A Philosopher's Blog

Ladies & Swearing

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 2, 2015
swearing in cartoon Suomi: Kiroileva sarjakuva...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once and future presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently expressed his concern about the profanity flowing from the mouths of New York Fox News ladies: “In Iowa, you would not have people who would just throw the f-bomb and use gratuitous profanity in a professional setting. In New York, not only do the men do it, but the women do it! This would be considered totally inappropriate to say these things in front of a woman. For a woman to say them in a professional setting that’s just trashy!”

In response, Erin Gloria Ryan posted a piece on Jezebel.com. As might be suspected, the piece utilized the sort of language that Mike dislikes and she started off with “listen up, cunts: folksy as balls probable 2016 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has some goddamn opinions about what sort of language women should use. And guess the fuck what? You bitches need to stop with this swearing shit.” While the short article did not set a record for OD (Obscenity Density), the author did make a good go at it.

I am not much for swearing. In fact, I used to say “swearing is for people who don’t how to use words.” That said, I do recognize that there are proper uses of swearing.

While I generally do not favor swearing, there are exceptions in which swearing was not only permissible, but necessary. For example, when I was running cross country, one of the other runners was looking super rough. The coach asked him how he felt and he said “I feel like shit coach.” The coach corrected him by saying “no, you feel like crap.” He replied, “No, coach, I feel like shit.” And he was completely right. Inspired by the memory of this exchange, I will endeavor to discuss proper swearing. I am, of course, not developing a full theory of swearing—just a brief exploration of the matter.

I do agree with some of what Huckabee said, namely the criticism of swearing in a professional context. However, my professional context is academics and I am doing my professional thing in front of students and other faculty—not exactly a place where gratuitous f-bombing would be appropriate or even useful. It would also make me appear sloppy and stupid—as if I could not express ideas or keep the attention of the class or colleagues without the cheap shock theatrics of swearing.

I am certainly open to the idea that such swearing could be appropriate in certain professional contexts. That is, that the vocabulary of swearing would be necessary to describe professional matters accurately and doing so would not make a person seem sloppy, disrespectful or stupid. Perhaps Fox News and Jezebel.com are such places.

While I was raised with certain patriarchal views, I have shed all but their psychological residue. Hearing a woman swear “feels” worse than hearing a man swear, but I know this is just the dregs of the past. If it is appropriate for a man to swear, the same right of swearing applies to a woman equally. I’m gender neutral, at least in principle.

Outside of the professional setting, I still have a general opposition to casual and repetitive swearing. The main reason is that I look at words and phrases as tools. As with any tool, they have the suitable and proper uses. While a screwdriver could be used to pound in nails, that is a poor use.  While a shotgun could be used to kill a fly, that is excessive and will cause needless collateral damage. Likewise, swear words have specific functions and using them poorly can show not only a lack of manners and respect, but a lack of artistry.

In general, the function of swear words is to serve as dramatic tools—that is, they are intended to shock and to convey something rather strong, such as great anger. To use them casually and constantly is rather like using a scalpel for every casual cutting task—while it will work, the blade will grow dull from repeated use and will no longer function well when it is needed for its proper task. So, I reserve my swear words not because I am prudish, but because if I wear them out, they will not serve me when I really need them most. For example, if I say “we are fucked” all the time for any minor problem, then when a situation in which we are well and truly fucked arrives, I will not be able to use that phrase effectively. But, if I save it for when the fuck hits the fan, then people who know me will know that it has gotten truly serious—I have broken out the “it is serious” words.

As another example, swear words should be saved for when a powerful insult or judgment is needed. If I were to constantly call normal people “fuckers” or describe not-so-bad things as being “shit”, then I would have little means of describing truly bad people and truly bad things. While I generally avoid swearing, I do need those words from time to time, such as when someone really is a fucker or something truly is shit.

Of course, swear words can also be used for humorous purposes. This is not really my sort of thing, but their shock value can serve well here—to make a strong point or to shock. However, if the words are too worn by constant use, then they can no longer serve this purpose. And, of course, it can be all too easy and inartistic to get a laugh simply by being crude—true artistry involves being able to get laughs using the same language one would use in front of grandpa in church. Of course, there is also an artistry to swearing—but that is more than just doing it all the time.

I would not dream of imposing on others—folks who wish to communicate normally using swear words have every right to do so, just as someone is free to pound nails with a screwdriver or whittle with a scalpel. However, it does bother me a bit that these words are being dulled and weakened by excessive use. If this keeps up, we will need to make new words and phrases to replace them—and then, no doubt, new words to replace those.

 

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Catcalling

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 17, 2014

For those not familiar with the term, to catcall is to whistle, shout or make a comment of a sexual nature to a person passing by. In general, the term is used when the person being harassed is a women, but men can also be subject to such harassment.

Thanks to a video documenting a woman’s 10 hours of being catcalled as she walked New York City, catcalling has garnered considerable attention. While it is well known that men catcall, it is less obvious why men engage in this behavior.

Some men seem to hold to the view that they have a right to catcall. As one man put it, “if you have a beautiful body, why can’t I say something?” This view seems to have two main parts. The first (“you have a beautiful body”) seems to indicate that the woman is responsible for the response of men because she has a beautiful body. It is, I think, reasonable to accept the idea that beauty, be it in a person or painting, can evoke a response from a viewer. The problem is, however, that a catcall is not a proper response to beauty and certainly not a proper response to a person. Also, while a woman’s appearance might cause a reaction, the verbal response chosen by the man (or boy) is his responsibility. To use an analogy, seeing a cake at a wedding might make me respond with hunger, but if I chose to paw at the cake and drool on it, then the response (which is very inappropriate) is my choice. To forestall any criticism, I am not saying that women are objects—I just needed an analogy and I am hungry as I write this. Hence the cake analogy.

The second part (“why can’t I say something?”) seems to indicate that the man has a presumptive right to catcall. Put another way, this seems to assume that the burden of proving that men should not catcall rests on women and that it should be assumed that a man has such a right. While the moral right to free speech does entail than men have a right to express their views, there is also the matter of whether it is right to engage in such catcalling. I would say not, on the grounds that the harm done to women by men catcalling them outweighs the harm that would be done to men if they did not engage in such behavior. While I am vary of any laws that infringe on free expression, I do hold that men should not (in the moral sense) behave this way.

This question also seems to show a sense of entitlement—that the man seeing the woman as beautiful entitles him to harass her. This seems similar to believing that seeing someone as unattractive warrants saying derogatory things about the person. Again, while people do have a freedom of expression, there are things that are unethical to express.

Some men also claim that the way a woman dresses warrants their behavior. As one young man said, “If a girl comes out in tight leggings, and you can see something back there… I’m saying something.” This is, obviously enough, just an expression of the horrible view that a woman invites or deserves the actions of men by her choice of clothing. This “justification” is best known as a “defense” for rape—the idea that the woman was “asking for it” because she was dressed in provocative clothing. However, a woman’s mode of dress does not warrant her being catcalled or attacked. After all, if a man was wearing an expensive Rolex watch and he was robbed, it would not be said that he was provocative or was “asking for it” by displaying such an expensive timepiece. Naturally, it might be a bad idea to dress a certain way or wear an expensive watch when going certain places, but this does not justify the catcalling or robbery.

There has been some speculation that catcalling, like everything else, is the result of natural selection. Looked at one way, if the theory of evolution is correct and one also accepts the notion that human behavior is determined (rather than free), then this would be true. This is because all human behavior would be the result of such selection and determining factors. In this case, one cannot really say that the behavior would be wrong, at least if something being immoral requires that the person engaging in the behavior could do otherwise. If a person cannot do otherwise, placing blame or praise on the person would be pointless—like praising or blaming water for boiling at a certain temperature and pressure. Looked at another way, it might be useful to consider the evolutionary forces that might lead to the behavior.

One possible “just so” story is that males would call out to passing females as a form of mating display (like how birds display for each other). Some of the females would respond positively and thus the catcalling genes would be passed on to future generations of men who would in turn catcall women to attract a mate.

One reason to accept this view is that some forms of what could be regarded as catcalling do seem to work. Having been on college campuses for decades, I have seen a vast amount of catcalling in various forms (including the “hollaback” thing). Some women respond by ignoring it, some respond with hostility, and some respond positively. While the positive response rate seems low, it is a low effort “fishing trip” and hence the cost to the male is rather small. After all, he just has to sit there and say things as “bait” in the hopes he will get a bite. Like fishing, a person might cast hundreds of times to catch a single fish.

One reason to reject this view is that many of the guys who use it will obviously never get a positive response. However, they might think they will—they are casting away like mad, not realizing that their “bait” will never work. After all, they might have seen it work for other guys and think they have a chance.

Moving away from evolution, one stock explanation for catcalling is that men do it as an expression of power—they are doing it to show (to themselves, other men and women) that they have power over women. A man might be an unfit, ugly, overweight, graceless, unemployed slob but he can make a fit, beautiful and successful woman feel afraid and awful by screeching about her buttocks or breasts. Of course, catcalling is not limited to such men, though the power motive would still seem to hold. This is clearly morally reprehensible because of the harm it does to women. Even if the woman is not afraid of the man, having to hear such things can diminish her enjoyment. While I am a man, I do understand what it is like to have stupid and hateful remarks yelled at me. When I was young and running was not as accepted as it is now, it was rare for me to go for a run without someone saying something stupid or hateful. Or throwing things. Being a reasonably large male, I did not feel afraid (most of those yelling did so from the safety of passing automobiles). However, such remarks did bother me—much in the way that being bitten by mosquitoes bothers me. That is, it just made the run less pleasant. As such, I have some idea of what it is like for women to be catcalled, but it is presumably much worse for them.

I have even been catcalled by women—but I am sure that it is not the same sort of experience that women face when catcalled by men. After all, the women who have catcalled me are probably just kidding (perhaps even being ironic) and, even if they are not, they almost certainly harbor no hostile intentions and present no real threat. To have a young college woman yell “nice ass” from her car as I run through the FSU campus is a weird sort of compliment rather than a threat. Though it is still weird.  In contrast, when men engage in such behavior it seems overtly predatory and threatening. So, stop catcalling, guys.

 

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Medbots, Autodocs & Telemedicine

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2014

In science fiction stories, movies and games automated medical services are quite common. Some take the form of autodocs—essentially an autonomous robotic pod that treats the patient within its confines. Medbots, as distinct from the autodoc, are robots that do not enclose the patient, but do their work in a way similar to a traditional doctor or medic. There are also non-robotic options using remote-controlled machines—this would be an advanced form of telemedicine in which the patient can actually be treated remotely. Naturally, robots can be built that can be switched from robotic (autonomous) to remote controlled mode. For example, a medbot might gather data about the patient and then a human doctor might take control to diagnose and treat the patient.

One of the main and morally commendable reasons to create medical robots and telemedicine capabilities is to provide treatment to people in areas that do not have enough human medical professionals. For example, a medical specialist who lives in the United States could diagnose and treat patients in a remote part of the world using a suitable machine. With such machines, a patient could (in theory) have access to any medical professional in the world and this would certainly change medicine. True medical robots would obviously change medicine—after all, a medical robot would never get tired and such robots could, in theory, be sent all over the world to provide medical care. There is, of course, the usual concern about the impact of technology on jobs—if a robot can replace medical personnel and do so in a way that increases profits, that will certainly happen. While robots would certainly excel at programmable surgery and similar tasks, it will certainly be quite some time before robots are advanced enough to replace human medical professionals on a large scale

Another excellent reason to create medical robots and telemedicine capabilities has been made clear by the Ebola outbreak: medical personnel, paramedics and body handlers can be infected. While protective gear and protocols do exist, the gear is cumbersome, flawed and hot and people often fail to properly follow the protocols. While many people are moral heroes and put themselves at risk to treat the ill and bury the dead, there are no doubt people who are deterred by the very real possibility of a horrible death. Medical robots and telemedicine seem ideal for handling such cases.

First, human diseases cannot infect machines: a robot cannot get Ebola. So, a doctor using telemedicine to treat Ebola patients would be at not risk. This lack of risk would presumably increase the number of people willing to treat such diseases and also lower the impact of such diseases on medical professionals. That is, far fewer would die trying to treat people.

Second, while a machine can be contaminated, decontaminating a properly designed medical robot or telemedicine machine would be much easier than disinfecting a human being. After all, a sealed machine could be completely hosed down by another machine without concerns about it being poisoned, etc. While numerous patients might be exposed to a machine, machines do not go home—so a contaminated machine would not spread a disease like an infected or contaminated human would.

Third, medical machines could be sent, even air-dropped, into remote and isolated areas that lack doctors yet are often the starting points of diseases. This would allow a rapid response that would help the people there and also help stop a disease before it makes its way into heavily populated areas. While some doctors and medical professionals are willing to be dropped into isolated areas, there are no doubt many more who would be willing to remotely operate a medical machine that has been dropped into a remote area suffering from a deadly disease.

There are, of course, some concerns about the medical machines, be they medbots, autodocs or telemedicine devices.

One is that such medical machines might be so expensive that it would be cost prohibitive to use them in situations in which they would be ideal (namely in isolated or impoverished areas). While politicians and pundits often talk about human life being priceless, human life is rather often given a price and one that is quite low. So, the challenge would be to develop medical machines that are effective yet inexpensive enough that they would be deployed where they would be needed.

Another is that there might be a psychological impact on the patient. When patients who have been treated by medical personal in hazard suits speak about their experiences, they often remark on the lack of human contact. If a machine is treating the patient, even one remotely operated by a person, there will be a lack of human contact. But, the harm done to the patient would presumably be outweighed by the vastly lowered risk of the disease spreading. Also, machines could be designed to provide more in the way of human interaction—for example, a telemedicine machine could have a screen that allows the patient to see the doctor’s face and talk to her.

A third concern is that such machines could malfunction or be intentionally interfered with. For example, someone might “hack” into a telemedicine device as an act of terrorism. While it might be wondered why someone would do this, it seems to be a general rule that if someone can do something evil, then someone will do something evil. As such, these devices would need to be safeguarded. While no device will be perfect, it would certainly be wise to consider possible problems ahead of time—although the usual process is to have something horrible occur and then fix it. Or at least talk about fixing it.

In sum, the recent Ebola outbreak has shown the importance of developing effective medical machines that can enable treatment while taking medical and other personnel out of harm’s way.

 

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Campbell Brown & Teacher’s Unions

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 4, 2014
English: The central courtyard of Albany High ...

Albany High School in Albany, New York, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In July, 2014 Campbell Brown announced that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany. This complaint is aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws. The basis for the lawsuit is that the tenure laws interfere with the right of children to a sound education.

This is not Brown’s first foray into this matter. In 2013 Brown asserted that her Parents’ Transparency Project was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions. In the course of this campaign Brown asserted that the union is “…a system that protects teachers who engage in sexual misconduct.” Brown did run into some conflict of interest issues in regards to this group and there were concerns about the anonymous funding behind it: as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, PTP can legally keep its donors secret and engage in political spending. As should be no surprise, critics of Brown saw PTP as an attempt at union busting backed by parties with political and economic agendas. The unions weathered the efforts of PTP and now they are facing off against Brown’s PEJ. To promote this new lawsuit, Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report—having faced protestors outside the show.

I do agree with some of Brown’s claims. First, I do agree with her assertion that children are entitled to a sound basic education. Her critics contend that her actual interest is in busting the unions at the behest of those bankrolling PEJ. While Brown’s actual motives are a point of interest, they are logically irrelevant to the merit of her claims and arguments. However, Colbert did raise a relevant criticism: if Brown is, in fact, concerned that children receive a sound education and for educational equality, then she should be focusing on a key aspect of educational inequality, namely the extreme disparity in education funding. To be fair to Brown, it is quite reasonable for a group to focus on one issue at a time and to also leave other issues to other groups.

Second, I do agree with her position on seniority. As it now stands, schools follow a “first in, last out” policy. The problem with this is that merely being at a school a long time does not entail that a person is a good teacher. Since I believe that employment should be based on merit and mere seniority is not a mark of merit, I oppose this policy. That said, I know that experience can improve a teacher’s abilities (I am a much better professor now than I was when I was fresh out of graduate school). However, these improved abilities should be discernible in job performance and not just by looking at the calendar. Naturally, a rational case can be made for seniority—but I believe that all such cases must rest on the connection between experience and ability.

Third, I regard her claim that three years is not enough time to earn tenure as having some appeal. After all, tenure at the university level requires six years (and, at my university, involves a yearlong review process starting in the department and ending with the university President). The easy and obvious counter is that teaching at a university requires an advanced degree (which requires 5+ years beyond the Bachelor’s degree required to teach K-12), so having a shorter tenure period at K-12 schools is reasonable. So, my view is that this matter can be legitimately debated—although I would be fine with the three year tenure period (provided that the process is merit based, fair and rigorous).

Fourth, I do agree with her view that tenure laws should not make it nearly impossible to fire ineffective or dangerous teachers. Tenure, as I see it, is supposed to ensure that teachers/professors can only be fired for cause and through due process. It is not so that teachers/professors can never be fired. At the college level, this is obviously connected to defending academic freedom. At the K-12 level, academic freedom might not be seen as being as great a concern, however there is the concern about protecting teachers from the vagaries of ideology, politics and such. To use a concrete example, tenure is useful for protecting biology teachers from being fired because parents disbelieve in evolution or believe that vaccines cause autism.

Brown’s view gets some psychological support from the common misconception that tenure means that a teacher cannot be fired. However, as the above discussion indicates, tenure does not entail that a teacher cannot be fired, just that due process must be used. It would presumably be hard to defend the view that a teacher could be legitimately fired for just any reason without any due process (though there are people who do hold that view). After all, such firing would be (by definition) unjustified—something that would be hard to justify. It is, however, easy to defend the view that even a tenured teacher should be fired for being ineffective (and certainly for being dangerous).

The problem, then, does not seem to be with the general principle of tenure. If there is a problem, it would seem to lie in the process that is used and perhaps the specific rules used to keep the ineffective or dangerous in their jobs. The fix to this would not seem to be the elimination of tenure, but a change in the process so that teachers are protected from unjustified dismissal and students are protected from ineffective or dangerous teachers. The system will never be perfect—but that is an unreasonable standard.

 

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Talking Points & Climate Change

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 14, 2014
English: Animated global map of monthly long t...

English: Animated global map of monthly long term mean surface air temperature (Mollweide projection). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While science and philosophy are supposed to be about determining the nature of reality, politics is often aimed at creating perceptions that are alleged to be reality. This is why it is generally wiser to accept claims supported by science and reason over claims “supported” by ideology and interest.

 

The matter of climate change is a matter of both science (since the climate is an objective feature of reality) and politics (since perception of reality can be shaped by rhetoric and ideology). Ideally, the facts of climate change would be left to science and sorting out how to address it via policy would fall, in part, to the politicians. Unfortunately, politicians and other non-scientists have taken it on themselves to make claims about the science, usually in the form of unsupported talking points.

 

On the conservative side, there has been a general shifting in the talking points. Originally, there was one main talking point: there is no climate change and the scientists are wrong. This point was often supported by alleging that the scientists were motivated by ideology to lie about the climate. In contrast, those whose profits could be impacted if climate change was real were taken as objective sources.

 

In the face of mounting evidence and shifting public opinion, this talking point became the claim that while climate change is occurring, it is not caused by humans. This then shifted to the claim that climate change is caused by humans, but there is nothing we can (or should) do now.

 

In response to the latest study, certain Republicans have embraced three talking points. These points do seem to concede that climate change is occurring and that humans are responsible. These points do have a foundation that can be regarded as rational and each will be considered in turn.

 

One talking point is that the scientists are exaggerating the impact of climate change and that it will not be as bad as they claim. This does rest on a reasonable concern about any prediction: how accurate is the prediction? In the case of a scientific prediction based on data and models, the reasonable inquiry would focus on the accuracy of the data and how well the models serve as models of the actual world. To use an analogy, the reliability of predictions about the impact of a crash on a vehicle based on a computer model would hinge on the accuracy of the data and the model and both could be reasonable points of inquiry.

 

Since the climate scientists have the data and models used to make the predications, to properly dispute the predictions would require showing problems with either the data or the models (or both). Simply saying they are wrong would not suffice—what is needed is clear evidence that the data or models (or both) are defective in ways that would show the predictions are excessive in terms of the predicted impact.

 

One indirect way to do this would be to find clear evidence that the scientists are intentionally exaggerating. However, if the scientists are exaggerating, then this would be provable by examining the data and plugging it into an accurate model. That is, the scientific method should be able to be employed to show the scientists are wrong.

 

In some cases people attempt to argue that the scientists are exaggerating because of some nefarious motivation—a liberal agenda, a hatred of oil companies, a desire for fame or some other wickedness. However, even if it could be shown that the scientists have a nefarious motivation, it does not follow that the predictions are wrong. After all, to dismiss a claim because of an alleged defect in the person making the claim is a fallacy. Being suspicious because of a possible nefarious motive can be reasonable, though. So, for example, the fact that the fossil fuel companies have a great deal at stake here does not prove that their claims about climate change are wrong. But the fact that they have considerable incentive to deny certain claims does provide grounds for suspicion regarding their objectivity (and hence credibility).  Naturally, if one is willing to suspect that there is a global conspiracy of scientists, then one should surely be willing to consider that fossil fuel companies and their fellows might be influenced by their financial interests.

 

One could, of course, hold that the scientists are exaggerating for noble reasons—that is, they are claiming it is worse than it will be in order to get people to take action. To use an analogy, parents sometimes exaggerate the possible harms of something to try to persuade their children not to try it. While this is nicer than ascribing nefarious motives to scientists, it is still not evidence against their claims. Also, even if the scientists are exaggerating, there is still the question about how bad things really would be—they might still be quite bad.

 

Naturally, if an objective and properly conducted study can be presented that shows the predictions are in error, then that is the study that I would accept. However, I am still waiting for such a study.

 

The second talking point is that the laws being proposed will not solve the problems. Interestingly, this certainly seems to concede that climate change will cause problems. This point does have a reasonable foundation in that it would be unreasonable to pass laws aimed at climate change that are ineffective in addressing the problems.

 

While crafting the laws is a matter of politics, sorting out whether such proposals would be effective does seem to fall in the domain of science. For example, if a law proposes to cut carbon emissions, there is a legitimate question as to whether or not that would have a meaningful impact on the problem of climate change. Showing this would require having data, models and so on—merely saying that the laws will not work is obviously not enough.

 

Now, if the laws will not work, then the people who confidently make that claim should be equally confident in providing evidence for their claim. It seems reasonable to expect that such evidence be provided and that it be suitable in nature (that is, based in properly gathered data, examined by impartial scientists and so on).

 

The third talking point is that the proposals to address climate change will wreck the American economy. As with the other points, this does have a rational basis—after all, it is sensible to consider the impact on the economy.

 

One way to approach this is on utilitarian grounds: that we can accept X environmental harms (such as coastal flooding) in return for Y (jobs and profits generated by fossil fuels). Assuming that one is a utilitarian of the proper sort and that one accepts this value calculation, then one can accept that enduring such harms could be worth the advantages. However, it is well worth noting that as usual, the costs will seem to fall heavily on those who are not profiting. For example, the flooding of Miami and New York will not have a huge impact on fossil fuel company profits (although they will lose some customers).

 

Making the decisions about this should involve openly considering the nature of the costs and benefits as well as who will be hurt and who will benefit. Vague claims about damaging the economy do not allow us to make a proper moral and practical assessment of whether the approach will be correct or not. It might turn out that staying the course is the better option—but this needs to be determined with an open and honest assessment. However, there is a long history of this not occurring—so I am not optimistic about this occurring.

 

It is also worth considering that addressing climate change could be good for the economy. After all, preparing coastal towns and cities for the (allegedly) rising waters could be a huge and profitable industry creating many jobs. Developing alternative energy sources could also be profitable as could developing new crops able to handle the new conditions. There could be a whole new economy created, perhaps one that might rival more traditional economic sectors and newer ones, such as the internet economy. If companies with well-funded armies of lobbyists got into the climate change countering business, I suspect that a different tune would be playing.

 

To close, the three talking points do raise questions that need to be answered:

 

  • Is climate change going to be as bad as it is claimed?
  • What laws (if any) could effectively and properly address climate change?
  • What would be the cost of addressing climate change and who would bear the cost?

 

 

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Carlos Danger & Badness

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 29, 2013
, member of the United States House of Represe...

Carlos Danger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One longstanding philosophical concern is the matter of why people behave badly. One example of this that filled the American news in July of 2013 was the new chapter in the sordid tale of former congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner was previously best known for resigning from office after a scandal involving his internet activities and his failed campaign of deception regarding said activities. Weiner decided to make a return to politics by running for mayor of New York. However, his bid for office was overshadowed by revelations that he was sexting under the nom de sext “Carlos Danger” even after his resignation and promise to stop such behavior.

While his behavior has been more creepy and pathetic than evil, it does provide a context for discussion the matter of why people behave badly.

Socrates, famously, gave the answer that people do wrong out of ignorance. He did not mean that people elected to do wrong because they lacked factual knowledge (such as being unaware that stabbing people hurts them).  This is not to say that bad behavior cannot stem from mere factual knowledge. For example, a person might be unaware that his joke about a rabbit caused someone great pain because she had just lost her beloved Mr. Bunny to a tragic weed whacker accident. In the case of Weiner, there is some possibility that ignorance of facts played a role in his bad behavior. For example, it seems that Weiner was in error about his chances of getting caught again, despite the fact that he had been caught before. Interestingly, Weiner’s fellow New York politician and Democrat Elliot Spitzer was caught in his scandal using the exact methods he himself had previously used and even described on television.  In this case, the ignorance in question could be an arrogant overestimation of ability.

While such factual ignorance might play a role in a person’s decision to behave badly, there would presumably need to be much more in play in cases such as Weiner’s.  For him to act on his (alleged) ignorance he would also need an additional cause or causes to engage in that specific behavior. For Socrates, this cause would be a certain sort of ignorance, namely a lack of wisdom.

While Socrates’ view has been extensively criticized (Aristotle noted that it contradicted the facts), it does have a certain appeal.

One way to consider such ignorance is to focus on the possibility that Weiner is ignorant of certain values. To be specific, it could be contended that Weiner acted badly because he did not truly know that he was choosing something worse (engaging in sexting) over something better (being faithful to his wife). In such cases a person might claim that he knows that he has picked the lesser over the greater, but it could be replied that doing this repeatedly displays an ignorance of the proper hierarchy of values. That is, it could be claimed that Weiner acted badly because he did not have proper knowledge of the good. To use an analogy, a person who is offered a simple choice (that is, no bizarre philosophy counter-example conditions) between $5 and $100 and picks the $5 as greater than $100 would seem to show a failure to grasp that 100 is greater than 5.

Socrates presented the obvious solution to evil: if evil arises from ignorance, than knowledge of the good attained via philosophy is just what would be needed.

The easy and obvious reply is that knowledge of what is better and what is worse is consistent with a person choosing to behave badly rather than better. To use an analogy, people who eat poorly and do not exercise profess to value health while acting in ways that directly prevent them from being healthy. This is often explained not in terms of a defect in values but, rather, in a lack of will. The idea that a person could have or at least understand the proper values but fail to act consistently with them because of weakness is certainly intuitively appealing. As such, one plausible explanation for Weiner’s actions is that while he knows he is doing wrong, he lacks the strength to prevent himself from doing so. Going back to the money analogy, it is not that the person who picks the $5 over the $100 does not know that 100 is greater than 5. Rather, in this scenario the $5 is easy to get and the $100 requires a strength the person lacks: she wants the $100, but simply cannot jump high enough to reach it.

Assuming a person knows what is good, the solution to this cause of evil would be, as Aristotle argued, proper training to make people stronger (or, at least, to condition them to select the better out of fear of punishment) so they can act on their knowledge of the good properly.

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Labor Day

Posted in Business by Michael LaBossiere on September 3, 2012
English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New Y...

English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882 (Lithographie) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since today is Labor Day, I won’t labor. Well, not as much as usual. However, there are some folks who are working today. For example, when I went grocery shopping I saw a sign saying that for the convenience of customers, the store would be open on Labor Day.

Given that Labor Day is supposed to celebrate “the economic and social contributions of workers”, it seems odd that businesses would stay open. Naturally, it makes sense that essential businesses and services would remain open even on Labor Day. However, some business do not seem to be so essential that they cannot allow their workers a day off.

Of course, I must note that I grew up in a small town that effectively shut down on Sundays-nothing was open other than the pharmacy and churches. As such, the idea of businesses being closed on certain days (holidays and Sundays) seems natural to me. This is, obviously, not an argument in favor of recognizing Labor Day.

However, there are some good arguments for having such days off. There are, of course, the religious arguments for this-after all, one of the ten commandments is about the Sabbath. Interestingly, people generally ignore that commandment-even when they are devoted to pushing one part of Leviticus.

One non-religious argument is that it seems to be a good thing to have holidays and days on which commerce stops so that people can rest. This would seem to have good psychological effects and, of course, there is the question of whether we really need to be able to shop so relentlessly on all days.

It can, however, be objected that a modern economy must run without any days off. After all, these are not the days of horses and whale oil. These are the days of iPads and Amazon and business is 24/7/365. As such, the idea of a day on which non-essential commerce ceases is a quaint idea…and, of course, assumes that there is even such a thing as non-essential commerce these days.

It can also be objected that a “day off” for workers is a day they are not getting paid and a day that businesses are not making money. As such, it makes sense for business to remain open on Labor Day (and also on the Sabbath).  It can also be noted that this should be a matter of choice-that is, no government or God should tell workers and employers when they should and should not work.

However, I still think that there should be days on which commerce ceases and Labor Day should certainly be one of them.

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The State & Soda

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2012
Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworths superma...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mayor of New York is considering a ban on selling sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces. The ban would not cover diet sodas, fruit juice, dairy products (like milkshakes) or alcohol. It also does not cover grocery or convenience stores. As might be suspected, the intent of this ban is to help combat obesity. About half of the adult population of the city is overweight and the mayor presumably hopes that this ban will help with this problem.

There are, of course, two key factual issues here. The first is whether or not the large drinks in question are a causal factor in obesity. The second is whether or not the ban would have the intended effect.

Not surprisingly, the folks in the relevant industries are claiming that the drinks are not the cause of the problem. On the one hand, it can be claimed that they are in error. After all, it does make sense that consuming large quantities of high calorie beverages (a 12 ounce soda has 124-189 calories) would contribute to people being overweight. On the other hand, it can be argued that this is not the case. After all, the drinks are not the only (or even main) source of calories and hence they are just one contributory cause among many. There is also the point that people are not compelled to consume the large beverages and people are, by in large, obese because of their choices. My considered view is that these drinks make it easier to be obese, but that it would be an error to cast them as the primary villains, so to speak.

In regards to the effectiveness of such a ban, it seems likely that the impact will be fairly minor. While people will not be able to get drinks over 16 ounces, they are not prevented from getting refills or buying as many as they want. While the 16 ounce limit will make it slightly less convenient to get a greater volume of sweet drinks, I suspect that this inconvenience factor will not be enough to impact the obesity problem. After all, people already buy multiple burgers or tacos and can probably adjust easily to getting multiple drinks. There is also the fact that the ban does not affect drinks whose calorie content can exceed that of the banned drinks and people can switch to those. For example, unsweetened apple juice has 169-175 calories per 12 ounce serving.

While the factual matters are of concern, what is of philosophical interest is whether or not the state has a right to impose such bans. As might be imagined, it is easy enough to argue for and against this right using the very same principles.

One reasonable principle is that the state has a legitimate role in preventing harm to the citizens and has a right to use its compulsive power in this capacity. The most obvious examples of this include the state’s role as a military protector and its role as the police. Another reasonable principle, taken from John Stuart Mill, is that the state does not have a right to impose on the liberty of individuals except in cases in which the individual’s actions could cause unwarranted harm to others. For example, the state clearly has a right to prevent citizens from murdering each other.

In the case of the sweet drink ban, it could be argued that the state is acting to prevent harm to the citizens and is thus operating within its legitimate rights. After all, the easy accessibility of high calorie foods in high volume servings makes it far easier for people to over-consume calories and this leads to increased obesity. Obesity presents a clear health threat to individuals as well as imposing significant costs on society (such as lost productivity and increase medical costs). As such, the state would be acting rightly in banning such sweet drinks.

One easy reply is to contend that the ban would not be effective (as argued above) and hence would be an imposition on liberty that fails to achieve its stated goal. It seems reasonable enough to accept that the state should not restrict liberty when doing so would not achieve the stated goal of the imposition-after all, the justification for the imposition would simply not be grounded.

Another reply, and the one I favor, is that even if the ban was to prove effective, it is still an illegitimate violation of liberty. The state does, of course, have a right to protect people from toxic ingredients, especially when such ingredients are not known to the consumer. To use a specific example to illustrate this, the state would be acting legitimately by banning companies from surreptitiously using lead  acetate in place of sugar as sweetener. This is because this substance is known to be toxic and most customers would not willingly consume “sweet lead.” In this case, the state would be protecting the customers from being harmed by the manufacturers. After all, companies do not have the liberty to poison ignorant customers.

In the case of the sweet drinks, the customer knows what s/he is getting: a high calorie (typically low nutrient) drink. While it is unwise and unhealthy to consume large amounts of such drinks, as long as the consumer is freely making the choice to drink the beverage and is aware of its contents and effects, then the state has no right to impose on the individual’s liberty. As usual, John Stuart Mill’s arguments in favor of liberty work quite well here. Naturally enough, the state would be well within its rights to require companies to make information about the beverages available to consumers so that they can make informed choices. However, treating adults as if they were children in this regard is not acceptable nor within the legitimate rights of the state. After all, what is solely the business of the individual is not the business of the state and how much sweet drink a person consumes would seem to be solely his or her business. The choice is thus the right of the individual, be it a good choice (to avoid sweet drinks) or a bad choice (to consume mass quantities of sugar water).

The obvious reply to this is that the harms done by obesity are not limited to the individual. Obesity increases health care costs for everyone, impacts productivity, and has other consequences that extend beyond the individual. Given that the obesity of an individual harms others, then it would seem that the state would have the right to step in and impose restrictions to counter obesity. After all, while people have every liberty to be as fat as they can and want to be, they do not have the right to expect the rest of society to also bear the consequences and costs of their poor choices.  To modify a stock line from the right in the US, why should the rest of us subsidize the cost of obesity-surely that would be a socialism of fat.  If this reasoning is plausible, then there seem to be two reasonable alternatives (and, of course, there might be others).

The first is that the state should act within its legitimate rights to endeavor to counter causal factors that significantly contribute to obesity (such as high volume high calorie beverages). The second is that individuals who wish to enjoy the liberty to be as fat as they choose to be would need to take full responsibility for the consequences of their choices. They would, for example, need to opt out of state medical support in regards to any conditions caused by or aggravated by their obesity, perhaps by purchasing special insurance. Provided that an individual was willing to eliminate the harms his/her choices would impose on others, then s/he would have the perfect right to do as s/he pleases. This is analogous to how certain states allow people to ride motorcycles without helmets provided that they have adequate insurance. Perhaps people could received special ID cards proving they have obesity insurance and  this would allow them to purchase large beverages (and other such things).

A second reply to the liberty argument is that it could be argued that the sweeteners used to create the sweet drinks is actually a toxic substance. Interestingly enough, lead acetate was once used as a sweetener until is was clearly established that it is, in fact, toxic. As such, it is not wildly implausible that the sweeteners currently in use are actually toxic substances that should be properly regulated. While it is easy enough to dismiss the idea that, for example, sugar could be toxic because it just sounds silly, it is rather important to make such assessments on the basis of scientific evidence. If sweeteners are not harmful, then an objective scientific investigation would surely show this. As such, those who think that it is silly to consider sugar and other sweeteners as toxic should insist on objective and extensive evaluation. After all, doing so would silence the rational critics of sweeteners and provide hard evidence to counter attempts to ban or restrict sweeteners and products that use them, such as sweet drinks.

My own view on the matter is that people have a right to the liberty of self-abuse (even self-destruction). However, this liberty does not allow them to impose on others. As such, the freedom to be fat comes with the responsibility to ensure that other people are not forced to bear the price that the individual alone should pay. As the hackneyed saying goes, freedom is not free-and this goes for fat freedom as well.

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Example Failure

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2011
Men inspecting wreckage of first Toronto airpl...

Image via Wikipedia

For years I have been making use of a plane crash example to illustrate the moral distinction between killing people and letting people die and the results have always been the same, at least until this past week. Before getting to that, I will briefly present the examples.

I usually open my discussion of utilitarianism by noting that people tend to have utilitarian intuitions in many cases, such as those involving emergency medial treatment. My stock example is as follows:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with six people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. Examining the people, you know that if you try to save the badly injured pilot, you will lose 3-4 of the others for sure. But, if you allow the pilot to die, you are certain you can save at least four of the passengers, maybe even five. What do you do?”

As you might suspect, everyone always says something like “save the five because five is more than one.”

When transitioning to my discussion of rule-deontology, I make the point that sometimes our intuitions seem to steer us away from just the consequences to also considering the action itself. To illustrate this intuition, I change the story just a bit:

“Imagine that you are the only available doctor on an island when a plane crashes with five people on board. You have no idea who these people are-they literally fell from the sky. To save them, you need a lot of blood and you need it fast. Coincidentally, Ted the hermit has come in for his yearly checkup. Ted has no friends or relatives and no one checks up on him. By a truly amazing coincidence Ted’s blood type means that he can donate to all five people. Unfortunately, getting enough blood to save all five will kill Ted. What do you do?”

For years, my students have said that killing Ted even to save five people would be wrong and I fully expected my current students in my class to give the same answer. But, rather than the usual “that would be wrong”, I was met with silence. So, I asked again and two students said that they’d drain Ted. When I said that this was the first class that ever said that, the reply was “times have changed.”

I’m not quite sure what the significance of this might be, but it was certainly interesting.

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Disapproval of Congress

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2011
Disgust2

Congress...ewwww!

While some claim that Americans are more divided than ever before, there is one matter on which we stand strongly united. In our disapproval of congress, 82% (or more) Americans stand shoulder to shoulder, with looks of disgust on the faces above those shoulders.

Congress, obviously enough, brought this on itself. The icing on the disapproval cake seems to have been the latest round of debates over the debt ceiling. While Americans do disagree over spending and taxes, we mainly seem to agree that we do not want our country brought to the very edge of default. As such, one reason for the disapproval is that congress is perceived as being willing to wrangle over critical matters right up until it is almost too late. That sort of behavior is generally not appealing to most people.

Of course, such behavior would be understandable and forgivable if the wrangling was over a critical matter and perhaps as important or more important than meeting a deadline. However, the battle in congress seems to have been a fight over scoring political points rather than doing what is best for the country. To use an analogy, congress was fighting over whether to steer a little left or a little right while the ship of state was heading directly towards an iceberg. While the direction of the ship does matter, what really matters the most is not hitting that iceberg.

Another reason for the disapproval regarding this matter is that most Americans seem to be more concerned about jobs rather than deficit reduction. If we need to spend more to sustain and create jobs and restore the economy, then this seems to be something most Americans favor. Congress, for all its talk of jobs, does not seem as concerned as it should be about this matter. Going back to the ship analogy, if the ship is caught in a storm, it can make sense to burn more fuel to get out of that storm and into port. Once the ship is back in calm waters, then the worry about the cost of fueling the ship can move back up the priority list.

Another point of concern is that the behavior of congress makes us look bad. The news was filled with stories about how America might default, how we might lose our AAA credit rating, and how congress seemed intent on wrangling rather than resolving.  This made us seem like we were incapable of getting things done, even in the face of necessity. That is, most Americans rightfully hold, not how we should appear.

Given what Americans think of congress, it seems reasonable to infer that Americans in general are not as partisan as the members of congress and that we have different priorities then they do. In short, they do not actually seem to be properly representing us. Of course, we elected them and the beauty of democracy is that people get the government they deserve. As such, we seem to really dislike what we have created and hence we should probably think about this when it comes time to vote again.

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