Category Archives: Philosophy

Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments Against

While there are some appealing arguments in favor of the United States employing mercenaries, there are also arguments against this position. One obvious set of arguments is composed of those that focus on the practical problems of employing mercenaries. These problems include broad concerns about the competence of the mercenaries (such as worries about their combat effectiveness and discipline) as well as worries about the quality of their equipment. These concerns can, of course, be addressed on a case by case basis. Some mercenary operations are composed of well-trained, well-equipped ex-soldiers who are every bit as capable as professional soldiers serving their countries. If competent and properly equipped mercenaries are hired, there will obviously not be problems in these areas.

There are also obvious practical concerns about the loyalty and reliability of mercenaries—they are, after all, fighting for money rather than from duty or commitment to principles. This is not to disparage mercenaries. After all, working for money is what professionals do, whether they are mercenary soldiers, surgeons, electricians or professors. A surgeon who is motivated by money need not be less reliable than a colleague who is driven by a moral commitment to heal the sick and injured. Likewise, a soldier who fights for a paycheck need not be less dependable than a patriotic soldier.

That said, a person who is motivated primarily by money will act in accord with that value and this can make them considerably less loyal and reliable than someone motivated by higher principles. This is not to say that a mercenary cannot have higher principles, but a mercenary, by definition, sells their loyalty (such as it is) to the highest bidder. As such, this is a reasonable concern.

This concern can be addressed by paying mercenaries well enough to defend against bribery and by assigning tasks to mercenaries that require loyalty and reliability proportional to what the mercenaries can realistically offer. This, of course, can severely limit how mercenaries can be deployed and could make hiring them pointless—unless a nation has an abundance of money and a shortage of troops.

A concern that is both practical and moral is that mercenaries tend to operate outside of the usual chain of command of the military and are often exempt from many of the laws and rules that govern the operation of national forces. In many cases, mercenaries are intentionally granted special exemptions. An excellent illustration of how this can be disastrous is Blackwater, which was a major security contractor operating mercenary forces in Iraq.

In September of 2007 employees of Blackwater were involved in an incident resulting in 11 deaths. This was not the first such incident. Although many believe Blackwater acted incorrectly, the company was well protected against accountability because of the legal situation created by the United States.  In 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator signed an order making all Americans in Iraq immune to Iraqi law. Security contractors enjoyed even greater protection. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which allows charges to be brought in American courts for crimes committed in foreign countries, applies only to those contracting with the Department of Defense. Companies employed by the State Department, such as was the case with Blackwater, are not covered by the law. Blackwater went even further and claimed exemption from all law suits and criminal prosecution. This defense was also used against a suit brought by families of four Blackwater employees killed in Iraq.

While there are advantages to granting mercenary forces exemptions from the law, Machiavelli warned against this because they might start “oppressing others quite contrary to your intentions.” His solution was to “keep him within the laws so that he does not overstep the mark.” This is excellent advice that should have been heeded. Instead, employing and placing such mercenaries beyond the law has led to serious problems.

The concern about mercenaries being exempt from the usual laws can be addressed simply enough: these exemptions can either be removed or not granted in the first place. While this will not guarantee good behavior, it can help encourage it.

The concern about mercenaries being outside the usual command structure can be harder to address. On the one hand, mercenary forces could simply be placed within the chain of command like any other unit. On the other hand, mercenary units are, by their very nature, outside of the usual command and organization structure and integrating them could prove problematic. Also, if the mercenaries are simply integrated as if they are normal units, then the obvious question arises as to why mercenaries would be needed in place of regular forces.

Yet another practical concern is that the employment of mercenaries can create public relations problems. While sending regular troops to foreign lands is always problematic, the use of mercenary forces can be more problematic. One reason is that the hiring of mercenaries is often looked down upon, in part because of the checkered history of mercenary forces. There is also the concern of how the local populations will perceive hired guns—especially given the above concerns about mercenaries operating outside of the boundaries that restrict regular forces. Finally, there is also the concern that the hiring of mercenaries can make the hiring country seem weak—the need to hire mercenaries would seem to suggest that the country has a shortage of competent regular forces.

A somewhat abstract argument against the United States employing mercenaries is based on the notion that nation states are supposed to be the sole operators of military forces. This, of course, assumes a specific view of the state and the moral right to operate military forces. If this conception of the state is correct, then hiring mercenaries would be to cede this responsibility (and right) to private companies, which would be unacceptable. The United States does allow private armies to exist within the country, if they have the proper connections to those in power. Blackwater, for example, was one such company. This seems to be problematic.

This concern can countered with an alternative view of the state in which private armies are acceptable. In the case of private armies within a country, it could be argued that they are acceptable as long as they acknowledge the supremacy of the state. So, for example, an American mercenary company would be acceptable as long as it operated under conditions set by the United States government and served only in approved ways. To use an obvious analogy, there are “rent-a-cops” that operate somewhat like police. These are acceptable provided that they operate under the rules of the state and do not create a challenge to the police powers of the state.

While this counter is appealing, there do not seem to be any compelling reasons for the United States to cede its monopoly on military force and hire mercenaries. Other than to profit the executives and shareholders of these mercenary companies, of course.

 

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Slavery: Consequences & Status

While there is a multitude of moral theories, two of the big dogs of ethics are utilitarianism and deontology. John Stuart Mill presents the paradigm of utilitarian ethics: the morality of an action is dependent on the happiness and unhappiness it creates for the morally relevant beings. Moral status, for this sort of utilitarian, is defined in terms of the being’s capacity to experience happiness and unhappiness. Beings count to the degree they can experience these states. Obviously, a being that could not experience either would not count—except to the degree that what happened to it affected beings that could experience happiness and unhappiness. Of course, even a being that has moral status merely gets included in the utilitarian calculation. As such, all beings are means to the ends—namely maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness.

Kant, the paradigm deontologist, rejects the utilitarian approach.  Instead, he contends that ethics is a matter of following the correct moral rules. He also contends that rational beings are ends and are not to be treated merely as means to ends. For Kant, the possible moral statuses of a being are binary: rational beings have status as ends, non-rational beings are mere objects and are thus means. As would be expected, these moral theories present two rather different approaches to the ethics of slavery.

For the classic utilitarian, the ethics of slavery would be assessed in terms of the happiness and unhappiness generated by the activities of slavery. On the face of it, an assessment of slavery would seem to result in the conclusion that slavery is morally wrong. After all, slavery typically involve considerable unhappiness on the part of the enslaved. This unhappiness is not only a matter of the usual abuse and exploitation that a slave suffers, but also the general damage to happiness that would tend to arise from being regarded as property rather than a person. While the slave owners are clearly better off than the slaves, the practice of slavery is often harmful to the happiness of the slave owners. As such, the harms of slavery would seem to make it immoral on utilitarian grounds.

It is important to note that for the utilitarian the immorality of slavery is a contingent matter: if enslaving people creates more unhappiness than happiness, then it is wrong. However, if enslaving people were to create more happiness than unhappiness, then it would be morally acceptable. The obvious reply to this is to argue that slavery, by its very nature, would always create more unhappiness than happiness. As such, while the evil of slavery is contingent, it would always turn out to be wrong.

Another interesting counter is to put the burden of proof on those who would claim that such slavery would be wrong. That is, they would need to show that a happy system of slavery was morally wrong. On the face of it, showing that something that created more good than bad is still bad would be challenging. However, there are numerous intuition arguments that aim to do just that. The usual approach is to present a scenario that generates more happiness than unhappiness, but intuitively seems to be wrong—or at least makes one feel morally queasy about the matter. Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is often used in this role. There are also other options, such as arguing within the context of another moral theory. For example, a natural rights theory that included a right to liberty could be used to argue that slavery is wrong because it violates rights—even if happened to be a happy slavery.

A utilitarian can also “bite the bullet” and argue that even if such a happy enslavement might seem intuitively wrong to our sensibilities, this is a mere prejudice on our part—most likely fueled by examples the unhappy slaveries that pervade history. While utilitarian moral theory can obviously be applied to the ethics of slavery, it is not the only word on the matter. As such, I now turn to the Kantian approach.

As noted above, Kant divides reality into two distinct classes of beings. Rational beings exist as ends and to use them solely as means would be, for Kant, morally wrong. Non-rational beings, which includes non-human animals, are mere objects. Interestingly, as I have noted in past essays, Kant does argue that animals should be treated well because treating them badly can incline humans to treat other humans badly. This, I have argued elsewhere, gives animals an ersatz moral status.

On the face of it, under Kant’s theory the very nature of slavery would make it immoral. If persons are rational beings (and rational beings are persons) and that slavery treats slaves as objects, then slavery would be wrong. First, it would involve treating a rational being solely as a means. After all, it seems difficult to imagine that enslaving a person is consistent with treating them as an end rather than as a means. Second, it would also seem to involve a willful category error by treating a rational being (which is not an object) as an object. Slavery would thus be fundamentally incoherent because it purports that non-objects are objects.

Since Kantian ethics do not focus on happiness and unhappiness, even a deliriously happy system of slavery would still be wrong for Kant. Kant does, of course, get criticized because his system relegates non-rational beings into the realm of objects, thus lumping together squirrels and stones, apes and asphalt, tapirs and twigs and so on. As such, if non-rational beings could be enslaved, then this would not matter morally (unless doing so impacted rational beings in negative ways). The easy and obvious reply to this concern is to argue that non-rational beings could not be enslaved because slavery is when people are taken to be property and non-rational beings are not people.

It is, of course, possible to have an account of what it is to be a person that extends personhood beyond rational beings. For example, opponents of abortion often contend that the zygote is a person despite its obvious lack of rationality. Fortunately, it would be easy enough to create a modification of Kant’s theory in which what matters is being a person (however defined) rather than being a rational being.

Thus, utilitarian ethical theories leave open the possibility that slavery could be morally acceptable while under a Kantian account slavery would always seem to be morally wrong.

 

 

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What Makes Slavery Evil?

While slavery is still practiced, there is a consensus that it is evil. While apologists for slavery are relatively few, there remains the question as to why slavery is evil. This essay is aimed and considering this matter.

It is certainly tempting to define the wrongness of slavery in terms of the exploitation and abuse suffered by those who are enslaved. While such abuse and exploitation are clearly wrong, they do not actually explain the wrongness of slavery itself. This is because abuse and exploitation can exist apart from slavery, thus showing that these are not sufficient conditions for slavery. That is, being abused and exploited does not entail that one is a slave. Examples of such abuse and exploitation are abundant. To illustrate, workers are routinely exploited around the world and countless people suffer abuse in relationships from the very people who should be kind to them.

Abuse and exploitation are also not necessary conditions of slavery. That is, a person who is not abused or exploited can be enslaved. As noted in an earlier essay, there have been slaves who have enjoyed considerable power and status—sometimes considerably above that of free subjects of historical empires. Despite their status and power, such slavery is still rightfully regarded as wrong. As such, it is not the abuse or exploitation that makes slavery wrong.

This is not to say that abuse and exploitation do not matter. Far from it; they compound the basic evil of slavery and make the bad even worse. Slavery is also obviously strongly connected to abuse and exploitation—the belief that enslaved people are property makes it easy for others to justify and get away with such abuse and exploitation. While free people are abused or exploited, they typically enjoy far greater protection than the enslaved. So, while the abuse and exploitation matter a great deal, it is slavery that serves as a prime enabler of mistreatment. This does contribute to the wrongness of slavery.

What makes slavery morally wrong, then, is the fact that it is the ownership of people and thus is perceived as transforming them into objects that can be owned. The claim of ownership over another person is the denial of their personhood and all that goes with it. For those with liberal Lockean inclinations, this denial of personhood is a denial of the basic rights to life, liberty and property. Since a slave is supposed to be property, their life belongs to the owner. Hence, slaveowners generally see themselves as having the right to kill or harm their slaves as they wish. I do not, of course, deny that slaves are sometimes protected by laws, but that is certainly little consolation. Slavery does, after all, admit of degrees. But, every form of slavery must assume that the owner has ownership over the life of the slave and can use compulsion to maintain slavery.

Slavery, by its very nature, is a violation of a person’s liberty. They are denied the freedom of choice and thus denied agency. As the owner sees it, they have the right to make decisions for their property such as what work they do, who they have sex with, and what faith they might follow. This is not to say that slaves do not have some freedoms or that free people are completely free. It is, however, to say that the freedoms of slaves are very limited and often restricted to very minor decisions. As noted above, slavery does admit of degrees—some favored or high-status slaves might enjoy considerable liberty. For example, a Mamluk ruler might enjoy far greater liberty than a non-slave in their empire. It can be objected that such a slave would be a slave in name only—after all, a person of such status and power would be far better off than most other people despite being a slave. The challenge to those who argue that slavery is inherently wrong is to show that such an exalted slave is still wronged by their slavery. One approach is to appeal to the intuition that however exalted, the slave is still a slave. That is, regarded as property rather than a free person and this is inherently wrong.

Being regarded as property, slaves often cannot own property of their own. After all, being owned entails that their owner owns what they own. There are, of course, exceptions to this—sometimes slaves are paid for their work and can even eventually buy themselves out of slavery. While this does show, once again, that there are diverse types of slavery, the idea that a person should need to buy themselves seems to be absurd on the face of it.

Thus, while slavery does enable a multitude of evils, the core evil of slavery is the belief that a person can be owned as an object.

 

 

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False Allegiance

One of the key distinctions in critical thinking is that between persuasion and argumentation. While an argument can be used to persuade, the object of an argument is truth. More specifically, the goal is to present evidence/reasons (known as premises) that logically support the conclusion. In contrast, the goal of persuasion is the acceptance of a claim as true, whether the claim is true or not. As should be expected, argumentation is rather ineffective as a tool of persuasion. Rhetorical devices, which are linguistic tools aimed at persuading, are rather more effective in achieving this goal. While there are many different rhetorical devices, one rather interesting one is what can be called False Allegiance. Formalized, the device is simple:

 

  1. A false statement of allegiance to a group, ideology or such is made.
  2. A statement that seems contrary to the professed allegiance is made, typically presented as being done with reluctance. This is often criticism or an attack.

 

While there is clearly no logical connection between the (false) statement of allegiance and the accuracy of the statement, a psychological connection can be made. The user’s intent is that their claim of allegiance will grant them credibility and thus make their claim more believable. This perceived credibility could be a matter of the target believing that the critic has knowledge of the matter because of their alleged allegiance. However, the main driving force behind the perceived credibility is typically the assumption that a person who professes allegiance to something will be honest in their claims about their alleged group. That is, they would not attack what they profess allegiance to unless there was truth behind the attack.

Like almost all rhetorical devices, False Allegiance has no allegiance of its own and can be pressed into service for any cause. As an illustration, it works just as well to proclaim a false allegiance to the Democrats as it does to the Republicans. For example, “Although I am a life-long Democrat, and it pains me to do so, I must agree that Trump is right about voter fraud. We need to ensure that illegals are not casting votes in our elections and so voter ID laws are a great idea.” As another example, “I have always voted for Republicans, so it is with great reluctance that I say that Trumpcare is a terrible idea.”

Looking at these examples, one might point out that these claims could be made with complete sincerity. That is, a Democrat could really believe that voter ID laws are a great idea and a Republican could think that Trumpcare is a terrible idea. That is, the professed allegiance could be sincere. This is certainly a point worth considering and everything that looks like it might be a case of False Allegiance need not be this rhetorical device.

In cases in which the person making the claims is known, it is possible to determine if the allegiance is false or not. For example, if John McCain says, “Although I am a loyal Republican I…”, then it is reasonable to infer this is not a case of false allegiance. However, if the identity and allegiance of the person making the claims cannot be confirmed, then the possibility that this device is being used remains.

Fortunately, defending against this device does not require being able to confirm (or deny) the allegiance of the person making the relevant claims. This is because the truth (or falsity) of the assertions being made are obviously independent of the allegiance and identity of the person making the claims. If the claims are adequately supported by evidence or reasons, then it would be reasonable to accept them—regardless of who makes the claims or why they are being made. If the claims are not adequately supported, then it would be unreasonable to accept them. This does not entail that they should be rejected—after all, just as a rhetorical device does not prove anything, its usage does not disprove anything.

It needs to be emphasized that even if it is shown that the person making the claim has a true allegiance, then it does not follow that their claim is thus true. After all, this reasoning is clearly fallacious: “I have an allegiance to X, so what I say about X is true.” They would not be using the False Allegiance rhetorical device, but could be using an appeal to allegiance, which would simply be another type of rhetoric.

In practical terms, when assessing a claim one should simply ignore such professions of allegiance. This is because they have no logical relevance to the claim being made. They can, obviously enough, have psychological force—but this merely is a matter of the power to persuade and not the power to prove.

 

 

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Can Machines be Enslaved?

The term “robot” and the idea of a robot rebellion were introduced by Karel Capek in Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti. “Robot” was derived from the Czech term for “forced labor” which was itself based on a term for slavery. As such, robots and slavery are thus forever linked in science-fiction. This leads to an interesting philosophical question: can a machine be a slave? Sorting this matter out requires an adequate definition of slavery followed by determining whether the definition can fit a machine.

In the simplest terms, slavery is the ownership of a person by another person. While slavery is often seen in absolute terms (one is either enslaved or not), it does seem reasonable to consider that there are degrees of slavery. That is, that the extent of ownership claimed by one person over another can vary. For example, a slave owner might grant their slaves some free time or allow them autonomy in certain areas. This is analogous to being ruled under a political authority—there are degrees of being ruled and degrees of freedom under that rule.

Slavery is also often characterized in terms of compelling a person to engage in uncompensated labor. While this account does have some appeal, it is clearly problematic. After all, it could be claimed that slaves are often compensated for their labors by being provided with food, shelter and clothing. Slaves are sometimes even paid wages and there are cases in which slaves have purchased their own freedom using these wages. The Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire were slaves, yet were paid a wage and enjoyed a socioeconomic status above many of the free subjects of the empire.  As such, compelled unpaid labor is not the defining quality of slavery. However, it is intuitively plausible to regard compelled unpaid labor as a form of slavery in that the compeller purports to own the laborer’s time without consent or compensation.

Slaves are typically cast as powerless and abused, but this is not always the case. For example, the Mamluks were treated as property that could be purchased, yet they enjoyed considerable status and power. The Janissaries, as noted above, also enjoyed considerable influence and power. As is obvious, there are free people who are powerless and routinely abused. Thus, being powerless and abused are neither necessary nor sufficient for slavery. As such, the defining characteristic of slavery is the claiming of ownership—that the slave is property.

Obviously enough, not all forms of ownership are slavery. My running shoes are not enslaved by my owning them, nor is my smartphone. This is because shoes and smartphones lack the status required to be considered enslaved. The matter becomes somewhat more controversial when it comes to animals.

Most people accept that humans have the right to own animals. For example, a human who has a dog or cat is referred to as the pet’s owner. There are people, myself included, that take issue with the ownership of animals. While some philosophers, such as Kant and Descartes, regard animals as objects other philosophers consider them to have moral status. For example, some utilitarians accept that the capacity of animals to feel pleasure and pain grants them moral status. This is typically taken as a status that requires that their suffering be considered rather than one that is taken to morally forbid ownership of animals. That is, it is typically seen as morally acceptable to own animals if they are treated in a way that the happiness generated exceeds the suffering generated. There are even some who consider any ownership of animals to be wrong but their use of the term “slavery” for the ownership of animals seems more metaphorical than a considered philosophical position.

While I think that treating animals as property is morally wrong, I would not characterize the ownership of most animals as slavery. This is because most animals lack the status required to be enslaved. To use an analogy, denying animals religious freedom, the freedom of expression, the right to vote and so on does not oppress animals because they are not the sort of beings that can exercise these rights. This is not to say that animals cannot be wronged, just that their capabilities limit the wrongs that can be done to them. So, while an animal can be wronged by being cruelly confined, it cannot be wronged by denying it freedom of religion.

People, because of their capabilities, can be enslaved. This is because the claim of ownership over them is a denial of their rightful status. The problem is, obviously enough, working out exactly what it is to be a person—something that philosophers have struggled with since the origin of the idea of persons. Fortunately, I do not need to provide such a definition when considering whether machines can be enslaved or not—I can make use of analogy to make my case.

While I believe that other humans are (usually) people, thanks to the problem of other minds I do not know that they are really people. That is, since I have no epistemic access to their alleged thoughts and feelings, I do not know if they have the qualities needed to be people or if they are just mindless automatons that exhibit the illusion of the personhood that I possess. Because of this, I have to use an argument by analogy: these other beings act like I do, I am a person, so they are also people. To be consistent, I need to extend the same reasoning to beings that are not humans, which would include machines. After all, without cutting open the apparent humans I meet, I have no idea whether they are organic beings or machines. As such, the mere appearance of being organic or mechanical is not relevant—I have to go by how the entity functions. For all I know, you are a machine. For all you know, I am a machine. Yet it seems reasonable to regard both of us as people.

While machines can engage in some person-like behavior now, they cannot yet pass this analogy test. That is, they cannot consistently exhibit the capacities exhibited by a known person. However, this does not mean that machines cannot pass this test. That is, behave in ways that would be sufficient to be accepted as a person if it appeared to be an organic human.

A machine that could pass this test would merit being regarded as a person in the same way that humans passing this test merit this status. As such, if a human person can be enslaved, then a robot person could also be enslaved.

It is, of course, tempting to ask if a robot with such behavior would really be a person. The same question can be asked about humans.

 

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Enslaved by the Machine

A common theme of dystopian science fiction is the enslavement of humanity by machines. The creation of such a dystopia was also a fear of Emma Goldman. In one of her essays on anarchism, she asserted that

Strange to say, there are people who extol this deadening method of centralized production as the proudest achievement of our age. They fail utterly to realize that if we are to continue in machine subserviency, our slavery is more complete than was our bondage to the King. They do not want to know that centralization is not only the death-knell of liberty, but also of health and beauty, of art and science, all these being impossible in a clock-like, mechanical atmosphere.

When Goldman was writing in the 1900s, the world had just recently entered the age of industrial machinery and the technology of today was at most a dream of visionary writers. As such, the slavery she envisioned was not of robot masters ruling over humanity, but humans compelled to work long hours in factories, serving the machines to serve the human owners of these machines.

The labor movements of the 1900s did much to offset the extent of the servitude workers were forced to endure, at least in the West. As the rest of the world industrialized the story of servitude to the factory machine played out once again. While the whole point of factory machines was to automate the work as much as possible so that few could do the work once requiring many, it is only in relatively recent years that what many would consider “true” automation has taken place. That is, having machines automatically doing the work instead of humans. For example, the robots used to assemble cars do what humans used to do. As another example, computers instead of human operators now handle phone calls.

In the eyes of utopians, this sort of progress was supposed to free humans from tedious and dangerous work, allowing them to, at worst, be free to engage in creative and rewarding labor. The reality, of course, turned out to not be this utopia. While automation has replaced humans in some tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs, automation has also replaced humans in what were once considered good jobs. Humans also continue to work in tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs—mainly because human labor is still cheaper or more effective than automation in those areas. For example, fast food restaurants do not have burgerbots to prepare the food. This is because cheap human labor is readily available and creating a cost-effective robot that can make a hamburger as well as a human has proven difficult. As such, the dream that automation would free humanity has so far proven to be just that, a dream. As such, machines have mainly been pushing humans out of jobs, sometimes to jobs that would seem to be more suited for machines rather than humans. If human wellbeing were considered important. However, there is the question of human subservience to the machine.

Humans do, obviously enough, still work jobs that are like those condemned by Goldman. But, thanks to technology, humans are now even more closely supervised and regulated by machines. For example, there is software designed to monitor employee productivity. As another example, some businesses use workplace cameras to watch employees. Obviously enough, these can be dismissed as not being enslaved by the machines—rather, this can be regarded as good human resource management to ensure that the human workers are operating as close to clockwork efficiency as possible. At the command of other humans, of course.

One rather interesting technology that looks rather like servitude to the machine is warehouse picking of the sort done by Amazon. Amazon and other companies have automated some of the picking process, making use of robots in various tasks. But, while a robot might bring shelves to human workers, the humans are the ones picking the products for shipping. Since humans tend to have poor memories and get bored with picking, human pickers have been automated—they wear headsets connected to computers that tell them what to do, then they tell the computers what they have done. That is, the machines are the masters and the humans are doing their bidding.

It is easy enough to argue that this sort of thing is not enslavement by machines. First, the computers controlling the humans are operating at the behest of the owners of Amazon who are presumably humans. Second, the humans are being paid for their labors and are not owned by the machines (or Amazon). As such, any enslavement of humans by machines would be purely metaphorical.

Interestingly, the best case for human enslavement by machines can be made outside of the workplace. Many humans are now ruled by their smartphones and tablets—responding to every beep and buzz of their masters, ignoring those around them to attend to the demands of the device, and living lives revolving around the machine.

This can be easily dismissed as a metaphor—while humans are addicted to their devices, they do not actually meet the definition of slaves. They willingly “obey” their devices and are not coerced by force or fraud—they could simply turn them off. That is, they are free to do as they want, they just do not want to disobey their devices. Humans are also not owned by their devices, rather they own their devices. But, it is reasonable to consider that humans are in a form of bondage—their devices have seduced them into making them into the focus of their attention and thus have become the masters. Albeit mindless masters with no agenda of their own. Yet.

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Trump’s Election Integrity Commission

The Trump regime recently created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and has requested information about voters from the states. As of this writing, 44 states and the District of Columbia have refused to provide all of the requested information. While ensuring the integrity of elections is a laudable goal, there are certainly important concerns about this commission, the motivations behind it, and the true goals.

While speculating about motivations is always problematic, there is adequate information to ground some reasonable explanations as to why Trump has created this commission. While the motivations for creating the commission are distinct from the desirability of its goals, motives are certainly relevant to moral assessment. Also, motivations generally involve goals. To avoid needless repetition, I will consider both motivations and goals at once.

One obvious motivation is Trump’s ego.  Trump infamously claimed, without any evidence, that he lost the popular election because there were 3-5 million illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton. While Trump seems generally content to dwell within a realm of unsupported claims and untruths, he does have a clear motivation to find some evidence to back up his absurd and unsupported claim. While it might be tempting to dismiss this motivation as lacking in consequences, it would be a rather serious matter. After all, John Locke notes that tyranny occurs “…When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.” This can, obviously enough, be countered by arguing that Trump is not acting from “irregular passion” or by arguing that even if he is, the concern about election integrity does serve the good of the people. That is, despite the motivation the act is not tyrannical because of its intended goal. If the true goal is real election integrity, then this reply would be quite reasonable—although Trump’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons should still be condemned.

A second motivation can be found in the fact that the Republican party has long used the specter of voter fraud to justify polices that are aimed at voter suppression. While voter fraud does occur at a non-zero level, it is just barely above zero. There is also the fact that the usual Republican proposals, such as voter ID, would generally not be effective at countering the voter fraud that does occur. This is not to say that voter fraud should not be considered, just that it occurs at such a microscopic rate that the only rational explanation for the Republican policies is voter suppression targeted at those who they regard as likely to vote for Democrats, such as minority voters. It should be noted that the Democrats need not be regarded as moral saints here; they utilize other morally problematic methods when they can gain an edge.

The creation of the commission helps support the narrative of voter fraud in that some will believe that there must be fraud because otherwise Trump would not have created the commission. The fact that some states have been resisting the commission’s requests is already being spun as evidence that the states are covering up fraud (even though Republican controlled states are also not fully cooperating). The commission does not need to find any actual evidence of meaningful voter fraud to support the narrative—after all, the myth of significant voter fraud has already been embraced without any evidence at all.

While it might be tempting to think that the information being requested by the Trump commission could expose voter fraud, it is important to be clear about the distinction between the accuracy of voter rolls and the existence of voter fraud. This can be illustrated by using an analogy.

Whenever I teach a class, I get a roster of the students who are enrolled in the class. This can be seen as analogous to the list of registered voters. Since students can add or drop my course, the roster I have for the class is often inaccurate. There are sometimes students who think they have enrolled, but have not. There are also those who think they have dropped the class, but who are still enrolled. Likewise, the list of voters is often inaccurate. For example, people move to a new state and legitimately register to vote there while they remain on the list in their old state. As another example, people die and are not automatically removed from the list. There are also various other errors that can occur with any lists of people. Having an inaccurate list is obviously a problem, but it is not the same thing as fraud. To continue the analogy, consider the sort of fraud that occurs in class, namely cheating. If I happen to have an inaccurate roster of those enrolled in my class at the time, it does not follow that students are cheating in my class. Likewise, the voter lists in states could have many inaccuracies, but this does not prove that voter fraud is occurring.

Obviously enough, an inaccurate roster for a class could be used to facilitate cheating and a student lying about being enrolled in the class would be a form of fraud. Likewise, inaccurate voter lists could be exploited to commit fraud. For example, if someone had a list of dead people who are still registered, this information could be used to engage in “ghost voting.” Fortunately, there is no evidence that the problems with the voter lists are being exploited to commit significant fraud. As such, the concerns about the voter lists is rather like that of concerns about the class rosters: they should be accurate, but their inaccuracy does not entail cheating or fraud is taking place.

This is not to say that the defects of the current system should be ignored or tolerated—the system does need a major overhaul. However, Trump’s commission does not seem aimed at assisting the states improve their registration systems nor aimed at ensuring that the elections are conducted with integrity. Rather, this seems to be part of Trump’s theater of fraud.

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GoFundMe(dical Expenses)

While the United States does offer some of the best health care in the world, it also offers the most expensive care. What it does not offer is the sort of medical coverage for the citizens that other Western countries provide. As such, many citizens are on their own when it comes to paying for this expensive care. As of this writing, Trumpcare has not passed, but it seems likely that the final version will be essentially a tax-cut for the wealthy with a reduction in coverage and benefits for those who are not well off. In any case, healthcare is likely to grow increasingly expensive for most Americans while they have reduced abilities to meet these expenses.

Americans are a creative and generous people, so it is not surprising that many people have turned to GoFundMe to get money to meet their medical expenses. Medical bills can be ruinous and are all too often a contributing factor in personal bankruptcy. As such, successful GoFundMe campaigns can help people pay their bills, get the care they need and avoid financial ruin. Friends of mine have been forced to undertake such campaigns and I have donated to them, as have many other people. In my own case, I am lucky—I have a job that still offers insurance coverage at a price I can afford and my modest salary allows me to easily meet the normal medical expenses for a very healthy person with no pre-existing conditions. However, I know that like most Americans, I am one bad medical disaster away from financial ruin. As such, I have followed the use of GoFundMe for medical expenses with some practical interest. I have also given it some thought from a philosophical perspective.

On the one hand, the success of certain GoFundMe campaigns to cover such expenses does suggest that people are morally decent—they are willing to expend their own resources to help other people in need. While GoFundMe does profit from such donations, their take is relatively modest for the service they provide. They are not engaged in gouging people in need and exploiting medical necessity for absurdly high profits—unlike some pharmaceutical companies.

On the other hand, there is the moral concern that in such a wealthy country replete with billionaires and millionaires, many people must resort to what amounts to begging for money to meet their medical expenses. This reality points to the excessive cost of healthcare, the relatively low earnings of many Americans, and the weakness of the nation’s safety net. While those who donate out of generosity and compassion merit moral praise, the need for such donations merits moral condemnation. In a purportedly civilized nation, people should not need to go begging for money to pay for their medical care.

To anticipate an objection, I am aware that people do use GoFundMe for frivolous things and that there are no doubt scammers using fictions of medical woe to separate the kind but uncritical from their money. Obviously enough, people are under no obligation to donate to frivolous camp and such scams are to be condemned for their wickedness. My concern is with the honest campaigns that are necessary to meet medical expenses. These are the campaigns that illustrate much that is wrong with the existing health care system.

While donating to such honest campaigns is morally laudable, there are some concerns about this method of funding. One obvious problem is that it depends on the generosity of others. It is not a systematic and dependable method of funding. As such, it is certainly problematic that some people need to rely on it.

A second obvious problem is that this method depends on an effective social media campaign to succeed. Like any other crowdfunding, success depends on getting attention and then persuading people to donate. Those who have the time, resources and skills to run effective social media campaigns (or who have such people helping them) will be far more likely to succeed than people who are lacking in these areas. This is especially concerning because people who are facing serious medical expenses are often in no condition to undertake the challenges of running such a campaign. In some cases, their efforts are being devoted to not dying. This is not to criticize or condemn people who can do this or recruit others to do it for them. Rather it, is to point out that this method is obviously no substitute for a systematic and consistent approach to funding health care.

A third obvious problem is that the success of this method depends on the appeal factor of the medical condition and the person with that condition. While a rational approach to funding would be based on merit and need, there are clearly conditions and people that are much more appealing in terms of attracting donors. For example, certain diseases and conditions can be “in vogue” and generate considerable sympathy, while others are not as appealing. In the case of people, it is evident that we are not all equal in how appealing we are to others. As with the other problems, I do not condemn or criticize people for having conditions that are in vogue or being appealing. Rather, my concern is that this method rests so heavily on these factors rather than medical and financial need. Once again, this serves to illustrate how the current system has been willfully broken and does not serve the needs of most Americans. While those who have succeeded in their GoFundMe campaigns should be lauded for their effort and ingenuity, those who run the health care system should be chastised for a state of affairs in which people have to run social media campaigns to afford their health care.

 

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Apologies: Your Best Guide on the Internet

Self-help book and works of popular psychology often instruct us in the art of apologising. Their advice is reflected, in turn, in much online discussion.

Most commonly, we’re advised to give elaborate, self-abasing apologies: apologies that go well beyond acknowledging misjudgement or admitting to wrongdoing. With variations, we are told to elaborate in detail just what we did wrong, describe why it was unacceptable, offer nothing in the way of justification or excuse (though sometimes we’re told we can give an explanation without justifying ourselves), and provide explicit assurances that we will never repeat the behaviour. In summary, we’re told to condemn, criticise and abase ourselves, and to ask humbly for forgiveness.

This might be needed for some betrayals of love or friendship. But for most situations it is very bad advice.

Serious wrongdoing

In its most serious mode, the social practice of apologising relates to actions that are later regretted, leading to deep feelings of guilt or shame. With the passage of time, or when we’re brought to focus on what we’ve said or done, we sometimes feel terrible about our own conduct.

To save space, I’ll set aside serious failures resulting from, for example, incompetence (much as these might be interesting in their own right). Let’s consider cases of serious wrongdoing. Here, one person has deliberately harmed or deceived another (or others) in a significant way. In the worst cases, the victim might be someone who legitimately expected the wrongdoer’s goodwill, special concern or even love.

In a situation like this, the victim has every reason to feel profoundly betrayed. Since the wrongdoing was deliberate and significant, it revealed something important and unsavoury about the wrongdoer’s character – what she was psychologically capable of – and especially about her attitude to her victim. In acting as she did, she showed an attitude of disrespect or even malice.

If she aims at reconciliation and seeks forgiveness, the wrongdoer will need to demonstrate that she has undergone something of a psychological transformation. She will need to express heartfelt remorse, show a clear understanding of how she betrayed the victim, and offer especially strong and convincing assurances. She will enter the territory of condemning her own moral character – as it was expressed in the past – and claiming to have changed.

Even the most complete and self-abasing apology might not be enough to regain the victim’s trust and good opinion. The wrongdoer has, after all, revealed by her actions that she was psychologically capable of acting with disrespect or worse. Furthermore, claims to have transformed in moral character are inherently difficult to believe. The victim might understandably be unwilling to restore the relationship to anything like what it previously was.

But most cases are nothing like this. Worthwhile thoughts about apologising in cases of serious wrongdoing can be very bad advice for the range of milder situations that we encounter almost every day.

Everyday cases

In most situations, any sense of guilt or shame is greatly attenuated, even to the point where it might – quite properly – not be felt at all. Thus, words like “sorry” are uttered more as matter of politeness and social convention than to express heartfelt remorse.

Think of the following sequence of events (which happened to me a few days ago). I’d alighted from an intercity train, late at night, and was walking along a moderately crowded platform when I stopped – fairly suddenly, no doubt – to check out a vending machine. The middle-aged man walking immediately behind brushed my arm as he stepped past, and we automatically turned to each other to say, “Sorry!” We spontaneously nodded and smiled at each other, raising our hands, palms outward, as if to indicate peaceful intent and absence of weapons … and he then walked on while I concluded that I didn’t really want the junk food on offer in the machine. And that was all.

The entire exchange took only a few seconds, and neither of us had to go through any process of abasement or self-criticism. How, exactly, is this different from cases that seem far more serious?

It is different along many dimensions, and what follows is not intended to be complete. First, no one was hurt (even psychologically). At most, both of us were momentarily startled.

Second, it would be beside the point to castigate either of us in any serious way. Perhaps we could both have been a bit more conscious of what was going on around us, but at most we showed the sort of lapse in attention and concentration that happens to human beings all the time. I had not been aware of his presence behind me; he did not expect me to stop. But people frequently bump into each other in crowds, and no one is seriously blamed: it’s a normal part of life. It would, of course, be quite different if somebody recklessly sprinted through a crowd, shoving aside people who were in his way.

Third, the two people concerned had no previous relationship except, I suppose, as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. There was no relationship of special regard and trust to try to restore. In that sense, we were not exactly seeking reconciliation, although a certain smoothing of the situation was called for. I doubt, however, that this point makes much difference. Even if the man who brushed past me had turned out to be an old friend, no elaborate apology would have been needed.

Small everyday incidents such as this can be surprisingly pleasant encounters. As long as both people act in the expected way – immediately signalling goodwill and peaceful intent – these incidents make us feel better about ourselves and tend to strengthen societal bonds. For a brief moment, each person provides the other with reassurance that whatever happened was not a prelude to any malicious or violent – or otherwise unfriendly or anti-social – course of action. Importantly, each conveys that the other deserves consideration and respect.

Notice how, during these quick exchanges, we often smile or laugh; we express some mutual amusement at the little tangles of social life. In part, we laugh at our own fallibility, and we forgive ourselves and each other for it. We acknowledge that our fallibility is part of being human, and that it does not, in itself, merit condemnation.

And yet, we do say “Oh, sorry!” or use similar words. In context, this is not an admission of serious wrongdoing or guilty thoughts. We are not seeking anything as grand as forgiveness. By using such words, however, we offer clarity and reassurance. We express something like the following: “I made a miscalculation (or had a lapse in concentration, or whatever might be the case); please understand that I bear you no ill will or disrespect; you have nothing to fear from me.”

Often, this is what we really want to know from each other, and this message also has the advantage that it is usually a believable one. By contrast, an assurance by a serious wrongdoer that she will never do such a thing again might strain credulity.

Words of apology are, then, often given without accepting any blameworthiness. Since we are human – not infallible or omniscient beings – we make mistakes, get distracted, have lapses in concentration, and so on. Sometimes, indeed, we take actions that prove not to be optimal, even though they were not contraindicated on the information available to us at the time.

If you’re at all like me, you might very often find yourself apologising for things that you don’t feel especially ashamed of or guilty about. You might also receive such apologies from others.

For example, a salesperson might apologise to you if you have to wait for an unusually long time to be served, even if the delay was caused by something obviously beyond her control. The apology does not indicate an admission of wrongdoing, and it is certainly not an assurance that nothing like this will happen again (it might well!). But it offers respect and reassurance to someone who has been inconvenienced, even unavoidably.

Miscommunications

I frequently find myself apologising to someone I’m talking to if I’ve miscommunicated what I was trying to say and thus caused confusion (or perhaps even hurt feelings). Alternatively, I might apologise if I realise that I’ve been interpreting my interlocutor wrongly: I’ve grabbed the wrong end of the verbal pineapple and thereby caused confusion. In either case, however, the miscommunication is not a reason to feel any serious guilt or shame.

For example, if I misinterpret somebody’s words the reason might be genuine ambiguity in what he said. Conversely, if someone misunderstands my words, perhaps he was being uncharitable. Alternatively, it might have been genuinely difficult to formulate the idea I was trying to get across – and in the circumstances perhaps I couldn’t have been expected to do any better.

It might nonetheless be reasonable – and it is somewhat conventional – to waive our possible defences once we realise that we’re at cross purposes in a conversation. It isn’t difficult, and it can become almost instinctive, to say things like “Sorry – I’ll rephrase that” or “Oops, sorry – I see what you mean now.”

The truth of it is, we can almost always express ourselves a bit more clearly and listen a bit more astutely. In acknowledging this on any particular occasion, we are not admitting to serious wrongdoing or a nasty attitude. Our mild words of apology can and should reflect this.

Through minor apologies, we reassure the people we’re dealing with that we view them as worthy of respect. We signal that we don’t hold grudges or assign blame over small things that have gone wrong, and that the people we encounter don’t need to worry about how we regard them or what we might do next. All this helps us get along socially, as human beings must.

A flexible practice

The more we think about the practice of apologising, the more we become aware of how varied, complex and flexible it is.

On some occasions, perhaps you should have taken more care, yet you were not outright malicious or even reckless. Perhaps you were tired or stressed or poorly prepared for a task. In these cases, something more than a brief conventional apology might be in order. All the same, mere failure to take adequate care does not indicate anything especially unsavoury about your moral character. It happens from time to time to almost anyone.

If your carelessness has caused significant harm, you might feel urgent concern for those affected and you might owe them some kind of redress. But depending on the circumstances, it might be overkill if an officious interloper demanded that you humble and condemn yourself. If you did any such thing, it would feel and appear insincere.

Irrespective of any advice from pop psychologists, it often makes sense to accompany an apology with an explanation or excuse. Indeed, explanations or excuses can be better than apologies. Allow me to elaborate.

It is often said that “intent is not magic”, and that phrase does have some point when clear-cut harm has been inflicted on somebody identifiable. In more cases than not, however, it is precisely the wrong way to think about human interaction. Often, what hurts us most about someone else’s conduct is the attitude that it seems to reveal. It might seem to show that the person views us with malice or disrespect. If she is someone we care for, that can be emotionally devastating. We might wonder whether our relationship with her was based all along on an illusion.

But much of the sting is removed if she gives an explanation or excuse that shows she does not, after all, harbour malice or disrespect. She might, in fact, utter conventional words of apology, but the important thing is that she reassure us in some convincing way about how she feels. The point of good explanations is that they really do explain; the point of good excuses is that they really do excuse.

In some cases, we can even apologise for actions that were not our own. For example, you might apologise (as you try to shuffle him out of a party) for the boorish and embarrassing conduct of a friend who has had too much to drink. Similarly, a media organisation might apologise for a defamatory or outrageous remark made by a guest.

Likewise, the leader of a country might apologise formally for something done by her country, even if it happened a long time ago before she was born. This is a fairly well understood public act with a potential to reconcile and heal. It makes intuitive sense because it relies on the idea that political entities have an ongoing existence beyond the lifetimes and participation of their individual citizens.

However, not just any relationship can make an apology coherent. There has to be the right sort of connection between the person giving the apology and somebody else’s behaviour. For example, you can’t sensibly apologise for your friend’s boorish actions on some past occasion when you were not even present.

In some situations, we don’t have a clear idea who may have been inconvenienced or offended by our conduct. Contrary to much advice on the Internet, it makes perfectly good sense in these circumstances to offer contingent apologies such as “We apologise for any inconvenience” or “I am sorry if I upset anyone.”

On some particular occasion, you might think that any upset from your conduct was not reasonable. You might even doubt whether anyone was genuinely upset, as opposed to grandstanding to make a point. Nonetheless, you might also feel concern about any upset that actually was experienced, even unreasonably. If so, a mild and contingent apology might be perfectly in order. It is a socially intuitive way to convey that you are not motivated by malice or disrespect. And again, it signals that whatever you did or said was not the precursor to a more troubling course of conduct.

This leads me to the sensitive topic of weaponised demands for apologies, often followed by equally weaponised complaints about “notpologies”.

Weaponised demands and complaints

As we’ve seen, it’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility – or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.

In other cases, you – or I – might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)

In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.

When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.

If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little – or arguably nothing – wrong.

As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public – perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark – it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.

To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.

Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.

When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.

Your best guide?

My subheading to this article, “Your Best Guide on the Internet”, is lighthearted but on point. As I’ve emphasised, the practice of apologising is complex. We often have to make subtle, discriminating decisions about when and how to engage in it. By contrast, most advice on the Internet is misleading in suggesting that there is a single formula that we need to learn.

Fortunately, our intuitions are usually well honed by experience during our formative years, and most of us make reasonable judgements more often than not, even on the spur of the moment. We might not always be aware of it consciously, but we sense in our everyday practices that apologies can take many forms to suit a myriad of circumstances.

None of this is intended to suggest that I always get it right in my own life! Perhaps no one does; in any event, I am not holding myself out as a role model. I have sometimes made mistakes in this area, even quite serious ones, usually out of anger or pride or self-righteousness. If I have any advice to give beyond the most obvious, it’s to try to avoid those feelings – especially in combination. It’s wise to put them aside, if we can, and in cases of doubt it’s often best to give some sort of apology even if it goes against our grain.

The ability to apologise freely, without embarrassment, should be easier if we recognise how often our mistakes come from ordinary human limitations for which we should feel no particular guilt or shame. Combined with this, most apologies do not relate to serious wrongdoing, disrespectful attitudes to others, or defects of character.

Everyday apologies usually have rather conventional and pragmatic functions: to express regret (but not necessarily culpability) for inconvenience, confusion or hurt; to assure others that we respect them and recognise their interests, and that our intentions are not hostile; and to indicate that others have nothing to fear from us going forward.

In a sense, none of this is new. I’m telling readers what they already know, but the opposite of what they are too often told. I’ve set out in an explicit way some of the complexity that we are all aware of if we’re not confused by pop psychology or a dubious ideology.

Once again: it is often worth apologising (albeit mildly) even when we’ve done nothing wrong; apologies are often quite legitimately accompanied by explanations or excuses; most apologies do not have to be lengthy or especially self-critical or self-abasing. In some situations, much-maligned “notpologies” might be all that is needed.

This complexity should be familiar, once we think about it clearly and for ourselves.

For each of us, as individuals, the social practice of apologising gives many options to match with the ever-changing situations we encounter in our lives. We can think of them as tools in our social kit. Exactly how we use them is up to us.

Republished from The Conversation (published June 25, 2017, by Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle, NSW).

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Virtual Cheating V: Virtual People

In this last in the virtual cheating series, the focus of the discussion is on virtual people. The virtual aspect is easy enough to define—these are entities that exist entirely within the realm of computer memory and do not exist as physical beings in that they lack bodies of the traditional sort. They are, of course, physical beings in the broad sense, existing as data within physical memory systems.

An example of such a virtual being is a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. These coded entities range from enemies that fight the player to characters that engage in the illusion of conversation and interaction. As it now stands, these NPCs are quite simple—although players often have very strong emotional responses and even (one-sided) relationships with them. Bioware, for example, excels at creating NPCs that players get very involved with and their games often feature elaborate relationship and romance systems.

While these simple coded entities are usually designed to look like and imitate the behavior of people, they are obviously not people. They cannot even pass a basic Turning test. They are, at best, the illusion of people. As such, while humans could become emotionally attached to these virtual entities, it would be impossible to cheat with them. Naturally, a human could become angry with how involved their partner is with video games, but that is another matter.

As technology improves, the virtual people will become more and more person-like. As with the robots discussed in the previous essay, if a virtual person were a person, then cheating would be potentially possible. Also as with the discussion of robots, there could be degrees of virtual personhood, thus allowing for degrees of cheating. Since virtual people are essentially robots in the virtual world, the discussion of robots in that essay would apply analogously to the virtual robots of the virtual world. There is, however, one obvious break in the analogy: unlike robots, virtual people lack physical bodies. This leads to the obvious question of whether a human can virtually cheat with a virtual person or if cheating requires a physical sexual component.

While, as discussed in a previous essay, there is a form of virtual sex that involves physical devices that stimulate the sexual organs, this is not “pure” virtual sex. After all, the user is using a VR headset to “look” at the partner, but the stimulation is all done mechanically. Pure virtual sex would require the sci-fi sort of virtual reality of cyberpunk—a person fully “jacked in” to the virtual reality so all the inputs and outputs are essentially directly to and from the brain. The person would have a virtual body in the virtual reality that mediates their interaction with that world, rather than having crude devices stimulating their physical body.

Assuming the technology is good enough, a person could have virtual sex with a virtual person (or another person who is also jacked into the virtual world). On the one hand, this would obviously not be sex in the usual sense—those involved would have no physical contact. This would avoid many of the usual harms of traditional cheating—STDs and pregnancies would not be possible (although sexual malware and virtual babies might be possible). This does, of course, leave open the door for accusations of emotional infidelity.

On the other hand, if the experience is indistinguishable from the experience of physical sex, then it could be argued that the lack of physical contact is irrelevant. At this point, the classic problem of the external world becomes relevant. The gist of this problem is that because I cannot get outside of my experiences to “see” that they are really being caused by external things that seem to be causing them, I can never know if there is really an external world. For all I know, I am dreaming or already in a virtual world. While this is usually seen as the nightmare scenario in epistemology, George Berkeley embraced this view in his idealism—he argued that there is no metaphysical matter and that “to be is to be perceived.” On his view, all that exists are minds and within them are ideas. Crudely put, Berkeley’s reality is virtual and God is the server.

So, if cheating is defined such that it requires physical sexual activity, knowing whether a person is cheating or not would require solving the problem of the external world. And there would be the possibility that there never has been any cheating since there might be no physical world. If sexual activity is defined in terms of the behavior and sensations without references to a need for physical systems, then virtual cheating would be possible—assuming the technology can reach the required level.

While this discussion of virtual cheating is currently purely theoretical, it does provide an interesting way to explore what it is about cheating (if anything) that is wrong. As noted at the start of the series, many of the main concerns about cheating are purely physical concerns about STDs and pregnancy. These concerns are avoided by virtual cheating. What remains are the emotions of those involved and the agreements between them. As a practical matter, the future is likely to see people working out the specifics of their relationships in terms of what sort of virtual and robotic activities are allowed and which are forbidden. While people can simply agree to anything, there is the deeper question of the rational foundation of relationship boundaries. For example, whether it is reasonable to consider interaction with a sexbot cheating or elaborate masturbation. Perhaps Bill Clinton, with his inquiries into the definition of “sex” should be leading the discussion of this matter.

 

 

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