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Obligations to Others: Hunger in America

English: Logo of the .

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay, I considered various stock arguments in favor of the claim that we have obligations to people we do not know. In this essay I will consider a rather concrete matter of obligation, namely that of hunger in the United States of America.

The United States is known as the wealthiest nation on the planet and also as a country that is facing an obesity epidemic. As such, it probably seems rather odd to claim that America faces a serious problem with hunger. Sadly, this is the case and the matter was featured in Tracie McMillan’s “The New Face of Hunger” in August 2014 issue of National Geographic. Out of a total population of 313.9 million people, 48 million Americans are food insecure, which is a contemporary term for the hungry. In terms of demographics, over half of the food insecure are white and over half are people who live outside of the cities. 72% of recipients are children, senior citizens and the disabled.  Two thirds of families on food stamps have at least one employed adult. The reason why these employed adults need assistance is declining wages: people can work multiple jobs and still not earn enough to buy adequate food. These facts run counter to the usual stereotypes often exploited by politicians.

The United States does have a program to address hunger—what was once called food stamps is now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). While the program paid out $75 billion to about 48 million people in 2013, the average recipient received $133.07 a month (under $1.50 per meal). On average, SNAP recipients run out of money after three weeks and then turn to charity, such as food pantries and other assistance for the hungry. Of the 48 million recipients, 17.6 million lack the resources to provide for even their basic food needs.

The federal government also provides an indirect means of providing food—taxpayer money subsidizes the production of certain crops. Corn gets the lion’s share of subsidies and is distantly followed by wheat and soybeans. Rice, sorghum, peanuts, barley and sunflowers also receive some subsidies while the only subsidized fruit is the apple. Because of the subsidies, food products that include or involve corn, wheat or soybeans tend to be the cheapest. As such, it is not surprising that low-income people get most of their calories from such foods. Examples include sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, chicken, grain-based desserts, tacos and pizza.  These foods tend to be high calorie and low nutrition foods.

Also impacting the diet of low income people is the existence of food deserts: areas that lack supermarkets but have fast food restaurants and small markets (like convenience stores). A surprising number of Americans live in these food deserts and do not own a car that would allow them to drive to buy healthier (and cheaper) food. For example, 43,000 people in Houston, Texas lack a car and live over a half mile from a grocery store. The food sold at these places tends to be more expensive than the food available at a grocery store and they tend to be high calorie, low-nutrient foods.

These two factors help explain the seeming paradox of an obesity epidemic among hungry people: people have easier access to high calorie foods that have low nutritional value. Hence, people tend to be overweight while also being malnourished. Now that the nature of the problem has been discussed, I now turn to the matter of obligations to others.

On the face of it, the main issue regarding obligations to the hungry would seem to focus on whether or not there is an obligation to provide people with food. This can be broken down into two sub-categories. First, whether or not there is a collective obligation to provide hungry citizens with food via the machinery of the state (in this case, SNAP). Second, whether or not there is an obligation on the part of better-off citizens to provide food to their hungry fellow citizens.

Arguing that the state has such an obligation is fairly straightforward. A basic obligation of the state is to provide for the good of the people and to protect them from harm. While the traditional focus is on the state providing military and police forces, this would certainly seem to extend to protecting citizens from starving.

A utilitarian argument can also be advanced in favor of this obligation: helping to feed millions of citizens creates more utility than disutility. Part of this is the obvious fact that people are happier when they have food to eat. Part of this is the less obvious fact that when people get hungry enough, open rebellion seems better than starving to death—so feeding the poor helps maintain social stability.

One stock objection against this view is to contend that providing such support creates a culture of dependence that encourages people to stay poor. The obvious counter to this is that, as noted above, those receiving the aid are mostly people who are seniors, disabled or children—people who should not be expected to labor to survive. Also, as noted above, two thirds of the families that received SNAP have at least one working adult. People are not on SNAP because they turn down opportunities—they are on SNAP because of the lack of opportunities.

The matter becomes rather more controversial when the issue switches to whether or not better off individuals are obligated to assist their fellow citizens. This, of course, means apart from paying taxes that help fund SNAP. Such assistance might involve donating money, time or food.

Intuitively, people tend to think that assisting others in this way is a nice thing to do and worthy of praise. However, people also tend to think that there is no obligation to do this and that someone who does not assist others in this way is not a bad person. This does have some appeal—after all, being bad is typically seen as an active thing rather than merely not doing good things.

Turning back to the general arguments for obligations to others, there are religious injunctions to feed the hungry (which explains why American churches are typically on the front line in the war against hunger), and it is easy to reverse the situation: if I were hungry, I would want my fellow citizens to help me. As such, I should help them when I am well off.

The utilitarian argument also applies here: a person who gives a little to help the hungry will incur a small cost (but might gain in happiness) but it will yield greater happiness on the part of the recipients who now have something to eat. As such, the utilitarian argument would seem to nicely ground this obligation. Of course, there is the stock objection about building dependence.

Rational self-interest would also seem to provide a reason to provide such aid—there are plenty of selfish reasons to do so, not the least of which is gaining a good reputation and helping to keep the hungry from revolting.

The debt argument might work here as well—if a person has benefited from the assistance of others, then she would be obligated to repay that debt. However, a person could contend that as long as they have not received food from others when hungry, he owes nothing.

The argument from virtue obviously applies here: the virtue of generosity obligates a person to give to others in need. This, and the religious injunction, would seem to be the truest forms of actual obligation—as opposed to merely doing it from self-interest or for utility.

Digging deeper, there is also another issue. As noted above, people are hungry primarily because they are not earning enough to purchase adequate food. One reason for this is that wages have consistently declined for most Americans, although the profits of businesses have steadily increased. As such, the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, yet has many very poor people. This raises the moral issue of whether or not employers are obligated to pay a living wage—a wage that would enable a person to purchase food on that salary without requiring the assistance of the state or others.

Businesses obviously have a strong self-interest in not doing so—lower wages mean greater profits and shifting the cost to other people (taxpayers and those who contribute to food pantries) means that their workers survive despite the lack of a living wage. However, there is still the moral question of whether or not they have an obligation to provide such a living wage.

The religious injunctions would seem to apply to employers that accept these specific faiths—and companies that wish to claim they are religious should be obligated to act the part. However, secular companies can easily claim exemption.

Reversing the situation would also apply: presumably those running businesses would not want to be so poorly paid. Of course, they would probably claim that as job creators there is a relevant difference.

The utilitarian argument does involve some complexities. After all, there can be very good utilitarian arguments for allowing some people to suffer so as to produce greater utility for others—so a case could be made that the utility generated outweighs the disutility of the low pay. However, the opposite sort of argument can also be made.

The debt argument would also apply. If corporations are people or at least are fictions that are run by people, then they would have a debt to the others that make civilization possible. As such, they should pay back this debt, perhaps in the form of decent wages.

The virtues of fairness and generosity would seem to obligate employers to pay employees fairly and this should be a living wage, at least in many cases. If corporations are people, then they should surely be held to the same obligations as actual people.

Thus, it would seem that there are good reasons to accept that we are obligated to help others.

 

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Acquired Savantism & Innate Ideas

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

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Worst Thing

Anselm of Canterbury was the first to attempt ...

Anselm of Canterbury (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It waits somewhere in the dark infinity of time. Perhaps the past. Perhaps the future. Perhaps now. The worst thing.

Whenever something bad happens to me, such as a full quadriceps tendon tear, people always helpfully remark that “it could have been worse.” Some years ago, after that tendon tear, I wrote an essay about this matter which focused on possibility and necessity. That is, whether it could be worse or not. While the tendon tear was perhaps the worst thing to happen to me (as of this writing), I did have some bad things happen this summer and got to hear how things could have been worse. Since it seemed like a fun game, I decided to play along: when lightning took out the pine tree in front of my house I said “why, it could have been worse” and then was hit with inspiration: what would be the worst thing? The thing that which nothing worse can be conceived.

I can say with complete confidence that there must be such a thing. After all, just as there must be a tallest building, there must be the worst thing. But, of course, this would not be much of an essay if I failed to argue for this claim.

Interestingly enough, arguing for the worst thing is rather similar to arguing for the existence of a perfect thing (that is, God). Thomas Aquinas famously made use of his Five Ways to argue for the existence of God and most of these arguments relied on a combination of an infinite regress and a reduction to absurdity. For example, Aquinas argued from the fact that things move to the need for an unmoved mover on the grounds that an infinite regress would arise if everything had to be moved by something else. A regress argument with a reduction to absurdity will serve quite nicely in arguing for the worst thing.

Take any thing. To avoid the usual boring philosophical approach of calling this thing X, I’ll call this thing Troy. If Troy is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists. If Troy is not the worst thing, then there must be another thing that is worse than Troy. That thing, which I will call Sally, is either the worst thing or not. If Sally is the worst thing, then the worst thing exists and is Sally. If it is not Sally, there must be something worse than Sally. This cannot go on to infinity so there must be a thing that is worse than all other things—the worst thing. I’ll call it Dave.

The obvious counter is to throw down the infinity gauntlet: if there is an infinite number of things, there will not be a worst thing. After all, for any thing, there will be an infinite number of other things. As Leibniz claimed, the infinite number cannot be said to be even or odd, therefor in an infinite universe a thing could not be said to be worst.

One might be inclined to reject the infinity gauntlet—after all, even if there is an infinite number of things, each thing would stand in a relation to all other things and there would thus still be a worst thing.

Another obvious counter is to assert that there could be two or more things that are equally bad—that is, identical in their badness. As such, there would not be a worst thing.  A counter to this is to follow Leibniz once again and argue that there could not be two identical things—they would need to differ in some way that would make one worse than the other. This could be countered by asserting that the two might be different, yet equally bad. In this case, the response would be to follow the model used in arguing for the best thing (God) and assert that the worst thing would be worst in every possible respect and hence anything equally as bad would be identical and thus there would be one worst thing, not two. I suppose that this would have some consolation value—it would certainly be a scary universe that had multiple worst things.

Of course, this just shows that there is something that is worse than all other things that happen to be—which leaves open the possibility that it is not the worst thing in another sense of the term. So now I will turn to arguing for the truly worst thing.

Another way to argue for the worst thing is to use the model of St. Anselm’s ontological argument. Very crudely put, the ontological argument works like this: God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. If God only existed as an idea in the mind, a greater being can be conceived, namely God existing for real. Thus, God must exist.

In the case of the worst thing, it would be that which nothing worse can be conceived. If it only existed as an idea in the mind, a worse thing can be conceived, namely the worst thing existing for real. Thus, the worst thing must exist.

Another variant on the ontological argument can also be used here. A stock variant is that since God is perfect, He must exist. This is because if He did not exist, He would not be perfect. But He is, so He must. In the case of the worst thing, the worst thing must exist because it is the worst. This is because if it did not exist, it would not be the worst. But it is, so it does. This worst thing would be the truly worst thing (just as God is supposed to be the best thing).

This approach does, of course, inherit the usual difficulties of an ontological argument as pointed out by Gaunilo and Kant (that existence is not a quality). It would certainly be better for the universe and the folks in it for the critics to be right so that there is no worst thing.

 

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Terraforming Ethics

J’atorg struggled along on his motile pods, wheezing badly as his air sacs fought with the new air. He cursed the humans, invoking the gods of his people. Reflecting, he cursed the humans by invoking their gods. The gods of his people had proven weak: the bipeds had come and were transforming his world into an environment more suitable for themselves, showing their gods were stronger. The humans said it would take a long time for the world to fully change, but J’atorg could already see, taste and smell the differences. He did not know who he hated more: the hard-eyed humans who were destroying his world or the soft-eyed humans who poured forth words about “rights”, “morality” and “lawsuits” while urging patience. He knew that his people would die, aside from those the humans kept as curiosities or preserved to assuage their conscience with cruel pity.

English: Terraforming

English: Terraforming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Terraforming has long been a staple in science fiction, though there has been some practical research in more recent years.  In general terms, terraforming is transforming a planet to make it more earthlike. Typically, the main goal of terraforming is to make an alien world suitable for human habitation by altering its ecosystem. Since this process would tend to radically change a world, terraforming does raise ethical concerns.

The morally easiest scenario is one in which a lifeless, uninhabited (including non-living creatures) planet (or moon) is to be terraformed. If Mars is lifeless and uninhabited, it would fall into this category. The reason why this sort of scenario is the morally easiest is that there would be no beings on the world to be impacted by the terraforming. As such, there would be no rights violated, no harms inflicted, etc. As such, terraforming of such a planet would seem to be morally acceptable.

One obvious counter is to argue that a planet has moral status of its own, distinct from that of the sort of beings that might inhabit a world. Intuitively, the burden of proof for this status would rest on those who make this claim since inanimate objects do not seem to be the sort of entities that can be wronged.

A second obvious counter is to argue that an uninhabited world might someday produce inhabitants. After all, the scientific account of life on earth involves life arising from non-life by natural processes. If an uninhabited world is terraformed, the possible inhabitants that might have arisen from the world would never be.

While arguments from potentiality tend to be weak, they are not without their appeal. Naturally, the concern for the world in question would be proportional to how likely it is that it would someday produce inhabitants of its own. If this is unlikely, then the terraforming would be of less moral concern. However, if the world has considerable potential, then the matter is clearly more serious. To reverse the situation, we certainly would not have wanted earth to be transformed by aliens to fit themselves if doing so would have prevented our eventual evolution. As such, to act morally, we would need to treat other worlds as we would have wanted our world to be treated.

The stock counter to such potentiality arguments is that the merely potential does not morally outweigh the actual. This is the sort of view that is used to justify the use of resources now even when doing so will make them unavailable to future generations. This view does, of course, have its own problems and there can be rather serious arguments regarding the status of the potential versus that of the actual.

If a world has life or is otherwise inhabited (I do not want to assume that all inhabitants must be life in our sense of the term), then the morality of terraforming becomes more complicated. After all, the inhabitants of a world would seem likely to have some moral status. Not surprisingly, the ethics of terraforming an inhabited world are very similar to those of altering an environment on earth through development or some other means. Naturally enough, the stock arguments about making species extinct would come into play here as well. As on earth, the more complex the inhabitants, the greater the moral concern—assuming that moral status is linked to complexity. After all, we do not balk at eliminating viruses or bacteria, but are sometimes concerned when higher forms of life are at stake.

If the inhabitants are people (albeit non-human), then the matter is even more complicated and would bring into play the stock arguments about how people should be treated. Despite the ethical similarities, there are some important differences when it comes to terraforming ethics.

One main difference is one of scale: bulldozing a forest to build condos versus changing an entire planet for colonizing. The fact that the entire world is involved would seem to be morally significant—assuming that size matters.

There is also another important difference, namely the fact that the world is a different world. On earth, we can at least present some plausible ownership claim. Asserting ownership over and alien world is rather more problematic, especially if it is already inhabited.

Of course, it can be countered that we are inhabitants of this universe and hence have as good a claim to alien worlds as our own—after all, it is our universe. Also, there are all sorts of clever moral justifications for ownership that people have developed over the centuries and these can be applied to ownership of alien worlds. After all, the moral justifications for taking land from other humans can surely be made to apply to aliens. To be consistent we would have to accept that the same arguments would morally justify aliens doing the same to us, which we might not want to do. Or we could simply go with a galactic state of nature where profit is the measure of right and matters are decided by the space sword. In that case, we must hope that we have the biggest sword or that the aliens have better ethics than we do.

 

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Buffer Zones & Consistency

English: United States Supreme Court building ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the summer of 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law that forbid protesters from approaching within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The buffer zone law was established in response to episodes of violence. Not surprisingly, the court based its ruling on the First Amendment—such a buffer zone violates the right of free expression of those wishing to protest against abortion or who desire to provide unsought counseling to those seeking abortions.

Though I am a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression, I do recognize that there can be legitimate limits on this freedom—especially when such limits provide protection to the life, liberty and property of others. To use the stock examples, freedom of expression does not permit people to engage in death threats, slander, or panicking people by screaming “fire” in a crowded, non-burning theater.

While I do recognize that the buffer zone does serve a legitimate purpose in enhancing safety, I do agree with the court. The grounds for this agreement is that the harm done to freedom of expression by banning protest in public spaces exceeds the risk of harm caused by allowing such protests. Naturally enough, I do agree that people who engage in threatening behavior can be justly removed—but this is handled by existing laws. That said, I do regard the arguments in favor of the buffer zone as having merit—weighing the freedom of expression against safety concerns is challenging and people of good conscience can disagree in this matter.

One rather interesting fact is that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone—there is a federal law that bans protesters from the plaza of the court.  Since the plaza is a public space, it would seem analogous to the public space of the sidewalks covered by the Massachusetts law. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the principle seems to be that the First Amendment ensures a right to protest in public spaces—even when there is a history of violence and legitimate safety concerns exist. While the law is whatever those with the biggest guns say it is, there is the matter of the ethics of the matter and this is governed by consistent application.

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Naturally, a person’s actions can affect the initially equality. For example, a person who commits horrible evil deeds would not be morally equal to someone who does predominantly good deeds.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

Given that the plaza of the court is a public space analogous to a sidewalk, then if the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest in public spaces of this sort, then the law forbidding protests in the plaza is unconstitutional and must be struck down. To grant protesters access to the sidewalks outside clinics while forbidding them from the public plaza of the court would be an inconsistent application of the principle. But, of course, there is always a way to counter this.

One way to counter this in a principled way is to show that an alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. If the Supreme Court wishes to morally justify their buffer while denying others their buffers, they would need to show a relevant difference that warrants the difference in application. They could, for example, contend that a plaza is relevantly different from a sidewalk. One might point to a size difference and how this impacts protesting. They could also contend that government property is exempt from the law (much like certain state legislatures ban the public from bringing guns into the legislature building even while passing laws allowing people to bring guns into places where other people work)—but they would need to ground the exemption.

My own view, obviously enough, is that there is no relevant difference between the scenarios: if the First Amendment applies to the public spaces around private property, it also applies to the public spaces around state property (which is the most public of public property).

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The Sharing Economy I: Regulation

Airbnb logo

Airbnb logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rising success of companies such as Airbnd and Uber have created considerable interest in what has been called the sharing economy. The core idea behind the sharing economy is an old one: people provide goods and services as individuals rather than acting as employees or businesses. One classic example of this is paying a neighborhood kid who mows lawns or babysits. Another classic example is paying a friend’s gas money for a ride to the airport. The new version of the sharing economy does make some changes to the traditional model. The fundamental difference is that the old sharing economy was typically an informal word-of-mouth system while the new sharing economy is organized by companies. As an example of the old sharing economy, your neighbor might have told you about the teenager she hired to babysit her kids or to mow her lawn (back in the day when this was an accepted practice). As an example of the new sharing economy, you might use the Uber app to get a chipper soccer mom to give you a ride to the airport in her mini-van. Unlike the old sharing economy in which your neighbor (probably) did not take a cut for connecting you to a sitter or mower, the companies that connect people get a cut of the proceeds—which can be justified by the services they provide.

The new sharing economy has received considerable praise, mainly due to the fact that it makes it easier for people to make money in what are still challenging economic times. For example, a person who would be hard pressed to get a job as a professional cabbie can easily drive for Uber. However, it has also drawn considerable criticism.

As might be suspected, some of the most vocal critics of the sharing economy are the people whose livelihoods and profits are threatened by this economy. For example, Uber’s conflicts with taxi services routinely make the news. Some people dismiss these criticisms as the usual lamentations of obsolete industries while others regard the criticisms as having legitimacy. In any case, there is certainly considerable controversy regarding this new sharing economy.

One point of concern is regulation. As it now stands, the sharing economy is exploiting the loopholes that exist in the informal economy (which is regulated far less than the formal economy). For example, professional cab drivers are subject to a fairly extensive set of regulations (and expenses, such as insurance costs) while an Uber driver is not. As another example, the hotel industry is regulated while services like Airbnb currently lack such regulations regarding things such as safety and handicap access.

Some proponents of the free market might praise the limited (or nonexistent) regulation and this praise might have some merit—after all, it has long been contended that regulation impedes profits. However, there are at least two legitimate concerns here.

One is, obviously enough, the matter of fairness. If taxi drivers and hotels are subject to strict regulations that also involve additional costs, then it hardly seems fair that companies like Uber and Aibnd can offer the same services while evading these regulations. One obvious option is to impose them on the sharing economy. Another obvious option is to reduce regulations on the traditional economy. In any case, fairness would seem to require comparable regulation.

The second is the matter of safety and other concerns of the public good. While some regulations might be seen as burdensome, others clearly exist to protect the public from legitimate harms. For example, hotels are held to certain standards of cleanliness and safety. As another example, taxi companies are subject to regulations aimed at protecting the public. If the new sharing economy puts people at risk in similar ways, then it seems reasonable to impose comparable regulations on the sharing economy. After all, whether you are getting a hotel room or going through Airbnb, you should have a reasonable expectation that you will not perish in a fire due to safety issues.

It might be countered that the new sharing economy should still fall under the standards of the old sharing economy. For example, if I ask a friend to take me to the airport and she has an awful car and is a terrible driver, it is hardly the business of the state to regulate my choice (although the state would have the right to address any actual traffic violations). As another example, if I crash on someone’s couch for the night, it is hardly the business of the state to make sure that the couch is properly cleaned and that the house is suitable (although it would need to be up to code).

While this does have some appeal, there are two main arguments against this approach. The first is that the informal economy is largely unregulated because it is just that—informal. Once a company like Uber or Airbnd gets into the picture, the economy has become formalized—there is now a central company that is organizing things. This allows a practical means of regulating what is now commercial activity. The second is the matter of scale. When the informal economy is relatively small, the cost and difficulty of regulating for the public good can be prohibitive. For example, policing neighborhood babysitters or people who give the occasional ride to friends and get gas money for doing so would impose a high cost for a little return in public good. However, when an aspect of the informal economy gets organized by a company and greatly expands in size, then there is more at stake and hence paying the cost of regulating for the public good becomes viable. For example, regulating people occasionally giving friends or associates rides is one thing (a silly thing), but regulating large numbers of people driving vehicles for Uber is quite another matter.

One area that is going to be a matter of considerable controversy is that of discrimination. If Bob does not want to share a ride with a white colleague or give a handicapped associate a lift, then that is Bob’s right.  After all, a citizen has every right to be biased. But, it gets rather more complicated if Bob is driving for Uber—after all, discrimination does harm to the public and the public might have a stake in preventing Uber Bob from discriminating. Similary, if Bob does not want his Latino friend crashing on his couch because he thinks Latinos are thieves, that is Bob’s right (the right of being a jerk to one’s friends). But, if Bob is renting out a room through Airbnd, then this could be a matter of legitimate public concern.

It might be countered that people “freedriving” or “freerenting” for the sharing companies still retain the right to discriminate since they are acting as individuals, albeit under the auspices of a company. That does have considerable appeal, especially since the people driving or renting are not actually employees of these companies. The company is just assisting people to exchange services and, it could be claimed, is no more accountable than a newspaper that has a “for sale” or “help wanted” section. Obviously enough, companies are generally going to want to avoid being associated with discrimination and hence they will probably engage in some degree of self-policing to avoid PR nightmares (or will do so if they are sensible or ethical). However, there is clearly an important issue here regarding whether or not laws against discrimination should be applicable to individuals who are involved with the sharing economy companies. The somewhat fuzzy status of those providing services does create a legitimate problem. As noted above, on one hand they are still just individuals using the service to connect to others. On the other hand, this service does seem to bring them into more of a formal business situation which is subject to such laws.

 

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Ethics & Free Will

Conscience and law

Conscience and law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs recently had their article, “What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will”, published in Scientific American. This article considers the causal impact of a disbelief in free will with a specific focus on law and ethics.

Philosophers have long addressed the general problem of free will as well as the specific connection between free will and ethics. Not surprisingly, studies conducted to determine the impact of disbelief in free will have the results that philosophers have long predicted.

One impact is that when people have doubts about free will they tend to have less support for retributive punishment. Retributive punishment, as the name indicates, is punishment aimed at making a person suffer for her misdeeds. Doubt in free will did not negatively impact a person’s support for punishment aimed at deterrence or rehabilitation.

While the authors do consider one reason for this, namely that those who doubt free will would regard wrongdoers as analogous to harmful natural phenomenon that need to dealt with rather than subject to vengeance, this view also matches a common view about moral accountability. To be specific, moral (and legal) accountability is generally proportional to the control a person has over events. To use a concrete example, consider the difference between these two cases. In the first case, Sally is driving well above the speed limit and is busy texting and sipping her latte. She doesn’t see the crossing guard frantically waving his sign and runs over the children in the cross walk. In case two, Jane is driving the speed limit and children suddenly run directly in front of her car. She brakes and swerves immediately, but she hits the children. Intuitively, Sally has acted in a way that was morally wrong—she should have been going the speed limit and she should have been paying attention. Jane, though she hit the children, did not act wrongly—she could not have avoided the children and hence is not morally responsible.

For those who doubt free will, every case is like Jane’s case: for the determinist, every action is determined and a person could not have chosen to do other than she did. On this view, while Jane’s accident seems unavoidable, so was Sally’s accident: Sally could not have done other than she did. As such, Sally is no more morally accountable than Jane. For someone who believes this, inflicting retributive punishment on Sally would be no more reasonable than seeking vengeance against Jane.

However, it would seem to make sense to punish Sally to deter others and to rehabilitate Sally so she will drive the speed limit and pay attention in the future. Of course, if these is no free will, then we would not chose to punish Sally, she would not chose to behave better and people would not decide to learn from her lesson. Events would happen as determined—she would be punished or not. She would do it again or not. Other people would do the same thing or not. Naturally enough, to speak of what we should decide to do in regards to punishments would seem to assume that we can chose—that is, that we have some degree of free will.

A second impact that Shariff and Vohs noted was that a person who doubts free will tends to behave worse than a person who does not have such a skeptical view. One specific area in which behavior worsens is that such skepticism seems to incline people to be more willing to harm others. Another specific area is that such skepticism also inclines others to lie or cheat. In general, the impact seems to be that the skepticism reduces a person’s willingness (or capacity) to resist impulsive reactions in favor of greater restraint and better behavior.

Once again, this certainly makes sense. Going back to the examples of Sally and Jane, Sally (unless she is a moral monster) would most likely feel remorse and guilt for hurting the children. Jane, though she would surely feel badly, would not feel moral guilt. This would certainly be reasonable: a person who hurts others should feel guilt if she could have done otherwise but should not feel moral guilt if she could not have done otherwise (although she certainly should feel sympathy). If someone doubts free will, then she will regard her own actions as being out of her control: she is not choosing to lie, or cheat or hurt others—these events are just happening. People might be hurt, but this is like a tree falling on them—it just happens. Interestingly, these studies show that people are consistent in applying the implications of their skepticism in regards to moral (and legal) accountability.

One rather important point is to consider what view we should have regarding free will. I take a practical view of this matter and believe in free will. As I see it, if I am right, then I am…right. If I am wrong, then I could not believe otherwise. So, choosing to believe I can choose is the rational choice: I am right or I am not at fault for being wrong.

I do agree with Kant that we cannot prove that we have free will. He believed that the best science of his day was deterministic and that the matter of free will was beyond our epistemic abilities. While science has marched on since Kant, free will is still unprovable. After all, deterministic, random and free-will universes would all seem the same to the people in them. Crudely put, there are no observations that would establish or disprove metaphysical free will. There are, of course, observations that can indicate that we are not free in certain respects—but completely disproving (or proving) free will would seem to beyond our abilities—as Kant contended.

Kant had a fairly practical solution: he argued that although free will cannot be proven, it is necessary for ethics. So, crudely put, if we want to have ethics (which we do), then we need to accept the existence of free will on moral grounds. The experiments described by Shariff and Vohs seems to support Kant: when people doubt free will, this has an impact on their ethics.

One aspect of this can be seen as positive—determining the extent to which people are in control of their actions is an important part of determining what is and is not a just punishment. After all, we do not want to inflict retribution on people who could not have done otherwise or, at the very least, we would want relevant circumstances to temper retribution with proper justice.  It also makes more sense to focus on deterrence and rehabilitation more than retribution. However just, retribution merely adds more suffering to the world while deterrence and rehabilitation reduces it.

The second aspect of this is negative—skepticism about free will seems to cause people to think that they have a license to do ill, thus leading to worse behavior. That is clearly undesirable. This then, provides an interesting and important challenge: balancing our view of determinism and freedom in order to avoid both unjust punishment and becoming unjust. This, of course, assumes that we have a choice. If we do not, we will just do what we do and giving advice is pointless. As I jokingly tell my students, a determinist giving advice about what we should do is like someone yelling advice to a person falling to certain death—he can yell all he wants about what to do, but it won’t matter.

 

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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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Defining Rape III: Intoxication

A half-drunk glass of beer

A half-drunk glass of beer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not surprisingly, most sexual assaults on women in college occur when the women are intoxicated. One reason for this is obvious: an intoxicated person is far more vulnerable to sexual predators than a sober person. Another reason for this is definitional: most (if not all) colleges have a policy that sexual activity with an intoxicated person is, by definition, sexual assault. While the practical and legal aspects of this are important, I will focus on the matter from the standpoint of morality.

From an oversimplified moral (and also legal) standpoint, rape is sex without consent. Consent could be lacking for any number of reasons, but the focus here will be on the impact of intoxication on a person’s ability to given consent. To be a bit abstract, the philosophical concern here is about what might be called the person’s consent agency (or agency of consent). Roughly put, this is the capacity of the person to give proper consent. What counts as proper consent will no doubt vary based on whether the matter is considered in moral, practical or legal contexts. What is also not in doubt is that people will disagree considerably about this matter. However, it should suffice for the purposes of this brief essay to go with an intuitive view of proper consent which involves the person having the capacity to understand the situation and the ability to consciously agree. Setting aside the complexities of the matter, I will now turn to the discussion of intoxication.

Intoxication is, obviously enough, a proportional impediment to agency of consent. Or, in plainer terms, the drunker a person gets, the less capable she becomes of giving consent. This is because intoxication reduces a person’s ability to understand and to consciously agree (or, as people say, being drunk makes you stupid). When the person has no consent agency at all, having sex with that person would clearly be rape (that is, sex without consent). Since this agency can be impaired rather than merely eliminated, there is the rather important matter of sorting out at what point consent agency is lost. As with all such things, there will be a significant gray area between the paradigm cases and this area will be the most problematic. I will get the easy paradigm cases out of the way first.

One paradigm case is that in which the perpetrator intentionally intoxicates his victim using what is known popularly as a “date rape” drug of some sort. This would clearly be a case of rape. To use an analogy, if someone drugs my Gatorade so she can take my wallet when I am unconscious, she has committed theft. This would seem to be indisputable.

Another paradigm case is that in which the perpetrator is an opportunist: he does not drug his intended victim with a “date rape” drug, but finds someone who has rendered herself unconscious or incapacitated through intoxication. This would also be a clear case of rape since the victim is incapable of consent. Continuing the analogy, if I pass out in a drunken stupor and someone takes my wallet, she has committed theft. Naturally, I could be justly chastised for being so careless—but this would not change the crime.

A third paradigm case is that in which a person is unimpaired and gives consent—this is a clear case of consensual sex. To use an analogy, if I am unimpaired when someone asks me for money and I hand her some, she is not a thief. So much for the clear cases, now is the time for the grey territory between being unimpaired and being unconscious due to intoxication. Somewhere in this large territory lies the point at which a person loses her consent agency and is incapable of actual consent.

One obvious problem with finding the boundary at which consent agency ends is that this point might occur well before a person has lost the capacity to engage in behavior that would indicate clear consent by an unimpaired person. For example, an intoxicated woman might say “yes” to a request for sex or even actively initiate the act and then actively and enthusiastically participate. Despite the appearance of consent, the woman might actually be incapable of consent—that is, she can engage in consent behavior but has actually lost the capacity to consent.

If this can occur, it would create a serious moral and practical problem: how can a person tell when another person is capable of consent behavior without being able to give actual consent? This would obviously be important for the person interested in sex as well as those involved in any legal proceedings that might follow.

It might be countered that as long as a person can engage in consent behavior, the person still has agency of consent. That is, the apparent consent is actual consent. This does have considerable appeal in that the only practical way to determine consent is by observing external behavior. After all, a person does not have epistemic access to the mental states of other people and cannot discern whether the “yes” is a proper “yes” or merely “yes” behavior without true consent. It also would provide a clear basis by which potential witnesses can judge the matter—they merely need to report behavior without speculating on the cognitive state of the person. This view could be seen as a presumption that behavior indicates agency.

This view does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, suppose I I drink enough that I tell a sober friend to drive me to a White Castle so I can buy sliders (something I would never do while sober—and hence have never done) and the folks at White Castle accept my order (shouted into the drive through). When I wake up the next morning and find the empty boxes and White Castle receipt, I could hardly claim that White Castle committed theft by accepting my money. I would certainly regret my decision, but my bad judgment is not the fault of White Castle—as far as the employee could reasonably know, I wanted those sliders.

It is worth noting that a decent person would certainly take into account apparent intoxication and out of a sense of ethics or politeness refuse to accept what seems to be offered freely. To use an analogy, if one of my friends is drunk and says “I love you man, here take my car. No, I mean it. You are the best friend ever!” I certainly would not take his car—even though doing so would hardly be theft. Likewise, if a woman is drunk but making it clear she wants to have sex with a man, the decent thing for the man to do is refuse, escort her safely home and, if necessary, guard her from the less virtuous when she passes out. However, if he accedes to her request, it would seem odd to claim that she had been raped.

One might also raise the point that it is better to err on the side of caution and assume that a person who is impaired to almost any degree has lost the capacity for consent, regardless of the person’s behavior. This, however, seems to be too low of a standard and there is the practical problem of recognizing such a low level of impairment. However, advances in technology could certainly allow smart phones apps for testing intoxication and perhaps an app could be created that combines a blood test for intoxication with a means to record a video of the consent onto a secure (court accessible) server.

The last matter I will consider is a scenario in which both parties are intoxicated. In some college sexual assault hearings the man has countered the charge by asserting since both parties were intoxicated, they sexually assaulted each other. This defense has not, apparently, proven successful. However, the underlying principle is certainly sound. To be specific, if sex without consent is rape and being intoxicated precludes consent, then if both parties are intoxicated, then they are raping each other. So, if both are intoxicated, both are guilty. Or both innocent. To use an analogy, If Sally and I are both drunk and start handing our money to each other, either we are both thieves or both not thieves.

In terms of the innocent option, the main argument would be that just as intoxication impairs the agency of consent, it also impairs the agency of culpability. Agency of culpability is the capacity to act in a way that legitimately makes the person accountable for his (or her) actions. As with the agency of consent, this can be impaired in varying degrees or completely eliminated. As with agency of consent, agency of culpability rests on the ability to understand a situation and the capacity to make decisions. In the case of children, these tend to be linked: minors are incapable of giving certain forms of consent that adults can and are also often held to different standards of culpability.

Given that agency of consent and agency of culpability are so similar, it seems reasonable to hold that what impairs one would also impair the other. As such, if a person was so intoxicated that she could not provide consent, then it would seem to follow that she would also be so intoxicated that she would not understand the need to get consent or whether she was assaulting  another person or not. Thus, if two people are both too intoxicated to consent, they are also both too intoxicated to be culpable.

The obvious counter is that people are held accountable for actions they take while intoxicated. As some truly novice lawyers have found out, the “too drunk to know better” defense does not work legally. It also tends to fail in a moral context in that a person is accountable for willingly becoming intoxicated and is thus responsible for actions taken while intoxicated (unwilling intoxication can change matters). As such, it might be the case that agency of consent can be eliminated by willingly becoming intoxicated, but that agency of culpability cannot be washed away with alcohol.

If this is the case, then when a man and a woman have sex while both are adequately intoxicated, they are raping each other. However, there seem to be few (any?) cases of women charged with raping men—or both parties being charged with rape. Even a cursory search of the web will reveal that men are (almost) uniformly presented as the aggressors while women are the victims. However, if drunken sex constitutes rape, then it would seem that college men are also being raped—by definition. Yet there is little or no concern or outcry regarding this. I will address this matter in my final essay on this subject.

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