A Philosopher's Blog

Philosophy & My Old Husky I: Post Hoc & Anecdotal Evidence

Posted in Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2016

dogpark065My Siberian husky, Isis, joined the pack in 2004 at the age of one. It took her a little while to realize that my house was now her house—she set out to chew all that could be chewed, presumably as part of some sort of imperative of destruction. Eventually, she came to realize that she was chewing her stuff—or so I like to say. More likely, joining me on 8-16 mile runs wore the chew out of her.

As the years went by, we both slowed down. Eventually, she could no longer run with me (despite my slower pace) and we went on slower adventures (one does not walk a husky; one goes adventuring with a husky). Despite her advanced age, she remained active—at least until recently. After an adventure, she seemed slow and sore. She cried once in pain, but then seemed to recover. Then she got worse, requiring a trip to the emergency veterinarian (pets seem to know the regular vet hours and seem to prefer their woes to take place on weekends).

The good news was that the x-rays showed no serious damage—just indication of wear and tear of age. She also had some unusual test results, perhaps indicating cancer. Because of her age, the main concern was with her mobility and pain—as long as she could get about and be happy, then that was what mattered. She was prescribed an assortment of medications and a follow up appointment was scheduled with the regular vet. By then, she had gotten worse in some ways—her right foot was “knuckling” over, making walking difficult. This is often a sign of nerve issues. She was prescribed steroids and had to go through a washout period before starting the new medicine. As might be imagined, neither of us got much sleep during this time.

While all stories eventually end, her story is still ongoing—the steroids seemed to have done the trick. She can go on slow adventures and enjoys basking in the sun—watching the birds and squirrels, willing the squirrels to fall from the tree and into her mouth.

While philosophy is often derided as useless, it was actually very helpful to me during this time and I decided to write about this usefulness as both a defense of philosophy and, perhaps, as something useful for others who face similar circumstances with an aging canine.

Isis’ emergency visit was focused on pain management and one drug she was prescribed was Carprofen (more infamously known by the name Rimadyl). Carprofen is an NSAID that is supposed to be safer for canines than those designed for humans (like aspirin) and is commonly used to manage arthritis in elderly dogs. Being a curious and cautious sort, I researched all the medications (having access to professional journals and a Ph.D.  is handy here). As is often the case with medications, I ran across numerous forums which included people’s sad and often angry stories about how Carprofen killed their pets. The typical story involved what one would expect: a dog was prescribed Carprofen and then died or was found to have cancer shortly thereafter. I found such stories worrisome and was concerned—I did not want my dog to be killed by her medicine. But, I also knew that without medication, she would be in terrible pain and unable to move. I wanted to make the right choice for her and knew this would require making a rational decision.

My regular vet decided to go with the steroid option, one that also has the potential for side effects—complete with the usual horror stories on the web. Once again, it was a matter of choosing between the risks of medication and the consequences of doing without. In addition to my research into the medication, I also investigated various other options for treating arthritis and pain in older dogs. She was already on glucosamine (which might be beneficial, but seems to have no serious side effects), but the web poured forth an abundance of options ranging from acupuncture to herbal remedies. I even ran across the claim that copper bracelets could help pain in dogs.

While some of the alternatives had been subject to actual scientific investigation, the majority of the discussions involved a mix of miracle and horror stories. One person might write glowingly about how an herbal product brought his dog back from death’s door while another might claim that after he gave his dog the product, the dog died because of it. Sorting through all these claims, anecdotes and studies turned out to be a fair amount of work. Fortunately, I had numerous philosophical tools that helped a great deal with such cases, specifically of the sort where it is claimed that “I gave my dog X, then he got better/died and X was the cause.” Knowing about two common fallacies is very useful in these cases.

The first is what is known as Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”).  This fallacy has the following form:

 

  1. A occurs before B.
  2. Therefore A is the cause of B.

 

This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim.

While cause does precede effect (at least in the normal flow of time), proper causal reasoning, as will be discussed in an upcoming essay, involves sorting out whether A occurring before B is just a matter of coincidence or not. In the case of medication involving an old dog, it could entirely be a matter of coincidence that the dog died or was diagnosed with cancer after the medicine was administered. That is, the dog might have died anyway or might have already had cancer. Without a proper investigation, simply assuming that the medication was the cause would be an error. The same holds true for beneficial effects. For example, a dog might go lame after a walk and then recover after being given an herbal supplement for several days. While it would be tempting to attribute the recovery to the herbs, they might have had no effect at all. After all, lameness often goes away on its own or some other factor might have been the cause.

This is not to say that such stories should be rejected out of hand—it is to say that they should be approached with due consideration that the reasoning involved is post hoc. In concrete terms, if you are afraid to give your dog medicine she was prescribed because you heard of cases in which a dog had the medicine and then died, you should investigate more (such as talking to your vet) about whether there really is a risk of death. As another example, if someone praises an herbal supplement because her dog perked up after taking it, then you should see if there is evidence for this claim beyond the post hoc situation.

Fortunately, there has been considerable research into medications and treatments that provide a basis for making a rational choice. When considering such data, it is important not to be lured into rejecting data by the seductive power of the Fallacy of Anecdotal Evidence.

This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. The fallacy is considered by some to be a variation on hasty generalization.  It has the following forms:

Form One

  1. Anecdote A is told about a member (or small number of members) of Population P.
  2. Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on Anecdote A.

For example, a person might hear anecdotes about dogs that died after taking a prescribed medication and infer that the medicine is likely to kill dogs.

Form Two

  1. Reasonable statistical evidence S exists for general claim C.
  2. Anecdote A is presented that is an exception to or goes against general claim C.
  3. Conclusion: General claim C is rejected.

For example, the statistical evidence shows that the claim that glucosamine-chondroitin can treat arthritis is, at best, very weakly supported. But, a person might tell a story about how their aging husky “was like a new dog” after she starting getting a daily dose of the supplement. To accept this as proof that the data is wrong would be to fall for this fallacy. That said, I do give my dog glucosamine-chondroitin because it is cheap, has no serious side effects and might have some benefit. I am fully aware of the data and do not reject it—I am gambling that it might do my husky some good.

The way to avoid becoming a victim of anecdotal evidence is to seek reliable, objective statistical data about the matter in question (a vet should be a good source). This can, I hasten to say, can be quite a challenge when it comes to treatments for pets. In many cases, there are no adequate studies or trials that provide statistical data and all the information available is in the form of anecdotes. One option is, of course, to investigate the anecdotes and try to do your own statistics. So, if the majority of anecdotes indicate something harmful (or something beneficial) then this would be weak evidence for the claim. In any case, it is wise to approach anecdotes with due care—a story is not proof.

“Trump” Terror at Emory

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 1, 2016

Donald Trump & Melania enter the Oscar De LA R...

It was the day that fear and pain came to Emory University. No, it was not another horrific campus shooting. This day of terror was inflicted by chalked “Trump 2016” messages. In response, students staged a protest. Comedians, such as Larry Wilmore, mocked. The administration, somewhat amazingly, decided to take no action to find the chalk wielding Trump terrorist.

While this incident can be easily dismissed as yet another case of the absurdly fragile state of the coddled college elite, it does have some philosophical interest that makes it worth considering. I will begin by offering a defense of the pained and frightened students, then move to a discussion of free expression.

While chalked messages are frequently encountered on campuses, there are three ways to argue that the students were legitimately threatened by the Trump chalk marks. One approach would be to argue that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and apparent bigotry make his name something to be feared, such that chalking it on campus is akin to chalking actually threats or hateful remarks.

A possible reply to this is that Trump is not actually bad enough to warrant such a fearful response from the mere writing of his name—that is, the reaction is far too extreme given the level of threat. Another reply is that even if Trump is truly a threatening bigot, the invocation of his name should not suffice as a threat. It is, after all, just his name.

A second approach would be to argue that the chalk marks occurred in a broader context—that the much dreaded hostile environment had been created and in this context “Trump 2016” is a dire threat. This does have a certain appeal since, given the right context, almost any words can present a frightening threat. That said, it would certainly require quite a remarkable context to make an expression of support for the leading Republican candidate to strike legitimate terror into the hearts of grown people.

A third approach would be to argue that the words were written with an intent the threatened students were aware of—that is, “Trump 2016” and similar messages are a known code for actual threats. If this is the case, then the students could be thus justified in their terror and pain. This does, however, create a bit of a problem—what if “Bernie 2016” or “Hillary 2016” become code words for vile threats?

As might be suspected, my own view is that the students were most likely not warranted in their terror and pain. However, if it turns out that there really was a coded threat that the students understood, then I would revise my view. What is, I think, more interesting about this situation is the matter of free expression.

As many folks on the right have noted, there seems to be an ever increasing hostility to free expression on certain “elite” college campuses. There does not seem to be such a problem at many other schools, such as my own Florida A&M University. This might be because the students are rather busy with classes, university activities and working to pay for school. Interestingly, even some people in the liberal spectrum have regarded such things as “trigger warnings” and “free speech zones” as signs of an intolerance on the part of some of the left. These concerns, at least at certain schools, do seem legitimate—as supported by the Trump Terror Chalk Incident of 2016 (as history shall know it).

This episode of terror has not resulted in any change to my view of free expression: people should have complete freedom to express their views, provided that doing so does not inflict actual harm directly or indirectly. Making threats of violence, inciting violence or engaging in harmful slander would be clear examples of expression that should not be protected. What is merely offensive, annoying, or even regarded as vaguely threatening should not be restricted.

One practical concern is sorting out what legitimately counts as harmful expression that should be limited under the classic principle of harm. In this specific case, the problem is deciding whether or not it suffices that the students felt pain and believed they were threatened. On the one hand, one could use an analogy to physical pain: if something hurts, then it did cause pain. So, if chalked Trump support hurts students, then they should be protected from it.  On the other hand, there is the matter of what can reasonably be considered painful and what would be an overreaction. After all, if people could merely claim pain or fear was caused by some expression and shut down free expression, silence would soon reign. Fortunately, good sense can prevail in such cases—supported by arguments, of course. In the case of the Trump chalk marks, this would be on par with someone claiming assault and battery when someone merely brushed past them while walking. Such contact might strike terror into some, but it would be absurd to consider it an attack. Likewise, sensitive students might fear the words “Trump 2016”, but to claim true pain would be an absurd overreaction. The real pain will come when Trump is president.

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The RNC & Gun Free

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2016

The Republican Party is well known for its consistent support of gun rights and opposition to attempts to impose restrictions on these rights. As such, it might strike some as odd that the gun-loving Republicans are holding their national convention in a gun free zone in Cleveland, Ohio. Though the party might seem helpless in the face of the Secret Service (which banned guns from the Republican national convention in 2012), brave patriots have risen in its defense. A petition to allow open carry at the Quicken Loans Arena during the Republican Party’s national convention has been signed by over 50,000 supporters of the Second Amendment.

While some have suggested that the petition is not the work of true gun-loving patriots but by wily Democrat James P. Ryan, it is well grounded in an interesting moral argument. In any case, to dismiss the moral argument because of the identity of the author would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy. After all, the merit of an argument depends on the argument, not the identity of the author.

The argument used to justify the petition is based in the principle of consistent application—this is the principle that standards must be applied the same way in similar circumstances. Exceptions can be justified, but this requires showing that there is a relevant difference between the applications that warrants changing or not applying the standard.

Not being consistent is problematic in at least three ways. One is that the person or group runs the risk of hypocrisy, which is morally problematic. The second is that inconsistent application is unfair, which is morally problematic as well. The third is that such inconsistent application runs the risk of undermining the justification for the standard, thus suggesting that the standard might not be well supported.

The case for the inconsistency of the Republican Party, the NRA and the three remaining Republican candidates is rather effectively made on the petition site. As such, I will present a rather concise summary of the case.

First, the NRA has argued that gun free zones, like where the convention will be held, are essentially advertising the best places for mass shootings. The NRA consistently opposes such zones—or at least it did. Second, Trump, Cruz and Kasich have explicitly opposed gun free zones. Trump and Cruz have both echoed the NRA’s line that gun free zones are bait for mass shooters. Third, there are the stock arguments made by the NRA and pro-gun Republicans that people need guns to defend themselves—that a good guy with a gun is the only one who can stop a bad guy with a gun. As such, for the Republican Party to hold its convention in a gun free zone with Cruz, Trump, Kasich and the NRA agreeing to this would be a clear act of moral inconsistency. Since they all oppose gun free zones (including, in some cases public schools) they should insist that the same standard they wish to apply to everyone else must also be applied to them. That is, guns must be allowed at the convention.

It could be countered that the Republican Party does back private property rights and, as such, they could consistently say that the Quicken Loans Arena owners have the right to ban guns from their property (though they are just laying out irresistible murder bait by doing so). While it is reasonable to accept that private property rights trump gun rights, the obvious counter is to insist that the convention be moved to a private or public venue that allows guns unless Quicken Loans Arena is willing to change its policy for the event.

Another counter is to note that the Secret Service has apparently insisted that guns not be allowed at the event. The Republicans could thus say that they really want to have guns, but the government is violating their rights by forcing them to ban the guns they so dearly and truly love. That is, if it was up to them the convention would be well armed.

The easy and obvious reply is that the Republican Party and candidates could take a principled stand and insist that guns be allowed. After all, their position on the matter of gun free zones is quite clear—the least safe place to be is a gun-free zone. Presumably the Secret Service is concerned that someone might bring a gun to the convention and try to kill Trump, Cruz or Kasich. Since these three men believe that gun free zones would simply attract assassins, they should be able to convince the Secret Service that they would be safer surrounded by armed citizens and, of course, sign whatever waivers or forms would be needed to make this so. If the candidates and the party lack the clout to make the convention gun friendly, surely the gun-friendly Republican majority in Congress could pass legislation allowing guns to be carried at the convention. This, one might suspect, would be a law that Obama would be quite willing to sign.

If the Republicans do not approach this affront to their gun rights with the same will and tenacity they deploy against Obamacare, one might suspect a hypocrisy regarding their position on guns: doing without gun free zones is fine for everyone else; but the Republican establishment wants the protection of gun free zones. This does not, of course, show that they are in error in regards to their avowed position opposing gun free zones—to infer that would be to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque (the fallacy that an inconsistency between a person’s claim and her actions shows her claim is wrong). However, it might be suspected that if the Republican establishment is fine with the convention as a gun free zone, then they have some evidence that gun free zones are not, contrary to their professed view, murder bait and are safer than gun zones.

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Body Hacking III: Better than Human

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 25, 2016

While most of the current body hacking technology is merely gimmicky and theatrical, it does have potential. It is, for example, easy enough to imagine that the currently very dangerous night-vision eye drops could be made into a safe product, allowing people to hack their eyes for good or nefarious reasons. There is also the model of the cyberpunk future envisioned by such writers as William Gibson and games like Cyberpunk and Shadowrun. In such a future, people might body hack their way to being full cyborgs. In the nearer future, there might be such augmentations as memory backups for the brain, implanted phones, and even subdermal weapons. Such augmenting hacks do raise various moral issues that go beyond the basic ethics of self-modification. Fortunately, these ethical matters can be effectively addressed by the application of existing moral theories and principles.

Since the basic ethics of self-modification were addressed in the previous essay, this essay will focus solely on the ethical issue of augmentation through body hacking. This issue does, of course, stack with the other moral concerns.

In general, there seems to be nothing inherently wrong with the augmentation of the body through technology. The easy way to argue for this is to draw the obvious analogy to external augmentation: starting with sticks and rocks, humans augmented their natural capacities. If this is acceptable, then moving the augmentation under the skin should not open up a new moral world.

The easy and obvious objection is to contend that under the skin is a new moral world—that, for example, a smart phone carried in the pocket is one thing, while a smartphone embedded in the skull is quite another.

This objection does have merit: implanting the technology is morally significant. At the very least, there are the moral concerns about potential health risks. However, this moral concern is about the medical aspects, not about the augmentation and this is the focus of the moral discussion at hand. This is not to say that the health issues are not important—they are actually very important; but fall under another moral issue.

If it is accepted that augmentation is, in general, morally acceptable, there are still legitimate concerns about specific types of augmentation and the context in which they are employed. Fortunately, there is already considerable moral discussion about these categories of augmentation.

One area in which augmentation is of considerable concern is in sports and games. Athletes have long engaged in body hacking—if the use of drugs can be considered body hacking. While those playing games like poker generally do not use enhancing drugs, they have attempted to make use of technology to cheat. While future body hacks might be more dramatic, they would seem to fall under the same principles that govern the use of augmenting substances and equipment in current sports. For example, an implanted device that stores extra blood to be added during the competition would be analogous to existing methods of blood doping. As another example, a poker or chess player might implant a computer that she can use to cheat at the game.

While specific body hacks will need to be addressed by the appropriate governing bodies of sports and games, the basic principle that cheating is morally unacceptable still applies. As such, the ethics of body hacking in sports and games is easy enough to handle in the general—the real challenge will be sorting out which hacks are cheating and which are acceptable. In any case, some interesting scandals can be expected.

The field of academics is also an area of concern. Since students are quite adept at using technology to cheat in school and on standardized tests, it must be expected that there will be efforts to cheat through body hacking. As with cheating in sports and games, the basic ethical framework is well-established: creating in morally unacceptable in such contexts. As with sports and games, the challenge will be sorting out which hacks are considered cheating and which are not. If body hacking becomes mainstream, it can be expected that education and testing will need to change as will what counts as cheating. To use an analogy, calculators are often allowed on tests and thus the future might see implanted computers being allowed for certain tests. Testing of memory might also become pointless—if most people have implanted devices that can store data and link to the internet, memorizing things might cease to be a skill worth testing. This does, however, segue into the usual moral concerns about people losing abilities or becoming weaker due to technology. Since these are general concerns that have applied to everything from the abacus to the automobile, I will not address this issue here.

There is also the broad realm composed of all the other areas of life that do not generally have specific moral rules about cheating through augmentation. These include such areas as business and dating. While there are moral rules about certain forms of cheating, the likely forms of body hacking would not seem to be considered cheating in such areas, though they might be regarded as providing an unfair advantage—especially in cases in which the wealthy classes are able to gain even more advantages over the less well-off classes.

As an example, a company with considerable resources might use body hacking to upgrade its employees so they can be more effective, thus providing a competitive edge over lesser companies.  While it seems likely that certain augmentations will be regarded as unfair enough to require restriction, body hacking would merely change the means and not the underlying game. That is, the well-off always have considerable advantages over the less-well off. Body hacking would just be a new tool to be used in the competition. Hence, existing ethical principles would apply here as well. Or not be applied—as is so often the case when vast sums of money are on the line.

So, while body hacking for augmentation will require some new applications of existing moral theories and principles, it does not make a significant change in the moral landscape. Like almost all changes in technology it will merely provide new ways of doing old things. Like cheating in school or sports. Or life.

 

 

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Body Hacking II: Restoration & Replacement

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2016

While body hacking is sometimes presented as being new and radical, humans have been engaged in the practice (under other names) for quite some time. One of the earliest forms of true body hacking was probably the use of prosthetic parts to replace lost pieces, such as a leg or hand. These hacks were aimed at restoring a degree of functionality, so they were practical hacks.

While most contemporary body hacking seems aimed at gimmickry or rather limited attempts at augmentation, there are some serious applications that involve replacement and restoration. One example of this is the color blind person who is using a skull mounted camera to provide audio clues regarding colors. This hack serves as a replacement to missing components of the eye, albeit in a somewhat odd way.

Medicine is, obviously enough, replete with body hacks ranging from contact lenses to highly functional prosthetic limbs. These technologies and devices provide people with some degree of replacement and restoration for capabilities they lost or never had. While these sort of hacks are typically handled by medical professionals, advances in existing technology and the rise of new technologies will certainly result in more practical hacks aimed not at gimmickry but at restoration and replacement. There will also certainly be considerable efforts aimed at augmentation, but this matter will be addressed in another essay.

Since humans have been body hacking for replacement and restoration for thousands of years, the ethics of this matter are rather well settled. In general, the use of technology for medical reasons of replacement or restoration is morally unproblematic. After all, this process is simply fulfilling the main purpose of medicine: to get a person as close to their normal healthy state as possible. To use a specific example, there really is no morally controversy over the use of prosthetic limbs that are designed to restore functionality. In the case of body hacks, the same general principle would apply: hacks that aim at restoration or replacement are generally morally unproblematic. That said, there are some potential areas of concern.

One area of both moral and practical concern is the risk of body hacking done by non-professionals. That is, amateur or DIY body hacking. The concern is that such hacking could have negative consequences—that is, the hack could turn out to do more harm than good. This might be due to bad design, poor implementation or other causes. For example, a person might endeavor a hack to replace a missing leg and have it fail catastrophically, resulting in a serious injury. This is, of course, not unique to body hacking—this is a general matter of good decision making.

As with health and medicine in general, it is generally preferable to go with a professional rather than an amateur or a DIY endeavor. Also, the possibility of harm makes it a matter of moral concern. That said, there are many people who cannot afford professional care and technology will afford people an ever-growing opportunity to body hack for medical reasons. This sort of self-help can be justified on the grounds that some restoration or replacement is better than none. This assumes that the self-help efforts do not result in worse harm than doing nothing. As such, body hackers and society will need to consider the ethics of the risks of amateur and DIY body hacking. Guidance can be found here in existing medical ethics—such as moral guides for people attempting to practice medicine on themselves and others without proper medical training.

A second area of moral concern is that some people will engage in replacing fully functional parts with body hacks that are equal or inferior to the original (augmentation will be addressed in the next essay). For example, a person might want to remove a finger to replace it with a mechanical finger with a built in USB drive. As another example, a person might want to replace her eye with a camera comparable or inferior to her natural eye.

One clear moral concern is the potential dangers in such hacks—removing a body part can be rather dangerous. One approach would be to weigh the harms and benefits of such hacking. On the face of it, such replacement hacks would seem to be at best neutral—that is, the person will end up with the same capabilities as before. It is also possible, perhaps likely, that the replacement attempt will result in diminished capabilities, thus making the hack wrong because of the harm inflicted. Some body hackers might argue that such hacks have a value beyond the functionality. For example, the value of self-expression or achieving a state of existence that matches one’s conception or vision of self. In such cases, the moral question would be whether or not these factors are worth considering and if they are, how much weight they should be given morally.

There is also the worry that such hacks would be a form of unnecessary self-mutilation and thus at best morally dubious. A counter to this is to argue, as John Stuart Mill did, that people have a right to self-harm, provided that they do not harm others.  That said, arguing that people do not have a right to interfere with self-harm (provided the person is acting freely and rationally) does not entail that self-harm is morally acceptable. It is certainly possible to argue against self-harm on utilitarian grounds and also on the basis of moral obligations to oneself. Arguments from the context of virtue theory would also apply—self harm is certainly contrary to developing one’s excellence as a person.

These approaches could be countered. Utilitarian arguments can be met with utilitarian arguments that offer a different evaluation of the harms and benefits. Arguments based on obligations to oneself can be countered by arguing that there are not such obligations or that the obligations one does have allows from this sort of modification. Argument from virtue theory could be countered by attacking the theory itself or showing how such modifications are consistent with moral excellence.

My own view, which I consistently apply to other areas such as drug use, diet, and exercise, is that people have a moral right to the freedom of self-abuse/harm. This requires that the person is capable of making an informed decision and is not coerced or misled. As such, I hold that a person has every right to DIY body hacking. Since I also accept the principle of harm, I hold that society has a moral right to regulate body hacking of others as other similar practices (such as dentistry) are regulated. This is to prevent harm being inflicted on others. Being fond of virtue theory, I do hold that people should not engage in self-harm, even though they have every right to do so without having their liberty restricted. To use a concrete example, if someone wants to spoon out her eyeball and replace it with a LED light, then she has every right to do so. However, if an untrained person wants to set up shop and scoop eyeballs for replacement with lights, then society has every right to prevent that. I do think that scooping out an eye would be both foolish and morally wrong; which is also how I look at heroin use and smoking tobacco.

 

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Body Hacking I: Aesthetics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 21, 2016

Back in my graduate school days, I made some extra money writing for various science fiction and horror gaming companies. This was in the 1990s, which was the chrome age of cyberpunk: the future was supposed to be hacked, jacked, and bionic. The future is now, but is an age of Tinder, Facebook, and cat videos. But, there is still hope of the cyberpunk future: body hackers are endeavoring to bring some cyberpunk into the world. The current state of the hack is, to be honest, rather disappointing—but, great things arise from lesser things and hope remains for a chromed future.

Body hacking, at this point, is fairly minor. For example, some people have implanted electronics under their skin, such as RFID chips. Of course, my husky also has an implanted chip. As another example, one fellow who is color blind has a skull mounted device that informs him of colors via sounds. As one might imagine, body hacks that can be seen have generated some mockery and hostility. Since I owe cyberpunk for a few crates of ramen noodles and bags of puffed rice, I am obligated to come to the defense of the aesthetics of body hacking.

While some point out that philosophers have not given body hacking the attention it deserves and claim that it is something new and revolutionary, it still falls nicely under established moral systems. As such, body hacking is a new matter for applied ethics—but does not seem to require a new moral system or theory to handle it. This can, of course, be disputed. However, I will address the moral concerns about the aesthetics of body hacking by the simple application of established moral theory.

The aesthetic aspects of body hacking fall under the ethics of lifestyle choices, specifically those regarding choices of personal appearance. This can be shown by drawing easy and obvious analogies to established means of modifying personal appearance. The most obvious modifications are clothing, hairstyles and accessories (such as jewelry). These, like body hacking, have the capacity to shock and offend people—perhaps by what is revealed by the clothing or the message sent by it (including literal messages, such as T-shirts with text and images).  Unlike body hacking, these modifications are on the surface, thus making them somewhat different from true body hacking.

As such, a closer analogy would involve classic cosmetic body modifications. These include hair dye, vanity contact lenses, decorative scars, piercings, and tattoos. In fact, these can be seen as low-tech body hacks—precursors to the technological hacks of today. Body hacks go beyond these classic modifications and range from the absurd (a man growing an “ear” on his arm) to the semi-useful (a person who replaced a missing fingertip with a USB drive). While concerns about body hacking go beyond the aesthetic, body hacks do have the capacity to elicit responses similar to other modifications. For example, tattoos were once regarded as the mark of a lower class person, though they are now general accepted. As another example, in the past men (other than pirates) did not get piercings unless they were willing to face ridicule. Now piercing is passé.

Because the aesthetics of body hacking is analogous to classic appearance hacks, the same ethics applies to these cases. Naturally enough, people do vary considerably in their ethics of appearance. I, as veteran readers surely suspect, favor John Stuart Mill’s approach to the matter of the ethics of lifestyle choices. Mill argues that people have the right to interfere with liberty only to prevent a person from harming others—a rather reasonable standard of interference which he justifies on utilitarian grounds. Mill explicitly addresses the ways of life people chose: “…the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.”

Mill’s principle nicely handles the ethics of the aesthetics of body hacking (and beyond, but I will get to that in a later essay): body hackers have the moral freedom to hack themselves even though such modifications are regarded as aesthetically perverse, foolish, or wrong. So, just as a person has the moral right to wear clothing that some would regard as too revealing or dye his hair magenta, a person has the moral right to grow a functionless ear on his arm or implant blinking lights under her skin. But, just as a person would not have a right to wear a jacket covered in outward facing needles and razor blades, a person would not have the right to hack herself with an implanted strobe light that flashes randomly into people’s eyes. This is because such things become the legitimate business of others because of the harm they can do.

Mill does note that people are subject to the consequences of their choices—not interfering with someone’s way of life does not require accepting it, embracing it or even working around it. For example, just as a person who elects to have “Goat F@cker” tattooed on his face can expect challenges in getting a job as a bank teller or school teacher, a person who has blinking lights embedded in his hand can expect to encounter some challenges in employment. Interestingly, the future might see discrimination lawsuits on the part of body hackers, analogous to past lawsuits for other forms of discrimination. It can also be expected that social consequences will change for body hacking, just as it occurred with tattoos and yoga pants.

One final point is the stock concern about the possible harms of offensive appearances. That is, that other people do have a legitimate interest in the appearance of others because their appearance might harm them by offending them. While this is worth considering, there does not seem to be a compelling reason to accept that mere offensiveness causes sufficient harm to warrant restrictions on appearance. What would be needed would be evidence of actual harm to others that arises because the appearance inflicts the harm rather than the alleged harm arising because of how the offended person feels about the appearance. To use an analogy, while someone who hates guns has the right not to be shot, he does not have the right to insist that he never see guns or images of guns.

The discussion has shown that body hacking that does not inflict harm to others falls nicely under the liberty to choose a way of life, provided that the way of life does not inflict harm on others. But, as always, a person who strays too far from the norm has to be aware of possible consequences. Especially when it comes to dating and employment.

 

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Trump & the Third Party

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 18, 2016

Trump’s ongoing success has created quite a disturbance in the Republican establishment. While some have merely expressed opposition to him, there is a growing “never Trump” movement. While this movement is currently focused on preventing Trump from becoming the candidate by supporting his few remaining opponents, there has been some talk of putting forth a third party candidate.

Third party candidates are nothing new in the United States. Ralph Nader made a bid on the left for president and Ross Perot made an attempt on the libertarian side. The main impact of these attempts was to pull voters from one party and enable the other party to win. For example, Ralph Nader helped defeat Al Gore. As such, the most likely effect of a conservative third party candidate running against Trump and Hillary would be a victory for Hillary. Given that the main concern of most political partisans is the victory of their party, it might be wondered why a third party option would even be considered.

One reason is that of principle. In the case of Nader and Perot, their supporters believed in them and supported them—even though it should have been obvious that doing so would not result in a victory and would, in fact, help someone they ideologically opposed reach the White House. In the case of Trump, there are those who oppose him as a matter of principle. Some oppose his apparent racism and bigotry while others contend that he is not a true conservative in regards to fiscal and social matters. As such, people would most likely be voting for the third party candidate because he is not Trump and not Hillary rather than because of who he is.

While politics is seen mainly as a matter of pragmatic power seeking, a moral case can be made for a Republican to vote for a third party candidate on the basis of principle rather than for Trump or for Hillary. If Trump and Hillary are both regarded as roughly equal in evil and the person wishes to vote, then voting for either would be wrong from that person’s perspective. After all, voting for a person makes one responsible (albeit to a tiny degree) for the consequences of their being in power. Voting for a third party candidate the person either supports or regards as the least evil of the lot would thus be the best option in terms of principle. If the person regards one of the two main candidates as the greatest evil, then the person should vote for the lesser evil that is likely to win, as I argued in an earlier essay.

A second reason to run a third party candidate is a matter of damage control. The predictions are that while Trump is winning the largest fraction of the minority of Republican voters who vote in primaries he will have a negative impact on voter turnout. While the third party strategy concedes that Trump will lose the general election, the hope is that a third party alternative who is popular enough will get people to vote. This, it is hoped, will help the Republicans do well on other parts of the ticket, such as elections for senators and representatives. As such, there is an excellent pragmatic reason to run a third party option to Trump—to reduce the chance that the never Trump voters will simply stay home to Netflix and chill on election day.

While this strategy might have some short term benefits to Republicans, running a third party candidate against the official Republican candidate would make the chasm in the party official—it would presumably be the potential beginning of the end of the party, splitting the establishment from a very active part of the base. This could, of course, be a good thing—the Republican Party seems to have been fragmenting for quite some time and the establishment has drifted away from much of the common folk.

A third reason to run a third party candidate is to hope for a Hail Mary. There is some talk that a third party candidate could cash in on the never Trump and Hillary Haters to create a situation in which there is no winner of the election. In such a situation, the House would pick the president and the Senate would select the vice-president. Since the Republicans control the House and Senate, the result would mostly likely be that the third party Republican would be president.

While this is a longshot, it is not impossible. The likely result of such a power play would be to break apart the Republican party—those who support Trump already loath the establishment and this would probably distill that into hatred. But, looked at pragmatically, the game is about holding power for as long as one can—so the power players would probably be content to take the win on the grounds that the party was probably going to split anyway.

This election could see a truly historic event—the end of the Republican party as it currently exists and perhaps the rise of a new party or parties.

 

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I’m not moving to Canada even if Trump is elected

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 16, 2016

Americans have a habit of threatening to move to Canada if a presidential election does not go their way; however, few actually follow up on this threat. While I am worried that Trump might be elected President, I have not made this threat and have no intention of leaving should the Trumpocracy come to pass. While some of my reasons are purely practical, I also have philosophical reasons. Getting to these will, however, require a short trip through some other issues.

When I was much younger, I was into politics and dreamed of holding political office. This dream gave way to cynicism about American politics and the embracing of anarchism and then apathy. I got better, though.

When I was an anarchist, I decided not to vote. This was based on the anarchist principle that voting is both ineffective and entails acknowledging the legitimacy of the oppressive system. When I became apathetic, I did not vote on the basis of an analogy to picking a movie. As I saw it, picking between candidates was like picking between bad movies. The rational choice, it would seem, would be not to pick any: vote none of the above. I accepted this until I had a revelation while watching a movie I did not like while on a date. Elections, it turns out, are like being on a movie date when only bad movies are playing. Since you are stuck going to a movie, you need to pick among the bad choices. The goal is not to pick what you like—since all choices are bad. The goal is to pick the least bad option. In the case of elections, you are stuck with the results if you vote or do not vote. If all the options are bad, you can still try to avoid the worst option by voting for the least bad. If all options are identical in badness, then you could avoid voting at all or use an alternative method. In my case, I often vote for the one that most resembles an animal I like or vote against the one that most resembles a creature I dislike.

There is, however, a downside to voting when you regard all the options as bad: you have become part of the process and are a party to the crimes of the person you voted for—should that person win. On the plus side, if you helped the lesser evil win, then you deserve kudos for preventing a greater evil.

One problem with becoming part of the voting process is that this would seem to acknowledge the legitimacy of the process (assuming one is not compelled to vote). This would seem to commit the voter to accepting the results of a fair election. Since it looks like it will be Trump vs. Hillary, when I vote for Hillary it would seem that I am accepting the voting process. This would seem to entail that when Trump wins, I have to accept that he is my president. This is required by consistency: if Hillary wins, I would expect those who voted for Trump to accept this result. This, of course, assumes that the election was fair—if it was rigged, then that is another matter.

Locke addressed this matter—he was well aware that the losing side in a vote might be tempted to refuse to go along. Locke’s response to the problem was to point out that doing this would tear apart the system and send us back to the state of nature. As such, he reasoned, we should follow the majority in regards to voting. This, of course, leads to the problem of the tyranny of the majority, something that could be used to argue that one should not accept the election of a person who will engage in such tyrannical behavior. My own view is that the election should be accepted on the basis of majority rule. However, the tyrannical, immoral, or illegal actions of an elected official should not be accepted. So, if Trump wins the 2016 election fair and square, then he would be my president. If he started implementing his various absurd, immoral, illegal and perhaps even unconstitutional harebrained schemes, then I would certainly not accept these schemes. This opposition would be based in part on Locke’s view of tyranny and in part on John Stuart Mill’s discussion of the tyranny of the majority. The gist of both is that a ruler acts wrongly if he uses the power of office in a way that is not for the good of the people or imposes on the liberty of others without the justification that it prevents harm to others.

So, if Trump gets elected, he will be my president. I will stay here—and will certainly do what I can to oppose his likely attempts to do awful, immoral, and illegal things. Oddly, I think that the Republican controlled congress will be on my side in most of these matters.

 

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Trump, Violence & Protests

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 14, 2016

Donald Trump has a talent for bringing out strong emotions in people, thus it is that some protest his rallies dressed as penises and other folks punch protestors and reporters. While Trump’s ideas have little or no philosophical merit, the situations arising at his rallies do raise interesting philosophical concerns about violence and protesting.

Some of Trump’s rallies have been marked by violence, including alleged attacks on protestors and even members of the conservative press. While Trump often seems to praise and encourage violence against protestors and even the media, the official line is that protestors should be handled by law enforcement and not attacked by Trump supporters. This official line is the correct moral line—the use of violence against non-violent protestors is not warranted, even if they are insulting, disruptive or annoying. The justification for this position is easy enough. While a political rally can be a place of heightened emotions, being a supporter of a candidate does not grant a person a special status that allows them to inflict violence on a protestor. The moral relation between the people is the same as it would be anywhere and just as merely being disruptive or even insulting does not warrant physical assault anywhere else, it does not warrant it at a political rally. This applies whether the rally is for Democrats or Republicans and regardless of the ideology of the protestor.

While there are certainly those who think that protestors (or reporters) they dislike should be punched in the mouth, such punching is not warranted in civil society. After all, while self-defense can be used justly against unwarranted physical attacks, one cannot justly claim that physical violence is warranted as defense against a protest, even if it is annoying, insulting or disrupting. This is because, to borrow from John Locke’s justification of self-defense, such protesting does not put one at risk in regards to life, liberty or property.

Naturally, a person has every right to counter protestors with words—to argue against them and perhaps even to respond to their shouts and taunts with shouts and taunts. That said, it is worth considering the possibility of fighting words—an insult so provocative that a person is warranted in responding with physical violence. This could be justified on the grounds that such an attack inflicts emotional harm that warrants a response with physical harm. This could be developed, perhaps, by considering the harms that alleged to be inflicted by hate speech. If it is accepted that words, images and such can do real harm, then there would seem to be a potential avenue leading to justifying a physical defense against a verbal offense.

The counter to this is that words, images and such are just that—they are not physical attacks and no matter how vile or provocative they are, they cannot do real harm. Or, they cannot do enough or the right sort of harm to warrant a physical defense.

It might be pointed out that harmful words and images do seem to warrant a physical response. For example, threats and non-physical bullying can be regarded as crimes that warrant action be taken against the offender. This point leads quite nicely to my next point of discussion, which is the right of Trump and any other candidate to be able to freely conduct their events and employ law enforcement to keep protestors from disrupting these events.

An immediate objection to even such a suggestion is that protestors have a right to free expression—they have every right to protest even at a private rally. This does have considerable appeal and I certainly agree that there is a right of protest that falls under a broader right of expression. It is, in fact, my support of free expression that causes me to support the seemingly ironic position that Trump and other candidates have the right to have disruptive and insulting protestors removed from private rallies by law enforcement. This is on the condition that the protestor is actually disrupting the event to a degree that it meaningfully interferes with the free expression of the candidate (or other speaker).

The reason, which is rather obvious, is that sufficiently disruptive protestors are infringing on the free speech of the candidate—they are endeavoring to drown out her voice with their own, which cannot be justified on free speech grounds. It could, however, be justified on other moral grounds (such as by using a utilitarian approach) but this matter goes way beyond the scope of this short essay. In any case, an appeal to free speech cannot justify protests that interfere with free speech.

In contrast, if a protestor protests in a manner that does not significantly interfere with the candidate’s free expression, even if the act of protest is annoying or even insulting (like wearing a provocative penis hat at a Trump rally), then the protestor’s right of free expression would warrant this expression. There is, of course, the practical matter of sorting out what degree of disruption warrants a removal of a protestor on the grounds he is violating the right of free expression of a candidate or other speaker.

While the right of free expression can be used to justify ejecting protestors, property rights can also be brought into play. If an event is being held on private property and is not open to the general public, then those in charge of the event have the right to control access. Even if the event is open to the public, those in charge have a right (or even responsibility) to act to ensure the integrity of the event. This is the same right that justifies excluding people who do not have tickets from concerts and also justifies movie theaters in removing people who insist on being excessively loud and disruptive. It is also the right that justifies having people removed from a class if they engage in behavior that makes teaching impossible, such as flipping over a desk and screaming at the professor.

This sort of property right is, like all rights, not absolute and moral arguments could be advanced that would justify protests that seem to violate property rights. For example, the terrible consequences of not protesting might warrant the protest as might the evil of what is being protested.

In light of the above discussion, Trump has the right to free expression; but protestors who do not violate this right also have the right to protest without fear of violence.

 

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Trumping Populism

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 11, 2016

I think that Trump would be awful as a President. While I could grind through my ideological, moral and philosophical disagreements with him, my main practical concern is that he would simply be rather bad at the job. The first reason is that he has no experience in political leadership. While he has run a business (with many failures), being a business leader is rather different from being a political leader. To use an analogy: I have years of experience teaching philosophy but this does not qualify me to teach, for example chemistry or even a subject closer to philosophy such as history. The second is that Trump has not presented any developed plans or proposals and the ones he has advanced are patently absurd. The third is that Trump seems to lack even a basic understanding of critical matters such as international law, international events, the rules governing the military and so many more things. While Trump makes sweeping claims that bring cheers, he does not seem to accept that he is making claims that are untrue and while not logically impossible, are practically impossible. In sum, Trump is not qualified or suitable for the office.

As much as it pains me, Trump does deserve some praise for what he has managed to do. First, he has made the Republican party live what it has become, in full view of the voters. Second, he has launched a successful campaign against the political establishment by appealing to the people. While I disagree with Trump, it is good to see a complacent political machine knocked off balance. If only we could see something similar happen to the Democrats. To be fair, Bernie has been trying to kick the machine and I think it might have shuddered just a bit.

Third, he has captured a bolt of the lightning of American anger and fear; thus giving voice to the rage of those who have long been ignored. I think that he is getting people to turn the right anger in the wrong direction, but he speaks for those who have been effectively abandoned by the current system to a degree that none of the other Republicans can match.

Fourth, he has energized American participation in politics to a level that has not been seen in a long time. Currently, he has energized the Republicans but there is a chance he will energize Democrats and Independents to vote—most likely against him. He has made more people care about politics and has even, I must concede, made people believe that it is worth getting involved. While I certainly hope that he does not succeed, I must commend him for getting so many out of the pit of apathy that has become the norm in American politics.

It is worth considering that Trump does not deserve much credit for this. It could be that people were ready to reject the establishment and motivated to become politically active and Trump just happened to be the guy that got the attention. That said, somebody has to be the guy (or gal) that the voters rally behind. Trump is, no matter what one might think of him, that guy.

It has been claimed that Trump cannot beat Hillary or Sanders; that the polls show he will lose in the general. As others have pointed out, Trump was never supposed to get this far. So it is unwise to count him out. Trump actually does have a path to the White House.

First, Trump needs to keep the remaining candidates in the race so that they keep splitting the vote. If he can do this, he is likely to keep ahead of all the others. Second, Trump needs to be ready to fight it out at the convention. If he does not get the automatic win, the Republican establishment might try to rob him—which would be a disaster for the party in many ways. Third, Trump needs the usual low voter turnout among those who are likely to vote for the Democrat. While Sanders has an enthusiastic group of supporters, they tend to be the folks who are not reliable voters. Also, to be honest, neither Hillary nor Bernie are really lighting the base on fire—though Bernie does have some devoted folks. So, there will probably be the usual weak turnout of Democrats—unless they are set afire by fear of Trump. Fourth, Trumps needs a high voter turnout among the folks who will vote for him. Trump does not need to win a majority of registered voters—he just needs a majority of the minority who actually vote. Trump can, I think, do this—he has enthusiastic supporters who have turned out to support him. They will almost certainly vote in the general election. Put simply, Democrat apathy + Trump enthusiasm= President Trump. As always, the beauty of democracy is that it is the best political system for giving us what we deserve.

 

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