A Philosopher's Blog

Motives for Terror

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2013
MQ-1L Predator UAV armed with AGM-114 Hellfire...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the evil and senseless bombing in Boston, there was considerable speculation about the motives of the bombers. Not surprisingly, some folks blamed their preferred demons: some on the left leaped to conclusions involving right-wingers while those on the right leaped to conclusions involving Islam.  As it turns out, the alleged murderers have a connection to Islam.

While some hold the view that there is a strong causal connection between being a Muslim and being a terrorist, the connection obviously cannot be that strong. After all, the vast majority of Muslims do not engage in terrorism. As such, beginning and ending the discussion of the motive for terror with Islam is not adequate.

When it comes to terrorist attacks against the United States, the stock explanation is that the terrorists are motivated by a hatred of our freedom. A common variation on that is that they hate democracy. Another explanation is that they simply hate the United States and other countries.

The explanation that terrorists are motivated by a hatred of our freedom (or democracy) does two main things. The first is that it casts the terrorists as enemies of freedom and democracy, thus presenting them as having evil motives. The second is that it casts the United States and its allies as being attacked because of their virtues. Crudely put, the bad guys are attacking us because they hate what is good.

The explanation that the terrorists simply hate the United States and its allies also does two main things. The first is that it casts the terrorists as simply being haters without any justification for their hate. The second is that it casts the United States and its allies as innocent targets. Crudely put, the haters are attacking us because they are haters.

In both of these approaches, the United States and its allies are presented as innocent victims who are being attacked for wicked or irrational reasons. What certainly helps support this narrative is that the terrorists engage in acts that are wicked and certainly seem irrational. After all, the people who are killed and injured are usually just random innocents who simply happen to be in the blast area at the time. Because of this, it is correct to condemn such terrorists as morally wicked on the grounds that they engage in indiscriminate violence. However, the fact that the direct victims of the terrorists are generally innocent victims of wicked deeds does not entail that the terrorists are motivated to attack innocent countries because they hate us, our freedom or our democracy.

One significant source of evidence regarding the motivation of terrorists is the statements terrorists make regarding their own reasons. In the case of the alleged Boston bomber, he claims that he was motivated by the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In the case of other terrorists, they have generally claimed they are motivated by the actions of the United States and its allies.

My point here is not to justify the actions of the terrorists. Rather, the point is that the terrorists do not claim to be motivated by the reasons that have been attributed to them. That is, they do not regard themselves as being driven to attack us because they hate our freedom or democracy. They do often claim to hate us, but for rather specific reasons involving our foreign policy. As such, these stock explanations seem to be in error.

It might be countered that the terrorists are lying about their motivations. That is, that they are really driven by a hatred of our freedom or democracy and are just claiming that they are motivated by our foreign policy and associated actions (like invading countries and assassinating people with drones) for some devious reason.

The obvious reply to this is that if terrorists were motivated by a hatred of freedom or democracy, they would presumably attack countries based on their degree of freedom or democracy. Also, a non-stupid terrorist would take into account the ease of attacking a country and what the country could and would do in response. Hitting the United States to strike against freedom or democracy would thus be a poor choice, given our capabilities and how we respond to such attacks (invasions, drone strikes and so on).  To use an analogy, if someone hated athletes, it would not be very sensible to get into a fist fight with a professional mixed martial artist when one could go beat up a marathon runner (who is not also a martial artist).

It might be countered that the United States is the symbol for freedom and democracy, hence the terrorists want to attack the United States even though they know that this will result in retaliation of the sort that many other democratic states cannot or would not engage in.

While this is not impossible, the more plausible explanation is that the terrorists are motivated by their hatred of our foreign policy. After all, invasions, assassinations and such tend to motivate people to engage in violence far more so than some sort of hatred of freedom or democracy.

It might, of course, be wondered why the motivation of terrorists matter. What matters is not why they try to murder people at a marathon but that they try to do such things.

While what they do obviously matters, why they do it also matters. While I obviously believe that terrorism of the sort that took place in Boston is evil, this does not entail that there are no legitimate grievances against the United States and its allies in regards to our foreign policies. To use an analogy, if Bob blows up Sam’s whole family because Sam killed Bob’s son, then Bob has acted wrongly. But this does not prove that Sam acted rightly in killing Bob’s son. In the case of the United States, the fact that we have been attacked by terrorists does not thus make our invasions or drone assassinations right. Now, it might turn out that our actions are right, but we cannot infer that they are just because terrorists do terrible things.

Sorting out what motivates terrorists is also rather useful in trying to prevent terrorism. If we assume they are motivated by their hatred of our freedom or democracy, then we would have to abandon our freedom or democracy to remove their motivation. This is obviously something that should not be done.

However, if some terrorists are motivated by specific aspects of our foreign policy (such as drone strikes that kill civilians), then it seems well worth considering whether we should change these policies. To use an analogy, if someone keeps trying to attack me because I am virtuous, then I obviously should not abandon my virtues just to stop these attacks. But if someone keeps trying to attack me because I keep provoking him, then I should consider whether or not I should be doing those things. It might turn out that I am in the right, but it might turn out that I am in the wrong. If I am in the wrong, then I should change. But if he is in the wrong, then I would be warranted in not changing (but I would need to be honest about why he is attacking me). For example, if he goes after me because I am stealing his newspaper and dumping leaves in his yard, then I should probably stop doing that. As another example, if he is going after me because I run past his house, then he should stop doing that.

The same would seem to apply to terrorists. If we are engaged in unjust actions that provoke people, then we should stop those actions. If, however, we are acting justly and this provokes people, then we should continue to the degree those actions are warranted and necessary. But we should be honest about why they area attacking us.

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Benghazi

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2012

By popular demand I am adding a post on Benghazi, specifically the attack launched against American personnel. This will allow a thread for people to present the talking points of their specific parties/ideologies.

My views on the matter:

  • Murdering people is morally wrong.
  • The murderers should be found and punished (most likely via Obama’s favored instrument of justice: the drone launched Hellfire missile).
  • If the administration acted improperly before, during or after the incident, then those responsible should be held accountable and punished appropriate (presumably not with a Hellfire missile).

That is what I have to say about the matter. This is the same view I had of the original 9/11 attack. It is interesting to see the difference between the reactions to these incidents in terms of the political leanings of those reacting.

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Targeted Killing & Due Process

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 12, 2012
English: Air Force officials are seeking volun...

I've got your due process right here...

After Anwar al Awlaki,  an American citizen, was specifically targeted and killed by a drone strike, serious questions arose regarding the legality and morality of this killing. From a legal standpoint, this sort of targeted killing seems to violate the 5th amendment of the constitution:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

As might be imagined, people have generally taken “due process of law” as requiring the proper  involvement of the legal system. One likely reason for this is that the amendment seems to be focused on the judicial rather than the executive aspects of the state. In regards to targeted killings, there is also the concern that such killings involve making a person “answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime”. If so, a targeted killing without such an indictment or presentment would violate the constitutional rights of the target.

In response to this sort of reasoning, Eric Holder replied as follows:

Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate. “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.

While I am not a scholar of constitutional law, the context of the 5th amendment seems to make it rather clear that the due process is, in fact,supposed to be a judicial process. Of course, since it is not worded as “judicial process”, this does open a legal door for interpreting what is meant by “due process.” As Holder sees it, in addition to following due process  the killing of an American citizen must meet four principles in order to be legal:

The principle of necessity requires that the target have definite military value. The principle of distinction requires that only lawful targets – such as combatants, civilians directly participating in hostilities, and military objectives – may be targeted intentionally. Under the principle of proportionality, the anticipated collateral damage must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. Finally, the principle of humanity requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering.

On the face of it, these principles seem rather reasonable in regards to justifying intentional targeting. After all, they boil down to saying that it is okay to target a lawful target that has military value provided that doing so does not cause excessive collateral damage and undue suffering is not inflicted. However, the most important issue of concern here is the matter of due process.

In terms of the legality, that is a matter that must be decided by the courts. As noted above, my view is that due process requires legal proceedings in the context of the judicial branch and that ordering such executions does not fall within the powers of the executive branch. Of course, I am not a legal scholar and hence my view has no weight beyond the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of my argument.

My view does not, I contend, infringe on the president’s role as the commander and chief of the armed forces. If an American citizen is killed in the course of combat because s/he took up arms against American forces, then the citizen was a legitimate target for the armed forces.

However, singling out an American citizen to be targeted and killed is another matter since that seems to be more properly an act of law and not of war. From both a moral and a legal standpoint, there does seem to be a rather important distinction here, namely that between the criminal and the enemy combatant. The mere fact that someone is engaged in activity harmful to the United States (including killing Americans) does not make that person an enemy combatant. Otherwise almost all criminals would be enemy combatants, which would be absurd.

As might be imagined, the stock reply to this view is that we are at war with terror and hence a targeted killing of an American citizen who  is involved in terrorism is thus an act of war. By this reasoning, the targeted killing would be an act of war, on par with having a sniper take out a turncoat among the enemy on the field of battle.

While this does have a certain appeal, there is the rather obvious concern that the war on terror is a rather vague sort of war. After all, terrorism tends to blend all too smoothly into the criminal world (and vice versa). This raises  legitimate concerns about the standards used to distinguish between those citizens who are enemy combatants and those who are merely criminals. As noted above, just because someone is actively harming America or even killing Americans does not automatically make that person an enemy combatant and thus outside of the normal judicial process. After all, Americans murder each other everyday, yet they are not enemy combatants. Also, having foreign ties to violent groups and engaging in violence because of this does not seem to suffice to make a citizen an enemy combatant. After all, there are and have been American citizens with ties to foreign groups (such as the Mafia and Mexican drug dealers) who have engaged in violence against Americans without being considered enemy combatants.

The stock reply to this sort of reasoning is that terrorists can be distinguished by their goals. Crudely put, while terrorists do often engage in traditionally criminal enterprises (such as the drug trade), they are not in it for the money but for some political or religious goal. In contrast, criminals are in it for the money or for some other non-political or religious goal (like revenge).

While this also has a certain appeal, there are obviously criminals who commit their crimes (such as killing abortion doctors or attacking political figures) based on political or religious motivations. These people can even have ties to foreign groups (such as transnational religious groups) and yet they are not enemy combatants.

The standard reply to this is to bring in that the person must be on foreign soil. While this does have some appeal, this would seem to allow the targeted killing of an American criminal who has fled to another country, such as Mexico, to hang out with his drug dealer allies.   As such, it seems rather difficult to make a clear distinction between a criminal and a terrorist that would clearly protect American citizens from being executed by the executive branch. While I will not call for an exact line to be drawn, I will call for more definite standards. I am, not surprisingly, in favor of erring on the side of considering citizens criminals rather than enemy combatants in cases in which the matter is not quite clear.

As I hope is evident, my main concern with Holder’s justification is that it makes it far too easy for the president to order the execution of American citizens without due judicial process. This, I contend, extends the president’s powers in a legally unwarranted and morally dubious manner. As such, the targeted killings of Americans without due judicial process should be regarded as both morally wrong and as a violation of the constitution.

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Indefinite Detainment

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2011
American Terrorist

Image via Wikipedia

While the actual threat of terrorism is rather minor (even the worry that terrorists might obtain a nuclear weapon clearly pales beside the fact that nations are already well armed with nuclear weapons) there is still an ongoing obsession with passing laws allegedly aimed at security.

As with many attempts to (allegedly) improve security, one of the more recent approaches has involved a clear infringement on rights and liberties. To be specific, the senate recently blocked an attempt to ban the indefinite imprisonment of Americans suspected of terrorism.

The stock justifications for allowing the military to detain American indefinitely are that terrorists are bad and that to not allow this sort of thing puts us in greater danger.

While it is true that terrorists are bad, rapists and murders are also rather bad. In fact, more Americans are killed by non-terrorists than terrorists and this would seem to thus warrant indefinite detainment of all dangerous criminals. This, as might be imagined, would run contrary to the basic legal rights of Americans. As such, the idea that terrorists are bad does not seem to warrant this difference in treatments.

As far as the security value of indefinite detainment, one obvious point of concern is that in order to detain a person, they must be discovered and arrested (or captured).  As such, the indefinite detainment does not seem to aid in actually capturing people. It merely allows people to be held indefinitely. While this could be justified on the grounds that a person who is detained indefinitely would do no more misdeeds, the same argument could be applied to anyone who poses a threat-which would include many non-terrorist criminals.

It might be argued that a terrorist is not entitled to the rights of a citizen since he is an enemy combatant. In the case of alleged  terrorists who have allegedly elected to serve a foreign power, they could be taken to be traitors. However, the matter becomes a bit muddled when the alleged terrorist is entirely domestic in allegiance and motivations. In such cases, the person could be taken to be a traitor in the sense that he would be allegedly making war on the United States. Of course, what would be needed is a clear distinction between a terrorist and a criminal who merely intends to murder Americans and destroy things. Perhaps this could be sorted out in a clear and principled manner.

Perhaps the most significant point of concern is that an American who is accused of being a terrorist in the United States is just that-an accused terrorist. Until it is legally established that an American is a terrorist, then he is merely a suspect and thus still entitled to the full legal rights of an American citizen. In other words, if an American is taken on American soil and denied his rights because he is alleged to be a terrorist, then his rights have been violated because he has been assumed guilty without trial. If he is to be justly stripped of such rights, then his status as a terrorist must be established.

If an American is captured outside of the United States while acting as an enemy combatant (for example, he is captured during an attack on an American base in Afghanistan), then a reasonable case could be made for treating him as an enemy combatant. However, he would still be an American citizen and must be subject to the American legal system. Naturally, if an American is killed while attacking American forces in an act of war, then that death would (in general) be justified.

A final point of concern is that indefinite detainment will be misused. After all, the most common application of the various “anti-terrorist” laws has been in the area of mundane crime (mainly drug crimes).  One obvious concern is that this approach could be used against people who are protesting against the government or who might be targeted for detention without trial.

It might be objected that I am “naive” and do not see “the danger.” My obvious reply is that this alleged danger does not warrant the violation of our basic legal rights. Each time someone wishes to erode rights they make these same sort of appeals to fear and “security.” While such fears might be sincere, they do not warrant an attack on the very liberties and rights they are allegedly created to defend.

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The Post Bin Laden World

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 8, 2011
osama bin laden t-shirt (1)

Image by Paul Keller via Flickr

Now that Bin Laden is dead it is natural to wonder what impact this will have on the world.

The pundits have, of course, speculated on what effect this will have on Obama’s chances in 2012. Obviously, this will have some positive influence on his chances. Equally obviously, the election is still a long way off and much can happen between now and then. At the very least, memory of this event will fade away (although it will be brought up again in 2012) and its influence on the American psyche will diminish with each passing day. As such, the obvious conclusion is that this will help Obama a bit, but will not be a major factor in 2012.

It is, of course, interesting to do a bit of counter-factual history. While killing Bin Laden won’t be a huge plus for Obama, if the mission had failed, then it could very well have been a major loss for him. While a failed mission would not have been as bad as the failure of Carter’s mission to rescue the hostages in Iran, it would certainly have made America look bad and would have given Bin Laden a nice piece of propaganda. Obama probably could have recovered from such a disaster, but it would have been a significant problem.

Another point of concern is what impact this death will have on terror. On the face of it, the impact would seem to be fairly minimal. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were not particularly active or impressive in recent years. After all Al Qaeda’s most famous attack in recent years (at least in America) was the underwear bomber. While Bin Laden no doubt served to inspire others, his influence and the influence of Al Qaeda seemed to have already been waning. As such, while killing Bin Laden was clearly important, the impact seems to be primarily symbolic rather than one that will radically change the world.

To engage in some more counter-factual history, if Bin Laden had been killed shortly after 9/11, then that would have most likely had a major impact. It could even be argued that his timely death might have resulted in the United States not going to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Returning to the actual world, his death might serve to remove some of the justification for our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. After all one of the reasons given for our presence in Afghanistan was to fight Al Qaeda and find Bin Laden. Since Bin Laden is dead, there is no reason to keep looking for him. Since the remains of Al Qaeda seem to be in Pakistan, there seems to be little compelling reason to stay in Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda. Of course, we seem to be stuck in Afghanistan which is a fate that history should have warned us against. After all, we actually used Afghanistan to grind the Soviets and hence we should have known better.

A third impact is that his death has enabled people to jump  on the Bin Laden funeral wagon and make a buck. Some of this is honest buck making: people are already pushing books and movie deals are in the works. Cyber criminal have also been busy exploiting his death by trying to sucker people into exposing themselves to malware by promises of photos of the dead Bin Laden.

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Bin Laden

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 2, 2011
A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

Image via Wikipedia

Almost a decade after 9/11, Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals.  While conspiracy theorists are already hard at work, it seems reasonable to believe that Bin Laden is dead and buried at sea.

There was considerable celebration in America and the general consensus seems to be that justice has been done. While this can be debated, Bin Laden certainly had earned a violent death.

One matter of considerable concern is what impact this death will have on the world.  On one hand, this event might be assessed as far less significant than it appears. After all, Al Qaeda’s significance had been steadily declining and it seemed to have been reduced to largely ineffective attacks (such as the underwear bomber). As such, Bin Laden’s death might actually have little impact since Al Qaeda was already in severe decline. In fact, it might be suspected that his declining significance led to his death-perhaps he was no longer worthy of Pakistan’s effort to protect him (assuming they had been protecting him).

On the other hand, the event can be regarded as very significant. First, it does seem important that the United States finally got him, even though it seems almost absurd that it took us a decade and vast expenditures of money to get him. As long as Bin Laden remained on the loose he showed that America could be attacked and that he could avoid our retaliation. This also helped create a myth of invulnerability about him-that God was watching out for him. His death certainly lays that myth to rest.

Second, there is the fact that his death can help bring some closure to 9/11. Of course, no matter how many people we kill, the dead will never return to life.

Third, his death should help Obama politically. While people have, oddly enough, been thanking Bush, the credit would seem to belong to Obama. America’s greatest perceived enemy was taken down at Obama’s order, which should help boost his approval ratings, at least for a while. It should also help reduce, if only slightly, the perception among some that Obama is a secret Muslim, weak, and unwilling to be tough on terror. Whether this will help Obama with the 2012 election or not remains to be seen-but it certainly will not hurt his chances.

Fourth, there is the obvious concern that Al Qaeda and others friendly to what is left of that organization will seek revenge. Of course, they have presumably been trying to kill us all along, so this impact might not be as great as it appears. Bin Laden had been rather effective at alienating many Muslims by being willing to kill other Muslims, so the number of people seeking vengeance for his death might not be as large as some might suspect.

Fifth, the fact that Bin Laden was found in Pakistan living in a mansion seems to indicate that he either enjoyed a generally positive relationship with influential people in Pakistan or that Pakistani intelligence is hopelessly inept (or perhaps just very unlucky). Of course, Pakistan is at best a dubious ally and has routinely worked with terrorist groups in the hopes of using them to counter India.

Sixth, his death will most likely serve to weaken or even destroy Al Qaeda (at least what is left of it). While it will no doubt inspire some people to seek vengeance, it will probably have a greater impact against terrorism. It is my hope that future historians will mark his death as the beginning of a major decline in terrorism. However, to hope and to receive are two very different things.

As a final point, I do wonder what sort of reception he received in the afterlife (if any).

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Who Are We Supporting in Libya?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 2, 2011
The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Image via Wikipedia

According to Obama, we are engaged in military operations in Libya because our principles and our interests justify (or require) us to be doing this. As far as the principles go, the idea seems to be that we are supposed to be keeping Qaddafi from slaughtering the rebels. As far as advancing our interests, there does seem to be a possibility that Qaddafi will be out and someone who might be more friendly to America will be in. Or maybe not.

Of course, to actually know whether we are acting in a principled way that also advances our self interest, we need to consider who we are supporting in Libya. Currently, the rebellion seems to be a disorganized affair with no central leadership. The rebels also seem to be poorly equipped and lacking in training (recent stories about the rebels include their firing a rocket the wrong way and not knowing how to use a mortar). There is also the fact that the rebels seem to be relatively few in number. As such, it would seem that we are backing a small number of poorly equipped and poorly trained rebels with no clear leadership who would certainly be defeated without our ongoing support.

Of course, that is not the full story. There have been indications that there are some competent combatants among the rebel forces. That is the good news, I suppose. The bad news is that they seem to be Al Qaeda and Hezbollah fighters. That is, one might imagine, bad news for the United States. Unless, of course, we want to get the band back together for an 80s reunion.

So, we are backing a small number of poorly equipped and poorly trained rebels with no clear leadership whose few competent combatants appear to be enemies of America. This does not sound like an ideal situation.

To address some of these problems, the CIA has been active in the region and there are plans to provide them with arms and presumably training. Meanwhile we will presumably keep providing support via our military operations. I can only assume that we are hoping some sort of leadership will emerge and that more of the population will join the fight against Qaddafi. However, it looks like we are heading down the path of ever increasing American involvement. We started with a no-fly zone, then started hitting ground forces, and now the CIA is actively involved. This would seem to put us on the path to a real war (declared or not) against Libya. After all, until Qaddafi is deposed or the rebels give up, we will be stuck in the situation (unless we are willing to leave the rebels to be slaughtered).

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The War on Food

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 27, 2010
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Image by Marion Doss via Flickr

One of our Christmas gifts was a heightening of the terror alert level in anticipation of attacks during the busy travel season. While no Christmas attacks materialized (perhaps because of the crippling storms), we did have a new episode in the War on Food. 89 people in 15 states (and the District of Columbia) were victims of food borne salmonella. Fortunately, swift action was taken to deal with this problem.

While a food safety bill was recently passed, this most recent incident serves to underscore the need for even more reform in food safety. Now, if Al Qaeda had dropped the salmonella into the food supply, I suspect that the reaction from pundits and politicians would be rather interesting. However, it is an interesting fact that a failed attempt by an underwear bomber resulted in a multi-million dollar makeover of airport security while these sort of incidents generate relatively little change. Now, if government contractors stood to make millions protecting us from food based dangers and politicians could ride a wave pf food paranoia into office, then I would suspect much more would be done.

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Food Safety

Posted in Business, Law by Michael LaBossiere on December 21, 2010
:Original raster version: :Image:Food and Drug...
Image via Wikipedia

While it is often claimed that America has the safest food in the world, a look back at various food contamination problems shows that there were serious problems in the system.

To address some of these problems, the Food Safety Modernization Act was recently passed. The final vote in the house was 215-144.

While I am reasonably well informed, I was somewhat surprised to learn that until this act passed the FDA had no power to issue recalls of foods. Instead, the companies had to voluntarily issue recalls.

While this is a step in the right direction, health issues regarding food are still are serious problem. In addition to the matter of contamination, there are also concerns about chemicals getting into foods-perhaps leaching in from the containers or otherwise getting into food.

It might be argued, as some have, that increasing the regulation of food and food safety will be bad for business and cut into profits. After all, if food companies have to ensure that their food is clean and uncontaminated by chemicals, then their operation costs will increase and this will lead to all manner of evils. There is also the worry about the state getting into the business of business.

There are two obvious replies. First, the costs that are created by contaminated food in terms of illness and so on would seem to be higher. Also, these costs are pushed onto the consumer-they have to pay when they get sick (unless they can win damages). Second, it is the job of the state to protect us from such harms. If Al Qaeda or some other terrorist groups were intentionally causing the  illness and deaths caused currently by the relevant food problems, we’d be spending billions on defense, probably start another war, and Republicans would be screaming for action and demanding that liberties be set aside in the name of safety. Now, if we can do this for a minor and irregular  threat like terrorism, we surely can step up our defenses against this sort of major, ongoing threat to the health and well-being of Americans.

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The Ethics of Wikileaking, Revisited

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 6, 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

My ethical principle regarding leaks is based mainly on the principle of utility: a leak is morally justified when it will bring about more happiness for humanity and wrong when it will bring about more unhappiness. Naturally, this general principle might need to be tweaked in specific circumstances.

In the case of leaking information to the world, the main avenue of moral justification seems to be that the leak reveals misdeeds or illegalities. People who commit misdeeds would seem to have little moral claim to secrecy and the rest of the world would seem to have the right to know about so injustices so that they might be rectified or, at the very least, exposed to the light of day.

If Wikileaks had merely leaked information relating to morally questionable acts or illegalities, then I would have regarded such leaks as morally acceptable and even laudable. However, the folks at Wikileaks have crossed a moral line by publishing a cable providing a list of  resources and assets “whose loss could critically impact the public health, economic security, and/or national and homeland security of the United States.”

While some of the potential targets are obvious (dams, telecommunication systems, strategic areas, etc.), the leaked information provides rather specific details that would be rather useful to anyone interested in attacking the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries where these potential targets are located.

This information does not, obviously enough, seem to reveal to the world misdeeds, illegalities or injustices that need to be exposed to the light of day. As such, this leak cannot be morally justified on these grounds.

The leak does, however, provide useful information to those who might wish to attack democratic countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

It might be argued that the leak is acceptable because the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies do bad things. As such, they are being justly punished by revealing critical information to their enemies and potential enemies.

However, this is easy enough to counter.

The main opponents of the West include various terrorists groups as well as rather undemocratic countries such as North Korea and Iran. As such, Wikileaks would seem to be aiding organizations and countries that seem to be morally inferior to the West. Obviously, the Western nations are not moral angels, but they seem to be objectively better than Al Qaeda and North Korea, for example. Compare, to use a specific example, the rights of women in the West with the treatment of women by groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As another example, consider the individual liberties in the United Kingdom versus those in North Korea.  As a final example, compare the relative openness of the United States with the secrecy of China. Making attacks on the West easier does not aid a morally superior side (which could justify the leak). Rather, it aids a morally worse side. As such, the leak is morally unacceptable.

In a previous post, I noted that I had questions about the wisdom and moral authority of the folks at Wikleak. This latest release has answered those questions. I no longer have any doubts about their lack of wisdom and moral authority.

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