A Philosopher's Blog

Tech, Wages & Profits

Posted in Business, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2014
Factory Automation with industrial robots for ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite the Great Recession, the profits for corporations have doubled since 2000. In contrast, the median household income in the United States has fallen from $55,986 to $51,017 (dollars adjusted for inflation, of course). Not surprisingly, corporate profits have gone from 5% to 11% of the GDP while wages of employee have dropped from 47% to 43%. While these numbers can be interpreted in various ways, one obvious implication is that corporations are making more money with fewer employees. It is also evident that corporations are doing better than most people (although some would say that corporations are people).

One plausible explanation for this is automation that increases productivity without increasing employment and employee income—a claim put forth by the authors of The Second Machine Age. Historically automation and other technological advances have increased productivity and eliminated jobs—but these have also consistently resulted in higher incomes in general (often by creating new and better jobs). That is, as some folks like to say, the rising tide of advancement lifted all boats. What is different about the current situation is that the rising tide of advancement has lifted the corporate yachts while causing the rowboats of the common folks to flounder (and some to sink).

If Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are right, recent advances are destroying jobs at a rate that exceeds the creation of jobs. This does have a certain plausibility since it is well-established that technological advances do eliminate jobs. The obvious example is how factory automation has reduced the number of factory workers. It certainly would not be shocking or amazing if the elimination of jobs exceeded the creation of jobs—even if the past has been different. One reason for this could be a matter of the nature of the advances. Another reason could be a matter of choice: employers elect to stick with the lower number of employees rather than creating more jobs and employing those whose jobs have been eliminated.

It also seems worth considering the impact of the “internet economy” on these numbers. To be specific, this economy features highly (over) valued companies that have relatively few employees. Consider, for example, companies like Facebook. Facebook was valued at $192 billion in July. 2014. IBM was valued at $198 billion. Facebook has about 7,000 employees while IBM has over 400,000. By way of comparison, Walmart has 2.2 million employees (making it the largest private sector employer in the United States). Behind Walmart are the fast food empires of Yum! Brands (523,000 employees) and McDonalds (440,000).

Having such highly (over) valued companies with relatively low numbers of employees would result in a high concentration of profits and wealth. Adding in the fact that the largest employers are in low paying industries (retail and fast food), it would certainly seem to help explain why corporations are doing much better relative to 2000, while most people are doing worse in terms of income.

If there is merit to this explanation, then there are some obvious concerns regarding the sort of economy in which the biggest employers are in low-paying sectors and big profits are made by companies that employee few people (and seem to profit from being excessively overvalued). Some are already suggesting there is a new class system emerging based on this new economy while others point to past bubbles and are waiting for companies like Facebook and Twitter to pop like digital balloons.

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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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Ethics, Children & Immigration

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2014

While children, accompanied or not, have been immigrating to the United States from Central America for quite some time, this matter has attracted considerable attention as the number of children has increased (although not as dramatically as some media coverage would suggest). Not surprisingly, this has become a political issue within the larger context of the immigration policy debate and both Republicans and Democrats are struggling to figure out how to best exploit the opportunity (or best avoid disaster).

To focus the moral discussion, I will narrow the subject considerably and focus on young children who are arriving from Central America and who are not gang-members or other sorts of criminals. One reason for this is that the issue of allowing criminals to come to the United States is easy enough to address: they should not be allowed to come here for the purpose of committing crimes.

Since many Americans claim that the United States is a Christian nation, it is certainly tempting to apply Christian ethics to this matter. The bible is rather clear about this issue: “Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’” The bible also enjoins people to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Given these clear statements, it would seem to follow that those who which to practice Christian ethics would be morally (and religiously) obligated to show compassion and kindness to the children who are strangers and foreigners.

There are, of course, people who do take these injunctions seriously and act in accord with them. However, there are others who profess the religion but have reacted quite differently to these words: “But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing.…” Perhaps such folks believe that following Christian ethics is merely a matter of being opposed to birth control, abortion and equal rights for women.

Alternatively, a person could profess the principles and content that they are overridden by other concerns. One possible line of argumentation is to point out that the children are here illegally and this entails that they should not be given the full measure of compassion but rather shipped back to their point of origin immediately. Another possible line of argumentation is utilitarian: though extending kindness and compassion to the children would be laudable, to do so would require resources that are either unavailable or would be better used elsewhere (such as helping poor Americans). On this view, utilitarian ethics or practical concerns would trump the religious based ethics.

There are, obviously enough, people who are not Christians and people who, though professing to be Christians, reject the specific principles mentioned above. As such, other reasons would be needed to show that the children in question should be treated with suitable compassion and kindness.

One fruitful avenue is to appeal to a principle of moral debt: that is, when someone has been harmed or wronged, the wrongdoer has an obligation to set matters right. In the matter at hand, it has been claimed that some of the children have been sent from Central America to escape the terrible violence that plagues the region. This, of course, can be challenged—one could argue that the children are being sent to the United States for other reasons, such as better economic opportunities (or to become parasites on the American taxpayer). These arguments are not without merit and must be given due consideration. After all, if the children are coming to the United States illegally to escape danger and death, then that is a rather different matter than if they are coming to have a better life (perhaps at the expense of the taxpayer).

That said, let it be supposed that some of the children are, in fact, fleeing danger and the risk of death. The obvious concern is why this might obligate the United States to allow them to stay. One answer, as noted above, is to appeal to a moral debt owed by the United States (that is the people of the United States as a collective political body). Some might wonder what the foundation of such a debt might be. There are two easy and obvious answers to this.

The first is that the United States has a well-documented history of political and economic machinations in the region and these include toppling governments, supporting death squads, and other such nefarious deeds. In short, the United States has significantly contributed to the conditions that threaten the children of the area with death and danger. Fairness does, of course, require noting that the United States has not been alone in its adventures in the region (the Cold War helped shape much of the current situation) and some of the instability and chaos is self-inflicted. Given the United States’ role in creating the current situation, it would seem that we owe a collective debt and this would obligate us to addressing the consequences of these past actions.

The second is that a significant cause of violence in the region is drugs, specifically the production and distribution of drugs. While there is obviously local consumption, the people of the United States are a primary market for the drugs produced in this region and the war on drugs pursued by the United States has been even more disastrous in Central America than it has been in the United States. Given our role as drug consumers and our war on drugs, the United States is thus a major contributor to the violence and danger of the region. Since we are doing wrong, this would certainly seem to create an obligation on our part in regards to the children that are fleeing this situation.

To use an obvious analogy, if affluent outsiders wreck a neighborhood and serve as the prime customers for the drug industry that arises there, then these outsiders have a significant degree of moral accountability. If children try to flee the ruins of that neighborhood and head into the affluent neighborhood, it would certainly be wicked of those people to insist on sending them back into the mess they themselves worked so hard to create and maintain.


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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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Checking “Check Your Privilege!”

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2014
Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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    Happy 4th of July!

    Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2014
    English: Fireworks on the Fourth of July

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Taking the day off to celebrate the greatest country in all the possible worlds by running a 5K and perhaps blowing stuff up. Leibniz would approve as would Thomas Jefferson.

    Let us take a moment to pity the lesser nations. Okay, back to the fireworks!


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    American flag

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