One talking point on the political right is that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is causally responsible for an increase in crime. This point has been made by such sources as the National Review and Bill O’Reilly. As would be suspected, those to the left of the right have denied this connection and, of course, BLM has denied this claim.
In general terms, BLM is alleged to make two major contributions to crime. The first is in regards to videos: BLM encourages citizens to take videos of the police and also supports the release of police videos. These videos are said to create what is known as the ‘Laquan McDonald Effect.’ Laquan McDonald was a 17-year-old black man who was killed by officer Jason Van Dyke. The police video shows the officer shooting McDonald 16 times as he was moving away from the officers. McDonald was holding a small knife; as such he was technically armed. The effect of this video and the following protests, it is claimed, was to cause officers to step down in their policing out of fear of being the next Van Dyke. For example, police in Chicago reduced their street stops by 80%. This reduction in policing is supposed to contribute to the increase in crime (or at least fail to address the increase).
The second is in regards to the protesting against the police. One alleged impact is that the hostility towards the police damages their morale and this negatively impacts how they do their jobs. In the face of weakened policing, crime increases. Another alleged impact is that the police are burdened by dealing with BLM protests and this pulls away resources, thus allowing crime to increase. There are also the assertions that BLM engages in criminal activities (under the guise of protesting) and that it encourages or inspires (intentionally or not) criminal activity.
The hypothesis that BLM has a causal role in the increase of crime is certainly something that should be given due consideration. Those that already think it does would presumably want confirmation and those who disagree would want it to be disproven. Naturally, many people see BLM through the lens of ideology and proof contrary to their views could merely cause them to double down on their claims. However, those willing to accept reason should be prepared for the possibility they will need to adjust their views in the face of adequate evidence.
As some people see it, the fact that BLM’s appearance was followed by an increase in crime in some cities is sufficient proof that BLM was the cause of this increase. While cause normally precedes effect, to infer that BLM is the cause of the increase because it occurred after BLM arose would be to fall victim to the classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant such a claim. While this sort of error is usually the result of a lack of caution, it can also arise from motivated thinking: those who dislike BLM could be quick to link it with the increase of crime because of their dislike.
Properly sorting out the connection, if any, between BLM and the increase in crime would require a robust and objective analysis of statistical data, causal connections and human motivations. As of this writing, this has not been completed. As such, whether or not BLM really is a causal factor remains an open question. That said, it is certainly worth assessing the arguments advanced in support of BLM responsibility.
The first argument, as noted above, focuses on the claim that BLM encourages people to take videos of police and pushes for the release of police videos when incidents occur. This causes officers to worry that they will be filmed, thus leading them to scale back on policing. It is this, it is alleged, which increases crime. In terms of a causal explanation, this has considerable plausibility. If the police are afraid of being filmed, they are less likely to engage in activities that would result in their being filmed. When the police cut back on those activities, such as stops and aggressive policing, the pressure on criminals is lessened and they have a freer hand in committing crimes.
The second set of arguments also do establish a link between BLM and the increase in crime. The idea that the protesting demoralizes the police does make sense and dealing with protests does pull away police resources. As such, the causal link between BLM and an increase in crime can be established. While those who dislike BLM would be content to take this as the end of the story, this is actually just the beginning. There still remain causal questions as well as questions about moral responsibility.
One way to consider the matter is to use an analogy that is, hopefully, less imbued with ideology and emotion. Imagine that it was found that some doctors were prescribing unnecessary medications in order to get money and gifts from pharmaceutical companies. It can also be added that some doctors engaged in Medicare fraud that also proved harmful to the patients. Suppose that this was exposed by videos taken by patients and an organization arose called Patients’ Lives Matter to address this mistreatment of patients by some doctors. Suppose that the rate of illnesses started increasing after PLM started protesting.
Some might argue that PLM is to blame. One argument might be that doctors are now afraid to properly treat patients because someone might take a video of them. Another might be that doctors have become demoralized by the protests and hence do not do as well on the job. Presumably the solution would be for PLM to disband and allow the doctors to return to what they were doing. But, this seems absurd—the moral responsibility rests on the doctors who engaged in the misdeeds, not on PLM. The bad doctors need to be corrected or replaced—getting rid of PLM will merely “solve” the problem by returning to the previous problem.
In this case it would seem odd to blame the patients alone. After all, but for the doctors who engaged in the misdeeds, there would be no PLM to demoralize the doctors. Going back to BLM, but for the police who engaged in misdeeds, there would be no BLM. As such, the police who have engaged in misdeeds are also a causal factor. BLM would have nothing to encourage people to film and no videos to press for release if there were no misdeeds. As people so often say, those who have nothing to hide have no reason to fear scrutiny—ironically, this is often said about cases in which the police or other agents of the state are intruding into the privacy of citizens. If it applies to citizens, it surely applies to the police as well. After all, if an officer does nothing wrong, video will vindicate the officer. This is why some departments actually want officers to have cameras.
In terms of the protests, while it is true that such protests can be demoralizing, BLM is not protesting nothing—they are protesting events that are quite real. Naturally, it is reasonable to be concerned about how the community regards the police. However, BLM seems to be a response to the already poor relationships between many communities and their police, not the cause of those poor relationships.
The complaints about BLM disrupting communities seems analogous to the complaints about civil rights activists “damaging” community relationships by protesting the violation of civil rights. That is, that race-relations were just fine until the civil rights activists came in and caused all the trouble.
While it is true that people reacted negatively to civil rights activists, the moral blame for the reactions lies with those responding, not with the activists. And, of course, race relations were not fine—at least not fine for those being lynched. In the case of BLM, the problems are already there in the community, BLM is merely bringing them into the national spotlight—and some would prefer that they remain in the shadows. Blaming BLM for the increase in crime is thus a red herring—an attempt to distract people from the real cause and to discredit a movement that makes the white right very uncomfortable by bringing what was once in the shadows into the light.
While weather disasters have always plagued humanity, there has been a clear recent uptick in such events. Naturally, the greater scope of these disasters is due partially to the human population being larger than ever and occupying more land—especially in areas prone to such events. That said, events such as the floods in Louisiana and the steady inundation of the sea in many places (such as Miami) are indications of a real change.
Nearly every climate scientist accepts that climate change is occurring and that human activity has had an influence. Given the historic record, it would be irrational to deny that the climate changes and few claim that it does not. The battle, then, is over the cause of climate change. Unfortunately for addressing the impact of climate change, it was brilliantly changed from a scientific issue into a political one. Making it into a partisan issue had the usual impact on group psychology: it became a matter of political identity, with people developing a profound emotional commitment to climate change denial. When denying climate change became a matter of group identity, it became almost impossible for reason to change minds—in the face of overwhelming evidence, people merely double down, deny the evidence, and craft narratives about how scientists are biased and environmentalists hate corporations and jobs.
To be fair, some of those who accept climate change do so out of political identity as well—they are not moved by the science, but by their group identity. They just happen to be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.
Not being an expert on climate change, I follow the rational approach to any issue that requires expertise to settle: I go with the majority view of the qualified experts. As such, I accept that climate change is real and humans play a role. If the majority shifted, I would accept that view—after all, the history of science includes numerous shifts.
If this matter were a purely abstract debate, then there would be no real worry. However, the impact of the changing climate is already doing considerable harm and the evidence suggests that it will continue to get worse unless steps are taken to address it. Unfortunately, as noted above, climate is now a political issue with deeply entrenched interest groups and strong emotional commitments. In some places, such as Florida, there is considerable political pressure to not even use the words “climate change.” The problem is, of course, that not using the words does not make the problems go away. Miami will slowly vanish into the ocean, even if people refuse to say “climate change.”
As a philosopher, I do believe in reason. However, I am also a practical person and know that reason is the weakest form of persuasion. Because of the entrenchment over climate change, trying to use reason and evidence to change minds would be a fool’s errand. As such, I suggest a purely pragmatic solution: stop using the C words (“climate change”) when trying to influence public policy, at least in cases in which there is strong ideological resistance. Using those words will simply evoke an emotional response and create strong resistance to whatever might be proposed, however reasonable.
As an alternative, the approach should be to focus on the specific threats and these should be cast in terms of risks to the economy and, perhaps, the lives and well-being of voters and consumers. There should be no mention of man-made climate change and no proposals to change behavior to counter man-made climate change. In short, the proposals must focus solely on mitigating the damage of weather events, with due care taken to present the notion that these events “just happen” and are “natural” with no connection to human activity.
It might be objected that this would be analogous to trying to combat the Zika virus by dealing only with the effects while refusing to say “virus” and not proposing any efforts to address the cause. This is certainly a reasonable point. However, if there was a powerful political movement that refused to accept the existence of viruses and citizens emotionally devoted to virus denial, then trying to persuade them to deal with the virus would be a nigh-impossible task. If they did accept the existence of the effects, then they could be enlisted to assist in addressing them. While this approach would hardly be optimal, it would be better to have their cooperation in mitigating the consequences rather than facing their opposition.
It might also be objected that I am deluded by my own ideological views and have been misled by the conspiracy of scientists and liberals who are in the pocket of Big Environment. Since I rather enjoy a good conspiracy theory, I certainly admit that it could be the case that the noble fossil fuel companies and those they pay are right about climate change and the scientists are either villains or dupes. If so, then not talking about climate change would be the correct approach—just as not talking about climate demons is the correct approach (because there are no such things). Since the weather events are really occurring, then addressing them would still be reasonable. So, regardless of whether climate change is real or not, my approach seems to be a sound one: avoid the resistance of climate change deniers by not using the C words; but enlist them into addressing those perfectly natural severe weather events that will be occurring with increasing regularity.
While the United States does have numerous third parties and many voters now register as independents, politics is dominated by the Republicans and the Democrats. While there are independents in office here and there, independent voters still identify strongly with the two parties. They are also almost entirely limited to voting for candidates from these two parties.
My own party affiliation is Democrat, although it is a very weak affiliation. While I do share some of the values professed by the party (such as support for education and protecting the environment) my main reason for being a Democrat is that Florida is a closed primary state. If I did not have a party affiliation, I would be limited to voting between the candidates picked by the Democrats and Republicans. That is not acceptable and I regard the Democrats as less evil than the Republicans. At least for now.
While people do sometimes change parties (Reagan started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican, while Hillary Clinton took the reverse path) most people stay loyal to their parties. Trump has tested the loyalty of some Republicans, but it seems likely that most will vote along straight party lines. Likewise for Hillary and the Democrats.
Being a philosopher, I endeavor to operate from consistent moral, logical and political principles rather than merely embracing whatever my party happens to endorse at any given moment. Because of this, I could end up leaving the Democratic party if its professed values changed enough to be broadly incompatible with my own. This can certainly happen. As Republicans love to mention, their party was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. As they also love to point out, the Democratic party was once an explicitly racist party. Now, of course, both parties are very different from those days. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled by the current Republican party and the Democrats are now regarded as a civil rights focused party that is very welcoming to minorities (and certainly welcomes their votes).
While political parties presumably provide some benefits for citizens, they mainly exist to benefit the politicians. They provide politicians with resources and support that are essential to running for office. They also provide another valuable service to politicians: a very effective means of cognitive and moral derangement. Like other groups, political parties exploit well-known cognitive biases, thus encouraging their members to yield to irrationality and moral failure.
One bias is the bandwagon effect; this is the tendency people have to align their thinking with that of those around them. This often serves to ground such fallacies as the “group think” fallacy in which a person accepts a claim as true simply because their group accepts it as true. In the case of political parties, people tend to believe what their party claims, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is well-established that people often double down on false beliefs in the face of objective evidence against this belief. This afflicts people across the political spectrum. The defense against this sort of derangement is to resist leaping on the bandwagon and train oneself to accept evidence rather than group loyalty as support for a claim.
Another bias is the tendency people have to obey authority and conform. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in obedience purport to show that people are generally obedient by nature and will obey even when they also believe what they are doing is wrong. This derangement forges people into obedient masses who praise their leader, be that leader the objectively unfit Donald Trump or the morally problematic and Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Since obedience is so ingrained into humans, resisting is very difficult. In fact, people often think they are resisting authority when they are simply bowing low to some other authority. Being disobedient as a matter of principle is difficult, although people such as Socrates and Thoreau do offer some guidelines and inspiration.
Perhaps the most powerful bias here is the in group bias. This is the natural tendency people have to regard members of their group as having positive qualities while seeing members of other groups as being inferior. This tendency is triggered even by the most superficial of group identifications. For example, sports teams stand for nothing—they do not represent moral or political principles or anything of significance. Yet people routinely become obsessive fans who regard their fellows as better than the fans of other teams. This can, and does, escalate into violence. Violence of the most stupid and pointless sort, but real violence nonetheless. In the case of politics, the bias is even stronger. Republicans and Democrats typically praise their own and condemn their competition. Many of them devote considerable effort scouring the internet for “evidence” of their virtue and the vice of their foes: it is not enough to disagree; the opposition must be demonized and cast as inferior. For example, I see battles play out on Facebook over whether Democrats or Republicans give more to charity—and this sometimes becomes a matter of deep rage that has ended friendships. Since I prefer to not let politics or religion end an otherwise fine friendship, I make a point of not getting engaged in such battles. There are, after all, only losers in those fights.
This bias is extremely useful to politicians as it helps fuels the moral and cognitive derangement of their supporters. The most pronounced effect is that party members will typically rush to defend their politician over matters that they savagely attack the other side for. For example, Donald Trump is, as a matter of objective fact, unrelenting in his untruths. His supporters who otherwise regard lying as wrong, rush to defend and excuse him, while bashing Hillary as a liar and a crook—despite the fact that Hillary says untrue things far less often than Trump. As should be expected, Hillary’s devout backers do the same thing—excusing Hillary for things they condemn about Trump (such as sketchy business deals).
As a matter of rational and moral principle (and consistency), a person who regards lying as wrong should take liars of both parties to task and criticize their lying appropriately. To do otherwise is to be irrational and morally inconsistent. The same should apply to other matters as well, such as sketchy business deals. To avoid this derangement, people need to train themselves (or be trained) to assess politicians as objectively as possible to avoid being morally and cognitively deranged by the undue corrupting influence of party.
This is not to say that a person should fall into the trap of false equivalency or regard any misdeed as equal to any other. Simply saying “they are all equally bad” when they are not is also a failure of reason and ethics. Using the example of the 2016 campaign, while Trump and Clinton both have their flaws, Clinton is objectively better than Trump in regards to qualifications for being president. As Republicans argued when Obama was running in 2008, experience is critically important and the presidency is not an entry level political job. Naturally, I expect some to lash out at me over such claims. Some will rush to praise Trump and tear apart Hillary. I also would expect Hillary backers to be displeased by my fairly negative view of Hillary (while Hillary haters will probably have the mistaken impression that I am all in for her). Such things will actually help prove my point: people tend to be ruled by their biases.
I am not advocating that people become apathetic or abandon their parties. Rather, I want people to hold all politicians to the same standards of criticism rather than rushing to defend their side simply because it is their side and bashing the other simply because it is the other. This would, I hope, force politicians to actually be better. As it now stands, they can be rather awful and simply count on the derangement of voters to work in their favor.
When I was an undergraduate, one of my political science professors liked to say that one major difference between the Soviet Union and the United States was that we had one more political party than they did. He did, of course, illustrate how this was a real difference in some ways, but far less of a difference in many other ways. In the former Soviet Union, the top of the political pyramid was occupied by Communist party members. In the United States, the top is occupied by Republican and Democrats.
While it is worth noting that the United States actually has many third parties, the only impact these tend to have on Presidential elections is stripping away enough votes from one of the major parties to allow the other party to take the White House. Ralph Nader is, of course, the classic example of this. Third parties might have some impact in the 2016 election, especially given that it is mostly a contest about who is loathed less.
It is unfortunate that third parties generally do not get to have their candidates participate in the Presidential debates; so the only ideas that are heard are those of the two dominate parties. It is true that there is a threshold for inclusion: if a candidate can break 15% in the approved national polls, then that candidate gets a spot on the stage. One problem with this is that a third party cannot get that 15% without getting enough attention and it probably cannot get enough attention for the next election without being on the stage for the debates. Third parties also face the obvious challenge that the Republicans and Democrats have an iron lock on the political process; operating together to keep the third parties out of the game.
Since it is absurd to think that two parties can adequately reflect the diverse political views of Americans, I hold that third parties need to be given more opportunities in the political system. One way this can be done is taking actions that would allow third party candidates to participate in the Presidential debates. Since polls are used as the basis for admission, I have the following suggestions.
The first, which might seem a bit dishonest, is for people who support having a third party candidate in the debate say that they will vote for them, even if they intend to vote for another candidate. If enough people do this, that candidate would be able to participate.
It might be objected that if enough people do this, a major party candidate could be left out of the debate. While I see this as feature and not a bug, it is certain that this would not happen. It can also be objected that this would distort the polls, causing trouble for the pundits, politicians and statisticians. This is a point of some concern—but it is the real election that really matters. I would feel a bit bad for Nate Silver in this scenario; but I think he would probably create a model to handle this. And a podcast, of course.
A second, more honest, proposal is to have polls that allows the person to rank candidates rather than simply picking one or questions about who they want to see in the debates. This would allow a person, as an example, who intended to vote for a Republican but wanted to see what the Libertarian would say to express this preference. Naturally, the details would need to be worked out, but this is certainly doable.
I think there would be at least four benefits from taking this approach—assuming it resulted in at least one third party candidate on the stage. The first is that it would provide voters with more choices or at least exposure to different ideas. The second is that it could increase the competition for votes, thus forcing the parties to do more to earn those votes. For example, a third party focused on issues of great concern to rural Americans could force the major parties to pay attention to them. At least for the election cycle. The third is that it would require the billionaires who dominate politics to spend even more money—in addition to buying the Democrat or Republican (or both), they would also need to spend on trying to influence third party candidates. This would expand the redistribution of some wealth from the top to slightly below the top. Fourth, it would help increase political diversity, thus allowing people to pick a candidate that might more closely match their values.
There are, of course, some concerns with allowing this. One concern is that the crowd might want some awful fool to be on stage. The obvious reply is that is exactly what is happening now. Another concern is that this would be mere political theater—the third party candidate would get some air time, but the two parties would remain dominate. The obvious reply is that while the first, second or even third time a third party candidate is on stage won’t result in a third party victory, such political theater can have results over time. After all, politics is theater.
My essay on felons and voting received an interesting comment from A.J. McDonald, Jr. He raised a concern about having rapists, robbers and murders voting. One initial reply is that there are many other types of felonies, a significant number of which are non-violent felonies. As such, any discussion of felons and voting needs to consider not just the worst felonies, but all the felonies on the books. And, in the United States, there are many on the books. That said, I will address the specific concern about felons convicted of rape, robbery and murder.
On the face of it, it is natural to have an immediate emotional reaction to the idea of rapists, robbers and murderers voting. After all, these are presumably very bad people and it offensive to think of them exercising the same fundamental right as other citizens. While this reaction is natural, it is generally unwise to try to settle complex moral questions by appealing to an immediate emotional reaction—although calm deliberation might end up in the same place as fiery emotion. I will begin by considering arguments for disenfranchising such felons.
The most plausible argument, given my view that voting rights are foundational rights in a democratic state, is that such crimes warrant removing or at least suspending a person’s status as a citizen. After all, when a person is justly convicted of rape, murder or robbery they are justly punished by suspension of their liberty. In some cases, they are punished by death. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that if the right to liberty (and even life) can be suspended, then the right to vote can be suspended as well. I certainly see the appeal here. However, I think there is a counter to this reasoning.
Punishment by imprisonment is generally aimed at three goals. The first is to protect the public from the criminal by removing him from society and to serve as a deterrent to others. This could be used to justify taking away the right to vote by arguing that felons are likely to vote in ways that would harm society. The easy and obvious reply is that there seems to be little reason to think that felons could do harm through voting. Or any more harm than non-felon voters. For felons to do real harm through voting, there would need to be harmful choices and these would need to be choices that felons would pick because they are felons and they would need to be able to win that vote It could be claimed that, for example, there might be a vote on reducing prison sentences and the felons would vote in their interest to the detriment of others. While this is possible, it seems unlikely that the felons would be able to win the vote on their own. There is also the obvious counter that non-felons are likely to vote in harmful ways as well—as the history of voting shows. As such, denying felons the vote to protect the public from harm is not a reasonable justification. If there are things being voted for that could do serious harm, then the danger lies with those who got such things on the ballot and not with felons who might vote for it.
The second is the actual punishment, which is typically justified in terms of retribution. This does have some appeal as a justification, assuming that the felon wants to vote and regards being denied the vote as a harm. However, most Americans do not vote—so it is not much of a punishment. There is also the question of whether the denial of the right to vote is a suitable punishment for a crime. Punishments should not simply be tossed onto a crime—they should fit. While paying restitution would fit for a robbery, being denied the right to vote would not seem to fit.
The third is rehabilitation; the prisoner is supposed to be reformed so he can be returned to society (assuming the sentence is not death or life). Denying voting rights would seem to have the opposite effect—the person would be even more disconnected from society. As such, this would not justify removal of the voting rights.
Because of these considerations, even rapists, murderers and robbers should not lose their right to vote. I do agree, as argued in my previous essay, that crimes that are effectively rejections of the criminal’s citizenship (like rebellion and treason) would warrant stripping a person of citizenship and the right to vote. Other crimes, even awful ones, would not suffice to strip away citizenship.
Another approach is to make the case that rapists, murderers and robbers are morally bad or bad decision makers and should be denied the right to vote on moral grounds. While it is true that rapists, murderers and robbers are generally very bad people, the right to vote is not grounded in being a good person (or even just not being bad) or making good (or at least not bad) decisions. While it might seem appealing to have moral and competency tests for voting, there is the obvious problem that many voters would fail such tests. Many politicians would also fail the tests as well.
It could be countered that the only test that would be used is the legal test of whether or not a person is convicted of a felony. While obviously imperfect, it could be argued that those convicted are probably guilty and probably bad people and thus should not be voting. While it is true that some innocent people will be convicted and denied the right to vote and also true that many bad people will be able to avoid convictions, this is acceptable.
A reply to this is to inquire as to why such a moral standard should be used in regards to the right to vote. After all, the right to vote (as I have argued before) is not predicated on moral goodness or competence. It is based on being a citizen, good or bad. As such, any crime that does not justly remove a citizen’s status as a citizen would not warrant removing the right to vote. Yes, this does entail that rapists, murders and robbers should retain the right to vote. This might strike some as offensive or disgusting, but these people remain citizens. If this is too offensive, then such crimes would need to be recast as acts of treason that strip away citizenship. This seems excessive. And there is the fact that there are always awful people voting—they just have not been caught or got away with their awfulness or are clever and connected enough to ensure that the awful things they do are not considered felonies or even crimes. I am just as comfortable allowing a robber to vote as I am to allow Trump and Hillary to vote in their own election.
In 2016 Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe endeavored to restore felons’ voting rights in his state. In the United States, disenfranchising citizens for felony convictions is a common practice and some states extend the disenfranchisement beyond the felon’s criminal sentence. Since McAuliffe is a Democratic, the Republicans have accused him of engaging in a political move. The gist of the charge is that since felons are disproportionately minorities and minorities tend to vote for Democrats, McAuliffe is trying to get votes for Hillary Clinton. Naturally, he denies this and claims that his motives are pure and noble. Before proceeding to this matter, I will start by addressing the general issue of denying felons the right to vote.
Since I am registered as a Democrat (because Florida is a closed primary state), I might be accused of the same motive as McAuliffe—that I just want felons to vote because they are more likely to vote for Democrats. However, my motive is irrelevant to my arguments, which are as follows.
In the United States, the disenfranchisement of citizens has a constitutional basis in that it is allowed “for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” That is not in dispute. Also, legality is obviously simply set by the law—but my concern is with the morality of disenfranchising felons and not with what is in the rulebook. After all, history is replete with wicked laws.
In a state that professes to be a democracy, the right of citizens to vote is the bedrock right. As Locke and other philosophers have argued, the foundation of political legitimacy in a democracy is the consent of the governed. As such, to unjustly deny a citizen the right to vote is to attack the foundation of democracy and to erode the legitimacy of the state. Because of this, the only crimes that should disenfranchise are those that would warrant taking away the person’s citizenship. In general, the crime would need to be such that it constitutes a rejection of citizenship. The most obvious example would be treason against the country.
It might be objected that felony level crimes are so bad that they all warrant disenfranchising a citizen. One obvious reply is that the right to vote in the United States is not predicated on being virtuous or even marginally informed or marginally competent. The only requirements are being a certain age and being a citizen. Now, if there were morality or competency tests for having the right to vote (which would be exceptionally problematic in their own right), then a case could be made that felons would fail such tests and thus justly denied this right. However, the right to vote comes with being a citizen and what does not remove citizenship should not take away the right to vote.
A second obvious reply is that while there are truly awful felonies that might seem to warrant disenfranchisement (like committing mass murder), there is a multitude of felonies that do not seem even remotely severe enough to warrant such punishment. After all, the bar for what counts as a felony is often very low indeed. As such, there seems to be no justification for disenfranchising felons for crimes that are not directly relevant to their status as citizens.
Even if disenfranchisement for felonies was justified, some US states extend this beyond the person’s criminal sentence. That is, even after serving their time, some felons are not permitted to vote (although some states permit people to attempt to regain this right). This practice is unjust on the face of it. After all, if the disenfranchisement is part of the punishment for a felony, then the punishment should end when the person has served their sentence. As such, even if voting rights could be justly taken away, their restoration should be automatic upon completion of the sentence. I now turn to the Virginia case.
Not surprisingly, the origin story of disenfranchising felons in Virginia is a tale of explicit racism: the white Democrats of that time explicitly used this a tool to keep black voters from the polls. The tools employed to suppress the black vote also impacted poor white voters, but this was regarded as either an acceptable price to pay or actually a desirable result. Lest anyone rush to take this as evidence of racism on the part of the current Democratic Party; one should consider the history of the Southern Strategy. That said, it is true that the Democrats were once the explicitly racist party and true that the Republican Party was once truly the party of Lincoln. It is also true that I used to routinely run sub 17 minute 5Ks; but that was then and this is now.
Of course, to take the origin of a thing to discredit the thing would be to fall victim to the genetic fallacy. As such, while felony disenfranchisement was explicitly created to disenfranchise black voters, perhaps it serves a legitimate purpose today. While I am certainly open to arguments in favor of disenfranchising people, I am not aware of any compelling moral arguments in its favor. Not surprisingly, the main focus of the debate in Virginia is not over the rightness or wrongness of this disenfranchisement but on the alleged motives of the governor.
As his Republican critics see it, Governor McAuliffe’s efforts to restore the voting rights of felons is motivated by politics. Minorities make up a disproportionate number of convicted felons and minorities tend to vote for Democrats. As such, the charge is that he is trying to help Hillary Clinton and other Democrats win in the 2016 elections by enfranchising more Democrats. In terms of the actual facts, felons are generally more likely to be Democrats, but they also tend to vote at an extremely low rate when their voting rights are restored. As such, the impact of restoring voting rights on an election is in dispute; although Republicans often express terror at the prospect of felons illegally voting.
Assuming that felons are more likely to vote for Democrats, it certainly makes political sense for Republicans to oppose restoring voting rights to felons. However, this is obviously also motivated by politics and thus puts the Republicans on par with the governor. They cannot justly regard him as being wrong in wanting to restore voting rights to gain an electoral advantage when they want to deny these rights to gain their own advantage. From a moral standpoint what is needed is not accusations about motives but actual arguments for or against restoring voting rights.
It might be claimed that motivations do matter. It is true that they do—but they matter in terms of assessing the morality of the person taking an action, not in terms of the morality of the action itself or its consequences. To use a non-political example, if I give money to a flood relief charity in Louisiana only because I want to impress a woman with my alleged generosity and compassion, then my motivation is hardly laudable. However, this does not have any relevance to the issue of whether or not giving to such a charity is the right thing to do or the issue of whether or not it would have good consequences. Those are distinct issues. Returning to the case of restoring voting rights, it could be true that the governor’s real motivation is to advance the interests of his party. It could be true that if he believed felons would be more likely to vote Republican, then he would oppose restoring their right to vote. While his motivations matter when it comes to assessing him morally, they have no bearing on the issue of whether these rights should be restored. Likewise, it could be true that the Republicans oppose the restoration because they believe the felons will tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans. It could even be true that they would fight tooth and nail to restore felon voting rights if they believed that felons would be more likely to vote Republican. Their motivations are relevant to judging them as people; but irrelevant to the issue of whether or not voting rights should be restored.
I do believe that the disenfranchisement of felons is a political tool that is now intended to help Republican candidates. It is but one disenfranchisement tool among the many that are undermining the legitimacy of the United States. As noted above, I also contend that the theft of a citizens voting rights for anything short of a crime on par with treason is morally unjustified and an attack of the very foundation of democracy. Those who believe in democracy and not simply in having their side in power should also oppose disenfranchising felons in particular and the calculated destruction of voting rights in general. At this point I will close by saying that I believe that serious questions can be raised about the legitimacy of a government based on an electoral system that is damaged by systematic disenfranchisement. While I rarely agree with Trump, he is right to claim that the system is broken and needs to be fixed.
A free and independent press is rightly considered essential to a healthy democracy. Ideally, the press functions like Socrates’ gadfly—it serves to reproach the state and stir it to life. Also like Socrates, the press is supposed to question those who hold power and reveal what lies they might tell. Socrates was, of course, put to death for troubling the elites of Athens. While some countries do the same with their journalists, a different approach has been taken in the United States. To be specific, there has been a concerted effort to erode and degrade the free press.
While the myth of the noble press is just that, the United States has long had a tradition of journalistic ethics and there have been times when journalists were trusted and respected. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are two examples of such trusted and well-respected journalists. Since their time, trust in the media has eroded dramatically.
Some of this erosion is self-inflicted. While the news is supposed to be objective, there has been an ever increasing blend of opinion and fact as well as clear partisan bias on the part of some major news agencies. Fox News, for example, serves to openly advance a right leaning political agenda and shows shamefully little concern for objective journalism. Its counterpart on the left, MSNBC, serves to advance its own agenda. Such partisanship serves to rightly erode trust in these networks, although this erosion tends to be one sided. That is, partisans often put great trust in their own network while dismissing the rival network. Critics of the media can make an argument by example through piling up example after example of bias and untrue claims on the part of specific networks and it is natural for the distrust to spread broadly. Except, of course, to news sources that feed and fatten one’s own beliefs. A rather useful exercise for people would be to apply the same level of skepticism and criticism they apply to the claims by news sources they like as to those made by the news sources they dislike. If, for example, those who favor Fox News greeted its claims with the same skepticism they apply to the media of the left, they would become much better critical thinkers and be closer to the truth.
While the news has always been a business, it is now primarily a business that needs to make money. This has had an eroding effect in many ways. One impact is that budget cuts have reduced real investigative journalism down to a mere skeleton. This means that many things remain in the shadows and that the new agencies have to rely on being given the news from sources that are often biased. Another impact is that the news has to attract viewership in order to get advertising. This means that the news has to appeal to the audience and avoid conflicts with the advertisers. This serves to bias the news. The public plays a clear role in this erosion by preferring a certain sort of “news” over actual serious journalism. We can help solve this problem by supporting serious journalism and rewarding news sources that do real reporting.
Much of the erosion of journalism comes from the outside and is due to concerted war on the press and truth. As a matter of historical fact, this attack has come from the political right. The modern efforts to create distrust of the media by claiming it has a liberal bias goes back at least to the Nixon administration and continues to this day. Sarah Palin seems to have come up with the mocking label of “lamestream media” as part of her attacks on the media for having the temerity to report things that she actually said and to indicate when she said things that were not true. It is not surprising that she has defended Donald Trump from the media’s efforts to inform the public when Trump says things that are untrue. Given this long history of fighting the press, it is not surprising that the right has developed a set of weapons for battling the press.
One approach, exemplified by Sarah Palin’s “lamestream media” approach is to simply engage in ad homimens and the genetic fallacy. In the case of ad hominems, individual journalists are attacked and this is taken as refuting their criticisms. Such attacks, obviously, do nothing to refute the claims made by journalists (or anyone). In the case of the genetic fallacy, the tactic is to simply attack the media in general for an alleged bias and concluding, fallaciously, that the claims made have been thus refuted. This is not to say that there cannot be legitimate challenges to credibility, but this is rather a different matter from what is actually done. For example, someone spinning for Trump might simply say the media is liberally biased and favors Hillary and thus they are wrong when they claim that Trump seems to have suggested someone assassinate Hillary Clinton. While it would be reasonable to consider the possibility of bias, merely bashing the media does nothing to disprove specific claims.
Another standard tactic is to claim that the media never criticizes liberals—that is, the media is unfair. For example, when Trump is called out for saying untrue things or criticized for claiming that Obama founded Isis, his defenders rush to claim that the media does not criticize Hillary for her remarks or point out when she is lying. While an appeal for fair play is legitimate, even such an appeal does not serve to refute the criticisms or prove that what Trump said is true. There is also the fact that the press does criticize the left and does call out Hillary when she says untrue things. Politifact has a page devoted to Trump, but also one for Hillary Clinton. While Hillary does say untrue things, she gets accused of this less than Trump on the very reasonable grounds that he says far more untrue things. To use an analogy, to cry foul regarding Trump’s treatment would be like a student who cheats relentlessly in class complaining that another student, who cheats far less, does not get in as much trouble. The obvious reply is that if one cheats more, one gets in more trouble. If one says more untrue things, then one gets called on it more.
Not surprisingly, those who loath Hillary or like Trump with make the claim that fact checkers like Politifact are biased because they are part of the liberal media. This creates a rather serious problem: any source used to show that the “liberal media” has the facts right will be dismissed as being part of the liberal media. Likewise, any support for criticisms made by this “liberal media” will also be rejected by claiming the sources is also part of the liberal media. Bizarrely, even when there is unedited video evidence of, for example, something Trump said this defense will still be used. While presented as satire by Andy Borowitz (clearly a minion of the liberal media), the fact is that Trump regards the media as unfair because it actually reports what he actually says.
While the erosion of the media yields short term advantages for specific politicians, the long term consequences for the United States are dire. One impact of the corrosion of truth is that politicians are ever more able to operate free of facts and criticism—thus making politics almost entirely a matter of feelings unanchored in reality. Since reality always has its way eventually, this is disastrous.
What is being done to the media can be seen as analogous to the poisoning of the village watchdogs by a villager who wishes to engage in some sneaky misdeeds at night and needs the dogs to be silent. While this initially works out well for the poisoner, the village will be left unguarded. Likewise, poisoning the press will allow very bad people to slip by and do very bad things to the public. While, for example, Trump’s spinning minions might see the advantage in attacking the press for the short term advantage of their candidate, they also clear a path for whatever else wishes to avoid the light of truth. Those on the left who go after the media also deserve criticism to the degree they contribute to the erosion. The spurning of truth is thus something we should be very worried about. Merlin, in Excalibur, put it very well: “when a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” And without a healthy press, people will get away with murder.
Donald Trump started out his presidential bid with remarks about Mexico sending rapists and criminals to the United States and then continued along what strikes many as a path of intolerance. Perhaps from a sense of nostalgia, he returned to what many regarded as sexism and engaged in a battle with Megyn Kelly . Tapping into fears about Muslims, Trump proposed a complete ban on their entry into the United States and seemed to explore the realm of religious intolerance. Perhaps in a bid to round out intolerance, Trump tweeted what some regarded as an anti-Semitic tweet. Most recently, he got into a battle with a Muslim Gold Star Family. Because of the vast array of what seem to be intolerant statements, some have claimed that Trump is a racist, a sexist and embraces intolerance. Those who defend Trump endeavor to spin his remarks in a more positive light and engage in tortuous explanations of what Trump “really” means. Trump himself makes the point of claiming to be politically incorrect rather than intolerant to a level that constitutes racism or sexism. As might be suspected, Trumps adventures in this area are rather philosophically interesting. For the sake of focus, I will only address racism—but the arguments that follow can also be applied to intolerance in general.
One rather important issue is whether Trump’s remarks are racist or not. On the face of it, the resolution of this issue is easy. Even fellow Republicans, such as the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have labeled some of Trump’s comments as racist. Liberal critics have, of course, asserted that Trump’s remarks are racist. As noted above, Trump “defends” his remarks by saying that he is politically incorrect rather than racist. This claim is certainly worth examining.
Trump’s approach does have some appeal—there is, after all, considerable territory between political incorrectness and racism. Also, the absurd excesses of political correctness are certainly problematic and worth opposing, thus giving Trump’s defense a shadow of legitimacy. The problem with what Trump is doing can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine a public dinner event that is absurdly formal and rigorous in its excesses of etiquette. Such an event can be justly criticized for these absurdities and excesses and it would be reasonable to call for it to be less formal. However, it does not follow that it would be reasonable to demand that people be allowed to defecate on the plates of other guests and urinate into the wine glasses. It also does not follow that defecating on plates would be merely informal (or “etiquette incorrect”) rather than extremely rude. So, while Trump is right to challenge the excesses of political correctness, what he is doing is analogous to claiming that defecating on dinner plates is merely a loosening of formality. That is, he has gone far beyond being merely politically incorrect (not strictly adhering to the rigorous rules of behavior as set by the relevant ideology of the left) into the realm of racism. To deny this would be analogous to the person who just pooped on your plate claiming he is just being “etiquette incorrect” and denying that he did anything really rude. As such, it seems impossible to deny that Trump has made many racist remarks.
Another approach to showing that Trump’s remarks are racist is to consider how actual racists regard them. While David Duke (a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) denies being a racist, he has come out in support of Trump and has expressed his agreement with many of Trump’s remarks. The Ku Klux Klan has also endorsed Trump. The American Nazi Party has also expressed its support for Trump, noting how beneficial Trump has been for their pro-white agenda and white nationalism. Trump also enjoys considerable support from racists in general. For those who oppose racism, the KKK and Nazism, the fact that such people see Trump as creating safe space for them to operate in is certainly worrisome.
One possible counter, and one used by these people and groups, is to claim that they are not racist. The main tactic is to claim that they are not anti-black or anti-Jew, but pro-white. This is, in many cases, a conscious effort to model their replies on those used by other people who assert pride in their ethnicity. This is certainly an interesting tactic and if a person can claim Latino pride or claim to be pro-black without being racist, then it would seem that pro-white and white-pride groups can do the same.
The usual reply to this is that while a person could be pro-white without being racist, groups like the KKK and the Nazis have a well-established record of being hate groups. As such, their protestations that they are not anti-others but just pro-white are greeted with well-deserved skepticism. There is also the fact that such groups tend to not limit themselves to pro-white rhetoric and pro-white behavior—they tend to still embrace the anti.
In light of the above, it would seem beyond doubt that Trump has made racist remarks. As to whether Trump himself is racist or not, that is another matter.
Politics has always been a nasty business, but the fact that examples of historic awfulness can be easily found does not excuse the current viciousness. After all, appealing to tradition (reasoning that something is acceptable because it has been done a long time) and appealing to common practice (reasoning that something being commonly done makes it acceptable) are both fallacies.
One manifestation of the nastiness of politics is when it does not suffice to merely regard an opponent as wrong, they must be torn down and cast as morally wicked. To be fair, there are cases in which people really are both wrong and morally wicked. As such, my concern is with cases in which the tearing down is not warranted.
I certainly understand the psychological appeal of this approach. It is natural to regard opponents as holding on to their views because they are bad people—in contrast to the moral purity that grounds one’s own important beliefs. In some cases, there is a real conflict between good and evil. For example, those who oppose slavery are morally better than those who practice the enslavement of their fellow human beings. However, most political disputes are disagreements in which all sides are a blend of right and wrong—both factually and morally. For example, the various views about the proper size of government tend to be blended in this way. Unfortunately, political ideology can become part of a person’s core identity—thus making any differing view appear as a vicious assault on the person themselves. A challenge to their very identity that could only come from the vilest of knaves. Politicians and pundits also intentionally stoke these fires, hoping to exploit irrationality and ungrounded righteous rage to ensure their election and to get their way.
While academic philosophy is not a bastion of pure objective rationality, one of the most important lessons I have learned in my career is that a person can disagree with me about an important issue, yet still be a fine human being. Or, at the very least, not a bad person. In some cases, this is easy to do because I do not have a strong commitment to my position. For example, while I do not buy into Plato’s theory of forms, I have no real emotional investment in opposing it. In other cases, such as moral disputes, it is rather more difficult. Even in cases in which I have very strong commitments, I have learned to pause and consider the merits of my opponent’s position while also taking care to distinguish the philosophical position taken from the person who takes it. I also take care to regard their criticisms of my view as being against my view and not against me as a person. This allows me to debate the issue without it becoming a personal matter that threatens my core identity. It also helps that I know that simply attacking the person making a claim is just some form of an ad hominem fallacy.
It might be objected that this sort of approach to disputes is bloodless and unmanly—that one should engage with passion and perhaps, as Trump would say, want to hit someone. The easy reply is that while there is a time and a place for punching, the point of a dispute over an issue is to resolve it in a rational manner. A person can also be passionate without being uncivil and vicious. Unfortunately, vicious attacks are part of the political toolkit.
One recent and reprehensible example involves the attacks on Ghazala and Khizr Khan, the parents of Captain HumayunKhan (who was killed in Iraq in 2004). Khizr Khan spoke out against Donald Trump’s anti Muslim rhetoric and asserted that Trump did not understand the Constitution. While Trump had every right to address the criticisms raised against him, he took his usual approach of trying to tear down a critic. Trump’s engagement with the family led to bipartisan responses, including an extensive response from John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. Trump, against the rules of basic decency, continued to launch attacks on Khan.
Since I have a diverse group of friends, I was not surprised when I saw posts appearing on Facebook attacking Khan. One set of posts linked to Shoebat.com’s claim that Khan “is a Muslim brotherhood agent who wants to advance sharia law and bring Muslims into the United States.” As should come as no surprise, Snopes quickly debunked this claim.
Breitbart.com also leaped into the fray asserting that Khan “financially benefits from unfettered pay-to-play Muslim migration into America.” The site also claimed that Khan had deleted his law firm’s website. On the one hand, it is certainly legitimate journalism to investigate speakers at the national convention. After all, undue bias legitimately damages credibility and it is certainly good to know about any relevant misdeeds lurking in a person’s past. On the other hand, endeavoring to tear a person down and thus “refute” their criticism is simply an exercise in the ad hominem fallacy. This is bad reasoning in which an attack on a person is taken to thus refute their claims. Even if Khan ran a “pay to play” system and even if he backed Sharia law, his criticisms of Donald Trump stand or fall on their own merits—and they clearly have merit. There is also the moral awfulness in trying to tear down a Gold Star family. As many have pointed out, such an attack would normally be beyond the pale. Trump, however, operates far beyond this territory. What is one of the worst aspects of this is that although he draws criticism even from the Republican leadership, his support remains strong. He is, perhaps, changing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a way that might endure beyond his campaign—a change for the worse.
It might be objected that a politician must reply to critics, otherwise the attacks will stand. While this is a reasonable point, the reply made matters. It is one thing to respond to the criticisms by countering their content, quite another to launch a personal attack against a Gold Star family.
It could also be objected that engaging in a rational discussion of the actual issues is too difficult and would not be understood by the public. They can only handle emotional appeals and simplistic notions. Moral distinctions are irrelevant and decency is obsolete. Hence, the public discourse must be conducted at a low level—Trump gets this and is acting accordingly. My only reply is that I hope, but cannot prove, that this is not the case.