A Philosopher's Blog

What Makes Slavery Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2017

While slavery is still practiced, there is a consensus that it is evil. While apologists for slavery are relatively few, there remains the question as to why slavery is evil. This essay is aimed and considering this matter.

It is certainly tempting to define the wrongness of slavery in terms of the exploitation and abuse suffered by those who are enslaved. While such abuse and exploitation are clearly wrong, they do not actually explain the wrongness of slavery itself. This is because abuse and exploitation can exist apart from slavery, thus showing that these are not sufficient conditions for slavery. That is, being abused and exploited does not entail that one is a slave. Examples of such abuse and exploitation are abundant. To illustrate, workers are routinely exploited around the world and countless people suffer abuse in relationships from the very people who should be kind to them.

Abuse and exploitation are also not necessary conditions of slavery. That is, a person who is not abused or exploited can be enslaved. As noted in an earlier essay, there have been slaves who have enjoyed considerable power and status—sometimes considerably above that of free subjects of historical empires. Despite their status and power, such slavery is still rightfully regarded as wrong. As such, it is not the abuse or exploitation that makes slavery wrong.

This is not to say that abuse and exploitation do not matter. Far from it; they compound the basic evil of slavery and make the bad even worse. Slavery is also obviously strongly connected to abuse and exploitation—the belief that enslaved people are property makes it easy for others to justify and get away with such abuse and exploitation. While free people are abused or exploited, they typically enjoy far greater protection than the enslaved. So, while the abuse and exploitation matter a great deal, it is slavery that serves as a prime enabler of mistreatment. This does contribute to the wrongness of slavery.

What makes slavery morally wrong, then, is the fact that it is the ownership of people and thus is perceived as transforming them into objects that can be owned. The claim of ownership over another person is the denial of their personhood and all that goes with it. For those with liberal Lockean inclinations, this denial of personhood is a denial of the basic rights to life, liberty and property. Since a slave is supposed to be property, their life belongs to the owner. Hence, slaveowners generally see themselves as having the right to kill or harm their slaves as they wish. I do not, of course, deny that slaves are sometimes protected by laws, but that is certainly little consolation. Slavery does, after all, admit of degrees. But, every form of slavery must assume that the owner has ownership over the life of the slave and can use compulsion to maintain slavery.

Slavery, by its very nature, is a violation of a person’s liberty. They are denied the freedom of choice and thus denied agency. As the owner sees it, they have the right to make decisions for their property such as what work they do, who they have sex with, and what faith they might follow. This is not to say that slaves do not have some freedoms or that free people are completely free. It is, however, to say that the freedoms of slaves are very limited and often restricted to very minor decisions. As noted above, slavery does admit of degrees—some favored or high-status slaves might enjoy considerable liberty. For example, a Mamluk ruler might enjoy far greater liberty than a non-slave in their empire. It can be objected that such a slave would be a slave in name only—after all, a person of such status and power would be far better off than most other people despite being a slave. The challenge to those who argue that slavery is inherently wrong is to show that such an exalted slave is still wronged by their slavery. One approach is to appeal to the intuition that however exalted, the slave is still a slave. That is, regarded as property rather than a free person and this is inherently wrong.

Being regarded as property, slaves often cannot own property of their own. After all, being owned entails that their owner owns what they own. There are, of course, exceptions to this—sometimes slaves are paid for their work and can even eventually buy themselves out of slavery. While this does show, once again, that there are diverse types of slavery, the idea that a person should need to buy themselves seems to be absurd on the face of it.

Thus, while slavery does enable a multitude of evils, the core evil of slavery is the belief that a person can be owned as an object.

 

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Trump’s Election Integrity Commission

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2017

The Trump regime recently created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and has requested information about voters from the states. As of this writing, 44 states and the District of Columbia have refused to provide all of the requested information. While ensuring the integrity of elections is a laudable goal, there are certainly important concerns about this commission, the motivations behind it, and the true goals.

While speculating about motivations is always problematic, there is adequate information to ground some reasonable explanations as to why Trump has created this commission. While the motivations for creating the commission are distinct from the desirability of its goals, motives are certainly relevant to moral assessment. Also, motivations generally involve goals. To avoid needless repetition, I will consider both motivations and goals at once.

One obvious motivation is Trump’s ego.  Trump infamously claimed, without any evidence, that he lost the popular election because there were 3-5 million illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton. While Trump seems generally content to dwell within a realm of unsupported claims and untruths, he does have a clear motivation to find some evidence to back up his absurd and unsupported claim. While it might be tempting to dismiss this motivation as lacking in consequences, it would be a rather serious matter. After all, John Locke notes that tyranny occurs “…When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.” This can, obviously enough, be countered by arguing that Trump is not acting from “irregular passion” or by arguing that even if he is, the concern about election integrity does serve the good of the people. That is, despite the motivation the act is not tyrannical because of its intended goal. If the true goal is real election integrity, then this reply would be quite reasonable—although Trump’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons should still be condemned.

A second motivation can be found in the fact that the Republican party has long used the specter of voter fraud to justify polices that are aimed at voter suppression. While voter fraud does occur at a non-zero level, it is just barely above zero. There is also the fact that the usual Republican proposals, such as voter ID, would generally not be effective at countering the voter fraud that does occur. This is not to say that voter fraud should not be considered, just that it occurs at such a microscopic rate that the only rational explanation for the Republican policies is voter suppression targeted at those who they regard as likely to vote for Democrats, such as minority voters. It should be noted that the Democrats need not be regarded as moral saints here; they utilize other morally problematic methods when they can gain an edge.

The creation of the commission helps support the narrative of voter fraud in that some will believe that there must be fraud because otherwise Trump would not have created the commission. The fact that some states have been resisting the commission’s requests is already being spun as evidence that the states are covering up fraud (even though Republican controlled states are also not fully cooperating). The commission does not need to find any actual evidence of meaningful voter fraud to support the narrative—after all, the myth of significant voter fraud has already been embraced without any evidence at all.

While it might be tempting to think that the information being requested by the Trump commission could expose voter fraud, it is important to be clear about the distinction between the accuracy of voter rolls and the existence of voter fraud. This can be illustrated by using an analogy.

Whenever I teach a class, I get a roster of the students who are enrolled in the class. This can be seen as analogous to the list of registered voters. Since students can add or drop my course, the roster I have for the class is often inaccurate. There are sometimes students who think they have enrolled, but have not. There are also those who think they have dropped the class, but who are still enrolled. Likewise, the list of voters is often inaccurate. For example, people move to a new state and legitimately register to vote there while they remain on the list in their old state. As another example, people die and are not automatically removed from the list. There are also various other errors that can occur with any lists of people. Having an inaccurate list is obviously a problem, but it is not the same thing as fraud. To continue the analogy, consider the sort of fraud that occurs in class, namely cheating. If I happen to have an inaccurate roster of those enrolled in my class at the time, it does not follow that students are cheating in my class. Likewise, the voter lists in states could have many inaccuracies, but this does not prove that voter fraud is occurring.

Obviously enough, an inaccurate roster for a class could be used to facilitate cheating and a student lying about being enrolled in the class would be a form of fraud. Likewise, inaccurate voter lists could be exploited to commit fraud. For example, if someone had a list of dead people who are still registered, this information could be used to engage in “ghost voting.” Fortunately, there is no evidence that the problems with the voter lists are being exploited to commit significant fraud. As such, the concerns about the voter lists is rather like that of concerns about the class rosters: they should be accurate, but their inaccuracy does not entail cheating or fraud is taking place.

This is not to say that the defects of the current system should be ignored or tolerated—the system does need a major overhaul. However, Trump’s commission does not seem aimed at assisting the states improve their registration systems nor aimed at ensuring that the elections are conducted with integrity. Rather, this seems to be part of Trump’s theater of fraud.

 

 

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Illegal Immigrants & Law Enforcement

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2017

While Trump has kept his promise to crack down on illegal immigrants, this increased enforcement has apparently made life easier for criminals and more difficult for police. This is because illegal immigrants are now far less likely to report crimes to the police or assist in police investigations.

While Trump and others have claimed that immigrants come here to commit crimes (and steal jobs), the evidence shows that native citizens commit crimes at a higher rate than immigrants. Immigrants are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators, which is one reason why some police departments are reluctant to serve as agents of federal immigration policy. After all, they need the cooperation of victims and witnesses to investigate crimes. This is not to say that illegal immigrants do not commit crimes; they do and this is a matter of legitimate concern. While the legal issues of immigration are obviously a matter of law, there are important moral issues here as well.

As noted above, one compelling reason for the local police and officials to not work as enforcers for federal immigration policy is that illegal immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes will be far less likely to cooperate with the police. From a utilitarian standpoint, this would morally problematic because it would result in more harm than good by allowing criminals to remain at large. As an example, illegal immigrants have been picked up at courthouses after serving as witnesses for the prosecution. This practice will certainly deter illegal immigrants from coming forward as witnesses. As such, this would seem to provide a moral justification for local governments to ignore the immigration status of people who have otherwise not broken any laws.

The easy and obvious counter to this line of reasoning is to point out that illegal immigrants are, by definition, all criminals. As such, ignoring their immigration status would allow criminals to remain in the community engaging in criminal activities. To add in a utilitarian element, it can be argued that while tolerating illegals who do not engage in other crimes would be a small thing, the damage to the rule of law would be significant in its harms.

One reply to this is to point out that lesser criminals are often given immunity to encourage them to testify against more important criminals. This same sort of justification could be applied here: the extremely minor crime of being an illegal immigrant can be justly ignored to ensure that the illegal immigrants are able to report serious crimes and serve as witnesses in prosecutions of such crimes. The obvious problem with this reply is that it justifies ongoing criminal activity. To use an analogy, it would be like allowing people to continuously violate minor traffic laws in the hopes that they would be more amenable to cooperating with the police regarding more significant crimes. The absurdity of this would seem to show that allowing one crime in the hopes of getting more cooperation combating other crimes is not a reasonable idea.

Another reply is that the illegal immigrants are only criminals because of bad immigration law and a defective immigration system. The gist of this approach is to argue that the immigrants who do not commit other crimes should not be classified as criminals in the first place and that enforcing such bad laws is morally wrong. It could be argued that there is a crude integrity in mindlessly obeying the law, but history has shown that “just following orders” is not an adequate moral defense. The challenge here is, of course, working out whether the immigration laws are bad laws. On the face of it, there does seem to be considerable agreement that they are not very good laws. However, it is still reasonable to consider whether the laws are bad enough to warrant regarding them as unjust laws. My own view is that the laws are bad laws but that by leaving them on the books and not enforcing them, we encourage a disrespect for the law. As such, I favor changing the laws so that they are just laws that are right to enforce.

One way to look at the matter is to consider the history of the United States: European immigrants simply showed up on the shores and started expanding into already inhabited lands. Almost any argument advanced in defense of European immigration into the New World could be dusted off and refurbished into arguments justifying the new illegal immigrants. Of course, the new illegal immigrants have a stronger moral case: they mostly coming here just to work rather than to kill the current inhabitants and take their land.

There is also the practical argument regarding law enforcement. As others have noted, the police have limited resources and it makes more sense to use those on serious crimes rather than on people who are merely here illegally and otherwise law-abiding. The moral aspect of this argument is that focusing on the more serious crimes will create more benefits than using resources to go after illegal immigrants.

My own view is that the current laws and practices regarding illegal immigration are morally unacceptable. The obvious solution involves changing the laws to match the ethics and reality of the situation and for politicians to stop making excuses and, worse, to stop exploiting the matter for short term political advantages at the expense of both the illegals and the local communities.

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Truth, Loyalty & Trump

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2017

While the first hundred (or so) days of a president’s reign is something of an arbitrary mark, Trump seems to have ignited more controversy and firestorms than most presidents. Since Lincoln’s election lead to the Civil War, he still leads here—but Trump is, perhaps, just getting warmed up.

The most recent incident in the Trump reign is the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The narrative of why Comey was fired has served as yet another paradigm example of the nature of the Trump reign. The initial reason given was that Comey was fired for how he handled the Clinton email scandal. This story would convince only the most deluded—Trump and his fellows had praised Comey for his role in crashing Hillary’s chance of being elected. Trump’s minions also deployed to assert that Comey was fired because he had lost the confidence of the people at the FBI. This, like most assertions originating from the Trump regime, seems to be untrue. Trump himself seems to have presented what might be a real reason for Comey being fired: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ” These claims are contrary to the reasons advanced by his minions; the claim that he decided to “just do it” is contrary to the earlier narrative that Trump had acted on the advice of others.

There is also reason to believe that Comey’s refusal to pledge personal loyalty to Trump at a dinner. Public officials, at least in the ideal, pledge their loyalty to the Constitution and not to specific individuals. Comey did promise to always be honest, apparently leading Trump to ask him to pledge “honest loyalty” which could be something that just emerged from Trump’s mouth rather than an actual thing. Trump seems rather worried that Comey might have recorded conversations with him; at least Trump is threatening Comey about such hypothetical tapes on Twitter.

When writing about the Trump reign, I feel as if I am writing about a fictional universe—what happens in Trump space seems to be stuff of bad alternative reality fiction. However, it is quite real—and thus needs to be addressed.

Starting on the surface, the Comey episode provides (more) objective evidence that the Trump regime engages in the untrue. As noted above, Trump’s minions presented one narrative about the firing that was quickly contradicted by Trump. Since all these claims cannot be true, a plausible explanation is that either Trump’s minions were lying or Trump was. Alternatively, those involved might have believed what they were saying. In this case, they would not be lying—although at least some of them would have said untrue things. This is because a lie requires that the liar be aware that what they are asserting is not true; merely being in error about the facts is not sufficient to make a person a liar.

Digging a bit deeper, Trump’s request for a pledge of loyalty seems to reveal his view of how the government should work—loyalty should be to Trump rather than to the Constitution. This is consistent with how Trump operates in the business world and the value he places on loyalty is well known.

While loyalty is generally a virtue, the United States professes to be a country that follows the rule of law and that places the constitution on the metaphorical throne. That is, public officials pledge their loyalty (as public officials) to the constitution and not to the person who happens to be president. This principle of loyalty to the constitution is critical to the rule of law in the United States. If Trump did, in fact, expect Comey to pledge loyalty to him, Trump was attacking a basic foundation of American democracy and our core political philosophy.

This is not to say that officials should lack all personal loyalty; just that their loyalty as public officials should be first and foremost to the Constitution. It could be argued that Trump was merely asking for an acceptable level of professional loyalty or that he was asking Comey to pledge his loyalty to the Constitution. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that Trump would ask for either of those things.

Comey’s unwillingness to pledge loyalty to Trump points to another likely reason for his firing. Trump presumably hoped that a loyal Comey would drop the investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump campaign. It seems likely that when it became clear that Comey was not going to let the matter go away, Trump fired him. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov engaged in a bit of wit about the Comey firing, asking reporters if Comey was fired and then responding with “You’re kidding, you’re kidding,” when the answer was given.

While some have claimed that Trump has created a constitutional crisis, this is clearly not the case. As others have pointed out, Trump has the authority to fire the director of the FBI for any reason or no reason. As such, Trump has not exceeded his constitutional powers in this matter. At the very least, the firing created “bad optics” and certainly created the impression that Trump fired Comey because Trump has something to hide. Since the Republican controlled congress seems to be generally unconcerned with the matter, Trump might be able to ride out the current storm and get an FBI director confirmed who will pledge loyalty to him and do to the investigation what Putin allegedly does to his political opponents. However, there are some Republicans who are concerned about the matter and they might be willing to work with Democrats and keep the investigation alive. It might turn out that Trump is innocent of all wrongdoing and that his angry blundering about was just that—angry blundering about rather than an effort to conceal the truth. Only a proper investigation will reveal the answer; unless the Russians decide to spill the vodka.

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Automation & Administration: An Immodest Proposal

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 5, 2017

It has almost been a law that technological advances create more jobs than they eliminate. This, however, appears to be changing. It is predicted that nearly 15 million jobs will be created by advances and deployment of automation and artificial intelligence by 2027. On the downside, it is also estimated that technological change will eliminate about 25 million jobs. Since the future is not yet now, the reality might be different—but it is generally wise to plan for the likely shape of things to come. As such, it is a good idea to consider how to address the likely loss of jobs.

One short term approach is moving people into jobs that are just ahead of replacement. This is rather like running ahead of an inextinguishable fire in a burning building—it merely postpones the inevitable. A longer-term approach is to add to the building so that you can keep on running as long as you can build faster than the fire can advance. This has been the usual approach to staying ahead of the fire of technology. An even better and rather obvious solution is to get out of the building and into one that will not catch on fire. Moving away from the metaphor, this would involve creating jobs that are technology proof.

If technology cannot fully replicate (or exceed) human capabilities, then there could be some jobs that are technology proof. To get a bit metaphysical, Descartes argued that merely physical systems would not be able to do all that an immaterial mind can do. For example, Descartes claimed that the ability to use true language required an immaterial mind—although he acknowledged that very impressive machines could be constructed that would have the appearance of thought. If he is right, then there could be a sort of metaphysical job security. Moving away from metaphysics, there could be limits on our technological abilities that preclude being able to build our true replacements. But, if technology can build entities that can do all that we can do, then no job would be safe—something could be made to take that job from a human. To gamble on either our special nature or the limits of technology is rather risky, so it would make more sense to take a more dependable approach.

One approach is creating job preserves (like game preserves, only for humans)—that is, deciding to protect certain jobs from technological change. This approach is nothing new. According to some accounts, one reason that Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was not utilized in the ancient world was because it would have displaced the slaves who provided the bulk of the labor. While this option does have the advantage of preserving jobs, there are some clear and obvious problems with creating such an economic preserve. As two examples, there are the practical matters of sustaining such jobs and competing against other countries who are not engaged in such job protection.

Another approach is to intentionally create jobs that are not really needed and thus can be maintained even in the face of technological advancement. After all, if there is really no reason to have the job at all, there is no reason to replace it with a technological solution. While this might seem to be a stupid idea (and it is), it is not a new idea. There are numerous jobs that are not really needed that are still maintained. Some even pay extremely well. One general category of such jobs are administrative jobs. I will illustrate with my own area of experience, academics.

When I began my career in academics, the academy was already thick with administrators. However, many of them did things that were necessary, such as handling finances and organizing departments. As the years went on, I noticed that the academy was becoming infested with administrators. While this could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence on my part, it is supported by the data—the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees in the academics has doubled in the past quarter century. This is, it must be noted, in the face of technological advance and automation which should have reduced the number of such jobs.

These jobs take many forms. As one example, in place of the traditional single dean, a college will have multiple deans of various ranks and the corresponding supporting staff. As another example, assessment has transformed from an academic fad to a permanent parasite (or symbiote, in cases where the assessment is worthwhile) that has grown fat upon the academic body. There has also been a blight of various vice presidents of this and that; many of which are often linked to what some call “political correctness.” Despite being, at best, useless, these jobs continue to exist and are even added to. While a sane person might see this as a problem to be addressed, a person with a somewhat different perspective would be inspired to make an immodest proposal: why not apply this model across the whole economy? To be specific, a partial solution to the problem of technology eliminating jobs is to create new administrative positions for those who lose their jobs. For example, if construction jobs were lost to constructicons, then they could be replaced with such jobs as “vice president of constructicon assessment”, ‘constructicon resource officer”, “constructicon gender identity consultant” and supporting staff.

It might be objected that it would be wrong, foolish and wasteful to create such jobs merely to keep people employed as jobs are consumed by technology. The easy and obvious reply is that if useless jobs are going to flourish anyway, they might as well serve a better purpose.

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Free Speech, Coulter & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2017

Ann Coulter’s appearance at the Berkeley was cancelled in response to threats made by anarchist groups. While some conservatives argue that concerns about security should often trump concerns about rights (such as infringing on religious liberty or privacy to “make us safer”), two conservative organizations have started a lawsuit against the university. The claim that the school is endeavoring “to restrict conservative speech” on campus. Since Berkeley is a public school, the First Amendment does apply and hence the case can make an appeal to this constitutional right. While well-paid lawyers will hash out the legal matters, this does raise an interesting moral concern.

As I have shown in numerous other essays, I hold to a view of freedom of expression that goes far beyond the limited legal protection laid out in the First Amendment. I also hold to the freedom of consumption—that people have a right to, for example, hear whatever views they wish to hear. As such, Coulter has a right to express herself and the student organizations have the right to invite her so they can listen to whatever wicked or foolish things she might elect to spew forth.

Like many classic liberals, my go-to justification of these liberties is based on J.S. Mill’s arguments. The gist is that allowing people the liberty of expression and the liberty of consumption creates more happiness than restricting these liberties. Being a fan of natural rights, I also find the idea that these rights have additional grounding beyond mere utility appealing. I do, however, admit that such rights are certainly metaphysically suspect and difficult to properly ground in reality. In short, while I think that Coulter will say nothing worth hearing, she has every right to speak before the student groups that invited her.

I should note that my view of Coulter is not based on any notion that conservative political theory lacks merit; it is based on my view that she lacks merit. Unfortunately, thoughtful conservative political theorists seem to be out of vogue. This is unfortunate; the past saw many excellent conservative thinkers and they made significant contributions to political and philosophical thought. These days, there seem to be mostly just empty pundits spewing emptiness on Fox News. Or, worse, racists and sexists purporting to represent conservative thought. Then again, perhaps abandoning the intellectual aspects of politics was a smart tactical move: the left might have its intellectuals, but the right holds the power in most states. But, back to the matter at hand.

While I do accept the rights of expression and consumption, these rights are not absolute. If the justification for rights and liberties is taken to be utilitarian, then these rights can be limited on the same grounds. As such, if the harm created by allowing the freedoms of expression and consumption would create more harm, then they can be justly limited. The stock example is, of course, the restriction on people yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

If a natural rights view is accepted, the restriction of a right can be justified by appealing to other rights. In the case of speech, the right to life would warrant preventing people from yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The challenge is, of course, working out a hierarchy of rights. However, it does seem reasonable to make the right to life a rather important right, if only because being alive is generally a necessary condition for the other rights.

If having a person speak could put that person and others in danger, then this can justify postponing a speech until proper security arrangements can be made or even cancelling it if such arrangements cannot be made. This can be done by appealing to a utilitarian justification or by arguing that the right not to be harmed trumps the rights of free expression and free consumption. This is analogous to other cases in which liberty must be weighed against safety.

This does lead to the obvious concern that free expression and free consumption could thus be thwarted simply by threatening violence; thus giving individuals and groups willing to make threats considerable powers of censorship. One limiting factor is that making such threats is a crime. Unfortunately, the internet provides so many anonymous ways of making threats that the police face considerable challenge in dealing with them.

Deciding how to respond to credible threats of violence requires weighing the rights of expression and consumption against the harms that are likely to arise. As a general principle, it seems reasonable to accept that a speech should be postponed in the face of a credible threat that cannot be addressed in time. Such a credible threat should be dealt with by law enforcement and then the speech can be made. If the threat can be addressed so that an acceptable level of public safety is possible (within the available budget), then the speech should proceed normally. This approach can be easily justified on utilitarian grounds: people are kept reasonably safe while at the same time threats are prevented from becoming an effective tool of censorship. This does require that the state take such threats seriously and take appropriate action.

There is, of course, also the moral responsibility of those who make such threats: they are wrong to do this. If they do not like, for example, Coulter’s views, they should ask a campus group to invite them to speak out against her views on campus.

 

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Should ISPs be Allowed to Sell Your Data?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2017

Showing the extent of their concern for the privacy of Americans, congress has overturned rules aimed at giving consumers more control over how ISPs use their data. Most importantly, these rules would have required consent from customers before the ISPs could sell sensitive data (such as financial information, health information and browsing history). Assuming the sworn defender of the forgotten, President Donald Trump, signs the bill into law, ISPs will be able to monetize the private data of their customers.

While the ISPs obviously want to make more money, giving that as the justification for stripping away the privacy of customers would not make for effective rhetoric. Instead, proponents make the usual vague and meaningless references to free markets. Since there is no actual substance to these noises, they do not merit a response.

They also advance more substantial reasons, such as the claim that companies such as Facebook monetize private data, the assertion that customers will benefit and the claim that this will fuel innovation. I will consider each in turn.

On the one hand, the claim that other companies already monetize private data could be dismissed as a mere fallacy of appeal to common practice. After all, the fact that others are doing something does not entail that it is a good thing. On the other hand, this line of reasoning can be seen as a legitimate appeal to fairness: it would be unfair that companies like Google and Facebook get to monetize private data while ISPs do not get to do so. The easy and obvious counter to this is that consumers can easily opt out of Google and Facebook by not using their services. While this means forgoing some useful services, it is a viable option. In contrast, going without internet access is extremely problematic and customers have very few (if any alternatives). Even if a customer can choose between two or more ISPs, it is likely that they will all want to monetize the customers’ private data—it is simply too valuable a commodity to leave on the table. While it is not impossible for an ISP to try to win customers by choosing to forgo selling their data, this seems unlikely—thus customers will generally be stuck with the choice of giving up the internet or giving up their privacy. Given the coercive advantage of the ISPs, it is up to the state to protect the interests of the citizens (just as the state protects ISPs).

The claim that the customers will benefit is hard to evaluate in the abstract. After all, it is not yet known what, if anything, the ISPs will provide in return for the data. Facebook and Google offer valuable services in return for handing over data; but customers already pay ISPs for their services. It might turn out that the ISPs will offer customers deals that make giving up privacy appealing—such as lowered costs. However, anyone familiar with companies such as Comcast will have no faith in this. As such, the overturning of the privacy rules will benefit ISPs but will most likely not benefit consumers.

While the innovation argument is deployed in almost any discussion of technology, allowing ISPs to sell private data does not seem to be an innovation, unless one just means “change” by “innovation.” It also seems unlikely to lead to any innovations for the customers; although the ISPs will presumably work hard to innovate in ways to process and sell data. This innovation would be good for the ISPs, but would not seem to offer anything to the customers—anymore than innovations in processing and selling chickens benefits the chickens.

Defenders of the ISPs could make the case that the data belongs to the ISP rather than the customer, so they have the right to sell it. Laying aside the usual arguments about privacy rights and sticking to ownership rights, this claim is easily defeated by the following analogy.

Suppose that I rent an office and use it to conduct my business, such as writing my books. The owner has every right to expect me to pay my rent. However, they have no right to set up cameras to observe my work and interactions with people and then sell the information they gather as their own. That would be theft. In the case of the ISP, I am leasing access to the internet, but what I do in this virtual property belongs to me—they have no right of ownership to what I do. After all, I am doing all the labor. Naturally, I can agree to sell my labor; but this needs to be my choice. As such, when ISPs insist they have the right to sell customers private data, they are like landlords claiming they have a right to sell anything valuable they can learn by spying on their tenants. This is clearly wrong. Unfortunately, congress belongs to the ISPs and not to the people.

 

 

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The State & Health Care

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 13, 2017

One way to argue that the state is obligated to provide health care (in some manner) to its citizens is to draw an analogy to the obligation of the state to defend its citizens from “enemies foreign and domestic.” While thinkers disagree about the obligations of the state, almost everyone except the anarchists hold that the state is required to provide military defense against foreign threats and police against domestic threats. This seems to be at least reasonable, though it can be debated. So, just as the United States is obligated to defend its citizens from the Taliban, it is also obligated to defend them against tuberculous.

Another approach is to forgo the analogy and argue that the basis of the obligation to provide military defense and police services also extends to providing health care. The general principle at hand is that the state is obligated to protect its citizens. Since anthrax and heart failure can kill a person just as dead as a bullet or a bomb, then the state would seem to be obligated to provide medical protection in addition to police and military protection. Otherwise, the citizens are left unguarded from a massive threat and the state would fail in its duty as a protector. While these lines of reasoning are appealing, they can certainly be countered. This could be done by arguing that there are relevant differences between providing health care and providing armed defenses.

One way to do this is to argue that the state is only obligated to protect its citizens from threats presented by humans and not from other threats to life and health, such as disease, accidents or congenital defects. So, the state is under no obligation to protect citizens from the ravages of Alzheimer’s. But, if ISIS or criminals developed a weapon that inflicted Alzheimer’s on citizens, then the state would be obligated to protect the citizens.

On the face of it, this seems odd. After all, from the standpoint of the victim it does not seem to matter whether their Alzheimer’s is “natural” or inflicted—the effect on them is the same. What seems to matter is the harm being inflicted on the citizen. To use an obvious analogy, it would be like the police being willing to stop a human from trying to kill another human, but shrugging and walking away if they see a wild animal tearing apart a human. As such, it does not matter whether the cause is a human or, for example, a virus—the state’s obligation to protect citizens would still apply.

Another approach is to argue that while the state is obligated to protect its citizens, it is only obligated to provide a certain type of defense. The psychology behind this approach can be made clear by the rhetoric those who favor strong state funding for the military and police while being against state funding for medical care. The military is spoken of in terms of its importance in “degrading and destroying” the enemy and the police are spoken of in terms of their role in imposing “law and order.” These are very aggressive roles and very manly. One can swagger while speaking about funding submarines, torpedoes, bullets and missiles.

In contrast, the rhetoric against state funding of health care speaks of “the nanny state” and how providing such support will make people “weak” and “dependent.” This is caring rather than clubbing, curing rather than killing. One cannot swagger about while speaking about funding preventative care and wellness initiatives.

What lies behind this psychology and rhetoric is the principle that the state’s role in protecting its citizens is one of force and violence, not one of caring and curing. This does provide a potential relevant difference; but the challenge is showing that this difference warrants providing armed defense while precluding providing medical care.

One way to argue against it is to use an analogy to a family. Family members are generally obligated to protect one another, but if it were claimed that this obligation was limited only to using force and not with caring for family members, then this would be rightfully regarded as absurd.

Another approach is to embrace the military and police metaphors. Just as the state should thrust its force against enemies within and without, it should use its medical might to crush foes that are literally within—within the citizens. So, the state could wage war on viruses, disease and such and thus make it more manly and less nanny. This should have some rhetorical appeal to those who love military and police spending but loath funding healthcare. Also to those who are motivated by phallic metaphors.

As far as the argument that health care should not be provided by the state because it will make people dependent and weak, the obvious reply is that providing military and police protection would have the same impact. As such, if the dependency argument works against health care, it would also work against having state military and police. If people should go it on their own in regards to health care, then they should do the same when it comes to their armed defense. If private health coverage would suffice, then citizens should just arm themselves and provide their own defense and policing. This, obviously enough, would be a return to the anarchy of the state of nature and that seems rather problematic. If accepting military and police protection from the state does not make citizens weak and dependent, then the same should also hold true for accepting health care from the state.

As a final point, an easy way to counter the obligation argument for state health care is to argue that the state is not obligated to provide military and police protection to the citizens. Rather, the military and the military, it could be argued, exists to protect and advance the interests of the elites. Since the elites have excellent health care thanks to their wealth and power, there is no need for the state to provide it to them. Other than the elites in government, like Paul Ryan and Trump, who get their health care from the state, of course. On this view, support for using public money for the military and police and not health care makes perfect sense.

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Trump, Terror and Hope

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2016

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

After Trump’s victory, my friends who backed him rejoiced in their triumph over the liberal elite and look forward in the hope that Trump will do everything he said he would do. Many of my other friends look forward in terror at that same outcome. As one might imagine, Hitler analogies are the order of the day—both for those who love Trump and those who loath him. While my political science studies are years behind me, I thought it would be worthwhile to have a rational discussion about what Trump is likely to do within the limits of his powers. This assumes that he does not hand the office over to Pence and get to work on Trump TV when he finally finds out about what he’ll need to do as President.

One thing that will disappoint his supporters and give hope to his opponents is that politicians rarely keep all their promises. Trump also has quite a track record of failing to follow through on his promises and his ghost-written The Art of the Deal lays out how he regards hyperbole as a useful tactic. As such, his promises should be regarded with skepticism until there is evidence he is trying to keep them. If Trump plans to run in 2020 he will need to work on keeping his promises; but if plans on being a one term president, then this need not concern him very much. Then again, people voted for him once knowing what he is, so they might well do so again even if he delivers little or nothing.

Trump also faces the limits imposed by reality. He will not be able to, for example, get Mexico to pay for the wall. As another example, he will not be able to restore those lost manufacturing jobs. As such, reality will dash the hopes of his supporters in many ways. Assuming, of course, they believed him.

There are also the obvious legal limits on his power as set by the constitution and laws. His supporters will rejoice in the fact that since 9/11 the powers of the presidency have expanded dramatically. While Obama originally expressed concerns about this, he did little or nothing to rein in these powers. For example, he made extensive use of executive powers to conduct drone executions. As such, Trump will be stepping into a very powerful position and will be able to do a great deal using, for example, executive orders. While these powers are not unlimited, they are extensive.

Those who oppose Trump will certainly hope that the legal limits on the office, such as they are, will restrain Trump. They can also hope that the system of checks and balances will keep him in check. Trump’s rhetoric seems to indicate that he thinks he will be able to run the country like he runs his business, which is not the case. The legislative and judicial branches will resist incursions into their power; at least when doing so is in their interest.

There is, however, an obvious concern for those worried about Trump: his party controls the House and Senate. His party will also control the Supreme Court, assuming he appoints a conservative judge. As such, there will be no effective governmental opposition to Trump, as long as he does not interfere with the goals of his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate.

This is where matters get a bit complicated. On the one hand, the Republicans will presumably try to work together, since they are all in the same party and claim to accept the same ideology. On the other hand, Trump has said things that are contrary to traditional Republican ideology, such as his rejection of free trade and his view of American defense commitments to our allies. Trump and the Republican leadership also have had their conflicts during the primary and the campaign; these might flare up again after the honeymoon is over. So, America might see the Republican House or Senate opposing some of President Trump’s plans. This is, of course, not unprecedented in American history. A key question is, of course, how much the Republicans in congress will stick to their professed ideology and how much they will go along with Trump. There is even the possibility that some of what Trump wants to do will be opposed on the grounds of principle.

While Trump ran on the usual bullshit rhetoric of going to Washington to “blow things up” and “drain the swamp”, doing this would involve going hard against congress and the established political elites. As much as I would love to see Trump getting into a death match with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, I think we can expect Trump to settle into politics as usual. Even if he does get into it with congress, Trump has no real experience in politics and seems to lack even a basic understanding of how the system works. As such, Trump would presumably be at a huge disadvantage. Which could be a good thing for those who oppose him.

While predicting exactly what will happen is not possible, it seems reasonable to expect that the total Republican control will allow them to undo much of what Obama did. Trump can simply undo Obama’s executive orders on his own and Trump will certainly not use his veto to thwart congress to protect Obama’s legacy. So, expect Obamacare to be dismantled and expect changes to how immigration is handled.

The restoration of conservative control of the Supreme court will initially not be much of a change from before; although the advanced age of some of the judges means that Trump is likely to be able to make more appointments. Unlike Obama, he can expect the Senate to hold hearings and probably approve of his choices. That said, the Senate will probably not simply rubber stamp his choice—something that might frustrate him. However, as long the senate remains under Republican control he will have a far easier time getting judges that will rule as he wants them to rule into the court. This is, of course, what the evangelical voters hope for—a supreme court that will overturn Roe v Wade. This is also the nightmare of those who support reproductive rights.

If Trump can shape the court, he can use this court to expand his power and erode rights. Because he is thin skinned and engages in behavior that justly results in condemnation, he wants to loosen up the libel laws so he can sue people. Trump, despite being essentially a product of the media, professes to loath the news media. At least reporters who dare to criticize him. If he had the sort of supreme court he wants, we could see the First Amendment weakened significantly.

Trump has also made the promise of going up against the elites. While he certainly has a dislike of the elites that look down on him (some have described him as a peasant with lots of gold), he is one of the elites and engaging the systematic advantages of the elites would harm him. Trump does not seem like the sort to engage in an altruistic sacrifice, so this seems unlikely. There is also the fact that the elite excel at staying elite—so he would be hard pressed to defeat the elite should they in battle meet.

Trump is also limited by the people. While the president has great power, he is still just a primate in pants and needs everyone else to make things happen and go along with him. He also might need to be concerned about public opinion and this can put a check on his behavior. Or perhaps not—Trump did not seem overly worried about condemnation of his behavior during the campaign.

Citizens can, of course, oppose Trump in words and deeds. While the next presidential election is in four years, there will be other elections and people can vote for politicians who will resist Trump. Of course, if more people had voted in the actual election, this might not be something that would need doing now.  Those who back him should, of course, vote for those who will do his will.

As a rule, people tend to err significantly in their assessments of politicians—they tend to think they will do far more good or evil than these politicians deliver. For example, some hoped and others feared that Obama would radically change the country. His proponents had glorious dreams of a post-racial America with health care for all and his opponents had feverish dreams of a Muslim-socialist state taking away all their guns. Both proved to be in error: America got a centrist, competent president. In the case of Trump, there are fears and dreams that he will be an American Hitler. The reality is likely to relieve those having nightmares about and disappoint those dreaming of people in white hoods advising Trump in the White House (although the KKK is apparently planning a parade for Trump).

In closing, while I suspect that the Trump presidency will be a burning train wreck that will make America long for the golden years of Obama, it will not be as bad as some fear. That said, history shows that only fools do not keep a wary eye on those in power.

 

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Wells Fargo & Financial Crimes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2016

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?

 

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