A Philosopher's Blog

Performance Based Funding & Disadvantaged Students

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2015

As I have discussed in previous essays, Florida state universities now operate under a performance based model of funding and Florida A&M University (FAMU), my university, has performed poorly in regards to the state standards. One area of poor performance is the six-year graduation rate. Another is student loan debts, both in terms of the debt accrued and the default rate. Currently, it has been claimed that FAMU students default on their loans at three times the state average. It has been claimed that one explanation for this poor performance is that FAMU accepts students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. It has also been suggested that such students would be better served by community colleges.

I will not dispute the claim that FAMU admits some students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. This is because the claim is true. One reason it is true is because FAMU has had an historical mission of providing an opportunity for the disadvantaged. One part of this mission is shown by the fact FAMU is an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). Before desegregation, HBCUs provided almost the only higher education opportunities for African-Americans. After the end of legal segregation, HBCUs still served a vital role in providing such opportunities. As predominantly white colleges (PWCs, also known as Predominantly White Institutions or PWIs) became more integrated, people began to argue that this old mission of HBCUs was no longer relevant. After all, if black students can attend any school they wish and racism is no longer a factor, then one might say “mission accomplished.” Unfortunately, as I discussed in my essay on performance based funding and race, race is still a significant factor in regards to economic and academic success. As such, while the dismantling of some barriers to education is to be lauded, many more still remain. Among these are numerous economic barriers.

While it could be argued that FAMU no longer has a mission to offset racism in America by offering educational opportunities to African Americans, FAMU has also had a longstanding mission of serving the economically disadvantaged. Students who come from a background of economic and academic disadvantage (these are almost always tightly linked) face many challenges to graduating and, not surprisingly, are more likely to have student debt. It is well worth considering why disadvantaged students generally perform worse than other students.

One rather obvious factor is that students from poor schools (which tend to be located in economically disadvantaged areas) will face the challenge imposed by being poorly prepared for college. While individuals can overcome this through natural talent and special effort, this poor preparation is analogous to a weight chained to a runner’s leg—she will have to run so much harder to go as fast as others who are not dragging such a burden.

Another especially disturbing factor is that poverty has been found to negatively impact brain development as well as academic performance. Poverty is quite literally damaging American children and thus doing harm to the future of America. Unfortunately, for many politicians the concern regarding children seems to end at birth, so this problem is unlikely to be seriously addressed in the existing political climate.

A third factor is that disadvantaged students, being disadvantaged, generally need to borrow more money than students from wealthier backgrounds. This entails more student debt on the part of the disadvantaged. It also creates a rather vicious scenario: a student who needs to take out loans is more likely to end up with financial challenges in school. A student who is challenged financially is more likely to drop out than a student who is not. Students who drop out are more likely to default on student loans. This provides a rather clear explanation of why disadvantaged students have low completion rates, high debts and high default rates.

As might be expected, seventy percent of African American students say that student debt is their main reason for dropping out. In contrast, less than fifty percent of white students make this claim. This is quite consistent with my own study of student performance: over the course of my study, the primary reason for missing class was work and the main reason students gave for not graduating was financial.

In terms of why students are taking out more and larger loans than any time in United States history, there are some easy and obvious answers. One is the fact that incomes for all but the wealthiest have, at best, stagnated for nearly thirty years—as such people have less money to spend on college and thus need to take out loans. Students also need to work more in college, which can make attending class and completing work challenging.

A second is the fact that state funding for education has dropped substantially as a result of both ideology and the great recession. Even after the broader economy rebounded, education funding was not restored and some states continued to cut funding. With less state funding, universities raised tuition and this, naturally enough, has led to an increased need for students to work more (which impacts graduation rates) and take out loans—which leads to debt. It is a cruel irony that the very people who have cut education funding judge schools by how well they handle the problems such cuts have created or acerbated. To use an analogy, this is like taking a runner’s shoes, striking her legs with a baton and then threatening to do more damage unless she runs even faster than before. This is madness.

Given the factors discussed above, it should hardly be surprising that a school, such as FAMU, that intentionally enrolls disadvantaged students will perform worse than schools who do not have such a mission. Since FAMU’s funding is linked to its performance, it is rather important to consider solutions to this situation.

The state legislature could address this problem in various ways. One approach would be to address the economic and academic inequality that creates disadvantaged students. This, however, seems extremely unlikely in the present political climate.

A second approach would be to restore the education funding that was cut (or even increase it beyond that). However, the current ideological commitment is to cutting education funding while, at the same time, expressing shocked dismay at greater student debt and punishing schools for not solving this problem by taking away even more money. As such, it seems reasonable, though rather unfortunate, to dismiss the state legislature as a source of solutions and instead regard them as a major part of the problem.

For schools such as FAMU, one option is to change the mission of the school to one that matches the views of those providing oversight of the schools. This revised mission would not include providing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Rather, it would involve improving the graduation and debt numbers by ceasing to admit disadvantaged students. On the plus side, this would enable FAMU to improve its performance relative to the goals imposed by the legislature that helped create the student debt crisis and helped lower graduation rates. However, the performance based funding system imposed by the state must have losers, so even if FAMU improved, it might not improve enough to push some other schools to the bottom.  Even if it does improve, it would merely shift the punishment of the state to some other school—which is certainly morally problematic (rather like the old joke about not needing to outrun the bear, just one other person).

On the minus side, abandoning this historic mission of providing opportunity to the disadvantaged would mean abandoning people to the mire of poverty and the desert that is a lack of opportunity. As a professor who teaches ethics, this strikes me as morally reprehensible—especially in a country whose politicians cry endlessly about opportunity, economic mobility and the American Dream.

As has been well-established by history, a college degree is a way to achieve greater economic success and it has been a ladder out of poverty for many previous generations of Americans. To kick away this ladder would be to say that the American Dream is only for those lucky enough to already be well off and the rest can simply stay at the bottom. This could be done, but if it is done, then we must no longer speak of this being a land of opportunity for everyone.

It might be countered that, as was suggested, the disadvantaged students could attend a two-year college. While this idea has become something of a talking point, the evidence shows that it is actually not a low cost, low debt option for students. Because of higher education costs and reduced state support, disadvantaged students will still need to take out loans to attend such schools and will face the same general challenges they would face at a four-year institute.

It could also be countered that enrolling disadvantaged students does not actually help them. After all, if they do not graduate and end up accumulating considerable debt, then it could be argued they would have been better off never making the attempt. They could, instead, go straight to work right out of high school (or complete some technical training). The money that would have been spent on them could be spent on students more likely to succeed (because they already enjoy advantages).

While I am committed to the value of education, this is a point well worth considering. If an objective and fair assessment of the data shows that disadvantage students are worse off when they attempt a four-year degree, then it would make no sense to admit such students. However, if the data shows that providing such students with this opportunity does provide positive benefits, then it would seem a good idea to continue to offer people a chance to escape to a better future from a disadvantaged past. This is, of course, a matter of value—how much is it worth to society to provide such opportunities and at what point should we, as a people, say that the cost is too high to give our fellow Americans an opportunity? Or, put another way, how much are we willing to spend to be able to speak about the American Dream without speaking lies?


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Syria & Russia

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 5, 2015

Apparently following the lead set by Hollywood, Putin is remaking the classic cold war series. After getting things started in Ukraine, he has switched to that zone of endless conflict that is the Middle East. While Russia has long supported the Assad, Putin has sent Russian military forces to shore up the crumbled regime. Russian jets have already hit targets in Syria and Russia has tried to tell the United States to stay out of its way. The US has declined to abandon its operations, but has agreed to discuss steps to “de-conflict” the operations. That is, to coordinate with the Russians to avoid dogfights between American and Russian combat aircraft.

The conflict in Syria has been largely to Russia’s advantage in that the refugees fleeing to Europe have caused conflict among the European nations that threatens to damage or even destroy the union. The influx of refugees has also strengthened the right wing nationalist parties in Europe. These parties are often seen as being on reasonably good terms with Putin and any advances they make are a plus for him.

Given the value of keeping up the flood of refugees into Europe, it might be wondered why Putin is finally intervening. The easy and obvious answer is that he believes he has something to gain by this intervention. This does seem to be true—Putin does stand to gain.

First, Syria is Russia’s only real foothold in the Middle East. Syria is a Russian ally and plays host to a Russian naval base in Tartus. Having Syria collapse completely would cost Russia an ally and make maintaining a military presence very difficult.

Second, Russia has its own substantial Moslem population and is worried about terrorism. It is currently estimated that around 2,000 Russians are fighting for ISIS in the Middle East and Putin is no doubt concerned that they might return to cause trouble in Russia. Put bluntly, he can simply kill them in the Middle East and solve that problem.

Third, by acting on the world stage Putin hopes to create the impression that Russia is a major player again. The cynical might regard this as Putin engaging in “look at me! Look at me!” behavior, but even the cynical must acknowledge that it is working—the United States and other nations now have to deal with Russia and that gets Putin into the media spotlight.

Fourth, Russian adventures in Syria pull the eye of the media cyclops away from Ukraine and to Syria, thus providing Russia a media shadow in which to operate.

Fifth, Russia gets to boost its reputation by looking tough relative to the United States. It has been claimed that Russia’s initial attacks did not hit ISIS but targeted anti-Assad forces that are backed by the United States. Putin is confident that the United States will not shoot down Russian planes to protect the pitifully few US backed rebels. This allows Putin to poke the US in the eye with no risk—it would, after all, be stupid for the US to get into war with Russia over a handful of rebels.

While Russia sees the potential for gain via this intervention, there is the blindingly obvious fact that things always go wrong in the Middle East. Pundits are already making the obvious reference to the last Russian adventure in the region—the meat grinder that was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While Putin has emphasized that Russia will be engaged only in an air campaign, interventions often escalate and both the United States and Russia have shown a willingness to jump into quagmires. Should Syria turn out to be a quagmire, this will be bad for Russia. Cynically, it could be good for the United States in geopolitical terms. It would, as always, be horrible for the people who live in the quagmire.

A second possible problem for Russia is that its intervention in the region will make it into a Junior Satan or even a Co-Satan to the original Great Satan (that is, the United States). Russia could find itself subject to increased attention from foreign terrorists and also domestic unrest from its own Moslem population. This, clearly, would not be a plus for Russia.

A third possible problem is that the intervention could go badly and damage Russian prestige. For example, Russian pilots might be captured and executed by ISIS. As another example, the Russian bases of operation might be overrun and captured, which would be a blow to the reputation of Russia.

A fourth problem is that backing Assad might have a negative impact on Russia’s relation with other countries. However, the countries that are likely to be upset by this are countries that already have poor relations with Russia.

While analogical reasoning is inductive and thus subject to the usual practical problem of induction (namely that the premises of an inductive argument can all be true and the reasoning strong, yet the conclusion can be false), the history of the Middle East has shown that such interventions always end badly. As such, it seems reasonable to expect that Russia’s intervention will slide into disaster. That said, perhaps Putin can pull it off and make history.


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Obligations to Refugees

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2015

As this is being written, large numbers of people are fleeing conflict and economic woes in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. As with past exoduses, some greet the refugees with kindness, some with indifference and some with hate. As a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics regarding obligations to refugees.

One way to approach the matter of moral obligations to refugees is to apply the golden rule—to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. While most of those who read this are living lives of relatively good fortune, it is easy enough to imagine one’s living falling apart due to war or other disaster—human made or natural. In such circumstances, a person would almost certainly want to be helped. As such, if the golden rule has moral validity, then help should be rendered to the refugees.

One objection to this claim is that people should solve their own problems. In the case of Syria, it could be contended that the Syrians should stay and fight. Or, at the very least, they should not expect others to do their work for them. In the case of those trying to find a better life elsewhere, it could be argued that they should remain in their home countries and build a viable economy. These are, of course, variations on the usual “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” arguments.

One could also advance a house analogy. Imagine, if you will, that the neighbors down the road are fighting among themselves and wrecking their house. Some of them, tired of the conflict, show up at your door and insist that you put them up and feed them. Though it might be awfully nice to help them, it could also be said that they should put their own house in order. After all, you have managed to keep your family from falling into chaos and they should be able to do the same. There is also the concern that they will wreck your house as well.

This analogy, obviously enough, assumes that the fighting and wrecking began in the house and that no outsider assisted in inflicting the conflict. If, for example, people were just jammed arbitrarily into the houses and then subject to relentless outside interference, then the inhabitants would not bear full responsibility for their woes—so the problems they would need to solve would not be entirely their own. This would seem to provide a foundation for an obligation to help them, at least on the part of those who helped cause the trouble.

If, as another example, the house was invaded from the outside, then that would certainly change matters. In this case, the people fleeing the house would be trying to escape criminals and it would certainly be a wicked thing to slam the door in the face of victims of crime.

As a final example, if the head of the household was subjecting the weaker members of the household to domestic abuse, then it would also change the situation in relevant ways. If beaten and abused people showed up at one’s door, it would be heartless to send them back to be beaten and abused.

Interestingly, the house analogy can also be repurposed into a self-interest argument for taking in refugees. Imagine, if you will, a house of many rooms that were once full of people. Though the house is still inhabited, there are far fewer people and many of them are old and in need of care. There is much that needs to be done in the house, but not enough people to do it all.

Nearby are houses torn with violence and domestic abuse, with people fleeing from them. Many of these people are young and many are skilled in doing what needs to be done in the house of many rooms. As such, rational self-interest provides an excellent reason to open the doors and take in those fleeing. The young immigrants can assist in taking care of the native elderly and the skilled can take up the slack in regards to the jobs. In this case, acting in self-interest would seem to coincide with doing the right thing.

There are, of course, at least two obvious counters to this self-interest analogy. One is the moral problem of taking in people out of self-interest while letting the other houses fall into ruin. This does suggest that a morally superior approach would be to try to bring peace to those houses. However, if peace is unlikely, then taking in those fleeing those houses would seem to be morally acceptable.

Another is a practical concern—that some of those invited in will bring ruin and harm to their new house. While this fear is played up, the danger presented by refugees seems to be rather low—after all, they are refugees and not an invading army. That said, it would be quite reasonable to consider the impact of refugees and to take due care in screening for criminals.


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Political Candidates & Expertise

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2015

As I write this, the number of Republican presidential contenders is in the double digits. While businessman and reality TV show star Donald Trump is still regarded as leading the pack, neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been gaining ground and some polls put him ahead of Trump.

In an earlier essay I did an analysis of how someone like Trump could sustain his lead despite what would have been politically fatal remarks by most other candidates. In this essay I will examine the question of why Trump and Carson are doing well and will do so in the context of the notion of expertise.

From a rational standpoint, a person should consider an elected office as a job and herself as the employer who is engaged in evaluating the candidate. As such, the expertise of the candidate should be a rather important factor. What should also be considered are the personal qualities needed to do the job well, such as dependability, integrity and so on. A person should also consider the extent to which the candidate will act in her self-interest and also the extent to which the candidate will act in accord with her values. While a person’s self-interest and values can be consistent with each other, there can be a conflict. For example, it might be in the self-interest of a wealthy person for taxes on the rich to be lowered, but his values might such that he favors shifting more of the tax burden to the wealthy.

When considering whether a candidate has the needed expertise or not, the main factors include education, experience, accomplishments, position, and reputation. I will begin by considering education.

While education is usually looked at in terms of formal education, it can also include what is learned outside of the classroom. While there is no degree offered in being-the-president it is certainly worth considering the education of candidates and its relevance towards the office they are seeking. In this case, the office is the presidency.  Carson has an M.D. and is clearly well educated. Trump is also an educated man, albeit not a brain surgeon.

Interestingly, influential elements in the Republican have pushed an anti-intellectual and anti-science line over the years. As such, it is hardly a surprise that some Republicans like to compare Obama to a professor and intend for this comparison to be an insult. The anti-science leaning has, in recent years, been very strong in regards to the science of climate change. However, it is well worth noting that the opposition to science and intellectualism seems to be driven primarily by an ideological opposition to specific positions in science. Those on the left are often cast as being in favor of science and intellectualism—in large part, perhaps, due to the fact that scientists and intellectuals tend to lean more left than right. However, a plausible case can be made that some of the pro-science and pro-intellectual leaning of the left also comes from ideology—that is, leftists like the science and intellectualism that matches their world views. As an example, the left tends to be pro-environment and this fits in nicely with the science of climate change. Interestingly, when science goes against a view held by some left leaning folks, they will attack and reject science with the same sort of “arguments” that are employed by their fellows on the right. One good example of this is the sort of anti-vaccination people who reject the scientific evidence in favor of their ideology.

Given the fact that Carson is a neurosurgeon and Trump has an education, it might be wondered how they are doing so well given the alleged anti-science and anti-intellectual views of some Republicans. In the case of Trump, the answer is easy and obvious: what he says tends to nicely fit into this view. While Trump has authored several books, no one would accuse him of being an intellectual.

Carson’s case is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, he is a well-educated neurosurgeon and is regarded as intelligent and thoughtful. On the other hand, he tends to make remarks that make him appear anti-intellectual and anti-science. Some claim that he is doing this in a calculated way to appeal to the baser nature of some of the Republican base. Others assert that his apparent missteps are due to his lack of experience in the realm of politics.  Coincidentally, this leads to the next subject of consideration.

Since the presidency is not an entry level job, it seems reasonable to expect that a candidate have relevant experience in similar jobs.  It also seems reasonable to expect that the candidate would be accomplished in relevant ways, have held relevant positions, and have a good reputation that is relevant to the presidency.

This is why many past presidents have been governors, military leaders or in congress before they moved to the oval office. While Trump has had experience in business and reality TV, he has not held political office. While some claim that executive business experience is relevant, it is certainly reasonable to consider that it is not an adequate substitute for experience in a political position. I, for example, would not claim that my experience in chairing committees, captaining athletic teams, and running classes would qualify me to be president.

While Carson has some administrative experience, he is primarily a neurosurgeon. While this is certainly impressive, it does not seem relevant to his ability to be president. I, for example, am also a doctor and have written numerous books—but these would not seem to be large points in favor of me being president.

Given the relatively weak qualifications of Trump and Carson in these areas, it might seem odd that they are currently trouncing former governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul and former governor John Kasich.

One easy explanation for the success of Trump and Carson is that Republican politicians and pundits adopted a tactic of waging rhetorical war against politicians, insiders, the establishment and government itself. In contrast, being a non-politician, a political outsider, a non-establishment person and against government were lauded as virtues. This tactic seems to have been too successful: the firehose that the Republican strategists struggled to keep targeted on Democrats seems to have slipped from their grip and is now hosing the more qualified candidates while Trump and Carson stay dry. The irony here is that those who are probably the best qualified to actually run the country (such as Rubio, Bush and Kasich) are currently regarded as undesirable precisely because of the qualities that make them qualified.

What might also be ironic is that it seems the Republican rhetoric of attacking politicians for being politicians has helped Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic candidate. While Sanders is a senator, he is a very plausible as an outsider and a non-establishment person. He is even convincing as being a non-politician politician: though he has plenty of political experience, he seems to have an authenticity and integrity that is all too uncommon among the polished, packaged and marketed politicians (most notable Hilary Clinton).

As a final point, many pundits take the view that Trump, Carson and Sanders will inevitably fade in the polls and be replaced by the more traditional candidates.  Pundits who like to hedge their bets a bit will usually also add that even if Trump or Carson becomes the Republican nominee, they cannot win the general election. The pundits also claim that even if Sanders get the nomination, he will lose in the general election. Of course, if the 2016 election is Sanders versus Trump or Carson, one of them has to win.


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Kim Davis & Rule of Law

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

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. 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. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.


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Davis & Ad Hominems

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on September 4, 2015

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, has been the focus of national media because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As this is being written, Davis has been sent to jail for disobeying a court order.

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film)

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As should be expected, opponents of same-sex marriage have tended to focus on the claim that Davis’ religious liberty is being violated. As should also be expected, her critics sought and found evidence of what seems to be her hypocrisy: Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth marriage. Some bloggers, eager to attack her, have claimed that she is guilty of adultery. These attacks can be relevant to certain issues, but they are also irrelevant in important ways. It is certainly worth sorting between the relevant and the irrelevant.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is consistent in her professed religious values, then her actions are clearly relevant. After all, if a person claims to have a set of values and acts in ways that violate those values, then this provides legitimate grounds for accusations of hypocrisy and even of claims that the person does not really hold to that belief set. That said, there can be many reasons why a person acts in violation of her professed values. One obvious reason is moral weakness—most people, myself included, do act in violation of their principle due to the many flaws and frailties that we all possess. Since none of us is without sin, we should not be hasty in judging the perceived failings of others.  However, it is reasonable to consider a person’s actions when assessing whether or not she is acting in a manner consistent with her professed values.

If Davis is, in fact, operating on the principle that marriage licenses should not be issued to people who have violated the rules of God (presumably as presented in the bible), then she would have to accept that she should not have been issued a marriage license (after all, there is a wealth of scriptural condemnation of adultery and divorce). If she accepts that she should have been issued her license despite her violations of religious rules, then consistency would seem to require that the same treatment be afforded to everyone—including same-sex couples. After all, adultery makes God’s top ten list while homosexuality is only mentioned in a single line (and one that also marks shellfish as an abomination). So, if adulterers can get licenses, it would be rather difficult to justify denying same-sex couples licenses on the grounds of a Christian faith.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is right in her professed view and her refusal to grant licenses to same-sex couples, then references to her divorce and alleged adultery are logically irrelevant. If a person claims that Davis is wrong in her view or acted wrongly in denying licenses because she has been divorced or has (allegedly) committed adultery, then this would be a mere personal attack ad hominem. A personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.

If a critic of Davis asserts that her claim about same-sex marriage is in error because of her own alleged hypocrisy, then the critic is engaged in an ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim she makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with her actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove her claims are false. As such, Davis’ behavior has no bearing on the truth of her claims or the rightness of her decision to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Dan Savage and others have also made the claim that Davis is motivated by her desire to profit from the fame she is garnering from her actions. Savage asserts that “But no one is stating the obvious: this isn’t about Kim Davis standing up for her supposed principles—proof of that in a moment—it’s about Kim Davis cashing in.” Given, as Savage notes, the monetary windfall received by the pizza parlor owners who refused to cate a same-sex wedding, this has some plausibility.

If the issue at hand is Davis’ sincerity and the morality of her motivations, then whether or not she is motivated by hopes of profit or sincere belief does matter. If she is opposing same-sex marriage based on her informed conscience or, at the least, on a sincerely held principle, then that is a rather different matter than being motivated by a desire for fame and profit. A person motivated by principle to take a moral stand is at least attempting to act rightly—whether or not her principle is actually good or not. Claiming to be acting from principle while being motivated by fame and fortune would be to engage in deceit.

However, if the issue is whether or not Davis is right about her claim regarding same-sex marriage, then her motivations are not relevant. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to yet another ad hominem, the circumstantial ad hominem. This is a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self-interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.). This ad hominem is a fallacy because a person’s interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made. While a person’s interests will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Christian, so his claim is false.” Or, if someone claimed that Dan Savage was wrong simply because of his beliefs.

Thus, Davis’ behavior, beliefs, and motivations are relevant to certain issues. However, they are not relevant to the truth (or falsity) of her claims regarding same-sex marriage.


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Same-Sex Marriage, Religious Liberty & Obedience

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on September 2, 2015

Kim Davis, a country clerk in Kentucky, has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the grounds that doing so violates her religious beliefs. When questioned about this, she has replied that she is acting “under God’s authority.” Some of those supporting her, and other clerks who have also decided to not issue marriage licenses, are contending that it would violate her religious freedom to be compelled to follow the law and do her job. This situation raises numerous important issues about obedience and liberty.

When taking a position on situations like this, people generally do not consider the matter in terms of general principles regarding such things as religious liberty and obedience to the state. Rather, the focus tends to be on whether one agrees or disagrees with the very specific action. In the Davis case, it is not surprising that people who oppose same-sex marriage tend to favor her decision to disobey the law and claim that she has a moral right to do so. It is also not surprising that those who favor same-sex marriage tend to think that she should obey the law and that it is morally wrong for her to disobey the law of the land.

The problem with this sort of approach is that it is unprincipled—unless being in favor of disobedience one likes and opposing disobedience one dislikes is a reasonable moral position. Moral consistency requires the application of a general principle that applies to all relevantly similar cases, rather than simply going with how one feels about a particular issue.

In regards to the situation involving Davis, many of her defenders have tried to present this as a religious liberty issue: Davis is being wronged by the law because it compels her to act in violation of her religious beliefs. Her right to this liberty presumably outweighs the rights of the same-sex couples who expect her to follow the law and do her job.

Having been influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s arguments for civil disobedience and by Thomas Aquinas, I agree that an individual should follow her informed conscience over the dictates of the state. The individual must, of course, expect to face the consequences of this civil disobedience and these consequences might include fines, being fired or even time in prison. Like Thoreau, I believe that a government official who finds the law too onerous should endeavor to change it and, failing that, should resign rather than obey a law she regards as unjust. As such, my general principle is that a person has the moral right to refuse to follow a law that her informed conscience regards as immoral.

In the case of Davis, if she is acting in accord with her informed conscience, then she has the moral right to refuse to follow the same-sex marriage law. However, having failed to change the law, she needs to either agree to follow this law or resign from her position.

That said, I am well aware that a person’s informed conscience can be in error—that is, what she thinks is morally right is not actually right. It might even be morally wrong. Because of this, I also accept the view that while a person should follow his informed conscience, the actions that follow from this might be morally wrong. If they are wrong, the person has obviously acted wrongly—but, to the degree that she followed her informed conscience, she can be justly excused in regards to her motivations. But, the actions (and perhaps the consequences) would remain wrong.

Since I favor liberty in regards to marriage between consenting adults (and have written numerous essays and a book on this subject), I believe that Davis’ view about same-sex marriage is in error. Though I think she is wrong, if she is acting in accord with her informed conscience and due consideration of the moral issue, then I respect her moral courage in sticking to her ethics.

While subject to the usual range of inconsistencies, I do endeavor to apply my moral principles consistently. As such, I apply these principles to all relevantly similar cases. As such, whenever there is a conflict between an individual’s professed moral views and the law she is supposed to enforce, I ask two questions. The first is “is the person acting in accord with her informed conscience?” The second is “is the person right about the ethics of the matter?” This is rather different from approaching the matter by asking “do I agree with the person on this specific issue?”

As noted above, some of the defenders of Davis are casting this as a religious liberty issue. In this case, the implied general principle would be that when an official’s religious views conflict with a law, then the person has the right to refuse to follow the law. After all, if religious liberty is invoked as a justification here, then it should work equally well in all relevantly similar cases. As such, if Davis should be allowed to ignore the law because of her religious belief, then others must be allowed the same liberty.

As might be suspected, folks that oppose same-sex marriage on religious would probably agree with this principle—at least in cases that match their opinions. However, it seems likely that many folks would not be in favor of consistently applying this principle. For example, consider the matter of immigration.

The bible is reasonable clear about how foreigners should be treated. Leviticus, which is most commonly cited to condemn same-sex marriage, commands that “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Exodus says “”Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” while Deuteronomy adds to this that “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Given this biblical support for loving and treating foreigners well, a border patrol agent, INS official, or immigration judge could find easy religious support for refusing to enforce immigration laws violating their conception of love and good treatment. For example, a border patrol agent could, on religious grounds, refuse to prevent people from crossing the border. As another example, a judge could refuse to send people back to another country on the grounds that the bible says about treating the foreigner as a native born. I suspect that if officials started invoking religious freedom in order to break immigration laws, there would be little support for their religious liberty from the folks who support religious liberty in regards to breaking the law governing same-sex marriage.

To use another example, consider what the bible says about usury. Exodus says “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.”  Ezekiel even classified charging interest as an abomination: “Lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.” If religious liberty allows an official to break/ignore laws, then judges and law enforcement personnel who accept these parts of the bible would be allowed to, for example, refuse to arrest or sentence people for failing to pay interest on loans.

This can be generalized to all relevantly similar situations involving law-breaking/ignoring officials who do so by appealing to religious liberty. As might be imagined, accepting a principle that religious liberty grants an official an exemption to the law would warrant the breaking or ignoring of a vast multitude of laws. Given this consequence, it would seem that accepting the general principle of allowing religious liberty to trump the law would be unwise. It is, however, wise to think beyond one’s feeling about one specific case to consider the implications of accepting a general principle.


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Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2015

When Trump first threw his hair into the ring, many pundits and comedians assumed his campaign would be a short-lived (but extremely funny) misadventure in political theater. However, Trump has not only managed to stay in the fight, he seems to be winning. As this is being written Donald Trump enjoys a commanding lead over the other Republican candidates. He is even closing on the Democrats’ presumed nominee, Hilary Clinton.

While the specifics of Trump’s adventures are not particularly philosophical, his success does provide a foundation for a discussion of the state of American politics. To be honest, though, I just want to write about Trump. Like everyone else.

As a general rule, when a serious political candidate engages in gaffes (especially involving race or gender), the result is often a career ending injury. At the very least, the politician’s handlers get him (or her) into damage control: there are walk backs, clarifications, insincere apologies and all the usual spin. Interestingly, Trump has claimed that Mexico is sending criminals and rapist to America (though there are some good people) and that war hero John McCain is not a hero. Trump has an interesting track record of saying awful things about women and created a stir with his remarks about Megyn Kelly. While pundits and comedians expected these sort of things to damage Trump’s standing, they seem to have contributed to his success.

One reason that these remarks might not have harmed Trump is that they are exactly the sort of things people should expect Trump to say—Trump has been a media star for decades and his ways should surprise no one at this point. To use an analogy, if your rabidly socialist cousin Sarah starts ranting about corporations after she has knocked back several glasses of Merlot at Thanksgiving, you would not be surprised at all. That is what Sarah has done and what Sarah will do, at least until the workers’ revolution. If your Wall Street financier cousin Laura started ranting about the evils of money and corporations, then you would be very surprised. So, one lesson from this is that politicians who have established media personalities clearly suffer little from remaining in character. After all, they are doing exactly what they do and if it has not hurt them much yet, it probably will not cause undo damage now.

Trump’s remarks seem to have actually helped him. One possible reason for this is that there is probably a significant number of Americans, especially conservatives, who are tired of politics as usual. While all the insider Republican candidates claim to be opposed to politics as usual, their words do not match their engaging in politics as usual. Trump, in contrast, is not engaging in politics as usual. As noted above, he does not walk back his comments and even his expression of regret is more of a “sorry, not sorry” than an actual apology. Ironically, Trump is delivering on what is but an empty promise from other politicians and they seem rather confused as to why he is doing so well. It seems to have something to do with the fact that he is spiking the ball they set up with their words.

While most Americans are now very uncomfortable about overt racism, there is a significant percentage of the population that is rather worried about the fact that the United States will soon cease to be a majority white nation. While the other Republicans skirt around this concern with talk about border security and immigration, Trump is not afraid to lay out an immigration plan that addresses this directly. His opposition to birthright citizenship, a core component of American values, is a clear statement of this view. While such straight talk is avoided by the other Republicans, in part because they wish to court the Latino and Hispanic votes, Trump is merely pulling away the veil to reveal what seems to be a very real concern of many conservatives. While this might make it harder for him to win in the general election, it seems to be working quite well with many Republicans. There are, after all, many people who say things like “I’m not racist, it is just that Mexicans and blacks are more likely to commit crimes and they are not as capable as whites” and sincerely believe what they say.

While most Americans are also quite uncomfortable with overt sexism, there is clearly a significant percentage of the population that is fine with women having a lower status relative to men. At the very least, they are quite comfortable with casual sexism. A significant number of conservatives are opposed to equal pay for women (on the grounds that while it is fine to impose things like transvaginal ultrasounds and abortion waiting periods on women, it is wrong to impose on employers) and other matters relating to women’s rights. As such, it hardly surprising that Trump is doing well. While the other candidates do endeavor to appear to be pro-life and against compelling businesses to provide pay equity or maternity leave for women, they generally avoid harsh engagements with women. Trump, however, engaged Megyn Kelly head on, thus earning more ire from women. While this did give the one female Republican candidate a boost, it also seems to have helped Trump. After all, he is open in his views of women and this sort of sincerity is no doubt quite appealing to conservatives who wish they had the Trumps to say the same things. These are the sort of folks who say things like “I’m not a sexist, but women are just not as capable as men and paying them the same as men for the same work would violate the freedom of employers. But I’m sort of fine with transvaginal ultrasounds. And yes, Viagra should be covered by insurance, but not birth control.”

One thing that really strikes me about Trump is that he has shown that he is clearly willing to fight with certain parts of Fox News. This has, as might be imagined, surprised many of the pundits. After all, Fox News has long enjoyed its position as one of the masters of the Republican Party and it would seem insane for a Republican to spat with Fox. That was, after all, Jon Stewart’s job. Accusing the “lame stream” media of bias and asking “gotcha questions” has been the job of Republicans and the conservative media.

One reason Trump can go after parts of Fox is that he is a media star in his own right—the networks simply cannot not cover his Trumpings. Other candidates have to maintain good relations with Fox and at least be somewhat tolerable to the other major media channels.

Another reason Trump can engage in fights with the media, including some parts of Fox, is that he is exploiting a narrative created by conservatives and, rather ironically, the right-leaning media (such as Fox). Fox, Republican politicians and folks like Rush Limbaugh have railed against the media for being a filter, for being biased, and for having an agenda. They crafted a narrative of being against the “lame steam” media, but these attacks seem to have had the effect of generating the potential for hostility against all media. So, Trump is able to make the claim that he is being mistreated by the media and being subject to unfair questions. The irony is that he is using the conservative and Fox narrative about the media against Fox News.

Since Fox and the others crafted a fine sword calculated to cut the media, it should not be surprising that Trump has taken up this blade and turned it against those who hoped to use him as a viewership generator. Unless, of course, this is all part of a plan: a manufactured battle to generate even more viewership.

Given all these factors, it should not be surprising that Trump is doing well. Despite this, most serious pundits claim that Trump will not be the Republican candidate. And, they say, even if he were he could still not win the general election.

While Trump could blow up, implode or get tired of the game, he could also maintain his success and take the nomination. He could even win the presidential election. Here is how it might go down.

First, voter turnout in the United States is low—most potential voters do not vote. Many of these voters would probably vote Democrat while many of the folks who reliably vote tend to be more conservative. The Republicans have also been busy making it harder for those likely to support Democrats to vote. This is done under the guise of fighting the all but non-existent voter fraud. While the impact of these laws will probably be less than liberals fear, they will still have an impact—far more than the mostly make-believe voter fraud that Republicans profess to fear (as they deny vast amounts of evidence for climate change).

Second, there is the Hillary Factor. While Hillary Clinton is popular with many Democrats and independents, this popularity has been eroded—in part due to the issue of the private email server. Clinton’s supporters will certainly lack the fire of Obama’s supporters—though a more charismatic and likeable female candidate could probably fire up supporters to a degree on par with how Obama motivated people in 2008. But, while Hillary is a woman, she seems to be just another politician who happens to wear pantsuits rather than pants.

The growing popularity of Bernie Sanders might require Hillary to go left to win the primaries or even have him as her vice presidential candidate. Since Bernie is an avowed socialist and most actual voters are moderates, this could push people who would otherwise vote for the Democrat to vote for Trump or not vote (which would help Trump). While many Republicans would probably admit in private that Hillary Clinton would be a much better president than Trump, the majority of them would vote for Trump over Hillary—and certainly over Bernie Sanders. As such, a combination of voter apathy and a dislike of Clinton could make Trump the next President of the United States. So, America, prepare for some Quality.


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Autonomous Weapons I: The Letter

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

On July 28, 2015 the Future of Life Institute released an open letter expressing opposition to the development of autonomous weapons. Although the name of the organization sounds like one I would use as a cover for an evil, world-ending cult in a Call of Cthulhu campaign, I am willing to accept that this group is sincere in its professed values. While I do respect their position on the issue, I believe that they are mistaken. I will assess and reply to the arguments in the letter.

As the letter notes, an autonomous weapon is capable of selecting and engaging targets without human intervention. An excellent science fiction example of such a weapon is the claw of Philip K. Dick’s classic “Second Variety” (a must read for anyone interested in the robopocalypse). A real world example of such a weapon, albeit a stupid one, is the land mine—they are placed and then engage automatically.

The first main argument presented in the letter is essentially a proliferation argument. If a major power pushes AI development, the other powers will also do so, creating an arms race. This will lead to the development of cheap, easy to mass-produce AI weapons. These weapons, it is claimed, will end up being acquired by terrorists, warlords, and dictators. These evil people will use these weapons for assassinations, destabilization, oppression and ethnic cleansing. That is, for what these evil people already use existing weapons to do quite effectively. This raises the obvious concern about whether or not autonomous weapons would actually have a significant impact in these areas.

The authors of the letter do have a reasonable point: as science fiction stories have long pointed out, killer robots tend to simply obey orders and they can (at least in fiction) be extremely effective. However, history has shown that terrorists, warlords, and dictators rarely have trouble finding humans who are willing to commit acts of incredible evil. Humans are also quite good at these sort of things and although killer robots are awesomely competent in fiction, it remains to be seen if they will be better than humans in the real world. Especially the cheap, mass produced weapons in question.

That said, it is reasonable to be concerned that a small group or individual could buy a cheap robot army when they would otherwise not be able to put together a human force. These “Walmart” warlords could be a real threat in the future—although small groups and individuals can already do considerable damage with existing technology, such as homemade bombs. They can also easily create weaponized versions of non-combat technology, such as civilian drones and autonomous cars—so even if robotic weapons are not manufactured, enterprising terrorists and warlords will build their own. Think, for example, of a self-driving car equipped with machine guns or just loaded with explosives.

A reasonable reply is that the warlords, terrorists and dictators would have a harder time of it without cheap, off the shelf robotic weapons. This, it could be argued, would make the proposed ban on autonomous weapons worthwhile on utilitarian grounds: it would result in less deaths and less oppression.

The authors then claim that just as chemists and biologists are generally not in favor of creating chemical or biological weapons, most researchers in AI do not want to design AI weapons. They do argue that the creation of AI weapons could create a backlash against AI in general, which has the potential to do considerable good (although there are those who are convinced that even non-weapon AIs will wipe out humanity).

The authors do have a reasonable point here—members of the public do often panic over technology in ways that can impede the public good. One example is in regards to vaccines and the anti-vaccination movement. Another example is the panic over GMOs that is having some negative impact on the development of improved crops. But, as these two examples show, backlash against technology is not limited to weapons, so the AI backlash could arise from any AI technology and for no rational reason. A movement might arise, for example, against autonomous cars. Interestingly, military use of technology seems to rarely create backlash from the public—people do not refuse to fly in planes because the military uses them to kill people. Most people also love GPS, which was developed for military use.

The authors note that chemists, biologists and physicists have supported bans on weapons in their fields. This might be aimed at attempting to establish an analogy between AI researchers and other researchers, perhaps to try to show these researchers that it is a common practice to be in favor of bans against weapons in one’s area of study. Or, as some have suggested, the letter might be making an analogy between autonomous weapons and weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical and nuclear weapons).

One clear problem with the analogy is that biological, chemical and nuclear weapons tend to be the opposite of robotic smart weapons: they “target” everyone without any discrimination. Nerve gas, for example, injures or kills everyone. A nuclear bomb also kills or wounds everyone in the area of effect. While AI weapons could carry nuclear, biological or chemical payloads and they could be set to simply kill everyone, this lack of discrimination and WMD nature is not inherent to autonomous weapons. In contrast, most proposed autonomous weapons seem intended to be very precise and discriminating in their killing. After all, if the goal is mass destruction, there is already the well-established arsenal of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Terrorists, warlords and dictators often have no problems using WMDs already and AI weapons would not seem to significantly increase their capabilities.

In my next essay on this subject, I will argue in favor of AI weapons.


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HRC’s Servergate

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2015

As promised, here is a place for people to comment on H.R. Clinton’s Servergate. My own view is that HRC did not break official policy or the law, but made some poor decisions. I certainly don’t buy the “one device” argument. As others have noted, she has bragged about having many devices. I might be wrong about this, but I infer that if I can have several email accounts on my iPhone, the same sort of thing could have been done for HRC. But, to be fair, perhaps there are some good reasons why that could not occur in her case. But probably not.

While her decision to go with the private server and to decide what to delete turned out to be bad decisions and contrary to how such things should be done, the magnitude of this “scandal” seems to be blown out of proportion. Yes, HRC is sneaky, has a huge sense of entitlement, is suspicious of others, and devoted to unnecessary secrecy. But none of these seem to be disqualifications for office.

But, I welcome the comments of others and I am very interested in seeing arguments presented showing how this shows why HRC should not be president. That is, how this makes her worse than all her competitors.


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