A Philosopher's Blog

Aristotle & the Quantified Life

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Sports/Athletics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2015

While Aristotle was writing centuries before the rise of wearable technology, his view of moral education provides a solid foundation for the theory behind what I like to call the benign tyranny of the device. Or, if one prefers, the bearable tyranny of the wearbable.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle addressed the very practical problem of how to make people good. He was well aware that merely listening to discourses on morality would not make people good. In a very apt analogy, he noted that such people would be like invalids who listened to their doctors, but did not carry out her instructions—they will get no benefit.

His primary solution to the problem is one that is routinely endorsed and condemned today: to use the compulsive power of the state to make people behave well and thus become conditioned in that behavior. Obviously, most people are quite happy to have the state compel people to act as they would like them to act; yet equally unhappy when it comes to the state imposing on them. Aristotle was also well aware of the importance of training people from an early age—something later developed by the Nazis and Madison Avenue.

While there have been some attempts in the United States and other Western nations to use the compulsive power of the state to force people to engage in healthy practices, these have been fairly unsuccessful and are usually opposed as draconian violations of the liberty to be out of shape. While the idea of a Fitness Force chasing people around to make them exercise amuses me, I certainly would oppose such impositions on both practical and moral grounds. However, most people do need some external coercion to force them to engage in healthy behavior. Those who are well-off can hire a personal trainer and a fitness coach. Those who are less well of can appeal to the tyranny of friends who are already self-tyrannizing. However, there are many obvious problems with relying on other people. This is where the tyranny of the device comes in.

While the quantified life via electronics is in its relative infancy, there is already a multitude of devices ranging from smart fitness watches, to smart plates, to smart scales, to smart forks. All of these devices offer measurements of activities to quantify the self and most of them offer coercion ranging from annoying noises, to automatic social media posts (“today my feet did not patter, so now my ass grows fatter”), to the old school electric shock (really).

While the devices vary in their specifics, Aristotle laid out the basic requirements back when lightning was believed to come from Zeus. Aristotle noted that a person must do no wrong either with or against one’s will. In the case of fitness, this would be acting in ways contrary to health.

What is needed, according to Aristotle, is “the guidance of some intelligence or right system that has effective force.” The first part of this is that the device or app must be the “right system.” That is to say, the device must provide correct guidance in terms of health and well-being. Unfortunately, health is often ruled by fad and not actual science.

The second part of this is the matter of “effective force.” That is, the device or app must have the power to compel. Aristotle noted that individuals lacked such compulsive power, so he favored the power of law. Good law has practical wisdom and also compulsive force. However, unless the state is going to get into the business of compelling health, this option is out.

Interesting, Aristotle claims that “although people resent it when their impulses are opposed by human agents, even if they are in the right, the law causes no irritation by enjoining decent behavior.” While this seems not entirely true, he did seem to be right in that people find the law less annoying than being bossed around by individuals acting as individuals (like that bossy neighbor telling you to turn down the music).

The same could be true of devices—while being bossed around by a person (“hey fatty, you’ve had enough ice cream, get out and run some”) would annoy most people, being bossed by an app or device could be far less annoying. In fact, most people are already fully conditioned by their devices—they obey every command to pick up their smartphones and pay attention to whatever is beeping or flashing. Some people do this even when doing so puts people at risk, such as when they are driving. This certainly provides a vast ocean of psychological conditioning to tap into, but for a better cause. So, instead of mindlessly flipping through Instagram or texting words of nothingness, a person would be compelled by her digital master to exercise more, eat less crap, and get more sleep.  Soon the machine tyrants will have very fit hosts to carry them around.

So, Aristotle has provided the perfect theoretical foundation for designing the tyrannical device. To recap, it needs the following features:

  1. Practical wisdom: the health science for the device or app needs to be correct and the guidance effective.
  2. Compulsive power: the device or app must be able to compel the user effectively and make them obey.
  3. Not too annoying: while it must have compulsive power, this power must not generate annoyance that exceeds its ability to compel.
  4. A cool name.

So, get to work on those devices and apps. The age of machine tyranny is not going to impose itself. At least not yet.


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Rule of Law & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2015

One interesting narrative about the riots in Baltimore involves the concept of the rule of law. Put roughly, the rule of law is the idea that the law should govern rather than the arbitrary decisions of those in power. The notion is sometimes applied to the citizens as well—namely that the citizens should follow the rule of law to resolve conflicts—as opposed to engaging in activities such as riots or vigilantism.

Thinker such as John Locke have laid out arguments as to why the rule of law is preferable to that of the state of nature. These arguments are generally persuasive, especially since Locke emphasizes the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so.

Since I find Locke’s arguments appealing, it is hardly surprising that I favor rule of law—at least when the laws are good and the leaders are acting for the good of the people. When the government has moral legitimacy, the laws and the leaders have the right to expect people to follow the laws and listen to the leaders. However, when the laws or leaders violate the basic agreement (that the laws are for the good of the people and the leaders are to not be tyrants), then their legitimacy evaporates.

Some conservatives speak of the tyranny of Obama and how the Democrats wish to create a tyrannical state. Interestingly enough, they are right to be worried about tyranny. However, their timeline is in error: tyranny is already here.

John Locke provides the following definition of “tyranny”:  “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.”

The United States seems to meet this definition. In 2014, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted a study to determine the extent to which laws reflect the views of the majority versus the interests of those in power. This study, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” , used data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

While following these laws would be to conform to the rule of law, it would also be to embrace tyrannical laws—laws crafted for the advantage of those holding power and not the good of the people.

While the people who strike out in riots are probably unfamiliar with the research in question, they do know the obvious: they live within a political and economic system that primarily serves the “private, separate advantage” of the elite class and has little to offer them. As such, it should be no shock that some people do not embrace the rule of such law. If they are striking out against these laws and their riots are a revolt, they are revolting against what seems to be a tyrannical system. That is, one that serves the interests of the powerful few and not the good of the people. Or, to be fair to those who are critical of the riots, perhaps they are just thugs who are breaking things.

Continuing with tyranny, Locke notes that “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.”

Sadly, this seems to accurately describe the excessive use of force against citizens by some police officers. Baltimore, as has been widely reported, has paid out millions of dollars in settlements due to the wrongful use of force by police against citizens. As people do like to point out, not all police officers are bad and there are excellent officers. However, even a cursory examination of the problems with policing in American cities shows that Locke’s definition of tyranny is routinely met. As such, it is evident that the rule of law was already broken well before the riots.

While Locke did not use this phrase, the rule of law is a two-way street and those who are charged with enforcing the law must also obey that law—otherwise it would be rather unreasonable to expect obedience from the citizens. As such, the most obvious step to restoring rule of law is to ensure that those charged with enforcing the laws are also following the laws.

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Information Immortality

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2015

Most people are familiar with the notion that energy cannot be destroyed. Interestingly, there is also a rule in quantum mechanics that forbids the destruction of information. This principle, called unitarity, is often illustrated by the example of burning a book: though the book is burned, the information still remain—although it would obviously be much harder to “read” a burned book. This principle has, in recent years, run into some trouble with black holes and they might or might not be able to destroy information. My interest here is not with this specific dispute, but rather with the question of whether or not the indestructibility of information has any implications for immortality.

On the face of it, the indestructibility of information seems rather similar to the conservation of energy. Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I first heard the argument that because of the conservation of energy, personal immortality must be real (or at least possible). The basic line of reasoning was that a person is energy, energy cannot be destroyed, so a person will exist forever. While this has considerable appeal, the problem is obvious: while energy is conserved, it certainly need not be preserved in the same form. That is, even if a person is composed of energy it does not follow that the energy remains the same person (or even a person). David Hume was rather clear about the problem—an indestructible or immortal substance (or energy) does not entail the immortality of a person. When discussing the possibility of immortality, he claims that nature uses substance like clay: shaping it into various forms, then reshaping the matter into new forms so that the same matter can successively make up the bodies of living creatures.  By analogy, an immaterial substance could successively make up the minds of living creatures—the substance would not be created or destroyed, it would merely change form. However, the person would cease to be.

Prior to Hume, John Locke also noted the same sort of problem: even if, for example, you had the same soul (or energy) as Nestor, you would not be the same person as Nestor any more than you would be the same person as Nestor if, in an amazing coincidence, your body contained at this instant all the atoms that composed Nestor at a specific instant in time.

Hume and Locke certainly seem to be right about this—the indestructibility of the stuff that makes up a person (be it body or soul) does not entail the immortality of the person. If a person is eaten by a bear, the matter and energy that composed him will continue to exist—but the person did not survive being eaten by the bear. If there is a soul, the mere continuance of the soul would also not seem to suffice for the person to continue to exist as the same person (although this can obviously be argued). What would be needed would be the persistence of what makes up the person. This is usually taken to be something other than just stuff, be that stuff matter, energy, or ectoplasm. So, the conservation of energy does not seem to entail personal immortality—but the conservation of information might (or might not).

Put a bit crudely, Locke took this something other to be memory: personal identity extends backwards as far as the memory extends. Since people clearly forget things, Locke did accept the possibility of memory loss. Being consistent in this matter, he accepted that the permanent loss of memory would result in a corresponding failure of identity. Crudely put, if a person truly did not and could never remember doing something, then she was not the person who did it.

While there are many problems with the memory account of personal identity, it certainly suggests a path to quantum immortality through the conservation of information. One approach would be to argue that since information is conserved, the person is conserved even after the death and dissolution of the body. Just like the burned book whose information still exists, the person’s information would still exist.

One obvious reply to this is that a person is an active being and not just a collection of information. To use a rather rough analogy, a person could be seen as being like a computer program—to be is to be running. Or, to use a more artistic analogy, like a play: while the script would persist after the final curtain, the play itself is over. As such, while the person’s information would be conserved, the person would cease to be. This sort of “quantum immortality” is remarkably similar to Spinoza’s view of immortality. While he denied personal immortality, he claimed that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.” Spinoza, of course, seemed to believe that this should comfort people. Perhaps some comfort should be taken in the fact that one’s information will be conserved (barring an unfortunate encounter with a black hole).

However, people would probably be more comforted by a reason to believe in an afterlife. Fortunately, the conservation of information does provide at least a shot at an afterlife. If information is conserved and all there is to a person can be conserved as information, then a person could presumably be reconstructed after his death. For example, imagine a person, Laz, who died by an accident and was buried. The remains could, in theory, be dug up and the information about the body could be recovered (to a point prior to death, of course). The body could, with suitably advanced technology, be reconstructed. The reconstructed brain could, in theory, have all the memories and such recovered and restored as well. This would be a technological resurrection in the flesh and the person would certainly seem to live again. Assuming that every piece of information was preserved, recovered and restored in the flesh it would be the person—just as if a moment had passed rather than, say, a thousand years. This would be, obviously, in theory. Actual resurrection technology would presumably involve various flaws and limitations. But, the idea seems sound enough.

One potential problem is an old one for philosophers—if a person could be reconstructed from such information, she could also be duplicated from such information. To use the obvious analogy, this would be like 3D printing from a data file, except what would be printed would be a person. Or, to use another analogy, it would be like reconstructing an old computer and reloading all the software. There would certainly not be any reason to wait until the person died, unless there was some sort of copyright or patent held by the person on herself that expired a certain time after her death.

In closing, I leave you with this: some day in the far future, you might find that you (or someone like you) have just been reprinted. In 3D, of course.

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Who is Responsible for a Living Income?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2015

There is, obviously enough, a minimum amount of income that a person or family needs in order to survive—that is, to pay for necessities such as food, shelter, clothing and health care. In order to address this need, the United States created a minimum wage. However, this wage has not kept up with the cost of living and many Americans simply do not earn enough to support themselves. These people are known, appropriately enough, as the working poor. This situation raises an obvious moral and practical question: who should bear the cost of making up the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage? The two main options seem to be the employers or the taxpayers. That is, either employers can pay employees enough to live on or the taxpayers will need to pick up the tab. Another alternative is to simply not make up the difference and allow people to try to survive in truly desperate poverty. In regards to who currently makes up the difference, at least in Oregon, the answer is given in the University of Oregon’s report on “The High Cost of Low Wages in Oregon.”

According to the report, roughly a quarter of the workers in Oregon make no more than $12 per hour. Because of this low income, many of the workers qualify for public assistance, such as SNAP (better known as food stamps). Not surprisingly, many of these low-paid workers are employed by large, highly profitable corporations.

According to Raahi Reddy, a faculty member at the University of Oregon, “Basically state and taxpayers are we helping these families subsidize their incomes because they get low wages working for the companies that they do.” As such, the answer is that the taxpayers are making up the difference between wages and living wages. Interestingly, Oregon is a leader in two categories: one is the percentage of workers on public support and the other is having among the lowest corporate tax rates. This certainly suggests that the burden falls heavily on the workers who are not on public support (both in and outside of Oregon).

The authors of the report have recommended shifting some of the burden from the taxpayers to the employers in the form of an increased minimum wage and paid sick leave for workers. Not surprisingly, increasing worker compensation is generally not popular with corporations. After all, more for the workers means less for the CEO and the shareholders.

Assuming that workers should receive enough resources to survive, the moral concern is whether or not this cost should be shifted from the taxpayers to the employers or remain on the taxpayers.

One argument in favor of leaving the burden on the taxpayers is that it is not the moral responsibility of the corporations to pay a living wage. Their moral obligation is not to the workers but to the shareholders and this obligation is to maximize profits (presumably within the limits of the law).

One possible response to this is that businesses are part of civil society and this includes moral obligations to all members of that society and not just the shareholders. These obligations, it could be contended, include providing at least a living wage to full time employees. It, one might argue, be more just that the employer pay a living wage to the workers from the profits the worker generates than it is to expect the taxpayer to make up the difference. After all, the taxpayers are not profiting from the labor of the workers, so they would be subsidizing the profits of the employers by allowing them to pay workers less. Forcing the tax payers to make up the difference certainly seems to be unjust and appears to be robbing the citizens to fatten the coffers of the companies.

It could be countered that requiring a living wage could destroy a company, thus putting the workers into a worse situation—that is, being unemployed rather than merely underpaid. This is a legitimate concern—at least for businesses that would, in fact, be unable to survive if they paid a living wage. However, this argument would obviously not work for business, such as Walmart, that have extremely robust profit margins. It might be claimed that there must be one standard for all businesses, be they a tiny bookstore that is barely staying afloat or a megacorporation that hands out millions in bonuses to the management. The obvious reply is that there are already a multitude of standards that apply to different businesses based on the differences between them—and some of these are even reasonable and morally acceptable.

Another line of argumentation is to attempt to show that there is, in fact, no obligation at all to ensure that citizens have a living income. In this case, the employers would obviously have no obligation. The taxpayers would also not have any obligation, but they could elect lawmakers to pass laws authorizing that tax dollars be spent supporting the poor. That is, the tax payers could chose to provide charity to the poor. This is not obligatory, but merely a nice thing to do. Some business could, of course, also choose to be nice—they could pay all their full time workers at least a living wage. But this should, one might argue, be entirely a matter of choice.

Some folks would, of course, want to take this even further—if assisting other citizens to have a living income is a matter of choice and not an obligation arising from being part of a civil society (or a more basic moral foundation), then tax dollars should not be used to assist those who make less than a living wage. Rather, this should be a matter of voluntary charity—everyone should be free to decide where their money goes. Naturally, consistency would seem to require that this principle of free choice be extended beyond just assisting the poor.  After all, free choice would seem to entail that people should decide as individuals whether to contribute to the salaries of members of the legislatures, to the cost of wars, to subsidies to corporations, to the CDC, to the CIA, to the FBI and so on. This does, obviously enough, have some appeal—the state would operate like a collection of charity recipients, getting whatever money people wished to contribute. The only major downside is that it would probably result in the collapse of civil society.


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Are Animals People?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2015

IsisWhile the ethical status of animals has been debated since at least the time of Pythagoras, the serious debate over whether or not animals are people has just recently begun to heat up. While it is easy to dismiss the claim that animals are people, it is actually a matter worth considering.

There are at least three type of personhood: legal personhood, metaphysical personhood and moral personhood. Legal personhood is the easiest of the three. While it would seem reasonable to expect some sort of rational foundation for claims of legal personhood, it is really just a matter of how the relevant laws define “personhood.” For example, in the United States corporations are people while animals and fetuses are not. There have been numerous attempts by opponents of abortion to give fetuses the status of legal persons. There have even been some attempts to make animals into legal persons.

Since corporations are legal persons, it hardly seems absurd to make animals into legal people. After all, higher animals are certainly closer to human persons than are corporate persons. These animals can think, feel and suffer—things that actual people do but corporate people cannot. So, if it is not absurd for Hobby Lobby to be a legal person, it is not absurd for my husky to be a legal person. Or perhaps I should just incorporate my husky and thus create a person.

It could be countered that although animals do have qualities that make them worthy of legal protection, there is no need to make them into legal persons. After all, this would create numerous problems. For example, if animals were legal people, they could no longer be owned, bought or sold. Because, with the inconsistent exception of corporate people, people cannot be legally bought, sold or owned.

Since I am a philosopher rather than a lawyer, my own view is that legal personhood should rest on moral or metaphysical personhood. I will leave the legal bickering to the lawyers, since that is what they are paid to do.

Metaphysical personhood is real personhood in the sense that it is what it is, objectively, to be a person. I use the term “metaphysical” here in the academic sense: the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality. I do not mean “metaphysical” in the pop sense of the term, which usually is taken to be supernatural or beyond the physical realm.

When it comes to metaphysical personhood, the basic question is “what is it to be a person?” Ideally, the answer is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions such that if a being has them, it is a person and if it does not, it is not. This matter is also tied closely to the question of personal identity. This involves two main concerns (other than what it is to be a person): what makes a person the person she is and what makes the person distinct from all other things (including other people).

Over the centuries, philosophers have endeavored to answer this question and have come up with a vast array of answers. While this oversimplifies things greatly, most definitions of person focus on the mental aspects of being a person. Put even more crudely, it often seems to come down to this: things that think and talk are people. Things that do not think and talk are not people.

John Locke presents a paradigm example of this sort of definition of “person.” According to Locke, a person “is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”

Given Locke’s definition, animals that are close to humans in capabilities, such as the great apes and possibly whales, might qualify as persons. Locke does not, unlike Descartes, require that people be capable of using true language. Interestingly, given his definition, fetuses and brain-dead bodies would not seem to be people. Unless, of course, the mental activities are going on without any evidence of their occurrence.

Other people take a rather different approach and do not focus on mental qualities that could, in principle, be subject to empirical testing. Instead, the rest personhood on possessing a specific sort of metaphysical substance or property. Most commonly, this is the soul: things with souls are people, things without souls are not people. Those who accept this view often (but not always) claim that fetuses are people because they have souls and animals are not because they lack souls. The obvious problem is trying to establish the existence of the soul.

There are, obviously enough, hundreds or even thousands of metaphysical definitions of “person.” While I do not have my own developed definition, I do tend to follow Locke’s approach and take metaphysical personhood to be a matter of having certain qualities that can, at least in principle, be tested for (at least to some degree). As a practical matter, I go with the talking test—things that talk (by this I mean true use of language, not just making noises that sound like words) are most likely people. However, this does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood and it might not be sufficient. As such, I am certainly willing to consider that creatures such as apes and whales might be metaphysical people like me—and erring in favor of personhood seems to be a rational approach to those who want to avoid harming people.

Obviously enough, if a being is a metaphysical person, then it would seem to automatically have moral personhood. That is, it would have the moral status of a person. While people do horrible things to other people, having the moral status of a person is generally a good thing because non-evil people are generally reluctant to harm other people. So, for example, a non-evil person might hunt squirrels for food, but would certainly not (normally) hunt humans for food. If that non-evil person knew that squirrels were people, then he would certainly not hunt them for food.

Interestingly enough, beings that are not metaphysical persons (that is, are not really people) might have the status of moral personhood. This is because the moral status of personhood might correctly or reasonably apply to non-persons.

One example is that a brain-dead human might no longer be a person, yet because of the former status as a person still be justly treated as a person in terms of its moral status. As another example, a fetus might not be an actual person, but its potential to be a person might reasonably grant it the moral status of a person.

Of course, it could be countered that such non-people should not have the moral status of full people, though they should (perhaps) have some moral status. To use the obvious example, even those who regard the fetus as not being a person would tend to regard it as having some moral status. If, to use a horrific example, a pregnant woman were attacked and beaten so that she lost her fetus, that would not just be a wrong committed against the woman but also a wrong against the fetus itself. That said, there are those who do not grant a fetus any moral status at all.

In the case of animals, it might be argued that although they do not meet the requirements to be people for real, some of them are close enough to warrant being treated as having the moral status of people (perhaps with some limitations, such as those imposed in children in regards to rights and liberties). The obvious counter to this is that animals can be given moral statuses appropriate to them rather than treating them as people.

Immanuel Kant took an interesting approach to the status of animals. In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. People (rational beings), in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.

Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards people. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a person doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

Given this approach, Kant could be seen as regarding animals as virtual or ersatz people. Or at least those that would be close enough to people to engage in activities that would create obligations if done by people.

In light of this discussion, there are three answers to the question raised by the title of this essay. Are animals legally people? The answer is a matter of law—what does the law say? Are animals really people? The answer depends on which metaphysical theory is correct. Do animals have the moral status of people? The answer depends on which, if any, moral theory is correct.


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A Shooting in South Carolina

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2015

While the police are supposed to protect and serve, recent incidents have raised grave concerns about policing in America. I am, of course, referring to the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. In the most recent incident Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager shot Walter Lamer Scott to death after what should have been a routine traffic stop. What makes this case unusual is that there is video of the shooting. While the video does not show what happened before Scott started to flee, it clearly shows that Scott is no threat to Slager: he is unarmed and running away. Police are not allowed to shoot a suspect merely for fleeing. The video also show Slager dropping an object by Scott’s body—it appears to be Slager’s Taser. When Slager called in the incident, he described it as a justifiable shooting: Scott grabbed his Taser and he had to use his service weapon. Obviously Slager was unaware that he was being recorded as he shot the fleeing Scott.

Since I am friends with people who are ex-law enforcement (retired or moved on to other careers) I have reason to believe that the majority of officers would not engage in such behavior. As such, I will not engage in a sweeping condemnation of police—this would be both unjust and unfounded. However, this incident does raise many concerns about policing in the United States.

As noted above, what makes this incident unusual is not that a situation involving a black man and white officer escalated. It is also not very unusual that a black man was shot by a police officer. What is unusual is that the incident was videotaped and this allowed the public to see what really happened—as opposed to what was claimed by the officer. If the incident had not been recorded, this most likely would have gone down as the all-too-common scenario of a suspect attacking a police officer and being shot in self-defense. The tape, however, has transformed it from the usual to the unusual: a police officer being charged with murder for shooting a suspect.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that the story of one incident, however vivid, is but an anecdote. I am also well aware that to generalize broadly from one such incident is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. That said, the videotape does provide legitimate grounds for being suspicious of other incidents in which suspects have been shot while (allegedly) trying to attack an officer. Since we know that it has happened, we clearly know that it can happen. The obvious and rather important concern is the extent to which this sort of thing has happened. That is, what needs to be determined is the extent to which officers have engaged in legitimate self-defense and to what extent have officers engaged in murder.

This videotape shows, rather dramatically, that requiring police to use body cameras is a good idea—at least from the standpoint of those who believe in justice. People are, obviously enough somewhat less likely to act badly if they know they are being recorded. There is also the fact that there would be clear evidence of any misdeeds. The cameras would also benefit officers: such video evidence would also show when the use of force was legitimate, thus helping to reduce suspicions. As it stands, we know that at least one police officer shot down a fleeing suspect who presented no threat. This, naturally enough, motivates suspicion about all shootings (and rightly so). The regular use of body cameras could be one small contribution to addressing legitimate questions about use of force incidents.

What is also usual about this incident is that there has been a focus on the fact that Scott had a criminal record and legal troubles involving child support. This is presumably intended to show that Scott was no angel and perhaps to suggest that the shooting was, in some manner, justified. Or, at the very least, not as bad as one might think. After all, the person killed was a criminal, right? However, Scott’s background has no relevance in this incident: his having legal troubles in the past in no manner justifies the shooting.

What was also usual was the reaction of Bill O’Reilly and some of the other fine folks at Fox, which I learned about from Professor Don Hubin’s reaction and criticism. Rather than focusing on the awfulness of the killing and what it suggests about other similar incidents, O’Reilly’s main worry seems to be that some people might use the killing to “further inflame racial tensions” and he adds that “there doesn’t seem to be, as some would have you believe, that police are trying to hunt down black men and take their lives.” While this is not a claim that has been seriously put forth, O’Reilly endeavors to “prove” his claim by engaging in a clever misleading comparison. He notes that “In 2012, last stats available, 123 blacks were killed by police 326 whites were killed.” While this shows that police kill more whites than blacks, the comparison is misleading because O’Reilly leaves out a critical piece of information: the population is about 77% white and about 13% black. This, obviously enough, sheds a rather different light on O’Reilly’s statistics: they are accurate, yet misleading.

Naturally, it might be countered that blacks commit more crimes than whites and thus it is no surprise that they get shot more often (when adjusting for inflation) than whites. After all, one might point out, Scott did have a criminal record. This reply has a certain irony to it. After all, people who claim that blacks are arrested (and shot) at a disproportionate level claim that the police are more likely to arrest blacks than whites and focus more on policing blacks. As evidence that blacks commit more crimes, people point to the fact that blacks are more likely (adjusting for proportions) than whites to be arrested. While one would obviously expect more blacks to be arrested in they committed more crimes (proportionally), to assume what is in doubt (that policing is fair) as evidence that it should not be doubted seems to involve reasoning in a circle.

O’Reilly also raised a stock defense for when bad thing are done: “You can’t … you can’t be a perfect system. There are going to be bad police officers; they’re going to make mistakes; um .. and then the mistakes are going to be on national television.” O’Reilly engages in what seems to be a perfectionist fallacy: the system cannot be perfect (which is true), therefore (it seems) we should not overly concerned that this could be evidence of systematic problems. Or perhaps he just means that in an imperfect system one must expect mistakes such as an officer shooting a fleeing suspect to death. O’Reilly also seems rather concerned that the mistakes will be on television—perhaps his concern is, as I myself noted, that people will fall victim to a hasty generalization from the misleading vividness of the incident. That would be a fair point. However, the message O’Reilly seems to be conveying is that this incident is (as per the usual Fox line) an isolated one that does not indicate a systemic problem. Despite the fact that these “isolated” incidents happen with terrible regularity.

I will close by noting that my objective is not to attack the police. Rather, my concern is that the justice system is just—that is rather important to me. It should also be important to all Americans—after all, most of us pledged allegiance to a nation that offers liberty and justice to all.

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Little Assassins

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 6, 2015

Small. Silent. Deadly. The perfect assassin or security system for the budget conscious. Send a few after your enemy. Have a few lurking about in security areas. Make your enemies afraid. Why drop a bundle on a bug, when you can have a Tarantula?

-Adrek Robotics Mini-Cyberform Model A-2 “Tarantula” sales blurb, Chromebook Volume 3.


The idea of remote controlled (or autonomous) mechanical assassins is an old one in science fiction. The first time I read about such a device was in Frank Herbert’s Dune: he came up with the idea for a lethal, remote-operated drone known as a hunter seeker. This nasty machine would be guided to a target and kill her with a poison needle. This idea stuck with me and, when I was making Ramen noodle money writing game material, I came up with (and sold) the idea for three remote controlled killers produced by my rather evil, but imaginary, company called Adrek Robotics. These included the spider like Tarantula, the aptly named Centipede and the rather unpleasant Beetle. These killers were refined versions of machines I had deployed, much to the horror of my players, in various Traveller campaigns in the 1980s (to this day, one player carefully checks his toilet before using it).

These machines, in my fictional worlds, work in a fairly straightforward manner. They are relatively small robots that are armed with compact, but lethal and vicious, weapon systems (such as poison injecting needles). These machines can operate autonomously, or as the description in Chromebook Volume 3 notes, for particularly important missions they can be remotely controlled by a human or AI. Their small size allows them to infiltrate and kill (or spy). Not surprisingly, various clever ways were developed to get them close to targets, ranging from mailing them concealed among parts to hiding them in baked goods.

While, as far as I know, no real company is cranking out actual Tarantulas, the technology does exist to create a basic model of my beloved killer spider. As might be imagined, these sort of little assassins raise a wide variety of concerns.

Some of these concerns are practical matters relating to law enforcement, safety and military operations. Such little assassins would presumably be easy to deploy against specific targets (or random targets when used as weapons of terror—imagine knowing that a killer machine could pop out of your donut or be waiting in your toilet) and they could be difficult or impossible to trace. Presumably governments, criminals and terrorists would not include serial numbers or other identifying marks on their killers (unless they wanted to take credit).

Obviously enough, people can already kill each other very easily. What these machines would change would be that they would allow anonymous killing from a distance with, as the technology was developed, at very low cost. It is the anonymous and low-cost aspects that are the most worrisome in regards to maintaining safety. After all, what often deters individuals and groups from engaging in bad behavior is fear of being caught and being subject to punishment. What also deters people is the cost of engaging in the misdeed. Using a terrorism example, sending human agents to the United States to commit terrorist acts could be costly and risky. Secreting some little assassins, perhaps equipped to distribute a highly infectious disease, in a shipping container could be rather cheap and without much risk.

There are also moral concerns. In general, the ethics of using little assassins to murder people is fairly clear—it falls under the ethics of murder and assassin. That is, it is generally wrong. There are, of course, the stock moral arguments for assassination. Or, as some prefer to call it, targeted killing.

One moral argument in favor of states employing little assassins is based on their potential precision. Currently, the United States engages in targeted killing (or assassination) using missiles fired from drones. While this is morally superior to area bombing (since it reduces the number of civilians slaughtered and the collateral damage to property), a little assassin would be even better. After all, a properly targeted or guided little assassin would kill only the target, thus avoiding all collateral damage and the slaughter of civilians. Of course, there is still the broader ethical concern about states engaging in what can be justly described as assassination. But, this issues is distinct from the specific ethics of little assassins.

Somewhat oddly, the same argument can be advanced in favor of criminal activities—while such activities would be wrong, a precise kill would be morally preferable to, for example, bullets being sprayed into a crowd from a passing car.

In addition to the ethics of using such machines, there is also the ethics of producing them. It is easy enough to imagine harmless drones being modified for lethal purposes (for example, a hobby drone with a homemade bomb attached). In such cases, the manufacturer would be no more morally culpable than a car manufacturer whose car was used to run someone over. It is also easy to imagine lethal drones being manufactured—since that is already being done.

While civilians can buy a variety of weapons, it seems likely that it will be hard to justify civilian sales of lethal drones. After all, they do not seem to be needed for legitimate self-defense, for hunting or for legitimate recreational activity (although piloting a drone in a recreational dogfight would probably be awesome). However, being a science fiction writer, I can easily imagine the NRA pushing hard against laws restricting the ownership of lethal drones. After all, the only thing that can stop and evil guy with a lethal drone is a good guy with a lethal drone. Or so it might be claimed.

Although I do dearly love my little assassins, I would prefer that they remain in the realm of fiction. However, if they are not already being deployed, it is but a matter of time. So, check your toilet.


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Telework of the Future

Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on April 3, 2015

While people have been engaged in telework for quite some time, ever-improving technology will expand the range of jobs allowing for this long-distance labor. This, naturally enough, raises a variety of interesting issues.

Some forms of telework are, by today’s standards, rather mundane and mostly (non-controversial. For example, teachers running online classes from home is a standard form of education these days. Other forms are rather more controversial, such as remote assassination conducted via armed drones.

One promising (and problematic) area of teleworking is telemedicine. Currently, most telemedicine is fairly primitive and mainly involves medical personal interacting with patients via video conferencing software (“take two aspirin and skype me in the morning”). Given that surgical robots are now commonly employed, it is simply a matter of time before doctors and nurses routinely operate “doc drones” to perform various medical procedures.

There are many positive aspects to such telemedicine. One is that such doc drones will allow medical personal to safely operate in dangerous areas. To use the obvious example, a doctor could use a drone to treat patients infected with Ebola while running no risk of infection. To use another example, a doctor could use a drone to treat a patient during a battle without risking being shot or blown up.

A second positive aspect is that a doc drone could be deployed in remote areas and places that have little or no local medical personal. For example, areas in the United States that are currently underserved could be served by such doc drones.

A third positive aspect is that if doc drones became cheap enough, normal citizens could have their own doc drone (most likely with limited capabilities relative to hospital grade drones). This would allow for very rapid medical treatment. This would be especially useful given the aging populations in countries such as the United States.

There are, however, some potential downsides to the use of doc drones. One is that the use of doc drones would allow companies to offshore and outsource medical jobs, just as companies have sent programing, manufacturing and technical support jobs overseas. This would allow medical businesses to employ lower paid foreign medical workers in place of higher paid local medical personal. Such businesses could also handle worker complaints about pay or treatment simply by contracting new employees in countries that worse off and hence have medical personal who are even more desperate.  While this would be good for the bottom line, this would be problematic for local medical personal.

It could be contended that this would be good since it would lower the cost of medical care and would also provide medical personal in foreign countries with financial opportunities. In reply, there is the obvious concern about the quality of care (one might wonder if medical care is something that should go to the lowest bidder) and the fact that medical personal would have had better opportunities doing medicine in person. Naturally, those running the medical companies will want to ensure that the foreign medical personal stay in their countries—this could be easily handled by getting Congress to pass tough immigration laws, thus ensuring a ready supply of cheap medical labor.

Another promising area of telework is controlling military drones. The United States currently operates military drones, but given the government’s love of contracting out services it is just a matter of time before battle drones are routinely controlled by private military contractors (or mercenaries, as they used to be called).

The main advantage of using military drones is that the human operators are out of harm’s way. An operator can also quickly shift operations as needed which can reduce deployment times. Employing private contractors also yields numerous advantages, such as being able to operate outside the limits imposed by the laws and rules governing the military. There can also be the usual economic advantages—imagine corporations outsourcing military operations and reaping significant savings from being able to keep wages and benefits for the telesoldiers very low. There is, of course, the concern that employing what amounts to foreign mercenaries might result in some serious moral and practical problems, but perhaps one should just think of the potential profits and let the taxpayers worry about paying for any problems.

There are various other areas in which teleworking would be quite appealing. Such areas would need to be those that require the skills and abilities of a human (that is, they cannot simply be automated), yet can be done via remote control. It would also have to be the case that the cost of teleworking would be cheaper than simply hiring a local human being to do the work. Areas such as table waiting, food preparation, and retail will most likely not see teleworker replacing the low-paid local workers. However, areas with relatively high pay could be worth the cost of converting to telework.

One obvious example is education. While the pay for American professors is relatively low and most professors are now badly paid adjuncts, there are still people outside the United States who would be happy to work for even less. Running an online class, holding virtual office hours and grading work require rather low-cost technology. The education worker would require just a PC and an internet connection. The university would just need access to a server running the appropriate learning management software (such as Blackboard). With translation software, the education worker would not even need to know English to teach American students.

Obviously enough, since administrators would be making the decisions about whose jobs get outsourced, they would not outsource their own jobs. They would remain employed. In fact, with the savings from replacing local faculty they could give themselves raises and hire more administrators. This would progress until the golden age is reached: campuses populated solely by administrators.

Construction, maintenance, repair and other such work might be worth converting to telework. However, this would require that the machines that would be remotely operated would be cheap enough to justify hiring a low paid foreign worker over a local worker. However, a work drone could be operated round the clock by shifts of operators (aside from downtime for repairs and maintenance) and there would be no vacations, worker’s compensation or other such costs. After all, the population of the entire world would be the work force and any workers that started pushing for better pay, vacations or other benefits could be replaced by others who would be willing to work for less. If such people become difficult to find, a foreign intervention or two could set things right and create an available population of people desperate for telework.

Large scale telework would also seem to lower the value of labor—after all, the competition among workers would be worldwide. A person living in Maine who applied for a telejob would be up against people from all around the world, ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe. While this will be great for the job creators, it will probably be less great for the job fillers.

While this dystopian (from the perspective of the 99%) view of telework seems plausible, it is also worth considering that telework might be beneficial to the laboring masses. After all, it would open up opportunities around the world and telework would require fairly stable areas with adequate resources such as power and the internet (so companies would have an interest in building such infrastructure). As such, telework could make things better for some of the masses. Telework would also be fairly safe, although it could require very long hours and impose considerable stress.

Of course, there are still steps beyond telework and one possible ultimate end might be full automation of all jobs.


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Florida’s Bathroom Law

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

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Could Black Panther be White?

Posted in Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 25, 2015
Black Panther (comics)

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there is an established history of superhero characters having their ethnicity or gender changed, each specific episode tends to create a small uproar (and not just among the fanfolk). For example, Nick Fury was changed from white to black (with Samuel Jackson playing the character in the movies). As another example, a woman took on the role of Thor. I am using “ethnicity” here rather than “race” for the obvious reason that in comic book reality humans are one race, just as Kryptonians and Kree are races.

Some of the complaints about such changes are based in racism and sexism. While interesting from the standpoint of psychology and ethics, these complaints are not otherwise worthy of serious consideration. Instead I will focus on legitimate concerns about such change.

A good place to begin the discussion of these changes is to address concerns about continuity and adherence to the original source material. Just as, for example, giving Batman super powers would break continuity, making him into a Hispanic would also seem to break continuity. Just as Batman has no superpowers, he is also a white guy.

One obvious reply to this is that characters are changed over the years. To use an obvious example, when Superman first appeared in the comics he was faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings. However, he did not fly and did not have heat vision. Over the years writers added abilities and increased his powers until he became the Superman of today. Character background and origin stories are also changed fairly regularly. If these sort of changes are acceptable, then this opens the door to other changes—such as changes to the character’s ethnicity or gender.

One rather easy way to justify any change is to make use of the alternative world device. When D.C. was faced with the problem of “explaining” the first versions of Flash (who wore a Mercury/Hermes style helmet), Batman, Green Lantern (whose power was magic and vulnerability was wood) and Superman they hit on the idea of having Earth 1 and Earth 2. This soon became a standard device for creating more comics to sell, although it did have the effect of creating a bit of a mess for fans interested in keeping track of things. An infinite number of earths is a rather lot to keep track of.  Marvel also had its famous “What If” series which would allow for any changes in a legitimate manner.

While the use of parallel and possible worlds provides an easy out, there is still the matter of changing the gender or ethnicity of the “real” character (as opposed to just having an alternative version). One option is, of course, to not have any “real” character—every version (whether on TV, in the movies or in comics) is just as “real” and “official” as any other. While this solves the problem by fiat, there still seems to be a legitimate question about whether all these variations should be considered the same character. That is, whether a Hispanic female Flash is really the Flash.

In some cases, the matter is rather easy to handle. Some superheroes merely occupy roles, hold “super jobs” or happen to have some gear or item that makes them super. For example, anyone can be a Green Lantern (provided the person qualifies for the ring). While the original Green Lantern was a white guy, a Hispanic woman could join the corps and thus be a Green Lantern. As another example, being Iron Man could be seen as just a matter of wearing the armor. So, an Asian woman could wear Iron Man armor and be Iron…well, Iron Woman. As a final example, being Robin seems to be a role—different white boys have occupied that role, so there seems to be no real issue with having a female Robin (which has, in fact, been done) or a Robin who is not white.

In many cases a gender change would be pointless because female versions of the character already exist. For example, a female Superman would just be another Supergirl or Power Girl. As another example, a female Batman would just be Batwoman or Batgirl, superheroes who already exist. So, what remains are cases that are not so easy to handle.

While every character has an “original” gender and ethnicity (for example, Captain America started as a white male), it is not always the case that the original’s gender and ethnicity are essential to the character. That is, the character would still make sense and it would still be reasonable to regard the character as the same (only with a different ethnicity or gender).  This, of course, raises metaphysical concerns about essential qualities and identity. Put very simply, an essential quality is one that if an entity loses that quality, it ceases to be what it is. For example, having three sides is an essential quality for a triangle: if it ceases to be three sided, it ceases to be a triangle. Color and size are not essential qualities of triangles. A red triangle that is painted blue does not ceases to be a triangle.

In the case of superheroes, the key question here is one about which qualities are essential to being that hero and which ones can be changed while maintaining the identity of the character. One way to approach this is in terms of personal identity and to use models that philosophers use for real people. Another approach is to go with an approach that is more about aesthetics than metaphysics. That is, to base the essential qualities on aesthetic essentials—that is, qualities relevant to being the right sort of fictional character.

One plausible approach here is to consider whether or not a character’s ethnicity and gender are essential to the character—that is, for example, whether Captain America would still be Captain America if he were black or a woman.

One key aspect of it would be how these qualities would fit the origin story in terms of plausibility. Going with the Captain America example, Steve Rogers could have been black—black Americans served in WWII and it would even be plausible that experiments would be done on African-Americans (because they did for real). Making Captain America into a woman would be implausible—the sexism of the time would have ensured that a woman would not have been used in such an experiment and American women were not allowed to enlist in the combat infantry. As another example, the Flash could easily be cast as a woman or as having any ethnicity—there is nothing about the Flash’s origin that requires that the Flash be a white guy.

Some characters, however, have origin stories that would make it implausible for the character to have a different ethnicity or gender. For example, Wonder Woman would not work as a man (without making all the Amazons men and changing that entire background). She could, however, be cast as any ethnicity (since she is, in the original story, created from a statue).

Another key aspect would be the role of the character in terms of what he or she represents or stands for. For example, Black Panther’s origin story would seem to preclude him being any ethnicity other than black. His role would also seem to preclude that as well—a white Black Panther would, it would seem, simply not fit the role. Black Panther could, perhaps, be a woman—especially since being the Black Panther is a role. So, to answer the title question, Black Panther could not be white. Or, more accurately, should not be white.

As a closing point, it could be argued that all that really matters is whether the story is a good one or not. So, if a good story can be told casting Spider-Man as a black woman or Rogue as an Asian man, then that is all the justification that would be needed for the change. Of course, it would still be fair to ask if the story really is a Spider-Man story or not.


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