Monday, October 28, 2019

Overpopulation from the perspective of an airplane

This 500-word post is one of several short pieces meant to preview this year’s Fall Ethics Symposium

In the 1995 comedy Father of the Bride Part II, George Banks (Steve Martin) and his wife Nina Banks (Diane Keaton) get news that they will be first-time grandparents, and then, soon afterwards, get news that they will be parents again themselves—because Nina is unexpectedly pregnant.  George and Nina leave the doctor’s office looking out different windows of their car while thinking about what this second bit of news means to them.  I could not quickly find the delightful scene online, but Wikepediaconfirms it: “As they are driving home, Nina and George have differing perspectives on the prospect of becoming new parents again.”  Indeed: since it’s comedy, Nina looks out her window and actually sees things representing the joys of parenthood, like a young daughter skipping blissfully with her mother, but George looks out his window and sees things representing the difficulties of parenthood, like a young son angrily throwing a fit at his father.

I mention this because I have a theory of why people’s opinions on overpopulation may start differently before they really study it.  I say this because I actually have such opinions right now; I have not really studied it.  My theory is that two common ways of experiencing an airplane flight may partly explain different initial armchair opinions on overpopulation.

Sometimes when you ride an airplane, especially in a window seat, during the daylight hours when you can look down and see the ground below, and you stare at mile after green mile of uninhabited grassland, or mile after brown mile of uninhabited desert, you might catch yourself thinking, “the earth is overpopulated with humans in about the same way that the sky is overpopulated with birds.”  The claim does not just seem false, but obviously, comically, ridiculously false.

Other times when you ride an airplane, especially in an aisle seat, during a crowded flight towards the back of the plane, you focus on what is inside the airplane: the seats packed six or more to a row, the isles made enough to thin for walking without bumping people, the smells of other passengers, the screaming of an infant, and the sight of a family boarding with many young children that you realize in horror are about to fill up all the seats around yours, you might catch yourself thinking, “you know, maybe if there were not so many people on the planet…”

These two types of experiences can happen on the same day, or the same flight, even simultaneously, to the same person.  But they may partly explain where the burden of proof seems to be for the thought, as you begin your descent into Los Angeles, and look out the window at mile upon grey mile of highways and homes: “even if some cities may be in some sense overcrowded, that is different than the planet being overpopulated.”

Russell DiSilvestro
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Fortnite is down and John Locke is pissed

As of this writing Fortnite, the most popular Massively Multiplayer Online Game in the world is offline, and 17th century political philosopher John Locke would be none too happy about it. Not because Locke had a particular affection for costumed figures running around a virtual island shooting each other, but because Locke was particularly interested in how people come to claim ownership in the things of this world. And make no mistake about it: gamers very much claim that they ownthe resources that they cultivate, refine, curate, trade and purchase in virtual space.

Over 250 million people play the game on a monthly basis, due in part to the fact that it is free to play.[1]On October 14th, players witnessed an in-game cataclysm, which destroyed the entire game world. Anyone logged on witnessed only a blackhole where the game used to be. The game has been offline going on two days now.[2]

The players were stunned. No one doubts that the game will return shortly; permanently pulling the plug on such a popular cash cow is even less likely than the end of the actual world. But until then a quarter of a billion people have been cut off from one of their favorite past-times. For most this is a minor annoyance. But for some it is (or at least portends) a major grievance. Some people literally pay their rent with the game though donations from fans who watch them play on the online streaming service Twitch. Suddenly being cut off from the virtual world they invested in and depended on reveals the precarious nature of staking a claim in the virtual world.[3]

As a matter of law these users are entitled to complain, but little else. Games like Fortnite are governed by meticulously lawyered ‘end-user licence agreements’, which users must agree to before they can play. Those agreements give exclusive authority over the game and everything in it to the company. Our servers, our code, our rules. They are the in-game gods, and if they chose to implode the universe in perpetuity, that is their divine right.

Which brings us back to John Locke. In his lifetime the Aristocracy of Europe propagated a ‘Divine Right of Kings,’ which entailed (among other things) that all property in the kingdom belonged to the Monarch. Locke challenged this doctrine through an alternative theory of property in his “Second Treatise of Government.” Locke argued that “whatsoever then [one] removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left in, he hath mixed his Labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own and thereby makes it his Property.”[4]A standard example is a wild apple tree, which belongs to everyone in common. Anyone can come along and pluck an apple from the tree, thereby making the fruit their property. If they plant the seeds, water the soil, and nurture the plant to maturity, the resultant second tree (and all apples that spring from it) become their property as well.

Locke’s “labor mixing argument” has been the focus of much controversy among political philosophers. One major complication has been whether or not his thinking can be extended to ‘intellectual property.’ The tools used to make a film aren’t found in nature the way an apple tree is, so can a filmmaker claim to ‘own’ their film on Lockean grounds? Many scholars think not, so if there are such things as ‘intellectual property rights’ they cannot be justified by the labor mixing argument.

This might seem like the relevant precedent for virtual worlds like Fortnite. But this fails to properly appreciate the role that users play in these worlds. Games like Fortnite encourage and depend on users mixing their labor with ‘virtual resources’ found in the game. Some games, like Farmville have users that spend dozens of hours a week ‘farming’ virtual crops, which they sell on the gray market for real-world cash, which they in turn use to buy real-world food.

Virtual worlds have in-game economies collectively valued at over $52 billion, larger than the GDP of Iceland, Yemen and Belize, combined. World of Warcraft’s virtual gold-mining industry alone is worth more than $2 billion. Nearly all of this value is the result of the labor that users have poured into it. Absent that labor, WoWs ‘gold’ is just worthless zeros and ones. These companies are not merely providing valuable worlds from which users extract enjoyment; they are providing raw materials which users are, as a livelihood, transforming into an economic system that philosophers, lawyers, economists and politicians have only just begun to wrap their heads around.

There are too many challenges to the idea of ‘virtual property rights’, Lockean or otherwise, to address here.[5]Perhaps the ‘property rights framework’ isn’t the best way to understand the relationship between game companies, users, the virtual resources they invest in and the virtual worlds that they, in so doing, are co-creating. 

But such objections miss the forest for the virtual-trees. Somekind of framework that renders moral and legal protections to the users who produce the vast majority of the value of these virtual spaces is imperative. Companies, other users, hackers, even governments pose a potential threat to legitimate claims users have to their corners of these virtual spaces. Issues of fairness, equity, distributive justice, general utility, economic efficiency, informed consent, and other staples of political philosophy run right through the heart of virtual economies.

An ever-increasing share of the Gross World Product exists in virtual space. If we don’t invest our own resources into understanding and structuring the economic rules of that space they will continue to be set by a small fraction the relevant parties. There is little reason to think the rules they write will be in the best interests of all. Just as John Locke did not thoughtlessly acquiesce to the Divine Right of Kings merely because it was the legal and political default, we too should not thoughtlessly acquiesce to the Divine Right of Code.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

[1]Epic Games, which owns Fortnite makes money through ‘microtransactions’, in-game purchases of costumes and dance-moves for the characters.
[2]Update: before this piece was published Fortnite came back online. It was offline for just under two days. “Fortnite Chapter 2” is now playable.
[3]As it turns out, The End proved to be quite lucrative, at least for some Twitch streamers. It seems that since people couldn’t play the game, many tuned into the Twitch streams of the games’ superstars to see how they reacted to the virtual Ragnarok. 
[5]For example, John William Nelson argues that Locke’s argument can only be applied to the original acquisition of property from nature. Since virtual goods do not exist in nature, but only as a result of the labor of the game’s developer. ‘Farming’ in a virtual space is more like a blacksmith transforming ore which he purchased from a miner. While the miner’s ownership in the ore is justified by Locke’s labor mixing argument, the blacksmith’s ownership must be justified by the prevailing legal theory of property transfer. By extension, any ‘ownership’ a user has over virtual property is justified in terms of the End User License Agreement.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Travel bans are dumb and hypocritical

I am subject to a travel ban. No not that one, which is much, much worse. Rather, I fall under the one that, since January 2017, prevents me, other CSU and UC faculty, and all state employees from using public funds to travel to states that California Attorney General Xavier Beccera decides is violating California anti-discrimination law. 

For example, under AB 1887 I would be denied reimbursement for travel to North Carolina to research the effects of its silly public bathroom laws, or to present an argument about how silly they are at an academic conference there. AG Beccera’s list has recently grown to 11

Many of these states have been targeted for their attempts to carve out accommodations for private religious groups who are connected in some way with public services and funds. Texas and Oklahoma, for example, do not require child welfare services to place children in same-sex or single parent households if doing so would violate religious or moral convictions or policies central to these groups’ mission statements.

Kansas falls under the travel ban because it doesn’t require student groups at public universities to have an “all-comers” policy for organizational leadership positions. In other words, Kansas is banned for a policy that would have implicated California until pretty recently. It strikes me as an odd deficiency in humility to be so vindictive against Kansas for missing a moral discovery that California state officials have only just made. It took California legislators years and years to finally get this right, but Kansas is held out for official sanction for failing to follow along right away.

Part of the absurdity of the California ban is how selective and arbitrary it is. South Carolina made Beccera’s list last year for a carve-out for faith-based private child placement agencies like those in Texas and Oklahoma, but California is apparently fine footing the bill for a conference junket to Southeast Asia where, in Singapore and Malaysia, male homosexual sex is simply illegal. 

Also, I could get reimbursed for a work trip to Nebraska, despite their law denying marriage rights to people afflicted with a venereal disease, but not if I attend the Gender Infinity Conference in Houston, Texas this year. 

Iowa is on the no-go list for a recent legal change to prevent Medicaid coverage for gender reassignment surgery. But California legislators apparently take a different approach to the fact that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, since my reimbursement request for my trip to the Big Easy last year went through without a hitch. 

Finally, I think it’s odd to reflect on what the ban says about how the state regards the primary value of funding faculty travel for the purpose of research and conference participation. 

I would have thought that the reason California taxpayers are implicated in my travel expenses has something to do with a view about the putatively public goods character of the research and scholarly activities that take me across state lines. Before, I would have considered this view a little optimistic. But now I know California legislators just don’t see it that way at all. It rather seems that all this funding is just a subsidy for conference centers, hotels and restaurants, which legislators want to avoid directing to the bad, undeserving states. (For, surely, they can’t actually think that AB 1887 will actually affect legislative changes there).

In that case, the state should probably just eliminate all travel funding for university employees. That is, if the funding just enriches out-of-state room-and-board service providers, and there’s really no meaningful return to taxpayers, then the expenditures seem illegitimate. If not, though — if something like the optimistic view is right — then colleagues should be able to secure funding to participate in the Annual African American Children and Families Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa in February (despite Iowa’s addition to the list last May). Hampering colleagues’ research in this way sure seems like a poor way to promote social justice.

Especially if there’s anything to the idea that we learn and influence more effectively through exposure and contact than by drawing lines and keeping separate. The latter strategy tends to lead to increased polarization and, for those with minority positions in conservative states, actually could cut off those who might benefit from national alliance and support. 

These risks aren’t worth what amounts to not much more than legislative moral grandstanding and the opportunity to signal they have the right virtues. 

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Meritocracy as the Best Form of Government

Jason Brennan (2016) argues against democracy in significant part by relying on many empirical studies demonstrating that the public largely is politically ignorant and has various cognitive biases that make a rule by the people unreliable.  For example, most voters don’t know the platforms of the two major candidates, carry a host of false social/political facts, aren’t swayed by public deliberation, and are deficient in instrumental rationality.  Instead, Brennan posits an epistocracy, which is rule of the knowledgeable.  This view has roots in Mill.  Voting power is distributed according to competence, where for example, those who have greater epistemic virtues can have votes that carry greater weight.  An epistocracy may also be set up such that only the knowledgeable can vote.  An epistocracy can better address the political psychology findings as compared to a democracy.
As the data shows that socially advantaged groups in the U.S., such as wealthy male republican Caucasians, generally have more political knowledge than many minority groups like women and African-Americans, Brennan anticipates the Demographic Objection (DO).  DO states that for an epistocracy, advantaged groups will have more voting power over others. Thus, we will have unfair policies favoring the advantaged.  Brennan responds by writing that experiments show that minority groups are unlikely to know how to promote their own interests and that advantaged groups mostly vote for their perceived national good, which will be to the benefit of minorities.  It’s better for minorities if we restrict voting power largely to, for example, rich white republican males.  
The problem with Brennan’s epistocracy is that the perceived national good from most of the advantaged group – viz., rich white republican males – can harm relevant minority groups.  It looks like most republican voters’ perceived national good is to keep Trump in office despite discriminatory rhetoric and policies.  For example, Gallup shows that a nearly unanimous majority (91%, Sept 3-15) of Republicans approve of Trump.  This isn’t beneficial to relevant minorities but can lead to a tyranny of the “knowledgeable.”
Also, the studies showing that minorities largely have deficiencies in knowledge of politics and in promoting their own self-interests fail to measure for deficiencies regarding knowing when their own respective group is being discriminated against.  This is a key omission from such studies as discrimination can be an issue that carries overriding importance for minority groups.  Contrarily, there is data suggesting that minorities groups are aware when they are facing discrimination and know how to vote against it.  For example, a Fox News poll shows that 83% of African-Americans disapprove of Trump on race relations.  Hence, I conclude that Brennan is unable to account for DO, and his epistocracy does worse than a democracy in light of DO. Minorities should be allowed to vote and have their vote carry substantial weight.
Brennan then may claim that an epistocracy can adjust to take into account knowledge of discrimination.  However, even so, the many other aspects of political knowledge, such as economics, political science, U.S. history, and sociology, will favor wealthy Caucasians which will give them a more powerful vote.  Given their superior overall knowledge, they likely should be able to drown out the minorities.  If not, then it’s questionable whether Brennan’s view is a true epistocracy or rule of the knowledgeable.  The DO objection remains.
While Brennan’s discussed studies against democracy are formidable, I advocate a specified version of a meritocracy, or rule by the merited, as it can better handle the worries stemming from the empirical data than a democracy.  Moreover, unlike an epistocracy, it can better account for DO.  Meritocracy has its roots in Confucius and Plato.  It stands opposed to the unadulterated rule by the largely ignorant masses that should be feared with a democracy.  
With a meritocracy, in order to run for office at the national level, political candidates must 1) take relevant classes, such as economics, informal logic, political science, history, environmental science, and political philosophy, with high marks, 2) pass non-ideological tests, and 3) have experience leading in local government while scoring high on various indices such as on decreasing crime, helping underprivileged groups, and maintaining a healthy economy.  

Medical doctors must take relevant classes, such as biology, physics, and chemistry, as an undergraduate student, pass tests on these courses with an extremely high GPA, attend medical school, and must take medical entrance and board exams.  They also must take periodic tests as a medical doctor to make sure that one is current on medical advancements.  They must be in residency to gain experience.  By analogy, politicians, with the fate of many more lives on their hands, must also acquire an education and experience in political leadership and must demonstrate their virtue and merit.  If we have such requirements for a medical doctor, then how much the more we should have such requirements for those future politicians who will make decisions on a nation’s healthcare, economy, education, warfare, environment, laws, etc.  There is good reason for having requirements to be a doctor given the gravity of the job and the technical skill required.  All the reason more to have stringent criteria for being a political leader given the gravity of the job and the more diverse technical knowledge required to perform the job well.  

Those many candidates who jump through these hoops then must be elected from a democratic vote.  Of course, public fully funded universities is a prerequisite for my system so that all may have an opportunity to run for office in terms of acquiring the requisite education.  A meritocracy diverges from an epistocracy in that everyone has an equal vote.  A meritocracy focuses immediately on the virtues of officials rather than voters.  
I contend that this meritocracy does better than a democracy in that, although not foolproof, it is more likely to have virtuous officials than a democracy alone in light of the political psychology data.  It also is able to address DO better than an epistocracy in that everyone carries an equal vote.  Moreover, officials will have taken classes in ethics and must demonstrate prior successful experience working with minorities.  Hence, my meritocracy appears better than an epistocracy and democracy. Winston Churchill once said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms…” However, this is false as my meritocracy can at least make it more likely that our leaders have merit.

John Park
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State