A Philosopher's Blog

The Tree of Community

Posted in Miscellaneous, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 18, 2011

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While I was doing some touch up painting on Thursday, a storm suddenly rolled in with wind, rain and a little thunder. As I was packing up my gear, I heard a tree fall. I went out to look and saw that it had fallen across the road in my home owners’ association. While it did not block my way out it did block some of my neighbors. Naturally, I went out to move the debris.

As I was clearing the debris, two of my neighbors came out. One woman helped as best she could with the branches and the other went to find out who to call about a huge tree in the road. The boyfriend of another neighbor came out and helped until he had to go, but he said he would be back with a winch to pull the tree out of the way. Another neighbor came out and offered to help clean up things, once the storm passed. At that moment, the rain began to pour down. Since we had cleared enough debris to allow people to get by the tree, everyone retreated from the rain.

While this was just a small thing, it does show what is best about people: our ability to join together to do good-even if it is just something like clearing a path through debris so that a neighbor coming home from work can get to her house. It is easy to forget that we are bound together by ties of our shared humanity and that being there for each other, even for the little things, is an essential part of being a good person.

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Sneakers of Summer

Posted in Miscellaneous, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 21, 2010
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When I was a kid, the start of the school year was always marked by getting a new pair of sneakers for school. The new pair would replace last year’s worn out sneakers. I vividly remember the soles of one pair flapping away and how the fresh cut grass would get through the holes and end up staining my socks.

Now that I am a professor, I can afford more than one pair of sneakers per year. In fact, I go through about four pairs of running shoes a year. However, I still remember those sneakers of summer.

This year I decided to honor those fallen sneakers by wearing a nice pair of sneakers while teaching this summer. While I do buy the dress shoes that are secretly running shoes on the inside, the sneakers felt much more comfortable. I suppose it is the sneaker magic.

I’m wearing them now as I type this in my office (I often write in advance). However, the fall semester teaching starts Monday and this marks the spiritual end of summer for me. So, the sneakers of summer are being retired from my teaching wardrobe and are back in the casual clothing category. I’ll miss them…at least until next summer.

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Disasters & God

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2010
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When natural disasters strike it is common for people to pray for assistance and rely on their faith for comfort. The earthquake that devastated Haiti has been no exception. When watching the news coverage of the terrible aftermath I saw many people mention how they had prayed and how they had been relying on their faith.

On one hand, it would seem to be cruel and callous to offer any philosophical discussion of prayer and faith in such a context. After all, in such a disaster people need something to sustain them and give them hope. If this involves faith, then so be it.

On the other hand, there is certainly something here well worth discussing.

When watching the news clips of people speaking about prayer and faith in the face of an earthquake, I was reminded of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. in philosophy, this event is best remembered in the context of Voltaire’s criticism of Leibniz‘ claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. After all, it is rather difficult to reconcile the idea of a benevolent and all powerful God with such natural disasters. David Hume also wrote on this problem and explicitly criticized Leibniz.

Rather than focus on the problem of evil, the point I am addressing is that it seems rather odd to pray to God in such a context. After all, if it is assumed that God exists and has the usual attributes (all good, all powerful and all knowing) then praying would make no sense. This is because the earthquake was allowed (or perhaps caused) by God. He knows about the event and hence prayer is not needed to let God know that a disaster has struck. Since He is all powerful, He could render aid. However, if He did not want the disaster to strike, then it would not have occurred. Praying to God would be like asking for help from the person who is punching you in the face-obviously that person is not going to render aid. Finally, if God is good then He would not need to be asked to help. A good being does not watch from the sidelines waiting for someone to beg for help. Further, if the initial disaster is compatible with God’s goodness (and perhaps part of his plan), then allowing people to continue to suffer would seem to be just as compatible. As such, praying for assistance would seem to make no sense at all (except insofar as a psychological salve).

As far as faith goes, it also seems odd to be sustained by faith in such situations. After all, God has shown that He is willing to allow terrible things to happen (or cause them to occur). Having faith in such contexts would seem to be somewhat like remaining in love with a cruel abuser. At the very least, if you look among the aid groups then you will see no angels. Oddly enough, God never shows up for His disasters.

Fortunately, people do. So, it makes sense to ask other people for help. Unlike God, we respond and take action. Then again, perhaps the reason for this is that there is no one here to help us but us.

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Puerto Rico: Running

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on December 30, 2009

Being an obsessive-compulsive runner, I have to run even when on vacation. While visiting Puerto Rico I ran everyday. For the most part, running in Puerto Rico was just like running in the States. Just like in the states, I had a few drivers honk and flip me off as they drove by. That made me feel right at home-after all, senseless hostility towards runners is all part of the American running experience.

There are two main differences between running in the States and running in Puerto Rico. The first is that it is always hot here. I would get up between 5:30 and 6:30 each day to run and it was typically in the mid 70s already. During the day the temperature would soar up into the high 90s. This is, I should remind you, in December. December is winter here, although winter seems to mean that it is marginally less hot that the summer. By “marginally less” I really mean “not at all.” By way of comparison, December here is like August in Tallahassee, Florida. So, if you plan on running in Puerto Rico, be prepared for the heat.

The second difference is that many community tracks have a shirt rule for men. I found this out when I was stopped by the track guard (tracks there also seem to have official enforcers of the track rules) and told, in Spanish, that I needed to wear a t-shirt while running on the track. At first I thought I was just being messed with, but the track rules had the shirt requirement posted. After I got the t-shirt and returned, I saw that there was a uniformed guard at the track and she watched me the whole time. Two of the tracks I went to did not have the t-shirt rule. Naturally, I did not bring any running shirts with me since 1) I knew Puerto Rico would be incredibly hot and 2) I had never heard of any track or city having a rule that required men to wear shirts while running. I had heard of some isolated communities that did have such ordinances-typically put through by mean old ladies who are apparently driven into righteous frenzies of anger by the sight of a man’s bare chest.

So, if you visit Puerto Rico and plan to run on the tracks, be sure to bring a suitable running shirt. I only had normal t-shirts and they made running around the track in the sweltering heat rather unpleasant.

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Big & Small

Posted in Business by Michael LaBossiere on December 14, 2009
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Once staggering like wounded giants, the big financial players have one again stood up straight, their heads in the financial clouds. Part of this is due to the huge infusion of our money. Part of this is due to actual financial recovery. Part is due to…well, whatever it is that makes the economy go.

These giants are doing well-well enough that big bonuses and massive paychecks are being handed out to the top folks. In short, it is almost business as usual for these folks. Of course, nothing really has been fixed and nothing substantial has been changed-so we can expect the problems that occurred before will occur again.

While the giants are doing well (or seem to be doing well), the little people who dwell in their vast shadows are not doing quite so well. One obvious problem is that unemployment keeps increasing as more and more jobs are lost. While there are various reasons for this, one main factor is that small businesses are not doing well. One significant part of this is that small businesses have to really heavily on loans in order to start up, stay in operation and expand. But, the giants who have the money seem loath to part with their gold (except to give it to the CEOs and top folks). So, the little folks stare up the giants and their cries for help go unheeded. Meanwhile, the federal government seems unwilling to provide support to the folks who need it most and where it would do the most good-the small businesses that employ the majority of Americans (or used to).

The stimulus plan did stimulate the big players and their CEOs, but the small folks find themselves joining the ranks of the employed. True, the rate is slowing down. But, of course, once a body has lost enough blood the gusher will slow to a trickle because there is so little blood left. Of course, a better option might be to let the big players fail and thus open the way for new businesses-hopefully ones who will hire more people rather than being the sort of business that hands millions to a CEO while firing people to boost stock value.

So, what should the government do? Should it keep shoveling money into the big players? Well, the big players and their lobbyists surely think so. However, this approach seems to have benefited the folks on Wall Street and left the rest of us holding the bill. So, if the government folks are going to step in again, they should think a bit less about their buddies on Wall Street and think more about the majority of Americans. This can be done by applying pressure to the big players to loan some of that taxpayer money to the taxpayers.

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Saudi Justice

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 26, 2009
Third Saudi State (present day) (Saudi Arabia)
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When Saudi trials make the news, it tends to make clear the nature of Saudi Society. In a recent incident, a female journalist was sentenced to 60 lashes and a two year travel ban because of her involvement in a Lebanese TV show, A Thick Red Line. This show covers social taboos and the episode that led to the sentence featured a Saudi man bragging about his sexual exploits.

Interestingly enough, the fellow was sentenced to five years in prison as well as 1,000 lashes. As such, his punishment was considerably harsher than that handed down against the woman.

The latest turn in this story is that the king of Saudi Arabia decided to pardon the woman. The king, who is regarded by many as working to modernize his country also pardoned a woman who had been a victim of a gang rape. She was to be punished with six months in prison and 200 lashes for being alone with a man not related to her.

While I see the appeal in whipping people who go on TV to brag about their sexual antics, the sentencing does seem to be rather unjust. After all, a basic moral principle of punishment is that it should be in proportion to the crime. In the case of the man, five years in prison and 1,000 lashes for bragging about his sexual activities seems quite out of proportion to any harm his actions might have caused. In the case of the woman, she seems to clearly not deserve that sort of punishment-or any punishment at all. As such, the king acted rightly in pardoning her.

Given that Saudi Arabia’s legal system is so harsh, that the country has some “interesting” connections to terrorism, and that it is a monarchy (a system of rule which directly opposes our political and moral philosophy of legitimacy) it is sometimes wondered why we are so closely allied to Saudi Arabia. The easy, obvious and correct answer consists of two facts: they have oil and they have an important strategic location next to other oil reserves.

If Saudi Arabia lacked oil and was located somewhere else, we would have no dealings with them-except, perhaps, to be critical of their legal system. Also, we most likely would have invaded the country after 9/11. Of course, without the money provided by the Saudi Osama Bin Laden, there might never have been a 9/11 attack.

As long as our economy relies on oil and as long as certain corporations (and families) maintain close relations to the Saudis, we will continue to stay allied with the Saudis. Of course, this is a marriage of convenience for them as well. If we did not have the money and power they need, they would most likely have nothing to do with us. After all, the sort of sexual bragging that they punish, we so often reward with book deals and TV shows.


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Debt Collection Abuses

Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2009
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Debt collectors generally have a bad reputation, but it has gotten even worse in the past year. Because of the economic mess, more folks are unable to pay their debts and the folks who are owed money need it even more badly. This has, not surprisingly, caused a surge in the intensity of debt collection tactics.

While abusive tactics are illegal and there have been recent crack downs, the problem of abusive tactics remains. Recently I saw a segment on CNN about a pending case in which it is being claimed that debt collectors literally hounded a man to death. The individual in question was out of work due to a heart condition and the collectors made mention of this in their calls, thus showing that they were quite aware of it.

While it seems somewhat unlikely that the needed causal connection between the collectors’ actions and the death will be established, it does seem likely that the collectors will be in some legal trouble in regards to their tactics.

While I am not in debt, I can attest to how annoying and harassing debt collectors can be. For the past week I have been getting a call each day from a collection agency looking for someone who just happens to have my last name. While the automated calls are not particularly rude, they are certainly annoying. This has also happened before, so I assume that debt collectors often do not believe they have an obligation to determine who they are calling. Since I find the calls I get rather annoying, I can imagine just how unpleasant it can be for folks who actually owe money.

While I do believe that folks who owe money are obligated to pay it back, debt collection agencies are also obligated to act within the law (obviously) and they are also not exempt from morality. As such, they should stay within the boundaries of the law or be properly punished.

If you do owe money and are dealing with debt collectors, it is important that you know your rights and the laws that debt collectors must follow. Obviously, you should not simply assume that they are following the law, especially if they are acting in ways that you find threatening, insulting, or harassing. While they do have a legal right to collect the debt, they must also operate within the law. If you believe that a debt collector is acting in a way that violate your rights or the law, then contact your state Attorney General’s office (www.naag.org) and the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov).

While some folks think that the government is inefficient and good for nothing, the folks in the AG and FTC can actually help you.

Speaking of the government, while there are laws limiting the actions of debt collection agencies, it seems likely that the state and private sector should address this problem. After all, there seem to be many folks who are in debt and cannot pay. This harms them as well as the folks they owe money. While I do not think that the state should bail people out, this problem does need to be addressed. Naturally, I’d like to put in a request that debt collectors cannot just call people who happen to have the last name of someone they are looking for.

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