A Philosopher's Blog

Guarding the Trumps

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2017


While it has not always been the case, the current practice is for the American taxpayer to foot the bill for extensive protection of the president and their family. When Bush was president, there were complaints from the left about the costs incurred protecting him when he went to his ranch. When Obama was president, the right criticized him for the cost of his vacations and trips. Not surprisingly, Trump was extremely critical of the expenses incurred by Obama and claimed that if he were president he would rarely leave the White House. Since Trump is now president, it can be seen if he is living in accord with his avowed principles regarding incurring costs and leaving the White House.

While Trump has only been president for roughly a month, he has already made three weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago club since the inauguration. While the exact figures are not available, the best analysis places the cost at about $10 million for the three trips. In addition to the direct cost to taxpayers, a visit from Trump imposes heavy costs on Palm Beach Country which are estimated to be tens of thousands of dollars each day.

Trump’s visit also has an unfortunate spillover cost to the Lantana Airport which is located six miles from Mar-a-Lago. When Trump visits, the Secret Service shuts down the airport. Since the airport is the location of twenty businesses, the shut down costs these businesses thousands of dollars. For example, a banner-flying business claims to have lost $40,000 in contracts to date. As another example, a helicopter company is moving its location in response to the closures. The closures also impact the employees and the surrounding community.

Since Trump also regularly visits Trump tower and his wife and youngest son live there, the public is forced to pay for security. The high-end estimate of the cost is $500,000 per day, but it is probably less—especially when it is just Melania and her son staying there. It must be noted that it cost Chicago about $2.2 million to protect Obama’s house from election day until inauguration day. However, Obama and his family took up residence in the White House and thus did not require the sort of ongoing protection of multiple locations that Trump now expects.

The rest of Trump’s family also enjoys security at the taxpayers’ expense—when Eric Trump took a business trip to Uruguay it cost the country about $100,000 in hotel room bills. Given that such trips might prove common for Trump’s family members, ongoing expenses can be expected.

The easy an obvious reply to these concerns is that the protection of the president and their family is established policy. Just as Bush and Obama enjoyed expensive and extensive protection, Trump should also enjoy that protection as a matter of consistent policy. As such, there is nothing especially problematic with what Trump is doing. Trump himself also contends that while he attacked Obama for taking vacations, when he goes to Mar-a-Lago and New York, it is for work. For example, he met the prime minister of Japan at Mar-a-Lago for some diplomatic clubbing and not for a weekend vacation in Florida.

A reasonable counter to this reply is to point out the obvious: there is no compelling reason why Trump needs to conduct government business at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. Other than the fact that Trump wants to go to these places and publicize them for his own gain, there is nothing special about them that would preclude conducting government business in the usual locations. As such, these excessive expenses are needless and unjustified.

There is also the harm being done to the communities that must bear the cost of Trump and his family and the financial harm being done to the Lantana Airport. Trump, who professes to be a great friend of the working people and business, is doing considerable harm to the businesses at the airport and doing so for no legitimate reason. This make his actions not only financially problematic, but also morally wrong—he is doing real and serious harm to citizens when there is no need to do so.

There is also an additional moral concern about what Trump is doing, namely that his business benefits from what he is doing. Both the Defense Department and Secret Service apparently plan on renting space in Trump Tower, thus enabling Trump to directly profit from being president. If the allegedly financially conservative Republicans were truly concerned about wasting taxpayer money, they would refuse this funding and force Trump to follow the practices of his predecessors. Or, if Trump insists on staying at Trump tower, the government should require that he pay all the costs himself. After all, being at Trump Tower benefits him and not the American people. Trump also gains considerable free publicity and advertising by conducting state business at his own business locations. He can, of course, deny that this is his intent—despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Just as the conservative critics of Obama were right to keep a critical eye on his travel expenses, they should do the same for Trump. While Trump can, as noted above, make the case that he is at least doing some work while he is at Trump tower and Mar-a-Lago, there is the reasonable concern that Trump is incurring needless expenses and doing significant harm to the finances of the local communities and businesses. After all, there is no reason Trump needs to work at his tower or club. As such, Trump should not take these needless and harmful trips and the fiscal conservatives should be leading the call to reign in this waster of public money and enemy of small businesses.

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Autonomous Vehicles: Solving an Unnecessary Problem?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2017

While motor vehicle fatalities do not get the attention of terrorist attacks (unless a celebrity is involved), the roads of the United States are no stranger to blood.  From 2000 to 2015, the motor vehicle deaths per year ranged from a high of 43,005 in 2005 to a low of 32,675 in 2014. In 2015 there were 35,092 motor vehicle deaths and last year the number went back up to around 40,000. Given the high death toll, there is clearly a problem that needs to be solved.

One of the main reasons being advanced for the deployment of autonomous vehicles is that they will make the roads safer and thus reduce the carnage. While predictions of the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles are overly optimistic, the idea that they would reduce motor vehicle deaths is certainly plausible. After all, autonomous vehicles will not be subject to road rage, exhaustion, intoxication, poor judgment, distraction and the other maladies that inflict human drivers and contribute to the high death tolls. Motor vehicle deaths will certainly not be eliminated even if all vehicles were autonomous, but the likely reduction in the death toll does present a very strong moral and practical reason to deploy such vehicles. That said, it is still worth considering whether the autonomous vehicle is aimed at solving an unnecessary problem. Considering this matter requires going back in time, to the rise of the automobile in the United States.

As the number of cars increased in the United States, so did the number of deaths. One contributing factor to the high number of deaths was that American cars were rather unsafe and this led Ralph Nader to write his classic work, Unsafe at Any Speed. Thanks to Nader and others, the American automobile became much safer and motor vehicle fatalities decreased. While making cars safer was certainly a good thing, it can be argued that this approach was fundamentally flawed. I will use an analogy to make my point.

Imagine, if you will, that people insist on swinging hammers around as they go about their day.  As would be suspected, the hammer swinging would often result in injuries and property damage. Confronted by these harms, solutions are proposed and implemented. People wear ever better helmets and body armor to protect them from wild swings. Hammers are also continuously redesigned so that they inflict less damage when hitting, for example, a face.  Eventually Google and other companies start work on autonomous swinging hammers that will be much better than humans at avoiding hitting other people and things. While all these safety improvements would be better than the original situation of unprotected people swinging very dangerous hammers around, this approach seems to be fundamentally flawed. After all, if people stopped swinging hammers around, then the problem would be solved.

An easy and obvious reply to my analogy is that using motor vehicles, unlike random hammer swinging, is rather important. For one thing, a significant percentage of the economy is built around the motor vehicle. This includes the obvious things like vehicle sales, vehicle maintenance, gasoline sales, road maintenance and so on. It also includes less obvious aspects of the economy that involve the motor vehicle, such as how they contribute to the success of stores like Wal Mart. The economic value of the motor vehicle, it can be argued, provides a justification for accepting the thousands of deaths per year. While it is certainly desirable to reduce these deaths, getting rid of motor vehicles is not a viable economic option—thus autonomous vehicles are a good potential partial solution to the death problem. Or are they?

One obvious problem with the autonomous vehicle solution is that they are trying to solve the death problem within a system created around human drivers and their wants. This system of lights, signs, turn lanes, crosswalks and such is extremely complicated—thus creating difficult engineering and programing problems. It would seem to make more sense to use the resources being poured into autonomous vehicles to develop a better and safer transportation system that does not center around a bad idea: the individual motor vehicle operating within a complicated road system. On this view, autonomous vehicles are solving an unnecessary problem: they are merely better hammers.

This line of argumentation can be countered in a couple ways. One way is to present the economic argument again: autonomous vehicles preserve the individual motor vehicle that is economically critical while being likely to reduce the death fee paid for this economy. Another way is to argue that the cost of creating a new transportation system would be far more than the cost of developing autonomous vehicles that can operate within the existing system. A third way is to make the plausible case that autonomous vehicles are a step towards developing a new transportation system. People tend to need a slow adjustment period to major changes and the autonomous vehicles will allow a gradual transition from distracted human drivers to autonomous vehicles operating with the distracted humans to a transportation infrastructure rebuilt entirely around autonomous vehicles (perhaps with a completely distinct system for walkers, bikers and runners). Going back to the hammer analogy, the self-swinging hammer would reduce hammer injuries and could allow a transition to be made away from hammer swinging altogether.

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Cooperating with Trump

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2017

It has been claimed that Republicans intended, from day one, to obstruct President Obama in all things. This is supported by John Boehner’s remark about Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” However, the defining quote for the obstructionist agenda belongs to Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Republican narrative, as might be imagined, tells a different tale. In the Republican version, Obama is the villain who refuses to compromise with the Republicans.

While the truth of the matter is important, the practical fact of the matter is that Obama and the Republicans often ended up in deadlocks. Obama’s go-to strategy was the use of executive orders—some of which ended up being challenged by the courts. Now that Trump is president, the question is whether the Democrats should adopt the Boehner-McConnell approach and try to kill or at least slow down everything Trump tries to achieve in the hopes of making him a one-term president.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should take this approach. One reason for this is purely pragmatic politics, devoid of any concern about moral values, that has as its goal the acquisition and retention of power. While the Republicans are generally more adept at this than the Democrats, the Democrats can avail themselves of the well-stocked Republican playbook and simply do to Trump what the Republicans did to Obama.

The obvious problem with the approach is that it is devoid of any concern about moral values and is thus very likely to be bad for America as a whole. If one accepts the Lockean view that the leaders of the state should act for the good of the people, then the power justification is out. But for those who regard power as the supreme good of politics, the obstructionist approach makes considerable sense—after all, the Republican strategy landed them the White House and Congress.

Another reason for this is revenge and payback:  Republicans obstructed Obama and Democrats should treat Trump the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an obstruction for an obstruction. While this is certainly appealing in an Old Testament sort of way, this justification also runs afoul of the idea that the leaders are morally obligated to act for the good of the people and not engage in seeking revenge. For John Locke, using a political position to seek revenge would be an act of tyranny that should be resisted. As such, the revenge justification is certainly problematic.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should set aside their lust for power and their desire for revenge and cooperate with Trump. This does not mean that the Democrats must cooperate in all things; just that the Democrats should cooperate and resist in a principle way. As the above considerations should indicate, the cooperation and resistance should be based on what is regarded as good for the people. This is, of course, a rather vague notion but can be worked out in utilitarian terms in regards to specific issues (with due attention to concerns about the tyranny of the majority). This is not to say that the Democrats will always be right and Trump always wrong; but it is s statement of principle for how opposition and cooperation should operate.

This suggests an obvious counter-argument: Trump’s agenda is harmful to the general good and thus it must be obstructed and every effort must be made to make him a one-term president. While my general dislike of Trump inclines me to feel that this is true, I am obligated to be consistent with what I tell my students: truth is not felt, but must be established through reason. Unfortunately, reason seems to indicate that much of Trump’s agenda will not be good for Americans in general. But, this does not entail that everything in his agenda will be bad for America and his specific proposals should be given due and fair consideration.

To use a specific and oft-spoken-of example, Trump claimed that he wants to rebuild the aging and failing public infrastructure. While it is tempting to point out that Obama wanted to do the same thing and that Trump might be thinking of how he and his allies can personally profit from the massive flood of public money into private coffers, addressing the infrastructure woes would be generally good for America. As such, the Democrats should not follow the lead of the Republicans and simply obstruct his proposals. This is not to say that the Democrats should rubber stamp everything, but it is to say that they should not simply reject the proposals simply because they are coming from Trump.

As far as making Trump a one term president; I think Trump will see to that himself.

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Swarms

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2016

The Swarm (film)

Anyone who has played RTS games such as Blizzard’s Starcraft knows the basics of swarm warfare: you build a vast swarm of cheap units and hurl them against the enemy’s smaller force of more expensive units. The plan is that although the swarm will be decimated, the enemy will be exterminated. The same tactic was the basis of the classic tabletop game Ogre—it pitted a lone intelligent super tank against a large force of human infantry and armor. And, of course, the real world features numerous examples of swarm warfare—some successful for those using the swarm tactic (ants taking out a larger foe), some disastrous (massed infantry attacks on machineguns).

The latest approach to swarm tactics is to build a swarm of drones and deploy them against the enemy. While such drones will tend to be airborne units, they could also be ground or sea machines. In terms of their attacks, there are many options. The drones could be large enough to be equipped with weapons, such as small caliber guns, that would allow them to engage and return to reload for future battles. Some might be equipped with melee weapons, poisons, or biological weapons. The drones could also be suicide machines—small missiles intended to damage the enemy by destroying themselves.

While the development of military drone swarms will no doubt fall within the usual high cost of developing new weapon technology, the drones themselves can be relatively cheap. After all, they will tend to be much smaller and simpler than existing weapons such as aircraft, ships and ground vehicles. The main cost will most likely be in developing the software to make the drones operate effectively in a swarm; but after that it will be just a matter of mass producing the hardware.

If effective software and cost-effective hardware can be developed, one of the main advantages of the battle swarm will be its low cost. While such low-cost warfare might be problematic for defense contractors who have grown accustomed to massive contracts for big ticket items, it would certainly be appealing to those who are concerned about costs and reducing government spending. After all, if low cost drones could replace expensive units, defenses expenses could be significantly reduced. The savings could be used for other programs or allow for tax cuts. Or perhaps they will just build billions of dollars of drones.

Low cost units, if effective, can also confer a significant attrition advantage. If, for example, thousands of dollars of drones can take down millions of dollars of aircraft, then the side with the drones stands a decent chance of winning. If hundreds of dollars of drones can take down millions of dollars of aircraft, then the situation is even better for the side with the drones.

The low cost does raise some concerns, though. Once the drone controlling software makes its way out into the world (via the inevitable hack, theft, or sale), then everyone will be using swarms. This will recreate the IED and suicide bomber situation, only at an exponential increase. Instead of IEDs in the road, they will be flying around cities, looking for targets. Instead of a few suicide bombers with vests, there will be swarms of drones loaded with explosives. Since Uber comparisons are now mandatory, the swarm will be the Uber of death.

This does raise moral concerns about the development of the drone software and technology; but the easy and obvious reply is that there is nothing new about this situation: every weapon ever developed eventually makes the rounds. As such, the usual ethics of weapon development applies here, with due emphasis on the possibility of providing another cheap and effective way to destroy and kill.

One short term advantage of the first swarms is that they will be facing weapons designed primarily to engage small numbers of high value targets. For example, air defense systems now consist mainly of expensive missiles designed to destroy very expensive aircraft. Firing a standard anti-aircraft missile into a swarm will destroy some of the drones (assuming the missile detonates), but enough of the swarm will probably survive the attack for it to remain effective. It is also likely that the weapons used to defend against the drones will cost far more than the drones, which ties back into the cost advantage.

This advantage of the drones would be quickly lost if effective anti-swarm weapons are developed. Not surprisingly, gamers have already worked out effective responses to swarms. In D&D/Pathfinder players generally loath swarms for the same reason that ill-prepared militaries will loath drone swarms: while the individual swarm members are easy to kill, it is all but impossible to kill enough of them with standard weapons. In the game, players respond to swarms with area of effect attacks, such as fireballs (or running away). These sorts of attacks can consume the entire swarm and either eliminate it or reduce its numbers so it is no longer a threat. While the real world has an unfortunate lack of wizards, the same basic idea will work against drone swarms: cheap weapons that do moderate damage over a large area. One likely weapon is a battery of large, automatic shotguns that would fill the sky with pellets or flechettes. Missiles could also be designed that act like claymore mines in the sky, spraying ball bearings in almost all directions.  And, obviously enough, swarms will be countered by swarms.

The drones would also be subject to electronic warfare—if they are being remotely controlled, this connection could be disrupted. Autonomous drones would be far less vulnerable, but they would still need to coordinate with each other to remain a swarm and this coordination could be targeted.

The practical challenge would be to make the defenses cheap enough to make them cost effective. Then again, countries that are happy to burn money for expensive weapon systems, such as the United States, would not need to worry about the costs. In fact, defense contractors will be lobbying hard for expensive swarm and anti-swarm systems.

The swarms also inherit the existing moral concerns about non-swarm drones, be they controlled directly by humans or deployed as autonomous killing machines. The ethical problems of swarms controlled by a human operator would be the same as the ethical problems of a single drone controlled by a human, the difference in numbers would not seem to make a moral difference. For example, if drone assassination with a single drone is wrong (or right), then drone assassination with a swarm would also be wrong (or right).

Likewise, an autonomous swarm is not morally different from a single autonomous unit in terms of the ethics of the situation.  For example, if deploying a single autonomous killbot is wrong (or right), then deploying an autonomous killbot swarm is wrong (or right).  That said, perhaps there is a greater chance that an autonomous killbot swarm will develop a rogue hive mind and turn against us. Or perhaps not. In any case, Will Rodgers will be proven right once again: “You can’t say that civilization don’t advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way.”

 

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Gaming & Groping II: Obligations

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 2, 2016

In my previous essay, I discussed some possible motivations for groping in VR games, which is now a thing. The focus of what follows is on the matter of protecting gamers from such harassment on the new frontiers of gaming.

Since virtual groping is a paradigm of a first world problem, it might be objected that addressing it is a waste of time. After all, the objection can be made that resources that might be expended on combating virtual groping should be spent on addressing real groping After all, a real grope is far worse than a virtual grope—and virtual gropes can be avoided by simply remaining outside of the virtual worlds.

This sort of objection does have some merit. After all, it is sensible to address problems in order of their seriousness. To use an analogy, if a car is skidding out of control at the same time an awful song comes on the radio, then the driver should focus on getting the car back under control and not waste time on the radio.  Unless, of course, it is “The Most Unwanted Song.”

The reasonable reply to this objection is that this is not a situation where it is one or the other, but not both. While time spent addressing virtual groping is time not spent on addressing real groping, addressing virtual groping does not preclude addressing real groping. Also, pushing this sort of objection can easily lead into absurdity: for anything a person is doing, there is almost certainly something else they could be doing that would have better moral consequences. For example, a person who spends time and money watching a movie could use that time and money to address a real problem, such as crime or drug addiction. But, as so often been argued, this would impose unreasonable expectations on people and would ultimately create more harm than good. As such, while I accept that real groping is worse than virtual groping, I am not failing morally by taking time to address the virtual rather than the real in this essay.

It could also be objected that there is no legitimate reason to be worried about virtual groping on the obvious grounds that it is virtual rather than real. After all, when people play video games, they routinely engage in virtual violence against each other—yet this is not seen as a special problem (although virtual violence does have its critics). Put roughly, if it is fine to shoot another player in a game (virtual killing) it should be equally fine to grope another player in a game. Neither the killing nor groping are real and hence should not be taken seriously.

This objection does have some merit, but can be countered by considering an analogy to sports. When people are competing in boxing or martial arts, they hit each other and this is accepted because it is the purpose of the sport. However, it is not acceptable for a competitor to start pawing away at their opponent’s groin in a sexual manner (and not just because of the no hitting below the belt rules of boxing). Punching is part of the sport, groping is not. The same holds for video games. If a person is playing a combat video game that pits players against each other, the expectation is that they will be subject to virtual violence. They know this and consent to it by playing, just as boxers know they will be punched and consent to it. But, unless the players know and consent to playing a groping game, using the game mechanics to virtually grope other players would not be acceptable—they did not agree to that game.

Another counter is that while the virtual groping is not as bad as real groping, it can still harm the target of the groping. To use an analogy, being verbally abused over game chat is not as bad as having a person physically present engaging in such abuse, but it is still unpleasant for the target. Virtual groping is a form of non-verbal harassment, intended to get a negative reaction from the target and to make the gaming experience unpleasant. There is also the fact that being the victim of such harassment can rob a player of the enjoyment of the game—which is the point of playing. While it is not as bad as groping a player in a real-world game (which would be sexual assault), it has an analogous effect on the player’s experience.

It could be replied that a player should just be tough and put up with the abuse. This reply lacks merit and is analogous to saying that people should just put up with being assaulted robbed or spit on. It is the reply of an abuser who wants to continue the abuse while shifting blame onto the target.

While players are in the wrong when they engage in virtual groping, there is the question of what gaming companies should do to protect their customers from such harassment. They do have a practical reason to address this concern—players will tend to avoid games where they are subject to harassment and abuse, thus costing the gaming company money. They also have a moral obligation, analogous to the obligation of those in the real world who host an event. For example, a casino that allowed players to grope others with impunity would be failing in its obligation to its customers; the same would seem to hold for a gaming company operating a VR game.

Companies do already operate various forms of reporting, although their enforcement tends to vary. Blizzard, for example, has policies about how players should treat each other in World of Warcraft. This same approach can and certainly will be applied to VR games that allow a broader range of harassment, such as virtual groping.

Because of factors such as controller limitations, most video games do not have the mechanics that would allow much in the way of groping—although some players do work very hard trying to make that happen. While non-VR video games could certainly support things like glove style controllers that would allow groping, VR games are far more likely to support controllers that would allow players to engage in virtual groping behavior (something that has, as noted above, already occurred).

Eliminating such controller options would help prevent VR groping, but at the cost of taking away a rather interesting and useful aspect of VR controller systems. As such, this is not a very viable option. A better approach would be to put in the software limits on how players can interact with the virtual bodies of other players. While some might suggest a punitive system for when one player’s virtual hands (or groin) contacting another player’s virtual naught bits, the obvious problem is that wily gamers would exploit this. For example, if a virtual hand contacting a virtual groin caused the character damage or filed an automatic report, then some players would be trying their best to get their virtual groins in contact with other players’ virtual hands. As such, this would be a bad idea.

A better, but less than ideal system, would be to have a personal space zone around each player’s VR body to keep other players at a distance. The challenge would be working this effectively into the game mechanics, especially for such things as hand-to-hand combat. It might also be possible to have the software recognize and prevent harassing behavior. So, for example, a player could virtually punch another player, but not make grabbing motions on the target’s groin.

It should be noted that these concerns are about contexts in which players do not want to be groped; I have no moral objection to VR applications that allow consensual groping—which, I infer, will be very popular.

 

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Guns & Suicide

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2016

Judging from the news coverage, it would be natural to think that mass shootings with assault rifles are the most common form of gun violence. As is often the case, the extent of media coverage is no indicator of the true facts of the matter—to think otherwise would be to fall victim to the spotlight fallacy. While mass shootings are all too common, the number of people killed per year in such events is only a small fraction of deaths involving guns. The vast majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted: 21,334 of the 33,599 known gun deaths in 2014 were suicides. Of the remaining deaths, homicides accounted for 10,945, accidents 586 and police interventions resulted in 464 deaths. The death tolls in these three categories has been stable since 2000, but gun suicides increased significantly during this time. As should be expected, there have been various attempts to address this problem.

When attempts to prevent successful suicide focus on guns, a common counter is to repeat the saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Put in non-slogan form, the argument is that there is no reason to focus on guns because doing so will have no significant impact on suicide rates. Those who are intent on killing themselves will merely find some other means of doing so, be it hanging or pills. This is analogous to the response to other proposals to address gun violence. For example, when gun regulation is raised as a means of addressing mass shootings, the response is that people will simply use something else, such as homemade bombs.

This counter can be addressed by considering some key facts about guns and suicide. The first is that research indicates that a person will typically start planning a very short time before the attempt (often less than an hour). That is, there is typically a limited window of vulnerability. The second, and the most relevant, is that guns are very effective suicide machines: 85% of suicide attempts with guns succeed, followed by 69% for hanging. The use of poison succeeds 2% of the time. This is hardly surprising: guns are designed to kill effectively and quickly. At this point, an objector might contend that the effectiveness of guns is not really relevant—a person will just keep trying if they fail with a low success method. This leads to the third fact.

While it seems reasonable to believe that a person who tries to commit suicide and fails will keep trying, the evidence seems to show that the vast majority of people who fail do not try again. As such, if the first attempt fails, there probably will not be another—especially if there is an intervention on behalf of the person. As such, if a suicidal person did not have access to a gun, then his chance of not dying would be significantly better than if he did. This is not to ignore the other means of committing suicide; it is merely to consider the facts of the success rate.

While a lack of access to a gun would significantly reduce the chances a person will succeed in a suicide attempt, there is the problem of making this a reality. Some countries have addressed gun violence by very strong restrictions on gun ownership, thus reducing all forms of gun violence (including suicide). As a matter of political reality, this is not an option in the United States. As such, the challenge of suicide by gun must be addressed in other ways.

One approach, which is analogous to one of many proposals for addressing mass shootings, is a requirement to confirm the mental health a person purchasing a gun. In the case of suicide prevention, the mental health issues of concern would tend to be different from those involved with mass shootings or other forms of gun violence. Though this is reasonable, it does have two significant gaps. The first is that it does nothing about guns that are already owned. The second is that it requires that the person have an established and known history that would indicate a likely attempt at suicide.

In regards to guns already owned, the main solution is for the guns to be made inaccessible to the person. This could be done by the person themselves, by friends/relatives or by the authorities in certain cases. The main problem here is that suicide, as noted above, tends to not be planned well in advance—so there may be little or no time for an intervention. There are also the legal and practical challenges in taking a person’s guns away without their consent. If the person has proven themselves a danger to themselves (or others), then there are procedures for this. However, if a person is merely suspected of having the potential of committing suicide, there is the problem of justifying taking the person’s guns. Given that gun ownership is taken as a basic right, the authorities would have no legal right to take away a person’s guns without adequate justification. Friends and relatives, of course, would not need legal justification to intervene—but taking a person’s guns without his consent would be theft (not to mention the potential risk). This is analogous to attempts to prevent mass shootings by taking away guns from people who might engage in such behavior—the problem is that until they act or make clear threats, there is little legal basis for such action.

In regards to the established and known history of mental illness, the problem (as with the case of some mass shootings) is that before a person actually takes action, her background is very often the same as people who will never engage in gun violence. This is the general problem of prediction—one that is rather difficult in the case of suicide. There are also the ethical and legal problems associated with acting on mere predictions. This is based on the fact that gun ownership is a legal right in the United States as well as the usual moral arguments in favor of gun ownership as a moral right.

There do not seem to be many technological options to addressing the use of guns in suicide. After all, the requirement of a safety feature that prevents a gun from being fired at humans would never pass in the United States, even if such a feature was a technical possibility. A feature that prevented a weapon from firing at designated person (such as the owner) might have some appeal (and is a feature of some science fiction weapons)—but even if it were possible, a person could bypass this feature or get another weapon. The solution, obviously enough, must be a human one.

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The Gun and I: Feeling & Thinking

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2016

After each eruption of gun violence, there is also a corresponding eruption in the debates over gun issues. As with all highly charged issues, people are primarily driven by their emotions rather than by reason. Being a philosopher, I like to delude myself with the thought that it is possible to approach an issue with pure reason. Like many other philosophers, I am irritated when people say things like “I feel that there should be more gun control” or “I feel that gun rights are important. Because of this, when I read student papers I strike through all “inappropriate” uses of “feel” and replace them with “think.” This is, of course, done with a subconscious sense of smug superiority. Or so it was before I started reflecting on emotions in the context of gun issues. In this essay I will endeavor a journey through the treacherous landscape of feeling and thinking in relation to gun issues. I’ll begin with arguments.

As any competent philosopher can tell you, an argument consists of a claim, the conclusion, that is supposed to be supported by the evidence or reasons, the premises, that are given. In the context of logic, as opposed to that of persuasion, there are two standards for assessing an argument. The first is an assessment of the quality of the logic: determining how well the premises support the conclusion. The second is an assessment of the plausibility of the premises: determining the quality of the evidence.

On the face of it, assessing the quality of the logic should be a matter of perfect objectivity. For deductive arguments (arguments whose premises are supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion), this is the case. Deductive arguments, as anyone who has had some basic logic knows, can be checked for validity using such things as Venn diagrams, truth tables and proofs. As long as a person knows what she is doing, she can confirm beyond all doubt whether a deductive argument is valid or not. A valid argument is, of course, an argument such that if its premises were true, then its conclusion must be true. While a person might stubbornly refuse to accept a valid argument as valid, this would be as foolish as stubbornly refusing to accept that 2+2= 4 or that triangles have three sides. As an example, consider the following valid argument:

 

Premise 1: If an assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence, then congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

Premise 2: An assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence.

Conclusion: Congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

 

This argument is valid; in fact, it is an example of the classic deductive argument known as modus ponens (also known as affirming the antecedent). As such, questioning the logic of the argument would just reveal one’s ignorance of logic. Before anyone gets outraged, it is important to note that an argument being valid does not entail that any of its content is actually true. While this endlessly confuses students, though a valid argument that has all true premises must have a true conclusion, a valid argument need not have true premises or a true conclusion. Because of this, while the validity of the above argument is beyond question, one could take issue with the premises. They could, along with the conclusion, be false—although the argument is unquestionably valid. For those who might be interested, an argument that is valid and has all true premises is a sound argument. An argument that does not meet these conditions is unsound.

Unfortunately, the assessment of premises does not (in general) admit of a perfectly objective test on par with the tests for validity. In general, premises are assessed in terms of how well they match observations, background information and credible claims from credible sources (which leads right to concerns about determining credibility). As should be expected, people tend to accept premises that are in accord with how they feel rather than based on a cold assessment of the facts. This is true for everyone, be that person the head of the NRA or a latte sipping liberal academic who shivers at the thought of even seeing a gun. Because of this, a person who wants to fairly and justly assess the premises of any argument has to be willing to understand her own feelings and work out how they influence her judgment. Since people, as John Locke noted in his classic essay on enthusiasm, tend to evaluate claims based on the strength of their feelings, doing this is exceptionally difficult. People think they are right because they feel strongly about something and are least likely to engage in critical assessment when they feel strongly.

While deductive logic allows for perfectly objective assessment, it is not the logic that is commonly used in debates over political issues or in general. The most commonly used logic is inductive logic.

Inductive arguments are arguments, so an inductive argument will have one or more premises that are supposed to support a conclusion. Unlike deductive arguments, inductive arguments do not offer certainty—they deal in likelihood. A logically good inductive argument is called a strong argument: one whose premises, if true, would probably make the conclusion true. A bad inductive argument is a weak one. Unlike the case of validity, the strength of an inductive argument is judged by applying the standards specific to that sort of inductive argument to the argument in question. Consider, as an example, the following argument:

 

Premise 1: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of automobiles.

Premise 2: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of guns.

Premise 3: The tens of thousands of deaths by automobiles are morally acceptable.

Conclusion: The tens of thousands of deaths by gun are also morally acceptable.

 

This is a simple argument by analogy in which it is argued that since cars and guns are alike, if we accept automobile fatalities then we should also accept gun fatalities. Being an inductive argument, there is no perfect, objective test to determine whether the argument is strong or not. Rather, the argument is assessed in terms of how well it meets the standards of an argument by analogy. The gist of these standards is that the more alike the two things (guns and cars) are alike, the stronger the argument. Likewise, the less alike they are, the weaker the argument.

While the standards are reasonably objective, their application admits of considerable subjectivity. In the case of guns and cars, people will differ greatly in terms of how they see them in regards to similarities and differences. As would be suspected, the lenses people see this matter will be deeply colored by their emotions and psychological backstory. As such, rationally assessing inductive arguments is especially challenging: a person must sort through the influence of emotions and psychology on her evaluation of both the premises and the reasoning. Since arguments about guns are generally inductive, it is no wonder it is a mess—even on the rare occasions when people are sincerely trying to be rational and objective.

The lesson here is that a person needs to think about how she feels before she can think about what she thinks. Since this also applies to me, my next essay will be about exploring my psychological backstory in regards to guns.

 

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A Patient’s Right to Know

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2016

English: Livingston, TX, 9/25/05 -- A doctor t...

All professions have their problem members and the field of medicine is no exception. Fortunately, the percentage of bad doctor is rather low—but this small percentage can do considerable harm. After all, when your professor is incompetent, you might not learn as much as you should. If your doctor is incompetent, she could kill you.

The May, 2016 issue of Consumer Reports includes a detailed article by Rachel Rabkin Peachman covering the subject of bad doctors and the difficulty patients face in learning whether a physician is a good doctor or a disaster.

Based on the research in the article, there are three main problems. The first is that there are bad doctors. The article presents numerous examples to add color to the dry statistics and this include such tales of terror as doctors molesting patients, doctors removing healthy body parts, and patient deaths due to negligence, impairment or incompetence. These are obvious all moral and professional failings on part of the doctors and they should clearly not be engaged in such misdeeds.

The second is that, according to Peachman, the disciplinary actions taken by the profession tend to be rather less than ideal. While doctors should enjoy the protection of a due process, the hurdles are, perhaps, too high. There is also the problem that the responses to the misdeeds are often very mild. For example, a doctor whose negligence has resulted in the death of patients can be allowed to keep practicing with only minor limitations. As another example, a doctor who has engaged in sexual misconduct might continue practicing after a class or two on ethics and with the requirement that someone else be present when he is seeing patients. In addition to the practical concerns about this, there is also the moral concern that the disciplinary boards are failing to protect patients.

One possible argument against harsher punishments is that there is a shortage of doctors and taking a doctor out of practice would have worse consequences than allowing a bad doctor to keep practicing. This would be the basis for a utilitarian argument for continuing mild punishments. Crudely put, it is better to have a doctor who might kill a patient or two than no doctor at all.

This argument does have some appeal. However, there is the factual question of whether or not the mild punishments do more good than harm. If they do, then one would need to accept that this approach is morally tolerable. If not, then the argument would fail. There is also the response that consequences are not what matters—people should be reprimanded based on their misdeeds and not based on some calculation of utility. This also has some intuitive appeal.

It could also be argued that it should be left to patients to judge if they want to take the risk. If a doctor is known for sexual misdeeds with female patients but is fine with male patients, then a man who has few or no other options might decide that the doctor is his best choice. This leads to the third problem.

The third problem is that it is very difficult for patients to learn about bad doctors. While there is a National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), it is off limits to patients and is limited to people in law enforcement, hospital administration, insurance and a few other groups.

The main argument advanced against allowing public access to the NPDB is based on the premise that it contains inaccurate information which could be harmful to innocent doctors. Interestingly enough, this makes it similar to the credit report data—it is notorious for containing harmful inaccuracies that can plague people.

While the possibility of incorrect data is a matter of concern, that premise best supports the conclusion that the NPDB should be reviewed regularly to ensure that the information is accurate. While perfect accuracy is not possible, it would seem to be well within the realm of possibility for the information to meet a reasonable standard of accuracy. This could be aided by providing robust tools for doctors to inform those running the NPDB of errors and to inform doctors about the content of their files. As such, the error argument is easily defeated.

Patients do have some access to data about doctors, but there are many barriers in place. In some cases, there is a financial cost to access data. In almost all cases, the patient will need to grind through lengthy documents and penetrate the code of legalize. There is also the fact that this data is often incomplete and inaccurate.  While it could be argued that a responsible patient would expend the resources needed to research a doctor, this seems to be an unreasonable request—a patient should not need to do all this just to know that the doctor is competent. A reason for this is that a patient might be in rough shape and expecting her to engage in all this work would seem unfair. There is also the fact that one legitimate role of the state is to protect citizens from harm and having a clear means of identifying bad doctors would seem to fall within this.

Given the above, it seems reasonable to accept that a patient has the right to know about her doctor’s competence and should have an easy means of acquiring accurate information. This enables a patient to make an informed choice about her physician without facing an undue burden. This will also help the profession—good doctors will attract more patients and bad doctors will have a greater incentive to improve their practice.

 

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A Philosopher’s Blog 2015 Available on Amazon

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2016

A-Philosopher's-Blog-2015-CoverThis book contains essays from the 2015 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The topics covered range from robotic assassins to the ethics of performance based university funding. Side adventures include the ethics of “bathroom bills” and technological immortality.

Available on Amazon in Kindle format for 99 cents.

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My Old Husky & Philosophy IV: Moral Decisions

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

Isis LookingThe saga of Isis, my thirteen-year-old husky, continues. While she faced a crisis, good care and steroids have seen her through the storm of pain and she has returned to her usual self—ready for adventures and judging all lesser creatures.

Having a pet imposes morally accountability upon a person—the life of a pet is quite literally in one’s hands. When I took Isis in to the emergency vet she was in such rough shape that I thought that it might have been time for that hardest of pet decisions—to choose an end to the suffering of a beloved friend. It is my hope that I will not need to make this decision—I hope that when her time comes she will drift away in her sleep with no pain. I am hoping the same for myself. After all, no one wants to face that choice.

While some dismiss philosophy as valueless in real life, I have found my experience as a philosopher incredibly helpful in this matter. As noted above, I am morally responsible for my husky’s well-being. Having studied and taught ethics, I have learned a great deal that helps me frame the choices I have and will face.

When I brought Isis to the emergency vet, I knew that it would be expensive. There are, of course, higher fees for bringing a pet in outside of regular hours and Isis was in the sort of shape that usually indicates a large bill. So, when the vet showed me the proposed bill, I was not surprised that it was just under $600. I am lucky enough to have a decent job and fortunate enough to have made it through the financial folks driving the economy off a cliff a while back. While that was still a large sum of money for me, I could certainly afford it. While very worried about her, I did think about people who are less well off, yet love their pets as much as I love my husky—they could face a terrible choice between medical care for their pet and having the money for some essential bill or expense. Or they might simply not have enough money at all, thus being denied the choice. While there are those who do help out with the care of such pets, I am sure that there are daily tragedies involving those who lack the funds to care for sick or injured pets.

Since there are many systems of ethics, there are many ways to approach the moral decision of costly (in money or time) pet care. The most calculating is, of course, a utilitarian approach: weighing the costs and benefits in order to determine what would create the greatest utility. In my case, I can afford such care and the good for my husky vastly outweighed the cost to me. So, the utilitarian calculation was easy for me.

Others are not so lucky and they will face a difficult choice that requires weighing the well-being of their pet against the cost to them. While it is easy enough to say that a person should always take care of her pet, people can obviously have other moral obligations, such as to their children. In addition to the ethics of making the decision, there is also to moral matter of having a society in which people are forced to make such hard decisions because they simply lack the financial resources to address the challenges they face. While some might say that those who cannot afford pets should not have pets (something that is also often said about children), that also seems to be another evil. While I would not say that people have a right to pets as they have a right to life and liberty, I would accept that a system that generates such poverty would seem to be an unjust system. Naturally, some might still insist that pets are a luxury, like education and basic nutrition.

Another approach is to set aside the cold calculations of utility and make the decision based on an ethics of duty and obligation.  Having a pet is analogous to having a child: the choice creates a set of moral duties and obligations. Part of the foundation of these obligations is that the pet cannot make her own decisions and generally lacks the ability to care for itself. As such, taking an animal as a pet is to accept the role of a decision maker and a caretaker. An analogy can also be drawn to accepting a contract for a job: the job requires certain things and accepting the job entails accepting those requirements. In the case of a pet, there are many obligations and the main one is assuming responsibility for the well-being of the pet. This is why choosing to have a pet is such a serious decision and should not be entered into lightly.

One reason having a pet should not be taken lightly is that the duty to the pet imposes an obligation to make sacrifices for the well-being of the pet. This can include going without sleep, cleaning up messes and making a hard decision about the end of life. There are, of course, limits to all obligations and working out exactly what one owes a pet is a moral challenge. There are certainly some minimal obligations that a person must accept or she should not have a pet—these would include providing for the basic physical and emotional needs of the pet. The moral discussion becomes rather more complicated when the obligations impose greater burdens, such as burdens of time and money.

When Isis was at her low point, she could barely walk. I had to carry her outside and support her while she struggled to do her business. When I picked her up, I would say “up, up and away!” When carrying her, I would say “wooosh” so she would think she was flying. This made us both feel a little better.

She could not stand to eat or drink and had little appetite. So, I had to hold her water bowl up for her so she could drink and make special foods to hand feed her.  I found that she would eat chicken and rice processed into a paste—provided I slathered it with peanut butter and let her lick it from my palm. At night, she would cry with pain and I would be there to comfort her, getting by on a few hours of sleep. Sometimes she would not be able to make it outside, and there would be a mess to clean up.

I did all this for two reasons. The first is, of course, love. The second is duty—I accept that my moral obligation to my husky requires me to do all this for her because she is my dog. If I did not do all this for her, I would be a worse person and, while I can bear cleaning up diarrhea at 3:23 in the morning, I cannot bear being a worse person.

I am certainly no moral saint and I freely admit that this was a difficult (though it obviously pales in comparison with what other people have faced). It did not reach my limits, though I know I (like everyone) have them. Sorting out the ethics of these limits is a significant moral matter. First, there is the moral question of how far one’s obligations go. That is, determining how far you are morally obligated to go. Second, there is the moral question of how far you can go before your obligations are breaking you. After all, each person also has duties to herself that are as important as obligations to others.

In my case, I accepted that my obligations included all that I mentioned above. While doing all this was exhausting me (I was dumping instant coffee mix into protein shakes to get through teaching classes), Isis recovered before my obligations broke me. But, I did have to give serious thought to how long I would be able to sustain this level of care before I could not go on anymore—I am glad I did not have to find out.

 

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