A Philosopher's Blog

Bathroom Laws

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

One way to approach the moral issue of whether transgender people should be able to choose their bathrooms is to consider the matter in utilitarian terms. This would involve weighing the harms inflicted by denying this choice against the harms inflicted by granting it. In a democracy, this approach seems to a reasonable one—at least if it is believed that a democratic state should aim at the general good of the people.

A utilitarian assessment of the bathroom choice issue leads to an obvious conclusion: bathroom choice should be granted. As I have argued in another essay, the two main arguments against bathroom choice fail in the face of due consideration and facts. One argument is that allowing bathroom choice would put people in danger. Since some states have already allowed bathroom choice, there is data about the danger presented by such choice. Currently, the evidence shows that there is no meaningful danger. As some wits enjoy pointing out, more Republican lawmakers have been arrested for bathroom misconduct than transgender people. As such, those worried about misdeeds in bathrooms should be focusing on that threat. The other argument is the privacy argument, which falls apart under analysis.

While those advancing these arguments might honestly believe in them, it might be suspected that the prime motivation for opposing bathroom choice is a dislike of transgender people—the “transgender people are icky argument.” This “argument” has no merit on the face of it, which is why it is not advanced as a reason by opponents of bathroom choice.

One stock problem with utilitarian arguments is that they can be used to justify the violation of rights. This problem typically arises in cases in which the benefits received by a numerical majority come at the expense of harms done to a numerical minority. However, it can also arise in cases where the greater benefits to a numerical minority outweigh the lesser harms to a numerical majority. In the case at hand, those opposed to bathroom choice could argue that even if bathroom choice benefits transgender people far more than it harms people who oppose bathroom choice, the rights of anti-choice people are being violated. This then makes the matter a question of competing rights.

In the case of public bathroom facilities, such as student bathrooms at schools, members of the public have the right to use them—that is the nature of public goods. There are, however, reasonable limits placed on access. For example, people are generally not allowed to just wander off the street into schools to use the facilities. Likewise, the bathrooms in courthouses and government buildings are generally not open to anyone to wander off the street and use. So, there is a right to public bathrooms—but, like all rights, it does have its limits. It can thus be assumed that transgender people have bathroom rights as do people who oppose bathroom choice. What is in dispute is whether the right of transgender people to choose their bathroom trumps the right of anti-choice people to not be forced to use bathrooms with transgender people.

Disputes over competing rights are often settled by utilitarian considerations, but the utilitarian argument already favors bathroom choice. As such, another approach is needed and a reasonable one is the consideration of which right has priority. This approach assumes that there is a hierarchy of rights and that one right can take precedent over another. Fortunately, this is intuitively appealing. For example, while people have a right to free expression, the right to not be unjustly harmed trumps it—which is why libel and slander are not protected by this right.

So, the bathroom issue comes down to this: does the right of a transgender person to choose their bathroom have priority over the right of an anti-choice person to not encounter transgender people in the bathroom? My inclination is that the right of the transgender person has priority over the anti-choice person. To support this, I will use an analogy to race.

Not so long ago, there were separate bathrooms for black and white people. When the bathrooms were to be integrated, there were dire warnings that terrible things would occur if bathrooms were integrated. Obviously enough, these terrible things did not take place. Whites could also have argued that they had a right to not be in the same bathroom as blacks. However, the alleged white right to not be in a bathroom with blacks does not seem to trump the right of blacks to use the bathroom. Likewise, the right of transgender people to choose their bathroom trumps the right of anti-choice people to exclude them.

It can be objected that if this argument is taken to its logical conclusion, then gender mixing will occur in the bathrooms. For example, one common sight at road races (such as 5Ks and marathons) are long lines leading to the women’s bathrooms and short lines (or no lines) for the men’s bathrooms. Women runners, desperate to lighten their load, might start going into the men’s room (they already sometimes do). Then terrible things might happen. Specifically, I might need to wait longer to pee before races. This is a case where my selfishness must outweigh my moral principles: though I have no moral objection to gender mixing of bathrooms, my selfish bladder says that I cannot give up my right to a shorter line. This makes me a bad person, but a bad person with a happy bladder. Yes, this is satire. Maybe.

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Bathroom Law: Federal vs Local

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2017

During the Obama administration, the nondiscrimination laws governing public education were interpreted as requiring schools to permit transgender students to choose which bathrooms they would use. In February of 2017, the Trump administration rescinded these protections.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that the Obama directive was improper and arbitrary. As might be expected, he also advanced the classic states’ rights argument, contending that the directive was imposed “without due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos initially opposed Sessions in this matter, but Trump convinced her to agree. To her credit, she did issue a statement about the moral obligation of schools to protect students from discrimination and harassment. Following Sessions, she expressed the view that bathroom access is not a federal concern.

Rescinding these protections does not prevent state and local governments from passing their own laws that provide such protections.  However, it does seem to free state and local governments to pass laws discriminating against transgender students—and this would seem to be the intent behind Sessions’ decision. This raises the moral issue of what matters are best left to state and local government and which should be of federal concern.

While Republicans typically claim to be for state and local control, they are no more consistent in this matter than Democrats are. Rather than having a consistent principle regarding state/local control versus federal control, the parties support state/local control when the state/local governments are doing what they want. When state/local governments are doing what they do not like, they oppose state/local control. To illustrate, Republicans are usually against local control when the local governments want to ban fracking, impose restrictions on gun rights, or provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Democrats are typically in favor of local control when local governments want to do those things. While such unprincipled inconsistency is the stuff of politics, the approach to disputes about control should be resolved in a principled manner and with the principles being applied consistently.

I find the general idea of state and local control appealing because there are good arguments supporting this view. One compelling reason is that state and local governments have a better understanding of state and local conditions and are thus likely to do a better job than the federal government. Another compelling reason is that state and local governments are under more direct control of the people affected, which seems more democratic than having the distant federal government impose its will. Because of these reasons, I favor a presumption of local control—that is, the federal government should defer to state and local control unless there are compelling reasons to impose federal authority. As an example, the federal government has a compelling reason to impose its authority in cases in which state or local governments are violating (or permitting the violation of these civil rights).

In the case of bathroom rights, the question at hand is whether the federal government has compelling reasons to impose its authority on state and local governments to ensure that transgender students can choose their bathrooms. The answer depends on two main factors. The first is whether transgender students have a right to choose their bathrooms. The other is what the state and local governments will do in regards to the bathroom choice issue.

If transgender students do have a right to choose their bathrooms and the state and local governments decide to respect this right, then there would be no compelling reason for the federal government to step in. After all, there would be no violation of rights to redress with federal action.

If transgender students do not have a right to choose their bathrooms, then it does not matter what the state and local governments do—there would be no violation of rights that would justify federal intervention.

One obvious way to counter my approach is to argue that the issue of whether transgender students should have the right to choose their bathrooms is not a federal issue. Rather, it is a matter that is to be settled at the state and local level. To use an analogy, while the Second Amendment is a constitutional right, state governments set concealed carry rights. Likewise, while students have a right to bathroom access in schools, it is up to state and local governments to set these rights. This approach does have some appeal and leads to the question of whether bathroom rights are more like gun rights (which are largely under state control) or civil rights (which are supposed to be defended by the federal government when state and local governments fail to do so). While I am inclined to regard bathroom rights as analogous to (or part of) civil rights, this will need to be addressed in another essay.


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Social Media & Shaming

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 22, 2017

While shaming was weaponized long ago as a means of punishment, social media has transformed it into a weapon of reversed mass destruction. Rather than a single weapon destroying masses, it is the social media masses that are destroying one person at a time. Perhaps the best known example of this is the destruction of Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” While Sacco is currently the best known victim of such shaming, the practice has become a common one and the list of casualties increases each day.

While it is tempting to issue a blanket condemnation of shaming, this would be a mistake. While shaming is abused, it can be a morally acceptable form of punishment. However, this requires that it be used properly and justly.

As with any form of punishment, shaming should only be used when the target has done wrong. Unlike with actual civil and criminal laws, there is not a codified set of rules specifying what actions are wrong in a way that warrant shaming. As with most social interactions, people are guided by vague norms, intuitions, traditions and feelings. As such, the practice of shaming can be rather chaotic. That said, it is certainly possible to consider situations rationally and assess whether they are shame worthy or not—though disputes are inevitable. Working out such guideless would be analogous to developing a hybrid between laws and etiquette and would presumably require at least a small book, which is far beyond the scope of this short essay. However, I do have some recommendations.

In the United States criminal justice system, there is a presumption of innocence on the part of the defendant. This is based on the ideal that it is better to allow the guilty to go free than to punish the innocent. The same sort of presumption should be extended to those who are accused of engaging in shame worthy actions. I would even suggest a specific sort of presumption, namely a presumption of error. This is to begin the consideration by assuming the accused acted from error rather than malice.

One common type of error that leads to excessive shaming is when a person attempts to be funny, but fails to do so because of a lack of skill. Sacco’s infamous tweet seems to be an example of this sort of error. A skilled comedian could have created a piece of satire using the same basic idea and directed attention to the issue of race in the context of AIDS. Because of a lack of comedic skill, Sacco’s tweet came across as racist—although all the evidence seems to clearly show that this is not what she intended. Another type of error is that of ignorance—a person has no malicious intent, but errs by not knowing something rather important. For example, a person trying to be funny might appear racist because they are unaware of the social norms governing who has the right to use which terms of race. The obvious example, is a white person imitating a black comedian’s use of the n-word without realizing that the word is essentially off limit to white comedians.

If a person is reasonably judged worthy of shaming, the next concern is how and to what extent the person should be shamed and the objective of the shaming. Since shaming is a punishment, the usual moral considerations about punishment apply.

One reason to punish by shaming is deterrence—so the shamed will not engage in shameful activity again and that others will be less inclined to behave in similar ways. Another reason is retribution—to “balance the books” by harming the shamed in return for the harm they did. While retribution strikes me as morally problematic (at best), both deterrence and retribution should be limited by the principle of proportionality. That is, the punishment should be comparable in severity to the harm done. If the punishment is excessive, then it creates a new harm that would require punishment and this punishment would need to be proportional or there would need to be another punishment and so on to infinity. As such, even if retribution is embraced, it can only be justified when it matches the harm inflicted.

Unfortunately, in social media shaming the punishment tends to be excessive. In fact, the punishments for such offenses can exceed those imposed for serious civil or criminal violations of the law. For example, Sacco’s failed attempt at humor cost her job and wrecked her life. One reason that the punishment can be excessive is that people are often insulated from consequences of their acts of punishment, and hence they are freed to be harsher than they would be in person. That said, shamers are sometimes themselves shamed for shaming, thus creating a vicious circle. Another reason for the excesses of punishment is the scope of social media. A person’s shame can be broadcast to the entire world and the entire world can get in on punishing the person, thus inflicting excessive harm. This also helps explain why people who are shamed are often fired—their employers fear the wrath of the social media mob and will fire a person to protect themselves.

Another, and what I think is the best, reason to punish is redemption. Such punishment aims to inform the person that their action is unacceptable, to give them a chance to atone for their misdeed and to allow them a chance to be accepted back into the social fold. This approach does have some limits. The person must be subject to feeling shame or vulnerable to the consequences of being shamed. A person who is shameless (or at least without shame in the matter at hand) will be rather resistant to attempts to appeal to their sense of shame. A person who can suffer little or no ill-consequences from being shamed will also not be corrected by shaming. Donald Trump is often presented as an example of a person who is either shameless or able to effectively avoid the negative consequences of being shamed (or both).

Punishing for the purpose of redemption does put a limit on the punishment that should be inflicted. After all, excessive punishment is unlikely to teach a person a moral lesson about how they should act (but it can teach a practical lesson). Also, excessive punishment can do so much damage that a person cannot effectively make it back into the social fold. Such redemptive shaming should be severe enough to send the intended message, but moderate enough that the person can achieve redemption. What is often forgotten about redemptive punishment is the important role of society—redemption is not merely about the wrongdoer redeeming themselves, but other people accepting this redemption. Those who engage in social media shaming all too often rush to punish and then move on to the next transgressor. In doing so, they fail in their obligations to those they have punished, which includes offering an opportunity for redemption.

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Guarding the Trumps

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2017

While it has not always been the case, the current practice is for the American taxpayer to foot the bill for extensive protection of the president and their family. When Bush was president, there were complaints from the left about the costs incurred protecting him when he went to his ranch. When Obama was president, the right criticized him for the cost of his vacations and trips. Not surprisingly, Trump was extremely critical of the expenses incurred by Obama and claimed that if he were president he would rarely leave the White House. Since Trump is now president, it can be seen if he is living in accord with his avowed principles regarding incurring costs and leaving the White House.

While Trump has only been president for roughly a month, he has already made three weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago club since the inauguration. While the exact figures are not available, the best analysis places the cost at about $10 million for the three trips. In addition to the direct cost to taxpayers, a visit from Trump imposes heavy costs on Palm Beach Country which are estimated to be tens of thousands of dollars each day.

Trump’s visit also has an unfortunate spillover cost to the Lantana Airport which is located six miles from Mar-a-Lago. When Trump visits, the Secret Service shuts down the airport. Since the airport is the location of twenty businesses, the shut down costs these businesses thousands of dollars. For example, a banner-flying business claims to have lost $40,000 in contracts to date. As another example, a helicopter company is moving its location in response to the closures. The closures also impact the employees and the surrounding community.

Since Trump also regularly visits Trump tower and his wife and youngest son live there, the public is forced to pay for security. The high-end estimate of the cost is $500,000 per day, but it is probably less—especially when it is just Melania and her son staying there. It must be noted that it cost Chicago about $2.2 million to protect Obama’s house from election day until inauguration day. However, Obama and his family took up residence in the White House and thus did not require the sort of ongoing protection of multiple locations that Trump now expects.

The rest of Trump’s family also enjoys security at the taxpayers’ expense—when Eric Trump took a business trip to Uruguay it cost the country about $100,000 in hotel room bills. Given that such trips might prove common for Trump’s family members, ongoing expenses can be expected.

The easy an obvious reply to these concerns is that the protection of the president and their family is established policy. Just as Bush and Obama enjoyed expensive and extensive protection, Trump should also enjoy that protection as a matter of consistent policy. As such, there is nothing especially problematic with what Trump is doing. Trump himself also contends that while he attacked Obama for taking vacations, when he goes to Mar-a-Lago and New York, it is for work. For example, he met the prime minister of Japan at Mar-a-Lago for some diplomatic clubbing and not for a weekend vacation in Florida.

A reasonable counter to this reply is to point out the obvious: there is no compelling reason why Trump needs to conduct government business at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. Other than the fact that Trump wants to go to these places and publicize them for his own gain, there is nothing special about them that would preclude conducting government business in the usual locations. As such, these excessive expenses are needless and unjustified.

There is also the harm being done to the communities that must bear the cost of Trump and his family and the financial harm being done to the Lantana Airport. Trump, who professes to be a great friend of the working people and business, is doing considerable harm to the businesses at the airport and doing so for no legitimate reason. This make his actions not only financially problematic, but also morally wrong—he is doing real and serious harm to citizens when there is no need to do so.

There is also an additional moral concern about what Trump is doing, namely that his business benefits from what he is doing. Both the Defense Department and Secret Service apparently plan on renting space in Trump Tower, thus enabling Trump to directly profit from being president. If the allegedly financially conservative Republicans were truly concerned about wasting taxpayer money, they would refuse this funding and force Trump to follow the practices of his predecessors. Or, if Trump insists on staying at Trump tower, the government should require that he pay all the costs himself. After all, being at Trump Tower benefits him and not the American people. Trump also gains considerable free publicity and advertising by conducting state business at his own business locations. He can, of course, deny that this is his intent—despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Just as the conservative critics of Obama were right to keep a critical eye on his travel expenses, they should do the same for Trump. While Trump can, as noted above, make the case that he is at least doing some work while he is at Trump tower and Mar-a-Lago, there is the reasonable concern that Trump is incurring needless expenses and doing significant harm to the finances of the local communities and businesses. After all, there is no reason Trump needs to work at his tower or club. As such, Trump should not take these needless and harmful trips and the fiscal conservatives should be leading the call to reign in this waster of public money and enemy of small businesses.

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Sanctuary & Religious Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2017

As the Trump administration steps up the enforcement of immigration law, some illegal immigrants have engaged in the time-honored tradition of seeking sanctuary in churches. The idea of churches serving as sanctuary from the state was developed in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and has become embedded in western culture. As would be expected, the granting of sanctuary has created considerable controversy.

Being familiar with the history of oppressive states and injustice, I generally support the idea of sanctuary in its role of providing the individual with another defense against the potential tyranny of the state. Because of this view, I hold that sanctuary should be limited to those who need protection from injustice on the part of the state rather than endorsing blanket sanctuary for anyone for any reason. Judging who is thus worthy of sanctuary (as with any moral assessment) can be rather complicated, but the basic principle is clear enough. Since I regard current immigration policies and practices to be fundamentally unjust, I believe that illegal immigrants who have committed no other crimes are worthy of sanctuary. Since they typically lack the resources to defend themselves, church sanctuary can provide them with the protection they need to make their case and seek justice. Even if sanctuary proves ineffective for a particular immigrant, the granting of sanctuary can make a powerful moral and political statement that can influence immigration policy—hopefully for the better.

As a practical matter, the effectiveness of sanctuary depends on the reluctance of the state to use compulsion to take people from churches. This reluctance might be grounded in many things, ranging from the power of the institution to the negative public reaction that might result from violating sanctuary.

While the notion of sanctuary does enjoy the support of tradition, the easy and obvious counter is to argue that churches should not enjoy a special exemption from the enforcement of the laws. It should not matter whether illegal immigrants are seeking shelter in a church, a Starbucks, an apple grove, or a private home—law enforcement officials should be able to arrest and remove them because they are, by definition, criminals. This view is grounded on the idea that all institutions, religious or not, fall under the laws of the state and are not to be granted special exemptions from the law. But, if exemptions from laws were granted to religious institutions in other areas, then this could be used to justify an exemption for sanctuary.

In the United States religious institutions do, in fact, enjoy special exemptions from taxes and some laws. For example, the Catholic Church is not subject to certain anti-discrimination lawsuits despite restricting certain jobs to men. As another example, there is also an exemption for religious employers in regards to coverage of contraceptive services. There has also been a push for new religious liberty laws that are aimed mainly at allowing people to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. Such laws grant exemptions based on religion and the arguments used to defend them could, in many cases, be pressed into service as arguments in favor of granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. For example, if it is argued that exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be granted to churches and businesses because of religious beliefs about gender and sex, then it would be challenging to argue that an exception to immigration laws should not be granted to churches because of religious beliefs.

The obvious challenge in using the religious liberty and exemption arguments to justify sanctuary is showing that the situations are adequately analogous. This seems easy enough to do. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage cite Leviticus, but Exodus 22:21 is quite clear about how strangers should be treated: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Scholars also point to Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:40 when justifying granting sanctuary to immigrants: “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” As such, granting churches a sanctuary exemption to immigration laws seems at least as well founded as other attempts to grant religious liberty.

One way to counter this line of argumentation is to argue that there should not be religious exemptions to laws. While this would argue against a religious exemption to immigration laws, it would also apply to all other exemptions and is thus not an option for those who support those other exemptions. Since many of those who are anti-immigrant do favor religious exemptions in general, this option is not open to them.

Another way to counter this line of reasoning is to contend that while religious exemptions should be allowed in other cases, it should not be allowed for granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. One approach would be a utilitarian argument: the harm done by allowing sanctuary would be sufficient to warrant imposing on religious liberty. Since I have used this argument myself against “religious liberty” laws that make discrimination legal, I certainly must give such an argument due consideration here. As such, if it can be shown that granting illegal immigrants sanctuary would create more harm than would violating the religious liberty of the sanctuary churches (and the harms done to the illegal immigrants) then religious liberty should be violated. But, this approach would need to be applied in a consistent manner: those who argue against sanctuary on the grounds of harms must apply the same principle to all religious liberties.

My overall view of the matter is that since Congress and the President have failed to create a just and rational immigration policy, then citizens have the moral right to offer protection to illegal immigrants (who have not committed other crimes). This must be done until our elected officials do their jobs and create a rational, realistic and ethical system. To be fair, due respect must be offered to those who believe in America first and who do not believe that God was serious when He said “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”


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Autonomous Vehicles: Solving an Unnecessary Problem?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2017

While motor vehicle fatalities do not get the attention of terrorist attacks (unless a celebrity is involved), the roads of the United States are no stranger to blood.  From 2000 to 2015, the motor vehicle deaths per year ranged from a high of 43,005 in 2005 to a low of 32,675 in 2014. In 2015 there were 35,092 motor vehicle deaths and last year the number went back up to around 40,000. Given the high death toll, there is clearly a problem that needs to be solved.

One of the main reasons being advanced for the deployment of autonomous vehicles is that they will make the roads safer and thus reduce the carnage. While predictions of the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles are overly optimistic, the idea that they would reduce motor vehicle deaths is certainly plausible. After all, autonomous vehicles will not be subject to road rage, exhaustion, intoxication, poor judgment, distraction and the other maladies that inflict human drivers and contribute to the high death tolls. Motor vehicle deaths will certainly not be eliminated even if all vehicles were autonomous, but the likely reduction in the death toll does present a very strong moral and practical reason to deploy such vehicles. That said, it is still worth considering whether the autonomous vehicle is aimed at solving an unnecessary problem. Considering this matter requires going back in time, to the rise of the automobile in the United States.

As the number of cars increased in the United States, so did the number of deaths. One contributing factor to the high number of deaths was that American cars were rather unsafe and this led Ralph Nader to write his classic work, Unsafe at Any Speed. Thanks to Nader and others, the American automobile became much safer and motor vehicle fatalities decreased. While making cars safer was certainly a good thing, it can be argued that this approach was fundamentally flawed. I will use an analogy to make my point.

Imagine, if you will, that people insist on swinging hammers around as they go about their day.  As would be suspected, the hammer swinging would often result in injuries and property damage. Confronted by these harms, solutions are proposed and implemented. People wear ever better helmets and body armor to protect them from wild swings. Hammers are also continuously redesigned so that they inflict less damage when hitting, for example, a face.  Eventually Google and other companies start work on autonomous swinging hammers that will be much better than humans at avoiding hitting other people and things. While all these safety improvements would be better than the original situation of unprotected people swinging very dangerous hammers around, this approach seems to be fundamentally flawed. After all, if people stopped swinging hammers around, then the problem would be solved.

An easy and obvious reply to my analogy is that using motor vehicles, unlike random hammer swinging, is rather important. For one thing, a significant percentage of the economy is built around the motor vehicle. This includes the obvious things like vehicle sales, vehicle maintenance, gasoline sales, road maintenance and so on. It also includes less obvious aspects of the economy that involve the motor vehicle, such as how they contribute to the success of stores like Wal Mart. The economic value of the motor vehicle, it can be argued, provides a justification for accepting the thousands of deaths per year. While it is certainly desirable to reduce these deaths, getting rid of motor vehicles is not a viable economic option—thus autonomous vehicles are a good potential partial solution to the death problem. Or are they?

One obvious problem with the autonomous vehicle solution is that they are trying to solve the death problem within a system created around human drivers and their wants. This system of lights, signs, turn lanes, crosswalks and such is extremely complicated—thus creating difficult engineering and programing problems. It would seem to make more sense to use the resources being poured into autonomous vehicles to develop a better and safer transportation system that does not center around a bad idea: the individual motor vehicle operating within a complicated road system. On this view, autonomous vehicles are solving an unnecessary problem: they are merely better hammers.

This line of argumentation can be countered in a couple ways. One way is to present the economic argument again: autonomous vehicles preserve the individual motor vehicle that is economically critical while being likely to reduce the death fee paid for this economy. Another way is to argue that the cost of creating a new transportation system would be far more than the cost of developing autonomous vehicles that can operate within the existing system. A third way is to make the plausible case that autonomous vehicles are a step towards developing a new transportation system. People tend to need a slow adjustment period to major changes and the autonomous vehicles will allow a gradual transition from distracted human drivers to autonomous vehicles operating with the distracted humans to a transportation infrastructure rebuilt entirely around autonomous vehicles (perhaps with a completely distinct system for walkers, bikers and runners). Going back to the hammer analogy, the self-swinging hammer would reduce hammer injuries and could allow a transition to be made away from hammer swinging altogether.

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The Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2017

One interesting tactic employed by the Republicans is to assert, in response to charges of racism against one of their number, that the Democrats are “the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” This tactic was most recently used by Senator Ted Cruz in defense of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Cruz went beyond merely claiming the Democrats formed the Klan; he also asserted that the Democrats were responsible for segregation and the infamous Jim Crow laws. As Cruz sees it, the Democrats’ tactic is to “…just accuse anyone they disagree with of being racist.”

Ted Cruz is right about the history of the Democratic party. After the Civil War, the southern Democratic Party explicitly identified itself as the “white man’s party” and accused the Republican party of being “negro dominated.” Some Southern Democrats did indeed support Jim Crow and joined the KKK.

What Ted fails to mention is that as the Democrats became the party associated with civil rights, the Republicans engaged in what has become known as the “southern strategy.” In short, the Republicans appealed to racism against blacks in order to gain political power in the south. Though ironic given the history of the two parties, this strategy proved to be very effective and many southern Democrats became southern Republicans. In some ways, the result was analogous to exchanging the wine in two bottles: the labels remain the same, but the contents have been swapped. As such, while Ted has the history correct, he is criticizing the label rather than the wine.

Another metaphor is the science fiction brain transplant. If Bill and Sam swapped brains, it would appear that Sam was guilty of whatever Bill did, because he now has Bill’s body. However, when it comes to such responsibility what matters is the brain. Likewise for the swapping of political parties in the south: the Southern Democrats condemned by Cruz became the southern Republicans that he now praises. Using the analogy, Ted is condemning the body for what the old brain did while praising that old brain because it is in a new body.

As a final metaphor, consider two cars and two drivers. Driving a blue car, Bill runs over a person. Sam, driving a red car, stops to help the victim. Bill then hops in the red car and drives away while Sam drives the victim to the hospital in the blue car. When asked about the crime, Ted insists that the Sam is guilty because he is in the blue car now and praises Bill because he is in the red car now.  Obviously enough, the swapping of parties no more swaps responsibility than the swapping of cars.

There is also the fact that Cruz is engaged in the genetic fallacy—he is rejecting what the Democrats are saying now because of a defect in the Democratic party of the past. The fact that the Democrats of then did back Jim Crow and segregation is irrelevant to the merit of claims made by current Democrats about Jeff Sessions (or anything else). When the logic is laid bare, the fallacy is quite evident:


Premise 1: Some Southern Democrats once joined the KKK.

Premise 2: Some Southern Democrats once backed segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Conclusion: The current Democrats claims about Jeff Sessions are untrue.


As should be evident, the premises have no logical connection to the conclusion, hence Cruz’s reasoning is fallacious. Since Cruz is a smart guy, he obviously knows this—just as he is aware that fallacies are far better persuasive tools than good arguments.

The other part of Cruz’s KKK gambit is to say that the Democrats rely on accusations of racism as their tactic. Cruz is right that a mere accusation of racism does not prove that a person is racist. If it is an unsupported attack, then it proves nothing. Cruz’s tactic does gain some credibility from the fact that accusations of racism are all-to-often made without adequate support. Both ethics and critical thought require that one properly review the evidence for such accusations and not simply accept them. As such, if the Democrats were merely launching empty ad hominem attacks on Sessions (or anyone), then these attacks should be dismissed.

In making his attack on the Southern Democrats of the past, Cruz embraces the view that racism is a bad thing. After all, his condemnation of the current Democrats requires that he condemn the past Democrats for their support of racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. As such, he purports to agree with the current Democrats’ professed view that racism is bad. But, he condemns them for making what he claims are untrue charges of racism. This, then, is the relevant concern: which claims, if any, made by the Democrats about session being a racist are true? The Democrats claimed that they were offering evidence of Session’s racism while Cruz’s approach was to accuse the Democrats of being racists of old and engaging in empty accusations today. He did not, however, address the claims made by the Democrats or their evidence. As such, Cruz’s response has no merit from the perspective of logic. As a rhetorical move, however, it has proven reasonably successful.


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Bans & BS

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 10, 2017

As this is being written, Trump’s travel ban remains suspended by  the courts. The poor wording and implementation of the ban indicates that amateurs are now in charge. Or, alternatively, that Trump’s strategists are intentionally trying to exhaust the opposition. As such, either the ban has been a setback for Trump or a small victory.

While the actual experts on national security (from both parties) have generally expressed opposition to the Trump ban, Trump’s surrogates and some Republican politicians have endeavored to defend it. The fountain of falsehoods, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely active in defense of the ban. Her zeal in its defense has led her to uncover terrorist attacks beyond our own reality, such as the Bowling Green Massacre that occurred in some other timeline. In that alternative timeline, the Trump ban might be effectively addressing a real problem; but not in the actual world.

More reasonable defenders of the ban endeavor to use at least some facts from this world when making their case. For example, Republican representative Mike Johnson recently defended the ban by making reference to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. He claimed that “They determined that nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees. I mean, those kinds of facts are not as widely publicized, but they should be. I think the American people have a right to know that.” This approach employs four rather effective rhetorical techniques which I will address in reverse order of use.

By saying “the American people have a right to know”, Johnson seems to be employing innuendo to suggest that the rights of Americans are being violated—that is, there is some sort of conspiracy against the American people afoot. This conspiracy is, of course, that the (presumably liberal) media is not publicizing certain facts. This rhetorical tool is rather clever, for it not only suggests the media is up to something nefarious, but that there are secret facts out there that support the ban. At the very least, this can incline people to think that there are other facts backing Trump that are being intentionally kept secret. This can make people more vulnerable to untrue claims purporting to offer such facts.

Johnson’s lead techniques are, coincidentally enough, rhetorical methods I recently covered in my critical thinking class. One technique is what is often called a “weasler” in which a person protects a claim by weakening it. In this case, the weasel word is “nearly.” If Johnson were called on the correct percentage, which is 18%, he can reply that 18% is nearly 20%, which is true. However, “nearly 20%” certainly creates the impression that it is more than 18%, which is misleading. Why not just say “18%”?  Since the exaggeration is relatively small, it does not qualify as hyperbole. Naturally, a reasonable reply would be that this is nitpicking— “nearly 20%” is close enough to “18%” and Johnson might have simply failed to recall the exact number during the interview. This is certainly a fair point.

Another technique involves presenting numerical claims without proper context, thus creating a misleading impression. In this case, Johnson claims, correctly, that “nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees.” The main problem is that no context is given for the “nearly 20%.” Without context, one does not know whether this is a significant matter or not. For example, if I claimed that sales of one of my books increased 20% last year, then you would have no idea how significant my book sales were. If I sold 10 of those books in 2015 and 12 in 2016, then my sales did increase 20%, but my sales would be utterly insignificant in the context of book sales.

In the case of the facilitators Johnson mentioned, the Fordham report includes 19 facilitators and 3 of these (18%) were as Johnson described. So, of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers the United States took in, there have been three people who were involved in this facilitation. This mostly involved encouraging people to go overseas to fight—these three people were (obviously) not involved in terrorist attacks in the United States. Such a microscopic threat level does not justify the travel ban under any rational threat assessment and response analysis.

The United States does, of course, face some danger from terrorist attacks. However, the most likely source of these attacks is from US born citizens. While the threat from foreigners is not zero, an American is 253 times more likely to be a victim of a “normal” homicide rather than killed in a foreigner engaged in a terrorist attack in the United States. And the odds of being the victim of a homicide are very low. As such, trying to justify the ban with accurate information is all but impossible, which presumably explains why the Republicans are resorting to lies and rhetoric.

While there are clear political advantages to stoking the fear of ill-informed Americans, there are plenty of real problems that Trump and the Republicans could be addressing—responsible leaders would be focusing on these problems, rather than weaving fictions and feeding unfounded fears.

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Cooperating with Trump

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2017

It has been claimed that Republicans intended, from day one, to obstruct President Obama in all things. This is supported by John Boehner’s remark about Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” However, the defining quote for the obstructionist agenda belongs to Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Republican narrative, as might be imagined, tells a different tale. In the Republican version, Obama is the villain who refuses to compromise with the Republicans.

While the truth of the matter is important, the practical fact of the matter is that Obama and the Republicans often ended up in deadlocks. Obama’s go-to strategy was the use of executive orders—some of which ended up being challenged by the courts. Now that Trump is president, the question is whether the Democrats should adopt the Boehner-McConnell approach and try to kill or at least slow down everything Trump tries to achieve in the hopes of making him a one-term president.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should take this approach. One reason for this is purely pragmatic politics, devoid of any concern about moral values, that has as its goal the acquisition and retention of power. While the Republicans are generally more adept at this than the Democrats, the Democrats can avail themselves of the well-stocked Republican playbook and simply do to Trump what the Republicans did to Obama.

The obvious problem with the approach is that it is devoid of any concern about moral values and is thus very likely to be bad for America as a whole. If one accepts the Lockean view that the leaders of the state should act for the good of the people, then the power justification is out. But for those who regard power as the supreme good of politics, the obstructionist approach makes considerable sense—after all, the Republican strategy landed them the White House and Congress.

Another reason for this is revenge and payback:  Republicans obstructed Obama and Democrats should treat Trump the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an obstruction for an obstruction. While this is certainly appealing in an Old Testament sort of way, this justification also runs afoul of the idea that the leaders are morally obligated to act for the good of the people and not engage in seeking revenge. For John Locke, using a political position to seek revenge would be an act of tyranny that should be resisted. As such, the revenge justification is certainly problematic.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should set aside their lust for power and their desire for revenge and cooperate with Trump. This does not mean that the Democrats must cooperate in all things; just that the Democrats should cooperate and resist in a principle way. As the above considerations should indicate, the cooperation and resistance should be based on what is regarded as good for the people. This is, of course, a rather vague notion but can be worked out in utilitarian terms in regards to specific issues (with due attention to concerns about the tyranny of the majority). This is not to say that the Democrats will always be right and Trump always wrong; but it is s statement of principle for how opposition and cooperation should operate.

This suggests an obvious counter-argument: Trump’s agenda is harmful to the general good and thus it must be obstructed and every effort must be made to make him a one-term president. While my general dislike of Trump inclines me to feel that this is true, I am obligated to be consistent with what I tell my students: truth is not felt, but must be established through reason. Unfortunately, reason seems to indicate that much of Trump’s agenda will not be good for Americans in general. But, this does not entail that everything in his agenda will be bad for America and his specific proposals should be given due and fair consideration.

To use a specific and oft-spoken-of example, Trump claimed that he wants to rebuild the aging and failing public infrastructure. While it is tempting to point out that Obama wanted to do the same thing and that Trump might be thinking of how he and his allies can personally profit from the massive flood of public money into private coffers, addressing the infrastructure woes would be generally good for America. As such, the Democrats should not follow the lead of the Republicans and simply obstruct his proposals. This is not to say that the Democrats should rubber stamp everything, but it is to say that they should not simply reject the proposals simply because they are coming from Trump.

As far as making Trump a one term president; I think Trump will see to that himself.

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Conservative Comedians

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2017

In the United States, comedy seems to be dominated by the left as exemplified by shows such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal. While there are conservative comedians, they tend to avoid political comedy and instead seem more likely to comment on red necks rather than red state politics. As might be imagined, there has been considerable speculation about this political division in the art of comedy, one that mirrors the political divide in the arts in general. While I do not pretend to offer a definitive answer, it is certainly interesting to engage in some speculation.

Smug liberals might be inclined to avail themselves of the hypothesis that comedy requires intelligence and that conservatives are generally less intelligent than liberals. Conservatives might counter that liberal stupidity is what causes them to be amused by stupid liberal jokes. While comedy can be an indicator of wit; there does not seem to be a meaningful intelligence gap dividing the political spectrum; although people always think that their side is superior.

A rather more plausible explanation is that the difference does rest in psychology; that the same traits that draw a person to liberalism would also make a person more proficient at comedy. In contrast, the traits that draw a person to conservatism would make them less capable in regards to comedy.

Sticking with the classic definitions, conservatives want to preserve the existing social order and tend to have a favorable view of the established social institutions. Liberals tend to want to change the social order and regard the established social institutions with some suspicion. Since political comedy involves making fun of the existing social order and mocking established institutions, this would help explain why conservatives would be less likely to be engaged in political comedy than liberals.

It is worth considering that while conservative comedians would not be very inclined to attack conservative targets, there is still a target rich environment. There are obviously many liberal groups and organizations that would be ideally suited for conservative comedy—in fact, liberal comedians have already put down the foundations for mocking many of these groups. There are also numerous liberal individuals that would be suitable targets; they have already been softened up a bit by liberal comics.

Conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, do engage in mockery of institutions and social orders they regard as tainted with the left. However, this mockery tends to be more of an attack than an exercise in comedy: while some regard Limbaugh as a clown, he is not seen as a comedian. Or particularly funny. Given the abundance of targets and the willingness of conservatives to go after them, it is something of a mystery why this ecological niche of comedic liberal mocking has not been filled.

One possible explanation is a variation of the victim narrative that conservatives typically reject or condemn when it is used by the left to explain, for example, why women or minorities are underrepresented in an area. The narrative is that comedy is controlled and dominated by the liberals and they are using their power and influence to suppress and oppress conservatives who want to be comedians. If only conservative comics were given a chance to get their comedy out to the people, they would succeed.

Some might be tempted to reject this argument for the reasons typically advanced by conservatives when the narrative involves racism and sexism, such as claims that the failure of the allegedly oppressed is due to their own defects, to simply deny the disparity or to advance the bootstrap argument. While this approach might be satisfying, it is certainly worth considering that conservative comedians are the victims of oppression, that their voices are being silenced by the powerful, and that they are victims. The dearth of conservative comedians, like the dearth of minorities in the highest positions in society, does suggest that an injustice is being done. If conservative comedians are being oppressed, then steps should be taken to address this oppression, perhaps beginning with an affirmative comedic action program to help them get established in the face of a system that has long been stacked against them.

While this is certainly the sort of thing leftists love to do for the oppressed, it is also worth considering whether conservatives want to be comedians. As with other cases of alleged oppression, it might be the case that the reason that there are few, if any, conservative comedians is because few, if any, conservatives want to be comedians. If this is the case, then there is no oppression to address—things are as they should be. Another possible explanation lies in the nature of comedy, at least as it is defined by Aristotle.

As Aristotle saw it, comedy “is a subdivision of the ugly” and “consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” Political comedy typical involves mockery across the lines of power, because politics is all about power relationships. Liberal comedy typically involves mocking upwards in regards to power. For example, female comedians making fun of the patriarchy is mockery originating down the power curve that is aimed upwards at the established institutions and norms. Since the mockery is going up the power divide, the comedy generally will not be painful or destructive—after all, the power advantage rests with the target and not the comic.

Since conservatives tend to support the existing power structures and established social values, the target of conservative comedy would tend to be people and organizations outside of those structures or those with different values. As such, conservative comedy would tend to be going down the power curve: the stronger going after the weaker. For example, a white comedian mocking Black Lives Matter would be shooting downward from an advantageous social position. While comedy can go down the power curve and still be comedy, this becomes rather challenging because it is very easy for such attempts to become painful or destructive, thus ceasing to be comedy. Trump provides an excellent example of this. While he often claims to just be joking, his enormous power advantage means that he is almost always punching downwards and thus appears bullying and cruel rather than comedic. This, I think, is a plausible explanation for the dearth of conservative comedians: mocking those who occupy positions of social disadvantage seems more cruel than comedic.

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