A Philosopher's Blog

Politics & Plagiarism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2016

During the 2016 Republican National Convention Melania Trump delivered a speech that plagiarized the speech given by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. As always, the responses tended to correspond with ideology: the left largely condemned and mocked it; some on the right downplayed and even defended it. As a professor and an author, I condemn plagiarism and have a few students fail themselves each year by doing what Melania’s speechwriter did. I do not fail students; I merely record their failure.

After my initial mild condemnation of the plagiarism, I came to what is an obvious realization: almost all political speeches are acts of plagiarism. I am not claiming that the vast majority of speechwriters are stealing the words and ideas of others; the plagiarism is of a different sort and this will be clear with a bit of explanation. Put a bit roughly, plagiarism occurs when someone tries to claim that substantial words and ideas are their own when they actually belong to another. By this simplistic definition, when a politician (or spouse) delivers a political speech that was written by someone else as if they were presenting their own words and ideas, then they are plagiarizing. Unless, of course, they engage in proper citation practices. As such, Melania Trump was engaged in double plagiarism: trying to pass off as her own the words stolen from Michelle Obama’s speech by the speechwriter.

An obvious reply to my assertion is that nearly all politicians have speechwriters and the commonness of the practice thus makes it acceptable. This is, obviously enough, the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice: the mere fact that something is commonly done does not make it right. It is, however, fair to point out that if nearly all politicians engage in this practice, then it follows that it would be unfair to single out any particular politician for special criticism.

Another, and better, reply is that speechwriters merely assist the politician in presenting their ideas and words. To use the obvious analogy, when the editors suggest changes to my writing and I follow them, I am not plagiarizing from the editors—this is a legitimate and proper part of the writing process. To use another analogy, if a student goes to a university writing center and gets assistance with improving their paper, that is not plagiarism.  Likewise, if a politician has others edit their speech, then that is also legitimate.

This is a point both fair and just, provided that the speechwriters are actually speech editors who assist the politician in crafting their speech. While there is considerable gray area between assistance and plagiarism, there is also a clear zone of plagiarism—the most obvious being a speech written entirely by another. While I cannot draw a clear line that would apply in all cases, a sensible consideration of amount contributed by the alleged author can resolve questions about plagiarism.

While plagiarism is condemned in academics and copyright violations are illegal, it might be claimed that it does not really matter that politicians almost never write their own speeches. After all, only the most naïve or ignorant would think that the words a politician reads from a teleprompter or paper are their own. However, I contend that it does matter and especially matters when a politician is running for office. I will focus on that specific scenario in the discussion that follows.

In theory, one point of a speech by a political candidate is to inform the voters of their views, ideas and policies. As such, the politician should write their speech, Otherwise, the politician is like an actor in a commercial who is endeavoring to sell someone else’s product using a script written by another. This can be countered by contending that a person could have excellent ideas and policies, yet lack the writing skills to craft an effective speech—thus the need for speechwriters.

While I would certainly put an “F” on a paper written this way, it does seem acceptable in the case of politics. To use an analogy, if a skilled doctor who was a poor communicator had her more eloquent assistant explain things to me, then there would be no problem: what matters is not who crafts the exact words, but the information behind them.

That said, there is more to a campaign speech than just putting forth ideas—it also supposed to reveal more about the politician such as wit, skill and character. While it is obviously true that the audience does get to see the politician’s skill at delivering words and timing, this merely reveals the politician’s skill as an actor and orator if the words are not their own. This creates the Cyrano de Bergerac problem: the voters are won over by the fine words of the writer, yet think they “love” the person speaking them. The voters are not, as Trump would rightly say, getting authenticity—they are getting an actor mouthing the words of another. Thus, when a politician reads a speech written by another, voters learn about the actor’s skills and not the actual person.

Some might counter this view by pointing out that what matters is actions—what a person does. After all, a politician could be a skilled writer, yet awful at the job. This is certainly a reasonable point: no one should be judged by words alone (especially when the words are not their own). It is also reasonable to point out that reading a prepared speech is relatively easy—the real challenge lies in a Socratic engagement. This is something that the vast majority of politicians are loath to do for they know how it would go for them. This is why the presidential debates in the United States are not actual debates—just people giving short speeches that have probably been pre-written for them. What, in general, the voters see is a spokesperson for a product that is themselves spewing advertising copy written by someone else. So, the voters have no clear idea of what they are actually buying.


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Divisive Obama?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2016

Official photographic portrait of US President...

One of the relentless talking points of conservative pundits and many Republicans is that Obama is divisive. Perhaps even the most divisive president in American history. It is, in fact, a common practice to engage in a point-by-point analysis of Obama’s alleged divisiveness. As should be expected, supporters of Obama deny that he is divisive; or at least claim he is not the most divisive president.

It is almost certainly pointless to try to argue about the issue of whether Obama is divisive or not. Since this is a matter of political identity, the vast majority of people cannot be influenced by any amount of evidence or argumentation against their position. However, one of the purposes of philosophy is the rational assessment of beliefs even when doing so will convince no one to change their views. That said, this endeavor is not pointless: while I do not expect to change any hearts (for this is a matter of feeling and not reason) it is still worthwhile to advance our understanding of divisiveness and accusations about it.

Since analogies are often useful to enhancing understanding, I will make a comparison with fright. This requires a story from my own past. When I was in high school, our English teacher suggested a class trip to Europe. As with just about anything involving education, fundraising was necessary and this included what amounted to begging (with permission) at the local Shop N’ Save grocery store. As beggars, we worked in teams of two and I was paired up with Gopal. When the teacher found out about this (and our failure to secure much, if any, cash) she was horrified: we were frightening the old people; hence they were not inclined to even approach us, let alone donate to send us to Europe. As I recall, she said the old folks saw us as “thugs.”

I have no reason to doubt that some of the old folks were, in fact, frightened of us. As such, it is true that we were frightening. The same can be said about Obama: it is obviously true that many people see him as divisive and thus he is divisive. This is also analogous to being offensive: if a person is offended by, for example, a person’s Christian faith or her heterosexuality, then those things are offensive. To use another analogy, if a Christian is hired into a philosophy department composed mainly of devout atheists and they dislike her for her faith and it causes trouble in the department, the she is divisive. After all, the department would not be divided but for her being Christian.

While it is tempting to leave it at this, there seems more to the charge of divisiveness than a mere assertion about how other people respond to a person. After all, when Obama is accused of being divisive, the flaw is supposed to lie with Obama—he is condemned for this. As such, the charge of divisiveness involves placing blame on the divider. This leads to the obvious question about whether or not the response is justified.

Turning back to my perceived thuggery at Shop N’ Save, while it was true that Gopal and I frightened some old people, the question is whether or not they were justified in their fear. I would say not, but since I am biased in my own favor I need to support this claim. While Gopal and I were both young men (and thus a source of fear to some), we were hardly thugs. In fact, we were hardcore nerds: we played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, we were on the debate team, and we did the nerdiest of sports—track. For teenagers, we were polite and well behaved. We were certainly not inclined to engage in any thuggery towards older folks in the grocery store. As such, the fear was unwarranted. In fairness, the old people might not have known this.

In the case of Obama, the question is whether or not his alleged divisiveness has a foundation. This would involve assessing his words and deeds to determine if an objective observer would regard them as divisive. In this case, divisive words and deeds would be such that initially neutral and unbiased Americans would be moved apart and inclined to regard each other with hostility. There is, of course, an almost insurmountable obstacle here: those who regard Obama as divisive will perceive his words and deeds as having these qualities and will insist that a truly objective observer would see things as they do. His supporters will, of course, contend the opposite. While Obama has spoken more honestly and openly about such subjects as race than past presidents, his words and deeds do not seem to be such that a neutral person would be turned against other Americans on their basis. He does not, for example, make sweeping and hateful claims based on race and religion. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will think I am merely expressing my alleged liberal biases while they regard themselves as gazing upon his divisiveness via the illumination of the light of pure truth. Should Trump win in 2016, the Democrats will certainly accuse him of being divisive—and his supporters will insist that he is a uniter and not a divider. While whether or not a claim of divisiveness is well founded is a matter of concern, there is also the matter of intent. It is to this I now turn.

Continuing the analogy, a person could have qualities that frighten others and legitimately do so; yet the person might have no intention of creating such fear. For example, a person might not understand social rules about how close he should get to other people and when he can and cannot tough others. His behavior might thus scare people, but acting from ignorance rather than malice, he has no intention to scare others—in fact, he might intend quite the opposite. Such a person could be blamed for the fear he creates to the degree that he should know better, but intent would certainly matter. After all, to frighten through ignorance is rather different from intentionally frightening people.

The same can be true of divisiveness: a person might divide in ignorance and perhaps do so while attempting to bring about greater unity. If the divisive person does not intend to be divisive, then the appropriate response would be (to borrow from Socrates) take the person aside and assist them in correcting their behavior. If a person intends to be divisive, then they would deserve blame for whatever success they achieve and whatever harm they cause. While intent can be difficult to establish (since the minds of others are inaccessible), consideration of what a person does can go a long way in making this determination. In the case of Obama, his intent does not seem to be to divide Americans. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will tend to also accept that he is an intentionally divider (rather than an accidental divider) and will attribute nefarious motives to him. Those who support him will do the opposite. There is, of course, almost no possibility of reason and evidence changing the minds of the committed about this matter. However, it is certainly worth the effort to try to consider the evidence or lack of evidence for the claim that Obama is an intentional divider. I do not believe that he is the most divisive president ever or even particularly divisive in a sense that is blameworthy. It is true that some disagree with him and dislike him; but it is their choice to expand the divide rather than close it. It is like a person who runs away, all the while insisting the other person is the one to blame for the growing distance. In closing, what I have written will change no minds—those who think Obama is divisive still think that. Those who think otherwise, still think as they did before. This is, after all, a matter of how people feel rather than a matter of reason.


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Drug Prices

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 20, 2016


Martin Shkreli became the villain of drug pricing when he increased the price of a $13.50 pill to $750. While the practice of buying up smaller drug companies and increasing the prices of their products is a standard profit-making venture, the scale of the increase and Shkreli’s attitude drew attention to this incident. Unfortunately, while the Shkreli episode is the best known case, drug pricing is a sweeping problem. The August 2016 issue of Consumer Reports features an article on high drug prices in the United States and provides an excellent analysis of the matter—I am using it as the basis for the numbers I mention.

From the standpoint of consumers, the main problem is that drugs are priced extremely high—sometimes to a level that literally bankrupts patients. Faced with social pushback, drug companies do provide some attempts to justify the high prices. One standard reason is that the high prices are needed to pay the R&D costs of the drugs. While a company does have the right to pass on the cost of drug development, consideration of the facts tells another story about the pricing of drugs.

First, about 38% of the basic research science is actually funded by taxpayer money—so the public is paying twice: once in taxes and once again for the drugs resulting from the research. This, of course, leaves a significant legitimate area of expenses for companies, but hardly enough to warrant absurdly high prices.

Second, most large drug companies spend almost twice as much on promotion and marketing as they do on R&D. While these are legitimate business expenses, this fact does undercut using R&D expenses to justify excessive drug prices. Obviously, telling the public that pills are pricy because of the cost of marketing pills so people will buy them would not be an effective strategy. There is also the issue of the ethics of advertising drugs, which is another matter entirely.

Third, many “new” drugs are actually slightly tweaked old drugs. Common examples including combining two older drugs to create a “new” drug, changing the delivery method (from an injectable to a pill, for example) or altering the release time. In many cases, the government will grant a new patent for these minor tweaks and this will grant the company up to a 20-year monopoly on the product, preventing competition. This practice, though obviously legal, is certainly sketchy. To use an analogy, imagine a company held the patent on a wheel and an axle. Then, when those patents expired, they patented wheel + axle as a “new” invention. That would obviously be absurd.

Companies also try other approaches to justify the high cost, such as arguing that the drugs treat serious conditions or can save money by avoiding a more expensive treatment. While these arguments do have some appeal, it seems morally problematic to argue that the price of a drug can be legitimately based on the seriousness of the condition it treats. This smells of a protection scheme or coercion: “pay what we want…or you die.” The money saving argument is less odious, but is still problematic. By this logic, car companies should be able to charge vast sums for safety features since they protect people from very expensive injuries. It is, of course, reasonable to make a profit on products that provide significant benefits—but there need to be moral limits to the profits.

The obvious counter to my approach is to argue that drug prices should be set by the free-market: if people are willing to pay large sums for drugs, then the drug companies should be free to charge those prices. After all, companies like Apple and Porsche sell expensive products without (generally) being demonized for making profits.

The easy response is that luxury cars and iWatches are optional luxuries that a person can easily do without and there are many cheaper (and better) alternatives. However, drug companies sell drugs that are necessary for a person’s health and even survival—they are generally not optional products. There is also the fact that drug companies enjoy patent protection that precludes effective competition. While Apple does hold patents on its devices, there are many competitors. For example, since I would rather not shell out $350 for an iWatch, I use a Pebble Watch. I could also have opted to go with a $10 watch. But, if I had hepatitis C and wanted to be cured, I would be stuck with only one drug option.

While defenders of drug prices laud the free market and decry “government interference”, their ability to charge high prices depends on the interference of the state. As noted above, the United States and other governments issue patents to drug companies that grant them exclusive ownership. Without this protection, a company that wanted to charge $750 for a $13.50 pill would find competitors rushing to sell the pill for far less. After all, it would be easy enough for competing drug company to analyze a drug and produce it. By accepting the patent system, the drug companies accept that the state has a right to engage in legal regulation in the drug industry—that is, to replace the invisible hand with a very visible hand of the state. Once this is accepted, the door is opened to allowing additional regulation on the grounds that the state will provide protection for the company’s property using taxpayer money in return for the company agreeing not to engage in harmful pricing of drugs. Roughly put, if the drug companies expect people to obey the social contract with the state, they also need to operate within the social contract, Companies could, of course, push for a truly free market: they would be free to charge whatever they want for drugs without state interference, but there would be no state interference into the free market activities of their competitors when they duplicate the high price drugs and start undercutting the prices.

In closing, if the drug companies want to keep the patent protection they need for high drug prices, they must be willing to operate within the social contract. After all, citizens should not be imposed upon to fund the protection of the people who are, some might claim, robbing them.


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The Ethics of Trump Denial

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 13, 2016

Brian Ballsun-Stanton suggested that I address the question of whether or not it would be legitimate to deny Trump the nomination and to do so in the context of the article by Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic. In the course of raising question, Friedersdorf presented three stock positions and I will consider each in turn.

The first option is grounded in a basic principle of democracy, majority rule. Since Trump won the majority of the votes, he has earned the nomination. John Locke laid out the justification for this, which is quite reasonable: in a democracy, majority rule needs to be accepted to avoid destroying society. If the numerical minority refuses to accept the decision of the numerical majority, then the social system would be torn to pieces and, as Locke claimed, social systems are not formed to be torn asunder.

One obvious counter to this view is to point out that while Trump won the majority of the votes and delegates, only a small percentage of Republicans actually voted in the primaries. As such, Trump is not really the choice of the majority of the Republicans and denying him the nomination would be acceptable.

While this counter has some appeal, the easy reply is that voting is like running a race: it does not matter who might win based on who might show up; winning is a matter of who actually shows up. As such, since Trump won the majority, he is entitled to the nomination.

Accepting majority rule does leave open the possibility of Trump not getting the nomination—provided that the process is taken to include the voting of the delegates at the convention. This leads to the second option, that of the delegates voting the conscience and possibly against Trump.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to look at the obligation of convention delegates. One is that they are obligated to vote based on who won them as delegates (at least on the first vote). The foundation for this obligation is the acceptance of the rules of the process—that is, the participants agreed with the rules and are now bound by them because of their agreement. To use a sports analogy, if one team is winning under the rules of the game and the results are not pleasing to the other team, then this hardly gives then the right to start changing the rules that everyone accepted. However, there are many cautionary tales of simply following the rules just because they are rules—there remains the question of whether the rules are good or not.

The other view of the obligation is that the delegates are not automatons—each, as Henry David Thoreau would say, has a conscience. As Jiminy Cricket said, they should let their conscience be their guide. On the positive side, a person’s conscience can play a critical rule in distinguishing good rules from bad. On the negative side, a person’s conscience can be in error. While there is often the assumption that the conscience is a reliable indicator of right and wrong, a person can have a bad conscience. This leads to a serious problem: if one uses his conscience to judge the rightness of rules, then what does the person use to assess the correctness of his conscience? One possible answer to this is the utilitarian/consequentialist approach—weighing the likely costs and benefits of an action to determine whether it is right or wrong.

In the case of Trump, one utilitarian calculation involves weighing harms and benefits of denying Trump the nomination he has earned in accord with the established rules. This would mostly be a calculation within the confines of the Republican party rather than in terms of the entire country. My inclination is that denying Trump the nomination would have profoundly negative consequences for the Republican party as an institution. As many others have noted, denying Trump the nomination would be rightly perceived as breaking the rules and a betrayal of the voters. This, of course, could be seen as a benefit for those who are opposed to this party.

A second utilitarian calculation involves weighing the harms and benefits of denying Trump the nomination in the context of the entire country (or perhaps even the world). Trump has no experience in political office, seems to lack interest in the complexities of political positions, has little concern about truth, and there are grave concerns about his ethics. As such, a solid case could be made on utilitarian grounds for denying him the nomination—assuming that his replacement would be better for the country. Hillary Clinton must also be considered in these calculations—would it be better or worse for the country if she ran against Trump rather than someone else? As I see it, Trump would be worse than Hillary Clinton; but there are presumably Republicans that would be better than her. If so, a utilitarian approach would seem to point towards the delegates nominating a candidate that is better than Trump and Hillary and who could beat Hillary. At this point, it seems unlikely that such a candidate could be found—then again, there are still months to go before the election.

In closing, my position is that Trump won the nomination and is thus morally entitled to it; that is the way the process works and it would be unjust to betray the voters and Trump. However, I think that people should not vote for Trump in the general election.


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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 11, 2016

Peaceful protest is an integral part of the American political system. Sadly, murder is also an integral part of our society. The two collided in Dallas, Texas: after a peaceful protest, five police officers were murdered. While some might see it as ironic that the police rushed to protect the people protesting police violence, this actually serves as a reminder of how the police are supposed to function in a democratic society. This stands in stark contrast with the unnecessary deaths inflicted on citizens by bad officers—deaths that have given rise to many protests.

While violence and protests are both subjects worthy of in depth discussion, my focus will be on the ethical questions raised by the use of a robot to deliver the explosive device that was used to kill one of the attackers. While this matter has been addressed by philosophers more famous than I, I thought it worthwhile to say a bit about the matter.

While the police robot is called a robot, it is more accurate to describe it as a remotely operated vehicle. After all, the term “robot” is often taken as implying autonomy on the part of the machine. The police robot is remote controlled, like a sophisticated version of the remote controlled toys. In fact, a similar result could have been obtained by putting an explosive charge on a robust enough RC toy and rolling it within range of the target.

Since there is a human operator directly controlling the machine, it would seem that the ethics of the matter are the same as if more conventional machines of death (such as rifles or handguns) had been used to kill the shooter. On the face of it, the only difference is in how the situation is seen: a killer robot delivering a bomb sounds more ominous and controversial than an officer using a firearm. The use of remote controlled vehicles to kill targets is obviously nothing new—the basic technology has been around since at least WWII and the United States has killed many people with our drones.

If this had been the first case of an autonomous police robot sent to kill (like an ED-209), then the issue would be rather different. However, it is reasonable enough to regard this as the same old ethics of killing, only with a slight twist in regards to the delivery system. That said, it can be argued that the use of a remote controlled machine does add a new moral twist.

Keith Abney has raised a very reasonable point: if a robot could be sent to kill a target, it could also be sent to use non-lethal force to subdue the target. In the case of human officers, the usual moral justification of lethal force is that it is the best option for protecting themselves and others from a threat. If the threat presented by a suspect can be effectively addressed in a non-lethal manner, then that is the option that should be used. The moral foundation for this is set by the role of police in society: they are to protect the public and expected to take every legitimate effort to deliver suspects for trial in the criminal justice system. They are not supposed to function as soldiers that are engaging an enemy that is to be defeated—they are supposed to function as agents of the criminal justice system. There are, of course, cases in which suspects cannot be safely captured—these are situations in which the use of deadly force is justified, usually by imminent threat to the officer or citizens. A robot (or, more accurately, a remote controlled machine) can radically change the equation.

While a police robot is an expensive piece of hardware, it is not a human being (or even an artificial being). As such, it only has the moral status of property. In contrast, even the worst human criminal is a human being and thus has a moral status above that of a mere object. As such, if a robot is sent to engage a human suspect, then in many circumstances there would be no moral justification for using lethal force. After all, the officer operating the machine is in no danger as she steers the robot towards the target. This should change the ethics of the use of force to match other cases in which a suspect needs to be subdued, but presents no danger to the officer attempting arrest. In such cases, the machine should be outfitted with less-than-lethal options. While television and movies make safely disabling a human seem easy enough, it is actually rather challenging. For example, a rifle butt to the head is often portrayed as safely knocking a person out, when in reality it would cause serious injury or even death. Tasers, gas weapons and rubber bullets also can cause injury or death. However, the less-than-lethal options are less likely to kill a suspect and thus allow her to be captured for trial—which is the point of law enforcement. Robots could, as they often are in science fiction, be designed to withstand gunfire and physically grab a suspect. While this is likely to result in injury (such as broken bones) and could kill, it would be far less likely to kill than a bomb. An excellent example of a situation in which a robot would be ideal would be to capture an armed suspect barricaded in his house or apartment.

It must be noted that there will be cases in which the use of lethal force via a robot is justified. These would include cases in which the suspect presents a clear and present danger to officers or civilians and the best chance of ending the threat is the use of such force. An example of this might be a hostage situation in which the hostage taker is likely to kill hostages while the robot is trying to subdue him with less-than-lethal force.

While police robots have long been the stuff of science fiction, they do present a potential technological solution to the moral and practical problem of keeping officers and suspects alive. While an officer might be legitimately reluctant to stake her life on less-than-lethal options when directly engaged with a suspect, an officer operating a robot faces no such risk. As such, if the deployment of less-than-lethal options via a robot would not put the public at unnecessary risk, then it would be morally right to use such means.

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

English: NRA (National Recovery Administration...

Put a bit simply, a silencer is a device attached to a gun for the purpose of suppressing the sound it makes. This is usually done to avoid drawing attention to the shooter. This makes an excellent analogy for what happens to proposals for gun regulation: the sound is quickly suppressed so as to ensure that attention moves on to something new.

Part of this suppression is deliberate. After each mass shooting, the NRA and other similar groups step up pressure on the politicians they influence to ensure that new regulations are delayed, defeated or defanged. While it is tempting to cast the NRA as a nefarious player that subverts democracy, the truth seems to be that the NRA has mastered the democratic process: it organizes and guides very motivated citizens to give money (which is used to lobby politicians) and to contact their representatives in the government. This has proven vastly more effective than protests, sit-ins and drum circles. While it is true that the NRA represents but a fraction of the population, politics is rather like any sport: you have to participate to win. While most citizens do not even bother to vote, NRA member turnout is apparently quite good—thus they gain influence by voting. This is, of course, democracy. Naturally, another tale could be told of the NRA and its power and influence. A tale that presents the NRA and its members as subverting the will of the majority.

Certain pundits and politicians also engage in suppression. One standard tactic is, after a shooting, to claim that it is “too soon” to engage in discussion and lawmaking. Rather, the appropriate response involves moments of silence and prayer. While it is appropriate to pay respects to the wounded and dead, there is a difference between doing this and trying to run out the clock with this delaying tactic. Those that use it know quite well that if the discussion can be delayed, interest will fade and along with it the chances of any action being taken.

It is, in fact, appropriate to take action as soon as possible. To use the obvious analogy, if a fire is ravaging through a neighborhood, then the time to put out that fire is now. This way there will be less need of moments of silence and prayers for victims.

Another stock tactic is to accuse those proposing gun regulation of playing politics and exploiting the tragedy for political points or to advance an agenda. This approach can have some moral merit—if a person is engaged in a Machiavellian exploitation of some awful event (be it a mass shooting, a terrorist attack or a wave of food poisoning) without any real concern for the suffering of others, then that person would be morally awful. That said, the person could still be acting rightly, albeit for all the wrong reasons. This would be in terms of the consequences, which could be quite good despite the problematic motivations. For example, if a politician cynically exploited the harm inflicted by lead contaminated water in order to gain national attention, then that person would hardly be a good person. However, if this resulted in changes that significantly reduced lead poisoning in the United States, then consequences would certainly seem good and desirable.

It is also worth considering that using an awful event to motivate change for the better could result from laudable motives and a recognition of how human psychology generally works. To use an analogy, a person who loves someone who just suffered from a lifestyle inflicted heart attack could use that event to get the person to change her lifestyle and do so for commendable reasons. After all, people are most likely to do something when an awful event is fresh in their minds; hence this is actually the ideal time to address a problem—which leads to the final part of the discussion.

Although active suppression can be an effective tactic, it often relies on the fact that interest in a matter fades as time passes—this is why those opposed to new gun regulation use delaying tactics. They know that public attention will shift and fade.

On the one hand, the human tendency to lose interest can be regarded as a bad thing. As Merlin said in Excalibur, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” In the case of mass shootings and gun violence, people quickly forget an incident—at least until another incident reminds them. This allows a problem to persist and is why action needs to be taken as soon as possible.

On the other hand, our forgetting is often our salvation. If the memory of fear and pain did not fade over time, they would be as wounds that did not heal. Just as a person would bleed to death physically from wounds that never healed, a person would bleed out emotionally if memory did not fade.

To use another analogy, if the mind is like a ship and memory is like a cargo, just as a ship that could never lighten its load would plunge to the ocean floor, a person that could never lighten her emotional load would be dragged into the great abyss of emotions and thus be ruined. Thus, forgetting is both our doom and our salvation. Of course, we would have far less need to forget if we remembered what we need to fix. And fixed it.


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No Fly, No Buy

Posted in Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2016

Departing BFI as BOE008 Heavy

In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, there has been a push for the idea of “no fly, no buy.” This is the sound bite slogan for banning people on the No Fly List from buying guns. There are two main versions of this proposal. One, backed by Democrats, is that the No Fly List data would become part of the background check to purchase a firearm and would prevent a person on the list from buying a gun legally. The other, backed by Republicans, gives the government a limited time frame to establish probable cause for banning a person on the list from buying a gun. For the sake of this discussion, I am oversimplifying the fine distinctions between the various lists. Fortunately, the general discussion does not require such fine distinctions.

Both parties agree with the fundamental justification for the proposal: guns should be kept out of the hands of terrorists. This is often described in the media as a “no brainer.” While I agree that it is best if terrorists do not have guns, this justification is something of a deceit: being on the No Fly List is not the same as being a terrorist. Rather, being on the list means that a person (might be) suspected of having some connection to terrorism. To use the obvious analogy, it is a “no brainer” to want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals—but it is another matter to want to keep guns out of the hands of people who are suspected of maybe having some connection to crime. As such, the “keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists” is a rhetorical point that has a very limited connection to the actual facts. This leads to my concerns about using the No Fly List as a no-buy list.

The first point of concern, one shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be poorly managed. The reason this is a problem is that a person can end up on the list who actually has no connection to terrorism at all. Since the program is secret, the mechanics of ending up on the list are known only to a few—but it has been clearly established that the list is “riddled with errors.” Using such a flawed list is clearly problematic. This could, of course, be addressed by improving list management.

The second point of concern, also shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be a clear violation of the right to due process. As such, the list itself seems to be unconstitutional. It was, of course, accepted as part of the grand sacrifice of rights to the delusion and illusion of security following 9/11. Unfortunately, the fires of fear are relentlessly stoked, making addressing these violations unlikely. Obviously enough, using an unconstitutional process as the basis for forbidding people from buying guns is problematic. This could be addressed by revising the process to follow due process or amending the constitution to change due process.

The third point of concern is that the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is as an individual right to keep and bear arms. A look back at the history of the Second Amendment shows that this has not always been the case; but what matters legally is the current interpretation. Given that the No Fly List is flawed and seems to be unconstitutional, to deny a person his Second Amendment rights on such a basis would be unacceptable. To use an analogy, imagine that in addition to “no fly, no buy” there was a proposal for “no seating, no tweeting.” On this proposal, people on the No Fly List would be banned from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. This would be absurd. By parity of reasoning, using the list to violate the Second Amendment right would be just as absurd.

It could be objected that the danger presented by guns is far greater than the danger presented by words. While this does have some appeal, the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” exists for a reason. While it is true that guns can kill, words have great power—after all, when people discuss terrorism they often focus on the process of radicalization—and expression (propaganda in various forms) is a large part of this. There is also the fact that, once again, being on the No Fly List is not the same as being an actual terrorist—so a person’s rights would be denied on the basis of an unreliable violation of due process.

It could be objected that there should not be an individual right to keep and bear arms. That is, the Second Amendment should be repealed or reinterpreted. While this could be done, it does not address the actual issue at hand. After all, the issue is not about what the Second Amendment should be, but about whether or not the “no fly, no buy” proposal is a good one or not. If no one could buy, then the “no buy” would make “no fly, no buy” pointless.

Another objection is the “low impact” counter. This is a general tactic in which it is argued that a proposal is acceptable because it would not really have much of an impact. In the case of “no fly, no buy”, people point to the fact that of the 192,956,397 background checks between February 2004 and May, 2016 there have been 2,477 matches with a watch list and only 212 denied transactions. As such, the argument goes, there should be no real objection to “no fly, no buy” because it will almost certainly have a miniscule impact on citizens.

There are two easy and obvious replies to the “low impact” counter. The first is that just because a policy is likely to have low impact, it does not follow that it is thus acceptable. As argued above, the “no fly, no buy” proposal is highly problematic and the fact that it will not deny too many people their rights is hardly good grounds for accepting it.

The second is that the “low impact” shows that the proposal will not be very effective at achieving the results that are supposed to motivate its acceptance. To be specific, the proposal would seem to have little or no impact on gun violence in the United States. As it stands, it seems that there have been no mass shootings that would have been prevented by “no fly, no buy.” While the Orlando shooter was on a list, he was removed—so the proposal would not have prevented that shooting. Unless, of course, there was also a proposal passed into law that would prevent people from being removed from the list or imposing a permanent gun buying ban on anyone who is ever on the list. These would certainly be problematic.

Overall, “no fly, no buy” seems to be a case of political theater—the illusion of trying to address a very real problem in a way that actually fails to address that problem while also violating rights. As such, I am against “no fly, no buy.”


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Guns & Suicide

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

Judging from the news coverage, it would be natural to think that mass shootings with assault rifles are the most common form of gun violence. As is often the case, the extent of media coverage is no indicator of the true facts of the matter—to think otherwise would be to fall victim to the spotlight fallacy. While mass shootings are all too common, the number of people killed per year in such events is only a small fraction of deaths involving guns. The vast majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted: 21,334 of the 33,599 known gun deaths in 2014 were suicides. Of the remaining deaths, homicides accounted for 10,945, accidents 586 and police interventions resulted in 464 deaths. The death tolls in these three categories has been stable since 2000, but gun suicides increased significantly during this time. As should be expected, there have been various attempts to address this problem.

When attempts to prevent successful suicide focus on guns, a common counter is to repeat the saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Put in non-slogan form, the argument is that there is no reason to focus on guns because doing so will have no significant impact on suicide rates. Those who are intent on killing themselves will merely find some other means of doing so, be it hanging or pills. This is analogous to the response to other proposals to address gun violence. For example, when gun regulation is raised as a means of addressing mass shootings, the response is that people will simply use something else, such as homemade bombs.

This counter can be addressed by considering some key facts about guns and suicide. The first is that research indicates that a person will typically start planning a very short time before the attempt (often less than an hour). That is, there is typically a limited window of vulnerability. The second, and the most relevant, is that guns are very effective suicide machines: 85% of suicide attempts with guns succeed, followed by 69% for hanging. The use of poison succeeds 2% of the time. This is hardly surprising: guns are designed to kill effectively and quickly. At this point, an objector might contend that the effectiveness of guns is not really relevant—a person will just keep trying if they fail with a low success method. This leads to the third fact.

While it seems reasonable to believe that a person who tries to commit suicide and fails will keep trying, the evidence seems to show that the vast majority of people who fail do not try again. As such, if the first attempt fails, there probably will not be another—especially if there is an intervention on behalf of the person. As such, if a suicidal person did not have access to a gun, then his chance of not dying would be significantly better than if he did. This is not to ignore the other means of committing suicide; it is merely to consider the facts of the success rate.

While a lack of access to a gun would significantly reduce the chances a person will succeed in a suicide attempt, there is the problem of making this a reality. Some countries have addressed gun violence by very strong restrictions on gun ownership, thus reducing all forms of gun violence (including suicide). As a matter of political reality, this is not an option in the United States. As such, the challenge of suicide by gun must be addressed in other ways.

One approach, which is analogous to one of many proposals for addressing mass shootings, is a requirement to confirm the mental health a person purchasing a gun. In the case of suicide prevention, the mental health issues of concern would tend to be different from those involved with mass shootings or other forms of gun violence. Though this is reasonable, it does have two significant gaps. The first is that it does nothing about guns that are already owned. The second is that it requires that the person have an established and known history that would indicate a likely attempt at suicide.

In regards to guns already owned, the main solution is for the guns to be made inaccessible to the person. This could be done by the person themselves, by friends/relatives or by the authorities in certain cases. The main problem here is that suicide, as noted above, tends to not be planned well in advance—so there may be little or no time for an intervention. There are also the legal and practical challenges in taking a person’s guns away without their consent. If the person has proven themselves a danger to themselves (or others), then there are procedures for this. However, if a person is merely suspected of having the potential of committing suicide, there is the problem of justifying taking the person’s guns. Given that gun ownership is taken as a basic right, the authorities would have no legal right to take away a person’s guns without adequate justification. Friends and relatives, of course, would not need legal justification to intervene—but taking a person’s guns without his consent would be theft (not to mention the potential risk). This is analogous to attempts to prevent mass shootings by taking away guns from people who might engage in such behavior—the problem is that until they act or make clear threats, there is little legal basis for such action.

In regards to the established and known history of mental illness, the problem (as with the case of some mass shootings) is that before a person actually takes action, her background is very often the same as people who will never engage in gun violence. This is the general problem of prediction—one that is rather difficult in the case of suicide. There are also the ethical and legal problems associated with acting on mere predictions. This is based on the fact that gun ownership is a legal right in the United States as well as the usual moral arguments in favor of gun ownership as a moral right.

There do not seem to be many technological options to addressing the use of guns in suicide. After all, the requirement of a safety feature that prevents a gun from being fired at humans would never pass in the United States, even if such a feature was a technical possibility. A feature that prevented a weapon from firing at designated person (such as the owner) might have some appeal (and is a feature of some science fiction weapons)—but even if it were possible, a person could bypass this feature or get another weapon. The solution, obviously enough, must be a human one.

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Philosophers (including me) on the Ethics of Voting

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 27, 2016

I, and other philosophers, were recently interviewed by Quartz about the ethics of voting. The article is short, but an interesting read. I am, of course biased.

Here is the link:

Ethicists say voting with your heart, without a care about the consequences, is actually immoral

The Gun and I: Backstory

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 24, 2016

English: Various donuts from the Dunkin' Donut...

Like everyone else, how I look at the world is shaped by my psychological backstory. While, as a professional philosopher, I have an excellent logical toolkit, my use of these tools is shaped by how I feel about things. Since the matter of guns is a rather emotional issue, I need to sort out how my backstory influences how I assess arguments regarding guns.

Academics, especially philosophers, are often cast as latte sipping effeminate liberals who would get the vapors if they so much as caught sight of a piece of manly steel. The positive version of this stereotype is that an academic is far too civil to have any truck with something as barbarous as guns and far too intelligent to believe that guns have any value. A true intellectual, or so the stereotype goes, should dismiss all pro-gun prattle with the wave of a hand, a bemused smile and a remark about people clinging to God and guns. This slides nicely into a rather negative stereotype of gun owners.

Gun owners are all too often stereotyped as slack jawed ignoramuses, upper lips sweaty with thoughts of killing God’s creatures and who secretly stroke their shooting iron to fantasies of mass murder. The positive reverse of this negative stereotype is that gun owners are practical folks who believe in God, guns and country and want nothing to do with those ivory tower intellectuals and their bemused smiles.

Being a gun toting philosopher, I have been subject to these stereotypes. If an academic colleague or a fellow intellectual learns that I am a gun person (and especially that I have hunted), they tend to react with shock and dismay. Surely, they say, I am too smart and too decent to have anything to do with monstrous guns. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my gun history as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person.

Gun folks who find out I am an academic are often surprised by this—especially when they learn I am a philosopher. They often think of academics as elitist liberals who swoon at the sight of…well, you get the picture. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my being a philosopher as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person. As is true of everyone else, I am who I am today because of who I was. So, on to my gun related backstory.

Like many American boys of my time, my first gun was a BB gun. It was a Daisy BB gun, but not a Red Ryder. It would, however, put an eye out. As boys, we would shoot the hell out of each other with our guns, so it is a wonder that we all made it out of childhood with both eyes. This was the gun I used for my first kill.

While the mists of time have obscured many memories, I clearly recall taking aim at a songbird perched on a powerline by what we called “the frog pond.” Carelessly I shot, not thinking I would hit it. The bird fell, striking the ground as a corpse. Though I was a kid, I knew I had done something terrible—a needless, senseless killing. I had straight up murdered that bird. I was not protecting myself (obviously) and I did not need it for food. That callous and careless murder shaped my view of guns for the rest of my life—my young mind grasped that it is all too easy to silence a song forever.

Eventually I got my first real guns—a Marlin .22 and a single shot .410-gauge shotgun. My father made sure that I knew all the safety rules and he taught me two of the great truths about guns. The first is that a gun is always loaded. The second is that you never point a gun at anything or anyone unless you mean to kill them. The safety lessons stuck—I have never been injured by my own gun and I have never harmed another being without intending to do so.

Once I was old enough, I went hunting with my father. I had to get up at some ungodly hour of the day—I remember feeling very cold. We’d then drive down to the land we owned in Lamoine. On the way we’d get Dunkin Donuts—my favorite part. Sometimes we’d cook up bacon and eggs by the ocean. Sometimes we’d go down the night before—that meant Dinty Moore Beef Stew from the can. These are all positive memories—no one got hurt. Well, no one but the ducks.

While hunters are sometimes cast as bloodthirsty, callous or trophy lusting egomaniacs, nothing could be further from my experiences. My father taught me to respect the animals we hunted and also the natural world. He also taught me a lesson that has shaped my character ever since.

While a duck usually drops immediately when hit, sometimes they just catch enough pellets to badly wound them. These birds are sometimes able to fly some distance before being forced down. They are, no doubt, terrified and in great pain while they struggle to escape. While it might be thought that the right thing to do would be to let such a bird escape, the truth is that it will most likely suffer from an infection and die horribly and slowly. Once, when we were hunting, this happened—the bird made it a good distance, then plummeted into the water, wounded but not dead. My father got the boat into the water and went after the duck, shooting it and retrieving it. The reason was not to avoid losing the duck. The reason was a moral responsibility to that duck. To leave it to suffer and die would be wrong; the duck was his responsibility. This reinforced my belief in the responsibility that comes from using a gun and the moral necessity of being fully accountable for one’s actions.

Some might say that this tale is all well and good, but that the real lesson is that a person should not be out there shooting animals in the first place. As a philosopher, I do agree there are excellent moral arguments against harming animals (I have, of course, read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation-which is why I no longer eat veal). However, to hunt for the sake of food and to do so with respect for the animal is to accept that I am part of the natural world. That is, I am a hunter and the duck is prey. Someday, I too shall pass and my mortal shell will be consumed. As I see it, it is morally acceptable to kill the duck for food, provided that the kill is clean and that if it is not the matter is set right.

Those who embrace vegetarianism can raise very reasonable moral objections against killing even for food—why kill an animal that can suffer instead of eating a plant that (supposedly) cannot? I do find considerable merit in these arguments and accept that killing animals for food is morally worse than killing plants. However, I accept the moral weight of my actions and this makes me reluctant to kill. In fact, I would so only for defense or true hunger.

When I went to college and then to graduate school, I learned a great deal about ethics. It is, in fact, a subject I teach. Interestingly, what I learned about ethics did not radically change my views of guns (or hunting). Mainly it gave me a better theoretical framework in which to discuss the issues.

While I have not been hunting in many years, I still engage in target shooting with friends. We go to a gun range, follow all the safety protocols (and watch out for the fools who do not) and usually get lunch afterwards. We get, I think, the same enjoyment from this that people get from playing golf. While there is some risk of injury, that is true of many activities—so I have never regarded target shooting as immoral.

While assault rifles are the big news these days, the hottest field in guns is concealed carry. Some states allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon while others require a license. When I got my first permit in Maine, the process was very easy and was handled by the local police. When I got a permit in Florida, I had to take a safety course (which was a bit weird, since I had been shooting for almost 40 years) and pass a fairly thorough background check.

When I was in Maine, I had the permit mainly as a matter of convenience—so I could carry my .357 under my jacket while hunting (it was a backup in case my rifle malfunctioned and I had to finish off a wounded deer (a fellow I know once had to finish off a deer with a small knife, which was horrifying) and to go to target shoot. I got the permit in Florida mainly for convenience in taking a gun to the range and also to be legally safe in regards to carrying a knife (being from Maine, I always have a knife—pretty sure that is some sort of natural law).

Some people get permits because of fear of being attacked. While I am aware that this could happen, I am not particularly afraid that I will be attacked—I understand how statistics work. I also understand how being afraid actually creates more danger—a person whose mind is shaped by fear is far more likely to overreact violently. I practice a casual alertness: I know that some people I encounter will be friendly, the vast majority will be neutral and the odds of encountering an attacker are incredibly low. But, it is unwise to be unaware. I have been in a few situations that could have gone very badly, but my preferred resolution is talking—that has worked so far.

I do, however, believe that a person has a moral obligation to be capable of self-defense. To expect others to bear the burden of defense is moral selfishness, worse than expecting someone else to do one’s cooking and cleaning. After all, defending a person can result in death. Naturally, I do accept that the helpless and those who are less capable should be protected; but being willfully helpless is a moral failing. I am not, however, claiming that everyone should get a gun. A gun is a great responsibility and should, as a matter of ethics, only be entrusted with those of the right character who are willing to learn to use the weapon properly and responsibly. I think the same way about all dangerous machines, including automobiles. While there is the right to be armed, not everyone is up to exercising that right properly. This is, of course, distinct from the legality of the matter. To use an analogy, I think there are people who should not have children because they are awful parents. However, they have every legal right to do so—until they cross certain boundaries. The same applies to guns.

That, then, is my gun backstory that shapes the lens through which I see gun issues. Naturally, I expect people to have moral criticisms of my backstory as well as the position I take as the result of reasoning colored by this backstory. But, those who disagree with me should consider their own backstories and how they impact their views. As should those who agree with me.


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