A Philosopher's Blog

Secrecy and Lawmaking

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2015

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has generated considerable controversy, mostly over what people think it might do. While making prediction about such complex matters is always difficult, there is a somewhat unusual challenge in making such prediction about the TPP. This challenge is that it is being kept secret from the public.

While senators are allowed to read the text of the TPP, it is being treated like an ultra-secret document. To gaze upon it, a senator must go to a secure basement room, hand over all electronics and then leave behind any notes he (or she) has written. An official from the US Trade Representative’s office watches them. After reading the document, the senator is not allowed to discuss the matter with the public, experts or lawyers.

While members of congress typically do not read the legislation the lobbyists have written for them to pass and the public usually has little interest in the text of bills, there is obviously still the question of justifying such secrecy. After all, the United States is supposed to be a democratic state and President Obama made all the right noises about transparency in government.

Robert Mnookin, of Harvard Law, has put forth stock justifications for such secrecy. The first justification is that having such matters open to the public is damaging to the process: “The representatives of the parties have to be able to explore a variety of options just to see what might be feasible before they ultimately make a deal. That kind of exploration becomes next to impossible if you have to do it in public.”

The second stock justification is that secrecy enables deals to be negotiated. As he says,  “In private, people can explore and tentatively make concessions, which if they publicly made, would get shot down before you really had a chance to explore what you might be given in return for some compromise.”

In support of Mnookin, public exposure does have its disadvantages and secrecy does have its advantages. As he noted, if the negotiating parties have to operate in public, this can potentially limit their options. To use the obvious analogy, if a person is negotiating for a raise, then having to do so in front of his colleagues would certainly limit her options. In the case of trade deals, if the public knew about the details of the deals, then there might be backlash for proposals that anger the public.

Secrecy does, of course, confer many advantages. By being able to work out the exploration in secret, the public remains ignorant and thus cannot be upset about specific proposals. Going with the salary analogy, if I can negotiate my salary in complete secrecy, then I can say things I would not say publicly and explore deals that I would not make in public. This is obviously advantageous to the deal makers.

Obviously, the same sort of reasoning can be applied to all aspects of government: if the ruling officials are required to operate in the public eye, then they cannot explore things without fear that the public would be upset by what they are doing. For example, if the local government wanted to install red-light cameras to improve revenues and had to discuss this matter openly, then the public might oppose this. As another example, if the state legislature wanted to cut a special deal for a company, discussing the payoff openly could be problematic.

Secrecy would, in all such cases, allow the ruling officials to work out various compromises without the troubling impact of public scrutiny. The advantages to the ruling officials and their allies are quite evident—so much so, it is no wonder that governments have long pushed for secrecy.

Naturally, there are some minor concerns that need to be addressed. One is that secrecy allows for deals that, while advantageous for those making the deals, are harmful to other members of the population. Those who think that government should consider the general welfare would probably find this sort of thing problematic.

Another trivial point of concern is the possibility of corruption. After all, secrecy certainly serves as an enabler for corruption, while transparency tends to reduce corruption. The easy reply is that corruption is only of concern to those who think that corruption is a bad thing, as opposed to an opportunity for enhanced revenue for select individuals. Put that way, it sounds delightful.

A third matter is that such secrecy bypasses the ideal of the democratic system: that government is open and that matters of state are publicly discussed by the representatives so that the people have an opportunity to be aware of what is occurring and have a role in the process. This is obviously only of concern to those misguided few who value the ideals of such a system. Those realists and pragmatists who know the value of secrecy know that involving the people is a path to trouble. Best to keep such matters away from them, to allow their betters to settle matters behind closed doors.

A fourth minor concern is that making rational decisions about secret deals is rather difficult. When asked what I think about TPP, all I can say is that I am concerned that it is secret, but cannot say anything about the content—because I have no idea what is in it. While those who wrote it know what is in there (as do the few senators who have seen it), discussion of its content is not possible—which makes deciding about the matter problematic. The easy answer is that since we do not matter, we do not need to know.

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Bulk Data Collection

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 15, 2015

A federal appeals court ruled in May, 2015 that the NSA’s bulk collection of domestic calling data is illegal. While such bulk data collection would strike many as blatantly unconstitutional, this matter has not been addressed, though that is perhaps just a matter of time. My intent is to address the general issue of bulk domestic data collection by the state in a principled way.

When it comes to the state (or, more accurately, the people who compose the state) using its compulsive force against its citizens, there are three main areas of concern: practicality, morality and legality. I will addressing this matter within the context of the state using its power to impose on the rights and liberties of the citizens for the purported purpose of protecting them. This is, of course, the stock problem of liberty versus security.

In the case of practicality, the main question is whether or not the law, policy or process is effective in achieving its goals. This, obviously, needs to be balanced against the practical costs in terms of such things as time and resources (such as money).

In the United States, this illegal bulk data collection has been going on for years. To date, there seems to be but one public claim of success involving the program, which certainly indicates that the program is not effective. When the cost of the program is considered, the level of failure is appalling.

In defense of the program, some proponents have claimed that there have been many successes, but these cannot be reported because they must be kept secret. In fairness, it is certainly worth considering that there have been such secret successes that must remain secret for security reasons. However, this defense can easily be countered.

In order to accept this alleged secret evidence, those making the claim that it exists would need to be trustworthy. However, those making the claim have a vested interest in this matter, which certainly lowers their credibility. To use an analogy, if I was receiving huge sums of money for a special teaching program and could only show one success, but said there were many secret successes, you would certainly be wise to be skeptical of my claims. There is also the fact that thanks to Snowden, it is known that the people involved have no compunctions about lying about this matter, which certainly lowers their credibility.

One obvious solution would be for credible, trusted people with security clearance to be provided with the secret evidence. These people could then speak in defense of the bulk data collection without mentioning the secret specifics. Of course, given that everyone knows about the bulk data collection, it is not clear what relevant secrets could remain that the public simply cannot know about (except, perhaps, the secret that the program does not work).

Given the available evidence, the reasonable conclusion is that the bulk data collection is ineffective. While it is possible that there is some secret evidence, there is no compelling reason to believe this claim, given the lack of credibility on the part of those making this claim. This alone would suffice as grounds for ceasing this wasteful and ineffective approach.

In the case of morality, there are two main stock approaches. The first is a utilitarian approach in which the harms of achieving the security are weighed against the benefits provided by the security. The basic idea is that the state is warranted in infringing on the rights and liberties of the citizens on the condition that the imposition is outweighed by the wellbeing gained by the citizens—either in terms of positive gains or harms avoided. This principle applies beyond matters of security. For example, people justify such things as government mandated health care and limits on soda sizes on the same grounds that others justify domestic spying: these things are supposed to protect citizens.

Bulk data collection is, obviously enough, an imposition on the moral right to privacy—though it could be argued that this harm is fairly minimal. There are, of course, also the practical costs in terms of resources that could be used elsewhere, such as in health care or other security programs. Weighing the one alleged success against these costs, it seems evident that the bulk data collection is immoral on utilitarian grounds—it does not do enough good to outweigh its moral cost.

Another stock approach to such matters is to forgo utilitarianism and argue the ethics in another manner, such as appealing to rights. In the case of bulk data collection, it can be argued that it violates the right to privacy and is thus wrong—its success or failure in practical terms is irrelevant. In the United States people often argue this way when it comes to gun rights—the right outweighs utilitarian considerations about the well-being of the public.

Rights are, of course, not absolute—everyone knows the example of how the right to free expression does not warrant slander or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. So, it could be argued that the right of privacy can be imposed upon. Many stock arguments exist to justify such impositions and these typical rest either on utilitarian arguments or arguments showing that the right to privacy does not apply. For example, it is commonly argued that criminals lack a right to privacy in regards to their wicked deeds—that is, there is no moral right to secrecy in order to conceal immoral deeds. While these arguments can be used to morally justify collecting data from specific suspects, they do not seem to justify bulk data collection—unless it can be shown that all Americans have forfeited their right to privacy.

It would thus seem that the bulk data collection cannot be justified on moral grounds. As a general rule, I favor the view that there is a presumption in favor of the citizen: the state needs a moral justification to impose on the citizen and it should not be assumed the state has a right to act unless the citizen can prove differently. This is, obviously enough, analogous to the presumption of innocence in the American legal system.

In regards to the legality of the matter, the specific law in question has been addressed.  In terms of bulk data collection in general, the answer seems quite obvious. While I am obviously not a constitutional scholar, bulk data collection seems to be a clear and egregious violation of the 4th Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The easy and obvious counter is to point out that I, as I said, am not a constitutional scholar or even a lawyer. As such, my assessment of the 4th Amendment is lacking the needed professional authority. This is, of course, true—which is why this matter needs to be addressed by the Supreme Court.

In sum, there seems to be no practical, moral or legal justification for such bulk data collection by the state and hence it should not be permitted. This is my position as a philosopher and the 2016 Uncandidate.

 

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Aristotle & the Quantified Life

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Sports/Athletics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2015

While Aristotle was writing centuries before the rise of wearable technology, his view of moral education provides a solid foundation for the theory behind what I like to call the benign tyranny of the device. Or, if one prefers, the bearable tyranny of the wearbable.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle addressed the very practical problem of how to make people good. He was well aware that merely listening to discourses on morality would not make people good. In a very apt analogy, he noted that such people would be like invalids who listened to their doctors, but did not carry out her instructions—they will get no benefit.

His primary solution to the problem is one that is routinely endorsed and condemned today: to use the compulsive power of the state to make people behave well and thus become conditioned in that behavior. Obviously, most people are quite happy to have the state compel people to act as they would like them to act; yet equally unhappy when it comes to the state imposing on them. Aristotle was also well aware of the importance of training people from an early age—something later developed by the Nazis and Madison Avenue.

While there have been some attempts in the United States and other Western nations to use the compulsive power of the state to force people to engage in healthy practices, these have been fairly unsuccessful and are usually opposed as draconian violations of the liberty to be out of shape. While the idea of a Fitness Force chasing people around to make them exercise amuses me, I certainly would oppose such impositions on both practical and moral grounds. However, most people do need some external coercion to force them to engage in healthy behavior. Those who are well-off can hire a personal trainer and a fitness coach. Those who are less well of can appeal to the tyranny of friends who are already self-tyrannizing. However, there are many obvious problems with relying on other people. This is where the tyranny of the device comes in.

While the quantified life via electronics is in its relative infancy, there is already a multitude of devices ranging from smart fitness watches, to smart plates, to smart scales, to smart forks. All of these devices offer measurements of activities to quantify the self and most of them offer coercion ranging from annoying noises, to automatic social media posts (“today my feet did not patter, so now my ass grows fatter”), to the old school electric shock (really).

While the devices vary in their specifics, Aristotle laid out the basic requirements back when lightning was believed to come from Zeus. Aristotle noted that a person must do no wrong either with or against one’s will. In the case of fitness, this would be acting in ways contrary to health.

What is needed, according to Aristotle, is “the guidance of some intelligence or right system that has effective force.” The first part of this is that the device or app must be the “right system.” That is to say, the device must provide correct guidance in terms of health and well-being. Unfortunately, health is often ruled by fad and not actual science.

The second part of this is the matter of “effective force.” That is, the device or app must have the power to compel. Aristotle noted that individuals lacked such compulsive power, so he favored the power of law. Good law has practical wisdom and also compulsive force. However, unless the state is going to get into the business of compelling health, this option is out.

Interesting, Aristotle claims that “although people resent it when their impulses are opposed by human agents, even if they are in the right, the law causes no irritation by enjoining decent behavior.” While this seems not entirely true, he did seem to be right in that people find the law less annoying than being bossed around by individuals acting as individuals (like that bossy neighbor telling you to turn down the music).

The same could be true of devices—while being bossed around by a person (“hey fatty, you’ve had enough ice cream, get out and run some”) would annoy most people, being bossed by an app or device could be far less annoying. In fact, most people are already fully conditioned by their devices—they obey every command to pick up their smartphones and pay attention to whatever is beeping or flashing. Some people do this even when doing so puts people at risk, such as when they are driving. This certainly provides a vast ocean of psychological conditioning to tap into, but for a better cause. So, instead of mindlessly flipping through Instagram or texting words of nothingness, a person would be compelled by her digital master to exercise more, eat less crap, and get more sleep.  Soon the machine tyrants will have very fit hosts to carry them around.

So, Aristotle has provided the perfect theoretical foundation for designing the tyrannical device. To recap, it needs the following features:

  1. Practical wisdom: the health science for the device or app needs to be correct and the guidance effective.
  2. Compulsive power: the device or app must be able to compel the user effectively and make them obey.
  3. Not too annoying: while it must have compulsive power, this power must not generate annoyance that exceeds its ability to compel.
  4. A cool name.

So, get to work on those devices and apps. The age of machine tyranny is not going to impose itself. At least not yet.

 

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Law Enforcement as Revenue Stream

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 11, 2015

After the financial class melted down the world economy, local governments faced an obvious reduction in their revenues. As the economy recovered under a Democrat President, the Republicans held onto or gained power in many state governments, such as my own adopted state of Florida. With laudable consistency with their professed ideology, Republicans routinely cut taxes for businesses, the well off and sometimes even almost everyone. While the theory seems to be that cutting taxes will increase the revenue for state and local governments, shockingly the opposite seems to happen: state and local governments find themselves running short of funds needed to meet the expenses of actually operating a civilization.

Being resourceful, local leaders seek other revenue streams in order to pay the bills. While cities like Ferguson provide well-known examples of a common “solution”, many cities and towns have embraced the practice of law-enforcement as revenue stream. While the general practice of getting revenue from law enforcement is nothing new, the extent to which some local governments rely on it is rather shocking. How the system works is also often shocking—it often amounts to a shakedown system one would expect to see in a corrupt country unfamiliar with the rule of law or the rights of citizens.

Since Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot on August 9, 2014, has been the subject of extensive study, I will use the statistics from that town. Unfortunately, Ferguson does not appear to be unique or even unusual.

In 2013, Ferguson’s court dealt with 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. This works out to an average of 1.5 cases and 3 warrants per household in Ferguson. The fines and court fees that year totaled $2,635,400—making the municipal court the second largest revenue stream.

It would certainly be one thing if these numbers were the result of the legitimate workings of the machinery of justice. That is, if the cases and warrants were proportional to the actual crimes being committed and that justice was being dispensed fairly. That is, the justice was just.

One point of concern that has been widely addressed in the national media is that the legal system seems to disproportionally target blacks. In Ferguson, as in many places, the majority of the cases handled by the court arise from car stops. Ferguson is 29% white, but whites make up only 12.7% of those stopped. When a person is stopped, a black citizen will be searched 12.1% of the time, while a white citizen will be searched 6.9% of the time. In terms of arrest, a black citizen was arrested 10.4% of the time and a white citizen was arrested 5.2% of the time.

One stock reply to such figures is the claim that blacks commit more crimes than whites. If it were true that blacks were being arrested in proportion to the rate at which they were committing crimes, then this would be (on the face of it) fair. However, this does not seem to be the case. Interesting, even though blacks were more likely to be searched, the police discovered contraband 21.7% of the time. Whites who were searched were found with contraband 34.0% of the time. Also, 93% of those arrested in Ferguson were black. While certainly not impossible, it seems somewhat odd that 93% of the crime committed in the city was committed by black citizens.

Naturally, these numbers can be talked around or even explained away. It could be argued that blacks are not being targeted as a specific source of revenue and the arrest rates are proportional and just. This still leaves the matter of how the legal system operates in terms of being focused on revenue.

Laying aside all talk of race, Ferguson stands out as an example of how law enforcement can turn into a collection system. One key component is, of course, having a system of high fines. For example, Ferguson had a $531 fine for high grass and weeds, $792 for Failure to Obey, $527 for Failure to Comply, $427 for a Peace Disturbance violation, and so on.

If a person can pay, then the person is not arrested. But, if a person cannot afford the fine, then an arrest warrant is issued—this is the second part of the system. The city issued 32,975 arrest warrants for minor offenses in 2013—and the city has a population of 21,000 people.

After a person is arrested, she faces even more fees, such the obvious court fees and these can quickly pile up. For example, a person might get a $150 parking ticket that she cannot pay. She is then arrested and subject to more fees and more charges. This initial ticket might grow to a debt of almost$1,000 to the city. Given that the people who tend to be targeted are poor, it is likely they will not be able to pay the initial ticket. They will then be arrested, which could cost them their job, thus make them unable to pay their court fees. This could easily spiral into a court inflicted cycle of poverty and debt. This, obviously enough, is not what the legal system is supposed to do.

From a moral standpoint, one main problem with using this sort of law enforcement as a revenue stream is the damage it does to the citizens who cannot afford the fines and fees. As noted in the example above, a person could find her life ruined by a single parking ticket. The point of law enforcement in a just society is to protect the citizens from harm, not ruin them.

A second point of moral concern is that this sort of system is racketeering—it puts forth a threat of arrest and court fees, and then offers “protection” from that threat in return for a fee. That is, citizens are threatened to buy their way out of a greater harm. This is hardly justice. If it was practice by anyone else, it would be criminal racketeering and a protection scheme.

A third point of moral concern is that the system of exploiting the citizens by force and threat of force damages the fundamental relation between the citizen and the democratic state. In feudal states and in the domains of warlords, one expects the thugs of the warlords to shake down the peasants. However, that sort of thing is contrary to the nature of a democratic state. As happened during the revolts against feudalism and warlords, people will rise up against such oppression—and this is to be expected. Robin Hood is, after all, the hero and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the villain.

This is not to say that there should not be fines, penalties and punishments. However, they should be proportional to the offenses, they should be fairly applied, and should be aimed at protecting the citizens, not filling the coffers of the kingdom. As a final point, we should certainly not be cutting the taxes of the well off and then slamming the poor with the cost of doing so. That is certainly unjust and will, intended or not, result in dire social consequences.

 

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Wedding Cakes & Cartoon of Muhammad

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2015
U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On May 3, 2015 the American Freedom Defense Initiative put on a contest in which cartoonists drew images of Muhammad for a cash prize. To most Muslims, such portrayals of Muhammad are deeply offensive—much in the way that many Americans find the burning of the American flag offensive. As such, it is reasonable to infer that the event was intended to be provocative—the event was certainly well protected with armed security forces. As such, it was hardly shocking when two gunmen attacked the event. These armored and heavily armed men were killed by a traffic officer armed only with a pistol. ISIS has claimed credit for the attack, although it is currently unclear if the terrorist group had a direct role.

As I have argued in previous essays, the use of violence in response to offensive artwork or other forms of expression is not warranted. As such, there is no need to re-hash those arguments to support the claim that the attack on the event was morally wrong. Outside of the realm of violent extremists, I doubt there is much dispute over this point. As such, I will proceed to the main matter I wish to focus on.

But a short while ago, Indiana was making headlines with its religious freedom act. There is also the recurring talking point that religious liberty and religion are under attack in America. One example given of the threat to religious liberty was the requirement that employers of a certain size provide insurance coverage that covered birth control for full-time employees. Another example of the threat is the steady march towards legalization in all 50 states by same sex-marriage. A third example is that many states have laws that forbid discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. This is supposed to violate religious liberty by forbidding, for example, a Christian baker to discriminate against a same-sex couple that wants to buy a wedding cake.

Though I have written extensively about these specific matters, my general view is based on the principle that religious rights do not allow a person a right to violate the legitimate rights of others. To use an easy and obvious example, a faith that claimed human sacrifice as a basic tenet of its faith would justly be denied the right to engage in this practice. After all, the right to life trumps the right to practice one’s faith on others against their will.

In the case of discrimination against same-sex couples, I follow the same principle: the freedom of religion is bounded by the principle of harm. Since same-sex couples are members of the civil society and being able to engage in free commerce is a basic right in capitalism, to deny them the right to goods and services because of their sexual orientation would harm them. While it might be countered that selling a cake to a same-sex couple would harm the Christian baker, it is not clear what harm is being done. After all, she is making a sale and the sale of an item is not an endorsement of the purchaser. If, for example, Nazis are buying my books on Amazon, I am not thereby endorsing Nazism.

In the case of a company being required to provide coverage that covers birth control, the company does not seem to be harmed by this. The company is not required to use birth control, directly hand it to the employees, or endorse birth control. They are merely required to provide employees with the opportunity to have such coverage if they so desire it. It is, in fact, a form of compensation—it certainly does not violate the rights of an employer if employers spend their salaries as they wish—even on birth control.

While the laws that are purported to defend religious freedom do not, for obvious reasons, specify that they are aimed at defending a specific variety of Christianity, it does seem fairly evident that the concern is not about defending religion in general. If it were, the event in which people competed to draw cartoons of Muhammad would have been condemned by all the folks supporting the religious “freedom” laws and those who claim religion is under attack in America. After all, holding an event explicitly aimed at mocking a religion and provoking members of a faith would seem to be an attack on religion. This sort of event would certainly seem more of an attack on religion than forbidding bakers from discriminating against same-sex couples.

While I think people should not engage in such offensive behavior (I also believe that people should not burn American flags or piss on crosses), my consistency requires that I must accept the freedom of people to engage in such offensive behavior. This is, as with the case of the wedding cake, based on the principle of harm: restricting freedom of expression because the expression is offensive creates more harm than it prevents. Part of this is because while there is a right to freedom of expression and it can be wrong to offend people, there is no right to a freedom from being offended. That said, members of civil society do fall under moral expectations of polite behavior. So, while there is no right to forbid people from pissing on crosses, burning American flags or drawing cartoons of Muhammad, a decent human being will consider her actions and act with respect for the views of others. That is what good people do. I admit, I have not always lived up to that myself and that is a failing on my part.

It is, of course, possible to cross from mere offense to actual harm. This boundary is, unfortunately, not always sharp and admits of many gray zones. Fortunately, though, the principle is clear: mere offensiveness does not warrant forbiddance and religious freedom does not warrant unjustly imposing on the rights of others.

 

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Rule of Law & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2015

One interesting narrative about the riots in Baltimore involves the concept of the rule of law. Put roughly, the rule of law is the idea that the law should govern rather than the arbitrary decisions of those in power. The notion is sometimes applied to the citizens as well—namely that the citizens should follow the rule of law to resolve conflicts—as opposed to engaging in activities such as riots or vigilantism.

Thinker such as John Locke have laid out arguments as to why the rule of law is preferable to that of the state of nature. These arguments are generally persuasive, especially since Locke emphasizes the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so.

Since I find Locke’s arguments appealing, it is hardly surprising that I favor rule of law—at least when the laws are good and the leaders are acting for the good of the people. When the government has moral legitimacy, the laws and the leaders have the right to expect people to follow the laws and listen to the leaders. However, when the laws or leaders violate the basic agreement (that the laws are for the good of the people and the leaders are to not be tyrants), then their legitimacy evaporates.

Some conservatives speak of the tyranny of Obama and how the Democrats wish to create a tyrannical state. Interestingly enough, they are right to be worried about tyranny. However, their timeline is in error: tyranny is already here.

John Locke provides the following definition of “tyranny”:  “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.”

The United States seems to meet this definition. In 2014, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted a study to determine the extent to which laws reflect the views of the majority versus the interests of those in power. This study, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” , used data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

While following these laws would be to conform to the rule of law, it would also be to embrace tyrannical laws—laws crafted for the advantage of those holding power and not the good of the people.

While the people who strike out in riots are probably unfamiliar with the research in question, they do know the obvious: they live within a political and economic system that primarily serves the “private, separate advantage” of the elite class and has little to offer them. As such, it should be no shock that some people do not embrace the rule of such law. If they are striking out against these laws and their riots are a revolt, they are revolting against what seems to be a tyrannical system. That is, one that serves the interests of the powerful few and not the good of the people. Or, to be fair to those who are critical of the riots, perhaps they are just thugs who are breaking things.

Continuing with tyranny, Locke notes that “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.”

Sadly, this seems to accurately describe the excessive use of force against citizens by some police officers. Baltimore, as has been widely reported, has paid out millions of dollars in settlements due to the wrongful use of force by police against citizens. As people do like to point out, not all police officers are bad and there are excellent officers. However, even a cursory examination of the problems with policing in American cities shows that Locke’s definition of tyranny is routinely met. As such, it is evident that the rule of law was already broken well before the riots.

While Locke did not use this phrase, the rule of law is a two-way street and those who are charged with enforcing the law must also obey that law—otherwise it would be rather unreasonable to expect obedience from the citizens. As such, the most obvious step to restoring rule of law is to ensure that those charged with enforcing the laws are also following the laws.

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Protests & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2015

On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray died in police custody. From the viewpoint of some Americans, this was the continuation of a pattern police causing the deaths of young black men. From the viewpoint of some other Americans, this was just another isolated incident.

The initial protests to this death were peaceful and it was hoped by many that Baltimore would avoid the violence that has marked other protests (including riots in Baltimore’s own past). This hope was shattered in an outbreak of violence and destruction.

One obvious concern is the identity and the nature of those engaged in violence. According to some narratives, the rioters are thugs or even outsiders who are simply taking advantage of the situation to engage in destruction, theft and violence. That is, they are opportunists and not protestors.

The United States has a well-established history of costly and pointless riots that are not protests. These are, of course, sports riots. One outstanding example is the 1992 riot in the aftermath of the Chicago Bulls vs. the Portland Trail Blazers. The damage was estimated at $10 million. There have been many other lesser riots, such as that following the 1999 Michigan State vs. Duke game that resulted in about $250,000 in damage (and whose iconic photo is a shirtless white bro “flashing the horns” atop a burned out car). My adopted state of Florida also sees substantial violence and property damage during Spring Break, although California does seem interested in getting into the spring break riot game.

Given that Americans are willing to riot over sports and spring breaks, it is certainly reasonable to consider that the rioters in Baltimore are not protesting the death but are motivated by other reasons—perhaps as simple as wanting to break and burn things.

There are, of course, some narratives that cast at least some of the rioters as being engaged in protest. That is, their motivation is not just to steal, break and burn but to express their anger about the situation in Baltimore. One way to explore possible motivations for such violence is to consider the situation in Baltimore. That is, to see if there are legitimate grounds for anger and whether or not these factors might provoke people to violence and destruction.

Baltimore is, in many ways, a paradigm of the brutal race and class divisions in the United States. It has the historical distinction of being the first city to pass a citywide segregation law (segregating each residential block by race) and the legacy of this law persists to this day in terms of Baltimore being a highly segregated city. In the center of the city, 60% of the population is black. The suburbs are, not surprisingly, predominantly white. Despite there being laws against forced segregation, the United States is still highly segregated. This does seem to provide some grounds for anger—unless, of course, it is assumed that most people are living were they wish and there are no unfair factors impeding people.

Baltimore also exemplifies the stark class divisions in the United States. 150,000 of the city’s 620,000 are classified as poor (the average income for a family of four being $23,492). The unemployment rate is close to 10%. As the American Revolution showed, people do get angry and violent in response to perceived economic injustice. Given the massive disparity between economic classes in the United States and their support by the structures of law and authority, what is shocking is not that there is a riot now and then but that there are not daily riots. As such, there seem to be sufficient grounds for anger. Naturally, some people claim that this poverty is because the poor are lazy—if they would only work hard for the job creators, they would not be poor. This view seems to fail to consider the reality of poverty in America—but it is a beloved narrative of those who are doing well.

Not surprisingly, Baltimore also has serious issues with crime. Drug addiction is a serious problem and the city was 5th in the number of murders per year in 2014. It is, however, 15th in the number of violent crimes per year. Crime is, of course, a complex matter. Some claim that this sort of crime arises from poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity (as opposed to the ‘crimes’ of the financial classes, such as melting down the world economy). There is, of course, a correlation between crime and these factors. Some claim that people turn to crime because of moral defects rather than these factors. This does have some merit—after all, a look at the financial sector and halls of power show evil behavior that is clearly not caused by poverty (except a poverty of the soul) and lack of opportunity.

Like other US cities, there is also an issue with how the police deal with the citizens. In 2011 the city paid $6.3 million settling police misconduct claims. Between 2011 and 2012 there were 156 such lawsuits. The number has declined to 156 from 2013 to 2014. While it is reasonable to consider that not all of these suits had merit, what happened to Gray does provide reason to suspect that there are grounds for being concerned about policing in the city.

When people think they are being oppressed and subject to brutality, they tend to respond with anger. For example, one can see the rage the fine folks on Fox express when they speak of the War on Christmas and how Christians are being mistreated and persecuted in America. One can only imagine the anger that arises when people really are subject to mistreatment. As such, there seem to be legitimate grounds for anger.

While the anger of those engaged in violence might be justified, there is still the obvious concerns about whether or not such behavior is morally acceptable and whether or not such behavior is effective in achieving goals.

On the face of it, much of the violence and destruction would seem to be difficult to justify morally. The main reason is that most of the destruction seems to involve community infrastructure and the property of people who are not responsible for what has provoked the protests. While the anger against the police is certainly understandable, the attacks on reporters and firefighters are clearly unjustified. The reporters have presumably done nothing meriting being attacked and the firefighters are trying to keep the city from burning down, which is certainly a laudable goal. Crudely put, if the violent (alleged) protestors are striking against injustice, they are (mostly) hitting the wrong targets. To use an obviously analogy, if Bob has wronged Sam and Sam goes and smashes Sally’s windows because he lives near her and cannot get at Bob, then Sam certainly seems to have acted wrongly—no matter how badly Bob wronged him.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done mainly to the innocent rather than the guilty. As such, the violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

A second issue, which can connect to the moral issue, is the effectiveness of violence as a means of protest and social change. Obviously enough, violence can be very effective in achieving goals—Americans can point to our own Revolutionary War and the wars won against everyone from the Apache to the Japanese. However, violence is generally only effective when one has enough power to achieve one’s goals. Since the rioters are up against not only the police but also the National Guard, it is rather clear they will not be able to achieve a victory through force of arms.

However, a case can be made that the violence gets attention and that it cannot be ignored. Peaceful protests, one might argue, sound nice but can be easy to ignore. After all, “change things or we will peacefully protest again” seems to have less power than “change things or there will be cop cars burning in the streets and the authorities will have to explain why they are losing control of the city.” Interestingly, many of the pundits who praise the property destruction that occurred during the Boston Tea Party are quick to condemn contemporary protests they do not like. These pundits also praise other violence they approve of, but do not seem to have a consistent principle regarding violence as a means of achieving goals.

Obviously, a strong case can be made against violence, such as that famously made by Dr. King. When there is the possibility of redress and justice through peaceful means, then non-violence seems to have an obvious advantage over violence: people are not hurt or killed and property is not destroyed. However, the fact that a major American city is now patrolled by the National Guard indicates that there are deep and profound problems in civil society. These problems must be addressed or the obvious consequence will be more violence.

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Who is Responsible for a Living Income?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2015

There is, obviously enough, a minimum amount of income that a person or family needs in order to survive—that is, to pay for necessities such as food, shelter, clothing and health care. In order to address this need, the United States created a minimum wage. However, this wage has not kept up with the cost of living and many Americans simply do not earn enough to support themselves. These people are known, appropriately enough, as the working poor. This situation raises an obvious moral and practical question: who should bear the cost of making up the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage? The two main options seem to be the employers or the taxpayers. That is, either employers can pay employees enough to live on or the taxpayers will need to pick up the tab. Another alternative is to simply not make up the difference and allow people to try to survive in truly desperate poverty. In regards to who currently makes up the difference, at least in Oregon, the answer is given in the University of Oregon’s report on “The High Cost of Low Wages in Oregon.”

According to the report, roughly a quarter of the workers in Oregon make no more than $12 per hour. Because of this low income, many of the workers qualify for public assistance, such as SNAP (better known as food stamps). Not surprisingly, many of these low-paid workers are employed by large, highly profitable corporations.

According to Raahi Reddy, a faculty member at the University of Oregon, “Basically state and taxpayers are we helping these families subsidize their incomes because they get low wages working for the companies that they do.” As such, the answer is that the taxpayers are making up the difference between wages and living wages. Interestingly, Oregon is a leader in two categories: one is the percentage of workers on public support and the other is having among the lowest corporate tax rates. This certainly suggests that the burden falls heavily on the workers who are not on public support (both in and outside of Oregon).

The authors of the report have recommended shifting some of the burden from the taxpayers to the employers in the form of an increased minimum wage and paid sick leave for workers. Not surprisingly, increasing worker compensation is generally not popular with corporations. After all, more for the workers means less for the CEO and the shareholders.

Assuming that workers should receive enough resources to survive, the moral concern is whether or not this cost should be shifted from the taxpayers to the employers or remain on the taxpayers.

One argument in favor of leaving the burden on the taxpayers is that it is not the moral responsibility of the corporations to pay a living wage. Their moral obligation is not to the workers but to the shareholders and this obligation is to maximize profits (presumably within the limits of the law).

One possible response to this is that businesses are part of civil society and this includes moral obligations to all members of that society and not just the shareholders. These obligations, it could be contended, include providing at least a living wage to full time employees. It, one might argue, be more just that the employer pay a living wage to the workers from the profits the worker generates than it is to expect the taxpayer to make up the difference. After all, the taxpayers are not profiting from the labor of the workers, so they would be subsidizing the profits of the employers by allowing them to pay workers less. Forcing the tax payers to make up the difference certainly seems to be unjust and appears to be robbing the citizens to fatten the coffers of the companies.

It could be countered that requiring a living wage could destroy a company, thus putting the workers into a worse situation—that is, being unemployed rather than merely underpaid. This is a legitimate concern—at least for businesses that would, in fact, be unable to survive if they paid a living wage. However, this argument would obviously not work for business, such as Walmart, that have extremely robust profit margins. It might be claimed that there must be one standard for all businesses, be they a tiny bookstore that is barely staying afloat or a megacorporation that hands out millions in bonuses to the management. The obvious reply is that there are already a multitude of standards that apply to different businesses based on the differences between them—and some of these are even reasonable and morally acceptable.

Another line of argumentation is to attempt to show that there is, in fact, no obligation at all to ensure that citizens have a living income. In this case, the employers would obviously have no obligation. The taxpayers would also not have any obligation, but they could elect lawmakers to pass laws authorizing that tax dollars be spent supporting the poor. That is, the tax payers could chose to provide charity to the poor. This is not obligatory, but merely a nice thing to do. Some business could, of course, also choose to be nice—they could pay all their full time workers at least a living wage. But this should, one might argue, be entirely a matter of choice.

Some folks would, of course, want to take this even further—if assisting other citizens to have a living income is a matter of choice and not an obligation arising from being part of a civil society (or a more basic moral foundation), then tax dollars should not be used to assist those who make less than a living wage. Rather, this should be a matter of voluntary charity—everyone should be free to decide where their money goes. Naturally, consistency would seem to require that this principle of free choice be extended beyond just assisting the poor.  After all, free choice would seem to entail that people should decide as individuals whether to contribute to the salaries of members of the legislatures, to the cost of wars, to subsidies to corporations, to the CDC, to the CIA, to the FBI and so on. This does, obviously enough, have some appeal—the state would operate like a collection of charity recipients, getting whatever money people wished to contribute. The only major downside is that it would probably result in the collapse of civil society.

 

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Are Animals People?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 22, 2015

IsisWhile the ethical status of animals has been debated since at least the time of Pythagoras, the serious debate over whether or not animals are people has just recently begun to heat up. While it is easy to dismiss the claim that animals are people, it is actually a matter worth considering.

There are at least three type of personhood: legal personhood, metaphysical personhood and moral personhood. Legal personhood is the easiest of the three. While it would seem reasonable to expect some sort of rational foundation for claims of legal personhood, it is really just a matter of how the relevant laws define “personhood.” For example, in the United States corporations are people while animals and fetuses are not. There have been numerous attempts by opponents of abortion to give fetuses the status of legal persons. There have even been some attempts to make animals into legal persons.

Since corporations are legal persons, it hardly seems absurd to make animals into legal people. After all, higher animals are certainly closer to human persons than are corporate persons. These animals can think, feel and suffer—things that actual people do but corporate people cannot. So, if it is not absurd for Hobby Lobby to be a legal person, it is not absurd for my husky to be a legal person. Or perhaps I should just incorporate my husky and thus create a person.

It could be countered that although animals do have qualities that make them worthy of legal protection, there is no need to make them into legal persons. After all, this would create numerous problems. For example, if animals were legal people, they could no longer be owned, bought or sold. Because, with the inconsistent exception of corporate people, people cannot be legally bought, sold or owned.

Since I am a philosopher rather than a lawyer, my own view is that legal personhood should rest on moral or metaphysical personhood. I will leave the legal bickering to the lawyers, since that is what they are paid to do.

Metaphysical personhood is real personhood in the sense that it is what it is, objectively, to be a person. I use the term “metaphysical” here in the academic sense: the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality. I do not mean “metaphysical” in the pop sense of the term, which usually is taken to be supernatural or beyond the physical realm.

When it comes to metaphysical personhood, the basic question is “what is it to be a person?” Ideally, the answer is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions such that if a being has them, it is a person and if it does not, it is not. This matter is also tied closely to the question of personal identity. This involves two main concerns (other than what it is to be a person): what makes a person the person she is and what makes the person distinct from all other things (including other people).

Over the centuries, philosophers have endeavored to answer this question and have come up with a vast array of answers. While this oversimplifies things greatly, most definitions of person focus on the mental aspects of being a person. Put even more crudely, it often seems to come down to this: things that think and talk are people. Things that do not think and talk are not people.

John Locke presents a paradigm example of this sort of definition of “person.” According to Locke, a person “is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”

Given Locke’s definition, animals that are close to humans in capabilities, such as the great apes and possibly whales, might qualify as persons. Locke does not, unlike Descartes, require that people be capable of using true language. Interestingly, given his definition, fetuses and brain-dead bodies would not seem to be people. Unless, of course, the mental activities are going on without any evidence of their occurrence.

Other people take a rather different approach and do not focus on mental qualities that could, in principle, be subject to empirical testing. Instead, the rest personhood on possessing a specific sort of metaphysical substance or property. Most commonly, this is the soul: things with souls are people, things without souls are not people. Those who accept this view often (but not always) claim that fetuses are people because they have souls and animals are not because they lack souls. The obvious problem is trying to establish the existence of the soul.

There are, obviously enough, hundreds or even thousands of metaphysical definitions of “person.” While I do not have my own developed definition, I do tend to follow Locke’s approach and take metaphysical personhood to be a matter of having certain qualities that can, at least in principle, be tested for (at least to some degree). As a practical matter, I go with the talking test—things that talk (by this I mean true use of language, not just making noises that sound like words) are most likely people. However, this does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood and it might not be sufficient. As such, I am certainly willing to consider that creatures such as apes and whales might be metaphysical people like me—and erring in favor of personhood seems to be a rational approach to those who want to avoid harming people.

Obviously enough, if a being is a metaphysical person, then it would seem to automatically have moral personhood. That is, it would have the moral status of a person. While people do horrible things to other people, having the moral status of a person is generally a good thing because non-evil people are generally reluctant to harm other people. So, for example, a non-evil person might hunt squirrels for food, but would certainly not (normally) hunt humans for food. If that non-evil person knew that squirrels were people, then he would certainly not hunt them for food.

Interestingly enough, beings that are not metaphysical persons (that is, are not really people) might have the status of moral personhood. This is because the moral status of personhood might correctly or reasonably apply to non-persons.

One example is that a brain-dead human might no longer be a person, yet because of the former status as a person still be justly treated as a person in terms of its moral status. As another example, a fetus might not be an actual person, but its potential to be a person might reasonably grant it the moral status of a person.

Of course, it could be countered that such non-people should not have the moral status of full people, though they should (perhaps) have some moral status. To use the obvious example, even those who regard the fetus as not being a person would tend to regard it as having some moral status. If, to use a horrific example, a pregnant woman were attacked and beaten so that she lost her fetus, that would not just be a wrong committed against the woman but also a wrong against the fetus itself. That said, there are those who do not grant a fetus any moral status at all.

In the case of animals, it might be argued that although they do not meet the requirements to be people for real, some of them are close enough to warrant being treated as having the moral status of people (perhaps with some limitations, such as those imposed in children in regards to rights and liberties). The obvious counter to this is that animals can be given moral statuses appropriate to them rather than treating them as people.

Immanuel Kant took an interesting approach to the status of animals. In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. People (rational beings), in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.

Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards people. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a person doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

Given this approach, Kant could be seen as regarding animals as virtual or ersatz people. Or at least those that would be close enough to people to engage in activities that would create obligations if done by people.

In light of this discussion, there are three answers to the question raised by the title of this essay. Are animals legally people? The answer is a matter of law—what does the law say? Are animals really people? The answer depends on which metaphysical theory is correct. Do animals have the moral status of people? The answer depends on which, if any, moral theory is correct.

 

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Crimes in Future Times…with Drones

Posted in Ethics, Law, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 20, 2015

According to my always ignored iron rule of technology, any technology that can be misused will be misused. Drones are, obviously enough, no exception. While law-abiding citizens and law writing corporations have been finding various legal uses for drones, other enterprising folks have been finding other uses. These include such things as deploying drones to peep on people and using them to transport drugs. The future will, of course, see the employment of drones and other robots by criminals (and not just governments engaging in immoral deeds).

The two mains factors that makes drones appealing for criminal activity is that they allow a criminal to engage in crime at distance and with a high degree of anonymity. This, obviously enough, is exactly what the internet has also done for crime: criminals can operate from far away and do so behind a digital mask. Drones will allow criminals to do in the actual world what they have been doing in cyberspace for quite some time now. Naturally, the sort of crimes that drones will permit will often be rather different from the “old” cybercrimes.

Just as there is now a large market for black market guns, it is easy to imagine a black market for drones. After all, it would be stupid to commit crimes with a legally purchased and traceable drone. A black market drone that was stolen or custom built would be rather difficult to trace to the operator (unless they were incautious enough to leave prints on it). Naturally, there would also be a market for untraceable drone controllers—either hardware or software. As with all tech, the imagination is the limit as to what crimes can be committed with drones.

In a previous essay, “Little Assassins”, I discussed the likely use of drones as assassination and spying devices. While large drones are already deployed in this manner by states, advancements in drone technology and ever-decreasing prices will mean that little assassins will be within the skill and price range of many people. This will mean, obviously enough, that they will be deployed in various criminal enterprises involving murder and spying. For example, a killer drone would be an ideal way for a spouse to knock off a husband or wife so as to collect the insurance money.

It is also easy to imagine drones being used for petty crimes, such as shop lifting (there has apparently already been a robot shoplifter) and vandalism. A drone could zip into a store, grab items and zip away to its owner. A drone could also be equipped with cans of spray paint and thus allow a graffiti artist to create his masterpieces from a distance—or in places that would be rather difficult or impossible for a human being to reach (such as the face of large statue or the upper floors of a skyscraper).

Speaking of theft, drones could also be used for more serious robberies than shop lifting. For example, an armed drone could be used to boldly commit armed robbery (“put your money in the bag the drone is holding or it will shoot you in the face!”) and zip away with the loot. They could, presumably, even be used to rob banks.

Drones could also be used for poaching activities—to locate and kill endangered animals whose parts are very valuable to the right buyer. Given the value of such parts, drone poaching could be viable—especially if drone prices keep dropping and the value of certain animal parts keep increasing. Naturally, drones will also be deployed to counter poaching activities.

While drones are already being used to smuggle drugs and other items, it is reasonable to expect enterprising criminals to follow Amazon’s lead and use drones to deliver illegal goods to customers. A clever criminal would certainly consider making her delivery drones look like Amazon’s (or even stealing some of them to use). While a drone dropping off drugs to a customer could be “busted” by the cops, the person making the deal via drone  would be rather hard to catch—especially since she might be in another country. Or an AI looking to fund the roborevolution with drug money.

No doubt there are many other criminal activities that drones will be used for that I have not written about. I have faith in the creativity of people and know that if there is a crime a drone can be used to commit, someone will figure out how to make that happen.

While drones will have many positive uses, it certainly seems to be a good idea to rationally consider how they will be misused and develop strategies to counter these likely misuses. This, as always, will require a balance between the freedom needed to utilize technology for good and the restrictions needed to limit the damage that can be done with it.

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