Friday, July 23, 2010

The Importance of Hypotheticals

It's annoying how easily many people dismiss the importance of hypothetical situations. Here are some of the situations I have in mind that bother me:

"I don't kill people because the Bible/the law tells me not to."

"So if the Bible/the law didn't say you shouldn't kill people, you'd kill people or think it was okay to kill people?"

"I'm not going to answer hypothetical questions."


Ugh. It's especially irritating if they have a WWJD wristband on, since asking, "What would Jesus do?" is a hypothetical question.

Can you imagine if a child tried that defense?

"But mom, all my friend's are doing it!"

"If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do that?

"I'm not going to answer hypothetical questions, mom."

I can't even imagine what planning for the future would be like without any hypothetical questions. Like if I asked my friend what his plans were for the future, and he told me he was going to win the lottery. If I then ask him what if he doesn't win the lottery and he says he is not going to answer any hypothetical question, he's very poor at planning for the future (to say the least).

Too many people confuse not-real with being not-relevant or not-useful. Hypothetical questions are great for figuring out inconsistencies in our intuitions and principles. That is not to say that there aren't bad hypothetical questions or situations, but be careful of anyone who won't respond to hypothetical questions simply because they are hypothetical. There is a good chance they are not responding because they don't know how to answer the question, or they do know how to answer the question but it will make them look bad/wrong.

Further, if you get the chance, listen to them as much as you can and see if they use any hypothetical questions or situations to support their view. I've noticed many who won't answer hypothetical questions when it will make their view look bad will still use hypotheticals when they're able to use them to support their view.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Ethics of File Sharing and Media Piracy

I've been thinking about file sharing and media piracy lately, and the issues involved with it do not seem to have been as rigorously broken down as I would like.

So is file sharing wrong, or is it permissible? And if it's wrong, why and it what ways is it wrong? Here are some possible answers...

Stealing is wrong, and file sharing is stealing, so file sharing is also wrong. But I think there could be reason to think that file sharing is not stealing, or at least, not stealing the way that is commonly used to argue against file sharing.

Here's what the video says:

You wouldn't steal a car, you wouldn't steal a handbag, you wouldn't steal a television, you wouldn't steal a movie. Downloading pirated films is stealing, stealing is against the law, PIRACY IT'S A CRIME

But I don't know... if I was watching a DVD at home, I'd feel a lot differently and be a lot more upset if someone came and took my DVD from me, compared to if someone just made a copy of my DVD. I'd still be able to enjoy my copy of it if someone made a copy of it, but I would not be able to still enjoy it if someone stole it.

Of course, at this point, this doesn't show file sharing to be permissible. I'm just trying to show that there may be reason to think it's not the same as stealing, or at least, not the same as going into a store and stealing a DVD.

Here is another case that I think might be relevant to consider. Think about the miracle of the multitude that Jesus was said to perform in the Bible (for the point I'm making, it does not matter if this event actually happened). In the miracle, he turned five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed thousands. For the sake of argument, let's say Jesus bought the initial fives loaves and two fish from a vendor.

Why do people tell this story to show how good Jesus was? Why don't people tell this story to show that Jesus is giant thief? If making copies of a CD/DVD and giving them to thousands of people (through file sharing) is stealing, then it's also stealing when Jesus made thousands of copies bread and fish and gave them to thousands of people. And so (using modus tollens for those interested in the logical terms of argument), if the miracle of the multitude was not stealing, then file sharing is not stealing.

But there are other possibilities for why file sharing could be wrong. It could be something like...artists deserve being paid for their work, and by pirating media, artists are not getting what they deserve, and since it's wrong to be the cause of someone not getting what they deserve, it's wrong to pirate media.

But really, how much do artists deserve for their music? Vanilla Ice made $1 million a week for 15 weeks with one of his CDs. Not to rip too much on Vanilla Ice, but come on, his music is not good enough to deserve him getting $15 million. Think of it like this, if Vanilla Ice deserves $15 million for his CD, then we should think that someone who works harder than him deserves more than $15 million dollars. The average salary of a teacher in Minnesota is $47,393. This means that a teacher would have to work over 300 years to make as much as Vanilla Ice did with his CD. This should tell us that either Vanilla Ice got way more then he deserved, or teachers need to start being paid several millions, because there is no way it was harder for Vanilla Ice to write a CD than it would be for the average teacher to work for 300 years, and if working harder than someone means you deserve more money than that person, a TON of people need to be paid more because they deserve it.

To give someone like Vanilla Ice what they deserve, I'd say $1000 for every hour he put into making the CD is already giving him more than what he deserves. And once he makes that much money, any of his CDs being pirated cannot be said to be wrong because they are stopping him from getting what he deserved. He'd gotten what he deserved for his music a looooong time before reaching the $15 million mark. One would need a different argument than desert to say why he should have the entire $15 million (Note: The entitlement theory by Robert Nozick would probably be a good place to start in arguing why Vanilla Ice should have all $15 million).

Another type of argument used to say media piracy is wrong is based on the consequences. If people keep file sharing, artists won't make music or movies anymore. I don't find this argument very strong though, because if you want to look at the consequences, a lot more happiness will come from people able to file share than there will by not allowing file sharing. Further, this argument only has weight if it's actually the case that people will no longer make movies and music. But if this won't actually happen (and it most likely won't happen despite the existence of piracy), then it's not a real reason to stop file sharing.

One of the last arguments I'll mention deals with the rights of the artists. When media is pirated, the rights of the artist who created the media are being infringed upon.

Let's say they have this right, how far does it extend?

Some things to consider when thinking about any arguments about the wrongness of file sharing:

What about watching a DVD with some friends at home, or playing a CD at a party? Aren't your friends getting to enjoy the products of these artists without having paid for it? What if the artists said that you cannot play a DVD for your friends if they have not paid for the DVD too, or you can't play a CD at a party if your friends have not paid for it too? Would it be wrong or stealing to watch the DVD/play the CD with those friends around?

What if the artists said you need to pay every time you listen to a song, or play their movie?

What if you voluntarily start playing the song in your head? Aren't you again enjoying their product and shouldn't you have to pay for doing that?

Further, if we are supposed to start thinking of music and movies and being the same thing as products like handbags, then we should be allowed to return a CD/DVD when an artist makes a bad album or movie in the same way that if we buy a handbag and it's a bad handbag, we can return it. Part of the motivation for piracy is that if you pay for a CD/DVD and it sucks, then you're out of luck for seeing that money ever again.

And just a final thought to consider. Many people think there are basically four options: Buy the product, use the product; don't buy the product, use the product (pirating); buy the product, don't use the product; don't buy the product, don't use the product.

However, for a lot of people, it's really just two options: Don't buy the product, use the product (pirating); don't buy the product, don't use the product. This means that for a lot of people, either way the artists won't be getting more money because people will either pirate the product for free, or if they can't pirate it, they still won't buy it and won't use the product.

So what artists should be asking themselves more is this: If I'm not going to be making money anyway, would I rather have these people at least listening to my music and watching my movies, or would I rather not make money and have no one listening to my music and watching my movies?

Despite this post, I still have the feeling that there is probably something wrong with media piracy. Think of this post as an introduction into the search of the morality of file sharing and media piracy and not the final word on the subject.

Zeno's Paradox: What Movement Must Be - Flipbooks!

Zeno of Elea proposed several paradoxes involving movement and how movement is mathematically impossible. The idea is this: before one can go from point A to point B, they must go halfway between the two points. And before they can go to that halfway point, they need to go halfway between the halfway points. And then halfway between that halfway point, etc. This continues until there are an infinite number of points that need to be reached to go from point A to point B. And since it's impossible to cross an infinite amount of points in a finite time, it's impossible to ever go from point A to point B. And since all movement is like going from point A to point B, movement is impossible.

I was thinking about this problem for awhile, when suddenly the idea of a flip book came to mind. In a flip book, a character that is "moving" does not need to go halfway between the point where he is and the point he is trying to reach. Instead, the character just sort of warps between each point. But to the untrained eye, the movement of a character in a flip books looks like the same kind of movement we do in real life.

Well, maybe the movement is the same?

Maybe every time I move my hand, it really just does disappear at one point and reappear at another in the same way that a flip book character moves. My senses just can't tell the difference and make me think that my movement is different from that of a flip book.

It is definitely an odd way of thinking about movement, but it does seem to get around Zeno's problem because it means we do not need to go halfway between A and B before we can actually reach B from A.

Just a trippy thought.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Matter of Opinion? The Vagueness of Subjectivism

[I]f you say you dislike "The Godfather" or "Shawshank," I can't say you're wrong. The one thing you can never be wrong about is your own opinion. It's when you start giving your reasons that you lay yourself open. Many years ago there was a critic in Chicago who said "The Valachi Papers" was a better film than "The Godfather." "Phil," I told him, "film criticism is a matter of subjective opinion. Only rarely does it stray into objective fact. When you said 'The Valachi Papers' was better than 'The Godfather,' that was an error of objective fact."

- Roger Ebert,

My first impulse is to just say that Ebert is wrong. Whether one movie is better than another is an objective fact (this includes the possibility that no movie is better than another movie because it's an objective fact that the properties that it would take for one movie to be better than another do not actually exist). However, this whole notion of subjectivity in criticism needs to be examined because as it stands, what is meant by it is not very clear. I'll stick with The Godfather as the example I'll be using throughout this post. I'll also use two fictional people who I'll call Gene and Richard.

Gene says The Godfather is a good movie. Richard says The Godfather is not a good movie. One subjectivist says they are both right. But if they are both right, then Th
e Godfather as a film is both good and not good. It is a contradiction for The Godfather to be both good and not good. Therefore, The Godfather cannot be both good and not good. Therefore, this subjectivist is wrong by thinking that both Gene and Richard are right. This is logic at one of its simplest forms, and it shows that there is a huge problem with this interpretation of what is meant subjectivity in criticism.

But there are other ways to interpret what is going on here. Perhaps when Gene says The Godfather is a good movie, what Gene really means is that he likes The Godfather. And when Richard says The Godfather is not a good movie, what Richard means is that he does not like The Godfather. This avoids the contradiction problem since there is no contradiction in saying that Gene likes The Godfather and and Richard does not like The Godfather. A similar interpretation is that when Gene says The Godfather is a good movie, and Richard says The Godfather is not a good movie, what is really meant is that Gene thinks The Godfather is a good movie, and Richard thinks The Godfather is not a good movie. This too avoids the contradiction problem.

However, it's important to note that if either of these interpretations are correct, then Ebert is wrong to say that a person cannot be wrong about their opinion. This point is humorously shown in the film,
Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a knight must answer the question, "What is your favorite color?" in order to cross a bridge alive. The knight responds, "Blue. --No, YELLOW!" But it is too late and he's plunged off the bridge to his death because he was wrong in saying that his favorite color was blue.

This is a silly point, but I'm all about clarity. I can see two responses to my Monty Python example. The first is that it is true that one can be wrong about their opinion in the way that the knight in the film was. But what's important is that only that knight (and perhaps the bridge keeper if he had some sort of mind reading power) could confirm whether or not he was right or wrong about his opinion/favorite color. So, for example, when Gene says The Godfather is a good movie, and if what is meant is that Gene likes the Godfather or that Gene thinks The Godfather is a good movie, Richard (along with every other person) is not in a position to confirm or deny that Gene likes or thinks The Godfather is a good movie, so it would be foolish for someone like Richard to say that Gene is wrong when he says that The Godfather is a good movie (under this interpretation of the meaning of the sentence).

The second response is that what is meant by Gene and Richard isn't exactly something like Gene likes The Godfather and Richard does not like The Godfather, because both of those have truth values. For a statement to have a truth value, it means the statement can either be true or false. A statement like "Gene likes The Godfather" can be true of false, logically speaking. If Ebert wants to say that that one cannot be wrong about their opinion, then the opinion cannot be one that has a truth value. To avoid the truth value problem, instead of saying that what is meant by Gene is not, "Gene likes The Godfather", but instead what is meant is something like "The Godfather yay!"; or for Richard, "The Godfather boo!". Neither of these have truth values. It would not make sense to ask, "Is 'The Godfather yay!' true or false?". This interpretation avoids both the contradiction and truth value problems. If this is what Ebert means, then I'll stop arguing with him for now, as such an interpretation is quite complicated, and this post is already getting too complicated. In addition, I think it is unlikely that this is what Ebert actually means, as it seems like a very strange way to interpret what people mean when they say a movie is good. Further, and more importantly, this leaves out the possibility that someone thinks a film is a good film, but does not actually like it or have that "yay" feeling. I have personally had this experience where I thought a film was good, but I didn't like it (an example would be when a saw a movie I thought was good, but I did not like it because it reminded me of a bad situation I had gone through with an ex-girlfriend that I did not want to remember). Or even the opposite, I can think a movie is bad and still like it, like if I make a silly little video with my friends that I put no effort into, I can easily feel that what we made was a bad movie, but that I still like it. But this interpretation cannot account for this notion of liking bad movies and disliking good movies.

Here is what I think Ebert, or at least many who think that how good/bad a film is is subjective, probably mean: In truth, movies either don't contain the kind of properties that are needed in order to make them good/bad or better than other movies (this is a nihilistic and/or a non-realist view); or if movies do actually have properties that could make them good/bad and better than other movies, no person is in a better position then anyone else to see what movies truly are good/bad and better than others. And if no one is in a better position than anyone else to see the goodness of films, no one is justified in saying that their or someone else's opinion is more correct than another person. So, for example, If Gene thinks that The Godfather is a good movie, and then says that Richard is wrong for thinking that The Godfather is not a good movie, Gene would not be justified in his criticism of Richard because Gene is not in a better position than Richard to see if The Godfather is a better film than Richard.

I don't think I actually agree with the idea that no one is in a better position to see the truth of how good a film is than another, but what if that is true? What does that mean for the role of the critic? Do they deserve money or fame for saying what they think of a film when they are no better than anyone else at figuring out if a film is good? Are classes that teach people to be better film critics ripping off their students since they cannot actually make them better at seeing if a film is good?

Are there any kind of value judgments a critic can justifiable make about movies? If The Godfather had been redone to have someone else do the lighting in the film, and this lighting was just one man holding a lighter for every scene, would a critic be right in saying, "The lighting in this new Godfather film was bad, and you're wrong if you think this movie had good film lighting"?

Why should a critic say what he honestly feels about a film instead of just saying whatever it takes to meet goals likes making more money, gaining popularity, or pissing people off? If his true opinion is no more justified than the false ones he would say to reach goals like those, does that mean he has little to no reason to give an honest criticism of a film?

This whole thing brings into question just what is the role of the film critic, and how should they criticize films. But the answers to these questions seem complicated and unsatisfying if every person's criticism of a film is just as justified as everyone else.

The bigger problem I see from all this is the extreme discomfort many people have with being wrong and being accused of being wrong. I agree with Ebert when he says in the link, "There's a human tendency to resent anyone who disagrees with our pleasures. The less mature interpret that as a personal attack on themselves. They're looking for support and vindication". We need to stop being so hurt by the idea that we could be wrong. It's causing too many people to believe arguments that are not based on reason, but are instead believed because it helps to avoid the fear of embarrassment that comes from being mistaken.

But hey, maybe I'm wrong.