A Philosopher's Blog

Autonomous Weapons I: The Letter

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2015

On July 28, 2015 the Future of Life Institute released an open letter expressing opposition to the development of autonomous weapons. Although the name of the organization sounds like one I would use as a cover for an evil, world-ending cult in a Call of Cthulhu campaign, I am willing to accept that this group is sincere in its professed values. While I do respect their position on the issue, I believe that they are mistaken. I will assess and reply to the arguments in the letter.

As the letter notes, an autonomous weapon is capable of selecting and engaging targets without human intervention. An excellent science fiction example of such a weapon is the claw of Philip K. Dick’s classic “Second Variety” (a must read for anyone interested in the robopocalypse). A real world example of such a weapon, albeit a stupid one, is the land mine—they are placed and then engage automatically.

The first main argument presented in the letter is essentially a proliferation argument. If a major power pushes AI development, the other powers will also do so, creating an arms race. This will lead to the development of cheap, easy to mass-produce AI weapons. These weapons, it is claimed, will end up being acquired by terrorists, warlords, and dictators. These evil people will use these weapons for assassinations, destabilization, oppression and ethnic cleansing. That is, for what these evil people already use existing weapons to do quite effectively. This raises the obvious concern about whether or not autonomous weapons would actually have a significant impact in these areas.

The authors of the letter do have a reasonable point: as science fiction stories have long pointed out, killer robots tend to simply obey orders and they can (at least in fiction) be extremely effective. However, history has shown that terrorists, warlords, and dictators rarely have trouble finding humans who are willing to commit acts of incredible evil. Humans are also quite good at these sort of things and although killer robots are awesomely competent in fiction, it remains to be seen if they will be better than humans in the real world. Especially the cheap, mass produced weapons in question.

That said, it is reasonable to be concerned that a small group or individual could buy a cheap robot army when they would otherwise not be able to put together a human force. These “Walmart” warlords could be a real threat in the future—although small groups and individuals can already do considerable damage with existing technology, such as homemade bombs. They can also easily create weaponized versions of non-combat technology, such as civilian drones and autonomous cars—so even if robotic weapons are not manufactured, enterprising terrorists and warlords will build their own. Think, for example, of a self-driving car equipped with machine guns or just loaded with explosives.

A reasonable reply is that the warlords, terrorists and dictators would have a harder time of it without cheap, off the shelf robotic weapons. This, it could be argued, would make the proposed ban on autonomous weapons worthwhile on utilitarian grounds: it would result in less deaths and less oppression.

The authors then claim that just as chemists and biologists are generally not in favor of creating chemical or biological weapons, most researchers in AI do not want to design AI weapons. They do argue that the creation of AI weapons could create a backlash against AI in general, which has the potential to do considerable good (although there are those who are convinced that even non-weapon AIs will wipe out humanity).

The authors do have a reasonable point here—members of the public do often panic over technology in ways that can impede the public good. One example is in regards to vaccines and the anti-vaccination movement. Another example is the panic over GMOs that is having some negative impact on the development of improved crops. But, as these two examples show, backlash against technology is not limited to weapons, so the AI backlash could arise from any AI technology and for no rational reason. A movement might arise, for example, against autonomous cars. Interestingly, military use of technology seems to rarely create backlash from the public—people do not refuse to fly in planes because the military uses them to kill people. Most people also love GPS, which was developed for military use.

The authors note that chemists, biologists and physicists have supported bans on weapons in their fields. This might be aimed at attempting to establish an analogy between AI researchers and other researchers, perhaps to try to show these researchers that it is a common practice to be in favor of bans against weapons in one’s area of study. Or, as some have suggested, the letter might be making an analogy between autonomous weapons and weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical and nuclear weapons).

One clear problem with the analogy is that biological, chemical and nuclear weapons tend to be the opposite of robotic smart weapons: they “target” everyone without any discrimination. Nerve gas, for example, injures or kills everyone. A nuclear bomb also kills or wounds everyone in the area of effect. While AI weapons could carry nuclear, biological or chemical payloads and they could be set to simply kill everyone, this lack of discrimination and WMD nature is not inherent to autonomous weapons. In contrast, most proposed autonomous weapons seem intended to be very precise and discriminating in their killing. After all, if the goal is mass destruction, there is already the well-established arsenal of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Terrorists, warlords and dictators often have no problems using WMDs already and AI weapons would not seem to significantly increase their capabilities.

In my next essay on this subject, I will argue in favor of AI weapons.

 

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HRC’s Servergate

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2015

As promised, here is a place for people to comment on H.R. Clinton’s Servergate. My own view is that HRC did not break official policy or the law, but made some poor decisions. I certainly don’t buy the “one device” argument. As others have noted, she has bragged about having many devices. I might be wrong about this, but I infer that if I can have several email accounts on my iPhone, the same sort of thing could have been done for HRC. But, to be fair, perhaps there are some good reasons why that could not occur in her case. But probably not.

While her decision to go with the private server and to decide what to delete turned out to be bad decisions and contrary to how such things should be done, the magnitude of this “scandal” seems to be blown out of proportion. Yes, HRC is sneaky, has a huge sense of entitlement, is suspicious of others, and devoted to unnecessary secrecy. But none of these seem to be disqualifications for office.

But, I welcome the comments of others and I am very interested in seeing arguments presented showing how this shows why HRC should not be president. That is, how this makes her worse than all her competitors.

Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny? II: Sorting Principles

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2015

In my previous essay I laid the groundwork for the discussion that is to follow regarding the pro-life moral position and misogyny. As argued in that essay, a person can be pro-life and not a misogynist. It was also shown that attacking a person’s circumstances or consistency in regards to their professed belief in a pro-life moral position does not disprove that position. It was, however, contended that consistency does matter when sorting out whether a person really does hold to a pro-life position or is, in fact, using that as cover for misogyny.

While there are open misogynists, open misogynists generally do not fare well in American elections. As such, a clever (or cleverly managed) misogynist will endeavor to conceal his misogyny behind more laudable moral positions, such as being pro-life. This, obviously, sells better than being anti-women.

Throughout 2015 Americans will be (in theory) deciding the candidates for President and then in 2016 they will be voting. Republicans in general and the current crop of presidential candidates profess that they are pro-life, but there is still the question of whether they truly hold to this principle. Republicans are also regularly accused of being misogynists and part of this involves asserting that their pro-life stance is actually an anti-women stance. One way to sort this out is to consider whether or not a person acts consistently with a pro-life position. Since people are inconsistent though ignorance and moral weakness, this will not conclusive reveal the truth of the matter—but it is perhaps the best method of empirical investigation.

On the face of it, a pro-life position is the view that it is morally wrong to kill. If a person held to this principle consistently, then she would oppose all forms of killing—this would include hunting, killing animals for food, capital punishment, and killing in war. There are people who do hold to this view and are consistent. This view was taken very seriously by Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine and St. Aquinas. After all, as I say to my Ethics students, it would be a hell of a thing to go to hell for a hamburger.

The pro-life view that killing is wrong would seem to require a great deal of a person. In addition to being against just straight-up killing in war, abortion and capital punishment, it would also seem to require being against things that kill people, such as poverty, pollution and disease. As such, a pro-life person would seem to be required to favor medical and social aid to fight things like disease and poverty that kill people.

As is obvious, there are many pro-life people who oppose such things. They even oppose such things as providing food support for mothers and infants who are mired in poverty. One might thus suspect that they are not so much pro-life as anti-woman. Of course, a person could be pro-life and still be opposed to society rendering aid to people to prevent death.

One option is to be against killing, but be fine with letting people die. While philosophers do make this moral distinction, it seems a bit problematic for a person to claim that he opposes abortion because killing fetuses is wrong, but not providing aid and support to teenage mothers, the sick, and the starving is acceptable because one is just letting them die rather than killing them. Given this view, a pro-life person of this sort would be okay with a woman just abandoning her baby—she would simply be letting the baby die rather than killing her.

People who are pro-life also often are morally fine with killing and eating animals. The ethics of killing animals (and plants) was also addressed explicitly by Augustine and Aquinas. One way to be pro-life but hold that killing animals is acceptable is to contend that humans have a special moral status that other living things lack. The usual justification is that we are better than them, so we can kill (and eat) them. This view was held by St. Augustine and St. Anselm who were fine with killing animals (and plants).

However, embracing the superiority principle does provide an opening that can be used to justify abortion—one merely needs to argue that the fetus has a lower moral status than the woman and this would seem to warrant abortion.

Many people who profess a pro-life view also favor capital punishment and war. In fact, it is common to hear a politician smoothly switch from speaking of the sanctity of life to the need to kill terrorists and criminals. One way to be pro-life and accept capital punishment and war is to argue that it is the killing of innocents that is wrong. Killing the non-innocent is fine.

The obvious problem is that capital punishment sometimes kills the innocent and war always involves the death of innocents. If these killings are warranted in terms of interests, self-defense, or on utilitarian grounds, then the door is open for the same being applied to abortion. After all, if innocent adults and children can be killed for national security, economic interests or to protect us from terrorists, then fetuses can also be killed for the interests of the woman or on utilitarian grounds. Also, animals and plants are clearly innocent beings—but they can be addressed by the superiority argument. Someone who is fine with killing people for the sake of interests or on utilitarian grounds, yet professes to be devoutly pro-life might justifiably be suspected of being more anti-women than pro-life.

A pro-life position can also be interpreted as the moral principle that abortions should be prevented. This is, obviously, better described as anti-abortion rather than pro-life. One obvious way to prevent abortions is to prevent women from having them. This need not be a misogynistic view—one would need to consider why the person holds to this view and this can be explored by considering the person’s other expressed views on related matters.

If a person is anti-abortion, then she should presumably support ways to prevent abortion other than merely stopping women from having them. Two rather effective ways to reduce the number of abortions (and thus prevent some) are effective sex education and access to birth control. These significantly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the number of abortions. Not surprisingly, abstinence focused “sex education” fails dismally.

To use the obvious analogy, being anti-abortion is rather like being anti-traffic fatality. Telling people to not drive will not really help. Teaching people how to drive safely and ensuring that protection is readily available does work quite well.

Because of this, if a person professes to be pro-life/anti-abortion, yet is opposed to effective sex education and birth control, then it is reasonable to suspect misogyny. This is, of course, not conclusive: the person might have no dislike of women and sincerely believe that ignorance about sex is best, that abstinence works, and that birth control is evil. The person would not be a misogynist—just in error.

In closing, it must be reiterated that just because a person is inconsistent in regards to his professed pro-life moral principles, it does not follow that he must be a misogynist. After all, people are often inconsistent because of ignorance, a failure to consider implications, and moral weakness. However, if a person professes a pro-life position, yet is consistently inconsistent in regards to his actions and other professed views, then it would not be unreasonable to consider that there might be some misogyny in play.

 

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Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny ? I: Preliminaries

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2015
Anti abortion rally in Washington, D.C. Decemb...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During a recent discussion, I was asked if I believed that a person who holds to the pro-life position must be a misogynist. While there are misogynists who are pro-life, I hold to what should be obvious: there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and being a misogynist. A misogynist hates women, while a person who holds a pro-life position believes that abortion is morally wrong. There is no inconsistency between holding the moral position that abortion is wrong and not being a hater of women. In fact, a pro-life person could have a benevolent view towards all living beings and be morally opposed to harming any of them—thus including zygotes and women.

While misogynists would tend to be anti-choice because of their hatred of women, they need not be pro-life. That is, hating women and wanting to deny them the choice to have an abortion does not entail that a person believes that abortion is morally wrong. For example, a misogynist could be fine with abortion (such as when it is convenient to him) but think that it should be up to the man to decide if or when a pregnancy is terminated. A misogynist might even be pro-choice for various reasons; but almost certainly not because he is a proponent of the rights of women.  As such, there is no necessary connection between the two views.

The discussion then turned to the question of whether or not a pro-choice position is a cover for misogyny. The easy and obvious answer is that sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Since it has been established that a person can be pro-life without being a misogynist, it follows that being pro-life need not be a cover for misogyny. However, it can obviously provide cover for such a position. It is rather easier to sell the idea of restricting abortion by making a moral case against it than by expressing hatred of women and a desire to restrict their choices and reproductive option. Before progressing with the discussion it is rather important to address two points.

The first point is that even if it is established that a pro-life/anti-abortion person is a misogynist, this does not entail that the person’s position on the issue of abortion is in error. To reject a misogynist’s claims or arguments regarding abortion (or anything) on the grounds that he is a misogynist is to commit a circumstantial ad hominem.

This sort of Circumstantial ad Hominem involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.) for reasons against her claim. This version has the following form:

 

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on A’s circumstances.
  3. Therefore X is false.

 

A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy because a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Republican, so his claim is false.” As such, to assert that the pro-life position is in error because some misogynist holds that view would be an error in reasoning.

A second important point is that a person’s consistency or lack thereof in regards to her principles or actions has no relevance to the truth of her claims or the strength of her arguments. To think otherwise is to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.

 

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.

A person’s inconsistency also does not show that the person does not believe her avowed principle—she might simply be ignorant of its implications. That said, such inconsistency could be evidence of hypocrisy. While sorting out a person’s actual principles is not relevant to logical assessment of the person’s claims, doing so is clearly relevant to many types of decision making regarding the person. One area where sorting out a person’s principles matters is in voting. In the next essay, this matter will be addressed.

 

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Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue I: Selling for Profit?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2015

Thanks to undercover videos released by an anti-abortion group, Planned Parenthood is once again the focus of public and media attention. This situation has brought up many moral issues that are well worth considering.

One matter of concern is the claim that Planned Parenthood has engaged in selling aborted fetuses for profit. The edited videos certainly seem crafted to create the impression that Planned Parenthood was haggling over the payments it would receive for aborted fetuses to be used in research and also considering changing the methods of abortion to ensure higher quality “product.” Since clever editing can make almost anything seem rather bad, it is a good general rule of critical thinking to look beyond such video.

In this case the unedited video is also available, thus allowing people to get the context of the remarks. There is, however, still reasonable general concerns about what happened off camera as well as the impact of crafting and shaping the context of the recorded conversation. That said, even the unedited video does present what could reasonably regarded as moral awfulness. To be specific, there is certainly something horrible in casually discussing fees for human remains over wine (I will discuss the ethics of fetal tissue research later).

The defenders of Planned Parenthood have pointed out that while the organization does receive fees to cover the costs associated with the fetal tissue (or human remains, if one prefers) it does not make a profit from this and it does not sell the tissue. As such, the charge that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for a profit seems to be false. Interestingly, making a profit off something that is immoral strikes some as morally worse than doing something wrong that fails to make a profit (which is a reversal of the usual notion that making a profit is generally laudable).

It could be replied that this is a matter of mere semantics that misses the real point. The claim that the organization does not make a profit would seem to be a matter of saying that what it receives in income for fetal tissue does not exceed its claimed expenses for this process. What really matters, one might argue, is not whether it is rocking the free market with its tissue sales, but that it is engaged in selling what should not be sold. This leads to the second matter, which is whether or not Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue.

As with the matter of profit, it could be contended that the organization’s claim that it is receiving fees to cover expenses and is not selling fetal tissues is semantic trickery. To use an analogy, a drug dealer might claim that he is not selling drugs. Rather, he is receiving fees to cover his expenses for providing the drugs. To use another analogy, a slaver might claim that she is not selling human beings. Rather, she is receiving fees to cover her transportation and manacle expenses.

This argument has considerable appeal, but can be responded to. One plausible response is that there can be a real moral distinction between covering expenses and selling something. This is similar to the distinction between hiring a person and covering her expenses. To use an example, if I am being paid to move a person, then I have been hired to move her. But, if I help a friend move and she covers the cost of the gas I use in transporting her stuff, I have not been hired. There does seem to be a meaningful distinction here. If I agree to help a friend move and then give her a moving bill covering my expenses and my hourly pay for moving, then I seem to be doing something rather different than if I just asked her to cover the cost of gas.

To use a selling sort of example, if I pick up a pizza for the guys and they pay what the pizza cost me to get (minus my share), then I have not sold them a pizza. They have merely covered the cost of the pizza. If I charge them extra for the pizza (that is, beyond what it cost me), then I would seem to be doing something meaningfully different—I have sold them a pizza.

Returning to the Planned Parenthood situation, a similar argument can be advanced: the organization is not selling the fetal tissue, it is merely having its expenses covered. This does seem to matter morally. I suspect that one worry people have about tissue selling is that the selling would seem to provide an incentive to engage in morally problematic behavior to acquire more tissue to sell. To be specific, if the expense of providing the tissue for research is being covered, then there is no financial incentive to increase the amount of “product” via morally dubious means. After all, if one is merely “breaking even” there is no financial incentive to do more of that. But, if the tissue is being sold, then there would be a financial motive to get more “product” to sell—which would incentivize pushing abortions.

Going with the moving analogy, if I am selling moving services, then I want to sell as much as I can. I might even engage in dubious behavior to get more business.  If I am just getting my gas covered, I have no financial incentive to engage in more moves. In fact, the hassle of moving would give me a disincentive to seek more moving opportunities.

This, obviously enough, might be regarded by some as merely more semantic trickery. Whether it is mere semantics or not does rest on whether or not there is a meaningful distinction between selling something and having the expenses for something covered, which seems to come down to one’s intuitions about the matter. Naturally, intuitions tend to vary greatly based on the specific issue—those who dislike Planned Parenthood will tend to think that there is no distinction in this case. Those same people are quite likely to “see” the distinction as meaningful in cases in which the entity receiving fees is one they like. Obviously, a comparable bias of intuitions applies to supporters of Planned Parenthood.

Even if one agrees that there is a moral distinction between selling and having one’s expenses covered, there are still at least two moral issues remaining. One is whether or not it is morally acceptable to provide fetal tissues for research (whether one is selling them or merely having expenses covered). The second is whether or not it is morally acceptable to engage in fetal tissue research. These issues will be covered in the next essay.

 

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The Parable of the Thermostat

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2015

“So, an argument is sound when it is valid and actually has all true premises. Any of that stuff about deduction need any clarification or are there any questions or stuff?”

“Professor, it is too warm in the room. Can you turn up the AC?”

“I cannot. But, this will probably be the most important lesson you get in this class: see the thermostat there?”

“Um, yeah.”

“It isn’t a thermostat. It is just an empty plastic shell screwed to the wall.”

“No way.”

“Way. Here, I’ll show you….see, just an empty shell.”

“But why? Why would they do that to us?”

“It is so people feel they have some control. What we have here is what some folks like to call a ‘teaching moment.’ So, wipe that sweat from your eyes because we are about to have a moment.”

 

I was a very curious kid, in that I asked (too) many questions and went so far as taking apart almost anything that 1) could be taken apart and 2) was unguarded. This curiosity led me to graduate school and then to the classroom where the above described thermostat incident occurred. It also provided me with the knowledge that the thermostats in most college buildings are just empty shells intended to provide people with the illusion of control. Apparently, fiddling with the thermostat does have a placebo effect on some folks—by changing the setting they “feel” that they become warmer or cooler, as the case might be. I was not fooled by the placebo effect—which led to the first time I took a fake thermostat apart. After learning that little secret, I got into the habit of checking the thermostats in college buildings and found, not surprisingly, that they were almost always fakes.

When I first revealed the secret to the class, most students were surprised. Students today seem much more familiar with this—when a room is too hot or too cold, they know that the thermostat does nothing, so they usually just go to the dean’s office to complain. However, back in those ancient days, it did make for a real teaching moment.

Right away, the fake thermostat teaches a valuable, albeit obvious, lesson: an exterior might hide an unexpected interior, so it is wise to look beyond the surface. This applies not only to devices like thermostats, but also to ideas and people. This lesson is especially appropriate for philosophy, which is usually involved at getting beneath the realm of appearance to the truth of the matter. Plato, with his discussion of the lovers of sights and sounds, made a similar sort of point long ago.

A somewhat deeper lesson is not directly about the thermostat, but about people. Specifically about the sort of people who would think to have fake thermostats installed. On the one hand, these people might be regarded as benign or at least not malign. Faced with the challenge of maintaining a general temperature for everyone, yet also aware that people will be upset if they do not feel empowered, they solved these problems with the placebo thermostat. Thus, people cannot really mess with the temperature, yet they feel better for thinking they have some control. This can be regarded as some small evidence that people are sort-of-nice.

On the other hand, the installation of the fake thermostats can be regarded as something of an insult. This is because those who have them installed presumably assume that most people are incapable of figuring out that they are inefficacious shells and that most people will be mollified by the placebo effect. This can be taken as some small evidence that the folks in charge are patronizing and have a rather low opinion of the masses.

Since the thermostat is supposed to serve role in a parable, there is also an even deeper lesson that is not about thermostats specifically. Rather, it is about the matter of control and power. The empty thermostat is an obvious metaphor for any system that serves to make people feel that they have influence and control, when they actually do not.

In the more cynical and pro-anarchy days of my troubled youth, I took the thermostat as a splendid metaphor for voting: casting a vote gives a person the feeling that she has some degree of control, yet it is but the illusion of control. It is like trying to change the temperature with the thermostat shell. Thoreau made a somewhat similar point when he noted that “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”

While I am less cynical and anarchistic now, I still like the metaphor. For most citizens, the political machinery they can access is like the empty thermostat shell: they can fiddle with the fake controls and think it has some effect, but the real controls are in the hands of the folks who are really running things. That the voters rarely get what they want seems to have been rather clearly shown by recent research into the workings of the American political system. While people fiddle with the levers of the voting machines, the real decisions seem to be made by the oligarchs.

The metaphor is not perfect: with the fake thermostat, the actions of those fiddling with it has no effect at all on the temperature (except for whatever heat their efforts might generate). In the case of politics, the masses do have some slight chance of influence, albeit a very low chance. Some more cynical than I might respond by noting that if the voters get what they want, it is just a matter of coincidence. Going with the thermostat analogy, a person fiddling with the empty shell might find that her fiddling matches a change caused by the real controls—so her “success” is a matter of lucky coincidence.

In any case, the thermostat shell makes an excellent metaphor for many things and teaches that one should always consider what lies beneath the surface, especially when trying to determine if one really has some control or not.

 

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Go Trump or Go Home

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2015

As I write this at the end of July, 2015 the U.S. Presidential elections are over a year away. However, the campaigning commenced some months ago and the first Republican presidential debate is coming up very soon. Currently, there are sixteen Republicans vying for their party’s nomination—but there is only room enough on stage for the top ten. Rather than engaging in an awesome Thunderdome style selection process, those in charge of the debate have elected to go with the top ten candidates as ranked in an average of some national polls. At this moment, billionaire and reality show master Donald Trump (and his hair) is enjoying a commanding lead over the competition. The once “inevitable” Jeb Bush is in a distant second place (but at least polling over 10%). Most of the remaining contenders are in the single digits—but a candidate just has to be in the top ten to get on that stage.

While Donald Trump is regarded by comedians as a comedy gold egg laying goose, he is almost universally regarded as something of a clown by the “serious” candidates. In the eyes of many, Trump is a living lampoon of unprecedented proportions. He also has a special talent for trolling the media and an amazing gift for building bi-partisan disgust. His infamous remarks about Mexicans, drugs and rape antagonized liberals, Latinos, and even many conservatives. His denial of the war hero status of John McCain, who was shot down in Viet Nam and endured brutal treatment as a prisoner of war, rankled almost everyone. Because of such remarks, it might be wondered why Trump is leading the pack.

One easy and obvious answer is name recognition. As far as I can tell, everyone on earth has heard of Trump. Since people will, when they lack other relevant information, generally pick a known named over unknown names, it makes sense that Trump would be leading the polls at this point. Going along with this is the fact that Trump manages to get and hold attention. I am not sure if he is a genius and has carefully crafted a persona and script to ensure that the cameras are pointed at him. That is, Trump is a master of media chess and is always several moves ahead of the media and his competition. He might also possess an instinctive cunning, like a wily self-promoting coyote. Some have even suggested he is sort of an amazing idiot-savant. Or it might all be a matter of chance and luck. But, whatever the reason, Trump is in the bright light of the spotlight and that gives him a considerable advantage over his more conventional opponents.

In response to Trump’s antics (or tactics), some of the other Republican candidates have decided to go Trump rather than go home. Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham seem to have decided to go full-on used car salesman in their approaches. Rand Paul posted a video of himself taking a chainsaw to the U.S. tax code and Lindsay Graham posted a video of how to destroy a cell phone. While Rand Paul has been consistently against the tax code, Graham’s violence against phones was inspired by a Trump stunt in which the Donald gave out Graham’s private phone number and bashed the senator.

While a sense of humor and showmanship are good qualities for a presidential candidate to possess, there is the obvious concern about how far a serious candidate should take things. There is, after all, a line between quality humorous showmanship and buffoonery that a serious candidate should not cross. An obvious reason for staying on the right side of the line is practical: no sensible person wants a jester or fool as king so a candidate who goes too far risks losing. There is also the matter of judgment: while most folks do enjoy playing the fool from time to time, such foolery is like having sex: one should have the good sense to not engage in it in public.

Since I am a registered Democrat, I am somewhat inclined to hope that the other Republicans get into their clown car and chase the Donald all the way to crazy town. This would almost certainly hand the 2016 election to the Democrats (be it Hilary, Bernie or Bill the Cat). Since I am an American, I hope that most of the other Republicans decide to decline the jester cap (or troll crown) and not try to out-Trump Trump. First, no-one can out-Trump the Donald. Second, trying to out-Trump the Donald would take a candidate to a place where he should not go. Third, it is bad enough having Trump turning the nomination process into a bizarre reality-show circus. Having other candidates get in on this game would do even more damage to what should be a serious event.

Another part of the explanation is that Trump says out loud (and loudly) what a certain percentage of Americans think. While most Americans are dismayed by his remarks about Mexicans, Chinese, and others, some people are in agreement with this remarks—or at least are sympathetic. There is a not-insignificant percentage of people who are afraid of those who are not white and Trump is certainly appealing to such folks. People with strong feelings about such matters will tend to be more active in political matters and hence their influence will tend to be disproportionate to their actual numbers. This tends to create a bit of a problem for the Republicans: a candidate that can appeal to the most active and more extreme members of the party will find it challenging to appeal to the general electorate—which tends to be moderate.

I also sort of suspect that many people are pulling a prank on the media: while they do not really want to vote for the Donald, they really like the idea of making the media take Trump seriously. People probably also want to see Trump in the news. Whatever else one might say about the Donald, he clearly knows how to entertain. I also think that the comedians are doing all they can to keep Trump’s numbers up: he is the easy button of comedy. One does not even need to lampoon him, merely present him as he is (or appears).

Many serious pundits do, sensibly, point to the fact that the leader in the very early polls tends to not be the nominee. Looking back at previous elections, various Republican candidates swapped places at the top throughout the course of the nomination cycle. Given past history, it seems unlikely that Trump will hold on to his lead—he will most likely slide back into the pack and a more traditional politician will get the nomination. But, one should never count the Donald out.

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The Ethics of Backdoors

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 13, 2015

In philosophy, one of the classic moral debates has focused on the conflict between liberty and security. While this topic covers many issues, the main problem is determining the extent to which liberty should be sacrificed in order to gain security. There is also the practical question of whether or not the security gain is actually effective.

One of the recent versions of this debate focuses on tech companies being required to include electronic backdoors in certain software and hardware. Put in simple terms, a backdoor of this sort would allow government agencies (such as the police, FBI and NSA) to gain access even to files and hardware protected by encryption. To use an analogy, this would be like requiring that all dwellings be equipped with a special door that could be secretly opened by the government to allow access to the contents of the house.

The main argument in support of mandating such backdoors is a fairly stock one: governments need such access for criminal investigators, gathering military intelligence and (of course) to “fight terrorism.” The concern is that if there is not a backdoor, criminals and terrorists will be able to secure their data and thus prevent state agencies from undertaking surveillance or acquiring evidence.

As is so often the case with such arguments, various awful or nightmare scenarios are often presented in making the case. For example, it might be claimed that the location and shutdown codes for ticking bombs could be on an encrypted iPhone. If the NSA had a key, they could just get that information and save the day. Without the key, New York will be a radioactive crater. As another example, it might be claimed that a clever child pornographer could encrypt all his pornography, making it impossible to make the case against him, thus ensuring he will be free to pursue his misdeeds with impunity.

While this argument is not without merit, there are numerous stock counter arguments. Many of these are grounded in views of individual liberty and privacy—the basic idea being that an individual has the right to have such security against the state. These arguments are appealing to both liberals (who tend to profess to like privacy rights) and conservatives (who tend to claim to be against the intrusions of big government).

Another moral argument is grounded in the fact that the United States government has shown that it cannot be trusted. To use an analogy, imagine that agents of the state were caught sneaking into the dwellings of all citizens and going through their stuff in clear violation of the law, the constitution and basic moral rights. Then someone developed a lock that could only be opened by the person with the proper key. If the state then demanded that the lock company include a master key function to allow the state to get in whenever it wanted, the obvious response would be that the state has already shown that it cannot be trusted with such access. If the state had behaved responsibly and in accord with the laws, then it could have been trusted. But, like a guest who abused her access to a house, the state cannot and should not be trusted with a key After all, we already know what they will do.

This argument also applies to other states that have done similar things. In the case of states that are even worse in their spying on and oppression of their citizens, the moral concerns are even greater. Such backdoors would allow the North Korean, Chinese and Iranian governments to gain access to devices, while encryption would provide their citizens with some degree of protection.

The strongest moral and practical argument is grounded on the technical vulnerabilities of integrated backdoors. One way that a built-in backdoor creates vulnerability is its very existence. To use a somewhat oversimplified analogy, if thieves know that all vaults have a built in backdoor designed to allow access by the government, they will know that a vulnerability exists that can be exploited.

One counter-argument against this is that the backdoor would not be that sort of vulnerability—that is, it would not be like a weaker secret door into a vault. Rather, it would be analogous to the government having its own combination that would work on all the vaults. The vault itself would be as strong as ever; it is just that the agents of the state would be free to enter the vault when they are allowed to legally do so (or when they feel like doing so).

The obvious moral and practical concern here is that the government’s combination to the vaults (to continue with the analogy) could be stolen and used to allow criminals or enemies easy access to all the vaults. The security of such vaults would be only as good as the security the government used to protect this combination (or combinations—perhaps one for each manufacturer). As such, the security of every user depends on the state’s ability to secure its means of access to hardware and software.

The obvious problem is that governments, such as the United States, have shown that they are not very good at providing such security. From a moral standpoint, it would seem to be wrong to expect people to trust the state with such access, given the fact that the state has shown that it cannot be depended on in such matters. To use an analogy, imagine you have a friend who is very sloppy about securing his credit card numbers, keys, PINs and such—in fact, you know that his information is routinely stolen. Then imagine that this friend insists that he needs your credit card numbers, PINs and such and that he will “keep them safe.” Given his own track record, you have no reason to trust this friend nor any obligation to put yourself at risk, regardless of how much he claims that he needs the information.

One obvious counter to this analogy is that this irresponsible friend is not a good analogue to the state. The state has compulsive power that the friend lacks, so the state can use its power to force you to hand over this information.

The counter to this is that the mere fact that the state does have compulsive force does not mean that it is thus responsible—which is the key concern in regards to both the ethics of the matter and the practical aspect of the matter. That is, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those that claim there is a moral obligation to provide a clearly irresponsible party with such access.

It might then be argued that the state could improve its security and responsibility, and thus merit being trusted with such access. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious fact that if hackers and governments knew that that the keys to the backdoors existed, they would expend considerable effort to acquire them and would, almost certainly, succeed. I can even picture the sort of headlines that would appear: “U.S. Government Hacked: Backdoor Codes Now on Sale on the Dark Web” or “Hackers Linked to China Hack Backdoor Keys; All Updated Apple and Android Devices Vulnerable!” As such, the state would not seem to have a moral right to insist on having such backdoors, given that the keys will inevitably be stolen.

At this point, the stock opening argument could be brought up again: the state needs backdoor access in order to fight crime and terrorism. There are two easy and obvious replies to this sort of argument.

The first is based in an examination of past spying, such as that done under the auspices of the Patriot Act. The evidence seems to show that this spying was completely ineffective in regards to fighting terrorism. These is no reason to think that backdoor access would change this.

The second is a utilitarian argument (which can be cast as a practical or moral argument) in which the likely harm done by having backdoor access must be weighed against the likely advantages of having such access. The consensus among those who are experts in security is that the vulnerability created by backdoors vastly exceeds the alleged gain to protecting people from criminals and terrorists.

Somewhat ironically, what is alleged to be a critical tool for fighting crime (and terrorism) would simply make cybercrime much easier by building vulnerabilities right into software and devices.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that baked-in backdoors are morally wrong on many grounds (privacy violations, creation of needless vulnerability, etc.) and lack a practical justification. As such, they should not be required by the state.

 

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The Value of Public Universities

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2015

One stock narrative in the media is that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed. This is true. There is also a stock narrative that this increase, at least for public universities, has been due to the cutting of public education funds. This certainly is part of the truth. Another important part is the cost of sustaining the every-growing and well paid administrative class that has ensconced (and perhaps enthroned) itself at colleges and universities. I will, however, focus primarily on the cutting of public funds.

The stock media narrative makes it clear why there was a cut to public education spending: the economy was brought down in flames by the too clever machinations of the world’s financial class. This narrative is, for the most part, true. Another narrative is that Republican state legislatures have cut deeply into the funding for public education. One professed reason for this is ideological: government spending must be cut, presumably to reduce the taxes paid by the job creators. A reason that is not openly professed is the monetization of education. Public universities are in competition with the for-profit colleges for (ironically) public funding, mostly in the form of federal financial aid and student loans. Degrading, downsizing and destroying public education allows the for-profit colleges to acquire more customers and more funding and these for-profits have been generous with their lobbying dollars (to Republicans and Democrats). Since I have written other essays on the general catastrophic failure that is the for-profit college, I will not pursue this matter here.

A third openly professed reason is also ideological: the idea that a college education is a private rather than a public good. This seems to be based on the view that the primary purpose of a college education is economic: for the student to be trained to fill a job.  It is also based on what can be regarded as a selfish value system—that value is measured solely in terms of how something serves a narrowly defined self-interest. In philosophy, this view is egoism and, when dignified with a moral theory, called ethical egoism (the idea that each person should act solely in her self-interest as opposed to acting, at least sometimes, from altruism).

Going along with this notion is the narrative that certain (mainly non-STEM) majors are useless. That is, they do not train a person to get a job. These two notions are usually combined into one stock narrative, which is often presented as something like “why should my tax dollars go to someone getting a degree in anthropology or, God forbid, philosophy?”

This professed ideology has had considerable impact on higher education. My adopted state of Florida has seen the usual story unfold: budget cuts to higher education, imposition of performance based funding (performance being defined primarily in terms of training the right sort of job fillers for the job creators), and the imposition of micro-managing assessment (which is universally regarded by anyone who actually teaches as pure bullshit) and so on.  When all this is combined with the ever-expanding administrative class, it becomes evident that public higher education in America is in real trouble.

At this point most readers will expect me to engage in my stock response in regards to the value of education. You know, the usual philosophical stuff about the unexamined life not being worth living, the importance to a democratic state of having an educated population and all the other stuff that is waved away with a dismissive gesture by those who know the true value of public education: private profit. Since I have written about these values elsewhere, I will not do so here. There is also the obvious fact that the people who believe in this sort of value already support education and those who do not will almost certainly not be swayed by any arguments I could make. Instead, I will endeavor to argue for the value of the public university in very practical, “real-world” terms.

First, the public university is important for the defense of the United States. While private, non-profit institutions do rather important research, the public universities have contributed a great deal to our defense technology, they train many of our officers, and they train many of the people who work in our intelligence agencies. Undermining the public university weakens the United States in ways that will damage our national defense. National defense certainly seems to be a public and not just a private good.

Second, large public universities are centers of scientific research that has great practical (that is, economic) value. This research includes medical research, physics, robotics, engineering and all areas that are recognized as having clear practical value. One sure way to ensure that the United States falls behind the rest of the world in these areas is to continue to degrade public universities. Being competitive in these areas does seem to be a public good, although it is obviously specific individuals who benefit the most.

Third, large public universities draw some of the best and brightest people from around the world. Many of these people stay in the United States and contribute a great deal—thus adding to the public good (while obviously benefiting themselves). Even those who return home are influenced by the United States—they learn English (if they do not already know it), they are exposed to American culture, they make friends with Americans and often develop a fondness for their school and the country. While these factors are hard to quantify, they do serve as advantage to the United States in economic, scientific, diplomatic and defense terms.

Fourth, having what was once the best public higher education system in the world gave the country considerable prestige and influence. While prestige is difficult to quantify, it certainly matters—humans are very much influenced by status. This can be regarded as a public good.

Fifth, there are the obvious economic advantages of a strong public higher education system. College educated citizens make more money and thus pay more taxes—thus contributing to the public good. While having a job is certainly a private good, there is also a considerable amount of public good. Businesses need employees and people need doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychiatrists, pilots, petroleum engineers, computer programmers, officers, and so on. As such, it would seem that the public university does not just serve the private good but the public good.

If this argument has merit, it would seem that the degrading of public higher education is damaging the public good and harming the country. As such, this needs to be reversed before the United States falls even more behind the competition.

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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.

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