A Philosopher's Blog

Guarding the Trumps

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2017

While it has not always been the case, the current practice is for the American taxpayer to foot the bill for extensive protection of the president and their family. When Bush was president, there were complaints from the left about the costs incurred protecting him when he went to his ranch. When Obama was president, the right criticized him for the cost of his vacations and trips. Not surprisingly, Trump was extremely critical of the expenses incurred by Obama and claimed that if he were president he would rarely leave the White House. Since Trump is now president, it can be seen if he is living in accord with his avowed principles regarding incurring costs and leaving the White House.

While Trump has only been president for roughly a month, he has already made three weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago club since the inauguration. While the exact figures are not available, the best analysis places the cost at about $10 million for the three trips. In addition to the direct cost to taxpayers, a visit from Trump imposes heavy costs on Palm Beach Country which are estimated to be tens of thousands of dollars each day.

Trump’s visit also has an unfortunate spillover cost to the Lantana Airport which is located six miles from Mar-a-Lago. When Trump visits, the Secret Service shuts down the airport. Since the airport is the location of twenty businesses, the shut down costs these businesses thousands of dollars. For example, a banner-flying business claims to have lost $40,000 in contracts to date. As another example, a helicopter company is moving its location in response to the closures. The closures also impact the employees and the surrounding community.

Since Trump also regularly visits Trump tower and his wife and youngest son live there, the public is forced to pay for security. The high-end estimate of the cost is $500,000 per day, but it is probably less—especially when it is just Melania and her son staying there. It must be noted that it cost Chicago about $2.2 million to protect Obama’s house from election day until inauguration day. However, Obama and his family took up residence in the White House and thus did not require the sort of ongoing protection of multiple locations that Trump now expects.

The rest of Trump’s family also enjoys security at the taxpayers’ expense—when Eric Trump took a business trip to Uruguay it cost the country about $100,000 in hotel room bills. Given that such trips might prove common for Trump’s family members, ongoing expenses can be expected.

The easy an obvious reply to these concerns is that the protection of the president and their family is established policy. Just as Bush and Obama enjoyed expensive and extensive protection, Trump should also enjoy that protection as a matter of consistent policy. As such, there is nothing especially problematic with what Trump is doing. Trump himself also contends that while he attacked Obama for taking vacations, when he goes to Mar-a-Lago and New York, it is for work. For example, he met the prime minister of Japan at Mar-a-Lago for some diplomatic clubbing and not for a weekend vacation in Florida.

A reasonable counter to this reply is to point out the obvious: there is no compelling reason why Trump needs to conduct government business at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. Other than the fact that Trump wants to go to these places and publicize them for his own gain, there is nothing special about them that would preclude conducting government business in the usual locations. As such, these excessive expenses are needless and unjustified.

There is also the harm being done to the communities that must bear the cost of Trump and his family and the financial harm being done to the Lantana Airport. Trump, who professes to be a great friend of the working people and business, is doing considerable harm to the businesses at the airport and doing so for no legitimate reason. This make his actions not only financially problematic, but also morally wrong—he is doing real and serious harm to citizens when there is no need to do so.

There is also an additional moral concern about what Trump is doing, namely that his business benefits from what he is doing. Both the Defense Department and Secret Service apparently plan on renting space in Trump Tower, thus enabling Trump to directly profit from being president. If the allegedly financially conservative Republicans were truly concerned about wasting taxpayer money, they would refuse this funding and force Trump to follow the practices of his predecessors. Or, if Trump insists on staying at Trump tower, the government should require that he pay all the costs himself. After all, being at Trump Tower benefits him and not the American people. Trump also gains considerable free publicity and advertising by conducting state business at his own business locations. He can, of course, deny that this is his intent—despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Just as the conservative critics of Obama were right to keep a critical eye on his travel expenses, they should do the same for Trump. While Trump can, as noted above, make the case that he is at least doing some work while he is at Trump tower and Mar-a-Lago, there is the reasonable concern that Trump is incurring needless expenses and doing significant harm to the finances of the local communities and businesses. After all, there is no reason Trump needs to work at his tower or club. As such, Trump should not take these needless and harmful trips and the fiscal conservatives should be leading the call to reign in this waster of public money and enemy of small businesses.

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Sanctuary & Religious Liberty

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2017

As the Trump administration steps up the enforcement of immigration law, some illegal immigrants have engaged in the time-honored tradition of seeking sanctuary in churches. The idea of churches serving as sanctuary from the state was developed in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and has become embedded in western culture. As would be expected, the granting of sanctuary has created considerable controversy.

Being familiar with the history of oppressive states and injustice, I generally support the idea of sanctuary in its role of providing the individual with another defense against the potential tyranny of the state. Because of this view, I hold that sanctuary should be limited to those who need protection from injustice on the part of the state rather than endorsing blanket sanctuary for anyone for any reason. Judging who is thus worthy of sanctuary (as with any moral assessment) can be rather complicated, but the basic principle is clear enough. Since I regard current immigration policies and practices to be fundamentally unjust, I believe that illegal immigrants who have committed no other crimes are worthy of sanctuary. Since they typically lack the resources to defend themselves, church sanctuary can provide them with the protection they need to make their case and seek justice. Even if sanctuary proves ineffective for a particular immigrant, the granting of sanctuary can make a powerful moral and political statement that can influence immigration policy—hopefully for the better.

As a practical matter, the effectiveness of sanctuary depends on the reluctance of the state to use compulsion to take people from churches. This reluctance might be grounded in many things, ranging from the power of the institution to the negative public reaction that might result from violating sanctuary.

While the notion of sanctuary does enjoy the support of tradition, the easy and obvious counter is to argue that churches should not enjoy a special exemption from the enforcement of the laws. It should not matter whether illegal immigrants are seeking shelter in a church, a Starbucks, an apple grove, or a private home—law enforcement officials should be able to arrest and remove them because they are, by definition, criminals. This view is grounded on the idea that all institutions, religious or not, fall under the laws of the state and are not to be granted special exemptions from the law. But, if exemptions from laws were granted to religious institutions in other areas, then this could be used to justify an exemption for sanctuary.

In the United States religious institutions do, in fact, enjoy special exemptions from taxes and some laws. For example, the Catholic Church is not subject to certain anti-discrimination lawsuits despite restricting certain jobs to men. As another example, there is also an exemption for religious employers in regards to coverage of contraceptive services. There has also been a push for new religious liberty laws that are aimed mainly at allowing people to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds. Such laws grant exemptions based on religion and the arguments used to defend them could, in many cases, be pressed into service as arguments in favor of granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. For example, if it is argued that exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be granted to churches and businesses because of religious beliefs about gender and sex, then it would be challenging to argue that an exception to immigration laws should not be granted to churches because of religious beliefs.

The obvious challenge in using the religious liberty and exemption arguments to justify sanctuary is showing that the situations are adequately analogous. This seems easy enough to do. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage cite Leviticus, but Exodus 22:21 is quite clear about how strangers should be treated: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Scholars also point to Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:40 when justifying granting sanctuary to immigrants: “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” As such, granting churches a sanctuary exemption to immigration laws seems at least as well founded as other attempts to grant religious liberty.

One way to counter this line of argumentation is to argue that there should not be religious exemptions to laws. While this would argue against a religious exemption to immigration laws, it would also apply to all other exemptions and is thus not an option for those who support those other exemptions. Since many of those who are anti-immigrant do favor religious exemptions in general, this option is not open to them.

Another way to counter this line of reasoning is to contend that while religious exemptions should be allowed in other cases, it should not be allowed for granting sanctuary to illegal immigrants. One approach would be a utilitarian argument: the harm done by allowing sanctuary would be sufficient to warrant imposing on religious liberty. Since I have used this argument myself against “religious liberty” laws that make discrimination legal, I certainly must give such an argument due consideration here. As such, if it can be shown that granting illegal immigrants sanctuary would create more harm than would violating the religious liberty of the sanctuary churches (and the harms done to the illegal immigrants) then religious liberty should be violated. But, this approach would need to be applied in a consistent manner: those who argue against sanctuary on the grounds of harms must apply the same principle to all religious liberties.

My overall view of the matter is that since Congress and the President have failed to create a just and rational immigration policy, then citizens have the moral right to offer protection to illegal immigrants (who have not committed other crimes). This must be done until our elected officials do their jobs and create a rational, realistic and ethical system. To be fair, due respect must be offered to those who believe in America first and who do not believe that God was serious when He said “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”


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Autonomous Vehicles: Solving an Unnecessary Problem?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2017

While motor vehicle fatalities do not get the attention of terrorist attacks (unless a celebrity is involved), the roads of the United States are no stranger to blood.  From 2000 to 2015, the motor vehicle deaths per year ranged from a high of 43,005 in 2005 to a low of 32,675 in 2014. In 2015 there were 35,092 motor vehicle deaths and last year the number went back up to around 40,000. Given the high death toll, there is clearly a problem that needs to be solved.

One of the main reasons being advanced for the deployment of autonomous vehicles is that they will make the roads safer and thus reduce the carnage. While predictions of the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles are overly optimistic, the idea that they would reduce motor vehicle deaths is certainly plausible. After all, autonomous vehicles will not be subject to road rage, exhaustion, intoxication, poor judgment, distraction and the other maladies that inflict human drivers and contribute to the high death tolls. Motor vehicle deaths will certainly not be eliminated even if all vehicles were autonomous, but the likely reduction in the death toll does present a very strong moral and practical reason to deploy such vehicles. That said, it is still worth considering whether the autonomous vehicle is aimed at solving an unnecessary problem. Considering this matter requires going back in time, to the rise of the automobile in the United States.

As the number of cars increased in the United States, so did the number of deaths. One contributing factor to the high number of deaths was that American cars were rather unsafe and this led Ralph Nader to write his classic work, Unsafe at Any Speed. Thanks to Nader and others, the American automobile became much safer and motor vehicle fatalities decreased. While making cars safer was certainly a good thing, it can be argued that this approach was fundamentally flawed. I will use an analogy to make my point.

Imagine, if you will, that people insist on swinging hammers around as they go about their day.  As would be suspected, the hammer swinging would often result in injuries and property damage. Confronted by these harms, solutions are proposed and implemented. People wear ever better helmets and body armor to protect them from wild swings. Hammers are also continuously redesigned so that they inflict less damage when hitting, for example, a face.  Eventually Google and other companies start work on autonomous swinging hammers that will be much better than humans at avoiding hitting other people and things. While all these safety improvements would be better than the original situation of unprotected people swinging very dangerous hammers around, this approach seems to be fundamentally flawed. After all, if people stopped swinging hammers around, then the problem would be solved.

An easy and obvious reply to my analogy is that using motor vehicles, unlike random hammer swinging, is rather important. For one thing, a significant percentage of the economy is built around the motor vehicle. This includes the obvious things like vehicle sales, vehicle maintenance, gasoline sales, road maintenance and so on. It also includes less obvious aspects of the economy that involve the motor vehicle, such as how they contribute to the success of stores like Wal Mart. The economic value of the motor vehicle, it can be argued, provides a justification for accepting the thousands of deaths per year. While it is certainly desirable to reduce these deaths, getting rid of motor vehicles is not a viable economic option—thus autonomous vehicles are a good potential partial solution to the death problem. Or are they?

One obvious problem with the autonomous vehicle solution is that they are trying to solve the death problem within a system created around human drivers and their wants. This system of lights, signs, turn lanes, crosswalks and such is extremely complicated—thus creating difficult engineering and programing problems. It would seem to make more sense to use the resources being poured into autonomous vehicles to develop a better and safer transportation system that does not center around a bad idea: the individual motor vehicle operating within a complicated road system. On this view, autonomous vehicles are solving an unnecessary problem: they are merely better hammers.

This line of argumentation can be countered in a couple ways. One way is to present the economic argument again: autonomous vehicles preserve the individual motor vehicle that is economically critical while being likely to reduce the death fee paid for this economy. Another way is to argue that the cost of creating a new transportation system would be far more than the cost of developing autonomous vehicles that can operate within the existing system. A third way is to make the plausible case that autonomous vehicles are a step towards developing a new transportation system. People tend to need a slow adjustment period to major changes and the autonomous vehicles will allow a gradual transition from distracted human drivers to autonomous vehicles operating with the distracted humans to a transportation infrastructure rebuilt entirely around autonomous vehicles (perhaps with a completely distinct system for walkers, bikers and runners). Going back to the hammer analogy, the self-swinging hammer would reduce hammer injuries and could allow a transition to be made away from hammer swinging altogether.

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The Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 13, 2017

One interesting tactic employed by the Republicans is to assert, in response to charges of racism against one of their number, that the Democrats are “the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” This tactic was most recently used by Senator Ted Cruz in defense of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Cruz went beyond merely claiming the Democrats formed the Klan; he also asserted that the Democrats were responsible for segregation and the infamous Jim Crow laws. As Cruz sees it, the Democrats’ tactic is to “…just accuse anyone they disagree with of being racist.”

Ted Cruz is right about the history of the Democratic party. After the Civil War, the southern Democratic Party explicitly identified itself as the “white man’s party” and accused the Republican party of being “negro dominated.” Some Southern Democrats did indeed support Jim Crow and joined the KKK.

What Ted fails to mention is that as the Democrats became the party associated with civil rights, the Republicans engaged in what has become known as the “southern strategy.” In short, the Republicans appealed to racism against blacks in order to gain political power in the south. Though ironic given the history of the two parties, this strategy proved to be very effective and many southern Democrats became southern Republicans. In some ways, the result was analogous to exchanging the wine in two bottles: the labels remain the same, but the contents have been swapped. As such, while Ted has the history correct, he is criticizing the label rather than the wine.

Another metaphor is the science fiction brain transplant. If Bill and Sam swapped brains, it would appear that Sam was guilty of whatever Bill did, because he now has Bill’s body. However, when it comes to such responsibility what matters is the brain. Likewise for the swapping of political parties in the south: the Southern Democrats condemned by Cruz became the southern Republicans that he now praises. Using the analogy, Ted is condemning the body for what the old brain did while praising that old brain because it is in a new body.

As a final metaphor, consider two cars and two drivers. Driving a blue car, Bill runs over a person. Sam, driving a red car, stops to help the victim. Bill then hops in the red car and drives away while Sam drives the victim to the hospital in the blue car. When asked about the crime, Ted insists that the Sam is guilty because he is in the blue car now and praises Bill because he is in the red car now.  Obviously enough, the swapping of parties no more swaps responsibility than the swapping of cars.

There is also the fact that Cruz is engaged in the genetic fallacy—he is rejecting what the Democrats are saying now because of a defect in the Democratic party of the past. The fact that the Democrats of then did back Jim Crow and segregation is irrelevant to the merit of claims made by current Democrats about Jeff Sessions (or anything else). When the logic is laid bare, the fallacy is quite evident:


Premise 1: Some Southern Democrats once joined the KKK.

Premise 2: Some Southern Democrats once backed segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Conclusion: The current Democrats claims about Jeff Sessions are untrue.


As should be evident, the premises have no logical connection to the conclusion, hence Cruz’s reasoning is fallacious. Since Cruz is a smart guy, he obviously knows this—just as he is aware that fallacies are far better persuasive tools than good arguments.

The other part of Cruz’s KKK gambit is to say that the Democrats rely on accusations of racism as their tactic. Cruz is right that a mere accusation of racism does not prove that a person is racist. If it is an unsupported attack, then it proves nothing. Cruz’s tactic does gain some credibility from the fact that accusations of racism are all-to-often made without adequate support. Both ethics and critical thought require that one properly review the evidence for such accusations and not simply accept them. As such, if the Democrats were merely launching empty ad hominem attacks on Sessions (or anyone), then these attacks should be dismissed.

In making his attack on the Southern Democrats of the past, Cruz embraces the view that racism is a bad thing. After all, his condemnation of the current Democrats requires that he condemn the past Democrats for their support of racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. As such, he purports to agree with the current Democrats’ professed view that racism is bad. But, he condemns them for making what he claims are untrue charges of racism. This, then, is the relevant concern: which claims, if any, made by the Democrats about session being a racist are true? The Democrats claimed that they were offering evidence of Session’s racism while Cruz’s approach was to accuse the Democrats of being racists of old and engaging in empty accusations today. He did not, however, address the claims made by the Democrats or their evidence. As such, Cruz’s response has no merit from the perspective of logic. As a rhetorical move, however, it has proven reasonably successful.


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Cooperating with Trump

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2017

It has been claimed that Republicans intended, from day one, to obstruct President Obama in all things. This is supported by John Boehner’s remark about Obama’s agenda: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” However, the defining quote for the obstructionist agenda belongs to Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The Republican narrative, as might be imagined, tells a different tale. In the Republican version, Obama is the villain who refuses to compromise with the Republicans.

While the truth of the matter is important, the practical fact of the matter is that Obama and the Republicans often ended up in deadlocks. Obama’s go-to strategy was the use of executive orders—some of which ended up being challenged by the courts. Now that Trump is president, the question is whether the Democrats should adopt the Boehner-McConnell approach and try to kill or at least slow down everything Trump tries to achieve in the hopes of making him a one-term president.

On the one hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should take this approach. One reason for this is purely pragmatic politics, devoid of any concern about moral values, that has as its goal the acquisition and retention of power. While the Republicans are generally more adept at this than the Democrats, the Democrats can avail themselves of the well-stocked Republican playbook and simply do to Trump what the Republicans did to Obama.

The obvious problem with the approach is that it is devoid of any concern about moral values and is thus very likely to be bad for America as a whole. If one accepts the Lockean view that the leaders of the state should act for the good of the people, then the power justification is out. But for those who regard power as the supreme good of politics, the obstructionist approach makes considerable sense—after all, the Republican strategy landed them the White House and Congress.

Another reason for this is revenge and payback:  Republicans obstructed Obama and Democrats should treat Trump the same way. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an obstruction for an obstruction. While this is certainly appealing in an Old Testament sort of way, this justification also runs afoul of the idea that the leaders are morally obligated to act for the good of the people and not engage in seeking revenge. For John Locke, using a political position to seek revenge would be an act of tyranny that should be resisted. As such, the revenge justification is certainly problematic.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the Democrats should set aside their lust for power and their desire for revenge and cooperate with Trump. This does not mean that the Democrats must cooperate in all things; just that the Democrats should cooperate and resist in a principle way. As the above considerations should indicate, the cooperation and resistance should be based on what is regarded as good for the people. This is, of course, a rather vague notion but can be worked out in utilitarian terms in regards to specific issues (with due attention to concerns about the tyranny of the majority). This is not to say that the Democrats will always be right and Trump always wrong; but it is s statement of principle for how opposition and cooperation should operate.

This suggests an obvious counter-argument: Trump’s agenda is harmful to the general good and thus it must be obstructed and every effort must be made to make him a one-term president. While my general dislike of Trump inclines me to feel that this is true, I am obligated to be consistent with what I tell my students: truth is not felt, but must be established through reason. Unfortunately, reason seems to indicate that much of Trump’s agenda will not be good for Americans in general. But, this does not entail that everything in his agenda will be bad for America and his specific proposals should be given due and fair consideration.

To use a specific and oft-spoken-of example, Trump claimed that he wants to rebuild the aging and failing public infrastructure. While it is tempting to point out that Obama wanted to do the same thing and that Trump might be thinking of how he and his allies can personally profit from the massive flood of public money into private coffers, addressing the infrastructure woes would be generally good for America. As such, the Democrats should not follow the lead of the Republicans and simply obstruct his proposals. This is not to say that the Democrats should rubber stamp everything, but it is to say that they should not simply reject the proposals simply because they are coming from Trump.

As far as making Trump a one term president; I think Trump will see to that himself.

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Trump & Credibility

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

During a discussion of Trump’s untruths, a friend of mine expressed the view that all politicians are the same in that they all lie. While it is true that politicians do lie (as does everyone else), there are degrees of dishonesty. To fail to distinguish between these degrees is rather like saying that all criminals commit crimes and that they (and their crimes) are all the same. While there have been other speakers of untruth like Trump, he seems to be unique among the presidents.

While the Bush administration engaged in a campaign of falsehoods to sell the Iraq war, Trump started his presidency by making false claims about the attendance at his inauguration. In what would be regarded as a pathological level of dysfunctionality in a normal person, Trump also made untrue claims about the weather—something that everyone present could observe and something that is an objective feature of reality. Politicians lying to advance an agenda is normal, albeit immoral, political behavior. Lying about crowd size and weather in the face of objective evidence is something new and terrifying.

It could be countered that Trump is not actually lying. After all, lying is different from making an untrue claim. For a claim to be a lie,  person must believe the claim they are making is untrue and make that claim with the intention that people will believe it. While there are some benign lies, lies also tend to have a malicious intent behind them. As such, there are various ways Trump could be saying these untrue things without lying. One possibility, which is scarier than his being a liar, is that he believes these untrue things and is thus divorced from basic reality. In other people, this would be regarded as a mental illness. In many other jobs, the inability to recognize what is real and what is not would make a person unfit (readers should feel free to think snarky thoughts about philosophers at this point). Another possibility is that Trump is still operating as an entertainer: he is saying untrue things with a benign purpose, to amuse and entertain the crowd. If so, he is playing the role of the nation’s buffoon, telling outrageous tales in the hopes of a laugh. While there are other alternatives, the main explanations seem to be these three: he is a liar, he is mentally ill, or he is a buffoon. I am, of course, not claiming that any of these are true—these are mere hypothesis presented as a matter of academic speculation. I will leave the analyses to experts in each area.

Whatever the explanation, it is evident that Trump is relentless in his untruths. He and his minions have also engaged in a sustained attack on truth, even going so far as to create the concept of “alternative facts.” While it is tempting to dismiss the lot of them as con artists or victims trapped in the shadows of madness, the fact is that Trump is the president and his people have great influence now. As such, it is impossible to ignore them. However, this does not entail that people need to believe them.

In my critical thinking class, I do a section on assessing claims and credibility. The basic idea is that a claim is assessed in terms of the claim’s content as well as the source of the claim. Assessing a claim’s content involves running it against one’s own observations and checking it against one’s background information. While these checks are fallible, they do generate an assessment of initial plausibility for the claim. Obviously, the more a person knows and the better they are at being critical of their own observations, the better will be their assessments. To use an example, people who were present at the inauguration can check Trump’s untruth against their own observations (as well as recordings of the event) and determine that Trump’s untruth was just that.

Assessing the source of a claim is also an important part of the process, which leads to the question of whether Trump should be considered a credible source or not. One factor in assessing credibility is whether the source is biased or not in regards to the claims being made. While being biased does not prove that a claim is false (this inference would be fallacious), a biased source is more likely to lie because of their bias. In regards to bias, Trump is nothing new: all politicians are biased sources when making claims about their policies and plans. As such, Trump’s claims about matters in which he is biased should be regarded with skepticism. Just like claims from any biased source.

When Trump makes claims about areas that fall under fields of expertise, assessing his credibility is obviously a matter of considering his expertise in the area. This would involve considering the usual factors such as his education, his experience, his accomplishments, his reputation among experts, and his positions.

Trump has a degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, so he is as qualified as others who hold a comparable degree. However, this does not give him much in the way of expertise in other areas, but this could be offset by his experience in his business and being a reality TV show star. However, as he likes to brag, he has no real experience in political office. He also has no experience in other relevant areas, but perhaps he can learn on the job.

He has accomplished various things and certainly made the Trump name into a valuable commodity. However, these do not seem relevant to making claims about such things as immigration, abortion, combating terrorism and so on. But, perhaps he will be able to accomplish things here and thus increase his expertise. In terms of his reputation, he is widely regarded as a non-expert by actual experts in the relevant fields. In terms of positions, this is his first political office—as such, he is rather lacking here.

While previous presidents, like Obama, also started out with deficits in expertise, Trump is the first president to have no experience at all in holding any political office or serving in the military. As such, it is reasonable to regard him as a non-expert when it comes to his current job. While he can make use of the same business expertise that brought the world Trump University and Trump Steaks, government is not the same thing as business, despite this being a beloved talking point. As such, any claims Trump makes about matters outside his expertise (that is, most of his current job) should be regarded as lacking in credibility. At least until he can prove his competence and expertise.

What is most telling against Trump’s credibility is, of course, his relentless spewing of untrue claims. While it would be a fallacious ad hominem to infer that any specific claim he makes is untrue because Trump lies so regularly, his routine embrace of the untrue casts the shadow of doubt over everything he says. As such, any claim Trump makes should be regarded with skepticism and not accepted until adequate evidence is available. After all, a person who lies about something as easy to check as the weather is likely to lie about everything. This lack of credibility fundamentally undermines his moral authority as president: if a leader cannot be trusted to be honest about minor and basic facts, then they certainly cannot be trusted in regards to far more serious matters. And a person that cannot be trusted is not a person fit to be a leader.

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Teachers’ Unions I: Preliminaries

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2017

Discussions of the woes of public education inevitably turn to the subject of teachers’ unions. Some claim they are detrimental to public education, while others claim they are neutral or even beneficial. This is certainly a controversy worth addressing.

Before proceeding with the discussion, I am obligated to disclose that I am a union member. As such, my arguments should be read with proper scrutiny for the influence of unconscious biases on my part. While it might be suspected that I am blindly pro-union, I will endeavor to give an objective assessment of the arguments for and against teachers’ unions. In return, I ask the same of readers.

Objectively assessing teachers’ unions is certainly a daunting task. One reason for this is that the matter has become politically charged.  For many conservatives, it is an article of faith that the main villains of education are the teachers’ unions. Since American politics is so bipolar, it is hardly surprising that liberals tend to favor (or at least tolerate) teachers’ unions. As with many political matters, a person’s stance on teachers’ unions often becomes part of their identity and this has many negative consequences in regards to objectively assessing unions. Ideological commitment is the enemy of rational assessment because it triggers a wide range of cognitive biases and motivates people to accept fallacious reasoning. As such, arguments and data tend to be accepted or rejected based on their correspondence to the ideology rather than their merits. While it is difficult to do so, these tendencies can be overcome—if one is willing to take the effort.

Another reason objective assessment is difficult is that there are entrenched and unfounded opinions about unions even in those who do not make their view of unions part of their political identity. People tend to believe what they hear repeated in the media and otherwise uncritically form opinions. Such unfounded and entrenched opinions can be hard to overcome with reason and evidence, but doing so is easier than getting a person to change an aspect of their political identity.

A third reason, one that helps explain the existence of unfounded opinions on the matter, is that there has been little in the way of rigorous studies of the impact of unions. As such, people tend to be stuck with mere anecdotal evidence and intuitive appeals. While these might turn out to be correct, they do not provide much of a foundation for making good decisions about unions.

In this essay (and the following ones) I will endeavor to objectively assess teachers’ unions in a way that overcomes my own political views and entrenched unfounded opinions. Naturally, I will try to do this with solid argumentation and good data rather than mere anecdotes and intuitions. While my main concern is with the impact of unions on education, I will briefly address two attacks on unions that do not directly relate to education.

One stock attack on unions is the argument based on the idea that it is wrong for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to a union. In politics, this view is called “right to work.” Not surprisingly, it is generally opposed by unions and supported by businesses. Those who support it contend that it is good for business and employees. Those who oppose it point to data showing the negative impact of right to work laws. Since this is a contentious political issue, the various sides reject the data offered by the others because they are regarded as biased.

Being a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics of compelling people to join a union or pay dues rather than with the legal issues. On the face of it, membership in a union should be voluntary as should paying fees to unions. Just as a person should be free to accept or reject a job or any service, the same should apply to unions. However, freedom (as some like to say) is not free: those who make the decision to not join the union or elect to not contribute to the costs of collective bargaining should be excluded from those benefits. As with any goods or services, a person who refuses to pay for them has no right to expect these goods or services. To use an analogy, if a group of homeowners are involved in a lawsuit and want to hire a lawyer, individual homeowners have every right to refuse to pay the lawyer’s fee. However, if they do not pay, they have no right to be free riders. To use another analogy, if a business does not want to join a chamber of commerce, it should be free to not join. However, the business has no right to claim the benefits offered by the chamber of commerce.

In case anyone wonders, I voluntarily joined the union on the moral grounds that I did not want to be a free rider. I knew I would benefit from the union, hence I am obligated to contribute to the costs of getting those services.

If unions are compelled to represent non-members, then the non-members would be obligated to contribute to the cost of this representation and it would be right to compel them to do so. Going back to the lawyer analogy, if the lawyer is compelled to represent all the homeowners, then they are all obligated to pay their share. Otherwise they are engaged in theft, plain and simple. The same holds for the chamber of commerce analogy: if a chamber of commerce is compelled to provide services to all business in the area, then those businesses are obligated to pay if they avail themselves of these benefits.

A second stock argument against teachers’ unions is based on the fact that they do not represent the views of all their members on various social and political issues. While this is a matter of concern, it is not unique to teachers’ unions or unions in general. All groups, ranging from clubs to political parties to nations face this problem. To use a specific example, the state legislature of any American state does not represent the views of all the members of the state. Since people have different and often conflicting views, it is nearly impossible for the representatives of a large group to represent the views of all the members. For example, some union members might favor allowing computer programing to count as a math class while others oppose it. Obviously, the class cannot be a math class and not a math class, so a union stance on the matter will fail to represent all views. As such, being unable to represent every view is not a special problem for teachers’ unions, it is a feature of groups made of people who do not agree about everything.

If the teachers’ union has a democratic process for taking positions on issues, be it direct democracy or electing representatives, then the union would represent the views of the members in the same way any democratic or representative system does. That is, imperfectly and with compromises. As such, the fact that unions do not represent the views of all members is not a special problem for teachers’ unions.

In the following essays I will focus on the claim that teachers unions are bad for education in general and students in particular.


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Charter Schools IV: Profit

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2017

While being a charter school is distinct from being a for-profit school, one argument in favor of charter schools is because they, unlike public schools, can operate as for-profit businesses. While some might be tempted to assume a for-profit charter school must automatically be bad, it is worth considering this argument.

As one would suspect, the arguments in favor of for-profit charter schools are essentially the same as arguments in favor of providing public money to any for-profit business. While I cannot consider all of them in this short essay, I will present and assess some of them.

One stock argument is the efficiency argument. The idea is that for-profit charter schools have a greater incentive than non-profit schools to be efficient. This is because every increase in efficiency can yield an increase in profits. For example, if a for-profit charter school can offer school lunches at a lower cost than a public school, then the school can turn that difference into a profit. In contrast. A public school has less incentive to be efficient, since there is no profit to be made.

While this argument is reasonable, it can be countered. One obvious concern is that profits can also be increased by cutting costs in ways that are detrimental to the students and employees of the school. For example, the “efficiency” of lower cost school lunches could result from providing the students with less or lower quality food. As another example, a school could not offer essential, but expensive services for students with special needs. As a final example, employee positions and pay could be reduced to detrimental levels.

Another counter is that while public schools lack the profit motive, they still need to accomplish the required tasks with limited funds. As such, they also need to be efficient. In fact, they often must be very creative with extremely limited resources (and teachers routinely spend their own money purchasing supplies for the students). For-profit charter schools must do what public schools do, but must also make a profit—as such, for-profit schools would cost the public more for the same services and thus be less cost effective.

It could be objected that for-profit schools are inherently more efficient than public schools and hence they can make a profit and do all that a public school would do, for the same money or even less. To support this, proponents of for-profit education point to various incidents of badly run public schools.

The easy and obvious reply is that such problems do not arise because the schools are public, they arise because of bad management and other problems. There are many public schools that are well run and there are many for-profit operations that are badly run. As such, merely being for-profit will not make a charter school better than a public school.

A second stock argument in favor of for-profit charter schools is based on the idea competition improves quality. While students go to public school by default, for-profit charter schools must compete for students with public schools, private schools and other charter schools. Since parents generally look for the best school for their children, the highest quality for-profit charter schools will win the competition. As such, the for-profits have an incentive that public schools lack and thus will be better schools.

One obvious concern is that for-profits can get students without being of better quality. They could do so by extensive advertising, by exploiting political connections and various other ways that have nothing to do with quality.

Another concern about making the education of children a competitive business venture is that this competition has causalities: businesses go out of business. While the local hardware store going out of business is unfortunate, having an entire school go out of business would be worse. If a for-profit school goes out of business, there would be considerable disruption to the children and to the schools that would have to accept them. There is also the usual concern that the initial competition will result in a few (or one) for-profit emerging victorious and then settling into the usual pattern of lower quality and higher costs. Think, for example, of cable/internet companies. As such, the competition argument is not as strong as some might believe.

Those who disagree with me might contend that my arguments are mere speculation and that for-profit charter schools should be given a chance. They might turn out to be everything their proponents claim they will be.

While this is a reasonable point, it can be countered by considering the examples presented by other ventures in which for-profit versions of public institutions receive public money. Since there is a school to prison pipeline, it seems relevant to consider the example of for profit prisons.

The arguments in favor of for-profit prisons were like those considered above: for-profit prisons would be more efficient and have higher quality than prisons run by the state. Not surprisingly, to make more profits, many prisons cut staff, pay very low salaries, cut important services and so on. By making incarceration even more of a business, the imprisonment of citizens was incentivized with the expected results of more people being imprisoned for longer sentences. As such, for-profit prisons turned out to be disastrous for the prisoners and the public. While schools are different from prisons, it is easy enough to see the same sort of thing play out with for-profit charter schools.

The best and most obvious analogy is, of course, to the for-profit colleges. As with prisons and charter schools, the usual arguments about efficiency and quality were advanced to allow public money to go to for-profit institutes. The results were not surprising: for profit colleges proved to be disastrous for the students and the public. Far from being more efficient that public and non-profit colleges, the for-profits generally turned out to be significantly more expensive. They also tend to have significantly worse graduation and job placement rates than public and non-profit private schools. Students also accrue far more debt and make significant less money relative to public and private school students. These schools also sometimes go out of business, leaving students abandoned and often with useless credits that cannot transfer. They do, however, often excel at advertising—which explains how they lure in so many students when there are vastly better alternatives.

The public also literally paid the price—the for-profits receive a disproportionate amount of public money and students take out more student loans to pay for these schools and default on them more often. Far from being models of efficiency and quality, the for-profit colleges have often turned out to be little more than machines for turning public money into profits for a few. This is not to say that for-profit charter schools must become exploitation engines as well, but the disaster of for-profit colleges must be taken as a cautionary tale. While there are some who see our children as another resource to be exploited for profits, we should not allow this to happen.


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The Return of Sophism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2017

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate, presented her view of truth on The Diane Rehm Show. As she sees it:


Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.


Since the idea that there are no facts seems so ridiculously absurd, the principle of charity demands that some alternative explanation be provided for Hughes’ claim. Her view should be familiar to anyone who has taught an introductory philosophy class. There is always at least one student who, often on day one of the class, smugly asserts that everything is a matter of opinion and thus there is no truth. A little discussion, however, usually reveals that they do not really believe what they think they believe. Rather than thinking that there really is no truth, they merely think that people disagree about what they think is true and that people have a right to freedom of belief. If this is what Hughes believes, they I have no dispute with her: people believe different things and, given Mill’s classic arguments about liberty, it seems reasonable to accept freedom of thought.

But, perhaps, the rejection of facts is not as absurd as it seems. As I tell my students, there are established philosophical theories that embrace this view. One is relativism, which is the view that truth is relative to something—this something is typically a culture, though it could also be (as Hughes seems to hold) relative to a political affiliation. One common version of this is aesthetic relativism in which beauty is relative to the culture, so there is no objective beauty. The other is subjectivism, which is the idea that truth is relative to the individual. Sticking with an aesthetic example, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a subjectivist notion. On this view, there is not even a cultural account of beauty, beauty is entirely dependent on the observer. While Hughes does not develop her position, she seems to be embracing political relativism or even subjectivism: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

If Hughes takes the truth to be relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then she is a relativist. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If she holds truth to be dependent on the individual, then she would be a subjectivist. In this case, each person has her own truth, but she might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

While some might think that this view of truth in politics is something new, it is ancient and dates back at least to the sophists of ancient Greece. The sophists presented themselves as pragmatic and practical—for a fee, they would train a person to sway the masses to gain influence and power. One of the best-known sophists, thanks to Plato, was Protagoras—he offered to teach people how to succeed.

The rise of these sophists is easy to explain—a niche had been created for them. Before the sophists came the pre-Socratic philosophers who argued relentlessly against each other. Thales, for example, argued that the world is water. Heraclitus claimed it was fire. These disputes and the fact the arguments tended to be well-balanced for and against any position, gave rise to skepticism. This is the philosophical view that we lack knowledge. Some thinkers embraced this and became skeptics, others went beyond skepticism.

Skepticism often proved to be a gateway drug to relativism—if we cannot know what is true, then it seems sensible that truth is relative. If there is no objective truth, then the philosophers and scientist are wasting their time looking for what does not exist. The religious and the ethical are also wasting their time—there is no true right and no true wrong. But accepting this still leaves twenty-four hours a day to fill, so the question remained about what a person should do in a world without truth and ethics. The sophists offered an answer.

Since searching for truth or goodness would be pointless, the sophists adopted a practical approach. They marketed their ideas to make money and offered, in return, the promise of success. Some of the sophists did accept that there were objective aspects of reality, such as those that would fall under the science of physics or biology. They all rejected the idea that what philosophers call matters of value (such as ethics, politics, and economics) are objective, instead embracing relativism or subjectivism.

Being practical, they did recognize that many of the masses professed to believe in moral (and religious) values and they were aware that violating these norms could prove problematic when seeking success. Some taught their students to act in accord with the professed values of society. Others, as exemplified by Glaucon’s argument for the unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story of the Republic, taught their students to operate under the mask of morality and social values while achieving success by any means necessary. These views had a clear impact on lying.

Relativism still allows for there to be lies of a sort. For those who accept objective truth, a lie (put very simply) an intentional untruth, usually told with malicious intent. For the relativist, a lie would be intentionally making a claim that is false relative to the group in question, usually with malicious intent. Going back to Hughes’ example, to Trump’s true believers Trump’s claims are true because they accept them. The claims that Trump is lying would be lies to the Trump believers, because they believe that claim is untrue and that the Trump doubters are acting with intent. The reverse, obviously enough, holds for the Trump doubters—they have their truth and the claims of the Trump believers are lies. This approach certainly seems to be in use now, with some pundits and politicians embracing the idea that what they disagree with is thus a lie.

Relativism does rob the accusation of lying of much of its sting, at least for those who understand the implications of relativism. On this view a liar is not someone who is intentionally making false claims, a liar is someone you disagree with. This does not mean that relativism is false, it just means that accusations of untruth become rhetorical tools and emotional expressions without any, well, truth behind them. But, they serve well in this capacity as a tool to sway the masses—as Trump showed with great effect. He simply accuses those who disagree with him of being liars and many believe him.

I have no idea whether Trump has a theory of truth or not, but his approach is utterly consistent with sophism and the view expressed by Hughes. It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence—these assume there is a truth that can be found and supported. But if there is no objective truth and only success matters, then there is no reason not to say anything that leads to success.

There are, of course, some classic problems for relativism and sophism. Through Socrates, Plato waged a systematic war on relativism and sophism—some of the best criticisms can be found in his works.

One concise way to refute relativism is to point out that relativism requires a group to define the truth. But, there is no way principled way to keep the definition of what counts as a group of believers from sliding to there being a “group” of one, which is subjectivism. The problem with subjectivism is that if it is claimed that truth is entirely subjective, then there is no truth at all—we end up with nihilism. One obvious impact of nihilism is that the sophists’ claim that success matters is not true—there is no truth. Another important point is that relativism about truth seems self-refuting: it being true requires that it be false. This argument seems rather too easy and clever by far, but it does make an interesting point for consideration.

In closing, it is fascinating that Hughes so openly presented her relativism (and sophism). Most classic sophists advocated, as noted above, operating under a mask of accepting conventional moral values. But, just perhaps, we are seeing a bold new approach to sophism: one that is trying to shift the values of society to openly accepting relativism and embracing sophism. While potentially risky, this could yield considerable political advantages and sophism might see its day of triumph. Assuming that it has not already done so.


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Post Truth

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 2, 2017

It has been declared, rather dramatically, that this is a post-truth era. In making a case for this, people point to Trump lifting himself into the presidency on an unrelenting spew of untruths as well as the surging success of fake news. On the one hand, this view is appealing: untruth seems to have emerged victorious over truth. On the other hand, this view is obviously false. Truth remains, as it always has and always shall. In discussing this matter, I will begin with a metaphor.

Imagine, if you will, people in a tent located within the jungle of the real. Between the fabric walls of the tent, the inhabitants weave narratives about all manner of things and are rewarded or punished based on whether others believe or reject their tales. Some realized it did not matter whether their tales were true or not and found that lies were lapped up like the sweetest honey. They became convinced that all that mattered was their stories. But they are wrong.

Outside the tent, stalking the jungle of the real, is a tiger whose name is “truth.” The tiger does not care about the sweetness of narratives. The thin fabric of the tent is no match for her claws. The tiger might pass by the tent (and perhaps the dwellers grow a bit quiet and nervous) time and time again while doing nothing (allowing the dwellers to return to their noisy tale telling). But someday, perhaps soon, the tiger will come through the thin fabric and her hunger will not be satisfied by even the sweetest of lies.

While a metaphor is not an argument, it is easy enough to make one based on the tiger story. The tent is analogous to the society we construct that serves as a fabric between us and the rest of world (the jungle of the real). The people in the tent are us and the untrue narratives are the lies. The tiger is truth, which is how things really are. As in the metaphor, no matter what lies people tell, the truth remains true. While people can often get away with these untruths and perhaps avoid the consequences for a while, reality remains unchanged for good or ill. For example, consider the narrative woven by the sugar industry about sugar, fats and heart disease.  This tale, told within the tent, has shaped the American diet for decades and served the sugar industry well. However, reality is not changed by such narratives and the consequences for health have been rather serious. The tobacco companies provide yet another example of this sort of thing. Perhaps the best example is climate change. Some think that it is lie told by a global conspiracy of scientists. Others think that its denial is a lie fueled by those who profit from fossil fuels. Regardless of one’s view, one side is weaving a false narrative. But the tiger is out there—the fact of the matter.

It could be objected that few believe that this is really a post-truth era in the sense that there is no truth. Rather, it is that truth just does not matter that much in certain contexts, such as politics. In one sense, this is true—Trump was, for example, rewarded for his relentless untruths and he might usher in a regime of untruth with great success. Some of those peddling fake news have also enjoyed great financial success, thus showing (once more) that there can be great profit in lies. On this view, Ben Franklin was wrong: honesty is no longer the best policy, lying is. At least in the context of politics and business.

In another sense, this is not true. While lying has proven an effective short term strategy, it will still ultimately run up against the truth. Going back to the metaphor, the tiger is always out there. As an example, while the narrative of climate change might result in short term success, eventually it will prove to be a long-term disaster. Those who believe it is real recognize the disaster will be the climate change. Those who deny it claim that the ruin will result from the catastrophic environmental policies imposed by the green gang. So, both sides assert that reality will impose a disaster—though they disagree on the nature of that disaster. While both cannot be right in their claims about climate change itself, they are both right that ignoring the truth will be a disaster—something that is very often the case.

It could be countered that my view is mistaken because I am considering the impact of such lies broadly—that is, how their consequences can impact people in general. I should, instead, focus on the advantages to those engaged in the untruths. In philosophical terms, I should embrace ethical egoism—the moral theory that what is right is to maximize value for oneself. Alternatively, I should just accept selfishness as a virtue.

While it is true that an unskilled liar can end up in trouble, those with a true talent for untruth can ensure that they benefit from their untruths and that the harmful consequences impact others. One obvious way this can occur is that the harms will take time to arrive. So, for example, lies about the climate will not harm the liars of today—they will be dead before the greatest consequences arrive. Another way this can happen is that the harms occur to other people and are avoided by the liar by physical distance from the harms of their lies. For example, lies about the safety of a town’s water would not impact the health of a governor who does not live in the town.

A third way is that the liar might be able to protect themselves through their wealth or position. For example, a rich straight white Christian who lies about things impacting Muslims, blacks, gays or poor people does not reap the harms of those lies. These consequences fall upon the others.

A selfish reply to this is that most of us are more likely to be harmed by broad lies than benefited by them. This is because most of us care about our relatives who will be alive when we are gone, because most of us live in the impact zone of lies, and because most of us lack the status and wealth to escape the consequences of broad lies. As such, we have a selfish interest to oppose lying—it ultimately hurts us far more than truth.

An altruistic reply is that we should care about other people and the harms they suffer. This can also be argued for on utilitarian moral grounds—that this lying will create more unhappiness than happiness for everyone. There is also the religious argument—most religions endorse the truth and enjoin us to show compassion for others, to love each other as God has loved us. As such, the post-truth world should be rejected. Honesty is, as Ben said, the best policy.


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