A Philosopher's Blog

Fake News II: Facebook

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 5, 2016

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook

While a thorough analysis of the impact of fake news on the 2016 election will be an ongoing project, there are excellent reasons to believe that it was a real factor. For example, BuzzFeed’s analysis showed how the fake news stories outperformed real news stories. When confronted with the claim that fake news on Facebook influenced the election results, Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction was denial. However, as critics have pointed out, to say that Facebook does not influence people is to tell advertisers that they are wasting their money on Facebook. While this might be the case, Zuckerberg cannot consistently pitch the influence of Facebook to his customers while denying that it has such influence. One of these claims must be mistaken.

While my own observations do not constitute a proper study, I routinely observed people on Facebook treating fake news stories as if they were real.  In some cases, these errors were humorous—people had mistaken satire for real news. In other cases, they were not so funny—people were enraged over things that had not actually happened. There is also the fact that public figures (such as Trump) and pundits repeat fake news stories acquired from Facebook (and other sources). As such, fake news does seem to be a real problem on Facebook.

It could be claimed that the surge in fake news is an anomaly, that it was the result of a combination of factors that will probably not align again. One factor would be having presidential candidates so disliked that people would find even fake stories plausible. A second factor would be Trump’s relentless spewing of untruths, thus creating an environment friendly to fake news. A third factor would be Trump ratcheting the Republican attack on the mainstream news media to 11, thus pushing people towards other news sources and undercutting fact checking and critical reporting. Provided that these and similar factors change, fake news could decline significantly.

While this could happen, it seems that some of these factors will continue. As president elect, Trump has continued to spew untruths and the attacks on the mainstream media continue. The ecosystem thus seems ideal for fake news to thrive. As such, it seems likely that while the fake news will decline to some degree, it will remain a factor as long as it is influential or profitable. This is where Facebook comes in—while fake news sites can always have their own web pages, Facebook serves up the fake news to a huge customer base and thus drives the click based profits (thanks to things like Google advertising) of these sites. This powerful role of Facebook gives rise to moral concerns about its accountability.

One obvious approach is to claim that Facebook has no moral responsibility in regards to policing fake news. This could be argued by drawing an analogy between Facebook and a delivery company like UPS or Fedex. Rather than delivering physical packages, Facebook is delivering news.

A delivery company is responsible for delivering a package intact and within the specified time. However, it does not have a moral responsibility regarding what is shipped. Suppose, for example, that businesses arose selling “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” and purport that it is real pudding. But, in fact, it is a blend of sugar and shit that looks like pudding. Some customers fail to recognize it for what it is and happily shovel it into their pudding port; probably getting sick—but still loving the taste. If the delivery company were criticized for delivering the pudding, they would be right to say that they are not responsible for the “pudding”—they merely deliver packages. The responsibility lies with the “pudding” companies. And the customers for not recognizing sugary shit as shit. If the analogy holds, then Facebook is just delivering fake news as the delivery company delivers “Macedonian Pudding” and is not morally responsible for the contents of the packages.

A possible counter to this is that once Facebook knows that a site is a fake news site, then they are morally responsible for continuing to deliver the fake news. Going with the delivery analogy, once the delivery company is aware that “Artisanal Macedonian Pudding” is sugar and shit, they have a moral obligation to cease their business with those making this dangerous product. This could be countered by arguing that as long as the customer wants the package of “pudding”, then it is morally fine for the delivery company to provide it. However, this would seem to require that the customer knows they are getting sugar and shit—otherwise the delivery company is knowingly participating in a deceit and the distribution of a harmful product. This would seem to be morally wrong.

Another approach to countering this argument is to use a different analogy: Facebook is not like a delivery company, it is like a restaurant selling the product. Going back to the “pudding”, a restaurant that knowingly purchased and served sugar and shit as pudding would be morally accountable for this misdeed. By this analogy, once Facebook knows they are profiting from selling fake news, they are morally accountable and in the wrong if they fail to address this. A possible response to this is to contend that Facebook is not selling the fake news; but this leads to the question of what Facebook is doing.

One way to look at Facebook is that the fake news is just like advertising in any other media. In this case, the company selling the ad is not morally accountable for the content of the ad of the quality of the product. Going back to the “pudding”, if one company is selling sugar and shit as pudding, the company running the advertising is not morally responsible. The easy counter to this is that once the company selling the ads knows that the “pudding” is sugar and shit, then they would be morally wrong to be a party to this harmful deception. Likewise for Facebook treating fake news as advertising.

Another way to look at Facebook is that it is serving as a news media company and is in the business of providing the news.  Going back to the pudding analogy, Facebook would be in the pudding business as a re-seller, selling sugar and shit as real pudding. This would seem to obligate Facebook to ensure that the news it provides is accurate and to not distribute news it knows it is fake. This assumes a view of journalistic ethics that is obviously not universally accepted, but a commitment to the truth seems to be a necessary bedrock of any worthwhile media ethics.

 

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Gender Identification & Races

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2016

At a recent race, a runner entered with a sex of “other” which caused a bit of a problem with the race results. After all, in such competitions people are divided between male and female. They are also divided by age. Because of this, experienced runners tend to check out the competition before the start of the race, looking to see who is present and mentally gauging their chances of being “a have” (runner slang for getting an award).

Since awards tend to be divided into categories of sex and age, runners also try to estimate the age of those they do not recognize. While it is far less common, runners sometimes do need to estimate the sex of the competition. While some people advocate avoiding all concerns about age and sex by only having awards for overall top finishers, there are good reasons to have such categories.

One obvious reason is that awards are intended to increase attendance at the race—people are more inclined to participate when they know they have more chances of winning. If awards were limited to top overall finishers, there would be some decline in participation since people who were not the very top runners would know they had no chance of winning anything.

Another reason is to provide people with a chance to compete in ways that offset advantages. Naturally, almost every race allows people to compete in the overall results, so there is still a very broad competition.

Age has a dramatic negative impact on performance. One major factor is that older athletes do not recover as fast, hence it becomes harder to maintain rigorous training while avoiding injury and being well-rested for the competition. People also get weaker as they age, though diligent maintenance can slow this setting of the sun. Because of this, most races have 5 or 10-year age groups for awards to provide runners with a chance to compete against people with comparable temporal challenges. There are, of course, many older runners can still beat many younger runners, but the general advantage lies with the youth. For most races, runners are on the honor system—they provide their age when they sign up. Some races do, however, require proof of age to avoid people cheating by lying.

While there are female runners who can easily defeat almost any male on the planet in a race, males have various biological advantages when it comes to running, such as greater strength. As such, dividing the awards by sex is a way to account for this difference. There are, of course, some races that do not take this approach, but these are very rare and tend to be small races put on by people not familiar with the usual practices of awards.

As with age, runners are on the honor system in regards to providing their biological sex when they sign up. While a male would generally have an advantage if he could pass a female, this could be challenging given the nature of running attire and various other factors. There are, however, some controversial cases. Perhaps the most famous is that of runner Caster Semenya. Semenya is believed to have an intersex condition which causes the production of high levels of testosterone. High testosterone levels are believed to provide an athletic advantage. It must be noted that while testosterone is associated most with males, females also produce testosterone. In the past, some sporting authorities tested female athletes for high testosterone levels, but this practice has largely changed because female athletes, like male athletes, naturally vary a great deal in their testosterone levels.

While sex-changes are not common, they do occur often enough that the matter has been addressed in sports. Because the division of the sexes in sports is justified on the grounds of relative advantages, females who transition to male can generally compete without restrictions. The easy and obvious justification for this is that such a male would not have any advantage over other males. In fact, they would probably tend to have some disadvantage relative to people who were born male. A male who transitions to female would potentially have an advantage. Because of this, a transitioned athlete need not have surgery, but she is typically required to have undergone at least a year of hormone therapy. This prevents male athletes from simply claiming to be female and competing with an advantage.

There are also people who want to change their gender identification but do not want to undergo surgery or hormone therapy. Some might wonder what would prevent unscrupulous male athletes from gender identifying as females to win races. The easy and obvious answer is that sex divisions in sports are not gender divisions. They are a matter of physical factors and not a matter of social construction. As such, a male athlete who gender identified as a female would still compete against males. They are still a male in regards to the factors that matter in competition.

It could be objected that a person who gender identifies as a man or a woman should be able to compete in accord with their preferred identity. That person might, for example, want their race medal or trophy to reflect this identity—being second female in the 20-24 age group, for example. An easy counter to this is to use an analogy to age—a person might identify as “young at heart” or “and old soul”, but this does not impact their actual chronological age. In the case of athletic competition, this is what matters. If people could pick their age identity for races, this would presumably be used to gain an unfair advantage. So, a 26-year-old person who identified as a 40-year-old would not thus be eligible to win the master’s award (for people 40+).

The next to the last matter to be considered is that which started this discussion; a person who wants to identify as “other.” Resolving this would require determining the basis of the claim of otherness. If the person has a biological identity that falls within established rules for competition (being intersex, for example) then those rules would be applied. If the person has a biological identity that falls outside of the existing rules, then there would seem to be two likely approaches. One would be to match the person with the closest biological sex. The other would be to create a new category for sports and establish standards for being in that category. If the person is electing to select other as a gender identity while having a biological sex, then the person would compete in the category of that biological sex, for the reasons given above.

In closing, there is also a practical matter regarding possible legal troubles. Years ago, I would often see race entry forms with “gender” instead of “sex” because the terms were used interchangeably. These days, “sex” is the standard. If an entry form has “gender” rather than “sex”, then a person could presumably use whatever gender they wish to identify with. This would be rather problematic for the awards budget, since Facebook recognizes over fifty genders. As such, race entry forms should go with “sex.” The form might need to include a brief explanation of the difference between sex and gender to help avoid misunderstandings.

 

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The Simulation I: The Problem of the External World

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2016

Elon Musk and others have advanced the idea that we exist within a simulation. The latest twist on this is that he and others are allegedly funding efforts to escape this simulation. This is, of course, the most recent chapter in the ancient philosophical problem of the external world. Put briefly, this problem is the challenge of proving that what seems to be a real external world is, in fact, a real external world. As such, it is a problem in epistemology (the study of knowledge).

The problem is often presented in the context of metaphysical dualism. This is the view that reality is composed of two fundamental categories of stuff: mental stuff and physical stuff. The mental stuff is supposed to be what the soul or mind is composed of, while things like tables and kiwis (the fruit and the bird) are supposed to be composed of physical stuff. Using the example of a fire that I seem to be experiencing, the problem would be trying to prove that the idea of the fire in my mind is being caused by a physical fire in the external world.

Renee Descartes has probably the best known version of this problem—he proposes that he is being deceived by an evil demon that creates, in his mind, an entire fictional world. His solution to this problem was to doubt until he reached something he could not doubt: his own existence. From this, he inferred the existence of God and then, over the rest of his Meditations on First Philosophy, he established that God was not a deceiver. Going back to the fire example, if I seem to see a fire, then there probably is an external, physical fire causing that idea. Descartes did not, obviously, decisively solve the problem: otherwise Musk and his fellows would be easily refuted by using Descartes’ argument.

One often overlooked contribution Descartes made to the problem of the external world is consideration of why the deception is taking place. Descartes attributes the deception of the demon to malice—it is an evil demon (or evil genius). In contrast, God’s goodness entails he is not a deceiver. In the case of Musk’s simulation, there is the obvious question of the motivation behind it—is it malicious (like Descartes’ demon) or more benign? On the face of it, such deceit does seem morally problematic—but perhaps the simulators have excellent moral reasons for this deceit. Descartes’s evil demon does provide the best classic version of Musk’s simulation idea since it involves an imposed deception. More on this later.

John Locke took a rather more pragmatic approach to the problem. He rejected the possibility of certainty and instead argued that what matters is understanding matters enough to avoid pain and achieve pleasure. Going back to the fire, Locke would say that he could not be sure that the fire was really an external, physical entity. But, he has found that being in what appears to be fire has consistently resulted in pain and hence he understands enough to want to avoid standing in fire (whether it is real or not). This invites an obvious comparison to video games: when playing a game like World of Warcraft or Destiny, the fire is clearly not real. But, because having your character fake die in fake fire results in real annoyance, it does not really matter that the fire is not real. The game is, in terms of enjoyment, best played as if it is.

Locke does provide the basis of a response to worries about being in a simulation, namely that it would not matter if we were or were not—from the standpoint of our happiness and misery, it would make no difference if the causes of pain and pleasure were real or simulated. Locke, however, does not consider that we might be within a simulation run by others. If it were determined that we are victims of a deceit, then this would presumably matter—especially if the deceit were malicious.

George Berkeley, unlike Locke and Descartes, explicitly and passionately rejected the existence of matter—he considered it a gateway drug to atheism. Instead, he embraces what is called “idealism”, “immaterialism” and “phenomenalism.” His view was that reality is composed of metaphysical immaterial minds and these minds have ideas. As such, for him there is no external physical reality because there is nothing physical. He does, however, need to distinguish between real things and hallucinations or dreams. His approach was to claim that real things are more vivid that hallucinations and dreams. Going back to the example of fire, a real fire for him would not be a physical fire composed of matter and energy. Rather, I would have a vivid idea of fire. For Berkeley, the classic problem of the external world is sidestepped by his rejection of the external world.  However, it is interesting to speculate how a simulation would be handled by Berkeley’s view.

Since Berkeley does not accept the existence of matter, the real world outside the simulation would not be a material world—it would a world composed of minds. A possible basis for the difference is that the simulated world is less vivid than the real world (to use his distinction between hallucinations and reality). On this view, we would be minds trapped in a forced dream or hallucination. We would be denied the more vivid experiences of minds “outside” the simulation, but we would not be denied an external world in the metaphysical sense. To use an analogy, we would be watching VHS, while the minds “outside” the simulation would be watching Blu-Ray.

While Musk does not seem to have laid out a complete philosophical theory on the matter, his discussion indicates that he thinks we could be in a virtual reality style simulation. On this view, the external world would presumably be a physical world of some sort. This distinction is not a metaphysical one—presumably the simulation is being run on physical hardware and we are some sort of virtual entities in the program. Our error, then, would be to think that our experiences correspond to material entities when they, in fact, merely correspond to virtual entities. Or perhaps we are in a Matrix style situation—we do have material bodies, but receive virtual sensory input that does not correspond to the physical world.

Musk’s discussion seems to indicate that he thinks there is a purpose behind the simulation—that it has been constructed by others. He does not envision a Cartesian demon, but presumably envisions beings like what we think we are.  If they are supposed to be like us (or we like them, since we are supposed to be their creation), then speculation about their motives would be based on why we might do such a thing.

There are, of course, many reasons why we would create such a simulation. One reason would be scientific research: we already create simulations to help us understand and predict what we think is the real world. Perhaps we are in a simulation used for this purpose. Another reason would be for entertainment. We created games and simulated worlds to play in and watch; perhaps we are non-player characters in a game world or unwitting actors in a long running virtual reality show (or, more likely, shows).

One idea, which was explored in Frederik Pohl’s short story “The Tunnel under the World”, is that our virtual world exists to test advertising and marketing techniques for the real world. In Pohl’s story, the inhabitants of Tylerton are killed in the explosion of the town’s chemical plant and they are duplicated as tiny robots inhabiting a miniature reconstruction of the town. Each day for the inhabitants is June 15th and they wake up with their memories erased, ready to be subject to the advertising techniques to be tested that day.  The results of the methods are analyzed, the inhabitants are wiped, and it all starts up again the next day.

While this tale is science fiction, Google and Facebook are working very hard to collect as much data as they can about us with an end to monetize all this information. While the technology does not yet exist to duplicate us within a computer simulation, that would seem to be a logical goal of this data collection—just imagine the monetary value of being able to simulate and predict people’s behavior at the individual level. To be effective, a simulation owned by one company would need to model the influences of its competitors—so we could be in a Google World or a Facebook World now so that these companies can monetize us to exploit the real versions of us in the external world.

Given that a simulated world is likely to exist to exploit the inhabitants, it certainly makes sense to not only want to know if we are in such a world, but also to try to undertake an escape. This will be the subject of the next essay.

 

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The University as a Money Funnel

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2015

One serious problem with American higher education is that the cost of a four-year degree is higher than ever—even when adjusting for inflation. The causes of this increase are well known and well understood—there is no mystery about this. One contributing factor is that universities tend to spend considerable money on facilities that are not connected to education. Critics like to, for example, point out that some universities spend millions on luxurious fitness facilities. These sort of expenditures are ironic (and stupid) given that education funding has been consistently reduced across the United States. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like a family putting in a pool, spa, and exercise room when they do not have enough money to pay for their actual necessities.

What seems to be the major factor contributing to costs is the ever-expanding administrative class at universities. This expansion occurs in terms of both individual salaries and overall numbers. From 2000 to 2010 the median salary for the top public university administrators increased by 39%. The top administrators, the university presidents, enjoyed a 75% increase. In stark contrast, the salaries for full-time professors increased by almost 19%.

The money for these salary increases has to come from somewhere and an obvious source is students. My alma mater Ohio State University is leading the way in milking students to pay administrators. Between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average.

While some might be tempted to attribute this salary bloating as the result of the usual alleged wastefulness and growth of the public sector, private colleges and universities topped their public counterparts. From 2000 to 2010 private schools saw salary increases of about 97% for their top administrators and their presidents enjoyed a 171% increase. Full time professors also partook of the increases—their salaries increased by 50%.

What is even more striking than the salary increases are the increase in the number of positions and their nature. From 1978 to 2014 administrative positions skyrocketed 369%. This time period also marked a major shift in the nature of faculty. The number of part-time faculty (the analogues of temp workers in the corporate world) increased by 286%. The use of adjuncts is justified on the grounds that doing so saves money. While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000.

However, the money saved does not translate to a lower cost of education—rather, it “saves” money from going to faculty so that it can go to administrators. Since the average salary of a university president is $478,896 and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing, it should be obvious what is helping to drive up the cost of college. Hint: it is not adjunct pay.

There was also a push to reduce (and eliminate) tenured positions which resulted in an increase in full time, non-tenure earning positions by 259%. Full time tenure and tenure-track positions increased by only 23%. Ohio State University provides an excellent (or awful) example of this A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by OSU were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

Interestingly enough, the Republicans who run many state legislatures rail against wasteful spending, impose micromanagement and inflict draconian measures on state universities yet never seem to address the real causes of tuition increase and the problems in the education system. Someone more cynical than I might note that the university seems to no longer have education as its primary function. Rather, it is crafted to funnel money from the “customer” and the tax payer (in the form of federal student aid) to the top while minimizing pay for those who do the actual work.

Tenure has been a target in recent years because tenure provides faculty with protection against being fired without cause (tenured faculty can be fired—it is not a magic shield). This is regarded by some as a problem for a variety of reasons. One is that tenured faculty cannot be let go simply to replace them with vastly lower paid adjuncts. This, obviously enough, means less money flowing from students and the state to administrators. Another is that the protection provided by tenure allows a faculty member to be critical of what is happening to the university system of the United States without running a high risk of simply being let go as a trouble maker. As you might guess, I am a tenured full-professor. So, I can use my freedom of speech with rather less fear of being fired. I also enjoy the dubious protection afforded by the fact that people rarely take philosophers seriously.

 

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Florida’s Bathroom Law

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2015
English: I photographed this picture from a pu...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being from Maine, I got accustomed to being asked about the cold, lobsters, moose and Stephen King. Living in Florida, I have become accustomed to being asked about why my adopted state is so insane. Most recently, I was asked about the bathroom bill making its way through the House.

The bathroom bill, officially known as HB 583, proposes that it should be a second-degree misdemeanor to “knowingly and willfully” enter a public facility restricted to members “of the other biological sex.” The bill proposes a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Some opponents of the bill contend that it is aimed at discriminating against transgender people. Some part of Florida have laws permitting people to use public facilities based on the gender they identify with rather than their biological sex.

Obviously enough, proponents of the bill are not claiming that they are motivated by a dislike of transgender people. Rather, the main argument used to support the bill centers on the claim that it is necessary to protect women and girls. The idea seems to be that women and girls will be assaulted or raped by males who will gain access to locker rooms and bathrooms by claiming they have a right to enter such places because they are transgender.

Opponents of the bill have pointed out the obvious reply to this argument: there are already laws against assault and rape. There are also laws against lewd and lascivious behavior. As such, there does not seem to be a need for this proposed law if its purpose is to protect women and girls from such misdeeds. To use an analogy, there is no need to pass a law making it a crime for a man to commit murder while dressed as a woman—murder is already illegal.

It could be countered that the bill is still useful because it would add yet another offense that a perpetrator could be charged with. While this does have a certain appeal, the idea of creating laws just to stack offenses seems morally problematic—it seems that a better policy would be to craft laws that adequately handle the “base” offenses.

It could also be claimed that the bill is needed in order to provide an initial line of defense. After all, one might argue, it would be better that a male never got into the bathroom or locker room to commit his misdeeds and this bill will prevent this from occurring.

The obvious reply is that the bill would work in this manner if the facilities are guarded by people capable of turning such masquerading males away at the door. This guards would presumably need to have the authority to check the “plumbing” of anyone desiring entry to the facility. After all, it is not always easy to discern between a male and a female by mere outward appearance. Of course, if such guards are going to be posted, then they might as well be posted inside the facilities themselves, thus providing much better protection. As such, if the goal is to make such facilities safe, then a better bill would mandate guards for such facilities.

Opponents of the bill do consider the dangers of assault. However, they contend that it is transgender people who are most likely to be harmed if they are compelled to use facilities for their biological sex. It would certainly be ironic if a bill (allegedly) aimed at protect people turned out to lead to more harm.

A second line of argumentation focuses on the privacy rights of biological women. “Women have an expectation of privacy,” said Anthony Verdugo of Christian Family Coalition Florida. “My wife does not want to be in a public facility with a man, and that is her right. … No statute in Florida right now specifically prohibits a person of one sex from entering a facility intended for use by a person of another sex.”

This does have a certain appeal. When I was in high school, I and some other runners were changing after a late practice and someone had “neglected” to tell us that basketball cheerleaders from another school would be coming through the corridor directly off the locker room. Being a typical immature nerd, I was rather embarrassed by this exposure. I do recall that one of my more “outgoing” fellow runners offered up a “free show” before being subdued with a rattail to the groin. As such, I do get that women and girls would not want males in their bathrooms or locker rooms “inspecting their goods.” That said, there are some rather obvious replies to this concern.

The first reply is that it seems likely that transgender biological males that identify as female would not be any more interested in checking out the “goods” of biological females than would biological females. But, obviously, there is the concern that such biological males might be bi-sexual or interested only in females. This leads to the second reply.

The second reply is that the law obviously does not protect females from biological females that are bi-sexual or homosexual. After all, a lesbian can openly go into the women’s locker room or bathroom. As such, the privacy of women (if privacy is taken to include the right to not be seen while naked by people who might be sexually attracted to one) is always potentially threatened.

Though some might now be considering bills aimed at lesbians and bi-sexuals in order to protect the privacy of straight women, there is really no need of these bills—or HB 583. After all, there are already laws against harassment and other such bad behavior.

It might be countered that merely being seen by a biological male in such places is sufficient to count as a violation of privacy, even if the male is well-behaved and not sexually interested. There are, after all, laws (allegedly) designed to protect women from the prying eyes of men, such as some parts of Sharia law. However, it would seem odd to say that a woman should be protected by law merely from the eyes of a male when the male identifies as a woman and is not engaged in what would be reasonably regarded as bad behavior (like staring through the gaps in a stall to check out a woman).

Switching gears a bit, in an interesting coincidence I was thinking about this essay when I found that the men’s bathroom at the FSU track was locked, but the women’s bathroom was open. The people in ROTC were doing their track workout at the same time and the male cadets were using the women’s bathroom—since the alternative was public urination. If this bill passed, the cadets would have been subject to arrest, jail and a fine for their crime.

For athletes, this sort of bathroom switching is not at all unusual. While training or at competitions, people often find the facilities closed or overburdened, so it is common for people to use whatever facilities are available—almost always with no problems or issues. For example, the Women’s Distance Festival is a classic race in Tallahassee that is open to men and women, but has a very large female turnout. On that day, the men get a porta-pottie and the men’s room is used by the women—which would be illegal if this bill passed. I have also lost count of the times that female runners have used the men’s room because the line to the women’s facilities was way too long. No one cared, no one was assaulted and no one was arrested. But if this bill became law, that sort of thing would be a crime.

My considered view of this bill is that there is no need for it. The sort of bad behavior that it is aimed to counter is already illegal and it would criminalize behavior that is not actually harmful (like the male ROTC cadets using the only open bathroom at the track).

 

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Spinoza, Self Help and Agency

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2015

The bookshelves of the world abound with tomes on self-help. Many of these profess to help people with various emotional woes, such as sadness, and make vague promises about happiness.  Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.

Each spring semester I teach Modern Philosophy and cover our good dead friend Spinoza. In addition to an exciting career as a lens grinder, he also manage to avoid being killed by an assassin. However, breathing in all that glass dust seems to have ultimately contributed to his untimely death. But enough about his life and death, it is time to get to the point of this essay.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotion and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness: the people we love betray us or die. That fancy Tesla can be smashed in a wreck. The beach house can be swept away by the rising tide. A job can be lost as a company seeks to boost its stock prices by downsizing the job fillers. And so on, through all the ways things can go badly.

While Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that everything is God and God is everything, his view of human beings is similar to that of the philosophical mechanist: humans are not magically exempt from the laws of nature. He was also a strict determinist: each event occurs from necessity and cannot be otherwise—there is no chance or choice. So, for example, the Seahawks could not have won the 2015 Super Bowl. As another example, I could not have written this essay in any other manner, so I had to make that remark about the Seahawks losing rather than mentioning their 2014 victory.

Buying into determinism, Spinoza took the view that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” More precisely, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable—provided that one has enough knowledge.  Spinoza then used this idea as the basis for his “self-help” advice.

According to Spinoza all emotions are responses to the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have made her last relationship work if she had only put more effort into it. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that he might lose his job in the next round of downsizing at his company. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past could have been otherwise and that the future is undetermined. Once a person realizes nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be, then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains is the recognition and acceptance that what was could not have been otherwise and what will be cannot be otherwise.

This view does have a certain appeal and it does make sense that it can have some value. In regards to the past, people do often beat themselves up emotionally over what they regard as past mistakes. This can lead a person to be chained by regrets and thus be partially trapped in the past as she spends countless hours wondering “what if?” This is not to say that feeling regret or guilt is wrong—far from it. But, it is to say that lamenting about the past to the detriment of now is a problem.  It is also a problem to believe that things could have been different when they, in fact, could not have been different.

This is also not to say that a person should not reflect on the past—after all, a person who does not learn from her mistakes is doomed to repeat them. People can, of course, also be trapped by the past because of what they see as good things about the past—they are chained to what they (think) they once had or once were (such as being the big woman on campus back in college).

In regards to the future, it is very easy to be trapped by anxiety, fear and even hope. It can be reassuring to embrace the view that what will be will be and to not worry and be happy. This is not to say that one should be foolish about the future, of course.

There is, unfortunately, one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice. If everything is necessary and determined, his advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. What occurs must occur and cannot be otherwise. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators of the show and not players controlling the game.

The obvious counter is to say “but I feel free! I feel like I am making choices!” Spinoza was well aware of this objection. In response, he claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. People think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” In other words, we think we are free because we do not know better. Going back to the video game analogy, we think we are in control as we push the buttons, but this is because we do not know how the game actually works—that is, we are just along for the ride and not in control.

Since everything is determined, whether or not a person heeds Spinoza’s advice is also determined—if you do, then you do and you could not do otherwise. If you do not, you could not do otherwise. As such, his advice would seem to be beyond useless. This is a stock paradox faced by determinists who give advice: their theory says that people cannot chose to follow this advice—they will just do what they are determined to do. That said, it is possible to salvage some useful advice from Spinoza.

The first step is for me to reject his view that I lack free will.  I have a stock argument for this that goes as follows. Obviously, I have free will or I do not. It is equally obvious that there is no way to tell whether I do or not. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right—but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view. They have also made the right choice—since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right—not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.

 

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons).  They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.

If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.

Given the above argument, I accept that I have agency. This makes it possible for me to meaningfully give and accept (or reject) advice. Turning back to Spinoza, I obviously cannot accept his advice that I am enslaved by determinism. However, I can accept some of his claims, namely that I am acted upon by my attachments and emotions. As he sees it, the emotions are things that act upon us—on my view, they would thus be things that impinge upon our agency. As I love to do, I will use an analogy to running.

As I ran this morning, I was thinking about this essay and focused on the fact that feelings of pain (I have various old and new injuries) and tiredness were impinging on me in a manner similar to the way the cold or rain might impinge on me. In the case of pain and tiredness, the attack is from inside. In the case of the cold or rain, the attack is from the outside. Whether the attack is from inside or out, the attack is trying to make the choice for me—to rob me of my agency as a runner. If the pain, cold or rain makes me stop, then I am not acting. I am being acted upon. If I chose to stop, then I am acting. If I chose to go on, I am also acting. And acting rightly.  As a runner I know the difference between choosing to stop and being forced to stop.

Being aware of this is very useful for running—thanks to decades of experience I understand, in a way Spinoza might approve, the workings of pain, fatigue and so on. To use a specific example, I know that I am being acted upon by the pain and I understand quite well how it works. As such, the pain is not in control—I am. If I wish, I can run myself to ruin (and I have done just this). Or I can be wiser and avoid damaging myself.

Turning back to emotions, feelings impinge upon me in ways analogous to pain and fatigue. I do not have full control over how I feel—the emotions simply occur, perhaps in response to events or perhaps simply as the result of an electrochemical imbalance. To use a specific example, like most folks I will feel depressed and know that I have no reason to feel that way. It is like the cold or fatigue—it is just impinging on me. As Spinoza argued, my knowledge of how this works is critical to dealing with it. While I cannot fully control the feeling, I understand why I feel that way. It is like the cold I felt running in the Maine winters—it is a natural phenomenon that is, from my perspective, trying to destroy me. In the case of the cold, I can wear warmer clothing and stay moving—knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat it. Likewise, knowing how the negative feelings work enables me to choose how to combat them. If I am depressed for no reason, I know it is just my brain trying to kill me. It is not pleasant, but it does not get to make the decisions for me. Fortunately, our good dead friend Aristotle has some excellent advice for training oneself to handle the emotions.

That said, the analogy to cold is particularly apt. The ice of the winter can kill even those who understand it and know how to resist it—sometimes the cold is just too much for the body. Likewise, the emotions can be like the howling icy wind—they can be too much for the mind. We are, after all, only human and have our limits. Knowing these is a part of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to come in from the cold or it will kill you. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

 

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A Bubble of Digits

Posted in Business by Michael LaBossiere on January 12, 2015

A look back at the American (and world) economy shows a “pastscape” of exploded economic bubbles. The most recent was the housing bubble, but the less recent .com bubble serves as a relevant reminder that bubbles can be technological. This is a reminder well worth keeping in mind for we are, perhaps, blowing up a new bubble.

In “The End of Economic Growth?” Oxford’s Carl Frey discusses the new digital economy and presents some rather interesting numbers regarding the value of certain digital companies relative to the number of people they employ. One example is Twitch, which streams videos of people playing games (and people commenting on people playing games). Twitch was purchased by Amazon for $970 million. Twitch has 170 employees. The multi-billion dollar company Facebook had 8,348 employees as of September 2014. Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion. WhatsApp employed 55 people at the time of this acquisition. In an interesting contrast, IBM employed 431,212 people in 2013.

While it is tempting to explain the impressive value to employee ratio in terms of grotesque over-valuation (which does have its merits as a criticism), there are other factors involved. One, as Frey notes, is that the (relatively) new sort of digital businesses require relatively little capital. The above-mentioned WhatsApp started out with $250,000 and this was actually rather high for an app—the average cost to develop one is $6,453. As such, a relatively small investment can create a huge return.

Another factor is an old one, namely the efficiency of technology in replacing human labor. The development of the plow reduced the number of people required to grow food, the development of the tractor reduced it even more, and the refinement of mechanized farming has enabled the number of people required in agriculture to be reduced dramatically. While it is true that people have to do work to create such digital companies (writing the code, for example), much of the “labor” is automated and done by computers rather than people.

A third factor, which is rather critical, is the digital aspect. Companies like Facebook, Twitch and WhatsApp do not manufacture objects that need to manufactured, shipped and sold. As such, they do not (directly) create jobs in these areas. These companies do make use of existing infrastructure: Facebook does need companies like Comcast to provide the internet connection and companies like Apple to make the devices. But, rather importantly, they do not employ the people who work for Comcast and Apple (and even these companies employ relatively few people).

One of the most important components of the digital aspect is the multiplier effect. To illustrate this, consider two imaginary businesses in the health field. One is a walk-in clinic which I will call Nurse Tent. The other is a health app called RoboNurse. If a patient goes to Nurse Tent, the nurse can only tend to one patient at a time and he can only work so many hours per day. As such, Nurse Tent will need to employ multiple nurses (as well as the support staff). In contrast, the RoboNurse app can be sold to billions of people and does not require the sort of infrastructure required by Nurse Tent. If RoboNurse takes off as a hot app, the developer could sell it for millions or even billions.

Nurse Tent could, of course, become a franchise (the McDonald’s of medicine). But, being very labor intensive and requiring considerable material outlay, it will not be able to have the value to employee ratio of a digital company like WhatsApp or Facebook. It would, however, employ more people. However, the odds are that most of the employees would not be well paid—while the digital economy is producing millionaire and billionaires, wages for labor are rather lacking. This helps to explain why the overall economy is doing great, while the majority of workers are worse off than before the last bubble.

It might be wondered why this matters. There are, of course, the usual concerns about the terrible inequality of the economy. However, there is also the concern that a new bubble is being inflated, a bubble filled with digits. There are some good reasons to be concerned.

First, as noted above, the digital companies seem to be grotesquely overvalued. While the situation is not exactly like the housing bubble, overvaluation should be a matter of concern. After all, if the value of these companies is effectively just “hot digits” inflating a thin skin, then a bubble burst seems likely.

This can be countered by arguing that the valuation is accurate or even that all valuation is essentially a matter of belief and as long as we believe, all will be fine. Until, of course, it is no longer fine.

Second, the current digital economy increases the income inequality mentioned above, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Laying aside the fact that such a gap historically leads to social unrest and revolution, there is the more immediate concern that the gap will cause the bubble to burst—the economy cannot, one would presume, endure without a solid middle and base to help sustain the top of the pyramid.

This can be countered by arguing that the new digital economy will eventually spread the wealth. Anyone can make an app, anyone can create a startup, and anyone can be a millionaire. While this does have an appeal to it, there is the obvious fact that while it is true that (almost) anyone can do these things, it is also true that most people will fail. One just needs to consider all the failed startups and the millions of apps that are not successful.

There is also the obvious fact that civilization requires more than WhatsApp, Twitch and Facebook and people need to work outside of the digital economy (which lives atop the non-digital economy). Perhaps this can be handled by an underclass of people beneath the digital (and financial) elite, who toil away at low wages to buy smartphones so they can update their status on Facebook and watch people play games via Twitch. This is, of course, just a digital variant on a standard sci-fi dystopian scenario.

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Student Evaluations of Faculty

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2015

While college students have been completing student evaluations of faculty since the 1960s, these evaluations have taken on considerable importance. There are various reasons for this. One is a conceptual shift towards the idea that a college is primarily a business and students are customers. On this model, student evaluations of faculty are part of the customer satisfaction survey process. A second is an ideological shift in regards to education. Education is seen more as a private good and something that needs to be properly quantified. This is also tied into the notion that the education system is, like a forest or oilfield, a resource to be exploited for profit. Student evaluations provide a cheap method of assessing the value provided by faculty and, best of all, provide numbers (numbers usually based on subjective assessments, but pay that no mind).

Obviously enough, I agree with the need to assess performance. As a gamer and runner, I have a well-developed obsession with measuring my athletic and gaming performances and I am comfortable with letting that obsession spread freely into my professional life. I want to know if my teaching is effective, what is working, what is not, and what impact I am having on the students. Of course, I want to be confident that the methods of assessment that I am using are actually useful. Having been in education quite some time, I do have some concerns about the usefulness of student evaluations of faculty.

The first and most obvious concern is that students are, almost by definition, not experts in regards to assessing education. While they obviously take classes and observe (when not Facebooking) faculty, they typically lack any formal training in assessment and one might suspect that having students evaluate faculty is on par with having sports fans assessing coaching. While fans and students often have strong opinions, this does not really qualify them to provide meaningful professional assessment.

Using the sports analogy, this can be countered by pointing out that while a fan might not be a professional in regards to coaching, a fan usually knows good or bad coaching when she sees it. Likewise, a student who is not an expert at education can still recognize good or bad teaching.

A second concern is the self-selection problem. While students have access to the evaluation forms and can easily go to Rate My Professors, students who take the time to show up and fully complete the forms or go to the website will tend to have stronger feelings about the professor. These feelings will tend to bias the results so that they are more positive or more negative than they should be.

The counter to this is that the creation of such strong feelings is relevant to the assessment of the professor. A practical way to counter the bias is to ensure that most (if not all) students in a course complete the evaluations.

Third, people often base their assessments on irrelevant factors about the professor. These include such things as age, gender, appearance, and personality. The concern is that this factor makes evaluations a form of popularity contest: professors that are liked will be evaluated by better professors who are not as likeable. There is also the concern that students tend to give younger professors and female professors worse evaluations than older professors and male professors and these sorts of gender and age biases lower the credibility of such evaluations.

A stock reply to this is that these factors do not influence students as strongly as critics might claim. So, for example, a professor might be well-liked, yet still get poor evaluations in regards to certain aspects of the course. There are also those who question the impact of alleged age and gender bias.

Fourth, people often base assessments on irrelevant factors about the course, such as how easy it is, the specific grade received,  or whether they like the subject or not. Not surprisingly, it is commonly held that students give better evaluations to professors who they regard as easy and downgrade those they see as hard.

Given that people generally base assessments on irrelevant factors (a standard problem in critical thinking), this does seem to be a real concern. Anecdotally, my own experience indicates that student assessment can vary a great deal based on irrelevant factors they explicitly mention. I have a 4.0 on Rate my Professors, but there is quite a mix in regards to the review content. What is striking, at least to me, is the inconsistencies between evaluations. Some students claim that my classes are incredibly easy (“he is so easy”), while others claim they are incredibly hard (“the hardest class I have ever taken”). I am also described as being very boring and very interesting, helpful and unhelpful and so on. This sort of inconsistency in evaluations is not uncommon and does raise the obvious concern about the usefulness of such evaluations.

A counter to this is that the information is still useful. Another counter is that the appropriate methods of statistical analysis can be used to address this concern. Those who defend evaluations point out that students tend to be generally consistent in their assessments. Of course, consistency in evaluations does not entail accuracy.

To close, there are two final general concerns about evaluations of faculty. One is the concern about values. That is, what is it that makes a good educator? This is a matter of determining what it is that we are supposed to assess and to use as the standard of assessment. The second is the concern about how well the method of assessment works.

In the case of student evaluations of faculty, we do not seem to be entirely clear about what it is that we are trying to assess nor do we seem to be entirely clear about what counts as being a good educator. In the case of the efficacy of the evaluations, to know whether or not they measure well we would need to have some other means of determining whether a professor is good or not. But, if there were such a method, then student evaluations would seem unnecessary—we could just use those methods. To use an analogy, when it comes to football we do not need to have the fans fill out evaluation forms to determine who is a good or bad athlete: there are clear, objective standards in regards to performance.

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Of Lies & Disagreements

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 7, 2015

When people disagree on controversial issues it is not uncommon for one person to accuse another of lying. In some cases this accusation is clearly warranted and in others it is clearly not. Discerning between these cases is clearly a matter of legitimate concern. There is also some confusion of what should count as a lie and what should not.

While this might seem like a matter of mere semantics, the distinction between what is a lie and what is not actually matters. The main reason for this is that to accuse a person of lying is, in general, to lay a moral charge against the person. It is not merely to claim that the person is in error but to claim that the person is engaged in something that is morally wrong. While some people do use “lie” interchangeably with “untruth”, there is clearly a difference.

To use an easy and obvious example, imagine a student who is asked which year the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The student thinks it was in 1944 and writes that down. She has made an untrue claim, but it would clearly not do for the teacher to accuse her of being a liar.

Now, imagine that one student, Sally, is asking another student, Jane, about when the United States bombed Hiroshima. Jane does not like Sally and wants her to do badly on her exam, so she tells her that the year was 1944, though she knows it was 1945. If Sally tells another student that it was 1944 and also puts that down on her test, Sally could not justly be accused of lying. Jane, however, can be fairly accused. While Sally is saying and writing something untrue, she believes the claim and is not acting with any malicious intent. In contrast, Jane believes she is saying something untrue and is acting from malice. This suggests some important distinctions between lying and making untrue claims.

One obvious distinction is that a lie requires that the person believe she is making an untrue claim. Naturally, there is the practical problem of determining whether a person really believes what she is claiming, but this is not relevant to the abstract distinction: if the person believes the claim, then she would not be lying when she makes that claim.

It can, of course, be argued that a person can be lying even when she believes what she claims—that what matters is whether the claim is true or not. The obvious problem with this is that the accusation of lying is not just a claim the person is wrong, it is also a moral condemnation of wrongdoing. While “lie” could be taken to apply to any untrue claim, there would be a need for a new word to convey not just a statement of error but also of condemnation.

It can also be argued that a person can lie by telling the truth, but by doing so in such a way as to mislead a person into believing something untrue. This does have a certain appeal in that it includes the intent to deceive, but differs from the “stock” lie in that the claim is true (or at least believed to be true).

A second obvious distinction is that the person must have a malicious intent. This is a key factor that distinguishes the untruths of the fictions of movies, stories and shows from lies. When the actor playing Darth Vader says to Luke “No. I am your father.”, he is saying something untrue, yet it would be unfair to say that the actor is thus a liar. Likewise, the references to dragons, hobbits and elves in the Hobbit are all untrue—yet one would not brand Tolkien a liar for these words.

The obvious reply to this is that there is a category of lies that lack a malicious intent. These lies are often told with good intentions, such as a compliment about a person’s appearance that is not true or when parents tell their children about Santa Claus. As such, it would seem that there are lies that are not malicious—these are often called “white lies.” If intent matters, then this sort of lie would seem rather less bad than the malicious lie; although they do meet a general definition of “lie” which involves making an untrue claim with the intent to deceive. In this case, the deceit is supposed to be a positive one. Naturally, there are those who would argue that such deceits are still wrong, even if the intent is a good one. The matter is also complicated by the fact that there seem to be untrue claims aimed at deceit that intuitively seem morally acceptable. The classic case is, of course, misleading a person who is out to commit murder.

In some cases one person will accuse another of lying because the person disagrees with a claim made by the other person. For example, a person might claim that Obamacare will help Americans and be accused of lying about this by a person who is opposed to Obamacare.

In this sort of context, the accusation that the person is lying seems to rest on three clear points. The first is that the accuser thinks that the person does not actually believe his claim. That is, he is engaged in an intentional deceit. The accuser also thinks that the claim is not true. The second is that the accuser believes that the accused intends to deceive—that is, he expects people to believe him. The third is that the accuser thinks that the accused has some malicious intent. This might be merely limited to the intent to deceive, but it typically goes beyond this. For example, the proponent of Obamacare might be suspected of employing his alleged deceit to spread socialism and damage businesses. Or it might be that the person is trolling.

So, in order to be justified in accusing a person of lying, it needs to be shown that the person does not really believe his claim, that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent. Arguing against the claim can show that it is untrue, but this would not be sufficient to show that the person is lying—unless one takes a lie to merely be a claim that is not true (so, if someone made a mistake in a math problem and got the wrong answer, he would be a liar). What would be needed would be adequate evidence that the person is insincere in his claim (that is, he believes he is saying the untrue), that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent.

Naturally, effective criticism of a claim does not require showing that the person making the claim is a liar—this is a matter of arguing about the claim. In fact, the truth or falsity of a claim has no connection to the intent of the person making the claim or what he actually believes about it. An accusation of lying, rather, moves from the issue of whether the claim is true or not to a moral dispute about the character of the person making the claim. That is, whether he is a liar or not. It can, of course, be a useful persuasive device to call someone a liar, but it (by itself) does nothing to prove or disprove the claim under dispute.

 

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Symbols & Facts

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2014

After the murderous attack on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan an image of a child’s blood-stained shoe began appearing in the social media. While the image certainly fit the carnage, the photo was not taken in Peshawar. It had, instead, been taken in May of 2008 in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Such “re-use” of images is common, especially in social media.

As might be imagined, some took issue with people claiming (wrongly) that the picture was from Peshawar. Others took the view that it did not matter since the image was an appropriate symbol of the situation.

A somewhat analogous situation to the “re-use” of photos is the reference of incidents in protests that some regard as not being “suitable” for the protest. For example, in response to the protests about the deaths of Brown and Garner some critics have asserted that the protesters have the facts wrong and that Garner and Brown were not exactly innocent angels. The idea seems to be that the protests can be invalidated by disputing the facts of a specific case or by questioning the suitability of the people used as focal points for the protests.

In response to such criticisms, some defenders of the protesters assert that they do have the facts right and contend that even if Garner and Brown were not innocent angels, injustice still occurred.

The general issue in both sorts of cases is the importance of the truth and purity of the symbols used—be the symbol a photo of a shoe or a black man killed by the police.

As a philosopher, I am initially inclined to come out in favor of the strict truth. Even if the shoe image fit the situation, it is not a picture from the actual event and knowingly using it would be an act of deception. This would certainly seem to be morally wrong. In the case of symbols used in protests, the same reasoning should apply. If the symbols represent the situation incorrectly and those using them know this, then they are engaged in deceit. This would, on the face of it, be wrong.

The “purity” of the people used as symbols is somewhat more complicated. In the case of Brown and Garner, the protesters do not (in general) dispute that these men had broken the law and they do not claim that they were innocent angels. Those critical of the protests sometimes claim that the use of these “impure” symbols somehow invalidates the protest to some degree. Looked at from a purely propaganda viewpoint, innocent angels as victims would be “better”, but injustice does not require that the victim be such an angel. It just requires that a wrong occurs. There is still, however, the moral question of whether or not Garner and Brown were victims of injustice. If they were not, then the protests would be legitimately undermined—after all, a protest about an alleged injustice requires that the injustice be real. If they were victims of injustice, then the protests would obviously have a valid foundation—even though the men were not angels.

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics, I am willing to consider the possibility that the “factual truth” of a symbol might not be as important as its “symbolic truth.” This, obviously enough, opens the door wide to numerous accusations about my integrity and commitment to the truth. Despite this risk, this is certainly an avenue worth strolling down—though I might not wish to take up residence there.

The reason that I mention aesthetics is that one of the most plausible lines of justification for the use of such “untrue” symbols can be found in the realm of art. As philosophers have long noted, art is a beautiful untrue thing. As such, factual veracity is usually not of critical importance in art. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, works of art can present general truths through what might be regarded as specific untruths. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a factual documentary on slavery, Lord of the Flies is not a report of real events, nor is Romeo & Juliet a factual account of a real tragedy. Despite this, these and so many other works convey general truths or make moral points using untrue things.

Assuming that works of art can legitimately use untrue things, it can be argued that the same can be said of symbols, such as the image of the shoe. While the picture of the shoe was, in fact, taken in 2008 in Israel and not in Pakistan, it still serves as a true symbol of the event. That is, it powerfully conveys a general truth about the slaughter of children that goes beyond the specific facts. To dismiss the symbol by saying “why, that is not a picture from the event” is to miss the point of its use as a symbol. As a symbol it is not being presented as a factual representation of the events. Rather, it is being presented as standing for a general truth. Thus, while the symbol is an untrue thing in one sense (it is not a photo of that actual event) it is true in other senses. It symbolizes the killing of children in political struggles and captures the horror of the slaughter of innocents.

Naturally, it is perfectly reasonable to point out that such symbols are not accurate reporting of the event. It is thus completely legitimate to claim that such images should not be used in news reports (except, of course, to report that they are being used, etc.). After all, the true business of news is (or should be) reporting the cold facts. However, there are contexts (such as expressing how one feels on social media) when symbols are appropriate. As long as these are kept properly distinct, then both seem to be legitimate. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that clips from fictional films should not be used in news stories does not entail that fictional films have no place or use in making statements.

Turning to the matter of protests, the matter is somewhat different from that of the image. An image, such as the shoe, can be taken as expressing a general truth. Though the shoe belonged to an Israeli child, it can stand in for the shoe of any child who has been the victim of a terrible attack and it expressed the general horror of such violence. Saying “that picture is not from Pakistan” does not show that the wounding or slaughter of children is not horrible.

However, the truth of the symbolic cases used in protests does seem to matter. As argued above, if the symbolic cases used by protestors turn out to be factually untrue (that is, the narrative of the protesters does not match reality), then that is a problem. For example, if protesters use the killing of a specific black man as a symbol of injustice, but it turns out that the shooting was morally justified, then the protest is undermined. After all, if there was no injustice in a case, then there is no injustice to protest.

One counter to this is that even if a specific symbolic case has been exposed as untrue, this does not discredit the other symbolic cases. For example, the revelation that the Rolling Stone rape article contained numerous untrue claims does discredit that symbolic case, but does not disprove the other cases—they stand or fall on their own merits or defects. This is quite reasonable: the fact that one example is not true does not prove that the other examples are untrue (though it can, of course, raise concerns). So, even if a symbolic case embraced by protesters turns out to not fit, this does not show that the protest is rendered invalid. Using the specific example of campus rape, the fact that the Rolling Stone story unraveled under investigation does not, by itself, show that sexual assault is not a problem on campuses.

But, of course, a claim can be undermined by properly discrediting the supporting examples, be they symbolic or not. So, for example, if it is claimed that the police treat black citizens differently than white citizens and it turns out that this is not generally true, then protests based on this would be undermined. Facts, obviously enough, do matter. However, the weight of each fact must be properly considered: as noted above, showing that one symbolic case is untrue does not discredit all the supporting examples. So, for example, if it is shown that a specific symbolic case does not match the facts, this does not show that the protest is unwarranted.

 

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