Monthly Archives: June 2013


Same Sex Marriage

Same Sex Marriage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against an important part of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), specifically  the part of the law that denied benefits to same-sex married couples. The court also ruled 5-4 that the supporters of California’s Proposition 8 (that bans same-sex marriage) did not have the standing to appeal the existing ruling against the proposition. Thus, the court left intact a ruling by a lower court that the proposition is unconstitutional. The court did not, however, make any ruling about the proposition itself.

In the case of DOMA, the court ruled against Section 3, which is the section that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. The legal basis for this ruling is that this definition is a violation of the the Constitutional right to equal protection under the law.  Justice Kennedy, who cast the decisive vote for the 5-4 ruling, noted that “the federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.” He also added that the law imposed  “a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”

While this ruling is being lauded by advocates of same-sex marriage, it is important to note that it obviously does not make same-sex marriage legal throughout the states. However, it does certainly provide a foundation for legal arguments in favor of same-sex marriage. After all, Kennedy makes it clear that the statute disparages and injures those it targets and the same principle can, obviously, be applied to other such laws.

That said, it is important to note another key aspect of Kennedy’s claims. While he clearly notes the pernicious nature of the statute, he does so in the context of how the statute is an attack on the authority of the states which legalized same-sex marriage. As such, he is putting forth a principle with two key components. The first is focused on the personhood and dignity of the people in same-sex married couples. The second is focused on states’ rights, specifically their authority to pass laws regarding marriage.

In the case of DOMA, the two principles are in harmony: DOMA violated the legal authority of the states that had passed laws permitting same-sex marriage and this law certainly seems to have been aimed at disparaging and injuring citizens. However, there is the question of which principle should be given priority when they are in conflict. That is, would the authority of a state override the equal protection clause in this case or would the equal protection clause hold?

The ruling on Proposition 8 sheds some light on this, given that the decision apparently allows each state to set its own marriage policy. This would seem to indicate that the states have the authority to pass laws that would ban same-sex marriage. However, these laws would certainly seem to run afoul of the equal protection clause and would seem to be inconsistent with Kennedy’s reasoning in the first principle attributed to him. One way to reconcile the two would be for states to have the right to pass laws that allow same-sex marriage but lack the right to pass laws that would deny same-sex couples equal protection and rights under the law. This, obviously enough, would seem to imply that same-sex marriage should be legal in all the states. However, this discussion is rather speculative and can, no doubt, be easily countered.

As might be imagined, these rulings were not met with joy by all Americans and there is still opposition to same sex marriage. For example, Austin Nimocks, who is a lawyer with the rather ironically named Alliance Defending Freedom, said that “marriage – the union of husband and wife – will remain timeless, universal and special, particularly because children need mothers and fathers.”

Nimocks seems to be wrong on almost all counts. Marriage is rather obviously neither timeless nor universal. It could be special, but that all depends on what is meant by the term “special.” While children certainly do need parents, there is no necessary connection between children having parents and the sort of “traditional” marriage being put forth by Nimocks.

While my own view of same-sex marriage is extensively developed in  in my book For Better or Worse Reasoning, I will say a bit about the matter here.

Not surprisingly, I agree with the striking down of DOMA and agree with Kennedy’s view that the law disparages and injures citizens. I also agree that the law was a violation the authority of the states. As such, I regarded DOMA as a violation of both individual and collective rights.

I will add, however, that I think that much of our trouble with marriage stems from the fact that we have clumped together various relationships under the term “marriage” and we fail to properly consider that these relationships are quite distinct. In my book, I argue that marriage should be split into at least three categories, namely the legal marriage, the theological union (religious marriage), and the loving marriage. The concern of the state and the laws would be limited to the legal marriage, which is defined by all the various legal and economic aspects of current marriage (such as divorce, insurance, inheritance and so on). The legal marriage is just that, a legal contract, and would be open to consenting adults.

Those who value the religious aspects of marriage and see it is a matter involving God (or whatever) can have their theological unions that are handled by the appropriate religious authorities. This union would have no legal status and, as such, would allow for as much discrimination as desired. This would allow people to protect what they regard as the sanctity of marriage while also preventing them from denying other people their rights.

Those who see marriage as a matter of love would have their love unions that would also have no legal status whatsoever. They could, of course, involve personal promises and all sorts of romance. Naturally, a person could engage in all three marriages (perhaps with the same person in each case).

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Playing With Solipsism II: Ethics

English: , Prussian philosopher. Português: , ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Very crudely put, solipsism is the philosophical view that only I exist. I played around a bit with it in an earlier post, and I thought I’d do so a bit more before putting it back in the attic.

One interesting way to object to solipsism is on moral grounds. After all, if I believe that only I exist, this belief could result in me behaving badly. Assuming that the world exists, people commonly endeavor to lower the moral status of beings they wish to make the targets of their misdeeds. For example, men who want to mistreat women often work hard to cast them as inferior. As another example, people who want to mistreat animals typically convince themselves that animals are inferior beings and hence can be mistreated. Solipsism would seem to present the ultimate reduction: everything other than me is nothing, which is presumably as “low” as it goes (unless there is some sort of negative or anti-existence). If I were to truly believe that other people and animals merely “exist” in my mind, then my treatment of them would seem to not matter at all. Since no one else exists, I cannot commit murder. Since the world is mine, I cannot commit theft. As might be imagined, such believes could open the door to wicked behavior.

One obvious reply is that if solipsism is true, then this would not be a problem. After all, acting badly towards others is only a problem if there are, in fact, others to act badly towards. If solipsism is true, what I do in the “real” world would seem to have no more moral significance than what I do in dreams or in video games. As such, it can be contended that the moral problem is only a problem if one believes that solipsism is false.

However, it can also be contended that the possibility that solipsism is wrong should be taken into account. That is, while I cannot disprove solipsism, I also cannot prove it. As such, the people I encounter might, in fact, be people. As such, the possibility that they are actually people should be enough to require that I act as if they are people in terms of how I treat them. As such, my skepticism about my solipsism would seem to lead me to act morally, even though it is possible that there is no one else to act morally towards. This, obviously enough, is analogous in some ways to concerns about the treatment of certain animals as well as the ethical matter of abortion. If I accept a principle that entities that might be people should be treated as people, this would seem to have some interesting implications. Of course, it could be argued that the possible people need to show the qualities that actual people would have if they existed as people.

It can also be contended that even if solipsism were true, my actions would still have moral significance. That is, I could still act in right or wrong ways.  One way to consider ethics in the context of solipsism is to consider ethics in the case of video games. Some years back I wrote “Saving Dogmeat” which addresses a similar concern, namely whether or not one can be good or bad in regards to video game characters. One way to look at solipsism is that the world is a video game that has one player, namely me.

One obvious way to develop this would be to develop a variant of Kantian ethics. While there would be no other rational beings, the Kantian view that only the good will is good would seem to allow for ethics in solipsism. While my willing could have no consequences for other beings (since there are none) I could presumably still will the good. Another way to do this is by using a modified version of virtue theory. While there would be no right or wrong targets of my feelings and actions (other than myself), there would still seem to be a way to discuss excess and deficiency. There are, of course, numerous other theories that could be modified for a world that is me. For example, utilitarianism would still work, although the only morally relevant being would be me. However, my actions could make me unhappy or happy even though they are directed “towards” the contents of my own mind. For example, engaging in “kindness” could make me happier than engaging in “cruelty.” Of course, this might be better seen as a form of ethical egoism in the purest possible sense (being the only being, I would seem to be the only being that matters-assuming any being matters).

While this might seem a bit silly, solipsism does seem to provide an interesting context in which to discuss ethics. But, time to put solipsism back in the attic.

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Prism & Privacy

The revelations about the once secret Prism program of the National Security Agency

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

have revitalized the old debates about liberty versus security and the individual versus the state. Obviously enough, there are many legal and ethical issues here.

On the face of it, Prism was quite legal-at least in the United States. That is, the program went through all of the legally established procedures for such a program. It remains, however, to see if it is actually constitutional. While questions of legality and constitutionality are interesting, I’ll focus on some of the ethical concerns.

Not surprisingly, the main moral defense of Prism and other programs is based in utilitarianism: any (alleged) wrongs done by intruding into privacy are morally offset by the greater good done by increasing security. The Obama administration has made vague claims that the program has prevented attacks and there is the claim that it will prevent attacks in the future. However, as I have noted before, these claims are coming from the administration who hid the program behind lies. These past deceits and the fact that they are prejudiced clearly makes the administration a dubious source for claims about the efficacy of Prism. However, I do agree that Prism can potentially be morally justified on these grounds and this would be contingent on it doing more good than harm.

The alleged good of such a program can be assessed in terms of the attacks prevented and estimates of the damage that would have been done if such attacks had succeeded. Naturally, the importance of Prism is such prevention must also be considered. After all, if other means  would have prevented the attack anyways, then Prism’s credit should be adjusted appropriately.

There are various ways to argue that Prism and similar programs are wrong. One option is to use the same method as can be used to defend it, namely an assessment of the consequences of the program. In order to show that the program is wrong, what would be needed would be  reasons to believe that the harms inflicted by the program exceed the benefits. As noted above, the alleged benefits involve increased security. However, the only evidence I have for the effectiveness of the program is the claims made by the people who are endeavoring to defend it. In regards to the harms done, there seem to be a variety of actual and potential harms.

I know that my view that programs like Prism are wrong stems from purely emotional causes. First, I was quite the WWII buff as a kid and I was taught that only organizations like the Gestapo engaged in such broad spying on the citizens of the state. Second, I grew up during the Cold War and well remember being told that the communist countries were bad because they spied on the citizens, something we would not do in the West. That sort of thing was for the secret police of dictatorships, not democratic states. These are, of course, naive views and based in emotions rather than logic. However, there seems to something to the notion that a difference between good guys and bad guys does involve the willingness to gather intelligence about citizens.

One harm is that the secrecy and nature of the program seems to have increased the distrust of the citizens for the United States government. It has also damaged the United State’s image around the world. Of course, this sort of damage can be considered relatively minor and it can be claimed that the fickle focus of public attention will shift, especially if some celebrity scandal or  drama catches the public eye.

Another category of harms arises from the invasion of privacy itself. These harms could include psychological harms regarding the violation of privacy and fears about what the state might do with the information. As was evident in the debate over gun control, people can be quite agitated and dismayed by even the rumor that the state might track firearm purchases. While the Prism program does not (directly) track guns (as far as we know) it certainly gathers a vast amount of information about people.

A third category of harms involves the potential harms. One obvious worry is that even if the information is being used for only legitimate purposes now, there is the possibility that the information could be misused in the future. Or is being misused now. Some people were quite upset by the IRS asking certain groups for more information and with the Department of Justice gathering information about reporters. Obviously, whatever harms occurred in those cases would be vastly multiplied. After all, Prism is getting into everyone’s business.

There are, of course, other harms that can be considered.

A second option is to go with a rights based approach to the matter. If there is a moral right to privacy, then Prism would certainly seem to intrude on that right (if not violate it). Naturally, rights can be limited on moral grounds. The usual example is, of course, that the freedom of speech does not allow anyone to say anything at anytime-the right is limited by concerns about harms. Likewise for the right to privacy (if there is such a right).

The obvious challenge with an appeal to a right is to argue that there is such a right. In the case of legal rights, this is easy enough-one can just point to the relevant laws that specify the legal rights. When it comes to moral rights, it is a bit trickier.  Classic rights theorists like John Locke argued for rights to life, liberty and property. A case can be made that certain privacy rights fall under the right to property. For example, it can be contended that my communications belong to me and if the state intercepts and stores them, the state is stealing my property. A case can also be made to put certain privacy rights under the right to liberty. For example, I should have the liberty of communication without the state restricting it by creating the fear that my communications can be intercepted and copied without the justification of legitimate suspicion of wrongdoing on my part.

In any case, it would be interesting to see a full development of privacy rights or at least a clear presentation of what is lost when privacy is intruded upon by programs like prism.

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Playing with Solipsism

Ol' Solipsism

Ol’ Solipsism (Photo credit: found_drama)

Imagine that you are the only being that exists.  Not that you are the last person on earth, but that the earth and everything other than you is merely the product of your deranged imagination. This, very crudely put, is solipsism.

As with watching Star Trek, most philosophers go through a solipsism phase. As with the Macarena and Gangnam Style, this phases usually fades with merciful rapidity. This fading is, however, usually not due to a definitive refutation of solipsism. In many cases, philosophers just get bored with it and move on. In other cases, it is very much like the fads of childhood-it is okay to accept the fad as a kid, but once you grow up you need to move on to adult things. Likewise for solipsism-a philosopher who plays with it too long will be shamed by her fellows. Mostly.

Just for fun, I thought I would play a bit with solipsism-in the manner of an adult who finds an favorite childhood toy in the attic and spends a few moments playing with it before setting it aside, presumably to go write a status update about it on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, solipsism actually has a lot going for it-at least in terms of solving philosophical problems and meeting various conditions of philosophical goodness.

One obvious thing in favor of solipsism is that, as per Descartes’ wax example, every experience seems to serve to prove that I exist rather than that something else  exists. For example, if I seem to be playing around with some wax, I can (as per Descartes) doubt that the wax exists. However, my experience seems to show rather clearly that I exist and doubting my existence would just serve to prove I exist. In fact, as skeptics have argued for centuries, it seems impossible to prove that there is anything external to myself-be it an external world or other minds. As such, solipsism seems to be the safest bet: I know I exist, but I have no knowledge about anything else.

Another factor in favor of solipsism is its economy and simplicity. All the theory requires is that I, whatever I am, exist. As such, there would presumably be just one ontological kind (me). Any other theory (other than the theory that there is nothing) would need more stuff and would need more complexity. These seem to be significant advantages for solipsism.

A third factor is that solipsism seems to solve many philosophical problems. The problem of the external world? Solved: no such thing. The problem of other minds? Solved: no such things. The mind-body problem? Probably solved. And so on for many other problems.

Naturally, there are various objections to solipsism.

One obvious objection, which I stole from Descartes (or myself), is that if I was the only being in existence, then I would surely have made myself better. However, I make no claims to being omnipotent-so perhaps I made myself as well as I could. Or perhaps I did not create myself at all-maybe I just appeared ex-nihilo. In any case, this does not seem to be a fatal problem.

A related objection is the argument from bad experiences:  cannot be the only thing in existence because of the bad experiences I have.  I’ve experience illness, injury, pain and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if I was the only being in existence I would not have these bad experiences. All my experiences would be good.

Laying aside the possibility that I am a masochist, the easy and obvious reply is to point out that a person’s dreams are produced by the person, yet dreams can be nightmares. I’ve written up many of my nightmares as horror adventures for games such as Dark Conspiracy and Call of Cthulhu so it can be gathered that I do have some rather awful nightmares. I also have dreams with more mundane woes and suffering, such as nightmares about illnesses, injuries and so on. Given that it is accepted that a person can generate awful dreams, it would seem to make sense that the same sort of thing could happen in the case of solipsism. That is, if I can dream nightmares I can also  “live” them.

Another objection is that the alleged real world contains things that I do not understand (like specialized mathematics) and things I could not create (like works of art). As such, I cannot be the only being that exists.

The easy and obvious reply to the understanding reply is that I understand as much as I do and the extent of my understanding defines what seems possible to me. To be a bit clearer, I have no understanding of the specialized mathematics that lies beyond my understanding and hence I do not really know if there is anything there I do not actually know. That is, what is allegedly beyond my understanding might not exist at all. Interestingly, any attempt to show that something exists beyond my understanding (and hence must be created by someone else) would fail. To the degree I understand it, I can attribute it to my own creation. To the degree I do not, I can attribute it to my own ignorance.

In terms of the art objection, the easy reply is to note that I can dream of art that I apparently cannot create myself. To use an example, in the waking world, I have little skill when it comes to painting. But I have had dreams in which I saw magnificent  original paintings I had not seen in real life.  The same applies to dream statues, architecture and so on. As such, the art that seems beyond me in the world could be produced in the same way it occurs in dreams.

Descartes (or me), I think, had the most promising project for refuting solipsism: if I can find something that I cannot possible be the cause of, then that gives me a good reason to believe that I am not the only being in existence. Or, more accurately, that I am not the only being to ever exist. However, there does not seem to be anything like that-after all, everything I experience falls within the limits of me and hence could all be about and only me.

But surely that is crazy.


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Philosophically vicious

While I think there is a conceptual difference between doing philosophy and being a proper philosopher, I admit that people act as if they are substantially linked. In particular, when someone wants to accuse their intellectual arch-nemesis of being a non-philosopher, they will marshal a reliable collection of taunts or insults. The drama that ensues is usually tedious and not worth dwelling on, except for the fact that the insults that self-described philosophers level against each other actually tells us something about what they value most about philosophy. (And also, I suppose, because there is a small cottage industry in philosophy that is now dedicated to the conceptual analysis of naughty words. Recall Frankfurt on Bullshit, McGinn on Mindfucking, and Aaron James on Assholes.)

If you want to insult a self-described philosopher, you have to point to their vices. A vice is just a lonely virtue — the thing that makes traits virtuous is that they come in clusters. For example, if you have the gift of insight, but lack any other intellectual virtues, then you are a dogmatist.

As far as I can tell, ‘being philosophical’ involves the manifestation of two kinds of virtues: the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and the right reflective methods (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). One should expect that being philosophical means you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways. The aspiring philosopher must manifest the right intentions, but their work cannot be all about good intentions. By the same token, the aspirant must manifest some facility with the right methods, but the whole of their work cannot be confined to reflective methods. Philosophers actually have to help us do something, understand something.

In theory, some insults are grotesque offenses to the philosophical mind. No aspiring philosopher should want to be found guilty of being a dogmatist, worry-wart, puzzle-solver, or sycophant; if the definition of ‘philosopher’ ever countenances such habits of mind, then I will finally know that I have lost all sense of what the word means. There is a non-trivial possibility that I have never known what philosophy is, but I am comforted by the fact that I appear to be in good company. Recall the Gellner-Ryle spat, where variations on all four accusations show up in print. First, Russell admonishes Ryle for running the risk of turning Mind into “the mutual admiration organ of a coterie” (sycophancy); then GRG Mure of Oxford accuses practitioners of the OLP movement as being “long self-immunized to criticism” (dogmatism); and later Arnold Kaufner (Michigan) alludes to the possibility that the Oxford group as guilty of “precious cleverness” and “genteel subtlety” (puzzle-solvers) and “ritualistic caution” (worry-warts).

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The problem with these sorts of insults is that they are so broad that when they are used by institutional peers the words will probably have no force. These insults mark out properties of persons which would be obvious if they were true, and hence would not usually even need to be asserted. Between institutional peers, the barb of an insult is most effective to the extent that it conforms to the facts, and the extent to which the assertion actually reveals something informative about those facts. People fall more in love with the subtler insults, ones that are grounded in the truth and in a potentially surprising way. The more intemperate and thoughtless your insults, the less people need to pay attention to you.*

Most readers are aware of the fact that during the 20th century there was a distinction between analytic philosophy and continental metaphysics. This distinction was based on innumerable factors, including substantive disagreements over particular viewpoints, and wide disagreement over who counted as an authority in philosophy. And that’s fine. But whatever the initial causes of the divide, it persisted in part because each side was able to caricature the other side as unphilosophical in one of the above ways. For analytic philosophers, continental metaphysicians were seen as romantic malcontents. (Recall Russell on existentialism: “It is from a mood of feeling oppressed that existentialism stages its rebellion against rationalism… The rationalist sees his freedom in a knowledge of how nature works; the existentialist finds it in an indulgence of his moods.”) Meanwhile, continental philosophers thought of analytic philosophers as methodology-obsessed and science-craven. (My use of the past tense is strategic but fanciful.)


Some people (let’s call them romantics) talk about philosophy as if it described the expression of deep and serious thoughts on some profound issue. The romantic approach to philosophy likes to think that the primary point of philosophy is to play with ideas, to enjoy the freedom to think. Arguments are not conceived as tools, but as a canvas, and the fruit of the argument comes from weaving out authentic interconnections. The artisan delights in the avant garde, and enjoys seeing what an experimental attitude towards philosophy might bring about.

But no matter how deep you think your beliefs are, no matter how humble you are in adopting them, and no matter how sincere you are in expressing them, you owe it to your readers to show how you could be wrong. As interesting as your deep thoughts may be, if your philosophy of life can’t be assessed in public, and if you take no part in that ongoing assessment, then it is not a part of your work as a philosopher and you’re not acting like much of a philosopher when you do it. Good intentions and deep insights are not enough to acquit a writer of using obscure jargon and dubious inferences. Anthony Kenny knew and collaborated with Jacques Derrida as a young man, but his final judgment on Derrida’s work is both fair and decisive: Derrida’s M.O. was to “introduce new terms whose effect is to confuse ideas that are perfectly distinct”.

Sometimes, people are unfairly targeted as romantics when in retrospect they ought to have been given a fair shake. Marshall McLuhan is one of the most famous Canadian intellectuals from the 20th century, and his work has undeniable insight and natural modesty. He is owed due credit as a futurist and media theorist, and I am sure philosophers could learn quite a lot from his work. But while I leave it to others to determine whether or not he was a proper philosopher, I expect few would. Certainly, today’s professional philosophers do not. Max Black (anticipating Harry Frankfurt) referred to McLuhan as one of his generation’s humbuggers. All the same, I cannot help but point out that McLuhan seems to have been philosophizing, at least in the generous historical sense that I am working with. While there is no attempt at rigor, there was usually a reasonable chain of inferences and engagement in a wider Humanities-wide conversation. Of course, his dictum “The medium is the message” was obtuse — but even so, the point he was trying to make was comparably interesting.


What holds for one extreme also holds for the other. If you say that philosophy is all about method — if, in other words, you are a scholastic intellectual technician— then it is hard to see how you could make any but the most perfunctory gestures to truth or understanding. When you ask someone who is obsessed with methodology why they do philosophy, they will explain to you the importance of trading of reasons for reasons, and how the rules of the philosophical game work. They will not answer a direct question, like “What consequence does this intellectual puzzle have to our lives?”. Instead, the inquiry will be treated as intrinsically valuable in the worst possible sense of the phrase. The technician is interested in getting to the heart of the ‘rules of chmess‘ thing once and for all, and we are unaffected by the effort.

Don’t be too hard on the technician. In all likelihood, the methods-obsessed soul has been appropriately traumatized by the most odious aspects of the philosophical culture, by pointless dogmatists and contrarians. You can hardly blame them for retreating to the safety and surety of intellectual Sudoku, any more than you can blame hobbits for keeping to the Shire.

The approach from method faces an additional burden, in that it does its part in stamping out philosophy as a distinctive and productive part of the Humanities. So, critics of modern analytic philosophy can ask the philosopher to show that reasoning from the armchair is both intellectually productive and distinctively non-scientific. Of course, it is now well-known that armchair methods are not always as productive as they seem. But it is also not obvious that armchair methods are distinctively philosophical. For, contrary to empiricist prejudices, quite a lot of good science could not be done unless we used some kind of aprioristic methods — be that in the form of mathematics, metaphysics, or modelling. Hence, in order to say something distinctive about philosophy, we have to talk about a productive and interesting part of the philosophical tradition that would be tough to sell as science. At least in the broader historical picture, intentional virtues are part of the philosopher’s real estate.

It is much more difficult to mention an example of a technician, in part because they are seldom remembered or celebrated after passing on. People bother to remember McLuhan, even if he was not even wrong, because it turns out that he had a thing to say and it was important that he said it. In contrast, empty refinements of method and their application to irrelevant and inconsequential subjects is not even ‘not even wrong’ — it is not even bullshit.


* Notice: this lesson only applies when it comes to exchanges between institutional peers. It is quite a different story if there are differences in power-relations, as John Kerry learned in 2004.


The Woolly Mammoth became extinct around 12,00...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pausing in her grazing, a mother mammoth casts a wary eye for signs of danger to herself and her offspring. Hidden from her view, a saber-toothed cat assesses his chances of getting a meal…or getting stomped. The cat is startled by movement behind it and whirls about to confront a vehicle full of people. Digital photos are snapped, then uploaded to Facebook. “Damn tourists”, thinks the cat, as it saunters away.

While this scene is not yet a reality, there are people who hope to make it so through de-extinction. De-extinction is the restoration of a species that has been lost to extinction. The most famous fictional example is Jurassic Park: dinosaurs are restored and made the central focus of an amusement park. There have been real-life attempts at restoring lost species, but these have focused on species that went extinct far more recently than the dinosaurs.

There are various ways in which a species can be restored. The best known (thanks to the movies) is genetic restoration: the genes of the species are recovered and used to recreate the species. For example, recovered mastodon DNA could be implanted into an “emptied” elephant egg and the egg could then be implanted into a female elephant. If the process succeeded, the surrogate mother would give birth to an actual mastodon.

A somewhat less known method is “trait” or “appearance” restoration. In this method, an extinct species is recreated by selectively modifying an existing species until it looks like the extinct species. For example, an extinct species of pigeons could be “restored” in this manner. One rather obvious question about this method is whether or not such a restoration should be considered an actual de-extinction. To use the obvious analogy, if after my death someone is modified to look like me, then I have not been restored to life. Likewise, creating a species that looks (and acts) like the extinct species does not seem to really restore the species. Rather, a rather clever imposter has been created.

In additional to the practical concerns of the science and technology of de-extinction, there are also moral concerns. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns involve he potential consequences of de-extinction.

One matter of concern is that the de-extinction of a species could actually have negative consequences for other species or the environment. A restored species could become an invasive and harmful species (directly or indirectly), which would be rather bad and has been shown by existing invasive species that have been transported by humans into new environments. In the case of de-extinction, humans would be re-created rather than transporting-but the effect could be quite similar.

It can be replied that the impact of a species could be sorted out ahead of time, especially if the species went extinct fairly recently. The counter to this reply is to point out that people have made rather serious mistakes when importing species and that it is not unreasonable to believe that people could make comparable mistakes.

Another matter of concern that a species could be restored despite there not being a viable habitat for it. This sort of irresponsible de-extinction might occur for a variety of reasons, perhaps to provide a novelty attraction for a zoo or park. This sort of treatment of an animal would certainly seem to be wrong because of the exploitation of the species. The reply to this is the same that is given when species that are close to extinction are kept in zoos or parks: such an existence is better than no existence. This does have a certain appeal, but it could be contended that restoring an animal to keep it in a zoo is relevantly different from endeavoring to preserve an existing species. It could also be contended that the zoo preservation of endangered species is wrong, hence the restoration of an extinct species to serve as a zoo exhibit would also be wrong.

One common argument against re-extinction is that it would be expensive and it would thus take money away from conservation efforts that would yield more results for the money. While I cannot predict the exact cost of restoring a mastodon, it seems safe to predict that it would be extremely expensive. This money could, one might argue, be better spent in protecting elephants.

While such cost arguments have considerable appeal, they often suffer from an obvious defect. This defect is that the argument fails to take into account the fact that there is not just one pool of money that is allocated to this matter. That is, money spent on restoring a species need not come from the money that would otherwise be spent on preserving existing species.

While it could be argued that money spent on de-extinction would be better spent elsewhere, it could very well be the case that the money spent on de-extinction would not, in fact, be spent on anything better. To use an obvious example, a wealthy celebrity might not care much about the plight of the snail darter, but he might be willing to spend millions of dollars to get a saber-toothed cat. To use another example, an investor might not be interested in spending money to save elephants, but she might be very interested in funding a Mammoth Park featuring restored mammoths and other charismatic but extinct species that people would pay to see. Interestingly, this sort of funding could itself raise moral concerns. That is, bringing back the mammoths so some investors can make a fortune on Mammoth Park might strike some as morally dubious.

Laying aside the moral concerns connected to why we should not engage in de-extinction, there is also to matter of why we should (morally) do this. In the case of natural extinctions, it would seem that we would not have a moral reason to restore a species. After all, humans were not responsible for its demise. Naturally, we might have pragmatic (to create Mammoth Park) or scientific reasons to restore such a species.

In the case of human caused extinctions, a case can be made that we should undo the (alleged) wrong that we did. This line of reasoning has the most appeal. After all, if we were responsible for the death of a species and we could restore this species, then it would seem that we should do so. To use the obvious analogy, if I kill someone (by accident or by intent) and then I get the means to restore the person, then I should do so (unless, of course, killing the person was the right thing to do).

In any case, I am waiting for my dire wolf-husky crossbreed.

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Philosophers: philosophical, proper, and professional

Philosophy is a big tent kind of thing. There is a world of difference between being philosophicalbeing a proper philosopher, and being a professional philosopher.

As far as I can tell, the practice of doing philosophy is intimately related to the state of being philosophical.  To do philosophy is to be philosophical about some characteristically general subjects, for the purpose of increasing understanding and reducing confusion. In the ideal case, being philosophical involves manifesting certain virtues: you must have the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and you must proceed using a reflective skill-set (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). The bare requirement for being philosophical – even when you do it badly – is that you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways.

It is possible to be philosophical without being a proper philosopher or a professional philosopher. The requirements for doing actual philosophy are quite a bit lower than the requirements for doing actual engineering. To do philosophy you have to approach some of the general questions while behaving philosophically; to do engineering, you have to be a proper engineer. [It is seldom claimed that] Meno was a proper philosopher, but we won’t hesitate to say that Meno was seriously doing philosophy with Socrates; in contrast, professional engineers would probably not say that a child playing with Lego has really seriously done some engineering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Lego. If it came to that, I’d be more inclined to say there’s something wrong with engineers.)

In philosophy, there are unusually high barriers to success. A person who does philosophy in a middling way is not a proper philosopher; if you can describe her philosophizing in a cheap metaphor, it is a sign that things have fallen short of the mark. Proper philosophers do productive work that is worthy of attention, however you would like to cash that out.

The merits of a work in professional philosophy are only obliquely defined in terms of their philosophical traits. Professional philosophers are judged according to various things, including their scholarly competence, their intelligence, their papers, peers, prudence, and pedigree. Professional philosophers are not directly tested on whether or not they have philosophical acumen; indeed, it is rarely stated outright what ‘being philosophical’ amounts to. At best, it is assumed (with some justification) that the professional desiderata will overlap substantially with the philosophical traits. At worst, professionals will float blissfully along from one encounter to the next operating on the assumption that whatever they are up to is all aces, and good riddance to the rest of the profession.

[Edit: In comments, Phillip points us to this video on the rise of professional philosophy. It helps to give you a sense of the difference between ‘being philosophical’ and ‘being a professional philosopher’.]

[Edit 2: I also recommend reading comments in this thread, which touch on similar themes but from a different view.]

Philosopher’s Carnival at Siris

Hey all, this month’s Philosopher’s Carnival (#152) is now online! This month it is hosted over at Siris, one of the better philosophy blogs out there. Brandon has come up with something quite special this month, and it’s well worth a gander.


National Security Agency seal

Information about the United States’ Prism program was leaked by Edward Snowden  to the Washington Post and the Guardian. Some people are casting Snowden as a traitor while others are lauding him as a hero. Some are presenting him as motivated by pure narcissism.

People have a tendency to present their actions in the most favorable light, so it is hardly surprising that Snowden claims that his  motivation was ethical in nature:

The N.S.A. has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your e-mails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.

I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.

If Snowden is being honest about his motivation, then a case can be made that he acted rightly. That is, he acted in accord with his moral conscience. While he might have been in error, it is unreasonable to fault a person who acts in this manner-at least if the person’s moral conscience is properly informed. While ignorance can be an excuse, willful ignorance or unwarranted ignorance do not provide a moral excuse.

In the case of Snowden, it would be unreasonable to claim that he was ignorant of the general business of the NSA. It is a matter of general knowledge that the NSA is in the business of gathering information domestically. It is also a matter of general knowledge that since 9/11 domestic spying has been a rather flexible sort of matter. As such, Snowden should have not been morally shocked that the NSA engaged in such activities.

It could be replied that while Snowden should have been aware of the general business of the NSA, he was initially unaware of the extent of Prism. This does have considerable  plausibility-the Prism program was (before the leak) top secret and hence Snowden would almost certainly not have known the details about it prior to his employment. As such, Snowden could plausible claim ignorance in this matter. It could also be replied that Snowden changed his mind over time.

Even if Snowden acted from a moral motivation, there is still the question of whether or not his actions were well considered. After all, a person could act from his conscience, but the actions could be poorly considered. In the case of Snowden and the NSA, Snowden elected to expose a program that he knew was legal and this certainly complicates matters. After all, it is one thing to leak information about illegal activities and quite another to leak information about legal activities.

The obvious reply to this is that what is legal is not the same as what is ethical (except for those who accept legalism). As such, the legal Prism program could be unethical. Assuming that a citizen should expose the moral misdeeds of the state, if the Prism program is immoral, then Snowden could have acted rightly in exposing the secrets.

Obviously enough, a rather important matter is whether or not Snowden had good grounds on which to believe that Prism is an immoral program. But this is a matter for another time.

Getting back to the main issue, the Guardian and the Post did not publish most of the information that Snowden leaked to them-they decided that it should not be made public. A case could be made that Snowden’s leak was somewhat irresponsible in that he leaked far more than was needed to expose misdeeds and this excessive leaking could thus be regarded as unethical. It could also be taken as evidence that he was not motivated by moral reasons but by some other factors. Then again, it could be argued that he just engaged in poor decision making in this regard.

It is also worth considering that Snowden apparently went straight to leaking rather than attempting to address his concerns through legal and proper channels. After all, there are mechanisms in place for such matters. However, it could be replied that Snowden believed that this was not a viable option. The Obama administration, despite is professed support for whistleblowers and transparency, has been rather non-transparent and has established a reputation as being rather harsh on whistleblowers. There is also the question of who Snowden could have gone to in order to address his concerns-as noted above, everything being done was legal and had the blessing of all the relevant authorities. So, if he believed that all the folks in the government were involved in this and accepted it as legal, he could hardly be expected to take his concerns to them.

It is also worth noting that Snowden fled the United States to Hong Kong. When asked about this, he said that “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” Given that Hong Kong is now controlled by China (which certainly does not have a commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent), this raises some concerns. It could be the case that Snowden really believes that Hong Kong is a bastion of free speech and will protect him from the United States or perhaps he is acting pragmatically and seeking protection from a power that can stand up to the United States. In any case, there is the obvious concern that China now has easy access to Snowden and the secrets he stole from the NSA. It is also worth considering that Snowden’s motivations were not ethical but practical, namely that he was motivated from gain. His future actions will help address this matter.

In general terms, Snowden does bring up the old issue of the conflict of the conscience of the individual with the orders of the state. Assuming, of course, that Snowden truly acted from his conscience. I do not, obviously enough, know the answer to this. However, I do believe that the Prism program is morally dubious (at best) and while it went through all the secret legal processes, I do think a good case can be made that the program violated constitutional rights. But, I will leave this issue to the constitutional lawyers.

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The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revelations of the United States government’s Prism Program have brought the matter  of privacy into the spotlight. While it should be no surprise that the United State’s government is scooping up vast quantities of information from communication systems ranging from phones to the internet, the scope and nature of the collection has disturbed many people.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has defended Prism on two main grounds. The first is that the program is legal. That is, it went through all the proper secret processes in the dark places of the government. But, of course, mere legality does not make something right. There is also the legitimate worry that this legal program actually violates Constitutional rights.

I do no have any doubts that the program is legal-I am confident that it was properly guided through the dark caverns under the public government and legally set loose upon the world. As far as the Constitutionality, I am not fully re-assured by the assurances that the data scooped up by Prism is being used in strict accordance to the Constitution.

The second is the usual line that it is necessary for national security. The idea is that certain rights need to be infringed upon in order to make us safer. This approach does have its appeal. This is because the limitation of rights can, in fact, make us safer. For example, limiting the right of people to sell contaminated food does make us safer. As another example, limiting the right to own certain weapons (like chemical weapons and grenades) does make us safer. As such, I do not reject the “it makes us safer” argument out of hand.

When considering this justification, there are two main concerns. The first is whether or not the limitation of the rights in question actually makes us safer. After all, while limiting a right can make us safer, this is not always the case. It would, of course, be a bad idea to restrict a right when doing so has no benefit. In the case of Prism, what would be needed would be proof that the program actually made us safer. This might include evidence of foiled plots and arrests of terrorists that resulted specifically from Prism. Naturally, I do not really expect such information to be forthcoming since the effectiveness of the program is no doubt a matter of national security and thus secret. However, I will consider the possibility that Prism did yield some positive results that could be used to justify what are claimed to be privacy violations.

The second concern is whether or not the safety gained is worth the cost resulting from the limitation (or violation of) the right in question. For example, we would be safer if each person had a tracking chip implanted into his body. If a person knows that her location is always known, then she would be less likely to engage in misdeeds and far easier to catch if she chose to act badly anyways. However, such implantation and tracking would seem to be an excessive violation of the right to privacy and hence would not seem to be worth the cost. In the case of Prism, a key question is whether or not the (alleged) gain in security is worth the cost paid in terms of the limitation or violation of rights.

The Obama administration has been quick to claim that the data gathered does not violate the right to privacy of the people that matter. If this is true, then perhaps the security gained is worth the price. However, there is the reasonable concern that this is not the case and it is certainly worrisome when the state engages in such massive data scooping.

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