Archive for January, 2012

Blasphemy Redux

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Kenan Malik has posted some thoughts about “blasphemy” that he addresses at the recent CFI conference.

In my opinion, the concept of blasphemy should rightly include ANY statement attributing any characteristic, act, or opinion to any god or gods.

But what offends ME more than any of that is the suggestion that communications which are merely offensive should be suppressed. Although I don’t agree with them, I hope the advocates of suppressing all offensive speech will take note of my offense and follow their own advice.

What is Wrong with SOPA and PIPA?

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

 Clay Shirky says it pretty well. (And in Canada, Michael Geist and Howard Knopf give good coverage of the legal issues for us). These proposed laws reverse the burden of proof with regard to alleged copyright violation. This both takes away the right of due process and has the effect of adding prohibitive costs onto the shoulders of the providers of self-publishing services.

The Myth of Japan’s Failure

Friday, January 13th, 2012

This article at makes some interesting claims which may raise questions about how we should measure national economic success. But I don’t know how to either judge its validity or figure out what are the lessons we should take from it. All in all, it’s somewhat intriguing but quite frustrating. So I hope that it generates some response and follow-up.

Rethinking the Growth Imperative

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

 Kenneth Rogoff (formerly chief economist at the IMF and now at Harvard) has found the sense to ask: “does it really make sense to take growth as the main social objective in perpetuity, as economics textbooks implicitly assume?”

And he correctly identifies a major driving force behind the growth that does happen in the fact that “people are fundamentally social creatures. They evaluate their welfare based on what they see around them, not just on some absolute standard.”

But what this implies is that the major force driving growth is less its position as a “social objective” and more its status as almost everyone’s personal objective – not out of a wish to actually have more actual stuff but rather out of fear of losing status by falling behind in the race to get it.

And of course national policies are driven by the same competitive zeal.

Unfortunately neither of these attitudes is irrational since 4 billion years of experience tells us in our bones (well genes actually) that whoever isn’t winning is losing and losers don’t last.

Perhaps the growth factor in economists’ models should be seen less as a social goal than as an abstraction of the effects of competitive struggle. If so,  asking the economists to come up with a zero growth model won’t solve the problem. What is needed is to address the psychology that drives that growth. And given its deep roots that may be no small problem.

Meanwhile right wing blogger Will Wilkinson disputes Rogoff’s thesis on the social value of growth by foolishly identifying the correlation between wealth and happiness of members of  society at a fixed time  (and short term changes in the average happiness in societies that are advancing or retreating in wealth relative to other societies at the same time) with the completely different question of how global average wealth correlates with global average happiness.

Taking Offense

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

When certain Muslims voiced their offense, various others took offense in turn.


Actually I agree with all but the last line of the following excerpt from the  Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association:

“Once a particular act is deemed to be offensive to another, it is only good manners to refrain from, at the very least, repeating that act. In this particular case, when at first the cartoon was uploaded, it could have been mistaken as unintentional offense. When certain Muslims voiced their offense over the issue, for any civil, well-mannered individual or group of individuals, it should then be a question as to the feelings of others and the cartoons should then have been removed.”

Generally I like “good manners”,  but they don’t trump other virtues such as “true compassion”, “honesty”, “genuine humility”,  or even  “self defense”.  Nor is it usually  “good manners” to correct the manners of others (or  at least of those others who have given every indication that they do not want to be corrected and in fact might even be “offended” by it).

But much more significantly, although displays of bad manners always offend me a bit (no matter who is their object, and even though, on another level, I may sometimes enjoy them), what offends me many times more strongly is the suggestion that anyone’s freedom to offend, in their own name and without direct physical harm, be curtailed by any means other than just ignoring them.    

But that might not be quite what’s happening here…

What complicates the situation is that the group posting the cartoon may be affiliated with a larger group that does not want to give offense, and (depending on the actual relationship) that larger group may be entitled to require the cartoon to be removed and is certainly entitled to disassociate itself from whatever opinion the cartoon represents. The larger group also has a right to apply whatever discipline is agreed to on becoming a member in order to enforce this disassociation –  almost certainly up to the point of expulsion of the “offending” members if they continue to associate their offense explicitly with the larger group.

It might even be argued by extension from the above that society as a whole has the right to criminalize the giving of offense to whomever it (society) is unwilling to offend (whether out of fear or just kind consideration),  but  I would dispute this on the grounds that membership in a society is not voluntary for the native born, and although we do of course restrict individual rights on various grounds the mere giving of offense is not and should not be among them.  (And in any case that is not is what is at issue in the UCLU-ASH case.)

In the absense of any offensive demand (as opposed to polite request) from outside the organisation that the cartoons be disallowed,  if it was any of my business then, depending on the context (which I don’t really know), I might (or might not) suggest that they be voluntarily removed from the normal view of those offended. But if the suggestion of real suppression were to be raised, then it would become imperative to me that they remain (whether or not I actually liked or despised them).

Anyone who feels impelled to avoid giving any offense at all should be aware that many such as I are offended by the excessive taking of offense (especially when this is used to excuse violent reaction), and so those who want to limit the giving of offense should encourage all with whom they associate to moderate their responses accordingly. Unfortunately, on all sides, it often seems that those most inclined to take offense are also those with the least scruples about giving it.

At first I was inclined to be offended by the AMSA treasurer’s statement, but on reading it carefully I note that it does acknowledge the freedom to insult as a part of the right to freedom of speech, does not actually claim offense to the author, and is careful to put the request for removal of the cartoon as a suggestion rather than a demand.  On the whole I find it quite reasonable in fact. But I do still think the last line of the part quoted above is wrong.  If it were right then the author should actually remove it because of the fact that, even though I am not offended by it, there undoubtedly are people who are offended. Of course the fact that it offends some people is not, in my opinion, any good reason to remove it (or even, I suppose, to edit it according to this implied suggestion). But if the author wishes to be able to claim self-consistency then leaving it unchanged is not an option.

Help Preserve the Canadian Public Domain

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Michael Geist calls on us to ‘ Speak Out on the Trans Pacific Partnership Negotiations‘.

My brief letter to the provided response address (consultations@ was as follows:

Please take note of my very strong opposition to any agreement which either extends the term of copyright protection for existing works,
or extends the criminalization of digital lock beaking for purposes in particular of maintaining access to legally acquired content via any medium of the user’s choice and more generally for any purpose that would not otherwise be criminal (including any use that does not violate a copyright).
Thank you.
Alan Cooper

(And by the way, the address on the gov’t website has a space which makes copying it not work – perhaps inserted deliberately to discourage responses?)

Actually I could live with “protection” of digital locks IF, and ONLY if, it only applied to media on the packaging for which the fact that the product works only on specifically identified devices was displayed in larger and clearer print than any other aspect of content description.

But the issue of copyright extension drives me really mad! This is just a gift of cash stolen from the public to whomever owns the rights half a century after the author’s death and obviously does not contribute in any way to the original authorship and funding decisions that were made more than half a century earlier. With sufficient data it might be possible to convince me that longer copyright terms for future works would help increase creative output, but there is no way that this applies to works already written and the benefit of an extension is often being given to someone who purchased rights from the author on the basis of a shorter term of protection. If copyright is extended, then authors (and estates) who sold rights with a shorter term should be entitled to sue for recovery of whatever value is provided by the extension.

A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Michael Ruse is someone whose name is often mentioned and he presents this ‘Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy’ at the ‘ Talking Philosophy’ blog as a summary of his apparently sometimes controversial views. So I think I’ll read it fairly carefully…

My first problem is in his second paragraph with

 I come away with the belief that ethics – meaning by this substantive or normative ethics (“What should I do?”) – is a product of natural selection (on individuals) to further reproductive success

Here my problem is with the idea that individual reproductive success is the driving selector behind the evolution of morality.  That may or may not be current gospel among biologists, but I suspect that it is wrong – and that the relevant selective force is increase of whatever gene complex causes the behaviour. Although this can be achieved via individual reproduction, it could also be achieved by giving the gene’s host a capacity to recognize and favour other carriers of the gene (with the understanding, here and henceforth, that by “gene” I really mean something more complex than the coding for a single protein).

I have yet to see if this difference will undermine my agreement with anything else he says. So let’s read on…

My next uneasy feeling comes with the “empirical claim” that

 ethical claims have the appearance and meaning of being objective claims, in the sense of not just subjective emotions but about external standards.

I certainly go with the “appearance” part but am not so sure about actual “meaning”. He’s right to say next that “If we thought it was all a matter of liking and disliking, ethics would break down rapidly” but our strong feeling that there’s something more objective doesn’t make it so – and the fact that that feeling is a requirement of the phenomenon should help us to recognize that it may be there for its own self-serving reasons. Moral behaviour may often conflict with what we would “like” to do (and we may be tempted avoid it if sure of not getting caught), but that doesn’t make it any less a “feeling”. Of course, at this point I may be misreading a bit. The “meaning” of  a “claim” may refer just to the intent of the claimant rather than anything more objective.

And just two lines further on I find that I was indeed misreading as Ruse says that “the belief about objectivity is erroneous” and “ ethics (meaning substantive ethics) is an illusion put in place by our genes to make us social cooperators“. So we are back pretty much in agreement on that score. Although  it’s not the ethical feelings or principles I’d call an illusion – just the sense that they have some context-independent source. But if I could read more than one line at a time I’d see that in the next sentence he says “But notice I am not saying that ethics as such is an illusion – I very much don’t think this – rather I am saying that the belief that ethics is objective is an illusion. ” (Is it unfair to complain when someone says “X. But notice I am not saying X”?)

Something similar happens in the next paragraph since after having admitted that the sense of objectivity is an illusion he asserts that “ “I like spinach” is subjective, but “Murder is wrong” is absolute or objective or binding or whatever.” I know what he means, but he seems bound by the philosopher’s typical faith in language and dichotomy. Maybe he’ll sort this out later in the piece, but it seems reasonable to have pointed out at this point that there’s a big space between “subjective” (meaning dependent on the point of view of an individual)  and “objective” (meaning in some sense completely independent of any body of  opinion). Moral precepts are non-subjective and universal in the sense of being common to all “moral” people (and considered binding on all people), but are still a function of the human context and so not objective in any absolute sense.

Actually, he does seem to get this even though he can’t quite bring himself to say it, and he does place morality as universal among humans though not necessarily beyond that. But his fear of moral relativism still makes him overly optimistic. The belief that “all humans share the same basic moral sense” may be true in a sense but is not necessarily true in the sense that he would like. What I mean here (as I elaborated earlier in my thinking about the failings of Sam Harris’ enterprise) is that even with the same basic tendencies there is no guarantee of the existence (let alone the discovery) of any universally correct answers to moral questions. We may be driven to strive for many different and potentially conflicting values with no guarantee of any relative priority between them and both our behaviour and our judgement of it may be inherently unstable. It is possible that even with the same basic drives different societies can settle on different and incompatible choices of what to optimize – with no commonly agreeable way of seeing which is better. Although I think Darwin’s use of “reared” in the alien bee-people example was really intended with the sense of “evolved” I do think it is possible that here on Earth identical twins reared in the hills of Afghanistan and those of San Fransisco may end up with equally internally consistent but mutually incompatible moral systems and no way of getting from one to the other by a process of successive improvement of self-judged value – and no real way of saying which is better.

But all-in-all, despite the excess of optimism, he seems pretty clear headed by comparison to others, and there is nothing up to this point that I can imagine making people angry.

However, in the last paragraph he alludes to a possible source of hostility from some, and it seems a bit disingenuous because it is essentially unrelated to the rest of the content. Without knowing more of the details  (eg who “struck” first, and about what,  etc) I  feel pulled into a family squabble that I want no part of.


Not Much Love Among Philosophers

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

 Stephen Downes led me to this interesting dust up. Apparently Clark Glymour, a philosopher at Carnegie Mellon who can actually be “taken seriously” by computer (and other) scientists was offended that his dep’t got a low ranking in a recent academic ratings game and hit back with a polemicmanifesto” belittleing some other branches of his subject (though in my opinion perhaps not too unfairly – except perhaps for the associations with Hitler, Stalin, and  Pol Pot!).