Tag Archives: John Locke

Science & Self-Identity

English: The smallpox vaccine diluent in a syr...

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The assuming an authority of dictating to others, and a forwardness to prescribe to their opinions, is a constant concomitant of this bias and corruption of our judgments. For how almost can it be otherwise, but that he should be ready to impose on another’s belief, who has already imposed on his own? Who can reasonably expect arguments and conviction from him in dealing with others, whose understanding is not accustomed to them in his dealing with himself? Who does violence to his own faculties, tyrannizes over his own mind, and usurps the prerogative that belongs to truth alone, which is to command assent by only its own authority, i.e. by and in proportion to that evidence which it carries with it.

-John Locke

As a philosophy professor who focuses on the practical value of philosophical thinking, one of my main objectives is to train students to be effective critical thinkers. While true critical thinking has been, ironically, threatened by the fact that it has become something of a fad, I stick with a very straightforward and practical view of the subject. As I see it, critical thinking is the rational process of determining whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected or false or subject to the suspension of judgment. Roughly put, a critical thinker operates on the principle that the belief in a claim should be proportional to the evidence for it, rather than in proportion to our interests or feelings. In this I follow John Locke’s view: “Whatsoever credit or authority we give to any proposition more than it receives from the principles and proofs it supports itself upon, is owing to our inclinations that way, and is so far a derogation from the love of truth as such: which, as it can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.” Unfortunately, people often fail to follow this principle and do so in matters of considerable importance, such as climate change and vaccinations. To be specific, people reject proofs and evidence in favor of interests and passions.

Despite the fact that the scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming, there are still people who deny climate change. These people are typically conservatives—although there is nothing about conservatism itself that requires denying climate change.

While rejecting the scientific evidence for climate change can be regarded as irrational, it is easy enough to attribute a rational motive behind this view. After all, there are people who have an economic interest in denying climate change or, at least, preventing action from being taken that they regard as contrary to their interests (such as implementing the cap and trade system on carbon originally proposed by conservative thinkers). This interest would provide a motive to lie (that is, make claims that one knows are not true) as well as a psychological impetus to sincerely hold to a false belief. As such, I can easily make sense of climate change denial in the face of overwhelming evidence: big money is on the line. However, the denial less rational for the majority of climate change deniers—after all, they are not owners of companies in the fossil fuel business. However, they could still be motivated by a financial stake—after all, addressing climate change could cost them more in terms of their energy bills. Of course, not addressing climate change could cost them much more.

In any case, I get climate denial in that I have a sensible narrative as to why people reject the science on the basis of interest. However, I have been rather more confused by people who deny the science regarding vaccines.

While vaccines are not entirely risk free, the scientific evidence is overwhelming that they are safe and very effective. Scientists have a good understanding of how they work and there is extensive empirical evidence of their positive impact—specifically the massive reduction in cases of diseases such as polio and measles. Oddly enough, there is significant number of Americans who willfully deny the science of vaccination. What is most unusual is that these people tend to be college educated. They are also predominantly political liberals, thus showing that science denial is bi-partisan. It is fascinating, but also horrifying, to see someone walk through the process of denial—as shown in a segment on the Daily Show. This process is rather complete: evidence is rejected, experts are dismissed and so on—it is as if the person’s mind switched into a Bizzaro version of critical thinking (“kritikal tincing” perhaps). This is in marked contrast with the process of rational disagreement in which the methodology of critical thinking is used in defense of an opposing viewpoint. Being a philosopher, I value rational disagreement and I am careful to give opposing views their due. However, the use of fallacious methods and outright rejection of rational methods of reasoning is not acceptable.

As noted above, climate change denial makes a degree of sense—behind the denial is a clear economic interest. However, vaccine science denial seems to lack that motive. While I could be wrong about this, there does not seem to be any economic interest that would benefit from this denial—except, perhaps, the doctors and hospitals that will be treating the outbreaks of preventable diseases. However, doctors and hospitals obviously encourage vaccination. As such, an alternative explanation is needed.

Recent research does provide some insight into the matter and this research is consistent with Locke’s view that people are influenced by both interests and passions. In this case, the motivating passion seems to be a person’s commitment to her concept of self. The idea is that when a person’s self-concept or self-identity is threatened by facts, the person will reject the facts in favor of her self-identity.  In the case of the vaccine science deniers, the belief that vaccines are harmful has somehow become part of their self-identity. Or so goes the theory as to why these deniers reject the evidence.

To be effective, this rejection must be more than simply asserting the facts are wrong. After all, the person is aiming to deceive herself to maintain her self-identity. As such, the person must create an entire narrative which makes their rejection seem sensible and believable to them. A denier must, as Pascal said in regards to his famous wager, make himself believe his denial. In the case of matters of science, a person needs to reject not just the claims made by scientists but also the method by which the scientists support the claims. Roughly put, the narrative of denial must be a complete story that protects itself from criticism. This is, obviously enough, different from a person who denies a claim on the basis of evidence—since there is rational support for the denial, there is no need to create a justifying narrative.

This, I would say, is one of the major dangers of this sort of denial—not the denial of established facts, but the explicit rejection of the methodology that is used to assess facts. While people often excel at compartmentalization, this strategy runs the risk of corrupting the person’s thinking across the board.

As noted above, as a philosopher one of my main tasks is to train people to think critically and rationally. While I would like to believe that everyone can be taught to be an effective and rational thinker, I know that people are far more swayed by rhetoric and (ironically) fallacious reasoning then they are swayed by good logic. As such, there might be little hope that people can be “cured” of their rejection of science and reasoning. Aristotle took this view—while noting that some can be convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” most people cannot. He advocated the use of coercive habituation to get people to behave properly and this could (and has) been employed to correct incorrect beliefs. However, such a method is agnostic in regards to the truth—people can be coerced into accepting the false as well as the true.

Interestingly enough, a study by Brendan Nyhan shows that reason and persuasion both fail when employed in attempts to change false beliefs that are critical to a person’s self-identity. In the case of Nyhan’s study, there were various attempts to change the beliefs of vaccine science deniers using reason (facts and science) and also various methods of rhetoric/persuasions (appeals to emotions and anecdotes). Since reason and persuasion are the two main ways to convince people, this is certainly a problem.

The study and other research did indicate an avenue that might work. Assuming that it is the threat to a person’s self-concept that triggers the rejection mechanism, the solution is to approach a person in a way that does not trigger this response. To use an analogy, it is like trying to conduct a transplant without triggering the body’s immune system to reject the transplanted organ.

One obvious problem is that once a person has taken a false belief as part of his self-concept, it is rather difficult to get him to regard any attempt to change his mind as anything other than a threat. Addressing this might require changing the person’s self-concept or finding a specific strategy for addressing that belief that is somehow not seen as a threat. Once that is done, the second stage—that of actually addressing the false belief, can begin.

 

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The “Princeton Mom” & Sexual Assault

Princeton University

Princeton University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Susan Patton, better known as the “Princeton Mom”, has been making the rounds of the talk and news shows promoting her Marry Smart: Advice for Finding THE ONE book. This book presents the 18th century view that a woman should focus primarily on finding a husband and do so quickly—fertility diminishes with time.

Patton attracted more attention with her March 11, 2014 interview with the Daily Princetonian. In a letter to the editor written about a year before the interview, she had make a rather provocative remark: “Please spare me your ‘blaming the victim’ outrage” and claimed that a woman who is drunk and provocatively dressed “must bear accountability for what may happen.” When asked why the woman is responsible in the case of rape or sexual assault, she had the following to say:

 

 The reason is, she is the one most likely to be harmed, so she is the one that needs to take control of the situation. She is that one that needs to take responsibility for herself and for her own safety, and simply not allow herself to come to a point where she is no longer capable of protecting her physical self. The analogy that I would give you is: If you cross the street without looking both ways and a car jumps the light or isn’t paying attention, and you get hit by a car — as a woman or as anybody — and you say, ‘Well I had a green light,’ well yes you did have a green light but that wasn’t enough. So in the same way, a woman who is going to say, ‘Well the man should have recognized that I was drunk and not pushed me beyond the level at which I was happy to engage with him,’ well, you didn’t look both ways. I mean yes, you’re right, a man should act better, men should be more respectful of women, but in the absence of that, and regardless of whether they are or are not, women must take care of themselves.

 

As might be imagined, this view has generated some backlash from faculty at Princeton and other people. Given the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and such controversy can help sell books, it is not clear that the view expressed is one that Patton truly holds. However, when discussing the ethics of the content of her claims, her actual belief does not matter. As such, I will take her expressed view at face value.

Patton’s first claim is that since the woman is most likely to be harmed, she needs to be responsible for her safety. There are at least two ways to view this claim. One is the very reasonable claim that a person needs to be responsible for her own safety—that is, a person has an obligation to herself to make sure that she is not needlessly in danger. This view that self-preservation is rational and obligatory is nicely defended by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. Another way to view the claim, which is that apparently taken by her critics, is that the burden falls completely on the woman. While this is certainly a prudent view, it does run afoul of the notion that the person who wrongfully inflicts harm on another should bear the majority of the responsibility for the harm inflicted (if not all of it).

Patton’s second claim is that a woman has an obligation to not allow herself to be incapable of self-defense. Presumably Patton means that a woman has an obligation to not become some drunk that she cannot defend herself from a man who means to assault or rape her. In defense of this claim, Patton offers her analogy: a woman who gets assaulted or raped when she is too drunk to defend herself is like someone who gets hit by a car because they did not look both ways before crossing the street—even though she had the light.

The analogy does have some merit—while drivers are obligated to take care not to hit people, a person should take due precautions to avoid being hit. To do otherwise is clearly foolish. However, there is a distinction between what is prudent and what is morally obligatory. While it makes perfect sense that a woman should not impair herself when she has reason to believe that she will be vulnerable to assault or rape, this is a different matter than her having a moral obligation to herself to avoid being vulnerable in this way. There is also a third matter, namely who is responsible when a drunk woman is raped or assaulted.

In regards to the second matter, this is essentially a question of whether there is a moral obligation for self-defense. It is generally accepted that people have a moral right to self-defense and for the sake of the discussion that will be assumed. This right gives a person the liberty to protect herself. If it is only a liberty, then the person has the right to not act in self-defense and thus be an easy victim. However, if there is an obligation of self-defense, then failing to act on this obligation would seem to be a moral failing. The obvious challenge is to show that there is such an obligation.

On the face of it, it would seem that self-defense is merely a liberty. However, some consideration of the matter will suggest that this is not so obvious.  In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.

John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection or restraint of others rather than one’s self. However, there are arguments against this.

I will start with a practical argument. While the modern Western state projects its coercive force and spying eyes into society, the state’s agents cannot (yet) observe all that occurs nor can they always be close at hand in times of danger. As such, relying solely on the state would seem to put a person at risk—after all, he would be helpless in the face of danger. If a person relies on other individuals, then unless she is guarded at all times, then she also faces the real risk of being a helpless victim. This would, at the very least, seem imprudent.

This argument can be used as the basis for a moral argument. If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own) and others cannot be reliably depended on, then it would seem that she would have an obligation of self-defense and this would include not intentionally making herself vulnerable to well-known threats. These threats would, sadly, include those presented by bad men. As such, a woman would have a moral obligation to avoid being vulnerable. This seems reasonable.

The third matter is the question of moral responsibility when a drunk woman is assaulted or raped by a man who takes advantage of her vulnerability.  In the abstract, it could be argued that the woman does bear some of the responsibility—if a woman has an obligation to defend herself, she would have failed in her obligation by becoming vulnerable in this way. As with her analogy, someone who crosses the road without looking and gets hit has failed in a clear duty to herself. However, even if this point is granted, there is still the matter of who bears the majority of the responsibility.

On the face of it, it seems evident that the man who assaulted or raped the woman bears the overwhelming moral responsibility. After all, even if the woman should have avoided being vulnerable, the man has a far greater moral obligation to not harm her. There is also the matter of reasonable expectations. To be specific, while a person is obligated to protect herself, this does not obligate her to be hyper-vigilant against all possible dangers. To use an analogy, if woman does not buy body armor to wear on campus (after all, there have been campus shooting) and she is shot by a gunman, it would be absurd to blame her for her injury or death. The blame rests on the shooter—his obligation to not shoot her vastly outweighs the extent of her obligation to be prepared.

In the case of rape and sexual assault, while a woman should be prudent for the sake of self-protection, the overwhelming moral responsibility is on the man. That the woman makes herself vulnerable to rape or assault no more lessens the rapist’s responsibility than the fact that the woman was not wearing body armor lessens the responsibility of the shooter. The principle here is that vulnerability does not mitigate moral responsibility. This is intuitively plausible: just because a victimizer has an easier time with his victim, it hardly makes his misdeeds less bad.

Patton does acknowledge that men should act better, but she does insist that a woman must take care of herself. This could be seen as sensible advice: a woman should not count on the goodwill of others, but be on guard against reasonably foreseeable harm. This advice is, of course, consistent with the view that the rapist is the one truly responsible for the rape.

 

 

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Is the NSA a Fascist Tyranny?

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, G...

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As anyone who follows the news knows, the NSA has been engaged in a massive spying program that seems to involve activities that are both immoral and illegal. However, it is interesting to consider whether or not the NSA is more than just a violator of the law and ethics. As such, I will endeavor to address the question of whether or not the NSA is a fascist tyranny.

While the term “fascism” gets thrown around loosely by both the left and the right in America, it seems best to defer to one of the experts on fascism, specifically Benito Mussolini. Mussolini claims that “fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation…” The NSA nicely fits into this model—it has operated without the approval or even the knowledge of the majority of the citizens of the United States.

It can be objected that the approval of certain elected officials and secret courts suffices to preserve the core democratic values of majority rule and consultation of the governed.  After all, there are many activities that are handled by representatives without the citizens directly voting.

This reply does have some merit: the United States is primarily a representative democracy and the will of the citizens is, in theory, enacted by elected officials. However, the NSA certainly seems to be operating largely outside of the domain of public decision and informed agreement. The extent of its intrusion into the lives of the citizens and the scope of its power certainly seems to demand that the NSA be subject to the open channels of democracy rather than allowing decisions to be made and implemented in the shadows.

One key aspect of fascism, at least according to Mussolini is that the “Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….”

The NSA seems to, sadly enough, fit this concept of fascism. The NSA is literally organizing the nation and it is clearly denying citizens key liberties by its intrusions. Fittingly enough, these grotesque violations are defended in terms that Mussolini would appreciate: no important liberties are being infringed on…but it they were, it would be to protect the state from harm.

Rather importantly, the way the NSA has been operating shows that the deciding power has been the State (that is, secret courts and officials in the shadows of secrecy) and not the citizens.

Thus, it would seem that the NSA is fascist in nature. This is hardly a surprise given that this sort of police state surveillance system is a hallmark and stereotype of the oppressive fascist state. What remains to be seen is whether or not the NSA is tyrannical in nature.

As with “fascism”, people on the left and right throw around the term “tyranny” without much respect for the actual meaning of the term. To ensure that I am using it properly, I will go back to John Locke and make use of his account of tyranny. Given his influence in political philosophy and the American political system, he seems like a reasonable go-to person for this matter.

Locke defines “tyranny” as follows:

Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.  When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.

While the extent of the wrongdoing by the people at the NSA might never be known, it is clear that the power handed to them has generally not been used not for the good of the people. Those in charge have made their will and not the law their rule—despite being basically let off the legal leash by compliant courts and public officials, the NSA still engaged in illegal activity and thus acted tyrannically.

Some folks at the NSA even abused their power on the basis of “irregular passion.” One rather pathetic example is that some NSA personnel used the resources of their employer to spy on those they were romantically involved with or interested in.

As such, it would seem evident that the NSA is tyrannical—or at least a tool of tyranny. What remains is to consider the proper response to tyranny. Locke, not surprisingly, had a clear answer:

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.

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Prism & Privacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Owning Human Genes

Human genome to genes

Human genome to genes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While it sounds a bit like science fiction, the issue of whether or not human genes can be owned has become a matter of concern. While the legal issue is interesting, my focus will be on the philosophical aspects of the matter. After all, it was once perfectly legal to own human beings—so what is legal is rather different from what is right.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the ownership of genes is a stock consequentialist argument. If corporations cannot patent and thus profit from genes, then they will have no incentive to engage in expensive genetic research (such as developing tests for specific genes that are linked to cancer). The lack of such research will mean that numerous benefits to individuals and society will not be acquired (such as treatments for specific genetic conditions). As such, not allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

While this argument does have considerable appeal, it can be countered by another consequentialist argument. If human genes can be patented, then this will allow corporations to take exclusive ownership of these genes, thus allowing them a monopoly. Such patents will allow them to control the allowed research conducted even at non-profit institutions such as universities (who sometimes do research for the sake of research), thus restricting the expansion of knowledge and potentially slowing down the development of treatments. This monopoly would also allow the corporation to set the pricing for relevant products or services without any competition. This is likely to result in artificially high prices which could very well deny people needed medical services or products simply because they cannot meet the artificially high prices arising from the lack of competition. As such, allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

Naturally, this counter argument can be countered. However, the harms of allowing the ownership of human genes would seem to outweigh the benefits—at least when the general good is considered. Obviously, such ownership would be very good for the corporation that owns the patent.

In addition to the moral concerns regarding the consequences, there is also the general matter of whether it is reasonable to regard a gene as something that can be owned. Addressing this properly requires some consideration of the basis of property.

John Locke presents a fairly plausible account of property: a person owns her body and thus her labor. While everything is initially common property, a person makes something her own property by mixing her labor with it. To use a simple example, if Bill and Sally are shipwrecked on an ownerless island and Sally gathers coconuts from the trees and build a hut for herself, then the coconuts and hut are her property. If Bill wants coconuts or a hut, he’ll have to either do work or ask Sally for access to her property.

On Locke’s account, perhaps researchers could mix their labor with the gene and make it their own. Or perhaps not—I do not, for example, gain ownership of the word “word” in general because I mixed my labor with it by typing it out. I just own the work I have created in particular. That is, I own this essay, not the words making it up.

Sticking with Locke’s account, he also claims that we are owned by God because He created us. Interestingly, for folks who believe that God created the world, it would seem to follow that a corporation cannot own a human gene. After all, God is the creator of the genes and they are thus His property. As such, any attempt to patent a human gene would be an infringement on God’s property rights.

It could be countered that although God created everything, since He allows us to own the stuff He created (like land, gold, and apples), then He would be fine with people owning human genes. However, the basis for owning a gene would still seem problematic—it would be a case of someone trying to patent an invention which was invented by another person—after all, if God exists then He invented our genes, so a corporation cannot claim to have invented them. If the corporation claims to have a right to ownership because they worked hard and spent a lot of money, the obvious reply is that working hard and spending a lot of money to discover what is already owned by another would not transfer ownership. To use an analogy, if a company worked hard and spent a lot to figure out the secret formula to Coke, it would not thus be entitled to own Coca Cola’s formula.

Naturally, if there is no God, then the matter changes (unless we were created by something else, of course). In this case, the gene is not the property of a creator, but something that arose naturally. In this case, while someone can rightfully claim to be the first to discover a gene, no one could claim to be the inventor of a naturally occurring gene. As such, the idea that ownership would be confirmed by mere discovery would seem to be a rather odd one, at least in the case of a gene.

The obvious counter is that people claim ownership of land, oil, gold and other resources by discovering them. One could thus argue that genes are analogous to gold or oil: discovering them turns them into property of the discoverer. There are, of course, those who claim that the ownership of land and such is unjustified, but this concern will be set aside for the sake of the argument (but not ignored—if discovery does not confer ownership, then gene ownership would be right out in regards to natural genes).

While the analogy is appealing, the obvious reply is that when someone discovers a natural resource, she gains ownership of that specific find and not all instances of what she found. For example, when someone discovers gold, they own that gold but not gold itself. As another example, if I am the first human to stumble across naturally occurring Unobtanium on an owner-less alien world, I thus do not gain ownership of all instances of Unobtanium even if it cost me a lot of money and work to find it. However, if I artificially create it in my philosophy lab, then it would seem to be rightfully mine. As such, the researchers that found the gene could claim ownership of that particular genetic object, but not the gene in general on the grounds that they merely found it rather than created it. Also, if they had created a new artificial gene that occurs nowhere in nature, then they would have grounds for a claim of ownership—at least to the degree they created the gene.

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Bloomberg’s Ban Banned

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NYC Mayor Bloomberg created a bit of a stir with his planned ban on large sodas. When I first heard about this proposed law, I wrote a blog post against it. As such, I was pleased when  Justice Milton A. Tingling Jr. of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan said that the ban was “arbitrary and capricious.” Because of this, he banned the ban.

Interestingly enough, the judge’s reasoning is similar to my own-I infer this is because we both got it right.

While my specialty is in ethics rather than law, similar principles apply. One principle is that of consistent application-that is, the law must apply in the same way in relevantly similar circumstances. In the case of Bloomberg’s Big Ban, high calorie beverages that are predominantly milk based would be exempt and the law only applied to some business that sell beverages. The problem is, of course, that if the law is aimed at high calorie drinks, it should apply based on the calorie content and not where it is being sold or what provides the calories. Naturally, if a relevant difference could be shown in terms of beverage content or sales venues, then this problem could be addressed.

Another principle is that a law should be efficacious. If a law is such that it cannot fulfill its legitimate purpose, then there is no reason to have such a law. As I argued previously, the law is aimed at combating obesity, yet it can be simply bypassed by going back for refills.

A third key principle in regards to law is that, as per John Locke, the magistrate should act within the legitimate limits of authority. Going beyond such limits is, as Locke argued, tyranny. While the Board of Health does have a legitimate domain (such as ensuring that rat feces is not in the famous NYC pizza), it does not have a mandate to do whatever might fall under the domain of improving the health of the public. As the judge correctly noted,  accepting the legitimacy of the mandate claimed by Bloomberg “would leave its authority to define, create, mandate and enforce limited only by its own imagination,” and “create an administrative Leviathan.”

I do, of course, think people should engage in healthy behavior and I do think the state has a legitimate role in protecting the health of the citizens. However, the ban on large drinks will not do much to help the public and, even if it did, it would be an unwarranted imposition. After all, as Mill argued, the state has the right to impose on an individual to prevent him from harming others. However, the state has no moral right to use its power just because it is believed that compelling people to do or forgo would be better for them.

For those who might wonder, I rarely drink soda (aside from in root beer floats)-but this is a matter of choice. I am, however, going to chug a giant root beer to celebrate the defeat of Bloomberg’s ban.

 

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Is there an Obligation of Self-Defense

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It is generally accepted that people have a moral right to self-defense. That is, if someone is unjustly attacked or threatened, then it is morally acceptable for her to act in her own self-protection. While there are moral limits on the actions a person may take, violence is generally considered morally acceptable in the right condition.

This right to self-defense does seem to provide a philosophical foundation for the right to the means of self-defense. After all, as Hobbes argued, a right without the means to exercise that right is effectively no right at all. Not surprisingly, I consider the right to own weapons to be grounded on the right of self-defense. However, my concern here is not with the right of self-defense. Rather, I will focus on the question of whether or not there is an obligation of self-defense.

The right to self-defense (if there is such a right) gives a person the liberty to protect herself. If it is only a liberty, then the person has the right to not act in self-defense and thus be a perfect victim. A person might, of course, elect to do so for practical reasons (perhaps to avoid a worse harm) or for moral reasons (perhaps from a commitment to pacifism). However, if there is an obligation of self-defense, then failing to act on this obligation would seem to be a moral failing. The obvious challenge is to show that there is such an obligation.

On the face of it, it would seem that self-defense is merely a liberty. However, some consideration of the matter will suggest that this is not so obvious.  In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.

John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection of others (typically the state) rather than one’s self. However, there are at least three arguments against this.

The first is a practical argument. While the modern Western state projects its coercive force and spying eyes into society, the state’s agents cannot (yet) observe all that occurs nor can they always be close at hand in times of danger. As such, relying solely on the state would seem to put a person at risk—after all, he would be helpless in the face of danger. If a person relies on other individuals, then unless she is guarded at all times, then she also faces the real risk of being a helpless victim. This would, at the very least, seem imprudent.

This argument can be used as the basis for a moral argument. If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own) and the arms of others cannot be reliably depended on, then it would seem that she would have an obligation of self-defense.

The third argument is also a moral argument. One favorite joke of some folks who carry concealed weapons is to respond, when asked why they carry a gun, with the witty remark “because cops are too heavy.” While this is humor, it does point towards an important moral concern regarding relying on others.

A person who relies on the protection of others is expecting those people to risk being hurt or killed to protect her. In the case of those who are incapable of acting in effective self-defense, this can be a morally acceptable situation. After all, it is reasonable for infants and the badly injured to rely on the protection of others since they cannot act in their own defense.  However, a person who could be competent in self-defense but declines to do so in favor of expecting others to die for her would seem to be a morally selfish person. As such, it would seem that people have an obligation of self-defense—at least if they wish to avoid being parasites.

An obvious counter is that people do rely on others for self-defense. After all, civilians wisely allow the police and military to handle armed threats whenever possible. Since the police and military are armed and trained for such tasks, it makes sense practically and morally to rely on them.

However, as noted in the first argument, a person will not always be under the watchful protection of others. Even if others are available to risk themselves, there is still the moral concern regarding of expecting others to take risks to protect one when one is not willing to do the same for himself. That seems to be cowardice and selfishness and thus morally reprehensible. This is not, of course, to say that accepting the protection of the police and military is always a moral failing—however, a person must be willing to accept the obligation of self-defense and not rely entirely on others.

This raises the matter of the extent to which a person is obligated to be competent at self-defense and when it would be acceptable to rely on others in this matter. It would, of course, be an unreasonable expectation to morally require that people train for hours each day in self-defense. However, it does seem reasonable to expect that people become at least competent at protecting themselves, thus being able to at least act on the obligation of self-preservation with some chance of success. This obligation of self-preservation would also seem to obligate people to maintain a degree of physical fitness and health, but that is a matter for another time.

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How Much is the State?

 

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thom...

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous essay I began a discussion about the question “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” As might be imagined, the category of others is rather broad, so as a practical matter it is necessary to limit the scope of the discussion. In this essay I will focus on how much a person’s success (or failure) is owed to the state. Obviously, the exact debt will vary from person to person and this examination will be, of necessity, somewhat abstract.

One rather promising way to begin the discussion is to make use of the state of nature. This classic philosophical device was used by such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in their examination of such matters as rights and the justification of political power. I am, however, going to use the device to see what the state contributes to success (or failure).

While this oversimplifies things quite a bit, two of the classic approaches to the state of nature are the Hobbesian state and the Lockean state. In general terms, the state of nature is a state in which there is no governmental authority. It is often presented as a hypothetical predecessor to the rise of political states. In any case, the state of nature is marked by the lack of any artificial authority.

For Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war “and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of the conditions of this state, none of the following are possible: “Industry, culture of the earth, navigation, use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, commodious building; instruments of moving and removing, such things as require much force, knowledge of the face of the earth, account of time, arts, letters, society.” As Hobbes sees it, the establishment of the sovereign (the state) is necessary for the establishment of order and this allows the possibility of industry and the other things that are required for “commodious living.” Given Hobbes assumptions about the state of nature being a state of war of all against all, the idea that these things would not be possible makes sense. One has but to look at what happens in cases where civil authority collapses to see the plausibility of Hobbes’ view.

On the Hobbesian model, an individual who succeeded in industry or other endeavors would owe a great deal to the state (that is, the collective of everyone forming the great leviathan that is the state). After all, without the order provided by the state, success in these areas would not be possible. Naturally, this does not include any other contributions made by the state, such as providing infrastructure or support for research. These contributions would, obviously enough, add to the debt owed by the individual to the collective society.

The Lockean model is rather nicer than the Hobbesian, most likely because Locke includes divinely based rights to life, liberty and property even in the state of nature. On Locke’s model, life in the state if nature is not a state of war (although war can occur) and there is clearly the possibility of success within this state. For example, the right to property allows for the accumulation of goods and this could be seen as success.

While the Lockean state of nature is more appealing than Hobbes’ state of war, Locke does argue that it is not preferable to the state of civil society. While there are, according to Locke, rights in the state of nature, these rights are enforced only by vigilante justice in which individuals act (or not) to prevent and take revenge for misdeeds. As such, wrongs are not reliably prevented or corrected. If, for example, someone stole the goods a person had accumulated, it would be up to her (and any allies) to recover her goods and punish the malefactors.

To solve this and other problems, civil society is created and vigilante justice is replaced with a legal system. Once the state is established, then the state has the responsibility of protecting the citizens and dealing with criminals. Assuming the state is doing its job, the state of civil society provides a stable system in which success is both more possible and more secure.

If Locke’s view is correct, a successful individual owes less to the state (that is, the collective agreements and actions of the people) than she would if Hobbes were right. After all, the difference between Locke’s state of nature and civil society is not as extreme as the difference in Hobbes. However, the successful individual would still owe much to the collective efforts of civil society, not the least of which would be a debt for the existence of laws enabling and protecting the fruits of her success. If additional contributions of civil society, such as infrastructure, public education and so on are included, then the successful individual would owe a great deal to the state.

Of course, not everyone sees the state in such a positive way. For example, the communists contend that while the state is necessary for capitalism and socialism, it will wither away as true communism is achieved. Before then it will be an instrument of oppression, either serving the capitalists or the socialists. Obviously, once communism is achieved, then people will not owe any of their success (or failure) to the state on the obvious basis that there will be no state. Or so the communists claim. However, a debt will be still owed to the states—without them, humanity would not have been able to achieve communism.

As another example, the anarchists have a uniformly negative view of the state—although the degree of their negativity varies. Some, like Thoreau, are willing to co-exist with benign states. Others, like Goldman, advocate the destruction of the state because of its role in oppression and how it prevents true human flourishing.

Thoreau presents a rather interesting view of the state and one that many current conservatives would heartily endorse, noting “that government is best which governs least” and even going so far as to say “that government is best which governs not at all.” As Thoreau sees it, government seems to interfere with success in two main ways. The first is that people use it to impose on each other for their advantage. While this aids the success of those who control the state, it impedes the success of those who are imposed upon. Second, he claims that the state gets in the way of success, noting that “trade and commerce continuously face obstacles placed by legislators.” As he sees it government has only one role in success, namely doing nothing. As he sees it, “government never furthered any enterprise except by getting out of its way.”

On Thoreau’s system of government non-involvement, it would seem that an individual’s success (and failures) would depend more on the individual than it does in the current system in the United States and similar countries. After all, the state is routinely used by some to their considerable advantage over others (subsidies, favorable laws and so on) and it also imposes restrictions on what people can do. As such, the state does make contributions to the success (and failure) via these guided impositions and restrictions.

Thoreau advocates an evolution rather than a destruction of the state, however there are those (such as Goldman) who do advocate the complete elimination of the state. This would, of course, take the discussion full circle by returning to the state of nature—a situation without political authority. Naturally, if there was no state, then there would be no state to contribute to or prevent an individual’s success. There is, however, the question of whether or not such a state would be desirable. There is also the question of whether or not success would even be possible without a state, unless success is merely a matter of staying alive.

Obviously, there are other alleged contributors to individual success than the state and some of these will be addressed in the essays that follow.

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God’s Vigilantes

The Vigilantes seal from the cover of Fifes an...

In anticipation of teaching my Modern philosophy class in the upcoming spring semester, I have been perusing my notes. Since I recently did a post on God and punishment, re-reading Locke got me thinking about this matter once again.

Locke, like other political thinkers of his age, made use of the state of nature in his consideration of rights and authority. Roughly put, the state of nature is a situation in which there is no political authority: no politicians, no police, no judges, no man-made laws and so on. In short, there is no artificial society-just people existing in a natural state.

Thomas Hobbes also envisioned such a state, but he saw this as  a state of perpetual war. Since many of my students play video games, I always illustrate Hobbes as presenting a “death match” view of the state of nature: everyone against everyone, whatever you can grab is yours (until someone kills you and takes it), and so forth.  Locke, however, envisioned a nicer state in which people possessed natural rights to life, liberty and property.

Locke also contended that there is a law of nature that should be observed and that this law “wills the peace and preservation of all mankind.” Locke also noted the obvious: if there is no one to execute or enforce the law of nature, this law would be in vain.

To solve this problem, Locke claimed that in the state of nature everyone has the right to execute the law of nature by punishing wrongdoers who violate the right to life, liberty or property.  Locke, of course, grounds these rights on God. Our right to life rests on his view that we are God’s property and our right to property rests, in part, on God’s gift of the world to us. Put a bit simply, God is the legislator of the law of nature and the author of our rights. However, given what Locke claims, God respects the distinction between the executive and the legislative in that He does not enforce the law of nature nor does He act to prevent or punish (on earth) the violation of rights. He does not even dispatch angels to act as divine police. As such, on Locke’s view the state of nature is governed by divine law but God does deploy any enforcers.

In human societies when laws exist but there are no official enforcers, people sometimes turn to vigilantism. That is, people take the law into their own hands. In human societies, this practice is generally frowned upon-at least when law enforcement does exist. It is, as might be imagined, tolerated more (or even encouraged) when official law enforcement is lacking.

Given that in the state of nature there is law (the law of nature) but no official enforcers, what Locke is arguing for is vigilantism. In short, he calls upon people to serve as God’s vigilantes. Naturally, it might be wondered why God would need vigilantes rather than having official law enforcement in operation. After all, God surely cannot lack the funding or personnel to provide adequate policing. Given that He supposedly created the universe and all its contents, surely He could create a divine police force to supervise us here on earth. This force would not, of course, impede our free will anymore than our own police forces do: people are always free to chose to do wrong-they just get punished if they get caught and convicted.

As far as the view that God does not punish and hence does not need police , given what most faiths claim, God has no compunction against punishing people. He just seems rather reluctant to do so when people are watching.

It might be argued that God has deployed a police force, namely us. We are, of course, also the criminal element and the judges as well. However, this seems a rather odd way of doing things. Consider the following analogy: imagine a federation or empire with unlimited resources that is engaged in colonization. The way it colonizes is that it just dumps people on a habitable world, but provides them with no technology, no police, no education and so on. While this would make some sense for a poor empire that cannot afford proper colonization efforts, this would seem absurd for such a wealthy empire.

In the case of God, it seems absurd that He would just dump us on a planet and have us “go to it” on our own with no support or police.  This hypothesis seems, on might suspect, more absurd than the hypothesis that humans are the result of a seriously lame (or badly failed) colonization attempt by a space empire. After all, to say that we are ruled over by a God who makes rules, but provides no police or judges here on earth seems rather like saying that we are ruled over by a space empire that laid down our laws, but provides no police, judges or any contact with us.

This analogy also provides the obvious response to the claim that God punishes people in the afterlife. Imagine if someone claimed that we are part of a space empire and that just before people appear to die they are whisked away by transporters and their bodies replaced with duplicates. The supposedly dead people are then brought to the Court of the Space Empire and then tried by Space Lawyers before the Space Judges. If they are found guilty of crimes, they are cast into Space Hell to be punished. If they are found to be innocent, they are transported to Space Heaven and rewarded. Naturally, we are all really immortal-we just seem to die when we are transported away and replaced by a fake corpse (or ashes or whatever).

Just as we have every reason to think that the space empire story is just bad science fiction, it would seem that we should think that the story about God is just a bad fantasy story.

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Climate Change & Skepticism

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Cover of Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons (that is, the belief might be true, but is not justified).

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-”reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

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