A Philosopher's Blog

Reforming Congress

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 30, 2011
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While congress has a rather low approval rating, the members of congress do not seem very inclined to do much to change this. One obvious reason is that most members of congress know that they will be re-elected despite the overall low approval ratings. As such, they have little incentive to change their behavior.

The folks in congress, like most politicians, have two main goals. The first is to get re-elected. The second is to profit from their office. Unfortunately, the chances of a member of congress being re-elected does not seem to be strongly connected to actual job performance. Rather, the main factors seem to be party affiliation, financial resources, the gerrymandering of the district, and political connections. This means that incumbents will tend to be re-elected. There have been, of course, some notable exceptions to this general rule. For example, some Tea Party candidates were able to get elected and, of course, Weiner’s actions cost his his seat in Congress. However, the electoral success of the Tea Party did not result in an improvement in Americans’ approval of congress-quite the opposite in fact. Part of this is no doubt due to the hyper-partisanship that marks today’s congress and has preventing the usual political process of compromise. Part of this is due to the fact that the Republicans seem to be devoted to beating Obama rather than actually doing what should be done for the good of the country. Part of this is also due to the fact that the Democrats seem to be unwilling to take decisive action. In any case, congress is doing a terrible job, yet we keep re-hiring most of them year after year. Or, more accurately, they are able to do what it takes to stay in office while, at the same time, not doing what it takes to be seen as actually accomplishing things.

I would like to make a few modest proposals.

First, I would suggest term limits. While the term limit on the presidency was set to keep a specific president from getting another term, term limits do seem to have some merit in that they enable more turnover and reduced the concentration (and hence abuse) of power. On the minus side, term limits would prevent the most experienced members from returning (although they could go on to other careers). However, the good of such limits would seem worth the cost.

Second, I would suggest somewhat longer terms for those in congress. This would allow them to be less locked into focusing on re-election and more focused on doing things.

Third, I would suggest an end to gerrymandering. While there are some arguments in favor of this practice, CNN’s recent piece on the matter shows that the harms of the practice seem to clearly outweigh the alleged benefits. The end of this practice would mean that the folks in congress would need to work harder to earn their re-elections.

Fourth, I would recommend that there be strict spending limits on campaigns and that these limits be set rather low. This would help offset the advantage of incumbents and would change the focus away from raising money (and also reduce the amount of corruption).  Naturally, there would need to be a way to compensate for this-such as “free” air time for the candidates.

Fifth, I would also suggest strict limits on donations and the elimination of super PACS. Corporations would be able to donate, but this would also need to be limited and such donations would need to be a matter of public record. This would not interfere with free speech-after all, everyone would be able to express their views-they just would not be able to buy politicians. After all, if spending money is free speech, then simply buying politicians would seem to be free speech.

Sixth, I would suggest that all lobbying must be a matter of public record-the public has a right to know what their elected officials are being offered in return for their services. This does not impeded freedom of speech-after all, freedom of speech does not warrant a freedom to corrupt and bribe.

Seventh, strict restrictions need to be placed on how members of congress can profit from their offices. This would include limits on gifts and put an end to insider trading. I would even be for a wealth cap on members of congress (the excess would be contributed to the budget, preferably for things they vote for)-after all, they should lead the way when calling for sacrifices from the American people.

Does anyone have any other ideas?


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Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2011
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Cain is facing another potential crisis: Ginger White has come forth to apparently claim that she had a long lasting affair with Herman Cain. As might be imagined, this is not exactly good news for Cain’s lagging campaign.

Cain immediately denied the accusations, while noting that he did know the woman. His handling of the situation was better than his handling of previous accusations-thus showing that Cain has learned at least a bit about damage control. However, his lawyer released a rather odd statement which, as the pundits noted, does not seem to be the right sort of thing for a politician to issue for damage control. This shows that Cain needs to improve his organization and how it handles damage control-assuming that he is able to endure.

At this point, this is the classic “she says, he says” situation. Cain made an immediate and unequivocal denial which counts, to a degree, in his favor. After all, lying about an affair will generally do more political damage than admitting to an affair. Thus, a lie would not be very sensible and hence would (or should) be the less likely approach by Cain. Given Newt’s and Bill Clinton’s success, Cain should be aware that politicians who have affairs can do quite well.

That said, politicians have been known to lie about such things-even when the lie is far more damaging than the truth. Anthony Weiner is, of course, the most recent example of such an incident.  The statement Cain’s lawyer released also muddled things a bit-while the legalese seems to be aimed any saying that Cain did not have an affair, the overall impression is seems to create is more along the lines of  “if he had an affair, it is t the business of the media or the public.” This is hardly effective damage control and makes it seem like a set up for an admittance of wrongdoing. However, anyone who is familiar with legalese will point out that the statement is the sort of thing a lawyer would create even if his/her client did nothing at all. As such, the statement is hardly decisive evidence.

In regards to the woman, little is known about here. On the face of it, lying about this matter would seem to be a rather odd sort of thing-after all she is, as the pundits have noted, exposing herself to the full scrutiny of the media and laying her reputation on the line. Her accusation, if false, might even be considered slander or libel-given the damage such a charge could do to to Cain. As such, she would seem to have very good reasons not to make a false accusation.

However, one key point (as noted above) is that little is known about the woman, her credibility and her possible motivations. Until more information is known, the most rational thing to do is to suspend judgment on the claim against Cain.

If Cain is telling the truth, then he might be able to make a gain in the polls because of such a false attack. It would also give him some “armor” against ant future attacks of a similar nature.

If Cain is not telling the truth, then his campaign would probably be sunk. However, Bill Clinton was able to sludge with way through worse situations and hence there is a clear precedent for such political survival. Cain is, like Clinton, something of a charmer-but whether he is up to a Clinton level game is something that would have to be seen.

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NBA and Pay

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2011
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While baseball is supposed to be the American sport, we Yankees are also rather fond of basketball. As might be imagined, the ongoing NBA strike has caused dismay to the loyal fans (a group I do not, in fact, belong to).

The strike, like most strikes, is the result of a dispute between the employees (in this case the NBA players) and the owners As the players see it, they are not being fairly compensated for their efforts. The owners disagree. Because of this impasse, basketball fans will not be seeing any NBA games for a while.

On the face of it, this sort of strike might strike most people as rather absurd. After all, the mean average salary in the NBA is $5.15 million and the median average salary is $2.33 million. The low end salary is about $300,000. Given that the average household income in the US is $50,000 it would seem that the players have nothing at all to complain about. After all, the lowest paid player is still vastly better paid than the average American household.

On one hand, it is easy to dismiss the NBA players as being greedy. After all, almost anyone in the world would be very happy to make that sort of money working hard, let alone playing a game. These players are, obviously enough, extremely well paid and it would be rather odd to say that they are suffering an injustice because of their salaries.

On the other hand, the fairness of a salary is not simply a matter of the amount being paid.  To be specific, the fairness of a salary cannot be judged simply by the dollars being paid.  Other factors must be considered as well, such as the value and amount of the work being done. For example, if I said that someone was paid $12,000 a year it might be tempting to say that she is underpaid. However, if you then learn that the person only works one hour each month, then you might change your mind and think that she is actually overpaid. But, if your learn that each hour of work she does generates $5,000 in profit for her employer, then you might change your mind again and think that she is actually being underpaid for what she does.

In the case of the NBA players, it is not simply a matter that they want more money. Rather, they want a larger percentage of the profits (which, of course, means more money). The NBA players are able to command such high salaries because their play generates massive profits and they believe that they deserve a greater share of the profits that they generate. The owners, who generally do not get out on the court to play in the games, believe that they are (as owners) entitled to a significant share of the profits.

While the NBA players are coached and trained, people obviously pay the rather steep ticket prices to go see the players play. They do not go to see the owners count money. As such, the players are the main source of profits and, it could thus be argued, should be paid based on this contribution to the profits. The owners, in turn, should receive compensation based on the value that they contribute (that is, to the degree that their actions generate profit).

Thus, while the NBA players enjoy rather hefty salaries, the dispute is still the classic dispute between the workers and the owners over who is entitled to what percentage of the income.  As noted above, the theoretical solution is easy enough: the workers are entitled to the value they create through their actions and the owners are also entitled to the value they create. Anything else would seem to be theft. As might be imagined, sorting out this division can be rather tricky. In the case of the NBA, people come to see the players. But, of course, the owners also play a role in making the professional games a possibility. After all, if the players just played on a public court and passed the hat for money, they would obviously not make the money they do now.

This same question arises in other cases of employment. For example, FAMU charges $124.01 per credit hour for in state students, and out of state tuition is $552.03 per credit hour. This does not include other fees. I have 193 students taking three credit hours this semester and will have at least 160 in the spring.  As such, my labor does bring in a fair amount of money for the school. This, of course, only includes my teaching and excludes my administrative work (which is 20% of my assigned work-my four classes per semester are only 80% of my assigned work). As you might guess, my salary is way, way less than what the university charges my students to suffer through my classes. Naturally, there are various expenses involved with the students being in my class-the cost of the buildings, administrative costs and so on. As such, perhaps my salary is fair-that is, when all the legitimate costs are subtracted from what I bring in to the school what is left is what I am, in fact, paid.  However, if what I am paid is less than what I generate (minus the other legitimate costs) then my salary would seem to be unfair to the degree I am underpaid for my efforts.

Of course, my university is not aimed at making a profit and hence this almost certainly changes things. When a for-profit business is considered, one rather effective way to make a profit is to pay workers less than the value they actually create through their labors. As many other have argued, a profit tends to require that someone is either being paid less than the value they provide or is paying more than the value they receive (on the customer end). The stock counter is, of course, that the people who get less or pay more value what they get (either the paycheck or the product/service) more than the other party.  To use a made up example, imagine that my workers value the time they put into making one of my widgets at $1, but they actually contribute $2 to the value of the widget. That would enable me to (at least) make $1 profit per widget with no one feeling they have been treated unfairly. Of course, if they knew that their work was worth $2 rather than $1, they would no doubt see me as acting unfairly. Of course, I could also profit from the customer. If it cost me $5 to make and sell a widget and my customers valued it at $6, then I would make $1 profit per widget at the expense of the customer. Of course, if they knew that the widget could be bought for $5, they would probably feel cheated as well. Of course, if I could convince them that I have a right to a profit (that is, money for nothing and perhaps some chicks for free) then they would think that it was fair. The challenge is, of course, justifying that profit-after all, it does seem to be by its very nature money for nothing. If it was money for something, then there would seem to be no profit left over for that money would have to go to something.

But, one might object, my brief discussion is simplistic and naive and fails to properly capture the reality of the financial situation. That is, profit can be generated without anyone being treated unfairly and without concealing any facts.

Going back to the NBA players, it is obvious that they are very well paid. But it is not obvious that they are actually being treated fairly by the owners.

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Numbers of Note

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 24, 2011
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Some years back, my mother got me a subscription to Funny Times. While it is a somewhat left leaning publication that focuses on humor, each issue features “Harper’s Index” which includes various interesting numbers-often juxtaposing them for impact. While this is hardly what one would consider an academic source, the numbers can be easily checked. Naturally, there is always the point of concern that not everyone (even the experts) agree on the exact numbers-but these sorts of disputes can be rationally addressed.

One interesting number is that 71% of the current US debt was accumulated during Republican presidential terms. This is hardly a shock-after all, while Democrats are presented as wasteful spenders and for a bloated government, the modern Republicans have been the ones to really push spending. This is not, of course, to absolve Obama from the debt that has arisen under his administration. However, a fair assessment of his performance requires noting that he started in a deep hole of debt and in the downswing of an economic meltdown. Or, to use another analogy, he became captain of a stricken vessel that was running towards the rocks. Some generous folks might say that keeping the vessel afloat was a notable accomplishment.

While the latest Republicans have been inclined to rage against lifting the debt ceiling, 2/3 of the times the debt ceiling has been lifted have been under a Republican president. While debt is a serious problem, the righteous indignation of the Republicans thus seems a bit strained.

The common wisdom of the Tea Party and many Republicans is that we are taxed enough already and that America is crippled by the cruel lash of the taxman. While I am not a big fan of taxes, this is hardly a time of cruel and unusual tax burdens. In 1961 US corporations paid 40.6% of their profits in taxes. In 2011 the number is 10.5%. Some companies, as has been noted in other posts, pay no taxes. The fact that companies are showing amazing profits and are flush with cash shows that the idea that they are languishing under cruel and excessive taxes is hardly an accurate portrayal of the situation. Now, if the big companies were struggling and short on cash due to high tax rates, then there would be grounds for complaints. However, the myth of the tax monster is one that plays well in many ears.

While the big corporations are generally doing great, the rest of us are not doing so well. 18.2% of Americans have reported that they ran short on money to buy food in 2010. The median wealth of white Americans has dropped 16% since 2005 while Hispanics have seen a decline of 66%  in household wealth since 2005.  One possible reason for this is that the “job creating” corporations have followed the practice of depressing wages. This has yielded 75% of the increase in their profit margins since 2001. In short, the “job creators” have been “creating” wealth by paying people less. That is, of course, an effective way to increase profits. However, it bodes ill for the people who are working ever harder and longer for ever smaller paychecks. As might be imagined, corporations benefit greatly from weakening unions since they tend to work at keeping wages up.

It might be argued that corporations are just engaged in smart business-paying people less means, obviously enough, more profits. Of course, this also has the impact of lowering the money that people spend into the economy-at least in the case of those with lower incomes. As has been pointed out, the wealthy do a great deal of spending-so perhaps they can sustain the economy as the middle class dwindles in size and wealth. Perhaps someday we will see a return to a two class (poor and rich) system. However, this would most likely lead to a revolt on the part of the former middle class.

It could be argued that people can just work hard to make money or create their own businesses. However, making wealth is not a matter of hard work. For example, the Chinese workers who make iPads and iPhones work very hard-but they will not become rich working for Apple. The real money lies in getting other people to work hard for you for as low wages as possible.

Of course, trying to create a business means competing with established businesses who will tend to well connected and who have spent millions on lobbying to ensure their advantages. People can, of course, succeed in this-just as some people can run 100 mile races, play pro ball or kill a tiger in hand to hand combat. However, the odds are not very good-so most folks are stuck working for others with little or no chance of creating a successful business of their own. Some would say that this is fair and hence people who are poor or out of work have only themselves to blame for not being rich.

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Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2011
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As I write this, Newt is doing well in the polls. Earlier this year, it looked like Newt was done, but he has managed to apparently get back into the game. Of course, it is important to note that he has made gains as the other candidates have suffered losses in popularity. The polls do not seem to have a “none of the above” option, so perhaps his surge is simply do the fall of the others. That is, it is not so much that more people are really hot for Newt-it is just that they will check the Newt box in preference to the alternatives.

The general pattern for the Republicans has been a surge from one candidate followed by a fall after some self inflicted injury or other problem. Given this pattern, it is not unreasonable to expect Newt to last but a little while before he is brought down (or brings himself down). Newt does have a lot of established baggage and the media has been exposing more recent apparent problems, such as his multi-million dollar involvement with Fannie Mae. Naturally, he is trying to spin these problems and is being aided by the fine folks at Fox (while the merry minions at MSNBC go after him).

While Newt is clearly a person who has some dubious ethics, he is also a smart guy and a very experienced Washington insider. He is well connected to the established political machinery and has plenty of ties with big money. That is, he is a classic old school politician who knows the game and has the resources to play it well.

Give Newt’s abilities and resources, he does seem to have a chance of getting the nomination. Although Romney has been consistent in the polls (mainly because Romney has not done anything stupid on camera), Romney is not beloved by the base. With some shrewd political moves and some self-control (Newt has often proven to be his own worst enemy) Newt could squeak ahead enough to beat out Romney. In that case, I would expect to see Romney as the VP candidate. Another possibility is Romney as the presidential candidate and Newt as the VP.

Newt would stand up well against Obama in debates and Newt is generally adept at handling damage control. However, he would need to keep a tight rein on himself. But, I would be willing to say that he would have a shot at it. Obama would, obviously enough, easily defeat Perry, Bachmann or Cain in an actual debate. After all, they seem quite adept at defeating themselves-Obama would probably merely have to stand there and observe the self-destruction. Newt though is amphibian of a different stripe-he would stand up ably to Obama and could do quite well.

If Newt were elected, he would most likely be an old school politician in the way he would handle things. Newt knows how to use politics to his own enrichment and advantage and it seems reasonable that he would function as president much as he did as speaker. Given his experience as an insider and his intellectual abilities (plus what appears to be a lawful evil alignment) he would probably do quite well as a mostly pragmatic president. He would also parlay his election into massive personal gain after he left office-Newt is no fool and is in it to win it (for Newt).

That said, Newt might just burn out and hit the ground, like the others before him.

So, what do you think of Newt’s chances?

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Happy Thanksgiving

Posted in Humor by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2011



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Corporations as People

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 21, 2011
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Due to some oversight in my education, I had read various philosophical accounts of person hood before I was exposed to the seemingly absurd notion that corporations are persons. Of course, corporations are legally persons-they would generally fail to meet most philosophical definitions of person. Being a legal person is, as might be imagined, rather different from being a person in the philosophical sense. Philosophical accounts of what it is to be a person are generally subject to rather demanding criticisms based on intuitions, logic and so forth. In the case of legal persons, this seems to be largely a matter of getting a law or ruling that says that X is a legal person. There is, as far as I know, no requirement that such a law be well founded, well argued or even intuitively plausible. In theory, then, anything could be made into a legal person-subject to the whims of voters, lawyers or judges.

While I have argued elsewhere that corporations should not be considered persons, I am going to (at least for the sake of this short essay) reverse my usual view and instead say that the person hood of corporations should be embraced. They should be regarded as persons like any other person and accorded to full moral and legal status as persons (including rights, duties and obligations).

This would, on the face of it, entail that corporations should be treated just like any other person for tax purposes. After all, for me to fall under special tax laws because I am a Mohawk-French-English American would seem unfair to other Americans. Likewise, the fact that someone is a corporate-American (no doubt with multiple citizenships) should not thus entitle them to special treatment in this regard. As such, if a corporation really is a person, then they should fill out the standard tax forms and be entitled only to the standard deductions and so on. Alternatively, we should all receive the same tax (and other legal) rights as the corporation-Americans (or corporation-Australians or whatever). Given the benefits corporation receive, the rest of us would seem to be second class people in comparison. This seems to be wrong.

It might be replied that corporations, the legal people,  are special and thus entitled to benefits that lesser “meaty people” are not entitled to. This would seem to be a rather hateful sort of discrimination against us meaties in favor of the legalies. Then again, it could be accepted that the corporation is merely a legal fiction that is perpetuated because of its benefits to certain people (someone would need to break the news to Mitt Romney, though).

This view would also seem to entail that corporations would need to be citizens and thus entitled to all the benefits and responsibilities. To deny corporation-Americans the right to vote would seem to be a gross violation of their person hood. They should also be obligated to serve on juries, to register for selective service (well, at least the male corporations), and they should be counted in the census. There is, of course, the obvious problem of how the corporation-person would actually engage in voting or serve on the jury. After all, unlike other persons, the corporation person seems to have no actual nexus of person hood that could be in a specific location. There is also the problem that the corporation-person cannot actually think, talk, or write-unless it is accepted that it takes possession of employees and speaks through them. If so, the corporation could thus send a possessed member to vote, to serve on the jury or to serve in the military if it is drafted in times of war. Or perhaps the whole entity is the corporation-a collective person. In that case, the whole thing would seem to be the person. This would make the jury room rather crowded, should a corporation get summoned for duty.

It might be replied that this is all rather silly. Corporations are not some sort of mind that can possess individuals (as the gods were said to possess the oracles at Delphi) nor are they a collective mind composed of the people that work for them and the things they own. After all corporations have no minds, no personalities, no feelings, no thoughts, no beliefs, no desires, no perceptions, no life and so on. There would seem to be, to steal a bit from Nagasena, no self in regards to corporations. This, one might suspect, would seem to entail that they cannot be people-after all, nothing cannot be a person. Then again, perhaps it is wisest to again take them to be mere legal fictions rather than people in any meaningful sense. This would, of course, include granting them constitutional rights on the basis of being actual people.

However, I am committed to trying to treat corporations as people. Perhaps they can be treated as people in terms of their moral status and moral obligations. Of course, if they are morally people, then this would seem to have some interesting implications for moral theories. Since corporations apparently cannot possess virtues, then virtue theory would be out as a moral theory. The same would also apply to many forms of utilitarianism. Since, for example, corporations do not feel pleasure or pain, they would not count morally, so these theories would need to be rejected. Kant’s theory would also be right out-his account of persons and the role they play in morality would be completely incompatible with the corporation-person.  Of course, there is always the option of arguing that there are persons and there are corporation-people. They are both persons, but different sort of persons in fundamental ways. So different that one might suspect that corporations are not people.

I will be writing more about taking corporations to be people in the moral sense.

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God, a Yacht and Bitches

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2011
Aliosha VII Yacht

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Stephen Colbert recently raised an important theological and philosophical question, namely,”Could God create a yacht so big that he could not fill it with bitches?” This sort of question, obviously enough, parallels some of the classic questions about the nature of God’s omnipotence, such as “can God create a rock that He cannot lift?”

The specific question of whether or not God can create such a yacht would seem to involve considering the specifics of the scenario, such as the size limits of yachts (would a ship of a certain size be too big to be classified as a yacht?) and bitches as well as what would count as being full of bitches (does this mean that the bitches are comfortably occupying the vessel or stacked and stuffed in all the spaces?). However, these complications can be set aside (along with the offensive term “bitches”) in favor of a more general sort of question: can God create a container that He cannot fill?

On the face of it, this would seem to create what appears to be a paradox. If God is omnipotent, then it would seem to follow that He could create a container (such as a yacht) of any size-even one that would be so big that He could not fill it (even given an infinite supply of created bitches). However, His omnipotence would also seem to entail that He could fill any container, no matter how big. After all, He could just create enough things to fill the container.

One potential way out of this problem is to play games with the notion of infinity. Presumably the largest container that God could create would be infinite in size. Presumably the largest number and volume of things (such as bitches) that God could create would also be infinite. Leibniz, in his Theodicy,  writes “and infinity, that is to say, the accumulation of an infinite number of substances, is, properly speaking, not a whole any more than the infinite number itself, whereof one cannot say whether it is even or uneven.” Stealing from Leibniz, perhaps it could be said that when talking about an infinite yacht and an infinite number of bitches it would not be possible to say whether it is full or not. Of course, this seems vaguely (or not so vaguely) unsatisfying.

Perhaps a better approach would be to look at the matter a bit differently. The problem arises from taking the ability to create something so big that He cannot fill it as a positive ability of God. As such, if God did not have that ability, then He would be lacking. But, of course, if he could not fill the object, then he would also be lacking.

However, the idea of an ability to create an object so big that He cannot fill it seems to involve an absurdity. After all, if God could create a hollow object of X size and Y interior volume, then it would seem that He could simply create an object marginally smaller than X with a volume of Y. Thus, the question is actually asking “could God create an object and not be able to create a smaller object (or objects) that would fill the larger object” and the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, objects have volumes and sizes, but so big that it cannot be filled does not seem to be a legitimate property that God could just give to an object. Rather, this property is a relational property between the object and all other things that exist or could exist. Thus, the supposition that God can create objects entails that He can fill any object He creates.

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Penn State & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2011
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Before writing about the situation involving Penn State it is important to note that the facts of the matter have not been settled in a court of law. As such, what follows will be based, in part, on assumptions about what might (or might not) have happened.

While the incidents involving Sandusky and Penn State have gotten a great deal of media attention, it is not uncommon for institutions (especially powerful institutions) to conceal the misdeeds of members so as to protect them and, of course, the institution. My pointing out that this practice is a common one is not intended as a defense. Rather, it is intended to indicate that this is not an isolated problem.

While the matter might seem complicated, the ethics of the matter are actually quite straightforward.

McQueary alleges that he witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy. If this is true, then he was morally obligated to, at the very least call the police. Apparently, he now alleges that this is what he did. However, the original narrative was that he had spoken with his father who told him to talk to the head coach Paterno. Nothing came of this 2002 event until now.

At this point, the evidence seems to indicate that the incident was concealed by officials at Penn State. These officials, including Paterno and the university president, were fired. Interestingly, these firings occurred (obviously) before the relevant cases have been addressed in court. This does raise a moral question of whether these firings were morally justified-after all, it remains to be seen if, in fact, a crime was concealed. However, it can be argued that while the matter has yet to be settled in a court of law, the evidence of misdeeds on the part of the officials is adequate to justify their firing.

People who hold power in institutions, as might be imagined, have a tendency to believe that they have the right and the authority to handle situations they see as relevant to their interests. There is also, as Socrates noted, a tendency on the part of people to desire to conceal misdeeds. These two factors tend to lead to such (alleged) acts of concealment. People who work in such institutions are also often pressured into accepting the idea that almost everything must go through the “chain of command.” To use a a minor example, when I first started teaching I found that the lights did not work in the room in which I taught my night class. I, as I recall, made the mistake of trying to contact the physical plant folks directly (as I had been able to do at Ohio State). The result was that I was chastised by a university official for violating the “chain of command.” While that was a surreal experience, it does illustrate the sort of mindset that can exist in institutions.

In the abstract, one key moral issue is the extent to which an institution such as Penn State has the moral right to claim the authority to resolve a situation. In many cases, an institution does have that authority. For example, if a grade dispute arises in one of my classes, the university officials have the authority to resolve the issue. This is because grade disputes fall under the legitimate domain of the institution-namely that of education and related matters.

In other cases, the institution would exceed its legitimate authority and thus potentially act in an immoral way by such an infringement. This would be especially likely in cases in which the intervention of the institution’s “authority” would result in a denial of access to the legitimate authority by those involved in the situation. This can occur in cases in which those who are denied such access are victims (for example, students who are victims of sex crimes that are “resolved” by a university rather than by the police) as well as cases in which the perpetrators are denied (or protected from) the legitimate authority (such as perpetrators of sexual harassment being shielded by the institution).

Judging the extent of authority can involve considering the legal authority of the institution as well as the moral aspects of the matter. To be specific, a core aspect of this matter is determining this legitimate authority.

In the Penn State case, if it is assumed that such an assault took place and was reported to the university officials (and not police), then it would seem rather clear that the university officials acted beyond their legitimate authority. After all, a football coach and some college administrators do not have the moral authority to resolve an alleged rape. A coach does have the authority to, for example, bench players for poor grades. A university official can, for example, legitimately have the authority to resolve a grade dispute. However, rape is not a sports or academic matter-it is a matter for law enforcement, a matter for the police.

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Should Zygotes be Considered People?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2011
Oocyte viewed with HMC

Image via Wikipedia

In the United States certain Republicans have been proposing legislation that would define a zygote as a legal person. The most recent instance occurred in Mississippi when voters were given the chance to approve or reject the following: “the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” The voters rejected this, but there are other similar attempts planned or actually in the works. There are, as far as I know, no serious attempts to push person hood back before fertilization (that is, to establish eggs and sperm as being persons).

Since this is a matter of law, whether or not a zygote is a legal person or not depends on whether such a law is passed and then passes legal muster. Given that corporations are legally persons, it does not seem all that odd to have zygotes as legal people. Or whales. Or forests. There is, after all, no requirement that legal personhood be established by considered philosophical argumentation.

From a philosophical perspective, I would be inclined to stick with what seems to be the general view: zygotes are not persons. I do accept the obvious: a zygote is alive (as is an amoeba or any cell in my body), a zygote has full human DNA (as does almost any cell in my body), and a zygote has the potential to be an important part of a causal chain that leads to a human being (as does any cell in my body that could be used in cloning). However, these qualities of a zygote do not seem to be sufficient to establish it as a person. After all, the relevant  qualities of the zygote seem to be duplicated by some of the cells in our bodies and it would be absurd to regard each of us as a collective of persons.

But, as I noted, the legal matter is quite distinct from the philosophical-after all, zygotes (or anything) could become legal persons with the appropriate legislation. This leads to a point well worth considering, namely the consequences of such a law.

The most obvious would be that abortion and certain forms of birth control (such as IUDs and the “morning after” pill) would certainly seem to be legally murder. After all, they would involve the intentional (and possibly pre-meditated) murder of a legal person. This is, of course, one of the main intended consequences of such attempts. However, there would seem to be other consequences as well.

One rather odd consequence would be in regards to occupancy laws and regulations. These tend to be set by the number of persons present and unless laws are written to allow exemptions for zygotes, etc. then this would be a point of legal concern. This seems absurd, which is, of course, the point.

Another potential consequence is the matter of deductions for dependents. If a zygote is a person, then a frozen zygote is still a person and presumably the child of the parent(s). This would, unless specific laws are written to prevent this, seem to allow people to claim frozen zygotes as dependent children and thus take a tax deduction for each one. While the cost of creating and freezing zygotes would be a factor, the tax deductions would seem to be well worth it. Perhaps this is the secret agenda behind such legislation: people could avoid taxes by having enough zygotes in the freezer.

Of course a “zygotes are people” law might also entail that it would be illegal to freeze zygotes on the grounds that they would be confined or imprisoned without consent or due process. Naturally, laws would need to be written for this and they would also need to be worded so as to avoid making “imprisoning” a zygote in the womb a crime. There is also the matter of in vitro fertilization and whether or not certain processes would thus be outlawed by the “zygotes are people” law.  After all, some of the zygotes created do not survive. If these zygotes are people, IVF could be regarded as involving, if not murder, at least some sort  homicide or zygoteslaughter. Of course, outlawing such practices seems to be one of the intended consequences of these proposed laws.

Another point of concern is the matter of death certificates. After all, the death of a person requires a certificate and the usual legal proceedings. If a zygote were to be a legal person, then it would seem to follow that if a zygote died, then the death would need to be properly recorded and perhaps investigated to determine if a crime were committed. Naturally, specific laws could be written regarding various circumstances (for example, should women have to report every zygote that fails to implant-thus resulting in the death of a person). Perhaps the state would need to set up womb cameras or some other detector to monitor the creation of these new people so as to ensure that no death of a person goes unreported.

One rather interesting consequence is that such a law might set the precedent that any cell that could be cloned would count as a person (after all, as argued above, it would seem to share the relevant qualities of a zygote and the law in question mentioned cloning or any functional equivalent). This would have some rather bizarre consequences.

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