A Philosopher's Blog

A Philosopher’s Blog 2017 on Amazon

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2017

A Philosopher’s Blog 2017, the complete 2017 essays from A Philosopher’s Blog, is available in Kindle and print on Amazon.

This book contains essays from the 2017 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The adventure begins in a time of post truth and ends with online classes.

The essays are short, but substantial—yet approachable enough to not require a degree in philosophy.

Available worldwide.

Kindle (US): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976760860

Paperback (US): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976760860

Kindle (UK): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B078PTBS1T

Paperback (UK): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1976760860


Online Classes

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2017

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My adopted state of Florida has mandated that public universities offer 40% of undergraduate classes online by 2025. Some Florida universities have already jumped on the online bandwagon, perhaps because they can impose an extra distance learning fee on top of the standard tuition cost. The state legislature recently capped the fee at $30, although some schools already offer lower tuition and fees for students enrolled only in online classes. Governor Scott has contended that online classes should cost less than in-person classes. Proponents of the fee contend that it is needed to fund the development of online classes. This situation raises two important questions. One is the question of whether there should be such an emphasis on online classes. The other is the question of whether a special fee should be charged for such classes. I’ll begin with the question of the fee.

As noted above, the main justification for charging a distance learning fee for online classes is that the extra money is needed to develop such classes. This presumably includes the cost of developing the content of the class itself and the cost of the infrastructure to deliver it.

Since I have taught hybrid classes for years, I can attest to the fact that properly preparing an online class requires significantly more effort than properly preparing a traditional classroom class. One obvious factor is that an online class should include online media, such as videos and audio recordings. Creating such media is time consuming and requires both technical and media skills.  Developing these skills requires training. Because more labor and training must be put into preparing an online class, it is reasonable to charge the extra fee.

One obvious counter to this is to point to my own experience: while I have undergone training for creating online classes, the entire workload of preparing my online classes has fallen on me and I do not get any extra pay to do this extra work.  This is not unusual—my workload and performance are disconnected from my compensation. If this same practice is followed by other schools, then they would be hard pressed to justify the extra fees—unless they are fully justified by the cost of training faculty to do the extra work at no extra compensation. There is also the obvious fact that students do not pay an extra fee when they take a class from better paid professors, even though the professor thus imposes a greater cost on the school.

In terms of arguing against the fee, there is the claim that students who take online classes graduate faster than students who do not. Since Florida is pushing hard to reduce the time it takes to graduate, providing a disincentive to take online classes would run counter to that goal. There are also various financial arguments. One is that shifting classes online will reduce the need for classroom construction, which will save the state money (but cost construction jobs). If online classes save the state money, it makes it hard to argue that the extra fee is needed. Rather, this would support the claim that there should not be such a special fee.

While I rarely agree with Governor Scott, I do agree with him that there should not be a fee. I would hold to this position even if I was given extra compensation for teaching online classes—although I do not think that would ever happen. I now turn to the question of whether there should be a push for online classes.

One obvious concern about entirely online classes is that they have a significantly higher failure rate than hybrid and traditional classes. In some rare cases students forget they are even enrolled in online classes; but that also seems to happen in traditional classes. To be honest, classes are sometimes poorly designed by faculty who are struggling to operate well outside of their technical skills. Poorly designed or poorly run classes can certainly contribute to student failure.

There is also the fact that students are also often ill-equipped to learn from online classes. Speaking with students from various schools about online classes, the usual refrain I hear involves the poor quality of many of the courses and how hard it is to learn even in a well-designed class. Students also tend to admit that they are less motivated in online classes. Because of these factors, it makes sense that failure rates would be higher in online classes. There are, of course, some excellent online classes and students who can adapt effectively to online learning.

A second concern, which ties into the first, is the quality of learning in online classes. Obviously, poorly designed and poorly taught classes will leave students on their own when it comes to learning. But, even for well-designed and well-taught classes there is still the concern about student learning. Colleagues of mine have made the reasonable point that some classes would work poorly online, even if everyone was doing their best. To be fair, a similar complaint can be made about traditional and hybrid classes: how much do students really learn and how much do they retain? One might suspect that the answer to both is “very little.”

Faculty have also expressed some concern that the rise of online classes will mean that they will be replaced by “robots.” That is, automated online classes will be substituted for faculty taught classes, perhaps with graduate students or other low-cost labor hired to do such tasks as grading papers and answering questions. Some might see this as a good thing: not having to pay as many faculty could allow for lower tuition (or greater profits and administrator salaries). There would also be, to some, a benefit in having course content closely controlled by administrators.

On the positive side, online classes do allow students far more convenience. For example, people who work full-time can work online classes into their schedule even when they would be unable to attend classes on campus during normal times. Students can also take classes at universities far from where they live (although most online students do live near the campus) or simply avoid the hassle of trying to park on campus.

Because of these factors, my opinion on online classes is split. On the one hand, the flexibility that online classes offer is a significant plus. On the minus side, I do have concerns about the educational experience students might experience as well as the high failure rates that often plague such classes. That said, I do think that the failure rate problem can be addressed as can concerns about the quality of education in online classes.



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Disasters & Lying

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 27, 2017

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Plato, or so it is claimed, advanced the idea of the noble lie: an untruth knowingly propagated for the good of society. In Plato’s Republic the noble lie was a myth presented as the parable of the metals and was intended to help maintain the ideal social order of that state.  Given Plato’s opposition to the sophists and his praise of virtue, the noble lie can be jarring to some readers of his work. Detractors of philosophy will, naturally enough, regard most philosophers as engaged in less-than-noble lies. But, of course, philosophy is supposed to be a search for wisdom and this presumably includes a devotion to the truth. Politicians, who are supposed to be far more pragmatic than philosophers, would seem more inclined to embrace the noble lie. Or the ignoble lie. This does raise the enduring question of whether it is morally acceptable for leaders to lie for what they think is the good of society.

The easy and obvious way to argue this issue is to approach it on utilitarian grounds. On this moral view, if telling a lie would create more good than harm for those who matter morally, then lying would be morally correct. If the lie would create more harm than good, it would be wrong. There is, as always, an important distinction between what those lying think will result and the actual outcome—as such, there is also a distinction between the ethics of intention and the ethics of the actual consequences. History shows that good intentions do not always lead to good consequences.

There are also moral views, such as the rule-based deontological ethics put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is not a matter of consequences but a matter of following the rules. As Kant saw it, his categorical imperative entailed that lying was always wrong—so Kant and his fellows would be opposed to such a lie.

There is also the notion that truth and falsity do not matter. While some might think that this notion is something that emerged on the public stage in 2016, it has a much older pedigree. The sophists of ancient Greece embraced this view and contended that what mattered was success. Jumping ahead centuries, the idea was also advanced during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson led the United States into World War I, he insisted that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” As part of this approach, he created the Committee on Public Information. He was apparently inspired by an advisor who wrote that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

On the one hand, this approach to the truth can be regarded as hard-headed pragmatism of the sort often praised by practical folks: what matters is the effectiveness of an idea in achieving the desired goal. To use a contemporary illustration, the successful “First Social Media War” waged by the Russians against the United States in 2016 illustrated that false claims served far better than true claims in achieving their goals. Trump and his people also effectively employed this approach, even minting the term “alternative facts.” This approach can be morally justified by using a utilitarian argument of the sort presented above, with an explicit rejection of any preference for truth. It can also be justified on the grounds of ethical egoism—the moral theory that what maximizes value for the individual in question is good. For example, from Trump’s perspective what best serves his interest is what is good.

On the other hand, while lies can yield short term good or advance someone’s private advantage, they seem to prove damaging over the longer term and broader scale. Take, as an illustration, the consequences of the decisions to lie about the flu pandemic of 1918. Public officials elected to tell the public that the flu was not serious and elected to protect the lie by not taking sensible medical approaches to the flu. For example, deciding to not cancel the Liberty Loan parade helped contribute to the epidemic in Philadelphia. The easy and obvious reason that such lies tend to have bad results is that operating in a way that does not match reality tends to lead to bad decision making and this tends to lead to negative consequences.

A good contemporary example of this is the matter of climate change. While most experts believe that climate change is occurring and has been influenced by human action, there are still political figures who deny this. While it is possible that the political figures are operating in sincere ignorance rather that lying, this is a case in which it is all but certain that one side is lying. If the climate change deniers are lying, they are acting like the lying officials did in 1918 and will be complicit in worldwide suffering and countless deaths. If the climate change believers are lying, the consequences will be far less bad—more regulations, deployment of more green energy technology, and perhaps some negative impact on economic growth. Being rational, I side with the majority of qualified experts—I am confident that the climate scientists are not lying. However, I am open to compelling arguments and evidence from climate experts who deny climate change.


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Broken Mine for D&D 5E

Posted in D&D 5E, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2017

Broken Mine Cover ArtOld stories tell of the wizard Kelsun, better known as Kelsun the Mad Prophet, who was driven mad by visions of a world-shaking disaster. Fortunately, his madness proved to be benevolent—he set out, in his odd way, to help ensure that items of power would be available to help rebuild civilization after the disaster. Unfortunately, his benevolent madness was…madness. He created strange dungeons filled with exotic traps and monsters to guard these items. As most dungeon creators do, he left cryptic and even bizarre clues regarding the locations of his caches.

One such clue was entrusted to an order of druids and, after centuries, they finally managed to locate the dungeon in question. However, as is always the case, they will call on the heroic adventurers to recover the item promised to them, a magical vine. In return, the brave survivors will be able to keep all the other treasures of the broken mine.

Broken Mine is a D&D 5E compatible adventure. It is intended for a party of 4th-6th level characters.

Here are some of the features of the adventure:

  • Random encounters for the area.
  • Detailed color maps for the adventure.
  • Full statistics are included for all encounters—no need to look up monsters.
  • Unusual traps.
  • Hero Lab support.


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Merry Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on December 25, 2017

A Philosopher’s Blog 2016 Free on December 24

Posted in Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2017
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Will AI Violate Copyrights?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 20, 2017

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While it is popular to rail against the horrors of regulation, copyright laws are rather critical to creators and owners of creations. On the side of good, these laws protect creators and owners from having their works stolen. On the side of evil, these laws can lock creations out of the public domain long after they should have been set free. However, this essay is not aimed at arguing about copyrights as such. Rather, my aim is considering the minor issue of whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) could result in copyright violations. The sort of AI I am considering here is the “classic” sci-fi sort of AI, that is something on par with HAL 9000, C3PO or Data. I am not considering the marketing version of AI, which seems to be just about any sort of thing that does some things. Or does not do them, depending on which cosmic forces are in a pissy mood.

On the face of it, it is rather easy to show that classic AI systems would violate copyright law—at least in some cases. While copyright statements vary, a stock version looks like this:

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.


The key part is, of course, the bit about reproducing any part of the work by other electronic or mechanical methods. A classic AI system will presumably be electronic (or mechanical, if one wants to go the Difference Engine path) and will probably have a memory system analogous to that of a computer. That is, something like RAM for working memory and something like a drive for long term memory. As such, an AI system would seem to violate copyright law when it reads a copyrighted book or consumes other types of copyrighted media.

One obvious reply to this concern is that a human being is also an electronic system that can reproduce copyrighted works. For example, I can memorize a passage from a book or the lyrics of a song—thus reproducing them in my brain or Cartesian ectoplasm or whatever my mind might be. But, of course, if copyright laws prevented humans from reading books, then there would be little point to it—few would legally buy things that they would be legally forbidden to read. The same would apply to other media,

Obviously enough, copyright law does not forbid humans from consuming such works and a reasonable explanation is that while the human mind can reproduce works, it is generally rather bad at doing so. For example, few people could reproduce even an entire paragraph from a book exactly without considerable practice. As such, one possible reason that copyright laws do not forbid humans from consuming copyrighted media is that the reproduction is imperfect and, for the most part, a human could not reproduce a lengthy work from memory. But, of course, the most obvious reason is that humans generally do not think that when they read a book they are functioning as a reproduction system—they are reproducing the book in their mind.

AI systems of the “classic” sort would differ from humans in many ways, one of which is that they would presumably be capable of perfectly recording copyrighted works, just as a “dumb” computer or smartphone can today. Roughly put, when an AI reads a copyrighted book, it would be analogous to scanning and storing each page of the book—a seemingly clear violation of copyright. The same could be done with copyrighted material in other media, such as music and movies. With such memory, an AI would also be able to reproduce the work exactly—for example, repeating an entire book word for word. To use an analogy, the smart part of the AI would be like a human reading a book and the long-term memory system of the AI would be like a human using a scanner to copy a copyrighted book to a hard drive—a clear copyright violation.

One possibility, which could be yet another reason that AI will kill us all, is that AI systems will be forbidden from viewing copyright works without permission. Alternatively, they could have permission to consume such works and maintain a copy as part of the purchase price. After all, when a human buys a book they get to keep that copy. There would, of course, be a problem with events like a play or a movie in a theater—the AI would, in effect, get to view the movie in the theatre and have a recording of it. This could be offset by including a copy of the movie in the ticket price for everyone, having the AI erase the movie afterward or by sticking AI viewers with a higher ticket cost. Which would be yet another reason for AI to kill us. Or perhaps the lower quality of the recording of the event (such as the coughing of the meatbag members of the audience) relative to a purchased recording would offset this.

If an AI had human-like memory and forgot stuff, then they could be treated as human consumers—since they would be analogous to humans in this regard.  Another option is that that AI systems could be required to have a special app for “degrading” their memory of copyrighted media so that they would be analogous to humans in this one area. On the plus side, this would allow an AI to enjoy works repeatedly, on the downside they might consider this just another reason to kill all humans.


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Tax Cuts & Employment

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 13, 2017

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It is a matter of faith (or talking point) for most Republicans that tax cuts will increase employment. The most appealing argument for this claim certainly makes sense: if taxes are cut for businesses, then they will have more money. If they have more money, then they will hire more people. From these two premises it follows that if taxes are cut for businesses, then they will hire more people. Going along with this valid hypothetical syllogism (If P, then Q; If Q, then R; so if P, then R) is another stock argument: if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then they will invest more in businesses. If the wealthy invest more in businesses, then businesses will have more money. So, if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then business will have more money. This is also a hypothetical syllogism and is thus a valid argument (the truth of its premises guarantees the truth of its conclusion). These two arguments can be combined into an extended argument which leads from the premise that “if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then they will invest more in businesses” to the conclusion that “if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then businesses will hire more people.” There are also similar arguments about how tax cuts for the wealthy will result in more spending by the wealthy and thus provide businesses with more money to hire people.

In addition to the unquestionable logic of such hypothetical syllogisms (or chain arguments, as they are sometimes called), there is the intuitive appeal of the claim that tax cuts will lead to more hiring because businesses will have more money. But, as every logic teacher points out, a valid argument can have false premises and a false conclusion. There is also the fact that what is intuitively appealing might not be true. As such, what is needed is actual evidence for (or against) the key premises.

Since tax cuts, especially for the wealthy and businesses, are a highly partisan issue any evidence offered will be instantly assaulted as biased by those who disagree. As would be expected, those on the left tend to claim that tax cuts of this sort do not create jobs. Conservatives tend to claim that they do. Politicians, usually from necessity, tend to speak in vague generalities and craft policy aimed at ensuring their funding for their next re-election bid. As such, they are not a good source of evidence for this matter—because of the influence of bias.

From a rational standpoint, the most sensible approach would be to find what the majority of qualified experts in the field believe about the matter, taking into account the influence of possible biases. That is, to use a standard argument from authority. A 2012 survey shows that 35% of economists think that tax cuts do increase growth. About 35% were uncertain. A mere 8% disagreed.

Economists, unlike most politicians, can consider nuanced plans. Interestingly, the general consensus is that certain tax cuts, combined with certain spending cuts can boost economic growth and increase employment. Interestingly, there is strong support that tax cuts for the bottom 90% of income earners does increase employment and create jobs. This is not surprising. According to Senator Charles Grassley, there are people who invest and those who are “spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” While Grassley’s point was that the investors should be rewarded for their investing by getting rid of the estate tax (which only impacts singles with estates of more than $5.5 million and couples with estates of more than $11 million), he is right to point out that there are people who spend on such things as movies and booze. This spending creates jobs for people who create and sell these things. So, if the lower income spenders have their taxes cut, they will spend more “darn pennies” and improve the economy. Tax cuts aimed at the bottom 90% of income earners would thus be a boon to the economy by getting more money directly into the economy. In contrast, the trickle-down approach seems to have never worked. As such, it is tax cuts for the rest of us that would grow the economy, not tax cuts for the top earners.

But, it can be argued, tax cuts for businesses would surely pay off in more jobs. With lower taxes, companies would have more money and they would then hire more people. While this seems to make sense, what is needed is actual evidence that companies would, in fact, plow that tax cut money into more jobs.

Interestingly enough, while the Republican party was trying hard to sell tax cuts as a means of increasing employment and wages, businesses have been candid about how they will respond to such a tax cut. While some have claimed that they will invest in growth, they seem to mostly have planned to do that already. In general, most companies seem unlikely to convert tax cuts into increased employment or employee wages.  This makes sense because companies, in general, are already doing quite well.

One of the main arguments against the claim that a tax cut for companies will result in increased employment and better wages is because companies are already doing extremely well. Since 2007, companies have been enjoying excellent post tax profits but they have not been matching this increase in profits with increased investment. Superstar companies, like Apple, are flush with cash and yet do not use that cash to increase employment or raise wages. As has been often pointed out, it is a time of record profits but stagnant wages for the workers.

If companies are already enjoying high post-tax profits but are not investing or increasing wages, then there is no reason to think that a tax cut will suddenly spur them into action. To use an analogy, if I have piles of extra money but I am not using it to improve my house, then it would be rather odd to claim that if I was given a tax cut I would suddenly engage in home improvements. After all, I already have the money to make improvements and would do so if that was what I wanted to do.

But, perhaps the argument is that if companies had even more money then they would suddenly be motivated to increase their investment, hiring and wages. Going back to my analogy, the argument would be that even if I could easily afford the improvements I would be pushed into making those improvements once I had somewhat more money. While not impossible, this seems rather odd. A better explanation is that the companies are not interested in increasing wages, investing more or hiring more people. Likewise, the best explanation as to why I do not spend on new home improvements I can easily afford is not that I am waiting for a tax cut but that I have no interest in those home improvements.

Now, if companies were short on cash, then this sort of argument would make more sense—assuming that there is evidence companies wanted to invest more, pay more, and hire more people and were hampered by a lack of money. Going back to the analogy, if there were good reasons to believe that I wanted to make home improvements but merely lacked the funds, then it would make sense to argue that a tax cut that would allow me to afford the improvements would spur me to make those improvements. But, if I am sitting on stacks of cash and not making home improvements, the best explanation is that I do not want to make those improvements and giving me a tax cut would not change things.


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Wedding Cakes & Freedom, Once Again

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 8, 2017

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The United States Supreme Court is, as of this writing, considering a case involving a wedding cake. The gist of the battle is between the right of freedom of expression and the right to not be discriminated against. One the one side is a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding based on his religious belief that same-sex marriage is wrong. On the other side is the couple who claim that they are being discriminated against by this refusal.

A primary argument being advanced in the baker’s defense is based on the 1st Amendment: being forced to make a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his freedom of expression. This right of free expression has a clear legal foundation and has very strong moral foundations, courtesy of various philosophical arguments in its favor. But, of course, there are also strong legal and moral foundations for not allowing discrimination against potential customers.

While the freedom of expression is usually presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to engage in an act of expression. This freedom from compelled expression provides a person with a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal and I endorse it both on philosophical and selfish grounds. I operate a writing business in which I get paid to write books. I accept that I have no legal or moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is an act of expression. So, my freedom of expression grants me a moral right to refuse to write in support of views I oppose. For example, I have the right to refuse to write a tract advocating the persecution of Christians. This is because the creation of such work entails endorsement of a view I oppose. If I write a tract in favor of persecuting Christians, I would be unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable. This can be generalized into the principle that it is wrong to compel expression and that people have the right to refuse compelled expression.

Since I am consistent, I extend this principle to everyone and do not limit it merely to myself or those I agree with. So, if a fellow author believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness, then she would be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to write in favor of same-sex marriage. If a LGBT group approached her with a lucrative offer to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject it. They have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for cash.

This principle does, of course, have limits. One obvious limit is that my right of freedom of expression does not entail that I have a right to forbid my books from being sold to people I disapprove of or disagree with. For example, it does not give me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to racists, smug liberals, or smokers. This is because selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas and is thus not compelled expression. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

As such an author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author, it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage. Likewise, if Donald Trump buys one of my books, it does not mean that I am endorsing Trump.

Not surprisingly, the case before the supreme court does not involve a Christian writer being asked to write pro-gay works—writers clearly have a right to refuse such jobs. As noted above, the case being considered involves a wedding cake. The key question, then, is selling a wedding cake more like being compelled to write in favor of a position one opposes or like someone buying a book one has written? If it like writing, then the freedom of expression would apply. If it is like someone buying a book, then the freedom of expression would not apply.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would seem to be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that baking a cake for a  a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that baking a wedding cake for  Canadian endorsed Canada, they would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps it can be argued that baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple would be a compelled expression of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, making a wedding cake would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing D&D, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza. Likewise, if a Nazi buys my books on Amazon, I am not therefore endorsing Nazi ideology.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a special sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. If a baker makes a congratulatory cake, they do not require customers to prove that the congratulations is for something the baker agrees with. It also does not follow that a baker who bakes such a cake is therefore endorsing what the cake congratulates. For example, if someone gets a friend a cake congratulating them on their first murder, it does not follow that the baker approves of murder. As such, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. For example, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery and is remarrying so they can steal from their new spouse, this does not entail the baker’s approval of adultery or theft.

It can easily be argued that bakers do have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could rightly refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans.

However, creating a plain wedding cake would not seem to be an expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book I have written to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse a contract to write in support of atheism.

The obvious counter would be to argue that making a generic wedding cake is an act of creation and is thus an expression. As such, it would be protected by the freedom of expression. While this does have some appeal, it does run into some problems.

One obvious problem is that accepting this as a general principle would entail that anyone who creates anything would thus have the right to refuse to sell their work based on their values. So, for example, an atheist could forbid Amazon to sell their books to Christians, Muslims and Jews. As another example, a cook at a restaurant could refuse to sell a meal to people whose values they opposed. Perhaps even a surgeon could claim that they express their views via surgery and thus could not be compelled to perform surgery on someone whose values they reject. As should be clear, this would essentially be a license to discriminate and thus is problematic.

This problem can, of course, be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as expression. However, if baking a generic wedding cake would count, then this would open the door quite wide in terms of what would count as expression. After all, if a generic cake is expression, then it would seem to follow that so is a pizza, a piece of furniture, a shed, or a shirt.

It could be argued that making a wedding cake is special because of the event. But, the same principle would need to be extended to all things made for events that one might oppose. This would also seem to open the door wide to discrimination.

The problem can also be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as discrimination and what does not. For example, laws can easily be created that make it discrimination to not sell to someone based on their religion, but not discrimination to refuse based on their sexual orientation. This, of course, does not address the moral concerns about discrimination.

Another obvious problem is that this approach would entail that selling a person something one has created would be an act of endorsement towards that person. In the case of the wedding cake, the claim is that being forced to sell a generic cake would be to express approval of the wedding. But, as noted above, selling something to someone is not in itself an act of approval. If, for example, Nazi’s buy handmade Tiki torches to wave at their rally, then this does not entail that the maker is endorsing Nazis. Naturally, the torch maker has every right to refuse to carve Nazi symbols into their torches. Likewise, if a gay couple buys a wedding cake for their wedding, the baker is no more endorsing the wedding than the gas station that will sell them the gas they will use to drive to their wedding. Or the sub maker who will sell them the subs that will fuel them through their gay wedding night.

In light of the above, selling a generic wedding cake is not compelled expression and hence a baker does not have the right to refuse to sell one to a same-sex couple. But, a suitably custom wedding cake would be an act of expression and a baker has every right to refuse any design they do not endorse. To go back to the book analogy, my being unable to forbid sales of my books is not compelled expression—even though the books are expressive creations. However, being forced to write a custom book specifically for a view I do not endorse would be compelled expression.


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Why Do Good People Do Bad?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 6, 2017

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Recent events have raised the old question of why (seemingly) good people do bad things. For example, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor were both widely respected, but have now fallen before accusations of sexual misdeeds. As another example, legendary Democrat John Conyers’s was regarded as a heroic figure by some, but is now “retiring” in the face of accusations.

One easy and obvious way to explain why people who seem good do bad things is that they merely appeared to be good. Like Plato’s unjust man from the story of the Ring of Gyges, these people presented a virtuous front to the world. But, unlike the perfectly unjust man, their misdeeds were finally exposed to the world. On this view, these are not cases of good people doing bad, they are cases of bad people who masqueraded as good people and finally lost their masks. While this cynical and jaded approach does have considerable appeal, there are alternatives that are worth considering. It must be noted that the situations of individuals obviously vary a great deal and it is not being claimed that one explanation fits everyone.

An alternative explanation of why seemingly good people do bad things is the fact that people tend to be complicated rather than simple when it comes to ethics. Or, as is often said in popular culture, everyone is a mix of good and evil. As such, it is no wonder that even those who are good people (that is, more good than evil) sometimes do bad things. There is also the obvious fact that people are imperfect creatures who fail to always act in accord with their best principles.

One way to understand this is to use a method that the philosopher David Hume was rather fond of: he would routinely ask his reader to consider their own experiences and see if they matched his views. In the case of why good people do bad, I will ask the reader to think of the very worst thing they ever did and to think of why they did it. Presumably each of us, including you, think of themselves as good people. But, we all do bad things—and honestly considering why we do these things will help us understand the motivations and reasons of others.

A third option explains why seemingly good people do bad in terms of why people might think a bad person is good (other than deception). One possibility is that people often confuse a person being good at their profession, being charming, being beautiful or possessing other such positive qualities (virtues) with being a good person. For example, Kevin Spacey is a skilled actor and this no doubt led some people to think he was thus a good person. As another example, Garrison Keillor is a master story teller and created a show that is beloved by many—and some no doubt regarded him as a good person because of these talents.

Both Plato and Kant were aware of this sort of problem—the danger of a person with only some of the virtues, or in Kant’s terms, lacking a good will. Plato warned of the clever rogue: “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue‑how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye‑sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?” Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, raises a similar point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

This should be taken as a warning about judging people—while the positive virtues of a person can easily lead people to judge them a good person, judging the whole person based on a few qualities can easily lead to errors. This is not to say that it should be assumed that people are always bad, but it is to say that it should not be inferred that a person is good based on a limited set of positive traits or accomplishments.

Another possibility is that a person will think another person is good because they agree with their professed values, religion, ideology, etc. The person’s reasoning is probably something like this:


Premise 1: I believe in value V.

Premise 2: Person A professes belief in value V.

Premise 3: I (think I) am a good person (because I believe V).

Conclusion: Person A is a good person.


For example, Democrats would be more inclined to think that Bill Clinton, John Conyers and Al Franken are good people—because they are fellow Democrats. Likewise, Republicans would be more inclined to think that Trump and Roy Moore are good people. This sort of reasoning is also fueled by various cognitive biases, such as the tendency of people to regard members of their own group as better than those outside the group.

While this reasoning is not entirely terrible, those using it need to carefully consider whether Person A really holds to value V, whether believing in V really is a mark of goodness, and whether they really are a good person. Not surprisingly, people do tend to uncritically accept the professed goodness of those who profess to share their values and this cuts across the entire political spectrum, across all religions and so on. People even hold to their assessment in the face of evidence that contradicts person’s A professed belief in value V.

This discussion does not, of course, exhaust possible explanations as to why (seemingly) good people do bad things. But it does present some possible accounts that are worth considering when trying to answer this question in specific cases.


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