Category: Ethics

Your Blood Group is Determined by Biology and is a Social Construct

I doubt this is original but it is worth going through because strange right-leaning people keep shouting about biology at me. Oddly though, I was prompted to write not by an argument about nature v nurture but a different argument about invention v discovery in mathematics. I’m not an expert on blood groups (which is sort of the point) so apologies for any biological errors.  Note also this is a description of one specific relationship between a social construct and biology. Others may have things in common but that doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same relationship between a biological aspect and the associated things that a society may construct around it [i.e. neither the social constructs of gender nor ‘race’ is directly analogous to blood group]. Anyway, here we go.

You probably know your blood group. Once upon a time I regularly gave blood and felt a moral obligation to do so. I’m O negative, which is a handy default blood type for donation as it contains neither A, B or Rh factors and hence shouldn’t trigger an immune reaction in most people of other blood types.

But ABO and Rh are just two blood typing systems and even with those two systems, there are variations. Group A can be further subdivided into approx 20 subgroups of which A1 and A2 account for most type-A people. In terms of inheritance, there are also exceptions to the commonly understood rules – CisAB (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis_AB ). More generally there are tens of other blood typing systems that categorise other factors that can exist in human blood and which can potentially complicate blood transfusion.

The ABO/Rh system is a very effective simplification of a set of much messier, more organic categories. Yes, it is determined by your biology (you don’t get to pick) but the significance of whether you are “A” or “AB negative” etc depends very much on the existence and practicalities of a blood donation system. That system also has practical constraints but it is effectively something societies choose to do and requires political and social support as well as the existence of hospitals and an infrastructure to support them.

I also said that I used to give blood. I’m not allowed to currently because I lived in the UK during the height of the BSE/Mad cow disease outbreak. Concerns about the transmission of a prion disease via blood transfusion have meant that many countries place restrictions on blood donations. That rationale makes some sense given the extent to which prions are not well understood. What makes less sense is the restrictions imposed on men who have sex with other men (phrased that way to match the eligibility questions). Rules on blood donation to prevent the spread of HIV prevent people who have engaged in ‘at risk’ sexual behaviours (e.g. http://www.donateblood.com.au/faq/sexual-activity ). Such rules prevent many gay men in long-term monogamous relationships donating blood. The rules arise out of medical and practical considerations but such rules also have a social impact and arise because of social aspects (from international travel to personal and sexual relationships).

You should note another trick I employed above: I said ‘type-A people’. Once we have categories that can be applied to aspects of ourselves it is easy to see them as categories of people. I’m O negative, well no, no *I* am not, not really – my blood is O negative for the purpose of blood donation, it really isn’t much of a thing about who I am beyond that. The notion of me being O negative only really makes sense in the context of donating blood or receiving a blood transfusion (or a few other related circumstance). Prior to the development of safe blood transfusion and large scale blood donation, your blood group is not something people would know or care about. Even that history is entwined with complex social factors including the development of modern healthcare infrastructure but also the development of modern warfare.

Blood groups have also generated their own pseudosciences and racist theories – a kind of inevitable consequence of any system that allows a categorisation of people entails a dark desire to identify that categorization with other aspects including personality or as a means of identifying some inherent purity. Suffice to say there is little evidence of blood group actually determining anything other than the most likely blood needed in a blood transfusion (and as we’ve seen even that is a simplification – although a very effective one).

In most developed countries blood donation is voluntary but even such a primarily altruistic system has social implications. It isn’t had to imagine a situation in which blood donation was more heavily required or in which there were more significant socio-economic implications to donating blood. In such a situation the layers of social significance to blood type would be greater both in a direct sense and in the sense in which any social division generates its own myths and stereotypes. A world in which blood transfusions had to be more common and was connected to economic status, would with a capitalist-style economy lead to more weird (and unpredictable without knowing more details) stratifications by blood group.

So what’s my point if it isn’t a point about gender or race? The point is very much NOT that other social construct work the same way as blood group might in a fictional society. However, a broader point remains true. Critics of the term ‘social construct’ treat it as if a person is saying ‘wholly arbitrary’ or ‘completely made up’ or ‘fictional’. Treating the term like that makes it an easy strawman to knock down. No society exists in a vacuum*, so the things that our societies construct** are things that have practical limits and which are influenced by the environment that is constructed in INCLUDING the existence of other constructs. But the physical, ‘real’ influences on how a social construct has evolved over time do not mean that the categories, stereotypes or social expectations that arise apply in a deterministic way to individuals – some elements might (e.g. O- blood is safe for me to receive), others less so (e.g. whether there is a greater moral imperative for ‘O- people’ to donate blood) and others not at all (e.g. pseudoscience blood-group personality types).

tl;dr Societies and social attitudes are shaped by ‘real’ things including biology, but that does not imply that biology (or physics or chemistry) somehow validates them, makes them somehow extra true, or makes departure from them (either as an individual or as a direction for society) some kind of revolt against reality or science.

*[OK maybe there is a society of space squid, plying the void between the stars but that is a separate issue.]

**[You’d think that was obvious from the term ‘constructs’. Anything we physically construct has physical limits and depends on physical rules but can still be a work of creativity in which arbitrary, non-determined choices are made.]

Weird Internet ideas: Are modern nazis imaginary? (spoiler: no, they’re real)

We’ve been busy watching Rabid shenanigans with books covers, but meanwhile over in Sad Puppy domains, Chris Chupik has decided that modern Nazis are largely imaginary. Chupik, for those who don’t know, is notable mainly as a regular commenter on Puppy blogs but sometimes he guest-posts at According to Hoyt. https://accordingtohoyt.com/2017/03/25/coyote-gravity-by-christopher-m-chupik/

[This get’s long so more below the fold…also ‘Spencer‘ is usually an external link but each time to a different article rather than peppering this piece with quotes]

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Is It OK to Thump People?

 

thump

I’ve watched several times a video of a guy thumping another guy recently. There is, naturally several sides to consider here:

  • Whether the violent act undermines free speech.
  • Whether, even if provoked by the objectionable views of the person punched, the act lowers discourse in general.
  • Whether violence is ever a justified reaction to a dialogue even with somebody obnoxious.

Having said that I think most people agree that the person doing the thumping was justified. Here is the video again (you’ve probably seen it already).

Yes, naturally I am talking about that time Buzz Aldrin hit lunar-landing denier Bart Sibrel in the face after Sibrel harassed and insulted Buzz and called him a coward and a liar. After multiple provocations, Buzz then, wack, thumps Sibrel in the face. What can one say? It is OK to both deplore violence AND accept that people have actual emotions and that when repeatedly provoked will react accordingly. Buzz doesn’t beat the guy up, he thumps him once.

The LA County District Attorney did not lay any charges on Buzz Aldrin and, according to Wikipedia, Sibrel (the man punched) later apologised to Aldrin.

So there you go. Yeah, maybe sometimes it is OK to thump people – you know if you are provoked enough it would be weird if people DIDN’T react that way. You know, like in the example above in which Buzz Aldrin is repeatedly harassed and called a liar by a guy whose ideas are based on stupidly elaborate conspiracy theories. Just don’t make a habit of it.

 

 

Oh, and apparently alt-right pro-genocide shit Richard Spencer was thumped the other day also. Whereas Sibrel was just a rude guy with an omnifallacious theory that in itself harms nobody, Spencer is a guy who promotes race hate and genocide. As far as I can tell the major ethical issue people have with this is that it wasn’t Buzz Aldrin who hit him.

Leak Ethics and Hack Ethics

Many, many reasons to put some thought into the ethics of email hacks and leaks currently.

Firstly, is the current political trajectory of Wikileaks – in the past seen as somewhat anarchic and/or libertarian and now being cast as a tool of authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin. In either case, it is worth asking is there a way of looking at the ethics of what Wikileaks has done beyond comparing the rightness/wrongness of the people who have either benefit or suffered as a consequence?

Secondly, Chelsea Manning remains imprisoned where she has been treated in a way that has been described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading“. Aside from the specific cruelties she has been subject too, should she anyway be pardoned by Obama before he leaves office?

Thirdly is the issue of the ethical culpability of the press or others (such as a rival political campaign) in exploiting revelations from an illegal leak or hack. Currently, the question of press coverage of the leaked DNC emails in the recent election and what electoral benefits the Trump campaign may have gained from those leaks.

There are some easy answers of course:

  • The Russian government shouldn’t be trying to manipulate US elections.
  • Whatever the rights or wrongs of Chelsea Manning’s acts, she should not be subject to cruel punishments.
  • Trump is deeply unethical on multiple levels regardless of whether he benefited from the DNC hacks.

But can we do better than these clearer issues?

Firstly there is an ethical distinction between leaks and hacks. Practically there are blurred lines between the two (e.g. an insider leaking a password to a third party who gains illegal access to a server) but we can still make a distinction between:

  • Somebody inside an organisation revealing confidential information to somebody outside an organisation.
  • Somebody outside an organisation breaking in (either physically or electronically) and stealing information.

The distinction is related to (but not identical to) the degree of discrimination in the information sought and released.

  • Somebody obtaining and disseminating specific information about an organisation, with some awareness of the information they are revealing.
  • Somebody obtaining and disseminating bulk information about an organisation, with little knowledge of what that information contains.

There is a sliding scale between the two.

Yet another pair of factors, and again on a scale, there is a question of personal risk.

  • The actor responsible for the leak or hack is acting at significant personal risk, either to their career or facing legal sanction or violence.
  • The actor responsible for the leak or hack is facing very limited risk and/or may gain financially or professionally from their actions.

Lastly, I’d make one more paired distinction.

  • The leak or hack is of a government body or agency.
  • The leak or hack is of a non-government body or agency, or of an individual.

In all cases, I’d contend that the default is an assumption of privacy. That is either a leak or a hack of data is, by default, morally wrong without some sort of mitigating factor. Put another way, non-consensual transparency purely for the sake of transparency is not sufficient justification for dissemination either leaked or hacked information BUT there may be times and occasions when other factors can justify both leaks and hacks (and indeed we know that such times and occasions do exist).

Roughly speaking, this is how I am seeing things:

  • Leaks are easier to justify ethically than hacks.
  • Targetted release of ‘stolen’ data is easier to justify ethically than dumps of data.
  • Acts done in the face of personal risk are easier to justify ethically than acts done with low risk or for personal gain.
  • The release of government data is easier to justify than the release of non-government data, which is easier to justify than the release of an individual’s data.

Beyond that questions of legitimate public interest and consequence matter.

Scenario 1: Donald Trump is President and a member of Whitehouse staff leaks a very specific email regarding the purchase of ‘adult diapers’. The leaked email is widely disseminated and there is much speculation that the President has some degree of incontinence.

I’d see Scenario 1 as unethical. Although it essentially government data (and hence publically owned data) and although it is targetted and a leak (forgive the pun) and the staff member runs the risk of being sacked (and maybe prosecuted) – it fails ethically because the public interest test is weak (yeah, there is an argument that the state of the President’s health is public business but this is a stretch) and the consequence is the bowel/bladder movements become fair game for judging the worthiness of politicians. Odds are that many effective US presidents have had less than functional bodies with regarded to toilet functions.

Scenario 2: An activist believes (because of persistent but inconclusive evidence) that a private company is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The activist manages to download encrypted backups of emails. Believing that there might be ‘smoking gun’ evidence in the emails that executives knew about the testing, but lacking the resources to decrypt and then examine all the emails, the activist releases all the data in an attempt to ‘crowd source’ an examination of the data.

I’d still lean to this being somewhat unethical action by the activist, but it would really rest on how reasonable their belief was that the company was knowingly engaged in unethical human experimentation.

Scenario 3: A lower level manager believes that the private company they work for is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The manager knows that there are emails that can prove this but doubts that people will believe a single email that anybody could have faked. Instead, they pass on to an activist group a download of encrypted backups of emails. The surrounding emails and the encryption scheme help verify that the emails are really from the company concerned.

I think this is more clearly ethical. The person is acting in the face of clear wrongdoing.

 

Meat Robot 1: Free Will

John C Wright started an interesting discussion at his blog http://www.scifiwright.com/2016/08/a-general-query-to-all-panphysicalists-and-radical-materialists/

Let us cut to the chase.

Think back to the day when you first discovered that you were a meat robot without free will, without freedom, and without dignity. Did the discovery fill you with awe, rapture, wonder and gratitude?

For, if not, the discovery is false. Truth is majestic and majesty provokes awe; truth is sublimely beautiful and beauty provokes rapture; truth is startling, because it shatters the lies we tell ourselves, and the bright surprise leaves us blinking in wonder; truth is a gift to be prized above all price, and gifts provoke gratitude.

If the discovery of material did none of these things, either your reactions are miscalibrated and do not reflect reality, or your discovery was not a discovery at all, merely a falsehoods you have yet to test with due rigor.

So? What was your reaction?

There were two more posts and the discussion above was a follow on from previous discussions.

I hadn’t been commenting at JCW’s blog because it tended to cause more upset than discussion but this post looked like an invitation back. As it happens, things started to get weird and tense there and I opted out again. However, there were some intelligent questions asked and I said I’d try and address them.

And fair warning: this goes on a bit and involes some thought experiments about predicting other people’s behaviour which is neccesarily a bit creepy-when-you-think-about-it sort of philsophical scenario.

Free Will

I’m not going to cite anybody in this chunk but the ideas below aren’t original.

Free will is conceptually a mess but it is also something people grasp as a thing they experience. When I say it is a mess, what I mean is:

  • If you are Judeo-Christian-Islamic theist then you have to reconcile free-will with a god that can do anything and knows everything in advance.
  • If you believe in any kind of determinism (physical or theological) then you have to somehow reconcile that with the supposed choices of free-will.
  • If you believe the world is more unpredictable then you escape determinism but swap forced choices for random ones.

Free will is cognitive: it is about a person making free choices and deciding to do something. While that can encompass spontaneity or seemingly random acts, it isn’t confined to such acts. We would regard our rational and/or sensible choices to also be encompassed by free-will.

Also, we tend to see as our choices defining us – they are the kinds of things we would do. Our choices reflect our personality and our history. We can also reflect on our decision making and consider how the information we had, our emotional state, our personal goals and our personality influenced our decision.

Wright sees free-will as being particularly challenged by a physical view of reality. If I am a robot made of meat (I am – but one running a Camestros Felapton module) then I am like a clockwork machine and my thought processes are reducible to atoms moving about and hence no free-will. I’ll put aside, for the time being, the question of things being usefully reducible to physics

I’ll put aside, for the time being, the question of things being usefully reducible to physics. At a broader level, my mind is the operations of my brain and my brain operates at levels some of which I’m not conscious of. This can be alarming because it begins to sound like my brain is in charge of me rather than my mind.

Neurologically there is apparent evidence for this, with some indication of things occurring in the brain pertaining to decisions before we are conscious of having made our decision.

I think this is actually unremarkable. Whether we imagine souls, gods, quantum effects creating intelligence or computer-like brains, an unconscious process will precede conscious ones. To imagine otherwise is to assert our thought processes transcend time and that is a point where I resort to saying that is just silly.

The problem is we really don’t have a good handle on what free-will is. As a consequence, we tie ourselves into paradoxes. So I’m going to assert what free-will is – again this is not original with me but I don’t have a pointer to a specific thinker who said this.

What Free Will Is

Imagine a person, call her Sue.

We have the power to predict what Sue will do. How have we got that power? You can pick the way you feel most comfortable with:

  • Access to a parallel universe which is temporally further ahead than ours but otherwise the same (currently).
  • An extraordinary computer simulation of Sue that tracks all inputs and physical states of Sue to produce a deterministic model of Sue that predicts exactly what she will do.
  • An angel tells us what decisions Sue will make.
  • All of these choices are actually a bit disturbing when you think about it and you’d rather not pick any of them, thanks very much.

It doesn’t matter which we pick. Somehow, we can know what Sue will do next.

I believe Sue can still have free-will in this scenario.

That is important. I’m not saying she must have free-will, it could still be a contingent fact about our universe that free-will is an illusion but even with the kind of determinism I just described, I think free-will is still possible. Having said that, we need to describe it carefully.

We meet Sue for a cup of coffee. Our predestination powers tell us that Sue will order a cappuccino. Note how unremarkable a prediction this is. It is the kind we make fairly reliably about people we know, despite not having any remarkable powers. However:

  • Sue does not know about our power to see what she will do next.
  • We have not told Sue that we know she will order a cappuccino.

Sue orders a cappuccino.

Over coffee, we explain to Sue that we have this incredible power to predict her decisions. Sue is naturally aghast at this gross invasion of her privacy, demands that we smash up the computer/stop accessing a parallel universe/stop talking to messed-up angels. Still, the idea gets stuck in Sue’s head and she decides to teach us a lesson.

She uses what we told her to build her own simulation/access a parallel universe/contact an angel and now has he power to see what WE will do next.

She asks to meet us for a cup of coffee. Before we order, Sue explains what she has done and also that she knows we will order a cup of tea. Because we are somewhat infantile and cross that Sue has neatly demonstrated how messed-up it would be to gain pre-knowledge of another persons actions, we rather petuantly decide to order a cappuccino.

  • We order a cappuccino.

That is free will.

Sue asks us to check our Sue-predicting-powers and we discover that:

  • Our parallel universe Sue is now an alt-history Sue and the universe is slightly different.
  • Our computer model has diverged from Sue’s behaviour.
  • The angle is lecturing us on how god works in mysterious ways.

Of those options, the only one I can actually garuntee is the computer one. Sue’s model of us and our model of Sue must contain everything Sue knows and believes about the world. Whether that is at fundamental level of how the data is encoded in neuron’s or pulses of electrons or arrangements of atoms or whether it is at a more comprehensible level, it doesn’t matter. All of us make decisions based on what we know and believe and have been told.

Sue predicted that we would order tea but that prediction did not contain the fact that she would tell us about the prediction. Our mental state is changed by Sue telling us about the prediction (which we believe because of our past experience with such predictions).

Sue could have anticipated this and fed back into the model of us that she would tell us about ordering tea. In that case her computer model then has to take into account its own predictions. Maybe it collapses into a self-reference paradox at that point or maybe it copes and says that I’ll order a cappucinno…but then Sue has to tell me I’ll order a capuccino…so I order tea…so Sue would need to feed in double, triple, quadruple layers of prediction. Even numbered predictions would be cappuccino and odd numbered would be tea.

This isn’t just an exercise in the logic of determinism. Socially and evolutionarily, other people need our behaviour to be predictable (it is how we all get along) and we need our behaviour to have the capacity to be surprising (it’s what stops people taking each other for granted).

Even at a very fallible level of predicting another person’s behaviour, we know that telling somebody what choice they will make in advance is at best cheeky and more generally is rude. The scenario above of some supposedly infallible predictor of a person’s behaviour is worse than rude but would be downright creepy, weird and unethical.

Meat robot is quite happy thanks

As a meat robot I’m confident I have free-will. My decisions are determined in the sense that the component parts of me together make up ME and it is the interaction of those parts on what I know and believe about the world that make up my decisions. That isn’t a loss of free-will, it is just being honest about who and what I am. I’m not an abstract geometrical point or a monad. I’ve got parts.

Within that framework, I can make sense of what it means for me to have free-will. Not only that, free-will makes sense LOGICALLY and also EVOLUTIONARILY.

  • Logically because a deterministic prediction of what I will do is still something I can defy because such a prediction to be foolproof would require the capacity to model its own predictions in the event of me learning about its predictions. Heck, even decsribing the issue gets you into a self-referential nest.
  • Evolutionarily because meat-robots are social animals and that requires us to be both predictable and surprising.

I’m not saying divine or metaphysical explanations of free-will are neccesarily wrong (although they have issues and I’ll touch on some of them in other posts) but I am saying free-will makes a lot of sense for a meat robot.

Thinking about Cultural Appropriation

There is an article here by a SF author about cultural appropriation which could be best describe as somebody speaking authoritatively on a subject they are struggling to understand. As readers of this blog will have noticed by now, I have no problem with thinking out loud in print but the perils of doing so are patently obvious when the gulf between what is being said and the actual topic are so deep.

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