A Philosopher's Blog

Right-to-Try

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 7, 2017

There has been a surge of support for right-to-try bills and many states have passed these into law. Congress, eager to do something politically easy and popular, has also jumped on this bandwagon.

Briefly put, the right-to-try laws give terminally ill patients the right to try experimental treatments that have completed Phase 1 testing but have yet to be approved by the FDA. Phase 1 testing involves assessing the immediate toxicity of the treatment. This does not include testing its efficacy or its longer-term safety. Crudely put, passing Phase 1 just means that the treatment does not immediately kill or significantly harm patients.

On the face of it, the right-to-try is something that no sensible person would oppose. After all, the gist of this right is that people who have “nothing to lose” are given the right to try treatments that might help them. The bills that propose to codify the right into law make use of the rhetorical narrative that the right-to-try laws would give desperate patients the freedom to seek medical treatment that might save them and this would be done by getting the FDA and the state out of their way. This is a powerful rhetorical narrative since it appeals to compassion, freedom and a dislike of the government. As such, it is not surprising that few people dare argue against such proposals. However, the matter does deserve proper critical consideration.

One interesting way to look at the matter is to consider an alternative reality in which the narrative of these laws was spun with a different rhetorical charge—negative rather than positive. Imagine, for a moment, if the rhetorical engines had cranked out a tale of how the bills would strip away the protection of the desperate and dying to allow predatory companies to use them as Guinea pigs for their untested treatments. If that narrative had been sold, people would be howling against such proposals rather than lovingly embracing them. Rhetorical narratives, be they positive or negative, are logically inert. As such, they are irrelevant to the merits of the right-to-try proposals. How people feel about the proposals is also logically irrelevant as well. What is wanted is a cool examination of the matter.

On the positive side, the right-to-try does offer people the chance to try treatments that might help them. It is, obviously enough, hard to argue that people do not have a right to take such risks when they are terminally ill. That said, there are still some points that need to be addressed.

One important point is that there is already a well-established mechanism in place to allow patients access to experimental treatments. The FDA already has system of expanded access that apparently approves the overwhelming majority of requests. Somewhat ironically, when people argue for the right-to-try by using examples of people successfully treated by experimental methods, they are showing that the existing system already allows people access to such treatments. This raises the question about why the laws are needed and what it changes.

The main change in such laws tends to be to reduce the role of the FDA in the process. Without such laws, requests to use such experimental methods typically have to go through the FDA (which seems to approve most requests).  If the FDA was denying people treatment that might help them, then such laws would seem to be justified. However, the FDA does not seem to be the problem here—they generally do not roadblock the use of experimental methods for people who are terminally ill. This leads to the question of what factors are limiting patient access.

As would be expected, the main limiting factors are those that impact almost all treatment access: costs and availability. While the proposed bills grant the negative right to choose experimental methods, they do not grant the positive right to be provided with those methods. A negative right is a liberty—one is free to act upon it but is not provided with the means to do so. The means must be acquired by the person. A positive right is an entitlement—the person is free to act and is provided with the means of doing so. In general, the right-to-try proposals do little or nothing to ensure that such treatments are provided. For example, public money is not allocated to pay for such treatments. As such, the right-to-try is much like the right-to-healthcare for most people: you are free to get it provided you can get it yourself. Since the FDA generally does not roadblock access to experimental treatments, the bills and laws would seem to do little or nothing new to benefit patients. That said, the general idea of right-to-try seems reasonable—and is already practiced. While few are willing to bring them up in public discussions, there are some negative aspects to the right-to-try. I will turn to some of those now.

One obvious concern is that terminally ill patients do have something to lose. Experimental treatments could kill them significantly earlier than their terminal condition or they could cause suffering that makes their remaining time even worse. As such, it does make sense to have some limit on the freedom to try. After all, it is the job of the FDA and medical professionals to protect patients from such harms—even if the patients want to roll the dice.

This concern can be addressed by appealing to freedom of choice—provided that the patients are able to provide informed consent and have an honest assessment of the treatment. This does create something of a problem: since little is known about the treatment, the patient cannot be well informed about the risks and benefits. But, as I have argued in many other posts, I accept that people have a right to make such choices, even if these choices are self-damaging. I apply this principle consistently, so I accept that it grants the right-to-try, the right to same-sex marriage, the right to eat poorly, the right to use drugs, and so on.

The usual counters to such arguments from freedom involve arguments about how people must be protected from themselves, arguments that such freedoms are “just wrong” or arguments about how such freedoms harm others. The idea is that moral or practical considerations override the freedom of the individual. This is a reasonable counter and a strong case can be made against allowing people the right to engage in a freedom that could harm or kill them. However, my position on such freedoms requires me to accept that a person has the right-to-try, even if it is a bad idea. That said, others have an equally valid right to try to convince them otherwise and the FDA and medical professionals have an obligation to protect people, even from themselves.

 

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What Can be Owned?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 4, 2017

One rather interesting philosophical question is that of what can, and perhaps more importantly cannot, be owned. There is, as one might imagine, considerable dispute over this matter. One major historical example of such a dispute is the debate over whether people can be owned. A more recent example is the debate over the ownership of genes. While each specific dispute needs to be addressed on its own merits, it is certainly worth considering the broader question of what can and what cannot be property.

Addressing this matter begins with the foundation of ownership—that is, what justifies the claim that one owns something, whatever that something might be. This is, of course, the philosophical problem of property. Many are not even aware there is such a philosophical problem—they uncritically accept the current system, though they might have some complaints about its particulars. But, to simply assume that the existing system of property is correct (or incorrect) is to beg the question. As such, the problem of property needs to be addressed without simply assuming it has been solved.

One practical solution to the problem of property is to contend that property is a matter of convention. This can be formalized convention (such as laws) or informal convention (such as traditions) or a combination of both. One reasonable view is property legalism—that ownership is defined by the law. On this view, whatever the law defines as property is property. Another reasonable view is that of property relativism—that ownership is defined by the cultural practices (which can include the laws). Roughly put, whatever the culture accepts as property is property. These approaches, obviously enough, correspond to the moral theories of legalism (that the law determines morality) and ethical relativism (that culture determines morality).

The conventionalist approach to property does seem to have the virtue of being practical and of avoiding mucking about in philosophical disputes. If there is a dispute about what (or who) can be owned, the matter is settled by the courts, by force of arms or by force of persuasion. There is no question of what view is right—winning makes the view right. While this approach does have its appeal, it is not without its problems.

Trying to solve the problem of property with the conventionalist approach does lead to a dilemma: the conventions are either based on some foundation or they are not. If the conventions are not based on a foundation other than force (of arms or persuasion), then they would seem to be utterly arbitrary. In such a case, the only reasons to accept such conventions would be practical—to avoid trouble with armed people (typically the police) or to gain in some manner.

If the conventions have some foundation, then the problem is determining what it (or they) might be. One easy and obvious approach is to argue that people have a moral obligation to obey the law or follow cultural conventions. While this would provide a basis for a moral obligation to accept the property conventions of a society, these conventions would still be arbitrary. Roughly put, those under the conventions would have a reason to accept whatever conventions were accepted, but no reason to accept one specific convention over another. This is analogous to the ethics of divine command theory, the view that what God commands is good because He commands it and what He forbids is evil because He forbids it. As should be expected, the “convention command” view of property suffers from problems analogous to those suffered by divine command theory, such as the arbitrariness of the commands and the lack of justification beyond obedience to authority.

One classic moral solution to the problem of property is that offered by utilitarianism. On this view, the practice of property that creates more positive value than negative value for the morally relevant beings would be the morally correct practice. It does make property a contingent matter—as the balance of positive against negative shifted, radically different conceptions of property can be thus justified. So, for example, while a capitalistic conception of property might be justified at a certain place and time, that might shift in favor of state ownership of the means of production. As always, utilitarianism leaves the door open for intuitively horrifying practices that manage to fulfill that condition. However, this approach also has an intuitive appeal in that the view of property that creates the greatest good would be the morally correct view of property.

One very interesting attempt to solve the problem of property is offered by John Locke. He begins with the view that God created everyone and gave everyone the earth in common. While God does own us, He is cool about it and effectively lets each person own themselves. As such, I own myself and you own yourself. From this, as Locke sees it, it follows that each of us owns our labor.

For Locke, property is created by mixing one’s labor with the common goods of the earth. To illustrate, suppose we are washed up on an island owned by no one. If I collect wood and make a shelter, I have mixed my labor with the wood that can be used by any of us, thus making the shelter my own. If you make a shelter with your labor, it is thus yours. On Locke’s view, it would be theft for me to take your shelter and theft for you to take mine.

As would be imagined, the labor theory of ownership quickly runs into problems, such as working out a proper account of mixing of labor and what to do when people are born on a planet on which everything is already claimed and owned. However, the idea that the foundation of property is that each person owns themselves is an intriguing one and does have some interesting implications about what can (and cannot) be owned. One implication would seem to be that people are owners and cannot be owned. For Locke, this would be because each person is owned by themselves and ownership of other things is conferred by mixing one’s labor with what is common to all.

It could be contended that people create other people by their labor literally in the case of the mother) and thus parents own their children. A counter to this is that although people do engage in sexual activity that results in the production of other people, this should not be considered labor in the sense required for ownership. After all, the parents just have sex and then the biological processes do all the work of constructing the new person. One might also play the metaphysical card and contend that what makes the person a person is not manufactured by the parents, but is something metaphysical like the soul or consciousness (for Locke, a person is their consciousness and the consciousness is within a soul).

Even if it is accepted that parents do not own their children, there is the obvious question about manufactured beings that are like people such as intelligent robots or biological constructs. These beings would be created by mixing labor with other property (or unowned materials) and thus would seem to be things that could be owned. Unless, of course, they are owners.

One approach is to consider them analogous to children—it is not how children are made that makes them unsuitable for ownership, it is what they are. On this view, people-like constructs would be owners rather than things to be owned. The intuitive counter is that people-like manufactured beings would be property like anything else that is manufactured. The challenge is, of course, to show that this would not entail that children are property—after all, considerable resources and work can be expended to create a child (such as IVF, surrogacy, and perhaps someday artificial wombs), yet intuitively they would not be property. This does point to a rather important question: is it what something is that makes it unsuitable to be owned or how it is created?

 

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Arguing for Fake News

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2017

In the current political climate, fake news in generally condemned. However, it was once employed as weapon against the Nazis. While the effectiveness of the tactic can be debated, Sefton Delmer waged his own disinformation war with various radio shows such as Der Chef. Given the evil of the Nazis and the context of a war, it seems reasonable to regard this use of fake news as morally acceptable. This, of course, provides a launching point for arguing in favor of fake news.

By definition, fake news involves lying. As such, sorting out the ethics of fake news requires considering the ethics of lying. Sticking with the WWII theme, an obvious focus for a discussion of lying is the allies’ disinformation campaign that was aimed at deceiving the Germans about the landings in France. The allies were lying to the Germans, but this can easily be justified. One obvious approach is utilitarianism: whatever harm might arise from lying would be clearly offset by the benefits gained by these deceptions. In this case, the saving of lives and the start of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. Naturally, from the perspective of the Nazis, the utilitarian calculation would be rather different.

Another obvious approach is a conditional approach based on the ethics of war: if it is acceptable to kill people in war to achieve military goals, then the use of the lesser evil of deception to achieve military goals would surely be acceptable. There is a potential flaw in this reasoning in that some lesser evils would not be acceptable to inflict. To use a disturbing example, while raping a person is a lesser evil than killing them, the use of rape as a weapon of war certainly seems unacceptable. One possible reason for this is that killing is an inherent part of the nature of armed conflict while rape is not. Obviously enough it could be argued that killing, even in war, is unacceptable and a successful counter of this sort would defeat this justification for lying in war.

A third easy justification is based on the idea that doing bad things to bad people is justified because they are bad. That is, the evil of the Nazis justifies deceiving them because they have no moral right to expect to be told the truth. While appealing, this can be a bit problematic and the obvious counter is to argue that doing bad things to bad people is still bad. These three justifications can be deployed in defense of the current practice of fake news and it is to this that I now turn.

One interesting way to justify fake news of the sort used today is to argue that there is state of war in politics and this justifies the use of the weapon of fake news. On this view, the fact that Alex Jones calls his show Infowars would be quite appropriate. There is also the well-established notion that the United States is engaged in a culture war. If these metaphors are taken literally, then the ethics of war could be used to justify the use of fake news in the same manner that it could be used to justify the deception of Der Chef. The challenge is to show that such a state of war exists and that it warrants the use of deception to achieve military ends. At this time, the war seems rather more metaphorical than literal and thus the war justification does not seem to hold.

Arguing in defense of fake news on utilitarian grounds simply involves making the case that the good done by fake news outweighs the harms. To illustrate, it could be argued that Hillary Clinton being elected president would have been so harmful that the use of fake news to prevent this was justified (although most fake news sources were in it for the money). The obvious problem with this justification is that if someone, such as Hillary, is that bad, then the use of the truth should suffice. This creates a bit of a paradox: if someone is so bad that deception would be justified to defeat them, then no deception should be needed.

This could be countered by arguing that the truth would not suffice. It could be claimed that people are not informed or intelligent enough to see the significance of the terrible truth and thus lies are needed. This would be somewhat like the idea of the noble lie—the people must be deceived for their own good. This is analogous to lying to children to get them to do the right thing because the truth is either beyond their understanding or would not motivate them to do the right thing. This counter does have considerable appeal and could certainly justify deceit to defeat the greater evil.

There is also the option of defending fake news by arguing that the target is bad and thus has no right to expect truth. To illustrate, one could argue that Hillary Clinton’s badness means that lying about her was okay—she is bad, so doing bad things to her is just fine. While this might have some appeal, there is the problem that even if the subject of the lies is bad, there is the matter of the badness of the people being lied to. If the justification is used that bad people can be treated badly, this would require that the people being lied to also be bad. If they are not bad, then this justification would not work.

Thus, there do seem to be reasonable arguments in favor of fake news—it is acceptable to lie when doing so would prevent a greater evil. In the ideal, speaking the truth should suffice. But, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that the truth does not always persuade.

 

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Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments For

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2017

The Trump regime seems to be seriously considering outsourcing the war in Afghanistan to mercenaries.  The use of mercenaries, or contractors (as they might prefer to be called), is a time-honored practice. While the United States leads the world in military spending and has a fine military, it is no stranger to employing mercenaries. For example, the security contractor Blackwater became rather infamous for its actions in Iraq.

While many might regard the employment of mercenaries as repugnant, the proposal to outsource military operations to corporations should not be dismissed out of hand. Arguments for and against it should be given their due consideration. Mere prejudices against mercenaries should not be taken as arguments, nor should the worst deeds committed by some mercenaries be taken as damning them all.

As with almost every attempt at privatizing a state function, one of the stock arguments is based on the claim that privatization will save money. In some cases, this is an excellent argument. For example, it is cheaper for state employees to fly on commercial airlines than for a state to maintain a fleet of planes to send employees around on state business. In other cases, this argument falls apart. The stock problem is that a for-profit company must make a profit and this means it must have that profit margin over and above what it costs to provide the product or service. So, for a mercenary company to make money, it would need to pay all the costs that government forces would incur for the same operation and would need to charge extra to make a profit. As such, using mercenaries would not seem to be a money-saver.

It could be countered that mercenaries can have significantly lower operating costs than normal troops. There are various ways that costs could be cut relative to the costs of operating the government military forces: mercenaries could have cheaper or less equipment, they could be paid less, they could be provided less (or no) benefits, and mercenaries could engage in looting to offset their costs (and pass the savings on to their employer).

The cost cutting approach does raise some concerns about the ability of the mercenaries to conduct operations effectively: underpaid and underequipped troops would tend to do worse than better paid and better equipped troops. There are also obvious moral concerns about letting mercenaries loot.

However, there are savings that could prove quite significant: while the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has faced considerable criticism, veterans can get considerable benefits. For example, there is the GI Bill. Assuming mercenaries did not get such benefits, this would result in meaningful cost savings. In sum, if a mercenary company operated using common business practices of cost-cutting, then they could certainly run operations cheaper than the state. But, of course, if saving money is the prime concern, the state could engage in the same practices and save even more money by not providing a private contractor with the money needed to make a profit. Naturally, there might be good reasons why the state could not engage in these money-saving practices. In that case, the savings offered by mercenaries could justify their employment.

A second argument in favor of using mercenaries is based on the fact that those doing the killing and dying will not be government forces. While the death of a mercenary is as much the death of a person as the death of a government soldier, the mercenary’s death would tend to have far less impact on political opinion back home. The death of an American soldier in combat is meaningful to Americans in the way that the death of a mercenary would not.

While the state employing mercenaries is accountable for what they do, there is a distance between the misdeeds of mercenaries and the state that does not exist between the misdeeds of regular troops and the state. In practical terms, there is less accountability. It is, after all, much easier to disavow and throw mercenaries under the tank than it is to do the same with government troops.

This is not to say mercenaries provide a “get out of trouble” card to their employer—as the incidents in Iraq involving Blackwater showed, employers still get caught in the fallout from the actions of the mercenaries they hire. However, having such a force can be useful, especially when one wants to do things that would get regular troops into considerable trouble.

A final argument in favor of mercenaries is from the standpoint of the owners of mercenary companies. Most forms of privatization are a means of funneling public money into the pockets of executives and shareholders. Privatizing operations in Afghanistan could be incredibly profitable (or, rather, even more profitable) for contractors.

While receiving a tide of public money would be good for the companies, the profit argument runs directly up against the first argument for using mercenaries—that doing so would save money. This sort of “double vision” is common in privatization: those who want to make massive profits make the ironic argument that privatization is a good idea because it will save money.

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Slavery: Consequences & Status

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 19, 2017

While there is a multitude of moral theories, two of the big dogs of ethics are utilitarianism and deontology. John Stuart Mill presents the paradigm of utilitarian ethics: the morality of an action is dependent on the happiness and unhappiness it creates for the morally relevant beings. Moral status, for this sort of utilitarian, is defined in terms of the being’s capacity to experience happiness and unhappiness. Beings count to the degree they can experience these states. Obviously, a being that could not experience either would not count—except to the degree that what happened to it affected beings that could experience happiness and unhappiness. Of course, even a being that has moral status merely gets included in the utilitarian calculation. As such, all beings are means to the ends—namely maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness.

Kant, the paradigm deontologist, rejects the utilitarian approach.  Instead, he contends that ethics is a matter of following the correct moral rules. He also contends that rational beings are ends and are not to be treated merely as means to ends. For Kant, the possible moral statuses of a being are binary: rational beings have status as ends, non-rational beings are mere objects and are thus means. As would be expected, these moral theories present two rather different approaches to the ethics of slavery.

For the classic utilitarian, the ethics of slavery would be assessed in terms of the happiness and unhappiness generated by the activities of slavery. On the face of it, an assessment of slavery would seem to result in the conclusion that slavery is morally wrong. After all, slavery typically involve considerable unhappiness on the part of the enslaved. This unhappiness is not only a matter of the usual abuse and exploitation that a slave suffers, but also the general damage to happiness that would tend to arise from being regarded as property rather than a person. While the slave owners are clearly better off than the slaves, the practice of slavery is often harmful to the happiness of the slave owners. As such, the harms of slavery would seem to make it immoral on utilitarian grounds.

It is important to note that for the utilitarian the immorality of slavery is a contingent matter: if enslaving people creates more unhappiness than happiness, then it is wrong. However, if enslaving people were to create more happiness than unhappiness, then it would be morally acceptable. The obvious reply to this is to argue that slavery, by its very nature, would always create more unhappiness than happiness. As such, while the evil of slavery is contingent, it would always turn out to be wrong.

Another interesting counter is to put the burden of proof on those who would claim that such slavery would be wrong. That is, they would need to show that a happy system of slavery was morally wrong. On the face of it, showing that something that created more good than bad is still bad would be challenging. However, there are numerous intuition arguments that aim to do just that. The usual approach is to present a scenario that generates more happiness than unhappiness, but intuitively seems to be wrong—or at least makes one feel morally queasy about the matter. Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is often used in this role. There are also other options, such as arguing within the context of another moral theory. For example, a natural rights theory that included a right to liberty could be used to argue that slavery is wrong because it violates rights—even if happened to be a happy slavery.

A utilitarian can also “bite the bullet” and argue that even if such a happy enslavement might seem intuitively wrong to our sensibilities, this is a mere prejudice on our part—most likely fueled by examples the unhappy slaveries that pervade history. While utilitarian moral theory can obviously be applied to the ethics of slavery, it is not the only word on the matter. As such, I now turn to the Kantian approach.

As noted above, Kant divides reality into two distinct classes of beings. Rational beings exist as ends and to use them solely as means would be, for Kant, morally wrong. Non-rational beings, which includes non-human animals, are mere objects. Interestingly, as I have noted in past essays, Kant does argue that animals should be treated well because treating them badly can incline humans to treat other humans badly. This, I have argued elsewhere, gives animals an ersatz moral status.

On the face of it, under Kant’s theory the very nature of slavery would make it immoral. If persons are rational beings (and rational beings are persons) and that slavery treats slaves as objects, then slavery would be wrong. First, it would involve treating a rational being solely as a means. After all, it seems difficult to imagine that enslaving a person is consistent with treating them as an end rather than as a means. Second, it would also seem to involve a willful category error by treating a rational being (which is not an object) as an object. Slavery would thus be fundamentally incoherent because it purports that non-objects are objects.

Since Kantian ethics do not focus on happiness and unhappiness, even a deliriously happy system of slavery would still be wrong for Kant. Kant does, of course, get criticized because his system relegates non-rational beings into the realm of objects, thus lumping together squirrels and stones, apes and asphalt, tapirs and twigs and so on. As such, if non-rational beings could be enslaved, then this would not matter morally (unless doing so impacted rational beings in negative ways). The easy and obvious reply to this concern is to argue that non-rational beings could not be enslaved because slavery is when people are taken to be property and non-rational beings are not people.

It is, of course, possible to have an account of what it is to be a person that extends personhood beyond rational beings. For example, opponents of abortion often contend that the zygote is a person despite its obvious lack of rationality. Fortunately, it would be easy enough to create a modification of Kant’s theory in which what matters is being a person (however defined) rather than being a rational being.

Thus, utilitarian ethical theories leave open the possibility that slavery could be morally acceptable while under a Kantian account slavery would always seem to be morally wrong.

 

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What Makes Slavery Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2017

While slavery is still practiced, there is a consensus that it is evil. While apologists for slavery are relatively few, there remains the question as to why slavery is evil. This essay is aimed and considering this matter.

It is certainly tempting to define the wrongness of slavery in terms of the exploitation and abuse suffered by those who are enslaved. While such abuse and exploitation are clearly wrong, they do not actually explain the wrongness of slavery itself. This is because abuse and exploitation can exist apart from slavery, thus showing that these are not sufficient conditions for slavery. That is, being abused and exploited does not entail that one is a slave. Examples of such abuse and exploitation are abundant. To illustrate, workers are routinely exploited around the world and countless people suffer abuse in relationships from the very people who should be kind to them.

Abuse and exploitation are also not necessary conditions of slavery. That is, a person who is not abused or exploited can be enslaved. As noted in an earlier essay, there have been slaves who have enjoyed considerable power and status—sometimes considerably above that of free subjects of historical empires. Despite their status and power, such slavery is still rightfully regarded as wrong. As such, it is not the abuse or exploitation that makes slavery wrong.

This is not to say that abuse and exploitation do not matter. Far from it; they compound the basic evil of slavery and make the bad even worse. Slavery is also obviously strongly connected to abuse and exploitation—the belief that enslaved people are property makes it easy for others to justify and get away with such abuse and exploitation. While free people are abused or exploited, they typically enjoy far greater protection than the enslaved. So, while the abuse and exploitation matter a great deal, it is slavery that serves as a prime enabler of mistreatment. This does contribute to the wrongness of slavery.

What makes slavery morally wrong, then, is the fact that it is the ownership of people and thus is perceived as transforming them into objects that can be owned. The claim of ownership over another person is the denial of their personhood and all that goes with it. For those with liberal Lockean inclinations, this denial of personhood is a denial of the basic rights to life, liberty and property. Since a slave is supposed to be property, their life belongs to the owner. Hence, slaveowners generally see themselves as having the right to kill or harm their slaves as they wish. I do not, of course, deny that slaves are sometimes protected by laws, but that is certainly little consolation. Slavery does, after all, admit of degrees. But, every form of slavery must assume that the owner has ownership over the life of the slave and can use compulsion to maintain slavery.

Slavery, by its very nature, is a violation of a person’s liberty. They are denied the freedom of choice and thus denied agency. As the owner sees it, they have the right to make decisions for their property such as what work they do, who they have sex with, and what faith they might follow. This is not to say that slaves do not have some freedoms or that free people are completely free. It is, however, to say that the freedoms of slaves are very limited and often restricted to very minor decisions. As noted above, slavery does admit of degrees—some favored or high-status slaves might enjoy considerable liberty. For example, a Mamluk ruler might enjoy far greater liberty than a non-slave in their empire. It can be objected that such a slave would be a slave in name only—after all, a person of such status and power would be far better off than most other people despite being a slave. The challenge to those who argue that slavery is inherently wrong is to show that such an exalted slave is still wronged by their slavery. One approach is to appeal to the intuition that however exalted, the slave is still a slave. That is, regarded as property rather than a free person and this is inherently wrong.

Being regarded as property, slaves often cannot own property of their own. After all, being owned entails that their owner owns what they own. There are, of course, exceptions to this—sometimes slaves are paid for their work and can even eventually buy themselves out of slavery. While this does show, once again, that there are diverse types of slavery, the idea that a person should need to buy themselves seems to be absurd on the face of it.

Thus, while slavery does enable a multitude of evils, the core evil of slavery is the belief that a person can be owned as an object.

 

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Can Machines Be Enslaved?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 10, 2017

The term “robot” and the idea of a robot rebellion were introduced by Karel Capek in Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti. “Robot” was derived from the Czech term for “forced labor” which was itself based on a term for slavery. As such, robots and slavery are thus forever linked in science-fiction. This leads to an interesting philosophical question: can a machine be a slave? Sorting this matter out requires an adequate definition of slavery followed by determining whether the definition can fit a machine.

In the simplest terms, slavery is the ownership of a person by another person. While slavery is often seen in absolute terms (one is either enslaved or not), it does seem reasonable to consider that there are degrees of slavery. That is, that the extent of ownership claimed by one person over another can vary. For example, a slave owner might grant their slaves some free time or allow them autonomy in certain areas. This is analogous to being ruled under a political authority—there are degrees of being ruled and degrees of freedom under that rule.

Slavery is also often characterized in terms of compelling a person to engage in uncompensated labor. While this account does have some appeal, it is clearly problematic. After all, it could be claimed that slaves are often compensated for their labors by being provided with food, shelter and clothing. Slaves are sometimes even paid wages and there are cases in which slaves have purchased their own freedom using these wages. The Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire were slaves, yet were paid a wage and enjoyed a socioeconomic status above many of the free subjects of the empire.  As such, compelled unpaid labor is not the defining quality of slavery. However, it is intuitively plausible to regard compelled unpaid labor as a form of slavery in that the compeller purports to own the laborer’s time without consent or compensation.

Slaves are typically cast as powerless and abused, but this is not always the case. For example, the Mamluks were treated as property that could be purchased, yet they enjoyed considerable status and power. The Janissaries, as noted above, also enjoyed considerable influence and power. As is obvious, there are free people who are powerless and routinely abused. Thus, being powerless and abused are neither necessary nor sufficient for slavery. As such, the defining characteristic of slavery is the claiming of ownership—that the slave is property.

Obviously enough, not all forms of ownership are slavery. My running shoes are not enslaved by my owning them, nor is my smartphone. This is because shoes and smartphones lack the status required to be considered enslaved. The matter becomes somewhat more controversial when it comes to animals.

Most people accept that humans have the right to own animals. For example, a human who has a dog or cat is referred to as the pet’s owner. There are people, myself included, that take issue with the ownership of animals. While some philosophers, such as Kant and Descartes, regard animals as objects other philosophers consider them to have moral status. For example, some utilitarians accept that the capacity of animals to feel pleasure and pain grants them moral status. This is typically taken as a status that requires that their suffering be considered rather than one that is taken to morally forbid ownership of animals. That is, it is typically seen as morally acceptable to own animals if they are treated in a way that the happiness generated exceeds the suffering generated. There are even some who consider any ownership of animals to be wrong but their use of the term “slavery” for the ownership of animals seems more metaphorical than a considered philosophical position.

While I think that treating animals as property is morally wrong, I would not characterize the ownership of most animals as slavery. This is because most animals lack the status required to be enslaved. To use an analogy, denying animals religious freedom, the freedom of expression, the right to vote and so on does not oppress animals because they are not the sort of beings that can exercise these rights. This is not to say that animals cannot be wronged, just that their capabilities limit the wrongs that can be done to them. So, while an animal can be wronged by being cruelly confined, it cannot be wronged by denying it freedom of religion.

People, because of their capabilities, can be enslaved. This is because the claim of ownership over them is a denial of their rightful status. The problem is, obviously enough, working out exactly what it is to be a person—something that philosophers have struggled with since the origin of the idea of persons. Fortunately, I do not need to provide such a definition when considering whether machines can be enslaved or not—I can make use of analogy to make my case.

While I believe that other humans are (usually) people, thanks to the problem of other minds I do not know that they are really people. That is, since I have no epistemic access to their alleged thoughts and feelings, I do not know if they have the qualities needed to be people or if they are just mindless automatons that exhibit the illusion of the personhood that I possess. Because of this, I have to use an argument by analogy: these other beings act like I do, I am a person, so they are also people. To be consistent, I need to extend the same reasoning to beings that are not humans, which would include machines. After all, without cutting open the apparent humans I meet, I have no idea whether they are organic beings or machines. As such, the mere appearance of being organic or mechanical is not relevant—I have to go by how the entity functions. For all I know, you are a machine. For all you know, I am a machine. Yet it seems reasonable to regard both of us as people.

While machines can engage in some person-like behavior now, they cannot yet pass this analogy test. That is, they cannot consistently exhibit the capacities exhibited by a known person. However, this does not mean that machines cannot pass this test. That is, behave in ways that would be sufficient to be accepted as a person if it appeared to be an organic human.

A machine that could pass this test would merit being regarded as a person in the same way that humans passing this test merit this status. As such, if a human person can be enslaved, then a robot person could also be enslaved.

It is, of course, tempting to ask if a robot with such behavior would really be a person. The same question can be asked about humans.

 

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GoFundMe(dical Expenses)

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 3, 2017

While the United States does offer some of the best health care in the world, it also offers the most expensive care. What it does not offer is the sort of medical coverage for the citizens that other Western countries provide. As such, many citizens are on their own when it comes to paying for this expensive care. As of this writing, Trumpcare has not passed, but it seems likely that the final version will be essentially a tax-cut for the wealthy with a reduction in coverage and benefits for those who are not well off. In any case, healthcare is likely to grow increasingly expensive for most Americans while they have reduced abilities to meet these expenses.

Americans are a creative and generous people, so it is not surprising that many people have turned to GoFundMe to get money to meet their medical expenses. Medical bills can be ruinous and are all too often a contributing factor in personal bankruptcy. As such, successful GoFundMe campaigns can help people pay their bills, get the care they need and avoid financial ruin. Friends of mine have been forced to undertake such campaigns and I have donated to them, as have many other people. In my own case, I am lucky—I have a job that still offers insurance coverage at a price I can afford and my modest salary allows me to easily meet the normal medical expenses for a very healthy person with no pre-existing conditions. However, I know that like most Americans, I am one bad medical disaster away from financial ruin. As such, I have followed the use of GoFundMe for medical expenses with some practical interest. I have also given it some thought from a philosophical perspective.

On the one hand, the success of certain GoFundMe campaigns to cover such expenses does suggest that people are morally decent—they are willing to expend their own resources to help other people in need. While GoFundMe does profit from such donations, their take is relatively modest for the service they provide. They are not engaged in gouging people in need and exploiting medical necessity for absurdly high profits—unlike some pharmaceutical companies.

On the other hand, there is the moral concern that in such a wealthy country replete with billionaires and millionaires, many people must resort to what amounts to begging for money to meet their medical expenses. This reality points to the excessive cost of healthcare, the relatively low earnings of many Americans, and the weakness of the nation’s safety net. While those who donate out of generosity and compassion merit moral praise, the need for such donations merits moral condemnation. In a purportedly civilized nation, people should not need to go begging for money to pay for their medical care.

To anticipate an objection, I am aware that people do use GoFundMe for frivolous things and that there are no doubt scammers using fictions of medical woe to separate the kind but uncritical from their money. Obviously enough, people are under no obligation to donate to frivolous camp and such scams are to be condemned for their wickedness. My concern is with the honest campaigns that are necessary to meet medical expenses. These are the campaigns that illustrate much that is wrong with the existing health care system.

While donating to such honest campaigns is morally laudable, there are some concerns about this method of funding. One obvious problem is that it depends on the generosity of others. It is not a systematic and dependable method of funding. As such, it is certainly problematic that some people need to rely on it.

A second obvious problem is that this method depends on an effective social media campaign to succeed. Like any other crowdfunding, success depends on getting attention and then persuading people to donate. Those who have the time, resources and skills to run effective social media campaigns (or who have such people helping them) will be far more likely to succeed than people who are lacking in these areas. This is especially concerning because people who are facing serious medical expenses are often in no condition to undertake the challenges of running such a campaign. In some cases, their efforts are being devoted to not dying. This is not to criticize or condemn people who can do this or recruit others to do it for them. Rather it, is to point out that this method is obviously no substitute for a systematic and consistent approach to funding health care.

A third obvious problem is that the success of this method depends on the appeal factor of the medical condition and the person with that condition. While a rational approach to funding would be based on merit and need, there are clearly conditions and people that are much more appealing in terms of attracting donors. For example, certain diseases and conditions can be “in vogue” and generate considerable sympathy, while others are not as appealing. In the case of people, it is evident that we are not all equal in how appealing we are to others. As with the other problems, I do not condemn or criticize people for having conditions that are in vogue or being appealing. Rather, my concern is that this method rests so heavily on these factors rather than medical and financial need. Once again, this serves to illustrate how the current system has been willfully broken and does not serve the needs of most Americans. While those who have succeeded in their GoFundMe campaigns should be lauded for their effort and ingenuity, those who run the health care system should be chastised for a state of affairs in which people have to run social media campaigns to afford their health care.

 

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Virtual Cheating V: Virtual People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Virtual Cheating IV: Sexbots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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