A Philosopher's Blog

H.P. Lovecraft & Racism

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2015

HPL 2015Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game was my gateway drug to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. His works shaped my view of horror and led me to write adventures and monographs for Chaosium. I am rather pleased that one of my creations is now included among the Great Old Ones. I even co-authored a paper on Lovecraft with physicist Paul Halpern. While Lovecraft is well known for the horrors of his Cthulhu Mythos, he is becoming well known for another sort of horror, namely racism.

When I was a kid, I was rather blind to the prejudices expressed in Lovecraft’s writings—I was much more focused on the strange vistas, sanity blasting beings, and the warping of space and time. As I grew older, I became aware of the casual prejudices expressed towards minorities and his special horror of “mongrel races.” However, I was unsure of whether he was truly a racist or trapped just expressing a common world view of his (and our) time. Which, to be honest, can be regarded as racist. Since I rather like Lovecraft’s writings, I was a bit disturbed as revelations about his racism began to pile up.

For the past forty years the World Fantasy Convention has given World Fantasy awards that take the form of a bust of Lovecraft. Nnedi Okorafor won a WFA in 2011 and was rather disturbed to find that Lovecraft had written a racist poem. While not as surprising as the revelation that Dr. Seuss  drew racist cartoons,  such evidence of blatant racism certainly altered my view of Lovecraft as a person.

As should be expected, there have been efforts to defend Lovecraft. One of the most notable defenders is S.T. Joshi, one of the leading authorities on the author. The defense of Lovecraft follows a fairly stock approach used to address the issue of whether or not artists’ personal qualities or actions should be relevant to the merit of their art. I turn now to considering some of these stock arguments.

One stock defense is the “product of the times” defense: although Lovecraft was racist, nearly everyone was racist in that time period. This defense does have some merit in that it is reasonable to consider the social and moral setting in which an artist lived. After all, artists have no special immunity to social influences. To use an analogy, consider the stock feminist arguments regarding the harmful influence of the patriarchal culture, sexist imagery, sexist language and unrealistic body images on young women. The argument is often made that young woman are shaped by these forces and develop low self-esteem, become more likely to have eating disorders, and develop unrealistic images of how they should look and behave. If these cultural influences can have such a devastating impact on young women, it is certainly easy enough to imagine the damaging impact of a culture awash in racism upon the young Lovecraft. Just as a young woman inundated by photoshopped images of supermodels can develop a distorted view of reality, a young person exposed to racism can develop a distorted view of reality. And, just as one would not hold the young woman responsible for her distorted self-image, one should not hold the young racist accountable for his distorted other-image.

It can be countered that the analogy does not hold. While young women can be mentally shaped by the patriarchal influences of the culture and are not morally accountable for this, people are fully responsible for accepting racism even in a culture that is flooded with racism, such as the United States in the 1900s. As such, Lovecraft is fully to blame for his racist views and his condemnation is justified. The challenge is, of course, to work out how some cultural factors can shape people in ways that excuse them and other shaping leaves people morally accountable.

Another reply is that this stock argument is a version of the appeal to common practice fallacy—a fallacy that occurs when a practice is defended on the grounds that it is commonly done. Obviously, the mere fact that a practice is common does not justify that practice. So, although racism was common in Lovecraft’s day, this does not serve as a defense of his views.

A second stock defense is that the artist has other traits that offset the negative qualities in question. In the case of Lovecraft, the defense is that he was intelligent, generous and produced works of considerable influence and merit. This defense does have some appeal—after all, everyone has negative traits and a person should be assessed by the totality of her being, not her worst quality taken in isolation.

While this is a reasonable reply, it only works to the degree that a person’s good qualities offset the negative qualities. After all, there are many awful people who are kind to their own pets or loved some other people. As such, a consideration of this defense would require weighing the evil of Lovecraft with the good. One factor well worth considering is that although Lovecraft wrote racist things and thought racist thoughts, there is the question of whether his racism led him to actually harm anyone. While it might be claimed that racism itself is crime enough, it does seem to matter whether or not he actually acted on this racism to the detriment of others. This, of course, ties into the broader philosophical issue of the moral importance of thoughts versus the moral importance of actions.

Another concern with this defense is that even if a person’s positive traits outweigh the negative, this does not erase the negative traits. So even if Lovecraft was a smart and generous racist, he was still a racist. Which is certainly grounds for condemnation.

A third, and especially intriguing stock defense against one moral flaw is to argue that the flaw is subsumed in a far greater flaw. In the case of Lovecraft, it could be argued that his specific racism is subsumed into his general misanthropic view of humanity. While there is some debate about the extent of his (alleged) misanthropy, this does have some appeal. After all, if Lovecraft disliked humans in general, his racism against specific ethnic groups would be part of that overall view and not racism in the usual sense. Many of Lovecraft’s stories (such as in “the Picture in the House”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, ‘the Rats in the Walls”, and “the Dunwich Horror”) feature the degeneracy and villainy of those of European stock. The descriptions of the degenerated whites are every bit as condemning and harsh as his descriptions of people of other ethnicities. As such, Lovecraft cannot be accused of being a racist—unless his racism is cast as being against all humans.

One counter to this is to point out that being awful in general is not a defense of being awful in a particular way. Another counter is that while Lovecraft did include degenerate white people, he also wrote in very positive ways about some white characters—something he did not do for any other ethnicities. This, it could be argued, does support the claim that Lovecraft was racist.

A final stock defense is to argue that the merits of artists’ works are independent of the personal qualities of the artists. What matters, it can be argued, is the quality of the work itself. One way to argue for this is to use an analogy from my own past.

Years ago, when I was a young cross country runner, there was a very good runner at another college. This fellow regularly placed in and even won races—he was, without a doubt, one of the best runners in the conference. However, he was almost universally despised—so much so that people joked that the only reason no one beat him up was because they could not catch him. Despite his being hated, his fellow runners had to acknowledge the fact that he was a good runner and merited all the victories. The same would seem to apply in the case of an artist like Lovecraft: his works should be assessed on their own merits and not on his personality traits.

Another way to make the argument is to point out the fact that an artist having positive qualities does not make the art better. A person might be a moral saint, but this does not mean that her guitar playing skill will be exceptional. A person might be kind to animals and devoted to the wellbeing of others, but this will not enhance his poetry. So, if the positive traits of an artist do not improve a work, it should follow that negative traits do not make the work worse.

This then leads to the concern that an artist’s personality qualities might corrupt a work. To go back to the running analogy, if the despised runner was despised because he cheated at the races, then the personality traits that made him the object of dislike would be relevant to assessing the merit of his performances. Likewise, if the racism of a racist author infects his works, then this could be regarded as reducing their merit. This leads to the issue of whether or not such racism actually detracts from the merit of a work, which is a lengthy issue for another time.

My own view of Lovecraft is that his racism made him a worse person. However, the fact that he was a racist does not impact the merit of his works—except to the degree that the racist elements in the stories damage their artistic merit (which is an issue well worth considering). As such, Lovecraft should be condemned for his racism, but given due praise for the value of his work and his contribution to modern horror.


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Race & Performance Based Funding

Posted in Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2015

Florida, like some other states, has imposed performance based funding on its state universities. The basic idea is that each state school is evaluated by ten standards and then the schools are ranked. The top schools are rewarded and the bottom schools are punished.

As a runner and a professor, I certainly get the idea of linking rewards to performance. As a runner, I believe that better performance merits the better awards (be it a gold medal, a fat stack of cash, or a ribbon). As a professor, I believe that performance merits the better grades and that poor performance merits the corresponding lower grades. However, I also recognize the importance of fairness.

In the case of running, a fair race requires that everyone must compete on the same course and under the same conditions. The age and gender of the runners is also taken into account when assessing performance and there are even age-graded performance formulas to take into account the ravages of time.

In the case of grading, a fair class requires that everyone is required to do the same work, receives the same support from the professor, and that the assessment standards are the same. Fairness also requires that special challenges faced by some students are taken into account. Otherwise, the assessment is unjust.

The same applies to performance based funding of education. If the goal is to encourage better performance on the part of all the schools, the competition needs to be fair. Going with a classroom analogy, if a student knows that the class is rigged against her, she is not likely to be motivated to do her best. There also seems to be an obvious moral requirement that the assessment be fair and this would require considering the specific challenges that each school faces. Laying aside the normative aspects, there is also the matter of accuracy: knowing how well a school is performing requires considering what challenges it had to overcome.

While all the schools operate within the state of Florida and face similar challenges, each school also faces some special challenges. Because of this, a proper and just assessment of a schools performance (how well it does in educating students, etc.) should reflect these challenges. To simply impose standards that fail to consider these challenges would be unfair and would also yield an inaccurate account of the success or failure of the school.

Consider the following analogy: imagine, if you will, that the Pentagon adopted a performance based funding model for military units using various standards such as cost of operations, causalities, how well the units got along with the locals and so on. Now imagine that the special challenges of the units were not properly considered so that, for example, a unit operating in the deserts of Iraq fighting ISIS was assessed the same way as a unit stationed in Kentucky. As might be imagined, the unit in Iraq would certainly be assessed as performing worse than the unit stationed in Kentucky. The unit in Kentucky would presumably cost less per person, have far fewer causalities, and get along much better with the locals. As such, the unit fighting ISIS would find itself in funding trouble since its performance would seem rather worse than the unit in Kentucky. Of course, this approach would be irrational and unfair—the unit fighting ISIS might be performing extremely well relative to the challenges it faces. The same, it would seem, should hold for schools. Turning back to performance based funding, I will consider the relevant standards and how they are unfair to my school, Florida A&M University.

Florida A&M University is an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and is still predominantly African-American. The school also prides itself on providing educational opportunities to students who have been denied such opportunities as well as those who are first generation college students. Put roughly, we have many African-American students and a large number of students who are burdened with economic and educational baggage.

As I have mentioned in a previous essay, FAMU fared poorly under the state’s standards. To be fair, we honestly did do poorly in regards to the state’s standards. However, there are the important questions as to whether the standards are fair and whether or not the assessment of our performance is accurate.

On the one hand, the answer to both questions can be taken as “yes.” The standards apply to all the schools and the assessment was accurate in terms of the results. On the other hand, the answer is also “no”, since FAMU faces special challenges and the assessment fails to take these into account. To use a running analogy, the situation is like comparing the true 5K times of various runners. This is fair and accurate in that all runners are using their 5K times and the times are accurate. However, if some runners had to run hilly trails and others did their 5Ks on tracks, then the competition would not be fair. After all, a slower 5K on a hilly trail could be a much better performance than a 5K on a track.

To get directly to the point, my claim is that FAMU faces the special challenge of racism and the legacy of racism. This, I contend, means that FAMU is being assessed unfairly in terms of its performance: FAMU is running hills on a trail while other schools are enjoying a smoother run around the track. In support of this claim, I offer the following evidence.

One standard is the Percent of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed and/or Continuing their Education Further. A second is the Average Wages of Employed Baccalaureate.  The third is the Six Year Graduation Rate and the fourth is the Academic Progress Rate (2nd Year Retention with GPA Above 2.0). These four break down into two general areas. The first is economic success (employment and wages) and the second is academic success (staying in school and graduating). I will consider each general area.

On the face of it, retention and graduation rates should have no connection to race. After all, one might argue, these are a matter of staying in school and completing school which is a matter of personal effort rather than race.

While I do agree that personal effort does matter, African-American students face at least two critical obstacles in regards to retention and graduation. The first is that African-American students are still often victims of segregation in regards to K-12 education and receive generally inferior education relative to white students. It should be no surprise that this educational disadvantage manifests itself in terms of retention and graduation rates. To use a running analogy, no one would be surprised if the runners who were poorly trained and coached did worse than better trained and coached runners.

The second is economic, which ties directly into the standards relating to economic success. As will be shown, African-Americans are far less well off than other Americans. Since college is expensive, it is hardly surprising that people who are less well-off would have a harder time remaining in and completing college. As I have discussed in other essays, the main (self-reported) reason for students being absent from my classes is for work and there is a clear correlation between attendance and class performance. I now turn to the unfairness of the state’s economic success standards.

While I do not believe that the primary function of the state university is to train students to be job fillers for the job creators, I do agree that it is reasonable to consider the economic success of students when evaluating schools. However, assessing how much the school contributes to economic success requires considering the starting point of the students and the challenges they will face in achieving success.

To be blunt, race is a major factor in regards to economic success in the United States. This is due to a variety of historical factors (slavery and the legacy of slavery) and contemporary factors (persistent racism). These factors manifest themselves quite clearly and, as such, the relatively poor performance of African-American graduates from FAMU is actually what should be expected.

In regards to employment, the University of Chicago conducted a study aimed at determining if there is racial bias in hiring. To test this, the researchers responded to 1,300 job advertisements with 5,000 applications. They found that comparable resumes with white sounding names were 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview relative to those with more African-American sounding names. The researchers found that white sounding applications got call backs at a rate of 1 in 10 while for black sounding names it was 1 in 15. This is clearly significant.

Interestingly, a disparity was also found in regards to the impact of experience and better credentials. A white job applicant with a higher quality application was 30% more likely to get a call than a white applicant with a lower quality application. For African-Americans, the higher quality application was only 9% more likely to get a call than a lower quality black application.

This disparity in the hiring process seems to help explain the disparity in employment. For whites, the unemployment rate is 5.3% and it is 11.4% for blacks. As such, it is hardly surprising that African-American students from FAMU are doing worse than students from schools that are mostly white.

Assuming that this information is accurate, this means that FAMU could be producing graduates as good as the other schools while still falling considerably behind them in regards to the employment of graduates. That is, FAMU could be doing a great job that is getting degraded by racism. As such, the employment assessment would need to be adjusted to include this factor. Going with the running analogy, FAMU’s African-American graduates have to run uphill to get a job, while white graduates get to run on much flatter course.

In addition to employment, a graduate’s wages is also one of the standards used by the state. FAMU fared poorly relative to the other schools here as well. However, this is also exactly what should be expected in the United States. The poverty rate for whites is 9.7% while that for blacks it is 27.2%. The median household wealth for whites is $91,405 and for blacks $6,446. Blacks own homes at a rate of 43.5% while whites do so at 72.9%. Median household income is $35,416 for blacks and $59,754 for whites. As such, it would actually be surprising if African American graduates of FAMU competed well against the statistics for predominantly white schools.

It might be contended that these statistics are not relevant because what is of concern is the performance of African-American college graduates and not the general economic woes of African-Americans. Unfortunately, college education does not close the racial wealth gap.

While the great recession had a negative impact on the wealth of most Americans, African-Americans with college degrees were hits surprisingly hard: their net worth dropped 60% from 2007 to 2013. In contrast, whites suffered a decline of 16% and, interestingly, Asians saw a slight increase. An analysis of the data (and data going back to 1992) showed that black and Hispanics had more assets in housing and more debts and these were major factors in the loss of wealth (the burst of the housing bubble crashed house values). In terms of income, researchers take the main causes of the disparity to include discrimination and career choices. In addition to the impact on salary, this wealth disparity also impacts retention and graduation rates. As such, the state is right to focus heavily on economics—but the standards need to consider the broader economic reality as well.

It is reasonable to infer that the main reason that FAMU fares worse in these areas is due to factors beyond the control of the school. Most of our students are black and in the United States, discrimination and enduring historical factors blacks do far worse than whites. As such, these poor numbers are more a reflection of the poor performance of America than on the performance of Florida A&M University. Because of this, the standards should be adjusted to take into account the reality of race in America.


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Narratives, Terror & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2015

After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.

The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.

Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.

One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.

This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.

An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.

It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.

One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.

The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.

It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.

In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.


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Race Nominalism

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 19, 2015

As it is wont to do, the internet exploded again—this time because the question was raised as to whether Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, is black or white. Ms. Dolezal has claimed that she is African-American, Native American and white. She also has claimed that her father is black. Reporters at KXLY-TV, however, looked up her birth certificate and determined that her legal parents are both white. Her parents have asserted that she is white.

While the specifics of her case are certainly interesting to many, my concern is with the more general issues raised by this situation, specifically matters about race and identity. While this situation is certainly the best known case of a white person trying to pass for black, passing as another “race” has been a common practice in the United States for quite some time. However, this passing was the reverse of Ms. Dolezal’s attempt: trying to pass as white. Since being accepted as white enables a person to avoid many disadvantages, it is clear why people would attempt to pass as white. Since being accepted as black generally does not confer advantages, it is not surprising that there has been only one known case of a white person endeavoring to pass as black. These matters raise some interesting questions and issues about race.

Borrowing language from metaphysics, one approach to race could be called race realism. This is not being realistic about race in the common use of the term “realistic.” Rather, it is accepting that race is a real feature of reality—that is, the metaphysical and physical reality includes categories of race. On this view, black and white could be real categories grounded in metaphysical and physical reality. As such, a person could be objectively black or white (or a mix). Naturally, even if there are real categories of race, people could be wrong about them.

The stark alternative is what could be called race nominalism. This is the idea that racial categories are social constructs and do not line up with an underlying metaphysical and physical reality. This is because there is no underlying metaphysical and physical reality that objectively grounds racial categories. Instead, categories of race are social constructs. In this case, a person might engage in self-identification in regards to race and this might or might not be accepted by others. A person might also have others place her into a race category—which she might or might not accept.

Throughout history, some people have struggled mightily to find an objective basis for categories of race. Before genetics, people had to make use of appearance and ancestry. The ancestry was, obviously, needed because people did not always look like the race category that some people wanted them to be in. One example of this is the “one drop” rule once popular in some parts of the United States: one drop of black blood made a person black, regardless of appearance.

The discovery of genes provided some people with a new foundation for race categories—they believed that there would be a genetic basis to categorizations. The idea was that just as a human can be distinguished from a cat by genes, humans of different race categories could be distinguished by their genetic make-up. While humans do show genetic variations that are often linked to the geographical migration and origin of their many ancestors, the much desired race genes did not seem to be found. That is, humans (not surprisingly) are all humans with some minor genetic variations—that is, the variations are not sufficient to objectively ground race categories.

In general, the people who quested for objective foundations for race categories were (or are) racists. These searches typically involved trying to find evidence of the superiority of one’s race and the inferiority of other races. That said, a person could look for foundations for race without being a racist—that is, they could be engaged in a scientific or philosophical inquiry rather than seeking to justify social practices and behaviors. As might be suspected, such an inquiry would be greeted today with charges of racism. As such, it is no surprise that the generally accepted view is that race is a construct—that is, race nominalism rather than race realism is accepted.

Given the failure to find a metaphysical or physical foundation for race categories, it certainly makes sense to embrace race nominalism. On this view, the categories of race exist only in the mind—that is, they are how people divide up reality rather than how reality is carved up. Even if it is accepted that race is a social construct, there is still the matter of the rules of construction—that is, how the categories are created and how people are placed in the categories.

One approach, which is similar to that sometimes taken in regards to gender, is to hold that people can self-identify. That is, a person can simply declare her race and this is sufficient to be in that category. If race categories are essentially made up, this does have a certain appeal—if race is a fiction, then surely anyone can be the author of her own fiction.

While there are some who do accept this view, the outrage over Ms. Dolezal shows that most people seem to reject the idea of self-identification—at least when a white person endeavors to self-identify as black. Interestingly, some of those condemning her do defend the reverse, the historical passing as white by some black people. The defense is certainly appealing: blacks endeavoring to pass as white were doing so to move from being in an oppressed class and this can be justified as a form of self-defense. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, the presumption seems to be that the self-identification was both insincere and aimed at personal gain. Regardless of her true motivation, insincere self-identification aimed at personal gain seems to be wrong—on the grounds that it is a malign deception. Some might, of course, regard all attempts at passing to gain an advantage as being immoral and not distinguish based on the direction of the passing.

Another approach is that of the social consensus. The idea is that a person’s membership in a race category depends on the acceptance of others. This could be a matter of majority acceptance (one is, for example, black if most people accept one as black) or acceptance by a specific group or social authority. The obvious problem is working out what group or authority has the right to decide membership in race categories. On the one hand, this very notion seems linked to racism: one probably thinks of the KKK setting its race categories or the Nazis doing so. On the other hand, groups also seem to want to serve as the authority for their race category. Consistency might indicate that this would also be racist.

The group or authority that decides membership in race categories might make use of a race credential system to provide a basis for their decisions. That is, they might make use of appearance and ancestry. So, Ms. Dolezal would not be black because she looks white and has white parents. The concern with this sort of approach is that this is the same tool set used by racists, such as the KKK, to divide people by race. A more philosophical concern is the basis for using appearance and ancestry as the foundation for race categories—that is, what justifies their use?

This discussion does show an obvious concern with policing race categories—it seems like doing so uses the tools of racism and would thus seem to be at least a bit racist. However, arguments could be advanced as to why the policing of race categories is morally acceptable and not racist.


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Protests & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2015

On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray died in police custody. From the viewpoint of some Americans, this was the continuation of a pattern police causing the deaths of young black men. From the viewpoint of some other Americans, this was just another isolated incident.

The initial protests to this death were peaceful and it was hoped by many that Baltimore would avoid the violence that has marked other protests (including riots in Baltimore’s own past). This hope was shattered in an outbreak of violence and destruction.

One obvious concern is the identity and the nature of those engaged in violence. According to some narratives, the rioters are thugs or even outsiders who are simply taking advantage of the situation to engage in destruction, theft and violence. That is, they are opportunists and not protestors.

The United States has a well-established history of costly and pointless riots that are not protests. These are, of course, sports riots. One outstanding example is the 1992 riot in the aftermath of the Chicago Bulls vs. the Portland Trail Blazers. The damage was estimated at $10 million. There have been many other lesser riots, such as that following the 1999 Michigan State vs. Duke game that resulted in about $250,000 in damage (and whose iconic photo is a shirtless white bro “flashing the horns” atop a burned out car). My adopted state of Florida also sees substantial violence and property damage during Spring Break, although California does seem interested in getting into the spring break riot game.

Given that Americans are willing to riot over sports and spring breaks, it is certainly reasonable to consider that the rioters in Baltimore are not protesting the death but are motivated by other reasons—perhaps as simple as wanting to break and burn things.

There are, of course, some narratives that cast at least some of the rioters as being engaged in protest. That is, their motivation is not just to steal, break and burn but to express their anger about the situation in Baltimore. One way to explore possible motivations for such violence is to consider the situation in Baltimore. That is, to see if there are legitimate grounds for anger and whether or not these factors might provoke people to violence and destruction.

Baltimore is, in many ways, a paradigm of the brutal race and class divisions in the United States. It has the historical distinction of being the first city to pass a citywide segregation law (segregating each residential block by race) and the legacy of this law persists to this day in terms of Baltimore being a highly segregated city. In the center of the city, 60% of the population is black. The suburbs are, not surprisingly, predominantly white. Despite there being laws against forced segregation, the United States is still highly segregated. This does seem to provide some grounds for anger—unless, of course, it is assumed that most people are living were they wish and there are no unfair factors impeding people.

Baltimore also exemplifies the stark class divisions in the United States. 150,000 of the city’s 620,000 are classified as poor (the average income for a family of four being $23,492). The unemployment rate is close to 10%. As the American Revolution showed, people do get angry and violent in response to perceived economic injustice. Given the massive disparity between economic classes in the United States and their support by the structures of law and authority, what is shocking is not that there is a riot now and then but that there are not daily riots. As such, there seem to be sufficient grounds for anger. Naturally, some people claim that this poverty is because the poor are lazy—if they would only work hard for the job creators, they would not be poor. This view seems to fail to consider the reality of poverty in America—but it is a beloved narrative of those who are doing well.

Not surprisingly, Baltimore also has serious issues with crime. Drug addiction is a serious problem and the city was 5th in the number of murders per year in 2014. It is, however, 15th in the number of violent crimes per year. Crime is, of course, a complex matter. Some claim that this sort of crime arises from poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity (as opposed to the ‘crimes’ of the financial classes, such as melting down the world economy). There is, of course, a correlation between crime and these factors. Some claim that people turn to crime because of moral defects rather than these factors. This does have some merit—after all, a look at the financial sector and halls of power show evil behavior that is clearly not caused by poverty (except a poverty of the soul) and lack of opportunity.

Like other US cities, there is also an issue with how the police deal with the citizens. In 2011 the city paid $6.3 million settling police misconduct claims. Between 2011 and 2012 there were 156 such lawsuits. The number has declined to 156 from 2013 to 2014. While it is reasonable to consider that not all of these suits had merit, what happened to Gray does provide reason to suspect that there are grounds for being concerned about policing in the city.

When people think they are being oppressed and subject to brutality, they tend to respond with anger. For example, one can see the rage the fine folks on Fox express when they speak of the War on Christmas and how Christians are being mistreated and persecuted in America. One can only imagine the anger that arises when people really are subject to mistreatment. As such, there seem to be legitimate grounds for anger.

While the anger of those engaged in violence might be justified, there is still the obvious concerns about whether or not such behavior is morally acceptable and whether or not such behavior is effective in achieving goals.

On the face of it, much of the violence and destruction would seem to be difficult to justify morally. The main reason is that most of the destruction seems to involve community infrastructure and the property of people who are not responsible for what has provoked the protests. While the anger against the police is certainly understandable, the attacks on reporters and firefighters are clearly unjustified. The reporters have presumably done nothing meriting being attacked and the firefighters are trying to keep the city from burning down, which is certainly a laudable goal. Crudely put, if the violent (alleged) protestors are striking against injustice, they are (mostly) hitting the wrong targets. To use an obviously analogy, if Bob has wronged Sam and Sam goes and smashes Sally’s windows because he lives near her and cannot get at Bob, then Sam certainly seems to have acted wrongly—no matter how badly Bob wronged him.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done mainly to the innocent rather than the guilty. As such, the violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

A second issue, which can connect to the moral issue, is the effectiveness of violence as a means of protest and social change. Obviously enough, violence can be very effective in achieving goals—Americans can point to our own Revolutionary War and the wars won against everyone from the Apache to the Japanese. However, violence is generally only effective when one has enough power to achieve one’s goals. Since the rioters are up against not only the police but also the National Guard, it is rather clear they will not be able to achieve a victory through force of arms.

However, a case can be made that the violence gets attention and that it cannot be ignored. Peaceful protests, one might argue, sound nice but can be easy to ignore. After all, “change things or we will peacefully protest again” seems to have less power than “change things or there will be cop cars burning in the streets and the authorities will have to explain why they are losing control of the city.” Interestingly, many of the pundits who praise the property destruction that occurred during the Boston Tea Party are quick to condemn contemporary protests they do not like. These pundits also praise other violence they approve of, but do not seem to have a consistent principle regarding violence as a means of achieving goals.

Obviously, a strong case can be made against violence, such as that famously made by Dr. King. When there is the possibility of redress and justice through peaceful means, then non-violence seems to have an obvious advantage over violence: people are not hurt or killed and property is not destroyed. However, the fact that a major American city is now patrolled by the National Guard indicates that there are deep and profound problems in civil society. These problems must be addressed or the obvious consequence will be more violence.

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A Shooting in South Carolina

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2015

While the police are supposed to protect and serve, recent incidents have raised grave concerns about policing in America. I am, of course, referring to the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. In the most recent incident Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager shot Walter Lamer Scott to death after what should have been a routine traffic stop. What makes this case unusual is that there is video of the shooting. While the video does not show what happened before Scott started to flee, it clearly shows that Scott is no threat to Slager: he is unarmed and running away. Police are not allowed to shoot a suspect merely for fleeing. The video also show Slager dropping an object by Scott’s body—it appears to be Slager’s Taser. When Slager called in the incident, he described it as a justifiable shooting: Scott grabbed his Taser and he had to use his service weapon. Obviously Slager was unaware that he was being recorded as he shot the fleeing Scott.

Since I am friends with people who are ex-law enforcement (retired or moved on to other careers) I have reason to believe that the majority of officers would not engage in such behavior. As such, I will not engage in a sweeping condemnation of police—this would be both unjust and unfounded. However, this incident does raise many concerns about policing in the United States.

As noted above, what makes this incident unusual is not that a situation involving a black man and white officer escalated. It is also not very unusual that a black man was shot by a police officer. What is unusual is that the incident was videotaped and this allowed the public to see what really happened—as opposed to what was claimed by the officer. If the incident had not been recorded, this most likely would have gone down as the all-too-common scenario of a suspect attacking a police officer and being shot in self-defense. The tape, however, has transformed it from the usual to the unusual: a police officer being charged with murder for shooting a suspect.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that the story of one incident, however vivid, is but an anecdote. I am also well aware that to generalize broadly from one such incident is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. That said, the videotape does provide legitimate grounds for being suspicious of other incidents in which suspects have been shot while (allegedly) trying to attack an officer. Since we know that it has happened, we clearly know that it can happen. The obvious and rather important concern is the extent to which this sort of thing has happened. That is, what needs to be determined is the extent to which officers have engaged in legitimate self-defense and to what extent have officers engaged in murder.

This videotape shows, rather dramatically, that requiring police to use body cameras is a good idea—at least from the standpoint of those who believe in justice. People are, obviously enough somewhat less likely to act badly if they know they are being recorded. There is also the fact that there would be clear evidence of any misdeeds. The cameras would also benefit officers: such video evidence would also show when the use of force was legitimate, thus helping to reduce suspicions. As it stands, we know that at least one police officer shot down a fleeing suspect who presented no threat. This, naturally enough, motivates suspicion about all shootings (and rightly so). The regular use of body cameras could be one small contribution to addressing legitimate questions about use of force incidents.

What is also usual about this incident is that there has been a focus on the fact that Scott had a criminal record and legal troubles involving child support. This is presumably intended to show that Scott was no angel and perhaps to suggest that the shooting was, in some manner, justified. Or, at the very least, not as bad as one might think. After all, the person killed was a criminal, right? However, Scott’s background has no relevance in this incident: his having legal troubles in the past in no manner justifies the shooting.

What was also usual was the reaction of Bill O’Reilly and some of the other fine folks at Fox, which I learned about from Professor Don Hubin’s reaction and criticism. Rather than focusing on the awfulness of the killing and what it suggests about other similar incidents, O’Reilly’s main worry seems to be that some people might use the killing to “further inflame racial tensions” and he adds that “there doesn’t seem to be, as some would have you believe, that police are trying to hunt down black men and take their lives.” While this is not a claim that has been seriously put forth, O’Reilly endeavors to “prove” his claim by engaging in a clever misleading comparison. He notes that “In 2012, last stats available, 123 blacks were killed by police 326 whites were killed.” While this shows that police kill more whites than blacks, the comparison is misleading because O’Reilly leaves out a critical piece of information: the population is about 77% white and about 13% black. This, obviously enough, sheds a rather different light on O’Reilly’s statistics: they are accurate, yet misleading.

Naturally, it might be countered that blacks commit more crimes than whites and thus it is no surprise that they get shot more often (when adjusting for inflation) than whites. After all, one might point out, Scott did have a criminal record. This reply has a certain irony to it. After all, people who claim that blacks are arrested (and shot) at a disproportionate level claim that the police are more likely to arrest blacks than whites and focus more on policing blacks. As evidence that blacks commit more crimes, people point to the fact that blacks are more likely (adjusting for proportions) than whites to be arrested. While one would obviously expect more blacks to be arrested in they committed more crimes (proportionally), to assume what is in doubt (that policing is fair) as evidence that it should not be doubted seems to involve reasoning in a circle.

O’Reilly also raised a stock defense for when bad thing are done: “You can’t … you can’t be a perfect system. There are going to be bad police officers; they’re going to make mistakes; um .. and then the mistakes are going to be on national television.” O’Reilly engages in what seems to be a perfectionist fallacy: the system cannot be perfect (which is true), therefore (it seems) we should not overly concerned that this could be evidence of systematic problems. Or perhaps he just means that in an imperfect system one must expect mistakes such as an officer shooting a fleeing suspect to death. O’Reilly also seems rather concerned that the mistakes will be on television—perhaps his concern is, as I myself noted, that people will fall victim to a hasty generalization from the misleading vividness of the incident. That would be a fair point. However, the message O’Reilly seems to be conveying is that this incident is (as per the usual Fox line) an isolated one that does not indicate a systemic problem. Despite the fact that these “isolated” incidents happen with terrible regularity.

I will close by noting that my objective is not to attack the police. Rather, my concern is that the justice system is just—that is rather important to me. It should also be important to all Americans—after all, most of us pledged allegiance to a nation that offers liberty and justice to all.

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Thoughts on the Death of Eric Garner

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on December 8, 2014

Eric Garner, of New York, died on July 17, 2014. He had been confronted by police about selling loose cigarettes (sold that way to avoid the city tax) and during this encounter Officer Pantaleo put him in an apparent chokehold. Garner died from “neck compression” and “the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Not surprisingly, the use of chokeholds is banned by the New York City Police Department. On December 3, 2014 a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, although the coroner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide.

This failure to indict follows a familiar pattern: though grand juries almost always indict non-police, they almost never indict police. As I have said before, perhaps this is because there is almost always probable cause to indict the non-police and almost never enough to indict police. Some might, however, contend that this disparity is grounded in injustice.

In general, the media pundits have been critical of the way the police handled the situation and the verdict of the grand jury. Bill O’Reilly and many people at Fox News fall into this camp and this has dismayed some Fox viewers. There are, however, media pundits that have blamed Garner for his own death. The justifications they advance are fairly stock ones and were also deployed in response to the death of Michael Brown, who was shot to death by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Because these approaches are often commonly used in such situations, they are worth considering.

One advanced by Representative Peter King is that Garner died because he was obese. On the one hand, King might be right: Garner’s health issues most likely played a causal role in his death. If he had been in good health, then he might not have been killed by what seems to have been a chokehold.

There are two obvious responses to this. The first is that the officer should not have been using a chokehold—there is a good reason that the police department forbids officers to use this technique. This reason is that it is easy to badly injure or kill someone using this attack. While the police can legitimately use force, there are many other techniques that are effective and far less likely to severely injure or kill a person.

The second is that police have a moral obligation to consider the condition of the person when engaging a suspect. This includes both the initial condition of the person (such as being in poor health) as well as what is happening to a person. While the police have the right to restrain a suspect, this comes with the obligation not to needlessly injure or kill the person.

To be fair to the police, it is not always easy to tell whether or not someone has a condition that might make him more likely to be injured or killed. In the heat of a struggle it can also be difficult to tell when a person is being injured. However, in some cases it is quite clear that a person is being subject to needless injury—which seems to be the case with Garner.

Rudi Giuliani and others advanced two justifications. The first is that Garner was a criminal and the second is that Garner resisted arrest. These were also advanced in the case of Michael Brown, although the officer who shot Brown apparently did not know Brown had robbed a store earlier.

In general, being a criminal does change a person’s status and does justify the police taking action against the person. So, if Garner was breaking the law, then the police would be right in arresting him. Likewise, if Brown robbed the store, then the police would have been justified in arresting him. Naturally, there are moral exceptions in the case of unjust laws and evil states. Interestingly, some of those speaking out in this case have focused on the cigarette tax law that Garner is alleged to have violated rather than on Garner’s death.

While the police do, in general, have the right to arrest criminals, this is rather different from making it acceptable for the police to kill alleged criminals. After all, criminals have the right to a trial and justice should not be meted out by the barrel of a gun or by a chokehold.

Naturally, the police can be justified in using force and even lethal force against criminals—but the mere fact that a person is (or is alleged to be) a criminal is not sufficient to justify killing him. Not surprisingly, this is where the second justification comes into play, namely that Garner was resisting arrest.

If it is assumed that the arrest is morally legitimate, then the person being arrested does not have the right to resist that arrest. Since what is legal is not the same as what is moral, there can be unjust laws and there clearly can be evil governments. However, for the sake of the discussion, let it be assumed that the police were acting in the right when trying to arrest Garner and that as such he did not have the moral right to resist. This can, of course, be debated.

Even if it is granted that Garner did not have the right to resist, there is still the question of whether or not his resistance justifies his death. I do agree that there can be cases in which resistance does morally justify the use of lethal force. For example, there was a tragic shooting in my own city of Tallahassee. A former Florida State University student shot people at the FSU library and fired at the police when they arrived. They returned fire, killing him. While it would have been preferable for the police to have not killed him, that was their only viable option to protect the civilians in the area and themselves.

From a moral standpoint, the police are justified in using the force needed to subdue the person (assuming they are otherwise acting morally) but not excessive force. While an officer does have the right of self-preservation, the officer is also morally obligated to accept some risks so as to avoid inflicting unnecessary harm or death. This is not just true of the police—it is true of everyone. For example, a drunken person once tried to punch me while I was running. I easily blocked the swing (black belt and all that). I could have punched or kicked him in return, but did not do so—I could have seriously hurt him. He decided to run away into the crowd, so I continued with my run. I did what I needed to do to defend myself—any more force would have been unwarranted. I did take a chance—the person could have attacked again or pulled a knife. But, a disproportionate response made from fear would be unwarranted.

In the case of Garner, it is clear that he does resist arrest, but in a fairly minimal way—he is not actively attacking but merely trying to avoid being grabbed. Then he is put into what appears to be a chokehold and brought to the ground, which results in his death. Given the situation, it seems clear that far less force (or even more conversation) would have sufficed and Garner would most likely still be alive.

One could argue that his size was such that he presented a clear threat that required such force and his death was a surprise to the police resulting from him being more vulnerable to choking than he appeared. That is, they honestly believed they were using the proper amount force and the proper techniques and the death was just a terrible accident. Having been in the martial arts, I do know it is easy for a person to get badly hurt even when there is no intention of such harm—that is well worth considering. Like most men, I’ve been hurt (and hurt others) when just playing around at rough housing.

That said, the police are supposed to be trained properly in the use of force and they are supposed to follow the guidelines—which, in this case, expressly forbid chokeholds. They are also morally responsible to be aware of what is happening to a person they are engaging. Given what occurred in the video, it seems clear that Garner’s death was unjustified.

Overall, the pundits that are endeavoring to blame Garner for his death are in error. It is true that if he was not suspected of a crime and if he had not resisted arrest, then he would probably still be alive. But, it is also true that if the police had used proper procedures and proportional force (or tried talking more), then he would probably still be alive. Even if a person commits a crime and resists arrest, it does not follow that his death is justified.


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Protests, Peaceful and Otherwise

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 27, 2014

In response to the nighttime announcement of the Ferguson verdict in which officer Wilson was not indicted, some people attacked the police and damaged property. Some experts have been critical of the decision to make the announcement at night, since the time of day does actually influence how people behave. In general, making such an announcement at night is a bad idea—unless one intends to increase the chances that people will respond badly.

Obviously enough, peacefully protesting is a basic right and in a democratic state the police should not interfere with that right. However, protests do escalate and violence can occur. In the United States it is all too common for peaceful protests to be marred by violence—most commonly damage to businesses and looting.

When considering reports of damage and looting during protests it is reasonable to consider whether or not the damage and looting is being done by actual protestors or by people who are opportunists using the protest as cover or an excuse. An actual protestor is someone whose primary motivation is a moral one—she is there to express her moral condemnation of something she perceives as wrong. Not all people who go to protests are actual protestors—some are there for other reasons, some of which are not morally commendable. Some people, not surprisingly, know that a protest can provide an excellent opportunity to engage in criminal activity—to commit violence, to damage property and to loot. Protests do, sadly, attract such people and often these are people who are not from the area.

Of course, actual protesters can engage in violence and damage property. Perhaps they can even engage in looting (though that almost certainly crosses a moral line). Anger and rage are powerful things, especially righteous anger. A protestor who is motivated by her moral condemnation of a perceived wrong can give in to her anger and do damage to others or their property. When people damage the businesses in their own community, this sort of behavior seems irrational—probably because it is. After all, setting a local gas station on fire is hardly morally justified by the alleged injustice of the grand jury’s verdict in regards to not indicting Officer Wilson for the shooting of Brown. However, anger tends to impede rationality. I, and I assume most people, have seen people angry enough to break their own property.

While I am not a psychologist, I do suspect that people do such damage when they are angry because they cannot actually reach the target of their anger. Alternatively, they might be damaging property to vent their rage in place of harming people. I have seen people do just that. For example, I saw a person hit a metal door frame (and break his hand) rather than hit the person he was mad at. Anger does summon up a need to express itself and this can easily take the form of property damage.

When a protest becomes destructive (or those using it for cover start destroying things), the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force.

That said, the role of rage needs to be considered. When property is destroyed during protests, some people immediately condemn the destruction and wonder why people are destroying their own neighborhoods. In some cases, as noted above, the people doing the damage might not be from the neighborhood at all and might be there to destroy rather than to protest. If such people can be identified, they should be dealt with as the criminals they are. What becomes somewhat more morally problematic are people who are driven to such destruction by moral rage—that is, they have been pushed to a point at which they believe they must use violence and destruction to express their moral condemnation.

When looked at from the cool and calm perspective of distance, such behavior seems irrational and unwarranted.  And, I think, it usually is. However, it is well worth it to think of something that has caused the fire of righteous anger to ignite your soul. Think of that and consider how you might respond if you believed that you have been systematically denied justice. Over. And over. Again.


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Some Thoughts on the Ferguson Verdict

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 26, 2014

In August of 2014 police officer Darren Wilson shot the unarmed Michael Brown to death. On November 24, 2014 a grand jury in Missouri failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson. Like most Americans, I have some thoughts about this matter.

In the United States, a grand jury’s function is to determine whether or not there is probable cause to prosecute. This level of proof is much lower than that of a criminal trial—such a trial requires (in theory) proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Unlike in a criminal trial, the grand jury is effectively run by the prosecutor and the defense has no real role in the process. As might be suspected, grand juries almost always indict. Almost always, that is, unless the person under consideration is a police officer who has killed someone. In such cases the officer is almost never indicted. As such, the decision in the Wilson case is exactly what should have been expected.

Now, it might be that the reason that police officers are almost never indicted for killing is that nearly all the killings are justified. In contrast, the reason that non-officers are almost always indicted is that there is almost always legitimate probable cause. This is, obviously enough, not impossible.

Of course, the real concern here is not with the grand juries in general, but with this grand jury in particular. According to the various news reports and experts, Wilson received a “gold plated” grand jury in terms of how it was handled by the prosecutor and the state. To be specific, the grand jury seemed to be run in such a way that Wilson received exceptionally good treatment in regards to the case. This is in contrast with the sort of grand jury treatment other citizens typically get, which have been described as “tin plated.” In these grand juries an indictment is almost a forgone conclusion. This is not to say that Wilson’s grand jury involved corruption or misdeeds. Rather, the point is that there is a stark contrast between the sort of grand jury that a typical citizen will receive and the one that Wilson received.

This distinction in treatment is one reason that people are justifiably angry about the matter. After all, a proper justice system would treat everyone equally—everyone would get the “gold plated” grand jury (or the “tin plated” one) rather than getting the sort of justice deemed fit for the person’s race, class, or profession. This sort of disparity is yet one more example of the injustices of our justice system.

Naturally, I am well aware that the real does not (and probably cannot) match the ideal. However, this sort of appeal to the real is more of an acceptance of the problem than a refutation of criticisms of the problem. Also, I do not expect a perfect system—merely a reasonably fair one.

In addition to the nature of the grand jury, there is also obviously the central issue: was Wilson justified in shooting Brown to death? In this case, the justification is grounded on the principle of defense of life: an officer is justified in using violence to protect his life or that of an innocent person when he has an “objectively reasonable” belief that there is such a threat. In Wilson’s case, the shooting of Brown would be warranted if Wilson had an “objectively reasonable” belief that Brown presented such a threat. Since the justification is based on the reasonable belief in a threat, the warrant for the use of force ends when the threat ends.

According to the information released to the public, there is evidence that Brown had close contact with Wilson, which is consistent with Wilson’s claim that Brown attacked him and tried to take his gun. Brown died a considerable distance from Wilson and this raises the legal and moral question of whether or not Wilson still had an “objectively reasonable” belief that Brown still presented a threat that could only be dealt with by lethal force. The grand jury decided that he did, which settles the legal aspect of the case. However, there is still the matter of the moral aspect—was Wilson actually warranted in killing Brown?

On the one hand, when one considers that Brown was unarmed and too far from Wilson to attack him, then it would be reasonable to consider that Wilson was not justified in killing Brown.  On the other hand, if Brown appeared to be charging towards Wilson, then Wilson could be justified in shooting him. Since Wilson was not shot in the back, it does seem clear that Brown was facing Wilson—but facing someone is not the same thing as being a threat. Unfortunately, there is no video of the incident and the eye-witness reports conflict (and eye-witness reports, even given in all honesty, are not very reliable). Since Brown is dead, we only have Wilson’s side of the story. As such, one cannot be certain whether Wilson was justified or not, assuming a right to kill when one has an “objectively reasonable” belief that one is threatened.

This principle can, of course, be challenged. Some people take the principle to set a very low threshold—an officer just has to feel threatened in order to be warranted to use deadly force. This, as might be imagined, can be seen as a threshold that is too low. Some states do give citizens the same right (against other citizens) as shown in the various infamous stand your ground laws and these have proven rather problematic. Others take the view that the principle itself is reasonable—after all, it essentially expresses John Locke’s principle that force can be used to protect one’s life or the lives of the innocent. But, even if the principle is reasonable, there is also the question of whether or not it is applied correctly. My view is that the use of lethal force requires a comparable threat to justify it, on the principle of a proportional response. That said, one must also consider the practicalities of combat situations—it can be difficult to judge intent and the heat of a fight can easily change a person’s perceptions.

As one final point, even if Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, the perception remains that the police and the justice system treat black Americans very different from white Americans. Not surprisingly, some white people doubt this and do so in all honesty—they are assessing the system from their experiences and assume that everyone else has the same sort of experiences as they do. However, one must look beyond one’s experiences and consider those of others. While no one can completely get the experience and being of another, it would be a good thing for white folks to give some thought to what it is like to be non-white in America.

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Police, Protests & Rights

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2014

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a series of protests in the town. Not surprisingly, these protests led to additional incidents involving conflicts between the citizens and the police. Initially, the local police met the protestors like an invading army: many of the officers were in military grade combat gear and backed up by armored vehicles. As noted in my previous essay, this sort of approach is based on a common philosophy of order held by authorities. This philosophy of order is that perceived threats to the existing order are to be met with physical force—even when the perceived threat consists of citizens acting within their rights. One reason for this is practical—the state generally has an advantage over the citizens in terms of force. As Thoreau notes, “…the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Another reason for this is conceptual—authorities are often similar to bullies in that their view of how to address problems mainly involves coercion rather than persuasion and reason. There is also a philosophical element—those in authority often seem to have a philosophical view about the rights of citizens that rather differs from that of the founders they so often praise when running for re-election.

As this is being written, it is not yet know if Brown rights were violated. As noted in the previous essay, the officer might have used force legitimately. However, the response to the protests has been the systematic and repeated violation of rights.

To begin with the most obvious violations of constitutional rights, the rights of free speech and assemble have been routinely violated by the police. The curfew is the most obvious example of these violations. The harassment and arrests of journalists also seem to be clear violations of the freedom of the press.

Section 1 of the 14th amendment has also been relentlessly violated since citizens have been “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and citizens have been denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The violations of the 14th amendment are not limited just to the treatment of the protestors—the policing of Ferguson’s disproportionality clearly illustrates systematic violation of this amendment. Obviously, this is also a nationwide problem.

There are also clear violations of internationally established human rights: the protestors are being shot with rubber bullets (admittedly this is better than being shot with metal bullets) and tear gas has been used.

Those who accept natural rights, such as John Locke, would certainly agree that these rights are being violated in Ferguson. The most obvious being the right of liberty.  As such, the violations are not just a matter of violations of human law but also violations of natural rights (assuming there are such things). For those who prefer a more utilitarian approach to liberty, Mill’s utilitarian arguments would certainly support the claim that the state is violating the rights of the protestors in Ferguson.

The conflict in Ferguson can thus be seen as having a significant connection to past struggles for liberty and rights. The most obvious link is that the protests are a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This struggle can, of course, be traced back to the development of the very notions of liberty and rights. As such, Ferguson is a recent battleground in the struggle for justice, rights and liberty.

One obvious counter to this view is the claim that the police are justified because of the nature of the situation. People are looting, shooting and destroying property and the police are acting to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. This, of course, does require the use of force and it might appear that some rights are being violated in the keeping of order.

This counter does have considerable underlying merit. The state does have an obligation to prevent protestors from violating the rights of other people. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in unwarranted violence or other misdeeds can be justly stopped or arrested.

There is also the obvious concern with people who use protests as an excuse to engage in or as cover for misdeeds such as looting. If the police arrest someone who has come to “protest” by stealing from local homes, they have not violated that person’s rights—he has no moral right to steal even if he claims that he is doing so as an act of protest.

The easy reply to this counter is that the legitimate need to prevent the violation of rights does not justify violating those same rights. So, while the police have an obligation to keep protestors from committing crimes against life, liberty and property the police also have an obligation to not violate the rights of the protestors. I will freely admit that this can be challenging in practice since opportunists and criminals often mix in with actual protestors. However, if our society is supposed to respect rights, effort must be taken to ensure that these rights are protected—even (and especially) in heated moments. After all, rights are not just for corporations.


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