A Philosopher's Blog

“One More Thing I Know About the Negro”

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on May 2, 2014

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the election and re-election of President Obama, some Americans seriously considered the notion that America had become a post-racial country. Seemingly acting in accord with this notion, the Supreme Court of the United States has made rulings based on an assumption that racism is no longer a significant factor in America. Things seemed good, at least in that perception of reality. And then Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling started talking.

Cliven Bundy originally gained national fame when the federal government decided to seize his cattle in response to his illegally grazing his cattle on federal land for decades. Some conservative politicians, Fox News personalities and armed militia rushed to his defense—to stand between law enforcement and someone accused of stealing from the government.

Not surprisingly, some critics pointed out that Bundy seemed to be engaged in all that conservatives profess to hate, namely sponging off the government, breaking the law and defying legal authority. Sean Hannity emerged as his staunchest media defender, despite the fact that Hannity had, on previous shows, denounced and railed against people who had done the same sorts of things—namely sponging off the state and breaking the law.

In an interesting, but perhaps not surprising, turn of events, Bundy made some claims that most people would regard as rather racist: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Not surprisingly, many of those who had rushed to embrace him suddenly released their grip and ran to put as much daylight as they could between themselves and their former hero. This distancing could be dismissed as mere political theater and not an expression of actual distaste. That is, it might be claimed that his former supporters abandoned him not because of their own moral commitments but because they are well aware that overt racism no longer sells as well as it did.

After the Bundy story started cooling down in the media, Donald Sterling gained the spotlight when a recording of him making racist comments was leaked to the public. While Sterling’s views on race and gender have not been a secret, these remarks resulted in NBA commissioner Adam Silver banning him for life from NBA events and imposing a $2.5 million fine. There is also talk of compelling him to sell his team (based on the clause regarding damage done by an owner’s actions).

Not surprisingly, Sterling has been widely condemned and his punishment applauded. Sponsors and advertisers have also pulled away from the Clippers. While this might seem like a victory for morality, it seems unlikely that the NBA and the sponsors were primarily motivated by ethics. After all, Sterling is well known for his views and racism has been evil since, well, the advent of racism. The more plausible explanation is that Sterling’s words did financial damage to the NBA and failure to publicly punish him would probably have cost the NBA a considerably amount of money. As such, this was a triumph of money and not morality. In the case of Bundy, it was a triumph of politics and not principle. Or perhaps not.

While it is certainly reasonable to explain the response of the politicians and pundits in terms of political expediency and the response of the NBA in terms of financial expediency, there are reasons why racism now comes with a high cost politically and financially. One explanation popular with some is that there is a liberal conspiracy to punish people for being racists—that the liberals are somehow in the wrong for considering racists to be wrong and imposing penalties on them for their racism. Perhaps this is based on the belief that the liberals are not sincere and that race is just a political game-piece to them. This speculation is, of course, based on an “unknown fact” about the secret motive of liberals.

Another explanation is that while racism remains, the arc of the moral universe has bent further towards justice and now most Americans correctly regard racism as evil—or at least it is recognized as something that is to be publicly condemned. If this is the case, then while America is not post-racial, at least it is further along the moral arc. This is, as Dr. King had claimed, a step towards making good on the promise of America—we profess to hold all people to be created equal and to be endowed with inalienable rights. We also claim to believe in liberty and justice for all.  Because we seem to be taking these moral principles seriously, racism is now quite costly—so much so that it factors strongly in the pragmatic decisions of politicians and businesspeople.


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Michigan & Affirmative Action

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2014
Michigan State University wordmark

Michigan State University wordmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The matter of affirmative action once again hit the headlines in the United States with the Supreme Court upholding Michigan’s civil rights amendment, which had been overturned. The amendment specifies that:


(1) The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and any other public college or university, community college, or school district shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

(2) The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.


On the face of it, these two things seem to be exactly what civil rights laws should state, namely that discrimination and preferential treatment of the sorts specified is forbidden. As such, it might surprise some that the amendment has faced opposition from civil rights supporters and liberals. The main reason is that the amendment is aimed at ending affirmative action in public education and public sector jobs. Before the amendment, race could be used as a factor in college admissions and in hiring when doing so would address perceived racial disparities.

Despite being often cast as an academic liberal (with all attendant sins), I have long had a somewhat mixed view of affirmative action in education and employment. As an individualist who believes in the value of merit, I hold that college admission and hiring should be based entirely on the merit of the individual.  That is, the best qualified person should be admitted or hired, regardless of race, gender and so on. This is based on the principle that admission and hiring should be based on earning the admission or job and this is fairly and justly based on whether or not an individual merits the admission or job.

To use a sports analogy, the person who gets the first place award for a 5K race should be the person who runs the race the fastest. This person has merited the award by winning. To deny the best runner the award and give it to someone else in the name of diversity would be both absurd and unfair—even if there is a lack of diversity in regards to the winners. As such, the idea of engaging in social engineering at the expense of the individual tends to strike me as wrong.

However, I also am well aware of the institutionalized inequality in America and that dismantling such a system can, on utilitarian grounds, allow treating specific individuals unjustly in the name of the greater good. There is also the matter of the fairness of the competition.

In my 5K analogy, I am assuming that the competition is fair and victory is a matter of ability. That is, everyone one runs the same course and no one possesses an unfair advantage, such as having a head start or being able to use a bike. In such a fair competition, the winner fairly earns the victory. Unfortunately, the world outside of a fair 5K is rather different.

Discrimination, segregation and unjust inequality are still the order of the day in much of the United States. As such, when people are competing for admission to schools and for jobs, some people enjoy considerable unfair advantages while others face significant and unfair disadvantages. For example, African-Americans are more likely to attend underfunded and lower quality public schools and they face the specter of racism that still haunts America. As such, when people apply for college or for state jobs they are not meeting on the starting line of a fair race which will grant victory to the best person. Rather, people are scattered about (some far behind the starting line, some far ahead) and some enjoy unfair advantages while others unfair burdens.

Interestingly, many of these advantages and burdens involve employment and education. For example, a family that has a legacy at a school will have an advantage over a family whose members have never attended college. As such, affirmative action can shift things in the direction of fairness by, to use my racing analogy, pushing people backwards or forwards to bring everyone closer to the starting line to allow for a fairer competition.

To use a somewhat problematic analogy, 5K races divide the trophies up by age and gender (and some have wheelchair divisions as well). As such, an old runner like myself can stand a chance of winning an age group award, even though the young fellows enjoy that advantage of youth. The analogy works in that the 5K, like affirmative action done properly, recognizes factors that influence the competition that can be justly compensated for so that people can achieve success. The analogy, obviously enough, does start to break apart when pushed (as all analogies do). For example, affirmative action with trophies will never make me as fast as the youth, whereas affirmative action in college admission could allow a disadvantaged student match those who have enjoyed advantages.   It also faces the obvious risk of suggesting that the competitors are actually inferior and cannot compete in the open competition. However, it does show that affirmative action can be squared with fair competition.

In closing, I do believe that a person of good conscience can be concerned about the ethics of affirmative action. After all, it does seem to run contrary to the principles of fairness and equality by seeming to grant a special advantage to some people based on race, gender and such. I also hold that a person of good conscience can be for affirmative action—after all, it is supposed to aim at rectifying disadvantages and creating a society in which fair competition based on merit can properly take place.


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Authentically Black: Brother or Cornball Brother?

Posted in Politics, Race, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2012
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Marti...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, race has been forged into a matter of great concern—at least for some people. One of the not uncommonly expressed concerns is whether or not someone is black. In the past, this was often a concern that a black person might be attempting to pass as white. As might be imagined, this was mostly a matter of concern to certain white people. In more recent years a twist has been added to the matter of discerning a person’s blackness. To be specific, one matter that concerns some people is whether or not a person is authentically black as opposed, presumably, to being inauthentically black. In such cases, the racial classification of the person is generally not in dispute. That is, s/he is identified as being black. The concern is, rather, over whether or not the person is properly black. As such, this adds another normative level to the judgment being made.

One recent incident that raised this matter occurred on the ESPN program “First Take.” While this is a sports program, the conversation turned to race when Rob Parker asked if Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is “a brother or is he a cornball brother?” This, on the face of it, seems to be in inquiry into whether or not Griffin is “properly black” or not. When asked what he meant, Parker replied “well, he’s black, he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else.”

While Parker does not clearly lay out detailed standards for being authentically black, he did expand on his remarks in a way that suggested what he meant by “being down with the cause.” Parker noted that Griffin has a white fiancée and that there are rumors that he is a Republican.

Parker’s concern over Griffin having a white fiancée is not uncommon. While whites have often been dismayed by attempts to “mix the races” (and it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled against laws restricting marriage based on race), blacks sometimes criticize other blacks for having relationships with non-blacks. Interestingly and disturbingly, the reasons advanced against “race mixing” often mirror those advanced by racist whites (such as preserving the race). As such, this sort of criticism of Griffin seems to be racist. Naturally, there have been attempts to defend opposition to “race mixing” as being non-racist, but that seems to be a rather challenging (but perhaps not impossible) goal.

Of course, even if being suspicious of “race mixing” is at least a bit racist, it could still be argued that being authentically black requires that a person only have relationships with other black people. That is, that being involved with a non-black would somehow make a person less properly black. Presumably this could apply to other races, so that a white person who dates outside of her race is not properly white and so on for the other races. That is, to be a proper member of the race, one must only be involved with one’s own race. This, of course, requires working out an account of race so that people can date properly if they wish to be authentic. After all, if having a relationship with a person of another race causes one to be inauthentic, then presumably it would follow that dating someone of mixed race could lead to a partial inauthenticity. There is also the obvious problem that “race mixing” has already occurred on a rather large scale and hence those concerned with racial authenticity will need to sort out the matter of mixed-race people, such as President Obama and myself (I’m a colonial blend of English, French, Mohawk and “other”).

Parker’s second main point seems to be in regards to the rumor that Griffin is a Republican. While the Republicans were once popular with African-Americans, that certainly changed (and did so well before Obama ran for president in 2008). The modern Republican Party is often regarded as being tainted with racism and, at the very least, is regarded primarily as a white male party. Not surprisingly, known black Republicans, such as Colin Powell and Herman Cain, are sometimes accused of selling out or even of being “Uncle Toms.” The underlying assumption seems to be that the Republican Party is simply not the place for an authentic black American, presumably because of the values endorsed (or attributed to) the Republican Party.

This does, of course, raise the obvious question as to whether or not being properly black entails that one is obligated to hold to a specific set of political views (namely those not held by the Republican Party). This would seem to suggest that part of the definition of being authentically black involves not merely appearance (having black skin) but also ideology. This would indicate that authentic blackness is not merely a matter of race but also of mind. On the face of it, it does seem odd that being an authentic black would be incompatible with being Republican. After all, while the Republican Party is often presented as the white party, a white person who is a Democrat (or independent) is not regarded as being an inauthentic white. But perhaps things are different for whites.

As a final point, Parker does seem to regard physical appearance as an important part of being an authentic black. When speaking of Griffin’s braids he said, “To me, that’s very urban…. You’re a brother if you have braids on.”

While Parker might be presenting a sufficient condition for being “a brother” (presumably being authentically black), it seems reasonable to assume that it is not a necessary condition. It is not, however, clear to what degree the braids offset the other suspicious qualities of Griffin or others. However, combining this remark with the other claims made by Parker, it would seem that racial authenticity involves behavior (specifically relationships), ideology (specifically politics) and appearance (specifically hairstyle). This would seem to provide the basis for a theorist to work out an account of authenticity.

Given what Parker has said, one might wonder what Griffin thinks about the matter of color. Interestingly, Griffin echoes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “For me, you don’t ever want to be defined by the color of your skin. You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I’ve tried to go out and do.” Griffin, then, seems more concerned with being authentically himself than with meeting a Parker style standard of being authentically black. Not surprisingly, I agree with Griffin in this matter.

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Race in America

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2012
Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the United States professes that all men are created equal and there has been talk of a post-racial America, race is still a significant factor. To use but one example, the 2012 Presidential election involved considerable focus on race. Some, like Bill O’Reilly, lamented what they seem to have taken as the end of the dominance of the white establishment. Others merely focus on the demographic lines drawn in accord with race and hope to appeal to those groups when election time comes.

Despite this unfortunate obsession with race, the concept is incredibly vague. There have been various attempts to sort out clear definitions of the races. For example, the “one drop rule” was an attempt to distinguish whites from blacks, primarily for the purposes of slavery. More recently, there have been attempts to sort out race based on genetics. This has had some interesting results, including some people finding out that the race they identified with is not the same as their genetic “race.”

In many ways, of course, these sorts of findings illustrate that the concept of race is also a matter of perception. That is, being white (or black or whatever) is often a matter of being perceived (or perceiving oneself) as being white (or black or whatever). In many ways, race is clearly a social construct with little correlation to genetics.

Getting back to genetics, many Americans are mixed rather than “pure.” This, of course, creates the problem of sorting people into those allegedly important racial demographics. After all, if a person has a mixed ancestry, they would not seem to fall clearly into a category (other than mixed). To “solve” this “problem” the tendency is to go with how the person is perceived. To use one example, consider President Obama. While his mother was white and his father black, he is considered black (after all, his place in history is as America’s first black president). The fact that he is considered black is thus a matter of perception. After all, he is just as white as he is black—although, of course, he looks black. As might be imagined, appearance is often taken as the major determining factor in regards to race. So, Obama looks more black than white, so he is black. Or so it might be claimed.

There is, of course, a problem in regards to people who are “mixed” but look “pure.” Interestingly enough, in the United States it is typically the case that a “mixed” person who looks “pure” means that they look white enough. After all, people who are “mixed” but do not look clearly white are typically classified as belonging to the “other” race. Like, for example, President Obama.  People who look white enough are typically classified as white, despite their actual ancestry.

I can use myself as an example in this case. While my mother’s side is documented “white” all the way back to the Mayflower, my father’s side is mixed. While my grandfather’s ancestry is French and some Native American, we really have no idea about the specific mix. My grandmother, however, was at least 50% “pure” Mohawk. As such, I am mixed. However, I look rather white and I have consistently been treated as white. Since many official forms and job applications require that a person identify by race, I always pause and look through the categories—especially when there is supposed to be consequences for not being honest. When a form allows multiple selections, I go with “white” and “Native American” since that is true. If I can only pick one, I usually go with “other” and if that is not an option, “white.” After all, no one would doubt that I am white simply by looking at me. As such, I might “really” be white—at least in the way that matters most in society (namely appearance). However, the race categories continue to annoy me and I always worry a tiny bit that I will be busted someday for putting down the wrong race.

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Republicans, Race, Gender & Free Stuff

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2012
Bill O'Reilly at the World Affairs Council of ...

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Much to the dismay of the fine folks at Fox (and to the delight at the marvelous mortals at MSNBC) Obama was re-elected president. In the face of this defeat for the Republican Party, there was a rush to explain Obama’s victory.

Bill O’Reilly, visibly shaken by the results, put forth a three part explanation falling under the general heading of demographic change. The first part is that 50% of the voters want free stuff and they voted for Obama because he would give it to them: “It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are fifty percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

The second part is that there are more non-white people in America and they voted for Obama, presumably because he is only half-white and Romney was 100% white. The third part is that women (who may simply fall under people who want free stuff) voted for Obama: “The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

This explanation, which is a beautiful example of a rhetorical (or persuasive) explanation, certainly matches what could be seen as some of the uglier parts of the Republican narrative regarding people of color, women and the 47%. However, what is most striking about it is that O’Reilly said many true things.

First, he actually underestimated the percentage of voters who like free stuff. I would say that the figure is closer to 100% than 50%, given the extent to which Americans of all classes receive “stuff” from the state and seem to like that “stuff.” I know I liked getting my Pell grant. Now I like driving on public roads, running on public sidewalks, enjoying the protection of the state in the form of police and the military and so on. While I do not receive Social Security yet, I certainly would like to get that when I retire—after all, I have been paying into it for years.

Being somewhat more serious, O’Reilly’s main point seems to be that those who supported Obama did so out of a moral failing—they simply want to get free stuff from the state. However, the evidence that 50% of American voters are morally defective in this manner seems to be assumed by O’Reilly based on the fact that they voted for Obama rather than on the basis of significant and objective evidence. O’Reilly seems to have mainly just bought into Romney’s infamous 47% remark which was not grounded in reality but merely based in stereotypes and prejudices.

Second, he was right that most voters who are not white voted for Obama. Of course, plenty of white voters voted for Obama as well. While O’Reilly and others seem to be casting this as a moral flaw on the part of said voters of insufficient whiteness, he did point to an important reason Obama won: most black and Hispanic voters believed that they would be better off with Obama in office than Romney. While O’Reilly clearly buys into the old racial stereotypes that blacks and Hispanics are lazy spongers and presents this as a reason for Obama’s win, the real reason lies elsewhere. To be specific, the Republican party has made little serious effort to win over black and Hispanic voters at best and at worst some elements of the party seem to embrace views that are at least tinged with racism. This is not just a matter of immigration but of broader issues as well. As such, it is not just that Obama won these voters it is also the case that the Republicans lost them. While it is no doubt emotionally satisfying to put the blame on the black and Hispanic voters, this does them an injustice and also, ironically, serves to make the situation worse for the Republican Party in terms of gaining voters.

Third, he was right that Obama did very well with single women. As with blacks and Hispanics, the explanation seems to be that the women who supported Obama did so from their moral failings—that is, they want free stuff (presumably abortions and birth control). While this might be an emotionally satisfying narrative, it is at odds with reality. While it is true that Obama won over many women voters by doing things that benefit them (such as supporting equal pay for women), this hardly shows that these women merely want free stuff or that they are thus morally defective. If it does, it would seem to show that almost all voters are morally defective—after all, people tend to vote for the person they think will do what is best for them. In this case, women voters would be morally defective, but this would not be a special flaw on their part.

O’Reilly also seems to fail to consider that while Obama did win over many women voters, the Republicans also lost them. Rush Limbaugh denouncing Sandra Fluke as a slut surely did not help the Republicans. It is also likely that the “legitimate rape” and unequal pay episodes of Akin and Mourdock’s idea that being impregnated by rape is a gift from God did not win over women votes. The attempt to impose mandatory transvaginal ultrasoundon women seeking an abortion probably also pushed a few women voters away from the Republican Party. While I could go on providing examples, it should be clear that women had incentives other than getting free stuff to vote for Obama.

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Civil Rights & Same-Sex Marriage

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2012
Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marc...

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After President Obama made his support of same-sex marriage clear, he received criticism from what some might regard as a surprising direction. To be specific, some leaders in the black community have spoken out against Obama’s position.  For example, Reverend William Owens, the president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors said that “by embracing gay marriage, President Obama is leading the country down an immoral path.”

Owens based his position on his view that same-sex marriage is “simply wrong” and that it is a mistake to consider same-sex marriage as a civil right. He also claims that the Black Church must oppose it because “the Black Church has always been the conscience of America.” Because of this view, he called upon black pastors and Christians to cease supporting Obama for as long as the President accepts same-sex marriage. Owens seems to claim that the President has taken this  stance in favor of same-sex marriage in order to get the support (and money) of the “Hollywood folks.” Clearly, this matter raises some interesting philosophical points.

Not surprisingly, those in favor of same-sex marriage often draw an analogy between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the present day movement to ensure equal rights for homosexuals. More specifically, it is common for supporters of same-sex marriage to draw a comparison between same-sex marriage and mixed-race marriages. In the United States, it was not until the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967 that laws against inter-racial marriages were deemed unconstitutional. Even now, some people still oppose mixed race marriage because they regard it as immoral and unnatural.

On the face of it, mixed-race and same-sex marriages seem morally analogous. After all, in both cases people are denied the right to marry based on the person they want to marry being the “wrong” sort of person: either the wrong race or the wrong sex. Those who favor allowing mixed-race marriages contend that race should not be a relevant factor in determining who one should be allowed to marry. In the case of those who favor same-sex marriage, it is contended that a person’s sex should not be a relevant factor in determining who one should be allowed to marry.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 26:  Marchers hold signs t...

(Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Given the apparent similarity between the two situations, it is tempting to think that those who supported the civil rights movement and support (or at least tolerate) mixed-race marriage should also, on the basis of consistency, support the same-sex marriage movement.

However, as noted above, this is not always the case and some people (such as Owens) who clearly support civil rights just as clearly oppose same-sex marriage. There is, of course, a reasonable question as to whether or not this difference is morally justified.

Owens, as noted above, takes the strategy of claiming that same-sex marriage is immoral and hence should not be supported. Given his remarks about civil rights, he presumably believes that the civil rights movement was morally good. As such, grounds are needed for distinguishing between the goodness of the civil rights movement and the alleged evil of same-sex marriage.

One stock approach is to use the religious argument against same-sex marriage. Among Christian thinkers, the basis for the religious objection is typically and famously found in Leviticus. Naturally, there must also be a mixing of norms (see my Moral Methods book) from the religious claim that homosexuality is an abomination to the moral claim that homosexuality (and thus same-sex marriage) is morally wrong. Since I argue about this general point at length in my book For Better or Worse Reasoning, I will focus on three specific points here.

The first is that basing the opposition to same sex-marriage on religious grounds runs into the problem that the same text used to attack same-sex marriage also contains passages that seem to support slavery and inequality, something that would be rather inimical to the views of those who support the equality of the civil rights movement.

The second, which is a related point, is that if same-sex marriage is opposed on religious grounds, then consistency requires that the other religious rules be applied to require or forbid as appropriate. This is an instance of a rather general problem of using religion as the basis for ethics, namely the problem that when people use religion to justify or condemn one practice, they selectively ignore parts of the text that condemn or justify other practices.

For example, consider the commandment that requires keeping the Sabbath. This, unlike the short line in Leviticus, is one of the ten major rules. However, this commandment is routinely and regularly ignored by the same people who oppose same-sex marriage, as are many other rules (such as those regarding usury and the stoning of disobedient children).If it is argued that these other rules should be ignored because of changing times or on some other grounds, the same sorts of reasons can presumably be given in regards to Leviticus and thus the religious foundation of the argument against same-sex marriage can be undercut. Of course, it could be argued that Leviticus should be honored while other rules can be ignored, but the challenge lies in doing this selective ignoring in a principled manner rather than merely on the basis of prejudice and convenience.

A third point is that religious arguments were used in support of slavery, against the civil rights movement and against mixed-race marriages. As such, those who would use religious arguments against same-sex marriage while wanting to hold to civil rights will need to be careful to show that their religious arguments against same-sex marriage are legitimate while the religious based opposition to civil rights was in error and, of course, that the religious based support of civil rights was in the right. This could be done, but the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who want to support civil rights while also opposing same-sex marriage.

In light of the above, the religious based approach does not seem to be a particularly viable means of condemning same-sex marriage while at the same time supporting civil rights.

A second common way to argue against same-sex marriage is to make an appeal to tradition. That is, what is claimed to be traditional marriage is good and right because it is (allegedly) traditional. One obvious problem with this approach is that an appeal to tradition is a fallacy. Another problem with this, at least for those who oppose same-sex marriage while favoring civil rights is that the civil rights movement was opposed on the grounds of tradition and it, obviously enough, involved a clear break with the traditions of racism and unequal rights. As such, appealing to tradition is hardly a viable option for those who want to oppose same-sex marriage while supporting civil rights. The same sort of problem arises with appealing to common practice and appealing to belief. Both of these are logical fallacies and both were employed to argue against civil rights. As such, these do not serve as viable ways to argue against same-sex marriage while supporting civil rights.

Naturally, these approaches are not the only avenues to arguing that same-sex marriage is morally wrong. However, these other arguments also certainly seem to fail, as I argue in my For Better or Worse Reasoning. Unlike some opponents of same-sex marriage, those who support civil rights face the added burden of reconciling their arguments against same-sex marriage with their support of civil rights. For example, if someone argues in favor of civil rights on the basis of the principle of equality, s/he would need to argue why this principle applies to civil rights but does not apply to same-sex marriage. While I will not claim that this is impossible, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who wish to support civil rights but also wish to oppose same-sex marriage.

Another possible approach is to argue that there is an important relevant difference between the civil rights movement and the matter of same-sex marriage. One plausible way to do this is to note that civil rights should be seen as relating to factors like race while same-sex marriage is (obviously) a matter of sexual orientation. One stock argument is that race is not a matter of choice and hence discrimination against people based on race is wrong. Since the traditional civil rights focus on race, supporting these civil rights would thus seem right. In contrast, it could be argued that sexual orientation is a matter of choice and hence a person could chose to be straight and thus be able to marry someone of the opposite sex. In contrast, a person cannot elect to not be black and hence it makes sense to have civil rights extend to people regardless of race. In contrast, there is no such obligation to people who elect to be gay. There is also the point that while people cannot, in general, easily hide their race, they can easily hide their sexual orientation. Hence, features that cannot be hidden should be protected, while those that can need not be protected.

One obvious objection to this approach is that that being gay is no more a matter of choice than is being black or being a woman. As such, the choice argument would not hold. Another obvious objection is that the mere fact that a person can conceal something about themselves hardly seems to justify not extending rights to them. After all, just because some black people can “pass” for white does not entail that they are not entitled to equal civil rights. After all, they would still need the protection of those rights if they were outed as black. Likewise, the fact that a gay person can pass as straight does not mean that they do not need their rights protected. After all, they can be outed.

Another approach is to argue that while being of a certain race or sex (male or female) is not immoral, being gay is. This would thus provide the needed relevant difference to allow a person to support civil rights while still opposing same-sex marriage.

One obvious concern with this approach is that those who oppose civil rights for minorities or women would argue that minorities or women are inferior to, for example, white men and are not entitled to the same rights. In the case of same-sex marriage, the idea is that people who are gay are morally inferior to straight people and thus not entitled to the same rights, most especially marriage rights. As such, those who support minorities or women having civil rights while opposing the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples need to show that there is a difference between homosexuals and other people that warrants the difference in treatment.

In the case of people who otherwise support civil rights, such as Owens, the burden of proof would appear to be on them to show that while certain people should have full civil rights other people should be denied the right to marry.

There is, of course, also the issue of whether or not marriage rights should be denied to people who are immoral. Interestingly enough, other civil rights do not seem to rest on the person being moral. As I have argued in Better or Worse Reasoning, there is not a general moral requirement for marriage, So, for example, a serial killer can legally marry a murderer, provided that they are different sexes. As such, there seems to be no general grounds for denying marriage rights to same-sex couples, even if it is assumed that being gay in and of itself makes a person morally evil.

It could be argued that marriage rights are, in fact, denied to people who are immoral (or who want to engage in immoral activities). Pedophiles are denied the right to marry underage children, people who are fond of animals are denied the right to marry animals, close relatives are denied the right to marry, necrophiliacs are denied the right to marry corpses and so on. However, this point can easily be countered and I do so in my For Better or Worse Reasoning. After all, there are good moral arguments against marrying children, corpses and animals, mainly based on the obvious notion that they cannot provide consent. The same arguments do not, however, hold against same-sex couples.

On the face of it, it seems rather challenging for a person to consistently support civil rights while at the same time opposing same-sex marriage rights. While clearly not impossible, it is clear that the burden of proof rests on those who wish to defend civil rights for themselves while not extending those rights to others they regard as immoral or inferior.

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Voter Purging in Florida

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 8, 2012
Official photo of Florida Governor Rick Scott

Official photo of Florida Governor Rick Scott (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanks to the 2000 presidential election, Florida became the butt of many electoral jokes. However, what is happening in Florida now is no laughing matter.

Governor Rick Scott recently ordered that all alleged non-citizens be purged from the Florida voting lists. While there seems to be no actual evidence of significant voter fraud, up to 182,000 people have been identified as possible non-citizens. 3,000 of these were recently sent letters that demanded proof of citizenship. As might be imagined, I disagree with the actions of Governor Scott.

I do agree that only citizens should be allowed to vote, however I am rather concerned that the methods used to attempt to achieve this goal to not disenfranchise citizens. I am also concerned that the methods used do not discourage or intimidate legitimate voters. The current approach seems to violate both of these reasonable concerns.

First, the list used to determine who is an alleged non-citizen is not accurate. In fact, “many voters identified by the state as suspected non-citizens are legal immigrants.” One rather unfortunate example is the case of Bill Internicola, a decorated war hero who has been legally voting for years. While this is but one example, it  and other cases do certainly raise questions about the accuracy of the list.

Obviously enough, the lists used to purge people from the voting lists should be accurate. Naturally, perfect accuracy is not possible, but the current list seems to be woefully inaccurate.

It could be replied that the inaccuracy is not a big deal. After all, the suspected non-citizens get a letter threatening removal from the polls if they cannot provide proof of citizenship within 30 days and informing them that voting when illegible is a felony.

One counter to this is that it is a matter of concern. After all, those who receive such a letter and can legally vote will need to go through the inconvenience of proving that they are eligible to vote and that seem unfair-especially when the list is known to be rather inaccurate. A second counter is that such letters can deter legitimate voters by confusing them or intimidating them into not voting.

It might be replied that these are but small inconveniences and that these purges are needed to address a serious problem regarding voter fraud. For example, it has been claimed that theDemocrats  are intentionally allowing illegal immigrants to vote in the hopes of getting Obama re-elected in 2012. As such, the fact that some citizens might be unjustly disenfranchised is a small price to pay in order to ensure that fraudulent voting does not occur.

There are two obvious counters to this. First, actual investigations of voter fraud have shown that while it does occur, its occurrence rate is minuscule. As such, it seems unwarranted to employ severe measures to address what amounts to a non-problem. Second, going with the spirit of  the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” it seems preferable to tolerate a microscopic amount of voter fraud rather than harassing a significant number of citizens and wrongly disenfranchising some.

In a counter to the claim that the Democrats are encouraging illegals to vote, the Democrats claim that the purge is aimed primarily at Latino and minority voters-voters who are likely to support Obama. Given that voter fraud is minute and the list being used is inaccurate, this claim does have some credence.

To preempt a likely attack on me, I believe that the voter rolls should be accurate and that people should not be permitted to vote illegally. However, this must be done in a way that ensures a high degree of accuracy and that does not inconvenience legitimate voters unduly.

Naturally, if voter fraud was widespread and damaging the democratic process, I would support more severe measures to address such a crime wave. However, the current approach to the alleged voter fraud is unjust and seems primarily calculated to disenfranchise and discourage those who are more likely to vote for Democrats. As an American citizen, I am opposed to what appears to be a concerted attack on voting rights and thus an attack on the very core of democracy.

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Demonizing Trayvon Martin

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 6, 2012

The death of Trayvon Martin has become a matter of great controversy and has served to spawn other controversies. One of these is the claim that Trayvon Martin is being demonized.

In terms of the facts, it has been revealed that Trayvon Martin had been suspended from school because marijuana residue had been found in a plastic bag in his possession.  It was also revealed that he had been suspended twice before-once for an attendance issue and another for allegedly marking on a locker.

On the one hand, revealing these facts could be seen as mere reporting. After all, the function of the news media (after making money) is to report information to the public. Just as information about Zimmerman is being revealed to the public, so too would information about Martin.

On the other hand, some concern has been expressed that the information about Martin was leaked to the media. After all, his school record is presumably supposed to be kept confidential.  Given that this information is negative, it is naturally for people concerned about Martin’s reputation to be worried that he is now the victim of an intentional demonizing rather than this being merely a situation of the media doing some legitimate reporting. It could also be speculated that this alleged demonizing is being done in anticipation of a criminal or civil trial and is intended to cast Martin as a troublesome youth who might very well have provoked Zimmerman into an act of self-defense.

Sticking to the facts, they show that Martin was not a perfect student. He was apparently suspended three times and some might consider the baggie as evidence of drug use. However, there are two important things to consider about these facts.

The first, and the least important of the two, is that while these facts show that Martin was not perfect, they hardly serve to show that he is a thug or prone to violence. At the very worst, they show that he missed school, suggest he smoked pot, and indicate he marked up school property. While I will not defend these acts by saying that they are common behavior for American students, I will note that they do not mark him as a special menace. Rather, they show that he seems to have acted like a fairly typical teenager and this seems no different from when I was a kid.

While I was never suspended, I did get in fist fight (after being attacked) in school and I once got in serious trouble for skipping out on detention. My cross country team did get in trouble once because a bus driver reported that they smelled pot on the bus after a race. While I was not a direct suspect (I was out with an injury for that event and hence not on the bus), I was “locked down” with the rest of the team until the culprits came forward.  None of us were thugs-we were just kids doing the stupid things that kids often do because they are kids and not adults (and, of course, adults do very stupid things as well). As such, these facts about Martin are hardly shocking and hardly damning. Unless, of course, they damn almost all American students.

The second, and most important, of the two is that these facts have no bearing on the case. Even if it is true that Martin was suspended three times, even if he marked up a locker, even if he was high at the time, it does not follow that his death would be thus justified. After all, none of these facts indicate that Martin would be likely to simply attack Zimmerman without provocation. There is, after all, considerable difference between what Martin is alleged to have done (cutting school, possessing pot and marking up a locker) and being a violent person.

Naturally, evidence of irrational violent behavior would be relevant-both in regards to Martin and Zimmerman.  If either (or both) of them had such tendencies and this could be proven, that would impact the case in terms of the likelihood of who attacked who. There is, however, currently no evidence that Martin was especially prone to violence.



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Discerning Racism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2012

The death of Trayvon Martin has created a significant controversy in the United States and it has attracted attention around the world.

From a legal standpoint, the main points of contention are factual in nature. If Zimmerman acted in legitimate self-defense (as he claims), then he would seem to have acted within the law. If Zimmerman did not act in legitimate self-defense, then it would seem that he would have acted outside of the law and thus should presumably be charged with a crime. There also seems to be the possibility that both people believed they were acting in legitimate self-defense and, of course, perhaps there are other possibilities as well. From an objective standpoint, the currently available evidence does not seem decisive. That is, in a hypothetical trial a competent attorney could weave a narrative that accounts for all the existing evidence that supports either the defense or the prosecution.

Not surprisingly, media folks and other people have been rather busy digging up information regarding Zimmerman and Martin. Their proponents have, naturally enough, focused on presenting positive information whole their opponents have fixated on the negative. In the case of Martin, considerable focus has been placed on the claim that he was suspended from school because of an empty bag containing marijuana residue. In the case of Zimmerman, focus has been placed on past behavior that seems negative.

Also not surprisingly, race has been brought in as a factor. It has been claimed that Zimmerman acted on the basis of racism and that Martin was shot because he was a young black man. It is this aspect of the matter that

Sign for "colored" waiting room at a...

Clearly racist.

has served to generate considerable attention.

Given the history of racism in the United States, it would not be absurd to consider that race was a factor in the incident. However, an accusation of racism requires adequate support if it is to be anything but a mere accusation. Naturally, to assume that there must be racism involved because the parties involved were black and Hispanic would itself seem to be a racist assumption. This is because it would assume that a Hispanic must be motivated by racism and not some other factors.

The difficulty of discerning whether or not racism is a causal factor can range from very easy to very difficult. For example, if people in Klan regalia murder a black person while shouting racist slogans and make it clear that they are killing the person because s/he is black, then it would be eminently reasonable to believe that racism was a factor. However, the matter is obviously not so clear in the case of Zimmerman. As such, to confirm a hypothesis of racism as a causal factor would require sorting out what would serve as evidence for such a claim and showing that such evidence exists.

As might be imagined, sorting out what counts as evidence for racism can be a rather controversial matter. As noted above, there are some easy and obvious cases (such as those involving self-identified racists who make it clear they are motivated by racism). However, when there is no Klan hood or shouted racist slogans, then a more subtle sort of evidence is called for. This, of course, raises the concern that the evidence might be rather too subtle.

One obvious starting point is the ethnicity of those involved. On the face of it, for racism to be a factor, then those involved would seem to need to differ in ethnicity (although this could be disputed-perhaps a person could be a racist regarding his/her own race). While this might be a necessary condition, it is clearly not a sufficient condition-otherwise every (presumably negative) interaction between folks of different ethnic backgrounds would be at least partially caused by racism. This seems to be so absurd that, at the very least, the burden of proof would need to be on the person who claims that racism is always a factor. Interestingly, if it could be shown that racism is always a factor, then it would not be a special factor in any such cases-since every such case would involve racism.

Getting back to the specific case, the fact that Zimmerman and Martin are of different ethnic backgrounds means that racism is a possibility-but only a mere possibility.

A second avenue of evidence is what a person says. In the United States there is a reasonably clear collection of racist terms and the use of them can be taken as evidence for the possibility of racism. In addition to specific words, there is also (obviously enough) the other things that a person might have said before or during the incident in question. It must, of course, be noted that such terms and the use of certain remarks is not conclusive evidence of racism. To use the obvious example, people in an ethnic group sometimes use racist terms regarding their own ethnicity. In an interesting coincidence, as I type this, I am listening to Kanye West and Jay-Z singing “Niggas in Paris” courtesy of Grooveshark. However, it would seem unreasonable to say that West and Jay-Z are presenting evidence of their racism against blacks. Naturally, it could be contended that the use of such terms is privileged by race/ethnicity and if a person of a different ethnicity uses such a term, then it is racist. This view, obviously enough, seems to involve accepting that racial or ethnic differences are actually significant and meaningful differences-which might be regarded as being a form of racism. However, discussing this matter would take the discussion to far afield and it must be set aside, at least for now.

There is also the fact that when people are angry, they tend to use the words they think will do the most damage or express their anger and hence they often use terms with racist connections. To use the obvious analogy, when people are angry, they also tend to swear, mainly because of what such words express and what they do. As such, saying things that sound racist need not be strong evidence that a person is racist.

Of course, it can be countered that people who are not racist do not use such terms even when angry. As such, a person using such terms when angry is saying what they really think, but conceal under normal conditions. This, of course, rests on the assumption that anger reveals what is truly in a person’s mind as opposed to the view that people say in anger what they do not really mean. As might imagined, this can be rather difficult to sort out as we do not fully understand the workings of the mind.

In the specific case at hand, the transcript of what Zimmerman said during his 911 call does not contain any blatantly racist remarks. Naturally, considerable attention has been paid to the unintelligible parts of the recording. However, these seem to be more of a Rorschach test for the listener than actual evidence of any racist comments. The mere fact that a garbled word or words might sound something like a racist word or phrase is hardly adequate evidence of racism-after all, people can hear “words” even in natural sounds and the sounds of animal and this hardly proves that the wind or a husky was actually saying specific words. Even if audio experts are brought in to work on the audio, there is still the obvious question of whether the “improvement” of the audio would reveal something that was actually said, or would merely make garbled sounds resemble a racist (or non-racist) remark. However, if the audio were properly cleaned up and then revealed unambiguously racist words, then this would be quite a different matter.

People do point to the fact that Zimmerman does say things that seem racist to them and this can be used to make a reasonable case in favor of the racism hypothesis. However, there is the obvious question of whether Zimmerman would have reacted similarly had the situation differed only by the person not being black. If Zimmerman would have said comparable things seeing a young Hispanic, white or Asian, etc., then it would be reasonable to infer that he was either not racist (or was racist towards everyone). Of course, there is the obvious question of whether such evidence is available or not.

It could also be replied that since I am a mostly Caucasian French-English-Mohawk mix, I simply cannot see the racism that would be obvious to someone of a different ethnicity/race. While it is tempting to dismiss such a response as being racist (after all, it makes assumptions about me based on my genetic background), it is reasonable to consider that different experiences that are often linked to ethnicity/race can lead to different perspectives. To support this, I will use my own experience.

While I look rather white, I have been a professor at an historically black university since 1993. While I would not claim that this enables me to have a “trans-racial” perspective, it has given me  a somewhat different perspective on matters involving race and racism. I have found that because I have white skin, people will say and do things around me without being “on guard” against seeming racist. Over the years, I have noticed that people will sometimes say and do racist things that they actually do not see as racist-though the certainly seem racist to me. One classic example is that when I first started teaching at Florida A&M University, people would innocently ask me “what is it like teaching those people?” I would, of course, say “You mean students, right?” Then there would always be a very uncomfortable pause as the person realized that they had just said something that seemed just a bit racist. These sort of experiences have served to make it clear to me that what might not seem racist to one person might, in fact, be racist when properly considered.  At the very least, it might truly seem racist to the person. As such, I would be a fool not to consider that my perception of the matter might be in error-that I am missing real evidence that others can clearly see. Of course, being a philosopher, I must also consider the fact the people sometimes see what is not, in fact, there. This raises the obvious problem of sorting out perception and reality-a matter that goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Third, an obvious place to look for evidence of alleged current racism is to look for evidence of past racism. After all, people tend to act in accord with their character. This, of course, can run us in a bit of a circle: to find out whether past actions where racist or not, we would need to use the standards that we need for the current case. As such, turning to past cases would require establishing that those cases involved racism. If those past cases are in doubt, then they would not serve as very good evidence for the claim that the current case involves racism. If the past cases were clearly cases involving racism, then they would lend credence to a current claim of racism.

While there has been considerable focus on Zimmerman, as this is being written there seems to a lack of decisive evidence of his alleged evidence. While absence of evidence is not itself evidence of absence, the burden of proof  would seem to rest on those who claim that he is a racist. But, as noted above, perhaps such evidence exists and I simply cannot properly interpret it.

It might be argued, as some have, that Zimmerman cannot be a racist because he is “half Hispanic.” This is, obviously enough, not a good argument. Racism is, ironically enough, an equal opportunity employer.

My overall conclusion is, obviously enough, one of uncertainty. As this is being written, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence showing that Zimmerman is a racist or that he acted from racist motivations.  Likewise, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence that he is not a racist.

Given a presumption of innocence, it seems reasonable to hold that a person is not a racist until proven otherwise. As such, I would not be inclined to claim that Zimmerman of racism at this time. If additional evidence becomes available, my view could change-but, as always, a conclusion should be based on adequate evidence that is objectively considered. I am, however, keeping in mind that I could be just as blind to evidence of racism as the people who asked me about teaching “those people” in the example I gave above.

As always, my commitment is to the truth and if decisive evidence can be provided for or against a claim of racism, then I would accept such a claim based on the evidence.

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The Hispanic Vote

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2011
Seal of the United States Census Bureau. The b...

Image via Wikipedia






Getting elected to a national office, especially the presidency, requires appealing across the various demographic groups. One critical group, Hispanics, is growing even more rapidly than expected. Hispanics were, of course, an important demographic in the 2008 election and the increase in numbers will make them even more significant in 2012.

Of course, it is important to note that there is no monolithic Hispanic block. To use an obvious example, Hispanics in South Florida whose families came from Cuba would tend to have different political views from Mexican-Americans in Texas. Also, individual Hispanics will be just as diverse in their views as anyone else. For example, my girlfriend (who is from Puerto Rico) is apolitical and would rather talk about statistics from her research than anything involving politics.

That said, politicians generally try to appeal to groups of people by trying to find issues that they think will resonate. For example, many politicians tend to associate Hispanics with immigration issues and hence often try to get points by taking a certain stance on immigration.

Democrats tend to assume that Hispanics will vote for Democrats. After all, the Democrats are presented as being more inclusive, as being more concerned about minority rights, as being more liberal about immigration, and as being more on the side of the working class. The Democrats have, in fact, often enjoyed the support of Hispanic voters. However, it would be an error on their part to assume that the rise in the American Hispanic population will lead to easy victories for them. One point of concern is that some Hispanic leaders believe that Obama and other Democrats have let them down and this could be held against them in future elections. Also, Hispanics are an increasingly diverse population and to assume that they will all be concerned about matters in a way favorable to Democrats would be an error. Republicans have often enjoyed considerable popularity among some groups of Hispanics and they can, with proper effort, expand their appeal.

Republicans certainly hope to tap into the pool of Hispanic voters. Given the size of the Hispanic population, this will be critical for national and many local elections. On the face of it, Republicans would seem to have a harder task ahead of them than the Democrats. Republicans are often cast as being less inclusive (rich, white and uptight), being largely unconcerned with minority rights, being harsh about immigration, and being more on the side of business. These factors have, in fact, made it somewhat harder for Republicans to reach out to Hispanics. One factor well worth considering is that the Republican party has a fringe element that comes across as racist against Hispanics, especially when talking about immigration.

However, Republicans are generally seen as stronger than Democrats when it comes to law & order, family values, economics, patriotism, defense and other such matters. They can play to these perceived strengths in winning over certain Hispanic voters, just as they do with other voters.

Overall, the take away is that Hispanics will be an ever more significant demographic in elections and the Democrats and Republicans will be working very hard to pander to Hispanics. I, for one, really hope to see Obama facing off with the Republican candidate in a contest involving tequila shots.

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