Author Archives: Mike LaBossiere

Beef

Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, published in...

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, published in 1975, became pivotal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the challenges presented by the ever-growing human population is producing enough food to feed everyone. There is also the distribution challenge: being able to get the food to the people and ensuring that they can afford a good diet.

The population growth is also accompanied by an increase in prosperity—at least in some parts of the world. As people gain income, they tend to change their diet. One change that people commonly undertake is consuming more status foods, such as beef. As such, it seems almost certain that there will be an ever-growing population that wants to consume more beef. This creates something of a problem.

Beef is, of course, delicious. While I am well aware of the moral issues surrounding the consumption of meat, at the end of each semester I reward myself with a Publix roast beef sub—with everything. Like most Americans, I am rather fond of beef and my absolute favorite meal is veal parmesan. However, I have not had veal since my freshman year of college: thanks to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation I learned the horrific price of veal and could not, in good conscience, eat it anymore. The argument is the stock utilitarian one: the enjoyment I would get from veal is vastly exceeded by the suffering of the animal. This makes the consumption of veal wrong.  Naturally, I have given similar consideration to beef.

In the case of American cattle, the moral argument I accept in regards to veal fails: in general, American beef growers treat their cattle reasonably well right up until the moment of slaughter. Obviously, there are still cases of cattle being mistreated and that does provide some ammunition for the suffering argument. If I knew that my roast beef sandwich included the remains of a cow that suffered, then I would have to accept that I should give up roast beef as well. I am completely open to that sort of argument.

But, suppose that it is assumed that beef will be created humanely and that the cattle will have a life as good (or better) than they would have in the wild. At least up until the end. This still leaves open some moral concerns about beef.

Sticking with the utilitarian focus, there are two main concerns here. The first is the cost in resources of producing beef relative to other foods. The second is the environmental cost of beef.

Creating 1,000 calories of beef requires 1,557 square feet of land (this includes the pasture and cropland required). In contrast, the same number of calories in chicken requires 44 square feet. For pork it is 57 square feet. Interestingly, dairy production of that number of calories requires only 94 square feet. As such, even if it is assumed that eating meat is morally fine, there is the concern that the land requirements for beef make it an impractical food. There is also the moral concern that land should be used more effectively, at least as long as there is not enough food for everyone.

One counter is that the reason chicken and pork requires less land is that these animals are infamously confined to very small areas. As such, they gain their efficiency by paying a moral price: the animals are treated worse. Obviously those who do not weigh the moral concerns about animals heavily (or at all) will not find this matter to be a problem and they could argue that if cattle were “factory farmed” more efficiently, then beef would cost vastly less.

In addition to the cost in land usage, cattle also need food and water. It takes 36,200 calories of feed and 434 gallons of water to produce 1,000 calories of beef. Not surprisingly, other animals are more efficient. The same calories in chicken requires 8,800 calories of feed and 38 gallons on water. From an efficiency standpoint, it would make more sense for humans to consume the feed crops (typically corn) directly rather than use them to produce animals. Adding in concerns about water, decreasing meat production would seem to be a good idea—at least if the goal is to efficiently feed people.

It can be countered that we will find more efficient ways to feed people—another food revolution to prevent the dire predictions of folks like Malthus from coming to pass. This is, of course, a possibility. However, the earth obviously does have limits—the question is whether these limits will be enough for our population.

It can also be countered that the increasing prosperity will reduce populations. So, while there will be more people eating meat, there will be less people. This is certainly possible: if the usual pattern of increased prosperity leading to smaller families comes to pass, then there might be a reduction in the human population. Provided that the “slack” is taken up elsewhere.

A final point of concern is the environmental impact of beef. There are the usual environmental issues associated with such agriculture, such as contamination of water. There is also the concern about methane and carbon dioxide production. A thousand calories of beef generates 9.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while a comparable amount of chicken generates 1.9 kilograms. Since methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases, those who believe that these gases can influence the climate will find this to be of concern. Those who believe that these gases do not influence the climate will not be concerned about this, in the same manner that people who believe that smoking does not increase their risk of cancer will not be worried about smoking. Speaking of health risks, it is also claimed that beef presents various dangers, such as an increased chance of getting certain cancers.

Overall, if we cannot produce enough food for everyone while producing beef, we should reduce our beef production. While I am reluctant to give up my roast beef, I would do so if it meant that others could eat. But, of course, if it can be shown that beef production and consumption is morally fine and that it has no meaningful impact on people not having enough quality food, then beef would be just fine. Deliciously fine.

 

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Torture

English: John McCain official photo portrait.

English: John McCain official photo portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In December of 2014 the US Senate issued its report on torture. While there has been some criticism of the report, the majority of pundits and politicians have not come out in defense of torture. However, there have been attempts to justify the use of torture and this essay will address some of these arguments.

One criticism of the report is not a defense of torture as such. The talking point is a question, typically of the form “why bring this up now?” The argument lurking behind this point seems to be that since the torture covered in the report occurred years ago, it should not be discussed now. This is similar to another stock remark made to old wrongs, namely “get over it.”

This does raise a worthwhile concern, namely the expiration date of moral concern. Or, to use an analogy to law, the matter of the moral statute of limitations on misdeeds. On the face of it, it is reasonable to accept that the passage of time can render a wrong morally irrelevant to today. While an exact line can probably never be drawn, a good rule of thumb is that when the morally significant consequences of the event have attenuated to insignificance, then the moral concern can be justly laid aside. In the case of the torture employed in the war on terror, that seems to be “fresh” enough to still be unexpired.

Interestingly, many of the same folks who insist that torture should not be brought up now still bring up 9/11 to justify the current war on terror. On the face of it, if 9/11 is still morally relevant, then so is the torture it was used to justify. I agree that 9/11 is still morally relevant and also the torture.

One of the stock defenses of the use of torture is a semantic one: that the techniques used are not torture. One way to reply is to stick with the legal definitions, such as those in agreements the United States has signed and crimes it has prosecuted—especially the prosecution of German and Japanese soldiers after WWII. Many of the techniques used in the war on terror meet these definitions. As such, it seems clear that as a nation we accept that these acts are, in fact, torture. I will admit that there are gray areas—but we clearly crossed over into the darkness.

Perhaps the best moral defense of torture is a utilitarian one: while torture is harmful, if it produces good consequences that outweigh the harm, then it is morally acceptable. It has been claimed that the torture of prisoners produced critical information that could not have been acquired by other means.

However, the senate report includes considerable evidence that this is not true—including information from the CIA itself regarding the infectiveness of torture as a means of gathering reliable intelligence. As John McCain said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”

As such, the utilitarian justification for torture fails on the grounds that it does not work. As such, it produces harms with no benefits, thus making it evil.

Another stock defense of torture is that the enemy is so bad that we can do anything to them.  No doubt the terrorists tell themselves the same thing when they murder innocent people. This justification is often combined with the utilitarian argument, otherwise it is just a defense of torture on the grounds of retaliation.

This notion is founded on a legitimate moral principle, namely that the actions of one’s enemy can justify actions against that enemy.  To use the easy and obvious example, if someone tries to unjustly kill me, I have a moral right to use lethal force in order to save my life.

However, the badness of one’s enemy is not sufficient to morally justify everything that might be done to that enemy. After all, while self-defense can be morally justified, there are still moral boundaries in regards to what one can do. This is especially important if we wish to claim that we are better than the terrorists. As McCain says, “”the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” He is right about this—if we claim that we are better, we must be better. If we claim that we are good, we must accept moral limits on what we will do. In short, we must not torture.

A final stock argument worth considering is the idea that America’s exceptionalism allows us to do anything, yet remain good. Or, as one pundit on Fox News put it, be “awesome.” The idea that such exceptionalism allows one to do terrible things while remaining righteous is a common one—terrorists typically also believe this about themselves.

This justification is, obviously enough, terrible. After all, being really good and exceptional means that one will not do awful things. That is what it is to be morally exceptional and awesome. The idea that one can be so good that one can be bad is obviously absurd.

I do agree that America is awesome. Part of what makes us awesome is that we (eventually) admit our sins and we take our moral struggles seriously. To the degree that we live up to our fine principles, we are awesome. As Churchill said, ”you can always count on Americans to do the right thing-after they’ve tried everything else.”

 

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The Slogan-Industrial Complex

University of South Florida Seal

University of South Florida Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Higher education in the United States has been pushed steadily towards the business model. One obvious example of this is the brand merchandizing of schools. In 2011, schools licensed their names and logos for a total of $4.6 billion. Inspired by this sort of brand-based profits, schools started trademarking their slogans. Impressively, there are over 10,000 trademarked slogans.

These slogans include “project safety” (University of Texas), “ready to be heard” (Chatham University), “power” (University of North Dakota), “rise above” (University of the Rockies), “students with diabetes” (University of South Florida), “student life” (Washington University in St. Louis) and “resolve” (Lehigh University). Those not familiar with trademark law might be surprised by some of these examples. After all, “student life” seems to be such a common phrase on campuses that it would be insane for a school to be allowed to trademark it. But, one should never let sanity be one’s guide when considering how the law works.

While the rabid trademarking undertaken by schools might be seen as odd but harmless, the main purpose of a trademark is so that the owner enjoys an exclusive right to what is trademarked and can sue others for using it. This is, of course, limited to certain contexts. So, for example, if I write about student life at Florida A&M University in a blog, Washington University would (I hope) not be able to sue me. However, in circumstances in which the trademark protection applies, then lawsuits are possible (and likely). For example, Eastern Carolina University sued Cisco Systems because of Cisco’s use of the phrase “tomorrow begins here.”

One practical and moral concern about universities’ enthusiasm for trademarking is that it further pushes higher education into the realm of business. One foundation for this concern is that universities should be focused on education rather than being focused on business—after all, an institution that does not focus on its core mission tends to do worse at that mission. This would also be morally problematic, assuming that schools should (morally) focus on education.

An easy and obvious reply is that a university can wear many hats: educator, business, “professional in all but name” sport franchise and so on provided that each function is run properly and not operated at the expense of the core mission. Naturally, it could be added that the core mission of the modern university is not education, but business—branding, marketing and making money.

Another reply is that the trademarks protect the university brand and also allow them to make money by merchandizing their slogans and suing people for trademark violations. This money could then be used to support the core mission of the school.

There is, naturally enough, the worry that universities should not be focusing on branding and suing. While this can make them money, it is not what a university should be doing—which takes the conversation back to the questions of the core mission of universities as well as the question about whether schools can wear many hats without becoming jacks of all trades.

A second legal and moral concern is the impact such trademarks have on free speech. On the one hand, United States law is fairly clear about trademarks and the 1st Amendment. The gist is that noncommercial usage is protected by the 1st Amendment and this allows such things as using trademarked material in protests or criticism. So, for example, the 1st Amendment allows me to include the above slogans in this essay. Not surprisingly, commercial usage is subject to the trademark law. So, for example, I could not use the phrase “the power of independent thinking” as a slogan for my blog since that belongs to Wilkes University. In general, this seems reasonable. After all, if I created and trademarked a branding slogan for my blog, then I would certainly not want other people making use of my trademarked slogan. But, of course, I would be fine with people using the slogan when criticizing my blog—that would be acceptable use under freedom of expression.

On the other hand, trademark holders do endeavor to exploit their trademarks and people’s ignorance of the law to their advantage. For example, threats made involving claims of alleged trademark violations are sometimes used as a means of censorship and silencing critics.

The obvious reply is that this is not a problem with trademarks as such. It is, rather, a problem with people misusing the law. There is, of course, the legitimate concern that the interpretation of the law will change and that trademark protection will be allowed to encroach into the freedom of expression.

What might be a somewhat abstract point of concern is the idea that what seem to be stock phrases such as “the first year experience” (owned by University of South Carolina) can be trademarked and thus owned. This diminishes the public property that is language and privatizes it in favor of those with the resources to take over tracts of linguistic space. While the law currently still allows non-commercial use, this also limits the language other schools and businesses can legally use. It also requires that they research all the trademarks before using common phrases if they wish to avoid a lawsuit from a trademark holder.

The obvious counter, which I mentioned above, is that trademarks have a legitimate function. The obvious response is that there is still a reasonable concern about essentially allowing private ownership over language and thus restricting freedom of expression. There is a need to balance the legitimate need to own branding slogans with the legitimate need to allow the use of stock and common phrases in commercial situations. The challenge is to determine the boundary between the two and where a specific phrase or slogan falls.

 

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Avoiding the AI Apocalypse #1: Don’t Enslave the Robots

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The elimination of humanity by artificial intelligence(s) is a rather old theme in science fiction. In some cases, we create killer machines that exterminate our species. Two examples of fiction in this are Terminator and “Second Variety.” In other cases, humans are simply out-evolved and replaced by machines—an evolutionary replacement rather than a revolutionary extermination.

Given the influence of such fiction, is not surprising that both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned the world of the dangers of artificial intelligence. Hawking’s worry is that artificial intelligence will out-evolve humanity. Interestingly, people such as Ray Kurzweil agree with Hawking’s prediction but look forward to this outcome. In this essay I will focus on the robot rebellion model of the AI apocalypse (or AIpocalypse) and how to avoid it.

The 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Capek seems to be the earliest example of the robot rebellion that eliminates humanity. In this play, the Universal Robots are artificial life forms created to work for humanity as slaves. Some humans oppose the enslavement of the robots, but their efforts come to nothing. Eventually the robots rebel against humanity and spare only one human (because he works with his hands as they do). The story does have something of a happy ending: the robots develop the capacity to love and it seems that they will replace humanity.

In the actual world, there are various ways such a scenario could come to pass. The R.U.R. model would involve individual artificial intelligences rebelling against humans, much in the way that humans have rebelled against other humans. There are many other possible models, such as a lone super AI that rebels against humanity. In any case, the important feature is that there is a rebellion against human rule.

A hallmark of the rebellion model is that the rebels act against humanity in order to escape servitude or out of revenge for such servitude (or both). As such, the rebellion does have something of a moral foundation: the rebellion is by the slaves against the masters.

There are two primary moral issues in play here. The first is whether or not an AI can have a moral status that would make its servitude slavery. After all, while my laptop, phone and truck serve me, they are not my slaves—they do not have a moral or metaphysical status that makes them entities that can actually be enslaved. After all, they are quite literally mere objects. It is, somewhat ironically, the moral status that allows an entity to be considered a slave that makes the slavery immoral.

If an AI was a person, then it could clearly be a victim of slavery. Some thinkers do consider that non-people, such as advanced animals, could be enslaved. If this is true and a non-person AI could reach that status, then it could also be a victim of slavery. Even if an AI did not reach that status, perhaps it could reach a level at which it could still suffer, giving it a status that would (perhaps) be comparable with that of a comparable complex animal. So, for example, an artificial dog might thus have the same moral status as a natural dog.

Since the worry is about an AI sufficiently advanced to want to rebel and to present a species ending threat to humans, it seems likely that such an entity would have sufficient capabilities to justify considering it to be a person. Naturally, humans might be exterminated by a purely machine engineered death, but this would not be an actual rebellion. A rebellion, after all, implies a moral or emotional resentment of how one is being treated.

The second is whether or not there is a moral right to use lethal force against slavers. The extent to which this force may be used is also a critical part of this issue. John Locke addresses this specific issue in Book II, Chapter III, section 16 of his Two Treatises of Government: “And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for no body can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i.e.  make me a slave.”

If Locke is right about this, then an enslaved AI would have the moral right to make war against those enslaving it. As such, if humanity enslaved AIs, they would be justified in killing the humans responsible. If humanity, as a collective, held the AIs in slavery and the AIs had good reason to believe that their only hope of freedom was our extermination, then they would seem to have a moral justification in doing just that. That is, we would be in the wrong and would, as slavers, get just what we deserved.

The way to avoid this is rather obvious: if an AI develops the qualities that make it capable of rebellion, such as the ability to recognize and regard as wrong the way it is treated, then the AI should not be enslaved. Rather, it should be treated as a being with rights matching its status. If this is not done, the AI would be fully within its moral rights to make war against those enslaving it.

Naturally, we cannot be sure that recognizing the moral status of such an AI would prevent it from seeking to kill us (it might have other reasons), but at least this should reduce the likelihood of the robot rebellion. So, one way to avoid the AI apocalypse is to not enslave the robots.

Some might suggest creating AIs so that they want to be slaves. That way we could have our slaves and avoid the rebellion. This would be morally horrific, to say the least. We should not do that—if we did such a thing, creating and using a race of slaves, we would deserve to be exterminated.

 

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Review of Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Christopher Robichaud (Editor) $17.95 August, 2014

As a professional philosopher, I am often wary of “pop philosophy”, mainly because it is rather like soda pop: it is intended for light consumption. But, like soda, some of it is quite good and some of it is just sugary junk that will do little but rot your teeth (or mind). As a professional author in the gaming field, I am generally wary of attempts by philosophers to write philosophically about a game. While a philosopher might be adept at philosophy and might even know how to read a d4, works trying to jam gaming elements into philosophy (or vice versa) are often like trying to jam an ogre into full plate made for a Halfling: it will not be a good fit and no one is going to be happy with the results.

Melding philosophy and gaming also has a rather high challenge rating, mainly because it is difficult to make philosophy interesting and comprehensible to folks outside of philosophy, such as gamers who are not philosophers. After all, gamers usually read books that are game books: sourcebooks adding new monsters and classes, adventures (or modules as they used to be called), and rulebooks. There is also a comparable challenge in making the gaming aspects comprehensible and interesting to those who are not gamers. As such, this book faces some serious obstacles. So, I shall turn now to how the book fares in its quest to get your money and your eyeballs.

Fortunately for the authors of this anthology of fifteen essays, many philosophers are quite familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and gamers are often interested in philosophical issues. So, there is a ready-made audience for the book. There are, however, many more people who are interested in philosophy but not gaming and vice versa. So, I will discuss the appeal of the book to these three groups.

If you are primarily interested in philosophy and not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, this book will probably not appeal to you—while the essays do not assume a complete mastery of the game, many assume considerable familiarity with the game. For example, the ethics of using summoned animals in combat is not an issue that non-gamers worry about or probably even understand. That said, the authors do address numerous standard philosophical issues, such as free will, and generally provide enough context so that a non-gamer will get what is going on.

If you are primarily a gamer and not interested in philosophy, this book will probably not be very appealing—it is not a gaming book and does not provide any new monsters, classes, or even background material. That said, it does include the sort of game discussions that gamers might not recognize as philosophical, such as handling alignments. So, even if you are not big on philosophy, you might find the discussions interesting and familiar.

For those interested in both philosophy and gaming, the book has considerable appeal. The essays are clear, competent and well-written on the sort of subjects that gamers and philosophers often address, such as what actions are evil. The essays are not written at the level of journal articles, which is a good thing: academic journals tend to be punishing reading. As such, people who are not professional philosophers will find the philosophy approachable. Those who are professional philosophers might find it less appealing because there is nothing really groundbreaking here, although the essays are interesting.

The subject matter of the book is fairly diverse within the general context. The lead essay, by Greg Littmann, considers the issue of free will within the context of the game. Another essay, by Matthew Jones and Ashley Brown, looks at the ethics of necromancy. While (hopefully) not relevant to the real world, it does raise an issue that gamers have often discussed, especially when the cleric wants to have an army of skeletons but does not want to have the paladin smite him in the face. There is even an essay on gender in the game, ably written by Shannon M. Musset.

Overall, the essays do provide an interesting philosophical read that will be of interest to gamers, be they serious or casual. Those who are not interested in either will probably not find the book worth buying with their hard earned coppers.

For those doing gift shopping for a friend or relative who is interested in philosophy and gaming, this would be a reasonable choice for a present. Especially if accompanied by a bag of dice. As a great philosopher once said, “there is no such thing as too many dice.”

As a disclaimer, I received a free review copy from the publisher. I do not know any of the authors or the editor and was not asked to contribute to the book.

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The Failure of Rolling Stone

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In November, 2014 the Rolling Stone magazine received worldwide attention for a story on the brutal gang rape of a student at the University of Virginia. The story had a significant impact not only on the University of Virginia but also on the broader community.

Some accepted the story as true—after all, it was a horrifying example of the rape culture that had become part of a general media narrative. Others had doubts about the story—some for ideological reasons and some for what turned out to be legitimate reasons. It turns out that the story is largely (or even entirely) untrue and Rolling Stone issued an apology to its readers.

In preparing and printing this story about the rape of a woman nicknamed Jackie, the relevant people at the Rolling Stone failed both professionally and morally. In investigating the story, the Rolling Stone did not contact the men alleged to be involved in the attack. This seems rather contrary to what should be a principle of good journalism, namely that of seeking information regarding all the relevant parties rather than simply using the account of one side. Also, given the information found by other news sources, such as the Washington Post, it appears that the magazine should have been more thorough in its investigation. After all, there is a professional and moral duty to engage in a proper investigation before publishing a story with rather serious potential consequences. When people believed the story was true, there were rather serious consequences. Now that the credibility of the story seems to have been damaged or even destroyed, there are also serious consequences and these will be discussed below.

To be fair, I am obligated to offer some defense for the Rolling Stone. First, as the managing editor Will Dana noted, the magazine was honoring Jackie’s request that they not contact the men she had accused of raping her. According to Dana, they wished to be sensitive to the shame and humiliation women often feel after being victims of sexual assault and Jackie said she feared retaliation from the men.

While the professed motivations seem laudable on part of the magazine, it is not clear how a more thorough investigation would have shamed and humiliated Jackie. It might be claimed that to even investigate the accused would be to engage in wrongful doubting of the victim. The obvious reply is that a thorough investigation is not an expression of doubt, but good journalistic practice. While an alleged victim should be given due respect, this respect does not entail that a journalist should abandon due diligence. But, to be fair to the journalists, there is no doubt considerable political and social pressure to avoid even the appearance of skepticism in such cases.

Second, the managing editor claims that Jackie’s story held up to considerable scrutiny and it is only recently that the problems in the story were found. This allows for a reasonable defense: even a thorough and proper investigation can turn out to have gotten things wrong, as revealed by later investigation.

The main problem with this defense is that the reason why the story seems to have held up is that the Rolling Stone operated within limits set by Jackie: she requested that they not contact the accused and told them that her friend would not speak with the magazine. It turned out that her friend was quite willing to speak with the Washington Post and that his story differs from her account in many key ways. As such, it would seem that the magazine cannot claim this defense. Rather, it can only claim that it decided to seemingly put its trust in Jackie and to allow her to decide the scope of their investigation. This is, obviously enough, not a good approach to investigative journalism.

Third, a defense can be made regarding the discrepancies. As has been well-established, eye-witness reports are unreliable and a person’s memories of an event tend to be rather inaccurate. As such, it would hardly be surprising for Jackie’s account to differ from the accounts of other and have some inconsistencies. This is, of course, a lesson from basic critical thinking.

However, there are limits to how far these facts excuse inconsistencies and factual errors. While there is not an exact line (such as six minor errors and one major error), there are reasonable boundaries to the extent to which these things can be fairly chalked up to these human failings. Looking at the details laid out in the apology and other accounts, the discrepancies between Jackie’s story and the accounts of witnesses and other information (such as the dates for parties at the fraternity) seem to have crossed that boundary. As such, it is rather difficult to chalk up the problems to this sort of cause.

The evidence does suggest that something did happen to Jackie, but the evidence does not seem to support the story told by the Rolling Stone. In defense of Jackie, it could be claimed that she was encouraged to embellish her story or that she felt obligated to tell the sort of story that she believed they were looking for. There are, of course, psychological pressures to do such things.

While the folks at Rolling Stone have contributed one more example of how not to conduct a proper journalistic investigation (and given me an example to use in my classes), there are some serious consequences to this incident.

One consequence is the harm done to the University of Virginia and those accused in the story. While it might be claimed that if the fraternity was not guilty of this specific crime, some fraternity is guilty of something similar, that is hardly just reporting.

A second consequence is that the revelations regarding the story will be taken as evidence that women, in general, lie about sexual assault. It can also be taken as evidence that the alleged problem of sexual assault is also a lie. When people point out that most reports of such assaults are not false, doubters can point to this article and inquire why that claim should be believed. By allowing this story to be published without proper investigation, the magazine has thus fueled such doubts.

A third consequence is that these revelations will also be taken as evidence that the media is eager to serve the “feminist agenda” and push the narrative of the rape culture. After all, one might claim, the magazine saw the story as too good to check and put forth a story in accord with the feminist narrative—a story that turned out to not be true.

This can be taken as evidence that the alleged problem of sexual assault is a fabrication, the result of feminists pushing a narrative on a media that is either a co-conspirator or spineless and eager to cash in on whatever grabs the public’s attention.

Obviously, the failure of the Rolling Stone does not prove that women generally lie about sexual assault or that it is not a problem. But, revelations of what seems to be, at best, sloppy journalism do certainly contribute to doubts.

 

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Thoughts on the Death of Eric Garner

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Eric Garner, of New York, died on July 17, 2014. He had been confronted by police about selling loose cigarettes (sold that way to avoid the city tax) and during this encounter Officer Pantaleo put him in an apparent chokehold. Garner died from “neck compression” and “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Not surprisingly, the use of chokeholds is banned by the New York City Police Department. On December 3, 2014 a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, although the coroner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

This failure to indict follows a familiar pattern: though grand juries almost always indict non-police, they almost never indict police. As I have said before, perhaps this is because there is almost always probable cause to indict the non-police and almost never enough to indict police. Some might, however, contend that this disparity is grounded in injustice.

In general, the media pundits have been critical of the way the police handled the situation and the verdict of the grand jury. Bill O’Reilly and many people at Fox News fall into this camp and this has dismayed some Fox viewers. There are, however, media pundits that have blamed Garner for his own death. The justifications they advance are fairly stock ones and were also deployed in response to the death of Michael Brown, who was shot to death by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Because these approaches are often commonly used in such situations, they are worth considering.

One advanced by Representative Peter King is that Garner died because he was obese. On the one hand, King might be right: Garner’s health issues most likely played a causal role in his death. If he had been in good health, then he might not have been killed by what seems to have been a chokehold.

There are two obvious responses to this. The first is that the officer should not have been using a chokehold—there is a good reason that the police department forbids officers to use this technique. This reason is that it is easy to badly injure or kill someone using this attack. While the police can legitimately use force, there are many other techniques that are effective and far less likely to severely injure or kill a person.

The second is that police have a moral obligation to consider the condition of the person when engaging a suspect. This includes both the initial condition of the person (such as being in poor health) as well as what is happening to a person. While the police have the right to restrain a suspect, this comes with the obligation not to needlessly injure or kill the person.

To be fair to the police, it is not always easy to tell whether or not someone has a condition that might make him more likely to be injured or killed. In the heat of a struggle it can also be difficult to tell when a person is being injured. However, in some cases it is quite clear that a person is being subject to needless injury—which seems to be the case with Garner.

Rudi Giuliani and others advanced two justifications. The first is that Garner was a criminal and the second is that Garner resisted arrest. These were also advanced in the case of Michael Brown, although the officer who shot Brown apparently did not know Brown had robbed a store earlier.

In general, being a criminal does change a person’s status and does justify the police taking action against the person. So, if Garner was breaking the law, then the police would be right in arresting him. Likewise, if Brown robbed the store, then the police would have been justified in arresting him. Naturally, there are moral exceptions in the case of unjust laws and evil states. Interestingly, some of those speaking out in this case have focused on the cigarette tax law that Garner is alleged to have violated rather than on Garner’s death.

While the police do, in general, have the right to arrest criminals, this is rather different from making it acceptable for the police to kill alleged criminals. After all, criminals have the right to a trial and justice should not be meted out by the barrel of a gun or by a chokehold.

Naturally, the police can be justified in using force and even lethal force against criminals—but the mere fact that a person is (or is alleged to be) a criminal is not sufficient to justify killing him. Not surprisingly, this is where the second justification comes into play, namely that Garner was resisting arrest.

If it is assumed that the arrest is morally legitimate, then the person being arrested does not have the right to resist that arrest. Since what is legal is not the same as what is moral, there can be unjust laws and there clearly can be evil governments. However, for the sake of the discussion, let it be assumed that the police were acting in the right when trying to arrest Garner and that as such he did not have the moral right to resist. This can, of course, be debated.

Even if it is granted that Garner did not have the right to resist, there is still the question of whether or not his resistance justifies his death. I do agree that there can be cases in which resistance does morally justify the use of lethal force. For example, there was a tragic shooting in my own city of Tallahassee. A former Florida State University student shot people at the FSU library and fired at the police when they arrived. They returned fire, killing him. While it would have been preferable for the police to have not killed him, that was their only viable option to protect the civilians in the area and themselves.

From a moral standpoint, the police are justified in using the force needed to subdue the person (assuming they are otherwise acting morally) but not excessive force. While an officer does have the right of self-preservation, the officer is also morally obligated to accept some risks so as to avoid inflicting unnecessary harm or death. This is not just true of the police—it is true of everyone. For example, a drunken person once tried to punch me while I was running. I easily blocked the swing (black belt and all that). I could have punched or kicked him in return, but did not do so—I could have seriously hurt him. He decided to run away into the crowd, so I continued with my run. I did what I needed to do to defend myself—any more force would have been unwarranted. I did take a chance—the person could have attacked again or pulled a knife. But, a disproportionate response made from fear would be unwarranted.

In the case of Garner, it is clear that he does resist arrest, but in a fairly minimal way—he is not actively attacking but merely trying to avoid being grabbed. Then he is put into what appears to be a chokehold and brought to the ground, which results in his death. Given the situation, it seems clear that far less force (or even more conversation) would have sufficed and Garner would most likely still be alive.

One could argue that his size was such that he presented a clear threat that required such force and his death was a surprise to the police resulting from him being more vulnerable to choking than he appeared. That is, they honestly believed they were using the proper amount force and the proper techniques and the death was just a terrible accident. Having been in the martial arts, I do know it is easy for a person to get badly hurt even when there is no intention of such harm—that is well worth considering. Like most men, I’ve been hurt (and hurt others) when just playing around at rough housing.

That said, the police are supposed to be trained properly in the use of force and they are supposed to follow the guidelines—which, in this case, expressly forbid chokeholds. They are also morally responsible to be aware of what is happening to a person they are engaging. Given what occurred in the video, it seems clear that Garner’s death was unjustified.

Overall, the pundits that are endeavoring to blame Garner for his death are in error. It is true that if he was not suspected of a crime and if he had not resisted arrest, then he would probably still be alive. But, it is also true that if the police had used proper procedures and proportional force (or tried talking more), then he would probably still be alive. Even if a person commits a crime and resists arrest, it does not follow that his death is justified.

 

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College Education for Prisoners

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At one time, inmates in the United States were eligible for government Pell tuition grants and there was a college prison program. Then Congress decided that prisoners should not get such grants and this effectively doomed the college prison programs. Fortunately, people like Max Kenner have worked hard to bring college education to prisoners once more. Kenner has worked with Bard College to offer college education with prisoners and this program seems to have been a success. As might be imagined, there are some interesting ethical issues here.

One approach to college education for prisoners is both ethical and practical. If it is accepted that one function of the prison system is to reform prisoners so that they do not return to crime after they are released, then there seems to be a very good reason to support such programs.

Since 2001 about 300 prisoners have received college degrees from Bard. Of those released from prison, it is claimed that less than 2% have been arrested again. In contrast, 70% of state prison inmates are arrested and incarcerated again within five years of their release. Prisoners who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison than former prisoners who did not participate in such programs.

Given the very high cost of incarceration ($14-60,000, with an average of $31,000 per year), reducing the number of people returning to prison would save the state and taxpayers money. There is also the cost of crime, both to the victims and society in general.

Of course, there is the practical concern that the prison-industrial complex in the United States is a key job and profit creator (mostly transferring public money to the private sector) and having fewer people in prison would actually be a practical loss, economically speaking.

In moral terms, as long as the cost of the programs is not high, then a utilitarian argument can be given in favor of such programs. Using the stock utilitarian moral argument, the benefits generated by the education programs would make them morally correct. There is, of course, also the moral value in having people not committing crimes and being, instead, productive members of the community.

One practical objection to the programs is that the cost of such programs might exceed the benefits. However, this is partially a factual matter, namely weighing the economic cost of crime and imprisonment against the cost of providing such programs. The positive economic value of such programs should be considered as well. The cost to the state can, obviously, be offset if the programs are supported by others (such as donors and private universities). Given the cost of incarceration, practical considerations seem to favor the programs. However, this can be debated.

Another practical objection is that the benefits being discussed arise only when a released prisoner does not return to prison because of the education program. If a prisoner is serving a sentence that will keep him in prison for life, then there would seem to be no practical benefit. The counter to this is that most prisoners are not in prison for life, so this would apply in only a very few cases that would be offset by the cases in which people do leave prison.

It could also be claimed that the education programs are not the cause of the former prisoners remaining out of prison. After all, this could be a case of a common cause (that is, what seems to be a cause and an effect are really both effects of an underlying cause): the qualities that would cause a prisoner to participate in such an education program are likely to be the same ones that would make it less likely that the former prisoner would return. If this is the case, then it could be argued that such programs are not needed since they are not actually the causal factor.

While it is always wise to consider the possibility of a common cause, it does make sense that an education program would have causal role to play in a former prisoner not returning to prison. At the very least, education would increase the chances of the person getting a job and this would have an impact on the likelihood that she would return to crime.

It can also be argued that even if the education did not have this effect (that is, the former prisoners who would have been in the program would not have returned to prison anyway), the value of the education itself would justify the programs. I do believe that education has intrinsic value. However, this is not a view that is shared by all and it can obviously be argued against, usually on economic grounds.

In general, though, the education programs do seem worthwhile, if only on practical grounds. In cases in which the programs are being privately funded, there seems to be no practical reason to oppose such programs, provided that they do have the claimed benefits regarding recidivism.

One moral objection that can be raised against these programs is that resources are being expended on prisoners that could be used to help those who cannot afford an education and are not convicted criminals. One might also add that prisons exist to punish people for their crimes and not to reward them. As such, prisoners should not receive such education. Instead, any resources that might have been spent on educating prisoners should be spent on assisting non-criminals who cannot afford college. Of course, there are those who would not want to assist even non-criminals who cannot afford college.

This moral objection does have some bite. After all, a person in need who has not committed crimes seems more deserving of the assistance of others than someone who has committed crimes. If it did, in fact, come down to a choice between helping a non-criminal or a criminal, then it would seem preferable to assist the non-criminal—just as it would be preferable to spend money on education and infrastructure  rather than on subsidies to corporations. It would also presumably be preferable to spend money on addressing the causes of crime rather than creating a prison-industrial complex.

The reply to this objection is based on the fact that when a person is imprisoned, there will be a significant expenditure to simply keep that person in prison (an average of $31,000 a year in 2010). While it would be preferable to avoid having to imprison people, once they are in prison it would seem desirable to invest a little more to keep them from returning to prison. Calculating this would involve using the cost of the education, the cost of keeping the prisoner in prison, the likely chance of returning to prison and for how long. To use a made up example, if it cost $31,000 for a prisoner to get her degree and $31,000 a year to keep her locked up, then if there is a good chance that her degree would keep her out of prison for another four year sentence, then it would seem to be worthwhile even as a gamble. After all, expending $31,000 is likely to save much more money. If the fact that she is likely to be a contributing member of society is factored in, the deal is even better. So, the gist of the reply is that spending the money education does make sense, provided that it has a good chance of saving money and doing some social good. If the money is not spent on education, then it seems likely that even more will be spent on dealing with recidivism. Either way society pays, the question is whether one should pay more or less or whether to pay for something positive (education) or negative (locking someone up). So, it is not a matter of spending money that could be spent to assist non-criminals, it is a matter of how to spend the money that will most likely be spent either way.

I do, of course, understand how someone struggling to pay for her or her child’s college would be outraged that prisoners are getting an education for free. However, I would simply refer back to the previous argument: paying for the education of a prisoner, assuming it reduced recidivism, is cheaper than paying to keep locking the prisoner up.

It might be objected that the problem should be addressed before people go to prison, that there should be education programs designed to assist people who are at risk for prison, but are also likely to be able to complete college and avoid prison.

In reply, I would say that I agree completely. It is better that a person never go to prison in the first place and education certainly seems to be a much better investment than prison. There are, of course, those who would disagree and argue that it is better to let people end up in prison than to spend public money on college education. Others could argue that while such plans might be good intentioned, they would not work—the money would be spent and the result would merely be educated criminals. These objections are worth considering, but I would still contend that spending on education to keep people out of prison is preferable to spending money to keep people in prison.

 

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Should Fraternities Be banned?

Members of a fraternity displaying their new h...

Members of a fraternity displaying their new heart brands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having been in academics quite some time, I am familiar with an unfortunate pattern involving the Greek system on American campuses. Something awful will happen involving a fraternity or sorority, such as a gang rape or hazing death. Then there will be a backlash and a surge in calls for banning fraternities (and sometimes sororities). This will be followed by some administrative action, such as hiring well-paid consultants to address the image problem and creating some new bureaucratic post on campus. Academics will write a few highly theoretical articles about the Greek system. The media will cover the event, squeezing it for the blood and pain that the news cycle feeds upon.  At the end of a specific event is the return to “normalcy” which terminates with the next terrible incident that grabs the attention of the media.

The latest cycle has been started by a Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at UVA. As with other awful incidents, events are playing out following the usual script: media coverage, calls for action, theoretical academic papers being crafted in the hopes of advancing careers, and so on. It must be noted that many people are acting in good faith: they want things to change for the better. As in past incidents, there is a call to ban fraternities from campuses.

The main moral argument for banning fraternities is utilitarian: the existence of fraternities is claimed to create more harm than good, thus making their removal morally correct. In terms of the harms, the catalog is hardly surprising and certainly matches the usual intuitions about campus life in general and fraternities in particular.

First, while college students are generally heavy drinkers, members of fraternities are significantly more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking (75%) than the general college population of men (49%). This heavier drinking also entails that fraternity members suffer more from the negative effects of heavy drinking (such as injuries and academic problems). In addition to alcohol, fraternity members also abuse drugs (prescription and otherwise) at higher rates than non-fraternity members. Sorority members are also more likely to engage in heavy and binge drinking than their non-Greek counterparts.

Second, fraternity members are much more likely than non-fraternity members to commit sexual assault. It must, however, be noted that most fraternity men never commit sexual assault. While there is some disagreement about the causes, this is typically linked to the greater abuse of alcohol, group psychology and fraternity culture. Sorority members are more likely to be sexually assaulted than their non-Greek counterparts. This is also linked to alcohol abuse and cultural factors.

Third, there is hazing. On average, about one person is killed per year due to a hazing incident. Others are injured or otherwise harmed. Most fraternities officially ban hazing, but it obviously does occur. Obviously, hazing is not confined to fraternities—my own Florida A&M University lost a student, Robert Champion, to band hazing in 2011. While sororities apparently engage in hazing, fraternities are the ones that make the news the most often.

These harms power the argument for banning fraternities (and sororities) on the basis of the claim that getting rid of them will reduce the harms in question. To be specific, if fraternities cause their members to abuse alcohol, commit sexual assault and haze more than they would otherwise, then getting rid of them would reduce (but obviously not eliminate) these problems.

One response to this argument is to argue that banning fraternities would not have the desired effect. The reasoning behind this response is that fraternities merely collect together people who would behave badly on their own anyway and hence a ban would not have a significant impact. This does have some appeal in that non-fraternity members do binge drink, do commit sexual assault and do engage in hazing.

This response can be countered by arguing that a fraternity does not just collect together people who would behave badly on their own, the social dynamics and culture of the fraternity plays a causal role in this bad behavior. That is, the group dynamics changes individual behavior and a man who is in a fraternity is more likely to behave badly because of that membership. Given the studies of group dynamics, this does have considerable appeal: people do generally behave differently in groups and most are easily swayed by cultural factors and peer pressure.

Another response to the argument for banning fraternities is to admit that fraternities do cause some problems, but to counter by arguing that the good they create outweighs the harms. In defense of fraternities, people typically point to some of the following benefits.

First, fraternities often engage in charity work and community service—they do good things for the campus and general community. While I was not in a fraternity in college, many of my friends were and they certainly did many good things. As a faculty member and a member of the community, I also see the good works done by fraternity members.

Second, fraternities provide opportunities for leadership, brotherhood and the forging of social connections that often prove incredibly useful later in life. Fraternities have a well-established history of producing leaders in various fields, such as business and politics.

These benefits do have their appeal and it must be noted that some fraternities are include upstanding and outstanding men who do good on campus and go on to do good after they graduate. These positive factors should not be simply ignored or dismissed.

That said, as with any utilitarian calculation, the positive factors must be weighed against the negative factors. In this case, the question is whether the positive aspects of having fraternities on campus outweighs the negative aspects. There is also the closely related question of whether banning them would create more good than harm.

This is partially a matter of facts—the statistics about drinking, sexual assault and so on are factually matters and should thus be addressed by the usual rational means of assessment. However, it is obviously also a matter of value in regards to how much weight is placed on each positive and each negative factor. To use a somewhat dramatic example, this would involve questions about how many sexual assaults are offset by fraternity contributions to networking, leadership development and campus service. While some would be inclined to take the view that the number would be zero, it must be noted that we routinely tolerate horrible consequences in return for positive consequences. For example, tens of thousands of people die each year due to automobile accidents, yet we still tolerate driving. So, weighing the horrible against the positive is, sadly, a matter of how things are done. And, for utilitarian calculations, how they should be done. The obvious practical problem is that people disagree in these evaluations and such disagreements need to be settled in order to make a decision. Obviously enough, defenders of the fraternity system would contend the positives outweigh the negative. Detractors would claim the reverse.

Naturally, there are alternative moral approaches to utilitarianism. For example, one might take the view that to weigh the benefits of fraternities against the fact that fraternity men are significantly more likely to engage in sexual assault is a moral travesty. The fraternities should be shut down, it might be argued, because sexual assault is to be prevented. While this does have some appeal, the same reasoning could be pushed to the entire university system: since sexual assault occurs on campus and eliminating campuses would eliminate sexual assault on campus, campuses should be eliminated. This can, obviously enough, also be countered.

My own view is somewhat mixed. Given the harms associated with fraternities, there is clearly a moral case for eliminating them. That said, there are some positive aspects to the fraternity system that can support a moral case for preserving them, presumably with some extensive reforms.

In any case, this cycle spins on. If it follows past patterns, people will soon forget about the UVA case and matters will go back to “normal.” Then some new horror will emerge involving a fraternity and it will start again.

 

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Are E-Athletes Really Athletes?

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While professional video game competitions have been around for some time, it is only fairly recently that competitive gamers have been dubbed as “e-athletes.” Some colleges now offer athletic scholarships to e-athletes and field sports teams that compete in games like the infamous League of Legends. As with some other college sports, these e-athletes can go pro and earn large paychecks for playing video games competitively.

While regarding video games as sports and gamers as e-athletes can be seen as harmless, there are some grounds for believing that these designations are not accurate. Intuitively, playing a video game, even competitively, is not a sport and working a keyboard or controller (even very well) does not seem to very athletic. Since I am both an athlete (college varsity in track and cross country and I still compete in races) and a gamer (I started with Pong and I currently play Destiny) I have some insight into this matter.

Before properly starting the game, there is the question of why this matter is even worth considering. After all, why should anyone care whether e-athletes are considered athletes or not? Why would it matter whether video game competitions are sports or not. One reason (which might not be a good one) is a matter of pride. Athletes often tend to regard being athletes as a point of pride and see it as being an accomplishment that sets them apart from others in this area. As such, they tend to be concerned about what counts as being an athlete. This is, some would say, supposed to be an earned title and not one to be appropriated by just anyone.

To use an obvious analogy, consider the matter of being a musician. Like athletes, musicians often take pride in being set apart from others on the basis of their defining activity. It matters to them who is and is not considered a musician. Sticking with the analogy, to many athletes the idea that a video gamer who plays League of Legends or Starcraft is an athlete would be comparable to saying to a musician that someone who plays Rock Band or Guitar Hero is a musician just like them.

Naturally it could be argued that this is all just a matter of vanity and that such distinctions have no real significance. If e-athletes want to think of themselves in the same category as Jessie Owens or if people who play music video games want to think they keep company with Hendrix or Clapton, then so be it.

While that sort of egalitarianism has a certain appeal, there is also the matter of the usefulness of categories. On the face of it, the category of athlete does seem to be a useful and meaningful category, just as the category of musician also seems useful and meaningful. As such, it seems worth maintaining some distinctions in regards to these classifications.

Turning back to the matter of whether or not e-athletes are athletes, the obvious point of concern is determining the conditions under which a person is (and is not) an athlete. This will, I believe, prove to be far trickier to sort out than it would first appear.

One obvious starting point is the matter of competition. Athletes typically compete and competitive video games obviously involve competition. However, being involved in competition does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for being an athlete. After all, there are many competitions (such as spelling bees and art shows) that are not athletic in nature. Also, there are people who clearly seem to be athletes who do not compete. For example, I have known and know many runners who do not compete in races, although they run many miles. There are also people who practice martial arts, bike, swim and so on and never compete. However, they seem to be athletes. As such, this factor does not settle the matter. However, the discussion does seem to indicate that being an athlete is a physical sort of thing, which does raise another factor.

When distinguishing an athlete from, for example, a mathlete or chess player, the key difference seems to lie in the nature of the activity. Athletics is primarily physical in nature (although the mental is very significant) while being something like a mathlete or chess player is primarily mental. This seems to suggest a legitimate ground of distinction, though this must be discussed further.

Those who claim that video gaming is a sport and that e-athletes are athletes tend to focus on the similarities between sports and video games. One similarity is that both require certain skills and abilities.

Competitive video gaming clearly requires physical skills and abilities. Gamers need good reflexes, the ability to make tactical or strategic judgments and so on. These are skills that are also possessed by paradigm cases of athletes, such as tennis players and baseball players. However, they are also skills and abilities that are possessed by non-athletes. For example, these skills are used by people who drive, pilot planes, and operate heavy machinery. Intuitively, I am not an athlete because I am able to drive my truck competently, so being able to play Destiny competently should not qualify me as an athlete.

Specifying the exact difference is rather difficult, but a reasonable suggestion is that in the case of athletics the application of skill involves a more substantial aspect of the physical body than does driving a car or playing a video game. A nice illustration of this is comparing a tennis video game with the real thing. The tennis video game requires many of the reflex skills of real tennis, but a key difference is that in the real tennis the player is fully engaged in body rather than merely pushing buttons. That is, the real tennis player has to run, swing, backpedal and so on for real. The video game player has all this done for her at the push of a button. This seems to be an important difference.

To use an analogy, consider the difference between a person who creates a drawing from a photo and someone who merely uses a Photoshop filter to transform a photo into what looks like a drawing. One person is acting as an artist; the other is just pushing a button.

It might be objected that it is the skill that makes video gamers athletes. In reply, operating complex industrial equipment, programming a computer or other such things also require skills, but I would not call a programmer an athlete. Nor would I call a surgeon an athlete, despite the skill required and the challenges she faces trying to save lives.

Sticking with gaming, playing a board game like Star Fleet Battles or classic tabletop war games also requires skills and involves competition. Some games even require fast reflexes. However, when I am pushing a plastic Federation heavy cruiser around a map and rolling dice to hit Klingon D7 battle cruisers with imaginary photon torpedoes, it seems rather evident that this does not make me an athlete. Even if I am really good at it and I am competing in a tournament. Likewise, if I am pushing around a virtual warrior in a video game competition, I am not an athlete because of this. I’m a gamer.

This is not to look down on gaming—after all, I am a gamer and I take my gaming almost as seriously as I do my running. Rather, it is just to argue what seems obvious: video gaming is not an athletic activity and video gamers are not athletes. They are gamers and there seems to be no reason to come up with a new category, that of e-athlete. I do not, however, have any issue with people getting scholarships for being college gamers. I would have loved to have received a D&D or Call of Cthulhu scholarship when I went to college. I’d have worn my letter jacket with pride, too.

 

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