A Philosopher's Blog

Panhandling & Free Expression

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2017

Many local officials tend to believe that panhandlers are detrimental to local businesses and tourism and, as such, it is no surprise that there have been many efforts to ban begging. While local governments keep trying to craft laws to pass constitutional muster, their efforts have generally proven futile in the face of the First Amendment. While the legal questions are addressed by courts, there remains the moral question of whether the banning of panhandling can be morally justified.

The obvious starting point for a moral argument for banning panhandling is a utilitarian approach. As noted above, local officials generally want to have such bans because they believe panhandlers can be bad for local businesses and tourism in general. For example, if potential customers are accosted by scruffy and unwashed panhandlers on the streets around businesses, then they are less likely to patronize those businesses. As another example, if a city gets a reputation for being awash in beggars who annoy tourists with their pleas for cash, then tourism is likely to decline. From the perspective of the business owners and the local officials, these effects would have negative value that would outweigh the benefits to the panhandlers of being able to ask for money. There is presumably also utility in encouraging panhandlers to move away to other locations, thus removing the financial and social cost of having panhandlers. If this utilitarian calculation is accurate, then banning panhandling would be morally acceptable. Of course, if the calculation is not correct and such a ban would do more harm than good, then the ban would be morally wrong.

A second utilitarian argument is the safety argument. While panhandlers generally do not engage in violence (they, after all, are asking for money and not trying to rob people), it has been claimed that they do present a safety risk. The standard concern is that by panhandling in or near traffic, they put themselves and others in danger. If this is true, then banning panhandling would be the right thing to do.  If, however, the alleged harm does not justify the ban, then it would be morally unacceptable.

There is also the obvious reply that any safety concerns could be addressed by having laws that forbid people from obstructing the flow of traffic and being a danger to themselves and others. Presumably many such laws exist in various localities. There is also the concern that the safety argument would need to be applied consistently to all such allegedly risky behavior around traffic, such as people engaging in political campaigns or street side advertising.

It is also easy enough to advance a utilitarian argument in favor of panhandling that is based on the harm that could be done by restricting the panhandlers’ freedom of expression and activity. Following Mill’s classic argument, as long as panhandlers are not harming people with their panhandling, then it would be wrong to limit their freedom to engage in this behavior. This is on the condition that the panhandling is, at worst, merely annoying and does not involve threatening behavior or harassment.

It could be objected that panhandling does cause harm—as noted above, the presence of panhandlers could harm local businesses. People can also regard panhandling as an infringement on their freedom to not be bothered in public. While this does have some appeal, this justification of a panhandling ban would also justify banning any public behavior people found annoying or that had some perceived impact on local businesses. This could include public displays of expression, political campaigning, preaching in public and many other behaviors that should not be banned. In short, the problem is that there is not something distinct enough to panhandling that would allow it to be banned without also justifying the ban of other activities. To simply ban it because it is panhandling would seem to solve this problem, but would not. After all, if an activity can be justly banned because it is that activity, then this would apply to any activity. After all, every activity is the activity it is.

Those who prefer an alternative to utilitarian calculations can easily defend panhandling against proposed bans by appealing to a right of free expression and behavior that is not based on utility. If people do have the moral right to free expression, then reasons would need to be advanced that would be strong enough to warrant violating this right. As noted above, an appeal could be made to the rights of businesses and the rights of other people to avoid being annoyed. However, the right to not be annoyed does not seem to trump the right of expression until the annoyance becomes significant. As such, a panhandler does have the right to annoy a person by asking for money, but if it crosses over into actual harassment, then this would be handled by the fact that people do not have a right to harassment.

In the case of businesses, while they do have a right to engage in free commerce, they do not have a right to expect people to behave in ways that are conducive to their business. If, for example, people found it offensive to have runners running downtown and decided to take their business elsewhere, this would not warrant a runner ban. But, if runners were blocking access to the businesses by running around the entrances, then the owners’ rights would be being violated. Likewise, if panhandlers are disliked by people and they decide to take their business elsewhere, this does not violate the rights of the businesses. But, if panhandlers started harassing people and blocking access to the businesses, then this would violate the rights of the owners.

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The Ethics of Stockpiling Vulnerabilities

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 17, 2017

In May of 2017 the Wannacry Ransomware swept across the world, impacting thousands of computers. The attack affected hospitals, businesses, and universities and the damage has yet to be fully calculated. While any such large-scale attack is a matter of concern, the Wannacry incident is especially interesting. This is because the foundation of the attack was stolen from the National Security Agency of the United States. This raises an important moral issue, namely whether states should stockpile knowledge of software vulnerabilities and the software to exploit them.

A stock argument for states maintaining such stockpiles is the same as the argument used to justify stockpiling weapons such as tanks and aircraft. The general idea is that such stockpiles are needed for national security: to protect and advance the interests of the state. In the case of exploiting vulnerabilities for spying, the security argument can be tweaked a bit by drawing an analogy to other methods of spying. As should be evident, to the degree that states have the right to stockpile physical weapons and engage in spying for their security, they also would seem to have the right to stockpile software weapons and knowledge of vulnerabilities.

The obvious moral counter argument can be built on utilitarian grounds: the harm done when such software and information is stolen and distributed exceeds the benefits accrued by states having such software and information. The Wannacry incident serves as an excellent example of this. While the NSA might have had a brief period of advantage when it had exclusive ownership of the software and information, the damage done by the ransomware to the world certainly exceeds this small, temporary advantage. Given the large-scale damage that can be done, it seems likely that the harm caused by stolen software and information will generally exceed the benefits to states. As such, stockpiling such software and knowledge of vulnerabilities is morally wrong.

This can be countered by arguing that states just need to secure their weaponized software and information. Just as a state is morally obligated to ensure that no one steals its missiles to use in criminal or terrorist endeavors, a state is obligated to ensure that its software and vulnerability information is not stolen. If a state can do this, then it would be just as morally acceptable for a state to have these cyberweapons as it would be for it to have conventional weapons.

The easy and obvious reply to this counter is to point out that there are relevant differences between conventional weapons and cyberweapons that make it very difficult to properly secure them from unauthorized use. One difference is that stealing software and information is generally much easier and safer than stealing traditional weapons. For example, a hacker can get into the NSA from anywhere in the world, but a person who wanted to steal a missile would typically need to break into and out of a military base. As such, securing cyberweapons can be more difficult that securing other weapons. Another difference is that almost everyone in the world has access to the deployment system for software weapons—a device connected to the internet. In contrast, someone who stole, for example, a missile would also need a launching platform. A third difference is that software weapons are generally easier to use than traditional weapons. Because of these factors, cyberweapons are far harder to secure and this makes their stockpiling very risky. As such, the potential for serious harm combined with the difficulty of securing such weapons would seem to make them morally unacceptable.

But, suppose that such weapons and vulnerability information could be securely stored—this would seem to answer the counter. However, it only addresses the stockpiling of weaponized software and does not justify stockpiling vulnerabilities. While adequate storage would prevent the theft of the software and the acquisition of vulnerability information from the secure storage, the vulnerability would remain to be exploited by others. While a state that has such vulnerability information would not be directly responsible for others finding the vulnerabilities, the state would still be responsible for knowingly allowing the vulnerability to remain, thus potentially putting the rest of the world at risk. In the case of serious vulnerabilities, the potential harm of allowing such vulnerabilities to remain unfixed would seem to exceed the advantages a state would gain in keeping the information to itself. As such, states should not stockpile knowledge of such critical vulnerabilities, but should inform the relevant companies.

The interconnected web of computers that forms the nervous system of the modern world is far too important to everyone to put it risk for the relatively minor and short-term gains that could be had by states creating malware and stockpiling vulnerabilities. I would use an obvious analogy to the environment; but people are all too willing to inflict massive environmental damage for relatively small short term gains. This, of course, suggests that the people running states might prove as wicked and unwise regarding the virtual environment as they are regarding the physical environment.

 

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Truth, Loyalty & Trump

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2017

While the first hundred (or so) days of a president’s reign is something of an arbitrary mark, Trump seems to have ignited more controversy and firestorms than most presidents. Since Lincoln’s election lead to the Civil War, he still leads here—but Trump is, perhaps, just getting warmed up.

The most recent incident in the Trump reign is the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The narrative of why Comey was fired has served as yet another paradigm example of the nature of the Trump reign. The initial reason given was that Comey was fired for how he handled the Clinton email scandal. This story would convince only the most deluded—Trump and his fellows had praised Comey for his role in crashing Hillary’s chance of being elected. Trump’s minions also deployed to assert that Comey was fired because he had lost the confidence of the people at the FBI. This, like most assertions originating from the Trump regime, seems to be untrue. Trump himself seems to have presented what might be a real reason for Comey being fired: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ” These claims are contrary to the reasons advanced by his minions; the claim that he decided to “just do it” is contrary to the earlier narrative that Trump had acted on the advice of others.

There is also reason to believe that Comey’s refusal to pledge personal loyalty to Trump at a dinner. Public officials, at least in the ideal, pledge their loyalty to the Constitution and not to specific individuals. Comey did promise to always be honest, apparently leading Trump to ask him to pledge “honest loyalty” which could be something that just emerged from Trump’s mouth rather than an actual thing. Trump seems rather worried that Comey might have recorded conversations with him; at least Trump is threatening Comey about such hypothetical tapes on Twitter.

When writing about the Trump reign, I feel as if I am writing about a fictional universe—what happens in Trump space seems to be stuff of bad alternative reality fiction. However, it is quite real—and thus needs to be addressed.

Starting on the surface, the Comey episode provides (more) objective evidence that the Trump regime engages in the untrue. As noted above, Trump’s minions presented one narrative about the firing that was quickly contradicted by Trump. Since all these claims cannot be true, a plausible explanation is that either Trump’s minions were lying or Trump was. Alternatively, those involved might have believed what they were saying. In this case, they would not be lying—although at least some of them would have said untrue things. This is because a lie requires that the liar be aware that what they are asserting is not true; merely being in error about the facts is not sufficient to make a person a liar.

Digging a bit deeper, Trump’s request for a pledge of loyalty seems to reveal his view of how the government should work—loyalty should be to Trump rather than to the Constitution. This is consistent with how Trump operates in the business world and the value he places on loyalty is well known.

While loyalty is generally a virtue, the United States professes to be a country that follows the rule of law and that places the constitution on the metaphorical throne. That is, public officials pledge their loyalty (as public officials) to the constitution and not to the person who happens to be president. This principle of loyalty to the constitution is critical to the rule of law in the United States. If Trump did, in fact, expect Comey to pledge loyalty to him, Trump was attacking a basic foundation of American democracy and our core political philosophy.

This is not to say that officials should lack all personal loyalty; just that their loyalty as public officials should be first and foremost to the Constitution. It could be argued that Trump was merely asking for an acceptable level of professional loyalty or that he was asking Comey to pledge his loyalty to the Constitution. While not impossible, it seems unlikely that Trump would ask for either of those things.

Comey’s unwillingness to pledge loyalty to Trump points to another likely reason for his firing. Trump presumably hoped that a loyal Comey would drop the investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump campaign. It seems likely that when it became clear that Comey was not going to let the matter go away, Trump fired him. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov engaged in a bit of wit about the Comey firing, asking reporters if Comey was fired and then responding with “You’re kidding, you’re kidding,” when the answer was given.

While some have claimed that Trump has created a constitutional crisis, this is clearly not the case. As others have pointed out, Trump has the authority to fire the director of the FBI for any reason or no reason. As such, Trump has not exceeded his constitutional powers in this matter. At the very least, the firing created “bad optics” and certainly created the impression that Trump fired Comey because Trump has something to hide. Since the Republican controlled congress seems to be generally unconcerned with the matter, Trump might be able to ride out the current storm and get an FBI director confirmed who will pledge loyalty to him and do to the investigation what Putin allegedly does to his political opponents. However, there are some Republicans who are concerned about the matter and they might be willing to work with Democrats and keep the investigation alive. It might turn out that Trump is innocent of all wrongdoing and that his angry blundering about was just that—angry blundering about rather than an effort to conceal the truth. Only a proper investigation will reveal the answer; unless the Russians decide to spill the vodka.

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Automation & Administration: An Immodest Proposal

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 5, 2017

It has almost been a law that technological advances create more jobs than they eliminate. This, however, appears to be changing. It is predicted that nearly 15 million jobs will be created by advances and deployment of automation and artificial intelligence by 2027. On the downside, it is also estimated that technological change will eliminate about 25 million jobs. Since the future is not yet now, the reality might be different—but it is generally wise to plan for the likely shape of things to come. As such, it is a good idea to consider how to address the likely loss of jobs.

One short term approach is moving people into jobs that are just ahead of replacement. This is rather like running ahead of an inextinguishable fire in a burning building—it merely postpones the inevitable. A longer-term approach is to add to the building so that you can keep on running as long as you can build faster than the fire can advance. This has been the usual approach to staying ahead of the fire of technology. An even better and rather obvious solution is to get out of the building and into one that will not catch on fire. Moving away from the metaphor, this would involve creating jobs that are technology proof.

If technology cannot fully replicate (or exceed) human capabilities, then there could be some jobs that are technology proof. To get a bit metaphysical, Descartes argued that merely physical systems would not be able to do all that an immaterial mind can do. For example, Descartes claimed that the ability to use true language required an immaterial mind—although he acknowledged that very impressive machines could be constructed that would have the appearance of thought. If he is right, then there could be a sort of metaphysical job security. Moving away from metaphysics, there could be limits on our technological abilities that preclude being able to build our true replacements. But, if technology can build entities that can do all that we can do, then no job would be safe—something could be made to take that job from a human. To gamble on either our special nature or the limits of technology is rather risky, so it would make more sense to take a more dependable approach.

One approach is creating job preserves (like game preserves, only for humans)—that is, deciding to protect certain jobs from technological change. This approach is nothing new. According to some accounts, one reason that Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was not utilized in the ancient world was because it would have displaced the slaves who provided the bulk of the labor. While this option does have the advantage of preserving jobs, there are some clear and obvious problems with creating such an economic preserve. As two examples, there are the practical matters of sustaining such jobs and competing against other countries who are not engaged in such job protection.

Another approach is to intentionally create jobs that are not really needed and thus can be maintained even in the face of technological advancement. After all, if there is really no reason to have the job at all, there is no reason to replace it with a technological solution. While this might seem to be a stupid idea (and it is), it is not a new idea. There are numerous jobs that are not really needed that are still maintained. Some even pay extremely well. One general category of such jobs are administrative jobs. I will illustrate with my own area of experience, academics.

When I began my career in academics, the academy was already thick with administrators. However, many of them did things that were necessary, such as handling finances and organizing departments. As the years went on, I noticed that the academy was becoming infested with administrators. While this could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence on my part, it is supported by the data—the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees in the academics has doubled in the past quarter century. This is, it must be noted, in the face of technological advance and automation which should have reduced the number of such jobs.

These jobs take many forms. As one example, in place of the traditional single dean, a college will have multiple deans of various ranks and the corresponding supporting staff. As another example, assessment has transformed from an academic fad to a permanent parasite (or symbiote, in cases where the assessment is worthwhile) that has grown fat upon the academic body. There has also been a blight of various vice presidents of this and that; many of which are often linked to what some call “political correctness.” Despite being, at best, useless, these jobs continue to exist and are even added to. While a sane person might see this as a problem to be addressed, a person with a somewhat different perspective would be inspired to make an immodest proposal: why not apply this model across the whole economy? To be specific, a partial solution to the problem of technology eliminating jobs is to create new administrative positions for those who lose their jobs. For example, if construction jobs were lost to constructicons, then they could be replaced with such jobs as “vice president of constructicon assessment”, ‘constructicon resource officer”, “constructicon gender identity consultant” and supporting staff.

It might be objected that it would be wrong, foolish and wasteful to create such jobs merely to keep people employed as jobs are consumed by technology. The easy and obvious reply is that if useless jobs are going to flourish anyway, they might as well serve a better purpose.

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Free Speech, Coulter & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2017

Ann Coulter’s appearance at the Berkeley was cancelled in response to threats made by anarchist groups. While some conservatives argue that concerns about security should often trump concerns about rights (such as infringing on religious liberty or privacy to “make us safer”), two conservative organizations have started a lawsuit against the university. The claim that the school is endeavoring “to restrict conservative speech” on campus. Since Berkeley is a public school, the First Amendment does apply and hence the case can make an appeal to this constitutional right. While well-paid lawyers will hash out the legal matters, this does raise an interesting moral concern.

As I have shown in numerous other essays, I hold to a view of freedom of expression that goes far beyond the limited legal protection laid out in the First Amendment. I also hold to the freedom of consumption—that people have a right to, for example, hear whatever views they wish to hear. As such, Coulter has a right to express herself and the student organizations have the right to invite her so they can listen to whatever wicked or foolish things she might elect to spew forth.

Like many classic liberals, my go-to justification of these liberties is based on J.S. Mill’s arguments. The gist is that allowing people the liberty of expression and the liberty of consumption creates more happiness than restricting these liberties. Being a fan of natural rights, I also find the idea that these rights have additional grounding beyond mere utility appealing. I do, however, admit that such rights are certainly metaphysically suspect and difficult to properly ground in reality. In short, while I think that Coulter will say nothing worth hearing, she has every right to speak before the student groups that invited her.

I should note that my view of Coulter is not based on any notion that conservative political theory lacks merit; it is based on my view that she lacks merit. Unfortunately, thoughtful conservative political theorists seem to be out of vogue. This is unfortunate; the past saw many excellent conservative thinkers and they made significant contributions to political and philosophical thought. These days, there seem to be mostly just empty pundits spewing emptiness on Fox News. Or, worse, racists and sexists purporting to represent conservative thought. Then again, perhaps abandoning the intellectual aspects of politics was a smart tactical move: the left might have its intellectuals, but the right holds the power in most states. But, back to the matter at hand.

While I do accept the rights of expression and consumption, these rights are not absolute. If the justification for rights and liberties is taken to be utilitarian, then these rights can be limited on the same grounds. As such, if the harm created by allowing the freedoms of expression and consumption would create more harm, then they can be justly limited. The stock example is, of course, the restriction on people yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

If a natural rights view is accepted, the restriction of a right can be justified by appealing to other rights. In the case of speech, the right to life would warrant preventing people from yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The challenge is, of course, working out a hierarchy of rights. However, it does seem reasonable to make the right to life a rather important right, if only because being alive is generally a necessary condition for the other rights.

If having a person speak could put that person and others in danger, then this can justify postponing a speech until proper security arrangements can be made or even cancelling it if such arrangements cannot be made. This can be done by appealing to a utilitarian justification or by arguing that the right not to be harmed trumps the rights of free expression and free consumption. This is analogous to other cases in which liberty must be weighed against safety.

This does lead to the obvious concern that free expression and free consumption could thus be thwarted simply by threatening violence; thus giving individuals and groups willing to make threats considerable powers of censorship. One limiting factor is that making such threats is a crime. Unfortunately, the internet provides so many anonymous ways of making threats that the police face considerable challenge in dealing with them.

Deciding how to respond to credible threats of violence requires weighing the rights of expression and consumption against the harms that are likely to arise. As a general principle, it seems reasonable to accept that a speech should be postponed in the face of a credible threat that cannot be addressed in time. Such a credible threat should be dealt with by law enforcement and then the speech can be made. If the threat can be addressed so that an acceptable level of public safety is possible (within the available budget), then the speech should proceed normally. This approach can be easily justified on utilitarian grounds: people are kept reasonably safe while at the same time threats are prevented from becoming an effective tool of censorship. This does require that the state take such threats seriously and take appropriate action.

There is, of course, also the moral responsibility of those who make such threats: they are wrong to do this. If they do not like, for example, Coulter’s views, they should ask a campus group to invite them to speak out against her views on campus.

 

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Confederate Monuments

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2017

The question “when was the last battle of the Civil War fought?” is a trick question; the last battle has yet to be fought. One minor skirmish took place recently in New Orleans as the city began its removal of Confederate monuments. Fortunately, this skirmish has yet to result in any injuries or deaths, although the removal of the first monument looked like a covert military operation. Using equipment with hidden company names, the removal crews wore masks and body armor while operating under both the cover of darkness and police sniper protection. These precautions were deemed necessary because of threats made against workers. In addition to being controversial, such removals are philosophically interesting.

One general argument in favor of keeping such Confederate monuments in place is the historical argument: the monuments express and are part of history and their removal is analogous to tearing pages from the history books. This argument does have considerable appeal, at least in cases in which the monuments mark an historical event and stick to the facts. However, monuments tend to be erected to bestow honors and this goes beyond mere noting of historical facts.

One example of such a monument is the Battle of Liberty Place Monument. It was erected in New Orleans in 1891 to honor the 1874 battle between the Crescent City White League and the racially integrated New Orleans Metropolitan police and state militia. The monument was modified by the city in 1932 with a plaque expressing support for white supremacy. The monument was modified again in 1993 when a new plaque was placed over the 1932 plaque, commemorating all those who died in the battle.

From a moral perspective, the problem with this sort of monument is that it does not merely present a neutral historical marker, but endorses white supremacy and praises racism. As such, to keep the memorial in place is to state that the city currently at least tolerates white supremacy and racism. If these values are still endorsed by the city, then the monument should remain as an honest expression of these immoral values. That way people will know what to expect in the city.

However, if the values are no longer endorsed by the city, then it would seem that the monument should be removed.  This would express the current views of the people of the city. It could be objected that such removal would be on par with purging historical records. Obviously, the records of the event should not be purged. It is, after all, a duty of history to record what has been and this can be done without praising (or condemning) what has occurred. In contrast, to erect and preserve an honoring monument is to take a stance on the matter—to praise or condemn it.

It could be argued that the 1993 change to the monument “redeems” it from its white supremacist and racist origins and, as such, it should be left in place. This does have some appeal, part of which is that the monument expresses the history of the (allegedly) changed values. To use an analogy, a building that once served an evil purpose can be refurbished and redeemed to serve a good purpose. This, it could be argued, sends a more powerful statement than simply razing the building.

However, the fact remains that the monument was originally created to honor white supremacy and the recent modification seems to be an effort to conceal this fact. As such, the right thing to do would seem to be to remove the monument. Since the monument does have historical significance, it would be reasonable to preserve it as such—historical artifacts can be kept without endorsing any values associated with the artifact. For example, keeping artifacts that belonged to Stalin as historically significant items is not to endorse Stalinism. Keeping a monument in a place of honor, however, does imply endorsement.

The matter can become more complicated in cases involving statues of individuals. In New Orleans, there are statues of General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard. It cannot be denied that these were exceptional men who shaped the history of the United States. It also cannot be denied they possessed personal virtues. Lee, in particular, was by all accounts a man of considerable virtue. P.G.T. Beauregard went on to advocate for civil rights and voting rights for blacks (though some might say this was due to mere political expediency).

Given their historical importance and the roles they played, it can be argued that they were worthy of statues and that these statues should remain to honor them. The easy and obvious counter is that they engaged in treason against the United States and backed the wicked practice of slavery. As such, whatever personal virtues they might have possessed, they should not be honored for their role in the Confederacy. Statues that honor people who were Confederates but who did laudable things after the Civil War should, of course, be evaluated based on the merits of those individuals. But to honor the Confederacy and its support of slavery would be a moral error.

It could also be argued that even though the true cause of the Confederacy (the right of states to allow people to own other people as slaves) is wicked, people like Lee and Beauregard earned their statues and their honor. As such, it would be unjust to remove the statues because of the political sensibilities of today. After all, as it should be pointed out, there are statues that honor the slave owners Washington and Jefferson for their honorable deeds within the context of the dishonor of slavery. If the principle of removing monuments that honored those who supported a rebellion aimed at creating an independent slave-owning nation was strictly followed, then there would need to be a rather extensive purge of American monuments. If honoring supporters of slavery and slave owners is acceptable, then perhaps the removal of the statues of the heroes of the Confederacy could be justified on the grounds of their rebellion against the United States. This would allow for a principled distinction to be made: statues of slavery supporters and slave owners can be acceptable, as long as they were not rebels against the United States. Alternative, the principle could be that statues of victorious rebel slavery supporters are acceptable, but those of losing rebel slavery supporters are not. Winning, it could be said, makes all the difference.

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Dictatorships & Moral Defects

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 19, 2017


Dictatorships are built upon the moral defects of citizens. While it can be tempting to think that the citizens who enable dictatorships are morally evil, this need not be the case. Dictatorship does not require an actively evil population, merely a sufficient number who are morally defective in ways that makes them suitably vulnerable to the appeals of dictatorship.

While there are many paths to dictatorship, most would-be dictators make appeals to fear, hatred, willful ignorance, and irresponsibility. For these appeals to succeed, an adequate number of citizens must be morally lacking in ways that make them vulnerable to such appeals. As would be expected, the best defense against dictators is moral virtue—which is why would-be dictators endeavor to destroy such virtue. I will briefly discuss each of these appeals in turn and will do so in the context of an ethics of virtue.

For the typical virtue theorist, virtue is a mean between two extremes. For example, the virtue of courage is a mean between excessive bravery (foolhardiness) and a deficiency of bravery (cowardice). Being virtuous is difficult as it requires both knowledge of morality and the character traits needed to act in accord with that knowledge. For example, to be properly brave involves knowing when to act on that courage and having the character needed to either face danger resolutely or avoid it without shame. As should be expected, dictators aim at eroding both knowledge and character. It is to this that I now turn.

Fear is a very powerful political tool, for when people are afraid they often act stupidly and wickedly. Like all competent politicians and advertisers, would-be dictators are aware of the power of fear and seek to employ it to get people to hand over power. While dictators often have very real enemies and dangers to use to create fear, they typically seek to create fear that is out of proportion to the actual threat. For example, members of a specific religion or ethnicity might be built up to appear to be an existential threat when, in fact, they present little (or even no) actual threat.

Exploiting the fear of citizens requires, obviously enough, that the citizens are afraid. In the case of exaggerated threats, the fear of the citizens must be out of proportion to the threat—that is, they must have an excess of fear. The best defense against the tactic of fear is, obviously enough, courage. To the degree citizens have courage it is harder for a dictator (or would-be dictator) to scare them into handing over power. Even if the citizens are afraid, if their fear is proportionate to the threat, then it is also much harder for dictators to gain the power they desire (which tends to be more power than needed to address the threat).

Some might point to the fact that people can be very violent in service of dictators and thus would seem to be brave. After all, they can engage in battle. However, this is typically either the “courage” of the bully or the result of a greater fear of the dictator. That is, their cowardice in one area makes them “brave” in another. This is not true courage.

Dictators thus endeavor to manufacture fear and to create citizens who are lacking in true courage. Those who oppose dictators need to focus on developing courage in the citizens for this provides the best defense against fear. Americans pride themselves as living in the land of the brave; if this is true, then it would help explain why America has not fallen into dictatorship. But, should America cease to be brave and submit to fear, then a dictatorship would seem all too likely.

It can be pointed out that some who back dictators seem to be driven by hate rather than fear. While this can be countered by contending that hate is most often based in fear, it can be accepted that hate is also a driving force that leads people to support dictators. Hate, like fear, is a powerful tool and leads people to act both stupidly and wickedly. While it can be argued that hate is always morally defective, it can also be contended that there is morally correct hate. For example, those who engage in terrible evil could be justly hated. Fortunately, I do not need to resolve the question of whether hate is always wrong or not; it suffices to accept that hate can be disproportionate—that is, that the hate can exceed the justification for the hate.

Dictators and would-be dictators, like almost all politicians, exploit this power of hate. As with fear, while there might be legitimate targets for hate, dictators tend to exaggerate hate and target for hate those who do not deserve to be hated. Homosexuals, for example, tend to be a favorite target for unwarranted hate.

The virtue that provides the best defense against excessive or unwarranted hatred is obviously tolerance. As such, it is no surprise that dictators endeavor to breed and strengthen intolerance in their citizens. This is aided by mockery of tolerance as weakness or as being “politically correct.” Racism and sexism are favorites for exploitation and would-be dictators can find these hatreds in abundance. As such, it is no surprise that dictators encourage racism, sexism and other such things while opposing tolerance.

This is not to say that tolerance is always good—there are things, such as dictators, that should not be tolerated. That said, tolerance is certainly a virtue that provides a defense against dictators and as such it should be properly cultivated in citizens. This does not require that people love or even like one another, merely that they be capable of tolerating the tolerable.

One concern about my approach is that I seem to have cast the supporters of would-be dictators as hateful cowards and this could be unfair. After all, it can be argued, some of their supporters might be operating from ignorance rather than malice. This is certainly a reasonable point.

Dictators, like most who love power, know that the ignorance of people is something that can be easily exploited. It is common to exploit such ignorance to generate hate and fear. For example, it is far easier to make people afraid of terrorism in the United States when those people do not know the actual threat posed by terrorism relative to other dangers. As another example, it is easier to get Americans to hate Muslims when they know little or nothing about the faith and its practitioners.

Those who are afraid or hateful because of ignorance can be excused to some degree; provided that they are not responsible for their ignorance. Willful ignorance, however, merely compounds the moral failing of those who hate and fear based on such ignorance.

Most virtue theorists, such as Confucius and Aristotle, regard knowledge as a virtue and hold that people are obligated to acquire knowledge. Knowledge is, obviously enough, the antidote to ignorance. While, as Socrates noted, our knowledge will always be dwarfed by our ignorance, willful ignorance is a vice. If someone is going to act on the basis of fear or hate, then they are morally obligated to determine if their fear or hate is warranted and to do so in a rational manner. To simply embrace a willful ignorance of the facts is to act wrongly and is something that dictators certainly exploit. This is why dictators and would-be dictators attack the free press, engage in systematic deceit, and often oppose education. This also contributes to creating citizens who are irresponsible.

A classic trait of a dictator is to claim that they are “the only one” who can get things done. Examples include claiming that they are the only one who can protect the people, that only they can fix our problems, and that only they know what must be done. In order for citizens to believe this, they must either be willfully ignorant or irresponsible. In the case of willful ignorance, the citizens would need to believe the obviously false claim that the dictator is the only person with the ability to accomplish the relevant goals. While there are some exceptional people and there must be someone who is best, there is no “the one” who is the sole savior of the citizens. In any case, a dictator obviously cannot be the only one who can get things done. If that were true, they would not need any followers, minions or others to do things for them. While this might be true of Superman, it is not true of any mere mortal dictator.

In the case of irresponsibility, the citizens would need to abdicate their responsibilities as citizens and turn over agency to the dictator. They would, in effect, revert back to the status of mere children and set aside the responsibilities of adulthood.

If the citizens were, in fact, incompetent human beings, then (as Mill argued in his work on liberty) a dictator would be needed to rule over them until they either achieved competence or perished. If the dictator took good care of them, this would be morally acceptable. If the citizens were not incompetent, then their abdication would be a failure of the virtue of responsibility. It is no coincidence that dictators typically cast themselves as father figures and the citizens as their children. They certainly hope that the citizens will cease to be proper adults and revert to the moral equivalent of children, thus falling into the vice of irresponsibility.

Thus, one of the best defenses against the rise of dictators is the development of virtue. Dictators are well aware of this and do their best to corrupt the citizens they hope will hand them power. While it is tempting to think that the United States can never fall into dictatorship, this is mere wishful thinking. The founders were well aware of this danger, which explains why they endeavored to make it hard for a dictator to arise. But the laws are only as strong and good as the people, which is why citizens need to be virtuous if tyranny is to be avoided.

 

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Is Some Red Line Better than No Red Line?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2017

There is a reasonable concern that can be raised in response to my view that the red line should be drawn at the murder of civilians rather than at murdering them with chemical weapons. This is the worry that my view would abandon the red line being drawn for using chemical weapons against civilians, thus creating a situation in which there are no red lines. This would be problematic because while the murder of civilians with conventional weapons is tolerable, crossing the red line of murdering civilians with chemical weapons does at least generate a response. Since some response from the world is better than no response, it is clearly better to have some viable red line rather than one everyone will simply ignore.

The tolerance of conventional murder and opposition to chemical murder has resulted in some actions whose impact should be duly assessed, to get some picture of the value of the chemical red line.

One impact that has been touted by some former members of the Obama administration is the fact that Syria got rid of many of its chemical weapons because of pressure from the United States and the world. On the plus side, less chemical weapons entails less possible murder with chemical weapons, which is presumably a good thing. One obvious offset to this alleged good is the concern that the Syrian government simply filled up the chemical kill gap with conventional killing, thus producing roughly the same number of deaths. If this is the case, then the focus on chemical weapons did not reduce the number of deaths.

This point could be countered by arguing that being murdered with chemical weapons is worse than being murdered with conventional weapons. The usual case for this is based on the claim that chemical weapons cause more suffering than chemical weapons. The usual response to this is that death by conventional weapon can be as or even more awful that death by chemical weapon. For example, a person who slowly dies while buried under the rubble caused by conventional bombs has certainly suffered more than a person who is killed almost immediately by a chemical weapon. As such, if death by chemical weapon is roughly equal to death by conventional weapon, then the difference between the two weapons is a difference that does not make a morally relevant difference. This can be illustrated by the following analogy.

Imagine that Sam is engaged in regularly murdering people in his neighborhood with guns. Those outside the neighborhood do not like this, but do nothing beyond Tweeting and posting about how awful Sam is. Then, one day, Sam tries a new type of murder: he poisons a few people. The neighbors are outraged and, after Tweeting with righteous fury, have their best shooter take a few rifle shots at where they think Sam keeps his poison. Sam goes back to murdering with his guns and the neighbors go back to occasionally tweeting about how bad Sam is. If this at least reduced Sam’s killing rate, this action would have some merit. But, if Sam just goes on killing with his guns, the action would have no meaningful impact and would have been pointless. At least beyond making the neighbors feel righteous for a short while.

The general point of this analogy shows the problem with how the chemical red line is used. To be specific, it allows for occasional and limited action when violations take place, then the offender merely returns to conventional murder. This does not address the real concern, namely that civilians are being murdered. As such, my original point seems to stand: the chemical weapon red line appears to create a moral space in which murder is tolerated while allowing a pretense of having meaningful moral standards. While this is presumably an awful thing to consider, having some red line might be worse than having no red line—after all, the chemical weapon red line enables the wicked self-deception that we are engaged in righteous action when in fact we are not. This allows us to salve our conscience and say “at least they are not being killed with chemical weapons” while we tolerate more murder.

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Heavy Weapons, Brain Injuries & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 12, 2017

Some years ago, I was firing my .357 magnum at an indoor range. This powerful pistol mades a satisfying “bang” and hurled a piece of metal at lethal speeds towards the paper target. Then there was a much louder noise and I felt a “whuummmp” vibrating my ribcage. My friend Ron was firing his .44 magnum nearby, close enough for me to feel the shockwave from the weapon.

While the .44 magnum is a powerful handgun (just ask Dirty Harry), it is a mere peashooter compared to a weapon like the Carl-Gustav M3, a shoulder fired heavy infantry weapon. When fired, this weapon generates a strong shockwave that might be causing brain injuries to the operators. While a proper scientific study has not been conducted on the effects of operating such weapons, it makes sense that they could cause such injuries. After all, the shockwave from the weapon is certainly analogous to that produced by other explosions, such as the IEDs that have caused terrible injuries. While IEDs certainly inflict wounds via the shrapnel and explosive burst, their shockwaves can also inflict brain damage without otherwise leaving a mark on the target.

The United States military had been gathering data using small blast gauges worn by soldiers. However, the use of the gauges was discontinued when it was claimed they could not consistently indicate when a soldier had been close enough to an explosion to suffer a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury. These gauges did, however, provide a wealth of information—including data that showed infantry operating heavy weapons were being repeatedly exposed to potentially dangerous levels of overpressure. Because such data could be used to link such exposure to long term health issues in soldiers, it might be suspected that the Pentagon stopped collecting data to avoid having to accept fiscal responsibility for such harms. This can, obviously enough, be seen as analogous to the NFL’s approach to concussions. This leads to some clear moral concerns about monitoring the exposure of operators and the use of heavy infantry weapons.

While it might seem awful, a moral argument can be made for not gathering data on soldiers operating heavy weapons. As noted above, if it were shown that being exposed to the overpressure of such weapons can cause brain injuries, then the state could incur the expenses associated with such responsibility. Without such data, the state can maintain that there is no proof of a connection and thus avoid such expenses. From a utilitarian standpoint, if the financial savings outweighed the harms done to the soldiers, then this would be the right thing to do. However, intentionally evading responsibility for harm does seem morally problematic, at best. It can also be countered that the benefits of being aware of the damage being done outweigh the benefits of an intentional ignorance. One obvious benefit is that such data could help mitigate or eliminate such damage and this seems morally superior to the intentional evasion by willful ignorance.

While there do seem to be steps that could be taken to minimize the damage done to troops operating heavy weapons (assuming there is such damage), it is likely that such damage cannot be avoided altogether. That is, there will always be some risk to the operators and those near. One technological solution would be to remotely operate heavy weapons (thus allowing the operator to be out of the damage zone). Another technological solution would be to automate such heavy weapons, thus taking humans out of the danger zone. Either of these options would increase the cost of the weapon system and would thus require weighing the financial cost against the wellbeing of soldiers. Fortunately, many of those who are fiscal conservatives when it comes to human wellbeing are fiscal liberals when it comes to corporate profits, so one way to sell the idea is to ensure that it would be profitable to corporations. There is also a moral argument that can be made for using the weapons as they are, even if they are harmful to the operators. It is to this that I now turn.

From a utilitarian standpoint, the ethics of exposing operators to damage from their own weapons would be a matter of weighing the harm done to the operators against the benefits of using such heavy weapons in combat. Infantry operated heavy weapons do seem to be very useful in combat. One obvious benefit of such weapons is that they allow infantry to engage vehicles, such as tanks and aircraft, with a reasonable chance of success. Taking on a tank or aircraft with light weapons generally does not turn out in the infantry’s favor. As such, if the choice is between risking some overpressure damage or facing a much greater risk of being killed by enemy vehicles, then the choice is obvious. As such, if the effectiveness of the weapon against the enemy adequately outweighs the risk to the operator, then it would be morally acceptable for the operators to take that risk.  There is, however, still the question of the damage suffered during practice with the weapons.

The obvious way to argue that it is acceptable for troops to risk injury when training with heavy weapons is that they will need this practice to use the weapon effectively in combat. If they were to try to operate a heavy weapon without live practice, they would be far less likely to be effective and thus more likely to fail and be injured or killed by the enemy (or their own weapon). As such, the harm of going into battle without proper training morally outweighs the harm suffered by the operators in learning the weapon. This, of course, assumes that they are likely to end up in battle. If the training risks are taken and the training is not used, then the injury would have been for nothing—which takes this into the realm of considering odds in the context of ethics. On approach would be to scale training based on the likelihood of combat, scaling up if action is anticipated and keeping a minimal level when action is unlikely.

Making rational choices about the risks does, obviously enough, require knowing the risks. As such, there must be a proper study done of the risks of operating such weapons. Otherwise the moral and practical calculations would be essentially guessing, which is morally unacceptable.

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Chemical Weapons & Ethics Revisited

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on April 7, 2017

When Obama was president, the “red line” he drew for the Syrian regime was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. President Trump has also embraced the red line, asserting that Syria has gone “beyond a red line” with its recent use of chemical weapons. Trump has said that this attack changed his attitude towards Syria and Assad. Presumably the slaughter of civilians with conventional weapons did not cross the red line or impact his attitude very strongly. Those of a cynical bent might contend that the distinction between conventional and chemical weapons is accepted because it grants politicians the space needed to tolerate slaughter while being able to create the appearance of a moral stance. This moral stance is, of course, the condemnation of chemical weapons.

As I wrote in 2013, this red line policy involving chemical weapons seems to amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.” This leads to the question I addressed then, which is the question of whether chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

Chemical weapons are clearly perceived as being worse than conventional weapons and their use in Syria has resulted in a level of outrage that the conventional killing has not. Some of the reasons for this perception are rooted in history.

World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons. While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This helped establish the feeling that chemical weapons are especially horrific and worse than conventional weapons.

There is also the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. After all, poison allows one to kill in secret and without taking the risk of facing an opponent in combat. In historical accounts and in fiction, poisoners are typically cast as villains. One excellent example of this is the use of poison in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be morally acceptable or even heroic. This view of poison as cowardly and evil seems to have infected the view of chemical weapons. This makes sense given that they are poisons.

Finally, there is the association of poison gas with the Nazi concentration camps. This connection has served to cement the connection of chemical weapons with evil. While these explanations are psychological interesting, they do not resolve the question of whether chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons. It is to this issue that I now turn.

One good reason to regard chemical weapons as worse than conventional weapons is that they typically do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. The basis of the difference is the principle that while killing is morally wrong, the method of killing is morally relevant to its wrongness. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three counters to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds matching the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons.

The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. An analogy can be drawn to capital punishment: lethal injection is regarded as morally superior to more conventional modes of execution such as hanging and firing squad. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then these chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. Horrific chemical weapons would, of course, be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons. As such, being a chemical weapon does not make a weapon worse, the suffering it inflicts is what matters morally.

The third is that wrongfully harming people with conventional weapons is still evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are worse in terms of the suffering they cause, the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. This is because the distinction between not killing people and killing them is greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers kill everyone in a village using their rifles seems to be as morally wrong as using poison gas to kill everyone. The result is the same: mass murder.

In addition to supposedly causing more suffering than conventional weapons, chemical weapons are said to be worse because they are often indiscriminate and persistent.  For example, a chemical weapon deployed as a gas can easily drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target and remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack. As such, chemical weapons are worse than conventional weapons because they harm and kill those who were not the intended targets.

The obvious counter to his is to note that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate or persistent. While bombs and artillery shells are accurate, they do still result in unintended causalities. They can also be used indiscriminately. Land mines present an excellent example of a conventional weapon that is both indiscriminate and persistent. Chemical weapons could be designed to have the same level of discrimination as conventional area-of-effect weapons (like bombs) and to be non-persistent (losing lethality rapidly). As such, it is discrimination and persistence that matter rather than the composition of the weapon.

While specific chemical weapons are worse than specific conventional weapons, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons. In fact, the claim of a moral distinction between conventional and chemical weapons can have terrible consequences: it allows a moral space in which to tolerate murder while maintaining the delusion of taking a meaningful moral stance.

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