Monthly Archives: August 2011

Photos & Memories

The Polaroid Corporation logo.

Image via Wikipedia

A short while before she was heading to Orlando, my girlfriend asked me to scan the photos in her old photo album and in a box. No doubt worn out after a week of preparing to move and dealing with her ongoing dissertation study, she said that she was tired of carting the photos about and wanted to toss them after I had scanned them.

While this might not seem like a matter fit for philosophy, it did get me thinking about the exploitation of male labor by the female oppressors. I mean, it got me thinking about the preservation of photos and whether there would be any meaningful difference between the original photos (which are pre-digital) and the digital copies.

The easy and obvious answer would seem to be that there would be no meaningful difference. After all, a photo is just an image and the scanning would duplicate that image. In fact, the scan would be better than the original. Not only could the scanned image be backed up against loss and printed as needed, it could also be color corrected and otherwise improved relative to the original. Also, a photo created from a negative is already a copy (of sorts) and hence any concern about one being an original and one being a copy can apparently be set aside. That said, it would seem to be worth looking a little deeper.

Before looking a bit deeper, I believe I am obligated to present a possible biasing factor. Being a person of moderate age, I grew up long before digital cameras and have a certain nostalgic attachment to physical photos. However, I do not even own a film camera anymore and have been doing digital photography since the late 1990s. As such, I think that I can restrain my bias and look at the matter with some objectivity. Or perhaps not-the ways of one’s youth can be hard to shake.

While an non-digital photograph is but an image of an event that was most likely created from a negative (with the obvious exception of the Polaroid), it can be argued that a photograph can become an artifact of memory, history or nostalgia. This, perhaps, makes it more than just a mere surface image that can be copied by scanning. Rather, it is an item that is imbued in a way that makes its physical composition an important part of what it is. Since this component cannot be replicated by scanning, to scan a photo and discard it would be more than merely discarding a redundant image, but throwing away a vessel of memory, a vehicle of history, a bearer of nostalgia.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine if someone wanted to scan historical documents and throw away the originals to save space and weight. While the images would be preserved, a significant part of the history would be lost. To use another obvious analogy, consider the distinction between an  historical item, such as a coin or sword, and a modern replica. While the replica might look exactly like the original (and might even be “better”), it would seem to be lacking in important ways.

Of course, it can be argued that while historical artifacts have a value in terms of historical research, the main value of old items comes from the fact that we value them. Take, for example, a fading childhood photo. While it has numerous objective qualities, these do not include those that make it a vessel of memory, a bearer of nostalgia or a possessor of sentimental value. These qualities do not exist in the object. Rather, they are a relational property between the person and the object: a photo has sentimental value because I value it. Perhaps they are not even that-after all, a person could certainly be duped into thinking that a photo is the original one, even though it was replaced with a new print modified to look old. Perhaps someone damaged the photo and wanted to replace it without the person knowing-perhaps as a perceived kindness or to avoid the fruits of anger. The person would feel that sentiment, but would, of course, be in error. It would be like a person thinking she was seeing the person she loves, but was actually seeing his twin. Until she became aware of her error, she would feel that love. Likewise, a person would feel the same way about the photo, at least until she was aware it was not the original.

Or perhaps she would still feel the same way. After all, perhaps it is the case that the value attached to the image is based on the image rather than the object. So, for example, a scanned copy of an old photograph would create the same feelings and stand in the same relationships as the original in terms of the value placed upon it. If so, then being rid of the old photos would be no loss at all.

In my own case, my emotional view is that it would make a difference. While the image is an important aspect of the photo, the physical photo also has a value as an object connected to the past. Of course, this feeling is just a feeling and could merely be the result of my pre-digital youth. I also feel the same way about hand written letters, but that perhaps says more about my age than about the world.

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Democracy – what does it mean, and how can we all get some?

2011: Because of the ongoing democratic revolutions in the Middle East, this feels a hugely-exciting time to be alive and to be a thinking person. As I write, in the wake of the victory of the rebels over the appalling Gaddafi regime in Libya, the situation in Syria seems to be tipping a little further in the favour of the incredibly-brave protesters there…
As a philosopher, one thing that I think these revolutions do quite powerfully is throw into greater disrepute the arguments that are periodically made against democracy, or at least against democracy ‘for them’, as opposed to for ‘us’. Such arguments are arguments against trusting (the / ordinary) people with power and responsibility; and this is just very implausible, in an age in which we have comparatively distributed employment, an age in which traditional sources of authority are less sacrosanct, etc. . For my detailed arguments against such distrust, see my recent review essay “Economist-Kings?”, in the _European Review_ (19:1; pp.119-129)…
. (I would love to know what readers of this blog make of my argument there.)
Democracy is in itself a gigantic gamble. But I take it that we take it to be a gamble worth taking. And, furthermore, the alternative is hard to see: for it is increasingly obvious (cf. once more the democratic Arab revolts of 2011) that democratic legitimacy is a _practical requirement_ of governance in a world that values self-expression and is increasingly sceptical of dictatorialism (See on this the argument of R. Inglehart and C. Welzel in their Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy (Cambridge: CUP, 2005)). Democracy, now: There is no alternative.
The possibility that seems to be increasingly real, in the continuing light of the ‘Arab Spring’, is that pressures for democracy will grow elsewhere in the world too: such as in Africa; …and in Britain… For, as a philosopher, one has of course to ask the question: What does democracy actually mean? One clue of course is etymology: Do the people (the demos) really rule, in this country? See on this…

I believe, as I have recently argued at length in a ‘call to arms’ on the ‘Green Words Workshop’ blog (
– again, I’d welcome readers thoughts on my line of thinking and suggestion for action there), that democracy in its true sense might just be about to start coming to this country too. It will depend on exposing, as I aim to help to do in that piece, the somewhat (ahem) corrupt state of our current democracy; crucially, the way that our current system is dominated by money. As a rare beast, a philosopher who is politically active, I have real experience of this. In the 2009 Norwich North byelection, in which I stood as the Green Party candidate, we raised almost £20000 with which to fight the byelection. This is far far more than the Green Party had ever raised in a byelection previously. But it was only a small fraction of what the LibDems, UKIP and the Conservatives each spent in the byelection campaign. Their access to rich donors and corporate donors made it easy for them to drown voters in paper on the doorsteps (and in billboards) and to crowd the Green Party voice in the campaign out. The Conservatives and Labour moreover moved whole staffing operations out from London to fight the campaign; something which just wasn’t possible for the Greens to do.
If we are to have real democracy as opposed to merely formal democracy (On which, see Norman Daniels’s important criticism of Rawls…
), then the power of big money to deform politics, which is a serious problem in this country and even more serious in some other countries such as the U.S., must be addressed.

And of course, Libya and Egypt and Tunisia and so on will discover this too, soon enough.

[p.s. Forgive the funny formatting of my links here… Still getting used to blogging for myself on WordPress! As I’ve done it here, each link _follows_ the piece of text that introduces it.]

Greening the future with the help of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers

It’s great to be joining the TP blog as a regular blogger. I thought I’d start by mentioning what my main philosophical research is about, right now.

So; my current project is a particularly small and easy one 😉
…I’m working to find a solution to the central problem of our time: our (humans’) fairly-rapid and at-present seemingly-inexorable collective destruction of our collective life-support mechanism…

One of my proposals, being developed along with my main co-author Phil Hutchinson, is that Wittgenstein and the Pragmatists can help – that these are in fact ‘environmentalist’ philosophers (To read more, see my book PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE, chapter 1).

It can seem shocking to suggest that James, Dewey and Wittgenstein be cast as (everyday) environmentalists. For we are accustomed to thinking of ‘environmentalism’ as a political category, and of philosophers as above politics. That widespread notion is however multiply-flawed. Firstly, the whole point of the suggestion in the previous paragraph is that one cannot make any sense of supposing creatures such as ourselves to exist except as utterly dependent upon and in an important sense therefore utterly immersed in our environing circumstances. Secondly, the merest common-sense for the species, of survival, ought to make ecologism, i.e. the sense that everyone is ‘downstream’ of everyone else (See Helena Norberg-Hodge’s marvellous film and book, ANCIENT FUTURES, for detail on this notion), into something that is genuinely basic for all politics, rather than being politically controversial. It is their not yet being common-sensical that makes things appear ‘political’ in some problematic and controversial way; what is needed is a politics that successfully acts so as to render the ideology of ecologism – an Earth-based ‘ideology’ – part of the ground, rather than figural. ‘Hegemonic’, in Gramscian terms. Thirdly, given that our societies are so tragically far from such far-sightedness, there is no way that being ‘politically controversial’ can be avoided – in making the transition to a thinking and a conducting of ourselves as if tomorrow truly mattered. And fourthly, it is in any case misguided to fantasise philosophy as would-be politically-neutral. This fantasy, fairly widespread in the English-speaking world, but much less attractive on the Continent (and directly contested in Dewey’s corpus, and also in Cornel West), is based upon a resistance to thinking deeply about the ‘therapy’ that our culture needs to go through, the changes that are required if it is to be truly assertible that we love wisdom and act accordingly. The drive toward depoliticisation of as much as possible is itself an aspect of the ‘liberal’ philosophy of mutual indifference that precisely requires challenging, if these changes are to occur.

How is this kind of thinking to become reality? How does the transition get made from philosophy to political action?

This writing that I am doing in itself could not possibly be enough, however brilliant it was and however widely read it might be. It needs to be ‘completed’– by you, and many more. In part, in action, including in actions that we do not anticipate and perhaps would not in some cases even welcome. (For Wittgenstein, the deepest meaning of philosophy being a ‘therapeutic’ enterprise is that the reader / listener needs truly to enter into the conversation.)

A truly Wittgensteinian solution to our problems, compatible I/we suggest with the best of the spirit of Pragmatism (with for instance the Jamesian right-to-believe; the Deweyan emphases on human animals as through-and-through environed, as through-and-through not subjects facing objects, as through-and-through not in need of a quest for certainty conceived of as knowledge-immune-to-doubt; the Peircean suggestion that belief is not really belief unless it be articulated into action (so long as this is not a tacit behavioristic claim, but rather a kind of moral or political one: On what basis are you (and are you not) prepared to act?); and so forth), _depends_ on the reader; and, ultimately, on there being a decent number _of_ such readers.

Which is one reason why it seems appropriate to canvass it here on this blog.

Just Doesn’t Get It

Rhetoric of Reason

Image via Wikipedia

When it comes to persuading people, a catchy bit of rhetoric tends to be far more effective than an actual argument. One rather neat bit of rhetoric that seems to be favored by Tea Party folks and others is the “just doesn’t get it” device.

As a rhetorical device, it is typically used with the intent of dismissing or rejecting a person’s (or group’s) claims or views. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. They think raising taxes is the way to go.” The idea is that the audience is supposed to accept that liberals are wrong about tax increases on the grounds that its has been asserted that they “just don’t get it.”Obviously enough, saying “they just don’t get it” does not prove that a claim or view is in error.

This method can also be cast as a fallacy, specifically an ad hominem. The idea is that a claim should be rejected based on a personal attack, namely the assertion that the person does not get it. It can also be seen as a genetic fallacy when used against a group.

This method is also sometimes used with the intent of showing that a view is correct, usually by claiming that someone (or some group) that (allegedly) disagrees is wrong. For example, someone might say “liberals just don’t get it. Raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.” Obviously enough, saying that someone (or some group) “just doesn’t get it” does not prove (or disprove) anything. What is needed is, obviously enough, evidence that the claim in question is true. In the example, this would involve showing that raising taxes on the job creators hurts the economy.

In general, the psychology behind this method seems to be that when a person says  (or hears)”X doesn’t get it”, he means (or takes it to mean)”X does not believe what I believe” and thus rejects X’s claim. Obviously enough, this is not good reasoning.

It is worth noting that if it can be shown that someone “just doesn’t get it”, then this would not be mere rhetoric or a fallacy. However, what would be needed is evidence that the person is in error and thus does not, in fact, get it.

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Are NASCAR Drivers Athletes?

Shot by The Daredevil at Daytona during Speedw...

Image via Wikipedia

A while ago I got into an argument over whether or not NASCAR drivers are athletes. This argument was caused by NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson being nominated for male athlete of the year.  I am with Golden Tate on this matter: NASCAR is hard, but the drivers are not athletes.  However, fairness requires that I actually make a case for my claim.

Before getting to the main event, there is the question of why this matter is even worth considering. After all, why should anyone care whether NASCAR drivers (or anyone else) are considered athletes or not? One reason (which might not be a good one) is a matter of pride. Athletes often tend to regard being athletes as a point of pride and see it as being an accomplishment that sets them apart from others in this area. As such, they tend to be concerned about what counts as being an athlete since this is supposed to be an earned title.

To use an obvious analogy, consider the matter of being an artists. Like athletes, artists often take pride in being set apart from others on the basis of being artists. It matters to them who is considered an artist. Sticking with the analogy, to many athletes the idea that a NASCAR driver is an athlete would be comparable to saying to an artist that someone who does paint-by-number “art” is an artist.

Naturally it could be argued that this is all just a matter of vanity and that such distinctions have no real significance. If NASCAR drivers want to think of themselves in the same category as Jessie Owens or if paint-by-number folks want to see themselves keeping company with Michelangelo, then so be it.

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

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

One obvious starting point is the matter of competition. Athletes typically compete and NASCAR clearly involves competition. However, being involved in competition does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for being an athlete. After all, there are many competitions (such as spelling bees) that are non athletic in nature. Also, there are people who clearly seem to be athletes who do not compete. For example, I have known and know many runners who never actually compete. They run mile after mile and are in excellent shape, yet never enter a race. I also know people who practice martial arts, bike, swim and so on and never compete. However, they seem to be athletes. As such, this factor does not settle the matter. However, the discussion does seem to indicate that being an athlete is a physical sort of thing, which does raise another factor.

When distinguishing an athlete from, for example, a mathlete, the key difference seems to lie in the nature of the activity. Athletics is primarily physical in nature (although the mental is very significant) while being something like a mathlete or chess player is primarily mental. This seems obvious enough to not require any debate. However, the nature of the physical is a matter of legitimate debate.

NASCAR clearly requires physical skills and abilities. The drivers need good reflexes, the ability to judge distances and so on. These are skills that are also possessed by paradigm cases of athletes, such as tennis players and baseball players. However, they are also skills and abilities that are possessed by non-athletes. For example, these skills are used by normal drivers and people playing video games. Intuitively, I am not an athlete because I am able to drive my truck competently nor am I an athlete because I can play Halo: Reach or World of Warcraft with competence. Specifying the exact difference is rather difficult, but a reasonable suggestion is that in the case of athletics the application of skill involves a more substantial aspect of the physical body than does driving a car or playing a video game. A nice illustration of this is comparing a tennis video game with the real thing. The tennis video game requires many of the reflex skills of real tennis, but a key difference is that in the real tennis the player is fully engaged in body rather than merely pushing buttons. That is, the real tennis player has to run, swing, backpedal and so on for real. The video game player has all this done for her at the push of a button. This seems to be an important difference.

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

Getting back to the specific matter of the NASCAR drivers, I am inclined to say that what they do is closer to what video game players do: they use a machine to do the actual physical work for them. As such, I would say that they are no more athletes because they race cars than someone is a soldier because he plays Call of Duty.

At this point a natural objection is to point to sports that involve the use of machines. One rather obvious example is cycling. On the face of it, cyclists like Lance Armstrong are clearly athletes. However, they make use of machines to multiply their efficiency.

Fortunately, this objection is easy to handle. While cyclists and others do use machines, these machines are not powered. The athlete still has to provide the physical effort to make it work and, as such, a cyclist is not just pushing buttons and letting the machine do all the work. In the case of NASCAR, the driver is guiding the car around the track, but the car is doing all the actual physical work. With the right technology, the driver could be a brain in a box, “driving” the car with mental impulses. This would involve the same basic skills and nicely shows the extent to which the physical body  is a key component of NASCAR. In contrast, a brain in a box could not be a runner or a football player. True, it could be given a robot body-but it would still not be an athlete.

It might be objected that it is the skill that makes NASCAR drivers athletes. However, the skill set seems to focus on operating a powered machine. Operating complex industrial equipment, programming a computer or other such things also require skills, but I would not call a programmer an athlete. Nor would I call a surgeon an athlete, despite the skill required and the challenges she faces trying to save lives.

I would, however, compare NASCAR drivers to sports fishermen and would classify them as sportsmen (or sportspeople to avoid being sexist since there are women drivers including one who was named the sexiest athlete by Victoria’s Secret). This is a worthy title and one that the NASCAR drivers should proudly accept.  Lest anyone think I am being sarcastic, I am not. What they do is hard and does require a degree of skill that I certainly do not possess. However, they are not athletes.

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Practical Metaphysics: The Case of Mind-Body Dualism

Metaphysics is unavoidable in human life and metaphysical assumptions predate rational self-conscious reflection. Though most people spend little or no time pondering metaphysical questions as such, there is no one who does not adopt one metaphysical stance or another. What I mean by a metaphysical stance is a position that assumes certain realities that go beyond empirical tests and all possible observations. These assumptions have practical consequences for the way a person experiences the world and projects him or herself into it. It is part of our ‘being in the world’. Philosophers, of course, have explicitly considered metaphysical questions. What is Being? Reality? Metaphysical Substance? How are appearances related to what is? How do reason and logic function in arguing metaphysical theories?

One unavoidable metaphysical concern is the problem of mind-body dualism. The ancient Western philosophical tradition largely treats mind and body as separate, though the concept of ‘mind’ is modern. The ancient distinction is between body and soul. Bodies can disintegrate, but souls move on to whatever awaits them after leaving the body. Some are described as going to Hades as gibbering shades, some to the Blessed Isles, others to the River Tartarus, Heaven, Hell or Paradise. Some are said to pass from body to body in successive reincarnations. Can we prove that such views are logically impossible?
Other-worldly religions perpetuate a commitment to metaphysical dualism for the simple reason that if this were not true, then there would be no ‘other world’, no afterlife, no other body to inhabit. Dualism is an unavoidable metaphysical view for those who believe and have faith in the existence of life after death. It is right that believers in the afterlife speak of belief and faith, because no metaphysical view can be proved beyond doubt.
Descartes provoked the modern problem by casting the mind-body distinction as one between Divinely created secondary metaphysical substances. This idea permitted the continuance of mental life beyond the destruction of the body. He deferred to revelation at the cost of logical consistency in his philosophy. Today’s debate about mind-body dualism takes up a naturalistic rather an a religious perspective. From this perspective, dualism can hardly be understood.
Sometimes a gap opens up between one metaphysical orientation and another. People looking at each other from opposite sides of this gap, over time, start speaking, as it were, different languages. We really stop being able to understand one another. It is like the lack of understanding we find in two intransigent ideologically-minded political parties. At this point, argument loses its grip. It is useless to attack someone who is not standing on the same metaphysical ground as oneself. The best we can do is to profess ignorance of metaphysical matters and start asking questions about the different views and their practical implications.
The situation is complex, but the basic idea is that the rejection of metaphysics is itself a metaphysical position. Even my own non-dogmatic skepticism is a profession of faith in the benefits of lightening the load of beliefs I carry. There are still plenty of things that I believe provisionally on the basis of experience, but I do not have to go on to make a leap of faith to one of the alternative metaphysical narratives that history has thrown my way.
To conclude, let us return to mind-body dualism. Accept it or reject it, one is willy-nilly entering into a personal contract with a metaphysical view. Furthermore, no matter what view is adopted, it will have practical consequences and affect one’s life and lived experience. So, from the naturalistic position of most Western university philosophy departments, what is the practical consequence of dropping mind-body dualism? The main one is that we will no longer be able to speak of mind continuing after the end of the body.
Accepting dualism, on the other hand, which it is always possible to do with faith and belief, legitimizes one or another of the myriad narratives that deal with the next life. For many believers, there is a heavenly judge who sees how law-abiding one has been. However, one’s consciousness changes upon the thought that one is being observed. In one story, Saint Peter is always looking on, never sleeping, recording in his book one’s good and bad deeds and intentions. This puts a burden on those who accept mind-body dualism that is absent from those who do not. I hope this shows that practical metaphysics is not a contradiction in terms, but a necessity. It is best to be actively conscious of the role that practical metaphysics plays in all our lives.

Diablo III Selling the Fake for the Real

Diablo III

Want to buy a sword?

While Diablo III will not be released for a while, it is already generating controversy. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the demons in the game but with certain features of the game. In a previous post I discussed the matter of Blizzard requiring Diablo III “owners” to be online in order to play the game. In this post I will discuss the auction house.

One new feature in Diablo III is the game’s auction house. While auction houses are nothing new in games (World of Warcraft and other MMOs feature them), what is somewhat new is that players can auction game items to each other for real money. As with a real auction house, Blizzard gets a fee with each transaction. There is also apparently a fee for cashing out the money for real money (but no fee for using the money to buy Blizzard stuff, such as games and in game items).

The selling of fake stuff for real money in games is also not new. Second Life has its own economy as do other games/online worlds. However, most of these involve participants selling virtual things they have made.  In such cases, the selling does seem to make sense. For example, if Bill designs an elaborate virtual house and sells it to Sally, this seems comparable to Bill selling Sally a drawing or photograph. However, in Diablo III, players will be selling loot that randomly drops from monsters which does raise a question about justifying paying cash for such items.

The obvious way to justify this is to argue that while the players did not create what they are selling (it is not like selling a drawing), they did put in the time playing the game to get the item. Of course, luck is also a factor-the loot drops are random, so getting good stuff that people will buy is both a matter of time and luck. As such, these transactions could be seen as comparable to the way prospectors found and sold random bits of gold or other valuables and then sold them. While the prospectors sold physical objects, the value of a flake of gold or a magic sword seem to be primarily in the mind. As such, there seems to be no problem with the selling of “fake” stuff.

One point of concern is that Blizzard would seem to be using players as laborers who mine Blizzard’s game for random items to sell to other players. Blizzard profits from selling the game and also profits from the game’s real money economy. This, some might contend, seems a bit shady. The obvious reply is, of course, that participation is voluntary: players do not need to buy or sell. Also, the players have a chance to make money while doing something fun-which makes this way better than most jobs.

Another point of concern is that this real money auction house will encourage hacking and item farming. Of course, the hacking is mainly Blizzard’s problem-unless people “hack” by stealing from players (as happens in Warcraft). Item farming is, fortunately, not a big concern. Unlike World of Warcraft, you can play Diablo III alone or just with friends. Hence, you do not need to worry about farmers showing up to ruin your game by grabbing up all the monsters. Also, by having a legitimate and controlled means of selling items, the auction house bypasses the black and gray markets that have grown up around MMOs. So, for example, rather than players giving their credit card numbers (or game account information) to people selling gold or leveling, players can just buy stuff through Blizzard’s auction house.

A final point of concern is the ethics of buying items in terms of fairness and in terms of what some might call the spirit of gaming. Being able to just buy items with real money is not cheating in the sense of breaking the game rules (since it is part of the game), but could be seen as cheating in the sense of violating the spirit of gaming. Among those who might be derided as gaming purists, there is a view that items and advancement in a game should be earned in the game. To simply pay cash is cheating since it yields by cash what should be earned by effort. To use an analogy, if someone could just buy a bike and be able to use it in a 5K footrace because she paid for it, then even if this were in the race’s rules, it would still strike runners as a form of “sanctioned” cheating. This is because an increase in speed should be earned and not merely purchased. Likewise, in a game like Diablo III, players should “earn” that magic sword or armor in the game, rather than being able to gear up their character because they have access to mom’s credit card.

It is, however, worth considering that Diablo III is not really a competitive game and, as noted above, players can chose who they play with. Going back to the bike analogy, if someone wants to hold a private race(and the times do not count for records, etc.), in which participants can buy advantages with real money ,  then it should not really be a matter of concern (other than to note that it seems a bit silly to pay money for such an “advantage” in such circumstances) to people who are not participating in the event. As such, my considered view is that it is silly for people to spend real money on fake stuff and it does seem a bit shady. However, if people want to do this, then so be it.

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Diablo III & Ownership


Image by RVCA18 via Flickr

Like most gamers, I am looking forward to the release of Blizzard’s  Diablo III. However, also like most gamers, I have some concerns about certain aspects of the game. These concerns have nothing to do with the demons in the game-I’m fine with killing them. While discussing a video game would generally not be a very philosophical sort of thing, the game does raise some important general issues about ownership and fairness.

While Diablo II offered online play as a feature, it did not require players to be connected in order to play. This was, in part, due to the fact that Diablo II arrived on the scene before the days when people could be connected at all times and nearly all places. Diablo III, at least currently, requires that players be connected to Blizzard’s servers in order to play. The folks at Blizzard claim that this is to keep people from cheating in the game.

On one hand, the folks at Blizzard do have a point. People routinely hacked Diablo II to provide their characters with all sorts of goodies and this was made incredibly easy by the fact that character files were stored locally. On the other hand, if Diablo III is like Diablo III, then cheating is really not a point of major concern. In the Diablo genre the player and a few friends (or strangers) travel about in dangerous places (dungeons) and click on monsters until they die. While it is possible to fight other player characters, this was not a significant part of Diablo II and presumably will not be a big part of Diablo III.  Of course, this is from my perspective-I did know of some folks who were obsessed with battling other players (and cheating to win). In any case, Diablo III is not a MMO like World of Warcraft (so you do not have to share the game world with people you do not like) and it does not have (as far as I know) competing factions or battlegrounds intended for player versus player combat. As such, cheating does not seem like it would be a big deal-it is easy to avoid and would have no impact on your game, unless you allowed it by inviting cheaters into your game and decided to fight them.

What is most likely the real reason for the online requirement is, obviously enough, to deter piracy. While this is not a perfect defense against the theft of the game, it does make it somewhat harder. Blizzard does seem to have a right to protect its games from theft and the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who would claim that people have a right to avail themselves of other people’s work without paying for it. As such, I will not argue that Blizzard should not protect their product. However, the means does raise some concerns.

In the past, one important concern would have been the reliability and accessibility of the internet. However, this is not  supposed to be a major concern these days since the typical gamer will only be disconnected (yet able to play) during rare outages and when flying (and only during certain parts of the flight). Also, as the Blizzard folks have helpfully pointed out, there are many other games than Diablo III that people can play when they are not connected.

One legitimate concern is the matter of what the consumer is paying for. When I buy a MMO game like World of Warcraft I accept that it is part of the very nature of the product that I have to be online in order to use my purchase. To use an analogy, when I buy a phone I accept that I need to be connected to a network for it to function as a phone. that is how phones work. While Diablo III does support online play, it is not an MMO and hence does not actually require being connected to the internet for the game to function (aside from Blizzard making it that way). To use an analogy, it would be like a company selling an  MP3 player that only works when it is connected into the phone network owned by the company. While being connected can add extra features, there is clearly no reason why a MP3 player needs to be connected in order for the owner to play her music on it.

As far as why this should be a point of concern, consider the following. Suppose I buy an MP3 player. I can put my music on it and play it for as long as I own it. If the company tanks or if I am out in the woods, I can still use my purchase until it finally wears out. But, suppose I buy an MP3 player that refuses to work unless it can check in with the selling company. This means that if the company tanks, changes it policies, discontinues the product or if I cannot connect, then my MP3 player is just a paperweight. This certainly changes the nature of the product in important ways in terms of what I am buying and what I actually own. In the case of the first player, I am buying a device that I own and control. In the case of the second player, I am handing over money in the hopes that the company will permit me to keep using the product. While this can be an acceptable situation (after all, this is how MMOs and phone contracts work),these conditions should be reflected in the price of the product. After all, if a product can simply stop working because of some external factor, then this changes the value of the product.

In a second post I will address the other concern I have with the game, namely the real money auction house.

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David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

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While on a run in Maine, I happened to be thinking about the Is/Ought problem as well as fallacies. I was also thinking about bears and how many might be about in the woods, but that is another matter.

This problem was most famously put forth by David Hume. Roughly put, the problem is how one might derive an “ought” from an “is.” Inspired by Hume, some folks even go so far as to claim that it is a fallacy to draw a moral ought” from a non-moral “is.” This is, unlike the more common fallacies, rather controversial. After all, it being a fallacy or not hinges on substantial matters in ethics rather than on something far less contentious, like a matter of  simple relevance. While I will not address the core of the matter, I will present some thoughts on the periphery.

As I ran and thought about the problem, I noted that people are often inclined to make moral inferences based on what they think or what they do. To be a bit more specific, people are often inclined to reason in the following two ways. Naturally, this could be expanded but for the sake of brevity I will just consider thought and action.

The first is belief. Not surprisingly, people often “reason” as follows: I/most people/all people believe that X is right (or wrong). Therefore people ought to do X (or ought to not do X). For example, a person might assert that because (they think that) most people believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, it follows that it ought not be done. This is, obviously enough, the fallacy of appeal to belief.

The second  is action. People are also inclined to infer that X is something that ought to be done (or at least allowed) on the basis that it is done by them or most/all people. For example, a person might assert that people ought to be able to steal office supplies because it is something everyone does. This is the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice.

While there are both established fallacies,  it seems somewhat interesting to consider whether or not  they are potentially Is/Ought fallacies when they involve deriving an “ought” from the “is” of belief or action.

On the one hand, it is rather tempting to hold that they are not also Is/Ought errors. After all, it could be argued that the error is exhausted in the context of the specific fallacies and there is no need to consider a supplemental error involving deriving an “ought” from an “is.”

On the other hand, these two fallacies seem to provide a solid foundation for the Is/Ought error that is reasonably well based on established logic. This suggests (but hardly proves) that there might be some merit in considering the Is/Ought fallacy in a slightly different light-that it can actually be regarded as a special “manifestation” of various other fallacies. Or perhaps not.

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“Free” Birth Control

Picture Of Ortho Tri-Cyclen oral contraceptive...

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Starting in August 2012, most American health insurance will cover birth control and other preventative services for free. This is being required by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Not surprisingly, this has created some concerns.

One main concern is that this will result in an increase in premiums. After all, health insurance companies are in the business of making money and they will need to increase their income to offset the cost of covering birth control. Those who do not use this sort of birth control (men and some women) might regard this as unfair and wonder why they should have to pay a price for this new coverage. Those who have moral objections to birth control might also take issue with it being covered.

One obvious reply is that insurance already covers many things that many people will not use. One obvious example is Viagra. It is covered by insurance but is obviously not used by women and is also not used by many men who pay for insurance. Other obvious examples would be other sex specific medical procedures such as prostrate surgery and hysterectomies. If coverage of these things is acceptable (especially Viagra), then it would seem that covering birth control would also be acceptable. Of course, this does not address the moral concern.

While most people do regard birth control as morally acceptable, not everyone does and these folks might object to having it covered by insurance. This point has been addressed, at least to a degree:  the law makes an exception for religious organizations, most notable Catholic organizations. Interestingly enough, the majority of Catholic women and Evangelical Christian women claim to use birth control, despite the fact that the official religious dogma is against it. As such, some of these women will need to pay for their birth control (assuming their insurer is among the exempt). But such is the price of dogma.

Those who truly object to birth control and do not use it can, of course, try to acquire insurance through such organizations. That way they will not need to support, however indirectly, birth control. Of course, they will have to be careful to determine if the insurer covers anything else they might regard as morally offensive. For example, some people might find Viagra unacceptable.  If so, the only option might be to find a truly morally pure insurance company or (more likely) simply forgo insurance so as to avoid even the slightest connection with the morally distasteful.

Of course, some folks regard the coverage of birth control as an evil in and of itself and something that should be prevented. For these folks it is not enough to merely not buy insurance from the same company that provides coverage. These folks contend that birth control should not be covered at all.

One argument is the religious argument, or rather a limited religious argument. As noted above, the official Catholic position (which is relentlessly violated by Catholics) is against birth control. However, there is the obvious problem of making the dogma of one sect a deciding factor in the law of the land. As always is the case in such matters, I leave it up to God to show up at set the matter straight. Until then, of course, we’ll have to settle things by other means.

A second argument is that birth control is not a medicine in the sense that it does not treat or prevent a disease or other health threatening condition (with some notable exceptions). It does not, as Viagra proponents point out, restore a normal function of the body. Rather it simply does what the name states: it prevents (most of the time) pregnancy. As such, it can be argued that it should not be covered by insurance.

Viagra is, of course, covered by insurance. This provides a context in which an argument can be made for having insurance cover birth control. So, if Viagra is covered by insurance, then should birth control be covered?

The answer is clearly “yes.” One argument against covering birth control is that birth control is a matter of lifestyle choice and not (in most cases) a matter of health. Of course, this same argument could be applied to Viagra. Both Viagra and birth control seem to be lifestyle drugs. A person takes Viagra to be able to have sex and a person takes birth control to be able to have sex without becoming pregnant. In general, neither is needed for actual health. Unless, of course, one considers having sex to be important for health. If so, they are still on roughly equal footing.

It might be countered that Viagra is different because it simply restores a natural function that is lacking. In this regard it could be seen as analogous to a hearing aid or a pair of glasses. in contrast, birth control does not restore a natural function or correct a problem. It simply prevents a natural function from taking place.

This argument does have some plausibility. Naturally, the argument would justify covering birth control in the case of women who needed it for clear medical purposes rather than simply to avoid pregnancy. However, this would be a very small number of women.

It can be argued that insurance does cover treatments and medicines that are designed to enhance or preserve quality of life and that this would justify coverage of birth control. For example, a person might be on blood pressure medicine to keep her blood pressure from increasing further even though it is not currently high enough to be a significant danger. In the case of birth control, it could be argued that it is a medicine that enables a woman to maintain a desired quality of life. As such, it would be a preventative medicine. Of course, this would seem to imply that pregnancy is in the same category as diseases and such.

Another argument that can be employed is this: if Viagra is covered and it is justified because men should be able to chose to have sex, then birth control should also be covered because it enables women to chose not to become pregnant. If men need to have sex and hence Viagra should be covered, then women can argue that they also need to be able to avoid getting pregnant and hence birth control should be covered. This seems reasonable.

As a final point, it seems sensible and morally correct to have birth control covered. This coverage might help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus result in less costs (monetary and social). If so, covering birth control could turn out to be financially a good idea-even if premiums are increased, the overall costs might be lower. There is also the moral argument that reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies would create more happiness than unhappiness-and also perhaps reduce the number of abortions. Then again, maybe the coverage will have no impact-it all depends on how many women forgo birth control on the basis of cost.

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