A Philosopher's Blog

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 15, 2017

While Whataboutism has long served as a tool for Soviet (and now Russian) propagandists, it has now become entrenched in American political discourse. It is, as noted by comedian John Oliver, a beloved tool of Fox News and President Trump.

Whataboutism is a variant of the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In the standard tu quoque fallacy it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.

 

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite, but this does not prove his claims are false. For those noting the similarity to the Wikipedia entry on this fallacy, you will note that the citation for the form and example is to my work.

As would be expected, while the Russians used this tactic against the West, Americans use it against each other along political lines. For example, a Republican might “defend” Roy Moore by saying “what about Harvey Weinstein?” A Democrat might do the reverse. I mention that Democrats can use this in anticipation of comments to the effect of “what about Democrats using whataboutism?” People are, of course, free to use Bill Clinton in the example, if they prefer.  To return to the subject, the “reasoning” in both cases would be fallacious as is evident when the “logic” is laid bare:

 

  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, A did not do X.

 

Obviously enough, whether C did X is irrelevant to whether or not it is true that A did X.

 

Alternatively:

 

  1. Premise 1: Person A of affiliation 1 is accused of X by person B of Affiliation 2.
  2. Premise 2: Person C of affiliation 2 is accused of X by person D of affiliation 1.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, it is not wrong that A did X.

 

Clearly, even if C did X it does not follow that A doing X was not wrong. This sort of “reasoning” can also be seen as a variant on the classic appeal to common practice fallacy. This fallacy has the following structure:

 

Premise 1. X is a common action.

Conlcusion. Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

The basic idea behind the fallacy is that the fact that most people do X is used as “evidence” to support the action or practice. It is a fallacy because the mere fact that most people do something does not make it correct, moral, justified, or reasonable. In the case of whataboutism, the structure would be like this:

 

Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  X done by your side?

Premises 3. So, X is commonly done/we both do X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

It is also common for the tactic of false equivalency to be used in whataboutism. In the form above, the X of premise 1 would not be the moral equivalent of the X of premise 2. In fact, the form should be modified to account for the use of false equivalency:

 

Premise 1. You said X is done by my side.

Premise 2. Whatabout  Y, which I say is just as bad as X, done by your side?

Premises 3. So, things just as bad as X are commonly done/we both do things as bad as X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.

 

This would be a not-uncommon double fallacy. In this case not only is the comparison between X and Y a false one, even if they were equivalent the fact that both sides do things that are equally bad would still not support the conclusion. Obviously enough, you should not accept this sort of reasoning—especially when it is being used to “support” a conclusion that is appealing.

Whataboutism can also be employed as a tool for creating a red herring. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

 

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

 

In the case of a whataboutism, the structure would be as follows:

 

  1. Topic A, my side doing X, is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced: whatabout X done by the other side?
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

 

In closing, it should be noting that if two sides are being compared, then it is obviously relevant to consider the flaws of both sides. For example, if the issue is whether to vote for candidate A or B, then it is reasonable to consider the flaws of both A and B in comparison. However, the flaws of A do not show that B does not have flaws and vice versa. Also, if the issue being discussed is the bad action of A, then bringing up B’s bad action does nothing to mitigate the badness of A’s action. Unless, of course, A had to take a seemingly bad action to protect themselves from B’s unwarranted bad action. For example, if A is accused of punching a person and it is shown that this was because B tried to kill A, then that would obviously be relevant to assessing the ethics of A’s action. But, if A assaulted women and B assaulted women, then bringing up B in a whataboutism to defend A would be an error in logic. Both would be bad.

As far as why you should be worried about whataboutism, the obvious reason is that it is a corrosive that eats at the very structure of truth and morality. While it is a tempting tool to deploy against one’s hated enemies (such as fellow Americans), it is not a precise weapon—each public use splashes the body of society with vile acid.

 

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Police Body Cameras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Social Media: The Capitalist & the Rope

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 3, 2017

Lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before congress at the start of November, 2017. One of the main reasons these companies attracted the attention of congress was the cyberwarfare campaign launched by the Russians through these companies against the United States during the 2016 Presidential campaign.

One narrative is that companies like Facebook are naively focused on all the good things that are possible with social media and that they are blind to misuses of this sort. On this narrative, the creators of these companies are like the classic scientist of science fiction who just wanted to do good, but found their creation misused for terrible purposes. This narrative does have some appeal—it is easy for very focused people to be blind to what is outside of their defining vision, even extremely intelligent people. Perhaps especially in the case of intelligent people.

That said, it is difficult to imagine that companies so focused on metrics and data would be ignorant of what is occurring within their firewalls. It would also be odd that so many bright people would be blissfully unaware of what was really going on. Such ignorance is, of course, not impossible—but seems unlikely.

Another narrative is that these companies are not naïve. They are, like many other companies, focused on profits and not overly concerned with the broader social, political and moral implications of their actions. The cyberwarfare launched by the Russians was profitable for their companies—after all, the ads were paid for, the bots swelled Twitter’s user numbers, and so on.

It could be objected that it would be foolish of these companies to knowingly allow the Russians and others to engage in such destructive activity. After all, they are American companies whose leaders seem to endorse liberal political values.

One easy reply is courtesy of one of my political science professors: capitalists will happily sell the rope that will be used to hang them. While this seems silly, it does make sense: those who focus on profits can easily sacrifice long term well-being for short term profits. Companies generally strive to ensure that the harms and costs are offloaded to others. This practice is even defended and encouraged by lawmakers. For example, regulations that are intended to protect people and the environment from the harms of pollution are attacked as “job killing.” The Trump administration, in the name of profits, is busy trying to roll back many of the laws that protect consumers from harm and misdeeds. As such, the social media companies are analogous to more traditional companies, such as energy companies. While cyberwarfare and general social media misdeeds cause considerable harm, the damage is largely suffered by people other than social media management and shareholders. Because of this, I am somewhat surprised that the social media companies do not borrow the playbooks used by other companies when addressing offloading harms to make profits. For example, just as energy companies insist that they should not be restrained by “job-killing” environmental concerns, the social media companies should insist that they not be restrained by “job-killing” concerns about the harms they profit from enabling. After all, the basic principle is the same: it is okay to cause harm, provided that it is profitable to a legal business.

Of course, companies are also quite willing to take actions for short term profits that will cause their management and shareholders long term harms. There is also the fact that most people discount the future—that is, they will often take a short-term benefit even it means forgoing a greater gain in the long term or experiencing a greater harm later. As such, the idea that the social media companies are knowingly allowing such harmful activity because it is profitable in the short term is not without merit.

It is also worth considering the fact that social media companies span national boundaries. While they are nominally American companies, they make their profits globally and have offices and operations around the world. While the idea of megacorporations operating apart from nations and interested solely in their own profits is considered the stuff of science fiction, companies like Google and Facebook clearly have interests quite apart from those of the United States and its citizens. If being a vehicle for cyberwarfare against the United States and its citizens is profitable, these companies would have little reason to not sell, for example, the Russians the digital rope they will use to hang us. While a damaged United States might have some impact on the social media-companies’ bottom line, it might be offset by profits to be gained elsewhere. To expect patriotism and loyalty from social-media companies would be as foolish as expecting it from other companies. After all, the business of business is now shareholder and upper management profit and there is little profit in patriotism and national loyalty.

 

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White Supremacists & the Limits of Free Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Free Speech, White Supremacists & the Slippery Slope

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2017

While I accept the right to free speech, I also accept that it (like all rights) has moral limits. These moral limits can be used to justify legal limits, but such matters are settled by the courts rather than philosophers. While it is reasonable to believe that there are limits to free speech, it is equally reasonable to believe that these limits can be debated. Unfortunately, the debate is often distorted with emotions and bad reasoning.

As should be expected, many people dislike and even hate white supremacists, even more so as the supremacists become more Nazi like. Because of this strong emotional response, people often think that white supremacists should be silenced. However, how one feels about a speaker is not a good guide to whether the speaker should be allowed to speak. This is because, obviously enough, feelings are not reasons and the strength of a feeling is no measure of its correctness. That is, just because I really hate something does not mean it is bad. People do, of course, “reason” in this manner and “infer” that what they like is good because they like it and what they dislike is bad because they dislike it. As such, when considering white supremacists and free speech, it is important to approach the matter with reasons rather than feelings. This is not to say that feelings cannot be appropriate (one should dislike white supremacy), but to say that one cannot infer the correctness of a view from how one feels about it. A moral position should shape our emotions rather than our emotions determining our moral positions.

As with many debates over rights, the debate over free speech is often distorted by the slippery slope fallacy. The slippery slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
  2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.

 

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a considerable number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

In the case of free speech, the usual slippery slope argument is to claim that if the free speech of some person or group is restricted, then everyone’s free speech will be in danger. For example, someone might claim that if white supremacists are not allowed to speak, uninvited, on a college campus then soon everyone with unpopular views will be silenced. If a case can be made showing how this will plausibly play out, then there would be no fallacy—but that is rarely done.

The slippery slope fallacy gets most of its power from psychological factors, typically involving fear. The idea is that the person targeted by the slippery slope is supposed to be afraid of the bad consequence that is alleged to follow and this is intended to blight their reason and get them to accept the fallacy as reasonable. The slippery slope fallacy also gets some of its power from the fact that there can be good reasoning that resembles the fallacy. Specifically, a causal argument that shows that the slope is slippery by making the causal link between one event and the consequences.

In the case of free speech, a case can be made that argues from the restriction of the free speech of white supremacists to restrictions on all unpopular groups and then on to everyone. While this would avoid the slippery slope fallacy, there would still be the question of whether the argument’s premises are true and how strong the argument is. To use an analogy, someone could argue that sex with minors (statutory rape) should not be banned because this is the first step towards banning all sex. While the steps could be laid out, it is rather evident that the slide can be stopped: adults can be banned from having sex with minors without banning all sex. Likewise, white supremacists can be restricted without this sliding to other groups.

In many cases, people also make use of another fallacy, the line drawing fallacy, in trying to argue that one thing will follow from another. The line drawing fallacy occurs when it is claimed that unless a precise line can be drawn between X and Y, then no distinction can be made between them. In the case of white supremacists, the argument would go that there is no clear line between white supremacists and other unpopular groups, so there would be no way to distinguish them. As such, if white supremacists were restricted, then these other groups would be restricted. While it can be challenging to make such distinctions and there will be problems, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions. Going back to the sex example, the transition between a child and an adult is imprecise. However, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions and make then part of law. As such, white supremacist groups can be distinguished from other groups, though there would be considerable debate about where the lines would be drawn.

While the focus has been on white supremacist groups, the same principles would apply to analogous groups. So, for example, black supremacist groups who advocated ethnic cleansing and such should also be subject to the same restriction as white supremacist groups.

In closing, it must be noted that I do not favor restricting people who advance unpopular, false or morally wrong views about “races” when they do so in the context of an actual discussion and are not engaged in presenting a threat to others. This, of course, goes back to the principle of harm discussed in a previous essay.

 

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The Machinery of Sexual Harassment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Speech & White Supremacists: The Principle of Harm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The High Price of Being Shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bump Stocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patriotism & Football

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on October 4, 2017

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After President Trump tweeted his way into the matter, the question of patriotism and protest became a hot issue in the public eye once again. A reasonable way to begin the discussion is to consider the nature of patriotism, which has been said to be the “last refuge of the scoundrel.”

One caricature of patriotism consists of shallow flag waving, the uncritical obedience to the dictates of the ruling class and the exaltation of popular prejudices.  Unfortunately, this caricature is often the reality and is, unsurprisingly, what is often pushed by the ruling classes upon the masses. This is, of course, not the only viable account of patriotism.

One alternative approach is to go with the easy and obvious definition—patriotism is the love of one’s country. This simple definition leads to the philosophically complicated question of the nature of love. One way to look at love, at least a positive form of love, is that it involves a devotion to the higher principles, a commitment to what is truly and properly best for the loved one, and an exaltation of the best ideals. This sort of love has a strong moral component and is dedicated to what is truly best—something that might run contrary to what the loved one thinks they want. In the case of patriotism, the love would be for what is best about the country and would commit the patriot to doing what is truly best for the country. This is likely to make such a patriot unpopular for it often requires the patriot to oppose the dictates of the ruling class and to fight against the popular prejudices. While the definition of “patriotism” is a matter of semantics, the idea that it is a love for one’s country that commits one to trying to do what is best for that country (in the moral sense) seems rather appealing and should be adopted. I will now turn to the matter of the NFL players protesting (or showing solidarity with protestors) during the national anthem.

One standard criticism advanced by Trump and others against the protesting players is that these wealthy players are ungrateful. As others have suggested, “ungrateful” seems to be the new “uppity” although most critics are reluctant to utilize the n word. Ironically, some are quite willing to call black players by the n-word while also asserting that they have nothing to protest.

While the players should certainly appreciate their good fortune, to reject what the players say because they are wealthy would be a mere ad hominem fallacy. This would be the same error that would be made if the tax plans of rich, white Republicans were dismissed out of hand simply because they were made by rich, white Republicans.

A more substantial version of this attack is to argue that the players have no grounds for protest about how blacks are treated in America because they are proof that their criticisms are invalid. While this is better than a mere ad hominem, it is easy to counter. First, wealthy black athletes have still been subject to the sort of unwarranted police violence they are protesting. Second, the unusual success of these athletes does not invalidate the truth of their claims about what happens to other people. To use an analogy, if famous athletes urged people to take action against a serious disease, it would be a foolish objection to say that they are wrong because they are healthy athletes and do not suffer from that disease. It does, in fact, make the most sense that the famous should protest—they are the one who will get the most attention.

Another criticism against such protests is that people watch sports to be amused and to have a break from serious issues. While this does have some appeal (people do deserve leisure time), one reply is that people who are oppressed do not get a break from oppression. If the fans want their break, they should certainly recognize that the oppressed want their oppression to end. There is also the fact that the protests, as conducted now, do not actually disrupt the game—the players still play and the game goes on.

As might be suspected, some people try to counter the protests by contending that they should not have to deal with the protests because “they did not own slaves.” One reply is that while they did not own slaves, they most likely benefit from the system that arose out of slavery and that now serves to systematically oppress some while conveying unearned advantages to others. Oddly, this position does seem to acknowledge the existence of a problem, since the person is claiming they are not part of that problem. However, there are those who deny there is a problem.

One approach is to assert that the protests are pointless because there is nothing to protest—everything is just fine. This is obviously not true and can be rejected in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Somewhat ironically, when people engage in racism while denying racism, they merely prove the existence of racism.

One interesting criticism is that the protests are just empty theatre, perhaps even some sort of marketing ploy aimed at improving viewership (albeit at the risk of alienating some fans). This criticism does have some appeal. However, there is the interesting fact that the playing of the national anthem at games was originally itself a marketing ploy that somehow became something more. It would be quite appropriate if the protests were marketing and even more so if they became more than mere marketing. In any case, even if the protests are marketing, this would not show that they are thus unpatriotic or unwarranted. At worst it would call into question the motives of those involved.

As far as whether the protestors are patriots, this question can only be answered by knowing their motives and goals. If they are protesting what they regard as injustice and are doing so to make America better, then they are engaged in true patriotism: they are trying to make the country they love be the best it can be. And that is a far truer patriotism than someone who just wants to wave a flag and uncritically praise their country be she wrong or right.

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