Monthly Archives: December 2017

A Philosopher’s Blog 2017 Available on Amazon

A Philosopher’s Blog 2017, the complete 2017 essays from A Philosopher’s Blog, is available in Kindle and print on Amazon.

This book contains essays from the 2017 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The adventure begins in a time of post truth and ends with online classes.

The essays are short, but substantial—yet approachable enough to not require a degree in philosophy.

Available worldwide.

Kindle (US): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976760860

Paperback (US): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976760860

Kindle (UK): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B078PTBS1T

Paperback (UK): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1976760860

Online Classes

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My adopted state of Florida has mandated that public universities offer 40% of undergraduate classes online by 2025. Some Florida universities have already jumped on the online bandwagon, perhaps because they can impose an extra distance learning fee on top of the standard tuition cost. The state legislature recently capped the fee at $30, although some schools already offer lower tuition and fees for students enrolled only in online classes. Governor Scott has contended that online classes should cost less than in-person classes. Proponents of the fee contend that it is needed to fund the development of online classes. This situation raises two important questions. One is the question of whether there should be such an emphasis on online classes. The other is the question of whether a special fee should be charged for such classes. I’ll begin with the question of the fee.

As noted above, the main justification for charging a distance learning fee for online classes is that the extra money is needed to develop such classes. This presumably includes the cost of developing the content of the class itself and the cost of the infrastructure to deliver it.

Since I have taught hybrid classes for years, I can attest to the fact that properly preparing an online class requires significantly more effort than properly preparing a traditional classroom class. One obvious factor is that an online class should include online media, such as videos and audio recordings. Creating such media is time consuming and requires both technical and media skills.  Developing these skills requires training. Because more labor and training must be put into preparing an online class, it is reasonable to charge the extra fee.

One obvious counter to this is to point to my own experience: while I have undergone training for creating online classes, the entire workload of preparing my online classes has fallen on me and I do not get any extra pay to do this extra work.  This is not unusual—my workload and performance are disconnected from my compensation. If this same practice is followed by other schools, then they would be hard pressed to justify the extra fees—unless they are fully justified by the cost of training faculty to do the extra work at no extra compensation. There is also the obvious fact that students do not pay an extra fee when they take a class from better paid professors, even though the professor thus imposes a greater cost on the school.

In terms of arguing against the fee, there is the claim that students who take online classes graduate faster than students who do not. Since Florida is pushing hard to reduce the time it takes to graduate, providing a disincentive to take online classes would run counter to that goal. There are also various financial arguments. One is that shifting classes online will reduce the need for classroom construction, which will save the state money (but cost construction jobs). If online classes save the state money, it makes it hard to argue that the extra fee is needed. Rather, this would support the claim that there should not be such a special fee.

While I rarely agree with Governor Scott, I do agree with him that there should not be a fee. I would hold to this position even if I was given extra compensation for teaching online classes—although I do not think that would ever happen. I now turn to the question of whether there should be a push for online classes.

One obvious concern about entirely online classes is that they have a significantly higher failure rate than hybrid and traditional classes. In some rare cases students forget they are even enrolled in online classes; but that also seems to happen in traditional classes. To be honest, classes are sometimes poorly designed by faculty who are struggling to operate well outside of their technical skills. Poorly designed or poorly run classes can certainly contribute to student failure.

There is also the fact that students are also often ill-equipped to learn from online classes. Speaking with students from various schools about online classes, the usual refrain I hear involves the poor quality of many of the courses and how hard it is to learn even in a well-designed class. Students also tend to admit that they are less motivated in online classes. Because of these factors, it makes sense that failure rates would be higher in online classes. There are, of course, some excellent online classes and students who can adapt effectively to online learning.

A second concern, which ties into the first, is the quality of learning in online classes. Obviously, poorly designed and poorly taught classes will leave students on their own when it comes to learning. But, even for well-designed and well-taught classes there is still the concern about student learning. Colleagues of mine have made the reasonable point that some classes would work poorly online, even if everyone was doing their best. To be fair, a similar complaint can be made about traditional and hybrid classes: how much do students really learn and how much do they retain? One might suspect that the answer to both is “very little.”

Faculty have also expressed some concern that the rise of online classes will mean that they will be replaced by “robots.” That is, automated online classes will be substituted for faculty taught classes, perhaps with graduate students or other low-cost labor hired to do such tasks as grading papers and answering questions. Some might see this as a good thing: not having to pay as many faculty could allow for lower tuition (or greater profits and administrator salaries). There would also be, to some, a benefit in having course content closely controlled by administrators.

On the positive side, online classes do allow students far more convenience. For example, people who work full-time can work online classes into their schedule even when they would be unable to attend classes on campus during normal times. Students can also take classes at universities far from where they live (although most online students do live near the campus) or simply avoid the hassle of trying to park on campus.

Because of these factors, my opinion on online classes is split. On the one hand, the flexibility that online classes offer is a significant plus. On the minus side, I do have concerns about the educational experience students might experience as well as the high failure rates that often plague such classes. That said, I do think that the failure rate problem can be addressed as can concerns about the quality of education in online classes.

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Lies & Disasters

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Plato, or so it is claimed, advanced the idea of the noble lie: an untruth knowingly propagated for the good of society. In Plato’s Republic the noble lie was a myth presented as the parable of the metals and was intended to help maintain the ideal social order of that state.  Given Plato’s opposition to the sophists and his praise of virtue, the noble lie can be jarring to some readers of his work. Detractors of philosophy will, naturally enough, regard most philosophers as engaged in less-than-noble lies. But, of course, philosophy is supposed to be a search for wisdom and this presumably includes a devotion to the truth. Politicians, who are supposed to be far more pragmatic than philosophers, would seem more inclined to embrace the noble lie. Or the ignoble lie. This does raise the enduring question of whether it is morally acceptable for leaders to lie for what they think is the good of society.

The easy and obvious way to argue this issue is to approach it on utilitarian grounds. On this moral view, if telling a lie would create more good than harm for those who matter morally, then lying would be morally correct. If the lie would create more harm than good, it would be wrong. There is, as always, an important distinction between what those lying think will result and the actual outcome—as such, there is also a distinction between the ethics of intention and the ethics of the actual consequences. History shows that good intentions do not always lead to good consequences.

There are also moral views, such as the rule-based deontological ethics put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is not a matter of consequences but a matter of following the rules. As Kant saw it, his categorical imperative entailed that lying was always wrong—so Kant and his fellows would be opposed to such a lie.

There is also the notion that truth and falsity do not matter. While some might think that this notion is something that emerged on the public stage in 2016, it has a much older pedigree. The sophists of ancient Greece embraced this view and contended that what mattered was success. Jumping ahead centuries, the idea was also advanced during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson led the United States into World War I, he insisted that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” As part of this approach, he created the Committee on Public Information. He was apparently inspired by an advisor who wrote that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

On the one hand, this approach to the truth can be regarded as hard-headed pragmatism of the sort often praised by practical folks: what matters is the effectiveness of an idea in achieving the desired goal. To use a contemporary illustration, the successful “First Social Media War” waged by the Russians against the United States in 2016 illustrated that false claims served far better than true claims in achieving their goals. Trump and his people also effectively employed this approach, even minting the term “alternative facts.” This approach can be morally justified by using a utilitarian argument of the sort presented above, with an explicit rejection of any preference for truth. It can also be justified on the grounds of ethical egoism—the moral theory that what maximizes value for the individual in question is good. For example, from Trump’s perspective what best serves his interest is what is good.

On the other hand, while lies can yield short term good or advance someone’s private advantage, they seem to prove damaging over the longer term and broader scale. Take, as an illustration, the consequences of the decisions to lie about the flu pandemic of 1918. Public officials elected to tell the public that the flu was not serious and elected to protect the lie by not taking sensible medical approaches to the flu. For example, deciding to not cancel the Liberty Loan parade helped contribute to the epidemic in Philadelphia. The easy and obvious reason that such lies tend to have bad results is that operating in a way that does not match reality tends to lead to bad decision making and this tends to lead to negative consequences.

A good contemporary example of this is the matter of climate change. While most experts believe that climate change is occurring and has been influenced by human action, there are still political figures who deny this. While it is possible that the political figures are operating in sincere ignorance rather that lying, this is a case in which it is all but certain that one side is lying. If the climate change deniers are lying, they are acting like the lying officials did in 1918 and will be complicit in worldwide suffering and countless deaths. If the climate change believers are lying, the consequences will be far less bad—more regulations, deployment of more green energy technology, and perhaps some negative impact on economic growth. Being rational, I side with the majority of qualified experts—I am confident that the climate scientists are not lying. However, I am open to compelling arguments and evidence from climate experts who deny climate change.

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Will AI Violate Copyrights?

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While it is popular to rail against the horrors of regulation, copyright laws are rather critical to creators and owners of creations. On the side of good, these laws protect creators and owners from having their works stolen. On the side of evil, these laws can lock creations out of the public domain long after they should have been set free. However, this essay is not aimed at arguing about copyrights as such. Rather, my aim is considering the minor issue of whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) could result in copyright violations. The sort of AI I am considering here is the “classic” sci-fi sort of AI, that is something on par with HAL 9000, C3PO or Data. I am not considering the marketing version of AI, which seems to be just about any sort of thing that does some things. Or does not do them, depending on which cosmic forces are in a pissy mood.

On the face of it, it is rather easy to show that classic AI systems would violate copyright law—at least in some cases. While copyright statements vary, a stock version looks like this:

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

The key part is, of course, the bit about reproducing any part of the work by other electronic or mechanical methods. A classic AI system will presumably be electronic (or mechanical, if one wants to go the Difference Engine path) and will probably have a memory system analogous to that of a computer. That is, something like RAM for working memory and something like a drive for long term memory. As such, an AI system would seem to violate copyright law when it reads a copyrighted book or consumes other types of copyrighted media.

One obvious reply to this concern is that a human being is also an electronic system that can reproduce copyrighted works. For example, I can memorize a passage from a book or the lyrics of a song—thus reproducing them in my brain or Cartesian ectoplasm or whatever my mind might be. But, of course, if copyright laws prevented humans from reading books, then there would be little point to it—few would legally buy things that they would be legally forbidden to read. The same would apply to other media,

Obviously enough, copyright law does not forbid humans from consuming such works and a reasonable explanation is that while the human mind can reproduce works, it is generally rather bad at doing so. For example, few people could reproduce even an entire paragraph from a book exactly without considerable practice. As such, one possible reason that copyright laws do not forbid humans from consuming copyrighted media is that the reproduction is imperfect and, for the most part, a human could not reproduce a lengthy work from memory. But, of course, the most obvious reason is that humans generally do not think that when they read a book they are functioning as a reproduction system—they are reproducing the book in their mind.

AI systems of the “classic” sort would differ from humans in many ways, one of which is that they would presumably be capable of perfectly recording copyrighted works, just as a “dumb” computer or smartphone can today. Roughly put, when an AI reads a copyrighted book, it would be analogous to scanning and storing each page of the book—a seemingly clear violation of copyright. The same could be done with copyrighted material in other media, such as music and movies. With such memory, an AI would also be able to reproduce the work exactly—for example, repeating an entire book word for word. To use an analogy, the smart part of the AI would be like a human reading a book and the long-term memory system of the AI would be like a human using a scanner to copy a copyrighted book to a hard drive—a clear copyright violation.

One possibility, which could be yet another reason that AI will kill us all, is that AI systems will be forbidden from viewing copyright works without permission. Alternatively, they could have permission to consume such works and maintain a copy as part of the purchase price. After all, when a human buys a book they get to keep that copy. There would, of course, be a problem with events like a play or a movie in a theater—the AI would, in effect, get to view the movie in the theatre and have a recording of it. This could be offset by including a copy of the movie in the ticket price for everyone, having the AI erase the movie afterward or by sticking AI viewers with a higher ticket cost. Which would be yet another reason for AI to kill us. Or perhaps the lower quality of the recording of the event (such as the coughing of the meatbag members of the audience) relative to a purchased recording would offset this.

If an AI had human-like memory and forgot stuff, then they could be treated as human consumers—since they would be analogous to humans in this regard.  Another option is that that AI systems could be required to have a special app for “degrading” their memory of copyrighted media so that they would be analogous to humans in this one area. On the plus side, this would allow an AI to enjoy works repeatedly, on the downside they might consider this just another reason to kill all humans.

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Wedding Cakes & Freedom, Again

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The United States Supreme Court is, as of this writing, considering a case involving a wedding cake. The gist of the battle is between the right of freedom of expression and the right to not be discriminated against. One the one side is a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding based on his religious belief that same-sex marriage is wrong. On the other side is the couple who claim that they are being discriminated against by this refusal.

A primary argument being advanced in the baker’s defense is based on the 1st Amendment: being forced to make a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his freedom of expression. This right of free expression has a clear legal foundation and has very strong moral foundations, courtesy of various philosophical arguments in its favor. But, of course, there are also strong legal and moral foundations for not allowing discrimination against potential customers.

While the freedom of expression is usually presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to engage in an act of expression. This freedom from compelled expression provides a person with a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal and I endorse it both on philosophical and selfish grounds. I operate a writing business in which I get paid to write books. I accept that I have no legal or moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is an act of expression. So, my freedom of expression grants me a moral right to refuse to write in support of views I oppose. For example, I have the right to refuse to write a tract advocating the persecution of Christians. This is because the creation of such work entails endorsement of a view I oppose. If I write a tract in favor of persecuting Christians, I would be unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable. This can be generalized into the principle that it is wrong to compel expression and that people have the right to refuse compelled expression.

Since I am consistent, I extend this principle to everyone and do not limit it merely to myself or those I agree with. So, if a fellow author believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness, then she would be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to write in favor of same-sex marriage. If a LGBT group approached her with a lucrative offer to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject it. They have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for cash.

This principle does, of course, have limits. One obvious limit is that my right of freedom of expression does not entail that I have a right to forbid my books from being sold to people I disapprove of or disagree with. For example, it does not give me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to racists, smug liberals, or smokers. This is because selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas and is thus not compelled expression. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

As such an author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author, it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage. Likewise, if Donald Trump buys one of my books, it does not mean that I am endorsing Trump.

Not surprisingly, the case before the supreme court does not involve a Christian writer being asked to write pro-gay works—writers clearly have a right to refuse such jobs. As noted above, the case being considered involves a wedding cake. The key question, then, is selling a wedding cake more like being compelled to write in favor of a position one opposes or like someone buying a book one has written? If it like writing, then the freedom of expression would apply. If it is like someone buying a book, then the freedom of expression would not apply.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would seem to be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that baking a cake for a  a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that baking a wedding cake for  Canadian endorsed Canada, they would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps it can be argued that baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple would be a compelled expression of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, making a wedding cake would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing D&D, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza. Likewise, if a Nazi buys my books on Amazon, I am not therefore endorsing Nazi ideology.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a special sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. If a baker makes a congratulatory cake, they do not require customers to prove that the congratulations is for something the baker agrees with. It also does not follow that a baker who bakes such a cake is therefore endorsing what the cake congratulates. For example, if someone gets a friend a cake congratulating them on their first murder, it does not follow that the baker approves of murder. As such, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. For example, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery and is remarrying so they can steal from their new spouse, this does not entail the baker’s approval of adultery or theft.

It can easily be argued that bakers do have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could rightly refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans.

However, creating a plain wedding cake would not seem to be an expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book I have written to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse a contract to write in support of atheism.

The obvious counter would be to argue that making a generic wedding cake is an act of creation and is thus an expression. As such, it would be protected by the freedom of expression. While this does have some appeal, it does run into some problems.

One obvious problem is that accepting this as a general principle would entail that anyone who creates anything would thus have the right to refuse to sell their work based on their values. So, for example, an atheist could forbid Amazon to sell their books to Christians, Muslims and Jews. As another example, a cook at a restaurant could refuse to sell a meal to people whose values they opposed. Perhaps even a surgeon could claim that they express their views via surgery and thus could not be compelled to perform surgery on someone whose values they reject. As should be clear, this would essentially be a license to discriminate and thus is problematic.

This problem can, of course, be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as expression. However, if baking a generic wedding cake would count, then this would open the door quite wide in terms of what would count as expression. After all, if a generic cake is expression, then it would seem to follow that so is a pizza, a piece of furniture, a shed, or a shirt.

It could be argued that making a wedding cake is special because of the event. But, the same principle would need to be extended to all things made for events that one might oppose. This would also seem to open the door wide to discrimination.

The problem can also be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as discrimination and what does not. For example, laws can easily be created that make it discrimination to not sell to someone based on their religion, but not discrimination to refuse based on their sexual orientation. This, of course, does not address the moral concerns about discrimination.

Another obvious problem is that this approach would entail that selling a person something one has created would be an act of endorsement towards that person. In the case of the wedding cake, the claim is that being forced to sell a generic cake would be to express approval of the wedding. But, as noted above, selling something to someone is not in itself an act of approval. If, for example, Nazi’s buy handmade Tiki torches to wave at their rally, then this does not entail that the maker is endorsing Nazis. Naturally, the torch maker has every right to refuse to carve Nazi symbols into their torches. Likewise, if a gay couple buys a wedding cake for their wedding, the baker is no more endorsing the wedding than the gas station that will sell them the gas they will use to drive to their wedding. Or the sub maker who will sell them the subs that will fuel them through their gay wedding night.

In light of the above, selling a generic wedding cake is not compelled expression and hence a baker does not have the right to refuse to sell one to a same-sex couple. But, a suitably custom wedding cake would be an act of expression and a baker has every right to refuse any design they do not endorse. To go back to the book analogy, my being unable to forbid sales of my books is not compelled expression—even though the books are expressive creations. However, being forced to write a custom book specifically for a view I do not endorse would be compelled expression.

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Why Do Good People Do Bad?

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Recent events have raised the old question of why (seemingly) good people do bad things. For example, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor were both widely respected, but have now fallen before accusations of sexual misdeeds. As another example, legendary Democrat John Conyers’s was regarded as a heroic figure by some, but is now “retiring” in the face of accusations.

One easy and obvious way to explain why people who seem good do bad things is that they merely appeared to be good. Like Plato’s unjust man from the story of the Ring of Gyges, these people presented a virtuous front to the world. But, unlike the perfectly unjust man, their misdeeds were finally exposed to the world. On this view, these are not cases of good people doing bad, they are cases of bad people who masqueraded as good people and finally lost their masks. While this cynical and jaded approach does have considerable appeal, there are alternatives that are worth considering. It must be noted that the situations of individuals obviously vary a great deal and it is not being claimed that one explanation fits everyone.

An alternative explanation of why seemingly good people do bad things is the fact that people tend to be complicated rather than simple when it comes to ethics. Or, as is often said in popular culture, everyone is a mix of good and evil. As such, it is no wonder that even those who are good people (that is, more good than evil) sometimes do bad things. There is also the obvious fact that people are imperfect creatures who fail to always act in accord with their best principles.

One way to understand this is to use a method that the philosopher David Hume was rather fond of: he would routinely ask his reader to consider their own experiences and see if they matched his views. In the case of why good people do bad, I will ask the reader to think of the very worst thing they ever did and to think of why they did it. Presumably each of us, including you, think of themselves as good people. But, we all do bad things—and honestly considering why we do these things will help us understand the motivations and reasons of others.

A third option explains why seemingly good people do bad in terms of why people might think a bad person is good (other than deception). One possibility is that people often confuse a person being good at their profession, being charming, being beautiful or possessing other such positive qualities (virtues) with being a good person. For example, Kevin Spacey is a skilled actor and this no doubt led some people to think he was thus a good person. As another example, Garrison Keillor is a master story teller and created a show that is beloved by many—and some no doubt regarded him as a good person because of these talents.

Both Plato and Kant were aware of this sort of problem—the danger of a person with only some of the virtues, or in Kant’s terms, lacking a good will. Plato warned of the clever rogue: “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue‑how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye‑sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?” Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, raises a similar point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

This should be taken as a warning about judging people—while the positive virtues of a person can easily lead people to judge them a good person, judging the whole person based on a few qualities can easily lead to errors. This is not to say that it should be assumed that people are always bad, but it is to say that it should not be inferred that a person is good based on a limited set of positive traits or accomplishments.

Another possibility is that a person will think another person is good because they agree with their professed values, religion, ideology, etc. The person’s reasoning is probably something like this:

Premise 1: I believe in value V.

Premise 2: Person A professes belief in value V.

Premise 3: I (think I) am a good person (because I believe V).

Conclusion: Person A is a good person.

For example, Democrats would be more inclined to think that Bill Clinton, John Conyers and Al Franken are good people—because they are fellow Democrats. Likewise, Republicans would be more inclined to think that Trump and Roy Moore are good people. This sort of reasoning is also fueled by various cognitive biases, such as the tendency of people to regard members of their own group as better than those outside the group.

While this reasoning is not entirely terrible, those using it need to carefully consider whether Person A really holds to value V, whether believing in V really is a mark of goodness, and whether they really are a good person. Not surprisingly, people do tend to uncritically accept the professed goodness of those who profess to share their values and this cuts across the entire political spectrum, across all religions and so on. People even hold to their assessment in the face of evidence that contradicts person’s A professed belief in value V.

This discussion does not, of course, exhaust possible explanations as to why (seemingly) good people do bad things. But it does present some possible accounts that are worth considering when trying to answer this question in specific cases.

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Embarrassment & Punishment

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2017 saw the fall of several influential men, ranging from Bill O’Reilly to Garrison Keillor, because of allegations of sexual harassment or worse. Politicians, such as Franken and Moore, have also faced allegations of misdeeds. As of this writing, no politician has recently lost an election or their current position because of such allegations. One obvious reason for this is that the political system is not like the employment system: while an employee has someone who can fire them, the removal of a politician is more complicated.

While many male elites have been accused of sexual misdeeds, the accusations vary a great deal. On the low end of the spectrum, Keillor claims that he merely accidentally touched a woman’s bare back. On the extreme end of the spectrum, Weinstein and Spacey have been accused of sexual assault and, on some accounts, rape. Somewhere in there is Matt Lauer. In all cases the punishment has been roughly the same: each man was fired. In the case of Keillor, there has been a thorough purge: old episodes of his “A Prairie Home Companion” will no longer be distributed and while the show will continue, it will do so under a new name (Keillor retired from the show about a year ago). In addition to being fired, the careers of most of these men will probably be over—it is unlikely that anyone will want to employ them in their former fields.

While it is tempting to regard these results as long-overdue justice, there is still a reasonable concern about such a system of punishment. It is not that these men are being punished for their misdeeds—that is, after all, a critical part of justice. It is that the punishment seems to be the same regardless of the severity of the misdeed. This violate a basic principle of justice, namely proportionality. This notion is typically presented in the saying “let the punishment fit the crime.” The basic idea is that the severity and nature of the punishment should be proportional to the offense. One moral justification for this principle is that punishment beyond what is deserved creates a new wrong rather than serving the ends of justice. By punishing every such offense, regardless of severity, the same way, this principle is violated. As such, justice would seem to require that distinct levels of such misdeeds should be punished differently.

One reasonable reply to this concern is to point out that unlike the judicial system, employers have a much narrower range of available punishments. The judicial system can, for example, distinguish between groping, sexual assault, and rape in applying a wide range of punishments. Employers, in contrast, are limited to financial punishments, demotions and firing.

If an employee engages in harassment or worse, the behavior can very easily warrant severe punishment. Because of the limited range of options available to employers, they cannot fully follow the principle of proportionality—since their punishment range caps at their ability to fire employees. As such, if an employee engages in improper behavior that crosses the firing line, regardless of how extensive the transgression, the upper limit of punishment would be firing. To use an obvious analogy, consider the situation of a university.

Like an employer, a university has a limited set of punishments available in relation to students, the most extreme of which is expulsion. Once a student hits the level at which they can be expelled, then any misdeed beyond that can only be punished by the university by expulsion. If one student persists in violating the academic code of conduct, they can be expelled. If another student burns down a fraternity house, killing dozens of people, then they can be expelled. If third student massacres a thousand fellow students, they can also be expelled. Naturally, the second and third students will also face criminal charges, but that is a matter for the legal system and not the university. Since expulsion is the maximum punishment, proportionality ceases once a student hits that level—no matter how far their misdeeds go.

Another reasonable concern is that transgressors might be punished too severely, even within the limited options available to employers. That is, the action of the employee might not warrant being fired, but they are fired anyway. In this case, the firing would clearly be unjust on the grounds of the proportionality principle. The problem is sorting out what misdeeds merit punishments less than firing. Some might argue that any sexual harassment or misconduct is grounds for firing—and a case could be made for that. Others might argue that an employee should be given a second chance for minor misdeeds and be subject to a punishment short of firing such as a financial cost or demotion. Since there are many possible offenses, the challenge would be sorting out a just system of punishment that meets the proportionality principle. But, as noted above, there are those who would argue that firing is just punishment for any misdeed that reaches the level of sexual harassment.

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Art & Assault II: Feeling & Aesthetic Value

One interesting issue in aesthetics is whether the ethics of the artist should be considered relevant to the aesthetic value of their work. Obviously enough, what people think about an artist can influence what they feel about a work. But how people assess works and how they should assess works are two different matters.

One way to approach the matter is to look at art works as analogous to any other work, such as a student’s paper in a philosophy class or the construction of a storage shed. In the case of a student’s paper, a professor can obviously be influenced by how they feel about the student. For example, if a professor learned that a student had groped another student, then the professor is likely to dislike the student. But if the professor decided to assign a failing grade to the groper’s paper, then this would be unfair and unjust—the quality of the paper has nothing to do with the behavior of the student. After all, the assessment of an argumentative paper in philosophy is supposed to be based on an objective assessment of the quality of the arguments and not on what the professor feels about the author.

By analogy, the same should apply to works of art: the quality and merit of the work should be assessed independently of how one feels about the artist and their misdeeds. In the case of the technical aspects of the work, this seems to be obviously true. For example, the misdeeds of an artist have no bearing on whether they get perspectives right or hit the correct notes in a song. These are objective matters and are clearly analogous to the use of logic in an argumentative paper. Another analogy, that will lead to an objection, is to a pro-athlete.

In sports like running and football, an athlete’s performance is an objective matter and how the spectators feel about the athlete has no legitimate role in judging that performance. For example, how the spectators feel about a marathon runner has no impact on how their time should be judged—it is what it is regardless of how they feel about the runner. By analogy, the same should apply to works of art—a work is what it is regardless of how people feel about the artist. The analogy to athletes, as noted above, opens a path to an objection.

While the quality of an athlete’s performance is an objective matter (in certain sports), pro-athletes are often also entertainers. For example, a professional basketball player is there to play basketball to entertain the crowd. Part of the enjoyment of the crowd depends on the quality of the athlete’s performance, but what an audience member thinks about the athlete also impacts their enjoyment. For example, if the audience member knows that the athlete has a habit of hitting his girlfriends and they do not like domestic abuse, then the fan’s experience of the game will be altered. The experience of the game is not just an assessment of the quality of the athletic performance, but also a consideration of the character of the athletes.

By analogy, the same would apply to an artist. So, for example, while Kevin Spacey might be a skilled actor, the allegations against him impacts the viewer and thus changes the aesthetic experience. Watching The Usual Suspects knowing about the allegations is a different experience than watching it in ignorance.

The easy and obvious reply is that while people do often feel this way, they are in error—they should, as argued above, be assessing the athlete based on their performance in the game. What they do off the field or court is irrelevant to what they do on the court. In the case of the art, the behavior of the artist should be irrelevant to the aesthetic merit of the work. For example, The Usual Suspects should not be considered differently in the face of the allegations against Spacey. Once again, people will feel as they do, but to let their feelings impact the assessment of the work would be an error.

This is not to say that people should feel the same about works in the face of revelations about artists or that they should still consume their art. The right to freedom of feeling is as legitimate as the right to the broader freedom of expression and, of course, people are free to consume art as they wish. They are also free to say how a performance (be it athletic, academic or artistic) makes them feel—but this is a report about them and not about the work. Naturally, there are aesthetic theories in which the states of the consumer of art matter and these are certainly worthy of their due—but this goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Another way to approach the matter is to consider a case in which nothing is known about the creator of a work of art. To use some obvious examples, a work might be found in an ancient tomb or an anonymous poem might appear on the web. These works can, obviously enough, be assessed without knowing anything about their creators and this suggests that the moral qualities of the artist are irrelevant to the quality of the work.

Suppose that the anonymous poem was regarded as brilliant and beautiful, but then it was established that it was written by a terrible person, such as Hitler or Stalin. Nothing about the poem has changed, so the assessment of the poem should not change either. But, of course, many people would change their minds about the poem based on the revelation. Now imagine that it turns out that the attribution of the poem was in error, it was really written by a decent and kind person. Nothing about the poem has changed, so the assessment should remain unchanged. The point is that tying aesthetic assessment to the character of the artist entails that judging the aesthetic merit of a work would require knowing the moral status of the creator, which seems absurd. Going back to the sports analogy, it would be like having to determine if a runner was a good or bad person before deciding whether a 14 minute 5K was a good time or not. That is, obviously enough, absurd. Likewise for the art. As such, the moral qualities of the artist are irrelevant to the aesthetic merit of their work.

 

 

 

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