A Philosopher's Blog

Virtual Cheating V: Virtual People

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on June 30, 2017

In this last in the virtual cheating series, the focus of the discussion is on virtual people. The virtual aspect is easy enough to define—these are entities that exist entirely within the realm of computer memory and do not exist as physical beings in that they lack bodies of the traditional sort. They are, of course, physical beings in the broad sense, existing as data within physical memory systems.

An example of such a virtual being is a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. These coded entities range from enemies that fight the player to characters that engage in the illusion of conversation and interaction. As it now stands, these NPCs are quite simple—although players often have very strong emotional responses and even (one-sided) relationships with them. Bioware, for example, excels at creating NPCs that players get very involved with and their games often feature elaborate relationship and romance systems.

While these simple coded entities are usually designed to look like and imitate the behavior of people, they are obviously not people. They cannot even pass a basic Turning test. They are, at best, the illusion of people. As such, while humans could become emotionally attached to these virtual entities, it would be impossible to cheat with them. Naturally, a human could become angry with how involved their partner is with video games, but that is another matter.

As technology improves, the virtual people will become more and more person-like. As with the robots discussed in the previous essay, if a virtual person were a person, then cheating would be potentially possible. Also as with the discussion of robots, there could be degrees of virtual personhood, thus allowing for degrees of cheating. Since virtual people are essentially robots in the virtual world, the discussion of robots in that essay would apply analogously to the virtual robots of the virtual world. There is, however, one obvious break in the analogy: unlike robots, virtual people lack physical bodies. This leads to the obvious question of whether a human can virtually cheat with a virtual person or if cheating requires a physical sexual component.

While, as discussed in a previous essay, there is a form of virtual sex that involves physical devices that stimulate the sexual organs, this is not “pure” virtual sex. After all, the user is using a VR headset to “look” at the partner, but the stimulation is all done mechanically. Pure virtual sex would require the sci-fi sort of virtual reality of cyberpunk—a person fully “jacked in” to the virtual reality so all the inputs and outputs are essentially directly to and from the brain. The person would have a virtual body in the virtual reality that mediates their interaction with that world, rather than having crude devices stimulating their physical body.

Assuming the technology is good enough, a person could have virtual sex with a virtual person (or another person who is also jacked into the virtual world). On the one hand, this would obviously not be sex in the usual sense—those involved would have no physical contact. This would avoid many of the usual harms of traditional cheating—STDs and pregnancies would not be possible (although sexual malware and virtual babies might be possible). This does, of course, leave open the door for accusations of emotional infidelity.

On the other hand, if the experience is indistinguishable from the experience of physical sex, then it could be argued that the lack of physical contact is irrelevant. At this point, the classic problem of the external world becomes relevant. The gist of this problem is that because I cannot get outside of my experiences to “see” that they are really being caused by external things that seem to be causing them, I can never know if there is really an external world. For all I know, I am dreaming or already in a virtual world. While this is usually seen as the nightmare scenario in epistemology, George Berkeley embraced this view in his idealism—he argued that there is no metaphysical matter and that “to be is to be perceived.” On his view, all that exists are minds and within them are ideas. Crudely put, Berkeley’s reality is virtual and God is the server.

So, if cheating is defined such that it requires physical sexual activity, knowing whether a person is cheating or not would require solving the problem of the external world. And there would be the possibility that there never has been any cheating since there might be no physical world. If sexual activity is defined in terms of the behavior and sensations without references to a need for physical systems, then virtual cheating would be possible—assuming the technology can reach the required level.

While this discussion of virtual cheating is currently purely theoretical, it does provide an interesting way to explore what it is about cheating (if anything) that is wrong. As noted at the start of the series, many of the main concerns about cheating are purely physical concerns about STDs and pregnancy. These concerns are avoided by virtual cheating. What remains are the emotions of those involved and the agreements between them. As a practical matter, the future is likely to see people working out the specifics of their relationships in terms of what sort of virtual and robotic activities are allowed and which are forbidden. While people can simply agree to anything, there is the deeper question of the rational foundation of relationship boundaries. For example, whether it is reasonable to consider interaction with a sexbot cheating or elaborate masturbation. Perhaps Bill Clinton, with his inquiries into the definition of “sex” should be leading the discussion of this matter.

 

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Virtual Cheating IV: Sexbots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2017

While science fiction has long included speculation about robot-human sex and romance, the current technology offers little more than sex dolls. In terms of the physical aspects of sexual activity, the development of more “active” sexbots is an engineering problem—getting the machinery to perform properly and in ways that are safe for the user (or unsafe, if that is what one wants). Regarding cheating, while a suitably advanced sexbot could actively engage in sexual activity with a human, the sexbot would not be a person and hence the standard definition of cheating (as discussed in the previous essays) would not be met. Put another way, sexual activity with such a sexbot would be analogous to the use of any other sex toy (such as a simple “blow up doll” or vibrator). Since a person cannot cheat with an object, such activity would not be cheating. Naturally enough, some people might take issue with their partner sexing it up with a sexbot and forbid such activity. While a person who broke such an agreement about robot sex would be acting wrongly, they would not be cheating. Unless, of course, the sexbot was close enough to being a person for cheating to occur.

While many people would just be interested in sexbots that engage in mechanical sexual functions, there are already efforts to make sexbots like people in terms of their “mental” functions. For example, being able to create the illusion of conversation via programming. As such efforts progress and sexbots act more and more like people, the philosophical question of whether they really are people or not will be a rather important one. While the main moral concerns would be about the ethics of how sexbots are treated, there is also the matter at hand about cheating.

Obviously enough, if a sexbot were a person, then it would be possible to cheat with that sexbot—just as one could cheat with an organic person. The fact that a sexbot might be purely mechanical would not be relevant to the ethics of the cheating, what would matter would be that a person was engaging in sexual activity with another person when their relationship with another person forbids such behavior.

It could be objected that the mechanical nature of the sexbot would matter—that sex requires organic parts of the right sort and thus a human cannot really have sex with a sexbot—no matter how the parts of the robot are shaped.

One counter to this is to use a functional argument. To draw an analogy to the philosophy of mind known as functionalism, it could be argued that the composition of the relevant parts does not matter, what matters is their functional role. A such, a human could have sex with a sexbot that had the right parts.

Another counter is to argue that the composition of the parts does not matter, rather it is the sexual activity with a person that matters. To use an analogy, a human could cheat on another human even if their only sexual contact with the other human involved sex toys. In this case, what matters is that the activity is sexual and involves people, not that objects rather than body parts are used. As such, sex with a sexbot person could be cheating if the human was breaking their commitment.

While knowing whether a sexbot was a person would largely settle the cheating issue, there remains the epistemic problem of other minds. In this case, the problem is determining whether a sexbot has a mind that qualifies them as a person. There can, of course, be varying degrees of confidence in the determination and there could also be degrees of personness. Or, rather, degrees of how person-like a sexbot might be.

Thanks to Descartes and Turing, there is a language test for having a mind—roughly put, if a sexbot can engage in conversation that is indistinguishable from conversation with a human, then it would be reasonable to regard the sexbot as a person. That said, there might be good reasons for having a more extensive testing system for personhood which might include such things as testing for emotions and self-awareness. But, from a practical standpoint, if a sexbot can engage in a level of behavior that would qualify them for person status if they were a human, then it would be just as reasonable to regard the sexbot as a person as it would be to regard an analogous human as a person. To do otherwise would seem to be mere prejudice. As such, a human person could cheat with a sexbot that could pass this test.

Since it will be a long time (if ever) before such a sexbot is constructed, what will be of more immediate concern are sexbots that are person-like. That is, that are not able to meet the standards that would qualify a human as a person, yet have behavior that is sophisticated enough that they seem to be more than mere objects. One might consider an analogy here to animals: they do not qualify as human-level people, but their behavior does qualify them for a moral status above that of objects (at least for most moral philosophers and all decent people). In this case, the question about cheating becomes a question of whether the sexbot is person-like enough to enable cheating to take place.

One approach is to consider the matter from the perspective of the human—if the human engaged in sexual activity with the sexbot regards them as being person-like enough, then the activity can be seen as cheating. An objection to this is that it does not matter what the human thinks about the sexbot, what matters is its actual status. After all, if a human regards a human they are cheating with as a mere object, this does not make it so they are not cheating. Likewise, if a human feels like they are cheating, it does not mean they really are.

This can be countered by arguing that how the human feels does matter. After all, if the human thinks they are cheating and they are engaging in the behavior, they are still acting wrongly. To use an analogy, if a person thinks they are stealing something and take it anyway, they still have acted wrongly even if it turns out that they were not stealing (that the thing they took was actually being given away). The obvious objection to this line of reasoning is that while a person who thinks they are stealing did act wrongly by engaging in what they thought was theft, they did not actually commit a theft. Likewise, a person who thinks they are engaging in cheating, but are not, would be acting wrongly, but not cheating.

Another approach is to consider the matter objectively—the degree of cheating would be proportional to the degree that the sexbot is person-like. On this view, cheating with a person-like sexbot would not be as bad as cheating with a full person. The obvious objection is that one is either cheating or not; there are not degrees of cheating. The obvious counter is to try to appeal to the intuition that there could be degrees of cheating in this manner. To use an analogy, just as there can be degrees of cheating in terms of the sexual activity engaged in, there can also be degrees of cheating in terms of how person-like the sexbot is.

While person-like sexbots are still the stuff of science fiction, I suspect the future will see some interesting divorce cases in which this matter is debated in court.

 

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Virtual Cheating III: “Robust” VR

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2017

 

As noted in previous essays, classic cheating involves sexual activity with a person while one is in a committed relationship that is supposed to exclude such activity. Visual VR can allow interaction with another person, but while such activity might have sexual content (such as nakedness and naughty talk) it would not be sexual activity in the usual sense that requires physical contact. Such behavior, as argued in the previous essay, might constitute a form of emotional infidelity—but not physical infidelity.

One of the iron laws of technology is that any technology that can be used for sex will be used for sex. Virtual reality (VR), in its various forms, is no exception. For the most part, VR is limited to sight and sound. That is, virtual reality is mostly just a virtual visual reality. However, researchers are hard at work developing tactile devices for the erogenous zones, thus allowing people to interact sexually across the internet. This is the start of what could be called “robust” VR. That is, one that involves more than just sight and sound. This sort of technology might make virtual cheating suitably analogous to real cheating.

As would be expected, most of the research has been focused on developing devices for men to use to have “virtual sex.” Going with the standards of traditional cheating, this sort of activity would not count as cheating. This is because the sexual interaction is not with another person, but with devices. The obvious analogy here is to with less-sophisticated sex toys. If, for example, using a vibrator or blow-up-doll by oneself does not count as cheating because the device is not a person, then the same should apply to more complicated devices, such as VR sex suits that can be used with VR sex programs. There is also the question of whether such activity counts as sex. On the one hand, it is some sort of sexual activity. On the other hand, using such a device would not end a person’s tenure as a virgin.

It is certainly worth considering that a user could develop an emotional relationship with their virtual sex partner and thus engage in a form of emotional infidelity. The obvious objection is that this virtual sex partner is certainly not a person and thus cheating would not be possible—after all, one cannot cheat on a person with an object. This can be countered by considering the classic epistemic problem of other minds. Because all one has to go on is external behavior, one never knows if the things that seem to be people really are people—that is, think and feel in the right ways (or at all). Since I do not know if anyone else has a mind as I do, I could have emotional attachments to entities that are not really people at all and never know that this is the case. As such, I could never know if I was cheating in the traditional sense if I had to know that I was interacting with another person. As might be suspected, this sort of epistemic excuse (“baby, I did not know she was a person”) is unlikely to be accepted by anyone (even epistemologists). What would seem to matter is not knowing that the other entity is a person, but having the right (or rather wrong) sort of emotional involvement. So, if a person could have feelings towards the virtual sexual partner that they “interact with”, then this sort of behavior could count as virtual cheating.

There are also devices that allow people to interact sexually across the internet; with each partner having a device that communicates with their partner’s corresponding devices. Put roughly, this is remote control sex. This sort of activity does avoid many of the possible harms of traditional cheating: there is no risk of pregnancy nor risk of STDs (unless one is using rented or borrowed equipment). While these considerations do impact utilitarian calculations, the question remains as to whether this would count as cheating or not.

On the one hand, the argument could be made that this is not direct sexual contact—each person is only directly “engaged” with their device. To use an analogy, imagine that someone has (unknown to you) connected your computer to a “stimulation device” so that every time you use your mouse or keyboard, someone is “stimulated.” In such cases, it would be odd to say that you were having sex with that person. As such, this sort of thing would not be cheating.

On the other hand, there is the matter of intent. In the case of the mouse example, the user has no idea what they are doing and it is that, rather than the remote-control nature of the activity, that matters. In the case of the remote-control interaction, the users are intentionally engaging in the activity and know what they are doing. The fact that is happening via the internet does not matter. The moral status is the same if they were in the same room, using the devices “manually” on each other. As such, while there is not actual physical contact of the bodies, the activity is sexual and controlled by those involved. As such, it would morally count as cheating. There can, of course, be a debate about degrees of cheating—presumably a case could be made that cheating using sex toys is not as bad as cheating using just body parts. I will, however, leave that to others to discuss.

In the next essay I will discuss cheating in the context sex with robots and person-like VR beings.

 

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Virtual Cheating I: The Wrongness of Cheating

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on June 16, 2017

The morality of cheating in a relationship is one of the most popular paper topics in my Ethics course. As might be suspected, the students tend to condemn this sort of cheating and have always focused on the “traditional” form of cheating—that is, people having “naked time” together when one or more of them is in a committed relationship. With the rise of such things as sexting, virtual worlds and sexbots, I’ve tried to encourage the students to write on what can be called “virtual cheating”-if only to give me something slightly new to grade. Since no student has taken on this matter, it falls to me to write about it.

As just noted, traditional cheating involves people having sexual interactions in person when one or more of them is in a (supposedly) committed relationship. Virtual cheating, by its very nature, is not traditional cheating: the people either do not interact sexually in person (they sext or engage in virtual activities in a virtual world, such as a video game) or a person is engaged in sexual behavior with a non-person (such as a sexbot). While most regard traditional cheating as wrong, it is not clear if the alleged wrongness of traditional cheating applies to virtual cheating. Answering this question requires sorting out what, if anything, makes traditional cheating wrong.

One stock approach to arguing that traditional cheating is wrong is to “mix norms” by going from religion to ethics. For example, my students usually point out that the Ten Commandments forbid adultery and then typically just say this makes it wrong. The problem is, obviously enough, that religion is not the same as ethics. What is needed is a way to transition from religion to ethics. One easy way to do this is to use divine command theory. This is the view that what God commands is good because He command it. Likewise, what he forbids is wrong because He forbids it. Assuming this theory, if God forbids adultery, then it is wrong. In regards to virtual cheating, the question would be whether virtual cheating is adequately similar to traditional adultery. This is a matter that will be addressed in a later essay.

Another stock approach is to engage in more norm mixing by going from law to ethics. While there are excellent reasons not to equate legality and morality, the moral theory of legalism (also known as legal positivism) says that what is legal is moral and what is illegal is immoral. Since some places still consider adultery a crime, this would make cheating immoral in such places. Legalism actually provides the easiest way to address the ethics of virtual cheating: one just needs to consult the law and the answer is there.

A third approach, and one my students almost always use, is the utilitarian option. On this view, the morality of an action is determined by its harmful and beneficial consequences. If more negative value is created by the action, it is morally wrong. If there is more positive value, then it is morally good (or at least acceptable). The moral arguments against traditional cheating focus on the usual negative consequences: emotional damage, physical damage, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and so on. Interestingly, students almost always mention cars being keyed. Moral arguments for cheating focus on the alleged benefits: pleasure, emotional fulfillment, and so on. The utilitarian approach, interestingly enough, would make it easy to bypass the question of whether virtual cheating is cheating or not. This is because what would matter is whether or not the consequences of the actions created more negative or positive value. Whether the actions are cheating or not would be irrelevant. Unless, of course, the cheating aspect was relevant to the consequences.

A fourth approach is to embrace a rule based approach, such as the deontology of Immanuel Kant. On this view, the action itself is wrong or right—it is not a matter of consequences. The religious arguments that are used to try to show that cheating is wrong tend to also be rule based arguments. The rules, in that case, would be those attributed to God. While deontologists can embrace very different rules about who one should embrace, Kant’s categorical imperative and his view that people are ends rather than means would seem to support the view that cheating would be morally wrong. The question about virtual cheating would be whether it is cheating. Alternatively, rules about the activities I am grouping as virtual cheating would settle the matter without addressing whether they really are cheating or not.

A fifth approach is that of virtue theory—the sort of theory endorsed by the likes of Aristotle and Confucius. On this view, a person should strive to be virtuous and the incentive is usually that virtue will make a person happy. Since cheating would seem to violate such virtues as honesty and loyalty, then it would appear to be morally wrong under virtue theory. In the case of virtual cheating, the concern would be with the effect of such behavior on a person’s virtues.

A final approach is a rights based approach. Ethics that are based on rights purport that people have various rights and it is generally wrong to violate them. In the case of cheating, the usual argument is that people engage into a form of contractual ethics by agreeing to a committed relationship. This gives each party various rights and responsibilities. The usual contract is one of exclusive sexual interaction. Since traditional cheating violates this right of exclusivity, it would be wrong. In the case of virtual cheating, it would also be a question of rights—typically based on an explicit or implicit contract. Naturally, contractual ethics can also be cast in the form of rule based ethics—the contract forms the rules.

In the next essay I will move on to the matter of virtual cheating, beginning with considerations of sexting and “cheating” in virtual worlds such as video games.

 

 

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Dating III: Age is Not Just a Number

Posted in Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2016

Being a philosopher and single again, I have been overthinking the whole dating thing. I suspect that those who give it little or no thought do much better; but I am what I am and therefore I must overthink. An interesting adventure in interaction provided me with something new, or rather old, to think about: age and dating. In this scenario I was talking with a woman and actually had no intention of making any overtures or moves (smooth or otherwise). With some storytelling license in play, we join the story in progress.

 

Her: Flirt. Flirt. Flirt.

Her: “So, what do you do for work?” Flirt.

Me: “I’m a philosophy professor.”

Her: “At FSU?” Flirt.

Me: “No, literally across the tracks at FAMU.”

Her: “When did you start?” Flirt.

Me: “1993.”

Her: “1993…how old are you?”

Me: “Fifty.”

At this point, she dropped out of flirt mode so hard that it damaged the space-time continuum. Windows cracked. Tiny fires broke out in her hair. Car alarms went off. Pokémon died. Squirrels were driven mad and fled in terror, crying out to their dark rodent gods for salvation. As my friend Julie commented, I had “instantly gone from sexable to invisible.”  Here is how the conversation ended:

Her: “Um, I bet my mother would like you. Oh, look at the time…I have to go now.”

Me: “Bye.”

 

While some might have found such an experience ego-damaging, my friends know I have an adamantine ego. Also, I am always glad to get a good story that provides an opportunity for some philosophical analysis. What struck me most about this episode is that the radical change in her behavior was due entirely to her learning my age—I can only infer that she had incorrectly estimated I was younger than fifty. Perhaps she had forgotten to put in her contacts. So, on to the matter of age and dating.

While some might claim that age is just a number, that is not true. Age is rather more than that. At the very least, it is clearly a major factor in how people select or reject potential dates. On the face of it, the use of age as a judging factor should be seen as perfectly fine and is no doubt grounded in evolution. The reason is, of course, that dating is largely a matter of attraction and this is strongly influenced by preferences. One person might desire the feeble hug of a needy nerd, while another might crave the crushing embrace of a jock dumb as a rock. Some might swoon for eyes so blue, while others might have nothing to do with a man unless he rows crew. Likewise, people have clear preferences about age. In general, people prefer those close to them in age, unless there are other factors in play. Men, so the stereotype goes, have a marked preference for younger and younger women the older and older they get. Women, so the stereotype goes, will tolerate a wrinkly old coot provided that he has sufficient stacks of the fattest loot.

Preferences in dating are, I would say, analogous to preferences about food. One cannot be wrong about these and there are no grounds for condemning or praising such preferences. If Sally likes steak and tall guys, she just does. If Sam likes veggie burgers and winsome blondes, he just does. As such, if a person prefers a specific age range, that is completely and obviously their right. As with food preferences, there is little point in trying to argue—people like what they like and dislike what they dislike. That said, there are some things that might seem to go beyond mere preferences. To illustrate, I will offer some examples.

There are white people who would never date a black person. There are black people who would never date anyone but another black person. There are people who would never date a Jew. There are others for whom only a Jew will do. Depending on the cause of these preferences, they might be better categorized as biases or even prejudices. But, it is worth considering that these might be benign preferences. That, for example, a white person has no racial bias, they just prefer light skins to dark skins for the same sort of reason one might prefer brunettes to blondes. Then again, they might not be so benign.

People are chock full of biases and prejudices and it should come as no surprise that they influence dating behavior. On the one hand, it is tempting to simply accept these prejudices in this context on the grounds that dating is entirely a matter of personal choice. On the other hand, it could be argued that such prejudices are problematic even in the context of dating. This is not to claim that people should be subject to some sort of compelled diversity dating, just that perhaps they should be criticized.

When it comes to apparent prejudices, it is worth considering that the apparent prejudice might be a matter of innocent ignorance. That is, the person merely lacks correct information. Assuming the person is not willfully and actively ignorant, this is not to be condemned as a moral flaw since it can be easily fixed by the truth. To go back to the food analogy, imagine that Jane prefers Big Macs because she thinks they are healthy and refuses to eat avocadoes because she thinks they are unhealthy. Given what she thinks, it is reasonable for her to eat Big Macs and avoid avocadoes. If she knew the truth, she would change her eating habits since she wants to eat healthy—she is merely ignorant. Likewise, if Jane believed that black men are all uneducated thugs, then it would seem reasonable for her to not to want to date a black man given what she thinks she knows. If she knew the truth, her view would change. As such, she is not prejudiced—just ignorant.

It is also worth considering that an apparent prejudice is a real prejudice—that the person would either refuse to accept facts or would still maintain the same behavior in the face of the facts. As an example, suppose that Sam thinks that white people are all complete racists and thus refuses to even consider dating a white person on this basis. While it is often claimed that everyone is racist, it is clear that not all white people are complete racists. As such, if Sam persisted in his belief or behavior in the face of the facts, then it would be reasonable to condemn him for his prejudices.

Finally, it might even be the case that the alleged prejudice is actually rational and well founded. To use a food analogy, a person who will not eat raw steak because she knows the health risks is not prejudiced but quite reasonable. Likewise, a person who will not date a person who is a known cheater is not prejudiced but quite rational.

The question at this point is where does age fit in regard to the above considerations. The easy and obvious answer is that it can fall into all three. If a person’s dating decisions are based on incorrect information about age, then they have made an error of ignorance. If a person’s decisions are based on mere prejudice, then they have made a moral error. But, if the decision regarding age and dating is rational and well founded, then the person would have made a good decision. As should be suspected, the specifics of the situation are what matter. That said, there are some general categories relating to age that are worth considering.

Being fifty, I am considering these matters from the perspective of someone old. Honesty compels me to admit that I am influenced by my own biases here and, as my friend Julie has pointed out, older men are full of delusions about age. However, I will endeavor to be objective and will lay out my reasoning for your assessment.

The first is the matter of health. In general, as people get older, their health declines. For example, older people are more likely to have colon cancer—hence people who are not at risk do not get colonoscopies until fifty. Because of this, it is quite reasonable for a younger person to be concerned about dating someone older—that person is more likely to get ill. That said, an older person can be far healthier than a younger person. As such, it might come down to whether or not a person looks at dating option broadly in terms of categories of people (such as age or ethnicity) or is more willing to consider individuals who might differ from the stereotypes of said categories. Using categories does help speed up decisions, although doing so might result in missed opportunities. But, there are billions of humans—so categories could be just fine if one wants to narrow their focus.

While an older person might not be sick, age does weaken the body. For example, I remember being bitterly disappointed by a shameful 16:28 5K in my youth. Now I have to struggle to maintain that pace for a half mile. Back then I could easily do 90-100 miles a week; now I do 50-60. Time is cruel. For those who are concerned about a person’s activity levels, age is clearly a relevant factor and provides a reasonable basis for not dating an older (or younger) person that is neither an error nor a prejudice. However, an older person can be far more fit and active than a younger person—so that is worth considering before rejecting an entire category of people.

Life expectancy is also part of the health concerns. A younger person interested in a long term relationship would need to consider how long that long term might be and this would be quite rational. To use an obvious analogy, when buying a car, one should consider the miles on it. Women also live longer than men, so that is a consideration as well. Since I am fifty-year-old American living in Florida, the statistics say I have about 26 years left. Death sets a clear limit to how long term a relationship can be. But, life expectancy and quality of life are influenced by many factors and they might be worth considering. Or not. Because, you know, death.

The second broad category is that of interests and culture. Each person is born into a specific temporal culture and that shapes her interests. For example, musical taste is typically set in this way and older folks famously differ in their music from younger folks. What was once rebellious rock becomes a golden oldie. Fashion is also very much a matter of time, although styles have a weird way of cycling back into vogue, like those damn bell bottoms. Thus people who differ in age are people from different cultures and that presents a real challenge. An old person who tries to act young typically only succeeds in appearing absurd. One who does not try will presumably not fit in with a younger person. So, either way is a path to failure. Epic failure.

There is also the fact that interests change as a person gets older. To use some stereotypes, older folks are supposed to love shuffleboard and bingo while the youth are now into extreme things that would presumably kill or baffle old people, like virtual reality and Snapchat. Party behavior also differs. Young folks go to parties to drink, talk about their jobs and get laid. Older folks go to parties to drink, talk about their jobs and get laid. These are radical differences that cannot be overcome. It could be countered that there can be shared interests between people of different ages and that a lack of shared interests is obviously not limited to those who differ in age. The response is that perhaps the age difference would generally result in too much of a difference in interests, thus making avoiding dating people who differ enough in age rational and reasonable.

The third broad category is concerns about disparities in power. An older adult will typically have a power advantage over a younger adult and this raises moral concerns regarding exploitation (there is also a reverse concern: that a younger person will exploit an older person). Because of this, a younger adult should be rightly concerned about being at a disadvantage relative to an older person. Of course, this concern is not just limited to age. If the concern about power disparity is important, then it would also apply to disparities in education, income, abilities and intelligence between people in the same age group. That said, the disparities would tend to be increased with an age difference. As such, it is reasonable to be concerned about this factor.

The fourth broad category is what could be called the “ick factor.” While there is considerable social tolerance for rich old men having hot young partners, people dating or attempting to date outside of their socially defined age categories are often condemned because it is seen as “icky” or “gross.” When I was in graduate school, I remember people commenting on how gross it was for old faculty to hook up with young graduate students. Laying aside the exploitation and unprofessionalism, it did seem rather gross. As such, the ick argument has considerable appeal. But, there is the question of whether the perceived grossness is founded or not. On the one hand, it can be argued that grossness is in the eye of the beholder or that grossness is set by social norms and these serve as proper foundations. On the other hand, it could be contended that the perception of grossness is a mere unfounded prejudice. On the third hand, the grossness could be cashed out in terms of the above categories. For example, it is icky for an unhealthy and weak rich man to date a hot, healthy young woman with whom he has no real common interests (beyond money, of course).

Fortunately, this is a problem with a clear solution: if you do not die early, you get old. Then you die. Problem solved.

 

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Dating II: Are Relationships Worth It?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on August 10, 2016

My long term, long-distance relationship recently came to an amicable end, thus tossing me back into the world of dating. Philosophers, of course, have two standard responses to problems: thinking or drinking. Since I am not much for drinking, I have been thinking about relationships.

Since starting and maintaining a relationship is a great deal of work (and if it is not, you are either lucky or doing it wrong), I think it is important to consider whether relationships are worth it. One obvious consideration is the fact that the vast majority of romantic relationships end well before death.  Even marriage, which is supposed to be the most solid of relationships, tends to end in divorce.

While there are many ways to look at the ending of a relationship, I think there are two main approaches. One is to consider the end of the relationship a failure. One obvious analogy is to writing a book and not finishing: all that work poured into it, yet it remains incomplete. Another obvious analogy is with running a marathon that one does not finish—great effort expended, but in the end just failure. Another approach is to consider the ending more positively: the relationship ended, but was completed. Going back to the analogies, it is like completing that book you are writing or finishing that marathon. True, it has ended—but it is supposed to end.

When my relationship ended, I initially looked at it as a failure—all that effort invested and it just came to an end one day because, despite two years of trying, we could not land academic jobs in the same geographical area. However, I am endeavoring to look at in a more positive light—although I would have preferred that it did not end, it was a very positive relationship, rich with wonderful experiences and helped me to become better as a human being. There still, of course, remains the question of whether or not it is worth being in another relationship.

One approach to address this is the ever-popular context of biology and evolution. Humans are animals that need food, water and air to survive. As such, there is no real question about whether food, water and air are worth it—one is simply driven to possess them. Likewise, humans are driven by their biology to reproduce and natural selection seems to have selected for genes that mold brains to engage in relationships. As such, there is no real question of whether they are worth it, humans merely do have relationships. This answer is, of course, rather unsatisfying since a person can, it would seem, make the choice to be in a relationship or not. There is also the question of whether relationships are, in fact, worth it—this is a question of value and science is not the realm where such answers lie. Value questions belong to such areas as moral philosophy and aesthetics. So, on to value.

The question of whether relationships are worth it or not is rather like asking whether technology is worth it or not: the question is extremely broad. While some might endeavor to give sweeping answers to these broad questions, such an approach would seem problematic and unsatisfying. Just as it makes sense to be more specific about technology (such as asking if nuclear power is worth the risk), it makes more sense to consider whether a specific relationship is worth it. That is, there seems to be no general answer to the question of whether relationships are worth it or not, it is a question of whether a specific relationship would be worth it.

It could be countered that there is, in fact, a legitimate general question. A person might regard any likely relationship to not be worth it. For example, I know several professionals who have devoted their lives to their careers and have no interest in relationships—they do not consider a romantic involvement with another human being to have much, if any value. A person might also regard a relationship as a necessary part of their well-being. While this might be due to social conditioning or biology, there are certainly people who consider almost any relationship worth it.

These counters are quite reasonable, but it can be argued that the general question is best answered by considering specific relationships. If no specific possible (or likely) relationship for a person would be worth it, then relationships in general would not be worth it. So, if a person honestly considered all the relationships she might have and rejected all of them because their value is not sufficient, then relationships would not be worth it to her. As noted above, some people take this view.

If at least some possible (or likely) relationships would be worth it to a person, then relationships would thus be worth it. This leads to what is an obvious point: the worth of a relationship depends on that specific relationship, so it comes down to weighing the negative and positive aspects. If there is a sufficient surplus of positive over the negative, then the relationship would be worth it. As should be expected, there are many serious epistemic problems here. How does a person know what would be positive or negative? How does a person know that a relationship with a specific person would be more positive or more negative? How does a person know what they should do to make the relationship more positive than negative? How does a person know how much the positive needs to outweigh the negative to make the relationship worth it? And, of course, many more concerns. Given the challenge of answering these questions, it is no wonder that so many relationships fail. There is also the fact that each person has a different answer to many of these questions, so getting answers from others will tend to be of little real value and could lead to problems. As such, I am reluctant to answer them for others; especially since I cannot yet answer them for myself.

 

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Dating I: Spotting Fake Profiles

Posted in Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on August 8, 2016

After my long-term, long-distance relationship came to an amicable (albeit unexpected) end, I was thrown back into the dumpster fire that is dating. Since this is the 21st century, I signed up for Match.com. This was against my usual good judgment, but breakups are like politics: they make people stupid.

As I expected, the process of online dating is largely a matter of avoiding scams. These range from attempts to lure people to porn sites to more elaborate dating scams. Simple scammers rarely email, they try to lure people with the free winks, free likes and by making you a favorite. For this essay, I’ll focus on the simplest of scamming techniques, the fake profile. While I will not cover all the ways to spot one, I will offer what I hope will be some useful advice from the perspective of philosophy. I’ll begin the top of the profile.

Match and other sites have users create a profile name, such as Lovecatsmorethanmen88 (which might be a real profile, if so I apologize).  While fake profiles can have names that are indistinguishable from the real ones, there are two main giveaways. The first is a name that is a phone number, such as txtme86753089. The second is a name that tries to give an email address, such as scam_gmal. While some real users might try to save a few bucks this way, that is presumably very rare.

The photos also serve as a good indicator for scams. If a person has a single photo of a beautiful person, there is a good chance it is a fake. After all, everyone has a smart phone and can take unlimited pictures.  Loading many photos takes time and scammers presumably need to crank out fake profiles. That said, there are real users who have just one picture—so the one photo clue is not decisive.

Unusually provocative photos are also an indicator that the profile is a fake, but this is not a guarantee—presumably real users are not averse to using some raw sex appeal.

A rather obvious indicator is the use of stock photos taken from the web. In some cases, the faker makes it easy by leaving the “watermarks” in place. For less obvious cases, you can right click in Chrome and do a Google image search. While this does not work all the time, it can reveal some obvious fakes. This can also help with photos stolen from people—a common practice on dating sites.

An extremely obvious indicator is a photo with text saying something like “text me 8675309” or “email me at scammster@scam.com.”  As with the profile name, some real users might do this; but it is most likely a scam.

Photos of an extremely beautiful person might indicate a scam—scammers do not use ugly photos as their bait. However, there are presumably some real profiles of people who are really beautiful. While it might hurt your ego, it is worth matching up the beauty of the person who has winked at you with your own appearance (and income, of course).

It is also smart to look for inconsistencies between the picture and the profile: check to see if the age, body type and so on match up. For example, a photo of a hot 20 something on a profile for a 40-year-old is likely to be a scam. That said, some people look awesome for their age…and people often post photos that are 5-10 years old (which is another form of deceit).

The text of a profile is also a good indicator of whether it is a scam or not. The scammers creating fake profiles are not going to spend a long time crafting a profile—they will only have a little text. The text also tends to be full of spelling and grammatical errors. They also often include an email address. For example, here is the text from what is almost certainly a fake profile:

 

I am looking for man who is serious in relations and reliable, words from his lips are materialized and his acts are saying more about his attitude to life. I can give my shoulder in rainy day and it’s normal for me. write please my e mail Remeda1997 gma. Mutual support, sharing bad and funny moments and looking on one page – the best what can hold both love birds ever! Age difference is not matter for me!

 

However, short profile texts are also common in legitimate profiles as is bad spelling and poor grammar. However, they will tend to be less obviously awkward in the use of the language. Scam profiles often have a certain feel to them—for example, they tend to promise (in awkward wording) all sorts of wonderful things (like “looking on one page”).  They also tend to be a bit too accepting (“Age difference is not matter for me!”). More sophisticated scammers probably copy and paste from real profiles, which makes them harder to spot.

Another indicator is a profile that has not been completed. As noted above, simple scammers favor quantity over quality and spending too much time completing a profile is not an effective use of their time (or, more likely, the time of their minions). This is, however, not decisive: real users sometimes leave their profiles incomplete.

There has also been some analysis of how scammers complete profiles: 83% claim to be Catholic, 63% claim to be widowers, 37% claim graduate degrees, 54% claim doctorates, and 36% claim to be native Americans. 25% claim to work as engineers and 23% claim to be self-employed.  These are, of course, not decisive—but it does provide some interesting insight into the approach to scamming. It is also important to note that this analysis was done by a specific site—there are bound to be differences between sites. As such, you should not assume that Mohawk Catholic widower with a PhD in electrical engineering is a faker. But it is worth considering if there are other signs.

If you get a wink, like or have your profile favorited by suspicious profile, the easiest and smartest response is to not respond or, at the very least, wait a while. Fake profiles are sometimes removed by the service (I have seen this happen many times myself). An actual person who is interested will probably email. While it should be needless to say, you should never send a text or email to a profile that tries to sneak in a phone number or address—those are almost certainly fake profiles. If you do get an email that immediately asks you to send a text or email outside the service, then it is likely a scam.

Yes, online dating is awful and probably best avoided.

 

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Love, Voles & Spinoza

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on March 17, 2014
Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our em...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essays I examined the idea that love is a mechanical matter as well as the implications this might have for ethics. In this essay, I will focus on the eternal truth that love hurts.

While there are exceptions, the end of a romantic relationship typically involves pain. As noted in my original essay on voles and love, Young found that when a prairie voles loses its partner, it becomes depressed. This was tested by dropping voles into beakers of water to determine how much the voles would struggle. Prairie voles who had just lost a partner struggled to a lesser degree than those who were not so bereft. The depressed voles, not surprisingly, showed a chemical difference from the non-depressed voles. When a depressed vole was “treated” for this depression, the vole struggled as strongly as the non-bereft vole.

Human beings also suffer from the hurt of love. For example, it is not uncommon for a human who has ended a relationship (be it divorce or a breakup) to fall into a vole-like depression and struggle less against the tests of life (though dropping humans into giant beakers to test this would presumably be unethical).

While some might derive an odd pleasure from stewing in a state of post-love depression, presumably this feeling is something that a rational person would want to end. The usual treatment, other than self-medication, is time: people usually tend to come out of the depression and then seek out a new opportunity for love. And depression.

Given the finding that voles can be treated for this depression, it would seem to follow that humans could also be treated for this as well. After all, if love is essentially a chemical romance grounded in strict materialism, then tweaking the brain just so would presumably fix that depression. Interestingly enough, the philosopher Spinoza offered an account of love (and emotions in general) that nicely match up with the mechanistic model being examined.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their affections and chained by who they love. This is an unwise approach to life because, as the voles in the experiment found out, the object of one’s love can die (or leave). This view of Spinoza nicely matches up: voles that bond with a partner become depressed when that partner is lost. In contrast, voles that do not form such bonds do not suffer that depression.

Interestingly enough, while Spinoza was a pantheist, his view of human beings is rather similar to that of the mechanist: he regarded humans are being within the laws of nature and was a determinist in that all that occurs does so from necessity—there is no chance or choice. This view guided him to the notion that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” To be more specific, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable.  In short, Spinoza engaged in what can be regarded as a scientific examination of the emotions—although he did so without the technology available today and from a rather more metaphysical standpoint. However, the core idea that the emotions can be analyzed in terms of definitive laws is the same idea that is being followed currently in regards to the mechanics of emotion.

Getting back to the matter of the negative impact of lost love, Spinoza offered his own solution: as he saw it, all emotions are responses to what is in the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have done something different in the past. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that what he is doing now might not bear fruit in the future. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past and present could be different and the future is not set. Once a person realizes that all that happens occurs of necessity (that is, nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be), then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains of love would be the recognition and acceptance that what occurs is determined.

Putting this in the mechanistic terms of modern neuroscience, a Spinoza-like approach would be to realize that love is purely mechanical and that the pain and depression that comes from the loss of love are also purely mechanical. That is, the terrible, empty darkness that seems to devour the soul at the end of love is merely chemical and electrical events in the brain. Once a person recognizes and accepts this, if Spinoza is right, the pain should be reduced. With modern technology it is possible to do even more: whereas Spinoza could merely provide advice, modern science can eventually provide us with the means to simply adjust the brain and set things right—just as one would fix a malfunctioning car or PC.

One rather obvious problem is, of course, that if everything is necessary and determined, then Spinoza’s advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators and not players. So, if one is determined to wallow like a sad pig in the mud of depression, that is how it will be.

In terms of the mechanistic mind, advice would seem to be equally absurd—that is, to say what a person should do implies that a person has a choice. However, the mechanistic mind presumably just ticks away doing what it does, creating the illusion of choice. So, one brain might tick away and end up being treated while another brain might tick away in the chemical state of depression. They both eventually die and it matters not which is which.

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Love, Voles & Kant

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on March 14, 2014
Español: Intercambio de anillos entre los novios

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay I discussed the current theory that love is essentially a mechanical matter. That is, what we regard as love behavior is merely the workings of chemistry, neurons and genetics. This view, as noted in the essay, is supported by Larry Young’s research involving Voles. This mechanistic view of love has some interesting implications and I will consider one of these in this essay. To be specific, I will consider the matter of the virtue of fidelity.

While most of human history has involved polygamous relationships (such as those enjoyed by the famous King Solomon), the idea of romantic fidelity has been praised in song, fiction and in the professed values of contemporary society. Given Young’s research, it could be the case that humans are biochemically inclined to fidelity—at least in the sense of forming pair bonds. Sexual fidelity, as with the voles, is rather another matter.

While fidelity is praised, one important question is whether or not is worthy of praise as a virtue. If humans are like voles and the mechanistic theory of human bonding is correct, then fidelity of the sort that ground pair-bonding would essentially be a form of addiction, as discussed in the previous essay. On the face of it, this would seem to show that such fidelity is not worthy of praise. After all, one does not praise crack heads for their loyalty to crack. Likewise, being addicted to love would hardly make a person worthy of praise.

One obvious counter is that while crack addiction is regarded as bad because of the harms of crack, the addiction that composes pair bonding should be generally regarded as good because of its good consequences. These consequences would be the usual sort of things people praise about pair bonding, such as the benefits to health.  However, this counter misses the point: the question is not whether pair bonding is good (it generally is in terms of consequences) but whether fidelity should be praised.

If fidelity is a matter of chemistry (in the literal sense), then it would not seem to be worthy of praise. After all, if I form a lasting bond because of this process it is merely a matter of a mechanical process, analogous to being chained to a person. If I stick close to a person because I am chained to her, that is hardly worthy of praise—be the chain metal or chemical.

If my fidelity is determined by this process, then I am not actually acting from fidelity but rather merely acting as a physical system in accord with deterministic (or whatever physics says these days) processes.  To steal from Kant, I would not be free in my fidelity—it would be imposed upon me by this process. As such, my fidelity would not be morally right (or wrong) and I would not be worthy of praise for my fidelity. In order for my fidelity to be morally commendable, it would have to be something that I freely chose as a matter of will.

One obvious concern with this sort of view is that it would seem to make fidelity a passionless sort of thing. After all, if I chose to be faithful to a person on the basis of a free and rational choice rather than being locked into fidelity by a chemical stew of passion and emotion, then this seems rather cold and calculating—like how one might select the next move in chess or determine which stock to buy. After all, love is supposed to be something one falls into rather than something that one chooses.

This reply has considerable appeal. After all, a rational choice to be loyal to a person would not be the traditional sort of love that is praised in song, fiction and romantic daydreams. One wants to hear a person gushing about passion, burning emotions, and the ways of the heart—not rational choice.  Of course, an appeal to the idealized version of romantic love might be a poor response—much like any appeal to fiction. That said, there does seem to be a certain appeal in the whole emotional love thing—although the idea that love is merely a chemical romance also seems to rob love of that magic.

A second obvious concern is that it assumes that people are capable of free choice—that is, a person can decide to be faithful or not. The mechanistic view of humans typically does not stop with the emotional aspects (although Descartes did seem to regard emotions, at least in animals, as having a physical basis—while leaving thinking to the immaterial mind). Rather, they tend to extend to all aspects of the human and this includes what we would regard as decision making. For example, Thomas Hobbes argued that we actually do not chose—we simply seem to make decisions but they are purely deterministic. As such, if the choice to be faithful is merely another mechanistic process, then this would be no more praiseworthy than being faithful through a love addiction. In fact, as has long been argued, this sort of mechanistic view would take care of morality by eliminating agency.

 

 

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Love, Voles & Mechanism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on March 12, 2014
English: Young bank voles (Clethrionomys glare...

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The prairie vole has attracted some attention recently because of research into love and voles. Researchers such as Larry Young have found that the prairie vole is one of the few socially monogamous mammals—that is, a mammal that pair bonds for extended periods of time (even for life). Interestingly, this pair bonding does not occur naturally in other varieties of voles—they behave like typical mammals and do not engage in this sort of pair bonding.

Larry Young was rather curious about this feature of prairie voles and researched it. He found that the brains of the voles are such that the pleasure reward of sexual activity becomes linked to a specific partner. The specific mechanism involves oxytocin and vasopressin, but the important thing is that the voles become, in effect, addicted to each other in much the same manner that a smoker becomes addicted to cigarettes and associates pleasure with the trappings of smoking.  To confirm this, Young genetically modified meadow voles to be like prairie voles. The results supported the idea that the bonding is due to the chemistry: the normally non-bonding meadow voles engaged in bonding behavior.

Humans, unlike most other mammals, also engage in pair bonding (at least sometimes). While humans are different from voles, the mechanism is presumably similar. That is, we are literally addicted to love.

Young also found that prairie voles suffer from what humans would call heart ache: when a prairie voles loses its partner, it becomes depressed. Young tested this by dropping voles into beakers of water to determine the degree of struggle offered by the voles. He found that prairie voles who had just lost a partner struggled to a lesser degree than those who were not so bereft. The depressed voles, not surprisingly, showed a chemical difference from the non-depressed voles. When a depressed vole was “treated” for this depression, the vole struggled as strongly as the non-bereft vole.

This also presumably holds for humans as well. While it is well know that humans typically become saddened by the loss of a partner (either by death or a breakup), this research also presumably suggests that human depression of this sort has a chemical basis and that it could be “cured” by suitable treatment. This is, of course, what is often attempted with therapy and medication.

While the mechanical model of love (and the mind in general) might seem like something new, the idea of materialism (that everything is physical—as opposed to some things being non-physical in nature) is an old one that dates back to Thales. The idea that human beings are mechanical systems goes back to Descartes: he regarded the human body as a purely mechanical system, albeit one controlled by a non-material mind. Thomas Hobbes accepted Descartes view that the body is a machine, but rejected Descartes’ dualism. Influenced by the physics of his day, Hobbes held that the human being is a deterministic machine, just like all other machines and living creatures.

Perhaps the most explicit early development of the idea that humans are machines occurred in Julien de La Mettrie’s Man a Machine.  While La Mettrie is not as famous as Hobbes or Descartes, many of his views are duplicated today by modern scientists. La Mettrie held that humans and animals are essentially the same, although humans are more complex than most animals. He also held that human beings are material, deterministic, mechanist systems. That is, humans are essentially biological machines. Given these views, the idea that human love and vole love are essentially the same would be accepted by La Mettrie and would, in fact, be exactly what his theory would predict.

Interestingly enough, contemporary science is continuing the project started by philosophers like Thales, Hobbes and La Mettrie. The main difference is that contemporary scientists have much better equipment to work with and can, unlike La Mettrie and Hobbes, examine the chemical and genes that are supposed to determine human behavior. Without perhaps realizing it, scientists are apparently proving the theories of long dead philosophers.

The chemical theory of love does have some rather interesting philosophical implications and some of these will be considered in upcoming essays.

 

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