A Philosopher's Blog

Trump & Mercenaries: Arguments For

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on July 24, 2017

The Trump regime seems to be seriously considering outsourcing the war in Afghanistan to mercenaries.  The use of mercenaries, or contractors (as they might prefer to be called), is a time-honored practice. While the United States leads the world in military spending and has a fine military, it is no stranger to employing mercenaries. For example, the security contractor Blackwater became rather infamous for its actions in Iraq.

While many might regard the employment of mercenaries as repugnant, the proposal to outsource military operations to corporations should not be dismissed out of hand. Arguments for and against it should be given their due consideration. Mere prejudices against mercenaries should not be taken as arguments, nor should the worst deeds committed by some mercenaries be taken as damning them all.

As with almost every attempt at privatizing a state function, one of the stock arguments is based on the claim that privatization will save money. In some cases, this is an excellent argument. For example, it is cheaper for state employees to fly on commercial airlines than for a state to maintain a fleet of planes to send employees around on state business. In other cases, this argument falls apart. The stock problem is that a for-profit company must make a profit and this means it must have that profit margin over and above what it costs to provide the product or service. So, for a mercenary company to make money, it would need to pay all the costs that government forces would incur for the same operation and would need to charge extra to make a profit. As such, using mercenaries would not seem to be a money-saver.

It could be countered that mercenaries can have significantly lower operating costs than normal troops. There are various ways that costs could be cut relative to the costs of operating the government military forces: mercenaries could have cheaper or less equipment, they could be paid less, they could be provided less (or no) benefits, and mercenaries could engage in looting to offset their costs (and pass the savings on to their employer).

The cost cutting approach does raise some concerns about the ability of the mercenaries to conduct operations effectively: underpaid and underequipped troops would tend to do worse than better paid and better equipped troops. There are also obvious moral concerns about letting mercenaries loot.

However, there are savings that could prove quite significant: while the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has faced considerable criticism, veterans can get considerable benefits. For example, there is the GI Bill. Assuming mercenaries did not get such benefits, this would result in meaningful cost savings. In sum, if a mercenary company operated using common business practices of cost-cutting, then they could certainly run operations cheaper than the state. But, of course, if saving money is the prime concern, the state could engage in the same practices and save even more money by not providing a private contractor with the money needed to make a profit. Naturally, there might be good reasons why the state could not engage in these money-saving practices. In that case, the savings offered by mercenaries could justify their employment.

A second argument in favor of using mercenaries is based on the fact that those doing the killing and dying will not be government forces. While the death of a mercenary is as much the death of a person as the death of a government soldier, the mercenary’s death would tend to have far less impact on political opinion back home. The death of an American soldier in combat is meaningful to Americans in the way that the death of a mercenary would not.

While the state employing mercenaries is accountable for what they do, there is a distance between the misdeeds of mercenaries and the state that does not exist between the misdeeds of regular troops and the state. In practical terms, there is less accountability. It is, after all, much easier to disavow and throw mercenaries under the tank than it is to do the same with government troops.

This is not to say mercenaries provide a “get out of trouble” card to their employer—as the incidents in Iraq involving Blackwater showed, employers still get caught in the fallout from the actions of the mercenaries they hire. However, having such a force can be useful, especially when one wants to do things that would get regular troops into considerable trouble.

A final argument in favor of mercenaries is from the standpoint of the owners of mercenary companies. Most forms of privatization are a means of funneling public money into the pockets of executives and shareholders. Privatizing operations in Afghanistan could be incredibly profitable (or, rather, even more profitable) for contractors.

While receiving a tide of public money would be good for the companies, the profit argument runs directly up against the first argument for using mercenaries—that doing so would save money. This sort of “double vision” is common in privatization: those who want to make massive profits make the ironic argument that privatization is a good idea because it will save money.

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Virtual Cheating I: The Wrongness of Cheating

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on June 16, 2017

The morality of cheating in a relationship is one of the most popular paper topics in my Ethics course. As might be suspected, the students tend to condemn this sort of cheating and have always focused on the “traditional” form of cheating—that is, people having “naked time” together when one or more of them is in a committed relationship. With the rise of such things as sexting, virtual worlds and sexbots, I’ve tried to encourage the students to write on what can be called “virtual cheating”-if only to give me something slightly new to grade. Since no student has taken on this matter, it falls to me to write about it.

As just noted, traditional cheating involves people having sexual interactions in person when one or more of them is in a (supposedly) committed relationship. Virtual cheating, by its very nature, is not traditional cheating: the people either do not interact sexually in person (they sext or engage in virtual activities in a virtual world, such as a video game) or a person is engaged in sexual behavior with a non-person (such as a sexbot). While most regard traditional cheating as wrong, it is not clear if the alleged wrongness of traditional cheating applies to virtual cheating. Answering this question requires sorting out what, if anything, makes traditional cheating wrong.

One stock approach to arguing that traditional cheating is wrong is to “mix norms” by going from religion to ethics. For example, my students usually point out that the Ten Commandments forbid adultery and then typically just say this makes it wrong. The problem is, obviously enough, that religion is not the same as ethics. What is needed is a way to transition from religion to ethics. One easy way to do this is to use divine command theory. This is the view that what God commands is good because He command it. Likewise, what he forbids is wrong because He forbids it. Assuming this theory, if God forbids adultery, then it is wrong. In regards to virtual cheating, the question would be whether virtual cheating is adequately similar to traditional adultery. This is a matter that will be addressed in a later essay.

Another stock approach is to engage in more norm mixing by going from law to ethics. While there are excellent reasons not to equate legality and morality, the moral theory of legalism (also known as legal positivism) says that what is legal is moral and what is illegal is immoral. Since some places still consider adultery a crime, this would make cheating immoral in such places. Legalism actually provides the easiest way to address the ethics of virtual cheating: one just needs to consult the law and the answer is there.

A third approach, and one my students almost always use, is the utilitarian option. On this view, the morality of an action is determined by its harmful and beneficial consequences. If more negative value is created by the action, it is morally wrong. If there is more positive value, then it is morally good (or at least acceptable). The moral arguments against traditional cheating focus on the usual negative consequences: emotional damage, physical damage, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and so on. Interestingly, students almost always mention cars being keyed. Moral arguments for cheating focus on the alleged benefits: pleasure, emotional fulfillment, and so on. The utilitarian approach, interestingly enough, would make it easy to bypass the question of whether virtual cheating is cheating or not. This is because what would matter is whether or not the consequences of the actions created more negative or positive value. Whether the actions are cheating or not would be irrelevant. Unless, of course, the cheating aspect was relevant to the consequences.

A fourth approach is to embrace a rule based approach, such as the deontology of Immanuel Kant. On this view, the action itself is wrong or right—it is not a matter of consequences. The religious arguments that are used to try to show that cheating is wrong tend to also be rule based arguments. The rules, in that case, would be those attributed to God. While deontologists can embrace very different rules about who one should embrace, Kant’s categorical imperative and his view that people are ends rather than means would seem to support the view that cheating would be morally wrong. The question about virtual cheating would be whether it is cheating. Alternatively, rules about the activities I am grouping as virtual cheating would settle the matter without addressing whether they really are cheating or not.

A fifth approach is that of virtue theory—the sort of theory endorsed by the likes of Aristotle and Confucius. On this view, a person should strive to be virtuous and the incentive is usually that virtue will make a person happy. Since cheating would seem to violate such virtues as honesty and loyalty, then it would appear to be morally wrong under virtue theory. In the case of virtual cheating, the concern would be with the effect of such behavior on a person’s virtues.

A final approach is a rights based approach. Ethics that are based on rights purport that people have various rights and it is generally wrong to violate them. In the case of cheating, the usual argument is that people engage into a form of contractual ethics by agreeing to a committed relationship. This gives each party various rights and responsibilities. The usual contract is one of exclusive sexual interaction. Since traditional cheating violates this right of exclusivity, it would be wrong. In the case of virtual cheating, it would also be a question of rights—typically based on an explicit or implicit contract. Naturally, contractual ethics can also be cast in the form of rule based ethics—the contract forms the rules.

In the next essay I will move on to the matter of virtual cheating, beginning with considerations of sexting and “cheating” in virtual worlds such as video games.

 

 

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Punching Reporters

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2017


While American conservatives have long put forth the talking point that the media suffers from a crippling liberal bias, the rise of Trump saw a notable change in the approach of Republicans to reporters. Most recently, Republican Greg Gianforte attacked a journalist by grabbing him by the neck and throwing him to the floor. Somewhat ironically, the attack on the liberal media was witnessed by a Fox News team. Gianforte has been charged with a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of a $500 fine or six months in jail. It is unlikely that Gianforte, who was just elected to the House of Representatives, will serve any time.

After the attack, Gianforte’s campaign (apparently following the path of lies paved by President Trump) released a statement containing untrue claims (or, more accurately, lies): “After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.” As the Fox News team noted, Jacobs did none of these things and was simply attacked by Gianforte after trying to ask him questions. Gianforte later issued an apology for his actions which seems to have rescinded the original set of untrue claims about the incident. While attacking a reporter and lying seem to be obviously wrong, this incident is certainly morally interesting.

As should be expected, some people approved of Gianforte’s response, seeing it as a manly blow against the effeminate liberal media. While it is tempting to dismiss the endorsement of violence out of hand, a case can be made in favor of physically attacking the press. The gist of the argument is as follows.

If the press is liberally biased and engages in unwarranted attacks against conservatives, then the conservatives have the right of self-defense against these unwarranted attacks. Since the liberal media controls the media, the conservatives have no viable means of self-defense via the media. However, this does not entail that they thus lose the right to self-defense. They still have the option of resorting to a physical defense by grabbing and punching members of the liberal media when they attack.

It could be countered that Jacobs was merely questioning Gianforte about his position on the Republican health care proposal and not engaged in an attack at all. However, it could be claimed that aggressively asking such questions constitutes an attack that warrants a physical response. But, being asked questions does not put a person in danger that warrants the use of physical force—a person can merely decline to answer the questions.

It is certainly worth pointing out that the notion that the media is liberal is countered by the existence of Fox News and other conservative media outlets. Because of this, conservatives do have a non-violent option of self-defense: they can turn to Fox News and others.

Even if conservatives lacked the venues of Fox News and similar media outlets, it would still be difficult to justify the use of physical violence as a defense against the liberal media. After all, the moral notion of self-defense includes a proportionality factor. If, for example, someone throws a water balloon at me and threatens me with another drenching, I have no moral right to use lethal force to stop them. After all, the danger they present does not warrant a lethal response. Likewise, even if the liberal media is cruelly attacking conservatives, this does not warrant a physical response. Verbal attacks warrant verbal defenses, not punches. As such, this sort of attack should be condemned.

While most people do not approve of this sort of violence, the Republican leadership has offered but a half-hearted and tepid condemnation of the attack, as exemplified by Paul Ryan’s response. Given the importance of the freedom of the press in particular and the importance of avoiding senseless violence in a civilized society, this lukewarm response is certainly problematic. However, it is indicative of how some conservatives now regard core American values. That is, they do not value them.

While the physical violence was the most worrisome, there is also the use of lies to try to spin the incident. The physical attack on the reporter thus serves as a blunt metaphor for the systematic attack on the truth that has become a standard practice in politics. This is especially hypocritical when it comes from people who profess to hold to traditional values and religious ideals.

It could be said that this concern is an overreaction, that is it merely a member of Congress punching a reporter. However, this incident has broader implications about how we, as a people, look at the press, truth and violence. As it stands, lies and violence have been rewarded with high office. Presumably this is the lesson that we wish to teach our children so that they might live down to our lack of principles and ideals.

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Illegal Immigrants & Law Enforcement

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2017

While Trump has kept his promise to crack down on illegal immigrants, this increased enforcement has apparently made life easier for criminals and more difficult for police. This is because illegal immigrants are now far less likely to report crimes to the police or assist in police investigations.

While Trump and others have claimed that immigrants come here to commit crimes (and steal jobs), the evidence shows that native citizens commit crimes at a higher rate than immigrants. Immigrants are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators, which is one reason why some police departments are reluctant to serve as agents of federal immigration policy. After all, they need the cooperation of victims and witnesses to investigate crimes. This is not to say that illegal immigrants do not commit crimes; they do and this is a matter of legitimate concern. While the legal issues of immigration are obviously a matter of law, there are important moral issues here as well.

As noted above, one compelling reason for the local police and officials to not work as enforcers for federal immigration policy is that illegal immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes will be far less likely to cooperate with the police. From a utilitarian standpoint, this would morally problematic because it would result in more harm than good by allowing criminals to remain at large. As an example, illegal immigrants have been picked up at courthouses after serving as witnesses for the prosecution. This practice will certainly deter illegal immigrants from coming forward as witnesses. As such, this would seem to provide a moral justification for local governments to ignore the immigration status of people who have otherwise not broken any laws.

The easy and obvious counter to this line of reasoning is to point out that illegal immigrants are, by definition, all criminals. As such, ignoring their immigration status would allow criminals to remain in the community engaging in criminal activities. To add in a utilitarian element, it can be argued that while tolerating illegals who do not engage in other crimes would be a small thing, the damage to the rule of law would be significant in its harms.

One reply to this is to point out that lesser criminals are often given immunity to encourage them to testify against more important criminals. This same sort of justification could be applied here: the extremely minor crime of being an illegal immigrant can be justly ignored to ensure that the illegal immigrants are able to report serious crimes and serve as witnesses in prosecutions of such crimes. The obvious problem with this reply is that it justifies ongoing criminal activity. To use an analogy, it would be like allowing people to continuously violate minor traffic laws in the hopes that they would be more amenable to cooperating with the police regarding more significant crimes. The absurdity of this would seem to show that allowing one crime in the hopes of getting more cooperation combating other crimes is not a reasonable idea.

Another reply is that the illegal immigrants are only criminals because of bad immigration law and a defective immigration system. The gist of this approach is to argue that the immigrants who do not commit other crimes should not be classified as criminals in the first place and that enforcing such bad laws is morally wrong. It could be argued that there is a crude integrity in mindlessly obeying the law, but history has shown that “just following orders” is not an adequate moral defense. The challenge here is, of course, working out whether the immigration laws are bad laws. On the face of it, there does seem to be considerable agreement that they are not very good laws. However, it is still reasonable to consider whether the laws are bad enough to warrant regarding them as unjust laws. My own view is that the laws are bad laws but that by leaving them on the books and not enforcing them, we encourage a disrespect for the law. As such, I favor changing the laws so that they are just laws that are right to enforce.

One way to look at the matter is to consider the history of the United States: European immigrants simply showed up on the shores and started expanding into already inhabited lands. Almost any argument advanced in defense of European immigration into the New World could be dusted off and refurbished into arguments justifying the new illegal immigrants. Of course, the new illegal immigrants have a stronger moral case: they mostly coming here just to work rather than to kill the current inhabitants and take their land.

There is also the practical argument regarding law enforcement. As others have noted, the police have limited resources and it makes more sense to use those on serious crimes rather than on people who are merely here illegally and otherwise law-abiding. The moral aspect of this argument is that focusing on the more serious crimes will create more benefits than using resources to go after illegal immigrants.

My own view is that the current laws and practices regarding illegal immigration are morally unacceptable. The obvious solution involves changing the laws to match the ethics and reality of the situation and for politicians to stop making excuses and, worse, to stop exploiting the matter for short term political advantages at the expense of both the illegals and the local communities.

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Is Some Red Line Better than No Red Line?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on April 14, 2017

There is a reasonable concern that can be raised in response to my view that the red line should be drawn at the murder of civilians rather than at murdering them with chemical weapons. This is the worry that my view would abandon the red line being drawn for using chemical weapons against civilians, thus creating a situation in which there are no red lines. This would be problematic because while the murder of civilians with conventional weapons is tolerable, crossing the red line of murdering civilians with chemical weapons does at least generate a response. Since some response from the world is better than no response, it is clearly better to have some viable red line rather than one everyone will simply ignore.

The tolerance of conventional murder and opposition to chemical murder has resulted in some actions whose impact should be duly assessed, to get some picture of the value of the chemical red line.

One impact that has been touted by some former members of the Obama administration is the fact that Syria got rid of many of its chemical weapons because of pressure from the United States and the world. On the plus side, less chemical weapons entails less possible murder with chemical weapons, which is presumably a good thing. One obvious offset to this alleged good is the concern that the Syrian government simply filled up the chemical kill gap with conventional killing, thus producing roughly the same number of deaths. If this is the case, then the focus on chemical weapons did not reduce the number of deaths.

This point could be countered by arguing that being murdered with chemical weapons is worse than being murdered with conventional weapons. The usual case for this is based on the claim that chemical weapons cause more suffering than chemical weapons. The usual response to this is that death by conventional weapon can be as or even more awful that death by chemical weapon. For example, a person who slowly dies while buried under the rubble caused by conventional bombs has certainly suffered more than a person who is killed almost immediately by a chemical weapon. As such, if death by chemical weapon is roughly equal to death by conventional weapon, then the difference between the two weapons is a difference that does not make a morally relevant difference. This can be illustrated by the following analogy.

Imagine that Sam is engaged in regularly murdering people in his neighborhood with guns. Those outside the neighborhood do not like this, but do nothing beyond Tweeting and posting about how awful Sam is. Then, one day, Sam tries a new type of murder: he poisons a few people. The neighbors are outraged and, after Tweeting with righteous fury, have their best shooter take a few rifle shots at where they think Sam keeps his poison. Sam goes back to murdering with his guns and the neighbors go back to occasionally tweeting about how bad Sam is. If this at least reduced Sam’s killing rate, this action would have some merit. But, if Sam just goes on killing with his guns, the action would have no meaningful impact and would have been pointless. At least beyond making the neighbors feel righteous for a short while.

The general point of this analogy shows the problem with how the chemical red line is used. To be specific, it allows for occasional and limited action when violations take place, then the offender merely returns to conventional murder. This does not address the real concern, namely that civilians are being murdered. As such, my original point seems to stand: the chemical weapon red line appears to create a moral space in which murder is tolerated while allowing a pretense of having meaningful moral standards. While this is presumably an awful thing to consider, having some red line might be worse than having no red line—after all, the chemical weapon red line enables the wicked self-deception that we are engaged in righteous action when in fact we are not. This allows us to salve our conscience and say “at least they are not being killed with chemical weapons” while we tolerate more murder.

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Interview on the Ethics of Chemical Weapons

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on April 10, 2017

Chemical Weapons & Ethics Revisited

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

When Obama was president, the “red line” he drew for the Syrian regime was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. President Trump has also embraced the red line, asserting that Syria has gone “beyond a red line” with its recent use of chemical weapons. Trump has said that this attack changed his attitude towards Syria and Assad. Presumably the slaughter of civilians with conventional weapons did not cross the red line or impact his attitude very strongly. Those of a cynical bent might contend that the distinction between conventional and chemical weapons is accepted because it grants politicians the space needed to tolerate slaughter while being able to create the appearance of a moral stance. This moral stance is, of course, the condemnation of chemical weapons.

As I wrote in 2013, this red line policy involving chemical weapons seems to amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.” This leads to the question I addressed then, which is the question of whether chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

Chemical weapons are clearly perceived as being worse than conventional weapons and their use in Syria has resulted in a level of outrage that the conventional killing has not. Some of the reasons for this perception are rooted in history.

World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons. While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This helped establish the feeling that chemical weapons are especially horrific and worse than conventional weapons.

There is also the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. After all, poison allows one to kill in secret and without taking the risk of facing an opponent in combat. In historical accounts and in fiction, poisoners are typically cast as villains. One excellent example of this is the use of poison in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be morally acceptable or even heroic. This view of poison as cowardly and evil seems to have infected the view of chemical weapons. This makes sense given that they are poisons.

Finally, there is the association of poison gas with the Nazi concentration camps. This connection has served to cement the connection of chemical weapons with evil. While these explanations are psychological interesting, they do not resolve the question of whether chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons. It is to this issue that I now turn.

One good reason to regard chemical weapons as worse than conventional weapons is that they typically do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. The basis of the difference is the principle that while killing is morally wrong, the method of killing is morally relevant to its wrongness. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three counters to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds matching the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons.

The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. An analogy can be drawn to capital punishment: lethal injection is regarded as morally superior to more conventional modes of execution such as hanging and firing squad. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then these chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. Horrific chemical weapons would, of course, be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons. As such, being a chemical weapon does not make a weapon worse, the suffering it inflicts is what matters morally.

The third is that wrongfully harming people with conventional weapons is still evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are worse in terms of the suffering they cause, the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. This is because the distinction between not killing people and killing them is greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers kill everyone in a village using their rifles seems to be as morally wrong as using poison gas to kill everyone. The result is the same: mass murder.

In addition to supposedly causing more suffering than conventional weapons, chemical weapons are said to be worse because they are often indiscriminate and persistent.  For example, a chemical weapon deployed as a gas can easily drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target and remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack. As such, chemical weapons are worse than conventional weapons because they harm and kill those who were not the intended targets.

The obvious counter to his is to note that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate or persistent. While bombs and artillery shells are accurate, they do still result in unintended causalities. They can also be used indiscriminately. Land mines present an excellent example of a conventional weapon that is both indiscriminate and persistent. Chemical weapons could be designed to have the same level of discrimination as conventional area-of-effect weapons (like bombs) and to be non-persistent (losing lethality rapidly). As such, it is discrimination and persistence that matter rather than the composition of the weapon.

While specific chemical weapons are worse than specific conventional weapons, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons. In fact, the claim of a moral distinction between conventional and chemical weapons can have terrible consequences: it allows a moral space in which to tolerate murder while maintaining the delusion of taking a meaningful moral stance.

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The Curse of Springtime

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on April 3, 2017

Springtime 10KAs a professional philosopher, I am not inclined to believe in curses. However, my experiences over the years have convinced me that I am the victim of what I call the Curse of Springtime. As far as I know, this curse is limited to me and I do not want anyone to have the impression that I regard Springtime Tallahassee in a negative light. Here is the tale of the curse.

For runners, the most important part of Springtime is the Springtime 10K (and now the 5K). Since I moved to Tallahassee in 1993 I have had something bad happen right before or during the race. Some examples: one year I had a horrible sinus infection. Another year I had my first ever muscle pull. Yet another year I was kicking the kickstand of my Yamaha, slipped and fell-thus injuring my back. 2008 saw the most powerful manifestation of the curse.

On the Thursday before the race, my skylight started leaking. So, I (stupidly) went up to fix it. When I was coming down, the ladder shot out from under me. I landed badly and suffered a full quadriceps tendon tear that took me out of running for months. When Springtime rolled around in 2009 I believed that the curse might kill me and I was extra cautious. The curse seemed to have spent most of its energy on that injury, because although the curse did strike, it was minor. But, the curse continued: I would either get sick or injured soon before the race, or suffer and injury during the race. This year, 2017, was no exception. My knees and right foot started bothering me a week before the race and although I rested up and took care of myself, I was unable to run on Thursday. I hobbled through the 10K on Saturday, cursing the curse.

Since I teach critical thinking, I have carefully considered the Curse of Springtime and have found it makes a good example for applying methods of causal reasoning. I started with the obvious, considering that I was falling victim to the classic post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). This fallacy occurs when it is uncritically assumed that because B follows A, that A must be the cause of B. To infer just because I always have something bad happen as Springtime arrives that Springtime is causing it would be to fall into this fallacy. To avoid this fallacy, I would need to sort out a possible causal mechanism—mere correlation is not causation.

One thing that might explain some of the injuries and illnesses is the fact that the race occurs at the same time each year. By the time Springtime rolls around, I have been racing hard since January and training hard as well—so it could be that I am always worn out at this time of year. As such, I would be at peak injury and illness vulnerability. On this hypothesis, there is no Curse—I just get worn down at the same time each year because I have the same sort of schedule each year. However, this explanation does not account for all the incidents—as noted above, I have also suffered injuries that had nothing to do with running, such as falls. Also, sometimes I am healthy and injury free before the race, then have something bad happen in the race itself. As such, the challenge is to find an explanation that accounts for all the adverse events.

It is certainly worth considering that while the injuries and illnesses can be explained as noted above, the rest of the incidents are mere coincidences: it just so happens that when I am not otherwise ill or injured, something has happened. While improbable, this is not impossible. That is, it is not beyond the realm of possibility for random things to always happen for the same race year after year.

It is also worth considering that it only seems that there is a curse because I am ignoring the other bad races I have and considering only the bad Springtime races. If I have many bad races each year, it would not be unusual for Springtime to be consistently bad. Fortunately, I have records of all my races and can look at it objectively: while I do have some other bad races, Springtime is unique in that something bad has happened every year. The same is not true of any other races. As such, I do not seem to be falling into a sort of Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy by only considering the Springtime race data and not all my race data.

There is certainly the possibility that the Curse of Springtime is psychological: because I think something bad will happen it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alternatively, it could be that because I expect something bad to happen, I carefully search for bad things and overestimate their badness, thus falling into the mistake of confirmation bias: Springtime seems cursed because I am actively searching for evidence of the curse and interpreting events in a way that support the curse hypothesis. This is certainly a possibility and perhaps any race could appear cursed if one spent enough effort seeking evidence of an alleged curse. That said, there is no such consistent occurrence of unfortunate events for any other race, even those that I have run every year since I moved here. This inclines me to believe that there is some causal mechanism at play here. Or a curse. But, I am aware of the vagaries of chance and it could simply be an unfortunate set of coincidences that every Springtime since 1994 has seemed cursed. But, perhaps in 2018 everything will go well and I can dismiss my belief in the curse as mere superstition. Unless the curse kills me then. You know, because curse.

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Trump Supporters as Moral Heroes

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2017


While Trump claimed that he would help the forgotten people of America, his rural and small town supporters will most likely be harmed by the implementation of his agenda. Trump also ran hard on repealing Obamacare and engaging in what some would characterize as trade wars. If the administration makes good on these promises, many of his supporters will be harmed. Some have gone as far as asserting that Trump’s presidency will prove to be a disaster for the white working class.

Since these are factual claims, they can be countered by evidence to the contrary and it is worth considering that the predictions of woe might prove to be in error. That is, the Trump administration will lead the working class and forgotten people to a new age of prosperity, health and wellbeing. While not logically impossible, this does seem unlikely. As such, the most reasonable bet is that the Trump administration will prove to be good for Trump and his fellow economic elites but not so good for everyone else.

After Trump won, a cottage industry of writing articles explaining why people supported him when doing so seemed contrary to their interests. It is, of course, tempting to liberal intellectuals to explain this support in terms of such things as racism. It is also tempting to think that people were willfully ignorant of Trump’s long history of misdeeds (such as how students were exploited by Trump University), that many of his supporters were pathologically delusional in believing that he would truly act in their interests or that they were simply stupid. I will, however, advance a different account, that the Trump supporters who will be hurt by Trump and the other Republicans are moral heroes.

While there are many ways to be a moral hero, one standard way is for a person to willingly suffer harm for the sake of the good of others. The stock philosophy 101 example is, of course, the soldier who throws themselves upon a grenade to save their fellows. This is often presented in utilitarian terms: the willing suffering of the few is outweighed by the good this generates for the many. If the Trump supporters knew they would be hurt by his policies, but believed that their suffering would make America great again, then they could be regarded as moral heroes for their sacrifice. If, however, they thought they would benefit from Trump’s policies and got it wrong, then they would not be moral heroes, but merely have been acting from self-interest.

While a noble sacrifice for the good of the many would be heroic, it does not seem that Trump’s policies will be good for the many Americans. Rather, it seems that Trump and his fellow Republicans will be crafting policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the many. For example, his tax plan will be amazing for the rich but harmful to those who are not well off. As such, without an assumption of ignorance, those who supported Trump and will be harmed by his policies cannot be considered moral heroes. At least in the context of utilitarianism. However, there are other moral theories and one of these might make them moral heroes.

Trump, like most people, does not seem to operate based on a considered moral theory. This is no more surprising than the fact that most people do not operate based on considering theories in physics, biology, medicine or engineering. However, these theories still apply to what people do and it is reasonable to consider what sort of moral theory Trump and his fellows would fit into.

The way Trump has treated contractors, students at Trump University, women and others indicates that Trump operates from selfishness. This would suggest that the most likely moral theory to apply to Trump would be ethical egoism. This is the view that a person should act to maximize value for themselves. Alternatively, that each person should act entirely in their own interest. This is in contrast with altruistic ethics, which include the view that each person should not always act solely in their own self-interest, but should consider others.

Ethical egoism seems to fit many Republicans and hence it is no surprise that the frat-bro Republican philosopher Paul Ryan has embraced the ethical egoism of Ayn Rand. To be fair, after John Oliver critiqued Rand, Ryan did assert that he does not embrace her objectivism. However, consideration of Rand’s policies show that they are consistent with the ethics of Rand as expressed in her view that selfishness is a virtue.

While Trump would seem to fit within ethical egoism, this moral theory would make the Trump supporters who will be hurt by Trump chumps and not heroes. After all, a moral hero in ethical egoism would be a person who acts to maximize their self-interest. This will typically be at the expense of others. A moral hero of an ethical egoist would not back Trump if they believed that doing so would be contrary to their interests and would not maximize value for them. However, there is still a chance for moral heroism.

While Trump certainly has the selfishness part of ethical egoism down, classical ethical egoism enjoins everyone to maximize their self-interest. In the ideal laid out by Adam Smith, this would result in competition that is supposed to benefit everyone by the magic of the invisible hand of the market.

It is true that Trump, Ryan and their ilk are presenting polices that do not just benefit themselves. Many of these polices do benefit others, but it is a select group of others, namely the economic elites. While this could be explained in terms of ethical egoism, that Trump and Ryan are doing the right thing because benefiting these elites benefits them (Ryan, for example, enjoys the financial backing of these elites and this enables him to get re-elected) there is also an alternative. This could be called “ethical oligarchism.” This is the moral view that people should act to maximize value (or in the interest of) the oligarchs. This can, of course, be a nationalistic ethics—that people of a country should act in the interest of their oligarchs. It could also be a general view that transcends borders—that everyone should act in according with the interests of the oligarchs of the world.

On this view, the Trump supporters who will harmed by Trump’s policies are moral heroes—they have sacrificed their own good for the good of the oligarchs.

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Guarding the Trumps

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2017


While it has not always been the case, the current practice is for the American taxpayer to foot the bill for extensive protection of the president and their family. When Bush was president, there were complaints from the left about the costs incurred protecting him when he went to his ranch. When Obama was president, the right criticized him for the cost of his vacations and trips. Not surprisingly, Trump was extremely critical of the expenses incurred by Obama and claimed that if he were president he would rarely leave the White House. Since Trump is now president, it can be seen if he is living in accord with his avowed principles regarding incurring costs and leaving the White House.

While Trump has only been president for roughly a month, he has already made three weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago club since the inauguration. While the exact figures are not available, the best analysis places the cost at about $10 million for the three trips. In addition to the direct cost to taxpayers, a visit from Trump imposes heavy costs on Palm Beach Country which are estimated to be tens of thousands of dollars each day.

Trump’s visit also has an unfortunate spillover cost to the Lantana Airport which is located six miles from Mar-a-Lago. When Trump visits, the Secret Service shuts down the airport. Since the airport is the location of twenty businesses, the shut down costs these businesses thousands of dollars. For example, a banner-flying business claims to have lost $40,000 in contracts to date. As another example, a helicopter company is moving its location in response to the closures. The closures also impact the employees and the surrounding community.

Since Trump also regularly visits Trump tower and his wife and youngest son live there, the public is forced to pay for security. The high-end estimate of the cost is $500,000 per day, but it is probably less—especially when it is just Melania and her son staying there. It must be noted that it cost Chicago about $2.2 million to protect Obama’s house from election day until inauguration day. However, Obama and his family took up residence in the White House and thus did not require the sort of ongoing protection of multiple locations that Trump now expects.

The rest of Trump’s family also enjoys security at the taxpayers’ expense—when Eric Trump took a business trip to Uruguay it cost the country about $100,000 in hotel room bills. Given that such trips might prove common for Trump’s family members, ongoing expenses can be expected.

The easy an obvious reply to these concerns is that the protection of the president and their family is established policy. Just as Bush and Obama enjoyed expensive and extensive protection, Trump should also enjoy that protection as a matter of consistent policy. As such, there is nothing especially problematic with what Trump is doing. Trump himself also contends that while he attacked Obama for taking vacations, when he goes to Mar-a-Lago and New York, it is for work. For example, he met the prime minister of Japan at Mar-a-Lago for some diplomatic clubbing and not for a weekend vacation in Florida.

A reasonable counter to this reply is to point out the obvious: there is no compelling reason why Trump needs to conduct government business at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. Other than the fact that Trump wants to go to these places and publicize them for his own gain, there is nothing special about them that would preclude conducting government business in the usual locations. As such, these excessive expenses are needless and unjustified.

There is also the harm being done to the communities that must bear the cost of Trump and his family and the financial harm being done to the Lantana Airport. Trump, who professes to be a great friend of the working people and business, is doing considerable harm to the businesses at the airport and doing so for no legitimate reason. This make his actions not only financially problematic, but also morally wrong—he is doing real and serious harm to citizens when there is no need to do so.

There is also an additional moral concern about what Trump is doing, namely that his business benefits from what he is doing. Both the Defense Department and Secret Service apparently plan on renting space in Trump Tower, thus enabling Trump to directly profit from being president. If the allegedly financially conservative Republicans were truly concerned about wasting taxpayer money, they would refuse this funding and force Trump to follow the practices of his predecessors. Or, if Trump insists on staying at Trump tower, the government should require that he pay all the costs himself. After all, being at Trump Tower benefits him and not the American people. Trump also gains considerable free publicity and advertising by conducting state business at his own business locations. He can, of course, deny that this is his intent—despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Just as the conservative critics of Obama were right to keep a critical eye on his travel expenses, they should do the same for Trump. While Trump can, as noted above, make the case that he is at least doing some work while he is at Trump tower and Mar-a-Lago, there is the reasonable concern that Trump is incurring needless expenses and doing significant harm to the finances of the local communities and businesses. After all, there is no reason Trump needs to work at his tower or club. As such, Trump should not take these needless and harmful trips and the fiscal conservatives should be leading the call to reign in this waster of public money and enemy of small businesses.

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