Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Republicans are Responsible for the Shutdown

The necessary thing to understand about the shutdown is that nobody in power seriously claims that the shutdown is, in and of itself, a good policy. Some politicians are trying desperately to spin it as no big deal, or some sort of government vacation, or a “slimdown,” but nobody actually believes it is tenable to adopt the shutdown as a permanent policy. In other words, everyone loses when the government is shut down. That is a fact which nobody is seriously attempting to contest.

Once we accept that the shutdown is, of itself, bad for everyone, the baseline is laid for understanding why the shutdown is the GOP's fault. The entire point of driving the government to shutdown is to try and force democrats to make concessions they would not otherwise have made. Everyone agrees that a world without a shutdown is better than a world with a shutdown. The GOP just hopes that the democrats care more than they do and are the first to say “chicken.”

Democrats have proposed and passed a bill in the senate that would end the shutdown and do nothing else at all. Republicans have refused to take up that bill and pass it in the house. Another important thing to note is that if the bill were brought to a vote in the house, it would pass easily. A combination of democrats and moderate republicans would give the bill an easy majority in a simple vote.

The way the house works, though, the Speaker, who is elected by the majority party, gets to decide which bills are brought to the floor. A small but vocal section of the republican party is against bringing the bill to a vote, so Speaker Boehner refuses to do his job.

You might be inclined to say that we should blame the small group of republicans that are blocking the bill, and not all the other republicans. That is overly generous. Remember that the other republicans choose to caucus with the tea party wing. They came together to choose Boehner as speaker. They bear a measure of collective responsibility for the actions of their party leadership. They deliberately handed power over to Speaker Boehner. They cannot now claim that they share no responsibility in his actions. The moderates, if they wanted to, could bring pressure on Boehner and end things right now. They choose not to. They are afraid of upsetting their conservative base, and would rather just stay quiet and claim they are powerless to do anything about the shutdown.

The republican party, as a whole, is responsible for the shutdown. An attempt to claim otherwise is disingenuous.

The republican party is free to claim that the shutdown is worth it because their goal is worth it. That is a fine argument. They are free to believe that using a shutdown as a hostage tactic is worth it because the ultimate goal is so noble. That does not absolve them of responsibility for the shutdown. If I shoot someone, I can argue that it was justified, but it does not mean that I am not responsible for the shooting. Even if it was a justified shooting, I am still responsible for the shooting.

It is in this way that republicans are responsible for the shutdown. Whether or not they are justified, this is still their shutdown. If they try and pass it off as not their own, then they are refusing to take responsibility for their actions. If a shutdown is worth having to end Obamacare, then they should stand by that. They shouldn't blame other people for what is the obvious outcome of their own negotiating strategy.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Expressive Gaming Update

I updated one of my posts because my friend wanted to post it on his website, which you can find here: www.ramblingwriters.com. I figured I would crosspost my update here.

Expressive Gaming

Pretty much every reasonable person has by now accepted that video games are an art form. I think it's fair to say that anyone who doesn't accept video games as a form of artistic expression has not really experienced what games are capable of. The question of whether or not video games are art has been decisively answered: yes, video games are art.

I'm Skeptical of Online Education

Recently, there's been some debate in the blogosphere about the merits of online education. The current hot thing is something called a “massively open online course,” or MOOC for short. According to wikipedia, an MOOC is “an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for the students, professors, and teaching assistants.” The premise behind MOOCs is that they are a way for large numbers of students to take a course online at the same time, lowering the cost per student dramatically. Optimists hope that the technology behind online education will allow universities to serve far more students at far lower prices than traditional education models. This could disrupt the current trend of rapidly rising tuition costs, which are of course accompanied by rapidly rising levels of student debt.

There are two things that I believe will be shown to be true of online education:

1) Online education, once the problems have been worked out of it, will be just as good at teaching most subjects as traditional educational methods. The best approach may or may not be the MOOC, I don't know. But I don't see any compelling reason why you can't teach most courses online.

2) Employers won't care that the students are learning the material just as well online. Online degrees will be treated as second-class long after they have caught up to traditional classes in educational effectiveness.

Fallacious Fallacies

I saw a website today that had a list of a bunch of logical fallacies, meant to be used so that people arguing on the Internet can link people to whatever particular fallacy they feel has been committed (the site is right here: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com. Click on the fallacy names to see an explanation of each one).

I am extremely skeptical of the idea that this will help further useful debate online. I am actually skeptical of the usefulness of the "fallacy" frame in general. I mainly find that people who accuse other people of committing a particular fallacy are just using their "intro to philosophy" chops to bully someone who actually has a decent point.

Even when someone does commit a fallacy, pointing out the specific fallacy they made is counterproductive. Fallacies are inherently dismissive; they blow off the other person in the argument. If the other person isn't trained in the terms of logical fallacies, they're left with no way to continue their argument, because they don't really even understand the criticism.

It is almost always better, in my opinion, to rely on an actual explanation than to rely on a fallacy catchphrase. If you find yourself wanting to call a fallacy on someone, instead strip out the language of fallacy, and focus on the specific example of why they are wrong in the given case. Don't accuse someone of committing a strawman fallacy; instead, just point out how they overlooked an important part of your position. Don't accuse someone of committing an ad hominem fallacy; just ask them why they think your personal flaws have compromised your opinion on the matter at hand.

The core of honest and productive argument is engagement. Both sides have to make an effort to understand the other, and both sides have to show a certain basic respect for the other side as a person. The language of logical fallacy is highly disengaging. It is dismissive, and it shows a lack of respect for the other person.

Also, a lot of so-called fallacies are really not fallacies at all, or at least deserve more of your time than a simple dismissal. For further explanation, I'm going to go through the list of fallacies from the website above and look at each one and see whether it's really worth keeping around.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Expressive Gaming

Reasonable people have all accepted that video games are a form of art. If someone truly disagrees with the premise that video games have substantial artistic value, then I think it is self-evident to any gamer that the person simply has not experienced games properly.

The act of designing and developing a game is clearly an act of artistic expression. Unlike movies and novels, however, games are interactive. Many games often act more like a dialogue between the designer and the player than a simple transfer of content from designer to player. My question, then, is this: can the process of playing a game be considered an act of artistic expression?

The Moral Crisis of Guantanamo Bay

This post isn't really timely or anything, but it's something that I think we're all wrong to just forget about and let go. The problems of Guantanamo Bay came to my mind the other day, and it seemed as good a reason as any to do a post on it.

The legal system is designed to deal with people who are accused of crimes. It sets guidelines for the sort of behavior that is appropriate. Prosecution of crime is supposed to follow certain rules. Every person accused of a crime is entitled to a swift and fair trial. Swift trials are important. Consider that our main penalty for guilt is time spent in prison. If an innocent person waits a long time for a trial, then they are being punished for a crime they didn't commit. This is highly unjust. Trials need to happen quickly, and they need to be fair.

In times of war, it is impractical to provide every captured enemy with a swift trial. It is also impractical to follow all the rules of evidence, and impractical to follow normal legal rules. Enemy combatants are imprisoned until the war is over. However, this is a tradeoff. When the war is over, prisoners are released. Except for international war criminals, crimes of war are forgiven.

This trade-off is important. Prisoners of war are not criminals. They are people we hold in order to win a war. For normal enemy combatants, we are not trying to enact justice. And we recognize this by releasing them when there is no more immediate threat.

In our justice system, we are doing more than just dealing with an immediate threat. We are using punitive measures to restore justice. This attempt at the restoration of justice requires a much stricter standard of conduct. Accused criminals get speedy trials, are entitled to legal counsel, and cannot have their rights violated without a warrant.

At Guantanamo Bay, we are trying to have both of these models at once. We are holding them out of military expediency, but are unwilling to let them go free as legally guiltless enemy combatants. We are also in the awkward position of holding prisoners in a war that has no clear end condition.

We cannot have people exist in a legal limbo. The situation is a true moral crisis. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial before getting hit with terrible punitive penalties. The people at Guantanamo have rights. Some of them might be innocent, but we cannot know without a fair trial.

If we are at war, it is not against any conventional enemy, and it is not a war that is likely to end cleanly. We cannot simply throw human beings into a prison and hope they die before we have to deal with them.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

An Ethical Analysis of Digital Piracy

This is a paper I wrote for a seminar in digital property rights, I've done nothing more than just copy and paste it, so it's rather longer than a typical blog post. I was hoping to make it so the citations jump to the endnotes on a click, but I can't make it work right now. So clicking on the links won't do anything useful unfortunately.


Digital piracy is the illegitimate acquisition of digital content. Piracy is therefore illegitimate by definition. For many people, that is enough to rule it morally impermissible. That conclusion, however, misses the point. Law is supposed to follow the conclusions of ethics. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”1 Of course, piracy is not anywhere near as important as civil rights. Nevertheless, the general principle stands: what is morally permissible is not always the same as what is legally legitimate.

The relationship between law and morality is complicated. In principle, everyone can agree that laws should advance moral goals. This does not mean, however, that the law should ban all immoral activities. For instance, cheating on a spouse is almost certainly an immoral act. That doesn't mean, however, that the law should ban cheating. It is also sometimes permissible to legally ban activities that are morally permissible. For instance, there is nothing morally wrong with wanting to take a picnic at a classified air force base. Nevertheless, the government is acting legitimately when it bans that activity. The government has no good way of distinguishing a harmless picnic from the activities of foreign spies. The point is that the ethics of an activity may or may not align with the law, even in a scenario in which the law is written perfectly. Thus, it is important to examine the morality of actions outside of a legal context.

There is a widespread movement to alter the intellectual property laws that control the distribution of copyrighted content online. The Creative Commons license was established to allow creators to willingly designate their work as available for use beyond the constraints of traditional copyright.2 Legal scholars focused on intellectual property issues are advocating various levels of reform to national and international copyright law. The fight to change intellectual property law is important. This paper, however, will focus on a different issue. Given the laws that are currently in place, when, if ever, is it morally permissible to commit digital piracy?

The answer to that question is of critical importance right now. Piracy is currently happening on a massive scale.3 There is widespread disagreement as to what effect piracy is having on the creators and distributors of content, but it is impossible to deny that piracy is happening. Without the law to guide them, millions of individuals are making their own private decisions about what sorts of piracy are acceptable and which are unacceptable. This paper will focus on offering some level of guidance to those who are currently engaged in piracy or are considering piracy. I will begin by looking at some of the issues involved in the ethics of piracy, and I will conclude by offering my own criteria for morally permissible piracy.

An important caveat: I do believe that certain types of piracy are morally permissible. However, piracy is by definition illegal. I am not advocating that you go and break the law. There are consequences to breaking the law that go beyond my consideration. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not the risks of breaking the law are worth it. This paper is focused on whether or not one can be held morally blameworthy for acts of piracy; that is a different question than whether or not one should actually perform acts of piracy.