A Philosopher's Blog

July 4th

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2015

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Robot Love I: Other Minds

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 3, 2015

Thanks to improvements in medicine humans are living longer and can be kept alive well past the point at which they would naturally die. On the plus side, longer life is generally (but not always) good. On the downside, this longer lifespan and medical intervention mean that people will often need extensive care in their old age. This care can be a considerable burden on the caregivers. Not surprisingly, there has been an effort to develop a technological solution to this problem, specifically companion robots that serve as caregivers.

While the technology is currently fairly crude, there is clearly great potential here and there are numerous advantages to effective robot caregivers. The most obvious are that robot caregivers do not get tired, do not get depressed, do not get angry, and do not have any other responsibilities. As such, they can be ideal 24/7/365 caregivers. This makes them superior in many ways to human caregivers who get tired, get depressed, get angry and have many other responsibilities.

There are, of course, some concerns about the use of robot caregivers. Some relate to such matters as their safety and effectiveness while others focus on other concerns. In the case of caregiving robots that are intended to provide companionship and not just things like medical and housekeeping services, there are both practical and moral concerns.

In regards to companion robots, there are at least two practical concerns regarding the companion aspect. The first is whether or not a human will accept a robot as a companion. In general, the answer seems to be that most humans will do so.

The second is whether or not the software will be advanced enough to properly read a human’s emotions and behavior in order to generate a proper emotional response. This response might or might not include conversation—after all, many people find non-talking pets to be good companions. While a talking companion would, presumably, need to eventually be able to pass the Turing Test, they would also need to pass an emotion test—that is, read and respond correctly to human emotions. Since humans often botch this, there would be a fairly broad tolerable margin of error here. These practical concerns can be addressed technologically—it is simply a matter of software and hardware. Building a truly effective companion robot might require making them very much like living things—the comfort of companionship might be improved by such things as smell, warmth and texture. That is, to make the companion appeal to all the senses.

While the practical problems can be solved with the right technology, there are some moral concerns with the use of robot caregiver companions. Some relate to people handing off their moral duties to care for their family members, but these are not specific to robots. After all, a person can hand off the duties to another person and this would raise a similar issue.

In regards to those specific to a companion robot, there are moral concerns about the effectiveness of the care—that is, are the robots good enough that trusting the life of an elderly or sick human would be morally responsible? While that question is important, a rather intriguing moral concern is that the robot companions are a deceit.

Roughly put, the idea is that while a companion robot can simulate (fake) human emotions via cleverly written algorithms to respond to what its “emotion recognition software” detects, these response are not genuine. While a robot companion might say the right things at the right times, it does not feel and does not care. It merely engages in mechanical behavior in accord with its software. As such, a companion robot is a deceit and such a deceit seems to be morally wrong.

One obvious response is that people would realize that the robot does not really experience emotions, yet still gain value from its “fake” companionship. To use an analogy, people often find stuffed animals to be emotional reassuring even though they are well aware that the stuffed animal is just fabric stuffed with fluff. What matters, it could be argued, is the psychological effect—if someone feels better with a robotic companion around, then that is morally fine. Another obvious analogy is the placebo effect: medicine need not be real in order to be effective.

It might be objected that there is still an important moral concern here: a robot, however well it fakes being a companion, does not suffice to provide the companionship that a person is morally entitled to. Roughly put, people deserve people, even when a robot would behave in ways indistinguishable from a human.

One way to reply to this is to consider what it is about people that people deserve. One reasonable approach is to build on the idea that people have the capacity to actually feel the emotions that they display and that they actually understand. In philosophical terms, humans have (or are) minds and robots (of the sort that will be possible in the near future) do not have minds. They merely create the illusion of having a mind.

Interestingly enough, philosophers (and psychologists) have long dealt with the problem of other minds. The problem is an epistemic one: how does one know if another being has a mind (thoughts, feelings, beliefs and such)? Some thinkers (which is surely the wrong term given their view) claimed that there is no mind, just observable behavior. Very roughly put, being in pain is not a mental state, but a matter of expressed behavior (pain behavior). While such behaviorism has been largely abandoned, it does survive in a variety of jokes and crude references to showing people some “love behavior.”

The usual “solution” to the problem is to go with the obvious: I think that other people have minds by an argument from analogy. I am aware of my own mental states and my behavior and I engage in analogical reasoning to infer that those who act as I do have similar mental states. For example, I know how I react when I am in pain, so when I see similar behavior in others I infer that they are also in pain.

I cannot, unlike some politicians, feel the pain of others. I can merely make an inference from their observed behavior. Because of this, there is the problem of deception: a person can engage in many and various forms of deceit. For example, a person can fake being in pain or make a claim about love that is untrue. Piercing these deceptions can sometimes be very difficult since humans are often rather good at deceit. However, it is still (generally) believed that even a deceitful human is still thinking and feeling, albeit not in the way he wants people to believe he is thinking and feeling.

In contrast, a companion robot is not thinking or feeling what it is displaying in its behavior, because it does not think or feel. Or so it is believed. The reason that a person would think this seems reasonable: in the case of a robot, we can go in and look at the code and the hardware to see how it all works and we will not see any emotions or thought in there. The robot, however complicated, is just a material machine, incapable of thought or feeling.

Long before robots, there were thinkers who claimed that a human is a material entity and that a suitable understanding of the mechanical workings would reveal that emotions and thoughts are mechanical states of the nervous system. As science progressed, the explanations of the mechanisms became more complex, but the basic idea remained. Put in modern terms, the idea is that eventually we will be able to see the “code” that composes thoughts and emotions and understand the hardware it “runs” on.

Should this goal be achieved, it would seem that humans and suitably complex robots would be on par—both would engage in complex behavior because of their hardware and software. As such, there would be no grounds for claiming that such a robot is engaged in deceit or that humans are genuine. The difference would merely be that humans are organic machines and robots are not.

It can, and has, been argued that there is more to a human person than the material body—that there is a mind that cannot be instantiated in a mere machine. The challenge is a very old one: proving that there is such a thing as the mind. If this can be established and it can be shown that robots cannot have such a mind, then robot companions would always be a deceit.

However, they might still be a useful deceit—going back to the placebo analogy, it might not matter whether the robot really thinks or feels. It might suffice that the person thinks it does and this will yield all the benefits of having a human companion.

 

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Does the Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage Infringe on Religious Liberty?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2015

In June, 2015 the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legality of same-sex marriage. Many states had already legalized same-sex marriages and a majority of Americans think it should be legal. As such, the ruling seems to be consistent both with the constitution and with the democratic ideal of majority rule. There are, of course, those who object to the ruling.

Some claim that the court acted in a way contrary to the democratic rule by engaging in judicial activism. Not surprisingly, some of those who make this claim were fine when the court ruled in ways they liked, despite the general principles being the same (that is, the court ruling in ways contrary to what voters had decided). I certainly do see the appeal of principle and consistent arguments against the Supreme Court engaging in activism and overruling what the voters have decided and there is certainly some merit in certain arguments against the same-sex marriage decision. However, my concern here is with another avenue of dissent against the decision, namely that this ruling infringes on religious liberty.

The argument from religious liberty is certainly an interesting one. On intriguing aspect is that the argument is made in terms of religious liberty rather than the older tactic of openly attacking gay folks for alleged moral wickedness. This change of tactic seems to show a recognition that a majority of Americans accept their fellow gay Americans and that shouting “fags” at gays is no longer acceptable in polite society. As such, the tactic acknowledges a changed world. This change also represents clever rhetoric: the intent is not to deny gay folks their rights, but to protect religious liberty. Protecting liberty certainly sells better than denying rights. While protecting liberty is certainly commendable, the obvious question is whether or not the legalization of same-sex marriage infringes on religious liberty.

In general, there are two ways to infringe on a liberty. The first is by forbiddance. That is, preventing a person from exercising a freedom. For example, the liberty of free expression can be infringed by preventing a person from freely expressing her ideas. The second is by force. This is a matter of compelling a person to take action against their free choice. For example, having a law that require people to dress a certain way when they do not wish to do so. Since some people consider entitlements to fall under liberties, another way a person could have liberty infringed upon is to be denied her entitlements. For example, the liberty of education in the United States entitles children to a public education.

It is important to note that not all cases of forbidding or forcing are violations of liberties. This is because there are legitimate grounds for limiting liberties—the usual ground being the principle of harm. For example, it is not a violation of a person’s liberty to prevent him from texting death threats to his ex-wife. As another example, it is not a violation of a person’s liberty to require her to have a license to drive a car.

Given this discussion, for the legalization of same-sex marriage to impose on religious liberty would require that it wrongfully forbids religious people from engaging in religious activities, wrongfully forces religious people to engage in behavior contrary to their religion or wrongfully denies religious people entitlements connected to their religion.

The third one is the easiest and quickest to address: there does not seem to be any way that the legalization of same-sex marriage denies religious people entitlements connected to their religion. While I might have not considered all the possibilities, I will move on to the first two.

On the face of it, the legalization of same-sex marriage does not seem to wrongfully forbid religious people from engaging in religious activities. To give some examples, it does not forbid people from praying, attending religious services, saying religious things, or doing anything that they are not already free to do.

While some people have presented slippery slope “arguments” that this legalization will lead to such forbiddances, there is nothing in the ruling that indicates this or even mentions anything remotely like this. As with all such arguments, the burden of proof rests on those who claim that there will be this inevitable or probable slide. While inter-faith and inter-racial marriage are different matters, allowing these to occur was also supposed to lead to terrible things. None of these happened, which leads one to suspect that the doomsayers will be proven wrong yet again.

But, of course, if a rational case can be made linking the legalization of same-sex marriage to these violations of religious liberty, then it would be reasonable to be worried. However, the linkage seems to be a matter of psychological fear rather than logical support.

It also seems that the legalization of same-sex marriage does not force religious people to wrongfully engage in behavior contrary to their religion. While it is legal for same-sex couples to marry, this does not compel people to become gay and then gay-marry someone else who is (now) gay. Religious people are not compelled to like, approve of or even feel tolerant of same-sex marriage. They are free to dislike, disapprove, and condemn it. They are free to try to amend the Constitution to forbid same-sex marriage.

It might be argued that religious people are compelled to allow other people to engage in behavior that is against their professed religious beliefs and this is a violation of religious freedom. The easy and obvious reply is that allowing other people to engage in behavior that is against one’s religion is not a violation of one’s religious liberty. This is because religious liberty is not the liberty to impose one’s religion on others, but the liberty to practice one’s religion.

The fact that I am at liberty to eat pork and lobster is not a violation of the religious liberty of Jews and Muslims. The fact that women can go out in public with their faces exposed is not a violation of the religious liberty of Muslims. The fact that people can have religions other than Christianity is not a violation of the religious liberty of Christians. As such, the fact that same-sex couples can legally marry does not violate the religious liberty of anyone.

It might be objected that it will violate the religious liberty of some people. Some have argued that religious institutions will be compelled to perform same-sex weddings (as they might be compelled to perform inter-racial or inter-faith marriages). This, I would agree, would be a violation of their religious liberty and liberty of conscience. Private, non-commercial organizations have every right to discriminate and exclude—that is part of their right of freedom of non-association. Fortunately, the legalization of same-sex marriage does not compel such organizations to perform these marriages. If it did, I would certainly oppose that violation of religious liberty.

It might also be objected that people in government positions would be required to issue same-sex marriage licenses, perform the legal act of marrying a same-sex couple, or recognize the marriage of a same-sex couple. People at the IRS would even be compelled to process the tax forms of same-sex couples.

The conflict between conscience and authority is nothing new and philosophers have long addressed this matter. Thoreau, for example, argued that people should follow their conscience and disobey what they regard as unjust laws.

This does have considerable appeal and I certainly agree that morality trumps law in terms of what a person should do. That is, I should do what is right, even if the law requires that I do evil. This view is a necessary condition for accepting that laws can be unjust or immoral, which is certainly something I accept. Because of this, I do agree that a person whose conscience forbids her from accepting same-sex marriage has the moral right to refuse to follow the law. That said, the person should resign from her post in protest rather than simply refusing to follow the law—as an official of the state, the person does have an obligation to perform her job and must choose between keeping that job and following her conscience. Naturally, a person also has the right to try to change what she regards as an immoral law.

I have the same view in regards to people who see interracial marriage as immoral: they should follow the dictates of their conscience and not take a job that would require them to, for example, issue marriage licenses. However, their right to their liberty of conscience does not override the rights of other citizens to marry. That is, their liberty does not morally warrant denying the liberty of others.

It could be argued that same-sex marriage should be opposed because it is objectively morally wrong and that even officials should do so on this ground. This line of reason does have a certain appeal—what is objectively wrong should be opposed, even if it is the law and even by officials. For example, when slavery was legal in the United States it should have been opposed by everyone, even officials of the state. But, arguing against same-sex marriage on moral grounds is a different matter from arguing against it on the grounds that it allegedly violates religious liberty.

It could be argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage will violate the religious liberty of people in businesses such as baking wedding cakes, planning weddings, photographing weddings and selling wedding flowers.

The legalization of same-sex marriage does not, by itself, forbid businesses from refusing to do business involving a same-sex marriage. Legal protection against that sort of discrimination is another, albeit related, matter. This sort of discrimination has also been defended on the grounds of freedom of expression, which I have addressed at length in other essays.

In regards to religious liberty, a business owner certainly has the right to not sell certain products or provide certain services that go against her religion. For example, a Jewish restaurant owner has the liberty to not serve pork. A devout Christian who owns a bookstore has the liberty to not stock the scriptures of other faiths or books praising same-sex marriage. An atheist t-shirt seller has the liberty to not stock any shirts displaying religious symbols. These are all matters of religious liberty.

I would also argue that religious liberty allows business owners to refuse to create certain products or perform certain services. For example, a Muslim free-lance cartoonist has the right to refuse to draw cartoons of Muhammad. As another example, an atheist baker has the right to refuse to create a cake with a cross and quotes from scripture.

That said, religious liberty does not seem to grant a business owner the right to discriminate based on her religion. For example, a Muslim who owns a car dealership has no right to refuse to sell cars to women (or women who refuse to fully cover themselves). As another example, a militant homosexual who owns a bakery has no right to refuse to sell cakes to straight people.

Thus, it would seem that the legalization of same-sex marriage does not violate religious liberty.

 

 

 

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Narratives, Terror & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2015

After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.

The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.

Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.

One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.

This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.

An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.

It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.

One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.

The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.

It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.

In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.

 

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Race Nominalism

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 19, 2015

As it is wont to do, the internet exploded again—this time because the question was raised as to whether Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, is black or white. Ms. Dolezal has claimed that she is African-American, Native American and white. She also has claimed that her father is black. Reporters at KXLY-TV, however, looked up her birth certificate and determined that her legal parents are both white. Her parents have asserted that she is white.

While the specifics of her case are certainly interesting to many, my concern is with the more general issues raised by this situation, specifically matters about race and identity. While this situation is certainly the best known case of a white person trying to pass for black, passing as another “race” has been a common practice in the United States for quite some time. However, this passing was the reverse of Ms. Dolezal’s attempt: trying to pass as white. Since being accepted as white enables a person to avoid many disadvantages, it is clear why people would attempt to pass as white. Since being accepted as black generally does not confer advantages, it is not surprising that there has been only one known case of a white person endeavoring to pass as black. These matters raise some interesting questions and issues about race.

Borrowing language from metaphysics, one approach to race could be called race realism. This is not being realistic about race in the common use of the term “realistic.” Rather, it is accepting that race is a real feature of reality—that is, the metaphysical and physical reality includes categories of race. On this view, black and white could be real categories grounded in metaphysical and physical reality. As such, a person could be objectively black or white (or a mix). Naturally, even if there are real categories of race, people could be wrong about them.

The stark alternative is what could be called race nominalism. This is the idea that racial categories are social constructs and do not line up with an underlying metaphysical and physical reality. This is because there is no underlying metaphysical and physical reality that objectively grounds racial categories. Instead, categories of race are social constructs. In this case, a person might engage in self-identification in regards to race and this might or might not be accepted by others. A person might also have others place her into a race category—which she might or might not accept.

Throughout history, some people have struggled mightily to find an objective basis for categories of race. Before genetics, people had to make use of appearance and ancestry. The ancestry was, obviously, needed because people did not always look like the race category that some people wanted them to be in. One example of this is the “one drop” rule once popular in some parts of the United States: one drop of black blood made a person black, regardless of appearance.

The discovery of genes provided some people with a new foundation for race categories—they believed that there would be a genetic basis to categorizations. The idea was that just as a human can be distinguished from a cat by genes, humans of different race categories could be distinguished by their genetic make-up. While humans do show genetic variations that are often linked to the geographical migration and origin of their many ancestors, the much desired race genes did not seem to be found. That is, humans (not surprisingly) are all humans with some minor genetic variations—that is, the variations are not sufficient to objectively ground race categories.

In general, the people who quested for objective foundations for race categories were (or are) racists. These searches typically involved trying to find evidence of the superiority of one’s race and the inferiority of other races. That said, a person could look for foundations for race without being a racist—that is, they could be engaged in a scientific or philosophical inquiry rather than seeking to justify social practices and behaviors. As might be suspected, such an inquiry would be greeted today with charges of racism. As such, it is no surprise that the generally accepted view is that race is a construct—that is, race nominalism rather than race realism is accepted.

Given the failure to find a metaphysical or physical foundation for race categories, it certainly makes sense to embrace race nominalism. On this view, the categories of race exist only in the mind—that is, they are how people divide up reality rather than how reality is carved up. Even if it is accepted that race is a social construct, there is still the matter of the rules of construction—that is, how the categories are created and how people are placed in the categories.

One approach, which is similar to that sometimes taken in regards to gender, is to hold that people can self-identify. That is, a person can simply declare her race and this is sufficient to be in that category. If race categories are essentially made up, this does have a certain appeal—if race is a fiction, then surely anyone can be the author of her own fiction.

While there are some who do accept this view, the outrage over Ms. Dolezal shows that most people seem to reject the idea of self-identification—at least when a white person endeavors to self-identify as black. Interestingly, some of those condemning her do defend the reverse, the historical passing as white by some black people. The defense is certainly appealing: blacks endeavoring to pass as white were doing so to move from being in an oppressed class and this can be justified as a form of self-defense. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, the presumption seems to be that the self-identification was both insincere and aimed at personal gain. Regardless of her true motivation, insincere self-identification aimed at personal gain seems to be wrong—on the grounds that it is a malign deception. Some might, of course, regard all attempts at passing to gain an advantage as being immoral and not distinguish based on the direction of the passing.

Another approach is that of the social consensus. The idea is that a person’s membership in a race category depends on the acceptance of others. This could be a matter of majority acceptance (one is, for example, black if most people accept one as black) or acceptance by a specific group or social authority. The obvious problem is working out what group or authority has the right to decide membership in race categories. On the one hand, this very notion seems linked to racism: one probably thinks of the KKK setting its race categories or the Nazis doing so. On the other hand, groups also seem to want to serve as the authority for their race category. Consistency might indicate that this would also be racist.

The group or authority that decides membership in race categories might make use of a race credential system to provide a basis for their decisions. That is, they might make use of appearance and ancestry. So, Ms. Dolezal would not be black because she looks white and has white parents. The concern with this sort of approach is that this is the same tool set used by racists, such as the KKK, to divide people by race. A more philosophical concern is the basis for using appearance and ancestry as the foundation for race categories—that is, what justifies their use?

This discussion does show an obvious concern with policing race categories—it seems like doing so uses the tools of racism and would thus seem to be at least a bit racist. However, arguments could be advanced as to why the policing of race categories is morally acceptable and not racist.

 

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Genetically Modified Food

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 15, 2015

While the majority of scientists believe that genetically modified foods (or, more accurately, crops and animals) are safe for human consumption, there is considerable opposition to these genetically modified organisms. As might be suspected, this matter is philosophically interesting.

There are two stock moral arguments against such “tampering.” One is the playing God argument in which it is claimed that such modification is playing God and it is then argued (or simply asserted) that humans should not play God. A closely related argument is the unnatural argument. This argument works somewhat like the playing God argument, but involves arguing that because such modifications are unnatural, they are morally wrong. Rousseau famously lamented the horrible impact of advances in the arts and sciences—and he was writing when the height of technology included the musket.

One stock reply to the playing God argument is to show that people have been “playing God” in a similar manner and that this is morally acceptable. While the ability to directly manipulate genes is relatively new, humans have been engaging in genetic engineering via selective breeding since the dawn of agriculture. This has been done with plants and animals, both for those raised for food and those kept for other purposes. For example, the various breeds of dogs are the result of human engineering via selective breeding. So, humans have been playing God a very long time and if dogs are morally okay, then genetically modified crops do not seem to be a special moral problem. To use an analogy, if it is okay to make houses and structures by hand, then using power tools and construction equipment would not seem to make modern building methods morally wrong—the technology is just better.

A stock reply to the unnatural argument is to show that what is allegedly unnatural does occur in nature. For those who believe in evolution, the process of natural selection functions as a natural “engineer”, leading to changes in species and the creation of new species. In the case of genetic engineering, humans are doing what nature does—only faster and with a purpose. If this seems to be playing God, this takes the matter back to the playing God argument.

There are those who argue against genetic modification of food sources on the grounds that such foods are dangerous. This can be a reasonable concern and it is certainly wise to confirm a modified food source is actually a safe source. As noted above, most scientists regard these modified food sources as safe for human consumption. This seems reasonable, provided that the food sources were tested for potential dangers, such as being toxic. Some people do express the concern that the modified genes will somehow get from modified food sources and change the genes of the people who eat them. Given the way digestion and genes work, this is extremely unlikely. After all, humans eat normal food that contains genetic material all the time, yet do not undergo mutation. For example, eating chicken does not cause a person to gain chicken genes. As such, genetically modified food sources do not seem to present a special danger, provided that they are tested to see if the modifications had an unintended and dangerous results (such as making the previously safe to eat plant poisonous to humans).

Some people are not especially worried about the genetic modifications themselves, but are worried about the use to which such modifications will be put by the agricultural corporations. This worry is not (in general) that corporations will make science fiction monsters. Rather, the concern is that the modifications will be used as a means to exploit farmers, especially those in developing countries, and to lock them into having to buy the seeds from the corporations year after year. For example, a company might develop a type of rice that can handle higher levels of salt and drier conditions very well and sell that to farmers who need such a plant because of the impact of climate change. Since the company owns the rights to the seeds, the farmers will need to buy from that company if they wish to keep growing rice.

In defense of the corporations, they could avail themselves of Locke’s argument: they are taking plants and animals from the common and “mixing their labor” with them, making these plants and animals their property. As such, they can insist on ownership rights and bring lawsuits against those who might, for example, try to create similar plants and animals. After all, one might argue, corporations have a right to make a profit and this right must be protected by the laws. It can also be argued that farmers can, in a free market, purchase seeds from another company. Surely, one might argue, farmers can easily find competing products at lower prices that are as good.

In any case, the corporation problem is not a problem inherent to genetic modification of food sources, but rather with the behavior of people. There are, in fact, researchers who are developing modified plants and animals that will be available to farmers and not owned by corporations.

Those who support genetically modified food sources do have a very good general argument. The argument is that genetic modification allows the creation of food sources that can solve various problems. As an example, a plant might be modified so that it can survive harsher environmental conditions than the original, while also being more resistant to pests and producing a greater crop yield. Since genetic engineering is faster, more reliable and more precise than the old method of selective breeding, it can produce positive results more effectively. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, genetic modification seems morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some potential harms in genetic modifications. While it is very unlikely that any science fiction disaster scenario will arise and play out, there is always the possibility of unintended consequences and these are worth considering—but in terms of their relative likelihood and not on the basis of the plots of bad science fiction.

 

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Gender Nominalism & Competition

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 12, 2015

In the previous essay I discussed gender nominalism—the idea that gender is not a feature of reality, but a social (or individual) construct. As such, a person falling within a gender class is a matter of naming rather than a matter of having objective features. In this essay I will not argue for (or against) gender nominalism. Rather, I will be discussing gender nominalism within the context of competition.

Being a runner, I will start with competitive sports. As anyone who has run competitively knows, males and females generally compete within their own sexes. So, for example, a typical road race will (at least) have awards for the top three males and also for the top three females. While individual males and females vary greatly in their abilities, males have a general physical advantage over females when it comes to running: the best male runner is significantly better than the best female runner and average male runners are also better than average female runners.

Given that males generally have an advantage over females in regards to running (and many other physical sports), it would certainly be advantageous for a male runner if the division was based on gender (rather than biological sex) and people could simply declare their genders. That is, a male could declare himself a woman and thus be more likely to do better relative to the competition. While there are those who do accept that people have the right to gender declare at will and that others are obligated to accept this, it seems clear that this would not be morally acceptable in sports.

The intent of dividing athletes by sex is to allow for a fairer completion. This same principle, that of fairer competition, is also used to justify age groups—as older runner knows, few things slow a person down like dragging many years.  Because of this, a runner could, in general, gain an advantage by making a declaration of age identity (typically older). Perhaps the person could claim that he has always been old on the inside and that to refuse to accept his age identification would be oppression. However, this would be absurd: declaring an age does not change the person’s ability to compete and would thus grant an unfair advantage. Likewise, allowing a male to compete as a woman (or girl) in virtue of gender identification would be unfair. The declaration would not, obviously, change the person’s anatomy and physiology.

There are, however, cases that are much more controversial and challenging. These include cases in which a person has undergone a change in anatomy. While these cases are important, they go beyond the intended scope of this essay, which is gender nominalism.

Some competitions do not divide the competitors by sex. These are typically competitions where the physical differences between males and females do not impact the outcome. Some examples include debate, chess, spelling bees and NASCAR. In these cases, males and females compete equally and hence the principle of fairness justifies the lack of sex divisions. Some of these competitions do have other divisions. For example, spelling bees do not normally pit elementary school students against high school students. In such competitions, gender identification would seem to be irrelevant. As such, competitors should be free to gender identify as they wish within the context of the competition.

Interestingly, there are competitions where there appear to be no sex-based advantages (in terms of physical abilities), yet there are gender divisions. There are competitions in literature, music, and acting that are divided by gender (and some are open only to one gender). There are also scholarships, fellowships and other academic awards that are open only to one gender (in the United States, these are often limited to woman).

Since being a biological male would seem to yield no advantage in such cases, the principle of fairness would not seem to apply. For example, the fact that males are generally larger and stronger would yield no advantage when it came to writing a novel, acting in a play, or playing a guitar. As such, it would seem that if people should be able to set their own gender identity, they should be able to do so for such competitions, thus enabling them to compete where they wish.

It could be argued that the principle of fairness would still apply—that biological males would still have an advantage even if they elected to identify as women for the competition. This advantage, it might be claimed, would be based in the socially constructed advantages that males possess. Naturally, it would need to be shown that a male that gender identifies as a woman for such competitions, such as getting a woman’s only scholarship, would still retain the (alleged) male advantage.

It could also be argued that the divisions are not based on a principle of fairness regarding advantages or disadvantages. Rather, the divisions are to given more people a chance of winning. This could be justified on the same grounds that justify having many categories. For example, there are awards for being the best actor in a supporting role, which exists to create another chance for an actor to win something. If a person could just gender declare and be eligible, then that would create an “imbalance”, much as allowing non-supporting actors to declare themselves supporting actors to get a shot at that award would be unfair.

Of course, this seems to assume that there is a justified distinction between the genders that would ground the claims of unfairness. That is, it would be as wrong for a male to win best actress as it would be for a female screenwriter who never acted to win best actress for her screenplay.  Or that it would be as bad for a male to get a scholarship intended for a woman as it would be for a football player who cannot do math to get a math scholarship. This approach, which would involve rejecting one form of gender nominalism (the version in which the individual gets to declare gender) is certainly an option. This would not, however, require accepting that gender is not a social construct—one could still be a gender nominalist of the sort that believes that gender classification is both a matter of individual declaration and acceptance by the “relevant community.” As such, the relevant communities could police their competitions. For example, those who dole out scholarships for woman can define what it is to be a woman, so as to prevent non-woman from getting those awards. This would, of course, seem to justify similar gender policing by society as a whole, which leads to some interesting problems about who gets to define gender identity. The usual answer people give is, of course, themselves.

 

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Better to be Nothing?

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 8, 2015

There is an old legend that king Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said these words, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this — to die soon.”

 

-Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

 

One rather good metaphysical question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” An interesting question in the realm of value is “is it better to be nothing rather than something?” That is, is it better “not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing?”

Addressing the question does require sorting out the measure of value that should be used to decide whether it is better to not exist or to exist. One stock approach is to use the crude currencies of pleasure and pain. A somewhat more refined approach is to calculate in terms of happiness and unhappiness. Or one could simply go generic and use the vague categories of positive value and negative value.

What also must be determined are the rules of the decision. For the individual, a sensible approach would be the theory of ethical egoism—that what a person should do is what maximizes the positive value for her. On this view, it would be better if the person did not exist if her existence would generate more negative than positive value for her. It would be better if the person did exist if her existence would generate more positive than negative value for her.

To make an argument in favor of never existing being better than existing, one likely approach is to make use of the classic problem of evil as laid out by David Hume. When discussing this matter, Hume contends that everyone believes that life is miserable and he lays out an impressive catalog of pains and evils. While he considers that pain is less frequent than pleasure, he notes that even if this is true, pain “is infinitely more violent and durable.” As such, Hume makes a rather good case that the negative value of existence outweighs its positive value.

If it is true that the negative value outweighs the positive value, and better is measured in terms of maximizing value, then it would thus seem to be better to have never existed. After all, existence will result (if Hume is right) in more pain than pleasure. In contrast, non-existence will have no pain (and no pleasure) for a total of zero. Doing the value math, since zero is greater than a negative value, never existing is better than existing.

There does seem to be something a bit odd about this sort of calculation. After all, if the person does not exist, then her pleasure and pain would not balance to zero. Rather it would seem that this sum would be an undefined value. It cannot be better for a person that she not exist, since there would (obviously) not be anyone for the nonexistence to be better for.

This can be countered by saying that this is but a semantic trick—the nonexistence would be better than the existence because of the relative balance of pleasure and pain. There is also another approach—to broaden the calculation from the individual to the world.

In this case, the question would not be about whether it would be better for the individual to exist or not, but whether or not a world with the individual would be better than a world without the individual. If a consequentialist approach is assumed, it is assumed that pain and pleasure are the measure of value and it is assumed that the pain outweighs the pleasure in every life, then the world would be better if a person never existed. This is because the absence of an individual would reduce the overall pain. Given these assumptions, a world with no humans at all would be a better world. This could be extended to its logical conclusion: if the suffering outweighs the pleasures in the case of all beings (Hume did argue that the suffering of all creatures exceeds their enjoyments), then it would be better that no feeling creatures existed at all. At this point, one might as well do away with existence altogether and have nothing. Thus, while it might not be known why there is something rather than nothing, this argument would seem to show that it would be better to have nothing rather than something.

Of course, this reasoning rests on many assumptions that can be easily challenged. It can be argued that the measure of value is not to be done solely in terms of pleasures and pains—that is, even if life resulted in more pain than pleasure, the overall positive value could be greater than the negative value. For example, the creation of art and the development of knowledge could provide value that outweighs the pain. It could also be argued that the consequentialist approach is in error—that estimating the worth of life is not just a matter of tallying up the negative and positive. There are, after all, many other moral theories regarding the value of existence. It is also possible to dispute the claim that pain exceeds pleasure (or that unhappiness exceeds happiness).

One could also take a long view—even if pain outweighs pleasure now, humans seem to be making a better world and advancing technology. As such, it is easy to imagine that a better world lies ahead and it depends on our existence. That is, if one looks beyond the pleasure and pain of one’s own life and considers the future of humanity, the overall balance could very well be that the positive outweighs the negative. As such, it would be better for a person to exist—assuming that she has a role in the causal chain leading to that ultimate result.

 

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Sex, Power, Professors & Students

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2015

In February of 2015 Laura Kipnis’ essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though perhaps potentially controversial in content, the essay was a rational and balanced consideration of the subject of campus codes regarding relationships between students and professors. In response to this essay, Kipnis was subjected to what she rightly calls a Title IX Inquisition.

While I will not be addressing the specifics of Kipnis’ essays, reading them caused me to consider the topic of university regulation of relations between professors and students. While the legal issues are certainly interesting, my main concern as a philosopher lies in the domain of ethics.

I will begin by getting the easy stuff out of the way. Since universities have an obligation to provide a safe environment conducive to learning, universities should have rules that forbid professors from sexually harassing students or pressuring them. Since universities also have an obligation to ensure that grades are assigned based on merit, they should also have rules that forbid exchanging goods or services (in this case, sexual services) in return for better grades. Crimes such as sexual assault and rape should be handled by the police—though universities should certainly have rules governing the employment of professors who are convicted of assaulting or raping anyone. Of course, since the professor would most likely be in prison, this would probably make continued employment rather difficult.

Somewhat less easy is the issue of whether or not universities should forbid consenting relationships between professors and students when the student is enrolled in the professor’s class or otherwise professionally under the professor (such as being an advisee, TA, or RA). There is certainly a legitimate concern about fairness. After all, if a student is sexually involved with a professor, then the student might have an unfair advantage relative to other students. I consider this to be distinct from the exchange of a grade for sexual favors—rather, this is a matter of such things as positive bias in favor of the student that results in special treatment. For example, that a professor might grade her boyfriend’s paper much easier than those of other students.

While sexual relations can lead to bias, these are not the only relations that can have this effect. A professor who is friends with a student or related to a student can be subject to bias in favor of that student (as distinct from pure nepotism in which grades are simply handed out based on the relationship). So, if the principle justifying  forbidding a professor from having a student in his class he has a relation with is based on the potential for bias, then students who are friends, relatives or otherwise comparably connected to the professor would also need to forbidden.

It can be argued that there is a relevant difference between sexual relations and non-sexual relations that would justify forbidding a professor from dating a student in her class, while still allowing her to have a friend or relative as a student. Alternatively, a university could simply place a general ban on professors having students with whom they have a potentially biasing relationship—be it sexual, platonic, or a family relationship. As a general policy, this does have some appeal on the grounds of fairness. It can, however, be countered on the grounds that a professional should be able to control her bias in regards to friends and family. This, of course, opens the door to the claim that a professional should also be able to control his bias in regards to a sexual relationship. However, many people would certainly be skeptical about that—and I recall from my own graduate school days the comments students would make about students who were sexual involved with their professor or TA. Put in polite terms, they expressed their skepticism about the fairness of the grading.

My considered view is a conditional one: if a professor can maintain her objectivity, then the unfairness argument would have no weight. However, there is the legitimate concern that some (or even many) professors could not maintain such objectivity, thus making such a general rule forbidding relationships justifiable. After all, rules limiting behavior are not crafted with the best people in mind, but those that are less than the best.

The fairness argument could not, of course, be used to justify forbidding professors from dating students who are not and will not be in their classes (or otherwise under them in a professional capacity). So, for example, if an engineering professor were to date an English Literature major who will never take any of the classes she teaches, then there would seem to be no basis in regards to fairness for forbidding this relationship. Since harassment and coercive relationships should be forbidden, there would thus seem to be no grounds for forbidding such a consensual relationship between two adults. However, there are those who argue that there are grounds for a general forbiddance.

There are, of course, practical reasons to have a general forbiddance of relationships between students and professors even when there is no coercion, no harassment, and no unfairness and so on. One reason is that relationships generally fail and often fail in dramatic ways—it could be problematic for a university to have such a dramatic failure play out on campus. Another reason is that such relationships can be a legal powder keg in terms of potential lawsuits against a university—as such, university administrators probably feel that their money and brand should be protected by forbidding any such relationships.

From a moral perspective, the concern is whether there are moral grounds for forbidding such relationships (other than, of course, a utilitarian argument about the potential for brand damage).

One stock argument is that there is always a power disparity between professors and students and this entails that all relationships are potentially coercive. Even if most professors would not consciously coerce a student, rules (as noted above) are not made for the best people. As such, the blanket ban on relationships is necessary to prevent any possibility of coercive relationships between students and professors.

It might be objected that a rule against coercive relationships would suffice and that if the professor has no professional relationship with the student, then they should be treated as adults. After all, the professor would seem to have no power at all over the student and coercion via professional position would not be a possibility. So, they should be free to have a relationship despite the worries of the “nanny” university.

It could be countered that a professor always has power over a student in virtue of being a professor—even when the professor has no professional relationship to the student. While a professor might have some “power” in regards to being older (usually), having some status, having more income (usually), and so on, these do not seem to be distinct from the “power” anyone could have over anyone else. That is, there seems to be nothing specific to being a professor that would give the professor power over the student that would make the relationship automatically coercive. As such, there would seem to be no grounds for forbidding the relationship.

It could be objected that students are vulnerable to the power of professors and lack the autonomy needed to resist this power. As such, the university must act in a paternalistic way and forbid all relationships—so as to protect the guileless, naïve and completely powerless students from the cunning, powerful predatory professors. This would be analogous to the laws that protect minors from adults—the minors cannot give informed consent. If college students are similarly vulnerable to professors, then the same sort of rule applies. Of course, if students are so vulnerable, then there should certainly be a reconsideration of the age of consent—increasing it to 23 might suffice. Then again, many students take six years to graduate, so perhaps it should be 24. There are also graduate students, so perhaps it should be extended to 30. Or even more—after all, a student could go to school at almost any age.

Unless it is assumed that students are powerless victims and professors are powerful predators, then a blanket ban on relationships seems morally unwarranted—at least on the grounds of forbidding relationships because of an assumption of coercion. However, there are other moral grounds for such rules—for example, a case can be made that dating students would be a violation of professionalism (on par with dating co-workers or clients). While the effect would be the same, the justification does seem to matter.

 

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Critical Thinking, Ethics & Science Journalism

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2015

As part of my critical thinking class, I cover the usual topics of credibility and experiments/studies. Since people often find critical thinking a dull subject, I regularly look for real-world examples that might be marginally interesting to students. As such, I was intrigued by John Bohannon’s detailed account of how he “fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.”

Bohannon’s con provides an excellent cautionary tale for critical thinkers. First, he lays out in detail how easy it is to rig an experiment to get (apparently) significant results. As I point out to my students, a small experiment or study can generate results that seem significant, but really are not. This is why it is important to have an adequate sample size—as a starter. What is also needed is proper control, proper selection of the groups, and so on.

Second, he provides a clear example of a disgraceful stain on academic publishing, namely “pay to publish” journals that do not engage in legitimate peer review. While some bad science does slip through peer review, these journals apparently publish almost anything—provided that the fee is paid. Since the journals have reputable sounding names and most people do not know which journals are credible and which are not, it is rather easy to generate a credible seeming journal publication. This is why I cover the importance of checking sources in my class.

Third, he details how various news outlets published or posted the story without making even perfunctory efforts to check its credibility. Not surprisingly, I also cover the media in my class both from the standpoint of being a journalist and being a consumer of news. I stress the importance of confirming credibility before accepting claims—especially when doing so is one’s job.

While Bohannon’s con does provide clear evidence of problems in regards to corrupt journals, uncritical reporting and consumer credulity, the situation does raise some points worth considering. One is that while he might have “fooled millions” of people, he seems to have fooled relative few journalists (13 out of about 5,000 reporters who subscribe to the Newswise feed Bohannon used) and these seem to be more of the likes of the Huffington Post and Cosmopolitan as opposed to what might be regarded as more serious health news sources. While it is not known why the other reporters did not run the story, it is worth considering that some of them did look at it critically and rejected it. In any case, the fact that a small number of reporters fell for a dubious story is hardly shocking. It is, in fact, just what would be expected given the long history of journalism.

Another point of concern is the ethics of engaging in such a con. It is possible to argue that Bohannon acted ethically. One way to do this is to note that using deceit to expose a problem can be justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, it seems morally acceptable for a journalist or police officer to use deceit and go undercover to expose criminal activity. As such, Bohannon could contend that his con was effectively an undercover operation—he and his fellows pretended to be the bad guys to expose a problem and thus his deceit was morally justified by the fact that it exposed problems.

One obvious objection to this is that Bohannon’s deceit did not just expose corrupt journals and incautious reporters. It also misinformed the audience who read or saw the stories. To be fair, the harm would certainly be fairly minimal—at worst, people who believed the story would consume dark chocolate and this is not exactly a health hazard. However, intentionally spreading such misinformation seems morally problematic—especially since story retractions or corrections tend to get far less attention than the original story.

One way to counter this objection is to draw an analogy to the exposure of flaws by hackers. These hackers reveal vulnerabilities in software with the stated intent of forcing companies to address the vulnerabilities. Exposing such vulnerabilities can do some harm by informing the bad guys, but the usual argument is that this is outweighed by the good done when the vulnerability is fixed.

While this does have some appeal, there is the concern that the harm done might not outweigh the good done. In Bohannon’s case it could be argued that he has done more harm than good. After all, it is already well-established that the “pay to publish” journals are corrupt, that there are incautious journalists and credulous consumers. As such, Bohannon has not exposed anything new—he has merely added more misinformation to the pile.

It could be countered that although these problems are well known, it does help to continue to bring them to the attention of the public. Going back to the analogy of software vulnerabilities, it could be argued that if a vulnerability is exposed, but nothing is done to patch it, then the problem should be brought up until it is fixed, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” Bohannon has certainly brought these problems into the spotlight and this might do more good than harm. If so, then this con would be morally acceptable—at least on utilitarian grounds.

 

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