Monthly Archives: February 2018

Getting it Wrong

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On February 14th, 2018 seventeen people were murdered during a school shooting. As per the well-established script: the media focused on the weapon used, the right offered “thoughts and prayers” while insisting that this was not the time to talk about gun violence, and the left called for more gun control. As other have pointed out many times, this script will also play out in the usual way—the attention of the nation will drift away, children will be buried by their parents and nothing will really be done. This cycle will repeat with the next school shooting. And the next. As a country, we are getting it wrong in many ways.

One way we get it wrong, which is a fault of the media and the left, is to obsess on the specific weapon used in the latest school shooting. In this case, like many other cases, the weapon was an AR-15. The media always seems to ask why the weapon is used in shootings; the easy and obvious answer is that it shows up at mass shootings for the same reason that McDonald wrappers and bags end up alongside the roads I run. That is, both are very popular. There is also the fact that the AR-15 is an ideal weapon for engaging a crowd—it has a large magazine capacity, it is lethal and is easy to shoot. But, the AR-15 is not unique in those traits. There are many other assault rifles (as they are called) that are similar. For example, the AK-47 and its clones are also effective weapons of this type; but they are the Arby’s of assault weapons. That is, less popular. There is also the fact that non-assault weapons are just as lethal (or more so) than the assault rifles. They just tend to have smaller magazines. This shows one of the problems with the obsession with the AR-15—there are other weapons that would do the same.

Another problem with obsessing about the specific weapon is that it allows an easy red herring counter. A red herring is when one diverts attention from the original issue to another issue. When, for example, a reporter starts pressing a congressman about the AR-15, they can easily switch the discussion from gun violence to a discussion about the AR-15, thus getting away from the real issue. The solution is, obviously enough, is to get over the obsession with the specific weapon and focus instead on the issue of gun violence in general. Which leads to another way we get it wrong.

School shootings are horrific, but they are not the way most victims of gun violence die. In general, homicides are at record low levels (although we are still a world leader in homicides). Most gun-related deaths are suicides and the assault rifle is not the most commonly used weapon in most gun deaths. School shootings and mass shootings do get the attention of the media and the nation, but this seems to enable us to ignore the steady flow of gun-related deaths that do not grab the headlines. This is not to say that mass shootings are not a serious problem, nor that we should not act in response to them. But, the gun violence problem in America goes far beyond mass shootings. It is, ironically, a quiet problem that does not get the spotlight of the media. As such, even less is done about the broader problem than is done about mass shootings. And, to be honest, little or nothing is done about mass shootings.

While there are proposals from the left for gun control, the right usually advocates having a “good guy with a gun”, addressing mental illness, and fortifying places such as schools. There seems to be little evidence that the “good guy with a gun” will solve the problem of mass shootings; but this is largely due to the fact that there is so little good data about gun violence. While mental illness is clearly a problem and seriously addressing mental illness would be a broad social good, it seems unlikely that the vague proposals being offered would really do anything. America essentially abandoned the mentally ill during the Reagan era, an approach that has persisted to this day. The right does not seem to be serious about putting in the social services needed to address mental illness; they merely bring it up in response to mass shootings to distract people from gun control. The left, while expressing concern, also has done little—we have massive problems in this country that are simply festering away. Also, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators, so addressing mental health in a way that focuses on mass shooters would not address the much broader problem.

The proposals to create “Fortress Academia” might seem appealing, but there is the obvious problem with cost: public schools tend to be chronically underfunded and it is not clear where the money needed for such fortification would come from. There is also the fact that turning schools intro fortresses seems fundamentally wrong and is, perhaps, a red herring to distract people from the actual causes of the problem. To use an analogy, it is like addressing the opioid epidemic by telling people to get better home security to prevent addicts from breaking in to steal things to sell to buy drugs. This is not to say that school safety is a bad idea, just that turning our schools into forts does not seem to be the best approach.

I know that it will not be that long before I am writing about another mass shooting; people will move on to other things, as they always do, and the malign neglect of the problem will persist.

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Kant & Tasering Dead Rats

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While Logan Paul has posted YouTube videos of rather awful behavior, his channel is still operating as of this writing. Paul’s latest video adventure involved tasering a dead rat, leading Penny Arcade to raise the moral question of the ethics of dead rat tasering as well as the morality of YouTube continuing to tolerate the presence of Paul’s videos.

Since YouTube is in the business of making money, it makes sense for it to monetize whatever legal product will make money, regardless of how awful it is. Since our civilization tolerates the sale of tobacco and opioids (with a prescription), it is rather hard to condemn the “selling” of what Paul creates. After all, there are clear doubts about the harms of viewing a video of a dead rat riding the lightning. While much could be said about the ethics of allowing these videos to remain up (since YouTube is a private company, it has no requirement to honor the 1st Amendment), I will turn to Penny Arcade’s inquiry into the tasering of a dead rat. Obviously, this discussion will take place within the context of Kant’s ethical theory.

Kant makes it clear that animals are means rather than ends—they have no moral status of their own. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them. While one might dispute Kant’s view about the ability of living animals to follow the moral law, one can see clearly and distinctly that a dead rat cannot do this. It is, after all, dead. An ex-rat.

Despite this view, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses philosophical sleight of hand: the dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act. In support of this, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty: they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages kindness. He even praises Leibniz’ gentleness towards a mere worm. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings. But what about dead animals, like the rat Paul tasered?

A dead animal clearly and obviously lacks any meaningful moral status of their own. While animal right advocates tend to argue that living animals think and feel, even they would agree that a dead animal does not feel or think. As such, a dead animal lacks all the qualities that might give them a moral status of their own. Oddly enough, given Kant’s view of living animals, a dead animal would seem to be on par with a living one. After all, living animals are also mere objects and have no moral status of their own.

Of course, the same is also true of rocks and dirt. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat rocks well. Perhaps this would also apply to dead animals, such as the rat Paul tasered. That is, perhaps it makes no sense to talk about good or bad relative to dead animals. Thus, the issue is whether dead animals are more like live animals or rocks.

A case can be made for not abusing dead animals. If Kant’s argument has some merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a living rat could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the living rat.  This should also extend to dead animals. For example, if being cruel to a dead rat would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If being kind to the dead rat, such as giving it a burial, would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should be kind to the corpse.

While some might think to mock the idea of treating dead animals well, it is well worth noting that Kant’s reasoning would also apply to dead humans. A dead human is no longer a rational being—the corpse is but a thing. However, abusing the corpse of a human could damage a person’s humanity and make them more inclined to harm living humans. As such, while human corpses have no moral status of their own, it would be wrong to abuse them.

While the impact of abusing a human corpse would probably be greater than abusing the corpse of an animal, it would be odd to think that most decent people would be able to abuse animal corpses and suffer no ill consequences to their character. As such, the question raised by Penny Arcade can be answered: tasering a dead rat is morally wrong.

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