Monthly Archives: June 2011

Violent Video Games (Again)

I have been using my budget-cut based summer break from teaching to do various home improvements. The point of mentioning this is that I have been alternating between baking in the Florida sun and being exposed to “second hand paint fumes” (as opposed to directly huffing the stuff) as such, my writing might be a bit off. I have checked for any obvious weirdness (well, weirdness beyond the usual sort), but I apologize in advance for any heat/paint induced lapses in logic. I blame the flying frogs that seem to be infesting my house now. In any case, down to business.

The supreme court recently ruled that California’s law banning the sale of  video games to minors that “depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” The ruling was, of course, based on the first amendment.

Being both a gamer and an ethicist, I have thought (and written) a fair amount about the banning video games. On the one hand, a very reasonable case can be made for placing age based restrictions on video games. While studies of the impact of virtual violence on children are hardly conclusive, it seems reasonable to accept that exposure to virtual violence can have an impact on how the child thinks. As Aristotle has argued, people become habituated by what they do. Children are, of course, even more likely to be influenced. They are more receptive than adults and tend to lack the cognitive resources that adults are supposed to possess. As such, it seems reasonable to keep young children away from violence-even the virtual sort.

On the other hand, there are reasonable grounds for rejecting such bans. First, there are reasons for doubting that such games have a significant impact on children. The psychological studies are open to question and, of course, humans seem to be naturally prone to violence ( the stock “we like violent games because we are violent, we are not violent because of the games” argument). When I was a kid, long before violent video games, we spent a lot of time playing war. While the effects were not very special (cap guns), we certainly did act out killing each other. When violent video games came along, they simply allowed me to do what I had done as a kid (play at killing) only with ever better graphics and effects). As such, banning violent video games to protect children from the influence of violence seems like something that simply will not work, thus making such a law unnecessary.

Second, there is the matter of freedom of expression and consumption. While minors do have a reduced right of freedom of consumption (they cannot but alcohol, tobacco, guns or porn), imposing on their freedom only seems justified when it protects them from a significant harm in cases in which they lack the judgment to (in theory at least) make an informed choice. Even if violent video games have a harmful impact, it can be contended that the harm is not on par with that of adult vices such as alcohol or tobacco but rather on par with junk food. So, just as it is sensible to think that children should not eat junk food, yet also think there should not be laws banning children from buying candy bards, it seems sensible to think that although young kids should not buy violent video games, there should not be laws against doing so.

Third, there is the matter of what is fit for the state to control and what is fit for parents to control. There are, obviously enough, matters that should be handled by the state and those that should remain a matter of parental choice.  Alcohol, guns and tobacco are so dangerous that it seems reasonable that the state has a interest in keeping children away from these things by force of law. There is also a category of things were the state should aid parents in making choices, such as diet and exercise, but where the state should not intervene except in extreme cases. As noted above, I am inclined to put violent video games in the category of junk food. As such, parents should be informed about what the games contain (which is already done by the rating system) and the choice of whether or not their children play the games or not should be up to them. Naturally, children who lack parents or whose parents are dangerously incompetent will fall under the domain of the state, but these would be relatively rare cases.

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What Lesbians Don’t Understand About Heterosexual Men

This is a guest post by Dr Rupert Read, School of Philosophy, UEA.

In the wake of the affair that made world-wide news recently involving the exposure of a rather sad, vain and irresponsible Englishman who posed in a blog as a gay (Syrian) woman, the controversial feminist writer Julie Bindel wrote illuminatingly in the GUARDIAN about “What straight men don’t understand about lesbians“. Her amusing article, deservedly, attracted about eight hundred published comments. The only point, I think, at which she went wrong, was in her opening speculations about why so many straight men are fascinated by (their fantasy of) lesbians  (She thinks it has to do with male indignation that lesbians “do not desire the male form”. But this explains none of the delirious quality of male-fascination with all thingsSapphic.).

Perhaps this failing on Bindel’s part is not surprising: for she is not a straight man…

The real reason why the idea of lesbianism so fascinates many straight men is one that is easier to understand if one is. Having some philosophical awareness also helps. For the real reason is closely connected with the phenomenology of sexual fantasy, which works via virtual identification. In other words: it is about imagining yourself into the position of one of the sexual partners. In the case of lesbianism, a straight man seeks to imagine himself into the position of one of the partners, desiring the other woman of the pair – and then can immediately switch into the second woman’s subject position, desiring the first. (This back and forth virtual-switching of identification is especially delicious because of course it tacitly involves the illicit thrill of  being a woman, at the level of imagination, as well as desiring one.)  It works especially for the male fantasist when both the women in question are ‘desirable’ (e.g. porn models, or ‘lipstick lesbians’) and/or when the limbs etc. of the participants are so entwined that it is slightly hard to tell who is who. A man may get very over-excited by rapidly – ‘deliriously’ – switching subject-positions in his imagination, and work himself up in a way that doesn’t have a direct parallel in situations of heterosexual desire.

Furthermore, this also explains male hetero disgust for male homosexuality. For, in this case, a male contemplating it cannot succeed overtly in imagining himself into the position of either male partner: for doing so would commit him to having to imagine himself desiring a man: which, for a hetero male, is unacceptable.

So that’s what lesbians don’t understand about straight men: that their fantasy of lesbians essentially involves imagining themselves into the position of the lesbians in question. Sort-of the opposite of the explanation given by Bindel. And, moreover, a kind of hidden massive compliment to (and envy of) lesbians, rather than an expression of outrage at them…

Selling Out Education?

Florida State University in Tallahassee

For Sale?

Because of the financial crisis (and other factors), public universities are having a harder time with their finances. As businesses often do, some schools have addressed their financial woes by cutting employees. The cuts often begin with adjunct and visiting faculty and then move on to full time staff and even regular faculty. In truly dire circumstances, some administrators even find their bonuses being trimmed.

While cutting positions often appeals to some folks, perhaps because it gives them that business feel, there are also attempts to increase revenue in various ways. Tuition has, of course, been increasing steadily. However, that somehow never seems to keep up with the financial needs of the schools. Schools also seek outside money, often in the form of grants and gifts. However, even these sources are often not enough.

Florida State University  hit on on interesting method of securing funds. A while ago, the FSU economics department entered into a contract with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. In this contract, FSU received $1.5 million to create two endowed chairs to “promote political economy and free enterprise.” While this all seems rather good, one concern is that the contract specifies that Koch’s representatives have the right to reject candidates selected by the faculty hiring committee. In short, the representatives have veto power over hires.

One practical concern is, obviously enough, that FSU seems to have sold out for relatively little. While $1.5 million seems like a substantial sum, it actually amounts to very little when considering the budget of FSU. At the very least, they should have asked for more in return for granting this level of influence. To be rather crude (and perhaps  unfair), if one is going to be a whore, at least be a well paid whore.

More importantly, there is also the matter of ethics. Having served on a few hiring committees I am well aware about how they are supposed to function. As one might expect, candidates are supposed to be assessed based on their academic merits rather than their ideological views (and based on private conversations, it appears that a specific ideology was used to assess the candidates).  Since universities are supposed to operate on the basis of academic integrity and academic freedom,  granting such decision making power in return for a cash payment seems to be questionable, at best.

One obvious reply is that the idea of academic integrity and freedom are little but pleasant myths. After all, it is well known that people are often hired based on having the right connections and the right ideology.  The deal with Koch merely puts things in writing and puts cash on the table. As such, to single out this situation for special condemnation would be an error, given that the basis of criticism has no real substance.

To counter this reply, while it is true that some people do not take the matters of integrity and freedom seriously, it is not true that no one does so. To use an obvious example, the search committees I have served on have been above board and run with integrity and respect for academic freedom. There is also the obvious fact that appealing to a common practice does not show that the practice is right or correct. That is, of course, why there is a fallacy called “common practice.” Naturally enough, if the Koch Foundation is wrong for what it has done, those who do the same sort of things (be they left or right leaning) would also be in the wrong.

Another obvious reply is that schools need to relax their concerns over these principles in the face of the economic woes. Just as an individual might do things that /she might not otherwise do for money when in dire straights, universities also have to swallow their pride and set aside what principles they might have left so as to secure they money they need. To make this into a properly ethical argument, an appeal can be made on utilitarian grounds. While allowing people to purchase veto power over endowed faculty positions might have some negative consequences (like allowing people with money to ensure that certain ideologies are pushed), the positive consequences could outweigh the negative. After all, accepting such money can allow schools to address their budgetary woes and continue to provide students with educations. While this education might be of a different sort than what would be offered if the money was not needed, it is still an education.

The counter to this reply is that the negative consequences could very well end up outweighing the positive consequences. Using the analogy of the individual, doing questionable things for money can have a corrupting effect on the character and can damage one’s reputation.  If it turns out that the cost exceeds the benefits, then accepting such money would not be a good thing.

As I see it, accepting money in return for such veto power is a violation of professional hiring ethics. Naturally, I do agree that if money is offered with conditions and accepted, then there is (on the face of it) an obligation to stick to that agreement. As such, by taking the money, FSU has obligated itself to the terms of the contract. However, they should not have entered into that agreement.

Naturally, it might be wondered if I would still hold this view if my continued employment was contingent on my university accepting such a deal.

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TPM Contest: Who Said This? About Whom? No. 2

Right, here’s a quiz. I’ll be pretty impressed if people get this right without cheating. You’re not allowed to cheat, by the way. That would be wrong. And you’ll get a severe telling off.

I want to know who said this – and about whom it was said. I expect people to be able to identify the about whom pretty quickly. But the identity of the person who said it will be more difficult, I reckon. Obviously it won’t be more difficult if you Google it, but you won’t do that, because what’s the point, right – and anyway there’s the whole severe telling off thing to worry about. Here’s a clue. The person who wrote this had a famous son.

Others again debated – Whether the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary in the shape of a serpent, or a dove, or a man, or of a woman? Did he seem to be young or old? In what dress was he? Was his garment white or of two colours? Was his linen clean or foul? Did he appear in the morning, noon, or evening? What was the colour of the Virgin Mary’s hair? Was she acquainted with the mechanic and liberal arts? Had she a thorough knowledge of the Book of Sentences, and all it contains?… But these are only trifling matters: they also agitated, Whether when during her conception the Virgin was seated, Christ too was seated; and whether when she lay down, Christ also lay down?

That’s it.

(You see this is what happens when one finds religion: one becomes interested in what people have previously said about Christ and the Holy Mother…)

ps., The judge’s decision is final. No correspondence will be entered into. Please allow 28 days for the non-delivery of your non-prize.

Sex & Resignation

Anthony Weiner

Image via Wikipedia

As night follows day, sex scandals follow politicians. Being an American, I hear the most about our fine politicians and their various scandals. However, this sort of thing is hardly limited to the United States.

While the Anthony Weiner episode has been dominating the American media, this incident does raise a general question about when a politician involved in a sex scandal should step down. After dragging out the tragic drama, Anthony Weiner finally decided to resign his position. This puts him in stark contrast with fellow New Yorker Chris Lee. After his shirtless-photo-Craigslist scandal, Lee promptly resigned.

Weiner’s career-ending injury was, of course, self-inflicted. The fatal blow was not his virtual infidelity. It was, of course, his decision to launch a prolonged campaign of deceit. If he had simply admitted to his behavior, then he would have been regarded as creepy but he might have not have been pushed to resign. Without the attempted cover up, the bump in his briefs would have probably been a brief bump in his career.

It might be argued that such virtual misdeeds would be sufficient grounds for resignation. After all, Chris Lee resigned after attempting to have an affair via Craigslist. This does have a certain appeal. After all, a politician is supposed to serve the interests of his people and he cannot do his job properly if he is caught up in a scandal.

This does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, many jobs (including my own) restrict the outside employment that an employee can undertake. The reason is, of course, that outside employment can interfere with the primary job. While being caught up in a scandal is not a job (though it might have been caused by one), it can have the same effect by consuming far too much time and focus. Of course, if the person is able to keep the scandal from impacting his duties, then this argument would fail in that case.

It can also be argued that members of a political body who cannot keep their own members under control are unfit for office. This falls under the general question of what sort of unethical behavior (or violation of social norms) would be grounds for expecting a politician to resign.

One obvious answer is to refer to the rules specified by office. As with any job, there are conditions of employment and these set the limits of allowed behavior. Provided that these limits are not violated, then there would seem to be a lack of justification to expect a resignation-even when the person behaves in ways that are regarded as inappropriate or even unethical.  For example, a university professor typically cannot be fired merely for having an affair since his job does not specify marital fidelity as a condition of employment.  Naturally, having an affair with a co-worker or student could be grounds for dismissal, but not because it is an affair but most likely because the university has rules against that sort of behavior.

Naturally enough, if a resignation is expected, this often means that there are not actual grounds for kicking the person out As far as I know, inappropriate (but not illegal) sexual behavior is not grounds for being given the boot from most political offices. Lying, except for the obvious case of doing so under oath, also does not seem to be against the  usual rules. If it were, then the halls of most governments would be empty.

Obviously enough, people are sometimes expected to resign even when they have not actually violated the rules. In the case of politicians, this happens often enough in cases involving sex.

It can be argued that politicians who are involved in sex scandals that do not break the relevant rules should still be pushed to resign. This could be done on ethical grounds. While we tend to regard politicians as an unethical lot, we still expect them to behave in ways we consider appropriate when it comes to sex and regard such violations as unethical. A rather appealing argument is that if a married politician will betray his wife, then he cannot be trusted and hence should leave office.

An obvious reply is that as long as the politician has not actually acted in ways that are relevant to his job, then his betrayal of his wife is not relevant. After all, a man can be relentlessly unfaithful to his wife and still be very competent and capable in his job.

Another appealing argument is that if a politician is engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior and has tried to conceal it, then it would seem reasonable to suspect that he might be up to other misdeeds and concealing them. The obvious reply is that such behavior (provided that it does not cross over into the criminal realm) is not actually relevant to job performance and the person’s competence. After all, I suspect that most married men are involved in some degree of what would be considered inappropriate behavior, yet they are able to function in their jobs.

Naturally, the above would apply to women as well as men. However, it is far more common for male politicians to be involved in such scandals than female politicians.

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Latest microphilosophy podcast

Can artificial intelligence teach us about what it means to be human? That is the fascinating question behind Brian Christian’s recent book, The Most Human Human. In his latest microphilosophy podcast, tpm editor-in-chief Julian Baggini is in conversation with Christian. More information here or download from iTunes.

Climate change and moral revolutions

 I gave a talk on the ethics of climate change last night to the good people of 10:10, “a movement of people, schools, businesses and organisations, cutting their carbon 10% at a time”.  They’re in a tiny, buzzing office down a back alley in London, and from that little spot a handful of exceptional people co-ordinate the carbon-cutting activities of more than one hundred thousand individuals, thousands of businesses, schools, colleges, universities and other organisations, including 155 local councils representing over 24 million people.  They’re sometimes in the Skype Hut (a soundproofing measure) liaising with other 10:10 campaigns in 40 countries.  The team involved are environmental X-Men, each one with a different superpower.  If you let your guard down for a second, you’ll find them inspirational. 


What do you say to a roomful of committed, bright, energetic people, who are actually doing something about climate change? I trotted out some moral arguments for action on climate change – trying to do something about the thought that morality is a turn off. I hear that a lot – the claim that we ought to find reasons other than moral ones for fighting climate change.  Maybe we should talk about energy independence or saving money instead.  You can read the talk here, but it is informal, not a careful piece for a journal.


It got me thinking about moral revolutions.  There are moments in human history when the stars line up and people insist on something else entirely, largely or anyway partly because they think that it’s right.  Think of the end of slavery in the US, campaigns against child labour or in favour of suffrage.  Think of the Arab Spring and the part of that motivated by the thought that autonomy is right and despotism is wrong.  I wonder what it is that shifts moral talk from irritating moralising that no one wants to hear, to a reason for standing in front of a tank.  Any idea?

Gotcha Questions

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

The Gotchas are Coming!

Sarah Palin certainly deserves credit for introducing the world to the notion of the “gotcha” question. Given the name, a “gotcha” question should be a question that is intended to trap a person in some devious or tricky manner. This, naturally enough, makes me think that perhaps Palin had in mind something like the fallacy of complex question or a loaded question.

The fallacy of complex question is committed by attempting to support a claim by presenting a question that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions. The fallacy has the following form:

1)      Question Q is asked which rests on assumption (or assumptions) A.

2)      Therefore A is true.

This version of the fallacy is similar to begging the question in that what is in need of proof is assumed rather than properly
established.Complex question is also often defined as presenting two or more questions as if they were a single question and then using the answer to the single question to answer both questions. The answer is then used as a premise to support a conclusion. This version has the following form:

1)      Question Q is presented that is actually formed of two (or more) questions Q1 and Q2 (etc.).

2)      Question Q is based on one or more unwarranted assumptions, U.

3)      An answer, A, is received to Q and treated as if it answers Q1 and Q2.

4)      On the basis of A, U is concluded to be true.

This is a fallacy because the answer, A, is acquired on the basis of one or more unwarranted assumptions. As such, the conclusion is not adequately supported.

This fallacy needs to be distinguished from the rhetorical technique of the loaded question. In this technique a question is raised that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions, but there is no attempt to make an argument.  In the context of law, a loaded question is sometimes referred to as a leading question.  The classic example of a loaded question is “have you stopped beating your wife?”

I think it would be quite reasonable (and colorful) to refer to complex and loaded questions as “gotcha” questions. However, this view of “gotcha” questions is based on there being some sort of trap or unwarranted assumption in the question. That is, the “gotchaness” is a property of the question. This does not, in practice, seem to match how Palin uses the term. After all, in defending her mistakes regarding the ride of Paul Revere she claimed that the question “”What have you seen so far today and what are you going to take away from your visit?”” was a “gotcha” question. The question itself does not seem to have any tricks, traps, or unwarranted assumptions built into it. In fact, it seems like an easy and innocuous sort of question. As such, either she is wrong about it being a “gotcha” question or she means something else by the term.

If she is not in error, then the most plausible account of the “gotcha” question is that it is defined not by what is asked but by what Palin answers. To be specific, if she gives a rather bad answer to a question, then it is a “gotcha” question, regardless of the content of the actual question. Presumably anyone can help themselves to this defense. So, if you give an incorrect or embarrassing answer to any question, be sure to insist that it is a “gotcha” question. That will surely show that either you are not accountable for your answer or that your answer is, in fact, right.

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Weiner & Tragedy

Anthony Weiner

Image via Wikipedia

Congressman Anthony Weiner recently made headlines over a Tweeted photo of a groin. He denied that he had sent the photo and insisted that he had been hacked. However, his handling of certain questions led many to doubt his veracity. In a press conference on June 6, he admitted that he had sent the Tweet and that he had lied to cover this up.

The press conference was a rather interesting in four ways. First, he accepted full responsibility for his actions and did not try to shift the blame to anyone or anything else. Second, he noted that his actions were due to a weakness and flaw in his character. Third, he answered question for about thirty minutes, visibly taking a beating. Fourth, his wife was not present-which is something rather unusual when an American politician has been caught in a scandal involving a sexual element. Seeing this conference started me thinking about tragedy in the Aristotelian sense.

Briefly put, a tragedy has two main aspects: the nature of the action and the nature of the main agent. In terms of the action, a person has to go from happiness to misery via a mistake on his part. Second, the agent needs to be good, but not overly so. The fact that the downfall was due to an error on the person’s part enables people to feel fear-“there, but for the grace of God, go I.” The fact that the person is basically decent enables people to feel pity. After all, when bad things happen to wicked people, we are not generally inclined to feel for them. However, when bad things happen to decent people, this tends to elicit feelings of pity.

In Weiner’s case, he clearly has gone from happiness to misery. He has been revealed as a liar and his wife is certainly not happy with him. His chances of being re-elected have been diminished. This misery is, of course, self inflicted and the result of poor choices: though he is married he was inappropriately  involved via Twitter and Facebook with women and when he accidentally exposed himself, he chose to lie about it.

Looking at things honestly, I think that most of us can easily imagine being in a situation somewhat like Weiner’s. After all, social media makes it very easy to communicate with people and engage in what might begin as harmless friend making that devolves into flirting. As Weiner himself pointed out, social media is not to blame for our failings-but it does provide a rather slippery social slope. Social media also provides an instantaneous way to be stupid, thus sometimes shorting out one’s better judgment. Email and blog commenting also have a similar effect: it is easy to dash off a thoughtless email or comment and then realize the full extent of the stupidity when it is too late.

When people make mistakes, especially shameful mistakes, they are rarely inclined to admit to these errors. Rather, people tend to do just what Weiner did: try to conceal the error and then resort to lying. This, as Weiner knew, merely makes things worse by compounding the original error with more poor and unethical choices.

As such, it seems quite reasonable for most of us, especially us men, to think “yes, I could have been a Weiner.” For the record, I have never sent a “junk shot” via Twitter. However, I have made decisions in life I regret and hence have some sympathy for Weiner. I do, however, have far more sympathy for his wife.

What is obviously more controversial is whether he is basically a decent man who made a mistake or not.  Obviously enough, Weiner is not morally outstanding. He was involved with women via social media in a way that he felt comfortable sending “junk shots.” He also lied to cover up his misdeeds. However, he does not seem to be a wicked man. Assuming he is not lying again, his relationships with the women allegedly did not go beyond the realm of social media. While this was hardly ethical, it was not wicked or evil. While his lying was also unethical, he did not violate his oath of office or break any laws. As such, the extent of his immorality was fairly minor-lies told to cover up something shameful and embarrassing. As lies go, his lies are rather low on the evil scale.Weiner also appeared (although it is hard to judge from a single press conference) to be sincerely repentant and remorseful for what he had done-especially the hurt he had inflicted on his wife.As such, Weiner does not seem to be a wicked man who was brought low by his wickedness. Rather, he seems to be a basically decent sort of person who chose poorly due to flaws in his character. As such, it seems reasonable to consider the situation as a minor tragedy-at least in Aristotle’s sense.

Naturally, if new information is forthcoming, my assessment might well change. If Weiner actually had “relationships” with one or more of the women or was faking his emotions during the press conference, then his status as a decent, but flawed, person would come under greater question.

In any case, Weiner is yet another example of why honesty is the best policy. Of course, an even better policy is to not do stupid stuff that one might feel tempted to lie about.

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