A Philosopher's Blog

The Hands that Serve

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2017

My grandparents made shoes, but I was guided on a path towards college that ultimately ended up with me being a philosophy professor—an abstract profession that is, perhaps, as far from shoe making as one can get. While most are not destined to become philosophers, the push towards college education persists to this day. In contrast, skilled trades and manual labor are typically looked down upon—even though a skilled trade can be very financially rewarding.

Looking down on skilled trades might seem unusual for the United States, a country that arose out of skilled trades and one that still purports to value an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. However, as noted above, there has been a switch from valuing skilled trades in favor of college education and the associated jobs. Oddly, skilled trades are even considered by some to be, if not exactly shameful, nothing to be proud of. Instead, the respected professions typically require a college degree. Although, since inconsistency is the way of humanity, financial success without a degree is often lauded.

At this point one must be careful to not confuse the obsession with college degrees and associated jobs as a sign that Americans value intellectualism. While there are cultural icons such as Einstein, the United States has a strong anti-intellectual streak. Some of this is fueled by religion, some by the remnants of blue-collar practicality, and some by the knowledge of the elites that intellectuals can be a danger to the established order. What is at play here could be called “educationalism” to contrast it with “intellectualism.” In neutral terms, this can be taken as the valuing of education for its financial value in terms of the payoff in the workplace. In more negative terms, it can be taken as a prejudice or bias in favor of those with formal education. Because of the success of this sort of educationalism, people are encouraged to get an education primarily based on the financial returns to themselves and those who will exploit their labors. And part of the motivation is to avoid the stigma of not being in a profession that requires a degree.

While education can be valuable, this sort of educationalism is not without it negative consequences. As many have noted, one result has been an increase in those seeking college degrees. Since college degrees are now often absurdly expensive (thanks, in large part, to the adoption of the business model of exorbitant administrative salaries) this has resulted in a significant surge in college debt. There is also the predatory approaches of the for-profit colleges, which exist primarily to funnel public money to the executives and shareholders.

Another impact of this form of educationalism is that professions that do not require college degrees are cast as inferior to those that do require degrees. In some cases, this characterization is correct: for example, assembling burgers for a fast food chain is certainly inferior to nearly all jobs that require a college degree. However, this contempt for non-degree jobs often extends to skilled trades, such as those of electrician, plumber and carpenter.

In some cases, the looking down is based on the perception that skilled trades pay less than degree trades. While this can be the case, skill trades can pay very well indeed—you can check this yourself by calling a plumber or electrician and inquiring how much they will charge for various tasks.

In other cases, people look down on the skilled trades because they often think that because these trades do not require a college degree those who practice them must be less intelligent or less capable. That is, a common assumption is that people go into these trades because they lack the ability to navigate the rigors of a philosophy, art history or a communications degree. Crudely put, the prejudice is that smart people get degrees, stupid people work in skilled trades or manual labor.

While completing college does require some minimal level of ability, as a professor with decades of experience I can attest to the fact that this ability can be very minimal indeed. Put crudely, stupid people can and do graduate with degrees—and some go on to considerable success. My point here is not, however, to say that college graduates can be just as stupid as those in the skilled trades. Rather, my point is that a college degree is not a reliable indicator of greater ability or intelligence.

Switching to a more positive approach, skilled trades can be just as challenging as professions that require college degrees. While the skilled trades obviously place more emphasis on manual work, such as wiring houses or rebuilding engines, this does not entail that they require less intelligence or ability.

I am in a somewhat uncommon position of holding a doctorate while also having some meaningful experience with various skilled trades. Part of this is because my background is such that to be a man required having a skill set that includes the basics of a variety of trades. To illustrate, I was expected to know how to build a camp, rewire outlets, service firearms, repair simple engines, and not die in the wilds. I used some of these skills to make money to pay for school and still use them today to save money. And not die. While I am obviously not a skilled professional, I have a reasonably good grasp of the skills and abilities needed to work in many skilled professions and I understand they typically require intelligence, critical thinking and creative thinking. Based on my own experience, I can say that addressing a technical problem with wiring or an engine can be just as mentally challenging as addressing a philosophical conundrum about the ethics of driverless cars.  As such, it is mere prejudice to look down upon people in the skilled professions. Interesting, some who would be horrified of being accused of the prejudices of racism or sexism routinely look down their noses at those in skilled professions.

Since I will occasionally do repairs or projects for people, I do get a chance to see the prejudice—I sometimes feel that I am operating “undercover” in such situations. This is analogous to how I feel when, as a white person who teaches at an HBCU, I hear people expressing racist views because they think I am “one of them” because I am white.  For example, on one occasion I was changing the locks for a grad school friend of mine who did not know a screw driver from an instantiated universal. While I was doing this, some of her other friends stopped by. Not knowing who I was, they simply walked past, perhaps assuming I was some sort of peasant laborer. I overheard one of them whispering how glad he was he was in grad school, so he would not have to do such mundane and mindless work. Another whispered, with an odd pride, that she would have no idea how to do such work—presumably because her brain was far too advanced to guide her hands in the operation of a screwdriver. This odd combination is not uncommon: people often hold to the view that skilled labor is beneath them while also believing that they simply cannot do such work. As in the incident just mentioned, it seems common for people to rationalize their lack of ability by telling themselves they are too smart to waste their precious brain space on such abilities. Presumably if one learns to replace a light switch, one must lose the ability to grasp the fundamentals of deconstruction.

When my friend realized what was going on, she hastened to introduce me as a grad student and everyone apologized because they first thought I was “just some maintenance worker” and not “one of them.” Needless to say, their attitude towards me changed dramatically, as did their behavior. As one might suspect, these were the same sort of people who would rail against the patriarchy and racism for their cruel prejudices and biases. And yet they fully embraced the biases of “educationalism” and held me in contempt until they learned I was as educated as they.

I must admit that I also have prejudices and biases. When an adult cannot do basic tasks like replacing a fill valve in a toilet or replace a simple door lock, I do judge them. However, I try not to do this—after all, not everyone has a background in which they could learn such basic skills. But, of course, I expect people to reciprocate: in return they need to not be prejudiced against people who pursue skilled trades instead of college degrees. And, of course, since a person cannot learn everything, everyone has massive gaps and voids in their skill sets.

While those who pursue careers in which they create ever more elaborate financial instruments to ruin the economy are rewarded with great wealth and those who create new frivolous apps are praised, it should be remembered that the infrastructure of civilization that makes all these things possible depend largely on the skilled trades. Someone must wire the towers that make mobile phones possible so that people can Tweet their witty remarks, someone has to put in the plumping and HVAC systems that make buildings livable so that the weasels of Wall Street have a proper place to pee, and so on for the foundation of civilization. As Sean Le Rond D’Alembert so wisely said in 1751, “But while justly respecting great geniuses for their enlightenment, society ought not to degrade the hands by which it is served.” Excellent advice then, excellent advice now.

 

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Slavery: Consequences & Status

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 19, 2017

While there is a multitude of moral theories, two of the big dogs of ethics are utilitarianism and deontology. John Stuart Mill presents the paradigm of utilitarian ethics: the morality of an action is dependent on the happiness and unhappiness it creates for the morally relevant beings. Moral status, for this sort of utilitarian, is defined in terms of the being’s capacity to experience happiness and unhappiness. Beings count to the degree they can experience these states. Obviously, a being that could not experience either would not count—except to the degree that what happened to it affected beings that could experience happiness and unhappiness. Of course, even a being that has moral status merely gets included in the utilitarian calculation. As such, all beings are means to the ends—namely maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness.

Kant, the paradigm deontologist, rejects the utilitarian approach.  Instead, he contends that ethics is a matter of following the correct moral rules. He also contends that rational beings are ends and are not to be treated merely as means to ends. For Kant, the possible moral statuses of a being are binary: rational beings have status as ends, non-rational beings are mere objects and are thus means. As would be expected, these moral theories present two rather different approaches to the ethics of slavery.

For the classic utilitarian, the ethics of slavery would be assessed in terms of the happiness and unhappiness generated by the activities of slavery. On the face of it, an assessment of slavery would seem to result in the conclusion that slavery is morally wrong. After all, slavery typically involve considerable unhappiness on the part of the enslaved. This unhappiness is not only a matter of the usual abuse and exploitation that a slave suffers, but also the general damage to happiness that would tend to arise from being regarded as property rather than a person. While the slave owners are clearly better off than the slaves, the practice of slavery is often harmful to the happiness of the slave owners. As such, the harms of slavery would seem to make it immoral on utilitarian grounds.

It is important to note that for the utilitarian the immorality of slavery is a contingent matter: if enslaving people creates more unhappiness than happiness, then it is wrong. However, if enslaving people were to create more happiness than unhappiness, then it would be morally acceptable. The obvious reply to this is to argue that slavery, by its very nature, would always create more unhappiness than happiness. As such, while the evil of slavery is contingent, it would always turn out to be wrong.

Another interesting counter is to put the burden of proof on those who would claim that such slavery would be wrong. That is, they would need to show that a happy system of slavery was morally wrong. On the face of it, showing that something that created more good than bad is still bad would be challenging. However, there are numerous intuition arguments that aim to do just that. The usual approach is to present a scenario that generates more happiness than unhappiness, but intuitively seems to be wrong—or at least makes one feel morally queasy about the matter. Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is often used in this role. There are also other options, such as arguing within the context of another moral theory. For example, a natural rights theory that included a right to liberty could be used to argue that slavery is wrong because it violates rights—even if happened to be a happy slavery.

A utilitarian can also “bite the bullet” and argue that even if such a happy enslavement might seem intuitively wrong to our sensibilities, this is a mere prejudice on our part—most likely fueled by examples the unhappy slaveries that pervade history. While utilitarian moral theory can obviously be applied to the ethics of slavery, it is not the only word on the matter. As such, I now turn to the Kantian approach.

As noted above, Kant divides reality into two distinct classes of beings. Rational beings exist as ends and to use them solely as means would be, for Kant, morally wrong. Non-rational beings, which includes non-human animals, are mere objects. Interestingly, as I have noted in past essays, Kant does argue that animals should be treated well because treating them badly can incline humans to treat other humans badly. This, I have argued elsewhere, gives animals an ersatz moral status.

On the face of it, under Kant’s theory the very nature of slavery would make it immoral. If persons are rational beings (and rational beings are persons) and that slavery treats slaves as objects, then slavery would be wrong. First, it would involve treating a rational being solely as a means. After all, it seems difficult to imagine that enslaving a person is consistent with treating them as an end rather than as a means. Second, it would also seem to involve a willful category error by treating a rational being (which is not an object) as an object. Slavery would thus be fundamentally incoherent because it purports that non-objects are objects.

Since Kantian ethics do not focus on happiness and unhappiness, even a deliriously happy system of slavery would still be wrong for Kant. Kant does, of course, get criticized because his system relegates non-rational beings into the realm of objects, thus lumping together squirrels and stones, apes and asphalt, tapirs and twigs and so on. As such, if non-rational beings could be enslaved, then this would not matter morally (unless doing so impacted rational beings in negative ways). The easy and obvious reply to this concern is to argue that non-rational beings could not be enslaved because slavery is when people are taken to be property and non-rational beings are not people.

It is, of course, possible to have an account of what it is to be a person that extends personhood beyond rational beings. For example, opponents of abortion often contend that the zygote is a person despite its obvious lack of rationality. Fortunately, it would be easy enough to create a modification of Kant’s theory in which what matters is being a person (however defined) rather than being a rational being.

Thus, utilitarian ethical theories leave open the possibility that slavery could be morally acceptable while under a Kantian account slavery would always seem to be morally wrong.

 

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What Makes Slavery Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2017

While slavery is still practiced, there is a consensus that it is evil. While apologists for slavery are relatively few, there remains the question as to why slavery is evil. This essay is aimed and considering this matter.

It is certainly tempting to define the wrongness of slavery in terms of the exploitation and abuse suffered by those who are enslaved. While such abuse and exploitation are clearly wrong, they do not actually explain the wrongness of slavery itself. This is because abuse and exploitation can exist apart from slavery, thus showing that these are not sufficient conditions for slavery. That is, being abused and exploited does not entail that one is a slave. Examples of such abuse and exploitation are abundant. To illustrate, workers are routinely exploited around the world and countless people suffer abuse in relationships from the very people who should be kind to them.

Abuse and exploitation are also not necessary conditions of slavery. That is, a person who is not abused or exploited can be enslaved. As noted in an earlier essay, there have been slaves who have enjoyed considerable power and status—sometimes considerably above that of free subjects of historical empires. Despite their status and power, such slavery is still rightfully regarded as wrong. As such, it is not the abuse or exploitation that makes slavery wrong.

This is not to say that abuse and exploitation do not matter. Far from it; they compound the basic evil of slavery and make the bad even worse. Slavery is also obviously strongly connected to abuse and exploitation—the belief that enslaved people are property makes it easy for others to justify and get away with such abuse and exploitation. While free people are abused or exploited, they typically enjoy far greater protection than the enslaved. So, while the abuse and exploitation matter a great deal, it is slavery that serves as a prime enabler of mistreatment. This does contribute to the wrongness of slavery.

What makes slavery morally wrong, then, is the fact that it is the ownership of people and thus is perceived as transforming them into objects that can be owned. The claim of ownership over another person is the denial of their personhood and all that goes with it. For those with liberal Lockean inclinations, this denial of personhood is a denial of the basic rights to life, liberty and property. Since a slave is supposed to be property, their life belongs to the owner. Hence, slaveowners generally see themselves as having the right to kill or harm their slaves as they wish. I do not, of course, deny that slaves are sometimes protected by laws, but that is certainly little consolation. Slavery does, after all, admit of degrees. But, every form of slavery must assume that the owner has ownership over the life of the slave and can use compulsion to maintain slavery.

Slavery, by its very nature, is a violation of a person’s liberty. They are denied the freedom of choice and thus denied agency. As the owner sees it, they have the right to make decisions for their property such as what work they do, who they have sex with, and what faith they might follow. This is not to say that slaves do not have some freedoms or that free people are completely free. It is, however, to say that the freedoms of slaves are very limited and often restricted to very minor decisions. As noted above, slavery does admit of degrees—some favored or high-status slaves might enjoy considerable liberty. For example, a Mamluk ruler might enjoy far greater liberty than a non-slave in their empire. It can be objected that such a slave would be a slave in name only—after all, a person of such status and power would be far better off than most other people despite being a slave. The challenge to those who argue that slavery is inherently wrong is to show that such an exalted slave is still wronged by their slavery. One approach is to appeal to the intuition that however exalted, the slave is still a slave. That is, regarded as property rather than a free person and this is inherently wrong.

Being regarded as property, slaves often cannot own property of their own. After all, being owned entails that their owner owns what they own. There are, of course, exceptions to this—sometimes slaves are paid for their work and can even eventually buy themselves out of slavery. While this does show, once again, that there are diverse types of slavery, the idea that a person should need to buy themselves seems to be absurd on the face of it.

Thus, while slavery does enable a multitude of evils, the core evil of slavery is the belief that a person can be owned as an object.

 

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Poverty & the Brain

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 14, 2017

A key part of the American mythology is the belief that a person can rise to the pinnacle of success from the depths of poverty. While this does occur, most understand that poverty presents a considerable obstacle to success. In fact, the legendary tales that tell of such success typically embrace an interesting double vision of poverty: they praise the hero for overcoming the incredible obstacle of poverty while also asserting that anyone with gumption should be able to achieve this success.

Outside of myths and legends, it is a fact that poverty is difficult to overcome. There are, of course, the obvious challenges of poverty. For example, a person born into poverty will not have the same educational opportunities as the affluent. As another example, they will have less access to technology such as computers and high-speed internet. As a third example, there are the impacts of diet and health care—both necessities are expensive and the poor typically have less access to good food and good care. There is also recent research by scientists such as Kimberly G. Noble  that suggests a link between poverty and brain development.

While the most direct way to study the impact of poverty and the brain is by imaging the brain, this (as researchers have noted) is expensive. However, the research that has been conducted shows a correlation between family income and the size of some surface areas of the cortex. For children whose families make under $50,000 per year, there is a strong correlation between income and the surface area of the cortex. While greater income is correlated with greater cortical surface area, the apparent impact is reduced once the income exceeds $50,000 a year. This suggests, but does not prove, that poverty has a negative impact on the development of the cortex and this impact is proportional to the degree of poverty.

Because of the cost of direct research on the brain, most research focuses on cognitive tests that indirectly test for the functionality of the brain. As might be expected, children from lower income families perform worse than their more affluent peers in their language skills, memory, self-control and focus. This performance disparity cuts across ethnicity and gender.

As would be expected, there are individuals who do not conform to the generally correlation. That is, there are children from disadvantaged families who perform well on the tests and children from advantaged families who do poorly. As such, knowing the economic class of a child does not tell one what their individual capabilities are. However, there is a clear correlation when the matter is considered in terms of populations rather than single individuals. This is important to consider when assessing the impact of anecdotes of successful rising from poverty—as with all appeals to anecdotal evidence, they do not outweigh the bulk of statistical evidence.

To use an analogy, boys tend to be stronger than girls but knowing that Sally is a girl does not entail that one knows that Sally is weaker than Bob the boy. Sally might be much stronger than Bob. An anecdote about how Sally is stronger than Bob also does not show that girls are stronger than boys; it just shows that Sally is unusual in her strength. Likewise, if Sally lives in poverty but does exceptionally well on the cognitive tests and has a normal cortex, this does not prove that poverty does not have a negative impact on the brain. This leads to the obvious question about whether poverty is a causal factor in brain development.

Those with even passing familiarity with causal reasoning know that correlation is not causation. To infer that because there is a correlation between poverty and cognitive abilities that there must be a causal connection would be to fall victim to the most basic of causal fallacies. One possibility is that the correlation is a mere coincidence and there is no causal connection. Another possibility is that there is a third factor that is causing both—that is, poverty and the cognitive abilities are both effects.

There is also the possibility that the causal connection has been reversed. That is, it is not poverty that increases the chances a person has less cortical surface (and corresponding capabilities). Rather, it is having less cortical surface area that is a causal factor in poverty.

This view does have considerable appeal. As noted above, children in poverty tend to do worse on tests for language skills, memory, self-control and focus. These are the capabilities that are needed for success and it seems reasonable to think that people who were less capable would thus be less successful. To use an analogy, there is a clear correlation between running speed and success in track races. It is not, of course, losing races that makes a person slow. It is being slow that causes a person to lose races.

Despite the appeal of this interpretation of the data, to rush to the conclusion that it is the cognitive abilities that cause poverty would be as much a fallacy as rushing to the conclusion that poverty influences brain development. Both views do seem plausible and it is certainly possible that there is causation going in both directions. The challenge, then, is to sort the causation. The obvious approach is to conduct the controlled experiment suggested by Noble—providing the experimental group of low income families with an income supplement and providing the control group with a relatively tiny supplement. If the experiment is conducted properly and the sample size is large enough, the results would be statistically significant and provide an answer to the question of the causal connection.

Intuitively, it makes sense that an adequate family income would generally have a positive impact on the development of children. After all, this income would allow access to adequate food, care and education. It would also tend to have a positive impact on family conditions, such as emotional stress. This is not to say that throwing money at poverty is the cure; but reducing poverty is certainly a worthwhile goal regardless of its connection to brain development. If it does turn out that poverty does have a negative impact on development, then those who are concerned with the well-being of children should be motivated to combat poverty. It would also serve to undercut another American myth, that the poor are stuck in poverty simply because they are lazy. If poverty has the damaging impact on the brain it seems to have, then this would help explain why poverty is such a trap.

 

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False Allegiance

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 12, 2017

One of the key distinctions in critical thinking is that between persuasion and argumentation. While an argument can be used to persuade, the object of an argument is truth. More specifically, the goal is to present evidence/reasons (known as premises) that logically support the conclusion. In contrast, the goal of persuasion is the acceptance of a claim as true, whether the claim is true or not. As should be expected, argumentation is rather ineffective as a tool of persuasion. Rhetorical devices, which are linguistic tools aimed at persuading, are rather more effective in achieving this goal. While there are many different rhetorical devices, one rather interesting one is what can be called False Allegiance. Formalized, the device is simple:

  1. A false statement of allegiance to a group, ideology or such is made.
  2. A statement that seems contrary to the professed allegiance is made, typically presented as being done with reluctance. This is often criticism or an attack.

While there is clearly no logical connection between the (false) statement of allegiance and the accuracy of the statement, a psychological connection can be made. The user’s intent is that their claim of allegiance will grant them credibility and thus make their claim more believable. This perceived credibility could be a matter of the target believing that the critic has knowledge of the matter because of their alleged allegiance. However, the main driving force behind the perceived credibility is typically the assumption that a person who professes allegiance to something will be honest in their claims about their alleged group. That is, they would not attack what they profess allegiance to unless there was truth behind the attack.

Like almost all rhetorical devices, False Allegiance has no allegiance of its own and can be pressed into service for any cause. As an illustration, it works just as well to proclaim a false allegiance to the Democrats as it does to the Republicans. For example, “Although I am a life-long Democrat, and it pains me to do so, I must agree that Trump is right about voter fraud. We need to ensure that illegals are not casting votes in our elections and so voter ID laws are a great idea.” As another example, “I have always voted for Republicans, so it is with great reluctance that I say that Trumpcare is a terrible idea.”

Looking at these examples, one might point out that these claims could be made with complete sincerity. That is, a Democrat could really believe that voter ID laws are a great idea and a Republican could think that Trumpcare is a terrible idea. That is, the professed allegiance could be sincere. This is certainly a point worth considering and everything that looks like it might be a case of False Allegiance need not be this rhetorical device.

In cases in which the person making the claims is known, it is possible to determine if the allegiance is false or not. For example, if John McCain says, “Although I am a loyal Republican I…”, then it is reasonable to infer this is not a case of false allegiance. However, if the identity and allegiance of the person making the claims cannot be confirmed, then the possibility that this device is being used remains.

Fortunately, defending against this device does not require being able to confirm (or deny) the allegiance of the person making the relevant claims. This is because the truth (or falsity) of the assertions being made are obviously independent of the allegiance and identity of the person making the claims. If the claims are adequately supported by evidence or reasons, then it would be reasonable to accept them—regardless of who makes the claims or why they are being made. If the claims are not adequately supported, then it would be unreasonable to accept them. This does not entail that they should be rejected—after all, just as a rhetorical device does not prove anything, its usage does not disprove anything.

It needs to be emphasized that even if it is shown that the person making the claim has a true allegiance, then it does not follow that their claim is thus true. After all, this reasoning is clearly fallacious: “I have an allegiance to X, so what I say about X is true.” They would not be using the False Allegiance rhetorical device, but could be using an appeal to allegiance, which would simply be another type of rhetoric.

In practical terms, when assessing a claim one should simply ignore such professions of allegiance. This is because they have no logical relevance to the claim being made. They can, obviously enough, have psychological force—but this merely is a matter of the power to persuade and not the power to prove.

 

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Can Machines Be Enslaved?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 10, 2017

The term “robot” and the idea of a robot rebellion were introduced by Karel Capek in Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti. “Robot” was derived from the Czech term for “forced labor” which was itself based on a term for slavery. As such, robots and slavery are thus forever linked in science-fiction. This leads to an interesting philosophical question: can a machine be a slave? Sorting this matter out requires an adequate definition of slavery followed by determining whether the definition can fit a machine.

In the simplest terms, slavery is the ownership of a person by another person. While slavery is often seen in absolute terms (one is either enslaved or not), it does seem reasonable to consider that there are degrees of slavery. That is, that the extent of ownership claimed by one person over another can vary. For example, a slave owner might grant their slaves some free time or allow them autonomy in certain areas. This is analogous to being ruled under a political authority—there are degrees of being ruled and degrees of freedom under that rule.

Slavery is also often characterized in terms of compelling a person to engage in uncompensated labor. While this account does have some appeal, it is clearly problematic. After all, it could be claimed that slaves are often compensated for their labors by being provided with food, shelter and clothing. Slaves are sometimes even paid wages and there are cases in which slaves have purchased their own freedom using these wages. The Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire were slaves, yet were paid a wage and enjoyed a socioeconomic status above many of the free subjects of the empire.  As such, compelled unpaid labor is not the defining quality of slavery. However, it is intuitively plausible to regard compelled unpaid labor as a form of slavery in that the compeller purports to own the laborer’s time without consent or compensation.

Slaves are typically cast as powerless and abused, but this is not always the case. For example, the Mamluks were treated as property that could be purchased, yet they enjoyed considerable status and power. The Janissaries, as noted above, also enjoyed considerable influence and power. As is obvious, there are free people who are powerless and routinely abused. Thus, being powerless and abused are neither necessary nor sufficient for slavery. As such, the defining characteristic of slavery is the claiming of ownership—that the slave is property.

Obviously enough, not all forms of ownership are slavery. My running shoes are not enslaved by my owning them, nor is my smartphone. This is because shoes and smartphones lack the status required to be considered enslaved. The matter becomes somewhat more controversial when it comes to animals.

Most people accept that humans have the right to own animals. For example, a human who has a dog or cat is referred to as the pet’s owner. There are people, myself included, that take issue with the ownership of animals. While some philosophers, such as Kant and Descartes, regard animals as objects other philosophers consider them to have moral status. For example, some utilitarians accept that the capacity of animals to feel pleasure and pain grants them moral status. This is typically taken as a status that requires that their suffering be considered rather than one that is taken to morally forbid ownership of animals. That is, it is typically seen as morally acceptable to own animals if they are treated in a way that the happiness generated exceeds the suffering generated. There are even some who consider any ownership of animals to be wrong but their use of the term “slavery” for the ownership of animals seems more metaphorical than a considered philosophical position.

While I think that treating animals as property is morally wrong, I would not characterize the ownership of most animals as slavery. This is because most animals lack the status required to be enslaved. To use an analogy, denying animals religious freedom, the freedom of expression, the right to vote and so on does not oppress animals because they are not the sort of beings that can exercise these rights. This is not to say that animals cannot be wronged, just that their capabilities limit the wrongs that can be done to them. So, while an animal can be wronged by being cruelly confined, it cannot be wronged by denying it freedom of religion.

People, because of their capabilities, can be enslaved. This is because the claim of ownership over them is a denial of their rightful status. The problem is, obviously enough, working out exactly what it is to be a person—something that philosophers have struggled with since the origin of the idea of persons. Fortunately, I do not need to provide such a definition when considering whether machines can be enslaved or not—I can make use of analogy to make my case.

While I believe that other humans are (usually) people, thanks to the problem of other minds I do not know that they are really people. That is, since I have no epistemic access to their alleged thoughts and feelings, I do not know if they have the qualities needed to be people or if they are just mindless automatons that exhibit the illusion of the personhood that I possess. Because of this, I have to use an argument by analogy: these other beings act like I do, I am a person, so they are also people. To be consistent, I need to extend the same reasoning to beings that are not humans, which would include machines. After all, without cutting open the apparent humans I meet, I have no idea whether they are organic beings or machines. As such, the mere appearance of being organic or mechanical is not relevant—I have to go by how the entity functions. For all I know, you are a machine. For all you know, I am a machine. Yet it seems reasonable to regard both of us as people.

While machines can engage in some person-like behavior now, they cannot yet pass this analogy test. That is, they cannot consistently exhibit the capacities exhibited by a known person. However, this does not mean that machines cannot pass this test. That is, behave in ways that would be sufficient to be accepted as a person if it appeared to be an organic human.

A machine that could pass this test would merit being regarded as a person in the same way that humans passing this test merit this status. As such, if a human person can be enslaved, then a robot person could also be enslaved.

It is, of course, tempting to ask if a robot with such behavior would really be a person. The same question can be asked about humans.

 

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Enslaved by the Machine

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 7, 2017

A common theme of dystopian science fiction is the enslavement of humanity by machines. The creation of such a dystopia was also a fear of Emma Goldman. In one of her essays on anarchism, she asserted that

Strange to say, there are people who extol this deadening method of centralized production as the proudest achievement of our age. They fail utterly to realize that if we are to continue in machine subserviency, our slavery is more complete than was our bondage to the King. They do not want to know that centralization is not only the death-knell of liberty, but also of health and beauty, of art and science, all these being impossible in a clock-like, mechanical atmosphere.

When Goldman was writing in the 1900s, the world had just recently entered the age of industrial machinery and the technology of today was at most a dream of visionary writers. As such, the slavery she envisioned was not of robot masters ruling over humanity, but humans compelled to work long hours in factories, serving the machines to serve the human owners of these machines.

The labor movements of the 1900s did much to offset the extent of the servitude workers were forced to endure, at least in the West. As the rest of the world industrialized the story of servitude to the factory machine played out once again. While the whole point of factory machines was to automate the work as much as possible so that few could do the work once requiring many, it is only in relatively recent years that what many would consider “true” automation has taken place. That is, having machines automatically doing the work instead of humans. For example, the robots used to assemble cars do what humans used to do. As another example, computers instead of human operators now handle phone calls.

In the eyes of utopians, this sort of progress was supposed to free humans from tedious and dangerous work, allowing them to, at worst, be free to engage in creative and rewarding labor. The reality, of course, turned out to not be this utopia. While automation has replaced humans in some tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs, automation has also replaced humans in what were once considered good jobs. Humans also continue to work in tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs—mainly because human labor is still cheaper or more effective than automation in those areas. For example, fast food restaurants do not have burgerbots to prepare the food. This is because cheap human labor is readily available and creating a cost-effective robot that can make a hamburger as well as a human has proven difficult. As such, the dream that automation would free humanity has so far proven to be just that, a dream. As such, machines have mainly been pushing humans out of jobs, sometimes to jobs that would seem to be more suited for machines rather than humans. If human wellbeing were considered important. However, there is the question of human subservience to the machine.

Humans do, obviously enough, still work jobs that are like those condemned by Goldman. But, thanks to technology, humans are now even more closely supervised and regulated by machines. For example, there is software designed to monitor employee productivity. As another example, some businesses use workplace cameras to watch employees. Obviously enough, these can be dismissed as not being enslaved by the machines—rather, this can be regarded as good human resource management to ensure that the human workers are operating as close to clockwork efficiency as possible. At the command of other humans, of course.

One rather interesting technology that looks rather like servitude to the machine is warehouse picking of the sort done by Amazon. Amazon and other companies have automated some of the picking process, making use of robots in various tasks. But, while a robot might bring shelves to human workers, the humans are the ones picking the products for shipping. Since humans tend to have poor memories and get bored with picking, human pickers have been automated—they wear headsets connected to computers that tell them what to do, then they tell the computers what they have done. That is, the machines are the masters and the humans are doing their bidding.

It is easy enough to argue that this sort of thing is not enslavement by machines. First, the computers controlling the humans are operating at the behest of the owners of Amazon who are presumably humans. Second, the humans are being paid for their labors and are not owned by the machines (or Amazon). As such, any enslavement of humans by machines would be purely metaphorical.

Interestingly, the best case for human enslavement by machines can be made outside of the workplace. Many humans are now ruled by their smartphones and tablets—responding to every beep and buzz of their masters, ignoring those around them to attend to the demands of the device, and living lives revolving around the machine.

This can be easily dismissed as a metaphor—while humans are addicted to their devices, they do not actually meet the definition of slaves. They willingly “obey” their devices and are not coerced by force or fraud—they could simply turn them off. That is, they are free to do as they want, they just do not want to disobey their devices. Humans are also not owned by their devices, rather they own their devices. But, it is reasonable to consider that humans are in a form of bondage—their devices have seduced them into making them into the focus of their attention and thus have become the masters. Albeit mindless masters with no agenda of their own. Yet.

 

 

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Trump’s Election Integrity Commission

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2017

The Trump regime recently created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and has requested information about voters from the states. As of this writing, 44 states and the District of Columbia have refused to provide all of the requested information. While ensuring the integrity of elections is a laudable goal, there are certainly important concerns about this commission, the motivations behind it, and the true goals.

While speculating about motivations is always problematic, there is adequate information to ground some reasonable explanations as to why Trump has created this commission. While the motivations for creating the commission are distinct from the desirability of its goals, motives are certainly relevant to moral assessment. Also, motivations generally involve goals. To avoid needless repetition, I will consider both motivations and goals at once.

One obvious motivation is Trump’s ego.  Trump infamously claimed, without any evidence, that he lost the popular election because there were 3-5 million illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton. While Trump seems generally content to dwell within a realm of unsupported claims and untruths, he does have a clear motivation to find some evidence to back up his absurd and unsupported claim. While it might be tempting to dismiss this motivation as lacking in consequences, it would be a rather serious matter. After all, John Locke notes that tyranny occurs “…When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.” This can, obviously enough, be countered by arguing that Trump is not acting from “irregular passion” or by arguing that even if he is, the concern about election integrity does serve the good of the people. That is, despite the motivation the act is not tyrannical because of its intended goal. If the true goal is real election integrity, then this reply would be quite reasonable—although Trump’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons should still be condemned.

A second motivation can be found in the fact that the Republican party has long used the specter of voter fraud to justify polices that are aimed at voter suppression. While voter fraud does occur at a non-zero level, it is just barely above zero. There is also the fact that the usual Republican proposals, such as voter ID, would generally not be effective at countering the voter fraud that does occur. This is not to say that voter fraud should not be considered, just that it occurs at such a microscopic rate that the only rational explanation for the Republican policies is voter suppression targeted at those who they regard as likely to vote for Democrats, such as minority voters. It should be noted that the Democrats need not be regarded as moral saints here; they utilize other morally problematic methods when they can gain an edge.

The creation of the commission helps support the narrative of voter fraud in that some will believe that there must be fraud because otherwise Trump would not have created the commission. The fact that some states have been resisting the commission’s requests is already being spun as evidence that the states are covering up fraud (even though Republican controlled states are also not fully cooperating). The commission does not need to find any actual evidence of meaningful voter fraud to support the narrative—after all, the myth of significant voter fraud has already been embraced without any evidence at all.

While it might be tempting to think that the information being requested by the Trump commission could expose voter fraud, it is important to be clear about the distinction between the accuracy of voter rolls and the existence of voter fraud. This can be illustrated by using an analogy.

Whenever I teach a class, I get a roster of the students who are enrolled in the class. This can be seen as analogous to the list of registered voters. Since students can add or drop my course, the roster I have for the class is often inaccurate. There are sometimes students who think they have enrolled, but have not. There are also those who think they have dropped the class, but who are still enrolled. Likewise, the list of voters is often inaccurate. For example, people move to a new state and legitimately register to vote there while they remain on the list in their old state. As another example, people die and are not automatically removed from the list. There are also various other errors that can occur with any lists of people. Having an inaccurate list is obviously a problem, but it is not the same thing as fraud. To continue the analogy, consider the sort of fraud that occurs in class, namely cheating. If I happen to have an inaccurate roster of those enrolled in my class at the time, it does not follow that students are cheating in my class. Likewise, the voter lists in states could have many inaccuracies, but this does not prove that voter fraud is occurring.

Obviously enough, an inaccurate roster for a class could be used to facilitate cheating and a student lying about being enrolled in the class would be a form of fraud. Likewise, inaccurate voter lists could be exploited to commit fraud. For example, if someone had a list of dead people who are still registered, this information could be used to engage in “ghost voting.” Fortunately, there is no evidence that the problems with the voter lists are being exploited to commit significant fraud. As such, the concerns about the voter lists is rather like that of concerns about the class rosters: they should be accurate, but their inaccuracy does not entail cheating or fraud is taking place.

This is not to say that the defects of the current system should be ignored or tolerated—the system does need a major overhaul. However, Trump’s commission does not seem aimed at assisting the states improve their registration systems nor aimed at ensuring that the elections are conducted with integrity. Rather, this seems to be part of Trump’s theater of fraud.

 

 

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GoFundMe(dical Expenses)

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 3, 2017

While the United States does offer some of the best health care in the world, it also offers the most expensive care. What it does not offer is the sort of medical coverage for the citizens that other Western countries provide. As such, many citizens are on their own when it comes to paying for this expensive care. As of this writing, Trumpcare has not passed, but it seems likely that the final version will be essentially a tax-cut for the wealthy with a reduction in coverage and benefits for those who are not well off. In any case, healthcare is likely to grow increasingly expensive for most Americans while they have reduced abilities to meet these expenses.

Americans are a creative and generous people, so it is not surprising that many people have turned to GoFundMe to get money to meet their medical expenses. Medical bills can be ruinous and are all too often a contributing factor in personal bankruptcy. As such, successful GoFundMe campaigns can help people pay their bills, get the care they need and avoid financial ruin. Friends of mine have been forced to undertake such campaigns and I have donated to them, as have many other people. In my own case, I am lucky—I have a job that still offers insurance coverage at a price I can afford and my modest salary allows me to easily meet the normal medical expenses for a very healthy person with no pre-existing conditions. However, I know that like most Americans, I am one bad medical disaster away from financial ruin. As such, I have followed the use of GoFundMe for medical expenses with some practical interest. I have also given it some thought from a philosophical perspective.

On the one hand, the success of certain GoFundMe campaigns to cover such expenses does suggest that people are morally decent—they are willing to expend their own resources to help other people in need. While GoFundMe does profit from such donations, their take is relatively modest for the service they provide. They are not engaged in gouging people in need and exploiting medical necessity for absurdly high profits—unlike some pharmaceutical companies.

On the other hand, there is the moral concern that in such a wealthy country replete with billionaires and millionaires, many people must resort to what amounts to begging for money to meet their medical expenses. This reality points to the excessive cost of healthcare, the relatively low earnings of many Americans, and the weakness of the nation’s safety net. While those who donate out of generosity and compassion merit moral praise, the need for such donations merits moral condemnation. In a purportedly civilized nation, people should not need to go begging for money to pay for their medical care.

To anticipate an objection, I am aware that people do use GoFundMe for frivolous things and that there are no doubt scammers using fictions of medical woe to separate the kind but uncritical from their money. Obviously enough, people are under no obligation to donate to frivolous camp and such scams are to be condemned for their wickedness. My concern is with the honest campaigns that are necessary to meet medical expenses. These are the campaigns that illustrate much that is wrong with the existing health care system.

While donating to such honest campaigns is morally laudable, there are some concerns about this method of funding. One obvious problem is that it depends on the generosity of others. It is not a systematic and dependable method of funding. As such, it is certainly problematic that some people need to rely on it.

A second obvious problem is that this method depends on an effective social media campaign to succeed. Like any other crowdfunding, success depends on getting attention and then persuading people to donate. Those who have the time, resources and skills to run effective social media campaigns (or who have such people helping them) will be far more likely to succeed than people who are lacking in these areas. This is especially concerning because people who are facing serious medical expenses are often in no condition to undertake the challenges of running such a campaign. In some cases, their efforts are being devoted to not dying. This is not to criticize or condemn people who can do this or recruit others to do it for them. Rather it, is to point out that this method is obviously no substitute for a systematic and consistent approach to funding health care.

A third obvious problem is that the success of this method depends on the appeal factor of the medical condition and the person with that condition. While a rational approach to funding would be based on merit and need, there are clearly conditions and people that are much more appealing in terms of attracting donors. For example, certain diseases and conditions can be “in vogue” and generate considerable sympathy, while others are not as appealing. In the case of people, it is evident that we are not all equal in how appealing we are to others. As with the other problems, I do not condemn or criticize people for having conditions that are in vogue or being appealing. Rather, my concern is that this method rests so heavily on these factors rather than medical and financial need. Once again, this serves to illustrate how the current system has been willfully broken and does not serve the needs of most Americans. While those who have succeeded in their GoFundMe campaigns should be lauded for their effort and ingenuity, those who run the health care system should be chastised for a state of affairs in which people have to run social media campaigns to afford their health care.

 

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