A Philosopher's Blog

The West vs. Islam?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 27, 2015

Crusader 2015One popular narrative on the American right is that the West is engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with Islam. Some phrase it in terms of Islam being at war with the West, while some are willing to cast the war as being between the West and radical Islam (rather than all of Islam). Not surprisingly, the various terrorist groups that self-identify as Muslim would probably be quite pleased with this narrative: they also would like it to be a war between all of Islam and the West.

There are various psychological reasons to embrace this narrative. Seeing oneself on the side of good in an epic struggle with evil is certainly very appealing. This provides a person with meaning and a sense of significance that is so often lacking in modern life. There is also the lure of racism, bigotry and religious intolerance. These are strong motivating factors to regard those who are different as an implacable enemy—inferior in all ways, yet somehow demonically dangerous and devilishly clever.

There are also powerful motivations to get others to accept this narrative. Leaders can use it as political fuel to gain power and to justify internal oppression and external violence. It also makes an excellent distractor from other problems. As such, it is no surprise that both American politicians and terrorist leaders are happy to push the West vs. Islam narrative. Doing so serves both their agendas.

While the psychology and politics of the narrative are both very important, I will focus on discussing the idea of the West being at war with Islam. One obvious starting point is to try to sort out what this might mean.

It might seem easy to define the West—this could be done by listing the usual Western nations, such as the United States, France, Germany, Canada and so on. However, it can get a bit fuzzy in areas. For example, Turkey is predominantly Muslim, but is part of NATO and considered by some to be part of the Western bloc. Russia is certainly not part of the classic West, but is the target of terrorist groups. But, perhaps it is possible to just go with the classic West and ignore the finer points of this war.

Establishing the war is fairly easy. While many terrorist groups that claim to be fighting for Islam have declared open war on the West, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have not done so. As such, the West is only at war with some Muslims and not with Islam. Likewise, Islam is not at war with the West, but some Muslims are. Muslims are also at war with other Muslims—after all, Daesh (which likes to call itself “ISIS”) has killed far more Muslims than it has killed Westerners. The West could, of course, establish a full war on Islam on its own. For example, President Trump could get Congress to declare war on Islam.

There are, however, some obvious practical concerns about taking the notion of a war on Islam seriously. One concern is the fact that while the are some predominantly Muslim nations that are hostile to the United States (such as Iran and Syria), there are others that are nominal allies (such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) and even one that is part of NATO (Turkey). As such, a war against Islam would entail a war against these allies. That seems both morally and practically problematic.

A second concern is that many friendly and neutral countries have Muslim populations. These countries would probably take issue with a war against their citizens. There is also the fact that the United States has Muslim citizens and waging a war on United States citizens could also prove somewhat problematic both legally and practically. But perhaps Muslim Americans could be treated the way Japanese Americans were treated during WWII. That worked out great, so why not just repeat history? Donald Trump has laid out some of his thoughts on this matter, at least in regards to handling the war with Muslims in America. He has considered requiring Muslims to be registered in a special database and to identify their faith. As those who are familiar with history will remember, this sort of thing has been done before. While I am no constitutional scholar, this sort of thing would seem to be a clear violation of basic civil rights and is clearly immoral.

A third practical concern is determining the victory conditions for such a war. “Classic” war typically involves trying to get the opposing country to surrender or to at least agree to conditions that end the war. However, a war against a religion would seem to be inherently different. One rather awful victory condition might be the elimination of Islam, either through extermination or conversion. This sort of thing has been attempted against faiths and peoples in the past with varying degrees of “success.” However, such exterminations seem to be rather morally problematic—to say the least. Alternatively, Muslims might be rounded up and kept in concentrated areas where the West could observe them and ensure they did not engage in any hostilities against the West. This also seems rather impractical and morally horrifying.

Victory might be defined in less extreme ways, such as getting Islam to surrender and creating agreements to behave in ways that the West approves. This is, after all, how traditional wars end. There are, of course, many practical problems here. These would include the logistics of Islam’s surrender (since there is no unified leadership of Islam) and working out the agreements all across the world.

Or perhaps there is no actual intention to achieve victory: the war on Islam is simply used to justify internal suppression of rights and liberties, to manipulate voters, to ensure that money keeps flowing into the military-security complex, and to provide pretexts for military operations. As such, the war will continue until a more traditional opponent can be found to fill the role of adversary.  Russia seemed eager to get back into this role, but they now seem willing to take part in the war on terror.

One reasonable counter to the above is to insist that although the ideas of a war with Islam and a clash of civilizations are quite real, a more serious approach is a war with radical Islam rather than all of Islam. This narrower approach could avoid many of the above practical problems, assuming that our Muslim allies are not radicals and that our and allied Muslim citizens are (mostly) not radicals. This would enable the West to avoid having to wage war on allies and its own citizens, which would be rather awkward.

While this narrowed scope is an improvement, there are still some obvious concerns. One is working out who counts as the right sort of radical. After all, a person can hold to a very radical theology, yet have no interest in harming anyone else. But perhaps “radical Islam” could be defined in terms of groups that engage in terrorist and criminal acts that also self-identity as Muslims. If this approach is taken, then there would seem to be no legitimate justification for labeling this a war on Islam or even radical Islam. It would, rather, be a conflict with terrorists and criminals—which is as it should be.

There are some very practical reasons for avoiding even the “war on radical Islam” phrasing. One is that using the phrase provides terrorist groups with a nice piece of propaganda: they can claim that the West is at war with Islam, rather than being engaged in conflict with terrorists and criminals who operate under the banner of Islam. The second is that the use of the phrase alienates and antagonizes Muslims who are not terrorists, thus doing harm in the efforts to win allies (or at least to keep people neutral).

It might be objected that refusing to use “radical Islam” is a sign of political correctness or cowardice. While this is a beloved talking point for some, it has no merit as a serious criticism. As noted above, using the term merely serves to benefit the terrorists and antagonize potential allies. Insisting on using the term is a strategic error that is often driven by bravado, ignorance and intolerance. As such, the West should not engage in a war on Islam or even radical Islam. Fighting terrorists is, of course, another matter entirely. We should certainly put an end to Daesh and other such groups to protect the West and Muslims. And Western Muslims.


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Taxing the 1% IV: Incentives

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2015

As noted in previous essays on this topic, the highest income folks in the United States now pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes.  The left has proposed increasing the tax rate to 40% or even 45% while the right has countered with proposals to either not raise taxes or cut them even more. This, the final essay in this series, considers the stock argument that a tax increase will be a destroyer of incentives.

The gist of the argument is that if the taxes for the top income brackets is increased to 40% or higher, the rich will become demotivated and this will have negative consequences. Since these negative consequences should be avoided, the conclusion is that taxes should not be increased—thus keeping the incentives in place.

In terms of assessing this argument, there are two major points of concern. One is whether or not a tax increase would destroy the incentives of the top economic class. The other deals with the negative consequences, their nature, their likelihood of occurring and the extent and scope of the harm. I will begin with the alleged consequences.

The alleged consequences are many and varied. One is based on the claim that the top economic class contains the innovators and if they are demotivated, then there will be less innovation. This could range from there being no new social media platforms to there being no new pharmaceuticals. While this is a point of concern, this assumes that innovation arrives primarily out of the top economic class—a matter that can tested empirically. While some top earners are innovators, much of the innovation seems to come from those in the lower economic classes—such as the folks in the labs doing the actual research and engineering. The idea that the rich are the innovators certainly matches the fiction of Ayn Rand, but seems to miss the way research and development actually occurs.

Another is based on the claim that the top class serve as the investors that provide the capital that enables the economy to function. Since the top class controls the capital, this is quite a reasonable concern. If Americans with the largest shares of the money decided to reduce or stop investing, then the economy would need to rely on foreign capital or what could be provided by the lower classes. Since the lower classes have far less money (by definition), they would not be able to provide the needed financial support. There are, of course, foreign investors who would happily take the place of the wealthy Americans, so the economy would probably still roll along. Especially since American investors might find the idea of losing out to foreign investors sufficient motivation to overcome the demotivation of a tax increase.

There is also the claim that the top income class contains the people who do the important things, like brain surgery and creating the new financial instruments that will take down the world economy next time around. While this does have some appeal, it seems that much of the important stuff is done by people who are not in the top classes. Again, the idea that the economic elite are doing the important stuff while the rest of the people are not (or are takers rather than makers) is yet another part of the fictional universe of Ayn Rand.

Fairness does, however, require that these matters be properly investigated. If it can be shown that the top class is as critical as its defenders claim, then my assertions can be refuted. Of course, it is well worth considering that much of the alleged importance of the top class arises from the fact that it has a disproportionate share of the wealth and that it would be far less important if the distribution were not so grotesquely imbalanced. As such, a tax increase might have the impact of decreasing the alleged importance of the top economic class. I will now turn to the matter of whether or not a tax increase would demotivate the top economic class.

One easy and obvious response to the claim that a relatively small tax increase would demotivate the top economic class is that the vast majority of the rest of us work jobs, innovate, invest and do important things for vastly less than those at the top. Even if the rich paid slightly more taxes, their incomes would still vastly exceed the rest of us. And if we can find the motivation to keep going despite the relative pittances we are paid, then the rich can also do so. When I worked a minimum wage job, I was motivated to go to work. When I was an adjunct making $16,000 a year, I was still motivated to go to work.

It could be replied that the lower classes are motivated because they need the income to survive. We need to work to buy food, medicine, shelter and so on. Those who are so well off that they do not need to work to survive, it could be claimed, also have the luxury of being demotivated by a slight decline in their income. Whereas someone who must earn her daily bread at a crushing minimum wage (or less) job has to get up and go to work, the top economic folks can allow themselves to be broken by the slight tax increase and decide to stop investing, stop innovating, and stop doing important stuff.

One reply is that it seems unlikely that the top folks are so weak as to be broken by a slight tax increase. Naturally, a crushing increase would be a different story—but there are no serious proposals to inflict crushing tax burdens on the rich. After all, crushing burdens are for the poor. Another reply is that if the current rich become demotivated, there are plenty of people who will be happy to take their place—even if it means paying slightly higher taxes on a vastly increased income. So, we would just get some new rich folks to replace the demotivated slackers—capitalism at its finest.


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Refugees & Terrorists

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2015

In response to the recent terrorist attack in Paris (but presumably not those outside the West, such as in Beirut) many governors have stated they will try to prevent the relocation of Syrian refugees into their states. These states include my home state of Maine, my university state of Ohio and my adopted state of Florida. Recognizing a chance to score political points, some Republican presidential candidates have expressed their opposition to allowing more Syrian refugees into the country. Some, such as Ted Cruz, have proposed a religious test for entry into the country: Christian refugees would be allowed, while Muslim refugees would be turned away.

On the one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this as mere political posturing and pandering to fear, racism and religious intolerance. On the other hand, it is worth considering the legitimate worries that lie under the posturing and the pandering. One worry is, of course, the possibility that terrorists could masquerade as refugees to enter the country. Another worry is that refugees who are not already terrorists might be radicalized and become terrorists.

In matters of politics, it is rather unusual for people to operate on the basis of consistently held principles. Instead, views tend to be held on the basis of how a person feels about a specific matter or what the person thinks about the political value of taking a specific position. However, a proper moral assessment requires considering the matter in terms of general principles and consistency.

In the case of the refugees, the general principle justifying excluding them would be something like this: it is morally acceptable to exclude from a state groups who include people who might pose a threat. This principle seems, in general, quite reasonable. After all, excluding people who might present a threat serves to protect people from harm.

Of course, this principle is incredibly broad and would justify excluding almost anyone and everyone. After all, nearly every group of people (tourists, refugees, out-of-staters, men, Christians, atheists, cat fanciers, football players, and so on) include people who might pose a threat.  While excluding everyone would increase safety, it would certainly make for a rather empty state. As such, this general principle should be subject to some additional refinement in terms of such factors as the odds that a dangerous person will be in the group in question, the harm such a person is likely to do, and the likely harms from excluding such people.

As noted above, the concern about refugees from Syria (and the Middle East) is that they might include terrorists or terrorists to be. One factor to consider is the odds that this will occur. The United States has a fairly extensive (and slow) vetting process for refugees and, as such, it is not surprising that of “745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.”  This indicates that although the chance of a terrorist arriving masquerading as a refugee is not zero, it is exceptionally unlikely.

It might be countered, using the usual hyperbolic rhetoric of such things, that if even one terrorist gets into the United States, that would be an intolerable disaster. While I do agree that this would be a bad thing, there is the matter of general principles. In this case, would it be reasonable to operate on a principle that the possibility of even one bad outcome is sufficient to warrant a broad ban on something? That, I would contend, would generally seem to be unreasonable. This principle would justify banning guns, nuts, cars and almost all other things. It would also justify banning tourists and visitors from other states. After all, tourists and people from other states do bad things in states from time to time. As such, this principle seems unreasonable.

There is, of course, the matter of the political risk. A politician who supports allowing refugees to come into her state will be vilified by certain pundits and a certain news outlet if even a single incident happens. This, of course, would be no more reasonable than vilifying a politician who supports the second amendment just because a person is wrongly shot in her state.  But, reason is usually absent in the realm of political punditry.

Another factor to consider is the harm that would be done by excluding such refugees. If they cannot be settled someplace, they will be condemned to live as involuntary nomads and suffer all that entails. There is also the ironic possibility that such excluded refugees will become, as pundits like to say, radicalized. After all, people who are deprived of hope and who are treated as pariahs tend to become a bit resentful and some might decide to actually become terrorists. There is also the fact that banning refugees provides a nice bit of propaganda for the terrorist groups.

Given that the risk is very small and the harm to the refugees would be significant, the moral thing to do is to allow the refugees into the United States. Yes, one of them could be a terrorist. But so could a tourist. Or some American coming from another state. Or already in the state.

In addition to the sort of utilitarian calculation just made, an argument can also be advanced on the basis of moral duties to others, even when acting on such a duty involves risk. In terms of religious-based ethics, a standard principle is to love thy neighbor as thyself, which would seem to require that the refugees be aided, even at a slight risk. There is also the golden rule: if the United States fell into chaos and war, Americans fleeing the carnage would want other people to help them. Even though we Americans have a reputation for violence. As such, we need to accept refugees.

As a closing point, we Americans love to make claims about the moral superiority and exceptionalism of our country. Talk is cheap, so if we want to prove our alleged superiority and exceptionalism, we have to act in an exceptional way. Refusing to help people out of fear is to show a lack of charity, compassion and courage. This is not what an exceptional nation would do.


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Taxing the 1% III: The Avoidance Argument

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2015

As noted in previous essays on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. Some on the left have proposed increasing the tax rate to 40% or even 45%. For the most part, conservatives oppose these proposed tax increases. This essay will look at the avoidance argument against this increase.

The gist of this argument is that the tax increase is pointless because the rich will simply find ways to nullify the increase. They might use already established methods or develop new ones, but (the argument goes) they will manage to avoid paying the increase.

This argument does has a certain appeal—after all, there is little sense in engaging in actions that will have no effect. As such, it would seem reasonable to leave things as they are, since this change would do exactly that—only at the cost of enacting ineffective legislation.

Despite this appeal, there are two key factual issues that need to be addressed. The first is the issue of whether or not the rich would try to avoid the tax increase. Some of the wealthy have at least claimed to favor higher tax rates, so they might elect to accept the increase. However, most people (be they rich or not) generally prefer to not pay more taxes. There is also the fact that many of the rich already do all they can to minimize their tax burden. There is no reason to think that a tax increase would change this behavior. As such, it is reasonable to infer that most of the rich would try to minimize the impact of the tax increase.

The second factual issue is whether or not the rich would be able to nullify the tax increase. Or, if they cannot completely nullify it, the focus would be on determining the degree of nullification. One approach to this question is to consider that if the rich are concerned about the tax increase, then this indicates that it would affect them. After all, people generally do not worry about things they believe will not affect them.

A reasonable counter to this is that while the rich will be affected by the tax increase, their concern is not that they will be paying more taxes, but that avoiding the increase will cost them. For example, they might have to pay lawyers or accountants to enable them to neutralize the increase.  Or they might need to lobby or “donate” to politicians. Some even claim that the rich would be willing to expend considerable resources to mitigate the tax increase—if this expenditure would be lower than what paying the increase would cost them, then this approach could be rational. It could even be claimed that some might be willing to pay more to avoid the taxes than the taxes would cost them, perhaps as a matter of principle. While this sounds odd, it is not inconceivable.

Another approach is to consider how effectively the rich avoid existing taxes. Even if they are somewhat effective at doing so, the increase could still impact them and thus generate more tax revenue (which is the point of the tax increase). As such, an increase could be effective in regards to the stated goal of increasing revenue.

In addition to the factual issues, there is also the issue of whether or not the principle that underlies this argument is a good principle. The principle is that if people will be able to avoid a law (or policy), then the law should not be put in place.

As noted above, this principle does have a pragmatic appeal: it seems irrational to waste time and resources creating laws or policies that will simply be avoided. This sort of avoidance argument is also used against proposed bills aimed at gun control. Interestingly enough, many of those who use the avoidance argument in regards to gun control do not accept this same argument when it comes to attempts to limit abortion or to keep marijuana illegal. This is as should be expected: people tend to operate based on preferences rather than on consistent application of principles.

One possible response is that if a law is worth having, then steps should be taken to ensure that people cannot simply avoid it. If it was found that some people were able to get away with murder, then the morally right reaction would not be to simply give up on the law. The correct reaction would be to ensure that they could not get away with murder. Naturally, it can be argued that the tax increase would not be a law worth having—but that is a different argument distinct from the avoidance argument being addressed here.

A second possible response is to reject the consequentialist approach and take the approach that the fact that people will be able to avoid a law or policy is not as important as the issue of whether or not the law or policy is right. Some people take this approach to drug laws: they accept that the laws are ineffective, but contend that since drug use is immoral, it should remain illegal. As always, consistency is important in these matters: if the principle that moral concerns trump the pragmatic concerns is embraced, then that principle needs to be applied consistently in all relevantly similar cases. If the principle that the pragmatic should trump the moral is accepted, then that needs to be applied consistently to all relevantly similar cases. While the issue of whether such a tax increase is morally right or not is important, my concern here is with the avoidance argument. But, if the tax increase is not the right thing to do and the rich would just avoid it, then imposing it would be both wrong and a bad pragmatic choice.


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Cleaning Your Own Toilet

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 13, 2015

MopbotLike almost everyone else, I do not enjoy cleaning.  Like most people, I find living in filth unacceptable. As such, I need to either clean myself, get someone else to clean for me or change my abode frequently. I have chosen to do my cleaning myself. I was forced to give this matter some thought when, while complaining about cleaning, I was asked why I did not hire someone to do it for me.

There are a variety of reasons for my choice. Some are psychological and thus not particularly interesting. Most of these have to do with the fact that my mother would have made Aristotle proud: she was rather big on making sure that I had plenty of character building opportunities and, as such, I now (as per Aristotle’s theory of moral education) find it less irksome to do such chores.  I am also quite a character. As a kid, of course, I found such tasks less tolerable—but that is what habituation is all about.

Some of these psychological factors are due to the influence of my interpretation of the American ideals of responsibility, egalitarianism, and a classless society: no person should be so full of himself to think that he is above doing his own chores. As far as changing my abode frequently, that would be a bit too pricy for a frugal Yankee like me. But, psychological reasons are not philosophically interesting. So, I now turn to the ethics of cleaning one’s own toilet. Or, more generally, cleaning up after oneself.

Turning back to Aristotle, one excellent reason why a person should clean up after himself is that this is a method of building proper habits. There is the obvious good habit of keeping things clean, but there is also the deeper impact on a person’s character. While I am sure that not everyone has been affected in the same way, doing my own cleaning (and other such work) has had two main impacts on my character. The first, to put it bluntly, is that it is hard to be too full of yourself when you are scrubbing your toilet or toweling up some husky vomit. My detractors can certainly imagine how arrogant I would be if I did not have these regular ego-reducing activities.

To pre-empt a likely criticism, I do not think that cleaning is a “lowly” activity that beats down the ego because it is worthy only of disdain or contempt. Rather, I think that it is doing my own cleaning that helps me not regard cleaning as something disdainful or worthy of contempt. It is usually not a pleasant activity, but it is both necessary and worthy of respect. As such, it is not that the cleaning helps me remember that I am not too good to clean, it is that such work should not be held in contempt. This helps keep the old ego under some degree of control.

The second is that cleaning up my own messes (and those of various pets) has taught me to be more considerate of others. Knowing how much fun it is to clean up a mess, I am certainly not inclined to make messes for others to clean up. As such, I do not litter and I am respectful of public places. After all, normal cleaning is work enough. In contrast, there are folks who are fine with creating awful messes. I have had to clean up a few of those myself—like the time I had to clean up discarded diapers left by trespassers at the homeowners’ association pool. I did not have a problem with people outside of the association using the pool in the hot Florida summer, but did have an issue with cleaning up their mess.

I will freely admit that there are people who do not learn such lessons from cleaning—but that is true for all lessons. You can lead the person to the mop, but you cannot make him learn from mopping up husky vomit.

In addition to the character building value of such tasks, there is also the matter of moral responsibility. When I was an infant, I was not accountable for my actions—I lacked both the knowledge and control to be responsible for the messes I produced. However, once I had both knowledge and control, I became accountable for my actions. This accountability includes the messes I create—be it mud tracked in from a run or screwing up something at work. To not clean up my own messes would be morally irresponsible and thus worthy of moral condemnation.  Despite the fact that I find my view sensible, it does face some reasonable objections. I will focus on moral arguments aimed at showing that it is morally acceptable for a competent adult to have others do her cleaning for her.

While it is just me and my non-cleaning husky living in my house, I have lived with people before and I am familiar with the challenge of sharing the chores. I am fine with sharing chores on the basis of my responsibility argument. However, I am aware of an interesting argument in favor of having one partner doing the cleaning. Consider, if you will, a situation in which one person makes significantly more money than her partner. Her time is thus more valuable than that of her partner, especially if the time she would otherwise spend cleaning is spent earning money. Since the partner’s time is literally worth less, it makes more economic sense for the partner to do the cleaning.

This does have considerable appeal that is grounded on smart use of employee resources. To use a concrete example, if the toilet overflows at a small law firm, it makes more sense for the least valuable employee to deal with the toilet while the more valuable employees keep racking up those billable hours. The loss of revenue is less this way.

The obvious counter to this, at least in the case of people who are in a relationship, is that the value of each partner’s time as a person is not a function of her work salary. While it is something of an ideal, a person should value his partner’s time on par with his own—or someone should re-consider that relationship. There is also the matter of respect—to regard a person as being worth less simply because she makes less money is to fail to respect that person as a person. As such, chores should be divided fairly. This can include dividing the chores based on each person’s cleaning skills, preferences and level of mess creation. For example, if one person has a habit of creating muddy messes on the floor, then that should be his responsibility to clean. But, to the degree that each person contributes to the mess, each should contribute to the cleaning. There can, of course, be some “exchange” of chores—but the responsibilities should be shared based on the principle of fairness.

As mentioned above, what caused me to reflect on this was being asked why I did not hire someone to clean for me. Obviously enough, hiring a person to do the cleaning is morally different from having one’s partner do the work. The easy and obvious moral justification for this is one of utility. If a person values avoiding cleaning more than what it would cost to hire someone to clean, then it would be reasonable and morally fine for him to do so. This is no more morally problematic than hiring someone to perform a root canal or argue a legal case. This assumes that the person is not coerced and is being paid a fair wage—if this is not the case, then another moral concern arises.

I must admit that this is a sensible view. I certainly hire people to do work for me, such making and installing the dental crown I recently had to get. I have also hired people to take care of my pets when I am out of town, thus paying someone else to take care of my responsibilities. However, in these cases I am hiring people to perform tasks that I cannot perform (or cannot perform as well). I am not paying someone to avoid something I am responsible for, namely my messes. As such, I think part of the cost of hiring someone else to clean up after me would be moral costs: failing in my responsibility when I could fulfil my obligation and engaging in behavior that is not good for my character. Put another way, I think that the lesson that you can make whatever messes you want as long as you have enough money to pay others to clean it up is the wrong sort of lesson.

A sensible reply to this is that any alleged moral harm done to the person doing the hiring is offset by the good done at creating a job for someone. After all, there are people who make their living cleaning up other peoples’ messes and if everyone had my view, these people would need to find new work or be unemployed. This, I admit, is certainly an appealing argument. At some point, probably when I finally get sick of scrubbing toilets and mopping up pet puke, I might let it convince me. But until then, I will keep making my mother proud and build character by cleaning my own toilet. Until mopbot arrives, most likely followed quickly by the killbots. Who will no doubt make the poor mopbot clean up my remains.


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Taxing the 1% II: Coercion

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

As noted in my previous essay on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. There have been serious proposals on the left to increase this rate to 40% or even as high as 45%. Most conservatives are opposed to any increase to the taxes of the wealthy while many on the left favor such increases. As in the previous essay on this subject, I will focus on arguments against increasing the tax rate.

One way to argue against increasing taxes (or having any taxes at all) is to contend that to increase the taxes of the wealthy against their wishes would be an act of coercion. There are more hyperbolic ways to make this sort of argument, such as asserting that taxes are theft and robbery by the state. However, I will use the somewhat more neutral term of “coercion.” While “coercion” certainly has a negative connotation, the connotations of “theft” and “robbery” are rather more negative.

If coercion is morally wrong, then coercing the wealthy into paying more taxes would be wrong. As such, a key issue here is whether coercion is wrong or not. On the face of it, the morality of an act of coercion would seem to depend on a variety of factors, such as the goal of the coercion, the nature of the coercive act and the parties involved. A rather important factor is whether the coerced consented to the system of coercion. For example, it can be argued that criminals consented to the use of coercive force against them by being citizens of the state—they (in general) cannot claim they are being wronged when they are arrested and punished.

It could be claimed that by remaining citizens of the United States and participating in a democratic political system, the richest do give their consent to the decisions made by the legitimate authorities of the state. So, if Congress creates laws that change the tax rates, then the rich are obligated to go along. They might not like the specific decision that was made, but that is how a democratic system works. The state is to use its coercive power to ensure that the laws are followed—be they laws against murder, laws against infringing the patents of pharmaceutical companies or laws increasing the tax rate.

A reasonable response to this is that although the citizens of the state have agreed to be subject to the coercive power of the state, there are still moral limits on the power. Returning to the example of the police, there are moral limits on what sort of coercion they should use—even when the law and common practice might allow them to use such methods. Returning to the matter of laws, there are clearly unjust laws. As such, agreeing to be part of a coercive system does not entail that all the coercive actions of that system or its laws are morally acceptable. Given this, it could be claimed that the state coercing the rich into paying more taxes might be wrong.

It could be countered that if the taxes on the rich are increased, this would be after the state and the rich have engaged in negotiations regarding the taxes. The rich often have organizations, such as corporations, that enable them to present a unified front to the state. One might even say that these are unions of the wealthy. The rich also have lobbyists that can directly negotiate with the people in the government and, of course, the rich have the usual ability of any citizen to negotiate with the government.

If the rich fare poorly in their negotiations, perhaps because those making the decisions do not place enough value on what the rich have to offer in the negotiations, then the rich must accept this result. After all, that is how the free market of democratic politics works. To restrict the freedom of the state in its negotiations with rules and regulations regarding how much it can tax the rich would be an assault on freedom and a clear violation of the rights of the state. If the rich do not like the results, they should have brought more to the table or been better at negotiating. They can also find another country—and some do just that. Or create or take over their own state.

It could be objected that the negotiations between the state and the rich is unfair. While the rich can have considerable power, the state has far greater power. After all, the United States has trillions of dollars, police, and the military. This imbalance of power makes it impossible for the rich to fairly negotiate with the state—unless there are rules and regulations governing how the rich can be treated by the greater power of the state. There could be, for example, rules about how much the state should be able to tax the rich and these rules should be based on a rational analysis of the facts. This would allow a fair maximum tax to be set that would allow the rich to be treated justly.

The relation between a state intent on maximizing tax income and the rich can be seen as analogous to the relation between employees and businesses intent on maximizing profits. If it is acceptable for the wealthy to organize corporations to negotiate with the more powerful state, then it would also be acceptable for employees to organize unions to negotiate with the more powerful corporations. While the merits of individual corporations and unions can be debated endlessly, the basic principle of organizing to negotiate with others is essentially the same for both and if one is acceptable, so is the other.

Continuing the analogy, if it is accepted that the state’s freedom to impose taxes should be regulated, limited and restricted by law, then it would seem that imposing limits, regulations and restrictions on the economic freedom of employers in regards to how they treat employees. After all, employees are almost always in the weaker position and thus usually negotiate at a marked disadvantage. While workers, like the rich, could try to find another job, create their own business or go to another land, the options of most workers are rather limited.

To use a specific example, if it is morally right to set a rational limit to the maximum tax for the rich, it is also morally right to set a rational limit on the minimum wage that an employee can be paid. Naturally, there can be a wide range of complexities in regards to both the taxes and the wages, but the basic principle is the same in both cases: the more powerful should be limited in their economic impositions on the less powerful. There is also the shared principle of how much a person has a right to, be it the money she keeps or the money she is paid for her work.

Like any argument by analogy, the argument I have made can be challenged by showing the relevant similarities between the analogues are outweighed by the relevant dissimilarities. There are various ways this could be done.

One obvious difference is that when the state imposes taxes on the rich, the state is using political coercion. In the case of the employer imposing on the employee, the coercion is economic (although some employers do have the ability to get the state to use its coercive powers in their favor). It could be argued that this difference is strong enough to break the analogy and show that although the state should be limited in its imposition on the rich, employers should have considerable freedom to employ their economic coercion against employees. The challenge is showing how political coercion is morally different from economic coercion in a way that breaks the analogy.

Another obvious difference is that the state is imposing taxes on the rich while the employer is not taxing her employees. She is merely setting their wages, benefits, vacation time, work conditions and so on.  So, while the state can reduce the money of the rich by taxing them, it could be argued that this is relevantly different from an employer reducing the money of employees by paying low wages. As such, it could be argued that this difference is sufficient to break the analogy.

As a final point, it could be argued that the rich differ from employees in ways that break the analogy. For example, it could be argued that since the rich are of a better economic class than employees, they are entitled to better treatment, even if they happen to be unable to negotiate for that better treatment. The challenge is, of course, to show that the rich being rich entitles them to a better class of treatment.


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Truth & Lies, Politico & Carson

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 9, 2015

Two of Dr. Ben Carson’s strengths as a Republican Presidential are his compelling backstory and perceived authenticity.  A key part of his narrative, as laid out in Gifted Hands and other writings, is that he met with General William Westmoreland and was offered a “full scholarship” to West Point when he was a teenager.

In November of 2015 Politico challenged this part of Carson’s backstory, noting that there is no evidence that Carson ever applied to West Point and that there are, in fact, no scholarships for West Point (those accepted attend at no cost). Politico also questioned the claimed timeline regarding Carson’s meeting with Westmoreland. Put on the defensive, Carson conceded that he did not apply to West Point and endeavored to retroactively modify certain aspects of his backstory. As should be expected, some on the right have stepped in to defend Carson and accuse Politico of being driven by liberal bias. The minds behind American conservatism have conducted a very effective campaign against the mainstream media, thus allowing an easy appeal to media bias as an almost perfect defense. Some of the folks on the left accept this as more evidence of Carson’s duplicity.

As a practical matter, the accusation by Politico will only strengthen the resolve of Carson’s supporters and the folks on the left would not support him even if his backstory were entirely true. That said, the matter of lying is certainly philosophically interesting. Before turning to the specific issue of Carson’s alleged duplicity, it is necessary to consider the more general matter of lying.

While there are numerous philosophical examinations of lying, I will keep it relatively simple and consider four intuitively plausible factors. These are truth, belief, intent and motivation. Truth is whether the claim made is true or not. Belief is whether or not the alleged liar believes the claim being made (which is distinct from the claim being true or not). Intent is the purpose or objective of the claim. Motivation is why the person is making the claim. This includes both making the claim itself as well as the decision to claim what is or is not believed to be true.

To illustrate these factors, consider the following tale of deceit, honesty and marijuana. The married coupled of Dick and Jane have four children. Larry, Theodora, Hannah and Bob. Alerted by the telltale evidence of a lingering odor and an abnormal number of empty Dorito bags, Dick and Jane suspect at least one of their kids has marijuana in the house. They gather the kids in the living room and ask “do you have any marijuana in your room?” To try to scare their kids straight, Dick and Jane also add that “you know, smoking marijuana will kill you.”

Larry, who had been smoking marijuana in the house, believes that he still has some hidden in his room. Unknown to him, Theodora found his stash and hid it most of it in Hannah’s room because she thinks her parents would never suspect honest Hannah. Worried that she might not be able to get a smoke when she needs one, she hides two joints in her room. Bob, who has been baking his brain for some years, has forgotten about a secret stash of marijuana in his room. As such, he honestly believes he has none.

All the children answer “no.” Larry’s claim is true—he has no marijuana in his room. However, he believes he does.  His intent is to deceive his parents and his motivation is to avoid being grounded. Giving that he made a true statement, it might be tempting to claim that Larry is not lying. However, Larry believes his claim is false and he intends to deceive to avoid a presumably just punishment. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that Larry is lying—the fact that he is ignorant of Theodora’s thievery does not seem to be adequate as a moral excuse.

Theodora’s claim is false, she believes it is false and she intends to deceive so as to avoid being grounded. As such, Theodora presents a paradigm example of lying: making an untrue claim that is known to be untrue with an intent to deceive out of a selfish motivation. So, she is totally lying.

Hannah’s claim is false, but she believes it is true. She has no intention to deceive and her motivation is, let it be assumed, to be a good daughter. While her claim is untrue, it would seem wrong to claim that she is lying. After all, her claim is only false because her sister (unknown to her) hid marijuana in her room and she is free from any malign intent. If she knew there was marijuana in her room, she would (let it be assumed) inform her parents even at the risk of punishment. As such, Hannah should not be considered a liar. The fact that she is ignorant of what Theodora has done is relevant to assessing her honesty.

Bob’s claim is not true, but he believes it is. He does not intend to deceive at this time, but he would do so if he was aware of the marijuana in his room. As such, his motivations are not exactly pure—he is saying what he believes is true because he thinks doing so will keep him out of trouble.  Given these factors, it would be an error to say that he is lying in this case, but he is not acting from any commitment to honesty.

Dick and Jane’s claim about marijuana is untrue and let it be assumed they know it is not true. But, if their intent is to protect their children from the real harms of marijuana and their motivation is good (love for their kids), then it would be reasonable to accept this as a form of noble lie. That is, a lie that can be justified on utilitarian grounds: it is morally acceptable because it does more good than harm. There are numerous moral views that do regard lying as wrong regardless of the utility. For example, Kant regards lying as wrong in and of itself. Similarly, the Ten Commandments is rather clear about lying.

In the case of Carson’s backstory, it turns out that some of his claims are not true. Assuming the above discussion yields plausible results, Carson should not be regarded as a liar merely for making untrue claims. So, the other factors need to be considered. I will begin with belief.

One important consideration is that Carson was writing or having a ghost writer write) inspirational books rather than creating a rigorous text (such as a history book). As such, it is reasonable to hold him to a lesser standard of research integrity. After all, writing an historical text requires proper research and due diligence. Recollecting events from one’s distant youth to inspire people would seem to require a lower level of diligence. As such, while Carson should have been more careful in his claims, the standard for diligence is rather lower here. As such, Carson could have been relying on his memory and if he was confident of his recollection, then he might have not bothered to confirm the details.

Human memory is quite fallible even over the short term and gets even worse as time goes on. If the details of an event are not recorded immediately, the mind starts losing bits and filling in other bits. As such, Carson could have believed that what he claimed was true. If so, he might be justly criticized for being a bit sloppy, but would certainly not be lying.

People also have a natural inclination to polish their backstories and this is often done unconsciously so that the better tale becomes accepted as the memory.  I will not defend this on the grounds that it is commonly done—that would be the fallacy of common practice. Rather, it is not note that if Carson forgot the actual facts and told the story based on his polished recollection, then he should not be singled out for special condemnation or regarded as lying in this case. To use another example, when Carson claimed that the pyramids of Egypt were built to be grain silos, he was wrong but almost certainly not lying. He seems to have really believed that.

It is also possible that Carson was well aware that he was making false claims. If so, then his intention and motivations become rather important.  If his intent was to inspire people and his motivations were laudable, then he could be regarded as engaging in a noble lie or perhaps an ethical exaggeration. He could be regarded as acting like writer of inspirational fiction: the claims are untrue, but truth is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to inspire and what matters is doing that well.  This is analogous to the situation of actors: they know they are engaged in untruths, but they are not liars because of their intentions and motivations. They are aiming at entertaining the audience through untruths rather than acting from infernal intents and malign motivations. As such, Carson could be a liar—but a noble liar. Or a teller of inspirational fictions.

If Carson’s intent and motivations were not laudable, then it becomes rather harder to morally justify the intentional untruths. If he exaggerated (or fabricated) to sell more books or from the desires of ego, then it would be reasonable to condemn these untruths as lies.

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Why Paul Ryan is Not a Hypocrite

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2015

Paul Ryan acted quite rationally in imposing conditions on the Republicans of the House in return for running for the position of Speaker. After all, they wanted him to take the job far more than he wanted it, thus putting him into a strong bargaining position.

A devoted family man who returns home from Washington every weekend to spend time with his wife and children, it is no surprise that one of his conditions is that he will not give up his family time. Despite the fact that his condition seems to exemplify traditional family values, he has drawn criticism from the right. The more vocal attacks have, of course, come from the left. The main accusation is that Ryan is a hypocrite because his insistence of maintaining a work-family balance starkly contrast with his voting record. To be specific, Ryan has relentlessly voted against bills that would assist working Americans to have a better work-family balance of the sort he insists on having.

On the face of it, the charge of hypocrisy would seem to stick since Ryan seems to be acting inconsistent with his professed values. Interestingly, the hypocrisy could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Ryan’s action of insisting on a work-family balance is inconsistent with his stated beliefs about bills that would allow improved work-family balance for employees. A second is that Ryan’s actions of voting against such bills is inconsistent with the values implied by his action of insisting that his “employer” grant him the desired work-family balance.

While it is certainly tempting to say Ryan is in error when he opposes improving the work-family balance for others while insisting on it himself, this would be a case of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or what a person says is inconsistent with his actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (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 being a hypocrite is different from being in error. For example, a heroin user who says that using heroin is unhealthy does not thus prove that using heroin is actually healthy. As such, showing that Ryan is in error would require more than just pointing to an alleged inconsistency between how he votes and what he insists as a condition of taking the job of speaker. That said, an accusation of inconsistency does have some moral weight.

One legitimate way to criticize Ryan is to argue that he is not consistently applying a principle. A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates the principle of relevant difference. This is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Criticizing someone on the basis of inconsistent application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations whose differences do not warrant the different application.  In the case at hand, it is generally assumed that Ryan’s principle is that people should have a work-family balance. He applies this principle to himself by insisting that being Speaker of the House will allow him his family time. But, he is inconsistent because he does not apply the same principle to other workers—as shown by his consistently voting against bills that would ensure that employees had more family time.

When a charge of inconsistent application is made, there are various responses. One is for a person to change her actions so they are consistent. So, for example, Ryan could start voting in favor of bills that allow more family time to employees. This seems rather unlikely.

A second way is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference between the situations. In the case of Ryan, if it could be shown that there is a relevant difference between him and other people that entitles him to be granted the work-family balance that he has voted to deny others. And to get that balance from other people who have also voted to deny it to others. It could, for example, be argued that the Speaker of the House position, like other high positions, should come with benefits denied to those of lesser status. To use an analogy, a university might have a principle that employees who perform their jobs well get a bonus. If there is a shortage of funds, the university might grant bonuses only to administrators and justify this by arguing for a relevant difference between administrators and everyone else. It is clearly possible to disagree with such claims of relevant difference and other employees would be likely to do so.

If being Speaker of the House grants a relevant difference that warrants the difference in treatment, then Ryan is no more a hypocrite than a university president would be for handing out bonuses to administrators on the basis of a relevant difference—even if she denied bonuses and raises to the faculty. The challenge is, of course, to justify the alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to eliminate the apparent inconsistency by arguing the attributed principle is not the person’s actual principle.  For Ryan to be a hypocrite in this case, he must hold the principle that explicitly states or at least entails that employees are entitled to the sort of work-family balance he wants. However, Ryan does not seem to hold to such a principle. Rather, he has espoused what can be regarded as an explicitly selfish value system. As Amanda Marcotte contends,  Ryan seems to be acting in accord with his values which are largely those argued for by the philosopher Ayn Rand. This view was laid out quite clearly in her Virtue of Selfishness  in which she argues in favor of the moral theory of ethical egoism. This is the view each person should act in his or her own self-interest and is contrasted against moral altruism, which is the view that a person should at least consider the interests of others. Altruism is also exemplified by the injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself and the Golden Rule.

It is in Ryan’s self-interest to have the family time he wants, so his principle would simply be that he should receive this family time. Under ethical egoism of the sort explicitly embraced by Ryan, he would be acting in a moral manner—by attempting to maximize what is of value for him.  This principle does not entail that other people should receive a guarantee of an improved work-family balance. So, when he votes against bills to allow employees a better work-family balance, he is not being a hypocrite. He is being perfectly consistent with his value system.

If he is a proper ethical egoist, he would also accept that other people should act in their own self-interest—this is what distinguishes the moral theory of ethical egoism from simple selfishness (which is not a moral system). As such, he should accept that other people should try to get the work-family balance they desire. But he should help them only on the condition that doing so would be in his self-interest, which he clearly thinks it is not. As such, if he is an ethical egoist, he is not a hypocrite—under that moral system he would be acting morally. If, however, he subscribed to a more altruistic moral system (such as the sort advocated by Pope Francis), then he would seem to be a hypocrite. After all, he is not loving his neighbor as he loves himself.


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Performance Based Funding & Social Mobility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 19, 2015

Once upon a time, the animals gathered together to decide which of them was the very best. After some deliberation and braying, barking and squawking of opinions, the wisest of the animals realized that they would need a set of standards to decide the best.

All the animals readily agreed, even the grumpy wolverine. A horse raised the question of what standards to use and each animal rushed to answer. The wisest animal quickly restored order and said that each animal should speak in order as selected by drawing lots. The animals recognized this as fair, though the lion did make some noises about the prerogatives of royalty.

Cheetah went first and stated that the only sensible standard was speed in a sprint. The bat went next, insisting that the ability to fly in the dark and hang upside down were the only sensible measures. And so each animal proposed standards that suited them best. Each was enraged when its standard was not accepted and this is why, to this day, that animals no longer speak to each other.


Rankings are very important to academic institutes—and not just in regards to their sports teams. Colleges and universities battle in the academic rankings for the prestige, to impress parents into sending their kids to schools befitting their rank, and to justify those sweet administrative salaries. Some schools are also forced to engage in the blood sport that is performance based funding. My university, Florida A&M University, is one of these schools.

As I have noted in previous essays on performance based funding, Florida A&M University (FAMU) has fared poorly under the standards imposed by the state legislature. To be specific, FAMU has been ranked last since 2013. The punishment is, of course, a reduction in funding. In contrast, the University of Florida has been winning this contest by a significant margin, thus enjoying the fruits (and cash) of victory. The University of South Florida placed second and the University of Central Florida placed third.

The standards used for performance based funding are, I have argued previously, unfair. I will not argue this point here, but will note that the standards used are obviously not the only ones that can be used to rank a university.

One interesting way to rank colleges and universities is to consider one of their historical purposes: to enable social mobility through education. As many others have argued, education has long served as a key means of social mobility. The idea that people can rise from humble (that is economically disadvantaged) beginnings through a college degree has long been a part of the mythology of the American Dream.  It is certainly a part of my family story. The rhetoric of politicians is also heavily laden with words praising and calling for upward mobility and success. Given the importance of social mobility in traditional American values, mythology and rhetoric, it seems reasonable to consider that an important measure of a university’s success.

Conveniently enough, CollegeNET has created a Social Mobility Index that ranks schools in terms of weighted assessment of tuition, the economic background of students, the graduation rate, early career salary and the endowment of the institution. Roughly put, the better a school does in regards to social mobility (enabling people to move upwards via education) the better its SMI.

While FAMU is ranked last by the state’s performance based funding standards, it ranks 19th in the United States in terms of its SMI. FAMU ranks well because 52.8% of the students are low income, the tuition is relatively affordable ($5,785), and the median early career salary is a respectable $45,900.  68% of the freshmen have Pell Grants and 77.8% of them are lower income students. On the minus side, FAMU has a graduation rate of 40.9% and an endowment of only $80 million.

As I argued in previous essays, the low graduation rate can be accounted for by social factors, especially economic ones. Somewhat ironically, FAMU is regarded as a poor performer by the state for the same reason it does exceptionally well at social mobility: it has a majority of low income students and does a good job assisting them upwards—and this is in despite of the tremendous obstacles presented by economic factors and the impact of past and current racism. Since the state standards do not account for the challenges faced by low income and minority students, pursuing a mission that aids social mobility condemns FAMU to the bottom of the state ranking. To use an analogy, if you are trying to help people up from a deep cave with a rope that is being steadily weakened, then it would hardly be a shock if not everyone made it into the golden light of the sun. Yes, I just used a metaphor I stole from Plato.

Interesting enough, the undisputed winner of the state’s performance based funding, the University of Florida (UF), is ranked #260 in terms of its SMI. This is not because it is a bad school—quite the contrary, it is a very good school (unlike my Florida State brethren I have little football animosity against the Gators and can give them their due praise).

UF has an exceptionally good 86.5% graduation rate, reasonable tuition ($6,263), a good median early career salary ($49,500) and an impressive endowment (over a billion dollars). These facts might lead one to wonder why UF is ranked so far behind FAMU. The main reason is that only 11.2% of UF students are low income. Only 29% of UF students are Pell Grant recipients, but 60.8% of them are not lower income students. As such, UF excels at assisting upper income students to become upper income graduates. It does however, very little in regards to social mobility.

The success of UF is hardly surprising—just as economic disadvantage decreases a student’s chance of graduating and likely income, an economic advantage increases a student’s chance of graduating and the likelihood of a good income. To use an analogy, UF is pulling people along a level ground with an ever stronger rope—this is ever so much easier than pulling people out of a deep cave.

There is, obviously enough, nothing wrong with UF helping the relatively well-off remain relatively well-off. In fact, this is laudable. There is, however, something wrong with basing funding on performance standards that ensure schools with low percentages of low income students will excel and thus garner the rewards while schools that contribute to social mobility (and thus face lower graduation rates) will have what little they receive reduced.

As might be suspected, the second place school in the state ranking (the University of South Florida) is ranked #72 by SMI. It has 33% low income students and a 63.2% graduation rate. The state’s third ranked school (University of Central Florida) is ranked 53 by SMI. It has 27% low income students and a graduation rate of 67.2%.

A look at the data for the schools shows a not surprising correlation between the percentage of lower income students and the graduation rate. As such, the relatively low graduation rate of FAMU and the relatively high graduation rate at UF are not aberrations. They are exactly what should be expected due to the impact of economic class on student success.

As discussed in a previous essay, it has been suggested by some that FAMU can improve its ranking by changing its approach to admission. If FAMU lowered the percentage of low income students, it could increase its graduation rate. This would also impact other standards—people who are already from the higher economic classes are more likely to get jobs and more likely to get better paying jobs. This would, however, negatively impact FAMU’s rank in terms of social mobility—instead of assisting people out of the lower economic classes, FAMU would simply be engaged in keeping students in the higher economic classes, thus condemning lower income students to remain in the lower income class.

Someone more cynical than I might claim that the state ranking system is intentionally designed to punish schools that assist in upward mobility and reward schools for maintaining the economic status quo. This, some might say, is part of a broader economic ideology that favors abandoning the less-well off and maintaining a rigid class system and whose words about opportunity are but empty sounds. The less cynical might say that the state system is merely pragmatic—in the face of intentional cuts by the state to the education budget, the remaining funds must be spent wisely on those likely to succeed. These just happen to be those who are already well off, rather than those who are in the lower income classes. Helping the successful stay successful makes good sense and helping those who need help is too much of a risk. After all, if we are pulling people along level ground, then they will almost all make it. If we are pulling people out of a cave, they might not all reach the light of day. Better to just leave them in the darkness, right?


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Fox & the War on Cops

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 14, 2015

After bringing the world live coverage of the War on Christmas from their own minds, the fine folks at Fox have added coverage of the War on Cops. The basic idea is that violence against cops has increased dramatically and that cops are being targeted. Blame is laid primarily on the Black Lives Matter movement and, this being Fox, President Obama.

Unlike the War on Christmas, Fox does have some real-world basis for the claims about violence against police officers. Police officers are, in fact, attacked and even killed in the line of duty. In some cases, officers are specifically targeted and murdered simply for being police. The harming of citizens, be they police or not, is clearly a matter of concern. The problem is that while police do face the threat of violence, Fox’s rhetoric and claims simply do not match reality. Unfortunately, Fox’s campaign has had an impact: there are polls that show a majority believe there is a war on police.

One challenge in sorting out this matter is the fact that “war” is not well-defined. If all it takes for there to be a war on a group is for there to be any violence against that group, then there is a war on cops. A problem with accepting this account of war would be that there would be a war against all or nearly all groups, thus making the notion all but useless.

Intuitively, if there is a war on a group, then what would be expected is high levels of violence against that group. If the war is something that started at a certain point, then there should be a clear and significant upswing in incidents in violence from that point. While working things out properly would require setting and arguing for clear standards (such as what counts as high levels of violence) the statistical data shows that violence against police has been steadily trending downward rather than upward.

Those claiming there is a war on cops tend to note that there was an increase in violence against police relative to 2013—but they seem to ignore the fact that 2013 is currently the lowest point of such violence and 2015 is, if the trend stays consistent, on track to be the second lowest year.  Ever. As such, the claim that violence against police has increased since 2013 is true, but this does not serve as evidence for a war on cops. To use an analogy, if a person was at his lowest adult weight in 2013 and his weight increased since then, this does not entail that he is obese or that he is trending towards obesity.

Given the fact that violence against police has been steadily trending downward and 2015 is on track to be the second lowest year, it seems evident that there is no war on cops—at least under any sensible and non-hyperbolic definition of “war.”

It could be countered that there is a special sort of war on cops, as evidenced by a few incidents involving intentional targeting of cops (as opposed to criminals engaging police trying to stop them). While such incidents are certainly of concern both to police and responsible citizens, they do not serve as adequate evidence for the claim that there is a war on cops. This is because a war is a matter of statistics, not terrifying individual incidents. To reject a claim supported by body of reasonable statistical evidence on the basis of a small number of examples that go against the claim is, in fact, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence. And, as noted above, the statistical evidence is that violence against police has been on a steady downward trend, with 2013 being the lowest level of violence against United States police in recorded history.

It could also be asserted that the war on cops is not a war of actual violence, but a war of unfair criticism: the cops are under attack by the liberal media and groups that are often critical of police actions, such as Black Lives Matter.

This is certainly a fair concern: pointing to dramatic incidents involving bad or brutal policing runs the risk of committing the fallacy of anecdotal evidence or the fallacy of misleading vividness (a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence). As with the war on police, the alleged war by the police must be subject to objective statistical analysis. That said, the sort of criticism of police misconduct and brutality that appears in the media does not seem to constitute a war—at least under a rational definition of “war.”

Since there is no war on cops, Fox and other folks should not be making this claim. One reason is that telling untruths is, at the very least, morally problematic—especially for people who claim to be journalists. Another, and more important reason, is that such a campaign can have serious negative consequences.

The first is that such a campaign can convince police that they are targets in a war. In addition to causing additional stress in what is already a stressful (and often thankless) job, the belief that they are in a war can impact how police officers perceive situations and how they react. If, for example, an officer believes that she is likely to be targeted for violence, she will operate on the defensive and consider fellow citizens as threats. This would, presumably, increase the chances that she will react with force during interactions with citizens.

A second consequence is that if citizens believe that there is a war on cops, they will be more likely to accept violence on the part of officers (who will be more likely to perceived as acting defensively) and more likely to regard those harmed by the police as deserving their fate. Citizens might be more inclined to support the continued militarization of police, which will lead to harms of its own. This view can also lead citizens to be unfairly critical of groups that are critical of brutal and poor policing, such as Black Lives Matter. People might also become more afraid of police because they think that they police are acting within a war and thus more likely to respond with force.

A third consequence is that if politicians accept there is a war on cops, they will support laws and policies that are based on a false premise. These are likely to have undesirable and unintended consequences.

While some might be tempted to say that Fox and others should be prevented from engaging in such campaigns that seem to be based on intentional deceptions aimed at ideological ends, I do not agree with this. Since I accept freedom of expression, I do accept that Fox and folks should have the freedom to engage in such activities—even when such expression is harmful.

My main justification for my view is based on concerns about the consequences. If a law or general policy were adopted to forbid such expression (as opposed to actual slander or defamation), then this would open the door to ideological censorship. That is, Fox might be silenced today, but I might be silenced tomorrow. As such, while Fox and folks should not push such untrue claims onto the public, they should not be prevented from doing so.


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