A Philosopher's Blog

Lessons from Ebola

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2014
English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: resear...

English: Biosafety level 4 hazmat suit: researcher is working with the Ebola virus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Ebola outbreaks are not new, the latest outbreak has provided some important lessons. These lessons are actually nothing new, but the outbreak does provide a focus for discussing them.

The first lesson is that most people are very bad at risk assessment. In the Ebola hot spots it is reasonable to be worried about catching Ebola. It is also reasonable to be concerned about the situation in general. However, many politicians, pundits and citizens in the United States are greatly overestimating the threat presented by Ebola in the United States. There are only a few cases of Ebola in the United States and the disease is, the experts claim, difficult to catch. As such, the chance that an American will catch Ebola in the United States is extremely low. It is also a fact Ebola outbreaks have been contained before in countries with far less medical resources than the United States. So, while it is prudent to prepare, the reaction to Ebola has greatly exceeded its actual threat in the United States. If the concern is with protecting Americans from disease and death, there are far more serious health threats that should be the primary focus of our concern and resources.

The threat of Ebola is overestimated for a variety of reasons. One is that people are rather susceptible to the fallacy of misleading vividness. This a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence. Ebola is indeed scary, but the chance of infection in the United States is extremely low.

Another reason is that people are also susceptible to a variation on the spotlight fallacy. This variant involves inferring the probability that something will happen based on how often you hear about it, rather than based on how often it actually occurs. Ebola has infected the 24 hour news cycle and hearing about it so often creates the psychological impression that infection is likely.

As I have consistently argued, threats should be assessed realistically and the response should be proportional to the actual threat.

The second lesson is that the politicians, media and pundits will exploit scary things for their own advantages. The media folks know that scary stories and fear mongering get viewers, so they are exploiting Ebola to the detriment of the public. Ebola has been made into a political issue, so the politicians and pundits are trying to exploit it for political points. The Republicans are using it as part of their narrative that Obama is an incompetent president and thus are emphasizing the matter. Obama and the Democrats have to strike back in order to keep the Republicans from scoring points. As with the media, the politicians and pundits are exploiting Ebola for their own advantage at the expense of the public.

This willful misleading and exaggeration is clearly morally wrong on the grounds that it misleads the public and makes a rational and proportional response to the problem more difficult.

The third lesson is that people will propose extreme solutions without considering the consequences of those solutions. One example is the push to shutdown air travel between the United States and countries experiencing the Ebola outbreak. While this seems intuitively appealing, one main consequence would be that people would still come to the United States from those countries, only they would do so in more roundabout ways. This would make it much harder to track such people and would, ironically, put the United States at greater risk.

As always, solutions should be carefully considered in terms of their consequences, costs and other relevant factors.

The final lesson I will consider is that the situation shows that health is a public good and not just a private good. While most people get that defense and police are public goods, there is the view that health is a private good and something that should be left to the individual to handle. That is, the state should protect the citizen from terrorists and criminals, but she is on her own when it comes to disease and injury. However, as I have argued elsewhere at length, if the state is obligated to protect its citizens from death and harm, this should also apply to disease and injury. After all, disease will kill a person just as effectively as a terrorist’s bomb or a criminal’s bullet.

Interestingly, even many Republicans are pushing for a state response to Ebola. I suspect that one reason Ebola is especially frightening is that it is a disease that comes from outside the United States and was brought by a foreigner. This taps into fears that have been carefully and lovingly crafted during the war on terror and this helps explain why even anti-government people are pushing for government action.

But, if the state has a vital role to play in addressing Ebola, then it would seem to have a similar role to play in regards to other medical threats. While Ebola is scary and foreign, it is a medical threat and thus is like other medical threats. However, consistency is not a strong trait in most people, so some who cry for government action against the Ebola that scares them also cry out against the state playing a role in protecting Americans from things that kill vastly more Americans.

The public health concern also extends beyond borders—diseases do not recognize political boundaries. While there are excellent moral reasons for being concerned about the health of people in other countries, there are also purely pragmatic reasons. One is that in a well-connected world diseases can travel quickly all over the globe. So, an outbreak in Africa can spread to other countries. Another is that the global economy is impacted by outbreaks. So, an outbreak in one country can impact the economy of other countries. As such, there are purely selfish reasons to regard health as public good.

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ISIS

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 17, 2014

ISIS (or ISIL) got America’s attention and now the war of rhetoric has begun in ernest. While the Republicans seem generally pleased that we are saddling up again, they have raised some criticism against President Obama’s strategy. Interestingly, many of these criticisms have been aimed at Obama’s word choices.

I recently heard an interview with Senator Marco Rubio on NPR. Rubio’s main criticism seemed to be that Obama was unwilling to commit to destroying ISIS completely.  The interviewer pointed out that such groups tend to reform or create spin-off groups rather than be destroyed. When the interviewer asked him if that goal was realistic or not, Rubio responded by saying that it could be done and gave an example of how the group that became ISIS had been destroyed previously. The interviewer politely noted that Rubio had actually supported his (the interviewer’s) point, but let Rubio ignore his own example and switch quickly to another issue.

As a general rule, it seems difficult to bomb such groups out of existence, mainly because the groups are defined by ideas and killing old members tends to merely attract new members. Obviously, this method could work-with enough killing a group would run out of possible members. However, the history of radicalism and America’s attempts to kill its way out of a problem show that destroying a group by bombing seems unrealistic. After all, we are still fighting Al Qaeda and ISIS can be plausibly seen as a new brand of Al Qaeda.

Another common criticism of Obama’s words is that he did not say that he would do whatever it takes to destroy ISIS. He merely said he would do what it takes to do so. On the one hand, this could be seen as a petty semantic point, a mere whining about words. On the other hand, this could be taken as a more substantial point. After struggling to end the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that he inherited, Obama has been reluctant to get the United States into yet another costly, protracted and likely futile ground war in the Middle East. As such, when he has acted, he has done so with limited goals and minimal engagement. Interestingly, the results have been somewhat similar: we dumped billions into Iraq and ended up with a chaotic mess. We dumped far less into Libya and ended up with a chaotic mess. I suppose that it is better to get a mess on the cheap than for a high price.

Obama, I think, is wise to keep American involvement limited. The hawks crying for war seem to have amnesia regarding our last few adventures since Viet Nam. Unfortunately, escalating involvement (trying to do whatever it takes) has never paid off. It seems unlikely that this time will be the charm.

The obvious reply is that we have to do something, we cannot just let ISIS behead Americans and establish a state. I agree. My concern is the obvious one: doing something is not a good strategy and neither is doing whatever it takes. We should be honest and admit that we have not gotten it right in the past and that doing the same damn thing will not result in different results.

I am not going to tell McCain or Cheney to shut up-they have every right to express their views. However, they have no credibility left. So, they should talk-but it would be unwise to listen.

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Unpatriotic Corporations & The Language Argument

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on September 1, 2014
English: Burger King headquarters in unincorpo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In previous essays I have written about corporate personhood as well as corporate inversion.  Corporate inversion, briefly put, is when a corporation buys a foreign corporation and then “inverts” ownership. For example, an American corporation like Burger King might buy a Canadian corporation and then move its corporate headquarters to Canada to take advantage of the lower tax rate. As might be imagined, some people have been rather critical of this practice. President Obama has even asserted that such corporations are unpatriotic.

While listening to NPR a while back, I heard an interesting argument advanced by one of the guests. He began by noting how Mitt Romney had taken some flak for asserting that corporations are people. He then mentioned how Obama called the corporations that engage in corporate inversion unpatriotic. He then raised the point that criticizing corporations for being unpatriotic is to accept them as people. This does raise a somewhat interesting question about whether this is right or not.

In the United States, corporations are legally persons—and the Supreme Court seems to be committed to granting them all the advantageous and convenient rights of actual persons (while not saying anything about the fact that it is illegal to own persons in the United States). I have argued at length that corporations are not people and should not have that legal status—so I will not repeat those arguments here. However, I will obviously address the issue of whether a corporation can be called unpatriotic without the accuser being committed to the personhood of corporations.

On the side of corporate personhood, it could be argued that being unpatriotic (or patriotic) requires the sort of intentional and emotional mental states that only a person could possess. As such, if a corporation is unpatriotic, then it is a person.

Interestingly enough, this sort of language argument has been used by various philosophers such as Socrates and John Locke. In arguing for universals, Socrates (or Plato) would proceed from how one talks to an ontological commitment. In discussing personal identity, Locke took the fact that people use expressions such as a person not being themselves as evidence that someone in a normal state of mind can be a different person from someone in an abnormal state: “human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did, thereby making them two persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English, when we say such an one is not himself, or is beside himself; in which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first used them, thought that self was changed, the selfsame person was no longer in that man….”

The easy and obvious counter is that when someone refers to a corporation as being unpatriotic (or patriotic), she need not commit to the corporation itself being a person. Rather, the person is just using a shorthand expression in place of asserting that the people who decide to implement the inversion and make it happen are acting in (what is seen as) an unpatriotic way. To use an obvious analogy, if someone claims that a sports team is enthusiastic, the she is not committed to the team being a person—an entity over and above the players, coaches, etc. Rather, she is just using conversational shorthand to refer to the members of the team.  If such conversational shorthand expressed a commitment to personhood, then people would be routinely expressing commitments to a vast number of entities—thus dramatically swelling the ontology of persons. This seems both odd and unnecessary. Given the injunction of Occam’s razor, due care should be used when moving from how people speak to an ontological commitment. In the case of corporations and other groups, it would seem to suffice to attribute the mental states to the people that make them up rather than adding another entity to the matter. As such, the appeal to language argument for corporate personhood fails.

Thus, someone can claim that a corporation is unpatriotic (or patriotic) without being committed to corporate personhood. Just like a person can talk about team spirit without being committed to team personhood.

 

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Hyperbole, Again

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2013
English: Protesters at the Taxpayer March on W...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hyperbole is a rhetorical device in which a person uses an exaggeration or overstatement in order to create a negative or positive feeling. Hyperbole is often combined with a rhetorical analogy. For example, a person might say that someone told “the biggest lie in human history” in order to create a negative impression. It should be noted that not all vivid or extreme language is hyperbole-if the extreme language matches the reality, then it is not hyperbole. So, if the lie was actually the biggest lie in human history, then it would not be hyperbole to make that claim.

People often make use of hyperbole when making rhetorical analogies/comparisons. A rhetorical analogy involves comparing two (or more) things in order to create a negative or positive impression.  For example, a person might be said to be as timid as a mouse or as smart as Einstein. By adding in hyperbole, the comparison can be made more vivid (or possibly ridiculous). For example, a professor who assigns a homework assignment that is due the day before spring break might be compared to Hitler. Speaking of Hitler, hyperbole and rhetorical analogies are stock items in political discourse.

Some Republicans have decided that Obamacare is going to be their main battleground. As such, it is hardly surprising that they have been breaking out the hyperbole in attacking it. Dr. Ben Carson launched an attack by seeming to compare Obamacare to slavery, but the response to this led him to “clarify” his remarks to mean that he thinks Obamacare is not like slavery, but merely the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery. This would, of course, make it worse than all the wars, the Great Depression, 9/11 and so on.

While he did not make a slavery comparison, Ted Cruz made a Nazi comparison during his filibuster. As Carson did, Cruz and his supporters did their best to “clarify” the remark.

Since slavery and Nazis had been taken, Rick Santorum decided to use the death of Mandela as an opportunity to compare Obamacare to Apartheid.

When not going after Obamacare, Obama himself is a prime target for hyperbole. John McCain, who called out Cruz on his Nazi comparison, could not resist making use of some Nazi hyperbole in his own comparison. When Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand, McCain could not resist comparing Obama to Chamberlain and Castro to Hitler.

Democrats and Independents are not complete strangers to hyperbole, but they do not seem to wield it quite as often (or as awkwardly) as Republicans. There have been exceptions, of course-the sweet allure of a Nazi comparison is bipartisan.  However, my main concern here is not to fill out political scorecards regarding hyperbole. Rather, it is to discuss why such uses of negative hyperbole are problematic.

One point of note is that while hyperbole can be effective at making people feel a certain way (such as angry), its use often suggests that the user has little in the way of substance. After all, if something is truly bad, then there would seem to be no legitimate need to make exaggerated comparisons. In the case of Obamacare, if it is truly awful, then it should suffice to describe its awfulness rather than make comparisons to Nazis, slavery and Apartheid. Of course, it would also be fair to show how it is like these things. Fortunately for America, it is obviously not like them.

One point of moral concern is the fact that making such unreasonable comparisons is an insult to the people who suffered from or fought against such evils. After all, such comparisons transform such horrors as slavery and Apartheid into mere rhetorical chips in the latest political game. To use an analogy, it is somewhat like a person who has played Call of Duty comparing himself to combat veterans of actual wars. Out of respect for those who suffered from and fought against these horrors, they should not be used so lightly and for such base political gameplay.

From the standpoint of critical thinking, such hyperbole should be avoided because it has no logical weight and serves to confuse matters by playing on the emotions. While that is the intent of hyperbole, this is an ill intent. While rhetoric does have its legitimate place (mainly in making speeches less boring) such absurd overstatements impede rather than advance rational discussion and problem solving.

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Republicans & Rhetorical Explanations

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 25, 2013
Mitt-Romney

Mitt-Romney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a defeat, it is natural for people to try to explain why they were defeated. In some cases, the explanation provided is aimed at doing what an explanation is supposed to do: to provide an illuminating account of how or why something occurred. In other cases, the explanation is aimed primarily at influencing peoples’ attitudes and behavior. Not surprisingly, an explanation that is aimed at achieving these goals is a rhetorical device known as a rhetorical explanation.

This is not to say that a rhetorical explanation need be in error—it could provide an accurate account of how or why something occurred. Being a rhetorical explanation is more a matter of intent—that is, those offering it do so at least in part to cause people to have a positive or negative feeling about a matter.

Back in 2012, the Republicans lost the presidential election and various people endeavored to explain how this happened. Some folks pointed to the demographics of America and how minorities played a critical role in the election. Others claimed that the media’s love for Obama handed him the victory. One of the more interesting explanations was that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough.

More recently, the Republicans lost on their bid to get the Democrats to agree to delay or defund Obamacare. After this defeat, various explanations have been offered and among them is the claim that it was the result of the Republicans not conservative enough. In this context, this seems to mean not being will to let the shutdown of the government slide into defaulting on the national debt.

On the face of it, presenting the claim that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough seems to be a rhetorical explanation. After all, it seems to be aimed (in part) at chastising the Republicans who are being accused of not being adequately conservative. As such, people are supposed to feel negatively about these Republicans.  It also seems to be aimed (in part) at creating positive feelings towards the conservative Republicans—it is supposed to be believed that they had the winning approach (but were betrayed by the Republicans in Name Only). This explanation might prove to have some bite—many Republicans are taking pains to cast themselves as being very conservative and repudiating the charge that they might be moderates.

While rhetorical explanations such as this are often used to make other people feel a certain way (positively or negatively), people can also use them on themselves. Whether the explanation is inflicted on others or self-inflicted, the problem is that such appealing explanations can make it very easy for a person to buy into an explanation that is not correct, thus leading to obvious problems. As such, it is worth considering whether the explanation about these defeats is correct or not.

If the explanation for the 2012 election was correct, then the prediction that would follow would be that the Republicans would have won if they had been more conservative. In this case, winning is clear—Mitt Romney (or a more conservative Republican like Michelle Bachmann) would have been elected rather than Obama.

For this to happen, more people would have had to vote for the Republican than Obama. Since this did not happen, for the explanation at hand to be correct, there seem to be three main options (and perhaps others).

One is that some conservatives voted for Obama because Romney was not conservative enough.  They would have, however, voted for someone who was conservative enough. It seems reasonable enough to dismiss this option out of hand on the grounds that such people would not vote for Obama. Thus, it seems rather implausible to think that a more conservative Republican would have pulled votes away from Obama.

A second one is that some conservatives voted for someone other than the two main candidates or wrote in someone else rather than voting for Romney, thus allowing Obama to win. This is more plausible than the first option, but is still fairly unlikely. That is, it does not seem likely that enough people to change the election voted in this manner because Romney was not conservative enough.

A third option is that some conservatives decided to not vote at all because they thought Romney was not conservative enough, thus allowing Obama to win. Of the three, this is the most plausible. Elections in the United States have a low turnout and it certainly is possible that some of those who did not vote would have voted if there had been a candidate that was conservative enough. These voters would thus seem to have preferred allowing Obama to win over voting for Romney, but this would assume that the voters were rationally considering the consequences of their failure to vote. It could be a simple matter of motivation—they were not inspired enough by Romney (or their dislike of Obama) to vote.

It is also worth considering that the explanation is in error because a more conservative Republican would have merely increased the votes for Obama. As noted above, a more conservative Republican would not have pulled votes from Obama. What seems more likely is that a more conservative Republican would have lost the more moderate voters who voted for Romney. As such, if the Republican candidate in 2012 had been “conservative enough” Obama would have either still won or would have still won with a larger number of votes. After all, most Americans are not extremely conservative and being “conservative enough” would seem to involve holding views that most Americans do not hold. Thus, the explanation seems to fail.

Jumping ahead to the most recent defeat, the matter is somewhat more complicated in that the victory conditions are not so clearly defined. At the start of the battle, the Republicans wanted to defund or delay Obamacare—that would have been a win. However, as the shutdown continued, the Republicans seemed to become less clear about what they wanted—especially when Obama made it clear that he was not going to negotiate Obamacare.

Interestingly enough, the shutdown was explained by some as being the fault of the Democrats and after the Republican defeat, the more conservative Republicans are using the narrative that they would have won if the Republicans had been conservative enough—thus creating dueling rhetorical explanations.

But, to get back to the main point, the victory conditions were not clear. However, it could be speculated that a win would involve the Republicans getting more of whatever they ended up wanted than the Democrats got of what they wanted. So, I will go with that.

There is also the question of what it meant to be conservative enough. Given the rhetoric, it seems that what this means is being willing to take the United States into default if one does not get what one wants. If so, the Republicans being conservative enough would not seem to have yielded a win—unless what they wanted was a default on the debt and the ensuing economic and political disaster. If this is what counts as a win, then being conservative enough would have led to that “win”—a win that almost everyone else would regard as a disaster.

Most Americans disapproved of what Congress was doing and most blamed the Republicans. Presumably if the Republicans had been more conservative, this would have merely made people more annoyed with them—after all, the view of most people was that what was going on was bad, not that it did not go far enough into this badness. As such, it would seem that the problem was not that the Republicans were not conservative enough. They lost because they had a poor strategy and most Americans did not like what they were doing. The solution is, obviously enough, not being more of that—the result will just be worse for the Republicans.

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The End Time & Government

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2013
Michele Bachmann

Michele Bachmann (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Michelle Bachmann seems to have claimed that Obama’s support of the Syrian rebels is a sign of the End Times:

“[President Barack Obama's support of Syrian rebels] happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists, now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history. [...] And so when we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this; that these days would be as the days of Noah. We are seeing that in our time. Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.”

While Bachmann’s political star seems to be falling, she is apparently still an influential figure and popular with many Tea Party members. As such, it seems worthwhile to address her claims.

Her first claim is a factual matter about the mundane world: she asserts that Obama is “willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists.” This claim is easy enough to disprove. Despite some pressure (including some from Republicans) to arm the rebels, the administration has taken a very limited approach: rebels that have been determined to not be terrorists will be supported with defensive aid rather than provided with offensive weaponry. Thus, Bachmann (who is occasionally has problems with facts) is wrong on two counts. First, Obama is not sending arms (taken as offensive weapons). Second, he is not sending anything to terrorists.

Now, it could be objected that means of defense are arms, under a broad definition of “arms.” Interestingly, as I learned in the 1980s when the debate topic for a year was arms sales, “arms” can be defined very broadly indeed. If Bachmann defines “arms” broadly enough to include defensive aid, then Obama would be sending arms. However, this is rather a different matter than if Obama were sending offensive weapons, such as the Stinger missiles we provided to the mujahedeen when they were fighting the Russians.

It could also be objected that Obama is sending arms to terrorists. This could be done by claiming that he knows that what he sends to Syria could end up being taken from the intended recipients by terrorists. This is a reasonable point of concern, but it seems clear from her words that she does not mean this.

It could also be done by claiming that Obama is lying and he is, in fact, sending the aid to actual terrorists. Alternatively, it could be claimed that he is sending the aid to non-terrorists, but intends for the terrorists to take it.  While this is possible (Presidents have lied about supplying arms in the past), actual proof would be needed to show that he is doing this with will, knowledge and intent. That is, it would have to be established that Obama knows the people who he is sending the aid to are terrorists and/or that he intends for terrorists to receive these arms. Given the seriousness of the claim, this would require equally serious report. Bachmann does not seem to provide any actual evidence for her accusation, hence there is little reason to place confidence in her claim.

While politicians tend to have a “special” relationship with the truth, Bachmann seems to have an extra-special relationship.

Her second claim is a factual matter about the supernatural world: she seems to be claiming that Obama’s alleged funding of terrorists is a sign of the End Times. While I am not a scholar of the end of the world (despite authoring a fictional version of the End Time), what she is claiming does not seem to be accurate. That is, there seems to be no reference to something adequately similar to Obama funding terrorists as a sign of the End Time. But perhaps Bachmann has access to some special information that has been denied to others.

While predictions that the End Time is near are common, it does seem to be bad theology to make such predictions in the context of Christianity. After all,  the official epistemic line seems to be that no one but God knows when this time will come: “But of that day and that hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” As such, any speculation that something is or is not a sign of the End Time would be rather problematic. If the bible is correct about this, Bachmann should not make such a claim–she cannot possibly know that something is a sign of the End Times or not, since no one can know (other than God) when it will occur.

It could be replied that the bible is wrong about this matter and Bachman can know that she has seen a sign and that the End Times are thus approaching. The obvious reply is that if the bible is wrong about this, then it could be wrong about other things–such as there being an End Time at all.

Interestingly, her view of the coming End Time might help explain her positive view of the government shut down. When asked about the shutdown, she said “It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it.” While Bachmann has not (as of this writing) claimed that this is also a sign of the End Times, her view that the End Times are approaching would certainly provide an explanation for her lack of concern. After all, if the End Time is fast approaching, then the time of government here on earth is fast approaching its end. Bachmann does seem to think it is on its way.

Weirdly, she also seems to think that Jesus will handle our retirement–which is presumably a reason we will not need the government. She says, “Yes it gives us fear in some respects because we want the retirement that our parents enjoyed. Well they will, if they know Jesus Christ.” This seems to be saying that people who believe the End Time is coming, such as herself, will worry that they will not be able to enjoy their retirement. This seems oddly reasonable: after all, the End Time would certainly clash with the sort of non-end-of-the-world retirement our parents enjoyed. But, oddly enough, she thinks that people who know Jesus will be able to have that retirement, apparently with Jesus providing the benefits rather than the state.

As might be imagined, the fact that Bachmann is an influential figure who apparently has some influence on politics is terrifying enough to itself be a sign of the End Time.

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Winning in Syria

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 6, 2013

As a general rule, it is a wise idea to properly consider victory conditions before engaging in military action. This consideration also involves assessing the means by which to achieve the proposed victory and the consequences of both success and failure.

In the past, we have gone off to war without proper consideration of the victory conditions and with delusions regarding how the war would play out. Iraq is, of course, the blood-stained example of this.

In some ways, Syria is reminiscent of Iraq: we have a president proposing military action based on claims about weapons of mass destruction. In the case of Iraq, we never found any such weapons. In the case of Syria, it seems rather certain that chemical weapons are present. It also seems likely that they have been used by someone. It is certain that thousands have been killed and millions of people have been displaced. There is obviously a need for something to be done regarding Syria, but what remains to be determined is what can be done and what should be done.

Because of the American experience with Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has been proposing a very limited approach with no “boots on the ground.” The main objectives are to punish the government for allegedly using chemical weapons and to thus deter it from using them again (assuming they were used before). As such, one victory condition would be to punish Syria and another would be to deter the use of chemical weapons.

On the face of it, blowing stuff up would be punishment—so that is an easy condition to meet. Of course, there is the question of whether or not the punishment would be just. Deterrence is rather more difficult to achieve, although these seems to be no new evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons again (assuming they were used once). One rather important matter is that even if the Syrian government were deterred in regards to chemical weapons, they would still presumably be free to continue the battle with conventional weapons. As such, victory would seem to be that Assad’s forces are killing people with bullets, shells and bombs rather than killing them with chemical weapons. I suppose that might be seen as some sort of victory.

There is also the broader goal/victory condition of regime change. Although the proposed attack is not supposed to be aimed at toppling the government, one objective seems to be to get rid of Assad. This raises numerous concerns.

One is, obviously enough, determining what it would take for him to relinquish power. Can he be removed by diplomacy or will force be required? Another is, also obviously, what would happen if he leaves or is removed from power. As it stands, the opposition to Assad is divided into various factions and each has its own distinct agenda. If Assad left or was removed, then that victory could lead to some rather negative consequences. For example, the civil war might shift to a battle between the various opposed factions and the killing would continue. As another example, an extremist group might eventually take power. As another example, Syria might become divided into zones controlled by various factions—perhaps similar in some ways to the divided Somalia.  A failed state would obviously be a problem for everyone with interests in the region.  There is also the real possibility of significant outside intervention as well. Iran, Russia and China certainly do not want Syria to collapse and Israel certainly does not want to allow its bitter enemies to gain a solid base of operation in Syria.

One thing is rather clear—we cannot bomb Syria into becoming a democracy. It might also be the case that the only way for us to not lose in Syria is to not become entangled in the civil war. While it is horrible that people are being slaughtered and displaced, we most likely lack the capability to make things any better in Syria. After all we also cannot bomb Syria into becoming a stable, war-free country.

What we can do, which we are already doing to some degree, is to provide humanitarian aid to those who have been displaced by the war and to protect them from violence. After all, by leaving they have made it clear they do not wish to be part of the civil war and keeping them from being murdered would not be morally ambiguous.

 

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Chemical Weapons & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 2, 2013
English: British Vickers machine gun crew wear...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the Syrian government has been condemned for killing people with conventional weapons, the “red line’ drawn by President Obama was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. Those more cynical than I might suggest that this amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.”

While the Syrian government seemed content with conventional weapons, it has been claimed that government forces used chemical weapons. Fortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry did not use the phrase “slam dunk” when describing the matter.  As this is being written, President Obama has stated that he wants to launch an attack on Syria, but he has decided to let congress make the decision. While this raises some interesting issues, I will focus on the question of whether chemical weapons change the ethics of the situation. In more general terms, the issue is whether or not chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

In terms of general perception, chemical weapons are often regarded with more fear and disgust than conventional weapons. Part of this is historical in nature. World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons (primarily gas launched via artillery shells). While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This history of chemical weapons still seems to influence us today.

Another historically based reason, I suspect, is the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. In both history and literature, poisoners are rarely praised and are typically cast as villains. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be acceptable (and even heroic).

A third historically based reason is, of course, the use of poison gas by the Nazis in their attempt to implement their final solution. This would obviously provide the use of poison gas with a rather evil connection.

Of course, these historical explanations are just that—explanations. They provide reasons as to why people psychologically regard such weapons as worse than conventional weapons. What is needed is evidence for one side or the other.

Another part of this is that chemical weapons (as mentioned above) often have awful effects. That is, they do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. This, then, does provide an actual reason as to why chemical weapons might be morally worse than conventional weapons. The gist of the reasoning is that while killing is generally bad, the method of killing does matter. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three obvious replies to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds that can rival the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons. The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then such chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. However, it is worth noting that horrific chemical weapons would thus be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons.

The third is that wrongfully killing and wounding people with conventional weapons would still be evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are somewhat worse in the suffering they inflict, it would seem that the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. After all, the distinction between not killing people and killing them seems far greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers machine gun everyone in a village seems to be morally as bad as having soldiers fire gas shells onto the village until everyone is dead. After all, the results are the same.

Another aspect of chemical weapons that supposedly makes them worse than conventional weapons is that they are claimed to be indiscriminate. For example, a chemical weapon is typically deployed as a gas and the gas can drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target. As another example, some chemical agents are persistent—they remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack and thus can harm and kill those who were not the intended targets. This factor certainly seems morally relevant.

The obvious reply is that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate in this way. Bombs and shells can fall outside of the intended target area to kill and maim people. Unexploded ordinance can lie about until triggered by someone. As such, chemical weapons do not seem to necessarily worse than conventional weapons—rather it is the discrimination and persistence of the weapon that seem more important than the composition. For example, landmines certainly give chemical weapons strong competition in regards to being indiscriminate and persistent.

Thus, while a specific chemical weapon could be morally worse than a specific conventional weapon, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons.

 

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Syria & Team America

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2013
Syria

Syria (Photo credit: ewixx)

As I write this, the United States and our allies are contemplating military action against Syria. While the Syrian government has been busy killing its people for quite some time, it is now claimed that it has crossed the red line by using chemical weapons. Thus, there is apparently a need for a military response.

The United Kingdom, which has often been the Tonto to America’s Lone Ranger, has expressed reluctance to leap into battle. Even the American congress, which rushed to authorize our attack on Iraq, has expressed opposition to Obama taking executive military action. As others have said, memories of the “slam dunk” that led up to the Iraq war are playing a significant role in these responses. Interestingly, the leadership United Kingdom seems mainly concerned with how quickly the attacks will begin as opposed to being concerned about attacking Syria. In the United States congress’s main worry seems to be that the President will rush ahead on his own and deny them what they see as their right to get us into war.

Despite the fact that the people of the United States and the United Kingdom seem opposed to attacking Syria, it seems likely that there will be an attack soon. One obvious reason is that Obama played the red line game (which, on the face of it, said to Syria that they could keep killing as long as they did not use weapons of mass destruction). If he fails to make good on his red line talk, the United States will lose credibility. From a moral standpoint, it could be claimed that the United States and the West have already lost some moral credibility by their ineffectual condemnation of the slaughter in Syria.

Assuming that we will be attacking Syria, there is the obvious question of what we should be endeavoring to accomplish and what plan we have for what will follow the attack. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as examples of what happens when we go to war without properly considering the matter and setting clear, attainable and worthwhile objectives.

One approach is a limited, punitive strike. That is, to attack Syrian targets in order to punish the government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. In this case, the obvious questions are whether or not the Syria government actually used chemical weapons and whether or not such a punishment strike would achieve its goal(s). The goal might be simple punishment: they use chemical weapons, then we blow some things up to pay them back for their misdeed. Or the goal might be deterrence via punishment: they use chemical weapons, we blow some things up. And we will keep doing it until they stop.

Morally, the Syrian government has certainly earned punishment and it would be a good thing to deter them from engaging in more killing—or to even deter them from killing with chemical weapons. However, there is the question of whether or not our attacks will be just punishment or adequate deterrence.  If the goal is deterrence, then there is the question of how long we will engage in deterrence attack and what sort of escalation we should engage in should the initial attack fail to deter.

Another approach is to strike in support of the opposition. That is, to attack Syrian targets with the primary goal of improving the opposition’s relative position. This could, of course, also be a punishment attack as well. In this case, the questions would be whether or not such intervention would be effective and whether or not the results would be desirable for the United States.

One obvious concern about the conflict in Syria is that it is not an oppressive government against plucky, freedom-loving rebels. If that was the case, then the matter would be rather easier.  Rather, it is a battle between an oppressive government and a bewildering array of opposition groups (including an Al Qaeda franchise). There are also outside forces involved, such as Iran, Russia and China.

Because of the fragmentary and problematic nature of the opposition, it is important to consider the consequences of attacking in support of the opposition (or, more accurately, the oppositions). While the Syrian government is a morally bad government and an enemy of America, it has imposed order on the state and is, obviously enough, not the worst option. If, for example, the Syrian government were to topple and the area fell into almost complete chaos, that would be worse than the current situation. Even worse for the United States and most other people would be a takeover of the state by radical forces and extremists.

It is also rather important to take into account the possible and likely reactions of the other powers that are involved in the conflict. Iran, China and Russia have a significant stake in the matter and they might actually react to an American attack. Russia, for example, is sending warships to the area. While Russia or Iran most likely would not engage American forces in the region to defend Syria, this is not an impossibility. For example, the conflict could escalate from an accident.

Unfortunately, I do not have a great deal of confidence in any of the leaders involved in this matter. After all, there are rather different skill sets involved in being a politician who wins office and being able to make effective policy and military decisions. That is, playing the political game is rather different than war. That said, I do hope that wise decisions are made. But, no matter what, many more people are going to be killed—it is mainly a question of how many and with what weapons.

 

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Washington Works…

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 7, 2013
The western front of the United States Capitol...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The received wisdom of the day is that Washington is broken. Depending on who you ask, the exact nature of the breakage varies. However, there is a general agreement that Washington is mired in gridlock and a swamp of corruption. Members of both parties have run on the promise of repairs. Obama promised hope and change while he was on the campaign trail. However, when the trailed ended in Washington, one can only say that while he came, things stayed just about the same. After Obama arose the Tea Party. This subset of the Republican Party gave rise to a surge of candidates who swore to run for office by running against the broken government and promised to drain the swamp. Once elected, however, they seemed to find that the swamp water was even more delicious than tea, so the swamp was sipped but not drained.

These results are not surprising. As the anarchist Emma Goldman contended, people who run for office on an honest promise of fixing the system and doing right either do not get elected or end up being ineffective. Those who are not so honest simply slide comfortably into the swamp and get busy locking up those grids. Because of this, it certainly makes sense that Washington is seen as broken. However, I contend that Washington is not broken and will make a case for this seemingly ludicrous claim.

Sorting out whether something is broken or not involves determining the purpose of the thing. After all, unless you know what something is supposed to do, then you will probably not know if it is working properly or not. In some cases, it is quite possible to err in regards to purpose. I will illustrate this with an analogy.

Many years ago I was at a track meet which had the javelin throw as one of the event. People tended to pay attention to this event, if only to avoid taking a javelin to the face. During the competition, a paper plate blew out onto the field and landed in a way that made it look like a target. Shortly after this, an athlete threw his javelin way past the plate, causing a recently arrived spectator to comment that the throw was bad because the javelin was way away from the “target.” I corrected the spectator, pointing out that the javelin throw is for distance rather than for accuracy (you just need to keep it in the rather large designated area). Given this purpose, the throw was actually quite good.

In the case of Washington, people who say it is broken are like the spectator: they see the politicians relentlessly missing the target that the spectators think they should be hitting (such as solving the problems faced by the general population). However, the spectators are in error: the politicians are not doing a bad job hitting that target. Rather, they are doing a good job at achieving other objectives. One of these objectives is, obviously enough, accumulating wealth. Politicians can (and often do) cash in on their offices via insider information, lobbying gifts, connections and so on in order to accumulate significant amounts of money. It is thus no shock that Obama is a millionaire—as are most of the folks in congress. While some politicians elect to be re-elected, some move into other lucrative careers, such as lobbying their former colleagues or taking top jobs in the industries they used to regulate.

Looking at Washington in terms of this objective, it is not broke. Far from it: about half of congress (and about 67% of senators) are millionaires. By this measure, Washington is working just fine for Democrats and Republicans alike. There are other objectives aside from the accumulation of wealth, but this should suffice to indicate that Washington is not broke from the perspective of many of the politicians embedded there.

The obvious counter to this view is to argue that Washington is broke because it is not working as it should be working. That is, although it is working to achieve the goals of most of those running the show, these are not the goals that they should be aiming for. That is, the politicians should be acting for the general good of the country rather than their own private goods in ways that are damaging to the public good. This is not to say that both cannot occur—after all, what is good for the country might be good for a senator. However, the current tendency seems to be in favor of those in Washington and against the rest of us.

Given the catastrophically low approval rating for Congress and low approval ratings for other politicians, it seems evident that people do get that while Washington is working for some it is certainly not working for all. Despite this, the incumbents have generally managed to win re-election after re-election, although there have been some upsets and there seems to be an ever increasing willingness to challenge the old guard. However, what is needed is not just a swapping of the dwellers of the swamp, but the long promised draining of the swamp.

While it is tempting to yield to cynicism and apathy, this sort of situation is not a new one for America. In the past, Americans have managed to clean things up and at least get some solid islands protruding from the swamp. If we can do this again, we can repair the damage that has been done. However, there is also another lesson of history: when an empire’s rulers are focused on their own enrichment and act contrary to the good of the nation, then the fall of the empire is surely approaching.

While I retain optimism, the fact that the sort of people who are needed in Washington are now refusing to slog into the vile swamp. But, the fact that such people do exist and are willing to lead in a principled way on the state and local level means that hope still remains.

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