A Philosopher's Blog

Sending the Homeless Home

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 9, 2013
English: Homeless man in New York 2008, Credit...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, the individual states vary considerably in terms of the welfare systems they offer. As might be imagined, word gets around regarding the states with the “best” programs and these states tend to attract larger numbers of homeless people seeking to avail themselves of the welfare. One of my friends, who worked as a police officer in Maine, asked a homeless person why he came all the way to Maine. His answer was “all the free stuff.”

From the standpoint of the homeless, this migration is a smart move. To use the obvious analogy, just as our ancestors left areas of lean hunting and gathering for better areas, the modern nomads are leaving areas of leaner welfare for areas that provide more free stuff.

As might be imagined, many people in the states that attract large numbers of homeless people are concerned about the drain on the resources of their states as well as the various problems that arise with an increased homeless population.

Some people, who are more liberal minded, have put forth the idea that the states should establish a common level of welfare and social programs, thus distributing the cost of welfare by removing the motivation to migrate to richer gathering grounds. As might be guessed, the states that have the lower level of welfare are not particularly inclined to increase their welfare spending—either because of financial difficulties or political ideology (or both).

Some states have hit on the idea of encouraging the migration of the homeless back to their home states. Hawaii recently created a $100,000 fund for its “return-to-home” program that is intended to reduce the population using its welfare system. The idea is that homeless people would be transported (at the state’s expense) by ship or plane back to where they came from (or, at least, some state other than Hawaii).

The main argument for this is financial: while transporting the homeless will have an initial cost, the claim is that this will be recouped by the savings arising by not having the person utilizing the state’s welfare system.

A financial objection to this is that the cost of running the program will exceed the savings. After all, it is not just a matter of buying a homeless person a ticket—there would need to be the usual bureaucracy to make all this happen. There is also the obvious concern that people would come to Hawaii knowing that they would be guaranteed a trip home at the taxpayers’ expense—this is a rather obvious potential unintended consequence.

A non-financial concern is that compelling American citizens to leave a state without their consent would seem to be legally problematic. That is, the state cannot simply round up the homeless and load them onto a ship bound for California. There are, of course, ways that this could be worked around and laws could be passed to allow just that to occur. However, as it stands, the state would have to rely on people voluntarily choosing to leave. The problem is that if people are there for the welfare, the promise of a free trip out of the state would probably not be appealing. This is not to say that some people would not take this option, but it seems unlikely that it would result in a significant purge of the homeless.

There is also to moral concern regarding the ethics of addressing the homeless problem by shipping homeless people elsewhere. In addition to the initial moral concern about shipping people out of the state, there is also the concern regarding where the people will be sent. After all, it hardly seems right for Hawaii to try to “solve” its problem by shipping homeless people to some other state or states. To use an analogy, this seems like a parent who “solves” the problem of the expense of taking care of his children by shipping them off to another relative. This hardly seems right for the children or the relatives.

Naturally, a general argument can be made against welfare.  By arguing that the relation between the state and the homeless is such that there is no obligation to provide them with welfare, it could be contended that the solution to the homeless problem is to simply stop providing welfare to them (or to severely reduce it). This would “solve” the problem in that even if the homeless elected to remain in a state, they would receive nothing. While this option has been proposed, it certainly seems to be a wicked thing to do—at least in regards to those who are homeless through no fault of their own.  Also, this “solution” would simply move the problem—the homeless would presumably leave the state with no or little welfare for a state with a “better” system, thus burdening this state. If all the states elected to cease to provide welfare, the migration would presumably stop, but the moral price of an entire nation turning its back on the homeless would be high.


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Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 16, 2012
English: A chronically homeless individual inh...

English: A chronically homeless individual inhabiting a bus shelter in Porter Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, the number of homeless shelters increased in the 1980s due to a variety of factors. One factor was the recession of that time which resulted in more people being unable to afford housing. A second factor was a shift away from single room housing. Though rather limited in size, this sort of housing was cheaper than the alternatives. Back in the early 1990s, some of my fellow graduate students lived in singles, but these seemed to be (like most graduate student housing) relics from another time. A third factor was the infamous closing of mental institutions and reduction in care for the mentally ill. While proponents of the approach lauded the cost savings, some critics saw it is as simply dumping the ill onto the streets.

In the face of this surge in homelessness religious groups, charitable organizations and governments increased the number of homeless shelters. The intent was to provide people with a place to stay until they could sort out their problems and thus be able to have a permanent home. This approach does make a certain sense and did work in some cases. After all, it seems reasonable to infer that people become homeless because of problems (financial, mental and so on) and that once these problems are fixed, then a person will be ready to have a home. Unfortunately, this approach did not prove very successful and there are about 640,000 homeless Americans with about 110,000 of them being chronically homeless.

Fortunately, an alternative approach seems to be having a more positive impact. This approach reverses the old approach: rather than “fixing” people so that they are ready for permanent homes, this approach involves getting the homeless into more home-like shelters or permanent housing. Those who need treatment are given treatment and the results seem to have been very positive: 85% of those involved in this approach remain in their homes rather than ending up back on the streets.

While this approach seems to have merit, there is the stock concern that the state funded programs are wasting the taxpayers’ money by supporting free-riders. Somewhat ironically, the troubled economic times that increase homelessness also decrease the funding available for such programs and also gives some support to claims that scarce financial resources should be better used, perhaps by allowing more tax breaks for the job creators. As such, there seem to be two main arguments against funding such programs with state money.

The first is a utilitarian argument. Because of the recession, there is less state money available than what was normal before. As such, it is even more important that the money be spent effectively. Putting money into shelters, programs and permanent housing for the homeless would yield less positive results than using the money elsewhere (such as deficit reduction, tax breaks for the job creators or maintaining infrastructure). As such, the money should be spent in these other areas rather than in addressing the problem of homelessness.

This argument can, of course, be countered by showing that the money spent on addressing homelessness would be less than the cost of not addressing the problem. If this is the case, than the cost argument favors spending the money rather than incurring the costs that can be avoided or mitigated by spending.

While homelessness is clearly bad for the people who are homeless, it also is rather costly to society as a whole.

One area of cost is the medical costs of homelessness. On average, homeless people average hospital stays four days longer than comparable non homeless people. This costs about $2,414 per hospitalization. Also, since homeless people tend to not have insurance, the cost is born either by the state (that is, us) or by those with insurance (in the form of increased premiums).

Not surprisingly, people do become homeless because of medical problems and medical problems are also caused by being homeless. Those who are homeless are more likely to become ill than those who have homes and are more likely to suffer from problems of greater severity. As such, homelessness adds a burden to the health care system, especially the emergency rooms. Addressing the problem of homelessness would help reduce these costs.

Another area is crime and prisons. People who are homeless tend to spend more time in prison than the non-homeless. In some cases, they are arrested for “general” criminal activity, but they are often arrested for breaking laws that are aimed specifically at the homeless, such as laws against loitering and begging.

While prisons can be quite profitable for the private companies that run them, it costs an average of $20,000 a year to keep a person in prison. The specific costs vary due vary. For example, a prison stay in California costs $47,000 a year. While those who profit from prisons will not see it this way, reducing homelessness would be a good thing because it would mean fewer people in prison and thus lower the cost to the taxpayers.

A third factor is the cost of emergency shelters—the traditional homeless shelter. These shelters are considerably more expensive than the cost of a permanent residence. As such, permanent housing would provide a savings over temporary shelters.

Naturally, it is reasonable to wonder what impact the permanent home programs might have on the cost to society of homelessness.

One program resulted in a savings of $2,449 per person each month compared to the cost of temporary shelters. A study in my home state of Maine  showed that the permanent housing approach yielded a 57 decrease in the cost of mental health services, mainly due to a 79% reduction in the cost of hospitalization. In Los Angeles, a study showed that putting four people into permanent housing saved over $80,000 per year.

Of course, this savings assumes that the temporary shelters would be funded. For those willing to allow homeless people to live on the streets, this sort of program would not yield the highest savings. After all, the cost of housing the homeless on the street would be nothing. Of course, this would not reduce the other costs associated with homelessness and would almost certainly increase them. After all, people living on the street are more likely to get ill or injured and also more likely to be arrested.

Of course, the medical costs could be addressed by changing the law so that people can be refused even emergency medical care if they cannot pay and ending all state-funded treatment programs for addiction and mental illness. That is, we could entirely abandon the homeless, other than providing them with prison when they are arrested. Of course, there would still remain the question as to whether or not this would result in a cost saving. After all, the abandonment approach might result in a large enough increase in number of homeless people being imprisoned to offset the savings from abandonment. Naturally, this does not take into account the moral cost of abandonment, just the financial cost.

Overall, the evidence does seem to be that providing permanent housing for the homeless would be a cost saver, though perhaps not as big a cost saver as comprehensive abandonment. The second argument is a moral argument or, rather, various moral arguments. One stock argument is based on the idea that we have no moral obligations to others and hence it is not the case that we should provide such support to the homeless. On this view, we could provide such support, but we are not obligated to do so.

A second stock argument is that providing such support is immoral because it creates a culture of dependency. That is, by providing the homeless with permanent homes and treatment for any health problems they might possess they are learning to depend on others and will be unable to carry their own weight. While not supporting them might seem harsh, the argument is that this sort of “tough love” will enable then to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

While this line of reasoning has some appeal, one obvious reply is that this approach seems analogous to addressing a broken leg by refusing to treat it because putting a cast on a broken leg will just make the person dependent on the cast.  As with a broken leg a person whose life is broken needs support until she can stand on her own again.

One reply to this is that while this might hold for those who will be able to stand on their own, it does not address the problem of those who will remain dependent on support forever. These people, it can be argued, are just parasites and should not be supported.

I do, of course, agree that someone who is just free-riding the system should not be supported. However, the number of people who will become homeless and unemployed just so they can free-ride seems to be rather low (but more than nothing). After all, most people want to be self-supporting rather than dependent on others. To deny people who need the support to rebuild just because some small percentage of people would free-ride seems as unreasonable as getting rid of handicapped parking because some people will get decals for those spaces that they are not really entitled to.  It can also be countered that supporting a free-rider in such a program would be cheaper and less damaging than having them free-riding on the alternative system.

Another stock moral argument against providing support for other people is that those being supported are stealing from the taxpayers by having their housing and treatments being paid for by others. As such, the homeless are morally in the wrong and we should not enable their theft by allowing such programs. Alternatively, the homeless people could be cast as being pawns used by the politicians who are stealing money from taxpayers and giving it to the homeless. Or, for extra immorality, the homeless and those who enable such support can be seen as being in wicked (or at least misguided) cahoots.

One obvious reply is that by this sort of reasoning we all spend years as thieves. After all, as children we live off our parents (or whoever is keeping is alive), we steal education from the state (or whoever is paying for it), and until we pay enough in taxes to pay for all the public goods and services we use we are stealing every time we walk down a public sidewalk, drive on a public street or go to free a public park. We also steal from all those who have come before us and who enabled us to live in a modern society with technology, medicine and such. That is, we are all beneficiaries of the labor, money and ideas of others. As such, it would be somewhat hypocritical to regard the homeless as thieves because they are assisted by others.

The obvious reply is that the non-homeless who do pay taxes (and presumably pay off their financial debt to their families) eventually pay back what they stole (or borrowed) from society when they were young thieves. Of course, the same could be said of the homeless—if they are able to return to society and work, they can repay what they owe to others.

This does not, however, address the problem presented by those who will either never be able to return to contributing to society or who will not be able to repay what they cost society, perhaps because of mental illness. The obvious reply to this is that it would seem unreasonable to see such people as thieves. It could, of course, be argued that we should be rid of those who cannot support themselves—but this would be a different moral argument than the one based on thievery.

What, then, about people who could return to society but elect to be free-riders? That is, their situation is entirely a matter of choice and tomorrow they could be at a job earning enough to pay their own way. In this sort of case it would be reasonable to regard these people as thieves. After all, they are taking what they could earn by honest labor and there would be (by the scenario presented) no justification for them receiving support. However, these cases seem to be rather limited in number (but more than none, I am sure). As argued above, the fact that a very few people might exploit something intended to help people in need does not give an adequate reason to treat everyone in such a program as being an exploiter.

In light of the above arguments, providing permanent housing for the homeless seems to be both a cost saver and morally acceptable.

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Video Game Ban

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2011
Arcade Video Game

Image via Wikipedia

I have been using my budget-cut based summer break from teaching to do various home improvements. The point of mentioning this is that I have been alternating between baking in the Florida sun and being exposed to “second hand paint fumes” (as opposed to directly huffing the stuff) as such, my writing might be a bit off. I have checked for any obvious weirdness (well, weirdness beyond the usual sort), but I apologize in advance for any heat/paint induced lapses in logic. I blame the flying frogs that seem to be infesting my house now. In any case, down to business.

The United States supreme court recently ruled that California’s law banning the sale of  video games to minors that “depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” The ruling was, of course, based on the first amendment.

Being both a gamer and an ethicist, I have thought (and written) a fair amount about the banning video games. On the one hand, a very reasonable case can be made for placing age based restrictions on video games. While studies of the impact of virtual violence on children are hardly conclusive, it seems reasonable to accept that exposure to virtual violence can have an impact on how the child thinks. As Aristotle has argued, people become habituated by what they do. Children are, of course, even more likely to be influenced. They are more receptive than adults and tend to lack the cognitive resources that adults are supposed to possess. As such, it seems reasonable to keep young children away from violence-even the virtual sort.

On the other hand, there are reasonable grounds for rejecting such bans. First, there are reasons for doubting that such games have a significant impact on children. The psychological studies are open to question and, of course, humans seem to be naturally prone to violence ( the stock “we like violent games because we are violent, we are not violent because of the games” argument). When I was a kid, long before violent video games, we spent a lot of time playing war. While the effects were not very special (cap guns), we certainly did act out killing each other. When violent video games came along, they simply allowed me to do what I had done as a kid (play at killing) only with ever better graphics and effects). As such, banning violent video games to protect children from the influence of violence seems like something that simply will not work, thus making such a law unnecessary.

Second, there is the matter of freedom of expression and consumption. While minors do have a reduced right of freedom of consumption (they cannot but alcohol, tobacco, guns or porn), imposing on their freedom only seems justified when it protects them from a significant harm in cases in which they lack the judgment to (in theory at least) make an informed choice. Even if violent video games have a harmful impact, it can be contended that the harm is not on par with that of adult vices such as alcohol or tobacco but rather on par with junk food. So, just as it is sensible to think that children should not eat junk food, yet also think there should not be laws banning children from buying candy bards, it seems sensible to think that although young kids should not buy violent video games, there should not be laws against doing so.

Third, there is the matter of what is fit for the state to control and what is fit for parents to control. There are, obviously enough, matters that should be handled by the state and those that should remain a matter of parental choice.  Alcohol, guns and tobacco are so dangerous that it seems reasonable that the state has a interest in keeping children away from these things by force of law. There is also a category of things were the state should aid parents in making choices, such as diet and exercise, but where the state should not intervene except in extreme cases. As noted above, I am inclined to put violent video games in the category of junk food. As such, parents should be informed about what the games contain (which is already done by the rating system) and the choice of whether or not their children play the games or not should be up to them. Naturally, children who lack parents or whose parents are dangerously incompetent will fall under the domain of the state, but these would be relatively rare cases.

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Violent Video Games & Censorship

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 3, 2010
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
Image via Wikipedia

While there is more than enough real violence in the world, the Supreme Court of the United States is turning its attention to a law suit regarding California’s law that regulates the sale of violent video games to minors.

Being a gamer, I am well aware of the sort of extremely violent content of certain video games. I am also aware that games, like movies, come with a rating that makes it fairly clear as to what sort of content the game features. However, the age based rating system does not actually prevent younger people from buying the game. So, for example, a nine year old could walk into a game store and walk out with a video game rated for mature (17+) audiences and then spend the rest of the day killing virtual hookers and stealing virtual cars. Assuming, of course, that he was allowed to do so by his parent(s) or guardian. Not surprisingly, this possibility does raise some legitimate concerns.

The focal point of the conflict is between free expression and the notion that the state should protect children from possible harm.

On the side of freedom of expression, the concern is that imposing restrictions based on the content of video games would be a form a state censorship and thus an imposition on the legitimate rights of game makers and their customers. Since there are very good arguments for freedom of expression and freedom of consumption (as usual, I defer to Mill here), the case against restricting the sale of violent video games to minors seems to be rather strong.

Of course, those who favor such restrictions can also make a strong case. After all, there are legitimate concerns that violent video games can influence the behavior of children and have other negative consequences. Perhaps the strongest foundation for banning such sales is that children are generally regarded as lacking the same rights as adults when it comes to consuming potentially harmful products. To use some obvious examples, children cannot legally purchase tobacco, alcohol or pornography. If violent video games fall into the category of being harmful and suitable only for adults, the arguments against allowing children to buy smokes, booze and porn can thus be employed against violent video games. In general, a reasonable case can be made that children should be subject to more restrictions than adults-even Mill takes this view. At the very least, children are far less capable of making rational decisions and tend to be more vulnerable than adults (of course, adults can be irrational and vulnerable as well).

One obvious concern is that if censorship is permitted on the basis of violence (something Plato would agree with) then this opens the door to more restrictions. For example, I am looking at the warning label on Wrath of the Lich King and it warns me that in addition to blood and gore the game features suggestive themes and the use of alcohol. Perhaps the next step will be to limit games that have such content. Then the next step might be to restrict movies or even books that mention such things. This is not, of course, a slippery slope argument. Rather, it is a matter of precedent: if the sale of video games can be restricted based on content, then this would seem to extend logically to other media, such as books.

Of course, video games do differ from other media in that they are interactive and this might entail that they have a stronger influence on children. So, for example, being the one to virtually run over hookers in a stolen  car would have more impact than merely reading about a person running over hookers. Or seeing a story on the news about people being killed for real. Or living in a violent world. This interactivity might provide the basis for a relevant difference argument and a way to prevent (if desired) a slide from video games to other media (such as books).

Another avenue that the video game censors have gone down is that of pornography. As noted above, minors cannot legally buy porn. If it is right to ban the sale of porn to kids, then the arguments for this can probably be modified to argue against allowing kids to buy violent video games. Not surprisingly, Plato argues for banning material relating to both violence and lust. His argument, oversimplified a bit, is based on the corrupting influences of such material. Of course, Plato argued for a comprehensive ban and not just a restriction on selling to minors. This does lead to the obvious question: if something is too harmful to sell to children, then might it not be too harmful for adults as well? Of course, the usual counters are that adults should have the liberty to harm themselves (as per Mill) and that adults are better able to resist the nefarious influence of such things (or that it is okay for adults because they are adults).

I am somewhat divided on this issue. On the one hand, I am for freedom of expression and consumption. Hence, my general principle is to oppose such censorship/restriction on the basis of liberty (availing myself of Mill’s arguments). On the other hand, having played video games such as the  Grand Theft Auto games I am aware that some games feature content that strikes  me as inappropriate for kids. For example, a friend once asked me if she should get Grand Theft Auto III for her son. Without hesitation,  I said “no.” My reasoning was that a young kid lacks the intellectual and emotional development needed to confront such violent and sexual content. I did see the irony in this: a person should be mature before playing what might seem like a morally immature game. However, I believe that I gave the right advice and would follow the same approach if I had kids of my own. Not surprisingly, things change a bit when one switches from rights in the abstract to what, for example, your own child will be playing.

There is, however, still the question of what the state should do. After all, there is a distinction between what I would suggest to my friends who have kids and what I would want to be a matter of law. For example, I think that kids should not eat junk food all the time, but I would be against a law banning the sale of junk food to kids. Rather, this is something that the parents (or guardians) should handle. While junk food is not healthy, the danger it poses is not so immediate that the compulsive power of the state is required. Rather, this seems best suited for parental control. In short, the burden of proof rests on those who would extend the power of the state.

In the case of video games, I take a similar view. While I do recognize that video games can (like junk food) things that are not so good, they do not seem to present a clear an immediate health threat that requires the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. Rather, this is a matter that seems to be more suited for parental control.

It might be replied that some children do not have adequate supervision and hence might just buy violent video games and play them. However, I am inclined to be more concerned that the children lack such supervision than with them playing a violent video game. In fact, if that is the worst they do, then things could be far worse.

It might also be argued that children would simply buy such games and play them without their parents being aware of it. Hence, making the sale of such video games illegal would provide an extra barrier between the kids and the content of the games. While this does have some appeal, kids can easily bypass this. After all, if they have their own money to buy video games, they can buy them online or get someone else to buy them. As such, the protection value of such a ban would seem to be rather minimal if the parents are, in effect, unable to supervise their children.

As such, I hold that the sale of such video games should not be restricted by law. However, I do think that making the nature of the content clear so that parents (and others) can make informed choices is a good idea. I also hold that parents should male responsible choices about what games their kids play. Of course, what counts as a responsible choice is a matter for another time.

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For-Profit Colleges & Your Tax Dollars

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2010

When I first learned about for-profit colleges, I had mixed feelings. As a philosopher, I was somewhat appalled at the idea of transforming the education process into a crass money making machine. As an experienced academic, I had some vague hope that for-profit schools could offer more people a lower priced education by slashing away the costly bureaucratic fat (or “bureaufat”) that has accumulated at many schools. As a somewhat cynical person, I suspected that the for-profit schools would find clever ways to exploit people and siphon money from the government.

As usual, my cynical self seems to have been correct.

One rather interesting fact about the for-profit colleges is that they have less than 10% of the post-secondary students, yet get 23% of the federal aid dollars (based on data from 2008-2009. Another interesting fact is that this federal aid provides 87-93% of the income of these for-profit colleges. A third rather interesting fact is that these colleges have a profit margin ranging from 16 to 37%, which is outstanding.

The “secret” to generating such profits is hardly a secret. While there is a popular myth that private sector for-profits can deliver better services for less money, the for-profits seem to charge a great deal. For example, Kaplan intended to charge students in California $646 for a three credit hour class that would cost $78 at a community college.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with charging high fees, especially when there are alternatives. However, it seems that some for-profit schools have engaged in wrongful deeds in making money. Recent investigations have revealed significant problems with fraud and abuse. For example, students were apparently encouraged to lie on their financial aid forms so as to receive federal financial aid or increase the aid received. While the students obviously are culpable as well, encouraging people to commit fraud is not something that these schools should be doing. However, since this aid is a major source of their income, it is hardly surprising that they would do all they can to maximize their profits.

For-profit colleges like to point out that they have a higher graduation rate than community colleges and they use this to attract students. However, an analysis of the data seems to reveal that their graduation rates are not quite what they claim. What is not in dispute, however, is that students of the for-profit schools lead the nation in defaulting on their student loans. Since the loans come from taxpayer dollars, this means that the burden falls onto us. While the people who default are responsible for the loans, the for-profit schools seem to be a causal factor as well. One obvious possibility is that there is a connection between the fraud that the schools allegedly encourage so that students can maximize their financial aid and students being unable to pay back that money. Another possibility is, as noted above, the graduation rate of the for-profit schools is not as good as they claim. People who do not finish school are less able to pay off loans and perhaps less inclined to do so.

I think that properly regulated for-profit schools could have a place in education.  After all, such schools could (in theory) offer a lower cost alternative to traditional schools. However, the current crop of for-profit schools seem to be far too problematic, primarily because they seem to be placing profit above everything else, even ethics. What is especially bad, at least from the standpoint of the taxpayers, is that the for-profit schools seem to making their profits by milking the government (and hence us).

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The Procreation Argument

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2010
NYC Proposition 8 protest 26
Image by david_shankbone via Flickr

At this point, I must admit a certain weariness in regards to the battle over same-sex marriage. It is not that I have lost my concern about fairness or equality. It is simply that at this point it feels like this matter should be settled and same sex marriage (or, more aptly, marriage of same sex couples) should be legal.

I think the reason that I have grown weary of the debate is that the arguments being presented against same sex marriage are seriously flawed and yet keep getting presented over and over. In short, I suspect I am exhausted because these arguments and claims are exhausted.

For example, during the recent hearing regarding Proposition 8, the tired old claim that  “responsible procreation is really at the heart of society’s interest in regulating marriage” was brought out to defend that proposition.

Same sex marriage is typically criticized on two grounds in regards to responsible procreation. The first is that same sex couples cannot procreate naturally. The second is that it is often claimed that same sex couples will be bad parents (for example, it was claimed without evidence that homosexuals are twelve times more likely to molest children) and hence be irresponsible in regards to procreation.

Suppose that these two principles are correct: 1) marriage is to be denied to those who do not procreate and 2) people who are not responsible in procreation are to be denied marriage.

The first principle would entail that straight couples who do not want children or cannot have them must be denied marriage. It would also imply that couples who use artificial means to reproduce (such as in vitro or a surrogate) must be denied marriage. Implementing this would involve requiring that a couple already has a (natural) child before they would be worthy of marriage.  Or perhaps there could be sort of a learner’s permit for marriage and the actual license would be granted when the first child is born. This is, obviously enough, absurd.

The second principle would entail that straight couples who are not responsible parents must be denied marriage.  This would require that the state monitor all marriages to determine that the parents are responsible and be empowered to revoke marriage licenses (much like the state can revoke a driver’s license for driving violations).

While I do think that irresponsible people should not have children, it seems absurd to deny such people the right to marry. After all, not allowing them to marry (or dissolving the marriage when they proved irresponsible) would hardly make such people more responsible or benefit the children.

In light of these arguments, the procreation argument against same sex marriage is clearly absurd.

If anyone has good arguments against same sex marriage, please post them as replies. As a philosopher, I am open to the possibility that there are such arguments. In fact, there might be compelling arguments against same sex marriage. I would, of course, like to see those.

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Deficits & Salaries

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 15, 2010
Image by iChaz via Flickr

Just as the United States is suffering from a massive deficit, so too are many of the individual states. Newsweek recently put forth an interesting hypothesis: overpaid lawmakers as a causal factor.  This is based on the fact that the ten states that pay the lawmakers the most have deficits 12% higher than those of the ten states who pay the least. As a specific example, California pays its legislators a generous $95,000 and current has a $23 billion deficit. As another example,  New York pats $75,000 and has a $9.2 billion shortfall.

Of course, lower pay for lawmakers would have a direct and obvious impact on public spending: if they are paid more, then the state has to spend more. If they are paid less, well the impact is obvious. However, these salaries are probably not the major factor in the deficits.

It might be the case that the deficit and the salaries are the result of an underlying cause or causes rather than one being a cause of the other. One  likely possibility is the view the citizens of a state have towards public expenditures. For example, California is often cast as a state whose citizens favor spending public money. This would explain both the higher salaries for politicians and the higher deficit. States whose citizens are less prone to such expenditures would tend to have both lower salaries and lower deficits.  The view the citizens have of taxes would also be a factor as well.

Another factor worth considering is the nature of the states. For example, California and New York are both well known for having very expensive places to live. As such, it would make sense that they would have higher salaries. The cost of living also seems to be linked to factors that would require more public expenditures, such as large cities, lots of infrastructure, and so on. As such, these states would be more costly to run. Of course, they should also generate more revenue. Unless, of course, the states are less inclined to tax.

It is also worth considering how efficiently and honestly the states spend money. If a state budget is laden with pork, then they would tend to have deficit problems as well.

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More Gay Marriage

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2010
"Defend Equality Now", a poster agai...

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Judge Walker recently ruled that California’s Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. For those who have been watching Jersey Shore and not the news, Proposition 8 banned same sex marriage in California. The proposition had passed with 52% of the vote. Not surprisingly, those who are opposed to same sex marriage have been quick to argue against this ruling.

One argument is based on the view that a judge should not undo the will of the people. Sarah Palin, for example, made a point of criticizing how the third branch of government had done just that.

This line of argument does have a certain appeal. After all, having a single person’s decision override the decision of  52% of those voting would seem to run counter to the very notion of democracy. After all, one might argue, whatever the majority (however slim) decides must be followed by everyone.  Majority rule, one might say, trumps everything.

However, unfettered majority rule is neither the reality nor is it desirable. As Mill argues in his writing on liberty, the tyranny of the majority is something that must be guarded against in a free society.

One way to look at this is to note that while majority rule is a core value, it is not the only value. There are other values, such as freedom, that must be defended against even the will of the majority. To use an example, even if a majority of people voted to restore slavery in the United States, this should not be allowed on the grounds that it would be a gross violation of the right to liberty.

Changing gears to the legal and political aspect of the matter, there is the fact that the states are obligated to obey the Constitution (based on the agreement to do so). This means that even a majority in a single state lacks the legal right to pass laws that violate the Constitution. True, the Constitution can be changed-but not by a single state.

As such, it is not a single person’s decision that is overriding the will of the majority. Rather, it is the constitution, which was duly ratified by the states,  that is overriding the will of a majority in one single state. Thus, the will of the people has not been violated by this decision.

A second argument is that because the judge is openly gay he is biased in the matter and hence should not be ruling on the proposition.

On the face of it, this argument seems to be a mere ad hominem. It could also be seen as absurd. After all, the same sort of reasoning could be applied to a judge ruling on, for example, on an environmental issue: “the judge breaths air, so she is biased in favor of clean air.” Someone might even point out the obvious parallel: if a gay judge must be biased in favor of same sex marriage, then it would seem to follow that a straight judge must be biased against it. As such, we would need a judge with no sexual orientation at all to rule on this matter.

However, the bias argument does merit some consideration. Since the judge is apparently involved in a stable relationship and might want to get married, his ruling has the potential to benefit him personally. Perhaps this is comparable to having a judge who owns considerable stock in a company presiding over a case involving that company. In that case, the judge would have a clear conflict of interest that could very well lead to a biased judgment.

Of course, there are situations in which a judge might benefit from a ruling and yet not be subject to a reasonable charge of bias. For example, a judge who really likes snack foods might uphold a law that prevents snack food companies from selling products containing a dangerous chemical. While it is clearly in his interest to have his snacks untainted, this hardly seems to be a case of bias.

As another example, imagine a conservative judge who ruled against a liberal law. Since he is conservative, it might be suspected that his ruling was based on a conservative bias and not based on the law. As such, if a gay judge should not rule on a law banning gay marriage, then conservative judges should not rule on liberal laws.  After all, they would be biased.

To use an even better example, imagine an Hispanic judge who rules against a law that bans Hispanics from living in a particular town. While she might be inclined to oppose the law because she is Hispanic, it would be odd to challenge such a ruling on the grounds of bias since it seems to be well grounded in anti-discrimination law.  However, if the judge made it clear that her decision was based solely on her being Hispanic and not on the law, then the charge of bias would stick.

Turning back to same sex marriage, a key question is this: did Walker base his ruling on constitutional grounds or was it based primarily on his (alleged) desire to get married? If his reasoning was based on constitutional grounds, then the charge of bias would seem to be a mere ad hominem. However, if evidence can be found that his ruling was based primarily on his own desires, then his judgement would be biased.

This seems to be a reasonable test for bias. To use an analogy, imagine that a student gets an F on a paper in my class. He then accuses me of being biased against him because he wrote a paper about how philosophy and philosophy professors are useless.  That is, I failed him because I do not like him.

On the face of it, a philosophy professor would take a negative view of such a position. However, the mere fact that I might take issue with such a position does not suffice to show bias. What would be needed is evidence that the paper was graded incorrectly (that is, the paper is better than an F) and that this unfair grading was based on my disliking him.

If the paper were examined by an appropriate committee and judged to be of F quality, then the claim that I was biased would be effectively refuted. Even if the paper were found to be, for example, of better than F quality this would not be enough to establish bias. After all, I might just be a hard grader. Determining that I acted from bias would require comparing the paper to other papers in the class. So, if all papers of comparable quality received the same grade, this would be evidence of a lack of bias.

Thus, the real issue is not the judge’s sexual orientation. The real concern is whether the ruling is properly grounded or not.

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Tuition Hikes

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 24, 2009

College students in California are protesting, but not against a war or for a social cause. Rather, they are motivated by the threat of a 32% tuition increase. While this large of an increase is unusual, college tuition generally has increased across the nation.

Some of the tuition increases are due to what are clearly legitimate factors: colleges have had to pay more for energy, maintenance, building, equipment and salaries, thus creating a need for more income. Of course, there are also concerns that the tuition hikes are due to other factors. To be specific, schools (like all organizations) suffer from administrator bloating (that is, more and more administrators are hired and are paid ever increasing salaries), corruption, and waste. Because of such factors, the operating expenses of schools increase in ways that do not add to the quality of education. Clearly these sorts of costs should be reduced. Equally clear is the fact that these costs are often the hardest to reduce. After all, the folks who make most of the budget decisions are administrators and they generally do not decide to reduce their salaries or their numbers. Corruption and waste are also notoriously difficult to weed out.

Not surprisingly, one proposed way to counter tuition increases is to increase the federal and state aid to students. While this would lower the financial burden for these students, it merely moves the financial burden rather than reducing costs. After all, the federal and state money has to ultimately be provided by taxpayers (loans from China and other places do have to be paid back eventually). To make matters worse, the more federal and state money that is available, the less incentive schools have to reduce tuition. This is because this government money (that is, taxpayer money) shifts the financial pain and dilutes it across the tax paying population.

While I do think that government support for students can be an excellent use of tax money (far better than spending on pork, bailouts, and other spawns of corruption), it is important to be careful with this money. After all, if such money enables schools to get away with tuition hikes, then the students who lack such aid will be in even more dire straits. What is needed is a combination of government aid and a reform of the schools to lower costs.



While education is generally the best investment a person can make, this does not justify overpaying for education.  As such, it is wise to shop around in order to find the best education for the cost. My own experience in education is that while the high priced schools do provide students with a degree of prestige, the quality of education is not always directly proportional to what the student pays.

Almost on a Jury

Posted in Law by Michael LaBossiere on October 18, 2009
This is Swampyank's copy of "The Jury&quo...
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Friday started inauspiciously when my phone rang after midnight. The voice coming over the answer machine awakened me almost immediately and my first thought was that something terrible had happened. But no, it was my ex-wife calling to ask if I could find a drawing she had done years ago and mail it to her in California. I agreed and tried to go back to sleep. And tried. then tried some more. I recall seeing 2:35 on the clock and finally drifted off after that, only to be awakened around 5:00 am by a clap of thunder.

Yielding to the inevitable, I arose and started getting ready to face the day. I found the drawing, put it in a box and called the nearest Fedex location, guided by a dim memory that is was open 24 hours. The answering service said it opened at 7:00, so I figured I’d stop on the way. When I arrived, I saw the manager, Michael, leaving the store…which opened not at 7:00 but 7:30. To make a short story shorter, he was willing to help me out after he got his coffee at the nearby McDonalds. In these days of horrific service, that was a great experience and I know where I’ll go for my shipping needs from now on.

After that, I parked at the Leon County library (free parking for jurors) and ran into someone else heading for jury duty. Fortunately, he had been called up for jury duty before and knew the way-I had a map, but my sense of anti-direction always gets me lost.

While a guard at the security checkpoint was a bit gloomy, everyone else was surprisingly cheerful. I had expected it to be something of a grim and uncaring affair, but everyone was actually rather nice. The judges, clerks and bailiffs I dealt with actually made this a positive experience. Plus, I also got to meet several interesting people, including two other professors, a fellow runner, and a lawyer who had been a philosophy major (who also once worked with another friend of mine who is a runner).

While my experience may not have been typical, it was certainly vastly better than I expected. In fact, I found the process of jury selection fascinating and was impressed with how well everyone conducted themselves. While I still have concerns about the legal system, the folks around me seemed sincere, professional, empathetic and committed.

After going through the process, I was not selected. But, I had learned a great deal about how the system works and met some new and interesting folks. Overall, it was a very positive experience. Previously I had felt dread and dismay at being summoned, but I am actually glad that it happened. Of course, if I had been selected and had to spend days away from my regular life sitting in a courtroom, then perhaps I would have a different outlook.

Of course, courts would be different if this world was like the D&D world (if you are not a gamer, it is best to stop reading now…):

Prosecutor: “Blah, conditio sine qua non yadda blah de minimis blah.”

Defense Attorney: “Yadda, post factor blah mea culpa.”

Me: “Judge, this is taking way too long. As a paladin I can have this done in under six rounds.”

Defense: “I object ipso facto!”

Judge: “This is unusual, but I will allow it. Everyone roll for initiative.”

Me: “24″

Prosecutor: “What?”

Defense: “3, damn!”

Me: “Detect evil!”

Prosecutor: “What the hell, ex nihilo?”

Me: “Wait for it. Normally I’d have this done by now, but the evil spillover from the lawyers is really interfering.”

Prosecutor: “I object!”

Judge: “Overruled.”

Me: “Done. Bailiff, might I have your weapon?”

Baliff: “Of course.”

Me: “Guilty. Smite evil…pow!”

Fellow Juror: “Damn, you took his head clean off. Was he really guilty?”

Me: “Well, he was evil…so he was guilty of something. Best to just get him now, before he gains enough xp to level up.”

Fellow Juror: ‘Works for me. I’m heading to lunch, want to come?”

Me: “Sure. Let me loot the body first, though.”

Defense: “Hey, he hasn’t paid me yet!”

Me: “Okay, I’ll give you 20% of the loot.”

Defense: “I want 50%”

Me: “I’ve got more smite evils left…”

Defense: “20% is quite generous…”

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