A Philosopher's Blog

On Returning the Lost

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2014
A picture of a wallet.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My regular running routes take me over many miles and through areas that are heavily trafficked—most often by college students. Because of this, I often find lost phones, wallets, IDs and other items. Recently I came across a wallet fat with cash and credit cards. As always, I sought out the owner and returned it. Being a philosopher, I thought I’d write a bit about the ethics of this.

While using found credit card numbers would generally be a bad idea from the practical standpoint, found cash is quite another matter. After all, cash is cash and there is typically nothing to link cash to a specific person. Since money is rather useful, a person who finds a wallet fat with cash would have a good practical reason to simply keep the money and use it herself. One possible exception would be that the reward for returning the lost wallet would exceed the value of the cash in the wallet—but the person who finds it would most likely have no idea if this would be the case or not. So, from a purely practical standpoint, keeping the cash would be a smart choice. A person could even return the credit cards and other items in the wallet, claiming quite plausibly that it was otherwise empty when found. However, what might be a smart choice need not be the right choice.

One argument in favor of returning found items (such as the wallet and all the cash) can be built on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. More formally, this is moral reasoning involving the method of reversing the situation. Since I would want my lost property returned, I should thus treat others in the same way. Unless, of course, I can justify treating others differently by finding relevant differences that would justify the difference. Alternatively, it could also be justified on utilitarian grounds.  For example, someone who is poor might contend that it would not be wrong to keep money she found in a rich person’s wallet on the grounds that the money would do her much more good than it would do for the rich person: such a small loss would not affect him, such a gain would benefit her significantly.

Since I am reasonably well off and find relatively modest sums of money (hundreds of dollars at most), I have the luxury of not being tempted to keep the money. However, even when I was not at all well off, I still returned whatever I found. Even when I honestly believed that I would put the money to better use than the original owner. This is not due to any fetishes about property, but a matter of ethics.

One of the reasons is my belief that I do have obligations to help others, especially when the cost to me is low relative to the aid rendered. In the case of finding someone’s wallet or phone, I know that the loss would be a significant inconvenience and worry for most people. In the case of a wallet, a person will probably need to replace a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and worry about identity theft. It is easy for me to return the wallet—either by dropping it off with police or contacting the person after finding them via Facebook or some other means. That said, the obvious challenge is justifying my view that I am so obligated. However, I would contend that in such cases, the burden of proof lies on the selfish rather than the altruistic.

Another reason is that I believe that I should not steal. While keeping a lost item is not the same morally as active theft (this could be seen as being a bit analogous to the distinction between killing and letting die), it does seem to be a form of theft. After all, I would be acquiring what does not belong to me by choosing not to return it. Naturally, if I have no means of returning it to the rightful owner (such as finding a quarter in the road), then keeping it would not seem to be theft. Obviously enough, it could be contended that keeping lost property is not theft (even when it could be returned easily), perhaps on the ancient principle of finders keepers, losers weepers. It could also be contended that theft is acceptable—which would be challenging. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that theft is acceptable or that keeping lost property when returning it would be quite possible is not theft.

I also return found items for two selfish reasons. The first is that I want to build the sort of world I want to live in—and in that world people return lost items. While my acting the way I want the world to be is a tiny thing, it is more than nothing. Second, I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind.

 

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DNA Gathering

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2013
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...

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In some states, the police are allowed to gather DNA samples upon making an arrest-even before the person is actually charged (let alone convicted). As might be guessed, this has raised concerns from those who are concerned about privacy issues. However, there are those who regard the collection of DNA as a good idea and one that can help ensure that the guilty are punished and the innocent are set free.

One argument in favor of allowing the police to take DNA samples upon arresting a person is that the DNA information can be used in whatever investigation that might follow. Of course, the obvious counter to this is that the sample need not be taken upon arrest to be used in the investigation or trial. That is, the police can wait until the person is actually charged with a crime that legitimately involves a need for DNA evidence.

Another argument in favor of allowing the police to take DNA samples upon arresting a person is that this adds to the database of DNA. Even if the person arrested is not charged or found to be innocent, the DNA information will remain and it might prove useful in a later investigation. Not surprisingly, this same argument is used to argue in favor of mandating that everyone be included in the DNA database. Such a national DNA registry would be a great boon to police. For example, a person picked up for a traffic violation could be checked against the database and it could be found that he is a wanted serial rapist. Without the DNA information, the serial rapist would have been free to continue his crimes.

As might be imagined, the arguments in favor of such DNA sampling and database creation are countered with arguments against them.

One of the main arguments against taking DNA samples from a person who has been merely arrested is based on the claim that the police need a proper warrant to obtain evidence. Just as an officer cannot go through my computer or house without a warrant, she cannot go through my DNA. The main counter to this is that the police do take fingerprints and this practice is on a solid legal foundation. The debate then becomes one of analogy: is DNA more like fingerprints or more like the content of a person’s house or computer? The answer to this depends a great deal on the sort of data gained from the DNA sample.

If the DNA sampling merely provided data comparable to that provided by fingerprints (that is, just identifying the person), then a fairly solid case can be made that DNA sampling of this sort would be just as legally solid as fingerprinting.  However, if the DNA sampling provides more data, then it would seem to be more analogous to going through a person’s home and thus simply grabbing a DNA sample upon an arrest would seem to be on par with going though a person’s house just because she had been arrested.

Obviously enough, a DNA sample does potentially provide a vast amount of information about a person. However, the amount of information revealed would depend on the sort of testing used on the DNA. Thus, a key part of the matter would focus on how the DNA was used (and what was done with the actual samples).

Another argument against DNA sampling is the potential for the misuse of the information gathered. Obviously, there is the concern that the information revealed by the DNA will be misused by the police. For example, DNA samples are now used to make family matches and innocent relatives of criminals can find themselves targeted by the police.   As as another example, DNA identifications are not as reliable as people generally believe. This raises the concern that too much reliance will be placed on such evidence. For folks who worry about the government having a registry of firearms, the idea of collecting such DNA information should be utterly terrifying. There is also the concern that the data will be misused by those outside of the police forces. That is, that the data will become available to other parts of the government and perhaps even those in the private sector. For example, the DNA data gathered by the police could become available to insurance companies.

The gathering of DNA evidence is now fairly common and it continues to grow more common. One reason for this is that the companies that profit from DNA testing have effective lobbies that work rather hard to ensure that there will be a large market for their products. This, like the for-profit prisons, also raises concerns. After all, when such profits are involved, the public good is often ignored.

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Gun Rights & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2013
Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common approach to arguing in favor of civilian gun rights is to claim that such rights prevent, deter or at least provide a defense against tyranny. In general, the idea seems to be that the people in power will be less inclined and less able to impose tyranny if the civilian population possesses the right to keep and bear arms. In the United States, this is presented in terms of the members of the government deciding to impose tyrannical rule over the people.

On the face of it, this justification does have some appeal. After all, if the government has to overcome armed civilians, then it would obviously be harder than using force against unarmed civilians. Also it could be argued that politicians might fear that they would be assassinated by armed patriots if they started acting in tyrannical ways.

People also point to the American Revolution and claim that the fact that the civilian population was armed was an important factor in the American victory over the British tyranny. Those with some science-fiction leanings also present counter-factual scenarios in which one is asked to imagine what would have happened in Germany if the Jews and anti-Nazi Germans had possessed the right to keep and bear arms (or were at least armed). Stalin and other dictators are also often brought up in this context. The idea is, of course, to appeal to the intuitions of the audience and persuade them that if only the Germans had had their own Second Amendment, then Hitler might have never been able to come to power and the Holocaust might not have happened.

The idea that the cowardly politicians who dream of tyranny are kept in check by red-blooded Americans exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms does have a certain emotional appeal. So too does the thought of armed plucky rebels defending America from tyranny. In fact, such scenarios would no doubt make for successful Hollywood films. But what is appealing and what might make a blockbuster film are not the same as what is, in fact, true.

Naturally enough, the general idea of the role of civilian armaments in deterring tyrants can be debated extensively. This is, of course, a worthwhile debate and would be a rather interesting project for historians to sort out. However, what is under discussion here is the rather specific matter of whether or not the right to keep and bear arms is warranted by the deterrent value of this right against tyranny. This, obviously enough, involves some key matters of fact.

One obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not gun rights frightens politicians with tyrannical intentions—that is, whether worries about assassination keep them in check.

As argued above, it makes sense to think that a politician would be less inclined to do something if she believed doing so would result in people attempting to kill her. Naturally, if the population has easy access to firearms, then an assassin could easily acquire a gun. If there were strict controls on guns, then politicians would have less to worry about in terms of assassins drawn from the ranks of the general population. They would just have to worry about the military and police forces (and anyone who could make a bomb or wield a knife). Obviously, even in a state with strict civilian gun control, the politicians would need to win over the majority of the military and police forces to their tyrannical agenda—or their attempts at tyranny would end rather quickly. In the United States, this would require winning over the national forces (the military, FBI, and so on) as well as the state (National Guard and state police) and local forces (police and sheriffs).

Interestingly, democratic states with stricter gun control than the United States, such as the United Kingdom, do not seem to have fallen into tyranny. This suggests that it is not fear of assassination by citizens exercising their guns rights that keeps a democratic state from tyranny, but rather other factors. But perhaps they are just biding their time and the United Kingdom will soon be back under an absolute monarchy.

A second obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not civilian gun ownership would deter the military and police forces from imposing tyranny on the people at the behest of the tyrant(s). This, of course, assumes that the tyrant(s) has won over the majority of the military and police forces to her plot of tyranny and that there is no significant opposition from the military and police forces that are not in on the tyrannical take over. That is, the tyrant has won over the American citizens in the military and police forces to the degree that they would be willing to throw aside the Constitution and turn their weapons against the general population—including their friends, family, spouses, and children.

In such a scenario, it would seem that civilian weapons would be of little use. After all, the military and police forces of the tyrant would have military weapons (tanks, attack helicopters, bombers, artillery, ships, nukes and so on). Handguns, rifles and shotguns would be of rather limited use against such forces. Back in the time when civilian weapons and military weapons were essentially on par (muskets) and the most destructive military weapons were very limited (muzzle loading cannons) an armed civilian population would reasonably be regarded as a deterrent. However, it is hard to imagine suburban Americans battling successfully against tanks, Predator drones, and Hellfire missiles using AR-15s and .38 specials. That said, there is something to be said for an honorable death fighting against impossible odds.

Of course, the civilians could turn to the sort of tactics used by insurgents and terrorists to resist the military and police of the tyrant—but this would not be a case of the right to keep and bear arms deterring tyranny. However, the main thing that seems to defeat tyrants is a lack of support-without that a tyrant is a just a single man.

Naturally, it can be pointed out that civilian arms could be used to resist a small scale tyrannical incursion (perhaps a takeover in a small town). However, in such a scenario the tyrant would soon be dealt with by the police or military of the state. Also, the main deterrents against American tyrants grabbing American towns would seem to involve not guns but other factors—like an unwillingness to go along with a tyrant.

It would thus seem that civilian gun ownership would be little, if any, deterrence or defenses against a serious tyrant. It is also interesting to note that if such armaments provided considerable power against the state, there would be the fear that they would be used by a segment of the population to impose their own tyrant on others.

In light of the above, the defense against tyranny argument would seem to provide little in the way of justification for civilian gun rights. This should not be terribly shocking—after all, the second amendment does not justify the right to keep and bear arms in terms of having an armed population ready to shoot it out with other armed citizens.

There are, however, good reasons for gun rights, but these are beyond the intended scope of this essay.

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Litter & Vandalism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 14, 2013
English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I went for my run this morning, I ran across the usually bounty of litter that people dump in the park, streets and sidewalks. I actually run litter loops in the park each day, picking up trash. Today someone had slung the remains of a big takeout order from a restaurant into the park-the large bag, plenty of plates, cups and so on. I also got my usual collection of discarded water bottles and other assorted debris. I also ran across some impressive vandalism.

When the park was “renovated” a few years back, they added sign posts labeling the various trails. These posts are landscaping timbers that were sunk into pre-dug holes and had spikes driven into them to make it harder for folks to pull them out. But, some local vandal-hulk was up to the task and ripped out one of the signs, bending the spikes. I spotted the hole before stepping into it (a person could easily get a foot stuck and break something) and then found the timber that had been tossed into the woods. I replaced it as best I could and then checked the others for vandalism.

Since I’m teaching ethics and hand plenty of time on my run to think about this, I wondered about whether or not littering and vandalism are evil. On the face of it, I would say that they would seem to involve, at the least, a lack of virtue.

In the case of littering, there would seem to be two main contenders for the controlling vice. The first would be laziness: littering because one is too lazy to carry the trash away. This, obviously, would not account for people who throw trash from their cars, but could explain those who simply leave empty water and sport’s drink bottles littered about. The second would be a lack of respect for the environment and other people. Of course, a person might also casually litter due to lack of thought-some people treat their own living areas as trash pits, so they would no doubt see public places the same way. I would probably not consider being this way an evil thing, but is clearly a defect of character and it could be considered a vice.

Vandalism is more clearly immoral. After all, a person is damaging or destroying property with a malicious intent. Even if a person is “just playing” or “having fun”, the person is still causing damage or harm when s/he has no right to do so. There is also the obvious matter of the consequences of the vandalism. Someone will have to expend resources to repair or undo the damage. For example, I had to spend my time this morning putting that timber back in place so people would know where the trails led and, more importantly, so that someone did not get injured by stepping into the hole.

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God’s Vigilantes

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2012
The Vigilantes seal from the cover of Fifes an...

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In anticipation of teaching my Modern philosophy class in the upcoming spring semester, I have been perusing my notes. Since I recently did a post on God and punishment, re-reading Locke got me thinking about this matter once again.

Locke, like other political thinkers of his age, made use of the state of nature in his consideration of rights and authority. Roughly put, the state of nature is a situation in which there is no political authority: no politicians, no police, no judges, no man-made laws and so on. In short, there is no artificial society-just people existing in a natural state.

Thomas Hobbes also envisioned such a state, but he saw this as  a state of perpetual war. Since many of my students play video games, I always illustrate Hobbes as presenting a “death match” view of the state of nature: everyone against everyone, whatever you can grab is yours (until someone kills you and takes it), and so forth.  Locke, however, envisioned a nicer state in which people possessed natural rights to life, liberty and property.

Locke also contended that there is a law of nature that should be observed and that this law “wills the peace and preservation of all mankind.” Locke also noted the obvious: if there is no one to execute or enforce the law of nature, this law would be in vain.

To solve this problem, Locke claimed that in the state of nature everyone has the right to execute the law of nature by punishing wrongdoers who violate the right to life, liberty or property.  Locke, of course, grounds these rights on God. Our right to life rests on his view that we are God’s property and our right to property rests, in part, on God’s gift of the world to us. Put a bit simply, God is the legislator of the law of nature and the author of our rights. However, given what Locke claims, God respects the distinction between the executive and the legislative in that He does not enforce the law of nature nor does He act to prevent or punish (on earth) the violation of rights. He does not even dispatch angels to act as divine police. As such, on Locke’s view the state of nature is governed by divine law but God does deploy any enforcers.

In human societies when laws exist but there are no official enforcers, people sometimes turn to vigilantism. That is, people take the law into their own hands. In human societies, this practice is generally frowned upon-at least when law enforcement does exist. It is, as might be imagined, tolerated more (or even encouraged) when official law enforcement is lacking.

Given that in the state of nature there is law (the law of nature) but no official enforcers, what Locke is arguing for is vigilantism. In short, he calls upon people to serve as God’s vigilantes. Naturally, it might be wondered why God would need vigilantes rather than having official law enforcement in operation. After all, God surely cannot lack the funding or personnel to provide adequate policing. Given that He supposedly created the universe and all its contents, surely He could create a divine police force to supervise us here on earth. This force would not, of course, impede our free will anymore than our own police forces do: people are always free to chose to do wrong-they just get punished if they get caught and convicted.

As far as the view that God does not punish and hence does not need police , given what most faiths claim, God has no compunction against punishing people. He just seems rather reluctant to do so when people are watching.

It might be argued that God has deployed a police force, namely us. We are, of course, also the criminal element and the judges as well. However, this seems a rather odd way of doing things. Consider the following analogy: imagine a federation or empire with unlimited resources that is engaged in colonization. The way it colonizes is that it just dumps people on a habitable world, but provides them with no technology, no police, no education and so on. While this would make some sense for a poor empire that cannot afford proper colonization efforts, this would seem absurd for such a wealthy empire.

In the case of God, it seems absurd that He would just dump us on a planet and have us “go to it” on our own with no support or police.  This hypothesis seems, on might suspect, more absurd than the hypothesis that humans are the result of a seriously lame (or badly failed) colonization attempt by a space empire. After all, to say that we are ruled over by a God who makes rules, but provides no police or judges here on earth seems rather like saying that we are ruled over by a space empire that laid down our laws, but provides no police, judges or any contact with us.

This analogy also provides the obvious response to the claim that God punishes people in the afterlife. Imagine if someone claimed that we are part of a space empire and that just before people appear to die they are whisked away by transporters and their bodies replaced with duplicates. The supposedly dead people are then brought to the Court of the Space Empire and then tried by Space Lawyers before the Space Judges. If they are found guilty of crimes, they are cast into Space Hell to be punished. If they are found to be innocent, they are transported to Space Heaven and rewarded. Naturally, we are all really immortal-we just seem to die when we are transported away and replaced by a fake corpse (or ashes or whatever).

Just as we have every reason to think that the space empire story is just bad science fiction, it would seem that we should think that the story about God is just a bad fantasy story.

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Police & Protests

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 3, 2011
Riot police using tear gas on 21 April 2001 ag...

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Protests are often marred by senseless violence and the recent protest on Wall Street was no exception. One incident that has gotten extensive attention is the pepper spraying/macing of penned in women by Anthony Bologna, a relatively high ranking member of the NYC police. These sorts of incidents raise questions about the legitimate role of the police in regards to protests. My discussion is limited to the context of democratic states, such as the United States.

First, it is rather important to acknowledge that the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force. Obviously, if it is argued that protestors have a right to protests, this would entail accepting that people have rights and intuitively the right to protest does not automatically trump other rights-especially the core rights of life, liberty and property. Those who claim otherwise would seem to have the burden of proof upon them.

To use an obvious example, people protesting a decision by the parliament or congress do not gain the right to loot the businesses along their path of protest and the police would act correctly in stopping these acts of theft.   To use a less extreme example, protestors who are disrupting a legitimate business can legitimately be prevented from doing so by the police.

Second, while protestors do not gain a carte blanche right to violate the rights of others, peaceful protest is a legitimate form of expression and is certainly a form of free speech (far more so than spending money on political campaigns and some rather ludicrous “free speech” defenses launched by corporations such as Google). As such, the right of protest should be respected by the police.

Even when protestors act in ways that are technically illegal, provided that their crimes do not involve violence or property damage (that is, the protests are peaceful), they should be handled with minimal force. After all, the force used by the police should be proportional to the crime and the resistance being offered. Exceeding this would be, by definition, excessive force and hence a wrongful action. The police, after all, have the right to use the force needed to enforce the law. Force beyond that would go beyond their rights and hence cross over into assault and beyond (after all, once they cross the boundary of legitimate force, they have ceased to enforce the law and are engaged in needless violence and may rightfully be regarded as criminals-albeit with badges). Spraying women that have been penned in and are offering no resistance would be, from a moral perspective, an assault with a dangerous weapon and not a legitimate act of law enforcement. The fact that the perpetrator is wearing a uniform does not change this-except to make it an even worse action-a crime committed by someone who is supposed to prevent crime.

Naturally enough, violent and destructive protests can be met with legitimate force. As an example, protestors who are looting or attacking innocent citizens can be treated as the criminals they are and handled accordingly.

Third, there are cases in which violent and destructive protest can be justified. These would involve cases in which the wrong being done was such that it warrants such a response and there is no recourse to an objective, impartial and fair legal redress. In such cases, the police should be acting in defense of the people driven to such acts rather than fighting against such people. These situations are not common in the Western democracies, but have (and no doubt will) occur.

Thus, both protestors and police have moral obligations they should respect.

 

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What is a Fair Tax?

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 8, 2011
Comparison of progressive taxes

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While no one wants to pay taxes, if they must be paid then we can at least hope that the taxes of fair. Obviously enough, what counts as a fair tax is a matter of considerable dispute. Stereotypically, political liberals are cast as being favorably inclined towards taxes while the political conservatives are cast as being against taxes. While I will endeavor to avoid falling into any specific political leanings, it is obvious that any discussion of fair taxes will rest on numerous assumptions. While this cannot be avoided, I will do my best to present my assumptions so that they can be properly assessed and criticized.

One way to approach the matter of the fair tax is to assume that the fairness of a tax rests (at least partially) on the nature of the relationship between the citizens and the state, as well as the relationship between citizens. For the sake of brevity, I will consider only two main types of relationships. These are, of course, not exhaustive and I welcome others being added into the discussion. I will also be assuming that the discussion is taking place in the context of a first world democratic state, such as the United States, the UK, or Canada.

One view is that the relations between citizens and the state (and between citizens) is essentially of the same type as the relationship between a business and its customers. On this model, the state provides goods and services to the citizens and the citizens provide such goods and services to each other on the basis of economic compensation.

On this somewhat minimalist view of the state (and citizenship), the concept of a fair tax seems to be easily defined. A fair tax would be, in essence, a payment for the goods and services that a citizen receives. So, for example, if the state provides me with $15,000 in legitimate goods and services over the course of the year, then I would be fairly and justly taxed $15,000. Paying the fair value of what I receive would, obviously enough, be the epitome of fair.

This would, of course, create some practical problems in terms of calculating the value of such goods and services. However, given that businesses are able to address the problem of how much to charge, this seems to be something that could be resolved. Even if this presents a practical impossibility (which seems unlikely), it would still seem to provide a paradigm of a fair (if impractical) method of tax.

While this system would seem to be eminently fair, the extreme income disparities in countries like the United States might be seen as creating some problems. One obvious point of concern is that while the wealthy could easily pay for their goods and services, those who are less well off would probably be hard pressed to pay their fair share for such things as education for their children, police protection, fire protection, and so on.

Of course, this could be seen as being no different from the situation the less well off always find themselves in. After all, they cannot acquire all the goods and services that the wealthy can acquire and if this is fair, it would seem to be equally fair that they would be unable to receive all the goods and services of the state. If they cannot afford these services, then they must either find more income or simply do without. To use an analogy, if Bill cannot afford to buy a car, then he will have to walk. If he cannot afford to pay for police protection, then he had best learn to run. This might seem harsh, but in a pay as you go system, that is the nature of fairness. After all, why should anyone be forced to pay the way for anyone else?

While the business model has a certain appeal, it probably strikes some as being unduly harsh. After all, it essentially abandons citizens who cannot pay for their goods and services and these are, obviously enough, the people who most often need the help of the state.

One (and only one of many) alternative is to see the relationship between the citizen and the state (and other citizens) as less in terms of business and more in terms of a community. On the simplified community model, fairness is not measured solely in terms of the goods and services an individual consumes. The individual’s responsibility to the community is also a factor in determining what is a fair contribution in terms of taxes.  The influence of this factor might increase the amount the individual should fairly pay in taxes or it might decrease the amount. As might be imagined, sorting out how much an individual should be fairly expected to contribute to the community is a rather controversial matter. However, it does seem reasonable to at least consider that a fair contribution might exceed or be less than what the individual actually uses or consumes in terms of goods and services. After all, there seem to be clear cases in which it is fair and just for an individual to contribute more or less than what they use or what others contribute.

To use an analogy, consider a family. In general, the children in a family are not going to be able to pay for all that they use or consume in the household. As such, the parents will have to bear the cost of their children. This would not seem to be, on the face of it, an unfair burden on the parents (although such cases could be imagined, of course).

But, someone might object, our relationship with other citizens is not analogous to the family relationship. As such, it cannot be used to justify allowing people to pay more or less based on these highly suspicious community factors.

In reply, another analogy might be offered. Suppose I am camping with my friends and a storm destroys most of their gear. Rather than let them die in the woods, I share my food, water and shelter because they are in need and they are my friends. Leaving them to die because I was unwilling to give up my “fair share” (that is, my property) would hardly seem to be fair at all.

“Aha”, an objector might say, “you are willingly sharing with your friends and not being forced to give up your goods. Taxes are not like this. Taxes are like having someone force you to share your goods to help some stupid strangers.”

This does have some appeal. However, there is an obvious flaw. I do, in fact, have a choice in regards to the taxes. As a citizen of a democracy, I have a role (albeit a small one) in the government and hence the taxes I pay are paid from choice. If I do not like how my money is being spent, I can do something about it.  As far as the “stupid strangers” part, that does raise an interesting question about what we owe each other. As a country, are we more like friends or more like selfish customers thrown together into the same store by the vagaries of fate?

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Deleting Principles

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 24, 2010
Police
Blog Police (Image via Wikipedia)

Despite the post name, this is not about getting rid of your principles (although that could be handy for folks considering a career in politics). Rather, it is about when it is acceptable to delete comments from a blog post.

To start off, let me get the easy ones out of the way. As I argued in an earlier post, deleting spam and web droppings seems perfectly acceptable. No blog has an obligation to serve as free advertising for spammers and web droppings have as much right to remain as bird droppings.  Now on to matters a bit more controversial.

In general, there seem to be two main areas on which to assess whether a comment should remain or be banished by deletion. These are, obviously enough, tone/style and content.

In regards to tone/style, those that are excessively negative tend to provide a basis on which to delete in a principled way. Examples of negative tone/style include being needlessly hateful, needlessly condescending, or needlessly hostile. As others have noted, being negative (or, to be more technical, an ass) out of proportion to the provocation seem to provide grounds for considering deletion.

Not surprisingly, drawing a line that will allow consistent deletion can be a challenge. Despite this challenge, a consistent principle seems to be rather desirable. After all, as in law and ethics, the rules should be consistent and non-arbitrary. That way people know, in advance, what sort of behavior is acceptable and what is not. From a practical standpoint, this also helps avoid conflict over such matters and this is generally a good thing for a blog. After all, the idea of having a blog is to attract readers and active participants rather than drive them away.

Blog moderators will vary in what is considered tolerable in regards to tone/style. Those that prefer a rougher approach will tolerate more negative tones and styles. Those who wish to have a nicer environment or prefer a blog that seems more professional in character will no doubt tolerate less.

As a general principle, it does seem reasonable to expect civil behavior. Since there is already a well established set of principles in this area, it makes good sense to assume (unless otherwise noted) that these general principles apply on a blog. For example, being hateful, using needless vulgarities and being excessively condescending all violate the intuitive standards of civility.

However, to the degree that these are a matter of etiquette there is a great deal of flexibility. After all, what counts as rude or negative  is often a matter of context.  For example, some people are quite comfortable with the casual use of “obscene” words and see them as part of everyday vocabulary. So, while it seems reasonable to accept the general principle that  excessively negative comments should be deleted, what counts as excessively negative will need to be defined by the blog moderator, preferably by working with the community of the blog.

On my own blog, I follow the “common sense” rules of civility: don’t be needlessly hateful, keep the obscenity in check, avoid being excessively condescending, and show the degree of respect that one would like to receive in return. Since I lack Victorian sensibilities and have been hardened by years of online gaming, I tend to be fairly tolerant of some rough talk-provided that there is some merit to the comments. This provides a nice transition to the matter of content.

Deleting on the basis of content is perhaps the most controversial (with some notable exceptions like spam). In some cases, it will seem quite acceptable to delete comments. For example, comments that entirely lacking in relevance but are full of racist, sexist or other hateful remarks are excellent candidates for deletion. Not surprisingly, many blogs have rules against such comments (as well as against comments that can cause legal trouble, such as threats and libelous claims).

In these cases as well as less extreme cases, a reasonable principle seems to be to weigh the positive value of a comment (its merit measured in terms of what it adds to the discussion) against the negative aspects of the comment. These negative aspects can include both style/tone and content. For example, a comment might be relevant to a post and raise a legitimate criticism of said post, but it might be presented in a condescending tone and might also contain insulting content.

As is to be expected, if the positive value of the comment is determined to be outweighed by its negative aspects, then deletion would seem to be justified. This can be justified by the obvious fact that the person making the comment could have written the comment without the negative aspects and thus made her point without all the negative tone/style or content. There is, after all, generally no need to be an ass and no one has a right to expect that such needless “assing” will be tolerated.

On  my own blog I am inclined to tolerate a fair amount of negative content or style/tone, provided that it is offset by an even greater amount of positive content. Rather than deleting such comments, it seems that a better approach is to at least make an attempt to persuade the person to be less negative and thus contribute more to the discussion.

Some blogs take the approach of deleting comments that disagree with the slant, agenda or goal of the blog. For example, a liberal blog moderator might delete any criticisms that are conservative in nature even if the comments are well reasoned and civil.

While blog moderators have the right to do this, this does not seem like an appropriate approach to such comments. Of course, my view is based on the assumption that an open discussion that allows criticism is both valuable and desirable. Other folks, obviously enough, see “discussion” as a tool for advancing a specific agenda or view and thus have no tolerance for any opposing views or criticism. That, I believe, is the wrong way to run a blog on both moral and critical thinking grounds. I’ll leave my reasons here for the discussion that is likely to follow.

In the case of a philosophy blog, this sort of approach would seem to grossly violate the traditional spirit of philosophy. As such, on my own blog I never delete comments because they are critical of my views, arguments, or beliefs.

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Arizona’s Immigration Law

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2010
Great Seal of the State of Arizona
Image via Wikipedia

Now that the health care issue has faded a bit, folks need a new focus for their righteous outrage. The matter of immigration seems set to take center stage once more.

Arizona currently is considering some of the toughest immigration laws in the country. The gist of the law is that immigrants “must carry their alien registration documents at all times and requires police to question people if there’s reason to suspect they’re in the United States illegally.” The bill also has provisions for people who hire illegal immigrants or provide them with transportation.

On one hand, the laws can be seen as quite reasonable. After all, being in the country illegally is (by definition) against the law. The police are tasked with enforcing laws and hence it makes sense that they should be directed to ensure that people are not breaking the law.

The aspect of the law that deal with people hiring illegal immigrants or transport them also seem sensible. After all, illegal immigrants are not here legally and hence businesses should not be hiring them to work. This, one might argue, would be on par with hiring known criminals and failing to report them to the police. The same would apply to people who transport illegal immigrants. If I knowingly give a criminal a ride and fail to report it, then I would seem to be aiding the person in his/her crime.

On the other hand, there are some serious concerns about the law.

One minor one is that the idea that people need to carry around identity papers at all times has sort of a totalitarian feel to it.

A much more serious concern is the requirement to question people who are suspected of being here illegally. The obvious concern is determining what would count as legitimate grounds for suspicion and what would not. Obviously enough, if an officer sees someone running across the border, then that would be reasonable grounds to ask questions. There are also other cases that would justify such questions as well, such as when the police raid an employer known for hiring illegals. However, there is a serious concern that the law will lead to American Hispanics being harassed and profiled. After all, some folks regard being Hispanic or not speaking English as grounds for being suspicious of a person being an illegal immigrant. I suspect that if I went to Arizona, I would never be asked to provide proof that I am here legally. However, I suspect that the same cannot be said for Americans with darker skin.

A practical concern is that, ironically enough, illegal immigrants apparently make significant contributions to Arizona’s economy. By driving out illegals and failing to handle the situation in a more reasonable manner through immigration reform Arizona might turn out to be hurting itself.

This is not to say that the state should simply do what many other states do and mainly just ignore the problem. Rather, what is needed is for the states and the federal government to seriously address the matter of illegal immigration and work out a solution that is both just and practical.

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The Pentagon Shooter

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 5, 2010
The Pentagon, looking northeast with the Potom...
Image via Wikipedia

John Bedell was killed after shooting at police outside the Pentagon. His motivation seems to have been his distrust of the government and his apparently rather disturbed mental state. Bedell is being cast as a libertarian although, obviously enough, most libertarians do not advocate shooting police.

Interestingly, while Bedell saw patterns of conspiracy, some folks see him as being part of a pattern as well. As Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin says, “Sadly enough, there is a pattern. He represents a much larger force in our society today. If one individual is paranoid, we call it mental illness. If thousands of people share the same paranoia, we call it ideology. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Americans who are extremely angry with the federal government.”

Levin is correct in his claim that many people are angry with the federal government. However, it seems rather problematic to equate this anger with paranoia. After all, while there are people who are, in fact, paranoid, there are people who are rather angry at the government who are not mentally ill. A problem with this sort of remark is that it can be taken as dismissing those who are angry with the government as being mentally ill and hence most likely lacking in legitimate concerns.

While there are angry and paranoid people, the number of people who take violent action against the government is rather small. This is not to dismiss the danger presented by such people but rather to put it in perspective. Yes, we should obviously be concerned about people who will engage in such attacks, just as we should be concerned about possible attacks by foreign terrorists or actions by violent criminals. However, it is also important to keep the threat in a proper perspective. It would be a mistake, for example, to infer that because a few loners have done such acts of violence that there is a rather vast army of the paranoid waiting out there for the moment to strike. Also, it would be a mistake to dismiss those who are critical of the government as merely paranoid. After all, there are excellent grounds on which to be angry at the folks in the government. This anger does not, however, justify violence.

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