A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 28, 2011
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While most of the recent coverage of WikiLeaks has focused on Assange’s trial, an important bit of news is the alleged conflict between Bank of America and the organization.

WikiLeaks apparently has some documents that would be damaging to Bank of America. This is hardly surprising, given the sort of financial misdeeds that seem to have been business as usual for many of the big financial companies. Apparently the security company of HBGary Federal saw this as an opportunity and developed a rather nefarious plan that involved attempting to discredit WikiLeaks by submitting false information to the site, to expose those who have contributed to WikiLeaks and by launching attacks on journalists who have expressed sympathy for WikiLeaks. In addition to the security company, it also appears that the well connected law firm of Hunton & William and even the United States Justice Department were also involved to some degree.

In response to this, Anonymous (a self-proclaimed defender of WikiLeaks) launched a counterattack on HBGary Federal and its head, Aaron Barr. Ironically, Anonymous was able to  hack the security company and revealed not only the plans in question but also such things as the fact that Barr’s wife intends to divorce him. They even revealed the name of his WoW character, a level 80 Night Elf Druid. That is certainly an interesting nerdtastic touch.

On the face of it, it seems that HBGary Federal and Barr reaped what they had sown. After all, by engaging in such activities and planning to engage what certainly seem to be unethical and even illegal activities, they certainly seem to deserve to be exposed and even subject to punishment. Since the authorities appear to not be inclined to take action in regards to these activities,  it could be argued that this was a state of nature situation which justified Anonymous in taking action in its own defense and the defense of others. This could thus be seen as a falling nicely within John Locke’s theory regarding self defense and punishment in the state of nature.

It could, of course, be objected that Anonymous is in the wrong. After all, Anonymous launched some minor attacks against companies such as PayPal  for ceasing to do business with WikiLeaks. Also, WikiLeaks itself has engaged in activities that some consider unethical and illegal. On these assumptions, it could be thus argued that HBGary Federal was acting in an ethically acceptable manner by trying to stop wrongdoers and to protect  Bank of America and others from the danger posed by WikiLeaks and its allies. As such, HBGary Federal could be seen as acting as a vigilante. Of course, vigilantism might strike many as morally questionable so perhaps it is better to cast the company as acting within a cyber state of nature. In this state, the company has to act in ways that seem to go beyond the law because its chosen opponents (Anonymous, WikiLeaks, supporters, and journalist) are beyond the reach of the law.

The main and most obvious flaw in this objection is that while Anonymous and WikiLeaks have endeavored to remain outside of the reach of certain authorities, the authorities do have the means to impose their laws upon them. Even if they are regarded as criminals, they would thus still seem to be within the state of society and thus can legitimately expect to not be subject to unlawful action and vigilante style attacks. While it might be argued that Anonymous and WikiLeaks act as vigilantes and thus can be justly subject to vigilante attacks, this would be on par with arguing that criminals can be treated in criminal ways because they are criminals. It would also appear to be a case of a “two wrongs make a right” fallacy.

If Anonymous and WikiLeaks were, in fact, beyond the reach of the law and were engaged in wrongful acts, then a case could be made for vigilantism. After all, if the wronged parties had no recourse to the law, then they would seem to have the right (as per Locke) to seek to stop the wrongdoers and gain reparation for the damage done. However, this does not seem to be the case at all.

A second flaw is that the journalists that were supposed to be targeted were obviously not in a state of nature or beyond the law. If the journalists had acted in illegal ways, then they could be dealt with within the legal system. Naturally, it could be objected that since the journalists cannot be stopped via legal means, they must be stopped via what seem to be illegal (and what seem to be clearly unethical means) means. This objection would, of course, have some merit if the journalists were in the wrong and were being protected by unjust laws. However, this does not seem to be the case and the objection has no real merit. As such, it seems that a company was acting outside of the law and was hoisted by its own petard.

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The Press & McCain

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2008

As almost everyone knows, the New York Times launched an attack on Senator McCain. The full text of the article can be found here.

While I believe that the media has an important role to play in exposing corruption and misdeeds on the part of politicians, journalists need to base such exposures on adequate evidence. After all, without evidence such assertions are just that-mere assertions and hence should not be accepted as true. Journalists also should retain their professional objectivity-when a journalist is writing to further an agenda, then that person has crossed over from being a journalist to being a propagandist. Yes, everyone has a view that colors his or her perception. But reporters have an obligation to overcome that bias and to try to present the information in an objective manner. If a reported cannot do that, then s/he should make it clear that s/he is writing an opinionated editorial piece and not actual reporting the news. The NY Times article seems to sin on both accounts-it is not adequately supported and certainly seems to cross the line between merely reporting the news and being an intentional attack aimed at a political purpose (harming McCain’s chances of being President).

“A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.”

While reporters do need to rely on anonymous sources, there are significant problems with using them as evidence for claims.

The first problem is a straightforward matter in the realm of critical thinking. When a journalist (or anyone) cites a source to support a claim they are using an argument from authority. The basic idea is that the claim should be accepted as true because the person cited is a legitimate expert in the field and is therefore likely to say true things in her field. The quality of the argument rests, naturally enough, on the quality of the alleged expert. The quality of an expert is assessed in terms of a variety of factors such as the person’s education, degree of bias, positions held, and amount of experience. If the expert in question is a legitimate expert, then the claims she makes in her field should be regarded as very plausible and typically accepted as true.

One obvious problem with anonymous sources is that the audience has little, if any, basis upon which to assess the quality of the alleged authority. At most the audience might be given vague information about the person’s job. For example, the source might be identified as “a high government official” or “a military expert on terrorism.” Given such a dearth of information, the audience cannot make a reasonable judgment about the quality of the source and hence cannot reasonably accept the claim as plausible on the basis of the alleged authority.

Of course, journalists do expect the audience to believe these claims. If they did not, they would obviously not bother to report them. Since the authorities are not adequately identified another basis is needed for the audience to rationally accept such claims. In such cases, the audience is supposed to accept that the claims made by source are correct because the journalist accepts them as a legitimate expert. In short, the audience is relying on the critical thinking ability of the journalist. Unfortunately for the audience, journalists are generally not experts in critical thinking nor do they tend to be experts in the areas they are writing about. Because of this lack of expertise, there are reasonable grounds for concern when journalists rely on anonymous sources. To be specific, unless it has been established that the journalist is adequately skilled at assessing the expertise of her sources, then there is no reason to accept the anonymous sources as credible on the basis of the journalist’s say so. This is not to say that the claims should be rejected, but the rational course is to suspend judgment in regards to such claims.

What is also interesting about the article is that it never actually presents any evidence that McCain did anything wrong in the relevant events. As the above quote indicates, there is just the claim that certain unnamed people said they believed that McCain might be involved with the woman. That is certainly far from a solid foundation.

Ironically, if this was intended as an attack on McCain, it might have backfired. It has helped to unite many conservatives with McCain against the assault of the “liberal media.” It has also generated sympathy among some non-conservatives. Most people find apparently baseless innuendo to be unacceptable and this makes Senator McCain look like the victim of an unfair attack. He has also handled the matter with great restraint-thus enhancing his standing in the eyes of some.

If the NY Times has solid evidence, then they should bring that forward and settle the matter. If not, they at least owe Senator McCain and the world an apology.