A Philosopher's Blog

The High Price of Being Shot

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 11, 2017
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In the naivety of my youth, I believed that people would not be charged for medical treatment resulting from being wounded by criminals. After all, my younger self reasoned, their injuries were the fault of someone else and it would be unjust to expect them to pay for the misdeeds of another. Learning that this was not the case was just one of the many disappointments when it came to the matter of justice and ethics. As such, I was not surprised when I learned that shooting victims were presented with the bills for their treatment. However, I was somewhat surprised by the high cost of being shot.

Dr. Joseph Sakran, who had been shot in his youth, co-authored a study of what shooting victims are charged for their treatment. Since gunshot wounds range from relatively minor grazing wounds to massive internal damage, the costs vary considerably. While the average is $5,000 the cost can go up to $100,000. These costs are generally covered by insurance, but victims who lack proper coverage become victims once again: they must either pay for the treatment or pass on the cost as part of the uncompensated care. When the cost is passed on, the patient can suffer from severely damaged credit and, of course, the cost is passed on others in the form of premium increases. There can be costs beyond the initial medical bills, such as ongoing medical bills, the loss of income, and the psychological harm.

In addition to medical expenses of those who are shot, there are also the costs of the police response, the impact on employers, and the dollar value of those who are killed rather than wounded (and do not forget that dying in the hospital obviously does not automatically clear the bill). While estimating the exact cost is difficult, a mass shooting like the Pulse Nightclub shooting will probably end up costing almost $400 million. While mass shootings, such as the recent one in Las Vegas, get the attention of the media, gunshot wounds are a regular occurrence in the United States with an estimated cost of $600 million per day. While some will dispute the exact numbers, what is indisputable is that getting shot is expensive for the victim and society. As such, it would be rational to try to reduce the number of shootings and to address the high cost of being shot.

While the rational approach to such a massive health crisis would be to undertake a scientific study to find solutions, the 1996 Dickey Amendment bans the use of federal funding for gun research. There is also very little good data about gun injuries and deaths—and this is quite intentional. Efforts to improve the collection of data are dealt with by such things as the Dickey Amendment. Efforts to impose more gun control, even when there is overwhelming public support for such things as universal background checks, are routinely blocked. While this serves as a beautiful object lesson in how much say the people have in this democracy, it also shows that trying to address the high cost of getting shot by reducing shootings is a noble fool’s errand. As such, the only practical options involve finding ways to offset the medical costs of victims. Naturally, victims can bring civil suits—but this is not a reliable and effective way to ensure that the medical expenses are covered. After all, mass shooters are rarely wealthy enough to pay all the bills and often perish in their attack.

Some victims have attempted to address their medical bills in the same way others who lack insurance have tried—by setting up GoFundMe pages to get donations. While this option is problematic in many ways, the main problem is that it is not very reliable. This, of course, lays aside the moral problem of having people begging so they can pay for being victims of a shooting. To address this problem, I will make two modest proposals.

My first proposal is that gun owners be required to purchase a modestly priced insurance policy that is analogous to vehicle insurance. In the United States, people are generally required to have insurance to cover the damage they might inflict while operating a dangerous piece of machinery. This helps pool the risk (as insurance is supposed to do) and puts the cost on the operators of the machines rather than on those who they might harm. The same should apply to guns—they are dangerous machines that can do considerable harm and it makes sense that the owners should bear the cost of the insurance. Naturally, as with vehicles, owners can also be victims.

It could be objected that owning a firearm is a right and hence the state has no right to impose such a requirement. The easy and obvious reply is that the right to keep and bear arms is a negative right rather than a positive right. A positive right is one in which a person is entitled to be provided with the means to use that right (such as how people are provided with free ballots when they go to vote). A negative right means the person must provide the means of exercising their right, but it is (generally) wrong to prevent them from exercising that right. So, just as the state is not required to ensure that people get free guns and ammunition, it is not required to allow gun ownership without insurance—provided that the requirement does not impose an unreasonable infringement on the right.

Another easy and obvious reply is that rights do not free a person from responsibility. In the case of speech, people cannot simply say anything without consequence. In the case of the gun insurance, people would be acting in a responsible manner—they would be balancing their right with a rational amount of responsibility. To refuse to have such insurance is to insist on rights without responsibility—something conservatives normally rail against. As such, both liberals and conservatives should approve of this idea.

My second proposal, which is consistent with the first, is that there be a modest state fee added to the cost of each firearm, accessory and ammunition box. This money would go into a state pool to help pay the medical expenses of the uninsured who are injured in shootings. Yes, I know that this money would probably be misused by most states, probably to bankroll the re-election of incumbents. The justification is, of course, that the people who buy the guns that could hurt people should bear the cost for the medical expenses of those who are hurt. People already pay sales taxes on such items, this would merely earmark some money to help offset the cost of people exercising their second amendment rights. To go back to the vehicle analogy, it makes perfect sense to add a fee onto the cost of gas to pay for roads and other infrastructure—that way the people who are using it are helping to pay for it. Likewise for guns.

An obvious objection is that this fee would be paid by people who will never engage in gun crime. This is a reasonable concern, analogous to other concerns about paying into anything that one is not directly responsible for. There are two reasonable replies. One is that the funds generated could cover medical expenses involving any firearm crime or accident and anyone can have an accident with a gun. Another is the responsibility argument: while I, as a gun owner, will probably never engage in a gun crime, being able to exercise my right to own guns allows people who will engage in gun crimes to engage in those crimes. For example, the Las Vegas shooter was operating under the protection of the same gun rights that protect me up until the moment he started firing. This fee would be my share of the responsibility for allowing the threat of gun violence to endanger everyone in the United States. Such a modest fee would be a very small price to pay for having such a dangerous right. Otherwise, I would be selfishly expecting everyone else to bear the cost of my right, which would not be right. So, to appeal to principled conservatives, this would be a way for taking responsibility for one’s rights. As people love to say, freedom isn’t free.

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Bump Stocks

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 6, 2017

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Listening to audio from the shooting in Las Vegas, many people concluded the gunman had used automatic weapons. However, it turned out that he had used legally purchased semi-automatic rifles that had been legally modified with bump stocks. Normal semi-automatic weapons fire as fast as the user can pull the trigger, but only one shot is fired per trigger pull. A bump stock does not change the way the gun fires, rather it speeds up the rate of fire by using the recoil of the gun to push the trigger against the user’s trigger finger. If a person could manually pull the trigger as fast, the result would be the same—but such rapid pull is not something people are generally capable of doing.

While a bump stock boosts the rate of fire of a semiautomatic weapon, it does so at the cost of accuracy—the weapon bumping makes it considerably harder to aim properly. When used at a gun range, the usual point of the bump stock is to have the thrill of firing an “automatic” weapon and, as such, accuracy is not a major concern. This high rate of inaccurate fire also allows such a weapon to be devastating when it is fired into a crowd of people—the high volume of fire means that people are likely to be hit. In the case of Las Vegas, the shooter had a dense crowd to fire into and accuracy was irrelevant—he was clearly not after a specific target but rather endeavoring to maximize death and injury. For this, the bump stock was very effective. While bump stocks do not seem to have been employed in other mass shootings, the fact that they were used in such a horrific event means that the attention of the media, pundits and politicians is upon them. And, of course, the attention of bloggers. As would be suspected, those on the left are calling for legislation against bump stocks. Interestingly, some conservatives are also willing to consider the matter. Somewhat shockingly, even the NRA seems willing to discuss the subject.

Before thinking that the NRA is acting out of character, it must be noted that while the NRA did seem to endorse new regulations on bump stocks, it opposes new legislation. Somewhat ironically, the NRA also blamed Obama for allowing the sale of bump stocks. Unsurprisingly, the NRA also made the stock assertions that more gun control would do nothing to prevent attacks and that such shooting are due to the mental illness of the shooter. Even the NRA’s endorsement of another review of bump stocks by the ATF amounts to little: the ATF already reviewed the bump stock and determined that it falls within the law. Roughly put, the bump stock does not modify a gun to be fully-automatic, it merely enables an increase in the rate of fire. As such, any change in the regulation of bump stocks would presumably require legislation—something the NRA opposes. This does, of course, raise the question of whether bump stocks should be controlled or even banned.

The easy and obvious argument for legislation controlling bump stocks is that the harm argument: the use of a bump stock allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire at near automatic rates, thus enabling the sort of carnage that occurred in Las Vegas. Bump stocks are clearly not needed for hunting and have dubious value for self-defense. In fact, the inaccuracy and high rate of fire would make them a danger to any innocents in the area where they might be used in self-defense. Their main legitimate use, like that of beer, is to have fun. However, allowing such a dangerous modification to be legal just so that people can have some fun at the range would be comparable to allowing something else that is deadly, but fun for some, to be uncontrolled. As such, controlling bump stocks is both sensible and ethical. Naturally, this principle would need to be applied consistently to anything that is enjoyable yet potentially deadly.

An argument against new legislation is that this move would pave the way for more gun legislation and this road leads to the Second Amendment being eroded or even repealed. This threat to a basic constitutional right is unacceptable, so the bump stocks should remain as they are. The counter to this is that it is clearly possible to have gun legislation while also maintaining constitutional rights—after all, automatic weapons are banned and this is consistent with gun rights. Another counter is to see this path towards more control as a good thing—a feature rather than a bug.

Another concern is that the creation of legislation in the heat of the moment and directed against some aspect of a terrible event could easily result in bad laws. Going along with this is the concern about the actual risk posed by bump stocks. While they do allow a higher rate of fire, there is the question of how much of a difference they make over unmodified semi-automatic weapons. After all, mass shootings have had high casualty rates when the attacker used only semi-automatic weapons. If the bump stocks do not make a significant difference, then legislation would be unnecessary. Since having laws that are ineffective is a bad idea, these bump stocks should not be controlled.

It can be replied that sensible legislation can be crafted if it turns out that a rational and calm analysis of bump stocks shows that they do make a significant difference regarding mass shootings. This principle would, of course, need to be applied consistently—that weapons and weapon modifications that make mass shootings more lethal should be better controlled. It needs to be noted that this principle could be extended to all firearms—but to assume that this must happen would be to fall into the slippery slope fallacy.

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Patriotism & Football

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on October 4, 2017

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After President Trump tweeted his way into the matter, the question of patriotism and protest became a hot issue in the public eye once again. A reasonable way to begin the discussion is to consider the nature of patriotism, which has been said to be the “last refuge of the scoundrel.”

One caricature of patriotism consists of shallow flag waving, the uncritical obedience to the dictates of the ruling class and the exaltation of popular prejudices.  Unfortunately, this caricature is often the reality and is, unsurprisingly, what is often pushed by the ruling classes upon the masses. This is, of course, not the only viable account of patriotism.

One alternative approach is to go with the easy and obvious definition—patriotism is the love of one’s country. This simple definition leads to the philosophically complicated question of the nature of love. One way to look at love, at least a positive form of love, is that it involves a devotion to the higher principles, a commitment to what is truly and properly best for the loved one, and an exaltation of the best ideals. This sort of love has a strong moral component and is dedicated to what is truly best—something that might run contrary to what the loved one thinks they want. In the case of patriotism, the love would be for what is best about the country and would commit the patriot to doing what is truly best for the country. This is likely to make such a patriot unpopular for it often requires the patriot to oppose the dictates of the ruling class and to fight against the popular prejudices. While the definition of “patriotism” is a matter of semantics, the idea that it is a love for one’s country that commits one to trying to do what is best for that country (in the moral sense) seems rather appealing and should be adopted. I will now turn to the matter of the NFL players protesting (or showing solidarity with protestors) during the national anthem.

One standard criticism advanced by Trump and others against the protesting players is that these wealthy players are ungrateful. As others have suggested, “ungrateful” seems to be the new “uppity” although most critics are reluctant to utilize the n word. Ironically, some are quite willing to call black players by the n-word while also asserting that they have nothing to protest.

While the players should certainly appreciate their good fortune, to reject what the players say because they are wealthy would be a mere ad hominem fallacy. This would be the same error that would be made if the tax plans of rich, white Republicans were dismissed out of hand simply because they were made by rich, white Republicans.

A more substantial version of this attack is to argue that the players have no grounds for protest about how blacks are treated in America because they are proof that their criticisms are invalid. While this is better than a mere ad hominem, it is easy to counter. First, wealthy black athletes have still been subject to the sort of unwarranted police violence they are protesting. Second, the unusual success of these athletes does not invalidate the truth of their claims about what happens to other people. To use an analogy, if famous athletes urged people to take action against a serious disease, it would be a foolish objection to say that they are wrong because they are healthy athletes and do not suffer from that disease. It does, in fact, make the most sense that the famous should protest—they are the one who will get the most attention.

Another criticism against such protests is that people watch sports to be amused and to have a break from serious issues. While this does have some appeal (people do deserve leisure time), one reply is that people who are oppressed do not get a break from oppression. If the fans want their break, they should certainly recognize that the oppressed want their oppression to end. There is also the fact that the protests, as conducted now, do not actually disrupt the game—the players still play and the game goes on.

As might be suspected, some people try to counter the protests by contending that they should not have to deal with the protests because “they did not own slaves.” One reply is that while they did not own slaves, they most likely benefit from the system that arose out of slavery and that now serves to systematically oppress some while conveying unearned advantages to others. Oddly, this position does seem to acknowledge the existence of a problem, since the person is claiming they are not part of that problem. However, there are those who deny there is a problem.

One approach is to assert that the protests are pointless because there is nothing to protest—everything is just fine. This is obviously not true and can be rejected in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Somewhat ironically, when people engage in racism while denying racism, they merely prove the existence of racism.

One interesting criticism is that the protests are just empty theatre, perhaps even some sort of marketing ploy aimed at improving viewership (albeit at the risk of alienating some fans). This criticism does have some appeal. However, there is the interesting fact that the playing of the national anthem at games was originally itself a marketing ploy that somehow became something more. It would be quite appropriate if the protests were marketing and even more so if they became more than mere marketing. In any case, even if the protests are marketing, this would not show that they are thus unpatriotic or unwarranted. At worst it would call into question the motives of those involved.

As far as whether the protestors are patriots, this question can only be answered by knowing their motives and goals. If they are protesting what they regard as injustice and are doing so to make America better, then they are engaged in true patriotism: they are trying to make the country they love be the best it can be. And that is a far truer patriotism than someone who just wants to wave a flag and uncritically praise their country be she wrong or right.

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When is it Time to Talk About Gun Violence?

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 2, 2017

On October 1st, 2017 over fifty people were shot to death in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock. Hundreds more were wounded. While such slaughter can cause despair, the heroism of those who risked or sacrificed their lives to save others should give us hope. For each person who would strike down the innocent, there are many who would courageously stand in their way. So, do not weigh the evil greater than the good or the villains more than the heroes. But, it would be better if there were no need of such heroes—better that there was less slaughter.

There have, of course, been efforts to pass laws aimed at reducing deaths from gun violence. While many laws have passed, there is an entrenched and well-funded resistance to such efforts. As such, such mass shootings are followed by an eminently predictable pattern. Part of this pattern is an immediate admonishment from many conservatives that there should be no talk of solving gun violence before the blood of the victims is completely dried. For example, White House press secretary Sanders gave the standard line that there is “a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.” She also added that “it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all the facts or what took place last night,” and the administration wants to avoid “laws that won’t stop these types of things from happening.” Sanders did, rightly, praise the courage of the brave and express sympathy for the dead and wounded. However, the question remains as to when it is time to talk about gun violence. I’ll begin by considering the stock position that such discussions should not take place too soon after the incident.

As Sanders and so many before her have contended, the immediate focus should be on dealing with the aftermath of the event. This view does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, the time to debate fire safety is not while cleaning up after a fire and tending to the burned. That time should be used for cleaning up and tending the injured. The easy and obvious reply here is that while those actively involved in responding to event should not set aside their tasks to debate,  there are millions of people who have no such tasks and can engage in the debate. So, while the surgeons should not stop their surgeries to engage in the debate, the lawmakers certainly have the free time to do so.

Sanders, like her predecessors, also called for uniting as a country now rather than engaging in the debate about gun laws. This also has considerable appeal: the debate over gun laws will call attention to political divisions and serve to push people apart when they should be pulling together. After such a terrible event, people have a psychological need to feel united—this is key to restoring the feeling of safety (or complacency, if one wants to be cynical). I certainly agree that there should be a pause in partisan rancor and battles after such terrible events (and that these pauses should grow)—if only in the form of a brief silence to honor the dead. But, to return to the analogy of the fire, to refuse to discuss fire safety after a serious fire would be to invite yet another fire.

Sander’s assertion that it would be premature to discuss policy without knowing the facts does seem sensible on the face of it. After all, to simply propose policies aimed at preventing such shootings without knowing what problems in the system allowed it to occur would be like trying to decide how to repair a car without knowing why it will not start. That said, there is an obvious reply to this claim: there have been so many mass shootings that the facts about such things are already well known. It seems rather unlikely that the facts of this latest case will involve a shocking revelation that will revolutionize gun safety. It would be wonderful, of course, if the Trump administration looked at the facts and was able to truly say, “eureka, we see the problem and the fix is obvious!” This, however, seems unlikely. To go back to the car analogy, if the car that won’t start is acting exactly like a car with a bad battery, then there is not really a need to wait for an in-depth investigation before considering the battery is probably the problem.

There is, however, a very good argument for not legislating in the heat of the moment: making decisions when emotions are at their peak often results in poor decisions, so this is a bad idea. As has been argued by Radley Balko, “laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea.” While Balko was not directly discussing gun laws, he does make the reasonable case that laws forged in anger or hysteria tend to be poorly conceived and can have serious unintended consequences. The torrent of laws slammed through after 9/11 also show the bad decision making that arises from jumping to legislate without due and calm consideration. It also shows how emotions can be exploited by lawmakers, which is also a matter of concern. We would not, after all, want gun control laws slammed through congress like the multitude of bad laws that have been pushed through congress by the power of emotions.

As such, it does make sense not to rush legislation about guns through without due consideration and calm reflection. However, this does not preclude starting the discussion now. There is also the obvious fact that we have had plenty of time since the last shooting to reflect on this matter. And the shooting before that. And so on. The point is, we have had a long time to reflect on many mass shootings.

While it might be countered that considerable time is needed to calm down after such events, the obvious problem is that they happen with such frequency that we might never have long enough to cool down.  There is also the reasonable consideration that if people do cool down, they can grow cold and fall back into complacency—until the next mass slaughter. To use an analogy, while talking about diet and exercise with a sedentary person whose parent just died of a lifestyle inflicted heart attack would be insensitive if done while the corpse was still warm, the person’s motivation will certainly fade quickly. As such, soon after the death is, harshly, the time the person will be the most motivated to change their habits and fend off their own impending heart attack. Likewise, the time to get people to support taking action against gun violence is when they clearly remember the horror of slaughter.

 

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Natural Disasters & Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 20, 2017
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Natural disasters are increasing in both intensity and frequency. One explanation, which is politically controversial, is that climate change is a contributing factor. What is not controversial is the fact that more people now live in at risk areas than ever before. As such, disasters that would have previously impacted few or even no people, now impact many people. In some cases, people are living in areas that are very desirable aside from their vulnerability. For example, coastal property is general very desirable, yet is often subject to risks of flooding and storm damage. In other cases, people are living in undesirable areas that are also risky areas. For example, poor people in developing cities sometimes live in areas that are prone to flooding.

There is also the fact that infrastructure is now more elaborate and expensive than ever before in human history.  For example, cities now have electrical systems, communication infrastructure and subways that are expensive to repair and replace after disasters. Because of this, the cost of damage done by disasters is far greater than it used to be in the past.

While some natural disasters are unlikely, strike unexpectedly and recur infrequently, there are many that are likely, predictable and occur frequently. While people do sometimes wisely decide to avoid such areas, they also often decide to rebuild repeatedly. For example, people in flood or hurricane prone regions often rebuild after each flood or storm. In some cases, this is because it is not practical for them to move somewhere else. In other cases, they do so because some of the cost of rebuilding is provided by the state. Rebuilding is also often funded by insurance; with people in lower risk areas contributing to the pool of money that covers those who life in high risk areas. This leads to the moral question of whether others should be responsible for helping people who elect to live in high risk areas repeatedly rebuild.

One way to look at civilization is that it should function as a form of insurance. That is, people in a civilization pool some of their resources to be used to help their fellows when they are in need. Laying aside moral motivations, there are very practical reasons to participate in this function of civilization. Cooperating in this way makes it more likely that others will help you when you are in need and it also helps sustain the system that provides the assistance. So, roughly put, self-interest gives me a reason to assist others in need—it costs me to help them, but this is the reasonable price I must pay to expect their help.

There are, of course, the usual concerns about free-riders. That is, people who do not contribute to this aspect of civilization but want to reap the benefits. This issue, however, goes far beyond the scope of this short essay. However, the usual reply to the free-rider problem is that the free riders will destroy the system they hope to benefit from.

There is also the concern about the independents. These can include people who are wealthy enough to not need the help of others when rebuilding and people who simply do not want the help of others. A case can certainly be made that people who decline using this benefit of civilization have a moral justification for not contributing—but, of course, they would need to be consistent about this. This is, of course, a far more general area of concern than that of the issue of repeatedly assisting people rebuild.

There is also the view that rejects the idea that civilization is supposed to function as a form of insurance. Some might instead regard civilization as a means of organizing and ensuring the flow of resources from the many at the bottom of the pyramid to the few elites at the top. Others might regard civilization as merely existing to provide basic functions of defense and law-enforcement and not help people rebuild.

Obviously enough, if there is no obligation to help people rebuild, then there is no obligation to help people continuously rebuild. As such, for the sake of the discussion that follows about assisting people rebuilding multiple times, it must be assumed (only for the sake of the argument) that there is at least the basic obligation to help people rebuild. The question is, then, whether even assuming the basic obligation, there is an obligation to assist people in multiple rebuilds.

One approach, which is rather lazy, is to argue that if we are obligated to help others rebuild, then this obligation persists. To use an analogy, if a parent is obligated to provide clothing for their child, they are obligated to do so each time the child needs clothing and not just the first time. While this approach has some appeal, it falls apart quickly when another analogy is considered.

While a parent has an obligation to provide their child with clothing, consider a child who was wearing their nicest clothes when they got into the muck and mud. If this happens by accident or the unwarranted action of another, then the parent should replace the clothing (if they can afford to do so). However, if the child persists in playing near the muck while wearing their best clothing despite the warnings of their parents and thus repeatedly ruin their nice clothing, then the parent would no longer be obligated to replace the nice clothing.  This is because the child knows what is at risk and can easily avoid it by staying away from the muck or wearing muck appropriate clothing. Matters would, of course, be different if the child had no way to avoid the risk of the muck, such as if it surrounded their house.

The same reasoning would seem to apply to helping others rebuild by providing public money or having them in the insurance pool. If a person’s property is damaged unexpectedly or by the malice of another, then it seems reasonable to assist them. However, if they insist on remaining at risk and it is known that it is just a matter of time before they will need to rebuild again, then they are like the child who insists on playing near the muck and mud in their nice clothes. If they are willing to pay for their own rebuilding, then they are free to live in a risk prone area. Just as the child can risk their clothes as they wish, if they are paying for them. Naturally, if the person truly has no other option as to where they live, then this would not apply. However, people almost always have other options.

It could be objected that this approach is defective because anyone anywhere could be subject to repeat disasters. To simply say that the obligation to help others ends at some arbitrary repeat of the aid would seem to be unfair and even cruel. Going back to the clothes analogy, a child could have their clothes ruined on numerous occasions by pure chance. But, if the parents could afford the clothing, then it seems reasonable for them to replace the damaged clothing.

A reasonable reply is that it is not just a matter of repeat rebuilding, but also a matter of the predictability of the need to rebuild. For example, a person could be very unlucky and have their house damaged many times by different sorts of unlikely and unexpected natural disasters. In this case, they would not be responsible—they had no reason to expect the disasters to strike and were not knowingly engaging in risky living. As such, what should be considered beyond the numbers of rebuilds are such factors as the probability of the risk and what the property owner could reasonably be expected to know about it. If a person insists on living in an area of unusually high risk and is aware of the risk, then this reduces or eliminates the obligations of others. After all, they could avoid the risk and doing so is their responsibility. There is then the practical question of sorting out how much specific risks reduce the obligations of others, but this goes beyond the scope of this essay

This matter can be illuminated by an analogy to the Coast Guard. If a person goes out to sea on a normal day and takes reasonable precautions, but is swamped by a rogue wave, then the Coast Guard should rescue them and not bill them. If a person insists on doing something foolish and unnecessary, like taking a peddle powered boat far out into the ocean without preparing properly and they get in trouble, then the Coast Guard should still rescue them. The first time should, perhaps, still be free—this might be justified because the person might not know any better. If the person insists on doing it again, then the Coast Guard should still rescue them when they get in trouble, but it would be right to charge them for the rescue: they should know better and it is not something they need to do. People who insist on knowingly living in high risk areas are analogous to the person who insists on peddling out to sea—they might want to do this, but do not need to do it. As such, they should bear the cost of rebuilding when their property is damaged or destroyed.

There are, of course, cases in which people do put themselves knowingly at risk but have justifiable reasons for doing so. Sticking with the Coast Guard analogy, crews of cargo vessels and fishing vessels do put themselves at risk, but they do so because that is part of their job—they have good reasons to be out at sea. As such, if a fishing crew is rescued a few times over the course of their career because of bad luck, then the rescues should still be free.

By analogy, people could have adequate reasons that justify living in high risk areas that would maintain the obligation to assist them in rebuilding. Perhaps, for example, a person might live in a forest prone to fires because they do important work in the forest and living somewhere else would be impractical.  However, someone who simply wants to live on the coast or someplace pretty would not have this sort of justification—they want to live there, but doing so is not what they need to do.

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Confederates & Nazis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trump’s White Nationalists, Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trump’s White Nationalists

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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What Can be Owned?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Arguing for Fake News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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