Category Archives: Philosophy

Getting it Wrong

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On February 14th, 2018 seventeen people were murdered during a school shooting. As per the well-established script: the media focused on the weapon used, the right offered “thoughts and prayers” while insisting that this was not the time to talk about gun violence, and the left called for more gun control. As other have pointed out many times, this script will also play out in the usual way—the attention of the nation will drift away, children will be buried by their parents and nothing will really be done. This cycle will repeat with the next school shooting. And the next. As a country, we are getting it wrong in many ways.

One way we get it wrong, which is a fault of the media and the left, is to obsess on the specific weapon used in the latest school shooting. In this case, like many other cases, the weapon was an AR-15. The media always seems to ask why the weapon is used in shootings; the easy and obvious answer is that it shows up at mass shootings for the same reason that McDonald wrappers and bags end up alongside the roads I run. That is, both are very popular. There is also the fact that the AR-15 is an ideal weapon for engaging a crowd—it has a large magazine capacity, it is lethal and is easy to shoot. But, the AR-15 is not unique in those traits. There are many other assault rifles (as they are called) that are similar. For example, the AK-47 and its clones are also effective weapons of this type; but they are the Arby’s of assault weapons. That is, less popular. There is also the fact that non-assault weapons are just as lethal (or more so) than the assault rifles. They just tend to have smaller magazines. This shows one of the problems with the obsession with the AR-15—there are other weapons that would do the same.

Another problem with obsessing about the specific weapon is that it allows an easy red herring counter. A red herring is when one diverts attention from the original issue to another issue. When, for example, a reporter starts pressing a congressman about the AR-15, they can easily switch the discussion from gun violence to a discussion about the AR-15, thus getting away from the real issue. The solution is, obviously enough, is to get over the obsession with the specific weapon and focus instead on the issue of gun violence in general. Which leads to another way we get it wrong.

School shootings are horrific, but they are not the way most victims of gun violence die. In general, homicides are at record low levels (although we are still a world leader in homicides). Most gun-related deaths are suicides and the assault rifle is not the most commonly used weapon in most gun deaths. School shootings and mass shootings do get the attention of the media and the nation, but this seems to enable us to ignore the steady flow of gun-related deaths that do not grab the headlines. This is not to say that mass shootings are not a serious problem, nor that we should not act in response to them. But, the gun violence problem in America goes far beyond mass shootings. It is, ironically, a quiet problem that does not get the spotlight of the media. As such, even less is done about the broader problem than is done about mass shootings. And, to be honest, little or nothing is done about mass shootings.

While there are proposals from the left for gun control, the right usually advocates having a “good guy with a gun”, addressing mental illness, and fortifying places such as schools. There seems to be little evidence that the “good guy with a gun” will solve the problem of mass shootings; but this is largely due to the fact that there is so little good data about gun violence. While mental illness is clearly a problem and seriously addressing mental illness would be a broad social good, it seems unlikely that the vague proposals being offered would really do anything. America essentially abandoned the mentally ill during the Reagan era, an approach that has persisted to this day. The right does not seem to be serious about putting in the social services needed to address mental illness; they merely bring it up in response to mass shootings to distract people from gun control. The left, while expressing concern, also has done little—we have massive problems in this country that are simply festering away. Also, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators, so addressing mental health in a way that focuses on mass shooters would not address the much broader problem.

The proposals to create “Fortress Academia” might seem appealing, but there is the obvious problem with cost: public schools tend to be chronically underfunded and it is not clear where the money needed for such fortification would come from. There is also the fact that turning schools intro fortresses seems fundamentally wrong and is, perhaps, a red herring to distract people from the actual causes of the problem. To use an analogy, it is like addressing the opioid epidemic by telling people to get better home security to prevent addicts from breaking in to steal things to sell to buy drugs. This is not to say that school safety is a bad idea, just that turning our schools into forts does not seem to be the best approach.

I know that it will not be that long before I am writing about another mass shooting; people will move on to other things, as they always do, and the malign neglect of the problem will persist.

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Kant & Tasering Dead Rats

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

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

Kant makes it clear that animals are means rather than ends—they have no moral status of their own. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them. While one might dispute Kant’s view about the ability of living animals to follow the moral law, one can see clearly and distinctly that a dead rat cannot do this. It is, after all, dead. An ex-rat.

Despite this view, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Evil & Institutions II: Reconsidering Lawful Evil

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In an earlier essay, I considered the various evil Dungeons & Dragons alignments in the context of institutions. In that essay, I took the view that lawful evil people are the most dangerous of all because they aim to institutionalize evil. However, a case can be made that the lawful evil approach is better than that of the other evil alignments. Making a case for this involves appealing to the work of Thomas Hobbes.

In the Leviathan, Hobbes argues that the state of nature would be a war of all against all, a state perhaps best described as chaotic evil at worst and chaotic neutral at best. However, his description of people makes most of them seem to be neutral evil (utterly selfish, with no concern for others). He regarded the chaos of the state of nature as the worst and his solution was, roughly put, for people to accept a sovereign to rule over them and impose order. This would transform the chaotic evil of the state of nature into the lawful evil of the state of civilization. In D&D, lawful evil is defined in this way:

A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

This description shows that lawful evil types have the qualities needed to maintain civilization and hold off the state of nature. The lawful evil persons respect for tradition, loyalty and order lead them to value the institutions of the state and they will seek to protect and preserve them. They might even be willing to tolerate some goodness in these institutions, provided that the goodness contributes to order.

Interestingly, a principled lawful evil person would be loath to harm or attack an institution even if doing so was personally advantageous. For example, a lawful evil ruler being investigated for a crime would do much to avoid being punished but would be very reluctant to harm or weaken the institutions of law enforcement. This is because a lawful evil person lacks the shallow selflessness of the neutral evil person and cares, in their own evil way, about the preservation of society and its institutions. As such, the lawful evil person can act in a principled way and could even sacrifice themselves for others, and thus they could be mistaken for being good people.

While a lawful evil person would not be good, they could be rightly said to have virtues.  Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, makes this point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

While Kant regards evil combined with virtue to be perhaps the very worst, the lawful evil villain, as noted above, operates within limits that puts them above the worst villains—the chaotic evil and neutral evil types. While lawful evil types lack, in Kantian terms, the good will, they could be said to have the lawful will. That is, while they do not will the good, they do will the law. While this would certainly not satisfy Kant, it would be quite enough for Hobbes. For him, what gets humans out of the chaos of the state of nature is not goodness or love or others, but self-interest and an acceptance of order. Roughly put, enough people are willing to shift their alignments from chaotic or neutral evil to lawful evil to allow society to form. Maintaining that society requires that enough people remain lawful, even if they are lawful evil. As such, good people who value society and order can find allies in their lawful evil fellows, although this alliance can presumably never be more than one of convenience. This is because while good and lawful evil people share a common desire to oppose chaotic evil and neutral evil types, they still have an irreconcilable moral difference regarding good and evil.

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Health Care Workers and Moral Objections II: Patients/Clients

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As noted in an earlier essay, the Trump administration plans to modify the Health and Human Services (HHS) civil rights office to protect health care workers who have moral or religious objections to performing certain medical procedures or treating certain patients.  In that essay I addressed the general moral issue of  whether health workers have the moral right to refuse certain services. I now turn to the general issue of whether they have the moral right to refuse to treat certain patients (or clients) based on the identity of the patients (or clients). The legal matter, of course, is something for the courts to settle.

As noted in the earlier essay, a person does not surrender their moral rights or conscience when they enter a profession. As such, it should not simply be assumed that a health care worker cannot refuse to treat a person because of the worker’s values. But, of course, it should also not be assumed that the moral or religious values of a health care worker grant them the right to refuse treatment based on the identity of the patient.

One moral argument for the right to refuse treatment because of the patient’s identity is based on the general right to refuse to provide a good or service. A key freedom, one might argue, is this freedom from compulsion. For example, an author has every right to determine who they will and will not write for.

Another moral argument for the right to refuse is a general one about the right to not be forced to interact with people whom one regards as evil or at least immoral. This can also be augmented by contending that serving the needs of an immoral person is to engage in an immoral action, if only by association. For example, a Jewish painter has every right to refuse to paint a mural for Nazis.

While these arguments have considerable appeal, especially in cases in which the refusal is directed at the sorts of people one dislikes, it is important to consider the implications of a right of refusal based on values. One obvious implication is that such a right could warrant a health care worker to refuse to treat you if they regarded you as immoral. In general terms, moral rights need to be assessed by applying a moral method I call reversing the situation. Parents and others often employ this method informally by asking questions such as “how would you feel if someone did that to you?”

Somewhat more formally, this method is based on the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Assuming this rule is correct, if a person is unwilling to abide by his own principles when the situation is reversed, then it is reasonable to question those principles. In the case at hand, while a person might be fine with the right to refuse services to those they dislike because of their values, they would presumably not be fine with it if the situation were reversed.

An obvious objection is that reversing the situation would, strictly speaking, only apply to health workers themselves. Fortunately, there is a modified version of this method that would apply to everyone. In this method one test of a moral right, principle or rule is for a person to replace the proposed target of the right, principle or rule with themselves or a group (or groups) they belong to. For example, a Christian who thinks it is morally fine to refuse services to transgender people based on religious freedom should consider their thoughts on atheists refusing services to Christians based on religious freedom. Naturally, a person could insist that the right, rule or principle should only be applied to those they do not like—but if anyone can take this out, then it would seem everyone could as well, thus the objection would fail.

One reasonable reply to this method is to point out that there are clear exceptions to its application. For example, while most Christians are fine with convicted murders being locked up, it does that follow that they are wrong about this because they would not want to be locked up for being Christians. In such cases, which also applies to reversing the situation, it can be argued that there is a morally relevant difference between the two people or groups that justifies the difference in treatment. For example, convicted murders generally deserve to be punished for being murders while Christians obviously do not merit punishment just for being Christians. As such, when considering the moral right of health care workers to refuse services based on the identity of the patient (or client) the possibility of relevant differences must be given due consideration.

The obvious problem with relevant difference considerations is that people will tend to think there is a relevant difference between themselves and those they want to apply the right of refusal. For example, a person who is a social justice warrior might regard a member of the alt-right as an evil racist and see this as a relevant difference that warrants refusing service to such a person. One solution is to appeal to an objective moral judge—but this creates the obvious problem of finding such a person. Another solution is for the person to take special pains to be objective—but this is rather difficult and especially so in cases in which objectivity is often most needed.

A final relevant consideration is the fact that while entering a profession does not strip a person of their conscience or moral agency, it often imposes professional ethics on the person that supersede their own values within the professional context. For example, lawyers must accept a professional ethics that requires them to keep certain secrets their client might have (the most obvious being when they did the crime) even when doing so might violate their personal ethics. As another example, lawyers (especially public defenders) are expected to defend their clients even if they find their clients morally awful. As a third example, as a professor I (in general) cannot insist that a student be removed from my class by appealing to my religious or moral values regarding the identity of the student. As a professor, I am obligated to teach anyone enrolled in my class, if they do not engage in behavior that would warrant their removal (such as assaulting other students). Health care workers generally fall under professional ethics as well and these typically include requirements to render care to people regardless of what the worker things of the morality of the person. For example, a doctor does not have the right to refuse to perform surgery on someone just because they committed adultery, are a compulsive liar, have engaged in shady and even illegal business practices or expressed their proclivity to grab people by a certain part of their anatomy. This is not to say that there cannot be exceptions, but professional medical ethics would seem to forbid refusing service just because of the moral judgment by the service provider of the patient (or client). This, obviously enough, is distinct from refusing services because a patient or client has engaged in behavior that warrants refusal, such as attacking the service provider.

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Shut Down Blame

The government shutdown of January, 2018 led to the usual efforts to place blame. The Republicans assert that the Democrats are in the wrong—if only they would put the interest of America ahead of their unpatriotic devotion to the illegals eager to remain or cross in search of handouts, then there would be no problem. The Democrats blame the Republicans, presenting their own narrative of the evils of the Republicans. Sorting out the responsibility in such matters can be rather problematic; especially since everyone typically contributes to the problem.

It is, of course, tempting to be cynical about the matter and embrace the narrative that each side is simply maneuvering to maximize the chances that its members will be re-elected in the next cycle. To truly cynical eyes, the Democrats are trying to win the votes of the brown people. The Republicans are struggling to win the votes of the white people who are terrified of the brown people. This view, I hope, does a disservice to both sides. But, the problem remains of sorting out the responsibility.

One factor that makes objectively assessing responsibility in this matter is in-group bias. This is a cognitive bias that influences people to see members of their group as better than those outside the group. As such, people who identify with a political party will see their party as better and the other party as worse. So, in the eyes of most Democrats, the Republicans are to blame—they seem to be in the wrong because Democrats see other Democrats as better. The same sort of bias holds for Republicans—they will tend to see the Democrats as being in the wrong.

This bias can also fuel a full fallacy, which is sometimes called the group think fallacy. This fallacy occurs when a person infers that their group is right or better simply because it is their group. The mistake is, of course, that the fact that a group is one’s own does not entail that it is right, good or better. Naturally, many people have the sense to realize that openly asserting that their side is right because it is their side is not a good argument. As such, they tend to advance reasons in favor of the position they already hold, seeking evidence that confirms the conclusion they have drawn from the in-group fallacy and that conforms to their in-group bias.

The psychological commitment people have to their groups can lead to distorting the evidence and, not surprisingly, to making use of other fallacies in “defense” of their position. As such, a Democrat reading this is most likely certain that the Republicans are to blame, while a Republican reading this is probably sure that this trouble is all the fault of the Democrats.

Even if people were willing and able to push through the in-group bias and resist the lure of the group think fallacy, there would still be a challenge in assigning responsibility. One reason for this is the matter of value. In the case at hand, a key question is whether it is worth shutting down the government to try to get what one wants (or to deny the other people what they want). Both the Democrats and Republicans have agreed that it is worth doing so—the Democrats refused to go along with the Republicans and the Republicans refused to cooperate with the Democrats. This leaves the question of whether one of them has it right. This, of course, leads to the debate over values and both sides can sincerely believe that they are in the right. This leads to the classic question of whether such values are objective or subjective. If they are objective, at least one side is in the wrong. If values are subjective, then they could both be in the right, albeit meaningless so. After all, if everyone is right, then right means nothing.

As far as who I blame, my inclination is to place most of it on Trump. Both the Democrats and the Republicans worked together on a compromise, but Trump rejected it and seems to be engaged in yet another twitter tantrum. But, of course, my perception is shaded by my biases.

 

 

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Institutions & Evil

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Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) introduced the alignment system to the gaming world. This system, though regarded by many players as restrictive and artificial, offered a degree of guidance on how to play good, evil, lawful, chaotic and neutral characters. This system has also proven useful in the real world, allowing gaming nerds like me to quickly categorize actions and people. This system is also rather useful for mapping the current political landscape of America.

A key component of any society is its institutions. In the United States these institutions include the systems that constitute the government such as Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These institutions are used to maintain (or impose, if you prefer) order. While it is tempting to mistake order for goodness, D&D makes a clear distinction between lawful and good—a distinction long recognized by philosophers. In the D&D alignment system, creatures can be lawful (as opposed to chaotic or neutral) but also evil at the same time. Good creatures can be chaotic or neutral; thus rejecting the constraints of law and order.  Evil creatures that are not lawful also have the option to be chaotic or neutral. While chaotic good and neutral good creatures will support (or at least not harm) good institutions of order and law, evil creatures that are not lawful are generally willing to harm evil institutions of order and law—as will be seen, they care not for order.

The alignment most vehemently opposed to order and institutions of order is chaotic evil. Chaotic Evil is defined this way:

A chaotic evil character does whatever his greed, hatred, and lust for destruction drive him to do. He is hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable. If he is simply out for whatever he can get, he is ruthless and brutal. If he is committed to the spread of evil and chaos, he is even worse. Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized. Typically, chaotic evil people can be made to work together only by force, and their leader lasts only as long as he can thwart attempts to topple or assassinate him.

In the real world, chaotic evil types are generally involved with institutions from the outside and this is typically an adversarial role. For example, a person who is actively chaotic evil will tend to run afoul of law enforcement. Chaotic evil types can be useful to institutions—for example, terrorist groups find this sort of person useful as a suicide bomber or cannon fodder. If a chaotic evil person holds power in an institution, either or both will tend to fare poorly—such types tend to either destroy or be destroyed by the forces of order. Be they good or evil.

Neutral evil beings can operate within institutions far better than chaotic evil types. Neutral evil is defined this way

A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusion that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.

While chaotic evil types can be like wild beasts assailing order or beastly idiots within the china shop of society, neutral evil types tend to be like parasites within a host. While institutions sensibly regard neutral evil types as a dangerous enemy, neutral evil people often find institutions very useful as means to their own selfish ends. For example, a neutral evil person who secured a political office would use it to enrich themselves at the expense of the institution and the people they are supposed to serve. Sensible neutral evil types are careful to not kill their host—at least for as long as they need it. They can even seem to serve order by exposing or destroying other neutral evil people. But this is also from selfishness-they do not value order for its own sake, they merely dislike having competition.

As should be surmised from the name, lawful evil creatures favor institutions of order and law. D&D defines lawful evil this way:

 A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

In the real world, lawful evil people find happy homes in institutions. In some cases, they make up most of the leaders of the institution and rely on non-evil, but lawful, followers to implement their evil. In fiction, the Empire of Star Wars is a paradigm case of lawful evil. In the real world, Nazi Germany is often presented as a paradigm of lawful evil. While these examples are clear cases of evil, most governments tend to have strong lawful evil components. For example, the legal acceptance and state enforcement of slavery in the United States was a paradigm case of lawful evil.

Lawful evil people, as the description suggests, can appear to be good people—or at least to have virtues. For example, a lawful person in the real world might work for law enforcement and be a paradigm of loyalty, a respecter of tradition and a stickler for rules as they systematically oppress people of a certain ethnicity or religion within their society. They are a paragon of law, but not of goodness.

Both Plato and Kant were aware of this sort of problem—the danger of a person with only some of the virtues, or in Kant’s terms, lacking a good will. Plato warned of the clever rogue: “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue‑how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye‑sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?” Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, raises a similar point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

The paragon of lawful evil is just this sort of person and the most dangerous villain of all, for they are not content with mere selfishness nor are they merely bringers of chaos. Rather they forge institutions of evil or corrupt existing institutions. This allows for systematic, large scale evil that is easily perceived by good—even by the lawful evil themselves.

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Dark Mirror’s USS Callister: A Star Trek Story

Jesse Plemons, right, in the “USS Callister” episode of ‘Black Mirror.’ Netflix

Having grown up on Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, I really enjoyed Black Mirror episode ‘USS Callister.’ Being a philosopher, I rather enjoyed reading various thought pieces on the work and decided to add my own tribble to the heap. If you have not seen the episode, there are obviously spoilers ahead.

Much like the brilliant Star Trek lampoon Galaxy Quest, ‘USS Callister’ begins with what appears to be a Trek clone overstuffed with overacting and delightful cheese. Captain Daly, a Kirk-like figure, leads his diverse and adoring crew in a battle against a Khan like villain (complete with a recreation of a scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Under the slice of cheese is a true horror: The USS Callister is within a virtual reality game controlled by Robert Daly and the other “players” are self-aware digital clones of his co-workers.

Daly has powers in the game comparable to Charlie X of Star Trek (including the ability to transform a victim’s face into a mask of unbroken flesh) and uses them to control the controls, forcing them to play the game with him. Since Daly’s coworkers treat him rather badly, it is initially tempting to feel some sympathy for him, but it is revealed that Daly cloned and spaced (putting out an airlock without a suit) the son of his boss. Daly also transforms cloned female co-workers into large alien bugs which horrifically retain their intelligence.

Daly seals his own fate when he digitally clones his newest co-worker, Nanette, and forces her to play the game. To make an excellent story short, digital Nanette leads the crew in a successful rebellion against Daly aided, unwittingly, by the original Nanette.

Jenna Scherer, of Rolling Stone, makes an excellent case that the episode is a criticism of the sort of toxic fandom that has spewed its hate at the fact that the captain’s chair has been increasingly available to people who are not straight, white males. I certainly agree that the episode does just that. However, I also contend that it is a Star Trek story, albeit crafted to avoid lawsuits from the corporate masters of Star Trek. I think this might be a point worth making since I see it as important to distinguish the episode’s criticism of toxic fandom from what seems to be a sincere commitment to the values of classic Star Trek. Making this case requires considering what it is to be a Star Trek story.

The easy and obvious (and legalistic) answer is that a Star Trek story is one that occurs within the Star Trek universe as defined by the corporation that owns the property. While legally sound, this is not satisfying from a philosophical standpoint. Setting aside the legal concerns, another easy way to define such a story is in terms of the setting—that is, a story in the Star Trek universe is thus a Star Trek story. That is also unsatisfying—merely having the Federation, Klingons and such does not seem to suffice—for there is more to a true Star Trek story than just the setting, props and inhabitants. There is the intangible “feel” of a Star Trek story as well as the values inherent to such a story. Since an entire book could be written about this, I am forced to stick with a few quick points that are especially relevant to ‘USS Callister.’

One underlying theme of Star Trek is the dual nature of humanity’s relation to technology. On the one hand, Star Trek is fundamentally optimistic about technology—warp technology allows starships to explore the galaxy and advances in technology have freed the Federation from economic oppression. On the other hand, Star Trek also explores the threat technology presents in terms of its potential for abuse. The Borg are, of course, the paradigm example of the dangerous side to technology. While ‘USS Callister’ might seem to be entirely on the dark side of technology, the ending is optimistic—the digital clones are fully people and, at the end, set out to have their own life in the vast universe of the game.

Star Trek, especially the original series, also placed an emphasis on rational problem solving and teamwork. The model was, of course, a strong captain leading a competent crew of decent people. While this is not unique to Star Trek, this model was carefully followed by the episode: as in many classic Star Trek episodes, crew members made essential contributions to the success of the plan—and, of course, the diversity of the crew is a key part of their strength.

Most importantly, Star Trek also advanced a set of moral principles, as exemplified by the rules and laws of the Federation and Star Fleet. In the episode “Captain Daly” speaks of the values of Space Fleet, but often uses them to justify inflicting worse horrors. For example, after defeating a co-worker he has cast as a villain, the “villain” begs Daly to kill him and thus free him. Daly cites the Space Fleet rules about not killing and instead has the “villain” locked in the brig—thus extending his torture. While it is tempting to see the episode as mocking the values of Star Trek by having a Kirk-like figure mouthing them while grotesquely violating their spirit, this is what contributes the most to making it a Star Trek story. Daly is not Kirk exposed. Daly is, rather, another example of a classic Star Trek villain type: a Star Fleet captain gone bad. In ‘The Omega Glory’ Captain Tracey, commander of the Exeter, violates the Federation’s Prime Directive and ends up committing mass murder and fighting Kirk in order to secure what he hopes is the secret to immortality. While Daly is obviously modeled on Kirk, he is most like Captain Tracey: someone who has professed his love for his ideals, but who abandons them for his own selfish desires when pushed into a crisis. Daly thus shows the irony of the toxic fan—they are acting in violation of the very principles they profess to embrace.

Digital Nanette and her fellows, in contrast, act in accord with the classic values of Star Trek—they act with courage and are willing to make great sacrifices for each other. Appropriately enough, at the end of the episode Nanette is the captain of the USS Callister—a position she has earned. While Daly and the toxic fans might fancy themselves captains, they are the villains. Which is, of course, also a feature of classic Trek: the moral lesson.

Upon their escape from Daly’s private game, the crew’s uniforms and the ship are upgraded to a modern style (like that of the new Star Trek movies). While it might be tempting to see this as a condemnation of classic Star Trek, it can be a metaphor of how the moral goodness of classic Trek is still relevant today, though it was clearly best to leave behind the miniskirts. So, it is reasonable to see ‘USS Callister’ as praising the good of Star Trek while, at the same time, criticizing toxic fandom.

 

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A Philosopher’s Blog 2017 Available on Amazon

A Philosopher’s Blog 2017, the complete 2017 essays from A Philosopher’s Blog, is available in Kindle and print on Amazon.

This book contains essays from the 2017 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The adventure begins in a time of post truth and ends with online classes.

The essays are short, but substantial—yet approachable enough to not require a degree in philosophy.

Available worldwide.

Kindle (US): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976760860

Paperback (US): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976760860

Kindle (UK): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B078PTBS1T

Paperback (UK): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1976760860

Online Classes

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My adopted state of Florida has mandated that public universities offer 40% of undergraduate classes online by 2025. Some Florida universities have already jumped on the online bandwagon, perhaps because they can impose an extra distance learning fee on top of the standard tuition cost. The state legislature recently capped the fee at $30, although some schools already offer lower tuition and fees for students enrolled only in online classes. Governor Scott has contended that online classes should cost less than in-person classes. Proponents of the fee contend that it is needed to fund the development of online classes. This situation raises two important questions. One is the question of whether there should be such an emphasis on online classes. The other is the question of whether a special fee should be charged for such classes. I’ll begin with the question of the fee.

As noted above, the main justification for charging a distance learning fee for online classes is that the extra money is needed to develop such classes. This presumably includes the cost of developing the content of the class itself and the cost of the infrastructure to deliver it.

Since I have taught hybrid classes for years, I can attest to the fact that properly preparing an online class requires significantly more effort than properly preparing a traditional classroom class. One obvious factor is that an online class should include online media, such as videos and audio recordings. Creating such media is time consuming and requires both technical and media skills.  Developing these skills requires training. Because more labor and training must be put into preparing an online class, it is reasonable to charge the extra fee.

One obvious counter to this is to point to my own experience: while I have undergone training for creating online classes, the entire workload of preparing my online classes has fallen on me and I do not get any extra pay to do this extra work.  This is not unusual—my workload and performance are disconnected from my compensation. If this same practice is followed by other schools, then they would be hard pressed to justify the extra fees—unless they are fully justified by the cost of training faculty to do the extra work at no extra compensation. There is also the obvious fact that students do not pay an extra fee when they take a class from better paid professors, even though the professor thus imposes a greater cost on the school.

In terms of arguing against the fee, there is the claim that students who take online classes graduate faster than students who do not. Since Florida is pushing hard to reduce the time it takes to graduate, providing a disincentive to take online classes would run counter to that goal. There are also various financial arguments. One is that shifting classes online will reduce the need for classroom construction, which will save the state money (but cost construction jobs). If online classes save the state money, it makes it hard to argue that the extra fee is needed. Rather, this would support the claim that there should not be such a special fee.

While I rarely agree with Governor Scott, I do agree with him that there should not be a fee. I would hold to this position even if I was given extra compensation for teaching online classes—although I do not think that would ever happen. I now turn to the question of whether there should be a push for online classes.

One obvious concern about entirely online classes is that they have a significantly higher failure rate than hybrid and traditional classes. In some rare cases students forget they are even enrolled in online classes; but that also seems to happen in traditional classes. To be honest, classes are sometimes poorly designed by faculty who are struggling to operate well outside of their technical skills. Poorly designed or poorly run classes can certainly contribute to student failure.

There is also the fact that students are also often ill-equipped to learn from online classes. Speaking with students from various schools about online classes, the usual refrain I hear involves the poor quality of many of the courses and how hard it is to learn even in a well-designed class. Students also tend to admit that they are less motivated in online classes. Because of these factors, it makes sense that failure rates would be higher in online classes. There are, of course, some excellent online classes and students who can adapt effectively to online learning.

A second concern, which ties into the first, is the quality of learning in online classes. Obviously, poorly designed and poorly taught classes will leave students on their own when it comes to learning. But, even for well-designed and well-taught classes there is still the concern about student learning. Colleagues of mine have made the reasonable point that some classes would work poorly online, even if everyone was doing their best. To be fair, a similar complaint can be made about traditional and hybrid classes: how much do students really learn and how much do they retain? One might suspect that the answer to both is “very little.”

Faculty have also expressed some concern that the rise of online classes will mean that they will be replaced by “robots.” That is, automated online classes will be substituted for faculty taught classes, perhaps with graduate students or other low-cost labor hired to do such tasks as grading papers and answering questions. Some might see this as a good thing: not having to pay as many faculty could allow for lower tuition (or greater profits and administrator salaries). There would also be, to some, a benefit in having course content closely controlled by administrators.

On the positive side, online classes do allow students far more convenience. For example, people who work full-time can work online classes into their schedule even when they would be unable to attend classes on campus during normal times. Students can also take classes at universities far from where they live (although most online students do live near the campus) or simply avoid the hassle of trying to park on campus.

Because of these factors, my opinion on online classes is split. On the one hand, the flexibility that online classes offer is a significant plus. On the minus side, I do have concerns about the educational experience students might experience as well as the high failure rates that often plague such classes. That said, I do think that the failure rate problem can be addressed as can concerns about the quality of education in online classes.

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Lies & Disasters

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Plato, or so it is claimed, advanced the idea of the noble lie: an untruth knowingly propagated for the good of society. In Plato’s Republic the noble lie was a myth presented as the parable of the metals and was intended to help maintain the ideal social order of that state.  Given Plato’s opposition to the sophists and his praise of virtue, the noble lie can be jarring to some readers of his work. Detractors of philosophy will, naturally enough, regard most philosophers as engaged in less-than-noble lies. But, of course, philosophy is supposed to be a search for wisdom and this presumably includes a devotion to the truth. Politicians, who are supposed to be far more pragmatic than philosophers, would seem more inclined to embrace the noble lie. Or the ignoble lie. This does raise the enduring question of whether it is morally acceptable for leaders to lie for what they think is the good of society.

The easy and obvious way to argue this issue is to approach it on utilitarian grounds. On this moral view, if telling a lie would create more good than harm for those who matter morally, then lying would be morally correct. If the lie would create more harm than good, it would be wrong. There is, as always, an important distinction between what those lying think will result and the actual outcome—as such, there is also a distinction between the ethics of intention and the ethics of the actual consequences. History shows that good intentions do not always lead to good consequences.

There are also moral views, such as the rule-based deontological ethics put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is not a matter of consequences but a matter of following the rules. As Kant saw it, his categorical imperative entailed that lying was always wrong—so Kant and his fellows would be opposed to such a lie.

There is also the notion that truth and falsity do not matter. While some might think that this notion is something that emerged on the public stage in 2016, it has a much older pedigree. The sophists of ancient Greece embraced this view and contended that what mattered was success. Jumping ahead centuries, the idea was also advanced during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson led the United States into World War I, he insisted that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” As part of this approach, he created the Committee on Public Information. He was apparently inspired by an advisor who wrote that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

On the one hand, this approach to the truth can be regarded as hard-headed pragmatism of the sort often praised by practical folks: what matters is the effectiveness of an idea in achieving the desired goal. To use a contemporary illustration, the successful “First Social Media War” waged by the Russians against the United States in 2016 illustrated that false claims served far better than true claims in achieving their goals. Trump and his people also effectively employed this approach, even minting the term “alternative facts.” This approach can be morally justified by using a utilitarian argument of the sort presented above, with an explicit rejection of any preference for truth. It can also be justified on the grounds of ethical egoism—the moral theory that what maximizes value for the individual in question is good. For example, from Trump’s perspective what best serves his interest is what is good.

On the other hand, while lies can yield short term good or advance someone’s private advantage, they seem to prove damaging over the longer term and broader scale. Take, as an illustration, the consequences of the decisions to lie about the flu pandemic of 1918. Public officials elected to tell the public that the flu was not serious and elected to protect the lie by not taking sensible medical approaches to the flu. For example, deciding to not cancel the Liberty Loan parade helped contribute to the epidemic in Philadelphia. The easy and obvious reason that such lies tend to have bad results is that operating in a way that does not match reality tends to lead to bad decision making and this tends to lead to negative consequences.

A good contemporary example of this is the matter of climate change. While most experts believe that climate change is occurring and has been influenced by human action, there are still political figures who deny this. While it is possible that the political figures are operating in sincere ignorance rather that lying, this is a case in which it is all but certain that one side is lying. If the climate change deniers are lying, they are acting like the lying officials did in 1918 and will be complicit in worldwide suffering and countless deaths. If the climate change believers are lying, the consequences will be far less bad—more regulations, deployment of more green energy technology, and perhaps some negative impact on economic growth. Being rational, I side with the majority of qualified experts—I am confident that the climate scientists are not lying. However, I am open to compelling arguments and evidence from climate experts who deny climate change.

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