A Philosopher's Blog

Asteroid Mining & Death from Above

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on October 17, 2014

Having written before on the ethics of asteroid mining, I thought I would return to this subject and address an additional moral concern, namely the potential dangers of asteroid (and comet) mining. My concern here is not with the dangers to the miners (though that is obviously a matter of concern) but with dangers to the rest of us.

While the mining of asteroids and comets is currently the stuff of science fiction, such mining is certainly possible and might even prove to be economically viable. One factor worth considering is the high cost of getting material into space from earth. Given this cost, constructing things in space using material mined in space might be cost effective. As such, we might someday see satellites built right in space from material harvested from asteroids. It is also worth considering that the cost of mining materials in space and shipping them to earth might also be low enough that space mining for this purpose would be viable. If the material is expensive to mine or has limited availability on earth, then space mining could thus be viable or even necessary.

If material mined in space is to be used on earth, the obvious problem is how to get the material to the surface safely and as cheaply as possible. One approach is to move an asteroid close to the earth to facilitate mining and transportation—it might be more efficient to move the asteroid rather than send mining vessels back and forth. One obvious moral concern about moving an asteroid close to earth is that something could go wrong and the asteroid could strike the earth, perhaps in a populated area. Another obvious concern is that the asteroid could be intentionally used as a weapon—perhaps by a state or by non-state actors (such as terrorists). An asteroid could do considerable damage and would provide a “clean kill”, that is it could do a lot of damage without radioactive fallout or chemical or biological residue. An asteroid might even “accidentally on purpose” be dropped on a target, thus allowing the attacker to claim that it was an accident (something harder to do when using actual weapons).

Given the dangers posed by moving asteroids into earth orbit, this is clearly something that would need to be carefully regulated. Of course, given humanity’s track record accidents and intentional misuse are guaranteed.

Another matter of concern is the transport of material from space to earth. The obvious approach is to ship material to the surface using some sort of vehicle, perhaps constructed in orbit from materials mined in space. Such a vehicle could be relatively simple—after all, it would not need a crew and would just have to ensure that the cargo landed in roughly the right area. Another approach would be to just drop material from orbit—perhaps by surrounding valuable materials with materials intended to ablate during the landing and with a parachute system for some basic braking.

The obvious concern is the danger posed by such transport methods. While such vehicles or rock-drops would not do the sort of damage that an asteroid would, if one crashed hard into a densely populated area (intentionally or accidentally) it could do considerable damage. While such crashes will almost certainly occur, there does seem to be a clear moral obligation to try to minimize the chances of such crashes. The obvious problem is that such safety matters would tend to increase cost and decrease convenience. For example, having the landing zones in unpopulated areas would reduce the risk of a crash into an urban area, but would involve the need to transport the materials from these areas to places where it can be processed (unless the processing plants are built in the zone). As another example, payload sizes might be limited to reduce the damage done by crashes. As a final example, the vessels or drop-rocks might be required to have safety systems, such as backup parachutes. Given that people will cut costs and corners and suffer lapses of attention, accidents are probably inevitable. But they should be made less likely by developing rational regulations. Also of concern is the fact that the vessels and drop-rocks could be used as weapons (as a rule, any technology that can be used to kill people will be used to kill people). As such, there will need to be safeguards against this. It would, for example, be rather bad if terrorist were able to get control of the drop system and start dropping vessels or drop-rocks onto a city.

Despite the risks, if there is profit to be made in mining space, it will almost certainly be done. Given that the resources on earth are clearly limited, access to the bounty of the solar system could be good for (almost) everyone. It could also be another step form humanity away from earth and towards the stars.

 

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Getting High for Higher Education

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 19, 2014
English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa...

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two major problems faced by the United States are the war on drugs and the problems of higher education. I will make an immodest proposal intended to address both problems.

In the case of higher education, one major problem is that the cost of education is exceeding the resources of an ever-growing number of Americans. One reason for this is that the decisions of America’s political and economic elites damaged the economy and contributed to the unrelenting extermination of the middle class. Another reason is a changing view of higher education: it has been cast as a private (rather than public) good and is seen by many of the elites as a realm to exploited for profit. Because of this, funding to public schools has been reduced and funding has been diverted from public schools to costly and ineffective for-profit schools. Yet another reason is that public universities have an ever-expanding administrative burden. Even the darling of academics, STEM, has seen significant cuts in support and public funding.

The war on drugs has imposed a massive cost on the United States. First, there is the cost of the resources devoted to policing citizens, trying them and incarcerating them for drug crimes. Second, there is the cost of the social and personal damage done to individuals and communities. Despite these huge costs, the war on drugs is being lost—mainly because “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Fortunately, I have a solution to both problems. After speaking with an engineering student about Florida State’s various programs aimed at creating businesses, I heard a piece on NPR about the financial woes of schools and how faculty and staff were being pushed to be fund-raisers for schools. This got be thinking about ways universities could generate funding and I remembered a running joke from years ago. Back when universities started to get into the “businessification” mode, I joked with a running friend (hence a running joke) that we faculty members should become drug lords to fund our research and classes. While I do not think that I should actually become a drug lord, I propose that public universities in Florida (and elsewhere) get into the drug business.

To be specific, Florida should begin by legalizing marijuana and pass a general law allowing recreational drugs that can be shown to be as safe as tobacco and alcohol (that sets the bar nicely low). The main restriction will be that the drugs can only be produced and sold by public universities. All the profits will go directly to the universities, to be used as decided by boards composed of students and faculty.

To implement this plan, faculty and students will be actively involved. Business faculty and students will develop the models, plans and proposals. Design and marketing students and faculty will handle those aspects. Faculty and students in chemistry, biology and medicine will develop the drugs and endeavor to make them safer. Faculty and students in agriculture will see to the growing of the organic crops, starting with marijuana. Engineering students and faculty will develop hydroponics and other technology.

Once the marijuana and other drugs are available, the universities will sell the products to the public with all profits being used to fund the educational and research aspects of the universities. Since the schools are public universities, the drugs will be tax-free—there is no sense in incurring the extra cost of collecting taxes when the money is going to the schools already. Since schools already have brand marketing, this can be easily tied in. For example, Florida State can sell Seminole Gold and Seminole Garnet marijuana, while my own Florida A&M University can have Rattler Green and Rattler Orange.

One practical objection is that the operation might not be profitable. While this is obviously a reasonable concern, the drug trade seems to be massively profitable. Also, by making such drugs legal, the cost of the war on drugs will drop dramatically, thus freeing up resources for education and reducing the harms done to individuals and the community. So, I am not too worried about this.

One health objection is that drugs are unhealthy. The easy reply is that while this is true, we already tolerate very unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, cars and firearms. If these are tolerable, then the drugs sold by the schools (which must be at least as safe as tobacco and alcohol) would also be tolerable. The war on drugs is also very unhealthy for individuals and society—so ending at least part of the war would be good for public health.

One moral objection is that drugs are immoral. There are three easy replies. The first is that the drugs in question are no more immoral than alcohol and tobacco. If these can be morally tolerated, then so can the university drugs. Second, there is the consequentialist argument: if drugs are going to be used anyway by Americans, it is better that the money go to education rather than ending up in the coffers of criminals, gangs, terrorists and the prison-industrial complex. Third, there is also the consequentialist argument that university produced drugs will be safer and of higher quality than drugs produced by drug lords, gangs, terrorists and criminal dealers. Given the good consequences of legalizing university-manufactured drugs, this plan is clearly morally commendable.

Given the above arguments, having universities as legal drug sellers would clearly help solve two of America’s most serious problems: the high cost of education and the higher cost of the ineffective and destructive war on drugs. As my contribution to the brand, I offer the slogan “get high for higher ed.”

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Monkey Selfies & Animal Artists

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 8, 2014

While in Indonesia in 2011, photographer David Slater’s camera was grabbed by a macaque. While monkey shines are nothing new, this monkey took hundreds of shots including some selfies that went viral on the internet. As many things often do, this incident resulted in a legal controversy over the copyright status of the photos. The United States copyright office recently ruled that “Works produced by nature, animals or plants” or “purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings” cannot be copyrighted. While this addresses the legal issue, it does not address the philosophical issue raised by this incident.

From a philosophical perspective, the general issue is whether a non-human animal has moral ownership rights over its artistic works. This breaks down into the two obvious sub-issues. The first is whether or not a non-human animal has a moral status that can ground ownership rights. The second is whether or not a non-human has the capability to create a work of art. These issues have often been the subject of philosophical discussion, but it is certainly worth considering them again.

One approach to the issue of ownership rights is to note that non-human entities are taken to possess ownership rights. To be specific, corporations are taken as having ownership rights—they can and do own copyrights. If a legal fiction like a corporation can be taken to have ownership rights, there seems to be no principled way to deny the same rights to animals. After all, animals have a significantly better claim to rights since they are actual entities with qualities analogous to human persons.

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is that corporations are legal fictions (and legally fictional persons in the United States) and, as such, this does not help with the philosophical issue of whether or not animals can have ownership rights. Legally, the matter is simple: just like corporations, animals have whatever legal rights the law provides. So, if the Supreme Court ruled that animals are people and can own property, then that would be the law—but the philosophical issue would remain unresolved. That said, if corporations should be regarded as having ownership rights (and as people), then it hardly seems unreasonable to accept that animals also have ownership rights (and as being people).

In order to determined whether animals have ownership rights or not, it would be necessary to determine the foundation of these rights. Locke famously bases property rights on the claim that each person owns her own body (well, God does…but He is cool about it) and hence each person owns her own labor. This labor is mixed with common property and thus makes what it is mixed with the property of the laborer. If animals have this sort of self-ownership, then they would have the same ownership rights as humans—whatever an animal mixed her labor with would be hers. The stock counter for this is that animals are not owners—they are objects to be owned. It is worth noting that people have long said the same thing about other people.

Higher animals like dogs and primates also seem to grasp the basics of ownership: they distinguish between what is their property and what is not. To use a concrete example, my husky clearly grasps the distinction between her toys and similar objects that belong to others. As such, there seems to be some basis to the claim that animals regard themselves as possessing ownership rights.

The obvious objection is that animals have, at best, an extremely limited understanding of property and this could simply be attributed to possessiveness or territoriality. The obvious reply to this is that ownership does not seem to require an understanding of property rights—corporations (which have no minds and hence have no understanding) and humans who are dumb as posts are still regarded as having ownership rights.

While the debate over ownership could go on endlessly, animals seem to have as good a claim to ownership rights as humans do, at least in terms of the foundation of such an alleged right. Roughly put, if humans have ownership rights, then animals would seem to qualify as well. Thus, it would seem that animals do have ownership rights.

The next issue is whether or not an animal can create an artistic work. Addressing this properly would require an adequate definition of “art” that would enable one to distinguish between art and non-art. While there have been many attempts to provide just such a definition, they have all proven to be inadequate. Since such a fine definition is lacking, a rough and ready approach must suffice.

In this case, the rough and ready approach is to begin by considering cases in which it is intuitively appealing to accept that a human is creating a work of art. The next step is to use an argument by analogy to determine whether or not an animal could do the same sort of thing.

One clear case is that of painting: a human intentionally applies paints to a surface based on the contents of her intentional states and this image is typically a resemblance to something internal (a feeling or thought) or external (a person, landscape, etc.). While animals do apply paint to surfaces, their lack of language makes it rather difficult to determine what they are doing. If, for example, elephants painted pictures recognizable as elephants, flowers or whatever, them there would be very strong grounds for thinking they are creating art. But, to be fair to the animals, there are humans who create paintings that look exactly like those created by elephants. The main difference is that the humans claim to be artists while the elephants say nothing. But, if the matter is judged entirely by the work produced, if those humans are artists, then so are the elephants.

Another case is that of photography and it seems reasonable to accept that a photo can be a work of art and a photographer an artist. The challenge is, obviously enough, distinguishing between the taking of photos and being an artist. To clarify, photos can be taken by automatic timers, motion sensors, tripwires or by accident but these would not be cases involving an artist. To use an analogy, if the shelves in a shed fail and the paint spills to create a work identical to that of Jackson Pollock of Van Gogh, that would not make the shed’s owner an artist. If the paint where spilled by a trip-wire trap, this would not make the victim an artist. So, being an artist in photography thus requires intent and control rather than automation or chance. At the very least, the photographer must know what she is doing and act with intent.

In the case of the monkey taking pictures, the key question is whether or not the monkey understood what it was doing and acted with intent. If the monkey was just playing with the camera and it just happened to take a few shots that looked good, the monkey is no more an artist than an automatic timer, motion sensor or defective shutter control that made the camera constantly shoot.

It might be objected that some of the shots were quite good aesthetically and judging by the work itself, the monkey had produced art. This does have some appeal—after all, whether the work is art or not should (it can be argued) rest in the work itself rather than the process of creation. But, even if this is granted, it does not follow that the monkey is the artist. After all, an automated camera shooting constantly would almost certainly produce artistic photos eventually—but the automating machinery or software would not thus be an artist. Thus, there could be art but no artist. In the case of the monkey, this seems to be the most plausible explanation—the money was probably just pushing the button and by chance some good images occurred. As such, the monkey was not an artist.

 

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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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