Politics

I believe in corporations

Sunday, October 23rd, 2005

“I believe in corporations. They are indispensable instruments of our modern civilization; but I believe that they should be so supervised and so regulated that they shall act for the interest of the community as a whole.”
-Theodore Roosevelt

Sorry, yet another great quote from the “big lion.”

Essential articles for midterm intellectual relief

Monday, October 17th, 2005

Blood, Sweat and Tears: Asia’s Poor Build US Bases in Iraq

Still Separate, Still Unequal: America’s Educational Apartheid

Also, got the flyers made up for the screening of American Jobs I’ll be showing at NYU next Tuesday. Hopefully we’ll have a nice debate about outsourcing afterwards. (God knows we need one.)

Can’t wait to finish work so I can go home and watch the latest Bill Maher, which SageTV has graciously recorded for me.

Police officers are disgusting

Saturday, October 15th, 2005

still cap from beating videoFor some of the most disturbing footage you’ve seen in awhile, you can download this clip of New Orleans police officers brutally attacking a 64-year-old black man (the race is important) in New Orleans.

Here is a little piece of a Miami Herald article that describes the clip.

For those who missed it, here’s the scene: It is Saturday night in the fabled French Quarter. Police are arresting one Robert Davis, a 64-year-old former schoolteacher.

As an Associated Press camera records the episode, an officer on horseback moves into the frame, apparently to block the camera’s view. But the camera operator, shooting over the horse’s flank, captures officers pinning the old man to a brick wall and one apparently delivering vicious blows to the head. Davis is then wrestled to the ground, several officers on top of him. Another tape, this one shot by CNN, shows him writhing handcuffed in a pool of blood. When he tries to roll over, an officer’s foot shoves him back.

Police say he was arrested for public drunkenness, battery and public intimidation. Davis later told reporters he had simply asked an officer on horseback about the curfew time when another officer barged into the conversation. Davis called that officer unprofessional and walked away, at which point, he says, the cop hit him from behind.

I, for one, believe Davis. Watch that clip one more time. See how brutally they attack him in the face, even though he is already subdued? See how they kick him while he is down? This was not self-defense.

Quotations through Corporate History

Thursday, October 13th, 2005

I had this posted on my Facebook profile for awhile, but figured it deserved to show up here.

This is an interesting collection of quotations I collected from various websites by searching for specific terms related to corporations.

I think through these quotations, you get a sense that our problem today had planted its seeds about two centuries ago, and has only grown into a bigger problem over an evolutionary path. That doesn’t mean we should fight it with any less vigor, however.

“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Thomas Jefferson, 1814

“We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood. . . . but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
Abraham Lincoln, 1864

“Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions. . . . The first requisite is knowledge, full and complete; knowledge which may be made public to the world.”
Theodore Roosevelt, 1901

“No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

“The institution that most changes our lives we least understand or, more correctly, seek most elaborately to misunderstand. That is the modern corporation. Week by week, month by month, year by year, it exercises a greater influence on our livelihood and the way we live than unions, universities, politicians, the government.”
John Kenneth Galbraith, 1977

“I’m not going to apologize for all this — that’s the free-market system.”
Al ‘Chainsaw’ Dunlap, after firing 11,200 Scott Paper workers, 1996

Indeed it is, Al. Quite a “free market.”

John Ralston Saul on Lou Dobbs: Globalism is Dead?

Thursday, October 6th, 2005

I posted this DivX clip of John Ralston Saul being interviewed on Lou Dobbs. The segment is called, “Globalism is Dead.” You really must watch this, even though it’s a 33MB download (if you’re at NYU, it’ll be a LAN download):

Click here to download the clip.

Also, I realized that this post raises an issue: what is “fair use” in video clips off news programs? Am I violating copyright law posting this clip? I always think about how I wouldn’t hesitate to post a link to an interview written in the NYTimes, or even to post a few paragraphs of such an article on my blog reprinted with a citation. But since this is video, and news networks try to place arbitrary value on their video content, it seems like I’d be violating copyright law.

Anyway, if anyone from CNN & co. is reading this and really wants me to take it down, I will. But I expect a nice explanation of why, legally, I’m obliged to do so, and I will reprint any demand to take down the video on this website.

Lobbying Against America

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

Lou Dobbs has a great article about lobbying and campaign finance reform. I guess someone’s still talking about what I consider to be the number one political issue of the day.

Check it out.

Slashdot becomes Philosophy forum

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

Before reading this post, make sure to read yesterday’s. So, my post on Slashdot turned it into a little Philosophy forum. Some really great comments came back, I want to try to summarize them here.

My favorite rebuttal was Jim Callahan’s post, which I’ll reproduce below:

Actually, its just the potential moral value = actual moral value argument that’s invalid. The “all organisms with complete human genomes have souls (usually, one soul per genome, thus excluding dead skin cells, etc, separated from the largest mass posessing the unique genome)” + “things with souls have moral value” => “Embryos have moral value” is entirely valid, since embryos are organisms with a complete human genome. It’s perfectly rational.

The simple “embryos have no inherent moral value” is not itself a rational statement, but an assertion devoid of logic. To demonstrate rationality, you have to demonstrate a chain of causality from base assertions to a nontrivial solution. In this case the extent of the logic is “non-conscious things have no moral value” + “embryos aren’t conscious” => “embryos have no moral value”. The rest of the grandparent is a series of strawmen, which are fine for making points but don’t actually support the main point in any way.

When it all comes down to it, the two assertions in question are equally valid. They are both one step removed from the base assertions, and the base assertions both consist of an arbitrary statement of an ill-defined term (consciousness and soul) and an arbitrary, unsupportable assertion as to the moral value of said term (soul = good, consciousness = good). Careful definition can swing science into the favor of the consciousness decision, but careful definition can do the same for the soul argument. Even then, science cannot by its nature make moral commands, so wether the people involved are scientific or not is irrelevant.

So, in conclusion, your point on the ‘scientificness’ of the debaters involved is irrelevant, and both of your examples exhibit roughly equivalent rationality. Rebuttal complete.

Although I think Jim was very careful to point out the logic behind my argument and the logic behind the “other side’s,” I think he stops short when he says that both are essentially logically equivalent. The thing about the souls argument is that the proponents refuse to provide any reason why an embryo should have more or less of a soul than, say, a chair or a rock. He says the fact that embryos have a complete human genome is the contributing factor. But I can only imagine a chair which has the “entire human genome” injected into it (i.e., with DNA for human beings “bonded” into the chair) to be a pretty easy refutation of this.

My argument does arbitrarily say that “consciousness is good”, but consciousness isn’t just some cooked up concept like souls (it isn’t as metaphysical as my opponents make it out to be, in other words). Consciousness is a concept that encompasses the ability to “lead a life” in the sense we understand it. That is, to have hopes and aspirations, to establish relationships, to create art and adapt flexibly to our environment, all those wonderful qualities of human beings. And neuroscientists, more and more, are finding out that consciousness has a real basis in the physicality of the brain–nowadays they describe consciousness as a series of information “loops” with “feedforward” information in the brain as well as “feedback,” that ultimately results in “awareness” and “perception,” and finally in “sentience” or “consciousness.” And consciousness makes sense as a moral requirement because it essentially says, “all those things which lead lives should not be harmed.” This nicely excludes inanimate objects from having moral value when deciding whether they can be harmed, and this nicely includes animals, to a great degree, who do lead lives (albeit less complex ones than we do), and can be deprived of leading that life.

I also don’t think my arguments were just straw men. 😉

Some other arguments. One interesting one on AI:

Ever worry about that “gray period” sometime in the (probably far) future which we will experience when AI systems start to approach the point where almost everyone will consider them as having consciousness? By your argument, after that point, we will have to start treating them as people (something which I generally agree with).

and, on consciousness of people who are sleeping…

“The crux of the matter is, the rock or chair isn’t conscious, and that’s why they have no moral value.”

So a human who is sleeping, and thus not conscious would have no moral value?

To respond to both of these, I’ll post my actual Slashdot response.

“So a human who is sleeping, and thus not conscious would have no moral value?”

Sorry, again, here I was assuming some background reading about what “consciousness ” is. Unfortunately, in Philosophy (this is a flaw of the subject), terms are often quite vague to start off with, and Philosophers make a habit of trying to really define a term. When debating with people who haven’t studied it, I forget that consciousness takes on a different meaning in regular discussion. “Consciousness” as I’m using it has nothing to do with “being awake” or “being asleep.” Whether you are awake or asleep, you are conscious. You are not “unconscious” when asleep, merely with a potential to awake–your brain doesn’t “shut off” when you’re asleep. It simply doesn’t provide you with the constant stream of sense-input you associate with a waking state.

Comas are definitely a gray area. I really don’t know enough about the brain states of humans in comas to make any judgement about whether they are still “conscious,” but I’d say they probably aren’t, especially if it’s a coma from which that person will never recover. If it is a coma which one can recover from (and, after which, be conscious) I can only assume that the brain was either a) in a conscious state the whole time or b) “broken” into an unconscious state (i.e., it no longer functioned) but then “healed” and went into a conscious state again. Again, this (b) possibility makes comas very much a gray area. However, as I like to say to friends: gray areas don’t mean you have the wrong principle, as long as your principle works when we have clear-cut cases. For example, the moral principle that “killing is wrong” has lots of grey areas: what if the person you are killing killed your entire family? What if you fire a gun at a target on a wall and slip and shoot your friend instead? But that’s not to say the moral principle–“killing is wrong”–is bad, just because one can find “grey area cases” in which killing may not be wrong. It just means that things like time and causation can be confused, and things like intent or potential to avoid an accident or negligent action are hard to measure.

Even some concepts we have that seem very clear-cut have gray areas. Take your concept of a “table”. What is a table? Think of modern artists in furniture design who fused the concept of “table” and “chair” to produce something that seems to be a hybrid between the two. Okay, so maybe you define table functionally: something onto which one can place objects. But now imagine a “table” whose surface spins around at high speed, so that nothing can be placed on it. Is it still a table? Okay, so maybe you define it physically, like a surface atop any number of “legs”. But now imagine a table that hangs from the ceiling by steel wire. Etc. etc. I know this seems rather nit-picky, but that’s really what gray areas are, and that’s why I think they’re fun to think about, but ultimately one should evaluate a moral principle by its general-case performance, and then make sure it doesn’t do “insane” things in rational gray areas.

What my argument above tried to do is show that a) since embryos are clearly not conscious beings (nor were they ever conscious beings), they don’t demand a special moral protection and b) moral protection has only been granted to them because embryos have the potential to become conscious beings, the so-called potentiality principle, which has other unacceptable implications.

I really think some great points were raised, however.

For example, one problem with my consciousness argument is what another poster raised: that “strong AI”, should it ever come about (and thinkers like Jeff Hawkins in “On Intelligence” make me believe it just may some day) would give us responsibility to give these new robots moral value. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with that, it just may seem unnatural because AI machines are so different from us, but then again so is the example I gave of an alien life form.

What I think is funny is that we are all thinking about this way more than the people who really have the burden of thinking about it: anti-abortion activists.

Potentiality Principle Strikes Again

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

Someone asked,

OK, I’ll play, but only because I’m curious. What is the ethical problem with using embryonic stem cells from fertalized eggs that are being thrown away from a fertility clinic? They are other wise going to be thrown away or disposed of, so why not put them to use?

What I get confused with is how people are against that particular use, yet aren’t against the fertility clinic itself, which outside the scope of this argument is throwing away fertalized eggs…aka “murder” to the extremists.

Now granted, there are plenty of other ways to use embryonic stem cells as well, but weve completely killed on good use but claiming all uses are bad.

So this person responded,

What is the ethical problem with executing all the people in jail for life terms? They are otherwise going to die in jail anyways.

What is the ethical problem with using said prisoners in medical research when they are going be die anyways? They are otherwise going to be executed anyways.

Having looked upon those rationalizations look again at your arguement.

Typical Slashdot–fine, I’ll bite. You guys don’t read much actual Philosophy, do you? Makes it kind of hard to analyze Ethics if you’ve only done it from the comfort of the omniscient armchair.

Embryos being disposed of and prisoners who are given life terms being killed early are two very, very different things.

The main argument trumpeted by people against embryonic stem cell research is that embryos are worthy of “being saved,” which is to say, they have “moral value.” These same people, to be consistent, have to be against forms of very early abortion and even some forms (if not all forms) of contraception.

The basic thing that vexes these people is that they have never studied the potentiality principle. They think the mere fact that an embryo has the potential to become a human being gives it moral value, makes it “worthy of being saved.” This is because they know human beings have moral value, and so conflate “a thing with potential to be something of moral value” with “a thing that has moral value.” However, this argument is spurious, as I’ll try to show.

For one thing, many things have the potential (i.e., have some causal relationship) to the creation of a healthy infant child. As someone else once suggested to me, one such thing is a glance of flirtation toward a fertile young woman. From that glance, there exists the potential for intercourse; from that intercourse, the potential of conception; from that conception, the potential of a human child in the form of an embryo.

If that example seems too cooked up, think about miscarriages. Hundreds of thousands of “babies” die from miscarriages every year. So, since that constitutes an essential mass death of a significant portion of the human “population,” shouldn’t we be devoting massive scientific research dollars to stopping miscarriages?

The reason both these things seem absurd is because saying that embryos have moral value is completely arbitrary. Harm cannot be done to embryos in the same way harm cannot be done to chairs or rocks. The chair or rock doesn’t have a hope, an aspiration, or a direction which is thwarted by the said harm. The rock or chair doesn’t care about the said harm. The crux of the matter is, the rock or chair isn’t conscious, and that’s why they have no moral value.

The only people who might care about the rock or chair’s harm is the owner of the said rock or chair. But that is only due to a relational property between the owner and his objects, and hasn’t a thing to do with morality. (For example, when considering whether humans have the right to harm other humans, it serves no one to say, “Okay, but what if the person harmed were your mother?” Introducing the familial relationship simply distorts the inherent morality of a thing, since it makes the decision relational, based on other notions such as loyalty to one’s family, etc.)

The reason we see harms to dogs or cows as worse than harms to chairs is because we know that dogs or cows can a) experience pain, b) in dying or being severely harmed, be deprived of their right to continue the life they were already living. Chairs experience no pain, conceive of no harm, and have no life of which to be deprived.

One can make an argument for defending the late-term fetus (which may be conscious) from abortion, but preventing the embryo from use in scientific research based on the idea that the embryo is a “human life” is, morally speaking, quite unsound. This is because embryos have no moral value of their own. They are things which may, one day, become things of moral value, but that does not mean they are morally valuable now.

To take to your prisoner example, human beings have moral value even if they are savage criminals sentenced to life imprisonment. This is because they are conscious human beings who still have a right to life within our moral framework. Using them from scientific research sets a moral example that humans, in general, are usable in harmful scientific research, since the fact that this is a prisoner does not mean that this person has no moral value at all. Prisoners are not lacking in moral value, even if the individual’s morality might be bad.

This thoroughly shows the distorted logic of the parent poster, but I’d like to go on for one moment about yet another oversight in this argument. What’s funny about people who are against embryonic stem cell research based on the potentiality principle is that they often don’t realize that even the potentiality principle may not be able to help them.

Embryos are simply configurations of human cells, with genetic code to eventually become a human fetus, and, from there, a human child. But the embryo cannot make this journey without the support of a host mother’s biological system, and thus that biological system is just as accountable for the potentiality of the fetus as the embryo is (perhaps moreso). Once the embryo is removed from the mother, there exists no potential for this combination-system to produce a fetus: therefore, the embryo even lacks the said potentiality. In the end, embryos outside the mother’s system are like any other configuration of cells, and thus definitely do not have any moral value, even if you don’t buy my argument above.

To conclude, embryos have no inherent moral value. They only have moral value if you believe potential to have moral value gives something moral value, which I believe to be a kind of circular argument and a conflation of ideas. The example of embryos becomes even more difficult to defend when potentiality is removed. I have tried to show that it can be, and thus the position granting moral value to embryos is quite difficult to argue even for believers in the moral power of potentiality.

UPDATE: /. moderators liked my little piece of analysis above, and I got some nice responses. (“I just wanted to say that was one of the most intelligent and well thought out posts I have ever read on Slashdot. I truly enjoyed reading it and now I am even considering getting an [Intro. to Philosophy] type book to read” and “I rarely post on slashdot, but i just wanted to agree with zbode and thank you for one of the only ‘read more’ comments that i’ve read in its [entirety]. Very well done.”) This despite the fact that in the original post, I spelled “principle” as “principal” (what got into me?) and left out a word in a critical concluding sentence 😉

Nonetheless, I like the responses I got. One person pointed out that reading Philosophy is exactly commenting from the armchair. Well, not exactly. Philosophy, it’s true, doesn’t have much “action” associated with it, and is mostly thought, but when one says you’re an “armchair philosopher”, it means you just have opinions about philosophy without ever having “done” philosophy. In other words, you just perpetuate misleading preconceived notions. At least, that’s what I meant by it. Philosophy is a way of understanding arguments in terms of inherent properties to those arguments, and in terms of soundness and validity. People who shoot about talking about embryonic stem cell research as being “immoral” without a justification other than “God told me” are being lazy, armchair Philosophers.

the mere fact that an embryo has the potential to become a human being

There’s your mistake… I think those on the other side of the fence treat an embryo as a human being. Assume this other sider believes in a “soul”, and it is this “soul” that is the defining mark of a human being. I really can’t see any point for the soul to come into existence except at the moment the egg is fertilized. Though perhaps I have misunderstood those on the other side.

No, I think he did understand those on the other side. They do think humans have souls, which is an argument even I can understand, since I’ve studied it and the implications of not having a soul. But I don’t think anyone, not even Christians, can tell me that whether a thing might be connected with a soul tells me how I should treat it in this, physical world. There is simply no grounding for that. Furthermore, I don’t know how one is to know that fertilization is when the human being gets a soul. I think Christians for the most part used to believe that souls came at birth, not fertilization. Otherwise miscarriages means the embryo’s soul goes to hell, due to original sin, which doesn’t seem right.

“To conclude, embryos have no inherent moral value. They only have moral value if you believe potential to have moral value gives something moral value, which I believe to be a kind of circular argument and a conflation of ideas.”

Which would be a great argument if you were debating with a rational, scientific person. However, most of the objections come from people who have a religious orientation and some level of belief about association of a “soul” to the embryo (potential child). Miscarriage (many of which happen before the pregnancy is even evident) is a “natural” event and therefore within the realm of God. As in, you might not like it, but it’s in God’s plan and so it is acceptable. Deliberately creating and harvesting the embryos is not natural and not God endorsed.

Yea, I could see people holding this view, it just really is beyond me how they could. That’s not God’s will? Well, neither is giving poor, homeless people money to survive with. “It’s God’s will for the poor guy to die, God gave him that lot in life.” And for that matter, neither is amniocentisis or any other medical method God’s will. This argument isn’t very appealing to me. It sends you back to the stone age.

We don’t know what God endorses outside of the Scripture. God never mentioned embryos, therefore we can do what we want. “Guessing” what God endorses within your religious framework is nothing more than making moral policy based on your own whim. If you believe in the Scripture as the Word of God, then, by God, you better stick to the Scripture. If you don’t believe the Scripture is the end-all source of all your decisions, then you better not speak about God’s will, because you obviously haven’t an idea what God’s will is (since you are unable to communicate with him or witness any of his actions), and so you’re making it up.

Politics in early hours

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

I just had a long political discussion with Josh who was visiting New York for the weekend. It went on until just 20 minutes ago, till 5 am. Wow.

I guess the discourse is still alive. Somewhere.

Meanwhile, when I got home i couldn’t help eyeing websites like DemocracyInAction and GetActive, and thinking, that’s where I want to work.

We’ll see. To sleep, for now.

The Cost of This War

Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

I was at Cost of War today, a great site if you want to get depressed.

Even just zooming in on Nassau County, New York, $2 billion of our local community’s money has gone to this fruitless war. What’s amazing is when they tell you that same amount could have been spent to send 95,000 kids from Nassau County to college. That’s good. Instead of an educated workforce, a less ignorant society, and a more empowered populous, we got a toppled statue, a middle east that hates us, more terrorists with their crosshairs on us, and higher gas prices.

Did I mention I hate this President almost as much as I hated him in 2000, when I yelled, “I’ll be saying, ‘I told ya so!'”