A Philosopher's Blog

Party Loyalty & Sexual Harassment

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2017

The toppling of Harvey Weinstein has set off what might turn out to be a revolution: women (and men) are coming forward to report acts of harassment or assault by powerful men. It, however, remains to be seen whether this is a storm that shall pass or an actual revolution resulting in enduring change.

The accusations have been bipartisan is nature; that is, powerful men on the left and the right have been accused of inappropriate and even evil behavior. On the right, the most infamous case involving a politician is that of Roy Moore. Moore has been accused of various sexual misdeeds including engaging in sexual activity with a 14 year old girl. On the left, the most famous case involving a politician is that of Al Franken. Franken has been accused of inappropriately touching a woman’s buttocks during a photograph in 2010 and Leeann Tweeden accused him of kissing and groping her. There is, of course, photographic evidence of Franken groping Tweeden through her body armor while she was asleep. I am focusing on cases that are current as of this writing; but I am sure that everyone has their favorite (or most despised) examples from the past and want to ask, for example, “what about Bill Clinton.” Since the discussion that follows deals with general principles, it can be applied to past (and future) cases. I am using Moore and Franken as the examples for the practical reasons that they are well known and are members of the two major parties. I am not suggesting that their cases are morally equivalent: if both men are guilty, Moore would clearly have committed far greater moral offenses (and crimes). This assumes that there have been no new revelations about Franken, of course.

Moore is, as of this writing, running for a senate seat in Alabama. He upset the Republican establishment by beating Luther Strange in the primary and has been running hard on an anti-establishment position. Until the allegations surfaced, victory for Moore over his Democratic opponent was certain. Now that the allegations have surfaced, his victory is merely almost certain. While many of his supporters have denied the allegations, some have said they would support him even if they were true (including a rather odd defense that brought in Mary and Joseph). Pragmatic supporters have argued that that even if the allegations are true, Moore is still preferable to having the Democrat elected. This would seem to entail that some Republicans regard being a Democrat as morally worse than being a pedophile.

Franken, as of this writing, is still in the senate. He has called for an ethics investigation of himself. Unlike Moore, he has not denied the allegations and has apologized. While some liberals support Franken, others have been calling for him to resign. There is, of course, the argument that Democrats should support him because he is a Democrat and not risk Franken being replaced by a Republican. These two cases nicely illustrate the moral issue: should voters stick with party over principle? This, of course, assumes that the actions of the accused violate the principles of the voters.

There are, of course, pragmatic reasons for backing one’s party even in the face of terrible offenses. Regarding Franken and Moore, the balance of power in the senate is razor thin and sticking with them or rejecting them would have a significant impact. However, this is not a moral reason to take this approach.

One obvious moral approach is that of utilitarianism—the moral view that actions are right or wrong based on their consequences for those who matter. One way to make a utilitarian moral argument in favor of party loyalty is to show that what your party would do is better for those that matter and that what the other party would do would be worse. For example, a Republican could argue that getting their tax plan through by having Moore in the senate would offset and moral concerns about the accusations against Moore. The Democrats could argue that keeping Franken in the senate and voting against the Republican tax plan would offset any moral concerns about his behavior. This would, of course, need to factor in the harm of supporting a person who has been accused of misdeeds, such as how doing so would send the message that such behavior need not have consequences and that it is acceptable if the person doing it has the right sort of position of power.

A utilitarian argument could also be made against choosing party over principles by showing that the harms of such support would outweigh the benefits. While the obvious approach would be to show that the harms of tolerating such behavior outweighs other factors, there is also a more pragmatic approach that supporting such people could do harm to the party in the longer term, despite there being the potential for a short-term advantage.

Another approach to the moral matter would be to focus on what factors are relevant to a person doing a job. If an elected office is looked at it terms of a job and what matters is competence, then the moral failings of the politician would only be relevant if they impacted this competence. For example, Clinton is widely regarded as a competent and successful president, yet his moral track record is problematic when it comes to sex.

To use an analogy, one should pick their dentist, roofer or plumber based on their competence, not based on whether they had an affair. Naturally, moral failing relevant to the job would matter—so if you knew that a plumber cheated their customers or that a dentist molested patients while they were unconscious, then these would be relevant to making your decision. Likewise for politicians—even if Moore and Franken did what they are accused of, it could be argued that it has no relevance to their competence as senators. Even if all that counts as competence is reliably voting along party lines. This could, of course, be countered by arguing that it would impact their job performance—if, for example, they were groping staff members or the public.

There is also the approach, often taken by conservatives in the past, that character matters. Value voters, at least in the past, often made the argument that a person with serious moral problems was thus unfit for office. Hillary Clinton, for example, was subject to this sort of criticism. As might be imagined, people tend to be less worried about the virtues and vices of their person—folks on the left and the right routinely make excuses for those on their side.

For virtue theorists like Aristotle and Confucius, such vices would be rather problematic—a good leader must be a person of virtue. Part of the reason is a matter of ethics—bad people are, well, bad. Part of it is also practical as well—a leader who is corrupted by too much vice would be a poor leader. The counter to this is obvious enough: the effectiveness of a leader, it can be argued, is like the effectiveness of a professional football player—it has nothing to do with virtue. Naturally, Aristotle, Plato and Confucius would disagree with this. My own view is that a person could be quite competent as a leader in terms of the relevant skills and still be a bad person; but being a bad person they would do bad things and this would tend to be bad for the people. There is, of course, the question about what level of vice should be tolerated—after all, none of us are angels and we all have moral flaws. That, however, is a subject for another essay.

 

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Whataboutism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 15, 2017

While Whataboutism has long served as a tool for Soviet (and now Russian) propagandists, it has now become entrenched in American political discourse. It is, as noted by comedian John Oliver, a beloved tool of Fox News and President Trump.

Whataboutism is a variant of the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In the standard tu quoque fallacy it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.

 

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite, but this does not prove his claims are false. For those noting the similarity to the Wikipedia entry on this fallacy, you will note that the citation for the form and example is to my work.

As would be expected, while the Russians used this tactic against the West, Americans use it against each other along political lines. For example, a Republican might “defend” Roy Moore by saying “what about Harvey Weinstein?” A Democrat might do the reverse. I mention that Democrats can use this in anticipation of comments to the effect of “what about Democrats using whataboutism?” People are, of course, free to use Bill Clinton in the example, if they prefer.  To return to the subject, the “reasoning” in both cases would be fallacious as is evident when the “logic” is laid bare:

 

  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, A did not do X.

 

Obviously enough, whether C did X is irrelevant to whether or not it is true that A did X.

 

Alternatively:

 

  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, it is not wrong that A did X.

 

Clearly, even if C did X it does not follow that A doing X was not wrong. This sort of “reasoning” can also be seen as a variant on the classic appeal to common practice fallacy. This fallacy has the following structure:

 

Premise 1. X is a common action.

Conlcusion. Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

The basic idea behind the fallacy is that the fact that most people do X is used as “evidence” to support the action or practice. It is a fallacy because the mere fact that most people do something does not make it correct, moral, justified, or reasonable. In the case of whataboutism, the structure would be like this:

 

Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  X done by your side?

Premises 3. So, X is commonly done/we both do X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

It is also common for the tactic of false equivalency to be used in whataboutism. In the form above, the X of premise 1 would not be the moral equivalent of the X of premise 2. In fact, the form should be modified to account for the use of false equivalency:

 

Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  Y, which I say is just as bad as X, done by your side?

Premises 3. So, things just as bad as X are commonly done/we both do things as bad as X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

This would be a not-uncommon double fallacy. In this case not only is the comparison between X and Y a false one, even if they were equivalent the fact that both sides do things that are equally bad would still not support the conclusion. Obviously enough, you should not accept this sort of reasoning—especially when it is being used to “support” a conclusion that is appealing.

Whataboutism can also be employed as a tool for creating a red herring. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

 

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

 

In the case of a whataboutism, the structure would be as follows:

 

  1. Topic A, my side doing X, is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced: whatabout X done by the other side?
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

 

In closing, it should be noting that if two sides are being compared, then it is obviously relevant to consider the flaws of both sides. For example, if the issue is whether to vote for candidate A or B, then it is reasonable to consider the flaws of both A and B in comparison. However, the flaws of A do not show that B does not have flaws and vice versa. Also, if the issue being discussed is the bad action of A, then bringing up B’s bad action does nothing to mitigate the badness of A’s action. Unless, of course, A had to take a seemingly bad action to protect themselves from B’s unwarranted bad action. For example, if A is accused of punching a person and it is shown that this was because B tried to kill A, then that would obviously be relevant to assessing the ethics of A’s action. But, if A assaulted women and B assaulted women, then bringing up B in a whataboutism to defend A would be an error in logic. Both would be bad.

As far as why you should be worried about whataboutism, the obvious reason is that it is a corrosive that eats at the very structure of truth and morality. While it is a tempting tool to deploy against one’s hated enemies (such as fellow Americans), it is not a precise weapon—each public use splashes the body of society with vile acid.

 

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Police Body Cameras

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2017

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Intuitively, police body cameras should improve the conduct of both the police and the public. After all, if an officer knows that his actions are being filmed for later review, then they are less likely to engage in bad or illegal behavior. There can be, of course, some notable exceptions. In the case of the public, it would also make sense that people would behave somewhat better when interacting with the police if they know they are being filmed. Because of these reasons and others, I was in favor of the deployment of police body cameras. This was, I must admit, in the absence of actual evidence regarding their effectiveness. Fortunately, a large scale and rigorous study has been conducted on the use of such cameras.

Somewhat surprisingly, the study showed that the cameras had no significant effect on the use of force by the police or citizen complaints. The study was conducted from June 2015 to December 2016 in Washington, D.C. using the 2,600 officers of the force. Based on the description of the study, it seems to have been properly conducted and thus presumably avoided the usual suspects when it comes to poor studies and fallacious causal reasoning. As such, it is reasonable to accept its results (assuming no new information emerges).

While tiny HD cameras and storage are absurdly cheap these days, police body cameras tend to be relatively expensive. Part of the cost is certainly legitimate—camera and data storage integrity need to be assured. Part of the cost is, no doubt, made up of the usual dubious and sketchy additions whenever the state is buying anything. Whatever the reason for the cost, the fact that the study shows that the cameras do not impact use of force or citizen complaints should certainly cause police departments to reconsider spending budget money on this technology. After all, putting the money in hiring more officers or better training would seem to be preferable ways to improve law enforcement. There are also concerns that video could be misused by the police, such as when writing incident reports. That said, there are still reasons to use the body cameras.

One reason, as noted by the police in D.C., is that the video from the cameras can be important in addressing public concern. For example, public doubts about an incident can be addressed with video—such as this one in which it is clearly shown that the suspect was armed with a knife. If proper use of the cameras can help establish and maintain public trust, they can be worth using. This, of course, should be the subject of another study—if cameras do not have this effect, then this would obviously not justify the expense. A second reason is that the camera footage is, presumably, useful in court. While video evidence is not always decisive, it can be very valuable. This, of course, would also require a study to confirm.

While the study seems to have been conducted quite well, there is the obvious concern as to whether the D.C. Police differ in important ways from other police departments. As noted by NPR, there was about ten years of federal oversight aimed at improving the department. Since the department had been doing things right, it would hardly be surprising that adding cameras would not have a significant impact.

To use an analogy, suppose it was wondered whether making videos of a course available to students would improve their grades in that course. Imagine that the study was conducted using honors classes of the best students. It would not be surprising if the effect of videos was statistically insignificant. After all, top students are already doing very well and almost any change aimed at improving their already excellent performances will tend to not move the needle in any significant way. The same sort of analogy could be drawn using top athletes and a relatively minor change to their already very good workouts or already good diets.

While such a study would show that the use of videos would not really benefit top students, it does not prove that the use of videos would not provide a significant benefit to other students. For example, lower performing students who do poorly because they miss class could benefit significantly from such videos. The same would apply in the athletics example. While a small diet change (say some extra B vitamin rich foods) in an already good diet would not impact a top athlete, such a diet change for someone who has a poor diet could have a significant impact.

The same reasoning would seem to apply to the police body cameras—a department that is having significant problems with use of force and citizen complaints might benefit significantly from the use of body cameras. This, of course, should not something that should be just assumed. Rather, studies need to be conducted of the effect of body cameras on police forces that are currently having problems. If it turns out that they have no impact on addressing the woes they are supposed to address, then it would be reasonable to reconsider their deployment and focus more on alternative solutions.

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Mass Shootings & Domestic Violence

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2017

On November 5th, 2017 at least 26 people in a Texas church were murdered in a mass shooting. The alleged shooter also died, apparently shooting himself. Presumably, this mass shooting will follow the usual pattern. Many on the right will say that it should not be politicized and that the real issue is not guns but mental health. Apparently only violence by minorities should be politicized. Many on the left will say, once more, that something needs to be done about gun violence.

While they get the spotlight, mass shootings make up a very small percentage of gun deaths in the United States. As such, it is true that focusing on mass shootings might not have a significant impact on gun deaths. However, their infamy does serve to focus public attention and thus provide a potential motivation to address broader problems relating to violence.

One rather unsurprising factor in mass shootings is that in at least 54% of them, the perpetrator also shot an intimate partner or relative. Mass shooters tend to have a history of domestic violence and the latest alleged shooter fits this pattern. The alleged shooter was court-martialed and imprisoned for assaulting his wife and child. Apparently, the alleged shooter’s mother-in-law attended the church. She was not, however, present when the shooting took place. This is not to say that engaging in domestic violence causes a person to engage in mass murder. To assume this because they correlate would be to fall into a causal fallacy (X correlates with Y, so X must cause Y). It would also be a causal error (ignoring a possible common cause) to infer that one must cause the other. What seems quite likely is that the factors that play a role in a person engaging in domestic violence also serve as casual factors in a person engaging in a mass shooting.  While the above facts are worrisome, there are some that are even more disturbing.

Domestic violence is common in the United States and a woman has about a one in three chance of being the victim of violence inflicted by a male partner. While mass shootings get the headlines, of the 1,615 women murdered by men in 2013 in single victim incidents, 94% of the women were killed by someone they knew. 62% were the wife or intimate acquaintance of the killer. While some political rhetoric claims that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, when a gun is present in a domestic violence incident, the chance of a homicide occurring increases 500%. Since many lawmakers are very worried about the alleged threat of transgender bathroom use to women, one would think they would have long ago rushed to address the problem of domestic violence. After all, no woman seems to have ever been harmed by allowing transgender people to use the bathroom they wish. Unfortunately, in their transgender terror, legislators seem to have largely forgotten about this very real danger.

While federal law does forbid people convicted of domestic violence offenses from buying guns, most states allow such people to buy guns anyway. The federal law also has an infamous “boyfriend loophole” so that a person convicted of assaulting a woman he is not married to is not prevented from buying guns. There are also various other weak points in the system, such as the possibility that information about domestic violence convictions will not be in the database for background checks and the fact that a protective order does not forbid a person from buying and keeping firearms in most of the states. While some might suggest that a woman in danger get a gun of her own, this increases the chances (five times) that the woman will be murdered by an abuser.

While there have been some efforts to address domestic violence, such as those taken by former Governor Nikki Haley, there is obviously much that needs to be done. As the above data indicates, guns are a key factor in the problem and are certainly not the solution. One modest proposal, that has been pushed for years, is the closing of the “boyfriend loophole” mentioned above. Other proposals have imposing more restrictions on those convicted of domestic violence offenses regarding gun ownership and purchasing. Such restrictions could certainly help to reduce the murder rate regarding domestic violence and, given the link between domestic violence and mass shootings, also the rate of mass shootings.

One obvious objection is that while most mass shooters have some history of domestic violence, not all of them do. As such, restrictions aimed at domestic violence perpetrators would not address all future cases of mass shootings.

While this is a reasonable point, addressing mass shootings need not be limited to this one factor. Also, even if it were, it would still address the majority of those who engage in mass shootings—namely domestic abusers.

It could be argued that trying to address mass shootings by addressing domestic violence would be using the spotlight on mass shootings to take gun rights away from domestic abusers. The easy and obvious reply is that being convicted of domestic abuse and being an ongoing threat would be grounds for such restrictions, even without considering mass shootings. That is, domestic abusers would seem to show that they cannot properly exercise their right to keep and bear arms. This is not to say that they should be stripped of the right forever, any more than a convicted felon should lose their voting rights forever. There is, of course, the practical problem of sorting out when a person is such a potential threat that they need to have their rights curtailed and when they are no longer a danger and are once again capable of exercising their rights without being a danger to others.

It might also be objected that while no one wants women to be murdered, laws aimed at protecting women by restricting the gun rights of men would encourage women to lie (perhaps out of fear) to get guns taken away from men.

The concern that people will misuse laws by lying is obviously not unique to such gun-focused laws; it is a potential problem for almost any law. Because of this, there should be adequate safeguards to ensure that people are not falsely and unjustly deprived of their rights (which is something that should occur with all laws). There is also the pragmatic point that such cases of conniving women lying to take the guns of men would presumably be exceedingly rare. However, should it turn out that this is a real problem, then it can be addressed and guarded against.

One point that will certainly be brought up is that many regard the constitution as ensuring the right of the individual to keep and bear arms. As such, imposing restrictions on gun ownership simply because a person has engaged in domestic violence would not be justified.

While rights should be protected, they are not absolute. One reason for this is the obvious facts that rights can come into conflict. Another obvious reason is that just punishment and just safety concerns warrant restricting rights. A person who has done wrong can justly have their property rights and liberty imposed upon—such as being compelled to pay a fine or serve time. Gun rights are not magically exempt from this—someone who presents a clear and present danger can justly have their gun rights imposed upon, just as they can have their liberty imposed upon (such as in a restraining order).

 

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Social Media: The Capitalist & the Rope

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 3, 2017

Lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before congress at the start of November, 2017. One of the main reasons these companies attracted the attention of congress was the cyberwarfare campaign launched by the Russians through these companies against the United States during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

One narrative is that companies like Facebook are naively focused on all the good things that are possible with social media and that they are blind to misuses of this sort. On this narrative, the creators of these companies are like the classic scientist of science fiction who just wanted to do good, but found their creation misused for terrible purposes. This narrative does have some appeal—it is easy for very focused people to be blind to what is outside of their defining vision, even extremely intelligent people. Perhaps especially in the case of intelligent people.

That said, it is difficult to imagine that companies so focused on metrics and data would be ignorant of what is occurring within their firewalls. It would also be odd that so many bright people would be blissfully unaware of what was really going on. Such ignorance is, of course, not impossible—but seems unlikely.

Another narrative is that these companies are not naïve. They are, like many other companies, focused on profits and not overly concerned with the broader social, political and moral implications of their actions. The cyberwarfare launched by the Russians was profitable for their companies—after all, the ads were paid for, the bots swelled Twitter’s user numbers, and so on.

It could be objected that it would be foolish of these companies to knowingly allow the Russians and others to engage in such destructive activity. After all, they are American companies whose leaders seem to endorse liberal political values.

One easy reply is courtesy of one of my political science professors: capitalists will happily sell the rope that will be used to hang them. While this seems silly, it does make sense: those who focus on profits can easily sacrifice long term well-being for short term profits. Companies generally strive to ensure that the harms and costs are offloaded to others. This practice is even defended and encouraged by lawmakers. For example, regulations that are intended to protect people and the environment from the harms of pollution are attacked as “job killing.” The Trump administration, in the name of profits, is busy trying to roll back many of the laws that protect consumers from harm and misdeeds. As such, the social media companies are analogous to more traditional companies, such as energy companies. While cyberwarfare and general social media misdeeds cause considerable harm, the damage is largely suffered by people other than social media management and shareholders. Because of this, I am somewhat surprised that the social media companies do not borrow the playbooks used by other companies when addressing offloading harms to make profits. For example, just as energy companies insist that they should not be restrained by “job-killing” environmental concerns, the social media companies should insist that they not be restrained by “job-killing” concerns about the harms they profit from enabling. After all, the basic principle is the same: it is okay to cause harm, provided that it is profitable to a legal business.

Of course, companies are also quite willing to take actions for short term profits that will cause their management and shareholders long term harms. There is also the fact that most people discount the future—that is, they will often take a short-term benefit even it means forgoing a greater gain in the long term or experiencing a greater harm later. As such, the idea that the social media companies are knowingly allowing such harmful activity because it is profitable in the short term is not without merit.

It is also worth considering the fact that social media companies span national boundaries. While they are nominally American companies, they make their profits globally and have offices and operations around the world. While the idea of megacorporations operating apart from nations and interested solely in their own profits is considered the stuff of science fiction, companies like Google and Facebook clearly have interests quite apart from those of the United States and its citizens. If being a vehicle for cyberwarfare against the United States and its citizens is profitable, these companies would have little reason to not sell, for example, the Russians the digital rope they will use to hang us. While a damaged United States might have some impact on the social media-companies’ bottom line, it might be offset by profits to be gained elsewhere. To expect patriotism and loyalty from social-media companies would be as foolish as expecting it from other companies. After all, the business of business is now shareholder and upper management profit and there is little profit in patriotism and national loyalty.

 

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White Supremacists & the Limits of Free Speech

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2017

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Since I accept the classic rights of life, liberty and property I am reluctant to endorse restricting free speech. However, as I have argued before, liberties are not absolute. As I have also noted in other essays, I make use of Mill’s principle of harm as a general tool when assessing the limits of rights. So, in the case of free speech I favor the liberty of expression until it inflicts meaningful harm on others. Sorting out the level of meaningful harm is certainly problematic.

While some contend that offensive speech should be limited, that is unreasonable. After all, while people do not like being offended, it does not harm them in any meaningful way. To use an analogy, it is like getting a small spatter of muddy water on your pant legs from someone driving a bit too close to the sidewalk on a rainy day—not enjoyable, but nothing that causes lasting harm. While it can be rude to intentionally offend people, there are no grounds for compelling people to not offend.

Some people like the idea of placing limits on speech based on how the speech makes members of the audience feel—if someone feels threatened or is frightened by the expression, then it should be restricted. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious problem that people have varying thresholds of fear and some of these can be quite unreasonable. To use an analogy, someone might find a person with facial piercing frightening and threatening, but this hardly warrants restricting facial piercings. It can, of course, be rude or mean to intentionally frighten people who are easily frightened, but the fact that some people are easily frightened does not warrant unreasonable restrictions.

The notion of hate speech has also been advanced as a standard for placing restrictions on speech. While this also has some appeal, there is the challenge of defining what counts as hate speech and what sort of hate speech crosses from being merely offensive or frightening to cross over to an actual imposition of harm that warrants restriction. While people do often want to silence people who express hatred of them, this does not seem to reach the level of meaningful harm that would warrant restrictions. The challenge, then, is sorting out some boundaries of free speech. Because of considerations about the line drawing fallacy, it would be unreasonable to demand that exact lines be drawn—at best what can be offered is some general boundaries. This does, of course, create a problem for those who are concerned with legal restrictions on expression—the laws, after all, need to be as clear and precise as possible. That said, fuzzy laws are routinely tolerated and accepted (such as laws relating to obscenity and pornography).

While some people do advocate a nearly absolute right of free speech and think that, for example, Nazis should have the freedom to march and do Nazi things in the middle of Holocaust memorials, it is worth teasing out intuitions about free expression. I will start with an easy, albeit horrifying, example.

Suppose a group formed dedicated to the theory that raping infants is correct behavior and they wanted to march through the streets advocating this activity. Obviously enough, people would point out that the activity they are advocating is a crime (and morally horrible). Imagine that the spokesman for the group insisted that they were just advancing an idea and were not, in fact, engaging in any actual rape. Just like the Nazis who claim a right to free speech because they are just presenting their views and not actually engaged in acting in accord with them (by murdering Jews, for example). The raises the question of whether things that would be morally horrible (and illegal) to do should be protected by free speech rights when they are merely defended or advocated.

As another example, consider whether American representatives of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS should be allowed to peacefully march the streets of the United States while advocating their beliefs in speech. At this point, some readers are thinking the obvious: these are foreign terrorist groups and people can be arrested for belonging to them or supporting them. But, the issue at hand is not the legality of such groups, but whether their speech should be restricted on moral grounds because they are evil. If American Al Qaeda and ISIS advocates agreed to be as peaceful in their marches as American Nazis, would they be morally entitled to the same free speech rights? After all, Nazi ideology and Al Qaeda ideology are both foreign ideologies committed to the destruction of the United States and both groups have made war on America and murdered Americans. I am, of course, aware of the legal issues regarding Nazis and Al Qaeda—but, once again, this is a question of ethics.

As a final example, consider an imaginary group: Ameriqaeda. This group is composed of Americans that advocate Islamic supremacy, peaceful imposition of Sharia law and the peaceful religious cleansing of Christians from the United States. The group claims it has no affiliation with terrorist groups, although violent people seem oddly drawn to their events and sometimes kill a Christian or two.  Should this group have the freedom to express its views and march? Would Fox News and Trump rush to defend their free speech rights and assure us that there are good people on both sides? Or would such a group cross a moral line that white supremacists that advocate white supremacy and peaceful ethnic cleansing do not cross? Or would it merely be a prejudice against Islam in general that would lead people to forbid Ameriqaeda to march with the same freedom as white supremacists?

 

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Free Speech, White Supremacists & the Slippery Slope

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2017

While I accept the right to free speech, I also accept that it (like all rights) has moral limits. These moral limits can be used to justify legal limits, but such matters are settled by the courts rather than philosophers. While it is reasonable to believe that there are limits to free speech, it is equally reasonable to believe that these limits can be debated. Unfortunately, the debate is often distorted with emotions and bad reasoning.

As should be expected, many people dislike and even hate white supremacists, even more so as the supremacists become more Nazi like. Because of this strong emotional response, people often think that white supremacists should be silenced. However, how one feels about a speaker is not a good guide to whether the speaker should be allowed to speak. This is because, obviously enough, feelings are not reasons and the strength of a feeling is no measure of its correctness. That is, just because I really hate something does not mean it is bad. People do, of course, “reason” in this manner and “infer” that what they like is good because they like it and what they dislike is bad because they dislike it. As such, when considering white supremacists and free speech, it is important to approach the matter with reasons rather than feelings. This is not to say that feelings cannot be appropriate (one should dislike white supremacy), but to say that one cannot infer the correctness of a view from how one feels about it. A moral position should shape our emotions rather than our emotions determining our moral positions.

As with many debates over rights, the debate over free speech is often distorted by the slippery slope fallacy. The slippery slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
  2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.

 

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a considerable number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

In the case of free speech, the usual slippery slope argument is to claim that if the free speech of some person or group is restricted, then everyone’s free speech will be in danger. For example, someone might claim that if white supremacists are not allowed to speak, uninvited, on a college campus then soon everyone with unpopular views will be silenced. If a case can be made showing how this will plausibly play out, then there would be no fallacy—but that is rarely done.

The slippery slope fallacy gets most of its power from psychological factors, typically involving fear. The idea is that the person targeted by the slippery slope is supposed to be afraid of the bad consequence that is alleged to follow and this is intended to blight their reason and get them to accept the fallacy as reasonable. The slippery slope fallacy also gets some of its power from the fact that there can be good reasoning that resembles the fallacy. Specifically, a causal argument that shows that the slope is slippery by making the causal link between one event and the consequences.

In the case of free speech, a case can be made that argues from the restriction of the free speech of white supremacists to restrictions on all unpopular groups and then on to everyone. While this would avoid the slippery slope fallacy, there would still be the question of whether the argument’s premises are true and how strong the argument is. To use an analogy, someone could argue that sex with minors (statutory rape) should not be banned because this is the first step towards banning all sex. While the steps could be laid out, it is rather evident that the slide can be stopped: adults can be banned from having sex with minors without banning all sex. Likewise, white supremacists can be restricted without this sliding to other groups.

In many cases, people also make use of another fallacy, the line drawing fallacy, in trying to argue that one thing will follow from another. The line drawing fallacy occurs when it is claimed that unless a precise line can be drawn between X and Y, then no distinction can be made between them. In the case of white supremacists, the argument would go that there is no clear line between white supremacists and other unpopular groups, so there would be no way to distinguish them. As such, if white supremacists were restricted, then these other groups would be restricted. While it can be challenging to make such distinctions and there will be problems, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions. Going back to the sex example, the transition between a child and an adult is imprecise. However, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions and make then part of law. As such, white supremacist groups can be distinguished from other groups, though there would be considerable debate about where the lines would be drawn.

While the focus has been on white supremacist groups, the same principles would apply to analogous groups. So, for example, black supremacist groups who advocated ethnic cleansing and such should also be subject to the same restriction as white supremacist groups.

In closing, it must be noted that I do not favor restricting people who advance unpopular, false or morally wrong views about “races” when they do so in the context of an actual discussion and are not engaged in presenting a threat to others. This, of course, goes back to the principle of harm discussed in a previous essay.

 

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The Machinery of Sexual Harassment

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2017

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One thing that seems to unify the political right and left in the United States is sexual harassment. On the right, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly have grabbed headlines for the misdeeds. Bill O’Reilly has even brought the classic problem of evil into the matter by being mad at God over the allegations against him. On the left, Hollywood has been (unsurprisingly) seen high profile cases. Harvey Weinstein has ironically transformed Fox News into a champion against sexual harassment. Director James Toback has also been accused of harassment by almost 40 women (at current count). Even former Presidents have been accused. While Bill Clinton’s activities are now legendary, H.W. Bush has been accused of groping women.

While it is tempting to see such incidents as isolated cases of powerful men using their positions to exploit and abuse women, the reality is that there is an entire system of social, political, legal and economic machinery in place to enable and defend such evil. To illustrate, I will present various examples of these machines. But first I will note that my reference to machinery is metaphorical and that I am not denying that the individuals who harassed, assaulted and even raped women are somehow not fully responsible for their misdeeds. Rather, they made conscious use of their ecosystem to engage in their predation.

One key part of the machinery is, obviously, the vast disparities in power and wealth in American society. While the United States is supposed to be classless, this is an obvious lie—the United States is highly stratified and the less powerful can be easily exploited by the more powerful. This power disparity applies across the board—it is obviously not just those at the Weinstein and O’Reilly level that harass.

While such power disparities are inherent to our political and economic system, the laws are supposed to address them and mitigate the amount of abuse and exploitation the weaker must endure at the hands of the stronger. Unfortunately, the legal system has been crafted to provide considerable protection for harassers.

One example of this is the nondisclosure agreement. While the NDA does have some value to those who sign them, they have become well known for their role in allowing serial harassers to keep on harassing. For example, some of the women Weinstein allegedly victimized had signed NDAs that forbid them from speaking out about what had happened to them. Bill O’Reilly paid $32 million to settle a sexual harassment claim, something that would have remained a secret thanks to the NDA that was part of the settlement. Because of this, the way nondisclosure works in the case of harassment should be carefully reconsidered. Otherwise, the system allows harassers to simply buy secrecy for their misdeeds and to continue to operate under the protective shadow of money.  There is also the concern that employees are often compelled to sign such agreements as a condition of employment (which goes back to how the more powerful can easily coerce the less powerful) or need to sign them to get any sort of justice.

An obvious objection is to point out that the system does work: O’Reilly and Weinstein were ousted. While it is true that people do sometimes eventually face the consequences of their actions, it is rather important to remember that they were able to engage in harassment over an extended period and there are, presumably, many others out there who are getting away with it. It is surely small consolation to the victims that after a decade or three the harasser might get in trouble.

Another vital part of the machinery is the cooperation of those who are aware of the harassment and take no action against it. In the cases of Weinstein and O’Reilly, the stories indicate that their behavior was well-known, yet no one seems to have acted to stop them or protect their victims. In fact, harassers of their influence are actively protected—often at great expense. To be fair, the power disparity that enables people to victimize others enables them to silence potential critics and neutralize those who would oppose their misdeeds.

It can be objected that people have acted, that some women have gotten very lucrative settlements. Some even suggest that the women are the real villains, shaking down men for settlements. While such concerns should be addressed in proportion to the evidence, in most cases those getting the settlement are the real victims and the harassers are buying silence—so that they can keep on harassing (and making money for the company). As far as the effectiveness of the settlements; they probably have some deterrent value—presumably companies are not eager to cut checks to silence victims. However, there is a significant volume of incidents and, as such, it seems evident that the current system is not solving the problem of systematic harassment.

While it is easy to see people like O’Reilly and Weinstein as the problem; they are merely the visible part of the iceberg of harassment. Beneath them is a vast edifice that enabled them to engage in their predatory behavior for years. Simply ousting them merely leaves niches for new predators and real change requires modifying all the underlying enabling machinery and the ecosystem of the sexual predator.

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Free Speech & White Supremacists: The Principle of Harm

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 25, 2017

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In October, 2017 white supremacist Richard Spencer gave an uninvited speech in my adopted state of Florida on the campus of the University of Florida. As happened at the Charlottesville, Virginia event where Spencer spoke, white supremacists engaged in violence. While this time shots were fired at those protesting the white supremacists, no one was hurt. Three suspects were arrested and charged with attempted murder. As might be suspected, there have been efforts to keep Spencer from speaking. Spencer and his lawyers, however, have been able to successfully appeal to the First Amendment in their lawsuits. While the lawyers and courts will settle the legal aspects of this matter, there is also the moral aspect of free speech.

As a matter of principled consistency, I always apply Mill’s principle of harm when it comes to rights and liberty. The basic idea is that the collective has no right to restrict the liberty of an individual expect when the actions of the individual would cause harm to others. Sorting out all the details of any specific application can be challenging, but the basic idea is simple enough and is justified by Mill’s moral theory of utilitarianism. This is, of course, the view that the morality of an action depends on the value it creates for the morally relevant beings. Roughly put, an action is good when it creates more positive value for negative value (for those that matter morally).

As recent white supremacist rallies have shown, allowing white supremacists to express their views in public tends to create considerable harm. In the case of Charlottesville, a person was killed and others badly injured when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. As noted above, Spencer speaking in Florida lead to three white supremacists being arrested for attempted murder. While I normally disagree with Florida Governor Rick Scott, he was right to declare a state of emergency in Florida and prepare for violence. The University of Florida also decided to step up its security, spending $600,000 of public money. Because allowing such events to take place has resulted in death, injury and attempted murder, the principle of harm would seem to justify denying white supremacists the right to engage in public speaking. The fact that dealing with likely violence costs large sums of public money also supports this conclusion: while speech should be free, those whose speech costs the public such large sums should not be permitted to engage in the sort of events that require such security expenditures.

It can be objected that restricting white supremacists would be unfair. After all, other controversial speakers have drawn violent elements. To be consistent, the principle would need to be applied consistently: if a speaker is likely to draw followers/supporters that engage in violence, then the speaker would need to provide funding for adequate security to protect the community. If they cannot ensure the safety of others, then the right to not be hurt or killed (the right to life) of the people likely to be affected trumps the speaker’s right to free speech. The use of public money also brings in property rights, which can also trump free speech rights.

This, of course, leads to an obvious concern: speakers can draw “followers/supporters” that they do not want nor endorse. For example, a conservative speaker might attract white supremacists who support him, but he does not want their support or presence. On the left, a speaker might attract violent anarchist “supporters” who engage in violence and vandalism. It would be unfair to restrict freedom of speech because a person happens to have bad “supporters.” The challenge is to sort out cases in which a person is drawing “supporters” they do not want and cases in which they are pulling true supporters. In some cases, this will be rather difficult, while in others it will be easy. For example, Spencer’s remarks indicate the sort of people he wants as supporters and these are the sort of people who have engaged in violence.

It must be noted that restricting speakers because they might offend members of the audience or make them uncomfortable would be unjustified. While people do not like being offended or upset, these are not strong enough harms to a person to warrant restricting a basic right such as free expression. That said, a speaker who engages in threats can cross over into real harm by making people legitimately fear that they are in danger. While people like Spencer speak of “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, white supremacy is, by its very nature, a threat to everyone who is not perceived by the supremacists as white. As such, it is reasonable to assume, until proven otherwise, that any white supremacist speaker’s speech on the matter is a threat and thus a harm that warrants restriction. To use an analogy, if a person wants to speak in favor of molesting children or committing murder, it is reasonable to regard them as a threat and to not allow them to express such views.

While the burden of proof rests on the white supremacist, they could make the case that their views are not a threat of harm against others. If this case can be made, then they should be free to express their views. Naturally, the same principle should apply consistently. For example, if a speaker wanted to speak for black supremacy and urge the “peaceful” cleansing of whites, then the same principle would apply. But, supremacy of any stripe seems to be a threat of violence against everyone else.

 

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Patient Time

Posted in Medicine/Health, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on October 20, 2017

A standard to response to criticism of the American health care “system” is that it is the best in the world. In a sense, this is true–if you have the money, you can buy the best health care (mostly). However, the quality of a system is not just a matter of what can be bought at the top. To use an analogy, if a restaurant was considered the best because its most expensive meal was the best, but everything else that most customers could afford was not so good, then it would be odd to consider it the best restaurant for everyone. Naturally, the American “system” could be praised as the best for those who have the resources to afford it, but that would be somewhat dishonest.

One serious issue with health care, at least for those who cannot afford to have their own doctor on call, is the matter of time. For most of us, there is a wait before we can get an appointment, then we wait at the office to see the doctor. This can be problematic for people with schedules that lack flexibility and people who need treatment sooner rather than later. I have good insurance, but it took me two months to get an appointment with a new primary care doctor. Having more medical professionals would reduce these delays, but this is a problem that has not been addressed.

After a long wait, a patient typically gets very little time with the doctor or medical professional. For example, I have usually gotten 10 minutes with my primary doctor or nurse for my physical–I spend far more time in the waiting room. This is not to say that these doctors did not care–they did and did the best they could with the time allocated.

Part of the reason for the short time is that most medical professionals have too many patients and too little time–as such, they can only allocate so much time to each patient. In other cases, the medical facility is a for-profit business first and a place of medicine second–the faster customers can be dealt with, the more customers can be seen, thus increasing profits. Whatever the reason for the short time available to patients, this can certainly impact the quality of care, especially if a patient has questions. Because of this, patients are often on their own in terms of educating themselves about their health concerns. Obviously, having people with no medical training doing this can be problematic (and it helps explain the huge market for dubious supplements and remedies).

Since part of the problem is the need for more medical professionals, steps should be taken to encourage and enable more people to enter the field. Since part of the problem is the for-profit approach, this should be addressed–while it is often assumed that the purpose of life is to make money, applying this to medicine results in worse rather than better health care. This is not to say that medical professionals should not be generously compensated for their work, just that the for-profit business model of medicine needs to be modified. At the very least.

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