Tag Archives: Florida

The Cost of Litter

English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After running the Palace Saloon 5K, I participated in a cleanup of a nearby park. This event, organized by my running friend Nancy, involved spending about an hour and a half picking up trash in the Florida sun.  We runners created a pile of overstuffed trash bags full of a wide range of discarded debris.

On my regular runs, I routinely pick up litter. This ranges from the expected (discarded cans) to the unusual (a blender dropped off in the woods). These adventures in litter caused me to think about the various issues related to litter and most especially the cost of litter.

One obvious cost of litter is the aesthetic damage it inflicts. Litter is ugly and makes an area look, well, trashy. While this cost might be partially paid by those who litter, it is also inflicted on those who visit the area and do not litter. One of the many reasons I pick up litter is that I prefer not to run through trashy places.

Another obvious cost of litter is the environmental damage it inflicts. Some of this is quite evident, such as oil or paint leaking from discarded cans. Other damage is less evident, such as the erosion and flooding that can be caused by litter that clogs up storm drains.  There is also the harm done to animals directly, such as sea life killed when their stomachs fill with plastic debris. As with the aesthetic damage, the cost of the litter is largely paid by those who did not litter—such as the turtles and sea-birds harmed by discarded items.

A somewhat less obvious cost is that paid by people who pick up the litter discarded by others. For example, I take a few minutes out of almost every run to pick up and dispose of trash discarded by others. There are also walkers in my neighborhood area who pick up trash during their entire walk—I will see them carrying full bags of cans, bottles and other debris that have been thrown onto the streets, sidewalks and lawns.  And no, they are not gathering up the debris to cash it in for recycling money.

What I and others are doing is paying the cost of the littering of others with our time and effort. This is doubly annoying because the effort we need to expend to pick up the debris and dispose of it properly is generally more than the effort the discarder would have needed to expend to simply dispose of it herself. This is because such debris is often scattered about, in pieces or tossed into the woods—thus making it a chore to pick up and carry. Also, carrying trash while running is certainly more inconvenient than simply transporting it in a vehicle—and much of the trash beside the road is hurled from vehicles.

Some states, such as my home state of Maine, do shift some of the cost of litter to the litterer. To be specific, these states have a deposit on bottles and cans. When someone litters a can or bottle, he is throwing away the deposit—thus incurring a small cost for his littering. When someone picks up the bottle or can, she can redeem it for the deposit—thus offsetting the cost of her effort. While this approach does not cover all forms of litter, it does have a significant impact on the litter problem by providing people with an incentive to not litter or to pick up the litter thrown away by others.

This model of imposing a cost on littering and providing a reward for cleaning up litter seems to be an ethical system. In terms of fairness, it seems right that the person littering should pay a price for the damage that she does and the cost that she inflicts on others. It also seems right that people who make the effort to clean up the messes caused by others should receive compensation for their efforts. The obvious challenge is making the model work on a broader scale beyond just bottles and cans. Unfortunately, there are many more people who are lazy, uncaring or imbued with a feeling of entitlement than there are who have a sense of responsibility and duty. As such, I know I will be cleaning up after others for the rest of my life.

 

 

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Exotic Pets

English: Sleeping lioness at Exotic Animals Pa...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her April 2014 National Geographic article “Wild Obsession, Lauren Slater considers the subject of exotic pets in America. While the article does mention some of the moral issues regarding such pets, I think it is worthwhile to consider the ethics of owning such pets in more depth.

While there are various ways to define what it is for a pet to be exotic, I will focus on non-domesticated animals that are kept as pets. Naturally, some of these pets do not involve much moral controversy. For example, keeping a tank of small fish seems to be morally fine—provided the fish are properly cared for. I am, for this short essay, mainly concerned with animals such as lions, tigers, bears, wolves, kangaroos, chimpanzees and other such animals. That is, animals that are wild and can present a danger to human beings.

One of the most obvious moral arguments against allowing people to own such exotic pets is that they can present a serious danger to human beings—be it their owners or other people. For example, a bear can easily kill its owner. As another example, an escaped tiger would present a rather serious threat. There is also the harm caused to ecosystems by escaped pets, such as the constrictors infesting parts of my adopted state of Florida. This can be cast as utilitarian argument in terms of the harms outweighing the alleged benefits of having such exotic pets.

The obvious response to this argument is that non-exotic pets, such as dogs and horses, injure (and even kill) people. As such, it would seem that the harm argument would also hold against having any pet that could be legitimately seen as a potential danger to a human being. This response could be taken to entail at least two things. One is that all pet ownership of potentially dangerous animals should not be allowed. This, of course, would not appeal to most people. The other is that people should be allowed to have potentially dangerous pets, be the pet a dog or a bear. While this view has some appeal, the easy and obvious counter is that there are clear relevant differences between pets like dogs and pets like bears.

While a domesticated animal like a dog or horse can seriously injure or even kill a human, they are generally less dangerous and far less likely to attack a human than a wild species like a bear or tiger. After all, domestic animals have been (mostly) selected to not be aggressive towards humans and for other appropriate (from the human perspective) behavior. So, while my husky can bite, she is not as dangerous as a bear and is extremely unlikely to attack a human, even when provoked. This is not to say that it is impossible for a previously well-behaved dog to turn violent. This is just to say that a well-trained dog is extremely different from even a well-trained bear or tiger.

As a side point, there are many reports of people being harmed by dogs—but this is because there are so many dogs kept as pets. As such, even a low percentage of aggressive dogs will result in a relatively high number of incidents. There is also the legitimate concern about dogs that have been bred and trained to be very aggressive (even towards humans).  Such dogs, most notoriously pit bulls, would present a threat to people and arguments can be made about restricting ownership of such dangerous dogs (and some places have such laws).

Another obvious moral argument is based on the harms done to the exotic animals. While domesticated animals can do well in a human environment (for example, my husky is quite happy with living in my house—provided that she gets her regular runs and outdoor adventures), wild animals often do not do very well. Most people who own exotic pets cannot provide the sort of environment that a wild species needs (even some zoos cannot) to be happy and healthy. There are also the concerns about medical care, proper exercise, diet and so on. As such, allowing people to own exotic pets would tend to have negative consequences for the animals. Once again, the moral case can be made on utilitarian grounds.

The obvious reply is that domestic animals also have needs that must be met. As such, it could be contended that if the keeping of domestic animals is acceptable provided that they are properly cared for, then the same must hold for the exotic animals. This reply does have considerable appeal. After all, if an animal is properly cared for and is both healthy and happy, then there would seem to be no moral grounds for forbidding a person from having such a pet.

As noted above, the practical problem is that caring properly for such exotic animals is more challenging and more expensive than providing proper care for a domestic animal. As I mentioned, my husky is fine living in my house and going on runs and expeditions with me. While medical care and food is not cheap, taking care of her is well within my financial ability. Exotic pets tend to present much more serious challenges in terms of cost. For example, a tiger is expensive to feed and one should not take a tiger out for an adventure in the local dog park. However, with proper resources these challenges could be addressed.

As a final moral argument, there is the concern that it is simply wrong to keep an exotic animal as a pet. To steal from Aristotle, it is not the function (or nature) of wild animals to exist as pets for humans. While people and animals might form bonds, the wild animals are such that being made into a pet is a distortion or even violation of what they are, which would be wrong. This, of course, would seem to suggest that we have distorted animals and perhaps wronged them by domesticating them—which might be true.

This line of reasoning can be countered in various ways, ranging from arguing against there being such natures to religious appeals to the claim that humans were given dominion over the animals and thus we can do what we wish with them.

My own view is somewhat mixed. Since I have a husky, it should be no surprise that I am morally fine with having a pet (provided the pet is well cared for). However, I tend to lean towards regarding keeping exotic animals as pets as morally problematic. That said, some people do truly love their exotic pets and take excellent care of them. In the case of endangered species, there is also the added moral argument involving the preservation of such species as pets—which does have some appeal when the alternative is extinction.

However, I would certainly not have a lion, tiger or bear as a pet. A dire husky…well, sure.

 

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DePARCCing

Official photo of Florida Governor Rick Scott

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While education has always been a matter for politics, the United States has seen an ever increasing politicization of education. One reason for this was the financial meltdown—with less revenue the states and federal government had to make cuts. As usual, education was a target of opportunity for such cuts. Another reason is that the education system is now regarded as an exploitable resource with excellent opportunities for money-making. Making the system ripe for harvest involved a concerted effort to demonize educators and the education system. It also involved a concerted push for assessment and standardization. The assessment that is being advanced is the sort that is provided by well-paid contractors, such as standardized tests. The standardization, in addition to the tests, includes having a standard curriculum to make it easy for the private sector to monetize education.  This was all done under the guise of reform.

Florida’s former governor Jeb Bush helped bring about the Common Core State Standards for the public education system, so it is somewhat ironic that current Florida governor Rick Scott wants to remove Florida from this system.

The governor has made it clear that he wants Florida to ditch the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). He is not, of course, abandoning assessment—that is a lucrative business for private contractors. As such, his plan is to have “competitive bidding” to determine the new assessment method. Naturally, the schools will not be allowed to create their own assessment—money is too precious to waste on public schools when it could go instead to private sector contractors.

Speaking of money, Florida had been selected to be the “fiscal agent” for PARCC, but Scott informed the Education Secretary of the United States that Florida would no longer have ties to PARCC. It might be wondered why the governor would pass up the opportunity to be a fiscal agent. Fortunately, the answer is rather straightforward: a large part of Scott’s base is made up of Tea Party members. Apparently, the Tea Party membership believes that the Common Core and PARCC are federal impositions. The Tea Party (thanks to anti-government rhetoric put forth by certain conservative pundits and, ironically, some conservative politicians) tends to be against the federal government (although generally not against government programs like Medicare). As such, they are against both Common Core and PARCC.

One rather obvious problem with the claim that Florida should bail because of the federal involvement is the fact that the Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association, not the federal government. That is, the states developed the core and this, oddly enough, should match up with the Tea Party values. I am not sure if the Tea Party (and perhaps Rick Scott) are confused in this matter or not. In any case, Scott needs the Tea Party support to get re-elected and hence he is ditching PARCC and the Common Core in hopes of keeping their votes. This has led to something of a conflict in the Republican Party. Some Republicans, like Jeb Bush, have been strongly backing the Common Core and certainly want the states to adopt it. However, if the Tea Party ire at Common Core and PARCC spreads, there might be a change in this support.

Oddly enough, I am also suspicious of the Common Core and PARRC. However, this is not due to a fear of the federal government (other than the NSA and drones). Rather, it is because of concerns with the academic impact of Common Core and PARRC. Ironically, I might well find myself allied with the Tea Party on some aspects of this matter.

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Full Sail for Profit

Money

Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2012)

Across the United States, public education has been under consistent assault. K-20 budgets have been cut, teachers’ unions have been attacked, political agendas have been pushed onto education, and educators have been vilified. One reason for this assault is to open up the education “market” to allow opportunities for profit. As such, the rise of for-profit schools is hardly surprising.

It is important to distinguish between the traditional private school, such as Marietta College, and the for-profit schools. While for-profit schools are privately owned, they are operated rather differently than the traditional private schools. The most obvious difference is that their main focus is profit.

There is, of course, the beloved myth that the profit motivated private sector can out-perform the allegedly inefficient and bloated public sector. However, an examination of the facts shows that when it comes to education, the for-profit schools often stack up poorly against public schools (and traditional private schools).

Thanks to Mitt Romney, one for-profit school, Full Sail University, has become somewhat well known. While Romney praised this Florida school (whose chief executive is a major campaign contributor) while in New Hampshire, a look at the facts will show that the school and other for-profits are not a good choice for students. For example, people who graduated from some Full Sail programs are defaulting on their college loans at a rate of up to 60-75%. The government has pushed for for-profit schools to achieve a graduate loan repayment rate of 35%, which is hardly an onerous requirement. As for why Full Sail graduates have a relatively poor repayment percentage, the average debt of a graduate is 300% to 800% of her income. To be fair to Full Sail, students at public schools are also graduating with significant debt, which provides an excellent reason to be critical of the cost of education in general.

The Obama administration has attempted to set regulations for repayment benchmarks and income-to-debt ratios for for-profit schools. Schools that could not meet these would no longer be eligible for federal funds. However, these regulations were struck down in July of 2012. Interestingly enough, public schools are often being subject to intense scrutiny from state legislatures. For example, Florida public universities have gotten considerable attention from Governor Rick Scott and the legislature. The professed reason is, of course, to ensure that education funds are being well spent. It is, of course, a point of concern that public schools are being subject to intense scrutiny while for-profit schools seem to be held to standards that are rather lower.

One obvious reply is that for-profit schools are privately owned and hence should not be subject to such government regulation. After all, one might argue, the market should decide (via the invisible hand) what education should cost and what jobs should pay. As such, if students have debts that far exceed their income, then that is just how the market works.

While this does have some appeal, the easy and obvious response is that these for-profit schools get over $30 billion a year in taxpayer funds. Interestingly, the 15 publicly traded for-profit college companies get 86% of their revenues from public money. This includes federal financial aid, the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Department of Defense Tuition Assistance money. As such, these private companies are mostly public funded. This would certainly serve to justify the right of the state to regulate these schools. After all, they are effectively public funded institutions. This also certainly helps explain the attack on public education—the for-profits are competing with public universities for the same money and every dollar that goes to a public school is a dollar that a for-profit school does not get. Naturally, the for-profit schools also compete with traditional private schools. However, the traditional private schools are far less vulnerable to the machinations of those serving the interests of those who seek a profit focused education system.

There is also a myth that the private sector can provide better services at a lower cost. In the case of the for-profit schools, their B.A. degrees average 19% more than the cost of a B.A. at a top public university. The for-profit schools also compare unfavorably in the area of 2 year degrees—they charge 400% more than public non-profit schools. Given that the cost of public education has increased significantly (in part because of budget cuts to these schools), the for-profit schools are certainly very expensive.

Because of the greater cost, the public money that goes to for-profits yields less return than the same money spent on a public institution. Ironically, while public education has been accused of being costly, it is a far better deal than a for-profit education. Interestingly, if free-market forces were actually operating as they are alleged to operate, the for-profit schools should go out of business, given that they cost considerably more than public education. Of course, the mythical free-market is not operating here.

It might be replied that for-profit schools charge more but that they are providing more for the money relative to public schools. However, a look at how the money going into for-profit schools will reveal that this does not seem to be the case.

Based on a 2009 study of 30 for-profit companies, 22.4% of their income goes to marketing, advertising, recruiting and admission staffing. 19.4% goes to profit, which is rather impressive. In contrast, 17.7% goes to actual instruction. As such, the schools charge a great deal more than public schools and spend a great deal less on actual education. This would certainly indicate that they are not providing students with a good value for their money.

While top public university administrators are well paid (for example, the former president of Florida A&M University made $330,000 a year plus a guaranteed bonus), the CEOs of the for-profit schools have an average salary of $7.3 million, despite the fact that by objective measures they deliver an inferior product at a higher price than public schools.

The above facts show a fundamental problem in the United States. Our education system is under concerted attack with the clear purpose of redistributing public funds from high quality public and private schools to the objectively inferior for-profit schools. It is indeed ironic that Obama was attacked in September, 2012 for his 1998 remarks about redistribution. After all, the for-profit schools are the recipients of a $30 billion dollar redistribution. It is also ironic that Mitt Romney, the man who accused the 47% of Americans who do not pay taxes of being irresponsible dependents of the state has praised the for-profit schools. After all, they are growing fat on public money.

This reality is concealed under deceitful rhetoric that is used to mislead the public and garner support for what is actually an attack on the bedrock of a democratic state, namely an effective system of affordable and accessible public education.

Ironically, the way to counter the problems presented by the for-profit schools is to apply conservative principles to them. To specific, they need to be removed from public welfare, they need to be held responsible, and they need to be forced to compete in a free market (one in which their allies do not use the state to impede their competition). This situation nicely exposes the lie of some conservatives: they are exactly what they profess to hate, only on a much bigger scale.

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Are Facts Dead?

Ideology Icon

Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically ”correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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Darth VaPaula, Gender and Video Games

Star Wars: The Old Republic

I play Star Wars the  Old Republic. I live in Florida. As such, I was somewhat interested when the Florida Family Association decided to launch an email campaign against Bioware regarding the plans to allow LGBT relationship options in the game.

Lest anyone think that the game is some sort of sex-fest, the relationships between a player character (PC) and a non-player character (NPC) is rather limited. Essentially you get to engage in fairly tame flirting via selecting tame response options and there is some dialog that involves mild sexual themes. For those looking for racy action, you will find much much more on prime time  shows than you will see in SWTOR. While Bioware does an excellent job crafting the personas of the NPCs that the players interact with, I have never been particularly interested in game romance myself. After all, I can do that in real life and I prefer to spend my game time killing bad guys with a light saber, something I cannot do in real life (yet).

However, I know that some players really get into the romance options in Bioware games and it is a rich part of the narrative experience for these folks. As such, I can see why the folks at Florida Family Association are a bit worried. I, too, have been worried when I heard friends speak endlessly of their intimate relationships with NPCs. Of course, my worry is rather different than that of the FFA.

The FFA seems to have two main concerns regarding the possible inclusion of LGBT options in SWTOR:

• Children and teens, who never thought anyway but heterosexual, are now given a choice to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their game player.

• Children and teens, who choose non-social agenda characters, would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.

In regards to the first problem, if these children and teens (although the game is rated T and hence is intended only for teens) have “never thought anyway but heterosexual”, then they would presumably not chose any of the LGBT options in the conversations with NPCs. Unless Bioware radically changes the game by adding an orientation button, a PC’s sexual orientation is shaped by making choices in various conversations (such as picking a flirt option). As such, kids and teens who are purely heterosexual prior to playing SWTOR would presumably not select the LGBT options. After all, if their minds are devoid of any sexual thoughts other than heterosexual, why would they pick anything else? To use the obvious analogy, if I only think about playing a Jedi, the fact that I have the option to play a trooper would not compel me to play a trooper. That is, if I lack trooper tendencies, I won’t play a trooper in the game. Or real life.

It might be countered that the mere option for such in game behavior could lead the heterosexuals away from their heterosexuality. After all, Plato argued at length in the Republic regarding the corrupting potential of art. As such, perhaps SWTOR could turn kids and teens away from the “hetero side” to the “gay side”. This, of course, assumes that any orientation other than heterosexual is morally wrong-which is an issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

One obvious response to this line of reasoning is that the kids and teens in question will also face the same options in real life. That is, when encountering actual people in the real world they will sometimes have LGBT options for real. As such, this worry about SWTOR seems rather pointless: if the kids and teens are not going to go to the “gay side” in real life, they surely will not do so in SWTOR. Likewise, if they would go to the “gay side” in SWTOR, then perhaps they would do the same in real life anyway. The game merely allows them the chance to select from options that are available in real life already and there seems to be no reason to think that the game would make straight kids gay.

It might be argued that while straight kids and teens can resist the “gay side” in real life, SWTOR would lure them to the “gay side”, perhaps with cookies. As noted above, Plato did argue that art can have corrupting influences that bypass our normal defenses against such things. For example, Plato noted that while a manly man will not give in to sorrow when faced with tragedy in real life, he can easily be seduced to giving into such unseemly feelings via the nefarious influence of the arts. By analogy, kids and teens who are heterosexual in real life could thus be seduced to the “gay side” by the nefarious influence of the video game. This sort of reasoning is, of course, analogous to that used to argue that video games and art corrupt the youth into being more violent or sexual. After all, when not corrupted by art humans have no interest in either sex or violence.

One obvious reply is that if video games have such a powerful impact on the sexual orientation of the youth, then the lack of LGBT options in SWTOR should have converted LGBT players straight. After all, if the availability of LGBT options is a threat to heterosexuality, then the availability of heterosexual options should be an equal threat to LGBT players. The presence of both options could, presumably, cause players to oscillate in their orientation as they are lured from the “straight side” to the “gay side” and then back again. One would thus assume that the person’s sexual orientation would be set by their last interaction in the game. This, of course, seems rather absurd.

It might be claimed that LGBT options are just so appealing that a heterosexual kid exposed to such options will be lured into picking them, contrary to his/her true sexual orientation. The same, it would need to be argued, is not true of heterosexuality.

One obvious reply is that if the LGBT options were that seductive, then most people would be LGBT.  But this is not the case. Another obvious reply is that if LGBT options are so appealing, then perhaps people should chose them. After all, it generally makes sense to pick what is most appealing. To use an analogy, when I pick my dessert I go with the option that appeals to me the most and take that to the be best option. Likewise, if LGBT is such an awesomely appealing choice over heterosexuality, then perhaps people should be picking that rather than struggling to resist it. Of course, if LGBT options lack this special appeal to people who are nominally straight, then these options present no “threat” in the game or in life.

The second problem, as the FFA sees it, is that kids and teens “would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.”

My first reply is that the way the game works, players are not forced to deal with the relationships between other PCs and NPCs. That is, the substantial conversation interactions that involve romance take place without other players being involved. As such, if the folks at the FFA are worried that players will be forced to see LGBT sex or even substantial LGBT conversations, then they are worried about nothing. All they will see is the usual killing and looting that form the majority of the game play. As such, they are worried about something that will not really happen.

Of course, it can be countered that players will encounter some LGBT comments or remarks in the course of play and this takes me to my second reply.

Second, kids and teens are already “forced to deal with” LGBT in real life. They might not realize it, but unless they are kept in isolation they are no doubt regularly encountering and interacting with LGBT people. After all, people do not have “straight” or “LGBT” nameplates over their heads in real life. As such, the worry about encountering LGBT characters in the game seems rather absurd.

Third, there is the obvious moral reply. Imagine if someone said that they were worried that their Christian kids and teens would be forced to deal with Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Or that their white kids would have to deal with Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. Such views would be regarded as nothing more than the expression of hate and prejudice. The same certainly seems true of the FFA’s view here. After all, if the KKK does not have the right to demand a racially pure SWTOR, then the FFA would seem to lack the right to demand a gender pure SWTOR.

The FFA does offer an additional argument against the inclusion of LGBT options in STWOR. The FFA contends that because the Star Wars movies did not have any LGBT characters, they should not be in SWTOR.

On the one hand, this does have some small appeal. After all, a game based on a movie universe should reflect that universe. So, for example, since the Star Wars universe lacked Vulcans and Daleks in the movies, they should not be in the game.

On the other hand, this argument is easy to counter.

While the Star Wars movies did not show LGBT characters (as far as we know), there is nothing to indicate that the Star Wars reality is devoid of LGBT. After all, the movies only follow a limited number of characters and there are only a few relationships (Han and Leia, Anikan and Padme, R2 and C3P0). As such, to infer that because there were no open LGBT relationships in the Star Wars movise, then the Star Wars universe is devoid of LGBT relationships would be an odd inference. This would be  on par with inferring that because the movie did not show any dentists, the Star Wars universe lacks dentists.

Another obvious reply is this: suppose the Star Wars movies did not show any female Smugglers (Han Solo’s class), would it follow that the Smuggler class should be restricted to male characters? It would seem not. After all, there is no universe defining reason why a female cannot be a smuggler. Likewise, it is not inherent to the Star Wars universe that it be LGBT free. After all, the opening does not say “In a totally straight galaxy devoid of LGBT…”. As such, Bioware can add these options and still be within the known canon of Star Wars.

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Towers of Ivory, Towers of Gold

English: Governor Mitt Romney of MA

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Academics in general and philosophers in particular are often accused of dwelling in ivory towers that lift them out of the “real world” (which is, presumably, everything outside of academics). Being a philosophy professor, I do have some sympathy to this notion. After all, I do know professors who match the stereotypes of the ivory tower dwellers point for point.  I also am quite well aware that it is very easy to let a clever thought lead one far from the surly bounds of earth and out into the stratosphere and perhaps to infinity and beyond.

In some cases, speaking of academics as ivory tower dwellers is a harmless bit of commentary on their eccentric ways. However, it can also be a fairly serious charge-that academics in general and philosophers in particular are operating in isolation from the real world and engaged in practices that have no use or merit beyond the confines of these towers. In the case of philosophers, a review of the professional journals and conference subjects will tend to lend credence to that view.

In addition to, as Socrates might say, the usual attacks on philosophers, there is also a strong current of anti-intellectualism in the West-most especially in the United States. Here in the States we have a rather influential political movement that regularly attacks experts, intellectuals and education. These folks often put forth the odd notion that experts are not to be trusted specifically because they are experts and that education somehow makes a person less capable in regards to “getting it.” Going along with this is also an anti-science current that embraces such things as paranoia about vaccines (that has, bizarrely enough, led parents to swap infectious lollipops by mail).

While on my morning run, I was thinking about these matters and also about the Republican primary in my state of Florida. Specifically, I was thinking about the charges against Mitt Romney that he is “out of touch.” For those not familiar with Mitt, he wants to be the Republican nominee for president. In terms of his being out of touch, folks have pointed to his passionate (well, passionate for him) claim that corporations are people, his offer to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during a debate, the fact that he makes about $57,000 per day from capital gains, and his remark that he did not make very much from speaker fees (he made about $374,000). Romney has also been bashed a bit because he knows French.

As I ran, I thought about how often I have been accused about being “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.” However, it struck me that the towers of gold provide far more isolation than the towers of ivory. After all, while I am a philosophy professor, my ivory tower is more of a small ivory shack behind my very non-ivory townhouse.  True, I do go out into that shack and think about odd things. But when I am not engaged in philosophy, I live a rather down to earth life: I drive myself to work in a 2001 Toyota, I cook my own meals, clean my own toilets, paint my own house (with help from my friend), do my own laundry, and so on. By way of contrast, thanks to the budget cuts in education, my yearly salary as a tenured full professor is less than what Romney makes per day. As such, I seem to be very much in touch with the “real world” of bills, taxes, grocery shopping and toilet cleaning. Based on my own experience, many professors tend to be in the same situation (there are, of course, exceptions involving the academic stars).

By way on contrast, consider the politicians who claim to be “in touch.” In the States, our higher end politicians tend to be millionaires. As noted above, Romney makes about $57,000 a day from his investments. His main foe, Newt Gingrich, is a millionaire insider. President Obama is also a millionaire. As such, the idea that such people are “in touch” seems a bit odd-especially given that I am so often accused of automatically being “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.”

It might, of course, be argued that a person who is a millionaire and who owns multiple houses (as is so often the case with the higher end politicians) can still be “in touch” and “get it.” However, if such folks can gaze down from their gold towers and see the plight of the common folks, then those of us who are supposed to hang out in towers of ivory should also be able to do this. Unless, of course, the towers of gold provide a better view.

 

 

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The Academy as Business

A depiction of the world's oldest continually ...

Old school...

Some time ago many university administrators became enamored of the idea of the university as a business. In this model, students are customers, faculty are workers, and the universities, like soft drinks, become brands.

There is, of course, a business side to universities-fees, housing, services and so on. This side of the university should, of course, be run like a business. However, it seems to be a mistake to treat the entire university as a business.

One reason is that the student is not simply a customer who is being sold a product and service. Rather, the student is supposed to become part of a learning community and undergo a journey of education. The business model is to get the most money from the customer for the least possible return. This, as might be imagined, seems quite in contrast with what education is supposed to be all about.

A second reason is that adopting the business model seems to lead to adopting the tendency of businesses to focus on the good of the upper management rather than on the good of the employees and the customer. While administration is an important aspect of a university, the trend at many universities has been towards higher salaries for administrators relative to faculty (the people who do the actual teaching) and also an increase in the number of administrators. The impact on the university is similar to what is seen in the business world: those who perform the actual mission are underpaid, those who “administer” are often paid very well, and those who are supposed to be served find that they are getting less for their money. At my university, faculty have been let go, staff members have been fired, salaries of faculty and staff cut, class sizes have been increased, and so on. In contrast, the president has a base salary of $325,000 per year and is guaranteed a bonus of 25-35% of his base salary. For the faculty, the yearly bonus is getting a contact for next year. For the students, this situation means that it is harder to graduate on time because of the difficulty of getting into needed classes. It also means that there are more students per faculty member, which can dilute the education process (for example, my Intro to Philosophy class has 75 students when it is supposed to have 35).

A third reason is that adopting the business model leads to thinking of the university in terms of a profitable brand-presumably on par with a brand of soda or snack chip. This focus can lead to paying less attention to the university as an institution of education and more attention being focused on the commercial aspects. This sort of outlook can lead university officials to sound very much like corporate spokespeople when a problem arises. For example, in response to the tragic death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion in a suspected hazing incident, the president of the university wrote in a response letter that “preserving the image and the FAMU brand is of paramount importance to me.” What is more troubling is that this model also encourages university officials to act in ways intended to preserve the “brand” that can protect people who are doing rather bad things, as seems to be the case at Penn State. To be fair, an institution acting to conceal the misdeeds of its members is not unique to the business world (see, for example, the Catholic Church’s handling of the sex scandals). However, a business style culture does seem to encourage such behavior and the model of the institutional cover up is well grounded in the business world.

A fourth concern is that the university as business approach can be extremely detrimental to the students. The troubling problems with American for-profit colleges are have been a point of serious concern and they are generally seen as being rather predatory rather than pedagogical. While “conventional” colleges and universities have not yet fully embraced the for-profit model, this is clearly a danger.

A fifth concern is that the business approach grants administrators power over the academic aspects of the university. They can determine which classes are offered and who is retained (or fired) by using their control over the funding and other administrative aspects. While this is standard practice in business in which governance is not shared, universities have a practice of shared governance in which the faculty play a role in the governance. To put things a bit simply, the faculty are supposed to handle the academic aspects. This division is sensible, given that faculty are experts in their areas just as administrators are supposed to be experts in their areas. Having the non-academic administrators decide what classes can be offered is on par with assigning the faculty to set up the contracts for the bookstore, cafeteria services and so on.  Undermining shared governance is to erode the academic aspect of the academy in favor of the business aspect-and this cannot bode well for the education of the students.

I do agree that universities should be properly run and that there is clearly a role for the business approach at the academy. However, this should be limited to the aspects of the university that are, in fact, pure business.

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Hazing

The 100

Image via Wikipedia

Robert Champion, a Florida A&M University student, died on November 19 in Orlando. It is believed that his death might have resulted from a hazing incident. FAMU, where I teach philosophy, has a history of unfortunate hazing incidents involving our famous band. While FAMU is currently in the spotlight, hazing is still all too common on American campuses-despite efforts to combat the practice.

The administration acted quickly by firing the band director, Julian White.  White is fighting his dismissal by contending that certain administrators showed “reckless indifference” when he attempted to seriously address the matter of hazing.  There is considerable evidence that White was, in fact, actively engaged in a dedicated attempt to eradicate hazing. Examples include his suspension of individuals for hazing and addressing the various problematic sub-groups within the band. Colleagues I have spoken with regarding White have spoken well of him and noted his efforts to combat hazing.

If Robert Champion was killed in a hazing incident, this clearly shows that things went terribly wrong. However, there is the question of who is at fault. Obviously, the brunt of the moral responsibility would rest on those who (allegedly) killed him. As noted above, White was fired over this death, thus indicating that the people who made the decision are placing the blame on him.

As the band director, White clearly has considerable responsibility for what goes on in the band. However, this does not automatically entail that he is responsible for the death of Robert Champion. As noted above, White contends that his attempts to address hazing were hampered by administrators. If this is the case and White fulfilled his duties conscientiously, then the moral and legal blame would then shift upwards to those who would have failed in their duties.

While initiation rituals and legitimate admission trials can be acceptable practices (for example, I had to run faster than other team mates to secure a spot on the varsity cross country team in college), crossing the line past which people can be harmed (or even killed) is unacceptable. After all, harming a person is only just when doing so serves some legitimate moral purpose. Abusing someone as part of some tradition or to test their willingness to endure senseless degradation to belong to a group would not be acceptable. People should, as Kant argued, be treated as being of moral worth. Abusive hazing practices clearly violate the dignity of the person and hence should not be tolerated. Those practices that inflict actual harm are clearly wrong and, of course, are criminal actions.

As noted above, I do accept the legitimacy of  some initiation rituals as well as certain trials of admission. However, the rituals need to respect the dignity of the person and must not inflict abuse or harm. Being a competitive athlete, I am well aware that admission trials can be  legitimate. As I noted above, I had to earn a spot on the varsity cross country team by competing against my fellow runners. As another example, those who wish to be Navy Seals need to endure a brutal admissions process. However, these admission trials are legitimate. In the case of cross country teams, a person must earn the spot on the team and this is done by being a better runner. In the case of the Seals, a person must qualify by enduring what a Seal will encounter in his professional activities.

In the case of a band, it does make sense to have people compete for places via competitions in performance. However, the sort of physical abuse that has occurred in hazing incidents clearly has no relevance to being in the band. While a Seal might need to be tested to see how he would stand up to interrogation by the enemy,  a band member has no need to be tested to see how many whacks with a paddle s/he can endure. As such, such treatment is simply abuse and must not be tolerated.

My personal view of  abusive hazing is that it is a sign of both moral evil and a pathologically defective psychological makeup that would seem to include sadism as well as profound lack of respect for the dignity and worth of other people. Naturally, the people who engage in hazing speak of the tradition of the practice (which is, of course, fallacious reasoning) and note that people need to show their commitment. While I do believe in the importance of commitment, this is not something that should be tested by paddling a band member until he suffers kidney damage or abusing him until he dies.

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Violent Video Games (Again)

I have been using my budget-cut based summer break from teaching to do various home improvements. The point of mentioning this is that I have been alternating between baking in the Florida sun and being exposed to “second hand paint fumes” (as opposed to directly huffing the stuff) as such, my writing might be a bit off. I have checked for any obvious weirdness (well, weirdness beyond the usual sort), but I apologize in advance for any heat/paint induced lapses in logic. I blame the flying frogs that seem to be infesting my house now. In any case, down to business.

The supreme court recently ruled that California’s law banning the sale of  video games to minors that “depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” The ruling was, of course, based on the first amendment.

Being both a gamer and an ethicist, I have thought (and written) a fair amount about the banning video games. On the one hand, a very reasonable case can be made for placing age based restrictions on video games. While studies of the impact of virtual violence on children are hardly conclusive, it seems reasonable to accept that exposure to virtual violence can have an impact on how the child thinks. As Aristotle has argued, people become habituated by what they do. Children are, of course, even more likely to be influenced. They are more receptive than adults and tend to lack the cognitive resources that adults are supposed to possess. As such, it seems reasonable to keep young children away from violence-even the virtual sort.

On the other hand, there are reasonable grounds for rejecting such bans. First, there are reasons for doubting that such games have a significant impact on children. The psychological studies are open to question and, of course, humans seem to be naturally prone to violence ( the stock “we like violent games because we are violent, we are not violent because of the games” argument). When I was a kid, long before violent video games, we spent a lot of time playing war. While the effects were not very special (cap guns), we certainly did act out killing each other. When violent video games came along, they simply allowed me to do what I had done as a kid (play at killing) only with ever better graphics and effects). As such, banning violent video games to protect children from the influence of violence seems like something that simply will not work, thus making such a law unnecessary.

Second, there is the matter of freedom of expression and consumption. While minors do have a reduced right of freedom of consumption (they cannot but alcohol, tobacco, guns or porn), imposing on their freedom only seems justified when it protects them from a significant harm in cases in which they lack the judgment to (in theory at least) make an informed choice. Even if violent video games have a harmful impact, it can be contended that the harm is not on par with that of adult vices such as alcohol or tobacco but rather on par with junk food. So, just as it is sensible to think that children should not eat junk food, yet also think there should not be laws banning children from buying candy bards, it seems sensible to think that although young kids should not buy violent video games, there should not be laws against doing so.

Third, there is the matter of what is fit for the state to control and what is fit for parents to control. There are, obviously enough, matters that should be handled by the state and those that should remain a matter of parental choice.  Alcohol, guns and tobacco are so dangerous that it seems reasonable that the state has a interest in keeping children away from these things by force of law. There is also a category of things were the state should aid parents in making choices, such as diet and exercise, but where the state should not intervene except in extreme cases. As noted above, I am inclined to put violent video games in the category of junk food. As such, parents should be informed about what the games contain (which is already done by the rating system) and the choice of whether or not their children play the games or not should be up to them. Naturally, children who lack parents or whose parents are dangerously incompetent will fall under the domain of the state, but these would be relatively rare cases.

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