A Philosopher's Blog

Flint’s Water

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2016

Like all too many American cities and towns, the Michigan city of Flint faces dire financial woes. To address these woes, the state stepped in and bypassed local officials with the goal of cutting the budget of the city. One aspect of the solution was to switch Flint’s water supply to a cheaper source, specifically a polluted river. Another aspect seems to have been to decline to pay the $100 per day cost of treating the water in accord with federal regulations. The result was that the corrosive water started dissolving the pipes. Since many of the pipes in the city are made of lead, this resulted in citizens getting lead poisoning. This includes children, who are especially vulnerable to the damage caused by this toxin.

More troubling, it has been claimed that the state was aware of the problem and officials decided to cover it up. The state also apparently tried to discredit the research conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before finally admitting to the truth.

There have been various attempts to explain why this occurred, with filmmaker Michael Moore presenting the hypothesis that it was an attempt at “racist genocide.” This claim does have a certain appeal, given that the poor and minorities have been impacted by the corrosive water. Apparently the corrosive water has far less effect on newer infrastructure, which tends to be in areas that are better off economically. It is also appealing in that it is consistent with the fact of institutional racism that still plagues America. However, before rushing to accept the genocide hypothesis, it is worth considering alternative explanations.

One alternative is that the initial problem arose from political ideology. There is the view that the most important objective is reducing the spending of the state (typically to also lower taxes). Going along with this is also an opposition to federal regulations. Switching to the corrosive water and not treating it was initially cheaper and certainly evaded the regulations governing drinking water treatment. That said, the approach taken by the state did go against some professed conservative values, namely favoring local control and being opposed to government overreach. However, these values have been shown to be extremely flexible. For example, many state legislatures have passed laws forbidden local governments from banning fracking. As such, the initial action was consistent with the ideology.

In regards to the fact that the impact has been heaviest on the poor and minorities, this need not be driven by racism. An alternative explanation is that the policy was aimed not on the basis of race, but on the basis of power and influence. It is, of course, the case that the poor lack power and minorities are often poor. Since the poor lack the resources to resist harm and to buy influence, they are the most common target of budget cuts. Because of this, racism might not be the main factor.

In regards to the ensuing cover up, it might have begun with wishful thinking: the state officials did not want to believe that there was a problem. As such, they refused to accept that it existed. People are very good at denial, even when doing so is harmful to themselves. For example, many who do not take good care of themselves engage in wishful thinking in regards to the consequences their unhealthy behavior. It is, obviously, even easier to engage in wishful thinking when the harm is being suffered by others. Once the cover up progressed, the explanation is rather easy: people engage in a cover-up in the hopes of avoiding the consequences of their actions. However, as is so often the case, the cover-up has resulted in far more damage than a quick and honest admission.

This ongoing incident in Flint does show some important things. First, it does indicate that some traditional conservative claims are true: government can be the problem and local authorities can be better at decision making. Of course, government was the problem in this case because the focus was on saving a little money rather than ensuring the safety of the citizens.

Second, it serves as yet another example of poor assessment of consequences resulting from a shortsighted commitment to savings. This attempt at saving has done irreparable harm to many citizens (including children) and will cost millions of dollars to address. As such, this ill-considered attempt to save money has instead resulted in massive costs.

Third, it serves as yet another lesson in the fact that government regulations can be good. If the state had spent the $100 a day to treat the water in accord with federal regulations, then this problem would have not occurred. This is certainly something that people should consider when politicians condemn and call for eliminating regulations. This is not to claim that all regulations are good—but it is to claim that a blanket opposition to regulations is shortsighted and unwise.

I would like to say that the Flint disaster will result in significant changes. I do think it will have some impact—cities and towns are, no doubt, checking their water and assessing their infrastructure. However, the lessons will soon fade until it is time for a new disaster.

 

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The Trump Ban

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2016

While the United Kingdom is quite welcoming to its American cousins, many of its citizens have petitioned for a ban against the now leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. This issue was debated in mid-January by the parliament, although no vote was taken to ban the Donald.

The petition to ban Trump was signed by 575,000 people and was created in response to his call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. While this matter is mostly political theater, it does raise some matters of philosophical interest.

One interesting point is that the proposal to ban Trump appears to be consistent with the principles that seem to lurk behind the obscuring fog of Trump’s various proposals and assertions. One obvious concern is that attributing principles to Trump is challenging—he is a master of being vague and is not much for providing foundations for his proposed policies. Trump has, however, focused a great deal on the borders of the United States. He has made the comically absurd proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and, as noted above, proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. This seems to suggest that Trump accepts the principle that a nation has the right to control its borders and to keep out anyone that is deemed a threat or undesirable by the state. This principle, which might be one that Trump accepts, is certainly a reasonable one in general terms. While thinkers disagree about the proper functions of the state, there is general consensus that a state must, at a minimum, provide basic defense and police functions and these include maintaining borders. This principle would certainly warrant the UK from banning Trump.

Even if the is specific general principle is not one Trump accepts, he certainly seems to accept that a state can ban people from entering that state. As such, consistency would require that Trump accept that the UK has every right to ban him. Trump, if he were inclined to argue rationally, could contend that there are relevant differences between himself and those he proposes to ban. He could, for example, argue that the proposed wall between the United States and Mexico is to keep out illegals and point out that he would enter the UK legally rather than sneaking across the border. In regards to the proposed ban on all Muslims, Trump could point out that he is for banning Muslims but not for banning non-Muslims. As such, his principle of banning Muslims could not be applied to him.

A way to counter this is to focus again on the general principle that might be behind Trump’s proposals, namely the principle of excluding people who are regarded as a threat or at least undesirable. While Trump is not likely to engage in acts of terror in the UK, his behavior in the United States does raise concerns about his ideology and he could justly be regarded as a threat to the UK. He could, perhaps, radicalize some of the population. As such, Trump could be justly banned on the basis of a possible principle he is employing to justify his proposed bans (assuming that there are some principles lurking back there somewhere).

Trump could, of course, simply call the UK a bunch of losers and insist that they have no right to ban him. While that sort of thing is fine for political speeches, he would need a justification for his assertion. Then again, Trump might simply call them losers and say he does not want to go there anyway.

The criticism of Trump in the UK seems to be, at least in part, aimed at trying to reduce his chance of becoming the President of the United States.  Or perhaps there is some hope that the criticism will change his behavior. While a normal candidate might be influenced by such criticism from a close ally and decide to change, Trump is not a normal candidate. As has been noted many times, behavior that would have been politically damaging or fatal for other candidates has only served to keep Trump leading among the Republicans. As such, the petition against him and even the debate about the issue in Parliament will have no negative impact on his campaign. In fact, this sort of criticism will probably improve his poll numbers. As such, Trump is the orange Hulk of politics (not to be confused with Orange Hulk). The green Hulk gets stronger the angrier he gets, so attacking him just enables him to fight harder. The political orange Hulk, Trump, gets stronger the more he is rationally criticized and the more absurd and awful he gets. Like the green Hulk, Trump might be almost unbeatable. So, while Hulk might smash, Trump might win. And then smash.

 

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Incentives, Taxes, & Inequality

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on January 15, 2016

One stock argument against increasing taxes on the rich in order to address income inequality is a disincentive argument. The gist of the argument is that if taxes are raised on the rich, then they will lose the incentive to invest, innovate, create jobs and so on.  Most importantly, in regards to addressing the income inequality problem, the consequences of this disincentive will have the greatest impact on those who are not rich. For example, it has been claimed that the job creators will create less jobs and pay lower wages if they are taxed more to address income inequality. As such, the tax increase will be both harmful and self-defeating: the less rich will be no better off than they were before (and perhaps even worse off). As such, there would seem to be good utilitarian moral grounds for not increasing taxes on the rich.

Naturally, there is the question of whether or not this disincentive effect would be warranted or not. If the rich simply retaliated from spite, then the moral argument would fall apart—while there would be negative consequences for such a tax increase, these consequences would be harms intentionally inflicted. As such, not increasing taxes because of fear of retaliation would be morally equivalent to paying protection money so that criminals elect to not break things in one’s business or home.

If, however, the rich act because the tax increase is not fair, then the ethics of the situation would be different. To use an obvious analogy, if wealthy customers at a restaurant were forced to pay some of the bills for the less wealthy customers by the management, it would be hard to fault them for leaving smaller tips on the table. While the matter of what counts as a fair tax is rather controversial, it is certainly easy enough to accept an unfair increase would be unfair by definition. One approach would be to define unfairness in terms of the taxes cutting too much into what the person is entitled to in dint of her efforts, ability and productivity relative to what she owes to the country. This seems reasonable in that it provides considerable room for argumentation and does not beg and obvious questions (after all, the amount one owes one’s country could be as low as nothing).

Interestingly, the fairness argument would also apply to workers in regards to their salary. When a worker produces value, the employer pays the worker some of that value and keeps some of it. What the employer keeps can be seen as analogous to the tax imposed by the state on the rich person. As with the taxes on the rich person, there is the general question of what is fair to take from workers. Bringing in the disincentive argument, if it works to justify imposing only a fair tax on the rich, it should also do the same for the less rich. That is, those who argue against raising taxes on the rich to address income inequality by using the disincentive argument should also accept that the less rich should be paid in accord with the same principles used to judge how much income should be taken from the rich.

The obvious counter to this approach is to endeavor to break the analogy between the two situations: this would involve showing that the rich differ from the less rich in relevant ways or that taking income by taxes is relevantly different from taking money from employees. The challenge is, of course, to show that the differences really are relevant.

 

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Inequality & Incentives

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2016

One of the stock arguments used to justify income inequality is the incentive argument. The gist is that income inequality is necessary as a motivating factor—crudely put, if people could not get (very) rich, then they would not have the incentive to do such things as work hard, innovate, invent and so on. The argument requires the assumption that hard work, innovation, inventing and so on are good; an assumption that has a certain general plausibility.

This argument does have considerable appeal. In terms of psychology, it is reasonable to make the descriptive claim that people are primarily motivated by the possibility of gain (and also glory). This view was held by Thomas Hobbes and numerous other thinkers on the grounds that it does match the observed behavior of many (but not all) people. If this view is correct, then achieving the goods of hard work, innovation, invention and so on would require income inequality.

There is, of course, the counter that some people seem to be very motivated by factors other than achieving an inequality in financial gain. Some are motivated by altruism, by a desire to improve, by curiosity, by the love of invention, by the desire to create things of beauty, to solve problems and so many other motives that do not depend on income. These sort of motivations do suggest that income inequality is not necessary as a motivating factor—at least for some people.

Since this is a matter of fact regarding human psychology, it is something that can (in theory) be settled by the right sort of empirical research. It is well worth noting that even if income inequality is necessary as a motivating factor, there remain many other concerns, such as the question of how much income inequality is necessary (and also how much is morally acceptable).

Interestingly, the incentive argument is something of a two-edged sword: while it can be used to justify income inequality, it can also be used to argue against the sort of economic inequality that exists in the United States and almost all other countries. The argument is as follows.

While worker productivity has increased significantly in the United States (and other countries) income for workers has not matched this productivity. This is a change from the past—income of workers went up more proportionally to the increase in productivity. This explains, in part, why CEO (and upper management in general) salaries have seen a significant increase relative to the income of workers: the increased productivity of the workers generates more income for the upper management than it does for the workers doing the work.

If it is assumed that gain is necessary for motivation and that inequality is justified by the results (working harder, innovating, producing and so on), then the workers should receive a greater proportion of the returns on their productivity. After all, if high executive compensation is justified on the grounds of its motivation in regards to productivity, innovation and so on, then the same principle would also apply to the workers. They, too, should receive compensation proportional to their productivity, innovation and so on. If they do not, then the incentive argument would entail that they would not have the incentive to be as productive, etc.

It could, of course, be argued, that top management earns its higher income by being primarily responsible for the increase in worker productivity—that is, the increase in worker productivity is not because of the workers but because of the leadership which is motivated by the possibility of gain on the part of the leadership. If this is the case, then the disparity would be fully justified by the incentive argument: the workers are more productive because the CEO is motivated to make them more productive so she can have even greater income.

However, if the increased productivity is due mainly to the workers, then this seems to counter the incentive argument: if workers are more productive than before with less relative compensation, then there does not seem to be that alleged critical connection between incentive and productivity required by the incentive argument. That is, if workers will increase productivity while receiving less compensation relative to their productivity, then the same would presumably hold for the top executives. While there are many other ways to warrant extreme income inequality, the incentive argument does seem to have a problem.

One possible response is to argue for important differences between the executives and workers such that executives need the incentive provided by the extreme inequality and workers are motivated sufficiently by other factors (like being able to buy food). It could also be contended that the workers are motivated by the extreme inequality as well—they would not be as productive if they did not have the (almost certainly false) belief that they will become rich.

 

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David Bowie

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 11, 2016

David Bowie 2016David Bowie, the artist and actor, died on January 11, 2016. While I would not categorize myself as a fan of any artist, I do admit that I felt some sadness when I learned of his death. I must also confess that I listened to several Bowie songs today.

While Bowie’s art is clearly worthy of philosophical examination, I will instead focus on the philosophical subject of feeling for the death of a celebrity. I have written briefly about this in the past, on the occasion of the death of Michael Jackson. When Jackson died, many of his devoted fans were devastated by his death. The death of David Bowie has also caused a worldwide response, albeit of a somewhat different character.

People, obviously enough, simply feel what they do. However, there is still the question of whether the feeling is appropriate or not. That is, whether it is morally virtuous to feel in such a way and to such a degree. This view is, of course, taken from Aristotle: virtue involves having the right sort of feeling, in the right way, to the right degree, towards the right person, and so on through all the various factors considered by Aristotle.

In the case of the death of a celebrity, one (perhaps cynical) approach is to contend that overly strong emotional responses are not virtuous. Part of the reason is that virtue theorists always endorse the view that the right way to feel is the mean—between excess and deficiency. Another part of the reason is that the response should be in the right way towards the right person.

In the case of the death of a celebrity, it could be contended that a strong reaction, however sincere, is not morally appropriate. This assumes that the person responding lacks a two-way relationship with the celebrity. That is, that the person is not a relative or friend of the celebrity. In that case, the proper response would not be a matter of reacting to the death of a celebrity, but the death of a relative or friend. As such, what would be appropriate for David Bowie’s friends and relatives to feel is different from what would be appropriate for his fans to feel.

It could be contended that fans (who are not friends and relatives) do not have a meaningful connection with a celebrity as a person (a reciprocated relationship) and, as such, strong feelings upon the death of the celebrity would not be appropriate. From the standpoint of the fan, the celebrity is analogous to a fictional character in a book or movie—the fan observes the celebrity, but there is no reciprocity or true interaction. As such, to be unduly impacted by the death of a celebrity would not be a proper response—it would be similar to being unduly impacted by the death of a character in a movie.

One obvious response is that a celebrity is a real person and hence the death of a celebrity is real and not like the death of a fictional character—David Bowie is really dead. One cynical counter is that many thousands of real people have died today, people with whom the vast majority of the rest of us have no more personal relationship with than we had with David Bowie. As such, the real death of a celebrity should warrant no more emotional response than the death of anyone we do not know personally. It is, of course, proper to feel some sadness upon hearing of the death of a person (who did not merit death). However, feeling each death strongly would destroy us—which is no doubt why we feel so little in regards to the deaths of non-celebrities who are not connected to us.

Another option, which would require considerable development, is to argue that there can be proper emotional responses to the deaths of fictional characters—to be sad, for example, at the passing of Romeo and Juliet. This is, of course, exactly the sort of thing that Plato warned us about in the Republic.

A better reply is that a celebrity can have a meaningful impact on a person’s life, even when there is no actual personal interaction. In the case of David Bowie, people have been strongly affected by his music (and his acting) and this has played an important role in their lives. While a person might have never met Bowie, that person can be grateful for what Bowie created and his influence. As such, a person can justly and properly feel sadness at the death of a person they do not really know. That said, it could be contended that people do get to know an artist through the works. To use an analogy, it is similar to how one can know a long dead person through her writings (or writings about her). For example, one might develop a liking for Socrates by reading the Platonic dialogues and feel justly saddened by his death in the Apology. As such, people can feel justly sad about the death of a person they never met.

 

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Occupying & Protesting

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 8, 2016

Ammon Bundy and fellow “militia” members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a protest of federal land use policies. Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy—the rancher who was involved in another armed stand-off with the federal government. Cliven Bundy still owes the American taxpayers over $1 million for grazing his cattle on public land—the sort of sponging off the public that would normally enrage conservatives. While that itself is an interesting issue, my focus will be on discussing the ethics of protest through non-violent armed occupation.

Before getting to the main issue, I will anticipate some concerns about the discussion. First, I will not be addressing the merits of the Bundy protest. Bundy purports to be protesting against the tyranny of the federal government in regards to its land-use policies. Some critics have pointed out that Bundy has benefitted from the federal government, something that seems a bit reminiscent of the infamous cry of “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While the merit of a specific protest is certainly relevant to the moral status of the protest, my focus is on the general subject of occupation as a means of protest.

Second, I will not be addressing the criticism that if the federal land had been non-violently seized by Muslims protesting Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter activists protesting police treatment of blacks, then the response would have been very different. While the subject of race and protest is important, it is not my focus here. I now turn to the matter of protesting via non-violent armed occupation.

The use of illegal occupation is well established as a means of protest in the United States and was used during the civil rights movement. But, of course, an appeal to tradition is a fallacy—the mere fact that something is well-established does not entail that it is justified. As such, an argument is needed to morally justify occupation as a means of protest.

One argument for occupation as a means of protest is that protestors do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.

One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to occupy a public library and interfere with its operation. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest.

People also protest in areas that are not normally open to the public—or whose use by the public is restricted. This would include privately owned areas as well as public areas that have restrictions. In the case of the Bundy protest, public facilities are being occupied rather than private facilities. However, Bundy and his fellows are certainly using the area in a way that would normally not be allowed—people cannot, in the normal course of things, just take up residence in public buildings. This can also be regarded as a conflict of rights—the right of protest versus the right of private ownership or public use.

These replies can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the rights of others to use the area that is occupied.  After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to accept protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in such behavior would be acting wrongly and the protest would thus be morally wrong. After all, if rights are accepted to justify a right to protest, then this would provide a clear foundation for accepting the rights of those who would be imposed upon by the protest. If the protestor who is protesting tyranny becomes a tyrant to others, then the protest certainly loses its moral foundation.

This provides the theoretical framework for assessing whether the Bundy protest is morally acceptable or not: it is a matter of weighing the merit of the protest against the harm done to the rights of other citizens (especially those in the surrounding community).

The above assumes a non-violent occupation of the sort that can be classified as classic civil disobedience of the sort discussed by Thoreau. That is, non-violently breaking the rules (or law) in an act of disobedience intended to bring about change. This approach was also adopted by Gandhi and Dr. King. Bundy has added a new factor—while the occupation has (as of this writing) been peaceful, the “militia” on the site is well armed. It has been claimed that the weapons are for self-defense, which indicates that the “militia” is willing to escalate from non-violent (albeit armed) to violent occupation in response to the alleged tyranny of the federal government. This leads to the matter of the ethics of armed resistance as a means of protest.

Modern political philosophy does provide a justification of such resistance. John Locke, for example, emphasized the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so. He provides the following definition of “tyranny”: “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” When the state is acting in a tyrannical manner, it can be justly resisted—at least on Locke’s view. As such, Bundy does have a clear theoretical justification for armed resistance. However, for this justification to be actual, it would need to be shown that federal land use policies are tyrannical to a degree that warrants the use of violence as a means of resistance.

Consistency does, of course, require that the framework be applied to all relevantly similar cases of protests—be they non-violent occupations or armed resistance.

 

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Utility & The Martian

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2016

I recently got around to watching The Martian, a science fiction film about the effort to rescue an astronaut from Mars. Matt Damon, who is often rescued in movies, plays “astrobotanist” Mark Watney. The discussion that follows contains some spoilers, so those who have yet to see the film might wish to stop reading now. Those who have seen the film might also wish to stop reading, albeit for different reasons.

At the start of the movie Watney is abandoned on Mars after the rest of his team believes he died during the evacuation of the expedition. The rest of the movie details his efforts at survival (including potato farming in space poop) and the efforts of NASA and the Chinese space agency to save him.

After learning that Watney is not dead, NASA attempts to send a probe loaded with food to Mars. The launch fails, strewing rocket chunks and incinerated food over a large area. The next attempt involved resupplying the returning main space ship, the Hermes, using a Chinese rocket and sending it on a return trip to pick up Watney. This greatly extends the crew’s mission time. Using a ship that NASA already landed on Mars for a future mission, Watney blasts up into space and is dramatically rescued.

While this situation is science fiction, it does address a real moral concern about weighing the costs and risks of saving a life. While launch costs are probably cheaper in the fictional future of the movie, the lost resupply rocket and the successful Chinese resupply rocket presumably cost millions of dollars. The cached rocket Watney used was also presumably fairly expensive. There is also the risk undertaken by the crew of the Hermes.

Looked at from a utilitarian standpoint, a case can be made that the rescue was morally wrong. The argument for this is fairly straightforward: for the “generic” utilitarian, the right action is the one that generates the greatest utility for the being that are morally relevant. While Watney is certainly morally relevant, the fictional future of the film is presumably a world that is still very similar to this world. As such, there are presumably still millions of people living in poverty, millions who need health care, and so on. That is, there are presumably millions of people who are at risk of dying and some of them could be saved by the expenditure of millions (or even billions) of dollars in resources.

Expending so many resources to save one person, Watney, would seem to be morally wrong: those resources could have been used to save many more people on earth and would thus have greater utility. As such, the right thing to do would have been to let Watney die—at least on utilitarian grounds.

There are, of course, many ways this argument could be countered on utilitarian grounds. One approach begins with how important Watney’s rescue became to the people of earth—the movie shows vast crowds who are very concerned about Watney. Letting Watney die would presumably make these people sad and angry, thus generating considerable negative consequences. This, of course, rests on the psychological difference between abstract statistics about people dying (such as many people dying due to lacking proper medical care) and the possible death of someone who has been made into a celebrity. As such, the emotional investment of the crowds could be taken as imbuing Watney with far greater moral significance relative to the many who could have been saved from death with the same monetary expenditure.

One obvious problem with this sort of view is that it makes moral worth dependent on fame and the feelings of others rather than on qualities intrinsic to the person. But, it could be replied, fame and the feelings of others do matter—at least when making a utilitarian calculation about consequences.

A second approach is to focus on the broader consequences: leaving Watney to die on Mars could be terribly damaging to the future of manned space exploration and humanity’s expansion into space. As such, while Watney himself is but a single person with only the moral value of one life, the consequences of not saving him would outweigh the consequences of not saving many others on earth. That is, Watney is not especially morally important as a person, but in terms of his greater role he has great significance. This would morally justify sacrificing the many (by not saving them) to save the one—as an investment in future returns. This does raise various concerns about weighing actual people against future consequences—but these are not unique to this situation.

There is also the meta-concern about the fact that Watney is played by Matt Damon—some have contended that this would justify leaving Watney to die on Mars. But, I will leave this to the film critics to settle.

(Apologies on falling behind on the blog, this was due to the holidays and surgery on my hand).

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2016

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 1, 2016

Today marks the start of 2016. One tradition of New Year’s Eve is to make resolutions. One tradition of the New Year is to break those resolutions. I am proud to say that I kept my 2015 resolution and plan to keep my 2016 resolution. The secret to this success is, of course, accepting a very low standard for resolutions.

In 2015 I resolved to not die in 2015. Up until midnight, the year could have won by killing me. But, the year failed. Once again. As such, I have made my 2016 resolution: do not die in 2016. I plan to make this sort of resolution every year.

This resolution has many virtues, but I will only consider the two most important. The first is that I really do not need to do anything-not dying is a fairly automatic sort of thing. Mostly.

Obviously enough, one year (hopefully not 2016, but I’ve had a pretty good run) will end with my resolution being broken-or, rather, I will end before the year does. This is where the second virtue comes into play. When I finally break the resolution by dying, I will not be around to face the judgment of those who rather like to judge people for breaking New Year’s Resolutions. Also, even such judgmental folks might feel it a bit too harsh to judge a person for breaking a resolution to not die. Or maybe not. People can be rather harsh.

On a more positive note, here is to a great 2016. Still waiting for that moon base-I really want that before the robot apocalypse. So, Elon Musk, I am counting on you to get it done before Google’s kill bots kill us all.

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Age of Awkwardness

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2015

Some ages get cool names, such as the Iron Age or the Gilded Age. Others are dubbed with word mantles less awesome. An excellent example of the latter is the designation of our time as the Awkward Age. Since philosophers are often willing to cash in on trends, it is not surprising that there is now a philosophy of awkwardness.

Various arguments have been advanced in support of the claim that this is the Awkward Age. Not surprisingly, a key argument is built on the existence of so many TV shows and movies that center on awkwardness. There is a certain appeal to this sort of argument and the idea that art expresses the temper, spirit, and social conditions of its age is an old one. I recall, from an art history class I took as an undergraduate, this standard approach to art. For example, the massive works of the ancient Egyptians is supposed to reveal their views of the afterlife as the harmony of the Greek works is supposed to reveal the soul of ancient Greece.

Wilde, in his dialogue “The New Aesthetics” considers this very point. Wilde takes the view that “Art never expresses anything but itself.” Naturally enough, Wilde provides an account of why people think art is about the ages. His explanation is best put by Carly Simon: “You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you.” Less lyrically, the idea is that vanity causes people to think that the art of their time is about them. Since the people of today were not around in the way back times of old, they cannot say that past art was about them—so they assert that the art of the past was about the people of the past. This does have the virtue of consistency.

While Wilde does not offer a decisive argument in favor of his view, it does have a certain appeal. It also is worth considering that it is problematic to draw an inference about the character of an age from what TV shows or movies happen to be in vogue with a certain circle (there are, after all, many shows and movies that are not focused on awkwardness). While it is reasonable to draw some conclusions about that specific circle, leaping beyond to the general population and the entire age would be quite a leap—after all, there are many non-awkward shows and movies that could be presented as contenders to defining the age. It seems sensible to conclude that it is vanity on the part of the members of such a circle to regard what they like as defining the age. It could also be seen as a hasty generalization—people infer that what they regard as defining must also apply to the general population.

A second, somewhat stronger, sort of argument for this being the Awkward Age is based on claims about extensive social changes. To use an oversimplified example, consider the case of gender in the United States. The old social norms had two fairly clearly defined genders and sets of rules regarding interaction. Such rules included those that made it clear that the man asked the woman out on the date and that the man paid for everything. Now, or so the argument goes, the norms are in disarray or have been dissolved. Sticking with gender, Facebook now recognizes over 50 genders which rather complicates matters relative to the “standard” two of the past. Going with the dating rules once again, it is no longer clear who is supposed to do the asking and the paying.

In terms of how this connects to awkwardness, the idea is that when people do not have established social norms and rules to follow, ignorance and error can easily lead to awkward moments. For example, there could be an awkward moment on a date when the check arrives as the two people try to sort out who pays: Dick might be worried that he will offend Jane if he pays and Jane might be expecting Dick to pick up the tab—or she might think that each should pay their own tab.

To use an analogy, consider playing a new and challenging video game. When a person first plays, she will be trying to figure out how the game works and this will typically involve numerous failures. By analogy, when society changes, it is like being in a new game—one does not know the rules. Just as a person can look for guides to a new game online (like YouTube videos on how to beat tough battles), people can try to turn to guides to behavior. However, new social conditions mean that such guides are not yet available or, if they are, they might be unclear or conflict with each other. For example, a person who is new to contemporary dating might try to muddle through on her own or try to do some research—most likely finding contradictory guides to correct dating behavior.

Eventually, of course, the norms and rules will be worked out—as has happened in the past. This indicates a point well worth considering—today is obviously not the first time that society has undergone considerable change, thus creating opportunities for awkwardness. As Wilde noted, our vanity contributes to the erroneous belief that we are special in this regard. That said, it could be contended that people today are reacting to social change in a way that is different and awkward. That is, this is truly the Age of Awkwardness. My own view is that this is one of many times of awkwardness—what has changed is the ability and willingness to broadcast awkward events. Plus, of course, Judd Apatow.

 

 

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Ethics (for Free)

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2015

LaBossiere EthicsThe following provides links to my Ethics course, allowing a person to get some ethics for free. Also probably works well as a sleep aid.*

Notes & Readings

Practice Tests

Power Point


Class YouTube Videos

These are unedited videos from the Fall 2015 Ethics class. Spoiler: I do not die at the end.

Part One Videos: Introduction & Moral Reasoning

Video 1:  It covers the syllabus.

Video 2: It covers the introduction to ethics, value, and the dreaded spectrum of morality.

Video 3: It covers the case paper.

Video 4: No video. Battery failure.

Video 5: It covers inductive arguments and the analogical argument.

Video 6: It covers Argument by/from Example and Argument from Authority.

Video 7:  It covers Inconsistent Application and Reversing the Situation.

Video 8:  It covers Argument by Definition, Appeal to Intuition, and Apply a Moral Principle. The death of the battery cuts this video a bit short.

Video 9:  It covers Applying Moral Principles, Applying Moral Theories, the “Playing God” Argument and the Unnatural Argument.

Video 10: It covers Appeal to Consequences and Appeal to Rules.

Video 11:  It covers Appeal to Rights and Mixing Norms.

Part Two Videos: Moral Theories

Video 12:  It covers the introduction to Part II and the start of virtue theory.

Video 13: It covers Confucius and Aristotle.

Video 14:  This continues Aristotle’s virtue theory.

Video 15: It covers the intro to ethics and religion as well as the start of Aquinas’ moral theory.

Video 16: It covers St. Thomas Aquinas, divine command theory, and John Duns Scotus.

Video 17: It covers the end of religion & ethics and the beginning of consequentialism.

Video 18: It covers Thomas Hobbes and two of the problems with ethical egoism.

Video 19:  It covers the third objection to ethical egoism, the introduction to utilitarianism and the start of the discussion of J.S. Mill. Includes reference to Jeremy “Headless” Bentham.

Video 20: This video covers the second part of utilitarianism, the objections against utilitarianism and the intro to deontology.

Video 21: It covers the categorical imperative.

Part Three Videos: Why Be Good?, Moral Education & Equality

Video 22: It covers the question of “why be good?” and Plato’s Ring of Gyges.

Video 23: It covers the introduction to moral education and the start of Aristotle’s theory of moral education.

Video 24: It covers more of Aristotle’s theory of moral education.

Video 25: It covers the end of Rousseau and the start of equality.

Video 26: It covers the end of Rousseau and the start of equality.

Video 27:  It covers Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Video 28:  This video covers the second part of Wollstonecraft and gender equality.

Video 29: It covers the start of ethics and race.

Video 30: It covers St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of animals and ethics.

Video 31: It covers Descartes’ discussion of animals. Includes reference to Siberian Huskies.

Video 32: It covers the end of Kant’s animal ethics and the utilitarian approach to animal ethics.

Part IV: Rights, Obedience & Liberty

Video 33: It covers the introduction to rights and a bit of Hobbes.

Video 34: It covers Thomas Hobbes’ view of rights and the start of John Locke’s theory of rights.

Video 35:  It covers John Locke’s state of nature and theory of natural rights.

Video 36:  It covers Locke’s theory of property and tyranny. It also covers the introduction to obedience and disobedience.

Video 37: It covers the Crito and the start of Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience.

Video 38:  It covers the second part of Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience.

Video 39:  It covers the end of Thoreau’s civil disobedience, Mussolini’s essay on fascism and the start of J.S. Mill’s theory of Liberty.

Video 40:  It covers Mill’s theory of liberty.

Narration YouTube Videos

These videos consist of narration over Powerpoint slides. Good for naptime.

Part One Videos

Part Two Videos

Part Three Videos

Part Four Videos

*This course has not been evaluated by the FDA as a sleep aid. Use at your own risk. Side effects might include Categorical Kidneys, Virtuous Spleen, and Spontaneous Implosion.

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