What Matters in a President, and Why Electability Doesn’t

I’m not going to argue for any of the candidates in this post. That’ll come later. For now, I think there are three main factors that should be considered in a president. They are all interrelated, and in order of importance. However, if a candidate doesn’t meet any one of these criteria, it is practically impossible to meet any of the other criteria.

  1. Character – This consists mostly of the the moral standards and honesty of the candidate. If I do not trust a candidate, their competence becomes irrelevant, as it will not be used ethically. Their positions become meaningless because they will abandon policy and ethical standards at will. Character also includes temperament and personality, as an angry, irrational, and unstable candidate is a danger to the world and ineffective in diplomacy.
  2. Competence – The proven experience of the candidate, their intelligence, and their ability to implement policies effectively. If a candidate isn’t politically competent, their policies won’t matter because they will never be implemented. Intelligence is not measured by IQ, but by the candidate’s understanding of the world, their rationality, their education, and their working ability.
  3. Policy – The stated positions of the candidate. If every candidate could be trusted to follow their policy statements exactly and implement them effectively, this would be the only issue. Despite its importance, policy is by far the least-discussed issue in this election.

On Electability

Electability, for me, is mostly a non-issue. Of course, a candidate must have some chance of becoming president, or we will be divided into minuscule factions and candidates will only have to win a small portion of the vote to take the election. However, “some chance” is a low margin. For example, Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist candidate, is not on the ballot in any state and is not polling at more than 5% in any state (source). This is below the “some chance” margin, as 25 days from the election, he has no path to the presidency. However, Evan McMullin, an independent candidate, is on the ballot in 11 states (source), has a significant chance of winning Utah (source), and has a growing campaign nationally. If a candidate passes this minimum threshold of electability, we should move on and consider the three most important factors.

Our democratic obligation is to vote for the candidate we support. Otherwise, our system degrades and no longer represents the population, as the contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek described:

We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligence to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.

If we do not vote our conscience, we as a population fail to represent ourselves. We do not ‘throw our vote away’ when we vote for an unlikely candidate we genuinely support, rather, we throw our vote away when we do not vote what we believe. We are not voting for ourselves, but for someone else, for the polls, for the average. Popular opinion becomes the popular opinion of what the popular opinion is; democracy devolves into regressive guessing at the average. Furthermore, government is only legitimate when it represents the governed. When we do not represent ourselves, our government becomes illegitimate.

Finally, there are a ton of misconceptions about voting power in our democracy.

First, statistical analysis shows that, in general, your vote has the most power if you vote for a third-party candidate, not for a major party. I don’t really see the point of explaining this, as the linked post explains it very well. I’d definently recommend reading it.

Second, the power of a single vote is extremely close to zero. This election, your vote will probably be around 1 in 125 million. Therefore, the best reason to vote is not really to control the election, but to represent ourselves. Don’t do it merely for the results; do it because you believe in your candidate.

Third, a lot of the time, your publicly expressed opinions matter more than your vote, because these opinions influence a significant amount of votes. Who you support actively matters more than who you vote for quietly.

Fourth, whether or not your candidate is elected is not the only measure of voting power. You could say all the Bernie Sanders votes this year were wasted because he didn’t win, but he still radically influenced the election and changed American politics permanently. Winning ≠ success.

Fifth, when you vote for a third party candidate, you break out of the mold. This draws attention far more than obediently voting for established candidates that adhere to the two-party system. Therefore, votes for a third party candidate are more influential than other votes.

That’s why I don’t think electability matters, and why don’t think it should matter. Vote your conscience this election.

On Ayn Rand, Selfishness, and Bent Books


Ayn Rand is generally hated by those who consider themselves altruists. This is because the general interpretation is that Rand is a lone mouthpiece for the doctrines of egotism and greed. While some of her arguments are clearly, irredeemably repulsive, such as her romanticization of rape, some areas are more ambiguous, and some segments of Rand’s writing are genuinely inspiring and valuable. Despite her flaws, I think Rand should be read and understood, and perhaps even quoted – but never accepted as a whole.

As a caveat, I have only read Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, a few of her essays, and skimmed over the critical response. I’m not a Rand scholar at all, and I’m not sure I want to be. I’ve heard that the Fountainhead is one of Rand’s more mild books, so it may be that my interpretation will change radically when I read Atlas Shrugged later this year.

Two Types of Selfishness

There are two archetypes, idealized characters that serve as pinnacles of two opposing moralities, in The Fountainhead. The first is Peter Keating, an extremely ‘successful’ architect in the sense that he is rich, who graduated at the top of his class from a renowned college and is famous as an architect and celebrity. His life is summarized in this passage:

In what act or thought of [Peter Keating] has there ever been a self? What was his aim in life? Greatness—in other people’s eyes…Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them.
Others were his motive power and his prime concern. He didn’t want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others. There’s your actual selflessness. It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish. (Rand 65)

In contrast, Roark is an independent architect who was expelled from a major university for not following the widely accepted standards of architecture, and lived a life of poverty because he would only accept work that didn’t compromise his standards. He has intractable standards for his work, and is perfectly consistent with these standards:

The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men. (Rand 678)

These are the two types of ‘selfishness’ in Rand’s work: selfishness in the form of Keating, and self-reliance in the form of Roark. Rand is an impassioned advocate of the principles expressed by Thoreau in Self-Reliance: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” and “Envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide.”

The widespread misinterpretation of Ayn Rand stems from a conflation of the first type of selfishness with the second. In no sense does Rand advocate for selfishness in the form of greed for power, fame, or money. In fact, much of the book is focused on criticizing Keating’s mindless, ‘selfless’ greed. Rand analyzes the psychology of avarice, and the perverse pleasure Keating feels when he exercises power over others – “he had influenced the course of a human being, had thrown him off one path and pushed him into another” (67). This type of selfishness is contradictory in the sense that it cannot exist without others. It is entirely dependent. 

When Keating didn’t have people to approve of his work, he didn’t have a way to value his work: “…it might be good. He was not sure. He had no one to ask” (Rand 171). Keating’s eminence dissipated when his admirers disappeared. “He was a great man – by the grace of those who depended on him” (Rand 233). This passage eloquently epitomizes this fundamentally dependent form of selfishness: 

“He was great; great as the number of people who told him so. He was right, right; right as the number of people who believed it. He look at the faces, at the eyes; he saw himself born in them; he saw himself being granted the gift of life. That was Peter Keating, that, the reflection in the staring pupils, and his body was only its reflection.” (Rand 188)

In contrast, Roark might be seen as ideally self-reliant. His work is his passion, and his system of valuation stems from his self – the Fountainhead. Everything else is external and unessential. Others are a means to fulfill his standards: “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build” (26). He is, in short, the polar opposite of Keating in every way.

It is valuable to distinguish self-reliance, from selfishness, and this is the most important principle of The Fountainhead: “The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence” (681). We shouldn’t need to ask another whether our work, our thoughts, our actions are valuable  – ultimately, only we can evaluate ourselves. Our attempts to delegate the choice of what to value ultimately collapse. When we ask another for advice, we choose to ask them rather than others because we seek a certain answer – thus, we are still making a choice. Furthermore, our interpretation of any advice is a choice. Advice is an illusion – all valuation stems from ourselves, and we cannot give this responsibility to another.

Now that we understand this distinction, it’s time to criticize Rand. Hopefully there is something valuable left when we’re finished.

The Collapse of Rand’s Morality

On any level of analysis beyond the literary, Rand’s moral system, if it can be called that, is pathetically inadequate. Her ‘ethics’ are summed up by Howard Roark’s statement in The Fountainhead: “All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil” (681). Like most generalizations in ethics, this claim collapses upon inspection. It requires an idealism divorced from reality, is riddled with paradox, and leads to appalling conclusions.

First, to Rand, any relationship with others is merely a means to an end – “To a creator, all relations with men are secondary” (680). This is fundamentally counter-ethical, as it treats the only relevant moral object as the self and the fulfillment of the self’s standards. Morality must deal with the conflicts of obligations between multiple selves, not just the interests of a single self. Rand entirely ignores the Other, and thus she does not really have an ethics.

Rand fails to have an ethics in a second way. She describes the need to have consistent standards, but does not discuss what these standards should be.
Keeping one’s standards is necessary, but not sufficient, to be moral. For this principle fails the standard litmus test of morality: Hitler and the Holocaust. If standing by your standards is all is required to be moral, then it seems that Hitler is a paragon of morality. After all, Hitler staunchly upheld his monstrous standards. As a Jewish character in Elie Wiesel’s novel Night said,

I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people. (67)

He did whatever he thought was necessary to keep these promises, and he killed himself before he would forsake the struggle.

Clearly, there is more to ethics than just consistency. The other fundamental aspect of being moral, and the more difficult one, is to develop good standards.

Third, ethical solipsism is contradictory.  If I believe that my own interests have value, and I believe others have the same fundamental, human characteristics as myself, then it follows that the interests of others must have value as well. If I accept this syllogism (I do), it becomes impossible to logically maintain the belief that only my own interests have value. Rand provides some  insight onto how one should live one’s own life as an independent will, but she is almost completely absent when we inevitably encounter others.

Fourth, lived experience obstructs any effort towards egoism. To paraphrase Levinas, we do not encounter others as objects, but as infinite subjects that we cannot understand, who call out to us and require us to respond. We cannot maintain egoism when we encounter the other. For me, this encounter happened in India:

As we drive, I see a body without limbs, lying in an alley ahead. The rickshaw rattles forward, and the engine pulsates like the heart of a dying man. As we pass the corpse, it moves. It contorts its neck to look up. For a second I see his scarred, filthy face and he sees my washed one. In that instant of connection, my lifetime became worthless. My childhood had been a solipsistic simulation, a life without impact or any real need.  

It is impossible, and fundamentally unethical, to live as if others do not exist or do not have morally relevant interests. Life is a matter of interdependency: we are raised by parents, mentored by teachers, taught by the minds that came before us, and forgiven by those who love us. If we believe that these experiences are valuable for ourselves, it must follow that they are valuable for others. Thus, we have an obligation to do the same for others.

Rand on Romance: Love as Domination

The relationship between Howard Roark and his lover, Dominique, is abhorrent. Dominique falls in love with Roark primarily because, as she says, he was the “abstraction of strength made visible” (Rand 205). She seeks to be dominated by him, but she also seeks to find some way in which she can own him – “She thought suddenly that the man below was only a common worker, owned by the owner of this place, and she was almost the owner of this place” (205). Roark rapes Dominique*, and there is a horrendous, Fifty Shades of Grey-esque response: “She found a dark satisfaction in pain – because that pain came from him” (209). Dominique’s only compensation is that she is also in a position of power: “she knew the kind of suffering she could impose on him” (210). Love in The Fountainhead is reduced to essentially a power relation, and almost all affection between Roark and Dominique consists in a struggle for power.

I almost stopped reading the book after these chapters. It would be too far to say that Rand redeems herself later. I would only say that she manages to contradict herself. As the relationship between Roark and Dominique matures, they begin to recognize their dependence on one another:

It was strange to be conscious of another person’s existence, to feel it as a close, urgent necessity; a necessity without qualifications. (Rand 218)

This is love as, well, love – interdependence, relying intimately on someone else without being controlled by them. It is needing another “in the total, undivided way…the kind of desire that becomes an ultimatum, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and one can’t accept the no without ceasing to exist” (Rand 502). Surprisingly, Rand has common ground here with Levinas, the radically altruist philosopher:

Love remains a relation with the Other that turns into need, transcendent exteriority of the other, of the beloved. (Levinas)

This is love not just as a choice or a desire, but as a need.

However, I am cherry-picking Rand. In context, her quotes are much less redeeming. In the same conversation that Roark describes love as an ‘ultimatum,’ he says:

I love you so much that nothing else can matter to me, not even you. Can you understand that? Only my love — not your answer. (Rand 502) 

Roark argues that love itself is valuable, regardless of whether the love is reciprocated. This, of course, justifies rape. Without the other, what is love? It is merely possession of an object. After all, “If one could possess, grasp, and know the other, it would not be other” (Levinas). If we accept Rand’s perspective, the people we love are only alter-egos or figments of our own ego; they have no consciousness of their own, and can only be defined in the context of our self.

However, love can only be understood as a relationship between two subjects, and when either is treated as a means or as an object, the bond dissipates. What constitutes love is reciprocation – without this, it is only domination.

Aesthetics of the City


As The Fountainhead is a book about architects as well as a book about philosophy, it asks and answers several aesthetic questions, especially the foremost one: “What is beautiful, and why?”

I have always thought that nature is beautiful. I spend a lot of my free time exploring the mountains, usually on a bike. To some extent, I do this as an escape from the city. Most people would agree that the city is ugly, a scar on the land, a destruction of beauty. However, when describing the experience of looking up at a skyscraper, Rand argues that the city, the product of human creativity, is aesthetic:

It makes him no bigger than an ant–isn’t that the correct bromide for the occasion? The God-damn fools! It’s man who made it–the whole incredible mass of stone and steel. It doesn’t dwarf him, it makes him greater than the structure. It reveals his true dimensions to the world. What we love about these buildings, Dominique, is the creative faculty, the heroic in man. (553)


The fact that humanity created these magnificent buildings is itself beautiful, and these buildings represent this fact. They stand as a testament to our potential. If this is the case that the city can be beautiful, and beauty is worth protecting, then we have an obligation to protect the city through urban development, restoration, and preservation, just as we have a more widely-accepted obligation to protect nature. Now, I do not go into the mountains just to escape the city, but to discover and re-experience a different dimension of beauty.

New York aerial skyline from the top of the observation deck on Rockefeller center. [b][url=file_search.php?action=file&lightboxID=30167]My New York lightbox[/url][/b] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1623668][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1623668[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1617235][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1617235[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1617123][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1617123[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1615597][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1615597[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1615490][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1615490[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1615461][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1615461[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1613247][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1613247[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1613186][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1613186[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1613131][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1613131[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1613078][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1613078[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1613008][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1613008[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1612879][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1612879[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1648547][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1648547[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1648537][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1648537[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1648490][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1648490[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1648436][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1648436[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1648429][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1648429[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1648700][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1648700[/img][/url] [url=file_closeup.php?id=1648594][img]file_thumbview_approve.php?size=1&id=1648594[/img][/url]
Ayn Rand loved New York City, because to her, it represents freedom and human potential.
One of the qualities of the beautiful is that it inspires us to look upward, towards a higher potential. We often think that what makes something beautiful is that it draws our gaze upward, but perhaps this is not the case: “He wondered whether the particular solemnity of looking at the sky comes, not from what one contemplates, but from the uplift of one’s head” (Rand 553). The sky itself is not what is beautiful, but our desire to understand the sky, to reach towards and above it. What creates beauty is not the object’s attraction, but the way we are inspired by the object to achieve our potential.


Should we read or reject The Fountainhead? 

Daniel Taylor, author of The Healing Power of Stories, defines a ‘bent book’ as a story that portrays evil as good and good as evil (Taylor). He ultimately concludes that we should never read bent books. There are several problems with this binary.

First, of course, it presumes that we already know what is good and what is evil, an assumption that skips over all the dilemmas of ethics. Often, we read to seek after good and reveal evil in their hiding places – but we do not already know where they are hiding when we start. Reading is not just a process of reinforcing our standards, but of developing our standards. It would be dogmatic and arbitrary to automatically reject all books that seem bent, and it would presume that we are an absolute moral authority that has the ability to judge objectively whether a book is good or evil.

Second, it is not necessarily true that bent books will result in greater evil. Before I read The Fountainhead, I assumed that morality consisted of interdependence and altruism, merely because this is the most common conception of morality. Ayn Rand forced me to analyze and justify this belief. This is essential, for any belief we have justification for has more binding force than a belief we merely accept. Furthermore, through bent books like The Fountainhead, we are able to recognize the reverse of our values. If we begin to see this perversion arise in ourselves, we are able to root it out immediately. Thus, bent books encourage us to define ourselves in contrast to evil, thus promoting ethics.

Finally, the book has certain areas that vindicate its failures. It has an excellent and unique style of writing and storytelling, and this itself is valuable, for our method of expression can be almost as important as our content, and reading good writing allows us to write well. Even much of the content of The Fountainhead is worthy – this, I guess, can only be verified by reading the work yourself. In the end, scenes of wickedness are not enough to invalidate a book. As Leonardi Bruni argued, the Bible contains scenes that are “wicked, obscene, and disgusting, yet do we say that the Bible is not therefore to be read?” (Gamble 341).

I don’t contest that The Fountainhead is bent, rather, I think that bent books should still be read, as long as they have redeemable qualities. However, if you want to read more from The Fountainhead without reading the ‘bent’ parts, check out my notes on Google Drive.

Works Cited

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. Centennial Edition. New York, NY: Signet, 1993. Print. 

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969. Print. 

Taylor, Daniel. The Healing Power of Stories. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996. Print. 

Gamble, Richard. The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007. Print. 

Wiesel, Ellie. Night. New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 1960. Print.

* The book is not explicit in this scene. It only implies that the rape occurs, and does not describe it.

Ethical Commodities: What Our Products Say About Our Person

Today, Colin Kaepernick’s jersey is the fifth-most bought jersey in NFL history. Until the events of the last few weeks, the phrase “I bought a Kaepernick jersey” would be meaningless except to a select group of football fans. Now, to wear a Kaepernick jersey is to carry an immense weight, one almost as heavy as a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. Our commodities say as much or more than our speech.

Ethical commodities and opportunity costs

I’ve thought about buying a Black Lives Matter shirt, but realized that in Orem, Utah, I would be labeled, questioned, and possibly even despised for it. I had an intense personal dialogue about this. How can I start a conversation about racism if I don’t display my activism? Wait, but don’t I support a corrupt capitalist system by buying a shirt through the same companies that run sweatshops and manipulate democracy?

Many of the people I go to school with, and the authority figures in my life, consider Black Lives Matter an anti-white anti-police hate group. When we discussed meaningless activism in one of my classes, someone gave Black Lives Matter as an example in the first sentence – “they’re yelling at nothing, like Black Lives Matter.” As a self-considered member of the Black Lives Matter movement, for reasons I won’t describe now, this is painful to hear. A few words on a ~$10 shirt would affect how people think of me, my relationships with friends and family, and even my self-perception.

I didn’t order the shirt – and the reason was economic. It was based on the first bare fact of economics: scarcity, which leads to tradeoffs. As a very poor high school student, I could either buy the shirt, or I could buy a book: Just the Arguments, a book on philosophy. There are countless other ethical opportunity costs in this decision: how can I justify not buying a refugee activism shirt, or giving a donation to the LDS Church, or saving up for a humanitarian trip? Doesn’t my decision mean that I value learning about philosophy more than I value black lives?

I’m sure some would incriminate me for being an academic rather than an activist. I love philosophy and want to understand it, but I feel obligated to support resistance against oppression. This is agonizing. How can I choose between movements I’m passionate about? Even worse, how can I choose between them based on money?

Theoretically, people buy a Kaepernick jersey to send a message. It’s not just capitalism. Some may say it’s a donation, a way to directly support Kaepernick’s movement with money. Other justify it as a sign of protest, wearing the jersey to challenge the ‘whiteness ethic’ that devalues the lives of blacks. In this way, these products can be called ‘ethical commodities’ – they are products that have intense moral meanings.

It's more than just a jersey.

There have always been ethical opportunity costs, but the deadly combination of capitalism and the Internet has dramatically expanded the awareness and amount of these opportunity costs. This has transformed nearly all commodities into ethical commodities.

A global economy has connected us, through the allocation of our incomes, to countless ethical implications. The Internet has made us intimately aware of these implications. We can watch Youtube videos of pigs squealing in agony as they are massacred in slaughterhouses, and we cannot help but connect this to our purchase of pork. Nike’s swoosh becomes much more symbolic when we see the horrifying conditions of the people who produce it. I could continue listing these implications endlessly. The only escape from the emotional pain of buying products is ignorance.

How companies and people promote ethical brands

There are countless ways to rationalize the decision to buy ethical commodities. But from a cynical capitalistic perspective, all of these rationalizations are merely forms of the same aspect of the human psyche: the drive to promote one’s personal brand. Our purchases of ethical commodities are similar to marketing decisions: they are meant to convey a message about our brand to a specific group of potential customers.

When we buy a Kaepernick jersey, we want to display our sensitivity to the suffering of blacks in an oppressive system, and we want to display this to a select group of activists. Maybe, on a subconscious level, we promote this ethical brand for profit, so people and potential employers will respond positively. Companies look to hire ethical employees so they can be seen as an ethical corporation. We take advantage of this, for example, by adding our volunteer hours to our LinkedIn profile. According to LinkedIn itself, “1 in 5 managers hired someone because of their volunteer experiences.”

When companies hire people, they hire the full person, not just their competencies. For example, my school, Maeser Prep, looks for a specific kind of teacher with a specific ethical background: deep-thinking, passionate about classical education, usually conservative and religious people.

If we take this perspective to its conclusion, I’m probably writing this essay so people will see me as a better, more enlightened person.

Increasingly, companies use ‘ethical marketing’ to sell their products. In this way, charities have become tools of for-profit institutions. They are made to fulfill an economic requirement: companies must be perceived as moral institutions. If enough people thought Nike was immoral for its abuses of Indian workers, the company could no longer stay in business. By donating to charity, they expand their moral brand, just as individuals build their moral brand by buying ethical commodities. Malawi’s Pizza promotes their product with the claim that some of your purchase will be donated to Africa. In this sense, donations are investments.

To give a current example, Wells Fargo has lost revenue for devaluing the humanities in its advertising campaign. The company’s response was revealing:

Screenshot 2016-09-04 19.40.53

Wells Fargo counters the ethical challenges to its brand with a powerful marketing claim: it has donated $93 million to humanities. (Although that figure is very vague, and includes donation to ‘education’ in general). With donations, Wells Fargo justifies its moral failing. It seeks to prove that the ‘whole brand’ is ethical, and its mistakes are just mistakes in the context of an overall good person. Nike invests 1.5% of its pre-tax revenue (over $217 million) into charity, and has publicized its efforts to protect worker’s rights. Why not just stop producing at sweatshop factories? Because it costs less to promote an ethical brand than it does to be an ethical company.

All of this demonstrates that in a society pervaded by capitalism, all activism becomes suspect. Do you really care, or are you just promoting your brand? This isn’t just a question other people ask us. It’s a question we ask ourselves. Am I a good person, or am I just a brand? How can I know, in a world where everything and everyone seems self-interested? Capitalism calls our moral identity into question and turns the imposter syndrome into a universal affliction.

The answer? 

I don’t know the answer. Of course, there are some easy escape routes, as there always are. However, as usual, these escapes aren’t complete, and will never be satisfying.

Consequentialism solves the moral issue of ethical commodities by making intention irrelevant. If self-interest in a certain situation leads to greater happiness, it’s moral by definition. I don’t have to worry about the imposter syndrome – if I’m doing good things, I’m a good person. It doesn’t matter that Nike is reducing its dependence on sweatshops to promote a brand, because it actually has increased workers rights by some degree.

There are some nuances to a consequentialist approach, for example, that consequentialism obligates us to seek for the most ethical system, not just ethical system. In this sense, the only moral world is the best possible world. Thus, Nike is still immoral because it could conceivably be more moral than it is now. This creates a very high standard – which, I think, is necessary for ethics. Additionally, the world is very complex, and while an act might have certain good consequences, it might also have terrible unintended side-effects.

I don’t think I can give a complete refutation of this approach, because to do so would be to offer a final answer to the most debated question in ethics: are intentions or actions more important? Certainly, I think that we can endlessly banter on whether our intentions our correct, when we should focus on the tangible effects our actions have on living beings.

On the other hand, we can’t seperate our intentions from our actions. Our intent affects how we act – for example, you can’t effectively help someone without having compassion for him/her. The person will know that your intentions aren’t consistent with your actions, and they’ll ignore your insincere approach to service.

Both ideas aren’t complete. Intentions are impossible to fully know, and consequences are impossible to fully evaluate. We can’t know that someone else is non-genuine, because we can’t know that person’s thoughts or intentions. I criticized Wells Fargo for its profit-based intention, but I don’t know the actual thoughts of the company’s decision-makers. We can’t say that an action is bad, because we can’t know the full consequences of the action. Nike could be immoral for its sweatshops, but maybe it’s moral for donating so much to charity. I don’t know which of these actions leads to more happiness.

What’s the answer? I won’t claim that I can construct a complete answer. It’s seen as more ethical to be absolute about your ethical system, but how can I claim that I know the right thing in the face of our fundamental uncertainties? I leave the question open, with the hope that someday I’ll be able to answer it.


Why Philosophy Should Abandon the Metaphor of Light

One of the most commonplace images in philosophy and religion: a light in the darkness.

In the beginning, there was Plato’s cave. There, only shadows without recognizable form existed, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. A prisoner freed himself, and escaped into the light. And he saw the light, and that it was good, and he recognized the origin of the shadows. He returned to the cave of his imprisonment, and said: “Let there be light.”

Entrenched in the core of the Western tradition is the metaphorical narrative of light from the darkness. It is central both in religion, as in Genesis 1, and philosophy, as in Plato’s allegory of the cave. I merged these two narratives together to show their fundamental similarity. They describe a myth in which everything is covered in shadow until an enlightened being – God in Genesis and the escaped prisoner in Plato – brings light to the darkness. But where did this metaphor come from? What does it really mean? Is it a valuable metaphor for society, metaphysics, and epistemology? Should we keep it, modify it, or scrap it entirely?

A History of Light

The first metaphors of light occur in religious texts. The origin myth in the Rig Veda, a founding collection of Hindu verses written around 1500 B.C., sounds almost eerily similar to Genesis:

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water. 
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.
However, this narrative has one crucial difference from the Bible. In the Rig Veda, one of the most ancient texts ever discovered, heat is the first to come into being, not light. This reveals that until the last century, light and heat were virtually synonymous, because almost all light was generated by fire or the sun. Light and heat are the essence of basic physical comfort. The warmth of the fire provided early humans a refuge from the terrors of the cold, menacing night. Most importantly, it protected us from the fear of blindness. 
 In our ancient history, we feared the night not because of the darkness itself, but due to what darkness was associated with: savage beasts, murder, losing one’s way. Over time, this dread became so fundamental that we became afraid of the night in itself. The absence of light, became a primary cause of fear, not a secondary terror associated with more dangerous prospects. It is no surprise, then, that the metaphor of light has become ingrained in the human psyche, a permanent relic of more dangerous times. 
From the golden age of the Indus valley to the founding of Rome, the world’s major religions were hard at work solidifying the metaphorical position of light as good, truth, and piety. The Quran is dotted with the phrase “He bringeth them out of darkness into light.” In the Hebrew Bible, John 8:12 directly connects light to God and righteousness:

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
In religious iconography from nearly every sect, priests, prophets, and saints are distinguished by a halo of light of some kind. 
The Buddha is represented with a halo of light in this ancient Chinese painting.
Muhammad leads the saints in prayer, surrounded by a mantle of light or fire.
Ra, the sun god of ancient Egypt, was almost always depicted with a solar disc on his head.
In Simon Ushakov’s icon of the The Last Supper (1685), Christ and all of the apostles except Judas Iscariot have a halo.

The Lighted Clearing: The Epistemology of the Enlightenment

The metaphor of light is not merely a decorative literary cliché. “Already in Plato,” writes Hans Blumenburg, “the metaphorics of light already has a metaphysics of light implicit in it.” The metaphor is at the core of the idea that the world submits itself to the light of reason. Without the language of light-dark duality, it would be challenging to formulate or understand enlightenment philosophy. 

Light-dark dualism is connected with nearly every major European philosophical movement. In Greece, the birthplace of Western philosophy, the Sun was a god – Helios, “the Father of the piercing beams of light” (Pindar). Plato built upon the established iconography of light to represent his epistemology. In The Republic, light is knowledge, while darkness is ignorance. Daylight exposes the night’s filth, untruth, and vice, and therefore light is enlightenment and truth. 

Centuries later, Descartes constructed the philosophical meaning of “the natural light of reason,” a phrase coined by Cicero. This light alone, said Descartes, can intuit truth beyond doubt, as it is disconnected from the senses and the corporeal world. In Meditations on First Philosophy, page 14, he writes: 

…for I cannot doubt that which the natural light causes me to believe to be true, as, for example, it has shown me that I am from the fact that I doubt, or other facts of the same kind. And I possess no other faculty whereby to distinguish truth. from falsehood, which can teach me that what this light shows me to be true is not really true, and no other faculty that is equally trustworthy. 

This light, the lumen naturale, is the intuition of truth. Descartes recognizes that reason is not always a meticulous logical process. Often, he writes, it is simply a powerful intuition, a “spontaneous inclination.” We feel the logical coherence of certain truths, and we feel dissonance if we reject these truths. He recognizes the flaws of this intuition, but ultimately accepts it as the only method for discovering reality. In the preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes that truth cannot escape the light of reason: 

Nothing here can escape us, because what reason brings forth entirely out of itself cannot be hidden, but is brought to light by reason itself as soon as reason’s common principle has been discovered. 

In short, the radiance of reason exposes all knowable things.

Later in the history of light, Heidegger uses the lichtung, or lighted clearing, as the location where being is disclosed. Lichtung, writes Heidegger, 
 a bringing 
 also a
 space” (Garbutt). In the lichtung, truths are revealed. It is a site of revelation and exposure, where our inner selves can no longer be hidden.

Therefore, most philosophical figures of the Western tradition, including Kant, Plato, Heidegger and Descartes, use a conception of truth best described by the ancient Greek word for truth, alethia, which means “unconcealment.” This perspective assumes that everything can be illuminated by light or grasped by reason. This epistemology’s foundations are attacked as the postmodernist movement comes into its own. 

The Collapse of the Metaphor of Light

In the 20th century, postmodern philosophers like Levinas and Derrida recognized that the world is not completely intelligible. By contesting the most fundamental imagery of the Platonic legacy, they are counter-philosophical (Sparrow). These deconstructionists are Simba in the Lion King. They are told that philosophy can understand all that the light touches, but this does not satisfy them. Exploring the borders of the epistemology they inherited, the postmodernists reach the edge of the kingdom and realize that there is existence in shadow and darkness. 

The totalizing vision of the Western tradition restricts truth and reality to objects that fit the understandable mold of reason:

“what does not enter into form is banished from this world”

(Levinas 1). This vision fails to see that the light of reason can only reveal objective knowledge. The Enlightenment framework assumes that because reason can only understand objective knowledge, objectivity is the only kind of knowledge. In this way, the Platonic legacy ignores subjectivity.  Ironically, the disciples of Enlightenment epistemology are like the prisoners of Plato’s cave – they assume that what they can see is all that exists. 

On the other hand, Levinas understood that the most basic fact of our relation with other people is that we cannot understand other people. This is alterity: the infinite otherness of everyone we know. To live is to come into contact with other beings that are fundamentally alien to us, to encounter another consciousness that “wells up inside of us to disrupt and menace the smooth operation of the intellect and the cultivation of a solipsistic identity” (Sparrow). Here, Pythagoras is relevant – in his writings, light represents limits, while darkness is infinity – shadow is associated “with the unexplored, indefinite interior” (Notopulos). Our world, then, is better represented by a dark forest than a lighted clearing. I am subjectivity and I live in the midst of subjectivity – all around me are unexplored selves, and I am an unexplored self. 

Derrida made a more political  criticism of light-dark dualism. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the protagonist, Winston, is told he will meet his fellow resistor in “a place where there is no darkness.” He did not know what this meant, “only that in some way or another it would come true.” In the end,  oppressive and all-powerful Party imprisons Winston in a cell where inescapable artificial light tortures him for all hours of the day. This demonstrates the political meaning of light as what allows beings to be revealed, manipulated, controlled, and used as tools toward an end. As Derrida wrote on page 91 of Violence and Metaphysics:

…the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretical objectivity and techno-political possession. 

Derrida argues that the state cannot possess humans if they do not have the philosophy to justify their act of ownership. This justifying philosophy is the Enlightenment, which views subjectivity as penetrable to reason, and thus open to ownership. Light exposes objects so they can be used, while “A philosophy of the night recognizes that form disintegrates in the darkness, objects lose their graspability” (Sparrow).

In absolute visibility, humans become objects. As Foucalt might say, an anatomy textbook exposes the human body completely, which makes the body seem like an object that can be understood if we simply comprehend all the cells that compose it. If we view others in this way, what is the moral significance of owning a human? The state seems to say, a citizen is merely a beast of labor with a different conformation of cells. In reality, we do not encounter the Other as an object, but as an infinite force outside ourselves, with a subjectivity we cannot fully comprehend. 

The traditional metaphor of light has failed philosophy. It collapses the moment we step away from our solitary philosophizing and into the world of others. The ancient need to expose, objectify, disclose, and grasp subjectivity causes us to ignore any realities which escape our attempt to understand. We should replace this all-exposing worldview with a philosophy of night that recognizes uncertainty and alterity. 

Works Cited

Descartes, René. "Meditations on First Philosophy." Indianapolis: Hacket Press. 2000. Print. 

Garbutt, Robert. "The Clearing: Heidegger's Lichtung and the Big Scrub." Southern Cross University. 2010. Print. 

Levinas, Immanuel. "Phenomenon and Enigma." Collected Philosophical Papers. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987. Page 70. 

Notopoulos, James. "The Symbolism of the Sun and Light in the Republic of         Plato." Classical Philology, Vol. 39, No. 3. Pp. 163-172. University of Chicago Press. 1994. Print. 

Pindar. "The Odes of Pindar." The University of Chicago Press. 1947. Print. 

Sparrow, Tom. "Levinas Unhinged." John Hunt Publishing. 28 Jun 2013. Print. 

Existentialism in Javascript

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.

— Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

The more computer science I learn, the more I find myself applying coding concepts to philosophy. I was reading Existentialism is a Humanism, and I realized that variable assignment and function definition could explain the crucial existential concept of “existence precedes essence” in a simple, exact way.

“Essence precedes existence” in code

This phrase is the antithesis of existentialism. Here it is in Javascript:

var myIdentity = {
    name: "Jeremy";
    meaning_of_life: 42;
    personality: [// set of attributes];

function life(identity) {
    // do stuff with the pre-defined identity, like express it and live according to it


To people somewhat familiar with computer science, this code can be highly meaningful. The identity is initially expressed in the form of an object. Obviously, a human identity can’t be comprehensively written in code. I arbitrarily chose an object to represent human identity. The object identity, which is outside of the function life, represents the idea that your identity is defined before your existence. Every aspect of yourself, from your name to your favorite activities to your personality, is constructed in exact detail before you are born. Then, when you begin to live, you start to discover this personality that was already laid out for you. 

Most who subscribe to this idea say that God builds your identity, or your identity is defined in some kind of pre-existence. Others say that identity is pre-defined by genetics or human nature. These ideas are all fundamentally the same. Basically, they all express the oft-repeated axioms “Life is about finding yourself” and “essence precedes existence.” Someone or something defines your existence beforehand, and then it is passed to the function of life. Sartre explains this best in his Existentialism is a Humanism, so I’ll leave the in-depth explanation to him.

“Essence precedes existence” in code

(function life() {
    var identity = {};
    // I'm born! My parents give me a name.
    identity.name = "Jeremy Hadfield";
    // I discover the life that's most meaningful
    identity.meaning_of_life: "way of living";
    // I slowly develop my personality
    identity.personality = ["a few preset values due to initial conditions like genetics"];


This is a self-executing function life in which an empty object called identity is first defined and then various attributes are appended to it later in the function. When certain experiences occur, the attributes are appended to the identity. There is a blank array called personality that has values pushed to it over time. Of course, I didn’t express the reality that in human personalities, values can also be overwritten and deleted.

It’s interesting to note that since all of these variables are defined within a function, they cannot be accessed by any other function. If someone else had another function for their life, they would be unable to take variables from this function. This code demonstrates the existentialist way of living, which is individualist, self-dependent, and self-defining. This is best expressed by the phrase “existence precedes essence.” The object identity first exists, and then it is defined as values are added to it.

This is all a gross oversimplification. I cannot fully express existentialism in a few lines of code, or express all of life as a function. In the end, this post is meant to paint a compelling picture of a more precise way of writing philosophy that can supplement our current literature.

If you want to learn more about Javascript, check out the excellent tutorial on Free Code Camp. 

Living Wage Affirmative Case

Maeser Prep Debate / Jan-Feb 2015 / Jeremy Hadfield

Resolved: Just governments ought to require that employers pay a living wage.

I agree with Martin Luther King Junior that, “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” To restructure the system that produces poverty, and for many other reasons, I affirm the resolution: Just governments ought to require that employers pay a living wage.


Pollin defines the living wage. Investopedia,. ‘Living Wage Definition | Investopedia’. N. p., 2007. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

A theoretical wage level that allows the earner to afford adequate shelter, food and the other necessities of life. The living wage should be substantial enough to ensure that no more than 30% of it needs to be spent on housing. The goal of the living wage is to allow employees to earn enough income for a satisfactory standard of living. It entails self-sufficiency.

I value justice, as implied by “just governments” in the resolution.
My value criterion is maximizing happiness, or utilitarianism.

Respect for human worth justifies utilitarianism. Cummiskey 90

Cummiskey, David. Associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. “Kantian Consequentiaism.” Ethics 100 (April 1990), University of Chicago. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2381810

We must not obscure the issue by characterizing this type of case as the sacrifice of individuals for some abstract “social entity.” It is not a question of some persons having to bear the cost for some elusive “overall social good.” Instead, the question is whether some persons must bear the inescapable cost for the sake of other persons. Robert Nozick, for example, argues that “to use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has.” But why is this not equally true of all those whom we do not save through our failure to act? By emphasizing solely the one who must bear the cost if we act, we fail to sufficiently respect and take account of the many other separate persons, each with only one life, who will bear the cost of our inaction. In such a situation, what would a conscientious Kantian agent, an agent motivated by the unconditional value of rational beings, choose? A morally good agent recognizes that the basis of all particular duties is the principle that “rational nature exists as an end in itself”. Rational nature as such is the supreme objective end of all conduct. If one truly believes that all rational beings have an equal value, then the rational solution to such a dilemma involves maximally promoting the lives and liberties of as many rational beings as possible. In order to avoid this conclusion, the non-consequentialist Kantian needs to justify agent-centered constraints. 

Contention 1: A living wage improves the economy and reduces poverty.

Addressing the social problem of poverty is a primary responsibility the state has for its citizens. 

Professors Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel writes that

Liam Murphy (Professor of Law and Philosophy at NYU) and Thomas Nagel (Professor of Law and Philosophy at NYU). “The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice.” Oxford University Press (2002)

Disagreements about the extent of public responsibility are not going to disappear; they are the essence of politics. But we would make the following point: In spite of the disagreements, there is an important area of agreement among those views that take government responsibility for the welfare of citizens seriously. Whether one is a utilitarian or a Rawlsian or a priority theorist, or a believer in a social safety net, or a defender of fair equality of opportunity, or of equal libertarianism, one will be concerned about poverty. Poverty is bad from all these points of view. The lives of the poor are hard, humiliating, and dehumanizing; poverty restricts human flourishing. However you slice it, an increase in the resources of poor people will do more good than a comparable increase in the resources of those who have more, or much more. That is the most general and straightforward basis for redistributive policies, and it holds in some degree for a wide range of views this side of libertarianism.

Thus, increases in the well-being of the least well-off outweigh increases in the well-being of the more well-off.

And a living wage reduces the problem of poverty. Seven reasons:

FIRST: States with living wages tend to have more employment

Beth Shulman 07, (Staff, Russell Sage Foundation’s Social Inequity and Future Work Project), ENDING POVERTY IN AMERICA: HOW TO RESTORE THE AMERICAN DREAM, 2007, 116.

In fact, a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute found that in 12 states with minimum wages higher than the federal level of $5.15 an hour, employment rose more than in states where the federal level was standard. This finding held true for small businesses as well. And why would it not? Workers’ increased buying power leads to new purchases, which boost the entire economy — and that creates more jobs. It is a virtuous circle, one that helped power the American boom in the years after minimum wages and unionization first swept the U.S. manufacturing sector.Washington state has the highest wage in the US, and also had the biggest increase in small business jobs last year.

SECOND: The academic consensus is that the minimum wage reduces poverty

According to Mike Konczal 14, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

Mike Konczal (fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. His work has appeared in The Nation, Slate, and The American Prospect). “7 Bipartisan Reasons to Raise the Minimum Wage.” Boston Review. March 3, 2014.

Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift 4.6 million people out of poverty. It would also boost the incomes of those at the 10th percentile of the income distribution by $1,700 annually. That is a significant benefit for workers who have seen declining wages during the past forty years. In a review of the literature since the 1990s, Dube finds of fifty-four estimates of the relationship between poverty and the minimum wage, forty-eight, or 88%, show that a minimum wage reduces poverty. This reflects a remarkable consensus among economists. The effect of an increased minimum wage on poverty is real, and it would be positive.


THIRD: Living wage increases consumer spending, which is the driving force of the economy

Stephanie Luce, Professor, University of Massachusetts @ Amherst, 2004, Fighting for a Living Wage, p. 15 Joshua Crandall, 2001

A living wage, as opposed to a minimum wage, would place more money in the hands of consumers (workers), allowing for an increase in spending.  The economy’s success lies in the ability of products to be purchased.  If workers are paid a living wage, around $13 an hour, all would benefit, from the top to the bottom…Faith and labor can work together to pressure our government officials and businesses to put people before profit.

FOURTH: Reduces the amount of people on welfare, saving billions of dollars for taxpayers.

Unz 14. FORBES.  FEB.11 2014. “Raising the Minimum Wage would Be Good for Wal-Mart and America. Ron Unz is a Silicon Valley software developer and chairman of the Higher Wages Alliance, which is sponsoring a California ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage to $12 per hour

The American taxpayer would also be a huge beneficiary. Each year, over $250 billion in social welfare spending goes to working-poor households via government programs such as Food Stamps, EITC checks, and Medicaid. As millions of those workers become much less poor, they would automatically lose their eligibility for anti-poverty assistance, saving taxpayers many tens of billions of dollars each year. Government programs often function as very leaky buckets, with a substantial fraction of the money spent never reaching its supposed beneficiaries. But wages paid by an employer go straight to the recipient, except for the portion withheld in government taxes.

Reducing the welfare budget reduces taxes, which increases the incomes of everyone in the nation.

FIFTH: Increases productivity

Christine Niemczyk, JD Candidate, John Marshall Law School, 2007, “Boxing out Big Box Retailers,” The John Marshall Law Review, Summer, 40 J. Marshall L. Rev. 1339, p. 1355-6

Arguably, a living wage only costs companies a small percentage of profits. A recent study shows that while companies have experienced a growth of productivity of 33.4 percent over the last ten years, workers’ wages and health care benefits remain stagnant. n126 If companies apply some of the extra profits to payroll, workers will be more inclined to continue to increase productivity and growth for the company. n127 Employees who receive higher wages perform better at work and are less likely to be absent or to quit. n128 Therefore, a living wage results in an increased standard of living for employees and provides companies with a higher quality workforce.

SIXTH: Reduces turnover

Oren M. Levin-Waldman, Public Affairs ProfessorMetropolitan College of New York, 2005, The Political Economy of the Living Wage: A Study of Four Cities, p. 57-8

Similarly, in a study of the impact of the ordinances at San Francisco International Airport, Michael Reich,, Peter Hall, and Ken Jacobs found that despite a significant rise in overall labor costs, there was also a significant decrease in labor turnover.  The direct cost of implementing the ordinance, which was also part of a larger quality standards program (QSP) to improve safety and security while also improving the labor market conditions at the airport, was approximately $42.7 million a year.  Spillover costs to other workers and employers added another $14.9 million to employer costs.  And yet, turnover fell by an average of 34 percent among all surveyed firms and 60 percent among those firms where average wages had increased by 10 percent or more.  The greatest reduction in turnover, however, was among airport security screeners.  During a fifteen-month period after QSP was implemented in April 2000, turnover fell by almost 80 percent, from 94.7 percent to 18.7 percent.  Every time an average worker has to be replaced, employers have to pay about 4,275 dollars per worker in turnover costs.  Therefore, as a function of raising wages, employers ended up savings $6.6 million each year in turnover costs.  To the extent that employers experienced reduced turnover costs, they experienced productivity gains.  Total observed wages increased by $56.6 million in annual wages for ground-based non-management employees.  Many reported that the quality of work increased, and many workers themselves indicated that they were more inclined to put more effort into their work.


Robert Pollin, Professor Economics-Univ. Massachusetts, 2008, A Measure of Fairness: The Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States, eds. R. Pollin, M. Brenner, J. Wicks-Lim & S. Luce, p. 30

In fact, when we did this in Los Angeles we went to a firm that was competing with a minimum wage firm that was actually getting massive subsidies from the City of Los Angles — a very low-wage firm.  The firm we spoke with was paying 30-40 percent above what the low-wage firm was paying its workers.  We asked this high-wage firm how it could survive.  The answer wasWe survive through having higher morale among our workers.”  In specific terms, this meant that this firm had a low turnover of workers quitting their jobs, whereas the firm paying minimum wage had a very high turnover.  The high-wage firm had almost no absenteeism and therefore had very low costs for administering, hiring, and training.  So, that is another thing that changes when living wages go up — the “all else equal” condition does not hold. 

Contention 2: A living wage reduces income inequality.

Income inequality is growing now. Living wage reduces it. Owens 13

Richard Trumka (president of the AFL-CIO) and Christine Owens (executive director of the National Employment Law Project). “$7.25 an hour is not a living wage.” CNN Opinion. December 2nd, 2013. http://nelp.3cdn.net/1720761e12917005d2_ykm6ivauy.pdf (CNN) — For the first time since the Great Depression, the U.S. Census Bureau tells us, middle class family incomes have lost ground for more than a decade. The sad truth is that the rewards for productivity and hard work such as health care coverage, retirement security, opportunity — rewards that used to make America’s workers “middle class” — are on the rocks. All the wage increases over the past 15 years have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent according to the Economic Policy Institute. All of them. And almost all, 95%, of the income gains from 2009 to 2012, the first three years of recovery from the Great Recession, went to the very richest 1%. Something else has happened, too. The bottom has fallen out of America’s wage floor. And the erosion of the minimum wage has lowered pay and working standards for all of us. An increase in the minimum wage — which hasn’t risen since 2009 — is long overdue. If the minimum wage had just kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be $10.77 an hour today instead of $7.25. For tipped workers, the rate’s been stuck at a scandalous $2.13 for 20 years.  “It will reduce inequality. The question is how much and for whom. It’s not going to have a huge impact, but that’s because there’s no politically feasible policy that would have a big impact,” said poverty and fiscal expert Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.Consider the 5-figure paycheck of a janitor versus the 8-figure salary of a CEO. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25, as a leading proposal in Congress would do, wouldn’t narrow that chasm.There’s also a big gap between those making 6-figures and the bazillionaires at the very top. A higher minimum wage can’t touch that. Then there’s the gap between very low-wage and middle-wage workers. It’s this gap where advocates say some progress may be made if the minimum wage is raised sufficiently. At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was equal to 54% of average hourly earnings in the private sector. Today, it comes in at 36%, according to the Congressional Research Service.  “There are a lot of causes of inequality but [the erosion of the minimum wage] is one of the important ones for inequality at the bottom,” Jason Furman, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said this week. Obama, who backs the $10.10 proposal, has said raising the minimum wage would be good for the economy and good for families. A higher minimum wage could increase the pay not only for the 1.6 million workers who earn $7.25 today, but an estimated 17 million workers who make between $7.25 and $10.10. In selling the idea of a higher minimum, though, advocates also say it could result in raises for hourly workers across the board in what’s known as the “ripple” effect. To the extent that the living wage increases the incomes of the poor, it narrows the income inequality.


IMPACT: Income inequality is the most important cause of economic decline and also causes political instability. Harkinson 11 Josh Harkinson (staff reporter). “Study: Income Inequality Kills Economic Growth.” Mother Jones. October 4th,2011.http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2011/10/study-income-inequality-kills-economic-growthCorporate chieftains often … the hard way.”

Corporate chieftains often claim that fixing the US economy requires signing new free trade deals, lowering government debt, and attracting lots of foreign investment. But a major new study has found that those things matter less than an economic driver that CEOs hate talking about: equality. Countries where income is more equally distributed tended to have longer growth spells,” says economist Andrew Berg, whose study appears in the current issue of Finance & Development, the quarterly magazine of the International Monetary Fund. Comparing six major economic variables across the world’s economies, Berg found that equality of incomes was the most important factor in preventing a major downturn. (See top chart.) For example, the bailouts and stimulus pulled the US economy out of recession but haven’t been enough to fuel a steady recovery. Berg’s research suggests that sky-high income inequality in the United States could be partly to blame. So how important is equality? According to the study, making an economy’s income distribution 10 percent more equitable prolongs its typical growth spells by 50 percent. In one case study, Berg looked at Latin America, which is historically much more economically stratified than emerging Asia and also has shorter periods of growth. He found that closing half of the inequality gap between Latin America and Asia would more than double the expected length of Latin America’s growth spells. Increasing income inequality has the opposite effect: “We find that more inequality lowers growth,” Berg says. (See bottom chart.). A population where many lack access to health care, education, and bank loans can’t contribute as much to the economy. And, of course, income inequality goes hand-in-hand with crippling political instability, as we’ve seen during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. History shows that “sustainable reforms are only possible when the benefits are widely shared,” Berg says. “We hope that we don’t have to relearn that the hard way.”


Contention 3: A living wage increases democracy.

Low wages reduce democracy. John Heck (John, Minnesota 4-H Foundation Fellow at the National 4-H Center, worked for the late Congressman Bruce F. Vento and presently serves on the Saint Paul Charter Commission, publisher) “Minnesota 2020 Journal: Increasing Minimum Wage Increases Democracy” Minnesota 2020 Journal 2014 AT

On Tuesday, inside the State Capitol, Minnesotans rallied for a minimum wage hike. It was a rollicking good time with great speeches, music, call-and-response exhortation and lots and lots of signage. Participants made the case for a minimum wage increase’s positive economic impact on workers’, families’ and communities’ lives. Notably absent from the rally? A lot more minimum wage-earning workers. Why? Because they can’t afford to take the time off from work to advocate for democratic change. This raises an interesting, troubling question. If low and modest wage workers are too financially stressed to cast a ballot, attend a community meeting or advocate for policy change, [is the democracy truly representative]? resulting elections, meeting outcomes and policy proposals truly representative? Democracy requires citizen participation. We don’t enjoy pure democracy, where everyone gets together and decides everything. In a nation of 300-plus million and a state of 5.3 million, the pure Athenian democracy is functionally unworkable. Voting participation positively correlates with wealth, home ownership, education and age. Young people don’t vote to the same degree that older people vote. If you’re over 30, own a home, hold a college degree and earn at least the median income, you vote…at minimum wage, is $30. That might not seem like much to folks earning Minnesota’s $57,000 median family income but $30 is ten percent of $300 of weekly gross earnings. Structurally, minimum and low wage hourly pay reduces the likelihood of participating in voting, advocacy, opposition and the exercise of democracy’s promise. It further concentrates the impact of higher income interests through disproportionately representative concentration. Our democracy becomes, as a result, less democratic.


Democracy is key to a good world  – loss of democracy leads to massive harms Larry Diamond, Hoover Fellow @ Stanford, Fmr. Advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, 10-1995 A report to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict

This hardly exhausts the lists of threats to our security and well-being in the coming years and decades. In the former Yugoslavia nationalist aggression tears at the stability of Europe and could easily spread. The flow of illegal drugs intensifies through increasingly powerful international crime syndicates that have made common cause with authoritarian regimes and have utterly corrupted the institutions of tenuous, democratic ones. Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons continue to proliferate. The very source of life on Earth, the global ecosystem, appears increasingly endangered. Most of these new and unconventional threats to security are associated with or aggravated by the weakness or absence of democracy, with its provisions for legality, accountability, popular sovereignty, and openness. LESSONS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY The experience of this century offers important lessons. Countries that govern themselves in a truly democratic fashion do not go to war with one another. They do not aggress against their neighbors to aggrandize themselves or glorify their leaders. Democratic governments [they] do not ethnically “cleanse” their own populations [because they are ruled by their populations], and they are much less likely to face ethnic insurgency. Democracies do not sponsor terrorism against one another. They do not build weapons of mass destruction to use on or to threaten one another. Democratic countries form more reliable, open, and enduring trading partnerships. In the long run they offer better and more stable climates for investment. They are more environmentally responsible because they must answer to their own citizens, who organize to protest the destruction of their environments. They are better bets to honor international treaties since they value legal obligations and because their openness makes it much more difficult to breach agreements in secret. Precisely because, within their own borders, they respect competition, civil liberties, property rights, and the rule of law, democracies are the only reliable foundation on which a new world order of international security and prosperity can be built.


As a closing note, a consensus of economic experts agree the benefits of raising the minimum wage outweigh the costs. Frydenborg no date Brian E. Frydenborg (Master of Science in peace operations from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy) “Ethical Issues of Raising the Minimum Wage” AT least 2013 because the author cites stuff from then Opposing Viewshttp://people.opposingviews.com/ethical-issues-raising-minimum-wage-6865.html

In 2013 the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business surveyed 38 economics experts about the minimum wage. About one-third agreed that raising the minimum wage in the U.S. would “make it noticeably harder for low-skilled workers to find employment,” about one-third disagreed that it would do so, and about one-quarter said they were “uncertain.” So the jury’s out on that one. But when asked if the costs of raising the minimum wage to $9 and tying it to inflation are “sufficiently small compared with the benefits” to minimum-wage workers such that “this would be a desirable policy,” 5 percent strongly agreed, 42 percent agreed, 8 percent disagreed, 3 percent strongly disagreed, and 32 percent were uncertain. That’s a total of 47 percent agreed to some degree vs. 11 percent disagreeing to some degree, a clear margin of economists in favor that, yes, there are negatives, but that the positives of raising the minimum wage at least somewhat clearly outweigh these negatives.


I stare into darkened windows
but cannot find another human.
We move, a machine among machines.
Around me, road billboards preach the cult of a culture
Goods are the gods,
nauseating neon signs the preachers, consumers the congregation.

All this, but still we won’t confess
Festering inside modern life is an illusion.
Moldering in our grueling routine
A fungus we never discuss.

I walk as always into the conditioned air and hollow glow
of the store, the temple of lucrative religion.
Around me masses flow into aisles like restless ocean tides
Devout addicts shambling into dope-houses
Monks marching into a well-stocked monastery.
People conditioned to care only for hollow things
They feel the trembling of their lifesprings
In a steady rhythm of income;
They are oblivious to the rhythm of their own hearts.

The market-goers tear designer-made cloth hides off shelves to hide the alienation they feel from themselves.
Across vast ocean their human kin
pour sweat into clothes they could never afford,
shackled slaves of a system they could never share in.
Without thought purchasers
Conscript their currency to the cause of yoking
the scarred hunchback of the slave-world
to the reins of the first world.

This side of the poverty line they trash food they can’t sell;
The other side they lash themselves for morsels.
Stores founded by the fortunate, funded by the pain of the poor
But agony is irrelevant when it’s on a distant shore.

Rows of pencils adorning lustrous steel shelves hide mirages of massacres.
Rows upon rows of guillotined copses.
Bodies mutilated, piled in the back of a truck.
Bodies of carbon, corpses of trees.
We hoard with the infinite thirst of black holes
But how will we quench thirst from a toxic well?
We’re manufacturing our Earth into a gateway to Hell
Greased Gulf oil slicks turn pristine sea into River Styx.
Humanity’s a fetus cutting its own umbilical cord,
poisoning its placenta.
Self-immolating before we’ve realized our potential.
Venomous fumes seethe into filthy atmosphere.
Have we forgotten that we live here?

I leave the temple and feel like I’ve left a rollercoaster
The world swirls around me as I pass the grocer
In every inch of my vision I see signs of a gangrenous age
Dents in the glaring white walls tell of lives lived.
But I cannot imagine life in this leeching bleached building.
Our stomachs are empty in a cornucopia.
Emaciated in a society saturated by gagging opulence
that seeps into our blackened souls when we cannot see

When the miasma clogs our lungs we will finally realize
Lucre cannot allay the devil’s fee.
The only passion I find is confined in synthetic-lit aisles.
I cannot blind myself to the guile in these smiles;
Counterfeit happiness mass-produced in factories.
Everyone I see is decomposing in chains.
Locked up by a desperate desire to devour trivial material.
Will we consume until the will to consume is all that remains?

A Comprehensive Demonstration of the Harms of Mass Surveillance

Composed by Logan Norris, Jeremy Hadfield, Sean Robinson, and Gabrielle Garner

For the International Public Policy Forum

On the topic Resolved: Mass surveillance is not a justified method of governmental intelligence gathering.

“The most sacred thing is to be able to shut your own door.” – G.K. Chesterton

Mass surveillance pervades every aspect of life in the digital age. The global surveillance network, codenamed ECHELON, has fifteen cooperating states and an extensive web of corporate ties and participating programs (Nabbali 2004). These ever-vigilant programs collect trillions of communications annually (Taylor 2014), can now monitor over 75% of the internet (Gorman 2013), and are expanding at a shockingly rapid pace (Von Drehle 2013). There are 30 million surveillance cameras deployed in the United States alone, shooting 4 billion hours of footage every week (Vlahos 2014). John Villesenor recognizes the significance of this: “We are crossing a threshold that has never been crossed in all of human history. It has become possible – even easy…to essentially document everything that has been said and done,” (Goodspeed 2012). Often, the damage that this surveillance creates is downplayed (Heller 2014). It is vital that society recognizes the long-term impacts and consequences of mass surveillance, from the collapse of people-ruled societies to the promotion of conformity, and that its claims at meager benefits are not sufficient to justify its use.


Framework and definitions:

Justified is defined as shown to be right or reasonable (Merriam Webster 2014). Three tenets that must be adhered to establish justification:

  1. Because mass surveillance is used on an international level, international laws, as represented by the International Covenant on Civil Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must be adhered to.
  2. In accordance with the UN’s interpretation, mass surveillance can only be justified if it is proportionate and necessary. If mass surveillance is abused in most cases then it is not justified.
  3. A cost-benefit analysis, weighing harms and benefits against one another, will be used to determine justification. A cost-benefit analysis is the most useful way to measure the justification of an action (Kee 2014).

Mass Surveillance is defined as the pervasive surveillance of an entire or substantial fraction of a population. Surveillance is usually carried out by governments but may also be done by corporations at the behest of governments (U.S. Legal 2014). Mass surveillance can be accomplished through advanced technologies or through spying and police organizations (Cornelius 2004).


Mass surveillance increases state opacity and leads to oppression:

“[A] democratic system demands that government be transparent and accountable to the people, not the other way around.” – American Civil Liberties Union

There is not a single country in the world that has a fully transparent surveillance program (Greenwald 2014). With mass surveillance, governments make the affairs of their people completely translucent while they are bound by no standard of openness themselves. These omniscient overseers are free to conduct whatever sort of search that pleases them – unrestricted by the people and behind thorough bulwarks of secrecy.

Mass surveillance programs throughout the world have sacrificed their translucency to prevent national security secrets from entering the public domain. The NSA constructed a highly secretive court, in which “the hearings are closed to the public and the rulings of the judges are classified, and rarely released after the fact,” (O’Neill 2014). The link between mass surveillance and opacity is also evidenced by the increasing opacity of the United States government after the growth of NSA surveillance. In 2013, a record percentage of Freedom of Information Act requests for government files were denied (Bridis 2014). Almost all of the refusals originated from the Defense Department.

Countries such as the United States often hire private contractors to carry out their surveillance work. Currently, 70% of the NSA’s budget goes towards hiring private contractors (Cohen 2013). While the practice is profitable, it reduces transparency, as it is harder to track the work of the contractors and determine whether their work is justified (Thiessen 2013). The people have no oversight or power over these contractors (Goldman 2014).

When there is no oversight over or disclosure about mass surveillance, it’s impossible for the people to make an informed decision about or check the powers of surveillance programs. As James Madison wrote, “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.” Unchecked government power leads to dangerous excess; power must be checked at every turn, the overwhelming evidence of history teaches us, or people will be abused. Countless regimes have perpetrated mass oppression and genocide because they were not checked by the people (Rummel 1993).


The abuse of systems of mass surveillance

Mass surveillance clearly breaks international law. A report given by the UN found that “the States engaging in mass surveillance have so far failed to provide…public justification for its necessity, and almost no States have enacted explicit domestic legislation to authorize its use” (Greenwald 2014).

Furthermore, the harms of a mass surveillance society outweigh the benefits, not just in America, but across the globe. Countries with endemic mass surveillance, such as China, North Korea, Iran, and East Germany give us a lucid view into the detrimental effects of mass surveillance.

In North Korea, citizens are under constant surveillance (France-Presse 2012). Authorities use an extensive network of informants that report individuals they suspect of subversive behavior (HRW 2014). North Korea uses this network to imprison anyone who practices free speech, political opposition, association, petition, or media representation (Winslow 2014). Mass surveillance has allowed North Korea to imprison over 200,000 in concentration camps with a 40% death rate (Amnesty International 2011). Instead of preventing terrorist attacks, mass surveillance turns governments themselves into terrorists that use technology to subjugate their citizens.

Iran has been christened one of the “State Enemies of the Internet” because of its drastic  measures of mass surveillance (Reporters Without Borders 2013). Using various digital forms of surveillance (Alimardani 2014), Iran gravely violates the freedom of information and multiple human rights (Reporters Without Borders 2013). Iran has used mass surveillance methods such as the wiretapping of phones and the monitoring of Internet activity against critics of the Iranian regime (Reuters 2012). Saleh Hamid was beaten with an iron bar by Iranian security agents who claimed that he was spreading propaganda against the regime, using Saleh’s own phone calls as evidence (Stecklow 2012). Anyone who is claimed to be a threat to the authoritarian government may be arrested and sent to Iran’s infamous Evin prison. Journalists, intellectuals, netizens and dissidents are held there for undisclosed amounts of time (Amnesty International 2014). Brutal conditions and horrendous interrogation procedures make Evin a “hell on earth” (Chiaramonte 2013).

China uses its mass surveillance, including over 30 million security cameras, to “crush its critics” (Langfit 2013). China has enacted legislation to secretly hold dissidents who challenge the Communist party (Buckley 2012). The regime used surveillance techniques to find activists and torture them for months in the name of ‘security’ (Lei 2012). For example, Ai Weiwei was held for three months and brutally beaten for speaking against the government (Foster 2014). China now monitors nearly every conversation to intimidate citizens into obedience (Langfit 2013). Chinese security agents can turn cellphones into listening devices, and Li Tiantian, a human rights lawyer in Shanghai, said that they eavesdropped on her conversations to track her movements and arrest her (Langfit 2013).

These despotic surveillance states are unnervingly similar to Western nations that are thought to be more exemplary. Documents reveal that UK and US surveillance agencies have manipulated online discourse in their favor with tactics of deception and repression, infiltrating activist groups with no conceivable connection to terrorism (Aevin 2014). They have targeted political candidates, activists, academics and lawyers (Aaron 2014). Muslim leaders who live exemplary lives have been subjecte

d to intense scrutiny (Greenwald 2014). This surveillance is used to coerce and oppress. For example, in 1963, the FBI sent a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., requiring him to commit suicide to prevent personal information that had been obtained through mass surveillance from being publicized (Corn 2013). Surveillance programs are also used for sheer voyeurism – one NSA employee spied on nine women for six years (Lewis 2013).

As it is used to abuse and silence entire populations, governmental intelligence gathering represents an implement of oppression rather than a benefit.


How surveillance breeds conformity

A substantial literature manifests that surveillance breeds conformity, silences dissent from state policies, inhibits creativity, and stifles intellectual freedom (Roche 2014; Tolstedt 1984). Using mass surveillance, governments have the power to see how long someone’s attention lingers on a webpage, how she expresses herself in communications, and what kinds of ideas she is being exposed to. This comprehensive data about our virtual persona means that intelligence agencies have an incredibly pellucid view of our minds, second, perhaps, to only ourselves.

One study (“Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor,” 2014) surveyed over 520 writers, and found that because of surveillance, 14% refrained from visiting controversial or suspicious websites, 27% expressed reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects, and 40% were averse to participating in social media. Another inquiry into the effects of surveillance on Internet search behavior revealed a significant decline in searches for sensitive terms after the NSA was publicized (Marthews and Tucker 2014).

These results demonstrate that without the option of privacy, individuals self-censor; they do not express dissenting views, voice opinions, or challenge the status quo. Thus, surveillance is more dangerous, if subtler, than censorship, the removal of an idea after it is expressed: it prevents ideas from ever being expressed. Free minds are key to free societies; anyone must be able to present their conception of the truth (Richards 2013), and surveillance places fetters on the mind, reinforcing compliance to the state and the imperative to act in obedience to norms (Greenwald 2012). This is illustrated by those societies that have fully invested in mass surveillance, such as North Korea, where individuals entirely conform to the government because of its all-seeing surveillance. As Edward Snowden remarked, “Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.”

The crippling psychological effects of a watched society are demonstrated by totalitarian nations. A watched society coincides more with a fear-instilling totalitarian regime stripped of rights than a free government. Such regimes have decreased life expectancies, economic growth, and stability. According to Harvard University, citizens in totalitarian regimes experience less individual liberty and political stability; chances of a finishing secondary school are 40% lower, infant mortality is 25% higher, and agricultural yields are 25% fewer. Totalitarian regimes are also more likely to exacerbate terrorism and end up in a perpetual cycle of violence and war (Siegle 2005).


Mass surveillance undermines societies

A variety of behaviors key for maintaining functioning societies, such as involvement, cooperation, and well-connected relationships, are undermined by mass surveillance. In post-WWII East Germany, the surveillance agency known as the Stasi established a society where every seventh individual was an informant (Koehler 1999). Here, a single informant was associated with a 10% decrease in organizational involvement (Jacob 2010). The surveillance also had a strong negative effect on social connectivity. In addition, the effects of surveillance remain today: there is a significant economic disparity between East and West Germany, as evidenced by unemployment rates: 13.5% in the East and only 7.2% in the West. This significant imbalance owes to the lingering deficiency in cooperation that is ultimately traced to the Stasi regime’s crushing surveillance (Jacob 2010).

Not only does surveillance damage relationships between individuals, it erodes trust between the state and the people, and between private companies and their customers. This is empirically supported by the explosion of distrust and mass protest that followed the release of the “Snowden files” in the United States (Osborne 2013).

Furthermore, surveillance’s eradication of trust has harmed the economy, especially technological companies. The cloud computing industry alone will lose $35 billion by 2016, and the total profits foregone due to surveillance will be almost $180 billion (Miller 2014). Draconian mass surveillance represses creativity and reduces productivity in workplaces, and both of these are key drivers of the economy (Ovsey 2014). Microsoft labels government snooping an “advanced persistent threat,” a term usually applied to malicious hackers. Experts in technology and the internet are deeply concerned that trust will deteriorate in the wake of mass surveillance (Anderson 2014). Surveillance has also weakened computer systems to gain access to their data, which has harmed the systems comprehensively to great effect on the economy (Holder 2014).

The U.S. has seen a growing controversy regarding its inability to separate systems of mass surveillance from independent legal matters. While many countries preach that mass surveillance is only used to thwart terrorist operations, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit and the FBI have admitted that nearly 250 arrests have been made with illegally obtained information, and that they were instructed to lie about its origin (Shiffman 2013). This highlights an example of constitutional abuse and slippery illegal activity that is not proportional or necessary, reminiscent to the despotic Stasi, which expanded into jobs meant for other sectors of the government, “in essence becoming a state within a state” (Knabe 2014). The NSA now has more than 55,000 employees (not including private contractors), as compared to the Stasi’s 91,000 (Groll 2013).


Mass surveillance is impotent and counterproductive:

The unprecedented and brutal rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria begs the question: why didn’t the almost completely unhindered surveillance programs of Western nations detect the growing militant movement? The mass gathering of metadata has so far yielded no noteworthy assistance in the effort against the Islamic State, even though it uses the Internet to communicate (Pye 2013). The answer is simple: mass surveillance is inept, and it is even harmful to national security and efforts against terrorism.

An inquiry by the Review Group of the U.S. Federal Government failed to find a single case in which metadata collection provided crucial information in a terrorism investigation (Richardson 2014). In addition, the New America Foundation investigated 54 commonly cited NSA ‘successes’, and found that the agency “played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8% of these cases” (Bergen et al 2014). NSA director Keith Alexander has admitted that there has been only one terrorist plot in which mass surveillance played a significant role (Brinkerhoff 2013). Government claims about the NSA’s success have repeatedly been shown to be false (Beauchamp 2014).

Private contractors hired by surveillance agencies are not supervised, and thus the national security secrets they manage are at extreme risk. If they release information, it can be exploited by foreign actors for malicious ends. Edward Snowden, who worked for a private contractor, released national security secrets that have been stolen by Russia and China and are now an enormous threat (Dreyfuss 2013).

Moreover, one of the central devices to the rhetoric of those who support mass surveillance is that it will prevent the horrors of terrorist attacks like 9/11 from ever happening again. However, the intensive accumulation of data would not have stopped these massacres, as they resulted from “a failure to connect the dots, not a failure to collect enough dots,” (Medine 2014). Hijacker Khalid al-Midhar’s phone calls to other conspirators were listened to, but intelligence agencies failed to recognize their significance, despite repeated opportunities (Elliot and Meyer 2014). In fact, the sheer amount of data collected by mass surveillance would probably result in the communications between hijackers being lost (Kopstein 2014).

In addition, mass surveillance is, in several ways, counterproductive. Surveillance programs often hack encrypted communications and install ‘back doors’ in internet programs (Sasso 2014). These back doors can be opened by cyberterrorists, allowing them to utilize the government’s methods to wreak catastrophe to the economy and national security of the nation in question. Inserting backdoors, sabotaging standards, and tapping commercial data centers provide malicious actors opportunities to exploit the resulting vulnerabilities (Schneier 2014). With the onset of backdoors created by the NSA, there has been a seventeen-fold increase in the amount of cyberterrorist attacks against the United States (Goldsmith 2013).

Counter-terrorism efforts have been paralyzed by mass surveillance. Knowing of surveillance programs, terrorists have changed their communication patterns to avoid them (Starr 2014). This causes them to “go dark” on surveillance radar, and makes security programs blind to defend against their attacks (Yost 2014).

Furthermore, the abrasion of trust caused by mass surveillance is damaging to counter-terrorist efforts. The recent monitoring of German chancellor Angela Merkel undermined the central pillar of diplomacy: trust (Jeffries 2013). Surveillance demonstrates to Europeans that the U.S. does not act in their interests, but only to further its own international power (Knigge 2013). A strong European-American alliance has been crucial to combating terrorism and working towards stability in the Middle East (Mauer and Möckli 2013). Damaging that alliance will allow terrorism to expand in this already-chaotic area. This is not only an issue of transatlantic diplomacy, however. The injury of trust that surveillance causes will harm relations between all states, leading to an increase in scuffles and perhaps even wars, and thwarting progress towards agreement and peace.

Furthermore, the strategy of mass surveillance is ineffective, as it means that insights are neglected and the amount of spurious correlations found multiplies (Guillart 2014). A small and highly contextual level allows for far more effective intelligence gathering, with fewer mistakes and more results (Friedersdorf 2014). Mass surveillance has had remarkably few successes despite, or perhaps because of, its immense pool of data.



The inherent nature, negative results, and dysfunctionality of mass surveillance render it a thoroughly unjustified method for governmental intelligence gathering. Mass surveillance requires an opaque and unchecked government that inevitably begins to abuse the rights of its people. It negatively affects the behaviors and relationships of individuals, states, and companies. It is and has been used by international governments to oppress their people. It leads to a collapse of trust and a subsequent fallout in international relations, obstructing the struggle for peace and against terrorism; bolsters conformity; and undermines economic relationships, leading to a decline in overall affluence. Finally, mass surveillance is an impotent and counterproductive strategy of intelligence gathering.


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The Incompatibility of Kantianism and Christianity

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

— Matthew 5:48

I’m about to argue that one cannot be a Christian and a Kantian at the same time. Before I do that, we’ll need some definitions: First, as deontology, or duty-based ethics, is a broad field, I’ll limit it to Kantian deontology, as set forth in the Metaphysics of Morals. Second, Christianity will be defined as belief in Yawheh; the deific nature, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus; and a general belief in the truth of the Old and New Testaments. Now on to the argument.


1. The Christian God does not act immorally; he is morally perfect.

2. The morally perfect Christian God performed the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

3. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is immoral under a Kantian framework.

4. Thus, Christians may not be Kantians and maintain rational consistency.

Premise one: The Christian God does not act immorally.

As shown in the opening quote, the Bible frequently repeats that God is perfect, and it supplicates God’s followers to strive to be perfect like him (Deuteronomy 18:13 is another good example, though it is ironic, considering the atrocities committed by God in that same book). Furthermore, moral perfection is one of the defining aspects of the concept of God; if God is not morally perfect, then why call him God? Why not just an advanced human? An omniscient being would necessarily know all things, including the nature of morality, and an omnibenevolent being would necessarily follow the nature of morality.

Premise two: The morally perfect Christian God performed the Atonement of Jesus Christ. 

This is not very controversial, though it gets slightly strange if you are trinitarian, considering the whole ‘God sacrificing himself and then praying to himself on the cross’ deal. The only controversy may arise around how exactly God went around performing it; was it God who did it, or was it Jesus for the sake of God, or was it Jesus’ singular choice? And how much choice, exactly, did Jesus have? He was most certainly Christ's atonementcoerced, after all, by the fact that everyone’s souls would be set on fire if he didn’t atone for them. Like the coward that I am, I’ll avoid these questions by simply saying that God caused the Atonement to happen by integrating it into his plan. Again, there is the question of how much choice God had in creating the plan, but regardless, he created the plan, and that inevitably led to the Atonement.

Premise three: The Atonement of Jesus Christ is deontologically immoral. 

It is quite clear that Kantian deontology would rule the Atonement immoral. The Atonement distinctly violates the primary principle of Kantianism: we should never act in such a way that we treat others as a mere means to an end. It is using Christ as a mere means to an end, primarily as an instrument for the benefit of the vast majority. I do not mean ‘mere’ as a derogatory term, but rather as a philosophical condition: mere as in ‘little more than as specified.’ The Atonement, after all, was not a mere act, but a pivotal point in Christian theology.  However, it is almost universally recognized that Christ was never an end, but that he was always a means. After all, he was called the Lamb for a reason: he was a sacrifice for the sake of others. He offered all of his glory unto his father. This is the type of ‘sacrifice of the minority for the majority’ situation that Kantians condemn. Christ went through horrific tortures, suffering  the pain of literally everyone, so that the sins of humanity could be erased. This is permissible under a teleological moral framework, where the means can be justified by its ends, but abhorrent under a deontological, and especially Kantian, moral framework.

Conclusion: Christians may not be Kantians and maintain rational consistency. 

One who believes in a morally perfect God must also model his/her morality around this God. Any action that this God performs is necessarily good, and so mortals cannot deny the morality of the action and must, instead, agree with it. It would be irrational and contradictory to say that a morally perfect God did something immoral. If the Atonement is immoral under a Kantian framework, then either God is morally imperfect, the Kantian framework is false, or God does not exist. Only one of these options allows one to retain their status as a Christian, which I defined as one who believes in a morally perfect God, among other things. The other option is to believe that Kantianism is false.

Possible criticisms 

1. God and humans have different moral standards. It is justified for God to kill, but it is not justified for humans to do so. It is justified for God to bystand in the face of suffering, but it is not justified for humans to do so. Thus, we do not have to base our morality on God’s.

2. Kant’s morality is only for autonomous wills (Stanford), and God did not have any choice in the Atonement. It was a necessary aspect of the universe. Thus, he was not an autonomous will, and he was not making the sort of act that Kantianism applies to.


Deuteronomy 18:13 – Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.

Kant’s Moral Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published in 2004; substantive revision in 2008.

Synaptic Pruning

This is a short informative essay I  wrote for the final project of the Neurobiology course from the University of Michigan. 

Synaptic pruning, or synaptic elimination, is an essential aspect of the development of the brain. It is when the brain destroys itself, removing unwanted synapses, neurons or neuronal configurations to increase efficiency of connections. The process and timing of  pruning is thought to be significantly changed by the experiences, genes, and even the thoughts of the developing mind.

During early childhood, there is a huge proliferation of connections between neurons, usually peaking around the age of two. The adolescent brain then cuts down the amount of connections, deciding which ones should be kept and which can be let go. While there are various theories as to the molecular mechanisms by which pruning actually occurs, most agree that pruning is primarily carried out by a very motile form of glial cell, called microglia [1], which is the first part of the nervous system that is active during synaptic pruning. These microglia are thought to remove cellular debris during the healing process of an injured brain, but in the healthy, developing brain they have a possibly more important function. If a synapse receives little activity, it is weakened and eventually deleted by microglia and other glial cells. After the synapse has been removed, the space and resources that it once used are taken by other synapses, which are thensynapsesgraph strengthened.These processes [2] and various others take place throughout development, peaking at adolescence and ending around the age of 21, and transform the brain to create more complex and efficient neuronal configurations.

Various factors can affect the methods, timing, and results of synaptic pruning. Comprehensive research [3] has shown that mutations in genes lead to abnormalities in the pruning process that lead to unwanted connections remaining active or important connections being pruned out, impairing the brain permanently.  Some neuroscientists have made educated guesses as to the nature of these mutations, and there has been relative consensus that microglia, being part of the immune system, remove the synapses because they appear to be either unnecessary, damaged, or a foreign object. This abnormal synaptic pruning could be a significant source of the symptoms of schizophrenia [3]. Pruning is also highly dependent on experience. Neural plasticity reaches its peak during childhood and before synaptic pruning begins. Thus, if a child begins to learn a language or any other complex function before synaptic pruning, that function will be deemed important and the neural connections pertaining to it will be kept and strengthened [4]. This gives new meaning to the saying “use it or lose it.” Experiences during and before synaptic pruning are perhaps some of the most important in development, because they directly affect brain function for the rest of the subject’s life. It is thought that connections deleted during pruning cannot be regained. “The fact that there are more connections [in a child’s brain] allows things to be moved around,” said physiologist Ian Campbell from the University of California, Davis. “After adolescence, that alternate route is no longer available. You lose the ability to recover from a brain injury, or the ability to learn a language without an accent. But you gain adult cognitive powers.” [5]. Your actions during pruning affect which circuits remain in existence and which do not.

It is not fully known what the function of synaptic pruning is, while the general explanation of “pruning removes unnecessary connections” is the most widely accepted and well-researched. It remains unknown whether connections removed during pruning can ever be regained. Pruning is often thought to represent learning, but this is almost certainly an oversimplified explanation for a very complex cluster of processes. Synaptic elimination may also be a method utilized by the brain to adapt to the most efficient form of thinking in its specific environment [6].

There are a wide variety of very interesting questions that deal with synaptic pruning. One that has intrigued me specifically is whether children and adolescents who have not fully undergone synaptic pruning are more creative than adults. It seems that large amount of synapses leads to more overall thought, and thus we can infer that before pruning, the brain is more sidetracked and inefficient. If distraction aids creativity, as a considerable amount of research shows, then that would mean that the more distracted, pre-pruning mind is more creative than the post-pruning mind. Some researchers believe that synaptic pruning is determined somewhat by the culture and society in which the child is raised. This would mean that after pruning, an adult in one society no longer has the same neuronal connections as an adult in a different society – those connections have been trimmed out. Is this an underlying cause of culture shock and/or genocide? Is the developing mind more open to change and new connections then the “narrow,” developed mind? Until the scientific community has a greater understanding of synaptic pruning, these questions will remain unanswered.

Synaptic pruning remains only barely understood by scientists, and the research already conducted has shown that it is far more complicated than previously thought. It is a critical part of neurobiological development that has tremendous consequences on the fully developed adult.



[1] “The Role of Microglia in the Healthy Brain,” Marie-Éve Tremblay et al; Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1/3/2014


[2] “Synaptic Pruning in Early Development,” St. Olaf University Department of Neuroscience. http://www.stolaf.edu/depts/ciswp/buff/Documents/synapticpruning.pdf

[3] “Abnormal Synaptic Pruning in Schizophrenia: Urban myth or reality?,” Patricia Boksa, PhD; March 2012, US National Library of Medicine. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3297065

[4] “Brain Development and the Role of Experience in the Early Years,” Adrienne Tierney and Charles A. Nelson et al; Harvard Medical School/Children’s Hospital of Boston, 3/6/2009. http://main.zerotothree.org/site/DocServer/30-2_Tierney.pdf?docID=10001

[5] “Teen Brains Clear Out Childhood Thoughts,” Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Magazine, March http://www.livescience.com/3435-teen-brains-clear-childhood-thoughts.html

[6] “Pruning Synapses Improves  Brain Connections,” Ed Yong; 2/2/2013, The Scientist http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/39055/title/Pruning-Synapses-Improves-Brain-Connections/


A thought-provoking interview of Jeff Lichtman and Juan Carlos Tapia, professors at Harvard University who conducted some experiments on synaptic elimination.