A Philosopher's Blog

Trump’s Enquiring Rhetoric

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on May 4, 2016

As this is being written, Donald Trump is the last surviving Republican presidential candidate. His final opponents, Cruz and Kasich, suspended their campaigns, though perhaps visions of a contested convention still haunt their dreams.

Cruz left the field of battle with a bizarre Trump arrow lodged in his buttocks: Trump had attacked Cruz by alleging that Ted Cruz’ father was associated with Lee Harvey Oswald. The basis for this claim was an article in the National Enquirer, a tabloid that has claimed Justice Scalia was assassinated by a hooker working for the CIA. While this tabloid has no credibility, the fact that Trump used it as a source necessitated an investigation into the claim about Cruz’ father. As should be expected, Politifact ranked it as Pants on Fire. I almost suspect that Trump is trolling the media and laughing about how he has forced them to seriously consider and thoroughly investigate claims that are utterly lacking in evidence (such as his claims about televised celebrations in America after the 9/11 attacks).

When confronted about his claim about an Oswald-Cruz connection, Trump followed his winning strategy: he refused to apologize and engaged in some Trump-Fu as his “defense.” When interviewed on ABC, his defense was as follows:  “What I was doing was referring to a picture reported and in a magazine, and I think they didn’t deny it. I don’t think anybody denied it. No, I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was a major story and a major publication, and it was picked up by many other publications. …I’m just referring to an article that appeared. I mean, it has nothing to do with me.”

This response begins with what appears to be a fallacy: he is asserting that if a claim is not denied, then it is therefore true (I am guessing the “they” is either the Cruz folks or the National Enquirer folks. This can be seen as a variation on the classic appeal to ignorance fallacy. In this fallacy, a person infers that if there is a lack of evidence against a claim, then the claim is true. However, proving a claim requires that there be adequate evidence for the claim, not just a lack of evidence against it. There is no evidence that I do not have a magical undetectable pet dragon that only I can sense. This, however, does not prove that I have such a pet.

While a failure to deny a claim might be regarded as suspicious, not denying a claim is not proof the claim is true. It might not even be known that a claim has been made (so it would not be denied). For example, Kanye West is not denying that he plans to become master of the Pan flute—but this is not proof he intends to do this. It can also be a good idea to not lend a claim psychological credence by denial—some people think that denial of a claim is evidence it is true. Naturally, Cruz did end up denying the claim.

Trump next appears to be asserting the claim is true because it was “major” and repeated. He failed to note the “major” publication is a tabloid that is lacking in credibility. As such, Trump could be seen as engaging in a fallacious appeal to authority. In this case, the National Enquirer lacks the credibility needed to serve as the basis for a non-fallacious argument from authority. Roughly put, a good argument from authority is such that the credibility of the authority provides good grounds for accepting a claim. Trump did not have a good argument from authority.

Trump also uses a fascinating technique of “own and deny.” He does this by launching an attack and then both “owning” and denying it. It is as if he punched Cruz in the face and then said, “it wasn’t me, someone else did the punching. But I will punch Cruz again. Although it wasn’t me.” I am not sure if this is a rhetorical technique or a pathological condition. However, it does allow him the best of both worlds: he can appear tough and authentic by “owning it” yet also appear to not be responsible for the attack. This seems to be quite appealing to his followers, although it is obviously logically problematic: one must either own or deny, both cannot be true.

He also makes use of an established technique:  he gets media attention drawn to a story and then uses this attention to “prove” the story is true (because it is “major” and repeated). While effective, this technique does not prove a claim is true.

Trump was also interviewed on NBC and asked why he attacked Cruz in the face of almost certain victory in Indiana.  In response, he said, “Well, because I didn’t know I had it in the grasp. …I had no idea early in the morning that was — the voting booths just starting — the voting booths were practically not even opened when I made this call. It was a call to a show. And they ran a clip of some terrible remarks made by the father about me. And all I did is refer him to these articles that appeared about his picture. And — you know, not such a bad thing.”

This does provide something of a defense for Trump. As he rightly says, he did not know he would win and he hoped that his attack would help his chances. While the fact that a practice is common does not justify it (this would be the common practice fallacy), Trump seems to be playing within the rules of negative campaigning. That said, the use of the National Enquirer as a source is a new twist as is linking an opponent to the JFK assassination. This is not to say that Trump is acting in a morally laudable manner, just that he is operating within the rules of the game. To use an analogy, while the brutal hits of football might be regarded as morally problematic, they are within the rules of the game. Likewise, such attacks are within the rules of politics.

However, Trump goes on to commit the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy: since bad things were said about Trump, he concludes that he has the right to strike back. While Trump has every right to respond to attacks, he does not have a right to respond with a completely fabricated accusation.

Trump then moves to downplaying what he did and engages in one of his signature moves: he is not really to blame (he just pointed out the articles). So, his defense is essentially “I am just punching the guy back. But, I really didn’t punch him. I just pointed out that someone else punched him. And that punching was not a bad thing.”

 

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Nominations & Democracy

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2016

As the United States continues its ultra-marathon campaign season, the pundits speak relentlessly about the possibility of a brokered Republican convention and the inevitably victory of Hillary Clinton.

The Republican establishment is not at all pleased that Donald Trump has become the populist candidate. They wail because has harvested what they sowed and insist the wheat should go to the elite of their choice. The people should, as always, get the shaft. I mean, of course, the chaff. The current plan of the elite is for Cruz and Kasich to deny Trump the number of delegates he needs to secure the nomination and then have a desirable candidate selected at the convention. Trump has been expressing his dismay at this plan and his supporters have shared his orange rage.  Thus, Trump will almost certainly arrive at the convention with significantly more delegates than his rivals, yet he might lose the nomination because of the way the rules work.

In the case of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic establishment has anointed Hillary Clinton as the once and future candidate. As some critics have noted, many in the media have joined in the chorus and stick to the script which says that while Bernie has not been locked out, he has no chance at all of winning. Bernie supporters point to what they regard as the chicanery of the super-delegate system and are not pleased with the way the primary process works.

While Bernie is losing to Hillary, there is the concern that her winning is due to the rules of the party and not her popularity with the voters. As such, the populists are facing similar plights: they face being blocked by the rules of the parties which rule America.

The populists have raised a rather reasonable objection against the way the system works: the candidate with the most votes should become the nominee for the party. That is, as Trump points out, the way democracy is supposed to work.

Trump is right, but also wrong. He is right that the process should be democratic in a democracy. Otherwise, there is a mere half-democracy in which people can vote for anyone, provided that person is put forth by the ruling parties. As one of my undergraduate political science professors used to point out, the difference between the old Soviet system and the American system was one party—they had one, we have two.

Trump is wrong in that the parties are not democratic systems. That is, they are not part of the government and are, in fact, private organizations like corporations and unions. As such, they are free to make their own rules in regards to how the candidates are selected. Trump might well think that the parties are supposed to work like a democratic system—after all, the primaries do involve voting via the official voting machinery of the state. However, this is like having Exxon or GE decided to conduct its election process through the state—they could presumably make that happen, yet can obviously set their own rules and determine the outcome as they wish.

The parties do, of course, prefer to claim that they are following the will of the people and certainly want to avoid the appearance that the elections are actually settled in backroom deals. However, the parties remain private organizations and those that control the party decided how the process will work. If a party does break its rules, a candidate could presumably sue (one of Trump’s favorite past times)—but as long as the rules are properly followed, the only recourse of a candidate would be to appeal to the people.

When Hillary is crowned the candidate for the Democrats, I suspect Sanders will stand beside her throne. Trump, however, would be king by his own hand—if he is “robbed” of the nomination, he might decide to run on his own. This would be ideal for Hillary—her victory would be assured.

 

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Is the Republican Party Doomed?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 20, 2016

Despite the predictions of the pundits, Trump has done exceptionally well in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. This is despite concerted attacks against him by what remains of the Republican intelligentsia and millions of dollars spent to try to bring him down.

Trump has, quite obviously, polarized the Republican party and has exposed the chasm between the party base and the party elite. Because of these facts, some pundits have predicted that the party will be torn asunder by the upcoming election.

On the one hand, the arguments for the doom of the Republican party have a certain plausibility. As Trump has demonstrated, there really is a chasm between the base and the elites that seems to mirror the economic chasm in America. It is, of course, ironic that the gilded Trump is seen as the champion of the common man. The common woman, though, seems to have serious worries about Trump.

There is also the long standing tension between those who are Republicans because of their economic values and the social conservatives—the social conservatives seem to have figured out that while the establishment gladly takes their votes, they have generally failed to deliver on their promises to roll back the clock to a dreamtime 1950s world.

The Republican Party has also run up against the fact that it is still trying to serve the interests of straight, rich, old, white men in a time in which women, the young and non-whites matter a great deal politically. While this will not tear the party apart, it does serve (so some pundits claim) to keep the party from recruiting new blood to help keep it going. This, some claim, will cause the party to fade away—provided that it does not burn out first.

On the other hand, the Republican Party seems to be facing the chaos only at the level of national politics—specifically presidential politics. The Republicans have solid control of Congress and, at the local level, dominate 23 states (holding the governorship, state senate and state house). In contrast, the Democrats only dominate 7 states. This is as of March, 2016 and these numbers can change.

While it might be argued that the Republican dominance is through trickery and misdeeds in the form of gerrymandering, voter suppression and the corrupting hand of big money, the fact is that the Republicans are essentially running most of the country. This, one might argue, is good evidence that the party is not about to explode or tear itself apart. Rather, it is the sign of a party that has its act together—in contrast to the Democrats who seem to excel at losing.

Some, such as devoted Democrats, might contend that this is a false vitality—that the Republican party is driven by the energy of dying desperation and, like a wolverine, is fighting hardest just before its death. It might also be pointed out that trickery and misdeeds can only sustain the party for so long, that eventually the party will be overwhelmed by the vast volume of voters who are not Republicans.

The counter to this is to point out that even if the majority of people will not be Republicans, winning elections is not about who is in the majority of people. It is a matter of being the majority of voters. As such, Republicans could keep winning as long as they get enough of the fraction of people who bother to vote to vote Republican. This could go on for a long time, at least as long as most people eligible to vote do not do so.

Another counter is to accept the Republican claim that they are the true party of inclusion and that they have more to offer non-whites and women than the Democratic party has to offer. That is, that despite all the apparent hostility to women and minorities and all the associated laws do not reflect the real soul of party. This soul, they could argue, wants to lovingly embrace all voters who will vote Republican. Perhaps this is true. There are, after all, some excellent people who are Republicans.

It might be suspected that I hope that the Republican party will either burn out or fade away. Actually, this is not true. While I am, by default, a Democrat, I recognize the importance of having a competent and effective opposition party (or parties). In my personal life, I accept that I cannot and should not always get my way. While I do think I am right in my views, I also know that many of them are wrong—I just do not know which ones. That is why I value competent criticism that can expose where I am in error. Likewise, I value political opposition.

I also accept that even if I am right, this does not necessitate that I deserve to get my way all or even most of the time. One mark of being an adult is getting that other people have legitimate needs and interests that conflict with one’s own and this entails that compromise is something that must be accepted in certain matters. It is tempting to always try to get what I want, which is why opposition is important to ensure that others can also get what they need.

Because of these views, I hope that the Republican party can either get it together or, if that fails, split and form at least one effective and competent opposition party. Then again, perhaps the party does have it together—except for the Trump thing.

 

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Trump & Abortion

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2016

Abortion is a contentious matter in the United States and politicians must expect to answer questions about their position. As such, Trump should have been prepared when the questions turned to abortion during Chris Matthews interview of him on MSNBC.

While Trump has expressed a pro-choice position in the past, he told Matthews that he was now pro-life. When Matthews inquired about the legal implications of an abortion ban in terms of punishing women, Trump asserted that the “answer is that there has to be some form of punishment, yeah.” Since Trump has routinely been rewarded for talking tough and expressing misogynistic views, he was probably genuinely surprised when he experienced a broad backlash for his remarks—most especially from anti-abortion advocates.

In response to this backlash, Trump’s campaign released a statement saying: “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

Interestingly enough, many anti-abortion advocates hold to this view as well (at least in public statements): women should not be punished for getting illegal abortions and the punishment should be limited to the abortion provider.

While some might claim that Trump’s initial position was an expression of misogyny, his inference was certainly justified given the usual approach to illegal actions. If abortion was criminalized and crimes should be punished, then it would follow that a woman who chose to have an abortion should be punished. This is the case with other crimes.

To use an obvious analogy, if Sally hires Jean to kill Jack, then Sally has committed a crime and should be punished for her role in it. A just court would and should punish Sally for her role in this crime. It would be patently absurd for someone to say “If Congress were to pass legislation making murder illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban murder under state and federal law, the assassin or any other person performing this illegal act for a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” As such, if abortion were a crime (which opponents often consider murder), then it follows that the woman should also be punished.

Another analogy is with illegal drugs. If Sally buys illegal cocaine from Jean, then Sally has also committed a crime and should be punished.  It would be ridiculous to say “If Congress were to pass legislation making cocaine illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban cocaine under state and federal law, the drug dealer or any other person performing this illegal act (providing cocaine) for a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” Once again, if abortion were a crime, then the woman should also be punished.

Obviously, the analogies could continue through a multitude of crimes, thus showing that the position advocated by Trump and others is contrary to the usual workings of justice, namely that those participating in a crime are to be punished. That said, there is a way to hold to the position that the woman should not be punished and the abortion provider should.

Holding this position requires asserting that the woman lacks agency in the crime and is thus not responsible. One approach, which is not uncommon, is to argue that women in general lack agency. This sort of view was used to justify, for example, denying women the right to vote and treating them as property.

This approach would be analogous to that taken by some states in regards to child prostitution. Although prostitution is a crime, children lack the agency to consent to sexual relations and are thus not responsible for the crime. Instead, those providing or purchasing the sexual services are responsible for the crime. As such, they should be punished and the children should not.

While some might find this approach appealing, it is obviously problematic. One rather absurd implication is that denying that women have agency would give them this legal status across the board—thus undermining the possibility of fully holding women accountable for crimes they commit. There are, of course, so many other problems with this approach that it has no legitimate appeal.

Another option is to accept that while women have agency, they generally lack such agency when it comes to choosing to have an abortion. Or, rather, women do not truly choose to have abortions—they are coerced, tricked or beguiled into having them. If this were generally true, then the position that women should not be punished for illegal abortions while those performing them should be punished would be reasonable.

To use an analogy, if Jean kidnaped Sally and her daughter, then killed the daughter, Jean would be the criminal and Sally would be a victim. As such, Sally should obviously not be punished. The challenge is, of course, to show that abortion providers generally use coercion to compel women to get abortions against their will. This, however, seems contrary to the facts.

As another analogy, if Jean was able to beguile Sally into believing she was in terrible danger from Jane and only Jean could save her at that moment by killing Jane, then Sally should not be punished for agreeing to this. Likewise, if abortion providers beguile and trick women into having abortions that they would not have had without being under the mesmeric influence of the abortion providers, then women who have illegal abortions should not be punished. What would need to be shown is that abortion providers have such powers to beguile. This also seems unlikely.

It could be claimed that surely there are cases in which women are coerced or beguiled into having abortions against their will. This, I accept, probably does happen. I am also confident that people are also coerced or beguiled into committing other crimes. As with such cases, I would agree that the person who is forced or beguiled into participating in a crime should have any punishment reduced or eliminated based on the degree to which they lacked agency. Obviously enough, those that coerce or beguile people into crimes should be subject to punishment proportional to their contribution to the crime. This all assumes that the crimes are morally worthy of punishment—crime is a matter of law and there can be unjust laws.

Lest anyone be confused about my overall position, I would prefer that there were fewer abortions (as argued in another essay). But, I do accept that abortion is generally morally acceptable under the current social conditions. As such, I oppose banning abortion and certainly oppose punishing abortion providers or women who have abortions. My point is that those who wish to criminalize abortion need to accept that the punishment of women is entailed by this view. As such, the position that abortion is a crime and that abortion providers should be punished while women should not be punished for their role in the “crime” is an inconsistent and untenable position. This, naturally enough, is for cases in which abortion is not the result of coercion or deception.

 

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“Trump” Terror at Emory

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 1, 2016

Donald Trump & Melania enter the Oscar De LA R...

It was the day that fear and pain came to Emory University. No, it was not another horrific campus shooting. This day of terror was inflicted by chalked “Trump 2016” messages. In response, students staged a protest. Comedians, such as Larry Wilmore, mocked. The administration, somewhat amazingly, decided to take no action to find the chalk wielding Trump terrorist.

While this incident can be easily dismissed as yet another case of the absurdly fragile state of the coddled college elite, it does have some philosophical interest that makes it worth considering. I will begin by offering a defense of the pained and frightened students, then move to a discussion of free expression.

While chalked messages are frequently encountered on campuses, there are three ways to argue that the students were legitimately threatened by the Trump chalk marks. One approach would be to argue that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and apparent bigotry make his name something to be feared, such that chalking it on campus is akin to chalking actually threats or hateful remarks.

A possible reply to this is that Trump is not actually bad enough to warrant such a fearful response from the mere writing of his name—that is, the reaction is far too extreme given the level of threat. Another reply is that even if Trump is truly a threatening bigot, the invocation of his name should not suffice as a threat. It is, after all, just his name.

A second approach would be to argue that the chalk marks occurred in a broader context—that the much dreaded hostile environment had been created and in this context “Trump 2016” is a dire threat. This does have a certain appeal since, given the right context, almost any words can present a frightening threat. That said, it would certainly require quite a remarkable context to make an expression of support for the leading Republican candidate to strike legitimate terror into the hearts of grown people.

A third approach would be to argue that the words were written with an intent the threatened students were aware of—that is, “Trump 2016” and similar messages are a known code for actual threats. If this is the case, then the students could be thus justified in their terror and pain. This does, however, create a bit of a problem—what if “Bernie 2016” or “Hillary 2016” become code words for vile threats?

As might be suspected, my own view is that the students were most likely not warranted in their terror and pain. However, if it turns out that there really was a coded threat that the students understood, then I would revise my view. What is, I think, more interesting about this situation is the matter of free expression.

As many folks on the right have noted, there seems to be an ever increasing hostility to free expression on certain “elite” college campuses. There does not seem to be such a problem at many other schools, such as my own Florida A&M University. This might be because the students are rather busy with classes, university activities and working to pay for school. Interestingly, even some people in the liberal spectrum have regarded such things as “trigger warnings” and “free speech zones” as signs of an intolerance on the part of some of the left. These concerns, at least at certain schools, do seem legitimate—as supported by the Trump Terror Chalk Incident of 2016 (as history shall know it).

This episode of terror has not resulted in any change to my view of free expression: people should have complete freedom to express their views, provided that doing so does not inflict actual harm directly or indirectly. Making threats of violence, inciting violence or engaging in harmful slander would be clear examples of expression that should not be protected. What is merely offensive, annoying, or even regarded as vaguely threatening should not be restricted.

One practical concern is sorting out what legitimately counts as harmful expression that should be limited under the classic principle of harm. In this specific case, the problem is deciding whether or not it suffices that the students felt pain and believed they were threatened. On the one hand, one could use an analogy to physical pain: if something hurts, then it did cause pain. So, if chalked Trump support hurts students, then they should be protected from it.  On the other hand, there is the matter of what can reasonably be considered painful and what would be an overreaction. After all, if people could merely claim pain or fear was caused by some expression and shut down free expression, silence would soon reign. Fortunately, good sense can prevail in such cases—supported by arguments, of course. In the case of the Trump chalk marks, this would be on par with someone claiming assault and battery when someone merely brushed past them while walking. Such contact might strike terror into some, but it would be absurd to consider it an attack. Likewise, sensitive students might fear the words “Trump 2016”, but to claim true pain would be an absurd overreaction. The real pain will come when Trump is president.

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The RNC & Gun Free

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2016

The Republican Party is well known for its consistent support of gun rights and opposition to attempts to impose restrictions on these rights. As such, it might strike some as odd that the gun-loving Republicans are holding their national convention in a gun free zone in Cleveland, Ohio. Though the party might seem helpless in the face of the Secret Service (which banned guns from the Republican national convention in 2012), brave patriots have risen in its defense. A petition to allow open carry at the Quicken Loans Arena during the Republican Party’s national convention has been signed by over 50,000 supporters of the Second Amendment.

While some have suggested that the petition is not the work of true gun-loving patriots but by wily Democrat James P. Ryan, it is well grounded in an interesting moral argument. In any case, to dismiss the moral argument because of the identity of the author would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy. After all, the merit of an argument depends on the argument, not the identity of the author.

The argument used to justify the petition is based in the principle of consistent application—this is the principle that standards must be applied the same way in similar circumstances. Exceptions can be justified, but this requires showing that there is a relevant difference between the applications that warrants changing or not applying the standard.

Not being consistent is problematic in at least three ways. One is that the person or group runs the risk of hypocrisy, which is morally problematic. The second is that inconsistent application is unfair, which is morally problematic as well. The third is that such inconsistent application runs the risk of undermining the justification for the standard, thus suggesting that the standard might not be well supported.

The case for the inconsistency of the Republican Party, the NRA and the three remaining Republican candidates is rather effectively made on the petition site. As such, I will present a rather concise summary of the case.

First, the NRA has argued that gun free zones, like where the convention will be held, are essentially advertising the best places for mass shootings. The NRA consistently opposes such zones—or at least it did. Second, Trump, Cruz and Kasich have explicitly opposed gun free zones. Trump and Cruz have both echoed the NRA’s line that gun free zones are bait for mass shooters. Third, there are the stock arguments made by the NRA and pro-gun Republicans that people need guns to defend themselves—that a good guy with a gun is the only one who can stop a bad guy with a gun. As such, for the Republican Party to hold its convention in a gun free zone with Cruz, Trump, Kasich and the NRA agreeing to this would be a clear act of moral inconsistency. Since they all oppose gun free zones (including, in some cases public schools) they should insist that the same standard they wish to apply to everyone else must also be applied to them. That is, guns must be allowed at the convention.

It could be countered that the Republican Party does back private property rights and, as such, they could consistently say that the Quicken Loans Arena owners have the right to ban guns from their property (though they are just laying out irresistible murder bait by doing so). While it is reasonable to accept that private property rights trump gun rights, the obvious counter is to insist that the convention be moved to a private or public venue that allows guns unless Quicken Loans Arena is willing to change its policy for the event.

Another counter is to note that the Secret Service has apparently insisted that guns not be allowed at the event. The Republicans could thus say that they really want to have guns, but the government is violating their rights by forcing them to ban the guns they so dearly and truly love. That is, if it was up to them the convention would be well armed.

The easy and obvious reply is that the Republican Party and candidates could take a principled stand and insist that guns be allowed. After all, their position on the matter of gun free zones is quite clear—the least safe place to be is a gun-free zone. Presumably the Secret Service is concerned that someone might bring a gun to the convention and try to kill Trump, Cruz or Kasich. Since these three men believe that gun free zones would simply attract assassins, they should be able to convince the Secret Service that they would be safer surrounded by armed citizens and, of course, sign whatever waivers or forms would be needed to make this so. If the candidates and the party lack the clout to make the convention gun friendly, surely the gun-friendly Republican majority in Congress could pass legislation allowing guns to be carried at the convention. This, one might suspect, would be a law that Obama would be quite willing to sign.

If the Republicans do not approach this affront to their gun rights with the same will and tenacity they deploy against Obamacare, one might suspect a hypocrisy regarding their position on guns: doing without gun free zones is fine for everyone else; but the Republican establishment wants the protection of gun free zones. This does not, of course, show that they are in error in regards to their avowed position opposing gun free zones—to infer that would be to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque (the fallacy that an inconsistency between a person’s claim and her actions shows her claim is wrong). However, it might be suspected that if the Republican establishment is fine with the convention as a gun free zone, then they have some evidence that gun free zones are not, contrary to their professed view, murder bait and are safer than gun zones.

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Trump & the Third Party

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 18, 2016

Trump’s ongoing success has created quite a disturbance in the Republican establishment. While some have merely expressed opposition to him, there is a growing “never Trump” movement. While this movement is currently focused on preventing Trump from becoming the candidate by supporting his few remaining opponents, there has been some talk of putting forth a third party candidate.

Third party candidates are nothing new in the United States. Ralph Nader made a bid on the left for president and Ross Perot made an attempt on the libertarian side. The main impact of these attempts was to pull voters from one party and enable the other party to win. For example, Ralph Nader helped defeat Al Gore. As such, the most likely effect of a conservative third party candidate running against Trump and Hillary would be a victory for Hillary. Given that the main concern of most political partisans is the victory of their party, it might be wondered why a third party option would even be considered.

One reason is that of principle. In the case of Nader and Perot, their supporters believed in them and supported them—even though it should have been obvious that doing so would not result in a victory and would, in fact, help someone they ideologically opposed reach the White House. In the case of Trump, there are those who oppose him as a matter of principle. Some oppose his apparent racism and bigotry while others contend that he is not a true conservative in regards to fiscal and social matters. As such, people would most likely be voting for the third party candidate because he is not Trump and not Hillary rather than because of who he is.

While politics is seen mainly as a matter of pragmatic power seeking, a moral case can be made for a Republican to vote for a third party candidate on the basis of principle rather than for Trump or for Hillary. If Trump and Hillary are both regarded as roughly equal in evil and the person wishes to vote, then voting for either would be wrong from that person’s perspective. After all, voting for a person makes one responsible (albeit to a tiny degree) for the consequences of their being in power. Voting for a third party candidate the person either supports or regards as the least evil of the lot would thus be the best option in terms of principle. If the person regards one of the two main candidates as the greatest evil, then the person should vote for the lesser evil that is likely to win, as I argued in an earlier essay.

A second reason to run a third party candidate is a matter of damage control. The predictions are that while Trump is winning the largest fraction of the minority of Republican voters who vote in primaries he will have a negative impact on voter turnout. While the third party strategy concedes that Trump will lose the general election, the hope is that a third party alternative who is popular enough will get people to vote. This, it is hoped, will help the Republicans do well on other parts of the ticket, such as elections for senators and representatives. As such, there is an excellent pragmatic reason to run a third party option to Trump—to reduce the chance that the never Trump voters will simply stay home to Netflix and chill on election day.

While this strategy might have some short term benefits to Republicans, running a third party candidate against the official Republican candidate would make the chasm in the party official—it would presumably be the potential beginning of the end of the party, splitting the establishment from a very active part of the base. This could, of course, be a good thing—the Republican Party seems to have been fragmenting for quite some time and the establishment has drifted away from much of the common folk.

A third reason to run a third party candidate is to hope for a Hail Mary. There is some talk that a third party candidate could cash in on the never Trump and Hillary Haters to create a situation in which there is no winner of the election. In such a situation, the House would pick the president and the Senate would select the vice-president. Since the Republicans control the House and Senate, the result would mostly likely be that the third party Republican would be president.

While this is a longshot, it is not impossible. The likely result of such a power play would be to break apart the Republican party—those who support Trump already loath the establishment and this would probably distill that into hatred. But, looked at pragmatically, the game is about holding power for as long as one can—so the power players would probably be content to take the win on the grounds that the party was probably going to split anyway.

This election could see a truly historic event—the end of the Republican party as it currently exists and perhaps the rise of a new party or parties.

 

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Trumping Populism

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 11, 2016

I think that Trump would be awful as a President. While I could grind through my ideological, moral and philosophical disagreements with him, my main practical concern is that he would simply be rather bad at the job. The first reason is that he has no experience in political leadership. While he has run a business (with many failures), being a business leader is rather different from being a political leader. To use an analogy: I have years of experience teaching philosophy but this does not qualify me to teach, for example chemistry or even a subject closer to philosophy such as history. The second is that Trump has not presented any developed plans or proposals and the ones he has advanced are patently absurd. The third is that Trump seems to lack even a basic understanding of critical matters such as international law, international events, the rules governing the military and so many more things. While Trump makes sweeping claims that bring cheers, he does not seem to accept that he is making claims that are untrue and while not logically impossible, are practically impossible. In sum, Trump is not qualified or suitable for the office.

As much as it pains me, Trump does deserve some praise for what he has managed to do. First, he has made the Republican party live what it has become, in full view of the voters. Second, he has launched a successful campaign against the political establishment by appealing to the people. While I disagree with Trump, it is good to see a complacent political machine knocked off balance. If only we could see something similar happen to the Democrats. To be fair, Bernie has been trying to kick the machine and I think it might have shuddered just a bit.

Third, he has captured a bolt of the lightning of American anger and fear; thus giving voice to the rage of those who have long been ignored. I think that he is getting people to turn the right anger in the wrong direction, but he speaks for those who have been effectively abandoned by the current system to a degree that none of the other Republicans can match.

Fourth, he has energized American participation in politics to a level that has not been seen in a long time. Currently, he has energized the Republicans but there is a chance he will energize Democrats and Independents to vote—most likely against him. He has made more people care about politics and has even, I must concede, made people believe that it is worth getting involved. While I certainly hope that he does not succeed, I must commend him for getting so many out of the pit of apathy that has become the norm in American politics.

It is worth considering that Trump does not deserve much credit for this. It could be that people were ready to reject the establishment and motivated to become politically active and Trump just happened to be the guy that got the attention. That said, somebody has to be the guy (or gal) that the voters rally behind. Trump is, no matter what one might think of him, that guy.

It has been claimed that Trump cannot beat Hillary or Sanders; that the polls show he will lose in the general. As others have pointed out, Trump was never supposed to get this far. So it is unwise to count him out. Trump actually does have a path to the White House.

First, Trump needs to keep the remaining candidates in the race so that they keep splitting the vote. If he can do this, he is likely to keep ahead of all the others. Second, Trump needs to be ready to fight it out at the convention. If he does not get the automatic win, the Republican establishment might try to rob him—which would be a disaster for the party in many ways. Third, Trump needs the usual low voter turnout among those who are likely to vote for the Democrat. While Sanders has an enthusiastic group of supporters, they tend to be the folks who are not reliable voters. Also, to be honest, neither Hillary nor Bernie are really lighting the base on fire—though Bernie does have some devoted folks. So, there will probably be the usual weak turnout of Democrats—unless they are set afire by fear of Trump. Fourth, Trumps needs a high voter turnout among the folks who will vote for him. Trump does not need to win a majority of registered voters—he just needs a majority of the minority who actually vote. Trump can, I think, do this—he has enthusiastic supporters who have turned out to support him. They will almost certainly vote in the general election. Put simply, Democrat apathy + Trump enthusiasm= President Trump. As always, the beauty of democracy is that it is the best political system for giving us what we deserve.

 

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Cannot Dump the Trump

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 9, 2016

As of March, 2016 Donald Trump has continued as the leading Republican presidential candidate. Before his string of victories, Trump was regarded by most pundits as a joke candidate, one that would burn out like a hair fire. After his victories, the Republican establishment and its allies launched a massive (and massively expensive) attack on Trump. So far, this attack has failed and the Republican elite have been unable to dump Trump.

It would be foolish to claim that Trump’s nomination is inevitable. But, it would be equally foolish to cling to the belief that Trump will be taken down by the establishment or that he will gaffe himself to political death. While I have examined how Trump magnificently filled a niche crafted by the Republican party, in this essay I will examine why Trump can probably not be dumped.

As I have argued before, the Republican party is largely responsible for creating the opening for Trump. They have also made it very difficult for attacks on Trump to succeed. This is because the party has systematically undermined (at least for many Republicans) the institutions that could effectively criticize Trump. These include the media, the political establishment, the academy, and the church (broadly construed).

Since about the time of Nixon, the Republican party has engaged in a systematic campaign to cast the mainstream media as liberal and biased. This has been a rather effective campaign (thanks, in part, to the media itself) and there is considerable distrust and distaste regarding the media among Republicans. Trump has worked hard to reinforce this view—lashing out at the media that has enabled him to grow so very fat politically.

While this sustained demolition of the media has paid handsome dividends for the Republicans, the Republicans who oppose Trump now find themselves a victim of their own successful tactic: Trump is effectively immune to criticism coming from the media. When attacked, even by conservative media, he can simply avail himself of the well-worn Republican talking points. This result is exactly as should be expected: degrading an important public institution cannot be good for the health of a democratic state.

While modern Republicans have preached small government, the party firmly embraced the anti-establishment position in recent years. In the past, this approach has been rather ironic: well-entrenched Republicans would wax poetically about their outsider status in order to get re-elected to term after term. While the establishment no doubt hoped it could keep milking the inconsistent cow of outside insiders, Trump has taken advantage of this rhetoric against the established insiders. This time, the insiders are the Republicans.

This provides Trump with a readymade set of tools to counter criticisms and attacks from the Republican establishment—tools that this establishment forged. As such, Trump has little to fear from the attacks of the establishment Republicans. In fact, he should welcome their attacks: each criticism can be melted down and remade as support for Trump being an anti-establishment outsider.

While there were some significant conservative intellectuals and scholars, the Republican party has made a practice of bashing the academy (colleges, universities and intellectuals in general) as being a foul pit of liberalism. There has also been a sustained campaign against reason and expertise—with Republicans actually making ludicrous claims that ignorance is better than knowledge and that expertise is a mark of incompetence.

This approach served the Republicans fairly well when it came to certain political matters, such as climate change. However, this discrediting of the academy in the eyes of many Republican voters has served to protect Trump. Any criticism of Trump from academics or intellectuals can be dismissed with the same rhetorical weapons deployed so often in the past by the same Republicans who now weep at the prospect of a Trump victory. While the sleep of reason breeds monsters, the attack on reason has allowed Trump to flourish. This should be taken as a warning sign of what can follow Trump: when the rational defenses of society are weakened, monsters are free to take the stage.

While the Republican party often embraces religion, this embrace is often limited to anti-abortion, anti-contraception and anti-gay matters. When religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, stray beyond this zone and start taking God’s command to love each other as He loves us seriously, the Republican party generally reacts with hostility. Witness, for example, the incredibly ironic calls of the Republicans for the Pope to keep religion out of politics.

In general, the Republican party has been fine with religion that matches a conservative social agenda and does not stray into positive ethics of social responsibility and moral criticism of an ethics of selfishness (what philosophers call ethical egoism). Straying beyond this, as noted above, results in hostile attacks. To this end, the party has taken steps to undermine these aspects of religion.

One impact of this has been that Trump is able to use these same tools against religious and moral criticisms. He has even been able to go head-to-head with the Pope, thus showing that even religion cannot oppose Trump. Interestingly, many evangelical leaders have condemned Trump—although their flocks seem to rather like him. Since the conservatives like to cast the left as being the foe of religion and ethics, there is considerable irony here.

In addition to taking advantage of the systematic degrading of critical institutions, Trump can also count on the fact that the methods used against him will most likely be ineffective. Some pundits and some establishment members have endeavored to use rational argumentation against Trump. Mitt Romney, for example, has presented a well-reasoned critique of Trump that is right on the mark. Trump responded by asserting that Romney would have been happy to blow him in 2012.

The argumentation approach is not working and will almost certainly not work. As Aristotle argued, the vast majority of people are not convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” but are ruled by their emotions. In fact, all the people are ruled by emotions some of the time and some of the people are ruled by emotions all the time. As such, it is no surprise that philosophers have established that reason is largely ineffective as a tool of persuasion—it is trumped by rhetoric and fallacies (that is, no logic and bad logic). Bringing logic to an emotion fight is a losing proposition.

There is also the fact that the Republican party has, as noted above, consistently bashed intellectualism and expertise—thus making it even less likely that reasoning will be effective against Trump in regards to turning his supporters against him.

Political commitment, like being a sports fan, is also more a matter of irrational feeling than of considered logic. Just as one is unlikely to get a dedicated Cubs fan to abandon her team via syllogisms, one is not going to turn a Trump supporter by logic. Ditto for Sanders and Hillary supporters. This is not to say their supporters are stupid, just that politics is a not a game of logic.

Since Trump is effectively immune to argumentation, his opponents might try to use rhetoric and emotion against him. His Republican opponents face a serious challenge here: they are simply not as good at it as Trump. Trump has also managed to get the battle for the nomination down to the level of basic cable stand-up comedy or a junior high locker room: dick jokes, blow job innuendo, and other presidential subjects. Trump is a master, albeit short-fingered, vulgarian.  Only fellow masters and fools go up against a master vulgarian in vulgarity. While Rubio has tried some stand-up against Trump, he cannot match the man. Cruz and Kasich also lack what it takes to get into the pit with Trump and if they do, it will simply be a case of grabbing a fecal-baby (like the metaphorical tar baby, but worse).

One avenue is to avoid the pit and employ high road rhetoric and emotion against Trump. Unfortunately, the Republican contenders seem utterly inept at doing this and Trump is quite skilled at throwing rhetorical feces on anything that catches his eye. As such, it seems that Trump will not be dumped. What remains to be seen is whether or not these factors will be as effective in the general election against Hillary or Sanders. Assuming, of course, that Trump gets the nomination.

 

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Voting for the Lesser Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 7, 2016

While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are currently the leading candidates for their respective political parties, there is considerable dislike for both of them. Many of my conservative friends express true horror at the prospect of a Trump presidency. Some have expressed a willingness to vote for a Democrat over Trump. Others have said they would either write in a name or not vote at all.

My liberal friends are less horrified, but many of them express the view that Hillary Clinton is evil and, not surprisingly, tend to back Bernie Sanders. B. York, who argues that Hillary would be the lesser of two evils relative to Trump, asked me to address an important moral question about the upcoming election: “is there value in supporting the lesser of two evils?” As I was asked to put aside the facts of the issue (that is, whether Hillary is really the lesser evil or not) I will focus on this issue in general terms and leave the bashing and defending for others.

While there is a multitude of approaches to ethics, the two that fit the best here are consequentialist ethics and action ethics. I will consider each in turn.

While there are many forms of consequentialist theories of ethics, they all share the basic principle that the action that should be taken is the one that maximizes positive value for the beings that are morally relevant. A consequentialist has to specify the measure of value as well as define who counts (this is defining the scope of morality).

This view has considerable intuitive appeal: if something has positive value (like cake), then having more of it seems preferable to having less. Likewise, if something has negative value (like cancerous lesions), then having less of it seems preferable to having more. People also seem to intuitive accept that there are entities that count more or less. For example, we tend to value our fellow humans more than we value mosquitoes.

Perhaps the best known example of consequentialist ethics is utilitarianism of the sort professed by John Stuart Mill. According to Mill, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill is rather generous in terms of who counts—happiness should be brought to “…all mankind and so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.”

A significant competitor to utilitarianism of the sort advocated by Mill is ethical egoism—this is a consequentialist approach in which each person limits the scope of morality to himself. Ayn Rand, a favorite of the Tea Party and Paul Ryan, is perhaps the best known ethical egoist. As she saw it, each person should act from selfishness.

As should be expected, a consequentialist approach would provide an easy way to make a moral argument in support of voting for the lesser evil. Doing so would make it more likely that the least harm would be done to those who matter morally. As such, voting for the lesser evil would be the least bad choice. It would also be the rational choice—at least under the stock definition of rationality that focuses on maximizing value (which is simply a consequentialist position).

There are two main alternatives to voting for the lesser evil (aside from voting for the greater evil) on the assumption that an election has only two truly viable candidates. At the presidential level, this is a reasonable assumption—the election is effectively locked down by the Republicans and Democrats. One option is to not vote at all. This has the consequence of reducing the chances that the candidate you regard as the lesser evil will win, thus microscopically increasing the chance that the one you regard as the greater evil will win. As such, a failure to vote is effectively choosing the greater evil.

The second option is to vote for a third candidate you regard as non-evil who will not win. This could be a real third party candidate on the ballot or a write in candidate. The consequence of this is about the same as not voting—it is effectively choosing the greater evil if you would have otherwise voted for the lesser evil. It can be argued that some positive result might arise from voting for a third candidate—it might make a statement headed by whoever is elected (but probably not) or encourage a third party to run in the next election to challenge the chokehold of the two party system (but probably not). In light of the above, the ethical vote is to vote for the lesser evil—assuming the consequentialist approach. If there actually is a non-evil third candidate that could win, then the choice is obvious: vote for that candidate.

While a voter who decides to vote based on consequences would have selected her moral approach to the decision, the voter would still need to decide on a measure of value, estimate which candidate would do the least damage, and sort out who she thinks counts. Any two consequentialist voters could make radically different assessments. For example, a voter who is concerned about all Americans would probably assess Trump and Hillary differently from a person who is only concerned about white Americans. As another example, a Wall Street voter who places the most value on maximizing her profits would certainly assess the consequences of voting for Trump differently from those of voting for Hillary.

While the consequentialist approach is intuitively appealing, there is also some weight to the view that some actions are just wrong (or right), regardless of the consequences.  Those who accept action ethics hold, as Kant claimed in the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, that “the moral worth of an action is not in its expected effect nor a principle of action motivated by its expected effect.”  Put roughly, the action itself is good or bad. So, if a person chooses an action that is good, “this good is already present in the person and there is no need to wait for it to appear in the result.” Likewise, bad actions are already bad and are not bad because of harmful consequences.

While this could be debated, voting in favor of a candidate one regards as evil would seem to be a morally wrong act, albeit a very weak form of wrongness. This assumes that supporting evil is evil. This seems reasonable and an analogy can be drawn to the legal notion of aiding and abetting a criminal. Voting for an evil candidate is aiding them, thus making one a party to their crimes.

Voting for the lesser evil would be less evil than supporting the greater evil; but would still be an evil action. Fortunately, a person can avoid supporting even the lesser evil by not voting or casting a vote for someone who is not evil. As such, if a person regards the only viable candidates as evil, then the right thing to do would be to not vote for any of them—thus avoiding the risk of becoming a party to their evil.

This can, however, be countered by pointing out that one of the two viable evils will win the election, so the voter should vote for the lesser evil.  This is similar to situations in which doing something wrong is justified on the grounds that someone else would do it or do something even worse. For example, consider a common fictional villain move: the villain offers the hero a choice between killing one person or “making” the villain kill many people. While a consequentialist approach would generally favor killing the one, choosing the lesser evil would still appear to be an evil action. The hero is, obviously, not to blame for the villain killing the many—that is all on the villain. Likewise, if a voter decides to not vote for any evil and the greater evil is elected, the responsibility lies on the candidate for being evil and those who supported the greater evil.

The criticism can be raised that making the moral choice of not voting for any evil would be the wrong choice if it helps the greater evil win the election. This criticism is, not surprisingly, almost always based on consequentialist considerations: the choice was wrong not because the person supported evil, but because the voter’s failure to back the lesser evil contributed to greater evil. Going back to the villain example, the choice not to kill the one person was wrong not because the hero killed the many, but because his choice resulted in the death of many rather than one.

My own moral view is that voting for a person I regard as evil is an evil action. However, in the case of politics I have to think of more than just myself and my moral choice—I must also consider what will happen to others. As such, I am willing to bear the tiny burden of voting while holding my nose to try to protect others from what I regard as a greater evil. So, it is wrong to vote for even the lesser evil, but worse not to. As is to be expected, the lesser evil is the lesser evil. So, my advice is that if your regard the two candidates as evil, vote for the one you think is the lesser evil.

If you think they are equal in their evil, do not vote for either. Going back to the villain example, if the villain offers two equal evils (the hero kills everyone or the villain kills everyone) then choosing neither evil is the best choice: everyone is dead either way, but at least the hero is not a murderer if she refuses to murder. In the case of the candidates, if both are equally evil, then voting for either would be worse than not voting for either. This is because the evil of your choice would be added to the evil of the candidate being elected, thus creating more evil.

 

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