A Philosopher's Blog

Confederates & Nazis

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2017

While there has been an attempt to revise the narrative of the Confederate States of America to a story of state’s rights, the fact of the matter is that succession from the Union was because of slavery. At the time of succession, those in the lead made no bones about this fact—they explicitly presented this as their prime motivation. This is not to deny that there were other motivations, such as concerns about state’s rights and economic factors. As such, the Confederacy’s moral foundation was slavery. This entails a rejection of the principle that all men are created equal, a rejection of the notion of liberty, and an abandonment of the idea that the legitimacy of government rests on the consent of the governed. In short, the Confederacy was an explicit rejection of core stated values of the United States.

While the Confederacy lost the war and the union was reformed, its values survived and are now explicitly manifested in the alt-right. After all, it is no coincidence that the alt-right has been marching in defense of Confederate monuments and often makes use of Confederate flags. They are, after all, aware of the moral foundations of their movement. Or, rather, immoral foundations.

While the value system of the Confederacy embraced white supremacy and accepted slavery as a moral good, it did not accept genocide. That is, the Confederacy advocated enslaving blacks rather than exterminating them. Extermination was, of course, something the Nazis embraced.

As is well known, the Nazis took over the German state and plunged the world into war. Like the Confederate states, the Nazis embraced the idea of white supremacy and rejected equality and liberty. The Nazis also made extensive use of slave labor. Unlike the Confederate states, the Nazis infamously engaged in a systematic effort to exterminate those they regarded as inferior. This does mark a moral distinction between the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany. This is, however, a distinction between degrees of evil.

While the Nazis are generally regarded by most Americans as the paradigm of evil, many in the alt-right embrace their values and some do so explicitly and openly, identifying as neo-Nazis. Some do make the claim that they do not want to exterminate what they regard as other races; they profess a desire to have racially pure states. So, for example, some in the alt-right support Israel on the grounds that they see it as a Jewish state. In their ideal world, each state would be racially pure. This is why the alt-right is sometimes also referred to as the white nationalists. The desire to have pure states can be seen as morally better than the desire to exterminate others, but this is also a distinction in evils rather than a distinction between good and bad.

Based on the above, the modern alt-right is the inheritor of both the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany. While this might seem to be merely a matter of historic interest, it does have some important implications. One of these is that it provides grounds that the members of the alt-right should be regarded as on par with members or supporters of ISIS or other such enemy foreign terrorist groups. This is in contrast with regarding the alt-right as being entirely domestic.

Those who join or support Isis (and other such groups) are regarded as different from domestic hate groups. This is because ISIS (and other such groups) are foreign and are effectively at war with the United States. This applies even when the ISIS supporter is an American who lives in America. This perceived difference has numerous consequences, including legal ones. It also has consequences for free speech—while advocating the goals and values of ISIS in the United States would be regarded as a threat worthy of a response from the state, the alt-right is generally seen as being protected by the right to free speech. This is nicely illustrated by the fact that the alt-right can get permits to march in the United States, while ISIS supporters cannot. One can imagine the response if ISIS supporters did apply for permit or engaged in a march.

While some hate groups can be regarded as truly domestic in that they are not associated with foreign organizations engaged in war with the United States, the alt-right cannot make this claim. At least they cannot to the degree they are connected to the Confederate States of America and the Nazis. Both are foreign powers at war with the United States. As such, the alt-right should be regarded as on par with other groups that affiliate themselves with foreign groups engaged in war with the United States.

The easy and obvious reply is that both the Confederacy and the Nazis were defeated and no longer exist. On the one hand, this is true. The Confederacy was destroyed and the succeeding states rejoined the United States. The Nazis were defeated and while Germany still exists, it is not controlled by the Nazis. On the other hand, the Confederacy and the Nazis do persist in the form of various groups that preserve their values and ideology—including the alt-right. To use the obvious analogy, even if all territory is reclaimed from ISIS and it is effectively defeated as a state, this does not entail that ISIS will be gone. It will persist as long as it has supporters and presumably the United States would not switch to a policy of tolerating ISIS members and supporters simply because ISIS no longer has territory.

The same should hold true for those supporting or claiming membership in the Confederacy or the Nazis—they are supporters of foreign powers that are enemies of the United States and are thus on par with ISIS supporters and members in terms of being agents of the enemy. This is not to say that the alt-right is morally equivalent to ISIS in terms of its actions. On the whole, ISIS is indisputably worse. But, what matters in this context, is the expression of allegiance to the values and goals of a foreign enemy—something ISIS supporters and alt-right members who embrace the Confederacy or Nazis have in common.

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Trump’s White Nationalists, Again

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2017

On the face of it, condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis is one of the politically easiest things to do. Trump, however, seems incapable of engaging in this simple task. Instead, he has continued to act in ways that lend support to the alt-right. After a delayed and reluctant condemnation of the alt-right, Trump returned to his lane by making two claims. The first is the claim that “there is blame on both sides.” The second is the claim that there are good people on both sides. On the face of it, both claims are false. That said, these claims will be given more consideration than they deserve.

If one accepts a very broad concept of blame, then it would be possible to claim that there is blame on both sides. This could be done in the following way. The first step is asserting that a side is responsible if an event would not have taken place without its involvement. This is based, of course, on the notion that accountability is a matter of “but for.” In the case at hand, the relevant claim would be that but for the presence of the counter-protestors, there would have been no violence against them and Heather Heyer would not have been murdered. On this notion of responsibility, both sides are to blame.

While this concept of blame might have some appeal, it is obviously flawed. This is because the application of the principle would entail that any victim or target of a crime or misdeed would share some of the blame for the crime or misdeed. For example, but for a person having property, they would not have been robbed. As another example, but for being present during a terrorist attack, the person would not have been killed. As such, meriting blame would require more than such a broad “but for” condition.

A possible reply to this counter is to argue that the counter-protestors were not mere targets, but were active participants. That is, co-belligerents and co-instigators. To use an analogy, if a bar fight breaks out because two people start insulting each other and then start swinging, then both parties do share the blame. Trump seems to regard what happened in Virginia as analogous to this sort of a bar fight. If this is true, then both sides would bear some of the blame.

Of course, even if both parties were belligerent, then there are still grounds for assigning blame to one side rather than another. For example, if someone goes to a party to misbehave and someone steps up to counter this and is attacked, then the attacker would be to blame. This is because of the moral difference between the two parties: one is acting to commit a misdeed, the other is trying to counter this. In the case of Virginia, the alt-right is in the wrong. They are, after all, endorsing morally wicked views that should be countered.

There is, of course, also the obvious fact that it was a member of the alt-right that is alleged to have driven a car into the crowd, killing one person and injuring others. As such, if any blame is to be placed on a side, it is to be placed on the alt-right.

It could be argued that the action of one person in the alt-right does not make the entire group guilty of the crime. This is certainly a reasonable claim—a group is not automatically responsible for the actions of its worst members, whether the group is made up of Muslims, Christians, whites, blacks, conservatives or liberals. That said, the principles used to assign collective responsibility need to be applied consistently—people have an unfortunate tendency to use different standards for groups they like and groups they dislike. I would certainly agree that the alt-right members who did not engage in violence or instigate it are not responsible for the violence. However, it could be argued that the rhetoric and ideology of the alt-right inherently instigates and urges violence and evil behavior. If so, then all members who accept the ideology of the alt-right are accountable for being part of a group that is dedicated to doing evil. I now turn to Trump’s second claim.

Trump also made the claim that there are good people on both sides. As others have noted, this seems similar to his remarks about Mexicans being rapists and such, but also there being some good Mexicans. As such, Trump’s remark might simply be a Trumpism—something that just pops out of his mouth with no meaning or significance, like a burp. But, let it be assumed for the sake of discussion that Trump was trying to say something meaningful.

Trump is certainly right that there are good people on the side opposed to the alt-right. After all, the alt-right endorses a variety of evil positions and good people oppose evil. As far as good people being in the alt-right, that is not as clear. After all, as was just noted, the values expressed by the alt-right include evil views and it would be unusual for good people to endorse such views. This can, of course, be countered by arguing that the alt-right is not actually evil (which is presumably what many members believe—few people think of themselves as the villains). It can also be countered by asserting that there are good people who are in the alt-right out of error (they are good people, but err in some of their beliefs) or who hope to guide the movement to better goals. It could also be claimed that any group that is large enough will contain at least some good people (as a group will also contain bad people). For example, people often point to General Robert E. Lee as a good person serving an evil cause.

Given these considerations, it does seem possible that there is at least one good person in the alt-right and hence Trump could be right in the strict logical sense of there being some (at least one) good people in the group. But, Trump’s purpose is almost certainly not to make a claim that is trivial in its possible truth. Rather, he seems to be engaged in another false equivalence, that the alt-right and their opponents are morally equivalent because both groups have some good people. Given the evil of the alt-right’s views (which are fundamentally opposed to the expressed values of the United States), saying that both sides are morally the same is obviously to claim what is false. The alt-right is the worse side and objectively so.

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Trump’s White Nationalists

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2017

While the election of Obama led some to believe that racism had been exorcized, the triumph of Trump caused speculation that the demon had merely retreated to the shadows of the internet. In August of 2017, the city of Charlottesville, VA served as the location of a “United the Right” march. This march, which seems to have been a blend of neo-Nazis, white-supremacists and other of the alt-right, erupted in violence. One woman who was engaged in a counter-protest against the alt-right, Heather Heyer, was murdered. Officers Cullen and Bates were also killed when their helicopter crashed, although this appears to have been an accident.

While Trump strikes like an enraged wolverine against slights real or imaginary against himself, his initial reply to the events in Charlottesville were tepid. As has been his habit, Trump initially resisted being critical of white supremacists and garnered positive remarks from the alt-right for their perception that he has created a safe space for their racism. This weak response has, as would be expected, been the target of criticism from both the left and the more mainstream right.

Since the Second World War, condemning Nazis and Neo-Nazis has been extremely easy and safe for American politicians. Perhaps the only thing easier is endorsing apple pie. Denouncing white supremacists can be more difficult, but since the 1970s this has also been an easy move, on par with expressing a positive view of puppies in terms of the level of difficulty. This leads to the question of why Trump and the Whitehouse responded with “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides” rather than explicitly condemning the alt-right. After all, Trump pushes hard to identify acts of terror by Muslims as Islamic terror and accepts the idea that this sort of identification is critical to fighting such terror. Consistency would seem to require that Trump identify terror committed by the alt-right as “alt-right terror”, “white-supremacist terror”, “neo-Nazi terror” or whatever would be appropriate. Trump, as noted above, delayed making specific remarks about white supremacists.

Some have speculated that Trump is a racist. Trump denies this, pointing to the fact that his beloved daughter married a Jew and converted to Judaism. While Trump does certainly make racist remarks, it is not clear if he embraces an ideology of racism or any ideology at all beyond egoism and self-interest. While the question of whether he is a racist is certainly important, there is no need to speculate on the matter when addressing his response (or lack of response). What matters is that the weakness of his initial response and his delay in making a stronger response sends a clear message to the alt-right that Trump is on their side, or at least is very tolerant of their behavior. It could be claimed that the alt-right is like a deluded suitor who thinks someone is really into them when they are not, but this seems implausible. After all, Trump is very easy on the alt-right and must be pushed, reluctantly, into being critical. If he truly condemned them, he would have reacted as he always does against things he does not like: immediately, angrily, repeatedly and incoherently. Trump, by not doing this, sends a clear message and allows the alt-right to believe that Trump does not really mean it when he condemns them days after the fact. As such, while Trump might not be a racist, he does create a safe space for racists. As Charlottesville and other incidents show, the alt-right presents a more serious threat to American lives than does terror perpetrated by Muslims. As such, Trump is not only abetting the evil of racism, he could be regarded as an accessory to murder.

It could be countered that Trump did condemn the bigotry, violence and hatred and thus his critics are in error. One easy and obvious reply is that although Trump did say he condemns these things, his condemnation was not directed at the perpetrators of the violence. After seeming to be on the right track towards condemning the wrongdoers, Trump engaged in a Trump detour by condemning the bigotry and such “on many sides.” This could, of course, be explained away: perhaps Trump lost his train of thought, perhaps Trump had no idea what was going on and decided to try to cover his ignorance, or perhaps Trump was just being Trump. While these explanations are tempting, it is also worth considering that Trump was using the classic rhetorical tactic of false equivalence—treating things that are not equal as being equal. In the case at hand, Trump can be seen as regarding those opposing the alt-right as being just as bigoted, hateful and violent as the alt-right’s worst members. While there are hateful bigots who want to do violence to whites, the real and significant threat is not from those who oppose the alt-right, but from the alt-right. After all, the foundation of the alt-right is bigotry and hatred. Hating Neo-Nazis and white supremacists is the morally correct response and does not make one equivalent or even close to being the same as them.

One problem with Trump’s false equivalence is that it helps feed the narrative that those who actively oppose the alt-right are bad people—evil social justice warriors and wicked special snowflakes. This encourages people who do not agree with the alt-right but do not like the left to focus on criticizing the left rather than the alt-right.  However, opposing the alt-right is the right thing to do.  Another problem with Trump’s false equivalence is that it encourages the alt-right by allowing them to see such remarks as condemning their opponents—they can tell themselves that Trump does not really want to condemn his alt-right base but must be a little critical because of politics.  While Trump might merely be pragmatically appealing to his base and selfishly serving his ego, his tolerance for the alt-right is damaging to the country and will certainly contribute to more murders.


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What Can be Owned?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 4, 2017

One rather interesting philosophical question is that of what can, and perhaps more importantly cannot, be owned. There is, as one might imagine, considerable dispute over this matter. One major historical example of such a dispute is the debate over whether people can be owned. A more recent example is the debate over the ownership of genes. While each specific dispute needs to be addressed on its own merits, it is certainly worth considering the broader question of what can and what cannot be property.

Addressing this matter begins with the foundation of ownership—that is, what justifies the claim that one owns something, whatever that something might be. This is, of course, the philosophical problem of property. Many are not even aware there is such a philosophical problem—they uncritically accept the current system, though they might have some complaints about its particulars. But, to simply assume that the existing system of property is correct (or incorrect) is to beg the question. As such, the problem of property needs to be addressed without simply assuming it has been solved.

One practical solution to the problem of property is to contend that property is a matter of convention. This can be formalized convention (such as laws) or informal convention (such as traditions) or a combination of both. One reasonable view is property legalism—that ownership is defined by the law. On this view, whatever the law defines as property is property. Another reasonable view is that of property relativism—that ownership is defined by the cultural practices (which can include the laws). Roughly put, whatever the culture accepts as property is property. These approaches, obviously enough, correspond to the moral theories of legalism (that the law determines morality) and ethical relativism (that culture determines morality).

The conventionalist approach to property does seem to have the virtue of being practical and of avoiding mucking about in philosophical disputes. If there is a dispute about what (or who) can be owned, the matter is settled by the courts, by force of arms or by force of persuasion. There is no question of what view is right—winning makes the view right. While this approach does have its appeal, it is not without its problems.

Trying to solve the problem of property with the conventionalist approach does lead to a dilemma: the conventions are either based on some foundation or they are not. If the conventions are not based on a foundation other than force (of arms or persuasion), then they would seem to be utterly arbitrary. In such a case, the only reasons to accept such conventions would be practical—to avoid trouble with armed people (typically the police) or to gain in some manner.

If the conventions have some foundation, then the problem is determining what it (or they) might be. One easy and obvious approach is to argue that people have a moral obligation to obey the law or follow cultural conventions. While this would provide a basis for a moral obligation to accept the property conventions of a society, these conventions would still be arbitrary. Roughly put, those under the conventions would have a reason to accept whatever conventions were accepted, but no reason to accept one specific convention over another. This is analogous to the ethics of divine command theory, the view that what God commands is good because He commands it and what He forbids is evil because He forbids it. As should be expected, the “convention command” view of property suffers from problems analogous to those suffered by divine command theory, such as the arbitrariness of the commands and the lack of justification beyond obedience to authority.

One classic moral solution to the problem of property is that offered by utilitarianism. On this view, the practice of property that creates more positive value than negative value for the morally relevant beings would be the morally correct practice. It does make property a contingent matter—as the balance of positive against negative shifted, radically different conceptions of property can be thus justified. So, for example, while a capitalistic conception of property might be justified at a certain place and time, that might shift in favor of state ownership of the means of production. As always, utilitarianism leaves the door open for intuitively horrifying practices that manage to fulfill that condition. However, this approach also has an intuitive appeal in that the view of property that creates the greatest good would be the morally correct view of property.

One very interesting attempt to solve the problem of property is offered by John Locke. He begins with the view that God created everyone and gave everyone the earth in common. While God does own us, He is cool about it and effectively lets each person own themselves. As such, I own myself and you own yourself. From this, as Locke sees it, it follows that each of us owns our labor.

For Locke, property is created by mixing one’s labor with the common goods of the earth. To illustrate, suppose we are washed up on an island owned by no one. If I collect wood and make a shelter, I have mixed my labor with the wood that can be used by any of us, thus making the shelter my own. If you make a shelter with your labor, it is thus yours. On Locke’s view, it would be theft for me to take your shelter and theft for you to take mine.

As would be imagined, the labor theory of ownership quickly runs into problems, such as working out a proper account of mixing of labor and what to do when people are born on a planet on which everything is already claimed and owned. However, the idea that the foundation of property is that each person owns themselves is an intriguing one and does have some interesting implications about what can (and cannot) be owned. One implication would seem to be that people are owners and cannot be owned. For Locke, this would be because each person is owned by themselves and ownership of other things is conferred by mixing one’s labor with what is common to all.

It could be contended that people create other people by their labor literally in the case of the mother) and thus parents own their children. A counter to this is that although people do engage in sexual activity that results in the production of other people, this should not be considered labor in the sense required for ownership. After all, the parents just have sex and then the biological processes do all the work of constructing the new person. One might also play the metaphysical card and contend that what makes the person a person is not manufactured by the parents, but is something metaphysical like the soul or consciousness (for Locke, a person is their consciousness and the consciousness is within a soul).

Even if it is accepted that parents do not own their children, there is the obvious question about manufactured beings that are like people such as intelligent robots or biological constructs. These beings would be created by mixing labor with other property (or unowned materials) and thus would seem to be things that could be owned. Unless, of course, they are owners.

One approach is to consider them analogous to children—it is not how children are made that makes them unsuitable for ownership, it is what they are. On this view, people-like constructs would be owners rather than things to be owned. The intuitive counter is that people-like manufactured beings would be property like anything else that is manufactured. The challenge is, of course, to show that this would not entail that children are property—after all, considerable resources and work can be expended to create a child (such as IVF, surrogacy, and perhaps someday artificial wombs), yet intuitively they would not be property. This does point to a rather important question: is it what something is that makes it unsuitable to be owned or how it is created?


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Arguing for Fake News

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 31, 2017

In the current political climate, fake news in generally condemned. However, it was once employed as weapon against the Nazis. While the effectiveness of the tactic can be debated, Sefton Delmer waged his own disinformation war with various radio shows such as Der Chef. Given the evil of the Nazis and the context of a war, it seems reasonable to regard this use of fake news as morally acceptable. This, of course, provides a launching point for arguing in favor of fake news.

By definition, fake news involves lying. As such, sorting out the ethics of fake news requires considering the ethics of lying. Sticking with the WWII theme, an obvious focus for a discussion of lying is the allies’ disinformation campaign that was aimed at deceiving the Germans about the landings in France. The allies were lying to the Germans, but this can easily be justified. One obvious approach is utilitarianism: whatever harm might arise from lying would be clearly offset by the benefits gained by these deceptions. In this case, the saving of lives and the start of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. Naturally, from the perspective of the Nazis, the utilitarian calculation would be rather different.

Another obvious approach is a conditional approach based on the ethics of war: if it is acceptable to kill people in war to achieve military goals, then the use of the lesser evil of deception to achieve military goals would surely be acceptable. There is a potential flaw in this reasoning in that some lesser evils would not be acceptable to inflict. To use a disturbing example, while raping a person is a lesser evil than killing them, the use of rape as a weapon of war certainly seems unacceptable. One possible reason for this is that killing is an inherent part of the nature of armed conflict while rape is not. Obviously enough it could be argued that killing, even in war, is unacceptable and a successful counter of this sort would defeat this justification for lying in war.

A third easy justification is based on the idea that doing bad things to bad people is justified because they are bad. That is, the evil of the Nazis justifies deceiving them because they have no moral right to expect to be told the truth. While appealing, this can be a bit problematic and the obvious counter is to argue that doing bad things to bad people is still bad. These three justifications can be deployed in defense of the current practice of fake news and it is to this that I now turn.

One interesting way to justify fake news of the sort used today is to argue that there is state of war in politics and this justifies the use of the weapon of fake news. On this view, the fact that Alex Jones calls his show Infowars would be quite appropriate. There is also the well-established notion that the United States is engaged in a culture war. If these metaphors are taken literally, then the ethics of war could be used to justify the use of fake news in the same manner that it could be used to justify the deception of Der Chef. The challenge is to show that such a state of war exists and that it warrants the use of deception to achieve military ends. At this time, the war seems rather more metaphorical than literal and thus the war justification does not seem to hold.

Arguing in defense of fake news on utilitarian grounds simply involves making the case that the good done by fake news outweighs the harms. To illustrate, it could be argued that Hillary Clinton being elected president would have been so harmful that the use of fake news to prevent this was justified (although most fake news sources were in it for the money). The obvious problem with this justification is that if someone, such as Hillary, is that bad, then the use of the truth should suffice. This creates a bit of a paradox: if someone is so bad that deception would be justified to defeat them, then no deception should be needed.

This could be countered by arguing that the truth would not suffice. It could be claimed that people are not informed or intelligent enough to see the significance of the terrible truth and thus lies are needed. This would be somewhat like the idea of the noble lie—the people must be deceived for their own good. This is analogous to lying to children to get them to do the right thing because the truth is either beyond their understanding or would not motivate them to do the right thing. This counter does have considerable appeal and could certainly justify deceit to defeat the greater evil.

There is also the option of defending fake news by arguing that the target is bad and thus has no right to expect truth. To illustrate, one could argue that Hillary Clinton’s badness means that lying about her was okay—she is bad, so doing bad things to her is just fine. While this might have some appeal, there is the problem that even if the subject of the lies is bad, there is the matter of the badness of the people being lied to. If the justification is used that bad people can be treated badly, this would require that the people being lied to also be bad. If they are not bad, then this justification would not work.

Thus, there do seem to be reasonable arguments in favor of fake news—it is acceptable to lie when doing so would prevent a greater evil. In the ideal, speaking the truth should suffice. But, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that the truth does not always persuade.


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What Makes Slavery Evil?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 17, 2017

While slavery is still practiced, there is a consensus that it is evil. While apologists for slavery are relatively few, there remains the question as to why slavery is evil. This essay is aimed and considering this matter.

It is certainly tempting to define the wrongness of slavery in terms of the exploitation and abuse suffered by those who are enslaved. While such abuse and exploitation are clearly wrong, they do not actually explain the wrongness of slavery itself. This is because abuse and exploitation can exist apart from slavery, thus showing that these are not sufficient conditions for slavery. That is, being abused and exploited does not entail that one is a slave. Examples of such abuse and exploitation are abundant. To illustrate, workers are routinely exploited around the world and countless people suffer abuse in relationships from the very people who should be kind to them.

Abuse and exploitation are also not necessary conditions of slavery. That is, a person who is not abused or exploited can be enslaved. As noted in an earlier essay, there have been slaves who have enjoyed considerable power and status—sometimes considerably above that of free subjects of historical empires. Despite their status and power, such slavery is still rightfully regarded as wrong. As such, it is not the abuse or exploitation that makes slavery wrong.

This is not to say that abuse and exploitation do not matter. Far from it; they compound the basic evil of slavery and make the bad even worse. Slavery is also obviously strongly connected to abuse and exploitation—the belief that enslaved people are property makes it easy for others to justify and get away with such abuse and exploitation. While free people are abused or exploited, they typically enjoy far greater protection than the enslaved. So, while the abuse and exploitation matter a great deal, it is slavery that serves as a prime enabler of mistreatment. This does contribute to the wrongness of slavery.

What makes slavery morally wrong, then, is the fact that it is the ownership of people and thus is perceived as transforming them into objects that can be owned. The claim of ownership over another person is the denial of their personhood and all that goes with it. For those with liberal Lockean inclinations, this denial of personhood is a denial of the basic rights to life, liberty and property. Since a slave is supposed to be property, their life belongs to the owner. Hence, slaveowners generally see themselves as having the right to kill or harm their slaves as they wish. I do not, of course, deny that slaves are sometimes protected by laws, but that is certainly little consolation. Slavery does, after all, admit of degrees. But, every form of slavery must assume that the owner has ownership over the life of the slave and can use compulsion to maintain slavery.

Slavery, by its very nature, is a violation of a person’s liberty. They are denied the freedom of choice and thus denied agency. As the owner sees it, they have the right to make decisions for their property such as what work they do, who they have sex with, and what faith they might follow. This is not to say that slaves do not have some freedoms or that free people are completely free. It is, however, to say that the freedoms of slaves are very limited and often restricted to very minor decisions. As noted above, slavery does admit of degrees—some favored or high-status slaves might enjoy considerable liberty. For example, a Mamluk ruler might enjoy far greater liberty than a non-slave in their empire. It can be objected that such a slave would be a slave in name only—after all, a person of such status and power would be far better off than most other people despite being a slave. The challenge to those who argue that slavery is inherently wrong is to show that such an exalted slave is still wronged by their slavery. One approach is to appeal to the intuition that however exalted, the slave is still a slave. That is, regarded as property rather than a free person and this is inherently wrong.

Being regarded as property, slaves often cannot own property of their own. After all, being owned entails that their owner owns what they own. There are, of course, exceptions to this—sometimes slaves are paid for their work and can even eventually buy themselves out of slavery. While this does show, once again, that there are diverse types of slavery, the idea that a person should need to buy themselves seems to be absurd on the face of it.

Thus, while slavery does enable a multitude of evils, the core evil of slavery is the belief that a person can be owned as an object.


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Poverty & the Brain

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 14, 2017

A key part of the American mythology is the belief that a person can rise to the pinnacle of success from the depths of poverty. While this does occur, most understand that poverty presents a considerable obstacle to success. In fact, the legendary tales that tell of such success typically embrace an interesting double vision of poverty: they praise the hero for overcoming the incredible obstacle of poverty while also asserting that anyone with gumption should be able to achieve this success.

Outside of myths and legends, it is a fact that poverty is difficult to overcome. There are, of course, the obvious challenges of poverty. For example, a person born into poverty will not have the same educational opportunities as the affluent. As another example, they will have less access to technology such as computers and high-speed internet. As a third example, there are the impacts of diet and health care—both necessities are expensive and the poor typically have less access to good food and good care. There is also recent research by scientists such as Kimberly G. Noble  that suggests a link between poverty and brain development.

While the most direct way to study the impact of poverty and the brain is by imaging the brain, this (as researchers have noted) is expensive. However, the research that has been conducted shows a correlation between family income and the size of some surface areas of the cortex. For children whose families make under $50,000 per year, there is a strong correlation between income and the surface area of the cortex. While greater income is correlated with greater cortical surface area, the apparent impact is reduced once the income exceeds $50,000 a year. This suggests, but does not prove, that poverty has a negative impact on the development of the cortex and this impact is proportional to the degree of poverty.

Because of the cost of direct research on the brain, most research focuses on cognitive tests that indirectly test for the functionality of the brain. As might be expected, children from lower income families perform worse than their more affluent peers in their language skills, memory, self-control and focus. This performance disparity cuts across ethnicity and gender.

As would be expected, there are individuals who do not conform to the generally correlation. That is, there are children from disadvantaged families who perform well on the tests and children from advantaged families who do poorly. As such, knowing the economic class of a child does not tell one what their individual capabilities are. However, there is a clear correlation when the matter is considered in terms of populations rather than single individuals. This is important to consider when assessing the impact of anecdotes of successful rising from poverty—as with all appeals to anecdotal evidence, they do not outweigh the bulk of statistical evidence.

To use an analogy, boys tend to be stronger than girls but knowing that Sally is a girl does not entail that one knows that Sally is weaker than Bob the boy. Sally might be much stronger than Bob. An anecdote about how Sally is stronger than Bob also does not show that girls are stronger than boys; it just shows that Sally is unusual in her strength. Likewise, if Sally lives in poverty but does exceptionally well on the cognitive tests and has a normal cortex, this does not prove that poverty does not have a negative impact on the brain. This leads to the obvious question about whether poverty is a causal factor in brain development.

Those with even passing familiarity with causal reasoning know that correlation is not causation. To infer that because there is a correlation between poverty and cognitive abilities that there must be a causal connection would be to fall victim to the most basic of causal fallacies. One possibility is that the correlation is a mere coincidence and there is no causal connection. Another possibility is that there is a third factor that is causing both—that is, poverty and the cognitive abilities are both effects.

There is also the possibility that the causal connection has been reversed. That is, it is not poverty that increases the chances a person has less cortical surface (and corresponding capabilities). Rather, it is having less cortical surface area that is a causal factor in poverty.

This view does have considerable appeal. As noted above, children in poverty tend to do worse on tests for language skills, memory, self-control and focus. These are the capabilities that are needed for success and it seems reasonable to think that people who were less capable would thus be less successful. To use an analogy, there is a clear correlation between running speed and success in track races. It is not, of course, losing races that makes a person slow. It is being slow that causes a person to lose races.

Despite the appeal of this interpretation of the data, to rush to the conclusion that it is the cognitive abilities that cause poverty would be as much a fallacy as rushing to the conclusion that poverty influences brain development. Both views do seem plausible and it is certainly possible that there is causation going in both directions. The challenge, then, is to sort the causation. The obvious approach is to conduct the controlled experiment suggested by Noble—providing the experimental group of low income families with an income supplement and providing the control group with a relatively tiny supplement. If the experiment is conducted properly and the sample size is large enough, the results would be statistically significant and provide an answer to the question of the causal connection.

Intuitively, it makes sense that an adequate family income would generally have a positive impact on the development of children. After all, this income would allow access to adequate food, care and education. It would also tend to have a positive impact on family conditions, such as emotional stress. This is not to say that throwing money at poverty is the cure; but reducing poverty is certainly a worthwhile goal regardless of its connection to brain development. If it does turn out that poverty does have a negative impact on development, then those who are concerned with the well-being of children should be motivated to combat poverty. It would also serve to undercut another American myth, that the poor are stuck in poverty simply because they are lazy. If poverty has the damaging impact on the brain it seems to have, then this would help explain why poverty is such a trap.


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Trump’s Election Integrity Commission

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 5, 2017

The Trump regime recently created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and has requested information about voters from the states. As of this writing, 44 states and the District of Columbia have refused to provide all of the requested information. While ensuring the integrity of elections is a laudable goal, there are certainly important concerns about this commission, the motivations behind it, and the true goals.

While speculating about motivations is always problematic, there is adequate information to ground some reasonable explanations as to why Trump has created this commission. While the motivations for creating the commission are distinct from the desirability of its goals, motives are certainly relevant to moral assessment. Also, motivations generally involve goals. To avoid needless repetition, I will consider both motivations and goals at once.

One obvious motivation is Trump’s ego.  Trump infamously claimed, without any evidence, that he lost the popular election because there were 3-5 million illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton. While Trump seems generally content to dwell within a realm of unsupported claims and untruths, he does have a clear motivation to find some evidence to back up his absurd and unsupported claim. While it might be tempting to dismiss this motivation as lacking in consequences, it would be a rather serious matter. After all, John Locke notes that tyranny occurs “…When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.” This can, obviously enough, be countered by arguing that Trump is not acting from “irregular passion” or by arguing that even if he is, the concern about election integrity does serve the good of the people. That is, despite the motivation the act is not tyrannical because of its intended goal. If the true goal is real election integrity, then this reply would be quite reasonable—although Trump’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons should still be condemned.

A second motivation can be found in the fact that the Republican party has long used the specter of voter fraud to justify polices that are aimed at voter suppression. While voter fraud does occur at a non-zero level, it is just barely above zero. There is also the fact that the usual Republican proposals, such as voter ID, would generally not be effective at countering the voter fraud that does occur. This is not to say that voter fraud should not be considered, just that it occurs at such a microscopic rate that the only rational explanation for the Republican policies is voter suppression targeted at those who they regard as likely to vote for Democrats, such as minority voters. It should be noted that the Democrats need not be regarded as moral saints here; they utilize other morally problematic methods when they can gain an edge.

The creation of the commission helps support the narrative of voter fraud in that some will believe that there must be fraud because otherwise Trump would not have created the commission. The fact that some states have been resisting the commission’s requests is already being spun as evidence that the states are covering up fraud (even though Republican controlled states are also not fully cooperating). The commission does not need to find any actual evidence of meaningful voter fraud to support the narrative—after all, the myth of significant voter fraud has already been embraced without any evidence at all.

While it might be tempting to think that the information being requested by the Trump commission could expose voter fraud, it is important to be clear about the distinction between the accuracy of voter rolls and the existence of voter fraud. This can be illustrated by using an analogy.

Whenever I teach a class, I get a roster of the students who are enrolled in the class. This can be seen as analogous to the list of registered voters. Since students can add or drop my course, the roster I have for the class is often inaccurate. There are sometimes students who think they have enrolled, but have not. There are also those who think they have dropped the class, but who are still enrolled. Likewise, the list of voters is often inaccurate. For example, people move to a new state and legitimately register to vote there while they remain on the list in their old state. As another example, people die and are not automatically removed from the list. There are also various other errors that can occur with any lists of people. Having an inaccurate list is obviously a problem, but it is not the same thing as fraud. To continue the analogy, consider the sort of fraud that occurs in class, namely cheating. If I happen to have an inaccurate roster of those enrolled in my class at the time, it does not follow that students are cheating in my class. Likewise, the voter lists in states could have many inaccuracies, but this does not prove that voter fraud is occurring.

Obviously enough, an inaccurate roster for a class could be used to facilitate cheating and a student lying about being enrolled in the class would be a form of fraud. Likewise, inaccurate voter lists could be exploited to commit fraud. For example, if someone had a list of dead people who are still registered, this information could be used to engage in “ghost voting.” Fortunately, there is no evidence that the problems with the voter lists are being exploited to commit significant fraud. As such, the concerns about the voter lists is rather like that of concerns about the class rosters: they should be accurate, but their inaccuracy does not entail cheating or fraud is taking place.

This is not to say that the defects of the current system should be ignored or tolerated—the system does need a major overhaul. However, Trump’s commission does not seem aimed at assisting the states improve their registration systems nor aimed at ensuring that the elections are conducted with integrity. Rather, this seems to be part of Trump’s theater of fraud.



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Free Speech & Feeling Unsafe

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2017

A somewhat recent talking point on the right is that “the liberals” are trying to violate the free speech rights of conservatives. On the one hand, this is a hasty generalization: the left counts among its numbers some of the staunchest advocates of free expression who defend the right of conservatives to engage in free expression. On the other hand, there are those on the left who are actively trying to silence conservative voices. That said, is important to distinguish between attempts to silence people and legitimate acts of protest.

To illustrate, the incident involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College illustrates how some people try to unjustly silence those they disagree with. In contrast, the students at Notre Dame who walked out on Vice President Pence’s speech were engaged in a legitimate protest—they expressed their disagreement without harassing or silencing pence. However, the Pence incident had an interesting twist that is well worth considering.

Two of the students who walked out on Pence’s speech explained their motivation: “The walkout was in response to the fact that members of our own community felt unwelcome, uncomfortable, and even unsafe…” I do understand why having Mike Pence speak would make some people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable—after all, Pence makes no secret of his views on various social and moral issues. No doubt some conservative students would feel just as unwelcome and uncomfortable in the presence of a liberal speaker. While I do think speakers should endeavor to make their audience welcome and comfortable, this is not a moral obligation on the part of speakers—especially on college campuses. A key part of education is being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone in terms of such things as values, beliefs and ideology. Students do, of course, have every right to resist being pushed out of this zone; but this is typically their loss when they succeed. The students might have benefited from enduring Pence’s words; but they did have the right to refuse to listen. After all, the right of free expression means that one should not be silenced, not that one can compel others to pay attention.

What is worrisome is the use of the term “unsafe.” When I first heard some vague details about this episode, I initially thought the students were concerned that there might be violence at the event—as has happened elsewhere. That would, of course, be legitimate grounds for concerns about safety. After all, to feel unsafe is to feel that one is at risk for harm. However, after listening to a discussion of the incident on NPR, I realized that the claim was that Pence’s mere presence as a speaker made people feel unsafe. They did not, obviously, think that Pence would attack them physically.

One way to interpret the matter is that people thought they would be harmed in some meaningful way by Pence’s presence and his words. While people can certainly inflict harm with words, it would seem to be an odd use of “unsafe” in the context of the Vice President giving a speech. But perhaps some people are so lacking in resilience that the expression of ideas they do not like or the presence of someone they disagree with can cause harm to them. In this case, they would thus be wise to leave the area before sustaining such harm. To use an analogy, if someone was so sensitive to noise that a speech would cause them pain, they should not attend the speech. They do not, however, have the right to insist that the speech not be made simply because they would experience pain.

A second, and more plausible way, to interpret this is that “unsafe” is referring to a stronger version of being uncomfortable and not a feeling that meaningful danger is imminent. While words mean what they do as a matter of convention, shifting the meaning of words in this manner is problematic for communication. As noted above, I initially thought the students feared a riot, which caused some confusion. Another potential problem is that using “unsafe” in this context makes the expression of ideas that one does not like seem dangerous. While this might be a rhetorical point the students were trying to make to justify walking out, this is a misuse of the language. To be specific, it is hyperbole that serves to distort the matter by conflating merely being uncomfortable with being in danger. Because of these problems, the term “unsafe” should not be used in such contexts. Instead, it should be used for cases in which there is an actual threat to safety and rights. Such as the push by some against free expression by conservatives.


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Abstinence, Texas and Teen Pregnancy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2017

While the United States has seen declining rates of teen pregnancy (along with a very slight reduction in self-reported teen sexual activity), Texas has the slowest rate of decline. In a typical year, 35,000 Texan teenagers and women under 20 get pregnant. Texas also leads the nation in repeat teen pregnancies. As would be suspected, researchers wondered why this was the case and investigated. The finding was hardly surprising. While many states have addressed the problem of unplanned teen pregnancies by education and social services support, Texas has elected to take a different approach. Most Texas schools offer either no sex education or abstinence only sex education. While many states offer contraception counselling to teen mothers, Texas generally does not—hence Texas leads the country in repeat teenage pregnancies. Texas also has rather restrictive policies regarding contraception for teenagers, although the evidence clearly shows that access to contraception reduces unplanned pregnancies (and hence also reduces the number of abortions). Despite the solid evidence linking Texas’ approach to its problem with teen pregnancy, the view of many social conservatives is that abstinence only education is the best approach. This is a rather problematic view.

Looked at in the context of the objective data on teen pregnancy, Texas’ abstinence only (or no sex education at all) approach is clearly not the best. If, of course, the best approach is the one that most effectively reduces unplanned teen pregnancies. To use the obvious analogy, it is as if Texas was trying to reduce automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities involving teenagers by offering them either no driver education or driver education that says not to drive or get in cars. Texas is also doing the equivalent of trying to ensure teens who do get in cars do so without access to seat belts, air bags and other safety equipment. The absurdity of this approach should be evident on the face of it. This, of course, assumes that the best approach is defined in terms of reducing unplanned teen pregnancies. However, there are other ways to evaluate approaches to addressing teen pregnancy.

One alternative approach is to select the method that is regarded as morally best, defined in terms of the moral principles used to make this assessment. For some conservatives, premarital sex is morally wrong. On this view, Texas is taking the right approach because unmarried teenagers should be practicing abstinence and enabling them to understand and access birth control would be to contribute to their immoral deeds. To use an analogy, consider murder. Since murder is wrong, schools should teach an abstinence only approach to murder and not enable people easy access to implements of murder (except guns; this is not only America but Texas).

The easy and obvious reply to this approach is to point out that the moral righteousness of those who deny teenagers proper sex education and access to contraceptives comes at the cost of considerable harm to the teenagers and society. Allowing this harm to occur to others simply so one can impose their own values seems to be morally unacceptable on utilitarian grounds.  There is also the moral concern about the rights of the teenagers to make their own informed choices about consensual sexual behavior. The imposition of the values of the social conservatives denies them this right and infringes on their freedom. Naturally, those who value abstinence and oppose contraception are free to act on this view themselves—they have every right to not engage in sex or to not use contraception when they do so. They do not, however, have the right to cause harm to others because of their views of sex.

Interestingly, the Texas approach can be seen as the best approach by considering an alternative set of goals. As noted above, if the goal is reducing unwanted teen pregnancies, then the Texas approach is a poor one. However, if there are different goals, then the approach could be regarded as a success. One possible goal is to ensure that the poor and uneducated remain that way. After all, unplanned pregnancies are most likely to occur among the poor and uneducated and they make it harder for people to rise out of poverty and also to achieve educational goals. Maintaining a poor and uneducated population confers some significant benefits to the upper classes and also meshes with some morally repugnant ideological views. Another possible goal is to “keep women in their place” by making it more likely that they will get pregnant as teenagers. This is a variant of the goal of maintaining an underclass; in this case the specific targets are girls and young women.

While a utilitarian case could, perhaps, be made for using these policies to help maintain the underclasses, the harms caused by them do seem to outweigh the advantages gained by the upper classes. As such, policies aimed at maintaining the underclasses would seem morally wrong.

In light of the above discussion, Texas’ approach to teenage pregnancy is either merely ineffective or immoral (or both). As such, the policies in Texas should be replaced by those that have proven effective elsewhere. Or not. Texas being the worst does have the benefit of allowing other states to look down at Texas and this does have a certain appeal.


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