A Philosopher's Blog

Obligations to Refugees

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2015

As this is being written, large numbers of people are fleeing conflict and economic woes in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. As with past exoduses, some greet the refugees with kindness, some with indifference and some with hate. As a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics regarding obligations to refugees.

One way to approach the matter of moral obligations to refugees is to apply the golden rule—to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. While most of those who read this are living lives of relatively good fortune, it is easy enough to imagine one’s living falling apart due to war or other disaster—human made or natural. In such circumstances, a person would almost certainly want to be helped. As such, if the golden rule has moral validity, then help should be rendered to the refugees.

One objection to this claim is that people should solve their own problems. In the case of Syria, it could be contended that the Syrians should stay and fight. Or, at the very least, they should not expect others to do their work for them. In the case of those trying to find a better life elsewhere, it could be argued that they should remain in their home countries and build a viable economy. These are, of course, variations on the usual “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” arguments.

One could also advance a house analogy. Imagine, if you will, that the neighbors down the road are fighting among themselves and wrecking their house. Some of them, tired of the conflict, show up at your door and insist that you put them up and feed them. Though it might be awfully nice to help them, it could also be said that they should put their own house in order. After all, you have managed to keep your family from falling into chaos and they should be able to do the same. There is also the concern that they will wreck your house as well.

This analogy, obviously enough, assumes that the fighting and wrecking began in the house and that no outsider assisted in inflicting the conflict. If, for example, people were just jammed arbitrarily into the houses and then subject to relentless outside interference, then the inhabitants would not bear full responsibility for their woes—so the problems they would need to solve would not be entirely their own. This would seem to provide a foundation for an obligation to help them, at least on the part of those who helped cause the trouble.

If, as another example, the house was invaded from the outside, then that would certainly change matters. In this case, the people fleeing the house would be trying to escape criminals and it would certainly be a wicked thing to slam the door in the face of victims of crime.

As a final example, if the head of the household was subjecting the weaker members of the household to domestic abuse, then it would also change the situation in relevant ways. If beaten and abused people showed up at one’s door, it would be heartless to send them back to be beaten and abused.

Interestingly, the house analogy can also be repurposed into a self-interest argument for taking in refugees. Imagine, if you will, a house of many rooms that were once full of people. Though the house is still inhabited, there are far fewer people and many of them are old and in need of care. There is much that needs to be done in the house, but not enough people to do it all.

Nearby are houses torn with violence and domestic abuse, with people fleeing from them. Many of these people are young and many are skilled in doing what needs to be done in the house of many rooms. As such, rational self-interest provides an excellent reason to open the doors and take in those fleeing. The young immigrants can assist in taking care of the native elderly and the skilled can take up the slack in regards to the jobs. In this case, acting in self-interest would seem to coincide with doing the right thing.

There are, of course, at least two obvious counters to this self-interest analogy. One is the moral problem of taking in people out of self-interest while letting the other houses fall into ruin. This does suggest that a morally superior approach would be to try to bring peace to those houses. However, if peace is unlikely, then taking in those fleeing those houses would seem to be morally acceptable.

Another is a practical concern—that some of those invited in will bring ruin and harm to their new house. While this fear is played up, the danger presented by refugees seems to be rather low—after all, they are refugees and not an invading army. That said, it would be quite reasonable to consider the impact of refugees and to take due care in screening for criminals.


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Campus Sexual Assault & Reasonable Likelihood

Posted in Ethics, Law, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2015

While the goal of reducing the number of sexual assaults on campuses is laudable, this is not true of all the proposed methods of achieving this goal. In addition to the practical concerns regarding the effectiveness of methods and their legality, there is also the concern about the morality of these methods.

During a House hearing, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis expressed his support for a “reasonable likelihood” standard in regards to sexual assault. Polis said that “If I was running [a private university], I might say, ‘Well, you know even if there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance that it happened, I would want to remove this individual.”

Most public universities currently follow the preponderance of evidence standard. Under this standard, a student is to be regarded as guilty of sexual assault if the evidence is interpreted as showing there is a greater than 50 percent chance the student committed assault. It is important to note that this standard applies to the proceedings of the university. If the student is involved in a criminal trial, this is handled by the state and the usual legal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt applies.

While the preponderance of evidence standard seems rather weak, Polis seems to regard the bar as being too high. He said that “It seems like we ought to provide more of a legal framework then that allows a reasonable likelihood standard or a preponderance of evidence standard.” Obviously enough, the standard would need to specify the degree of confidence in the evidence.

Polis seems to regard a 10-20 (or perhaps as high as 30) percent confidence level as adequate for finding a student guilty of sexual assault: “I mean, if there’s 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people.” This standard seems problematic in many ways.

Laying aside the ethics of the standard for a moment, Polis seems to be advocating what could be regarded as justice by fallacy. In philosophy, a fallacy is an argument whose premises fail to provide an adequate degree of support for the conclusion. In the case of inductive reasoning, an argument is assessed in terms of how likely it is that the conclusion is true on the assumption that the premises are true. A good inductive argument is known as a strong argument while a poor one is known as a weak argument. As I tell my students, it is unreasonable and irrational to accept the conclusion of a weak inductive argument on the basis of that argument—to do so would be to accept a fallacy as good reasoning. While there is not an exact number for what counts as strong (strength admits of degrees), the minimum would obviously be a 51% chance that the conclusion is true, assuming the evidence is true—this is, in fact, the current standard.

If the standard for a strong argument for the guilt of a student is set at 10-20%, that would mean that students who are almost certainly innocent (the evidence shows that there is a 90% chance of innocence) are as likely to be found guilty as students who are almost certainly guilty (the evidence shows there is a 90% chance of guilt). Even if the matter had no serious consequences, this standard would be absurd from the standpoint of logic. However, there are serious consequences.

A student found guilty of sexual assault by a university is typically punished with expulsion, which will typically have a serious impact on the student’s life. The student can try to transfer to another school, but will be marked with being expelled for sexual assault. Even if the student is able to attend another school, the expulsion will be a considerable setback not only in the student’s academic career, but also in life.

Polis does have a response to this, noting that “We’re not talking depriving them of life and liberty, we’re talking about their transfer to another university, for crying out loud.” This view does create something of a dilemma. If the punishment for sexual assault is, as Polis seems to believe, merely transfer to another university, then there are at least two problems. The first is that such an allegedly mild punishment would seem to have very little deterrent value. The second is that the 10-20% who actually committed sexual assault would simply be transferred to a new campus were they could continue to engage in sexual assault.

But, if the punishment is actually serious (and serious enough to serve as a deterrent), then there is the moral concern about inflicting a serious punishment with such a low threshold of guilt. At the very least justice would require that the accused be shown to be more likely to be guilty than not. As such, both ethics and logic shows that the preponderance of evidence standard is the weakest acceptable standard (and there are arguments against accepting even this standard).


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Kim Davis & Rule of Law

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2015

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.


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Davis & Ad Hominems

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on September 4, 2015

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, has been the focus of national media because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As this is being written, Davis has been sent to jail for disobeying a court order.

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film)

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As should be expected, opponents of same-sex marriage have tended to focus on the claim that Davis’ religious liberty is being violated. As should also be expected, her critics sought and found evidence of what seems to be her hypocrisy: Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth marriage. Some bloggers, eager to attack her, have claimed that she is guilty of adultery. These attacks can be relevant to certain issues, but they are also irrelevant in important ways. It is certainly worth sorting between the relevant and the irrelevant.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is consistent in her professed religious values, then her actions are clearly relevant. After all, if a person claims to have a set of values and acts in ways that violate those values, then this provides legitimate grounds for accusations of hypocrisy and even of claims that the person does not really hold to that belief set. That said, there can be many reasons why a person acts in violation of her professed values. One obvious reason is moral weakness—most people, myself included, do act in violation of their principle due to the many flaws and frailties that we all possess. Since none of us is without sin, we should not be hasty in judging the perceived failings of others.  However, it is reasonable to consider a person’s actions when assessing whether or not she is acting in a manner consistent with her professed values.

If Davis is, in fact, operating on the principle that marriage licenses should not be issued to people who have violated the rules of God (presumably as presented in the bible), then she would have to accept that she should not have been issued a marriage license (after all, there is a wealth of scriptural condemnation of adultery and divorce). If she accepts that she should have been issued her license despite her violations of religious rules, then consistency would seem to require that the same treatment be afforded to everyone—including same-sex couples. After all, adultery makes God’s top ten list while homosexuality is only mentioned in a single line (and one that also marks shellfish as an abomination). So, if adulterers can get licenses, it would be rather difficult to justify denying same-sex couples licenses on the grounds of a Christian faith.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is right in her professed view and her refusal to grant licenses to same-sex couples, then references to her divorce and alleged adultery are logically irrelevant. If a person claims that Davis is wrong in her view or acted wrongly in denying licenses because she has been divorced or has (allegedly) committed adultery, then this would be a mere personal attack ad hominem. A personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.

If a critic of Davis asserts that her claim about same-sex marriage is in error because of her own alleged hypocrisy, then the critic is engaged in an ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim she makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with her actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove her claims are false. As such, Davis’ behavior has no bearing on the truth of her claims or the rightness of her decision to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Dan Savage and others have also made the claim that Davis is motivated by her desire to profit from the fame she is garnering from her actions. Savage asserts that “But no one is stating the obvious: this isn’t about Kim Davis standing up for her supposed principles—proof of that in a moment—it’s about Kim Davis cashing in.” Given, as Savage notes, the monetary windfall received by the pizza parlor owners who refused to cate a same-sex wedding, this has some plausibility.

If the issue at hand is Davis’ sincerity and the morality of her motivations, then whether or not she is motivated by hopes of profit or sincere belief does matter. If she is opposing same-sex marriage based on her informed conscience or, at the least, on a sincerely held principle, then that is a rather different matter than being motivated by a desire for fame and profit. A person motivated by principle to take a moral stand is at least attempting to act rightly—whether or not her principle is actually good or not. Claiming to be acting from principle while being motivated by fame and fortune would be to engage in deceit.

However, if the issue is whether or not Davis is right about her claim regarding same-sex marriage, then her motivations are not relevant. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to yet another ad hominem, the circumstantial ad hominem. This is a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self-interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.). This ad hominem is a fallacy because a person’s interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made. While a person’s interests will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Christian, so his claim is false.” Or, if someone claimed that Dan Savage was wrong simply because of his beliefs.

Thus, Davis’ behavior, beliefs, and motivations are relevant to certain issues. However, they are not relevant to the truth (or falsity) of her claims regarding same-sex marriage.


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Same-Sex Marriage, Religious Liberty & Obedience

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on September 2, 2015

Kim Davis, a country clerk in Kentucky, has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the grounds that doing so violates her religious beliefs. When questioned about this, she has replied that she is acting “under God’s authority.” Some of those supporting her, and other clerks who have also decided to not issue marriage licenses, are contending that it would violate her religious freedom to be compelled to follow the law and do her job. This situation raises numerous important issues about obedience and liberty.

When taking a position on situations like this, people generally do not consider the matter in terms of general principles regarding such things as religious liberty and obedience to the state. Rather, the focus tends to be on whether one agrees or disagrees with the very specific action. In the Davis case, it is not surprising that people who oppose same-sex marriage tend to favor her decision to disobey the law and claim that she has a moral right to do so. It is also not surprising that those who favor same-sex marriage tend to think that she should obey the law and that it is morally wrong for her to disobey the law of the land.

The problem with this sort of approach is that it is unprincipled—unless being in favor of disobedience one likes and opposing disobedience one dislikes is a reasonable moral position. Moral consistency requires the application of a general principle that applies to all relevantly similar cases, rather than simply going with how one feels about a particular issue.

In regards to the situation involving Davis, many of her defenders have tried to present this as a religious liberty issue: Davis is being wronged by the law because it compels her to act in violation of her religious beliefs. Her right to this liberty presumably outweighs the rights of the same-sex couples who expect her to follow the law and do her job.

Having been influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s arguments for civil disobedience and by Thomas Aquinas, I agree that an individual should follow her informed conscience over the dictates of the state. The individual must, of course, expect to face the consequences of this civil disobedience and these consequences might include fines, being fired or even time in prison. Like Thoreau, I believe that a government official who finds the law too onerous should endeavor to change it and, failing that, should resign rather than obey a law she regards as unjust. As such, my general principle is that a person has the moral right to refuse to follow a law that her informed conscience regards as immoral.

In the case of Davis, if she is acting in accord with her informed conscience, then she has the moral right to refuse to follow the same-sex marriage law. However, having failed to change the law, she needs to either agree to follow this law or resign from her position.

That said, I am well aware that a person’s informed conscience can be in error—that is, what she thinks is morally right is not actually right. It might even be morally wrong. Because of this, I also accept the view that while a person should follow his informed conscience, the actions that follow from this might be morally wrong. If they are wrong, the person has obviously acted wrongly—but, to the degree that she followed her informed conscience, she can be justly excused in regards to her motivations. But, the actions (and perhaps the consequences) would remain wrong.

Since I favor liberty in regards to marriage between consenting adults (and have written numerous essays and a book on this subject), I believe that Davis’ view about same-sex marriage is in error. Though I think she is wrong, if she is acting in accord with her informed conscience and due consideration of the moral issue, then I respect her moral courage in sticking to her ethics.

While subject to the usual range of inconsistencies, I do endeavor to apply my moral principles consistently. As such, I apply these principles to all relevantly similar cases. As such, whenever there is a conflict between an individual’s professed moral views and the law she is supposed to enforce, I ask two questions. The first is “is the person acting in accord with her informed conscience?” The second is “is the person right about the ethics of the matter?” This is rather different from approaching the matter by asking “do I agree with the person on this specific issue?”

As noted above, some of the defenders of Davis are casting this as a religious liberty issue. In this case, the implied general principle would be that when an official’s religious views conflict with a law, then the person has the right to refuse to follow the law. After all, if religious liberty is invoked as a justification here, then it should work equally well in all relevantly similar cases. As such, if Davis should be allowed to ignore the law because of her religious belief, then others must be allowed the same liberty.

As might be suspected, folks that oppose same-sex marriage on religious would probably agree with this principle—at least in cases that match their opinions. However, it seems likely that many folks would not be in favor of consistently applying this principle. For example, consider the matter of immigration.

The bible is reasonable clear about how foreigners should be treated. Leviticus, which is most commonly cited to condemn same-sex marriage, commands that “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.” Exodus says “”Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” while Deuteronomy adds to this that “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Given this biblical support for loving and treating foreigners well, a border patrol agent, INS official, or immigration judge could find easy religious support for refusing to enforce immigration laws violating their conception of love and good treatment. For example, a border patrol agent could, on religious grounds, refuse to prevent people from crossing the border. As another example, a judge could refuse to send people back to another country on the grounds that the bible says about treating the foreigner as a native born. I suspect that if officials started invoking religious freedom in order to break immigration laws, there would be little support for their religious liberty from the folks who support religious liberty in regards to breaking the law governing same-sex marriage.

To use another example, consider what the bible says about usury. Exodus says “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.”  Ezekiel even classified charging interest as an abomination: “Lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.” If religious liberty allows an official to break/ignore laws, then judges and law enforcement personnel who accept these parts of the bible would be allowed to, for example, refuse to arrest or sentence people for failing to pay interest on loans.

This can be generalized to all relevantly similar situations involving law-breaking/ignoring officials who do so by appealing to religious liberty. As might be imagined, accepting a principle that religious liberty grants an official an exemption to the law would warrant the breaking or ignoring of a vast multitude of laws. Given this consequence, it would seem that accepting the general principle of allowing religious liberty to trump the law would be unwise. It is, however, wise to think beyond one’s feeling about one specific case to consider the implications of accepting a general principle.


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Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny? II: Sorting Principles

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2015

In my previous essay I laid the groundwork for the discussion that is to follow regarding the pro-life moral position and misogyny. As argued in that essay, a person can be pro-life and not a misogynist. It was also shown that attacking a person’s circumstances or consistency in regards to their professed belief in a pro-life moral position does not disprove that position. It was, however, contended that consistency does matter when sorting out whether a person really does hold to a pro-life position or is, in fact, using that as cover for misogyny.

While there are open misogynists, open misogynists generally do not fare well in American elections. As such, a clever (or cleverly managed) misogynist will endeavor to conceal his misogyny behind more laudable moral positions, such as being pro-life. This, obviously, sells better than being anti-women.

Throughout 2015 Americans will be (in theory) deciding the candidates for President and then in 2016 they will be voting. Republicans in general and the current crop of presidential candidates profess that they are pro-life, but there is still the question of whether they truly hold to this principle. Republicans are also regularly accused of being misogynists and part of this involves asserting that their pro-life stance is actually an anti-women stance. One way to sort this out is to consider whether or not a person acts consistently with a pro-life position. Since people are inconsistent though ignorance and moral weakness, this will not conclusive reveal the truth of the matter—but it is perhaps the best method of empirical investigation.

On the face of it, a pro-life position is the view that it is morally wrong to kill. If a person held to this principle consistently, then she would oppose all forms of killing—this would include hunting, killing animals for food, capital punishment, and killing in war. There are people who do hold to this view and are consistent. This view was taken very seriously by Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine and St. Aquinas. After all, as I say to my Ethics students, it would be a hell of a thing to go to hell for a hamburger.

The pro-life view that killing is wrong would seem to require a great deal of a person. In addition to being against just straight-up killing in war, abortion and capital punishment, it would also seem to require being against things that kill people, such as poverty, pollution and disease. As such, a pro-life person would seem to be required to favor medical and social aid to fight things like disease and poverty that kill people.

As is obvious, there are many pro-life people who oppose such things. They even oppose such things as providing food support for mothers and infants who are mired in poverty. One might thus suspect that they are not so much pro-life as anti-woman. Of course, a person could be pro-life and still be opposed to society rendering aid to people to prevent death.

One option is to be against killing, but be fine with letting people die. While philosophers do make this moral distinction, it seems a bit problematic for a person to claim that he opposes abortion because killing fetuses is wrong, but not providing aid and support to teenage mothers, the sick, and the starving is acceptable because one is just letting them die rather than killing them. Given this view, a pro-life person of this sort would be okay with a woman just abandoning her baby—she would simply be letting the baby die rather than killing her.

People who are pro-life also often are morally fine with killing and eating animals. The ethics of killing animals (and plants) was also addressed explicitly by Augustine and Aquinas. One way to be pro-life but hold that killing animals is acceptable is to contend that humans have a special moral status that other living things lack. The usual justification is that we are better than them, so we can kill (and eat) them. This view was held by St. Augustine and St. Anselm who were fine with killing animals (and plants).

However, embracing the superiority principle does provide an opening that can be used to justify abortion—one merely needs to argue that the fetus has a lower moral status than the woman and this would seem to warrant abortion.

Many people who profess a pro-life view also favor capital punishment and war. In fact, it is common to hear a politician smoothly switch from speaking of the sanctity of life to the need to kill terrorists and criminals. One way to be pro-life and accept capital punishment and war is to argue that it is the killing of innocents that is wrong. Killing the non-innocent is fine.

The obvious problem is that capital punishment sometimes kills the innocent and war always involves the death of innocents. If these killings are warranted in terms of interests, self-defense, or on utilitarian grounds, then the door is open for the same being applied to abortion. After all, if innocent adults and children can be killed for national security, economic interests or to protect us from terrorists, then fetuses can also be killed for the interests of the woman or on utilitarian grounds. Also, animals and plants are clearly innocent beings—but they can be addressed by the superiority argument. Someone who is fine with killing people for the sake of interests or on utilitarian grounds, yet professes to be devoutly pro-life might justifiably be suspected of being more anti-women than pro-life.

A pro-life position can also be interpreted as the moral principle that abortions should be prevented. This is, obviously, better described as anti-abortion rather than pro-life. One obvious way to prevent abortions is to prevent women from having them. This need not be a misogynistic view—one would need to consider why the person holds to this view and this can be explored by considering the person’s other expressed views on related matters.

If a person is anti-abortion, then she should presumably support ways to prevent abortion other than merely stopping women from having them. Two rather effective ways to reduce the number of abortions (and thus prevent some) are effective sex education and access to birth control. These significantly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the number of abortions. Not surprisingly, abstinence focused “sex education” fails dismally.

To use the obvious analogy, being anti-abortion is rather like being anti-traffic fatality. Telling people to not drive will not really help. Teaching people how to drive safely and ensuring that protection is readily available does work quite well.

Because of this, if a person professes to be pro-life/anti-abortion, yet is opposed to effective sex education and birth control, then it is reasonable to suspect misogyny. This is, of course, not conclusive: the person might have no dislike of women and sincerely believe that ignorance about sex is best, that abstinence works, and that birth control is evil. The person would not be a misogynist—just in error.

In closing, it must be reiterated that just because a person is inconsistent in regards to his professed pro-life moral principles, it does not follow that he must be a misogynist. After all, people are often inconsistent because of ignorance, a failure to consider implications, and moral weakness. However, if a person professes a pro-life position, yet is consistently inconsistent in regards to his actions and other professed views, then it would not be unreasonable to consider that there might be some misogyny in play.


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Performance Based Funding: Taking the Fight to the Enemy

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2015

Since the whole “war on x” thing is overdone, I will not say that there is a war on public education. Rather, I will say that certain politicians have attacked one of the cornerstones of America’s democratic system and its economic strength, namely public education.

Scott Walker has aimed at eroding tenure at public universities in Wisconsin and Rick Scott has imposed an irrational and harmful performance based funding system in Florida. Similar attacks on public education are occurring in many states. Most states have also cut financial support for public education. While occurring under the guise of cost reduction and accountability, these attacks seem calculated at impeding independent research that might expose troublesome truths and also to open up new avenues of private profit at the expense of the public good.

In 2014 I wrote an essay critical of Florida’s harmful and ineffective (in terms of achieving educational goals) performance based funding system. Writing in 2015, my views of this system remain mostly the same; although the seemingly arbitrary changes in the rules have made me like it even less.

My school, Florida A&M University, took a beating under the existing system. This system, as I noted in the earlier essay, fails to consider the challenges faced by specific schools and the assessment system seems calculated to favor certain schools. Not surprisingly, the 2015 faculty planning sessions focused heavily on performance based funding. It was, in fact, the main subject of the keynote speaker.

This speaker took a rational and pragmatic approach to the problem. He noted that complaining about it and refusing to accept its reality would be a rather bad idea. Roughly put, failure to respond in accord with the punitive standards imposed by the state would simply doom FAMU to ever lower budgets. By meeting the standards, FAMU could escape the punitive level and thus push another school down into the pit of financial pain (the performance based funding system is such that there must always be three losers).

Being pragmatic and realistic myself, I agreed with the speaker. As a state employee, I am obligated to operate within the laws imposed upon me by the state. If I find them too onerous, I can elect to leave my job and head for greener pastures. To use the obvious analogy, if I choose to play a game under a certain set of rules, I am stuck playing within those rules. Muttering complaints about them or refusing to accept their reality will do me no good (other than the dubious benefits of bitching and self-delusion). As such, as a professor I am working conscientiously to meet the imposed standards so as to protect my school and students from the punishment of the state.

To use another analogy, it is like being forced to play a rough game by a movie villain—if we do not play by his rules, he will hurt people we care about. As with most movie villain games, it is set up so that winning means making someone else lose (regardless of how well everyone does, the three lowest schools always lose out on funding). Unlike with the movie villain, I am free to leave the game—I just have to abandon my colleagues, students, job, rank and tenure. The state, I must confess, makes finding a new game more and more appealing every year.

It is important to note that my conscientious adherence to the funding game rules is in my capacity as a state employee. However, I am not just a state employee—I am also a citizen of the state. While the state has the right to command me as an employee, the authority of the state rests on my consent as a citizen. And, as a citizen, I have every right to be opposed to performance based funding and every right to take action against it. I can write essays critical of it, thanks to freedom of speech. I can also campaign against politicians who support it and cast my vote accordingly. I can fund those who would oppose this attack on education.

The laws of the state are, obviously enough, not laws of nature or laws handed down on stone tablets by God. They are but the opinions of people made into rules by the rituals of voting. Thoreau eloquently made this point in his work on civil disobedience:


…why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible…


As Thoreau indicates, performance based funding, and any rule of the state, can be challenged—it was created by people and people can change it. As a citizen, I believe that performance based funding is harmful to the public good and, as such, I not only have a right as a citizen to oppose it I also have a moral obligation to do so. Meanwhile, as a state employee, I will be conscientiously working to ensure that FAMU meets the standards imposed by the state.

To close with an analogy, think of the public universities of Florida as ships that are under attack. Metaphorically, bombs, missiles and shells are raining down upon them, fired at the behest of an ideology opposed to this cornerstone of American democracy and economic advancement. Working within performance based funding is analogous to only repairing damage and extinguishing fire (and also to maneuver to force another ship to take the brunt of the attack). As any tactician knows, battles are not won by damage control or by letting an ally take the beating for you. Rather, they are won by taking the fight to the enemy. As such, I urge the citizens of Florida, especially students, faculty and staff, to exercise their rights as citizens to oppose the attacks on the public good of public education with their words, deeds and votes.


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The Ethics of Backdoors

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 13, 2015

In philosophy, one of the classic moral debates has focused on the conflict between liberty and security. While this topic covers many issues, the main problem is determining the extent to which liberty should be sacrificed in order to gain security. There is also the practical question of whether or not the security gain is actually effective.

One of the recent versions of this debate focuses on tech companies being required to include electronic backdoors in certain software and hardware. Put in simple terms, a backdoor of this sort would allow government agencies (such as the police, FBI and NSA) to gain access even to files and hardware protected by encryption. To use an analogy, this would be like requiring that all dwellings be equipped with a special door that could be secretly opened by the government to allow access to the contents of the house.

The main argument in support of mandating such backdoors is a fairly stock one: governments need such access for criminal investigators, gathering military intelligence and (of course) to “fight terrorism.” The concern is that if there is not a backdoor, criminals and terrorists will be able to secure their data and thus prevent state agencies from undertaking surveillance or acquiring evidence.

As is so often the case with such arguments, various awful or nightmare scenarios are often presented in making the case. For example, it might be claimed that the location and shutdown codes for ticking bombs could be on an encrypted iPhone. If the NSA had a key, they could just get that information and save the day. Without the key, New York will be a radioactive crater. As another example, it might be claimed that a clever child pornographer could encrypt all his pornography, making it impossible to make the case against him, thus ensuring he will be free to pursue his misdeeds with impunity.

While this argument is not without merit, there are numerous stock counter arguments. Many of these are grounded in views of individual liberty and privacy—the basic idea being that an individual has the right to have such security against the state. These arguments are appealing to both liberals (who tend to profess to like privacy rights) and conservatives (who tend to claim to be against the intrusions of big government).

Another moral argument is grounded in the fact that the United States government has shown that it cannot be trusted. To use an analogy, imagine that agents of the state were caught sneaking into the dwellings of all citizens and going through their stuff in clear violation of the law, the constitution and basic moral rights. Then someone developed a lock that could only be opened by the person with the proper key. If the state then demanded that the lock company include a master key function to allow the state to get in whenever it wanted, the obvious response would be that the state has already shown that it cannot be trusted with such access. If the state had behaved responsibly and in accord with the laws, then it could have been trusted. But, like a guest who abused her access to a house, the state cannot and should not be trusted with a key After all, we already know what they will do.

This argument also applies to other states that have done similar things. In the case of states that are even worse in their spying on and oppression of their citizens, the moral concerns are even greater. Such backdoors would allow the North Korean, Chinese and Iranian governments to gain access to devices, while encryption would provide their citizens with some degree of protection.

The strongest moral and practical argument is grounded on the technical vulnerabilities of integrated backdoors. One way that a built-in backdoor creates vulnerability is its very existence. To use a somewhat oversimplified analogy, if thieves know that all vaults have a built in backdoor designed to allow access by the government, they will know that a vulnerability exists that can be exploited.

One counter-argument against this is that the backdoor would not be that sort of vulnerability—that is, it would not be like a weaker secret door into a vault. Rather, it would be analogous to the government having its own combination that would work on all the vaults. The vault itself would be as strong as ever; it is just that the agents of the state would be free to enter the vault when they are allowed to legally do so (or when they feel like doing so).

The obvious moral and practical concern here is that the government’s combination to the vaults (to continue with the analogy) could be stolen and used to allow criminals or enemies easy access to all the vaults. The security of such vaults would be only as good as the security the government used to protect this combination (or combinations—perhaps one for each manufacturer). As such, the security of every user depends on the state’s ability to secure its means of access to hardware and software.

The obvious problem is that governments, such as the United States, have shown that they are not very good at providing such security. From a moral standpoint, it would seem to be wrong to expect people to trust the state with such access, given the fact that the state has shown that it cannot be depended on in such matters. To use an analogy, imagine you have a friend who is very sloppy about securing his credit card numbers, keys, PINs and such—in fact, you know that his information is routinely stolen. Then imagine that this friend insists that he needs your credit card numbers, PINs and such and that he will “keep them safe.” Given his own track record, you have no reason to trust this friend nor any obligation to put yourself at risk, regardless of how much he claims that he needs the information.

One obvious counter to this analogy is that this irresponsible friend is not a good analogue to the state. The state has compulsive power that the friend lacks, so the state can use its power to force you to hand over this information.

The counter to this is that the mere fact that the state does have compulsive force does not mean that it is thus responsible—which is the key concern in regards to both the ethics of the matter and the practical aspect of the matter. That is, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those that claim there is a moral obligation to provide a clearly irresponsible party with such access.

It might then be argued that the state could improve its security and responsibility, and thus merit being trusted with such access. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious fact that if hackers and governments knew that that the keys to the backdoors existed, they would expend considerable effort to acquire them and would, almost certainly, succeed. I can even picture the sort of headlines that would appear: “U.S. Government Hacked: Backdoor Codes Now on Sale on the Dark Web” or “Hackers Linked to China Hack Backdoor Keys; All Updated Apple and Android Devices Vulnerable!” As such, the state would not seem to have a moral right to insist on having such backdoors, given that the keys will inevitably be stolen.

At this point, the stock opening argument could be brought up again: the state needs backdoor access in order to fight crime and terrorism. There are two easy and obvious replies to this sort of argument.

The first is based in an examination of past spying, such as that done under the auspices of the Patriot Act. The evidence seems to show that this spying was completely ineffective in regards to fighting terrorism. These is no reason to think that backdoor access would change this.

The second is a utilitarian argument (which can be cast as a practical or moral argument) in which the likely harm done by having backdoor access must be weighed against the likely advantages of having such access. The consensus among those who are experts in security is that the vulnerability created by backdoors vastly exceeds the alleged gain to protecting people from criminals and terrorists.

Somewhat ironically, what is alleged to be a critical tool for fighting crime (and terrorism) would simply make cybercrime much easier by building vulnerabilities right into software and devices.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that baked-in backdoors are morally wrong on many grounds (privacy violations, creation of needless vulnerability, etc.) and lack a practical justification. As such, they should not be required by the state.


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Does the Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage Infringe on Religious Liberty?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2015

In June, 2015 the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legality of same-sex marriage. Many states had already legalized same-sex marriages and a majority of Americans think it should be legal. As such, the ruling seems to be consistent both with the constitution and with the democratic ideal of majority rule. There are, of course, those who object to the ruling.

Some claim that the court acted in a way contrary to the democratic rule by engaging in judicial activism. Not surprisingly, some of those who make this claim were fine when the court ruled in ways they liked, despite the general principles being the same (that is, the court ruling in ways contrary to what voters had decided). I certainly do see the appeal of principle and consistent arguments against the Supreme Court engaging in activism and overruling what the voters have decided and there is certainly some merit in certain arguments against the same-sex marriage decision. However, my concern here is with another avenue of dissent against the decision, namely that this ruling infringes on religious liberty.

The argument from religious liberty is certainly an interesting one. On intriguing aspect is that the argument is made in terms of religious liberty rather than the older tactic of openly attacking gay folks for alleged moral wickedness. This change of tactic seems to show a recognition that a majority of Americans accept their fellow gay Americans and that shouting “fags” at gays is no longer acceptable in polite society. As such, the tactic acknowledges a changed world. This change also represents clever rhetoric: the intent is not to deny gay folks their rights, but to protect religious liberty. Protecting liberty certainly sells better than denying rights. While protecting liberty is certainly commendable, the obvious question is whether or not the legalization of same-sex marriage infringes on religious liberty.

In general, there are two ways to infringe on a liberty. The first is by forbiddance. That is, preventing a person from exercising a freedom. For example, the liberty of free expression can be infringed by preventing a person from freely expressing her ideas. The second is by force. This is a matter of compelling a person to take action against their free choice. For example, having a law that require people to dress a certain way when they do not wish to do so. Since some people consider entitlements to fall under liberties, another way a person could have liberty infringed upon is to be denied her entitlements. For example, the liberty of education in the United States entitles children to a public education.

It is important to note that not all cases of forbidding or forcing are violations of liberties. This is because there are legitimate grounds for limiting liberties—the usual ground being the principle of harm. For example, it is not a violation of a person’s liberty to prevent him from texting death threats to his ex-wife. As another example, it is not a violation of a person’s liberty to require her to have a license to drive a car.

Given this discussion, for the legalization of same-sex marriage to impose on religious liberty would require that it wrongfully forbids religious people from engaging in religious activities, wrongfully forces religious people to engage in behavior contrary to their religion or wrongfully denies religious people entitlements connected to their religion.

The third one is the easiest and quickest to address: there does not seem to be any way that the legalization of same-sex marriage denies religious people entitlements connected to their religion. While I might have not considered all the possibilities, I will move on to the first two.

On the face of it, the legalization of same-sex marriage does not seem to wrongfully forbid religious people from engaging in religious activities. To give some examples, it does not forbid people from praying, attending religious services, saying religious things, or doing anything that they are not already free to do.

While some people have presented slippery slope “arguments” that this legalization will lead to such forbiddances, there is nothing in the ruling that indicates this or even mentions anything remotely like this. As with all such arguments, the burden of proof rests on those who claim that there will be this inevitable or probable slide. While inter-faith and inter-racial marriage are different matters, allowing these to occur was also supposed to lead to terrible things. None of these happened, which leads one to suspect that the doomsayers will be proven wrong yet again.

But, of course, if a rational case can be made linking the legalization of same-sex marriage to these violations of religious liberty, then it would be reasonable to be worried. However, the linkage seems to be a matter of psychological fear rather than logical support.

It also seems that the legalization of same-sex marriage does not force religious people to wrongfully engage in behavior contrary to their religion. While it is legal for same-sex couples to marry, this does not compel people to become gay and then gay-marry someone else who is (now) gay. Religious people are not compelled to like, approve of or even feel tolerant of same-sex marriage. They are free to dislike, disapprove, and condemn it. They are free to try to amend the Constitution to forbid same-sex marriage.

It might be argued that religious people are compelled to allow other people to engage in behavior that is against their professed religious beliefs and this is a violation of religious freedom. The easy and obvious reply is that allowing other people to engage in behavior that is against one’s religion is not a violation of one’s religious liberty. This is because religious liberty is not the liberty to impose one’s religion on others, but the liberty to practice one’s religion.

The fact that I am at liberty to eat pork and lobster is not a violation of the religious liberty of Jews and Muslims. The fact that women can go out in public with their faces exposed is not a violation of the religious liberty of Muslims. The fact that people can have religions other than Christianity is not a violation of the religious liberty of Christians. As such, the fact that same-sex couples can legally marry does not violate the religious liberty of anyone.

It might be objected that it will violate the religious liberty of some people. Some have argued that religious institutions will be compelled to perform same-sex weddings (as they might be compelled to perform inter-racial or inter-faith marriages). This, I would agree, would be a violation of their religious liberty and liberty of conscience. Private, non-commercial organizations have every right to discriminate and exclude—that is part of their right of freedom of non-association. Fortunately, the legalization of same-sex marriage does not compel such organizations to perform these marriages. If it did, I would certainly oppose that violation of religious liberty.

It might also be objected that people in government positions would be required to issue same-sex marriage licenses, perform the legal act of marrying a same-sex couple, or recognize the marriage of a same-sex couple. People at the IRS would even be compelled to process the tax forms of same-sex couples.

The conflict between conscience and authority is nothing new and philosophers have long addressed this matter. Thoreau, for example, argued that people should follow their conscience and disobey what they regard as unjust laws.

This does have considerable appeal and I certainly agree that morality trumps law in terms of what a person should do. That is, I should do what is right, even if the law requires that I do evil. This view is a necessary condition for accepting that laws can be unjust or immoral, which is certainly something I accept. Because of this, I do agree that a person whose conscience forbids her from accepting same-sex marriage has the moral right to refuse to follow the law. That said, the person should resign from her post in protest rather than simply refusing to follow the law—as an official of the state, the person does have an obligation to perform her job and must choose between keeping that job and following her conscience. Naturally, a person also has the right to try to change what she regards as an immoral law.

I have the same view in regards to people who see interracial marriage as immoral: they should follow the dictates of their conscience and not take a job that would require them to, for example, issue marriage licenses. However, their right to their liberty of conscience does not override the rights of other citizens to marry. That is, their liberty does not morally warrant denying the liberty of others.

It could be argued that same-sex marriage should be opposed because it is objectively morally wrong and that even officials should do so on this ground. This line of reason does have a certain appeal—what is objectively wrong should be opposed, even if it is the law and even by officials. For example, when slavery was legal in the United States it should have been opposed by everyone, even officials of the state. But, arguing against same-sex marriage on moral grounds is a different matter from arguing against it on the grounds that it allegedly violates religious liberty.

It could be argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage will violate the religious liberty of people in businesses such as baking wedding cakes, planning weddings, photographing weddings and selling wedding flowers.

The legalization of same-sex marriage does not, by itself, forbid businesses from refusing to do business involving a same-sex marriage. Legal protection against that sort of discrimination is another, albeit related, matter. This sort of discrimination has also been defended on the grounds of freedom of expression, which I have addressed at length in other essays.

In regards to religious liberty, a business owner certainly has the right to not sell certain products or provide certain services that go against her religion. For example, a Jewish restaurant owner has the liberty to not serve pork. A devout Christian who owns a bookstore has the liberty to not stock the scriptures of other faiths or books praising same-sex marriage. An atheist t-shirt seller has the liberty to not stock any shirts displaying religious symbols. These are all matters of religious liberty.

I would also argue that religious liberty allows business owners to refuse to create certain products or perform certain services. For example, a Muslim free-lance cartoonist has the right to refuse to draw cartoons of Muhammad. As another example, an atheist baker has the right to refuse to create a cake with a cross and quotes from scripture.

That said, religious liberty does not seem to grant a business owner the right to discriminate based on her religion. For example, a Muslim who owns a car dealership has no right to refuse to sell cars to women (or women who refuse to fully cover themselves). As another example, a militant homosexual who owns a bakery has no right to refuse to sell cakes to straight people.

Thus, it would seem that the legalization of same-sex marriage does not violate religious liberty.




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Narratives, Terror & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2015

After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.

The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.

Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.

One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.

This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.

An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.

It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.

One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.

The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.

It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.

In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.


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