A Philosopher's Blog

Kant and Tasering Dead Rats

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 14, 2018

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While Logan Paul has posted YouTube videos of rather awful behavior, his channel is still operating as of this writing. Paul’s latest video adventure involved tasering a dead rat, leading Penny Arcade to raise the moral question of the ethics of dead rat tasering as well as the morality of YouTube continuing to tolerate the presence of Paul’s videos.

Since YouTube is in the business of making money, it makes sense for it to monetize whatever legal product will make money, regardless of how awful it is. Since our civilization tolerates the sale of tobacco and opioids (with a prescription), it is rather hard to condemn the “selling” of what Paul creates. After all, there are clear doubts about the harms of viewing a video of a dead rat riding the lightning. While much could be said about the ethics of allowing these videos to remain up (since YouTube is a private company, it has no requirement to honor the 1st Amendment), I will turn to Penny Arcade’s inquiry into the tasering of a dead rat. Obviously, this discussion will take place within the context of Kant’s ethical theory.

Kant makes it clear that animals are means rather than ends—they have no moral status of their own. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can 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. While one might dispute Kant’s view about the ability of living animals to follow the moral law, one can see clearly and distinctly that a dead rat cannot do this. It is, after all, dead. An ex-rat.

Despite this view, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. 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 humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human 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.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses philosophical sleight of hand: the dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act. In support of this, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty: they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages kindness. He even praises Leibniz’ gentleness towards a mere worm. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings. But what about dead animals, like the rat Paul tasered?

A dead animal clearly and obviously lacks any meaningful moral status of their own. While animal right advocates tend to argue that living animals think and feel, even they would agree that a dead animal does not feel or think. As such, a dead animal lacks all the qualities that might give them a moral status of their own. Oddly enough, given Kant’s view of living animals, a dead animal would seem to be on par with a living one. After all, living animals are also mere objects and have no moral status of their own.

Of course, the same is also true of rocks and dirt. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat rocks well. Perhaps this would also apply to dead animals, such as the rat Paul tasered. That is, perhaps it makes no sense to talk about good or bad relative to dead animals. Thus, the issue is whether dead animals are more like live animals or rocks.

A case can be made for not abusing dead animals. If Kant’s argument has some merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a living rat could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the living rat.  This should also extend to dead animals. For example, if being cruel to a dead rat would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If being kind to the dead rat, such as giving it a burial, would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should be kind to the corpse.

While some might think to mock the idea of treating dead animals well, it is well worth noting that Kant’s reasoning would also apply to dead humans. A dead human is no longer a rational being—the corpse is but a thing. However, abusing the corpse of a human could damage a person’s humanity and make them more inclined to harm living humans. As such, while human corpses have no moral status of their own, it would be wrong to abuse them.

While the impact of abusing a human corpse would probably be greater than abusing the corpse of an animal, it would be odd to think that most decent people would be able to abuse animal corpses and suffer no ill consequences to their character. As such, the question raised by Penny Arcade can be answered: tasering a dead rat is morally wrong.

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Robo Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2015

It is just a matter of time before the first serious accident involving a driverless car or an autonomous commercial drone. As such, it is well worth considering the legal and moral aspects of responsibility. If companies that are likely to be major players in the autonomous future, such as Google and Amazon, have the wisdom of foresight, they are already dropping stacks of cash on lawyers who are busily creating the laws-to-be regarding legal responsibility for accidents and issues involving such machines. The lobbyists employed by these companies will presumably drop fat stacks of cash on the politicians they own and these fine lawmakers will make them into laws.

If these companies lack foresight or have adopted a wait and see attitude, things will play out a bit differently: there will be a serious incident involving an autonomous machine, a lawsuit will take place, fat stacks of cash will be dropped, and a jury or judge will reach a decision that will set a precedent. There is, of course, a rather large body of law dealing with responsibility in regards to property, products and accidents and these will, no doubt, serve as foundations for the legal wrangling.

While the legal aspects will no doubt be fascinating (and expensive) my main concern is with the ethics of the matter. That is, who is morally responsible when something goes wrong with an autonomous machine like a driverless car or an autonomous delivery drone.

While the matter of legal responsibility is distinct from that of ethical responsibility, the legal theory of causation does have some use here. I am, obviously enough, availing myself of the notion of conditio sine qua non (“a condition without which nothing”) as developed by H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore.

Roughly put, this is the “but for” view of causation. X can be seen as the cause of Y if Y would not have happened but for X. This seems like a reasonable place to begin for moral responsibility. After all, if someone would not have died but for my actions (that is, if I had not done X, then the person would still be alive) then there seems to be good reason to believe that I have some moral responsibility for the person’s death. It also seems reasonable to assign a degree of responsibility that is proportional to the casual involvement of the agent or factor in question. So, for example, if my action only played a small role in someone’s death, then my moral accountability would be proportional to that role. This allows, obviously enough, for shared responsibility.

While cases involving non-autonomous machines can be rather complicated, they can usually be addressed in a fairly straightforward manner in terms of assigning responsibility. Consider, for example, an incident involving a person losing a foot to a lawnmower. If the person pushing the lawnmower intentionally attacked someone with her mower, the responsibility rests on her. If the person who lost the foot went and stupidly kicked at the mower, then the responsibility rests on her. If the lawnmower blade detached because of defects in the design, material or manufacturing, then the responsibility lies with the specific people involved in whatever defect caused the problem. If the blade detached because the owner neglected to properly maintain her machine, then the responsibility is on her. Naturally, the responsibility can also be shared (although we might not know the relevant facts). For example, imagine that the mower had a defect such that if it were not well maintained it would easily shed its blade when kicked. In this case, the foot would not have been lost but for the defect, the lack of maintenance and the kick. If we did not know all the facts, we would probably blame the kick—but the concern here is not what we would know in specific cases, but what the ethics would be in such cases if we did, in fact, know the facts.

The novel aspect of cases involving autonomous machines is the fact that they are autonomous. This might be relevant to the ethics of responsibility because the machine might qualify as a responsible agent. Or it might not.

It is rather tempting to treat an autonomous machine like a non-autonomous machine in terms of moral accountability. The main reason for this is that the sort of autonomous machines being considered here (driverless cars and autonomous drones) would certainly seem to lack moral autonomy. That is to say that while a human does not directly control them in their operations, they are operating in accord with programs written by humans (or written by programs written by humans) and lack the freedom that is necessary for moral accountability.

To illustrate this, consider an incident with an autonomous lawnmower and the loss of a foot. If the owner caused it to attack the person, she is just as responsible as if she had pushed a conventional lawnmower over the victim’s foot. If the person who lost the foot stupidly kicked the lawnmower and lost a foot, then it is his fault. If the incident arose from defects in the machinery, materials, design or programming, then responsibility would be applied to the relevant people to the degree they were involved in the defects. If, for example, the lawnmower ran over the person because the person assembling it did not attach the sensors correctly, then the moral blame lies with that person (and perhaps an inspector). The company that made it would also be accountable, in the collective and abstract sense of corporate accountability. If, for example, the programming was defective, then the programmer(s) would be accountable: but for his bad code, the person would still have his foot.

As with issues involving non-autonomous machines there is also the practical matter of what people would actually believe about the incident. For example, it might not be known that the incident was caused by bad code—it might be attributed entirely to chance. What people would know in specific cases is important in the practical sense, but does not impact the general moral principles in terms of responsibility.

Some might also find the autonomous nature of the machines to be seductive in regards to accountability. That is, it might be tempting to consider the machine itself as potentially accountable in a way analogous to holding a person accountable.

Holding the machine accountable would, obviously enough, require eliminating other factors as causes. To be specific, to justly blame the machine would require that the machine’s actions were not the result of defects in manufacturing, materials, programing, maintenance, and so on. Instead, the machine would have had to act on its own, in a way analogous to person acting. Using the lawnmower example, the autonomous lawnmower would need to decide to go after the person from it own volition. That is, the lawnmower would need to possess a degree of free will.

Obviously enough, if a machine did possess a degree of free will, then it would be morally accountable within its freedom. As such, a rather important question would be whether or not an autonomous machine can have free will. If a machine can, then it would make moral sense to try machines for crimes and punish them. If they cannot, then the trials would be reserved, as they are now, for people. Machines would, as they are now, be repaired or destroyed. There would also be the epistemic question of how to tell whether the machine had this capacity. Since we do not even know if we have this capacity, this is a rather problematic matter.

Given the state of technology, it seems unlikely that the autonomous machines of the near future will be morally autonomous. But as the technology improves, it seems likely that there will come a day when it will be reasonable to consider whether an autonomous machine can be justly held accountable for its actions. This has, of course, been addressed in science fiction—such as the ‘I, Robot” episodes (the 1964 original and the 1995 remake) of the Outer Limits which were based on Eando Binder’s short story of the same name.


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@DestinyTheGame #badpoetry # dinklebot

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2014

Rolling through the Cosmodrome with my Dinklebot.
Killing Dregs and Vandals.
Dropping them with just one shot.

Off to Luna to bring the Hive some ruin.
What’s that, Dinklebot?
That Wizard came from the moon?

Flying to Venus to grind the Ishtar Sink.
Who’s setting off the alarms?
Why, it’s a bot named “Dink.”

Finally, to Mars to shoot up the Cabal.
Seriously, Bungie…
F@ck that annoying talking ball.


#Gamergate, Video Game Wars, & Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on October 20, 2014

As a gamer, philosopher and human being, I was morally outraged when I learned of the latest death threats against Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian, who is well known as a moral critic of the misogynistic rot defiling gaming, was scheduled to speak at Utah State University. Emails were sent that threatened a mass shooting if her talk was not cancelled. For legal reasons, the University was not able to prevent people from being weapons to the talk, so Sarkeesian elected to cancel her talk because of concerns for the safety of the audience.

This incident is just the latest in an ongoing outpouring of threats against women involved in gaming and those who are willing to openly oppose sexism and misogyny in the gaming world (and in the real world). Sadly, this sort of behavior is not surprising and it is part of two larger problems: internet trolling and misogyny.

As a philosopher, I am in the habit of arguing for claims. However, there seems to be no need to argue that threatening women with violence, rape or death because they are opposed to misogyny in gaming and favor more inclusivity in gaming is morally wicked. It is also base cowardice in many cases: those making the threats often hide behind anonymity and spew their vile secretions from the shadows of the internet. That such people are cowards is not a shock: courage is a virtue and these are clearly people who are strangers to virtue. When they engage in such behavior on the internet, they are aptly named trolls. Gamers know the classic troll as a chaotic evil creature of great rage and little intellect, which tends to fit the internet troll reasonable well. But, the internet troll can often be a person who is not actually committed to the claims he is making. Rather, his goal is typically to goad others and get emotional responses. As such, the troll will pick his tools with a calculation to the strongest emotional impact and these tools will thus include racism, sexism and threats. There are those who go beyond mere trolling—they are the people who truly believe in the racist and sexist claims they make. They are not using misogynist and racist claims as tools—they are speaking from their rotten souls. Perhaps these creatures should be called demons rather than trolls.

While the moral right to free expression does include the saying of awful and evil things, a person should not say such things. This should not be punishable by the law (in most cases), but should be regarded as immoral actions. Matters change when threats are involved. Good sense should be used when assessing threats. After all, people Tweet and post from unthinking anger and without true intent. There are also plenty of expressions that seem to promise violence, but are also used as expressions of anger. For example, people say “I could kill you” even when they actually have no intent of doing so. However, people do make threats that have real intent behind them. While the person might not actually intend to commit the threatened act (such as murder or rape), there can be an intent to psychologically harm and harass the target and this can do real harm. When I contributed my work on fallacies to a site devoted to responding to holocaust deniers I received a few random threats. I was not too worried, but did have a feeling of cold anger when I read the emails. My ex-wife, who was a feminist philosopher, received the occasional threats and I was certainly worried for her. As such, I have some very limited understanding of what it would be like receiving threats and how this can impact a person’s life. Inflicting such a harm on an individual is wrong and legal sanctions should be taken in such cases. There is a right to express ideas, but not a right to threaten, abuse and harass. Especially in a cowardly manner from the shadows.

As might be suspected, I am in support of increasing the involvement of women in gaming and I favor removing sexism from games. My main reason for supporting more involvement of women in gaming is the same reason I would encourage anyone to game: I think it is fun and I want to share my beloved hobby with people. There is also the moral motivation: such exclusion is morally repugnant and unjustified. If there are any good arguments against women being more involved in playing and creating games, I would certainly be interested in seeing them. But, I am quite sure there are none—if there were, people would be presenting those rather than screeching hateful threats from their shadowed caves.

As far as removing sexism from video games, the argument for that is easy and obvious. Sexism is morally wrong and games that include it would thus be morally wrong. Considering the matter as a gamer and an author of tabletop RPG adventures, I would contend that the removal of sexist elements would improve games and certainly not diminish their quality. True, doing so might rob the sexists and misogynists of whatever enjoyment they get from such things, but this is not a loss that is even worthy of consideration. In this regard, it is analogous to removing racist elements from games—the racist has no moral grounds to complain that he has been wronged by the denial of his opportunity to enjoy his racism.

I do, of course, want to distinguish between sexual elements and sexism. A game can have sexual elements without being sexist—although there can be a fine line between the two. I am also quite aware that games set in sexist times might require sexist elements when recreating those times. So, for example, a WWII game that has just male generals need not be sexist (although it would be reflecting the sexism of the time). Also, games can legitimately feature sexist non-player characters, just as they can legitimately include racist characters and other sorts of evil traits. After all, villains need to be, well, villains.


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Google Glasses

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2013

Google (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Google’s entry into the computer business has been a mixed one. While certain Chromebooks have been selling quite well, they are still a minute fraction of the laptop market. One of Google’s latest endeavors in the realm of hardware is the famous Google Glasses. While the glasses have been the focus of considerable attention, it remains to be seen whether or not they will prove to be a success or an interesting failure.

Since I rather like gadgets, the idea of a wearable computer is certainly appealing-if only for the science fiction aspect. After all, the idea of such technology is old news in science fiction. In my own case, I would most likely use such glasses for running and driving. People who know me know how important navigational technology is for me to have a reasonable chance of getting from one point to another. As such, if the Google glasses can handle this, I might consider getting a pair. Of course, I am also known for being frugal-so the glasses would have to be reasonably priced.

While I like the idea of Google Glasses, there are some practical concerns regarding this technology. One obvious concern is the distraction factor. Mobile phones and other devices are infamous for their distracting power and it seems reasonable that a device designed to sit right in front of the face would have even more distracting power than existing mobile devices. This distracting power is of concern primarily for safety, especially in the context of driving. However, there is also the concern that people will be distracted from the other people physically near them.

Another practical concern is the matter of whether or not people will actually accept the glasses. One factor is that people generally prefer to not wear glasses. While my vision is reasonably good, I do have prescription glasses. However, I find wearing glasses annoying enough that I only wear them when I really want  or need to see thing sharply. As such, I usually only wear them while playing video games and watching movies at the theater. Lest anyone be worried, I can drive just fine without them. People can, of course, get accustomed to glasses-but there is the question of whether or not people will find the glasses compelling enough to wear.

There is also a somewhat philosophical issue in regards to the glasses, namely the concern about privacy. Or, to be more accurate, concern about two types of privacy. These two types are defined by which side of the glasses a person happens to be on.

In one direction, the privacy concerns relate to the folks that the glasses are pointing towards. Like almost all modern smart phones, the Google Glasses have a camera and, as such, raise the same basic concerns about privacy. However, the Google device broadens the concern. Since the glasses are glasses, people might not notice that they have a camera pointed at them. Also, since the glasses are worn, it is more likely for the glasses to be pointing at people relative to other cameras. After all, a person has to take out and hold a mobile phone to use the camera effectively. But, with the glasses, the camera will be easily and automatically pointing at the outer world.

In the case of the public context, it is rather well established that people do not have an expectation of privacy in public. This seems reasonable since the public context is just that, public rather than private. However, it can be contended that many  of the notions governing the concepts of privacy have become obsolete because of changing technology. As such, there perhaps needs to be a reconsideration of the expectations in the public context. These expectations might be taken as including an expectation not to be filmed or photographed, even casually as a person saunters by wearing their Google Glasses. In addition to the question of what the person using the glasses might do, there is also the concern about what Google will do-especially in light of past issues involving the Google vehicles cruising neighborhoods and gathering up data.

Obviously, there are also concerns about people using the devices more nefariously in contexts in which people do have an expectation of privacy.

In the other direction, there are the privacy concerns relating to the user. What will Google know about the activities and location of the wearer and how will this information be used? Obviously enough, Google would be able to gather a great deal of information about the user of  pair of Google Glasses and Google is rather well known for being able to use such data.

Interestingly, a person wearing a pair of Google glasses could end up being both a spy for and spied upon by Google.

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Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2013

MOOC Crib (Photo credit: snowpup5)

Thanks to games like World of Warcraft, many people are familiar with MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games). However, people are probably somewhat less familiar with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

While MOOCs vary considerably, the name provides their basic features. First, they are massive (or potentially so). This means that such a course can support an indefinite number of students. This is in obvious contrast to the traditional classroom which is limited by the size of the room and even with the now traditional online classes which are typically limited in size because they are taught by one (or a few) teachers.

Second, they are open. This is in contrast with the traditional closed course which is available only to students registered at a specific school. Currently, the MOOCs are operating on a free model as well—that is, students do not pay to take such classes. However, the monetization of MOOCs is certainly inevitable.

Third, they are online. This also typically involves a high degree of automation for the course. In most cases, a MOOC is pre-packaged course without interaction with an actual teacher.

Finally, they are courses—that is, they are aimed at teaching people something. The best known MOOCs, those offered by Coursera, are college classes. However, they could be classes at any level. Currently MOOCs do not provide college credit, but there are plans to change this—most likely as part of the monetization process.

Obviously, MOOCs do have some clear positive features. Since they are massive, they can support a large number of students, thus making the courses more widely available. Since they are open, the classes are available to anyone who can access a computer, thus making them available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford college classes.

As might be imagined, I find these aspects of MOOCs very appealing and consistent with my own view of broad education. After all, I have made my work on fallacies freely available for almost two decades and I have various (admittedly lame) educational videos on YouTube. However, as a professor I have some concerns about the future of MOOCs.

As noted above, it is a matter of time before MOOCs are monetized. In general, I have no problem with this—after all, I work for money and sell books via Amazon. Heck, I’d probably get involved with a reputable MOOC service. My main concern, then, is not that MOOCs will go from open to being monetized. Rather, my concern is what impact they could have on the quality of education.

Having been in education for a while, I am well aware of the business-model push to minimize costs in education. Before the web, there was (and still is) a push to have classes as large as possible—in my case, I am paid the same whether my class is a mere 35 students or a ridiculous 75 students. The web merely allows this to be taken to an even greater extreme, since it is not limited by the size of a physical classroom. With truly massive online courses, a single professor could supply an education product to thousands of students. There are, of course, some obvious concerns here. One is the workload of a professor responsible for a massive class. Another is the quality of education in such a diluted learning environment, even if the main professor is supported by graduate students or staff.

Of course, greater savings can be had by eliminating the professor entirely. That is, the class can (as MOOCs typically are now) be a pre-packaged learning product that the students click through, without any actual teacher. While a professor or other professional would be needed to design and create the course content and assessment material, this could be done once (like a book) and updated from time to time. Thus, rather than paying a professor for each semester, a professor could be paid to put himself (and others) out of a teaching job.  No doubt, some star professors (like star authors) would make good money off the courses they created. However, it would probably not be very good for most faculty.

Naturally, if the MOOC is for credit, there would be a need to grade the work of the students. Much of this can be done, obviously enough, by the use of software. True/false tests and their ilk can easily be graded automatically. Papers, lab reports and so on would still require a human grader. However, just as graduate students are currently used as grading machines, they could be employed (at vastly lower pay than professors) to grade such work. Others could also be hired solely as graders, perhaps paid like migrant farmers in terms of the volume of their work—so much per page graded, perhaps. Outsourcing would also be an obvious approach here—just as students talk to a person in India for support for their software, their papers would be graded there as well, perhaps by the same person.

This would be a dream come true for some: the arrival of the industrial revolution in education in which the labor of a person (the professor) is replaced by a vastly more efficient mechanized (or rather computerized) education machine. Students simply pay their money, log in and click their way to a degree at minimal cost to the university or college. At long last the knowledge factory would be a true factory.

For those who would profit from such a system, it obviously has incredible appeal. A college could now operate like a true business, largely unburdened by costly and often troublesome professors. It could also be advantageous for students: they might pay significantly less for their education and be able to complete it faster than they could via the traditional means of education (or even via normal online classes).

There is, however, a point of great concern: would a MOOC be an adequate substitute for the traditional class or even the traditional online class? That is, would students have the same quality of education?

Honesty compels me to admit that when it comes to classes that are traditionally taught as massive lectures there would probably be little difference. In fact, a well done MOOC might actually be superior to the education acquired by sitting in a lecture hall with 800 other students, watching a professor up on stage. As such, such massive service classes could be reasonably replaced by MOOCs.

Obviously, some classes would not work as pure MOOCs, such as classes that require actual lab work, dissections or other such things that require a physical presence. Of course, a college could simply have labs run by low paid staff members with everything else being done via the MOOC.

However, there seem to be many classes that would lose a great deal of educational quality without the sort of interaction that having an actual teacher would provide. To use an obvious analogy, while clicking about on a web site to diagnose an illness can be a good start, at some point a person should probably see an actual doctor.  Likewise, clicking through an automated class can be a good start, but at some point one should probably interact with an actual educator.

Of course, there is still the question of whether or not having the real thing (a doctor or professor) is worth the price. This is a matter that should be seriously considered. Of course, if we take the approach of replacing people whenever they can be replaced by automation, at some point we would replace everyone—even the administrators, shareholders and students.  But perhaps the ultimate dream is to have a completely automated system: machines teaching machines and money automatically multiplied in automated banks with no humans left in the process at all. More seriously, the challenge, then, is deciding when the automation is not worth the price.

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Predictions for Obama’s Second Term

Posted in Humor, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2012
English: Photograph shows head-and-shoulders p...

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A while back I saw Chuck Norris’ video in which his wife predicted that re-electing Obama would be a first step towards 1,000 years of darkness. Interestingly, a similar prediction about the election of Johnson was made by Ronald Reagan in a speech supporting Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost, of course, so if Reagan was right, then re-electing Obama would not be the first step towards 1,000 years of darkness. Rather, it would be at least the second step (there might be others). I am not sure how many steps it takes to reach 1,000 years of darkness. Perhaps it is like the tootsie pop-we will never know how many steps it takes to get there because someone will get sick of walking and drive us into the darkness in a Prius.

While not as extreme as 1,000 years of darkness, some folks have predicted that a re-elected Obama will suddenly act upon a secret anti-gun agenda and impose strict gun control laws. Obama has presumably been brilliantly masking this agenda by actually extending gun rights. He also presumably is so confident of his re-election that he decided to not act on his secret agenda despite having had all those years as president.

I invite people to make predictions about what will happen if Obama is re-elected. Remember, the predictions regarding 1,000 years of darkness and gun control have been taken. Also, no re-using current accusations unless there is some new twist worth mentioning. For example, saying he will “destroy jobs and hate America” is out. Saying “Obama will channel his hatred of America into creating a monster of the id that will rampage across America destroying jobs” would be fine. Also, include a time frame if possible. For example, “the id monster will be rolling hard across the country in August 2013.”

If he gets re-elected, we can come back and check the predictions. I’m thinking about offering copies of my ebooks as prizes for getting predictions right.

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The Royal Wedding

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2011
This is a photograph of Margaret Forrest (1844...

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As the world knows, the royal wedding is fast approaching. As always, I am impressed with the level of  obsession generated in America. After all, it is somewhat ironic that we gave George the boot only to have the masses in a fine frenzy over royal weddings. But, at least we do not have to foot the bill for the show.

I have seen various estimates of the cost of the wedding. Some have estimated that the security for the event will cost £20 million and that the time off for the wedding will cost their economy billions. The wedding dress alone is supposed to cost $50,000. That is more than the average worker in  America makes in a year. The British economy is, of course, not in the best of shape. One might suspect that the money could be better spent on more substantial things rather than being dumped into a short public spectacle. There is also the obvious concern that it is the public who is largely footing the bill for this spectacle.  As Mary Wollstonecraft, said in her 1792 Rights of Women:

Taxes on the very necessaries of life, enable an endless tribe of idle princes and princesses to pass with stupid pomp before a gaping crowd, who almost worship the very parade which costs them so dear.

That certainly seems like an apt description of this event. After all, the royal family does not really do much and certainly does not do enough to warrant such extravagant expenditures. As such, it would seem to moral irresponsible to have such a lavish event largely at the taxpayers’ expense, especially in such troubled economic times.

Of course, there are some replies to this view.

One obvious reply is that the wedding might generate more money than it costs. After all, journalists and tourists will be flocking to the wedding, eagerly dumping their money into the economy by renting hotel rooms, eating meals, buying plane tickets, and buying memorabilia. If so, the burden to the citizens could be thus offset by the gain of those lucky enough to be the beneficiaries of that spending. However, it seems unlikely that this will be the case.

A second obvious reply is that the royal family is contributing to the event. After all, they are really rich and can contribute to the cost. Of course, there is still the question of how much they will contribute (which will certainly not be the entire cost of the shindig) and whether or not the public should be expected to contribute at all.

A third obvious reply is that the event is worth the cost in terms of the entertainment value. It will be a spectacular show for the “gaping crowd” and paying for it can be seen as being on par with paying the admission fee to a circus or concert. True, everyone else in the world gets to see the show for free on TV or Youtube while the Brits get to pay the bill. However, this can be seen as an act of generosity on their part-they are sharing their show with the world. While we do not have a useless class of royals in the states, we do have our entertainers (like Charlie Sheen) and we pay them very well to amuse us. We even provide security at their events. Of course, we do not support their lavish events directly with state money, which could be a very important relevant difference.

A fourth obvious reply is that the UK is a democracy and can decide how to spend public money. If they have decided to spend on a royal wedding, that is their choice and hence morally acceptable on those grounds. If they really don’t like it, they can always boot the royals or, at least, refuse to subsidize their lavish lifestyles. Since they are consenting to the expenditures, then it would seem to make it acceptable. Not wise, but at least acceptable in that the people are not being coerced into supporting the royals.

Overall, I think the wedding is a colossal waste of money and that those who gape at the event are naught but fools. But, it seems to mean a great deal to a great many people and if they want to pay for an event that will give them an illusion they can cherish, then so be it.

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Troubled Student

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2011
Orlando Police FL USA - Ford Crown Victoria Po...
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Jared Loughner is the accused shooter in the terrible incident in Arizona. Before that he was apparently a troubled student at a community college.

Since I am a professor, people have asked me if I have ever had students like that. While I have never had a student go on to shoot a politician, I have had students who were clearly disturbed or troubled by psychological issues. In some cases, these students were able to function reasonably well and they sometimes asked some very interesting questions or brought a rather unusual, but intriguing, perspective to various matters. In other cases, the students were actually rather scary and made the other students afraid with their behavior. Over my years in academics, I have seen or heard of students at various schools actually getting to the point where the police had to intervene, sometimes physically. In some cases, these students were actually legally banned from returning to campus or even ended up in jail.

In the light of the shooting, people might wonder why such students do not get locked up or forced into some sort of treatment. There are, of course, various reasons.

One reason is that professors and universities are often very worried about law suits and are hence reluctant to take action against troublesome students until they become truly troublesome. It can also be difficult to distinguish between a student who is a bit odd from one who might be violent, at least initially, and to take action against a student without sufficient justification can be a legal mess.

A second reason is that it can be difficult to distinguish between a student who passionately holds unusual views from someone who might become violent. Very intelligent people are sometimes very odd (I had a professor who would hide behind the drapes in class and make strange noises-but he was very sharp) and hence it can be hard to discern between the harmless oddities and those who will cross over into actual violence. Obviously enough, most professors and college officials are not experts in mental illness and hence are generally not qualified to make evaluations-except when it is rather evident.

A third reason is that colleges are rather limited in their intervention powers-or are at least reluctant to intervene. People sometimes think that college works like high school, but this is not the case. If a student is disruptive, I have two basic tools: persuasion and calling the police.  Colleges are also different from high schools in a very important way: we are not dealing with legal minors and hence this limits what can be done. For example, calling the parents is not generally an option. College officials can, of course, suggest counseling and can get the police and other officials involved. However, students are generally legal adults and hence are free to do as they wish as long as they remain within the law.

A fourth reason is that college officials and professors are just like everyone else: they have other concerns to deal with and when it comes to disturbed students the main hope is that they will either settle down or go away. In the case of colleges, their main function is not to sort out which students are unstable and treat them. That seems to be a responsibility of the state.

While there are state mechanisms in place for dealing with mentally troubled people, they seem to need some improvement. While violent incidents do serve to illustrate the cracks and holes in the current system and lead to discussions about the system in the media, it seems that little is ever changed. After all, when an incident occurs, I always seem to hear all the same things I heard after the last incident. I predict that when the next incident takes place we will see yet another rehash of the same comments.

Of course, dealing with such people does seem rather problematic. One obvious problem is balancing the rights of individuals against the need for community safety. While we do want dangerous individuals dealt with, due care must be taken not to violate rights in the name of security.

Another obvious problem is funding. While funding for things relating to defense and terrorism has been quite good, the funding for treating people with mental illnesses or emotional problems tends to be lacking. In general it seems that the matter of emotional/mental problems is largely left to individuals-at least until a criminal action is committed. From a practical standpoint there is the usual concern: would the cost of dealing effectively with such people be worthwhile in terms of the harms prevented? We obviously live with the system as it is and generally seem to be content with it-at least between incidents.

A final obvious problem is the challenge of treatment. While we have advanced a bit beyond lobotomies and electroshock, our ability to deal with emotional and mental problems is still extremely limited. It can also be argued that our society and culture is highly damaging to people and that having a mentally healthy population would require significant changes to society.

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The Yale Incident

Posted in Ethics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 21, 2010
Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library, a...
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Fraternities are often portrayed as xenophobic, snobby, debauched, sexist and out of control. As such, the latest incident at Yale is hardly a shock. During a pledging ritual some folks interested in pledging Delta Kappa Epsilon Phi marched around campus saying things like “no means yes, yes means anal.” Critics are claiming that these boys were trivializing rape with their chants. It has also been pointed out that the march occurred near the dorms housing the Freshman women. The response was what you typically see at a university: a forum was held, an apology was issued and the frat suspended its pledging events. Of course, some folks are not satisfied with these results.

On the one hand, the response seems appropriate. While people should not be marching about chanting such things, this behavior falls safely under the right of free expression. While trivializing rape and potentially frightening (or annoying) young women are things that people should not due, this does not seem to cross into the realm of things that require punitive measures from authorities. The university should, as community, condemn such behavior and it should be taken (as it was) as an opportunity to educate people and correct their behavior and attitudes via education. After all, that is what universities are supposed to be all about. To expel the students, as some have argued for, would be a punishment that exceeds the offense: at worst they said stupid and wicked things. Expulsion requires a far more serious offense such as actually taking an action that is harmful to others.

On the other hand, it could be argue that the response is not appropriate. After all, it has been pointed out that such forums do not seem to meaningfully change behavior. As Aristotle argued, discourses on morality do not have much of an impact on behavior and attitudes. While merely saying such stupid and wicked things is not a serious offense, it is merely a symptom of a more serious problem. The attitude conveyed in these chants is actually expressed in behavior and allowing this attitude to flourish allows such serious harms to persist. That said, the challenge is to match the punishment with the misdeed while still addressing the underlying problems in a serious and effective way. Of course, the overall culture is infested with similar attitudes, as the feminists often point out.  As such, this is a rather formidable challenge. But it is one worth addressing.



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