Reconsider! Are College Students Really Demanding ‘the Right to be Comfortable’?

Originally published on Medium, see Reconsider! here.

There is an empathy gap with how many academics and others view the issues happening on college campuses today.

Take a step back and notice that many participants of these movements are people of color, especially women of color, trans and gender-non-conforming people, etc. Their experience is not your experience. Sometimes, in an attempt to be empathetic, we try to rephrase or pigeon-hole another person’s experiences in terms that we understand. We think of times we’ve been ‘uncomfortable’, feel like those times were times of growth, and dismiss the younger generation’s demand as over-sensitive.

Consider that the types of ‘discomfort’ (as detractors call it) are types that you have never experienced, and occur in contexts you have never been through.

A section of our students today feel invisible, invalid, unheard. They see that people who do not have their experiences are likely to dismiss them. They are demanding some kind of acknowledgement and some kind of consideration. The answer is not necessarily a “coddling” of the American mind, Rani Neutill, a female professor of color, describes her failed attempt at using trigger warnings in the classroom.

The answer to the premise is still in flux. This is a topic of debate in which everyone is welcome to contribute. A lot of people, however, seem to reject the premise. I wish you would reconsider at least once before doing so.

Things to consider:

– with large movements of anything, you will see a mob mentality; I need not condone specific inappropriate behaviors to agree with their demands — I do not think they don’t invalidate their cause.
– look up “In-group favoritism” and “Out-group homogeneity” — there is a studied empathy gap with groups we whose experiences we are outsiders to. Tread carefully, before suggesting an out-group member is being oversensitive.

This is not about one e-mail, as Aaron Lewis writes in “What’s Really Going On at Yale”. Many students feel invalidated and unheard, and view the university’s response as silencing and invalidating. They want to be heard and they want answers. The solution is not yet settled! Do not yell “censorship!” and deny the existence of the problem. Join the conversation: after reading one article on The Atlantic about coddling, check out first-hand the perspectives of those protesting, for example, by reading something at DOWN at Yale.

Comment on Medium

The Evolution of Bernie Sanders on Race

Picture by AFGE. Via Flickr. Licensed under CC-by-2.0

Bernie Sanders flip-flopped too, and that’s okay. People keep mentioning Hillary Clinton’s shifting on issues as a mark against her, but as she explains, this is only evidence that she is a person who responds to new information and develops their opinion, not a block of granite. Sanders, too, has shifted left on race issues and gun control in the past several months. This is a wonderful thing.

I wrote on Medium about the Evolution of Bernie Sanders on Race. Please read the full post there.

I conclude:

When standing in solidarity with others in a diverse, progressive movement, the most important thing you can do is avoid subconsciously projecting your own privilege and predicament, onto others. Diversity is not about erasing differences, it is about embracing them.

Check it out on Medium to see how I come to that conclusion.

Thinking about conservative attitudes to civil rights issues of the Modern Day

As a Middle Eastern expat, I’m in the position of observing a more diverse spectrum of reactions and attitudes to advancements in civil rights. The United States Supreme Court ruling on Orbergefell v. Hodges generated a lot of such reactions. As I think of the long arc of the moral universe, I feel it is more and more important to bring to light a few issues that the many social conservatives around the world hesitant to call this a victory should keep in mind.

1. An ever-evolving conception of Justice

When we look at the advancement of humanity in the past 10,000 years, we often view most shifts since the beginning of civilized recorded history to the modern day in a positive light: Inventing tools, cultivating lands, building shelters, creating governments, abolishing feudalism, creating democratic governments, abolishing primogeniture, abolishing slavery, giving all racial groups the vote, giving women the vote, ending racial segregation, promoting equal-opportunity employment, etc.

These changes happened throughout the human race. Different cultures were ahead of others at different times when these movements took hold. Eventually, though, humanity more-or-less converges. Women’s suffrage is just a western idea at this point, as slavery abolitionism is a western-European idea, or embracing ethnic multiculturalism is just an Arab or Muslim idea. These are, at this point, universal human ideals.

Its worthy of notice that, in every generation, we have people to claim: “Every civil rights advancement to the present day is good. But now we have gone too far!

What a curious thing to say—one is effectively claiming that every person to have ever said this sentence in history is incorrect, but now—lo and behold—it is actually true.

Every change is scary, I am sure. It is also important to stay grounded in the humility that this is just another change on a long track of many that have happened and turned out just okay.

2. Hate and Anger are a sign of losing ground

Homophobia and transphobia are not new to the world. In conservative countries, however, homophobia and transphobia are slowly moving from silent, implicit disdain to active hatred and anti-activisim.

If you are a social conservative spending every last bit of your energy voicing your disgust and disapproval at a class of people to have always existed, when just 10 years ago, you never gave the topic much effort, then I hope you entertain the possibility that what you are feeling is the fear of change, the unknown, and the unfamiliar other.

The Virtues of Being Grounded

It is important for one to be grounded as they articulate their beliefs. I wrote about this in both general terms and as a word of caution to social progressives. Social conservatives—often moreso—need to hear this too.

Challenge the reasons for your beliefs, then challenge them again. Cliched arguments about tradition and religion have failed the test of time. These have been used to argue against abolitionism, interracial marriage, and anti-sodomy laws. Think, and then think again. Try to find an argument that will stand the test of time. In doing so, you just might very well change your mind. And if you don’t, you will have a very enlightening argument to share.

Photo credit: Wally Gobetz on Flickr, photo entitled “NYC – West Village: Christopher Park – Gay Liberation“. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Exploring the non-recursive arguments for Social Justice, pt. 1

For liberal laypersons, our justification of progressive social policies, as well as our defense for social justice issues in general is often recursive. I discussed this previously, in “I am right, therefore…”—a common pattern of imposing our beliefs on others is often to presuppose that they are right; an unconvincing argument to the other party, but often difficult to detect because the recursive presupposition is often hidden or implicit.

I would like to explore non-recursive arguments for social justice; be it progressive social policies, or ethical arguments of how to deal with others. In academia, of course, the literature is full with sound arguments and in-depth readings into modern questions of social justice. These arguments often to do not make it to the mainstream.

In this part, I have two patterns I would like to establish: First, that social justice questions are questions of compulsion; when is it right to compel others to do the right thing (government policies), when do we say that victims of the regressive system are compelled to do (or not do) something. Second, that questions of compulsion in general ought to be discussed in terms of power: the balance and distribution of power, and its implications on justice for society.

An incomplete effort

This post is an incomplete effort at removing the recursive argument. For now, I am merely widening the recursive nature of the argument. From:

“Discrimination is bad, therefore, discrimination is bad.”


“The livelihood of a person ought to be independent of their status as a member of a protected class. An imbalance of power endangers the livelihoods of members of society. Compulsion is a product of an imbalance of power. Compulsion always exists in society and must be managed. It is sometimes acceptable to compel those holding positions of power over others from giving equal access to their resources. Such resources include public spaces, food, medicine, and services rendered.”

This argument is incomplete because it still implicitly presupposes: Who are members of a protected class and Why. In this post, I discuss some protected classes but do not justify the choice of these protected classes. This, in itself, is an important debate between progressives and conservatives: which classes are worthy of playing this important role in society? I will attempt to discuss that separately in the future.

Social Justice as Questions of Compulsion

Compulsion is more often used by libertarians than social liberals, but I think it is indeed the most elegant way to discuss social policies. It is elegant because it grounds and humbles the liberal arguing for change, but, perhaps more importantly, allows us all to use the same language in defending our positions.

Libertarians often frame many government actions in light of compulsion. Taxation is compulsion; compelling individuals to give up their wealth (else they risk jail-time or other punishments) for social good—or worse—taxation is forced labor. Desegregation means compelling private business owner to admit people they do not wish to admit. Laws against discrimination in the workplace prevent employers from hiring and firing whoever they please.

Many lawmakers understand that, and attempt to limit cases of compulsion to enumerated cases. Protected classes, in anti-discrimination law, are enumerated. In the United States, these are often: Race, Color, Religion, National Origin, Age, Sex, Pregnancy, Citizenship, Familial Status, Disability, Veteran Status, and Genetic Information. Some states in the US include Sexual Orientation, and others also include Gender Identity (separate from Sex). It is understood that employers and business owner are allowed to discriminate against all other non-enumerated classes. The annoying, the loud mouthed, the rude, for instance, are un-protected classes that could be asked to leave a restaurant, or be denied a job.

Enumeration is powerful for many reasons, and is often better for protected classes than if they were not enumerated. Enumeration also admits that every time we disallow a private person from treating people differently (which we all do all the time), we are compelling them to change their behavior.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of Indiana should be viewed in this light. An interesting development in the continuing debate on compulsion for the sake of social justice: What are the limits of compulsion? What are the grounds for compulsion?

The liberal response is most effective if spoken in the same language.

Justifying Compulsion

Why do we justify taxation? How did we justify that it is right to compel a store owner of admitting people of all races?

I think the common thread tying all of these together is power and the distribution of power.

You see, when someone has so much power more than you, they in effect have power over you. Being denied power means that you become a victim of compulsion more and more often.

Compulsion is a two way street: compulsion takes place when a more powerful entity has control over a less powerful one. The Powerful Goverment™ compels the restaurant owner to admit people she doesn’t want to admit. Business owners, however, also have powers. Take restaurant and cafe owners, for example: they operate social spheres, areas where members of the public interact, network, manage and retain power, and seek it. Public and semi-public spaces are democratizing spaces. A pharmacy owner also has power over the health of her customers.

In a world of unlimited business-owner discrimination, compulsion is a clear problem. Think of the racist, segregated America of the 1950s. If you were part of an un-favored social group, then not only did you lose power (by losing access countless places with higher quality services), but you were often compelled to make choices you didn’t wish to do. Parties discriminated against are denied better livelihoods, and lose options that are entitled to others. They have worse medical options, worse transportation options, limited social spheres for networking, etc.

Compulsion is a balancing act. Whenever one sector of society amasses more power, it begins to compel sectors with less power. Continue reading Exploring the non-recursive arguments for Social Justice, pt. 1

“I am right, therefore …” or, A Heuristic for Detecting Pitfalls in Ethical Behavior

It is very easy to presuppose—implicitly and subconsciously—that one is right, unknowingly using that assumption to justify later claims.

Oftentimes we therefore fall into a fallacy of ethical reasoning where we assume, because we have the right position, that we are licensed to do actions that someone else—coming from the morally wrong position—is not permitted to do. We can therefore arrive at a heuristic for ethical reasoning: If an action’s moral right- or wrong-ness is determined solely by whether its doer comes from the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ position, then the justification for the rightness of an action is probably faulty.

This seems like a contrived pitfall, but is actually quite common:

In public shaming, we see this often. People find it acceptable to find someone’s personal information, track them, cost them their jobs, reputations, and cause their humiliation, because they feel that they represent the right side. Doxxing and public shaming seem to be morally wrong if associated with shaming Tyler Clementi to death, yet somehow acceptable to shame another private person on twitter for for being racist, homophobic, or sexist, as was the case with Justine Sacco’s unfortunate tweets. In reality, both are wrong.

In world conflict, this faulty logic is often the justification of unending cycles of violence. Those performing acts of terrorism in the West use the deaths of their countries’ civilians abroad as a justification to target and kill civilians in the west. From the terrorist’s point of view, the only thing differentiating their actions from the imperialist regime they claim to fight is that “We are us and they are them.—Since we are right, it is also right to …”

We see this in the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Rightist, Orthodox Israeli political parties believe it is right to expel or subjugate Palestinians, control the entire West Bank, and are okay with the many civilian casualties of the campaigns like the Gaza War. The basis for the Justification is that Hamas believes it is right to expel Israelis so that the entire land that constitutes the state of Israel is part of a Palestinian state, and are okay with civilian casualties as part of rocket or bombing operations. This is largely true; Hamas believes they are right and Jewish Home or United Torah Judiasm are wrong because… they are on the right side of the conflict. The same applies to either side.

Oftentimes indeed, one side of a conflict chooses to justify its actions towards another side solely because it presupposes that it is right. This is never an appropriate justification.

“I am right, therefore, I am right.” How unfortunate, but also, how inherently human.

In the west, thinkers and laypersons are getting over moral relativism. This is sometimes good, but also exposes new challenges. Indignation and self-righteousness are sweeping the internet. We condemn the conservative shaming campaign of Monica Lewinsky, but endorse the shaming campaign of Justine Sacco for her racist tweet. Conservatives shamed Lewinsky for her “lack of family values”, they viewed sexual modesty as a moral good and frowned on her impiety and acts of adultery. They labeled her a slut, a whore, and a tramp. Progressives will argue that these are bad reasons to shame someone. But unlike the conservatives, progressives often believe that casual racism and insensitivity are just cause for public shaming.

If you condemn one side for committing the same action you did, but justify your action with the fact that you decided a priori that you unlike others, actually represent the right side, then you are likely wrong.

What is the lesson here? The lesson is not to be a total relativist and never act against injustices we perceive, but rather, to seek further justifications, in hope that those justifications will inform our behavior and allow us to act with moderation.

Take Justine Succo for example. I argue that we should reject the naive argument that “unlike slut shaming, racism and bad and thus racist shaming is acceptable”. So now, we ask ourselves again: should we act? Sometimes, the answer becomes ‘no’. Sometimes, though, we now see real reasons to act behind the layers of indignation and revenge. If we allow racist speech to propagate, racism propagates, and becomes further embedded in our society, victimizing many. Therefore, we seek more enlightened ways to act: sometimes, we reach out to said person and offer to have a conversation; at other times, we decide to counter negative speech about one group with positive speech, or simply speak out to disagree (without personally shaming an individual), so that the public atmosphere is not polluted by these statements.

In international politics, it means stepping back from an “us versus them” mentality, and realize that our arguments are often 100% equivalent to “we should do X to the other side because they do X to us”—always a bad reason to justify anything. Maybe then we will advocate to more moderate or long-sighted policies, and put aside the very basic intuitive bloodthirsty retribution-seeking impulses.

In Search for Plausible and Intuitive forms of Act Consequentialism

Consequentialist theories are often exciting and tempting as they give us a real chance at having a universalizable theory of morality and justice. As a moral theory, one can look at the different flavors of consequentialism and evaluate them against a range of features of plausible moral theories, noting if each of those features are accounted for by each theory.

In this paper, I propose a number of features that we expect to exist in plausible moral theories. I discussing these features in general, mostly appealing to intuition to justify why we expect these features. The features, roughly, are: the existence of permissible morally good acts that go beyond what is morally required; reasonable level of blameworthiness of moral agents; and finally, the moral impermissibility to compel others to do the right thing on certain occasions.

In particular, I will spend some time examining objective act consequentialism, and expected value (subjective) act consequentialism, and discuss a number of remedies, including scalar utilitarianism, satisficing consequentialism and progressive consequentialism, in an effort to address some of these worries. Different moral theories will be appropriate in addressing these different worries.

The moral ought: permissibility and requirements

First, we expect a moral theory to have a distinction between one ought to do and what one may do. We expect a range of possible actions to be morally required, while others are morally good and have moral value beyond that of what is required. Giving money to a particular charity, for instance, is seen as morally good but not morally required. Certain personal sacrifices, such as undergoing pain (say, taking a bullet) on behalf of someone else, is also seen as morally good but not necessarily morally required.

In hopes that (some version of) consequentialism is a plausible moral system, we would like to observe that (some version of) consequentialism allows us to view both of these acts as morally good, but not be the only permissible (thus, required) actions out of the available set.

Plausible moral systems still include impermissible actions, so an interpretation of consequentialism (see scalar utilitarianism, discussed later) where all actions are permissible but good in varying degrees, fails to capture our moral intuitions. Inflicting harm on others is impermissible; failing to save a nearby drowning child is reprehensible; stopping to give a hungry homeless family a gold star sticker (which will make the child infinitesimally happier) might be seen as wrong if you could have given them food or money without expending more effort.

We often also expect a corresponding feature for morally bad and morally impermissible actions; given a range of possible actions, some might be morally impermissible, while others could be not morally ideal yet still permissible. For the purposes of our explorations, I will not concern myself with this feature as I am more interested in virtue than dis-virtue. It does not seem unreasonable for someone to extend the consequentialist theories that address morally good and virtuous, yet not required, to also address the opposite problem.

Act consequentialism, as commonly stated, says that an act is permissible if and only if no other available act has a better [expected] value, according to a certain axiology. Act consequentialism restrains and compels an agent making the decision into taking the action that maximizes moral goodness. A moral agent is not permitted to take an action that produces suboptimal [expected] value of moral goodness. This raises the common demandingness objection that concerns the opponents of utilitarianism.

One defense of act consequentialism as stated is to say that our intuition about morally good versus morally required actions only applies when we have epistemic concerns with following act consequentialism. For instance, one could say that plain act consequentialism makes a lot of sense when dealing with omniscient agents in cases of perfect-information; how could it possibly be morally permissible to condemn the world to be worse off than it can be?

Yet, our intuition about giving to charity is that it is not required, even though we can be very sure (at least, for some charities) that we condemn the world to be worse off by not contributing.

Looking back at the intuitive moral feature we are investigating, it is important to come up with a nuanced explanation of where and how plain act consequentialism falls short. For instance, act consequentialism is still expected to yield a set of permissible actions, not a single permissible action, in cases where available actions yield equal or incomparable results. Thus, it is incorrect to state that act consequentialism is deficient by only permitting a single action for a given situation.

Rather, our criticism can be put forward in one of two (equivalent) ways. Either that we worry that act and rule consequentialism overlook sufficiently good actions, accounting them as impermissible, only because better actions exist. Alternatively, our worry is that we expect to see, for each action in the set of permissible available actions in a given situation, a spectrum in the moral goodness of its consequences; yet, consequentialism suggests that, if such range were to be observed then only the actions with the maximal value would have been permissible. Rule consequentialism similarly fails to account for such range or spectrum of moral goodness of consequences of rules (e.g. the rule of giving to charity).

Both of these objections are very closely related to a common objection to act consequentialism: the demandingness objection. Continue reading In Search for Plausible and Intuitive forms of Act Consequentialism

How to Respond to Fire; Asserting the Self while Avoiding Hypocrisy

It is difficult to overcome the shock generated by the brutal assassination of Lt. Moath Kasasbeh. Indeed in many ways, I—and many like me—have yet to do so. Throughout the ordeal which was brought some closure by the awful news Tuesday, Jordanians, Arabs, and Muslims alike were of many minds. From anger towards ISIS to self-questioning of the country’s role in in the anti-ISIS coalition; from a proportionally cruel response to a calculated power-play, or a pragmatic non-response; from an impulse to double-down on the offense to withdrawing from intervention; we have felt it all, thought it all, and wanted it all.

The need to bring retribution onto those who are too cruel to even respect the last moment of another human is eating at all of us. How could one possibly bring appropriate retribution onto inhumane organizations without descending to proportional inhumanity? How do we resist blood thirsty revenge while still asserting that we—the honorable, peace-loving people of the world—exit, that we have might, that we have true red-lines that cannot be crossed? How does one assert anything when up against a force that it itself uses violence and terror?

Reclaiming Culture and Religion as a Duty

Certainly, the answer our response cannot be nothing. Nothing is not on the table. Our religions, culture, and region are too close to our heart to let them by hijacked by thought that promotes violence and barbarism. We must do something; something to reclaim our religions of peace, to reclaim our culture who—not too long ago—was known as a culture of hospitality and generosity.

The continued existence of the so-called “Islamic State” puts those things we hold near and dear in jeopardy. ISIS is not merely transforming the borders, bureaucracies, and institutions of neighboring countries; it is transforming the Arab culture I love and cherish, it is projecting a new radicalized Islam that is tipping scales, shifting spectra, and redefining what it means to moderate.

By participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, we are not intervening in an external matter, we are simply taking charge of our destiny. A continued, strong participation in the efforts against ISIS (both militarily and intellectually) is a matter of sovereignty and self-determination; we must reclaim our culture and religion from extremist radical thought.

Resisting Revenge

Yet, as we respond—militarily and otherwise—it remains imperative not to become the enemy. As the impulse for proportional retribution eats at each and every one of us, some have felt inclined to call for mass-bombings, burning, even gassing and chemical attacks as appropriate responses in moments of anger. Those should likely be off the table, when it comes to the list of appropriate responses. But what is left on?

A shorthand is to realize that actions with no utility cannot be on the table. Refining this shorthand further, we can say that destructive action whose only utility is to gratify our need for revenge and retribution is not permissible.

Indeed, framing a response in terms of its utility, the positive outcomes it generates, is a powerful first step in the healing process after having faced injustice. A proportional response should be of some benefit. This benefit can lie on many axes and is important to consider such axes individually.

In the international sphere and global balance of power, establishing steadfastness is disproportionately effective. Steadfastness is equally important in the global PR battle for the minds of young Muslims to prevent their radicalization. Steadfastness taking a public stance on ISIS and the radicalization of Islam, and taking action—some action—against those in our custody who directly support and promote such radicalization.

It is also important to realize the existence of a radicalization problem and to own it. The society that birthed these individuals who commit actions I find unfathomable is my own—it is our own. Every mom and pop can own this as a problem from within, not some external plot we have no control over, and take charge of deradicalizing the people around them.

Internationally, we must continue to promote reason and moderation, and must do so while avoiding hypocrisy (tempting as it may be).

A Reasonable, Escalated Military Intervention

If left untouched, ISIS is not going anywhere. It is a state-like organization that is armed, militarily entrenched, and active. Though unrecognized and condemned internationally, ISIS continues to create facts on the ground locally, creating bureaucracies and institutions that further reaffirms their presence and reality, leaving as many marks as it can on society. While it exists, ISIS will continue to brainwash youth locally and internationally. After its eventual demise, ISIS’s impact of society will proportional to the duration it remained active and embedded. Continue reading How to Respond to Fire; Asserting the Self while Avoiding Hypocrisy

“We Come in Peace” – War, Fear, and How You Can Help

Imagine you are among the first settler colonial humans to discover extraterrestrial life. You have landed somewhere in a distant planet, disembarked, and were going about your daily tasks as you encounter the first signs. Some seemingly sentient, intelligent creature approaches you. It looks different, nothing like you or anyone you’ve seen, not even like a reptile or sea creature. It approaches.

You might be afraid–you have no means of communicating with this creature. Your first thought is to reassure it: “I come in peace,” you could proclaim… not that it would understand.

When encountered with an unknown being, one that potentially has the ability to take your life, how do you behave?

I wager that most humans will translate their fear to violence.

Better be safe and kill the thing, right?

I often wonder why humans even bother to say they come in peace as the explore the cosmos. It often feels like we are setting ourselves up for an impossible feat, virtually guaranteeing that Time will judge us as hypocrites if the day comes when we meet extraterrestrials with whom we cannot communicate. Our fear of the unknown “other” often seems insurmountable.

Back on earth, our fear of the unknown other continues to harm us, robbing our humanity day by day. While we have the mans of communicating with other humans, our view of the “other” in military, political, and ideological conflict, is not too different from our view of an alien creature. Our ability to empathize with other humans diminishes as we convince ourselves of their otherness.

This is a problem that plagues every part of our human civilization, and is the root of racism, fanaticism, terrorism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, partisanship, and many, many political conflicts. One of these problems is particularly close to my heart: the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the fear of extraterrestrials though, this is a problem with a solution.

Seeds of Peace

The solution is simple: engage in dialogue to achieve coexistence.

In regions plagued with conflict, the sides often mystify each other and refuse to interact. A 2007 study by the Center for Research on Peace Education at Haifa University reinforces this idea: less that 50% of Jewish high school students surveyed were willing to meet Arab students. The percentage of Arab students willing to meet Jewish students is about 75% according to the survey, also a low percentage (the increased percentage on the side of the Palestinian Arabs could be attributed to the fact that Palestinians do interact with Israelis more regularly, through the IDF’s presence in checkpoints, etc.).

Other questions still reveal a disconnect: 75% of Jewish high school students thought Arabs were uneducated, uncivilized, unclean, and violent. On the Palestinian side, 27% believe Jewish people are uneducated, 40% believe they are uncivilized, 57% believe they are unclean, and 64% believe they are violent.

In this part of the world, Jews and Arabs view each other as strange and exotic. With this strangeness comes fear, then hatred.

Many organizations try to solve this problem by bringing together teenagers from opposite sides of conflict-torn regions and getting them to engage in dialog. Prime among these initiatives is Seeds of Peace. Dialog and argumentation rarely changes anyone’s minds when it comes to the facts. Instead, through dialog and living in close quarters, we get a more valuable outcome: camaraderie.

I will continue to hope that the politicians of today miraculously put an end to the Middle East conflict, but I will not count on it, sitting and doing nothing. What I am counting on, however, is that 20 more years down the line, the leaders of the next generation will be empowered with a new perspective, an insight on the humanity of the Other.

You can get involved or donate to Seeds of Peace if you are also not willing to count on the politicians of today to solve one of the most contentious conflicts of our time.

More Nuance and Maturity Required in Arguments against NSA Surveillance

Like many, I feel uncomfortable with much of the information revealed about the NSA’s surveillance program. The reach and scale of the program are alarming at best, and for many of us, it demonstrates an unjustified attack on the right to privacy. Yet, as I read the arguments leveled against the NSA and other spy agencies for their surveillance programs, I find it hard to identify with or feel represented by any of these arguments: they seem somewhat lacking at best, and likely, fallacious. I am writing this post to demonstrate the flaws with most popular arguments against spying, surveillance, and the NSA. The goal—I hope—is clear: a call for more nuanced arguments that more clearly define why and to what extent is the NSA surveillance program ‘wrong’.

The most common arguments against the NSA are variations of the following:

  • The NSA serves no real national security benefits, only usurping the right of the citizens to privacy, or
  • The gains of the NSA surveillance program do not by any means outweigh the harms of becoming a surveillance state, or
  • Surveillance is only justifiable against enemies or in a state of war.

The problem with the first two arguments is that they ignore the clear historical benefits of spying and decipherment, from the Zimmermann telegram in 1917 [1, p. 107], to the cracking of the ENIGMA in World War II [2, pp. 16-17].

To claim that there must be no benefits to spying in recent times because we haven’t seen them is false; the ENIGMA project was secret until 1974, 29 years after the end of World War II. The United Kingdom also exposed the telegram under a false cover (that they obtained a leaked clear-text message from the embassy in Mexico), instead of exposing the cryptanalysis effort to allow the spying effort to continue.

To say the benefits do not outweigh the harms of being a surveillance state is not a good argument: it sounds like an inherently utilitarian claim that involves a cost-benefit analysis. Yet the argument is thrown around saying the harms always outweigh the benefits. What if we were dealing with Hitler, as we were in the 30s?

The argument, therefore, is either a practical one: “there does not seem to be a reason in today’s world to spy”, or an absolutist one: “it is never ok to spy on others”. I have not been able to see an absolutist argument why no benefit ever (i.e. preventing nuclear arms in terrorists’ hands) would outweigh surveillance.

Yet the argument also cannot be a practical one: in today’s world, we do in fact have plenty of reasons. Most political scientists agree that among the greatest geopolitical threats to global stability is nuclear proliferation among non-state actors (namely terrorist organizations) [3] [4] [5]. A world where nuclear weapons have proliferated to non-state actors is a world where deterrence does not work—where second-strike capabilities mean nothing [6]. This is clearly a big deal, and clearly requires spying, not on foreign enemies, but or non-state actors who can be citizens of any country, and reside anywhere.

What we need is a pragmatic argument against the expansive NSA surveillance program. One that says that spying is has benefits which sometimes should be utilized, but that certain kinds and extents of spying do not provide sufficient returns.

A blanket argument: “spying does not work” is clearly incorrect—spying has worked in the past and certainly has the potential to work now. Short of becoming an actual military and surveillance state, with full CCTV coverage, regular checkpoints, and strict closed borders, signals intelligence is our best bet. Arguments that are opposed to any form of spying are not going to fly; we need arguments against certain extents of spying.

Continue reading More Nuance and Maturity Required in Arguments against NSA Surveillance

The Subscription Model is the Future of Software—and for good reason

Microsoft recently announced the launch of Office for iPad. Many people took note about the pricing model behind Office for iPad: the apps are free to download, and the user can open and view documents, spreadsheets, and presentations for free, but must pay for an Office 365 subscription to edit these files. Many have taken notice.

At Microsoft, the move to a subscription-based model has been going on for some time. Office 365 was launched in 2011. With Office 2013, the move towards the subscription model has been consummated: a user with an Office 365 subscription can use click-to-run to stream any Office app on any machine, and has access to the latest bits of the software at all times.

Many in the tech community and elsewhere have met this move with caution or concern. At the heart of these concerns are two ideas:

  1. a subscription model to use the software, instead of being able to purchase it, means that we never really own the software we pay for, and
  2. a subscription model also seems like a way to bleed money out users, especially infrequent users.

These are legitimate concerns, but I will argue that out understanding of software ownership is outdated and harmful. Further, the financial concerns about software subscriptions can be mitigated.

It seems that it is fair to—and often, acceptable—to charge for a service on a continuous basis as it is being provided, but neither fair nor acceptable to charge a continuous fee for the use of goods, where one is expected to “own” such good. The renting of goods will come up as an obvious counterexample, but I suppose renting is an exception rather than the rule.

Software is seen as a good, and to pay a subscription for software exactly as an attempt to rent it out. Many will object to the business model of “renting out” software licenses because the use of software by one user does not exclude others. It therefore seems that renting out software is a greedy attempt at amassing profit, rather than a legitimate business practice.

But in this day and age, the use of software carries many hidden costs. A company must offer supports to users of software, including users who own older versions, or interoperate with other users who own older versions. A user could be complaining about a bug fixed several years ago, but if the user is having this problem, as a company, it is also your problem. A company could also choose to have strict terms of service and choose not to support some of these areas, but here we see another cost of having your old software out in the wild: its reputation.

Here, I hope an example from Microsoft software will be illuminating.

Case: Windows XP

Windows XP was released in 2001 and still commands a usage share of some 30% of traditional PCs today. Support for Windows XP has been extended multiple times since it was first slated to expire, but in April 2014, support for Windows XP will finally expire. This is good news for everyone in the tech world: a 13-year old operating system has no place in 2014.

30% of traditional PC users are currently using an operating system that is more susceptible to attack. Some team of programmers in Microsoft is writing software fixing bugs and closing holes in a piece of software written in 2001, when many of these bugs have been made irrelevant by new security models, access controls, and sandboxing techniques that their colleagues have developed years ago for Windows Vista, 7, and 8. Developers throughout the world need to make sure that their websites are compatible with IE6, 7, and 8, even though IE9 has been released in 2011 and support open web standards more properly than previous versions.

Windows XP costs everyone today. Microsoft especially sees issues: the reputation of IE has declined, many developers no longer support or attempt to use modern versions of IE because they have a negative impression of the browser. Customers compare a Windows XP netbook circa 2004 with a 2011 iPad and decide not to bother with Windows.

There is one “cost” that I have not mentioned yet, because I do not think it is a legitimate part of this debate. That “cost” is the cost of modern Windows licenses that could be sold to these PC owners. It is true that the biggest competition for a new version of Windows is the previous version of Windows. I will not concern myself with this idea as a justification for subscriptions; as users, it is not our job to accommodate our lifestyles to optimize a company’s profitability.

Therefore, I am building an argument that is quite straightforward: the continuous use of Windows XP costs Microsoft in real, meaningful ways, not only in opportunity costs of missed sales.

Many developers are horrified at the idea of anyone using Windows XP. Developers of course don’t care if those Windows XP users update their operating system to a newer version of Windows or a competing product.

These users, however, have purchased and therefore ‘own‘ the operating system. Imagine a washing machine maker going to your home and demand that you buy a new one: “It doesn’t need to be from us,” a representative would tell you, “you can buy any new washing machine, as long as it’s modern. This one is much too old and we can’t have you keep it.”

Enterprise users have more of a reason to continue using XP. The 30% usage figure, however, contains many home users of the operating system.

If we cling on to our conception of software ownership, then we really can’t demand anything out of these users. Maybe we should.

The Solution

The real solution to this problem is to rid ourselves of this conception of software ownership. It seems arbitrary at best to distinguish between software downloaded and running locally (“a good”) and software hosted on the web (“a service”), if the continuous use of both of them carries a similar cost.

A subscription means that you have access to the latest bits of the software you intend to use at all times. Third-party developers can count on the majority of their users using newer versions. The software maker will see a reduced need to support legacy formats, instead moving closer to (n) ↔ (n-1) compatibility guarantees. A subscription therefore means that development is more tractable, that users witness faster rates of improvement, and that software is generally more reliable.

Case: SimCity

Subscription-based models will also help speed up the advent of cloud-assisted and cloud-enabled software. When a user purchases a game or program, the user often feels entitled to the right of using this software offline. Developers who wish to be on the cutting edge are offering online-only options that are often being met with anger.

EA asked users to purchase SimCity, a game that required a continuous internet connection to be played. Users objected on for the following bases:

  1. the always-online requirement seems to be arbitrary and offer no real advantages that cannot be implemented in an offline-only version, and
  2. locking users into EA servers means that legitimate owners of the game will be left in the dark if EA decides to top supporting the game or close their servers.

I will not argue against the first point, other than to point out that other games could exist which legitimately take advantage of the cloud to offer superior online-only experiences. The real issue, however, is that users did not want to pay to own a game that they will not be able to use at some point.

The Big Picture: “Free” Software and Piracy

I am using “free” in quotation marks to refer to software that is “free (as in beer)” as opposed to “free (as in freedom)”.

My opinion on the EA and SimCity debacle is simple: EA should have offered SimCity for ‘free’, not purchase, and instead charged users a subscriptions to play the game. If EA ever shuts down its servers (as it often does), these subscriptions are terminated. The users got what they paid for (the use of the game for a given period) and we move on to the next innovation.

I will be the first to admit that this assessment is incomplete. It would be much preferable if EA opened up SimCity to allow other servers to spur up (at least if they choose to shut down the official servers). Whether EA owes this to the users, or whether it is simply a better alternative will be left as an exercise to the reader, and is definitely the next part of this debate on “free” software openness.

We are now looking at the big picture: in today’s world, buying, selling, and owning software are outdated concepts. Privacy advocates have long argued that the marginal cost of copying software is practically 0, and only potentially impacts software makers in terms of opportunity cost. Software is information and should be copied freely, they argue.

The subscription model ends the privacy debate. Companies should not be charging for copies of software, but the service of use and support.

What piracy advocates have noticed years ago is that software makers are charging for software illegitimately at the wrong stage of the development-distribution-use process. The subscription model admits this mistake and recognizes that the true cost of software—other than its development—is proportional not to the number of users using it, but instead the amount of user-hours the software is being used.

Does a future of subscription-based software mean it is more expensive for the user? I don’t think so. Companies should instead be expected to offer flexible options, such as day or week passes that should accommodate very infrequent users. We should demand that software makers provide affordable options: the cost of a one-year license to use a product should be significantly lower than the cost software makers currently charge to purchase a license indefinitely.

Simply put, charging users for a copy of an application is not the way forward for software. All (or perhaps most) software is a service that involves patches, updates, support, and more. A subscription-based model puts an end to many current-day arguments in favor of software piracy, allows software makers to innovate at a higher rate, and gives users access to the latest bits at all times.