A Philosopher's Blog

Women in Combat

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 30, 2013


Photograph of two female american soldiers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In January 2013 it was decided that women could serve in combat roles in the United States military. Obviously enough, American women in the military have been involved in combat—being wounded, earning combat medals and being killed. As such, the change simply makes policy match the reality of the situation on the ground (and in the air). Of course, there is a rather important change because of the policy: women can now serve in the positions that provide the best opportunities for career advancement and promotion—positions that had previously been the exclusive domain of men.

On the face of it, this policy change seems perfectly reasonable. As was noted, women have already served in combat situations and have performed at a level comparable to that of their male colleagues. Other nations have long employed female soldiers effectively in combat roles. While people can, of course, find cases in which individual women performed poorly in combat, this no more disqualifies women in general than the poor performance of individual men.

Despite the fact that this change seems sensible, there has been some very loud opposition, primarily from certain conservatives. Other conservatives, such as John McCain, have publicly supported this policy.

Not surprisingly, the old arguments against allowing women in combat have been trotted out in response to this change. Some of these arguments are refurbished versions of those used to argue against allowing women into the military at all and some are sexist retreads of old racist arguments. That is, there is really nothing new being presented as arguments against women serving in combat roles. However, it does seem worthwhile to consider some of these arguments and give them a fair assessment.

One stock argument, which was used to argue against racially integrated units, is based on the claim that the presence of women would destroy unit cohesion. This is a point of concern since unit cohesion is rather important in combat. In the case of women, a variety of reasons are presented as to why they would damage unit cohesion. The first is that men and women would be sexually attracted to each other and this would undermine cohesion. While it is true that men and women generally find each other sexually attractive, the empirical evidence shows that professionals are capable of functioning as professionals—even in combat (as shown in Afghanistan and Iraq). Naturally, some individuals are not capable of acting professionally, but the failures of specific individuals should no more preclude women from serving in combat than it should preclude men.

The second is that male soldiers will be distracted by trying to protect the women soldiers and this would impair the effectiveness of the unit. Since men do often try to protect women (and this is often regarded as heroic), this is a point of reasonable concern. However, the evidence seems to be that trained men and women can function together without this becoming a special problem. Also, the fact that soldiers look out for each other is generally presented as a positive factor—a male soldier who risks his life to save his male buddies is seen as heroic, so why should a willingness to protect female soldiers be regarded as a problem? If a soldier is incapable of acting professionally, then that would be his (or her) individual defect, not grounds for denying women the opportunity to serve in combat roles.

A second stock argument is based on the claim that women soldiers will be subject to sexual assault (either by enemy forces or by fellow Americans). Given the amount of sexual assault that occurs within the American military, this is a matter of concern. However, allowing women in combat roles would not seem to increase the chances of their being assaulted by American soldiers. There is still, however, the concern that sexual assault will be inflicted by enemy forces—after all, rape has often been employed as a tool of war against civilian women, so it makes sense that it could also be employed against female soldiers.

Women enlisting - England (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

In reply, it must be noted that we have long been willing to send young men into battle where they can be mutilated and killed. They can also be taken prisoner and subject to terrible tortures (as happened to McCain). If the concern that women soldiers might be sexually assaulted is grounds for keeping them out of combat roles, then it would seem that the concern that men might be wounded, killed or tortured should suffice as grounds to keep men out of combat as well. That is, if we are really worried about terrible things happening, then we should not have wars at all. But, if are going to have wars, then we need to recognize that horrible things are going to happen to people regardless of their sex.

A third stock argument is based on the claim that there will be quotas set for women in combat roles, thus displacing men. There is, of course, usually the assumption that the women will be unqualified and will be displacing qualified men—thus wronging the men and also making the military weaker. Arguments of this sort were given in the context of race rather than sex.

There are some reasonable grounds for concern here—after all, if it were true that unqualified women were displacing qualified men just to meet some sort of diversity metric, then that would be both unjust and harmful. Naturally, it would need to be shown that this would occur.

There are, however, compelling reasons for initially having some quotas. After all, the existing system excludes women and without some compulsion to admit women into these circles, the tendency would be to simply find all women unqualified and thus keep the boy’s club intact. This would, of course, unjustly deny qualified women the opportunities they deserve. There is also the obvious analogy to the civilian world: women were long excluded from traditional male professions but, once they had the opportunity to do so, they proved as capable as men. There seems to be no reason to think that the same would not apply here as well.

The final argument I will consider is the one that I believe has the most merit, namely the concern about the physical capabilities of women. Obviously enough, men are generally larger, stronger and faster than women. Men also seem more inclined towards traits that serve well in combat—although perhaps some of these are the result of socialization rather than nature. Because of this, it would seem that women would be a poor choice for combat roles since men would be better suited in such roles.

Critics of the idea that women should allowed in combat roles often point to the fact that the military has two sets of physical standards: one for men and one for women. Not surprisingly, the standards for women are considerably lower than those for men. While it could be argued that the lower standards are needed to allow women a chance to qualify, the obvious concern is that if women are held to lower standards then they will be thus less physically qualified than men. While this would not matter if one is filling out requisition forms, it certainly would matter in combat. There is also the obvious moral concern—a man who would meet the qualifications set for women but not those for men would be denied a job simply because he is a man. That seems to be clearly wrong.

It is well worth noting that the general differences between men and women as groups obviously need not hold true between individual men and women. Being a runner and a martial artist, I know many women who are considerably stronger and tougher than the average man. They would easily exceed the requirements set for men. Being an academic and gamer nerd, I also know plenty of men who could not meet the physical qualifications that women have to meet to be in the military.

Because of this, I contend that the military should either differentiate physical standards solely by role (rather than by sex) or that there should be just one general set of physical standards. This would allow women who are qualified to legitimately qualify without there being unjust double standards. It would also respond to the charge that the women in combat roles would not be qualified because they “qualified” by meeting watered down standards.

Because I believe in fairness, I believe that women who qualify for combat roles should have every right to serve in the roles that they earn. I also believe that the sex-based standards should be eliminated and replaced with either role-based standards or a bar that everyone must meet. That is, no more sexism.

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Pathfinder Adventure: Cheben

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2013

Cheben-CoverA Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 1st-3rd level characters.

Free on Amazon from 1/30/2013-2/3/2013.


“You young bucks should be just what Cheben needs. Cheben, as you may know, is a fairly new town located on the island of Leskalisem. We recently reclaimed the island, but there are still a few rough and…weird spots left there. If you know your history, then you know the island was once held by the Empire. Before you get too worried about things, you’ll be reassured to know that it was just a small garrison with a few civilian structures around it. The garrison really didn’t get touched by the Cataclysm and, as far as we know, the soldiers and their families survived to escape to Rykos.

The town is doing well, but as I mentioned there are still a few rough spots left. Nothing too major, but the townsfolk have their hands full building up the community. Also, you and I both know that townsfolk just aren’t cut out to handle anything too much. So, it is up to fellows like us to handle things for them.

You won’t have to be there very long and the pay is quite good. You’ll get 25 gold pieces up front and then a bonus for each task you are able to complete for the townsfolk. Naturally, your passage to the island will be paid for. Do you want the job?”

Available  on Amazon


Cheben Monsters & Maps

Hero Lab Portfolio Folder

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2013

Hello (Photo credit: ZORIN DENU)

In the course of discussing guns control, gun rights and related issues my friend Doug raised the question “is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?” Since this is an interesting question, it seems worthwhile to attempt to address it.

Before the question itself can be addressed, a working definition of tyranny is required. A rather extreme view of the matter is put forth by the philosophical anarchists, such as Goldman. In general, anarchists of this sort regard all government as tyranny. As such, this sort of anarchist would consider a denial of gun rights by the state as tyranny. Thus, the question is easily answered by those who accept anarchism of this sort.  However, accepting this sort of anarchism would require rejecting that the state has any legitimate role to play, which seems to be a rather implausible view. Fortunately there are other accounts of tyranny.

A rather reasonable account is put forth by John Locke in his writings on government.  He defines tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right, which none have a right to” and this involves an official “using power, not for the good of those under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” Locke also adds that “where law ends, tyranny begins, if the law is transgressed to another’s harm.” This view can be disputed, but I will assume it for the sake of the discussion that follows.

Turning now to the matter of gun rights, I am inclined to take the view that gun rights (if there are such things) would fall under the more general right of self-defense (if there is such a right). As with any talk of rights, one useful way to address the matter is to make use of the classic approach of considering rights in the state of nature (a possibly hypothetical state in which there is no government).

Thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke argue that people have the right to self-defense in the state of nature. Hobbes even goes as far as to contend that a person is obligated to preserve herself. He notes that without a right to the means of self-preservation, the right to engage in self-defense would be useless. Because of this, he contends that in his version of the state of nature everyone has a right to all things. So, on Hobbes’ view, if guns were around in the state of nature, everyone would have the right to be armed (and anyone with any sense would be armed). Attempting to deprive someone of her gun in the state of nature would not be tyrannical or even unjust—after all for Hobbes there is no justice until the state of nature has been replaced with civil society. In the state of nature depriving others of their guns would generally be the sensible thing to do—and something that would presumably result in numerous fatal shootouts.

While Locke presents a much nicer state of nature (complete with rights to life, liberty and property) he does allow for the use of violence and force against wrongdoers. On his view, people would presumably have the right to be armed in the state of nature. After all, he argues that the rights need to be enforced by what amounts to vigilante justice and hence if guns existed, then people would need them to defend themselves and others against the people who would violate rights. Since there are no police in the state of nature, everyone would need to be armed—or risk being an easy victim.

While Locke and Hobbes take rather different views of the state, they both argue that when the transition is made from the state of nature to the state of civil society each person gives up her individual right to act as a vigilante, judge, and executioner. This would then place a limit on gun rights (on the assumption people had guns in such a state).

In Hobbes’ case, the sovereign sets the laws and enforces them by the use of force. While the individual retains the right of self-preservation, all other rights are set by the Hobbesian sovereign. Thus, on Hobbes’ view the denial of gun rights would be just, provided that the state was able to enforce its laws. Naturally, if the sovereign were to be gunned down and replaced by a new sovereign that supported individual gun rights, then that would be right—at least until the next sovereign took over.

In Locke’s case, people set aside the role of vigilante in order to create a society with a legal system. As such, people would lose the gun rights that allowed them to dispense justice from the barrel of their own guns. However, Locke explicitly addresses the matter of self-defense. As Locke seems to see it, if someone is threatened and the agents of the state are not available to act in her defense, then she and the person threatening her are effective returned to a state of nature and potentially a state of war. In this state, the person’s right to act as the enforcer of the rights to life, liberty and property return in full. Given that this right is retained even in civil society, it would seem to follow that on a Locke style system that restricting gun rights would impose on this right of self-defense and this could qualify as tyranny. After all, an official would not seem to have the right to deny a person the means to self-defense.

Of course, the obvious counter is that Locke sees the main purpose of government as serving the good of the people. More specifically, this involves protecting life, liberty and property. Given this, it would seem that some limitations on the right of self-defense could easily be justified in terms of protecting the life and property of others. To use a somewhat silly example, this could be justly used to deny people the right to possess weapons capable of doing significant accidental (and intentional) property damage (like grenades, rocket launchers, cannons and bombers). To use  less silly example, it would also seem to allow the denial of rights to weapons when doing so would do more to protect people from harm (that is, protect the right to life) than would allowing people to possess such weapons. This could be used to justify the denial of the right to simply walk into a store and buy an automatic weapon. This would, of course, need to take into account the legitimate right of self-defense. As such, Locke’s view would seem to protect self-defense rights (and presumably gun rights), provided that those rights did not create a threat to the right to life. As such, the state could impose on certain rights (such as the rights to have certain weapons) in a way that would not be tyrannical—that is, acting within the legitimate functions of the state.

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On Not Being Anti-Gun

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 25, 2013
no guns required

no guns required (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I am a philosopher and am often cast as a liberal, people are sometimes surprised to find out that I am not anti-gun. After all, those seen as good liberals are supposed to be against guns as are folks in academics. In the light of the terrible murders at Sandy Hook and in Colorado, it might seem even more odd to not be anti-gun.

In terms of how I feel (as opposed to think) about guns, the explanation is rather easy. When I was a kid, I grew up around guns and hence they were something quite normal to me. When I was old enough to handle a gun, I went shooting and hunting with my father-after being properly trained in gun safety. I remember well the lessons I learned about how to handle a gun safely and the great responsibility that comes with carrying and firing a weapon.

My personal experiences involving guns have, at least so far, been positive: hunting with my dad, target shooting with friends, and learning about historic weapons. I have not had any personal experiences involving gun violence. None of my friends or relatives have been harmed or killed by guns (other than in war). Naturally, I have been affected by the media coverage of the terrible murders at Sandy Hook and elsewhere. However, the impact of what a person sees in the media is far less than the impact of personal experience-at least in terms of how one feels (as opposed to how one thinks) about a matter.  In contrast, I have had friends hurt or killed by vehicles, drugs (legal and illegal), and other non-gun causes. I have had complete strangers try to hurt (or kill) me with their cars while I was biking, walking or running-but I have never been threatened with a gun. As such, I generally feel more negatively towards cars than I do towards guns.

Obviously enough, how a person feels about a matter is no indication of what is true or moral. Feelings can easily be distorted by a lack of sleep, by drugs (legal or illegal), by illness or by other temporary factors. As such, attempting to feel ones way through a complex matter such as the topic of guns is a rather bad idea. As such, while I generally have a positive feeling towards guns, this is no evidence for the claim that I should (morally) not be anti-gun.

In my last post I considered the stock argument that civilian gun ownership is necessary as a defense against the tyranny of the United States federal government. As I argued, the radical changes in weapon technology has made the idea that civilians can resist the onslaught of the entire United States government backed by the military rather obsolete. Back when the black powder muzzle loading cannon was the most powerful battlefield weapon it made sense to believe that plucky civilians armed with muskets could stand against  regular army soldiers with some hope of not being exterminated. However, the idea of fighting against tanks, Predator drones, jet fighters and so on in the blasted ruins of American towns using AR-15s is absurd. I ended this post noting that there are other arguments for civilian gun rights that have actual merit.

From the standpoint of reason, the main reason I am not anti-gun is because of my acceptance of the classic right of self-preservation (as laid out by Thomas Hobbes) and self-defense (as argued for by John Locke). While it is rational to rely on the state for some protection (which is what Locke, Hobbes and other classic thinkers argued for) it would be irrational to rely completely on the state. This is not because of a fear of tyranny so much as because of the obvious fact that the state cannot (and should not) be watching us at all times and in all places. Should a person be pulled back into the state of nature, she will only have herself (or those nearby) to rely on. If she is denied the gun as a means of self-defense, then she is terribly vulnerable to anyone who wishes to do her harm in those times when the state’s agents are not present (such as while she is in her home).  I find this argument to be compelling and hence I am not anti-gun.

It might be countered that if the state was guarding us at all times and in all places, then there would be no need for the individual to have a right to a gun as a means of self defense. While this might be true, the obvious concern would be the price paid in privacy and liberty to enable the state to guard us so thoroughly. While I value my safety and I do not take foolish risks, I also value my liberty and privacy. My pride also motivates me: I am not a child that must be guarded at all times. I am an adult and that means that I must take responsibility for my safety as part of the price of liberty and privacy. On my system of values, the price is worth what I gain in terms of freedom and privacy. Others might well wish to be enveloped in the protective embrace of the state and thus live as perpetual children, unable to make the transition to the risks and rewards of being an adult.

Another, more reasonable, counter is that the cost in blood and life of allowing private citizens to possess guns is too high and thus one should be morally opposed to them. While restricting guns would mean that people would be more vulnerable, it can be argued that the harms done to the unarmed will be vastly exceeded by the reduction in, well, harms done to the unarmed. That is, fewer people will be killed because they lack guns relative to those being saved because of the restrictions on guns.

Even if it could be shown that such controls would be effective and also worth the cost, I would still not be anti-gun.  After all, the fact that tens of thousands of people die because of vehicles does not make me anti-vehicle. Rather, I am anti-harm and anti-death.



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Gun Rights & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2013
Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common approach to arguing in favor of civilian gun rights is to claim that such rights prevent, deter or at least provide a defense against tyranny. In general, the idea seems to be that the people in power will be less inclined and less able to impose tyranny if the civilian population possesses the right to keep and bear arms. In the United States, this is presented in terms of the members of the government deciding to impose tyrannical rule over the people.

On the face of it, this justification does have some appeal. After all, if the government has to overcome armed civilians, then it would obviously be harder than using force against unarmed civilians. Also it could be argued that politicians might fear that they would be assassinated by armed patriots if they started acting in tyrannical ways.

People also point to the American Revolution and claim that the fact that the civilian population was armed was an important factor in the American victory over the British tyranny. Those with some science-fiction leanings also present counter-factual scenarios in which one is asked to imagine what would have happened in Germany if the Jews and anti-Nazi Germans had possessed the right to keep and bear arms (or were at least armed). Stalin and other dictators are also often brought up in this context. The idea is, of course, to appeal to the intuitions of the audience and persuade them that if only the Germans had had their own Second Amendment, then Hitler might have never been able to come to power and the Holocaust might not have happened.

The idea that the cowardly politicians who dream of tyranny are kept in check by red-blooded Americans exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms does have a certain emotional appeal. So too does the thought of armed plucky rebels defending America from tyranny. In fact, such scenarios would no doubt make for successful Hollywood films. But what is appealing and what might make a blockbuster film are not the same as what is, in fact, true.

Naturally enough, the general idea of the role of civilian armaments in deterring tyrants can be debated extensively. This is, of course, a worthwhile debate and would be a rather interesting project for historians to sort out. However, what is under discussion here is the rather specific matter of whether or not the right to keep and bear arms is warranted by the deterrent value of this right against tyranny. This, obviously enough, involves some key matters of fact.

One obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not gun rights frightens politicians with tyrannical intentions—that is, whether worries about assassination keep them in check.

As argued above, it makes sense to think that a politician would be less inclined to do something if she believed doing so would result in people attempting to kill her. Naturally, if the population has easy access to firearms, then an assassin could easily acquire a gun. If there were strict controls on guns, then politicians would have less to worry about in terms of assassins drawn from the ranks of the general population. They would just have to worry about the military and police forces (and anyone who could make a bomb or wield a knife). Obviously, even in a state with strict civilian gun control, the politicians would need to win over the majority of the military and police forces to their tyrannical agenda—or their attempts at tyranny would end rather quickly. In the United States, this would require winning over the national forces (the military, FBI, and so on) as well as the state (National Guard and state police) and local forces (police and sheriffs).

Interestingly, democratic states with stricter gun control than the United States, such as the United Kingdom, do not seem to have fallen into tyranny. This suggests that it is not fear of assassination by citizens exercising their guns rights that keeps a democratic state from tyranny, but rather other factors. But perhaps they are just biding their time and the United Kingdom will soon be back under an absolute monarchy.

A second obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not civilian gun ownership would deter the military and police forces from imposing tyranny on the people at the behest of the tyrant(s). This, of course, assumes that the tyrant(s) has won over the majority of the military and police forces to her plot of tyranny and that there is no significant opposition from the military and police forces that are not in on the tyrannical take over. That is, the tyrant has won over the American citizens in the military and police forces to the degree that they would be willing to throw aside the Constitution and turn their weapons against the general population—including their friends, family, spouses, and children.

In such a scenario, it would seem that civilian weapons would be of little use. After all, the military and police forces of the tyrant would have military weapons (tanks, attack helicopters, bombers, artillery, ships, nukes and so on). Handguns, rifles and shotguns would be of rather limited use against such forces. Back in the time when civilian weapons and military weapons were essentially on par (muskets) and the most destructive military weapons were very limited (muzzle loading cannons) an armed civilian population would reasonably be regarded as a deterrent. However, it is hard to imagine suburban Americans battling successfully against tanks, Predator drones, and Hellfire missiles using AR-15s and .38 specials. That said, there is something to be said for an honorable death fighting against impossible odds.

Of course, the civilians could turn to the sort of tactics used by insurgents and terrorists to resist the military and police of the tyrant—but this would not be a case of the right to keep and bear arms deterring tyranny. However, the main thing that seems to defeat tyrants is a lack of support-without that a tyrant is a just a single man.

Naturally, it can be pointed out that civilian arms could be used to resist a small scale tyrannical incursion (perhaps a takeover in a small town). However, in such a scenario the tyrant would soon be dealt with by the police or military of the state. Also, the main deterrents against American tyrants grabbing American towns would seem to involve not guns but other factors—like an unwillingness to go along with a tyrant.

It would thus seem that civilian gun ownership would be little, if any, deterrence or defenses against a serious tyrant. It is also interesting to note that if such armaments provided considerable power against the state, there would be the fear that they would be used by a segment of the population to impose their own tyrant on others.

In light of the above, the defense against tyranny argument would seem to provide little in the way of justification for civilian gun rights. This should not be terribly shocking—after all, the second amendment does not justify the right to keep and bear arms in terms of having an armed population ready to shoot it out with other armed citizens.

There are, however, good reasons for gun rights, but these are beyond the intended scope of this essay.

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Dr. King & Guns

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 21, 2013


One rather odd aspect of the recent debate regarding gun laws is the claim that Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior would support the NRA position on guns. Given that Dr. King was assassinated with a firearm and preached against violence, this sort of claim seems both ironic and somewhat distasteful. However, it does seem worthwhile to consider Dr. King’s views regarding guns and gun rights.


Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipediws regarding guns in the context of his moral and philosophical views.


On the one hand, there are not unreasonable grounds for claiming that Dr. King supported and accepted gun rights.


In his “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. King made it clear that he respected and accepted the constitution: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Given that the second amendment is part of the constitution, it is not unreasonable to accept that Dr. King respected that amendment. However, this inference would obviously be somewhat weak—after all, he might value certain aspects of the constitution while also taking issue with certain parts (such as counting African-Americans as 3/5 of a person).


As far as more practical evidence, Dr. King owned guns in the 1950s for the purpose of self-protection in the face of death threats from racists—in face, his house was described as an arsenal and was guarded by armed supporters. He even applied for (and was denied) a concealed weapons permit.


Given Dr. King’s use of armed protection and his ownership of guns, it is not unreasonable to infer that he accepted the right of self-protection and took this right to include the possession and presumably the use of firearms. As such, it would not seem to be a stretch to claim that there would be some overlap between the views generally presented by the NRA and Dr. King’s own views regarding guns.


Of course, it is well worth noting that Dr. King was clearly in danger of assassination (and he was ultimately assassinated) and hence his views at the time must be taken within this context—a context that also included the fact that Dr. King had good reason to believe that the police might not be inclined to act in his defense. As such, the sort of principle at work here would seem to be that the possession of guns would be acceptable when a person is in clear danger from wrongly harm and there is a very reasonable expectation that the state will not offer protection against that danger. As such, to infer what Dr. King would think about guns in more “normal” contexts would be a matter of speculation.


While the above does provide some reasons to believe that Dr. King accepted gun rights in the 1950s, the story would not be complete without considering what occurred and was said latter.


In the “I have a Dream” speech that made his respect for the constitution clear, Dr. King also made it clear that he opposed the use of violence—at least in the context of the struggle for civil rights. He said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” This view is, of course, supported by his use of the methods of civil disobedience and his well-known opposition to the use of violence.


It might, of course, be pointed out that his rejection of violence would seem to be in a very specific context—namely that of the struggle for civil rights. It could also be argued that this approach was motivated primarily by practical reasons, such as the realization that the use of violence would not achieve his goals. As such, it could be contended that he did not reject his 1950s view of guns as a means of defense but rather had adopted non-violence as a specific tactic for a political struggle. After all, the fact that a person supports non-violence in politics does not entail a rejection of gun rights or the use of force in other contexts.


However, Dr. King directly addressed the matter of guns and gun violence. In response to the assassination of John Kennedy, King said “…by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”


This would seem to clearly indicate that Dr. King’s later view of guns included a rejection of the idea that guns should be available for purchase “at will.” While this is open to interpretation, this does seem to suggest a support for limiting the ability of people to purchase guns.


It is interesting to note that the current NRA spokesmen and Dr. King clearly agree on one point, namely the influence of movies and television on creating a culture of violence. However, this obviously does not entail that Dr. King and the NRA share the same general views. After all, Dr. King made his views on the ready availability of firearms for sale clear and this obviously does not match the position of the NRA.




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The NRA & Obama’s Children

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2013

National_Rifle_Association (Photo credit: ChrisWaldeck)

The NRA recently released a video in response to Obama’s skepticism about its proposal to put an armed guard in every school. The gist of the matter is that Obama is accused of being an “elitist hypocrite”  because his two daughters have constant Secret Service protection.

The ad asks “Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?” It then, perhaps somewhat oddly,  drags in the matter of taxes on the wealthy: “Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he is just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

Obama’s view on the matter of armed guards in schools was presented on n NBC’s “Meet the Press”  in December of 2012: “I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools, and I think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow is going to solve our problem,” Obama said. “And, look, here’s the bottom line. We’re not going to get this done unless the American people decide it’s important.”

On the face of it, the ad could be seen as a well-crafted  ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

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

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true – but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.

In this case, pointing out that Obama seems to say one thing (that he is skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools) while practicing another (having his two girls protected by the Secret Service even when they are in school) and then inferring Obama is in error would seem to be a clear example of this fallacy.

It is also well worth pointing out that Obama’s claim does not seem to be inconsistent with his daughters having secret service protection. After all, what he claims is that he is “skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools.” That is, he is skeptical that putting more guns in school and doing nothing else will solve the problem.

Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, expanded on the content of the video and seems to be making an appeal for a consistent application of a principle/practice: “The president and his family enjoy 24-hour-security from law enforcement at taxpayer expense, and this ad asks very real questions: If it’s good enough for the president, why shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest for us?”

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. To fail to do this is to apply a principle inconsistently, which is what Arulanadam seems to be accusing Obama of doing.   Inconsistent application of a principle is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.  Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Arulanandam does seem to make a reasonable point. After all, if such armed security for Obama’s children is acceptable, then consistency would seem to demand that the same protection be afforded to other children (or even everybody).  Or, at the very least, that providing such protection for others would be reasonable.

Naturally, similar claims could be made regarding all the special treatment the President receives. For example, the president’s plane is maintained to a degree that vastly exceeds what is required for commercial airliners. Given Arulanandam’s view, it would follow that commercial airlines should be required to follow the same practices. Interestingly, Arulanandam’s view could also be applied to almost any special perks anyone receives. If this view were not being put forth by the NRA this view would certainly be seen as rather leftist.

The obvious reply to Arulanandam is to point out relevant differences between Obama’s situation and that of other Americans. Obviously, Obama is the president and this means his family is more likely to be targeted for harm than other families. As such, the difference in protection can be justified based on this relevant difference. Not surprisingly, other powerful individuals tend to secure more protection for their families on similar grounds, namely that they are more likely to need that protection than the average person. Thus, the difference in protection could be justified on the grounds of relevant differences.

One obvious counter to this is, as the NRA noted, that this sort of disparity seems elitist. After all, he and his family are protected around the clock by trained professionals, while the rest of us are mostly on our own (although we can call the police). He also gets to fly in his own wonderfully maintained plane in luxury while the rest of us generally have to fly coach in planes that are most likely maintained at the legally minimum levels (if that). Given the NRA remarks about taxing the wealthy, it is somewhat ironic that this would apply to all the elites who enjoy all those elite benefits that the rest of us do not receive. It, as the NRA contends, seems unfair that Obama and the other elites get so much while the rest of us get so little.  Who would ever have suspected that the NRA would make what seems to be a leftist attack on the privileged elites in favor of what seems to be equality? Then again, maybe they are only concerned about equal armaments and not equality in general.

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Contingent Faculty

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2013
Tenure (film)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I began my career as a professor, I worked as an adjunct. There are many downsides to being an adjunct, not the least of which is that employment is entirely contingent. That is, an adjunct can be let go simply by not offering a contract for the next semester. It is also not uncommon for adjuncts to begin work with only the promise of a contract-a promise that sometimes turns out to be empty.

After being an adjunct, I became a visiting professor. This is rather better than being an adjunct, since it comes with better pay, benefits and the contract length is longer (a year or sometimes longer). However, visiting professorships are (by their very nature) limited in duration. Visiting professors also do not, as visiting faculty, earn tenure.

After being a visiting professor, I was able to get into a tenure track line and eventually earned tenure. There are various misconceptions about tenure, such as the notion that tenured faculty cannot be fired. This is not true-tenured faculty can be fired. Unlike contingent faculty, a tenured faculty member can not be simply let go. Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.

While tenure is presented as its detractors as a means by which inept faculty can avoid being fired as they coast towards an easy retirement, this is not its intended or actual purpose. One purpose of tenure is to serve as an incentive for success. That is, if a faculty member works hard for the better part of a decade and achieves professional success, then she can get the security of tenure. Naturally, this is not as lucrative as the rewards ladled out to comparable levels of success in the financial or business sectors-but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values. To steal a line from the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, to remove tenure would punish success and destroy incentive. After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure. But perhaps significant incentives are only fit for the job creators and no one else.

A second reason for tenure is to protect academic freedom. Once a faculty member has tenure, then she has a degree of protection that can allow her to express intellectual ideas without (much) fear of being simply disposed of in retaliation. To be honest, once a person has spent years grinding away towards tenure, she has obviously learned to work within the system. One rarely sees a faculty member suddenly emerging from the caterpillar state of being tenure earning to become a radical butterfly once getting tenure. However, tenure still serves a valuable purpose by protecting intellectual freedom more than a lack of tenure would.

As might be imagined, some are opposed to tenure. These people tend to favor the business model of academics in which one key goal is to reduce labor costs. By removing tenure, faculty can be let go and replaced with cheaper faculty as needed. Also, faculty perceived as “troublesome” (such as union organizers) could be fired, thus reducing the threat of a powerful faculty union.

Some people also oppose tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common view is that employers should have the right to fire employees at any time, even without cause or reason. Going along with this view, obviously enough, is the idea that employees do not have any right to be employed. Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who hold this view also contend that the risk-takers in business should have the chance for massive rewards because of the risks they take. Interestingly, they seem to fail to see that people working without job security are rather big risk takers. After all, everyday is a day they risk being fired because their employer wants to cut expenses to boost profits.

Folks who support this view often tend to point to live outside of academics where most workers lack job security. A standard refrain is “why should tenured faculty have the job security that other workers lack?” But, a better question might be “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”

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Litter & Vandalism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 14, 2013
English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I went for my run this morning, I ran across the usually bounty of litter that people dump in the park, streets and sidewalks. I actually run litter loops in the park each day, picking up trash. Today someone had slung the remains of a big takeout order from a restaurant into the park-the large bag, plenty of plates, cups and so on. I also got my usual collection of discarded water bottles and other assorted debris. I also ran across some impressive vandalism.

When the park was “renovated” a few years back, they added sign posts labeling the various trails. These posts are landscaping timbers that were sunk into pre-dug holes and had spikes driven into them to make it harder for folks to pull them out. But, some local vandal-hulk was up to the task and ripped out one of the signs, bending the spikes. I spotted the hole before stepping into it (a person could easily get a foot stuck and break something) and then found the timber that had been tossed into the woods. I replaced it as best I could and then checked the others for vandalism.

Since I’m teaching ethics and hand plenty of time on my run to think about this, I wondered about whether or not littering and vandalism are evil. On the face of it, I would say that they would seem to involve, at the least, a lack of virtue.

In the case of littering, there would seem to be two main contenders for the controlling vice. The first would be laziness: littering because one is too lazy to carry the trash away. This, obviously, would not account for people who throw trash from their cars, but could explain those who simply leave empty water and sport’s drink bottles littered about. The second would be a lack of respect for the environment and other people. Of course, a person might also casually litter due to lack of thought-some people treat their own living areas as trash pits, so they would no doubt see public places the same way. I would probably not consider being this way an evil thing, but is clearly a defect of character and it could be considered a vice.

Vandalism is more clearly immoral. After all, a person is damaging or destroying property with a malicious intent. Even if a person is “just playing” or “having fun”, the person is still causing damage or harm when s/he has no right to do so. There is also the obvious matter of the consequences of the vandalism. Someone will have to expend resources to repair or undo the damage. For example, I had to spend my time this morning putting that timber back in place so people would know where the trails led and, more importantly, so that someone did not get injured by stepping into the hole.

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Background Checks

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 11, 2013
Calamity Jane, notable pioneer frontierswoman ...

Photo by H.R. Locke. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary focused America’s attention on the matters of guns, violence and mental illness. The attention has faded substantially, as it always does after terrible events. However, politicians, pundits, and interested parties have remained focused on these matters.

As might be imagined, there is a renewed will to pass new laws regarding guns.  For the most part, the focus has been on the usual suspects: assault rifles, large capacity magazines, and the “loophole” that allows citizens to sell guns to people without background checks. I have written about semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines before, so I will focus on the loophole in question.

In general, when a person goes to a gun store to buy a gun, she has to pass a background check. This process is fairly quick, so a person can usually walk into a Walmart or other place that sells guns and walk out with a shotgun or rifle. Pistols typically require a waiting period, which has always struck me as a bit odd. I’ve actually worked in a gun store and have bought guns, so I have seen this process from both sides. I have never seen anyone fail the background check, but that is most likely because folks who would fail the check generally know they will do so. Also, some of the folks who would fail a background check can probably just get guns through  illegal channels. However, no doubt some people do fail the check and are denied the gun they want to buy.

The rules are rather different when a person is buying a gun from a private citizen (that is, someone who is not selling firearms as a dealer). If I have a gun  I want to sell and Calamity Jane  wants to buy it, I can sell it to her with no waiting period and no background check. That is, she could just saunter over to my house, toss down some cash, and saunter away with the gun. This is, currently, perfectly legal.

This “loophole” is sometimes called the “gun show loophole” because individuals often go to gun shows to sell or trade firearms. While dealers still need to make checks at gun shows, individuals do not. It is, not, however, limited to gun shows.

While this might seem odd, it actually is not that much different from other businesses. For example, if I want to run a business, I would typically need a license and I would face various regulations and restrictions. However, if I want to sell my truck, laptop, or dog to someone, I can do that with little in the way of regulation as long as I am acting as an individual and not as a business owner. The idea that a person has a right to sell her property in this manner is rather well-established and is a key part of the rights of property that are fundamental to a free society (in which almost nothing is free).

Getting back to the sale of guns by private individuals, a restriction on this would seem to violate this basic right. After all, guns are not illegal and hence reselling a gun would not be comparable to an individual dealing in an illegal product like heroin or chemical weapons.  However, some folks are rather concerned about this right.

The obvious concern is that someone who would not pass a background check, such as someone with the wrong sort of criminal record, would be able to bypass the check by buying a gun from another individual. Thus, by allowing individuals to sell (or give away) guns without a background check, the background checks become all but useless since they can be easily avoided by anyone who can find someone who will sell him a gun. As some folks see it, the solution is to not allow guns to be sold without such background checks.

Since private citizens generally lack the means to run such checks (and it would be a violation of privacy to simply allow everyone to check on everyone else), this would entail that all gun sales would have to be conducted in a way that would allow such a check to take place, such as by having the transaction occur through a licensed dealer. Presumably this would also have to extend to gifts and inheritances-after all, those are also ways a person could get a gun without having a background check. This would, of course, be somewhat inconvenient. However, it might be worth it, provided that it had a significant impact on crime.

On the one hand, it would seem that it would have at least some effect. After all, it would make it somewhat harder for people who could not pass a background check to get a gun via legal means.

On the other hand, the effect might be rather limited.  After all, anyone who knew about the law, was law-abiding and would pass a background check would go through this process to get a gun. But they are the sort of people who could just buy a gun directly from a dealer and also the sort of people who are unlikely to commit gun crimes. Those who would not pass the check could still acquire guns in other ways, such as the various illegal ways (theft, illegal gun sales, and so on). Another rather important concern is that the murders that have served to refocus attention on gun laws would not have been prevented by closing this “loophole.” After all, the killer at Sandy Hook would not have been prevented from getting those guns by a closing of this loophole. However, it is worth determining what impact such a law would have on violence. If it would reduce crime, then it might be worth the inconvenience. Likewise, making tougher restrictions on driving (such as not allowing people to drive when they could walk, bike or run) could save lives-but the question is whether we think it is worth the inconvenience.

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