Monthly Archives: November 2013

MOOCing Education

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On the face of it, a MOOC looks rather good to administrators worried about budgets and for-profit education industry companies. After all, the MOOC promises to do for education what automation and outsourcing did for manufacturing. In the case of the purely online college level MOOC, a pre-packaged class is delivered to students via the web and grading is either automated or outsourced. From a financial standpoint, the main virtues of this sort of college level MOOC is that it eliminates the expense of the full time professor and allows for mass education.

While the main concern of the for-profit and the financially focused administrator is money, actual educators tend to be concerned with education. As such, there is the question of whether or not the fully online MOOCs can deliver adequate education. While some faculty have been accused of opposing MOOCs simply out of fear of losing their jobs or because they fear or do not understand the technology, my main concern is the issue of whether or not MOOCs can deliver. If they can, in fact, deliver quality education to more people and at a far lower cost than traditional education, then I would supports MOOCs—even at the cost of my own job. This is not to say that I want to lose my job, just that I am willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. That is, in part, why I passed on vastly more lucrative careers in order to be an educator.

Last year San Jose State University (SJSU) conducted what amounted to a controlled experiment comparing MOOCs to hybrid and traditional classes. SJSU partnered with the non-profit edX to offer hybrid classes combining MIT lectures in engineering with SJSU faculty providing direct educational support for the students. These hybrid classes proved to be winners: the students performed better than in the traditional classes.

The results of these hybrid classes matches my own experiences. I taught a successful hybrid class on Ethics last spring and have incorporated hybrid elements into all my classes to good effect. One reason that the hybrid classes seem to be effective is that it allows students to watch the educational videos and consume other material at their own pace (and repeatedly) while also being able to be directly guided and supported by an actual professional. Another reason is that providing the students with the ability to do or submit work online frees them from the need to be on campus at a specific time.

Unfortunately for the students at SJSU, the school also partnered with the for-profit Udacity. This company got a no bid contract to offer online-only classes in developmental math, algebra and statistics. While the price was only $150, most of the students did not pass the classes. In the case of developmental math, the pass rate was 25% compared to the pass rate of 65% for the traditional versions of the class. None of the classes had a higher than 50% pass rate, which is clearly rather bad. Not surprisingly, 80% of the students indicated that they needed more help with the class content than was offered online.

Udacity did have some apparent success: one summer algebra course had a 72% pass rate. However, this class was mostly people who had already graduated and the online exams now came with hints to help the students. As such, this mainly showed that college graduates who are given hints on exams will be able to pass such a course. This hardly serves as support for MOOCs in general.

It is worth considering that this is but one “experiment” and there very well might be factors specific to Udacity or SJSU that caused the poor results. As such, it could be possible for fully online MOOC to be a success and MOOCs should not simply be dismissed based on Udacity and SJSU and more data is needed. That said, there is a clear moral concern in regards to additional “experiments” involving MOOCs.

One aspect of this moral concern is that charging students to serve as experimental MOOC subjects seems to be unethical. A student who is paying has a reasonable expectation that the course will be up to the proper standards of a college course.

Another moral concern is that students who take a MOOC class as part of their required curriculum are at risk of losing time due to the failures of the class (and not their own failures). As such, testing MOOCs on students when they are paying for the classes and taking them for real seems to be unethical. However, there is the legitimate concern that students who are taking a free class that does not count will be far more likely to drop out or not put in much effort—thus making it challenging to judge the efficacy of a MOOC. A partial solution might be to offer such classes at a significantly lower cost (or free) and allow students to retake the class as a traditional or hybrid class if they fail (with the new grade erasing and replacing the MOOC grade).

As a closing point, I am also concerned about the partnering of for-profit MOOC companies with colleges and universities. The rather obvious concern is that universities and colleges already have full time education experts that are creating and running classes, namely the professors. As such, there would seem to be little need to contract with a for-profit company to do what can already be done in house.  To us an analogy, it would be like a hospital deciding that it will contract out its health care to a company that provides automated medical care and bypass its own doctors and nurses.

Providing such classes is also the core mission of an institute of higher learning. To contract out education is to bypass the professors and to hand over the core mission of the institution to an outside company. While this is clearly a good deal for the for-profit company that gets the contract, it seems to take a significant step towards turning the institution into a shell. This, of course, could be the dream of some: a school that has no faculty, but only well-paid administrators and well-paid education contractors.

Naturally, it might be contended that I am merely expressing fear about losing my job. However, as noted above, my concern is with the quality of the education that such MOOCs provide. The existing data indicates that they are lacking in quality. As such, handing over education to the MOOCs would seem to be a bad idea. Except, of course, for those who see education as merely another area of profit.

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E-Reading & Education

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While there is considerable push to move education onto the internet and textbooks are readily available as e-books, there are still reasonable concerns about the impact of the shift from paper text to digital text. Fortunately, there have been some studies and experiments to determine the impact of digital text.

Ferris Jabr’s article, “Why the Brain Prefers Paper”, appears in the November 2013 issues of Scientific American and raises some points well worth considering. While he is not writing explicitly about e-text in education, the findings discussed in the article are clearly relevant in academics.

One finding is that paper text seems to be better than e-text in terms of comprehension and memory. That is, people who read text on paper tend to have a better understanding of the material and remember it better. One possible reason for this is that a paper text allows people to navigate the material using abilities that they have developed in the “physical” world. The physicality of the paper text is thus an advantage. A second reason is that people also seem to be better at creating mental maps of long texts when they read it on paper. This also seems to be linked to the physicality of the paper text.

Another finding is that e-text can tire both the mind and the body. One obvious example is that scrolling text requires more effort than simply reading and turning actual pages. This can be avoided by software or hardware that allows reading without scrolling. For example, dedicated reader devices like the Nook allow the reader to “turn” pages rather than scroll. Another obvious example is that staring at a screen is more tiring than reading text on paper. As with scrolling, dedicated reader devices endeavor this problem by trying to replicate the experience of paper. For example, the Kindle uses an E-Ink display that creates a paper-like visual experience in that it uses reflected rather than projected light.

Because of these factors, it is hardly surprising that the studies and experiments generally indicate that reading digital text is inferior to reading paper text in regards to matters that are of concern in academics such as understanding, retention and performance on tests on the material. In short, the use of digital text puts the reader at a disadvantage relative to using paper text.

It might be claimed that the problems with digital text are primarily caused by the fact that the people studied grew up reading on paper and thus have a paper bias. If this is true, then the generation that grows up reading digital text will not experience the same problems as those who grew up with paper.

Interestingly, studies of people who are “digital natives” indicate that even they do better with paper than with digital text. One explanation for this is that the e-book and e-readers are distracting. However, these studies are still preliminary and more time will be needed to determine the impact of being a digital native on reading.

The apparent inferiority of digital text relative to paper text should be a matter of concern for educators. If an educator is choosing between digital and paper text, these findings would indicate that the paper text is a better choice in regards to understanding and remembering the material. If an educator is relying entirely or primarily on digital text, then these findings suggest that the grading would actually need to be adjusted in regards to testing that involves understanding and remembering text—students using digital texts will, in general, perform worse than those using paper texts. Then again, they would actually be learning less and thus the lower grade could be regarded as justified, but not the fault of the student.

While paper does seem to be superior to digital in many ways, there are still advantages to digital text that educators should consider. One is that a digital text is better than no text. Like most professors, I have found that students often do not buy the text. Not surprisingly, students often claimed that it was the cost of the book that deterred them. In response, I created free PDF readers using public domain material (which is very easy to do in philosophy). While paper text might be better than digital, a digital text is better than no text (and students can print the text, although they rarely do). Digital texts that are not free do tend to be cheaper than printed versions, which might result in more students actually reading the text.

A second advantage is the convenience of digital texts. When I was a student, I had to lug around a book bag full of my books and notes. That was a bit inconvenient and I, like most students, ditched that bag as soon as I could. With digital texts a student can carry a vast number of books with her in her phone, tablet, e-reader, or laptop. As such, a student can read digital texts without the hassle of carrying around a stack of books. On the downside, students generally seem to prefer to text, Facebook or game rather than read and these distractions are always present on most devices. As such, the convenience of e-text could be outweighed by the distraction factor. While my books were heavy, they did not include built in distractions—printed books do not receive texts or allow one to get birds that are angry (except by throwing books at them—which should not be done).

In any case, the shift to e-text is ongoing and inevitable. That said, educators need to give the impact of this transition considerable thought in regards to selecting texts and assessing student performance.

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Trigger Point

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One rather important matter is determining the appropriate trigger point for regulation and law. The basic challenge is determining the level at which a problem is such that it warrants the creation and enforcement of regulations and laws.

While it would be unreasonable to expect that an exact line can be drawn in all or even any cases (to require such an exact line would be to fall into the line-drawing fallacy, a variation on the false dilemma fallacy), a general level can presumably be set in regards to tolerance of harm.

Naturally, the level of reasonable tolerance would involve many variables, such as the number of cases of harm, the severity of the harm, the cost of regulation/laws, and so on. For example, paying a cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes no harms would seem to be unreasonable and wasteful.  As such, the various “morality” laws that regulate consensual sex between adults would be unreasonable and wasteful. As another example, paying a modest cost to regulate or outlaw something that causes considerable harm in both numbers and severity would seem reasonable. Thus, the regulation of alcohol and tobacco seems reasonable.

While the specifics will vary from case to case, there should be a consistent approach to these determinations based on general principles regarding costs, number of incidents, severity of the harm and so on. In general, a utilitarian approach would be sensible—weighing out the likely benefits and harms for the various approaches to determine the most reasonable approach.

Not surprisingly, people tend to approach the trigger point of law and regulation very inconsistently. As with most matters of law and regulation, people tend to assess matters based on what they like and dislike rather than rationally assessing the relevant factors.

As a matter of comparison, consider the gun related deaths of children and voter fraud. While there is some dispute about the exact number of children who die from accidental gunshot wounds children obviously do die in this manner.  Not surprisingly, some people have endeavored to strengthen the regulation of guns and pass laws that are aimed at preventing the accidental death of children from gunshots. It is also not surprising that the National Rifle Association (and other similar organizations) have lobbied against such efforts and have argued about the statistics regarding the gun related deaths of children. While the N.R.A. is obviously not in favor of the death of children, the approach taken has also included the standard method of contending that the problem is not at the trigger point at which new regulation or laws should be created and enforced. The general idea is that the harm being done is not significant enough to warrant new regulation or laws regarding guns, such as rules for the safe storage of weapons. In support of this, the N.R.A argues that the death rate from accidental shootings is less than falls, poison or “environmental factors.” That is, not enough children are dying to warrant new laws or regulation (I will assume that the death of a child is regarded as being a serious harm).

There is also considerable dispute about voter fraud, although even those who regard voter fraud as a serious problem admit that the number of incidents is tiny. However, after the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Right Act several states enacted laws alleged to be aimed at addressing voter fraud. These laws include those requiring voters to have the proper ID (which former Speaker of the House Jim Wright was not able to get) and those aimed at reducing or eliminating such things as early voting. In general, these laws seem to be ineffective in regards to actual fraud and the existing laws seem to be adequate for catching fraud. For example, eliminating early voting would not seem to have any capacity to deter fraud. While the voter ID laws might seem to have the potential to be effective, actual voter fraud typically does not involve a person voting in person as someone else. Even if it did have some value in preventing voter fraud, it would do so at a great cost, namely disenfranchising many voters. Overall, the main impact of these laws is to not reduce voter fraud (which is minuscule already) but to disenfranchise people. In some cases politicians and pundits admit that these laws are intended to do just that and in some cases they get in trouble for this.

Given the low number of incidents of voter fraud and the considerable harm that is done by the laws allegedly created to counter it, it would seem that such laws would be rather unjustified when using a rational approach to setting a trigger point for new laws or regulations. It could, of course, be argued that the harm done by allowing a minuscule amount of voter fraud is so serious that it warrants disenfranchising people—that is, trying to prevent a few fraudulent votes is worth preventing many legitimate votes from being cast.

Interestingly enough, some of the folks who are pushing hard for new laws to “prevent” voter fraud are the same folks who push hard to prevent new laws to reduce the deaths of children. This presents an interesting look at how people actually make decisions about trigger points.

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Expatriation & Crito

Biometric United States passport issued in 2007

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An American citizen can voluntarily renounce his citizenship and a permanent resident can “turn in” her green card—this is known as expatriation. Interestingly, there has been a 33% increase in expatriations since 2011 with a total of 2,369 people doing so as of the third quarter. The main reason for this seems to be for the wealthy to avoid paying American taxes.  This does raise an interesting moral issue.

In the case of permanent residents who turn in their green cards, this would seem to clearly be morally acceptable. After all, being a permanent resident and not a citizen is most likely a matter of convenience or advantage for the person in question. As such, they would seem to have no special moral obligation to the United States. To use an analogy, if I rent a house from a family, this creates no special obligation to that family beyond paying my rent and taking reasonable care of their property. If I wish to end my tenancy and move somewhere else, then that would be my right—provided that I settled my debt before leaving.

The case of citizens is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, it can be argued that a person has a moral right to give up his citizenship for any reason. This would seem to apply whether the person received his citizenship by being born a citizen or by being nationalized. A person who was born a citizen did not chose to be a citizen and thus would seem to have the right to make that choice as an adult. To use an analogy, a person does not pick his birth family, but he can later elect to not be a part of that family.

A person who decided to be a citizen and then elects to cease to be a citizen would seem to have as much right to make that choice as she did when she decided to become a citizen. To use an analogy, just as a person has a right to enter into a marriage she has a right to leave that marriage.

Another avenue of argumentation is to focus on the right of a person to act in ways that are to her advantage. In the case of the wealthy renouncing their citizenship for tax purposes, it can be contended that they have the right to act in their self-interest and avoiding taxes in this manner is a rational calculation. While they do give up the advantages of being a United States citizen, the tax savings could be well worth it—especially if the wealthy person has little need of the advantages of being a United States citizen or can get comparable advantages by being a citizen of a state that will not tax her to the degree that the United States does. Of course, it is worth noting that the wealthy generally do not suffer under severe tax burdens in the United States and they are generally adept at using the arcane tax laws to their advantage. However, a wealthy person might regard even these taxes as too burdensome relative to the advantages she gains from her citizenship.

On the other hand, renouncing citizenship for the tax advantages seems, at least to me, like an act that is morally dubious. Laying aside the appeals to patriotism and the condemnation of selfishness, I will instead borrow and rework Socrates’ approach in the Crito.

The Crito takes place after Socrates trial (as recounted in the Apology) and involves Socrates addressing the question of whether or not fleeing Athens to avoid death would be unjust. While the matter at hand is not about death, it is a similar matter: would a citizen renouncing his citizenship to avoid taxes be unjust? I believe that it would be and offer the following argument (stolen from Socrates).

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that the citizen was not compelled to be or remain a citizen and that the citizen was not tricked into being or remaining a citizen. That is, the citizen was not trapped by fraud or force. A person who is forced or tricked would have a legitimate claim to renouncing such a compulsive or fraudulent relationship.

A person who was born a citizen or became a citizen enjoyed the advantages of being a citizen. The person very likely was educated by the country (by the public school system). Even if the person did not receive a public education, she did receive the protection and goods of citizenship. If the person is renouncing her citizenship solely for tax reasons, this would indicate that she does not have a profound disagreement with American values or the other aspects of citizenship. As such, the person would be renouncing her citizenship solely for the financial advantage. This would seem to be unjust—to repay the country by renouncing her for the sake of money. To use an analogy, this would similar to a person renouncing membership in the family that raised and took care of her because now her parents are old and require the support they once gave their child. This would seem to be an act of profound ingratitude and shameful in its base selfishness.

The obvious counter to this is to contend that the relationship between the citizen and the state is not analogous to that of a family or even a community. Rather the relationship is one defined purely in terms of self-interest and assessed in terms of the advantages and disadvantages to the individual. On this view, a person would ask not what he can do for his country. Rather, his question would be to ask what his country can do for him. And if it is not doing enough, then he should end that relationship.

Taking this view does come with a price: it must be applied consistently to all relationships to the state. For example, a citizen who sells secrets to another country or merely leaks them because he sees it as being to his advantage cannot be accused of a betrayal. After all, he is doing what the wealthy renouncers are doing: acting for his own advantage. As another example, to expect citizens to make sacrifices by serving the country would be an unreasonable expectation. Citizens should only do what is to their advantage and be properly compensated for this. In short, this view is that the relationship between citizen and country is a business one and that a citizen is essentially a customer. Interestingly enough, some people want to have it both ways: using the idea of nationalism when it is to their advantage and treating citizenship as a business relationship when doing so is to their advantage.

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Defending the Humanities: Practical Value

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In a previous essay, I noted the concern that the humanities are in decline in the academy. In this essay I will argue in defense of the practical value of the humanities.

Honesty compels me to admit that some of the problems faced by the humanities are self-inflicted. First, humanities faculty have generally not done a very good job “selling” the practical value of the humanities to students, parents, politicians, and society as a whole. Part of this might be the result of the notion that humanities faculty should not stoop to selling their beloved disciplines like a pimp sells his hookers. My view is that the practical value of the humanities can be shown without descending to the level of what would amount to intellectual prostitution.

Second, some humanities faculty devote considerable time to saying and writing ridiculous things about absurd matters as well as creating pointless academic problems whose solutions would achieve nothing of significance. These absurdities infest the professional journals and abound at the professional conferences—thus perhaps making it a mercy that the general public studiously ignores these venues. Those who become masters of both self-promotion and empty absurdities are often the most lauded of faculty—enjoying excellent compensation, modest workloads, and considerable attention. This enables critics of the humanities a ready stock of easy targets when they wish to argue for the uselessness of the humanities. Having endured finely nuanced deconstructions of cybernetic genders in fictional spaces, I have considerable sympathy for their disdain. However, I will endeavor to show that this fluffy absurdity is not all there is to the humanities and that there is actual practical value to the disciplines of the humanities.

Before entering into my defense of the humanities, I must first engage in a brief discussion of practical value. After all, to show that the humanities have practical value requires having a concept of practical value. There is also the matter of the often overlooked concern about why a specific view of practical value should be accepted as the proper measure of value.

Interestingly enough, defining practical value and arguing why a specific view of practical value should be accepted are both subjects that fall solidly within the humanities, specifically my discipline of philosophy. While some will obviously be tempted to go with their own view of practical value because it is “obvious”, this would be to engage in the fallacy of begging the question—that is, assuming as true what actually needs to be proven. Thus, one obvious practical value of the humanities is that it is needed to sort out the very nature of practical value and to determine which view of practical value that should be accepted.

For the sake of the discussion and brevity, I will stick with a fairly simple view of practical value that is popular in certain circles. The basic idea is that the practical value of a major is its economic value. Put a bit crudely, this can be considered in terms of how effectively job fillers are created for the jobs created by the job creators. The general measures of value would thus involve employment rates and salaries.

One common stereotype is that those majoring in the humanities are doomed to unemployment or, at best, poor salaries. Anecdotes (and jokes) do abound about people who got a degree in a humanities discipline and ended up doomed. However, as any philosophy major should know, an appeal to anecdotal evidence is a fallacy. What is needed is not anecdotes but statistical data.  Conveniently enough, Georgetown University released a detailed report on this matter.

Based on the usual stereotypes and common anecdotes, one would expect theatre majors, literature majors and philosophy majors to have very high unemployment rates as recent college graduates. Interestingly, theatre majors have an unemployment rate of 6.4%, literature majors are at 9.8% and philosophy majors are at 9.5% (unemployment rates are significantly lower for experience degree holders). Interestingly, the information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) have the highest unemployment rates. Computer science (8.7%) and accounting (8.8%) are fairly close to the humanities. Those doing best are elementary education majors and (5%) and nursing majors (4.8%).

Taking employment as being a measure of practical value, these statistics show that humanities degrees have practical value. After all, the employment rates for those with humanities degrees are competitive with non-humanities degrees.

In terms of compensation, the humanities fields generally offer less salary than some other fields. However, the average income of a college graduate in the humanities considerably exceeds that of the average income of a high school graduate. Thus, by this measure of practical value the humanities do have practical value. Thus, when people ask me what someone can do with a humanities degree, my cynical (but truthful) answer is “get a job and get a paycheck.” Some people get some very good jobs and some even become famous.

In addition to the concern about the practical value of a humanities there is also concern about the value of humanities classes—especially those that students are “forced” to take. While schools do vary, it is common for universities to have a humanities requirement and various non-humanities majors often require classes in the humanities. For example, the Florida public university system requires students to take two classes in the humanities. As another example, many of the students in my Critical Inquiry, Ethics, Aesthetics and Introduction to Philosophy classes have to take these classes for their non-humanities major.

It could be argued that “forcing” students to take humanities classes is a waste of student time and money (especially given that tuition is at an all-time high and graduation rates are still depressingly low) because such classes have no practical value to the students. That is, these classes do not contribute provide practical skills that would have a practical payoff. As with the humanities majors, it will be assumed that practical value in this case is a matter of economics.

Some humanities classes do have clear and general practical value. Obvious examples include the basic English classes (writing skills are uniformly useful), critical thinking classes (which is all the rage today), and logic.

Other humanities classes have practical value that does depend on the context. For example, those intending to be involved in overseas business can benefit from humanities classes covering these nations. This relative value is not unique to the humanities. For example, a class in biochemistry will not be particularly useful to someone who plans to manage a company that develops game apps for iPads, but it would be unreasonable to dismiss the class as useless simply because it is useless to some people.

Since the practical value of a class can be relative it is well worth considering whether or not a specific class has practical value for a specific major or student. As such, I would not claim that all humanities classes have practical value to all majors and all students. I would also not claim that all science or math classes have practical value to all majors and all students. However, the mere fact that a specific class does not have practical value to some students or some majors does not entail that it has no practical value.

As a final point, there is some concern that people should be reluctant to make an appeal to the practical when defending the value of the humanities. After all, this would seem to concede too much to those who regard themselves as opponents to the humanities. Rather, it could be contended, the defenders of the humanities should avail themselves of more traditional appeals to the inherent value of the humanities.

There is some merit to this concern and appealing to the practical does run the risk of handing a considerable advantage to those who wish to diminish or dispose of the humanities. However, I would contend that the humanities can be defended on practical grounds without abandoning the more traditional arguments in its favor. In the next essay in this series I will endeavor to argue for the value of the humanities on non-practical (that is, non-economic) grounds.


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Religious Freedom & Discrimination

Sexuality confusion

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As this is being written, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed in the Senate and is awaiting the consideration of the House. This bill would protect employees from being fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill exempts businesses that have less than 15 employees, religious non-profits, government owned businesses and businesses owned by Native American tribes.

Speaking against this bill, Republican Senator Dan Coats claimed that it violates the religious freedom of businesses owners. In making his case, he used the example of how faith-based daycare providers “could be forced to hire individuals with views contrary to the faith incorporated values of the daycare providers.” He also raised the concern that the bill also violated the right to free speech because it would “also would allow employers to be held liable to workplace environment complaints opening the door to the silencing of employees who express their deeply held beliefs.” There are two general issues here that I will address in turn.

The first issue is whether or not forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a violation of the religious freedom of business owners.

Business owners do not lose their right to religious freedom just because they own a business. As such, they are free to hold to whatever religious belief (or disbelief) that they wish. However, the law can justly limit how they can act on those beliefs. For example, a person can freely worship a deity that they believe demands human sacrifice but they should not be granted an exemption in regards to the laws against murdering humans. In this case, the harms that would arise by allowing human sacrifice outweigh concerns about religious freedom. That is, the right of people not to be murdered trumps the right of people to freely exercise their faith.

In the case of the anti-discrimination law, the core question is whether or not the right of the owner to act on his religious belief trumps the right of employees not to be discriminated against. It is, of course, assumed that employees have such a right—but it could be argued that there is no such right and that employers should have the right to fire anyone, anytime for any reason. In this case, any laws that limited this alleged right would be wrong—thus making it morally acceptable for people to be fired for being Christian, straight, blue-eyed, ugly, smart, black, white, or anything at all. Presumably this would also allow employees to be fired for not having sex with the boss. This, however, seems absurd. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that employees have a right to be protected against discrimination.

It could be argued that firing someone solely on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification would not be discrimination. However, firing an employee solely because of her sexual orientation or gender identification would clearly seem to be discrimination by its very nature. After all, the person is being fired for a reason that is not relevant to the job in question. This would also apply to non-firing cases, such as underpaying an employee. Naturally, if a person’s behavior arising from her sexual orientation or gender identity did impact her job in relevant ways, then the employer could act against the employee without it being discrimination. But this would be acting based on the detrimental behavior, not the orientation or identity.

Thus, it comes down to whether or not an employer should have the right to fire, etc.  an employee solely for the reason that the employee has a sexual orientation or gender identity that the employer regards as being against his religious beliefs. Given that the employee is not providing any other justification for being fired, etc. the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, firing someone solely for his sexual orientation or gender identity would be on par with firing someone solely because he was a Christian or Latino. If the employer had a faith that involved regarding being a Christian as wicked or one that involved racism that would not provide an exemption. Crudely put, just because someone has a bigoted and prejudiced faith that does not thus warrant his acting on it.

As a final argument, there is the fact that the harm done to employees would exceed the harm being done to employers. The fact that a religious person might have to endure having gay, women, Christian or Asian employees creates far less harm than allowing employers to engage in discrimination. Thus, the right to religious freedom does not trump the right to not be discriminated against.

The second issue is whether or not the right to free speech protects employees expressing religious beliefs in the workplace when these expressions express discriminatory views against the sexual orientation or gender identity of employees.

This issue is, obviously, very similar to the previous one. In this case, the question is whether or not the right to free expression trumps the right to not be subject to discriminatory expressions in the workplace.

On the face of it, there generally seems to be no compelling reason why people would need to express their views about sexual orientation or gender identity while at work—even if someone had faith-based views of these matters that involved regarding, for example, being gay as wicked.  To use the obvious analogy, there seems to generally be no compelling reason why people would need to express their views about race while at work—even if they had faith based views on these matters that involved, for example, ideas of white supremacy. In contrast, expressing discriminatory views against the sexual orientation or gender identity of people in the workplace would create a hostile workplace and this would be a harm. As such, the right of freedom of expression does not seem to trump the right of people to not be subject to such expressions in the workplace.

Crudely put, requiring people to not engage in discriminatory expression (whether it is faith based or not) while in the workplace imposes less of a burden than requiring people to endure it in the workplace.

In regards to both issues, one could argue that certain sexual orientations or gender identities are such that they would warrant firing a person and also speaking out in the workplace against them. For example, firing a person from a daycare job because he is a pedophile or speaking out against pedophiles in the workplace would not seem to unjustly discriminate against pedophiles.

The question would then be whether or not the protected sexual orientations and gender identities are such that merely having one would warrant firing, etc. a person. In regards to the sexual orientations and gender identities covered by the bill, the answer would seem to clearly be “no.”

Thus, it would seem that religious freedom and free speech do not warrant workplace prejudice.

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Corporations & Religious Freedom II: That Person Thing

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

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In my previous essay on corporations and religious freedom, I addressed the issue of whether or not being compelled to provide a health plan that covers contraception is a violation of a corporation’s religious freedom. My conclusion was that it was not. I now turn to the more general issue of whether or not a for-profit corporation is the sort of legal (fictional) entity that can be justly ascribed the capacity for religious belief and hence a right to exercise religious freedom.

As noted in the previous essay, the corporations that are challenging Obamacare on the matter of contraception are doing so on the legal basis of the is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

Since the act applies to person who hold religious beliefs, it is tempting to simply assert that corporations are not people and hence not covered by the act. However, in the United States corporations are taken to be people in regards to the law.

In fact, the status of corporations as people was critical in the Citizens United ruling that banned restrictions on corporate spending in politics. The general idea is that since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to free speech, then a corporation has the right to free speech.

Given this precedent (and argument), it would certainly seem to follow that a corporation has the right to freedom of religion: Since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to freedom of religion, then a corporation has the right to freedom of religion. This would thus seem to settle the legal matter.

There is an easy and obvious way to reduce this sort of “corporations are people” reasoning to absurdity:

Premise 1: A corporation is a person (assumed).
Premise 2: Slavery is the ownership of one person by another.
Premise 3: The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids slavery.
Conclusion: The ownership of a corporation is forbidden by the constitution.

This seems completely airtight. After all, if corporations get the right to free speech and the right to religious freedom because they are persons, then they also get the right not to be owned because they are persons. Naturally, this will seem silly or absurd to the very people who easily embrace the notion of corporation personhood in the case of unlimited campaign spending. However, this absurdity is exactly the point: it is okay to own corporations because they are not, in fact, people. They also do not get the right to free speech or religious freedom because they are not, in fact, people.

It could be countered that corporations are very special sorts of people that get certain rights but can be denied other rights in a principled way. Obviously enough, those who own corporations and their defenders might be inclined to hold that corporations get the rights that are useful to the owners (like the right to free speech) but do not get a right that would be a serious problem—like the right not to be owned. However, there is a serious challenge in regards to doing this in a principled manner (and the principle of what is good for me is not a principled principle). That is, the problem is to show that corporations are entities that can justly be ascribed freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but not freedom from ownership. Ironically, as I will endeavor to argue, claiming that corporations are such that they can be justly ascribed the qualities needed to ground a right to freedom of religion would also seem to involve claiming that they have the qualities that would forbid ownership.

In order to exercise religion and thus be entitled to freedom of religion, an entity would seem to require the capacity for religious belief. Belief is, of course, an intentional mental state—a belief is about something and it is mental in nature (although the mental might be grounded in the physical, such as in a nervous system). Being legal fictions, corporations have no mental states and no intentional states. That is, a corporation has no beliefs—religious or otherwise. As such, a corporation is not entitled to freedom of religion—since it has no capacity for religious belief.

This could be countered by claiming that the owner of the corporation provides the intentional states of the corporation. In the case of religion, the religious beliefs of the owner are the religious beliefs of the corporation. Thus, the personhood of the corporation rests on the personhood of the owner. However, if the corporation has the identical mental states as the owner, then it is the owner and vice-versa. While this would handle the freedom of religion matter, it would entail that the corporation is not a separate person in regards to freedom of speech and that ownership of the corporation would be ownership of the owner. If the owner is the sole owner, this would be fine (a person can self-own)—but if the corporation is owned by stockholders, then there would be a problem here since owning people is unconstitutional.

It could be replied that the above is mere philosophical cleverness (as opposed to the legal cleverness that makes a corporation a person) and that the beliefs of a corporation are simply those of the owner.

The obvious problem is that this would entail that the corporation does not have a religious belief that it can exercise. To use an analogy, if the Supreme Court ruled that my left running shoe is a person that I own like a corporation and that thus has my religious beliefs as its own, this would obviously be madness. My shoe, like a corporation, does not itself have any beliefs—religious or otherwise. The mere fact that I own it and it is legally a person does not grant it the capabilities needed to actually possess the foundation for the right to religious freedom. Or speech, for that matter—thus also showing that the idea that corporations have the capability to engage in free speech is absurd. What they do is, in effect, serve as legal puppet “people” manipulated by the hands of actual people. Obviously, if I put an actual puppet on my hand, it is not a person. Likewise, if I create a legal entity as my puppet, it is still not an actual person—its beliefs are just my beliefs and its words are just my words.

The actual person who owns a corporation has the rights of a person—because she is a person. Thus, the owner of a corporation can contend that her religious freedom has been violated. But it is absurd to claim that a for-profit, secular corporation can have its religious freedom violated—it is simply not an entity that can have its own religious beliefs. This distinction between the owner and the corporation certainly seems fair. First, the owner still has all her rights. Second, having a distinction between the owner and the corporation is exactly the point of many of the laws government corporations (such as finances).

If someone insists on claiming that the corporation is not a legal puppet and that it has the capabilities that provide a foundation for these freedoms, then they would run afoul of the argument regarding the ownership of persons. After all, an entity that can hold religious beliefs would thus seem to be a person in a meaningful sense that would forbid ownership.

Thus, the dilemma seems to be this: if a corporation is a person and thus gains the rights of being a person, then it is unconstitutional to own a corporation. If a corporation is not really a person, then it is legal to own it but it is not entitled to the rights of a person, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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Corporations & Religious Freedom I: The Contraception Thing

English: A typical contraceptive diaphragm

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As this is being written, there are almost forty for-profit companies suing the United States government over the requirement in Obamacare that health plans include coverage of contraception. The basis for the lawsuit is that the requirement is a violation of religious freedom.  The company Hobby Lobby has attracted the media’s attention in this matter, serving as the “poster corporation” for this matter.

In the case of Hobby Lobby,  CEO David Green and his family claim that their and Hobby Lobby’s freedom of religion is being “substantially burdened” by being compelled to provide insurance that would cover “morning-after pills” and IUDs for employees who wanted such them. The Greens claim that these specific types of contraception prevent implantation of fertilized eggs and are thus equivalent to abortion, which they regard as being against their religious beliefs. There are also those who oppose contraception regardless of the type on religious grounds.

The legal foundation for this challenge is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

From a moral standpoint, this exemption does seem acceptable if it is assumed that freedom of religion is a moral right. After all, there should be a presumption in favor of freedom and the state would need to warrant such an intrusion. However, if it can do so properly, then the imposition would be morally acceptable. The stock example here is, of course, limitations on the right of free speech.

From both a moral and legal standpoint, there seem to be two main points of concern. The first is whether or not a for-profit corporation is an entity that can be justly ascribed a right to freedom of religion. The second is whether or not such the contraceptive coverage imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. Obviously, if a corporation cannot be justly ascribed this right, then the second concern becomes irrelevant in this context. However, since it is a simpler matter, I will address the second concern first and then move on to the main point of interest regarding corporations and religious freedom.

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that those bringing the lawsuit are sincere in their claim that contraception is against their religion and that this is not merely cover for an attack on Obamacare. I will also assume that their religious belief is about the use of contraception.

On the face of it, being compelled to follow the law would seem to not impose any substantial burden in regards to such a belief. After all, those impacted by the law are not required to use contraception. This would, of course, be a clear imposition on their freedom (religious and otherwise). They are also not required to directly give their employees contraception. This could be seen as an imposition by giving them a somewhat direct role in the use of contraception.  However, they are merely required to provide a health plan that covers contraception for those who are exercising their freedom to choose to use said contraception. As such, the burden seems minimal—if it exists at all.

It might be objected that to be forced to have any connection to a means by which employees could get contraceptives would be a significant imposition on the corporation. The rather obvious reply to this is that the corporations pay employees with money that can be used to buy contraceptives. So, if an employee would use contraception, then she would most likely just purchase it if it were not covered by her insurance. In cases where the contraceptive medicine is being used for medical reasons (as opposed to being used as contraception) the employee would probably be even more likely to purchase it (which raises the question of whether such use counts as using contraception in a way that would violate these religious beliefs).

As such, if a corporation can insist that health care plans not cover contraception on the grounds that they would be forced to play a role in situation in which an employee might get contraception by means connected to the corporation, it would seem that they could make the same claim in regards to the paychecks they issue. After all, paychecks might be used to acquire all manner of things that are against the religious views of the corporation’s owner(s). This is, of course, absurd and would be a clear violation of the rights and freedoms of the employees.

As such, the second issue is easily settled: being compelled to offer insurance that covers contraception is not a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of corporations. In my next essay I will turn to the more important issue, namely whether or not for-profit corporations are the sort of entities that can justly be ascribed religious beliefs (and thus be entitled to religious freedom).

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The Decline of Humanities

Head of Platon, roman copy. The original was e...

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One of the current narratives is that the humanities are in danger at American universities. Some schools are cutting funding for the humanities while others are actually eliminating majors and departments. At my own university, the college of arts and sciences was split apart with the humanities and soft sciences in one new college and the now exalted STEM programs in another. Not surprisingly, I was called upon (at a moment’s notice) to defend the continued existence of the philosophy and religion unit I head up. Fortunately, I could point to the fact that our classes regularly overload with students and the fact that our majors have been very successful.

While this narrative is certainly worrisome to faculty in the humanities, this is actually not a new narrative. For example, while about 7% of majors are in the humanities, this has been the case since the 1980s. As another example, humanities programs have been subject to cuts for decades. That said, there is clearly a strong current trend towards supporting STEM and cutting the humanities.

As might be suspected, the push to build up the STEM programs has contributed to the decline of funding for humanities programs. Universities and colleges have to allocate their funds and if more funds are allocated to STEM, this leaves less for other programs. There is also the fact that there is much more outside funding (such as from the federal government) for STEM programs. As such, STEM programs can find themselves getting a “double shot” of increased funding from the university and support from outside while humanities programs face reduced support from within the institutions and little or nothing from outside.

Those who argue for STEM over the humanities would make the case that STEM programs should receive more funding. If more students enroll in STEM than in the humanities, then it would clearly be fair that these programs receive more funding. If humanities programs want more funding, then they would need to take steps to improve their numbers.

There is also the argument based on the claim that funding STEM provides a greater return for the money in terms of job creation, educating job fillers and generating research that can be monetized. That is, STEM provides a bigger financial and practical payoff than the humanities. This would, clearly, serve to justify greater funding for STEM. Assuming, of course, that funding should be determined primarily in terms of financial and practical values defined in this manner. As such, if humanities programs are going to earn increased funding, they would need to show that they can generate value of a sort that would warrant their increased funding. This could be done by showing that the humanities have such practical and financial value or, alternatively, arguing that the humanities generate value of a different sort that is still worthy of funding.

Those in the humanities not only need to convince those who redistribute the money, they also need to convince students that the humanities are valuable. This need not require convincing students to major in the humanities—getting students to accept the value of the humanities to the degree that they will willingly enroll in such classes and support the programs that offer them.

It has long been a challenge to get students to accept the value of the humanities. When I was an undergraduate almost three decades ago most students looked down on the humanities and this has not changed. Now that I am a professor, honestly compels me to admit that most students sign up for my classes because they have to knock out some sort of requirement. I do manage to win some of these students over by showing them the value of philosophy, but many remain indifferent at best.

While it is a tradition to claim that things are worse now than they were when I was a youngster, this is actually the case. Recently, there has been a conceptual shift in regards to education: now the majority of students regard the main function of college as job preparation or as vocational training. That is, students predominantly see college as a machine that will make them into job fillers for the job creators.

Because of the nature of our economic system, most students do have to worry about competing in a very difficult job market and surviving in a system that is most unkind. As such, it is not unwise of students to take this very practical approach to education.

While it is something of a stereotype, parents do often worry that their children will major in the humanities and it is not uncommon for students to pressure their kids to major in something “useful.” When I was a student, people I knew said just that. Now that I am a professor, my students sometimes tell me that their parents are against them taking philosophy classes. While some are worried that their children will be corrupted, the main concerns are the same as that expressed by students: the worry that majoring in the humanities is a dead end and that the humanities requirements are delaying graduation and wasting their money.

Those of us in the humanities have two main options here. One is to make the case that the humanities actually do provide the skills needed to make it in the world of the job creators. While some regard philosophy as useless, an excellent case can be made that classes in philosophy can be very helpful in getting ready for employment. To use the most obvious example, philosophy is the best choice for those who are considering a career in law. This approach runs the risk of devaluing the humanities and just making them yet another form of job training.

The second is the usual argument from the humanities, which is based on the idea there is more to life than being a job filler for the job creators. The usual line of argument is that the humanities teaches students to address matters of value, to appreciate the arts, and to both think and question. This, as might be imagined, sounds good in principle but can be a very hard sell.

Unfortunately, humanities faculty often fail to convince students, parents and those who control the money that the humanities are valuable. Sometimes the failure is on the part of the audience, but often it is on the part of the faculty. As such, those of us in the humanities need to up our game or watch the shadow over the humanities grow.


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