A Philosopher's Blog

The War on Christmas

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2016

One long standing Christmas tradition at Fox news is perpetuating the mythological war on Christmas. While it is not a self-evident truth that Christmas is safe in the United States, the idea that there is such a war is as absurd as the claim that there is a war on pizza. Like Christmas, pizza is liked (if not loved) by nearly everyone. While Christmas is not here year round, during the Christmas season (which seems to be October to January) the trapping of Christmas are as ubiquitous as pizza.

A long-standing Fox tactic has been to scour the United States for the few incidents that can be cast as attacks on Christmas and then elevate them into a war. This same approach could be used to “prove” that there is a war on pizza—there are, no doubt, a few incidents that can be cast as attacks on the truth and goodness of pizza. The problem is, obviously enough, that a few isolated incidents do not constitute a war—especially when the incidents tend to be presented in an exaggerated manner. What is rather ironic about Fox pushing the idea of this war is Christmas is supposed to be a time for peace on earth and good will towards all. As such, Fox seems to have its own perpetual war on the spirit of Christmas.

This year has seen a slight modification to the war on Christmas script. Breitbart and Fox recently suggested that a Jewish family was responsible for the cancellation of A Christmas Carol, which was supposed to be put on as a play by students in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While it is true the family wanted their child excused from the play, the play was cancelled for other reasons.

One of the reasons is that changes in the education requirements set by the state make it difficult for the needed classroom time to be used to prepare for the play. This does point to a real problem in public education but does not constitute a war on Christmas.

The second reason the play was cancelled was to be respectful of the cultural and religious diversity of the students. While some might be tempted to see this as a war on Christmas, being respectful of religious diversity in the public schools does not constitute an attack on Christmas. One way to look at this situation in a different light is to imagine that a public school was putting on a play with religious content that you strongly disagree with. If, for example, you are not a fan of Islam, imagine that the school was putting on a play about Ramadan. Or, as another example, that the play brought back that old-time religion and glorified Saturnalia. If either of these plays were performed at a public school, Fox and Breitbart would most likely cast these incidents as evidence of the war on Christianity.

An incident in which one’s faith fails to dominate is not evidence of a war on that faith or its holiday. Rather, it just shows tolerance and respect for others. Going back to the pizza analogy, to decide to not have a strict pizza only policy for school lunches is not a war on pizza. While most people like pizza, making everyone eat it all the time is hardly fair or tolerant.

Since I grew up “acting” in school Christmas plays and watching them, I do have considerable sympathy for the view that something valuable would be lost if schools cancel their Christmas plays. One solution is to have generic holiday plays. Another is to have a diversity of plays around the holidays to expose children to diverse religious views and holidays. These options do have problems, but are perhaps better than cancelling the school Christmas play. Or perhaps not.

The untruths presented by Fox and Breitbart are morally problematic, but this is compounded by the fact that it was suggested that a Jewish family was responsible for the cancellation. As would be expected, there were the usual responses to this story from the internet: calls to identify the “responsible” family and to act. As many other incidents have shown, these sort of online attacks can quickly escalate into unrelenting harassment and worse.

This ties into a classic anti-Semitic narrative and is consistent with the safe-space that Trump has created for bigotry. While people who are not Jewish or have little knowledge of history might be inclined to dismiss worries about the anti-Semitism inherent in such suggestions, this should be regarded as a real problem. While it would be a slippery slope fallacy to say that this story (or other incidents) will inevitably lead to something terrible, it would also be a mistake to not be concerned about where this path leads. After all, this sort of thing has played out in many times and places and it is best to address such things when they are small. After all, it is easier to extinguish a match than a forest fire.

It must be noted that Slate and other news sites claimed that a Jewish family fled the country out of fear they would be harmed as a result of this story. While the family did express concern, it is now claimed that they left for vacation. While some might be tempted to accuse Slate and others of running fake news because of their mistake, there are two easy and obvious replies. The first is that there seems to be no intent to deceive people with a claim that was known to be untrue—Slate and others presented the information available at the time. The second is that Slate and others updated the report to reflect the new and presumably correct information. Correcting errors is not something that is done in fake news.

If the error by Slate and the others was due to failing to properly investigate the claims, then they can be justly criticized for not being properly diligent. However, if the error was not due to negligence on the part of Slate and the others, then this should be regarded as a mere mistake—and one that was corrected. Slate could also be criticized for going with the original dramatic headline about the Jewish family fleeing the country; but the main criticism should still be on the error. This one error does not, obviously enough, invalidate the rest of the reporting—the other claims stand or fall on their own.

While Fox News’ war on Christmas and Christianity myths have merely been annoying and stupid in the past, they have the potential to cause real problems in the year to come. I certainly hope I am in error about this and hope that Santa did not give America a big box of lies and hate for Christmas.

 

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Weiner Resigns

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 17, 2011
Anthony Weiner

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After dragging out the tragic drama, Anthony Weiner finally decided to resign his position. This puts him in stark contrast with fellow New Yorker Chris Lee. After his shirtless-photo-Craigslist scandal, Lee promptly resigned.

Weiner’s career-ending injury was, of course, self-inflicted. As I have said before, the fatal blow was not his virtual infidelity. It was, of course, his decision to launch a prolonged campaign of deceit. If he had simply admitted to his behavior, then he would have been regarded as creepy but he might have not have been pushed to resign. Without the attempted cover up, the bump in his briefs would have probably been a brief bump in his career.

It might be argued that his virtual misdeed would be sufficient grounds for his resignation. After all, Chris Lee resigned after attempting to have an affair. This does have a certain appeal. After all, a member of congress is supposed to serve the interests of his district and he cannot do his job properly if he is caught up in a scandal. This does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, many jobs (including my own) restrict the outside employment that an employee can undertake. The reason is, of course, that outside employment can interfere with the primary job. While being caught up in a scandal is not a job, it can have the same effect by consuming far too much time and focus. Of course, if the person is able to keep the scandal from impacting his duties, then this argument would fail in that case.

It can also be argued that members of congress who cannot keep their own members under control are unfit for office. This falls under the general question of what sort of unethical behavior (or violation of social norms) would be grounds for expecting a member of congress to resign.

One obvious answer is to refer to the rules specified by congress. As with any job, there are conditions of employment and these set the limits of allowed behavior. Provided that these limits are not violated, then there would seem to be a lack of justification to expect a resignation-even when the person behaves in ways that are regarded as inappropriate or even unethical.  For example, a university professor cannot be fired merely for having an affair. Naturally, having an affair with a co-worker or student could be grounds for dismissal, but not because it is an affair.

Naturally enough, if a resignation is expected, this often means that there are not actual grounds for kicking the person out As far as I know, inappropriate (but not illegal) sexual behavior is not grounds for being given the boot from congress. Lying, except for the obvious case of doing so under oath, also does not seem to be against the rules. If it were, then the House and Senate would be rather empty.

Obviously enough, people are sometimes expected to resign even when they have not actually violated the rules. In the case of politicians, this seems to most often happen in cases involving sex. This, not surprisingly, reflects America’s rather unhealthy obsessions regarding sex.

It can be argued that politicians who are involved in sex scandals that do not break the relevant rules should still be pushed to resign. This could be done on ethical grounds. While we tend to regard politicians as an unethical lot, we still expect them to behave in ways we consider appropriate when it comes to sex and regard such violations as unethical. A rather appealing argument is that if a married politician will betray his wife, then he cannot be trusted and hence should leave office.

An obvious reply is that as long as the politician has not actually acted in ways that are relevant to his job, then his betrayal of his wife is not relevant. After all, a man can be relentlessly unfaithful to his wife and still be very competent and capable in his job.

Another appealing argument is that if a politician is engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior and has tried to conceal it, then it would seem reasonable to suspect that he might be up to other misdeeds and concealing them. The obvious reply is that such behavior (provided that it does not cross over into the criminal realm) is not actually relevant to job performance and the person’s competence. After all, I suspect that most married men are involved in some degree of what would be considered inappropriate behavior, yet they are able to function in their jobs.

In Weiner’s case, his resignation does seem to be the right thing to do. The scandal has reduced his ability to represent his district and he has shown that he has rather serious flaws in regards to ethics and judgment. He should, of course, have the chance to redeem himself. However, he needs to do this on his own time.

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Scandal & Resignation

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 14, 2011
Anthony Weiner

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After his attempt to have an affair via Craigslist was exposed, Chris Lee apologized and resigned. On the face of it, that was the honorable and right thing to do.

Anthony Weiner’s case is slightly different. Rather than using Craigslist in an attempt to have an affair, he used various means of communication (Twitter, phone, etc.) to send photos and engage in talk about sex. He alleges that he did not have an actual affair and had no intention of doing so. Since his credibility is rather low, it is not a matter of certitude that he did not have an actual affair or that he did not attempt to initiate one. However, his virtual affairs were morally unacceptable and his lying was certainly unethical.

As to whether he is worse or better than Lee is something of a tough call. While Lee intended to have an affair, he apparently did not succeed. Weiner, however, engaged in ongoing virtual affairs and then engaged in a prolonged campaign of deceit. I am inclined to say that Weiner is worse.

As far as whether a politician  should resign after a sex scandal, much depends on the specifics of the case. However, some general comments can be made.

On one hand, if the actions are not illegal and do not violate the specific rules governing the office (such as congressional ethic), then the actions would not seem to warrant resignation. After all, what would justify expecting a person to resign would seem to require that it be actually relevant to the job. So, for example, if a congressman has an affair using his own resources, then he would not seem to have acted in a way that violated the conditions of his job. If a congressman used federal money to pay for his hookers, then that would be a rather different matter. On this view, Lee need not have resigned.

On the other hand, such a scandal can indicate that the politician’s moral character is deeply flawed in ways that render him (or her) untrustworthy. Unlike many jobs, a high level politician is expected to act in ethical ways and not grossly violate community standards. While this seems odd to say, politician’s depend on their reputation and a politician who has been involved in sex scandal often damages this asset to the point were they can no longer effectively function. While we will tolerate all sorts of sneaky dealings and we expect politicians to lie, the public is still very intolerant of sexual straying on the part of politicians. Bill Clinton is, however, an obvious example. As such, there is also the concern that such a politician will damage his party, thus also giving a practical reason to resign.

The worst part of the Weiner case is not the sexual aspect. That made him into a joke. The worst part is the campaign of lies. While we do expect deceit from politicians, that degree of unrelenting deception in this matter showed that Weiner is quite willing to lie in an unrelenting manner. It also shows that he has some rather weak reasoning skills-at least in certain areas. As such, it seems reasonable to question whether or not he is actually capable of representing the people of his district. There is also the question of whether or not they want him-which is something that must be decided by the due process of the next election. Since there are not any real competency requirements for most political offices, the confidence of the voters seems to be the only real test.

 

 

 

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Valentine’s Day & Going Shirtless

Posted in Humor, Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on February 14, 2011
Victorian Valentine's Day Card

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Today is Valentine’s Day, a day forged in the minds of purveyors of cards, candy, jewelry, flowers and body lubes. Aside from the cheaper candy available after the holiday, I’ve never been a big fan of the event. When I have been single, it simply drew attention to the fact that I was single. Most of the time, however, the event means that I have to spend money on consumables (which is okay-I am pro-chocolate) on perishables (flowers) and the soon-to-be-tossed (cards). Even worse, the gods of the holiday have set a bar of romantic awesomeness that no mere mortal can meet. The fact that the day shifts throughout the week also makes it challenging. After all, who has the time and energy to be all romantic and such on a Monday or Wednesday. They should just fix the day on a Saturday-say, the second Saturday of February.

But now, to what is supposed to be the main point of the blog. As most folks know, Chris Lee is no longer a representative thanks to his attempts to have an affair. Interestingly, he tried to do this via Craig’s List and sent a prospective date a photo of himself sans shirt. More awesomely, he did it in what is now an iconic way: he took the picture using his phone camera and a bathroom (I assume) mirror. If this style does not yet have a  name, I might suggest “mirror shot” or maybe it should be named after him: “Lee shot.”

After a little research, I found that this sort of thing is not uncommon-men apparently send women such photos and post them on dating sites. Rumor has it that this is most common with older men, which leads me to worry that it might something that can arise from the midlife crisis. Since I am over 40, have a cell phone with a camera and my bathroom has a mirror, I am a bit worried I might find myself taking such a photo. Maybe I should get rid of my phone or take down the mirror. Or maybe…crap, I just went and took a picture and emailed a copy to my girlfriend. Well, at least I didn’t put it up on Craig’s List.

Tastefully shirtless.

I’m not sure why men, especially a fellow like Lee, would think that such photos are a good idea. Of course, Lee showed rather bad judgment (“Hey, I’ll have an affair and I’ll get it going with a Craig’s List ad…what could go wrong?”) across the board. However, I still wonder why a dude would do a Lee shot.

The best explanations I can come up with (other than bad judgment) are that such men think that they look far better than they actually do or that they think that women will be overcome with lust when they see a Lee shot. Or both, of course.

While I am no expert on female psychology, I suspect that most woman would not be turned on by a shirtless bathroom mirror self portrait. Then again, maybe I missed out on a surefire way of getting chicks when I was single. I must admit that there are a lot of photos of me shirtless on the web. However, I’m actually competing in races so it isn’t creepy. Well, not very creepy. In fact, I would say that I am tastefully shirtless.

However, as I man I would like to request that other men stop doing Lee Shots. You are making us look bad. Well, worse.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Trump’s White Nationalists, Again

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2017

On the face of it, condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis is one of the politically easiest things to do. Trump, however, seems incapable of engaging in this simple task. Instead, he has continued to act in ways that lend support to the alt-right. After a delayed and reluctant condemnation of the alt-right, Trump returned to his lane by making two claims. The first is the claim that “there is blame on both sides.” The second is the claim that there are good people on both sides. On the face of it, both claims are false. That said, these claims will be given more consideration than they deserve.

If one accepts a very broad concept of blame, then it would be possible to claim that there is blame on both sides. This could be done in the following way. The first step is asserting that a side is responsible if an event would not have taken place without its involvement. This is based, of course, on the notion that accountability is a matter of “but for.” In the case at hand, the relevant claim would be that but for the presence of the counter-protestors, there would have been no violence against them and Heather Heyer would not have been murdered. On this notion of responsibility, both sides are to blame.

While this concept of blame might have some appeal, it is obviously flawed. This is because the application of the principle would entail that any victim or target of a crime or misdeed would share some of the blame for the crime or misdeed. For example, but for a person having property, they would not have been robbed. As another example, but for being present during a terrorist attack, the person would not have been killed. As such, meriting blame would require more than such a broad “but for” condition.

A possible reply to this counter is to argue that the counter-protestors were not mere targets, but were active participants. That is, co-belligerents and co-instigators. To use an analogy, if a bar fight breaks out because two people start insulting each other and then start swinging, then both parties do share the blame. Trump seems to regard what happened in Virginia as analogous to this sort of a bar fight. If this is true, then both sides would bear some of the blame.

Of course, even if both parties were belligerent, then there are still grounds for assigning blame to one side rather than another. For example, if someone goes to a party to misbehave and someone steps up to counter this and is attacked, then the attacker would be to blame. This is because of the moral difference between the two parties: one is acting to commit a misdeed, the other is trying to counter this. In the case of Virginia, the alt-right is in the wrong. They are, after all, endorsing morally wicked views that should be countered.

There is, of course, also the obvious fact that it was a member of the alt-right that is alleged to have driven a car into the crowd, killing one person and injuring others. As such, if any blame is to be placed on a side, it is to be placed on the alt-right.

It could be argued that the action of one person in the alt-right does not make the entire group guilty of the crime. This is certainly a reasonable claim—a group is not automatically responsible for the actions of its worst members, whether the group is made up of Muslims, Christians, whites, blacks, conservatives or liberals. That said, the principles used to assign collective responsibility need to be applied consistently—people have an unfortunate tendency to use different standards for groups they like and groups they dislike. I would certainly agree that the alt-right members who did not engage in violence or instigate it are not responsible for the violence. However, it could be argued that the rhetoric and ideology of the alt-right inherently instigates and urges violence and evil behavior. If so, then all members who accept the ideology of the alt-right are accountable for being part of a group that is dedicated to doing evil. I now turn to Trump’s second claim.

Trump also made the claim that there are good people on both sides. As others have noted, this seems similar to his remarks about Mexicans being rapists and such, but also there being some good Mexicans. As such, Trump’s remark might simply be a Trumpism—something that just pops out of his mouth with no meaning or significance, like a burp. But, let it be assumed for the sake of discussion that Trump was trying to say something meaningful.

Trump is certainly right that there are good people on the side opposed to the alt-right. After all, the alt-right endorses a variety of evil positions and good people oppose evil. As far as good people being in the alt-right, that is not as clear. After all, as was just noted, the values expressed by the alt-right include evil views and it would be unusual for good people to endorse such views. This can, of course, be countered by arguing that the alt-right is not actually evil (which is presumably what many members believe—few people think of themselves as the villains). It can also be countered by asserting that there are good people who are in the alt-right out of error (they are good people, but err in some of their beliefs) or who hope to guide the movement to better goals. It could also be claimed that any group that is large enough will contain at least some good people (as a group will also contain bad people). For example, people often point to General Robert E. Lee as a good person serving an evil cause.

Given these considerations, it does seem possible that there is at least one good person in the alt-right and hence Trump could be right in the strict logical sense of there being some (at least one) good people in the group. But, Trump’s purpose is almost certainly not to make a claim that is trivial in its possible truth. Rather, he seems to be engaged in another false equivalence, that the alt-right and their opponents are morally equivalent because both groups have some good people. Given the evil of the alt-right’s views (which are fundamentally opposed to the expressed values of the United States), saying that both sides are morally the same is obviously to claim what is false. The alt-right is the worse side and objectively so.

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Criminalizing Social Ills

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2016

English: A homeless man in Paris Français : Un...

The United States, like all societies, suffers from a range of ills. This include such things as mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction. There are, of course, many ways that these problems could be addressed. Unfortunately, the dominant approach has been to recast these ills as problems to be solved by law enforcement and criminalization. I will briefly consider the failures of this approach in these cases.

In the 1980s there was a major shift in America’s policy regarding mental illness: in the name of fiscal savings, the mentally ill were released from the hospitals into the community. One major impact of this change was an increase in the number of homeless people. 20-25% of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness, compared to 6% of the entire population. The mentally ill who are homeless, as one might suspect, are generally not treated. People with untreated severe mental illnesses often behave in ways that the public finds problematic, which often leads to their being arrested and imprisoned. Prisons are ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill and mainly serve to warehouse these people until they serve their sentences. Having a criminal record simply makes matters worse, thus it is likely that they will simply be returned to prison and remain untreated—thus creating a hopeless cycle which offers little chance for escape.

The criminalization of mental illness has not solved the problem, rather it has made it worse. As such, it is a failure from a practical standpoint. It has not helped treat people and the cost of operating mental health institutions has been replaced with the cost of maintaining prisons. Perhaps someone does profit from this system; but it costs society as a whole a great deal.

It is also a moral failure. On utilitarian grounds, it is morally wrong because it has increased rather than decreased unhappiness. Put informally, it has done more harm than good. For moral systems that focus on obligations to the wellbeing of others (such as the version of Christianity that embraces the parable of the good Samaritan), this approach is also a moral failure. As such, criminalizing mental illness has proven a resounding failure.

While mental illness leads many to the streets, America’s economic system also generates a large number of homeless people. Many of the homeless end up that way due to being bankrupted by medical expenses. Since the homeless have no homes, they tend to live and sleep in public areas. As would be expected, the presence of the homeless in such areas is regarded as a problem and some cities try to address the matter by criminalizing such things as lying down or camping in public areas. The ordinances that do this typically impose fines, but since the homeless generally cannot afford to pay fines they usually end up in the criminal justice system—which is often a pathway to prison. A criminal record only makes matters worse for the homeless and increases the chance they will remain homeless. This means that they are likely to be arrested again for breaking the ordinances that target the homeless, thus creating a vicious circle.

As might be suspected, this approach to homelessness comes with a significant monetary cost. For example, Denver spent over $750,000 enforcing its homeless targeting ordinances. Other cities pay comparable costs, making the criminalization of homelessness costly to everyone. There have been some efforts to address homelessness through other means, such as providing affordable housing, but dealing with the underlying causes is certainly challenging given existing values.

Once again, trying to solve a problem through criminalization proves to be a terrible approach. Even on the heartless grounds of saving money, it fails—the cost of policing the homeless would seem to consume whatever savings might be accrued for letting people fall through the social safety net. This, of course, could be countered—one might be able to show that the monetary cost strategies aimed at getting the homeless into homes would exceed the cost of policing the homeless on the streets. After all, the politicians could lower the cost significantly simply by not policing the homelessness who do not commit serious crimes, such as robbery. This, however, does still leave the homeless without homes and this can impose other economic costs—such medical expenses paid for by the public. This could be countered by arguing that the homeless should be completely abandoned—this would certainly yield financial savings.

Such abandonment does, however, run into a moral challenge. The harms suffered by the homeless (and society) would seem to make a compelling utilitarian moral argument in favor of approaches that aim at getting the homeless back into society. Moral views that accept that people should love one another also enjoin us to not abandon our fellows. In any case, criminalizing homelessness is no solution, financial or moral.

Drug addiction is another problem that has largely been addressed by criminalization. About half of the people in federal prisons and 16% of those in state prison are there for drug offenses. This is the result of the war on drugs, which endeavored to solve the drug problem by arresting our way out of it. Since the negative consequences of this approach fell mainly on minorities and the poor, there was little interest among politicians to take a different approach. However, as prison populations swelled and public attitudes towards drug use changed, there was some talk of reconsidering this war. The biggest change in the public discussion arose from the opioid epidemic—a drug epidemic that goes beyond ravaging the poor and minorities to impacting the white middle class.  This has resulted in some changes in the approach to the problem, such as the police offering free treatment for drug users rather than arresting them. It does remain to be seen if these changes will be lasting and widespread. However, this is certainly a positive change to a failed approach to the health issue of drugs.

While some for profit prisons have done well for their shareholders in the war on drugs, the financial cost to society as a whole has been substantial. Criminalization of addiction has also failed to reduce addiction. As such, this approach has proven a practical failure.

As above, there are also the moral concerns about this approach in terms of the harms being inflicted on individuals and society as a whole. Fortunately, there is a chance that America will rethink the war on drugs (in which we are the enemy) and recast it as a health issue. This not only has the potential to be far more of a practical success, it also would seem to be the right thing to do morally. Transforming people in need into criminals cannot solve the ills of society; addressing those needs can.

 

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Trump & The Muslim Ban

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on December 7, 2015

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has found what seems to be a winning strategy: when a poll shows that he might be losing his lead, he makes an outrageous statement. His poll numbers then rise. On December 7, 2015 Trump said that the United States should forbid all Muslims from entering the country.

In making his statement, Trump asserted that “…the hatred is beyond comprehension” and that the ban must last “…until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses…” He apparently thinks that Muslims “…believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.” Since Trump is the leading Republican candidate, his remarks carry significant weight. As such, they demand serious consideration.

There are three main areas in which Trump’s proposal needs to be assessed. These are the legal, the moral and the practical. I will start with the legal.

While I am not a constitutional scholar or a lawyer, Trump’s proposal seems to be unconstitutional. There is no legal precedent for applying a religious test for admission to the United States and, most importantly, it would violate the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment. As such, even if such a law were passed by Congress, it would almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court. Since I am not an expert in this area, I would certainly defer to those who know this field.

As might be expected, the morality of Trump’s proposal depends on what sort of moral theory is used to assess it. Those who hold that morality is based on Christianity would presumably accept the command of Leviticus: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” This would seem to forbid such exclusion. Naturally, it could be objected that this command does not apply to Muslims—the challenge is providing the scriptural support for this claim. It could also be pointed out that the text is about the foreigner residing among us and, as such, does not forbid preventing the foreigner from coming here to reside. This sort of loophole is best debated by religious scholars.

For those who prefer ethics not based on religion, one standard approach is to consider the matter from the utilitarian standpoint. This would involve considering the harms and benefits of such a ban, weighing them, arguing that morality is a matter of consequences and then drawing the appropriate conclusion. This also brings in the practical assessment of the plan by considering its effectiveness or lack thereof.

Given what Trump says, he seems to think that the ban would protect Americans from harm. In one sense, he is right: if no Muslims are allowed into the country, then the Muslims that are kept out cannot harm Americans here. Americans would just face the usual dangers from everyone else and each other—and the leading cause of violent deaths of Americans is, of course, other Americans. As such, the increase in safety would be incredibly small.

There are numerous negative consequences to consider, such as the harm that would be done to refugees fleeing wars as well as the many Muslims who come to the United States to engage in peaceful, productive and beneficial activities such as working, learning, teaching, and being tourists. There is also the harm that would be done to the Americans who benefit from these activities. In practical terms, this could be measured in dollars lost. In moral terms, it could be measured in harms done.

In addition to the domestic harms, there is also the harm to America’s reputation. To impose such a ban on Muslims would be to throw down and stomp upon our claims of religious tolerance and religious liberty. We have claimed that we will take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses that yearn to breathe free. To refuse to allow people into the country would repudiate these words. This is said to be the home of the brave. To impose such a ban would be to make this the home of the fearful and the intolerant. The harm to our reputation in the world would, I believe, be quite serious and would greatly offset any alleged gain in safety from the ban. This can, of course be countered by arguing that either the impact to our reputation would be insignificant or that it would be outweighed by the alleged gain in safety.

Finally, this sort of ban would be a propaganda gold mine for groups like Daesh. It would serve as excellent evidence for the claim that the West is at war with Islam and would serve as a powerful recruiting tool. Those banned from entering the United States would also have resentment against America, resentment that could in some cases be fanned into the flames of radicalization. This would, ironically, put Americans at greater risk. This could also be countered by arguing that such a ban would not have the claimed effect or that the positive impact of the ban on safety would outweigh the negative.

Given that the proposed ban is unconstitutional, immoral and would be ineffective as a means of providing protection (but very effective as Daesh propaganda) it should be evident it is an awful idea. In fact, its mere proposal is already harming the United States.

 

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Refugees & Terrorists

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2015

In response to the recent terrorist attack in Paris (but presumably not those outside the West, such as in Beirut) many governors have stated they will try to prevent the relocation of Syrian refugees into their states. These states include my home state of Maine, my university state of Ohio and my adopted state of Florida. Recognizing a chance to score political points, some Republican presidential candidates have expressed their opposition to allowing more Syrian refugees into the country. Some, such as Ted Cruz, have proposed a religious test for entry into the country: Christian refugees would be allowed, while Muslim refugees would be turned away.

On the one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this as mere political posturing and pandering to fear, racism and religious intolerance. On the other hand, it is worth considering the legitimate worries that lie under the posturing and the pandering. One worry is, of course, the possibility that terrorists could masquerade as refugees to enter the country. Another worry is that refugees who are not already terrorists might be radicalized and become terrorists.

In matters of politics, it is rather unusual for people to operate on the basis of consistently held principles. Instead, views tend to be held on the basis of how a person feels about a specific matter or what the person thinks about the political value of taking a specific position. However, a proper moral assessment requires considering the matter in terms of general principles and consistency.

In the case of the refugees, the general principle justifying excluding them would be something like this: it is morally acceptable to exclude from a state groups who include people who might pose a threat. This principle seems, in general, quite reasonable. After all, excluding people who might present a threat serves to protect people from harm.

Of course, this principle is incredibly broad and would justify excluding almost anyone and everyone. After all, nearly every group of people (tourists, refugees, out-of-staters, men, Christians, atheists, cat fanciers, football players, and so on) include people who might pose a threat.  While excluding everyone would increase safety, it would certainly make for a rather empty state. As such, this general principle should be subject to some additional refinement in terms of such factors as the odds that a dangerous person will be in the group in question, the harm such a person is likely to do, and the likely harms from excluding such people.

As noted above, the concern about refugees from Syria (and the Middle East) is that they might include terrorists or terrorists to be. One factor to consider is the odds that this will occur. The United States has a fairly extensive (and slow) vetting process for refugees and, as such, it is not surprising that of “745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.”  This indicates that although the chance of a terrorist arriving masquerading as a refugee is not zero, it is exceptionally unlikely.

It might be countered, using the usual hyperbolic rhetoric of such things, that if even one terrorist gets into the United States, that would be an intolerable disaster. While I do agree that this would be a bad thing, there is the matter of general principles. In this case, would it be reasonable to operate on a principle that the possibility of even one bad outcome is sufficient to warrant a broad ban on something? That, I would contend, would generally seem to be unreasonable. This principle would justify banning guns, nuts, cars and almost all other things. It would also justify banning tourists and visitors from other states. After all, tourists and people from other states do bad things in states from time to time. As such, this principle seems unreasonable.

There is, of course, the matter of the political risk. A politician who supports allowing refugees to come into her state will be vilified by certain pundits and a certain news outlet if even a single incident happens. This, of course, would be no more reasonable than vilifying a politician who supports the second amendment just because a person is wrongly shot in her state.  But, reason is usually absent in the realm of political punditry.

Another factor to consider is the harm that would be done by excluding such refugees. If they cannot be settled someplace, they will be condemned to live as involuntary nomads and suffer all that entails. There is also the ironic possibility that such excluded refugees will become, as pundits like to say, radicalized. After all, people who are deprived of hope and who are treated as pariahs tend to become a bit resentful and some might decide to actually become terrorists. There is also the fact that banning refugees provides a nice bit of propaganda for the terrorist groups.

Given that the risk is very small and the harm to the refugees would be significant, the moral thing to do is to allow the refugees into the United States. Yes, one of them could be a terrorist. But so could a tourist. Or some American coming from another state. Or already in the state.

In addition to the sort of utilitarian calculation just made, an argument can also be advanced on the basis of moral duties to others, even when acting on such a duty involves risk. In terms of religious-based ethics, a standard principle is to love thy neighbor as thyself, which would seem to require that the refugees be aided, even at a slight risk. There is also the golden rule: if the United States fell into chaos and war, Americans fleeing the carnage would want other people to help them. Even though we Americans have a reputation for violence. As such, we need to accept refugees.

As a closing point, we Americans love to make claims about the moral superiority and exceptionalism of our country. Talk is cheap, so if we want to prove our alleged superiority and exceptionalism, we have to act in an exceptional way. Refusing to help people out of fear is to show a lack of charity, compassion and courage. This is not what an exceptional nation would do.

 

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Isis & Rape

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 21, 2015

Looked at in the abstract, ISIS seems to be another experiment in the limits of human evil, addressing the question of how bad people can become before they are unable to function as social beings. While ISIS is well known for its theologically justified murder and destruction, it has now become known for its theologically justified slavery and rape.

While I am not a scholar of religion, it is quite evident that scriptural justifications of slavery and rape exist and require little in the way of interpretation. In this, Islamic scripture is similar to the bible—this book also contains rules about the practice of slavery and guidelines regarding the proper practice of rape. Not surprisingly, mainstream religious scholars of Islam and Christianity tend to argue that these aspects of scripture no longer apply or that they can be interpreted in ways that do not warrant slavery or rape. Opponents of these faiths tend to argue that the mainstream scholars are mistaken and that the wicked behavior enjoined in such specific passages express the true principles of the faith.

Disputes over specific passages lead to the broader debate about the true tenets of a faith and what it is to be a true member of that faith. To use a current example, opponents of Islam often claim that Islam is inherently violent and that the terrorists exemplify the true members of Islam. Likewise, some who are hostile to Christianity claim that it is a hateful religion and point to Christian extremists, such as God Hates Fags, as exemplars of true Christianity. This is a rather difficult and controversial matter and one I have addressed in other essays.

A reasonable case can be made that slavery and rape are not in accord with Islam, just as a reasonable case can be made that slavery and rape are not in accord with Christianity. As noted above, it can argued that times have changed, that the texts do not truly justify the practices and so on. However, these passages remain and can be pointed to as theological evidence in favor of the religious legitimacy of these practices. The practice of being selective about scripture is indeed a common one and people routinely focus on passages they like while ignoring passages that they do not like. This selectivity is, not surprisingly, most often used to “justify” prejudice, hatred and misdeeds. Horribly, ISIS does indeed have textual support, however controversial it might be with mainstream Islamic thinkers. That, I think, cannot be disputed.

ISIS members not only claim that slavery and rape are acceptable, they go so far as to claim that rape is pleasing to God. According to Rukmini Callimachi’s article in the New York Times, ISIS rapists pray before raping, rape, and then pray after raping. They are not praying for forgiveness—the rape is part of the religious ritual that is supposed to please God.

The vast majority of monotheists would certainly be horrified by this and would assert that God is not pleased by rape (despite textual support to the contrary). Being in favor of rape is certainly inconsistent with the philosophical conception of God as an all good being. However, there is the general problem of sorting out what God finds pleasing and what He condemns. In the case of human authorities it is generally easy to sort out what pleases them and what they condemn: they act to support and encourage what pleases them and act to discourage, prevent and punish what they condemn. If God exists, He certainly is allowing ISIS to do as it will—He never acts to stop them or even to send a clear sign that He condemns their deeds. But, of course, God seems to share the same policy as Star Fleet’s Prime Directive now: He never interferes or makes His presence known.

The ISIS horror is yet another series of examples in the long standing problem of evil—if God is all powerful, all-knowing and good, then there should be no evil. But, since ISIS is freely doing what it does it would seem to follow that God is lacking in some respect, He does not exist or He, as ISIS claims, is pleased by the rape of children.

Not surprisingly, religion is not particularly helpful here—while scripture and interpretations of scripture can be used to condemn ISIS, scripture can also be used to support them in their wickedness. God, as usual, is not getting involved, so we do not know what He really thinks. So, it would seem to be up human morality to settle this matter.

While there is considerable dispute about morality, the evil of rape and slavery certainly seem to be well-established. It can be noted that moral arguments have been advanced in favor of slavery, usually on the grounds of alleged superiority. However, these moral arguments certainly seem to have been adequately refuted. There are far fewer moral arguments in defense of rape, which is hardly surprising. However, these also seem to have been effectively refuted. In any case, I would contend that the burden of proof rests on those who would claim that slavery or rape are morally acceptable and invite readers to advance such arguments for due consideration.

Moving away from morality, there are also practical matters. ISIS does have a clear reason to embrace its theology of rape: as was argued by Rukmini Callimachi, it is a powerful recruiting tool. ISIS offers men a group in which killing, destruction and rape are not only tolerated but praised as being pleasing to God—the ultimate endorsement. While there are people who do not feel any need to justify their evil, even very wicked people often still want to believe that their terrible crimes are warranted or even laudable. As such, ISIS has considerable attraction to those who wish to do evil.

Accepting this theology of slavery and rape is not without negative consequences for recruiting—while there are many who find it appealing, there are certainly many more who find it appalling. Some ISIS supporters have endeavored to deny that ISIS has embraced this theology of rape and slavery—even they recognize some moral limits. Other supporters have not been dismayed by these revelations and perhaps even approve. Whether this theology of rape and slavery benefits ISIS more than it harms it will depend largely on the moral character of its potential recruits and supporters. I certainly hope that this is a line that many are not willing to cross, thus cutting into ISIS’ potential manpower and financial support. What impact this has on ISIS’ support will certainly reveal much about the character of their supporters—do they have some moral limits?

 

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Ethics, Children & Immigration

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 30, 2014

While children, accompanied or not, have been immigrating to the United States from Central America for quite some time, this matter has attracted considerable attention as the number of children has increased (although not as dramatically as some media coverage would suggest). Not surprisingly, this has become a political issue within the larger context of the immigration policy debate and both Republicans and Democrats are struggling to figure out how to best exploit the opportunity (or best avoid disaster).

To focus the moral discussion, I will narrow the subject considerably and focus on young children who are arriving from Central America and who are not gang-members or other sorts of criminals. One reason for this is that the issue of allowing criminals to come to the United States is easy enough to address: they should not be allowed to come here for the purpose of committing crimes.

Since many Americans claim that the United States is a Christian nation, it is certainly tempting to apply Christian ethics to this matter. The bible is rather clear about this issue: “Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’” The bible also enjoins people to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Given these clear statements, it would seem to follow that those who which to practice Christian ethics would be morally (and religiously) obligated to show compassion and kindness to the children who are strangers and foreigners.

There are, of course, people who do take these injunctions seriously and act in accord with them. However, there are others who profess the religion but have reacted quite differently to these words: “But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing.…” Perhaps such folks believe that following Christian ethics is merely a matter of being opposed to birth control, abortion and equal rights for women.

Alternatively, a person could profess the principles and content that they are overridden by other concerns. One possible line of argumentation is to point out that the children are here illegally and this entails that they should not be given the full measure of compassion but rather shipped back to their point of origin immediately. Another possible line of argumentation is utilitarian: though extending kindness and compassion to the children would be laudable, to do so would require resources that are either unavailable or would be better used elsewhere (such as helping poor Americans). On this view, utilitarian ethics or practical concerns would trump the religious based ethics.

There are, obviously enough, people who are not Christians and people who, though professing to be Christians, reject the specific principles mentioned above. As such, other reasons would be needed to show that the children in question should be treated with suitable compassion and kindness.

One fruitful avenue is to appeal to a principle of moral debt: that is, when someone has been harmed or wronged, the wrongdoer has an obligation to set matters right. In the matter at hand, it has been claimed that some of the children have been sent from Central America to escape the terrible violence that plagues the region. This, of course, can be challenged—one could argue that the children are being sent to the United States for other reasons, such as better economic opportunities (or to become parasites on the American taxpayer). These arguments are not without merit and must be given due consideration. After all, if the children are coming to the United States illegally to escape danger and death, then that is a rather different matter than if they are coming to have a better life (perhaps at the expense of the taxpayer).

That said, let it be supposed that some of the children are, in fact, fleeing danger and the risk of death. The obvious concern is why this might obligate the United States to allow them to stay. One answer, as noted above, is to appeal to a moral debt owed by the United States (that is the people of the United States as a collective political body). Some might wonder what the foundation of such a debt might be. There are two easy and obvious answers to this.

The first is that the United States has a well-documented history of political and economic machinations in the region and these include toppling governments, supporting death squads, and other such nefarious deeds. In short, the United States has significantly contributed to the conditions that threaten the children of the area with death and danger. Fairness does, of course, require noting that the United States has not been alone in its adventures in the region (the Cold War helped shape much of the current situation) and some of the instability and chaos is self-inflicted. Given the United States’ role in creating the current situation, it would seem that we owe a collective debt and this would obligate us to addressing the consequences of these past actions.

The second is that a significant cause of violence in the region is drugs, specifically the production and distribution of drugs. While there is obviously local consumption, the people of the United States are a primary market for the drugs produced in this region and the war on drugs pursued by the United States has been even more disastrous in Central America than it has been in the United States. Given our role as drug consumers and our war on drugs, the United States is thus a major contributor to the violence and danger of the region. Since we are doing wrong, this would certainly seem to create an obligation on our part in regards to the children that are fleeing this situation.

To use an obvious analogy, if affluent outsiders wreck a neighborhood and serve as the prime customers for the drug industry that arises there, then these outsiders have a significant degree of moral accountability. If children try to flee the ruins of that neighborhood and head into the affluent neighborhood, it would certainly be wicked of those people to insist on sending them back into the mess they themselves worked so hard to create and maintain.

 

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