Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Ethics of Spinions (Spinning Minions)

English: The CNN Center in Atlanta.

Being rather interested in politics, I spend a fair amount of time following the news of the day. Not surprisingly, I get to see numerous spinning minions (spinions) working their talking points. In the context of politics, a spinion is a person who takes on the role of presenting the talking points of the ideology being represented. In general, the spinion has two main tasks. The first is to make his/her side look good and the second is to make the other side look bad. Truth is, of course, not really a point of concern. Naturally, there can be spinions in other areas as well, such as business, religion and academics.

One somewhat interesting thing about spinions is that it is often rather easy to tell when a person is in spinion mode. In many cases, there seems to be a certain change in the facial expression, eyes and voice of the person as s/he begins to spin.  This reminds me of the fact that in the Pathfinder role playing game characters can use their perception skill to notice whether another creature’s will is not its own. That is, whether it is charmed, dominated or otherwise being controlled. Being a gaming nerd, I imagine the spinion look is what a person would look like in such cases. More scientifically, research has shown that the brain actually undergoes internal changes when a person is thinking about ideological matters: “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.” Given this, it is not surprising that a person’s external behavior would be altered in discernible ways when engaged in spinning behavior. After all, emotional changes are often manifested visibly in changes in behavior and voice. However, my main concern is not with spotting spinions (although there is probably some interesting research to be done here) but with the ethics of spinions.

When I observe spinions in action, what I mainly notice is that they relentlessly present their side in a favorable manner while being equally relentless in casting the other side(s) in a negative manner. In the context of United States’ politics, this spinning has reached the point that any concession to or positive view of the other side is regarded as traitorous. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke of Mitt Romney having a sterling business record, this created a bit of a political storm. I would present other examples, but they are rather rare-in these times it is almost unheard of for one side to say anything positive about the other.

Another disturbing aspect of the ways of spin is that truth and principle seem to be of little importance. Each spinion attempts to construct a narrative favoring his side and damning the other, warping and ignoring facts as needed. For example, the Republicans bashed Obama because the worth of the middle class fell on his watch but they conveniently ignored the fact that this worth had been falling since before Obama was in office. Similarly, the Democrats bashed Romney regarding Massachusetts’ economic woes while Romney was governor, conveniently ignoring facts that went against this narrative.

Needless to say, spinions seem to also have no qualms about making use of fallacies and rhetorical devices in the place of reason. To see this is the case, simply turn to the 24 hour news station of your choice and watch. You might want to have a book on fallacies on hand to catalog all the examples you will see. This is, of course, prudent of them: while it makes me sad, fallacies and rhetoric are far more effective than good reasoning when it comes to getting people to believe.

Grounding this behavior seems to be the idea that what matters is beating the other side. The view seems to be, as Hobbes would put it, that “profit is the measure of right.” This is perhaps most clearly put by Mitch McConnel, namely that the Republicans top priority should be making Obama a one term president. Rather than, for example, working hard to get us out of the depression. While Democrats are not as overt about this as their Republican associates, it is obviously still a factor.

As might be suspected, I regard the behavior of the spinions as morally dubious at best. After all, they engage in willful manipulation of the facts, they employ rhetoric and fallacies to sway people, they cannot acknowledge anything right or good about the other side, and seem to be solely concerned with achieving victory for their side (or the side that pays them).  This spinning has contributed to the high levels of polarity in politics and had made it rather difficult for issues to be discussed rationally and fairly. I would even go so far as to say that this has harmed the general good through its impact on politics. As such, the spinions are a source of considerable moral concern.

One rather obvious counter is that the job of the spinion is to do exactly what they do and this is a legitimate activity. While philosophers and scientists are supposed to seek facts and engage in good reasoning so as to determine what is most likely to be true, this is not the role of the spinion. Their role is rather like that of any spokesperson or advertiser, namely to sell their product and see to it that the competition does not succeed. This is not a matter of right or wrong and truth or falsehood. Rather it is a matter of selling product, be that product soap or a political party. This sort of selling is how the consumer market works and thus the spinions are acting in an acceptable way.

I do agree that parties do have a legitimate right to have people who speak in their favor and against their opposition. However, the spinions appear to present a danger to society similar to that of the sophists. That is, they seem to be focused solely on the success of their side rather than on what is true and good. Since the top spinions are routinely given time on national and worldwide television, they have a rather substantial platform from which to spread their influence. Spinions are often presented as commentators or panelists (and sometimes they are actually presenting the news) which, as I see, creates a problem comparable to allowing corporate spokespeople to advertise their products under the guise of being panelists or commentators. That is, the spinions often seem to simply be presenting political commercials for their side while not having these ads labeled as such. This can mislead people who might think that they are getting an objective report when they are, in fact, essentially just getting a political advertisement in disguise.

A counter to this is that the spinions are presenting the views and talking points of their respective sides and this is not advertising. After all, there will sometimes be opposing spinions spinning in opposite directions on the same panel or in the same segment. Further, the spinions are often presented as being spokespeople for specific parties or candidates.

One reply is that this is still like advertising. After all, networks are happy to sell time to competitors so that a viewer might see an advertisement for Coke followed by one for Pepsi. Also, while some spinions are identified as such, this is not always the case. As such, people do often get misled into thinking that what they are hearing is a matter of fact when it is, in fact, merely spin.

The obvious counter to this is that the spinions are protected by the right to free speech and hence are free to spin away even when doing so is detrimental to the public good and what they say is contrary to fact.

This, I will agree, is true-spinions do not lose their right to express their views (or the views they are paid to express) just because they are spinning. However, the news networks who enable them to spin (or even hire them to spin) are not obligated to provide the spinners with a platform or to let them operate largely free from critical assessment. Obviously enough, having opposite spinners spinning away is not the same thing as having critical assessment of the spin.  In fact, spinning is the opposite of what the news is supposed to do, namely present the facts objectively.  As such, there should be greater effort to contain spin and to ensure that spinners are clearly identified as such. Finally, what the spinions do is wrong-they should stop doing what they do.

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On Spontaneity and Hugging

Russell Blackford has flagged up an objection (here & here), which undoubtedly has force, against my hugging argument. Here’s my version of the objection.

Spontaneity, when employed kindly, is a good. If we overregulate social behaviour, then – by definition – this will lead to less spontaneity (and it will also have the effect of infantilizing people). The sort of cautionary principle I talk about is a form of self-overregulation, since its likely effect, if universalized, will be to undermine spontaneity, and, in a sense, pathologize forms of behaviour – such as hugging – that are themselves a good.

Okay, so let’s break down the argument to see if it flies (and I should say that I’m looking at my version of the argument here, not Russell’s, which might be a lot stronger, etc).

1. Is spontaneity, when employed kindly, a good? At first thought that seems an entirely plausible claim. But actually it disguises a lot of complexity. So, for example, maybe the claim is a counterfactual claim – a world with lots of spontaneity is better than a world with only a little spontaneity. Thing is, even if that’s true, it doesn’t show that spontaneity is good in and of itself, it merely shows that more often than not people get their spontaneous acts about right (and remember that it’s possible to employ spontaneity for kind reasons and get it wrong).

2. So is spontaneity good in and of itself? It’s quite hard to know what to make of this idea. Obviously there are large issues to do with how we want to define spontaneity (which I’m not going to get into). But I think I’d want to argue that it doesn’t make much sense to think about the value of spontaneity without focussing largely on outcomes. I don’t think it’s particularly counterintuitive to suppose that if a spontaneous act has a clearly bad outcome, then regardless of whether we think spontaneity if meritorious in and of itself, we’d judge the act as being unfortunate (albeit whether we thought the agent was culpable might depend on a lot of other factors).

3. If spontaneity is not good in and of itself (or not good enough), then the charge against overregulation must be that overall it reduces good outcomes. So, for example, in the case of my hugging argument, the charge would be that my self-overregulation leads to less good stuff (affection, warmth, intimacy) and perhaps more bad stuff (social wariness, nervousness, infantilization, etc). For that charge to be effective, then (1) it has to be empirically warranted; and (2) it has to trump other, at least partly non-consequentialist, moral concerns (particularly to do with the “rights” of individuals).

4. Is it empirically warranted – in other words, is it true that my cautionary principle if applied across the board would result in less good stuff and more bad stuff? Okay, so to recap, my cautionary principle, broadly speaking, holds that:

It is morally problematic to engage in physical contact that has a mild sexual dimension, and one should avoid in engaging in it, unless you have good reason to suppose that you have informed consent, which includes an awareness that the act has a sexual dimension (so de facto consent isn’t enough).

The first point to note is that in this context informed consent does not mean “no touching other people without asking first”, which is a ludicrous rule. It doesn’t mean this because informed consent can be implied. So the example I gave in my original posting was a couple who had been engaging in flirtatious behaviour, etc: in such a circumstance it is reasonable to suppose that de facto consent, which might merely be implied consent (e.g., through body language, etc), is informed consent vis-a-vis the sexual element of the physical contact.

It is also the case that informed consent can be implied by a couple’s shared history. Russell gives an example of a “treasured ex-girlfriend” at the end of his comment here.

And, of course, if physical contact is non-sexual – which might be the case in the sort of ritualistic setting Jean Kazez describes (though it might not be) – then there is (usually) no issue of informed consent over and above de facto consent. Moreover, this will generally be the case if a person is wired up in such a way that the the world is only minimally sexualized (because presumably they’re not going to experience a sexual frisson in the context of ostensibly non-sexual physical contact).

5. This all means that the set of physical acts where my cautionary principle might result in less good stuff and more bad stuff is far from being exhaustive of the set of all physical acts, which clearly lessens the force of the objection (but doesn’t by any means extinguish it).

6. Okay,let’s concede, for the sake of argument, the point that my sort of cautionary principle will result in less good stuff of a certain sort (affection, warmth, etc) and more bad stuff of a different sort (social wariness, infantilization, etc). Is that the end of the empirical argument? It isn’t, because if one is looking at consequences, one has to factor in that by no means everybody is comfortable with spontaneity, physical contact, familiarity, etc. This might be regrettable – in my view it is regrettable – but it isn’t trivial.

For these people, the knowledge that a cautionary principle is in play, together with its purported knock-on effect in terms of a decline of spontaneity, certain kinds of affection, etc., might be a relief. It might make them more likely to put themselves in potentially rewarding situations where they would otherwise fear – perhaps without justification (whether the fear is justified or not isn’t relevant from a strict consequentialist point of view) – they might be subject to unwanted physical contact (and don’t forget people can find it very difficult to say “No” – I find it difficult to say “No”.) For a certain subset of people, then, what would be the overregulation of social behaviour for most people, would be just the right amount of regulation.

This is not to claim that there is a balance here, but it is to claim it is necessary to weigh up the consequences of a decline of spontaneity, warmth, certain kinds of affection, etc, in both directions.

7. But let’s bite the bullet, and assume the consequentialist calculus comes out against my cautionary principle. Is this decisive?

Well, no it’s not, and it’s not decisive for one of the reasons that consequentialist arguments in general tend to run into trouble (and remember, we’re treating this as a consequentialist argument – see point 2). It isn’t clear that the “greater good” justifies potentially infringing on the “rights” of particular individuals. (I should say that I don’t like talk of “rights”, I can’t really make sense of it, but again for the sake of argument we’ll just go with it.)

In particular, it is at least arguable that people have rights against unwanted physical contact, regardless of what that means in consequentialist terms. So, for example, none of us are going to think that it’s okay to beat up on a person just in the case that it turns out that some large number of other people find it entertaining. (And yes, of course, there are layers and layers of complication here to do with the difference between act and rule utilitarianism, for example, and a lot of other things.) Likely, many of us won’t think this is justified even if the person being beaten up consents to their beating.

At the very least, then, there’s a tension between a concern with average outcomes and a concern with individual rights (and indeed there may be a tension between different sorts of individual rights).

In terms of my cautionary principle, then, there are two central issues (if we bite the bullet, and accept the consequentialist calculus comes out against the principle).

1. How careful do we need to be that we don’t infringe on people’s right not to be subject to unwanted physical contact (where the argument is that in the case of hugging de facto consent does not equate to informed consent)?

2. How do we resolve the tension between an interest in maximizing the good things in life (on average) and protecting individual “rights”?

I’ll leave those two questions for another time – or other people – because this has gotten too long and I’ve run out of steam. But just some very quick closing remarks. This issue is complex, and I’m largely making this stuff up as I go along (and yes, I’m sure that’s obvious). So it’s important to remember the position I’m arguing against here is my version of Russell’s objection. No doubt Russell’s take on his own position would be very, or at least somewhat, different, and I’m sure much better for it.

On Hugging

If you’re a woman I find attractive, and you want a hug, then I’m not your guy. (Yeah, I know, women the world over are currently sobbing into their pillows.) Here’s why.

I find you attractive. This means if you have your body up close to my body, I’m going to be aware that you’re a sexual being, that you’ve got curves and soft bits that I find appealing. (If you find that thought shocking, tough luck.) I know some men will tell you that they’re not aware of that sort of thing, and that their hugs are purely platonic, and it’s even possible some of these fellows are telling the truth, but I’m not one of these guys. I’m aware.

This brings the issue of informed consent right to the fore. I think it’s likely that most women would not want to hug me if they were fully aware of the nature of the psychosexual dynamic in play. But, even if that is not so, and only a few women would be deterred, a cautionary principle is in force: you have to be sure you have informed consent for close physical contact, especially if it has an attached sexual frisson, and given that people don’t tend to see hugging as being sexualized (and, yes, yes, I know, lots of people will claim that it is not – don’t believe them, I say), I don’t know that I have informed consent, so I can’t take the risk. This means I don’t hug women. (If you’re a man, it’s normally very easy to avoid being hugged. Body language is your friend. Also being a misanthropic recluse helps.)

A few points of clarification here.

1. Obviously, if you experience no sexual frisson when hugging somebody you find attractive, then there’s no issue here, assuming you have consent (however that is communicated). But don’t kid yourself about it just because you want to get your arms around somebody you find alluring.

2. I’m not talking here about men and women who are enjoying an encounter that is by its very nature obviously sexualized (whether it be a fleeting encounter or whatever) – then it’s a different ball game (because one can assume that both parties are aware of the sexual dynamic, etc). But again, don’t kid yourself about it just because you want to get a thrill.

3. There are some female friends I will hug (almost always at their instigation). But only if they know perfectly well that I find them attractive, and that I’m aware of their sexuality, etc. (Oddly enough, this knowledge hasn’t put them all off – hurrah!). Obviously, the better you know somebody, the more open and intimate your relationship, the more likely it is that this will be the case.

4. This is not a plea for a conservative sexual morality. As far as I’m concerned, the world would be a much better place if people were not hung up about sex and bodies and monogamy, and spent their time shagging left, right and center. But unfortunately we don’t live in that world, and informed consent is crucial – for Kantian reasons, if nothing else.

5. There are risks here of infantilizing women. I’m aware, of course, that women are quite capable of making their own choices about the people they want to hug. The worry here isn’t about women not being able to make choices. It’s about the possibility they don’t have access to all the information necessary to make an informed choice. Of course, it’s also true that people aren’t going to be naive about the dynamics in play here (and there will often be behavioural clues if a man is deliberately seeking a sexual thrill in a hug). But again, a cautionary principle has to hold sway.

6. Male and female sexuality is not identical (on average, etc). This means the situation is different in the other direction (though not as a matter of principle).

7. Yes, of course – there are exceptions to this general rule. If somebody is in distress, for example, or whatever – there clearly are occasions where the sexual aspect just isn’t obviously in play, and in those situations the moral calculus is different.

8. And just because there has been a lot of talk in a less salubrious corner of the internet about sexual harassment policies, I should say this is not an argument either for or against such a thing. That’s a different issue (though obviously not entirely divorced from these sorts of observations).

I realise this all sounds rather pious, so… well, sorry about that! I blame Kant.

The Ethics of Porn

English: Porn star Cytherea at XRCO Awards in ...

“No porno has ever lost money”, or so said a running friend of mine when he quoted one of his economic professors. This was some years ago and it appears that it is no longer true. Ironically, porn has been a victim of the internet. Much as video killed the radio star, the internet has killed the porn star.

At this point, most folks are probably thinking “that cannot be true! Far from killing porn, the internet is for porn.” This is both true and not true: the internet did kill porn. But the internet is also for porn. Fortunately, this is not some sort of Schrodinger’s Porn in which the porn is neither alive nor dead until it is observed. Rather, the situation can easily be explained without any odd quantum physics.

While I am sure that the readers of this blog have never witnessed this in person, the internet tubes are jammed with porn. Because of this, the traditional porn industry (like the newspaper industry) is in hard times (which is surely the name of a porno). After all, when people can get their porn anonymously and  for free (or at least very cheaply) on the web, they are unlikely to buy the traditional porn movies. As such, it is no surprise that the traditional porn industry has gone from a money making giant to being in its death spiral. As such, the internet has killed (traditional) porn, while the internet is most definitely for porn. Interestingly enough, this decline of the traditional porn industry does raise some ethical concerns.

One point of concern is one that arises whenever an industry is in a death spiral, namely a concern for the people who work in that industry. While some porn stars have been able to achieve success outside of porn, the fall of the traditional porn industry will leave most of the performers in a rather hard situation (which, I am sure, is also the name of a porno). To be specific, many of them will have no qualifications beyond having sex on camera and will have little in the ways of savings and opportunities. While some will be able to switch careers, some will not. As such, it seems worth being concerned about these people.

One obvious reply is that this sort of industry death is just the way of things and economic causalities are inevitable. After all, the rise of the steam engine, electricity and so on killed many industries and the internet is just the most recent example of a economic re-definer. As such, while the economic woes of the folks in porn  is regrettable, we have no special obligation to support those who elected to enter a dying industry. They can, of course, avail themselves of the usual support offered to the unemployed and they can attempt find employment elsewhere.

A second reply is that the death of the porn industry can be seen as a good thing. After all, feminists have long argued that the typical porn is demeaning and harmful and thus morally wrong. Religious groups and moral conservatives have also argued against porn because of its corrupting influence (often unconsciously duplicating Plato’s classic arguments for banning the corrupting influence of art from the ideal state). Thus, the death of porn is a good thing.

The rather obvious reply is that the death of the porn industry is not the death of porn. As noted above, porn is thriving on the internet. To use an analogy, the state of porn is somewhat like the state of newspapers: while the traditional professional industry is dying, the amateurs are flooding the web with words and porn.

Given this fact, it might be expected that those who worked in the professional porn industry can flock to the electronic frontier and make a living in web porn. After all, if Facebook can rake in billions allowing people to post about eating a bagel and to share cat photos, surely something like F@ckbook could be created to provide a home for porn performers.

The obvious reply to this is that the people using Facebook do not make money and presumably the porn performers on F@ckbook would be in the same boat-although someone else would probably get rich. As far as the performers working on the web, one has but to look at the financial success of the typical blogger to get an idea how well going amateur typically pays on the web. After all, people are generally not inclined to pay for what they can get for free. This is not to say that clever people are no longer able to monetize porn, just that the performers will almost certainly be worse off in the new porn economy.

A final point of moral concern is whether or not the porn viewers have a moral debt to those who make it possible for them to see porn. This is not, of course, unique to porn and a similar question arises when it comes to journalism, music, books, non-porn movies and so on. After all, people can readily acquire almost anything digital for free (legitimately or by theft) on the web.

Since I have argued about digital theft in other essays, I will simply note that an excellent case can be made that stealing digital content is morally wrong. As such, the arguments I have made elsewhere would seem to apply to stealing porn as well. However, there is an interesting potential twist here: perhaps the moral dubiousness of the porn industry can provide a moral justification for stealing porn. That is, doing something bad to a bad industry is not bad.

While this has a certain superficial appeal, it can easily be countered. First, stealing from the porn industry is still stealing. Second, stealing from the porn industry does not seem to do anything to counter any moral badness of the industry-that is, the theft cannot be justified on the grounds that it makes things morally better. It could, of course, be justified on the grounds that it might be denying income to the wicked. But, of course, this leads to the third counter: a person steals porn to use porn, thus any moral high ground is clearly lost. This would be somewhat like a person arguing that it is okay to steal drugs to use from drug dealers because drugs are bad. This would, obviously, be a rather poor moral argument.

As far as the free content goes, while giving such product away for free might not be the wisest business model, availing oneself of free stuff is clearly not morally wrong. However, there is still the question of whether or not one should simply free ride an industry rather than contributing to it financially.

On the one hand, a person obviously has no moral obligation to support an industry because s/he has taken free stuff from said industry. After all, it is free. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is some obligation. After all, if the person values what they get for free, then they should contribute to what makes it possible for such stuff to be available for free.

The rather obvious counter to this is that it is up to a business to do what it takes to get customers to support them. If they elect to adopt an approach to business that provides potential customers with everything they want for free, then they have no grounds to complain when those potential customers never actually buy things. While it would be nice of the users to give back to the business, business cannot be sensibly based on this sort of model. As such, it is not so much that the internet killed porn. Rather the porn industry is committing suicide with the internet.

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Reading Euthyphro

I need your help!

I was in Starbucks reading Plato’s Euthyphro, as one does if one wants to fake erudition in the hope of attracting any passing intellectual women, men or goats.

Anyway, I’ve got to say it’s not an easy read – at least, I don’t find it so. I was doing okay, until I came to this section:

Soc. And a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led because it is in the state of being led, or carried because it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this. And now I think, Euthyphro, that my meaning will be intelligible; and my meaning is, that any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers. Do you not agree?

Euth. Yes.

Soc. Is not that which is loved in some state either of becoming or suffering?

Euth. Yes.

I have a couple of questions here.

First: Is Plato using the word “becoming” in some special sense here?

Second: Why on earth does Euthyphro respond “Yes” to Socrates’s last question? Why would he (or Socrates, or Plato) think that that which is loved is in a state of suffering (or “becoming”, for that matter)?

Any advice gratefully and humbly received, because at the moment I’m baffled, which rather undermines the whole wishing to appear erudite thing.

Booth Babes


English: Booth Babes from Eidos Stand at E3 2000

While the various technology trade shows and video game expos are supposed to be about the technology and the games, considerable attention is paid to booth babes. For those not familiar with the way of the booth babe, a booth babe is an attractive woman (the “babe” part) who works at such an event (typical in or near a company’s booth) in order to attract the attention of the predominantly male attendees and lure them, like sirens of old, to the booth.

The job of a booth babe is typically not extremely demanding: they tend to work in two or eight hour stints (depending on whether it is a product unveiling or a full show). Wages vary, but are generally decent. For example, a booth babe working at Computex in Taiwan might make $100-170 for an eight hour shift of smiling and being leered at by hordes of nerdy men. The pay can, of course, be worse at less prestigious events and better at bigger events.

While booth babes might be considered an odd subject for a philosophical look, they do raise some interesting philosophical issues. For those who are wondering, philosophy events do not, as a rule, have booth babes. Mainly just elderly professors in tweed jackets.

One obvious point of concern for any job is whether or not the pay is just for the work being done. As might be imagined, most booth babes would prefer to be paid more. However, given the extent of the babe’s duties, the pay does not seem entirely unreasonable. What is of greater philosophical interest are the treatment of booth babes and the question of whether or not there should be both babes.

As might be imagined, the sort of technology and game events that feature both babes tend to be male dominated. Also, to fall into some stereotypes, many of the men who attend these events are not accustomed to being close to attractive women. There are also, unfortunately, some strong elements of misogyny and sexism in these areas. As such, it is is hardly surprising that booth babes get leered at. They have also been the subject of what seem to be sexist tweets, such as the infamous Asus tweet regarding the “nice rear” of a booth babe. Booth babes also get plastered all over the net in videos and photos, put on display just like the products they are selling.

On the one hand, it seems wrong to treat the booth babes as objects and to employ them to lure men to the events and the booths. This seems to involve demeaning both the booth babes and the males. The babes are demeaned by being presented as sex objects to lure in males and the males are demeaned because it is assumed that they need booth babes to draw them in (and that they want to see the babes).  This seems to be morally wrong. After all, this is treating people as mere sexual objects used to sell products. Both Kant and the feminists would agree that this sort of objectification is wrong. While this view is very appealing (and almost certainly correct), there are some points well worth considering.

On the other hand, if the booth babes were not sexy and if males were not attracted to this, then there would be no jobs for the booth babes. Put another way, what seems to make the booth babe practice wrong also seems to be exactly what gives it a reason to exist at all. Obviously, if  average looking women (and guys) were hired to stand around the booths in comfortable clothing, then they would not attract people to the booths. If guys were such that they did not have an interest in seeing booth babes, then there would be no reason to have booth babes. As such, the profession rests on the fact that males are lured in by a chance to stare at hot women in person. From this, one might argue that the sexism and leering that people complain about is an intrinsic part of the practice. Complaining about it would be on par with complaining that people ask Starbucks employees to make coffee for them: that is, obviously enough, what they are there for.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that perhaps the booth babe profession should be eliminated. After all, the mere fact that the job seems to be inherently exploitative and sexist hardly justifies its existence. To use an analogy, being an assassin requires killing people, but that hardly justifies the practice. Of course, getting rid of booth babes need not entail a ban on attractive women. This leads to the second reply: attractive women (or men) could still be hired to work booths without the strong exploitative or sexist elements. The Pax gaming events, for example, do not allow traditional booth babes.Of course, some might complain that any use of attractiveness is morally suspect-but it does not seem any worse than, for example, using talented, friendly or witty people to attract attention.

A final point of concern is that while such events are male dominated, there are still females who attend, often as industry professionals. No doubt most of them do not find the booth babes appealing and some of them probably find the practice offensive and insulting. After all, the booth babes make these events seem like a boys’ club rather than a professional event.  There are also no doubt males who find this practice offensive as well. As such, the use of booth babes might have a negative impact, which is opposite of what the companies want.

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Are Facts Dead?

Ideology Icon

Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically “correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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Peter Singer on freedom of religion

Peter Singer has written a piece in which he argues that your freedom of religion has not been violated unless the state enacts a law that effectively prohibits you from doing something which is required by your religion. Thus, if it bans killing animals for meat in a certain way prescribed by your religion, that is not actually a violation of your freedom of religion unless your religion makes eating of meat compulsory. If it doesn’t do that, you can comply with the law by not eating meat all!

This is especially neat if you have reasons for thinking that people shouldn’t be (say) eating meat in any event. If some people are driven to give up eating meat in order to comply, you might think that a good collateral outcome, or side benefit, from a law requiring that animals be killed only in a certain way.

To be fair to Singer, though, another example that he gives is public transport – something that he doubtless approves of. If public transport is regulated in a certain way, e.g. to ensure that there is no gender separation, this might mean that certain people cannot comply with both the law and the rules of their (perhaps misogynist) religion. However, Singer suggests, they can’t complain that their religious freedom is being violated unless their religion makes it compulsory for them to use public transport. If it doesn’t, they can comply with the law simply by not using public transport.

Unfortunately, this analysis won’t work. I discuss such an approach in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, where I conclude that it is not convincing. There’s much to say about this, but perhaps we don’t need to get too deeply into it in this post.

What if your government banned the singing of Christmas carols tomorrow (I owe this example to Graham Oppy, I think)? I doubt that any form of Christianity requires the singing of Christmas carols. So does that mean that Christians (or at least those for whom singing Christmas carols is a valued practice) have not had their freedom of religion impinged on? Surely it doesn’t mean that. We’d still worry that this law was motivated by some sort of animus against religion – specifically against Christianity – and we’d still want to know why the state has any role in enacting laws on that sort of ground.

I think that Singer’s argument is, in some ways, too harsh and in some ways not harsh enough. It is not harsh enough if a law bans some practice that actually is required by a religion, provided that the negative effect on the religion is not the purpose of the law, and is merely the result of a general law enacted on some kind of secular ground that is neutral about the truth and false and falsity of various religions – essentially, a law that would have been enacted whether this religion existed or not.

Thus, imagine that some religion actually requires human sacrifice. Nonetheless, the ordinary law of murder does not breach the freedom of religion of its adherents. The law would have existed whether this religion did or not, and it is not aimed at suppressing the religion or persecuting its followers. It has the obvious secular purpose of protecting people from harm. I submit that the practitioners of the religion cannot claim that they are being persecuted, or anything of the kind.

But what if a law bans certain practices that, although not compulsory, are highly valued in the traditions of the religion concerned? What if the law is not a neutral one of general application (like banning loud noises after 1 am) but one tailored to make life just that bit less convenient and enjoyable to adherents of the religion (again, imagine a ban on singing Christmas carols)? This looks like the state is overreaching – it is acting out of a sense of hostility toward a particular religion, not enacting a law that it would have enacted anyway whether the religion existed or not.

Thus the test relates to whether the religion is affected by a religiously-neutral, generally-applicable law (with some entirely worldly purpose, not a purpose such as deterring heresy). The test is not whether the banned practice is compulsory within the religion.

All that said, neutral, generally-applicable laws can turn out to be especially onerous for particular groups of people. This can happen for all sorts of reasons. One reason might be that a law has the practical effect of forbidding people from engaging in a religious practice of some kind.

On occasion, we might want to give exemptions from a law, and our reasons might take into account how important it is that this particular law obtains universal compliance. They might also take into account just how onerous the effect is on people who are especially affected. If we’re getting into this weighing exercise, it will, indeed, seem more important if the effect of the law is to ban something that is considered compulsory for, say, spiritual salvation than if it merely makes life less enjoyable and convenient. But even the latter can be given some weight, depending on the circumstances.

Note, though, that even if human sacrifice were considered compulsory by some group for spiritual salvation, we would not grant exemptions from the law relating to murder. The starting point is whether this is a neutral law of general application with a good secular purpose. If it is, it is not an attack on freedom of religion. It is only when we get to considering any exemptions from the law that we take into account just how much difficulty the law might create for certain groups, including religious groups.

Supreme Court of British Columbia upholds physician assisted suicide

In a landmark judgment – admittedly one that may be appealed – the Supreme Court of British Columbia has struck down a law against physician assisted suicide and required the legislature to enact something less restrictive. You can find a brief discussion of the case here, in The Globe and Mail … which has also published an editorial in support of the outcome.

In Carter v. Canada, the court has, in particular, referred to the extensive report of a committee chaired by my friend and collaborator, Udo Schuklenk, which found, among other things, that vulnerable people are not especially at risk in a regime that permits physician assisted suicide (with appropriate regulation). The report was admitted into evidence, though not relied on for its conclusions about the efficacy of safeguards in other jurisdictions (there was other evidence relating to this, and some authors of the report were involved in the case).

Udo is quoted in The Globe and Mail:

Dr. Schuklenk, a bioethicist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said the judge in Friday’s ruling clearly took into account the panel’s finding that there is no evidence that vulnerable people would be at appreciable risk of abuse if euthanasia was decriminalized. “If there is no appreciable risk, surely autonomy-based considerations mean people should be able to make these sorts of choices towards the end of their lives and have these choices respected,” he said.

The full judgment will repay careful study, and there is still the prospect of appeal. I am not, in this brief post, going to assess the legal correctness of the reasoning or the prospects for success of any appeal. I only wish to say that it’s important news that could, at least outside of Canada, get lost amongst all the day-to-day issues that trouble us. From my point of view, it’s great news, but again I don’t intend to develop the argument for physician assisted suicide here. If you’re interested in these questions, do have a close look at the court’s judgment.

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Karen Armstrong on the Jews

It’s a truth universally acknowledged amongst those inclined towards new atheism that Karen Armstrong… how shall I put this, has a tendency to sugar-coat the more problematic aspects of religious belief and practice.

Here’s a chunk of stuff I wrote, which didn’t make it into the final version of Chapter 2 of Does God Hate Women?, that shows this up in the way that Armstrong deals with Muhammad’s treatment of the Jewish Qurayzah tribe.


The feeling that things are too good to be true is a frequent experience when reading Armstrong’s writing on Islam. Not least, she seems determined to explain away anything that might show Muhammad in a bad light. For example, about his conflict with the Jewish tribes of Medina, which culminated in the summary execution of 700 males of the Qurayzah tribe, she says variously:

Muhammad had been greatly excited by the prospect of working closely with the Jewish tribes…His disappointment, when the Jews of Medina refused to accept him as an authentic prophet, was one of the greatest of his life. [1]

In Medina, the chief casualties of this Muslim success were the three Jewish tribes of Qaynuqah, Nadir and Qurayzah, who were determined to destroy Muhammad…They had powerful armies, and obviously posed a threat to the Muslims. [2]

The massacre of Qurayzah was a horrible incident, but it would be a mistake to judge it by the standards of our own time. This was a very primitive society… an Arab chief was not expected to show mercy to traitors like Qurayzah. [3]

Muhammad’s intransigence towards Qurayzah had been designed to bring hostilities to an end as soon as possible… Arabia was a chronically violent society, and the ummah had to fight its way to peace. Major social change of the type that Muhammad was attempting in the peninsula is rarely achieved without bloodshed. [4]

The struggle did not indicate any hostility towards Jews in general, but only towards the three rebel tribes. The Quran continued to revere Jewish prophets and to urge Muslims to respect the People of the Book…. Anti-semitism is a Christian vice. Hatred of the Jews became marked in the Muslim world only after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948… [5]

In other words, Armstrong’s argument here is that Muhammad really wanted to be friendly with his Jewish neighbours, but they were out to get him, so he exiled and massacred them, but that was okay because these were primitive times, it was necessary, and anyway this kind of thing was not indicative of hostility towards Jews in general, since that was a Christian invention. This sounds like it must be a parody of Armstrong’s views, but actually it seems not to be. Consider, for example, how she describes the events that led Muhammad to banish the Nadir tribe from Medina:

Muhammad tried to reassure Nadir, and made a special treaty with them, but when he discovered that they had been plotting to assassinate him they too were sent into exile… [6]

Muhammad’s behaviour does not seem particularly objectionable here: indeed, he might have been expected to deal more harshly with the Nadir than simply expelling them; after all, they had been plotting to kill him. Except here is the real story of how he discovered the plot, as related by Martin Lings in his acclaimed biography of the Prophet:

While they were sitting there, in front of one of the fortresses, Gabriel came to the Prophet, unseen by any save him, and told him that the Jews were planning to kill him and that he must return to Medina at once. [7]

In other words, Muhammad did not discover a plot at all: it was ‘revealed’ to him by the Angel Gabriel in a vision that only he saw. As Armstrong must surely realize, this will hardly do as a justification for expelling an entire community from their homes. Certainly one recalls the scorn meted out to George W. Bush when he was reported as claiming that God had directed him to liberate Iraq. [8] But it seems that Muhammad is to be held to a different standard. [9]


[1] Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, p. 14.
[2] Ibid, pp. 17-8.
[3] Ibid, p. 18.
[4] Ibid, p. 19.
[5] Ibid, p. 18.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Peter Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, p. 209.
[8] See, for example, The Guardian, October 7, 2005, retrieved June 18, 2008 from
[9] To be fair to Armstrong, in her first biography of Muhammad she does mention that the Angel Gabriel apparently played a role in these events. But she cannot resist adding the caveat that “a divine revelation would not have been strictly necessary… Muslim sources claim to know exactly who was about to drop a boulder on to Muhammad from a nearby roof-top.” (See Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, pp. 193-4).