Category Archives: Ethics

Professor Gun Ban

While all states allow for concealed carry, schools have generally been areas of exemption. As this is being written, my adopted state of Florida is considering a bill that would make concealed carry legal on the campuses of the state’s public universities. Some other states have already passed such laws. While I have written about concealed campus carry before, my focus here is on professors who refuse to allow guns in their classrooms and offices.

While I am not a lawyer, I am inclined to believe that professors lack the legal authority to impose such bans. This is, presumably, something the courts will be hashing out in upcoming lawsuits—perhaps including suits alleging a violation of a constitutionally protected right. Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal matters to the experts. Instead, I will focus on the moral aspects of the subject.

One moral argument that could be made in favor of the professors is that they have the right to ban things they regard as morally offensive from their classrooms and offices. So, a professor who is morally opposed to guns could refuse to allow them. This is analogous in some ways to religious freedom arguments used to justify a business not providing coverage of contraception or those deployed against allowing same sex-marriage. The idea in all these cases is that the moral interest of one person or group overrides that of another, thus justifying the freedom of one over another. In the case of guns, it is the right of the professor to teach and hold office hours in a gun-free environment that overrides the right of others to carry guns.

One reply to this argument, as is used in the religious freedom cases, is that the right of the professor to restrict the right of the students is not justified. That is, their right to carry a weapon trumps her right to be in a weapon free zone. This would be somewhat similar to how the right of a same-sex couple to marry trumps the right of religious people to live in a same-sex marriage free country.

Another reply to this argument is to draw an analogy that is aimed at showing the absurdity of such a professorial ban. Imagine a professor who has a deep and abiding moral opposition to birth control and wants to ban them from her classroom and office. This includes birth control that is being “concealed” in the body (for example, a woman on the pill)—while the professor cannot see it, the mere presence is morally intolerable to her. While the professor has the right to keep students from fornicating in class, she would not seem to have the right to ban the presence of birth control. A similar argument could be made with smart phones: a professor can forbid their use in class because they can be disruptive and be used to cheat, but he cannot refuse to allow students to have them in their backpacks or pockets. As such, professors do not seem to have the right to ban guns simply because they are morally offended by them.

A better moral argument is based on the matter of safety: a professor could be concerned about people being shot (intentionally or accidentally). Colleagues of mine have also spoken about the chilling effect of allowing guns on campus: people, it is claimed, would be afraid to discuss contentious issues. It is also claimed that some professors would be inclined to grade easier to avoid getting shot.

There certainly are legitimate safety concerns about allowing guns on campus. However, there are two obvious points worth considering. The first is that guns are already allowed many places and people do not seem generally inclined to avoid contentious discussions or to not do their jobs properly because someone might shoot them with a (up to the murder attempt) legally carried gun.  As such, unless campuses are simply special places, this concern does not warrant a special ban on campus carry. Put another away, if guns are allowed almost everywhere else, then without a relevant difference argument, they should be allowed on campuses. The second, as I point out to my colleagues, people can very easily carry guns illegally on campus. If someone intends to kill a professor over a bad grade or a heated discussion (which has happened) they can do so. Campuses are generally quite open and I have never seen anyone checked for weapons at any university. A professor ban would certainly not provide a greater degree of safety—even if the professor was able to enforce such an almost certainly illegal ban.

Interesting, the state legislatures who pass concealed carry on campus laws generally forbid people to bring guns to the legislature. While this shows inconsistency, it does not show the law is wrong. It does, however, point towards a relevant difference argument—perhaps the campus is relevantly similar to the legislature.

My view is that there is not really a compelling reason to walk around campus with a gun and I am concerned about safety issues. However, I do not have the moral right to ban guns from my classroom or office. In fact, I would plan on carrying one myself.


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Flint’s Water

Like all too many American cities and towns, the Michigan city of Flint faces dire financial woes. To address these woes, the state stepped in and bypassed local officials with the goal of cutting the budget of the city. One aspect of the solution was to switch Flint’s water supply to a cheaper source, specifically a polluted river. Another aspect seems to have been to decline to pay the $100 per day cost of treating the water in accord with federal regulations. The result was that the corrosive water started dissolving the pipes. Since many of the pipes in the city are made of lead, this resulted in citizens getting lead poisoning. This includes children, who are especially vulnerable to the damage caused by this toxin.

More troubling, it has been claimed that the state was aware of the problem and officials decided to cover it up. The state also apparently tried to discredit the research conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before finally admitting to the truth.

There have been various attempts to explain why this occurred, with filmmaker Michael Moore presenting the hypothesis that it was an attempt at “racist genocide.” This claim does have a certain appeal, given that the poor and minorities have been impacted by the corrosive water. Apparently the corrosive water has far less effect on newer infrastructure, which tends to be in areas that are better off economically. It is also appealing in that it is consistent with the fact of institutional racism that still plagues America. However, before rushing to accept the genocide hypothesis, it is worth considering alternative explanations.

One alternative is that the initial problem arose from political ideology. There is the view that the most important objective is reducing the spending of the state (typically to also lower taxes). Going along with this is also an opposition to federal regulations. Switching to the corrosive water and not treating it was initially cheaper and certainly evaded the regulations governing drinking water treatment. That said, the approach taken by the state did go against some professed conservative values, namely favoring local control and being opposed to government overreach. However, these values have been shown to be extremely flexible. For example, many state legislatures have passed laws forbidden local governments from banning fracking. As such, the initial action was consistent with the ideology.

In regards to the fact that the impact has been heaviest on the poor and minorities, this need not be driven by racism. An alternative explanation is that the policy was aimed not on the basis of race, but on the basis of power and influence. It is, of course, the case that the poor lack power and minorities are often poor. Since the poor lack the resources to resist harm and to buy influence, they are the most common target of budget cuts. Because of this, racism might not be the main factor.

In regards to the ensuing cover up, it might have begun with wishful thinking: the state officials did not want to believe that there was a problem. As such, they refused to accept that it existed. People are very good at denial, even when doing so is harmful to themselves. For example, many who do not take good care of themselves engage in wishful thinking in regards to the consequences their unhealthy behavior. It is, obviously, even easier to engage in wishful thinking when the harm is being suffered by others. Once the cover up progressed, the explanation is rather easy: people engage in a cover-up in the hopes of avoiding the consequences of their actions. However, as is so often the case, the cover-up has resulted in far more damage than a quick and honest admission.

This ongoing incident in Flint does show some important things. First, it does indicate that some traditional conservative claims are true: government can be the problem and local authorities can be better at decision making. Of course, government was the problem in this case because the focus was on saving a little money rather than ensuring the safety of the citizens.

Second, it serves as yet another example of poor assessment of consequences resulting from a shortsighted commitment to savings. This attempt at saving has done irreparable harm to many citizens (including children) and will cost millions of dollars to address. As such, this ill-considered attempt to save money has instead resulted in massive costs.

Third, it serves as yet another lesson in the fact that government regulations can be good. If the state had spent the $100 a day to treat the water in accord with federal regulations, then this problem would have not occurred. This is certainly something that people should consider when politicians condemn and call for eliminating regulations. This is not to claim that all regulations are good—but it is to claim that a blanket opposition to regulations is shortsighted and unwise.

I would like to say that the Flint disaster will result in significant changes. I do think it will have some impact—cities and towns are, no doubt, checking their water and assessing their infrastructure. However, the lessons will soon fade until it is time for a new disaster.


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Incentives, Taxes, & Inequality

One stock argument against increasing taxes on the rich in order to address income inequality is a disincentive argument. The gist of the argument is that if taxes are raised on the rich, then they will lose the incentive to invest, innovate, create jobs and so on.  Most importantly, in regards to addressing the income inequality problem, the consequences of this disincentive will have the greatest impact on those who are not rich. For example, it has been claimed that the job creators will create less jobs and pay lower wages if they are taxed more to address income inequality. As such, the tax increase will be both harmful and self-defeating: the less rich will be no better off than they were before (and perhaps even worse off). As such, there would seem to be good utilitarian moral grounds for not increasing taxes on the rich.

Naturally, there is the question of whether or not this disincentive effect would be warranted or not. If the rich simply retaliated from spite, then the moral argument would fall apart—while there would be negative consequences for such a tax increase, these consequences would be harms intentionally inflicted. As such, not increasing taxes because of fear of retaliation would be morally equivalent to paying protection money so that criminals elect to not break things in one’s business or home.

If, however, the rich act because the tax increase is not fair, then the ethics of the situation would be different. To use an obvious analogy, if wealthy customers at a restaurant were forced to pay some of the bills for the less wealthy customers by the management, it would be hard to fault them for leaving smaller tips on the table. While the matter of what counts as a fair tax is rather controversial, it is certainly easy enough to accept an unfair increase would be unfair by definition. One approach would be to define unfairness in terms of the taxes cutting too much into what the person is entitled to in dint of her efforts, ability and productivity relative to what she owes to the country. This seems reasonable in that it provides considerable room for argumentation and does not beg and obvious questions (after all, the amount one owes one’s country could be as low as nothing).

Interestingly, the fairness argument would also apply to workers in regards to their salary. When a worker produces value, the employer pays the worker some of that value and keeps some of it. What the employer keeps can be seen as analogous to the tax imposed by the state on the rich person. As with the taxes on the rich person, there is the general question of what is fair to take from workers. Bringing in the disincentive argument, if it works to justify imposing only a fair tax on the rich, it should also do the same for the less rich. That is, those who argue against raising taxes on the rich to address income inequality by using the disincentive argument should also accept that the less rich should be paid in accord with the same principles used to judge how much income should be taken from the rich.

The obvious counter to this approach is to endeavor to break the analogy between the two situations: this would involve showing that the rich differ from the less rich in relevant ways or that taking income by taxes is relevantly different from taking money from employees. The challenge is, of course, to show that the differences really are relevant.


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Incentive & Inequality

One of the stock arguments used to justify income inequality is the incentive argument. The gist is that income inequality is necessary as a motivating factor—crudely put, if people could not get (very) rich, then they would not have the incentive to do such things as work hard, innovate, invent and so on. The argument requires the assumption that hard work, innovation, inventing and so on are good; an assumption that has a certain general plausibility.

This argument does have considerable appeal. In terms of psychology, it is reasonable to make the descriptive claim that people are primarily motivated by the possibility of gain (and also glory). This view was held by Thomas Hobbes and numerous other thinkers on the grounds that it does match the observed behavior of many (but not all) people. If this view is correct, then achieving the goods of hard work, innovation, invention and so on would require income inequality.

There is, of course, the counter that some people seem to be very motivated by factors other than achieving an inequality in financial gain. Some are motivated by altruism, by a desire to improve, by curiosity, by the love of invention, by the desire to create things of beauty, to solve problems and so many other motives that do not depend on income. These sort of motivations do suggest that income inequality is not necessary as a motivating factor—at least for some people.

Since this is a matter of fact regarding human psychology, it is something that can (in theory) be settled by the right sort of empirical research. It is well worth noting that even if income inequality is necessary as a motivating factor, there remain many other concerns, such as the question of how much income inequality is necessary (and also how much is morally acceptable).

Interestingly, the incentive argument is something of a two-edged sword: while it can be used to justify income inequality, it can also be used to argue against the sort of economic inequality that exists in the United States and almost all other countries. The argument is as follows.

While worker productivity has increased significantly in the United States (and other countries) income for workers has not matched this productivity. This is a change from the past—income of workers went up more proportionally to the increase in productivity. This explains, in part, why CEO (and upper management in general) salaries have seen a significant increase relative to the income of workers: the increased productivity of the workers generates more income for the upper management than it does for the workers doing the work.

If it is assumed that gain is necessary for motivation and that inequality is justified by the results (working harder, innovating, producing and so on), then the workers should receive a greater proportion of the returns on their productivity. After all, if high executive compensation is justified on the grounds of its motivation in regards to productivity, innovation and so on, then the same principle would also apply to the workers. They, too, should receive compensation proportional to their productivity, innovation and so on. If they do not, then the incentive argument would entail that they would not have the incentive to be as productive, etc.

It could, of course, be argued, that top management earns its higher income by being primarily responsible for the increase in worker productivity—that is, the increase in worker productivity is not because of the workers but because of the leadership which is motivated by the possibility of gain on the part of the leadership. If this is the case, then the disparity would be fully justified by the incentive argument: the workers are more productive because the CEO is motivated to make them more productive so she can have even greater income.

However, if the increased productivity is due mainly to the workers, then this seems to counter the incentive argument: if workers are more productive than before with less relative compensation, then there does not seem to be that alleged critical connection between incentive and productivity required by the incentive argument. That is, if workers will increase productivity while receiving less compensation relative to their productivity, then the same would presumably hold for the top executives. While there are many other ways to warrant extreme income inequality, the incentive argument does seem to have a problem.

One possible response is to argue for important differences between the executives and workers such that executives need the incentive provided by the extreme inequality and workers are motivated sufficiently by other factors (like being able to buy food). It could also be contended that the workers are motivated by the extreme inequality as well—they would not be as productive if they did not have the (almost certainly false) belief that they will become rich.


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David Bowie

David Bowie 2016David Bowie, the artist and actor, died on January 11, 2016. While I would not categorize myself as a fan of any artist, I do admit that I felt some sadness when I learned of his death. I must also confess that I listened to several Bowie songs today.

While Bowie’s art is clearly worthy of philosophical examination, I will instead focus on the philosophical subject of feeling for the death of a celebrity. I have written briefly about this in the past, on the occasion of the death of Michael Jackson. When Jackson died, many of his devoted fans were devastated by his death. The death of David Bowie has also caused a worldwide response, albeit of a somewhat different character.

People, obviously enough, simply feel what they do. However, there is still the question of whether the feeling is appropriate or not. That is, whether it is morally virtuous to feel in such a way and to such a degree. This view is, of course, taken from Aristotle: virtue involves having the right sort of feeling, in the right way, to the right degree, towards the right person, and so on through all the various factors considered by Aristotle.

In the case of the death of a celebrity, one (perhaps cynical) approach is to contend that overly strong emotional responses are not virtuous. Part of the reason is that virtue theorists always endorse the view that the right way to feel is the mean—between excess and deficiency. Another part of the reason is that the response should be in the right way towards the right person.

In the case of the death of a celebrity, it could be contended that a strong reaction, however sincere, is not morally appropriate. This assumes that the person responding lacks a two-way relationship with the celebrity. That is, that the person is not a relative or friend of the celebrity. In that case, the proper response would not be a matter of reacting to the death of a celebrity, but the death of a relative or friend. As such, what would be appropriate for David Bowie’s friends and relatives to feel is different from what would be appropriate for his fans to feel.

It could be contended that fans (who are not friends and relatives) do not have a meaningful connection with a celebrity as a person (a reciprocated relationship) and, as such, strong feelings upon the death of the celebrity would not be appropriate. From the standpoint of the fan, the celebrity is analogous to a fictional character in a book or movie—the fan observes the celebrity, but there is no reciprocity or true interaction. As such, to be unduly impacted by the death of a celebrity would not be a proper response—it would be similar to being unduly impacted by the death of a character in a movie.

One obvious response is that a celebrity is a real person and hence the death of a celebrity is real and not like the death of a fictional character—David Bowie is really dead. One cynical counter is that many thousands of real people have died today, people with whom the vast majority of the rest of us have no more personal relationship with than we had with David Bowie. As such, the real death of a celebrity should warrant no more emotional response than the death of anyone we do not know personally. It is, of course, proper to feel some sadness upon hearing of the death of a person (who did not merit death). However, feeling each death strongly would destroy us—which is no doubt why we feel so little in regards to the deaths of non-celebrities who are not connected to us.

Another option, which would require considerable development, is to argue that there can be proper emotional responses to the deaths of fictional characters—to be sad, for example, at the passing of Romeo and Juliet. This is, of course, exactly the sort of thing that Plato warned us about in the Republic.

A better reply is that a celebrity can have a meaningful impact on a person’s life, even when there is no actual personal interaction. In the case of David Bowie, people have been strongly affected by his music (and his acting) and this has played an important role in their lives. While a person might have never met Bowie, that person can be grateful for what Bowie created and his influence. As such, a person can justly and properly feel sadness at the death of a person they do not really know. That said, it could be contended that people do get to know an artist through the works. To use an analogy, it is similar to how one can know a long dead person through her writings (or writings about her). For example, one might develop a liking for Socrates by reading the Platonic dialogues and feel justly saddened by his death in the Apology. As such, people can feel justly sad about the death of a person they never met.


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Occupying & Protesting

Ammon Bundy and fellow “militia” members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a protest of federal land use policies. Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy—the rancher who was involved in another armed stand-off with the federal government. Cliven Bundy still owes the American taxpayers over $1 million for grazing his cattle on public land—the sort of sponging off the public that would normally enrage conservatives. While that itself is an interesting issue, my focus will be on discussing the ethics of protest through non-violent armed occupation.

Before getting to the main issue, I will anticipate some concerns about the discussion. First, I will not be addressing the merits of the Bundy protest. Bundy purports to be protesting against the tyranny of the federal government in regards to its land-use policies. Some critics have pointed out that Bundy has benefitted from the federal government, something that seems a bit reminiscent of the infamous cry of “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While the merit of a specific protest is certainly relevant to the moral status of the protest, my focus is on the general subject of occupation as a means of protest.

Second, I will not be addressing the criticism that if the federal land had been non-violently seized by Muslims protesting Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter activists protesting police treatment of blacks, then the response would have been very different. While the subject of race and protest is important, it is not my focus here. I now turn to the matter of protesting via non-violent armed occupation.

The use of illegal occupation is well established as a means of protest in the United States and was used during the civil rights movement. But, of course, an appeal to tradition is a fallacy—the mere fact that something is well-established does not entail that it is justified. As such, an argument is needed to morally justify occupation as a means of protest.

One argument for occupation as a means of protest is that protestors do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.


One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to occupy a public library and interfere with its operation. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest.

People also protest in areas that are not normally open to the public—or whose use by the public is restricted. This would include privately owned areas as well as public areas that have restrictions. In the case of the Bundy protest, public facilities are being occupied rather than private facilities. However, Bundy and his fellows are certainly using the area in a way that would normally not be allowed—people cannot, in the normal course of things, just take up residence in public buildings. This can also be regarded as a conflict of rights—the right of protest versus the right of private ownership or public use.

These replies can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the rights of others to use the area that is occupied.  After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to accept protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in such behavior would be acting wrongly and the protest would thus be morally wrong. After all, if rights are accepted to justify a right to protest, then this would provide a clear foundation for accepting the rights of those who would be imposed upon by the protest. If the protestor who is protesting tyranny becomes a tyrant to others, then the protest certainly loses its moral foundation.

This provides the theoretical framework for assessing whether the Bundy protest is morally acceptable or not: it is a matter of weighing the merit of the protest against the harm done to the rights of other citizens (especially those in the surrounding community).

The above assumes a non-violent occupation of the sort that can be classified as classic civil disobedience of the sort discussed by Thoreau. That is, non-violently breaking the rules (or law) in an act of disobedience intended to bring about change. This approach was also adopted by Gandhi and Dr. King. Bundy has added a new factor—while the occupation has (as of this writing) been peaceful, the “militia” on the site is well armed. It has been claimed that the weapons are for self-defense, which indicates that the “militia” is willing to escalate from non-violent (albeit armed) to violent occupation in response to the alleged tyranny of the federal government. This leads to the matter of the ethics of armed resistance as a means of protest.

Modern political philosophy does provide a justification of such resistance. John Locke, for example, emphasized the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so. He provides the following definition of “tyranny”: “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” When the state is acting in a tyrannical manner, it can be justly resisted—at least on Locke’s view. As such, Bundy does have a clear theoretical justification for armed resistance. However, for this justification to be actual, it would need to be shown that federal land use policies are tyrannical to a degree that warrants the use of violence as a means of resistance.

Consistency does, of course, require that the framework be applied to all relevantly similar cases of protests—be they non-violent occupations or armed resistance.


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Utility & The Martian

I recently got around to watching The Martian, a science fiction film about the effort to rescue an astronaut from Mars. Matt Damon, who is often rescued in movies, plays “astrobotanist” Mark Watney. The discussion that follows contains some spoilers, so those who have yet to see the film might wish to stop reading now. Those who have seen the film might also wish to stop reading, albeit for different reasons.

At the start of the movie Watney is abandoned on Mars after the rest of his team believes he died during the evacuation of the expedition. The rest of the movie details his efforts at survival (including potato farming in space poop) and the efforts of NASA and the Chinese space agency to save him.

After learning that Watney is not dead, NASA attempts to send a probe loaded with food to Mars. The launch fails, strewing rocket chunks and incinerated food over a large area. The next attempt involved resupplying the returning main space ship, the Hermes, using a Chinese rocket and sending it on a return trip to pick up Watney. This greatly extends the crew’s mission time. Using a ship that NASA already landed on Mars for a future mission, Watney blasts up into space and is dramatically rescued.

While this situation is science fiction, it does address a real moral concern about weighing the costs and risks of saving a life. While launch costs are probably cheaper in the fictional future of the movie, the lost resupply rocket and the successful Chinese resupply rocket presumably cost millions of dollars. The cached rocket Watney used was also presumably fairly expensive. There is also the risk undertaken by the crew of the Hermes.

Looked at from a utilitarian standpoint, a case can be made that the rescue was morally wrong. The argument for this is fairly straightforward: for the “generic” utilitarian, the right action is the one that generates the greatest utility for the being that are morally relevant. While Watney is certainly morally relevant, the fictional future of the film is presumably a world that is still very similar to this world. As such, there are presumably still millions of people living in poverty, millions who need health care, and so on. That is, there are presumably millions of people who are at risk of dying and some of them could be saved by the expenditure of millions (or even billions) of dollars in resources.

Expending so many resources to save one person, Watney, would seem to be morally wrong: those resources could have been used to save many more people on earth and would thus have greater utility. As such, the right thing to do would have been to let Watney die—at least on utilitarian grounds.

There are, of course, many ways this argument could be countered on utilitarian grounds. One approach begins with how important Watney’s rescue became to the people of earth—the movie shows vast crowds who are very concerned about Watney. Letting Watney die would presumably make these people sad and angry, thus generating considerable negative consequences. This, of course, rests on the psychological difference between abstract statistics about people dying (such as many people dying due to lacking proper medical care) and the possible death of someone who has been made into a celebrity. As such, the emotional investment of the crowds could be taken as imbuing Watney with far greater moral significance relative to the many who could have been saved from death with the same monetary expenditure.

One obvious problem with this sort of view is that it makes moral worth dependent on fame and the feelings of others rather than on qualities intrinsic to the person. But, it could be replied, fame and the feelings of others do matter—at least when making a utilitarian calculation about consequences.

A second approach is to focus on the broader consequences: leaving Watney to die on Mars could be terribly damaging to the future of manned space exploration and humanity’s expansion into space. As such, while Watney himself is but a single person with only the moral value of one life, the consequences of not saving him would outweigh the consequences of not saving many others on earth. That is, Watney is not especially morally important as a person, but in terms of his greater role he has great significance. This would morally justify sacrificing the many (by not saving them) to save the one—as an investment in future returns. This does raise various concerns about weighing actual people against future consequences—but these are not unique to this situation.

There is also the meta-concern about the fact that Watney is played by Matt Damon—some have contended that this would justify leaving Watney to die on Mars. But, I will leave this to the film critics to settle.

(Apologies on falling behind on the blog, this was due to the holidays and surgery on my hand).

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Ethics (for Free)

LaBossiere EthicsThe following provides links to my Ethics course, allowing a person to get some ethics for free. Also probably works well as a sleep aid.*

Notes & Readings

Practice Tests

Power Point

Class YouTube Videos

These are unedited videos from the Fall 2015 Ethics class. Spoiler: I do not die at the end.

Part One Videos: Introduction & Moral Reasoning

Video 1:  It covers the syllabus.

Video 2: It covers the introduction to ethics, value, and the dreaded spectrum of morality.

Video 3: It covers the case paper.

Video 4: No video. Battery failure.

Video 5: It covers inductive arguments and the analogical argument.

Video 6: It covers Argument by/from Example and Argument from Authority.

Video 7:  It covers Inconsistent Application and Reversing the Situation.

Video 8:  It covers Argument by Definition, Appeal to Intuition, and Apply a Moral Principle. The death of the battery cuts this video a bit short.

Video 9:  It covers Applying Moral Principles, Applying Moral Theories, the “Playing God” Argument and the Unnatural Argument.

Video 10: It covers Appeal to Consequences and Appeal to Rules.

Video 11:  It covers Appeal to Rights and Mixing Norms.

Part Two Videos: Moral Theories

Video 12:  It covers the introduction to Part II and the start of virtue theory.

Video 13: It covers Confucius and Aristotle.

Video 14:  This continues Aristotle’s virtue theory.

Video 15: It covers the intro to ethics and religion as well as the start of Aquinas’ moral theory.

Video 16: It covers St. Thomas Aquinas, divine command theory, and John Duns Scotus.

Video 17: It covers the end of religion & ethics and the beginning of consequentialism.

Video 18: It covers Thomas Hobbes and two of the problems with ethical egoism.

Video 19:  It covers the third objection to ethical egoism, the introduction to utilitarianism and the start of the discussion of J.S. Mill. Includes reference to Jeremy “Headless” Bentham.

Video 20: This video covers the second part of utilitarianism, the objections against utilitarianism and the intro to deontology.

Video 21: It covers the categorical imperative.

Part Three Videos: Why Be Good?, Moral Education & Equality

Video 22: It covers the question of “why be good?” and Plato’s Ring of Gyges.

Video 23: It covers the introduction to moral education and the start of Aristotle’s theory of moral education.

Video 24: It covers more of Aristotle’s theory of moral education.

Video 25: It covers the end of Rousseau and the start of equality.

Video 26: It covers the end of Rousseau and the start of equality.

Video 27:  It covers Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Video 28:  This video covers the second part of Wollstonecraft and gender equality.

Video 29: It covers the start of ethics and race.

Video 30: It covers St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of animals and ethics.

Video 31: It covers Descartes’ discussion of animals. Includes reference to Siberian Huskies.

Video 32: It covers the end of Kant’s animal ethics and the utilitarian approach to animal ethics.

Part IV: Rights, Obedience & Liberty

Video 33: It covers the introduction to rights and a bit of Hobbes.

Video 34: It covers Thomas Hobbes’ view of rights and the start of John Locke’s theory of rights.

Video 35:  It covers John Locke’s state of nature and theory of natural rights.

Video 36:  It covers Locke’s theory of property and tyranny. It also covers the introduction to obedience and disobedience.

Video 37: It covers the Crito and the start of Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience.

Video 38:  It covers the second part of Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience.

Video 39:  It covers the end of Thoreau’s civil disobedience, Mussolini’s essay on fascism and the start of J.S. Mill’s theory of Liberty.

Video 40:  It covers Mill’s theory of liberty.

Narration YouTube Videos

These videos consist of narration over Powerpoint slides. Good for naptime.

Part One Videos

Part Two Videos

Part Three Videos

Part Four Videos

*This course has not been evaluated by the FDA as a sleep aid. Use at your own risk. Side effects might include Categorical Kidneys, Virtuous Spleen, and Spontaneous Implosion.

Owning Asteroids

While asteroid mining is still just science fiction, companies such as Planetary Resources are already preparing to mine the sky. While space mining sounds awesome, lawyers are already hard at work murdering the awesomeness with legalize. President Obama recently signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which seems to make asteroid mining legal. The key part of the law is that “Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law and existing international obligations.” More concisely, the law makes it so that asteroid mining by U.S. citizens would not violate U.S. law.

While this would seem to open up the legal doors to asteroid mining, there are still legal barriers. The various space treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, do not give states sovereign rights in space. As such, there is no legal foundation for a state conferring space property rights to its citizens on the basis of its sovereignty. However, the treaties do not forbid private ownership in space—as such, any other nation could pass a similar law that allows its citizens to own property in space without violating the laws of that nation.

One obvious concern is that if multiple nations pass such laws and citizens from these nations start mining asteroids, then there will be the very real possibility of conflict over valuable resources. In some ways this will be a repeat of the past: the more technological advanced nations engaged in a struggle to acquire resources in an area where they lack sovereignty. These past conflicts tended to escalate into actual wars, which is something that must be considered in the final frontier.

One way to try to avoid war over asteroid resources is to work out new treaties governing the use of space resources. This is, obviously enough, a matter that will be handled by space lawyers, governments, and corporations. Unless, of course, the automated killing machines resolve it first.

While the legal aspects of space ownership are interesting, the moral aspects of ownership in space are also of considerable concern. While it might be believed that property rights in space is something entirely new, this is clearly not the case. While the location is clearly different than in the original, the matter of space property matches the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. To be specific, there is an abundance of resources and an absence of authority. As it now stands, while no one can hear you scream in space, there is also no one who can arrest you for space thievery.

Using the state of nature model, it can be claimed that there are currently no rightful owners of the asteroids or it could be claimed that we are all the rightful owners (the asteroids are the common property of all of humanity).

If there are currently no rightful owners, then it would seem that the asteroids are there for the taking: an asteroid belongs to whoever can take and hold it. This is on par with Hobbes’ state of nature—practical ownership is a matter of possession. As Hobbes saw it, everyone has the right to all things, but this is effectively a right to nothing—other than what a person can defend from others. As Hobbes noted, in such a scenario profit is the measure of right and who is right is to be settled by the sword.

While this is practical, brutal and realistic, it does seem a bit morally problematic in that it would, as Hobbes also noted, lead to war. His solution, which would presumably work as well in space as on earth, would be to have sovereignty in space. This would shift the war of all against all in space (of the sort that is common in science fiction about asteroid mining) to a war of nations in space (which is also common in science fiction). The war could, of course, be a cold one fought economically and technologically rather than a hot one fought with mass drivers and lasers.

If the asteroids are regarded as the common property of humanity, then Locke’s approach could be taken. As Locke saw it, God gave everything to humans in common, but people have to acquire things from the common property to make use of it. Locke gives the terrestrial example of how a person needs to make an apple her own before she can benefit from it. In the case of space, a person would need to make an asteroid her own in order to benefit from the materials it contains.

Locke sketched out a basic labor theory of ownership—whatever a person mixes her labor with becomes her property. As such, if asteroid miners located an asteroid and started mining it, then the asteroid would belong to them.  This does have some appeal: before the miners start extracting the minerals from the asteroid, it is just a rock drifting in space. Now it is a productive mine, improved from is natural state by the labor of the miners. If mining is profitable, then the miners would have a clear incentive to grab as many asteroids as they can, which leads to a rather important moral problem—the limits of ownership.

Locke does set limits on what people can take in his proviso.: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. When describing this to my students, I always use the analogy to food at a party: since the food is for everyone, everyone has a right to the food. However, taking it all or taking the very best would be wrong (and rude). While this proviso is ignored on earth, the asteroids provide us with a fresh start in regards to dividing up the common property of humanity. After all, no one has any special right to claim the asteroids—so we all have equal good claims to the resources they contain.

As with earth resources, some will probably contend that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space. Instead, those who get there first will contend that ownership should be on the principle of whoever grabs it first and can keep it is the “rightful” owner.

Those who take this view would probably argue that those who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will remain poor—their poverty will, in fact, disqualify them from owning any of the space resources much in the way poverty disqualifies people on earth from owning earth resources.

While the selfish approach is certainly appealing, arguments can be made for sharing asteroid resources. One reason is that those who will mine the asteroids did not create the means to do so from nothing on their own. Reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to human civilization and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Another way to argue for sharing the resources is to use an analogy to a buffet line. Suppose I am first in line at a buffet. This does not give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself in order to sell it to those who had the misfortune to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Naturally, these arguments for sharing can be countered by the usual arguments in favor of selfishness. While it is tempting to think that the vastness of space will overcome selfishness (that is, there will be so much that people will realize that not sharing would be absurd and petty), this seems unlikely—the more there is, the greater the disparity between those who have and those who have not. On this pessimistic view we already have all the moral and legal tools we need for space—it is just a matter of changing the wording a bit to include “space.”



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Terraforming & Abortion

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While terraforming and abortion are both subjects of moral debate, they would seem to have little else in common. However, some of the moral arguments used to justify abortion can be used to justify terraforming. These arguments will be given due consideration.

Briefly put, terraforming is the process of making a planet more earthlike. While this is still mostly a matter of science fiction, serious consideration has been given to how Mars, for example, might be changed to make it more compatible with terrestrial life. While there are some moral concerns with terraforming dead worlds, the main moral worries involve planets that already have life—or, at the very least, real potential for the emergence of life. If a world needs to be terraformed for human habitation, such terraforming is likely to prove harmful or even fatal for the indigenous life. For example, changing the atmosphere of a world to match that of earth would probably be problematic for whatever was breathing the original atmosphere. While it can be argued that there might be cases in which terraforming benefits the local life, I will focus on terraforming that exterminates the local life. I call this terminal terraforming.

One way to look at such terminal terraforming is to consider it as analogous to abortion. As will be shown, there are some important differences between the two—but for now I will focus on the moral similarities.

One stock type of argument in favor of the moral acceptability of abortion is the status argument. While these arguments take various forms, the gist is that the termination of a pregnancy is morally acceptable on the grounds that the woman has a superior moral status to the aborted entity (readers are free to use whichever term they prefer—I am endeavoring to use neutral terms to avoid begging the question). This sort of argument is very similar to the sort used by St. Aquinas and St. Augustine to morally justify killing plants and animals for food. Roughly put, humans are better than animals, so it is acceptable for us to harm them when we need to do so.

This argument can be pressed into use to justify terminal terraforming: if the indigenous life has less moral status than the terraforming species, then this would provide the grounds for arguing that the terraforming is morally acceptable.

The status argument has numerous variations. One common version uses the notion of rights—the rights of the woman outweigh the rights (if any) of the aborted entity. This is because the woman has the superior moral status. This argument is also commonly used to justify killing animals for food or sport—while they have some rights (maybe), the rights of humans’ trump those of animals.

In the case of terraforming, a similar sort of appeal to rights could be used to justify terminal terraforming. For example, if humans need to expand to a world that has only single-celled life, then the rights of humans would outweigh the rights of those creatures.

Another common version uses the notion of utilitarianism: the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the woman is weighed against the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the aborted entity. Those favoring this argument note that the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the woman far outweigh that of the aborted entity—usually because it lacks the capacities of an adult. Not surprisingly, this sort of argument is also used to justify the killing of animals. For example, it is often argued that the happiness people get from eating meat outweighs the unhappiness of the animals that are to be eaten.

As with the other status arguments, this can also be used to justify terraforming. As with all utilitarian arguments, it would involve weighing the happiness and unhappiness of the involved parties. If the life on the planet to be terraformed had less capacities than humans in regard to happiness and unhappiness (such as world whose highest form of life is the alien equivalent of algae), then it would be morally acceptable for humans to terraform that world. Or so it could be argued.

The status argument is sometimes itself supported by an argument focusing on the difference between actuality and potentiality. While the entity to be aborted is a potential person (on some views), it is not an actual person. Since the woman is an actual person, she has the higher status. The philosophical discussions of the potential versus the actual are rather old and are a matter of metaphysics. However, the argument can be made without a journey into the metaphysical realm simply by using the intuitive notions of potentiality and actuality. For example, an actual masterpiece of painting has higher worth than the blank canvas and unused paint that constitute a potential masterpiece. This sort of argument can also be used to justify terraforming on worlds whose lifeforms are not (yet) people and also, obviously enough, on worlds that merely have the potential of producing life.

While the analogy between the two has merit, there are some rather obvious ways to try to break the comparison. One obvious point is that in the case of abortion, the woman is the “owner” of the body where the aborted entity used to live. It is this relation that is often used to morally warrant abortion and to provide a moral distinction between a woman choosing to have an abortion and someone else who kills the product of conception.

When humans arrive to terraform a world that already has life, the life that lives there already “owns” the world and hence humans cannot claim that special relation that would justify choosing to kill. Instead, the situation would be more similar to killing the life within another person and this would presumably change the ethics of the situation.

Another important difference is that while abortion (typically) kills just one entity, terraforming would (typically) wipe out entire species. As such, terraforming of this sort would be analogous to aborting all pregnancies and exterminating the human race—as opposed to the termination of some pregnancies. This moral concern is, obviously enough, the same as the concern about human caused extinction here on earth. While people are concerned about the death of individual entities, there is the view that the extermination of a species is something morally worse than the death of all the individuals (that is, the wrong of extinction is not merely a sum of the wrong of all the individual deaths.

These considerations show that the analogy does have obvious problems. That said, there still seems to be a core moral concern that connects abortion and terraforming: what (if anything) morally justifies killing on the grounds of (alleged) superior moral status?


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