A Philosopher's Blog

Debating the Keystone XL Pipeline

Posted in Business, Environment, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2015

The Keystone XL Pipeline has become a powerful symbol in American politics. Those that oppose it can take it as a symbol of all that is wrong: environmental dangers, global warming, big corporations, and other such evils. Those who support it can take it as a symbol of all that is good: jobs, profits, big corporations and other such goods. While I am no expert when it comes to pipelines, I thought it would be worthwhile to present a concise discussion of the matter.

The main substantial objections against the pipeline are environmental. One concern is that pipelines do suffer from leaks and these leaks can inflict considerable damage to the environment (including the water sources that are used by people). The material that will be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to be rather damaging to the environment and rather problematic in terms of its cleanup.

Those who support the pipeline counter these objections by claiming that the pipelines are relatively safe—but this generally does not reassure people who have seen the impact of previous leaks. Another approach used by supporters is to point out that if the material is not transported by pipeline, companies will transport it by truck and by train. These methods, some claim, are more dangerous than the pipelines. Recent explosions of trains carrying such material do tend to serve as evidence for this claim. There is also the claim that using trucks and trains as a means of transport will create more CO2 output and hence the pipeline is a better choice in regards to the environment.

Some of those who oppose the pipeline contend that the higher cost of using trucks and trains will deter companies from using them (especially with oil prices so low). So, if the pipeline is not constructed, there would not be the predicted increase in CO2 levels from the use of these means of transportation. The obvious counter to this is that companies are already using trucks and trains to transport this material, so they already seem to be willing to pay the higher cost. It can also be pointed out that there are already a lot of pipelines so that one more would not make that much difference.

In addition to the leaks, there is also the concern about the environmental impact of acquiring the material to be transported by the pipeline and the impact of using the fossil fuels created from this material. Those opposed to the pipeline point out how it will contribute to global warming and pollution.

Those who support the pipeline tend to deny climate change or accept climate change but deny that humans cause it, or accept that humans cause it but contend that there is nothing that we can do that would be effective (mainly because China and other countries will just keep polluting). Another approach is to argue that the economic benefits outweigh any alleged harms.

Proponents of the pipeline claim that it will create a massive number of jobs. Opponents point out that while there will be some job creation when it is built (construction workers will be needed), the number of long term jobs will be very low. The opponents seem to be right—leaving out cleanup jobs, it does not take a lot of people to maintain a modern pipeline. Also, it is not like businesses will open up along the pipeline once it is constructed—it is not like the oil needs hotels or food. It is, of course, true that the pipeline can be a moneymaker for the companies—but it does seem unlikely that this pipeline will have a significant impact on the economy. After all, it would just be one more pipeline among many.

As might be guessed, some of the debate is over the matters of fact discussed above, such the environmental impact of building or not building the pipeline. Because many of the parties presenting the (alleged) facts have a stake in the matter, this makes getting objective information a bit of a problem. After all, those who have a financial or ideological interest in the pipeline will tend to present numbers that support the pipeline—that it creates many jobs and will not have much negative impact. Those who oppose it will tend to do the opposite—their numbers will tend to tell against the pipeline. This is not to claim that people are lying, but to simply point out the obvious influences of biases.

Even if the factual disputes could be settled, the matter is rather more than a factual disagreement—it is also a dispute over values. Environmental issues are generally political in the United States, with the right usually taking stances for business and against the environment and the left taking pro-environment and anti-business stances. The Keystone XL pipeline is no exception and has, in fact, become a symbol of general issues in regards to the environment and business.

As noted above, those who support the pipeline (with some interesting exceptions) generally reject or downplay the environmental concerns in favor of their ideological leaning. Those that oppose it generally reject or downplay the economic concerns in favor of their ideological leaning.

While I am pro-environment, I do not have a strong rational opposition to the pipeline. The main reasons are that there are already many pipelines, that the absence of the pipeline would not lower fossil fuel consumption, and that companies would most likely expand the use of trains and trucks (which would create more pollution and potentially create greater risks). However, if I were convinced that not having the pipeline would be better than having it, I would certainly change my position.

There is, of course, also the matter of symbolism—that one should fight or support something based on its symbolic value. It could be contended that the pipeline is just such an important symbol and that being pro-environment obligates a person to fight it, regardless of the facts. Likewise, someone who is pro-business would be obligated to support it, regardless to the facts.

While I do appreciate the value of symbols, the idea of supporting or opposing something regardless of the facts strikes me as both irrational and immoral.


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Ransoms & Hostages

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2015

1979 Associated Press photograph showing hosta...

While some countries will pay ransoms to free hostages, the United States has a public policy of not doing this. Thanks to ISIS, the issue of whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists groups or not has returned to the spotlight.

One reason to not pay a ransom for hostages is a matter of principle. This principle could be that bad behavior should not be rewarded or that hostage taking should be punished (or both).

One of the best arguments against paying ransoms for hostages is both a practical and a utilitarian moral argument. The gist of the argument is that paying ransoms gives hostage takers an incentive to take hostages. This incentive will mean that more people will be taken hostage. The cost of not paying is, of course, the possibility that the hostage takers will harm or kill their initial hostages. However, the argument goes, if hostage takers realize that they will not be paid a ransom, they will not have an incentive to take more hostages. This will, presumably, reduce the chances that the hostage takers will take hostages. The calculation is, of course, that the harm done to the existing hostages will be outweighed by the benefits of not having people taken hostage in the future.

This argument assumes, obviously enough, that the hostage takers are primarily motivated by the ransom payment. If they are taking hostages primarily for other reasons, such as for status, to make a statement or to get media attention, then not paying them a ransom will not significantly reduce their incentive to take hostages. This leads to a second reason to not pay ransoms.

In addition to the incentive argument, there is also the funding argument. While a terrorist group might have reasons other than money to take hostages, they certainly benefit from getting such ransoms. The money they receive can be used to fund additional operations, such as taking more hostages. Obviously enough, if ransoms are not paid, then such groups do lose this avenue of funding which can impact their operations. Since paying a ransom would be funding terrorism, this provides both a moral a practical reason not to pay ransoms.

While these arguments have a rational appeal, they are typically countered by a more emotional appeal. A stock approach to arguing that ransoms should be paid is the “in their shoes” appeal. The method is very straightforward and simply involves asking a person whether or not she would want a ransom to be paid for her (or a loved one). Not surprising, most people would want the ransom to be paid, assuming doing so would save her (or her loved one). Sometimes the appeal is made explicitly in terms of emotions: “how would you feel if your loved one died because the government refuses to pay ransoms?” Obviously, any person would feel awful.

This method does have considerable appeal. The “in their shoes” appeal can be seem similar to the golden rule approach (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). To be specific, the appeal is not to do unto others, but to base a policy on how one would want to be treated in that situation. If I would not want the policy applied to me (that is, I would want to be ransomed or have my loved one ransomed), then I should be morally opposed to the policy as a matter of consistency. This certainly makes sense: if I would not want a policy applied in my case, then I should (in general) not support that policy.

One obvious counter is that there seems to be a distinction between what a policy should be and whether or not a person would want that policy applied to herself. For example, some universities have a policy that if a student misses more than three classes, the student fails the course. Naturally, no student wants that policy to be applied to her (and most professors would not have wanted it applied to them when they were students), but this hardly suffices to show that the policy is wrong. As another example, a company might have a policy of not providing health insurance to part time employees. While the CEO would certainly not like the policy if she were part time, it does not follow that the policy must be a bad one. As such, policies need to be assessed not just in terms of how a persons feels about them, but in terms of their merit or lack thereof.

Another obvious counter is to use the same approach, only with a modification. In response to the question “how would you feel if you were the hostage or she were a loved one?” one could ask “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage in an operation funded by ransom money? Or “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage because the hostage takers learned that people would pay ransoms for hostages?” The answer would be, of course, that one would feel bad about that. However, while how one would feel about this can be useful in discussing the matter, it is not decisive. Settling the matter rationally does require considering more than just how people would feel—it requires looking at the matter with a degree of objectivity. That is, not just asking how people would feel, but what would be right and what would yield the best results in the practical sense.


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Should You Attend a For-Profit College?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 16, 2015

The rise of for-profit universities have given students increased choices when it comes to picking schools. Since college is rather expensive and schools vary in regards to the success of their graduates, it is wise to carefully consider the options before writing those checks. Or, more likely these days, going into debt.

While there is a popular view that the for-profit free-market will consistently create better goods and services at ever lower prices, it is wisest to accept facts over ideological theory. As such, when picking between public, non-profit, and for-profit schools one should look at the numbers. Fortunately, ProPublica has been engaged in crunching the numbers.

Today most people go to college in order to have better job prospects. As such, one rather important consideration is the likelihood of getting a job after graduation and the likely salary. While for-profit schools spend about $4.2 billion in 2009 for recruiting and marketing and pay their own college presidents an average of $7.3 million per year, the typical graduate does rather poorly. According to the U.S. Department of Education 74% of the programs at for-profit colleges produced graduates whose average pay is less than that of high-school dropouts. In contrast, graduates of non-profit and public colleges do better financially than high school graduates.

Another important consideration is the cost of education. While the free-market is supposed to result in higher quality services at lower prices and the myth of public education is that it creates low quality services at high prices, the for-profit schools are considerably more expensive than their non-profit and public competition. A two-year degree costs, on average, $35,000 at a for-profit school. The average community college offers that degree at a mere $8,300. In the case of four year degrees, the average is $63,000 at a for-profit and $52,000 for a “flagship” state college. For certificate programs, public colleges will set a student back $4,250 while a for-profit school will cost the student $19,806 on average. By these numbers, the public schools offer a better “product” at a much lower price—thus making public education the rational choice over the for-profit option.

Student debt and loans, which have been getting considerable attention in the media, are also a matter of consideration. The median debt of the average student at a for-profit college is $32,700 and 96% of the students at such schools take out loans. At non-profit private colleges, the amount is $24,600 and 57%. For public colleges, the median debt is $20,000 and 48% of students take out loans. Only 13% of community college students take out loans (thanks, no doubt, to the relatively low cost of community college).

For those who are taxpayers, another point of concern is how much taxpayer money gets funneled into for-profit schools. In a typical year, the federal government provides $6 billion in Pell Grants and $16 billion in student loans to students attending for-profit colleges. In 2010 there were 2.4 million students enrolled in these schools. It is instructive to look at the breakdown of how the for-profits expend their money.

As noted above, the average salary of the president of a for-profit college was $7.3 million in 2009. The five highest paid presidents of non-profit colleges averaged $3 million and the five highest paid presidents at public colleges were paid $1 million.

The for-profit colleges also spent heavily in marketing, spending $4.2 billion in recruiting, marketing and admissions staffing in 2009. In 2009 thirty for-profit colleges hired 35,202 recruiters which is about 1 recruiter per 49 students. As might be suspected, public schools do not spend that sort of money. My experience with recruiting at public schools is that a common approach is for a considerable amount of recruiting to fall to faculty—who do not, in general, get extra compensation for this extra work.

In terms of what is spent per student, for-profit schools average $2,050 per student per year. Public colleges spend, on average, $7,239 per student per year. Private non-profit schools spend the mots and average $15,321 per student per year. This spending does seem to yield results: at for-profit schools only 20% of students complete the bachelor’s degree within four years. Public schools do somewhat better with 31% and private non-profits do best at 52%. As such, a public or non-profit school would be the better choice over the for-profit school.

Because so much public money gets funneled into for-profit, public and private schools, there has been a push for “gainful employment” regulation. The gist of this regulation is that schools will be graded based on the annual student loan payments of their graduates relative to their earnings. A school will be graded as failing if its graduates have annual student loan payments that exceed 12% of total earnings or 30% of discretionary earnings. The “danger zone” is 8-12% of total earnings or 20-30% of discretionary earnings. Currently, there are about 1,400 programs with about 840,000 enrolled students in the “danger zone” or worse. 99% of them are, shockingly enough, at for-profit schools.

For those who speak of accountability, these regulations should seem quite reasonable. For those who like the free-market, the regulation’s target is the federal government: the goal is to prevent the government from dumping more taxpayer money into failing programs. Schools will need to earn this money by success.

However, this is not the first time that there has been an attempt to link federal money to success. In 2010 regulations were put in place that included a requirement that a school have at least 35% of its students actively repaying student loans. As might be guessed, for-profit schools are the leaders in loan defaults. In 2012 lobbyists for the for-profit schools (who have the highest default rates) brought a law suit to federal court. The judge agreed with them and struck down the requirement.

In November of 2014 an association of for-profit colleges brought a law suit against the current gainful employment requirements, presumably on the principle that it is better to pay lawyers and lobbyists rather than addressing problems with their educational model. If this lawsuit succeeds, which is likely, for-profits will be rather less accountable and this will serve to make things worse for their students.

Based on the numbers, you should definitely not attend the typical for-profit college. On average, it will cost you more, you will have more debt, and you will make less money. For the most for the least cost, the two year community college is the best deal. For the four year degree, the public school will cost less, but private non-profits generally have more successful results. But, of course, much depends on you.


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Should Confederate Veterans be Honored as Veterans?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 9, 2015

Yet another interesting controversy has arisen in my adopted state of Florida. Three Confederate veterans, who fought against the United States of America, have been nominated for admission to Florida’s Veterans’ Hall of Fame. The purpose of the hall is to honor “those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida.”

The three nominees are David Lang, Samuel Pasco and Edward A. Perry. Perry was Florida’s governor from 1885 to 1889; Pasco was a U.S. senator. Lang assisted in creating what became the Florida National Guard. As such, they did make significant contributions to Florida. The main legal question is whether or not they qualify as veterans. Since Florida was in rebellion (in defense of slaver) against the United States there is also a moral question of whether or not they should be considered veterans.

The state of Florida and the US federal government have very similar definitions of “veteran.” For Florida, a veteran is a person who served in the active military and received an honorable discharge. The federal definition states that “The term ‘veteran’ means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” The law also defines “Armed Forces” as the “United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.” The reserves are also included as being in the armed forces.

According to Mike Prendergast, the executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the three nominees in question do not qualify because the applications to the hall did not indicate that the men served in the armed forces of the United States of America. Interestingly, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam takes the view that “If you’re throwing these guys out on a technicality, that’s just dumb.”

Presumably, Putnam regards the fact that the men served in the Confederate army and took up arms against the United States as a technicality. This seems to be rather more than a mere technicality. After all, the honor seems to be reserved for veterans as defined by the relevant laws. As such, being Confederate veterans would seem to no more qualify the men for the hall than being a veteran of the German or Japanese army in WWII would qualify someone who moved to Florida and did great things for the state. There is also the moral argument about enrolling people who fought against the United States into this hall. Fighting in defense of slavery and against the lawful government of the United States would seem to be morally problematic in regards to the veteran part of the honor.

One counter to the legal argument is that Confederate soldiers were granted (mostly symbolic) pensions about 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Confederate veterans can also be buried in a special Confederate section of Arlington National Cemetery. These facts do push the door to a legal and moral argument open a crack. In regards to the legal argument, it could be contended that Confederate veterans have been treated, in some ways, as veterans. As such, one might argue, this should be extended to the Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

The obvious response is that these concessions to the Confederate veterans do not suffice to classify Confederate veterans as veterans of the United States. As such, they would not be qualified for the hall. There is also the moral counter that soldiers who fought against the United States should not be honored as veterans of the United States. After all, one would not honor veterans of other militaries that have fought against the United States.

It could also be argued that since the states that made up the Confederacy joined the United States, the veterans of the Confederacy would, as citizens, become United States’ veterans. Of course, the same logic would seem to apply to parts of the United States that were assimilated from other nations, such as Mexico, the lands of the Iroquois, and the lands of Apache and so on. As such, perhaps Sitting Bull would qualify as a veteran under this sort of reasoning. Perhaps this could be countered by contending that the south left and then rejoined, so it is not becoming part of the United States that has the desired effect but rejoining after a rebellion.

Another possible argument is to contend that the Veterans’ Hall of Fame is a Florida hall and, as such, just requires that the veterans be Florida veterans. In the Civil War units were, in general, connected to a specific state (such the 1st Maine). As such, if the men in question served in a Florida unit that fought against the United States, they would be Florida veterans but not United States veterans. Using this option would, of course, require that the requirements for the hall not include that a nominee be a veteran of the United States military and presumably it could not be connected to the United States VA since that agency is only responsible for veterans of the United States armed forces and not veterans who served other nations.

In regards to the moral concerns of honoring, as veterans, men who fought against the United States and in defense of slavery, it could be claimed that the war was not about slavery. The obvious problem with this is that the war was, in fact, fought to preserve slavery. The southern states made this abundantly clear. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, gave his infamous Cornerstone Speech and made this quite clear when he said “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

It could, of course, be argued that not every soldier fighting for the South was fighting to defend slavery. After all, just like today, most of the people fighting in wars are not the people who set policy or benefit from these policies. These men could have gone to war not to protect the institution of slavery, but because they were duped by the slave holders. Or because they wanted to defend their state from “northern aggression.” Or some other morally acceptable reason. That is, it could be claimed that these men were fighting for something other than the explicit purpose of the Confederacy, namely the preservation of slavery. Since this is not impossible, it could be claimed that the men should be given the benefit of the doubt and be honored for fighting against the United States and then doing significant things for Florida.

In any case, this matter is rather interesting and I am looking forward to seeing my adopted state mocked once again on the Daily Show. And, just maybe, Al Sharpton will show up to say some things.


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Augmented Soldier Ethics II: Informed Consent

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2015

One general moral subject that is relevant to the augmentation of soldiers by such things as pharmaceuticals, biologicals or cybernetics is the matter of informed consent. While fiction abounds with tales of involuntary augmentation, real soldiers and citizens of the United States have been coerced or deceived into participating in experiments. As such, there do seem to be legitimate grounds for being concerned that soldiers and citizens could be involuntarily augmented as part of experiments or actual “weapon deployment.”

Assuming the context of a Western democratic state, it seems reasonable to hold that augmenting a soldier without her informed consent would be immoral. After all, the individual has rights against the democratic state and these include the right not to be unjustly coerced or deceived. Socrates, in the Crito, also advanced reasonable arguments that the obedience of a citizen required that the state not coerce or deceive the citizen into the social contract and this would certainly apply to soldiers in a democratic state.

It is certainly tempting to rush to the position that informed consent would make the augmentation of soldiers morally acceptable. After all, the soldier would know what she was getting into and would volunteer to undergo the process in question. In popular fiction, one example of this would be Steve Rogers volunteering for the super soldier conversion. Given his consent, such an augmentation would seem morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some cases where informed consent makes a critical difference in ethics. One obvious example is the moral difference between sex and rape—the difference is a matter of informed and competent consent. If Sam agrees to have sex with Sally, then Sally is not raping Sam. But if Sally drugs Sam and has her way, then that would be rape.  Another obvious example is the difference between theft and receiving a gift—this is also a matter of informed consent. If Sam gives Sally a diamond ring that is not theft. If Sally takes the ring by force or coercion, then that is theft—and presumably wrong.

Even when informed consent is rather important, there are still cases in which the consent does not make the action morally acceptable. For example, Sam and Sally might engage in consensual sex, but if they are siblings or one is the parent of the other, the activity could still be immoral. As another example, Sam might consent to give Sally an heirloom ring that has been in the family for untold generations, but it might still be the wrong thing to do—especially when Sally hocks the ring to buy heroin.

There are also cases in which informed consent is not relevant because of the morality of the action itself. For example, Sam might consent to join in Sally’s plot to murder Ashley (rather than being coerced or tricked) but this would not be relevant to the ethics of the murder. At best it could be said that Sally did not add to her misdeed by coercing or tricking her accomplices, but this would not make the murder itself less bad.

Turning back to the main subject of augmentation, even if the soldiers gave their informed consent, the above consideration show that there would still be the question of whether or not the augmentation itself is moral or not. For example, there are reasonable moral arguments against genetically modifying human beings. If these arguments hold up, then even if a soldier consented to genetic modification, the modification itself would be immoral.  I will be addressing the ethics of pharmaceutical, biological and cybernetic augmentation in later essays.

While informed consent does seem to be a moral necessity, this position can be countered. One stock way to do this is to make use of a utilitarian argument: if the benefits gained from augmenting soldiers without their informed consent outweighed the harms, then the augmentation would be morally acceptable. For example, imagine that a war against a wicked enemy is going rather badly and that an augmentation method has been developed that could turn the war around. The augmentation is dangerous and has awful long term side-effects that would deter most soldiers from volunteering. However, losing to the wicked enemy would be worse—so it could thus be argued that the soldiers should be deceived so that the war could be won. As another example, a wicked enemy is not needed—it could simply be argued that the use of augmented soldiers would end the war faster, thus saving lives, albeit at the cost of those terrible side-effects.

Another stock approach is to appeal to the arguments used by democracies to justify conscription in time of war. If the state (or, rather, those who expect people to do what they say) can coerce citizens into killing and dying in war, then the state can surely coerce and citizens to undergo augmentation. It is easy to imagine a legislature passing something called “the conscription and augmentation act” that legalizes coercing citizens into being augmented to serve in the military. Of course, there are those who are suspicious of democratic states so blatantly violating the rights of life and liberty. However, not all states are democratic.

While democratic states would seem to face some moral limits when it comes to involuntary augmentation, non-democratic states appear to have more options. For example, under fascism the individual exists to serve the state (that is, the bastards that think everyone else should do what they say). If this political system is morally correct, then the state would have every right to coerce or deceive the citizens for the good of the state. In fiction, these states tend to be the ones to crank out involuntary augmented soldiers (that still manage to lose to the good guys).

Naturally, even if the state has the right to coerce or deceive soldiers into becoming augmented, it does not automatically follow that the augmentation itself is morally acceptable—this would depend on the specific augmentations. These matters will be addressed in upcoming essays.



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Why Republicans Should Support Legalizing Marijuana

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2015
English: NORML members protest in Lafayette Pa...

English: NORML members protest in Lafayette Park during the annual July 4th “Smoke-In.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I believe that people should not use marijuana, I believe that the sale and consumption of the drug should be legal. Given the espoused principles of the Republicans, they should agree with me. To make the case for this, I will consider some of the core espoused principles of the Republicans.

First, Republicans employ the usual rhetoric of freedom (in early 2015 they had a Freedom Summit in Iowa) and allowing people the freedom to grow, sell and use marijuana would be consistent with the notion of freedom. But, of course, the vague rhetoric of freedom is just that—vague rhetoric. So I will turn to more specific principles.

Second, there is the standard Republican claim that they prefer to have matters handled locally rather than by the power of the federal government. Some states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana at the local level. To be consistent, the Republicans should accept the local decisions and allow the citizens to exercise the freedom they voted for. To impose on the local governments and the citizens would be contrary to this espoused principle.

Third, Republicans often speak of “getting government off our back” and in favor of small government. The laws regarding marijuana and their enforcement certainly put the government on the back of citizens. As the Republicans like to say, why should the state be telling people what they can and cannot do? These laws have also led to an increase in the size of government, which is contrary to the small government ideal.

Fourth, Republicans are typically eager to oppose regulations and want to set the market free. Legalizing marijuana by removing the existing laws would reduce regulations, thus being in accord with this ideological point. The free market has clearly spoken in regards to marijuana: people want to buy and sell it. To impose harsh laws and regulations on these transactions is to impede the free market and to have the government pick winners and losers. The Republicans should be in favor of this freeing of the market from burdensome regulation.

Fifth, Republicans speak lovingly of job creators and job creation. The marijuana industry is run by job creators who create many jobs in growing and distributing the crops. They also create jobs in the snack and fast food industries as well as in the paraphernalia business. Legalizing marijuana would help grow the economy and create jobs, so the Republicans should support this.

Finally, the Republicans express a devotion to lowering government spending. Enforcing the marijuana laws is rather costly and legalizing marijuana would help reduced government spending. This would allow more tax cuts. Given these key Republican principles, they should eagerly embrace the legalization of marijuana.

It might be noted that Republicans, despite these espoused principles, should be opposed to legalizing marijuana. One reason that has been stated is that marijuana is harmful, and specifically harmful for the children.

I, of course, agree that marijuana is harmful and certainly agree that children should not use it. However, there is the matter of consistency. Obviously enough, harmful things such as alcohol, automobiles, tobacco, junk food and guns are legal in the United States and Republicans are staunch supporters of these things—despite the harm they do. As such, Republican support of marijuana would be consistent with their support of such things as guns, fossil fuels and tobacco. As far as the matter of children, marijuana can be handled in the same way as cars, guns, tobacco and alcohol. That is, marijuana can be illegal for children.

There is also the fact that while marijuana is harmful, it does not seem to be significantly more harmful than tobacco and alcohol. Its use also kills far fewer people than do cars and guns. Naturally, I do agree that it should be illegal to drive, etc. while high—just as it is illegal to drive when drunk. As such, the harmful nature of marijuana

It might be objected that marijuana is simply immoral and thus must be kept illegal. The obvious challenge is showing why it is simply immoral and then showing why immoral things should be made illegal. This can be done—but the adoption of the principle that the immoral must be illegal would probably not appeal to Republicans if it were consistently applied.


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What is the Worst Thing You Should (Be Allowed to) Say?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 26, 2015
Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been s...

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been specifically banned from entering Canada for hate speech. Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus victim’s funeral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Charlie Hedbo and their aftermath raised the issue of freedom of expression in a dramatic and terrible manner. In response to these deaths, there was an outpouring of support for this basic freedom and, somewhat ironically, a crackdown on some people expressing their views.

This situation raises two rather important issues. The first is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should express. The second is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. While these might seem to be the same issue, they are not. The reason for this is that there is a distinction between what a person should do and what is morally permissible to prevent a person from doing. The main focus will be on using the coercive power of the state in this role.

As an illustration of the distinction, consider the example of a person lying to his girlfriend about running strikes all day in the video game Destiny when he was supposed to be doing yard work. It seems reasonable to think that he should not lie to her (although exceptions are easy to imagine). However, it also seems reasonable to think that the police should not be sent to coerce him into telling her the truth. So, he should not lie to her about playing the game but he should be allowed to do so by the state (that is, it should not use its police powers to stop him).

This view can be disputed and there are those who argue in favor of complete freedom from the state (anarchists) and those who argue that the state should control every aspect of life (totalitarians). However, the idea that that there are some matters that are not the business of the state seems to be an intuitively plausible position—at least in democratic states such as the United States. What follows will rest on this assumption and the challenge will be to sort out these two issues.

One rather plausible and appealing approach is to take a utilitarian stance on the matter and accept the principle of harm as the foundation for determining the worst thing that a person should express and also the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. The basic idea behind this is that the right of free expression is bounded by the stock liberal right of others not to be harmed in their life, liberty and property without due justification.

In the case of the worst thing that a person should express, I am speaking in the context of morality. There are, of course, non-moral meanings of “should.” To use the most obvious example, there is the “pragmatic should”: what a person should or should not do in regards to advancing his practical self-interest. For example, a person should not tell her boss what she really thinks of him if doing so would cost her the job she desperately needs. To use another example, there is also the “should of etiquette”: what a person should do or not do in order to follow the social norms. For example, a person should not go without pants at a formal wedding, even to express his opposition to the tyranny of pants.

Returning to the matter of morality, it seems reasonable to go with the stock approach of weighing the harm the expression generates against the right of free expression (assuming there is such a right). Obviously enough, there is not an exact formula for calculating the worst thing a person should express and this will vary according to the circumstances. For example, the worst thing one should express to a young child would presumably be different from the worst thing one should express to adult. In terms of the harms, these would include the obvious things such as offending the person, scaring her, insulting her, and so on for the various harms that can be inflicted by mere expression.

While I do not believe that people have a right not to be offended, people do seem to have a right not to be unjustly harmed by other people expressing themselves. To use an obvious example, men should not catcall women who do not want to be subject to this verbal harassment. This sort of behavior certainly offends, upsets and even scares many women and the men’s right to free expression does not give them a moral pass that exempts them from what they should or should not do.

To use another example, people should not intentionally and willfully insult another person’s deeply held beliefs simply for the sake of insulting or provoking the person. While the person does have the right to mock the belief of another, his right of expression is not a moral free pass to be abusive.

As a final example, people should not engage in trolling. While a person does have the right to express his views so as to troll others, this is clearly wrong. Trolling is, by definition, done with malice and contributes nothing of value to the conversation. As such, it should not be done.

It is rather important to note that while I have claimed that people should not unjustly harm others by expressing themselves, I have not made any claims about whether or not people should or should not be allowed to express themselves in these ways. It is to this that I now turn.

If the principle of harm is a reasonable principle (which can be debated), then a plausible approach would be to use it to sketch out some boundaries. The first rough boundary was just discussed: this is the boundary between what people should express and what people should (morally) not. The second rough boundary begins at the point where other people should be allowed to prevent a person from expressing himself and ends just before the point at which the state has the moral right to use its coercive power to prevent expression.

This area is the domain of interactions between people that does not fall under the authority of the state, yet still permits people to be prevented from expressing their views. To use an obvious example, the workplace is such a domain in which people can be justly prevented from expressing their views without the state being involved. To use a specific example, the administrators of my university have the right to prevent me from expressing certain things—even if doing so would not fall under the domain of the state. To use another example, a group of friends would have the right, among themselves, to ban someone from their group for saying racist, mean and spiteful things to one of their number. As a final example, a blog administrator would have the right to ban a troll from her site, even though the troll should not be subject to the coercive power of the state.

The third boundary is the point at which the state can justly use its coercive power to prevent a person from engaging in expression. As with the other boundaries, this would be set (roughly) by the degree of harm that the expression would cause others. There are many easy and obvious example where the state would act rightly in imposing on a person: threats of murder, damaging slander, incitements to violence against the innocent, and similar such unquestionably harmful expressions.

Matters do, of course, get complicated rather quickly. Consider, for example, a person who does not call for the murder of cartoonists who mock Muhammad but tweets his approval when they are killed. While this would certainly seem to be something a person should not do (though this could be debated), it is not clear that it crosses the boundary that would allow the state to justly prevent the person from expressing this view. If the approval does not create sufficient harm, then it would seem to not warrant coercive action against the person by the state.

As another example, consider the expression of racist views via social media. While people should not say such things (and would be justly subject to the consequences), as long as they do not engage in actual threats, then it would seem that the state does not have the right to silence the person. This is because the expression of racist views (without threats) would not seem to generate enough harm to warrant state coercion. Naturally, it could justify action on the part of the person’s employer, friends and associates: he might be fired and shunned.

As a third example, consider a person who mocks the dominant or even official religion of the state. While the rulers of such states usually think they have the right to silence such an infidel, it is not clear that this would create enough unjust harm to warrant silencing the person. Being an American, I think that it would not—but I believe in both freedom of religion and the freedom to mock religion.  There is, of course, the matter of the concern that such mockery would provoke others to harm the mocker, thus warranting the state to stop the person—for her own protection. However, the fact that people will act wrongly in response to expressions would not seem to warrant coercing the person into silence.

In general, I favor erring on the side of freedom: unless the state can show that silencing expression is needed to prevent a real and unjust harm, the state does not have the moral right to silence expression.

I have merely sketched out a general outline of this matter and have presented three rough boundaries in regards to what people should say and what they should be allowed to say. Much more work would be needed to develop a full and proper account.


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Charlie, Islam & Justification

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 21, 2015

While the murders of twelve people at Charlie Hebdo are unjustifiable, one of the killers did attempt, in advance, to justify the attack. The main justification offered was that the attack was in accord with Islamic law. Since I am not a scholar of Islam, I will not address the issue of whether this is true or not. As an ethicist, I will address the matter of moral justification for the killings.

From the standpoint of the killers, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was presumably punishment for the actions of those they killed. In general, punishment is aimed at retaliation for wrongs done, redemption of the wrongdoer or deterrence (this is the RRD model). Presumably the killers were aiming at both retaliation and deterrence and not redemption. From a moral standpoint, both retaliation and deterrence are supposed to be limited by a principle of proportionality.

In the case of retaliation, the punishment should correspond to the alleged crime. The reason for this is that disproportionate retaliation would not “balance the books”, but instead create another wrong that would justify retaliation in response. This, of course, assumes that retaliation is justifiable in general, which can certainly be questioned.

In the case of deterrence, there is also a general presumption in favor of proportionality. The main reason is the same as in retaliation: excessive punishment would seem to, by definition, create another wrong. A standard counter to this is to argue that excessive punishment is acceptable on the grounds of its deterrence value—the greater the punishment, the greater the deterrence.

While this does have a certain appeal, it also runs counter to common moral intuitions. For example, blowing up a student’s car for parking in a faculty parking space at university would certainly deter students, but would be excessive. As another example, having the death penalty for traffic violations would tend to deter such violations, but this certainly seems unacceptable.

There is also the standard utilitarian argument that excessive punishment used for deterrence would create more harm than good. For example, allowing police to execute anyone who resisted arrest would deter resistance, but the harms to citizens and society would certainly seem to outweigh the benefits gained. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that punishment for the purpose of deterrence should be proportional to the offense. There is, of course, still the concern about the deterrence factor. A good guiding principle is that the punishment that aims at deterrence should be sufficient to deter, yet proportional to the offense. Roughly put, deterring the misdeed should not be worse than the misdeed.

In the case of the people at Charlie Hebdo, their alleged offense was their satire of Mohammad and Islam via cartoons. On the face of it, death certainly seems to be a disproportionate punishment. After all, killing someone is certainly vastly more harmful than insulting or offending someone.

A proportional response would have been something along the lines of creating a satirical cartoon of the staff, publishing an article critical of their cartoons or protesting these cartoons. That is, a proportional response to the non-violent expression of a view would be the non-violent expression of an opposing view. Murder would obviously be a vastly disproportionate response.

It could be replied that the punishment was proportional because of the severity of the offense. The challenge is, obviously enough, arguing that the offense was severe enough to warrant death. On the face of it, no cartoon would seem to merit death. After all, no matter how bad a cartoon might be, the worst it can do is offend a person and this would not seem to warrant death. However, it could be argued that the offense is not against just any person, but against God. That is, the crime is blasphemy or something similar. This would provide a potential avenue for justifying a penalty of death. It is to this that I now turn.

Religious thinkers who believe in Hell have long faced the challenge of justifying eternal damnation. After all, as David Hume noted, an infinite punishment for what must be finite offenses is contrary to our principles of justice. That is, even if a person sinned for every second of her life, she could not do enough evil to warrant an infinitely bad, infinitely long punishment. However, there is a clever reply to this claim.

In his classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, Jonathan Edwards says of sinners that “justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins.” Roughly put, he justifies the infinite punishment of sin on the grounds that since God is infinitely good, any sin against God is infinitely bad. As such, the punishment is proportional to the offense: infinite punishment for an infinitely bad crime.

It could be contended that creating cartoons mocking Mohammed and Islam are sins against an infinitely good God, thus warranting an infinite punishment and presumably justifying killing (which is less than infinite punishment). Interestingly, the infinite punishment for sins would seem to render the punishing of sinners here on earth pointless for two reasons. First, if the sinner will be punished infinitely, then punishing him here would not increase his punishment. So, there is no point to it. Second, if the sinner is going to be punished divinely, then punishment here would also be pointless. To use an analogy, imagine if someone proposed having a pre-legal system in which alleged criminals would be tried and, if found guilty, be given pointless and miniscule sentences (such as being mildly scolded for one second). The alleged criminals would then go on to the real legal system for their real punishment. This pre-legal system would obviously be a pointless waste of time and resources. Likewise, if there is divine justice for sins, then punishing them here would be a pointless waste of time.

This, obviously enough, assumes that God is real, that He punishes and that He would punish people for something as minor as a cartoon. It would certainly seem to be a rather petty and insecure God that would be overly concerned about snarky cartoons—people are usually most likely to react to mockery when they are strong enough to punish, but weak enough to be insecure. God, I would think, is far too big to be enraged by cartoons. But, I could be wrong. If I am, though, God will take care of matters and there is thus no reason to kill cartoonists.

If God does not exist, then the cartoons obviously cannot have offended God. In this case, the offense would be against people who believe in a make-believe faith. While such people might be very offended or angry at being mocked, killing the cartoonists would be like enraged Harry Potter fans killing a cartoonist for mocking Daniel Radcliffe with a snarky cartoon. While they might be devoted to the make believe world of Harry Potter and be very protective of Daniel Radcliffe, offensive cartoons mocking a real person and a make believe system would not warrant killing the cartoonist.

As such, if God is real, then He will deal with the offense against Him. As such, there would be no justification for people seeking revenge in His name. If He is not real, then the offense is against the make-believe and this does not warrant killing. Either way, the killings would be completely unjustified.


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The Slogan Industrial Complex

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2014
University of South Florida Seal

University of South Florida Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Higher education in the United States has been pushed steadily towards the business model. One obvious example of this is the brand merchandizing of schools. In 2011, schools licensed their names and logos for a total of $4.6 billion. Inspired by this sort of brand-based profits, schools started trademarking their slogans. Impressively, there are over 10,000 trademarked slogans.

These slogans include “project safety” (University of Texas), “ready to be heard” (Chatham University), “power” (University of North Dakota), “rise above” (University of the Rockies), “students with diabetes” (University of South Florida), “student life” (Washington University in St. Louis) and “resolve” (Lehigh University). Those not familiar with trademark law might be surprised by some of these examples. After all, “student life” seems to be such a common phrase on campuses that it would be insane for a school to be allowed to trademark it. But, one should never let sanity be one’s guide when considering how the law works.

While the rabid trademarking undertaken by schools might be seen as odd but harmless, the main purpose of a trademark is so that the owner enjoys an exclusive right to what is trademarked and can sue others for using it. This is, of course, limited to certain contexts. So, for example, if I write about student life at Florida A&M University in a blog, Washington University would (I hope) not be able to sue me. However, in circumstances in which the trademark protection applies, then lawsuits are possible (and likely). For example, Eastern Carolina University sued Cisco Systems because of Cisco’s use of the phrase “tomorrow begins here.”

One practical and moral concern about universities’ enthusiasm for trademarking is that it further pushes higher education into the realm of business. One foundation for this concern is that universities should be focused on education rather than being focused on business—after all, an institution that does not focus on its core mission tends to do worse at that mission. This would also be morally problematic, assuming that schools should (morally) focus on education.

An easy and obvious reply is that a university can wear many hats: educator, business, “professional in all but name” sport franchise and so on provided that each function is run properly and not operated at the expense of the core mission. Naturally, it could be added that the core mission of the modern university is not education, but business—branding, marketing and making money.

Another reply is that the trademarks protect the university brand and also allow them to make money by merchandizing their slogans and suing people for trademark violations. This money could then be used to support the core mission of the school.

There is, naturally enough, the worry that universities should not be focusing on branding and suing. While this can make them money, it is not what a university should be doing—which takes the conversation back to the questions of the core mission of universities as well as the question about whether schools can wear many hats without becoming jacks of all trades.

A second legal and moral concern is the impact such trademarks have on free speech. On the one hand, United States law is fairly clear about trademarks and the 1st Amendment. The gist is that noncommercial usage is protected by the 1st Amendment and this allows such things as using trademarked material in protests or criticism. So, for example, the 1st Amendment allows me to include the above slogans in this essay. Not surprisingly, commercial usage is subject to the trademark law. So, for example, I could not use the phrase “the power of independent thinking” as a slogan for my blog since that belongs to Wilkes University. In general, this seems reasonable. After all, if I created and trademarked a branding slogan for my blog, then I would certainly not want other people making use of my trademarked slogan. But, of course, I would be fine with people using the slogan when criticizing my blog—that would be acceptable use under freedom of expression.

On the other hand, trademark holders do endeavor to exploit their trademarks and people’s ignorance of the law to their advantage. For example, threats made involving claims of alleged trademark violations are sometimes used as a means of censorship and silencing critics.

The obvious reply is that this is not a problem with trademarks as such. It is, rather, a problem with people misusing the law. There is, of course, the legitimate concern that the interpretation of the law will change and that trademark protection will be allowed to encroach into the freedom of expression.

What might be a somewhat abstract point of concern is the idea that what seem to be stock phrases such as “the first year experience” (owned by University of South Carolina) can be trademarked and thus owned. This diminishes the public property that is language and privatizes it in favor of those with the resources to take over tracts of linguistic space. While the law currently still allows non-commercial use, this also limits the language other schools and businesses can legally use. It also requires that they research all the trademarks before using common phrases if they wish to avoid a lawsuit from a trademark holder.

The obvious counter, which I mentioned above, is that trademarks have a legitimate function. The obvious response is that there is still a reasonable concern about essentially allowing private ownership over language and thus restricting freedom of expression. There is a need to balance the legitimate need to own branding slogans with the legitimate need to allow the use of stock and common phrases in commercial situations. The challenge is to determine the boundary between the two and where a specific phrase or slogan falls.


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Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 12, 2014
English: John McCain official photo portrait.

English: John McCain official photo portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In December of 2014 the US Senate issued its report on torture. While there has been some criticism of the report, the majority of pundits and politicians have not come out in defense of torture. However, there have been attempts to justify the use of torture and this essay will address some of these arguments.

One criticism of the report is not a defense of torture as such. The talking point is a question, typically of the form “why bring this up now?” The argument lurking behind this point seems to be that since the torture covered in the report occurred years ago, it should not be discussed now. This is similar to another stock remark made to old wrongs, namely “get over it.”

This does raise a worthwhile concern, namely the expiration date of moral concern. Or, to use an analogy to law, the matter of the moral statute of limitations on misdeeds. On the face of it, it is reasonable to accept that the passage of time can render a wrong morally irrelevant to today. While an exact line can probably never be drawn, a good rule of thumb is that when the morally significant consequences of the event have attenuated to insignificance, then the moral concern can be justly laid aside. In the case of the torture employed in the war on terror, that seems to be “fresh” enough to still be unexpired.

Interestingly, many of the same folks who insist that torture should not be brought up now still bring up 9/11 to justify the current war on terror. On the face of it, if 9/11 is still morally relevant, then so is the torture it was used to justify. I agree that 9/11 is still morally relevant and also the torture.

One of the stock defenses of the use of torture is a semantic one: that the techniques used are not torture. One way to reply is to stick with the legal definitions, such as those in agreements the United States has signed and crimes it has prosecuted—especially the prosecution of German and Japanese soldiers after WWII. Many of the techniques used in the war on terror meet these definitions. As such, it seems clear that as a nation we accept that these acts are, in fact, torture. I will admit that there are gray areas—but we clearly crossed over into the darkness.

Perhaps the best moral defense of torture is a utilitarian one: while torture is harmful, if it produces good consequences that outweigh the harm, then it is morally acceptable. It has been claimed that the torture of prisoners produced critical information that could not have been acquired by other means.

However, the senate report includes considerable evidence that this is not true—including information from the CIA itself regarding the infectiveness of torture as a means of gathering reliable intelligence. As John McCain said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”

As such, the utilitarian justification for torture fails on the grounds that it does not work. As such, it produces harms with no benefits, thus making it evil.

Another stock defense of torture is that the enemy is so bad that we can do anything to them.  No doubt the terrorists tell themselves the same thing when they murder innocent people. This justification is often combined with the utilitarian argument, otherwise it is just a defense of torture on the grounds of retaliation.

This notion is founded on a legitimate moral principle, namely that the actions of one’s enemy can justify actions against that enemy.  To use the easy and obvious example, if someone tries to unjustly kill me, I have a moral right to use lethal force in order to save my life.

However, the badness of one’s enemy is not sufficient to morally justify everything that might be done to that enemy. After all, while self-defense can be morally justified, there are still moral boundaries in regards to what one can do. This is especially important if we wish to claim that we are better than the terrorists. As McCain says, “”the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” He is right about this—if we claim that we are better, we must be better. If we claim that we are good, we must accept moral limits on what we will do. In short, we must not torture.

A final stock argument worth considering is the idea that America’s exceptionalism allows us to do anything, yet remain good. Or, as one pundit on Fox News put it, be “awesome.” The idea that such exceptionalism allows one to do terrible things while remaining righteous is a common one—terrorists typically also believe this about themselves.

This justification is, obviously enough, terrible. After all, being really good and exceptional means that one will not do awful things. That is what it is to be morally exceptional and awesome. The idea that one can be so good that one can be bad is obviously absurd.

I do agree that America is awesome. Part of what makes us awesome is that we (eventually) admit our sins and we take our moral struggles seriously. To the degree that we live up to our fine principles, we are awesome. As Churchill said, ”you can always count on Americans to do the right thing-after they’ve tried everything else.”


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