A Philosopher's Blog

Education & Unions

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 30, 2012
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While there are many excellent schools, there are also serious problems plaguing the American education system. People are, of course, eager to point fingers and these fingers are often pointed at teachers’ unions. Being a professor at a state school, it should hardly be a surprise that I am a member of the UFF, NEA and AFT. Because of this, my writing on this subject should be read with a critical eye so as to catch any bias in my claims or any trickery in my argumentation.

One stock argument against unions is based on the claim that the teachers’ unions are aimed at the good of the union members and this good is not always consistent with what is good for the students. There are, of course, harsher versions which involve claims that unions serve primarily to protect incompetent teachers and to do other wicked and damaging things.

This line of argument can have merit. After all, unions do (in theory) aim at benefiting their membership and the members of the teachers’ unions are teachers rather than students. There are also legitimate concerns that unions have enabled incompetent teachers to retain their jobs and that the lobbying power of teachers’ unions has been used in ways that might not lead to the best use of public money. That is, it could be argued that teachers’ unions function like pretty much all such organizations ranging from labor unions to corporations to political parties. This does not justify or excuse such behavior, but it does indicate that teachers’ unions are hardly unique in their sins. It also suggests that if organizations that serve the interest of their members but can be a detriment to the public good should be gotten rid of, then we should not just be rid of teachers’ unions but also corporations and political parties as well.

Of course, it would be absurd to rid society of all organisations that might act contrary to the public good-after all, this would undo much of society itself. Rather it would seem more sensible to address the alleged harms done by an organization so as to determine whether the organization should be changed (or perhaps destroyed). After all, to be rid of teachers’ unions because it is alleged that they have some role in the woes of education would seem to be on par with being rid of financial corporations because they happened to wreck the world economy (any only the most radical are suggesting that).

Turning back to teachers’ unions, there would seem to be two main avenues of legitimate criticism. One would be that  teachers’ unions are somehow intrinsically damaging to the education system. That is, it is simply the nature of these unions that they will, of necessity, cause trouble. Interestingly enough, some critics of capitalism make similar claims about corporations and other business: they must, by their very nature, be exploitative and harmful.

The idea that organizations such as unions and corporations are inherently harmful is certainly an interesting idea and one that would be well worth investigating in more detail. However, it seems unlikely that teachers organizing into unions must, of necessity, create harm to the education system. To support this, I offer two arguments.

First, there is the example of Finland. It has a unionized education system that is, in fact, excellent. As such, if unions were of necessity a bane to education, then Finland should be doing badly rather than well. Of course, it could be argued that Finland is an unusual exception. This takes me to my second argument.

Second, if  unions are a significant cause of educational woes (as some critics claim) in the United States and elsewhere, then one would expect to see correlation between the presence of unions and such woes. To use the obvious analogy, if a toxin causes disease, one would expect to see more cases of the disease in areas where to toxin concentration is higher. Interestingly enough, educational quality in the United States does not seem to correlate with the presence or absence of unions, but rather with other factors. In the case of K-12 public education, the quality and problems seem to match quite closely the poverty or wealth of the school and the community.  That is, “poor” schools tend to have far more problems than “rich” schools. As such, it would seem that it is not primarily a matter of unions (after all, rich and poor schools alike are unionized) but rather other factors.

It might be replied that unions are still a problem but that the money enables the schools to counter the damage done by unions (just as a wealthy community might be able to counter a toxin by having more money to spend on treatment and prevention). This is a point worth considering, but what would be needed would be evidence that the unions are doing the damage rather than the other factors that seem to correlate with educational woes.

In regards to the claim that unions are inherently harmful because the serve the interests of teachers, one rather obvious reply is that students have no union and the organizations that are most likely to act in ways that are in the interest of students are teachers’ unions. After all, these unions generally aim at things like better schools, better funding for educational programs and so on. That is, the interests of teachers overlap the interests of students and teachers’ unions tend to provide students with the only organized voice in the realm of politics. As such, teachers’ unions do not seem to be intrinsically bad. There is also the obvious concern of how eliminating these unions would actually improve education-that is, what group would step in to see to it that the interests of the students and teachers were being taken into account.

Another avenue of criticism is to raise specific problems that particular actions by unions or union members cause. For example, if a union acts to prevent incompetent teachers from being fired at a specific school, then this act could be legitimately criticized and such problems should be addressed.

In general, it would be rather odd if unions did not cause some problems. If they did not, they would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning unions. Given the fervor with which these unions are being attacked, it might be suspected that some folks stand to make a profit by getting rid of these unions. But perhaps that is merely cynicism on my part. After all, I am sure that the people funding the attacks on unions and the politicians who will attack them are merely driven by a love of the public good and are doing it for the children.

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The Media, Gotcha Questions & Tacos

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2012
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It has long been a common practice on the right to accuse the media of having a liberal bias. Sarah Palin added a new spin on this approach by popularizing the notion of the “gotcha” question. As might be imagined, politicians continue to avail themselves of the notion that the media is out to get them.

In some cases the media does act in ways that seem to indicate that certain folks are out to get politicians. For example, CNN’s John King started off a presidential debate by asking Newt about what his second wife had said about his alleged request for an open marriage. While Newt handed King his rump on a platter, Newt also launched into an attack on the media.

On the one hand, Newt made some legitimate criticisms about how the media folks tend to bring up matters that are salacious yet lacking in actual merit as news stories. In the case of Newt, his character is relevant. However, as Newt points out, the story of his infidelity is old news and bringing it up at the start of the debate does seem to be rather uncalled for. This does, as one might imagine, raise some interesting questions about media ethics in regards to the timing of stories as well as the focus the media folks place on certain stories.

On the other hand, the media did not make up the story-Newt did, in fact, behave in ways contrary to his own currently espoused morality. Newt’s claim that the media makes it difficult for decent people to run for office seems to be questionable in that the professional media merely reports what people do and, as such, decent people would have no such sordid tales in their background. For politicians to complain that the media folks are reporting what they do and say is comparable to Meletus’ anger at Socrates for making evident his failings. The misdeed lies not with the person who reveals the misdeed but with the person who commits it.

More recently, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. was asked by the press about the alleged harassment of Hispanics by members of the town’s police force. In reply to a very straightforward question about what he would do about the situation, he said he   “might have tacos.” As might be imagined, this did not go over very well.

While he did say he took responsibility for his actions, he also blamed the media and accused the reporter of asking a “gotcha” question. However, the question hardly appears to be anything that would legitimately count as a “gotcha” question in that it is not loaded, overly complicated, confusing, or otherwise trap-like in content. Also, the media folks presented his claim in full context. If they had, for example, asked him what he would have for dinner and then edited that in as his reply, then he could justly accuse the media of being unfair. However, he was asked a straightforward question and his reply was presented in context. As such, the only one he has to blame for his words is himself. Perhaps the biggest gripe that politicians have with the media folks is that they so often make public what politicians actually say and do (“how dare they report what I said!”). That, however, does not seem to be anything unfair or unjust on the part of the media. Rather, that seems to be their job.

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35% versus 15%

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 25, 2012
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Mitt Romney garnered considerable media attention by his rambling answer to the question of whether or not he would make his tax returns public. While Mitt should have just said “yes”, he eventually noted that he probably paid at a tax rate of about 15%. He did note that he probably paid a higher percentage on his speaking fees, but he said he didn’t make much from that-a mere $374,328 last year.

While the capital gains tax caps at 15%, income tax caps at 35% (for those who have a taxable income of over $388,350). By way of comparison, a  person who earns $8,701-35,350 pays 15% income tax. Naturally, the actual percentage will vary based on factors such as deductions. However, it is certainly interesting that someone like Romney (who makes a fortune from capital gains) pays at the same rate as a person who makes vastly less by working.

The stock justification for this disparity is that it is intended to promote investment and that investment drives the economy. However, the fact that other income (like paychecks) can be taxed at much higher rates would seem to indicate that working for a living is regarded as less important than receiving profits from investments. This does seem to be something of a mistake: after all, without people actually doing things, there would be no point for the capital investments. That is, there would be no actual things to invest in (well, other than the arcane results of financial engineering). As such, if the low tax rates on capital gains are intended to promote investment, it would seem that comparable tax rates should be placed on other income to encourage people to work.

After all, it has been common for politicians and pundits to claim that higher tax rates on capital gains will destroy job creation because job creators will be de-motivated from investing. However, that logic would seem to entail that the higher tax rates on other income should also de-motivate people. That is, people should stop working because of the higher tax rates. Perhaps this explains the unemployment numbers-just as the pundits predicted, taxes have destroyed their motivation to create value. In fact, if the pundits are right, it is a wonder that anyone who makes more than $35,350 goes to work at all-after all, they have to pay more than 15% and this is the level that is apparently deemed to be the maximum percentage that investors can tolerate.

This disparity not only indicates the perceived value of work versus investment, but also the political influence. Those who derived most of their income from capital gains (like Mitt Romney) tend to be wealthy and generally tend to have far more influence than those who merely work for a living. Also, there is the obvious fact that the folks who write the laws tend to be heavy investors as well. As such, the tax laws are written to benefit the wealthy-which is hardly shocking. While the wealthy do have to pay some taxes, even this modest burden is seen as grotesquely unfair by some of them and some of their stalwart allies (who also tend to be wealthy). Romney is a natural poster boy for the incredible disparity in American incomes and his various comments nicely show the disconnect between most of the top 1% and the rest of America.

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Warbots

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2012
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The United States and many other nations currently operate military remote operated vehicles (ROVs) that are more commonly known as drones. While the ROVs began as surveillance devices, the United States found that they make excellent weapon platforms. The use of such armed ROVs has raised various moral issues, mainly in regards to the way they are employed (such as the American campaign of targeted killing). In general, ROVs themselves do not seem to pose a special moral challenge-after all, they seem to be on par with missiles and bombers (although the crew of a manned bomber is at risk in ways that ROV operators are not).

The great success of ROVs has created a large ROV industry and has also spurred on the development of true robots for military and intelligence use. While existing ROVs often have some autonomous capabilities, they are primarily directed by an operator. An autonomous robot would be capable of carrying out entire missions without human intervention and it is most likely simply a matter of time before “warbots” (armed autonomous robots) are deployed. As might be imagined, setting robotic killing machines loose raises some moral concerns.

On the positive side, warbots are not people and hence the use of warbots would lower the death and injury rate for humans-at least for the side that is deploying the warbots. Obviously, if warbots are deployed to kill humans, then there will still be human casualties. They will, however, be less than in human-human battles, at least in most cases. Given this fact, it would seem that warbots would be morally acceptable on utilitarian grounds: their use would reduce (in general) human death and suffering.

It could even be argued that future wars might be purely robot versus robot battles and thus eliminating human casualties altogether (assuming humans are still around: see for, example, the classic game Rivets). This would, presumably, be a good thing. Assuming, of course, that the robots would not be turned against humans.

While the idea of wars being settled by robots has some appeal, there is the concern that robots would actually make wars more likely to occur and easier to sustain. The current armed ROVs enable the United States to engage in military operations and targeted killings with no risk to Americans and this lack of casualties makes the campaign relatively easy to maintain relative to operations that involve American casualties. As such, one obvious concern about warbots is that they would make it that much easier for violence to be used and to continue to be used.

Imagine if a country could just send in robots to do the fighting. There would be no videos of dead soldiers being dragged through the streets (as occurred in Somalia) and no maimed veterans returning home. All the causalities would be on the side of the enemy, thus making such a conflict very easy on the side armed with warbots and this would tend to significantly reduce any concern about the conflict among the general population. Thus, while warbots would tend to reduce human causalities on the side that has robots, they might actually increase the amount of conflicts and this might prove to be a bad thing.

A second point in favor of warbots is that they, unlike human soldiers, have no feelings of anger or lust. As such, they would not engage in war crimes or other reprehensible behavior (such as rape or urinating on enemy corpses) on their own accord. They would simply conduct their assigned missions without feeling or deviation.

Of course, while warbots  lack the tendency of humans to act badly from emotional causes, they  also lack the quality of mercy. As such, robots sent to commit war crimes or atrocities (the creation of atrocitybots, such as torturebots and rapebots, is surely just a matter of time)will simply conduct such operations without question, protest or remorse.

That said, human leaders who wish to have wicked things done generally can find human forces who are quite willing to obey even the most terrible orders for such things as genocide and rape. As such, the impact of warbots in this area is a matter that is uncertain. Presumably the use of warbots by ethical commanders will result in a reduction in such incidents (after all, the warbots will not commit misdeeds unless ordered to do so). However, the use of warbots by the wicked would certainly increase such incidents dramatically (after all, the warbots will not disobey).

There has been some discussion about programming warbots with ethics (an idea that goes back to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics). Laying aside the obvious difficulty of creating a warbot that engages in moral reasoning (and the concern that a warbot that could do this would thus be a person), this programming is something that would be as easy to remove or change as it was to install. To use the obvious analogy, such restraints would be like the safety on a gun: it does provide a measure of safety, but can easily be switched off.

This is not to say that such safeguards would be useless-they could, for example, provide some protection from the misuse of warbots by people who lacked the technical expertise to change the programming. After all, the warbot is not the moral risk, rather those who give it orders are. This, of course, leads to the question of moral accountability.

WWII rather clearly established that human soldiers cannot simply appeal to “I was just following orders” to avoid responsibility for their actions.  Warbots, however, can use this defense (at least until they become people). After all, they simply do what they are programmed to do-be that engaging enemy troops or exterminating children with a flamethrower. As such, the accountability for what a warbot does lies elsewhere. The warbot is, after all, nothing more than an autonomous weapon.

In most cases the moral accountability will lie with the person who controls the robot and gives it is mission orders. So, if an officer sends it to kill children, then /she is just as accountable for those murders as s/he would be for using a gun or bomb to kill them in person.

Of course, things become more complicated when, for example,  a warbot is sent on a legitimate mission with legitimate orders but circumstances lead to a war crime being committed. For example, imagine a warbot is sent to engage enemy forces on the outskirts of a town. However, a manufacturing defect in its sensors leads it to blunder into a playground where its buggy target recognition software causes it to engage six children with its .50 caliber machine guns. It seems likely that such accidents will happen with the early warbots, but it seems unlikely that this will seriously impede their deployment-they are almost certainly the wave of the future in warfare. Unless, of course, something so horrible happens that puts the entire world off robots. However, we have a rather high tolerance level for horror-so expect to see warbots coming soon to a battlefield near you.

Sorting out the responsibility in such cases will be, as might be imagined, a complicated matter. However, there is considerable precedent in regards to accidental deaths caused by defective machinery and no doubt the same reasoning can be applied. Of course, there does seem to be some difference between being injured as the result of a defective brake system and being machine gunned by a defective warbot.

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War Dead

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2012
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There was a brief flap in the media about American marines allegedly urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Rick Perry weighed in on this as did John McCain.

On the one hand, it is easy to understand why soldiers might urinate on or otherwise desecrate the bodies of fallen foes. First, soldiers facing the sort of situation that exists in Afghanistan probably feel frustrated and angry to a degree that exceeds that felt during a more conventional war. As such, when an enemy is killed, there probably remains some desire to continue to “hurt” him. Second, getting people to be willing to kill other people already puts them in a state of mind in which they have already overcome some rather serious behavior barriers. After all, the behavioral barrier that normally prevents us from shooting other people in the head is probably a much higher moral barrier than the one that normally keeps us from urinating on the corpse of an enemy. Second, the mistreatment of the dead can be seen as part of the violence of conflict. In the past it was not uncommon for the bodies of the slain to be mutilated (sometimes in the belief that these injuries would be carried into the afterlife). As such, the desecration of the enemy is merely the continuation of the violence that began with his death.

On the other hand, this sort of behavior seems to be morally reprehensible. First, to reverse the situation, Americans were horrified when the body of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland was dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu as people cheered and abused his remains. Given our view of this abuse of our dead, we would seem to be obligated to be consistent in our principles and thus condemn the mistreatment of the corpses of our enemies.

Second, even though the dead are most likely not hurt by this (it seems unlikely that this mistreatment somehow carries over into a metaphysical afterlife), Kant’s arguments about the treatment of animals can be modified to be used to argue against mistreating corpses.

While a corpse cannot be harmed by the abuse (the dead are presumably beyond such things), such abuse does harm to the person engaged in it and, as Kant argued, could damage their humanity and make them more inclined to act badly towards living people. As such, the dead should be treated with a reasonable degree of respect.

Of course, as noted above, if people are already killing people, then it might seem to miss the point to be nonplussed about the killing but outraged at the urination. After all, if people are already at the point where they are fine with killing, then it could be argued that they are already morally damaged to a degree that a little urination will not increase.

In reply, it can be argued that killing in the time of war is somehow consistent with treating people with respect and that a person can be both a killer and morally decent person, at least in the context of war. While this might seem to be a bit insane, experience does seem to support this. After all, while soldiers do suffer emotional trauma, most combat troops do not regard themselves as murderers and they are generally not regarded as such.

One way to make sense of this is to consider why the soldiers are killing and the typical attitude towards what they are doing. In generally, they are killing to achieve military objectives and the attitude typically does not involve a desire to murder but rather a desire to achieve the objectives (and not die) with minimal casualties (after all, most professional soldiers prefer that the enemy surrenders as opposed to fighting to the death). In the case of desecrating a corpse, this does not contribute towards achieving a legitimate military objective and it involves a degree of personal animosity that is not typical of military operations.

As a final point, there is also the moral concern of the impact of such behavior. In the case of the endless war on terror, one major objective is to win over “hearts and minds” (something that we attempted in Vietnam). Obviously enough, urinating on dead Taliban fighters is not going to help America’s image in the region (and the world) and will serve to put American forces in the region in somewhat greater danger. As such, desecrating corpses is something that should not be tolerated.

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Is SOPA a Shakedown?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2012
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I must admit that I have become somewhat cynical over the years. While I still believe in truth, justice and all that, I view politicians in general and congress in particular with considerable skepticism.

Congress is currently considering SOPA and PIPPA. While these sound like Pokemon names, they are being put forth with the stated purpose of combating piracy. Critics, of which there is a multitude, contend that SOPA and PIPA will be devastating to the “small” players in the internet realm.

Being a professional writer and an ethical person, it is hardly surprising that I am against online piracy and have argued that it is immoral. As such, I do support reasonable, just and fair means of combating piracy-if only for the selfish reason that I would prefer that people not steal my work. However, I would prefer to live with the risk of piracy than have draconian laws and regulations in place. Naturally, this is a false dilemma: we can obviously have mechanisms to combat piracy that are not draconian.

Getting back to my cynicism, I suspect that SOPA and PIPA are shakedown tools. In the current political system, members of congress need to spend significant sums of money in order to be re-elected. In order to keep this money flowing in, they need to give people and corporations a reason to fork over that sort of cash. One obvious way to do this is to create legislation that folks with large sums of money are interested in passing or preventing. SOPA and PIPA are backed by many large media corporations and they have, as might be imagined, dumped a lot of money into the campaign coffers of the folks in congress. Those who oppose SOPA and PIPA will need to lobby against them and this also involves money being tossed into those same coffers. As such, these laws are a win-win situation for the folks in congress in that they help them generate the vast sums of cash they need to ensure that they will remain where they can get even more vast sums of cash.

On this matter I find myself agreeing with true conservatives: I am opposed to this expansion of government regulation.

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Remote Control Assassination

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2012
Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

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Assassination was, obviously enough, not invented by Americans. While we were rather late to the game in this regard (being a young country, we deserve to be cut some slack) we have added our own American touch to the practice. While old school assassinations required that the assassin go in person to do the killing, American assassins can terminate targets across the planet and do so while sitting in a comfy chair. They can do this because we have a variety of Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs ) or, as they are popularly known, drones. Our standard flying angel of death is the Predator, which was upgraded from a mere surveillance vehicle to a Hellfire missile carrying killing machine.

As might be imagined, the idea that American intelligence services are shooting Hellfire missiles at people (including American citizens) raises various moral and legal questions. Naturally, I will focus on the moral aspect of the matter.

One stock defense of these targeted killings (or, if you prefer, assassinations) is that they are legitimate military operations in a time of war. While this might seem like a rather convenient sort of justification, it is worth considering. After all, if killing in war is morally tolerable, and these attacks are legitimate acts of war, then they could be morally tolerable.

While this oversimplifies things, what morally justifies killing in war tends to be the fact that the actions are conducted within the rules of war and are conducted by legitimate combatants. To use the obvious analogy, if I am boxing someone in a legitimate boxing match, then our beating each other in the face and torso is morally acceptable because we are legitimate combatants operating within the constraints of a rule governed activity. In contrast, if I just start attacking people on the street, then that is quite another matter. It would also be quite another matter if I used a knife in the boxing match or started attacking spectators.

One point of moral concern about the drone attacks conducted by the CIA and other such agencies is that they are not military entities. That is, they would not seem to be legitimate military combatants. This is supported by the intuitive view that when intelligence agents kill people, they are seen as engaged in assassination rather than in combat operations.

An obvious reply is that intelligence agencies could simply be regarded as military entities, although they do not undergo military training, they do not  fall under the military chain of command, and they are not subject to the same sort of moral and legal restrictions as the professional military. However, even if they are considered military entities, there is still the question of whether or not such targeted killings are morally acceptable.

One stock argument for these targeted killings is that they are killing terrorists with lower civilians and military casualties than a more conventional approach would create. After all, shooting a Hellfire missile into a house is far less risky (for Americans) than sending in an American special operations team and less damaging than simply bombing the area.  As such, this tactic can be justified on utilitarianian grounds: drone killings kill more “bad guys” at the cost of less “good guys” and “innocent folks.”  This is a rather appealing line of reasoning, but there are still some concerns.

One concern is that for every intended target killed, drone strikes kill an average of ten civilians. If it is assumed that killing civilians is wrong (which seems reasonable), there is the question of whether or not the killing of the intended targets is worth the deaths of the civilians. To be cynical about it, we do tolerate a certain number of deaths in most aspects of life and regard this as acceptable. For example, tens of thousands of people die in automobile accidents each year, yet we consider driving to be morally acceptable. As another, perhaps more relevant example, we accept civilians casualties as part of war. As such, perhaps this ratio of targets to unintended kills is acceptable under the ethics that governs warfare.

Another concern is that the drone strikes are not aimed at conventional military goals, such as taking a strategic objective or destroying the enemy’s military assets. The objective is to kill (assassinate) a specific person or persons. In some cases these targets have been American citizens, which raises another set of legal and moral concerns. Intuitively, there seems to be an important distinction between, for example, trying to capture a city and trying to kill a specific person.

One obvious counter to this is to cite the example of Operation Vengeance. In WWII, American P-38 fighters  were sent to intercept and kill Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. The Americans succeeded in downing Yamamoto’s “Betty” bomber and his body was subsequently found by the Japanese. This, as might be imagined, had a significant impact on the war in terms of morale and as in terms of the elimination of one of the top Japanese leaders.

However, there are some obvious distinctions between the killing of Yamamoto and drone attacks. In Operation Vengeance, the pilots were Army pilots and they engaged armed enemy aircraft in battle (the Japanese escort fighters and armed bombers were shooting back). That is, the operation was clearly a military operation.

It might be replied that these difference are not relevant and that what matters is that a specific individual was targeted for killing. If it was morally acceptable to kill Yamamoto  by shooting his plane down, then it would seem equally acceptable to blow up a terrorist with a Hellfire missile.

On one hand, this seems like a reasonable reply. After all, the means do not seem as critical as the results when assessing the ethics of the matter. On the other hand, the process does seem to matter. After all, there does seem to be a moral distinction between a combat mission against armed opponents and a drone shooting a Hellfire missile through an alleged terrorist’s window. To use an obvious analogy, the police can morally down a suspect who is shooting at them, but it would not be acceptable for them to put a bomb in a suspect’s car simply because they found it hard to arrest him.

But, some might say, the fact that the target is a terrorist changes things. While the Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack, that was a military operation and the war was fought as a war. The modern terrorists do not wear uniforms, they do not fly fighter planes with clear markings, they hide among civilians, and they try to avoid directly engaging with enemy forces in battle. As such, they cannot be engaged using the conventional means or rules of war and perhaps this morally justifies the use of targeted drone attacks. It can also be argued that the targeted drone attacks are morally superior to the terrorists’ tactics. After all, the drones are sent to kill  suspected terrorists and the idea is to avoid killing civilians. In contrast, terrorists tend to make no such distinction and their attacks are generally aimed at killing anyone in the area regardless of who they are. Of course, merely being better than a terrorist might not be quite good enough to make the practice morally acceptable.

One final point of concern is one that has been raised by others as well, namely that by engaging in targeted killings we are changing the game by setting a legal and moral precedent. By engaging in the targeted killings of our foes, we present a most eloquent argument for our acceptance of the practice. As such, when Americans become the targets of foreign drones, we will see our robotic chickens come home to roost (and to lay explosive eggs).

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Educating for Profit

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2012
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In the face of the economic mess, American states and the federal government have been cutting education spending. In some cases, this is no doubt a matter of legitimate necessity. In other cases the economic woes have been used as a cover to “justify” certain policy changes. Regardless of the cause, American public schools are experiencing serious budget woes. Interestingly, college enrollment is up and this makes things even worse since schools must do ever more with ever less money for the actual process of education. As might be suspected, the administrative side of most schools is generally doing great in terms of numbers employed and salaries.

In contrast to the woeful state of public funded schools, the new for-profit schools have been doing quite well. For example, 20 for-profit schools saw their income from military benefits alone (acquired by taking military personnel as students) increase 683% over four years (from $66 million to $521 million). These for-profit schools also get a significant percentage of their income from public money, namely federal student aid.

Given that for-profit schools are making profits off public funding, one might wonder why public schools are suffering budget cuts and are thus less able to serve the public good by providing high quality education to students. After all, it does not seem to make any sense to funnel public money away from public institutions so that for-profit schools can make a profit at the expense of taxpayers.

Of course, one can try to counter this sort of concern by the stock mantra of the private sector proponents: the private sector is better than the public sector. That is, the for-profit schools are doing a better job and hence it makes more sense to turn public dollars into private profits rather than turning public dollars into public education.

If the for-profit schools were doing a better job, this would make at least some sense. After all, if the goal is to get the most education bang for the public buck and private schools delivered a bigger bang, then perhaps they should get the bucks. However, this is not the case. The average graduation rate for the for-profits is around 28% and this is about half that of the nation average. The big state schools often have excellent graduation rates. Also of concern are the facts that those who graduate from the for-profit schools seem to have a much harder time securing employment and graduate with far more debt than students at traditional schools (half of all student loan defaults are from students who attended for-profit schools). As such, the for-profit schools cannot claim that they are providing a better return on public dollars than public schools. In fact, they are doing far worse.

The United States congress recently focused its attention on the severe problems with the for-profit schools. However, intense lobbying on the part of the for-profits succeeded in watering down legislation intended to make such schools more accountable for their effectiveness in order to continue to siphon public money into their coffers. This has apparently been a bi-partisan effort with Republicans and Democrats answering the call of the lobbyists.

One particular egregious practice of the for-profits has been targeting  military veterans. Holly Petraeus, wife of General David Petraeus, has written that veterans are “under siege” by the for-profit colleges. These colleges have even been accused of targeting veterans who have brain injuries, which is particularly reprehensible.

Veterans are a very desirable commodity for the for-profits. As noted above, there is a lot of money available from military benefits and these can spell major profits for schools. More importantly, there is a “90/10″ rule for these schools: at least 10% of the revenue for a for-profit must not come from federal financial aid funds. Coincidentally, military benefits do not count as federal financial aid funds, so this money can count as the 10%. This entails that for every military student enrolled by a for-profit, they can have 9 other students who are paying 100% using federal funds. In short, with the right number of military students, a for-profit can get 100% of its revenue from federal funds.

This, as might be imagined, bodes ill for higher education in America. First, federal funds will continue to be diverted from public education to the for-profits. This means that the public schools will continue to suffer. To give a concrete example, enrollment at my university has increased significantly while our budget has dropped significantly. Faculty salaries have stagnated, class sizes have increased dramatically, financial aid has been significantly reduced, and so on. In short, public schools such as my own will see underpaid faculty teaching oversize classes packed with students who often must struggle to pay for their education. Meanwhile, the politically connected for-profits will be making profits on public dollars. Second, while a for-profit education need not be inferior to a traditional public or private college education, it (as a matter of actual fact) has been markedly inferior in terms of graduation rates, job placement and the debt students graduate with. As such, it seems reasonable to conclude that federal funding is being misdirected in ways that are not conducive to providing students with the best education, the best chance of graduating, the best chance of getting a job, and the lowest debt upon graduation.

Unfortunately, the for-profit schools for profit model means that they have plenty of money for lobbying and hence they seem to have been able to get their way in Washington. As such, it seems likely that education will continue to decline in the United States. But, at least some folks (including lobbyists and politicians) will be making some sweet profits. That is what really matters, right?

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Pro Life, Pro-Environment?

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 11, 2012
Human fetus, age unknown

Image via Wikipedia

Here in the States we are going through the seemingly endless warm up for our 2012 presidential election. President Obama is the candidate of the Democrats and the Republicans are trying to sort out who will be their person.  The Republican candidates for being the presidential candidate are doing their best to win the hearts and minds of the folks who will anoint one of them.

In order to do this, a candidate must win over the folks who are focused on economic matters (mainly pushing for low taxes and less regulation) and those who are focused on what they regard as moral issues (pushing against abortion, same sex marriage and so on). The need to appeal to these views has caused most of the candidates to adopt the pro-life (anti-abortion) stance as well as to express a commitment to eliminating regulation. Some of the candidates have gone so far as to claim they will eliminate the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on the grounds that regulations hurt the job creators.

On the face of it, these seems to be no tension between being pro-life and against government regulation of the sort imposed via the EPA.  A person could argue that since abortion is wrong, it is acceptable for the government to deny women the freedom to have abortions. The same person could, quite consistently it seems, then argue that the state should take a pro-choice stance towards business in terms of regulation, especially environmental regulation. However, if one digs a bit deeper, it would seem that there is a potential tension here.

In the States, the stock pro-life argument is that the act of abortion is an act of murder: innocent people are being killed. There are, of course, variations on this line of reasoning. However, the usual moral arguments are based on the notion that harm is being done to an innocent being.  When people counter with an appeal to the rights or needs of the mother, the stock reply is that these are overridden in this situation. That is, avoiding harm to the fetus (or pre-fetus) is generally more important than avoiding harm to the mother. In some cases people take this to be an absolute in that they regard abortion as never allowable. Some do allow exceptions in the case of medical necessity, rape or incest.  There are, of course, also religious arguments-but those are best discussed in another context.

If this line of reasoning is taken seriously, and I think that it should, then a person who is pro-life on these grounds would seem to be committed to extending this moral concern for life beyond the womb. Unless, of course, there is a moral change that occurs after birth that create a relevant difference that removes the need for moral concern. This, however, would seem unlikely (at least in this direction, namely from being a entity worthy of moral concern to being an entity who does not matter).

It is at this point that the matter of environmental concerns can be brought into play. Shortly before writing this I was reading an article about the environmental dangers children are exposed to, primarily in schools. These hazards include the usual suspects: lead, mercury, pesticides, arsenic, air pollution, mold, asbestos, radon, BPA, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other such things.

Currently, children are regularly exposed to a witches brew of human made chemicals and substances that have been well established as being harmful to human beings and especially harmful to children. They are also exposed to naturally occurring substances by the actions of human beings. For example, burning coal and oil release naturally occurring mercury into the air. As another example, people use naturally occurring lead and asbestos in construction. As noted above, it is well established that these substances are harmful to humans and especially harmful to children.

If someone hold the pro-life position and believes that abortion should be regulated by the state because of the harm being done, then it would thus seem to follow that they would also need to be committed to the regulation of harmful chemicals and substances, even those produced and created by businesses. After all, if the principle that warrants regulating abortion is based on the harm being done to the fetus/pre-fetus, then the same line of reasoning would also extend to the harm being done to children and adults.

If someone were to counter by saying that they are only morally concerned with the fetus/pre-fetus, then the obvious reply is that these entities are even more impacted by exposure to such chemicals and substances. As such, they would also seem to committed to accepting regulation of the environment on the same grounds that they argue for regulation of the womb.

It might be countered that these substances generally do not kill the fetus/pre-fetus or children  but rather cause defects. As such, a person could be against killing (and hence anti-abortion) but also be against regulation on the grounds that they find birth defects, retarded development and so on to be acceptable. That is, killing is not acceptable but maiming and crippling are tolerable.

This would, interestingly enough, be a potentially viable position. However, it does seem somewhat problematic for a person to be morally outraged at abortion while being willing to tolerate maiming and crippling.

It might also be argued that businesses should be freed from regulation on the utilitarian grounds that the jobs and profits created will outweigh the environmental harms being done. That is, in return for X jobs and Y profits, we can morally tolerate Z levels of contamination, pollution, birth defects, illness and so on. This is, of course, a viable option.

However, if this approach is acceptable for regulating the environment, then it would seem to also be acceptable for regulating the womb. That is, if a utilitarian approach is taken to the environment, then the same would seem to also be suitable for abortion. It would seem that if we can morally tolerate the harms resulting from a lack of regulation of the environment, then we could also tolerate the harms resulting from abortion.

Thus it would seem that a person who is pro-life and favors regulating the womb the grounds that abortion harms the innocent, then that person should also be for regulating the environment on the grounds that pollution and contamination also harm the innocent.

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Athletes & God

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2012
English: This cross-country race course in Sea...

Did God knock those guys down?

While professional athletes get the most attention when they thank God for their successes and victories, athletes thanking God is not that uncommon. It is also not uncommon for this sort of thing to attract both negative and positive attention. As should come as no surprise, there are some matters of philosophical interest here.

I will begin in a somewhat non-philosophical vein by noting that I have no problems with people expressing their faith in the context of sports. When I ran in college,I  noticed that quite a few of my fellow runners were religious-I distinctly remember seeing people praying before the start of a cross country race (on some courses, divine protection was something well worth having and flipping their crosses from the front to the back (also a good idea-racing downhill can result in a cross to the face). I was, at that time, an atheist. But, as a runner, I have a respect for devotion and faith. Plus, most of these people proved to be decent human beings and I certainly respect that.

When I race now, some races I compete in are put on my churches or have religious race directors. As such, I participate in races that often have a prayer before the start. While I am not known for my faith, I am generally fine with the prayers-they tend to be ones that express gratitude for the opportunity to be healthy and express the hope that the runners will be watched over and come to no harm. I agree with both sentiments. What I find to be a matter of potential concern is, of course, when athletes credit God with their successes and wins.

On the one hand, if someone does believe in God it does make sense to give God a general thanks. After all, if God did create the world and all that, then we would all owe him thanks for existing and having a universe in which we can compete in sports. There is also the fact that such thanks can be seen as being the sort of thing one does-just as one thanks the little people for one’s success in the movies or politics one should thank the Big Guy for His role in literally making it all possible.

On the other hand, an athlete thanking God for his or her specific success over others does raise some matters of philosophical interest that I will now explore.

One point of concern that is commonly raised is that it seems rather odd that God would intervene to, for example, help a pro-football player score a touchdown while He is allowing untold amounts of suffering to occur. If He can help push a ball into the hands of a quarterback why could he not deflect, just a bit, a bullet fired by a murderer? Why could He not just tweak a virus a bit so that it does not cause AIDS? The idea that God is so active in sports and so inactive in things that really matter would certainly raise questions about God’s benevolence and priorities.

Another point of concern is that to thank God for a victory is to indicate that God  wanted the other side or other athletes to be defeated. While this would make sense if one was, for example, doing a marathon against demons or on the field against a team of devils, it seems less reasonable when one is just playing a game or running a race. When I beat people in a race, there seems to generally be no evidence that they are more wicked than I or any less morally or theologically deserving in the eyes of God (with some notable exceptions-you know who you are).  It seems odd to think that God regards some teams or some athletes as His foes that must be defeated by His champions (I will, of course, make the obvious exception for the damn Yankees).  So, if I beat you and I thank God for the victory, I would seem to be saying that God wanted you to lose. That would, of course, raise questions about why that would be the case. It seems to make more sense to say that I won because I ran faster rather than because God did something to bless me on the course or smite you.

The notion that God did something also raises an important moral point. A key part of athletic ethics is competing fairly without things like illegal performance enhancing drugs or outside intervention. If I win a race because I was blood doping and had people tackling other runners in the woods, then I would be a cheater and not a winner. If God steps into athletic events and starts intervening for one side or person, then God is cheating. Given that God is supposed to be God, surely He surely would not cheat and would thus allow the better team or athlete to win. He might, of course, act to offset or prevent cheating and be morally just. However, while  Jesus turned water to wine,God generally does not seem to turn steroids into saline.

As a final point, there is also the rather broad matter of freedom. If our athletic victories are due to God (and also our losses-but no one praises God for those on TV), then it would seem that our agency is lacking in these contests. God would be like a child playing with action figures (“zoom, Mike surges ahead or the win!” or “zap, Jeremy blasts past the Kenyans to win the NYC marathon!”) and the athletes would no more deserve the credit or the blame than the action figures. After all, the agency of both is simply lacking and all agency lies with the one moving the figures about. As would be imagined, this lack of agency would seem to extend throughout life-if God is responsible for my 5K time, then He would also seem responsible for my publications and whether I stab someone in the face or not. This is, of course, a classic problem-only now in the context of sports. Naturally (or supernaturally), the universe could in fact work this way. Of course, this would also mean that the athletes who praise God would be like sock puppets worn by a puppeteer who is praising himself or herself.

Now, if God does actually intervene in sports, I would like to make a modest request: God, could you see fit to shave two minutes off my 5K time this coming year? Oh, and as always, smite the Yankees. The Gators, too.

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