A Philosopher's Blog

Professor Gun Bans

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 1, 2016

While all states allow for concealed carry, schools have generally been areas of exemption. As this is being written, my adopted state of Florida is considering a bill that would make concealed carry legal on the campuses of the state’s public universities. Some other states have already passed such laws. While I have written about concealed campus carry before, my focus here is on professors who refuse to allow guns in their classrooms and offices.

While I am not a lawyer, I am inclined to believe that professors lack the legal authority to impose such bans. This is, presumably, something the courts will be hashing out in upcoming lawsuits—perhaps including suits alleging a violation of a constitutionally protected right. Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal matters to the experts. Instead, I will focus on the moral aspects of the subject.

One moral argument that could be made in favor of the professors is that they have the right to ban things they regard as morally offensive from their classrooms and offices. So, a professor who is morally opposed to guns could refuse to allow them. This is analogous in some ways to religious freedom arguments used to justify a business not providing coverage of contraception or those deployed against allowing same sex-marriage. The idea in all these cases is that the moral interest of one person or group overrides that of another, thus justifying the freedom of one over another. In the case of guns, it is the right of the professor to teach and hold office hours in a gun-free environment that overrides the right of others to carry guns.

One reply to this argument, as is used in the religious freedom cases, is that the right of the professor to restrict the right of the students is not justified. That is, their right to carry a weapon trumps her right to be in a weapon free zone. This would be somewhat similar to how the right of a same-sex couple to marry trumps the right of religious people to live in a same-sex marriage free country.

Another reply to this argument is to draw an analogy that is aimed at showing the absurdity of such a professorial ban. Imagine a professor who has a deep and abiding moral opposition to birth control and wants to ban them from her classroom and office. This includes birth control that is being “concealed” in the body (for example, a woman on the pill)—while the professor cannot see it, the mere presence is morally intolerable to her. While the professor has the right to keep students from fornicating in class, she would not seem to have the right to ban the presence of birth control. A similar argument could be made with smart phones: a professor can forbid their use in class because they can be disruptive and be used to cheat, but he cannot refuse to allow students to have them in their backpacks or pockets. As such, professors do not seem to have the right to ban guns simply because they are morally offended by them.

A better moral argument is based on the matter of safety: a professor could be concerned about people being shot (intentionally or accidentally). Colleagues of mine have also spoken about the chilling effect of allowing guns on campus: people, it is claimed, would be afraid to discuss contentious issues. It is also claimed that some professors would be inclined to grade easier to avoid getting shot.

There certainly are legitimate safety concerns about allowing guns on campus. However, there are two obvious points worth considering. The first is that guns are already allowed many places and people do not seem generally inclined to avoid contentious discussions or to not do their jobs properly because someone might shoot them with a (up to the murder attempt) legally carried gun.  As such, unless campuses are simply special places, this concern does not warrant a special ban on campus carry. Put another away, if guns are allowed almost everywhere else, then without a relevant difference argument, they should be allowed on campuses. The second, as I point out to my colleagues, people can very easily carry guns illegally on campus. If someone intends to kill a professor over a bad grade or a heated discussion (which has happened) they can do so. Campuses are generally quite open and I have never seen anyone checked for weapons at any university. A professor ban would certainly not provide a greater degree of safety—even if the professor was able to enforce such an almost certainly illegal ban.

Interesting, the state legislatures who pass concealed carry on campus laws generally forbid people to bring guns to the legislature. While this shows inconsistency, it does not show the law is wrong. It does, however, point towards a relevant difference argument—perhaps the campus is relevantly similar to the legislature.

My view is that there is not really a compelling reason to walk around campus with a gun and I am concerned about safety issues. However, I do not have the moral right to ban guns from my classroom or office. In fact, I would plan on carrying one myself.

 

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Denmark’s Refugee “Fee”

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2016

In January, 2016 Denmark passed a law that refugees who enter the state with assets greater than about US $1,450 will have their valuables taken in order to help pay for the cost of their being in the country. In response to international criticism, Denmark modified the law to allow refugees to keep items of sentimental value, such as wedding rings. This matter is certainly one of moral concern.

Critics have been quick to deploy a Nazi analogy, likening this policy to how the Nazis stole the valuables of those they sent to the concentration camps. While taking from refugees does seem morally problematic, the Nazi analogy does not really stick—there are too many relevant differences between the situations. Most importantly, the Danes would be caring for the refugees rather than murdering them. There is also the fact that the refugees are voluntarily going to Denmark rather than being rounded up, robbed, imprisoned and murdered. While the Danes have clearly not gone full Nazi, there are still grounds for moral criticism. However, I will endeavor to provide a short defense of the law—a rational consideration requires at least considering the pro side of the argument.

The main motivation of the law seems to be to deter refugees from coming to Denmark. This is a strategy of making their country less appealing than other countries in the hopes that refugees will go somewhere else and be someone else’s burden. Countries, like individuals, do seem to have the right to make themselves less appealing.  While this sort of approach is certainly not morally commendable, it does not seem to be morally wrong. After all, the Danes are not simply banning refugees but trying to provide a financial disincentive. Somewhat ironically, the law would not deter the poorest of refugees. It would only deter those who have enough property to make losing it a worthwhile deterrent.

The main moral argument in favor of the law is based on the principle that people should help pay for the cost of their upkeep to at least the degree they can afford to do so. To use an analogy, if people show up at my house and ask to live with me and eat my food, it would certainly be fair of me to expect them to at least chip in for the costs of the utilities and food. After all, I do not get my utilities and food for free. This argument does have considerable appeal, but can be countered.

One counter to the argument is based on the fact that the refugees are fleeing a disaster. Going back to the house analogy, if survivors of a disaster showed up at my door asking for a place to stay until they could get back on their feet, taking their few remaining possessions to offset the cost of their food and shelter would seem to be cruel and heartless. They have lost so much already and to take what little that remains to them would add injury and insult to injury. To use another analogy, it would be like a rescue crew stripping people of their valuables to help pay for the rescue. While rescues are expensive, such a practice certainly would seem awful.

One counter is that refugees who are well off should pay for what they receive. After all, if relatively well-off people showed up at my door asking for food and shelter, it would not seem wrong of me to expect that they contribute to the cost of things. After all, if they can afford it, then they have no grounds to claim a free ride off me. Likewise for well-off refugees. That said, the law does not actually address the point, unless having more than $1450 is well off.

Another point of consideration is that it is one thing to have people pay for lodging and food with money they have; quite another to take a person’s remaining worldly possessions. It seems like a form of robbery, using whatever threat drove the refugees from home as the weapon. The obvious reply is that the refugees would be choosing to go to Denmark; they could go to a more generous country. The problem is, however, that refugees might soon have little choice about where they go.

 

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Occupying & Protesting

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 8, 2016

Ammon Bundy and fellow “militia” members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a protest of federal land use policies. Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy—the rancher who was involved in another armed stand-off with the federal government. Cliven Bundy still owes the American taxpayers over $1 million for grazing his cattle on public land—the sort of sponging off the public that would normally enrage conservatives. While that itself is an interesting issue, my focus will be on discussing the ethics of protest through non-violent armed occupation.

Before getting to the main issue, I will anticipate some concerns about the discussion. First, I will not be addressing the merits of the Bundy protest. Bundy purports to be protesting against the tyranny of the federal government in regards to its land-use policies. Some critics have pointed out that Bundy has benefitted from the federal government, something that seems a bit reminiscent of the infamous cry of “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While the merit of a specific protest is certainly relevant to the moral status of the protest, my focus is on the general subject of occupation as a means of protest.

Second, I will not be addressing the criticism that if the federal land had been non-violently seized by Muslims protesting Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter activists protesting police treatment of blacks, then the response would have been very different. While the subject of race and protest is important, it is not my focus here. I now turn to the matter of protesting via non-violent armed occupation.

The use of illegal occupation is well established as a means of protest in the United States and was used during the civil rights movement. But, of course, an appeal to tradition is a fallacy—the mere fact that something is well-established does not entail that it is justified. As such, an argument is needed to morally justify occupation as a means of protest.

One argument for occupation as a means of protest is that protestors do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.

One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to occupy a public library and interfere with its operation. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest.

People also protest in areas that are not normally open to the public—or whose use by the public is restricted. This would include privately owned areas as well as public areas that have restrictions. In the case of the Bundy protest, public facilities are being occupied rather than private facilities. However, Bundy and his fellows are certainly using the area in a way that would normally not be allowed—people cannot, in the normal course of things, just take up residence in public buildings. This can also be regarded as a conflict of rights—the right of protest versus the right of private ownership or public use.

These replies can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the rights of others to use the area that is occupied.  After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to accept protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in such behavior would be acting wrongly and the protest would thus be morally wrong. After all, if rights are accepted to justify a right to protest, then this would provide a clear foundation for accepting the rights of those who would be imposed upon by the protest. If the protestor who is protesting tyranny becomes a tyrant to others, then the protest certainly loses its moral foundation.

This provides the theoretical framework for assessing whether the Bundy protest is morally acceptable or not: it is a matter of weighing the merit of the protest against the harm done to the rights of other citizens (especially those in the surrounding community).

The above assumes a non-violent occupation of the sort that can be classified as classic civil disobedience of the sort discussed by Thoreau. That is, non-violently breaking the rules (or law) in an act of disobedience intended to bring about change. This approach was also adopted by Gandhi and Dr. King. Bundy has added a new factor—while the occupation has (as of this writing) been peaceful, the “militia” on the site is well armed. It has been claimed that the weapons are for self-defense, which indicates that the “militia” is willing to escalate from non-violent (albeit armed) to violent occupation in response to the alleged tyranny of the federal government. This leads to the matter of the ethics of armed resistance as a means of protest.

Modern political philosophy does provide a justification of such resistance. John Locke, for example, emphasized the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so. He provides the following definition of “tyranny”: “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” When the state is acting in a tyrannical manner, it can be justly resisted—at least on Locke’s view. As such, Bundy does have a clear theoretical justification for armed resistance. However, for this justification to be actual, it would need to be shown that federal land use policies are tyrannical to a degree that warrants the use of violence as a means of resistance.

Consistency does, of course, require that the framework be applied to all relevantly similar cases of protests—be they non-violent occupations or armed resistance.

 

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Owning Asteroids

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Science by Michael LaBossiere on December 25, 2015

While asteroid mining is still just science fiction, companies such as Planetary Resources are already preparing to mine the sky. While space mining sounds awesome, lawyers are already hard at work murdering the awesomeness with legalize. President Obama recently signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which seems to make asteroid mining legal. The key part of the law is that “Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law and existing international obligations.” More concisely, the law makes it so that asteroid mining by U.S. citizens would not violate U.S. law.

While this would seem to open up the legal doors to asteroid mining, there are still legal barriers. The various space treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, do not give states sovereign rights in space. As such, there is no legal foundation for a state conferring space property rights to its citizens on the basis of its sovereignty. However, the treaties do not forbid private ownership in space—as such, any other nation could pass a similar law that allows its citizens to own property in space without violating the laws of that nation.

One obvious concern is that if multiple nations pass such laws and citizens from these nations start mining asteroids, then there will be the very real possibility of conflict over valuable resources. In some ways this will be a repeat of the past: the more technological advanced nations engaged in a struggle to acquire resources in an area where they lack sovereignty. These past conflicts tended to escalate into actual wars, which is something that must be considered in the final frontier.

One way to try to avoid war over asteroid resources is to work out new treaties governing the use of space resources. This is, obviously enough, a matter that will be handled by space lawyers, governments, and corporations. Unless, of course, the automated killing machines resolve it first.

While the legal aspects of space ownership are interesting, the moral aspects of ownership in space are also of considerable concern. While it might be believed that property rights in space is something entirely new, this is clearly not the case. While the location is clearly different than in the original, the matter of space property matches the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. To be specific, there is an abundance of resources and an absence of authority. As it now stands, while no one can hear you scream in space, there is also no one who can arrest you for space thievery.

Using the state of nature model, it can be claimed that there are currently no rightful owners of the asteroids or it could be claimed that we are all the rightful owners (the asteroids are the common property of all of humanity).

If there are currently no rightful owners, then it would seem that the asteroids are there for the taking: an asteroid belongs to whoever can take and hold it. This is on par with Hobbes’ state of nature—practical ownership is a matter of possession. As Hobbes saw it, everyone has the right to all things, but this is effectively a right to nothing—other than what a person can defend from others. As Hobbes noted, in such a scenario profit is the measure of right and who is right is to be settled by the sword.

While this is practical, brutal and realistic, it does seem a bit morally problematic in that it would, as Hobbes also noted, lead to war. His solution, which would presumably work as well in space as on earth, would be to have sovereignty in space. This would shift the war of all against all in space (of the sort that is common in science fiction about asteroid mining) to a war of nations in space (which is also common in science fiction). The war could, of course, be a cold one fought economically and technologically rather than a hot one fought with mass drivers and lasers.

If the asteroids are regarded as the common property of humanity, then Locke’s approach could be taken. As Locke saw it, God gave everything to humans in common, but people have to acquire things from the common property to make use of it. Locke gives the terrestrial example of how a person needs to make an apple her own before she can benefit from it. In the case of space, a person would need to make an asteroid her own in order to benefit from the materials it contains.

Locke sketched out a basic labor theory of ownership—whatever a person mixes her labor with becomes her property. As such, if asteroid miners located an asteroid and started mining it, then the asteroid would belong to them.  This does have some appeal: before the miners start extracting the minerals from the asteroid, it is just a rock drifting in space. Now it is a productive mine, improved from is natural state by the labor of the miners. If mining is profitable, then the miners would have a clear incentive to grab as many asteroids as they can, which leads to a rather important moral problem—the limits of ownership.

Locke does set limits on what people can take in his proviso.: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. When describing this to my students, I always use the analogy to food at a party: since the food is for everyone, everyone has a right to the food. However, taking it all or taking the very best would be wrong (and rude). While this proviso is ignored on earth, the asteroids provide us with a fresh start in regards to dividing up the common property of humanity. After all, no one has any special right to claim the asteroids—so we all have equal good claims to the resources they contain.

As with earth resources, some will probably contend that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space. Instead, those who get there first will contend that ownership should be on the principle of whoever grabs it first and can keep it is the “rightful” owner.

Those who take this view would probably argue that those who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will remain poor—their poverty will, in fact, disqualify them from owning any of the space resources much in the way poverty disqualifies people on earth from owning earth resources.

While the selfish approach is certainly appealing, arguments can be made for sharing asteroid resources. One reason is that those who will mine the asteroids did not create the means to do so from nothing on their own. Reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to human civilization and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Another way to argue for sharing the resources is to use an analogy to a buffet line. Suppose I am first in line at a buffet. This does not give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself in order to sell it to those who had the misfortune to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Naturally, these arguments for sharing can be countered by the usual arguments in favor of selfishness. While it is tempting to think that the vastness of space will overcome selfishness (that is, there will be so much that people will realize that not sharing would be absurd and petty), this seems unlikely—the more there is, the greater the disparity between those who have and those who have not. On this pessimistic view we already have all the moral and legal tools we need for space—it is just a matter of changing the wording a bit to include “space.”

 

 

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Trump & The Muslim Ban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Fox, Planned Parenthood & Guns

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 2, 2015

Robert Dear is alleged to have murdered three people and wounded nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic on November 29, 2015. This incident is, unfortunately, part of two recurring themes. One is that of mass shootings in the United States. The other is domestic terrorism on the part of right-wing individuals and groups including self-proclaimed Christian anti-abortionists. While a discussion of these matters could take place in many contexts, I will use a framework provided by Fox News host Andrea Tantaros.

Tantaros began her discussion of the matter by criticizing the left for “indicting an entire religion” of “Christian white Republicans” and then noted that “the same people who hesitate using the phrase Islamic terrorism were very quick to use the term ‘Christian’.”

Tantaros is correct to criticize those who indict an entire religion on the basis of the actions of the worst elements of that faith. While the alleged shooter Robert Dear has identified himself as a Christian and seems to have been motivated by his religious beliefs, it would be an error to infer that what is true of Dear is true of all Christians. Such a leap would be a classic hasty generalization—a fallacy in which an inference is made about a group on the basis of a sample that is too small to justify the inference. This inference would also be an error because it is well known that the vast majority of Christians, like the vast majority of people of other faiths, are not inclined to murder. As such, the claim that Dear represents all Christians contradicts the known facts and his alleged acts of violence should not be labeled as “Christian terrorism”, despite the fact that there have been more acts of domestic terrorism committed against abortion clinics by self-proclaimed Christians than there have been acts of domestic terrorism inflicted by self-proclaimed Muslims since September 11, 2001.

While there are some arguments in favor of labeling terrorism by the religions claimed by the terrorists, there are excellent reasons to avoid such labeling. One is that it unfairly connects all the members of a faith to the terrorists. Another is that it unfairly implies that such acts of terror are endorsed or encouraged by the faith. To label Dear as a “Christian terrorist” is to connect him to the millions of Christians who would not slaughter other people and to imply that the acts of terror are in accord with the values of Christianity.

It could, of course, be objected that such terrorists are connected to other members of the faith, despite the differences and that such terrorists are acting in accord with the values of the faith as they see it. It could even be objected, as people often do in the case of both Islam and Christianity, that all members of the faith are potential terrorists and that acts of terror are perfectly in accord with the faith. Naturally, some people of one faith insist that it is not true of them, even when they are insisting that it is true of the other faith.

The discussion on Fox then turned to claims that Republican politicians had incited the violence with their rhetoric about “selling baby parts” on the grounds that Dear is alleged to have said “no more baby parts.” Fox’s Charles Payne made the point that Republicans should not be blamed because they were asserting that public funds should not pay for abortions. Perhaps without realizing what he was doing, he immediately said “particularly when they’re talking about selling baby parts”, thus bringing up the sort of rhetoric that has been condemned as inflammatory.

Continuing the thread, Tantaros blamed the left for exploiting the shooting for political purposes, including trying to “muzzle” Republicans for talking about “the illegal harvesting of baby parts on the off chance that some lunatic out there might hear that rhetoric and decide to go shoot up a clinic.”

Before moving to the main issues, it is important to note that there is no evidence, despite numerous investigations, that Planned Parenthood has ever been involved in “the illegal harvesting of baby parts.” It is certainly ironic that as part of their denial of the influence of such rhetoric, the folks at Fox would bring up exactly that rhetoric. But, now to the issues.

One issue that is a matter of psychology and causation is whether or not such rhetoric was a causal factor in the actions of the alleged shooter. As others have argued, given that there has only been one such attack since the rhetoric heated up, its causal influence must be incredibly small. There is also the very reasonable point that even if the alleged shooter were motived by the rhetoric, this would be but one factor among many others. As such, to place moral blame for the shootings upon the Republican rhetoric would be an error.

The second issue is one of free speech. Legally, the Republican rhetoric is protected by the 1st Amendment and rightfully so. As long as they do not cross the line and start telling people to commit crimes, they have every legal right to engage in such heated rhetoric. Lying of the sort that is used in rhetoric is also not against the law. However, there is also the moral issue: should the Republicans use such rhetoric?

One answer is linked to the psychological issue—as long as the Republicans are not knowingly causing people to engage in acts of violence, the moral right to free speech would entail that their actions are morally tolerable. The mere fact that the rhetoric is extreme and offensive to some is not grounds for regarding it as morally wrong. However, being merely morally tolerable is not a very exalted status. I have a preference for civil discourse that avoids needlessly heated rhetoric, but perhaps this is but a personal preference.

Another answer is linked to the untruths that have been used in the rhetoric. While truth seems to matter little in politics, it still matters in ethics. As such, intentionally making untrue claims about Planned Parenthood would seem to be wrong, at least on the assumption that lying is wrong. It could, of course, be argued that such untruths can be justified on utilitarian grounds—which is a standard way to justify lying.

Since the killings at the clinic constituted a mass shooting, the conversation would not be complete without the raising of a stock talking point about good guys with guns. The honor fell to Payne to say “And also, what if more people had guns there, guys?”

The issue of whether or not the presence of armed civilians would prevent or mitigate a mass shooting is certainly one of considerable controversy. But it is essentially an empirical matter that can, in theory,  be settled by examining the data. Those who support the claim that a solution to gun violence is being armed point to cases in which armed civilians use their guns to prevent or at least mitigate crimes. Those who disagree with this claim point to cases in which things did not work out so well and present arguments against the deterrence value and effectiveness of armed civilians.

One problem with reaching a rational conclusion about the effectiveness of armed civilians in preventing or mitigating crime is that there is a lack of good data on gun violence. Pointing to some examples in which the good guy with a gun saved the day is relevant, but is still essentially anecdotal evidence. Likewise, pointing to examples in which it did not work out is also relevant, yet still anecdotal. As such, my view is that claims about the value of guns in this regard are largely unsupported—as are claims about their lack of value. However, it is certainly possible to speculate based on the available information and that seems to indicate that the crime fighting value of armed civilians is a rather mixed bag.

 

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Taxing the 1% IV: Incentives

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2015

As noted in previous essays on this topic, the highest income folks in the United States now pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes.  The left has proposed increasing the tax rate to 40% or even 45% while the right has countered with proposals to either not raise taxes or cut them even more. This, the final essay in this series, considers the stock argument that a tax increase will be a destroyer of incentives.

The gist of the argument is that if the taxes for the top income brackets is increased to 40% or higher, the rich will become demotivated and this will have negative consequences. Since these negative consequences should be avoided, the conclusion is that taxes should not be increased—thus keeping the incentives in place.

In terms of assessing this argument, there are two major points of concern. One is whether or not a tax increase would destroy the incentives of the top economic class. The other deals with the negative consequences, their nature, their likelihood of occurring and the extent and scope of the harm. I will begin with the alleged consequences.

The alleged consequences are many and varied. One is based on the claim that the top economic class contains the innovators and if they are demotivated, then there will be less innovation. This could range from there being no new social media platforms to there being no new pharmaceuticals. While this is a point of concern, this assumes that innovation arrives primarily out of the top economic class—a matter that can tested empirically. While some top earners are innovators, much of the innovation seems to come from those in the lower economic classes—such as the folks in the labs doing the actual research and engineering. The idea that the rich are the innovators certainly matches the fiction of Ayn Rand, but seems to miss the way research and development actually occurs.

Another is based on the claim that the top class serve as the investors that provide the capital that enables the economy to function. Since the top class controls the capital, this is quite a reasonable concern. If Americans with the largest shares of the money decided to reduce or stop investing, then the economy would need to rely on foreign capital or what could be provided by the lower classes. Since the lower classes have far less money (by definition), they would not be able to provide the needed financial support. There are, of course, foreign investors who would happily take the place of the wealthy Americans, so the economy would probably still roll along. Especially since American investors might find the idea of losing out to foreign investors sufficient motivation to overcome the demotivation of a tax increase.

There is also the claim that the top income class contains the people who do the important things, like brain surgery and creating the new financial instruments that will take down the world economy next time around. While this does have some appeal, it seems that much of the important stuff is done by people who are not in the top classes. Again, the idea that the economic elite are doing the important stuff while the rest of the people are not (or are takers rather than makers) is yet another part of the fictional universe of Ayn Rand.

Fairness does, however, require that these matters be properly investigated. If it can be shown that the top class is as critical as its defenders claim, then my assertions can be refuted. Of course, it is well worth considering that much of the alleged importance of the top class arises from the fact that it has a disproportionate share of the wealth and that it would be far less important if the distribution were not so grotesquely imbalanced. As such, a tax increase might have the impact of decreasing the alleged importance of the top economic class. I will now turn to the matter of whether or not a tax increase would demotivate the top economic class.

One easy and obvious response to the claim that a relatively small tax increase would demotivate the top economic class is that the vast majority of the rest of us work jobs, innovate, invest and do important things for vastly less than those at the top. Even if the rich paid slightly more taxes, their incomes would still vastly exceed the rest of us. And if we can find the motivation to keep going despite the relative pittances we are paid, then the rich can also do so. When I worked a minimum wage job, I was motivated to go to work. When I was an adjunct making $16,000 a year, I was still motivated to go to work.

It could be replied that the lower classes are motivated because they need the income to survive. We need to work to buy food, medicine, shelter and so on. Those who are so well off that they do not need to work to survive, it could be claimed, also have the luxury of being demotivated by a slight decline in their income. Whereas someone who must earn her daily bread at a crushing minimum wage (or less) job has to get up and go to work, the top economic folks can allow themselves to be broken by the slight tax increase and decide to stop investing, stop innovating, and stop doing important stuff.

One reply is that it seems unlikely that the top folks are so weak as to be broken by a slight tax increase. Naturally, a crushing increase would be a different story—but there are no serious proposals to inflict crushing tax burdens on the rich. After all, crushing burdens are for the poor. Another reply is that if the current rich become demotivated, there are plenty of people who will be happy to take their place—even if it means paying slightly higher taxes on a vastly increased income. So, we would just get some new rich folks to replace the demotivated slackers—capitalism at its finest.

 

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Taxing the 1% III: The Avoidance Argument

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2015

As noted in previous essays on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. Some on the left have proposed increasing the tax rate to 40% or even 45%. For the most part, conservatives oppose these proposed tax increases. This essay will look at the avoidance argument against this increase.

The gist of this argument is that the tax increase is pointless because the rich will simply find ways to nullify the increase. They might use already established methods or develop new ones, but (the argument goes) they will manage to avoid paying the increase.

This argument does has a certain appeal—after all, there is little sense in engaging in actions that will have no effect. As such, it would seem reasonable to leave things as they are, since this change would do exactly that—only at the cost of enacting ineffective legislation.

Despite this appeal, there are two key factual issues that need to be addressed. The first is the issue of whether or not the rich would try to avoid the tax increase. Some of the wealthy have at least claimed to favor higher tax rates, so they might elect to accept the increase. However, most people (be they rich or not) generally prefer to not pay more taxes. There is also the fact that many of the rich already do all they can to minimize their tax burden. There is no reason to think that a tax increase would change this behavior. As such, it is reasonable to infer that most of the rich would try to minimize the impact of the tax increase.

The second factual issue is whether or not the rich would be able to nullify the tax increase. Or, if they cannot completely nullify it, the focus would be on determining the degree of nullification. One approach to this question is to consider that if the rich are concerned about the tax increase, then this indicates that it would affect them. After all, people generally do not worry about things they believe will not affect them.

A reasonable counter to this is that while the rich will be affected by the tax increase, their concern is not that they will be paying more taxes, but that avoiding the increase will cost them. For example, they might have to pay lawyers or accountants to enable them to neutralize the increase.  Or they might need to lobby or “donate” to politicians. Some even claim that the rich would be willing to expend considerable resources to mitigate the tax increase—if this expenditure would be lower than what paying the increase would cost them, then this approach could be rational. It could even be claimed that some might be willing to pay more to avoid the taxes than the taxes would cost them, perhaps as a matter of principle. While this sounds odd, it is not inconceivable.

Another approach is to consider how effectively the rich avoid existing taxes. Even if they are somewhat effective at doing so, the increase could still impact them and thus generate more tax revenue (which is the point of the tax increase). As such, an increase could be effective in regards to the stated goal of increasing revenue.

In addition to the factual issues, there is also the issue of whether or not the principle that underlies this argument is a good principle. The principle is that if people will be able to avoid a law (or policy), then the law should not be put in place.

As noted above, this principle does have a pragmatic appeal: it seems irrational to waste time and resources creating laws or policies that will simply be avoided. This sort of avoidance argument is also used against proposed bills aimed at gun control. Interestingly enough, many of those who use the avoidance argument in regards to gun control do not accept this same argument when it comes to attempts to limit abortion or to keep marijuana illegal. This is as should be expected: people tend to operate based on preferences rather than on consistent application of principles.

One possible response is that if a law is worth having, then steps should be taken to ensure that people cannot simply avoid it. If it was found that some people were able to get away with murder, then the morally right reaction would not be to simply give up on the law. The correct reaction would be to ensure that they could not get away with murder. Naturally, it can be argued that the tax increase would not be a law worth having—but that is a different argument distinct from the avoidance argument being addressed here.

A second possible response is to reject the consequentialist approach and take the approach that the fact that people will be able to avoid a law or policy is not as important as the issue of whether or not the law or policy is right. Some people take this approach to drug laws: they accept that the laws are ineffective, but contend that since drug use is immoral, it should remain illegal. As always, consistency is important in these matters: if the principle that moral concerns trump the pragmatic concerns is embraced, then that principle needs to be applied consistently in all relevantly similar cases. If the principle that the pragmatic should trump the moral is accepted, then that needs to be applied consistently to all relevantly similar cases. While the issue of whether such a tax increase is morally right or not is important, my concern here is with the avoidance argument. But, if the tax increase is not the right thing to do and the rich would just avoid it, then imposing it would be both wrong and a bad pragmatic choice.

 

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Taxing the 1% II: Coercion

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2015

As noted in my previous essay on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. There have been serious proposals on the left to increase this rate to 40% or even as high as 45%. Most conservatives are opposed to any increase to the taxes of the wealthy while many on the left favor such increases. As in the previous essay on this subject, I will focus on arguments against increasing the tax rate.

One way to argue against increasing taxes (or having any taxes at all) is to contend that to increase the taxes of the wealthy against their wishes would be an act of coercion. There are more hyperbolic ways to make this sort of argument, such as asserting that taxes are theft and robbery by the state. However, I will use the somewhat more neutral term of “coercion.” While “coercion” certainly has a negative connotation, the connotations of “theft” and “robbery” are rather more negative.

If coercion is morally wrong, then coercing the wealthy into paying more taxes would be wrong. As such, a key issue here is whether coercion is wrong or not. On the face of it, the morality of an act of coercion would seem to depend on a variety of factors, such as the goal of the coercion, the nature of the coercive act and the parties involved. A rather important factor is whether the coerced consented to the system of coercion. For example, it can be argued that criminals consented to the use of coercive force against them by being citizens of the state—they (in general) cannot claim they are being wronged when they are arrested and punished.

It could be claimed that by remaining citizens of the United States and participating in a democratic political system, the richest do give their consent to the decisions made by the legitimate authorities of the state. So, if Congress creates laws that change the tax rates, then the rich are obligated to go along. They might not like the specific decision that was made, but that is how a democratic system works. The state is to use its coercive power to ensure that the laws are followed—be they laws against murder, laws against infringing the patents of pharmaceutical companies or laws increasing the tax rate.

A reasonable response to this is that although the citizens of the state have agreed to be subject to the coercive power of the state, there are still moral limits on the power. Returning to the example of the police, there are moral limits on what sort of coercion they should use—even when the law and common practice might allow them to use such methods. Returning to the matter of laws, there are clearly unjust laws. As such, agreeing to be part of a coercive system does not entail that all the coercive actions of that system or its laws are morally acceptable. Given this, it could be claimed that the state coercing the rich into paying more taxes might be wrong.

It could be countered that if the taxes on the rich are increased, this would be after the state and the rich have engaged in negotiations regarding the taxes. The rich often have organizations, such as corporations, that enable them to present a unified front to the state. One might even say that these are unions of the wealthy. The rich also have lobbyists that can directly negotiate with the people in the government and, of course, the rich have the usual ability of any citizen to negotiate with the government.

If the rich fare poorly in their negotiations, perhaps because those making the decisions do not place enough value on what the rich have to offer in the negotiations, then the rich must accept this result. After all, that is how the free market of democratic politics works. To restrict the freedom of the state in its negotiations with rules and regulations regarding how much it can tax the rich would be an assault on freedom and a clear violation of the rights of the state. If the rich do not like the results, they should have brought more to the table or been better at negotiating. They can also find another country—and some do just that. Or create or take over their own state.

It could be objected that the negotiations between the state and the rich is unfair. While the rich can have considerable power, the state has far greater power. After all, the United States has trillions of dollars, police, and the military. This imbalance of power makes it impossible for the rich to fairly negotiate with the state—unless there are rules and regulations governing how the rich can be treated by the greater power of the state. There could be, for example, rules about how much the state should be able to tax the rich and these rules should be based on a rational analysis of the facts. This would allow a fair maximum tax to be set that would allow the rich to be treated justly.

The relation between a state intent on maximizing tax income and the rich can be seen as analogous to the relation between employees and businesses intent on maximizing profits. If it is acceptable for the wealthy to organize corporations to negotiate with the more powerful state, then it would also be acceptable for employees to organize unions to negotiate with the more powerful corporations. While the merits of individual corporations and unions can be debated endlessly, the basic principle of organizing to negotiate with others is essentially the same for both and if one is acceptable, so is the other.

Continuing the analogy, if it is accepted that the state’s freedom to impose taxes should be regulated, limited and restricted by law, then it would seem that imposing limits, regulations and restrictions on the economic freedom of employers in regards to how they treat employees. After all, employees are almost always in the weaker position and thus usually negotiate at a marked disadvantage. While workers, like the rich, could try to find another job, create their own business or go to another land, the options of most workers are rather limited.

To use a specific example, if it is morally right to set a rational limit to the maximum tax for the rich, it is also morally right to set a rational limit on the minimum wage that an employee can be paid. Naturally, there can be a wide range of complexities in regards to both the taxes and the wages, but the basic principle is the same in both cases: the more powerful should be limited in their economic impositions on the less powerful. There is also the shared principle of how much a person has a right to, be it the money she keeps or the money she is paid for her work.

Like any argument by analogy, the argument I have made can be challenged by showing the relevant similarities between the analogues are outweighed by the relevant dissimilarities. There are various ways this could be done.

One obvious difference is that when the state imposes taxes on the rich, the state is using political coercion. In the case of the employer imposing on the employee, the coercion is economic (although some employers do have the ability to get the state to use its coercive powers in their favor). It could be argued that this difference is strong enough to break the analogy and show that although the state should be limited in its imposition on the rich, employers should have considerable freedom to employ their economic coercion against employees. The challenge is showing how political coercion is morally different from economic coercion in a way that breaks the analogy.

Another obvious difference is that the state is imposing taxes on the rich while the employer is not taxing her employees. She is merely setting their wages, benefits, vacation time, work conditions and so on.  So, while the state can reduce the money of the rich by taxing them, it could be argued that this is relevantly different from an employer reducing the money of employees by paying low wages. As such, it could be argued that this difference is sufficient to break the analogy.

As a final point, it could be argued that the rich differ from employees in ways that break the analogy. For example, it could be argued that since the rich are of a better economic class than employees, they are entitled to better treatment, even if they happen to be unable to negotiate for that better treatment. The challenge is, of course, to show that the rich being rich entitles them to a better class of treatment.

 

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Fox & the War on Cops

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

After bringing the world live coverage of the War on Christmas from their own minds, the fine folks at Fox have added coverage of the War on Cops. The basic idea is that violence against cops has increased dramatically and that cops are being targeted. Blame is laid primarily on the Black Lives Matter movement and, this being Fox, President Obama.

Unlike the War on Christmas, Fox does have some real-world basis for the claims about violence against police officers. Police officers are, in fact, attacked and even killed in the line of duty. In some cases, officers are specifically targeted and murdered simply for being police. The harming of citizens, be they police or not, is clearly a matter of concern. The problem is that while police do face the threat of violence, Fox’s rhetoric and claims simply do not match reality. Unfortunately, Fox’s campaign has had an impact: there are polls that show a majority believe there is a war on police.

One challenge in sorting out this matter is the fact that “war” is not well-defined. If all it takes for there to be a war on a group is for there to be any violence against that group, then there is a war on cops. A problem with accepting this account of war would be that there would be a war against all or nearly all groups, thus making the notion all but useless.

Intuitively, if there is a war on a group, then what would be expected is high levels of violence against that group. If the war is something that started at a certain point, then there should be a clear and significant upswing in incidents in violence from that point. While working things out properly would require setting and arguing for clear standards (such as what counts as high levels of violence) the statistical data shows that violence against police has been steadily trending downward rather than upward.

Those claiming there is a war on cops tend to note that there was an increase in violence against police relative to 2013—but they seem to ignore the fact that 2013 is currently the lowest point of such violence and 2015 is, if the trend stays consistent, on track to be the second lowest year.  Ever. As such, the claim that violence against police has increased since 2013 is true, but this does not serve as evidence for a war on cops. To use an analogy, if a person was at his lowest adult weight in 2013 and his weight increased since then, this does not entail that he is obese or that he is trending towards obesity.

Given the fact that violence against police has been steadily trending downward and 2015 is on track to be the second lowest year, it seems evident that there is no war on cops—at least under any sensible and non-hyperbolic definition of “war.”

It could be countered that there is a special sort of war on cops, as evidenced by a few incidents involving intentional targeting of cops (as opposed to criminals engaging police trying to stop them). While such incidents are certainly of concern both to police and responsible citizens, they do not serve as adequate evidence for the claim that there is a war on cops. This is because a war is a matter of statistics, not terrifying individual incidents. To reject a claim supported by body of reasonable statistical evidence on the basis of a small number of examples that go against the claim is, in fact, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence. And, as noted above, the statistical evidence is that violence against police has been on a steady downward trend, with 2013 being the lowest level of violence against United States police in recorded history.

It could also be asserted that the war on cops is not a war of actual violence, but a war of unfair criticism: the cops are under attack by the liberal media and groups that are often critical of police actions, such as Black Lives Matter.

This is certainly a fair concern: pointing to dramatic incidents involving bad or brutal policing runs the risk of committing the fallacy of anecdotal evidence or the fallacy of misleading vividness (a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence). As with the war on police, the alleged war by the police must be subject to objective statistical analysis. That said, the sort of criticism of police misconduct and brutality that appears in the media does not seem to constitute a war—at least under a rational definition of “war.”

Since there is no war on cops, Fox and other folks should not be making this claim. One reason is that telling untruths is, at the very least, morally problematic—especially for people who claim to be journalists. Another, and more important reason, is that such a campaign can have serious negative consequences.

The first is that such a campaign can convince police that they are targets in a war. In addition to causing additional stress in what is already a stressful (and often thankless) job, the belief that they are in a war can impact how police officers perceive situations and how they react. If, for example, an officer believes that she is likely to be targeted for violence, she will operate on the defensive and consider fellow citizens as threats. This would, presumably, increase the chances that she will react with force during interactions with citizens.

A second consequence is that if citizens believe that there is a war on cops, they will be more likely to accept violence on the part of officers (who will be more likely to perceived as acting defensively) and more likely to regard those harmed by the police as deserving their fate. Citizens might be more inclined to support the continued militarization of police, which will lead to harms of its own. This view can also lead citizens to be unfairly critical of groups that are critical of brutal and poor policing, such as Black Lives Matter. People might also become more afraid of police because they think that they police are acting within a war and thus more likely to respond with force.

A third consequence is that if politicians accept there is a war on cops, they will support laws and policies that are based on a false premise. These are likely to have undesirable and unintended consequences.

While some might be tempted to say that Fox and others should be prevented from engaging in such campaigns that seem to be based on intentional deceptions aimed at ideological ends, I do not agree with this. Since I accept freedom of expression, I do accept that Fox and folks should have the freedom to engage in such activities—even when such expression is harmful.

My main justification for my view is based on concerns about the consequences. If a law or general policy were adopted to forbid such expression (as opposed to actual slander or defamation), then this would open the door to ideological censorship. That is, Fox might be silenced today, but I might be silenced tomorrow. As such, while Fox and folks should not push such untrue claims onto the public, they should not be prevented from doing so.

 

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