A Philosopher's Blog

Do We Want Rapists, Robbers and Murderers Voting?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 26, 2016

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.


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Felons & Voting

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2016

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.


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The Erosion of the Media

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2016

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.



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Trump & Racist Remarks

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2016

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.



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Tearing Down

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 5, 2016

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

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.


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Fear of Immigrants & Refugees

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 3, 2016

English: Immigrants entering the United States...

Though the United States prides itself as being a nation of immigrants and the home of the brave, base appeals to the fear of immigrants and refugees has become a stock political tool. The use of this tool is, of course, neither new nor limited to the United States.

To be fair, there is some legitimacy to the fear expressed towards allowing in immigrants and refugees. This is because almost any large group of people will contain a certain percentage of potential murderers, rapists, thieves and terrorists. As such, allowing a significant number of people into a country will almost certainly result in some increase in misdeeds. Thus, it is not untrue to say that allowing in immigrants and refugees would increase the dangers faced by the citizens of a country.

While demagogues and pundits generally do not operate on the basis of consistently applied principles, restricting immigrants and refugees can be justified by using a principle. In this case, the principle would be that people should be banned from entering a country if their arrival would result in an increase in the dangers faced by the current citizens of that country. Since allowing a significant number of refugees and immigrants would almost certainly allow in at least some who would do harm, then this principle justifies such restrictions. While this does allow for a principled basis for restriction, it runs into an interesting problem if it is applied consistently. This sort of consistency problem is a common one—which is why demagogues and pundits generally loath and avoid consistency. This specific consistency problem is as follows.

Every country faces waves of immigrants that arrive unregulated and unchecked. While most of them are not a threat, a percentage of them engage in harmful acts ranging from minor thefts to mass shootings. Oddly enough, no politician has the courage to propose restrictions on these invaders and many actually encourage the arrival of more of these potential threats. I am, of course, speaking of immigrants from the womb. Each new generation includes a certain percentage of potential murderers, rapists, thieves and terrorists and thus presents a clear and present danger to the current citizens of the country. Using the same reasoning that justifies keeping out immigrants and refugees (that a certain percentage could present a threat), these invaders should be kept out of the country.

This suggestion should, of course, be greeted with snorts of derision and mockery: it would be absurd to impose a ban on such arrivals merely because some small percentage will become dangerous to the current citizens. The challenge is to reject restrictions on births despite the risk of allowing new potential criminals and terrorists to enter the country while insisting harsh restrictions or bans on immigrants and refugees on the basis of the slight risk they present is acceptable.

The most obvious approach is to point out that the potential rapists and terrorists who are born here are children of existing citizens and thus different from refugees and immigrants from other countries. This seems a bit unfair—where a person is born is entirely a matter of chance and is completely unearned. We do not, after all, earn or select our parents. Thus, restricting immigrants and refugees because some small percentage will present a threat while allowing unrestricted reproduction that will produce people that will present a threat seems to be grounded only in the vagaries of chance. If there is great concern about the threat presented by incoming people, then that threat must be addressed using the same standards on the pain of inconsistency.

It could be countered that immigrants and refugees present a greater threat: the percentage of murders, rapists and terrorists is higher among the vetted and reviewed immigrants than among Americans born here. However, this is clearly not the case. This should come as no surprise, given that the immigrants and refugees are vetted and checked very thoroughly by the United States. It is true, of course, that the system is not perfect—so some will slip through.

I might, at this point, be accused of wanting to impose restrictions on reproduction. This is not the case. My point is, rather, to show that the idea of putting harsh restrictions or imposing complete bans on immigrants and refugees because some tiny percentage might turn out to cause harm is as absurd as restricting or banning reproduction becomes some children will certainly grow up to be criminals or terrorists. This is not to say that there should not be screening of immigrants and refugees; there should be. After all, we generate so many domestic criminals and terrorists that it is sensible to try to avoid needlessly and carelessly importing more.


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Public Lands & Privatization

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 1, 2016

Thanks to people such as Teddy Roosevelt, the United States has vast areas of public lands—including the famous national parks. While most Americans have a positive view of these public lands, there has long been a push to privatize them. While the very few who would benefit from privatization have a compelling interest in ending public lands, I will show that the vast majority of citizens should strongly support keeping public lands public.

One somewhat abstract argument in favor of public lands is that they provide the basis for common ownership of the country even for those who do not own their own private land. As citizens, they have a stake and a share in the public lands. While people might not feel this ownership, it seems to be an important part of being a citizen of a democratic state. In monarchies of the past (and present) and dictatorships of the present, the common folk do not own the lands—rather, they belong to the monarch or tyrant. In contrast, public lands seem to be a rather important part of a democratic state—if only as a symbol of democracy.

It could be countered that a democracy does not require public lands—after all, they have existed without them and there is no necessary link between democracy and public lands. This is certainly a reasonable point: a democratic United States could exist in which there are no public lands; merely private lands and government property such as military bases, schools and courthouses. There might even be no real change in the attitudes of most people. As such, I must concede that the stake argument, though appealing, is perhaps too abstract to have significant strength.

A second, and stronger argument, is that public lands are needed to preserve nature. While individuals live but a short while and easily change their minds, land that is protected by enduring law can be persevered for as long as the state stands. This preservation of nature has value in many ways. One is that people have a psychological need for nature. For those who favor evolution, we evolved to be a part of this world. For those who accept the divine, it can be contended that we need to look upon the handiwork of the creator and preserving His work is to show respect for God.

I can also point to the obvious fact that the natural areas of the world serve as the life support for our planet. To use the obvious analogy, to allow some passengers of a spaceship to rip apart and sell the life support systems would be clearly stupid and wrong. While they would make a short term profit, they would do so at the expense of everyone. There is also the matter of future generations: to ruin the land for decades or centuries for short term profits would seem to be a crime against the future.

I noted above that there are a very few that would benefit from privatizing public lands. They and their supporters typically argue that privatization would take the land back from the government and thus restore freedom and put the decision making back into the hands of the people.

While this sort of rhetoric has considerable appeal, it is fundamentally a lie. This is because the transition from public ownership to private ownership would mean control over the land with no input from you or I and all access to the formerly public land would be at the discretion of the owner. In the case of public land, the citizens have a role in the control of the land through voting and the political process. If I do not like how the land is being used or the restrictions placed on its use, I can take action to get the laws and rules changed. However, if the land is privately owned, then I no longer have any real influence or control. While it is true that the very few owners would have greater control and freedom under private ownership, the vast majority of people would have no control or influence under private ownership. So, when people use the freedom argument, they mean to give freedom to the very, very few and take it away from the vast majority.

There is also the argument that privatizing public lands would result in profits and economic growth, so they should be privatized. This argument is certainly compelling—at least for the tiny fraction of people who would profit from the privatization. While some of the wealth would “trickle down”, the vast majority of people would gain nothing and would, in fact, lose access to those lands. Privatization would mean that the least who have the most would get even more, while the most who have the least would be losers. This would be great for the privileged few, but awful for the rest of us.


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The DNC & Fairness

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

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Thanks to WikiLeaks (and possibly Russia) the Democratic National Committee’s formerly secret emails are now publicly available. As should surprise no one, the emails show that the DNC looked down on Sanders and suggest that the leadership unfairly favored Hillary Clinton. The main fallout from the leak has been the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Shultz. Shultz, who represents my adopted state of Florida, is also facing a challenger to her position—a challenger endorsed by Bernie Sanders. These revelations do raise some important concerns.

While the Democratic and Republican parties are often wrongly seen as being part of the government, they are private organizations. As such, they operate by their own rules. They are also, obviously, political parties and that means that political dealing is what they do. As such, it could be argued that the partisanship and mockery of the DNC, though certainly worthy of condemnation, are well within the bounds of legitimate behavior for such an entity. After all, most of the Republican party leadership was vehemently opposed to Trump and there was extensive maneuvering to stop Trump. It is, however, to the credit of the Republicans that they conducted their opposition in the open and to Trump’s face rather than via electronic whispering in the digital shadows.

While the DNC did not do anything illegal (as far as is known now), the emails do indicate behavior that should be morally condemned. This, of course, rests on the assumption that the party machinery of the DNC should remain professional and neutral during the primary season. This is, in turn, based on the assumption that the primary process should (as Trump and Bernie both contended) be democratic and based on majority rule in selecting the candidate.

This view can be countered by arguing that the DNC (and the RNC) has purpose other than ensuring majority rule. One might be to select the candidate that has the best chance of winning, regardless of how the people vote. Another might be to select the candidate that matches the goals of the party elite. There are, of course, other possibilities.

My view, which could be quite wrong, is that the DNC and RNC should serve as neutral organizers for the decision making process on the part of the voters. That is, they should (in this very specific context) function in a way analogous to the state run election process and ensure a fair and accurate vote. This is the approach that most matches the democratic ideal.

The emails seem to indicate that the DNC did not take a neutral stance. However, it is not clear if this expressed bias had a significant impact on the outcome. That is, that Sanders would have been the candidate but for the shenanigans of the DNC. On the one hand, it can be argued that Hillary beat Bernie by such a wide margin that the alleged machinations of the DNC were not significant. On the other hand, it could be argued that Bernie was close enough to Hillary that he could have won but for these alleged machinations. If the DNC’s bias did keep Bernie from the nomination, then it could be argued that they interfered with the will of the people, thus potentially making Hillary an illegitimate candidate. This could be countered by arguing that even if the DNC sided with Hillary, the voters still picked her—thus making her legitimate, albeit a bit shady.

Even if the DNC’s alleged bias did not change the outcome (that is, Hillary would have been nominated under the auspices of a neutral DNC), such bias is still problematic. This can be illustrated by using two analogies. First, imagine a hiring committee that has been tasked with selecting a philosophy professor. Even if a biased committee selects the same candidate that a neutral committee would have selected, professional ethics requires that the committee be neutral. Second, consider a football game. Even if biased refereeing still results in a victory by the team that would have won under neutral refereeing, the bias on the part of the referees would still be morally unacceptable.

These analogies can certainly be countered—after all, hiring committees and referees are supposed to be neutral parties while the DNC can be regarded as an interested participant in the process (this takes the matter back to the purpose of the DNC in regards to primaries). If the DNC is looked at as being analogous to a coach rather than a referee, its job would be to get the best players in the game to go up against the opposing team rather than being concerned with neutrality and fairness. So, it comes down to the proper purpose of the DNC (and RNC).

As a closing point, the relevant people in DNC made two classic mistakes. The first was engaging in what seems to be reprehensible and unprofessional behavior. This is a moral flaw. The second was to engage in this behavior via email. This is a flaw in intelligence: using email is like sending a postcard—whatever is on it can be read. Also, they should have known that any target worth hacking will be hacked. If one wants to be shady and smart, then do not write down the evil plans. Better yet, don’t be shady.


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Politics & Plagiarism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 27, 2016

During the 2016 Republican National Convention Melania Trump delivered a speech that plagiarized the speech given by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. As always, the responses tended to correspond with ideology: the left largely condemned and mocked it; some on the right downplayed and even defended it. As a professor and an author, I condemn plagiarism and have a few students fail themselves each year by doing what Melania’s speechwriter did. I do not fail students; I merely record their failure.

After my initial mild condemnation of the plagiarism, I came to what is an obvious realization: almost all political speeches are acts of plagiarism. I am not claiming that the vast majority of speechwriters are stealing the words and ideas of others; the plagiarism is of a different sort and this will be clear with a bit of explanation. Put a bit roughly, plagiarism occurs when someone tries to claim that substantial words and ideas are their own when they actually belong to another. By this simplistic definition, when a politician (or spouse) delivers a political speech that was written by someone else as if they were presenting their own words and ideas, then they are plagiarizing. Unless, of course, they engage in proper citation practices. As such, Melania Trump was engaged in double plagiarism: trying to pass off as her own the words stolen from Michelle Obama’s speech by the speechwriter.

An obvious reply to my assertion is that nearly all politicians have speechwriters and the commonness of the practice thus makes it acceptable. This is, obviously enough, the classic fallacy of appeal to common practice: the mere fact that something is commonly done does not make it right. It is, however, fair to point out that if nearly all politicians engage in this practice, then it follows that it would be unfair to single out any particular politician for special criticism.

Another, and better, reply is that speechwriters merely assist the politician in presenting their ideas and words. To use the obvious analogy, when the editors suggest changes to my writing and I follow them, I am not plagiarizing from the editors—this is a legitimate and proper part of the writing process. To use another analogy, if a student goes to a university writing center and gets assistance with improving their paper, that is not plagiarism.  Likewise, if a politician has others edit their speech, then that is also legitimate.

This is a point both fair and just, provided that the speechwriters are actually speech editors who assist the politician in crafting their speech. While there is considerable gray area between assistance and plagiarism, there is also a clear zone of plagiarism—the most obvious being a speech written entirely by another. While I cannot draw a clear line that would apply in all cases, a sensible consideration of amount contributed by the alleged author can resolve questions about plagiarism.

While plagiarism is condemned in academics and copyright violations are illegal, it might be claimed that it does not really matter that politicians almost never write their own speeches. After all, only the most naïve or ignorant would think that the words a politician reads from a teleprompter or paper are their own. However, I contend that it does matter and especially matters when a politician is running for office. I will focus on that specific scenario in the discussion that follows.

In theory, one point of a speech by a political candidate is to inform the voters of their views, ideas and policies. As such, the politician should write their speech, Otherwise, the politician is like an actor in a commercial who is endeavoring to sell someone else’s product using a script written by another. This can be countered by contending that a person could have excellent ideas and policies, yet lack the writing skills to craft an effective speech—thus the need for speechwriters.

While I would certainly put an “F” on a paper written this way, it does seem acceptable in the case of politics. To use an analogy, if a skilled doctor who was a poor communicator had her more eloquent assistant explain things to me, then there would be no problem: what matters is not who crafts the exact words, but the information behind them.

That said, there is more to a campaign speech than just putting forth ideas—it also supposed to reveal more about the politician such as wit, skill and character. While it is obviously true that the audience does get to see the politician’s skill at delivering words and timing, this merely reveals the politician’s skill as an actor and orator if the words are not their own. This creates the Cyrano de Bergerac problem: the voters are won over by the fine words of the writer, yet think they “love” the person speaking them. The voters are not, as Trump would rightly say, getting authenticity—they are getting an actor mouthing the words of another. Thus, when a politician reads a speech written by another, voters learn about the actor’s skills and not the actual person.

Some might counter this view by pointing out that what matters is actions—what a person does. After all, a politician could be a skilled writer, yet awful at the job. This is certainly a reasonable point: no one should be judged by words alone (especially when the words are not their own). It is also reasonable to point out that reading a prepared speech is relatively easy—the real challenge lies in a Socratic engagement. This is something that the vast majority of politicians are loath to do for they know how it would go for them. This is why the presidential debates in the United States are not actual debates—just people giving short speeches that have probably been pre-written for them. What, in general, the voters see is a spokesperson for a product that is themselves spewing advertising copy written by someone else. So, the voters have no clear idea of what they are actually buying.


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Divisive Obama?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on July 25, 2016

Official photographic portrait of US President...

One of the relentless talking points of conservative pundits and many Republicans is that Obama is divisive. Perhaps even the most divisive president in American history. It is, in fact, a common practice to engage in a point-by-point analysis of Obama’s alleged divisiveness. As should be expected, supporters of Obama deny that he is divisive; or at least claim he is not the most divisive president.

It is almost certainly pointless to try to argue about the issue of whether Obama is divisive or not. Since this is a matter of political identity, the vast majority of people cannot be influenced by any amount of evidence or argumentation against their position. However, one of the purposes of philosophy is the rational assessment of beliefs even when doing so will convince no one to change their views. That said, this endeavor is not pointless: while I do not expect to change any hearts (for this is a matter of feeling and not reason) it is still worthwhile to advance our understanding of divisiveness and accusations about it.

Since analogies are often useful to enhancing understanding, I will make a comparison with fright. This requires a story from my own past. When I was in high school, our English teacher suggested a class trip to Europe. As with just about anything involving education, fundraising was necessary and this included what amounted to begging (with permission) at the local Shop N’ Save grocery store. As beggars, we worked in teams of two and I was paired up with Gopal. When the teacher found out about this (and our failure to secure much, if any, cash) she was horrified: we were frightening the old people; hence they were not inclined to even approach us, let alone donate to send us to Europe. As I recall, she said the old folks saw us as “thugs.”

I have no reason to doubt that some of the old folks were, in fact, frightened of us. As such, it is true that we were frightening. The same can be said about Obama: it is obviously true that many people see him as divisive and thus he is divisive. This is also analogous to being offensive: if a person is offended by, for example, a person’s Christian faith or her heterosexuality, then those things are offensive. To use another analogy, if a Christian is hired into a philosophy department composed mainly of devout atheists and they dislike her for her faith and it causes trouble in the department, the she is divisive. After all, the department would not be divided but for her being Christian.

While it is tempting to leave it at this, there seems more to the charge of divisiveness than a mere assertion about how other people respond to a person. After all, when Obama is accused of being divisive, the flaw is supposed to lie with Obama—he is condemned for this. As such, the charge of divisiveness involves placing blame on the divider. This leads to the obvious question about whether or not the response is justified.

Turning back to my perceived thuggery at Shop N’ Save, while it was true that Gopal and I frightened some old people, the question is whether or not they were justified in their fear. I would say not, but since I am biased in my own favor I need to support this claim. While Gopal and I were both young men (and thus a source of fear to some), we were hardly thugs. In fact, we were hardcore nerds: we played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, we were on the debate team, and we did the nerdiest of sports—track. For teenagers, we were polite and well behaved. We were certainly not inclined to engage in any thuggery towards older folks in the grocery store. As such, the fear was unwarranted. In fairness, the old people might not have known this.

In the case of Obama, the question is whether or not his alleged divisiveness has a foundation. This would involve assessing his words and deeds to determine if an objective observer would regard them as divisive. In this case, divisive words and deeds would be such that initially neutral and unbiased Americans would be moved apart and inclined to regard each other with hostility. There is, of course, an almost insurmountable obstacle here: those who regard Obama as divisive will perceive his words and deeds as having these qualities and will insist that a truly objective observer would see things as they do. His supporters will, of course, contend the opposite. While Obama has spoken more honestly and openly about such subjects as race than past presidents, his words and deeds do not seem to be such that a neutral person would be turned against other Americans on their basis. He does not, for example, make sweeping and hateful claims based on race and religion. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will think I am merely expressing my alleged liberal biases while they regard themselves as gazing upon his divisiveness via the illumination of the light of pure truth. Should Trump win in 2016, the Democrats will certainly accuse him of being divisive—and his supporters will insist that he is a uniter and not a divider. While whether or not a claim of divisiveness is well founded is a matter of concern, there is also the matter of intent. It is to this I now turn.

Continuing the analogy, a person could have qualities that frighten others and legitimately do so; yet the person might have no intention of creating such fear. For example, a person might not understand social rules about how close he should get to other people and when he can and cannot tough others. His behavior might thus scare people, but acting from ignorance rather than malice, he has no intention to scare others—in fact, he might intend quite the opposite. Such a person could be blamed for the fear he creates to the degree that he should know better, but intent would certainly matter. After all, to frighten through ignorance is rather different from intentionally frightening people.

The same can be true of divisiveness: a person might divide in ignorance and perhaps do so while attempting to bring about greater unity. If the divisive person does not intend to be divisive, then the appropriate response would be (to borrow from Socrates) take the person aside and assist them in correcting their behavior. If a person intends to be divisive, then they would deserve blame for whatever success they achieve and whatever harm they cause. While intent can be difficult to establish (since the minds of others are inaccessible), consideration of what a person does can go a long way in making this determination. In the case of Obama, his intent does not seem to be to divide Americans. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will tend to also accept that he is an intentionally divider (rather than an accidental divider) and will attribute nefarious motives to him. Those who support him will do the opposite. There is, of course, almost no possibility of reason and evidence changing the minds of the committed about this matter. However, it is certainly worth the effort to try to consider the evidence or lack of evidence for the claim that Obama is an intentional divider. I do not believe that he is the most divisive president ever or even particularly divisive in a sense that is blameworthy. It is true that some disagree with him and dislike him; but it is their choice to expand the divide rather than close it. It is like a person who runs away, all the while insisting the other person is the one to blame for the growing distance. In closing, what I have written will change no minds—those who think Obama is divisive still think that. Those who think otherwise, still think as they did before. This is, after all, a matter of how people feel rather than a matter of reason.


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