A Philosopher's Blog

Does the Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage Infringe on Religious Liberty?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2015

In June, 2015 the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legality of same-sex marriage. Many states had already legalized same-sex marriages and a majority of Americans think it should be legal. As such, the ruling seems to be consistent both with the constitution and with the democratic ideal of majority rule. There are, of course, those who object to the ruling.

Some claim that the court acted in a way contrary to the democratic rule by engaging in judicial activism. Not surprisingly, some of those who make this claim were fine when the court ruled in ways they liked, despite the general principles being the same (that is, the court ruling in ways contrary to what voters had decided). I certainly do see the appeal of principle and consistent arguments against the Supreme Court engaging in activism and overruling what the voters have decided and there is certainly some merit in certain arguments against the same-sex marriage decision. However, my concern here is with another avenue of dissent against the decision, namely that this ruling infringes on religious liberty.

The argument from religious liberty is certainly an interesting one. On intriguing aspect is that the argument is made in terms of religious liberty rather than the older tactic of openly attacking gay folks for alleged moral wickedness. This change of tactic seems to show a recognition that a majority of Americans accept their fellow gay Americans and that shouting “fags” at gays is no longer acceptable in polite society. As such, the tactic acknowledges a changed world. This change also represents clever rhetoric: the intent is not to deny gay folks their rights, but to protect religious liberty. Protecting liberty certainly sells better than denying rights. While protecting liberty is certainly commendable, the obvious question is whether or not the legalization of same-sex marriage infringes on religious liberty.

In general, there are two ways to infringe on a liberty. The first is by forbiddance. That is, preventing a person from exercising a freedom. For example, the liberty of free expression can be infringed by preventing a person from freely expressing her ideas. The second is by force. This is a matter of compelling a person to take action against their free choice. For example, having a law that require people to dress a certain way when they do not wish to do so. Since some people consider entitlements to fall under liberties, another way a person could have liberty infringed upon is to be denied her entitlements. For example, the liberty of education in the United States entitles children to a public education.

It is important to note that not all cases of forbidding or forcing are violations of liberties. This is because there are legitimate grounds for limiting liberties—the usual ground being the principle of harm. For example, it is not a violation of a person’s liberty to prevent him from texting death threats to his ex-wife. As another example, it is not a violation of a person’s liberty to require her to have a license to drive a car.

Given this discussion, for the legalization of same-sex marriage to impose on religious liberty would require that it wrongfully forbids religious people from engaging in religious activities, wrongfully forces religious people to engage in behavior contrary to their religion or wrongfully denies religious people entitlements connected to their religion.

The third one is the easiest and quickest to address: there does not seem to be any way that the legalization of same-sex marriage denies religious people entitlements connected to their religion. While I might have not considered all the possibilities, I will move on to the first two.

On the face of it, the legalization of same-sex marriage does not seem to wrongfully forbid religious people from engaging in religious activities. To give some examples, it does not forbid people from praying, attending religious services, saying religious things, or doing anything that they are not already free to do.

While some people have presented slippery slope “arguments” that this legalization will lead to such forbiddances, there is nothing in the ruling that indicates this or even mentions anything remotely like this. As with all such arguments, the burden of proof rests on those who claim that there will be this inevitable or probable slide. While inter-faith and inter-racial marriage are different matters, allowing these to occur was also supposed to lead to terrible things. None of these happened, which leads one to suspect that the doomsayers will be proven wrong yet again.

But, of course, if a rational case can be made linking the legalization of same-sex marriage to these violations of religious liberty, then it would be reasonable to be worried. However, the linkage seems to be a matter of psychological fear rather than logical support.

It also seems that the legalization of same-sex marriage does not force religious people to wrongfully engage in behavior contrary to their religion. While it is legal for same-sex couples to marry, this does not compel people to become gay and then gay-marry someone else who is (now) gay. Religious people are not compelled to like, approve of or even feel tolerant of same-sex marriage. They are free to dislike, disapprove, and condemn it. They are free to try to amend the Constitution to forbid same-sex marriage.

It might be argued that religious people are compelled to allow other people to engage in behavior that is against their professed religious beliefs and this is a violation of religious freedom. The easy and obvious reply is that allowing other people to engage in behavior that is against one’s religion is not a violation of one’s religious liberty. This is because religious liberty is not the liberty to impose one’s religion on others, but the liberty to practice one’s religion.

The fact that I am at liberty to eat pork and lobster is not a violation of the religious liberty of Jews and Muslims. The fact that women can go out in public with their faces exposed is not a violation of the religious liberty of Muslims. The fact that people can have religions other than Christianity is not a violation of the religious liberty of Christians. As such, the fact that same-sex couples can legally marry does not violate the religious liberty of anyone.

It might be objected that it will violate the religious liberty of some people. Some have argued that religious institutions will be compelled to perform same-sex weddings (as they might be compelled to perform inter-racial or inter-faith marriages). This, I would agree, would be a violation of their religious liberty and liberty of conscience. Private, non-commercial organizations have every right to discriminate and exclude—that is part of their right of freedom of non-association. Fortunately, the legalization of same-sex marriage does not compel such organizations to perform these marriages. If it did, I would certainly oppose that violation of religious liberty.

It might also be objected that people in government positions would be required to issue same-sex marriage licenses, perform the legal act of marrying a same-sex couple, or recognize the marriage of a same-sex couple. People at the IRS would even be compelled to process the tax forms of same-sex couples.

The conflict between conscience and authority is nothing new and philosophers have long addressed this matter. Thoreau, for example, argued that people should follow their conscience and disobey what they regard as unjust laws.

This does have considerable appeal and I certainly agree that morality trumps law in terms of what a person should do. That is, I should do what is right, even if the law requires that I do evil. This view is a necessary condition for accepting that laws can be unjust or immoral, which is certainly something I accept. Because of this, I do agree that a person whose conscience forbids her from accepting same-sex marriage has the moral right to refuse to follow the law. That said, the person should resign from her post in protest rather than simply refusing to follow the law—as an official of the state, the person does have an obligation to perform her job and must choose between keeping that job and following her conscience. Naturally, a person also has the right to try to change what she regards as an immoral law.

I have the same view in regards to people who see interracial marriage as immoral: they should follow the dictates of their conscience and not take a job that would require them to, for example, issue marriage licenses. However, their right to their liberty of conscience does not override the rights of other citizens to marry. That is, their liberty does not morally warrant denying the liberty of others.

It could be argued that same-sex marriage should be opposed because it is objectively morally wrong and that even officials should do so on this ground. This line of reason does have a certain appeal—what is objectively wrong should be opposed, even if it is the law and even by officials. For example, when slavery was legal in the United States it should have been opposed by everyone, even officials of the state. But, arguing against same-sex marriage on moral grounds is a different matter from arguing against it on the grounds that it allegedly violates religious liberty.

It could be argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage will violate the religious liberty of people in businesses such as baking wedding cakes, planning weddings, photographing weddings and selling wedding flowers.

The legalization of same-sex marriage does not, by itself, forbid businesses from refusing to do business involving a same-sex marriage. Legal protection against that sort of discrimination is another, albeit related, matter. This sort of discrimination has also been defended on the grounds of freedom of expression, which I have addressed at length in other essays.

In regards to religious liberty, a business owner certainly has the right to not sell certain products or provide certain services that go against her religion. For example, a Jewish restaurant owner has the liberty to not serve pork. A devout Christian who owns a bookstore has the liberty to not stock the scriptures of other faiths or books praising same-sex marriage. An atheist t-shirt seller has the liberty to not stock any shirts displaying religious symbols. These are all matters of religious liberty.

I would also argue that religious liberty allows business owners to refuse to create certain products or perform certain services. For example, a Muslim free-lance cartoonist has the right to refuse to draw cartoons of Muhammad. As another example, an atheist baker has the right to refuse to create a cake with a cross and quotes from scripture.

That said, religious liberty does not seem to grant a business owner the right to discriminate based on her religion. For example, a Muslim who owns a car dealership has no right to refuse to sell cars to women (or women who refuse to fully cover themselves). As another example, a militant homosexual who owns a bakery has no right to refuse to sell cakes to straight people.

Thus, it would seem that the legalization of same-sex marriage does not violate religious liberty.

 

 

 

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Narratives, Terror & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2015

After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.

The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.

Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.

One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.

This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.

An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.

It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.

One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.

The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.

It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.

In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.

 

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Gender Nominalism & Competition

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 12, 2015

In the previous essay I discussed gender nominalism—the idea that gender is not a feature of reality, but a social (or individual) construct. As such, a person falling within a gender class is a matter of naming rather than a matter of having objective features. In this essay I will not argue for (or against) gender nominalism. Rather, I will be discussing gender nominalism within the context of competition.

Being a runner, I will start with competitive sports. As anyone who has run competitively knows, males and females generally compete within their own sexes. So, for example, a typical road race will (at least) have awards for the top three males and also for the top three females. While individual males and females vary greatly in their abilities, males have a general physical advantage over females when it comes to running: the best male runner is significantly better than the best female runner and average male runners are also better than average female runners.

Given that males generally have an advantage over females in regards to running (and many other physical sports), it would certainly be advantageous for a male runner if the division was based on gender (rather than biological sex) and people could simply declare their genders. That is, a male could declare himself a woman and thus be more likely to do better relative to the competition. While there are those who do accept that people have the right to gender declare at will and that others are obligated to accept this, it seems clear that this would not be morally acceptable in sports.

The intent of dividing athletes by sex is to allow for a fairer completion. This same principle, that of fairer competition, is also used to justify age groups—as older runner knows, few things slow a person down like dragging many years.  Because of this, a runner could, in general, gain an advantage by making a declaration of age identity (typically older). Perhaps the person could claim that he has always been old on the inside and that to refuse to accept his age identification would be oppression. However, this would be absurd: declaring an age does not change the person’s ability to compete and would thus grant an unfair advantage. Likewise, allowing a male to compete as a woman (or girl) in virtue of gender identification would be unfair. The declaration would not, obviously, change the person’s anatomy and physiology.

There are, however, cases that are much more controversial and challenging. These include cases in which a person has undergone a change in anatomy. While these cases are important, they go beyond the intended scope of this essay, which is gender nominalism.

Some competitions do not divide the competitors by sex. These are typically competitions where the physical differences between males and females do not impact the outcome. Some examples include debate, chess, spelling bees and NASCAR. In these cases, males and females compete equally and hence the principle of fairness justifies the lack of sex divisions. Some of these competitions do have other divisions. For example, spelling bees do not normally pit elementary school students against high school students. In such competitions, gender identification would seem to be irrelevant. As such, competitors should be free to gender identify as they wish within the context of the competition.

Interestingly, there are competitions where there appear to be no sex-based advantages (in terms of physical abilities), yet there are gender divisions. There are competitions in literature, music, and acting that are divided by gender (and some are open only to one gender). There are also scholarships, fellowships and other academic awards that are open only to one gender (in the United States, these are often limited to woman).

Since being a biological male would seem to yield no advantage in such cases, the principle of fairness would not seem to apply. For example, the fact that males are generally larger and stronger would yield no advantage when it came to writing a novel, acting in a play, or playing a guitar. As such, it would seem that if people should be able to set their own gender identity, they should be able to do so for such competitions, thus enabling them to compete where they wish.

It could be argued that the principle of fairness would still apply—that biological males would still have an advantage even if they elected to identify as women for the competition. This advantage, it might be claimed, would be based in the socially constructed advantages that males possess. Naturally, it would need to be shown that a male that gender identifies as a woman for such competitions, such as getting a woman’s only scholarship, would still retain the (alleged) male advantage.

It could also be argued that the divisions are not based on a principle of fairness regarding advantages or disadvantages. Rather, the divisions are to given more people a chance of winning. This could be justified on the same grounds that justify having many categories. For example, there are awards for being the best actor in a supporting role, which exists to create another chance for an actor to win something. If a person could just gender declare and be eligible, then that would create an “imbalance”, much as allowing non-supporting actors to declare themselves supporting actors to get a shot at that award would be unfair.

Of course, this seems to assume that there is a justified distinction between the genders that would ground the claims of unfairness. That is, it would be as wrong for a male to win best actress as it would be for a female screenwriter who never acted to win best actress for her screenplay.  Or that it would be as bad for a male to get a scholarship intended for a woman as it would be for a football player who cannot do math to get a math scholarship. This approach, which would involve rejecting one form of gender nominalism (the version in which the individual gets to declare gender) is certainly an option. This would not, however, require accepting that gender is not a social construct—one could still be a gender nominalist of the sort that believes that gender classification is both a matter of individual declaration and acceptance by the “relevant community.” As such, the relevant communities could police their competitions. For example, those who dole out scholarships for woman can define what it is to be a woman, so as to prevent non-woman from getting those awards. This would, of course, seem to justify similar gender policing by society as a whole, which leads to some interesting problems about who gets to define gender identity. The usual answer people give is, of course, themselves.

 

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Sex, Power, Professors & Students

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2015

In February of 2015 Laura Kipnis’ essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though perhaps potentially controversial in content, the essay was a rational and balanced consideration of the subject of campus codes regarding relationships between students and professors. In response to this essay, Kipnis was subjected to what she rightly calls a Title IX Inquisition.

While I will not be addressing the specifics of Kipnis’ essays, reading them caused me to consider the topic of university regulation of relations between professors and students. While the legal issues are certainly interesting, my main concern as a philosopher lies in the domain of ethics.

I will begin by getting the easy stuff out of the way. Since universities have an obligation to provide a safe environment conducive to learning, universities should have rules that forbid professors from sexually harassing students or pressuring them. Since universities also have an obligation to ensure that grades are assigned based on merit, they should also have rules that forbid exchanging goods or services (in this case, sexual services) in return for better grades. Crimes such as sexual assault and rape should be handled by the police—though universities should certainly have rules governing the employment of professors who are convicted of assaulting or raping anyone. Of course, since the professor would most likely be in prison, this would probably make continued employment rather difficult.

Somewhat less easy is the issue of whether or not universities should forbid consenting relationships between professors and students when the student is enrolled in the professor’s class or otherwise professionally under the professor (such as being an advisee, TA, or RA). There is certainly a legitimate concern about fairness. After all, if a student is sexually involved with a professor, then the student might have an unfair advantage relative to other students. I consider this to be distinct from the exchange of a grade for sexual favors—rather, this is a matter of such things as positive bias in favor of the student that results in special treatment. For example, that a professor might grade her boyfriend’s paper much easier than those of other students.

While sexual relations can lead to bias, these are not the only relations that can have this effect. A professor who is friends with a student or related to a student can be subject to bias in favor of that student (as distinct from pure nepotism in which grades are simply handed out based on the relationship). So, if the principle justifying  forbidding a professor from having a student in his class he has a relation with is based on the potential for bias, then students who are friends, relatives or otherwise comparably connected to the professor would also need to forbidden.

It can be argued that there is a relevant difference between sexual relations and non-sexual relations that would justify forbidding a professor from dating a student in her class, while still allowing her to have a friend or relative as a student. Alternatively, a university could simply place a general ban on professors having students with whom they have a potentially biasing relationship—be it sexual, platonic, or a family relationship. As a general policy, this does have some appeal on the grounds of fairness. It can, however, be countered on the grounds that a professional should be able to control her bias in regards to friends and family. This, of course, opens the door to the claim that a professional should also be able to control his bias in regards to a sexual relationship. However, many people would certainly be skeptical about that—and I recall from my own graduate school days the comments students would make about students who were sexual involved with their professor or TA. Put in polite terms, they expressed their skepticism about the fairness of the grading.

My considered view is a conditional one: if a professor can maintain her objectivity, then the unfairness argument would have no weight. However, there is the legitimate concern that some (or even many) professors could not maintain such objectivity, thus making such a general rule forbidding relationships justifiable. After all, rules limiting behavior are not crafted with the best people in mind, but those that are less than the best.

The fairness argument could not, of course, be used to justify forbidding professors from dating students who are not and will not be in their classes (or otherwise under them in a professional capacity). So, for example, if an engineering professor were to date an English Literature major who will never take any of the classes she teaches, then there would seem to be no basis in regards to fairness for forbidding this relationship. Since harassment and coercive relationships should be forbidden, there would thus seem to be no grounds for forbidding such a consensual relationship between two adults. However, there are those who argue that there are grounds for a general forbiddance.

There are, of course, practical reasons to have a general forbiddance of relationships between students and professors even when there is no coercion, no harassment, and no unfairness and so on. One reason is that relationships generally fail and often fail in dramatic ways—it could be problematic for a university to have such a dramatic failure play out on campus. Another reason is that such relationships can be a legal powder keg in terms of potential lawsuits against a university—as such, university administrators probably feel that their money and brand should be protected by forbidding any such relationships.

From a moral perspective, the concern is whether there are moral grounds for forbidding such relationships (other than, of course, a utilitarian argument about the potential for brand damage).

One stock argument is that there is always a power disparity between professors and students and this entails that all relationships are potentially coercive. Even if most professors would not consciously coerce a student, rules (as noted above) are not made for the best people. As such, the blanket ban on relationships is necessary to prevent any possibility of coercive relationships between students and professors.

It might be objected that a rule against coercive relationships would suffice and that if the professor has no professional relationship with the student, then they should be treated as adults. After all, the professor would seem to have no power at all over the student and coercion via professional position would not be a possibility. So, they should be free to have a relationship despite the worries of the “nanny” university.

It could be countered that a professor always has power over a student in virtue of being a professor—even when the professor has no professional relationship to the student. While a professor might have some “power” in regards to being older (usually), having some status, having more income (usually), and so on, these do not seem to be distinct from the “power” anyone could have over anyone else. That is, there seems to be nothing specific to being a professor that would give the professor power over the student that would make the relationship automatically coercive. As such, there would seem to be no grounds for forbidding the relationship.

It could be objected that students are vulnerable to the power of professors and lack the autonomy needed to resist this power. As such, the university must act in a paternalistic way and forbid all relationships—so as to protect the guileless, naïve and completely powerless students from the cunning, powerful predatory professors. This would be analogous to the laws that protect minors from adults—the minors cannot give informed consent. If college students are similarly vulnerable to professors, then the same sort of rule applies. Of course, if students are so vulnerable, then there should certainly be a reconsideration of the age of consent—increasing it to 23 might suffice. Then again, many students take six years to graduate, so perhaps it should be 24. There are also graduate students, so perhaps it should be extended to 30. Or even more—after all, a student could go to school at almost any age.

Unless it is assumed that students are powerless victims and professors are powerful predators, then a blanket ban on relationships seems morally unwarranted—at least on the grounds of forbidding relationships because of an assumption of coercion. However, there are other moral grounds for such rules—for example, a case can be made that dating students would be a violation of professionalism (on par with dating co-workers or clients). While the effect would be the same, the justification does seem to matter.

 

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Local Control

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2015

While casting Democrats as wanting to impose the power of big government, the Republicans profess to favor small government and local control. However, as J.S. Mill noted, people rarely operate on the basis of consistently applied principles regarding what the state should or should not do. As such, it is hardly surprising that Republicans are for local control, except when the locals are not doing what they want. Then they are often quite willing to use the power of the state against local government. One recent and clear example of this is the passage of laws in states such as Oklahoma and Texas that effectively forbid local governments from passing laws aimed at restricting fracking.

Even in oil industry friendly states such as Oklahoma, there have been attempts by local governments to impose restrictions on fracking. As might be imagined, having a fracking operation right next door tends to be disruptive—the lights, noise, heavy truck traffic and contamination are all concerns. In Oklahoma there is also the added concern of earthquakes that have been causally linked to disposal wells. Since places that did not have earthquakes before the wells were dug generally do not have earthquake resistant structures, these new quakes can pose threats to property and public safety.

In general, local governments have stepped in because the local people believed that the state government was not doing enough to protect the well-being of the local citizens. In general, state legislatures tend to be very friendly with the oil and gas industry—in part because they tend to make up a significant proportion of the economy of many states. While lobbying state legislatures is not cheap, it is obviously more cost effective to have the state legislatures pass laws forbidding local governments from acting contrary to the interests of the oil and gas industry. Otherwise, the industry would need to influence (or purchase) all the local governments and this would costly and time consuming.

Since I favor individual autonomy, it is hardly surprising that I also favor local autonomy. As such, I regard these laws to be wrong. However, considering arguments for and against them is certainly worthwhile.

One obvious set of arguments to deploy against these laws are all the general arguments that Republicans advance in favor of local control when the locals are doing what Republicans want them to do. After all, if these arguments adequately show that local control is good and desirable, then these arguments should apply to this situation as well. But, as noted above, the “principle” most follow is that people should do what they want and not do what they do not want them to do. Consistency is thus rather rare—and almost unseen when it comes to politics.

One argument in favor of having the state impose on the local governments is based on the fact that having a patchwork of laws is problematic. The flip side of this is, obviously, that having a consistent set of laws across the state (and presumably the entire country) is generally a good thing.

In the case of the regulation of the oil and gas industry, the argument rests on the claim that having all these different local laws would be confusing and costly—it is better to have laws for the industry that cover the entire state (and, to follow the logic, the entire country…or world). Interestingly, when the EPA advanced a similar argument for regulating water, the Republicans rushed to attack. Once again, this is hardly a shock: the patchwork argument is not applied consistently, just when a party wants to prevent local control.

Applied consistently, the patchwork argument certainly has its appeal. After all, it is true that having laws vary with each locality can be rather confusing and can have some negative consequences. For example, if the color of traffic lights was set by localities and some decided to go with different colors, then there would be problems. As another example, if some local governments refused to recognize same sex-marriage when it is legal in the state, this could lead to various legal problems (such as inheritance issues or hospital visitation rights). As such, there seem to be good reasons to have a unified set of laws rather than a patchwork.

That said, it can be argued that the difficulties of the patchwork can be outweighed by other factors. In general terms, one can always apply a utilitarian argument. If it can be shown that allowing local autonomy on a matter creates more good than the harm created by having a patchwork of laws, then that would be an argument in favor of local autonomy in this matter. In the case of local control of the gas and oil industry, this would be a matter of weighing the harms and the benefits to all those involved (and not just the oil and gas industry shareholders). I am inclined to think that allowing local control would create more good than harm, but I could be wrong about this. Perhaps the benefits to the state as a whole outweigh the damage done locally—that is, the few must sacrifice for the many (albeit against their will). But perhaps the many are suffering for the few stockholders, which would seem to be wrong.

Another moral argument worth considering is the matter of property rights. In the case of fracking, the oil and gas companies do own the mineral rights. As such, they do have legitimate property rights to the resources located under the property in question. However, the people who own the property above the minerals also have rights. These presumably include a right to safety from environmental contamination, a right to not have their property values degraded, a right to a certain quality of life in regards to noise and light, and so on for other rights. The moral challenge is, obviously enough, balancing these rights against each other. Working this out is, in the practical sense, a matter of politics.

Since local governments tend to be more responsive to locals than the state government, it could be argued that they would be biased against the oil and gas industry and hence this matter should be settled by the state to avoid an unfair resolution. However, it can be argued that state governments are often influenced (or owned) by the oil and gas industry. This would seem to point towards the need for federal regulation of the matter (assuming that the federal government is more objective)—which is something that Republicans tend to oppose, despite it being the logical conclusion of their argument against local control. Interesting, arguments advanced to claim that the federal government should not impose on the local control of the states would seem to apply to the local government. That is, if the federal government should not be imposing on the states, then the states should not be imposing on the local governments.

 

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Bulk Data Collection

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 15, 2015

A federal appeals court ruled in May, 2015 that the NSA’s bulk collection of domestic calling data is illegal. While such bulk data collection would strike many as blatantly unconstitutional, this matter has not been addressed, though that is perhaps just a matter of time. My intent is to address the general issue of bulk domestic data collection by the state in a principled way.

When it comes to the state (or, more accurately, the people who compose the state) using its compulsive force against its citizens, there are three main areas of concern: practicality, morality and legality. I will addressing this matter within the context of the state using its power to impose on the rights and liberties of the citizens for the purported purpose of protecting them. This is, of course, the stock problem of liberty versus security.

In the case of practicality, the main question is whether or not the law, policy or process is effective in achieving its goals. This, obviously, needs to be balanced against the practical costs in terms of such things as time and resources (such as money).

In the United States, this illegal bulk data collection has been going on for years. To date, there seems to be but one public claim of success involving the program, which certainly indicates that the program is not effective. When the cost of the program is considered, the level of failure is appalling.

In defense of the program, some proponents have claimed that there have been many successes, but these cannot be reported because they must be kept secret. In fairness, it is certainly worth considering that there have been such secret successes that must remain secret for security reasons. However, this defense can easily be countered.

In order to accept this alleged secret evidence, those making the claim that it exists would need to be trustworthy. However, those making the claim have a vested interest in this matter, which certainly lowers their credibility. To use an analogy, if I was receiving huge sums of money for a special teaching program and could only show one success, but said there were many secret successes, you would certainly be wise to be skeptical of my claims. There is also the fact that thanks to Snowden, it is known that the people involved have no compunctions about lying about this matter, which certainly lowers their credibility.

One obvious solution would be for credible, trusted people with security clearance to be provided with the secret evidence. These people could then speak in defense of the bulk data collection without mentioning the secret specifics. Of course, given that everyone knows about the bulk data collection, it is not clear what relevant secrets could remain that the public simply cannot know about (except, perhaps, the secret that the program does not work).

Given the available evidence, the reasonable conclusion is that the bulk data collection is ineffective. While it is possible that there is some secret evidence, there is no compelling reason to believe this claim, given the lack of credibility on the part of those making this claim. This alone would suffice as grounds for ceasing this wasteful and ineffective approach.

In the case of morality, there are two main stock approaches. The first is a utilitarian approach in which the harms of achieving the security are weighed against the benefits provided by the security. The basic idea is that the state is warranted in infringing on the rights and liberties of the citizens on the condition that the imposition is outweighed by the wellbeing gained by the citizens—either in terms of positive gains or harms avoided. This principle applies beyond matters of security. For example, people justify such things as government mandated health care and limits on soda sizes on the same grounds that others justify domestic spying: these things are supposed to protect citizens.

Bulk data collection is, obviously enough, an imposition on the moral right to privacy—though it could be argued that this harm is fairly minimal. There are, of course, also the practical costs in terms of resources that could be used elsewhere, such as in health care or other security programs. Weighing the one alleged success against these costs, it seems evident that the bulk data collection is immoral on utilitarian grounds—it does not do enough good to outweigh its moral cost.

Another stock approach to such matters is to forgo utilitarianism and argue the ethics in another manner, such as appealing to rights. In the case of bulk data collection, it can be argued that it violates the right to privacy and is thus wrong—its success or failure in practical terms is irrelevant. In the United States people often argue this way when it comes to gun rights—the right outweighs utilitarian considerations about the well-being of the public.

Rights are, of course, not absolute—everyone knows the example of how the right to free expression does not warrant slander or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. So, it could be argued that the right of privacy can be imposed upon. Many stock arguments exist to justify such impositions and these typical rest either on utilitarian arguments or arguments showing that the right to privacy does not apply. For example, it is commonly argued that criminals lack a right to privacy in regards to their wicked deeds—that is, there is no moral right to secrecy in order to conceal immoral deeds. While these arguments can be used to morally justify collecting data from specific suspects, they do not seem to justify bulk data collection—unless it can be shown that all Americans have forfeited their right to privacy.

It would thus seem that the bulk data collection cannot be justified on moral grounds. As a general rule, I favor the view that there is a presumption in favor of the citizen: the state needs a moral justification to impose on the citizen and it should not be assumed the state has a right to act unless the citizen can prove differently. This is, obviously enough, analogous to the presumption of innocence in the American legal system.

In regards to the legality of the matter, the specific law in question has been addressed.  In terms of bulk data collection in general, the answer seems quite obvious. While I am obviously not a constitutional scholar, bulk data collection seems to be a clear and egregious violation of the 4th Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The easy and obvious counter is to point out that I, as I said, am not a constitutional scholar or even a lawyer. As such, my assessment of the 4th Amendment is lacking the needed professional authority. This is, of course, true—which is why this matter needs to be addressed by the Supreme Court.

In sum, there seems to be no practical, moral or legal justification for such bulk data collection by the state and hence it should not be permitted. This is my position as a philosopher and the 2016 Uncandidate.

 

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Law Enforcement as Revenue Stream

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

After the financial class melted down the world economy, local governments faced an obvious reduction in their revenues. As the economy recovered under a Democrat President, the Republicans held onto or gained power in many state governments, such as my own adopted state of Florida. With laudable consistency with their professed ideology, Republicans routinely cut taxes for businesses, the well off and sometimes even almost everyone. While the theory seems to be that cutting taxes will increase the revenue for state and local governments, shockingly the opposite seems to happen: state and local governments find themselves running short of funds needed to meet the expenses of actually operating a civilization.

Being resourceful, local leaders seek other revenue streams in order to pay the bills. While cities like Ferguson provide well-known examples of a common “solution”, many cities and towns have embraced the practice of law-enforcement as revenue stream. While the general practice of getting revenue from law enforcement is nothing new, the extent to which some local governments rely on it is rather shocking. How the system works is also often shocking—it often amounts to a shakedown system one would expect to see in a corrupt country unfamiliar with the rule of law or the rights of citizens.

Since Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot on August 9, 2014, has been the subject of extensive study, I will use the statistics from that town. Unfortunately, Ferguson does not appear to be unique or even unusual.

In 2013, Ferguson’s court dealt with 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. This works out to an average of 1.5 cases and 3 warrants per household in Ferguson. The fines and court fees that year totaled $2,635,400—making the municipal court the second largest revenue stream.

It would certainly be one thing if these numbers were the result of the legitimate workings of the machinery of justice. That is, if the cases and warrants were proportional to the actual crimes being committed and that justice was being dispensed fairly. That is, the justice was just.

One point of concern that has been widely addressed in the national media is that the legal system seems to disproportionally target blacks. In Ferguson, as in many places, the majority of the cases handled by the court arise from car stops. Ferguson is 29% white, but whites make up only 12.7% of those stopped. When a person is stopped, a black citizen will be searched 12.1% of the time, while a white citizen will be searched 6.9% of the time. In terms of arrest, a black citizen was arrested 10.4% of the time and a white citizen was arrested 5.2% of the time.

One stock reply to such figures is the claim that blacks commit more crimes than whites. If it were true that blacks were being arrested in proportion to the rate at which they were committing crimes, then this would be (on the face of it) fair. However, this does not seem to be the case. Interesting, even though blacks were more likely to be searched, the police discovered contraband 21.7% of the time. Whites who were searched were found with contraband 34.0% of the time. Also, 93% of those arrested in Ferguson were black. While certainly not impossible, it seems somewhat odd that 93% of the crime committed in the city was committed by black citizens.

Naturally, these numbers can be talked around or even explained away. It could be argued that blacks are not being targeted as a specific source of revenue and the arrest rates are proportional and just. This still leaves the matter of how the legal system operates in terms of being focused on revenue.

Laying aside all talk of race, Ferguson stands out as an example of how law enforcement can turn into a collection system. One key component is, of course, having a system of high fines. For example, Ferguson had a $531 fine for high grass and weeds, $792 for Failure to Obey, $527 for Failure to Comply, $427 for a Peace Disturbance violation, and so on.

If a person can pay, then the person is not arrested. But, if a person cannot afford the fine, then an arrest warrant is issued—this is the second part of the system. The city issued 32,975 arrest warrants for minor offenses in 2013—and the city has a population of 21,000 people.

After a person is arrested, she faces even more fees, such the obvious court fees and these can quickly pile up. For example, a person might get a $150 parking ticket that she cannot pay. She is then arrested and subject to more fees and more charges. This initial ticket might grow to a debt of almost$1,000 to the city. Given that the people who tend to be targeted are poor, it is likely they will not be able to pay the initial ticket. They will then be arrested, which could cost them their job, thus make them unable to pay their court fees. This could easily spiral into a court inflicted cycle of poverty and debt. This, obviously enough, is not what the legal system is supposed to do.

From a moral standpoint, one main problem with using this sort of law enforcement as a revenue stream is the damage it does to the citizens who cannot afford the fines and fees. As noted in the example above, a person could find her life ruined by a single parking ticket. The point of law enforcement in a just society is to protect the citizens from harm, not ruin them.

A second point of moral concern is that this sort of system is racketeering—it puts forth a threat of arrest and court fees, and then offers “protection” from that threat in return for a fee. That is, citizens are threatened to buy their way out of a greater harm. This is hardly justice. If it was practice by anyone else, it would be criminal racketeering and a protection scheme.

A third point of moral concern is that the system of exploiting the citizens by force and threat of force damages the fundamental relation between the citizen and the democratic state. In feudal states and in the domains of warlords, one expects the thugs of the warlords to shake down the peasants. However, that sort of thing is contrary to the nature of a democratic state. As happened during the revolts against feudalism and warlords, people will rise up against such oppression—and this is to be expected. Robin Hood is, after all, the hero and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the villain.

This is not to say that there should not be fines, penalties and punishments. However, they should be proportional to the offenses, they should be fairly applied, and should be aimed at protecting the citizens, not filling the coffers of the kingdom. As a final point, we should certainly not be cutting the taxes of the well off and then slamming the poor with the cost of doing so. That is certainly unjust and will, intended or not, result in dire social consequences.

 

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Wedding Cakes & Cartoon of Muhammad

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2015
U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On May 3, 2015 the American Freedom Defense Initiative put on a contest in which cartoonists drew images of Muhammad for a cash prize. To most Muslims, such portrayals of Muhammad are deeply offensive—much in the way that many Americans find the burning of the American flag offensive. As such, it is reasonable to infer that the event was intended to be provocative—the event was certainly well protected with armed security forces. As such, it was hardly shocking when two gunmen attacked the event. These armored and heavily armed men were killed by a traffic officer armed only with a pistol. ISIS has claimed credit for the attack, although it is currently unclear if the terrorist group had a direct role.

As I have argued in previous essays, the use of violence in response to offensive artwork or other forms of expression is not warranted. As such, there is no need to re-hash those arguments to support the claim that the attack on the event was morally wrong. Outside of the realm of violent extremists, I doubt there is much dispute over this point. As such, I will proceed to the main matter I wish to focus on.

But a short while ago, Indiana was making headlines with its religious freedom act. There is also the recurring talking point that religious liberty and religion are under attack in America. One example given of the threat to religious liberty was the requirement that employers of a certain size provide insurance coverage that covered birth control for full-time employees. Another example of the threat is the steady march towards legalization in all 50 states by same sex-marriage. A third example is that many states have laws that forbid discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. This is supposed to violate religious liberty by forbidding, for example, a Christian baker to discriminate against a same-sex couple that wants to buy a wedding cake.

Though I have written extensively about these specific matters, my general view is based on the principle that religious rights do not allow a person a right to violate the legitimate rights of others. To use an easy and obvious example, a faith that claimed human sacrifice as a basic tenet of its faith would justly be denied the right to engage in this practice. After all, the right to life trumps the right to practice one’s faith on others against their will.

In the case of discrimination against same-sex couples, I follow the same principle: the freedom of religion is bounded by the principle of harm. Since same-sex couples are members of the civil society and being able to engage in free commerce is a basic right in capitalism, to deny them the right to goods and services because of their sexual orientation would harm them. While it might be countered that selling a cake to a same-sex couple would harm the Christian baker, it is not clear what harm is being done. After all, she is making a sale and the sale of an item is not an endorsement of the purchaser. If, for example, Nazis are buying my books on Amazon, I am not thereby endorsing Nazism.

In the case of a company being required to provide coverage that covers birth control, the company does not seem to be harmed by this. The company is not required to use birth control, directly hand it to the employees, or endorse birth control. They are merely required to provide employees with the opportunity to have such coverage if they so desire it. It is, in fact, a form of compensation—it certainly does not violate the rights of an employer if employers spend their salaries as they wish—even on birth control.

While the laws that are purported to defend religious freedom do not, for obvious reasons, specify that they are aimed at defending a specific variety of Christianity, it does seem fairly evident that the concern is not about defending religion in general. If it were, the event in which people competed to draw cartoons of Muhammad would have been condemned by all the folks supporting the religious “freedom” laws and those who claim religion is under attack in America. After all, holding an event explicitly aimed at mocking a religion and provoking members of a faith would seem to be an attack on religion. This sort of event would certainly seem more of an attack on religion than forbidding bakers from discriminating against same-sex couples.

While I think people should not engage in such offensive behavior (I also believe that people should not burn American flags or piss on crosses), my consistency requires that I must accept the freedom of people to engage in such offensive behavior. This is, as with the case of the wedding cake, based on the principle of harm: restricting freedom of expression because the expression is offensive creates more harm than it prevents. Part of this is because while there is a right to freedom of expression and it can be wrong to offend people, there is no right to a freedom from being offended. That said, members of civil society do fall under moral expectations of polite behavior. So, while there is no right to forbid people from pissing on crosses, burning American flags or drawing cartoons of Muhammad, a decent human being will consider her actions and act with respect for the views of others. That is what good people do. I admit, I have not always lived up to that myself and that is a failing on my part.

It is, of course, possible to cross from mere offense to actual harm. This boundary is, unfortunately, not always sharp and admits of many gray zones. Fortunately, though, the principle is clear: mere offensiveness does not warrant forbiddance and religious freedom does not warrant unjustly imposing on the rights of others.

 

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Rule of Law & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2015

One interesting narrative about the riots in Baltimore involves the concept of the rule of law. Put roughly, the rule of law is the idea that the law should govern rather than the arbitrary decisions of those in power. The notion is sometimes applied to the citizens as well—namely that the citizens should follow the rule of law to resolve conflicts—as opposed to engaging in activities such as riots or vigilantism.

Thinker such as John Locke have laid out arguments as to why the rule of law is preferable to that of the state of nature. These arguments are generally persuasive, especially since Locke emphasizes the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so.

Since I find Locke’s arguments appealing, it is hardly surprising that I favor rule of law—at least when the laws are good and the leaders are acting for the good of the people. When the government has moral legitimacy, the laws and the leaders have the right to expect people to follow the laws and listen to the leaders. However, when the laws or leaders violate the basic agreement (that the laws are for the good of the people and the leaders are to not be tyrants), then their legitimacy evaporates.

Some conservatives speak of the tyranny of Obama and how the Democrats wish to create a tyrannical state. Interestingly enough, they are right to be worried about tyranny. However, their timeline is in error: tyranny is already here.

John Locke provides the following definition of “tyranny”:  “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.”

The United States seems to meet this definition. In 2014, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted a study to determine the extent to which laws reflect the views of the majority versus the interests of those in power. This study, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” , used data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

While following these laws would be to conform to the rule of law, it would also be to embrace tyrannical laws—laws crafted for the advantage of those holding power and not the good of the people.

While the people who strike out in riots are probably unfamiliar with the research in question, they do know the obvious: they live within a political and economic system that primarily serves the “private, separate advantage” of the elite class and has little to offer them. As such, it should be no shock that some people do not embrace the rule of such law. If they are striking out against these laws and their riots are a revolt, they are revolting against what seems to be a tyrannical system. That is, one that serves the interests of the powerful few and not the good of the people. Or, to be fair to those who are critical of the riots, perhaps they are just thugs who are breaking things.

Continuing with tyranny, Locke notes that “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.”

Sadly, this seems to accurately describe the excessive use of force against citizens by some police officers. Baltimore, as has been widely reported, has paid out millions of dollars in settlements due to the wrongful use of force by police against citizens. As people do like to point out, not all police officers are bad and there are excellent officers. However, even a cursory examination of the problems with policing in American cities shows that Locke’s definition of tyranny is routinely met. As such, it is evident that the rule of law was already broken well before the riots.

While Locke did not use this phrase, the rule of law is a two-way street and those who are charged with enforcing the law must also obey that law—otherwise it would be rather unreasonable to expect obedience from the citizens. As such, the most obvious step to restoring rule of law is to ensure that those charged with enforcing the laws are also following the laws.

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Who is Responsible for a Living Income?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2015

There is, obviously enough, a minimum amount of income that a person or family needs in order to survive—that is, to pay for necessities such as food, shelter, clothing and health care. In order to address this need, the United States created a minimum wage. However, this wage has not kept up with the cost of living and many Americans simply do not earn enough to support themselves. These people are known, appropriately enough, as the working poor. This situation raises an obvious moral and practical question: who should bear the cost of making up the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage? The two main options seem to be the employers or the taxpayers. That is, either employers can pay employees enough to live on or the taxpayers will need to pick up the tab. Another alternative is to simply not make up the difference and allow people to try to survive in truly desperate poverty. In regards to who currently makes up the difference, at least in Oregon, the answer is given in the University of Oregon’s report on “The High Cost of Low Wages in Oregon.”

According to the report, roughly a quarter of the workers in Oregon make no more than $12 per hour. Because of this low income, many of the workers qualify for public assistance, such as SNAP (better known as food stamps). Not surprisingly, many of these low-paid workers are employed by large, highly profitable corporations.

According to Raahi Reddy, a faculty member at the University of Oregon, “Basically state and taxpayers are we helping these families subsidize their incomes because they get low wages working for the companies that they do.” As such, the answer is that the taxpayers are making up the difference between wages and living wages. Interestingly, Oregon is a leader in two categories: one is the percentage of workers on public support and the other is having among the lowest corporate tax rates. This certainly suggests that the burden falls heavily on the workers who are not on public support (both in and outside of Oregon).

The authors of the report have recommended shifting some of the burden from the taxpayers to the employers in the form of an increased minimum wage and paid sick leave for workers. Not surprisingly, increasing worker compensation is generally not popular with corporations. After all, more for the workers means less for the CEO and the shareholders.

Assuming that workers should receive enough resources to survive, the moral concern is whether or not this cost should be shifted from the taxpayers to the employers or remain on the taxpayers.

One argument in favor of leaving the burden on the taxpayers is that it is not the moral responsibility of the corporations to pay a living wage. Their moral obligation is not to the workers but to the shareholders and this obligation is to maximize profits (presumably within the limits of the law).

One possible response to this is that businesses are part of civil society and this includes moral obligations to all members of that society and not just the shareholders. These obligations, it could be contended, include providing at least a living wage to full time employees. It, one might argue, be more just that the employer pay a living wage to the workers from the profits the worker generates than it is to expect the taxpayer to make up the difference. After all, the taxpayers are not profiting from the labor of the workers, so they would be subsidizing the profits of the employers by allowing them to pay workers less. Forcing the tax payers to make up the difference certainly seems to be unjust and appears to be robbing the citizens to fatten the coffers of the companies.

It could be countered that requiring a living wage could destroy a company, thus putting the workers into a worse situation—that is, being unemployed rather than merely underpaid. This is a legitimate concern—at least for businesses that would, in fact, be unable to survive if they paid a living wage. However, this argument would obviously not work for business, such as Walmart, that have extremely robust profit margins. It might be claimed that there must be one standard for all businesses, be they a tiny bookstore that is barely staying afloat or a megacorporation that hands out millions in bonuses to the management. The obvious reply is that there are already a multitude of standards that apply to different businesses based on the differences between them—and some of these are even reasonable and morally acceptable.

Another line of argumentation is to attempt to show that there is, in fact, no obligation at all to ensure that citizens have a living income. In this case, the employers would obviously have no obligation. The taxpayers would also not have any obligation, but they could elect lawmakers to pass laws authorizing that tax dollars be spent supporting the poor. That is, the tax payers could chose to provide charity to the poor. This is not obligatory, but merely a nice thing to do. Some business could, of course, also choose to be nice—they could pay all their full time workers at least a living wage. But this should, one might argue, be entirely a matter of choice.

Some folks would, of course, want to take this even further—if assisting other citizens to have a living income is a matter of choice and not an obligation arising from being part of a civil society (or a more basic moral foundation), then tax dollars should not be used to assist those who make less than a living wage. Rather, this should be a matter of voluntary charity—everyone should be free to decide where their money goes. Naturally, consistency would seem to require that this principle of free choice be extended beyond just assisting the poor.  After all, free choice would seem to entail that people should decide as individuals whether to contribute to the salaries of members of the legislatures, to the cost of wars, to subsidies to corporations, to the CDC, to the CIA, to the FBI and so on. This does, obviously enough, have some appeal—the state would operate like a collection of charity recipients, getting whatever money people wished to contribute. The only major downside is that it would probably result in the collapse of civil society.

 

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