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Could Black Panther be White?

Black Panther (comics)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there is an established history of superhero characters having their ethnicity or gender changed, each specific episode tends to create a small uproar (and not just among the fanfolk). For example, Nick Fury was changed from white to black (with Samuel Jackson playing the character in the movies). As another example, a woman took on the role of Thor. I am using “ethnicity” here rather than “race” for the obvious reason that in comic book reality humans are one race, just as Kryptonians and Kree are races.

Some of the complaints about such changes are based in racism and sexism. While interesting from the standpoint of psychology and ethics, these complaints are not otherwise worthy of serious consideration. Instead I will focus on legitimate concerns about such change.

A good place to begin the discussion of these changes is to address concerns about continuity and adherence to the original source material. Just as, for example, giving Batman super powers would break continuity, making him into a Hispanic would also seem to break continuity. Just as Batman has no superpowers, he is also a white guy.

One obvious reply to this is that characters are changed over the years. To use an obvious example, when Superman first appeared in the comics he was faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings. However, he did not fly and did not have heat vision. Over the years writers added abilities and increased his powers until he became the Superman of today. Character background and origin stories are also changed fairly regularly. If these sort of changes are acceptable, then this opens the door to other changes—such as changes to the character’s ethnicity or gender.

One rather easy way to justify any change is to make use of the alternative world device. When D.C. was faced with the problem of “explaining” the first versions of Flash (who wore a Mercury/Hermes style helmet), Batman, Green Lantern (whose power was magic and vulnerability was wood) and Superman they hit on the idea of having Earth 1 and Earth 2. This soon became a standard device for creating more comics to sell, although it did have the effect of creating a bit of a mess for fans interested in keeping track of things. An infinite number of earths is a rather lot to keep track of.  Marvel also had its famous “What If” series which would allow for any changes in a legitimate manner.

While the use of parallel and possible worlds provides an easy out, there is still the matter of changing the gender or ethnicity of the “real” character (as opposed to just having an alternative version). One option is, of course, to not have any “real” character—every version (whether on TV, in the movies or in comics) is just as “real” and “official” as any other. While this solves the problem by fiat, there still seems to be a legitimate question about whether all these variations should be considered the same character. That is, whether a Hispanic female Flash is really the Flash.

In some cases, the matter is rather easy to handle. Some superheroes merely occupy roles, hold “super jobs” or happen to have some gear or item that makes them super. For example, anyone can be a Green Lantern (provided the person qualifies for the ring). While the original Green Lantern was a white guy, a Hispanic woman could join the corps and thus be a Green Lantern. As another example, being Iron Man could be seen as just a matter of wearing the armor. So, an Asian woman could wear Iron Man armor and be Iron…well, Iron Woman. As a final example, being Robin seems to be a role—different white boys have occupied that role, so there seems to be no real issue with having a female Robin (which has, in fact, been done) or a Robin who is not white.

In many cases a gender change would be pointless because female versions of the character already exist. For example, a female Superman would just be another Supergirl or Power Girl. As another example, a female Batman would just be Batwoman or Batgirl, superheroes who already exist. So, what remains are cases that are not so easy to handle.

While every character has an “original” gender and ethnicity (for example, Captain America started as a white male), it is not always the case that the original’s gender and ethnicity are essential to the character. That is, the character would still make sense and it would still be reasonable to regard the character as the same (only with a different ethnicity or gender).  This, of course, raises metaphysical concerns about essential qualities and identity. Put very simply, an essential quality is one that if an entity loses that quality, it ceases to be what it is. For example, having three sides is an essential quality for a triangle: if it ceases to be three sided, it ceases to be a triangle. Color and size are not essential qualities of triangles. A red triangle that is painted blue does not ceases to be a triangle.

In the case of superheroes, the key question here is one about which qualities are essential to being that hero and which ones can be changed while maintaining the identity of the character. One way to approach this is in terms of personal identity and to use models that philosophers use for real people. Another approach is to go with an approach that is more about aesthetics than metaphysics. That is, to base the essential qualities on aesthetic essentials—that is, qualities relevant to being the right sort of fictional character.

One plausible approach here is to consider whether or not a character’s ethnicity and gender are essential to the character—that is, for example, whether Captain America would still be Captain America if he were black or a woman.

One key aspect of it would be how these qualities would fit the origin story in terms of plausibility. Going with the Captain America example, Steve Rogers could have been black—black Americans served in WWII and it would even be plausible that experiments would be done on African-Americans (because they did for real). Making Captain America into a woman would be implausible—the sexism of the time would have ensured that a woman would not have been used in such an experiment and American women were not allowed to enlist in the combat infantry. As another example, the Flash could easily be cast as a woman or as having any ethnicity—there is nothing about the Flash’s origin that requires that the Flash be a white guy.

Some characters, however, have origin stories that would make it implausible for the character to have a different ethnicity or gender. For example, Wonder Woman would not work as a man (without making all the Amazons men and changing that entire background). She could, however, be cast as any ethnicity (since she is, in the original story, created from a statue).

Another key aspect would be the role of the character in terms of what he or she represents or stands for. For example, Black Panther’s origin story would seem to preclude him being any ethnicity other than black. His role would also seem to preclude that as well—a white Black Panther would, it would seem, simply not fit the role. Black Panther could, perhaps, be a woman—especially since being the Black Panther is a role. So, to answer the title question, Black Panther could not be white. Or, more accurately, should not be white.

As a closing point, it could be argued that all that really matters is whether the story is a good one or not. So, if a good story can be told casting Spider-Man as a black woman or Rogue as an Asian man, then that is all the justification that would be needed for the change. Of course, it would still be fair to ask if the story really is a Spider-Man story or not.


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For Better or Worse Reasoning Free on Amazon 2/23/2015-2/27/2015


The Kindle version of my book about the arguments against same sex-marriage will be free on Amazon (all countries) from February 23, 2015 to February 27, 2015.

Here is the link to the Amazon.com (USA) version.

Here is the link to the UK version.

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Debating the Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone XL Pipeline has become a powerful symbol in American politics. Those that oppose it can take it as a symbol of all that is wrong: environmental dangers, global warming, big corporations, and other such evils. Those who support it can take it as a symbol of all that is good: jobs, profits, big corporations and other such goods. While I am no expert when it comes to pipelines, I thought it would be worthwhile to present a concise discussion of the matter.

The main substantial objections against the pipeline are environmental. One concern is that pipelines do suffer from leaks and these leaks can inflict considerable damage to the environment (including the water sources that are used by people). The material that will be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to be rather damaging to the environment and rather problematic in terms of its cleanup.

Those who support the pipeline counter these objections by claiming that the pipelines are relatively safe—but this generally does not reassure people who have seen the impact of previous leaks. Another approach used by supporters is to point out that if the material is not transported by pipeline, companies will transport it by truck and by train. These methods, some claim, are more dangerous than the pipelines. Recent explosions of trains carrying such material do tend to serve as evidence for this claim. There is also the claim that using trucks and trains as a means of transport will create more CO2 output and hence the pipeline is a better choice in regards to the environment.

Some of those who oppose the pipeline contend that the higher cost of using trucks and trains will deter companies from using them (especially with oil prices so low). So, if the pipeline is not constructed, there would not be the predicted increase in CO2 levels from the use of these means of transportation. The obvious counter to this is that companies are already using trucks and trains to transport this material, so they already seem to be willing to pay the higher cost. It can also be pointed out that there are already a lot of pipelines so that one more would not make that much difference.

In addition to the leaks, there is also the concern about the environmental impact of acquiring the material to be transported by the pipeline and the impact of using the fossil fuels created from this material. Those opposed to the pipeline point out how it will contribute to global warming and pollution.

Those who support the pipeline tend to deny climate change or accept climate change but deny that humans cause it, or accept that humans cause it but contend that there is nothing that we can do that would be effective (mainly because China and other countries will just keep polluting). Another approach is to argue that the economic benefits outweigh any alleged harms.

Proponents of the pipeline claim that it will create a massive number of jobs. Opponents point out that while there will be some job creation when it is built (construction workers will be needed), the number of long term jobs will be very low. The opponents seem to be right—leaving out cleanup jobs, it does not take a lot of people to maintain a modern pipeline. Also, it is not like businesses will open up along the pipeline once it is constructed—it is not like the oil needs hotels or food. It is, of course, true that the pipeline can be a moneymaker for the companies—but it does seem unlikely that this pipeline will have a significant impact on the economy. After all, it would just be one more pipeline among many.

As might be guessed, some of the debate is over the matters of fact discussed above, such the environmental impact of building or not building the pipeline. Because many of the parties presenting the (alleged) facts have a stake in the matter, this makes getting objective information a bit of a problem. After all, those who have a financial or ideological interest in the pipeline will tend to present numbers that support the pipeline—that it creates many jobs and will not have much negative impact. Those who oppose it will tend to do the opposite—their numbers will tend to tell against the pipeline. This is not to claim that people are lying, but to simply point out the obvious influences of biases.

Even if the factual disputes could be settled, the matter is rather more than a factual disagreement—it is also a dispute over values. Environmental issues are generally political in the United States, with the right usually taking stances for business and against the environment and the left taking pro-environment and anti-business stances. The Keystone XL pipeline is no exception and has, in fact, become a symbol of general issues in regards to the environment and business.

As noted above, those who support the pipeline (with some interesting exceptions) generally reject or downplay the environmental concerns in favor of their ideological leaning. Those that oppose it generally reject or downplay the economic concerns in favor of their ideological leaning.

While I am pro-environment, I do not have a strong rational opposition to the pipeline. The main reasons are that there are already many pipelines, that the absence of the pipeline would not lower fossil fuel consumption, and that companies would most likely expand the use of trains and trucks (which would create more pollution and potentially create greater risks). However, if I were convinced that not having the pipeline would be better than having it, I would certainly change my position.

There is, of course, also the matter of symbolism—that one should fight or support something based on its symbolic value. It could be contended that the pipeline is just such an important symbol and that being pro-environment obligates a person to fight it, regardless of the facts. Likewise, someone who is pro-business would be obligated to support it, regardless to the facts.

While I do appreciate the value of symbols, the idea of supporting or opposing something regardless of the facts strikes me as both irrational and immoral.


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Ransoms & Hostages

1979 Associated Press photograph showing hosta...

While some countries will pay ransoms to free hostages, the United States has a public policy of not doing this. Thanks to ISIS, the issue of whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists groups or not has returned to the spotlight.

One reason to not pay a ransom for hostages is a matter of principle. This principle could be that bad behavior should not be rewarded or that hostage taking should be punished (or both).

One of the best arguments against paying ransoms for hostages is both a practical and a utilitarian moral argument. The gist of the argument is that paying ransoms gives hostage takers an incentive to take hostages. This incentive will mean that more people will be taken hostage. The cost of not paying is, of course, the possibility that the hostage takers will harm or kill their initial hostages. However, the argument goes, if hostage takers realize that they will not be paid a ransom, they will not have an incentive to take more hostages. This will, presumably, reduce the chances that the hostage takers will take hostages. The calculation is, of course, that the harm done to the existing hostages will be outweighed by the benefits of not having people taken hostage in the future.

This argument assumes, obviously enough, that the hostage takers are primarily motivated by the ransom payment. If they are taking hostages primarily for other reasons, such as for status, to make a statement or to get media attention, then not paying them a ransom will not significantly reduce their incentive to take hostages. This leads to a second reason to not pay ransoms.

In addition to the incentive argument, there is also the funding argument. While a terrorist group might have reasons other than money to take hostages, they certainly benefit from getting such ransoms. The money they receive can be used to fund additional operations, such as taking more hostages. Obviously enough, if ransoms are not paid, then such groups do lose this avenue of funding which can impact their operations. Since paying a ransom would be funding terrorism, this provides both a moral a practical reason not to pay ransoms.

While these arguments have a rational appeal, they are typically countered by a more emotional appeal. A stock approach to arguing that ransoms should be paid is the “in their shoes” appeal. The method is very straightforward and simply involves asking a person whether or not she would want a ransom to be paid for her (or a loved one). Not surprising, most people would want the ransom to be paid, assuming doing so would save her (or her loved one). Sometimes the appeal is made explicitly in terms of emotions: “how would you feel if your loved one died because the government refuses to pay ransoms?” Obviously, any person would feel awful.

This method does have considerable appeal. The “in their shoes” appeal can be seem similar to the golden rule approach (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). To be specific, the appeal is not to do unto others, but to base a policy on how one would want to be treated in that situation. If I would not want the policy applied to me (that is, I would want to be ransomed or have my loved one ransomed), then I should be morally opposed to the policy as a matter of consistency. This certainly makes sense: if I would not want a policy applied in my case, then I should (in general) not support that policy.

One obvious counter is that there seems to be a distinction between what a policy should be and whether or not a person would want that policy applied to herself. For example, some universities have a policy that if a student misses more than three classes, the student fails the course. Naturally, no student wants that policy to be applied to her (and most professors would not have wanted it applied to them when they were students), but this hardly suffices to show that the policy is wrong. As another example, a company might have a policy of not providing health insurance to part time employees. While the CEO would certainly not like the policy if she were part time, it does not follow that the policy must be a bad one. As such, policies need to be assessed not just in terms of how a persons feels about them, but in terms of their merit or lack thereof.

Another obvious counter is to use the same approach, only with a modification. In response to the question “how would you feel if you were the hostage or she were a loved one?” one could ask “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage in an operation funded by ransom money? Or “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage because the hostage takers learned that people would pay ransoms for hostages?” The answer would be, of course, that one would feel bad about that. However, while how one would feel about this can be useful in discussing the matter, it is not decisive. Settling the matter rationally does require considering more than just how people would feel—it requires looking at the matter with a degree of objectivity. That is, not just asking how people would feel, but what would be right and what would yield the best results in the practical sense.


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Are Anti-Vaccination People Stupid?

Poster from before the 1979 eradication of sma...

Poster from before the 1979 eradication of smallpox, promoting vaccination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States recently saw an outbreak of the measles (644 cases in 27 states) with the overwhelming majority of victims being people who had not been vaccinated. Critics of the anti-vaccination movement have pointed to this as clear proof that the movement is not only misinformed but also actually dangerous. Not surprisingly, those who take the anti-vaccination position are often derided as stupid. After all, there is no evidence that vaccines cause the harms that the anti-vaccination people refer to when justifying their position. For example, one common claim is that vaccines cause autism, but this seems to be clearly untrue. There is also the fact that vaccinations have been rather conclusively shown to prevent diseases (though not perfectly, of course).

It is, of course, tempting for those who disagree with the anti-vaccination people to dismiss them uniformly as stupid people who lack the brains to understand science. This, however, is a mistake. One reason it is a mistake is purely pragmatic: those who are pro-vaccination want the anti-vaccination people to change their minds and calling them stupid, mocking and insulting them will merely cause them to entrench. Another reason it is a mistake is that the anti-vaccination people are not, in general, stupid. There are, in fact, grounds for people to be skeptical or concerned about matters of health and science. To show this, I will briefly present some points of concern.

One point of rational concern is the fact that scientific research has been plagued with a disturbing amount of corruption, fraud and errors. For example, the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies. As such, it is hardly stupid to be concerned that scientific research might not be accurate. Somewhat ironically, the study that started the belief that vaccines cause autism is a paradigm example of bad science. However, it is not stupid to consider that the studies that show vaccines are safe might have flaws as well.

Another matter of concern is the influence of corporate lobbyists on matters relating to health. For example, the dietary guidelines and recommendations set forth by the United States Government should be set on the basis of the best science. However, the reality is that these matters are influenced quite strongly by industry lobbyists, such as the dairy industry. Given the influence of the corporate lobbyists, it is not foolish to think that the recommendations and guidelines given by the state might not be quite right.

A third point of concern is the fact that the dietary and health guidelines and recommendations undo what seems to be relentless and unwarranted change. For example, the government has warned us of the dangers of cholesterol for decades, but this recommendation is being changed. It would, of course, be one thing if the changes were the result of steady improvements in knowledge. However, the recommendations often seem to lack a proper foundation. John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and statistics at Stanford, has noted “Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome. In this literature of epidemic proportions, how many results are correct?” Given such criticism from experts in the field, it hardly seems stupid of people to have doubts and concerns.

There is also the fact that people do suffer adverse drug reactions that can lead to serious medical issues and even death. While the reported numbers vary (one FDA page puts the number of deaths at 100,000 per year) this is certainly a matter of concern. In an interesting coincidence, I was thinking about this essay while watching the Daily Show on Hulu this morning and one of my “ad experiences” was for Januvia, a diabetes drug. As required by law, the ad mentioned all the side effects of the drug and these include some rather serious things, including death. Given that the FDA has approved drugs with dangerous side effects, it is hardly stupid to be concerned about the potential side effects from any medicine or vaccine.

Given the above points, it would certainly not be stupid to be concerned about vaccines. At this point, the reader might suspect that I am about to defend an anti-vaccine position. I will not—in fact, I am a pro-vaccination person. This might seem somewhat surprising given the points I just made. However, I can rationally reconcile these points with my position on vaccines.

The above points do show that there are rational grounds for taking a general critical and skeptical approach to matters of health, medicine and science. However, this general skepticism needs to be properly rational. That is, it should not be a rejection of science but rather the adoption of a critical approach to these matters in which one considers the best available evidence, assesses experts by the proper standards (those of a good argument from authority), and so on. Also, it is rather important to note that the general skepticism does not automatically justify accepting or rejecting specific claims. For example, the fact that there have been flawed studies does not prove that the specific studies about vaccines as flawed. As another example, the fact that lobbyists influence the dietary recommendations does not prove that vaccines are harmful drugs being pushed on Americans by greedy corporations. As a final example, the fact that some medicines have serious and dangerous side effects does not prove that the measles vaccine is dangerous or causes autism. Just as one should be rationally skeptical about pro-vaccination claims one should also be rationally skeptical about ant-vaccination claims.

To use an obvious analogy, it is rational to have a general skepticism about the honesty and goodness of people. After all, people do lie and there are bad people. However, this general skepticism does not automatically prove that a specific person is dishonest or evil—that is a matter that must be addressed on the individual level.

To use another analogy, it is rational to have a general concern about engineering. After all, there have been plenty of engineering disasters. However, this general concern does not warrant believing that a specific engineering project is defective or that engineering itself is defective. The specific project would need to be examined and engineering is, in general, the most rational approach to building stuff.

So, the people who are anti-vaccine are not, in general, stupid. However, they do seem to be making the mistake of not rationally considering the specific vaccines and the evidence for their safety and efficacy. It is quite rational to be concerned about medicine in general, just as it is rational to be concerned about the honesty of people in general. However, just as one should not infer that a friend is a liar because there are people who lie, one should not infer that a vaccine must be bad because there is bad science and bad medicine.

Convincing anti-vaccination people to accept vaccination is certainly challenging. One reason is that the issue has become politicized into a battle of values and identity. This is partially due to the fact that the anti-vaccine people have been mocked and attacked, thus leading them to entrench and double down. Another reason is that, as argued above, they do have well-founded concerns about the trustworthiness of the state, the accuracy of scientific studies, and the goodness of corporations. A third reason is that people tend to give more weight to the negative and also tend to weigh potential loss more than potential gain. As such, people would tend to give more weight to negative reasons against vaccines and fear the alleged dangers of vaccines more than they would value their benefits.

Given the importance of vaccinations, it is rather critical that the anti-vaccination movement be addressed. Calling people stupid, mocking them and attacking them are certainly not effective ways of convincing people that vaccines are generally safe and effective. A more rational and hopefully more effective approach is to address their legitimate concerns and consider their fears. After all, the goal should be the health of people and not scoring points.


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Augmented Soldier Ethics II: Informed Consent

One general moral subject that is relevant to the augmentation of soldiers by such things as pharmaceuticals, biologicals or cybernetics is the matter of informed consent. While fiction abounds with tales of involuntary augmentation, real soldiers and citizens of the United States have been coerced or deceived into participating in experiments. As such, there do seem to be legitimate grounds for being concerned that soldiers and citizens could be involuntarily augmented as part of experiments or actual “weapon deployment.”

Assuming the context of a Western democratic state, it seems reasonable to hold that augmenting a soldier without her informed consent would be immoral. After all, the individual has rights against the democratic state and these include the right not to be unjustly coerced or deceived. Socrates, in the Crito, also advanced reasonable arguments that the obedience of a citizen required that the state not coerce or deceive the citizen into the social contract and this would certainly apply to soldiers in a democratic state.

It is certainly tempting to rush to the position that informed consent would make the augmentation of soldiers morally acceptable. After all, the soldier would know what she was getting into and would volunteer to undergo the process in question. In popular fiction, one example of this would be Steve Rogers volunteering for the super soldier conversion. Given his consent, such an augmentation would seem morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some cases where informed consent makes a critical difference in ethics. One obvious example is the moral difference between sex and rape—the difference is a matter of informed and competent consent. If Sam agrees to have sex with Sally, then Sally is not raping Sam. But if Sally drugs Sam and has her way, then that would be rape.  Another obvious example is the difference between theft and receiving a gift—this is also a matter of informed consent. If Sam gives Sally a diamond ring that is not theft. If Sally takes the ring by force or coercion, then that is theft—and presumably wrong.

Even when informed consent is rather important, there are still cases in which the consent does not make the action morally acceptable. For example, Sam and Sally might engage in consensual sex, but if they are siblings or one is the parent of the other, the activity could still be immoral. As another example, Sam might consent to give Sally an heirloom ring that has been in the family for untold generations, but it might still be the wrong thing to do—especially when Sally hocks the ring to buy heroin.

There are also cases in which informed consent is not relevant because of the morality of the action itself. For example, Sam might consent to join in Sally’s plot to murder Ashley (rather than being coerced or tricked) but this would not be relevant to the ethics of the murder. At best it could be said that Sally did not add to her misdeed by coercing or tricking her accomplices, but this would not make the murder itself less bad.

Turning back to the main subject of augmentation, even if the soldiers gave their informed consent, the above consideration show that there would still be the question of whether or not the augmentation itself is moral or not. For example, there are reasonable moral arguments against genetically modifying human beings. If these arguments hold up, then even if a soldier consented to genetic modification, the modification itself would be immoral.  I will be addressing the ethics of pharmaceutical, biological and cybernetic augmentation in later essays.

While informed consent does seem to be a moral necessity, this position can be countered. One stock way to do this is to make use of a utilitarian argument: if the benefits gained from augmenting soldiers without their informed consent outweighed the harms, then the augmentation would be morally acceptable. For example, imagine that a war against a wicked enemy is going rather badly and that an augmentation method has been developed that could turn the war around. The augmentation is dangerous and has awful long term side-effects that would deter most soldiers from volunteering. However, losing to the wicked enemy would be worse—so it could thus be argued that the soldiers should be deceived so that the war could be won. As another example, a wicked enemy is not needed—it could simply be argued that the use of augmented soldiers would end the war faster, thus saving lives, albeit at the cost of those terrible side-effects.

Another stock approach is to appeal to the arguments used by democracies to justify conscription in time of war. If the state (or, rather, those who expect people to do what they say) can coerce citizens into killing and dying in war, then the state can surely coerce and citizens to undergo augmentation. It is easy to imagine a legislature passing something called “the conscription and augmentation act” that legalizes coercing citizens into being augmented to serve in the military. Of course, there are those who are suspicious of democratic states so blatantly violating the rights of life and liberty. However, not all states are democratic.

While democratic states would seem to face some moral limits when it comes to involuntary augmentation, non-democratic states appear to have more options. For example, under fascism the individual exists to serve the state (that is, the bastards that think everyone else should do what they say). If this political system is morally correct, then the state would have every right to coerce or deceive the citizens for the good of the state. In fiction, these states tend to be the ones to crank out involuntary augmented soldiers (that still manage to lose to the good guys).

Naturally, even if the state has the right to coerce or deceive soldiers into becoming augmented, it does not automatically follow that the augmentation itself is morally acceptable—this would depend on the specific augmentations. These matters will be addressed in upcoming essays.



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What is the Worst Thing You Should (Be Allowed to) Say?

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been s...

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been specifically banned from entering Canada for hate speech. Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus victim’s funeral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Charlie Hedbo and their aftermath raised the issue of freedom of expression in a dramatic and terrible manner. In response to these deaths, there was an outpouring of support for this basic freedom and, somewhat ironically, a crackdown on some people expressing their views.

This situation raises two rather important issues. The first is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should express. The second is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. While these might seem to be the same issue, they are not. The reason for this is that there is a distinction between what a person should do and what is morally permissible to prevent a person from doing. The main focus will be on using the coercive power of the state in this role.

As an illustration of the distinction, consider the example of a person lying to his girlfriend about running strikes all day in the video game Destiny when he was supposed to be doing yard work. It seems reasonable to think that he should not lie to her (although exceptions are easy to imagine). However, it also seems reasonable to think that the police should not be sent to coerce him into telling her the truth. So, he should not lie to her about playing the game but he should be allowed to do so by the state (that is, it should not use its police powers to stop him).

This view can be disputed and there are those who argue in favor of complete freedom from the state (anarchists) and those who argue that the state should control every aspect of life (totalitarians). However, the idea that that there are some matters that are not the business of the state seems to be an intuitively plausible position—at least in democratic states such as the United States. What follows will rest on this assumption and the challenge will be to sort out these two issues.

One rather plausible and appealing approach is to take a utilitarian stance on the matter and accept the principle of harm as the foundation for determining the worst thing that a person should express and also the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. The basic idea behind this is that the right of free expression is bounded by the stock liberal right of others not to be harmed in their life, liberty and property without due justification.

In the case of the worst thing that a person should express, I am speaking in the context of morality. There are, of course, non-moral meanings of “should.” To use the most obvious example, there is the “pragmatic should”: what a person should or should not do in regards to advancing his practical self-interest. For example, a person should not tell her boss what she really thinks of him if doing so would cost her the job she desperately needs. To use another example, there is also the “should of etiquette”: what a person should do or not do in order to follow the social norms. For example, a person should not go without pants at a formal wedding, even to express his opposition to the tyranny of pants.

Returning to the matter of morality, it seems reasonable to go with the stock approach of weighing the harm the expression generates against the right of free expression (assuming there is such a right). Obviously enough, there is not an exact formula for calculating the worst thing a person should express and this will vary according to the circumstances. For example, the worst thing one should express to a young child would presumably be different from the worst thing one should express to adult. In terms of the harms, these would include the obvious things such as offending the person, scaring her, insulting her, and so on for the various harms that can be inflicted by mere expression.

While I do not believe that people have a right not to be offended, people do seem to have a right not to be unjustly harmed by other people expressing themselves. To use an obvious example, men should not catcall women who do not want to be subject to this verbal harassment. This sort of behavior certainly offends, upsets and even scares many women and the men’s right to free expression does not give them a moral pass that exempts them from what they should or should not do.

To use another example, people should not intentionally and willfully insult another person’s deeply held beliefs simply for the sake of insulting or provoking the person. While the person does have the right to mock the belief of another, his right of expression is not a moral free pass to be abusive.

As a final example, people should not engage in trolling. While a person does have the right to express his views so as to troll others, this is clearly wrong. Trolling is, by definition, done with malice and contributes nothing of value to the conversation. As such, it should not be done.

It is rather important to note that while I have claimed that people should not unjustly harm others by expressing themselves, I have not made any claims about whether or not people should or should not be allowed to express themselves in these ways. It is to this that I now turn.

If the principle of harm is a reasonable principle (which can be debated), then a plausible approach would be to use it to sketch out some boundaries. The first rough boundary was just discussed: this is the boundary between what people should express and what people should (morally) not. The second rough boundary begins at the point where other people should be allowed to prevent a person from expressing himself and ends just before the point at which the state has the moral right to use its coercive power to prevent expression.

This area is the domain of interactions between people that does not fall under the authority of the state, yet still permits people to be prevented from expressing their views. To use an obvious example, the workplace is such a domain in which people can be justly prevented from expressing their views without the state being involved. To use a specific example, the administrators of my university have the right to prevent me from expressing certain things—even if doing so would not fall under the domain of the state. To use another example, a group of friends would have the right, among themselves, to ban someone from their group for saying racist, mean and spiteful things to one of their number. As a final example, a blog administrator would have the right to ban a troll from her site, even though the troll should not be subject to the coercive power of the state.

The third boundary is the point at which the state can justly use its coercive power to prevent a person from engaging in expression. As with the other boundaries, this would be set (roughly) by the degree of harm that the expression would cause others. There are many easy and obvious example where the state would act rightly in imposing on a person: threats of murder, damaging slander, incitements to violence against the innocent, and similar such unquestionably harmful expressions.

Matters do, of course, get complicated rather quickly. Consider, for example, a person who does not call for the murder of cartoonists who mock Muhammad but tweets his approval when they are killed. While this would certainly seem to be something a person should not do (though this could be debated), it is not clear that it crosses the boundary that would allow the state to justly prevent the person from expressing this view. If the approval does not create sufficient harm, then it would seem to not warrant coercive action against the person by the state.

As another example, consider the expression of racist views via social media. While people should not say such things (and would be justly subject to the consequences), as long as they do not engage in actual threats, then it would seem that the state does not have the right to silence the person. This is because the expression of racist views (without threats) would not seem to generate enough harm to warrant state coercion. Naturally, it could justify action on the part of the person’s employer, friends and associates: he might be fired and shunned.

As a third example, consider a person who mocks the dominant or even official religion of the state. While the rulers of such states usually think they have the right to silence such an infidel, it is not clear that this would create enough unjust harm to warrant silencing the person. Being an American, I think that it would not—but I believe in both freedom of religion and the freedom to mock religion.  There is, of course, the matter of the concern that such mockery would provoke others to harm the mocker, thus warranting the state to stop the person—for her own protection. However, the fact that people will act wrongly in response to expressions would not seem to warrant coercing the person into silence.

In general, I favor erring on the side of freedom: unless the state can show that silencing expression is needed to prevent a real and unjust harm, the state does not have the moral right to silence expression.

I have merely sketched out a general outline of this matter and have presented three rough boundaries in regards to what people should say and what they should be allowed to say. Much more work would be needed to develop a full and proper account.


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Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?

One in a series of posters attacking Radical R...

One in a series of posters attacking Radical Republicans on the issue of black suffrage, issued during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been argued that everyone is a little bit racist. Various studies have shown that black America are treated rather differently than white Americans. Examples of this include black students being more likely to be suspended than white students, blacks being arrested at a higher rate than whites, and job applications with “black sounding” names being less likely to get callbacks than those with “white sounding” names. Interestingly, studies have shown that the alleged racism is not confined to white Americans: black Americans also seem to share this racism. One study involves a simulator in which the participant takes on the role of a police officer and must decide to shoot or holster her weapon when confronted by simulated person. The study indicates that participants, regardless of race, shoot more quickly at blacks than whites and are more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than an unarmed white person. There are, of course, many other studies and examples that support the claim that everyone is a little bit racist.

Given the evidence, it would seem reasonable to accept the claim that everyone is a little bit racist. It is, of course, also an accepted view in certain political circles. However, there seems to be something problematic with claiming that everyone is racist, even if it is the claim that the racism is of the small sort.

One point of logical concern is that inferring that all people are at least a little racist on the basis of such studies would be problematic. Rather, what should be claimed is that the studies indicate the presence of racism and that these findings can be generalized to the entire population. But, this could be dismissed as a quibble about induction.

Some people, as might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because to be accused of racism is rather offensive. Some, as also might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because they claim that racism has ended in America, hence people are not racist. Not even a little bit. Other might complain that the accusation is a political weapon that is wielded unjustly. I will not argue about these matters, but will instead focus on another concern, that of the concept of racism in this context.

In informal terms, racism is prejudice, antagonism or discrimination based on race. Since various studies show that people have prejudices linked to race and engage in discrimination along racial lines, it seems reasonable to accept that everyone is at least a bit racist.

To use an analogy, consider the matter of lying. A liar, put informally, is someone who makes a claim that she does not believe with the intention of getting others to accept it as true. Since there is considerable evidence that people engage in this behavior, it can be claimed that everyone is a little bit of a liar. That is, everyone has told a lie.

Another analogy would be to being an abuser. Presumably each person has been at least a bit mean or cruel to another person she has been in a relationship with (be it a family relationship, a friendship or a romantic relationship). This would thus entail that everyone is at least a little bit abusive.

The analogies could continue almost indefinitely, but it will suffice to end them here, with the result that we are all racist, abusive liars.

On the one hand, the claim is true. I have been prejudiced. I have lied. I have been mean to people I love. I have engaged in addictive behavior. The same is likely to be true of even the very best of us. Since we have lied, we are liars. Since we have abused, we are abusers. Since we have prejudice and have discriminated based on race, we are racists.

On the other hand, the claim is problematic. After all, to judge someone to be a racist, an abuser, or a liar is to make a strong moral judgment of the person. For example, imagine the following conversation:

Sam: “I’m interested in your friend Sally. You know her pretty well…what is she like?”

Me: “She is a liar and a racist.”

Sam: “But…she seems so nice.”

Me: “She is. In fact, she’s one of the best people I know.”

Sam: “But you said she is a liar and a racist.”

Me: “Oh, she is. But just a little bit.”

Sam: “What?”

Me: “Well, she told me that when she was in college, she lied to a guy to avoid going on a date. She also said that when she was a kid, she thought white people were all racists and would not be friends with them. So, she is a liar and a racist.”

Sam: “I don’t think you know what those words mean.”

The point is, of course, that terms like “racist”, “abuser” and “liar” have what can be regarded as proper moral usage. To be more specific, because these are such strong terms, they should be applied in cases in which they actually fit. For example, while anyone who lies is technically a liar, the designation of being a liar should only apply to someone who routinely engages in that behavior. That is, a person who has a moral defect in regards to honesty. Likewise, anyone who has a prejudice based on race or discriminates based on race is technically a racist. However, the designation of racist should be reserved for those who have the relevant moral defect—that is, racism is their way of being, as opposed to failing to be perfectly unbiased. As such, using the term “racist” (or “liar”) in claiming that “everyone is a little bit racist” (or “everyone is little bit of a liar”) either waters down the moral term or imposes too harsh a judgment on the person. Either way would be problematic.

So, if the expression “we are all a little bit racist” should not be used, what should replace it? My suggestion is to speak instead of people being subject to race linked biases. While saying “we are all subject to race linked biases” is less attention grabbing than “we are all a little bit racist”, it seems more honest as a description.


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Group Responsibility

After the murders in France, people were once again discussing the matter of group responsibility. In the case of these murders, some contend that all Muslims are responsible for the actions of the few who committed murder. In most cases people do not claim that all Muslims support the killings, but there is a tendency to still put a special burden of responsibility upon Muslims as a group.

Some people do take the killings and other terrible events as evidence that Islam itself is radical and violent. This sort of “reasoning” is, obviously enough, the same sort used when certain critics of the Tea Party drew the conclusion that the movement was racist because some individuals in the Tea Party engaged in racist behavior. It is also the same “reasoning” used to condemn all Christians or Republicans based on the actions of a very few.

To infer that an entire group has a certain characteristic (such as being violent or prone to terrorism) based on the actions of a few would generally involve committing the fallacy of hasty generalization. It can also be seen as the fallacy of suppressed evidence in that evidence contrary to the claim is simply ignored. For example, to condemn Islam as violent based on the actions of terrorists would be to ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are as peaceful as people of other faiths, such as Christians and Jews.

It might be objected that a group can be held accountable for the misdeeds of its members even when those misdeeds are committed by a few and even when these misdeeds are supposed to not be in accord with the real beliefs of the group. For example, if I were to engage in sexual harassment while on the job, Florida A&M University can be held accountable for my actions. Thus, it could be argued, all Muslims are accountable for the killings in France and these killings provide just more evidence that Islam itself is a violent and murderous religion.

In reply, Islam (like Christianity) is not a monolithic faith with a single hierarchy over all Muslims. After all, there are various sects of Islam and a multitude of diverse Muslim hierarchies. For example, the Moslems of Saudi Arabia do not fall under the hierarchy of the Moslems of Iran.

As such, treating all of Islam as an organization with a chain of command and a chain of responsibility that extends throughout the entire faith would be rather problematic. To use an analogy, sports fans sometimes go on violent rampages after events. While the actions of the violent fans should be condemned, the peaceful fans are not accountable for those actions. After all, while the fans are connected by their being fans of a specific team this is not enough to form a basis for accountability. So, if some fans of a team set fire to cars, this does not make all the fans of that team responsible. Also, if people unassociated with the fans decide to jump into action and destroy things, it would be even more absurd to claim that the peaceful fans are accountable for their actions. As such, to condemn all of Islam based on what happened in France would be both unfair and unreasonable. As such, the people who murdered in France are accountable but Islam cannot have these incidents laid at its collective doorstep.

This, of course, raises the question of the extent to which even an organized group is accountable for its members. One intuitive guide is that the accountability of the group is proportional to the authority the group has over the individuals. For example, while I am a philosopher and belong to the American Philosophical Association, other philosophers have no authority over me. As such, they have no accountability for my actions. In contrast, my university has considerable authority over my work life as a professional philosopher and hence can be held accountable should I, for example, sexually harass a student or co-worker.

The same principle should be applied to Islam (and any faith). Being a Moslem is analogous to being a philosopher in that there is a recognizable group. As with being a philosopher, merely being a Moslem does not make a person accountable for all other Moslems.

But, just as I belong to an organization with a hierarchy, a Moslem can belong to an analogous organization, such as a mosque or ISIS. To the degree that the group has authority over the individual, the group is accountable. So, if the killers in France were acting as members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, then the group would be accountable. However, while groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda might delude themselves into thinking they have legitimate authority over all Moslems, they obviously do not. After all, they are opposed by most Moslems.

So, with a religion as vast and varied as Islam, it cannot be reasonably be claimed that there is a central earthly authority over its members and this would serve to limit the collective responsibility of the faith. Naturally, the same would apply to other groups with a similar lack of overall authority, such as Christians, conservatives, liberals, Buddhists, Jews, philosophers, runners, and satirists.


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Of Lies & Disagreements


When people disagree on controversial issues it is not uncommon for one person to accuse another of lying. In some cases this accusation is clearly warranted and in others it is clearly not. Discerning between these cases is clearly a matter of legitimate concern. There is also some confusion of what should count as a lie and what should not.

While this might seem like a matter of mere semantics, the distinction between what is a lie and what is not actually matters. The main reason for this is that to accuse a person of lying is, in general, to lay a moral charge against the person. It is not merely to claim that the person is in error but to claim that the person is engaged in something that is morally wrong. While some people do use “lie” interchangeably with “untruth”, there is clearly a difference.

To use an easy and obvious example, imagine a student who is asked which year the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The student thinks it was in 1944 and writes that down. She has made an untrue claim, but it would clearly not do for the teacher to accuse her of being a liar.

Now, imagine that one student, Sally, is asking another student, Jane, about when the United States bombed Hiroshima. Jane does not like Sally and wants her to do badly on her exam, so she tells her that the year was 1944, though she knows it was 1945. If Sally tells another student that it was 1944 and also puts that down on her test, Sally could not justly be accused of lying. Jane, however, can be fairly accused. While Sally is saying and writing something untrue, she believes the claim and is not acting with any malicious intent. In contrast, Jane believes she is saying something untrue and is acting from malice. This suggests some important distinctions between lying and making untrue claims.

One obvious distinction is that a lie requires that the person believe she is making an untrue claim. Naturally, there is the practical problem of determining whether a person really believes what she is claiming, but this is not relevant to the abstract distinction: if the person believes the claim, then she would not be lying when she makes that claim.

It can, of course, be argued that a person can be lying even when she believes what she claims—that what matters is whether the claim is true or not. The obvious problem with this is that the accusation of lying is not just a claim the person is wrong, it is also a moral condemnation of wrongdoing. While “lie” could be taken to apply to any untrue claim, there would be a need for a new word to convey not just a statement of error but also of condemnation.

It can also be argued that a person can lie by telling the truth, but by doing so in such a way as to mislead a person into believing something untrue. This does have a certain appeal in that it includes the intent to deceive, but differs from the “stock” lie in that the claim is true (or at least believed to be true).

A second obvious distinction is that the person must have a malicious intent. This is a key factor that distinguishes the untruths of the fictions of movies, stories and shows from lies. When the actor playing Darth Vader says to Luke “No. I am your father.”, he is saying something untrue, yet it would be unfair to say that the actor is thus a liar. Likewise, the references to dragons, hobbits and elves in the Hobbit are all untrue—yet one would not brand Tolkien a liar for these words.

The obvious reply to this is that there is a category of lies that lack a malicious intent. These lies are often told with good intentions, such as a compliment about a person’s appearance that is not true or when parents tell their children about Santa Claus. As such, it would seem that there are lies that are not malicious—these are often called “white lies.” If intent matters, then this sort of lie would seem rather less bad than the malicious lie; although they do meet a general definition of “lie” which involves making an untrue claim with the intent to deceive. In this case, the deceit is supposed to be a positive one. Naturally, there are those who would argue that such deceits are still wrong, even if the intent is a good one. The matter is also complicated by the fact that there seem to be untrue claims aimed at deceit that intuitively seem morally acceptable. The classic case is, of course, misleading a person who is out to commit murder.

In some cases one person will accuse another of lying because the person disagrees with a claim made by the other person. For example, a person might claim that Obamacare will help Americans and be accused of lying about this by a person who is opposed to Obamacare.

In this sort of context, the accusation that the person is lying seems to rest on three clear points. The first is that the accuser thinks that the person does not actually believe his claim. That is, he is engaged in an intentional deceit. The accuser also thinks that the claim is not true. The second is that the accuser believes that the accused intends to deceive—that is, he expects people to believe him. The third is that the accuser thinks that the accused has some malicious intent. This might be merely limited to the intent to deceive, but it typically goes beyond this. For example, the proponent of Obamacare might be suspected of employing his alleged deceit to spread socialism and damage businesses. Or it might be that the person is trolling.

So, in order to be justified in accusing a person of lying, it needs to be shown that the person does not really believe his claim, that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent. Arguing against the claim can show that it is untrue, but this would not be sufficient to show that the person is lying—unless one takes a lie to merely be a claim that is not true (so, if someone made a mistake in a math problem and got the wrong answer, he would be a liar). What would be needed would be adequate evidence that the person is insincere in his claim (that is, he believes he is saying the untrue), that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent.

Naturally, effective criticism of a claim does not require showing that the person making the claim is a liar—this is a matter of arguing about the claim. In fact, the truth or falsity of a claim has no connection to the intent of the person making the claim or what he actually believes about it. An accusation of lying, rather, moves from the issue of whether the claim is true or not to a moral dispute about the character of the person making the claim. That is, whether he is a liar or not. It can, of course, be a useful persuasive device to call someone a liar, but it (by itself) does nothing to prove or disprove the claim under dispute.


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