A Philosopher's Blog

Shut Down Blame

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2018

The government shutdown of January, 2018 led to the usual efforts to place blame. The Republicans assert that the Democrats are in the wrong—if only they would put the interest of America ahead of their unpatriotic devotion to the illegals eager to remain or cross in search of handouts, then there would be no problem. The Democrats blame the Republicans, presenting their own narrative of the evils of the Republicans. Sorting out the responsibility in such matters can be rather problematic; especially since everyone typically contributes to the problem.

It is, of course, tempting to be cynical about the matter and embrace the narrative that each side is simply maneuvering to maximize the chances that its members will be re-elected in the next cycle. To truly cynical eyes, the Democrats are trying to win the votes of the brown people. The Republicans are struggling to win the votes of the white people who are terrified of the brown people. This view, I hope, does a disservice to both sides. But, the problem remains of sorting out the responsibility.

One factor that makes objectively assessing responsibility in this matter is in-group bias. This is a cognitive bias that influences people to see members of their group as better than those outside the group. As such, people who identify with a political party will see their party as better and the other party as worse. So, in the eyes of most Democrats, the Republicans are to blame—they seem to be in the wrong because Democrats see other Democrats as better. The same sort of bias holds for Republicans—they will tend to see the Democrats as being in the wrong.

This bias can also fuel a full fallacy, which is sometimes called the group think fallacy. This fallacy occurs when a person infers that their group is right or better simply because it is their group. The mistake is, of course, that the fact that a group is one’s own does not entail that it is right, good or better. Naturally, many people have the sense to realize that openly asserting that their side is right because it is their side is not a good argument. As such, they tend to advance reasons in favor of the position they already hold, seeking evidence that confirms the conclusion they have drawn from the in-group fallacy and that conforms to their in-group bias.

The psychological commitment people have to their groups can lead to distorting the evidence and, not surprisingly, to making use of other fallacies in “defense” of their position. As such, a Democrat reading this is most likely certain that the Republicans are to blame, while a Republican reading this is probably sure that this trouble is all the fault of the Democrats.

Even if people were willing and able to push through the in-group bias and resist the lure of the group think fallacy, there would still be a challenge in assigning responsibility. One reason for this is the matter of value. In the case at hand, a key question is whether it is worth shutting down the government to try to get what one wants (or to deny the other people what they want). Both the Democrats and Republicans have agreed that it is worth doing so—the Democrats refused to go along with the Republicans and the Republicans refused to cooperate with the Democrats. This leaves the question of whether one of them has it right. This, of course, leads to the debate over values and both sides can sincerely believe that they are in the right. This leads to the classic question of whether such values are objective or subjective. If they are objective, at least one side is in the wrong. If values are subjective, then they could both be in the right, albeit meaningless so. After all, if everyone is right, then right means nothing.

As far as who I blame, my inclination is to place most of it on Trump. Both the Democrats and the Republicans worked together on a compromise, but Trump rejected it and seems to be engaged in yet another twitter tantrum. But, of course, my perception is shaded by my biases.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter


Health Workers & Moral Objections I: Procedures

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 19, 2018

Embed from Getty Images

The Trump administration plans to modify the Health and Human Services (HHS) civil rights office to protect health care workers who have moral or religious objections to performing certain medical procedures or treating certain patients. As should be expected, the focus of concern is mainly on abortion and transgender patients. Two of the general moral issues raised by this situation are whether health workers have the moral right to refuse certain services and whether they have the right to refuse to treat certain patients based on the identity of the patients.

While some might, perhaps while thinking of abortion rights, automatically conclude that health care workers have no moral right to refuse services, this would be far to hasty. After all, entering a profession does not entail that a person surrenders their moral rights or conscience. To think otherwise would be to embrace the discredited notion that just following orders or just doing one’s job provides a blanket moral excuse for one’s professional actions. As such, since health care workers are morally accountable for their actions, they also retain the moral agency and freedom needed to ground that accountability.

But, this moral coin has another side—entering a profession, especially in the field of health, also comes with moral and professional responsibilities. These responsibilities can, like all responsibilities, can justly impose burdens. For example, doctors are not permitted to instantly abandon patients they dislike or because they want to move to a better paying position. As such, ethics of a health worker refusing to perform a procedure based on their moral or religious views requires that each procedure be reviewed to determine whether it is one that a health care worker can justly refuse or one that is a justly imposed burden.

To illustrate, consider a doctor who is asked to keep prisoners conscious and alive during torture performed by agents of the state. Most doctors, like most people, would have moral objections to being involved in torture. However, there is the question of whether this would be something they should be morally expected to do as part of their profession. On the face of it, since the purpose of the medical profession is to heal and alleviate suffering (a professional ethics that goes back to the origin of western medicine) this is not something that a doctor is obligated to do even in the face of moral objections. In fact, the ethics of the profession would dictate against engaging in this behavior.

Now, imagine a health care worker who has sincere religious or moral beliefs that when a person can no longer sustain their life on their own, they must be released to God. As such, the worker refuses to engage in procedures that violate their principles, such as keeping a patient on life support. While this could be a sincerely held belief, it seems to run counter to the ethics of the profession. As such, such a health care worker would seem to not have the right to refuse such services.

One could even imagine very extreme cases—after all there is no requirement to prove that sincerely held religious belief is true, one must only be convincing in one’s alleged sincerity. For example, imagine a health care worker who has a sincere religious belief that a patient must prove themselves worthy in the eyes of God by surviving with only the most basic care; anything beyond that is an affront to God’s will: the patient will survive if God wants them to and humans should not interfere with this. Obviously enough, such workers’ views would not be accepted as justifying their actions—they should seek another profession if they cannot do their jobs.

Turning back to services like abortion and gender transition, the issue would be whether these are more like asking a medical worker to participate in torture or more like expecting a medical worker to provide normal medical services. As should be expected, this is a central point of the dispute. Those who oppose abortion will make the moral argument that performing abortion is as bad or worse than abetting torture—it does, after all, involve killing a living entity. Those who are pro-choice will contend that it is a medical procedure like any other. I must admit that I do not have a compelling argument to change any minds on this matter.

In the case of gender transition, there can be no appeal to concerns about killing. Rather, a person must appeal to the view that people should not modify their sex and should simply accept what they were born with. This seems to be more like my imaginary case of a health care worker who believes that people must prove themselves worthy in the eyes of God than like the torture case, especially if someone takes the view that God wants people to stick with their original sex. That said, it could be argued that such modifications are wrong in the same way that non-restorative cosmetic surgery is wrong—after all, both aim to allow a person to be as they envision themselves to be. I do not, however, want to claim that the transitional process is as trivial as a face lift. Once again, I do not think I have a compelling argument here that will change any minds.

While I do not think I will change minds about abortion and such, I do think that the matter of moral objections needs to be given due consideration. It is easy to simply embrace one’s unreflecting views without considering the possibility of error. In my next essay I’ll turn to the issue of whether health workers have the moral right to refuse services based on the identity of the patient, such as their being transgender or Christian.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Institutions & Evil

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 17, 2018

Embed from Getty Images

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) introduced the alignment system to the gaming world. This system, though regarded by many players as restrictive and artificial, offered a degree of guidance on how to play good, evil, lawful, chaotic and neutral characters. This system has also proven useful in the real world, allowing gaming nerds like me to quickly categorize actions and people. This system is also rather useful for mapping the current political landscape of America.

A key component of any society is its institutions. In the United States these institutions include the systems that constitute the government such as Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These institutions are used to maintain (or impose, if you prefer) order. While it is tempting to mistake order for goodness, D&D makes a clear distinction between lawful and good—a distinction long recognized by philosophers. In the D&D alignment system, creatures can be lawful (as opposed to chaotic or neutral) but also evil at the same time. Good creatures can be chaotic or neutral; thus rejecting the constraints of law and order.  Evil creatures that are not lawful also have the option to be chaotic or neutral. While chaotic good and neutral good creatures will support (or at least not harm) good institutions of order and law, evil creatures that are not lawful are generally willing to harm evil institutions of order and law—as will be seen, they care not for order.

The alignment most vehemently opposed to order and institutions of order is chaotic evil. Chaotic Evil is defined this way:

A chaotic evil character does whatever his greed, hatred, and lust for destruction drive him to do. He is hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable. If he is simply out for whatever he can get, he is ruthless and brutal. If he is committed to the spread of evil and chaos, he is even worse. Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized. Typically, chaotic evil people can be made to work together only by force, and their leader lasts only as long as he can thwart attempts to topple or assassinate him.

In the real world, chaotic evil types are generally involved with institutions from the outside and this is typically an adversarial role. For example, a person who is actively chaotic evil will tend to run afoul of law enforcement. Chaotic evil types can be useful to institutions—for example, terrorist groups find this sort of person useful as a suicide bomber or cannon fodder. If a chaotic evil person holds power in an institution, either or both will tend to fare poorly—such types tend to either destroy or be destroyed by the forces of order. Be they good or evil.

Neutral evil beings can operate within institutions far better than chaotic evil types. Neutral evil is defined this way

A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusion that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.

While chaotic evil types can be like wild beasts assailing order or beastly idiots within the china shop of society, neutral evil types tend to be like parasites within a host. While institutions sensibly regard neutral evil types as a dangerous enemy, neutral evil people often find institutions very useful as means to their own selfish ends. For example, a neutral evil person who secured a political office would use it to enrich themselves at the expense of the institution and the people they are supposed to serve. Sensible neutral evil types are careful to not kill their host—at least for as long as they need it. They can even seem to serve order by exposing or destroying other neutral evil people. But this is also from selfishness-they do not value order for its own sake, they merely dislike having competition.

As should be surmised from the name, lawful evil creatures favor institutions of order and law. D&D defines lawful evil this way:

 A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

In the real world, lawful evil people find happy homes in institutions. In some cases, they make up most of the leaders of the institution and rely on non-evil, but lawful, followers to implement their evil. In fiction, the Empire of Star Wars is a paradigm case of lawful evil. In the real world, Nazi Germany is often presented as a paradigm of lawful evil. While these examples are clear cases of evil, most governments tend to have strong lawful evil components. For example, the legal acceptance and state enforcement of slavery in the United States was a paradigm case of lawful evil.

Lawful evil people, as the description suggests, can appear to be good people—or at least to have virtues. For example, a lawful person in the real world might work for law enforcement and be a paradigm of loyalty, a respecter of tradition and a stickler for rules as they systematically oppress people of a certain ethnicity or religion within their society. They are a paragon of law, but not of goodness.

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.

The paragon of lawful evil is just this sort of person and the most dangerous villain of all, for they are not content with mere selfishness nor are they merely bringers of chaos. Rather they forge institutions of evil or corrupt existing institutions. This allows for systematic, large scale evil that is easily perceived by good—even by the lawful evil themselves.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Dark Mirror’s USS Callister: A Star Trek Story

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 3, 2018

Jesse Plemons, right, in the “USS Callister” episode of ‘Black Mirror.’ Netflix

Having grown up on Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, I really enjoyed Black Mirror episode ‘USS Callister.’ Being a philosopher, I rather enjoyed reading various thought pieces on the work and decided to add my own tribble to the heap. If you have not seen the episode, there are obviously spoilers ahead.

Much like the brilliant Star Trek lampoon Galaxy Quest, ‘USS Callister’ begins with what appears to be a Trek clone overstuffed with overacting and delightful cheese. Captain Daly, a Kirk-like figure, leads his diverse and adoring crew in a battle against a Khan like villain (complete with a recreation of a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Under the slice of cheese is a true horror: The USS Callister is within a virtual reality game controlled by Robert Daly and the other “players” are self-aware digital clones of his co-workers.

Daly has powers in the game comparable to Charlie X of Star Trek (including the ability to transform a victim’s face into a mask of unbroken flesh) and uses them to control the controls, forcing them to play the game with him. Since Daly’s coworkers treat him rather badly, it is initially tempting to feel some sympathy for him, but it is revealed that Daly cloned and spaced (putting out an airlock without a suit) the son of his boss. Daly also transforms cloned female co-workers into large alien bugs which horrifically retain their intelligence.

Daly seals his own fate when he digitally clones his newest co-worker, Nanette, and forces her to play the game. To make an excellent story short, digital Nanette leads the crew in a successful rebellion against Daly aided, unwittingly, by the original Nanette.

Jenna Scherer, of Rolling Stone, makes an excellent case that the episode is a criticism of the sort of toxic fandom that has spewed its hate at the fact that the captain’s chair has been increasingly available to people who are not straight, white males. I certainly agree that the episode does just that. However, I also contend that it is a Star Trek story, albeit crafted to avoid lawsuits from the corporate masters of Star Trek. I think this might be a point worth making since I see it as important to distinguish the episode’s criticism of toxic fandom from what seems to be a sincere commitment to the values of classic Star Trek. Making this case requires considering what it is to be a Star Trek story.

The easy and obvious (and legalistic) answer is that a Star Trek story is one that occurs within the Star Trek universe as defined by the corporation that owns the property. While legally sound, this is not satisfying from a philosophical standpoint. Setting aside the legal concerns, another easy way to define such a story is in terms of the setting—that is, a story in the Star Trek universe is thus a Star Trek story. That is also unsatisfying—merely having the Federation, Klingons and such does not seem to suffice—for there is more to a true Star Trek story than just the setting, props and inhabitants. There is the intangible “feel” of a Star Trek story as well as the values inherent to such a story. Since an entire book could be written about this, I am forced to stick with a few quick points that are especially relevant to ‘USS Callister.’

One underlying theme of Star Trek is the dual nature of humanity’s relation to technology. On the one hand, Star Trek is fundamentally optimistic about technology—warp technology allows starships to explore the galaxy and advances in technology have freed the Federation from economic oppression. On the other hand, Star Trek also explores the threat technology presents in terms of its potential for abuse. The Borg are, of course, the paradigm example of the dangerous side to technology. While ‘USS Callister’ might seem to be entirely on the dark side of technology, the ending is optimistic—the digital clones are fully people and, at the end, set out to have their own life in the vast universe of the game.

Star Trek, especially the original series, also placed an emphasis on rational problem solving and teamwork. The model was, of course, a strong captain leading a competent crew of decent people. While this is not unique to Star Trek, this model was carefully followed by the episode: as in many classic Star Trek episodes, crew members made essential contributions to the success of the plan—and, of course, the diversity of the crew is a key part of their strength.

Most importantly, Star Trek also advanced a set of moral principles, as exemplified by the rules and laws of the Federation and Star Fleet. In the episode “Captain Daly” speaks of the values of Space Fleet, but often uses them to justify inflicting worse horrors. For example, after defeating a co-worker he has cast as a villain, the “villain” begs Daly to kill him and thus free him. Daly cites the Space Fleet rules about not killing and instead has the “villain” locked in the brig—thus extending his torture. While it is tempting to see the episode as mocking the values of Star Trek by having a Kirk-like figure mouthing them while grotesquely violating their spirit, this is what contributes the most to making it a Star Trek story. Daly is not Kirk exposed. Daly is, rather, another example of a classic Star Trek villain type: a Star Fleet captain gone bad. In ‘The Omega Glory’ Captain Tracey, commander of the Exeter, violates the Federation’s Prime Directive and ends up committing mass murder and fighting Kirk in order to secure what he hopes is the secret to immortality. While Daly is obviously modeled on Kirk, he is most like Captain Tracey: someone who has professed his love for his ideals, but who abandons them for his own selfish desires when pushed into a crisis. Daly thus shows the irony of the toxic fan—they are acting in violation of the very principles they profess to embrace.

Digital Nanette and her fellows, in contrast, act in accord with the classic values of Star Trek—they act with courage and are willing to make great sacrifices for each other. Appropriately enough, at the end of the episode Nanette is the captain of the USS Callister—a position she has earned. While Daly and the toxic fans might fancy themselves captains, they are the villains. Which is, of course, also a feature of classic Trek: the moral lesson.

Upon their escape from Daly’s private game, the crew’s uniforms and the ship are upgraded to a modern style (like that of the new Star Trek movies). While it might be tempting to see this as a condemnation of classic Star Trek, it can be a metaphor of how the moral goodness of classic Trek is still relevant today, though it was clearly best to leave behind the miniskirts. So, it is reasonable to see ‘USS Callister’ as praising the good of Star Trek while, at the same time, criticizing toxic fandom.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.



My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Disasters & Lying

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Tagged with: ,

A Philosopher’s Blog 2016 Free on December 24

Posted in Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2017
Tagged with: ,

Will AI Violate Copyrights?

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Tax Cuts & Employment

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Tagged with: ,