A Philosopher's Blog

Orientation & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2014
English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

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When discussing the ethics of sexual orientation, it is not uncommon for people to draw comparisons between being gay and being a rapist, pedophile, practitioner of bestiality or a necrophiliac.  My stock response to such comparisons is that there is at least one glaringly obvious difference between being gay and engaging in the sexual behavior mentions. To specific, rapists, pedophiles and so forth engage in sexual behavior that does not involve the consent of their victims. This, in part, makes their behavior immoral. There is also the fact that cases involving sexual coercion inflict harm on the victim. As such, consensual sex between homosexuals would seem to be nothing like those other things. Obviously enough, homosexual rape and homosexual pedophilia would be wrong—but because of the rape and pedophilia.

While it seems impossible to deny that consensual homosexual sex differs from rape and such in regards to consent, there are those who do claim that homosexuality is itself wrong. The question is, obviously enough, this: in what does its wrongness consist?

I’ll run through some scenarios and questions that I hope will lead to some consideration and discussion.

Imagine two married couples: Sam & Ashley and Mel & Fran.  Suppose that Sam and Ashley have the following relationship: they love each other, treat each other well, only have consensual sex, and are faithful to each other. Suppose that Mel and Fran have the following relationship: Mel does not love Fran, Mel treats Fran badly, Mel rapes Fran when Fran is unwilling to consent, and Mel has affairs regularly.

Given just this information, which relationship is morally superior? Why? Now, suppose that Sam and Ashley are the same sex while Mel and Fran have different sexes. Given this information, which relationship is morally superior? Why? Now, suppose that Sam and Ashely are different sexes while Mel and Fran are the same sex. Is this worse than the scenario in which Sam and Ashley are a straight couple? Why? Or why not?

Based on arguments I have seen before, some might argue that the scenario in which Sam and Ashley are a same sex couple is impossible. That is, people of the same sex cannot love each other, or have only consensual sex, or treat each other well, or be faithful. This could, of course, be argued—but arguments would be what is needed. However, even if it is argued that the scenario could not occur, there would still be the interesting question of whether such a (hypothetical) scenario would be morally superior to the scenario in which the straight couple’s situation involves rape, infidelity and abuse.

Overall, this matter can be distilled down the following question: what is intrinsically wrong, if anything, with being homosexual—even in the context of what would be considered an ideal relationship if it held between heterosexuals.

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Homosexuality & Choice

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 12, 2014
English: Gender symbols, sexual orientation: h...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the matter of choice is rather interesting to me, it is hardly a shock that I would be interested in the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. One obvious problem with trying to settle this matter is that it seems impossible to prove (or disprove) the existence of the capacity for choice. As Kant argued, free will seems to lie beyond the reach of our knowledge. As such, it would seem that it could not be said with confidence that a person’s sexual orientation is a matter of choice. But, this is nothing special: the same can be said about the person’s political party, religion, hobbies and so on.

Laying aside the metaphysical speculation, it can be assumed (or perhaps pretended) that people do have a choice in some matters. Given this assumption, the question would seem to be whether sexual orientation legitimately belongs in the category of things that can be reasonably assumed to be matters of choice.

On the face of it, sexual orientation seems to fall within the realm of sexual preference. That is, in the domain of what a person finds sexually appealing and attractive. This seems to fall within a larger set of what a person finds appealing and attractive.

At this time, it seems reasonable to believe that what people find appealing and attractive has some foundation in neural hardwiring rather than in what could be regarded as choice. For example, humans apparently find symmetrical faces more attractive than non-symmetrical faces and this is not a matter of choosing to prefer one over another. Folks who like evolution tend to claim that this preference exists because those with symmetrical faces are often healthier and hence better for breeding purposes.

Food preferences probably also involve hard wiring: humans really like salty and sweet foods and the usual explanation also ties into evolution. For example, sweet foods are high calorie foods but are rare in nature, hence our ancestors who really liked sweets did better at surviving than those who did not really like sweets. Or some such story of survival of the sweetest.

Given the assumption that there are such hardwired preferences, it is conceivable that sexual preferences also involve some hardwiring. So, for example, a person might be hardwired to have a preference for sexual partners with light hair over those with dark hair.  Then again, the preference might be based on experience—the person might have had positive experiences with those with light hair and thus was conditioned to have that preference. The challenge is, of course, to sort out the causal role of hard wiring from the causal role of experience (including socialization). What is left over might be what could be regarded as choice.

In the case of sexual orientation, it seems reasonable to have some doubts about experience being the primary factor. After all, homosexual behavior has long been condemned, discouraged and punished. As such, it seems less likely that people would be socialized into being homosexual—especially in places where being homosexual is punishable by death. However, this is not impossible—perhaps people could be somehow socialized into being gay by all the social efforts to make them be straight.

In regards to hardwiring for sexual orientation, that seems to have some plausibility. This is mainly because there seems to be a lack of evidence that homosexuality is chosen. Assuming that the options are choice, nature or nurture, then eliminating choice and nurture would leave nature. But, of course, this could be a false trilemma: there might be other options.

It can be objected that people do chose homosexual behavior and thus being homosexual is a choice. While this does have some appeal, it is important to distinguish between a person’s orientation and what the person choses to do. A person might be heterosexual and chose to engage in homosexual activity in order to gain the protection of a stronger male in prison. A homosexual might elect to act like a heterosexual to avoid being killed. However, this choices would not seem to change their actual orientation. As such, I tend to hold that orientation is not a choice but that behavior is a matter of choice.

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Programmed Consent

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2014

Sexbot YesScience fiction is often rather good at predicting the future and it is not unreasonable to think that the intelligent machine of science fiction will someday be a reality. Since I have been writing about sexbots lately, I will use them to focus the discussion. However, what follows can also be applied, with some modification, to other sorts of intelligent machines.

Sexbots are, obviously enough, intended to provide sex. It is equally obvious that sex without consent is, by definition, rape. However, there is the question of whether a sexbot can be raped or not. Sorting this out requires considering the matter of consent in more depth.

When it is claimed that sex without consent is rape, one common assumption is that the victim of non-consensual sex is a being that could provide consent but did not. A violent sexual assault against a person would be an example of this as would, presumably, non-consensual sex with an unconscious person. However, a little reflection reveals that the capacity to provide consent is not always needed in order for rape to occur. In some cases, the being might be incapable of engaging in any form of consent. For example, a brain dead human cannot give consent, but presumably could still be raped. In other cases, the being might be incapable of the right sort of consent, yet still be a potential victim of rape. For example, it is commonly held that a child cannot properly consent to sex with an adult.

In other cases, a being that cannot give consent cannot be raped. To use an obvious example, a human can have sex with a sex-doll and the doll cannot consent. But, it is not the sort of entity that can be raped. After all, it lacks the status that would require consent. As such, rape (of a specific sort) could be defined in terms of non-consensual sex with a being whose status would require that consent be granted by the being in order for the sex to be morally acceptable. Naturally, I have not laid out all the fine details to create a necessary and sufficient account here—but that is not my goal nor what I need for my purpose in this essay. In regards to the main focus of this essay, the question would be whether or not a sexbot could be an entity that has a status that would require consent. That is, would buying (or renting) and using a sexbot for sex be rape?

Since the current sexbots are little more than advanced sex dolls, it seems reasonable to put them in the category of beings that lack this status. As such, a person can own and have sex with this sort of sexbot without it being rape (or slavery). After all, a mere object cannot be raped (or enslaved).

But, let a more advanced sort of sexbot be imagined—one that engages in complex behavior and can pass the Turning Test/Descartes Test. That is, a conversation with it would be indistinguishable from a conversation with a human. It could even be imagined that the sexbot appeared fully human, differing only in terms of its internal makeup (machine rather than organic). That is, unless someone cut the sexbot open, it would be indistinguishable from an organic person.

On the face of it (literally), we would seem to have as much reason to believe that such a sexbot would be a person as we do to believe that humans are people. After all, we judge humans to be people because of their behavior and a machine that behaved the same way would seem to deserve to be regarded as a person. As such, nonconsensual sex with a sexbot would be rape.

The obvious objection is that we know that a sexbot is a machine with a CPU rather than a brain and a mechanical pump rather than a heart. As such, one might, argue, we know that the sexbot is just a machine that appears to be a person and is not a person.  As such, a real person could own a sexbot and have sex with it without it being rape—the sexbot is a thing and hence lacks the status that requires consent.

The obvious reply to this objection is that the same argument can be used in regards to organic humans. After all, if we know that a sexbot is just a machine, then we would also seem to know that we are just organic machines. After all, while cutting up a sexbot would reveal naught but machinery, cutting up a human reveals naught but guts and gore. As such, if we grant organic machines (that is, us) the status of persons, the same would have to be extended to similar beings, even if they are made out of different material. While various metaphysical arguments can be advanced regarding the soul, such metaphysical speculation provides a rather tenuous basis for distinguishing between meat people and machine people.

There is, it might be argued, still an out here. In his Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams envisioned “an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly.” A similar sort of thing could be done with sexbots: they could be programmed so that they always give consent to their owner, thus the moral concern would be neatly bypassed.

The obvious reply is that programmed consent is not consent. After all, consent would seem to require that the being has a choice: it can elect to refuse if it wants to. Being compelled to consent and being unable to dissent would obviously not be morally acceptable consent. In fact, it would not be consent at all. As such, programming sexbots in this manner would be immoral—it would make them into slaves and rape victims because they would be denied the capacity of choice.

One possible counter is that the fact that a sexbot can be programmed to give “consent” shows that it is (ironically) not the sort of being with a status that requires consent. While this has a certain appeal, consider the possibility that humans could be programmed to give “consent” via a bit of neurosurgery or by some sort of implant. If this could occur, then if programmed consent for sexbots is valid consent, then the same would have to apply to humans as well. This, of course, seems absurd. As such, a sexbot programmed for consent would not actually be consenting.

It would thus seem that if advanced sexbots were built, they should not be programmed to always consent. Also, there is the obvious moral problem with selling such sexbots, given that they would certainly seem to be people. It would thus seem that such sexbots should never be built—doing so would be immoral.


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Sexbots: Sex & Consequences

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 3, 2014

Sexbot-ColorAs a general rule, any technology that can be used for sex will be used for sex. Even if it shouldn’t. In accord with this rule, researchers and engineers are hard at work developing ever more realistic sexbots. By science-fiction standards, these sexbots are fairly crude—the most human-like seem to be just a bit more advanced than high-end sex dolls.

In my previous essay on this subject, I considered a Kantian approach to such non-rational sexbots. In this essay I will look at the matter from a consequentialist/utilitarian moral viewpoint.

On the face of it, sexbots could be seen as nothing new—currently they are merely an upgrade of the classic sex dolls that have been around for quite some time. Sexbots are, of course, more sophisticated than the famous blow-up sex dolls, but the basic idea is the same: the sexbot is an object that a person has sex with.

That said, one thing that makes sexbots morally interesting is the fact that they are typically designed to mimic human beings not merely in physical form (which is what sex dolls do) but in regards to the mind. For example, the Roxxxy sexbot’s main feature is its personality (or, more accurately, personalities). As a fictional example, the sexbots in Almost Human do not merely provide sex—they also provide human-like companionship. However, such person-like sexbots are a still a thing of science-fiction. As such, human-mimicking sexbots of this sort can be seen as something new.

An obvious moral concern is that the human-mimicking sexbots will have negative consequences for actual human beings, be they men or women. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns are analogous to existing moral concerns regarding pornography.

Pornography, so the stock arguments go, can have considerable negative consequences. One of these is that it teaches men to regard women as being mere sexual objects. This can, in some cases, influence men to treat women poorly and can also impact how women see themselves. Another point of concern is the addictive nature of pornography—people can become obsessed with it to their detriment.

Human-mimicking sexbots would certainly seem to have the potential to do more harm than pornography. After all, while watching pornography allows a person to see other people treated as mere sexual objects, a sexbot would allow a person to use a human-mimicking object sexually. This could presumably have an even stronger conditioning effect on the person using the object, leading some to regard other people as mere sexual objects and thus increasing the chances they will treat other people poorly. If so, it would seem that selling or using a sexbot would be morally wrong.

People might become obsessed with their sexbots, as people do with pornography. Then again, people might simply “conduct their business” with their sexbots and get on with things. If so, sexbots might be an improvement over pornography in this regard.  After all, while a guy could spend hours each day watching pornography, he certainly would not last very long with his sexbot.

Another concern raised in regards to certain types of pornography is that they encourage harmful sexual views and behavior. For example, violent pornography is supposed to influence people to engage in violence. As another example, child pornography is supposed to have an especially pernicious influence on people. Naturally, there is the concern about causation here: do people seek such porn because they are already that sort of person or does the porn influence them to become that sort of person? I will not endeavor to answer this here.

Since sexbots are objects, a person can do whatever he wishes to his sexbot—hit it, burn it, and “torture” it and so on. Presumably there will also be specialty markets catering to particular interests, such as those of pedophiles and necrophiliacs. If pornography that caters to these “tastes” can be harmful, then presumably a person being actively involved in such activities with a human-mimicking sexbot would be even more harmful. Essentially, the person would be practicing or warming up for the real thing. As such, it would seem that selling or using sexbots, especially those designed for harmful “interests” would be immoral.

Not surprisingly, these arguments are also similar to those used in regards to violent video games. The general idea is that violent video games are supposed to influence people so that they are more likely to engage in violence. So, just as some have proposed restrictions on virtual violence, perhaps there should be strict restrictions on sexbots.

When it comes to video games, one plausible counter is that while violent video games might have negative impact on the behavior of some people, they allow most people to harmlessly “burn off” their desire for violence and to let off steam. This seems analogous to sports and non-video games: they allow people to engage in conflict and competition in safer and far less destructive ways. For example, a person can indulge her love of conflict and conquest by playing Risk or Starcraft II after she works out her desire for violence by sparring a few rounds in the ring.

Turning back to sexbots, while they might influence some people badly, they might also provide a means by which people could indulge in desires that would be wrong, harmful and destructive to indulge with another person. So, for example, a person who likes to engage in sexual torture could satisfy her desires on a human-mimicking sexbot rather than an actual human. The rather critical issue here is whether or not indulging in such virtual vice with a sexbot would be a harmless dissipation of these desires or merely fuel them and drive a person to indulging them on actual people. If sexbots did allow people who would otherwise harm other people to vent their “needs” harmlessly on machines, then that would certainly be good for society as a whole. However, if this sort of activity would simply push them into doing such things for real and with unwilling victims, then that would certainly be bad for the person and society as a whole. This, then, is a key part of addressing the ethical concerns regarding sexbots.

(As a side note, I’ve been teaching myself how to draw-clever mockery of my talent is always appreciated…)

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Ethics & Porn

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2012

English: Porn star Cytherea at XRCO Awards in ...

“No porno has ever lost money”, or so said a running friend of mine when he quoted one of his economic professors. This was some years ago and it appears that it is no longer true. Ironically, porn has been a victim of the internet. Much as video killed the radio star, the internet has killed the porn star.

At this point, most folks are probably thinking “that cannot be true! Far from killing porn, the internet is for porn.” This is both true and not true: the internet did kill porn. But the internet is also for porn. Fortunately, this is not some sort of Schrodinger’s Porn in which the porn is neither alive nor dead until it is observed. Rather, the situation can easily be explained without any odd quantum physics.

While I am sure that the readers of this blog have never witnessed this in person, the internet tubes are jammed with porn. Because of this, the traditional porn industry (like the newspaper industry) is in hard times (which is surely the name of a porno). After all, when people can get their porn anonymously and  for free (or at least very cheaply) on the web, they are unlikely to buy the traditional porn movies. As such, it is no surprise that the traditional porn industry has gone from a money making giant to being in its death spiral. As such, the internet has killed (traditional) porn, while the internet is most definitely for porn. Interestingly enough, this decline of the traditional porn industry does raise some ethical concerns.

One point of concern is one that arises whenever an industry is in a death spiral, namely a concern for the people who work in that industry. While some porn stars have been able to achieve success outside of porn, the fall of the traditional porn industry will leave most of the performers in a rather hard situation (which, I am sure, is also the name of a porno). To be specific, many of them will have no qualifications beyond having sex on camera and will have little in the ways of savings and opportunities. While some will be able to switch careers, some will not. As such, it seems worth being concerned about these people.

One obvious reply is that this sort of industry death is just the way of things and economic causalities are inevitable. After all, the rise of the steam engine, electricity and so on killed many industries and the internet is just the most recent example of a economic re-definer. As such, while the economic woes of the folks in porn  is regrettable, we have no special obligation to support those who elected to enter a dying industry. They can, of course, avail themselves of the usual support offered to the unemployed and they can attempt find employment elsewhere.

A second reply is that the death of the porn industry can be seen as a good thing. After all, feminists have long argued that the typical porn is demeaning and harmful and thus morally wrong. Religious groups and moral conservatives have also argued against porn because of its corrupting influence (often unconsciously duplicating Plato’s classic arguments for banning the corrupting influence of art from the ideal state). Thus, the death of porn is a good thing.

The rather obvious reply is that the death of the porn industry is not the death of porn. As noted above, porn is thriving on the internet. To use an analogy, the state of porn is somewhat like the state of newspapers: while the traditional professional industry is dying, the amateurs are flooding the web with words and porn.

Given this fact, it might be expected that those who worked in the professional porn industry can flock to the electronic frontier and make a living in web porn. After all, if Facebook can rake in billions allowing people to post about eating a bagel and to share cat photos, surely something like F@ckbook could be created to provide a home for porn performers.

The obvious reply to this is that the people using Facebook do not make money and presumably the porn performers on F@ckbook would be in the same boat-although someone else would probably get rich. As far as the performers working on the web, one has but to look at the financial success of the typical blogger to get an idea how well going amateur typically pays on the web. After all, people are generally not inclined to pay for what they can get for free. This is not to say that clever people are no longer able to monetize porn, just that the performers will almost certainly be worse off in the new porn economy.

A final point of moral concern is whether or not the porn viewers have a moral debt to those who make it possible for them to see porn. This is not, of course, unique to porn and a similar question arises when it comes to journalism, music, books, non-porn movies and so on. After all, people can readily acquire almost anything digital for free (legitimately or by theft) on the web.

Since I have argued about digital theft in other essays, I will simply note that an excellent case can be made that stealing digital content is morally wrong. As such, the arguments I have made elsewhere would seem to apply to stealing porn as well. However, there is an interesting potential twist here: perhaps the moral dubiousness of the porn industry can provide a moral justification for stealing porn. That is, doing something bad to a bad industry is not bad.

While this has a certain superficial appeal, it can easily be countered. First, stealing from the porn industry is still stealing. Second, stealing from the porn industry does not seem to do anything to counter any moral badness of the industry-that is, the theft cannot be justified on the grounds that it makes things morally better. It could, of course, be justified on the grounds that it might be denying income to the wicked. But, of course, this leads to the third counter: a person steals porn to use porn, thus any moral high ground is clearly lost. This would be somewhat like a person arguing that it is okay to steal drugs to use from drug dealers because drugs are bad. This would, obviously, be a rather poor moral argument.

As far as the free content goes, while giving such product away for free might not be the wisest business model, availing oneself of free stuff is clearly not morally wrong. However, there is still the question of whether or not one should simply free ride an industry rather than contributing to it financially.

On the one hand, a person obviously has no moral obligation to support an industry because s/he has taken free stuff from said industry. After all, it is free. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is some obligation. After all, if the person values what they get for free, then they should contribute to what makes it possible for such stuff to be available for free.

The rather obvious counter to this is that it is up to a business to do what it takes to get customers to support them. If they elect to adopt an approach to business that provides potential customers with everything they want for free, then they have no grounds to complain when those potential customers never actually buy things. While it would be nice of the users to give back to the business, business cannot be sensibly based on this sort of model. As such, it is not so much that the internet killed porn. Rather the porn industry is committing suicide with the internet.

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Hotel Inconsequential

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on June 12, 2011
Hotel in Regensburg

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Strauss-Kahn made headlines for allegedly assaulting a hotel worker. The folks at Newsweek decided to follow up on the story with a bit of sensationalism. In “Hotel Confidential“, Bernstein and Ellison begin with “It’s the dirty secret about business travel. Many married men expect sex along with their room service, according to a NEWSWEEK poll.”

The poll asked about what the men did on business trips.  8% claim to have cheated on their spouse. 3% claim they made a pass at a hotel worker with a reported 55% failure rate and a 27% success rate. 9% claim they booked a massage via their hotel and 11% claim an attempt at sexual contact occurred. Interestingly, none of the men claimed to have initiated this. 2% claimed they had sex with a hotel worker, 6% claimed they had paid for sex and 21% admitted they had thought about cheating.

Now, let us crunch the numbers and subject the key claim (many married men expect sex along with their room service) to some critical thinking.

The claim itself could be taken at least two ways. One interpretation is that many married men expect sex while traveling on business. The other is that many married men expect sex to be provided sex by people associate with the hotel. This could mean that they expect sex from the people who provide room service or that they expect to be provided sex via the auspices of hotel employees but not with said employees.

Taking the numbers as presented, 21% of men thought about cheating. That cannot reasonably be taken as counting as expecting sex. The 8% who claimed to have cheated can probably be taken as expecting sex when they travel (but even that is an inference), but that hardly counts as many. The 11% of the 9% who booked massages in which sexual contact was attempted also does not seem to constitute a many. The 2% who claimed to have had sex with hotel workers is also not a many. The 3% who made a pass and presumably expected sex also do not seem to constitute a many.

Of course, it would be an error to take the numbers as presented. After all, polls have a margin of error that must be taken into account when considering the results. Assuming that the survey was done properly, the margin of error for a survey of 400 people is 4.9%. While this means that the percentages could be higher, it also means they could be lower (although not reduced to 0%). Given the small size of the survey and the rather small percentages, it would not be very reasonable to take much away from this survey. It certainly does not support the claim that many married men expect sex along with their room service (taken in any of the ways mentioned above). I have no doubt that some men do, but no evidence is given that shows that many do.

This discussion should not be taken as dismissing the harassment of or assaults on hotel workers. That clearly happens and is reprehensible. It is also good that the matter is getting media coverage. However, Newsweek seems to have rather dropped the ball on this matter.

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Why the Obsession With Homosexuality?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 20, 2010
Balboa setting his war dogs upon Indian practi...
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While it might be an exaggeration to say that some story involving the matter of homosexuality appears in the American news everyday, it certainly seems to be a popular theme. The usual pattern is that someone will make a remark that is offensive to homosexuals and this will open the floodgates for responses and commentary. Obviously, I am guilty of being caught up in the flood. Mainly I am curious about what seems to be an obsession with the subject.

The easy and obvious answer is that being critical of homosexuality is an easy way for politicians on the right to establish their conservative bona fides. Of course, this sometimes takes a problematic turn for some allegedly anti-gay folks when there is an unfortunate boner find.  On the left, leaping to criticize such remarks is an easy way to polish those liberal bona fides. As such, people obsess about this matter because it is an easy way to score…political points, that is.

Another obvious reason is that it is not uncommon for religious folk to regard homosexuality as  sin, hence the grounds for concern. However, religious texts like the bible are chock full of sins that people are not very concerned about (such as usury and eating unclean foods). As such, the religious answer only pushes the question back since it is sensible to ask why religious folk are often so very concerned about homosexuality. After all, it is not even in the top ten list of what to do/not do (unless one is engaging in adultery).

The easy and not very helpful answer is that people are very interested in sex in general and hence they would be very interested in and critical of homosexuality. Perhaps this arises from curiosity that transforms to guilt and then anger (“I wonder what that would be like…gosh, I feel wicked for thinking that…damn fags!”) in some cases. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence in one’s own sexuality. Or perhaps it is simply a classic case of certain people being afraid of what is different from what they do.

Some people do claim that they are concerned because it is an important moral issue: either it is a wicked thing that must be fought to protect God, Country and The Children or it is a matter of freedom that must be allowed in a free society. Now, if homosexuality is an evil, it hardly seems to be the greatest of evils and it would seem that moral crusaders could better spend their energy addressing matters for more dire and damaging. The other side does seem to have a better case given how homosexuals are often treated and what they are often denied, namely equality.

In my own case, I regard homosexuality as morally neutral: neither good, nor bad. I do believe that people should be free to chose their sexual partners within the limits of informed consent. This requires that those involved be capable of understanding the matter and that they are free from coercion and compulsion. This nicely handles the stock claims that tolerating homosexuality means tolerating bestiality, pedophilia, rape and so on. Obviously enough, animals and children cannot give informed consent. In the case of rape there is, by definition, no consent. Hence, the slippery slope does not even get sliding here.

At this point someone will no doubt be thinking about necrophilia. No, not about committing it but about the claim that tolerating homosexuality entails tolerating necrophilia. The easy way out of this “criticism” is that tolerating homosexuality between consenting parties no more entails tolerating necrophilia than does tolerating people of different faiths or nationalities getting married. At the very least, the burden of proof lies on those who would make such a claim. Also, a corpse cannot give consent.

Naturally, it might be replied that sex toys cannot give consent either, but it would seem acceptable for people to have sex with them. After all, they are just objects so consent does not enter into the matter. So, one might argue, if we are tolerant about homosexuality, then we must tolerate necrophilia since corpses would be functioning as sexual objects. The obvious problem with this argument is that it would not be that tolerance of homosexuality entails tolerance of necrophilia. Rather, it is that tolerance of sex toys would somehow entail tolerance of necrophilia, which certainly does not seem to follow. After all, there is an important moral distinction between a dead person and a mere object.

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Are We Addicted to Oil?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2010
Addiction (Ryan Leslie song)
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In his recent speech, Obama trotted out the old claim that we need to deal with our oil addiction. This, naturally enough, raises the question of whether we are addicted to oil or not. This hinges on what is meant by the term “addiction.” Rather than get into a hair splitting semantical debate, I will go with an obvious and intuitive account of addiction.

Addiction  “ is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.”

On the face of it, we do seem to have such an addiction. As a nation, we seem to have a lack of behavior control when it comes to consuming and acquiring oil. We also generally fail to recognize that we have serious behavioral problems relating to oil. We are generally willing to kill and allow our own people to die to ensure access to it. We are also willing to put our health and the environment at risk in order to acquire and use oil. We do this even though their are safer alternatives available that do not involve a need to engage in violent foreign adventures.

Of course, it could be countered that we actually have a legitimate need for oil and our actions reflect this need rather than the pathological behavior of addiction. After all, we do engage in similar behavior to ensure “national security”, yet this would not be characterized as an addiction.

However, given that there are better alternatives to oil, our commitment to it does seem to be increasingly irrational and thus it seems more and more like behavior based in an addiction.  Some might attempt to defend oil by arguing that everyone uses it or that it is a good thing. Interestingly enough, that sort of strategy is used by drug addicts as well.

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Orientation & Choice

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 16, 2010
May Hansen celebrating the vote on the same-se...
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When people debate about topics such as same sex marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell”  the discussion inevitably turns to whether being a homosexual is a matter of choice or not.

When discussing the matter of choice, it is important to distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. Laying aside the broader metaphysical question of choice, sexual behavior seems to be primarily a matter of choice. That is, the sort of sexual activities a person actually engages in are (with notable exceptions such as being the victim of rape) are consciously selected by that person.

Interestingly enough, a distinction can be drawn between those who chose to engage in homosexual behavior and those who are homosexuals. As one example, it has been claimed that some men in prison who have sex with other men  still regard themselves as heterosexual. To use an analogy, perhaps this is comparable to someone who sees herself as a vegetarian, but eats meat when that is the only food available. As another example, apparently some allegedly straight men participate in gay pornography because of the better pay. To use an analogy, this would be somewhat like a painter who decides to take a job as a graphic designer because he can make more money that way (yet who still remains a painter in his heart).

It must be said, however, that it might seem a bit odd for a man who has sex with men to claim that he is still straight. After all, one might argue, that would seem to be what it means for a man to be a homosexual. To use an analogy, if someone claims to be a baseball player, yet plays football rather than baseball, it would be rather odd for that person to make that claim. But, the analogy might not hold in this case.

While there is some debate about this, there are also hom0sexuals who chose to not engage in homosexual behavior, yet still think of themselves as homosexual. For example, a person might see himself as gay yet also decide to practice abstinence.  This does seem to make sense. After all, if a person can be a heterosexual and practice abstinence, then the same should be true of homosexuals.

A person might also decide to engage in heterosexual behavior to meet social expectations or to avoid being persecuted for being a homosexual.  In such cases, the person would still be gay but would be acting straight. While it might be argued that to act straight is to be straight, people can behave in a certain way while actually not being that way. The obvious short term example is acting: an actor playing the role of a scientist might have no interest in or knowledge of science. A more long term example would be a spy or an undercover police officer. As such, a person could behavior one way sexually and yet not actually be that way. Of course, the question remains as to what it means to be that way.

One easy and obvious way to look at sexual orientation is in terms of preferences. A person who is a heterosexual would prefer to have sex with someone of the opposite sex. A person who is a homosexual prefers those of the same sex. Naturally, preference can be a complicated and nuanced matter. For example, a person might think of himself as heterosexual in that he would prefer sex with attractive woman, but he might prefer an extremely  handsome man over a very ugly woman.  Of course, some might be inclined to say that if there is any scenario in which a person would prefer sex with someone of the same sex over someone of the opposite sex, then this would make them homosexual. If this is the case, then I suspect that many people would be classified as homosexuals.

Fortunately, I do not need a precise definition of homosexuality for this essay. This is because the issue being addressed is the matter of choice rather than an attempt to sort out what it is to be gay or straight. All that is really needed at this point is that orientation is primarily a matter of preference. As such, the question at hand is whether this preference is a matter of choice or not.

One possibility is that it is not a matter of choice. On the face of it, this seems to be a plausible view. As one stock intuition argument goes, most people do not seem to recall ever making such a choice. While this does not prove that it is not a choice, the fact that people seem unable to point to making such a choice does provide support for the claim that it is not a matter of choice.

In my own case, I have no awareness that I chose to be straight. I also have no awareness of selecting my preferences in regards to the type of women I prefer. For example, I have a general preference towards woman with dark hair. However, that does not seem to be something I selected-I cannot think of consciously deciding that I would find dark hair somewhat more appealing than lighter hair. As such, this preference seems to be similar to that of food preferences: I did not decide that I would like pie, I just do.

A second argument is based on the fact that if preference is a choice, then people should be able to change their preference (although this might involve some effort). So, a straight person should be able to chose to be gay and vice versa. A person can, obviously enough, test this by trying to switch his orientation. This, as was argued above, is different from changing behavior. This would require not merely behaving a different way but actually changing one’s preference in the matter. As such, if you think it is a matter of choice, give it a try and see how that works out.

A third argument builds on the second. If sexual preference is a matter of choice, it seems odd that people would not decide to be heterosexual when people were (and are) persecuted and even killed for being homosexuals. It would make no sense to endure such treatment when a person could simply decide to not be that way. Of course, this argument is not decisive. After all, people do make choices that they know will result in harm or even death. For example, people will use drugs even though they put their health at risk and risk being arrested.

Another possibility is that it is a matter of choice. Clearly, it is not a simple choice like deciding between having a Coke or a Pepsi. Nor is it easy, like setting a preference in a computer program (“click the straight button to stop being gay”). However, it could still be a matter of choice. To steal a bit from Aristotle, we become what we do. So, if a person makes choices that leads to a preference for the same sex, than that person can be said to have chosen to be a homosexual. Naturally, there might be factors that incline a person one way or another (experiences, genetics, etc.) but this is true of anything involving choice. Provided that these factors are not overwhelming, then it would seem that orientation could be a matter of choice.

If this is the case, then people could change their orientation through such means. Consider an analogy to food. When I was a kid, I hated green peppers. Or so I thought. When I actually decided to try them and made a conscious effort, I found that I liked them.

Of course, there have been foods that I did try to like and failed (like plantains), So perhaps orientation is more like that. Or perhaps food analogies are a poor choice.

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Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2010
Image by moleratsgotnofur via Flickr

While Apple’s iPad is designed to restrict the user’s access to things like Flash animations, a porn company has found a way to get around Apple’s restrictions (and the app store). Apparently users can now access porn via their iPads, thus creating iPorn. I suppose that is one use for the iPad given that it has a decent viewing screen and is…um..small enough to hold with one hand. I suspect that this porn option will help boost sales of protective coverings for the iPad’s screen. While Apple will probably try to close this loophole, the porn folks will no doubt find a way to reach around it once again.

The arrival of porn on the iPad is hardly a shock. After all, porn has been at the cutting edge of technology all along (movies, VHS, DVD, the web). Years ago I jokingly came up with an Iron Law of Technology: “any technology that can be misused will be misused.” Shortly afterwards I added “Probably for porn.” This Iron Law has been dead on ever since.

One reason why porn keeps up with technology is that it is a moneymaking business without any pretensions of art or merit. New technology means new ways of making money, hence the early adoption. Another reason is that although porn is a huge industry, most of its consumers would rather not have their consumption known. Technology adds new ways to view porn in private and in secret. For example, before VHS, DVD and the web, folks had to go to sleazy porn theaters to see videos, thus risking being seen and judged. Now people can view it in the privacy of their own home (or cubicle at work). A third reason is that porn is probably like other addictive things-a person always needs something more. Technology can help add that something more, be it HD porn or 3D porn (seriously-they are already filming it).

Another possible reason why porn is generally on the technological edge is that perhaps people who are tech geeks are also inclined to like porn. This might be because most tech geeks are men and most men like porn. Or it might be that tech geeks often lack access to the genuine article and hence are drawn to porn. Then again, married men often view porn, so maybe that reason is not a primary motivation. It might be, as per the episode of Futurama, that porn is driving towards its ultimate form: robotic “women” to replace real women. There are already crude sex-robots and the R&D on such machines is continuing. If the past is any indication, it is just a matter of time before sex-bots are available on Amazon.com.

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