A Philosopher's Blog

Wedding Cakes & Freedom, Once Again

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

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The United States Supreme Court is, as of this writing, considering a case involving a wedding cake. The gist of the battle is between the right of freedom of expression and the right to not be discriminated against. One the one side is a Christian baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding based on his religious belief that same-sex marriage is wrong. On the other side is the couple who claim that they are being discriminated against by this refusal.

A primary argument being advanced in the baker’s defense is based on the 1st Amendment: being forced to make a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his freedom of expression. This right of free expression has a clear legal foundation and has very strong moral foundations, courtesy of various philosophical arguments in its favor. But, of course, there are also strong legal and moral foundations for not allowing discrimination against potential customers.

While the freedom of expression is usually presented as a right against being silenced, it also provides the right not to be compelled to engage in an act of expression. This freedom from compelled expression provides a person with a moral (and a legal) right to refuse certain services.

This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal and I endorse it both on philosophical and selfish grounds. I operate a writing business in which I get paid to write books. I accept that I have no legal or moral right to refuse business from someone just because she is gay, Jewish, Christian, or a non-runner. However, my writing is an act of expression. So, my freedom of expression grants me a moral right to refuse to write in support of views I oppose. For example, I have the right to refuse to write a tract advocating the persecution of Christians. This is because the creation of such work entails endorsement of a view I oppose. If I write a tract in favor of persecuting Christians, I would be unambiguously expressing my support of the idea. In such cases, an appeal to freedom of expression would seem quite relevant and reasonable. This can be generalized into the principle that it is wrong to compel expression and that people have the right to refuse compelled expression.

Since I am consistent, I extend this principle to everyone and do not limit it merely to myself or those I agree with. So, if a fellow author believes that her religion condemns same-sex marriage as wickedness, then she would be protected by the freedom of expression from being required to write in favor of same-sex marriage. If a LGBT group approached her with a lucrative offer to pen a piece in favor of gay marriage, she would have the moral right to reject it. They have no moral right to expect her to express views she does not hold, even for cash.

This principle does, of course, have limits. One obvious limit is that my right of freedom of expression does not entail that I have a right to forbid my books from being sold to people I disapprove of or disagree with. For example, it does not give me the right to forbid Amazon from selling my books to racists, smug liberals, or smokers. This is because selling a book to a person is not an endorsement of that person’s ideas and is thus not compelled expression. I do not endorse intolerant atheism just because an intolerant atheist can buy my book.

As such an author who believes her religion condemns same-sex marriage could not use freedom of expression to demand that Amazon not sell her books to homosexuals. While buying a book might suggest agreement with the author, it does not suggest that the author is endorsing the purchaser. So, if a gay person buys the author’s anti-same-sex marriage book, it does not mean that the author is endorsing same-sex marriage. Likewise, if Donald Trump buys one of my books, it does not mean that I am endorsing Trump.

Not surprisingly, the case before the supreme court does not involve a Christian writer being asked to write pro-gay works—writers clearly have a right to refuse such jobs. As noted above, the case being considered involves a wedding cake. The key question, then, is selling a wedding cake more like being compelled to write in favor of a position one opposes or like someone buying a book one has written? If it like writing, then the freedom of expression would apply. If it is like someone buying a book, then the freedom of expression would not apply.

To get the obvious out of the way, refusing to bake a cake for a wedding because the people involved were Jewish, black, Christian, white, or Canadian would seem to be discrimination. If the person refusing to do so said that baking a cake for a Jew endorsed Judaism, that baking a cake for a  a black wedding endorsed blackness, or that baking a wedding cake for  Canadian endorsed Canada, they would be regarded as either joking or crazy.  But perhaps it can be argued that baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple would be a compelled expression of agreement or endorsement.

On the face of it, making a wedding cake would not seem to be expressing approval or agreement with the wedding, regardless of what sort of wedding it might be. Selling someone food would seem to be like selling them a book—their buying it says nothing about what I endorse or believe. When the pizza delivery person arrives with a pizza when I am playing D&D, I do not say “aha, Dominoes endorses role-playing games!” After all, they are just selling me pizza. Likewise, if a Nazi buys my books on Amazon, I am not therefore endorsing Nazi ideology.

In the case of the wedding cake, it could be argued that it is a special sort of cake and creating one does express an endorsement. By this reasoning, a birthday cake would entail an endorsement of the person’s birth and continued existence, a congratulations cake would entail an endorsement of that person’s achievement and so on for all the various cakes.  This, obviously enough, seems implausible. Making me a birthday cake does not show that Publix endorses my birth or continued existence. They are just selling me a cake. If a baker makes a congratulatory cake, they do not require customers to prove that the congratulations is for something the baker agrees with. It also does not follow that a baker who bakes such a cake is therefore endorsing what the cake congratulates. For example, if someone gets a friend a cake congratulating them on their first murder, it does not follow that the baker approves of murder. As such, selling a person a wedding cake does not entail approval of the wedding. For example, if a baker sells a wedding cake to a person who has committed adultery and is remarrying so they can steal from their new spouse, this does not entail the baker’s approval of adultery or theft.

It can easily be argued that bakers do have the right to refuse a specific design or message on the cake. For example, a Jewish baker could claim that he has the right to refuse to create a Nazi cake with swastikas and Nazi slogans. This seems reasonable—a baker, like a writer, should not be compelled to create content she does not wish to express. Given this principle, a baker could rightly refuse to bake a sexually explicit wedding cake or one festooned with gay pride slogans.

However, creating a plain wedding cake would not seem to be an expression of ideas and would be on par with selling a person a book rather than being forced to write specific content. By analogy, I cannot refuse to sell a book I have written to a person because he is an intolerant atheist, but I can refuse a contract to write in support of atheism.

The obvious counter would be to argue that making a generic wedding cake is an act of creation and is thus an expression. As such, it would be protected by the freedom of expression. While this does have some appeal, it does run into some problems.

One obvious problem is that accepting this as a general principle would entail that anyone who creates anything would thus have the right to refuse to sell their work based on their values. So, for example, an atheist could forbid Amazon to sell their books to Christians, Muslims and Jews. As another example, a cook at a restaurant could refuse to sell a meal to people whose values they opposed. Perhaps even a surgeon could claim that they express their views via surgery and thus could not be compelled to perform surgery on someone whose values they reject. As should be clear, this would essentially be a license to discriminate and thus is problematic.

This problem can, of course, be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as expression. However, if baking a generic wedding cake would count, then this would open the door quite wide in terms of what would count as expression. After all, if a generic cake is expression, then it would seem to follow that so is a pizza, a piece of furniture, a shed, or a shirt.

It could be argued that making a wedding cake is special because of the event. But, the same principle would need to be extended to all things made for events that one might oppose. This would also seem to open the door wide to discrimination.

The problem can also be addressed by carefully restricting what counts as discrimination and what does not. For example, laws can easily be created that make it discrimination to not sell to someone based on their religion, but not discrimination to refuse based on their sexual orientation. This, of course, does not address the moral concerns about discrimination.

Another obvious problem is that this approach would entail that selling a person something one has created would be an act of endorsement towards that person. In the case of the wedding cake, the claim is that being forced to sell a generic cake would be to express approval of the wedding. But, as noted above, selling something to someone is not in itself an act of approval. If, for example, Nazi’s buy handmade Tiki torches to wave at their rally, then this does not entail that the maker is endorsing Nazis. Naturally, the torch maker has every right to refuse to carve Nazi symbols into their torches. Likewise, if a gay couple buys a wedding cake for their wedding, the baker is no more endorsing the wedding than the gas station that will sell them the gas they will use to drive to their wedding. Or the sub maker who will sell them the subs that will fuel them through their gay wedding night.

In light of the above, selling a generic wedding cake is not compelled expression and hence a baker does not have the right to refuse to sell one to a same-sex couple. But, a suitably custom wedding cake would be an act of expression and a baker has every right to refuse any design they do not endorse. To go back to the book analogy, my being unable to forbid sales of my books is not compelled expression—even though the books are expressive creations. However, being forced to write a custom book specifically for a view I do not endorse would be compelled expression.

 

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Why Do Good People Do Bad?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 6, 2017

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Recent events have raised the old question of why (seemingly) good people do bad things. For example, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor were both widely respected, but have now fallen before accusations of sexual misdeeds. As another example, legendary Democrat John Conyers’s was regarded as a heroic figure by some, but is now “retiring” in the face of accusations.

One easy and obvious way to explain why people who seem good do bad things is that they merely appeared to be good. Like Plato’s unjust man from the story of the Ring of Gyges, these people presented a virtuous front to the world. But, unlike the perfectly unjust man, their misdeeds were finally exposed to the world. On this view, these are not cases of good people doing bad, they are cases of bad people who masqueraded as good people and finally lost their masks. While this cynical and jaded approach does have considerable appeal, there are alternatives that are worth considering. It must be noted that the situations of individuals obviously vary a great deal and it is not being claimed that one explanation fits everyone.

An alternative explanation of why seemingly good people do bad things is the fact that people tend to be complicated rather than simple when it comes to ethics. Or, as is often said in popular culture, everyone is a mix of good and evil. As such, it is no wonder that even those who are good people (that is, more good than evil) sometimes do bad things. There is also the obvious fact that people are imperfect creatures who fail to always act in accord with their best principles.

One way to understand this is to use a method that the philosopher David Hume was rather fond of: he would routinely ask his reader to consider their own experiences and see if they matched his views. In the case of why good people do bad, I will ask the reader to think of the very worst thing they ever did and to think of why they did it. Presumably each of us, including you, think of themselves as good people. But, we all do bad things—and honestly considering why we do these things will help us understand the motivations and reasons of others.

A third option explains why seemingly good people do bad in terms of why people might think a bad person is good (other than deception). One possibility is that people often confuse a person being good at their profession, being charming, being beautiful or possessing other such positive qualities (virtues) with being a good person. For example, Kevin Spacey is a skilled actor and this no doubt led some people to think he was thus a good person. As another example, Garrison Keillor is a master story teller and created a show that is beloved by many—and some no doubt regarded him as a good person because of these talents.

Both Plato and Kant were aware of this sort of problem—the danger of a person with only some of the virtues, or in Kant’s terms, lacking a good will. Plato warned of the clever rogue: “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue‑how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye‑sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?” Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, raises a similar point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

This should be taken as a warning about judging people—while the positive virtues of a person can easily lead people to judge them a good person, judging the whole person based on a few qualities can easily lead to errors. This is not to say that it should be assumed that people are always bad, but it is to say that it should not be inferred that a person is good based on a limited set of positive traits or accomplishments.

Another possibility is that a person will think another person is good because they agree with their professed values, religion, ideology, etc. The person’s reasoning is probably something like this:

 

Premise 1: I believe in value V.

Premise 2: Person A professes belief in value V.

Premise 3: I (think I) am a good person (because I believe V).

Conclusion: Person A is a good person.

 

For example, Democrats would be more inclined to think that Bill Clinton, John Conyers and Al Franken are good people—because they are fellow Democrats. Likewise, Republicans would be more inclined to think that Trump and Roy Moore are good people. This sort of reasoning is also fueled by various cognitive biases, such as the tendency of people to regard members of their own group as better than those outside the group.

While this reasoning is not entirely terrible, those using it need to carefully consider whether Person A really holds to value V, whether believing in V really is a mark of goodness, and whether they really are a good person. Not surprisingly, people do tend to uncritically accept the professed goodness of those who profess to share their values and this cuts across the entire political spectrum, across all religions and so on. People even hold to their assessment in the face of evidence that contradicts person’s A professed belief in value V.

This discussion does not, of course, exhaust possible explanations as to why (seemingly) good people do bad things. But it does present some possible accounts that are worth considering when trying to answer this question in specific cases.

 

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Harassment & Punishment

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

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2017 saw the fall of several influential men, ranging from Bill O’Reilly to Garrison Keillor, because of allegations of sexual harassment or worse. Politicians, such as Franken and Moore, have also faced allegations of misdeeds. As of this writing, no politician has recently lost an election or their current position because of such allegations. One obvious reason for this is that the political system is not like the employment system: while an employee has someone who can fire them, the removal of a politician is more complicated.

While many male elites have been accused of sexual misdeeds, the accusations vary a great deal. On the low end of the spectrum, Keillor claims that he merely accidentally touched a woman’s bare back. On the extreme end of the spectrum, Weinstein and Spacey have been accused of sexual assault and, on some accounts, rape. Somewhere in there is Matt Lauer. In all cases the punishment has been roughly the same: each man was fired. In the case of Keillor, there has been a thorough purge: old episodes of his “A Prairie Home Companion” will no longer be distributed and while the show will continue, it will do so under a new name (Keillor retired from the show about a year ago). In addition to being fired, the careers of most of these men will probably be over—it is unlikely that anyone will want to employ them in their former fields.

While it is tempting to regard these results as long-overdue justice, there is still a reasonable concern about such a system of punishment. It is not that these men are being punished for their misdeeds—that is, after all, a critical part of justice. It is that the punishment seems to be the same regardless of the severity of the misdeed. This violate a basic principle of justice, namely proportionality. This notion is typically presented in the saying “let the punishment fit the crime.” The basic idea is that the severity and nature of the punishment should be proportional to the offense. One moral justification for this principle is that punishment beyond what is deserved creates a new wrong rather than serving the ends of justice. By punishing every such offense, regardless of severity, the same way, this principle is violated. As such, justice would seem to require that distinct levels of such misdeeds should be punished differently.

One reasonable reply to this concern is to point out that unlike the judicial system, employers have a much narrower range of available punishments. The judicial system can, for example, distinguish between groping, sexual assault, and rape in applying a wide range of punishments. Employers, in contrast, are limited to financial punishments, demotions and firing.

If an employee engages in harassment or worse, the behavior can very easily warrant severe punishment. Because of the limited range of options available to employers, they cannot fully follow the principle of proportionality—since their punishment range caps at their ability to fire employees. As such, if an employee engages in improper behavior that crosses the firing line, regardless of how extensive the transgression, the upper limit of punishment would be firing. To use an obvious analogy, consider the situation of a university.

Like an employer, a university has a limited set of punishments available in relation to students, the most extreme of which is expulsion. Once a student hits the level at which they can be expelled, then any misdeed beyond that can only be punished by the university by expulsion. If one student persists in violating the academic code of conduct, they can be expelled. If another student burns down a fraternity house, killing dozens of people, then they can be expelled. If third student massacres a thousand fellow students, they can also be expelled. Naturally, the second and third students will also face criminal charges, but that is a matter for the legal system and not the university. Since expulsion is the maximum punishment, proportionality ceases once a student hits that level—no matter how far their misdeeds go.

Another reasonable concern is that transgressors might be punished too severely, even within the limited options available to employers. That is, the action of the employee might not warrant being fired, but they are fired anyway. In this case, the firing would clearly be unjust on the grounds of the proportionality principle. The problem is sorting out what misdeeds merit punishments less than firing. Some might argue that any sexual harassment or misconduct is grounds for firing—and a case could be made for that. Others might argue that an employee should be given a second chance for minor misdeeds and be subject to a punishment short of firing such as a financial cost or demotion. Since there are many possible offenses, the challenge would be sorting out a just system of punishment that meets the proportionality principle. But, as noted above, there are those who would argue that firing is just punishment for any misdeed that reaches the level of sexual harassment.

 

 

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Art & Assault II: Feeling & Aesthetic Value

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 1, 2017

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One interesting issue in aesthetics is whether the ethics of the artist should be considered relevant to the aesthetic value of their work. Obviously enough, what people think about an artist can influence what they feel about a work. But how people assess works and how they should assess works are two different matters.

One way to approach the matter is to look at art works as analogous to any other work, such as a student’s paper in a philosophy class or the construction of a storage shed. In the case of a student’s paper, a professor can obviously be influenced by how they feel about the student. For example, if a professor learned that a student had groped another student, then the professor is likely to dislike the student. But if the professor decided to assign a failing grade to the groper’s paper, then this would be unfair and unjust—the quality of the paper has nothing to do with the behavior of the student. After all, the assessment of an argumentative paper in philosophy is supposed to be based on an objective assessment of the quality of the arguments and not on what the professor feels about the author.

By analogy, the same should apply to works of art: the quality and merit of the work should be assessed independently of how one feels about the artist and their misdeeds. In the case of the technical aspects of the work, this seems to be obviously true. For example, the misdeeds of an artist have no bearing on whether they get perspectives right or hit the correct notes in a song. These are objective matters and are clearly analogous to the use of logic in an argumentative paper. Another analogy, that will lead to an objection, is to a pro-athlete.

In sports like running and football, an athlete’s performance is an objective matter and how the spectators feel about the athlete has no legitimate role in judging that performance. For example, how the spectators feel about a marathon runner has no impact on how their time should be judged—it is what it is regardless of how they feel about the runner. By analogy, the same should apply to works of art—a work is what it is regardless of how people feel about the artist. The analogy to athletes, as noted above, opens a path to an objection.

While the quality of an athlete’s performance is an objective matter (in certain sports), pro-athletes are often also entertainers. For example, a professional basketball player is there to play basketball to entertain the crowd. Part of the enjoyment of the crowd depends on the quality of the athlete’s performance, but what an audience member thinks about the athlete also impacts their enjoyment. For example, if the audience member knows that the athlete has a habit of hitting his girlfriends and they do not like domestic abuse, then the fan’s experience of the game will be altered. The experience of the game is not just an assessment of the quality of the athletic performance, but also a consideration of the character of the athletes.

By analogy, the same would apply to an artist. So, for example, while Kevin Spacey might be a skilled actor, the allegations against him impacts the viewer and thus changes the aesthetic experience. Watching The Usual Suspects knowing about the allegations is a different experience than watching it in ignorance.

The easy and obvious reply is that while people do often feel this way, they are in error—they should, as argued above, be assessing the athlete based on their performance in the game. What they do off the field or court is irrelevant to what they do on the court. In the case of the art, the behavior of the artist should be irrelevant to the aesthetic merit of the work. For example, The Usual Suspects should not be considered differently in the face of the allegations against Spacey. Once again, people will feel as they do, but to let their feelings impact the assessment of the work would be an error.

This is not to say that people should feel the same about works in the face of revelations about artists or that they should still consume their art. The right to freedom of feeling is as legitimate as the right to the broader freedom of expression and, of course, people are free to consume art as they wish. They are also free to say how a performance (be it athletic, academic or artistic) makes them feel—but this is a report about them and not about the work. Naturally, there are aesthetic theories in which the states of the consumer of art matter and these are certainly worthy of their due—but this goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.

Another way to approach the matter is to consider a case in which nothing is known about the creator of a work of art. To use some obvious examples, a work might be found in an ancient tomb or an anonymous poem might appear on the web. These works can, obviously enough, be assessed without knowing anything about their creators and this suggests that the moral qualities of the artist are irrelevant to the quality of the work.

Suppose that the anonymous poem was regarded as brilliant and beautiful, but then it was established that it was written by a terrible person, such as Hitler or Stalin. Nothing about the poem has changed, so the assessment of the poem should not change either. But, of course, many people would change their minds about the poem based on the revelation. Now imagine that it turns out that the attribution of the poem was in error, it was really written by a decent and kind person. Nothing about the poem has changed, so the assessment should remain unchanged. The point is that tying aesthetic assessment to the character of the artist entails that judging the aesthetic merit of a work would require knowing the moral status of the creator, which seems absurd. Going back to the sports analogy, it would be like having to determine if a runner was a good or bad person before deciding whether a 14 minute 5K was a good time or not. That is, obviously enough, absurd. Likewise for the art. As such, the moral qualities of the artist are irrelevant to the aesthetic merit of their work.

 

 

 

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Arts & Assault I: Money

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2017

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2017 saw many once powerful men brought down by accusations of sexual harassment or assault. Among these men are Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was fired from his company and Netflix has announced that it will not continue the wildly successful Netflix series House of Cards with Spacey. While the misdeeds of these men raise many issues relevant to philosophy, one interesting subject is the impact of the misdeeds of those involved in the arts on their works. This is, of course, an old topic—philosophers have been discussing the relevance of the ethics of the artist to the aesthetics of their works. However, it is still worth discussing and is obviously relevant today. I will begin by getting some easy matters out of the way.

One area of concern that is more a matter of psychology than philosophy is the impact of the artist’s behavior on the audience. To be specific, the experience of the consumer of the art can be affected by what they believe about the ethics of the artist. It is certainly possible that an audience member will find that their aesthetic experience is diminished or even destroyed by what they believe about the artist. For example, someone watching a Kevin Spacey movie or show might find that they can only think of the allegations against Spacey and thus cannot enjoy the work. It is equally possible that the audience member will be unaffected by what they think of the ethics of the artist. For example, someone who enjoys The Usual Suspects might find their enjoyment undiminished by the allegations against Spacey.

While considerations of how people might react are relevant to discussing the aesthetic issues, they do not settle these issues. For example, how people might react to an artist’s misdeeds does not settle whether the ethics of an artist is relevant to the aesthetic merit of their work. To use an analogy, how fans feel about a professional athlete’s moral misdeeds does not settle the issue about whether they are a skilled player or not.

Another area of concern is the ethics of supporting an artist who has engaged in moral misdeeds. This is, of course, part of the broader issue of whether one should support any worker whose has engaged in moral misdeeds. As such, it is a moral issue rather than a specifically aesthetic issue. However, it is worth addressing.

While a customer has every right to patronize as they wish, what is under consideration is whether one should support an artist one regards as a bad person. On the one hand, a moral case can be made that by supporting such an artist by buying their work, purchasing tickets to their movies or subscribing to a service that streams their shows one is supporting their misdeeds. Naturally, as the degree of financial support diminishes, so too does the support of their misdeeds. To illustrate, if I think a painter is evil, but pay them $10,000 for a painting then I am obviously providing more support than a situation in which I think Kevin Spacey is evil, yet keep paying my subscription to Netflix.

It is also worth considering that unless the artist is operating alone (such as a lone painter) the decision to not support their art does not just impact the artist. So, for example, if someone decides to not buy any Kevin Spacey movies because of what Spacey is accused of doing, they might cost Spacey some microscopic bit of revenue, but they are also punishing everyone else who might get money from the sale of those movies, such as everyone else involved in making the movie as well as the retailer selling it. While people have every right to make their purchasing decisions on what they regard as ethical grounds, it is also important to consider that the target of their ire might not be the only one impacted.

On the other hand, it can be argued that supporting an artist one regards as morally bad is not supporting their misdeeds. After all, one is paying for the art (or experience of the art) and not paying them to commit misdeeds. The purchasing of the art is not an endorsement of the misdeeds but a financial transaction and what matters are the aspects that are relevant to the transaction. To use an analogy, one does not need to inquire whether a mechanic has engaged in misdeeds that have nothing to do with their job before deciding to use their services or not. One also does not feel obligated to investigate what the mechanic might use the money for. What matters is the quality and cost of the work. Naturally, a person might prefer a nice person as a mechanic or be upset if the mechanic used the money to pay prostitutes, but that is a matter of preference.

It can be argued that patronizing a bad person who is an artist does support their misdeeds. After all, it is the wealth and power of people like Spacey and Weinstein that enabled them to get away with their misdeeds for so long. On this view, once a person knows about the misdeeds they would be morally accountable for continuing to provide support for the artist. Naturally, they can plead ignorance regarding past support. This is analogous to patronizing a company that is accused of doing terrible things—on the one hand, one can claim to be just buying their product or service without endorsing their misdeeds. On the other hand, without customers they would be far less able to do their misdeeds.

 

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Party Loyalty & Sexual Harassment

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 22, 2017

The toppling of Harvey Weinstein has set off what might turn out to be a revolution: women (and men) are coming forward to report acts of harassment or assault by powerful men. It, however, remains to be seen whether this is a storm that shall pass or an actual revolution resulting in enduring change.

The accusations have been bipartisan is nature; that is, powerful men on the left and the right have been accused of inappropriate and even evil behavior. On the right, the most infamous case involving a politician is that of Roy Moore. Moore has been accused of various sexual misdeeds including engaging in sexual activity with a 14 year old girl. On the left, the most famous case involving a politician is that of Al Franken. Franken has been accused of inappropriately touching a woman’s buttocks during a photograph in 2010 and Leeann Tweeden accused him of kissing and groping her. There is, of course, photographic evidence of Franken groping Tweeden through her body armor while she was asleep. I am focusing on cases that are current as of this writing; but I am sure that everyone has their favorite (or most despised) examples from the past and want to ask, for example, “what about Bill Clinton.” Since the discussion that follows deals with general principles, it can be applied to past (and future) cases. I am using Moore and Franken as the examples for the practical reasons that they are well known and are members of the two major parties. I am not suggesting that their cases are morally equivalent: if both men are guilty, Moore would clearly have committed far greater moral offenses (and crimes). This assumes that there have been no new revelations about Franken, of course.

Moore is, as of this writing, running for a senate seat in Alabama. He upset the Republican establishment by beating Luther Strange in the primary and has been running hard on an anti-establishment position. Until the allegations surfaced, victory for Moore over his Democratic opponent was certain. Now that the allegations have surfaced, his victory is merely almost certain. While many of his supporters have denied the allegations, some have said they would support him even if they were true (including a rather odd defense that brought in Mary and Joseph). Pragmatic supporters have argued that that even if the allegations are true, Moore is still preferable to having the Democrat elected. This would seem to entail that some Republicans regard being a Democrat as morally worse than being a pedophile.

Franken, as of this writing, is still in the senate. He has called for an ethics investigation of himself. Unlike Moore, he has not denied the allegations and has apologized. While some liberals support Franken, others have been calling for him to resign. There is, of course, the argument that Democrats should support him because he is a Democrat and not risk Franken being replaced by a Republican. These two cases nicely illustrate the moral issue: should voters stick with party over principle? This, of course, assumes that the actions of the accused violate the principles of the voters.

There are, of course, pragmatic reasons for backing one’s party even in the face of terrible offenses. Regarding Franken and Moore, the balance of power in the senate is razor thin and sticking with them or rejecting them would have a significant impact. However, this is not a moral reason to take this approach.

One obvious moral approach is that of utilitarianism—the moral view that actions are right or wrong based on their consequences for those who matter. One way to make a utilitarian moral argument in favor of party loyalty is to show that what your party would do is better for those that matter and that what the other party would do would be worse. For example, a Republican could argue that getting their tax plan through by having Moore in the senate would offset and moral concerns about the accusations against Moore. The Democrats could argue that keeping Franken in the senate and voting against the Republican tax plan would offset any moral concerns about his behavior. This would, of course, need to factor in the harm of supporting a person who has been accused of misdeeds, such as how doing so would send the message that such behavior need not have consequences and that it is acceptable if the person doing it has the right sort of position of power.

A utilitarian argument could also be made against choosing party over principles by showing that the harms of such support would outweigh the benefits. While the obvious approach would be to show that the harms of tolerating such behavior outweighs other factors, there is also a more pragmatic approach that supporting such people could do harm to the party in the longer term, despite there being the potential for a short-term advantage.

Another approach to the moral matter would be to focus on what factors are relevant to a person doing a job. If an elected office is looked at it terms of a job and what matters is competence, then the moral failings of the politician would only be relevant if they impacted this competence. For example, Clinton is widely regarded as a competent and successful president, yet his moral track record is problematic when it comes to sex.

To use an analogy, one should pick their dentist, roofer or plumber based on their competence, not based on whether they had an affair. Naturally, moral failing relevant to the job would matter—so if you knew that a plumber cheated their customers or that a dentist molested patients while they were unconscious, then these would be relevant to making your decision. Likewise for politicians—even if Moore and Franken did what they are accused of, it could be argued that it has no relevance to their competence as senators. Even if all that counts as competence is reliably voting along party lines. This could, of course, be countered by arguing that it would impact their job performance—if, for example, they were groping staff members or the public.

There is also the approach, often taken by conservatives in the past, that character matters. Value voters, at least in the past, often made the argument that a person with serious moral problems was thus unfit for office. Hillary Clinton, for example, was subject to this sort of criticism. As might be imagined, people tend to be less worried about the virtues and vices of their person—folks on the left and the right routinely make excuses for those on their side.

For virtue theorists like Aristotle and Confucius, such vices would be rather problematic—a good leader must be a person of virtue. Part of the reason is a matter of ethics—bad people are, well, bad. Part of it is also practical as well—a leader who is corrupted by too much vice would be a poor leader. The counter to this is obvious enough: the effectiveness of a leader, it can be argued, is like the effectiveness of a professional football player—it has nothing to do with virtue. Naturally, Aristotle, Plato and Confucius would disagree with this. My own view is that a person could be quite competent as a leader in terms of the relevant skills and still be a bad person; but being a bad person they would do bad things and this would tend to be bad for the people. There is, of course, the question about what level of vice should be tolerated—after all, none of us are angels and we all have moral flaws. That, however, is a subject for another essay.

 

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Whataboutism

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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