A Philosopher's Blog

The Confederacy, License Plates & Free Speech

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 27, 2015
Louisiana Sons of Confederate Veterans special...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early in 2015 some folks in my adopted state of Florida wanted three Confederate veterans to become members of the Veterans’ Hall of Fame. Despite the efforts of the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans, the initial attempt failed on the grounds that the Confederate veterans were not United States’ veterans. Not to be outdone, the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans want to have an official Texas license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag. While custom license plates are allowed in the United States, the states generally review proposed plates. The Texas department of Motor Vehicles rejected the proposed plate on the grounds that “a significant portion of the public associate[s] the Confederate flag with organizations” expressing hatred for minorities. Those proposing the plate claim that this violates their rights. This has generated a legal battle that has made it to the US Supreme Court.

The legal issue, which has been cast as a battle over free speech, is certainly interesting. However, my main concern is with the ethics of the matter. This is, obviously enough, also a battle over rights.

Looked at in terms of the right of free expression, there are two main lines of contention. The first is against allowing the plate. One way to look at an approved license plate is that it is a means of conveying a message that the state agrees with. Those opposed to the plate have argued that if the state is forced to allow the plate to be issued, the state will be compelled to be associated with a message that the government does not wish to be associated with. In free speech terms, this could be seen as forcing the state to express or facilitate a view that it does not accept.

This does have a certain appeal since the state can be seen as representing the people (or, perhaps, the majority of the people). If a view is significantly offensive to a significant number of citizens (which is, I admit, vague), then the state could reasonably decline to accept a license plate expressing or associated with that view. So, to give some examples, the state could justly decline Nazi plates, pornographic plates, and plates featuring racist or sexist images. Given that the Confederate flag represents to many slavery and racism, it seems reasonable that the state not issue such a plate. Citizens can, of course, cover their cars in Confederate flags and thus express their views.

The second line of contention is in favor of the plate. One obvious line of reasoning is based on the right of free expression: citizens should have the right to express their views via license plates. These plates, one might contend, do not express the views of the state—they express the view of the person who purchased the plate.

In terms of the concerns about a plate being offensive, Granvel Block argued that not allowing a plate with the Confederate flag would be “as unreasonable” as the state forbidding the use of the University of Texas logo on a plate “because Texas A&M graduates didn’t care for it.” On the one hand, Block has made a reasonable point: if people disliking an image is a legitimate basis for forbidding its use on a plate, then any image could end up being forbidden. It would, as Block noted, be absurd to forbid schools from having custom plates because rival schools do not like them.

On the other hand, there seems to be an important difference between the logo of a public university and the battle flag of the Confederacy. While some Texas A&M graduates might not like the University of Texas, the University of Texas’ logo does not represent states that went to war against the United States in order to defend slavery. So, while the state should not forbid plates merely because some people do not like them, it does seem reasonable to forbid a plate that includes the flag representing, as state Senator Royce West said, “…a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, mass murder…”

The lawyer representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, R. James George Jr., has presented an interesting line of reasoning. He notes, correctly, that Texas has a state holiday that honors veterans of the Confederacy, that there are monuments honoring Confederate veterans and that the gift shop in the capitol sells Confederate memorabilia. From this he infers that the Department of Motor Vehicles should follow the state legislature and approve the plate.

This argument, which is an appeal to consistency, does have some weight. After all, the state certainly seems to express its support for Confederate veterans (and even the Confederacy) and this license plate is consistent with this support. To refuse the license plate on the grounds that the state does not wish to express support for what the Confederate flag stands for is certainly inconsistent with having a state holiday for Confederate veterans—the state seems quite comfortable with this association.

There is, of course, the broader moral issue of whether or not the state should have a state holiday for Confederate veterans, etc. That said, any arguments given in support of what the state already does in regards to the Confederacy would seem to also support the acceptance of the plate—they seem to be linked. So, if the plate is to be rejected, these other practices must also be rejected on the same grounds. But, if these other practices are to be maintained, then the plate would seem to fit right in and thus, on this condition, also be accepted.

I am somewhat divided on this matter. One view I find appealing favors freedom of expression: any license plate design that does not interfere with identifying the license number and state should be allowed—consistent with copyright law, of course. This would be consistent and would not require the state to make any political or value judgments. It would, of course, need to be made clear that the plates do not necessarily express the official positions of the government.

The obvious problem with such total freedom is that people would create horrible plates featuring pornography, racism, sexism, and so on. This could be addressed by appealing to existing laws—the state would not approve or reject a plate as such, but a plate could be rejected for violating, for example, laws against making threats or inciting violence. The obvious worry is that laws would then be passed to restrict plates that some people did not like, such as plates endorsing atheism or claiming that climate change is real. But, this is not a problem unique to license plates. After all, it has been alleged that officials in my adopted state of Florida have banned the use of the term ‘climate change.’

Another view I find appealing is to avoid all controversy by getting rid of custom plates. Each state might have a neutral, approved image (such as a loon, orange or road runner) or the plates might simply have the number/letters and the state name. This would be consistent—no one gets a custom plate. To me, this would be no big deal. But, of course, I always just get the cheapest license plate option—which is the default state plate. However, some people regard the license plate as important and their view is worth considering.

 

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Robopunishment

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 25, 2015
Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the notion of punishing machines for misdeeds has received some attention in science fiction, it seems worthwhile to take a brief philosophical look at this matter. This is because the future, or so some rather smart people claim, will see the rise of intelligent machines—machines that might take actions that would be considered misdeeds or crimes if committed by a human (such as the oft-predicted genocide).

In general, punishment is aimed at one of more of the following goals: retribution, rehabilitation, or deterrence. Each of these goals will be considered in turn in the context of machines.

Roughly put, punishment for the purpose of retribution is aimed at paying an agent back for wrongdoing. This can be seen as a form of balancing the books: the punishment inflicted on the agent is supposed to pay the debt it has incurred by its misdeed. Reparation can, to be a bit sloppy, be included under retaliation—at least in the sense of the repayment of a debt incurred by the commission of a misdeed.

While a machine can be damaged or destroyed, there is clearly the question about whether it can be the target of retribution. After all, while a human might kick her car for breaking down on her or smash his can opener for cutting his finger, it would be odd to consider this retributive punishment. This is because retribution would seem to require that a wrong has been done by an agent, which is different from the mere infliction of harm. Intuitively, a piece of glass can cut my foot, but it cannot wrong me.

If a machine can be an agent, which was discussed in an earlier essay, then it would seem to be able to do wrongful deeds and thus be a potential candidate for retribution. However, even if a machine had agency, there is still the question of whether or not retribution would really apply. After all, retribution requires more than just agency on the part of the target. It also seems to require that the target can suffer from the payback. On the face of it, a machine that could not suffer would not be subject to retribution—since retribution seems to be based on doing a “righteous wrong” to the target. To illustrate, suppose that an android injured a human, costing him his left eye. In retribution, the android’s left eye is removed. But, the android does not suffer—it does not feel any pain and is not bothered by the removal of its eye. As such, the retribution would be pointless—the books would not be balanced.

This could be countered by arguing that the target of the retribution need not suffer—what is required is merely the right sort of balancing of the books, so to speak. So, in the android case, removal of the android’s eye would suffice, even if the android did not suffer. This does have some appeal since retribution against humans does not always require that the human suffer. For example, a human might break another human’s iPad and have her iPad broken in turn, but not care at all. The requirements of retribution would seem to have been met, despite the lack of suffering.

Punishment for rehabilitation is intended to transform wrongdoers so that they will no longer be inclined to engage in the wrongful behavior that incurred the punishment. This differs from punishment aimed at deterrence—this aims at providing the target with a reason to not engage in the misdeed in the future. Rehabilitation is also aimed at the agent who did the misdeed, whereas punishment for the sake of deterrence often aims at affects others as well.

Obviously enough, a machine that lacks agency cannot be subject to rehabilitative punishment—it cannot “earn” such punishment by its misdeeds and, presumably, cannot have its behavioral inclinations corrected by such punishment.

To use an obvious example, if a computer crashes and destroys a file that a person had been working on for hours, punishing the computer in an attempt to rehabilitate it would be pointless. Not being an agent, it did not “earn” the punishment and punishment will not incline it to crash less in the future.

A machine that possesses agency could “earn” punishment by its misdeeds. It also seems possible to imagine a machine that could be rehabilitated by punishment. For example, one could imagine a robot dog that could be trained in the same way as a real dog—after leaking oil in the house or biting the robo-cat and being scolded, it would learn not to do those misdeeds again.

It could be argued that it would be better, both morally and practically, to build machines that would learn without punishment or to teach them without punishing them. After all, though organic beings seems to be wired in a way that requires that we be trained with pleasure and pain (as Aristotle would argue), there might be no reason that our machine creations would need to be the same way. But, perhaps, it is not just a matter of the organic—perhaps intelligence and agency require the capacity for pleasure and pain. Or perhaps not. Or it might simply be the only way that we know how to teach—we will be, by our nature, cruel teachers of our machine children.

Then again, we might be inclined to regard a machine that does misdeeds as being defective and in need of repair rather than punishment. If so, such machines would be “refurbished” or reprogrammed rather than rehabilitated by punishment. There are those who think the same of human beings—and this would raise the same sort of issues about how agents should be treated.

The purpose of deterrence is to motivate the agent who did the misdeed and/or other agents not to commit that deed. In the case of humans, people argue in favor of capital punishment because of its alleged deterrence value: if the state kills people for certain crimes, people are less likely to commit those crimes.

As with other forms of punishment, deterrence requires agency: the punished target must merit the punishment and the other targets must be capable of changing their actions in response to that punishment.

Deterrence, obviously enough, does not work in regards to non-agents. For example, if a computer crashes and wipes out a file a person has been laboring on for house, punishing it will not deter it. Smashing it in front of other computers will not deter them.

A machine that had agency could “earn” such punishment by its misdeeds and could, in theory, be deterred. The punishment could also deter other machines. For example, imagine a combat robot that performed poorly in its mission (or showed robo-cowardice). Punishing it could deter it from doing that again it could serve as a warning, and thus a deterrence, to other combat robots.

Punishment for the sake of deterrence raises the same sort of issues as punishment aimed at rehabilitation, such as the notion that it might be preferable to repair machines that engage in misdeeds rather than punishing them. The main differences are, of course, that deterrence is not aimed at making the target inclined to behave well, just to disincline it from behaving badly and that deterrence is also aimed at those who have not committed the misdeed.

 

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Guns on Campus

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 6, 2015

As I write this, the Florida state legislature is considering a law that will allow concealed carry permit holders to bring their guns to college campuses. As is to be expected, some opponents and some proponents are engaging in poor reasoning, hyperbole and other such unhelpful means of addressing the issue. As a professor and a generally pro-gun person, I have more than academic interest in this matter. My goal is, as always, is to consider this issue rationally, although I do recognize the role of emotions in this matter.

From an emotional standpoint, I am divided in my heart. On the pro-gun feeling side, all of my gun experiences have been positive. I learned to shoot as a young man and have many fond memories of shooting and hunting with my father. Though I now live in Florida, we still talk about guns from time to time. As graduate student, I had little time outside of school, but once I was a professor I was able to get in the occasional trip to the range. I have, perhaps, been very lucky: the people I have been shooting with and hunting with have all been competent and responsible people. No one ever got hurt. I have never been a victim of gun crime.

On the anti-gun side, like any sane human I am deeply saddened when I hear of people being shot down. While I have not seen gun violence in person, Florida State University (which is just across the tracks from my university) recently had a shooter on campus. I have spoken with people who have experienced gun violence and, not being callous, I can understand their pain. Roughly put, I can feel the two main sides in the debate. But, feeling is not a rational way to settle a legal and moral issue.

Those opposed to guns on campus are concerned that the presence of guns carried by permit holders would result in increase in injuries and deaths. Some of these injuries and deaths would be intentional, such as suicide, fights escalating to the use of guns, and so on. Some of these injuries and deaths, it is claimed, would be the result of an accidental discharge. From a moral standpoint, this is obviously a legitimate concern. However, it is also a matter for empirical investigation: would allowing concealed carry on campus increase the likelihood of death or injury to a degree that would justify banning guns?

Some states already allow licensed concealed carry on campus and there is, of course, considerable data available about concealed carry in general. The statistically data would seem to indicate that allowing concealed carry on campus would not result in an increase in injuries and death on campus. This is hardly surprising: getting a permit requires providing proof of competence with a firearm as well as a thorough background check—considerably more thorough than the background check to purchase a firearm. Such permits are also issued at the discretion of the state. As such, people who have such licenses are not likely engage in random violence on campus.

This is, of course, an empirical matter. If it could be shown that allowing licensed conceal carry on campus would result in an increase in deaths and injuries, then this would certainly impact the ethics of allowing concealed carry.

Those who are opposed to guns on campus are also rightfully concerned that someone other than the license holder will get the gun and use it. After all, theft is not uncommon on college campuses and someone could grab a gun from a licensed holder.

While these concerns are not unreasonable, someone interested in engaging in gun violence can easily acquire a gun without stealing it from a permit holder on campus. She could buy one or steal one from somewhere else. As far as grabbing a gun from a person carrying it legally, attacking an armed person is generally not a good idea—and, of course, someone who is prone to gun grabbing would presumably also try to grab a gun from a police officer. In general, these do not seem to be compelling reasons to ban concealed carry on campus.

Opponents of allowing guns on campus also point to psychological concerns: people will feel unsafe knowing that people around them might be legally carry guns. This might, it is sometimes claimed, result in a suppression of discussion in classes and cause professors to hand out better grades—all from fear that a student is legally carrying a gun.

I do know people who are actually very afraid of this—they are staunchly anti-gun and are very worried that students and other faculty will be “armed to the teeth” on campus and “ready to shoot at the least provocation.” The obvious reply is that someone who is dangerously unstable enough to shoot students and faculty over such disagreements would certainly not balk at illegally bringing a gun to campus. Allowing legal concealed carry by permit holders would, I suspect, not increase the odds of such incidents. But, of course, this is a matter of emotions and fear is rarely, if ever, held at bay by reason.

Opponents of legal carry on campus also advance a reasonable argument: there is really no reason for people to be carrying guns on campus. After all, campuses are generally safe, typically have their own police forces and are places of learning and not shooting ranges.

This does have considerable appeal. When I lived in Maine, I had a concealed weapon permit but generally did not go around armed. My main reason for having it was convenience—I could wear my gun under my jacket when going someplace to shoot. I must admit, of course, that as a young man there was an appeal in being able to go around armed like James Bond—but that wore off quickly and I never succumbed to gun machismo. I did not wear a gun while running (too cumbersome) or while socializing (too…weird). I have never felt the need to be armed with a gun on campus, though all the years I have been a student and professor. So, I certainly get this view.

The obvious weak point for this argument is that the lack of a reason to have a gun on campus (granting this for the sake of argument) is not a reason to ban people with permits from legally carrying on campus. After all, the permit grants the person the right to carry the weapon legally and more is needed to deny the exercise of that right than just the lack of need.

Another obvious weak point is that a person might need a gun on campus for legitimate self-defense. While this is not likely, that is true in most places. After all, a person going to work or out for a walk in the woods is not likely to need her gun. I have, for example, never needed one for self-defense. As such, there would seem to be as much need to have a gun on campus as many other places where it is legal to carry. Of course, this argument could be turned around to argue that there is no reason to allow concealed carry at all.

Proponents of legal concealed carry on campus often argue that “criminals and terrorists” go to college campuses in order to commit their crimes, since they know no one will be armed. There are two main problems with this. The first is that college campuses are, relative to most areas, very safe. So, criminals and terrorists do not seem to be going to them that often. As opponents of legal carry on campus note, while campus shootings make the news, they are actually very rare.

The second is that large campuses have their own police forces—in the shooting incident at FSU, the police arrived rapidly and shot the shooter. As such, I do not think that allowing concealed carry will scare away criminals and terrorists. Especially since they do not visit campuses that often already.

Proponents of concealed carry also sometimes claim that the people carrying legally on campus will serve as the “good guy with guns” to shoot the “bad guys with guns.” While there is a chance that a good guy will be able to shoot a bad guy, there is the obvious concern that the police will not be able to tell the good guy from the bad guy and the good guy will be shot. In general, the claims that concealed carry permit holders will be righteous and effective vigilantes on campus are more ideology and hyperbole than fact. Not surprisingly, most reasonable pro-gun people do not use that line of argumentation. Rather, they focus on more plausible scenarios of self-defense and not wild-west vigilante style shoot-outs.

My conclusion is that there is not a sufficiently compelling reason to ban permit holders from carrying their guns on campus. But, there does not seem to be a very compelling reason to carry a gun on campus.

 

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Robo Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2015

It is just a matter of time before the first serious accident involving a driverless car or an autonomous commercial drone. As such, it is well worth considering the legal and moral aspects of responsibility. If companies that are likely to be major players in the autonomous future, such as Google and Amazon, have the wisdom of foresight, they are already dropping stacks of cash on lawyers who are busily creating the laws-to-be regarding legal responsibility for accidents and issues involving such machines. The lobbyists employed by these companies will presumably drop fat stacks of cash on the politicians they own and these fine lawmakers will make them into laws.

If these companies lack foresight or have adopted a wait and see attitude, things will play out a bit differently: there will be a serious incident involving an autonomous machine, a lawsuit will take place, fat stacks of cash will be dropped, and a jury or judge will reach a decision that will set a precedent. There is, of course, a rather large body of law dealing with responsibility in regards to property, products and accidents and these will, no doubt, serve as foundations for the legal wrangling.

While the legal aspects will no doubt be fascinating (and expensive) my main concern is with the ethics of the matter. That is, who is morally responsible when something goes wrong with an autonomous machine like a driverless car or an autonomous delivery drone.

While the matter of legal responsibility is distinct from that of ethical responsibility, the legal theory of causation does have some use here. I am, obviously enough, availing myself of the notion of conditio sine qua non (“a condition without which nothing”) as developed by H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore.

Roughly put, this is the “but for” view of causation. X can be seen as the cause of Y if Y would not have happened but for X. This seems like a reasonable place to begin for moral responsibility. After all, if someone would not have died but for my actions (that is, if I had not done X, then the person would still be alive) then there seems to be good reason to believe that I have some moral responsibility for the person’s death. It also seems reasonable to assign a degree of responsibility that is proportional to the casual involvement of the agent or factor in question. So, for example, if my action only played a small role in someone’s death, then my moral accountability would be proportional to that role. This allows, obviously enough, for shared responsibility.

While cases involving non-autonomous machines can be rather complicated, they can usually be addressed in a fairly straightforward manner in terms of assigning responsibility. Consider, for example, an incident involving a person losing a foot to a lawnmower. If the person pushing the lawnmower intentionally attacked someone with her mower, the responsibility rests on her. If the person who lost the foot went and stupidly kicked at the mower, then the responsibility rests on her. If the lawnmower blade detached because of defects in the design, material or manufacturing, then the responsibility lies with the specific people involved in whatever defect caused the problem. If the blade detached because the owner neglected to properly maintain her machine, then the responsibility is on her. Naturally, the responsibility can also be shared (although we might not know the relevant facts). For example, imagine that the mower had a defect such that if it were not well maintained it would easily shed its blade when kicked. In this case, the foot would not have been lost but for the defect, the lack of maintenance and the kick. If we did not know all the facts, we would probably blame the kick—but the concern here is not what we would know in specific cases, but what the ethics would be in such cases if we did, in fact, know the facts.

The novel aspect of cases involving autonomous machines is the fact that they are autonomous. This might be relevant to the ethics of responsibility because the machine might qualify as a responsible agent. Or it might not.

It is rather tempting to treat an autonomous machine like a non-autonomous machine in terms of moral accountability. The main reason for this is that the sort of autonomous machines being considered here (driverless cars and autonomous drones) would certainly seem to lack moral autonomy. That is to say that while a human does not directly control them in their operations, they are operating in accord with programs written by humans (or written by programs written by humans) and lack the freedom that is necessary for moral accountability.

To illustrate this, consider an incident with an autonomous lawnmower and the loss of a foot. If the owner caused it to attack the person, she is just as responsible as if she had pushed a conventional lawnmower over the victim’s foot. If the person who lost the foot stupidly kicked the lawnmower and lost a foot, then it is his fault. If the incident arose from defects in the machinery, materials, design or programming, then responsibility would be applied to the relevant people to the degree they were involved in the defects. If, for example, the lawnmower ran over the person because the person assembling it did not attach the sensors correctly, then the moral blame lies with that person (and perhaps an inspector). The company that made it would also be accountable, in the collective and abstract sense of corporate accountability. If, for example, the programming was defective, then the programmer(s) would be accountable: but for his bad code, the person would still have his foot.

As with issues involving non-autonomous machines there is also the practical matter of what people would actually believe about the incident. For example, it might not be known that the incident was caused by bad code—it might be attributed entirely to chance. What people would know in specific cases is important in the practical sense, but does not impact the general moral principles in terms of responsibility.

Some might also find the autonomous nature of the machines to be seductive in regards to accountability. That is, it might be tempting to consider the machine itself as potentially accountable in a way analogous to holding a person accountable.

Holding the machine accountable would, obviously enough, require eliminating other factors as causes. To be specific, to justly blame the machine would require that the machine’s actions were not the result of defects in manufacturing, materials, programing, maintenance, and so on. Instead, the machine would have had to act on its own, in a way analogous to person acting. Using the lawnmower example, the autonomous lawnmower would need to decide to go after the person from it own volition. That is, the lawnmower would need to possess a degree of free will.

Obviously enough, if a machine did possess a degree of free will, then it would be morally accountable within its freedom. As such, a rather important question would be whether or not an autonomous machine can have free will. If a machine can, then it would make moral sense to try machines for crimes and punish them. If they cannot, then the trials would be reserved, as they are now, for people. Machines would, as they are now, be repaired or destroyed. There would also be the epistemic question of how to tell whether the machine had this capacity. Since we do not even know if we have this capacity, this is a rather problematic matter.

Given the state of technology, it seems unlikely that the autonomous machines of the near future will be morally autonomous. But as the technology improves, it seems likely that there will come a day when it will be reasonable to consider whether an autonomous machine can be justly held accountable for its actions. This has, of course, been addressed in science fiction—such as the ‘I, Robot” episodes (the 1964 original and the 1995 remake) of the Outer Limits which were based on Eando Binder’s short story of the same name.

 

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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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