A Philosopher's Blog

Debating the Keystone XL Pipeline

Posted in Business, Environment, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2015

The Keystone XL Pipeline has become a powerful symbol in American politics. Those that oppose it can take it as a symbol of all that is wrong: environmental dangers, global warming, big corporations, and other such evils. Those who support it can take it as a symbol of all that is good: jobs, profits, big corporations and other such goods. While I am no expert when it comes to pipelines, I thought it would be worthwhile to present a concise discussion of the matter.

The main substantial objections against the pipeline are environmental. One concern is that pipelines do suffer from leaks and these leaks can inflict considerable damage to the environment (including the water sources that are used by people). The material that will be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to be rather damaging to the environment and rather problematic in terms of its cleanup.

Those who support the pipeline counter these objections by claiming that the pipelines are relatively safe—but this generally does not reassure people who have seen the impact of previous leaks. Another approach used by supporters is to point out that if the material is not transported by pipeline, companies will transport it by truck and by train. These methods, some claim, are more dangerous than the pipelines. Recent explosions of trains carrying such material do tend to serve as evidence for this claim. There is also the claim that using trucks and trains as a means of transport will create more CO2 output and hence the pipeline is a better choice in regards to the environment.

Some of those who oppose the pipeline contend that the higher cost of using trucks and trains will deter companies from using them (especially with oil prices so low). So, if the pipeline is not constructed, there would not be the predicted increase in CO2 levels from the use of these means of transportation. The obvious counter to this is that companies are already using trucks and trains to transport this material, so they already seem to be willing to pay the higher cost. It can also be pointed out that there are already a lot of pipelines so that one more would not make that much difference.

In addition to the leaks, there is also the concern about the environmental impact of acquiring the material to be transported by the pipeline and the impact of using the fossil fuels created from this material. Those opposed to the pipeline point out how it will contribute to global warming and pollution.

Those who support the pipeline tend to deny climate change or accept climate change but deny that humans cause it, or accept that humans cause it but contend that there is nothing that we can do that would be effective (mainly because China and other countries will just keep polluting). Another approach is to argue that the economic benefits outweigh any alleged harms.

Proponents of the pipeline claim that it will create a massive number of jobs. Opponents point out that while there will be some job creation when it is built (construction workers will be needed), the number of long term jobs will be very low. The opponents seem to be right—leaving out cleanup jobs, it does not take a lot of people to maintain a modern pipeline. Also, it is not like businesses will open up along the pipeline once it is constructed—it is not like the oil needs hotels or food. It is, of course, true that the pipeline can be a moneymaker for the companies—but it does seem unlikely that this pipeline will have a significant impact on the economy. After all, it would just be one more pipeline among many.

As might be guessed, some of the debate is over the matters of fact discussed above, such the environmental impact of building or not building the pipeline. Because many of the parties presenting the (alleged) facts have a stake in the matter, this makes getting objective information a bit of a problem. After all, those who have a financial or ideological interest in the pipeline will tend to present numbers that support the pipeline—that it creates many jobs and will not have much negative impact. Those who oppose it will tend to do the opposite—their numbers will tend to tell against the pipeline. This is not to claim that people are lying, but to simply point out the obvious influences of biases.

Even if the factual disputes could be settled, the matter is rather more than a factual disagreement—it is also a dispute over values. Environmental issues are generally political in the United States, with the right usually taking stances for business and against the environment and the left taking pro-environment and anti-business stances. The Keystone XL pipeline is no exception and has, in fact, become a symbol of general issues in regards to the environment and business.

As noted above, those who support the pipeline (with some interesting exceptions) generally reject or downplay the environmental concerns in favor of their ideological leaning. Those that oppose it generally reject or downplay the economic concerns in favor of their ideological leaning.

While I am pro-environment, I do not have a strong rational opposition to the pipeline. The main reasons are that there are already many pipelines, that the absence of the pipeline would not lower fossil fuel consumption, and that companies would most likely expand the use of trains and trucks (which would create more pollution and potentially create greater risks). However, if I were convinced that not having the pipeline would be better than having it, I would certainly change my position.

There is, of course, also the matter of symbolism—that one should fight or support something based on its symbolic value. It could be contended that the pipeline is just such an important symbol and that being pro-environment obligates a person to fight it, regardless of the facts. Likewise, someone who is pro-business would be obligated to support it, regardless to the facts.

While I do appreciate the value of symbols, the idea of supporting or opposing something regardless of the facts strikes me as both irrational and immoral.

 

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Ransoms & Hostages

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2015

1979 Associated Press photograph showing hosta...

While some countries will pay ransoms to free hostages, the United States has a public policy of not doing this. Thanks to ISIS, the issue of whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists groups or not has returned to the spotlight.

One reason to not pay a ransom for hostages is a matter of principle. This principle could be that bad behavior should not be rewarded or that hostage taking should be punished (or both).

One of the best arguments against paying ransoms for hostages is both a practical and a utilitarian moral argument. The gist of the argument is that paying ransoms gives hostage takers an incentive to take hostages. This incentive will mean that more people will be taken hostage. The cost of not paying is, of course, the possibility that the hostage takers will harm or kill their initial hostages. However, the argument goes, if hostage takers realize that they will not be paid a ransom, they will not have an incentive to take more hostages. This will, presumably, reduce the chances that the hostage takers will take hostages. The calculation is, of course, that the harm done to the existing hostages will be outweighed by the benefits of not having people taken hostage in the future.

This argument assumes, obviously enough, that the hostage takers are primarily motivated by the ransom payment. If they are taking hostages primarily for other reasons, such as for status, to make a statement or to get media attention, then not paying them a ransom will not significantly reduce their incentive to take hostages. This leads to a second reason to not pay ransoms.

In addition to the incentive argument, there is also the funding argument. While a terrorist group might have reasons other than money to take hostages, they certainly benefit from getting such ransoms. The money they receive can be used to fund additional operations, such as taking more hostages. Obviously enough, if ransoms are not paid, then such groups do lose this avenue of funding which can impact their operations. Since paying a ransom would be funding terrorism, this provides both a moral a practical reason not to pay ransoms.

While these arguments have a rational appeal, they are typically countered by a more emotional appeal. A stock approach to arguing that ransoms should be paid is the “in their shoes” appeal. The method is very straightforward and simply involves asking a person whether or not she would want a ransom to be paid for her (or a loved one). Not surprising, most people would want the ransom to be paid, assuming doing so would save her (or her loved one). Sometimes the appeal is made explicitly in terms of emotions: “how would you feel if your loved one died because the government refuses to pay ransoms?” Obviously, any person would feel awful.

This method does have considerable appeal. The “in their shoes” appeal can be seem similar to the golden rule approach (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). To be specific, the appeal is not to do unto others, but to base a policy on how one would want to be treated in that situation. If I would not want the policy applied to me (that is, I would want to be ransomed or have my loved one ransomed), then I should be morally opposed to the policy as a matter of consistency. This certainly makes sense: if I would not want a policy applied in my case, then I should (in general) not support that policy.

One obvious counter is that there seems to be a distinction between what a policy should be and whether or not a person would want that policy applied to herself. For example, some universities have a policy that if a student misses more than three classes, the student fails the course. Naturally, no student wants that policy to be applied to her (and most professors would not have wanted it applied to them when they were students), but this hardly suffices to show that the policy is wrong. As another example, a company might have a policy of not providing health insurance to part time employees. While the CEO would certainly not like the policy if she were part time, it does not follow that the policy must be a bad one. As such, policies need to be assessed not just in terms of how a persons feels about them, but in terms of their merit or lack thereof.

Another obvious counter is to use the same approach, only with a modification. In response to the question “how would you feel if you were the hostage or she were a loved one?” one could ask “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage in an operation funded by ransom money? Or “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage because the hostage takers learned that people would pay ransoms for hostages?” The answer would be, of course, that one would feel bad about that. However, while how one would feel about this can be useful in discussing the matter, it is not decisive. Settling the matter rationally does require considering more than just how people would feel—it requires looking at the matter with a degree of objectivity. That is, not just asking how people would feel, but what would be right and what would yield the best results in the practical sense.

 

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Are Anti-Vaccination People Stupid?

Posted in Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2015
Poster from before the 1979 eradication of sma...

Poster from before the 1979 eradication of smallpox, promoting vaccination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States recently saw an outbreak of the measles (644 cases in 27 states) with the overwhelming majority of victims being people who had not been vaccinated. Critics of the anti-vaccination movement have pointed to this as clear proof that the movement is not only misinformed but also actually dangerous. Not surprisingly, those who take the anti-vaccination position are often derided as stupid. After all, there is no evidence that vaccines cause the harms that the anti-vaccination people refer to when justifying their position. For example, one common claim is that vaccines cause autism, but this seems to be clearly untrue. There is also the fact that vaccinations have been rather conclusively shown to prevent diseases (though not perfectly, of course).

It is, of course, tempting for those who disagree with the anti-vaccination people to dismiss them uniformly as stupid people who lack the brains to understand science. This, however, is a mistake. One reason it is a mistake is purely pragmatic: those who are pro-vaccination want the anti-vaccination people to change their minds and calling them stupid, mocking and insulting them will merely cause them to entrench. Another reason it is a mistake is that the anti-vaccination people are not, in general, stupid. There are, in fact, grounds for people to be skeptical or concerned about matters of health and science. To show this, I will briefly present some points of concern.

One point of rational concern is the fact that scientific research has been plagued with a disturbing amount of corruption, fraud and errors. For example, the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies. As such, it is hardly stupid to be concerned that scientific research might not be accurate. Somewhat ironically, the study that started the belief that vaccines cause autism is a paradigm example of bad science. However, it is not stupid to consider that the studies that show vaccines are safe might have flaws as well.

Another matter of concern is the influence of corporate lobbyists on matters relating to health. For example, the dietary guidelines and recommendations set forth by the United States Government should be set on the basis of the best science. However, the reality is that these matters are influenced quite strongly by industry lobbyists, such as the dairy industry. Given the influence of the corporate lobbyists, it is not foolish to think that the recommendations and guidelines given by the state might not be quite right.

A third point of concern is the fact that the dietary and health guidelines and recommendations undo what seems to be relentless and unwarranted change. For example, the government has warned us of the dangers of cholesterol for decades, but this recommendation is being changed. It would, of course, be one thing if the changes were the result of steady improvements in knowledge. However, the recommendations often seem to lack a proper foundation. John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and statistics at Stanford, has noted “Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome. In this literature of epidemic proportions, how many results are correct?” Given such criticism from experts in the field, it hardly seems stupid of people to have doubts and concerns.

There is also the fact that people do suffer adverse drug reactions that can lead to serious medical issues and even death. While the reported numbers vary (one FDA page puts the number of deaths at 100,000 per year) this is certainly a matter of concern. In an interesting coincidence, I was thinking about this essay while watching the Daily Show on Hulu this morning and one of my “ad experiences” was for Januvia, a diabetes drug. As required by law, the ad mentioned all the side effects of the drug and these include some rather serious things, including death. Given that the FDA has approved drugs with dangerous side effects, it is hardly stupid to be concerned about the potential side effects from any medicine or vaccine.

Given the above points, it would certainly not be stupid to be concerned about vaccines. At this point, the reader might suspect that I am about to defend an anti-vaccine position. I will not—in fact, I am a pro-vaccination person. This might seem somewhat surprising given the points I just made. However, I can rationally reconcile these points with my position on vaccines.

The above points do show that there are rational grounds for taking a general critical and skeptical approach to matters of health, medicine and science. However, this general skepticism needs to be properly rational. That is, it should not be a rejection of science but rather the adoption of a critical approach to these matters in which one considers the best available evidence, assesses experts by the proper standards (those of a good argument from authority), and so on. Also, it is rather important to note that the general skepticism does not automatically justify accepting or rejecting specific claims. For example, the fact that there have been flawed studies does not prove that the specific studies about vaccines as flawed. As another example, the fact that lobbyists influence the dietary recommendations does not prove that vaccines are harmful drugs being pushed on Americans by greedy corporations. As a final example, the fact that some medicines have serious and dangerous side effects does not prove that the measles vaccine is dangerous or causes autism. Just as one should be rationally skeptical about pro-vaccination claims one should also be rationally skeptical about anti-vaccination claims.

To use an obvious analogy, it is rational to have a general skepticism about the honesty and goodness of people. After all, people do lie and there are bad people. However, this general skepticism does not automatically prove that a specific person is dishonest or evil—that is a matter that must be addressed on the individual level.

To use another analogy, it is rational to have a general concern about engineering. After all, there have been plenty of engineering disasters. However, this general concern does not warrant believing that a specific engineering project is defective or that engineering itself is defective. The specific project would need to be examined and engineering is, in general, the most rational approach to building stuff.

So, the people who are anti-vaccine are not, in general, stupid. However, they do seem to be making the mistake of not rationally considering the specific vaccines and the evidence for their safety and efficacy. It is quite rational to be concerned about medicine in general, just as it is rational to be concerned about the honesty of people in general. However, just as one should not infer that a friend is a liar because there are people who lie, one should not infer that a vaccine must be bad because there is bad science and bad medicine.

Convincing anti-vaccination people to accept vaccination is certainly challenging. One reason is that the issue has become politicized into a battle of values and identity. This is partially due to the fact that the anti-vaccine people have been mocked and attacked, thus leading them to entrench and double down. Another reason is that, as argued above, they do have well-founded concerns about the trustworthiness of the state, the accuracy of scientific studies, and the goodness of corporations. A third reason is that people tend to give more weight to the negative and also tend to weigh potential loss more than potential gain. As such, people would tend to give more weight to negative reasons against vaccines and fear the alleged dangers of vaccines more than they would value their benefits.

Given the importance of vaccinations, it is rather critical that the anti-vaccination movement be addressed. Calling people stupid, mocking them and attacking them are certainly not effective ways of convincing people that vaccines are generally safe and effective. A more rational and hopefully more effective approach is to address their legitimate concerns and consider their fears. After all, the goal should be the health of people and not scoring points.

 

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Obesity, Disability, & Accomodation

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

It is estimated that almost 30% of humans are overweight or obese and this percentage seems likely to increase. Given this large number of large people, it is not surprising that various moral and legal issues have arisen regarding the accommodation of the obese. It is also not surprising that people arguing in favor of accommodating the obese content that obesity is a disability. The legal issues are, of course, simply matter of law and are settled by lawsuits. Since I am not a lawyer, I will focus on the ethics of the matter and will address two main issues. The first is whether or not obesity is a disability. The second is whether or not obesity is a disability that morally justifies making accommodations.

On the face of it, obesity is disabling. That is, a person who is obese will have reduced capabilities relative to a person who is not obese. An obese person will tend to have much lower endurance than a non-obese person, less speed, less mobility, less flexibility and so on. An obese person will also tend to suffer from more health issues and be at greater risk for various illnesses. Because of this, an obese person might find it difficult or impossible to perform certain job tasks, such as those involving strenuous physical activity or walking moderate distances.

The larger size and weight of obese individuals also presents challenges regarding such things as standard sized chairs, doors, equipment, clothing and vehicles. For example, an obese person might be unable to operate a forklift with the standard seating and safety belt. As another example, an obese person might not be able to fit in one airline seat and instead require two (or more).  As a third example, an obese student might not be able to fit into a standard classroom desk. As such, obesity could make it difficult or impossible for a person to work or make use of certain goods and services.

Obviously enough, obese people are not the only ones who are disabled. There are people with short term disabilities due to illness or injury. I experienced this myself when I had a complete quadriceps tendon tear—my left leg was locked in an immobilizer for weeks, then all but useless for months. With this injury, I was considerably slower, had difficulty with stairs, could not carry heavy loads, and could not drive. There are also people who have long term or permanent disabilities, such as people who are paralyzed, blind, or are missing limbs due to accidents or war. These people can face considerable challenges in performing tasks at work and in life in general. For example, a person who is permanently confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal injury will find navigating stairs or working in the woods or working at muddy construction sites rather challenging.

In general, there seems to be no moral problem with requiring employees, businesses, schools and so on to make reasonable accommodations for people who are disabled. The basic principle that justifies that is the principle of equal treatment: people should be afforded equal access, even when doing so requires some additional accommodation. As such, while having ramps in addition to stairs costs more, it is a reasonable requirement given that some people cannot fully use their legs. Given that the obese are disabled, it seems easy enough to conclude that they should be accommodated just as the blind and paralyzed are accommodated.

Naturally, it could be argued that there is no moral obligation to provide accommodations for anyone. If this is the case, then there would be no obligation to accommodate the obese. However, it would seem to be rather difficult to prove, for example, that disabled veterans returning to school should just have to work their way up the steps in their wheelchairs. For the sake of the discussion to follow I will assume that there is a moral obligation to accommodate the disabled. However, there is still the question of whether or not this should apply to the obese.

One obvious way to argue against accommodations for the obese is to argue that there is a morally relevant difference between those disabled by obesity and those disabled by injury, birth defects, etc. One difference that people often point to is that obesity is a matter of choice and other disabilities are not. That is, a person’s decisions resulted in her being fat and hence she is responsible in a way a person crippled in an accident is not.

It could be pointed out that some people who are disabled by injury where disabled as the result of their decisions. For example, a person might have driven while drunk and ended up paralyzed. But, of course, the person would not be denied access to handicapped parking or the use of automatic doors because his disability was self-inflicted. The same reasoning could be used for the obese: though their disability is self-inflicted, it is still a disability and thus should be accommodated.

The easy and obvious reply to this is that there is still a relevant difference. While a person crippled in a self-inflicted drunken crash caused his own disability, there is little he can do about that disability. He can change his diet and exercise but this will not restore functionality to his legs. That is, he is permanently stuck with the results of that decision. In contrast, an obese person has to maintain her obesity. While some people are genetically predisposed to being obese, how much a person eats and how much they exercise is a matter of choice. Since they could reduce their weight, the rest of us are under no obligation to provide special accommodations for them. This is because they could take reasonable steps to remove the need for such accommodations. To use analogy, imagine someone who insisted that they be provided with a Seeing Eye dog because she wants to wear opaque glasses all the time. These glasses would result in her being disabled since she would be blind. However, since she does not need to wear such glasses and could easily do without them, there is no obligation to provide her with the dog. In contrast, a person who is actually blind cannot just get new eyes and hence it is reasonable for society to accommodate her.

It can be replied that obesity is not a matter of choice. One approach would be to argue for metaphysical determinism—the obese are obese by necessity and could not be otherwise. The easy reply here would be to say that we are, sadly enough, metaphysically determined not to provide accommodations.

A more sensible approach would be to argue that obesity is, in some cases, a medical condition that is beyond the ability of a person to control—that is, the person lacks agency in regards to his eating and exercise. The most likely avenue of support for this claim would come from neuroscience. If it can be shown that people are incapable of controlling their weight, then obesity would be a true disability, on par with having one’s arm blasted off by an IED or being born with a degenerative neural disorder. This would, of course, require abandoning agency (at least in this context).

It could also be argued that a person does have some choice, but that acting on the choice would be so difficult that it is more reasonable for society to accommodate the individual than it is for the individual to struggle to not be obese. To use an analogy, a disabled person might be able to regain enough functionality to operate in a “mostly normal” way, but doing so might require agonizing effort that is beyond what could be expected of a person. In such a case, one would surely not begrudge the person the accommodations. So, it could be argued that since it is easier for society to accommodate the obese than it is for the obese to not be obese, society should do so.

There is, however, a legitimate concern here. If the principle is adopted that society must accommodate the obese because they are disabled and they cannot help their obesity, then others could appeal to that same sort of principle and perhaps over-extend the realm of disabilities that must be accommodated. For example, people who are addicted to drugs could make a similar argument: they are disabled, yet their addiction is not a matter of choice. As another example, people who are irresponsible or lazy can claim they are disabled as well and should be accommodated on the grounds that they cannot be other than they are. But, perhaps the line can be drawn in a principle way so that the obese are disabled, but others are not.

 

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Should Confederate Veterans be Honored as Veterans?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 9, 2015

Yet another interesting controversy has arisen in my adopted state of Florida. Three Confederate veterans, who fought against the United States of America, have been nominated for admission to Florida’s Veterans’ Hall of Fame. The purpose of the hall is to honor “those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida.”

The three nominees are David Lang, Samuel Pasco and Edward A. Perry. Perry was Florida’s governor from 1885 to 1889; Pasco was a U.S. senator. Lang assisted in creating what became the Florida National Guard. As such, they did make significant contributions to Florida. The main legal question is whether or not they qualify as veterans. Since Florida was in rebellion (in defense of slaver) against the United States there is also a moral question of whether or not they should be considered veterans.

The state of Florida and the US federal government have very similar definitions of “veteran.” For Florida, a veteran is a person who served in the active military and received an honorable discharge. The federal definition states that “The term ‘veteran’ means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” The law also defines “Armed Forces” as the “United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.” The reserves are also included as being in the armed forces.

According to Mike Prendergast, the executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the three nominees in question do not qualify because the applications to the hall did not indicate that the men served in the armed forces of the United States of America. Interestingly, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam takes the view that “If you’re throwing these guys out on a technicality, that’s just dumb.”

Presumably, Putnam regards the fact that the men served in the Confederate army and took up arms against the United States as a technicality. This seems to be rather more than a mere technicality. After all, the honor seems to be reserved for veterans as defined by the relevant laws. As such, being Confederate veterans would seem to no more qualify the men for the hall than being a veteran of the German or Japanese army in WWII would qualify someone who moved to Florida and did great things for the state. There is also the moral argument about enrolling people who fought against the United States into this hall. Fighting in defense of slavery and against the lawful government of the United States would seem to be morally problematic in regards to the veteran part of the honor.

One counter to the legal argument is that Confederate soldiers were granted (mostly symbolic) pensions about 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Confederate veterans can also be buried in a special Confederate section of Arlington National Cemetery. These facts do push the door to a legal and moral argument open a crack. In regards to the legal argument, it could be contended that Confederate veterans have been treated, in some ways, as veterans. As such, one might argue, this should be extended to the Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

The obvious response is that these concessions to the Confederate veterans do not suffice to classify Confederate veterans as veterans of the United States. As such, they would not be qualified for the hall. There is also the moral counter that soldiers who fought against the United States should not be honored as veterans of the United States. After all, one would not honor veterans of other militaries that have fought against the United States.

It could also be argued that since the states that made up the Confederacy joined the United States, the veterans of the Confederacy would, as citizens, become United States’ veterans. Of course, the same logic would seem to apply to parts of the United States that were assimilated from other nations, such as Mexico, the lands of the Iroquois, and the lands of Apache and so on. As such, perhaps Sitting Bull would qualify as a veteran under this sort of reasoning. Perhaps this could be countered by contending that the south left and then rejoined, so it is not becoming part of the United States that has the desired effect but rejoining after a rebellion.

Another possible argument is to contend that the Veterans’ Hall of Fame is a Florida hall and, as such, just requires that the veterans be Florida veterans. In the Civil War units were, in general, connected to a specific state (such the 1st Maine). As such, if the men in question served in a Florida unit that fought against the United States, they would be Florida veterans but not United States veterans. Using this option would, of course, require that the requirements for the hall not include that a nominee be a veteran of the United States military and presumably it could not be connected to the United States VA since that agency is only responsible for veterans of the United States armed forces and not veterans who served other nations.

In regards to the moral concerns of honoring, as veterans, men who fought against the United States and in defense of slavery, it could be claimed that the war was not about slavery. The obvious problem with this is that the war was, in fact, fought to preserve slavery. The southern states made this abundantly clear. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, gave his infamous Cornerstone Speech and made this quite clear when he said “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

It could, of course, be argued that not every soldier fighting for the South was fighting to defend slavery. After all, just like today, most of the people fighting in wars are not the people who set policy or benefit from these policies. These men could have gone to war not to protect the institution of slavery, but because they were duped by the slave holders. Or because they wanted to defend their state from “northern aggression.” Or some other morally acceptable reason. That is, it could be claimed that these men were fighting for something other than the explicit purpose of the Confederacy, namely the preservation of slavery. Since this is not impossible, it could be claimed that the men should be given the benefit of the doubt and be honored for fighting against the United States and then doing significant things for Florida.

In any case, this matter is rather interesting and I am looking forward to seeing my adopted state mocked once again on the Daily Show. And, just maybe, Al Sharpton will show up to say some things.

 

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Why Republicans Should Support Legalizing Marijuana

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2015
English: NORML members protest in Lafayette Pa...

English: NORML members protest in Lafayette Park during the annual July 4th “Smoke-In.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I believe that people should not use marijuana, I believe that the sale and consumption of the drug should be legal. Given the espoused principles of the Republicans, they should agree with me. To make the case for this, I will consider some of the core espoused principles of the Republicans.

First, Republicans employ the usual rhetoric of freedom (in early 2015 they had a Freedom Summit in Iowa) and allowing people the freedom to grow, sell and use marijuana would be consistent with the notion of freedom. But, of course, the vague rhetoric of freedom is just that—vague rhetoric. So I will turn to more specific principles.

Second, there is the standard Republican claim that they prefer to have matters handled locally rather than by the power of the federal government. Some states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana at the local level. To be consistent, the Republicans should accept the local decisions and allow the citizens to exercise the freedom they voted for. To impose on the local governments and the citizens would be contrary to this espoused principle.

Third, Republicans often speak of “getting government off our back” and in favor of small government. The laws regarding marijuana and their enforcement certainly put the government on the back of citizens. As the Republicans like to say, why should the state be telling people what they can and cannot do? These laws have also led to an increase in the size of government, which is contrary to the small government ideal.

Fourth, Republicans are typically eager to oppose regulations and want to set the market free. Legalizing marijuana by removing the existing laws would reduce regulations, thus being in accord with this ideological point. The free market has clearly spoken in regards to marijuana: people want to buy and sell it. To impose harsh laws and regulations on these transactions is to impede the free market and to have the government pick winners and losers. The Republicans should be in favor of this freeing of the market from burdensome regulation.

Fifth, Republicans speak lovingly of job creators and job creation. The marijuana industry is run by job creators who create many jobs in growing and distributing the crops. They also create jobs in the snack and fast food industries as well as in the paraphernalia business. Legalizing marijuana would help grow the economy and create jobs, so the Republicans should support this.

Finally, the Republicans express a devotion to lowering government spending. Enforcing the marijuana laws is rather costly and legalizing marijuana would help reduced government spending. This would allow more tax cuts. Given these key Republican principles, they should eagerly embrace the legalization of marijuana.

It might be noted that Republicans, despite these espoused principles, should be opposed to legalizing marijuana. One reason that has been stated is that marijuana is harmful, and specifically harmful for the children.

I, of course, agree that marijuana is harmful and certainly agree that children should not use it. However, there is the matter of consistency. Obviously enough, harmful things such as alcohol, automobiles, tobacco, junk food and guns are legal in the United States and Republicans are staunch supporters of these things—despite the harm they do. As such, Republican support of marijuana would be consistent with their support of such things as guns, fossil fuels and tobacco. As far as the matter of children, marijuana can be handled in the same way as cars, guns, tobacco and alcohol. That is, marijuana can be illegal for children.

There is also the fact that while marijuana is harmful, it does not seem to be significantly more harmful than tobacco and alcohol. Its use also kills far fewer people than do cars and guns. Naturally, I do agree that it should be illegal to drive, etc. while high—just as it is illegal to drive when drunk. As such, the harmful nature of marijuana

It might be objected that marijuana is simply immoral and thus must be kept illegal. The obvious challenge is showing why it is simply immoral and then showing why immoral things should be made illegal. This can be done—but the adoption of the principle that the immoral must be illegal would probably not appeal to Republicans if it were consistently applied.

 

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What is the Worst Thing You Should (Be Allowed to) Say?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 26, 2015
Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been s...

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been specifically banned from entering Canada for hate speech. Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus victim’s funeral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Charlie Hedbo and their aftermath raised the issue of freedom of expression in a dramatic and terrible manner. In response to these deaths, there was an outpouring of support for this basic freedom and, somewhat ironically, a crackdown on some people expressing their views.

This situation raises two rather important issues. The first is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should express. The second is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. While these might seem to be the same issue, they are not. The reason for this is that there is a distinction between what a person should do and what is morally permissible to prevent a person from doing. The main focus will be on using the coercive power of the state in this role.

As an illustration of the distinction, consider the example of a person lying to his girlfriend about running strikes all day in the video game Destiny when he was supposed to be doing yard work. It seems reasonable to think that he should not lie to her (although exceptions are easy to imagine). However, it also seems reasonable to think that the police should not be sent to coerce him into telling her the truth. So, he should not lie to her about playing the game but he should be allowed to do so by the state (that is, it should not use its police powers to stop him).

This view can be disputed and there are those who argue in favor of complete freedom from the state (anarchists) and those who argue that the state should control every aspect of life (totalitarians). However, the idea that that there are some matters that are not the business of the state seems to be an intuitively plausible position—at least in democratic states such as the United States. What follows will rest on this assumption and the challenge will be to sort out these two issues.

One rather plausible and appealing approach is to take a utilitarian stance on the matter and accept the principle of harm as the foundation for determining the worst thing that a person should express and also the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. The basic idea behind this is that the right of free expression is bounded by the stock liberal right of others not to be harmed in their life, liberty and property without due justification.

In the case of the worst thing that a person should express, I am speaking in the context of morality. There are, of course, non-moral meanings of “should.” To use the most obvious example, there is the “pragmatic should”: what a person should or should not do in regards to advancing his practical self-interest. For example, a person should not tell her boss what she really thinks of him if doing so would cost her the job she desperately needs. To use another example, there is also the “should of etiquette”: what a person should do or not do in order to follow the social norms. For example, a person should not go without pants at a formal wedding, even to express his opposition to the tyranny of pants.

Returning to the matter of morality, it seems reasonable to go with the stock approach of weighing the harm the expression generates against the right of free expression (assuming there is such a right). Obviously enough, there is not an exact formula for calculating the worst thing a person should express and this will vary according to the circumstances. For example, the worst thing one should express to a young child would presumably be different from the worst thing one should express to adult. In terms of the harms, these would include the obvious things such as offending the person, scaring her, insulting her, and so on for the various harms that can be inflicted by mere expression.

While I do not believe that people have a right not to be offended, people do seem to have a right not to be unjustly harmed by other people expressing themselves. To use an obvious example, men should not catcall women who do not want to be subject to this verbal harassment. This sort of behavior certainly offends, upsets and even scares many women and the men’s right to free expression does not give them a moral pass that exempts them from what they should or should not do.

To use another example, people should not intentionally and willfully insult another person’s deeply held beliefs simply for the sake of insulting or provoking the person. While the person does have the right to mock the belief of another, his right of expression is not a moral free pass to be abusive.

As a final example, people should not engage in trolling. While a person does have the right to express his views so as to troll others, this is clearly wrong. Trolling is, by definition, done with malice and contributes nothing of value to the conversation. As such, it should not be done.

It is rather important to note that while I have claimed that people should not unjustly harm others by expressing themselves, I have not made any claims about whether or not people should or should not be allowed to express themselves in these ways. It is to this that I now turn.

If the principle of harm is a reasonable principle (which can be debated), then a plausible approach would be to use it to sketch out some boundaries. The first rough boundary was just discussed: this is the boundary between what people should express and what people should (morally) not. The second rough boundary begins at the point where other people should be allowed to prevent a person from expressing himself and ends just before the point at which the state has the moral right to use its coercive power to prevent expression.

This area is the domain of interactions between people that does not fall under the authority of the state, yet still permits people to be prevented from expressing their views. To use an obvious example, the workplace is such a domain in which people can be justly prevented from expressing their views without the state being involved. To use a specific example, the administrators of my university have the right to prevent me from expressing certain things—even if doing so would not fall under the domain of the state. To use another example, a group of friends would have the right, among themselves, to ban someone from their group for saying racist, mean and spiteful things to one of their number. As a final example, a blog administrator would have the right to ban a troll from her site, even though the troll should not be subject to the coercive power of the state.

The third boundary is the point at which the state can justly use its coercive power to prevent a person from engaging in expression. As with the other boundaries, this would be set (roughly) by the degree of harm that the expression would cause others. There are many easy and obvious example where the state would act rightly in imposing on a person: threats of murder, damaging slander, incitements to violence against the innocent, and similar such unquestionably harmful expressions.

Matters do, of course, get complicated rather quickly. Consider, for example, a person who does not call for the murder of cartoonists who mock Muhammad but tweets his approval when they are killed. While this would certainly seem to be something a person should not do (though this could be debated), it is not clear that it crosses the boundary that would allow the state to justly prevent the person from expressing this view. If the approval does not create sufficient harm, then it would seem to not warrant coercive action against the person by the state.

As another example, consider the expression of racist views via social media. While people should not say such things (and would be justly subject to the consequences), as long as they do not engage in actual threats, then it would seem that the state does not have the right to silence the person. This is because the expression of racist views (without threats) would not seem to generate enough harm to warrant state coercion. Naturally, it could justify action on the part of the person’s employer, friends and associates: he might be fired and shunned.

As a third example, consider a person who mocks the dominant or even official religion of the state. While the rulers of such states usually think they have the right to silence such an infidel, it is not clear that this would create enough unjust harm to warrant silencing the person. Being an American, I think that it would not—but I believe in both freedom of religion and the freedom to mock religion.  There is, of course, the matter of the concern that such mockery would provoke others to harm the mocker, thus warranting the state to stop the person—for her own protection. However, the fact that people will act wrongly in response to expressions would not seem to warrant coercing the person into silence.

In general, I favor erring on the side of freedom: unless the state can show that silencing expression is needed to prevent a real and unjust harm, the state does not have the moral right to silence expression.

I have merely sketched out a general outline of this matter and have presented three rough boundaries in regards to what people should say and what they should be allowed to say. Much more work would be needed to develop a full and proper account.

 

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Charlie, Islam & Justification

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 21, 2015

While the murders of twelve people at Charlie Hebdo are unjustifiable, one of the killers did attempt, in advance, to justify the attack. The main justification offered was that the attack was in accord with Islamic law. Since I am not a scholar of Islam, I will not address the issue of whether this is true or not. As an ethicist, I will address the matter of moral justification for the killings.

From the standpoint of the killers, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was presumably punishment for the actions of those they killed. In general, punishment is aimed at retaliation for wrongs done, redemption of the wrongdoer or deterrence (this is the RRD model). Presumably the killers were aiming at both retaliation and deterrence and not redemption. From a moral standpoint, both retaliation and deterrence are supposed to be limited by a principle of proportionality.

In the case of retaliation, the punishment should correspond to the alleged crime. The reason for this is that disproportionate retaliation would not “balance the books”, but instead create another wrong that would justify retaliation in response. This, of course, assumes that retaliation is justifiable in general, which can certainly be questioned.

In the case of deterrence, there is also a general presumption in favor of proportionality. The main reason is the same as in retaliation: excessive punishment would seem to, by definition, create another wrong. A standard counter to this is to argue that excessive punishment is acceptable on the grounds of its deterrence value—the greater the punishment, the greater the deterrence.

While this does have a certain appeal, it also runs counter to common moral intuitions. For example, blowing up a student’s car for parking in a faculty parking space at university would certainly deter students, but would be excessive. As another example, having the death penalty for traffic violations would tend to deter such violations, but this certainly seems unacceptable.

There is also the standard utilitarian argument that excessive punishment used for deterrence would create more harm than good. For example, allowing police to execute anyone who resisted arrest would deter resistance, but the harms to citizens and society would certainly seem to outweigh the benefits gained. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that punishment for the purpose of deterrence should be proportional to the offense. There is, of course, still the concern about the deterrence factor. A good guiding principle is that the punishment that aims at deterrence should be sufficient to deter, yet proportional to the offense. Roughly put, deterring the misdeed should not be worse than the misdeed.

In the case of the people at Charlie Hebdo, their alleged offense was their satire of Mohammad and Islam via cartoons. On the face of it, death certainly seems to be a disproportionate punishment. After all, killing someone is certainly vastly more harmful than insulting or offending someone.

A proportional response would have been something along the lines of creating a satirical cartoon of the staff, publishing an article critical of their cartoons or protesting these cartoons. That is, a proportional response to the non-violent expression of a view would be the non-violent expression of an opposing view. Murder would obviously be a vastly disproportionate response.

It could be replied that the punishment was proportional because of the severity of the offense. The challenge is, obviously enough, arguing that the offense was severe enough to warrant death. On the face of it, no cartoon would seem to merit death. After all, no matter how bad a cartoon might be, the worst it can do is offend a person and this would not seem to warrant death. However, it could be argued that the offense is not against just any person, but against God. That is, the crime is blasphemy or something similar. This would provide a potential avenue for justifying a penalty of death. It is to this that I now turn.

Religious thinkers who believe in Hell have long faced the challenge of justifying eternal damnation. After all, as David Hume noted, an infinite punishment for what must be finite offenses is contrary to our principles of justice. That is, even if a person sinned for every second of her life, she could not do enough evil to warrant an infinitely bad, infinitely long punishment. However, there is a clever reply to this claim.

In his classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, Jonathan Edwards says of sinners that “justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins.” Roughly put, he justifies the infinite punishment of sin on the grounds that since God is infinitely good, any sin against God is infinitely bad. As such, the punishment is proportional to the offense: infinite punishment for an infinitely bad crime.

It could be contended that creating cartoons mocking Mohammed and Islam are sins against an infinitely good God, thus warranting an infinite punishment and presumably justifying killing (which is less than infinite punishment). Interestingly, the infinite punishment for sins would seem to render the punishing of sinners here on earth pointless for two reasons. First, if the sinner will be punished infinitely, then punishing him here would not increase his punishment. So, there is no point to it. Second, if the sinner is going to be punished divinely, then punishment here would also be pointless. To use an analogy, imagine if someone proposed having a pre-legal system in which alleged criminals would be tried and, if found guilty, be given pointless and miniscule sentences (such as being mildly scolded for one second). The alleged criminals would then go on to the real legal system for their real punishment. This pre-legal system would obviously be a pointless waste of time and resources. Likewise, if there is divine justice for sins, then punishing them here would be a pointless waste of time.

This, obviously enough, assumes that God is real, that He punishes and that He would punish people for something as minor as a cartoon. It would certainly seem to be a rather petty and insecure God that would be overly concerned about snarky cartoons—people are usually most likely to react to mockery when they are strong enough to punish, but weak enough to be insecure. God, I would think, is far too big to be enraged by cartoons. But, I could be wrong. If I am, though, God will take care of matters and there is thus no reason to kill cartoonists.

If God does not exist, then the cartoons obviously cannot have offended God. In this case, the offense would be against people who believe in a make-believe faith. While such people might be very offended or angry at being mocked, killing the cartoonists would be like enraged Harry Potter fans killing a cartoonist for mocking Daniel Radcliffe with a snarky cartoon. While they might be devoted to the make believe world of Harry Potter and be very protective of Daniel Radcliffe, offensive cartoons mocking a real person and a make believe system would not warrant killing the cartoonist.

As such, if God is real, then He will deal with the offense against Him. As such, there would be no justification for people seeking revenge in His name. If He is not real, then the offense is against the make-believe and this does not warrant killing. Either way, the killings would be completely unjustified.

 

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Group Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2015

After the murders in France, people were once again discussing the matter of group responsibility. In the case of these murders, some contend that all Muslims are responsible for the actions of the few who committed murder. In most cases people do not claim that all Muslims support the killings, but there is a tendency to still put a special burden of responsibility upon Muslims as a group.

Some people do take the killings and other terrible events as evidence that Islam itself is radical and violent. This sort of “reasoning” is, obviously enough, the same sort used when certain critics of the Tea Party drew the conclusion that the movement was racist because some individuals in the Tea Party engaged in racist behavior. It is also the same “reasoning” used to condemn all Christians or Republicans based on the actions of a very few.

To infer that an entire group has a certain characteristic (such as being violent or prone to terrorism) based on the actions of a few would generally involve committing the fallacy of hasty generalization. It can also be seen as the fallacy of suppressed evidence in that evidence contrary to the claim is simply ignored. For example, to condemn Islam as violent based on the actions of terrorists would be to ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are as peaceful as people of other faiths, such as Christians and Jews.

It might be objected that a group can be held accountable for the misdeeds of its members even when those misdeeds are committed by a few and even when these misdeeds are supposed to not be in accord with the real beliefs of the group. For example, if I were to engage in sexual harassment while on the job, Florida A&M University can be held accountable for my actions. Thus, it could be argued, all Muslims are accountable for the killings in France and these killings provide just more evidence that Islam itself is a violent and murderous religion.

In reply, Islam (like Christianity) is not a monolithic faith with a single hierarchy over all Muslims. After all, there are various sects of Islam and a multitude of diverse Muslim hierarchies. For example, the Moslems of Saudi Arabia do not fall under the hierarchy of the Moslems of Iran.

As such, treating all of Islam as an organization with a chain of command and a chain of responsibility that extends throughout the entire faith would be rather problematic. To use an analogy, sports fans sometimes go on violent rampages after events. While the actions of the violent fans should be condemned, the peaceful fans are not accountable for those actions. After all, while the fans are connected by their being fans of a specific team this is not enough to form a basis for accountability. So, if some fans of a team set fire to cars, this does not make all the fans of that team responsible. Also, if people unassociated with the fans decide to jump into action and destroy things, it would be even more absurd to claim that the peaceful fans are accountable for their actions. As such, to condemn all of Islam based on what happened in France would be both unfair and unreasonable. As such, the people who murdered in France are accountable but Islam cannot have these incidents laid at its collective doorstep.

This, of course, raises the question of the extent to which even an organized group is accountable for its members. One intuitive guide is that the accountability of the group is proportional to the authority the group has over the individuals. For example, while I am a philosopher and belong to the American Philosophical Association, other philosophers have no authority over me. As such, they have no accountability for my actions. In contrast, my university has considerable authority over my work life as a professional philosopher and hence can be held accountable should I, for example, sexually harass a student or co-worker.

The same principle should be applied to Islam (and any faith). Being a Moslem is analogous to being a philosopher in that there is a recognizable group. As with being a philosopher, merely being a Moslem does not make a person accountable for all other Moslems.

But, just as I belong to an organization with a hierarchy, a Moslem can belong to an analogous organization, such as a mosque or ISIS. To the degree that the group has authority over the individual, the group is accountable. So, if the killers in France were acting as members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, then the group would be accountable. However, while groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda might delude themselves into thinking they have legitimate authority over all Moslems, they obviously do not. After all, they are opposed by most Moslems.

So, with a religion as vast and varied as Islam, it cannot be reasonably be claimed that there is a central earthly authority over its members and this would serve to limit the collective responsibility of the faith. Naturally, the same would apply to other groups with a similar lack of overall authority, such as Christians, conservatives, liberals, Buddhists, Jews, philosophers, runners, and satirists.

 

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Symbols & Facts

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2014

After the murderous attack on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan an image of a child’s blood-stained shoe began appearing in the social media. While the image certainly fit the carnage, the photo was not taken in Peshawar. It had, instead, been taken in May of 2008 in the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Such “re-use” of images is common, especially in social media.

As might be imagined, some took issue with people claiming (wrongly) that the picture was from Peshawar. Others took the view that it did not matter since the image was an appropriate symbol of the situation.

A somewhat analogous situation to the “re-use” of photos is the reference of incidents in protests that some regard as not being “suitable” for the protest. For example, in response to the protests about the deaths of Brown and Garner some critics have asserted that the protesters have the facts wrong and that Garner and Brown were not exactly innocent angels. The idea seems to be that the protests can be invalidated by disputing the facts of a specific case or by questioning the suitability of the people used as focal points for the protests.

In response to such criticisms, some defenders of the protesters assert that they do have the facts right and contend that even if Garner and Brown were not innocent angels, injustice still occurred.

The general issue in both sorts of cases is the importance of the truth and purity of the symbols used—be the symbol a photo of a shoe or a black man killed by the police.

As a philosopher, I am initially inclined to come out in favor of the strict truth. Even if the shoe image fit the situation, it is not a picture from the actual event and knowingly using it would be an act of deception. This would certainly seem to be morally wrong. In the case of symbols used in protests, the same reasoning should apply. If the symbols represent the situation incorrectly and those using them know this, then they are engaged in deceit. This would, on the face of it, be wrong.

The “purity” of the people used as symbols is somewhat more complicated. In the case of Brown and Garner, the protesters do not (in general) dispute that these men had broken the law and they do not claim that they were innocent angels. Those critical of the protests sometimes claim that the use of these “impure” symbols somehow invalidates the protest to some degree. Looked at from a purely propaganda viewpoint, innocent angels as victims would be “better”, but injustice does not require that the victim be such an angel. It just requires that a wrong occurs. There is still, however, the moral question of whether or not Garner and Brown were victims of injustice. If they were not, then the protests would be legitimately undermined—after all, a protest about an alleged injustice requires that the injustice be real. If they were victims of injustice, then the protests would obviously have a valid foundation—even though the men were not angels.

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics, I am willing to consider the possibility that the “factual truth” of a symbol might not be as important as its “symbolic truth.” This, obviously enough, opens the door wide to numerous accusations about my integrity and commitment to the truth. Despite this risk, this is certainly an avenue worth strolling down—though I might not wish to take up residence there.

The reason that I mention aesthetics is that one of the most plausible lines of justification for the use of such “untrue” symbols can be found in the realm of art. As philosophers have long noted, art is a beautiful untrue thing. As such, factual veracity is usually not of critical importance in art. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, works of art can present general truths through what might be regarded as specific untruths. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a factual documentary on slavery, Lord of the Flies is not a report of real events, nor is Romeo & Juliet a factual account of a real tragedy. Despite this, these and so many other works convey general truths or make moral points using untrue things.

Assuming that works of art can legitimately use untrue things, it can be argued that the same can be said of symbols, such as the image of the shoe. While the picture of the shoe was, in fact, taken in 2008 in Israel and not in Pakistan, it still serves as a true symbol of the event. That is, it powerfully conveys a general truth about the slaughter of children that goes beyond the specific facts. To dismiss the symbol by saying “why, that is not a picture from the event” is to miss the point of its use as a symbol. As a symbol it is not being presented as a factual representation of the events. Rather, it is being presented as standing for a general truth. Thus, while the symbol is an untrue thing in one sense (it is not a photo of that actual event) it is true in other senses. It symbolizes the killing of children in political struggles and captures the horror of the slaughter of innocents.

Naturally, it is perfectly reasonable to point out that such symbols are not accurate reporting of the event. It is thus completely legitimate to claim that such images should not be used in news reports (except, of course, to report that they are being used, etc.). After all, the true business of news is (or should be) reporting the cold facts. However, there are contexts (such as expressing how one feels on social media) when symbols are appropriate. As long as these are kept properly distinct, then both seem to be legitimate. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that clips from fictional films should not be used in news stories does not entail that fictional films have no place or use in making statements.

Turning to the matter of protests, the matter is somewhat different from that of the image. An image, such as the shoe, can be taken as expressing a general truth. Though the shoe belonged to an Israeli child, it can stand in for the shoe of any child who has been the victim of a terrible attack and it expressed the general horror of such violence. Saying “that picture is not from Pakistan” does not show that the wounding or slaughter of children is not horrible.

However, the truth of the symbolic cases used in protests does seem to matter. As argued above, if the symbolic cases used by protestors turn out to be factually untrue (that is, the narrative of the protesters does not match reality), then that is a problem. For example, if protesters use the killing of a specific black man as a symbol of injustice, but it turns out that the shooting was morally justified, then the protest is undermined. After all, if there was no injustice in a case, then there is no injustice to protest.

One counter to this is that even if a specific symbolic case has been exposed as untrue, this does not discredit the other symbolic cases. For example, the revelation that the Rolling Stone rape article contained numerous untrue claims does discredit that symbolic case, but does not disprove the other cases—they stand or fall on their own merits or defects. This is quite reasonable: the fact that one example is not true does not prove that the other examples are untrue (though it can, of course, raise concerns). So, even if a symbolic case embraced by protesters turns out to not fit, this does not show that the protest is rendered invalid. Using the specific example of campus rape, the fact that the Rolling Stone story unraveled under investigation does not, by itself, show that sexual assault is not a problem on campuses.

But, of course, a claim can be undermined by properly discrediting the supporting examples, be they symbolic or not. So, for example, if it is claimed that the police treat black citizens differently than white citizens and it turns out that this is not generally true, then protests based on this would be undermined. Facts, obviously enough, do matter. However, the weight of each fact must be properly considered: as noted above, showing that one symbolic case is untrue does not discredit all the supporting examples. So, for example, if it is shown that a specific symbolic case does not match the facts, this does not show that the protest is unwarranted.

 

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