A Philosopher's Blog

Arguing for Fake News

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2017

In the current political climate, fake news in generally condemned. However, it was once employed as weapon against the Nazis. While the effectiveness of the tactic can be debated, Sefton Delmer waged his own disinformation war with various radio shows such as Der Chef. Given the evil of the Nazis and the context of a war, it seems reasonable to regard this use of fake news as morally acceptable. This, of course, provides a launching point for arguing in favor of fake news.

By definition, fake news involves lying. As such, sorting out the ethics of fake news requires considering the ethics of lying. Sticking with the WWII theme, an obvious focus for a discussion of lying is the allies’ disinformation campaign that was aimed at deceiving the Germans about the landings in France. The allies were lying to the Germans, but this can easily be justified. One obvious approach is utilitarianism: whatever harm might arise from lying would be clearly offset by the benefits gained by these deceptions. In this case, the saving of lives and the start of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. Naturally, from the perspective of the Nazis, the utilitarian calculation would be rather different.

Another obvious approach is a conditional approach based on the ethics of war: if it is acceptable to kill people in war to achieve military goals, then the use of the lesser evil of deception to achieve military goals would surely be acceptable. There is a potential flaw in this reasoning in that some lesser evils would not be acceptable to inflict. To use a disturbing example, while raping a person is a lesser evil than killing them, the use of rape as a weapon of war certainly seems unacceptable. One possible reason for this is that killing is an inherent part of the nature of armed conflict while rape is not. Obviously enough it could be argued that killing, even in war, is unacceptable and a successful counter of this sort would defeat this justification for lying in war.

A third easy justification is based on the idea that doing bad things to bad people is justified because they are bad. That is, the evil of the Nazis justifies deceiving them because they have no moral right to expect to be told the truth. While appealing, this can be a bit problematic and the obvious counter is to argue that doing bad things to bad people is still bad. These three justifications can be deployed in defense of the current practice of fake news and it is to this that I now turn.

One interesting way to justify fake news of the sort used today is to argue that there is state of war in politics and this justifies the use of the weapon of fake news. On this view, the fact that Alex Jones calls his show Infowars would be quite appropriate. There is also the well-established notion that the United States is engaged in a culture war. If these metaphors are taken literally, then the ethics of war could be used to justify the use of fake news in the same manner that it could be used to justify the deception of Der Chef. The challenge is to show that such a state of war exists and that it warrants the use of deception to achieve military ends. At this time, the war seems rather more metaphorical than literal and thus the war justification does not seem to hold.

Arguing in defense of fake news on utilitarian grounds simply involves making the case that the good done by fake news outweighs the harms. To illustrate, it could be argued that Hillary Clinton being elected president would have been so harmful that the use of fake news to prevent this was justified (although most fake news sources were in it for the money). The obvious problem with this justification is that if someone, such as Hillary, is that bad, then the use of the truth should suffice. This creates a bit of a paradox: if someone is so bad that deception would be justified to defeat them, then no deception should be needed.

This could be countered by arguing that the truth would not suffice. It could be claimed that people are not informed or intelligent enough to see the significance of the terrible truth and thus lies are needed. This would be somewhat like the idea of the noble lie—the people must be deceived for their own good. This is analogous to lying to children to get them to do the right thing because the truth is either beyond their understanding or would not motivate them to do the right thing. This counter does have considerable appeal and could certainly justify deceit to defeat the greater evil.

There is also the option of defending fake news by arguing that the target is bad and thus has no right to expect truth. To illustrate, one could argue that Hillary Clinton’s badness means that lying about her was okay—she is bad, so doing bad things to her is just fine. While this might have some appeal, there is the problem that even if the subject of the lies is bad, there is the matter of the badness of the people being lied to. If the justification is used that bad people can be treated badly, this would require that the people being lied to also be bad. If they are not bad, then this justification would not work.

Thus, there do seem to be reasonable arguments in favor of fake news—it is acceptable to lie when doing so would prevent a greater evil. In the ideal, speaking the truth should suffice. But, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that the truth does not always persuade.


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Into the Darkness: Finger Biter

Posted in Call of Cthulhu, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2017

The following is a podcast of my Call of Cthulhu adventure “Finger Biter” being run by Thomas Raley.


Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments Against

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 28, 2017

While there are some appealing arguments in favor of the United States employing mercenaries, there are also arguments against this position. One obvious set of arguments is composed of those that focus on the practical problems of employing mercenaries. These problems include broad concerns about the competence of the mercenaries (such as worries about their combat effectiveness and discipline) as well as worries about the quality of their equipment. These concerns can, of course, be addressed on a case by case basis. Some mercenary operations are composed of well-trained, well-equipped ex-soldiers who are every bit as capable as professional soldiers serving their countries. If competent and properly equipped mercenaries are hired, there will obviously not be problems in these areas.

There are also obvious practical concerns about the loyalty and reliability of mercenaries—they are, after all, fighting for money rather than from duty or commitment to principles. This is not to disparage mercenaries. After all, working for money is what professionals do, whether they are mercenary soldiers, surgeons, electricians or professors. A surgeon who is motivated by money need not be less reliable than a colleague who is driven by a moral commitment to heal the sick and injured. Likewise, a soldier who fights for a paycheck need not be less dependable than a patriotic soldier.

That said, a person who is motivated primarily by money will act in accord with that value and this can make them considerably less loyal and reliable than someone motivated by higher principles. This is not to say that a mercenary cannot have higher principles, but a mercenary, by definition, sells their loyalty (such as it is) to the highest bidder. As such, this is a reasonable concern.

This concern can be addressed by paying mercenaries well enough to defend against bribery and by assigning tasks to mercenaries that require loyalty and reliability proportional to what the mercenaries can realistically offer. This, of course, can severely limit how mercenaries can be deployed and could make hiring them pointless—unless a nation has an abundance of money and a shortage of troops.

A concern that is both practical and moral is that mercenaries tend to operate outside of the usual chain of command of the military and are often exempt from many of the laws and rules that govern the operation of national forces. In many cases, mercenaries are intentionally granted special exemptions. An excellent illustration of how this can be disastrous is Blackwater, which was a major security contractor operating mercenary forces in Iraq.

In September of 2007 employees of Blackwater were involved in an incident resulting in 11 deaths. This was not the first such incident. Although many believe Blackwater acted incorrectly, the company was well protected against accountability because of the legal situation created by the United States.  In 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator signed an order making all Americans in Iraq immune to Iraqi law. Security contractors enjoyed even greater protection. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which allows charges to be brought in American courts for crimes committed in foreign countries, applies only to those contracting with the Department of Defense. Companies employed by the State Department, such as was the case with Blackwater, are not covered by the law. Blackwater went even further and claimed exemption from all law suits and criminal prosecution. This defense was also used against a suit brought by families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq.

While there are advantages to granting mercenary forces exemptions from the law, Machiavelli warned against this because they might start “oppressing others quite contrary to your intentions.” His solution was to “keep him within the laws so that he does not overstep the mark.” This is excellent advice that should have been heeded. Instead, employing and placing such mercenaries beyond the law has led to serious problems.

The concern about mercenaries being exempt from the usual laws can be addressed simply enough: these exemptions can either be removed or not granted in the first place. While this will not guarantee good behavior, it can help encourage it.

The concern about mercenaries being outside the usual command structure can be harder to address. On the one hand, mercenary forces could simply be placed within the chain of command like any other unit. On the other hand, mercenary units are, by their very nature, outside of the usual command and organization structure and integrating them could prove problematic. Also, if the mercenaries are simply integrated as if they are normal units, then the obvious question arises as to why mercenaries would be needed in place of regular forces.

Yet another practical concern is that the employment of mercenaries can create public relations problems. While sending regular troops to foreign lands is always problematic, the use of mercenary forces can be more problematic. One reason is that the hiring of mercenaries is often looked down upon, in part because of the checkered history of mercenary forces. There is also the concern of how the local populations will perceive hired guns—especially given the above concerns about mercenaries operating outside of the boundaries that restrict regular forces. Finally, there is also the concern that the hiring of mercenaries can make the hiring country seem weak—the need to hire mercenaries would seem to suggest that the country has a shortage of competent regular forces.

A somewhat abstract argument against the United States employing mercenaries is based on the notion that nation states are supposed to be the sole operators of military forces. This, of course, assumes a specific view of the state and the moral right to operate military forces. If this conception of the state is correct, then hiring mercenaries would be to cede this responsibility (and right) to private companies, which would be unacceptable. The United States does allow private armies to exist within the country, if they have the proper connections to those in power. Blackwater, for example, was one such company. This seems to be problematic.

This concern can countered with an alternative view of the state in which private armies are acceptable. In the case of private armies within a country, it could be argued that they are acceptable as long as they acknowledge the supremacy of the state. So, for example, an American mercenary company would be acceptable as long as it operated under conditions set by the United States government and served only in approved ways. To use an obvious analogy, there are “rent-a-cops” that operate somewhat like police. These are acceptable provided that they operate under the rules of the state and do not create a challenge to the police powers of the state.

While this counter is appealing, there do not seem to be any compelling reasons for the United States to cede its monopoly on military force and hire mercenaries. Other than to profit the executives and shareholders of these mercenary companies, of course.

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Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments For

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2017

The Trump regime seems to be seriously considering outsourcing the war in Afghanistan to mercenaries.  The use of mercenaries, or contractors (as they might prefer to be called), is a time-honored practice. While the United States leads the world in military spending and has a fine military, it is no stranger to employing mercenaries. For example, the security contractor Blackwater became rather infamous for its actions in Iraq.

While many might regard the employment of mercenaries as repugnant, the proposal to outsource military operations to corporations should not be dismissed out of hand. Arguments for and against it should be given their due consideration. Mere prejudices against mercenaries should not be taken as arguments, nor should the worst deeds committed by some mercenaries be taken as damning them all.

As with almost every attempt at privatizing a state function, one of the stock arguments is based on the claim that privatization will save money. In some cases, this is an excellent argument. For example, it is cheaper for state employees to fly on commercial airlines than for a state to maintain a fleet of planes to send employees around on state business. In other cases, this argument falls apart. The stock problem is that a for-profit company must make a profit and this means it must have that profit margin over and above what it costs to provide the product or service. So, for a mercenary company to make money, it would need to pay all the costs that government forces would incur for the same operation and would need to charge extra to make a profit. As such, using mercenaries would not seem to be a money-saver.

It could be countered that mercenaries can have significantly lower operating costs than normal troops. There are various ways that costs could be cut relative to the costs of operating the government military forces: mercenaries could have cheaper or less equipment, they could be paid less, they could be provided less (or no) benefits, and mercenaries could engage in looting to offset their costs (and pass the savings on to their employer).

The cost cutting approach does raise some concerns about the ability of the mercenaries to conduct operations effectively: underpaid and underequipped troops would tend to do worse than better paid and better equipped troops. There are also obvious moral concerns about letting mercenaries loot.

However, there are savings that could prove quite significant: while the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has faced considerable criticism, veterans can get considerable benefits. For example, there is the GI Bill. Assuming mercenaries did not get such benefits, this would result in meaningful cost savings. In sum, if a mercenary company operated using common business practices of cost-cutting, then they could certainly run operations cheaper than the state. But, of course, if saving money is the prime concern, the state could engage in the same practices and save even more money by not providing a private contractor with the money needed to make a profit. Naturally, there might be good reasons why the state could not engage in these money-saving practices. In that case, the savings offered by mercenaries could justify their employment.

A second argument in favor of using mercenaries is based on the fact that those doing the killing and dying will not be government forces. While the death of a mercenary is as much the death of a person as the death of a government soldier, the mercenary’s death would tend to have far less impact on political opinion back home. The death of an American soldier in combat is meaningful to Americans in the way that the death of a mercenary would not.

While the state employing mercenaries is accountable for what they do, there is a distance between the misdeeds of mercenaries and the state that does not exist between the misdeeds of regular troops and the state. In practical terms, there is less accountability. It is, after all, much easier to disavow and throw mercenaries under the tank than it is to do the same with government troops.

This is not to say mercenaries provide a “get out of trouble” card to their employer—as the incidents in Iraq involving Blackwater showed, employers still get caught in the fallout from the actions of the mercenaries they hire. However, having such a force can be useful, especially when one wants to do things that would get regular troops into considerable trouble.

A final argument in favor of mercenaries is from the standpoint of the owners of mercenary companies. Most forms of privatization are a means of funneling public money into the pockets of executives and shareholders. Privatizing operations in Afghanistan could be incredibly profitable (or, rather, even more profitable) for contractors.

While receiving a tide of public money would be good for the companies, the profit argument runs directly up against the first argument for using mercenaries—that doing so would save money. This sort of “double vision” is common in privatization: those who want to make massive profits make the ironic argument that privatization is a good idea because it will save money.

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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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