Monthly Archives: May 2012

First Philosophy Shooter: Cartesian Apocalypse

The year is 2056. The majority of the world’s population has been deceived and enslaved by the virtual reality of the Evil Genius.  Only the mysterious Cartesian Circle has the will and the means to oppose the Evil Genius. Using advanced technology and theology, they resurrect the one man to ever face off against the Evil Genius: Rene Descartes.

In FPS: Cartesian Apocalypse you take on the role of Rene Descartes. Guided by the Panopticon, you use the power of philosophy (and lots of guns) to battle the tyranny of the Evil Genius. Your mundane arsenal is augmented by powers drawn from the great philosophers of history: the Socratic Method, the Platonic Form, the Inverted Spectrum, the Chinese Box, the Second Sex, Mad Pain & Martian Pain, the Will to Power, the Categorical Imperative, and more. Do you know how to save the world?




“Step over Diablo, there is a new Evil Genius in town!”
-A. Blizzard

“This game reminds me that the French once did real philosophy.”
-V. Quine

“It is imperative that you play this game.”
-I. Kant

“FPS maximizes utility. And destruction. Five stars.”
-J. Mill

“It is nothing, but what kick-ass nothing it is being.”
-J. Sartre

“F@ck Yeah!”

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Image representing Mark Zuckerberg as depicted...

Image via CrunchBase


While the economic meltdown did considerable damage, two interesting side-effects were that it led to serious consideration of economic issues and gave rise to a loose movement critical of business as usual. Not surprisingly, one core point of political and moral concern is the income inequality in the United States and other countries. While such inequality has always been present, what has made this an ever greater concern is that fact the disparity has significantly increased.

While income has been increasing in the United States, it has been especially great for the top 1%. Their after-tax income increased 275% from 1979 to 2007. This is in sharp contrast with the increase enjoyed by the other economic classes. The next economic class, the top 20% (excluding the top 1%) had a 65% increase in earnings. Those in the bottom 20% also saw an increase, but this was only 18%.

Given that all the classes saw an increase in after-tax income, it could be wondered why there might be any ground for concern. After all, if everyone is making more, then things would seem to be good.

The obvious reply is, of course, that while everyone is (on average) getting more, some people (the 1%) are getting very much more. In terms of income share, the lower 80% saw a decline of 2-3 percentage points while the folks in the top 20% enjoyed an increase of 10 percentage points (thanks mostly to the gains of the 1%).  This does seem to provide some grounds for concern.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine a business. Suppose that everyone got raises, but Sally(already the highest paid) got 275%, Bob 65%, and Sam 18%. While getting a raise is good (actually, being employed at all is good these days), Sam might have some concerns about why Bob and Sally got so much more. Bob would also probably be somewhat concerned about the fact that while he got more than Sam, he got far less than Sally. After all, such disparity does provide at least some grounds for worrying that something is not right. Perhaps, for example, Sally’s raise was the result of her connections and some (or much) of her increase was taken from what was actually generated by Bob and Sam.

However, Sam and Bob’s concerns could be unfounded. After all, each person might have received exactly the deserved raise. Perhaps, for example, while Sam was somewhat more productive, Sally was vastly more productive. Or perhaps Sally invented something that the company patented and was properly rewarded. As long as Sally exceeded Sam and Bob based on a legitimate standard or standards (such as productivity or inventing things), then the disparity could be reasonably  justified on the basis that it was earned fairly. This also assumes, of course, that Sally, Sam and Bob were working under comparable conditions. If, for example, Sally was given an abundance of assistance and support while Sam was required to do without, then this would be a relevant factor.

Turning back to the general income disparity, perhaps the 1% earned their 275% increase by simply outdoing the lower classes in ways that would legitimately justify the disparity. As might be imagined, there is considerable dispute over what justifies income. Fortunately, this is a relative situation in terms of comparing the classes. As such, whatever standards (such as productivity or inventiveness) that are used to justify an increase could be applied to all the classes (with some likely exceptions). As such, if the 1% did proportionally better than the 99% in terms of these standards, then the disparity could be justified. Provided, of course, that the conditions were comparable.

One common way to justify the disparity is to point to the massively profitable start up technology companies. These companies, such as Google, have created quite a few millionaires (and some billionaires). So, for example, it could be argued that someone like Mark Zuckerberg earned his billions through his efforts. In contrast,  it could be contended that the young people of Zuckerberg’s age who died in service to their country legitimately  earned considerably less (even taking into account the “free” funeral). After all, they could have created Facebook and become billionaires instead of going off to die in foreign lands. The same underlying principle would, of course apply across the board. For example, while Mitt Romney makes vastly more than most Americans, it could thus be asserted that he justly earned his large income. Those who elected to be firefighters, police, teachers, nurses, professors, electricians and so on also earn their money, but they justly earn considerably less. As such, the disparity is justified.

Of course, one might suspect that this sort of stock justification is circular. Those who make more income are justified in making more because they make more.  Likewise, the 1% are justified in their 275% increase because they made 275% more income. This seems to boil down to saying that they earn more because they earn more. This is like is like questioning a person who has taken a huge slice of cake and being told that her slice is big because it is a big slice. This sort of circularity fails to satisfy. What is needed is not just an appeal to the obvious fact that people who make more do make more, but rather some justification for the disparity.

One way to counter this is to argue that I have it wrong. The correct view, at least when it comes to earned income, is that people like Mark Zuckerberg generate vast amounts of money and hence are entitled to a significant cut of that money because of the value they generate. This is not, it could be argued, circular. It is like a cook who makes a bigger cake-his slice would thus be bigger. Those who do not create as much profit, such as Captain Jesse Ozbat (killed on May 20, 2012 at the age of 28) justly earn less. Sticking with the cake analogy, those who bake small cakes get smaller slices.

While this might seem to justify the disparity, it actually seems to simply reveal the foundation of the disparity. To be specific, the broader disparity exists (in part) because of the disparity in value placed on specific jobs. So, for example, Zuckerberg became a billionaire because of the way he was rewarded for what he does. Likewise for the millionaires Mitt Romney and Barrack Obama. Those who are mere teachers, professors, soldiers, electricians, plumbers, roofers, farmers and so on are rewarded to a vastly smaller degree because of the far lesser value placed on what they do. This disparity at the individual level obviously enough provides the foundation for the disparity that exists when considering the various economic classes in the United States. It is, I think, not unreasonable to inquire whether or not the value system that governs income is just or not. It might, of course, be quite just-but this is not something that can simply be assumed.

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Is Private Equity Bad?


An assortment of United States coins, includin...

An assortment of United States coins, including quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


As the 2012 United States presidential election approaches, the candidates, their minions and the “unaffiliated” super PACs have been laying out the lines of battle. Obama’s people have decided to make Romney’s time with Bain Capital a skirmish point and this has already generated considerable controversy.

One obvious point of moral concern is whether or not it is acceptable for Obama to make this an issue. After all, even one of Obama’s supporters, Cory Booker, called the attacks on Romney regarding Bain as “nauseating” and made an analogy between these attacks and the attacks on Obama for his association with Reverend Wright. Not surprisingly, when Romney’s people seized on this, Booker had to engage in a a step well known by most politicians, namely the back peddle. While this political dance is interesting, my main concern is with the ethics of the matter.

On one hand it can be argued that the attack on Romney (and on Obama) is actually a mere guilt by association fallacy. After all, the mere fact that Obama had some association with Wright or the fact that Romney worked at Bain does not automatically entail that the men are burdened with any of the views or misdeeds of those they associated with.

On the other hand, it does seem reasonable to consider a candidates past associations and past actions when engaged in assessing the candidates. Naturally, the past associations should be considered in the light of what has happened between then and now, but these associations can still be relevant. Provided, of course, that the connection is more than mere association but is actually a substantial connection.

Both Obama’s association with Wright and Romney’s association with Bain are in the past. After all, Obama broke with Wright and repudiated Wright’s controversial views. Romney no longer works for Bain. As such, it might be concluded that going after Romney in regards to Bain would be on par with going after Obama (again) in regards to Wright (which apparently was being planned).

However, there is a rather important difference. Obama is not pointing to Wright and claiming that his association with Wright is evidence of what sort of president he will be in his second term (although some opposed to Obama have tried to make that claim). Romney, however, has been claiming to be a job creator and a businessman and has pointed to his time at Bain as evidence for his claims. As such, Romney has explicitly defined his association with Bain and this would certainly seem to morally justify assessing his record at and association with Bain. To use an obvious analogy, if I claim to be qualified to be a professor because of my association with Ohio State (that is, getting my doctorate there), then it would reasonable for people to look into that association if they had doubts about my credentials and qualifications.  As such, it seems acceptable for Obama, his minions and his allies to bring up Bain.

One interesting turn in the struggle to define this skirmish has been an attempt to cast criticism of Bain as an attack on private equity in general, as opposed to specific criticism of Bain. This is, obviously enough, a smart rhetorical move. After all, if Obama can be cast as attacking private equity, he would lose this skirmish since private equity is generally seen as good in the United States. As such, Obama’s side is endeavoring to clarify that the criticism is being directed at the alleged “vulture” or “vampire” capital approaches of Bain (and Romney) and not an attack on private equity.

This general approach is reasonable in that it is clearly possible to be critical of a specific practitioner of something without being critical of the practice. To use an analogy, my being critical of a person who uses force to get the sex he wants does not entail that I am against sex. Likewise, being critical of the practices of a specific private equity firm does not entail that someone is against private equity. The person could be for private equity but against the (allegedly) harmful acts of a company. As such, Obama and his fellows can attack Bain and Romney without attacking private equity, just as they can be critical of Romney without being critical of all Mormons or all males. Obama and his allies can, and surely will, avail themselves of the wealth of soundbites created by Newt Gingrich to attack Romney’s Bain connection during his own ill-fated campaign. Newt, of course, has taken a somewhat modified stance on the matter since becoming a Romney ally.

Obviously enough, Obama and his allies will struggle to resist the Republican’s attempts to cast his criticism of Bain as an attack on private equity. This is because, as noted above, private equity is taken as an unquestioned (and perhaps unquestionable) good in the United States. Of course, this does not entail that it is, in fact, good.

Naturally, a reasonably good tale can be told in favor of private equity. After all, creating and expanding businesses is so expensive that people who want to “grow the economy” and become “job creators” (or expand their creation) need to turn to those with money to get things going. As such, private equity enables the funding of businesses and this has a variety of good consequences such as employment and the creation of goods and services. Private equity also enables certain people to enjoy rich financial rewards. For example, as Mitt Romney has pointed out, he is unemployed but still brings in about $57,000 per day thanks, in part, to his time at Bain. That said, it is obviously not all flowers and cake.

One obvious concern about the private equity system in the United States is that it is one of the cogs in an economic machine that has concentrated the wealth into a tiny fraction of the population and has resulted in considerable economic harms (unemployment, foreclosures, destruction of companies and so on). The obvious reply is that this is but one cog among many and, as supporters of private equity might note, it is hard to assign blame to one cog. It is also fair to note that private equity could be, like a gun or any other tool, morally neutral and its goodness or badness could simply be a matter of how it is used.

While it would certainly be interesting to see the candidates seriously debating the ethics of the mechanisms of the economic machinery it seems unlikely that this will happen. After all, as noted above, the debate is not whether private equity is good or not but whether or not Romney’s time at Bain grounds Romney’s narrative or Obama’s.

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Protesting Distance


A group of Anonymous protesters opposite the L...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In response to the NATO summit meeting in Chicago a diverse and large number of people took to the streets in protest. As is to be expected, the police also took to the streets to maintain order and to ensure that the people did not intrude on the meeting of the elites attending the event.

Obviously enough, the protesters generally wanted to get close enough to the summit so that their protests could be seen and heard by those attending. Equally obvious is the fact that the police were intent on preventing that from happening. In addition to the particular concern regarding this specific event, there is also the more general concern regarding how close protesters should be allowed to get to these sorts of events.

On the one hand, there are clearly legitimate grounds for keeping protesters a considerable distance from such events. The most obvious justifications are those based on security concerns. After all, not all protesters are peaceful and some of them might intend to have a go at those attending the event. There is also to concern that the ever-terrifying terrorists might use the protests as a cover for a terrorist attack.  Given the potential for such danger, keeping the protesters a significant distance from such events can be justified on both moral and practical grounds. In terms of the moral grounds, the justification would (presumably) be that the rights of the protesters to protest close to the event would be outweighed by the rights of those attending not to be harmed. Alternatively, this could be argued on utilitarian grounds: the harm done to the protesters is outweighed by the potential harms prevented against those attending the meeting. In terms of the practical grounds, it is clearly easier to maintain security by keeping what might be regarded as the public rabble away from those attending such events.

On the other hand, a case can be made that the protesters should be allowed close (or at least closer) to such events. One argument is that the protesters do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.

One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have  the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to shout protest slogans about NATO or taxes or whatever while occupying the public library. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest. To use another example, while people have a right to access public streets and sidewalks, it is one thing to be walking, running, biking or otherwise occupying these places as an individual and quite another to be occupying these places in a group that would stop traffic and impede travel.  As might be imagined, getting through crowds of protesters takes more time than driving streets that have been cleared of mere citizens. Such a delay would no doubt be annoying, even if one is in a limousine and has access to a car bar. As yet another example, the noise of the protesters might  interfere with the event, even through the soundproofing of a modern building. As a final example, those attending the event might find the protests upsetting or disturbing. After all, being accused (for example) of being a war profiteer or of destroying the middle class might cause the attendees some emotional disturbances. No doubt people attending such events would prefer a quiet event without anyone shouting such things at them.

This reply can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the right to quiet and free travel.  After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to allow protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd.

In the case of the NATO summit meeting, the protesters would disrupt things, but being closer to the event would not seem to cause significantly more disruption than being kept away from the event. While it is true that those attending the event will face some logistical challenges getting through the crowd, this could be managed. After all, the police in large cities routinely handle large events in which celebrities, athletes and so on need to be moved through large crowds (such as at concerts and sporting events). As such, it would seem that the logistics objection would not suffice to deny the right of a close protest.

There is, of course, some legitimate concern to protesters disrupting an event. After all, being a protester does not grant a person the right to override the rights of everyone else. Of course it is also true that attending an event and being a political or economic elite does not give someone the moral right to deny others their right to protest (although it certainly can provide the means to do so). Hashing this matter out requires a fair assessment of the legitimate rights of the protesters weighed against the legitimate rights of those being protested. In the NATO summit situation, it does seem that the protesters, at least those that are citizens of the respective states involved or at least affected by said states, do have the right to protest on the basis of their involvement in the issues at hand and to make their views on this matter known to those who make the decisions that impact their lives (and deaths). Given that mere citizens are typically not invited to such events, one of the few ways to express their views directly is via protest that can be heard and seen by the people being protested. This seems to be a rather important right, at least in states that purport to be democratic. After all, the vast majority of people do not have the money needed to hire lobbyists or create super PACS. As such, one of the few avenues of political expression left open is the protest and to impose on this right is to further dampen the voices of the people.

There is, of course, also the pragmatic concern that keeping the protesters at a “safe” distance from the elites by deploying riot police to beat down intruders serves to reinforce the impression of a truly sharp class division between the mere citizens and those who control things. Seeing riot police beating protesters like pinatas to keep them away from the rich and the powerful certainly does create an impression of real class warfare which certainly cannot be good for a state that purports to be a classless democracy.

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The Optimistic Directive

Neal Stephenson talking at the Boulder Book St...

Neal Stephenson talking at the Boulder Book Store at his signing of Anathem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Noted writer Neal Stephenson has argued that contemporary science fiction is too focused on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios. The current crop of such works, such as the Walking Dead,  are compared rather unfavorably to the hopeful view of the future that was supposed to be common theme in the mid twentieth century.

One obvious question is why this should be regarded as a problem. Stephenson, however, seems to see the current situation as rather problematic because he worries that the current crop science fiction lacks the optimism about the future needed to inspire scientists, engineers and others. To be more specific, if science fiction stories predict an apocalyptic world, then the readers will not be inspired to do things such as inventing space ships or solving the fossil fuel problem.

In support of his view, Stephenson points to an incident in which the president of Arizona State University and co-founder of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes  Michael Crow told him that science fiction writers have been “slacking off” and are thus (at least partially) responsible for the (allegedly) slow pace of innovation.  To address this problem, Stephenson created the Hieroglyph project which aims at getting science fiction writers to create inspirational works infused with optimism. The first work is supposed to be an anthology slated for a 2014 publication. As Stephenson puts it, “we have one rule: no hackers, no hyperspace and no holocaust.” Thus, there seem to be three main goals. First, to avoid “hacking”, which is just using old solutions as opposed to trying to create something new. Second, to provide optimistic inspiration (hence no holocaust). Third, to avoid any “impossible” or “magical” solutions to problems, presumably so that the inspiration will be focused on what is possible. As might be imagined, Stephenson raises some interesting matters for philosophical consideration.

One obvious point of concern is that dystopian science fiction is nothing new. A rather early work in this genre is Mary Shelley’s 1826 The Last Man.  In this book, humanity is beset by a terrible plague and the work ends in 2100 with one apparent survivor, the last man.  A somewhat later work is H.G. Well’s 1895 vision of the far future in the Time Machine. In this classic work, humanity is divided into the cannibalistic Morlocks and their beautiful (but ignorant) food, the Eloi. Jack London even wrote within the dystopian genre, producing a political  dystopia in his 1908  The Iron Heel (1908). Rather interestingly, London’s 1912 The Scarlet Plague is about a world wide pandemic which echoes the The Last Man. H.P. Lovecraft also presents a rather dystopian world during the early twentieth century-one in which humanity is supposed to ultimately be destroyed by Nyarlathotep. There are, of course, all the classic dystopian works such as 1984, Brave New World, and a Clockwork Orange.

Given that dystopian science fiction is a well established genre in science fiction, it seems somewhat odd to blame the alleged slowdown of innovation on the dystopian and nihilist science fiction of today. After all, if this sort of science fiction retards technological innovation due to its pessimism, then it would seem to follow that past dystopian science fiction should have been slowing down innovation all along. At the very least, it would seem to follow that it does not present a special problem now, given that it has been around so long.

One obvious counter is to claim that while dystopian science fiction has been around for a long time, it is only recently that it has come to dominate the fictional universe. To use an analogy, while there has been junk food for quite some time, it is only fairly recently that it has come to dominate the foodscape. Thus, just as obesity is now a serious problem in the United States, the retardation of inspiration is now a serious problem in science fiction.

As a science fiction fan (and a very, very minor writer), I am somewhat inclined to agree with this. In my own case, I find myself loading my Kindle with science fiction from the early to mid twentieth century and ignoring the new novels. In part, this is pure thrift-I can, for example, get H. Beam Piper’s works for free. However, part of it is because the new stuff seems to lack something possessed by the good old stuff. While I have thought about this for some time, I am beginning to suspect that my experience seems to match Stephenson’s: the new stuff generally seems to lack a certain thread of optimism that ran through the good old stuff-even the old dystopian stuff.

For example, consider Fritz Leiber’s 1960 story, “The Night of the Long Knives.” On the face of it, this story is dystopic and nihilist: the world has been devastated by a nuclear war, the survivors have divided into warring states, and the main characters are murderers. However, the story is oddly optimistic: some surviving scientists have created technological marvels and at the end the main characters struggle to free themselves of their need to murder. As another example, consider Asimov’s Foundation stories. While humanity builds a vast galactic empire, it falls into the long night and civilization all but dies.  The capital of the empire, Trantor, goes from being a metal encased super world, to a wrecked planet whose inhabitants subsist by selling the remains of the great civilization for scrap. However, there is still the Foundation (or, rather, two) that restores civilization and the original trilogy is thus ultimately optimistic. This is not to say that all the dystopian stories have optimistic aspects. In fact some of them are (or at least seem) unrelenting in their pessimism. There is, I think, nothing wrong with this. After all, not all good tales must have happy endings.

If, as a matter of empirical fact, the dystopian and the nihilistic dominates the current field of science fiction, then Stephenson could have a case. But, of course, making such a case requires drawing a connection between science fiction and technological innovation. Fortunately, this seems easy enough to do.

Many technological innovations can be traced back directly to science fiction stories and science fiction has been explicitly credited with inspiring many engineers and scientists. To use the obvious example, Star Trek has proven to be a major inspiration for technology as well as inspiring scientists, engineers and astronauts. A specific example is Well’s 1903 story “The Land Ironclads” in which he presents the tank. Naturally, there are also the contributions of Jules Verne. One could, in fact, fill a book (or more) with all the innovations that first appeared in science fiction (for good or for ill). In light of this, it would seem completely reasonable to accept a connection between science fiction and innovation. However, there is the question of whether or not the dystopian and nihilistic works would lack inspirational power.

On one hand, such works could provide ideas which would inspire later innovation. For example, a dystopian work could still include descriptions of interesting technologies or innovations that latter engineers of scientists might duplicate. There is also the possibility that such works could provide an inspiration in a negative way. That is, by portraying a horrific future a write could inspire people to try to avoid that possible future. To use the obvious example, the stories about nuclear war could plausibly be taken as motivating people to want to avoid such a way. Likewise, stories about pandemics could motivate people to develop the means to prevent them in ways that tales of a disease free future could perhaps not. After all, we can often be rather inspired by the threat of something awful. To use an analogy, a leader might inspire people by bringing to their attention the terrible consequences of failure.

On the other hand, works that lack optimism of the sort specified by Stephenson could very well fail to inspire, despite including interesting technology or providing a plausible threat. To use an obvious analogy, if a leader tries to inspire people by sharing an anecdote of failure (“and then everyone died a pointless death”), then this will hardly be motivational. That is, the bad can be inspiration, provided that there is a strong element of the possibility of the good. Works that lack this would, not surprisingly fail to inspire. One final point I will consider is whether science fiction writers have any obligation to write inspirational stories.

As might be imagined, it is easy enough to argue that writers are not obligated to create such optimistic novels. After all, it could be contended, writers should have the freedom to create works as they see fit and it is up to the writer whether or not they wish to present optimistic or nihilistic tales. Oscar Wilde, for example, would no doubt argue that writers should not be constrained by any such imposition.  This view is, of course, consistent with writers electing to produce optimistic tales and even working within the limits imposed by Stephenson in the 2014 book project. After all, if it is acceptable for writers to limit themselves to time travel stories for a time travel anthology, it seems equally acceptable for writers to limit themselves to the sort of stories required by Stephenson.

It is, of course, also easy to argue that writers should contribute to beneficial innovation. After all, being a writer does not seem to grant a person a moral exemption such that his or her actions no longer have moral consequences (including the consequences of the author’s writings). If a utilitarian approach to ethics is taken, then a fairly solid case could be made that authors should write such inspirational works. After all, if writing such works increases the likelihood of good consequences (such as developing clean energy or a means of replacing diseased or damaged organs), then it would seem that authors should write such books. After all, a failure to do so would result in a worse world.  Kant, given his view of the moral badness of letting one’s useful talent’s rust, would no doubt favor the writing of such positive fiction. This is not, of course, to say that writers should be compelled to write such works and the usual arguments for artistic liberty would have their normal weight here. Plato, of course, would be against the liberty of creating harmful works, but he might favor science fiction that yielded good results (after all, he did endorse the noble lie).

To close, writers should (obviously) be free to craft nihilistic dystopian hellscapes. But it would be nice to have a bit more optimism.

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The Story of Philosophy

Diogenes by Jules Bastien-Lepage

It would, of course, be vulgar to mention the fact that the book Jeremy Stangroom and I recently wrote, The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought, has just landed on the shelves.   So I’ll keep that to myself, and also refrain from mentioning that there’s a review by a fundamentally decent human being here.

But what I do want to consider is a question that arose quite often while writing it:  how much bearing should the lives of philosophers have on our interpretations of them?  In recounting the history of philosophy, you bump into a number of stories about philosophers.  It’s said that Thales fell into a ditch while stargazing.  Diogenes did some fairly revolting stuff in public.  Aquinas paced back and forth between scribes, dictating the lines of separate philosophical treatises to them at the same time.  Kant held carefully organized house parties, with time allocated to political discussion and the telling of amusing anecdotes.  Schopenhauer pushed a woman down a flight of stairs. Suicide runs in Wittgenstein’s family.

Take a second to get a feel for what you think about the value of biography when it comes to understanding philosophy.  I’ve got a view to push on you, but it won’t be interesting unless you’ve got a ideas of your own.

I used to think that whether or not biography matters depends on whether the philosopher in question waded into value theory.  Frege was an anti-Semite, but what bearing could that have on his work on logic?  Aristotle owned people, and maybe that matters when it comes to thinking through his ethics.

Ray Monk changed my mind on this, or at least made me think the question of the value of biography is more subtle than I thought.  In tpm 56, he considers a distinction, owed to James Conant, between two kinds of views on philosophical biography.  Reductivism is the view that if we learn enough about a philosopher’s life, we’ll know exactly why she wrote what she wrote, and finally achieve a real understanding of her work.  Compartmentalism is the view that biography is irrelevant to understanding philosophy.  I’d guess that most philosophers are compartmentalists – perhaps holding that the truth or falsity of a claim is independent of the person who makes it. Monk argues that both views are wrong, in a way, and so is the question that gives rise to them.  We shouldn’t wonder about the value of knowing a life in general.  Instead we should value biography that describes a life and work in an integrated, interleaving narrative.  ‘Catching the tone’, as he puts it, getting to know a philosopher better, can help us along in particular instances.  Not always, not never, but now and then, and in a certain, nuanced way.

His example is Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics.  Monk says that Dummett and Wright attribute to Wittgenstein full-blown theories of mathematics, but in doing this,

‘they were trying to force his work into a tradition that he himself loathed and thereby flying in the face of the spirit of Wittgenstein’s work.  I thought, that, if one understood what sort of person Wittgenstein was – what motivated him, what repelled him, what kinds of thing he treasured, to what he aspired, etc. – then one would stand a better chance of reading his work in the right way, just as when we know someone well we are more likely to interpret correctly the tone in which they speak, more likely to tell, for example, when they are being sarcastic.’

Monk goes on to consider the famous last sentence of the Tractatus: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.  If you’re of a certain frame of mind, you might take that as a solid bash at transcendental nonsense – and logical positivists did take it that way.  But you might also take it as being silent about something, reverential silence, affirming the existence of something transcendental.  Monk asks, ‘But how is one to tell the difference between a person who is being silent about something and another who is simply being silent?’  You’ve got to take the time to get to get know Wittgenstein.  So too, maybe I now think, with the other greats.

So which is it?  Are you a compartmentalist?  A reductivist?  Or is Monk right, and a grip on biography really is needed to help us, sometimes, catch a philosopher’s tone?

I have the horrible feeling that my reading list just got longer.  Maybe we’ve got some biography to read alongside philosophy, if we really want to get a handle on what philosophers think.

Sins of the Past



The Washington Post recently published a story about an incident that took place during Mitt Romney’s

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, 2008 US presidential candidate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

years as a high school student. According to the story, Mitt Romney took offense at the long hair of fellow student John Lauber. Lauber was apparently often teased for being a nonconformist and was apparently suspected of being a homosexual. After commenting on Lauber’s hair, Romney took action a few days later. He and some friends tackled Lauber and pinned him down. Romney then cut Lauber’s hair. Apparently no disciplinary action was taken against Romney.

Naturally, some folks pointed out that the story was published close to the time President Obama expressed his support for same-sex marriage and they speculated that the Post might have acted for political reasons. That is, the goal was to contrast Romney’s attack on Lauber with Obama’s enlightened stance on same-sex marriage. While such speculation is certainly interesting, my main focus will not be on whether or not the charge against the Post is true or even on the ethics of timing stories for political advantage. Rather, I will focus on the matter of the sins of one’s past.

Intuitively, under normal circumstances a person is morally accountable for his actions. There are, of course, clear and obvious exceptions to this. In the case of teenage Romney, he seems to be fully accountable for what he did-after all, he does not seem to have been coerced or compelled into this action nor does it seem to involve a situation in which his responsibility would be significantly mitigated. As such, it would be unreasonable to claim that Romney was not morally accountable for his actions.

However, it is fair and reasonable to counter this view with the obvious: Romney did this when he was a teenage male. Research on the teenage brain has confirmed what most people already knew: teenagers have poor impulse control and they think rather differently than adults. Stereotypically, young males are supposed to be even more prone to bad behavior. Thinking back on my own teen years, the research nicely matches my own experiences.  I can recall numerous instances in which either I or other people did rather stupid things. In some cases I was the perpetrator (like the time I whacked a friend in the head with a wooden flail and drew a lot of blood) and sometimes I was the victim (like the time I had my shorts ripped off and was forced to run back to the school wearing just a jock and my shoes). For those readers who are beyond their teen years, I suspect that the same is true.

While it is tempting to excuse Romney on the basis of his brain being immature, this does not seem to be enough of a basis to completely excuse his behavior. After all, having a teenage brain does not preclude a person from making sound moral judgments. It does, however, mean that teenagers are not as good at it as adults and hence should be held somewhat less accountable than adults. John Stewart Mill noted the difference between children and adults in his writing on liberty in regards to the ability to make decisions (which impacted the degree of liberty they should be allowed). From a moral standpoint (and also a legal one) it seems rather important to consider the extent to which an immature brain actually limits judgment and impulse control. After all, it is to this degree that children would be morally (and legally) excused in their actions. This difference is, of course, already recognized in the law: in general, children are not tried as adults and in the United States, there are juvenile courts just for kids.

As might be imagined, it is not currently known exactly how much impact the immaturity of the brain has on judgments and behavior. However, it does seem sufficient for my purposes to say that teenage Romney’s immature brain probably had some impact on his decision to attack Lauber, just as it did in my decision to whack my friend with a flail. However, it seems reasonable to claim that teenage Romney should not be held as accountable as an adult would be in similar circumstances. Likewise for the teenage flail wielding LaBossiere. I will admit that I am unsure of the degree to which accountability should be reduced, but it does seem quite sensible to hold children less accountable than adults and this should clearly extend to Romney (and me).

In addition to the question of the accountability of the moment (that is, how accountable a person is for the action at the time of the action), there is also the question of what the sins of the past reveal about the person of the present. In the case of Mitt Romney, the clear concern is what this incident from his teenage years tells the people of the United States about his fitness to be president. While Romney’s case is rather extreme, similar questions can be asked of each person. For example, what does the flail incident reveal about my fitness to be a professor of philosophy?

When assessing past incidents such as these in regards to current character, another important point of concern is the seriousness of the action. For example, the fact that I got into a couple minor scuffles in school does not show that I am a person of bad character now. As another example, if someone committed unprovoked murder as a teenager, then this would indicate that they could very likely be an evil person today.

In Romney’s case, the incident is somewhat serious. After all, he was involved in what would be considered assault and battery if an adult had done it. Likewise for the time I whacked my friend with the fail (or the time my shorts were stolen). As such, Romney’s incident and my own seem to be matter worth considering when assessing current character. While it rather oversimplifies things, it does make sense to say that we are what we did. That is, that the person I am now is the result of what I did in the past. Because of this, my past actions (and anyone else’s) would thus be relevant to assessing who I am now.

But, of course, there is also the obvious fact that a person is more than just a mere sum of past actions. These actions impact the person and what a person does can, in fact, result in a change so that they would no longer do what they once did. That is, people can change for better (or worse). As such, it would not do to simply look at a specific incident and take it to define the person of today. Rather, it must be taken in context of the person’s life. How a person responds to the past action also seems rather relevant to determining the person’s current character.

In my own case, and the case of my friends, we generally managed to become decent adults. While I whacked my friend with a flail, I grew up to be a rather calm professor of philosophy. My friends turned out rather well, too.  Naturally, I remember the flail incident (and others) very well and I feel rather bad about what I did. This is one reason why I became the calm philosophy professor I am today who has little inclination to strike people with a flail. As such, the flail incident does not show that I am currently a person of bad character.

In the case of Romney, there is currently no evidence that he is now prone to attacking people and cutting their hair. That is, he does not seem to be a bully. What is, however, somewhat worrisome is that he initially denied remembering the incident in question.

On the one hand, a case could be made that Romney honestly did not remember. After all, people forget things. No doubt there are some rotten things that I did as a kid that I have forgotten that other people (such as my parents or sister) remember quite well. Perhaps Romney honestly did not remember. Naturally, some folks might see this as a sign of bad character in that the attack on another person did not make enough of an impression to remain in his mind. After all, I vividly remember hitting my friend with the flail. Of course, I am younger than Romney, so perhaps my memory has yet to fade.

On the other hand, a stock tactic for politicians is to claim they do not remember an incident in which they (allegedly) did wrong. This always strikes me as an odd tactic, especially when there is adequate evidence for the incident and the incident is such that someone should remember it (barring mental deterioration). A claim to not remember a misdeed certainly says something about a person’s current character. Admitting to the misdeed, showing remorse and an improvement in character is, I would contend, says something far better about a person. Unless, of course, it is just a clever move to look good. Perhaps Romney deserves at least some credit-after all, he did not engage in an insincere theater of contrition act.

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Secularism, priorities, Islam, and Waleed Aly

What follows here after some introductory paragraphs repeats almost verbatim a post that I published over on my personal blog back in 2007. Now, my thinking has moved on a little bit since then, and you will see a slightly different formulation and emphasis in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: I am less enthusiastic, for example, about the word “religionist” than I once was, and I would no longer be so quick to dismiss the word “Islamophobia” as merely stupid (I discuss the issue of “Islamophobia” in the book). But what I have to say in the 2007 post, responding to some views of Australian moderate/liberal (I guess) Muslim author Waleed Aly, still strikes me as about right and as fairly clear. Aly questions why we should want a separation of church (or mosque) and state, and is sceptical that there is any basis for such a principle in modern democracies. Should we agree with him?

In developing his views, Aly uses arguments that should, I think, cause us concern. But reflection on this also raises more general questions about the priorities and motivations of secularists. In researching Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I was struck by how many supporters of a church/state separation do not share my suspicion of using state power to enforce religious morality. For me, this is a priority – indeed, a higher priority than some other concerns that perhaps are clearer examples of church/state entanglement but are less oppressive (I have in mind, for example, the established churches of Europe). For some of us, at least, the greatest fear in contemporary circumstances is not that we will be required to put up with or take part in religious ceremonies and the like; rather, it is that politicians who are able to command electoral support will bring their religions’ doctrines, particularly those doctrines relating to canons of conduct, to the table of ordinary politics, and attempt to impose them on an unwilling minority.

These issues are always important, and my return to them is provoked by, among other things, the appointment of a new Executive Director at the Secular Coalition for America – a person whose priorities might be rather different from mine, judged by her interviews so far. So permit me to return to this via my reflections on Aly’s sceptical rejection of a separation between religious doctrine and government…

In People Like Us, Waleed Aly spends a whole chapter attacking the idea of a separation of Church and State, and defending Islam from the charge that it is incompatible with secularism. He argues that the separation of Church and State makes no sense from a Muslim perspective, because Islam (or at least Sunni Islam) has no established hierarchy that could be called its “church” and no official doctrine that it could impose through the powers of the state. He is scathing about secularists in a way that I find disquieting.

He describes an occasion when he spoke on a panel and was subsequently asked by a number of audience members who pressed him on his attitude to the separation of Church and State. He found the whole idea confusing, thinking it sufficient that if a politician brings specifically religious moral attitudes that are out of touch with the mainstream, then he or she will be electorally punished. In other words, democracy is the cure for any untoward imposition of religious doctrine and morality through state power.

Of course, audience members found this unreassuring, and it’s no wonder that a number of them kept pursuing the issue (evidently with mounting frustration at his seeming obtuseness). Later, Aly spoke to one of his interlocutors but evidently still gave her no real reassurance.

What is surprising is that Aly never mentions Locke or Mill in his discussion of all this, and never discusses the principles on which a liberal state – such as Australia – stands. He imagines that the phrase “separation of Church and State” is all about struggles between kings and popes – issues that are of no interest to anyone in the contemporary context. He genuinely seems to have no understanding of what is really at stake in this discussion.

The question is not about kings and popes (though it is certainly relevant to the temporal ambitions of the current pope). It is about how religionists of any stripe can reassure the rest of us that they will not use the coercive power of the state to impose their contentious (and, let’s face it, usually miserable) moral doctrines, should they come to command an electoral majority. We are concerned about the tyranny of the majority, not about the attempts of a minority to bring others into line … for which political hubris the remedy would, indeed, be an electoral one.

Of course, it does not matter whether or not what is being imposed comes from a literal “church”. The fear is that politicians who are able, somehow, to command an electoral majority will bring their religions’ doctrines to the table and attempt to impose their doctrines on an unwilling minority. This is something that we have good reason to fear. Islam, of course, is a minority religion in Australia, but it may well become more popular in the future and meanwhile there could easily be cases of Muslims entering into alliances over particular issues with other religionists. Aly’s interlocutors obviously wanted to be reassured about all that, and Aly failed to say anything helpful.

Unfortunately, the impression has been created by many Muslim leaders that Islam seeks to control all aspects of individuals’ lives and does not shrink from using secular power to achieve its aim. We are all well aware of extreme examples in recent history, such as Afghanistan under the benighted Taliban regime. Until that fear is laid to rest, it is quite rational for the rest of us to fear Islam’s political ambitions – which is one reason why the word “Islamophobia” is so stupid. A phobia is an irrational fear, but secular Westerners actually have perfectly rational reasons to be at least wary of Islam, as Aly himself fully appreciates and acknowledges.

It’s true, of course, that religionists – Muslims; Christians; Hindus; fire worshippers; devotees of Thor, Aphrodite, Baal, or Quetzalcoatl; or whatever – often feel that their religious identity is something “given” rather than chosen, and somehow essential to them. It is not possible for them simply to leave it behind like checked-in luggage when they enter the public sphere.

Fine. That’s understandable, but it raises the bleak possibility that they will use the public sphere as a means by which to impose religious doctrines, or specifically religious morality. Some may even see nothing wrong with this – and those are the people whom we have every cause to fear. If the Quetzalcoatlists or the Thorians take this stance, then they stand outside of the Enlightenment compromise … and just as they can give no guarantee of tolerating the rest of us if they come to wield the coercive power of the state, they have no claim to toleration by us. If that is their attitude, they are outside the Lockean circle, beyond the pale of liberal tolerance.

However, it’s way, way, premature to conclude that Islam falls into such a category. As I’ve written in earlier posts, Locke thought that atheism and Roman Catholicism were beyond the pale, but this has turned out not to be true – atheists can be peaceful and honest citizens as much as anyone, and while the current Catholic leadership appears less and less interested in the Lockean concept as it is understood today, and more and more inclined to impose its views by force of law where it can, Catholics have also made good citizens. The expansion of the circle of liberal tolerance to include a wide range of religious and non-religious worldviews has been a great success story in Western history. There is every reason to think that almost any religious sect can come to value the political benefits of voluntarily joining the circle.

So what should Waleed Aly have said?

Well, he could have said something like this:

“I cannot guarantee that I’ll come to the political table setting aside my identity as a Muslim. But I can guarantee you this much: from within my understanding of Islam, I accept the political values of individual liberty and religious tolerance. I do not make the Christian distinction between Church and State, but I realise that what you are really concerned about is whether I understand that I am living in a liberal society and whether I accept the distinction between sin and crime. Yes, I do understand and accept those things. From within my own view of the world, I can see the necessity for tolerance of all views that advocate reciprocal tolerance. I also accept the political need for something like John Stuart Mill’s harm principle (we can discuss the details of the ‘something like’, but I am not using weasel words). I can say unequivocally that it would not be my intention to prohibit behaviour merely on the ground that it is theologically wrong in my understanding of Islam. I will look for clear secular harm before I invoke the might of the state in an attempt to restrict liberty. I will not invoke the superiority of a way of life that is favoured by Islam, and I will respect the right of others to pursue their own conceptions of the good, however foreign to Islam’s values. Nothing in my understanding of Islam prevents me acting in accordance with those liberal political values, knowing that I live in a liberal country.”

I have hopes that Aly could give that undertaking – or something very like it – sincerely. Elsewhere in his book, he shows that he does value religious tolerance and does understand the distinction between the theological notion of sin and the secular political notion of crime. Many liberal Muslims, perhaps most, could probably give such an undertaking – perhaps with more sincerity than some Christians.

That is what we need from religionists when they enter the public sphere. When Aly was grilled by the audience at his panel session, that is all he need have said.

It would be reassurance enough.

For Better or Worse Reasoning

My tenth Kindle book is out, For Better or Worse Reasoning: A Philosophical Look at Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage.

It is the usual 99 cents in the US and the equivalent in dead parrot jokes in the UK. It is also available on all the Amazons(aside from the river and the women), but I am too lazy to copy-paste them all in.

As a special bonus for readers of this blog, you can get it for free from May 14 to May 18, 2012 (US dates).

This concise work is aimed at presenting a logical assessment of the stock arguments against same-sex marriage. While my position is in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, I have made every effort to present a fair and rational assessment of the stock arguments against it.

The work itself is divided into distinct sections. The first section provides some background material regarding arguments. The second section focuses on the common fallacious arguments used to argue against same-sex marriage. The third section examines standard moral arguments against same-sex marriage and this is followed by a brief look at the procreation argument. The work closes, appropriately enough, with a few modest proposals regarding marriage.


  • Arguments
  • “Argument” Defined
  • Varieties
  • General Assessment of Arguments
  • Fallacies
  • Stock Fallacious Arguments against Same-sex Marriage
  • Appeal to Tradition
  • Appeal to Belief
  • Appeal to Common Practice
  • Slippery Slope
  • Weak Analogy
  • Non-Fallacious Arguments
  • Intuitions & Definitions
  • Appeal to Intuition
  • Argument by Definition
  • The Religious Arguments
  • The Moral Arguments
  • Homosexuals are Immoral Argument
  • The Unnatural Argument/The Natural Argument
  • Appeal to Consequences
  • The Sanctity Argument
  • The Procreation Argument
  • Marriage: A Few Modest Proposals
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Amending Marriage


Same Sex Marriage

Same Sex Marriage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


While some States in the United States have passed laws allowing same-sex marriage, other states have passed laws to ban it. Some states have even taken an extra step by amending the state constitutions to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. On May 8th, 2012 North Carolina voters went to the polls to decide whether or not their state constitution would be amended to “defend” marriage. While this matter is interesting from a legal perspective, my main interest is from a philosophical perspective, mainly regarding the quality of the arguments in favor of such restrictions on marriage as well as their ethics.

As I have done in other essays on the subject of same-sex marriage, I will quickly run through the stock fallacious arguments given for such laws. The first stock argument is that marriage between a single man and woman is a matter of tradition. This is, obviously enough, a fallacious appeal to tradition. The mere fact that something is a tradition hardly shows that it is right or correct. To use the usual counterexample, slavery was (and is in some places) a well-established tradition, yet this hardly serves to justify it.

A second fallacious argument is that marriage between a man and a women is what most people do, thus it is correct. In other words, it is a common practice and thus is right. Obviously enough, this is merely a fallacious appeal to common practice. There are, obviously enough, many bad practices that are quite common (like lying), but their being common does not make them good.

A third common fallacious argument is that most people believe that marriage should be between a man and woman. Even if it is assumed that this is true, this would still seem to be a fallacious appeal to belief. After all, the mere fact that most people believe something (like the earth being believed to be the center of the solar system) does not prove that it is true.

Now that the easy to dismiss fallacious arguments are out of the way,  I can look at some of the other arguments that have been presented in support of such laws.

One stock argument is essentially an appeal to religion, specifically Christianity (at least the versions that forbid polygamy). The argument typically goes that since God married Adam to Eve, this defines marriage in the biblical sense. Those with clever wits often put it more rhetorically by saying that it was “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Since marriage is defined by the Christian faith as between one man and one woman, that is what the law should be. As might be imagined, there are many problems with this.

One obvious legal problem is that to the degree the proponents of such laws claim that it is based on a specific faith, they are in danger of violating the first amendment of the United State constitution, namely the bit that “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While I am not a constitutional lawyer, I would suspect that a plausible case could be made that creating a law explicitly based on a religion does involve the establishment of a religion. In addition to the obvious legal problems, there is also the moral concern regarding the imposition of a specific faith’s values upon the population as a whole. This would seem to be a clear and direct violate of religious liberty and thus would seem to be morally unacceptable.

A second obvious problem is that basing the law on a religious view would seem to require that this view be established as correct. After all, if it is claimed that marriage is such that it can only between a man and a woman because of what God wants, then it needs to be established that God exists and that this is what God, in fact, wants. Otherwise, the law would have no established foundation and would be as sensible as basing a law on a myth or fictional tale. Naturally, if it can be shown that marriage is between one man and one woman as a matter of metaphysical necessity, then that would nicely establish the foundation of the law. In fact, it would show that no such law would really be needed since no one else could, in fact, be married. To use analogy, we do not need laws that ban people from driving their cars faster than the speed of light-they simply cannot do this because of the nature of reality.

There are, of course, non-religious arguments for these laws. A rather common argument is that the laws are needed to protect the sanctity of marriage. The idea seems to be that allowing same-sex marriage would be harmful to marriage (and presumably the married) and thus, on the principle of preventing harm, same-sex marriage should be outlawed by a constitutional amendment.

One obvious point of concern is whether or not allowing same sex-marriage harms marriage and heterosexual couples. While, of course, it might upset them that people are doing something they do not like (getting married), that is obviously not sufficient justification. What would be needed would be objective evidence that same sex-marriage would do enough harm to marriage and married couples to warrant forbidding same sex-marriage. The evidence for this seems to be, obviously enough, sorely lacking and the burden of proof rests on those who would make an imposition on the liberty of others to show that such an imposition is warranted.

Intuitively, same-sex marriage would not harm marriage or married couples. After all, it is difficult to imagine what sort of damage would be inflicted. Would married couples love each other less? Would there be more cases of domestic violence or adultery? Would married parents be suddenly more inclined to abuse their children? None of this seems even remotely likely.

But, suppose it is assumed that marriage must be protected. If this is taken seriously, then it would certainly seem to follow that it would need to be legally protected from whatever might damage its sanctity. To use an analogy, laws to protect people from murder are not just limited to, for example, making it illegal to murder someone with aluminum baseball bat. Rather, it is the murdering that matters. The same should apply to marriage: if marriage must be protected by making it between one man and one woman, then surely it must also be protected against whatever would damage its sanctity. As such, it would seem equally reasonable to ban marriages involving any sort of person whose actions or nature might do damage to the sanctity of a marriage.

Intuitively, allowing immoral people to marry would seem to damage its sanctity. As such, people would need to establish their moral goodness before marriage and presumably any straying from the path of virtue (such as by having an affair or otherwise failing in their vows) would result in the marriage being suspended or even nullified. Naturally enough, people who intend to get married in the hopes of financial gain, from lust, or for any reason that would sully the sanctity of marriage would need to be prevented from getting married. Given all these dire threats to the sanctity of marriage, it would seem that if the matter is serious enough to warrant a constitutional amendment it would also warrant the creation of a full government agency to regulate and protect the sanctity of marriage. After all, if the defenders of the sanctity of marriage were content to merely prevent same-sex marriage, one might suspect that they were acting from mere prejudice against same sex couples rather than by a sincere desire to protect marriage. While this might seem as big government violating liberty, those supporting such laws will surely see that there is little difference between same-sex couples that they cannot marry because marriage must be protected and telling anyone who would violate the sanctity of marriage that they cannot marry. As such, more general restrictions on who can get married (such as people who are not morally good or who are not marrying purely from love) would seem no more (or less) unjust that preventing same sex marriage.

Naturally, being a person with a social conscience and a professional ethicist, I would be willing to accept the position of Marriage Czar and head up the Sanctity Defense Agency to ensure that marriage remains eternally pure and unsullied. No doubt I would have to spend most of my time dissolving existing pseudo-marriages, but I am sure people will thank me for this in the end.

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