Tag Archives: Plato

Introduction to Philosophy

The following provides a (mostly) complete Introduction to Philosophy course.

Readings & Notes (PDF)

Class Videos (YouTube)

Part I Introduction

Class #1

Class #2: This is the unedited video for the 5/12/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the last branches of philosophy, two common misconceptions about philosophy, and argument basics.

Class #3: This is the unedited video for class three (5/13/2015) of Introduction to Philosophy. It covers analogical argument, argument by example, argument from authority and some historical background for Western philosophy.

Class #4: This is the unedited video for the 5/14/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the background for Socrates, covers the start of the Apology and includes most of the information about the paper.

Class#5: This is the unedited video of the 5/18/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the details of the paper, covers the end of the Apology and begins part II (Philosophy & Religion).

Part II Philosophy & Religion

Class #6: This is the unedited video for the 5/19/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the introduction to Part II (Philosophy & Religion), covers St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and some of the background for St. Thomas Aquinas.

Class #7: This is the unedited video from the 5/20/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Class #8: This is the unedited video for the eighth Introduction to Philosophy class (5/21/2015). It covers the end of Aquinas, Leibniz’ proofs for God’s existence and his replies to the problem of evil, and the introduction to David Hume.

Class #9: This is the unedited video from the ninth Introduction to Philosophy class on 5/26/2015. This class continues the discussion of David Hume’s philosophy of religion, including his work on the problem of evil. The class also covers the first 2/3 of his discussion of the immortality of the soul.

Class #10: This is the unedited video for the 5/27/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes Hume’s discussion of immortality, covers Kant’s critiques of the three arguments for God’s existence, explores Pascal’s Wager and starts Part III (Epistemology & Metaphysics). Best of all, I am wearing a purple shirt.

Part III Epistemology & Metaphysics

Class #11: This is the 11th Introduction to Philosophy class (5/28/2015). The course covers Plato’s theory of knowledge, his metaphysics, the Line and the Allegory of the Cave.

Class #12: This is the unedited video for the 12th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/1/2015). This class covers skepticism and the introduction to Descartes.

Class #13: This is the unedited video for the 13th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/2/2015). The class covers Descartes 1st Meditation, Foundationalism and Coherentism as well as the start to the Metaphysics section.

Class #14: This is the unedited video for the fourteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/3/2015). It covers the methodology of metaphysics and roughly the first half of Locke’s theory of personal identity.

Class #15: This is the unedited video of the fifteen Introduction to Philosophy class (6/4/2015). The class covers the 2nd half of Locke’s theory of personal identity, Hume’s theory of personal identity, Buddha’s no self doctrine and “Ghosts & Minds.”

Class #16: This is the unedited video for the 16th Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the problem of universals,  the metaphysics of time travel in “Meeting Yourself” and the start of the metaphysics of Taoism.

Part IV Value

Class #17: This is the unedited video for the seventeenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/9/2015). It begins part IV and covers the introduction to ethics and the start of utilitarianism.

Class #18: This is the unedited video for the eighteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/10/2015). It covers utilitarianism and some standard problems with the theory.

Class #19: This is the unedited video for the 19th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/11/2015). It covers Kant’s categorical imperative.

Class #20: This is the unedited video for the twentieth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/15/2015). This class covers the introduction to aesthetics and Wilde’s “The New Aesthetics.” The class also includes the start of political and social philosophy, with the introduction to liberty and fascism.

Class #21: No video.

Class #22: This is the unedited video for the 22nd Introduction to Philosophy class (6/17/2015). It covers Emma Goldman’s anarchism.

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Why is the Universe the Way it is?

Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

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One of the fundamental questions shared by science, philosophy and theology is the question of why the universe is the way it is. Over the centuries, the answers have fallen into two broad camps. The first is that of teleology. This is the view that the universe is the way it is because it has a purpose, goal or end for which it aims. The second is the non-teleological camp, which is the denial of the teleological view. Members of this camp often embrace purposeless chance as the “reason” why things are as they are.

Both camps agree on many basic matters, such as the view that the universe seems to be finely tuned. Theorists vary a bit in their views on what a less finely tuned universe would be like. On some views, the universe would just be slightly different while on other views small differences would have significant results, such as an uninhabitable universe. Because of this apparent fine tuning, one main concern for philosophers and physicists is explaining why this is the case.

The dispute over this large question nicely mirrors the dispute over a smaller question, namely the question about why living creatures are the way they are. The division into camps follows the same pattern. On one side is the broad camp inhabited by those who embrace teleology and the other side dwell those who reject it. Interestingly, it might be possible to have different types of answers to these questions. For example, the universe could have been created by a deity (a teleological universe) who decides to let natural selection rather than design sort out life forms (non-teleological). That said, the smaller question does provide some interesting ways to answer the larger question.

As noted above, the teleological camp is very broad. In the United States, perhaps the best known form of teleology is Christian creationism. This view answers the large and the small question with God: He created the universe and the inhabitants. There are many other religious teleological views—the creation stories of various other cultures and faiths are examples of these. There are also non-religious views. Among these, probably the best known are those of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, roughly put, the universe is the way it is because of the Forms (and behind them all is the Good). Aristotle does not put any god in charge of the universe, but he regarded reality as eminently teleological. Views that posit laws governing reality also seem, to some, to be within the teleological camp. As such, the main divisions in the teleological camp tends to be between the religious theories and the non-religious theories.

Obviously enough, teleological accounts have largely fallen out of favor in the sciences—the big switch took place during the Modern era as philosophy and science transitioned away from Aristotle (and Plato) towards a more mechanistic and materialistic view of reality.

The non-teleological camp is at least as varied as the teleological camp and as old. The pre-Socratic Greek philosophers considered the matter of what would now be called natural selection and the idea of a chance-based, purposeless universe is ancient.

One non-teleological way to answer the question of why the universe is the way it is would be to take an approach similar to Spinoza, only without God. This would be to claim that the universe is what it is as a matter of necessity: it could not be any different from what it is. However, this might be seen as unsatisfactory since one can easily ask about why it is necessarily the way it is.

The opposite approach is to reject necessity and embrace a random universe—it was just pure chance that the universe turned out as it did and things could have been very different. So, the answer to the question of why the universe is the way it is would be blind chance. The universe plays dice with itself.

Another approach is to take the view that the universe is the way it is and finely tuned because it has “settled” down into what seems to be a fine-tuned state. Crudely put, the universe worked things out without any guidance or purpose. To use an analogy, think of sticks and debris washed by a flood to form a stable “structure.” The universe could be like that—where the flood is the big bang or whatever got it going.

One variant on this would be to claim that the universe contains distinct zones—the zone we are in happened to be “naturally selected” to be stable and hospitable to life. Other zones could be rather different—perhaps so different that they are beyond our epistemic abilities. Or perhaps these zones “died” thus allowing an interesting possibility for fiction about the ghosts of dead zones haunting the cosmic night. Perhaps the fossils of dead universes drift around us, awaiting their discovery.

Another option is to expand things from there being just one universe to a multiverse. This allows a rather close comparison to natural selection: in place of a multitude of species, there is a multitude of universes. Some “survive” the selection while others do not. Just as we are supposed to be a species that has so far survived the natural selection of evolution, we live in a universe that has so far survived cosmic selection. If the model of evolution and natural selection is intellectually satisfying in biology, it would seem reasonable to accept cosmic selection as also being intellectually satisfying—although it will be radically different from natural selection in many obvious ways.


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Expatriation & Crito

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An American citizen can voluntarily renounce his citizenship and a permanent resident can “turn in” her green card—this is known as expatriation. Interestingly, there has been a 33% increase in expatriations since 2011 with a total of 2,369 people doing so as of the third quarter. The main reason for this seems to be for the wealthy to avoid paying American taxes.  This does raise an interesting moral issue.

In the case of permanent residents who turn in their green cards, this would seem to clearly be morally acceptable. After all, being a permanent resident and not a citizen is most likely a matter of convenience or advantage for the person in question. As such, they would seem to have no special moral obligation to the United States. To use an analogy, if I rent a house from a family, this creates no special obligation to that family beyond paying my rent and taking reasonable care of their property. If I wish to end my tenancy and move somewhere else, then that would be my right—provided that I settled my debt before leaving.

The case of citizens is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, it can be argued that a person has a moral right to give up his citizenship for any reason. This would seem to apply whether the person received his citizenship by being born a citizen or by being nationalized. A person who was born a citizen did not chose to be a citizen and thus would seem to have the right to make that choice as an adult. To use an analogy, a person does not pick his birth family, but he can later elect to not be a part of that family.

A person who decided to be a citizen and then elects to cease to be a citizen would seem to have as much right to make that choice as she did when she decided to become a citizen. To use an analogy, just as a person has a right to enter into a marriage she has a right to leave that marriage.

Another avenue of argumentation is to focus on the right of a person to act in ways that are to her advantage. In the case of the wealthy renouncing their citizenship for tax purposes, it can be contended that they have the right to act in their self-interest and avoiding taxes in this manner is a rational calculation. While they do give up the advantages of being a United States citizen, the tax savings could be well worth it—especially if the wealthy person has little need of the advantages of being a United States citizen or can get comparable advantages by being a citizen of a state that will not tax her to the degree that the United States does. Of course, it is worth noting that the wealthy generally do not suffer under severe tax burdens in the United States and they are generally adept at using the arcane tax laws to their advantage. However, a wealthy person might regard even these taxes as too burdensome relative to the advantages she gains from her citizenship.

On the other hand, renouncing citizenship for the tax advantages seems, at least to me, like an act that is morally dubious. Laying aside the appeals to patriotism and the condemnation of selfishness, I will instead borrow and rework Socrates’ approach in the Crito.

The Crito takes place after Socrates trial (as recounted in the Apology) and involves Socrates addressing the question of whether or not fleeing Athens to avoid death would be unjust. While the matter at hand is not about death, it is a similar matter: would a citizen renouncing his citizenship to avoid taxes be unjust? I believe that it would be and offer the following argument (stolen from Socrates).

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that the citizen was not compelled to be or remain a citizen and that the citizen was not tricked into being or remaining a citizen. That is, the citizen was not trapped by fraud or force. A person who is forced or tricked would have a legitimate claim to renouncing such a compulsive or fraudulent relationship.

A person who was born a citizen or became a citizen enjoyed the advantages of being a citizen. The person very likely was educated by the country (by the public school system). Even if the person did not receive a public education, she did receive the protection and goods of citizenship. If the person is renouncing her citizenship solely for tax reasons, this would indicate that she does not have a profound disagreement with American values or the other aspects of citizenship. As such, the person would be renouncing her citizenship solely for the financial advantage. This would seem to be unjust—to repay the country by renouncing her for the sake of money. To use an analogy, this would similar to a person renouncing membership in the family that raised and took care of her because now her parents are old and require the support they once gave their child. This would seem to be an act of profound ingratitude and shameful in its base selfishness.

The obvious counter to this is to contend that the relationship between the citizen and the state is not analogous to that of a family or even a community. Rather the relationship is one defined purely in terms of self-interest and assessed in terms of the advantages and disadvantages to the individual. On this view, a person would ask not what he can do for his country. Rather, his question would be to ask what his country can do for him. And if it is not doing enough, then he should end that relationship.

Taking this view does come with a price: it must be applied consistently to all relationships to the state. For example, a citizen who sells secrets to another country or merely leaks them because he sees it as being to his advantage cannot be accused of a betrayal. After all, he is doing what the wealthy renouncers are doing: acting for his own advantage. As another example, to expect citizens to make sacrifices by serving the country would be an unreasonable expectation. Citizens should only do what is to their advantage and be properly compensated for this. In short, this view is that the relationship between citizen and country is a business one and that a citizen is essentially a customer. Interestingly enough, some people want to have it both ways: using the idea of nationalism when it is to their advantage and treating citizenship as a business relationship when doing so is to their advantage.

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Critical Thinking & College

Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

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With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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Violence & Video Games, Yet Again.

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While there is an abundance of violence in the real world, there is also considerable focus on the virtual violence of video games. Interestingly, some people (such as the head of the NRA) blame real violence on the virtual violence of video games. The idea that art can corrupt people is nothing new and dates back at least to Plato’s discussion of the corrupting influence of art. While he was mainly worried about the corrupting influence of tragedy and comedy, he also raised concerns about violence and sex. These days we generally do not worry about the nefarious influence of tragedy and comedy, but there is considerable concern about violence.

While I am a gamer, I do have concerns about the possible influence of video games on actual behavior. For example, one of my published essays is on the distinction between virtual vice and virtual virtue and in this essay I raise concerns about the potential dangers of video games that are focused on vice. While I do have concerns about the impact of video games, there has been little in the way of significant evidence supporting the claim that video games have a meaningful role in causing real-world violence. However, such studies are fairly popular and generally get attention from the media.

The most recent study purports to show that teenage boys might become desensitized to violence because of extensive playing of video games. While some folks will take this study as showing a connection between video games and violence, it is well worth considering the details of the study in the context of causal reasoning involving populations.

When conducting a cause to effect experiment, one rather important factor is the size of experimental group (those exposed to the cause) and the control group (those not exposed to the cause). The smaller the number of subjects, the more likely that the difference between the groups is due to factors other than the (alleged) causal factor. There is also the concern with generalizing the results from the experiment to the whole population.

The experiment in question consisted of 30 boys (ages 13-15) in total. As a sample for determining a causal connection, the sample is too small for real confidence to be placed in the results. There is also the fact that the sample is far too small to support a generalization from the 30 boys to the general population of teenage boys. In fact, the experiment hardly seems worth conducting with such a small sample and is certainly not worth reporting on-except as an illustration of how research should not be conducted.

The researchers had the boys play a violent video game and a non-violent video game in the evening and compared the results. According to the researchers, those who played the violent video game had faster heart rates and lower sleep quality. They also reported “increased feelings of sadness.”  After playing the violent game, the boys  had greater stress and anxiety.

According to one researcher, “The violent game seems to have elicited more stress at bedtime in both groups, and it also seems as if the violent game in general caused some kind of exhaustion. However, the exhaustion didn’t seem to be of the kind that normally promotes good sleep, but rather as a stressful factor that can impair sleep quality.”

Being a veteran of violent video games, these results are consistent with my own experiences. I have found that if I play a combat game, be it a first person shooter, an MMO or a real time strategy game, too close to bedtime, I have trouble sleeping. Crudely put, I find that I am “keyed” up and if I am unable to “calm down” before trying to sleep, my sleep is generally not very restful. I really noticed this when I was raiding in WOW. A raid is a high stress situation (game stress, anyway) that requires hyper-vigilance and it takes time to “come down” from that. I have experienced the same thing with actual fighting (martial arts training, not random violence).  I’ve even experienced something comparable when I’ve been awoken by a big spider crawling on my face-I did not sleep quite so well after that. Graduate school, as might be imagined, put me into this state of poor sleep for about five years.

In general, then, it makes sense that violent video games would have this effect-which is why it is not a good idea to game up until bed time if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, it is a generally a good idea to relax about an hour before bedtime-don’t check email, don’t get on Facebook, don’t do work and so on.

While not playing games before bedtime is a good idea, the question remains as to how these findings connect to violence and video games. According to the researchers, the differences between the two groups “suggest that frequent exposure to violent video games may have a desensitizing effect.”

Laying aside the problem that the sample is far too small to provide significant results that can be reliably extended to the general population of teenage boys, there is also the problem that there seems to be a rather large chasm between the observed behavior (anxiety and lower sleep quality) and being desensitized to violence. The researchers do note that the cause and effect relationship was not established and they did consider the possibility of reversed causation (that the video games are not causing these traits, but that boys with those traits are drawn to violent video games).  As such, the main impact of the study seems to be that it got media attention for the researchers. This would suggest another avenue of research: the corrupting influence of media attention on researching video games and violence.

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Video Games, Movies & Violence

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Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, there is an effort to determine the causes (or lay the blame). This process generally follows a predictable script. Those who hate guns, blame the guns. Those who love guns say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Those of the cult of pop psychology appear on the news shows to discuss whatever “theory” they are currently selling in their self-help books. Those who study the workings of the mind present their latest theories. And, of course, there is the ritual blaming of violent video games and violent movies. This time around, the National Rifle Association explicitly blamed Hollywood while proposing that the United States should post an armed guard in each school.

While I have written often about video games, movies and violence I clearly have my own small part in the scripted play and here I am writing about them again.

The archetype argument for the claim that the arts (in this case video games and movies) can cause people to behave badly is based on Plato’s argument in the Republic. In that work, Plato contends that the arts can corrupt the soul and cause people to give in to feelings such as lust, anger and humor in ways that they should not. In the case of mass shootings, the basic idea remains the same: exposure to violent content in video games and movies can cause people to engage in real violence, such as engaging in a mass shooting at a movie theater or school.

The idea that violent video games and movies can affect people is not implausible. In fact, I have my two standard arguments in support of the claim that violent media can play a causal role in actual violent behavior.

First, repeated exposure to game or movie violence can condition a person to accept violence as normal. This is because people generally base their conception of normal based partially on what they generally experience. So, if fictional violence becomes a normal part of a person’s life, it makes sense that she might become desensitized to violence (or accustomed to it) and thus less more likely to give in to violent impulses.

Censoring such violence would reduce the exposure of people (or certain people) to virtual violence and thus they would presumably be less likely to be violent.

My second standard argument is based on the idea that the violence of movies and games is a curriculum of virtual violence that often teaches that violence is an effective and acceptable solution to problems. Popular video games such as Halo 4 and World of Warcraft are focused on violence, albeit in the context of science fiction and fantasy. There are also popular first person shooters, such as the Call of Duty series, that involve engaging in violence against other virtual humans. There is also the infamous Grand Theft Auto series of games in which one plays a bad person doing bad things. In the case of movies, even movies such as the Avengers and the Hobbit include considerable violence. Given the lessons taught by these movies and games, it makes some sense to think that people exposed to them might be more inclined to consider violence an option, perhaps in emulation of the games or movies. As such, perhaps some blame can be placed on video games and movies.

While a reasonable case can be made in favor of being suspicious of violent video games and movies, there is the rather important matter of sorting out the extent of the influence. That is, working out the causality of the matter.

Obviously enough, exposure to violent movies or games is not a necessary condition for a person engaging in violent behavior. A necessary causal condition is a condition that is required for the effect to occur. Put another way, without the necessary condition, what it is necessary for cannot be the case. For example, the presence of oxygen is a necessary causal condition for human life.

While humans have been engaging in violence since there have been humans, movies and video games are rather recent inventions. As such, exposure to them cannot be a necessary cause of violence. After all, there would have been no violence until they were invented if this were the case.

Naturally, it could be claimed that any violent art (such as a story about war) or violent games (like chess) can cause people to be violent and these are rather old. However, the obvious counter is that humans were probably killers before they were artists and gamers.

Equally obvious is the fact that exposure to violent movies or video games is not a sufficient cause of violence. A sufficient causal condition is such that it will bring about its effect by itself. For example, decapitating a human is sufficient to cause death.

Millions of people (including me and many of my friends) have played violent video games without ever having engaged in acts of significant violence, such as murder or mass murder. Also, billions of people have probably seen violent movies without engaging in such violence. As such, exposure to violent movies or video games is clearly not a sufficient condition.

As might be imagined, sensible people do not claim that such exposure is a necessary or sufficient cause of violence. However, there are other types of causal connections.

One plausible type of causal connection is that exposure to such video games or movies is a contributory cause. That is, such exposure is one more straw on the camel’s back and the weight of various causes can result in that final break. On this view, merely seeing such virtual violence would not cause someone to engage in violence. However, it does contribute to the person’s tendency towards violence and hence is a causal factor.  As might be imagined, determining the contribution of a contributory cause can be challenging—especially if the contribution is fairly weak.

Sorting out such weak casual factors typically requires relatively large causal scale studies (or experiments). In such cases, the goal is to determine the effect of the alleged cause on the population in question. When talking about causation in a population, the bar is set fairly low (but sensibly so). To claim that cause C causes effect E in population P is to say that there would be more cases of effect E in population P if every member of P were exposed to C than if none were so exposed. This does make sense. After all, if C does bring about a difference, even a tiny one, it would be a causal factor.

On the face of it, it is not implausible to claim that exposing everyone on the planet to violent video games or violent movies would result in some (more than zero) increase in violence. However, this is no doubt true of many other things—even seemingly innocuous things like refined sugar or Justin Bieber’s music.

Even if it is assumed that such exposure can have a causal role in actual violence, there is the rather obvious concern about the extent of the casual role and to what extent (if any) this warrants controlling people’s exposure to these violent movies and video games.

As noted above, people who were never exposed to violent video games or movies have engaged in violence over the centuries. Also, the overwhelming majority of people who have been exposed to violent video games or movies have not engaged in unusual acts of violence. As such, the causal connection (if there is one) seems to be extremely weak.

Given such exposure could play a causal role it might be tempting to support the censorship of such violent works. After all, reducing the chance of violence might be regarded as worth the infringement of the freedom of expression. As might be imagined, when people are still emotionally reeling from a terrible event there is often a desire to do anything that might lower the chances of such a thing happening again. Of course, making a rational decision requires considering the matter properly and this involves considering the potential harms and costs of such an approach, however well intentioned.

Obviously enough, human societies typically operate in a way that involves tolerating things that cause harms based on the perceived benefits of those things. For example, although tens of thousands of people die each year in events involving automobiles, we tolerate automobiles because of their benefits. As another example, we allow drugs with awful side effects to be legally sold presumably because of their benefits. We also tolerate war because of the alleged benefits. We do, of course, ban some things because of the harms they do (or could do). For example, people cannot legally sell contaminated food. As another example, I cannot legally own biochemical weapons.

Sorting through the various things that are banned or illegal, it would seem that we are generally willing to tolerate a considerable amount of harm provided that there are some benefits (typically profits). Consistency would, of course, require us to apply the same principle to violent movies and violent video games.

As such, one way to look at the matter is to imagine that violent movies and video games were pharmaceuticals, foods or automobiles and apply the same basic standards used to assess whether such things should be banned.

As noted above, millions of people are exposed to violent video games or movies. These people typically enjoy them and most of them certainly seem to be unharmed. In fact, people seem to be in far more danger from the junk food they typically eat and drink at the movies or while playing video games. They are, obviously, vastly less dangerous than automobiles in terms of the body count generated—even if we assume that such exposure does cause people to behave violently. Video games and movies are also big money makers.

Violent video games and movies also seem to have far fewer negative side effects than many legal medications—even those sold without prescriptions. Also, there are reasonable grounds to believe that people can, as Aristotle argued, experience an emotional catharsis by being exposed to the arts. As such, while some people might experience negative side effects from such exposure, other people might be “medicating” themselves by exhausting their violent impulses in art rather than reality.

As such, if censoring video games and movies would be warranted because of the alleged harms, then consistency would require that we also ban many other things that are clearly far more dangerous. After all, if the goal is to prevent harm and death, it hardly matters whether those who die do so because of a bullet, a car, a pill, or a Big Gulp.

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Our Father vs Big Brother

The tape of Mitt Romney speaking to his cohorts in what could be described as a proverbial back-room seems to have had a lasting effect – we’ll see if it turns out to make all the difference, but it certainly brought into focus the image of Romney as oblivious aristocrat.

But even more interesting to me than the specifics of this candidate’s attitudes was the evidence of a change in certain social and technological expectations. Many people responded to Romney’s comments by shaking their heads at the fact that he would say those things out loud, that he would speak so candidly. Sure, he was at a fundraiser with other super-rich political puppeteers, but he must have known the information could get out…

Of course, a couple decades ago, it probably would not have. Even if a member of the staff could afford a hidden camera it would have taken a lot of planning and setting up to get the material, and once it was on tape it would have taken a lot of work to get it nationally aired. It may not seem like that’s that much commitment, but it’s definitely active and organized: hide tiny expensive specialty technology beforehand, and then transfer incriminating material to a standard medium, and try to get a national news outlet’s attention without being dismissed as some kind of conspirator (in fact, many journalists back then might have rejected the tape as unethical just because Romney clearly doesn’t realize he’s being taped).

Today, a person does not even have to really care about the consequences – sometimes people will record things just because they can. In a room with a famous person and some number of non-guests with iPhones, it is not at all surprising that someone recorded Romney speaking and then put a portion of it on YouTube—there did not even need to be intent behind it. The ease of catching a person in the act has increased so monumentally that the very idea of a backroom deal is in trouble.* Anyone can tape the conversation and show it to a potential audience of millions, and they don’t even need to dislike you or want to cause harm. It’s just information sharing—the connotations or potential impact of the information is not always considered (this happens on Facebook all the time: a photo posted in fun in one context is evidence of a promise broken in another, for instance).

The idea that we are losing privacy, and even losing the desire for privacy, has been argued about since technology and the internet especially first began allowing for these new methods of disclosure. An angle I want to focus on is the concurrence this has with a rise in atheism. There are plenty of other reasons that the idea of God is not as popular as it once was, and technology and the internet can contribute to the phenomenon in other ways. But there’s a social, pragmatic level at which God is becoming obsolete that could be a factor.

One of the classic reasons to have a concept of God from society’s point of view is the same as a reason to have Santa: “he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” From an intellectual standpoint this may not be convincing – Plato, for instance, attempts to show why we can’t use God as a referee when discussing the question of ethics in The Republic. The story of the Ring of Gyges, a ring which allows its wearer to become invisible and thus get away with any sort of immoral behavior she chooses with no repercussions, leads to the argument that even if the wearer is invisible, surely the Gods still know and can still judge. The original argument illustrated by the story of the ring is that people only act ethically when they are being watched, and this comeback says, well, you are always being watched by God so the point is moot. God serves as an external conscience.
But in The Republic, this idea is debunked—God is unreliable, and can be appeased by gifts or pleas for forgiveness. If you do something wrong, you can always get back on His good side. In other words, your conscience may know you were unethical this once, but do something extra-nice next week, and you’ll feel it’s been evened out.

In that way, Big Brother is more effective. If a person wants to steal something in a store, but thinks “No, God will know what I’ve done,” they might stop themselves. But they may also imagine that they can bargain with the big guy and promise to never do something like this ever again. On the other hand, if they believe there is a camera coming at them in every direction it will be harder to make that kind of deal. Our increasingly Panoptic forms of life make it possible to see this particular utility of God being overshadowed, since people with videos are a lot more direct and aggressive.

I am not suggesting that would consciously affect beliefs, but if the fear of moral oversight were to shift realistically toward peers, one of God’s greatest strengths would be made irrelevant. Sure, no video can see into your heart: but if it becomes widely expected that everything that happens in a public or semi-public space could be broadcast, that knowledge could play the part of an external conscience just as well as religion.

It’s true that God was famously described as dead over a century ago by Nietzsche, and he too was concerned with moral issues. However, his focus was on the lack of cohesion or agreement in beliefs, whereas I am addressing the much more mundane but perhaps more convincing issue of the cohesion of facts. That is, Nietzsche thought the concept of God was coextensive with the idea of absolute truth, and as that became untenable, religion would die. It’s arguable to what degree that happened, but the issue here is not what is right, but whether the right thing has to be done. God as an externalized conscience becomes less effective when society is doing the job in a more obvious and graspable way (which doesn’t require that God isn’t real, just that His methods are less convincing).

It could easily be coincidence that secularism is on the rise at the same time as surveillance and general recording become the norm, but I’m suggesting that it is part of larger cultural shift, and that the notion of God just fits less easily into a world where we can already picture a very ordinary kind of “all-seeing, all-knowing” presence. What was once supernatural is now merely artificial.

*I wouldn’t want to imply that therefore people will start being ethical, however. There are always adaptations and ways around – the idea is just that a fear of being seen is becoming much more real.

Boobs for Boobs’ Sake

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I mentioned in a previous essay, I recently started watching HBO’s Game of Thrones. In addition to noticing the predominance of evil, I also noticed that the show apparently had a budget for boobs (a large budget, as a friend of mine commented on Facebook). When talking about the show, I jokingly claimed that HBO stood for wHores, Boobs and Obscenity but a bit of reflection on shows like True Blood and Game of Thrones revealed that that this was rather dead on. Of course, the display of breasts in not limited to Game of Thrones. As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I am well aware that the breast is a standard guest in many works of the genre.

While I was dismayed by the evil in Game of Thrones, I was also somewhat dismayed by the amount of nudity. To be honest, my reaction was somewhat split. As a straight male, I am reasonably confident that I am hardwired to be very much in favor of boobs and accept that, in general, the more boobs the better. There is no doubt a circuit in the male brain says “if boobs, then yay!” Of course, this is a fairly base reaction and is not a matter of reflection. There is, not surprisingly, clearly an interesting issue here.

In terms of objecting to the display of nudity (specifically boobs) in such aesthetic works as Game of Thrones there seems to be to main avenues of approach. The first is ethical and the second is aesthetical.

In regards to ethics, one stock moral objection to nudity is that nudity is something inherently wrong and is something dirty or filthy. This view is typically grounded on a religious foundation which casts nudity as something shameful. Not surprisingly, this is commonly based in the story of Adam and Eve in which the pair learn to be ashamed of their nudity and this seems to set the stage for a puritanical view of the human form that persists to this day. There is, of course, a strong tendency to cast female nudity as being especially bad—there is an abundance of feminist literature addressing this point and hence I will not expand on this here.

Some people take a somewhat different view, claiming that it is men that are the problem and the moral weakness of men entails that women must always be covered. However, the result tends to be a similar view: female nudity is a moral threat.

While this sort of view is popular, it is not one I subscribe to. As far as the religious foundation, there are two obvious replies. The first is that the burden of proof rests on those who make such an argument—they need to prove that God exists and that God is okay with the idea that the human form is “dirty” and should be covered in shame. That is, God’s own handiwork is a shameful thing. The second is that the human form does not seem to be dirty and although some people might stand some more time working out, there does seem to be a beauty to the human body—as the ancient Greeks and others clearly believed. Thus, while the shame argument is not without merit, I do not find it convincing and it is certainly not the foundation of my dismay at gratuitous nudity.

A second stock moral objection to nudity is from Plato, namely that the portrayal of lustful behavior will corrupt the viewer because the viewer will not be on guard against said corruption. On this view, it is not that the nudity itself is bad; rather it would be the lustful behavior that is typically associated with said nudity. As such, the concern about nudity would be secondary, although the display of nudity would presumably augment the alleged corrupting power of the art.

This argument does have some appeal. After all, what people experience (even fictional experiences) does help shape how people think and behave. Hence, exposure to nudity and lustful behavior in art could shape people in negative ways. This is similar to a common argument against pornography. Of course, the nudity in science fiction and fantasy is supposed to not be of primary concern whereas pornography is supposed to be focused primarily on the nudity and sex.

While this argument does seem reasonable, the corrupting power of the occasional breast or other nudity in science fiction or fantasy works seems rather limited. To use an analogy to radiation, the amount of exposure does generally not seem enough to provide a dangerous dose of boob (and this assumes there is a dangerous dose). As such, the corruption argument does not really motivate my dismay at the typical nudity in such works.

A third moral argument is a specific variation on the corruption argument and is one that is commonly presented by feminist thinkers in regards to female nudity. The idea is that the use of female nudity in this way demeans women by using them as mere sexual objects. This is harmful to both females (who are demeaned and objectified) and males (who learn to demean and objectify) and hence wrong.

This argument does have some appeal. After all, looking at the demographic target for science fiction and fantasy that includes nudity (usually boys and nerdy men) it seems very likely that the nudity is there to attract and titillate the male viewers. That is, the women are being exploited as objects for the amusement of men. This does work—I recall, as a young guy, people talking about seeing certain movies specifically for the nude scenes.

Even then, this struck me as a bit odd—I recall asking a friend why he just did not get a Penthouse or Playboy if he wanted to see nudity (this was long before the internet). These days, of course, the internet is chock full of all the nudity and sex anyone could want and this seems to make gratuitous nudity make even less sense. My suspicion is that the situation is rather like with the way it was with Playboy. People used to say that they got Playboy for the articles and perhaps people do the same thing with science-fiction and fantasy works that feature nudity—they can say they are watching it for the story and that the nudity just happens to be there. Presumably this works in a way similar to the psychology that allows a person to feel that they are dieting when they have a diet soda with their megameal.

Getting back to the main subject, this line of argumentation does have merit—most cases of nudity in such works occurs simply to appeal to the target demographic and clearly seems to be objectifying and demeaning women. This does not, of course, even take into account women being cast as sexual victims (prostitutes, rape victims and so on) in such works.

That said, there is a reasonable concern that this sort of argument can bring one into the moral territory of the other two moral arguments. After all, if it is claimed that nudity demeans a woman and presents her as a mere object, then this would seem to entail that there is something wrong about the female body, which seems somewhat problematic from many feminist perspectives. The easy reply is, of course, that it is not the woman’s body that is wrong, but rather the way the woman is being treated and the specific context. This seems like a reasonable reply.

In my own case, I do admit that this is part of the reason that I often feel dismay at such nudity. It is not so much the nudity itself, but the way it is used and the context, which is often demeaning. However, the moral aspects of the matter do not exhaust the issue and there remains the aesthetic aspect.

When it comes to aesthetics, I am something of a traditionalist. To be specific, I draw much of my aesthetic theory from thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. While I have already mentioned Plato’s argument, I will now borrow a bit from Aristotle.

When I teach my students how to write the paper for my classes, I discuss the matter of deciding what should and should not be in the paper. I base this discussion on Aristotle’s view that a work should be a complete whole as defined by the purpose of the work. I tell my students that there is a simple test to decide whether something should be left in or left out, namely to leave it out and see whether this improves, worsens or leaves the work the same. Obviously, if leaving it out makes the work worse relative to its purpose, then it should be retained. Otherwise it should be removed. This same sort of principle can be applied to nudity in works of science fiction and fantasy.

While a discussion of the purposes of science fiction and fantasy would go beyond the limited scope of this essay, it does seem reasonable to accept that their primary purpose is not to serve as a platform for displaying boobs to men. That is, of course, the purpose of pornography. As works of fiction, their main purpose is to present a story (at least as Aristotle would argue) and that should be the main focus. Sticking with Aristotle, the display of nudity would typically seem to be part of the spectacle rather than part of the story. That is to say, that the nudity does not (in almost all cases) advance the plot in a way that is probably or necessary in order to achieve the purpose of the work.

What is hardly surprising is that science-fiction and fantasy have a long tradition of gratuitous nudity that has no connection at all to the plot. For example, in Moontrap there is a completely gratuitous stripper scene that has nothing to do with the plot (what little plot there was).  As far as why I used that example, the image of Chekov (Walter Koenig) in a strip joint stuck in my mind. Obviously, gratuitous nudity by its nature lacks an aesthetic justification.

Interestingly, some movies and shows have attempted to merge plot and sex, creating what Myles McNutt called “sexposition”, which is when characters present exposition while having sex.

Not surprisingly, this attempt to merge sex/nudity and exposition seems to be an aesthetic failure. First, it seems to be rather odd to have people engaged in lengthy exposition during sex. While I am not an expert on sex, it seems that is not something that people would do. As such, this makes the scenes less in accord with what is probable. Second, the nudity still seems to add nothing to the plot—the exposition is doing all that and hence the nudity is gratuitous and would seem to have no aesthetic justification.

In addition to not adding anything to the story, the use of gratuitous nudity seems to have two other flaws. The first is that it can be seen as an insult to the audience—that they need to be thrown a boob or two in order to retain interest in the work. Of course, this might be true of some people. Second, it would seem to show a lack of talent on the part of those creating the work.  After all, if they cannot sustain interest through aesthetic means and need to throw in nudity to keep people interested or to fill the visual space while characters are engaged in lengthy exposition, then they would seem to be lacking in their craft. Of course, it is fair to keep in mind that a show or film is subject to many influences and creators and that the nudity stuck into a work might not be the idea of the writer or director and hence should not be held against them. For example, some of the nudity and sexposition in the Game of Thrones need not be what Martin envisioned and what was added to his work is not his fault.

These arguments do not exclude all nudity. After all, there can be cases in which the nudity is warranted on aesthetic grounds. For example, the nudity in a scene might be required for realism and the scene might be an important part of the plot. That is, removing the scene or the nudity would result in an inferior aesthetic result. I am sure that there are such cases, but none come to mind.

As another example, the nudity might actually be an important part of the experience the work is supposed to create. For example, From Dusk Till Dawn can be seen as intentionally embracing the stereotypes of the genre which must, of necessity, include gratuitous nudity. As such, the nudity does serve a legitimate aesthetic purpose in that work. Maybe.

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The Ethics of Porn

English: Porn star Cytherea at XRCO Awards in ...

“No porno has ever lost money”, or so said a running friend of mine when he quoted one of his economic professors. This was some years ago and it appears that it is no longer true. Ironically, porn has been a victim of the internet. Much as video killed the radio star, the internet has killed the porn star.

At this point, most folks are probably thinking “that cannot be true! Far from killing porn, the internet is for porn.” This is both true and not true: the internet did kill porn. But the internet is also for porn. Fortunately, this is not some sort of Schrodinger’s Porn in which the porn is neither alive nor dead until it is observed. Rather, the situation can easily be explained without any odd quantum physics.

While I am sure that the readers of this blog have never witnessed this in person, the internet tubes are jammed with porn. Because of this, the traditional porn industry (like the newspaper industry) is in hard times (which is surely the name of a porno). After all, when people can get their porn anonymously and  for free (or at least very cheaply) on the web, they are unlikely to buy the traditional porn movies. As such, it is no surprise that the traditional porn industry has gone from a money making giant to being in its death spiral. As such, the internet has killed (traditional) porn, while the internet is most definitely for porn. Interestingly enough, this decline of the traditional porn industry does raise some ethical concerns.

One point of concern is one that arises whenever an industry is in a death spiral, namely a concern for the people who work in that industry. While some porn stars have been able to achieve success outside of porn, the fall of the traditional porn industry will leave most of the performers in a rather hard situation (which, I am sure, is also the name of a porno). To be specific, many of them will have no qualifications beyond having sex on camera and will have little in the ways of savings and opportunities. While some will be able to switch careers, some will not. As such, it seems worth being concerned about these people.

One obvious reply is that this sort of industry death is just the way of things and economic causalities are inevitable. After all, the rise of the steam engine, electricity and so on killed many industries and the internet is just the most recent example of a economic re-definer. As such, while the economic woes of the folks in porn  is regrettable, we have no special obligation to support those who elected to enter a dying industry. They can, of course, avail themselves of the usual support offered to the unemployed and they can attempt find employment elsewhere.

A second reply is that the death of the porn industry can be seen as a good thing. After all, feminists have long argued that the typical porn is demeaning and harmful and thus morally wrong. Religious groups and moral conservatives have also argued against porn because of its corrupting influence (often unconsciously duplicating Plato’s classic arguments for banning the corrupting influence of art from the ideal state). Thus, the death of porn is a good thing.

The rather obvious reply is that the death of the porn industry is not the death of porn. As noted above, porn is thriving on the internet. To use an analogy, the state of porn is somewhat like the state of newspapers: while the traditional professional industry is dying, the amateurs are flooding the web with words and porn.

Given this fact, it might be expected that those who worked in the professional porn industry can flock to the electronic frontier and make a living in web porn. After all, if Facebook can rake in billions allowing people to post about eating a bagel and to share cat photos, surely something like F@ckbook could be created to provide a home for porn performers.

The obvious reply to this is that the people using Facebook do not make money and presumably the porn performers on F@ckbook would be in the same boat-although someone else would probably get rich. As far as the performers working on the web, one has but to look at the financial success of the typical blogger to get an idea how well going amateur typically pays on the web. After all, people are generally not inclined to pay for what they can get for free. This is not to say that clever people are no longer able to monetize porn, just that the performers will almost certainly be worse off in the new porn economy.

A final point of moral concern is whether or not the porn viewers have a moral debt to those who make it possible for them to see porn. This is not, of course, unique to porn and a similar question arises when it comes to journalism, music, books, non-porn movies and so on. After all, people can readily acquire almost anything digital for free (legitimately or by theft) on the web.

Since I have argued about digital theft in other essays, I will simply note that an excellent case can be made that stealing digital content is morally wrong. As such, the arguments I have made elsewhere would seem to apply to stealing porn as well. However, there is an interesting potential twist here: perhaps the moral dubiousness of the porn industry can provide a moral justification for stealing porn. That is, doing something bad to a bad industry is not bad.

While this has a certain superficial appeal, it can easily be countered. First, stealing from the porn industry is still stealing. Second, stealing from the porn industry does not seem to do anything to counter any moral badness of the industry-that is, the theft cannot be justified on the grounds that it makes things morally better. It could, of course, be justified on the grounds that it might be denying income to the wicked. But, of course, this leads to the third counter: a person steals porn to use porn, thus any moral high ground is clearly lost. This would be somewhat like a person arguing that it is okay to steal drugs to use from drug dealers because drugs are bad. This would, obviously, be a rather poor moral argument.

As far as the free content goes, while giving such product away for free might not be the wisest business model, availing oneself of free stuff is clearly not morally wrong. However, there is still the question of whether or not one should simply free ride an industry rather than contributing to it financially.

On the one hand, a person obviously has no moral obligation to support an industry because s/he has taken free stuff from said industry. After all, it is free. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is some obligation. After all, if the person values what they get for free, then they should contribute to what makes it possible for such stuff to be available for free.

The rather obvious counter to this is that it is up to a business to do what it takes to get customers to support them. If they elect to adopt an approach to business that provides potential customers with everything they want for free, then they have no grounds to complain when those potential customers never actually buy things. While it would be nice of the users to give back to the business, business cannot be sensibly based on this sort of model. As such, it is not so much that the internet killed porn. Rather the porn industry is committing suicide with the internet.

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Reading Euthyphro

I need your help!

I was in Starbucks reading Plato’s Euthyphro, as one does if one wants to fake erudition in the hope of attracting any passing intellectual women, men or goats.

Anyway, I’ve got to say it’s not an easy read – at least, I don’t find it so. I was doing okay, until I came to this section:

Soc. And a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led because it is in the state of being led, or carried because it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this. And now I think, Euthyphro, that my meaning will be intelligible; and my meaning is, that any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers. Do you not agree?

Euth. Yes.

Soc. Is not that which is loved in some state either of becoming or suffering?

Euth. Yes.

I have a couple of questions here.

First: Is Plato using the word “becoming” in some special sense here?

Second: Why on earth does Euthyphro respond “Yes” to Socrates’s last question? Why would he (or Socrates, or Plato) think that that which is loved is in a state of suffering (or “becoming”, for that matter)?

Any advice gratefully and humbly received, because at the moment I’m baffled, which rather undermines the whole wishing to appear erudite thing.