Tag Archives: John Locke

Acquired Savantism & Innate Ideas

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One classic philosophical dispute is the battle over innate ideas. An innate idea, as the name suggests, is an idea that is not acquired by experience but is “built into” the mind. As might be imagined, the specific nature and content of such ideas vary considerably among the philosophers who accept them. Leibniz, for example, takes God to be the author of the innate ideas that exist within the monads. Other thinkers, for example, accept that humans have an innate concept of beauty that is the product of evolution.

Over the centuries, philosophers have advanced various arguments for (and against) innate ideas. For example, some take Plato’s Meno as a rather early argument for innate ideas. In the Meno, Socrates claims to show that Meno’s servant knows geometry, despite the (alleged) fact that the servant never learned geometry. Other philosophers have argued that there must be innate ideas in order for the mind to “process” information coming in from the senses. To use a modern analogy, just as a smart phone needs software to make the camera function, the brain would need to have built in ideas in order to process the sensory data coming in via the optic nerve.

Other philosophers, such as John Locke, have been rather critical of the idea of innate ideas in general. Others have been critical of specific forms of innate ideas—the idea that God is the cause of innate ideas is, as might be suspected, not very popular among philosophers today.

Interestingly enough, there is some contemporary evidence for innate ideas. In his August 2014 Scientific American article “Accidental Genius”, Darold A. Treffert advances what can be seen as a 21st century version of the Meno. Investigating the matter of “accidental geniuses” (people who become savants as the result of an accident, such as a brain injury), researchers found that they could create “instant savants” by the use using brain stimulation. These instant savants were able to solve a mathematical puzzle that they could not solve without the stimulation. Treffert asserts that this ability to solve the puzzle was due to the fact that they “’know things’ innately they were never taught.” To provide additional support for his claim, Treffert gave the example of a savant sculptor, Clemons, who “had no formal training in art but knew instinctively how to produce an armature, the frame for the sculpture, to enable his pieces to show horse in motion.” Treffert goes on to explicitly reject the “blank slate” notion (which was made famous by John Locke) in favor of the notion that the “brain might come loaded with a set of innate predispositions for processing what it sees or for understanding the ‘rules’ of music art or mathematics.” While this explanation is certainly appealing, it is well worth considering alternative explanations.

One stock objection to this sort of argument is the same sort of argument used against claims about past life experiences. When it is claimed that a person had a past life on the basis that the person knows about things she would not normally know, the easy and obvious reply is that the person learned about these things through perfectly mundane means. In the case of alleged innate ideas, the easy and obvious reply is that the person gained the knowledge through experience. This is not to claim that the person in question is engaged in deception—she might not recall the experience that provided the knowledge. For example, the instant savants who solved the puzzle probably had previous puzzle experience and the sculptor might have seen armatures in the past.

Another objection is that an idea might appear to be innate but might actually be a new idea that did not originate directly from a specific experience. To use a concrete example, consider a person who developed a genius for sculpture after a head injury. The person might have an innate idea that allowed him to produce the armature. An alternative explanation is that the person faced the problem regarding his sculpture and developed a solution. The solution turned out to be an armature, because that is what would solve the problem. To use an analogy, someone faced with the problem of driving in a nail might make a hammer but this does not entail that the idea of a hammer is innate. Rather, a hammer like device is what would work in that situation and hence it is what a person would tend to make.

As has always been the case in the debate over innate ideas, the key question is whether the phenomena in question can be explained best by innate ideas or without them.

 

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Unpatriotic Corporations & the Language Argument

English: Burger King headquarters in unincorpo...

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In previous essays I have written about corporate personhood as well as corporate inversion.  Corporate inversion, briefly put, is when a corporation buys a foreign corporation and then “inverts” ownership. For example, an American corporation like Burger King might buy a Canadian corporation and then move its corporate headquarters to Canada to take advantage of the lower tax rate. As might be imagined, some people have been rather critical of this practice. President Obama has even asserted that such corporations are unpatriotic.

While listening to NPR a while back, I heard an interesting argument advanced by one of the guests. He began by noting how Mitt Romney had taken some flak for asserting that corporations are people. He then mentioned how Obama called the corporations that engage in corporate inversion unpatriotic. He then raised the point that criticizing corporations for being unpatriotic is to accept them as people. This does raise a somewhat interesting question about whether this is right or not.

In the United States, corporations are legally persons—and the Supreme Court seems to be committed to granting them all the advantageous and convenient rights of actual persons (while not saying anything about the fact that it is illegal to own persons in the United States). I have argued at length that corporations are not people and should not have that legal status—so I will not repeat those arguments here. However, I will obviously address the issue of whether a corporation can be called unpatriotic without the accuser being committed to the personhood of corporations.

On the side of corporate personhood, it could be argued that being unpatriotic (or patriotic) requires the sort of intentional and emotional mental states that only a person could possess. As such, if a corporation is unpatriotic, then it is a person.

Interestingly enough, this sort of language argument has been used by various philosophers such as Socrates and John Locke. In arguing for universals, Socrates (or Plato) would proceed from how one talks to an ontological commitment. In discussing personal identity, Locke took the fact that people use expressions such as a person not being themselves as evidence that someone in a normal state of mind can be a different person from someone in an abnormal state: “human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did, thereby making them two persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English, when we say such an one is not himself, or is beside himself; in which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first used them, thought that self was changed, the selfsame person was no longer in that man….”

The easy and obvious counter is that when someone refers to a corporation as being unpatriotic (or patriotic), she need not commit to the corporation itself being a person. Rather, the person is just using a shorthand expression in place of asserting that the people who decide to implement the inversion and make it happen are acting in (what is seen as) an unpatriotic way. To use an obvious analogy, if someone claims that a sports team is enthusiastic, the she is not committed to the team being a person—an entity over and above the players, coaches, etc. Rather, she is just using conversational shorthand to refer to the members of the team.  If such conversational shorthand expressed a commitment to personhood, then people would be routinely expressing commitments to a vast number of entities—thus dramatically swelling the ontology of persons. This seems both odd and unnecessary. Given the injunction of Occam’s razor, due care should be used when moving from how people speak to an ontological commitment. In the case of corporations and other groups, it would seem to suffice to attribute the mental states to the people that make them up rather than adding another entity to the matter. As such, the appeal to language argument for corporate personhood fails.

Thus, someone can claim that a corporation is unpatriotic (or patriotic) without being committed to corporate personhood. Just like a person can talk about team spirit without being committed to team personhood.

 

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Police, Protests & Rights

"Citizens protest police terror": De...

“Citizens protest police terror”: Demonstration against police brutality in Oppenheimer Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a series of protests in the town. Not surprisingly, these protests led to additional incidents involving conflicts between the citizens and the police. Initially, the local police met the protestors like an invading army: many of the officers were in military grade combat gear and backed up by armored vehicles. As noted in my previous essay, this sort of approach is based on a common philosophy of order held by authorities. This philosophy of order is that perceived threats to the existing order are to be met with physical force—even when the perceived threat consists of citizens acting within their rights. One reason for this is practical—the state generally has an advantage over the citizens in terms of force. As Thoreau notes, “…the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Another reason for this is conceptual—authorities are often similar to bullies in that their view of how to address problems mainly involves coercion rather than persuasion and reason. There is also a philosophical element—those in authority often seem to have a philosophical view about the rights of citizens that rather differs from that of the founders they so often praise when running for re-election. As this is being written, it is not yet know if Brown rights were violated. As noted in the previous essay, the officer might have used force legitimately. However, the response to the protests has been the systematic and repeated violation of rights. To begin with the most obvious violations of constitutional rights, the rights of free speech and assemble have been routinely violated by the police. The curfew is the most obvious example of these violations. The harassment and arrests of journalists also seem to be clear violations of the freedom of the press. Section 1 of the 14th amendment has also been relentlessly violated since citizens have been “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and citizens have been denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The violations of the 14th amendment are not limited just to the treatment of the protestors—the policing of Ferguson’s disproportionality clearly illustrates systematic violation of this amendment. Obviously, this is also a nationwide problem. There are also clear violations of internationally established human rights: the protestors are being shot with rubber bullets (admittedly this is better than being shot with metal bullets) and tear gas has been used. Those who accept natural rights, such as John Locke, would certainly agree that these rights are being violated in Ferguson. The most obvious being the right of liberty.  As such, the violations are not just a matter of violations of human law but also violations of natural rights (assuming there are such things). For those who prefer a more utilitarian approach to liberty, Mill’s utilitarian arguments would certainly support the claim that the state is violating the rights of the protestors in Ferguson. The conflict in Ferguson can thus be seen as having a significant connection to past struggles for liberty and rights. The most obvious link is that the protests are a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This struggle can, of course, be traced back to the development of the very notions of liberty and rights. As such, Ferguson is a recent battleground in the struggle for justice, rights and liberty. One obvious counter to this view is the claim that the police are justified because of the nature of the situation. People are looting, shooting and destroying property and the police are acting to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. This, of course, does require the use of force and it might appear that some rights are being violated in the keeping of order. This counter does have considerable underlying merit. The state does have an obligation to prevent protestors from violating the rights of other people. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in unwarranted violence or other misdeeds can be justly stopped or arrested. There is also the obvious concern with people who use protests as an excuse to engage in or as cover for misdeeds such as looting. If the police arrest someone who has come to “protest” by stealing from local homes, they have not violated that person’s rights—he has no moral right to steal even if he claims that he is doing so as an act of protest. The easy reply to this counter is that the legitimate need to prevent the violation of rights does not justify violating those same rights. So, while the police have an obligation to keep protestors from committing crimes against life, liberty and property the police also have an obligation to not violate the rights of the protestors. I will freely admit that this can be challenging in practice since opportunists and criminals often mix in with actual protestors. However, if our society is supposed to respect rights, effort must be taken to ensure that these rights are protected—even (and especially) in heated moments. After all, rights are not just for corporations.   My Amazon Author Page My Paizo Page My DriveThru RPG Page

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....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

Fight Club DVD

Fight Club DVD (Photo credit: filmhirek)

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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