A Philosopher's Blog

Moral Methods

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2012

Thanks to the budget cuts in education, I won’t be teaching this summer. On the plus side, this has encouraged me to write yet another short philosophy book, Moral Methods. As per tradition, I am making it available as a free PDF on this site. It is also available in the Kindle format in the US and the UK for the usual 99 cents (or the UK equivalent in fish and chips).

This concise reference work is intended to provide the reader with the basics of moral argumentation and specific tools that should prove useful in this process. There is no assumption that any specific moral view is correct (or incorrect) and no specific moral agenda is pushed in this work.  Rather, the intention behind this work is to assist people in making better moral arguments.  If a reader disagrees with a specific example, then an interesting exercise would be to consider a counter-argument against the conclusion presented in the example.

The book divides into three parts. The first provides a basic discussion of arguing about ethics in the context of moral issues. The second, which is the majority of the book, presents a variety of methods that should prove useful in moral argumentation.  The third part consists of short moral essays that provide additional examples of moral reasoning.

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Soldiers & Freedom of Expression

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2012
Constitution of the United States, page 1

Constitution of the United States, page 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In modern democracies, soldiers remain citizens when they enlist. As such, they retain the rights to vote and express their political views.  However, they are also expected (and legally bound) to act in accord with the rules governing expressing their opinions as members of the military. Of course, this is also true of almost all jobs. To use an example, while I surrendered no rights when I became a professor, I am obligated to regulate what I say in my official capacity.  I cannot, for example, spend class time campaigning for Obama or support political candidates by saying that they have been endorsed by Florida A&M University because I endorse them.

The matter of the rights of soldiers to express their political views has gained attention with the incident involving sergeant Gary Stein. Stein created an Armed Forces Tea Party page on Facebook back in 2010 and  posted a comment on the site saying, roughly, “I say screw Obama. I will not follow orders given by him to me.” As might be imagined, this seems to be a violation of Article  134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice  in regards to things that are “prejudicial to good order and discipline.” In reply, Stein said that he meant that he will not follow an illegal order, which is quite another matter.

On 3/22/2012 I saw CNN interview with Sergeant Stein in which he made this same point. The person conducting the interview attempted to criticize him on the assumption that soldiers are required to obey orders. Stein was right to point out that military personnel can refuse illegal orders and gave the example of being ordered to engage in theft. As he noted, he could correctly refuse such an order. As such, saying that he would refuse an illegal order would not, on the face of it, seem to violate Article 134 and would, in fact, be the right thing for a soldier to say.

The discussion then turned to the matter of whether or not a sergeant should be interpreting whether an order is unlawful or not. Stein’s view is that he has the right to do so, based on his being an American citizen and he also contended that his oath to uphold the constitution and defend the United States would require him to do so. This, of course, raises the classic issue of whether a person should or should not obey the state when s/he regards the command as immoral or unlawful. This matter is complicated a bit when the person in question is under special conditions that would seem to favor obedience (such as being in the military).

On the one hand, a stock answer is that (as the interviewer seemed to be implying) such decisions are not to be made by mere sergeants and that the order should be obeyed. This does have considerable appeal. After all, if soldiers could simply disobey orders because they believed the orders to be unlawful or immoral, then this would be a serious threat to “good order and discipline.” A chain of command exists for a good reason-namely so that orders are carried out. To use an analogy, if I decided that I disagree with the system of grades and refused to assign grades to my students while posting snarky Facebook comments about university personnel, it would certainly be legitimate for the university to compel me to act in accord with the policy of assigning grades or to fire me if I refused. If professors simply did whatever in regards to grades, that would have a significant negative impact on the university. Likewise, soldiers who just disobey orders or sow dissension can be justly disciplined.

On the other hand, another stock answer is that a soldier does need to make such decisions and that the soldier has the right to do so. After all, the soldier is accountable for his/her actions and the defense “I was just following orders” carries little in the way of legal or moral weight. As such, the soldier must have the right to decide since s/he will be held accountable for the actions taken on the basis of orders. There is also the classic point, made by Thoreau, that even soldiers should follow their conscience rather than simply obey as if they were automatons. Soldiers are still citizens and still moral agents-putting on a uniform does not rob them of either of these statuses. There is also the fact that the right to disobey can help prevent or avoid wickedness, such as war crimes. To use an analogy, if I was told to pass a student who never attended my class because s/he was a star athlete, then I would be in the right to disobey and to bring this matter to the attention of others. Likewise, soldiers who are told to do what is unlawful or immoral have the right to refuse and bring this matter to the attention of others.

As such, the obvious conclusion has been reached: there are good reasons to enforce obedience and good reason to allow disobedience. The challenge would seem to be  to balance the need for both obedience and dissent in a way that creates the most good (and avoids the most evil).

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Martin & Zimmerman

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 28, 2012

I have been somewhat reluctant to write about the death of Trayvon Martin. This is not because of a great uncertainly regarding the ethics of the matter but rather an uncertainty regarding the facts.

In this case, the ethics are potentially fairly clear. If Zimmerman simply killed Martin without justification, then he clearly acted wrongly.If Zimmerman acted merely in self defense, then he was not in the wrong.

There is, of course, also the real possibility that the death resulted from both Zimmerman and Martin acting in ways that seemed quite justified to each of them and thus it could be the case that neither person was completely in the wrong. To be specific, Zimmerman might have sincerely believed that Martin posed a legitimate threat to the community and acted to address that threat. Martin, of course, might have been acting in complete innocence and became convinced that Zimmerman was stalking him with the intent to attack him. In this scenario, both people would be acting from self-defense as each would legitimately believe that his life was in unwarranted danger from another person.

While, as of this writing, the facts of what occurred during the final confrontation are not known, quite a bit is known about what led up to the tragic event.

It has recently been revealed that Martin had been suspended from school because an empty bag that apparently had contained marijuana was found in his possession.  As such, this is one reason why Martin was there rather than where he normally would be. While this lends some credence to Zimmerman’s view that there was “something wrong” with Martin (that is, he might have been high), even if Martin was high, this does not justify Zimmerman shooting him. After all, a person being high does not, in itself, present a danger that warrants an act of violent self-defense. As such, even if Martin was high, then this would not (by itself) entail that Zimmerman killed him in legitimate self-defense.

It might, of course, be contended that if Martin was acting suspiciously then Zimmerman would have the right to be justly concerned about his presence in the area. This is a legitimate point and if Martin was acting suspiciously,  then Zimmerman was acting in a morally acceptable way to investigate. In fact, such a concern for the safety of the community could be regarded as morally commendable.

However, there is the question of how far that concern should extend to action. The 911 calls indicate clearly that the police told Zimmerman to stop following Martin.

On the face of it, after Zimmerman had done his duty of alerting the police of his suspicion, he should have (as the police said) stopped following Martin. After all, Zimmerman is a private citizen and not a police officer. As such, Zimmerman lacks the training of a police officer, the legal authority of a police officer and (rather importantly) lacks the means by which to identify himself as a legitimate officer of the law. As such, when Zimmerman was following Martin, it seems reasonable to believe that from Martin’s perspective he was being followed by some guy in a car. Even if Zimmerman had identified himself as part of a neighborhood watch, Martin would have no reason to believe that claim and certainly no reason to accept that as proof of legal authority.

While, as noted above, key facts of the case are still not known, it is known that despite being told to stop following Martin, Zimmerman ended up in a situation in which he was allegedly struck by Martin and then apparently shot and killed Martin. Given that at the start of the encounter Zimmerman was in a car and Martin was on foot, it would seem that Zimmerman could have easily avoided Martin. This seems to suggest that Zimmerman forced the encounter with Martin.  Since Zimmerman is not police officer, Martin would have had no reason to think that Zimmerman was acting with legal authority and hence a plausible case can be made that Martin believed he was being pursued and threatened to a degree that put his life in danger. As such, it could very well have been Martin who was using force in self defense.

It might be objected that citizens should have the right to pursue and question people they regard as suspicious. After all, citizens do have the right to self defense and citizens should protect their community.

While self-defense is a right and citizens should act to protect each other, this is distinct from pursuing and questioning people. It is one thing if a person is clearly posing a threat but quite another to take on an investigatory role that can easily escalate. For example, if someone is punching my neighbor or trying to break into her house while she is there, then I would have legitimate grounds to intervene because there is an immediate threat and waiting for the police to arrive could result in her being injured or killed.

However, if I happen to see someone in public  I merely think is suspicious and I go and  harass that person, then I am not acting in response to a clear and immediate threat. Rather I am merely acting upon a suspicion and my behavior could legitimately be regarded as threatening. After all, merely seeming suspicious is not a crime nor is it a threat that warrants acting in self defense.

I would, of course, be within my rights to ask such a person a question or two-but they would equally be within their rights to ignore me. After all, as a citizen I have no right to compel other people to answer my questions. I do, however, have the right to contact the police and they can, if they think my concern has merit, come to sort things out. After all, that is what the police are for. This case, sadly, shows why private citizens should not attempt to take on the role of the police-even if they are part of a neighborhood watch. This is not to say that citizens should not take an active role in protecting the community, but rather to say that citizens should be aware of the limits of what they should be doing. After all, while citizens do have the right to protect their community, they do not have the right to act as if they have police powers. That is why we have a state and a legal system.

Darth VaPaula: Gender & Video Games

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 26, 2012
Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I play Star Wars the  Old Republic. I live in Florida. As such, I was somewhat interested when the Florida Family Association decided to launch an email campaign against Bioware regarding the plans to allow LGBT relationship options in the game.

Lest anyone think that the game is some sort of sex-fest, the relationships between a player character (PC) and a non-player character (NPC) is rather limited. Essentially you get to engage in fairly tame flirting via selecting tame response options and there is some dialog that involves mild sexual themes. For those looking for racy action, you will find much much more on prime time  shows than you will see in SWTOR. While Bioware does an excellent job crafting the personas of the NPCs that the players interact with, I have never been particularly interested in game romance myself. After all, I can do that in real life and I prefer to spend my game time killing bad guys with a light saber, something I cannot do in real life (yet).

However, I know that some players really get into the romance options in Bioware games and it is a rich part of the narrative experience for these folks. As such, I can see why the folks at Florida Family Association are a bit worried. I, too, have been worried when I heard friends speak endlessly of their intimate relationships with NPCs. Of course, my worry is rather different than that of the FFA.

The FFA seems to have two main concerns regarding the possible inclusion of LGBT options in SWTOR:

• Children and teens, who never thought anyway but heterosexual, are now given a choice to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in their game player.

• Children and teens, who choose non-social agenda characters, would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.

In regards to the first problem, if these children and teens (although the game is rated T and hence is intended only for teens) have “never thought anyway but heterosexual”, then they would presumably not chose any of the LGBT options in the conversations with NPCs. Unless Bioware radically changes the game by adding an orientation button, a PC’s sexual orientation is shaped by making choices in various conversations (such as picking a flirt option). As such, kids and teens who are purely heterosexual prior to playing SWTOR would presumably not select the LGBT options. After all, if their minds are devoid of any sexual thoughts other than heterosexual, why would they pick anything else? To use the obvious analogy, if I only think about playing a Jedi, the fact that I have the option to play a trooper would not compel me to play a trooper. That is, if I lack trooper tendencies, I won’t play a trooper in the game. Or real life.

It might be countered that the mere option for such in game behavior could lead the heterosexuals away from their heterosexuality. After all, Plato argued at length in the Republic regarding the corrupting potential of art. As such, perhaps SWTOR could turn kids and teens away from the “hetero side” to the “gay side”. This, of course, assumes that any orientation other than heterosexual is morally wrong-which is an issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

One obvious response to this line of reasoning is that the kids and teens in question will also face the same options in real life. That is, when encountering actual people in the real world they will sometimes have LGBT options for real. As such, this worry about SWTOR seems rather pointless: if the kids and teens are not going to go to the “gay side” in real life, they surely will not do so in SWTOR. Likewise, if they would go to the “gay side” in SWTOR, then perhaps they would do the same in real life anyway. The game merely allows them the chance to select from options that are available in real life already and there seems to be no reason to think that the game would make straight kids gay.

It might be argued that while straight kids and teens can resist the “gay side” in real life, SWTOR would lure them to the “gay side”, perhaps with cookies. As noted above, Plato did argue that art can have corrupting influences that bypass our normal defenses against such things. For example, Plato noted that while a manly man will not give in to sorrow when faced with tragedy in real life, he can easily be seduced to giving into such unseemly feelings via the nefarious influence of the arts. By analogy, kids and teens who are heterosexual in real life could thus be seduced to the “gay side” by the nefarious influence of the video game. This sort of reasoning is, of course, analogous to that used to argue that video games and art corrupt the youth into being more violent or sexual. After all, when not corrupted by art humans have no interest in either sex or violence.

One obvious reply is that if video games have such a powerful impact on the sexual orientation of the youth, then the lack of LGBT options in SWTOR should have converted LGBT players straight. After all, if the availability of LGBT options is a threat to heterosexuality, then the availability of heterosexual options should be an equal threat to LGBT players. The presence of both options could, presumably, cause players to oscillate in their orientation as they are lured from the “straight side” to the “gay side” and then back again. One would thus assume that the person’s sexual orientation would be set by their last interaction in the game. This, of course, seems rather absurd.

It might be claimed that LGBT options are just so appealing that a heterosexual kid exposed to such options will be lured into picking them, contrary to his/her true sexual orientation. The same, it would need to be argued, is not true of heterosexuality.

One obvious reply is that if the LGBT options were that seductive, then most people would be LGBT.  But this is not the case. Another obvious reply is that if LGBT options are so appealing, then perhaps people should chose them. After all, it generally makes sense to pick what is most appealing. To use an analogy, when I pick my dessert I go with the option that appeals to me the most and take that to the be best option. Likewise, if LGBT is such an awesomely appealing choice over heterosexuality, then perhaps people should be picking that rather than struggling to resist it. Of course, if LGBT options lack this special appeal to people who are nominally straight, then these options present no “threat” in the game or in life.

The second problem, as the FFA sees it, is that kids and teens “would be forced to deal with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender characters chosen by other players.”

My first reply is that the way the game works, players are not forced to deal with the relationships between other PCs and NPCs. That is, the substantial conversation interactions that involve romance take place without other players being involved. As such, if the folks at the FFA are worried that players will be forced to see LGBT sex or even substantial LGBT conversations, then they are worried about nothing. All they will see is the usual killing and looting that form the majority of the game play. As such, they are worried about something that will not really happen.

Of course, it can be countered that players will encounter some LGBT comments or remarks in the course of play and this takes me to my second reply.

Second, kids and teens are already “forced to deal with” LGBT in real life. They might not realize it, but unless they are kept in isolation they are no doubt regularly encountering and interacting with LGBT people. After all, people do not have “straight” or “LGBT” nameplates over their heads in real life. As such, the worry about encountering LGBT characters in the game seems rather absurd.

Third, there is the obvious moral reply. Imagine if someone said that they were worried that their Christian kids and teens would be forced to deal with Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Or that their white kids would have to deal with Hispanics, Asians, and blacks. Such views would be regarded as nothing more than the expression of hate and prejudice. The same certainly seems true of the FFA’s view here. After all, if the KKK does not have the right to demand a racially pure SWTOR, then the FFA would seem to lack the right to demand a gender pure SWTOR.

The FFA does offer an additional argument against the inclusion of LGBT options in STWOR. The FFA contends that because the Star Wars movies did not have any LGBT characters, they should not be in SWTOR.

On the one hand, this does have some small appeal. After all, a game based on a movie universe should reflect that universe. So, for example, since the Star Wars universe lacked Vulcans and Daleks in the movies, they should not be in the game.

On the other hand, this argument is easy to counter.

While the Star Wars movies did not show LGBT characters (as far as we know), there is nothing to indicate that the Star Wars reality is devoid of LGBT. After all, the movies only follow a limited number of characters and there are only a few relationships (Han and Leia, Anikan and Padme, R2 and C3P0). As such, to infer that because there were no open LGBT relationships in the Star Wars movise, then the Star Wars universe is devoid of LGBT relationships would be an odd inference. This would be  on par with inferring that because the movie did not show any dentists, the Star Wars universe lacks dentists.

Another obvious reply is this: suppose the Star Wars movies did not show any female Smugglers (Han Solo’s class), would it follow that the Smuggler class should be restricted to male characters? It would seem not. After all, there is no universe defining reason why a female cannot be a smuggler. Likewise, it is not inherent to the Star Wars universe that it be LGBT free. After all, the opening does not say “In a totally straight galaxy devoid of LGBT…”. As such, Bioware can add these options and still be within the known canon of Star Wars.

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Posted in Business, Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2012

I must confess I am slacking a bit on the blog this week, mainly by posting that I am slacking on the blog. I’ll probably need to be a bit slack the next few weeks as well. The reason is, of course, my job.

On the positive side, this week I have papers due in my ethics class, next week I’m giving tests and the week after that is more papers, this time in my Modern class. After that, I have finals week-which might lead to more slack. As might imagined, my job gets  the majority of my time and the blog gets some of what I have left.

On the negative side, it looks certain that I won’t be teaching this summer. Like most faculty, I am on a nine month contract (that means three months of unpaid “vacation”) and I am not guaranteed summer employment, even when there are students enough to overfill the class (which is always the case). This is supposed to be due to budget cuts. Education is rather odd in this way-there are, right now, students who would fill the class I used to teach in the summer.  To use an analogy, there are customers who are ready to buy the shelves clear, yet the shelves are to be kept bare and the store closed. I must admit I do not quite get why this works the way it does, given that what faculty are paid to teach a class is generally way, way under what a class brings in. But I’m just faculty and hence have only a very indirect influence on things.

Since I need to pay for things like food, I need to devote a lot of time to writing. As might be imagined, writing this blog does not pay-but writing for gaming companies, Amazon and Barnes & Noble does. As such, I’ll need to focus even more effort on writing that actually results in some income. Fortunately, I just finished a contracted book (I signed a NDA, so I cannot say anything until it is officially announced) and I am busy lining up other contracts and writing until I run out of words.

I will, of course, keep this blog going and will also continue writing for the other blogs I contribute to. It is, after all, a compulsion.

My latest venture is that I’m taking a stab at selling material for Paizo’s Pathfinder on Amazon. While gaming is not as big as it was in the golden age of dice, perhaps this will help a bit. In any case, you can check out my test module, Little Island at Amazon. Like my other books, it is 99 cents, of which 65 cents goes to my benevolent book overlord, Amazon. Amazon actually is fairly generous-my contracted work usually gets me about 8.5%.

I put up an author’s page at Amazon, which allows me to fully experience the joyous delusion that I am an author.  It is  a wonderful thing. I’m just waiting for Oprah to discover me.

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Health Care & Compulsion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 21, 2012
President Barack Obama's signature on the heal...

President Barack Obama's signature on the health insurance reform bill at the White House, March 23, 2010. The President signed the bill with 22 different pens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States Supreme Court will soon be ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. This ruling will, of course, settle the legality of the matter-at least until it is challenged. While the constitutionality (or lack thereof) of the act is certainly interesting, my main interest as a philosopher is the ethics of the matter.

While the law is 2,400 pages long, I will just focus on the ethics of a key part, namely that the law requires people to purchase health care insurance. Opponents of the law assert that this is the first federal law that requires citizens to purchase a product and they typically assert  that this goes beyond the legitimate power of the state. Proponents of the law retort by arguing that the state is acting legitimately. As such, a key moral issue is whether or not the state has the right to compel citizens to buy a product in general and insurance in particular.

On the face of it, the idea that the state has a right to compel people to buy a product seems to be absurd-even when such a purchase would be a good idea. After all, buying and consuming fresh fruits and vegetables is a good idea, yet one would be hard pressed to present an argument in favor of compelling this by law (the Broccoli and Orange Act, perhaps).

To present a more substantial argument, I will begin by noting that I favor a a presumption in favor of liberty. That is, the burden of proof is upon the state to show that the intrusion on liberty is legitimately warranted. While spelling out the various conditions under which intrusion would be warranted goes beyond the scope of this essay, one obvious justification is that the intrusion prevents an individual or group from inflicting unjust harm onto others. Thus, the restrictions on murder, theft and defective products are warranted. Intrusion that are done merely for the good of a person would not be justified, at least if we follow John Stuart Mill’s classic arguments regarding liberty. After all, if I am sovereign over my self, then the state (and others) have no moral right to intrude on my actions when they impact only me. As such, while the state can justly prevent me from selling tainted broccoli, it would not seem warranted in compelling me to eat broccoli-despite the fact that doing so would be good for me. This line of reasoning, interestingly enough, would also forbid the state from making the use of marijuana illegal and would also make laws forbidding same sex marriage morally wrong since they impose on liberty solely to impose a specific religious/moral view rather than to prevent people from harming one another. In fact, the principle that the state cannot compel except to prevent harm would entail a host of libertarian positions on various issues-something that should be duly considered when using such a principle.

Of course, it could be argued that while the state has a right to compel people to not do various things even when they are not harmful to others, it does not have the right to compel people to take positive action. That is, the state can be justified in telling me what not to do, but it has no legitimate right to tell me what to do. As might be imagined, this approach is often taken by folks who want the state to compel people to not do various things (like smoke marijuana or marry someone of the same sex) but who are against this specific act.

While justifying specific acts of compulsion can be challenging, this approach does seem consistent. After all, the principle is that the state cannot compel taking action and can only compel people to not do things. As such, while the state can, for example, forbid abortion, it cannot morally  compel people to buy health insurance.

Naturally, if this principle is used to argue that forcing people to buy insurance is wrong, it must be applied consistently-namely that the state is wrong to compel action and it can only forbid. This would entail that compelling young men to sign up for selective service is wrong. It would also entail that compelling people to pay taxes is wrong. Forcing automakers to include seat belts, air bags, and brakes would also be wrong. Forcing women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion would be wrong. So would forcing children to attend school. Compelling people to serve on a jury would also be wrong.  And so on. Naturally, this might have considerable appeal to some people, but this path would seem to take us into the realm of the absurd (although some, such as the anarchists, would say we are already there and doing this would take us out of the absurd).

The obvious counter is to insist on narrowing the principle from “the state has no moral right to compel” to “the state has no moral right to compel people to buy a specific product.” The challenge, of course, lies in justifying this principle. As might be imagined, the reply that “the state has not done this before, so doing it is wrong” is not a good argument. After all, the mere fact that something has not been done before is no indication of whether it is good, bad or indifferent. This sort of “reasoning” could be seen as a variant on the appeal to tradition fallacy, in that the idea is not that something is good because it is a tradition but that something is bad because it is not.

What, then, is needed is something that shows that the state lacks the legitimate authority to morally compel people to have health insurance while it does possess a right to compel people to do things. The challenge is to show a relevant difference between the insurance case and the other cases in which state compulsion is (allegedly) morally acceptable. The obvious thing to point to is that the state would be forcing people to buy a  product. However, the mere fact that this is different does not entail that it is a relevant difference that make this specific compulsion wrong. After all, the state does compel us to pay for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and is thus compelling us to buy what amounts to health and retirement insurance.

Naturally, it could be argued (as some have) that the state should not do this-that being forced to pay for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security involves an unjust compulsion and thus the state should not do this. This view would allow someone to consistently oppose the Affordable Health Care Act’s compulsion to buy health insurance but at an obvious price-namely the need to be opposed to these three things.  As such, those who do not want to be rid of these things will need another line of attack.

The most fruitful one is that the the health care coverage is a private product rather than a state product. This, of course, does provide a significant difference between the state’s “products” and health care coverage. Of course, it does not provide an argument against the state compelling people to pay into a national health care insurance (as it does with the current national health care insurances, Medicare and Medicaid). As such, focusing on the fact that the product is a private one would seem to help shore up the view that the state should instead compel people to buy national health care-after all, this seems to be well within the legitimate power of the state (at least as it is currently conceived).

Nations other than the United States do, of course, have national health care. Of course, this sort of thing is presented as a worse demon than forcing people to buy private insurance. But this is a matter for another time.



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Contraception, Yet Again

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 19, 2012
English: Picture Of Ortho Tri-Cyclen oral cont...

Could this get you fired?

While wars rage on and the economy continues to limp along for the working class, considerable attention is still focused on contraception. On the one hand, this can be seen as a mere distraction from what should be regarded as more important matters. On the other hand, it can be regarded as a fundamental struggle over rights.

One key conservative talking point regarding contraception coverage is that the real issue is whether or not the state has the right to require health insurance providers to cover contraception. This, of course, falls under the more general issues of whether or not the state has the right to compel health insurance providers to cover anything at all. Naturally, this falls under the very general topic of the legitimate limit of the state’s compulsive powers.

Since I just wrapped up discussing John Locke in my Modern Philosophy class, my inclination is to say that the state’s legitimate purpose is the good of the people and it is limited in what it should do on the basis of the rights to life, liberty and property. As might be imagined, this general guide is not very helpful in this matter. After all, it can be effectively argued that compelling such coverage would be for the good of the people and it can also be effectively argued that doing so would be an imposition on the liberty of the providers.  As in most such cases, my inclination is to take the stock approach of weighing the good of the imposition against the badness of said imposition. For example, some people argue that the state should have the right to use its compulsive power to ensure that a person can only marry one other person (at a time) and that the other person must be of the opposite sex. In supporting such a view, the usual argument (apart from the appeals to religion and tradition) is that same sex marriage and polygamy are harmful to society. As such, the liberty to marry as one pleases must be taken away using the compulsive power of the state. Interestingly, many of the folks who are opposed to compelling  contraceptive coverage are in favor of using the compulsive power of the state in the domain of marriage. As such, they apparently do not have a principled objection against the state compelling people in regards to their moral beliefs. Rather, their view seems to be that as long as the state is compelling the right people, then such compulsion is fine. Of course, a person can be against contraception coverage and not be against, for example, the state using is compulsory power to impose a specific moral view in regards to marriage. In fact, one way to argue against the compulsion of contraceptive coverage is to argue against state compulsion in all matters other than those that involve harming others. So, for example, a person could be consistently against the state compelling a specific religious/ethical view of marriage and against the state compelling the coverage of contraception.

In regards to the matter of coverage, I am willing to accept (and in fact insist on) the principle that the burden of the proof is on the state in regards to compelling such coverage. That is, it is up to the state to show that such coverage should be compelled by law. This is a general principle that I accept, mainly on the assumption that there is a presumption in favor of liberty.

One standard way to argue for the legitimacy of state compulsion is to show that something is harmful (generally to others rather than just to oneself) and thus the state, under its legitimate role as protector of the life, liberty and property of the citizens, has the right to compel. This approach seems quite reasonable and is used to justify such things as the state compelling people to not murder, rape, or steal. As should be clear, this approach does not justify compelling coverage. After all, it is not preventing someone from wrongfully inflicting harm on another. Of course, this is a rather minimalist view of the state and one that only the most ardent libertarians seem to hold.

Another standard way to argue for the legitimacy of state compulsion is to show that compelling it creates a public good that warrants the imposition on liberty. For example, drafting people in times of war can be justified on the grounds that the public good requires such service. As another example, the compelled  paying of taxes to provide for roads, police, defense, fire departments, schools, bridges, and so on is justified on the grounds that this serves the general welfare and the common good. John Locke argues for the state using its power to serve the general good and, of course, American government is supposed to have a legitimate role in providing for the general welfare. In general, it seems fair to say that the idea that the state should compel people to act for the general good only seems odd when it is proposed that the state compel something that a person does not like (like contraceptive coverage). When the state is compelling people to do what someone wants, it generally seems perfectly reasonable to that person. However, it would be rather nice for folks to have a consistent general principle regarding under what conditions the state can compel (other than “in cases in which the state is doing what I want”).

As with all conflicts between liberty and the general good, one key part of the dispute is whether or not the imposition on liberty is warranted by the gain to the public good. For example, compelling me to pay my taxes is warranted by the fact that my contribution is needed for the general good.

In the case of contraceptive coverage, the argument rests on the assumption that preventative care should be covered (this is already a matter of law, but naturally can be challenged on moral grounds) for the general good. If this assumption is accepted, then the question that remains is factual: should contraception be considered preventative care? The experts at the bipartisan  Institute of Medicine have claimed that this is the case. Given their expertise, I am inclined to accept their opinion over that of non-experts. As such, it would seem that contraception should thus be covered.

Of course, it can be countered that the coverage preventative care should not be compelled by the state and that the insurance providers should be free to cover or not cover what they wish.

This does, of course, have a certain appeal. No doubt folks in all industries feel imposed on by the state compelling them in regards to what they can do or not do. For example, those in the food industry probably are not thrilled that the state imposes restrictions on what they can sell as meat and that they are required to divulge the contents of their products to the consumers. However, these compulsions are justified by an appeal to the common good. Likewise, the imposition of contraceptive coverage can be warranted on similar grounds. After all, such coverage is claimed to have numerous benefits for the people covered as well as the general public (such as lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies and all that entails).

It might be countered that the coverage of contraception violates the ethics of some employers (such as the Catholic Church) and thus contraceptive coverage is a very special case. In fact, Arizona is considering a bill that would seem to allow employers to fire employees for using contraception. In these cases, the argument is that this is a matter of religious liberty. As I have argued at length in other posts about this, I will not repeat my arguments here. I will, however, add that these cases are not clear cases of a cruel state imposing on the liberty a hapless church, insurance company or employer. Rather, there is also the rather important matter of the liberty of the employees and their rights.

There is, of course, a stock view that employees have no right to expect their employers to respect their rights or liberties as the state is supposed to respect them. On this view, our rights and liberties exist relative to the state and not relative to employers. However, I am inclined to follow Locke here and take the view that our rights are not merely against the state, but also against each other. As such, it is just as wrong for my employer to compel me in ways that violate my rights and liberty as it is for the state. At the very least, if the state lacks the right to compel them to provide coverage because they disagree, then they would seem to lack the right to compel their employees to conform to the ethics of their employer.

It might be countered that such rights are only for the powerful (churches and employers) and that the weaker folks (such as employees) must take it or leave it. That is, an employee who wants to work has to be willing to accept the moral imposition of his employer in this matter while his employer has a perfect right to not be imposed on in such a way by the state. If the employee doesn’t like that her employer  refuses to include coverage of contraception in the health care benefits, she can just go and find another job. If she cannot, then she will have to accept being unemployed or she must conform to the religion/morality of her employer.  This, of course, seems to be rather wrong. After all, it seems rather absurd to justify an imposition on liberty on the basis of an appeal to liberty. Of course, this is nothing new: in the pre-Civil War South people routinely argued that forcing the southern states to give up enslaving people would be a violation of their liberties.

In light of the above discussion, mandating the coverage of contraceptives does seem to be morally acceptable.

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The Republican Candidate

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 16, 2012
English: Governor Mitt Romney of MA

Image via Wikipedia

The prevailing wisdom is that Romney will get the nomination. After all, while Rick and Newt have managed to pull out some winds, Mitt has accumulated the most delegates. Also, Mitt can easily outspend his competition-they are mere millionaires and their superpacs are not quite as super as Mitt’s (or Obama’s).

That said, it is still possible for Romney to lose. Scandals, death, miracles, plagues and so on could come into play. Sarah Palin might decide to join the action. However, the main question at this point is this: who will be the Republican VP pick?

After that, the main question will be whether or not the Republicans can beat Obama or not. Obama has benefited from success abroad (killing Bin Laden) as well as an improved economy. However, Afghanistan could slide into hell and take Obama’s approval rating with it. There is also the fact that although the economy has been steadily improving, it could easily go belly up around election time. There is also the impact of the price of gas (which is largely beyond the president’s control) and, of course, the ever present possibility of some blindsiding disaster.

Interestingly enough, the Republicans need to hope that things start going worse for America. After all, if the economy keeps improving and Obama keeps putting notches in his gun for killing terrorists, then it will be harder to argue that he is wrecking the economy and appeasing America’s enemies.

The Republicans have been trying to hit him on Obamacare and also going after him on social issues. The attack on Obamacare will potentially be blunted a bit by the fact that it was modeled on Romneycare, but people often have short memories in politics and Romney is adept at switching positions. The social issues are a potential win for Republicans, but there are three main concerns. The first is that most voters are more concerned with the economy than anything else. The second is that while the “values voters” are influential in the primaries, they will almost certainly not play as decisive a role in the actual election. Third, the Republicans have made some missteps that have allowed Democrats to present the Republicans as being against women (Santorum’s remarks about women in combat and Rush’s slut comments come to mind). The Republicans will need to work at getting the focus away from women’s rights to focusing on things like religious liberty. The Democrats, of course, have to focus on casting the Republicans as being against women-something the Republicans have made significantly easier in recent days. But, people have short memories.

As a final point, Obama seems to have a clear personality edge over Romney-even Obama’s critics note that he is charismatic. In contrast, even some of Romney’s supporters have expressed dismay about his weakness in this area. Romney should, however, be able to stand up reasonably well in the debates.

But, as should be expected, it will mainly come down to the economy. If things continue to get better, the Republicans will have an uphill battle in convincing people to vote for them. But if the economy starts diving, the Republicans could get a golden ticket.

So, who will be the Republican VP candidate? And, more importantly, who takes it in 2012? Other than Cthulhu, obviously.

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Contraception, Again.

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 14, 2012
viagra is a commercial produced medicine conta...

Image via Wikipedia

It seems a bit odd arguing about contraception in 2012. After all, the matter seemed to have been large resolved some time ago.  While it is tempting to say that Contraception 2012 is a manufactured conflict, there do seem to be some points worth addressing in this context.

One talking point that has been presented by some folks, such as mainstream American media personality Rush Limbaugh, is that insurance coverage of contraception is the same thing as paying someone to have sex.

In the case of people who are prescribed contraceptives because of medical conditions (such as ovarian cysts), this is obviously not the case. In cases in which the person is simply using the contraception as contraception, she is still not being paid to have sex any more than the coverage of Viagra and comparable medicine for men is paying men to have sex. At most, what is being paid for is the means to have sex (Viagra) and the means to avoid getting pregnant (contraception). True, these are connected to sex, but covering either is not the same thing as paying people to have sex.

Another common talking point is that the plan to cover contraception will be “using people’s money” to pay for something they do not approve of.

One obvious reply to this is that for most folks insurance coverage is either paid for by the individual or as part of a benefit package for a job. Either way, the person is earning her coverage. To use an analogy, my insurance covered my quadriceps tendon repair (mostly). This was not using some other people’s money since I pay for my insurance. Likewise, if a woman get contraception covered by her insurance, she is paying for that (either directly or by getting benefits as part of her compensation).

It might be countered that some women get coverage from the state, so tax dollars could go to pay for birth control. Since some folks are against contraception or do not want to pay for it, this should not be done.

The stock reply to this is that our tax dollars are routinely used to pay for things that we might not want to pay for or that we might even oppose. For example, I’d rather not have my tax dollars pay for subsidies to corporations and I certainly don’t want to be paying for other dudes’ Viagra.  This is the way democracy works-provided that the spending is set up through due process, by agreeing to the legitimacy of the state we also give our consent to the spending-even for things we would rather not contribute to.

Naturally, it can be argued that we should not be required to pay for anything we oppose and this has considerable appeal (see Thoreau’s arguments about civil disobedience for an interesting look at this matter). However, if we adopt this principle for contraception, it must also apply across the board. So, for example, folks who are against war can insist that war should not be paid for using tax dollars and so on. It seems likely that for every proposed spending there will be a person who opposes it-thus the state should not spend money on anything. While this would solve the deficit problem, it would seem a rather absurd solution.

A third talking point is that contraception should not be covered because it does not treat a condition. This is most often brought up when defending the coverage of Viagra (which restores a natural function).

The easy reply to this is that some forms of contraception are used to treat medical conditions (such as ovarian cysts). As such, this use should be covered. But, of course, this would not warrant the coverage of contraception as contraception.

One reply worth considering is that the framing of the debate begs the question against women. After all, the claim is that anything that is covered must treat or prevent a harmful condition and this would exclude contraception (except in cases in which a women would be medically harmed by being pregnant). However, this framing tends to be simply assumed rather than being argued for, which is rather unfair to women in this regard. After all, the matter of pregnancy seems to be unique (and limited to women) and hence it seems questionable to insist that it must automatically fall under the framing in question. It can, of course, be argued that it does-but an argument is wanted here to show that is the case.

While some might be tempted to cast pregnancy as the harmful medical  condition that is being prevented by contraception, the idea of casting pregnancy as a harmful medical condition has rather limited appeal. After all, while pregnancy puts considerable strain on the woman, it seems rather difficult to cast it as an illness that needs to be prevented or treated as if it were comparable to measles or cancer.

A more fruitful line of approach is to argue that contraception provides medical control over a woman’s quality of life. That is, it enables her to chose whether to be pregnant or not. Doing this clearly falls under the domain of medicine and women do seem to have a legitimate claim to this right. After all, much of medicine deals with maintaining a desired quality of life and women would seem to have as much right to that as men.

Naturally, it might be countered that I am treating pregnancy as a disease (which would be some major rhetorical points against me). But this is not the case. All I am claiming is that given that pregnancy can be rather challenging for a woman and, of course, a child is a major consumer of resources a women has a legitimate right to use medical means to maintain her desired quality of life-just as a man has a legitimate right to use Viagra and its ilk to maintain his desired quality of life. Just as Viaga is covered as a quality of life drug, so should contraception.

A fourth, somewhat uncommon,  talking point is that contraception is on par with abortion, so covering contraception is covering abortion.

One stock reply is the obvious fact that contraception lowers the number of unwanted pregnancies and this lowers the number of abortions. As such, folks who are worried about abortion would seem to have a good reason to favor covering contraception.

Of course, some folks contend that contraception is like abortion in that it prevents a possible person from becoming an actual person. While this does have some philosophical interest, it would seem to entail that every moment I am not out and about impregnating women, I am engaged in acts comparable to abortion. After all, by not impregnating as many women as possible, I am preventing some possible people from becoming actual people. Put a bit less absurdly, if I am practicing abstinence, then I am effectively engaged in abortion since all those possible people will never become actualized.

It could be countered that this only applies to cases in which I am actually having sex (and presumably that I should only be having sex with a woman I am married to). That is, every time I have sex, there should be a roll of the dice to see whether or not the woman gets pregnant. Presumably if either of use chooses to use any method that lowers the probability of pregnancy, then this would be on par with attempting an abortion.  As such, the only acceptable family planning would be to decide to have sex only when one plans on a pregnancy since intentionally preventing it would be unacceptable. I would be interested in seeing some arguments for this that do not involve an appeal to theology.

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Targeted Killing & Due Process

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 12, 2012
English: Air Force officials are seeking volun...

I've got your due process right here...

After Anwar al Awlaki,  an American citizen, was specifically targeted and killed by a drone strike, serious questions arose regarding the legality and morality of this killing. From a legal standpoint, this sort of targeted killing seems to violate the 5th amendment of the constitution:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

As might be imagined, people have generally taken “due process of law” as requiring the proper  involvement of the legal system. One likely reason for this is that the amendment seems to be focused on the judicial rather than the executive aspects of the state. In regards to targeted killings, there is also the concern that such killings involve making a person “answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime”. If so, a targeted killing without such an indictment or presentment would violate the constitutional rights of the target.

In response to this sort of reasoning, Eric Holder replied as follows:

Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate. “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.

While I am not a scholar of constitutional law, the context of the 5th amendment seems to make it rather clear that the due process is, in fact,supposed to be a judicial process. Of course, since it is not worded as “judicial process”, this does open a legal door for interpreting what is meant by “due process.” As Holder sees it, in addition to following due process  the killing of an American citizen must meet four principles in order to be legal:

The principle of necessity requires that the target have definite military value. The principle of distinction requires that only lawful targets – such as combatants, civilians directly participating in hostilities, and military objectives – may be targeted intentionally. Under the principle of proportionality, the anticipated collateral damage must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. Finally, the principle of humanity requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering.

On the face of it, these principles seem rather reasonable in regards to justifying intentional targeting. After all, they boil down to saying that it is okay to target a lawful target that has military value provided that doing so does not cause excessive collateral damage and undue suffering is not inflicted. However, the most important issue of concern here is the matter of due process.

In terms of the legality, that is a matter that must be decided by the courts. As noted above, my view is that due process requires legal proceedings in the context of the judicial branch and that ordering such executions does not fall within the powers of the executive branch. Of course, I am not a legal scholar and hence my view has no weight beyond the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of my argument.

My view does not, I contend, infringe on the president’s role as the commander and chief of the armed forces. If an American citizen is killed in the course of combat because s/he took up arms against American forces, then the citizen was a legitimate target for the armed forces.

However, singling out an American citizen to be targeted and killed is another matter since that seems to be more properly an act of law and not of war. From both a moral and a legal standpoint, there does seem to be a rather important distinction here, namely that between the criminal and the enemy combatant. The mere fact that someone is engaged in activity harmful to the United States (including killing Americans) does not make that person an enemy combatant. Otherwise almost all criminals would be enemy combatants, which would be absurd.

As might be imagined, the stock reply to this view is that we are at war with terror and hence a targeted killing of an American citizen who  is involved in terrorism is thus an act of war. By this reasoning, the targeted killing would be an act of war, on par with having a sniper take out a turncoat among the enemy on the field of battle.

While this does have a certain appeal, there is the rather obvious concern that the war on terror is a rather vague sort of war. After all, terrorism tends to blend all too smoothly into the criminal world (and vice versa). This raises  legitimate concerns about the standards used to distinguish between those citizens who are enemy combatants and those who are merely criminals. As noted above, just because someone is actively harming America or even killing Americans does not automatically make that person an enemy combatant and thus outside of the normal judicial process. After all, Americans murder each other everyday, yet they are not enemy combatants. Also, having foreign ties to violent groups and engaging in violence because of this does not seem to suffice to make a citizen an enemy combatant. After all, there are and have been American citizens with ties to foreign groups (such as the Mafia and Mexican drug dealers) who have engaged in violence against Americans without being considered enemy combatants.

The stock reply to this sort of reasoning is that terrorists can be distinguished by their goals. Crudely put, while terrorists do often engage in traditionally criminal enterprises (such as the drug trade), they are not in it for the money but for some political or religious goal. In contrast, criminals are in it for the money or for some other non-political or religious goal (like revenge).

While this also has a certain appeal, there are obviously criminals who commit their crimes (such as killing abortion doctors or attacking political figures) based on political or religious motivations. These people can even have ties to foreign groups (such as transnational religious groups) and yet they are not enemy combatants.

The standard reply to this is to bring in that the person must be on foreign soil. While this does have some appeal, this would seem to allow the targeted killing of an American criminal who has fled to another country, such as Mexico, to hang out with his drug dealer allies.   As such, it seems rather difficult to make a clear distinction between a criminal and a terrorist that would clearly protect American citizens from being executed by the executive branch. While I will not call for an exact line to be drawn, I will call for more definite standards. I am, not surprisingly, in favor of erring on the side of considering citizens criminals rather than enemy combatants in cases in which the matter is not quite clear.

As I hope is evident, my main concern with Holder’s justification is that it makes it far too easy for the president to order the execution of American citizens without due judicial process. This, I contend, extends the president’s powers in a legally unwarranted and morally dubious manner. As such, the targeted killings of Americans without due judicial process should be regarded as both morally wrong and as a violation of the constitution.

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