum of fearing foreigners for quite some time (Democrats also take turns at the drums of fear and panic). Trump is just devouring this fear and growing huge.

Another major factor in Trump’s success is the very real dissatisfaction of Americans. While the economic recovery has returned most of the wealth that the richest people lost, the majority of Americans are still suffering from the enduring economic scars. There is also the fact that wages have stagnated and the lower economic classes (that is, most of us) are worse off than our predecessors. As Bernie Sanders has pointed out for decades, there is grotesque economic inequality in America.

While Americans have been conditioned to dislike socialism and love capitalism, people cannot help but feel the impact of this inequality. As such, they need to reconcile their economic worries with their ideology—they need someone to blame other than the rich. While Americans are mostly reluctant to blame those who are clearly responsible (those who benefit from the inequality and those who serve them so well), they feel that someone must be to blame. Trump has been able to tap into this dissatisfaction, as many a skilled demagogue has tapped into economic dissatisfaction before him.  In fact, what is somewhat surprising is that it took so long for a demagogue to arise.

A third factor in Trump’s success, as noted above, is the fear many Americans feel in regards to safety. After the Cold War ended, a narrative of terrorism was lovingly crafted to scare Americans—helped by real terrorism, of course. The United States also faces the fear caused by repeated mass shootings and high levels of violence. This creates a deep well of fear that Trump can draw from repeatedly.

When people are afraid, they tend to reason poorly and act stupidly in very predictable ways. One part of this stupidity is that people often seek a leader who is loud, confident and promises that he will solve the problems, usually using means that most others initially regard as morally unacceptable. This willingness to act in such ways is often seen as strength and, in many cases, can actually match the views of those who start following the leader. Trump knows how to deal and how to put on a show and a second aspect of stupidity in this area is that people are drawn to the safety theatre rather than to the rather dull and complicated things that actually enable people to be safe.

Trump could very well ride the wave of fear and dissatisfaction through the primaries and emerge as the Republican candidate. While the professional pundits claim that Trump would be trounced in the general election, his numbers are not that bad. Also, the hallmark of the professional pundit seems to be being consistently wrong. So, get ready for Trump 2016.


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Doubling Down

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 11, 2015
A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Diss...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One interesting phenomenon is the tendency of people to double down on beliefs. For those not familiar with doubling down, this occurs when a person is confronted with evidence against a beloved belief and her belief, far from being weakened by the evidence, is strengthened.

One rather plausible explanation of doubling down rests on Leon Festinger’s classic theory of cognitive dissonance. Roughly put, when a person has a belief that is threatened by evidence, she has two main choices. The first is to adjust her belief in accord with the evidence. If the evidence is plausible and strongly supports the logical inference that the belief is not true, then the rational thing to do is reject the old belief. If the evidence is not plausible or does not strongly support the logical inference that the belief is untrue, then it is rational to stick with the threatened belief on the grounds that the threat is not much of a threat.

As might be suspected, the assessment of what is plausible evidence can be problematic. In general terms, assessing evidence involves considering how it matches one’s own observations, one’s background information about the matter, and credible sources. This assessment can merely push the matter back: the evidence for the evidence will also need to be assessed, which serves to fuel some classic skeptical arguments about the impossibility of knowledge. The idea is that every belief must be assessed and this would lead to an infinite regress, thus making knowing whether a belief is true or not impossible. Naturally, retreating into skepticism will not help when a person is responding to evidence against a beloved belief (unless the beloved belief is a skeptical one)—the person wants her beloved belief to be true. As such, someone defending a beloved belief needs to accept that there is some evidence for the belief—even if the evidence is faith or some sort of revelation.

In terms of assessing the reasoning, the matter is entirely objective if it is deductive logic.  Deductive logic is such that if an argument is doing what it is supposed to do (be valid), then if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Deductive arguments can be assessed by such things as truth tables, Venn diagrams and proofs, thus the reasoning is objectively good or bad. Inductive reasoning is a different matter. While the premises of an inductive argument are supposed to support the conclusion, inductive arguments are such that true premises only make (at best) the conclusion likely to be true. Unlike deductive arguments, inductive arguments vary greatly in strength and while there are standards of assessment, reasonable people can disagree about the strength of an inductive argument. People can also embrace skepticism here, specifically the problem of induction: even when an inductive argument has all true premises and the reasoning is as good as inductive reasoning gets, the conclusion could still be false. The obvious problem with trying to defend a beloved belief with the problem of induction is that it also cuts against the beloved belief—while any inductive argument against the belief could have a false conclusion, so could any inductive argument for it. As such, a person who wants to hold to a beloved belief in a way that is justified would seem to need to accept argumentation. Naturally, a person can embrace other ways of justifying beliefs—the challenge is showing that these ways should be accepted. This would seem, ironically, to require argumentation.

A second option is to reject the evidence without undergoing the process of honestly assessing the evidence and rationally considering the logic of the arguments. If a belief is very important to a person, perhaps even central to her identity, then the cost of giving up the belief would be very high. If the person thinks (or just feels) that the evidence and reasoning cannot be engaged fairly without risking the belief, then the person can simply reject the evidence and reasoning using various techniques of self-deception and bad logic (fallacies are commonly employed in this task).

This rejection costs less psychologically than engaging the evidence and reasoning, but is often not free. Since the person probably has some awareness of the self-deception, it needs to be psychologically “justified” and this seems to result in the person strengthening her commitment to the belief. People seem to have all sorts of interesting cognitive biases that help out here, such as confirmation bias and other forms of motivated reasoning. These can be rather hard to defend against, since they derange the very mechanisms that are needed to avoid them.

One interesting way people “defend” their beliefs is by regarding the evidence and opposing argument as an unjust attack, which strengthens her resolve in the face of perceived hostility. After all, people fight harder when they believe they are under attack. Some people even infer that they must be right because they are being criticized. As they see it, if they were not right, people would not be trying to show that they are in error. This is rather problematic reasoning—as shown by the fact that people do not infer that they are in error just because people are supporting them.

People also, as John Locke argued in his work on enthusiasm, consider how strongly they feel about a belief as evidence for its truth. When people are challenged, they typically feel angry and this strong emotion makes them feel even more strongly. Hence, when they “check” on the truth of the belief using the measure of feeling, they feel even stronger that it is true. However, how they feel about it (as Locke argued) is no indication of its truth. Or falsity.

As a closing point, one intriguing rhetorical tactic is to accuse a person who disagrees with one of doubling down. This accusation, after all, comes with the insinuation that the person is in error and is thus irrationally holding to a false belief. The reasonable defense is to show that evidence and arguments are being used in support of the belief. The unreasonable counter is to employ the very tactics of doubling down and refuse to accept such a response. That said, it is worth considering that one person’s double down is often another person’s considered belief. Or, as it might be put, I support my beliefs with logic. My opponents double down.


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