The venerable Wells Fargo bank made the news in 2016 for financial misdeeds on a massive scale. Employees of the company, in an effort to meet the quotas set by management, had created numerous accounts without the permission of the clients. In response over 5,300 lower level employees were fired. Initially, CEO John Stumpf and former head of retail banking Carrie Tolstedt were to keep their rather sizable compensation for leading the company to a great financial “success” based on this fraud. However, backlash from the public and the shareholders has resulted in Stumpf and Carrie losing some of their financial compensation.
As would be expected, there are currently no plans for criminal charges of the sort that could result in jail time. This is consistent with how financial misdeeds by the elites are typically handled: some fines and, at worst, some forfeiture of ill-gotten gains. While I do not generally agree with Trump, he is not wrong when he points out that the system is rigged in favor of the elites and against the common people. The fact that Trump is one of the elite and has used the system quite effectively does not prove him wrong (that would be fallacious reasoning); rather he himself serves as more evidence for the rigging. Those who loath Hillary Clinton can also add their own favorite examples.
It is instructive to compare the punishment for other misdeeds to those imposed on Wells Fargo. Shoplifting is usually seem as a fairly minor crime, but a person who shoplifts property with a combined value of less than $300 can pay a fine up to $1000 or be sentenced to up to a year in jail. Shoplifting property with a combined value over $300 is a felony and can result in a sentence between one and ten years in jail. While Wells Fargo did not seem to directly steal money (that is, it did not simply empty accounts into its own coffers), it did rob people through the use of fees and other charges that arose from the creation of these unauthorized accounts.
While there are clearly differences between the direct theft of shoplifting and the indirect robbery of imposing charges on unauthorized accounts, there seems to be little moral distinction: after all, both are means of robbing someone of their rightful property. Because of this, there would appear to be a need to revise the penalties so that they are properly proportional.
One option is to bring the punishment for major financial misdeeds in line with the punishment for shoplifting. This would involve changing the fine for financial misdeeds from being a fraction of the profits (or damages) of the misdeeds to a multiple of the profits (perhaps three or more times greater). It could be argued that such a harsh penalty could financial ruin an elite who lacked adequate assets to pay for their misdeed; however, the exact same argument can be advanced for poor shoplifters.
Another option is to bring the punishments for shoplifting in line with the punishments for the financial elites. This would change the fine for shoplifting from likely being in excess of the value of what was stolen to a fraction of what was stolen (if that). The obvious objection to this proposal is that if shoplifters knew that their punishment would be to pay a fraction of the value they had stolen, then this punishment would have no deterrent value. Shoplifting would be, in effect, shopping at a significant discount. It is thus hardly shocking that the financial elite are generally not deterred by the present system of punishment—they come out way ahead if they do not get caught and can still do very well even if they are caught.
It could be objected that the financial elite would be deterred on the grounds that they would still be better off using legal means to profit. That way they would keep 100% of their gain rather than a fraction. The easy and obvious reply is that this deterrent value is contingent on the elite believing that the legal approach would be more profitable than the illegal approach (with due consideration to the chance of getting caught and fined). Since the punishment is often a fraction of the gain and the potential gain from misdeeds can be huge, this approach to punishment has far less deterrent value than a punishment in which the punished comes out at a loss rather than a gain.
It is also interesting to compare the punishment for identity theft and fraud with the punishment of Wells Fargo. Conviction of identity theft can result in a sentence of one to seven years. Fraud charges also have sentences that range from one to ten years and beyond. While some do emphasize that Wells Fargo was not engaged in traditional identity theft was morally similar. As an example of traditional identity theft, a thief steals a person’s identity and gets a credit card under that name to use for their own gain. What Wells Fargo did was open accounts in people’s names without their permission so that the company could profit from this misuse of their identity. As such, the company was stealing from these people and doing them the same sorts of harms inflicted by individuals engaging in identity theft.
From a moral standpoint, those involved in these actions should face the same criminal charges and potential punishments that individuals acting on their own would face. This is morally required for consistency. Obviously enough, the laws are not consistent—the misdeeds of the elite and corporations are so often punished lightly or not at all. This is nothing new—the history of law is also the history of its unfair application. The injustice of justice, one might say. However, this approach is problematic.
Looked at from a certain moral perspective, the degree to which I am obligated to accept punishment for my misdeeds is proportional to the consistency and fairness of the system of justice. If others are able to walk away from the consequences of their misdeeds or enjoy light punishments for misdeeds that would result in harsh penalties for me, then I have little moral reason to willingly accept any punishments that might be inflicted on me. Naturally, the state has the power to inflict its punishments whether I accept them or not, but it seems important to a system of justice that the citizens accept the moral legitimacy of the punishment.
To use an analogy, imagine a professor who ran their class like the justice system is run. If an elite student cheated and got an initial grade of 100, they might be punished by having the grade docked to an 80 if caught. In contrast, the common students would be failed and sent before the academic misconduct board for such a misdeed. The common students who cheated would be right to rebel against this system and refuse to accept such punishments—though they did wrong, justice without consistency is but a mockery of real justice.
In light of this discussion, Wells Fargo is yet another shining example of the inherent injustice and inequality in the legal system. If we wish to have a just system of justice, these disparities must be addressed. These disparities also warrant moral disobedience in the face of punishment. Why should, morally, a shoplifter accept a fine that vastly exceeds what they stole when a financial elite can pay but a fraction of their theft and profit well from their misdeeds?
One talking point on the political right is that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is causally responsible for an increase in crime. This point has been made by such sources as the National Review and Bill O’Reilly. As would be suspected, those to the left of the right have denied this connection and, of course, BLM has denied this claim.
In general terms, BLM is alleged to make two major contributions to crime. The first is in regards to videos: BLM encourages citizens to take videos of the police and also supports the release of police videos. These videos are said to create what is known as the ‘Laquan McDonald Effect.’ Laquan McDonald was a 17-year-old black man who was killed by officer Jason Van Dyke. The police video shows the officer shooting McDonald 16 times as he was moving away from the officers. McDonald was holding a small knife; as such he was technically armed. The effect of this video and the following protests, it is claimed, was to cause officers to step down in their policing out of fear of being the next Van Dyke. For example, police in Chicago reduced their street stops by 80%. This reduction in policing is supposed to contribute to the increase in crime (or at least fail to address the increase).
The second is in regards to the protesting against the police. One alleged impact is that the hostility towards the police damages their morale and this negatively impacts how they do their jobs. In the face of weakened policing, crime increases. Another alleged impact is that the police are burdened by dealing with BLM protests and this pulls away resources, thus allowing crime to increase. There are also the assertions that BLM engages in criminal activities (under the guise of protesting) and that it encourages or inspires (intentionally or not) criminal activity.
The hypothesis that BLM has a causal role in the increase of crime is certainly something that should be given due consideration. Those that already think it does would presumably want confirmation and those who disagree would want it to be disproven. Naturally, many people see BLM through the lens of ideology and proof contrary to their views could merely cause them to double down on their claims. However, those willing to accept reason should be prepared for the possibility they will need to adjust their views in the face of adequate evidence.
As some people see it, the fact that BLM’s appearance was followed by an increase in crime in some cities is sufficient proof that BLM was the cause of this increase. While cause normally precedes effect, to infer that BLM is the cause of the increase because it occurred after BLM arose would be to fall victim to the classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim. While this sort of error is usually the result of a lack of caution, it can also arise from motivated thinking: those who dislike BLM could be quick to link it with the increase of crime because of their dislike.
Properly sorting out the connection, if any, between BLM and the increase in crime would require a robust and objective analysis of statistical data, causal connections and human motivations. As of this writing, this has not been completed. As such, whether or not BLM really is a causal factor remains an open question. That said, it is certainly worth assessing the arguments advanced in support of BLM responsibility.
The first argument, as noted above, focuses on the claim that BLM encourages people to take videos of police and pushes for the release of police videos when incidents occur. This causes officers to worry that they will be filmed, thus leading them to scale back on policing. It is this, it is alleged, which increases crime. In terms of a causal explanation, this has considerable plausibility. If the police are afraid of being filmed, they are less likely to engage in activities that would result in their being filmed. When the police cut back on those activities, such as stops and aggressive policing, the pressure on criminals is lessened and they have a freer hand in committing crimes.
The second set of arguments also do establish a link between BLM and the increase in crime. The idea that the protesting demoralizes the police does make sense and dealing with protests does pull away police resources. As such, the causal link between BLM and an increase in crime can be established. While those who dislike BLM would be content to take this as the end of the story, this is actually just the beginning. There still remain causal questions as well as questions about moral responsibility.
One way to consider the matter is to use an analogy that is, hopefully, less imbued with ideology and emotion. Imagine that it was found that some doctors were prescribing unnecessary medications in order to get money and gifts from pharmaceutical companies. It can also be added that some doctors engaged in Medicare fraud that also proved harmful to the patients. Suppose that this was exposed by videos taken by patients and an organization arose called Patients’ Lives Matter to address this mistreatment of patients by some doctors. Suppose that the rate of illnesses started increasing after PLM started protesting.
Some might argue that PLM is to blame. One argument might be that doctors are now afraid to properly treat patients because someone might take a video of them. Another might be that doctors have become demoralized by the protests and hence do not do as well on the job. Presumably the solution would be for PLM to disband and allow the doctors to return to what they were doing. But, this seems absurd—the moral responsibility rests on the doctors who engaged in the misdeeds, not on PLM. The bad doctors need to be corrected or replaced—getting rid of PLM will merely “solve” the problem by returning to the previous problem.
In this case it would seem odd to blame the patients alone. After all, but for the doctors who engaged in the misdeeds, there would be no PLM to demoralize the doctors. Going back to BLM, but for the police who engaged in misdeeds, there would be no BLM. As such, the police who have engaged in misdeeds are also a causal factor. BLM would have nothing to encourage people to film and no videos to press for release if there were no misdeeds. As people so often say, those who have nothing to hide have no reason to fear scrutiny—ironically, this is often said about cases in which the police or other agents of the state are intruding into the privacy of citizens. If it applies to citizens, it surely applies to the police as well. After all, if an officer does nothing wrong, video will vindicate the officer. This is why some departments actually want officers to have cameras.
In terms of the protests, while it is true that such protests can be demoralizing, BLM is not protesting nothing—they are protesting events that are quite real. Naturally, it is reasonable to be concerned about how the community regards the police. However, BLM seems to be a response to the already poor relationships between many communities and their police, not the cause of those poor relationships.
The complaints about BLM disrupting communities seems analogous to the complaints about civil rights activists “damaging” community relationships by protesting the violation of civil rights. That is, that race-relations were just fine until the civil rights activists came in and caused all the trouble.
While it is true that people reacted negatively to civil rights activists, the moral blame for the reactions lies with those responding, not with the activists. And, of course, race relations were not fine—at least not fine for those being lynched. In the case of BLM, the problems are already there in the community, BLM is merely bringing them into the national spotlight—and some would prefer that they remain in the shadows. Blaming BLM for the increase in crime is thus a red herring—an attempt to distract people from the real cause and to discredit a movement that makes the white right very uncomfortable by bringing what was once in the shadows into the light.
While the United States does have numerous third parties and many voters now register as independents, politics is dominated by the Republicans and the Democrats. While there are independents in office here and there, independent voters still identify strongly with the two parties. They are also almost entirely limited to voting for candidates from these two parties.
My own party affiliation is Democrat, although it is a very weak affiliation. While I do share some of the values professed by the party (such as support for education and protecting the environment) my main reason for being a Democrat is that Florida is a closed primary state. If I did not have a party affiliation, I would be limited to voting between the candidates picked by the Democrats and Republicans. That is not acceptable and I regard the Democrats as less evil than the Republicans. At least for now.
While people do sometimes change parties (Reagan started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican, while Hillary Clinton took the reverse path) most people stay loyal to their parties. Trump has tested the loyalty of some Republicans, but it seems likely that most will vote along straight party lines. Likewise for Hillary and the Democrats.
Being a philosopher, I endeavor to operate from consistent moral, logical and political principles rather than merely embracing whatever my party happens to endorse at any given moment. Because of this, I could end up leaving the Democratic party if its professed values changed enough to be broadly incompatible with my own. This can certainly happen. As Republicans love to mention, their party was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. As they also love to point out, the Democratic party was once an explicitly racist party. Now, of course, both parties are very different from those days. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled by the current Republican party and the Democrats are now regarded as a civil rights focused party that is very welcoming to minorities (and certainly welcomes their votes).
While political parties presumably provide some benefits for citizens, they mainly exist to benefit the politicians. They provide politicians with resources and support that are essential to running for office. They also provide another valuable service to politicians: a very effective means of cognitive and moral derangement. Like other groups, political parties exploit well-known cognitive biases, thus encouraging their members to yield to irrationality and moral failure.
One bias is the bandwagon effect; this is the tendency people have to align their thinking with that of those around them. This often serves to ground such fallacies as the “group think” fallacy in which a person accepts a claim as true simply because their group accepts it as true. In the case of political parties, people tend to believe what their party claims, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is well-established that people often double down on false beliefs in the face of objective evidence against this belief. This afflicts people across the political spectrum. The defense against this sort of derangement is to resist leaping on the bandwagon and train oneself to accept evidence rather than group loyalty as support for a claim.
Another bias is the tendency people have to obey authority and conform. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in obedience purport to show that people are generally obedient by nature and will obey even when they also believe what they are doing is wrong. This derangement forges people into obedient masses who praise their leader, be that leader the objectively unfit Donald Trump or the morally problematic and Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Since obedience is so ingrained into humans, resisting is very difficult. In fact, people often think they are resisting authority when they are simply bowing low to some other authority. Being disobedient as a matter of principle is difficult, although people such as Socrates and Thoreau do offer some guidelines and inspiration.
Perhaps the most powerful bias here is the in group bias. This is the natural tendency people have to regard members of their group as having positive qualities while seeing members of other groups as being inferior. This tendency is triggered even by the most superficial of group identifications. For example, sports teams stand for nothing—they do not represent moral or political principles or anything of significance. Yet people routinely become obsessive fans who regard their fellows as better than the fans of other teams. This can, and does, escalate into violence. Violence of the most stupid and pointless sort, but real violence nonetheless. In the case of politics, the bias is even stronger. Republicans and Democrats typically praise their own and condemn their competition. Many of them devote considerable effort scouring the internet for “evidence” of their virtue and the vice of their foes: it is not enough to disagree; the opposition must be demonized and cast as inferior. For example, I see battles play out on Facebook over whether Democrats or Republicans give more to charity—and this sometimes becomes a matter of deep rage that has ended friendships. Since I prefer to not let politics or religion end an otherwise fine friendship, I make a point of not getting engaged in such battles. There are, after all, only losers in those fights.
This bias is extremely useful to politicians as it helps fuels the moral and cognitive derangement of their supporters. The most pronounced effect is that party members will typically rush to defend their politician over matters that they savagely attack the other side for. For example, Donald Trump is, as a matter of objective fact, unrelenting in his untruths. His supporters who otherwise regard lying as wrong, rush to defend and excuse him, while bashing Hillary as a liar and a crook—despite the fact that Hillary says untrue things far less often than Trump. As should be expected, Hillary’s devout backers do the same thing—excusing Hillary for things they condemn about Trump (such as sketchy business deals).
As a matter of rational and moral principle (and consistency), a person who regards lying as wrong should take liars of both parties to task and criticize their lying appropriately. To do otherwise is to be irrational and morally inconsistent. The same should apply to other matters as well, such as sketchy business deals. To avoid this derangement, people need to train themselves (or be trained) to assess politicians as objectively as possible to avoid being morally and cognitively deranged by the undue corrupting influence of party.
This is not to say that a person should fall into the trap of false equivalency or regard any misdeed as equal to any other. Simply saying “they are all equally bad” when they are not is also a failure of reason and ethics. Using the example of the 2016 campaign, while Trump and Clinton both have their flaws, Clinton is objectively better than Trump in regards to qualifications for being president. As Republicans argued when Obama was running in 2008, experience is critically important and the presidency is not an entry level political job. Naturally, I expect some to lash out at me over such claims. Some will rush to praise Trump and tear apart Hillary. I also would expect Hillary backers to be displeased by my fairly negative view of Hillary (while Hillary haters will probably have the mistaken impression that I am all in for her). Such things will actually help prove my point: people tend to be ruled by their biases.
I am not advocating that people become apathetic or abandon their parties. Rather, I want people to hold all politicians to the same standards of criticism rather than rushing to defend their side simply because it is their side and bashing the other simply because it is the other. This would, I hope, force politicians to actually be better. As it now stands, they can be rather awful and simply count on the derangement of voters to work in their favor.
In 2016 the Dallas police used a remotely operated robot to kill a suspect with a bomb. While this marked a new use for robots in the realm of domestic policing, the decision making process was entirely conventional. That is, humans decided to use the machine and then a human operator controlled it for the attack. As such a true policebot is still a thing of science fiction. That said, considering policebots provides an interesting way to discuss police profiling in a speculative setting. While it might be objected that the discussion should focus on real police profiling, there are advantages to discussing controversial matters within a speculative context. One important advantage is that such a setting can help dampen emotional responses and enable a more rational discussion. The speculative context helps make the discussion less threatening to some who might react with greater hostility to discussions focused on the actual world. Star Trek’s discussion of issues of race in the 1960s through the use of science fiction is an excellent example of this sort of approach. Now, to the matter of policebots.
The policebots under consideration are those that would be capable of a high degree of autonomous operation. At the low end of autonomy, they could be deployed to handle traffic laws on their own. On the higher end, they could operate autonomously to conduct arrests of suspects who might resist arrest violently. Near the highest end would be robotic police at least as capable as human beings.
While there are legitimate worries that policebots could be used as unquestioning servants of the state to oppress and control elements of the population (something we will certainly see), there are also good reasons for using suitably advanced policebots. One obvious advantage is that policebots would be more resilient and easier to repair than human officers. Policebots that are not people would also be far more expendable and thus could save human lives by taking on the dangerous tasks of policing (such as engaging armed suspects). Another advantage is that robots will probably not get tired or bored, thus allowing them to patrol around the clock with maximum efficiency. Robots are also unlikely to be subject to the corrupting factors that influence humans or suffer from personal issues. There is also the possibility that policebots could be far more objective than human officers—this is, in fact, the main concern of this essay.
Like a human office, policbots would need to identify criminal behavior. In some cases this would be fairly easy. For example, an autonomous police drone could easily spot and ticket most traffic violations. In other cases, this would be incredibly complicated. For example, a policebot patrolling a neighborhood would need to discern between children playing at cops & robbers and people engaged in actual violence. As another example, a policebot on patrol would need to be able to sort out the difference between a couple having a public argument and an assault in progress.
In addition to sorting out criminal behavior from non-criminal behavior, policebots would also need to decide on how to focus their attention. For example, a policebot would need to determine who gets special attention in a neighborhood because they are acting suspicious or seem to be out of place. Assuming that policebots would be programed, the decision making process would be explicitly laid out in the code. Such focusing decisions would seem to be, by definition, based in profiling and this gives rise to important moral concerns.
Profiling that is based on behavior would seem to be generally acceptable, provided that such behavior is clearly linked to criminal activities and not to, as an example, ethnicity. For example, it would seem perfectly reasonable to focus attention on a person who makes an effort to stick to the shadows around houses while paying undue attention to houses that seem to be unoccupied at the time. While such a person might be a shy fellow who likes staring at unlit houses as a pastime, there is a reasonable chance he is casing the area for a robbery. As such, the policebot would be warranted in focusing on him.
The most obviously controversial area would be using certain demographic data for profiles. Young men tend to commit more crimes than middle-aged women. On the one hand, this would seem to be relevant data for programing a policebot. On the other hand, it could be argued that this would give the policebot a gender and age bias that would be morally wrong despite being factually accurate. It becomes vastly more controversial when data about such things as ethnicity, economic class and religion are considered. If accurate and objective data links such factors to a person being more likely to engage in crime, then a rather important moral concern arises. Obviously enough, if such data were not accurate, then it should not be included.
Sorting out the accuracy of such data can be problematic and there are sometimes circular appeals. For example, someone might defend the higher arrest rate of blacks by claiming that blacks commit more crimes than whites. When it is objected that the higher arrest right could be partially due to bias in policing, the reply is often that blacks commit more crimes and the proof is that blacks are arrested more than whites. That is, the justification runs in a circle.
But suppose that objective and accurate data showed links between the controversial demographic categories and crime. In that case, leaving it out of the programing could make policebots less effective. This could have the consequence of allowing more crimes to occur. This harm would need to be weighed against the harm of having the policebots programmed to profile based on such factors. One area of concern is public perception of the policebots and their use of profiling. This could have negative consequences that could outweigh the harm of having less efficient policebots.
Another area of potential harm is that even if the policebots operated on accurate data, they would still end up arresting people disproportionally, thus potentially causing harm that would exceed the harm done by the loss of effectiveness. This also ties into higher level moral concerns about the reasons why specific groups might commit more crimes than others and these reasons often include social injustice and economic inequality. As such, even “properly” programmed policebots could actually be arresting the victims of social and economic crimes. This suggests an interesting idea for a science fiction story: policebots that decide to reduce crime by going after the social and economic causes of crime rather than arresting people to enforce an unjust social order.
Television shows and movies about CSI often seem to present a science fiction version of investigation that involves amazing technology and incredible inferences. While people do get that the almost magical solving of crimes is fiction, there is still considerable overconfidence in many methods used in real investigations. This overconfidence plays a significant role in some of the problems infecting the criminal justice system.
The history of criminal investigation is replete with debunked methods, such as the use of phrenology to diagnose criminal tendencies. There are also technologies that have little or no validity and are not admitted in court, yet enjoy some public confidence (such as lie detectors). There are also methods that might have some value in investigations, yet are the subject of unwarranted overconfidence in their efficacy. These include such things as bite mark analysis and fiber analysis. Other methods are reasonable useful, such as fingerprints, yet are still often accepted with an unwarranted level of confidence—especially in situations where the defendant has an ill-prepared and overworked public defender. Defendants of means or fame can, of course, purchase a better sort of justice.
In contrast with the above methods, DNA identification strikes many as a silver bullet. After all, aside from identical twins (or clones), no two people have the same DNA. This would seem to make the presence of a person’s DNA at a crime scene extremely good evidence for their involvement.
While such evidence is valuable, it is rather important to consider the limitations of and problems with this method. Contamination and transference should always be given due consideration because DNA can travel quite far. This can be illustrated with an example involving my husky.
Like all huskies, my husky generates an incredible amount of fur and this fur gets onto everything and everyone. The fur is thus transported from my house to various points around the world—I know for a fact that her fur is now in at least five states—although she has not left Florida. As such, if fur sampling was used to determine what dogs had been present, she could show up as being present in many, many locations that she did not visit. The same also holds true for humans. While humans do not shed like huskies, humans do shed hair and this can get onto people and objects that could end up in crime scenes. For example, if Sally wears a hat and it ends up in someone else’s possession, that hat will almost certainly still have Sally’s DNA on it. So, if the hat is found at a crime scene, Sally’s DNA will be found there as well, which could be trouble for Sally.
These concerns do not show that DNA testing should not be used; rather they show that is wise to maintain a degree of healthy skepticism in the face of such evidence. It also shows the importance of informing law enforcement, judges, juries and lawyers about the limitations of methods This assumes, of course, that those involved (have the time to) care about justice—which is not always the case in the criminal justice system. There is also the concern, as noted above, that the quality of a person’s defense is a function of their available resources (be they money or fame). These are, of course, concerns that go far beyond worries about particular methods.
It can be objected that educating people about the limits of such methods could create a skepticism that might undermine convictions. For example, that the possibility of “wandering DNA” could be used to create unwarranted doubt, thus allowing the guilty to go free. A skilled and well paid lawyer could exploit such doubts quite effectively and allow a lawbreaker to go free—thus preventing justice from being done.
This concern is reasonable; while overconfidence is problematic, so is under-confidence. However, the United States’ criminal justice system is supposed to operate on a presumption of innocence: it is better to err on allowing the guilty to go free than to err towards punishing the innocent. As such, the greater mistake would be overconfidence in a method. However, there is the concern that these doubts would be exploited by those who have the resources to purchase an effective defense, while the less fortunate would not benefit from them. But, as has been noted, this is a general problem with America’s pay-to-play legal system.
In response to terrorist attacks, some French politicians sprang into action and imposed ordinances aimed at banning the burkini. For those who are not theological fashionistas, a burkini is essentially a more fashionable wet suit intended primarily for Moslem women who want to swim in public while remaining modestly dressed. The burkini is in some ways reminiscent of women’s swimwear of the early 1900s, but far less likely to result in death by drowning. The burkini is also popular with women who want to swim but would prefer to lower their chances of getting skin cancer.
To be a bit more specific about the ban, the ordinances did not name the burkini, but rather forbid bathing attire that is not “appropriate,” that fails to be “respectful of good morals and of secularism,” and does not follow “hygiene and security rules.” There is a certain irony in the fact that being scantily clad on the beach was once considered in the West to be inappropriate and disrespectful of good morals. Now it is claimed that being well covered is not respectful of good morals.
While I am not a legal scholar, the specifications seem rather odd. I would think that appropriate attire that is “respectful of good morals” would be one that covers up the naughty bits—assuming that covering the bits is the right thing to do. While not an expert on hygiene and security, I do not see how a burkini would be any more a threat to hygiene or security than other common swimming attire such as bikinis, speedos, and wet suits. After all, the typically burkini is effectively a wet suit. There is also the fact that Christian nuns who dress conservatively for the beach are not targeted; presumably their attire is in accord with both hygiene and security.
As with France’s 2011 burqa ban, these ordinances seem aimed at creating the impression that a leader is doing something, to distract the masses from real problems and to appeal to religious intolerance and xenophobia. Since women going to swim in a burkini are unlikely to present a threat to public safety, there seems to be no legitimate basis for these ordinances in regards to preventing harm to the public. And this is the only rational moral justification for laws that forbid people from dressing or acting certain ways.
It could be countered that ordinances are actually intended to protect the women from oppression; that it aims to prevent women from being forced to cover up if they do not wish to do so. While many Westerners probably assume that Moslem women are all forced to cover up, this is not the case. Some women apparently do this by choice and regard the right to do so as protected by the Western notion of freedom. While some might be skeptical about how free the choice is, it is reasonable to think that some women would, in fact, freely decide to cover up in this way. After all, if some women are willing to show lots of skin in public, then it hardly seems unusual that some women would rather show far less. There are certainly women who prefer modest attire and women who willingly embrace religious traditions. For example, some nuns who visit beaches dress very modestly; but they seem to do some from choice. Presumably the same can be true of Moslem women.
Some might argue that women who cover up too much and those that cover up too little are all victims of male oppression and are not really making free choices. While it is reasonable to believe that social and cultural factors impact dressing behavior, it seems unreasonably to claim that all these women are incapable of choice and are mere victims of the patriarchy. In any case, to force someone to dress or not dress a certain way because of some ideology about the patriarchy would also be oppressive.
It might also be argued that just as there are laws against being naked in public, there should also be laws against being improperly over-covered on the beach. After all, a woman would (probably) get in trouble for walking the streets of France with only her face, feet and hands covered, so why should a woman be allowed to go to the beach with only her face, hands and feet exposed? Both, it could be argued, create public distractions and violate the general sense of appropriate dress.
While this might have some appeal, such ordinances would need to applied in a consistent manner. As such, if a Christian woman were spotted walking the beach in jeans and a shirt, she would have to be removed from the beach or forced to strip. The obvious counter is that the ordinances are not used to target anyone but Moslem women in birkinis, although the secular part of the ordinances would allow targeting any attire with a non-secular connection. This would, obviously, ban nuns from the beach if they wore religiously linked attire, such as modest swimsuits.
This sort of ban would be a clear attack on religious freedom, which is problematic. While I am not particularly religious, I do recognize the importance of the freedom of faith and its expression. While there can be legitimate grounds for limiting such expressions (like banning human sacrifices), when a practice does not create harm, then there seems to be no real ground for banning it. As such, the ban in France seems to be completely unjustified and also an infringement of both the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion.
While some might point out that some Muslim countries do not allow such freedoms, my easy and obvious reply is that these countries are in the wrong and we should certainly not want to be like them. Two wrongs do not, obviously, make a right.
Lastly, it could be argued that the bikini is a very serious matter—the bikini is rejection of French culture and an explicit statement in support of Islam against France. The challenge is, of course, to provide evidence that this is the intention behind wearing the bikini. While attire can be used to make a statement, thinking that wearing a birkini must be an attack on France is on par with thinking that a person who eats a Big Mac or hummus in public in France is also attacking France. Even if a person is wearing the birkini as a statement, then it would seem to fall under freedom of expression. While it might offend some, offense is not grounds for imposing on this freedom.
While there is some appeal to the idea that people should assimilate into the culture, there is the obvious question of why one view of the culture should be granted hegemony over everything. That is, why the burkini cannot be as accepted as the bikini, why Islam cannot be as accepted as Methodism. Going back to the food analogy, it would be unreasonable to require French citizens to only eat food that is regarded as properly French and to see people who eat other food as a threat.
In closing, the birkini bans are unwarranted and morally unacceptable.
When Trump began his bid for the Presidency in 2015, it was largely dismissed as a joke. He then trounced his Republican opponents. So as to not let them forget their shame, Trump still occasionally takes shots at his fallen rivals. As this is being written, Trump has a very real chance of winning the election, sending Hillary Clinton’s dream of being the first female president into the flaming dumpster of history.
Trump’s success was a shock to the elites of many realms, from the top pundits to the Republican leadership. Liberal intellectuals, who once mocked Trump with witty remarks between sips of their gluten free lattes, are now moping the sweat from their fevered brows with woven hemp handkerchiefs. Sane commentators predicted, with each horrific spew from Trump’s word port, that Trump would be brought down with a huge and luxurious self-inflicted wound. Now the sane commentators have gazed into the mouth of madness and have accepted that there seems to be nothing that Trump can say that would derail the onslaught of the Trumpernaut.
Trump’s run, win or lose, will be a treasure trove for many dissertations in psychology, political science and other fields as thinking people try to analyze this phenomenon from the perspective of history. There is, of course, considerable speculation about the foundation for Trump’s success. Or, more accurately, his lack of failure.
As someone who teaches critical thinking, one of the most striking thing about Trump’s success is that many of the reasons Trump supporters give for supporting Trump are objectively unfounded in reality. One of the main mantras of Trump backers is that Trump “tells it like it is.” The usual meaning of these words is that a person is saying what is true. After all, “like it is” is supposed to refer to what the world in fact is and not what is not. As a matter of objective fact, Trump rarely “tells it like it is.” The proof of this can be found on Trump’s Politifact page. 4% of Trump’s claims have been evaluated as true and 11% as mostly true. This is hardly like it is. Yet, Trump supporters persist in claiming that he tells it like it is, despite the fact that he does not.
One possible explanation is that his supporters believe his claims. If so, they would certainly think that he tells it like it is. This would require either never making an inquiry into the truth of Trump’s claims or refusing to accept the inquiries that have been made. Trump has, of course, availed himself of a sword forged and often wielded by other Republicans, which is the attack on the “liberal media” as biased. This allows any assessment of Trump’s claims to be dismissed.
Another possibility is that their use of the phrase is meaningless, a mere parroting of Trump’s talking point. This would be analogous to the repetition of other empty advertising slogans, like “it gets clothes brighter than bright” or, for those more cynical than I, “hope and change.” If someone is asked why they back Trump, they typically feel the need to present a reason, and this empty saying no doubt pops into the mind.
His supporters also claim that they back him because of his great business success. While it is true that the Trump brand is known worldwide, it is not clear that he has been a great success in business. Newsweek, which was once a success itself, has done a rundown of Trump’s many business failures. While it is true that Trump’s people have skillfully used the bankruptcy laws and threats of lawsuits, this seems to be rather different from the sort of business success that people attribute to him. Some critics have speculated that Trump is refusing to release his tax forms (which he can—the IRS does not forbid people being audited from releasing their forms) because they would show he is not as wealthy as he claims. This is, of course, speculation and Trump could have other good reasons for not releasing the forms. Of course, some might make use of the classic cry of “what is he hiding?” Trump can, obviously, claim to be something of a success: he is world famous and clearly has his name on many things.
Trump supporters also use the talking point that Trump is not politically correct. This is true—Trump relentlessly says things that horrify and terrify the guardians of political correctness. To those who are tired of the political correctness enforcers, this is very appealing.
However, Trump goes far beyond not being politically correct and, some would claim, he heads into racism and sexism. This has suggested to some critics that Trump’s backers are racists and sexists who like what he has to say. He also routinely crosses boundaries of decency that, until Trump, most Americans thought no candidate (or decent human being) would cross. The latest example is his battle with the Khan family, whose son was an Army captain killed in Iraq. Normally a savage attack on a Gold Star family would be a death blow to a candidate. However, while Trump’s backers often condemn his remarks, they stick with him. One possibility is that although they condemn his remarks in public, they secretly agree with these claims. Another possibility is that the offenses are condemned but are not regarded as serious enough to break the deal. This would, of course, require that there be other motives to support Trump.
For many, the best reason to back Trump is that he is not Hillary Clinton. As pundits like to point out, Trump and Hillary have record high unfavorable ratings. There are also people who are party loyalists (or at least party pragmatists) who support Trump because he is the Republican candidate. Interestingly, Trump is also attracting support from voters who have traditionally backed the Democrats—that is, working class whites.
A final talking point used by Trump supporters is that he is against the elites. This is amazing in its irony: Trump was born into wealth and has always been among the moneyed elites. That said, Trump does have a persona that some would regard as crude and non-elite. Trump is tapping into a very real sense of anger and desperation among Americans who believe, with complete correctness, that they have largely been abandoned by the elites. I certainly get this. I am from Old Town, Maine—a very small town that relied on the paper mill for employment and tax revenue. After ownership of the mill shifted a few times, the last owner shut down operations, presumably going overseas. When I was a kid, the mill smelled bad—which my dad called the “smell of money.” That smell is now gone, and my hometown is struggling. My dad said that there are about fifty abandoned houses in town, and on my runs I saw many empty houses—including the house I grew up in. Meanwhile, we get to see app billionaires on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert talk about their billions. Those who dig into the numbers see that the elites have consistently gotten their way at the expense of the rest of us; that the economic success at the top has not trickled down, and that we will be worse off than our predecessors. Our elites have failed us and we have failed by making them our elites.
Trump, the elite billionaire who got his start with a “little loan” of a million dollars from his father, is able to somehow tap into this anger. Most likely because Hillary is clearly identified with the elites that have failed us so badly. That is, Trump is seen as the only viable option, the only voice for the non-elite.
This itself is a sign of the failure of our elites—that so many people regard Trump as their only hope. Or perhaps they see him as someone who will burn it all in an act of vengeance against the elites. While I do understand the rage against the failures of the elite and get that Hillary is the elitist of the elite, Trump is not the savior of America. Voting for Hillary is essentially voting for more of the same. But voting for Trump is to vote for disaster.
The student loan crisis has been getting considerable attention in the media, but the coverage is often quick and shallow. James B. Steele and Lance Williams of Reveal from the The Center for Investigative Reporting have presented a more in-depth examination of the student loan industry. As a former student and current professor, I am concerned about student loans.
The original intention of student loans, broadly construed, was to provide lower income students with an affordable means of paying for college. Like most students, I had to take out loans to pay for school. This was back in the 1980s, when college costs were more reasonable and just as student loans were being transformed into a massive for-profit industry. As such, my loans were fairly modest (about $8,000) and I was able to pay them off even on the pitiful salary I was earning as an adjunct professor. Times have, however, changed.
Making a long story short, the federal government enabled banks and private equity companies to monetize the federal student loan program, enabling them to make significant profits from the loans and fees. Because many state governments embraced an ideology of selfishness and opposition to public goods, these governments significant cut their support for state colleges and universities, thus increasing the cost of tuition. At the same time, university administrations were growing both in number of administrators and their salaries, thus increasing costs as well. There was also an increase in infrastructure costs due to new technology as well as a desire to market campuses as having amenities such as rock climbing gyms. The result is $1.3 trillion in debt for 42 million Americans. On the “positive” side, the government makes about 20% on its 2013 loans and the industry is humming along at $140 billion a year.
While the government holds about 93% of the total debt, the debt collection was contracted to private companies and these were scooped up by the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. As would be expected, these contractors profit greatly—about $2 billion per year. The collection process is often very aggressive and the industry has used its control over congress to ensure that the laws are very favorable to them. For example, student loan debt is one of the very few debts that are not discharged by a bankruptcy.
While student loans were originally intended to benefit students, they now benefit the government and the private contractors to the detriment of students. As such, there is a moral concern here in addition to the practical concerns about loans.
If the primary purpose of student loans is to address economic inequality by assisting lower income students attend college, then its current state is a clear violation of this purpose. This is because the system is creating massive debt for students while creating massive profits for the government and private contractors. That is, students are being exploited by both the state and the private sector. The collusion of the state makes seeking redress rather difficult—after all, the people need to turn to the state for redress, yet the state is an interested party and under the influence of the industry. This problem is, of course, not unique to student loans and it is one more example of how privatization is great for the private sector but often awful for citizens.
It could be argued that this is the proper function of the state—to serve the interest of the financial elites at the expense of the citizens. If so, then the student loan program should continue as it is; it is great for the state and the financial class while it is crushing citizens under mountains of debt. If, however, the state should serve the good of the citizens in general, then the status quo is a disaster. My view is, not surprisingly, that of John Locke: the state is to serve the good of the people. As such, I contend that the student loan industry needs to be changed.
One change that would help is for states to return to supporting public higher education. While there are legitimate concerns about budgets, education is actually a great investment in both the private good of the students and the public good. After all, civilization needs educated people to function and people with college degrees end up with higher incomes and thus pay more taxes (paying back the investment many times over). While there are professed ideological reasons for opposing this, there are also financial motivations: dismantling public education would push more students into the awful for-profit schools that devour money and excrete un(der)employed people burdened by massive debt. While this is great for the owners of these schools, it is awful for the students and society as a whole.
Another change, which has been proposed by others, is to change or end the privatized aspects of the system. While there is the myth that the private sector is vastly superior to the inefficient and incompetent state, the fact is that the efficiency of the private sector seems to mostly lie in making a profit for itself rather than running the student loan system in accord with its intended purpose. This is not to say that the state must be great in what it does, just that cutting out the large profits of the collection agencies would reduce the burden on students. This is, of course, a moral question about whether it is right or not to profit on the backs of students.
There has also been talk about reducing the interest rates of student loans and even proposals for free college. I do favor lower interest rates; if the purpose of the loans is to assist students rather than make money, then lower interest rates would be the right thing to do. As far as free college goes, there is the obvious problem that “free” college has to be paid for by someone—it is a matter of shifting the burden from students to someone else. As far as the ethics of such a shift, it depends on who is picking up the tab.
As a closing point, there is also the matter of student responsibility. My loans went entirely to paying education expenses—which is one reason my debt was rather low even for the time. While many students do use the loans wisely, my experiences as a student and a professor have shown that students sometimes use the loan money unwisely and put themselves into debt for things that have no connection to education. For example, faculty often joke that while the administrators drive the best cars, the students drive the second best and the faculty drive the worst. Students that overburden themselves with loans they use irresponsibly have only themselves to blame. However, the fact that some students do this does not invalidate the claim that much of the debt burden inflicted on students is unjust.
Put a bit simply, a silencer is a device attached to a gun for the purpose of suppressing the sound it makes. This is usually done to avoid drawing attention to the shooter. This makes an excellent analogy for what happens to proposals for gun regulation: the sound is quickly suppressed so as to ensure that attention moves on to something new.
Part of this suppression is deliberate. After each mass shooting, the NRA and other similar groups step up pressure on the politicians they influence to ensure that new regulations are delayed, defeated or defanged. While it is tempting to cast the NRA as a nefarious player that subverts democracy, the truth seems to be that the NRA has mastered the democratic process: it organizes and guides very motivated citizens to give money (which is used to lobby politicians) and to contact their representatives in the government. This has proven vastly more effective than protests, sit-ins and drum circles. While it is true that the NRA represents but a fraction of the population, politics is rather like any sport: you have to participate to win. While most citizens do not even bother to vote, NRA member turnout is apparently quite good—thus they gain influence by voting. This is, of course, democracy. Naturally, another tale could be told of the NRA and its power and influence. A tale that presents the NRA and its members as subverting the will of the majority.
Certain pundits and politicians also engage in suppression. One standard tactic is, after a shooting, to claim that it is “too soon” to engage in discussion and lawmaking. Rather, the appropriate response involves moments of silence and prayer. While it is appropriate to pay respects to the wounded and dead, there is a difference between doing this and trying to run out the clock with this delaying tactic. Those that use it know quite well that if the discussion can be delayed, interest will fade and along with it the chances of any action being taken.
It is, in fact, appropriate to take action as soon as possible. To use the obvious analogy, if a fire is ravaging through a neighborhood, then the time to put out that fire is now. This way there will be less need of moments of silence and prayers for victims.
Another stock tactic is to accuse those proposing gun regulation of playing politics and exploiting the tragedy for political points or to advance an agenda. This approach can have some moral merit—if a person is engaged in a Machiavellian exploitation of some awful event (be it a mass shooting, a terrorist attack or a wave of food poisoning) without any real concern for the suffering of others, then that person would be morally awful. That said, the person could still be acting rightly, albeit for all the wrong reasons. This would be in terms of the consequences, which could be quite good despite the problematic motivations. For example, if a politician cynically exploited the harm inflicted by lead contaminated water in order to gain national attention, then that person would hardly be a good person. However, if this resulted in changes that significantly reduced lead poisoning in the United States, then consequences would certainly seem good and desirable.
It is also worth considering that using an awful event to motivate change for the better could result from laudable motives and a recognition of how human psychology generally works. To use an analogy, a person who loves someone who just suffered from a lifestyle inflicted heart attack could use that event to get the person to change her lifestyle and do so for commendable reasons. After all, people are most likely to do something when an awful event is fresh in their minds; hence this is actually the ideal time to address a problem—which leads to the final part of the discussion.
Although active suppression can be an effective tactic, it often relies on the fact that interest in a matter fades as time passes—this is why those opposed to new gun regulation use delaying tactics. They know that public attention will shift and fade.
On the one hand, the human tendency to lose interest can be regarded as a bad thing. As Merlin said in Excalibur, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” In the case of mass shootings and gun violence, people quickly forget an incident—at least until another incident reminds them. This allows a problem to persist and is why action needs to be taken as soon as possible.
On the other hand, our forgetting is often our salvation. If the memory of fear and pain did not fade over time, they would be as wounds that did not heal. Just as a person would bleed to death physically from wounds that never healed, a person would bleed out emotionally if memory did not fade.
To use another analogy, if the mind is like a ship and memory is like a cargo, just as a ship that could never lighten its load would plunge to the ocean floor, a person that could never lighten her emotional load would be dragged into the great abyss of emotions and thus be ruined. Thus, forgetting is both our doom and our salvation. Of course, we would have far less need to forget if we remembered what we need to fix. And fixed it.
In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, there has been a push for the idea of “no fly, no buy.” This is the sound bite slogan for banning people on the No Fly List from buying guns. There are two main versions of this proposal. One, backed by Democrats, is that the No Fly List data would become part of the background check to purchase a firearm and would prevent a person on the list from buying a gun legally. The other, backed by Republicans, gives the government a limited time frame to establish probable cause for banning a person on the list from buying a gun. For the sake of this discussion, I am oversimplifying the fine distinctions between the various lists. Fortunately, the general discussion does not require such fine distinctions.
Both parties agree with the fundamental justification for the proposal: guns should be kept out of the hands of terrorists. This is often described in the media as a “no brainer.” While I agree that it is best if terrorists do not have guns, this justification is something of a deceit: being on the No Fly List is not the same as being a terrorist. Rather, being on the list means that a person (might be) suspected of having some connection to terrorism. To use the obvious analogy, it is a “no brainer” to want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals—but it is another matter to want to keep guns out of the hands of people who are suspected of maybe having some connection to crime. As such, the “keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists” is a rhetorical point that has a very limited connection to the actual facts. This leads to my concerns about using the No Fly List as a no-buy list.
The first point of concern, one shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be poorly managed. The reason this is a problem is that a person can end up on the list who actually has no connection to terrorism at all. Since the program is secret, the mechanics of ending up on the list are known only to a few—but it has been clearly established that the list is “riddled with errors.” Using such a flawed list is clearly problematic. This could, of course, be addressed by improving list management.
The second point of concern, also shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be a clear violation of the right to due process. As such, the list itself seems to be unconstitutional. It was, of course, accepted as part of the grand sacrifice of rights to the delusion and illusion of security following 9/11. Unfortunately, the fires of fear are relentlessly stoked, making addressing these violations unlikely. Obviously enough, using an unconstitutional process as the basis for forbidding people from buying guns is problematic. This could be addressed by revising the process to follow due process or amending the constitution to change due process.
The third point of concern is that the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is as an individual right to keep and bear arms. A look back at the history of the Second Amendment shows that this has not always been the case; but what matters legally is the current interpretation. Given that the No Fly List is flawed and seems to be unconstitutional, to deny a person his Second Amendment rights on such a basis would be unacceptable. To use an analogy, imagine that in addition to “no fly, no buy” there was a proposal for “no seating, no tweeting.” On this proposal, people on the No Fly List would be banned from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. This would be absurd. By parity of reasoning, using the list to violate the Second Amendment right would be just as absurd.
It could be objected that the danger presented by guns is far greater than the danger presented by words. While this does have some appeal, the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” exists for a reason. While it is true that guns can kill, words have great power—after all, when people discuss terrorism they often focus on the process of radicalization—and expression (propaganda in various forms) is a large part of this. There is also the fact that, once again, being on the No Fly List is not the same as being an actual terrorist—so a person’s rights would be denied on the basis of an unreliable violation of due process.
It could be objected that there should not be an individual right to keep and bear arms. That is, the Second Amendment should be repealed or reinterpreted. While this could be done, it does not address the actual issue at hand. After all, the issue is not about what the Second Amendment should be, but about whether or not the “no fly, no buy” proposal is a good one or not. If no one could buy, then the “no buy” would make “no fly, no buy” pointless.
Another objection is the “low impact” counter. This is a general tactic in which it is argued that a proposal is acceptable because it would not really have much of an impact. In the case of “no fly, no buy”, people point to the fact that of the 192,956,397 background checks between February 2004 and May, 2016 there have been 2,477 matches with a watch list and only 212 denied transactions. As such, the argument goes, there should be no real objection to “no fly, no buy” because it will almost certainly have a miniscule impact on citizens.
There are two easy and obvious replies to the “low impact” counter. The first is that just because a policy is likely to have low impact, it does not follow that it is thus acceptable. As argued above, the “no fly, no buy” proposal is highly problematic and the fact that it will not deny too many people their rights is hardly good grounds for accepting it.
The second is that the “low impact” shows that the proposal will not be very effective at achieving the results that are supposed to motivate its acceptance. To be specific, the proposal would seem to have little or no impact on gun violence in the United States. As it stands, it seems that there have been no mass shootings that would have been prevented by “no fly, no buy.” While the Orlando shooter was on a list, he was removed—so the proposal would not have prevented that shooting. Unless, of course, there was also a proposal passed into law that would prevent people from being removed from the list or imposing a permanent gun buying ban on anyone who is ever on the list. These would certainly be problematic.
Overall, “no fly, no buy” seems to be a case of political theater—the illusion of trying to address a very real problem in a way that actually fails to address that problem while also violating rights. As such, I am against “no fly, no buy.”