A Philosopher's Blog

Trump, Treason and Joking

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 9, 2018

During President Trump’s first state of the union address, the Democrats were clearly not interested in praising him. Trump took this slight very seriously and rushed to hold a rally to sooth his wounded pride. At the event, he accused the Democrats in Congress of committing treason: “They were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, ‘Treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not.” Since treason is one of the worst crimes and not applauding a president is not treason Democrats and many Republicans condemned Trump’s remarks. The response from the Whitehouse was that people, especially in  the liberal media, need to get a sense of humor because “the President was obviously joking…”

As should be expected, the view people hold on this depends on their feelings about the president. His detractors believe that he was serious or at least did something very wrong. His proponents think he was joking and that the snowflakes in the liberal media and Democratic party need to man up. His most devoted fans might believe that he was serious and see this as a good thing.

Since Trump seems to have no respect for truth and faces clear challenges with grasping reality, it is difficult to tell what he means when he says words. If he was serious, then he is clearly wrong and is wandering deeper into the territory in which dwell would-be authoritarians. If he was not serious, then he was also wrong—accusing people of treason is nothing to joke about. As many have said on many other occasions, Trump is able to grossly violate norms of behavior and simply keep on going through what would be career enders for almost all other human beings. Imagine, if you will, what the response would have been on Fox News and elsewhere if Obama had “jokingly” said Republican Representative Wilson was committing treason when he yelled “you lie” at the president. I am certain they would not have chortled in appreciation at his little bon mot. They would have been, rightly enough, outraged at such behavior.

While President Trump’s behavior is morally problematic, it does provide an excellent example of a rhetorical device that could be called an “appeal to joking.” Rhetorical devices are intended to sway people’s feelings and thus influence their beliefs. Being rhetorical in nature, they lack logical force—they do not actually prove or disprove anything. The gist of the method, as noted above, is to defuse criticism by insisting that the awful thing a person said was but a joke. The method can also be developed into a fallacy by making it into a full, but bad, argument. The appeal to joking has the following form:

  1. Person A says B, which is something horrible.

  2. There is criticism of or backlash against B.

  3. A (or A’s spokespeople) insist that A was joking.

  4.  Conclusion: Therefore, A should not be criticized or held accountable for saying B.

The reason that the conclusion does not follow from the premises is that merely claiming that the horrible thing was a joke does not entail that the person should not be criticized or held accountable for saying it. One reason for this is that merely making the claim does not prove the person was, in fact, joking. A second reason is that even if the person was joking, this does not entail that they are thus free from criticism or accountability. After all, a person is still accountable for their jokes.

Like many fallacies, there are good arguments that resemble it. If a person can show that they were, in fact, not serious in their remark and intended it to be a joke, then they can advance a good argument that they should not be criticized or held accountable as if they were serious. The challenge is, of course, making a convincing case that it really was a joke rather than an attempt to walk back something awful by pretending it was a joke. This form of reasoning, which is good, would be as follows:


  1. Person A says B, which is something horrible.

  2. There is criticism of or backlash against B.

  3. A (or A’s spokespeople) provides credible evidence that A was really joking.

  4. Conclusion:  Therefore, A should not be as strongly criticized or held as accountable for saying B as A would be if they were serious.

From a moral standpoint, it is sensible to accept such reasoning since saying something awful as a joke is not as bad as actually meaning it. This is not to say that jokes are not without moral consequences of their own. For example, while joking about assassinating the president is not as bad as seriously planning to assassinate the president, it is still morally wrong.

Not surprisingly, defenders of a person who uses the appeal to joking will tend to think that credible evidence has been provided that the person is “just joking.” In some cases, the alleged evidence might be that the claim is so absurd or horrible that no one could be serious about it. For example, Trump’s claim that the Democrats were treasonous for not applauding for him is so absurdly over the top that one would have to either believe that Trump is joking or that he is some sort of deranged authoritarian who believes that his whims should be law and that a failure to praise him is the act of traitors.


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Evil & Institutions II: Lawful Evil Reconsidered

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 26, 2018

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In an earlier essay, I considered the various evil Dungeons & Dragons alignments in the context of institutions. In that essay, I took the view that lawful evil people are the most dangerous of all because they aim to institutionalize evil. However, a case can be made that the lawful evil approach is better than that of the other evil alignments. Making a case for this involves appealing to the work of Thomas Hobbes.

In the Leviathan, Hobbes argues that the state of nature would be a war of all against all, a state perhaps best described as chaotic evil at worst and chaotic neutral at best. However, his description of people makes most of them seem to be neutral evil (utterly selfish, with no concern for others). He regarded the chaos of the state of nature as the worst and his solution was, roughly put, for people to accept a sovereign to rule over them and impose order. This would transform the chaotic evil of the state of nature into the lawful evil of the state of civilization. In D&D, lawful evil is defined in this way:

A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

This description shows that lawful evil types have the qualities needed to maintain civilization and hold off the state of nature. The lawful evil persons respect for tradition, loyalty and order lead them to value the institutions of the state and they will seek to protect and preserve them. They might even be willing to tolerate some goodness in these institutions, provided that the goodness contributes to order.

Interestingly, a principled lawful evil person would be loath to harm or attack an institution even if doing so was personally advantageous. For example, a lawful evil ruler being investigated for a crime would do much to avoid being punished but would be very reluctant to harm or weaken the institutions of law enforcement. This is because a lawful evil person lacks the shallow selflessness of the neutral evil person and cares, in their own evil way, about the preservation of society and its institutions. As such, the lawful evil person can act in a principled way and could even sacrifice themselves for others, and thus they could be mistaken for being good people.

While a lawful evil person would not be good, they could be rightly said to have virtues.  Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, makes this point:

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

While Kant regards evil combined with virtue to be perhaps the very worst, the lawful evil villain, as noted above, operates within limits that puts them above the worst villains—the chaotic evil and neutral evil types. While lawful evil types lack, in Kantian terms, the good will, they could be said to have the lawful will. That is, while they do not will the good, they do will the law. While this would certainly not satisfy Kant, it would be quite enough for Hobbes. For him, what gets humans out of the chaos of the state of nature is not goodness or love or others, but self-interest and an acceptance of order. Roughly put, enough people are willing to shift their alignments from chaotic or neutral evil to lawful evil to allow society to form. Maintaining that society requires that enough people remain lawful, even if they are lawful evil. As such, good people who value society and order can find allies in their lawful evil fellows, although this alliance can presumably never be more than one of convenience. This is because while good and lawful evil people share a common desire to oppose chaotic evil and neutral evil types, they still have an irreconcilable moral difference regarding good and evil.


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Health Care Workers and Moral Objections II: Patients/Clients

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 24, 2018

As noted in an earlier essay, the Trump administration plans to modify the Health and Human Services (HHS) civil rights office to protect health care workers who have moral or religious objections to performing certain medical procedures or treating certain patients.  In that essay I addressed the general moral issue of  whether health workers have the moral right to refuse certain services. I now turn to the general issue of whether they have the moral right to refuse to treat certain patients (or clients) based on the identity of the patients (or clients). The legal matter, of course, is something for the courts to settle.

As noted in the earlier essay, a person does not surrender their moral rights or conscience when they enter a profession. As such, it should not simply be assumed that a health care worker cannot refuse to treat a person because of the worker’s values. But, of course, it should also not be assumed that the moral or religious values of a health care worker grant them the right to refuse treatment based on the identity of the patient.

One moral argument for the right to refuse treatment because of the patient’s identity is based on the general right to refuse to provide a good or service. A key freedom, one might argue, is this freedom from compulsion. For example, an author has every right to determine who they will and will not write for.

Another moral argument for the right to refuse is a general one about the right to not be forced to interact with people whom one regards as evil or at least immoral. This can also be augmented by contending that serving the needs of an immoral person is to engage in an immoral action, if only by association. For example, a Jewish painter has every right to refuse to paint a mural for Nazis.

While these arguments have considerable appeal, especially in cases in which the refusal is directed at the sorts of people one dislikes, it is important to consider the implications of a right of refusal based on values. One obvious implication is that such a right could warrant a health care worker to refuse to treat you if they regarded you as immoral. In general terms, moral rights need to be assessed by applying a moral method I call reversing the situation. Parents and others often employ this method informally by asking questions such as “how would you feel if someone did that to you?”

Somewhat more formally, this method is based on the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Assuming this rule is correct, if a person is unwilling to abide by his own principles when the situation is reversed, then it is reasonable to question those principles. In the case at hand, while a person might be fine with the right to refuse services to those they dislike because of their values, they would presumably not be fine with it if the situation were reversed.

An obvious objection is that reversing the situation would, strictly speaking, only apply to health workers themselves. Fortunately, there is a modified version of this method that would apply to everyone. In this method one test of a moral right, principle or rule is for a person to replace the proposed target of the right, principle or rule with themselves or a group (or groups) they belong to. For example, a Christian who thinks it is morally fine to refuse services to transgender people based on religious freedom should consider their thoughts on atheists refusing services to Christians based on religious freedom. Naturally, a person could insist that the right, rule or principle should only be applied to those they do not like—but if anyone can take this out, then it would seem everyone could as well, thus the objection would fail.

One reasonable reply to this method is to point out that there are clear exceptions to its application. For example, while most Christians are fine with convicted murders being locked up, it does that follow that they are wrong about this because they would not want to be locked up for being Christians. In such cases, which also applies to reversing the situation, it can be argued that there is a morally relevant difference between the two people or groups that justifies the difference in treatment. For example, convicted murders generally deserve to be punished for being murders while Christians obviously do not merit punishment just for being Christians. As such, when considering the moral right of health care workers to refuse services based on the identity of the patient (or client) the possibility of relevant differences must be given due consideration.

The obvious problem with relevant difference considerations is that people will tend to think there is a relevant difference between themselves and those they want to apply the right of refusal. For example, a person who is a social justice warrior might regard a member of the alt-right as an evil racist and see this as a relevant difference that warrants refusing service to such a person. One solution is to appeal to an objective moral judge—but this creates the obvious problem of finding such a person. Another solution is for the person to take special pains to be objective—but this is rather difficult and especially so in cases in which objectivity is often most needed.

A final relevant consideration is the fact that while entering a profession does not strip a person of their conscience or moral agency, it often imposes professional ethics on the person that supersede their own values within the professional context. For example, lawyers must accept a professional ethics that requires them to keep certain secrets their client might have (the most obvious being when they did the crime) even when doing so might violate their personal ethics. As another example, lawyers (especially public defenders) are expected to defend their clients even if they find their clients morally awful. As a third example, as a professor I (in general) cannot insist that a student be removed from my class by appealing to my religious or moral values regarding the identity of the student. As a professor, I am obligated to teach anyone enrolled in my class, if they do not engage in behavior that would warrant their removal (such as assaulting other students). Health care workers generally fall under professional ethics as well and these typically include requirements to render care to people regardless of what the worker things of the morality of the person. For example, a doctor does not have the right to refuse to perform surgery on someone just because they committed adultery, are a compulsive liar, have engaged in shady and even illegal business practices or expressed their proclivity to grab people by a certain part of their anatomy. This is not to say that there cannot be exceptions, but professional medical ethics would seem to forbid refusing service just because of the moral judgment by the service provider of the patient (or client). This, obviously enough, is distinct from refusing services because a patient or client has engaged in behavior that warrants refusal, such as attacking the service provider.


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Shut Down Blame

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2018

The government shutdown of January, 2018 led to the usual efforts to place blame. The Republicans assert that the Democrats are in the wrong—if only they would put the interest of America ahead of their unpatriotic devotion to the illegals eager to remain or cross in search of handouts, then there would be no problem. The Democrats blame the Republicans, presenting their own narrative of the evils of the Republicans. Sorting out the responsibility in such matters can be rather problematic; especially since everyone typically contributes to the problem.

It is, of course, tempting to be cynical about the matter and embrace the narrative that each side is simply maneuvering to maximize the chances that its members will be re-elected in the next cycle. To truly cynical eyes, the Democrats are trying to win the votes of the brown people. The Republicans are struggling to win the votes of the white people who are terrified of the brown people. This view, I hope, does a disservice to both sides. But, the problem remains of sorting out the responsibility.

One factor that makes objectively assessing responsibility in this matter is in-group bias. This is a cognitive bias that influences people to see members of their group as better than those outside the group. As such, people who identify with a political party will see their party as better and the other party as worse. So, in the eyes of most Democrats, the Republicans are to blame—they seem to be in the wrong because Democrats see other Democrats as better. The same sort of bias holds for Republicans—they will tend to see the Democrats as being in the wrong.

This bias can also fuel a full fallacy, which is sometimes called the group think fallacy. This fallacy occurs when a person infers that their group is right or better simply because it is their group. The mistake is, of course, that the fact that a group is one’s own does not entail that it is right, good or better. Naturally, many people have the sense to realize that openly asserting that their side is right because it is their side is not a good argument. As such, they tend to advance reasons in favor of the position they already hold, seeking evidence that confirms the conclusion they have drawn from the in-group fallacy and that conforms to their in-group bias.

The psychological commitment people have to their groups can lead to distorting the evidence and, not surprisingly, to making use of other fallacies in “defense” of their position. As such, a Democrat reading this is most likely certain that the Republicans are to blame, while a Republican reading this is probably sure that this trouble is all the fault of the Democrats.

Even if people were willing and able to push through the in-group bias and resist the lure of the group think fallacy, there would still be a challenge in assigning responsibility. One reason for this is the matter of value. In the case at hand, a key question is whether it is worth shutting down the government to try to get what one wants (or to deny the other people what they want). Both the Democrats and Republicans have agreed that it is worth doing so—the Democrats refused to go along with the Republicans and the Republicans refused to cooperate with the Democrats. This leaves the question of whether one of them has it right. This, of course, leads to the debate over values and both sides can sincerely believe that they are in the right. This leads to the classic question of whether such values are objective or subjective. If they are objective, at least one side is in the wrong. If values are subjective, then they could both be in the right, albeit meaningless so. After all, if everyone is right, then right means nothing.

As far as who I blame, my inclination is to place most of it on Trump. Both the Democrats and the Republicans worked together on a compromise, but Trump rejected it and seems to be engaged in yet another twitter tantrum. But, of course, my perception is shaded by my biases.


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Health Workers & Moral Objections I: Procedures

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 19, 2018

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The Trump administration plans to modify the Health and Human Services (HHS) civil rights office to protect health care workers who have moral or religious objections to performing certain medical procedures or treating certain patients. As should be expected, the focus of concern is mainly on abortion and transgender patients. Two of the general moral issues raised by this situation are whether health workers have the moral right to refuse certain services and whether they have the right to refuse to treat certain patients based on the identity of the patients.

While some might, perhaps while thinking of abortion rights, automatically conclude that health care workers have no moral right to refuse services, this would be far to hasty. After all, entering a profession does not entail that a person surrenders their moral rights or conscience. To think otherwise would be to embrace the discredited notion that just following orders or just doing one’s job provides a blanket moral excuse for one’s professional actions. As such, since health care workers are morally accountable for their actions, they also retain the moral agency and freedom needed to ground that accountability.

But, this moral coin has another side—entering a profession, especially in the field of health, also comes with moral and professional responsibilities. These responsibilities can, like all responsibilities, can justly impose burdens. For example, doctors are not permitted to instantly abandon patients they dislike or because they want to move to a better paying position. As such, ethics of a health worker refusing to perform a procedure based on their moral or religious views requires that each procedure be reviewed to determine whether it is one that a health care worker can justly refuse or one that is a justly imposed burden.

To illustrate, consider a doctor who is asked to keep prisoners conscious and alive during torture performed by agents of the state. Most doctors, like most people, would have moral objections to being involved in torture. However, there is the question of whether this would be something they should be morally expected to do as part of their profession. On the face of it, since the purpose of the medical profession is to heal and alleviate suffering (a professional ethics that goes back to the origin of western medicine) this is not something that a doctor is obligated to do even in the face of moral objections. In fact, the ethics of the profession would dictate against engaging in this behavior.

Now, imagine a health care worker who has sincere religious or moral beliefs that when a person can no longer sustain their life on their own, they must be released to God. As such, the worker refuses to engage in procedures that violate their principles, such as keeping a patient on life support. While this could be a sincerely held belief, it seems to run counter to the ethics of the profession. As such, such a health care worker would seem to not have the right to refuse such services.

One could even imagine very extreme cases—after all there is no requirement to prove that sincerely held religious belief is true, one must only be convincing in one’s alleged sincerity. For example, imagine a health care worker who has a sincere religious belief that a patient must prove themselves worthy in the eyes of God by surviving with only the most basic care; anything beyond that is an affront to God’s will: the patient will survive if God wants them to and humans should not interfere with this. Obviously enough, such workers’ views would not be accepted as justifying their actions—they should seek another profession if they cannot do their jobs.

Turning back to services like abortion and gender transition, the issue would be whether these are more like asking a medical worker to participate in torture or more like expecting a medical worker to provide normal medical services. As should be expected, this is a central point of the dispute. Those who oppose abortion will make the moral argument that performing abortion is as bad or worse than abetting torture—it does, after all, involve killing a living entity. Those who are pro-choice will contend that it is a medical procedure like any other. I must admit that I do not have a compelling argument to change any minds on this matter.

In the case of gender transition, there can be no appeal to concerns about killing. Rather, a person must appeal to the view that people should not modify their sex and should simply accept what they were born with. This seems to be more like my imaginary case of a health care worker who believes that people must prove themselves worthy in the eyes of God than like the torture case, especially if someone takes the view that God wants people to stick with their original sex. That said, it could be argued that such modifications are wrong in the same way that non-restorative cosmetic surgery is wrong—after all, both aim to allow a person to be as they envision themselves to be. I do not, however, want to claim that the transitional process is as trivial as a face lift. Once again, I do not think I have a compelling argument here that will change any minds.

While I do not think I will change minds about abortion and such, I do think that the matter of moral objections needs to be given due consideration. It is easy to simply embrace one’s unreflecting views without considering the possibility of error. In my next essay I’ll turn to the issue of whether health workers have the moral right to refuse services based on the identity of the patient, such as their being transgender or Christian.


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Disasters & Lying

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 27, 2017

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Plato, or so it is claimed, advanced the idea of the noble lie: an untruth knowingly propagated for the good of society. In Plato’s Republic the noble lie was a myth presented as the parable of the metals and was intended to help maintain the ideal social order of that state.  Given Plato’s opposition to the sophists and his praise of virtue, the noble lie can be jarring to some readers of his work. Detractors of philosophy will, naturally enough, regard most philosophers as engaged in less-than-noble lies. But, of course, philosophy is supposed to be a search for wisdom and this presumably includes a devotion to the truth. Politicians, who are supposed to be far more pragmatic than philosophers, would seem more inclined to embrace the noble lie. Or the ignoble lie. This does raise the enduring question of whether it is morally acceptable for leaders to lie for what they think is the good of society.

The easy and obvious way to argue this issue is to approach it on utilitarian grounds. On this moral view, if telling a lie would create more good than harm for those who matter morally, then lying would be morally correct. If the lie would create more harm than good, it would be wrong. There is, as always, an important distinction between what those lying think will result and the actual outcome—as such, there is also a distinction between the ethics of intention and the ethics of the actual consequences. History shows that good intentions do not always lead to good consequences.

There are also moral views, such as the rule-based deontological ethics put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, morality is not a matter of consequences but a matter of following the rules. As Kant saw it, his categorical imperative entailed that lying was always wrong—so Kant and his fellows would be opposed to such a lie.

There is also the notion that truth and falsity do not matter. While some might think that this notion is something that emerged on the public stage in 2016, it has a much older pedigree. The sophists of ancient Greece embraced this view and contended that what mattered was success. Jumping ahead centuries, the idea was also advanced during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson led the United States into World War I, he insisted that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” As part of this approach, he created the Committee on Public Information. He was apparently inspired by an advisor who wrote that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

On the one hand, this approach to the truth can be regarded as hard-headed pragmatism of the sort often praised by practical folks: what matters is the effectiveness of an idea in achieving the desired goal. To use a contemporary illustration, the successful “First Social Media War” waged by the Russians against the United States in 2016 illustrated that false claims served far better than true claims in achieving their goals. Trump and his people also effectively employed this approach, even minting the term “alternative facts.” This approach can be morally justified by using a utilitarian argument of the sort presented above, with an explicit rejection of any preference for truth. It can also be justified on the grounds of ethical egoism—the moral theory that what maximizes value for the individual in question is good. For example, from Trump’s perspective what best serves his interest is what is good.

On the other hand, while lies can yield short term good or advance someone’s private advantage, they seem to prove damaging over the longer term and broader scale. Take, as an illustration, the consequences of the decisions to lie about the flu pandemic of 1918. Public officials elected to tell the public that the flu was not serious and elected to protect the lie by not taking sensible medical approaches to the flu. For example, deciding to not cancel the Liberty Loan parade helped contribute to the epidemic in Philadelphia. The easy and obvious reason that such lies tend to have bad results is that operating in a way that does not match reality tends to lead to bad decision making and this tends to lead to negative consequences.

A good contemporary example of this is the matter of climate change. While most experts believe that climate change is occurring and has been influenced by human action, there are still political figures who deny this. While it is possible that the political figures are operating in sincere ignorance rather that lying, this is a case in which it is all but certain that one side is lying. If the climate change deniers are lying, they are acting like the lying officials did in 1918 and will be complicit in worldwide suffering and countless deaths. If the climate change believers are lying, the consequences will be far less bad—more regulations, deployment of more green energy technology, and perhaps some negative impact on economic growth. Being rational, I side with the majority of qualified experts—I am confident that the climate scientists are not lying. However, I am open to compelling arguments and evidence from climate experts who deny climate change.


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Tax Cuts & Employment

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 13, 2017

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It is a matter of faith (or talking point) for most Republicans that tax cuts will increase employment. The most appealing argument for this claim certainly makes sense: if taxes are cut for businesses, then they will have more money. If they have more money, then they will hire more people. From these two premises it follows that if taxes are cut for businesses, then they will hire more people. Going along with this valid hypothetical syllogism (If P, then Q; If Q, then R; so if P, then R) is another stock argument: if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then they will invest more in businesses. If the wealthy invest more in businesses, then businesses will have more money. So, if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then business will have more money. This is also a hypothetical syllogism and is thus a valid argument (the truth of its premises guarantees the truth of its conclusion). These two arguments can be combined into an extended argument which leads from the premise that “if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then they will invest more in businesses” to the conclusion that “if taxes are cut for the wealthy, then businesses will hire more people.” There are also similar arguments about how tax cuts for the wealthy will result in more spending by the wealthy and thus provide businesses with more money to hire people.

In addition to the unquestionable logic of such hypothetical syllogisms (or chain arguments, as they are sometimes called), there is the intuitive appeal of the claim that tax cuts will lead to more hiring because businesses will have more money. But, as every logic teacher points out, a valid argument can have false premises and a false conclusion. There is also the fact that what is intuitively appealing might not be true. As such, what is needed is actual evidence for (or against) the key premises.

Since tax cuts, especially for the wealthy and businesses, are a highly partisan issue any evidence offered will be instantly assaulted as biased by those who disagree. As would be expected, those on the left tend to claim that tax cuts of this sort do not create jobs. Conservatives tend to claim that they do. Politicians, usually from necessity, tend to speak in vague generalities and craft policy aimed at ensuring their funding for their next re-election bid. As such, they are not a good source of evidence for this matter—because of the influence of bias.

From a rational standpoint, the most sensible approach would be to find what the majority of qualified experts in the field believe about the matter, taking into account the influence of possible biases. That is, to use a standard argument from authority. A 2012 survey shows that 35% of economists think that tax cuts do increase growth. About 35% were uncertain. A mere 8% disagreed.

Economists, unlike most politicians, can consider nuanced plans. Interestingly, the general consensus is that certain tax cuts, combined with certain spending cuts can boost economic growth and increase employment. Interestingly, there is strong support that tax cuts for the bottom 90% of income earners does increase employment and create jobs. This is not surprising. According to Senator Charles Grassley, there are people who invest and those who are “spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.” While Grassley’s point was that the investors should be rewarded for their investing by getting rid of the estate tax (which only impacts singles with estates of more than $5.5 million and couples with estates of more than $11 million), he is right to point out that there are people who spend on such things as movies and booze. This spending creates jobs for people who create and sell these things. So, if the lower income spenders have their taxes cut, they will spend more “darn pennies” and improve the economy. Tax cuts aimed at the bottom 90% of income earners would thus be a boon to the economy by getting more money directly into the economy. In contrast, the trickle-down approach seems to have never worked. As such, it is tax cuts for the rest of us that would grow the economy, not tax cuts for the top earners.

But, it can be argued, tax cuts for businesses would surely pay off in more jobs. With lower taxes, companies would have more money and they would then hire more people. While this seems to make sense, what is needed is actual evidence that companies would, in fact, plow that tax cut money into more jobs.

Interestingly enough, while the Republican party was trying hard to sell tax cuts as a means of increasing employment and wages, businesses have been candid about how they will respond to such a tax cut. While some have claimed that they will invest in growth, they seem to mostly have planned to do that already. In general, most companies seem unlikely to convert tax cuts into increased employment or employee wages.  This makes sense because companies, in general, are already doing quite well.

One of the main arguments against the claim that a tax cut for companies will result in increased employment and better wages is because companies are already doing extremely well. Since 2007, companies have been enjoying excellent post tax profits but they have not been matching this increase in profits with increased investment. Superstar companies, like Apple, are flush with cash and yet do not use that cash to increase employment or raise wages. As has been often pointed out, it is a time of record profits but stagnant wages for the workers.

If companies are already enjoying high post-tax profits but are not investing or increasing wages, then there is no reason to think that a tax cut will suddenly spur them into action. To use an analogy, if I have piles of extra money but I am not using it to improve my house, then it would be rather odd to claim that if I was given a tax cut I would suddenly engage in home improvements. After all, I already have the money to make improvements and would do so if that was what I wanted to do.

But, perhaps the argument is that if companies had even more money then they would suddenly be motivated to increase their investment, hiring and wages. Going back to my analogy, the argument would be that even if I could easily afford the improvements I would be pushed into making those improvements once I had somewhat more money. While not impossible, this seems rather odd. A better explanation is that the companies are not interested in increasing wages, investing more or hiring more people. Likewise, the best explanation as to why I do not spend on new home improvements I can easily afford is not that I am waiting for a tax cut but that I have no interest in those home improvements.

Now, if companies were short on cash, then this sort of argument would make more sense—assuming that there is evidence companies wanted to invest more, pay more, and hire more people and were hampered by a lack of money. Going back to the analogy, if there were good reasons to believe that I wanted to make home improvements but merely lacked the funds, then it would make sense to argue that a tax cut that would allow me to afford the improvements would spur me to make those improvements. But, if I am sitting on stacks of cash and not making home improvements, the best explanation is that I do not want to make those improvements and giving me a tax cut would not change things.


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Wedding Cakes & Freedom, Once Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Harassment & Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Party Loyalty & Sexual Harassment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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