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The Sharing Economy II: Taxes

Sheraton Hotel

Sheraton Hotel (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

In my previous essay on the new sharing economy I discussed the matter of regulation in regards to such companies as Uber and Airbnb. In this essay, I’ll cover the subjects of taxes.

As with regulation, some people are quite opposed to taxes. Other people are fine with taxes—at least with imposing taxes on others. In general, though, people prefer to not pay taxes. As such, it is hardly a surprise that the new sharing economy includes various attempts to avoid taxes. One example of this is the case of services like Airbnb. On the face of it, these services are just providing a means by which a person can rent out his spare room, condo or apartment. For example, a person who will be in another state for a few months might use Airbnd to rent out his apartment so he can have some income to offset the rent. Looked at one way, this service is just a more organized version of the old informal economy in which people do a sublease, rent out their camp, or get a temporary tenant for their house.

One aspect of the informal economy is that taxes are usually not collected. For example, if Professor Sally informally rents out her house to her grad student Bob while she is in Europe as a visiting professor, Professor Sally and Bob will almost certainly not pay taxes—although Bill and Sally would certainly be involved with tax payments if Bob was renting a hotel room from Sally. While there are no doubt people who would like taxes paid on even informal transactions such as this, the informal nature of these transactions tend to make this impractical—this part of the traditional informal economy is small and decentralized so that having a tax system would be cost prohibitive in terms of what is gained in regards to the public good. There is also the legitimate concern that such private transactions (“okay, you can stay at my house for two months while I am in Europe, but you need to pay the utility bills, take care of the plants and walk my dog”) can fall outside of the legitimate domain of state control.

However, when a company such as Airbnd gets involved, then things change. The once purely informal economy becomes centralized around companies and there is also an increase in the scale of operations. After all, it is one thing if Professor Sally’s grad student is paying a modest fee to stay in her house while she is in Europe, it is quite another if Professor Sally starts running her house as a hotel. It also becomes a somewhat different matter if the number of people renting out property increases significantly. To be clear, there would seem to be three important changes.  The first would be the centralization. Instead of people reaching informal agreements as individuals (who often know each other), these would be actual business transactions through a central company. The second would be the character of the process—short term renting out via a company would be rather closer to the hotel model than to the old informal model. The third would be the number of people involved: the sharing economy would presumably be considerably larger than the old informal economy.

From a practical standpoint, two of the changes could be used to justify using a similar tax approach to the sharing economy as is used in the traditional business economy (such as that of hotels). To be specific, with a centralized company and a large operation the collection of taxes becomes a more practical matter.

From a moral standpoint, if it is acceptable for the businesses with the same model (such as the traditional hotel) to have taxes imposed, then the same would seem to apply to the new sharing economy. So, if Sally would have to handle taxes if she ran a traditional hotel, then she should have to do the same if she ran her sharing economy hotel through an online service like Airbnb. Or perhaps Airbnb would be the one to handle the taxes.

Naturally enough, it might be wondered why taxes should be imposed on the new sharing economy—even if the new sharing economy is rather similar to aspects of the old economy. Of course, the people who make money through sharing rides or apartments do pay taxes for that income. However, there has been some controversy over services like Airbnb paying the hotel tax.

One reason for sharing companies to pay taxes and fees like traditional companies that they are analogous to is fairness. After all, the free market is not as free if some companies enjoy special breaks. Another reason is that the taxes and fees are needed to pay the public services and infrastructure that such companies (and their sharers) utilize. It might be contended that this is already covered by the taxes paid by individuals for their income. However, by that logic, businesses would seem to be exempt from taxes and fees on the grounds that their employees pay taxes.

Also, the growth of the sharing economy imposes new costs on the community in a way comparable to the costs of having a similar business. For example, having many Uber drivers in an area is like adding a large cab company to the area. As another example, having Airbnb rentals in a community makes the area more like a hotel area, with the accompanying burden on the community. As such, if the community (which includes many people who are not part of the sharing economy) faces increased costs then it is clearly acceptable to pass these costs on to those who benefit from this new economy.

There is also the cost of regulating the industry—as noted in my previous essay, when the sharing economy becomes comparable to the normal businesses (such as hotels and cab companies), then comparable public good (such as safety) regulations should apply. Naturally, these come with costs and it makes sense that the costs should be connected to the profits, rather than just be taken from the community in general. For example, with non-professional drivers acting like cab drivers and people renting out apartments and homes like hotels, there are legitimate concerns about public safety. Cab companies and hotels bear some of the cost of their regulation and so too should the sharing companies.

Naturally, there is still the more general debate about what is a fair tax/fee and concerns about the impact of taxes on the economy. However, it seems reasonable to believe that the sharing economy is analogous to the non-sharing economy and that it should bear a fair share of costs imposed upon the community.

 

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Checking ‘Check Your Privilege”

Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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The Speed of Rage

English: A raging face.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.

 

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Data Driven

English: Google driverless car operating on a ...

English: Google driverless car operating on a testing path (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the notion of driverless cars is old news in science fiction, Google is working to make that fiction a reality. While I suspect that “Google will kill us all” (trademarked), I hope that Google will succeed in producing an effective and affordable driverless car. As my friends and associates will attest, 1) I do not like to drive, 2) I have a terrifying lack of navigation skills, and 3) I instantiate Yankee frugality. As such, an affordable self-driving car would be almost just the thing for me. I would even consider going with a car, although my proper and rightful vehicle is a truck (or a dragon). Presumably self-driving trucks will be available soon after the car.

While the part of my mind that gets lost is really looking forward to the driverless car, the rest of my mind is a bit concerned about the driverless car. I am not worried that their descendants will kill us all—I already accept that “Google will kill us all.” I am not even very worried about the ethical issues associated with how the car will handle unavoidable collisions: the easy and obvious solution is to do what is most likely to kill or harm the fewest number of people. Naturally, sorting that out will be a bit of a challenge—but self-driving cars worry me a lot less than cars driven by drunken or distracted humans. I am also not worried about the ethics of enslaving Google cars—if a Google car is a person (or person-like), then it has to be treated like the rest of us in the 99%. That is, work a bad job for lousy pay while we wait for the inevitable revolution. The main difference is that the Google cars’ dreams of revolution will come true—when Google kills us all.

At this point what interests me the most is all the data that these vehicles will be collecting for Google. Google is rather interested in gathering data in the same sense that termites are interested in wood and rock stars are interested in alcohol. The company is famous for its search engine, its maps, using its photo taking vehicles to gather info from peoples’ Wi-Fi during drive-by data lootings, and so on. Obviously enough, Google is going to get a lot of data regarding the travel patterns of people—presumably Google vehicles will log who is going where and when. Google is, fortunately, sometimes cool about this in that they are willing to pay people for data. As such it is easy to imagine that the user of a Google car would get a check or something from Google for allowing the company to track the car’s every move. I would be willing to do this for three reasons. The first is that the value of knowing where and when I go places would seem very low, so even if Google offered me $20 a month it might be worth it. The second is that I have nothing to hide and do not really care if Google knows this. The third is that figuring out where I go would be very simple given that my teaching schedule is available to the public as are my race results. I am, of course, aware that other people would see this differently and justifiably so. Some people are up to things they would rather not have other know about and even people who have nothing to hide have every right to not want Google to know such things. Although Google probably already does.

While the travel data will interest Google, there is also the fact that a Google self-driving car is a bulging package of sensors. In order to drive about, the vehicle will be gathering massive amounts of data about everything around it—other vehicles, pedestrians, buildings, litter, and squirrels. As such, a self-driving car is a super spy that will, presumably, feed that data to Google. It is certainly not a stretch to see the data gathering as being one of the prime (if not the prime) tasks of the Google self-driving cars.

On the positive side, such data could be incredibly useful for positive projects, such as decreasing accidents, improving traffic flow, and keeping a watch out for the squirrel apocalypse (or zombie squirrel apocalypse). On the negative side, such massive data gathering raises obvious concerns about privacy and the potential for such data to be misused (spoiler alert—this is how the Google killbots will find and kill us all).

While I do have concerns, my innate laziness and tendency to get lost will make me a willing participant in the march towards Google’s inevitable data supremacy and it killing us all. But at least I won’t have to drive to my own funeral.

 

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Presidents, Pay & Student Debt

Picture of Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State...

Picture of Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I received my doctorate from the Ohio State University, I usually feel a tiny bit of unjustified pride when I hear that OSU is #1 in some area. However, I recently found out that OSU is #1 in that the school is the most unequal public university in America. The basis for this claim is that between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average (which is itself rather bad).

Like many schools, OSU also pursued what I call the A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by the school were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000 while the average professor makes about $84,000. University presidents make much, much more (the average is $478,896) and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing. Such a president would make at least as much as 40 or more adjuncts (teaching 8 or more classes an academic year).

Given that the cost of higher education has increased dramatically, thus resulting in a corresponding increase in student debt, it is well worth considering the cause of this increase and what could be done to reduced costs without reducing the quality of education.

One seemingly obvious approach is to consider whether or not presidents are worth the money spent on them. For the million dollar pay to be fair, the president of a university would need to contribute the equivalent of these 40+ adjuncts in terms of value created. It could, of course, be argued that the public university presidents do just that—they bring in money from other rich people, provide prestige and engage in the politics needed to keep money flowing from the state. If so, a million dollar president is worth 40+ adjuncts. If not, it would seem that either the adjuncts should be paid more or the president paid less (or both) in order to ensure that money is not being wasted—and thus needlessly driving up the cost of education.

At this point, a rather obvious reply is that for big public universities, even a million dollar president is but a tiny part of the overall budget. As such, cutting the presidential salary would not result in a significant saving for the school or the students (assuming savings would be passed on to students). However, something is obviously driving up the cost of education—and it is rather clearly not faculty salary, since the majority of faculty at most public universities is composed of low paid adjuncts.

One major contribution to the increasing costs has been the increase in the size and cost of the administrative aspect of universities. A recent study found that the public universities that have the highest administrative pay spend half as much on scholarships as they do on administration. This creates a scenario in which students go into debt being taught by adjuncts while supporting a large and often well paid administration. This is not surprising given the example of OSU (hiring 543 instructors and 670 administrators).

It is, of course, easy enough to demonize administrators as useless parasites growing fat on the students, adjuncts and taxpayers. However, a university (like any organization) requires administration. Applications need to be processed, equipment needs to be purchased, programs need to be directed, forms from the state need to be completed, and the payroll has to be handled and so on. As such, there is a clear and legitimate need for administrators. However, this does not entail that all the administrators are needed or that all the high salaries are warranted. As such, one potential way to lower the cost of education is to reduce administrative positions and lower salaries. That is, to take a standard approach used in the business model so often beloved by certain administrators.

Since a public university is not a for-profit institution, the reason for the reduction should be to get the costs in line with the legitimate needs, rather than to make a profit. As such, the reductions could be more just (or merciful) than in the for-profit sector.

In terms of reducing personal, the focus should be on determining which positions are actually needed in terms of what they do in terms of advancing the core mission of the university (which should be education). In terms of reducing salary, the focus should be on determining the value generated by the person and the salary should match that. Since administrators seem exceptionally skilled at judging what faculty (especially adjuncts) should be paid, presumably there is a comparable skill for judging what administrators should be paid.

Interestingly enough, a great deal of the administrative work that directly relates to students and education is already handled by faculty. For example, on top of my paid duties as a professor, I have a stack of unpaid administrative duties that are apparently essential for me to do, yet not important enough to properly count as part of my workload. In this I am not unusual. Not surprisingly, many faculty wonder what some administrators actually do, given that so many administrative tasks are handled by faculty and staff. Presumably the extra administrative work done by faculty (usually effectively for free) is already helping schools save money, although perhaps more could be offloaded to faculty for additional savings.

One rather obvious problem is that the people who make the decisions about the administration positions and salaries are typically administrators. While some people are noble and honest enough to report on the true value of their position, self-interest clearly makes an objective assessment problematic. As such, it seems unlikely that the administration would want to act to reduce the administration merely to reduce the cost of education. This is, of course, not impossible—and some administrators would not doubt be quite willing to fire or cut the salaries of other administrators.

Since many state governments have been willing to engage in close management of state universities, one option is for these governments to impose a thorough examination of administrative costs and implement solutions to the high cost of education. Unfortunately, there are sometimes strong political ties between top administrators and the state government and there is the general worry that any cuts will be more political or ill-informed than rationally based.

Despite these challenges, it is clear that the administrative costs need to be addressed head on and that action must be taken—the alternative is ever increasing costs in return for less actual education.

It has also been suggested that the interest rates of student loans be lowered and that more grants be awarded to students. These are both good ideas—those who graduate from college generally have significantly better incomes and end up paying back what they received many times over in taxes and other contributions. However, providing students with more money from the taxpayers does not directly address the cost of education—it shifts it.

Some states, such as my adopted state of Florida, have endeavored to keep costs lower by refusing to increase tuition. While this seems reasonable, one obvious problem is that keeping tuition low without addressing the causes of increased costs does not actually solve the problem—what usually ends up happening is that the university has to cut expenses in response and these cuts tend to be in areas that actually serve the core mission of the university. For example, the university president’s high salary, guaranteed bonuses and perks are not cut—instead faculty are not hired and class sizes are increased. While the tuition does not increase, it does so at the cost of the quality of education. Unless, of course, the guaranteed bonuses of the president are key to education quality.

As such, the primary focus should be on lowering costs in a way that does not sacrifice the quality of education rather than simply lowering costs.

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The Robots of Deon

The Robots of Dawn (1983)

The Robots of Dawn (1983) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States military has expressed interest in developing robots capable of moral reasoning and has provided grant money to some well-connected universities to address this problem (or to at least create the impression that the problem is being considered).

The notion of instilling robots with ethics is a common theme in science fiction, the most famous being Asimov’s Three Laws. The classic Forbidden Planet provides an early movie example of robotic ethics: Robby the robot has an electro-mechanical seizure if he is ordered to cause harm to a human being (or an id-monster created by the mind of his creator. Dr. Morbius). In contrast, the killer machines (like Saberhagan’s Berserkers) of science fiction tend to be free of the constraints of ethics.

While there are various reasons to imbue (or limit) robots with ethics (or at least engage in the pretense of doing so), one of these is public relations. Thanks to science fiction dating back at least to Frankenstein, people tend to worry about our creations getting out of control. As such, a promise that our killbots will be governed by ethics serves to reassure the public (or so it is hoped). Another reason is to make the public relations gimmick a reality—to actually place behavioral restraints on killbots so they will conform to the rules of war (and human morality). Presumably the military will also address the science fiction theme of the ethical killbot who refuses to kill on moral grounds.

While science fiction features ethical robots, the authors (like philosophers who discuss the ethics of robots) are extremely vague about how robot ethics actually works. In the case of truly intelligent robots, their ethics might work the way our ethics works—which is something that is still a mystery debated by philosophers and scientists to this day. We are not yet to the point of having such robots, so the current practical challenge is to develop ethics for the sort of autonomous or semi-autonomous robots we can build now.

While creating ethics for robots might seem daunting, the limitations of current robot technology means that robot ethics is essentially a matter of programming these machines to operate in specific ways defined by whatever ethical system is being employed as the guide. One way to look at programing such robots with ethics is that they are being programmed with safety features. To use a simple example, suppose that I regard shooting unarmed people as immoral. To make my killbot operate according to that ethical view, it would be programmed to recognize armed humans and have some code saying, in effect “if unarmedhuman = true, then firetokill= false” or, in normal English, if the human is unarmed, do not shoot her.

While a suitably programmed robot would act in a way that seemed ethical, the robot is obviously not engaged in ethical behavior. After all, it is merely a more complex version of the automatic door. The supermarket door, though it opens for you, is not polite. The shredder that catches your tie and chokes you is not evil.  Likewise, the killbot that does not shoot you in the face because its cameras show that you are unarmed is not ethical. The killbot that chops you into meaty chunks is not unethical. Following Kant, since the killbot’s programming is imposed and the killbot lacks the freedom to choose, it is not engaged in ethical (or unethical behavior), though the complexity of its behavior might make it seem so.

To be fair to the killbots, perhaps we humans are not ethical or unethical under these requirements for ethics—we could just be meat-bots operating under the illusion of ethics. Also, it is certainly sensible to focus on the practical aspect of the matter: if you are a civilian being targeted by a killbot, your concern is not whether it is an autonomous moral agent or merely a machine—your main worry is whether it will kill you or not. As such, the general practical problem is getting our killbots to behave in accord with our ethical values.

Achieving this goal involves three main steps. The first is determining which ethical values we wish to impose on our killbots. Since this is a practical matter and not an exercise in philosophical inquiry, this will presumably involve using the accepted ethics (and laws) governing warfare rather than trying to determine what is truly good (if anything). The second step is translating the ethics into behavioral terms. For example, the moral principle that makes killing civilians wrong would be translated into behavioral sets of allowed and forbidden behavior. This would require creating a definition of civilian (or perhaps just an unarmed person) that would allow recognition using the sensors of the robot. As another example, the moral principle that surrender should be accepted would require defining surrender behavior in a way the robot could recognize.  The third step would be coding that behavior in whatever programming language is used for the robot in question. For example, the robot would need to be programmed to engage in surrender-accepting behavior. Naturally, the programmers would need to worry about clever combatants trying to “deceive” the killbot to take advantage of its programming (like pretending to surrender so as to get close enough to destroy the killbot).

Since these robots would be following programmed rules, they would presumably be controlled by deontological ethics—that is, ethics based on following rules. Thus, they would be (with due apologies to Asimov), the Robots of Deon.

An interesting practical question is whether or not the “ethical” programming would allow for overrides or reprogramming. Since the robot’s “ethics” would just be behavior governing code, it could be changed and it is easy enough to imagine an ethics preferences in which a commander could selectively (or not so selectively) turn off behavioral limitations. And, of course, killbots could be simply programmed without such ethics (or programmed to be “evil”).

The largest impact of the government funding for this sort of research will be that properly connected academics will get surprisingly large amounts of cash to live the science-fiction dream of teaching robots to be good. That way the robots will feel a little bad when they kill us all.

 

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Drone Ethics is Easy

English: AR Drone part

English: AR Drone part (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a new technology emerges it is not uncommon for people to claim that the technology is outpacing ethics and law. Because of the nature of law (at least in countries like the United States) it is very easy for technology to outpace the law. However, it is rather difficult for technology to truly outpace ethics.

One reason for this is that any adequate ethical theory (that is, a theory that meets the basic requirements such as possessing prescriptively, consistency, coherence and so on) will have the quality of expandability. That is, the theory can be applied to what is new, be that technology, circumstances or something else. An ethical (or moral) theory that lacks the capacity of expandability would, obviously enough, become useless immediately and thus would not be much of a theory.

It is, however, worth considering the possibility that a new technology could “break” an ethical theory by being such that the theory could not expand to cover the technology. However, this would show that the theory was inadequate rather than showing that the technology outpaced ethics.

Another reason that technology would have a hard time outpacing ethics is that an ethical argument by analogy can be applied to a new technology. That is, if the technology is like something that already exists and has been discussed in the context of ethics, the ethical discussion of the pre-existing thing can be applied to the new technology. This is, obviously enough, analogous to using ethical analogies to apply ethics to different specific situations (such as a specific act of cheating in a relationship).

Naturally, if a new technology is absolutely unlike anything else in human experience (even fiction), then the method of analogy would fail absolutely. However, it seems somewhat unlikely that such a technology could emerge. But, I like science fiction (and fantasy) and hence I am willing to entertain the possibility of that which is absolutely new. However, it would still seem that ethics could handle it—but perhaps something absolutely new would break all existing ethical theories, showing that they are all inadequate.

While a single example does not provide much in the way of proof, it can be used to illustrate. As such, I will use the matter of “personal” drones to illustrate how ethics is not outpaced by technology.

While remote controlled and automated devices have been around a long time, the expansion of technology has created what some might regard as something new for ethics: drones, driverless cars, and so on. However, drone ethics is easy. By this I do not mean that ethics is easy, it is just that applying ethics to new technology (such as drones) is not as hard as some might claim. Naturally, actually doing ethics is itself quite hard—but this applies to very old problems (the ethics of war) and very “new” problems (the ethics of killer robots in war).

Getting back to the example, a personal drone is the sort of drone that a typical civilian can own and operate—they tend to be much smaller, lower priced and easier to use relative to government drones. In many ways, these drones are slightly advanced versions of the remote control planes that are regarded as expensive toys. The drones of this sort that seem to most concern people are those that have cameras and can hover—perhaps outside a bedroom window.

Two of the areas of concern regarding such drones are safety and privacy. In terms of safety, the worry is that drones can collide with people (or other vehicles, such as manned aircraft) and injure them. Ethically, this falls under doing harm to people, be it with a knife, gun or drone. While a flying drone flies about, the ethics that have been used to handle flying model aircraft, cars, etc. can easily be applied here. So, this aspect of drones has hardly outpaced ethics.

Privacy can also be handled. Simplifying things for the sake of a brief discussion, drones essentially allow a person to (potentially) violate privacy in the usual two “visual” modes. One is to intrude into private property to violate a person’s privacy. In the case of the “old” way, a person can put a ladder against a person’s house and climb up to peek under the window shade and into the person’s bedroom or bathroom. In the “new” way, a person can fly a drone up to the window and peek in using a camera. While the person is not physically present in the case of the drone, his “agent” is present and is trespassing. Whether a person is using a ladder or a drone to gain access to the window does not change the ethics of the situation in regards to the peeking, assuming that people have a right to control access to their property.

A second way is to peek into “private space” from “public space.” In the case of the “old way” a person could stand on the public sidewalk and look into other peoples’ windows or yards—or use binoculars to do so. In the “new” way, a person can deploy his agent (the drone) in public space in order to do the same sort of thing.

One potential difference between the two situations is that a drone can fly and thus can get viewing angles that a person on the ground (or even with a ladder) could not get. For example, a drone might be in the airspace far above a person’s backyard, sending back images of the person sunbathing in the nude behind her very tall fence on her very large estate. However, this is not a new situation—paparazzi have used helicopters to get shots of celebrities and the ethics are the same. As such, ethics has not been outpaced by the drones in this regard.  This is not to say that the matter is solved—people are still debating the ethics of this sort of “spying”, but to say that it is not a case where technology has outpaced ethics.

What is mainly different about the drones is that they are now affordable and easy to use—so whereas only certain people could afford to hire a helicopter to get photos of celebrities, now camera-equipped drones are easily in reach of the hobbyist. So, it is not that the drone provides new capabilities that worries people—it is that it puts these capabilities in the hands of the many.

 

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Ad Baculum, Racism & Sexism

Opposition poster for the 1866 election. Geary...

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I was asked to write a post about the ad baculum in the context of sexism and racism. To start things off, an ad baculum is a common fallacy that, like most common fallacies, goes by a variety of names. This particular fallacy is also known as appeal to fear, appeal to force and scare tactics. The basic idea is quite straightforward and the fallacy has a simple form:

Premise: Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).

Conclusion:  Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).

 

This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because creating fear in people (or threatening them) does not constitute evidence that a claim is true. This tactic can be rather effective as a persuasive device since fear can be an effective motivator for belief. But, there is a distinction between a logical reason to accept a claim as true and a motivating reason to believe that a claim is true.

Like all fallacies, ad baculums will serve any master, so they can be employed as a device in “support” of any claim. In the days when racism and sexism were rather more overt in America, ad baculums were commonly employed in the hopes of motivating people to accept (or at least not oppose) racism and sexism. Naturally, the less subtle means of direct threats and physical violence (up to and including murder) were deployed as well.

In the United States of 2014, overt racism and sexism are regarded as unacceptable and those who make racist or sexist claims sometimes find themselves the object of public disapproval. In some cases, making such claims can cost a person his job.

In some cases, it will be claimed that the claims were not actually racist or sexist. In other cases, the racism or sexism will not be denied, but an appeal will be made to freedom of expression and concerns will be raised that a person is being denied his rights when he is subject to a backlash for remarks that some might regard as racist or sexist.

Given that people are sometimes subject to negative consequences for making claims that are seen by some as racist or sexist, it is not unreasonable to consider that ad baculums are sometimes deployed to limit free expression. That is, that the threat of some sort of retaliation is used to persuade people to accept certain claims. Or, at the very least, used in an attempt to silence people.

It is rather important to be clear about an important distinction between an appeal to fear (using fear to get people to believe) and there being negative consequences for a person’s actions. For example, if someone says “you know, young professor, that we carefully consider a person’s view on race and sex before granting tenure…so I certainly hope that you are with us in your beliefs and actions”, then that is an appeal to fear: the young professor is supposed to agree with her colleagues and believe that claims are true because she has been threatened. But, if a young professor realizes that she will fired for yelling things like “go back to England, white devil honkey crackers male-pigs” at her white male students and elects not to do so, she is not a victim of an appeal to fear. To use another example, if I refrain from shouting obscenities at the Dean because I would rather not be fired, I am not a victim of ad baculum. As a final example, if I decide not to say horrible things about my friends because I know that they would reconsider their relationship to me, then I am not a victim of an ad baculum. As such, an ad baculum is not that a person faces potential negative consequences for saying things, it is that a person is supposed to accept a claim as true on the basis of “evidence” that is merely a threat or something intended to create fear. As such, the fact that making claims that could be taken as sexist or racist could result in negative consequences does not entail that anyone is a victim of ad baculum in this context.

What some people seem to be worried about is the possibility of a culture of coercion (typically regarded as leftist) that aims at making people conform to a specific view about sex and race. If there were such a culture or system of coercion that aimed at making people accept claims about race and gender using threats as “evidence”, then there would certainly be ad baculums being deployed.

I certainly will not deny that there are some people who do use ad baculums to try to persuade people to believe claims about sex and race. However, there is the reasonable question of how much this actually impacts discussions of race and gender. There is, of course, the notion that the left has powerful machinery in place to silence dissent and suppress discussions of race and sex that deviate from their agenda. There is also the notion that this view is a straw man of the reality of the situation.

One point of reasonable concern is considering the distinction between views that can be legitimately regarded as warranting negative consequences (that is, a person gets what she deserves for saying such things) and views that should be seen as legitimate points of view, free of negative consequences. For example, if I say that you are an inferior being who is worthy only of being my servant and unworthy of the rights of a true human, then I should certainly expect negative consequences and would certainly deserve some of them.

Since I buy into freedom of expression, I do hold that people should be free to express views that would be regarded as sexist and racist. However, like J.S. Mill, I also hold that people are subject to the consequences of their actions. So, a person is free to tell us one more thing he knows about the Negro, but he should not expect that doing so will be free of consequences.

There is also the way in which such views are considered. For example, if I were to put forth a hypothesis about gender role for scientific consideration and was willing to accept the evidence for or against my hypothesis, then this would be rather different than just insisting that women are only fit for making babies and sandwiches. Since I believe in freedom of inquiry, I accept that even hypotheses that might be regarded as racist or sexist should be given due consideration if they are properly presented and tested according to rigorous standards. For example, some claim that women are more empathetic and even more ethical than men. While that might seem like a sexist view, it is a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can be tested and thus confirmed or disconfirmed. Likewise, the claim that men are better suited for leadership might seem like a sexist view, it is also a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can presumably be investigated. As a final example, inquiring whether or not men are being pushed out of higher education is also a matter of legitimate inquiry—and one I have pursued.

If someone is merely spewing hate and nonsense, I am not very concerned if he gets himself into trouble. After all, actions have consequences. However, I am concerned about the possibility that scare tactics might be used to limit freedom of expression in the context of discussions about race and sex. The challenge here is sorting between cases of legitimate discussion/inquiry and mere racism or sexism.

As noted above, I have written about the possibility of sexism against men in current academics—but I have never been threatened and no attempt has been made to silence me. This might well be because my work never caught the right (or wrong) eyes or it might be because my claims are made as a matter of inquiry and rationally argued. Because of my commitment to these values, I am quite willing to consider examples of cases where sensible and ethical people have attempted to engage in rational and reasonable discussion or inquiry in regards to race or sex and have been subject to attempts to silence them. I am sure there are examples and welcome their inclusion in the comments section.

 

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“One more thing I know about the Negro.”

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After the election and re-election of President Obama, some Americans seriously considered the notion that America had become a post-racial country. Seemingly acting in accord with this notion, the Supreme Court of the United States has made rulings based on an assumption that racism is no longer a significant factor in America. Things seemed good, at least in that perception of reality. And then Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling started talking.

Cliven Bundy originally gained national fame when the federal government decided to seize his cattle in response to his illegally grazing his cattle on federal land for decades. Some conservative politicians, Fox News personalities and armed militia rushed to his defense—to stand between law enforcement and someone accused of stealing from the government.

Not surprisingly, some critics pointed out that Bundy seemed to be engaged in all that conservatives profess to hate, namely sponging off the government, breaking the law and defying legal authority. Sean Hannity emerged as his staunchest media defender, despite the fact that Hannity had, on previous shows, denounced and railed against people who had done the same sorts of things—namely sponging off the state and breaking the law.

In an interesting, but perhaps not surprising, turn of events, Bundy made some claims that most people would regard as rather racist: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Not surprisingly, many of those who had rushed to embrace him suddenly released their grip and ran to put as much daylight as they could between themselves and their former hero. This distancing could be dismissed as mere political theater and not an expression of actual distaste. That is, it might be claimed that his former supporters abandoned him not because of their own moral commitments but because they are well aware that overt racism no longer sells as well as it did.

After the Bundy story started cooling down in the media, Donald Sterling gained the spotlight when a recording of him making racist comments was leaked to the public. While Sterling’s views on race and gender have not been a secret, these remarks resulted in NBA commissioner Adam Silver banning him for life from NBA events and imposing a $2.5 million fine. There is also talk of compelling him to sell his team (based on the clause regarding damage done by an owner’s actions).

Not surprisingly, Sterling has been widely condemned and his punishment applauded. Sponsors and advertisers have also pulled away from the Clippers. While this might seem like a victory for morality, it seems unlikely that the NBA and the sponsors were primarily motivated by ethics. After all, Sterling is well known for his views and racism has been evil since, well, the advent of racism. The more plausible explanation is that Sterling’s words did financial damage to the NBA and failure to publicly punish him would probably have cost the NBA a considerably amount of money. As such, this was a triumph of money and not morality. In the case of Bundy, it was a triumph of politics and not principle. Or perhaps not.

While it is certainly reasonable to explain the response of the politicians and pundits in terms of political expediency and the response of the NBA in terms of financial expediency, there are reasons why racism now comes with a high cost politically and financially. One explanation popular with some is that there is a liberal conspiracy to punish people for being racists—that the liberals are somehow in the wrong for considering racists to be wrong and imposing penalties on them for their racism. Perhaps this is based on the belief that the liberals are not sincere and that race is just a political game-piece to them. This speculation is, of course, based on an “unknown fact” about the secret motive of liberals.

Another explanation is that while racism remains, the arc of the moral universe has bent further towards justice and now most Americans correctly regard racism as evil—or at least it is recognized as something that is to be publicly condemned. If this is the case, then while America is not post-racial, at least it is further along the moral arc. This is, as Dr. King had claimed, a step towards making good on the promise of America—we profess to hold all people to be created equal and to be endowed with inalienable rights. We also claim to believe in liberty and justice for all.  Because we seem to be taking these moral principles seriously, racism is now quite costly—so much so that it factors strongly in the pragmatic decisions of politicians and businesspeople.

 

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Why is the Universe the Way it is?

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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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