A Philosopher's Blog

Police, Protests & Rights

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2014

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a series of protests in the town. Not surprisingly, these protests led to additional incidents involving conflicts between the citizens and the police. Initially, the local police met the protestors like an invading army: many of the officers were in military grade combat gear and backed up by armored vehicles. As noted in my previous essay, this sort of approach is based on a common philosophy of order held by authorities. This philosophy of order is that perceived threats to the existing order are to be met with physical force—even when the perceived threat consists of citizens acting within their rights. One reason for this is practical—the state generally has an advantage over the citizens in terms of force. As Thoreau notes, “…the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Another reason for this is conceptual—authorities are often similar to bullies in that their view of how to address problems mainly involves coercion rather than persuasion and reason. There is also a philosophical element—those in authority often seem to have a philosophical view about the rights of citizens that rather differs from that of the founders they so often praise when running for re-election.

As this is being written, it is not yet know if Brown rights were violated. As noted in the previous essay, the officer might have used force legitimately. However, the response to the protests has been the systematic and repeated violation of rights.

To begin with the most obvious violations of constitutional rights, the rights of free speech and assemble have been routinely violated by the police. The curfew is the most obvious example of these violations. The harassment and arrests of journalists also seem to be clear violations of the freedom of the press.

Section 1 of the 14th amendment has also been relentlessly violated since citizens have been “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and citizens have been denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The violations of the 14th amendment are not limited just to the treatment of the protestors—the policing of Ferguson’s disproportionality clearly illustrates systematic violation of this amendment. Obviously, this is also a nationwide problem.

There are also clear violations of internationally established human rights: the protestors are being shot with rubber bullets (admittedly this is better than being shot with metal bullets) and tear gas has been used.

Those who accept natural rights, such as John Locke, would certainly agree that these rights are being violated in Ferguson. The most obvious being the right of liberty.  As such, the violations are not just a matter of violations of human law but also violations of natural rights (assuming there are such things). For those who prefer a more utilitarian approach to liberty, Mill’s utilitarian arguments would certainly support the claim that the state is violating the rights of the protestors in Ferguson.

The conflict in Ferguson can thus be seen as having a significant connection to past struggles for liberty and rights. The most obvious link is that the protests are a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This struggle can, of course, be traced back to the development of the very notions of liberty and rights. As such, Ferguson is a recent battleground in the struggle for justice, rights and liberty.

One obvious counter to this view is the claim that the police are justified because of the nature of the situation. People are looting, shooting and destroying property and the police are acting to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. This, of course, does require the use of force and it might appear that some rights are being violated in the keeping of order.

This counter does have considerable underlying merit. The state does have an obligation to prevent protestors from violating the rights of other people. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in unwarranted violence or other misdeeds can be justly stopped or arrested.

There is also the obvious concern with people who use protests as an excuse to engage in or as cover for misdeeds such as looting. If the police arrest someone who has come to “protest” by stealing from local homes, they have not violated that person’s rights—he has no moral right to steal even if he claims that he is doing so as an act of protest.

The easy reply to this counter is that the legitimate need to prevent the violation of rights does not justify violating those same rights. So, while the police have an obligation to keep protestors from committing crimes against life, liberty and property the police also have an obligation to not violate the rights of the protestors. I will freely admit that this can be challenging in practice since opportunists and criminals often mix in with actual protestors. However, if our society is supposed to respect rights, effort must be taken to ensure that these rights are protected—even (and especially) in heated moments. After all, rights are not just for corporations.

 

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Corporate Inversion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 13, 2014
Taxes

Taxes (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

Corporate inversion is a strategy in which a corporation (usually one located in the United States) merges with a foreign corporation and then shifts its income from its original country.  The usual purpose of this strategy is to reduce taxes and this is done by shifting the income from the higher-tax country to the lower tax country. While this strategy has been used for quite some time, it started attracting media attention in the summer of 2014.

Those who defend tax inversion point to the obvious fact that it is currently legal. As such, the strategy is exempt from legal criticism as long as it is legal. Of course, the fact that something is legal does not entail that it is morally right or even that it is pragmatically prudent. A quick glance at history will show an abundance of practices that were legal (such as slavery) yet morally repugnant. A similar look back will also reveal laws that turned out to be bad ideas on pragmatic grounds. Thus, the actual dispute about corporate inversion is not a matter of whether it is legal or not. Rather, the substantial dispute is whether it should remain legal or not. Interestingly, opposition to corporate inversion is not limited to the left and avowed capitalists have been critical of the practice (usually as part of a general criticism of the tax laws of the United States). There is also the fact that the practice is legal because the corporate lobbyists ensure that is legal. To use an analogy, it would be like a person claiming it is not cheating that they are winning because she is following the rules when she is the one who writes the rules.

One obvious moral concern regarding the practice is that the corporations that invert are able to reduce their tax burden (which tends to already be quite low in practice, despite the relatively high tax rate that exists in theory) while still enjoying the support of the United States. These corporations still utilize the physical infrastructure of the United States, they still benefit from the legal system (which often serves their interests quite well), they still benefit from United States foreign policy and military operations, and they still enjoy the usual corporate welfare, and so on. In short, they contribute less while still receiving the same. If one believes that people should not be takers and should contribute fairly in return for what is received, this tactic would seem wrong. To use an analogy, it would be somewhat like eating a meal at one table and then relocating oneself to another table with a smaller bill so as to avoid paying what one actually owes. While some might see that as brilliant, it does seem rather morally dubious to use such a shift to avoid responsibility. Then again, it could be argued that this is brilliant and there is nothing wrong with eating one meal while paying for a cheaper one. There is, however, the fact that the rest of the folks at the original table will be stuck with the bill—but perhaps they deserve it for being too stupid (or moral) to ditch the table for a cheaper bill. Some might wonder what would happen if everyone jumped tables—but obviously enough not everyone will or can, so there will always presumably be fewer people stuck with more of the bill.

A second stock defense of corporate inversion is that corporations are obligated to make a profit for their shareholders. On the face of it, this inversion would do just that. After all, if the corporation is taxed less, that entails more profits and thus larger payouts to the shareholders. Interestingly, though, the Wall Street Journal notes that this corporate inversion strategy could result in the shareholders paying more taxes—thus perhaps resulting in a somewhat ironic shift of the tax burden. This dispute is a factual matter rather than a matter of value: if the justification of corporate inversion is the benefits to the shareholders, then it certainly matters whether the shareholders benefit from this or are harmed by it. There is also the matter of value. Justify inversion on the grounds of increasing profits is to hold that what matters in terms of what should be done is profits, rather that other factors such as fairness, morality and so on.

While thinkers like Thomas Hobbes would agree that “profit is the measure of right” in the state of nature, there is a reasonable moral concern that gain is not the standard of right. If profit trumped everything, then corporations should engage in such practices as slavery, organ harvesting, prostitution, drug dealing and so on—provided that such endeavors were profitable. This principle would allow a drug cartel to justify its practices—as long as it kept its books in the black (though the streets might be red). It might be countered that these practices are illegal (in some places)—but changing that is just a matter of lobbying or relocation. After all, if a company can relocate to avoid a tax burden so as to maximize profit on the grounds that profit is what matters, it could make the same appeal to relocating so it could deal in slaves or cocaine.

The obvious counter is to say that corporate inversion is not really comparable to engaging in slavery or organ harvesting. The easy reply is that this is true.  But if the principle is that profits are the measure of what one should do, then it follows that as long as the wicked is profitable, one should do it.

Another approach to the matter of warranting actions in terms of profit is to consider the matter from another angle. To be specific, consider the ethics in regards to an individual taking the same view. For the sake of the example, imagine a fellow (a California surfer, perhaps) who follows the principle of profit. That is, he aims to get as much as he can for as little cost to himself. Imagine that he finds that there is a perfectly legal system that will provide him with goods and services at no cost to himself. Given that his goal is profit maximization, this would be a good system for him—he profits at no apparent cost to himself. This scenario seems to nicely work in the two stock justifications for corporate inversion, namely that it is legal and it is profitable. So, if it is acceptable for a corporation to invert because it is legal and because doing so is profitable, then it is acceptable for the California surfer to do the same thing on an individual level. However, if the surfer is in the wrong because he is a taker (that is, he is getting without contributing his fair share), then it would seem that the corporation is also in the wrong.

It could be countered that the corporation is at least employing some people and making profits for the shareholders, etc. However, the surfer can counter that he is making profits for himself and also contributing to employment. After all, someone has to make and sell the sushi he eats, so he is also a job creator.

 

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Buffer Zones & Consistency

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 8, 2014
English: United States Supreme Court building ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the summer of 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law that forbid protesters from approaching within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The buffer zone law was established in response to episodes of violence. Not surprisingly, the court based its ruling on the First Amendment—such a buffer zone violates the right of free expression of those wishing to protest against abortion or who desire to provide unsought counseling to those seeking abortions.

Though I am a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression, I do recognize that there can be legitimate limits on this freedom—especially when such limits provide protection to the life, liberty and property of others. To use the stock examples, freedom of expression does not permit people to engage in death threats, slander, or panicking people by screaming “fire” in a crowded, non-burning theater.

While I do recognize that the buffer zone does serve a legitimate purpose in enhancing safety, I do agree with the court. The grounds for this agreement is that the harm done to freedom of expression by banning protest in public spaces exceeds the risk of harm caused by allowing such protests. Naturally enough, I do agree that people who engage in threatening behavior can be justly removed—but this is handled by existing laws. That said, I do regard the arguments in favor of the buffer zone as having merit—weighing the freedom of expression against safety concerns is challenging and people of good conscience can disagree in this matter.

One rather interesting fact is that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone—there is a federal law that bans protesters from the plaza of the court.  Since the plaza is a public space, it would seem analogous to the public space of the sidewalks covered by the Massachusetts law. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the principle seems to be that the First Amendment ensures a right to protest in public spaces—even when there is a history of violence and legitimate safety concerns exist. While the law is whatever those with the biggest guns say it is, there is the matter of the ethics of the matter and this is governed by consistent application.

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Naturally, a person’s actions can affect the initially equality. For example, a person who commits horrible evil deeds would not be morally equal to someone who does predominantly good deeds.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

Given that the plaza of the court is a public space analogous to a sidewalk, then if the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest in public spaces of this sort, then the law forbidding protests in the plaza is unconstitutional and must be struck down. To grant protesters access to the sidewalks outside clinics while forbidding them from the public plaza of the court would be an inconsistent application of the principle. But, of course, there is always a way to counter this.

One way to counter this in a principled way is to show that an alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. If the Supreme Court wishes to morally justify their buffer while denying others their buffers, they would need to show a relevant difference that warrants the difference in application. They could, for example, contend that a plaza is relevantly different from a sidewalk. One might point to a size difference and how this impacts protesting. They could also contend that government property is exempt from the law (much like certain state legislatures ban the public from bringing guns into the legislature building even while passing laws allowing people to bring guns into places where other people work)—but they would need to ground the exemption.

My own view, obviously enough, is that there is no relevant difference between the scenarios: if the First Amendment applies to the public spaces around private property, it also applies to the public spaces around state property (which is the most public of public property).

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Campbell Brown, Protests & Transparency

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2014
Colbert Super PAC

Colbert Super PAC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Campbell Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report to promote the fact that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws.  In my previous essay, I discussed the main topic, namely that of the points made in the legal complaint. In this essay, I will discuss some interesting points from Brown’s appearance on the Colbert Report.

When Brown went to the show, she encountered some protestors outside the building. Interestingly, she described them as trying to silence her and was rather critical of their presence. Colbert responded by noting that the protestors were exercising their First Amendment rights.

On the face of it, Brown was using a common tactic—accusing critics of wanting to silence those expressing opposing viewpoints and using this as grounds for rejecting, dismissing or ignoring the actual criticisms. To be fair, in some cases critics do explicitly state that their opponent should be silenced—perhaps silencing themselves or being silenced by others. Because I accept the right to freedom of expression, I am against the silencing of critics (I have written on this in other essays). As such, I would oppose those who would wish to silence Brown and prevent her from making her claims.

However, it is important to distinguish between protests/criticism and attempts to silence a person. To protest against someone or something is to express a negative view and this is rather different from endeavoring to silence someone. For example, someone might protest against Brown’s lawsuit by making a sign and standing by the entrance to the building where the Colbert Report is shot. This is expressing a stance against Brown, but unless the person tells Brown to stop expressing her views or tries to shout her down, the person is not trying to silence Brown. Even if the person would be happy if Brown shut up.

To criticize something is to assess and evaluate it, which is clearly different from trying to silence a person. My essay about Brown’s lawsuit was critical—I assessed her claims. However, at no point did I endeavor to silence her.  She has every right to keep making her claims and expressing her views, just as I have the same right to express my own—even when my claims are critical of her claims. To assess is to not to silence. Even to claim someone is wrong is not to silence them. Saying “you are mistaken” is not the same as saying “shut up.”

That said, the tactic of accusing protestors/critics of trying to silence one does have some rhetorical value. First, it allows a person to dismiss or reject protestors/critics with a lazy ad homimen: “they are just trying to silence me, so their claims have no merit.” Second, it has an emotional appeal in that it casts the protestors/critics as being opposed to freedom of speech. The irony, of course, is that this is an attempt to silence the critics.

Another interesting aspect of the discussion was when Colbert asked Brown about who was funding her group and lawsuit. As Colbert, the owner of his own super PAC noted, it is perfectly legal to keep the names of those funding such an organization secret—even when such a group is actively involved in politics. When pressed a bit, Brown used another common tactic—she claimed that anonymity protects the donors from being harassed. This, of course, ties into the previously discussed tactic in which protestors and critics are cast as villains who are trying to silence a person. In this case, the opponents of her views are presumably being presented as the sort of people who would cruelly harass those they disagree with. This would, of course, cast Brown as a brave hero—she is facing the harassment so that the anonymous donors do not have to.

As Colbert noted, not revealing her donors is her legal right. However, the claim that she is keeping them anonymous to protect them from harassment seems rather dubious. While Brown has been subject to criticism and has been protested against, she does not seem to have been subjected to onerous abuse. The anonymous donors would presumably also not be cruelly abused—though they might be criticized.

Those more cynical than I might claim that the donors are being concealed for nefarious reasons and there has been considerable speculation about who is the money behind the mouth. Those on the left, naturally enough, tend to suspect a right wing cabal aimed at destroying unions and privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Those of more moderate views might suspect a bi-partisan group that is aimed at privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Some might even take Brown at face value: they are people who are concerned with education reform. But, for some reason, they do not want anyone else to know.

Given her current commitment to secrecy, it is somewhat ironic that in 2013 Brown created the Parents’ Transparency Project which was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions.

This situation does raise the larger issue of such secret funding. On the one hand, it could be argued that people have a right to privacy when it comes to engaging in legal and political machinations. On the other hand, secret money has at least two negative impacts. The first is that it seems to have a corrosive effect on the openness that is supposed to the hallmark of democratic systems. The second is that it keeps the public in ignorance—knowing who is backing which candidates, causes and law suits seems to be a rather important part of making informed decisions. Of course, it can be countered that the public does not need to know this, that it should not matter who is really funding something, hiding behind patriotic or positive sounding fronts.

I am, not surprisingly, for transparency in such funding. First, I agree that such secret money is contrary to the openness that is so critical to a real democratic system. Secret money deals are appropriate for oligarchies and corrupt states, but hardly suitable for what is supposed to be an open democracy. Second, I believe that people should take responsibility for their beliefs and actions—being able to influence without accountability is morally unacceptable. Third, there is the matter of courage—only a coward hides behind anonymity when there is no real danger beyond people knowing what a person is backing.

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Campbell Brown & Teacher’s Unions

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 4, 2014
English: The central courtyard of Albany High ...

Albany High School in Albany, New York, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In July, 2014 Campbell Brown announced that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany. This complaint is aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws. The basis for the lawsuit is that the tenure laws interfere with the right of children to a sound education.

This is not Brown’s first foray into this matter. In 2013 Brown asserted that her Parents’ Transparency Project was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions. In the course of this campaign Brown asserted that the union is “…a system that protects teachers who engage in sexual misconduct.” Brown did run into some conflict of interest issues in regards to this group and there were concerns about the anonymous funding behind it: as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, PTP can legally keep its donors secret and engage in political spending. As should be no surprise, critics of Brown saw PTP as an attempt at union busting backed by parties with political and economic agendas. The unions weathered the efforts of PTP and now they are facing off against Brown’s PEJ. To promote this new lawsuit, Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report—having faced protestors outside the show.

I do agree with some of Brown’s claims. First, I do agree with her assertion that children are entitled to a sound basic education. Her critics contend that her actual interest is in busting the unions at the behest of those bankrolling PEJ. While Brown’s actual motives are a point of interest, they are logically irrelevant to the merit of her claims and arguments. However, Colbert did raise a relevant criticism: if Brown is, in fact, concerned that children receive a sound education and for educational equality, then she should be focusing on a key aspect of educational inequality, namely the extreme disparity in education funding. To be fair to Brown, it is quite reasonable for a group to focus on one issue at a time and to also leave other issues to other groups.

Second, I do agree with her position on seniority. As it now stands, schools follow a “first in, last out” policy. The problem with this is that merely being at a school a long time does not entail that a person is a good teacher. Since I believe that employment should be based on merit and mere seniority is not a mark of merit, I oppose this policy. That said, I know that experience can improve a teacher’s abilities (I am a much better professor now than I was when I was fresh out of graduate school). However, these improved abilities should be discernible in job performance and not just by looking at the calendar. Naturally, a rational case can be made for seniority—but I believe that all such cases must rest on the connection between experience and ability.

Third, I regard her claim that three years is not enough time to earn tenure as having some appeal. After all, tenure at the university level requires six years (and, at my university, involves a yearlong review process starting in the department and ending with the university President). The easy and obvious counter is that teaching at a university requires an advanced degree (which requires 5+ years beyond the Bachelor’s degree required to teach K-12), so having a shorter tenure period at K-12 schools is reasonable. So, my view is that this matter can be legitimately debated—although I would be fine with the three year tenure period (provided that the process is merit based, fair and rigorous).

Fourth, I do agree with her view that tenure laws should not make it nearly impossible to fire ineffective or dangerous teachers. Tenure, as I see it, is supposed to ensure that teachers/professors can only be fired for cause and through due process. It is not so that teachers/professors can never be fired. At the college level, this is obviously connected to defending academic freedom. At the K-12 level, academic freedom might not be seen as being as great a concern, however there is the concern about protecting teachers from the vagaries of ideology, politics and such. To use a concrete example, tenure is useful for protecting biology teachers from being fired because parents disbelieve in evolution or believe that vaccines cause autism.

Brown’s view gets some psychological support from the common misconception that tenure means that a teacher cannot be fired. However, as the above discussion indicates, tenure does not entail that a teacher cannot be fired, just that due process must be used. It would presumably be hard to defend the view that a teacher could be legitimately fired for just any reason without any due process (though there are people who do hold that view). After all, such firing would be (by definition) unjustified—something that would be hard to justify. It is, however, easy to defend the view that even a tenured teacher should be fired for being ineffective (and certainly for being dangerous).

The problem, then, does not seem to be with the general principle of tenure. If there is a problem, it would seem to lie in the process that is used and perhaps the specific rules used to keep the ineffective or dangerous in their jobs. The fix to this would not seem to be the elimination of tenure, but a change in the process so that teachers are protected from unjustified dismissal and students are protected from ineffective or dangerous teachers. The system will never be perfect—but that is an unreasonable standard.

 

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Facts & Sincerely Held Beliefs

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 1, 2014

The Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court of the United States raised numerous issues including a rather interesting one regarding beliefs and facts. Oversimplifying things for the sake of brevity, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim to be opposed to abortion on religious grounds and they claim to believe that certain forms of birth control involve abortion. As such, they contended that providing insurance to their employees that covered what they regard as abortion would violate their religious beliefs and impose an unreasonable burden on them.

As I tell my students in my ethics class, a moral issue often involves three main components. The first consists of the relevant facts. Put very simply, a factual matter is such that the claim being made is true or false regardless of how we think or feel about its truth.  For example, the mass of an object is a factual matter. Factual matters can become rather complicated by the fact that one might need to sort out the key concepts before determining the truth of a factual claim. As such, it should be no surprise that the second consists of the relevant concepts. Sorting out this aspect of a moral dispute involves arguing in defense of the concepts—that is, presenting and defending definitions of the key terms. In the Hobby Lobby case, one of the key concepts is that of abortion. As noted above, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim that certain birth control methods are actually methods of abortion. This seems to be because the Hobby Lobby owners believe that life begins at conception and they seem to reject the notion that pregnancy begins at implantation.  This is, obviously enough, a rather important matter in regards to these methods being abortion or birth control.

If pregnancy begins at implantation (which is the scientific consensus), then the methods in question (specifically those which prevent implantation) do not involve abortion.  As such, the owners of Hobby Lobby would hold factual incorrect beliefs regarding these methods of birth control and this would undercut their moral position. After all, if those methods are not abortion and their moral opposition is based on a factual error, their moral opposition would thus be unfounded.

However, if pregnancy begins at conception (which is not the scientific consensus), then these methods do involve abortion. In this case, the owners of Hobby Lobby would be factually correct. This still leaves open the question of whether their moral claims are correct or not. After all, a person can be right about the facts but be wrong about the morality, which leads to the third component, that of morality.

Obviously enough, a moral issue has a moral component. In this case, the moral issue is whether or not abortion is morally wrong. The owners of Hobby Lobby claim to believe this—but belief does not entail that a claim is true. After all, people sincerely believe false claims quite often. Fortunately for the owners of Hobby Lobby, they did not have to even argue that their moral beliefs are correct or even plausible—all that was required was establishing that their religious beliefs are sincere—that is, they believe what they claim to believe. Given the context, this is not unreasonable—after all, the issue addressed by the court was not whether abortion is morally wrong or not.

The owners of Hobby Lobby did not even need to argue in defense of their factual claims and their concepts—that is, they did not need to make the case that pregnancy occurs at conception and that the methods in question cause abortions rather than serving as birth control (of the non-abortion sort).   Apparently, they merely needed to establish that they believe what they claim to believe. This raises an interesting general issue that goes beyond the specific Hobby Lobby case: should facts matter when considering cases involving value beliefs (such as religious or moral beliefs)?

On the one hand, it can be argued that the facts should not matter—at least in the sense of requiring that the beliefs in question be proven. This can be based on practicality: religious beliefs would be extremely difficult to prove and this would impose too great a burden on those bringing legal cases involving their values. Also, cases about belief are (as others have argued) not about the truth of the beliefs but about the right to hold said beliefs.

On the other hand, it can be argued that facts do matter—especially when the beliefs have an impact on other people. Returning to the case of Hobby Lobby, the idea is that the owners should not be required to follow the law because they are opposed to abortion and they believe that the birth control methods cause abortions. If it is claimed that it does not matter whether the owners are right or wrong about their factual claims, this establishes the general principle that the truth of the claims does not matter. This raises the question of how far this principle should extend.

In the Hobby Lobby case, to say that the facts are not relevant might not seem so serious. After all, the question of when life begins is one that is disputed and the Hobby Lobby owners could engage in a conceptual dispute over the definition of “abortion” in a plausible way. But, suppose that the principle that the facts do not matter, only the sincerity. This would entail that if the owners of Hobby Lobby claimed that paying women the same as men caused abortions, then all that would matter would be the sincerity of their beliefs. The fact that such a claim would be obviously false and absurd would not matter—after all, once the principle that truth is irrelevant is accepted, then truth is irrelevant. As long as the owners could show they sincerely believed that equal pay for women would cause abortions, then the actual facts would not matter. This certainly seems to set a problematic precedent.

 

 

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The Sharing Economy II: Taxes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2014
Sheraton Hotel

Sheraton Hotel (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

In my previous essay on the new sharing economy I discussed the matter of regulation in regards to such companies as Uber and Airbnb. In this essay, I’ll cover the subjects of taxes.

As with regulation, some people are quite opposed to taxes. Other people are fine with taxes—at least with imposing taxes on others. In general, though, people prefer to not pay taxes. As such, it is hardly a surprise that the new sharing economy includes various attempts to avoid taxes. One example of this is the case of services like Airbnb. On the face of it, these services are just providing a means by which a person can rent out his spare room, condo or apartment. For example, a person who will be in another state for a few months might use Airbnd to rent out his apartment so he can have some income to offset the rent. Looked at one way, this service is just a more organized version of the old informal economy in which people do a sublease, rent out their camp, or get a temporary tenant for their house.

One aspect of the informal economy is that taxes are usually not collected. For example, if Professor Sally informally rents out her house to her grad student Bob while she is in Europe as a visiting professor, Professor Sally and Bob will almost certainly not pay taxes—although Bill and Sally would certainly be involved with tax payments if Bob was renting a hotel room from Sally. While there are no doubt people who would like taxes paid on even informal transactions such as this, the informal nature of these transactions tend to make this impractical—this part of the traditional informal economy is small and decentralized so that having a tax system would be cost prohibitive in terms of what is gained in regards to the public good. There is also the legitimate concern that such private transactions (“okay, you can stay at my house for two months while I am in Europe, but you need to pay the utility bills, take care of the plants and walk my dog”) can fall outside of the legitimate domain of state control.

However, when a company such as Airbnd gets involved, then things change. The once purely informal economy becomes centralized around companies and there is also an increase in the scale of operations. After all, it is one thing if Professor Sally’s grad student is paying a modest fee to stay in her house while she is in Europe, it is quite another if Professor Sally starts running her house as a hotel. It also becomes a somewhat different matter if the number of people renting out property increases significantly. To be clear, there would seem to be three important changes.  The first would be the centralization. Instead of people reaching informal agreements as individuals (who often know each other), these would be actual business transactions through a central company. The second would be the character of the process—short term renting out via a company would be rather closer to the hotel model than to the old informal model. The third would be the number of people involved: the sharing economy would presumably be considerably larger than the old informal economy.

From a practical standpoint, two of the changes could be used to justify using a similar tax approach to the sharing economy as is used in the traditional business economy (such as that of hotels). To be specific, with a centralized company and a large operation the collection of taxes becomes a more practical matter.

From a moral standpoint, if it is acceptable for the businesses with the same model (such as the traditional hotel) to have taxes imposed, then the same would seem to apply to the new sharing economy. So, if Sally would have to handle taxes if she ran a traditional hotel, then she should have to do the same if she ran her sharing economy hotel through an online service like Airbnb. Or perhaps Airbnb would be the one to handle the taxes.

Naturally enough, it might be wondered why taxes should be imposed on the new sharing economy—even if the new sharing economy is rather similar to aspects of the old economy. Of course, the people who make money through sharing rides or apartments do pay taxes for that income. However, there has been some controversy over services like Airbnb paying the hotel tax.

One reason for sharing companies to pay taxes and fees like traditional companies that they are analogous to is fairness. After all, the free market is not as free if some companies enjoy special breaks. Another reason is that the taxes and fees are needed to pay the public services and infrastructure that such companies (and their sharers) utilize. It might be contended that this is already covered by the taxes paid by individuals for their income. However, by that logic, businesses would seem to be exempt from taxes and fees on the grounds that their employees pay taxes.

Also, the growth of the sharing economy imposes new costs on the community in a way comparable to the costs of having a similar business. For example, having many Uber drivers in an area is like adding a large cab company to the area. As another example, having Airbnb rentals in a community makes the area more like a hotel area, with the accompanying burden on the community. As such, if the community (which includes many people who are not part of the sharing economy) faces increased costs then it is clearly acceptable to pass these costs on to those who benefit from this new economy.

There is also the cost of regulating the industry—as noted in my previous essay, when the sharing economy becomes comparable to the normal businesses (such as hotels and cab companies), then comparable public good (such as safety) regulations should apply. Naturally, these come with costs and it makes sense that the costs should be connected to the profits, rather than just be taken from the community in general. For example, with non-professional drivers acting like cab drivers and people renting out apartments and homes like hotels, there are legitimate concerns about public safety. Cab companies and hotels bear some of the cost of their regulation and so too should the sharing companies.

Naturally, there is still the more general debate about what is a fair tax/fee and concerns about the impact of taxes on the economy. However, it seems reasonable to believe that the sharing economy is analogous to the non-sharing economy and that it should bear a fair share of costs imposed upon the community.

 

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The Sharing Economy I: Regulation

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 23, 2014
Airbnb logo

Airbnb logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rising success of companies such as Airbnd and Uber have created considerable interest in what has been called the sharing economy. The core idea behind the sharing economy is an old one: people provide goods and services as individuals rather than acting as employees or businesses. One classic example of this is paying a neighborhood kid who mows lawns or babysits. Another classic example is paying a friend’s gas money for a ride to the airport. The new version of the sharing economy does make some changes to the traditional model. The fundamental difference is that the old sharing economy was typically an informal word-of-mouth system while the new sharing economy is organized by companies. As an example of the old sharing economy, your neighbor might have told you about the teenager she hired to babysit her kids or to mow her lawn (back in the day when this was an accepted practice). As an example of the new sharing economy, you might use the Uber app to get a chipper soccer mom to give you a ride to the airport in her mini-van. Unlike the old sharing economy in which your neighbor (probably) did not take a cut for connecting you to a sitter or mower, the companies that connect people get a cut of the proceeds—which can be justified by the services they provide.

The new sharing economy has received considerable praise, mainly due to the fact that it makes it easier for people to make money in what are still challenging economic times. For example, a person who would be hard pressed to get a job as a professional cabbie can easily drive for Uber. However, it has also drawn considerable criticism.

As might be suspected, some of the most vocal critics of the sharing economy are the people whose livelihoods and profits are threatened by this economy. For example, Uber’s conflicts with taxi services routinely make the news. Some people dismiss these criticisms as the usual lamentations of obsolete industries while others regard the criticisms as having legitimacy. In any case, there is certainly considerable controversy regarding this new sharing economy.

One point of concern is regulation. As it now stands, the sharing economy is exploiting the loopholes that exist in the informal economy (which is regulated far less than the formal economy). For example, professional cab drivers are subject to a fairly extensive set of regulations (and expenses, such as insurance costs) while an Uber driver is not. As another example, the hotel industry is regulated while services like Airbnb currently lack such regulations regarding things such as safety and handicap access.

Some proponents of the free market might praise the limited (or nonexistent) regulation and this praise might have some merit—after all, it has long been contended that regulation impedes profits. However, there are at least two legitimate concerns here.

One is, obviously enough, the matter of fairness. If taxi drivers and hotels are subject to strict regulations that also involve additional costs, then it hardly seems fair that companies like Uber and Aibnd can offer the same services while evading these regulations. One obvious option is to impose them on the sharing economy. Another obvious option is to reduce regulations on the traditional economy. In any case, fairness would seem to require comparable regulation.

The second is the matter of safety and other concerns of the public good. While some regulations might be seen as burdensome, others clearly exist to protect the public from legitimate harms. For example, hotels are held to certain standards of cleanliness and safety. As another example, taxi companies are subject to regulations aimed at protecting the public. If the new sharing economy puts people at risk in similar ways, then it seems reasonable to impose comparable regulations on the sharing economy. After all, whether you are getting a hotel room or going through Airbnb, you should have a reasonable expectation that you will not perish in a fire due to safety issues.

It might be countered that the new sharing economy should still fall under the standards of the old sharing economy. For example, if I ask a friend to take me to the airport and she has an awful car and is a terrible driver, it is hardly the business of the state to regulate my choice (although the state would have the right to address any actual traffic violations). As another example, if I crash on someone’s couch for the night, it is hardly the business of the state to make sure that the couch is properly cleaned and that the house is suitable (although it would need to be up to code).

While this does have some appeal, there are two main arguments against this approach. The first is that the informal economy is largely unregulated because it is just that—informal. Once a company like Uber or Airbnd gets into the picture, the economy has become formalized—there is now a central company that is organizing things. This allows a practical means of regulating what is now commercial activity. The second is the matter of scale. When the informal economy is relatively small, the cost and difficulty of regulating for the public good can be prohibitive. For example, policing neighborhood babysitters or people who give the occasional ride to friends and get gas money for doing so would impose a high cost for a little return in public good. However, when an aspect of the informal economy gets organized by a company and greatly expands in size, then there is more at stake and hence paying the cost of regulating for the public good becomes viable. For example, regulating people occasionally giving friends or associates rides is one thing (a silly thing), but regulating large numbers of people driving vehicles for Uber is quite another matter.

One area that is going to be a matter of considerable controversy is that of discrimination. If Bob does not want to share a ride with a white colleague or give a handicapped associate a lift, then that is Bob’s right.  After all, a citizen has every right to be biased. But, it gets rather more complicated if Bob is driving for Uber—after all, discrimination does harm to the public and the public might have a stake in preventing Uber Bob from discriminating. Similary, if Bob does not want his Latino friend crashing on his couch because he thinks Latinos are thieves, that is Bob’s right (the right of being a jerk to one’s friends). But, if Bob is renting out a room through Airbnd, then this could be a matter of legitimate public concern.

It might be countered that people “freedriving” or “freerenting” for the sharing companies still retain the right to discriminate since they are acting as individuals, albeit under the auspices of a company. That does have considerable appeal, especially since the people driving or renting are not actually employees of these companies. The company is just assisting people to exchange services and, it could be claimed, is no more accountable than a newspaper that has a “for sale” or “help wanted” section. Obviously enough, companies are generally going to want to avoid being associated with discrimination and hence they will probably engage in some degree of self-policing to avoid PR nightmares (or will do so if they are sensible or ethical). However, there is clearly an important issue here regarding whether or not laws against discrimination should be applicable to individuals who are involved with the sharing economy companies. The somewhat fuzzy status of those providing services does create a legitimate problem. As noted above, on one hand they are still just individuals using the service to connect to others. On the other hand, this service does seem to bring them into more of a formal business situation which is subject to such laws.

 

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Academic Freedom & State Schools

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2014
English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Academic freedom is a longstanding and generally well-supported right. In terms of its underpinnings, the obvious foundation is freedom of expression—the right to express views and ideas without being silenced. In the case of academic freedom, the expression is (obviously enough) in an academic context. It is typically taken as being more than just protection regarding making specific claims in that it is supposed to provide fairly broad protection in such matters as selecting books, developing curriculum and so on. It is also supposed to protect professors (tenured professors at least) from being fired or punished for expressing their views (in legitimate ways—it is not a license to say anything without consequences).

Stereotypically, defenders of academic freedom are seen as leftists. However, in somewhat recent years, some conservatives have come forth to accuse “the left” of restricting the academic freedom of conservative thinkers in accord with the doctrines of political correctness. While such matters are overstated in the usual hyperbole of politics, there are enough incidents of faculty being punished for holding views that are regarded as politically incorrect. For example, Mike Adams was apparently denied promotion to full professor on the basis of his political engagement rather than a legitimate lack in his qualifications. There have also been proposals to use a standard of academic justice to replace academic freedom. While the idea of justice certainly sounds nice, the proposal is to substitute an ideological test in place of the general right—in short, academics could research what they wished, provided that it is consistent with the specific ideology. As might be suspected, I have written at length in opposition to this proposal. There have also been proposals from “the left” regarding trigger warnings and these proposals also provide a potential threat to academic freedom—a subject I have also written about.

While I am typically cast as being on “the left”, I take a consistent position regarding academic freedom—namely that I support it. Since I am consistent, this support extends to fellow professors whose views I disagree with—while I think they are wrong, I hold that they have as much right as I do to express these views. Even when (or especially when) they are regarded as “politically incorrect.”

One interesting problem of academic freedom arises for state colleges and universities. While even for-profit schools receive money from the government, state schools receive funding from the state—as decided by the state legislature. While academic institutes, they are subject to the control of the state government. To use a concrete example, Florida’s state legislature recently passed a law changing the general education requirements for all state schools, thus requiring faculty and administrators to implement the changes.

Given that the state government is (in theory) acting in accord with the “will of the people” and that the schools are funded with state money (that is, the people’s money), it is not unreasonable to believe that the state has the right to impose a degree of control over the schools. A rather important question is the extent to which the state should impose on academic freedom. As might be guessed, people answer this question based largely on their ideology.

As noted above, some of the loudest voices crying out for academic freedom these days are coming from the right. Somewhat ironically, one of the harshest impositions on academic freedom in recent years has come from that same right. To be specific, a senate panel of the Michigan senate banned courses at public schools “that promote or discourage organizing efforts.” The penalty for doing so is $500,000.

The University of Michigan was accused of breaking this rule because it offers courses on the history of labor. State Rep. Al Pscholka (who chairs the house panel controlling higher education funding) said, “I believe in academic freedom, and you’re going to have difficult subjects that you’re going to cover at any university. But this is a case where I think we’re almost encouraging labor disputes, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.” Interestingly, Pscholka praised the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby case as a victory for religious freedom.

This view of liberty is hardly surprising. As Mill noted in his classic work on liberty, people tend to not operate based on a consistent principle regarding what should be allowed and what should be restricted. Rather, people decide based on what they like and dislike. As such, it is hardly a shock that folks on the left and right praise freedom when it is protecting something they like while being quite happy to restrict freedom when it involves something they do not like. But, as one might say, the law is the law and consistency of principle seems to lack legal weight.

That said, there is still the question of whether the state has the right to make such an imposition. As noted above, one avenue of argumentation is that since the state provides the funding and the schools are public institutions, then the state government has the right to dictate to the universities in regards to the content of their courses.

If this line of reasoning is strong, then this would be a general principle and not one just limited to the Republicans of Michigan wanting to keep courses on labor off state campuses. So if a state legislature passed laws forbidding teaching business courses or courses in religion, then that would be acceptable under this principle. It would also be acceptable for a law to be passed banning the teaching of Western history, Western values, anything that is seen as endorsing “the patriarchy”, and anything that is positive about white males and so on. That is, this principle would allow the state to impose the ideology of the day onto the state schools.

I think it is obvious that Pscholka and the others who support the rule in question would be adamantly opposed to the ideology of their opposition setting the content for public schools. As such, it is probably fair to say that they do not actually have a general principle regarding the degree of state control over state schools but rather do not like the idea of the schools teaching about labor. In short, the “principle” is that the school should not teach what they do not like—which is hardly a principle.

I would also be opposed to a leftist agenda being opposed onto state schools, but on the basis of a principle of academic freedom—in this case that the state should not impose ideological restrictions (left or right) on public schools.

 

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Ethics & Free Will

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2014
Conscience and law

Conscience and law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs recently had their article, “What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will”, published in Scientific American. This article considers the causal impact of a disbelief in free will with a specific focus on law and ethics.

Philosophers have long addressed the general problem of free will as well as the specific connection between free will and ethics. Not surprisingly, studies conducted to determine the impact of disbelief in free will have the results that philosophers have long predicted.

One impact is that when people have doubts about free will they tend to have less support for retributive punishment. Retributive punishment, as the name indicates, is punishment aimed at making a person suffer for her misdeeds. Doubt in free will did not negatively impact a person’s support for punishment aimed at deterrence or rehabilitation.

While the authors do consider one reason for this, namely that those who doubt free will would regard wrongdoers as analogous to harmful natural phenomenon that need to dealt with rather than subject to vengeance, this view also matches a common view about moral accountability. To be specific, moral (and legal) accountability is generally proportional to the control a person has over events. To use a concrete example, consider the difference between these two cases. In the first case, Sally is driving well above the speed limit and is busy texting and sipping her latte. She doesn’t see the crossing guard frantically waving his sign and runs over the children in the cross walk. In case two, Jane is driving the speed limit and children suddenly run directly in front of her car. She brakes and swerves immediately, but she hits the children. Intuitively, Sally has acted in a way that was morally wrong—she should have been going the speed limit and she should have been paying attention. Jane, though she hit the children, did not act wrongly—she could not have avoided the children and hence is not morally responsible.

For those who doubt free will, every case is like Jane’s case: for the determinist, every action is determined and a person could not have chosen to do other than she did. On this view, while Jane’s accident seems unavoidable, so was Sally’s accident: Sally could not have done other than she did. As such, Sally is no more morally accountable than Jane. For someone who believes this, inflicting retributive punishment on Sally would be no more reasonable than seeking vengeance against Jane.

However, it would seem to make sense to punish Sally to deter others and to rehabilitate Sally so she will drive the speed limit and pay attention in the future. Of course, if these is no free will, then we would not chose to punish Sally, she would not chose to behave better and people would not decide to learn from her lesson. Events would happen as determined—she would be punished or not. She would do it again or not. Other people would do the same thing or not. Naturally enough, to speak of what we should decide to do in regards to punishments would seem to assume that we can chose—that is, that we have some degree of free will.

A second impact that Shariff and Vohs noted was that a person who doubts free will tends to behave worse than a person who does not have such a skeptical view. One specific area in which behavior worsens is that such skepticism seems to incline people to be more willing to harm others. Another specific area is that such skepticism also inclines others to lie or cheat. In general, the impact seems to be that the skepticism reduces a person’s willingness (or capacity) to resist impulsive reactions in favor of greater restraint and better behavior.

Once again, this certainly makes sense. Going back to the examples of Sally and Jane, Sally (unless she is a moral monster) would most likely feel remorse and guilt for hurting the children. Jane, though she would surely feel badly, would not feel moral guilt. This would certainly be reasonable: a person who hurts others should feel guilt if she could have done otherwise but should not feel moral guilt if she could not have done otherwise (although she certainly should feel sympathy). If someone doubts free will, then she will regard her own actions as being out of her control: she is not choosing to lie, or cheat or hurt others—these events are just happening. People might be hurt, but this is like a tree falling on them—it just happens. Interestingly, these studies show that people are consistent in applying the implications of their skepticism in regards to moral (and legal) accountability.

One rather important point is to consider what view we should have regarding free will. I take a practical view of this matter and believe in free will. As I see it, if I am right, then I am…right. If I am wrong, then I could not believe otherwise. So, choosing to believe I can choose is the rational choice: I am right or I am not at fault for being wrong.

I do agree with Kant that we cannot prove that we have free will. He believed that the best science of his day was deterministic and that the matter of free will was beyond our epistemic abilities. While science has marched on since Kant, free will is still unprovable. After all, deterministic, random and free-will universes would all seem the same to the people in them. Crudely put, there are no observations that would establish or disprove metaphysical free will. There are, of course, observations that can indicate that we are not free in certain respects—but completely disproving (or proving) free will would seem to beyond our abilities—as Kant contended.

Kant had a fairly practical solution: he argued that although free will cannot be proven, it is necessary for ethics. So, crudely put, if we want to have ethics (which we do), then we need to accept the existence of free will on moral grounds. The experiments described by Shariff and Vohs seems to support Kant: when people doubt free will, this has an impact on their ethics.

One aspect of this can be seen as positive—determining the extent to which people are in control of their actions is an important part of determining what is and is not a just punishment. After all, we do not want to inflict retribution on people who could not have done otherwise or, at the very least, we would want relevant circumstances to temper retribution with proper justice.  It also makes more sense to focus on deterrence and rehabilitation more than retribution. However just, retribution merely adds more suffering to the world while deterrence and rehabilitation reduces it.

The second aspect of this is negative—skepticism about free will seems to cause people to think that they have a license to do ill, thus leading to worse behavior. That is clearly undesirable. This then, provides an interesting and important challenge: balancing our view of determinism and freedom in order to avoid both unjust punishment and becoming unjust. This, of course, assumes that we have a choice. If we do not, we will just do what we do and giving advice is pointless. As I jokingly tell my students, a determinist giving advice about what we should do is like someone yelling advice to a person falling to certain death—he can yell all he wants about what to do, but it won’t matter.

 

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