A Philosopher's Blog

When is it Time to Discuss Gun Violence?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2012
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the murders at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, a standard script was followed by the media and the pundits on various sides. Part of this script is that people who are against guns typically demand more gun control and some people who are pro-gun counter by claiming that the time after such a terrible incident is not the time to discuss changes in law.

My focus in this essay is to address the matter of when it is time to discuss gun violence and, in particular, changes in laws or policies regarding guns.

On the one hand, those who claim that the matter of gun laws should not be discussed right after a tragedy do have a reasonable point. After all, people reason even more poorly than usual when they are experiencing strong emotions. There is, of course, an abundance of fallacies that are “fueled” by the power of emotions to lead people astray from good reasoning. Examples include the classics such as appeal to anger, appeal to pity, and appeal to fear. In these fallacies, the general idea that something that creates an emotional effect (anger, pity or fear) is used as a substitute for an actual reason to accept a claim. As might be imagined, people are even more likely to commit such fallacies when they are in emotional states.

The reasonable concern is, of course, that people will make poor decisions regarding laws or policies while under the influence of their emotions and that these decisions can have negative consequences or, at the very least, lead to ineffective “solutions.” Presumably better decisions would be made after the emotions have cooled and, of course, we should endeavor to make laws and policies when our reasoning is at its best.

On the other hand, there are reasonable concerns that waiting to discuss such matters could be problematic. First, there is the worry that concern about gun violence will simply fade away as people are distracted by other things and forget about the murders at Sandy Hook. As such, a delay could result not in a more reasonable discussion of gun laws and policies but in no real discussion at all. This seems to be a common cycle: the media focuses on a terrible event involving guns for a few days and then the matter just fades away until the next incident. As such, it seems reasonable to push for serious discussion now when people are paying attention.

Second, there is the worry that the push to wait is not really a call to wait until we can have calm reflection on the matter but a considered tactic on the part of certain people to take advantage of the media’s and the public’s short attention span. That is, if the discussion can be held off long enough, people will forget about the matter (as noted above) and the status quo will continue.

While I certainly favor a rational discussion of the matter, I think that this can be done without waiting until people have mostly lost interest in the matter. As such, I think it is certainly time to discuss the matter seriously.

 

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Does Truth Matter?

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 8, 2012
truth

truth (Photo credit: Erick-Pardus)

Most people believe that Mitt Romney won the October 3 debate and this entails that, in practical terms, he did win it. After all, one wins a political debate by getting the majority to believe that one has won. As such, victory is defined by the what people believe.

Romney and Obama were both accused of “stretching” the truth during the debate. The objective evidence indicates that both candidates intentional said things that are not true. Or, as normal folks would put it, they lied.

Those defending their man noted that this is the practice of politics. While this is clearly a case of the common practice fallacy (that is, attempting to justify a practice by claiming it is a common one) the general acceptance of this raises questions about whether truth matters in politics at all. In fact, one of the students in my ethics class asked me if an honest person could even be elected. While I do think that this is possible, I am not entirely sure that this view is well-founded. It might simply be a case of wishful thinking.

One thing I find fascinating about this lying is that both men obviously knew that their claims would be fact checked and that the results would make the news. Apparently the fact that lies would be noted and exposed had no effect on the honesty of the two men. This suggests that they believe that this exposure will have no effect on their chances. If so, the seem to be right about this.

One reason why they can lie with seeming impunity is that there are only two viable choices (Romney or Obama) and since both are lying, honesty cannot be a point of distinguishing between them.

Another reason is that most voters have already decided how they will vote and are committed to a degree that would be hard to shake. Mere lying about the facts does not appear to be enough to change minds.

Perhaps the main reason is that, as I have written in other posts, people hold to claims that match their ideology even in the face of refutation. In fact, the strength of a person’s belief in a claim that matches his ideology will generally increase when the claim is objectively refuted. As such, it makes bizarre sense that the candidates would lie so often: their follows are more likely to believe a refuted lie than an actual truth.

Despite the lying done by both parties, they are rather quick to accuse the other side of lying. For example, the latest job figures show that unemployment is at 7.8%. In response to this, some Republicans have claimed that this figure is a deceit. While some claim that the number is simply a fabrication by Obama’s people others claim that out of work Democrats have been lying about being employed to bring down the unemployment numbers.

While it is tempting to dismiss the Republicans’ accusation on the grounds that they are also liars, this would be a logical error. In any case, the unemployment percentage is an objective matter and is presumably one that can be checked independently. Of course, merely by making the accusation loudly and repeatedly, the Republicans will get their fellows to believe it and if it is shown that the figure really is 7.8%, they will even more strongly believe that it is not 7.8%. Naturally, convincing the already convinced will not amount to much in the election-a person just gets one vote regardless of how convinced they are. There is, of course, a chance that this will influence the few undecided voters which could be the reason behind the accusation. On the other side, many Democrats will be even more inclined to accept the number now that some Republicans are attacking it.

Another point about truth that has been raised is the matter of how Romney has switched his positions throughout the process, leading to the infamous etch-a-sketch analogy. While securing the nomination, Romney steered hard right but during the debate he tacked left towards the center. His defenders point out that this sort of thing is common practice and that all politicians facing a primary do the same thing. That is, they tack left or right for the primary and then head for the center for the general election. Naturally, the fact that it is a common practice does not make it correct.

In addition to the moral concern regarding deception (and this process is intentional deceit) there is also the concern that this practice makes it rather difficult for the voters to know what the person actually believes or what s/he will actually do.While it might be claimed that the voters should compensate by taking into account the tacking, that seems to amount to saying that the voters should be aware that what the politicians say is not the truth. Or, put another way, that the voters should not take anything they say seriously, yet they should still vote for them.

In the case of Romney, which is the real Mitt: the primary Mitt, the debate Mitt, the Massachusetts Mitt or some other Mitt we have not met yet? In the case of Obama, he has been in office for nearly four years, thus we have a good idea of what he is like.

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Romney Victory

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 4, 2012
Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there is some debate about the victory conditions of the debate, I will go with a rather practical measure of a win. That is, the winner is the person who the most people think is the winner. By this measure, Romney won the debate last night.

The debate was, for the most part, not particularly memorable. Romney did well, Obama did rather less well. However, there were no stinging zingers and there was not much in the way of killer soundbites. Interestingly, Obama declined to use what many pundits regard as his best ammunition against Romney, such as the infamous 47% remarks.

Some of Obama’s defenders have claimed that he was trying to be presidential by not engaging Romney. However, that seems a rather weak defense. Commentators have also pointed to the fact that incumbents generally do not do well in the first debate and the Kerry-Bush debate has been presented as an example of this. Given that a president running for office  has two full time jobs (president and presidential candidate) it is not surprising  that Obama would be less practiced than Romney and that Obama would be laboring under a greater burden. Perhaps Obama will do a George and come back from a weak first debate to win the election. After all, that is what actually matters.

It is also worth noting that Obama might have had a bad day. Being a competitive athlete and having competed in debate at the high school and college level, I know very well that some days one just does not “have it.” I’ve run races where my legs were flat and I just had no get up and go. I’ve done debates where the words just would not come and my logic was apparently lost in the woods. Weirdly, this has happened when by all rights I should have been doing very well. Even stranger, there have been races where I was running a fever and could barely stand at the start, yet went on to run a really good time (such as a 16:48 in a 5K).  Competition can be a strange thing. Next time around, Obama might have a good day and Romney might have a bad one.

One interestingly result of the debate is that Romney’s mention of Big Bird got a great deal of attention, leading to a flurry of activity on Facebook. While Romney’s defenders say that was just a light moment, it has actually stirred up some serious response. On the Romney side, the contention is that Romney wants to cut government waste such as the subsidies provided to PBS . On the other side, the contention is that Romney wants to slash popular public programs to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy and to free up additional money to be funneled into corporate subsidies.

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Sand Baggery & Zingers

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 3, 2012
Ronald Reagan wearing cowboy hat at Rancho del...

Mitt is no Ronald Reagan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although early voting has started in some states, the first presidential debate is tonight. While the candidates have been prepping for some time (Romney has apparently been trying out his zingers since August) the main focus has been on a campaign to lower expectations.

While it might seem odd, each party’s minions, spinions and pundits have been busy trying to craft a narrative in which their man is an inferior debater relative to his ass-kicking rhetoric-fu master opponent. Well, with the exception of Chris Christie who apparently did not get the memo regarding lowering expectations.

While some folks might be baffled by this, years of competitive running have taught me about the art of sand baggery.  In the case of running, sand bagging usually occurs in the warm up run before the race and involves runners crafting a narrative of their alleged injuries, fatigue, emotional disorders and other dire obstacles to running well. In Tallahassee, the master of sand bagging is my friend Jeff. Before a race he will weave a tale of running woe that will leave one wondering how he still lives, let alone manages to run. Naturally, he always manages to run a great race (expressing shock at the miraculous recovery that made it possible). He is such a legend that when other runners sand bag well, they are accused of being graduates of Jeff’s school of sand baggery. The point of this sand bagging is, of course, to have ready made excuses in case the race goes badly. Jeff also uses it to try to get an edge in the competition: many a naive fellow has fallen victim to the sand baggery, burning themselves out thinking that they will be able to wear Jeff down.

In my naive youth, I had not heard of this sort of sandbagging, but I did have a lesson in the importance of not bragging before a competition. Before my last big college track meet, the coach had a party for the team. My arch-rival, Glenn, was (as usual) talking some smack. So, when Matt asked me how I would do in the 10K, I said “I’ll be a minute and a quarter mile ahead of Glenn.” While I was initially joking, I quickly realized that I had thrown down the gauntlet and it was, as the kids say today, on. Glenn and I were close in speed and rather devoted competitors. For example, one time we were doing mile repeats and were tied in “wins.” During the tie breaker, the area went dark as a massive lightning storm erupted in the area. While everyone else ran for shelter, we stayed on the flooding track until it ended with my victory. But it was really, really close. The coach was not happy-after all explaining to the college why we had been electrocuted probably would have been a good day for him.

So, when the 10K started, I knew I had to run an incredible race or I would be obligated to eat my words. Naturally, I ran an incredible race and beat Glenn by over a quarter mile. That hurt…a lot. Part of it was luck-I happened to have a really good day while Glenn had something of a bad day. This taught me that it is best not to talk it up before a competition and that was the last time I ever made such a bold and arrogant prediction. Now when people ask me how I think I will do, I say, “I’ll tell you at the finish.”

As might be imagined, the candidates (or their minions) know that things can go badly in a debate much as they can go wrong in an athletic competition. If their man has a cold or is otherwise off his game, he can come across badly. There can also be costly slips. As such, it is not surprising that the minions, spinions and pundits are stacking up the sand bags. This way even a merely competent performance is regarded as being better than expected.

Of course, there is a certain dishonesty and false modesty in this process. After all, Obama is clearly a charismatic debater and Romney can (provided he doesn’t make any $10,000 bets) debate quite well. As such, there probably will not be any disasters or epic victories tonight. But, of course, surprises can happen.

Interestingly, while Romney and Obama have been sand bagging, Romney’s camp has let it be known that Romney has been loading up zingers, presumably to try to create a few Reagan moments (Reagan, a master of timing and showmanship, got in some good shots) in the debate. Of course, the zinger approach does have its risks. Romney lacks the showmanship and charisma of Reagan, so he might not be able to zing effectively. There is also the risk that his pre-loaded zings will appear to be exactly what they are, namely pre-planned and practiced. Zings tend to work best when they are unscripted and the idea that Romney has been practicing zings seems to add to the idea that he is somewhat mechanical in his ways.

Obama has said that he will not be doing any zinging, which certainly matches his style. While Romney has to make an effort to appear human and likable, Obama has to avoid appearing to be arrogant and professorial (although as a professor I often wonder why that is such a bad thing).

While the debates are presented as important, apparently most voters have already made up their minds (and some are already voting). Of course, a disaster or a miracle could occur during the debates and change things-but the odds of that happening are rather low. After all, the debates are carefully planned, scripted and controlled events-more scripted  theater than true competition.

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Health Care

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2010
Health Care Town Hall September 2009 - America...
Image by congressman_honda via Flickr

The House passed the much debated health care bill 219-212 on Sunday. While this was a close vote, democracy (as Locke argued) is based on the decision of the majority and the majority (at least in the house and senate) decided in favor of the bill. What the American people think about the matter is somewhat unclear since some  polls show the majority as for it while other polls show the majority is against it.

Various positive and negative claims have been made about the bill. For example, the impact of the bill on the deficit is a matter of debate between the two parties. The Republicans’ claim is that it will be a  deficit disaster while the Democrats who support it allege that it will reduce the deficit. There are, of course, more dramatic claims about the doom that this bill will bring to America.

Since the bill has been passed, we will soon have the opportunity to get data about the impact of the bill. Naturally, the various sides will spin, massage and manipulate the data (and its interpretation) and these factors will need to be taken into account. It will be interesting to see how things play out in the upcoming elections and what impact the passage of this bill will have.

Since we know the bill has passed, we can set aside guessing about that. So the question now is this: what impact will this have on America? Doom? Salvation? Business as usual? Something else? Bonus points for using the most talking points, of course.

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VP Debate Results

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 3, 2008

The VP debate between Biden and Palin went pretty much as expected, although it was well worth watching. Both candidates came across as likable and made no major errors. These days, that is considered a win.

Biden, restricted by the set time limits, managed to avoid his usually Achilles heel: talking to long and getting off message. Overall, he came across as competent, informed and ready to be VP. He did have a disconcerting tendency to refer to himself as “Joe Biden” rather than using the first person approach. I tend to associate that sort of thing with large egos and/or mental illness, so that worried me just a bit.  Biden also did the usual thing politicians do: if he didn’t like the question or if it didn’t fit his talking points, he just talked about the topic he wanted to talk about. While the moderator did a competent job, she should have been more aggressive about keeping Biden (and Palin) on the question.

Palin went into the debate with one main goal: damage control. After her horrible interviews she needed to establish an image of competence. She had clearly been well coached and had an array of pre-packaged responses ready to present. This shows that she can be trained to repeat what others have told her and that she can handle basic questions when properly prepared. Even somewhat more than Biden, she would go to her talking points rather than focusing on the actual question.

The consensus seems to be that Biden won the debate and that people liked Palin. It is not clear how this will impact voting behavior, if at all. In general, both candidates accomplished the main goal: they came across as up for the job of VP and made no serious mistakes.

The VP Debate

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 2, 2008

Tonight is the debate between Biden and Palin. Naturally enough, the media is speculating about how it will play out. Being an experienced debater (two state championship titles-Maine and Ohio), I think I might as well present my own assessment.

In Biden’s favor is the fact that he is an experienced politician. He also seems to have a quick wit and a sense of humor, which will help in presenting that critical positive image. On the minus side, he is famous for his gaffes and mistatements. The debate setting provides him with an excellent opportunity to add some truly memorable gaffes to his collection. Of course, the gaffes never quite seem to stick in a truly harmful way. Perhaps Biden has a small piece of Reagan’s teflon coating in his pocket. Or perhaps he seems like such a likable fellow that people tend to see the gaffes as mere quirks.

The debate setting also helps Biden in that the time limits help deal with one of his main problems: his tendency to ramble on. Once he gets rambling, he tends to get off message and sometimes (like in the infamous clean coal incident) he says things that contradict the official positions he is supposed to hold. Biden, I suspect, will be saved by the bell tonight.

One challenge Biden does face is the fact that he is debating a woman. For all the talk about equality and women being just as good as men, it will cost him points if he is seen as being too rough on her. After all, many people still feel in terms of the classic gender roles, even if they consciously try to think in terms of the more liberated new roles. Of course, he cannot be too easy on her or otherwise act in ways that might be perceived as patronizing. That would also cost him points-especially with female voters.

Biden thus faces a serious challenge. He must come out ahead of Palin without seeming too aggressive or patronizing. He cannot fully treat her like a male oppponent (this would be seen by some as being too aggressive), but also has to avoid seeming to treat her in a special way because she is a woman (which might be seen as sexist or patronizing).

In Palin’s favor is the fact that some people find her likable and that she is clearly a fighter. On the minus side, her recent interviews have been horrible. They seem to show that she is woefully unprepared for the job. For example, other than Roe versus Wade, she does not seem to know anything about the Supreme Court decisions. Even more disturbing, she doesn’t seem to know what she reads for her news about the world. While she did great when reading a pre-written speech in a friendly setting (the RNC), she does not seem to be ready to think on her feet. This bodes ill for her performance in the debate.

She has, however, been coached extensively and this might help her. Also, she seems to do poorly when she is closely handled by her keepers. If she is able to be herself, she might do very well. Or she might not. After all, it is unclear who the real Palin might be-there is just not enough known about her.

She can use the fact that she is a woman to her advantage. As noted above, Biden has to steer between the Scylla of appearing too rough and the Charybdis of appearing patronizing. If Palin can push him either way, she can score political points.

Of course, the importance of the VP debate might be overblown by the media. Perhaps they will have a ho-hum exchange that will have little or no impact on the polls. Even if it is a memorable event, it also might be fairly insignificant. After all, people seem to be most influenced by the Presidential candidates rather than the VP candidates.

In any case, I’ll watch the debate. But, it will be mainly for the reason people watch Nascar: I’m hoping for a memorable disaster.

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