A Philosopher's Blog

Police Body Cameras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mass Shootings & Domestic Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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White Supremacists & the Limits of Free Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Machinery of Sexual Harassment

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2017

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One thing that seems to unify the political right and left in the United States is sexual harassment. On the right, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly have grabbed headlines for the misdeeds. Bill O’Reilly has even brought the classic problem of evil into the matter by being mad at God over the allegations against him. On the left, Hollywood has been (unsurprisingly) seen high profile cases. Harvey Weinstein has ironically transformed Fox News into a champion against sexual harassment. Director James Toback has also been accused of harassment by almost 40 women (at current count). Even former Presidents have been accused. While Bill Clinton’s activities are now legendary, H.W. Bush has been accused of groping women.

While it is tempting to see such incidents as isolated cases of powerful men using their positions to exploit and abuse women, the reality is that there is an entire system of social, political, legal and economic machinery in place to enable and defend such evil. To illustrate, I will present various examples of these machines. But first I will note that my reference to machinery is metaphorical and that I am not denying that the individuals who harassed, assaulted and even raped women are somehow not fully responsible for their misdeeds. Rather, they made conscious use of their ecosystem to engage in their predation.

One key part of the machinery is, obviously, the vast disparities in power and wealth in American society. While the United States is supposed to be classless, this is an obvious lie—the United States is highly stratified and the less powerful can be easily exploited by the more powerful. This power disparity applies across the board—it is obviously not just those at the Weinstein and O’Reilly level that harass.

While such power disparities are inherent to our political and economic system, the laws are supposed to address them and mitigate the amount of abuse and exploitation the weaker must endure at the hands of the stronger. Unfortunately, the legal system has been crafted to provide considerable protection for harassers.

One example of this is the nondisclosure agreement. While the NDA does have some value to those who sign them, they have become well known for their role in allowing serial harassers to keep on harassing. For example, some of the women Weinstein allegedly victimized had signed NDAs that forbid them from speaking out about what had happened to them. Bill O’Reilly paid $32 million to settle a sexual harassment claim, something that would have remained a secret thanks to the NDA that was part of the settlement. Because of this, the way nondisclosure works in the case of harassment should be carefully reconsidered. Otherwise, the system allows harassers to simply buy secrecy for their misdeeds and to continue to operate under the protective shadow of money.  There is also the concern that employees are often compelled to sign such agreements as a condition of employment (which goes back to how the more powerful can easily coerce the less powerful) or need to sign them to get any sort of justice.

An obvious objection is to point out that the system does work: O’Reilly and Weinstein were ousted. While it is true that people do sometimes eventually face the consequences of their actions, it is rather important to remember that they were able to engage in harassment over an extended period and there are, presumably, many others out there who are getting away with it. It is surely small consolation to the victims that after a decade or three the harasser might get in trouble.

Another vital part of the machinery is the cooperation of those who are aware of the harassment and take no action against it. In the cases of Weinstein and O’Reilly, the stories indicate that their behavior was well-known, yet no one seems to have acted to stop them or protect their victims. In fact, harassers of their influence are actively protected—often at great expense. To be fair, the power disparity that enables people to victimize others enables them to silence potential critics and neutralize those who would oppose their misdeeds.

It can be objected that people have acted, that some women have gotten very lucrative settlements. Some even suggest that the women are the real villains, shaking down men for settlements. While such concerns should be addressed in proportion to the evidence, in most cases those getting the settlement are the real victims and the harassers are buying silence—so that they can keep on harassing (and making money for the company). As far as the effectiveness of the settlements; they probably have some deterrent value—presumably companies are not eager to cut checks to silence victims. However, there is a significant volume of incidents and, as such, it seems evident that the current system is not solving the problem of systematic harassment.

While it is easy to see people like O’Reilly and Weinstein as the problem; they are merely the visible part of the iceberg of harassment. Beneath them is a vast edifice that enabled them to engage in their predatory behavior for years. Simply ousting them merely leaves niches for new predators and real change requires modifying all the underlying enabling machinery and the ecosystem of the sexual predator.

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Free Speech & White Supremacists: The Principle of Harm

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 25, 2017

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In October, 2017 white supremacist Richard Spencer gave an uninvited speech in my adopted state of Florida on the campus of the University of Florida. As happened at the Charlottesville, Virginia event where Spencer spoke, white supremacists engaged in violence. While this time shots were fired at those protesting the white supremacists, no one was hurt. Three suspects were arrested and charged with attempted murder. As might be suspected, there have been efforts to keep Spencer from speaking. Spencer and his lawyers, however, have been able to successfully appeal to the First Amendment in their lawsuits. While the lawyers and courts will settle the legal aspects of this matter, there is also the moral aspect of free speech.

As a matter of principled consistency, I always apply Mill’s principle of harm when it comes to rights and liberty. The basic idea is that the collective has no right to restrict the liberty of an individual expect when the actions of the individual would cause harm to others. Sorting out all the details of any specific application can be challenging, but the basic idea is simple enough and is justified by Mill’s moral theory of utilitarianism. This is, of course, the view that the morality of an action depends on the value it creates for the morally relevant beings. Roughly put, an action is good when it creates more positive value for negative value (for those that matter morally).

As recent white supremacist rallies have shown, allowing white supremacists to express their views in public tends to create considerable harm. In the case of Charlottesville, a person was killed and others badly injured when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. As noted above, Spencer speaking in Florida lead to three white supremacists being arrested for attempted murder. While I normally disagree with Florida Governor Rick Scott, he was right to declare a state of emergency in Florida and prepare for violence. The University of Florida also decided to step up its security, spending $600,000 of public money. Because allowing such events to take place has resulted in death, injury and attempted murder, the principle of harm would seem to justify denying white supremacists the right to engage in public speaking. The fact that dealing with likely violence costs large sums of public money also supports this conclusion: while speech should be free, those whose speech costs the public such large sums should not be permitted to engage in the sort of events that require such security expenditures.

It can be objected that restricting white supremacists would be unfair. After all, other controversial speakers have drawn violent elements. To be consistent, the principle would need to be applied consistently: if a speaker is likely to draw followers/supporters that engage in violence, then the speaker would need to provide funding for adequate security to protect the community. If they cannot ensure the safety of others, then the right to not be hurt or killed (the right to life) of the people likely to be affected trumps the speaker’s right to free speech. The use of public money also brings in property rights, which can also trump free speech rights.

This, of course, leads to an obvious concern: speakers can draw “followers/supporters” that they do not want nor endorse. For example, a conservative speaker might attract white supremacists who support him, but he does not want their support or presence. On the left, a speaker might attract violent anarchist “supporters” who engage in violence and vandalism. It would be unfair to restrict freedom of speech because a person happens to have bad “supporters.” The challenge is to sort out cases in which a person is drawing “supporters” they do not want and cases in which they are pulling true supporters. In some cases, this will be rather difficult, while in others it will be easy. For example, Spencer’s remarks indicate the sort of people he wants as supporters and these are the sort of people who have engaged in violence.

It must be noted that restricting speakers because they might offend members of the audience or make them uncomfortable would be unjustified. While people do not like being offended or upset, these are not strong enough harms to a person to warrant restricting a basic right such as free expression. That said, a speaker who engages in threats can cross over into real harm by making people legitimately fear that they are in danger. While people like Spencer speak of “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, white supremacy is, by its very nature, a threat to everyone who is not perceived by the supremacists as white. As such, it is reasonable to assume, until proven otherwise, that any white supremacist speaker’s speech on the matter is a threat and thus a harm that warrants restriction. To use an analogy, if a person wants to speak in favor of molesting children or committing murder, it is reasonable to regard them as a threat and to not allow them to express such views.

While the burden of proof rests on the white supremacist, they could make the case that their views are not a threat of harm against others. If this case can be made, then they should be free to express their views. Naturally, the same principle should apply consistently. For example, if a speaker wanted to speak for black supremacy and urge the “peaceful” cleansing of whites, then the same principle would apply. But, supremacy of any stripe seems to be a threat of violence against everyone else.

 

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The High Price of Being Shot

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2017
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In the naivety of my youth, I believed that people would not be charged for medical treatment resulting from being wounded by criminals. After all, my younger self reasoned, their injuries were the fault of someone else and it would be unjust to expect them to pay for the misdeeds of another. Learning that this was not the case was just one of the many disappointments when it came to the matter of justice and ethics. As such, I was not surprised when I learned that shooting victims were presented with the bills for their treatment. However, I was somewhat surprised by the high cost of being shot.

Dr. Joseph Sakran, who had been shot in his youth, co-authored a study of what shooting victims are charged for their treatment. Since gunshot wounds range from relatively minor grazing wounds to massive internal damage, the costs vary considerably. While the average is $5,000 the cost can go up to $100,000. These costs are generally covered by insurance, but victims who lack proper coverage become victims once again: they must either pay for the treatment or pass on the cost as part of the uncompensated care. When the cost is passed on, the patient can suffer from severely damaged credit and, of course, the cost is passed on others in the form of premium increases. There can be costs beyond the initial medical bills, such as ongoing medical bills, the loss of income, and the psychological harm.

In addition to medical expenses of those who are shot, there are also the costs of the police response, the impact on employers, and the dollar value of those who are killed rather than wounded (and do not forget that dying in the hospital obviously does not automatically clear the bill). While estimating the exact cost is difficult, a mass shooting like the Pulse Nightclub shooting will probably end up costing almost $400 million. While mass shootings, such as the recent one in Las Vegas, get the attention of the media, gunshot wounds are a regular occurrence in the United States with an estimated cost of $600 million per day. While some will dispute the exact numbers, what is indisputable is that getting shot is expensive for the victim and society. As such, it would be rational to try to reduce the number of shootings and to address the high cost of being shot.

While the rational approach to such a massive health crisis would be to undertake a scientific study to find solutions, the 1996 Dickey Amendment bans the use of federal funding for gun research. There is also very little good data about gun injuries and deaths—and this is quite intentional. Efforts to improve the collection of data are dealt with by such things as the Dickey Amendment. Efforts to impose more gun control, even when there is overwhelming public support for such things as universal background checks, are routinely blocked. While this serves as a beautiful object lesson in how much say the people have in this democracy, it also shows that trying to address the high cost of getting shot by reducing shootings is a noble fool’s errand. As such, the only practical options involve finding ways to offset the medical costs of victims. Naturally, victims can bring civil suits—but this is not a reliable and effective way to ensure that the medical expenses are covered. After all, mass shooters are rarely wealthy enough to pay all the bills and often perish in their attack.

Some victims have attempted to address their medical bills in the same way others who lack insurance have tried—by setting up GoFundMe pages to get donations. While this option is problematic in many ways, the main problem is that it is not very reliable. This, of course, lays aside the moral problem of having people begging so they can pay for being victims of a shooting. To address this problem, I will make two modest proposals.

My first proposal is that gun owners be required to purchase a modestly priced insurance policy that is analogous to vehicle insurance. In the United States, people are generally required to have insurance to cover the damage they might inflict while operating a dangerous piece of machinery. This helps pool the risk (as insurance is supposed to do) and puts the cost on the operators of the machines rather than on those who they might harm. The same should apply to guns—they are dangerous machines that can do considerable harm and it makes sense that the owners should bear the cost of the insurance. Naturally, as with vehicles, owners can also be victims.

It could be objected that owning a firearm is a right and hence the state has no right to impose such a requirement. The easy and obvious reply is that the right to keep and bear arms is a negative right rather than a positive right. A positive right is one in which a person is entitled to be provided with the means to use that right (such as how people are provided with free ballots when they go to vote). A negative right means the person must provide the means of exercising their right, but it is (generally) wrong to prevent them from exercising that right. So, just as the state is not required to ensure that people get free guns and ammunition, it is not required to allow gun ownership without insurance—provided that the requirement does not impose an unreasonable infringement on the right.

Another easy and obvious reply is that rights do not free a person from responsibility. In the case of speech, people cannot simply say anything without consequence. In the case of the gun insurance, people would be acting in a responsible manner—they would be balancing their right with a rational amount of responsibility. To refuse to have such insurance is to insist on rights without responsibility—something conservatives normally rail against. As such, both liberals and conservatives should approve of this idea.

My second proposal, which is consistent with the first, is that there be a modest state fee added to the cost of each firearm, accessory and ammunition box. This money would go into a state pool to help pay the medical expenses of the uninsured who are injured in shootings. Yes, I know that this money would probably be misused by most states, probably to bankroll the re-election of incumbents. The justification is, of course, that the people who buy the guns that could hurt people should bear the cost for the medical expenses of those who are hurt. People already pay sales taxes on such items, this would merely earmark some money to help offset the cost of people exercising their second amendment rights. To go back to the vehicle analogy, it makes perfect sense to add a fee onto the cost of gas to pay for roads and other infrastructure—that way the people who are using it are helping to pay for it. Likewise for guns.

An obvious objection is that this fee would be paid by people who will never engage in gun crime. This is a reasonable concern, analogous to other concerns about paying into anything that one is not directly responsible for. There are two reasonable replies. One is that the funds generated could cover medical expenses involving any firearm crime or accident and anyone can have an accident with a gun. Another is the responsibility argument: while I, as a gun owner, will probably never engage in a gun crime, being able to exercise my right to own guns allows people who will engage in gun crimes to engage in those crimes. For example, the Las Vegas shooter was operating under the protection of the same gun rights that protect me up until the moment he started firing. This fee would be my share of the responsibility for allowing the threat of gun violence to endanger everyone in the United States. Such a modest fee would be a very small price to pay for having such a dangerous right. Otherwise, I would be selfishly expecting everyone else to bear the cost of my right, which would not be right. So, to appeal to principled conservatives, this would be a way for taking responsibility for one’s rights. As people love to say, freedom isn’t free.

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Bump Stocks

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 6, 2017

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Listening to audio from the shooting in Las Vegas, many people concluded the gunman had used automatic weapons. However, it turned out that he had used legally purchased semi-automatic rifles that had been legally modified with bump stocks. Normal semi-automatic weapons fire as fast as the user can pull the trigger, but only one shot is fired per trigger pull. A bump stock does not change the way the gun fires, rather it speeds up the rate of fire by using the recoil of the gun to push the trigger against the user’s trigger finger. If a person could manually pull the trigger as fast, the result would be the same—but such rapid pull is not something people are generally capable of doing.

While a bump stock boosts the rate of fire of a semiautomatic weapon, it does so at the cost of accuracy—the weapon bumping makes it considerably harder to aim properly. When used at a gun range, the usual point of the bump stock is to have the thrill of firing an “automatic” weapon and, as such, accuracy is not a major concern. This high rate of inaccurate fire also allows such a weapon to be devastating when it is fired into a crowd of people—the high volume of fire means that people are likely to be hit. In the case of Las Vegas, the shooter had a dense crowd to fire into and accuracy was irrelevant—he was clearly not after a specific target but rather endeavoring to maximize death and injury. For this, the bump stock was very effective. While bump stocks do not seem to have been employed in other mass shootings, the fact that they were used in such a horrific event means that the attention of the media, pundits and politicians is upon them. And, of course, the attention of bloggers. As would be suspected, those on the left are calling for legislation against bump stocks. Interestingly, some conservatives are also willing to consider the matter. Somewhat shockingly, even the NRA seems willing to discuss the subject.

Before thinking that the NRA is acting out of character, it must be noted that while the NRA did seem to endorse new regulations on bump stocks, it opposes new legislation. Somewhat ironically, the NRA also blamed Obama for allowing the sale of bump stocks. Unsurprisingly, the NRA also made the stock assertions that more gun control would do nothing to prevent attacks and that such shooting are due to the mental illness of the shooter. Even the NRA’s endorsement of another review of bump stocks by the ATF amounts to little: the ATF already reviewed the bump stock and determined that it falls within the law. Roughly put, the bump stock does not modify a gun to be fully-automatic, it merely enables an increase in the rate of fire. As such, any change in the regulation of bump stocks would presumably require legislation—something the NRA opposes. This does, of course, raise the question of whether bump stocks should be controlled or even banned.

The easy and obvious argument for legislation controlling bump stocks is that the harm argument: the use of a bump stock allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire at near automatic rates, thus enabling the sort of carnage that occurred in Las Vegas. Bump stocks are clearly not needed for hunting and have dubious value for self-defense. In fact, the inaccuracy and high rate of fire would make them a danger to any innocents in the area where they might be used in self-defense. Their main legitimate use, like that of beer, is to have fun. However, allowing such a dangerous modification to be legal just so that people can have some fun at the range would be comparable to allowing something else that is deadly, but fun for some, to be uncontrolled. As such, controlling bump stocks is both sensible and ethical. Naturally, this principle would need to be applied consistently to anything that is enjoyable yet potentially deadly.

An argument against new legislation is that this move would pave the way for more gun legislation and this road leads to the Second Amendment being eroded or even repealed. This threat to a basic constitutional right is unacceptable, so the bump stocks should remain as they are. The counter to this is that it is clearly possible to have gun legislation while also maintaining constitutional rights—after all, automatic weapons are banned and this is consistent with gun rights. Another counter is to see this path towards more control as a good thing—a feature rather than a bug.

Another concern is that the creation of legislation in the heat of the moment and directed against some aspect of a terrible event could easily result in bad laws. Going along with this is the concern about the actual risk posed by bump stocks. While they do allow a higher rate of fire, there is the question of how much of a difference they make over unmodified semi-automatic weapons. After all, mass shootings have had high casualty rates when the attacker used only semi-automatic weapons. If the bump stocks do not make a significant difference, then legislation would be unnecessary. Since having laws that are ineffective is a bad idea, these bump stocks should not be controlled.

It can be replied that sensible legislation can be crafted if it turns out that a rational and calm analysis of bump stocks shows that they do make a significant difference regarding mass shootings. This principle would, of course, need to be applied consistently—that weapons and weapon modifications that make mass shootings more lethal should be better controlled. It needs to be noted that this principle could be extended to all firearms—but to assume that this must happen would be to fall into the slippery slope fallacy.

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When is it Time to Talk About Gun Violence?

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 2, 2017

On October 1st, 2017 over fifty people were shot to death in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock. Hundreds more were wounded. While such slaughter can cause despair, the heroism of those who risked or sacrificed their lives to save others should give us hope. For each person who would strike down the innocent, there are many who would courageously stand in their way. So, do not weigh the evil greater than the good or the villains more than the heroes. But, it would be better if there were no need of such heroes—better that there was less slaughter.

There have, of course, been efforts to pass laws aimed at reducing deaths from gun violence. While many laws have passed, there is an entrenched and well-funded resistance to such efforts. As such, such mass shootings are followed by an eminently predictable pattern. Part of this pattern is an immediate admonishment from many conservatives that there should be no talk of solving gun violence before the blood of the victims is completely dried. For example, White House press secretary Sanders gave the standard line that there is “a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.” She also added that “it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all the facts or what took place last night,” and the administration wants to avoid “laws that won’t stop these types of things from happening.” Sanders did, rightly, praise the courage of the brave and express sympathy for the dead and wounded. However, the question remains as to when it is time to talk about gun violence. I’ll begin by considering the stock position that such discussions should not take place too soon after the incident.

As Sanders and so many before her have contended, the immediate focus should be on dealing with the aftermath of the event. This view does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, the time to debate fire safety is not while cleaning up after a fire and tending to the burned. That time should be used for cleaning up and tending the injured. The easy and obvious reply here is that while those actively involved in responding to event should not set aside their tasks to debate,  there are millions of people who have no such tasks and can engage in the debate. So, while the surgeons should not stop their surgeries to engage in the debate, the lawmakers certainly have the free time to do so.

Sanders, like her predecessors, also called for uniting as a country now rather than engaging in the debate about gun laws. This also has considerable appeal: the debate over gun laws will call attention to political divisions and serve to push people apart when they should be pulling together. After such a terrible event, people have a psychological need to feel united—this is key to restoring the feeling of safety (or complacency, if one wants to be cynical). I certainly agree that there should be a pause in partisan rancor and battles after such terrible events (and that these pauses should grow)—if only in the form of a brief silence to honor the dead. But, to return to the analogy of the fire, to refuse to discuss fire safety after a serious fire would be to invite yet another fire.

Sander’s assertion that it would be premature to discuss policy without knowing the facts does seem sensible on the face of it. After all, to simply propose policies aimed at preventing such shootings without knowing what problems in the system allowed it to occur would be like trying to decide how to repair a car without knowing why it will not start. That said, there is an obvious reply to this claim: there have been so many mass shootings that the facts about such things are already well known. It seems rather unlikely that the facts of this latest case will involve a shocking revelation that will revolutionize gun safety. It would be wonderful, of course, if the Trump administration looked at the facts and was able to truly say, “eureka, we see the problem and the fix is obvious!” This, however, seems unlikely. To go back to the car analogy, if the car that won’t start is acting exactly like a car with a bad battery, then there is not really a need to wait for an in-depth investigation before considering the battery is probably the problem.

There is, however, a very good argument for not legislating in the heat of the moment: making decisions when emotions are at their peak often results in poor decisions, so this is a bad idea. As has been argued by Radley Balko, “laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea.” While Balko was not directly discussing gun laws, he does make the reasonable case that laws forged in anger or hysteria tend to be poorly conceived and can have serious unintended consequences. The torrent of laws slammed through after 9/11 also show the bad decision making that arises from jumping to legislate without due and calm consideration. It also shows how emotions can be exploited by lawmakers, which is also a matter of concern. We would not, after all, want gun control laws slammed through congress like the multitude of bad laws that have been pushed through congress by the power of emotions.

As such, it does make sense not to rush legislation about guns through without due consideration and calm reflection. However, this does not preclude starting the discussion now. There is also the obvious fact that we have had plenty of time since the last shooting to reflect on this matter. And the shooting before that. And so on. The point is, we have had a long time to reflect on many mass shootings.

While it might be countered that considerable time is needed to calm down after such events, the obvious problem is that they happen with such frequency that we might never have long enough to cool down.  There is also the reasonable consideration that if people do cool down, they can grow cold and fall back into complacency—until the next mass slaughter. To use an analogy, while talking about diet and exercise with a sedentary person whose parent just died of a lifestyle inflicted heart attack would be insensitive if done while the corpse was still warm, the person’s motivation will certainly fade quickly. As such, soon after the death is, harshly, the time the person will be the most motivated to change their habits and fend off their own impending heart attack. Likewise, the time to get people to support taking action against gun violence is when they clearly remember the horror of slaughter.

 

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Work & Vacation

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2017

Most Americans do not use their vacation days, despite the fact that they tend to get less than their European counterparts. A variety of plausible reasons have been advanced for this, most of which reveal interesting facts about working in the United States.

As would be expected, fear is a major factor. Even when a worker is guaranteed paid vacation time as part of their compensation for work, many workers are afraid that using this vacation time will harm them. One worry is that by using this time, they will show that they are not needed or are inferior to workers that do not take as much (or any) time and hence will be passed up for advancement or even fired. On this view, vacation days are a trap—while they are offered and the worker has earned them, to use them all would sabotage or end the person’s employment. This is not to say that all or even many employers intentionally set a vacation day trap—in fact, many employers seem to have to take special effort to get their employees to use their vacation days. However, this fear is real and does indicate a problem with working in America.

Another fear that keeps workers from using all their days is the fear that they will fall behind in their work, thus requiring them to work extra hard before or after their vacation. On this view, there is little point in taking a vacation if one will just need to do the missed work and do it in less time than if one simply stayed at work. The practical challenge here is working ways for employees to vacation without getting behind (or thinking they will get behind). After all, if an employee is needed at a business, then their absence will mean that things that need to get done will not get done. This can be addressed in various ways, such as sharing workloads or hiring temporary workers. However, an employee can then be afraid that the business will simply fire them in favor of permanently sharing the workload or by replacing them with a series of lower paid temporary workers.

Interestingly enough, workers often decline to use all their vacation days because of pride. The idea is that by not using their vacation time, a person can create the impression that they are too busy and too important to take time off from work. In this case, the worker is not afraid that they will be fired, they are worried that they will lose status and damage their reputation. This is not to say that being busy is always a status symbol—there is, of course, also status attached to being so well off that one can be idle. This fits nicely into Hobbes’ view of human motivation: everything we do, we do for gain or glory. As such, if not taking vacation time increases one’s glory (status and reputation), then people will do that.

On the one hand, people who do work hard (and effectively) do deserve a positive reputation for these efforts and earn a relevant status. On the other hand, the idea that reputation and status are dependent on not using all one’s vacation time can clearly be damaging to a person. Humans do, after all, need to relax and recover. This view also, one might argue, puts too much value on the work aspect of a person’s life at the expense of their full humanity. Then again, for the working class in America, to be is to work (for the greater enrichment of the rich).

Workers who do not get paid vacations tend to not use all (or any) of their vacation days for the obvious reason that their vacations are unpaid. Since a vacation tends to cost money, workers without paid vacations can take a double hit if they take a vacation: they are getting no income while spending money. Since people do need time off from work, there have been some attempts to require that workers get paid vacation time. As would be imagined, this proposal tends to be resisted by businesses. In part it is because they do not like being told what they must do and in part it is because of concerns over costs. While moral arguments about how people should be treated tend to fail, there is some hope that practical arguments about improved productivity and other benefits could succeed. However, as workers have less and less power in the United States (in part because workers have been deluded into embracing ideologies and policies contrary to their own interests), it seems less and less likely that paid vacation time will increase or be offered to more workers.

Some workers also do not use all their vacation days for vacation because they need to use them for other purposes, such as sick days. It is not uncommon for working mothers to save their vacation days to use for when they need to take care of the kids. It is also not uncommon for workers to use their vacation days for sick days, when they need to be at home for a service visit, when they need to go to the doctors or for other similar things. If it is believed that vacation time is something that people need, then forcing workers to use up their vacation time for such things would seem to be wrong. The obvious solution, which is used by some businesses, is to offer such things as personal days, sick leave, and parental leave. While elite employers offer elite employees such benefits, they tend to be less available to workers of lower social and economic classes. So, for example, Sheryl Sandberg gets excellent benefits, while the typical worker does not. This is, of course, a matter of values and not just economic ones. That is, while there is the matter of the bottom line, there is also the question of how people should be treated. Unfortunately, the rigid and punitive class system in the United States ensures that the well-off are treated well, while the little people face a much different sort of life.

 

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Right-to-Try

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 7, 2017

There has been a surge of support for right-to-try bills and many states have passed these into law. Congress, eager to do something politically easy and popular, has also jumped on this bandwagon.

Briefly put, the right-to-try laws give terminally ill patients the right to try experimental treatments that have completed Phase 1 testing but have yet to be approved by the FDA. Phase 1 testing involves assessing the immediate toxicity of the treatment. This does not include testing its efficacy or its longer-term safety. Crudely put, passing Phase 1 just means that the treatment does not immediately kill or significantly harm patients.

On the face of it, the right-to-try is something that no sensible person would oppose. After all, the gist of this right is that people who have “nothing to lose” are given the right to try treatments that might help them. The bills that propose to codify the right into law make use of the rhetorical narrative that the right-to-try laws would give desperate patients the freedom to seek medical treatment that might save them and this would be done by getting the FDA and the state out of their way. This is a powerful rhetorical narrative since it appeals to compassion, freedom and a dislike of the government. As such, it is not surprising that few people dare argue against such proposals. However, the matter does deserve proper critical consideration.

One interesting way to look at the matter is to consider an alternative reality in which the narrative of these laws was spun with a different rhetorical charge—negative rather than positive. Imagine, for a moment, if the rhetorical engines had cranked out a tale of how the bills would strip away the protection of the desperate and dying to allow predatory companies to use them as Guinea pigs for their untested treatments. If that narrative had been sold, people would be howling against such proposals rather than lovingly embracing them. Rhetorical narratives, be they positive or negative, are logically inert. As such, they are irrelevant to the merits of the right-to-try proposals. How people feel about the proposals is also logically irrelevant as well. What is wanted is a cool examination of the matter.

On the positive side, the right-to-try does offer people the chance to try treatments that might help them. It is, obviously enough, hard to argue that people do not have a right to take such risks when they are terminally ill. That said, there are still some points that need to be addressed.

One important point is that there is already a well-established mechanism in place to allow patients access to experimental treatments. The FDA already has system of expanded access that apparently approves the overwhelming majority of requests. Somewhat ironically, when people argue for the right-to-try by using examples of people successfully treated by experimental methods, they are showing that the existing system already allows people access to such treatments. This raises the question about why the laws are needed and what it changes.

The main change in such laws tends to be to reduce the role of the FDA in the process. Without such laws, requests to use such experimental methods typically have to go through the FDA (which seems to approve most requests).  If the FDA was denying people treatment that might help them, then such laws would seem to be justified. However, the FDA does not seem to be the problem here—they generally do not roadblock the use of experimental methods for people who are terminally ill. This leads to the question of what factors are limiting patient access.

As would be expected, the main limiting factors are those that impact almost all treatment access: costs and availability. While the proposed bills grant the negative right to choose experimental methods, they do not grant the positive right to be provided with those methods. A negative right is a liberty—one is free to act upon it but is not provided with the means to do so. The means must be acquired by the person. A positive right is an entitlement—the person is free to act and is provided with the means of doing so. In general, the right-to-try proposals do little or nothing to ensure that such treatments are provided. For example, public money is not allocated to pay for such treatments. As such, the right-to-try is much like the right-to-healthcare for most people: you are free to get it provided you can get it yourself. Since the FDA generally does not roadblock access to experimental treatments, the bills and laws would seem to do little or nothing new to benefit patients. That said, the general idea of right-to-try seems reasonable—and is already practiced. While few are willing to bring them up in public discussions, there are some negative aspects to the right-to-try. I will turn to some of those now.

One obvious concern is that terminally ill patients do have something to lose. Experimental treatments could kill them significantly earlier than their terminal condition or they could cause suffering that makes their remaining time even worse. As such, it does make sense to have some limit on the freedom to try. After all, it is the job of the FDA and medical professionals to protect patients from such harms—even if the patients want to roll the dice.

This concern can be addressed by appealing to freedom of choice—provided that the patients are able to provide informed consent and have an honest assessment of the treatment. This does create something of a problem: since little is known about the treatment, the patient cannot be well informed about the risks and benefits. But, as I have argued in many other posts, I accept that people have a right to make such choices, even if these choices are self-damaging. I apply this principle consistently, so I accept that it grants the right-to-try, the right to same-sex marriage, the right to eat poorly, the right to use drugs, and so on.

The usual counters to such arguments from freedom involve arguments about how people must be protected from themselves, arguments that such freedoms are “just wrong” or arguments about how such freedoms harm others. The idea is that moral or practical considerations override the freedom of the individual. This is a reasonable counter and a strong case can be made against allowing people the right to engage in a freedom that could harm or kill them. However, my position on such freedoms requires me to accept that a person has the right-to-try, even if it is a bad idea. That said, others have an equally valid right to try to convince them otherwise and the FDA and medical professionals have an obligation to protect people, even from themselves.

 

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