A Philosopher's Blog

Trumped?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2016

The Iowa caucuses brought some surprises: Trump lost to Cruz, Rubio took third and Sanders almost tied Clinton. While Trump was the predicted winner and leading in the polls, his defeat seems easy enough to explain. While Trump is a master reality show star and showman, Cruz is an experienced politician who knows how to operate effectively within the political system. While getting votes is dependent on political popularity, it is also a matter of ensuring that people vote and Cruz seems have done a better job at this task. As such, while Trump was probably more popular, he was not more popular among those who voted. Trump is, interestingly enough, now threatening to sue Cruz for cheating in Iowa. Assuming that Cruz did not cheat and assuming that he won through superior political organization, then Trump will need to match Cruz in this regard or face the very real risk of losing the nomination. That said, it has been claimed that Cruz’s appeal to the evangelicals lead him to a victory over Trump–something that Cruz cannot count on across the country.

What is perhaps most interesting is that the pundits are claiming Rubio also had a victory on the grounds that he moved into a very close third. Rubio is the clear establishment candidate at this point and he seems well-positioned to pick up the supporters of the doomed establishment candidates, such as Jeb Bush. With the backing of the Republican party machinery, Rubio could come out ahead of Trump and Cruz. That said, the anti-establishment sentiment should not be dismissed: if Cruz can maintain the appearance of being a political outsider while using the skill set he has developed as a career politician, he stands an excellent chance of having the best of both worlds.

While Sanders is a long-time senator, he is regarded as an authentic outsider. This is in strong contrast with Hillary Clinton. She has a well-established reputation as a supreme insider and is certainly not known for her authenticity. The challenge for Sanders is maintaining enthusiasm in the face of the Clinton political machine. Fortunately for Bernie, we have seen that the Clinton machine can be defeated and Hillary is no doubt worried that 2016 might look like  a repeat of 2008. Only with an old white socialist rather than a young black moderate in the starring role.

We might see Rubio going up against Sanders in the general election. If so, I would predict Rubio by a slight margin. Clinton would probably beat Rubio. Cruz and Trump, I think, would lose to either Clinton or Sanders. But, my predictions are probably wrong-much is up in the air, which makes matters interesting.

Denmark’s Refugee “Fee”

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2016

In January, 2016 Denmark passed a law that refugees who enter the state with assets greater than about US $1,450 will have their valuables taken in order to help pay for the cost of their being in the country. In response to international criticism, Denmark modified the law to allow refugees to keep items of sentimental value, such as wedding rings. This matter is certainly one of moral concern.

Critics have been quick to deploy a Nazi analogy, likening this policy to how the Nazis stole the valuables of those they sent to the concentration camps. While taking from refugees does seem morally problematic, the Nazi analogy does not really stick—there are too many relevant differences between the situations. Most importantly, the Danes would be caring for the refugees rather than murdering them. There is also the fact that the refugees are voluntarily going to Denmark rather than being rounded up, robbed, imprisoned and murdered. While the Danes have clearly not gone full Nazi, there are still grounds for moral criticism. However, I will endeavor to provide a short defense of the law—a rational consideration requires at least considering the pro side of the argument.

The main motivation of the law seems to be to deter refugees from coming to Denmark. This is a strategy of making their country less appealing than other countries in the hopes that refugees will go somewhere else and be someone else’s burden. Countries, like individuals, do seem to have the right to make themselves less appealing.  While this sort of approach is certainly not morally commendable, it does not seem to be morally wrong. After all, the Danes are not simply banning refugees but trying to provide a financial disincentive. Somewhat ironically, the law would not deter the poorest of refugees. It would only deter those who have enough property to make losing it a worthwhile deterrent.

The main moral argument in favor of the law is based on the principle that people should help pay for the cost of their upkeep to at least the degree they can afford to do so. To use an analogy, if people show up at my house and ask to live with me and eat my food, it would certainly be fair of me to expect them to at least chip in for the costs of the utilities and food. After all, I do not get my utilities and food for free. This argument does have considerable appeal, but can be countered.

One counter to the argument is based on the fact that the refugees are fleeing a disaster. Going back to the house analogy, if survivors of a disaster showed up at my door asking for a place to stay until they could get back on their feet, taking their few remaining possessions to offset the cost of their food and shelter would seem to be cruel and heartless. They have lost so much already and to take what little that remains to them would add injury and insult to injury. To use another analogy, it would be like a rescue crew stripping people of their valuables to help pay for the rescue. While rescues are expensive, such a practice certainly would seem awful.

One counter is that refugees who are well off should pay for what they receive. After all, if relatively well-off people showed up at my door asking for food and shelter, it would not seem wrong of me to expect that they contribute to the cost of things. After all, if they can afford it, then they have no grounds to claim a free ride off me. Likewise for well-off refugees. That said, the law does not actually address the point, unless having more than $1450 is well off.

Another point of consideration is that it is one thing to have people pay for lodging and food with money they have; quite another to take a person’s remaining worldly possessions. It seems like a form of robbery, using whatever threat drove the refugees from home as the weapon. The obvious reply is that the refugees would be choosing to go to Denmark; they could go to a more generous country. The problem is, however, that refugees might soon have little choice about where they go.

 

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Trumping Along

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2016

Despite the predictions of many pundits, presidential candidate Donald Trump still leads the Republican pack as of the end of January.  As should be expected, Trump’s remarks have resulted in criticism from the left. Somewhat unexpectedly, he has also been condemned by many conservatives. The National Review, a bastion of conservative thought, devoted an entire issue to harsh condemnation of Trump. This is certainly a fascinating situation and will no doubt become a chapter in many future political science textbooks.

That Trump is doing well should itself not be surprising. As I have argued in previous essays, he is the logical result of the strategies and tactics of the Republican Party. The Republican establishment has been feeding the beast; they should not be shocked that it has grown large. They crafted the ideal political ecosystem for Trump; they should not be dismayed that he has dominated this niche. As in so many horror stories, perhaps they realize they have created a monster and now they are endeavoring to destroy it.

It is not entirely clear what the “(un)friendly fire” of fellow Republicans is supposed to accomplish. One possibility is that the establishment hopes that these attacks will knock Trump down and allow a candidate more appealing to the establishment to win the nomination. Trump, many pundits claim, would lose in the general election and the Republicans certainly wish to win. However, Trump should not be counted out—he has repeatedly proven the pundits wrong and he might be, oddly enough, the best chance for a Republican victory in 2016.

The United States electorate has changed in recent years and Trump seems to be able to appeal very strongly to certain elements of this population. Bernie Sanders has also been able to appeal very strongly to other elements—and perhaps some of the same. As such, the Republican establishment might wish to reconsider their view of Trump’s chances relative to the other candidates.

That said, while Trump has done quite well in the polls, this is rather different from doing well in the actually trench work of politics. Doing well in the polls is rather like being a popular actor or athlete—this does not require a broad organization and a nationwide political machine. Trump is certainly a media star—quite literally. Soon, however, the “ground game” begins and the received opinion is this is where organization and political chops are decisive. Critics have pointed out, sweating just a bit, that Trump does not seem to have much of a ground game and certainly has little political chop building experience. Doing well in this ground game is analogous to doing well in a war; it remains to be seen if Trump can transition from reality TV star to political general.

As a counter to this, it can be argued that Trump could simply ride on his popularity and this would offset any weaknesses he has in regards to his organization and political chops. After all, highly motivated voters could simply get things done for him.

A second possibility is that at least some of the critics of Trump are motivated by more than concerns about pragmatic politics: they have a moral concern about Trump’s words and actions. Some of the concern is based on the assertion that Trump is not a true conservative. These concerns are well-founded: Trump is certainly not a social conservative and, while wealthy, he does not seem to have a strong commitment to classic conservative ideology. Other aspects of the concern are based on Trumps character and style; he is often regarded as a vulgar populist.

Those who oppose Trump on these grounds would presumably not be swayed by evidence that Trump could do well in the general election—if he is an awful candidate, he would presumably be worse as president. This election could be a very interesting test of party loyalty (and Hillary loathing). Some Republicans have said that they will not vote for Trump and most of these have made it clear they will not vote for a Democrat. As such, the Democrat might win in virtue of Republican voters not voting. After all, a Republican who does not vote is almost as good as a vote for the Democrat. As such, it is not surprising that a popular conspiracy theory speculates that Trump is an agent of the Clintons.

 

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Flint’s Water

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 20, 2016

Like all too many American cities and towns, the Michigan city of Flint faces dire financial woes. To address these woes, the state stepped in and bypassed local officials with the goal of cutting the budget of the city. One aspect of the solution was to switch Flint’s water supply to a cheaper source, specifically a polluted river. Another aspect seems to have been to decline to pay the $100 per day cost of treating the water in accord with federal regulations. The result was that the corrosive water started dissolving the pipes. Since many of the pipes in the city are made of lead, this resulted in citizens getting lead poisoning. This includes children, who are especially vulnerable to the damage caused by this toxin.

More troubling, it has been claimed that the state was aware of the problem and officials decided to cover it up. The state also apparently tried to discredit the research conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha before finally admitting to the truth.

There have been various attempts to explain why this occurred, with filmmaker Michael Moore presenting the hypothesis that it was an attempt at “racist genocide.” This claim does have a certain appeal, given that the poor and minorities have been impacted by the corrosive water. Apparently the corrosive water has far less effect on newer infrastructure, which tends to be in areas that are better off economically. It is also appealing in that it is consistent with the fact of institutional racism that still plagues America. However, before rushing to accept the genocide hypothesis, it is worth considering alternative explanations.

One alternative is that the initial problem arose from political ideology. There is the view that the most important objective is reducing the spending of the state (typically to also lower taxes). Going along with this is also an opposition to federal regulations. Switching to the corrosive water and not treating it was initially cheaper and certainly evaded the regulations governing drinking water treatment. That said, the approach taken by the state did go against some professed conservative values, namely favoring local control and being opposed to government overreach. However, these values have been shown to be extremely flexible. For example, many state legislatures have passed laws forbidden local governments from banning fracking. As such, the initial action was consistent with the ideology.

In regards to the fact that the impact has been heaviest on the poor and minorities, this need not be driven by racism. An alternative explanation is that the policy was aimed not on the basis of race, but on the basis of power and influence. It is, of course, the case that the poor lack power and minorities are often poor. Since the poor lack the resources to resist harm and to buy influence, they are the most common target of budget cuts. Because of this, racism might not be the main factor.

In regards to the ensuing cover up, it might have begun with wishful thinking: the state officials did not want to believe that there was a problem. As such, they refused to accept that it existed. People are very good at denial, even when doing so is harmful to themselves. For example, many who do not take good care of themselves engage in wishful thinking in regards to the consequences their unhealthy behavior. It is, obviously, even easier to engage in wishful thinking when the harm is being suffered by others. Once the cover up progressed, the explanation is rather easy: people engage in a cover-up in the hopes of avoiding the consequences of their actions. However, as is so often the case, the cover-up has resulted in far more damage than a quick and honest admission.

This ongoing incident in Flint does show some important things. First, it does indicate that some traditional conservative claims are true: government can be the problem and local authorities can be better at decision making. Of course, government was the problem in this case because the focus was on saving a little money rather than ensuring the safety of the citizens.

Second, it serves as yet another example of poor assessment of consequences resulting from a shortsighted commitment to savings. This attempt at saving has done irreparable harm to many citizens (including children) and will cost millions of dollars to address. As such, this ill-considered attempt to save money has instead resulted in massive costs.

Third, it serves as yet another lesson in the fact that government regulations can be good. If the state had spent the $100 a day to treat the water in accord with federal regulations, then this problem would have not occurred. This is certainly something that people should consider when politicians condemn and call for eliminating regulations. This is not to claim that all regulations are good—but it is to claim that a blanket opposition to regulations is shortsighted and unwise.

I would like to say that the Flint disaster will result in significant changes. I do think it will have some impact—cities and towns are, no doubt, checking their water and assessing their infrastructure. However, the lessons will soon fade until it is time for a new disaster.

 

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The Trump Ban

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2016

While the United Kingdom is quite welcoming to its American cousins, many of its citizens have petitioned for a ban against the now leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. This issue was debated in mid-January by the parliament, although no vote was taken to ban the Donald.

The petition to ban Trump was signed by 575,000 people and was created in response to his call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. While this matter is mostly political theater, it does raise some matters of philosophical interest.

One interesting point is that the proposal to ban Trump appears to be consistent with the principles that seem to lurk behind the obscuring fog of Trump’s various proposals and assertions. One obvious concern is that attributing principles to Trump is challenging—he is a master of being vague and is not much for providing foundations for his proposed policies. Trump has, however, focused a great deal on the borders of the United States. He has made the comically absurd proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and, as noted above, proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. This seems to suggest that Trump accepts the principle that a nation has the right to control its borders and to keep out anyone that is deemed a threat or undesirable by the state. This principle, which might be one that Trump accepts, is certainly a reasonable one in general terms. While thinkers disagree about the proper functions of the state, there is general consensus that a state must, at a minimum, provide basic defense and police functions and these include maintaining borders. This principle would certainly warrant the UK from banning Trump.

Even if the is specific general principle is not one Trump accepts, he certainly seems to accept that a state can ban people from entering that state. As such, consistency would require that Trump accept that the UK has every right to ban him. Trump, if he were inclined to argue rationally, could contend that there are relevant differences between himself and those he proposes to ban. He could, for example, argue that the proposed wall between the United States and Mexico is to keep out illegals and point out that he would enter the UK legally rather than sneaking across the border. In regards to the proposed ban on all Muslims, Trump could point out that he is for banning Muslims but not for banning non-Muslims. As such, his principle of banning Muslims could not be applied to him.

A way to counter this is to focus again on the general principle that might be behind Trump’s proposals, namely the principle of excluding people who are regarded as a threat or at least undesirable. While Trump is not likely to engage in acts of terror in the UK, his behavior in the United States does raise concerns about his ideology and he could justly be regarded as a threat to the UK. He could, perhaps, radicalize some of the population. As such, Trump could be justly banned on the basis of a possible principle he is employing to justify his proposed bans (assuming that there are some principles lurking back there somewhere).

Trump could, of course, simply call the UK a bunch of losers and insist that they have no right to ban him. While that sort of thing is fine for political speeches, he would need a justification for his assertion. Then again, Trump might simply call them losers and say he does not want to go there anyway.

The criticism of Trump in the UK seems to be, at least in part, aimed at trying to reduce his chance of becoming the President of the United States.  Or perhaps there is some hope that the criticism will change his behavior. While a normal candidate might be influenced by such criticism from a close ally and decide to change, Trump is not a normal candidate. As has been noted many times, behavior that would have been politically damaging or fatal for other candidates has only served to keep Trump leading among the Republicans. As such, the petition against him and even the debate about the issue in Parliament will have no negative impact on his campaign. In fact, this sort of criticism will probably improve his poll numbers. As such, Trump is the orange Hulk of politics (not to be confused with Orange Hulk). The green Hulk gets stronger the angrier he gets, so attacking him just enables him to fight harder. The political orange Hulk, Trump, gets stronger the more he is rationally criticized and the more absurd and awful he gets. Like the green Hulk, Trump might be almost unbeatable. So, while Hulk might smash, Trump might win. And then smash.

 

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Occupying & Protesting

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 8, 2016

Ammon Bundy and fellow “militia” members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a protest of federal land use policies. Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy—the rancher who was involved in another armed stand-off with the federal government. Cliven Bundy still owes the American taxpayers over $1 million for grazing his cattle on public land—the sort of sponging off the public that would normally enrage conservatives. While that itself is an interesting issue, my focus will be on discussing the ethics of protest through non-violent armed occupation.

Before getting to the main issue, I will anticipate some concerns about the discussion. First, I will not be addressing the merits of the Bundy protest. Bundy purports to be protesting against the tyranny of the federal government in regards to its land-use policies. Some critics have pointed out that Bundy has benefitted from the federal government, something that seems a bit reminiscent of the infamous cry of “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While the merit of a specific protest is certainly relevant to the moral status of the protest, my focus is on the general subject of occupation as a means of protest.

Second, I will not be addressing the criticism that if the federal land had been non-violently seized by Muslims protesting Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter activists protesting police treatment of blacks, then the response would have been very different. While the subject of race and protest is important, it is not my focus here. I now turn to the matter of protesting via non-violent armed occupation.

The use of illegal occupation is well established as a means of protest in the United States and was used during the civil rights movement. But, of course, an appeal to tradition is a fallacy—the mere fact that something is well-established does not entail that it is justified. As such, an argument is needed to morally justify occupation as a means of protest.

One argument for occupation as a means of protest is that protestors do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.

One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to occupy a public library and interfere with its operation. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest.

People also protest in areas that are not normally open to the public—or whose use by the public is restricted. This would include privately owned areas as well as public areas that have restrictions. In the case of the Bundy protest, public facilities are being occupied rather than private facilities. However, Bundy and his fellows are certainly using the area in a way that would normally not be allowed—people cannot, in the normal course of things, just take up residence in public buildings. This can also be regarded as a conflict of rights—the right of protest versus the right of private ownership or public use.

These replies can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the rights of others to use the area that is occupied.  After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to accept protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in such behavior would be acting wrongly and the protest would thus be morally wrong. After all, if rights are accepted to justify a right to protest, then this would provide a clear foundation for accepting the rights of those who would be imposed upon by the protest. If the protestor who is protesting tyranny becomes a tyrant to others, then the protest certainly loses its moral foundation.

This provides the theoretical framework for assessing whether the Bundy protest is morally acceptable or not: it is a matter of weighing the merit of the protest against the harm done to the rights of other citizens (especially those in the surrounding community).

The above assumes a non-violent occupation of the sort that can be classified as classic civil disobedience of the sort discussed by Thoreau. That is, non-violently breaking the rules (or law) in an act of disobedience intended to bring about change. This approach was also adopted by Gandhi and Dr. King. Bundy has added a new factor—while the occupation has (as of this writing) been peaceful, the “militia” on the site is well armed. It has been claimed that the weapons are for self-defense, which indicates that the “militia” is willing to escalate from non-violent (albeit armed) to violent occupation in response to the alleged tyranny of the federal government. This leads to the matter of the ethics of armed resistance as a means of protest.

Modern political philosophy does provide a justification of such resistance. John Locke, for example, emphasized the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so. He provides the following definition of “tyranny”: “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” When the state is acting in a tyrannical manner, it can be justly resisted—at least on Locke’s view. As such, Bundy does have a clear theoretical justification for armed resistance. However, for this justification to be actual, it would need to be shown that federal land use policies are tyrannical to a degree that warrants the use of violence as a means of resistance.

Consistency does, of course, require that the framework be applied to all relevantly similar cases of protests—be they non-violent occupations or armed resistance.

 

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Owning Asteroids

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

While asteroid mining is still just science fiction, companies such as Planetary Resources are already preparing to mine the sky. While space mining sounds awesome, lawyers are already hard at work murdering the awesomeness with legalize. President Obama recently signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act which seems to make asteroid mining legal. The key part of the law is that “Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law and existing international obligations.” More concisely, the law makes it so that asteroid mining by U.S. citizens would not violate U.S. law.

While this would seem to open up the legal doors to asteroid mining, there are still legal barriers. The various space treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, do not give states sovereign rights in space. As such, there is no legal foundation for a state conferring space property rights to its citizens on the basis of its sovereignty. However, the treaties do not forbid private ownership in space—as such, any other nation could pass a similar law that allows its citizens to own property in space without violating the laws of that nation.

One obvious concern is that if multiple nations pass such laws and citizens from these nations start mining asteroids, then there will be the very real possibility of conflict over valuable resources. In some ways this will be a repeat of the past: the more technological advanced nations engaged in a struggle to acquire resources in an area where they lack sovereignty. These past conflicts tended to escalate into actual wars, which is something that must be considered in the final frontier.

One way to try to avoid war over asteroid resources is to work out new treaties governing the use of space resources. This is, obviously enough, a matter that will be handled by space lawyers, governments, and corporations. Unless, of course, the automated killing machines resolve it first.

While the legal aspects of space ownership are interesting, the moral aspects of ownership in space are also of considerable concern. While it might be believed that property rights in space is something entirely new, this is clearly not the case. While the location is clearly different than in the original, the matter of space property matches the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. To be specific, there is an abundance of resources and an absence of authority. As it now stands, while no one can hear you scream in space, there is also no one who can arrest you for space thievery.

Using the state of nature model, it can be claimed that there are currently no rightful owners of the asteroids or it could be claimed that we are all the rightful owners (the asteroids are the common property of all of humanity).

If there are currently no rightful owners, then it would seem that the asteroids are there for the taking: an asteroid belongs to whoever can take and hold it. This is on par with Hobbes’ state of nature—practical ownership is a matter of possession. As Hobbes saw it, everyone has the right to all things, but this is effectively a right to nothing—other than what a person can defend from others. As Hobbes noted, in such a scenario profit is the measure of right and who is right is to be settled by the sword.

While this is practical, brutal and realistic, it does seem a bit morally problematic in that it would, as Hobbes also noted, lead to war. His solution, which would presumably work as well in space as on earth, would be to have sovereignty in space. This would shift the war of all against all in space (of the sort that is common in science fiction about asteroid mining) to a war of nations in space (which is also common in science fiction). The war could, of course, be a cold one fought economically and technologically rather than a hot one fought with mass drivers and lasers.

If the asteroids are regarded as the common property of humanity, then Locke’s approach could be taken. As Locke saw it, God gave everything to humans in common, but people have to acquire things from the common property to make use of it. Locke gives the terrestrial example of how a person needs to make an apple her own before she can benefit from it. In the case of space, a person would need to make an asteroid her own in order to benefit from the materials it contains.

Locke sketched out a basic labor theory of ownership—whatever a person mixes her labor with becomes her property. As such, if asteroid miners located an asteroid and started mining it, then the asteroid would belong to them.  This does have some appeal: before the miners start extracting the minerals from the asteroid, it is just a rock drifting in space. Now it is a productive mine, improved from is natural state by the labor of the miners. If mining is profitable, then the miners would have a clear incentive to grab as many asteroids as they can, which leads to a rather important moral problem—the limits of ownership.

Locke does set limits on what people can take in his proviso.: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. When describing this to my students, I always use the analogy to food at a party: since the food is for everyone, everyone has a right to the food. However, taking it all or taking the very best would be wrong (and rude). While this proviso is ignored on earth, the asteroids provide us with a fresh start in regards to dividing up the common property of humanity. After all, no one has any special right to claim the asteroids—so we all have equal good claims to the resources they contain.

As with earth resources, some will probably contend that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space. Instead, those who get there first will contend that ownership should be on the principle of whoever grabs it first and can keep it is the “rightful” owner.

Those who take this view would probably argue that those who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will remain poor—their poverty will, in fact, disqualify them from owning any of the space resources much in the way poverty disqualifies people on earth from owning earth resources.

While the selfish approach is certainly appealing, arguments can be made for sharing asteroid resources. One reason is that those who will mine the asteroids did not create the means to do so from nothing on their own. Reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to human civilization and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Another way to argue for sharing the resources is to use an analogy to a buffet line. Suppose I am first in line at a buffet. This does not give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself in order to sell it to those who had the misfortune to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Naturally, these arguments for sharing can be countered by the usual arguments in favor of selfishness. While it is tempting to think that the vastness of space will overcome selfishness (that is, there will be so much that people will realize that not sharing would be absurd and petty), this seems unlikely—the more there is, the greater the disparity between those who have and those who have not. On this pessimistic view we already have all the moral and legal tools we need for space—it is just a matter of changing the wording a bit to include “space.”

 

 

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Threat Assessment II: Demons of Fear & Anger

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 18, 2015

In the previous essay on threat assessment I looked at the influence of availability heuristics and fallacies that directly relate to errors in reasoning about statistics and probability. This essay continues the discussion by exploring the influence of fear and anger on threat assessment.

As noted in the previous essay, a rational assessment of a threat involves properly considering how likely it is that a threat will occur and, if it occurs, how severe the consequences might be. As might be suspected, the influence of fear and anger can cause people to engage in poor threat assessment that overestimates the likelihood of a threat or the severity of the threat.

One common starting point for anger and fear is the stereotype. Roughly put, a stereotype is an uncritical generalization about a group. While stereotypes are generally thought of as being negative (that is, attributing undesirable traits such as laziness or greed), there are also positive stereotypes. They are not positive in that the stereotyping itself is good. Rather, the positive stereotype attributes desirable qualities, such as being good at math or skilled at making money. While it makes sense to think that stereotypes that provide a foundation for fear would be negative, they often include a mix of negative and positive qualities. For example, a feared group might be cast as stupid, yet somehow also incredibly cunning and dangerous.

After recent terrorist attacks, many people in the United States have embraced negative stereotypes about Muslims, such as the idea that they are all terrorists. This sort of stereotyping leads to similar mistakes that arise from hasty generalizations: reasoning about a threat based on stereotypes will tend to lead to an error in assessment. The defense against a stereotype is to seriously inquire whether the stereotype is true or not.

This stereotype has been used as a base (or fuel) for a stock rhetorical tool, that of demonizing. Demonizing, in this context, involves portraying a group as evil and dangerous. This can be seen as a specialized form of hyperbole in that it exaggerates the evil of the group and the danger it represents. Demonizing is often combined with scapegoating—blaming a person or group for problems they are not actually responsible for. A person can demonize on her own or be subject to the demonizing rhetoric of others.

Demonizing presents a clear threat to rational threat assessment. If a group is demonized successfully, it will be (by definition) regarded as more evil and dangerous than it really is. As such, both the assessment of the probability and severity of the threat will be distorted. For example, the demonization of Muslims by various politicians and pundits influences some people to make errors in assessing the danger presented by Muslims in general and Syrian refugees in particular.

The defense against demonizing is similar to the defense against stereotypes—a serious inquiry into whether the claims are true or are, in fact, demonizing. It is worth noting that what might seem to be demonizing might be an accurate description. This is because demonizing is, like hyperbole, exaggerating the evil of and danger presented by a group. If the description is true, then it would not be demonizing. Put informally, describing a group as evil and dangerous need not be demonizing. For example, this description would match the Khmer Rouge.

While stereotyping and demonizing are mere rhetorical devices, there are also fallacies that distort threat assessment. Not surprisingly, one of this is scare tactics (also known as appeal to fear). This fallacy involves substituting something intended to create fear in the target in place of evidence for a claim. While scare tactics can be used in other ways, it can be used to distort threat assessment. One aspect of its distortion is the use of fear—when people are afraid, they tend to overestimate the probability and severity of threats. Scare tactics is also used to feed fear—one fear can be used to get people to accept a claim that makes them even more afraid.

One thing that is especially worrisome about scare tactics in the context of terrorism is that in addition to making people afraid, it is also routinely used to “justify” encroachments on rights, massive spending, and the abandonment of important moral values. While courage is an excellent defense against this fallacy, asking two important questions also helps. The first is to ask “should I be afraid?” and the second is to ask “even if I am afraid, is the claim actually true?” For example, scare tactics has been used to “support” the claim that Syrian refugees should not be allowed into the United States. In the face of this tactic, one should inquire whether or not there are grounds to be afraid of Syrian refugees and also inquire into whether or not an appeal to fear justifies the proposed ban (obviously, it does not).

It is worth noting that just because something is scary or makes people afraid it does not follow that it cannot serve as legitimate evidence in a good argument. For example, the possibility of a fatal head injury from a motorcycle accident is scary, but is also a good reason to wear a helmet. The challenge is sorting out “judgments” based merely on fear and judgments that involve good reasoning about scary things.

While fear makes people behave irrationally, so does anger. While anger is an emotion and not a fallacy, it does provide the fuel for the appeal to anger. This fallacy occurs when something that is intended to create anger is substituted for evidence for a claim. For example, a demagogue might work up a crowd’s anger at illegal migrants to get them to accept absurd claims about building a wall along a massive border.

Like scare tactics, the use of an appeal to anger distorts threat assessment. One aspect is that when people are angry, they tend to reason poorly about the likelihood and severity of a threat. For example, the crowd that is enraged against illegal migrants might greatly overestimate the likelihood that the migrants are “taking their jobs” and the extent to which they are “destroying America.” Another aspect is that the appeal to anger, in the context of public policy, is often used to “justify” policies that encroach on rights and do other harms. For example, when people are angry about a mass shooting, proposals follow to limit gun rights that actually had no relevance to the incident. As another example, the anger at illegal migrants is often used to “justify” policies that would actually be harmful to the United States. As a third example, appeals to anger are often used to justify policies that would be ineffective at addressing terrorism and would do far more harm than good (such as the proposed ban on all Muslims).

It is important to keep in mind that if a claim makes a person angry, it does not follow that the claim cannot be evidence for a conclusion. For example, a person who learns that her husband is having an affair with an underage girl would probably be very angry. But, this would also serve as good evidence for the conclusion that she should report him to the police and then divorce him. As another example, the fact that illegal migrants are here illegally and this is often simply tolerated can make someone mad, but this can also serve as a premise in a good argument in favor of enforcing (or changing) the laws.

One defense against appeal to anger is good anger management skills. Another is to seriously inquire into whether or not there are grounds to be angry and whether or not any evidence is being offered for the claim. If all that is offered is an appeal to anger, then there is no reason to accept the claim on the basis of the appeal.

The rational assessment of threats is important for practical and moral reasons. Since society has limited resources, rationally using them requires considering the probability of threats rationally—otherwise resources are being misspent. There is also the concern about the harm of creating fear and anger that are unfounded. In addition to the psychological harm to individuals that arise from living in fear and anger, there is also the damage stereotyping, demonizing, scare tactics and appeal to anger do to society as a whole. While anger and fear can unify people, they most often unify by dividing—pitting us against them.

As in my previous essay, I urge people to think through threats rather than giving in to the seductive demons of fear and anger.

 

 

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Threat Assessment I: A Vivid Spotlight

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2015

When engaged in rational threat assessment, there are two main factors that need to be considered. The first is the probability of the threat. The second is, very broadly speaking, the severity of the threat. These two can be combined into one sweeping question: “how likely is it that this will happen and, if it does, how bad will it be?”

Making rational decisions about dangers involves considering both of these factors. For example, consider the risks of going to a crowded area such as a movie theater or school. There is a high probability of being exposed to the cold virus, but it is a very low severity threat. There is an exceedingly low probability that there will be a mass shooting, but it is a high severity threat since it can result in injury or death.

While humans have done a fairly good job at surviving, this seems to have been despite our amazingly bad skills at rational threat assessment. To be specific, the worry people feel in regards to a threat generally does not match up with the actual probability of the threat occurring. People do seem somewhat better at assessing the severity, though they are also often in error about this.

One excellent example of poor threat assessment is in regards to the fear Americans have in regards to domestic terrorism. As of December 15, 2015 there have been 45 people killed in the United States in attacks classified as “violent jihadist attacks” and 48 people killed in attacks classified as “far right wing attacks” since 9/11/2001.  In contrast, there were 301,797 gun deaths from 2005-2015 in the United States and over 30,000 people are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.

Despite the incredibly low likelihood of a person being killed by an act of terrorism in the United States, many people are terrified by terrorism (which is, of course, the goal of terrorism) and have become rather focused on the matter since the murders in San Bernardino. Although there have been no acts of terrorism on the part of refugees in the United States, many people are terrified of refugees and this had led to calls for refusing to accept Syrian refugees and Donald Trump has famously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

Given that an American is vastly more likely to be killed while driving than killed by a terrorist, it might be wondered why people are so incredibly bad at this sort of threat assessment. The answer, in regards to having fear vastly out of proportion to the probability is easy enough—it involves a cognitive bias and some classic fallacies.

People follow general rules when they estimate probabilities and the ones we use unconsciously are called heuristics. While the right way to estimate probability is to use proper statistical methods, people generally fall victim to the bias known as the availability heuristic. The idea is that a person unconsciously assigns a probability to something based on how often they think of that sort of event. While an event that occurs often will tend to be thought of often, the fact that something is often thought of does not make it more likely to occur.

After an incident of domestic terrorism, people think about terrorism far more often and thus tend to unconsciously believe that the chance of terrorism occurring is far higher than it really is. To use a non-terrorist example, when people hear about a shark attack, they tend to think that the chances of it occurring are high—even though the probability is incredibly low (driving to the beach is vastly more likely to kill you than a shark is). The defense against this bias is to find reliable statistical data and use that as the basis for inferences about threats—that is, think it through rather than trying to feel through it. This is, of course, very difficult: people tend to regard their feelings, however unwarranted, as the best evidence—despite it is usually the worst evidence.

People are also misled about probability by various fallacies. One is the spotlight fallacy. The spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that all (or many) members or cases of a certain class or type are like those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media. After an incident involving terrorists who are Muslim, media attention is focused on that fact, leading people who are poor at reasoning to infer that most Muslims are terrorists. This is the exact sort of mistake that would occur if it were inferred that most Christians are terrorists because the media covered a terrorist who was Christian (who shot up a Planned Parenthood). If people believe that, for example, most Muslims are terrorists, then they will make incorrect inferences about the probability of a domestic terrorist attack by Muslims.

Anecdotal evidence is another fallacy that contributes to poor inferences about the probability of a threat. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. This fallacy is similar to hasty generalization and a similar sort of error is committed, namely drawing an inference based on a sample that is inadequate in size relative to the conclusion. The main difference between hasty generalization and anecdotal evidence is that the fallacy anecdotal evidence involves using a story (anecdote) as the sample.

People often fall victim to this fallacy because stories and anecdotes tend to have more psychological influence than statistical data. This leads people to infer that what is true in an anecdote must be true of the whole population or that an anecdote justifies rejecting statistical evidence in favor of said anecdote. Not surprisingly, people most commonly accept this fallacy because they want to believe that what is true in the anecdote is true for the whole population.

In the case of terrorism, people use both anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization: they point to a few examples of domestic terrorism or tell the story about a specific incident, and then draw an unwarranted conclusion about the probability of a terrorist attack occurring. For example, people point to the claim that one of the terrorists in Paris masqueraded as a refugee and infer that refugees pose a great threat to the United States. Or they tell the story about the one attacker in San Bernardino who arrived in the states on a K-1 (“fiancé”) visa and make unwarranted conclusions about the danger of the visa system (which is used by about 25,000 people a year).

One last fallacy is misleading vividness. This occurs when a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence to the contrary.

People often accept this sort of “reasoning” because particularly vivid or dramatic cases tend to make a very strong impression on the human mind. For example, mass shootings by domestic terrorists are vivid and awful, so it is hardly surprising that people feel they are very much in danger from such attacks. Another way to look at this fallacy in the context of threats is that a person conflates the severity of a threat with its probability. That is, the worse the harm, the more a person feels that it will occur.

It should be kept in mind that taking into account the possibility of something dramatic or vivid occurring is not always fallacious. For example, a person might decide to never go sky diving because the effects of an accident can be very, very dramatic. If he knows that, statistically, the chances of the accident are happening are very low but he considers even a small risk to be unacceptable, then he would not be making this error in reasoning. This then becomes a matter of value judgment—how much risk is a person willing to tolerate relative to the severity of the potential harm.

The defense against these fallacies is to use a proper statistical analysis as the basis for inferences about probability. As noted above, there is still the psychological problem: people tend to act on the basis on how they feel rather than what the facts show.

Such rational assessment of threats is rather important for both practical and moral reasons. The matter of terrorism is no exception to this.  Since society has limited resources, rationally using them requires considering the probability of threats rationally—otherwise resources are being misspent. For example, spending billions to counter a miniscule threat while spending little on leading causes of harm would be irrational (if the goal is to protect people from harm). There is also the concern about the harm of creating fear that is unfounded. In addition to the psychological harm to individuals, there is also the damage to the social fabric. There has already been an increase in attacks on Muslims in America and people are seriously considering abandoning core American values, such as the freedom of religion and being good Samaritans.

In light of the above, I urge people to think rather than feel their way through their concerns about terrorism. Also, I urge people to stop listening to Donald Trump. He has the right of free expression, but people also have the right of free listening.

 

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Trumping Along

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 14, 2015

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, many people laughed. He even managed to create some bipartisan agreement among my liberal and my conservative friends: they generally believed that while Trump would be good theatre, he would either fade away or implode in a magnificent and huge manner. As Trump kept Trumping along, many of my conservative friends began to sweat just a little—while they are often dedicated conservatives, the idea of a Trump presidency was not very appealing. My liberal friends tried to reassure themselves that if Trump was picked to run against Hillary, a Democratic victory was assured. However, I could tell they were sweating a little. Now that it is the second week of December and Trump is Trumping along, I am sure that at least some people are waking up in the middle of the night, visions of President Trump trumpeting in their heads.

Since expert pundits and establishment politicians predicted that Trump would not go the distance, it is certainly worth considering why he is doing so well. While primarily a matter of politics and psychology, there are also matters of philosophical interest here.

One major factor in regards to Trumps success is that the Republican party and conservative strategists created an ecosystem that is nearly perfect for Trump. First, there has been a sustained attack on reason and intellectuals. For example, Obama is derisively described as professorial and thinking too much. Trump does not create the impression that he is thinking too much and is regarded more as the school bully rather than the professor. This seems to be a factor that is hurting Bush—he is a man who thinks and grasps the complications of politics.

Second, there has been a narrative of weakness leveled against Democrats and there have been unfavorable comparisons made between Obama and “strongmen” like Putin. Trump nicely fits the “strongman” model—he is brash, full of bravado, bullying and loud. While this stick was mainly used to beat Democrats, Trump has gleefully employed it to bash his weaker Republican opponents, such as the “low energy” Jeb Bush.

Third, there have been subtle and not so subtle uses of race in political scare tactics and manipulation. While people do have race issues and fears that do not come from the politicians, the use of race has helped forge a space for Trump. He also has a very effective narrative in that he is engaged in the culture war against the politically correct culture. Trump is willing to take this fight beyond lines that most institutional Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Dick Cheney, are unwilling to cross. It is worth noting that some blame the political correctness machinations of some Democrats for helping Trump out here.

Fourth, there has been a repeated narrative of attacking the establishment. For the most part, this has been mere rhetoric—establishment figures say they are going to go (back) to Washington to fight the establishment. But they usually just settle in. Trump is a genuine outsider to politics and he is clearly willing to go hard against the establishment. This is not to diminish the fact that people also have their own reasons to be angry at the establishment—mainly because of what it has (and has not) done. If America had been better governed, Trump would probably not have made it past the first few months. While this is a dagger that the Republicans like to use to stab the Democrats, it works great against fellow Republicans.

Fifth, there has been an ongoing war against the “liberal media” which has trained many people to reject the mainstream media as biased and lacking in credibility. Since one role of the media is to vet candidates and to call candidates out for lies, this means that Trump has an easy reply to any criticism from the media—even from the conservative media (such as Trumps bouts with Fox).

Sixth, while the use of scare tactics (the fallacy of offering as “evidence” for a claim something that is intended to cause fear and thus motivate acceptance) is as old as politics, the conservatives have beaten the drum of fearing foreigners for quite some time (Democrats also take turns at the drums of fear and panic). Trump is just devouring this fear and growing huge.

Another major factor in Trump’s success is the very real dissatisfaction of Americans. While the economic recovery has returned most of the wealth that the richest people lost, the majority of Americans are still suffering from the enduring economic scars. There is also the fact that wages have stagnated and the lower economic classes (that is, most of us) are worse off than our predecessors. As Bernie Sanders has pointed out for decades, there is grotesque economic inequality in America.

While Americans have been conditioned to dislike socialism and love capitalism, people cannot help but feel the impact of this inequality. As such, they need to reconcile their economic worries with their ideology—they need someone to blame other than the rich. While Americans are mostly reluctant to blame those who are clearly responsible (those who benefit from the inequality and those who serve them so well), they feel that someone must be to blame. Trump has been able to tap into this dissatisfaction, as many a skilled demagogue has tapped into economic dissatisfaction before him.  In fact, what is somewhat surprising is that it took so long for a demagogue to arise.

A third factor in Trump’s success, as noted above, is the fear many Americans feel in regards to safety. After the Cold War ended, a narrative of terrorism was lovingly crafted to scare Americans—helped by real terrorism, of course. The United States also faces the fear caused by repeated mass shootings and high levels of violence. This creates a deep well of fear that Trump can draw from repeatedly.

When people are afraid, they tend to reason poorly and act stupidly in very predictable ways. One part of this stupidity is that people often seek a leader who is loud, confident and promises that he will solve the problems, usually using means that most others initially regard as morally unacceptable. This willingness to act in such ways is often seen as strength and, in many cases, can actually match the views of those who start following the leader. Trump knows how to deal and how to put on a show and a second aspect of stupidity in this area is that people are drawn to the safety theatre rather than to the rather dull and complicated things that actually enable people to be safe.

Trump could very well ride the wave of fear and dissatisfaction through the primaries and emerge as the Republican candidate. While the professional pundits claim that Trump would be trounced in the general election, his numbers are not that bad. Also, the hallmark of the professional pundit seems to be being consistently wrong. So, get ready for Trump 2016.

 

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