A Philosopher's Blog

Love Across the Possible Worlds

Posted in Metaphysics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2017

Kelly & Portal BloodyWhile true love is the subject of many tales, the metaphysical question of its foundation is rarely addressed. One interesting way to explore this question is to bring in another popular subject of fiction, that of possible worlds. Imagine, if you will, a bereaved lover seeking to replace their lost love by finding an exact counterpart in another world. This raises the issue of whether it is rational to love the metaphysical counterpart of someone you love. I contend that this is just as rational as loving the original person and will argue for my case by using appeals to intuitions and analogies. In the interest of fairness, I will also consider and refute the transcendent argument for true love.

The metaphysics of Rick & Morty includes the existence of an infinite number of alternative worlds, each of which with its own Rick and Morty. The Rick and the Morty that are, one presumes, the true stars of the show have been forced to abandon their original reality a few times. However, they always end up living with “their” family (Beth, Summer and sometimes Jerry). While Rick often purports not to care, he repeatedly shows that he loves “his” daughter Beth and granddaughter Summer. However, as he and Morty themselves know, the Beth and Summer of their adopted world are not their Beth and Summer. They are daughter and granddaughter of the Rick of that world—a Rick who is (typically) dead.

CW’s The Flash show also makes use of the multiple world plot device as well, one that dates to the early days of comics. The DC comic universe features a multitude of different earths, most notably Earth 1 and Earth 2. Earth 2 was the home of the original Batman, Superman and others—it was used to maintain the timeline in which, for example, Superman was on earth in the 1930s. In a series of episodes of the TV show The Flash, Barry Allen (the Flash) travelled to Earth 2 and met the counterparts of people he knew and loved on his world, most especially his beloved Iris. On Earth 2, the normal Barry Allen 2 was married to Iris and Barry Allen 1 (from Earth 1) pretended to be Barry Allen 2 and was rather obsessed with her and her father, despite being explicitly told that the people of Earth 2 were obviously not the same people as those of Earth 1.

While people tend to feel how they do for no rational reason, there is a rather interesting question as to whether it makes sense to love someone because they happen to be the counterpart of someone you love. While this would be an interesting matter for psychology, the metaphysical aspect of this case is a question of whether the counterparts are such that it is rational to love or care about them because they are metaphysical counterparts of someone you love or care about.

For the sake of the discussion that follows, consider the following sci-fi scenario: Sam and Kelly met in graduate school, fell madly in love and were married shortly after their graduation. They were both hired by Kalikrates Dimensional, a startup dedicated to developing portals to other dimensions.

During an experiment, Sam was pulled into the blender dimension and ejected as a human smoothie. Unfortunately, he had neglected to keep up his premiums with Life Ensurance and had no backup. Distraught, Kelly considered cloning him anyway, but decided that without his memories and personalities, it would not be Sam.

Driven by her loss, she developed a safer portal system and then developed an Indexer that would scan and index the possible worlds. She programmed the Indexer to find a world just like her own, but where “she” rather than “Sam” would die in the portal accident. The Indexer labeled this world Earth 35765. Timing it perfectly, she popped through her portal just as the Kelly of 35765 would have returned, had she not been blended. The Kelly 35765 smoothie ended up in Kelly 1’s world, while Kelly 1 took over her life. Kelly 1 might have been happy with Sam 35765, but she was murdered and replaced a year later by the bereaved and insane Kelly 45765. Given this scenario, would it be rational for Kelly 1 to love Sam 35765?

One way to look at this matter is to use an analogy to counterparts in this world. To be specific, there are unrelated people who look exactly alike other people in this world. And, of course, there are also identical twins. While a person might be fooled by a twin or a look-alike, they would probably not love them simply because they looked like someone they loved. The same, it could be argued, can be applied to counterparts in other worlds: they look like someone you love, but they are not the one you love.

I certainly agree that it would be irrational to love someone simply because they looked like someone one already loves. After all, the look-alike could be utterly horrible or at least utterly incompatible. As such, it would be foolish to love such a twin solely based on appearance. That sort of shallow love would be irrational even in this world.

However, it can be rational to love a counterpart that exactly resembles the original. Such a counterpart could have the qualities that would provide a rational foundation for love. For example, if Kelly 1 loved Sam 1 because of his personality, values, laugh, and such, then if Sam 35765 had these same qualities, then it would make sense for Kelly 1 to love him. After all, he has the same qualities. To use an analogy, if Kelly loves Cherry Breeze pie because of its qualities, then she is obviously not limited to loving the first Cherry Breeze pie she had—any adequately similar Cherry Breeze pie would suffice.

Now imagine that there was one Cherry Breeze pie that Kelly loved above all others and that this pie could be duplicated to such a degree that every aspect of the pie would be indistinguishable from her most beloved pie. In this case, Kelly would love that exactly resembling pie as much as the original.

There is the obvious concern that there would be a fundamental difference between any counterpart and the original; namely that there would be no history or relationship with the counterpart. So, while Kelly 1 might love the qualities of Sam 35765, she has never done anything with him and thus has no history or relationship with him. She could develop that history and relationship, of course, but that would be falling in love with a new person. While it is true that Kelly 1 has no past relationship with Sam 35765, she selected the world in which Kelly 35765 and Sam 35765 did everything that Kelly 1 and Sam 1 did—there would be no distinguishable difference. Kelly 1 knows everything that happened between the other Kelly and Sam and will act exactly as Kelly 1 would have.

Going back to the pie analogy, while Kelly would have no established relationship with the new pie, the fact that it is (by hypothesis) exactly like the original pie in every way (other than being new) would intuitively entail that Kelly would love the new pie as much as the original. Everything discernable about the relationships with the pies would be the same other than their bare difference. If Kelly declared that she loved the original but did not care for the new pie, her claim would seem to be utterly unfounded—after all, she could point to no qualitative difference that would warrant her assertion.

It could even be contended that, in a way, Kelly does have a relationship with the pie—since it is exactly like the original pie, it would fit seamlessly into the relationship she had with the original pie. As such, it would be rational to love the exact counterpart of someone one loves.

Since I made the error of referencing true love, I opened the portal to easy and obvious objection to my position. One basic element of true love is that one person (Kelly 1) loves another (Sam 1) and not that person’s qualities. This is because qualities change and can be possessed by others. Intuitively, true love will not fade and cannot be transferred to another person that simply has the same qualities.

For example, if Kelly loves Sam because of his brilliance and humor. Then she would love someone else who had the same brilliance and humor. This sort of interchangeable love is not true love. If what is loved is not the qualities of a person, there is the question of what this might be.  What is wanted is something “beneath” all the qualities that makes the person the person they are and distinguished them from all other things. Fortunately, philosophy has just such a thing in stock: the metaphysical self. This, as should come as no surprise, takes the discussion into the realm of Kantian philosophy.

Kant split the world into noumena and phenomena.[i] The phenomena are the things as they appear to us. This is what we experience-such how good a person looks in a swim suit. We can have empirical knowledge of such things. The noumena are the things in themselves. Kant claimed the noumena cannot be known because they are beyond our experience.

On Kant’s view, it would be sensible to stick with the phenomena and not speculate about the noumena. But, Kant claims that cannot resists the sweet lure of the transcendent illusions of metaphysics.

The metaphysical self is the illusion that is needed here. Like David Hume, Kant thinks we have no impression of the metaphysical self. What we do have are impressions, via introspection, of the empirical self. The inner eye never sees that metaphysical self; it just encounters things like feelings and thoughts.

Unlike Hume, Kant argues that we must think of our experiences as if they occur within a unified self. This provides with a frame of reference for thought and it is thus useful to accept a metaphysical self. Since it is useful and we need the metaphysical self to make sense of things, Kant concludes that we should accept it. While Kant did not take the step of arguing for true love, I will do this now.

Applying his method to true love, true love would be impossible without the metaphysical self. As such, it is a necessary condition for true love. The metaphysical self is obviously beyond the realm of scientific proof. However, true love is irresistible because it seems to be a critical belief for our happiness and our conception of ourselves. As such, while Kelly 1 might feel that she loves Sam 35756, this would be irrational: Sam 35756 is not her true love. As would be imagined, in a tragically poignant Twilight Zone style sci-fi story, she would come to realize this.

While true love is appealing, the objection can be countered. This should not be surprising, since the argument itself acknowledges that it is appealing to an illusion. But, of course, what is needed is a substantive reply.

While the idea of a metaphysical self behind all the qualities sounds fancy, it is merely a repainted bare particular. It is bare because it does not have any qualities of its own beneath all the qualities that it possesses. It is a particular because there is only one of each (and each one can only be in one location at a time). In the ideal love of the objection, one loves the bare particularity of another as opposed to qualities that can change or be duplicated by another.

Fortunately for my position, there is a rather serious problem with this notion of love. When we interact with the world we interact with various qualities. For example, Kelly can see Sam’s quirky smile and experience his keen intelligence. But it seems impossible for her to be aware of his bare particularity. Since it has no qualities there would seem to be nothing to experience. It would thus be impossible for Kelly to be aware of Sam’s bare particularity to love him. As such, love must be about detectable qualities.

While this is less romantic than the idea of metaphysical true love, it is more realistic and intuitively appealing. When one person talks about why they love another, they talk about the qualities of the person. Some dating services also make a big deal about testing people for various qualities and using them to find compatibility and love. Scientists also talk about the emotion of love as being driven by genes in search of suitable genes to combine with. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that when Kelly loves Sam, she loves his qualities. As such, if it was rational for Kelly 1 to love Sam 1, then it is just as rational for Kelly 1 to love Same 35756. There is, after all, no discernible difference between the Sams.

In the above essay, I considered the issue of whether it is rational to love the metaphysical counterpart of someone you love. I contended that this is just as rational as loving the original person argued for my position by appealing to intuitions and using arguments from analogy. In the interest of fairness, I also considered the transcendent argument for true love. Thus, love is not only possible, it is possible across worlds.

 

Cherry Breeze Pie

Ingredients

 

Crust

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/3 cup butter or margarine — melted

or 1 pre-made graham cracker crust

 

Filling

1 package cream cheese — (8 ounces)

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 can cherry pie filling — (1 pound, 5 ounces)

 

Directions

  1. Cook butter and sugar in saucepan over medium heat until mixture boils. Remove from heat and mix in graham cracker crumbs. Press mixture evenly and firmly into 9-inch pie plate to form a crust. Chill. (Or just buy a pre-made crust).

 

  1. Beat cream cheese until smooth. Gradually mix in sweetened condensed milk, stir in lemon juice and vanilla. Spread in crust. Refrigerate 3-4 hours or until firm.

 

  1. Top with chilled cherry pie filling. To remove pie pieces easily, place hot wet towel around sides and bottom of pan before cutting.

 

 

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[i] Kant presents this distinction in I. Kant (1965), Critique of Pure Reason (trans. J. Ellington),  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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Natural Disasters & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 20, 2017

Natural disasters are increasing in both intensity and frequency. One explanation, which is politically controversial, is that climate change is a contributing factor. What is not controversial is the fact that more people now live in at risk areas than ever before. As such, disasters that would have previously impacted few or even no people, now impact many people. In some cases, people are living in areas that are very desirable aside from their vulnerability. For example, coastal property is general very desirable, yet is often subject to risks of flooding and storm damage. In other cases, people are living in undesirable areas that are also risky areas. For example, poor people in developing cities sometimes live in areas that are prone to flooding.

There is also the fact that infrastructure is now more elaborate and expensive than ever before in human history.  For example, cities now have electrical systems, communication infrastructure and subways that are expensive to repair and replace after disasters. Because of this, the cost of damage done by disasters is far greater than it used to be in the past.

While some natural disasters are unlikely, strike unexpectedly and recur infrequently, there are many that are likely, predictable and occur frequently. While people do sometimes wisely decide to avoid such areas, they also often decide to rebuild repeatedly. For example, people in flood or hurricane prone regions often rebuild after each flood or storm. In some cases, this is because it is not practical for them to move somewhere else. In other cases, they do so because some of the cost of rebuilding is provided by the state. Rebuilding is also often funded by insurance; with people in lower risk areas contributing to the pool of money that covers those who life in high risk areas. This leads to the moral question of whether others should be responsible for helping people who elect to live in high risk areas repeatedly rebuild.

One way to look at civilization is that it should function as a form of insurance. That is, people in a civilization pool some of their resources to be used to help their fellows when they are in need. Laying aside moral motivations, there are very practical reasons to participate in this function of civilization. Cooperating in this way makes it more likely that others will help you when you are in need and it also helps sustain the system that provides the assistance. So, roughly put, self-interest gives me a reason to assist others in need—it costs me to help them, but this is the reasonable price I must pay to expect their help.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about free-riders. That is, people who do not contribute to this aspect of civilization but want to reap the benefits. This issue, however, goes far beyond the scope of this short essay. However, the usual reply to the free-rider problem is that the free riders will destroy the system they hope to benefit from.

There is also the concern about the independents. These can include people who are wealthy enough to not need the help of others when rebuilding and people who simply do not want the help of others. A case can certainly be made that people who decline using this benefit of civilization have a moral justification for not contributing—but, of course, they would need to be consistent about this. This is, of course, a far more general area of concern than that of the issue of repeatedly assisting people rebuild.

There is also the view that rejects the idea that civilization is supposed to function as a form of insurance. Some might instead regard civilization as a means of organizing and ensuring the flow of resources from the many at the bottom of the pyramid to the few elites at the top. Others might regard civilization as merely existing to provide basic functions of defense and law-enforcement and not help people rebuild.

Obviously enough, if there is no obligation to help people rebuild, then there is no obligation to help people continuously rebuild. As such, for the sake of the discussion that follows about assisting people rebuilding multiple times, it must be assumed (only for the sake of the argument) that there is at least the basic obligation to help people rebuild. The question is, then, whether even assuming the basic obligation, there is an obligation to assist people in multiple rebuilds.

One approach, which is rather lazy, is to argue that if we are obligated to help others rebuild, then this obligation persists. To use an analogy, if a parent is obligated to provide clothing for their child, they are obligated to do so each time the child needs clothing and not just the first time. While this approach has some appeal, it falls apart quickly when another analogy is considered.

While a parent has an obligation to provide their child with clothing, consider a child who was wearing their nicest clothes when they got into the muck and mud. If this happens by accident or the unwarranted action of another, then the parent should replace the clothing (if they can afford to do so). However, if the child persists in playing near the muck while wearing their best clothing despite the warnings of their parents and thus repeatedly ruin their nice clothing, then the parent would no longer be obligated to replace the nice clothing.  This is because the child knows what is at risk and can easily avoid it by staying away from the muck or wearing muck appropriate clothing. Matters would, of course, be different if the child had no way to avoid the risk of the muck, such as if it surrounded their house.

The same reasoning would seem to apply to helping others rebuild by providing public money or having them in the insurance pool. If a person’s property is damaged unexpectedly or by the malice of another, then it seems reasonable to assist them. However, if they insist on remaining at risk and it is known that it is just a matter of time before they will need to rebuild again, then they are like the child who insists on playing near the muck and mud in their nice clothes. If they are willing to pay for their own rebuilding, then they are free to live in a risk prone area. Just as the child can risk their clothes as they wish, if they are paying for them. Naturally, if the person truly has no other option as to where they live, then this would not apply. However, people almost always have other options.

It could be objected that this approach is defective because anyone anywhere could be subject to repeat disasters. To simply say that the obligation to help others ends at some arbitrary repeat of the aid would seem to be unfair and even cruel. Going back to the clothes analogy, a child could have their clothes ruined on numerous occasions by pure chance. But, if the parents could afford the clothing, then it seems reasonable for them to replace the damaged clothing.

A reasonable reply is that it is not just a matter of repeat rebuilding, but also a matter of the predictability of the need to rebuild. For example, a person could be very unlucky and have their house damaged many times by different sorts of unlikely and unexpected natural disasters. In this case, they would not be responsible—they had no reason to expect the disasters to strike and were not knowingly engaging in risky living. As such, what should be considered beyond the numbers of rebuilds are such factors as the probability of the risk and what the property owner could reasonably be expected to know about it. If a person insists on living in an area of unusually high risk and is aware of the risk, then this reduces or eliminates the obligations of others. After all, they could avoid the risk and doing so is their responsibility. There is then the practical question of sorting out how much specific risks reduce the obligations of others, but this goes beyond the scope of this essay

This matter can be illuminated by an analogy to the Coast Guard. If a person goes out to sea on a normal day and takes reasonable precautions, but is swamped by a rogue wave, then the Coast Guard should rescue them and not bill them. If a person insists on doing something foolish and unnecessary, like taking a peddle powered boat far out into the ocean without preparing properly and they get in trouble, then the Coast Guard should still rescue them. The first time should, perhaps, still be free—this might be justified because the person might not know any better. If the person insists on doing it again, then the Coast Guard should still rescue them when they get in trouble, but it would be right to charge them for the rescue: they should know better and it is not something they need to do. People who insist on knowingly living in high risk areas are analogous to the person who insists on peddling out to sea—they might want to do this, but do not need to do it. As such, they should bear the cost of rebuilding when their property is damaged or destroyed.

There are, of course, cases in which people do put themselves knowingly at risk but have justifiable reasons for doing so. Sticking with the Coast Guard analogy, crews of cargo vessels and fishing vessels do put themselves at risk, but they do so because that is part of their job—they have good reasons to be out at sea. As such, if a fishing crew is rescued a few times over the course of their career because of bad luck, then the rescues should still be free.

By analogy, people could have adequate reasons that justify living in high risk areas that would maintain the obligation to assist them in rebuilding. Perhaps, for example, a person might live in a forest prone to fires because they do important work in the forest and living somewhere else would be impractical.  However, someone who simply wants to live on the coast or someplace pretty would not have this sort of justification—they want to live there, but doing so is not what they need to do.

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Reasoning & Natural Disasters II: Inductive Reasoning

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on September 15, 2017

Fortunately for my adopted state of Florida, Irma weakened considerably as it moved northward. When it reached my adopted city of Tallahassee, it was barely a tropical storm. While it did some damage, it was nothing compared to last year’s storm. While this was a good thing, there can be a very minor downside when dire predictions turn out to be not so dire.

The problem is, of course, that people might take such dire predictions less seriously in the future. There is even a term for this: hurricane fatigue.  When people are warned numerous times about storms and they do not prove as bad as predicted, people tend to get tired of going through the process of preparation. Hence, they tend to slack off in their preparations—especially if they took the last prediction very seriously and engaged in extensive preparations. Such as buying absurd amounts of bottled water. The problem is, of course, that the storm a person does not prepare for properly might turn out to be as bad or worse than predicted. Interestingly enough, inductive reasoning is the heart of this matter in two ways.

Inductive reasoning is, of course, logic in which the premises provide some degree of support (but always less than complete) for the conclusion. Inductive arguments deal in probability and this places them in contrast with deductive arguments—they are supposed to deal in certainty. That is, having all true premises in a deductive argument is supposed to guarantee a true conclusion. While there are philosophers who believe that predictions about such things as the weather can be made deductively, the best current reasoning only allows inductive reasoning regarding weather prediction. To use a simple illustration, when a forecast says there is a 50% chance of rain, what is meant is that on 50% of the days like this one it rained. This is, in fact, an argument by analogy. With such a prediction, it should be no more surprising that it rains than it does not.

While the computer modeling of hurricanes is rather complex, the predictions are still inductive in nature: all the evidence used in the reasoning can be true while the conclusion can still be false. This is because of the famous problem of induction—the gap between the premises and the conclusion means that no matter how strong the reasoning of an inductive argument, the conclusion can still be false. As such, any weather prediction can turn out to be false—even if the prediction is 99.99% likely to be accurate.  As such, it should be expected that weather predictions will often be wrong—especially since the models do not have complete information and are limited by the available processing power. That is, there is also a gap between reality and the models. There is also the philosophical question of whether the world is deterministic or not—in a deterministic world, weather would be fully predictable if there was enough information and processing power available to create a perfect model of reality. In a non-deterministic world, even a perfect model could still fail to predict what will happen in the real world. As such, there is both a problem in epistemology (what do we know) and metaphysics (what is the nature of reality).

Interestingly enough, when people start to distrust predictions after past predictions turn out to be wrong, they are also engaging in inductive reasoning. To be specific, if many predictions have turned out to be wrong, then it can be reasonable to infer that the next prediction could be wrong. That is certainly reasonable and thinking that an inductive argument could have a false conclusion is no error.

Where people go wrong is when they place to much confidence in the conclusion that the prediction will be wrong. One way this can happen is through a variation in the gambler’s fallacy. In the classic gambler’s fallacy, a person assumes that a departure from what occurs on average or in the long term will be corrected in the short term. For example, if a person concludes that tails is due because they have gotten heads six times in a row, then they have committed this fallacy. In the case of the “hurricane fallacy” a person overconfidently infers that the streak of failed predictions must continue. The person could, of course, turn out to be right. The error lies in the overconfidence in the conclusion that the prediction will be wrong. Sorting out the confidence one should have in their doubt is a rather challenging matter because it requires understanding the accuracy of the predictions.

As a practical matter, one way to address hurricane fatigue is to follow some excellent advice: rather than going through mad bursts of last second preparation, always be prepared at the recommended minimum level. That is, have enough food and water on hand for three days and make basic preparations for being without power or evacuating. Much of this can easily be integrated into one’s normal life. For example, consuming and replacing canned and dried goods throughout the year means that one will have suitable food on hand. There are also one-time preparations, such as acquiring some crank-powered lights, a small solar panel for charging smart phones, and getting a basic camp stove and a few propane canisters to store.

This does lead to a final closing point, namely the cost of preparation. Since I have a decent income, I can afford to take the extra steps of being always ready for a disaster. That is, I can buy the lights, stove, propane, and such and store them. However, this is not true of everyone. When I was at Publix before the storm, I spoke to some people who said that it was hard for them to get ready for storms—they needed their money for other things and could not afford to have a stockpile of unused supplies let alone things like solar panels or generators. The upfront cost of stockpiling in preparation for the storm was also a challenge—there are, as far as I know, no emergency “storm loans” or rapid aid to help people gear up for impending storms. No doubt some folks would be terrified that storm moochers would be living fat on the public’s money during storms. However, storm aid does sound like decent idea and could even be cost saver for the state. After all, the better prepared people are before the storm, the less the state and others must do during and after the storm.

 

 

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Reasoning & Natural Disasters

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 8, 2017

As this is being written, Irma is scouring its way across the Atlantic and my adopted state of Florida will soon feel her terrible embrace. Nearby, Texas is still endeavoring to dry out from its own recent watery disaster. The forces of nature can be overwhelming in their destructive power, but poor reasoning on the part of humans can contribute to the magnitude of a natural disaster. As such, it is worth considering how poor reasoning impacts disaster planning both by individuals and by the state. Or lack of planning.

While human activity can impact nature, the power of nature can kill any human and sweep away anything we can construct. As such, even the best planning can come to nothing. To think that because perfect planning is impossible we should simply let nature shake the dice for us would be to fall into the classic perfectionist fallacy. This is to engage in a false dilemma in which the two assumed options are doing nothing or having a perfect option. While there are no perfect options, there are almost always those that are better than nothing. As such, the first form of bad reasoning to overcome is this (fortunately relatively rare) view that there is no point in planning because something can always go wrong.

Another reason why people tend to not prepare properly is another classic fallacy, that of wishful thinking. This is an error of reasoning in which a person concludes that because they really want something to be true, it follows that it is true. While people do know that a disaster can impact them, it is natural to reject the possibility until it becomes a reality. In many cases, people engage in wishful thinking while the disaster is approaching, feeling that since they do not want it to arrive it follows that it will not. As such, they put off planning and preparation—perhaps until it is too late. This is not to say that people should fall into a form of woeful thinking (the inference that whatever one does not wish to happen will happen)—that would be equally a mistake. Rather, people should engage in the rather difficult task of believing what is supported by the best available evidence.

People also engage in the practice of discounting the future. This is a mistake of valuing a near good more than a future good simply because of the time factor. This is not, of course, to deny that time is a relevant factor in considering value. In the case of mitigating disasters, preparing now incurs a cost in time and resources that will not pay off until later (or even never). For example, money a city spends building storm surge protection is money that will not be available to improve the city parks.

Connected to the matter of time is also the matter of probability—as noted, while disaster preparation might yield benefits in the future, they might not. As such, there is a double discount: time and probability. As such, a rational assessment of the value of disaster preparation needs to consider both time and chance—will disasters strike and if so, when will they strike?

As would be suspected, the more distant a disaster (such as a “500 year flood”) and the less likely the disaster (such as a big meteor hitting the earth), the less people are willing to expend resources now. This can be rational, provided that these factors are given due consideration. There is also the fact that these considerations become quite philosophical in that they are considerations of value rather than purely mathematical calculations. To illustrate, determining whether I should contribute to preparing against a disaster that will not arrive until well after I am dead of old age is a matter of moral consideration and thus requires philosophical reasoning to sort out. Such reasoning need not be bad reasoning and these considerations show why disaster planning can be quite problematic even when people are reasoning well. However, problems do arise when people are unclear (or dishonest) about what values are in play. As such, reasoning well about disaster preparation requires being clear about the values that are informing the decision-making process. Since such considerations typically involve politics and economics, deceit is to be expected.

Another factor is nicely illustrated by a story from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The tale relates how a lord asked his doctor, a member of a family of healers, which of the family was the most skilled: According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art:

 

The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.

“My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood.

“As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

 

While there are some exceptions, politicians and leaders often act to get attention and credit for their deeds. As the above story indicates, there is little fame to gain by quietly preventing disasters. There is, however, considerable attention and credit to be gained by publicly handling a disaster well (and great infamy to be gained by handling it badly). As such, there is little appeal in preparation for it earns no glory.

There is also to fact that while people can assess what has happened, sorting out what was prevented is rather more challenging. For example, while people clearly notice when a city loses power due to a storm, few would realize when effective planning and infrastructure modification prevented a storm from knocking out the power. After all, the power just keeps on going. Motivating people by trying to appeal to what will be prevented (or what was prevented) can be quite challenging. This can also be illustrated by how some people look at running. Whenever a runner drops dead, my non-running friends will rush to point this out to me, claiming that it is great they do not run because otherwise they would die. When I try to point to the millions of runners who are healthier and live longer than non-runners, they find the absence of early death far less influential.

To be fair, sorting out that something did not happen and why it did not happen can be rather complicated. However, what seems to be an ever-increasing frequency of natural disasters requires that these matters be addressed. While it might not be possible to persuade people of the value of prevention so that they will commit adequate resources to the effort, it is something that must be attempted.

 

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Police Militarization

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2017

After America’s various foreign adventures resulted in a significant surplus of military equipment, there was a need to get rid of this excess. While this had sometimes been done by simple disposal or mothballing in the past, this time it was decided that some of the equipment would be provided to local police forces. While this might have seemed to be a good idea at the time, it did lead to some infamous images that showed war ready police squaring off against unarmed civilians—an image one would expect in a dictatorship but not in a democracy.

While these images did fan emotional flames, they also helped start an important debate about the appropriateness of police equipment, methods and operations. The Obama regime responded by putting some restrictions on the military hardware that could be transferred to the police, although many of the restrictions were on gear that the police had, in general, never requested.

As might be expected, Trump has decided to lift the Obama ban and Jeff Sessions touted this as a rational response to crime and social ills. As Sessions sees it, “(W)e are fighting a multi-front battle: an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic, threats from terrorism, combined with a culture in which family and discipline seem to be eroding further and a disturbing disrespect for the rule of law.” Perhaps Sessions believes that arming the police with tanks and grenade launchers will help improve family stability and shore up discipline.

While it might be tempting to dismiss Trump and Session as engaged in a mix of macho swagger and the seemingly deranged view that bigger guns are the solution to social ills, there is a very real issue here about what is appropriate equipment for the police.

Obviously enough, one key factor in determining the appropriate armaments for police is the role that the police are supposed to play in society. In a democratic state aimed at the good of the people (the classic Lockean state) the role of the police is to protect and serve the people. On this view, the police do need armaments suitable to combat domestic threats to life, liberty and property. In general, this would entail engaging untrained civilian opponents equipped with light arms (such as pistols and shotguns). As such, the appropriate weapons for the general police would also be light arms.

Naturally enough, the possibility of unusual circumstances must be kept in mind. Since the United States is awash in guns, the police might be called upon to face off against opponents armed with military grade light weapons. They might also be called upon to go up against experienced (or fanatical) opponents that have fortified themselves. They are also sometimes called upon to face off against large numbers of rioters.  In such cases, the police would justly require such things as riot gear and military grade equipment. However, these should be restricted to specially trained special units, such as SWAT.

It might be objected that police should be more generally equipped with this sort of equipment, just in case they need it. I certainly see the appeal to this—my view of combat preparation is that one should be ready for almost anything and meeting resistance with overwhelming force is an effective way to get the job done. But, that points to the problem: to the degree the police adopt the combat mindset, they are moving away from being police and towards being soldiers. Given the distinction between the missions, having police operating like soldiers is problematic. After all, defeating the enemy is rather different from protecting and serving.

There is also the problem that military grade equipment tends to be more damaging than the standard police issue weapons. While a pistol can obviously kill, automatic weapons can do considerably more damage in a short amount of time. The police, unlike soldiers, are presumed to be engaging fellow citizens and the objective is to use as little force as possible—they are, after all, supposed to be policing rather than subjugating or defeating.

Of course, the view that the police exist for the good of the people is not the only possible view of the police. As can be seen around the world, some states regard their police as tools of repression and control. Roughly put, the police operate as the military, only with their fellow citizens as enemies. If the police are regarded as tools of the rulers that exist to maintain their law and order and to preserve their privilege, then a militarized police force makes perfect sense. As just noted, these police function as an army against the civilian population of their own country, serving the will of the rulers. Militaries serve as an army against the people of other countries, serving the will of the rulers. Same basic role, but somewhat different targets.

It could be argued that while this is something practiced by repressive states, it is also suitable for a democratic state. Jeff Sessions characterizes policing as a battle and it could be contended that he is right—there are interior enemies that must be defeated in the war on crime. On this view, the police are to engage these enemies in a way analogous to the military engaging a foreign foe and thus it makes perfect sense that they would need military grade equipment. This does endorse the view that the police are an occupying army, but it is regarded as a feature rather than a flaw—that is the function of the police.

While I do think that the militarization of the police impacts their behavior (I know I would be very tempted to use a tank if I had one), my main concern is not with what weapons the police have access to, but the attitude and moral philosophy behind how they are armed. That is, my concern is not so much that the police have the weapons of an army, but that they are regarded more as an army to be used against citizens than as protectors of life, liberty and property.

 

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Gun Drones

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2017

Taking the obvious step in done technology, Duke Robotics has developed a small armed drone called the Tikad. One weapon loadout is an assault rifle that can be fired by the human operator of the device. The drone can presumably carry other weapons of similar size and weight, such as a grenade launcher. This drone differs from previous armed drones, like the Predator, in that it is small and relatively cheap. As with many other areas of technology, the innovation is in the ease of use and lower cost. This makes the Tikad type drone far more accessible than previous drones, which is both good and bad.

On the positive side, the military and police can deploy more drones and thus reduce human casualties. For example, the police could send a drone in to observe and possibly engage during a hostage situation and not put officers in danger.

On the negative side, the lower cost and ease of use means that such armed drones can be more easily deployed by terrorists, criminals and oppressive states. The typical terrorist group cannot afford a drone like the Predator and might have difficulty in finding people who can operate and maintain such a complicated aircraft. But, a drone like the Tikad could be operated and serviced by a much broader range of people. This is not to say that Duke Robotics should be criticized for doing the obvious—people have been thinking about arming drones since drones were invented.

Budget gun drones do, of course, also raise the usual concerns associated with remotely operated weapons. The first is the concern that operators of drones are more likely to be aggressive than forces that are physically present and at risk of the consequences of a decision to engage in violence. However, it can also be argued that an operator is less likely to be aggressive because they are not in danger and the literal and metaphorical distance will allow them to respond with more deliberation. For example, a police officer operating a drone might elect to wait longer to confirm that a suspect is pulling a gun than they would if their life was in danger. Then again, they might not—this would be a training and reaction issue with a very practical concern about training officers to delay longer when operating a drone and not do so when in person.

A second stock concern is the matter of accountability. A drone allows the operator a high degree of anonymity and assigning responsibility can be problematic. In the case of military and police, this can be addressed to a degree by having a system of accountability. After all, military and police operators would presumably be known to the relevant authorities. That said, drones can be used in ways that are difficult to trace to the operator and this would certainly be true in the case of terrorists. The use of drones would allow terrorists to attack from safety and in an anonymous manner, which are certainly matters of concern.

However, it must be noted that while the first use of a gun armed drone in a terrorist attack would be something new, it would not be significantly different from the use of a planted bomb. This is because such bombs allow terrorists to kill from a safe distance and make it harder to identify the terrorist. But, just as with bombs, the authorities would be able to investigate the attack and stand some chance of tracing a drone back to the terrorist. Drones are in some ways less worrisome than bombs—a drone can be seen and is limited in how many targets it can engage. In contrast, a bomb can be hidden and can kill many in an instant, without a chance of escape or defense.  A gun drone is also analogous in some ways with a sniper rifle—it allows engagement at long ranges. However, the drone does afford far more range and safety than even the best sniper rifle.

In the United States, there will presumably be considerable interest about how the Second Amendment applies to armed drones. On the face of it, the answer seems easy enough: while the people have the right to keep and bear arms, this does not extend to operating armed drones. But, there might be some interesting lawsuits over this matter.

In closing, there are legitimate concerns about cheap and simple gun drones. While they will not be as radical a change as some might predict, they will make it easier and cheaper to engage in violence at a distance and in anonymous killing. As such, they will make ideal weapons for terrorists and oppressive governments. However, they do offer the possibility of reduced human casualties, if used responsibly. In any case, their deployment is inevitable, so the meaningful questions are about how they should be used and how to defend against their misuse. The question about whether they should be used is morally interesting, but pragmatically irrelevant since they will be used.

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Adventures in Assessment

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2017

I’ve fallen behind on my usual schedule of posting and replying to comments. The reason is, of course, my adventures in the realm of assessment. This began in 2004 when I was assigned to eternal membership on the General Education Assessment Committee. I am now a co-chair of the committee. I was also assigned to do the unit assessment for philosophy and religion. The basic idea of assessment is to assess using various direct and indirect measures. As might be imagined, this has little to nothing to do with philosophy, although I do try to sneak in the occasional philosophical bits. These are, as you might guess, typically edited out when the documents are reviewed.

My university is in the process of re-accreditation, something all schools do on a regular basis. My task is to complete a major document for a specific standard–the document is currently at 11, 184 words.

I have some upcoming essays that I hope to complete tomorrow and perhaps the assessment grind will permit me to get back to my usual writing a reply cycle. And, you know, teaching and stuff.

But, here is a look at what sort of stuff I write for assessment with some philosophy. Philosophy that will be excised in the final version, of course.

Overview of Target Levels and Measure of Success

The establishment of target levels and measuring competence requires addressing two basic concerns. One is determining what counts as competence in each assessed area.  The second is setting a percentage goal for student competence.

The second is easy to address. In the United States educational system (broadly construed), 70% has been established as the minimal level of adequacy. As such, adopting the broad standard that 70% of the students assessed will perform at a level of adequate competency or better is justified by this established measure. Justification for this measure, in general, can be sought in whatever theoretical, practical and philosophical foundations were used to make this the national standard. The first is rather more challenging to address.

Justifying a standard of competence is difficult because of an epistemic problem raised by the ancient Greek Skeptics. If a standard is not self-justifying, it must be justified. If the justification is not self-justifying, it must be justified. Philosophically, this must lead to either a regress (infinite or circular) or a self-justifying foundation. As there seem to be no self-justifying foundations for standards, the regress problem wins the day and all standards are ultimately arbitrary. Fortunately, there is a pragmatic solution to this problem: presenting a plausible narrative for the standards that convinces the relevant authorities to accept them. This is what follows.

To measure the competence of an individual student in an assessment area, there must be an established standard of what counts as competent. To use the obvious analogy, to measure the height of a person, there must be an established and consistent means of measuring. One way to define competence in education is in terms of how the average student performs in that area. This is analogous to sorting out what is “normal” height—it is based on what is average in the relevant population.  As such, assessing the competence of Florida A&M University students required knowing the national average for comparable students in the relevant competency areas. To this end, the ETS Proficiency Profile (EPP) was utilized to set the standard—specifically the national mean. This standard is used in the areas the EPP tests: Communication, Critical Thinking, and Quantitative Reasoning. Since this method is accepted by the relevant authorities in assessment, it is justified.

While the use of standardized tests solves some of the assessment problems, it does not solve all of them. Specifically, it does not solve the problem of assessing areas that are not well-covered by standardized tests (such as Social/Ethical Responsibility) and it does not solve the problem of assessing individual artifacts, such as philosophy papers. Fortunately, there is an established solution to this problem, namely the use of rubrics. The main challenge with a rubric is developing it so that it properly and consistently sorts students into the specified levels of competence. While all rubrics are flawed in some manner, Florida A&M University began in 2004 with established rubrics from other universities and refined them over the years in accord with both national and local findings to ensure that best practices were being used. Since these rubrics are accepted by the experts in the field of assessment, they are justified as means of assessment.

Other methods of assessment, such as focus groups and surveys, are also established as accepted methods by the relevant experts in the field of assessment. These methods are, of course, crafted and deployed in accord with the best-practices as established by the relevant experts in the field. Thus, these methods are also justified.

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Confederates & Nazis

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2017

While there has been an attempt to revise the narrative of the Confederate States of America to a story of state’s rights, the fact of the matter is that succession from the Union was because of slavery. At the time of succession, those in the lead made no bones about this fact—they explicitly presented this as their prime motivation. This is not to deny that there were other motivations, such as concerns about state’s rights and economic factors. As such, the Confederacy’s moral foundation was slavery. This entails a rejection of the principle that all men are created equal, a rejection of the notion of liberty, and an abandonment of the idea that the legitimacy of government rests on the consent of the governed. In short, the Confederacy was an explicit rejection of core stated values of the United States.

While the Confederacy lost the war and the union was reformed, its values survived and are now explicitly manifested in the alt-right. After all, it is no coincidence that the alt-right has been marching in defense of Confederate monuments and often makes use of Confederate flags. They are, after all, aware of the moral foundations of their movement. Or, rather, immoral foundations.

While the value system of the Confederacy embraced white supremacy and accepted slavery as a moral good, it did not accept genocide. That is, the Confederacy advocated enslaving blacks rather than exterminating them. Extermination was, of course, something the Nazis embraced.

As is well known, the Nazis took over the German state and plunged the world into war. Like the Confederate states, the Nazis embraced the idea of white supremacy and rejected equality and liberty. The Nazis also made extensive use of slave labor. Unlike the Confederate states, the Nazis infamously engaged in a systematic effort to exterminate those they regarded as inferior. This does mark a moral distinction between the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany. This is, however, a distinction between degrees of evil.

While the Nazis are generally regarded by most Americans as the paradigm of evil, many in the alt-right embrace their values and some do so explicitly and openly, identifying as neo-Nazis. Some do make the claim that they do not want to exterminate what they regard as other races; they profess a desire to have racially pure states. So, for example, some in the alt-right support Israel on the grounds that they see it as a Jewish state. In their ideal world, each state would be racially pure. This is why the alt-right is sometimes also referred to as the white nationalists. The desire to have pure states can be seen as morally better than the desire to exterminate others, but this is also a distinction in evils rather than a distinction between good and bad.

Based on the above, the modern alt-right is the inheritor of both the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany. While this might seem to be merely a matter of historic interest, it does have some important implications. One of these is that it provides grounds that the members of the alt-right should be regarded as on par with members or supporters of ISIS or other such enemy foreign terrorist groups. This is in contrast with regarding the alt-right as being entirely domestic.

Those who join or support Isis (and other such groups) are regarded as different from domestic hate groups. This is because ISIS (and other such groups) are foreign and are effectively at war with the United States. This applies even when the ISIS supporter is an American who lives in America. This perceived difference has numerous consequences, including legal ones. It also has consequences for free speech—while advocating the goals and values of ISIS in the United States would be regarded as a threat worthy of a response from the state, the alt-right is generally seen as being protected by the right to free speech. This is nicely illustrated by the fact that the alt-right can get permits to march in the United States, while ISIS supporters cannot. One can imagine the response if ISIS supporters did apply for permit or engaged in a march.

While some hate groups can be regarded as truly domestic in that they are not associated with foreign organizations engaged in war with the United States, the alt-right cannot make this claim. At least they cannot to the degree they are connected to the Confederate States of America and the Nazis. Both are foreign powers at war with the United States. As such, the alt-right should be regarded as on par with other groups that affiliate themselves with foreign groups engaged in war with the United States.

The easy and obvious reply is that both the Confederacy and the Nazis were defeated and no longer exist. On the one hand, this is true. The Confederacy was destroyed and the succeeding states rejoined the United States. The Nazis were defeated and while Germany still exists, it is not controlled by the Nazis. On the other hand, the Confederacy and the Nazis do persist in the form of various groups that preserve their values and ideology—including the alt-right. To use the obvious analogy, even if all territory is reclaimed from ISIS and it is effectively defeated as a state, this does not entail that ISIS will be gone. It will persist as long as it has supporters and presumably the United States would not switch to a policy of tolerating ISIS members and supporters simply because ISIS no longer has territory.

The same should hold true for those supporting or claiming membership in the Confederacy or the Nazis—they are supporters of foreign powers that are enemies of the United States and are thus on par with ISIS supporters and members in terms of being agents of the enemy. This is not to say that the alt-right is morally equivalent to ISIS in terms of its actions. On the whole, ISIS is indisputably worse. But, what matters in this context, is the expression of allegiance to the values and goals of a foreign enemy—something ISIS supporters and alt-right members who embrace the Confederacy or Nazis have in common.

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Trump’s White Nationalists, Again

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2017

On the face of it, condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis is one of the politically easiest things to do. Trump, however, seems incapable of engaging in this simple task. Instead, he has continued to act in ways that lend support to the alt-right. After a delayed and reluctant condemnation of the alt-right, Trump returned to his lane by making two claims. The first is the claim that “there is blame on both sides.” The second is the claim that there are good people on both sides. On the face of it, both claims are false. That said, these claims will be given more consideration than they deserve.

If one accepts a very broad concept of blame, then it would be possible to claim that there is blame on both sides. This could be done in the following way. The first step is asserting that a side is responsible if an event would not have taken place without its involvement. This is based, of course, on the notion that accountability is a matter of “but for.” In the case at hand, the relevant claim would be that but for the presence of the counter-protestors, there would have been no violence against them and Heather Heyer would not have been murdered. On this notion of responsibility, both sides are to blame.

While this concept of blame might have some appeal, it is obviously flawed. This is because the application of the principle would entail that any victim or target of a crime or misdeed would share some of the blame for the crime or misdeed. For example, but for a person having property, they would not have been robbed. As another example, but for being present during a terrorist attack, the person would not have been killed. As such, meriting blame would require more than such a broad “but for” condition.

A possible reply to this counter is to argue that the counter-protestors were not mere targets, but were active participants. That is, co-belligerents and co-instigators. To use an analogy, if a bar fight breaks out because two people start insulting each other and then start swinging, then both parties do share the blame. Trump seems to regard what happened in Virginia as analogous to this sort of a bar fight. If this is true, then both sides would bear some of the blame.

Of course, even if both parties were belligerent, then there are still grounds for assigning blame to one side rather than another. For example, if someone goes to a party to misbehave and someone steps up to counter this and is attacked, then the attacker would be to blame. This is because of the moral difference between the two parties: one is acting to commit a misdeed, the other is trying to counter this. In the case of Virginia, the alt-right is in the wrong. They are, after all, endorsing morally wicked views that should be countered.

There is, of course, also the obvious fact that it was a member of the alt-right that is alleged to have driven a car into the crowd, killing one person and injuring others. As such, if any blame is to be placed on a side, it is to be placed on the alt-right.

It could be argued that the action of one person in the alt-right does not make the entire group guilty of the crime. This is certainly a reasonable claim—a group is not automatically responsible for the actions of its worst members, whether the group is made up of Muslims, Christians, whites, blacks, conservatives or liberals. That said, the principles used to assign collective responsibility need to be applied consistently—people have an unfortunate tendency to use different standards for groups they like and groups they dislike. I would certainly agree that the alt-right members who did not engage in violence or instigate it are not responsible for the violence. However, it could be argued that the rhetoric and ideology of the alt-right inherently instigates and urges violence and evil behavior. If so, then all members who accept the ideology of the alt-right are accountable for being part of a group that is dedicated to doing evil. I now turn to Trump’s second claim.

Trump also made the claim that there are good people on both sides. As others have noted, this seems similar to his remarks about Mexicans being rapists and such, but also there being some good Mexicans. As such, Trump’s remark might simply be a Trumpism—something that just pops out of his mouth with no meaning or significance, like a burp. But, let it be assumed for the sake of discussion that Trump was trying to say something meaningful.

Trump is certainly right that there are good people on the side opposed to the alt-right. After all, the alt-right endorses a variety of evil positions and good people oppose evil. As far as good people being in the alt-right, that is not as clear. After all, as was just noted, the values expressed by the alt-right include evil views and it would be unusual for good people to endorse such views. This can, of course, be countered by arguing that the alt-right is not actually evil (which is presumably what many members believe—few people think of themselves as the villains). It can also be countered by asserting that there are good people who are in the alt-right out of error (they are good people, but err in some of their beliefs) or who hope to guide the movement to better goals. It could also be claimed that any group that is large enough will contain at least some good people (as a group will also contain bad people). For example, people often point to General Robert E. Lee as a good person serving an evil cause.

Given these considerations, it does seem possible that there is at least one good person in the alt-right and hence Trump could be right in the strict logical sense of there being some (at least one) good people in the group. But, Trump’s purpose is almost certainly not to make a claim that is trivial in its possible truth. Rather, he seems to be engaged in another false equivalence, that the alt-right and their opponents are morally equivalent because both groups have some good people. Given the evil of the alt-right’s views (which are fundamentally opposed to the expressed values of the United States), saying that both sides are morally the same is obviously to claim what is false. The alt-right is the worse side and objectively so.

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Trump’s White Nationalists

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2017


While the election of Obama led some to believe that racism had been exorcized, the triumph of Trump caused speculation that the demon had merely retreated to the shadows of the internet. In August of 2017, the city of Charlottesville, VA served as the location of a “United the Right” march. This march, which seems to have been a blend of neo-Nazis, white-supremacists and other of the alt-right, erupted in violence. One woman who was engaged in a counter-protest against the alt-right, Heather Heyer, was murdered. Officers Cullen and Bates were also killed when their helicopter crashed, although this appears to have been an accident.

While Trump strikes like an enraged wolverine against slights real or imaginary against himself, his initial reply to the events in Charlottesville were tepid. As has been his habit, Trump initially resisted being critical of white supremacists and garnered positive remarks from the alt-right for their perception that he has created a safe space for their racism. This weak response has, as would be expected, been the target of criticism from both the left and the more mainstream right.

Since the Second World War, condemning Nazis and Neo-Nazis has been extremely easy and safe for American politicians. Perhaps the only thing easier is endorsing apple pie. Denouncing white supremacists can be more difficult, but since the 1970s this has also been an easy move, on par with expressing a positive view of puppies in terms of the level of difficulty. This leads to the question of why Trump and the Whitehouse responded with “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides” rather than explicitly condemning the alt-right. After all, Trump pushes hard to identify acts of terror by Muslims as Islamic terror and accepts the idea that this sort of identification is critical to fighting such terror. Consistency would seem to require that Trump identify terror committed by the alt-right as “alt-right terror”, “white-supremacist terror”, “neo-Nazi terror” or whatever would be appropriate. Trump, as noted above, delayed making specific remarks about white supremacists.

Some have speculated that Trump is a racist. Trump denies this, pointing to the fact that his beloved daughter married a Jew and converted to Judaism. While Trump does certainly make racist remarks, it is not clear if he embraces an ideology of racism or any ideology at all beyond egoism and self-interest. While the question of whether he is a racist is certainly important, there is no need to speculate on the matter when addressing his response (or lack of response). What matters is that the weakness of his initial response and his delay in making a stronger response sends a clear message to the alt-right that Trump is on their side, or at least is very tolerant of their behavior. It could be claimed that the alt-right is like a deluded suitor who thinks someone is really into them when they are not, but this seems implausible. After all, Trump is very easy on the alt-right and must be pushed, reluctantly, into being critical. If he truly condemned them, he would have reacted as he always does against things he does not like: immediately, angrily, repeatedly and incoherently. Trump, by not doing this, sends a clear message and allows the alt-right to believe that Trump does not really mean it when he condemns them days after the fact. As such, while Trump might not be a racist, he does create a safe space for racists. As Charlottesville and other incidents show, the alt-right presents a more serious threat to American lives than does terror perpetrated by Muslims. As such, Trump is not only abetting the evil of racism, he could be regarded as an accessory to murder.

It could be countered that Trump did condemn the bigotry, violence and hatred and thus his critics are in error. One easy and obvious reply is that although Trump did say he condemns these things, his condemnation was not directed at the perpetrators of the violence. After seeming to be on the right track towards condemning the wrongdoers, Trump engaged in a Trump detour by condemning the bigotry and such “on many sides.” This could, of course, be explained away: perhaps Trump lost his train of thought, perhaps Trump had no idea what was going on and decided to try to cover his ignorance, or perhaps Trump was just being Trump. While these explanations are tempting, it is also worth considering that Trump was using the classic rhetorical tactic of false equivalence—treating things that are not equal as being equal. In the case at hand, Trump can be seen as regarding those opposing the alt-right as being just as bigoted, hateful and violent as the alt-right’s worst members. While there are hateful bigots who want to do violence to whites, the real and significant threat is not from those who oppose the alt-right, but from the alt-right. After all, the foundation of the alt-right is bigotry and hatred. Hating Neo-Nazis and white supremacists is the morally correct response and does not make one equivalent or even close to being the same as them.

One problem with Trump’s false equivalence is that it helps feed the narrative that those who actively oppose the alt-right are bad people—evil social justice warriors and wicked special snowflakes. This encourages people who do not agree with the alt-right but do not like the left to focus on criticizing the left rather than the alt-right.  However, opposing the alt-right is the right thing to do.  Another problem with Trump’s false equivalence is that it encourages the alt-right by allowing them to see such remarks as condemning their opponents—they can tell themselves that Trump does not really want to condemn his alt-right base but must be a little critical because of politics.  While Trump might merely be pragmatically appealing to his base and selfishly serving his ego, his tolerance for the alt-right is damaging to the country and will certainly contribute to more murders.

 

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