A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 9, 2012

The GSA is currently in the media spotlight. More accurately, the agencies lavish $823,000 conference (complete with $4 shrimp) in Las Vegas has been getting the attention.

The ethics of this situation are rather clear: those responsible for this acted wrongly by wasting public money on this lavish event. While conferences can (perhaps) be a legitimate part of the agency’s operations and conference that are legitimately part of work should be covered by the agency, the spending was both excessive and unnecessary. It was also, as comedians have pointed out, amazingly lame for Las Vegas. On the plus side, they did produce quite the music video:

In addition to the wrongness of the initial incident, there is also the moral concern about the responsibility of the people who are supposed to keep an eye on such matters. While the head of the agency did resign, that hardly restores the wasted money and clearly does not undo the damage done by the incident.

In a time in which many Americans are struggling, this sort of wasteful excess is a slap in the face of the taxpayer. It also lends credence to the view that the state is out of control and provides a rather vivid focus for those who contend that we are taxed enough already. After all, if the GSA can blow money on commemorative coins and “yearbooks”, then it makes it a bit harder to argue that taxes should be increased.  After all, why should we hand over our money so that some government jack ass can have $4 shrimp while reading his/her custom yearbook in Las Vegas?

As I see it, the Obama administration needs to act decisively in this manner and punish those responsible. The wasteful spending of the GSA clearly constitutes corruption and could even be cast as the theft of federal funds. As such, I do not think that criminal charges would be out of place here. At the very least, all the money beyond the legitimate expenditures should be returned by those responsible. That should help deter future cases of this sort of foolishness.

I will, of course, note that this sort of foolish and wasteful excess is not uncommon. It occurs not only in government, but also in education (most commonly administrators) and the private sector. In some cases, it might start with good intentions, but such waste is inexcusable-especially now.

The Republicans will, sensibly enough, try to use this incident for political points. Of course, the same sort of things have (and will) happen under Republicans-excess and waste are clearly bi-partisan in nature. What we need is not people scoring easy political points but a significant effort to ensure that this sort of thing does not occur again. Or, more realistically, that efforts are taken to make such events less likely and to recover the lost money from the responsible parties.

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Demonizing Trayvon Martin

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 6, 2012

The death of Trayvon Martin has become a matter of great controversy and has served to spawn other controversies. One of these is the claim that Trayvon Martin is being demonized.

In terms of the facts, it has been revealed that Trayvon Martin had been suspended from school because marijuana residue had been found in a plastic bag in his possession.  It was also revealed that he had been suspended twice before-once for an attendance issue and another for allegedly marking on a locker.

On the one hand, revealing these facts could be seen as mere reporting. After all, the function of the news media (after making money) is to report information to the public. Just as information about Zimmerman is being revealed to the public, so too would information about Martin.

On the other hand, some concern has been expressed that the information about Martin was leaked to the media. After all, his school record is presumably supposed to be kept confidential.  Given that this information is negative, it is naturally for people concerned about Martin’s reputation to be worried that he is now the victim of an intentional demonizing rather than this being merely a situation of the media doing some legitimate reporting. It could also be speculated that this alleged demonizing is being done in anticipation of a criminal or civil trial and is intended to cast Martin as a troublesome youth who might very well have provoked Zimmerman into an act of self-defense.

Sticking to the facts, they show that Martin was not a perfect student. He was apparently suspended three times and some might consider the baggie as evidence of drug use. However, there are two important things to consider about these facts.

The first, and the least important of the two, is that while these facts show that Martin was not perfect, they hardly serve to show that he is a thug or prone to violence. At the very worst, they show that he missed school, suggest he smoked pot, and indicate he marked up school property. While I will not defend these acts by saying that they are common behavior for American students, I will note that they do not mark him as a special menace. Rather, they show that he seems to have acted like a fairly typical teenager and this seems no different from when I was a kid.

While I was never suspended, I did get in fist fight (after being attacked) in school and I once got in serious trouble for skipping out on detention. My cross country team did get in trouble once because a bus driver reported that they smelled pot on the bus after a race. While I was not a direct suspect (I was out with an injury for that event and hence not on the bus), I was “locked down” with the rest of the team until the culprits came forward.  None of us were thugs-we were just kids doing the stupid things that kids often do because they are kids and not adults (and, of course, adults do very stupid things as well). As such, these facts about Martin are hardly shocking and hardly damning. Unless, of course, they damn almost all American students.

The second, and most important, of the two is that these facts have no bearing on the case. Even if it is true that Martin was suspended three times, even if he marked up a locker, even if he was high at the time, it does not follow that his death would be thus justified. After all, none of these facts indicate that Martin would be likely to simply attack Zimmerman without provocation. There is, after all, considerable difference between what Martin is alleged to have done (cutting school, possessing pot and marking up a locker) and being a violent person.

Naturally, evidence of irrational violent behavior would be relevant-both in regards to Martin and Zimmerman.  If either (or both) of them had such tendencies and this could be proven, that would impact the case in terms of the likelihood of who attacked who. There is, however, currently no evidence that Martin was especially prone to violence.



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Discerning Racism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 4, 2012

The death of Trayvon Martin has created a significant controversy in the United States and it has attracted attention around the world.

From a legal standpoint, the main points of contention are factual in nature. If Zimmerman acted in legitimate self-defense (as he claims), then he would seem to have acted within the law. If Zimmerman did not act in legitimate self-defense, then it would seem that he would have acted outside of the law and thus should presumably be charged with a crime. There also seems to be the possibility that both people believed they were acting in legitimate self-defense and, of course, perhaps there are other possibilities as well. From an objective standpoint, the currently available evidence does not seem decisive. That is, in a hypothetical trial a competent attorney could weave a narrative that accounts for all the existing evidence that supports either the defense or the prosecution.

Not surprisingly, media folks and other people have been rather busy digging up information regarding Zimmerman and Martin. Their proponents have, naturally enough, focused on presenting positive information whole their opponents have fixated on the negative. In the case of Martin, considerable focus has been placed on the claim that he was suspended from school because of an empty bag containing marijuana residue. In the case of Zimmerman, focus has been placed on past behavior that seems negative.

Also not surprisingly, race has been brought in as a factor. It has been claimed that Zimmerman acted on the basis of racism and that Martin was shot because he was a young black man. It is this aspect of the matter that

Sign for "colored" waiting room at a...

Clearly racist.

has served to generate considerable attention.

Given the history of racism in the United States, it would not be absurd to consider that race was a factor in the incident. However, an accusation of racism requires adequate support if it is to be anything but a mere accusation. Naturally, to assume that there must be racism involved because the parties involved were black and Hispanic would itself seem to be a racist assumption. This is because it would assume that a Hispanic must be motivated by racism and not some other factors.

The difficulty of discerning whether or not racism is a causal factor can range from very easy to very difficult. For example, if people in Klan regalia murder a black person while shouting racist slogans and make it clear that they are killing the person because s/he is black, then it would be eminently reasonable to believe that racism was a factor. However, the matter is obviously not so clear in the case of Zimmerman. As such, to confirm a hypothesis of racism as a causal factor would require sorting out what would serve as evidence for such a claim and showing that such evidence exists.

As might be imagined, sorting out what counts as evidence for racism can be a rather controversial matter. As noted above, there are some easy and obvious cases (such as those involving self-identified racists who make it clear they are motivated by racism). However, when there is no Klan hood or shouted racist slogans, then a more subtle sort of evidence is called for. This, of course, raises the concern that the evidence might be rather too subtle.

One obvious starting point is the ethnicity of those involved. On the face of it, for racism to be a factor, then those involved would seem to need to differ in ethnicity (although this could be disputed-perhaps a person could be a racist regarding his/her own race). While this might be a necessary condition, it is clearly not a sufficient condition-otherwise every (presumably negative) interaction between folks of different ethnic backgrounds would be at least partially caused by racism. This seems to be so absurd that, at the very least, the burden of proof would need to be on the person who claims that racism is always a factor. Interestingly, if it could be shown that racism is always a factor, then it would not be a special factor in any such cases-since every such case would involve racism.

Getting back to the specific case, the fact that Zimmerman and Martin are of different ethnic backgrounds means that racism is a possibility-but only a mere possibility.

A second avenue of evidence is what a person says. In the United States there is a reasonably clear collection of racist terms and the use of them can be taken as evidence for the possibility of racism. In addition to specific words, there is also (obviously enough) the other things that a person might have said before or during the incident in question. It must, of course, be noted that such terms and the use of certain remarks is not conclusive evidence of racism. To use the obvious example, people in an ethnic group sometimes use racist terms regarding their own ethnicity. In an interesting coincidence, as I type this, I am listening to Kanye West and Jay-Z singing “Niggas in Paris” courtesy of Grooveshark. However, it would seem unreasonable to say that West and Jay-Z are presenting evidence of their racism against blacks. Naturally, it could be contended that the use of such terms is privileged by race/ethnicity and if a person of a different ethnicity uses such a term, then it is racist. This view, obviously enough, seems to involve accepting that racial or ethnic differences are actually significant and meaningful differences-which might be regarded as being a form of racism. However, discussing this matter would take the discussion to far afield and it must be set aside, at least for now.

There is also the fact that when people are angry, they tend to use the words they think will do the most damage or express their anger and hence they often use terms with racist connections. To use the obvious analogy, when people are angry, they also tend to swear, mainly because of what such words express and what they do. As such, saying things that sound racist need not be strong evidence that a person is racist.

Of course, it can be countered that people who are not racist do not use such terms even when angry. As such, a person using such terms when angry is saying what they really think, but conceal under normal conditions. This, of course, rests on the assumption that anger reveals what is truly in a person’s mind as opposed to the view that people say in anger what they do not really mean. As might imagined, this can be rather difficult to sort out as we do not fully understand the workings of the mind.

In the specific case at hand, the transcript of what Zimmerman said during his 911 call does not contain any blatantly racist remarks. Naturally, considerable attention has been paid to the unintelligible parts of the recording. However, these seem to be more of a Rorschach test for the listener than actual evidence of any racist comments. The mere fact that a garbled word or words might sound something like a racist word or phrase is hardly adequate evidence of racism-after all, people can hear “words” even in natural sounds and the sounds of animal and this hardly proves that the wind or a husky was actually saying specific words. Even if audio experts are brought in to work on the audio, there is still the obvious question of whether the “improvement” of the audio would reveal something that was actually said, or would merely make garbled sounds resemble a racist (or non-racist) remark. However, if the audio were properly cleaned up and then revealed unambiguously racist words, then this would be quite a different matter.

People do point to the fact that Zimmerman does say things that seem racist to them and this can be used to make a reasonable case in favor of the racism hypothesis. However, there is the obvious question of whether Zimmerman would have reacted similarly had the situation differed only by the person not being black. If Zimmerman would have said comparable things seeing a young Hispanic, white or Asian, etc., then it would be reasonable to infer that he was either not racist (or was racist towards everyone). Of course, there is the obvious question of whether such evidence is available or not.

It could also be replied that since I am a mostly Caucasian French-English-Mohawk mix, I simply cannot see the racism that would be obvious to someone of a different ethnicity/race. While it is tempting to dismiss such a response as being racist (after all, it makes assumptions about me based on my genetic background), it is reasonable to consider that different experiences that are often linked to ethnicity/race can lead to different perspectives. To support this, I will use my own experience.

While I look rather white, I have been a professor at an historically black university since 1993. While I would not claim that this enables me to have a “trans-racial” perspective, it has given me  a somewhat different perspective on matters involving race and racism. I have found that because I have white skin, people will say and do things around me without being “on guard” against seeming racist. Over the years, I have noticed that people will sometimes say and do racist things that they actually do not see as racist-though the certainly seem racist to me. One classic example is that when I first started teaching at Florida A&M University, people would innocently ask me “what is it like teaching those people?” I would, of course, say “You mean students, right?” Then there would always be a very uncomfortable pause as the person realized that they had just said something that seemed just a bit racist. These sort of experiences have served to make it clear to me that what might not seem racist to one person might, in fact, be racist when properly considered.  At the very least, it might truly seem racist to the person. As such, I would be a fool not to consider that my perception of the matter might be in error-that I am missing real evidence that others can clearly see. Of course, being a philosopher, I must also consider the fact the people sometimes see what is not, in fact, there. This raises the obvious problem of sorting out perception and reality-a matter that goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Third, an obvious place to look for evidence of alleged current racism is to look for evidence of past racism. After all, people tend to act in accord with their character. This, of course, can run us in a bit of a circle: to find out whether past actions where racist or not, we would need to use the standards that we need for the current case. As such, turning to past cases would require establishing that those cases involved racism. If those past cases are in doubt, then they would not serve as very good evidence for the claim that the current case involves racism. If the past cases were clearly cases involving racism, then they would lend credence to a current claim of racism.

While there has been considerable focus on Zimmerman, as this is being written there seems to a lack of decisive evidence of his alleged evidence. While absence of evidence is not itself evidence of absence, the burden of proof  would seem to rest on those who claim that he is a racist. But, as noted above, perhaps such evidence exists and I simply cannot properly interpret it.

It might be argued, as some have, that Zimmerman cannot be a racist because he is “half Hispanic.” This is, obviously enough, not a good argument. Racism is, ironically enough, an equal opportunity employer.

My overall conclusion is, obviously enough, one of uncertainty. As this is being written, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence showing that Zimmerman is a racist or that he acted from racist motivations.  Likewise, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence that he is not a racist.

Given a presumption of innocence, it seems reasonable to hold that a person is not a racist until proven otherwise. As such, I would not be inclined to claim that Zimmerman of racism at this time. If additional evidence becomes available, my view could change-but, as always, a conclusion should be based on adequate evidence that is objectively considered. I am, however, keeping in mind that I could be just as blind to evidence of racism as the people who asked me about teaching “those people” in the example I gave above.

As always, my commitment is to the truth and if decisive evidence can be provided for or against a claim of racism, then I would accept such a claim based on the evidence.

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The Individual Mandate

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 2, 2012
United States Supreme Court building in Washin...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and this has created quite a political stir. One of the main points of concern is the individual mandate. The gist of this is that individuals are required to buy health insurance. Those who fail to do so will be fined.

Setting aside the rabid rhetoric, the main philosophical issue seems to be whether or not the state has a legitimate right to impose this mandate. Or, as opponents of the mandate put it, whether or not the state has the right to require people to buy a private product.

On the face of it, I am inclined to agree that the state does not have a general right to compel citizens to buy products even when it would be wise and good to do so. As critics have noted, while broccoli is good for people, the state would seem to have no legitimate right to compel people to buy it. This sort of reasoning is consistent with my own view of liberty, which is roughly based on that of John Stuart Mill’s view. The general idea is that people only have a moral right to compel people when the actions in question can cause unwarranted harm to others. Even if doing something would be good or wise, society has no right to compel an individual into doing (or not doing something) when it is not their legitimate concern (that is, involves harm to others).

Because of my adherence to this view of liberty, I would be against the state compelling people to buy broccoli, to exercise or to quit smoking. After all, in such matters the individual is sovereign. Since I endeavor to be consistent in my principles, I also oppose the illegality of recreational drugs as well as any law that would ban same-sex marriage. After all, if it would violate liberty to force someone to buy broccoli because it is good for them, it would also seem to violate liberty to force someone to forgo marijuana because it is bad for them or to forgo same sex marriage because some people do not like it. Not surprisingly, some folks are not quite consistent in these matters: they scream for freedom when an individual mandate is on the line but are quite happy to impose on others when the issue turns to same-sex marriage.

Given my view on a broccoli mandate it might be suspected I would oppose the individual mandate.  However, this is not the case-I actually support it. Naturally, some folks might accuse me of supporting it from blind liberalism. However, my reasons for supporting it are classic conservatism. This should not be at all shocking since the individual mandate actually has a fine conservative pedigree.

Given its origin, it might be tempting to argue that the conservative assault on the mandate is misguided. However, to claim that something is good (or bad) based on its origin would be an error (specifically the genetic fallacy). It might also be tempting to argue that the conservatives are being inconsistent in attacking the mandate given that it was supported by conservatives in the past. However, this would be a mere ad hominem tu quoque.  However, it is certainly interesting to note that the conservative opposition to the mandate seems to be driven by their opposition to Obama rather than the result of a reasoned repudiation of the conservative arguments in favor of the mandate. As such, one might suspect that the rejection of the mandate is motivated in part by an ad homimen attack amounting to “Obama and the Democrats are for it, so it must be bad.” However, my goal is not to consider the history and psychology of the matter, but to present conservative arguments for the mandate.

One stock conservative principle is that people should take responsibility for themselves. This principle is often taken to entail more specific principles, such as the one that people should pay for what they receive and the one that the state should always endeavor to avoid providing welfare and its ilk.

These principles seem eminently reasonable. After all, if I fail to take responsibility and because of this I get aid from the state that I have not paid for, it would seem reasonable to regard me as a thief. To use a specific example, if I decide that I am tired of working and quit my job to go on welfare, then I would seem to be stealing from my fellows. After all, I could support myself and merely would have chosen not to do so. To use another example, if my company gets subsidies from the state when it is profitable on its own, I would thus seem to be robbing my fellows. After all, my company can easily support itself without sponging off the taxpayers.

At this point, one might be wondering what these principles have to do with the individual mandate. After all, it has been cast as the state imposing on liberty by forcing people to buy a product. However, this is not the proper way to see the mandate. To see that this is the case, consider the following.

Back in 1986 the United States Congress passed the  Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. This act mandates that hospitals cannot turn away or transfer a patient unnecessarily when there is an emergency condition. While hospitals can ask about the patient’s ability to pay, they cannot delay or refuse treatment based on a lack of ability to pay. Hospitals can, of course, refuse to provide treatment or examination in non-emergency situations. Hospitals that violate the law can be fined as can doctors who are complicit in declaring a patient’s condition to be a non-emergency when it actually was.

Since people know that hospitals cannot turn away emergency cases, people who do not have insurance often turn to emergency rooms for medical treatment. In some cases, they do so even for routine care on the assumption that the medical personnel will provide at least some care even in the case of non-emergencies. While there has been some dispute over the exact numbers, this has been a problem in many hospitals for quite some time.

Obviously enough, when a hospital provides “free” medical care to the uninsured, it still must be paid for. After all, medical personnel do not work for free nor do the supplies and equipment needed for treatment come free. While hospitals do try to collect from the uninsured patients, this often does not cover the bill. After all, most people who are uninsured are without insurance because they cannot afford it  rather than as a matter of choosing to forgo it. As such, the costs must be passed on to those who have insurance as well as on to the state. It is estimated that covering the bills of the uninsured adds $1500 to a family’s insurance premiums and about $500 to that of an individual.

As such, under the current system hospitals are required to provide services to those who cannot pay and the insured and the taxpayers are compelled to pay the bill. Thus, some people are not taking responsibility by paying for what they receive and others are left to pick up the tab-including the state. This is exactly the sort of situation that one would expect a conservative to rail against. After all, it involves people getting something for nothing as well as other people being compelled to pay more. And, of course, it also involves the state in providing “handouts.”

In this situation, there seem to be two main legitimate conservative options. The first is to ensure an end to the free ride and the government handouts by compelling people to get insurance. This way they would be paying for what they received and not being free riders. This, coupled with the Affordable Care Act,  would also have the benefit of allowing people affordable access to non-emergency preventative care which would be better for their health and also reduce the strain on emergency rooms. There is, however, a second option.

A second way to address this problem is to repeal the part of the  Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act that requires hospitals to provide emergency care to people who cannot pay. If those without insurance or money were not treated, then there would be no extra cost to pass on to the insured or to the state, thus solving the problem at hand.

Obviously, while the second solution would save some people money, it would not come without a price. It would require accepting that people should be left to die if they lack the financial resources to pay for vastly overpriced medical care. I would certainly hope that this is not a value that my fellow Americans would endorse, but perhaps this is not the case. Perhaps we should be free of the burden of caring for others and they should be free to die on the curb of a hospital because the job creators did not create an adequate  job for them.

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