A Philosopher's Blog

Philosophy & My Old Husky V: Goodbye Good Girl

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2016

isis-2016Isis, my husky, joined the pack in 2004. She was a year old and her soul was filled with a wildness and a love of destruction. I channeled that wildness into running and that (mostly) took care of her love of destruction as well. We ran together for years, until she could no longer run. Then we walked on our adventures—a stately saunter rather than a mad dash. One day in March, 2016 she collapsed and I thought that was the end. But steroids granted her a reprieve and our adventures continued. But, time ends all things.

As the months went by, she hit a plateau of recovery and then began a decline. She could not walk as far, she had to be supported while doing her business and she was sometimes confused about where she was. This worsened as November progressed—she required ever more support, walked ever less distance, and had trouble distinguishing between the outside and inside of the house. Since she was my dog and I was her human, I accepted all this. I stocked up on carpet cleaner and ran the steam cleaner regularly. Since she could not handle the smooth floors, I put down yoga mats for her—I had tried carpet runners, but they drink up the urine. Yoga mats can be hosed off, dried and put back in place.

Though she suffered a physical and mental decline, her will remained unimpaired. When she decided that she wanted to walk someplace, she would struggle with her weakened legs and force her way through vegetation and up hills. If she could not make it up a hill on her own, she would turn her head to look at me and would not move again until I supported her and allowed her to power up that hill. She had the spirit of a true runner; never giving up in the face of a challenge. In the face of time, however, will and love are not enough.

She suffered a sudden decline and completely lost her ability to walk. I would carry her to do her business, but even with my support she had great difficulty. On November 22, things got even worse and neither of us slept that night. I wanted her to make it through Thanksgiving (she loved turkey), but on the morning of the 23rd I saw the pain in her eyes and knew what had to be done. Courtney, a friend of mine from Maine, had sent us some Christmas dog bones and a dog toy. I unwrapped those and hand fed her, placing the toy between her paws. After we had our early Christmas, I carried her to the truck and drove to Oakwood Animal Hospital. While no one really knows what is in the heart of another, I could tell that she had absolute trust in me as I carried her into the office. She knew that I would, as I have always done, do the right thing for her.

Her regular vet was on duty and, after we talked, Isis was put on an IV. As the vet, vet tech and I comforted her and cried, she passed away gently and peacefully. This was the hardest decision of my life, choosing the death of my friend.

Since I teach ethics, I have thought a great deal about this sort of decision. But, the theoretical context of the classroom is rather different from the harsh reality of deciding whether your friend should keep living. While some doubt the use of philosophy, thinking about this matter proved to be very helpful and even comforting in making the decision.

While people are said to own dogs, I never saw our relationship as matter of owning property. Rather, we had reached a mutual understanding and formed a team. Huskies are supervillains when it comes to escape, so they can (and do) end their relationships with humans when they wish. By accepting her, I took on many moral responsibilities. Some of these are analogous to those to my human friends, others are more analogous to those of a parent to a child. These included the usual obligations of keeping her healthy and safe; but they also included the obligation to ensure her wellbeing and happiness.

When she collapsed in March, I had to make the decision whether to try treatment or let her go then. While she was suffering, the medical evidence indicated that she had a chance to recover. Knowing her stubborn will, I believed that she would want to take that chance and power through the pain. I could not be certain of what she wanted; but I went with what I thought she would want. It turned out it was the right call; she recovered and returned to enjoying life.

As I got to know her, I learned that she had a look that meant “I need you to do something for me.” In the past, this usually meant playing with her, getting her a snack or letting her into the backyard to menace the lesser creatures (to a husky, almost all other creatures are lesser).  These things made her happy, and I was pleased to oblige—after all, I had a moral responsibility to her wellbeing because she was my dog and I was her human.

When she had declined to her worst, she stared at me intently with that look. Since she could not talk, she could not say what she wanted. She, I believed, wanted an end to her pain. I might just think that to feel better about my decision—perhaps she was doing nothing of the sort. But, I knew that to keep her alive and suffering would not be to act for her wellbeing or happiness. Medicine is quite good these days; I probably could have kept her going a few months more with painkillers and other medications. But that would be a dull and drugged life, not a life suitable for a soul so full of wildness and a love of destruction. I wanted her to end as my beloved wolf and not dissipate to nothing in a sea of pharmaceuticals. So, I said goodbye to my good girl.

 

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White Nationalism II: The BLM Argument

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2016

While there are some varieties of white nationalism, it is an ideology committed to the creation and preservation of a nation comprised entirely of whites (or at least white dominance of the nation). While some white nationalists honestly embrace their racism, others prefer to present white nationalism in a more pleasant guise. Some advance arguments to show that it should be accepted as both good and desirable.

While it is not limited to using Black Lives Matter, I will dub one of the justifying arguments “the BLM argument” and use BLM as my main example when discussing it. The argument typically begins by pointing out the existence of “race-based” identity groups such as Black Lives Matters, Hispanic groups, black student unions and so on. The next step is to note that these groups are accepted, even lauded, by many (especially on the left). From this it is concluded that, by analogy, white identity groups should also be accepted, if not lauded.

If analogies are not one’s cup of tea, white identity groups can be defended on the grounds of consistency: if the existence of non-white identity groups is accepted, then consistency requires accepting white identity groups.

From a logical standpoint, both arguments have considerable appeal because they involve effective methods of argumentation. However, consistency and analogical arguments can both be challenged and this challenge can often be made on the same basis, that of the principle of relevant difference.

The principle of relevant difference is the principle that similar things must be treated in similar ways, but that relevantly different things can be justly treated differently. For example, if someone claimed that it was fine to pay a woman less than a man simply because she is a woman, then that would violate the principle of relevant difference. If it was claimed that a male worker deserves more pay because he differs from a female co-worker in that he works more hours, then this would fit the principle. In the case of the analogical argument, a strong enough relevant difference would break the analogy and show that the conclusion is not adequately supported. In the case of the consistency argument, showing a strong enough relevant difference would justify treating two things differently because sufficiently different things can justly be treated differently.

A white nationalist deploying the BLM argument would contend that although there are obviously differences between BLM and a white nationalist group, these differences are not sufficient to allow condemnation of white nationalism while accepting BLM. Put bluntly, it could be said that if black groups are morally okay, then so are white groups. On the face of it, this generally reasoning is solid enough. It would be unprincipled to regard non-white groups as acceptable while condemning white groups merely because they are white groups.

One way to respond to this would be to argue that all such groups are unacceptable; perhaps because they would be fundamentally racist in character. This would be a consistent approach and has some appeal—accepting these sorts of identity groups is to accept race identification as valid; which seems problematic.

Another approach is to make relevant difference arguments that establish strong enough differences between white nationalist groups and groups like BLM and Hispanic student unions. There are many options and I will consider a few.

One option is to argue that such an identity group is justified when the members of that group are identified by others and targeted on this basis for mistreatment or oppression. In this case, the group identity would be imposed and acknowledged as a matter of organizing a defense against the mistreatment or oppression.  BLM members can make the argument that black people are identified as blacks and mistreated on this basis by some police. As such, BLM is justified as a defensive measure against this mistreatment. Roughly put, blacks can justly form black groups because they are targeted as blacks. The same reasoning would apply to other groups aimed at protection from mistreatment aimed at specific identity groups.

Consistency would require extending this same principle to whites. As such, if whites are being targeted for mistreatment or oppression because they are white, then the formation of defensive white identity groups would be warranted. Not surprisingly, this is exactly the argument that white groups often advance: they allege they are victims and are acting to protect themselves.

While white groups have a vast and varied list of the crimes they believe are being committed against them as whites, they are fundamentally mistaken. While crimes are committed against white people and there are white folks who are suffering from things like unemployment and opioid addiction, these are not occurring because they are white. They are occurring for other reasons. While it is true that the special status of whites is being challenged, and has eroded over the years, the loss of such unfair and unwarranted advantages in favor of greater fairness is not a moral crime. The belief in white victimhood is the result of willful delusion and intentional deceit and is not grounded in facts.

This line of argument does, however, remain open to empirical research. If it can be shown with objective evidence that whites are subject to general mistreatment and oppression because they are whites, then defensive white groups would be justified on these grounds. While I am aware that people can find various videos on YouTube purporting to establish the abuse of whites as whites, one must distinguish between anecdotal evidence and adequate statistical support. For example, if fatal DWW (Driving While White) incidents started occurring at a statistically significant level, then it would be worth considering the creation of WLM (White Lives Matter).

A second option is to consider the actions and goals of the group in question. If a group has a morally acceptable goal and acts in ethical ways, then the group would be morally fine. However, a group that had morally problematic goals or acted in immoral ways would be relevantly different from groups with better goals and methods.

While BLM does have its detractors, its avowed goal is “is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” This seems to be a morally commendable goal. While BLM is often condemned by the likes of Fox News for their protests, the organization certainly seems to be operating in accord with a non-violent approach to protesting. As such, its general methodology is at least morally acceptable. This is, of course, subject to debate and empirical investigation. If, for example, it was found that BLM were organizing the murder of police officers, then that would make the group morally wrong.

White groups could, of course, have morally acceptable goals and methods. For example, if a white group was created in response to the surge in white people dying from opioids and they focused on supporting treatment of white addicts, then such a group would seem to be morally fine.

However, there are obviously white groups that have evil goals and use immoral methods. White supremacy groups, such as the KKK, are the usual examples of such groups. The white nationals also seem to be an immoral group. The goal of white dominance and the goal of establishing a white nation are both to be condemned, albeit not always for the same reasons. While the newly “mainstreamed” white nationalists are not explicitly engaged in violence, they do make use of a systematic campaign of untruths and encourage hatred. The connections of some to Nazi ideology is also extremely problematic.

In closing, while it is certainly possible to have white identity groups that are morally acceptable, the white nationalists are not among them. It is also worth noting that all identity groups might be morally problematic.

 

 

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White Nationalism I: The Family Argument

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2016

While more mainstream supporters of Trump insist he is not a racist, white nationalists and their ilk have rejoiced in his victory. Regardless of what Trump believes, his rhetoric has carved out a safe space for what has been dubbed the “alt-right.” While this term is both broad and, perhaps, misused, it does serve to bundle together various groups that are perceived as racist and even neo-Nazi. I will not endeavor to break down the fine distinctions between these various groups, but will focus on the white nationalists. As the name indicates, they have an ideological commitment to creating a nation consisting solely of whites.

Since Nazis and other hate groups have advocated the same goal, it seems reasonable to regard white nationalists as racists and as a group based on hate. Not surprisingly, they often claim they are not racists and are not a hate group. They even advance some arguments in support of these claims. In this essay, I will consider the family argument.

While specific presentations of the family argument take various forms, the gist of the reasoning is that it is natural for people to prefer the company of their family members and that it is right to give precedence to one’s family. In their family analogy, the white nationalists take whites to be a family. This, as they see it, warrants having a white nation or, failing that, giving precedence to whites. Some white nationalists extend the family argument to other races, arguing that each race should act in the same way. Ideally, each race would have its own nation. This helps explain the apparently inconsistent claims advanced about Jews by white nationalists: they want the Jews to leave America for the whites, but they support Israel becoming a pure Jewish state.

The family analogy gains much of its appeal from human psychology: as a matter of fact, humans do generally prefer and give precedence to their own family members over others. This approach is also commonly used in solving ethical problems, such as who to save and how to distribute resources. For example, if a mother is given the choice between saving a stranger or her daughter from drowning, the intuitively right choice is her daughter. While the family approach has considerable appeal, there are some obvious concerns. One is whether whites constitute a family. Another is the extent to which being family morally warrants preference and precedence.

In the biological sense, a human family is made up of humans who are closely genetically related to each other. This is something that can be objectively tested; such as with a paternity test. In this regard, family identity is a matter of the genetic similarity (and origin) of the members. There is also the matter of distinguishing the family members from outsiders—this is done by focusing on the differences between the family members and others.

To argue that whites are a biological family requires establishing that whites are genetically related to each other. This is easy enough to do; all humans are genetically related because they are humans. But, the white nationalist wants whites to be an exclusive family. One obvious problem with this, especially in the United States, is that most whites are closely related to non-whites. To use one well known example, Thomas Jefferson has many descendants and they thus constitute a family. However, many of them are supposed to descended from him and Sally Hemings—thus would presumably not be regarded as white by white nationalists. While one might quibble about whether Heming and Jefferson had children, it is well-established that the genetic background of most “white” Americans will not be “pure white.” There is also the fact that the genetic background of many “non-white” Americans will include white ancestors. This will mean that the “white family” will include people who the white nationalists would regard as non-white. For example, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are related and are thus family. As such, the biological family analogy breaks down in terms of the white nationalists’ approach.

A possible counter to this is to focus on specific white genes and argue that these are what define being white. One obvious point of focus is skin color; white skin is apparently the result of a single letter DNA mutation in the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome. As such, white nationalists could rally around this one letter and use that to define what it is to be white. This would certainly seem like an absurd foundation for preference and precedence; but perhaps the absurd would suffice for the white nationalists.

While families are often defined biologically, there are also family members that are adopted and, of course, people marry into families they are (hopefully not) closely related to. As such, a family need not be genetically defined. This provides an alternative way to try to make whites into a family.

White nationalists could argue that the white family is not defined by white genes, but by a set of values or interests that constitute being white. That is, being white is a social construct analogous to a political party, religion, or club. While there is the obvious challenge of working out what would be the values and interests one must have to be part of the white club, this could in theory be worked out. After all, the white nationalists have set up their own little white club and they presumably have ways of deciding who gets to join. The obvious problem with this approach is that it does not seem to capture what the white nationalists want in terms of being white. After all, anyone could have those values and interests and thus be white. Also, there are many people who have white skin who do not share the interests or values of the white nationalists and would thus not be white on this approach.

The white nationalists could always go with the traditional approach of regarding as white anyone who looks white. Potential whites would presumably need to provide some proof that they do not have any non-whiteness in their background—there is, after all, a long history of people passing as whites in the United States. Since white nationalists tend to regard Jews as non-white, they would also need to sort that out in some way; after all, Jews can have very white skin. Presumably they can look to the Nazis for how to work this all out. There is also the concern about using technology to allow people to appear white, such as genetic modification. Presumably white nationalists would really need to worry about such things. After all, they would not want non-whites in their white paradise.

One obvious problem with this approach is that it is like accepting as family anyone who looks like you in some specified way. For example, embracing someone as a relative because they have a similar nose. This seems like a rather odd way to set a foundation for preference and precedence, but white nationalists presumably think in odd ways.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be no foundation for regarding whites as a family. As such, the white nationalist family analogy fails. As should be expected. I will close by saying that I am horrified by having to engage in arguments about white nationalism; such a morally abhorrent view should be recognized as such by anyone familiar with history and moral decency.

 

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Religious Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 21, 2016

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

The authors of the United States Constitution were aware of the dangers presented by state infringement on religious liberty. The First Amendment provides two key protections for citizens. The first is the prohibition against making “law respecting the establishment of religion.” This protects citizens from the tyrannical imposition of a state-backed religion. The second is that congress is forbidden from making any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion.

I support both prohibitions. While many believe it would be a great if their religion was the one being established and imposed via the coercive power of the state, they would not want someone else’s religion imposed upon them. For example, Americans who want to use Christianity as foundation for laws express horror at the prospect of Sharia law being imposed on them. As always, it is wise to consider the actions of the state in accord with the spirit of the Golden Rule: impose laws on others as you would have them impose laws on you. So, just as I would not want to have Sharia law imposed on me, I should not impose faith based law on others.

While I am not particularly active in my exercise of religion (although I am religious in my exercise), I also support the freedom to exercise religion. On the extreme side, imposition on religious liberties are often the starting point of efforts to oppress religious minorities. This can, and has, lead to attempts at extermination. As such, it is wise to make it difficult to get the ball of hate rolling. On the less extreme side, the free exercise of religion is part of the broader moral rights of liberty of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of belief (which I also support). The American experience has shown that the acceptance of religious freedom, as imperfect as it may be, has helped maintain the stability of the United States. While we have many sects and religions, we do not have sectarian or religious violence at any significant level. While there are, of course, other factors that contribute to this, the freedom of religion has contributed significantly.

In recent years, there have been claims that religious liberty is under attack in the United States. As a holiday tradition, Fox News runs its yearly absurd stories about an alleged war on Christmas. While rampant, soulless consumerism has largely defeated Christmas, there is obviously no war against it. There are also claims that Christians are persecuted in the United States. To support this, people point to the legality of abortion, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. These are taken by some as attacks on religious liberty. In response, several states have endeavored to roll back these alleged intrusions on liberty, although this has resulted in backlash from the public in some cases.

To appeal to certain evangelical voters (who are not a monolithic bloc) Trump claimed that he would act in accord with their view of religious liberty. As they see it, Trump will enforce the second prohibition and protect citizens in their free exercise of the religion. However, critics can argue that this would violate the first prohibition by imposing religion on others via the law. Since I have argued these issues in other essays, I will not undertake this battle here. Rather, I will hold the supporters of religious liberty to their rhetoric about freedom. To be specific, let it be assumed that religious freedom is something they think should be protected by the state—even when doing so can impose harms on others. To illustrate the harms, consider the impact of not protecting LGBT people from discrimination based on faith as well as the impact of the anti-abortion efforts on women’s health and freedom of choice.

While Trump made a great rhetorical effort to win evangelical voters, he also engaged in sustained attacks on Muslims. He proposed a complete ban on allowing Muslims into the United States, he has called for a registry of Muslims, and has consistently used anti-Muslim rhetoric. While the ban and registry can be taken to violate the prohibition against interfering with the free exercise of religion, this can be countered. It could be argued that banning Muslims from the United States does not prevent them from freely exercising their religion in the United States—they would simply be excluded from coming here because of their religion. It could also be argued that a registry would also not be a violation of this prohibition. While some Muslims might elect to keep their faith private to avoid being put on that list, the registry itself would not forbid the free exercise of religion. Those willing to identify themselves to the government and have their information in a database conveniently available for hate-group hacking would be free to exercise their religion.

Not surprisingly, some Christians dedicated to their own religious liberty support the registry and ban. However, they should consider the matter not just in terms of their own perceived self-interest, but in terms of their professed support for religious liberty as a principle. They should consider reversing the situation: what would be their view of a country that banned Christians and had a registry of Christians? They would presumably be rather critical of such a country and would most likely consider those acts persecution. This reflection should help suggest what is wrong with the ban and registry.

The principle of religious liberty would seem to prohibit the registry and ban—they seem to be clear impositions on the freedom of religion, broadly construed. This can be countered by defining religious freedom more narrowly—limiting it to, for example, the freedom to worship within a religious edifice. This narrow interpretation would, however, preclude using the religious liberty argument in regards to such matters as abortion, contraception and LGBT rights.

Another possible counter is based on the fact that rights do have limits. One basis for limiting rights is the principle of harm: liberty can be restricted to protect others from harm. Using the stock example, the freedom of expression does not grant the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. In the case of the Muslim registry and ban, it can be argued that the religious liberty of Muslims can be limited to protect others from harm. This would presumably be developed in terms of terrorism. However, if possible harms to others is used to warrant the Muslim ban and registry, then the same argument can be used in response to the religious liberty arguments about abortion, contraception, and LGBT rights based on the harms they will impose on others. This then becomes a matter of weighing the harms imposed by restricting or allowing religious liberties. Regardless of the specific evaluation, this involves recognizing that the ban and registry violate religious liberty and that religious liberty can be constrained on the grounds of harms.

 

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Gender Identification & Races

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2016

At a recent race, a runner entered with a sex of “other” which caused a bit of a problem with the race results. After all, in such competitions people are divided between male and female. They are also divided by age. Because of this, experienced runners tend to check out the competition before the start of the race, looking to see who is present and mentally gauging their chances of being “a have” (runner slang for getting an award).

Since awards tend to be divided into categories of sex and age, runners also try to estimate the age of those they do not recognize. While it is far less common, runners sometimes do need to estimate the sex of the competition. While some people advocate avoiding all concerns about age and sex by only having awards for overall top finishers, there are good reasons to have such categories.

One obvious reason is that awards are intended to increase attendance at the race—people are more inclined to participate when they know they have more chances of winning. If awards were limited to top overall finishers, there would be some decline in participation since people who were not the very top runners would know they had no chance of winning anything.

Another reason is to provide people with a chance to compete in ways that offset advantages. Naturally, almost every race allows people to compete in the overall results, so there is still a very broad competition.

Age has a dramatic negative impact on performance. One major factor is that older athletes do not recover as fast, hence it becomes harder to maintain rigorous training while avoiding injury and being well-rested for the competition. People also get weaker as they age, though diligent maintenance can slow this setting of the sun. Because of this, most races have 5 or 10-year age groups for awards to provide runners with a chance to compete against people with comparable temporal challenges. There are, of course, many older runners can still beat many younger runners, but the general advantage lies with the youth. For most races, runners are on the honor system—they provide their age when they sign up. Some races do, however, require proof of age to avoid people cheating by lying.

While there are female runners who can easily defeat almost any male on the planet in a race, males have various biological advantages when it comes to running, such as greater strength. As such, dividing the awards by sex is a way to account for this difference. There are, of course, some races that do not take this approach, but these are very rare and tend to be small races put on by people not familiar with the usual practices of awards.

As with age, runners are on the honor system in regards to providing their biological sex when they sign up. While a male would generally have an advantage if he could pass a female, this could be challenging given the nature of running attire and various other factors. There are, however, some controversial cases. Perhaps the most famous is that of runner Caster Semenya. Semenya is believed to have an intersex condition which causes the production of high levels of testosterone. High testosterone levels are believed to provide an athletic advantage. It must be noted that while testosterone is associated most with males, females also produce testosterone. In the past, some sporting authorities tested female athletes for high testosterone levels, but this practice has largely changed because female athletes, like male athletes, naturally vary a great deal in their testosterone levels.

While sex-changes are not common, they do occur often enough that the matter has been addressed in sports. Because the division of the sexes in sports is justified on the grounds of relative advantages, females who transition to male can generally compete without restrictions. The easy and obvious justification for this is that such a male would not have any advantage over other males. In fact, they would probably tend to have some disadvantage relative to people who were born male. A male who transitions to female would potentially have an advantage. Because of this, a transitioned athlete need not have surgery, but she is typically required to have undergone at least a year of hormone therapy. This prevents male athletes from simply claiming to be female and competing with an advantage.

There are also people who want to change their gender identification but do not want to undergo surgery or hormone therapy. Some might wonder what would prevent unscrupulous male athletes from gender identifying as females to win races. The easy and obvious answer is that sex divisions in sports are not gender divisions. They are a matter of physical factors and not a matter of social construction. As such, a male athlete who gender identified as a female would still compete against males. They are still a male in regards to the factors that matter in competition.

It could be objected that a person who gender identifies as a man or a woman should be able to compete in accord with their preferred identity. That person might, for example, want their race medal or trophy to reflect this identity—being second female in the 20-24 age group, for example. An easy counter to this is to use an analogy to age—a person might identify as “young at heart” or “and old soul”, but this does not impact their actual chronological age. In the case of athletic competition, this is what matters. If people could pick their age identity for races, this would presumably be used to gain an unfair advantage. So, a 26-year-old person who identified as a 40-year-old would not thus be eligible to win the master’s award (for people 40+).

The next to the last matter to be considered is that which started this discussion; a person who wants to identify as “other.” Resolving this would require determining the basis of the claim of otherness. If the person has a biological identity that falls within established rules for competition (being intersex, for example) then those rules would be applied. If the person has a biological identity that falls outside of the existing rules, then there would seem to be two likely approaches. One would be to match the person with the closest biological sex. The other would be to create a new category for sports and establish standards for being in that category. If the person is electing to select other as a gender identity while having a biological sex, then the person would compete in the category of that biological sex, for the reasons given above.

In closing, there is also a practical matter regarding possible legal troubles. Years ago, I would often see race entry forms with “gender” instead of “sex” because the terms were used interchangeably. These days, “sex” is the standard. If an entry form has “gender” rather than “sex”, then a person could presumably use whatever gender they wish to identify with. This would be rather problematic for the awards budget, since Facebook recognizes over fifty genders. As such, race entry forms should go with “sex.” The form might need to include a brief explanation of the difference between sex and gender to help avoid misunderstandings.

 

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Protests & Riots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2016

While Trump’s election has been greeted by some with joy, others have responded by protesting. In Portland, Oregon a protest took a destructive turn and was classified as a riot by the police. This resulted in property damage, the use of less-than-lethal force by the police and arrests. Protests and riots are certainly philosophically interesting and I will begin by considering some basic definitions.

Put simply, a protest is an expression of disapproval. A political protest, of the sort that have been occurring, are obviously aimed at expression an objection to some political matter, in this case the election of Donald Trump. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to peaceful assembly, although this is not an absolute right. Almost by definition, peaceful assembly seems morally acceptable. As with other rights, there are certainly cases in which peaceful assembly can be justly restricted, but this would need to be warranted because the assembly would result in meaningful and unwarranted harms. For example, if people wanted to assemble on the runways of the Atlanta airport to protest the low wages for fast food workers, then it would be reasonable to prevent that. The protest does not require the use of a runway to make its point and it would create both danger and considerable inconvenience to travelers and cargo shipments. As might be imagined, whether a particular peaceful protest should be allowed can be a matter of great debate, but that is an issue for another time.

While a riot can be a protest, not all protests are riots and not all riots are protests. For example, the 1992 riot that did $10 million in damage arose from a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers does not seem to qualify as a protest.  A riot is characterized by violent civil disorder involving a group. While the violence is most commonly directed against property, it can involve violence against people. Since attacks on people or property are both generally illegal, riots are generally regarded as criminal by their very nature.

For a protest to be a riot (and vice versa), there must be a group of people engaging in a violent civil disorder with the intent of expressing their disapproval. Since riots are generally illegal, a protest riot would probably also be illegal. However, there is an important distinction between law and morality, so a riot that is illegal could be morally justified.

In general terms, a riot could be morally justified in various ways. One obvious justification would be that the riot was in response to a terrible wrong that warrants such violence. For example, Americans often like to point to certain riots that took place in the run up to our revolutionary war as morally warranted because of British tyranny. The violence of such riots would presumably be directed at those who deserve such violence. As such, wrongs that do not warrant a violent response and violence against those not responsible would be unwarranted.

To use an analogy, if Sally did a terrible wrong to Jane and Jane could get no redress any other way, then she could be morally justified in using violence against Sally or her property. But, if Jane went after Bob, who has no connection to Sally, then this would be unjustified. Assuming those engaged in the “riot” in Portland were protesting (and not just opportunists) against Trump, their attacks on property in Portland would obviously be wrong. For example, wrecking cars in a Portland dealership does not strike a blow against Trump—even if Trump did something warranting a riot against him.

It could be argued that since so many voted for Trump, there is a chance that a Trump supporter will be impacted by a riot, thus “paying them back” for their misdeed. The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of riot roulette is morally unacceptable because it is more likely to harm someone who did not support Trump than someone who did. There is also the fact that it is morally unacceptable to regard voting for Trump as grounds for being the target of violence.

Another approach is to justify a riot on utilitarian grounds—if the riot results in more good than harm (and more good than not rioting), then it would be morally acceptable. Once again, Americans often regard their revolutionary riots as falling into this category.

While some people, assuming they are actually protesting Trump, might feel better venting their rage in a riot, it seems unlikely that this “good” will outweigh the harm done to those whose property they destroy or damage. Even if it assumed that Trump is evil and will be doing more evil as president, breaking other peoples’ stuff is not going to counter that evil. It could, of course, be countered that the destruction will show Trump that people are very serious and this will influence him. This, however, seems rather unlikely. One feature of utilitarian justifications is that the action must have actual results; ineffectual expressions of protest do not count in the calculation.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order that enabled Trump to become president. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done to the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus, such violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

The protests against Trump might decline as people work out their disappointment and anger; but they might surge again when Trump takes office and starts doing presidential things. One analogy worth considering is the Tea Party that was spawned in response to Obama. Trump might inspire a similar response by dedicated opponents on the left. If so, protests against President Trump could be routine and there will be something of a role reversal among the people, pundits, politicians and news media. For example, while Fox News was typically favorably inclined towards the Tea Party and almost all attacks on Obama, one would expect them to take a rather different approach to analogous behavior by Trump’s opponents.

 

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The Murder of Truth

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 4, 2016

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”

-Merlin

 

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There is an old joke that asks “how do you know a politician is lying?” The answer is, of course, “you can see his lips moving.” This bit of grim humor illustrates the negative view people generally have of politicians—they are expected to lie relentlessly. However, people still condemn politicians for lying. Or when they believe the politician is lying. At least when the politician is on the other side.

In the case of their own side, people often suffer from what seems to be a cognitive malfunction: they believe politicians lie, but generally accept that their side is telling it like it is. This sort of malfunction also extends to the media and other sources of information: it is commonly claimed that the media lies and that sources are biased. That is, when media and sources express views one disagrees with. What matches a person’s world view is embraced, often without any critical consideration. This sort of thing presumably goes back to the invention of politics; but it also ebbs and flows over time.

In the United States, the 2016 election has created a high tide of lies. While there is a rough justice in saying Hillary and Trump are both liars, it is trivially true that we are all liars. As such, it is important to consider the number and severity of the lies people tell when assessing them rather than merely pointing out the obvious truth that everyone has lied. On the face of it, Trump has a commanding lead in the realm of untruth. This should not be a surprise, given that the ghostwriter of “Trump’s” Art of the Deal attributed to Trump the tactic of the “truthful hyperbole.” As I have argued before, truthful hyperbole is an impossibility because hyperbole, by definition, is not true. While Trump has told many spectacular untruths, one of his most impressive is the narrative that he was the one who finally settled the birther movement and that Hillary started it. Given Trump’s role as the point man for the birther movement, this assertion is beyond absurd; but it merely assaults truth in general, rather than being aimed at undermining institutions that are supposed to committed to the truth. Unfortunately, Trump has also engaged in such undermining. Being in a field dedicated to the truth, I find the attacks on truth and the casual acceptance of lies anathema. As should anyone who values truth and condemns lies.

While it is tempting to some to place all the blame into Trump’s hands, Trump is merely following a well-worn path to the battle against truth. A key part of this battle is the sustained attack on the media, broadly construed. In the United States, attacking the media for an alleged liberal bias goes back at least to the time of Nixon. While it is reasonable to be critical of the news media, a sweeping rejection based on alleged bias is hardly a rational approach by someone who wants to think critically.

Trump has, however, added some new twists to the attack on the media. One is that he expanded his attacks beyond the allegedly liberal media to engage any reporter who dares to be critical of him—even people normally beloved by conservatives. In this regard, he has broken outside of the usual ideological boundaries. However, this seems to be the result of his personality rather than an ideological commitment on his part—he cannot not respond to any criticism that gets his attention.

It could be replied that Trump is merely engaging a dishonest, lying media—a media that has crossed ideological lines to join forces against him. This would require accepting that these reporters are liars and that they are manufacturing the evidence they use in their reporting—such as videos of Trump saying and doing the things they claim he does and says. While this is not beyond the realm of possibility (we could, after all, be in a Twilight Zone episode in which the twist is that Trump is the only honest man facing a vast conspiracy of liars of all political stripes), the more plausible explanation is that Trump is the one saying the untrue things.

Another concern is that he has engaged in a level of vitriol against the media that has not been seen in recent presidential politics. In general, he seems to have two main tactics for dealing with claims made about him that he dislikes. The first is to simply deny the claim. The second is to engage in intense ad hominem attacks on the source. Since fact checkers like Politifact expose Trump’s untruths, he has accused them of being biased and part of the conspiracy against him. While he is willing to engage in name-calling against specific people, he also engages in sweeping insults against the press in general. His attacks are taken quite seriously, so much so that Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement that Trump is a threat to the freedom of the press.

It could be replied that Trump is merely giving the media what it deserves and his attacks are true—the reporters are “nasty”, “sleazy” and “not good people.” It could also be claimed that it is true the press is engaged in a conspiracy against him.

While there are no doubt some “not good” reporters, they do not seem to be as awful as Trump claims. Of course, Trump is known for his hyperbole and saying untrue things, so this should not be surprising. In fact, it would be out of character for Trump to describe things as they are. He seems to be locked permanently in hyperbole mode: everything is great or garbage, with little or nothing in between.

As someone who writes horror adventures for games, I like a good conspiracy theory and routinely work them into my fiction. However, if the media is engaged in a conspiracy to elect Hillary and defeat Trump, they would seem to need to go back to conspiracy school. The fact checkers check her and the media relentlessly cover stories that are harmful to her chances, such as the undying email scandal. The media, via its massive and free coverage of Trump, helped him win the candidacy and they unceasingly keep him in the spotlight. Ironically, this excessive coverage of Trump is a frightening sign of the media’s role in the erosion of truth—the focus on what is spectacle, rather than what is significant. There are also those in the media who do manufacture claims or present things in ways that cast shadows over the truth—they, too, should be held accountable for their role in murdering the truth. Be they on the left or the right.

Interestingly, it could also be argued that worries about the erosion of truth are overblown: while Trump seems to be going for a gold medal in untruths, this will have no real impact on the world. This claim does have some appeal. After all, doomsayers predict that so many things will lead to dire consequences and very often they are quite wrong. I certainly hope this is the case, that in the 2020 election cycle we will be back to our normal levels of untruths and the attacks on the media will be back to being a matter of rote rather than rage.

 

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Gaming & Groping II: Obligations

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 2, 2016

In my previous essay, I discussed some possible motivations for groping in VR games, which is now a thing. The focus of what follows is on the matter of protecting gamers from such harassment on the new frontiers of gaming.

Since virtual groping is a paradigm of a first world problem, it might be objected that addressing it is a waste of time. After all, the objection can be made that resources that might be expended on combating virtual groping should be spent on addressing real groping After all, a real grope is far worse than a virtual grope—and virtual gropes can be avoided by simply remaining outside of the virtual worlds.

This sort of objection does have some merit. After all, it is sensible to address problems in order of their seriousness. To use an analogy, if a car is skidding out of control at the same time an awful song comes on the radio, then the driver should focus on getting the car back under control and not waste time on the radio.  Unless, of course, it is “The Most Unwanted Song.”

The reasonable reply to this objection is that this is not a situation where it is one or the other, but not both. While time spent addressing virtual groping is time not spent on addressing real groping, addressing virtual groping does not preclude addressing real groping. Also, pushing this sort of objection can easily lead into absurdity: for anything a person is doing, there is almost certainly something else they could be doing that would have better moral consequences. For example, a person who spends time and money watching a movie could use that time and money to address a real problem, such as crime or drug addiction. But, as so often been argued, this would impose unreasonable expectations on people and would ultimately create more harm than good. As such, while I accept that real groping is worse than virtual groping, I am not failing morally by taking time to address the virtual rather than the real in this essay.

It could also be objected that there is no legitimate reason to be worried about virtual groping on the obvious grounds that it is virtual rather than real. After all, when people play video games, they routinely engage in virtual violence against each other—yet this is not seen as a special problem (although virtual violence does have its critics). Put roughly, if it is fine to shoot another player in a game (virtual killing) it should be equally fine to grope another player in a game. Neither the killing nor groping are real and hence should not be taken seriously.

This objection does have some merit, but can be countered by considering an analogy to sports. When people are competing in boxing or martial arts, they hit each other and this is accepted because it is the purpose of the sport. However, it is not acceptable for a competitor to start pawing away at their opponent’s groin in a sexual manner (and not just because of the no hitting below the belt rules of boxing). Punching is part of the sport, groping is not. The same holds for video games. If a person is playing a combat video game that pits players against each other, the expectation is that they will be subject to virtual violence. They know this and consent to it by playing, just as boxers know they will be punched and consent to it. But, unless the players know and consent to playing a groping game, using the game mechanics to virtually grope other players would not be acceptable—they did not agree to that game.

Another counter is that while the virtual groping is not as bad as real groping, it can still harm the target of the groping. To use an analogy, being verbally abused over game chat is not as bad as having a person physically present engaging in such abuse, but it is still unpleasant for the target. Virtual groping is a form of non-verbal harassment, intended to get a negative reaction from the target and to make the gaming experience unpleasant. There is also the fact that being the victim of such harassment can rob a player of the enjoyment of the game—which is the point of playing. While it is not as bad as groping a player in a real-world game (which would be sexual assault), it has an analogous effect on the player’s experience.

It could be replied that a player should just be tough and put up with the abuse. This reply lacks merit and is analogous to saying that people should just put up with being assaulted robbed or spit on. It is the reply of an abuser who wants to continue the abuse while shifting blame onto the target.

While players are in the wrong when they engage in virtual groping, there is the question of what gaming companies should do to protect their customers from such harassment. They do have a practical reason to address this concern—players will tend to avoid games where they are subject to harassment and abuse, thus costing the gaming company money. They also have a moral obligation, analogous to the obligation of those in the real world who host an event. For example, a casino that allowed players to grope others with impunity would be failing in its obligation to its customers; the same would seem to hold for a gaming company operating a VR game.

Companies do already operate various forms of reporting, although their enforcement tends to vary. Blizzard, for example, has policies about how players should treat each other in World of Warcraft. This same approach can and certainly will be applied to VR games that allow a broader range of harassment, such as virtual groping.

Because of factors such as controller limitations, most video games do not have the mechanics that would allow much in the way of groping—although some players do work very hard trying to make that happen. While non-VR video games could certainly support things like glove style controllers that would allow groping, VR games are far more likely to support controllers that would allow players to engage in virtual groping behavior (something that has, as noted above, already occurred).

Eliminating such controller options would help prevent VR groping, but at the cost of taking away a rather interesting and useful aspect of VR controller systems. As such, this is not a very viable option. A better approach would be to put in the software limits on how players can interact with the virtual bodies of other players. While some might suggest a punitive system for when one player’s virtual hands (or groin) contacting another player’s virtual naught bits, the obvious problem is that wily gamers would exploit this. For example, if a virtual hand contacting a virtual groin caused the character damage or filed an automatic report, then some players would be trying their best to get their virtual groins in contact with other players’ virtual hands. As such, this would be a bad idea.

A better, but less than ideal system, would be to have a personal space zone around each player’s VR body to keep other players at a distance. The challenge would be working this effectively into the game mechanics, especially for such things as hand-to-hand combat. It might also be possible to have the software recognize and prevent harassing behavior. So, for example, a player could virtually punch another player, but not make grabbing motions on the target’s groin.

It should be noted that these concerns are about contexts in which players do not want to be groped; I have no moral objection to VR applications that allow consensual groping—which, I infer, will be very popular.

 

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Gaming & Groping I: Motivations

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2016

On the positive side, online gaming allows interaction with gamers all over the world. On the negative side, some gamers are horrible. While I have been a gamer since the days of Pong, one of my early introductions to “the horrible” was on Xbox live. In a moment of deranged optimism, I hoped that chat would allow me to plan strategy with my team members and perhaps make new gamer friends. While this did sometimes happen, the dominate experience was an unrelenting spew of insults and threats between gamers. I solved this problem by clipping the wire on a damaged Xbox headset and sticking the audio plug into my controller—the spew continued, but had nowhere to go.

There is an iron law of technology that any technology that can be misused will be misused. There are also specific laws that fall under this general law. One is the iron law of gaming harassment:  any gaming medium that allows harassment will be used to harass. While there have been many failed attempts at virtual reality gaming, it seems that it might become the new gaming medium. In any case, harassment in online VR games is already a thing. Just as VR is supposed to add a new level to gaming, it also adds a new level to harassment—such as virtual groping. This is an escalation over the harassment options available in most games. Non VR games are typical limited to verbal harassment and some action harassment, such as the classic tea bagging. For those not familiar with this practice, it is when one player causes their character to rapidly repeat crouch on top of a dead character. The idea is that the players is repeatedly slapping their virtual testicles against the virtual corpse of a foe. This presumably demonstrates contempt for the opponent and dominance on the part of the bagger. As might be imagined, this act speaks clearly about a player’s mental and moral status.

Being a gamer and a philosopher, I do wonder a bit about the motivations of those that engage in harassment and how their motivation impacts the ethics of their behavior. While I will not offer a detailed definition of harassment, the basic idea is that it requires sustained abuse. This is to distinguish it from a quick expression of anger.

In some cases, harassment seems to be motivated primarily by the enjoyment the harasser gets from getting a response from their target. The harasser is not operating from a specific value system that leads them to attack certain people; they are equal opportunity in their attacks. Back when I listened to what other gamers said, it was easy to spot this sort of person—they would go after everyone and tailor their spew based on what they seemed to believe about the target’s identity. As an example, if the harasser though their target was African-American, they would spew racist comments. As another example, if the target was the then exceedingly rare female gamer, they would spew sexist remarks. As a third example, if the target was believed to be a white guy, the attack would usually involve comments about the guy’s mother or assertions that the target is homosexual.

While the above focuses on what a person says, the discussion also applies to the virtual actions in the game. As noted above, some gamers engage in tea-bagging because that is the worst gesture they can make in the game. In games that allow more elaborate interaction, the behavior will tend to be analogous to groping in the real world. This is because such behavior is the most offensive behavior possible in the game and thus will create the strongest reaction.

While a person who enjoys inflicting this sort of abuse does have some moral problems, they are probably selecting their approach based on what they think will most hurt the target rather than based on a commitment to sexism, racism or other such value systems. To use an obvious analogy, think of a politician who is not particularly racist but is willing to use this language in order to sway a target audience.

There are also those who engage in such harassment as a matter of ideology and values. While their behavior is often indistinguishable from those who engage in attacks of opportunity, their motivation is based on a hatred of specific types of people. While they might enjoy the reaction of their target, that is not their main objective. Rather, the objectives are to express their views and attack the target of their hate because of that hate. Put another way, they are sincere racists or sexists in that it matters to them who they attack. To use the analogy to a politician, they are like a demagogue who truly believes in their own hate speech.

In terms of virtual behavior, such as groping, these people are not just using groping as a tool to get a reaction. It is an attack to express their views about their target based on their hatred and contempt. The groping might also not merely be a means to an end, but a goal in itself—the groping has its own value to them.

While both sorts of harassers are morally wrong, it is an interesting question as to which is worse. It could be argued that the commitment to evil of the sincere harasser (the true racist or sexist) make them worse than the opportunist. After all, the opportunist is not committed to evil views, they just use their tools for their amusement. In contrast, the sincere harasser not only uses the tools, but believes in their actions and truly hates their target. That is, they are evil for real.

While this is very appealing, it is worth considering that the sincere harasser has the virtue of honesty; their expression of hatred is not a deceit.  To go back to the politician analogy, they are like the politician who truly believes in their professed ideology—their evil does have the tiny sparkle of the virtue of honesty.

In contrast, the opportunist is dishonest in their attacks and thus compound their other vices with that of dishonesty. To use the politician analogy, they are like the Machiavellian manipulator who has no qualms about using hate to achieve their ends.

While the moral distinctions between the types of harassers is important, they generally do not matter to their targets. After all, what matters to (for example) a female gamer who is being virtually groped while trying to enjoy a VR game is not the true motivation of the groper, but the groping. Thus, from the perspective of the target, the harasser of opportunity and the sincere harasser are on equally bad moral footing—they are both morally wrong. In the next essay, the discussion will turn to the obligations of gaming companies in regards to protecting gamers from harassment.

 

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Facebase

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2016

While you are most likely not a criminal, it is likely that the police have a digital version of your face on file. This is because most states put driver’s license photos into a database accessible to the police—and, one would assume, the federal government. The system works in conjunction with facial recognition software (like Facebook uses to identify people in your photos) to identify suspects. For example, if someone robs a convenience store and the police do not recognize them, the image from the surveillance camera can be matched against the database that could contain your face. Ideally, the software would generate a short list that includes the perpetrator. Problematically, the software could generate a list of innocent people who might then end up in unpleasant interactions with the state.

There are, of course, some practical issues with the current technology. One is that the photos the police have of suspects tend to be of low quality, thus making false matches more likely. Another is that in such a large database there will be many people who look alike, thus the chance of false matches will be high even with good photos. As anyone familiar with the DMV knows, driver’s license photos also tend to vary greatly in quality and consistency, thus making false matches likely.

The current software also has problems with people who have darker skin, thus making false matches more likely for people of color than white people. While some might suspect racism or bias at work, it has been claimed that this occurs because darker skin has less contrast than lighter skin, making accurate matches more difficult. If this technical issue cannot be solved, then it is almost certain that there will be charges of racism and bias as more dark skinned people are subject to false matches than lighter people. Even if this is purely a technical issue with no actual bias, it would certainly create the impression of bias and feed into the view that policing is biased in America. It also raises a moral concern about the use of such software in terms of its consequences: while it might have the benefit of assisting the police in finding actual criminals, it could have the harm of fanning the existing flames of mistrust and worries about police bias against people of color. These factors would need to be balanced against each other, at least until the recognition disparity is solved.

In addition to specific concerns about the recognition of darker skinned people, there is the general concern about the accuracy of the software in identifying people. Since most people with driver’s licenses will be in the database, innocent people will end up being investigated by the police because the software pegs them as adequately resembling a suspect. While most interactions with the police would presumably be quick and harmless, interactions with the state can go very badly indeed—even for innocent people. As such, due moral consideration should be paid to this fact.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about privacy and intrusion of the state. While some citizens are terrified of the idea of a national database of guns, what is being constructed is an even more invasive database—a database of our faces. A “facebase”, if you will. As such, those who are dedicated to Second Amendment rights should be worried about this “facebase.” Others who are concerned about privacy and the overreach of big government should also be worried and insist that proper controls and limitations are in place to protect the rights of citizens.

It could be countered that people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear—but this slogan fails to address the legitimate concerns about privacy. After all, no one who is worried about a national database of guns would be content with being told that if they have their guns legally, then they have nothing to fear from such a database.

A better counter is to appeal to the positive consequences. That is, by giving up privacy rights and becoming part of a “perpetual lineup” we will be safer from criminals and terrorists. This argument does have considerable appeal—but it must be assessed properly in terms of what the approach yields in benefits and what it costs in terms of intrusion and other harms. Americans have, in general, been far too quick to give away real rights and suffer real harms in return for the illusion of safety. We should stop doing this. One useful approach would be to imagine that what is being given up is a right a person has a strong emotional attachment to—this would help offset the emotional appeal to fear of criminals and terrorists. For example, a pro-gun person could imagine that the system was creating a database of his guns to match up against guns supposedly used by terrorists or criminals. This tactic obviously has no logical weight—it is merely intended as counter to emotional manipulation by means of an analogy.

A final concern, as with all such gather of data, is worry about the various potential misuses of the information. I would assume that these databases have already been hacked and the information is now being examined by foreign governments, criminals and terrorists. Because of this, we should consider the consequences of maintaining or expanding the program. After all, whatever ends up in our databases inevitably ends up around the world. There are also concerns that the data would be made available to the private sector for use in advertising, political campaigning and other purposes. This is not a concern unique to the “facebase” but it is still a matter of concern.

In closing, that bad DMV photo might prove to be a blessing or a curse. On the positive side, it might be so bad that the police will not be able to match you should you commit a crime. On the negative side, that bad photo might get you matched up often and thus subject to friendly inquiries from the police. But, you might make new friends or get to see how a taser works.

 

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