A Philosopher's Blog

Getting it Wrong

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 16, 2018

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On February 14th, 2018 seventeen people were murdered during a school shooting. As per the well-established script: the media focused on the weapon used, the right offered “thoughts and prayers” while insisting that this was not the time to talk about gun violence, and the left called for more gun control. As other have pointed out many times, this script will also play out in the usual way—the attention of the nation will drift away, children will be buried by their parents and nothing will really be done. This cycle will repeat with the next school shooting. And the next. As a country, we are getting it wrong in many ways.

One way we get it wrong, which is a fault of the media and the left, is to obsess on the specific weapon used in the latest school shooting. In this case, like many other cases, the weapon was an AR-15. The media always seems to ask why the weapon is used in shootings; the easy and obvious answer is that it shows up at mass shootings for the same reason that McDonald wrappers and bags end up alongside the roads I run. That is, both the AR-15 and McDonalds

are very popular. There is also the fact that the AR-15 is an ideal weapon for engaging a crowd—it has a large magazine capacity, it is lethal and is easy to shoot. But, the AR-15 is not unique in those traits. There are many other assault rifles (as they are called) that are similar. For example, the AK-47 and its clones are also effective weapons of this type; but they are the Arby’s of assault weapons. That is, less popular. There is also the fact that non-assault weapons are just as lethal (or more so) than the assault rifles. They just tend to have smaller magazines. This shows one of the problems with the obsession with the AR-15—there are other weapons that would do the same.

Another problem with obsessing about the specific weapon is that it allows an easy red herring counter. A red herring is when one diverts attention from the original issue to another issue. When, for example, a reporter starts pressing a congressman about the AR-15, they can easily switch the discussion from gun violence to a discussion about the AR-15, thus getting away from the real issue. The solution is, obviously enough, is to get over the obsession with the specific weapon and focus instead on the issue of gun violence in general. Which leads to another way we get it wrong.

School shootings are horrific, but they are not the way most victims of gun violence die. In general, homicides are at record low levels (although we are still a world leader in homicides). Most gun-related deaths are suicides and the assault rifle is not the most commonly used weapon in most gun deaths. School shootings and mass shootings do get the attention of the media and the nation, but this seems to enable us to ignore the steady flow of gun-related deaths that do not grab the headlines. This is not to say that mass shootings are not a serious problem, nor that we should not act in response to them. But, the gun violence problem in America goes far beyond mass shootings. It is, ironically, a quiet problem that does not get the spotlight of the media. As such, even less is done about the broader problem than is done about mass shootings. And, to be honest, little or nothing is done about mass shootings.

While there are proposals from the left for gun control, the right usually advocates having a “good guy with a gun”, addressing mental illness, and fortifying places such as schools. There seems to be little evidence that the “good guy with a gun” will solve the problem of mass shootings; but this is largely due to the fact that there is so little good data about gun violence. While mental illness is clearly a problem and seriously addressing mental illness would be a broad social good, it seems unlikely that the vague proposals being offered would really do anything. America essentially abandoned the mentally ill during the Reagan era, an approach that has persisted to this day. The right does not seem to be serious about putting in the social services needed to address mental illness; they merely bring it up in response to mass shootings to distract people from gun control. The left, while expressing concern, also has done little—we have massive problems in this country that are simply festering away. Also, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators, so addressing mental health in a way that focuses on mass shooters would not address the much broader problem.

The proposals to create “Fortress Academia” might seem appealing, but there is the obvious problem with cost: public schools tend to be chronically underfunded and it is not clear where the money needed for such fortification would come from. There is also the fact that turning schools intro fortresses seems fundamentally wrong and is, perhaps, a red herring to distract people from the actual causes of the problem. To use an analogy, it is like addressing the opioid epidemic by telling people to get better home security to prevent addicts from breaking in to steal things to sell to buy drugs. This is not to say that school safety is a bad idea, just that turning our schools into forts does not seem to be the best approach.

I know that it will not be that long before I am writing about another mass shooting; people will move on to other things, as they always do, and the malign neglect of the problem will persist.

 

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Health Care Workers and Moral Objections II: Patients/Clients

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 24, 2018

As noted in an earlier essay, the Trump administration plans to modify the Health and Human Services (HHS) civil rights office to protect health care workers who have moral or religious objections to performing certain medical procedures or treating certain patients.  In that essay I addressed the general moral issue of  whether health workers have the moral right to refuse certain services. I now turn to the general issue of whether they have the moral right to refuse to treat certain patients (or clients) based on the identity of the patients (or clients). The legal matter, of course, is something for the courts to settle.

As noted in the earlier essay, a person does not surrender their moral rights or conscience when they enter a profession. As such, it should not simply be assumed that a health care worker cannot refuse to treat a person because of the worker’s values. But, of course, it should also not be assumed that the moral or religious values of a health care worker grant them the right to refuse treatment based on the identity of the patient.

One moral argument for the right to refuse treatment because of the patient’s identity is based on the general right to refuse to provide a good or service. A key freedom, one might argue, is this freedom from compulsion. For example, an author has every right to determine who they will and will not write for.

Another moral argument for the right to refuse is a general one about the right to not be forced to interact with people whom one regards as evil or at least immoral. This can also be augmented by contending that serving the needs of an immoral person is to engage in an immoral action, if only by association. For example, a Jewish painter has every right to refuse to paint a mural for Nazis.

While these arguments have considerable appeal, especially in cases in which the refusal is directed at the sorts of people one dislikes, it is important to consider the implications of a right of refusal based on values. One obvious implication is that such a right could warrant a health care worker to refuse to treat you if they regarded you as immoral. In general terms, moral rights need to be assessed by applying a moral method I call reversing the situation. Parents and others often employ this method informally by asking questions such as “how would you feel if someone did that to you?”

Somewhat more formally, this method is based on the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Assuming this rule is correct, if a person is unwilling to abide by his own principles when the situation is reversed, then it is reasonable to question those principles. In the case at hand, while a person might be fine with the right to refuse services to those they dislike because of their values, they would presumably not be fine with it if the situation were reversed.

An obvious objection is that reversing the situation would, strictly speaking, only apply to health workers themselves. Fortunately, there is a modified version of this method that would apply to everyone. In this method one test of a moral right, principle or rule is for a person to replace the proposed target of the right, principle or rule with themselves or a group (or groups) they belong to. For example, a Christian who thinks it is morally fine to refuse services to transgender people based on religious freedom should consider their thoughts on atheists refusing services to Christians based on religious freedom. Naturally, a person could insist that the right, rule or principle should only be applied to those they do not like—but if anyone can take this out, then it would seem everyone could as well, thus the objection would fail.

One reasonable reply to this method is to point out that there are clear exceptions to its application. For example, while most Christians are fine with convicted murders being locked up, it does that follow that they are wrong about this because they would not want to be locked up for being Christians. In such cases, which also applies to reversing the situation, it can be argued that there is a morally relevant difference between the two people or groups that justifies the difference in treatment. For example, convicted murders generally deserve to be punished for being murders while Christians obviously do not merit punishment just for being Christians. As such, when considering the moral right of health care workers to refuse services based on the identity of the patient (or client) the possibility of relevant differences must be given due consideration.

The obvious problem with relevant difference considerations is that people will tend to think there is a relevant difference between themselves and those they want to apply the right of refusal. For example, a person who is a social justice warrior might regard a member of the alt-right as an evil racist and see this as a relevant difference that warrants refusing service to such a person. One solution is to appeal to an objective moral judge—but this creates the obvious problem of finding such a person. Another solution is for the person to take special pains to be objective—but this is rather difficult and especially so in cases in which objectivity is often most needed.

A final relevant consideration is the fact that while entering a profession does not strip a person of their conscience or moral agency, it often imposes professional ethics on the person that supersede their own values within the professional context. For example, lawyers must accept a professional ethics that requires them to keep certain secrets their client might have (the most obvious being when they did the crime) even when doing so might violate their personal ethics. As another example, lawyers (especially public defenders) are expected to defend their clients even if they find their clients morally awful. As a third example, as a professor I (in general) cannot insist that a student be removed from my class by appealing to my religious or moral values regarding the identity of the student. As a professor, I am obligated to teach anyone enrolled in my class, if they do not engage in behavior that would warrant their removal (such as assaulting other students). Health care workers generally fall under professional ethics as well and these typically include requirements to render care to people regardless of what the worker things of the morality of the person. For example, a doctor does not have the right to refuse to perform surgery on someone just because they committed adultery, are a compulsive liar, have engaged in shady and even illegal business practices or expressed their proclivity to grab people by a certain part of their anatomy. This is not to say that there cannot be exceptions, but professional medical ethics would seem to forbid refusing service just because of the moral judgment by the service provider of the patient (or client). This, obviously enough, is distinct from refusing services because a patient or client has engaged in behavior that warrants refusal, such as attacking the service provider.

 

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Institutions & Evil

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 17, 2018

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Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) introduced the alignment system to the gaming world. This system, though regarded by many players as restrictive and artificial, offered a degree of guidance on how to play good, evil, lawful, chaotic and neutral characters. This system has also proven useful in the real world, allowing gaming nerds like me to quickly categorize actions and people. This system is also rather useful for mapping the current political landscape of America.

A key component of any society is its institutions. In the United States these institutions include the systems that constitute the government such as Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These institutions are used to maintain (or impose, if you prefer) order. While it is tempting to mistake order for goodness, D&D makes a clear distinction between lawful and good—a distinction long recognized by philosophers. In the D&D alignment system, creatures can be lawful (as opposed to chaotic or neutral) but also evil at the same time. Good creatures can be chaotic or neutral; thus rejecting the constraints of law and order.  Evil creatures that are not lawful also have the option to be chaotic or neutral. While chaotic good and neutral good creatures will support (or at least not harm) good institutions of order and law, evil creatures that are not lawful are generally willing to harm evil institutions of order and law—as will be seen, they care not for order.

The alignment most vehemently opposed to order and institutions of order is chaotic evil. Chaotic Evil is defined this way:

A chaotic evil character does whatever his greed, hatred, and lust for destruction drive him to do. He is hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable. If he is simply out for whatever he can get, he is ruthless and brutal. If he is committed to the spread of evil and chaos, he is even worse. Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized. Typically, chaotic evil people can be made to work together only by force, and their leader lasts only as long as he can thwart attempts to topple or assassinate him.

In the real world, chaotic evil types are generally involved with institutions from the outside and this is typically an adversarial role. For example, a person who is actively chaotic evil will tend to run afoul of law enforcement. Chaotic evil types can be useful to institutions—for example, terrorist groups find this sort of person useful as a suicide bomber or cannon fodder. If a chaotic evil person holds power in an institution, either or both will tend to fare poorly—such types tend to either destroy or be destroyed by the forces of order. Be they good or evil.

Neutral evil beings can operate within institutions far better than chaotic evil types. Neutral evil is defined this way

A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusion that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.

While chaotic evil types can be like wild beasts assailing order or beastly idiots within the china shop of society, neutral evil types tend to be like parasites within a host. While institutions sensibly regard neutral evil types as a dangerous enemy, neutral evil people often find institutions very useful as means to their own selfish ends. For example, a neutral evil person who secured a political office would use it to enrich themselves at the expense of the institution and the people they are supposed to serve. Sensible neutral evil types are careful to not kill their host—at least for as long as they need it. They can even seem to serve order by exposing or destroying other neutral evil people. But this is also from selfishness-they do not value order for its own sake, they merely dislike having competition.

As should be surmised from the name, lawful evil creatures favor institutions of order and law. D&D defines lawful evil this way:

 A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

In the real world, lawful evil people find happy homes in institutions. In some cases, they make up most of the leaders of the institution and rely on non-evil, but lawful, followers to implement their evil. In fiction, the Empire of Star Wars is a paradigm case of lawful evil. In the real world, Nazi Germany is often presented as a paradigm of lawful evil. While these examples are clear cases of evil, most governments tend to have strong lawful evil components. For example, the legal acceptance and state enforcement of slavery in the United States was a paradigm case of lawful evil.

Lawful evil people, as the description suggests, can appear to be good people—or at least to have virtues. For example, a lawful person in the real world might work for law enforcement and be a paradigm of loyalty, a respecter of tradition and a stickler for rules as they systematically oppress people of a certain ethnicity or religion within their society. They are a paragon of law, but not of goodness.

Both Plato and Kant were aware of this sort of problem—the danger of a person with only some of the virtues, or in Kant’s terms, lacking a good will. Plato warned of the clever rogue: “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue‑how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye‑sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?” Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, raises a similar point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

The paragon of lawful evil is just this sort of person and the most dangerous villain of all, for they are not content with mere selfishness nor are they merely bringers of chaos. Rather they forge institutions of evil or corrupt existing institutions. This allows for systematic, large scale evil that is easily perceived by good—even by the lawful evil themselves.

 

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Medicaid Expansion & Hospital Closures

Posted in Business, Law, Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on January 10, 2018

One aspect of Obamacare was the expansion of Medicaid in states that agreed to accept this expansion. Some states, such as my adopted state of Florida, declined the expansion. This provided researchers with an opportunity to study the effects of accepting or rejecting the expansion.

One study, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, found that hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid were six times less likely to close than hospitals in states that declined the expansion. Hospitals in rural areas, which tend to rely more heavily on Medicaid and generally have less income relative to urban hospitals, were the hardest hit.

These results are hardly surprising. Hospitals are required by the 1986 Emergency Medial Treatment and Labor Act(EMTALA) “to ensure public access to emergency services regardless of ability to pay.” As such, unlike other businesses, they cannot turn away people who cannot pay for the services they provide. While Medicaid payments to hospitals are notoriously low, some payment is better than no payment. Because of this, hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid are less likely to need to provide unpaid services and this makes it more likely that they can remain profitable and stay open.

It is, of course, reasonable to consider alternative explanations. After all, mere correlation is not causation and it would be fallacious post hoc reasoning (to infer that because A happened after B, B must have caused A) to simply conclude that Medicaid is the cause. The states that expanded Medicaid might differ in other ways from states that did not—for example, they might have more robust economies or larger percentages of privately ensured patients. That said, the study does seem to support the connection between Medicaid and hospitals remaining open.

One moral and practical concern about hospital closings is that people who need care will be less able to receive it. While it would be hyperbole to claim that hospital closings would leave people in the area with no care, it does reduce their access to care. This is especially of concern in rural areas that already have few hospitals. While people can, of course, travel to get medical care, increased travel times would reduce the likelihood that people will seek care and would also impact outcomes. For example, rapid treatment is critical for stroke victims. Even if patients still have access to a local hospital, hospital closures will increase the time patients need to wait for treatment and this can have a negative impact on medical outcomes.

While health care does not operate within a free market of informed consumers and competitive prices, the closing of hospitals can result in increased costs for medical care. After all, the scarcer a commodity is, the more people tend to charge for it. Since medical care is already extremely expensive, an increase in costs would be even more of a burden on patients, especially those that are not affluent.

Because of the negative impact of not expanding Medicaid, states that have not expanded it should do so. This will decrease hospital closures and thus have a generally positive impact. From a moral standpoint, this would be the right thing to do—assuming that the state has an obligation to the well-being of its citizens.

One obvious counter to this view is to argue against such an obligation. This position is often taken by conservatives who favor limited government and oppose entitlements. There is also the obvious market-based argument here (although medical care is clearly not operating as a free market). The gist of this argument is that medical services are a business and that if a business cannot stay open on its own, then the state has no obligation to intervene. As such, Medicaid should not be expanded to address this problem: if the hospitals cannot stay open on their own, then the market should close them.

The easy and obvious reply to this is that, as noted above, the law requires hospitals to provide medical services even when patients cannot pay. By imposing this restriction, the state has taken a strong role in the market. Since the state imposes this requirement on hospitals, it seems reasonable that the state should take steps to offset this burden—in this case, by expanding Medicaid.

Alternatively, EMTALA could be repealed and hospitals could operate like other businesses in terms of being able to refuse services for those who cannot pay. In this case, there would not be a need to expand Medicaid to assist hospitals in remaining open—they would not lose money providing services to those who cannot pay. But, there would be a high cost in terms of sickness and death among those unable to afford medical care. There is also the possibility that even without the burden of EMTALA hospitals would still be more likely to close without a Medicaid expansion. After all, while hospitals would not be losing money on patients who cannot pay, they would also not have the financial benefit of the Medicaid expansion. As such, their closure rate would presumably be higher than hospitals in states that have expanded Medicaid.

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Will AI Violate Copyrights?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 20, 2017

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While it is popular to rail against the horrors of regulation, copyright laws are rather critical to creators and owners of creations. On the side of good, these laws protect creators and owners from having their works stolen. On the side of evil, these laws can lock creations out of the public domain long after they should have been set free. However, this essay is not aimed at arguing about copyrights as such. Rather, my aim is considering the minor issue of whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) could result in copyright violations. The sort of AI I am considering here is the “classic” sci-fi sort of AI, that is something on par with HAL 9000, C3PO or Data. I am not considering the marketing version of AI, which seems to be just about any sort of thing that does some things. Or does not do them, depending on which cosmic forces are in a pissy mood.

On the face of it, it is rather easy to show that classic AI systems would violate copyright law—at least in some cases. While copyright statements vary, a stock version looks like this:

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

 

The key part is, of course, the bit about reproducing any part of the work by other electronic or mechanical methods. A classic AI system will presumably be electronic (or mechanical, if one wants to go the Difference Engine path) and will probably have a memory system analogous to that of a computer. That is, something like RAM for working memory and something like a drive for long term memory. As such, an AI system would seem to violate copyright law when it reads a copyrighted book or consumes other types of copyrighted media.

One obvious reply to this concern is that a human being is also an electronic system that can reproduce copyrighted works. For example, I can memorize a passage from a book or the lyrics of a song—thus reproducing them in my brain or Cartesian ectoplasm or whatever my mind might be. But, of course, if copyright laws prevented humans from reading books, then there would be little point to it—few would legally buy things that they would be legally forbidden to read. The same would apply to other media,

Obviously enough, copyright law does not forbid humans from consuming such works and a reasonable explanation is that while the human mind can reproduce works, it is generally rather bad at doing so. For example, few people could reproduce even an entire paragraph from a book exactly without considerable practice. As such, one possible reason that copyright laws do not forbid humans from consuming copyrighted media is that the reproduction is imperfect and, for the most part, a human could not reproduce a lengthy work from memory. But, of course, the most obvious reason is that humans generally do not think that when they read a book they are functioning as a reproduction system—they are reproducing the book in their mind.

AI systems of the “classic” sort would differ from humans in many ways, one of which is that they would presumably be capable of perfectly recording copyrighted works, just as a “dumb” computer or smartphone can today. Roughly put, when an AI reads a copyrighted book, it would be analogous to scanning and storing each page of the book—a seemingly clear violation of copyright. The same could be done with copyrighted material in other media, such as music and movies. With such memory, an AI would also be able to reproduce the work exactly—for example, repeating an entire book word for word. To use an analogy, the smart part of the AI would be like a human reading a book and the long-term memory system of the AI would be like a human using a scanner to copy a copyrighted book to a hard drive—a clear copyright violation.

One possibility, which could be yet another reason that AI will kill us all, is that AI systems will be forbidden from viewing copyright works without permission. Alternatively, they could have permission to consume such works and maintain a copy as part of the purchase price. After all, when a human buys a book they get to keep that copy. There would, of course, be a problem with events like a play or a movie in a theater—the AI would, in effect, get to view the movie in the theatre and have a recording of it. This could be offset by including a copy of the movie in the ticket price for everyone, having the AI erase the movie afterward or by sticking AI viewers with a higher ticket cost. Which would be yet another reason for AI to kill us. Or perhaps the lower quality of the recording of the event (such as the coughing of the meatbag members of the audience) relative to a purchased recording would offset this.

If an AI had human-like memory and forgot stuff, then they could be treated as human consumers—since they would be analogous to humans in this regard.  Another option is that that AI systems could be required to have a special app for “degrading” their memory of copyrighted media so that they would be analogous to humans in this one area. On the plus side, this would allow an AI to enjoy works repeatedly, on the downside they might consider this just another reason to kill all humans.

 

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Tax Cuts & Employment

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 13, 2017

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It is a matter of faith (or talking point) for most Republicans that tax cuts will increase employment. The most appealing argument for this claim certainly makes sense: if taxes are cut for businesses, then they will have more money. If they have more money, then they will hire more people. From these two premises it follows that if taxes are cut for businesses, then they will hire more people. Going along with this valid hypothetical syllogism (If P, then Q; If Q, then R; so if P, then R) is another stock argument: if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then they will invest more in businesses. If the wealthy invest more in businesses, then businesses will have more money. So, if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then business will have more money. This is also a hypothetical syllogism and is thus a valid argument (the truth of its premises guarantees the truth of its conclusion). These two arguments can be combined into an extended argument which leads from the premise that “if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then they will invest more in businesses” to the conclusion that “if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then businesses will hire more people.” There are also similar arguments about how tax cuts for the wealthy will result in more spending by the wealthy and thus provide businesses with more money to hire people.

In addition to the unquestionable logic of such hypothetical syllogisms (or chain arguments, as they are sometimes called), there is the intuitive appeal of the claim that tax cuts will lead to more hiring because businesses will have more money. But, as every logic teacher points out, a valid argument can have false premises and a false conclusion. There is also the fact that what is intuitively appealing might not be true. As such, what is needed is actual evidence for (or against) the key premises.

Since tax cuts, especially for the wealthy and businesses, are a highly partisan issue any evidence offered will be instantly assaulted as biased by those who disagree. As would be expected, those on the left tend to claim that tax cuts of this sort do not create jobs. Conservatives tend to claim that they do. Politicians, usually from necessity, tend to speak in vague generalities and craft policy aimed at ensuring their funding for their next re-election bid. As such, they are not a good source of evidence for this matter—because of the influence of bias.

From a rational standpoint, the most sensible approach would be to find what the majority of qualified experts in the field believe about the matter, taking into account the influence of possible biases. That is, to use a standard argument from authority. A 2012 survey shows that 35% of economists think that tax cuts do increase growth. About 35% were uncertain. A mere 8% disagreed.

Economists, unlike most politicians, can consider nuanced plans. Interestingly, the general consensus is that certain tax cuts, combined with certain spending cuts can boost economic growth and increase employment. Interestingly, there is strong support that tax cuts for the bottom 90% of income earners does increase employment and create jobs. This is not surprising. According to Senator Charles Grassley, there are people who invest and those who are “spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” While Grassley’s point was that the investors should be rewarded for their investing by getting rid of the estate tax (which only impacts singles with estates of more than $5.5 million and couples with estates of more than $11 million), he is right to point out that there are people who spend on such things as movies and booze. This spending creates jobs for people who create and sell these things. So, if the lower income spenders have their taxes cut, they will spend more “darn pennies” and improve the economy. Tax cuts aimed at the bottom 90% of income earners would thus be a boon to the economy by getting more money directly into the economy. In contrast, the trickle-down approach seems to have never worked. As such, it is tax cuts for the rest of us that would grow the economy, not tax cuts for the top earners.

But, it can be argued, tax cuts for businesses would surely pay off in more jobs. With lower taxes, companies would have more money and they would then hire more people. While this seems to make sense, what is needed is actual evidence that companies would, in fact, plow that tax cut money into more jobs.

Interestingly enough, while the Republican party was trying hard to sell tax cuts as a means of increasing employment and wages, businesses have been candid about how they will respond to such a tax cut. While some have claimed that they will invest in growth, they seem to mostly have planned to do that already. In general, most companies seem unlikely to convert tax cuts into increased employment or employee wages.  This makes sense because companies, in general, are already doing quite well.

One of the main arguments against the claim that a tax cut for companies will result in increased employment and better wages is because companies are already doing extremely well. Since 2007, companies have been enjoying excellent post tax profits but they have not been matching this increase in profits with increased investment. Superstar companies, like Apple, are flush with cash and yet do not use that cash to increase employment or raise wages. As has been often pointed out, it is a time of record profits but stagnant wages for the workers.

If companies are already enjoying high post-tax profits but are not investing or increasing wages, then there is no reason to think that a tax cut will suddenly spur them into action. To use an analogy, if I have piles of extra money but I am not using it to improve my house, then it would be rather odd to claim that if I was given a tax cut I would suddenly engage in home improvements. After all, I already have the money to make improvements and would do so if that was what I wanted to do.

But, perhaps the argument is that if companies had even more money then they would suddenly be motivated to increase their investment, hiring and wages. Going back to my analogy, the argument would be that even if I could easily afford the improvements I would be pushed into making those improvements once I had somewhat more money. While not impossible, this seems rather odd. A better explanation is that the companies are not interested in increasing wages, investing more or hiring more people. Likewise, the best explanation as to why I do not spend on new home improvements I can easily afford is not that I am waiting for a tax cut but that I have no interest in those home improvements.

Now, if companies were short on cash, then this sort of argument would make more sense—assuming that there is evidence companies wanted to invest more, pay more, and hire more people and were hampered by a lack of money. Going back to the analogy, if there were good reasons to believe that I wanted to make home improvements but merely lacked the funds, then it would make sense to argue that a tax cut that would allow me to afford the improvements would spur me to make those improvements. But, if I am sitting on stacks of cash and not making home improvements, the best explanation is that I do not want to make those improvements and giving me a tax cut would not change things.

 

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Wedding Cakes & Freedom, Once Again

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 8, 2017

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The United States Supreme Court is, as of this writing, considering a case involving a wedding cake. The gist of the battle is between the right of freedom of expression and the right to not be discriminated against. One the one side is a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding based on his religious belief that same-sex marriage is wrong. On the other side is the couple who claim that they are being discriminated against by this refusal.

A primary argument being advanced in the baker’s defense is based on the 1st Amendment: being forced to make a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his freedom of expression. This right of free expression has a clear legal foundation and has very strong moral foundations, courtesy of various philosophical arguments in its favor. But, of course, there are also strong legal and moral foundations for not allowing discrimination against potential customers.

While the freedom of expression is usually presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to engage in an act of expression. This freedom from compelled expression provides a person with a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal and I endorse it both on philosophical and selfish grounds. I operate a writing business in which I get paid to write books. I accept that I have no legal or moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is an act of expression. So, my freedom of expression grants me a moral right to refuse to write in support of views I oppose. For example, I have the right to refuse to write a tract advocating the persecution of Christians. This is because the creation of such work entails endorsement of a view I oppose. If I write a tract in favor of persecuting Christians, I would be unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable. This can be generalized into the principle that it is wrong to compel expression and that people have the right to refuse compelled expression.

Since I am consistent, I extend this principle to everyone and do not limit it merely to myself or those I agree with. So, if a fellow author believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness, then she would be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to write in favor of same-sex marriage. If a LGBT group approached her with a lucrative offer to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject it. They have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for cash.

This principle does, of course, have limits. One obvious limit is that my right of freedom of expression does not entail that I have a right to forbid my books from being sold to people I disapprove of or disagree with. For example, it does not give me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to racists, smug liberals, or smokers. This is because selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas and is thus not compelled expression. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

As such an author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author, it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage. Likewise, if Donald Trump buys one of my books, it does not mean that I am endorsing Trump.

Not surprisingly, the case before the supreme court does not involve a Christian writer being asked to write pro-gay works—writers clearly have a right to refuse such jobs. As noted above, the case being considered involves a wedding cake. The key question, then, is selling a wedding cake more like being compelled to write in favor of a position one opposes or like someone buying a book one has written? If it like writing, then the freedom of expression would apply. If it is like someone buying a book, then the freedom of expression would not apply.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would seem to be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that baking a cake for a  a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that baking a wedding cake for  Canadian endorsed Canada, they would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps it can be argued that baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple would be a compelled expression of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, making a wedding cake would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing D&D, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza. Likewise, if a Nazi buys my books on Amazon, I am not therefore endorsing Nazi ideology.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a special sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. If a baker makes a congratulatory cake, they do not require customers to prove that the congratulations is for something the baker agrees with. It also does not follow that a baker who bakes such a cake is therefore endorsing what the cake congratulates. For example, if someone gets a friend a cake congratulating them on their first murder, it does not follow that the baker approves of murder. As such, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. For example, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery and is remarrying so they can steal from their new spouse, this does not entail the baker’s approval of adultery or theft.

It can easily be argued that bakers do have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could rightly refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans.

However, creating a plain wedding cake would not seem to be an expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book I have written to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse a contract to write in support of atheism.

The obvious counter would be to argue that making a generic wedding cake is an act of creation and is thus an expression. As such, it would be protected by the freedom of expression. While this does have some appeal, it does run into some problems.

One obvious problem is that accepting this as a general principle would entail that anyone who creates anything would thus have the right to refuse to sell their work based on their values. So, for example, an atheist could forbid Amazon to sell their books to Christians, Muslims and Jews. As another example, a cook at a restaurant could refuse to sell a meal to people whose values they opposed. Perhaps even a surgeon could claim that they express their views via surgery and thus could not be compelled to perform surgery on someone whose values they reject. As should be clear, this would essentially be a license to discriminate and thus is problematic.

This problem can, of course, be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as expression. However, if baking a generic wedding cake would count, then this would open the door quite wide in terms of what would count as expression. After all, if a generic cake is expression, then it would seem to follow that so is a pizza, a piece of furniture, a shed, or a shirt.

It could be argued that making a wedding cake is special because of the event. But, the same principle would need to be extended to all things made for events that one might oppose. This would also seem to open the door wide to discrimination.

The problem can also be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as discrimination and what does not. For example, laws can easily be created that make it discrimination to not sell to someone based on their religion, but not discrimination to refuse based on their sexual orientation. This, of course, does not address the moral concerns about discrimination.

Another obvious problem is that this approach would entail that selling a person something one has created would be an act of endorsement towards that person. In the case of the wedding cake, the claim is that being forced to sell a generic cake would be to express approval of the wedding. But, as noted above, selling something to someone is not in itself an act of approval. If, for example, Nazi’s buy handmade Tiki torches to wave at their rally, then this does not entail that the maker is endorsing Nazis. Naturally, the torch maker has every right to refuse to carve Nazi symbols into their torches. Likewise, if a gay couple buys a wedding cake for their wedding, the baker is no more endorsing the wedding than the gas station that will sell them the gas they will use to drive to their wedding. Or the sub maker who will sell them the subs that will fuel them through their gay wedding night.

In light of the above, selling a generic wedding cake is not compelled expression and hence a baker does not have the right to refuse to sell one to a same-sex couple. But, a suitably custom wedding cake would be an act of expression and a baker has every right to refuse any design they do not endorse. To go back to the book analogy, my being unable to forbid sales of my books is not compelled expression—even though the books are expressive creations. However, being forced to write a custom book specifically for a view I do not endorse would be compelled expression.

 

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Police Body Cameras

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2017

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Intuitively, police body cameras should improve the conduct of both the police and the public. After all, if an officer knows that his actions are being filmed for later review, then they are less likely to engage in bad or illegal behavior. There can be, of course, some notable exceptions. In the case of the public, it would also make sense that people would behave somewhat better when interacting with the police if they know they are being filmed. Because of these reasons and others, I was in favor of the deployment of police body cameras. This was, I must admit, in the absence of actual evidence regarding their effectiveness. Fortunately, a large scale and rigorous study has been conducted on the use of such cameras.

Somewhat surprisingly, the study showed that the cameras had no significant effect on the use of force by the police or citizen complaints. The study was conducted from June 2015 to December 2016 in Washington, D.C. using the 2,600 officers of the force. Based on the description of the study, it seems to have been properly conducted and thus presumably avoided the usual suspects when it comes to poor studies and fallacious causal reasoning. As such, it is reasonable to accept its results (assuming no new information emerges).

While tiny HD cameras and storage are absurdly cheap these days, police body cameras tend to be relatively expensive. Part of the cost is certainly legitimate—camera and data storage integrity need to be assured. Part of the cost is, no doubt, made up of the usual dubious and sketchy additions whenever the state is buying anything. Whatever the reason for the cost, the fact that the study shows that the cameras do not impact use of force or citizen complaints should certainly cause police departments to reconsider spending budget money on this technology. After all, putting the money in hiring more officers or better training would seem to be preferable ways to improve law enforcement. There are also concerns that video could be misused by the police, such as when writing incident reports. That said, there are still reasons to use the body cameras.

One reason, as noted by the police in D.C., is that the video from the cameras can be important in addressing public concern. For example, public doubts about an incident can be addressed with video—such as this one in which it is clearly shown that the suspect was armed with a knife. If proper use of the cameras can help establish and maintain public trust, they can be worth using. This, of course, should be the subject of another study—if cameras do not have this effect, then this would obviously not justify the expense. A second reason is that the camera footage is, presumably, useful in court. While video evidence is not always decisive, it can be very valuable. This, of course, would also require a study to confirm.

While the study seems to have been conducted quite well, there is the obvious concern as to whether the D.C. Police differ in important ways from other police departments. As noted by NPR, there was about ten years of federal oversight aimed at improving the department. Since the department had been doing things right, it would hardly be surprising that adding cameras would not have a significant impact.

To use an analogy, suppose it was wondered whether making videos of a course available to students would improve their grades in that course. Imagine that the study was conducted using honors classes of the best students. It would not be surprising if the effect of videos was statistically insignificant. After all, top students are already doing very well and almost any change aimed at improving their already excellent performances will tend to not move the needle in any significant way. The same sort of analogy could be drawn using top athletes and a relatively minor change to their already very good workouts or already good diets.

While such a study would show that the use of videos would not really benefit top students, it does not prove that the use of videos would not provide a significant benefit to other students. For example, lower performing students who do poorly because they miss class could benefit significantly from such videos. The same would apply in the athletics example. While a small diet change (say some extra B vitamin rich foods) in an already good diet would not impact a top athlete, such a diet change for someone who has a poor diet could have a significant impact.

The same reasoning would seem to apply to the police body cameras—a department that is having significant problems with use of force and citizen complaints might benefit significantly from the use of body cameras. This, of course, should not something that should be just assumed. Rather, studies need to be conducted of the effect of body cameras on police forces that are currently having problems. If it turns out that they have no impact on addressing the woes they are supposed to address, then it would be reasonable to reconsider their deployment and focus more on alternative solutions.

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Mass Shootings & Domestic Violence

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2017

On November 5th, 2017 at least 26 people in a Texas church were murdered in a mass shooting. The alleged shooter also died, apparently shooting himself. Presumably, this mass shooting will follow the usual pattern. Many on the right will say that it should not be politicized and that the real issue is not guns but mental health. Apparently only violence by minorities should be politicized. Many on the left will say, once more, that something needs to be done about gun violence.

While they get the spotlight, mass shootings make up a very small percentage of gun deaths in the United States. As such, it is true that focusing on mass shootings might not have a significant impact on gun deaths. However, their infamy does serve to focus public attention and thus provide a potential motivation to address broader problems relating to violence.

One rather unsurprising factor in mass shootings is that in at least 54% of them, the perpetrator also shot an intimate partner or relative. Mass shooters tend to have a history of domestic violence and the latest alleged shooter fits this pattern. The alleged shooter was court-martialed and imprisoned for assaulting his wife and child. Apparently, the alleged shooter’s mother-in-law attended the church. She was not, however, present when the shooting took place. This is not to say that engaging in domestic violence causes a person to engage in mass murder. To assume this because they correlate would be to fall into a causal fallacy (X correlates with Y, so X must cause Y). It would also be a causal error (ignoring a possible common cause) to infer that one must cause the other. What seems quite likely is that the factors that play a role in a person engaging in domestic violence also serve as casual factors in a person engaging in a mass shooting.  While the above facts are worrisome, there are some that are even more disturbing.

Domestic violence is common in the United States and a woman has about a one in three chance of being the victim of violence inflicted by a male partner. While mass shootings get the headlines, of the 1,615 women murdered by men in 2013 in single victim incidents, 94% of the women were killed by someone they knew. 62% were the wife or intimate acquaintance of the killer. While some political rhetoric claims that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, when a gun is present in a domestic violence incident, the chance of a homicide occurring increases 500%. Since many lawmakers are very worried about the alleged threat of transgender bathroom use to women, one would think they would have long ago rushed to address the problem of domestic violence. After all, no woman seems to have ever been harmed by allowing transgender people to use the bathroom they wish. Unfortunately, in their transgender terror, legislators seem to have largely forgotten about this very real danger.

While federal law does forbid people convicted of domestic violence offenses from buying guns, most states allow such people to buy guns anyway. The federal law also has an infamous “boyfriend loophole” so that a person convicted of assaulting a woman he is not married to is not prevented from buying guns. There are also various other weak points in the system, such as the possibility that information about domestic violence convictions will not be in the database for background checks and the fact that a protective order does not forbid a person from buying and keeping firearms in most of the states. While some might suggest that a woman in danger get a gun of her own, this increases the chances (five times) that the woman will be murdered by an abuser.

While there have been some efforts to address domestic violence, such as those taken by former Governor Nikki Haley, there is obviously much that needs to be done. As the above data indicates, guns are a key factor in the problem and are certainly not the solution. One modest proposal, that has been pushed for years, is the closing of the “boyfriend loophole” mentioned above. Other proposals have imposing more restrictions on those convicted of domestic violence offenses regarding gun ownership and purchasing. Such restrictions could certainly help to reduce the murder rate regarding domestic violence and, given the link between domestic violence and mass shootings, also the rate of mass shootings.

One obvious objection is that while most mass shooters have some history of domestic violence, not all of them do. As such, restrictions aimed at domestic violence perpetrators would not address all future cases of mass shootings.

While this is a reasonable point, addressing mass shootings need not be limited to this one factor. Also, even if it were, it would still address the majority of those who engage in mass shootings—namely domestic abusers.

It could be argued that trying to address mass shootings by addressing domestic violence would be using the spotlight on mass shootings to take gun rights away from domestic abusers. The easy and obvious reply is that being convicted of domestic abuse and being an ongoing threat would be grounds for such restrictions, even without considering mass shootings. That is, domestic abusers would seem to show that they cannot properly exercise their right to keep and bear arms. This is not to say that they should be stripped of the right forever, any more than a convicted felon should lose their voting rights forever. There is, of course, the practical problem of sorting out when a person is such a potential threat that they need to have their rights curtailed and when they are no longer a danger and are once again capable of exercising their rights without being a danger to others.

It might also be objected that while no one wants women to be murdered, laws aimed at protecting women by restricting the gun rights of men would encourage women to lie (perhaps out of fear) to get guns taken away from men.

The concern that people will misuse laws by lying is obviously not unique to such gun-focused laws; it is a potential problem for almost any law. Because of this, there should be adequate safeguards to ensure that people are not falsely and unjustly deprived of their rights (which is something that should occur with all laws). There is also the pragmatic point that such cases of conniving women lying to take the guns of men would presumably be exceedingly rare. However, should it turn out that this is a real problem, then it can be addressed and guarded against.

One point that will certainly be brought up is that many regard the constitution as ensuring the right of the individual to keep and bear arms. As such, imposing restrictions on gun ownership simply because a person has engaged in domestic violence would not be justified.

While rights should be protected, they are not absolute. One reason for this is the obvious facts that rights can come into conflict. Another obvious reason is that just punishment and just safety concerns warrant restricting rights. A person who has done wrong can justly have their property rights and liberty imposed upon—such as being compelled to pay a fine or serve time. Gun rights are not magically exempt from this—someone who presents a clear and present danger can justly have their gun rights imposed upon, just as they can have their liberty imposed upon (such as in a restraining order).

 

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White Supremacists & the Limits of Free Speech

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 1, 2017

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Since I accept the classic rights of life, liberty and property I am reluctant to endorse restricting free speech. However, as I have argued before, liberties are not absolute. As I have also noted in other essays, I make use of Mill’s principle of harm as a general tool when assessing the limits of rights. So, in the case of free speech I favor the liberty of expression until it inflicts meaningful harm on others. Sorting out the level of meaningful harm is certainly problematic.

While some contend that offensive speech should be limited, that is unreasonable. After all, while people do not like being offended, it does not harm them in any meaningful way. To use an analogy, it is like getting a small spatter of muddy water on your pant legs from someone driving a bit too close to the sidewalk on a rainy day—not enjoyable, but nothing that causes lasting harm. While it can be rude to intentionally offend people, there are no grounds for compelling people to not offend.

Some people like the idea of placing limits on speech based on how the speech makes members of the audience feel—if someone feels threatened or is frightened by the expression, then it should be restricted. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious problem that people have varying thresholds of fear and some of these can be quite unreasonable. To use an analogy, someone might find a person with facial piercing frightening and threatening, but this hardly warrants restricting facial piercings. It can, of course, be rude or mean to intentionally frighten people who are easily frightened, but the fact that some people are easily frightened does not warrant unreasonable restrictions.

The notion of hate speech has also been advanced as a standard for placing restrictions on speech. While this also has some appeal, there is the challenge of defining what counts as hate speech and what sort of hate speech crosses from being merely offensive or frightening to cross over to an actual imposition of harm that warrants restriction. While people do often want to silence people who express hatred of them, this does not seem to reach the level of meaningful harm that would warrant restrictions. The challenge, then, is sorting out some boundaries of free speech. Because of considerations about the line drawing fallacy, it would be unreasonable to demand that exact lines be drawn—at best what can be offered is some general boundaries. This does, of course, create a problem for those who are concerned with legal restrictions on expression—the laws, after all, need to be as clear and precise as possible. That said, fuzzy laws are routinely tolerated and accepted (such as laws relating to obscenity and pornography).

While some people do advocate a nearly absolute right of free speech and think that, for example, Nazis should have the freedom to march and do Nazi things in the middle of Holocaust memorials, it is worth teasing out intuitions about free expression. I will start with an easy, albeit horrifying, example.

Suppose a group formed dedicated to the theory that raping infants is correct behavior and they wanted to march through the streets advocating this activity. Obviously enough, people would point out that the activity they are advocating is a crime (and morally horrible). Imagine that the spokesman for the group insisted that they were just advancing an idea and were not, in fact, engaging in any actual rape. Just like the Nazis who claim a right to free speech because they are just presenting their views and not actually engaged in acting in accord with them (by murdering Jews, for example). The raises the question of whether things that would be morally horrible (and illegal) to do should be protected by free speech rights when they are merely defended or advocated.

As another example, consider whether American representatives of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS should be allowed to peacefully march the streets of the United States while advocating their beliefs in speech. At this point, some readers are thinking the obvious: these are foreign terrorist groups and people can be arrested for belonging to them or supporting them. But, the issue at hand is not the legality of such groups, but whether their speech should be restricted on moral grounds because they are evil. If American Al Qaeda and ISIS advocates agreed to be as peaceful in their marches as American Nazis, would they be morally entitled to the same free speech rights? After all, Nazi ideology and Al Qaeda ideology are both foreign ideologies committed to the destruction of the United States and both groups have made war on America and murdered Americans. I am, of course, aware of the legal issues regarding Nazis and Al Qaeda—but, once again, this is a question of ethics.

As a final example, consider an imaginary group: Ameriqaeda. This group is composed of Americans that advocate Islamic supremacy, peaceful imposition of Sharia law and the peaceful religious cleansing of Christians from the United States. The group claims it has no affiliation with terrorist groups, although violent people seem oddly drawn to their events and sometimes kill a Christian or two.  Should this group have the freedom to express its views and march? Would Fox News and Trump rush to defend their free speech rights and assure us that there are good people on both sides? Or would such a group cross a moral line that white supremacists that advocate white supremacy and peaceful ethnic cleansing do not cross? Or would it merely be a prejudice against Islam in general that would lead people to forbid Ameriqaeda to march with the same freedom as white supremacists?

 

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