A Philosopher's Blog

Obligations to Others: Hunger in America

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2014
English: Logo of the .

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay, I considered various stock arguments in favor of the claim that we have obligations to people we do not know. In this essay I will consider a rather concrete matter of obligation, namely that of hunger in the United States of America.

The United States is known as the wealthiest nation on the planet and also as a country that is facing an obesity epidemic. As such, it probably seems rather odd to claim that America faces a serious problem with hunger. Sadly, this is the case and the matter was featured in Tracie McMillan’s “The New Face of Hunger” in August 2014 issue of National Geographic. Out of a total population of 313.9 million people, 48 million Americans are food insecure, which is a contemporary term for the hungry. In terms of demographics, over half of the food insecure are white and over half are people who live outside of the cities. 72% of recipients are children, senior citizens and the disabled.  Two thirds of families on food stamps have at least one employed adult. The reason why these employed adults need assistance is declining wages: people can work multiple jobs and still not earn enough to buy adequate food. These facts run counter to the usual stereotypes often exploited by politicians.

The United States does have a program to address hunger—what was once called food stamps is now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). While the program paid out $75 billion to about 48 million people in 2013, the average recipient received $133.07 a month (under $1.50 per meal). On average, SNAP recipients run out of money after three weeks and then turn to charity, such as food pantries and other assistance for the hungry. Of the 48 million recipients, 17.6 million lack the resources to provide for even their basic food needs.

The federal government also provides an indirect means of providing food—taxpayer money subsidizes the production of certain crops. Corn gets the lion’s share of subsidies and is distantly followed by wheat and soybeans. Rice, sorghum, peanuts, barley and sunflowers also receive some subsidies while the only subsidized fruit is the apple. Because of the subsidies, food products that include or involve corn, wheat or soybeans tend to be the cheapest. As such, it is not surprising that low-income people get most of their calories from such foods. Examples include sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, chicken, grain-based desserts, tacos and pizza.  These foods tend to be high calorie and low nutrition foods.

Also impacting the diet of low income people is the existence of food deserts: areas that lack supermarkets but have fast food restaurants and small markets (like convenience stores). A surprising number of Americans live in these food deserts and do not own a car that would allow them to drive to buy healthier (and cheaper) food. For example, 43,000 people in Houston, Texas lack a car and live over a half mile from a grocery store. The food sold at these places tends to be more expensive than the food available at a grocery store and they tend to be high calorie, low-nutrient foods.

These two factors help explain the seeming paradox of an obesity epidemic among hungry people: people have easier access to high calorie foods that have low nutritional value. Hence, people tend to be overweight while also being malnourished. Now that the nature of the problem has been discussed, I now turn to the matter of obligations to others.

On the face of it, the main issue regarding obligations to the hungry would seem to focus on whether or not there is an obligation to provide people with food. This can be broken down into two sub-categories. First, whether or not there is a collective obligation to provide hungry citizens with food via the machinery of the state (in this case, SNAP). Second, whether or not there is an obligation on the part of better-off citizens to provide food to their hungry fellow citizens.

Arguing that the state has such an obligation is fairly straightforward. A basic obligation of the state is to provide for the good of the people and to protect them from harm. While the traditional focus is on the state providing military and police forces, this would certainly seem to extend to protecting citizens from starving.

A utilitarian argument can also be advanced in favor of this obligation: helping to feed millions of citizens creates more utility than disutility. Part of this is the obvious fact that people are happier when they have food to eat. Part of this is the less obvious fact that when people get hungry enough, open rebellion seems better than starving to death—so feeding the poor helps maintain social stability.

One stock objection against this view is to contend that providing such support creates a culture of dependence that encourages people to stay poor. The obvious counter to this is that, as noted above, those receiving the aid are mostly people who are seniors, disabled or children—people who should not be expected to labor to survive. Also, as noted above, two thirds of the families that received SNAP have at least one working adult. People are not on SNAP because they turn down opportunities—they are on SNAP because of the lack of opportunities.

The matter becomes rather more controversial when the issue switches to whether or not better off individuals are obligated to assist their fellow citizens. This, of course, means apart from paying taxes that help fund SNAP. Such assistance might involve donating money, time or food.

Intuitively, people tend to think that assisting others in this way is a nice thing to do and worthy of praise. However, people also tend to think that there is no obligation to do this and that someone who does not assist others in this way is not a bad person. This does have some appeal—after all, being bad is typically seen as an active thing rather than merely not doing good things.

Turning back to the general arguments for obligations to others, there are religious injunctions to feed the hungry (which explains why American churches are typically on the front line in the war against hunger), and it is easy to reverse the situation: if I were hungry, I would want my fellow citizens to help me. As such, I should help them when I am well off.

The utilitarian argument also applies here: a person who gives a little to help the hungry will incur a small cost (but might gain in happiness) but it will yield greater happiness on the part of the recipients who now have something to eat. As such, the utilitarian argument would seem to nicely ground this obligation. Of course, there is the stock objection about building dependence.

Rational self-interest would also seem to provide a reason to provide such aid—there are plenty of selfish reasons to do so, not the least of which is gaining a good reputation and helping to keep the hungry from revolting.

The debt argument might work here as well—if a person has benefited from the assistance of others, then she would be obligated to repay that debt. However, a person could contend that as long as they have not received food from others when hungry, he owes nothing.

The argument from virtue obviously applies here: the virtue of generosity obligates a person to give to others in need. This, and the religious injunction, would seem to be the truest forms of actual obligation—as opposed to merely doing it from self-interest or for utility.

Digging deeper, there is also another issue. As noted above, people are hungry primarily because they are not earning enough to purchase adequate food. One reason for this is that wages have consistently declined for most Americans, although the profits of businesses have steadily increased. As such, the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, yet has many very poor people. This raises the moral issue of whether or not employers are obligated to pay a living wage—a wage that would enable a person to purchase food on that salary without requiring the assistance of the state or others.

Businesses obviously have a strong self-interest in not doing so—lower wages mean greater profits and shifting the cost to other people (taxpayers and those who contribute to food pantries) means that their workers survive despite the lack of a living wage. However, there is still the moral question of whether or not they have an obligation to provide such a living wage.

The religious injunctions would seem to apply to employers that accept these specific faiths—and companies that wish to claim they are religious should be obligated to act the part. However, secular companies can easily claim exemption.

Reversing the situation would also apply: presumably those running businesses would not want to be so poorly paid. Of course, they would probably claim that as job creators there is a relevant difference.

The utilitarian argument does involve some complexities. After all, there can be very good utilitarian arguments for allowing some people to suffer so as to produce greater utility for others—so a case could be made that the utility generated outweighs the disutility of the low pay. However, the opposite sort of argument can also be made.

The debt argument would also apply. If corporations are people or at least are fictions that are run by people, then they would have a debt to the others that make civilization possible. As such, they should pay back this debt, perhaps in the form of decent wages.

The virtues of fairness and generosity would seem to obligate employers to pay employees fairly and this should be a living wage, at least in many cases. If corporations are people, then they should surely be held to the same obligations as actual people.

Thus, it would seem that there are good reasons to accept that we are obligated to help others.


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Chaotic Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2014

As I have written in two other essays, the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is surprisingly useful for categorizing people in the real world. In my previous two essays, I looked at lawful evil and neutral evil. This time I will look at chaotic evil.

In the realm of fantasy, players often encounter chaotic evil foes—these include many of the classic enemies ranging from the lowly goblin to the terrifyingly powerful demon lord. Chaotic evil foes are generally good choices for those who write adventures—no matter what alignment the party happens to be, no one has a problem with killing chaotic evil creatures. Most especially other chaotic evil creatures. Fortunately, chaotic evil is not as common in the actual world. In the game system, chaotic evil is defined as follows:

A chaotic evil character is driven entirely by her own anger and needs. She is thoughtless in her actions and acts on whims, regardless of the suffering it causes others.

In many ways, a chaotic evil character is pinned down by her inherent nature to be unpredictable. She is like a spreading fire, a coming storm, an untested sword blade. An extreme chaotic evil character tends to find similarly minded individuals to be with—not out of any need for company, but because there is a familiarity in this chaos, and she relishes the opportunity to be true to her nature with others who share that delight.

The chaotic evil person differs from the lawful evil person in regards to the matter of law. While they are both evil, the lawful evil person is committed to order, tradition and hierarchy. As such, lawful evil types can create, lead and live in organized states (and all states have lawful evil aspects). They can even get along with others—provided that doing so is required for the preservation of order. In contrast, chaotic evil types have no commitment to order, tradition or hierarchy. They can, of course, be compelled to act as if they do. For example, as long as the threat of punishment or death is close at hand, a chaotic evil type will obey those with greater power. Chaotic evil types do like order, tradition and hierarchy in the same way that arsonists like things that burn—without these things, the chaotic evil type would have that much less to destroy.

Lawful evil types do often find chaotic evil types useful for specific tasks, although those wise about evil are aware of the dangers of using such tools. For example, a well-organized terrorist group will tend to be lawful evil in regards to its leadership. However, such a group will find many uses for the chaotic evil types. A lawful evil type is generally not likely to strap on an explosive vest and run into a crowd, but a chaotic evil person might very well consider this to be a good way to go out. Lawful evil types also sometimes need people to create chaos so that they can then impose more order—the chaotic evil are just the people to bring in. But, as noted, the chaotic evil can get out of hand—they are not constrained by order or even rational selfishness. This is why the smart lawful evil types do their best to see to it that the chaotic evil types do not outlive their usefulness.

The chaotic evil person differs from the neutral evil person in regards to the matter of chaos. While the chaotic evil and neutral evil are both selfish and care nothing for others, the neutral evil person tends to be more rational and calculating in her selfishness. A neutral evil person can have excellent self-control and conceal her true nature in order to achieve her selfish and evil ends. Chaotic evil types lack that self-control and find it hard to conceal their true nature—that takes a discipline that the chaotic, by their nature, lack. The neutral evil see society as having instrumental value for them—but their selfishness means that they will take actions that can destroy society. The chaotic evil see no value in society other than as presenting a target rich environment for their evil. In our world, chaotic evil types tend to be those who commit horrific crimes or acts of terror.

While chaotic evil types are chaotic and evil, they often take up the mantle of some cause and purport to be acting for some greater good. However, their actions disprove their claims about their alleged commitment to anything good. They typically take up a religious or political cause to assuage whatever shreds of conscience they might still retain—or do so as part of their chaotic game.

In an orderly society that does not need the chaotic evil, smarter chaotic evil types try to hide from the authorities—though their nature drives them to commit crimes. Those that are less clever commit their misdeeds and are quickly caught. The cleverer might never be caught and become legends. Fortunately for the chaotic evil (and unfortunately for everyone else), they have plenty of opportunities to act on their alignment. There are always organizations that are happy to have them and there are always conflict areas where they can act in accord with their true natures—often with the support and blessings of the authority. In the end, though many are willing to make use of their morality, no one really wants the chaotic evil around.


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Police, Protests & Rights

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2014

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a series of protests in the town. Not surprisingly, these protests led to additional incidents involving conflicts between the citizens and the police. Initially, the local police met the protestors like an invading army: many of the officers were in military grade combat gear and backed up by armored vehicles. As noted in my previous essay, this sort of approach is based on a common philosophy of order held by authorities. This philosophy of order is that perceived threats to the existing order are to be met with physical force—even when the perceived threat consists of citizens acting within their rights. One reason for this is practical—the state generally has an advantage over the citizens in terms of force. As Thoreau notes, “…the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Another reason for this is conceptual—authorities are often similar to bullies in that their view of how to address problems mainly involves coercion rather than persuasion and reason. There is also a philosophical element—those in authority often seem to have a philosophical view about the rights of citizens that rather differs from that of the founders they so often praise when running for re-election.

As this is being written, it is not yet know if Brown rights were violated. As noted in the previous essay, the officer might have used force legitimately. However, the response to the protests has been the systematic and repeated violation of rights.

To begin with the most obvious violations of constitutional rights, the rights of free speech and assemble have been routinely violated by the police. The curfew is the most obvious example of these violations. The harassment and arrests of journalists also seem to be clear violations of the freedom of the press.

Section 1 of the 14th amendment has also been relentlessly violated since citizens have been “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and citizens have been denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The violations of the 14th amendment are not limited just to the treatment of the protestors—the policing of Ferguson’s disproportionality clearly illustrates systematic violation of this amendment. Obviously, this is also a nationwide problem.

There are also clear violations of internationally established human rights: the protestors are being shot with rubber bullets (admittedly this is better than being shot with metal bullets) and tear gas has been used.

Those who accept natural rights, such as John Locke, would certainly agree that these rights are being violated in Ferguson. The most obvious being the right of liberty.  As such, the violations are not just a matter of violations of human law but also violations of natural rights (assuming there are such things). For those who prefer a more utilitarian approach to liberty, Mill’s utilitarian arguments would certainly support the claim that the state is violating the rights of the protestors in Ferguson.

The conflict in Ferguson can thus be seen as having a significant connection to past struggles for liberty and rights. The most obvious link is that the protests are a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This struggle can, of course, be traced back to the development of the very notions of liberty and rights. As such, Ferguson is a recent battleground in the struggle for justice, rights and liberty.

One obvious counter to this view is the claim that the police are justified because of the nature of the situation. People are looting, shooting and destroying property and the police are acting to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. This, of course, does require the use of force and it might appear that some rights are being violated in the keeping of order.

This counter does have considerable underlying merit. The state does have an obligation to prevent protestors from violating the rights of other people. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in unwarranted violence or other misdeeds can be justly stopped or arrested.

There is also the obvious concern with people who use protests as an excuse to engage in or as cover for misdeeds such as looting. If the police arrest someone who has come to “protest” by stealing from local homes, they have not violated that person’s rights—he has no moral right to steal even if he claims that he is doing so as an act of protest.

The easy reply to this counter is that the legitimate need to prevent the violation of rights does not justify violating those same rights. So, while the police have an obligation to keep protestors from committing crimes against life, liberty and property the police also have an obligation to not violate the rights of the protestors. I will freely admit that this can be challenging in practice since opportunists and criminals often mix in with actual protestors. However, if our society is supposed to respect rights, effort must be taken to ensure that these rights are protected—even (and especially) in heated moments. After all, rights are not just for corporations.


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Corporate Inversion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 13, 2014

Taxes (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

Corporate inversion is a strategy in which a corporation (usually one located in the United States) merges with a foreign corporation and then shifts its income from its original country.  The usual purpose of this strategy is to reduce taxes and this is done by shifting the income from the higher-tax country to the lower tax country. While this strategy has been used for quite some time, it started attracting media attention in the summer of 2014.

Those who defend tax inversion point to the obvious fact that it is currently legal. As such, the strategy is exempt from legal criticism as long as it is legal. Of course, the fact that something is legal does not entail that it is morally right or even that it is pragmatically prudent. A quick glance at history will show an abundance of practices that were legal (such as slavery) yet morally repugnant. A similar look back will also reveal laws that turned out to be bad ideas on pragmatic grounds. Thus, the actual dispute about corporate inversion is not a matter of whether it is legal or not. Rather, the substantial dispute is whether it should remain legal or not. Interestingly, opposition to corporate inversion is not limited to the left and avowed capitalists have been critical of the practice (usually as part of a general criticism of the tax laws of the United States). There is also the fact that the practice is legal because the corporate lobbyists ensure that is legal. To use an analogy, it would be like a person claiming it is not cheating that they are winning because she is following the rules when she is the one who writes the rules.

One obvious moral concern regarding the practice is that the corporations that invert are able to reduce their tax burden (which tends to already be quite low in practice, despite the relatively high tax rate that exists in theory) while still enjoying the support of the United States. These corporations still utilize the physical infrastructure of the United States, they still benefit from the legal system (which often serves their interests quite well), they still benefit from United States foreign policy and military operations, and they still enjoy the usual corporate welfare, and so on. In short, they contribute less while still receiving the same. If one believes that people should not be takers and should contribute fairly in return for what is received, this tactic would seem wrong. To use an analogy, it would be somewhat like eating a meal at one table and then relocating oneself to another table with a smaller bill so as to avoid paying what one actually owes. While some might see that as brilliant, it does seem rather morally dubious to use such a shift to avoid responsibility. Then again, it could be argued that this is brilliant and there is nothing wrong with eating one meal while paying for a cheaper one. There is, however, the fact that the rest of the folks at the original table will be stuck with the bill—but perhaps they deserve it for being too stupid (or moral) to ditch the table for a cheaper bill. Some might wonder what would happen if everyone jumped tables—but obviously enough not everyone will or can, so there will always presumably be fewer people stuck with more of the bill.

A second stock defense of corporate inversion is that corporations are obligated to make a profit for their shareholders. On the face of it, this inversion would do just that. After all, if the corporation is taxed less, that entails more profits and thus larger payouts to the shareholders. Interestingly, though, the Wall Street Journal notes that this corporate inversion strategy could result in the shareholders paying more taxes—thus perhaps resulting in a somewhat ironic shift of the tax burden. This dispute is a factual matter rather than a matter of value: if the justification of corporate inversion is the benefits to the shareholders, then it certainly matters whether the shareholders benefit from this or are harmed by it. There is also the matter of value. Justify inversion on the grounds of increasing profits is to hold that what matters in terms of what should be done is profits, rather that other factors such as fairness, morality and so on.

While thinkers like Thomas Hobbes would agree that “profit is the measure of right” in the state of nature, there is a reasonable moral concern that gain is not the standard of right. If profit trumped everything, then corporations should engage in such practices as slavery, organ harvesting, prostitution, drug dealing and so on—provided that such endeavors were profitable. This principle would allow a drug cartel to justify its practices—as long as it kept its books in the black (though the streets might be red). It might be countered that these practices are illegal (in some places)—but changing that is just a matter of lobbying or relocation. After all, if a company can relocate to avoid a tax burden so as to maximize profit on the grounds that profit is what matters, it could make the same appeal to relocating so it could deal in slaves or cocaine.

The obvious counter is to say that corporate inversion is not really comparable to engaging in slavery or organ harvesting. The easy reply is that this is true.  But if the principle is that profits are the measure of what one should do, then it follows that as long as the wicked is profitable, one should do it.

Another approach to the matter of warranting actions in terms of profit is to consider the matter from another angle. To be specific, consider the ethics in regards to an individual taking the same view. For the sake of the example, imagine a fellow (a California surfer, perhaps) who follows the principle of profit. That is, he aims to get as much as he can for as little cost to himself. Imagine that he finds that there is a perfectly legal system that will provide him with goods and services at no cost to himself. Given that his goal is profit maximization, this would be a good system for him—he profits at no apparent cost to himself. This scenario seems to nicely work in the two stock justifications for corporate inversion, namely that it is legal and it is profitable. So, if it is acceptable for a corporation to invert because it is legal and because doing so is profitable, then it is acceptable for the California surfer to do the same thing on an individual level. However, if the surfer is in the wrong because he is a taker (that is, he is getting without contributing his fair share), then it would seem that the corporation is also in the wrong.

It could be countered that the corporation is at least employing some people and making profits for the shareholders, etc. However, the surfer can counter that he is making profits for himself and also contributing to employment. After all, someone has to make and sell the sushi he eats, so he is also a job creator.


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Tech, Wages & Profits

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

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ethics, Children & Immigration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Checking “Check Your Privilege!”

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

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

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

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

1. Person A makes claim X.

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

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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    The Speed of Rage

    Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 9, 2014
    English: A raging face.

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

    Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

    This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

    In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

    When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

    Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

    For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

    The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

    So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.


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    Happy 4th of July!

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

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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


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    Hobby Lobby Repost

    Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2014
    English: A typical contraceptive diaphragm

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The Supreme Court has continued along its “corporations are people that are more important than you” march with its recent ruling about the right of corporations to impose religious values on its employees. Beyond condemning the ruling, I have nothing new to say, but will re-post two posts I wrote earlier about the matter:

    In the case of Hobby Lobby,  CEO David Green and his family claimed that their and Hobby Lobby’s freedom of religion is being “substantially burdened” by being compelled to provide insurance that would cover “morning-after pills” and IUDs for employees who wanted such them. The Greens claim that these specific types of contraception prevent implantation of fertilized eggs and are thus equivalent to abortion, which they regard as being against their religious beliefs. There are also those who oppose contraception regardless of the type on religious grounds.

    The legal foundation for this challenge is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

    From a moral standpoint, this exemption does seem acceptable if it is assumed that freedom of religion is a moral right. After all, there should be a presumption in favor of freedom and the state would need to warrant such an intrusion. However, if it can do so properly, then the imposition would be morally acceptable. The stock example here is, of course, limitations on the right of free speech.

    From both a moral and legal standpoint, there seem to be two main points of concern. The first is whether or not a for-profit corporation is an entity that can be justly ascribed a right to freedom of religion. The second is whether or not such the contraceptive coverage imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. Obviously, if a corporation cannot be justly ascribed this right, then the second concern becomes irrelevant in this context. However, since it is a simpler matter, I will address the second concern first and then move on to the main point of interest regarding corporations and religious freedom.

    For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that those bringing the lawsuit are sincere in their claim that contraception is against their religion and that this is not merely cover for an attack on Obamacare. I will also assume that their religious belief is about the use of contraception.

    On the face of it, being compelled to follow the law would seem to not impose any substantial burden in regards to such a belief. After all, those impacted by the law are not required to use contraception. This would, of course, be a clear imposition on their freedom (religious and otherwise). They are also not required to directly give their employees contraception. This could be seen as an imposition by giving them a somewhat direct role in the use of contraception.  However, they are merely required to provide a health plan that covers contraception for those who are exercising their freedom to choose to use said contraception. As such, the burden seems minimal—if it exists at all.

    It might be objected that to be forced to have any connection to a means by which employees could get contraceptives would be a significant imposition on the corporation. The rather obvious reply to this is that the corporations pay employees with money that can be used to buy contraceptives. So, if an employee would use contraception, then she would most likely just purchase it if it were not covered by her insurance. In cases where the contraceptive medicine is being used for medical reasons (as opposed to being used as contraception) the employee would probably be even more likely to purchase it (which raises the question of whether such use counts as using contraception in a way that would violate these religious beliefs).

    As such, if a corporation can insist that health care plans not cover contraception on the grounds that they would be forced to play a role in situation in which an employee might get contraception by means connected to the corporation, it would seem that they could make the same claim in regards to the paychecks they issue. After all, paychecks might be used to acquire all manner of things that are against the religious views of the corporation’s owner(s). This is, of course, absurd and would be a clear violation of the rights and freedoms of the employees.

    As such, the second issue is easily settled: being compelled to offer insurance that covers contraception is not a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of corporations.

    U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

    (Photo credit: Wikipedi

    As noted above, the corporations that are challenging Obamacare on the matter of contraception are doing so on the legal basis of the is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows a person to seek exemption from a law if it substantially burdens her free exercise of religion. The government can deny this exemption if it can prove both a compelling reason to impose the burden and evidence that the law is narrow enough in scope.

    Since the act applies to person who hold religious beliefs, it is tempting to simply assert that corporations are not people and hence not covered by the act. However, in the United States corporations are taken to be people in regards to the law.

    In fact, the status of corporations as people was critical in the Citizens United ruling that banned restrictions on corporate spending in politics. The general idea is that since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to free speech, then a corporation has the right to free speech.

    Given this precedent (and argument), it would certainly seem to follow that a corporation has the right to freedom of religion: Since a corporation is a person and a person has a right to freedom of religion, then a corporation has the right to freedom of religion. This would thus seem to settle the legal matter.

    There is an easy and obvious way to reduce this sort of “corporations are people” reasoning to absurdity:

    Premise 1: A corporation is a person (assumed).
    Premise 2: Slavery is the ownership of one person by another.
    Premise 3: The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids slavery.
    Conclusion: The ownership of a corporation is forbidden by the constitution.

    This seems completely airtight. After all, if corporations get the right to free speech and the right to religious freedom because they are persons, then they also get the right not to be owned because they are persons. Naturally, this will seem silly or absurd to the very people who easily embrace the notion of corporation personhood in the case of unlimited campaign spending. However, this absurdity is exactly the point: it is okay to own corporations because they are not, in fact, people. They also do not get the right to free speech or religious freedom because they are not, in fact, people.

    It could be countered that corporations are very special sorts of people that get certain rights but can be denied other rights in a principled way. Obviously enough, those who own corporations and their defenders might be inclined to hold that corporations get the rights that are useful to the owners (like the right to free speech) but do not get a right that would be a serious problem—like the right not to be owned. However, there is a serious challenge in regards to doing this in a principled manner (and the principle of what is good for me is not a principled principle). That is, the problem is to show that corporations are entities that can justly be ascribed freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but not freedom from ownership. Ironically, as I will endeavor to argue, claiming that corporations are such that they can be justly ascribed the qualities needed to ground a right to freedom of religion would also seem to involve claiming that they have the qualities that would forbid ownership.

    In order to exercise religion and thus be entitled to freedom of religion, an entity would seem to require the capacity for religious belief. Belief is, of course, an intentional mental state—a belief is about something and it is mental in nature (although the mental might be grounded in the physical, such as in a nervous system). Being legal fictions, corporations have no mental states and no intentional states. That is, a corporation has no beliefs—religious or otherwise. As such, a corporation is not entitled to freedom of religion—since it has no capacity for religious belief.

    This could be countered by claiming that the owner of the corporation provides the intentional states of the corporation. In the case of religion, the religious beliefs of the owner are the religious beliefs of the corporation. Thus, the personhood of the corporation rests on the personhood of the owner. However, if the corporation has the identical mental states as the owner, then it is the owner and vice-versa. While this would handle the freedom of religion matter, it would entail that the corporation is not a separate person in regards to freedom of speech and that ownership of the corporation would be ownership of the owner. If the owner is the sole owner, this would be fine (a person can self-own)—but if the corporation is owned by stockholders, then there would be a problem here since owning people is unconstitutional.

    It could be replied that the above is mere philosophical cleverness (as opposed to the legal cleverness that makes a corporation a person) and that the beliefs of a corporation are simply those of the owner.

    The obvious problem is that this would entail that the corporation does not have a religious belief that it can exercise. To use an analogy, if the Supreme Court ruled that my left running shoe is a person that I own like a corporation and that thus has my religious beliefs as its own, this would obviously be madness. My shoe, like a corporation, does not itself have any beliefs—religious or otherwise. The mere fact that I own it and it is legally a person does not grant it the capabilities needed to actually possess the foundation for the right to religious freedom. Or speech, for that matter—thus also showing that the idea that corporations have the capability to engage in free speech is absurd. What they do is, in effect, serve as legal puppet “people” manipulated by the hands of actual people. Obviously, if I put an actual puppet on my hand, it is not a person. Likewise, if I create a legal entity as my puppet, it is still not an actual person—its beliefs are just my beliefs and its words are just my words.

    The actual person who owns a corporation has the rights of a person—because she is a person. Thus, the owner of a corporation can contend that her religious freedom has been violated. But it is absurd to claim that a for-profit, secular corporation can have its religious freedom violated—it is simply not an entity that can have its own religious beliefs. This distinction between the owner and the corporation certainly seems fair. First, the owner still has all her rights. Second, having a distinction between the owner and the corporation is exactly the point of many of the laws government corporations (such as finances).

    If someone insists on claiming that the corporation is not a legal puppet and that it has the capabilities that provide a foundation for these freedoms, then they would run afoul of the argument regarding the ownership of persons. After all, an entity that can hold religious beliefs would thus seem to be a person in a meaningful sense that would forbid ownership.

    Thus, the dilemma seems to be this: if a corporation is a person and thus gains the rights of being a person, then it is unconstitutional to own a corporation. If a corporation is not really a person, then it is legal to own it but it is not entitled to the rights of a person, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

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