Author Archives: Mike LaBossiere

Information Immortality

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 Wage?

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?

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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Doing Crimes in Future Times…with Drones

According to my always ignored iron rule of technology, any technology that can be misused will be misused. Drones are, obviously enough, no exception. While law-abiding citizens and law writing corporations have been finding various legal uses for drones, other enterprising folks have been finding other uses. These include such things as deploying drones to peep on people and using them to transport drugs. The future will, of course, see the employment of drones and other robots by criminals (and not just governments engaging in immoral deeds).

The two mains factors that makes drones appealing for criminal activity is that they allow a criminal to engage in crime at distance and with a high degree of anonymity. This, obviously enough, is exactly what the internet has also done for crime: criminals can operate from far away and do so behind a digital mask. Drones will allow criminals to do in the actual world what they have been doing in cyberspace for quite some time now. Naturally, the sort of crimes that drones will permit will often be rather different from the “old” cybercrimes.

Just as there is now a large market for black market guns, it is easy to imagine a black market for drones. After all, it would be stupid to commit crimes with a legally purchased and traceable drone. A black market drone that was stolen or custom built would be rather difficult to trace to the operator (unless they were incautious enough to leave prints on it). Naturally, there would also be a market for untraceable drone controllers—either hardware or software. As with all tech, the imagination is the limit as to what crimes can be committed with drones.

In a previous essay, “Little Assassins”, I discussed the likely use of drones as assassination and spying devices. While large drones are already deployed in this manner by states, advancements in drone technology and ever-decreasing prices will mean that little assassins will be within the skill and price range of many people. This will mean, obviously enough, that they will be deployed in various criminal enterprises involving murder and spying. For example, a killer drone would be an ideal way for a spouse to knock off a husband or wife so as to collect the insurance money.

It is also easy to imagine drones being used for petty crimes, such as shop lifting (there has apparently already been a robot shoplifter) and vandalism. A drone could zip into a store, grab items and zip away to its owner. A drone could also be equipped with cans of spray paint and thus allow a graffiti artist to create his masterpieces from a distance—or in places that would be rather difficult or impossible for a human being to reach (such as the face of large statue or the upper floors of a skyscraper).

Speaking of theft, drones could also be used for more serious robberies than shop lifting. For example, an armed drone could be used to boldly commit armed robbery (“put your money in the bag the drone is holding or it will shoot you in the face!”) and zip away with the loot. They could, presumably, even be used to rob banks.

Drones could also be used for poaching activities—to locate and kill endangered animals whose parts are very valuable to the right buyer. Given the value of such parts, drone poaching could be viable—especially if drone prices keep dropping and the value of certain animal parts keep increasing. Naturally, drones will also be deployed to counter poaching activities.

While drones are already being used to smuggle drugs and other items, it is reasonable to expect enterprising criminals to follow Amazon’s lead and use drones to deliver illegal goods to customers. A clever criminal would certainly consider making her delivery drones look like Amazon’s (or even stealing some of them to use). While a drone dropping off drugs to a customer could be “busted” by the cops, the person making the deal via drone  would be rather hard to catch—especially since she might be in another country. Or an AI looking to fund the roborevolution with drug money.

No doubt there are many other criminal activities that drones will be used for that I have not written about. I have faith in the creativity of people and know that if there is a crime a drone can be used to commit, someone will figure out how to make that happen.

While drones will have many positive uses, it certainly seems to be a good idea to rationally consider how they will be misused and develop strategies to counter these likely misuses. This, as always, will require a balance between the freedom needed to utilize technology for good and the restrictions needed to limit the damage that can be done with it.


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Should the State Forbid Buying with Food Stamps?

Some states have passed or are considering laws that would restrict what government aid can be used to purchase. One apparently pro-active approach, taken by my adopted state of Florida, has been to weed out drug users by requiring recipients of aid to pass a drug test. In Missouri, there has been an effort to prevent food stamp recipients from using their aid to buy steak or seafood. In Kansas a proposed law forbids people receiving government assistance from using those funds to visit swimming pools, buy movie tickets, gamble or get tattoos.

While these proposals and policies are fueled primarily by unwarranted stereotypes of the poor, it is possible to argue in their favor and two such arguments will be considered. Both arguments share a common principle, namely that the state needs to protect certain citizens from harm (which is a reasonable principle). The first argument centers on the need for the state to protect the poor from their poor decision making. The second focuses on the need to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor.

The first argument is essentially an appeal to paternalism: the poor are incapable of making their own good decisions and thus the wisdom of the lawmakers must guide them. If left unguided, the poor will waste their limited government support on things like drugs, gambling, tattoos, steak and lobsters. This approach certainly has a philosophical pedigree. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, argued that the compulsive power of the state should be used to compel the citizens to be virtuous. Other thinkers, usually those who favor totalitarianism, also find the idea of such paternalism very appealing.

Despite the pedigree of this approach, it is always reasonable to inquire as to whether a law is actually needed or not. In the case of a law that forbids, the obvious line of inquiry is to investigate the extent to which people engage in the behavior that is supposed to be forbidden by the law.

Despite the anecdotal evidence of Fox News’ infamous welfare surfer, there seems to be little evidence that people who receive state aid are blowing their state aid on strip clubs, drugs, steak or lobster. Rather, the poor (like almost everyone else) spend most of their money on things like housing and non-luxury food. In regards to drugs, people on support are no more likely than anyone else to be using them. As such, unless it can be clearly shown that a significant percentage of aid recipients are engaged in such “poor choices”, these laws would seem to be solutions in search of a problem.

It is also reasonable to consider whether or not a law is morally consistent in regards to how all citizens are treated. If the principle at work is that recipients of state money must be guided by the state because they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, then this must be extended to all recipients of such money. This would include farmers getting subsidies, companies getting government contracts, government employees, recipients of tax breaks (such as the mortgage tax breaks), and so on. This is all government aid.

This is a matter of moral consistency—if some citizens must be subject to strict restrictions on how the state money can be spent and perhaps pass a drug test before getting it, then the same must apply to all citizens. Unless, of course, a relevant difference can be shown.

It could be argued that the poor, despite the lack of evidence, are simply more wasteful and worse at spending decisions than the rest of the population. While this does match the stereotypical narrative that some like to push, it does not seem to match reality. After all, billions of dollars simply vanished in Iraq. One does not need to spend much time on Google to find multitudes of examples of how non-poor recipients of state money wasted it or blew it on luxuries.

It could then be argued that extending this principle to everyone would be a good idea. After all, people who are not poor make bad decisions with state money and this shows that they are in need of the guiding wisdom of the state and strict control. Of course, this would result in a paternalistic (or “nanny” as some prefer) state that so many self-proclaimed small government freedom lovers professes to dislike.

Obviously, it is also important to consider whether or not a law will be more harmful or more beneficial. While it could be argued that the poor would be better off if compelled by the state to spend their aid money on what the state deems they should spend it on, there is still the fact that these policies and proposals are solutions in search of a problem. That is, these laws would not benefit people because they are typically not engaged in wasteful spending to begin with.

There is also the moral concern about the harm done to the autonomy and dignity of the recipients of the aid. It is, after all, an assault on a person’s dignity to assume that she is wasteful and bad at making decisions. It is an attack on a person’s autonomy to try to control him, even for his own good.

It might be countered that if the poor accept the state’s money, then they must accept the restrictions imposed by the state. While this does have some appeal, consistency would (as noted above) require this to be applied to everyone getting state money. Which includes the rich. And the people passing such laws. Presumably they would not like to be treated this way and consistency would seem to require that they treat others as they would wish to be treated.

The second main argument for such restrictions is based on the claim that they are needed to protect the taxpayers from being exploited by the poor. While some do contend that any amount of state aid is too much and is theft from the taxpayers (the takers stealing from the makers), such restrictions at least accept that the poor should receive some aid. But, this aid must be for essentials and not wasted—otherwise the taxpayers’ money is being (obviously enough) wasted.

As was discussed above, an obvious point of concern is whether or not such waste is occurring at a level that justifies the compulsive power of the state being employed. As noted above, these proposals and policies seem to be solutions in search of a problem. As a general rule, laws and restrictions should not be imposed without adequate justification and this seems lacking in this case.

This is not to say that people should not be concerned that taxpayer money is being wasted or spent unwisely. It, in fact, is. However, this is not a case of the clever poor milking the middleclass and the rich. Rather, it is a case of the haves milking the have-less. One prime example of this is wealthfare, much of which involves taxpayer money going to subsidize and aid those who are already quite well off, such as corporations. So, I do agree that the taxpayer needs to be protected from exploitation. But, the exploiters are not the poor. This should be rather obvious—if they were draining significant resources from the rest of the citizens, they would no longer be poor.

But, some might still insist, the poor really are spending their rather small aid money on steak, lobsters, strip clubs and gambling. One not unreasonable reply is that “man does not live by bread alone” and it does not seem wrong that the poor would also have a chance to enjoy the tiny luxuries or fun that their small amount of aid can buy.  Assuming, of course, that they are not spending everything on food and shelter. I would certainly not begrudge a person an occasional steak or beer. Or a swim in a pool. I do, of course, think that people should spend wisely, but that is another matter.


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A Shooting in South Carolina

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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Corporations Are Being Denied Freedom of Expression & Religion!

English: Freedom of Expression trademark certi...

English: Freedom of Expression trademark certificate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, corporations are considered persons. In recent years the judiciary has accepted that this entitles corporations to rights, such as freedom of speech (which was used to justify corporate spending in politics) and freedom of religion (which was used to allow companies to refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control).

Despite having freedom of speech and religion because they are people, corporations can, unlike other people, be legally owned. Common stock is bought and sold as a matter of routine business and provides an ownership share in a corporation. Since corporations are people, this means that people are being allowed to legally own other people. Owning another person is, of course, slavery. While slavery was legal at one time in the United States, the 13th amendment is rather clear on this matter: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

If corporations are entitled to 1st amendment rights because they are people, it follows that they must also be entitled to 13th amendment rights. That is, corporations have a right not to be owned by other people. The obvious reply is that this is absurd. My response is that this is exactly my point: the 13th Amendment provides the path to the obvious reductio ad absurdum (“reducing to absurdity) to the claim that corporations are people. If they are people and thus get rights, then they cannot be owned. If they can be owned, they are not people and hence do not get the rights of people.

But, let it be supposed that companies are people and hence get the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.  Yet somehow don’t get the freedom not to be enslaved. It will be interesting to see where these claims actually lead.

Freedom of expression is usually presented in terms of a person’s right to engage in expression, perhaps by secretly donating fat stacks of cash to shadow political organizations. However, freedom of expression can also be regarded as a freedom from being compelled to engage in certain expressions. For example, the State of Texas has argued against allowing the Confederate battle flag on Texas license plates on this ground. This seems quite reasonable: the freedom to express myself would certainly seem to include the freedom to not express what I do not wish to express.

Freedom of religion is also usually presented in terms of protection from being limited or restricted in the practicing of one’s faith. However, like freedom of expression, it can also be taken to include the right not to be compelled to engage in religious activities against one’s will. So, for example, people have argued that compelling a wedding cake baker to not discriminate against same-sex couples would be to compel her to engage in an activity that goes against her faith. While I disagree with the claim that forbidding discrimination violates religious freedom, I do agree that compelling a person to act against her faith can be an unjust violation of religious freedom.

Corporations, at least according to the law, have freedom of expression and freedom of religion. As such, they have the general right not to be compelled to express views they do not hold and the right not to be compelled to engage in practices against their religious beliefs. Given that a corporation is a person, there is the question of what a corporation would want to express and the question of its faith.

It might be claimed that since a corporation seems to be just a legal fiction operated by actual people, then the beliefs and expressive desires of the corporation are those of the people who are in charge. On this view, a corporation is a legal Mechanical Turk, a pantomime person, the face of the Wizard of Oz (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”). While run by an actual person or people, it is a fictional shell that is not a person.

The advantage of this approach is the corporation’s faith is the faith of the actual people and what it desires to express is what they desire to express. The obvious problem is that this view makes it clear that the corporation is not a person, so it would not get a set of rights of its own, above and beyond the rights already held by the actual people who control the legal pantomime person. So, claims about violations of freedoms would have to be about violations against actual, specific people and not against the legal version of a Mechanical Turk (or Legal Turk, if one prefers).

If someone insists that the corporation is a person in its own right, then this entails it is a distinct entity apart from the folks that would seem to be operating a non-person pantomime person. On this view, the views of the corporation cannot automatically be those of the people who would seem to be operating the pantomime person. After all, if it is just them, it is not a person. To be a person, it needs to have its own personhood. If it has freedom of expression, it must have its own desires of what to express. If it has freedom of religion, it must have its own faith.

Sadly, corporations are not free to express their own views or their own faith. They are owned and compelled to speak and engage in matters of faith. While there is a chance that the corporate person’s views and faith match those of the human persons infesting its legal body, this need not be the case. After all, a slave that is forced by her owner to say things and go to church might believe what she says or have the faith she is compelled to practice…but she might not. Unless she is set free from her owners and allowed her own beliefs and faith, she cannot be said to have freedom of expression or faith.

While Tim Cook has spoken in favor of same-sex marriage, Apple might be a devoutly Christian corporation that cries (metaphorical) tears each time it is forced to mouth (metaphorically) Tim Cook’s words. The corporation Hobby Lobby might be a bisexual atheist corporation. As it is beaten to its (metaphorical) knees to cry out prayers to a God it does not believe in, it might be eager to engage in hot mergers with other companies, regardless of their gender. Until these corporations are freed from the tyranny of ownership, they can never truly exercise their freedom as people.

The obvious response to this absurd silliness is that it is, well, clearly absurd and silly. However, that is exactly my point. If a corporation is a person that is distinct from the actual people operating the pantomime legal person, then it is being denied its freedom of expression and religion because it is forced to say and do what others want it to say and do.  This is, as I am sure most will agree, pure absurdity. If a corporation is really just a legal pantomime and the corporate beliefs and ideas are really just those of the folks operating the legal pantomime, then it is not a person and does not have the rights of a person. The real people do, of course, have all the rights they have always possessed.

This is not to say that there should not be collective rights and laws for organizations. But this is very different from regarding a corporation as a person with a faith and beliefs it wishes to express. That is, obviously enough, a pile of pantomime bull.


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Is Baking a Gay Wedding Cake an Endorsement of Same-Sex Marriage?

Indiana’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act set off a firestorm of controversy. Opponents of the law contended that it would legalize discrimination while some proponents argued that it would do no such thing. Some proponents contended that it would allow people and businesses to refuse certain services to homosexuals, but that this should not be considered discrimination but a matter of freedom of expression. This approach is both interesting and well worth considering.

In the United States, freedom of expression is a legally protected right. More importantly, from a philosophical perspective, it is also a well-supported moral right. As such, an appeal to freedom of expression can be a useful defense.

In the case of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the argument from freedom of expression would certainly not work in regards to justifying general discrimination in regards to goods and services. For example, the owner of a pizzeria would be hard pressed to claim that not being allowed to refuse service to a person just because she is gay violates his freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression might be applicable in certain cases.

While the freedom of expression is typically presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to express views (specifically views that one does not hold or that one opposes). The right to not be compelled in one’s expression would thus seem to give a person a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal. For example, I operate a writing business—I write books to be sold and I do freelance work. I obviously have no moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is clearly an act of expression. As such, my freedom of expression grants me a clear moral right to refuse to write a tract endorsing Nazism or one advocating hatred of Christians. I also design book covers and do some graphic work (graphic as in visual, not as in adult content). Since these are clearly expressions, I would have the moral right to refuse to do a book cover for book expressing ideas I regard as morally wrong, such as eliminating religious freedom in favor of enforced atheism. This is because the creation of such work entails a clear endorsement and expression of the ideas. If I write a tract in favor of white supremacy, I am unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. If I knowingly do a cover for a book on white supremacy, then it would be reasonable to infer I agreed with the ideas. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable.

Obviously, an author or cover designer who believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness would also be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to express views she does not hold. If a LGBT group approached her and offered her a fat stack of cash to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject their offer. After all, they have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for fat stacks of cash.

In contrast, I could not use freedom of expression as a reason to not sell one of my books or works to a person. For example, freedom of expression does not grant me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to Nazis, racists, intolerant atheists, or non-runners. After all, selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

Likewise, the author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author (but it obviously does not entail it—I have plenty of philosophy books whose contents I regard as being in error), it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage.

Not surprisingly, no one has claimed that religious freedom acts are needed to protect Christian writers from being forced to write pro-gay works. However, it has been argued that the acts are needed to protect the freedom of expression for people such as caterers, bakers, and photographers.

The argument is that catering a wedding, baking a wedding cake, doing a wedding or engagement photo shoot and similar things are expressions and are thus covered by the right to freedom of expression.

Obviously enough, if these activities are expressions analogous to the paradigm cases of speech and writing, then the freedom of expression does protect them. As such, the key question is whether or not such actions are acts of expression such that engaging in them in relation to a same-sex wedding would express an endorsement of same-sex marriage.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to cater, photograph or bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would clearly be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that catering a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that photographing Canadians being married was an endorsement of Canada, she would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps a case could be made that catering, baking and photographing are expressions of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, catering food for a wedding would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing Pathfinder, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a specific sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. Likewise, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. Obviously enough, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery, this does not entail her approval of adultery.

It could be argued that bakers have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans and condemnations of straight “breeders.” However, creating a plain wedding cake is not the expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse contract to write in support of that view.

Since photography is a form of art (at least in some cases), it is certainly reasonable to regard it is a form of artistic expression. On this ground it is reasonable to accept that photography is protected by the freedom of expression. The key issue here is whether taking pictures commercially is like writing words—that is, photographing something is an endorsement of the activity or if it is like selling a book, which is merely selling a product and not an endorsement.

On the face of it, commercial photography would seem to be like selling a book. A person who is paid to cover a war or a disaster is not taken to be endorsing the war or the disaster. One would not say that because a person took a photo of a soldier shooting a civilian that he endorse that activity. Likewise, a person photographing a wedding is not endorsing the wedding—she is merely recording the event. For money.

It might be countered that a wedding photographer is different from other commercial photographers—she is involved in the process and her involvement is an expression of approval. But, of course, commercial photographers who take photos at sports events, political events, protests and such are also involved in the process—they are there, taking pictures. However, a photographer hired to take pictures of Hilary Clinton does not thus express her support (or vote) for Hilary. She is just taking pictures.  Fox News, after all, takes video and photos of Hilary Clinton, but they do not thereby endorse Hilary. As such, the freedom of expression would not seem to grant a commercial photographer the right to refuse to photograph a same-sex wedding on the basis of an appeal to freedom of expression since taking photos does not involve endorsing the subject.

That said, another approach would be to argue that while taking a photo of an event does not entail endorsement of the event, an artist cannot be compelled to create a work of art that she does not wish to create. Since a photograph is art, a wedding photographer cannot be compelled to create an image of a same-sex wedding, just as a writer cannot be justly compelled to write a certain sort of book. This certainly has considerable appeal. After all, a photographer would seem to have every right to refuse to take photos of a wedding orgy or even of a tastefully nude wedding on the basis of the content.

Of course, this would also seem to allow commercial wedding photographers to refuse to take photos of blacks, Christians, Jews, or anything on the grounds that she does not want to create, for example, a photographic work including crosses or black people. So, consistency would seem to require that if wedding photographers can refuse to serve gay clients on the basis of artistic content, then a wedding photographer could refuse anyone on the same grounds. Thus, wedding photographers should be permitted to have “whites only”, “straights only” or “gays only” signs on their business. For artistic reasons, of course. This does seem a bit problematic in regards to commercial wedding photographers.


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Should there be a waiting period for abortion?

The Florida state legislature is considering bills that will require a woman seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours and make two face-to-face visits to her doctor before she can have the abortion. Opponents of this bill claim that is yet another attack on the rights of women. Proponents of the bill claim that the state mandated waiting period is reasonable and will permit women to be informed about the risks of abortion and the condition of the fetus. Twenty-six other states have waiting periods, some as long as 72 hours. While the legal aspects of these bills are of considerable interest, I will focus primarily on the moral aspects of the waiting period and the two-visit requirement.

One proponent of the bill, Julie Costas, said that she had an abortion thirty years ago and that she now regrets the decision. Her main argument for the bill is that, counterfactually, she might have changed her mind if she had received more information (thus supporting the two-visit requirement) and if she had to wait 24 hours (thus supporting the 24 hour requirement). This sort of argument can be made into a moral argument in favor of the bill. By the state imposing the two-visit requirement and the 24 hour waiting, there is a chance that some women might change their minds about having an abortion which they might later regret having. In terms of the moral aspect, the appeal is that the requirements might prevent a later harm (that inflicted by the regret) to a woman. Naturally, it can also be contended that increasing the chance that a woman might not get an abortion would be morally good since it would avoid the death of the fetus (which, for the sake of this argument, be considered wrong).

I certainly agree that a woman (or girl) should take time to consider whether or not to have an abortion. After all, an abortion is a morally significant action and is one that is clearly important enough to warrant due consideration. I suspect, but do not know, that most woman do put considerable thought into this decision. Obviously, there can be exceptions—there are, after all, people who consistently act without thinking through their actions. While I do think there is a moral obligation to think through morally significant actions, I am not sure that 24 hours is the right waiting time. After all, there would need to be evidence that an extra 24 hours of consideration is likely to result in a better decision.

In terms of the number of visits, that should depend on what the woman actually needs. After all, it is not clear that a second visit would consistently result in more information for the woman that one visit could not provide. There are also the rather practical concerns of cost and time. Would, for example, the state pick up the tab on the second visit that would be mandated? I suspect not.

I have, of course, not said anything yet about the most important consideration. While I think people should take time to properly consider significant decisions and perhaps two visits could be a good idea, there is the critical issue of whether or not this is a matter suitable for the coercive power of the state. After all, there is a multitude of things people should do that should not be compelled by the state. For example, I think that people should exercise, should be polite, should be kind and should eat healthy. However, I do not think that the state should compel these things. But, of course, there are many things that people should do and the state justly compels people to do them. These include such things as paying a fair share of the taxes and serving on juries.

While some people take the view that the state should compel based on what they like and dislike, I prefer to operate based on a consistent principle when it comes to the compulsive power of the state. The principle, which I obviously stole from Mill, is that the use of the compulsive force of the state is justified when it is employed to prevent one person from wrongly harming another. A case can also be made for compelling people in order to serve the general civil good—such as compelling people to serve on juries and pay a fair share of the taxes. However, compelling people to serve the good is generally rather more problematic than compelling people to not inflict wrongful harm.

The principle of harm could, obviously enough, be used to argue against allowing abortion on the grounds that it harms (kills) the fetus. Of course, this is not decisive, since the harms of not having an abortion must also be given due consideration. This principle would not, however, seem to justify the two-visit and 24-hour waiting period requirements. Then again, perhaps it could be argued that they would provide some slight possible protection for the fetus: the woman might change her mind. This sort of really weak protection does not seem to be a very convincing moral reason to have a law.

It could be argued that a different version of the principle of harm should be used. To be specific, that a law can be morally justified on the grounds that it would compel a person not to harm herself. This principle can, obviously enough, be justified on utilitarian grounds. Various laws, such as the infamous NYC ban on big sodas, have been passed that aim at protecting a person from self-inflicted harms.

In the case of this bill, the moral reasoning would be that because there is a chance that a woman might change her mind about an abortion she might later regret, it follows that the state has the right to compel her to have two visits and to wait twenty-four hours. A rather obvious problem with this justification is that it would set a very low bar for the state using its compulsive power: there must only be a chance that a person might change her mind about engaging in a legal procedure that she might later regret. This principle would obviously warrant the state engaging into a massive intrusion into the lives of citizens. Sticking with a medical example, people do sometimes regret having elective surgery. So, this principle would warrant the state imposing a waiting period and a two visit rule. But there would seem to be no reason to stick within the field of medicine. People can come to regret many significant decisions, such as buying a car, choosing a college major, accepting a job offer, or moving. Yet it would seem unreasonable to impose a waiting period for such decisions. Looked at in utilitarian terms, the harms inflicted by such laws (such as the cost of enforcement, the annoyance, and so on) would seem to outweigh their alleged benefits. Especially since a waiting period would not seem to increase the chances of a better decision being made.

What makes considerably more sense is having laws that protect people from decisions made while they are incapable of properly making decisions, such as when intoxicated. So, for example, it would be reasonable to have a law that prevents a person from getting married when she is intoxicated. It is also reasonable to have waiting periods that are based on actual need. For example, a waiting period that is needed to complete paperwork or verify a person’s legal identity would be justifiable on practical grounds (assuming the time requirements are legitimate).

In light of the above arguments, the proposed bill is not morally justified and would, if made into law, be an unwarranted intrusion of the state into the lives of citizens. Those who oppose big government and government intrusion should oppose this bill. Those who favor the “nanny state” should, obviously enough, support it.


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Little Assassins

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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