On the Culture Wars and Moral Systems

I read an interesting article this morning that connected the “social conservative freakout over Caitlyn Jenner” to some interesting observations about changes in Americans’ moral systems more generally.  The whole article is worth a read, but here’s the author’s central argument:

“What we’re witnessing is the withering away of the morality of ends — including a vision of human flourishing rooted in Protestant Christianity — that once prevailed in American public and private life. This comprehensive moral vision is being supplanted by a much more minimalist (but no less absolutist) morality of rights that aims above all to protect individuals from various forms of harm.”

The author is on to something, but this naming of different moral systems mis-states the problem I think.  Why?  Because outcomes (“ends”) are equally important in both systems.  Both systems also involve moral rules (not laws, though they are intertwined) that can be applied to practical situations.  The salient difference is the specific ends chosen.

For social and religious conservatives, the outcomes that are desirable are largely fixed, the meaning and purpose of life is pre-defined and fixed, and the moral rules that are intended to produce these outcomes apply to everyone.  These goals may have ancient origins, like the Biblical command to “be fruitful and multiply,” which the Quiverfull people use to make moral arguments that Christians should have extremely large families.  They may be something totalitarian and nationalistic, like Muslim countries’ desire to perpetuate their theocratic belief system at all costs, even to the point of imposing the death penalty for leaving Islam.   They may come from something as simple as a quasi-nostalgic desire to re-create the “good old days” of decades past.  What these groups and their moral systems all have in common is a substantive, specific, pre-determined position as to the desirable result of human efforts.

For progressives and social libertarians, the most important desirable outcome is that people have the freedom and autonomy to seek their own meaning in life and to define their own (not necessarily selfish) goals.  Many of the more detailed rules of their moral systems involve facilitating this, often by preventing people from harming others.  This is a much less specific desirable outcome, and this is deliberate.  There are many justifications for this, including (1) the desirability of personal freedom of thought and conscious as a good in itself, (2) facilitating the peaceful co-existence of different groups of people with different substantive ideas and goals, and (3) recognizing that changing circumstances and historical contingency means that goals that used to be admirable may no longer be so.

For example, let’s take the Quiverfull group’s desirable outcome of having a large number of children, a goal they are adopting from Genesis.  Some quick Google searches suggests that the entire world population around that time was ~60-100 million when that Genesis was written.  Today the world population is ~7 billion, and there’s strong evidence that we are risking massive environmental damage in the long run.  Progressives would argue that whether having 19 children is morally praise or blame-worthy must depend on these types of circumstances.  In some cases, this is not very controversial (e.g., religious cleanliness rituals vs. modern medicine), but there are a lot of other changes too, like (1) the availability of education, (2) scientific investigation, (3) technological change, (4) greater wealth, etc…

Of course, there are substantial ways in which these two moral systems overlap.  With simple moral questions like theft, murder, dishonesty, etc… the results are the same in both systems.  The “culture wars” is a great illustration of where these moral systems give different results.  The author of the article at the top makes this case thus:

“If you’re committed to an overarching (religious or philosophical) vision of human flourishing that precludes gender reassignment surgery, then an expression of disapproval and perhaps even disgust at the Vanity Fair cover would seem to be in order. But if you’ve left behind any such comprehensive morality of ends in favor of a morality of rights, then it’s hard to see what’s wrong with Jenner’s actions, or with the magazine in promoting them publicly on its cover. No one is harmed as a result, and the harm Bruce Jenner felt as a woman trapped in a man’s body has (one hopes) been alleviated by undergoing the surgical transformation into Caitlyn.

But of course many people who uphold a morality of rights go further than merely cheering on Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a woman. They want to protect her from the emotional harm of being judged, disapproved of, and treated as an object of disgust by those who persist in upholding a morality of ends. That’s where the gap between the two moralities becomes a chasm, since the morality of rights judges the very act of making a moral judgment in terms of a morality of ends to be harmful — and therefore an act of cruelty, injustice, and even evil.”

There is a indeed chasm here, but not the one the author describes.  Simple unjustified moral criticism causes mere disagreement.  The chasm comes from people using this moral criticism to justify taking or supporting concrete actions that cause real-world harm.  Social ostracization, employment discrimination, marriage inequality, harassment, emotional abuse, child abuse/abandonment, assault, and even murder in some communities.  Words do hurt, but not nearly as much as a literal kick in the teeth, or being fired from your job.  I feel incredibly fortunate and privileged to exist in a time and community where I don’t really experience this personally, but many others are not so fortunate.  And this is true not just for trans* people, but for others as well—from racial minorities to victims of deceptive or unfair trade practices to future generations who will inherit the environment we leave behind.

In the long run, particularly with a more interconnected, educated, technological and fast-changing world, the benefits of the less specific but still comprehensive moral structure continue to grow, as do the costs of those that impose their preferred outcomes on to others.  This isn’t a new idea.  So I’ll end with a quote from Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers of ethics:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” — Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)

Incumbent ISPs and Predatory Pricing?

Many of you have probably heard about Google Fiber, where the search giant provides 1,000Mbps Internet service to homes and businesses in some areas of the country.  Because average Internet speed in the U.S. at the end of 2014 was ~11Mbps, that makes Google’s $70/mo offering around 100 times faster.  While only available in a few cities, Google Fiber is interesting both because of its technological superiority and because consumer satisfaction with these incumbent Internet providers is very low. (Comcast recently won Consumerist’s 2014 Worst Company of the Year award.)  There are also some smaller and less well-known competitors in local areas, like our own LightSpeed here in Lansing, MI, that offer similar service.

What’s interesting here is the response from incumbent carriers when a competitive service is announced.  When Google announced it planned to offer its service in Atlanta, Comcast responded by announcing it would also offer gigabit speeds in that city.  Google Fiber was announced for Kansas City and Austin, and AT&T matched that offer.  Most recently, Google Fiber announced plans to offer service in Charlotte, and Time Warner Cable announced huge no-cost upgrades in their service there.

If you think this feels a bit like predatory pricing by an incumbent monopolist, you’re not alone.  But is what these companies are doing actually illegal under anti-trust laws?  Unsurprisingly, this is somewhat complicated.   Since the text of the law itself isn’t very specific, the details have largely been left up to the courts, and in the past few decades the libertarian-leaning “Chicago School” has been very influential in the federal judiciary.  In general, this means it’s rather difficult to win an anti-trust case.  It would be even more difficult if federal judges (who, with lifetime appointments, are generally older) apply industrial age economics to an information age problem.

Generally, in order for someone like Google to win an anti-trust case against these incumbent ISPs, they’d have to show that both (1) the ISPs reasonably calculate that their response will deter other firms from entering the market, therefore increasing their own profits, and (2) that the prices they’re offering in response are below “cost”–usually a specific type of cost called average variable cost, or AVC. [1]  I think there’s a pretty good argument for #1, but #2 is a harder sell because of the way costs are structured in telecommunications.

But this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of situation, because it means that one of the following must be true.  Incumbent wireline broadband ISPs either-

  1. Can increase bandwidth by 100x without raising prices and still be profitable.  (But they aren’t doing it, e.g., because of insufficient competitive pressure.) or
  2. Are probably engaging in illegal predatory pricing because they are offering service below cost to deter potential competitors from entering the market.

This is a problem because barriers to entry in this market are high.  Because the FCC under the Bush (W) administration got rid of rules requiring infrastructure sharing, entering this market means running your own wires all over town.  Obviously this is very expensive, and requires extensive coordination with cities and other utilities to get access to rights of way and, e.g., utility pole attachments.  This might be addressed by having the municipality run telecommunications lines with the rest of their other infrastructure, but in many cases state laws prevent municipalities from offering an alternative themselves.  We in Michigan have our own version of this law at MCL §484.2252.

[1] Phillip Areeda, Louis Kaplow & Aaron S. Edlin, Antitrust analysis: problems, text, cases (2004); Herbert J. Hovenkamp, Predatory Pricing under the Areeda-Turner Test (2015), http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2422120 (last visited Apr 13, 2015).

The Home Stretch for Network Neutrality

How, if at all, should the FCC regulate the internet? The FCC, the courts, interested parties (e.g., ISPs) and a surprisingly large portion of the public have been vigorously debating this issue for the last several years. Last week, Federal Communications Commission Tom Wheeler made comments strongly suggesting that the agency is planning to reclassify the Internet as a Title II telecommunications service. This is very good news, but the battle isn’t over yet. The most critical phase is happening right now, and it’s one where we need your help.

If you’re not already engaged with this issue, start by watching this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It’s highly entertaining, if somewhat out of date now, but obviously Mr. Oliver is much funnier and will reach a much wider audience than I ever will. If you’re still interested after watching it, come back and read the rest of this article. I’ll wait. If you’re still reading, I’ve divided the rest of this article into three sections; history and politics, about network neutrality, and what you can do. It’s pretty long, so feel free to skim or read/skip to what you’re interested in.

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On Leelah Alcorn

Like many others in our community, I was saddened to hear about the death of Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide earlier this week. I actually remember her from about two months ago, when she posted to an online forum that I frequent asking for help and advice for dealing with her emotionally abusive parents. I had a reply half-composed, but I was finding it emotionally draining, at least a dozen people had already responded, and I had other things I needed to do that day, so I didn’t comment. I don’t feel guilty about this… I try to help with these posts once in a while, but there are just so many of them.

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LibreOffice Template for Academic Papers

It should come as no surprise that finishing law school and (most of) a doctoral degree requires a significant amount of writing.  I’m also someone who occasionally gets bored and does side projects.  A few times, this has involved the creation of nice-looking document templates in which to do my writing.  Historically, I’ve done these in Microsoft Word.  But, frustrated by Word’s constant crashing on retina-display Macs and the fact that it hasn’t been updated in quite some time, I took a fresh look at the open source software suites. Read about, and download, my academic paper template below.

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Cloud-Based Implicit Aptitude Test (IAT)

During the Fall 2014 semester, I was part of a group project in a methods class that needed to measure racist and sexist views after exposure to certain stimuli.  These attitudes are hard to measure because of a desirability bias; in other words, people know that the “right answers” are when you ask them explicit questions like “are you a racist?”

One solution to this problem is something called the Implicit Association Test.  The idea is that you have four categories of things, and you think that people are more likely to associate a certain set of two categories rather than another.  For example, in the case of racism in the U.S., they could be, roughly, good/bad and black/white.

In the past, there has been software to administer these tests that needed to be installed on lab computers.  Lab conditions have some benefits in terms of reducing variance, but there are downsides as well, like reduced ability to generalize to the real world.  For our project, I adapted the php-based IAT software by Mason, Allon and Ozturk.  Only minor modifications were needed, mostly around the need to place the IAT within (or, technically between two) a Qualtrics survey instrument.

The one downside was that I needed to set up the software and find reliable hosting, since having it on my home server and over my cable modem was not appropriate.  It occurs to me that setting that up as a cloud-based app would be fairly trivial to do, as the processing takes place almost entirely on the client-side.  Some more minor adaptations would be needed; a casual look at the software mentioned above suggested there would be some security issues with the software in a higher-profile deployment, and it would need to be adapted to work with a multi-user system.  OTOH, most of the coding work is in client-side JavaScript, so most of that work could probably be re-used.  A lot of people could use such an app even under the free app limits on something like Google App Engine.

Anyway, it’s something to think about, if I get some extra time and feel like working on a cloud app project for a weekend or something.  Or maybe somebody’s already done it, and my Google-fu is just weaksauce.  😉

Grade Distribution Chart using ggplot2 and R

Grade Distribution in R/ggplot2

Grade Distribution in R/ggplot2

For the past two years, I’ve taught TC 361, Information and Communications Technology Management at Michigan State.  I like to called it “how the Internet works for undergrads,” and it’s a nice opportunity to revisit some of the network engineering expertise I developed while working for ISPs in West Michigan, I guess… over a decade ago now.  Wow.  Anyway, because I spent all that time creating grading data, I wanted to have a nice quick graph to show students the grade distribution.  It’s nothing super-fancy, but I spent a little bit of time to make it look at least somewhat presentable.  So, without further ado, here’s the R snippet I used to create the graphic above.

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New Blog

Blogging is something that I’ve been meaning to do for the last several years but just have never gotten around to, for reasons that are utterly unsurprising for an academic.  Work time is always at a premium, and finishing my dual J.D./Ph.D program, passing the bar, and working on research and teaching projects has left doing some more public-facing writing at the bottom of the to-do list.

The problem is that, while this is a perhaps a good short term strategy, when more important deadlines loom, in the long run it’s also important to communicate and network with both colleagues and the public at large.  On top of that, it’s good to use those writing muscles in more situations than just for formal publications, etc…

So, rather than making blogging a completely separate task to keep up with, I think I’ll try to, for lack of a better word, integrate it with some other work, to the extent that’s possible.