Author Archives: Mike LaBossiere

The Sharing Economy III: Resources (Human & Other)

Olathe Human Resources

Olathe Human Resources (Photo credit: City of Olathe, KS)

In my previous two essays I wrote about the new sharing economy, focusing on regulations and taxes. In this essay I will cover resources (human and other). As noted in the previous two essays, the new sharing economy is exemplified by companies such as Uber and Airbnb that serve to organize transactions between individuals. In the case of Uber, people can serve as drivers for Uber selling rides in their own cars—without (as of this writing) all the usual costs and regulations of operating a cab. In the case of Airbnb, people can rent out property and (as of this writing) generally avoid the usual regulation and taxes associated with running a hotel.

For the people providing the goods and services, the new sharing economy makes it easier for people to make money. In general, the new sharing economy involves three parties. The first is the person who provides the actual good (apartment, for example) or service (a ride to the airport, for example). The second is the person who uses the service and the third is the company that provides the organizing service (often via an app) While this is an old model (people have long offered services and goods via things like newspaper ads), technological advances have changed the scale of this once informal economy. It has also served to blur the traditional roles somewhat. To be specific, those who provide the goods and services are not actually employees of the organizing services and those using the goods and services are not exactly customers of the organizing services. There are some advantages and some disadvantages in regards to these roles.

In the case of those providing the services and goods, one of the obvious advantages is that they can make money. While they could do this without the organizing service, the service obviously makes this easier and provides other advantages.

One of the advantages of not actually being an employee of the organizing services is that the provider has a high degree of autonomy that is usually absent in the traditional employee-employer relationship. The provider can (within the constraints of economic need) work as little as desired and is free to stop at will. This level of autonomy certainly has considerable appeal to some people—especially people who are looking for a more traditional job while making money to pay the bills. In some ways, the situation is somewhat like being a temp.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to being a provider. One is that doing this is rather like being self-employed in that there are typically no benefits and no job security. Also, the risks and costs tend to fall heavily on the provider. For example, if someone crashes into the company truck Sally is driving, then the company handles the matter. But, if Sally is freedriving for Uber and her car is hit, this is most likely going to work exactly as it would if Sally was just driving to Starbucks for a latte—that is, it is on her.

Another point of concern is that the organizer might be in the position to set rates or impose other limits—much like a traditional boss can. For example, Uber can set what drivers are paid on its own

But, this is nothing new—people who do freelance work or are self-employed in the usual sense face all these problems. After all, being the worker is generally not an optimal situation and being what amounts to a temp or freelancer can be even less optimal in terms of security and pay.

There are numerous advantages to the organizing companies. One is that they have people doing the actual work for them (for example, driving people) who are not employees. They also typically have people providing the resources (cars, gas, houses and so on) that are used. While the companies do incur costs in terms of running the organizing functions, they are able to avoid (or significantly reduce) the usual costs of running a business. For example, a hotel needs to have hotel employees (maids, etc.) and an actual hotel. Airbnd does not—the providers provide the services and buildings. As another example, a service that organizes drivers does not need to buy cars, maintain them or insure them—thus resulting in considerable savings.

In essence, the new sharing economy splits management from what would traditionally be the resources (human or otherwise) of a company. The organizer takes on the role of management while avoiding the need to have traditional human resources (beyond the administrative aspects of the business) and the need to have the material resources (beyond those needed for the administrative aspects).

Some companies do operate in something of a hybrid mode—having workers as well as material resources owned by the company while also having a sharing aspect to the business. This is, clearly enough, a variation on the old model of a company hiring temp workers, freelancers and contractors.

This model can, apparently, be very profitable—in large part due to matters of scale. After all, getting a slice of thousands of sales can result in a nice profit. Also, many of these companies benefit from internet inflation—the almost magical overvaluation of companies with business models based on the internet.

Given the apparent success of companies like Uber and Airbnd, it is reasonable to expect other companies to spring into existence to create what might be a new internet bubble—the sharing bubble. Of course, there are some clear limits on what sort of companies can exist—for example, airlines and heavy manufacturing are not really fit for the sharing economy. However, additional advances in economy might see some new realms for the sharing economy. For example, if 3D printers become truly viable, light and specialized manufacturing might become part of the sharing economy.

 

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The Sharing Economy II: Taxes

Sheraton Hotel

Sheraton Hotel (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

In my previous essay on the new sharing economy I discussed the matter of regulation in regards to such companies as Uber and Airbnb. In this essay, I’ll cover the subjects of taxes.

As with regulation, some people are quite opposed to taxes. Other people are fine with taxes—at least with imposing taxes on others. In general, though, people prefer to not pay taxes. As such, it is hardly a surprise that the new sharing economy includes various attempts to avoid taxes. One example of this is the case of services like Airbnb. On the face of it, these services are just providing a means by which a person can rent out his spare room, condo or apartment. For example, a person who will be in another state for a few months might use Airbnd to rent out his apartment so he can have some income to offset the rent. Looked at one way, this service is just a more organized version of the old informal economy in which people do a sublease, rent out their camp, or get a temporary tenant for their house.

One aspect of the informal economy is that taxes are usually not collected. For example, if Professor Sally informally rents out her house to her grad student Bob while she is in Europe as a visiting professor, Professor Sally and Bob will almost certainly not pay taxes—although Bill and Sally would certainly be involved with tax payments if Bob was renting a hotel room from Sally. While there are no doubt people who would like taxes paid on even informal transactions such as this, the informal nature of these transactions tend to make this impractical—this part of the traditional informal economy is small and decentralized so that having a tax system would be cost prohibitive in terms of what is gained in regards to the public good. There is also the legitimate concern that such private transactions (“okay, you can stay at my house for two months while I am in Europe, but you need to pay the utility bills, take care of the plants and walk my dog”) can fall outside of the legitimate domain of state control.

However, when a company such as Airbnd gets involved, then things change. The once purely informal economy becomes centralized around companies and there is also an increase in the scale of operations. After all, it is one thing if Professor Sally’s grad student is paying a modest fee to stay in her house while she is in Europe, it is quite another if Professor Sally starts running her house as a hotel. It also becomes a somewhat different matter if the number of people renting out property increases significantly. To be clear, there would seem to be three important changes.  The first would be the centralization. Instead of people reaching informal agreements as individuals (who often know each other), these would be actual business transactions through a central company. The second would be the character of the process—short term renting out via a company would be rather closer to the hotel model than to the old informal model. The third would be the number of people involved: the sharing economy would presumably be considerably larger than the old informal economy.

From a practical standpoint, two of the changes could be used to justify using a similar tax approach to the sharing economy as is used in the traditional business economy (such as that of hotels). To be specific, with a centralized company and a large operation the collection of taxes becomes a more practical matter.

From a moral standpoint, if it is acceptable for the businesses with the same model (such as the traditional hotel) to have taxes imposed, then the same would seem to apply to the new sharing economy. So, if Sally would have to handle taxes if she ran a traditional hotel, then she should have to do the same if she ran her sharing economy hotel through an online service like Airbnb. Or perhaps Airbnb would be the one to handle the taxes.

Naturally enough, it might be wondered why taxes should be imposed on the new sharing economy—even if the new sharing economy is rather similar to aspects of the old economy. Of course, the people who make money through sharing rides or apartments do pay taxes for that income. However, there has been some controversy over services like Airbnb paying the hotel tax.

One reason for sharing companies to pay taxes and fees like traditional companies that they are analogous to is fairness. After all, the free market is not as free if some companies enjoy special breaks. Another reason is that the taxes and fees are needed to pay the public services and infrastructure that such companies (and their sharers) utilize. It might be contended that this is already covered by the taxes paid by individuals for their income. However, by that logic, businesses would seem to be exempt from taxes and fees on the grounds that their employees pay taxes.

Also, the growth of the sharing economy imposes new costs on the community in a way comparable to the costs of having a similar business. For example, having many Uber drivers in an area is like adding a large cab company to the area. As another example, having Airbnb rentals in a community makes the area more like a hotel area, with the accompanying burden on the community. As such, if the community (which includes many people who are not part of the sharing economy) faces increased costs then it is clearly acceptable to pass these costs on to those who benefit from this new economy.

There is also the cost of regulating the industry—as noted in my previous essay, when the sharing economy becomes comparable to the normal businesses (such as hotels and cab companies), then comparable public good (such as safety) regulations should apply. Naturally, these come with costs and it makes sense that the costs should be connected to the profits, rather than just be taken from the community in general. For example, with non-professional drivers acting like cab drivers and people renting out apartments and homes like hotels, there are legitimate concerns about public safety. Cab companies and hotels bear some of the cost of their regulation and so too should the sharing companies.

Naturally, there is still the more general debate about what is a fair tax/fee and concerns about the impact of taxes on the economy. However, it seems reasonable to believe that the sharing economy is analogous to the non-sharing economy and that it should bear a fair share of costs imposed upon the community.

 

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The Sharing Economy I: Regulation

Airbnb logo

Airbnb logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rising success of companies such as Airbnd and Uber have created considerable interest in what has been called the sharing economy. The core idea behind the sharing economy is an old one: people provide goods and services as individuals rather than acting as employees or businesses. One classic example of this is paying a neighborhood kid who mows lawns or babysits. Another classic example is paying a friend’s gas money for a ride to the airport. The new version of the sharing economy does make some changes to the traditional model. The fundamental difference is that the old sharing economy was typically an informal word-of-mouth system while the new sharing economy is organized by companies. As an example of the old sharing economy, your neighbor might have told you about the teenager she hired to babysit her kids or to mow her lawn (back in the day when this was an accepted practice). As an example of the new sharing economy, you might use the Uber app to get a chipper soccer mom to give you a ride to the airport in her mini-van. Unlike the old sharing economy in which your neighbor (probably) did not take a cut for connecting you to a sitter or mower, the companies that connect people get a cut of the proceeds—which can be justified by the services they provide.

The new sharing economy has received considerable praise, mainly due to the fact that it makes it easier for people to make money in what are still challenging economic times. For example, a person who would be hard pressed to get a job as a professional cabbie can easily drive for Uber. However, it has also drawn considerable criticism.

As might be suspected, some of the most vocal critics of the sharing economy are the people whose livelihoods and profits are threatened by this economy. For example, Uber’s conflicts with taxi services routinely make the news. Some people dismiss these criticisms as the usual lamentations of obsolete industries while others regard the criticisms as having legitimacy. In any case, there is certainly considerable controversy regarding this new sharing economy.

One point of concern is regulation. As it now stands, the sharing economy is exploiting the loopholes that exist in the informal economy (which is regulated far less than the formal economy). For example, professional cab drivers are subject to a fairly extensive set of regulations (and expenses, such as insurance costs) while an Uber driver is not. As another example, the hotel industry is regulated while services like Airbnb currently lack such regulations regarding things such as safety and handicap access.

Some proponents of the free market might praise the limited (or nonexistent) regulation and this praise might have some merit—after all, it has long been contended that regulation impedes profits. However, there are at least two legitimate concerns here.

One is, obviously enough, the matter of fairness. If taxi drivers and hotels are subject to strict regulations that also involve additional costs, then it hardly seems fair that companies like Uber and Aibnd can offer the same services while evading these regulations. One obvious option is to impose them on the sharing economy. Another obvious option is to reduce regulations on the traditional economy. In any case, fairness would seem to require comparable regulation.

The second is the matter of safety and other concerns of the public good. While some regulations might be seen as burdensome, others clearly exist to protect the public from legitimate harms. For example, hotels are held to certain standards of cleanliness and safety. As another example, taxi companies are subject to regulations aimed at protecting the public. If the new sharing economy puts people at risk in similar ways, then it seems reasonable to impose comparable regulations on the sharing economy. After all, whether you are getting a hotel room or going through Airbnb, you should have a reasonable expectation that you will not perish in a fire due to safety issues.

It might be countered that the new sharing economy should still fall under the standards of the old sharing economy. For example, if I ask a friend to take me to the airport and she has an awful car and is a terrible driver, it is hardly the business of the state to regulate my choice (although the state would have the right to address any actual traffic violations). As another example, if I crash on someone’s couch for the night, it is hardly the business of the state to make sure that the couch is properly cleaned and that the house is suitable (although it would need to be up to code).

While this does have some appeal, there are two main arguments against this approach. The first is that the informal economy is largely unregulated because it is just that—informal. Once a company like Uber or Airbnd gets into the picture, the economy has become formalized—there is now a central company that is organizing things. This allows a practical means of regulating what is now commercial activity. The second is the matter of scale. When the informal economy is relatively small, the cost and difficulty of regulating for the public good can be prohibitive. For example, policing neighborhood babysitters or people who give the occasional ride to friends and get gas money for doing so would impose a high cost for a little return in public good. However, when an aspect of the informal economy gets organized by a company and greatly expands in size, then there is more at stake and hence paying the cost of regulating for the public good becomes viable. For example, regulating people occasionally giving friends or associates rides is one thing (a silly thing), but regulating large numbers of people driving vehicles for Uber is quite another matter.

One area that is going to be a matter of considerable controversy is that of discrimination. If Bob does not want to share a ride with a white colleague or give a handicapped associate a lift, then that is Bob’s right.  After all, a citizen has every right to be biased. But, it gets rather more complicated if Bob is driving for Uber—after all, discrimination does harm to the public and the public might have a stake in preventing Uber Bob from discriminating. Similary, if Bob does not want his Latino friend crashing on his couch because he thinks Latinos are thieves, that is Bob’s right (the right of being a jerk to one’s friends). But, if Bob is renting out a room through Airbnd, then this could be a matter of legitimate public concern.

It might be countered that people “freedriving” or “freerenting” for the sharing companies still retain the right to discriminate since they are acting as individuals, albeit under the auspices of a company. That does have considerable appeal, especially since the people driving or renting are not actually employees of these companies. The company is just assisting people to exchange services and, it could be claimed, is no more accountable than a newspaper that has a “for sale” or “help wanted” section. Obviously enough, companies are generally going to want to avoid being associated with discrimination and hence they will probably engage in some degree of self-policing to avoid PR nightmares (or will do so if they are sensible or ethical). However, there is clearly an important issue here regarding whether or not laws against discrimination should be applicable to individuals who are involved with the sharing economy companies. The somewhat fuzzy status of those providing services does create a legitimate problem. As noted above, on one hand they are still just individuals using the service to connect to others. On the other hand, this service does seem to bring them into more of a formal business situation which is subject to such laws.

 

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Academic Freedom & State Schools

English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Academic freedom is a longstanding and generally well-supported right. In terms of its underpinnings, the obvious foundation is freedom of expression—the right to express views and ideas without being silenced. In the case of academic freedom, the expression is (obviously enough) in an academic context. It is typically taken as being more than just protection regarding making specific claims in that it is supposed to provide fairly broad protection in such matters as selecting books, developing curriculum and so on. It is also supposed to protect professors (tenured professors at least) from being fired or punished for expressing their views (in legitimate ways—it is not a license to say anything without consequences).

Stereotypically, defenders of academic freedom are seen as leftists. However, in somewhat recent years, some conservatives have come forth to accuse “the left” of restricting the academic freedom of conservative thinkers in accord with the doctrines of political correctness. While such matters are overstated in the usual hyperbole of politics, there are enough incidents of faculty being punished for holding views that are regarded as politically incorrect. For example, Mike Adams was apparently denied promotion to full professor on the basis of his political engagement rather than a legitimate lack in his qualifications. There have also been proposals to use a standard of academic justice to replace academic freedom. While the idea of justice certainly sounds nice, the proposal is to substitute an ideological test in place of the general right—in short, academics could research what they wished, provided that it is consistent with the specific ideology. As might be suspected, I have written at length in opposition to this proposal. There have also been proposals from “the left” regarding trigger warnings and these proposals also provide a potential threat to academic freedom—a subject I have also written about.

While I am typically cast as being on “the left”, I take a consistent position regarding academic freedom—namely that I support it. Since I am consistent, this support extends to fellow professors whose views I disagree with—while I think they are wrong, I hold that they have as much right as I do to express these views. Even when (or especially when) they are regarded as “politically incorrect.”

One interesting problem of academic freedom arises for state colleges and universities. While even for-profit schools receive money from the government, state schools receive funding from the state—as decided by the state legislature. While academic institutes, they are subject to the control of the state government. To use a concrete example, Florida’s state legislature recently passed a law changing the general education requirements for all state schools, thus requiring faculty and administrators to implement the changes.

Given that the state government is (in theory) acting in accord with the “will of the people” and that the schools are funded with state money (that is, the people’s money), it is not unreasonable to believe that the state has the right to impose a degree of control over the schools. A rather important question is the extent to which the state should impose on academic freedom. As might be guessed, people answer this question based largely on their ideology.

As noted above, some of the loudest voices crying out for academic freedom these days are coming from the right. Somewhat ironically, one of the harshest impositions on academic freedom in recent years has come from that same right. To be specific, a senate panel of the Michigan senate banned courses at public schools “that promote or discourage organizing efforts.” The penalty for doing so is $500,000.

The University of Michigan was accused of breaking this rule because it offers courses on the history of labor. State Rep. Al Pscholka (who chairs the house panel controlling higher education funding) said, “I believe in academic freedom, and you’re going to have difficult subjects that you’re going to cover at any university. But this is a case where I think we’re almost encouraging labor disputes, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.” Interestingly, Pscholka praised the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby case as a victory for religious freedom.

This view of liberty is hardly surprising. As Mill noted in his classic work on liberty, people tend to not operate based on a consistent principle regarding what should be allowed and what should be restricted. Rather, people decide based on what they like and dislike. As such, it is hardly a shock that folks on the left and right praise freedom when it is protecting something they like while being quite happy to restrict freedom when it involves something they do not like. But, as one might say, the law is the law and consistency of principle seems to lack legal weight.

That said, there is still the question of whether the state has the right to make such an imposition. As noted above, one avenue of argumentation is that since the state provides the funding and the schools are public institutions, then the state government has the right to dictate to the universities in regards to the content of their courses.

If this line of reasoning is strong, then this would be a general principle and not one just limited to the Republicans of Michigan wanting to keep courses on labor off state campuses. So if a state legislature passed laws forbidding teaching business courses or courses in religion, then that would be acceptable under this principle. It would also be acceptable for a law to be passed banning the teaching of Western history, Western values, anything that is seen as endorsing “the patriarchy”, and anything that is positive about white males and so on. That is, this principle would allow the state to impose the ideology of the day onto the state schools.

I think it is obvious that Pscholka and the others who support the rule in question would be adamantly opposed to the ideology of their opposition setting the content for public schools. As such, it is probably fair to say that they do not actually have a general principle regarding the degree of state control over state schools but rather do not like the idea of the schools teaching about labor. In short, the “principle” is that the school should not teach what they do not like—which is hardly a principle.

I would also be opposed to a leftist agenda being opposed onto state schools, but on the basis of a principle of academic freedom—in this case that the state should not impose ideological restrictions (left or right) on public schools.

 

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Ethics & Free Will

Conscience and law

Conscience and law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs recently had their article, “What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will”, published in Scientific American. This article considers the causal impact of a disbelief in free will with a specific focus on law and ethics.

Philosophers have long addressed the general problem of free will as well as the specific connection between free will and ethics. Not surprisingly, studies conducted to determine the impact of disbelief in free will have the results that philosophers have long predicted.

One impact is that when people have doubts about free will they tend to have less support for retributive punishment. Retributive punishment, as the name indicates, is punishment aimed at making a person suffer for her misdeeds. Doubt in free will did not negatively impact a person’s support for punishment aimed at deterrence or rehabilitation.

While the authors do consider one reason for this, namely that those who doubt free will would regard wrongdoers as analogous to harmful natural phenomenon that need to dealt with rather than subject to vengeance, this view also matches a common view about moral accountability. To be specific, moral (and legal) accountability is generally proportional to the control a person has over events. To use a concrete example, consider the difference between these two cases. In the first case, Sally is driving well above the speed limit and is busy texting and sipping her latte. She doesn’t see the crossing guard frantically waving his sign and runs over the children in the cross walk. In case two, Jane is driving the speed limit and children suddenly run directly in front of her car. She brakes and swerves immediately, but she hits the children. Intuitively, Sally has acted in a way that was morally wrong—she should have been going the speed limit and she should have been paying attention. Jane, though she hit the children, did not act wrongly—she could not have avoided the children and hence is not morally responsible.

For those who doubt free will, every case is like Jane’s case: for the determinist, every action is determined and a person could not have chosen to do other than she did. On this view, while Jane’s accident seems unavoidable, so was Sally’s accident: Sally could not have done other than she did. As such, Sally is no more morally accountable than Jane. For someone who believes this, inflicting retributive punishment on Sally would be no more reasonable than seeking vengeance against Jane.

However, it would seem to make sense to punish Sally to deter others and to rehabilitate Sally so she will drive the speed limit and pay attention in the future. Of course, if these is no free will, then we would not chose to punish Sally, she would not chose to behave better and people would not decide to learn from her lesson. Events would happen as determined—she would be punished or not. She would do it again or not. Other people would do the same thing or not. Naturally enough, to speak of what we should decide to do in regards to punishments would seem to assume that we can chose—that is, that we have some degree of free will.

A second impact that Shariff and Vohs noted was that a person who doubts free will tends to behave worse than a person who does not have such a skeptical view. One specific area in which behavior worsens is that such skepticism seems to incline people to be more willing to harm others. Another specific area is that such skepticism also inclines others to lie or cheat. In general, the impact seems to be that the skepticism reduces a person’s willingness (or capacity) to resist impulsive reactions in favor of greater restraint and better behavior.

Once again, this certainly makes sense. Going back to the examples of Sally and Jane, Sally (unless she is a moral monster) would most likely feel remorse and guilt for hurting the children. Jane, though she would surely feel badly, would not feel moral guilt. This would certainly be reasonable: a person who hurts others should feel guilt if she could have done otherwise but should not feel moral guilt if she could not have done otherwise (although she certainly should feel sympathy). If someone doubts free will, then she will regard her own actions as being out of her control: she is not choosing to lie, or cheat or hurt others—these events are just happening. People might be hurt, but this is like a tree falling on them—it just happens. Interestingly, these studies show that people are consistent in applying the implications of their skepticism in regards to moral (and legal) accountability.

One rather important point is to consider what view we should have regarding free will. I take a practical view of this matter and believe in free will. As I see it, if I am right, then I am…right. If I am wrong, then I could not believe otherwise. So, choosing to believe I can choose is the rational choice: I am right or I am not at fault for being wrong.

I do agree with Kant that we cannot prove that we have free will. He believed that the best science of his day was deterministic and that the matter of free will was beyond our epistemic abilities. While science has marched on since Kant, free will is still unprovable. After all, deterministic, random and free-will universes would all seem the same to the people in them. Crudely put, there are no observations that would establish or disprove metaphysical free will. There are, of course, observations that can indicate that we are not free in certain respects—but completely disproving (or proving) free will would seem to beyond our abilities—as Kant contended.

Kant had a fairly practical solution: he argued that although free will cannot be proven, it is necessary for ethics. So, crudely put, if we want to have ethics (which we do), then we need to accept the existence of free will on moral grounds. The experiments described by Shariff and Vohs seems to support Kant: when people doubt free will, this has an impact on their ethics.

One aspect of this can be seen as positive—determining the extent to which people are in control of their actions is an important part of determining what is and is not a just punishment. After all, we do not want to inflict retribution on people who could not have done otherwise or, at the very least, we would want relevant circumstances to temper retribution with proper justice.  It also makes more sense to focus on deterrence and rehabilitation more than retribution. However just, retribution merely adds more suffering to the world while deterrence and rehabilitation reduces it.

The second aspect of this is negative—skepticism about free will seems to cause people to think that they have a license to do ill, thus leading to worse behavior. That is clearly undesirable. This then, provides an interesting and important challenge: balancing our view of determinism and freedom in order to avoid both unjust punishment and becoming unjust. This, of course, assumes that we have a choice. If we do not, we will just do what we do and giving advice is pointless. As I jokingly tell my students, a determinist giving advice about what we should do is like someone yelling advice to a person falling to certain death—he can yell all he wants about what to do, but it won’t matter.

 

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Checking ‘Check Your Privilege”

Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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Paying College Athletes

English: National Collegiate Athletic Associat...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One recurring dispute in college athletics has been over whether or not college athletes should be paid. I remember listening to debates over this when I was a college athlete and, decades later, I am still listening to them. One addition to the debate has been over licensing deals—for example, the NCAA has licensed the likeness of college athletes for use in video games and the players have received nothing for this. In fact, players are forbidden from receiving any specific compensation for such things.

The obvious counter is that the college athletes who are in the big money sports (football and basketball) do get compensation in the form of scholarships, coaching, medical care, etc. Given the cost of higher education these days, a full scholarship to a college can be worth $25,000 a year or even much more (my nephew is attending a college that costs about $42,000 a year).

Even athletes in the other sports (such as track, cross country, field hockey and volleyball) can receive compensation in the form of scholarships, coaching, and medical care—although typically less than that received by star athletes in the big money sports.

As such it can be asserted that athletes are already paid—in that they receive valuable compensation for their contributions. In fact, college athletes have been recognized as being employees with the right to unionize—at least for now (this is being challenged legally). As such, the actual dispute is over the amount and nature of the desired compensation—a classic employee-employer dispute.

Obviously enough, the NCAA and the colleges want to keep the player compensation to a minimal level. However, the fact that they would rather not provide better compensation is not proof that athletes should not receive more.

While the NCAA and colleges are fine with specific sorts of compensation (such as scholarships), they are rather draconian about college athletes receiving most other benefits. For example, if a college athlete places in a local road race and the award is a gift certificate, the athlete cannot accept it without violating the NCAA rules and possibly being booted from the team. While, as noted above, the NCAA and the college can license the likeness of a player for use in a video game, the player cannot. As such, the vast majority of the money made in college sports flows to the NCAA and the colleges, rather than the players.

On the face of it, the players should receive compensation commensurate with their contribution. For example, if a player’s likeness is licensed for use in a video game, he should receive a suitable percentage of that deal. As another example, if selling the TV rights to football games bring in millions of dollars, the players who appear on TV should get a proportional cut. Obviously, the value of what the players receive in terms of other compensation must be factored in as well as part of their pay.

In some cases, the athletes might already be getting fair compensation. However, the star athletes in the big money sports are probably not—given the money they are bringing in.

The main (and apparently only) argument that the NCAA and colleges advance for not providing commensurate compensation (that is, paying players what they legitimately earn) is that the college athlete should be an amateur who competes “for the love of the sport.”

I do admit that this has some appeal. When I was a college athlete, I competed for that reason—I loved to race. I still do—and these days I pay the entrance fees to run in road races (although I do still win from time to time). I get the idea of the amateur athlete who is not sullied by crass commerce and not driven by greed.

Of course, the amateur athlete who is unsullied by greed must be in a matching context: a complete amateur environment driven by the love of the sport. When I was a college athlete, I was in that context. I competed in cross country and track, both of which are not big money sports. I also went to a division III school—so there were no athletic scholarships. The coaches at the college generally followed the same model that is usually seen at public high schools—they had a primary job at the school and coaching was secondary. For example, the cross country coach was also an exercise physiology professor. The football coach also taught classes. So, we were all amateurs competing for the love of the sport—although we did get boxed lunches and the coaches got some pay.

When everyone is an amateur and the compensation is rather minimal, it certainly makes sense to not pay athletes and to hold them to the standards of being an amateur athlete (versus being a paid professional). However, this is not the case with the big money sports at the big schools.

First, the top coaches enjoy truly impressive salaries. There are twenty four college coaches who make over $3 million a year. Interestingly, the highest paid public employee in many states is a college football or basketball coach.

Second, college football is a multi-billion dollar industry and college basketball brings in millions for the colleges and NCAA. Most of this comes from TV revenue. While the players get some of this in the form of scholarships and other compensation, the vast majority of it ends up going to others, such as well-paid NCAA officials.

Given the extremely generous compensation for everyone else, it would certainly seem that these college sports are not amateur in any meaningful sense of the term and that the context is not one defined by a love of the game. Rather, this is a big money industry in which those doing the vast majority of the work receive very little while a very few benefit greatly from their efforts. In short, college sports mirrors the larger society. The lie used to avoid justly compensating the athletes is that they are amateurs who are supposed to play for the love of the game. Thus, there is a clear inconsistency between the reality of the situation and what is expected of the athletes.

In terms of becoming consistent, there seem to be two options. The first is to make college sports amateur and played for the love of the sport. This would require following the model of amateur athletics that I mentioned above: minimal compensation for everyone, coaches who are professors first, athletes who are students first, no big money deals, and so on. As should be blindingly obvious, this is not going to happen.

The second option is to accept that these big money sports are simply a college version of the pro-sports and they should follow that model: the big money remains, but the athletes are recognized for what they really are—professional athletes. This will mean less money for those who are currently enjoying that massive funnel of cash, but this is what is morally and honesty require.

Sports that are not big money and colleges that are not in the big money can still operate in the spirit of amateur sports and those that are motivated solely by the love of the game and who wish to be true amateurs can compete in those sports or at those schools.

 

 

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Twitter Mining

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

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In February, 2014 Twitter made all its tweets available to researchers. As might be suspected, this massive data is a potential treasure trove to researchers. While one might picture researchers going through the tweets for the obvious content (such as what people eat and drink), this data can be mined in some potentially surprising ways. For example, the spread of infectious diseases can be tracked via an analysis of tweets. This sort of data mining is not new—some years ago I wrote an essay on the ethics of mining data and used Target’s analysis of data to determine when customers were pregnant (so as to send targeted ads). What is new about this is that all the tweets are now available to researchers, thus providing a vast heap of data (and probably a lot of crap).

As might be imagined, there are some ethical concerns about the use of this data. While some might suspect that this creates a brave new world for ethics, this is not the case. While the availability of all the tweets is new and the scale is certainly large, this scenario is old hat for ethics. First, tweets are public communications that are on par morally with yelling statements in public places, posting statements on physical bulletin boards, putting an announcement in the paper and so on. While the tweets are electronic, this is not a morally relevant distinction. As such, researchers delving into the tweets is morally the same as a researcher looking at a bulletin board for data or spending time in public places to see the number of people who go to a specific store.

Second, tweets can (often) be linked to a specific person and this raises the stock concern about identifying specific people in the research. For example, identifying Jane Doe as being likely to have an STD based on an analysis of her tweets. While twitter provides another context in which this can occur, identifying specific people in research without their consent seems to be well established as being wrong. For example, while a researcher has every right to count the number of people going to a strip club via public spaces, to publish a list of the specific individuals visiting the club in her research would be morally dubious—at best. As another example, a researcher has every right to count the number of runners observed in public spaces. However, to publish their names without their consent in her research would also be morally dubious at best. Engaging in speculation about why they run and linking that to specific people would be even worse (“based on the algorithm used to analysis the running patterns, Jane Doe is using her running to cover up her affair with John Roe”).

One counter is, of course, that anyone with access to the data and the right sorts of algorithms could find out this information for herself. This would simply be an extension of the oldest method of research: making inferences from sensory data. In this case the data would be massive and the inferences would be handled by computers—but the basic method is the same. Presumably people do not have a privacy right against inferences based on publically available data (a subject I have written about before). Speculation would presumably not violate privacy rights, but could enter into the realm of slander—which is distinct from a privacy matter.

However, such inferences would seem to fall under privacy rights in regards to the professional ethics governing researchers—that is, researchers should not identify specific people without their consent whether they are making inferences or not. To use an analogy, if I infer that Jane Doe and John Roe’s public running patterns indicate they are having an affair, I have not violated their right to privacy (assuming this also covers affairs). However, if I were engaged in running research and published this in a journal article without their permission, then I would presumably be acting in violation of research ethics.

The obvious counter is that as long as a researcher is not engaged in slander (that is intentionally saying untrue things that harm a person), then there would be little grounds for moral condemnation. After all, as long as the data was publically gathered and the link between the data and the specific person is also in the public realm, then nothing wrong has been done. To use an analogy, if someone is in a public park wearing a nametag and engages in specific behavior, then it seems morally acceptable to report that. To use the obvious analogy, this would be similar to the ethics governing journalism: public behavior by identified individuals is fair game. Inferences are also fair game—provided that they do not constitute slander.

In closing, while Twitter has given researchers a new pile of data the company has not created any new moral territory.

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The Speed of Rage

English: A raging face.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.

 

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Anyone Home?

English: man coming out of coma.

English: man coming out of coma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I tell my students, the metaphysical question of personal identity has important moral implications. One scenario I present is that of a human in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state. I say “human” rather than “person”, because the human body in question might no longer be a person. To use a common view, if a person is her soul and the soul has abandoned the shell, then the person is gone.

If the human is still a person, then it seems reasonable to believe that she has a different moral status than a mass of flesh that was once a person (or once served as the body of a person). This is not to say that a non-person human would have no moral status at all—I do not want to be interpreted as holding that view. Rather, my view is that personhood is a relevant factor in the morality of how an entity is treated.

To use a concrete example, consider a human in what seems to be a vegetative state. While the body is kept alive, people do not talk to the body and no attempt is made to entertain the body, such as playing music or audiobooks. If there is no person present or if there is a person present but she has no sensory access at all, then this treatment would seem to be acceptable—after all it would make no difference whether people talked to the body or not.

There is also the moral question of whether such a body should be kept alive—after all, if the person is gone, there would not seem to be a compelling reason to keep an empty shell alive. To use an extreme example, it would seem wrong to keep a headless body alive just because it can be kept alive. If the body is no longer a person (or no longer hosts a person), then this would be analogous to keeping the headless body alive.

But, if despite appearances, there is still a person present who is aware of what is going on around her, then the matter is significantly different. In this case, the person has been effectively isolated—which is certainly not good for a person.

In regards to keeping the body alive, if there is a person present, then the situation would be morally different. After all, the moral status of a person is different from that of a mass of merely living flesh. The moral challenge, then, is deciding what to do.

One option is, obviously enough, to treat all seemingly vegetative (as opposed to brain dead) bodies as if the person was still present. That is, the body would be accorded the moral status of a person and treated as such.

This is a morally safe option—it would presumably be better that some non-persons get treated as persons rather than risk persons being treated as non-persons. That said, it would still seem both useful and important to know.

One reason to know is purely practical: if people know that a person is present, then they would presumably be more inclined to take the effort to treat the person as a person. So, for example, if the family and medical staff know that Bill is still Bill and not just an empty shell, they would tend to be more diligent in treating Bill as a person.

Another reason to know is both practical and moral: should scenarios arise in which hard choices have to be made, knowing whether a person is present or not would be rather critical. That said, given that one might not know for sure that the body is not a person anymore it could be correct to keep treating the alleged shell as a person even when it seems likely that he is not. This brings up the obvious practical problem: how to tell when a person is present.

Most of the time we judge there is a person present based on appearance, using the assumption that a human is a person. Of course, there might be non-human people and there might be biological humans that are not people (headless bodies, for example). A somewhat more sophisticated approach is to use the Descartes’s test: things that use true language are people. Descartes, being a smart person, did not limit language to speaking or writing—he included making signs of the sort used to communicate with the deaf. In a practical sense, getting an intelligent response to an inquiry can be seen as a sign that a person is present.

In the case of a body in an apparent vegetative state applying this test is quite a challenge. After all, this state is marked by an inability to show awareness. In some cases, the apparent vegetative state is exactly what it appears to be. In other cases, a person might be in what is called “locked-in-syndrome.” The person is conscious, but can be mistaken for being minimally conscious or in a vegetative state. Since the person cannot, typically, respond by giving an external sign some other means is necessary.

One breakthrough in this area is due to Adrian M. Owen. Overs implying things considerably, he found that if a person is asked to visualize certain activities (playing tennis, for example), doing so will trigger different areas of the brain. This activity can be detected using the appropriate machines. So, a person can ask a question such as “did you go to college at Michigan State?” and request that the person visualize playing tennis for “yes” or visualize walking around her house for “no.” This method provides a way of determining that the person is still present with a reasonable degree of confidence. Naturally, a failure to respond would not prove that a person is not present—the person could still remain, yet be unable (or unwilling) to hear or respond.

One moral issue this method can held address is that of terminating life support. “Pulling the plug” on what might be a person without consent is, to say the least, morally problematic. If a person is still present and can be reached by Owen’s method, then thus would allow the person to agree to or request that she be taken off life support. Naturally, there would be practical questions about the accuracy of the method, but this is distinct from the more abstract ethical issue.

It must be noted that the consent of the person would not automatically make termination morally acceptable—after all, there are moral objections to letting a person die in this manner even when the person is fully and clearly conscious. Once it is established that the method adequately shows consent (or lack of consent), the broader moral issue of the right to die would need to be addressed.

 

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