Monthly Archives: July 2012

Civility and free speech

There’s much discussion in the blogosphere at the moment about the merits of requiring charity and civility on comment threads. For example, Jerry Coyne has a post about his rules over here, while Daniel Fincke writes about his rules here. Before I go on, I’m not necessarily endorsing everything in either post – though I think both are on the right track. Fincke makes some eccentric points, but they are marginal to this discussion. Suffice to say that both are mainly asking for charity (interpret what your interlocutors are saying in a way that takes their position at its strongest, rather than attributing to them a weak or extreme or untenable position) and civility (address interlocutors in reasonably non-hostile way, and concentrate more on disagreements with their ideas than on trying to make them feel hurt or angry … and thus withdraw or respond with rage).

[Edit: And I now see a similar comment policy announcement by Kylie Sturgess, though again I don’t necessarily endorse everything in it.]

Should we adopt an approach of asking commenters to be charitable and civil to each other? For myself, the answer is strongly Yes. That’s always been my general approach on my own blog, and one thing that makes me comfortable posting here at Talking Philosophy is that it’s the approach we take across the site.

An obvious objection is that this is somehow contrary to freedom of speech. Generally, I don’t think that’s so. I am about to draw heavily on my discussion of freedom of speech in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, so go there for more (and to make me and my publisher happy if you actually buy a copy!).

Bear in mind that multiple justifications have been given for freedom of speech. On Liberty, Mill’s classic defense of political freedoms in general, is based essentially on self-actualisation arguments, but the bulk of its second chapter, entitled “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” is devoted to a rather different justification of free speech that goes beyond freedom of expression as self-actualisation. If you refer to the chapter, you’ll see that Mill favors the freedom to develop and discuss ideas in the search for truth or understanding. This is very powerful as far as it goes, but inevitably it’s somewhat elitist (not always a bad thing!), for relatively little speech and expression in real-world societies appeals primarily to the intellect.

Still, the rationalist justification (as I call it in my various writings on the issue, including in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State) can be extended beyond the speech of academics, scientists and other intellectuals. To some extent, it merges with the self-actualization justification, insofar as it involves our individual need to pursue truth and understanding in our own ways, necessarily reliant on resources available through language. It also encourages us to protect serious literature and art, especially narrative forms such as prose fiction, theatre, and cinema, one function of which is to open minds by appeals to the imagination. The rationalist justification also merges with the democratic justification, insofar as debate about political ideas — with attempts to find the best kinds of political structures, principles, and policies — forms a large component of the general pursuit of truth in modern societies.

Fine so far – there are various synergies between the popular justifications of free speech (and perhaps no one justification covers all the speech that we’d want to defend). In arguing against unrestricted free speech, Alan Haworth suggests that Mill pictured society not as a marketplace of ideas, but as something like a large-scale academic seminar.

A seminar, of course, is an effective forum for refining and testing ideas only because its participants can rely upon tacit standards of conduct and interaction, including some degree of mutual respect. In past writings, however, I’ve emphasised that no entire society can operate like a seminar. If too much weight is given to Haworth’s point, free speech will be a far more narrow thing than is usually understood by the concept. It normally includes freedom for robust, sometimes even offensive, kinds of interaction that would be strongly inhibited, if not actually forbidden, in the confined/refined space of an academic seminar. It is usually accepted in liberal societies that there is a public interest in permitting debate that is not so restrictive of the parties involved. This allows them to express themselves passionately, emotively, and loyally on subjects that arouse passion, emotions, and competing loyalties — all without fear of retaliation by state agencies, or of narrow constraints being imposed to preserve decorum. Further, it allows the participation of individuals, perhaps the majority, who may not have been socialized or trained to express themselves with the detachment and urbanity that might be expected in a seminar for, say, middle-aged philosophy professors. If freedom of speech is confined too closely to decorous speech, this is likely to disadvantage young people, working class people, and many other groups.

Fine, you say, so isn’t it contrary to freedom of speech if we insist at Talking Philosophy on commenters showing charity and civility to each other? No. Just because the larger society cannot, and should not, act like an academic seminar does not entail that an academic seminar should not act like an academic seminar! There are good reasons for academic seminars to act like academic seminars – it is just that we don’t want their standards to be applied by force across the entire society by means of the coercive power of the state.

This blog, Talking Philosophy, is not a seminar, but something of the same values apply. We are here to make some intellectual progress, and exactly the same justication that Mill relies on to argue for freedom of speech will apply to justify a local requirement that the speech concerned be charitable and civil – though pretty much fearless as to the substantive views put forward. And if you want to express yourself by insulting, misrepresenting, and strawmanning others, there are other places you can do it. The state generally allows you to do this, as I believe it should.

Of course, if you do go around insulting, misrepresenting, and strawmanning, adverse moral judgments might be made about you, but you won’t (and shouldn’t) be prevented from doing so by means of the coercive power of the state.

As a matter of fact, there is much to object to about insulting, misrepresenting, strawmanning, piling on, expressing rage, and so on. These tactics can be used, especially by people with large audiences, to bully ideas off the table. People can be intimidated into shutting up. Possibilities for mutual understanding and intellectual progress can be lost. A blog that encourages these behaviours – or where even the poster/blog owner engages in them – is open to criticism for damaging the general quality of discussion in our society. But that doesn’t mean I want heavy-handed laws to stop it from doing so. Criticising behaviour is not the same as calling for it to be banned.

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Can Existence Be Quantified Away?

I’ve been following some interesting stuff by Bill Vallicella about the “thickness” or otherwise of existence. I think the general debate is this: if you can use logical quantifiers to define “Socrates exists” in a sort of Quinean way then you remove at a stroke Heideggerean concerns about the import of “exists”. Thick theorists such as Mr Vallicella believe such reductionism to be misconceived. I think the idea is that the quantifiers import what they aim to omit and if they don’t they leave out other issues that are at leat as important etc….

Anyway there is no point in getting on board with this stuff without going back to primary texts so I opened Graham Priest’s texbook on non-classical logic to find that “A set X, is a collection of objects….”

OK: so how does the reductionism get off the floor then if set theory at its most anodyne uses a concept such as “object” which is, shall we say, metaphysically neutral?

(I realise that there’s an apples and oranges issue there but the point obtains doesn’t it? If you’re attemtpting to avoid ontological promiscuity via logical austerity had’t you be careful what you’re notation commits you to?)

Welcome Liz Disley

We’re very pleased to welcome Liz Disley to the Talking Philosophy ranks.

Liz is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, and the Project Manager of the Impact of Idealism International network. She works on both continental and analytical thought, has studied in Germany (at the Humboldt University in Berlin) and worked in Turkey (at Bilkent University, Ankara). Her philosophical interests include 19th and 20th century German philosophy, social ontology, feminist and political thought, and the interface between philosophy and literature. When not philosophizing, she enjoys film, theatre and long, uncomfortable bus journeys in improbable corners of the globe.

Welcome, Liz!

How ‘sport’ lost its meaning

So, it’s (bread-and-)circuses time ‘at last’: Time to forget about solidarity with the Arab Awakening, to forget about the collapsing Euro, to forget about our day-by-day smashing of biodiversity and destruction of a liveable atmosphere; time also to forget about your own life, to forget about DOING anything, and instead to start sitting on your backside more; it’s time, once you are firmly sat, to project everything (jingoistically, of course) onto a specially-selected bunch of others, flown in with no cost or carbon spared.
It’s time to stop being and start SPECTATING.

Let the pointless ogling begin…

Yep: it’s the 2012 Olympic ‘Games’. . .

Let’s start, briefly, with the ‘greenest games ever’ (sic. – or: Pass the sick-bag, someone…). Can’t we, in this day and age, figure out better ways of spreading joy that don’t spread so much misery among our descendants? That is what they are going to receive from us, mostly: misery, courtesy of climate chaos (of which we have experienced a small taste here in Britain, this ‘summer’). Misery which is being contributed to by all this Olympic construction, travel, and so on.

I can hear one or two of you groaning already. “Why does he have to be such a killjoy?” Well, forgive me if I’m being curmudgeonly. It is probably because my potatoes, that I’ve just got back from seeking to harvest, have blight. (Why do they have blight? Because of this dreadful ‘summer’. (Why this dreadful ‘summer’? Probably because of incipient manmade climate chaos. (Why this manmade climate chaos? Because of excessive GHG / carbon emissions. – Which brings us back to the insane amount of flying, among other things, that our species is currently indulging in…including to make possible spectacles such as the Olympics…)))

Now let’s move onto the concept of sport itself. I have serious reservations about modern spectator ‘sport’. I think it isn’t really…sport any more. It is a kind of madly-over-rewarded professional body-machinisation and semi-prostitution. Goto for more detail…

It is true that at times of ‘great sporting events’, there is often some temporary boost to the numbers of people taking part in those sports. Is that a good instrumental grounds on which to defend all this spectating and getting-on-your-backside? Not really: Because imagine what we could do if, instead of saying to people “Sit still and watch these amazing geniuses [read: boring overpaid professional obsessives] perform!”, we truly encouraged everyone to BE, to participate, to DO… Imagine if as a culture we devoted the same energy and money to getting people active as we currently do to pacifying them… Imagine if we sought to enliven people’s own lives, rather than make them absurdly identify with others who in fact they cannot hope to emulate…

Or, as I think it should now be termed, ‘sport’. When referring to these professional capers, we should always put the scare-quotes in place… (As Confucius would have it: the most important task for a public intellectual is the rectification of names. The name of ‘sport’ has now been thoroughly turned on its head. We need to recover the old meaning (As in ‘What sport we had!’ Or ‘Now that was sporting!’).)

Let me be very clear, so that there is no misunderstanding of what I am saying here: I have nothing against sport (as opposed to: against ‘sport’). What I like is PARTICIPATION; what I don’t like is mere spectatorship. I like cycling – much more than I like WATCHING cycling, for example. I like playing table-tennis once in a while. I think our world would be far happier and healthier if we played sport, rather than watching ‘sport’.

And of course I am not just criticising the Olympics; not at all. On the contrary: the problem is rampant across ‘sport’. The trouble with soccer, nowadays, for instance, is that soccer is infected with the same cancer of professionalism as everyone else, as all major ‘sports’. Soccer teams don’t really represent their local town any more. They [players, and teams] are just bought by the highest capitalist bidder.

It’s time to end ‘sport’ — and bring back sport. Reflecting on what is wrong with these Olympics (see for instance & ) is an ideal time to start to do so…

But don’t just sit there! Don’t even just write comments on what I’ve written… Don’t just exchange a TV screen for a computer screen… (And if you do write comments, then do be a bit…playful…)

Rather, get out there, into the wonderful outdoors, and play.

It’s just as well we have sex

As you might expect, anyone – i.e. me – who has a blog called (Metamagician – we’ll worry about that bit later – and) the Hellfire Club is likely to take something of a pro-sex line, to argue for the deproblematisation of the erotic, etc., etc.

I’ve gotta, say, though, that I hadn’t thought of this (wait a minute) argument in favour of sex. I’ve just started reading Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality . It looks very interesting, and I expect to have a bit to say about it over the next few days. I’ll probably find some things to disagree with, but I do like its opening paragraph, after a brief preface. Rosenberg starts by saying the following – it’s a great punchline:

Everyone seems to know what life’s persistent questions are. Almost all of us have been interested in answering them at one time or another, starting back sometime in our childhood when the lights were turned out and we found ourselves staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. As time goes on, thinking about sex increasingly pushes these thoughts out of adolescent minds. This is fortunate. Otherwise there would be an even greater oversupply of philosophy and divinity students than there is of English majors. But the questions keep coming back, all too often right after sex.

Discuss. Bear in mind that I have PhDs in both English and philosophy, so I’m not out to snark at majors in either discipline.

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Big Data & Ethics


Big Data, The Moving Parts: Fast Data, Big Ana...

Big Data, The Moving Parts: Fast Data, Big Analytics, and Deep Insight (Photo credit: Dion Hinchcliffe)


For those not familiar with the phrase,  “Big Data” is used to describe the acquisition, storage and analysis of large quantities of data. The search giant Google was one of the pioneers in this area and it is developed into an industry worth billions of dollars. Big Data and its uses also raise ethical concerns.

One common use of Big Data is to analyse customer data so as to make predictions that would be useful in conducting targeted ad campaigns. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is Target’s pregnancy targeting. This Big Data adventure was a model of inductive reasoning. First, an analysis was conducted of Target customers who had signed up for Target’s new baby registry. The purchasing history of these women was analysed to find patterns of buying that corresponded to each stage of pregnancy. For example, pregnant women were found to often buy lots of unscented lotion at the start of the second trimester. Once the analysis revealed the buying patterns of pregnant women, Target then applied this information to the buying patterns of women customers. Oversimplifying things, they were essentially using an argument by analogy:  inferring that hat women not known to be pregnant who had X,Y, and Z patterns were probably pregnant because women known to be pregnant had X,Y, and Z buying patterns.  The women who were tagged as probably pregnant were then subject to targeted ads for baby products and this proved to be a winner for Target, other than some public relations issues.

One interesting aspect of this method is that it does not follow the usual model of predicting a person’s future buying behavior from  his/her past buying behavior. An example of predicting future buying behavior based on past behavior would be predicting that I would buy Gatorade the next time I went grocery shopping because I have been bought it consistently in the past. The analysis used by Target and other companies differs from this model by making inferences about the future behavior of customers based on their similarity to customers whose past buying behavior is known. For example, a store might see shifts in someone’s buying behavior that matches other data from people starting to get into fitness and thus predict the person was getting into fitness. The store might then send the person (and others like her) targeted ads featuring Gatorade coupons because their models show that such people buy more Gatorade.

This method also has an interesting Sherlock Holmes aspect to it. The fictional detective was able to use inductive logic (although he was presented as deducing) to make impressive inferences from seemingly innocuousness bits of information. Big Data can do this in reality and make reliable inferences based on what appears to be irrelevant information. For example, likely voting behavior might be inferred from factors such as one’s preferred beverage.

Naturally, Big Data can be used to sell a wide variety of products, including politicians and ideology. It also has non-commercial applications, such a law enforcement and political uses. As such, it is hardly surprising that companies and agencies are busily gathering and analyzing data at a relentless and ever growing pace. This certainly is cause for concern.

One ethical concern is that the use of Big Data can impact the outcome of elections. For example, analyzing massive amounts of data information can be acquired that would allow ads to be effectively crafted and targeted. Given that Big Data is expensive, the data advantage would tend to go to the side with the most money, thus increasing the influence of money on the outcome of elections. Naturally, the influence of money on elections is already a moral concern. While more spending does not assure victory, there is a clear connection between spending and success. To use but one obvious example, Mitt Romney was able to beta his Republican competitors in part by being able to outlast them financially and outspend them.

In any case, Big Data adds yet another tool and expense to political campaigning, thus making it more costly for people to run for office. This, in turn, means that those running for office will need even more money than before, thus making money an even greater factor than in the past. This, obviously enough, increases the ability of those with more money to influence the candidates and the issues.

On the face of it, it would seem unreasonable to require that campaigns go without Big Data. After all, it could be argued that this would be tantamount to demanding that campaigns operate in ignorance. However, the concerns about big money buying Big Data to influence elections could be addressed by campaign finance reform, which would be another ethical issue.

Perhaps the biggest ethical concern about Big Data is the matter of privacy. First, there is the ethical worry that much of the data used in Big Data is gathered without people knowing how the data will be used (and perhaps that it is even being gathered). For example, the customers at Target seemed to be unaware that Target was gathering such data about them to be analyzed and used to target ads.

While people might know that information is being collected about them, knowing this and knowing that the data will be analyzed for various purposes are two different things. As such, it can be argued that private data is being gathered without proper informed consent and this is morally wrong.

The obvious solution is for data collectors to make it clear about what the data will be used for, thus allowing people to make an informed choice regarding their private information. Of course, one problem that will remain is that it is rather difficult to know what sort of inferences can be made from seemingly innocuous data. As such, people might think that they are not providing any private data when they are, in fact, handing over data that can be used to make inferences about private matters.

If a business claims that they would be harmed because people would not hand over such information if they knew what it would be used for, the obvious reply is that this hardly gives them the right to deceive to get what they want. However, I do not think that businesses have much to worry about—Facebook has shown that many people are quite willing to hand over private information for little or nothing in return.

A second and perhaps the most important moral concern is that Big Data provides companies and others with the means of making inferences about people that go beyond the available data and into what might be regarded as the private realm. While this sort of reasoning is classic induction, Big Data changes the game because of the massive amount of data and processing power available to make these inferences, such as whether women are pregnant or not. In short, the analysis of seemingly innocuous data can yield inferences about information that people would tend to regard as private—or at the very least, information they would not think would be appropriate for a company to know.

One obvious counter to this is to argue that privacy rights are not being violated. After all, as long as the data used does not violate the privacy of individuals, then the inferences made from this data cannot be regarded as violating people’s privacy, even if the inferences are about matters that people would regard as private (such as pregnancy). To use an analogy, if I were to spy on someone and learn from thus that she was an alcoholic, then I would be violating her privacy. However, if I inferred that she is an alcoholic from publically available information, then I might know something private about her, but I have not violated her privacy.

This counter is certainly appealing. After all, there does seem to be a meaningful and relevant distinction between directly getting private information by violating privacy and inferring private information using public (or at least legitimately provided) data. To use an analogy, if I get the secret ingredient in someone’s prize recipe by sneaking a look at the recipe, then I have acted wrongly. However, if I infer the secret ingredient by tasting the food when I am invited to dinner, then I have not acted wrongly.

A reasonable reply to this counter is that while there is a difference between making an inference that yields private data and getting the data directly, there is also the matter of intent. It is, for example, one thing to infer the secret ingredient simply by tasting it, but it is quite another to arrange to get invited to dinner specifically so I can get that secret ingredient by tasting the food.  To use another example, it is one thing to infer that someone is an alcoholic, but quite another to systematically gather public data in order to determine whether or not she is an alcoholic. In the case of Big Data, there is clearly intent to infer data that customers have not already voluntarily provided. After all, if the data had been provided, there would be no need to undertake an analysis in order to get the desired information. Thus, while the means do not involve a direct violation of privacy rights, they do involve an indirect violation—at least in cases in which the data is private (or at least intended to be private).

The solution, which would probably be rather problematic to implement, would involve setting restrictions on what sort of inferences can be made from the data on the grounds that people have a right to keep that information private, even if the means used to acquire it did not involve any direct violations of privacy rights.

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Eddy Nahmias reviews Sam Harris

The newest issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine contains a review by Eddy Nahmias of Free Will by Sam Harris. (For those who’ve missed my own discussions of Harris earlier this year, a good place to start would be this long reflective essay published at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.)

I’m a bit free-willed out from writing earlier posts in this series, not to mention the abovementioned ABC Portal piece. Still, I’m largely onside with Nahmias, and in any event this review of Harris by a philosopher who has important and original peer-reviewed publications in the field is worth drawing to the attention of … well, whichever of this blog’s readers might still be interested.

In the end, Nahmias makes a point about how this is not all-or-nothing. We can study what people seem to think free will is, what free will talk is actually conveying when ordinary folk engage in it, and then we can study to what extent we actually have such a capacity.

This sounds like a plausible position to me: “Unlike the impossible self-creation and self-knowledge Harris foists upon free will, a more reasonable and accurate understanding of free will is amenable to scientific study. Science is likely to show that we have less free will than we tend to think, and learning this may move us towards Harris’s practical goals.” Or maybe it won’t. At any rate, I look forward to Nahmias’ own (long-awaited) book on the subject.

And while I’m here, there’s lots of other good stuff in the new TPM, especially relating to the institution of sport: philosophers scrutinising it from many angles just in time for the Olympic Games.

Sustainability of what?

A famous article by Ronald Dworkin asked, ‘Equality of what?’ It isn’t enough to claim that one is an egalitarian: one has to say in respect of WHAT one wants people to be equal.
Now, I’m not _entirely_ convinced of Dworkin’s point. It seems to me that it is pretty clear that there is a reason why we are restrictive in our application of the term ‘egalitarian’. We don’t apply it to people who believe in equality merely in some verbal form (say, ‘equality of opporunity’). The term ‘egalitarian’ has, one might say, a _substantive_ and restrictive meaning: It applies only to a certain range of goals in terms of which we are prepared to regard someone as actually being serious about aiming for equality: perhaps equality of material outcome, equality of welfare, and a few others.
But even if I am right in not outright endorsing Dworkin, the restricted version of his claim, that I have just endorsed, is already enough to license one to conclude that simply saying ‘I’m an egalitarian’ is not enough. One has, at minimum, to distinguish, for instance, between equality of outcome and equality of welfare. To that extent at least, I think it is clear that the question ‘Equality of what?’ must be answered.
A somewhat similar point applies, I believe, to sustainability. And, to my knowledge, this point hasn’t been made before (Please correct me if I’m wrong, readers!). It is not enough to be in favour of sustainability. One _has_ to be clear _what_ one is in favour of sustaining.
And again, only certain meanings, certain specifications of that ‘what’ deserve to be counted as actually amounting to something worth, substantively, calling ‘sustainability’, at all. ‘Sustainable growth’, for instance, is not one of them, for reasons made clear by Herman Daly, and recently, by Tim Jackson. Likewise, ‘sustainable aviation’.
For something to actually count as sustainability at all, we must ask, ‘What are you seeking to sustain?’; and only certain answers to that question will leave it plausible that one is actually someone who takes (anything that is actually going to be actually worth calling) sustainability seriously. Such answers might be: a just and ecologically-viable society, or: an ecologically-viable society; etc. As we might put it: it has actually to be _possible_ (and _plausible_) for something to be indefinitely sustainable, for it to qualify as a candidate for what can be sustainable. This oughtn’t to surprise us…
I am worried that the very term ‘sustainability’ actually tends somewhat to push one away from understanding this point (If you are interested in my reasons, goto and scroll down to ‘Plenary Session’ – the Q & A, as well as my talk here on sustainability, is well worth listening to too. In very brief: I think that the term ‘sustainable’ and its cognates makes us inclined to think that whatever we put as the next word, whatever is the ‘what’ that we are seeking do sustainably, might in principle be sustainable. But this, I’ve suggested, isn’t true.)
But we can’t get away from the fact that the term ‘sustainable’ is an important term in our public lexicon, today. It isn’t going to be overcome or improved upon overnight. And so: part of what is needed in order to reclaim the term ‘sustainable’ by its abuse at the hands of corporates, and in Rio Plus 20, and in the mouths of our Government, and so on, is that, whenever one hears the term, one ought to ask: “But sustainability of _what_?”

No sexual images, please – we’re atheists

In an earlier post at Talking Philosophy, which I linked to from my personal blog (Metamagician and the Hellfire Club), I asked readers the blunt question, “What is a sexual image?” Considerable discussion ensued on both sites, but no consensus emerged as to just what “a sexual image” actually is.

Accordingly, I am now struggling to understand what an ordinary person would understand by the expression “sexual images” in a provision that attempts to prohibit their display in a certain context. Perhaps it might convey something definite to a censorship board with an established body of decisions, and it might be possible to review what such boards and the like have decided, but its meaning is very unclear to an ordinary person. We don’t seem to be able to agree on what is a “sexual image” and what is not. So how about “Psyche and Pan” by Edward Burne-Jones? It appears to me to convey plenty of erotic charge, so if it’s not a “sexual image” I’d like to know why not. What does the expression convey to you, such that this Burne-Jones painting (and many others by the great pre-Raphaelite artists) is not a “sexual image”?

As some readers will know, Atheists America has recently promulgated a code of conduct for its conventions, setting down, among other things, the following definition of “harassment”:

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

This is dreadful drafting. It seems to say that harassment includes “offensive verbal comments relating to … sexual images in public places”. In that case, it is fine to have sexual images in public places, but no one must make offensive verbal (what other sort are there?) comments about them. Likewise it is fine to indulge in sustained disruption of talks or other events, but not to make offensive verbal comments about it if it happens. But I assume that any sensible tribunal would interpret the provision to mean something like this:

Harassment includes:

(1) offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion; and

(2) sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

That being the case, “sexual images in public spaces” constitute “harassment” under the code … and harassment is prohibited. Forget anything else in this strange code (e.g. it seems that “following” someone, perhaps a friend when you ask for directions and she cheerfully says, “Follow me!”, is defined as harassment). Today, let’s just focus on the prohibition of sexual images.

Why on earth would the mere public display of a low-impact sexual image such as “Psyche and Pan” be considered harassment (of whom, exactly – of anyone who sees it?). Is selling such an image at a convention, and displaying it for sale to likely purchasers, really a form of harassment? Who says so? How does this even remotely relate to the ordinary meaning of the word “harassment”, or even to expansive ideas of “sexual harassment” in employment law (where it is true that the pervasive display of relatively high-impact pornographic images, perhaps combined with other conduct, might make a workplace a hostile zone for some people)? The provision is so sweeping and unnuanced that I have to wonder what could be behind it. Perhaps it’s just a matter of people not thinking things through and realising how overbroad their drafting is, compared with whatever mischief they actually had in mind.

Now, it may be that American Atheists would have other reasons for not approving vendors that would display and sell, say, posters of pre-Raphaelite paintings. Perhaps it’s remote from their mission. But that seems like a reason why they don’t actually need such a provision. In any event, I can imagine circumstances where it might be completely appropriate to display such an image. What if it, or some other image with a similar erotic charge, is used on the cover of a book about the religious suppression of erotic art, or just about the philosophy of sex? And what if this book is on sale at the convention, perhaps with many others? These scenarios are not especially bizarre or unlikely. Books are sold at conventions all the time, and the cover art often has at least a low-grade sexual frisson.

I would have thought that an avowedly atheist organisation would lean strongly against the problematisation of erotic images, given that this is precisely one of the things that atheists object to from the religious and from religious moralities. I don’t know how often the issue would come up at an atheist convention, but it must surely happen from time to time. Even if it never happens in practice, it would be nice to know that an organisation such as American Atheists stands in favour of eros and against sexual prudery.

Thus, this provision is exactly the wrong one to include in a code of conduct, and I do hope that we don’t see other organisations with supposedly atheist or secular agendas going down such a path.

Cookies & Politics: Consumer Advocacy


Chick-fil-A (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay I discussed the company side of corporate advocacy. As noted in the essay, the group One Million Moms called for a boycott of Kraft in response to the rainbow Oreo. However, what motived my decision to write about consumer advocacy was the quandary faced by a friend of mine regarding Chick-Fil-A. On one hand, my friend really likes the food at Chick-Fil-A and has been a loyal customer for years. On the other hand, my friend is a supporter of same sex marriage and was dismayed to learn that Chick-Fil-A donated about $2 million to anti-gay groups in 2009. As might be imagined, my friend was worried that past purchases contributed (however insignificantly) to the company being able to make such donations. This sort of situation, obviously enough, raises some interesting moral concerns. I will start with an easy matter.

On the face of it, a person is free to decide whether or not to buy goods or services from a company based on their advocacy (or lack thereof). So, for example, if someone is pleased by the rainbow Oreo and decides to buy Oreos on that basis, then she has every right to do so. Likewise, if someone is displeased with what the rainbow Oreo stand for and decides to switch to another cookie, then he has every right to do so. After all, this is a matter of personal choice and can be seen as being on par with buying or not buying based on any factor—be it the actor shilling for the company or a taste preference.

It might be objected that buying or not buying based on advocacy would be unfair—after all, a person should buy based on the quality of the product or service and other such relevant factors rather than by the (alleged) irrelevant factor of company advocacy. The easy and obvious reply is that by entering into advocacy, the company has decided to make its advocacy a legitimate factor in purchasing decisions. If the company does not wish to be judged or impacted by its advocacy choices, then the only course of action (other than secrecy, which would seem to be morally dubious) is to not engage in that advocacy.

A more interesting moral problem is the issue of whether or not a person should buy from a company that engages in advocacy that s/he morally disagrees with. For example, a person who finds same-sex marriage morally unacceptable faces the question of whether to buy Kraft products in the light of the rain bow Oreo. As another example, a person who supports gay rights faces the issue of whether or not to patronize Chick-Fil-A.

This problem is similar to the matter of taxes addressed by Thoreau in his essay on civil disobedience. In this essay, he argued that people should not pay taxes to a state whose actions they found morally reprehensible. In Thoreau’s case, his concern was with the wickedness of slavery and what he regarded as an unjust war with Mexico on the part of the United States. As he saw it, a person has an obligation to at least not be a party to what s/he regards as evil. After all, a person who contributes to the doing of misdeeds bears some of the blame of those misdeeds. At the very least, the person’s involvement shows that they accept or at least tolerate those misdeeds.

In the case of the state, the consequences of not paying taxes tend to be fairly serious, at least for the typical citizen. It is also rather difficult for the average citizen to get beyond the reach of the state. As such, citizens should probably be given considerable slack when it comes to paying their taxes to states that do wicked things. After all, all states do wicked things and living out in the open ocean or on an ice sheet are not viable options for most folks.

Fortunately, the situation is considerably easier when it comes to companies that engage in advocacy. After all, there are generally many companies that offer similar goods and services. As such, it is relatively easy for a person to avoid contributing to cause that s/he finds morally unacceptable. For example, a cookie lover who is opposed to same-sex marriage can turn away from Oreos in favor of cookie that is no friend of gay rights. As another example, a person who favors gay rights can consume chicken from a company that does not contribute to anti-gay groups.

It might be countered that people should not have to make such choices. After all, it could be argued, by buying from those companies the consumer is expressing a preference for the product or service and not an approval of a specific moral or political agenda that the company might endorse.

The obvious reply to this counter is that while a person can patronize the company without supporting its advocacy, the customer is contributing in some minor way to that advocacy. For example, the money Kraft made from selling products paid for the creation of the rainbow Oreo. As another example, $2 million of the money Chick-Fil-A made from selling food was given to anti-gay groups.

It could be objected that very little of the money a company receives ever ends up in advocacy and each customer only spends a fairly small amount. If one were to calculate what, for example, the average Kraft or Chick-Fil-A customer spends per year and then take into account what percentage a company spends on advocacy, it would turn out that each customer would make a miniscule contribution. As such, to say that the customer contributes to the advocacy would seem absurd.

The reply to this is that even a miniscule contribution is still a contribution and the individual is thus responsible to that miniscule degree for advocacy conducted by that company (unless, of course, the advocacy money is somehow generated entirely from other revenue sources). As such, if someone opposed to same sex marriage bought Kraft food, s/he made some microscopic contribution to the rainbow Oreo. Likewise, if a person who is for gay rights ate at Chick-Fil-A, then s/he helped fund anti-gay organizations. Naturally, a person’s responsibility can be mitigated by legitimate ignorance. For example, I know people who had not heard about the rainbow Oreo or Chick-Fil-A’s donations until I mentioned these things.

Because being a customer of a company that engages in advocacy helps fund that advocacy, it would seem to follow that a person who regards the advocacy position taken by a company as immoral should not patronize that company. Otherwise s/he would be contributing to something s/he regards as wrong and that would certainly seem wrong.

That said, there is obviously the question of whether the person is right in his/her moral assessment. For example, if homosexuals are morally entitled to equal rights, then Chick-Fil-A would be acting wrongly in supporting groups that seem intent on denying gay rights. Kraft would, in contrast, be acting rightly in showing its support. In this scenario, boycotting Chick-Fil-A would seem right, but boycotting Kraft because of its support of gay rights would be wrong.

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